The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford)

Warner Baxter is one good actor. I’ve only seen him in one other film, but he’s great in The Prisoner of Shark Island. Baxter’s got a depth to him–he builds on it, adds to it, throughout scenes and throughout the film. Shark Island is about the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg–and is an idealized portrait of the physician, which is unimportant–and almost everything in the film happens to Baxter… and when he actually has to do something for himself, it’s a big something.

Shark Island is another pre-World War II John Ford film. This John Ford is the one who made The Informer, not the one who made The Searchers (but it is the same Ford who made Stagecoach). Color didn’t change Ford too much, since the post-WWII cavalry trilogy are not the same Ford as this film and at least one of those is black and white. The Shark Island Ford is the one who did exciting things with confined space and people’s place in that space, as opposed to the later Ford, who did things with open space and the place of people in that space. That sentence has two “that” spaces, I hope it makes sense. Since Shark Island is from the 1930s and it’s from Fox, it has a certain feel to it. It’s filmic. Fox films from the 1930s don’t have the crispness of an MGM or Warner picture. Ford perfectly creates a 1860s time period too. It’s lushly rural for the Maryland scenes and then the scenes on the prison island are spacious but confined. With Shark Island, you get the feeling Ford didn’t know what he was doing and he was trying things. Ford is the most confident filmmaker I’ve ever seen, so seeing him exert himself and succeed is interesting.

He does get quite a bit of help from Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay. Johnson went on to write The Grapes of Wrath for Ford, which might be the last of this period of his career. Regardless, Johnson is unsung superstar. The Prisoner of Shark Island has a number of conversations and they’re these beautiful moments–even if they aren’t the defining conversations of the film, which are beautiful too–but these conversations are perfectly paced and rich. They’re rich. They’re full of living character. Ripe with it. Having Gloria Stuart as the wife makes a lot of the film work. Without her, it wouldn’t work as well. Stuart’s wonderful in the film. There’s also a great performance by Ernest Whitman, who was black and got fourteenth billing instead of fourth (which he deserved). Then there’s John Carradine as a sadistic prison guard. He’s so good and Ford knows it. He gives Carradine these awesome creepy angles, something a later Ford wouldn’t have done.

I guess Shark Island never had a VHS release in the United States–but Fox Movie Channel shows it a couple times a year (probably not for President’s Day, though it would be interesting–the film presents Lincoln as a humane, soft-spoken, decent person, which modern Americans certainly don’t find appealing in a president). I watched the Masters of Cinema release from the UK, which (for once) didn’t have any noticeable PAL speedup. It’s a good film to see, for both Baxter and Stuart, but particularly for Ford.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; written by Nunnally Johnson; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Jack Murray; music by R.H. Bassett and Hugh Friedhofer; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Warner Baxter (Dr. Samuel Mudd), Gloria Stuart (Mrs. Peggy Mudd), Claude Gillingwater (Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer), Arthur Byron (Mr. Erickson), O.P. Heggie (Dr. MacIntyre), Harry Carey (Commandant of Fort Jefferson), Francis Ford (Cpl. O’Toole), John McGuire (Lt. Lovett), Francis McDonald (John Wilkes Booth), Douglas Wood (Gen. Ewing), John Carradine (Sgt. Rankin), Joyce Kay (Martha Mudd), Fred Kohler Jr. (Sgt. Cooper), Ernest Whitman (‘Buck’ Milford) and Paul Fix (David Herold).


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Chaplin (1992, Richard Attenborough)

Just today, I met someone who recently watched The Postman and thought it was a good film. She’s probably the third or fourth person (I think the third) who I’ve met–since 1997–who agreed it was a good film. Though Chaplin has five years on that one, I’ve never met anyone else who thinks it’s good. Or great, I suppose. Chaplin is great.

I absolutely dreaded watching this film. As I recall, I had the VHS–I bought it used from a video store and it was one of the early single tape releases for 130+ minute features–and then I got the laserdisc on remainder in the early days of the Internet shopping boom, back when there were laserdisc stores online and laserdiscs being pressed. So, I haven’t seen it in eight years (I was a slow converter to DVD and, even after I did, I still never tried upgrade my entire laserdisc collection–still haven’t). I rented it a long time ago when I was trying to keep my Blockbuster Online queue going and just never got around to it. I’ve been actively avoiding it for about two weeks now, when I cracked down and said I had to get it watched. My fear being–well, like I said, I’ve never heard a good word said about the film.

Immediately–within seconds–that fear, that apprehension, disappeared. The John Barry music comes up and I remembered the emotional sensation the film produces in me. These sensations being the goal of art–back when I last saw this film, I worried about my “taste.” It never occurred to me someone else’s wiring was wrong. Back to the film. The music comes up and there’s Robert Downey Jr., back when he was the finest working actor. It’s impossible to think of Chaplin as a Downey film because he’s not Robert Downey Jr. He creates this character named Charlie Chaplin. While the make-up work is good, it wouldn’t do its job with Downey. The viewer expects this character to age over time and so he has to–because there are title cards telling the viewer time is passing. Aging and time passing, they go together. Downey being an actor in latex make-up is beside the point. Downey never exists as an actor in the film and neither does anyone else. The only person who stretches that boundary is Dan Aykroyd–as I’d forgotten he was good.

The success isn’t all Downey or John Barry’s score–Chaplin has the most indispensable score since 2001–it’s Attenbourgh’s whole conception of the film. It’s a biopic, but it’s independent of the actually reality of Charlie Chaplin. Attenborough creates a character and creates a sense of nostalgia–for future events, this achievement is particularly visible in the creation of the Tramp scene–without requiring the audience to know anything real. Having experienced any Chaplin films is not a requirement for Chaplin. I, for example, didn’t see a Chaplin film until 1999 or 2000. It’s a brilliant approach to the “non-fiction” film, one not often done anymore. Today, authentic and historical accuracy are watchwords; they have nothing to do with good storytelling, fictional or non-fictional.

As a quiet aside–for any Keaton fans out there (I prefer Keaton)–there’s a great homage to Our Hospitality in Chaplin, when we see Hollywood before it was Hollywood, right under the titles identifying it. Our Hospitality, for those who don’t know, did with New York City, giving an intersection and a date in the middle of nineteenth century. It’s a cute touch.

The Chaplin supporting cast is superior. Primarily, the film shows how excellent Moira Kelly is–Chaplin’s her first and only great film and it’s a shame. I mean, she was already done by 1998. Also fantastic and less known is Paul Rhys as Chaplin’s brother. He didn’t disappear, he just didn’t stay in Hollywood. The relationship between Chaplin and his brother is one of the film’s strongest elements. I’m going to go through the rest faster–Marisa Tomei’s good, Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks (he and Chaplin’s relationship being another cornerstone), Penelope Ann Miller’s decent–if only in a scene really–Kevin Dunn is a frightening J. Edgar Hoover. Geraldine Chaplin playing Chaplin’s insane mother, she’s really good. Also, one of my favorite forgotten actors, Maria Pitillo (Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla ended her career) is in the film as Mary Pickford. She’s great in the film, credited far too late. She’s wonderful–Chaplin’s calling a bitch while she and Downey have the second-best onscreen chemistry between he and female actor in the film. I suppose I need to mention it–though it doesn’t come up often at The Stop Button, I do despise Anthony Hopkins–Hopkins is great as the made-up book editor whose editing session with Chaplin frames the film.

I honestly don’t remember the last time I recommended something here. It looks like it would have been Black Narcissus. And now it’s Chaplin.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Attenborough; screenplay by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman, from a story by Diana Hawkins, based on books by Charles Chaplin and David Robinson; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by John Barry; production designer, Stuart Craig; produced by Attenborough, Mario Kassar and Terence Clegg; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Charlie Chaplin), Geraldine Chaplin (Hannah Chaplin), Paul Rhys (Sydney Chaplin), John Thaw (Fred Karno), Moira Kelly (Hetty Kelly/Oona O’Neill), Anthony Hopkins (George Hayden), Matthew Cottle (Stan Laurel), Dan Aykroyd (Mack Sennett), Marisa Tomei (Mabel Normand), Penelope Ann Miller (Edna Purviance), Kevin Kline (Douglas Fairbanks), Kevin Dunn (J. Edgar Hoover), Diane Lane (Paulette Goddard), Deborah Moore (Lita Grey), Nancy Travis (Joan Barry), James Woods (Lawyer Scott), Milla Jovovich (Mildred Harris), Maria Pitillo (Mary Pickford) and David Duchovny (Rollie Totheroh).


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Charley Varrick (1973, Don Siegel)

Walter Matthau hated Charley Varrick. He must have been stuck in a contract or something. It’s understandable why he did, however. Matthau’s whole image is one of the likable curmudgeons. Varrick casts him as a gum-chewing (for that Matthau effect) bank robber… who doesn’t do it because he needs the money, but because crop dusting has been taken over by big corporations. He loses his wife (the driver in his bank robbing crew) in the first few minutes of the film–it’s impossible to like her or particularly care, since she just got done shooting two people–and then, with the character’s only possible sympathy coming from his recent widowing, Matthau beds a woman a couple days later (after threatening to kill her). I can imagine Matthau had some problems with the film–it’s the most amoral thing I’ve ever seen. There are no good people in this film, with the exception of a few law enforcement personnel (who the film doesn’t want the audience to sympathize with) and a black family (who, interestingly enough, the film does want the audience to sympathize with). It’s unbelievable.

I’m not sure if Siegel knew what was going on while he was making it–I kind of doubt it, given how virtuously he defended it in his autobiography–but I think, reflexively, the filmmaker knew… In many ways, Charley Varrick is Siegel’s worst film, just because there’s no excuse for the badness. He had a good screenwriter (Dean Riesner) and a fantastic supporting cast. Andy Robinson and John Vernon are both excellent. Joe Don Baker–who Siegel knew the audience would like more than Matthau–plays a redneck Mafia hit man, who’s a complete piece of shit (but revels in it) and is the most entertaining part of the movie. Women are inexplicably drawn to Matthau, but, for whatever reason, one can believe they’d go for Baker. Oh, and the hit man’s name is Molly. So, obviously, Reiser and Siegel spent more time on that character. Robinson, who played the psycho in Dirty Harry for Siegel, showed a lot of promise as a comedic leading man (which, regrettably, never happened). It doesn’t help when the film spends fifteen minutes making him appealing, only to turn him into another pat bad guy. The disconnection may come from Riesner’s writing style on Siegel’s films–he and Siegel would lay out all the scripts (by various writers) and cut paste what they liked. I have no idea whether or not they did it on Charley Varrick (my copy of Siegel’s autobiography is in storage somewhere) but it feels like they did.

Some of this film–the beginning–features some excellent work from Siegel. Beautiful camera movements, a great crane shot… but it all disappears by the middle of the film. Actually, once the film stops centering on Matthau, it gets a lot better. When Universal released Varrick on DVD a couple years ago, they did it as part of their pan and scan classics of the 1970s series–a bunch of eclectic releases no one would want pan and scan. I had the laserdisc so I didn’t get upset, but Varrick’s got a really good reputation and I think a decent DVD release would have led to a (deserving) critical reevaluation of this film. It’s rather offensive and pretty lousy. The supporting cast (and the bland, not-badness of the scenic writing) make it watchable, but I can’t imagine a reason to watch the film again.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Don Siegel; written by Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, from a novel by John Reese; director of photography, Michael C. Butler; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Lalo Schifrin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Walter Matthau (Charley Varrick), Joe Don Baker (Molly), Felicia Farr (Sybil Fort), Andrew Robinson (Harman), Sheree North (Jewell Everett), Norman Fell (Mr. Garfinkle), Benson Fong (Honest John), Woodrow Parfrey (Harold Young) and John Vernon (Maynard Boyle).


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The Big Bus (1976, James Frawley)

Maybe I just don’t like absurdist comedies. I can’t remember why I wanted to see The Big Bus originally–it just came up again last week–maybe because of director James Frawley (who directed The Muppet Movie), but I doubt it. I’ve seen a couple IMDb comments comparing the film to Airplane!, which came out four years after The Big Bus and aped its style. A lot about the two films are the same… except The Big Bus has better acting.

It has a great 1970s cast–Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Ruth Gordon and Ned Beatty. Linking through the filmographies, one could many great–but relatively (if Harold and Maude still qualifies) obscure 1970s films. The lead, Joseph Bologna, I have seen in other films, but I don’t remember him. He’s good in Bus, giving an appealing performance while understanding the absurd humor. Stockard Channing plays the love interest and is weak. She gets it, but the part isn’t right for her.

The best performances are the small ones. Besides Mulligan and Kellerman as an arguing married couple, Rene Auberjonois is great as an atheist, sex-starved priest. He’s probably the best in the film, but there’s also Beatty and Howard Hesseman, who play bickering co-workers. Stuart Margolin’s got a really small part, but he’s really funny… basically playing Angel (from “The Rockford Files”) again.

The writers, Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman, make amusing observations about film stereotypes (the graveyard full of people talking to their deceased relatives), but they let the film get too long. Of eighty-eight minutes, only the last twenty didn’t drag, since there’s a half-hour before the bus even appears. That idea, of a nuclear-powered Greyhound, is a funny idea… but, like The Big Bus, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a pun. There are a lot of puns in The Big Bus.

Still, the cast makes it interesting (and entertaining), if not worth seeing.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written and produced by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen; director of photography, Harry Stradling Jr.; edited by Edward Warschitka; music by David Shire; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joseph Bologna (Dan Torrance), Stockard Channing (Kitty Baxter), John Beck (Shoulders O’Brien), Rene Auberjonois (Father Kudos), Ned Beatty (Shorty Scotty), Bob Dishy (Dr. Kurtz), Jose Ferrer (Ironman), Ruth Gordon (Old Lady), Harold Gould (Prof. Baxter), Larry Hagman (Parking Lot Doctor), Sally Kellerman (Sybil Crane), Richard Mulligan (Claude Crane), Lynn Redgrave (Camille Levy), Richard B. Shull (Emery Bush), Stuart Margolin (Alex) and Howard Hesseman (Scotty’s aide, Jack).


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