“Brute Force” (1947) starring Burt Lancaster & Hume Cronyn

Gallagher [after learning that parole board hearings have been cancelled]: Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you’ve served your time, or when you’re dead!

Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is a serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison (Westgate Penitentiary). After being held in solitary, then hearing of a friend’s sudden death, he has had enough! Collins and Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the prison’s newspaper editor, plan an elaborate escape. The men in his cell say they’ll follow along. The head guard, Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn in his only villainous role), suspects something is up; he has informants all over. Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) holds authority on paper only; Dr. Walters (Art Smith) is a decent man who has been driven to alcoholism. These veteran actors came from NYC’s Group Theater (1931-1940) which followed the principles of Stanislavski. The film ends in a huge fight between guards and inmates, w/ gunfire, explosions, and many deaths!

Dr. Walters: Yes, Capt. Munsey. I’m just a very ordinary man. I get drunk on whiskey but you sir – you get drunk on power.

The acting is top notch; this is Lancaster’s 2nd movie after his debut opposite Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946). He had height, looks (traffic-stopping), and screen presence; he was discovered by producer Mark Hallinger (who died at just 44 y.o. from a heart attack). Cronyn (who hailed from the theater, like his wife Jessica Tandy) chews up the scenery as a sadistic wanna-be dictator. In one standout scene, he interrogates and beats the prison reporter, Louie (Sam Levene), while the music of Wagner (Hitler’s favorite composer) plays in the background. The musical score (composed by Miklos Rozsa) is considered to be even more compelling than the one he wrote for The Killers.

Spencer: Driving along with such a dream doll beside me, I figured myself a pretty lucky guy. Flossie had looks, brains, and all the accessories. She was better than a deck with six aces.

Yes, there are women here (unlike most jail-related movies); they appear in flashbacks. Spencer (John Hoyt- best known as Dr. Boyce in the series pilot of Star Trek: TOS) recounts a story of picking up a beautiful gambler, Flossie (Anita Colby). A mild-mannered bookeeper is in jail b/c he stole to please his wife (Ella Raines- who appeared in several noir films). Becker (Howard Duff) is former soldier dreaming of going back to Italy, where he left his lady love (Yvonne De Carlo). She co-starred w/ Lancaster in Criss Cross, which is a can’t miss noir. The woman in Collins’ life, Ruth (Ann Blyth), is as far from a femme fatale as you can get! This movie is on Amazon and YouTube (can see for free).

[1] Director Jules Dassin is brilliant with light, and sets the example for the French “new wave” of cinema. Lighting Burt Lancaster from the side, or from underneath, makes him and the other actors look almost surreal.

[2] The violence is not explicitly disclosed like in the present days, but the cruelty of Captain Munsey can be understood even by the most naive viewer.

[3] This powerful drama is totally uncompromising and provides a convincing account of what life is like in a prison which is being run in a particularly brutal and autocratic manner. The consequence for the inmates is that they live in an oppressive and overcrowded environment where hard labour, poor quality food and harsh treatment are the norm. Furthermore, they are also subjected to a cruel system which leads to many of them being abused, tortured or even killed

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Scandal Sheet” (1952) starring Broderick Crawford, John Derek, & Donna Reed

An ambitious/tough-talking editor, Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford), meets the wife he abandoned 20+ yrs ago at a “Lonely Hearts Club” ball sponsored by his NYC newspaper. Charlotte Grant (Rosemary DeCamp), threatens to expose him as a wife-deserter and impostor (he changed his name). In a fit of rage, he pushes and accidentally kills her! When Mrs. Grant’s body is found, Chapman assigns his young protégé reporter, Steve McCleary (John Derek), to the story. It could be a juicy follow-up story to the ball and raise circulation. Julie Allison (Donna Reed), a features writer/Steve’s girlfriend, gets a phone call which could crack the case.

This film noir is based on the 1944 novel, The Dark Page, by Samuel Fuller. The wise-cracking photographer, Biddle, is played by Harry Morgan (who gained fame in the TV show M.A.S.H.) Less than a year ago, Chapman was brought on board to save the paper, as it was losing money. Now, some of the shareholders don’t approve of the scandalous stories which he chooses to cover, though the paper is nearing a circulation of 750,000. Julie can barely hide her disdain for Chapman; she’s disappointed that Steve looks up to him. Derek is (as expected) uber-handsome w/ long lashes and thick dark hair; his character makes some sexist comments (reflecting the era). A few viewers were a bit shocked that Reed (who does a fine job) smokes in this movie- LOL!

Top notch suspense as Crawford gambles that he can keep his cool and get away with it, even as the walls close in and the odds look worse and worse. Crawford is at his no-nonsense, take no prisoners, mince-no-words best…

Reed plays a woman who is like the voice of conscience in the movie–always appalled at Crawford’s methods and making it clear that she wants no part of this degradation of the paper.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Big Combo” (1955) starring Cornel Wilde & Richard Conte

Capt. Peterson: You’re a cop, Leonard. There’s 17,000 laws on the books to be enforced. You haven’t got time to reform wayward girls. She’s been with Brown three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.

This is a lesser-known/low-budget noir w/ snappy dialogue, a jazz score (rare for that period), and fine B&W cinematography. It has its good points, but the femme fatale isn’t compelling, and a few scenes seem slow. A determined cop, Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde from Leave Her to Heaven), is told to stop surveillance of suave mob boss, Mr. Brown (Richard Conte from Thieves’ Highway). Leonard’s captain says it’s costing the police department too much money w/ no results after 6 mos. Diamond makes one last attempt to uncover evidence against Brown by going to Brown’s girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace- wife of Wilde and resembling Grace Kelly), who is chaperoned by two henchmen- Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman).

Mr. Brown: I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it’s hard to stop.

This was one of the very first American films to imply a man going down on a woman; I was a bit surprised! Brown maneuvers around Susan, stopping briefly at her lips, but then dropping out of frame, seemingly down past her waist. Leonard is clearly having a “friends w/ benefits” relationship w/ the burlesque dancer, Rita (Helene Stanton). Her show outfit is sparkly and skimpy, even by today’s standards. Also, the film openly infers that Fante and Mingo are a gay couple who live together, kill together, and seem to love each other (note the basement scene).

 In a performance brimming with cool menace, Conte is fond of saying `First is first and second is nobody.’

And Brown is obsessed with his prowess with women as Diamond is with capturing him and wooing his moll. The film is filled with risque sexual allusions…

What almost ruined this picture for me was the hideously annoying performance of actress Jean Wallace…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The First Summer Blockbuster: “Jaws” (1975) starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, & Richard Dreyfuss

This is the first movie to gross $100M and become known as a “Summer blockbuster.” Though it went over-budget and over-schedule, it left a big impression on pop culture (and launched the career of director Steven Speilberg). I learned that Speilberg, actor Richard Dreyfuss, and composer John Williams were only 26 y.o. when working on Jaws. This was Dreyfuss’ second movie after American Graffiti (directed by Speilberg’s friend, George Lucas). Dreyfuss was already getting a rep as a bit of a “diva” (and he had turned down his role twice). He and British actor Robert Shaw had a combative relationship on set.

I’d never paid much attention to this movie when it was on TV; I watched it fully this past weekend. Aside from the mechanical shark close-ups, I thought it was pretty good! The (iconic) theme is hard to forget; at first, Speilberg thought Williams was joking re: using it. The movie actually has two acts- first we see the shark attacks and how the small-town reacts, then we have the three men facing off against the Great White shark. There are colorful extras (who were locals), fine character moments (unlike most big-budget action movies we see today), and a nice build-up of tension. There is a lot of handheld camera work done on the water.

On Amity Island, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is a fish out of water- no pun intended. He’s a former NYPD cop, new to the job of police chief, and a family man (w/ a loving wife and two adorable young sons). His wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), even jokes that he doesn’t sound like the locals. Brody doesn’t like the water, preferring to sit on the beach. In the big city, he didn’t think he was making a difference. After the teen girl is found on the beach w/ her body mangled, Brody wants to close the beach. The mayor, city council, and local business people are very concerned re: the economy. Yup, this has resonance today (when a few governors want to open their states during the coronavirus pandemic)! Brody feels like he’s not being heard; he’s concerned re: his family. He and his younger son share a sweet moment at the dinner table when the boy mimics his father.

After the young boy is killed, locals realize the gravity of the situation, and (suddenly) fishermen flock to the island to hunt down the shark for a hefty reward. A young scientist, Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss w/ a fluffy beard), from the Oceanic Institute arrives to assist Brody. I thought it was interesting how Hooper was uncomfortable seeing the body at the morgue. Later on, he comes to the Brody’s house, bringing along two bottles of wine. Hooper comments that he didn’t know whether they’d like white or red wine. These are among the little touches that add to the film. It’s fun to watch Dreyfuss, who has humor, high energy, and touches of arrogance w/ his intelligence.

As the eccentric fisherman, Quint, Shaw has some meaty scenes (one of which reveals why he’s so invested in finding the shark). Unlike Brody and Hooper (who are a bit nerdy), Quint is more of the typical “macho man” we expect in action films. Quint’s tale of the USS Indianapolis was conceived by playwright Howard Sackler, lengthened by screenwriter John Milius (another friend of the director), and rewritten by Shaw. The famous line- “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”- was improvised by Scheider. The movie is quite different (and many argue- better) than the novel by Peter Benchley.

“Hamlet at Elsinore” (BBC: 1964) starring Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, & Michael Caine

[1] Plummer’s performance, it is a very sensitive and reflective one.

[2] Plummer gives us the complete Prince where others have given us parcels. He has looks, presence, breeding, charm, athleticism, wit and consummate grace.

[3] Christopher Plumber is always fascinating, and Robert Shaw was by far the best Claudius ever filmed… 

[4] Robert Shaw… the first Claudius I ever saw who was not only sonorous and regal, but violent, and sexy enough to seduce the Queen and make her agree to kill her husband.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I’ve been on a theater kick lately, and I’m a really into Shakespeare. I saw this BBC TV movie on YouTube (it’s free, so the sound/picture quality weren’t perfect). This adaptation will not appeal to a mass audience, or someone who’s not a fan of Christopher Plummer (a fine and fine-looking Hamlet). He knows the words and also gives them feeling, but nothing feels overblown. Most viewers know Plummer from The Sound of Music (1965), but he had a long stage career before. Aside from a 1910 silent film, this is the only production to be filmed in Elsinore, Denmark. It’s refreshing to see a few outdoor scenes- Hamlet meets the players in Kronberg Castle’s courtyard and sees Fortinbras’ soldiers heading off to Poland. Shots of waves crashing upon rocks look back to Olivier’s Hamlet (1948).

Robert Shaw plays Claudius w/ a lot of presence (and gets several close-ups); he’s a character actor maybe best known for Jaws (1975). It’s cool to see (young/cute) Michael Caine; he plays Horatio w/ reserve and speaks softly (which works well). One viewer commented that Horatio isn’t well-developed, b/c Caine was working hard to suppress his (natural) Cockney accent. Well, I felt he did well w/ Shakespeare’s language; his role is primarily to listen. Horatio is (of course) emotional at Hamlet’s dying scene; he wants to drink from the poison cup himself! Today, there are UK-based actors (incl. people of color, immigrants, etc.) who use their natural accents and have a strong grasp of Shakespeare. I didn’t know what to make of Donald Sutherland’s accent for Fortinbras- LOL!

There are some odd editing cuts and misdirection. The “get thee to a nunnery” scene is filmed in the chapel w/ Hamlet standing above (and away from) Ophelia. Fans of the play may be puzzled by this; the scene isn’t done this way in the theater. The distance lessens the drama and their connection. “The Mousetrap” is seen as a “dumb show” (mime), so Gertrude’s “the lady doth protest too much” makes no sense! Ophelia doesn’t get her second mad scene (w/ the flowers). Hamlet is kind, quiet and clear-minded w/ Ophelia, so that her “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” has little effect.