Showing posts with label Edmond O'Brien. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edmond O'Brien. 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, 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!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cinema Shame: The Wild Bunch (1969)

Four years ago I created a watch list for 2014. These were the films that I hadn't seen yet that I wanted to make a point to watch that year. The Wild Bunch (1969) was one of those films. Unfortunately I never got to it that year or since. So when Jay of Cinema Shame prompted bloggers to submit their Cinema Shame statements for 2018 I added this one to mine!

Directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch (1969) follows a band of outlaws as they seek out one big heist. The year is 1913. Pike Bishop (William Holden) leads his "wild bunch", consisted Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates), Angel (Jaime Sanchez), Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson) and others to a dessert town to rob the railroad office's bank. What Pike and his men don't know is that this was a lure created by the railroad, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) and his own band of bounty hunters to trap the wild bunch. The robbery goes south and ends in a deadly shoot-out with the wild bunch getting away. When they discover their loot was nothing but bags of steel washers, they seek out another opportunity for a big pay day to make up for this failure. They head for the border and pick up old Freddie Sykes (Edmond O'Brien) along the way. Pike's past begins to haunt him. He's tired of this life and wants one last big heist so he can settle down. But his former partner Deke has made it his mission to capture Pike no matter what it takes. As the two bands cross the border into Mexico, a long chase filled with more heists, lots of booze, women, guns and violence.

"Being sure is my business." - William Holden as Pike Bishop

The Wild Bunch is a movie that revels in violence. Right from the very beginning when we see children feeding scorpions to fire ants, we realize that this movie is going to be tough as nails. In a post Hays Code world, this movie tested the waters and set the standards for increased violence and blood shed on film. Ernest Borgnine once said, "I made The Wild Bunch, which was the beginning of the splattering of blood and everything else. But there was a moral behind it. The moral was that, by golly, bad guys got it. That was it." The film was highly controversial at it's time. It won praise and disdain from those who were in awe of the filmmaking techniques and the performances and others who were appalled by its graphic and relentless representation of violence.

Maybe that's why The Wild Bunch is a mixed bag for me. I can appreciate the artistry of this film but am also repulsed by its violence. The cast is superb and includes some of my favorites like Borgnine, Ryan and O'Brien. I marveled at the excellent filmmaking and on location shooting. The film felt real to me. Like I was in Mexico right alongside the wild bunch on this outrageous adventure. It's not a film I feel the need to watch again but one I'm glad I saw. The Wild Bunch does make me want to watch more of Peckinpah's work. He received his one and only Academy Award nomination, in the Original Screenplay category, for this film.

Have you seen The Wild Bunch (1969)? What did you think of it? Tell me your thoughts below.
Stay tuned for more reviews or quick takes on my Cinema Shame movies for 2018!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-Ray Review

Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-Ray 
On Sale May, 21 2013
Buy on:
Barnes & Noble
Best Buy
Warner Bros.

The Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-Ray boxed set went on sale this week. There is also a Contemporary version of the same set with 4 different movies. The Classics set includes four of the best original gangster movies including Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936) and White Heat (1949).

Thanks to Warner Bros. I got a chance to review this set. I've had a Blu-Ray player for quite a while but haven't really been upgrading to Blu-Rays quite yet since so many classics are still only available on DVD. I was happy to get this on Blu-Ray because I love the quality even with black and white films.

This set comes with four Blu-Ray discs, each with one of the movies  Each Blu-Ray has some extras including commentary, an intro by Leonard Maltin, a newsreel, a short, a trailer and a featurette. I don't believe these extras are anything new and were most likely available in the previous editions of these films on DVD.

I had a Twitter conversation with some folks about DVD and Blu-Ray extras. Some folks didn't care about extras and others thought really good extras could make or break a set. I liked what Laura from Laura's Miscellaneous Musings had to say. She says the best DVDs or Blu-Rays with extras are like a "film school in a box". The extras add to your knowledge of the film and that time period. I agree with her. Those types of extras really add big value to a set. I wouldn't say that this Blu-Ray set is a "film school in a box" however it's a nice introductory set for people who like the gangster movie genre but didn't know much about these films to begin with. Perhaps a "gangster film intro class in a box".

The Blu-Ray set also comes with a Bonus DVD (note it's a DVD not a Blu-Ray) which has the feature-length documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film. The documentary has interviews with notable film experts. I noticed that almost all of the talking heads were men except for Molly Haskell. I found the documentary a bit repetitive and I lost interest in it. I do think it has value perhaps for someone who is learning about these films for the first time. I'm definitely going to give the documentary another shot!

The set also comes with a 32 page 2-color booklet (black and white with gold) which includes some information about the time period, the gangster movie genre and the specific films. I'm always happy to see booklets in DVD or Blu-Ray sets because I think they add nice value to the set.

I would recommend this Blu-Ray set as a gift to someone who you think would appreciate early gangster movies. This would make a great Father's Day gift especially since that's right around the corner. However, I think women would enjoy this set too because I know I love gangster films and can't get enough of them! Also, if you are a classic film enthusiast looking to encourage someone to watch more old movies, I think this would be a great way to convert them. The real value of this set is as a gift or as a collector's item.

I loved revisiting Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and The Petrified Forest (1936). I was especially moved by The Petrified Forest and I connected with the film on this viewing in a way I hadn't done so before. The message of personal freedom and independence of spirit really struck me. White Heat (1949) is one of those films I always thought I had seen but really had not. It comes pretty late in the era of gangster movies and is famous for the last scene with James Cagney saying "made it Ma, top of the world!". I enjoyed White Heat immensely. I love Cagney and one of my favorite actors Edmond O'Brien plays opposite him. There are a lot of O'Brien haters out there. I know a particular blogger who found the worst picture of him she muster up to demonstrate how gross he was. Pshaw! Just watch O'Brien in White Heat and you'll learn to appreciate him. White Heat is such a fantastic film and I'm glad I got a chance to see it. And with this set you get three of the best actors at the top of their game playing the gangster roles: Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.

Thank you to Warner Bros. for sending me a copy of this set to review!

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