Mississippi Burning (1988) starring Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, & Frances McDormand

1964. When America was at war with itself. – Tag line

Mississippi Burning was very controversial when first released; in this time (after the Trump administration), it resonates stronger than ever. Some younger readers may never have heard of this film; it is fiction, but based on a real case (labeled “Mississippi Burning” by the FBI). The film is inspired by the 1964 murder by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) of three Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) field workers who were registering Black voters in Mississippi: a Black man named James Chaney (age 21) and two white (Jewish) men- Michael Schwerner (age 20) and Andrew Goodman (age 24). Some critics felt that many facts were altered or left out. There is much to admire re: this movie, though to our modern eyes, the lack of a fully-fleshed out Black character may be problematic. Director Spike Lee didn’t like it; he felt the preacher’s son (Aaron) was a “magical Negro” trope. On the other hand, this was Roger Ebert’s choice for the best film of 1988. You know it made a big impact (overseas), b/c it was (unofficially) remade into a Bollywood film, Aakrosh (2010).

Mayor Tilman: You like baseball, do you, Anderson?

Anderson: Yeah, I do. You know, it’s the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.

When you think about it, 1964 is NOT too far back in time from 1988. Barry Norman (BBC film critic) described the (harrowing) opening of the film as “pure cinema, something no other medium could do so effectively.” Then we shift to the (much lighter) scene w/ the main characters- FBI agents Mr. Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Mr. Ward (Willem Dafoe- just 32). Don Johnson campaigned heavily for the role that went to Dafoe- LOL! Anderson (older/rumpled) studies some papers from a folder and sings a KKK song; Ward (younger/crisply-suited) isn’t amused. Anderson is making fun of the KKK, but Ward says: “I could do w/o the cabaret.” Anderson is a former small-town sheriff; Ward is a former DOJ attorney (“a Kennedy boy,” as Anderson comments). These men don’t know each other well and are mismatched, the viewer knows right away.

When they reach the small town, the agents are met w/ long/angry stares and outright hostility from the locals. Ward makes a (Northern/liberal) mistake; he goes to sit at the “Colored” section of the busy diner (NOT heeding the warning from Anderson, who knows the South). The young Black man sitting beside him becomes nervous and refuses to answer Ward’s questions; all eyes are on them. In the sheriff’s office, they first meet Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif), who isn’t too welcoming. Dourif makes some interesting choices w/ his role; he doesn’t always play it tough (we see that Pell is being influenced by more stronger personalities). Suddenly, Sheriff Stuckey (Gailard Sartain) pops out of his office, and starts breezily chatting w/ Anderson. Ward corrects him after Stuckey (the epitome of a fat, uncaring, racist cop) assumes Anderson is in charge of the investigation. In the barbershop, Anderson meets Mayor Tilman (R. Lee Ermey), who is more casually racist. In the motel lodge (later that night), we see the agents drinking and sharing stories. Anderson (matter-of-factly/softly) reveals something about his childhood growing up in the South.

Anderson: Where does it come from? All this hatred?

Anderson: You know, when I was a little boy, there was an old Negro farmer that lived down the road from us, name of Monroe. And he was… well, I guess he was just a little luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. That was a big deal around that town. My daddy hated that mule, ’cause his friends were always kidding him that they saw Monroe out plowing with his new mule, and Monroe was going to rent another field now he had a mule. One morning, that mule showed up dead. They poisoned the water. After that, there wasn’t any mention about that mule around my daddy. It just never came up. One time, we were driving down that road, and we passed Monroe’s place and we saw it was empty. He just packed up and left, I guess, he must of went up North or something. I looked over at my daddy’s face. I knew he done it. He saw that I knew. He was ashamed. I guess he was ashamed. He looked at me and said, “If you ain’t better than a n****r, son, who are you better than?”

Ward: You think that’s an excuse?

Anderson: No it’s not an excuse. It’s just a story about my daddy.

Ward: Where’s that leave you?

Anderson: My old man was just so full of hate that he didn’t know that bein’ poor was what was killin’ him.

A shotgun fires from a screeching car into the motel room! Ward decides that more agents are needed ASAP. The young Black man from the diner is picked up my some (hooded) men, beaten, and imprisoned in a large chicken coop in a field of cotton. (FYI: Since this wasn’t the season for cotton, the crew had to decorate the field w/ bits of cotton.) Then we see the same Black man pushed out of a car in the center of town- sending an (obvious) message to the FBI. The local cops and a group of (suited) FBI agents run to check on the injured man; Stuckey declares that his men will handle the matter. Agents have set up their HQ in the movie theater. Later we see them (along w/ buses of fresh-faced sailors) drag a swamp (a real one w/ mud, bugs, and possible alligators) for dead bodies.

…I didn’t do research. All I did was listen to [Hackman]. He had an amazing capacity for not giving away any part of himself (in read-throughs). But the minute we got on the set, little blinds on his eyes flipped up and everything was available. It was mesmerizing. He’s really believable, and it was like a basic acting lesson. -Frances McDormand

Now this isn’t just a typical “macho” movie; at the heart of it is the wife of the deputy- Mrs. Pell (a young Frances McDormand)- who also runs a hair salon (Gilly’s). Anderson first drops in at the salon, making self-deprecating comments about his hair (w/ its receding hairline). This amuses some of the ladies; Mrs. Pell bluntly points out that the FBI wouldn’t be around if the white men weren’t missing (along w/ Chaney). Later, when Ward and Anderson drop by the Pell’s humble home, we see the (not so pleasant) dynamic between the couple. While Ward interviews her husband, Anderson goes to the kitchen and strikes up a convo w/ Mrs. Pell (in a humble manner, using folksy charm). Later that night, we learn more about both characters when Anderson comes by w/ some wildflowers. We see the romantic chemistry growing between Anderson and Mrs. Pell, despite their ages and the situation. She has to lie to cover for her husband; Anderson realizes that she is lying (and they both look disappointed about it). Before he leaves, he gently touches her hair (a bold, yet vulnerable move). In a previous scene, Anderson had made “a power move” on Deputy Pell; he is working late (or maybe getting into some violence w/ his KKK pals).

Mrs. Pell: It’s ugly. This whole thing is so ugly. Have you any idea what it’s like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.

After being hired by Orion Pictures, Parker made several changes from screenwriter Chris Gerolmo’s original draft (which was “a big/violent detective story”). Parker omitted a Mafia hitman and created Agent Monk. The scene in which Frank Bailey brutally beats a news cameraman was based on an actual event. Parker also wrote a sex scene involving Anderson and Mrs. Pell. The scene was omitted (after Hackman suggested to Parker that the relationship between the two characters be more discreet). Though some close-ups were shot, in the final film, the kiss between Hackman and McDormand is in shadow (at a respectful distance). The music (composed by Trevor Jones) is a very crucial part of this movie; it creates a tense (thriller-like) atmosphere in many scenes. In several key scenes, there is the gospel element. The movie was shot in Alabama and Mississippi, so there is authenticity. We see the old buildings, dust, poverty, rural lands, and (above all) local people (some of whom may had sympathies to the Klan). There are many character actors who add flavor to the story: Kevin Dunn (a young/eager FBI agent coordinating the case), Stephen Tobolowsky (a prominent businessman/KKK leader), Michael Rooker (the unapologetic tough guy/KKK member-Frank Bailey), a teen Darius McCrary (Aaron), Frankie Faison (a respected preacher/Aaron’s father), and Badja Djola (the Black FBI interrogator- Agent Monk). Ward (who is no pushover, despite his by-the-book approach) and Anderson (smarter than he looks) come to respect each other, but it happens slowly; they don’t become “buddy cops.”

“Thelma & Louise” (1991) starring Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis

Louise [to Thelma re: her controlling/uncaring husband Darryl]: Well, you get what you settle for.

Louise (Susan Sarandan, 45 y.o. and looking fab) is working in a diner as a waitress and has some problems with her bf Jimmy (Michael Madsen), a musician who is usually on the road. Thelma (Geena Davis, looking youthful at 35 y.o.) is a housewife to Darryl (Christopher McDonald), who takes his wife for granted. He wants her to cook/clean/stay quiet, so that he can watch football. Even though they have been together since HS days, Darryl isn’t ready to have kids. One day, the two girlfriends decide to break out of their boring routines and take a road trip. Their relaxing vacation turns into a dangerous flight from the cops/FBI, after Louise (who may have a past) shoots a man who threatened to rape Thelma (who starts off the story as quite naive). They decide to go to Mexico, but the police are hot on their trail!

Thelma: You’re a real live outlaw, aren’t ya?

J.D.: Well, I may be an outlaw, darlin’, but, uh, you’re the one stealin’ my heart.

Wow, can you believe this movie is 30 yrs old!? Or how controversial it was (esp. the ending) upon first release? I saw it many years ago; I forgot that it was directed by Ridley Scott. He was open to collaboration and allowed the actors to improvise; as a Brit, he wasn’t familiar w/ the accents/culture of the American South. Screenwriter Callie Khouri (whose father was of Lebanese heritage) grew up in Kentucky; she was in her mid-30s when she won the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1992. Many will recall it as when they first saw Brad Pitt (the hottie hitchhiker who Thelma falls for, J.D.)

Louise: Damn, Jimmy. What’d you do, take some kinda pill that makes you say all the right stuff?

Jimmy: Yeah. I’m chokin’ on it.

I don’t understand why some viewers thought this was a “man-bashing” story! Jimmy is (obviously) deeply in love w/ Louise; he goes out of his way to bring her the money she saved up. Sarandon said that she and Madsen (who looks pretty good, too) were also supposed to have a love scene, which would be intercut w/ the one between Davis and Pitt. However, Sarandon suggested another option to Scott- a serious/heartfelt discussion- and this is what we see in the movie! The lead detective on the case, Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel), is a good man trying to do the right thing. While he interviews the people in the women’s lives, he stays calm, humble, and respectful. Hal wants to get the women to surrender and come out alive, instead of being killed by a cop w/ a quick trigger finger.

State Trooper: [sobbing] Please! I have a wife and kids. Please!

Thelma: You do? Well, you’re lucky. You be sweet to ’em, especially your wife. My husband wasn’t sweet to me. Look how I turned out.

This is a road movie, but w/ women as the leads (which is rare even nowadays); Sarandon said she was so happy to work w/ another actress. As the journey goes on, you will notice that Thelma and Louse look more and more natural (w/ their hair and makeup). I watched some interviews w/ both leads; they seem to be friendly and supportive of of each other- very cool.

[1] I loved this movie from the first time I saw it, but it wasn’t until I sat through it the third time that I figured out why. It is clever, exciting, and funny and is shot in the middle of the breathtaking scenery of the American Southwest. However, the thing that makes it special is its illustration of pure friendship.

[2] I feel sad that this movie received claims of being anti-male. The reality is that there are a lot of challenges women face just for being female and this movie shows that. The shock factor that this movie portrays is that Thelma and Louise feel that they must take drastic measures to empower and free themselves from the challenges they face as women. It was an incredible movie and definitely a must-see.

[3] Both leads – Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise – give fine performances. Thelma and Louise become fully realized human beings who share a powerful and authentic friendship. Their transformation into two outlaws is also made entirely believable by the actresses.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Socially Conscious Noir: “Crossfire” (1947) starring Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, & Robert Ryan

Homicide Capt. Finlay (Robert Young) finds evidence that one or more of a group of soldiers is involved in the death of a middle-aged/kindly Jewish man, Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene). In flashbacks, we see the night’s events from different viewpoints, as Army Sgt. Keeley (a youngish Robert Mitchum) investigates on his own, trying to clear the sensitive/young Mitchell, to whom circumstantial evidence points. Then the real (and ugly) motive for the killing begins to dawn on both Finlay and Keeley. This was the breakout role for Robert Ryan, who played Montgomery, one of the experienced/jaded soldiers. Ryan didn’t like the negative aspects of his character- that resulted in him being typecast in villain roles. In real life, Ryan was a liberal progressive actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. A very young Gloria Grahame (who was loaned from MGM) plays a dancehall girl who meets Mitchell.

Finlay: Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop. It can end up killing men who wear striped neckties. Or people from Tennessee.

The film is based on Richard Brooks’ first novel, The Brick Foxhole (1945), written while he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. One of the subplots dealt w/ homophobia, but that was changed to anti-Semitism. The decision was made by producer Adrian Scott (who purchased the rights) knowing that any depiction of homosexuality would not pass the Hayes Code. Brooks would write the screenplays for other notable noirs, incl. The Killers (1946) (uncredited), Brute Force (1947), Key Largo (1948), and Mystery Street (1950). Due to of the film’s tight (24 day) shooting schedule, it was able to beat the similarly-themed Gentleman’s Agreement to theaters by 3-1/2 months and stole some of its thunder. However, Oscar acclaim went to Gentleman’s Agreement, which won 3 out of its 8 noms, incl. Best Picture. Crossfire was overlooked; it had 5 noms. It has been suggested that one reason it didn’t win any Oscars was director Edward Dmytryk and Scott’s testimony before HUAC in late 1947. They refused to state whether they were, or had been, Communists and were subsequently blacklisted.

[1] Ryan, creates a fully shaded and frighteningly convincing portrait of an ignorant, unstable bigot; we see his phony geniality, his bullying, his resentment of anyone with advantages, his “Am I right or am I right?” smugness; how easily he slaps labels on people and what satisfaction he gets from despising them.

CROSSFIRE’s message seems cautious and dated now, though not nearly so much as GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. […] The script seems afraid to mention any real contemporary problems. […] Still, it did take some guts to depict, immediately after World War II, an American who might have been happier in the Nazi army, and the movie’s basic premise is still valid.

[2] Crossfire is a “message” movie but it is also a cracking good drama, and that’s what I enjoyed about it. Plus the cast is dynamite – Roberts Preston, Mitchum and Ryan, and the beautiful Gloria Grahame. Mitchum doesn’t have a big a role as you might expect (the movie was released the same year as Out Of The Past in which he gives a much more substantial performance), but he’s always great to watch, and Robert Ryan steals the movie as a very nasty piece of work.

[3] As late as 1947, it was a big deal for a movie to announce that anti-Semitism existed, and that it was bad. (It was unthinkable, of course, for Hollywood to address the real subject of the book on which the movie was based- its victim was a homosexual.) Nevertheless, thanks to good writing and excellent acting, CROSSFIRE remains a persuasive examination of what we would now call a hate crime.

-Excerpts from IMBD reviews

“High Sierra” (1941) starring Ida Lupino & Humphrey Bogart

Bogie was a medium-sized man, not particularly impressive off-screen, but something happened when he was playing the right part. Those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic, as in “High Sierra.” I swear the camera has a way of looking into a person and perceiving things that the naked eye doesn’t register. -John Huston (who wrote the script), when asked about Bogart’s unique appeal on this movie

Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Humphrey Bogart) was broken out of prison by an old associate who wants him to help w/ a robbery of a casino on the California-Nevada border. The two young punks who’ll be assisting are Babe (Alan Curtis) and Red (Arthur Kennedy, before he became a well-known character actor). When the robbery goes wrong (a cop is dead), Roy is forced to go on the run. Also in the mix are a loyal dog, Pard (played by Bogart’s own dog) and two potential love interests- former dancehall girl, Marie (Ida Lupino), and Okie farmgirl, Velma (Joan Leslie). Police and press are hot on his trail; he hides in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Roy Earle: Of all the 14 karat saps… starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.

Bogart also sent many telegrams to Hal B. Wallis and studio head Jack L. Warner asking to be cast as Earle (who was modeled on John Dillinger). Paul Muni left Warner Bros. after a contract dispute and George Raft turned down the role, so Warner called Bogart. This was the last movie Bogart made where he didn’t receive top billing; the studio decided that Lupino should have top billing, as she’d been a big hit in They Drive by Night (1940). Though Marie admires and falls for Roy, Lupino didn’t like the way Bogart treated her and his use of sarcasm. Director Raoul Walsh saw Bogart more as a supporting player, not a leading man. He wrote  in his biography that Bogart complained about everything: food chosen for lunch, settings, conditions of shooting, etc.

Roy Earle: I wouldn’t give you two cents for a dame without a temper.

Roy is a lonely/romantic man; he came from a small town, as he tells Pa (the farmer he meets on the road). He falls in love w/ Pa’s granddaughter, Velma, a pretty/club-footed young woman who sees him as a friend/benefactor. Roy has emotions which run deep; he wants to give up crime and marry a “good girl.” He has a soulmate in Marie; she is weary, straight-forward, and cares deeply for him. Roy prefers the one he can’t get- of course! Bogart and Lupino have very strong chemistry here.

[1] Not cocky like Cagney and Muni, not psychopathic like the early Edward G. Robinson, not as smooth as Raft, Bogart is a ruthless professional with a wide stripe of sentimentality. His Roy never shirks from killing, but he doesn’t get off on it. He’s more a rebel than a gangster, a poetic soul denied respectability, a man longing for the innocence of his youth.

[2] Bogart’s interpretation already showed signs of the special qualities that were to become an important part of his mystique in a few more films.

Here, for the first time, was the human being outside society’s laws who had his own private sense of loyalty, integrity, and honor. Bogart’s performance turns “High Sierra” into an elegiac film.

[3] Many fine moments [for Lupino] with Bogey… including a memorable speech within his cabin hideout. This is one of the best portraits of a desperate outlaw in film history. A blueprint for all the antihero films that would follow over the years…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Man Who Cheated Himself” (1950) starring Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, & John Dall

Lois: I didn’t know what I was doing! You know the truth!

Ed: The truth can get you twenty years!

In San Francisco, Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt AKA Spock‚Äôs mom in Star Trek), is set to divorce her fortune-hunter husband, Howard. Once he leaves for the airport, she finds out that he bought a gun, and thinks he plans to kill her. Lois frantically calls her lover, who happens to be an experienced homicide detective, Lt. Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb). Ed arrives at her house to calm Lois down. Soon after, Howard unexpectedly returns, and she shoots him dead! Ed (though he knows better) feels compelled to cover up the killing. Soon, he’s assigned to investigate the case. His younger brother/new detective, Andy (John Dall), is also assigned and anxious to prove his merit. Andy is getting married in a few days.

Ed: [to Andy] Better learn one thing: never take a case to bed.

We see locations in and around the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Telegraph Hill and Fort Point (which was used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo). There are some colorful supporting characters who add to the drama. The action (incl. car chase) scenes are done well. TCM’s Eddie Muller explained that this film was made on a small budget and produced by Jack M. Warner, who was fighting w/ his father, the Jack Warner. The son wanted to make films on his own. The director, Felix Feist, was a freelancer (not tied to any studio); he was married to Lisa Howard (who plays Janet- Andy’s wife).

Unlike Dall, Howard’s performance is natural and easy. Andy needed more characterization; he comes off as too dreamy-eyed for a cop. You also have to ignore the fact that Dall (tall/blonde/slim) and Cobb (short/dark-haired/stocky) look and sound nothing alike! It’s rare to see Cobb as a leading man; he tones down the brooding intensity and growling voice (which we know/love from his character roles). Sadly, Cobb and Wyatt (cast against type as the femme fatale) lack romantic chemistry. I did like their last scene together, which was enigmatic and had some smolder! Cobb got this role after a successful run on Broadway in Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller wrote the role of Willy Loman w/ Cobb in mind -WOW!

[1] …it is relentless and edgy, with no time for polish or emotional depth. Cameraman Russell Harlan (Blackboard Jungle; To Kill a Mockingbird) does a brilliant job with great angles and framing. It isn’t elegant, but it’s visually sharp.

[2] A fast, curious, edgy crime film that depends on a fabulous, simple twist, which you learn right at the start and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. The clash of two cops who are brothers begins innocently, and turns and builds in a very believable way

Lee J. Cobb… just perfect in his role, right to the last scene when you see him look down the hall with the same feeling he has at the beginning of the film.

-Excerpts from IMDB movies