Unforgettable films: Part Five

When thinking about what makes a film unforgettable for you, it is sometimes worth considering how our tastes change as we age. Films that were once lauded as ‘masterpieces’ can seem dated and stilted with the benefit of hindsight. Other films just get better with age, and repeated viewings often reveal delights that were not noticed at the time. Very often, a personal memory, a time or a place, a moment of happiness or realisation, all or one might be guilty of giving a false impression of something that was not really that good. It just appeared to be, because of your mood when you watched it. With these very personal recollections, I like to think that the films are actually good ones too. But that’s just my opinion…

Francis Ford Coppola is a film-maker you don’t hear that much about these days. By mid-1975, I had already seen ‘The Godfather’, and ‘The Godfather Part II’. I thought that Coppola was very good indeed, so when I heard about the release of another film by him, (made the same year as ‘The Godfather Part II’) I was keen to see it. I was a little disappointed that the star was Gene Hackman. Despite liking him a lot in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, I hadn’t been as excited as most by his turn as Popeye Doyle in ‘The French Connection’. But because of Coppola, I went off to watch ‘The Conversation’ anyway.
It was a revelation. Seedy locations, plot machinations, and a simply amazing cast. Hackman was a different animal too. He had a vulnerable side as Harry Caul, the surveillance expert whose world turns upside down when he begins to suspect that he himself is under surveillance.
On the surface, Harry is a user. Surrounded by a group of helpers who think of themselves as friends, hardly realising that Harry is a loner with no time for any of them. A girlfriend that he doesn’t really like, colleagues that he cannot relate to, and a life obsessed by privacy and order, all form the world of Harry that we enter into. Support from the likes of Allen Garfield, John Cazale, and a young Harrison Ford, just piles on the quality. After stumbling across a convoluted plot during a routine bugging job, (the ‘Conversation’ of the title) Harry attracts the attentions of other players in the same game, and his life starts to unravel very rapidly.
This is a remarkable film, and one that I have seen many times. The accurate equipment, convincing locations, and the perfect ensemble cast, all add up to a modern classic.

I had always liked Robert Mitchum. He was a reliable actor, and gave his best to many a role. I preferred him as a villain mostly, lending a sinister touch to films like ‘The Night of the Hunter.’ I carried on watching him as we both got older, and started to like him even more as he aged. In 1973, he gave what for me was his finest performance, in the downbeat gangster film, ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’. I couldn’t get to see it over here on release, so had to settle for buying the VHS film, over two years later. With Mitchum in the lead role, we see Eddie as a tired, down at heel crook and small time gun dealer. He has seen better days, spent too long in prison, and faces another charge that may well see him get more jail time.
Eddie’s so-called friends are anything but. Dillon, the gun-runner and bar owner who would just as soon set Eddie up as help him out, ably played by a completely convincing Peter Boyle. The gangster standby, Alex Rocco, once again superb as Jimmy Scalise, the hoodlum who wants Eddie to help out with a bank job. Another local gun runner Jackie, played by Stephen Keats, a man destined to be betrayed by the desperate Eddie. Controlling the events like a puppeteer is the heartless ATF agent, Dave Foley. Richard Jordan, better known for roles in TV mini-series gives Foley just the right amount of callousness, as he plays each crook against the other. Great location filming in Boston just adds to the authenticity
But it is the forlorn and tired Mitchum who steals the show. Perfectly cast in a role that he plays to perfection. A man destined for a sad end, after living a sad life. Just great stuff.

The mention of Gene Hackman above, and the recent death of Gene Wilder, take me to my next selection in this part. In 1967, I was only fifteen years old. I had seen a lot of gangster films, everything from the silent era, to the James Cagney classics, and beyond. I agreed to accompany my cousin to a cinema in London, to see a new film that was ‘all the rage’. I had enjoyed another Arthur Penn film, ‘The Train’, a few years earlier, so his pedigree was already established. I knew nothing about the real Clyde Barrow or Bonnie Parker, so went with no preconceptions at all.
I thought this film was unbelievably cool. Warren Beatty looked the part, in his 1920s suits, and Faye Dunaway looked at her best, as Bonnie. Added to this was the presence of Gene Hackman as Buck, Clyde’s brother, Michael J. Pollard as C.W. Moss, the driver, and a marvellous turn from Estelle Parsons as Blanche, Buck’s wife. I liked this film enough to write a whole post about it, so here it is.

“When I first saw the film ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, I was fifteen years old. I liked it so much, I went to see it again the following week. I didn’t know a lot about Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway at the time. I had never heard of Estelle Parsons, Gene Wilder, or Gene Hackman either. I thought I recognised the strange face of Michael J. Pollard, but I didn’t know where I might have seen it. The man playing the Texas Ranger was Denver Pyle, and I knew him immediately, from old westerns. The same applied to Dub Taylor, who played the father of C.W. Moss in the film.

I had been going to the cinema for as long as I was old enough to sit up straight in the seat. I had seen all kinds of films, including many gangster classics. But I had never seen anything like this. I didn’t care that Beatty and Dunaway were too good-looking to be realistic in the parts, or that events and incidents had been altered or compressed. I just knew that I loved it. And I sensed it was cool.
In later life, I would appreciate the varied pace of Arthur Penn’s direction, and realise just how effective Charles Strouse’s musical score was. But I was fifteen, and it was all about sitting back, and letting this marvellous new style of film just wash over me.

For anyone unlucky enough to have never seen it, the story is simple enough. Based on the real-life adventures of the Barrow Gang, bank robbers who ranged across a wide area of the USA during the early part of the 1930s, at a time when America was in the grip of a nationwide financial depression. Clyde has just been released from prison, and meets Bonnie, who is a slutty waitress at a nearby diner, with dreams of a better life. He heads off with her, teaming up with his brother Buck, and Buck’s snobbish wife, Blanche. They enlist the help of a garage mechanic, C.W. Moss, and begin to rob banks in states all over the country. They are soon being hunted, and constantly move from place to place to avoid capture, becoming involved in car chases with the police, and shoot-outs where most of the gang are injured.

The film cannot decide whether they are romantic figures, Robin Hood characters, or just plain bad. It seeks to supply reasons for the choice of a life of crime, and at times to suggest that they helped poor people, at the expense of banks and financial institutions. They were not averse to shooting first, and wounded and killed many police officers, and some civilians too. Bonnie is shown as a frustrated poet, Clyde as a man uncomfortable with his sexuality. None of this matters. The cast all do a fine job with their roles, and even the cameo from Gene Wilder is priceless. Laced with comedic moments, exciting set-pieces, tragedy, and an ever-present sense of doom, it was a standout film, at least when I was fifteen. The sense of period is also immaculate, and never once did it feel like a set.

I would argue that it still holds up today. The flawless casting, the sharper moments in the script, and the fast-slow-fast pacing all comes together so well, offering a near-perfect gangster film, a million miles from the B-Movie roots of the genre. If you have never seen it, you are missing out.”

Enough said. Here’s a trailer.

Teen romances have never really been my thing, especially American ones. But I did have an inkling that Molly Ringwald could be a good actress, and Andrew McCarthy had impressed previously. They got together for the 1986 film, ‘Pretty In Pink’, directed by the prolific John Hughes. When I saw that it also starred the marvellous Harry Dean Stanton, I decided to give it house room, and bought the film on VHS. The name of the film comes from a much earlier record by The Psychedelic Furs, which features on the soundtrack over the closing credits. I needn’t have worried. The film is a treat. Forget the teen romance plot, and lose yourself in the details.
Ringwald is almost perfect, McCarthy’s character redeems himself in the end, (as you knew he would) and the music just adds to the sense of joy. It is a film of its time and place, and all the better for that. But wait. The thing that makes it memorable?
‘Try A Little Tenderness’ is one of my favourite songs, ever. Otis Redding’s version is my preference, and it appears in this film, in a very unusual way. The character of Duckie’, played by an enthusiastic Jon Cryer, is the boy who loves Andie (Ringwald) but is not loved in return. In an attempt to impress her, he mimes to the song in a local record shop, giving a stand-out performance as he does so.
Just spot-on. Here it is, in full. That’s why I have never forgotten it…

Anyone who has ever read anything on my blog knows just how much I hate remakes of classic films. I rant on about the subject constantly, never letting up. I sometimes add the disclaimer, ‘with some exceptions’. This is without doubt, one of those exceptions. When ‘Cape Fear’ was released in 1962, the stellar cast and the uncomfortable subject matter almost guaranteed an instant success. Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam, and music from Bernard Hermann. What could go wrong? Well, nothing at all. It was a great film, a suspense thriller par excellence, with a very different feel, and a story that was unusual at the time. I loved it, and felt every second of that suspense.
Fast forward to 1991, and it is being remade by of all people, Marin Scorsese. I felt those remake feelings in the pit of my stomach. Then I looked at the cast. Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, and Juliette Lewis. Scorsese had even shoe-horned in the original stars, with Mitchum and Peck delivering solid cameos. With the presence of Joe Don Baker too, I knew that I just had to watch it, despite my reservations.
Once again, I needn’t have worried. From the opening scene, De Niro makes the film his own, with a tremendous performance as Max Cady, the part originally played by Mitchum so well. Ably supported by the whole cast, with an especially memorable performance from the young Juliette Lewis, he takes the film from the 60s to the 90s, and sets his own stamp on the same story. This film made me eat my words, and I was happy to enjoy them.

Before 1969, I didn’t know a lot about Sam Peckinpah. he had made ‘Major Dundee’, which I had enjoyed, but was yet to create a stir with is 1971 film, ‘Straw Dogs’. He had released a western film again, something that generated a lot of interest in film circles. It had a great cast, so I thought I would go and see it. Despite being called ‘The Wild Bunch’, it was about a team of former gunslingers and robbers that were mostly well past their prime. They could still get drunk and throw a party, bed a willing senorita, and ride all day on a horse; but otherwise they had seen better days, with aching joints, and tales to tell.
This was a film about the twilight years of the old west. Bank robbers and bad guys had seen their best days, now facing a better organised law enforcement, as well as a west that boasted a society, and a vestige of civilisation. That it was set after 1900 was evidenced by many signals in the film. Modern weapons, including machine guns; civil war in Mexico, cars being used, and even the appearance of an emissary from Kaiser Wilhelm. These were men past their time, and their lifestyle was an anachronism.
The cast alone is worth watching the film for. Just take in this list. William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor, and Albert Dekker. these men had been in almost every western film made, and it showed. Add to that a convincing turn from Emilio Fernandez as the oily General Mapache, and it doesn’t get much better. But then it does. Edmund O’Brien appears in a wonderful small role as a grizzled and bad-tempered old cowboy. Just perfect.
All the stereotypes are there. The gang followed by a determined bounty-hunter, (Ryan) Mexican music, a cruel general, and put-upon locals trying to rebel against the government. Sexy senoritas, busty willing females, lots of heavy drinking and reminiscing.
But just forget all that, because it is simply wonderful. These are actors in the autumn of their years, giving some of their most memorable performances. And Peckinpah set his stamp on the film with a shoot-out finale of the like that had never been seen before. A part slow-motion, blood-soaked death-fest that hasn’t been equalled to this day. If you have never seen it, now’s the time. Here’s that shoot-out.

In 1969, like most people I had watched the film, ‘Easy Rider’. This was modern film-making at its best at the time, and I never heard anyone speak ill of the film, the performances, or the great soundtrack. The original ‘road film’ in many respects, those that followed it owed it a great debt. But this section is not about that film, it is about something else I have never forgotten. Robert Blake is perhaps one of the most underrated of modern American actors. His career has hardly been memorable, and few film fans these days could name him from a photograph. But anyone who has ever seen the film ‘In Cold Blood’ (1967) would surely remember him. This also applies to Billy Green Bush, one of my favourite American character actors. But if you have seen ‘Five Easy Pieces’ (1970), you might know who he is.
In 1973, the two came together for one of my most loved modern American films, ‘Electra Glide In Blue’. This was a ‘small’ film in every way, with a limited release, sparse reviews, and quick to dissapear. It is rarely shown on TV, and almost nobody remembers it. But I do. This story of a diminutive highway patrol policeman in Arizona, (Blake) his ambitions to be a detective, and his interactions with his partner (Green Bush) is a complete delight from start to finish. It might owe something to ‘Easy Rider’, it might not. That doesn’t matter, as it is just a treat. The soundtrack is pretty good too. It’s a world before ‘ChiPs’, and it doesn’t end how you might expect…

So that’s part five. Let me know in the comments if you want me to carry on with these. I have seen a lot of films, after all, and most of them are unforgettable.

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16 thoughts on “Unforgettable films: Part Five

  1. Another great selection (I love ‘The Conversation’ and both ‘Cape Fears’) and I must confess to having very good memories of John Hughes’s pictures. Now I have to catch up on some…. Have a great weekend.

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    1. You were very good at catching up in the early days of my film recommendations, Eddy. Then along came children, harvests, and farm animals. Sadly, life is never long enough to watch them all, but winter is coming, so you might while away a few dark evenings.
      Hope you three are well, and having fun.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. Pete, you know very well my reverence for “Bonnie and Clyde.” I remember seeing it in theaters, and I have it on DVD. Your review was perfect. It’s one of those rare cinematic masterpieces. The performances are phenomenal. I also have the “The Wild Bunch” on DVD. It’s a very good film, and, like “Bonnie and Clyde,” groundbreaking. But I prefer “Once Upon a Time in the West” and a few others. I do not have “Cape Fear” on DVD, but I’ve seen both films, and they are both excellent. I would really like to see “The Conversation.” I like Gene Hackman, and to have overlooked this well-reviewed film is a stain on my movie viewing resume. I remember Robert Blake very well (I used to watch “Beretta”—I even make a veiled reference to the TV show in the detective novel I’m writing), and I’ve heard of, but not seen, “Electra Glide in Blue.” So I would be very keen to give that film a shot, especially after your recommendation. As for Robert Mitchum, he is typical of the male stars of the past—a man’s man. While I appreciate the talents of modern leading men like Matt Damon (I have his original “Bourne” trilogy on DVD), he has more of a pretty-boy look about him. I have seen a number of Robert Mitchum’s movies (as a collector of Marilyn Monroe films, his presence in at least one of my DVDs would have been totally unavoidable!), and he always excels. As for “Pretty in Pink,” I’ll put it on my list of “missed films”—it already includes “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” for example. PLEASE

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      1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, David. ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ is a real delight, and I am sure that you would enjoy it. ‘Pretty in Pink’ is more of a teen romance, with a few memorable scenes. I also think that you would appreciate the scenery in ‘Electra Glide In Blue’, as well as the 70s vibe.
        Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. Pete, great picks for this grouping of movies and I remember them very well.. I must re-watch some of these too.. I’ve spent today inside watching movies, and then outside gardening and mowing the lawn.. All in all a wonderful day spent in the garden and with cinema.
    Take care, Laura

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  4. Pete, this is a terrific list – these films are all classics…I have posted about “Eddie Coyle” in the past, and also about “Electra Glide In Blue” – a masterpiece of early 7-‘s cinema…here is a link to that story, and I think your story helps to keep these classic films alive…luckily, many home video companies are re-releasing these in newly remastered versions!

    https://johnrieber.com/2013/04/19/electra-glide-in-blue-forgotten-masterpiece-robert-blakes-best-role/

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