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Series | The Thin Man

Since its first installment in 1934 and in the eighty years since, The Thin Man series has stood apart from other film series and franchises. Its six films always delivered a “twist” mystery and the wonderful chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Much of the series’s most memorable features came straight from the Dashiell Hammett source novel. Nick and Nora Charles were rich and glamorous during the Depression, though extremely grounded thanks to Nick being a former private detective. Asta the dog, the New York setting, the martinis, the Thin Man mystery itself–they were all from the novel. Powell and Loy just brought it all to life.

Although MGM budgeted and produced the first entry more like a B picture, by the time of its release, the studio knew they had something special with The Thin Man and, in particular, its stars: William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two were recent MGM contract additions; both had been bouncing around Hollywood since the mid-twenties and had come to MGM after unfulfilling Warner contracts. They weren’t big time movie stars yet, but Loy and Powell had become familiar faces to moviegoers. And then The Thin Man turned them into mega-stars, both individually and as a pair. Loy and Powell appeared in fourteen movies altogether, almost always playing a couple. The Thin Man isn’t even their first film together. That first film, Manhattan Melodrama, opened a few weeks before The Thin Man. It too was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who would frequently work with Loy and Powell–as a pair–after The Thin Man, including the first three Thin Man sequels. Van Dyke had directed Loy (alone) in a number of reasonably successful films the year before, also in collaboration with Thin Man producer Hunt Stromberg.

In the first THIN MAN, Nora (Myrna Loy) still has to encourage Nick (William Powell) to take cases.

So, the first Thin Man wasn’t so much a happy accident as every right piece coming into the right place at just the right time.

The Thin Man is the second-shortest picture in the series, running ninety-three minutes. There won’t be a Thin Man picture running under that time until the last one. Director Van Dyke has to convey a lot of information in very little time. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s dialogue needs to be expository–it’s a mystery after all–so they weave it though conversation and characters’ personalities.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Thin Man (1934). ★★★★. 2014 review

Nat Pendleton and Maureen O’Sullivan lead the supporting cast. Pendleton is an intrusive but competent copper and O’Sullivan is Nick’s “client.” Quotation marks because Nick never works for money; he’s just a big softy. The supporting cast is great. A good supporting cast can make or break a Thin Man movie.

Powell impresses Loy and perplexes Nat Pendleton.

Since its theatrical release, The Thin Man has enjoyed continuous popularity; eighty plus years without losing its appeal. The Thin Man has been available on every home video format–VHS, LaserDisc, DVD–never going out of print. And now it’s always available streaming.

The sequel came out two years later, on Christmas Day 1936. After the Thin Man closed one of the busiest years of Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke’s careers. They had all become MGM A-listers, though Loy was a tad beyond Powell and Van Dyke. In fact, she was actually just about to be voted the studio’s “Queen of Hollywood.”

Ace assistant detective Asta eats a clue in AFTER THE THIN MAN.

MGM spared no expense on After the Thin Man. It’s the longest film in the series–twenty minutes longer than the first entry–with a lot of time and money spent setting up Nick and Nora as a couple in their natural habitat, ritzy San Francisco. There’s location shooting (a big deal for the sequel to a B picture) and a first-rate supporting cast. James Stewart in it–After the Thin Man is also known as “The One With Young Jimmy Stewart”–Joseph Calleia, Sam Levene, George Zucco, Paul Fix. Asta the dog even gets his own a subplot. It’s a big deal sequel.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in AFTER THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
After the Thin Man (1936). ★★★½. 2014 review

And it’s a good one. After the Thin Man has another great script from Hackett and Goodrich–with Hammett contributing a short story to base it on. It’s a cross of hardboiled gum shoe and sublime screwball. Lots of smart, funny scenes for Powell and Loy–and Asta too–all alongside the doozy of a mystery. Awesome supporting cast. It’s nearly as perfect as the original.

After the Thin Man was another hit and one with some very confident sequel building. The film ends with a big reveal setting up the next outing to leave everyone wanting to know what’s next for Nick and Nora. Serial cliffhanger adapted for A list picture. After the Thin Man being excellent locks it in. More than the first film, After the Thin Man proves the cast, the filmmakers, the studio, can do these big and on purpose and on a regular basis. It’s a little showy in its confidence.

Sam Levene, Powell, and Loy inspect.

When Warner released the first Thin Man on DVD, they didn’t put out any of the sequels. They the first one was bait and didn’t sell well enough. After the Thin Man–and the rest of the sequels–had been VHS mainstays. MGM/UA had put out a great LaserDisc box set too. Their DVD absence was conspicuous. It took five years before Warner got After the Thin Man out and then it was in a box set. The eventual collection was success. So successful Warner split the series for budget catalog release. And now, of course, the entire series is available streaming.

The third film, Another Thin Man, was not just a special event as a Thin Man sequel but also because it put William Powell and Myrna Loy back on screen in grand fasion. Powell had been engaged to Jean Harlow, another MGM star; she died of kidney failure in 1937. Powell, understandably devastated, then found out he had cancer. So he took a big break for treatment. Loy had slowed down too, doing half as many pictures a year as she had pre-“royalty.” Her interests were changing from Hollywood stardom; in fact, she was newly home from England when shooting started.

Screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich were also changing their pace. They had almost stopped working in Hollywood entirely. Another Thin Man would be their last Thin Man and their last screenplay for five years. It’s also Hammett’s last work on the series.

Van Dyke and Stromberg had been staying busy, however.

The happy parents and Nicky Jr. in ANOTHER THIN MAN.

Another Thin Man fulfills the previous entry’s cliffhanger–Nick and (mostly) Nora make baby, Nicky Jr. An apparently divorced Asta is back too. The action takes the Charles family to New York, where they happen into another mystery to solve.

It’s an ostensibly less mysterious one–there’s a supernatural angle instead. It’s Nick and Nora vs. evil mentalist Sheldon Leonard. Well, for some of it, anyway. Leonard’s making threats to rich old guy C. Aubrey Smith, who knows the Charleses and so they get involved. Smith’s got a daughter (Virginia Grey) with multiple suitors (Patric Knowles and Tom Neal), there’s a Long Island DA–Otto Kurger, and Nat Pendleton is back as the New York detective.

William Powell and Myrna Loy star in ANOTHER THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Another Thin Man (1939). ★★★. 2014 review

Much more than the first sequel–or the original–Another Thin Man relies on William Powell and Myrna Loy; in the script, in Van Dyke’s direction, in their performances. New mom Loy sits out a lot of the mystery so she and Powell’s scenes have the majority of the film’s personality, just not the mystery. It results in the film lacking any standouts in the supporting cast. The script just doesn’t have parts for them. For example, Pendleton’s character is now played for laughs, instead of having some ability. But it’s an excellent production. Van Dyke has definitely got Thin Man movies down now–it’s all about Powell and Loy.

Powell and Loy brief returning copper Pendleton and DA Otto Kruger.

As far the Thin Man sequels go, Another Thin Man enjoys a fine enough reputation. I mean, it’s got the first appearance of Nicky Jr., how can it not enjoy a fine enough reputation. Still, the baby is the thing, not the supporting cast, not the mystery itself. It’s also the point where Loy starts teetotaling big time.

Presenting the Charles family, 1941 edition, in SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN.

Now back to a two year schedule, Powell, Loy, Van Dyke, and Stromberg returned in 1941 with the fourth film in the series, Shadow of the Thin Man. Instead of Hackett and Goodrich writing, the film has Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz on the script. Kurnitz worked on the screenplay for the previous year’s I Love You Again, a non-Thin Man screwball outing from Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke.

Myrna Loy, Richard Hall, and William Powell star in SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). ★★★. 2014 review

Shadow focuses on bringing Nicky Jr. into the comedy dynamic. It goes so far as to age him an extra four or five years. He’s now played by seven-year-old Dickie Hall. Sure, there’s a race track murder mystery, with Sam Levene returning as the San Francisco detective, but the most memorable moments involve Hall and Loy domesticating Powell. They’ve got him off the martinis and on to the milk. Yuck. But Powell leads Hall around on a shared leash with Asta and sneaks gin. It’s amazing comedy.

Barry Nelson and Donna Reed are desperate young lovers who need help from Powell and Loy. Another Thin Man skipped the young lovers in need characters, but the first two films hinged on them. The screenwriters try really hard to do a Thin Man movie with all the familiar trappings, but also moving things forward.

Apropos of nothing, it’s also the only Thin Man to end in a police station.

Powell explains, Levene and company listen.

Powell, Loy, and Hall are all delightful together. The emphasis on “Great Detective as parent” works out. Van Dyke directs it well, smoothing the occasional script bump; he also helps imply depth for the thin supporting characters. Shadow of the Thin Man is a successful application of talent and chemistry to a mediocre script.

And Shadow was another hit, another good Thin Man sequel. It’s maybe a footnote in Donna Reed’s career too, though her performance doesn’t stand out .

Big events and small changed the series’s trajectory. Shadow of the Thin Man came out just before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. Loy immediately took leave from her contract at MGM to join the war effort. While Powell continued to work, he still mostly kept to a movie a year. Van Dyke died of cancer in 1943. Stromberg left MGM soon after Shadow‘s release, breaking his contract under cloudy, unpleasant circumstances. The Thin Man series made Powell and Loy movie stars, it had been a big hit for Van Dyke and Stromberg, for Hackett and Goodrich. The series kept going through a lot changes in the principals’ lives, but Loy leaving Hollywood had to mean no more Nick and Nora.

Or so one would have thought, but then MGM tried replacing Loy with Irene Dunne for the next sequel. Turns out no one–not the fans, not Powell–wanted anyone but Loy playing Nora. It’s unclear how far along that attempt got, but when Powell and Loy did return to the series in 1945, it was a far different kind of Thin Man.

The Great Detective at rest in THE THIN MAN GOES HOME.

The Thin Man Goes Home opens by putting Powell and Loy on a train out of an unseen New York City to visit Powell’s upstate hometown. Totally new production team, different crew too; David Snell is the only holdover. He composed the scores for the final three films. Richard Thorpe directed, Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor wrote the screenplay. Recent MGM addition, Everett Riskin–Robert’s brother–produced.

Starting on with that train ride, Thin Man Goes Home sets out to immediately establish some wholesome, patriotic credentials. Rationing was going on, after all. It’s not just no more hotel suites, it’s no more drinking for Nick and Nora. Nicky Jr. is off at boarding school and they’re staying with Nick’s parents–Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport–in a regular house, not a fancy hotel.

William Powell and Myrna Loy star in THE THIN MAN GOES HOME, directed by Richard Thorpe for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). ★★. 2014 review

Riskin and Taylor’s script meanders through the mystery–though it does give Loy a lot more to do on her own than she usually gets in a Thin Man movie. Director Thorpe keeps it all together. The Thin Man Goes Home is well-produced and fairly well-acted. Then the third act is a mess and the final joke is bizarrely goofy.

Asta, with Loy and Powell, travel by rail.

The Thin Man Goes Home is perfectly titled (if canonically inaccurate) and fun–Nick and Nora in a small town, Nick’s parents, Donald Meek in the supporting cast, foreign espionage. Director Thorpe, producer Riskin, and the screenwriters deserve some credit for maintaining its accessibility. They were taking over an existing and beloved franchise without much help. It’s not like composer Snell had a “Thin Man” theme to tie the films together. The filmmakers’ safe, unambitious moves make Thin Man Goes Home an extremely affable entry. It plays rather well, though it’s generally agreed to be one of the lesser entries.

Loy and Asta get an earful from Powell and Dean Stockwell in SONG OF THE THIN MAN

In fall 1947, MGM released the final Thin Man film, Song of the Thin Man. With the exception of composer Snell, it’s again an all-new the entire production team and crew. Edward Buzzell directs from a Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin script. Perrin also produced.

Powell and Loy are back in New York, living glamorously but a little more like restrained. They’ve got Nick Jr., after all, this time played by eleven year-old Dean Stockwell. The mystery involves missing jazz wunderkind Don Taylor and his stable of femme fatales. Keenan Wynn is third lead–a sidekick to show the now square Powell and Loy around the New York City jazz spots.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in SONG OF THE THIN MAN, directed by Edward Buzzell for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Song of the Thin Man (1947). ★★½. 2014 review

Song is a little cheap, but Powell and Loy get along fine integrating Stockwell into the family dynamic. And Wynn’s cravenly functional character works great; Powell and Loy (and Nick and Nora) have never had a similar sidekick.

Unfortunately, not being a bad go at a disinterested Thin Man sequel doesn’t make Song a hidden gem. Buzzell’s an okay enough director, he just doesn’t have any personality. Without a big gimmick like Goes Home used, Song needs all the personality it can get. It gets a long way on goodw ill and general competence. But it’s Powell and Loy who hold this one together.

It’s up to Keenan Wynn to get Loy and Powell hep.

And, thanks to them, Song of the Thin Man is far from an inglorious end to the series. In addition to inherently hilarious idea of Dean Stockwell once being eleven, much less Nick Charles Jr., the film has early performances from noir fatales Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor. It’s a distinctive footnote, if a generally dismissed sequel. It’s readily availability probably hasn’t helped its reputation; Song of the Thin Man gets a lot more goodwill when you’re just happy to have found a Thin Man movie playing on TV.

Because for a long time, people only discovered The Thin Man and its sequels playing on TV. And they they discovered them on VHS, AMC, TCM, DVD, streaming. People have been discovering these films for eighty years and there’s never been a better time to do so than right now.

The Thin Man series was a rarity on release and is still one. There aren’t any other six picture franchises with big-time classic movie stars like Loy and Powell, they’ve also remained popular since their original release, most of the entries are good. Not many eighty year old film series have that pedigree, certainly not to six films.

There’s nothing else like The Thin Man and it’s all because of Powell and Loy and Van Dyke and Hammett and Stromberg and Goodrich and Hackett. And Asta too, of course.

Director | Edward Burns

At multiple points throughout his career, Edward Burns has been a disappointment. He’s not currently a disappointment–in fact, his now five-year absence from feature filmmaking is distressing, given his last film’s success; Fitzgerald Family Christmas is great. But many times over his eleven film, seventeen year filmmaking career–writing, director, producing, and starring–he has disappointed. Over those seventeen years, Burns grew as a filmmaker, changed as a filmmaker, but never found consistent quality. Some excellent films, definitely, but also some stinkers.

Burns and Connie Britton in MCMULLEN.

When The Brothers McMullen came out in 1995, studios had just started getting into their nineties flirtation with independent and low budget filmmaking. Burns shot McMullen on a shoestring budget using borrowed cameras. His co-producer (and cinematographer and editor) Dick Fisher’s filmography is otherwise filled with very low budget East Coast independent films. And if I’m remembering right, only one actor in McMullen had a SAG card–Jack Mulcahy, who got it on Porky’s almost fifteen years earlier. McMullen, shot on 16mm, usually indoors to cover Burns not having filming permits–the film’s making itself has a wonderfully scrappy story–looks at three brothers. There’s eldest Mulcahy, baby Mike McGlone, and problem middle child Burns. Burns gives McGlone the best story arc and the film’s best writing, while Mulcahy gets to narrate his own storyline (occasionally); Burns gives himself the romantic dramedy with (at the time) real-life girlfriend Maxine Bahns. To varying degrees, all three brothers just need to grow up a little, something the women in their lives wait patiently for them to accomplish.

Edward Burns, Jack Mulcahy, and Mike McGlone star in THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN, directed by Edward Burns for Fox Searchlight.
The Brothers McMullen (1995). ★★★. 2010 review
McMullen is a singular film for Burns as a director in numerous ways, but nothing more than how well he does with the constraints. When he’d return to micro-budgets fifteen years later, he’d have DV to use; shooting 16mm, the film exudes texture. The silent moments are full, heavy with the film’s visual grain. Burns and Fisher rely a lot on that visual tone, especially with Mulcahy and McGlone’s story lines. All of the performances are good, especially McGlone and Connie Britton (as Mulcahy’s wife), and there’s a capable nimbleness to the film.

Before he thought he was movie star, marry a supermodel handsome, Burns was content Eddie Haskelling it with a cane. In MCMULLEN with McGlone and Mulcahy.

As far as a legacy goes, Brothers McMullen doesn’t really have one. Fox Searchlight has put it out in studio retrospects and a single release blu-ray–at the time of its original home video release, Fox Home Video put out a very nice LaserDisc, complete with insightful Burns commentary–but the audience for the film (like Burns’s audience itself) is stagnant. There was initial interest in the film, with Burns as the boy next door version of Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino. He just never generated similarly dedicated fan bases.

SHE’S THE ONE: McGlone tries to mansplain to Aniston, who’s heard it all before–usually Thursdays at 8 / 7 Central.

Maybe he would have worked up a fan base if his next film, She’s the One, hadn’t been such a misfire. With a bigger budget and McMullen as a sales pitch, Burns got Cameron Diaz as the titular She (sort of), Jennifer Aniston in a major supporting part and John Mahoney as the dad in the movie. Burns brought back (still) real-life girlfriend Maxine Bahns and Mike McGlone from McMullen and then gave himself a much bigger part. Burns and Bahns are in a whirlwind romance, McGlone is married to Aniston and cheating on her with Diaz. Diaz is Burns’s ex-girlfriend. It could be a comedy of errors if all the characters weren’t willfully deceitful. She’s the One is a slick, mainstream, ostensibly eclectic New York romantic comedy. It’s so eclectic it’s got a Tom Petty soundtrack.

She’s the One (1996). ★½. 2016 review

That Tom Petty soundtrack is excellent, which is good, because it’s about the only excellent thing about She’s the One. Burns’s script is a wreck, both in terms of plotting and detail. He’s constantly falling back on homophobia and slut shaming for jokes; those devices should play worse, but McGlone’s such a loathsome jerk they’re in line. Burns doesn’t give himself much of a better character than McGlone gets, but McGlone gets a lot more to do; he suffers the attention. Aniston and Mahoney are able to get through. Diaz isn’t. Bahns is great until her part goes down the drain. Everyone is a caricature, waiting for their next witty line to deliver. Burns is terrified to show any non-ironic sincerity.

Sadly, there is no TAXI DRIVER homage. Cameron Diaz and Burns in SHE’S THE ONE.

I’ve never heard anyone speak highly of She’s the One. At the time of its release, the Tom Petty soundtrack album might have gotten some attention. It is a fantastic album. Fox has put out a blu-ray, which I suppose is a good thing, though I can’t imagine recommending the film to anyone myself. The worst part about it is how Burns slaughters the momentum of McGlone’s acting career, which McMullen started (and championed).

Following She’s the One, Burns went and got himself cast in a high profile blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan. Pretty soon, Burns’s attempts at furthering both a directing career and an acting one would have a big impact but not with his third film, No Looking Back. It came out four months before Private Ryan.

It looks like Lauren Holly is going to have to listen to Burns’s nonsense for all of NO LOOKING BACK, but just for the first half.

While No Looking Back is a tonal shift from She’s the One–it’s not just a downer, but one without any laughs for the viewer and only occasional ones for some of the characters–Burns does bring back some of the crew. Frank Prizi photographs, Susan Graef edits, both to much greater success than before. No Looking Back is a patient, tediously humdrum drama about small-town New York (but not Long Island) waitress Lauren Holly. Her ex-boyfriend’s return threatens her current relationship with Mr. Right. Burns plays the ex-boyfriend, who’s sort of a variation on his previous characters, only not played for sympathy, while Jon Bon Jovi plays Mr. Right. Connie Britton is back from McMullen, playing Holly’s sister. No Looking Back also has Ted Hope returning to produce; he executive produced McMullen and produced She’s the One. No Looking Back was his last collaboration with Burns.

No Looking Back (1998). ★★★½. 2017 review

No Looking Back has a somewhat rocky first half, cushioned nicely by Prizi’s photography, and then it does an about-face halfway through–once Holly finally gets to be the lead–and gets real good. Burns uses a few Patti Scialfa tracks (it’s a constant bummer the movie doesn’t have a soundtrack album) and then some Springsteen. There’s no fanfare about either artist contributing music (Scialfa’s contributions are otherwise unreleased, Springsteen’s are narratively significant classics), but having the Springsteen music in the narrative, on the soundtrack, changes the film’s course. It finishes thoughtful, downbeat, and as rending as Burns can make it. The cast helps a lot and Burns is able to smooth the rocky first half thanks the crew and music.

Once Burns just admits he wants to make a 100 minute Springsteen video, NO LOOKING BACK gets good fast.

According to Burns, his friends called the film Nobody Saw It, which is about right. Polygram released it theatrically, barely, and on home video, temporarily (it went out of print fast). Fox subsequently put it out in a Burns DVD three-pack–“Stories from Long Island”–but it too seems to be out of print. The film requires some indulgence, just because the first half frustrates as Burns (acting) and Bon Jovi basically mansplain everything to Holly until she finally gets her agency. Once she does, however, No Looking Back gets good fast. It’s unfortunate no one sees it.

Brittany Murphy and David Krumholtz, Burns’s first star couple. SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK.

With the exception of Frank Prizi returning as photographer, Burns’s next film–2001’s Sidewalks of New York–is a complete break from his previous pictures. Most significantly, he’s got Margot Bridger producing with him; she goes on to produce his next four films. But Sidewalks is also not a “Long Island story.” Instead, it’s all Manhattan, all the time, and the cast is much more mainstream, whether it’s stars on the rise–Rosario Dawson and Brittany Murphy (and arguably David Krumholtz)–established character actors (Dennis Farina and Stanley Tucci), or maybe movie star Heather Graham (career newly energized from Boogie Nights). Graham and Burns were dating at the time, so obviously she’s his love interest in the film. Sidewalks is all about the romantic trials and tribulations of its characters, with Burns using the camera to directly interview them between the scenes.

Edward Burns and Heather Graham star in SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK, directed by Burns for Paramount Classics.
Sidewalks of New York (2001). ★★★. 2011 review

Sidewalks is an accessible, affable, solid effort from Burns. He doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, he just gets it rolling pretty well. The film has its problems, some significant ones, but it also has some excellent performances. Burns, as an actor, lets himself hang back a little; he’ll just watch as Farina gnaws on their scenes, for example. Dawson, Murphy, and Krumholtz are all excellent. Graham is just sort of there, but not in a damaging way. It’s “just” an amusement–not too deep, not too slight–and a successful one.

Graburns. Heatward. Maybe it wasn’t SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK’s box office fizzle, maybe Heather Graham and Edward Burns just couldn’t come up with a couple name.

While I know I saw Sidewalks of New York in the theater with two other people, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of anyone besides the two people I saw it with seeing it. This film, more than any other, seems like Burns attempting to leverage his mainstream movie stardom–as it was–into interest for his directing efforts. Even if he had the rest of the cast overshadow him. Regardless of its strengths, weaknesses, and all around sturdiness, Sidewalks of New York is mostly forgotten. At least I think it’s mostly forgotten. Again, I’ve never heard of anyone else seeing it. It doesn’t have a blu-ray, the DVD is out of print, but you can stream it in HD. So maybe someone else has finally seen it. Possibly.

No, Elijah Wood, no one is talking to you. ASH WEDNESDAY.

Burns followed Sidewalks with Ash Wednesday the next year. It’s Burns’s first film where he takes top acting billing (except when due to alphabetical cast) and is again set in Manhattan, again with Margot Bridger producing, and again with Rosario Dawson costarring. The film is set in the early eighties, complete with a David Shire score and an iMovie sepia filter on the photography to make it seem old timey. Freshly Frodo Elijah Wood is the second male lead, playing Burns’s brother, who comes home after being presumed dead. Wood’s the tough Irish mob kid, Dawson’s his wife, Burns is in love with the wife.

Elijah Wood and Edward Burns star in ASH WEDNESDAY, directed by Edward Burns for Focus Features.
Ash Wednesday (2002). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2009 review

Ash Wednesday is terrible. Even though Burns’s direction is fine, maybe even good for the opening act (pre-Wood), once Wood shows up, it’s a terrible. Wood’s awful, Dawson’s either miscast or mortified, Burns’s character is a mess. Ash Wednesday is a great example of how talented actors and filmmakers can still come together and create a truly atrocious motion picture. The film mercilessly wastes the strong supporting cast–including Oliver Platt, James Handy, and Peter Gerety. There aren’t enough negative adjectives to properly describe Ash Wednesday. It should be avoided at all costs.

Burns does Rosario Dawson no favors in ASH WEDNESDAY.

And, it turns out people did avoid Ash Wednesday at all costs (it opened in two theaters). The film’s very much an end to Burns’s initial filmmaking trajectory; it also coincides with his big time movie star roles drying up. I remember seeing it in college–not in one of the two theaters on release, but VHS and maybe later on DVD. The concept–Irish Mean Streets meets romantic potboiler in dirty old New York–isn’t inherently a bad one, but Burns doesn’t have much more than the concept. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone else watching the movie, which is good. Like I said before, it should be avoided at all costs. Especially if you like anyone involved.

Burns and Krumholtz in LOOKING FOR KITTY.

Burns took a couple years off from directing; when he returned, it was with a very different kind of film. Looking for Kitty also starts of Burns’s second filmmaking trajectory. It’s is another Manhattan picture. It brings back McMullen’s Connie Britton–as Burns’s love interest in a super-small subplot–and Sidewalks’s David Krumholtz. Krumholtz is an upstate gym coach in the city trying to find his wayward wife; he hires questionably capable P.I. Burns to track her down. Margot Bridger returns to produce, but other crew additions prove far more significant–producer Arthur Lubin, cinematographer William Rexer, and composer P.T. Walkley started on Kitty and went on to collaborate with Burns on every subsequent film (to date).

David Krumholtz and Edward Burns star in LOOKING FOR KITTY, directed by Burns and for ThinkFilm.
Looking for Kitty (2004). ★★★★. 2007 review

Looking for Kitty is seventy-five minutes of spectacular filmmaking. Burns doesn’t just have the plotting down (the film premiered at ninety-five minutes, which hasn’t been released so there’s twenty minutes cut), he also finally gives himself a great role. Not just a great role, but a great lead performance. Some of it is realizing he and Britton’s chemistry is off the charts, some of it is just rethinking how to approach a film’s budgetary constraints in post-production (Sarah Flack’s editing is essential). At the time, it was easily Burns’s best film and signs of something special to come.

LOOKING FOR KITTY reveals the Burns secret–he’s better when he doesn’t have a love interest. Not just in his acting, but in his writing and directing.

Like all post–2000 Burns films, I haven’t really ever heard of anyone else seeing Looking for Kitty. The DVD box art is terrible, the short run time is concerning. KittyIt deserves a reputation and availability. I only got around to seeing it because I wanted to tease my wife about her Krumholtz crush during “Numb3rs”’s run. Even though Burns made a couple more excellent films after Looking for Kitty, it’s a singular achievement in his filmography. The innovative brevity is all Kitty’s own. Burns never repeats his successes (just his failures).

The stars of THE GROOMSMEN sit around and remember working on $50 million movies.

Of course, Burns follows up that innovative narrative work with some of his least creative work: The Groomsmen. The Groomsmen is about a guy getting married (Burns) and all his thirty-something male friends who are either married, divorced, or somewhere in between, and how they realize they need to grow up. Burns is the groom. The friends are all played by male actors whose careers hadn’t been “hot” since the late nineties–John Leguizamo is the gay one, Matthew Lillard is the happily married one (to Shari Albert, returning from Brothers McMullen and getting a small part but more than her cameos in No Looking Back and Looking for Kitty), Jay Mohr is the obnoxious one, Daniel Logue is the one with the failing marriage (to Heather Burns, no relation). Brittany Murphy’s back from Sidewalks. She’s barely present, playing Burns’s wife-to-be. Hijinks, male bonding, personal growth ensue.

The cast of THE GROOMSMEN, directed by Edward Burns for Bauer Martinez Studios.
The Groomsmen (2006). ★½. 2009 review

The Groomsmen is a weak comedy. Burns doesn’t have enough material for anyone (Lillard basically just wishes people were better friends to one another), least of all himself. His direction is boring, the cinematography (from Rexer) is flat; Groomsmen is a sitcom in search of situations and comedy. As an actor, Burns doesn’t do much (or have much to do) and as a director… well, at least he gets decent performances out of some of the cast. Including Logue, which I didn’t believe was possible before seeing Groomsmen.

Hi, you may remember us, we all used to audition for the same roles.

Besides being an exceptional disappointment after Looking for Kitty, The Groomsmen doesn’t really have many distinctive, lasting features. It’s readily available (still in print on DVD, no blu-ray–thank goodness because it’d look awful–lots of streaming options), but I’d certainly never recommend anyone track it down. It’s a waste of its cast. Even though it’s not an accurate summation of Burns’s filmmaking faults, it sure seems like it could be one. It’s not though. It’s just a weakly written, disinterestedly directed bland thirtysomething white guy comedy.

I’m sure PURPLE VIOLETS fails Bechdel but it does it beautifully. Selma Blair and Debra Messing.

But then comes Purple Violets. It’s back in Manhattan–after Groomsmen’s City Island, Bronx setting–with Selma Blair as an aspiring novelist who runs into old boyfriend Patrick Wilson. Blair’s best friends with Debra Messing, who dated Burns (giving himself not just not the lead, but not even the romantic lead) in college. Burns is best friends with Wilson and still enamored with Messing. While there are still subplots and story lines for the supporting cast, Blair’s the protagonist (the first time Burns has had a definite protagonist since Ash Wednesday and his first female one since No Looking Back). Margot Bridger returns to produce (her last collaboration with Burns). Also back are supporting cast members Dennis Farina and Max Baker (who appeared in Looking for Kitty and becomes a regular supporting player after Violets). And Logue, of course. Logue is back. Purple Violets was also the first feature film released direct-to-iTunes.

Selma Blair stars in PURPLE VIOLETS, directed by Edward Burns for iTunes.
Purple Violets (2007). ★★★★.

Purple Violets is great. Burns’s writing, his direction, William Rexer’s photography, P.T. Walkley’s music, all great. But it’s Blair’s movie and it’s Blair’s show. She makes it happen. All the acting is excellent (including Burns in his smaller role). Logue is playing a British guy, which should be terrible but is instead fantastic. Purple Violets opens strong and just keeps going. It’s Burns’s most wholly ambitious work when it comes to characters; he’s as overly meticulous on the pacing, both visual and narrative. Purple Violets is a leaps and bounds comeback after Groomsmen.

Selma Blair and Patrick Wilson flirt in a book store and are interested in what each other does.

Even though Purple Violets ostensibly had the weight of that iTunes Store exclusivity behind it… it took me four years to get around to watching the movie. Digital-only, watching at home, an opening weekend event it was not. The film soon got a weak DVD release (possibly the first Burns home video release without an audio commentary track); it hasn’t had a blu-ray release and isn’t available for streaming purchase or rental. Not even through iTunes. Purple Violets lack of recognition is simultaneously perplexing and infuriating. The whole iTunes exclusivity thing seems like it was a big mistake; though it’s not like Selma Blair’s ever gets acting credit. Purple Violets is cursed, apparently, even thought it’s phenomenal.

Occasional bikinis and all, Kerry Bishé is more a stand-in for Burns than Matt Bush. NICE GUY JOHNNY.

After a three-year break–his longest since Sidewalks of New York–Burns returned in 2010 with Nice Guy Johnny, kicking off the last phase of his directing career. William Rexer isn’t just photographing, he’s now producing alongside Burns and Aaron Lubin; P.T. Walkley is back on music. Editor Janet Gaynor joins the team–she’ll edit Johnny and Burns’s two subsequent, final films. Nice Guy Johnny stars Matt Bush as an idealistic young man with an overbearing fiancée who ends up meeting free spirit Kerry Bishé while hanging out in the Hamptons. So technically back to Long Island, but not really. Burns takes a supporting role as Bush’s uncle. Max Baker is back, along with Callie Thorne (who had a small part in Sidewalks).

Kerry Bishé and Matt Bush star in NICE GUY JOHNNY, directed by Edward Burns for FilmBuff.
Nice Guy Johnny (2010). ★★½. 2010 review

There’s excellent acting from Bush and Bishé, there’s beautiful direction, there’s great music and photography. But there’s also not much of a script. When the film works, it works. When it doesn’t, it’s too slight. In the end, there’s more slightness than depth–albeit with occasional great depth (usually thanks to the leads, especially Bishé). Johnny is too short and Burns rushes it way too much. He and Rexer technically rock it, but the script’s not there.

Life’s a Bishé! Wokka wokka.

I remember Nice Guy Johnny had a great trailer. After some film festivals, it went straight to DVD and streaming. No blu-ray, but it’s still available streaming and in HD so people can see it. It’s a strange misfire from Burns in its not a failure, it’s just nowhere near successful enough. Instead, it’s just sort of there.

Bishé getting to be sad and angry. Sometimes she gets to be sad and not angry. Sometimes.

Burns’s next film was a return to the couples romantic comedy form–Newlyweds has newlyweds Burns and Caitlin FitzGerald going through a rough patch when his long lost little sister, Kerry Bishé, shows up in Manhattan. There’s also drama with FitzGerald’s sister and her husband. It’s like a smaller scale Sidewalks of New York, complete with the characters speaking into the camera in interview.

Newlyweds (2011). ★. 2017 review

It’s also terrible. It’s sort of not, because Burns gets great performances out of the actors, but can’t make a movie out of what they’ve shot. For instance, Max Baker is back and he’s terrible. So bad I thought he was doing a terrible British accent and Baker is, in fact, British. In terms of using genial misogyny to get a joke across, it calls back to She’s the One. Except Newlyweds isn’t funny. It’s not a funny movie. It’s this dramatic, miserable, mean-spirited look at the lives of obnoxious New Yorkers. Burns doesn’t bother giving the characters depth and then can’t navigate their shallowness. It’s annoying.

NEWLYWEDS FitzGerald and Burns cross the streets of New York.

Newlyweds is another Burns movie I’ve never heard about anyone seeing. Indie movies like Newlyweds don’t get talked about a lot, which sucks for some of them. But the less said or thought about Newlyweds the better. There’s something about Burns’s failures. They’re embarrassing because they imply he’s so wrong-headed about something he couldn’t possibly be intentionally doing something well. Mostly as a writer, but also as an actor in the early days. Newlyweds should be forgotten. It doesn’t need to be preserved for posterity. It can be lost. So, of course, it’s still readily available to stream.

It’s a Christmas movie, of course there’s hugging and smiling. Kerry Bishé and Anita Gillette in FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS.

For Burns’s next film–and his last one to date–he brought back all his best actors. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas brings back Mike McGlone and Connie Britton from Brothers McMullen–McGlone’s first time back since She’s the One–Heather Burns from Groomsmen, and then all his final phase regulars–Kerry Bishé, Marsha Dietlin, Caitlin FitzGerald. And he does a Christmas dramatic comedy with a huge cast and P.T. Walkley adapting Christmas songs into the score.

Connie Britton and Edward Burns star in THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS, directed by Burns for Tribeca Film.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (2012). ★★★★. 2012 review

Burns and William Rexer shoot Fitzgerald Family Christmas in Panavision (or Panavision aspect), which is a first for Burns. Like how well his dialogue works, Burns’s Panavision composition is frustratingly good–almost showy. Burns exhibits a confidence he hasn’t earned or visibly developed in his filmmaking. There’s some great writing, some great acting, some beautiful photography. Fitzgerald’s great.

It’s just not FAMILY without Mike McGlone.

I am an unabashed Fitzgerald Family Christmas fan. I saw it as soon as I could rent it on iTunes. I bought the blu-ray; I didn’t go see it in the limited theatrical it had. I thought about it though. Burns finally paid off and there was no one there to see it. Fitzgerald Family Christmas does have some kind of a popularity. I don’t think I’d call it a reputation exactly, but it has a popularity. At least based on Burns’s Twitter. It’s streaming, it’s on disc. It’s out there. Maybe someday it’ll get its due.

Right after Purple Violets. And Looking for Kitty. And No Looking Back. And Brothers McMullen. Almost Sidewalks of New York, but no.

Burns’s successes irregularly litter his filmography. The odd numbers are better for a while, then the even, then the odd. I’m not sure I’m actually looking forward to whatever he does next–he hasn’t made a film since Fitzgerald, though he did write and direct the ten episodes TV show, “Public Morals” for TV (I’ve watched the first episode and nothing further). But whatever he does, I know I’ll see it. And it’ll either be good or bad. It might be mediocre but probably not. And if it’s bad, chances are the next one after will be good.

Director | John Carpenter, Part 1: The Wonder Years

Between 1974 to 1981, John Carpenter directed five independent feature films–Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. Three of those first five films–Dark Star, Precinct 13, Escape–are phenomenal motion pictures and should have established Carpenter as a significant seventies American filmmaker. They did not. Only recently have Carpenter’s accomplishments gotten their due and it’s been a long road. Carpenter, with his casts and crews, innovated–sometimes big time (popularizing POV in Halloween or steadicam usage in Escape), sometimes small (Halloween’s emphasis on female characters)–and created low budget genre films with a far greater depth and ambition than most of their big budget contemporaries.

The able crew of DARK STAR.
The able crew of DARK STAR.

Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, was a collaboration with fellow University of Southern California film student Dan O’Bannon. They co-wrote the screenplay; Carpenter produced, directed, scored; O’Bannon acted, edited, and did many of the special effects. The film, shot for around $60,000, tells the story of a spaceship on a dumb mission in deep space. It’s always absurd, sometimes touching. Instead of seeing 2001 stoned, Dark Star is “2001 with stoners.” Doofus astronauts who really don’t get along, usually in hilarious ways; they also aren’t equipped–intellectually–for dealing with their mission, which turns out to be their last. Mostly just because they’re so bad at their jobs.

Dark Star (1974). ★★★★. 2006 review
Dark Star (1974). ★★★★. 2006 review

What Dark Star doesn’t have in budget, Carpenter and O’Bannon compensate with ingenuity, whether for special effects or just set design. The film’s got a short present action, forcing the filmmakers to establish characters and settings quickly. And, while the script’s hilarious, it’s through O’Bannon’s editing and Carpenter’s directing Dark Star reaches its rather significant heights. It’s seems like the ending, where the film gets so touching, is all thanks to Carpenter. Of course, O’Bannon is also acting–in the film’s “biggest” role (or at least the one with the most memorable moments)–so he gets to be responsible for a little more of the film’s excellence. Dark Star is the best the (too small) sci-fi comedy genre has to offer, regardless of budget.

In space, no one can hear you scream.
In space, no one can hear you scream.

And the film gets no love, even though it’s had numerous home video releases, including DVD and blu-ray special editions. Unfortunately, the latest blu-ray edition does not contain the sixty-eight minute version of the film–Carpenter and O’Bannon’s cut–and instead includes only the padded out theatrical release. The film’s very “un-Carpenter” and very low budget for its concept, which probably–and tragically–hinders more interest. It never even got interest for its “hunt the alien” sequence, which O’Bannon basically repeated a few years later in, you know, Alien. Not even being a proto-Alien in parts can get Dark Star love.

Austin Stoker, Laurie Zimmer, and Darwin Joston  have had a rough night.
Austin Stoker, Laurie Zimmer, and Darwin Joston have had a rough night.

In addition to getting some love with his next film, Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter also established a number of his early output’s tropes–he’s shooting in Panavision, he’s got Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes in supporting roles, he’s working filmic miracles without a lot of money. Precinct 13 has a relatively simple story–a police precinct under siege from a gang–albeit with quite a bit of setup and a nice assorted cast to get through said siege. There’s competition, tragedy, romance, friendship, fear, and a lot of jaw-dropping action. Even more jaw-dropping considering the film’s low budget. Carpenter handles the editing himself (along with the music) and brings cinematographer Douglas Knapp along from Dark Star, but their visual collaboration here is leagues ahead of that film.

Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston star in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, directed by John Carpenter for Turtle Releasing.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). ★★★★. 2013 review

Unlike Dark Star, which felt like a collaboration between Carpenter and O’Bannon, Precinct 13 is all Carpenter. He’s outrageous, he’s subtle, he’s sensitive, he’s vicious. The script is lean, but full of material for the actors, even in the smallest roles. There’s a sterile precision in its wide Panavision frame, but still a good deal of warmth. I’ve seen the film almost a dozen times and there’s always something else to find in it. Carpenter’s assured and enthusiastic in his film with his name possessively above the title. And the cast is phenomenal.

The end of a quiet night.
The end of a quiet night.

Assault on Precinct 13–after apparently being forgotten for about twenty years–got a lot of home video attention in the late nineties. Not just LaserDisc, but also a letterboxed VHS so people could finally appreciate Carpenter and Knapp’s Panavision composition. After some lackluster DVD releases, the film finally has a nice blu-ray release; people now get to see Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time not just widescreen, but with a great transfer. And, to a certain extent, people are seeing it. It doesn’t have the recognition it deserves–Carpenter films rarely do–but it’s got a far better one than it once did.

The Babysitters Club.
The Babysitters Club.

Carpenter’s third film is still his biggest hit. The simple story of a confused young man visiting his hometown on Halloween. Sure, he’s an inhuman, murderous psychopath on a killing spree, but it’s still a pretty simple film. Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill split the film between Donald Pleasence (in his first of three memorable performances for Carpenter) hunting the psychopath–Pleasence was the boy’s questionably capable therapist–and three teenage girls who become the killer’s targets. Nancy Kyes is back–memorably, as always–as one of the targets, along with Jamie Lee Curtis (who would also work with Carpenter again until legitimate stardom) and P.J. Soles. Charles Cyphers is back. Besides being the first film where Carpenter worked with Hill (who also produced), it’s also his first film with Dean Cundey as cinematographer, kicking off a quintet of five stunning collaborations. Carpenter handles the music himself; it’s his most famous score.

Halloween (1978). ★★★. 2008 review
Halloween (1978). ★★★. 2008 review

As far as the film itself goes, I appreciate it. I do appreciate Halloween. I’m not a particularly big fan of the film, but I do appreciate it. It’s spectacularly made, but there’s just something off about it. As writers, Hill and Carpenter split tasks–she handled the teenage girls, he handled the manhunt. When the two plot lines come together, it gets messy and doesn’t end anywhere near as well as it should. But it’s a technical masterpiece, no doubt. Some excellent acting, some not so excellent acting. Great music, which does too much work. Halloween ends up being either too much of one thing or not enough of another.

The uncanny and the mundane.
The uncanny and the mundane.

For a long time, Halloween was Carpenter’s de facto most popular film. At least until the late nineties. It didn’t cease being his most popular film because of anything he did, rather because in the early days of DVD, Anchor Bay littered stores with various editions. Yes, they had a spectacular initial one, but then they kept double, triple, and quadruple dipping until it became a pain to find the right one. They might have even released it pan and scan, which is a travesty not just because it ruins Carpenter and Cundey’s composition, but because the film’s widescreen release was a big deal. Criterion released a special edition LaserDisc in the mid–1990s, with audio commentary, letterboxed, with the TV edition footage (which Anchor Bay later tracked down widescreen, something Criterion said didn’t exist) and Halloween got elevated to a better position. It wasn’t just the first in a slasher franchise. The double and triple-dipping has continued–exhaustively–into blu-ray. There’s finally a decent edition or two, but enthusiasm for the film has waned as audiences discovered there’s a lot more to John Carpenter than Halloween. There was probably also some franchise fatigue.

“It’s midnight and we’ve just started into the witching hour.”

Following Halloween’s financial success (it was the highest grossing independent film for a couple decades), Hill and Carpenter tried another horror film with The Fog. “There’s something in the fog,” the poster warns, with Jamie Lee Curtis trying to keep something monstrous outside. It’s a very big cast and Carpenter’s first use of well-known actors (outside Donald Pleasence anyway)–Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook–plus John Houseman in a cameo. As far as returning actors, in addition to Curtis, Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes are back–along with a cameo from Darwin Joston (from Assault on Precinct 13). The cast also includes Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Aktins, who’d both work with Carpenter again. The Fog is a ghost story with graphic violence and monsters and people on the run from the ghosts, who live in–you guessed it–The Fog. Cundey’s back on cinematography, Carpenter’s back on score.

The Fog (1980). ★★½. 2009 review
The Fog (1980). ★★½. 2009 review

The Fog is a spectacular looking film. Even better looking than Halloween, with Cundey and Carpenter having a great time doing California seaside. There are some excellent special effects, there are some good performances, some fine moments in the script, some excellent sequences. It’s a technical champ. It’s also got the same serious dramatic problems when bringing all the pieces together. Just like in Halloween, Carpenter and Hill can’t quite transition things together neatly enough. The script gets too bumpy. But The Fog’s still gorgeous.

“Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot in front of them. Then, they saw a light.”

Even though The Fog got a special edition LaserDisc around the same time as the other early Carpenter films in the nineties, it’s never really caught on. Growing up, I always knew about it as another of Jamie Lee Curtis’s scream queen movies and not a significant one. There’s an excellent blu-ray for interested viewers, but the film doesn’t seem to get discovered often. Maybe its successes are too technical and not engaging enough. But it has gotten a far better reputation than it once had.

Call him Snake.
Call him Snake.

Carpenter’s last film from this period, before going Hollywood, is Escape from New York. It’s his last film with Hill for fifteen years (until the sequel) and it’s his last film with Jamie Lee Curtis’s involvement–she provides a voice over. It’s also his first film with Alan Howarth associating with him on the score. It’s also his first film with Larry J. Franco producing (Hill’s not on the script here, just coproducing); Franco and Carpenter would work together for the rest of the eighties. Charles Cyphers is back for a bit, along with Donald Pleasence (in something of “guest starring” role). Adrienne Barbeau gets the closest thing to a female lead. But the star–besides the exceptional visual effects–is Kurt Russell. He’s a renegade bank robber in the future who has to go into New York City–now a prison island run by various gangs–and rescue Pleasence (in the future, U.S. Presidents come from Worksop, UK). Along the way he runs into oddballs like Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton, not to mention Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York. Tom Atkins is back in a small part, playing second fiddle to Lee Van Cleef’s future cop. They’re the ones forcing Russell to do the rescue. Action, glorious action, ensues. All beautifully shot by Dean Cundey.

A scene from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, directed by John Carpenter for Embassy Pictures.
Escape from New York (1981). ★★★★. 2011 review

Escape from New York is John Carpenter doing his biggest budget action movie and it’s phenomenal. The film moves at a great pace, with Carpenter hurtling Russell through the story. Escape only slows down once–and only for a few minutes–and then it races even faster towards its conclusion. Carpenter’s direction is inventive and deliberate; he knows when to restrain the film and when to let it go wild. And he does let it go wild. Only, with a lot of control. Wild, but with a lot of control. It’s the culmination of everything he’s been working on. Maybe not the humor of Dark Star, but everything else. It’s one of the great action movies.

EXT. WORLD TRADE CENTER -- NIGHT The plane comes down.  It hits hard.  Snake puts on the brakes, adds a grappling hook, and finally comes to a stop right at the edge.
EXT. WORLD TRADE CENTER — NIGHT
The plane comes down. It hits hard. Snake puts on the brakes, adds a
grappling hook, and finally comes to a stop right at the edge.

Back in the nineties, when New Line Home Video released Escape from New York on LaserDisc and on a special edition VHS, Carpenter’s career had hit the skids. He had just made a Chevy Chase comedy, but here was this fantastic movie with a nice new video release. A fantastic movie a lot of people hadn’t seen, at least not letterboxed. Escape from New York had that memorable poster–the Statue of Liberty crashed down in the middle of Manhattan–and had been a hit on release, but it didn’t have the best VHS life. At least not into the nineties. New Line really saved it and kicked off a reevaluation of Carpenter’s early work. Since that first release, the film has had some weak DVD releases (New Line either lost the license or gave it up) until finally getting a blu-ray from Shout! Factory. Now everyone can see Escape from New York. But it hasn’t really caught on again like it did back in the nineties. It’s overdue for another rediscovery.

The best John Carpenter film is The Thing, which was the film he made right after Escape from New York (when he went Hollywood). Unless you’re talking about best in terms of most inventive filmmaking, in which case it’s Assault on Precinct 13. Unless you’re talking about best in terms of most ambitious–and successful–filmmaking, in which case it’s Escape from New York. Unless you’re talking about best in terms of moment-to-moment entertainment, in which case it’s Dark Star. Carpenter might not get the respect and regard he deserves, but at least people can finally see how beautifully and exquisitely he made his first films.


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Director | John Carpenter, Part 2: The Studio Quartet

With the summer 1982 release of The Thing, John Carpenter finally fully arrived in Hollywood; he’d made a studio picture. And he didn’t come alone. He brought cinematographer Dean Cundey, who shot all of he and Debra Hill’s films, and at least three from Escape from New York: editor Todd C. Ramsey, co-producer Larry J. Franco, and star Kurt Russell. The Thing would start an entirely new chapter in Carpenter’s filmmaking. Even with some of the same “pieces,” cast or crew, this period would be very different from what came before.

Four films, one for Universal (The Thing), one for Fox (Big Trouble in Little China), and two for Columbia (Christine and Starman), comprise this period of Carpenter’s career. Two with aliens, two with Russell and Cundey, two with famous composers, two with Carpenter and Alan Howarth composing, all with Franco involved to some degree. Carpenter ambitiously mounts these productions, occasionally with mixed results, occasionally with goodness, occasionally with horrifying brilliance.

Kurt Russell finding a quiet moment amid the screams of THE THING.
Kurt Russell finding a quiet moment amid the screams of THE THING.

That horrifying brilliance is The Thing. It’s one of Carpenter’s only two remakes. The Thing From Another World already showed up in Halloween, a movie playing on TV during some of that film’s action, and Carpenter had started paying director homage to Howard Hawks productions with his second film, Assault on Precinct 13. Hawks produced the original Thing.

The Thing is a different film for Carpenter in terms of budget (two and a half times Escape from New York’s $6 million) as well as producers. He doesn’t have comrade Debra Hill standing offside producing, he’s got David Foster and Lawrence Turman, a team of mainstream Hollywood guys. With the exception of this film, their best work was always apart (i.e. The Getaway and The Graduate separately, Short Circuit 2 together). There’s also an Ennio Morricone score: orchestral, Gothic and terrifying, not the traditional Carpenter synthesizers. The film’s screenplay (written by Burt Lancaster’s son, Bill; his only other credits were a couple of the Bad News Bears movies!) moves the action from Another World’s Arctic airbase to an Antarctic research station. While the film’s initially sci-fi discovery, it soon moves into a horrifying ordeal.

A scene from THE THING, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.
The Thing (1982). ★★★★. 2008 review

The Thing is a serious, depressing, exciting, exhausting film. Carpenter’s direction is phenomenal–he’s doing people in claustrophobic, dangerous situations, which he’s done before, but never like The Thing. There’s not much else like it. Cundey’s photography is magnificent, whether he’s doing the talking heads scenes or the phantasmagoria. The film’s Rob Bottin effects are breathtaking; Carpenter knows how to direct the effects, knows how to integrate them into the narrative, knows how to get the actors to work with them. It’s probably Carpenter’s best film. The scope of it, the subtle mix of genres, that Morricone music threatening throughout. It’s so good.

Russell discovers remnants of the Swedes' discovery.
Russell discovers the remnants of the Swedes’ discovery.

Still, if there were one John Carpenter film I thought would never catch on, it’s The Thing. It’s beyond gory, it’s hostile in its despondence, there aren’t any women; sure, it’s brilliant, but no one seemed to notice in 1982–it got terrible reviews and was a box office disappointment–and I never thought they’d come around. When I saw it at fourteen, I immediately convinced my dad to watch it before I returned the VHS rental. He’d never seen the film (thanks to those bad reviews) and The Thing is one of those movies you want to share. Or at least you did, but now everyone’s seen it. And they’ve seen it widescreen, which was impossible in the eighties and difficult in the nineties (there was a letterboxed laserdisc). It actually may have gone too far–I remember seeing someone tweet a day couldn’t go by without a random guy trying to telling someone else they just have to see The Thing.

Still, everyone should see The Thing.

Roberts Blossom tries to warn young whippersnappers Keith Gordon and John Stockwell about CHRISTINE.
Roberts Blossom tries to warn young whippersnappers Keith Gordon and John Stockwell about CHRISTINE.

After The Thing, and its disappointments, Carpenter headed to the relatively safe world of the Stephen King adaptation. Christine, released in 1983, is from before Stephen King adaptation ubiquity, but only just. Carpenter brings back Harry Dean Stanton for a supporting part (he’s the only actor from a previous Carpenter film–Escape from New York) and Alan Howarth to collaborate on the score, but otherwise it’s an all-new cast and crew. It’s also an all-new studio–Columbia–and a cast of teenagers (or actors playing teenagers) in a high school movie. Sure, it’s about a killer car, but it’s a killer car in high school. With a soundtrack of fifties pop hits; well, except Bad to the Bone. There’s a lot of undeniable personality to the film, problems or not.

Keith Gordon stars in CHRISTINE, directed by John Carpenter for Columbia Pictures.
Christine (1983). ★½. 2012 review

The film’s beautifully made–Carpenter might not have Cundey shooting it, but Donald M. Morgan does a fantastic job on the cinematography. Christine looks phenomenal, both in the setup, suspense, and special effects; though the first half is better directed than the rest, mostly because the material’s better. Carpenter’s got a weak lead in Keith Gordon, but a solid everyman in supporting star John Stockwell. Carpenter also does get one of Alexandra Paul’s best performances. Maybe not an amazing achievement, but an achievement nonetheless.

The machine of a dream, such a clean machine, With the pistons a pumpin', and the hubcaps all gleam.
The machine of a dream, such a clean machine, >With the pistons a pumpin’, and the hubcaps all gleam.

For a Stephen King adaptation, Christine has had a relatively successful reputation. It’s not a genre with many standouts, technical or otherwise, which does put Carpenter’s contribution ahead by default. When I first started hunting down Carpenter films to watch, Christine was always on the “last to see” list of his pre-nineties work. Technical accomplishment and acceptable Alexandra Paul performance aside, it’s still just a Stephen King adaptation. One with a not-entirely undeserved okay reputation to this day.

The smiley, happy people of John Carpenter's STARMAN.
The smiley, happy people of John Carpenter’s STARMAN.

Carpenter’s next film, again at Columbia, again with Morgan on photography (and Marion Rothman also returning from Christine on edits), is his most “Hollywood.” Well, his most successful “Hollywood” film. Not because of content (a space alien clones himself the body of recently deceased blue collar dude, Jeff Bridges, much to the surprise and consternation of the widow, Karen Allen) or the setting (crossing the country from Wisconsin to Arizona), but because of the production backstory. Michael Douglas produced the film, Bridges and Allen both should’ve been bigger stars at the time (1984) than they were, an uncredited Dean Riesner spent years rewriting it for various directors. A lot about the film–starting with the casting of Raiders of the Lost Ark star Allen and American Graffiti co-star Charles Martin Smith–makes Starman seem like grown-up, mainstream, grounded sci-fi from the Spielberg or Lucas stable.

Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges star in STARMAN, directed by John Carpenter for Columbia Pictures.
Starman (1984). ★★½. 2014 review

Much like Christine, Carpenter (and Morgan) do a fantastic job on Starman, but again the script just isn’t there to support them. Carpenter does a lot of work with the actors–it’s the only love story in his oeuvre–and he navigates the film to something of a success. The script problems, seven rewrites or not, are just too much to overcome. The set pieces just don’t fit with the film Carpenter ends up making, even if they are memorable–“yellow means go very fast.” It’s almost like he doesn’t know why he needs them; they’re so at odds with the way he’s plotted his films to that point.

There’s also a wonderful score from Jack Nitzsche.

On the run through scenic America, or: John Carpenter on location.
On the run through scenic America, or: John Carpenter on location.

Starman’s legacy is probably Carpenter’s most troubled. It was relatively successful on release, very much so on VHS, yet it appealed far more to the Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen demographic than the John Carpenter. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment never even got around to rereleasing it domestically with a Carpenter and Jeff Bridges audio commentary (from the UK release). Instead, they put it off until the blu-ray release; market research must’ve determined there wasn’t much “double dipping” potential for Starman. However, it does seem like the film enthusiast prejudice against the film–John Carpenter doing a sci-fi love story with a super cute Jeff Bridges–has fizzled. Unfortunately it’s been more out of disinterest than anything else. Starman is a perfectly solid eighties movie. It doesn’t transcend its problems, which makes it difficult for a rediscovery.

Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell have found some BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Wokka wokka.
Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell have found some BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Wokka wokka.

Carpenter’s final studio film of the eighties–Big Trouble in Little China is a bit like old home week. Kurt Russell is back in the lead, Dean Cundey is on photography, Larry J. Franco is producing, Alan Howarth is back. It’s also the only time Carpenter made a film released through 20th Century Fox. And what a film. Russell’s an obnoxious truck driver who bumbles his way into a magical Chinatown gang war. He’s got Victor Wong and Dennis Dun as his sidekicks and Kim Cattrall as his love interest. Of course, Russell’s also an idiot and it takes all of his compatriots to save the day. There’s magic, martial arts, fistfights, stolen semis, magic–wait, I already said magic. More magic. Lots of magic. Lots of humor. Lots of martial arts fisticuffs.

Kim Cattrall, Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun and Suzee Pai are in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, directed by John Carpenter for 20th Century Fox.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986). ★★★. 2014 review

I was never much of a Big Trouble fan growing up. I saw it in pieces on HBO at friends’ houses, I’m sure I watched it on VHS at least once, but I never cared for it. I had a problem with absurdist humor for a long, long time, but of all Carpenter’s mainstream efforts–leaving something utterly hostile like The Thing out of consideration–it’s the most successful. Russell’s hilarious, Cattrall excels through his idiocy, Dun and Wong are both good. Villain James Hong is awesome. There’s also quite a bit of technical achievement, between Carpenter doing a lot of fight scenes and then he and Cundey’s ability to mix harsh reality, ornate Chinese decoration, American stupidity, and special effects. Big Trouble is from 1986–twelve years after Dark Star–and Carpenter’s only gotten better with how he handles humor. It’s finally accessible. So long as the viewer is ready for a buffoon “hero.”

Even though Big Trouble in Little China was such a box office bomb it sent Carpenter back to independent filmmaking, it almost immediately found a rather big audience through home video and pay cable. Just because I didn’t like the movie as a kid didn’t mean most people agreed with me. Fox even gave it a nice two disc special edition DVD–now long out of print–back in the early days of catalog DVD. More recently, however, it does seem like the least regarded of Carpenter’s popular films. Maybe not in terms of people undervaluing it, but definitely in terms of overlooking or just forgetting its existence. Even though the brand has gone through an unexpected resurgence in the last few years, along with occasional remake talk, it hasn’t led to more appreciation of the film itself.

What's that? Oh, some more BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA! (Wokka wokka).
What’s that? Oh, some more BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA! (Wokka wokka).

Looking back now at this period of Carpenter’s films, it’s depressing. Things weren’t clicking. But at the time, if you’d just discovered him with Halloween and Escape from New York, you’d have been thrilled. The Thing is a peak, one very few filmmakers are going to reach. Christine’s good enough for a studio horror programmer. Starman’s interesting enough for a misfire. Big Trouble works its ass off to great result. Sure, there would’ve been bumps, but Carpenter ends this period on an uptick. He’s figured out how to make a studio picture by Big Trouble in Little China.

Of Carpenter’s four studio films, two made money, two didn’t. The better two didn’t. If it had been the other way around, who knows? But it’s the end of Carpenter’s significant output as a director. Not as a filmmaker, but definitely as a director. So how can’t it be depressing.


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