I use the term ‘unusual’ to define subject, plot, or treatment. This is subjective of course, and you may not agree. Most of these films will be familiar to avid film watchers, or those who might be called ‘film buffs’. They are not mainstream though, far from it, and at least four of them could justify the tag ‘Independent film’, with all that this implies. As always, I will stand by any film that I recommend, and suggest that you try something a little different. I have a long list of these, so more to come later.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle. This downbeat crime drama features screen tough guy Robert Mitchum, in one of his later starring roles. Made in 1973, when Hollywood was turning out much glossier fare, here we see a different side of America. The seedy heart of Boston, dilapidated buildings, run-down housing, and small-time crooks. Eddie Coyle is facing yet another jail term, and is desperate to avoid incarceration. A well-known gun runner, he is getting old and tired, his wife is nagging him, and he has problems at home with plumbing, and bills to pay. He will try anything, and decides to help one of his friends (Alex Rocco), as well as a persistent, rule-bending, ambitious cop, (Richard Jordan) who wants him to inform. He makes the mistake of turning to another friend, a bartender called Dillon, who is also not what he seems. It is soon apparent that the ‘friends’ of the title, are anything but that. With great set-pieces, terrific performances from a cast of jobbing actors, and Mitchum flawless in the lead role, this feels like a film about real crime, with no happy endings. Here’s a grainy old trailer.
The Straight Story. This is a film directed by David Lynch in 1999, and stars Richard Farnsworth, who sadly died the year after. Farnsworth was a former stuntman, who came to acting somewhat late in life. He is not well-known, yet in my opinion, is one of America’s greatest ‘quiet’ actors. You should try to see other work he has done, and I am sure you will be impressed. If you are normally put off by the films of David Lynch, often quirky, sometimes completely impenetrable, do not miss this one. The theme may sound strange, and the story might appear pointless, but then you would be missing the point. (Pun intended). Alvin Straight has been estranged from his brother,( Harry Dean Stanton) for most of their lives. One day, he receives the news that his brother has had a stroke, and decides to visit him, and make amends for all the time apart. Unfortunately, Alvin has bad eyesight, and is no longer allowed to drive. His long-suffering daughter (Sissy Spacek) is asked to take him, but refuses, as it is hundreds of miles away. So, Alvin takes off on the only transport available to him, a ride-on lawnmower. The ridiculously slow pace allows him to encounter various people along the way, as well as providing the need for overnight stops, where he contemplates his life, and his journey. This film has charm, consummate acting skill, and most importantly, heart. One of a kind. Here is a short montage of clips.
House of Games. This film was the directorial debut of David Mamet, who also wrote it. He has often been criticised for the theatrical and stagey feel of his films, and this one is no exception. Made in 1987, it stars the brilliant Joe Mantegna, so often cast as a gangster, or cop, and Lindsay Crouse, as the icy psychotherapist, hoping to help one of her clients. She is drawn into the shady world of The House of Games, with Mantegna’s character offering to help her, as long as she spends time there, observing the ‘games’. This is a place of tricksters, con-men , and card sharps. They hustle the clients, pulling off stings and double crosses, with great skill. She soon becomes involved, not only in these schemes, but also in a duel of wits, and clashing philosophies. This film constantly twists and turns, and what is going on is never quite what you thought. The dialogue is smart, snappy, and sparse, and the performances by the two lead actors are a sight to see. It had me fooled, and that’s something. This short clip gives a real feel of the film.
The Wicker Man. This film, from 1973, has achieved cult status with film fans. Although you may think it is a horror film, it is far from that, dealing with a missing girl, who may not be missing, a pagan cult, maypoles, harvest festivals and age-old rituals. On the way, there is drug abuse, group sex, a folk sound-track, kidnapping, and murder. If this sounds unusual, that is because it is. The cast is similarly different, with Edward Woodward in the lead role of the policeman, and Christopher Lee, famous for many ‘Dracula’ films, as the laird of the island. There is Britt Eckland as eye candy, the Australian actress, Diane Cilento, and even the avant-garde dancer, Lindsay Kemp; though perhaps the real star is the ‘Wicker Man’ itself, a towering figure of cane and straw, seen towards the end. As I don’t like plot-spoilers, I will leave it there. Make allowance for the 1970’s, sit back and enjoy it, and you will be very pleased. (Under no circumstances confuse this with the execrable 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage). Here is the short trailer for the film.
The Station Agent. It really doesn’t get much more unusual than this 2003 film, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy. Finbar works in a shop selling model trains. When the owner dies, he leaves Finbar an old, closed-down railway station, in rural New Jersey. That suits him well, as he is a dwarf, and tired of being a figure of fun in life. He seizes the opportunity to leave for isolation and tranquility, in a small community. Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way, and he ends up, despite his small stature, becoming the central figure in the lives of the people he meets there. This film is not simply about a man being a dwarf, it is more about an excellent actor, who happens to be very small. The full size characters are more flawed than he is, despite his dwarfism, and unhappy life, and have their own issues and problems, that he helps them all to deal with. It has a gentle pace, and says a lot about friendship, and perceptions of happiness. Outstanding. This clip shows the first meeting with Joe.
Well, I have had a re-read, and stand by the fact that they are unusual. A very different crime drama, a bizarre cult mystery, a twisting con-man story, a unique road film on a lawnmower, and a film starring a dwarf. Good enough?