Tag Archives: Sidney Poitier

Paris Blues (1961, Martin Ritt)

It’d be easily to blame Paris Blues’s lack of success on the screenplay. With three credited screenwriters and another with the adaptation, there’s literally not enough going on the film to keep it going for the ninety-eight minute runtime. There’s filler, whether it’s a jazz number or a scenic Paris walk, but there’s not enough story. There’s not enough character or there’s not enough story. But director Ritt needs to get some of the blame as well. He’s got enthusiasm, but he’s strangely inert when it comes to medium shots.

Here’s the story–Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are friends vacationing in Paris from the United States. They meet Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, who are jazz musician ex-patriates. They pair off, Woodward and Newman, Carroll and Poitier, and they all fall in love. Except Poitier and Newman don’t want to leave Paris. Poitier because it sucks to be a black man in the United States while it’s pretty darn cool in Paris; Newman because… he’s a troubled artist. Or he wants to be a troubled artist. He’s a great trombone player, but he’s not a troubled artist. He’s moody because he’s not.

Newman and Woodward’s romance and its problems are mostly just that moodiness. Newman has a bad day, is crappy to Woodward, who’s crazy about him and wants to dote on him. Meanwhile, Poitier and Carroll are having this great philosophical debate, with their romance taking a back burner to their arguments about Poitier’s refusal to participate in the American Civil Rights movement. Sure, the script never goes too far with their arguments and usually just ends a scene–Woodward and Carroll spend most of their time acquiescing to their men’s mood swings–but it’s something. Carroll and Poitier are playing characters. Newman’s a caricature. Woodward’s stuck pretending to be one, just because the script doesn’t give Newman anything more.

Oh, wait. It gives him Serge Reggiani’s cocaine problem. Newman’s trying to keep him clean because deep down he’s a good guy who cares.

There’s occasionally wonderful direction from Ritt–usually just composition, though Carroll’s performance in the third act, basically just watching Woodward and Newman, is fantastic. It’s a slight, because she should have had more to do, but she’s still developing her character. Everyone else has given up by that time. But Ritt loves trying to do the “real” Paris, cutting between sets and location, with the sets often fantastical but grounded thanks to Christian Matras’s black and white photography.

Weak editing from Roger Dwyre–thanks to Ritt’s messy medium shots and general lack of coverage–doesn’t help things. The Duke Ellington score does help things, however. And it’s awesome to see Louis Armstrong cameo as the whole package artist who Newman admires. Shame there’s not enough on their relationship. Or Newman and Poitier’s. Or Newman and Woodward’s. Or Woodward and Carroll’s. Or Carroll and Poitier’s. About the only relationship getting the appropriate attention is Newman and his French lover, played by Barbara Laage. But even she ends up just harboring slightly veiled hostility towards Woodward instead of actual scenes.

Messy, messy script.

Carroll’s great. Poitier’s great. Newman and Woodward are good, not great. Their material’s too thin to be great. Armstrong’s more cute than good. He’s having a blast acting. Reggiani’s good. Laage’s good. The problem’s not the acting. It’s the script, then Ritt, then the editing. Then, I don’t know, the rear screen projection.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Jack Sher, Irene Kamp, and Walter Bernstein, adaptation by Lulla Rosenfeld, based on the novel by Harold Flender; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Roger Dwyre; music by Duke Ellington; produced by Sam Shaw; released by United Artists.

Starring Paul Newman (Ram Bowen), Sidney Poitier (Eddie Cook), Joanne Woodward (Lillian), Diahann Carroll (Connie), Serge Reggiani (Michel Devigne), Barbara Laage (Marie), and Louis Armstrong (Wild Man Moore).



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Shoot to Kill (1988, Roger Spottiswoode)

Shoot to Kill is an exceptionally bland action thriller. It shouldn’t be bland–there’s a decent concept to it. Kirstie Alley is a wilderness guide, cut off from the outside world, and one of her obnoxious fly-fishing white male character actors is secretly a killer. Who will it be? Richard Masur? Clancy Brown? Andy Robinson?

Unfortunately, Shoot has almost nothing to with Robinson, Brown, Masur or even Alley. It’s all about Sidney Poitier and Tom Berenger out to save Alley and stop the unknown killer. Berenger’s a rugged mountain man, Poitier’s a street smart FBI agent. Only neither of them ever gets to exhibit their skills. They both bumble because it perturbs the plot and creates opportunities for drama. Director Spottiswoode captures that drama in the blandest way possible, composing his Panavision frame for eventual VHS pan and scanning. Shoot to Kill is one of those eighties action movies so ineptly directed–with Spottiswoode wasting Michael Chapman’s photography–it probably plays better on an eleven-inch, standard definition television.

With commercial breaks.

It does seem like it should be better though. Poitier and Berenger certainly seem respectable and, to some extent, they are. They just don’t have characters to play. Alley’s the most convincing just because she’s able to suggest her character’s relationship with Berenger, even though they don’t have any establishing scenes.

And Poitier’s in trouble right from the start. He’s got this huge FBI stand-off at the beginning and it does nothing to establish his character as anything but a sensitive, hard-working bumbler. At least when Berenger bumbles, he falls off a mountain or something. Not Poitier. He just screws something up and Spottiswoode doesn’t go for a reaction shot because Poitier can’t be self-aware or the script doesn’t work.

Though the script–from Harv Zimmel, Michael Burton and Daniel Petrie Jr.–rarely works. For its better moments, Shoot to Kill gets away with it because (even though Spottiswoode wastes them) it has good locations, whether the mountains or Vancouver. Standing in for Vancouver. The San Francisco stuff doesn’t work out.

Bad music from John Scott doesn’t help anything.

The cast, misdirected and occasionally miscast, is professional. They make the film nearly tolerable, until it collapses. Even when an action set piece should be good, Spottiswoode screws it up. It’s not really his fault in some ways; the whole thing is misguided and poorly produced.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode; screenplay by Harv Zimmel, Michael Burton and Daniel Petrie Jr., based on a story by Zimmel; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by George Bowers and Garth Craven; music by John Scott; production designer, Richard Sylbert; produced by Ron Silverman and Petrie; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Sidney Poitier (Warren Stantin), Tom Berenger (Jonathan Knox), Kirstie Alley (Sarah Rennell), Clancy Brown (Steve), Frederick Coffin (Ralph), Richard Masur (Norman), Andrew Robinson (Harvey), Kevin Scannell (Ben), Michael MacRae (Fournier), Milton Selzer (Mr. Berger), Les Lannom (Sheriff Arnett), Robert Lesser (Minelli) and Walter Marsh (Sam Baker).


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In the Heat of the Night (1967, Norman Jewison)

Warren Oates can be affable. I had no idea.

In the Heat of the Night is a bit of a disappointment–not the acting, not the directing, just the script. The film plods as the script tries to come up with excuses to keep going. Stirling Silliphant’s dialogue is good, there’s no problem with it on that level–it’s just the plotting. The film’s a thriller masquerading as a social film. Every single thing in it turns out to be a red herring (I can’t even figure how the murderer had time to commit the crime, but it didn’t bother Sidney Poitier or Rod Steiger so I guess I shouldn’t worry).

Poitier and Steiger are both great–though Steiger’s got a better written role, which seems unfair since Poitier’s the lead and his story is potentially a lot more interesting–but the supporting cast is amazing too. Scott Wilson, Oates, Lee Grant, William Schallert… there are some fantastic performances here.

And then there’s Jewison.

Jewison was forty-one when Night came out, so he wasn’t a young Turk, but it feels like it. His composition is just amazing (especially with Haskell Wexler shooting it). Maybe Jewison’s career just went on too long. When I hear his name, I think of awful, trite eighties movies, but he once was an outstanding filmmaker. In the Heat of the Night really showcases it.

It’s a very good film; but it would have been amazing one if it were about two men working together.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Jewison; screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel by John Ball; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Hal Ashby; music by Quincy Jones; produced by Walter Mirisch; released by United Artists.

Starring Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs), Rod Steiger (Gillespie), Warren Oates (Sam Wood), Lee Grant (Mrs. Colbert), Larry Gates (Endicott), James Patterson (Mr. Purdy), William Schallert (Mayor Schubert), Beah Richards (Mama Caleba), Peter Whitney (Courtney), Kermit Murdock (Henderson), Larry D. Mann (Watkins), Matt Clark (Packy), Arthur Malet (Ulam), Fred Stewart (Dr. Stuart), Quentin Dean (Delores) and Scott Wilson (Harvey Oberst).


Sneakers (1992, Phil Alden Robinson)

Describing Ocean’s Eleven, Steven Soderbergh said he wanted to “make a movie that has no desire except to give you pleasure from beginning to end.”

He seems to have ripped off that idea from Sneakers.

Robert Redford is a lot more serious than I tend to think. So’s Paul Newman for that matter. We know the affable Redford from Butch Cassidy and The Sting, but really… those films aren’t about having fun. Sneakers is about having fun. Even Redford’s post-1990s career, post-Horse Whisperer, is missing the fun of this film. (Spy Game, of course, could have been fun, but wasn’t). Sneakers is about having fun.

To quote someone else–Quentin Tarantino this time–some films, once you get the story, you watch just to “hang out with [the characters].” This quote is another good description of Sneakers. I remember seeing the film when it came out, and in 1992, it was different to see Sidney Poitier in a fun movie, different to see Dan Aykroyd in something… good, different to see David Straithairn in a big Hollywood movie. Actually, that last one is bull–when I was fourteen, I had no idea who David Straithairn was… I mean, when Sneakers came out, Mary McDonnell was just the woman from Dances With Wolves. It was an event picture. It was back when an event picture didn’t have flying saucers. It was the new film from the director of Field of Dreams… it’s from a magical era that’s long gone (and only thirteen years ago).

The only time’s the film lags–and I do love Redford’s performance in this film, because it’s the same kind of performance Paul Newman gave in Slap Shot–is when Redford’s running the thing himself. It’s not about Redford, it’s about the chemistry between the cast. There’s a party scene in the film with six principals and two supporting characters and you feel every person’s presence at the party. It’s a great scene. It entertains and it’s beautifully constructed. I sat and marveled at how Robinson worked that whole scene out, giving each person the right thing to do for just the right amount of time.

Also indicative of the film’s era is the James Horner score. It’s from before he became Titanic composer James Horner and before anyone cared if he lifted his old material. It’s a playful score. Just great.

I can’t believe I was worried about this film’s quality.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson; written by Lawrence Lasker, Walter F. Parkes and Robinson; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Tom Rolf; music by James Horner; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Parkes and Lasker; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Robert Redford (Bishop), Sidney Poitier (Donald Crease), David Strathairn (Whistler), Dan Aykroyd (Mother), River Phoenix (Carl Arbegast), Mary McDonnell (Liz), Ben Kingsley (Cosmo), Timothy Busfield (Dick Gordon), Eddie Jones (Buddy Wallace), Stephen Tobolowsky (Dr. Werner Brandes), Donal Logue (Dr. Gunter Janek) and James Earl Jones (Bernard Abbott).