Showing posts with label Burt Lancester. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Burt Lancester. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Seven Days in May (1964)

"It was a time of tremendous tension and tremendous fear." - John Frankenheimer

Cold War stories are endlessly fascinating. There is something about the fear of nuclear annihilation and how it alters our perspectives on the future and guides our actions that became the perfect fodder for storytelling. It inspired authors Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II to write their political thriller Seven Days in May. Published in 1962, the book became a bestseller. Shortly after publication, Kirk Douglas’ Joel Productions and director John Frankenheimer's Seven Arts Production purchased the movie rights in a joint deal. The book was highly criticized by the Pentagon but it had one notable fan: President John F. Kennedy. According to Kirk Douglas’ memoir Kirk and Anne, JFK met Douglas at an event hosted by LBJ and encouraged him to make the film. JFK also gave Frankenheimer his approval to film outside of the White House.

In the not so distant future, U.S. President Lyman (Fredric March)  has signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union, a move intended to prevent nuclear war, and is dealing with the aftermath of his decision. His approval rating has dropped to 29% and he’s garnered much criticism within the current administration. His biggest critic is General Scott (Burt Lancaster), one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A highly decorated military veteran, Gen. Scott has stirred up the opposition with his patriotic banter and his extreme right-wing politics. His aide Colonel ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) doubts his boss’ intentions and discovers a big secret. In seven days, Gen. Scott and the other Joint Chiefs of Staff will stage a military coup to seize the government and overthrow the President. Two of the president’s closest confidantes, his aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and Senator Clark (Edmond O’Brien) are sent to investigate. Jiggs gets some help from Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), Scott’s ex-lover. She has in her possession letters that will incriminate Scott. Will Jiggs and the President’s team be able to uncover the plot and stop it before the seven days are up?

"The enemy's an age. A nuclear age. It happened to kill man's faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, a sickness of frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white and blue. Every now and then, a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration." - President Lyman, played by Fredric March

Seven Days in May (1964) is one of the finest political thrillers ever made. Frankenheimer’s film is beautifully shot and directed. Frederic March, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, among others, deliver stellar performances. I’ve watched this film several times but this recent viewing made me appreciate the pivotal March-Lancaster showdown even more than I had before. Every single second of that scene is powerful. If you’re not already a Fredric March fan, that one scene will make you a convert. Lancaster’s Gen. Scott is so calm that it’s incredibly gratifying seeing March’s President Lyman break him down. The film benefits from Rod Serling's terrific screenplay, a high caliber cast of players, amazing sets, a title sequence by Saul Bass, etc. It’s perfectly paced, brilliantly told and it reflects the real tension felt in America at the time. There is so much attention to detail but also a focus on the story at hand. There is no excess. Everything feels just right. In terms of Cold War movies, I’ll take Seven Days in May (1964) and Fail-Safe (1964) (review) over the more popular Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) any day.

Seven Days in May (1964) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection and can be purchased at the WB Shop. When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thank you!

The film has been remastered and is presented in 1080p HD. The Blu-Ray edition is crisp, clear and simply stunning. It includes a great commentary track by director John Frankenheimer who generously offered much information about the making of the film. I learned a whole lot from hearing him discuss various topics including:

  • his experience working with the different actors 
  • his collaboration with JFK
  • his background working for the Pentagon and how that influenced the set design 
  • why he preferred shooting in black-and-white 
  • descriptions of the different shots and angles 
  • how they used European cars so audiences wouldn’t recognize the vehicles and date the film

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I feature titles from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me copy of Seven Days on May on Blu-Ray (hey that rhymes)!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Desert Fury (1947)

Desert Fury poster

"I'm a big girl now. I'm allowed to play with matches."

Director Lewis Allen's Desert Fury (1947) stars Lizabeth Scott as Paula Haller, the daughter of a wealthy gambling magnate, Fritzi Haller (Mary Astor), who returns home to the fictional town of Chuckawalla, Nevada. Paula brings home with her a defiant spirit and a determination to live her life by her own rules. Mother and daughter have a complicated relationship. Fritzi has a strange fixation on Paula which leads to her to want to control every aspect of her daughter's life, including her romantic attachments. But Paula rebels. As Paula crosses the bridge back to Chuckawalla, two men come into her life. First there's the straight-laced and responsible Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), who left behind a career in rodeo for the sake of his health and now works as a deputy sheriff. He's the safe bet. Then there's the mysterious Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak), the racketeer who travels the country with his partner Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey) looking for their next money making scheme. Eddie's got some serious baggage. He's been kicked out of Vegas, his wife died under mysterious circumstances and he's got a contentious history with Fritzi. Eddie's all wrong for Paula but she wants him. Will Paula make the wise decision or will she make the wrong one?

Based on the novel Desert Town by Ramona Stewart, Desert Fury was produced by Hal Wallis for Paramount and adapted to the screen by Robert Rossen. It was filmed in Cottonwood and Sedona, AZ, Palmdale, CA and Paramount studios. The film makes great use of Technicolor with the beautiful scenic shots, the gorgeous Edith Head costumes and fantastic sets. Adding to the dramatic atmosphere in the film is a score by Miklos Rozsa.

The film features fresh young faces. It's Wendell Corey's film debut, Lizabeth Scott's fourth film and it was intended to be Burt Lancaster's debut but he made two films prior to this one, including his notable debut in The Killers (1946). According to Hal Wallis biographer Bernard F. Dick , "Lancaster truly despised [the film] along with the critics and the public." Wallis and Lancaster had a 'contentious working relationship" and "Lancaster wanted to break his contract with Wallis, but he stayed on with the understanding that he be allowed at least two outside pictures a year."

Desert Fury is delightful melodramatic confection. It's not a good film by any means but boy is it enjoyable. It's worth watching alone for the fantastic cast and the envy-inducing wardrobe worn by Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor. Scott, Hodiak, Astor, Lancaster all play to their strengths and Corey is superb as the reserved bad guy.

There's a strong sexual subtext with Johnny and Eddie's relationship mirroring that of a married couple. The two are inseparable and Paula poses a real threat to their partnership. Johnny refers to himself as Eddie's nursemaid and when Eddie recounts to Paula how he met Johnny he says, "I went home with that night... we were together from then on." The relationship between Paula and her mom Fritzi is fraught with tension. Fritzi's a bit too fixated on her daughter and Paula refers to her mom by her first name. There is a strong theme of the delineation between present and past lives and the bridge featured in the film almost becomes another character as it functions not only as a meeting point and passage way but also becomes a place where tragedy occurs.

For years Desert Fury was locked up in the Paramount-Universal distribution jail. It is now available on Blu-ray and DVD for the very first time (at least in North America!).

Desert Fury (1947) is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!

The Blu-Ray includes audio commentary by Imogen Sara Smith, subtitles and trailers of other Kino Lorber releases.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Desert Fury (1947) for review.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Trapeze (1956)

“You really fly high” - Mike
“Because I’m not afraid of anything.” - Lola

As one of the few trapeze artists to ever perform a triple somersault, one of the most dangerous and highly skilled moves, Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) seems unstoppable. That is until a fall leaves him crippled and puts an end to his career as a flier. Years later Ribble is working as a stage hand at a Paris circus run by famous Bouglione (Thomas Gomez), a tyrant who cares little about his performers and a lot about making a profit. Ribble meets Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis), a talented young trapeze artist who idolizes Ribble and dreams of becoming a flier in the circus. With a little push from his old flame and fellow circus performer Rosa (Katy Jurado), Ribble takes Tino under his wing. The two work on a new act with Ribble as catcher and Tino as flier, with the intention of getting Tino to the ultimate goal of perfecting the triple. Working with Tino breathes new life into Ribble. But one woman stands in their way: Lola (Gina Lollobrigida). She’s a headstrong acrobat, who came from a particularly dire situation in her native Italy. Lola will do anything and step over anyone to succeed. When Bouglione puts this unlikely trio together for the act, the opportunist, the dreamer and the fallen star must come together to put on the performance of a lifetime. When both Ribble and Tino fall for the tempestuous Lola, will their act fall apart? Will Ribble finally be able to help Tino master that triple?

Trapeze (1956) was based on Max Catto's 1950 novel The Killing Frost by Max Catto. It was adapted to screen by Liam O’Brien (brother of actor Edmond O’Brien) and James R. Webb with uncredited help by writers Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankowitz. The film was plagued with legal troubles as other authors came forward claiming that the film’s plot was stolen from their own original stories. Author Badia Jacobs filed a lawsuit in 1962 claiming that her unpublished manuscript entitled “No Alternative” was plagiarized by Catto for his novel. In 1948, Jacobs gave her manuscript to agent Ben Medford and claims Medford subsequently plotted with Catto to steal the story and publish it as The Killing Frost. Jacobs did not find out about Catto’s novel until she saw the film adaptation years later. The two stories were vastly different and the judge eventually dismissed the case. Screenwriter Daniel Fuchs also filed suit. Fuchs’ story The Daring Young Man was published in Collier’s magazine in 1940 and he adapted it into a screenplay which he claims he gave to producer Harold Hecht who then stole it for the movie. After two years of litigation, both parties settled out of court for $50k.

Burt Lancaster’s production company, one he co-owned with Harold Hecht and James Hill, produced the film. At the time it was called Joanna Productions but was eventually was renamed Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions. Before becoming an actor, Lancaster was a skilled acrobat and trapeze artist. He performed in circuses, carnivals and nightclubs until an injury ended his career, much like character Mike Ribble in the film. Lancaster was eager to make a movie about the circus and relive his acrobat days. He partnered with his childhood friend Nick Cravat who became an adviser and body double in the film. Lancaster does the majority of his own stunts as a trapeze catcher in the film. Other stuntmen and women were used in the film. Eddie Ward of the Ringling Bros. Circus was a technical consultant. Tragically, Lollobrigida’s stuntwoman died during the filming of one of the scenes when she fell 40 feet and broke her back.

In the mid 1950s, Lancaster was on top of his game and his clout was enough to get an independent film like Trapeze under way. It was a big production shot entirely at the Cirque d’Hiver and the Billancourt Studios in Paris. Montgomery Clift was under consideration for the part of Tino. The role eventually went to Tony Curtis who was borrowed from Universal. Trapeze was director Carol Reed’s first American film. It was also Gina Lollobrigida’s first film with an American production company (an arrangement with Howard Hughes prevented her from making films in Hollywood). Trapeze was shot in CinemaScope and released through United Artists in July 1956. It was a huge hit earning $4.1 million in the first week and was screened in over 400 theaters in the United States. It broke United Artists’ record for highest grossing film both domestically and internationally.

Trapeze (1956) is an enjoyable film with lots of great aerial stunts and a love triangle drama to boot. Lancaster and Curtis proved to be a great onscreen duo and would later re-team for Sweet Smell of Success (1957). They play off of each other so well. Gina Lollobrigida plays a terribly unlikable character but she does it so well. I enjoyed Katy Jurado’s role as Rosa. She’s basically the polar opposite of Lollobrigida’s Lola. I would have liked a bit more backstory about Rosa and her relationship with Ribble. Jurado’s role is understated but key to giving the film a sense of balance. Otherwise you have three very headstrong characters (four if you want to add Gomez’ Bouglione) causing chaos in the story. In Catto’s novel, the love triangle becomes murderous and Tino and Ribble’s relationship turns out to be more than just mentor and apprentice. I'd love to see a modern remake take on Catto's LGBT love story and tragic ending.

Trapeze (1956) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD as part of the Studio Classics line. The disc includes subtitles, audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger, the original theatrical trailer and other Kino Lorber related trailers.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

In 1955, Thomas E. Gaddis, a prison consultant, psychologist and writer, profiled the remarkable story of prisoner Robert Stroud in his book Birdman of Alcatraz. A few years after its publication, 20th Century Fox was interested in adapting the biography into a movie. They received pressure by the Federal Beureau of Prisons to abandon the project which they eventually did. It took Burt Lancaster, an actor with the resources and the gumption to make things happen to bring Stroud’s story to the silver screen.

What made Robert Stroud’s story so captivating? Imprisoned for murder, Stroud spent 54 years of his life behind bars, and 42 of those was in solitary confinement. He rebelled against the prison system, killing a prison guard when he was denied a family visit and writing two books which cast doubt on how prisons were being managed. Stroud became famous for his work studying birds earning his name as the Birdman of Alcatraz. He rehabilitated and kept sparrows and canaries and developed medicine to cure a particularly stubborn disease that was killing his canaries en masse. His study contributed to the study of avian pathology in a big way.

With Stroud, Lancaster had an agenda. He admired Stroud’s resilience and said "Stroud will not kowtow. He will not make polite amends for what he has done." According to Lancaster biographer Kate Buford, "[Lancaster] hoped [his film] would galvanize the audience... and came to believe the movie would be the vehicle to free the prisoner."

Karl Malden, Neville Brand and Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz
Karl Malden, Neville Brand and Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) stars Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud, a pimp accused of killing a man who beat up one of his prostitutes. He’s sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary and is under the supervision of prison guard Bull Ransom (Neville Brand). The prison warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) is a strictly-by-the-book kind of guy. He believes he can rehabilitated even the worst criminal if they follow his rules. Stroud presents a challenge to Shoemaker’s way of thinking. When Stroud is denied a visit by his mother (Thelma Ritter), he kills one of the prison officials. His mother petitions on his behalf, saving him from execution but he must pay the price of his crime with life imprisonment in solitary confinement. We follow his story throughout the decades as he befriends fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) and as he helps save and raise an abandoned sparrow. Stroud develops a keen interest in birds and uses not only his smarts but also prison regulation loopholes to raise the canaries in his cell. He becomes famous on the outside for his study on the diseases affecting canaries and befriends an aviary enthusiast Stella (Betty Field). The two create a business together and marry so that they can continue their work. We follow Stroud’s story until he his transferred to Alcatraz, lives through the famous prison riot, eventually leaves the island, meets with his biographer Gaddis (Edmond O’Brien) and is transferred to another facility.

There are no spoilers here because the timeline follows closely the events in the real Stroud’s life. However, Lancaster’s Robert Stroud is essentially different from the real man and many elements of the story are fictionalized. While Lancaster had high hopes that the movie would make an impact and help Stroud finally get parole, it ultimately didn’t. The biggest impediment was Stroud's notorious reputation. He was far more violent than the movie depicted and the Federal Bureau of Prisons classified him as a “violent homosexual.” Stroud died the year after the film’s release and never got to see Lancaster’s portrayal of his life.

Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz

Birdman came after a string of notable films for Lancaster including Elmer Gantry (1960), The Young Savages (1961) and Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). Producer Harold Hecht and Lancaster revived their production company Norma to make Birdman. Initially Charles Crichton was on board as director but it quickly became apparent that this was not the project for him. Hot-tempered Lancaster clashed with Crichton and he was swiftly removed. Although Lancaster had also butted heads with John Frankenheimer on the set of The Young Savages, Lancaster admired his work and he was hired for Birdman. The Federal Bureau of Prisons was uncooperative so filming at actual locations was out of the question. Some exteriors were filmed in San Francisco and you can see Alcatraz in the background. The rest of the film was shot on the Columbia Studio lot. Lancaster spent weeks working with sparrows and canaries to prepare for the part. Unfortunately, as is the case with many early films featuring animals, birds were harmed (and killed) in the making of this movie.

This was my first time watching Birdman and I was quite taken with this marvelous movie. It’s long, clocking in at 2 hours and 28 minutes, but it never feels like it outstays its welcome. The audience is given time to live in Stroud’s world and to get to know him and the circumstances he’s living in. Nothing ever feels rushed as is the case with many biopics. I quite enjoyed Lancaster’s more muted performance as the quiet but rebellious Stroud. This film features many of my favorite actors including Karl Malden, Telly Savalas, Neville Brand, Edmond O’Brien and Thelma Ritter. I wish O’Brien had more to do. He’s only in two quick scenes at the very beginning and end.

There are several scenes scenes that really stood out for me in Birdman.

Opening scene – Stroud (Lancaster) and several other criminals, supervised by prison guard Bull Ransom (Neville Brand). Everyone is sweating profusely from the heat. Lancaster removes his prison cap, places his hands inside to protect them and shatters the glass with his fists letting some much needed air in. This is Stroud’s first act of defiance and sets up his character beautifully.

Feto Gomez at Alcatraz – During their time at Leavenworth, Stroud and Gomez (Telly Savalas) become friends. They are reunited at Alcatraz where Stroud is a new prisoner. Gomez has worked up the ranks, gaining the trust of officials and is now responsible for serving the prisoners their meals. The two have a wonderful moment reminiscing about the past and Gomez generously gives Stroud second helpings of food. Stroud asks Gomez how many years he’s been behind bars. As Gomez works through the math we realize why Stroud asked him this and the impact of spending so much of their lives imprisoned.

Prison guard says goodbye to Stroud – Ransom (Brand) and Stroud (Lancaster) were on opposite ends of the prison system and Ransom was always quick to have the upper hand. But after more than a decade together at Leavenworth, Ransom begins to feel a friendly affection for Stroud. He watches him progress in his study of birds. When the two part ways as Stroud is transferred to Alcatraz, Ransom’s eyes wells up with tears, they shake hands and part ways. This is a brilliantly nuanced performance by Brand who adeptly shows tenderness in a pivotal scene.

Rehabilitation Argument – This is by far my favorite scene int he movie. Warden Shoemaker (Malden) and Stroud (Lancaster) never see eye-to-eye. And it’s never more clear than in this moment in the film. Stroud has just written a manuscript criticizing the prison system and Shoemaker blocks it’s publication. Malden’s Shoemaker delivers a speech about his frustration with Stroud for resisting his efforts for rehabilitation. Lancaster’s Stroud comes back with a powerful rebuttal. He presents Shoemaker with the etymology of “rehabilitation” which means to restore someone to their former condition with dignity. It’s a powerful political statement for prison reform if I ever heard one.

In 1963, Birdman was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Actor (Lancaster), Best Supporting Actor (Telly Savalas), Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter) and Best Cinematography - Black and White (Burnett Guffey). This was Lancaster's third Academy Award nominated performance and he and Frankenheimer worked on a total of five films together.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films. The discs feature film commentary from Lancaster biographer Kate Buford. My Blu-Ray disc unfortunately was faulty and when I stopped the movie it started over from the beginning. I hope that Olive Films has corrected this by now.

Many thanks to Olive Films for sending me a Blu-Ray copy of Birdman of Alcatraz for review!

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