Movie Review: Grand Prix

In 1966, director John Frankenheimer turned out a pair of films that could not possibly be more different in subject matter and execution: Seconds and Grand Prix. Frankenheimer did not want to make Grand Prix, but was forced by the studio to do so after Seconds died a miserable death at the box office.

Grand Prix, on the other hand, was a tremendous hit, and remained Frankenheimer’s most financially successful film until 1998’s Ronin. The script by veteran playwright Robert Alan Arthur (who co-wrote All That Jazz with the late Bob Fosse), ultimately focuses too much on the soap-opera level problems of the drivers and their families, but it’s when the film gets on the racetrack that Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel “Curly” Lindon (who did a season as Night Gallery‘s director of photography) blindside you.

When faced with the challenge of filming a lengthy race in such a way to make it interesting for film audiences, Frankenheimer decided he wanted to have the camera become part of the actual race, so he and Lindon designed a special camera and harness that could be attached to the front driver’s-side of the car, giving the illusion that the viewer was riding on the hood during the race.

You’ve seen this same shot about a million times over the years in every car chase that’s been filmed. You have John Frankenheimer and Lionel Lindon to thank for it. Until Grand Prix, no director had ever attempted to film a race or chase in this manner; nowadays, a director would feel like a fool not to include at least one such shot in an action film.

Movie Information

Running Time: 179 min.

Rating: PG

Director: John Frankenheimer

Screenwriters: John Frankenheimer, Robert Alan Arthur

Cinematography: Lionel Lindon


James Garner: Pete Aron
Eva Marie Saint: Louise Frederickson
Yves Montand: Jean-Pierre Sarti
Toshiro Mifune: Izo Yamura
Brian Bedford: Scott Stoddard
Jessica Walter: Pat Stoddard
Antonio Sabato: Nino Barlini
Francoise Hardy: Lisa
Adolfo Celi: Agostini Manetta
Claude Dauphin: Hugo Simon
Enzo Fiermonte: Guido

Movie Review: The Swimmer

1968’s The Swimmer (based on the short story by John Cheever) was a labor of love for its producer/star Burt Lancaster. In it he plays a businessman who, at film’s start, has decided to spend a bright summer Sunday afternoon making his way from pool to pool, swimming his way across suburbia to his own home. He lives in an upscale and trendy community where everyone knows everyone else in their chosen clique, so it comes as no surprise to anyone when Burt wanders into their back yard and tells them he is swimming home. They laugh. They make martinis. They talk about what a card Lancaster is and what a simply mah-velous party story his little escapade will make. It seems like another Peyton Place soap opera at first.  But then people start asking about his wife and daughters:

“I heard what happened…”

“I was so sorry to hear…”

“How are you feeling now?…”

“I didn’t think you’d want to be around anyone for a while, not after…”

What exactly did happen in Lancaster’s life that has everyone treating him either with extreme caution or overzealous joviality? Where exactly is he coming from at the beginning of the film? (Our first sight of him comes as he’s running in his swimming trunks through the woods, already sopping wet, yet he tells the first back yard gathering he appears in that theirs will be his “first” swim on his way home.) And why can’t he tell anyone what he’s been doing lately?

These key questions are skirted for the first half of the film, but it’s the very lack of ready answers that provides a good deal of tension. Hints are dropped, concerned looks are exchanged, surreptitious gestures made behind Lancaster’s back, and soon the viewer wonders about Lancaster’s mental stability as, piece by piece, the horror of his life comes together like a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing the last piece–which may be the reason The Swimmer is such a turn-off for many viewers: there is no direct and final answer to any of the questions, no last-minute revelation, but if you pay close attention, everything you need to know is there.

Lancaster gives a typically terrific performance, one full of both internal and physical catharses; every pool is a new baptismal fount where he washes away past sins, yet by the time he reaches the next pool, a different load of sins have made themselves known.

Movie Information

Running Time: 95 minutes

Rating: PG

Directors: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack

Screenwriter: Eleanor Perry


Burt Lancaster: Ned Merrill
Janet Landgard: Julie Ann Hooper
Janice Rule: Shirley Abbott
Tony Bickley: Donald Westerhazy
Marge Champion: Peggy Forsburgh
Nancy Cushman: Mrs. Halloran
Bill Fiore: Howie Hunsacker
David Garfield: Ticket Seller
Kim Hunter: Betty Graham
Rose Gregorio: Sylvia Finney
Charles Drake: Howard Graham
Bernie Hamilton: Halloran’s Chauffeur
House Jameson: Chester Halloran
Jimmy Joyce: Jack Finney
Michael Kearney: Kevin Gilmartin Jr.

The Manchurian Candidate

1962’s The Manchurian Candidate

A lot — a lot — has been written and said about The Manchurian Candidate, the film that put John Frankenheimer on the map as a director. How effective you’ll find the film today depends on your personal level of cynicism.

Candidate — a satire in the truest sense of the word — deliberately sets out to make the viewer uncertain as to whether or not it’s supposed to funny. Admittedly, some of the scenes in the film have an aura of comedy about them which I think was intentional, while others (scenes obviously intended to be serious) unintentionally draw chuckles. Laurence Harvey’s British accent seems ludicrously out of place for a veteran of the Korean War, especially since he’s supposed to be American, but once you get past his voice, you cannot help but admire his rich, complex performance.


Movie Review: Seconds

Seconds is arguably director John Frankenheimer’s best film. Based on the excellent novel by David Ely, in it we meet middle-aged bank executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph in a masterfully shaded performance) whose life is so miserable he walks as if the earth might open at any moment and swallow him whole. His job drains him of humanity. His marriage is hollow and cold. His self-respect is rattling its last breath. He doesn’t know how things came to this. He knows that he was once a decent man but he isn’t any longer and he can’t understand why. He feels alien to the world around him.

Then one day a stranger in the subway hands him a card with an address written on it; the stranger knows Hamilton’s name, and as soon as we see the expression on Hamilton’s face, we know that he has some idea why he’s been handed this slip of paper.

That night Hamilton is called by a supposedly dead friend. “I have a wonderful new life!” he tells Hamilton. “I’m happy, old buddy, and I want to do the same for you!”

It seems there are these “people” who can give you a new life. A new face. A new voice and identity. They can give you a life where you are successful at the thing you always dreamed of (in Hamilton’s case, being a famous artist). It costs a lot, and once the process has begun there is no turning back.

Hamilton, after much soul-searching, decides to go through with it, and embarks on a chilling journey to the secret headquarters where these “people” make arrangements for a new life. (He is taken there in the back of a meat delivery truck–some of the most unnerving black-humored symbolism I’ve ever encountered.) There he meets with the company president (Will Geer, Grandpa Walton himself, who is quietly and absolutely terrifying in the role) who has created this program. The decision made, the work begins, and soon Hamilton is transformed into the younger, more vital Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (played by Rock Hudson), given a new profession, a new home, a new life. Things are idyllic for a while, but eventually Hamilton’s conscience and its questions about his old life drive him to return to his widow in an effort to find out where he went wrong.

Frankenheimer always dealt with extremes in his best pictures, and Seconds is possibly the most extreme film he ever made. His penchant for lean storytelling and muscular pacing is at its peak here, as is his use of his ought-to-be-patented foreground framing technique.

The film’s biggest surprise, perhaps, is the performance of the late Rock Hudson. In a role originally slated to be played by Laurence Olivier (who the studio decided didn’t have Hudson’s box-office clout), Hudson displays a depth and power that viewers of Pillow Talk would never have thought possible.

Hudson’s face is a subtle prism of conflicting emotions; every joy, every sorrow, every triumph and regret is there, etched into his expressions like words on a headstone. When something hits at his core, you see it on his face–and not in any heavy-handed, watch-me, watch-me way; Hudson’s performance is one of impressive constriction, understatement, and substance, heart-felt and affecting, and (like the superb performance of Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler) a rare glimpse at a good but limited actor’s one moment of true and undeniable greatness–which gives this film an added dose of bitter irony when viewed today: had Hudson lived, would he have wanted a second chance to prove his worth as an actor of substance and power?

Movie Information

Release Date: 1966
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rating: R (disturbing sequences and some nudity)
Color: B&W
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Writers: Lewis John Carlino (screenplay), David Ely (novel)

Rock Hudson: Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson
Salome Jens: Nora Marcus
John Randolph: Arthur Hamilton
Will Geer: Old Man
Jeff Corey: Mr. Ruby
Richard Anderson: Dr. Innes
Murray Hamilton: Charlie
Karl Swenson: Dr. Morris
Khigh Dhiegh: Davalo
Frances Reid: Emily Hamilton
Wesley Addy: John
John Lawrence: Texan
Elisabeth Fraser: Blonde
Dodie Heath: Sue Bushman (as Dody Heath)
Robert Brubaker: Mayberry

Movie Review: Sorcerer

Sorcerer, made by William Friedkin in 1977 after his triumphs and numerous awards for both The French Connection and The Exorcist, was his own Apocalypse Now: a film that went over budget and took three times as long to film as originally planned, but one denied Apocalypse’s subsequent fame, notoriety, and audience interest.

A remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer tells the story of four men, all wanted criminals, who flee to a nameless Third World country to escape punishment, imprisonment, torture, or death. When a devastating oil rig explosion offers the chance to make some big money very quickly (they have to transport old crates of leaking nitroglycerin over 200 miles of treacherous mountain road), each sees a chance to get out of this hell-hole country and forge a new life elsewhere, far from their regrets and old enemies.

Screenwriter Walon Green (who co-wrote The Wild Bunch with Sam Peckinpah) foregoes a script filled with meaningful dialogue and concentrates instead on expressionistic imagery to tell large chunks of the story. This, coupled with Friedkin’s flair for jittery realism, gives Sorcerer an effective and gritty documentary feel.

I greatly admire both Sorcerer and The Wages Of Fear, but find my preference leaning toward Friedkin’s film, if for no other reason because Sorcerer takes the time to establish these men in their previous lives so the viewer can have some sense of what they’ve been forced to abandon. Sorcerer possesses emotional layers where Wages opts for the coldly intellectual, and though both films are potentially devastating to the viewer, Sorcerer remains the more humane and accessible of the two.

Movie Information

Release Date: 1977
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rating: PG
Director: William Friedkin
Writers: Walon Green (screenplay), Georges Arnaud (1953 novel Le Salaire de la Peur)

Roy Scheider: Scanlon/Dominguez
Bruno Cremer: Victor Manzon/Serrano
Francisco Rabal: Nilo
Amidou: Kassem/Martinez
Ramon Bieri: Corlette
Peter Capell: Lartigue
Karl John: Marquez
Frederick Ledebur: Carlos
Chico Martinez: Bobby Del Rios
Joe Spinell: Spider
Rosario Almontes: Agrippa
Richard Holley: Billy White
Anne-Marie Deschott: Blanche
Jean-Luc Bideau: Pascal
Jacques Francois: Lefevre

Sam Peckinpah

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Sam Peckinpah is the director who redefined screen violence; he is also one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.

He was born in Fresno, California on February 21, 1925 and died of a heart attack in 1984. In between, he was married five times and directed over a dozen ground-breaking films, mainly in the 60s and 70s.

He grew up on a ranch in the California mountains. His father was a judge, and Peckinpah was a rowdy teenager who eventually enlisted in the Marines. He was never put into combat, though.

After his discharge, he discovered theater and eventually got his lucky break in the early 50s when respected Hollywood director Don Siegel hired him as an assistant at Allied Artists. Peckinpah began writing scripts (he helped rewrite and had a small role in 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) and got his first job directing in 1958 when he did an episode of the television series “Broken Arrow”. His feature-length directorial debut was 1961’s “The Deadly Companions”.

Peckinpah, with films such as “Major Dundee” and “Ride the High Country”, easily established himself as a great American director. Critics were quick (before “The Wild Bunch”, anyway) to mention his name alongside those of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Peckinpah hated it.

He hated it because in the “good old” Western the only characters an audience was asked to sympathize wih were, naturally, the good guys like Randolph Scott and Chuck Heston. When the so-called “bad guys” got blown away, it was supposed to make an audience cheer wildly.

Which, as Peckinpah was quick to point out, completely robbed the “Bad Guys” of any humanity whatsoever. Peckinpah was also quick to point out that the “bad guys” in “Shane” were given full identities, so why couldn’t this be a trend that could set itself firmly in the American Western?

Because no one is supposed to care about the bad guys.

Peckinpah then set out to make an “anti-Western.” A film that, while it might be set in the West, horses and posses intact, had nothing else in common with the type of films he’d been making — and despising.

That film was “The Wild Bunch”. In it audiences met the likes of Pike (William Holden in one of his finest hours) and his gang, a run-down, over-the-hill bunch of outlaws who time and progress has caught up with. They were old, tired, anachronistic, looking for a way out. Audiences learned to sympathize with these men as the film progressed, even side with them and, in the film’s historic finale — almost folklore now — watch them die in blood-drenched slow motion, every agonized twitch dwelt upon until their mangled bodies lay dead before the camera.

Here was Peckinpah’s genius with his bloody ballet of death: he’d made a Western, all right, but he’d shown it from the “bad guy’s” point of view, and no one cheered when they died. The black and white way of presenting right and wrong was forever destroyed, and the myth of the American Western was forever debunked.

Peckinpah was then asked why he chose to make the violence so bloody, and why he chose to film it in slow motion. His reply (which I cannot quote verbatim) was something along these lines: “I thought audiences should be given a good, clear look at what they’ve been cheering all these years.”

Peckinpah was accused throughout his career of glorifying violence, but he insisted he was doing the direct opposite: showing how repulsive it was by dwelling on it so much.

Partial Filmography:

“The Deadly Companions” (1961)
“Ride the High Country” (1962)
“Major Dundee” (1965)
“The Wild Bunch” (1969)
“Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970)
“Straw Dogs” (1971)
“The Getaway” (1972)
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973)
“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974)
“Killer Elite” (1975)
“Cross of Iron” (1977)
“Convoy” (1978)
“The Osterman Weekend” (1983)

Movie Review: The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is a low-budget, sleazy, but high-spirited dirty movie from 1980 that has aged less well than many of the B-grade actors who starred in it. Adam West (Batman from the old TV series) is the most recognizable star, appearing as Lionel Lamely. The movie is supposed to show how the first “Happy Hooker” movie got made in Hollywood and is mainly a string of party sequences.

While it’s pretty awful to the modern moviegoing eye, it does have a few amusing bits.

My favorite moment happens when Richard Deacon (you might remember him better as Mel, the befuddled producer on The Dick Van Dyke Show) in the role of a shifty Hollywood producer, is negotiating with a certain female author for the rights to film her book; the author tells him that she wants to make sure the essence of her book is captured by the filmmakers, and to this Deacon replies:

“Books, schmooks! Who do you know who reads books? Books are made for coffee tables or for something to look at while you’re sitting on the toilet…but movies! Movies are for people with vision!”

I found it funny the first time I heard it, and I find it sharply perceptive now, something you’d never expect from a nervous-Nelly soft-core porno movie.

Movie Info

Rating: R
Alternate Title: Hollywood Blue
Running Time: 88 minutes
Director: Alan Roberts
Writer: Devin Goldberg

Martine Beswick: Xaviera Hollander
Chris Lemmon: Robby Rottman
Adam West: Lionel Lamely
Richard Deacon: Joseph
Phil Silvers: Warkoff
Charles Green: Lawyer George
Lisa London: Laurie

Movie Review: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Early on in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, one secondary character remarks: “Be content with your lot in life, no matter how poor it may be. Only then can you expect mercy.”

No other American director has understood or been able to capture the Mexican “culture of poverty” as unflinchingly as Peckinpah. Though Garcia may not be Peckinpah’s best film (it continues to appear on several “All Time Worst” lists), it is without a doubt his most personal. From its lovely opening image (a young pregnant Mexican woman resting by a river, sunning herself) to its harrowing closing shot (a smoking Gatling gun), Garcia is unique, for no other film of Peckinpah’s has so seamlessly managed to contain every element this often-brilliant director was obsessed with exploring: love, betrayal, desperation, tenderness in the face of brutality, loneliness, helplessness, anger, the struggle of integrity vs. conformity, friendship, and, of course, the futility of violence.

Peckinpah was accused throughout his career of glorifying violence, but he insisted he was doing the direct opposite: showing how repulsive it was by dwelling on it so much — and on no film was he more accused of glorifying the violence he claimed to disdain than in Garcia.

The basic story goes like this: The beautiful daughter of a wealthy and powerful Mexican land baron is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by one Alfredo Garcia, a shameless gambler/drunkard/womanizer. The land baron, El Jefe, assembles his soldiers and declares his outrage at the loss of his daughter’s (and subsequently the lessening of his own) honor, and shouts: “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!” And like the Knights of the Round Table questing for the Holy Grail, El Jefe’s army is off and running.

Into this scenario enters an American expatriate named Bennie (Warren Oates) who is biding his time playing piano in a sleazy Mexico City bar. He is approached by two gangsters he often works for as a bagman (Robert Webber and Gig Young) who have been authorized to offer him a substantial piece of change if he’ll hunt down and decapitate Alfredo Garcia. Bennie, despite many indecent instincts he’s been trying to kill, accepts the offer, telling them he can use the money to take himself and his girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega, who remains the strongest female character to appear in a Peckinpah movie) somewhere far away and begin a new life.

Along the twisted way, Bennie proposes to Elita in what is arguably the most heartfelt and sadly moving scene Peckinpah ever filmed. The two run into and overcome several obstacles in their way (yes, I’m being deliberately vague here) before they find themselves at a rotting, neglected graveyard where the careless Garcia, shot by a gambling partner, is now buried.

The first half of this film has the loose narrative structure of an obscure European import; in fact, in places, it gets downright eccentric — but I still say this film was condemned only because it came from Peckinpah; had it come from a director from New Zealand or France, critics would have drowned it in praise.

“Why does he think of this as a horror movie?” I hear you ask.

Because from the moment Bennie and Elita enter that wretched graveyard in the middle of the night, Garcia employs not only the classic visual elements of old horror movies (circling bats, wolves howling in the distance, misshapen shadows skulking in the background) but its heart and soul surrender to the horrific as well. The shadow-drenched grave robbing sequence is truly nightmarish, and from that scene on, the film begins a fast descent through all nine circles of Dante’s Hell as Bennie makes his way across country with Garcia’s decomposing head inside a wet burlap bag that is perpetually swarming with flies.

“Just you and me, Al, baby!” says Bennie, who spends the second half of the film slowly going insane. Warren Oates (who was infuriatingly underrated for most of his career) gives a fabulous performance as Bennie, making the man at once repulsive, sympathetic, heroic, romantic, and tragic. His fascinating and complex characterization was easily the best American film performance of 1974, yet was ignored by virtually everyone when it came time to hand out those overrated golden statuettes.

Bennie’s “relationship” with Garcia’s head gets so creepy by the film’s end that I refuse to spoil it for you by going into any more details; suffice it to say that Bennie not only talks to Al, but often stops in the middle of a sentence to listen as Al gives him advice. (And that’s not even the weird part.)

I am convinced that John McNaughton drew some of his visual and thematic inspiration for Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer from the second half of Garcia. Watch both films back-to-back and you might think you’ve just watched then first two movies in an uncompleted trilogy.

Movie Information

Rating: R
Release Year: 1974
Running Time: 112 minutes
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: Gordon T. Dawson, Frank Kowalski, Sam Peckinpah
Main Cast:

Warren Oates: Bennie
Isela Vega: Elita
Robert Webber: Sappensly
Gig Young: Quill
Helmut Dantine: Max
Emilio Fernandez: El Jefe
Kris Kristofferson: Paco


reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

images posterIf you enjoy truly disturbing and mind-warping films, check out Robert Altman’s 1972 film Images. It’s an often horrific study of a children’s author (played by Susannah York) and her rapid descent into genuine schizophrenia and paranoia.

The movie is just amazing, beautifully shot and directed to keep you off-balance. It also features a very interesting, pre-Star Wars score by John Williams.

Images is available on MGM DVD for about 10 bucks and should be seen by any and all fans of serious psychological horror.

Movie Information

Running Time: 101 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Robert Altman
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond (who was later director of photography for Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
Writers: Robert Altman, Susannah York


Susannah York: Cathryn
Rene Auberjonois: Hugh
Marcel Bozzuffi: Rene
Hugh Millais: Marcel
Cathryn Harrison: Susannah
John Morley: Old Man

Pride of the Marines

a review by Gary A. Braunbeck

Pride of the Marines is a 1945 war drama starring John Garfield as the tormented marine Al Schmid. It’s based on a novel by Roger Butterfield. This was one of the first movies to step away from the unconditional rah-rah nationalism of earlier WWII films and to portray the brutal nature of the conflict and terrible cost paid by the men who fought. In many ways, the movie was ahead of its time.

This movie contains one of the most terrifying and nerve-wracking sequences I’ve ever seen. Garfield and three of his buddies are trapped in a foxhole in a swamp, and the jungle surrounding them is swarming with Japanese soldiers. You never see the enemy soldiers, though early on you hear them yelling, “Marines, tonight you die!”.

The marines can only see five feet in front of them because of the mist and fog, and one by one the guys are picked off by snipers (who take on the feeling of phantoms). Every once in a while you catch the glimpse of a shadow or hear the snapping of a twig…but that’s it. As each of them falls to a sniper, the others become even more frightened and paranoid, until, near the end of the sequence (it’s a good 10 – 12 minutes long, with no music, just sound effects and silence to build the unbearable tension), Garfield finally snaps and grabs the machine gun and begins firing blindily into the fog…

More would be a spoiler. It remains one of the most nerve-shatteringly suspenseful sequences I’ve seen.

Overall, the film is beautifully acted and it is one of Garfield’s best performances. It’s a pity it’s not available on DVD, though you can very rarely find it shown on cable TV.

Movie Information

Rating: PG (were it re-released on DVD)
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Delmer Daves
Writer: Marvin Borowsky, Roger Butterfield, Delmer Daves
Score: Franz Waxman
Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley

John Garfield: Al Schmid
Eleanor Parker: Ruth Hartley
Dane Clark: Lee Diamond
John Ridgely: Jim Merchant
Rosemary DeCamp: Virginia Pfeiffer
Ann Doran: Ella Mae Merchant
Ann E. Todd: Loretta Merchant
Warren Douglas: Kebabian