Continuing the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.
The Exorcist: William Friedkin’s followup to his masterpiece, The French Connection, was adapted by William Peter Blatty (who also produced) from his novel, with the underappreciated Max Von Sydow in the title role. Like Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man, he’s not onscreen a whole lot, but his presence overshadows everything. Ellen Burstyn is the movie actress on location in Georgetown when her daughter (Linda Blair) is possessed by the demon Pazuzu; Jason Miller is the priest who tries to help while undergoing a crisis of faith; Lee J. Cobb is the deceptively distracted detective investigating an ensuing murder. The victim, Burke Dennings, was based on and supposed to be played by J. Lee Thompson, who had directed Blatty’s John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! (to say nothing of The Guns of Navarone), but got cold feet and was replaced by Jack MacGowran. The latter is perhaps best known for joining Roman Polanski in the title roles of the latter’s spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance of the Vampires). “Dimmy, why you did this to me?” The so-called “Version You’ve Never Seen” was re-edited and rereleased in 2000.
Fantastic Voyage: I make no claim for this as any sort of masterpiece, but by gum it’s fun, and was a boyhood favorite on The 4:30 Movie. A scientist is wounded while escaping from behind the Iron Curtain, and a medical team must remove a blood clot from his brain to save his life, but the only way to do that is from the inside. So security man Stephen Boyd, pilot William Redfield, medicos Arthur Kennedy, Raquel Welch, and Donald Pleasence, and the submarine Proteus are miniaturized and sent into his bloodstream to destroy the clot with a laser beam, while military men Edmond O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell exude concern outside. And well they might, for the mission is jeopardized not only by the dangers of their unusual environment (e.g., antibodies that understandably cling to Welch’s wetsuit), but also by the presence of an unidentified saboteur, who seems determined to kill the patient at the cost of his or her own life. Sure, the physics of the miniaturization spiel are ludicrous, but the filmmakers did go out of their way to make the interiors (as it were) realistic, and reportedly got high marks from the medical community. Relax and enjoy!
The Fellowship of the Ring: I loved all three parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but this one in particular stands out among my most memorable filmgoing experiences. Growing up, I was a little put off by my brother Stephen’s fanatical devotion to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, so I stuck with my Edgar Rice Burroughs and Raymond Chandler and whatnot. As I have yet to get around to reading the books, my daughter and I were both Middle-earth neophytes when I took her to see this, although she has become a devotee. At any rate, director/co-writer Peter Jackson’s magnificent evocation of Tolkien’s creation quite overwhelmed me. I found this tale of the disparate band united to locate and destroy a dangerous ring by turns exciting, amusing, and moving, with a uniformly excellent cast and outstanding music (by Howard Shore), cinematography, and special effects. Don’t miss it.
The Flight of the Phoenix: Probably the best adaptation of The GREAT Elleston Trevor’s work (see “The Other Titan, Part II”), although compared to The Quiller Memorandum, that ain’t saying much. Director Robert Aldrich had a knack for subverting or prefiguring particular genres; the latter talent is in effect here, anticipating the star-studded disaster films of the 1970s but with much more depth and substance. James Stewart is brilliantly cast against type as the burned-out pilot who crashes in the Sahara, represented here by the Arizona desert that Elleston first visited as the film’s technical director, and later made his home. Stewart and the rest of the all-male cast eventually construct a new, mini-plane from the wreck of the old one (hence the title) and fly to safety—a premise that Elleston, a flight engineer for the RAF in WW II, makes eminently plausible. Written by Aldrich’s frequent collaborator, Lukas Heller, this features Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Kruger, Ian Bannen, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Christian Marquand in the cast.
The Fog (1980): I know I’m in the minority (again) here, but I think this highly underrated film is John Carpenter’s best. It’s certainly more original than Halloween; filled with atmosphere and a terrific Carpenter score, it still scares me, plus it’s got Jamie Lee Curtis! On the anniversary of its founding, the California community of Antonio Bay is menaced by leprous ghosts who come under cover of a glowing fog that can move against the wind, and represent the sins of the town fathers come back literally to haunt them. Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh (Jamie Lee’s lovely mother, courtesy of pater Tony Curtis), and Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter’s then-spouse, memorably trapped in an isolated lighthouse radio station) are among those battling the boogeymen.
For a Few Dollars More (Per Qualche Dollari in Piu): Spaghetti-Western godfather Sergio Leone really hit his stride with this bounty-hunter epic, the second and possibly best in the “Dollars” trilogy that began with A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari) and ended with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo). It features the unbeatable team of Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name and Lee Van Cleef (who seemed to bring out the best in Clint) as vengeful colleague Colonel Mortimer, with an unforgettable Ennio Morricone score and a gloriously protracted final shootout.
For Whom the Bell Tolls: Those who know me well will tell you I’m not the biggest fan of Ernest Hemingway. Novels and films like A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises annoyed the hell out of me with their whiny, self-pitying, self-destructive characters. But this—ah, now this is something different: noble, self-sacrificing partisans trying to blow a vital bridge during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. With Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman (“Where do the noses go?”) at her loveliest, both reportedly hand-picked by Hemingway himself, as Robert Jordan and Maria; Katina Paxinou and Akim Tamiroff (reteamed twelve years later in Orson Welles’s Confidential Report [aka Mr. Arkadin]) as Pilar (“much woman”) and the treacherous Pablo; Sam Wood (the director, oddly enough, of A Night at the Opera) in charge; and one of the most powerful endings I can remember.
The French Connection: Swept the major Oscars, and rightly so. Gene Hackman is unforgettable as abrasive but tenacious New York cop “Popeye” Doyle, with Roy Scheider as his partner and their real-life counterparts, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, in supporting roles; Fernando Rey plays “Frog One,” the man behind the huge heroin deal they hope to bust. This is one of the few movies I will watch at the drop of a hat: the performances, dialogue (officially adapted by Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman from the nonfiction bestseller by Robin Moore, author of The Green Berets, although I believe a fair amount of it was ad-libbed), and music (by Don Ellis) are uniformly excellent. Director William Friedkin really captures New York’s gritty atmosphere, and Popeye’s frantic automotive chase of an elevated train carrying a sniper has yet to be equaled. John Frankenheimer’s sequel, in which Hackman follows his quarry to France, is outstanding.
Gandhi: Ben Kingsley’s outstanding performance and uncanny resemblance to his subject, Richard Attenborough’s direction, and John Briley’s script—all justified Oscar winners—make this a Best Picture worthy of the name. I’ve seen this many times, and on each viewing I’m impressed all over again by what a high-quality film it is. Gandhi’s story is, of course, inspiring and tragic, and the cast is equally impressive, e.g., Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Martin Sheen, Ian Charleson, and playwright Athol Fugard. “I know a Christian. She drinks blood!”
Ghostbusters: That rare comedy I enjoy watching repeatedly. Bill Murray (“Important safety tip—thanks, Egon.”) is at his most likable, co-stars Dan Aykroyd (“Get her!”) and Harold Ramis (“Print is dead.”) turned in a superb script, Ivan Reitman’s direction is solid, the special effects and Ray Parker, Jr.’s, theme song are great, and it even has Sigourney Weaver (“You are so odd.”)! What more can you ask for? Murray et al. hire Ernie Hudson (“Tell him about the Twinkie.”) to help them cope with an infestation of spooks that seems to be centered on Weaver’s New York City apartment. Rick Moranis (“Yes, have some.”), Annie Potts (“We got one!”), and William Atherton (as the nasty EPA guy who reportedly has no, uh, let’s skip it…) are among those along for the ride.