A Hot Dog Program – A Movie Review

This is not a typical movie review because this is not a typical movie.  And even more unusual, this is a PBS production, which normally would repel me as wolfsbane does Dracula.  But not this time.  This movie is a celebration of one of the great American institutions, the hot dog.

A guy named Rick Sebak from Pittsburgh makes documentaries about Americana and this particular one travels around the United States looking at the multitude of ways that people make and enjoy hot dogs.  Of course, he goes to Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York to discuss the reputed birthplace of the hot dog and while there he highlights the Fourth of July hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s, a truly disgusting spectacle.  Then he visits several hot dog lovers in Manhattan who try to pick between their favorite hot dog and papaya juice restaurants.  From there he goes to Chicago and listens to the Windy City residents declare their variety of hot dog to be the adult version of this American food.  And afterwards he brings us to Georgia, the Carolinas, Ohio, New Jersey and even Alaska where reindeer hot dogs are the standard.

Along the way you’ll meet the mom and pop shops and the industrial scale restaurants and the owners, cooks, waiters and customers who swear by the goodness and special character of whichever local variant they enjoy.  They’ll be boiled, roasted, deep fried or encased in a corn dog.  They’ll be covered in relish, sauerkraut, onions, coleslaw, peppers or baked beans.  They’ll be slathered in yellow mustard, brown mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce or horse radish.  They can be with or without skin and in Las Vegas you can even get one that’s half a pound and sixteen inches long.

This movie was made in 1999 and what struck me was that the people were from all walks of life and all ethnicities but they all agreed that the hot dog was the American food.  Not German American because it was brought here from Frankfurt or even just white Americans.  Every place they went all kinds of people loved the hot dogs and shared space enjoying them.  I was struck that the scene where the hot dogs were being sold at the Cleveland Indians game probably couldn’t get on PBS anymore because they consider the team name racist.

So, this show is a bit of Americana from before the woke movement would declare hot dogs some form of exploitation of everyone involved.  The movie highlighted the manufacturing of hot dogs and almost glories in the mystery meat status of its ingredients and the unappetizing appearance of the meat paste that makes them up.  And the bizarre sight of hot dogs being shot at high speed out of a machine that strips the temporary skins that the dogs wear while being cooked adds to their allure as a product of industrial age melting pot America.

Of course, all those mom and pop shops and even the big restaurants have now been driven out of business by COVID and the rioters.  And the various ethnicities are at each other’s throats.  And the millennials are all vegan and wouldn’t touch a hot dog if they were starving.  But this movie hearkens back to a happier time in America and celebrates the real diversity, hot dog diversity.  It celebrates the local cultures that all can embrace and enhance something as simple and wonderful as the hot dog.  You can probably rent this from a local library that carries PBS videos.  I rented it from Netflix DVD.  I’ll probably buy a DVD just because I like watching it with my kids and grandkids who have enjoyed it over the years when I had an old VHS copy.

The Great Escape – A Movie Review

The Great Escape came out in 1963.  It’s based on an actual World War II large scale escape by British Commonwealth soldiers from a German POW camp during World War II.  Some American actors were added in to increase the interest for American audiences but for the most part the details of the story are true.

There’s an all-star cast including Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.  On the British side there’s Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence and a bunch of Brits I never heard of.

The plan is to build a tunnel out of the camp and provide clothes and identification papers for 250 men to scatter over the countryside and escape out of Germany.  Each of the men has a particular skill; tunnellers, scroungers of supplies, document forgers, tailors, etc.  The ingenuity they use to perform this seemingly impossible series of operations is remarkable.  They begin building three tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry) and accumulating their supplies.  There are setbacks and delays.  The first tunnel is discovered and one of the men despairs and is shot down rushing the fence in broad daylight.  Stress builds up and some of the men crack.  Finally, the escape is run and disaster occurs.  Seventy-six men get out of the camp and we follow them as they attempt the escape from Germany.  Some make it, some are caught and some are killed.

It is an amazing story.  Even if it were just fiction it would be entertaining.  But knowing it actually happened is mind-boggling.  And the movie is well done.  The plot and dialog are good and sometimes quite compelling.  The actors are sympathetic characters and even some of the Germans come across as interesting humans.

If you like war stories and especially if you like history this is a movie you might want to see.  Highly recommended.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 12 – The Merchant of Venice – Olivier’s 1973 Version

The Merchant of Venice is an odd play.  The romance plot line with Portia and Bassanio is decidedly comic but the Shylock story is a revenge story that verges on the bizarre.  Olivier is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Venice.  The story revolves around Antonio, a prosperous merchant whose friend Bassanio is in love with the rich heiress Portia.  Bassanio begs a loan of 3,000 ducats to woo Portia as a nobleman.  Shylock gives Bassanio the money but because of his hatred of Antonio he demands that if the money is not repaid on time Shylock will remove a pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast closest to his heart.  Antonio treats this lightly because he has many merchant ships in route for home that should enrich him many times the 3,000 ducats in cargo value.  But when all his ships are reported lost then the default clause is no longer a joke but a promise of torture and death.

Another subplot has Shylock’s daughter run away from her father and elope with one of Bassanio’s friends, Lorenzo and also convert to Christianity.  It is this insult from his daughter that unhinges Shylock and turns him into a merciless fiend dead set on exacting his pound of flesh.  Luckily for Antonio, Bassanio’s courtship of Portia is successful and when she hears of Antonio’s peril, she tells her new husband that all the funds needed will be available to pay off Antonio’s debt.  But Shylock refuses even thrice the delinquent 3,000 ducats, standing on his contract to extract the pound of flesh he is owed.  Finally, a trial before the Duke of Venice is scheduled.  Portia comes disguised as a learned doctor of the law from Padua with a recommendation to the Duke from Bellario, her lawyer cousin in Padua.  Acting as the judge Portia concedes that the letter of the law allows Shylock to demand his pound of flesh but in a stirring speech she expounds on the “quality of mercy.”  But none of this phases Shylock in the least.  Over and over he refuses the 9,000 ducats and demands his barbaric payment.  Then Portia plays her trump card.  She declares that Shylock can have his pound of flesh.  But not a hair’s weight more or less and without spilling a drop of Antonio’s blood lest Shylock be put to death for it.  Knowing that he is beaten Shylock then asks for the 9,000 ducats but Portia tells him he has already refused that.  Then he asks for his principal back and is equally denied that.  And finally, he is informed that his attempt on the life of a Venetian citizen forfeits his own life and all his fortune.  By an act of mercy, the Duke spares his life and half his fortune with the proviso that Shylock must convert to Christianity and leave his remaining fortune to his daughter and her husband upon Shylock’s death.

After this happy ending there is the usual sexual politics with the disguised Portia demanding as payment from Bassanio for her legal help a ring that she had given him earlier as herself and which he had sworn never to remove.  And when back in her normal appearance she demands to see Bassanio’s ring.  He sadly admits to having given it away.  She produces it and teases him with having spent the night with the doctor of law.  And then there’s a tiff about it that is quickly straightened out when she reveals that she was the doctor of law.  And hilarity ensues.

This is a good production.  It is a good cast and the production values are equally good.  The scenery and costumes are of a Victorian England.  I don’t think this was a particularly good idea but it certainly didn’t harm the story much.  Joan Plowright looked a little too old to be Portia but her acting was everything you’d want for the part.  Jeremy Brett was a good Bassanio and the rest of the supporting cast was very able.  Olivier was very good.  But I was a little let down.  Shylock just isn’t that great a character.  He’s certainly not Hamlet or even Henry V.  He’s doesn’t even have the great villainous lines like Richard III.  A lot of his dialog is odd and melodramatic.  So, for once Olivier is not the main reason for watching this recording.

Plowright has the shining moment.  She gets to recite the quality of mercy speech.  And that alone is worth watching this play.  It is one of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote.  It’s uplifting even for an old deplorable like me.  It almost makes me want to show mercy to my political enemies.  Almost, but not quite.  My conclusion, this is a good version of The Merchant of Venice.

I’ll end with the text of that wonderful speech.

 

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 11 – King Lear – Olivier’s 1983 Version

King Lear is a very strange play to watch.  All of the virtuous characters are banished, disowned or fugitives from justice while all the rest of the characters that aren’t out and out villains are seriously flawed and unable to distinguish good from evil.  There is a continuous downward spiral as the evil characters consolidate their positions and everyone else including the hapless Lear ricochet from one disaster to the next.

I first saw this play back in the 1970s as a Shakespeare in the Park presentation in Central Park with James Earl Jones as Lear.  Some extremely timely thunderstorm activity by Mother Nature made for an exciting performance and I have enjoyed the play since.  But I will admit that the Storm scene is extremely odd to sit through.  Even the actors seem to be slightly at a loss as to how they are supposed to relate to each other during this weird act.

The 1983 version of King Lear starring Laurence Olivier is a British Television production and it is done on a television sound stage and it has the look of a sound stage made to look like a theater stage.  That is not to say that it is badly filmed but rather that it does not have the production values that the budget of a major Hollywood movie can allow.

The cast in addition to Olivier includes some well-known faces.  Lear’s Fool is played by John Hurt.  Leo McKern, who American audiences might know from the British import television series “Rumpole of the Bailey” plays Gloucester.  And if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s spy series “The Avengers” then you would remember Diana Rigg who here plays one of Lear’s evil daughters (Regan).  The rest of the cast is unknown to me but overall, the acting is reasonably good.

In my opinion, you watch this version for Olivier and to a lesser degree John Hurt.  They provide the stand out performances that elevate this above an average television version.  It is sad to see how frail Olivier is here.  He was 75 years old at the time and in extremely poor health.  This was his last attempt at Shakespeare.  But he gives the lines their due.  He allows Lear to make sense to an audience struggling with this bizarre set of characters and circumstances.  He was still a great actor even here at the end of his life.  That is not to say that the performance was perfect, although I believe it had more to do with technical problems of a television production.  During the Storm scene Lear’s voice is difficult to understand over the wind and rain noises.  If the video has captioning then this will not be as big a problem.  Also, some of the staging is a little odd to me.  The torches that were used during some of the scenes look very odd and I assume this was a limitation of the television cameras used to capture the action.

Overall, this is not a masterpiece like Olivier’s Hamlet or even a slick commercial production like Henry V that had a robust budget and a great supporting cast.  This is a modest production with a mixture of greater and lesser talent.  But it is your only chance to see Laurence Olivier as King Lear.  If that interests you then you should see it if it is available to you from whatever source you obtain your movies.

Alien: Covenant – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Movie Review

I saw Alien in the theater in 1979.  It was one of the earlier movies produced with Dolby Sound and the theater in Times Square was extremely proud of their superb sound system.  And that was all that the movie can be said to have excelled in.  It was without a doubt the loudest movie I have ever been exposed to before or since.  Watching the movie back then I determined that rather than make a scary monster movie they made a painfully loud monster movie.  So, whenever the monster was about to jump out of the dark, they would turn the volume to eleven and the audience would jump out of their seats holding their ears in pain.  I guess they figured we might mistake burst eardrums for fear.  The movie is basically shot in the dark and you can never really see the monster when it’s killing someone so it’s really not scary, just annoying.

In the mid-eighties James Cameron was paid to make a sequel to this film with a troop of “space marines” added to bump up the body count and allow Sigourney Weaver to become a female Arnold Schwarzenegger and hopefully add some more sequels to the franchise.  Admittedly Alien 2 was better than the original but that’s not really saying much.  Then they made a third one which really sucked and finally a fourth that most normal people just ignored completely and so it was hoped that the series had died its natural death.

But sometime in the 2000s someone had the bright idea of having the creature in the Predator series meet up with the Alien creature and this spawned a new series of bad sci-fi movies.  But at least these weren’t “serious” science fiction films, whatever that means, and so the “integrity” of the Alien franchise was maintained.

In 2012 they dragged the director of the original Alien, Ridley Scott back to make a prequel called Prometheus.  It included a bunch of crap about how humanity was the product of genetic engineering by an advanced race called the Engineers.  And this gets all mixed up with the Alien monster showing up on a planet where one of the Engineer’s ships is holed up for some reason and the Earth crew’s android turning evil.

Well anyway in 2017 they made a sequel to Prometheus called Alien: Covenant.  Here a human colony ship headed for a new world intercepts a message and finds one of the characters from Prometheus and starts falling victim to the alien monsters again.

So, what’s the best way to say this?  Oh, I know!  It’s the same stupid story from 1979 all over again.  It’s exactly the same plot and even the same character stereotypes.  There’s the plucky young woman with a knack for killing monsters on space ships.  There’s the android who is fascinated by the creature and will allow the humans to die in order to learn more about the creature.  And then there is the rest of the crew who are just fodder for the creature on a killing spree.

That’s all there is, over and over and over.  Save yourself the trouble.  It’s not fun and it’s not interesting.  The characters aren’t great, the special effects are no better than any other CGI sci-fi movie and you already know the plot from the beginning.  Hollywood, try to come up with something different for once, please.

A Night at the Opera – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The Marx Brothers have the reputation for producing some of the funniest movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  This is in some ways deserved but it is by no means justified for all of their films.  In addition, no one would claim that the entirety of any of the movies is consistently funny.  After all, the number of people who would laugh through a three-minute harp solo is extremely small, probably zero.

But I consider A Night at the Opera their best effort.  For that reason, I’ll start with a review of it and if I decide to tackle any of the others it will involve comparing them to the qualities of A Night at the Opera.

The story starts out in Italy with Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) trying to convince the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to donate $200,000 to the New York Opera in order to cement her place in high society.  With the money, the opera company’s director Herman Gottlieb, can sign a famous Italian tenor Rodolfo Lassparri for the upcoming season production of Il Trovatore.  There is a love triangle between the soprano Rosa Castaldi, an unknown but brilliant tenor, Ricardo Baroni and the villainous Lassparri.

Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and Fiorello (Chico Marx) work to get Ricardo Baroni signed by Driftwood to the New York Opera instead of Lassparri but fail and the two of them are forced to stow away along with Baroni on the steam ship heading for New York.  Driftwood hides them in his closet sized stateroom and this gives rise to one of the funniest scenes in the movie when a troop of cleaning, maintenance and wait staff along with other miscellaneous persons end up crowding into the stateroom with the Marx Brothers and eventually explode out into the ship corridor when Mrs. Claypool opens the door.  This scene contains one of Groucho’s trademark wisecracks.  With about ten people already in the room a knock comes on the door and Groucho opens it to discover a young woman.

Groucho – Yes?

Girl – Is my Aunt Minnie in here?

Groucho – You can come in and prowl around if you want to.  If she isn’t in here, you can probably find somebody just as good.

Girl – Could I use your phone?

Groucho – Use the phone?  I’ll lay you even money you can’t get in the room.

The whole plot including the love story is a thin pretext for the Marx Brothers to sow chaos everywhere they go.  The climax of the movie is the opera opening night and the three brothers doing everything imaginable to sabotage Lassparri’s performance and provide Baroni with an opportunity to sing as the lead tenor in his place.  Harpo (or more likely his stunt double) ends up performing swashbuckling acrobatics in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and eventually kidnaps Lassparri right off the stage to allow the climactic aria duet to be sung by Baroni and Castaldi.

And just as it looks like the brothers will be carted off to jail by the NYPD, Baroni blackmails Gottlieb into hiring himself, Castaldi, Driftwood, Fiorello and Tomasso and calling off the police in exchange for Baroni and Castaldi agreeing to perform an encore that is being thunderously demanded by the overjoyed audience.

This absurd story line is actually one of the tighter Marx Brother movie plots.  Their movies were sort of like a variety show out of vaudeville.  In between dramatic scenes you would get Chico playing the piano or Harpo playing the harp.  And most of the movies had several comic songs sung by Groucho.  In this movie there is also a number of songs and arias sung by the Baroni and Castaldi characters.  So, depending how you feel about songs in a movie will decide whether you can tolerate any Marx Brothers movie at all.

As indicated initially I like this movie.  That is not to say I wouldn’t prefer to cut out the harp solo.  And that is not saying all the comedy routines are equally successful for me.  But taking the whole movie together I would call A Night at the Opera a funny movie.  And I would say, compared to many of the Marx Brothers movies, the personalities of the brothers are much less obnoxious than they typically are.  And it is notable that the production values for this movie produced by MGM are much higher than their previous movies for Paramount.  If you are already a fan of the Marx Brothers and have never seen “A Night at the Opera” then I can unreservedly recommend this movie for you.  For everyone else, especially those born in the 21st century your mileage may vary.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 3

Any of you who have followed the guest contributors here may know that The Fatman is a more learned student of the cinema than I am.  When he saw my Ransom reviews, he alerted me to a ransom-type movie by the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa called “High and Low”.  Now, Kurosawa is best known to American audiences from his homage to the American Western called “The Seven Samurai.  And the American Western’s homage to him is the movie “The Magnificent Seven.”

So anyway, I decided to give it a spin.  “High and Low” is not a direct retelling of the Ransom story in fact it is based on an American crime novel called “King’s Ransom” written by Evan Hunter under the pen name Ed McBain.  But I think it still fits under the umbrella of the Ransom comparison.

Kingo Gondo (played by Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune) is the CEO of a large shoe manufacturing company with the very original name of National Shoes.  He is extremely wealthy but came up through the ranks from humble beginnings.  He lives in a beautiful home on a prominent hill overlooking the city.  He has a wife, Reiko and young son, Jun and they share the home with his chauffer Yutaka Sada and his son, Shinichi, who is Jun’s friend.

Gondo is being pressured by the Board of Directors to back their play to oust the founder of the company and start making stylish but poorly-made shoes at a high profit.  Gondo disagrees saying the answer is to upgrade the style of the current well-built shoes and thereby maintain the brand and expand the market.  The Board threatens to oust him instead.  In discussions between Gondo and his assistant we learn that Gondo has anticipated this hostile takeover and has collected enough loan money to take over the company himself.  He has a check for fifty million yen that his assistant will deliver by train that night to lock down the stock he needs for the takeover.  The loans will basically mortgage everything he owns but he knows he’ll be able to pay them off once he has control of the company.

During these discussions we see Jun and Shinichi dressed as cowboys chasing each other around with cap guns.  And now that Jun has won the game as sheriff, he trades costumes with Shinichi and assumes the role of outlaw.  Gondo gives the check to the assistant and tells him which train to take.  But before the assistant leaves a call comes in from someone claiming to have kidnapped Jun.  The kidnapper says the ransom will be thirty million yen.  Gondo tells the kidnapper he will pay the ransom.  Now Gondo tells his assistant to cancel his train ride because Gondo will need that money for the ransom.  Almost immediately Jun walks back in the room and Gondo assumes the call was a hoax.  But when Jun asks everyone where Shinichi has gone the adults realize that the kidnapper mistook the boy wearing Jun’s costume for Jun and kidnapped Shinichi by accident.  Sada is now understandably worried about his son but Gondo tells him that the kidnapper will release Shinichi when he realizes the boy is not from a rich family.  But the kidnapper calls back and says he will demand the ransom for Shinichi instead and he will kill the boy if the money is not surrendered.  Gondo refuses and hangs up.  Now the police are called in.

The police show up and go through the same phone tapping routine we’ve seen in the other two movies and analyze the kidnapper’s demands and mindset.  They try to convince Gondo that this particular kidnapper is extremely angry and seems to have a grudge against Gondo or at least against the rich.  They ask him if he will consider paying the ransom but he explains that he must go forward with the takeover or he will be out of a job and ruined financially.  At this point Sada and Reiko separately beg Gondo to relent and pay the ransom.  Gondo refuses.  The police ask that at least he tell the kidnapper that he will pay the money in hopes that they can catch the kidnapper during the ransom exchange.  Gondo agrees to this.  He gets the instructions from the kidnapper and after seeing Sada break down in despair Gondo relents and agrees to pay the ransom.

There is an intricate arrangement with bags of cash that will fit through a narrow bathroom window on the train once Gondo sees Shinichi standing with his captor adjacent to the tracks.  The money is payed and Shinichi is freed.  Gondo loses his house and all his possessions to his creditors.

The rest of the movie is a police procedural about trying to find the kidnappers and get Gondo’s money back.  Small clues gathered from the kidnapper’s phone conversations and the somewhat vague information provided by Shinichi combine to allow the police to hunt down the gang.  The final part of the movie involves some heroin addicts who were part of the gang and we get some scenes of the seedy world that these people inhabit.  Finally, the kidnapper is caught and because of the murder of his accomplices he is given a death sentence.

We see Gondo get his money back but it is too late to restore his old life.  He takes a job with a smaller shoe company and he actually enjoys the work more because of his greater creative control there.

In the last scene the murderer asks Gondo to come to the prison to talk.  He explains why he picked Gondo.  From his tenement below the hill he dwelt on Gondo’s affluence and the anger this engendered drove him to his crimes.  He claims not to be afraid of his death but by the end of the conversation he breaks out in hysterics and is dragged away and the movie ends.

This movie is sort of a hybrid.  The story really is a police procedural.  The crime allows for the police to solve the puzzle of finding the criminal and getting justice for Gondo.  But the predicament of Gondo is a very Japanese story.  The honor and the prestige of the “great man” is a theme that interests Kurosawa and specifically he is examining how the modern capitalist model has removed the human element from the equation.  Gondo was a poor man who became rich and Sada is a poor man who is entirely at Gondo’s mercy for his son’s life.  Basically, we are watching a struggle for Gondo’s soul.

Japanese cinema is in some ways hard for Americans to enter.  In addition to the language barrier and the need to read the subtitles, facial expressions and even mannerisms are decidedly different.  I like the movie and thought it was well done.  Whether anyone who hasn’t seen Japanese films would enjoy it is an open question.  I recommend it.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 2

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 1

In 1996 Ron Howard directed a remake of Ransom.  He cast Mel Gibson and Rene Russo in the leads as Tom and Kate Mullen the parents of a young son Sean.  Tom is the owner of his own airline and a leading member of New York high society.  During an educational event in Central Park at which Kate is a judge Sean is kidnapped while Tom was distracted.

Now we meet the kidnappers.  Maris is a caterer who works for the Mullens.  Brothers Clark and Cubby Barnes and Miles Roberts are small time criminals.  But the mastermind of the gang is Police Detective Jimmy Shaker, played by the great Gary Sinise, who set up the whole crime and uses his knowledge of police procedures to engineer a convoluted ransom transfer.  He has Tom carry the two million dollars to a civic center and jump in a swimming pool to destroy any electronic devices.  Then Tom switches cars and drives to New Jersey while Shaker gives Tom directions over a mobile phone.  During this phone call Shaker answers Tom’s question of why Tom’s family was picked.  Shaker tells him that Tom is a man who buys his way out of trouble.  Tom paid off men to frame a labor leader that was making trouble for Tom’s airline.  From Shaker’s point of view, he sees Tom as a sure thing to pay his son’s ransom.  Then Shaker tells Tom the story of the Eloi and the Morlocks from H. G. Wells’ story “The Time Machine.”  To Shaker the Mullens and the other elites are the Eloi living in the daylight world of wealth and privilege while Shaker and the rest of the Morlocks slave away in the underworld of the poor.  He states that it’s just the nature of things that the cannibalistic Morlocks have to surface from time to time to eat an Eloi.

Tom demands to know how the exchange will lead him to his son to which Shaker replies that when Tom hands the money over to the courier, he’ll be given the address where his son can be found.  But when he arrives at a quarry where the courier takes the money, he is given no address and Tom notices the look of confusion on the courier’s face when the question is asked.  The courier is Cubby Barnes played by Donnie Wahlberg who was the only one of the kidnappers who treated Sean Mullen decently during his captivity.  FBI helicopters chase after Cubby on his ATV and when the agents start rappelling to the ground Cubby fires at them with an automatic weapon.  In answer he is killed by gunfire from the law enforcement agents.

The kidnappers are in disarray after this because Cubby’s identity will make his brother’s identity easy to figure out.  But undaunted, Shaker immediately contacts Tom and begins a second transfer operation.  But Tom has figured out that the kidnappers have no intention of releasing his son.  So instead of proceeding to the drop he tells Shaker to watch Channel 5 on the television for further information.  Tom calls his corporate friends and arranges to be put on the air.  He lays the two million dollars on a table and into the camera he tells the kidnappers and the world that he has no intention of paying the ransom and instead want the two million to be a reward for capturing his son’s abductors.  He gives the kidnappers a way out saying if Sean is returned unharmed, he will withdraw the reward.

Everyone turns against Tom, the FBI agents who have been advising him, his wife Kate and every man on the street who is questioned by the media.  Now Shaker calls him up and threatens to kill Sean if Tom doesn’t pay the ransom.  Tom says he doesn’t believe he’ll return Sean at all.  Now the kidnappers send a note through the housekeeper to Kate to show up late at night in a deserted church to arrange for an exchange.  Kate is attacked by Shaker in disguise who punches her and chokes her before leaving her with Sean’s shirt soaked in blood.

Kate begs Tom to relent but instead Tom goes down to the street and tells the reporters that he is doubling the reward to four million dollars.  Shaker calls up enraged and shouts at Tom that he will kill Sean if Tom doesn’t agree to the ransom immediately.  Tom shouts abuse at Shaker and then he hears a gunshot ring out over the phone.  Kate attacks Tom and slaps him repeatedly and collapses to the floor.  Tom stumbles out onto the penthouse roof and at first seems to be planning to jump but then collapses onto the roof sobbing.  Kate finds her way to the roof and consoles him.

But Shaker fired into the wall.  Sean is alive.  Now Clark Barnes and Miles Roberts are packing their van to leave the scene and Maris is panicked and doesn’t know whether to run or kill herself with a gun she has.  She is romantically involved with Shaker but their bond has been broken by the sordid nature of the crime they are committing.  The only one who isn’t panicking is Shaker.  He’s come up with Plan B.  He calls up the precinct on his radio and tells them that there is a kidnapping at the address they are holding Sean at.  He shoots Clark and Miles as they try to drive off but Maris shoots him in the shoulder.  Shaker returns fire and kills her.  Now Shaker pretends that he discovered the kidnapping and puts himself in line for the four-million-dollar reward.

Sean is returned to his parents traumatized but only slightly injured and the Mullens begin to bring their lives back to normal.  One day Shaker shows up at the Mullens’ home to collect his reward but as Tom is writing out the check, he sees Sean quaking with fear at Shaker’s voice.  Tom realizes what it means but almost immediately afterward Shaker knows that Tom knows.  At this point Shaker’s anger leads him to say he will execute Tom.  But Tom convinces him that they can go to Tom’s bank and have the reward transferred to Shaker’s offshore bank.  Then Tom agrees to fly Shaker to Mexico in his private jet.  While driving to the bank Tom ostensibly calls the airport to set up his flight but actually calls the FBI and tips them off to where he is headed.

Tom and Shaker make the wire transfer at the bank but as they’re leaving some NYPD who have been alerted by the FBI attempt to arrest Shaker.  He shoots two of them and takes off running.  Tom catches him and beats him brutally but Shaker manages to push Tom into traffic where he is shaken up by a passing car.  Now there is a foot race and finally Tom grabs Shaker and throws him through a plate glass window.  Tom retrieves Shaker’s gun and covers him with it.  The NYPD and FBI show up and tell Tom to drop the gun and Shaker to lay on the ground.  Shaker is bleeding profusely from a neck wound from the broken window but he secretly reaches for an ankle holster.  When Tom drops his gun arm to his side Shaker pulls his gun to shoot Tom but is beaten to the draw by Tom and several law-enforcement officers.  Shaker is shot dead and Kate shows up to hug Tom and signal the end of the nightmare.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff, to stuff into one movie.  And I’ve left out a lot of details.  The FBI Special Agent Lonnie Hawkins played by Delroy Lindo has a role in convincing Kate to stop Tom from offering the reward.  He also is privy to Tom’s perjury in the conviction of the labor leader.  The relationships between the various kidnappers is complicated and volatile.  There are a lot of moving pieces.

It’s a well-crafted movie.  At certain points the various characters border on hysterics but considering the roles and stakes involved the action is reasonable.  None of the characters is blameless but even some of the criminals may make some claims to the viewers sympathy.  I think it’s a good crime drama with a lot of human interest.  I can recommend it as worth seeing.

In the last part of this review I’ll look at the 1956 and the 1996 versions of Ransom to see how they compare and what that comparison might say about the years in which they were made.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 1

I am as old as hell itself so I remember seeing Ransom in the theater in 1996.  It was a very popular movie and Mel Gibson was a big star back then.  I was dimly aware that the movie was a remake of a film of the same name.  Actually, the original was Ransom!  That exclamation point must have been big news back in 1956.  I’ve since had a chance to see the 1956 version and I intend to review it and then review the 1996 remake and compare them.

Glenn Ford and Donna Reed star as David and Edith Stannard a married couple with a young son named Andy.  They are very wealthy because David and his brother Al own a very successful company.  We see the child and parents in a comical argument caused by Andy “stealing” the boards from under his parents’ bed to build his backyard fort.  We witness the way David dotes on the boy and promises to break away from his busy work to join the boy in his construction project.  The mother and father send the boy off to his school bus and then David heads off to work.  We also meet the major domo of the household servants Jesse Chapman.  He is a Southern Black Christian man, much given to reciting scripture who very seriously attends to the welfare of his employer’s family.

At work we find David contending with his brother Al over whether the company should continue to advance into new product models or wait until more return is collected on the earlier models.  Although the brothers quarrel, they show affection for each other.  Later we see David return home having “stolen” some lumber from a willing construction site foreman and asks his wife where their son is.  She says he is still at school but David informs her that it is past his time.  Immediately the phone rings and Edith hear from a school administrator that a “nurse” from Dr. Gorman’s office took Andy from school to be seen by the doctor.  Now, both frightened by this news, David calls Dr. Gorman and hears his worst fears, that the doctor did not send for the boy.  David calls the police and Chief Backett arrives and sets in motion the police actions.  An electrician sets up a separate phone line and a tape recorder.  And the police set up a trace on the line waiting for a ransom demand over the phone.  At this point a newspaper reporter named Charlie Telfer (played by a very young Leslie Nielsen) enters the house uninvited.  The Chief counsels the Stannards to allow Telfer to stay during the investigation and so keep him from printing wild speculations by the promise of an exclusive story.  Charlie proves himself to be a cynical young man who attempts to bribe Chapman to get some photos of Andy’s room.  Chapman spurns the offer as an insult.

The parents become rattled from the waiting and now the school administrator shows up and complains that she is the wronged party by the kidnapping.  Edith grabs for the fireplace poker and is only stopped by the police chief from braining her.  After she is escorted out the phone rings and the kidnapper tells David what he wants, $500,000 in small bills and to show that the money is ready the television show which David’s company sponsors will be the signal.  The host will wear a white suit jacket.

Now Al arranges for the money.  It is being counted and serial numbers recorded.  Now David talks to the Chief and Charlie about the exchange.  But when David expresses the hope that Andy will be home by end of day the men crush his hopes by telling him that regardless of whether he pays the ransom or not the chance of return is the same, two out of three.  And hearing this, David’s logical mind jumps to a conclusion.  Now he goes to the television station and tells the host that the plan has changed and he, David will speak to the audience.  He spreads the ransom money on a table and then tells the camera that he will not ransom his son.  Instead he will use the $500,000 as a reward to anyone who will turn in the kidnappers.  And to the kidnapper he adds that if Andy is returned unharmed then the reward will be rescinded and if the kidnapper happens to be captured David will act as a character witness on the kidnapper’s behalf because of the mercy shown his son.  And then he finishes by swearing on a Bible that all he said would be observed.

But when David returns home, he is told by all, by the chief, by Al, by Charlie and most of all by Edith that he has done a terrible thing. She begs him to undo it and go back to the kidnappers and reverse himself.  David tells them it is too late.  For good or ill the die is cast.  Edith breaks down and is taken to Al’s house down the street to mourn.  A crowd that has assembled outside the home reacts to the news with rage and stones are thrown through the windows.  Charlie goes outside and tells the reporters to go home and leave the family to its agony.  Then the police disperse the angry crowd.  Finally, Andy’s shirt is found in an abandoned car and delivered to his father.  But there is a quantity of blood on the shirt.  Now David despairs and breaks down in tears.  The only one who has not deserted him in his lowest hour is Chapman who tries to comfort him and reminds him of King David’s grief at the death of his son Absalom.  After he calms himself David goes into the yard and looks at the fort that Andy was building the other day.  And as he stands there, he thinks he hears Andy calling him.  And looking up he sees his son.  Unable to believe his eyes he clasps Andy in his arms in joy but notices that Andy’s wearing a strange shirt.  Andy explains that they gave it to him after he bit the nurse and her blood got on his shirt.  Now the house is alerted.  Chapman calls Al’s house to let Edith know the good news and the movie ends in front of the house with Edith running up and being embraced by her son and her husband embracing them both.

This is some serious melodrama.  Every heartstring there is gets tugged.  But the story works and the acting is good.  Any parent watching this will feel every fear and experience the anxiety of such a daring plan by David to save his son.  This is a good movie of its kind, a personal drama.  I can recommend it.  In the next part of this review, we’ll look at what forty years changes in the story as we look at the remake.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 2

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 9 – Rope – A Classic Movie Review

This is a very strange film, even for Hitchcock.  It’s an adaptation of a stage play that Hitchcock turns into a claustrophobic one set crime drama.  Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan (played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are upper class New Yorkers living together in an East Side apartment with a panoramic view of the city.  They are the products of a prep school and Ivy League education and are convinced that they are Nietzschean supermen who thereby have the right to murder ordinary men with impunity.  As the movie opens, they are seen strangling one of their school chums David Kentley with a piece of rope in their apartment.  After hiding the body in an antique wooden chest, they go about setting up their apartment for a dinner party that will feature David’s father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt and David’s fiancée Janet.  The other cast in the play and party attendees are Mrs. Wilson who is Brandon’s housekeeper, Kenneth Lawrence who is another school friend and also a former boyfriend of Janet’s and Rupert Cadell (played by Jimmy Stewart) who was Brandon and Phillip’s prep school housemaster and the inspiration for their Nietzschean philosophical justification for murder.

Brandon brazenly uses the chest that David’s body is hidden in as the buffet table for the dinner that the guests feed on during the party.  Brandon makes several sly allusions to Kenneth that maybe Janet may be available again for his romantic interest.  All the guests are acutely aware that David is unexpectedly late for the party and unaccounted for.  Phillip from the start of the movie is extremely nervous about the prospect of being caught.  And as the party proceeds, he becomes more and more agitated and begins drinking heavily.  In the middle of the proceedings Brandon steers the conversation to his Nietzschean theory of the superman and his right to kill with impunity.  When Rupert agrees with this logic at least theoretically Brandon gets heatedly enthusiastic about its validity and this elicits a response from Mr. Kentley to the effect that he is offended by the disrespect for human decency and morality.  This snaps Brandon back into a more normal mode and alerts Rupert that something very strange is going on at the party.  Rupert starts to put together the various threads of the scene.  He recognizes that Brandon is trying to bring Janet and Kenneth together romantically in David’s absence.  He recognizes the anxiety in David’s friends and family at his very unusual disappearance and he keys in on Phillip’s anxiety, anger and drunkenness as the way to pry into what was going on below the surface of the gathering.

Rupert corners Phillip as he is playing the piano to cross-examine him about David’s absence, Brandon’s strange behavior and Phillip’s own anxiety.  And as the climax of his investigation he witnesses Phillip’s panic when he sees that Brandon has used the murder weapon, the piece of rope to tie up some old books that Brandon is giving as a gift to Mr Kentley as the old man is leaving to go home to his panicked wife.  Right before everyone leaves, Rupert has a talk with Mrs. Wilson, who is an old friend of his.  She tells Rupert about the fact that her employer told her to take the afternoon off and then decided at the last minute to serve the dinner off of the chest instead of the dining room table.  As Mrs. Wilson is cleaning up and about to open the chest to put some books back into it, Brandon hurriedly stops her from opening it and tells her to hold off her cleaning until the next day.  And finally, as Rupert is leaving, he takes the wrong hat from the closet and looking into it he sees a monogram DK (David Kentley).

Once the guests and Mrs. Wilson have left Brandon and Phillip have an argument.  Brandon upbraids Phillip for getting drunk and about his fear over being caught.  Phillip angrily blames Brandon for risking discovery by throwing out hints that Rupert was able pick up on.  Suddenly the phone rings and Phillip panics when he finds it’s Rupert returning to find his cigarette case.  Brandon tells Phillip to get ahold of himself and before Rupert arrives Brandon puts a revolver in his jacket pocket.  When Rupert comes in, we find out he hasn’t misplaced his case but instead hides it behind some books on the chest and “discovers” it.  He takes the excuse of a drink to continue his questioning of Brandon and Phillip.  He shows pretty quickly that he thinks they are responsible for David’s disappearance and reasons how they could have knocked out David and hidden him.  When Rupert confronts Brandon with the fact that he has a gun in his jacket, Brandon laughs it off as just the protection he will be taking with him to his house in the country.  Brandon throws the gun on the piano and Rupert continues his cross-examination and suddenly takes the piece of rope out of his pocket.  Phillip screams out that Rupert knows everything and grabs the pistol.  Rupert and Phillip fight over the gun.  The gun goes off and grazes Rupert’s hand but he gets control of it and takes control of Brandon and Phillip.  He opens up the chest and finds David’s body.  Brandon tries to justify the murder by virtue of their mutually acknowledged Nietzschean philosophy.  Rupert rejects Brandon’s justification and reviles as a monster whose inhumanity would ensure that he and Phillip would both be executed by the law.  Rupert goes over to the window and opens it.  He fires three rounds into the air and all three wait for the police to arrive.  Rupert moves a chair next to the chest and places his arm and the gun on it as if to protect David from his killers.

As I stated at the beginning, this is a very strange movie.  The only character that I found altogether admirable is Mr. Kentley.  He represents normal human feelings and ordinary sensibilities.  The worst characters are of course Brandon and Phillip.  But only slightly less objectionable is Rupert.  His elitist attitude toward his supposed superior intelligence is contemptible.  The rest of the characters are shallow characters with various foibles and ticks.  During the argument over Nietzschean superiority only Mr. Kentley displays the strength of character and humanity to revolt at the cruel indifference displayed by Brandon, Phillip and Rupert.

With respect to the success of the movie as entertainment I’ll have to say I can only watch this movie every few years.  It’s a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” from the 1920s.  From that point of view, it holds interest as an almost sociological and psychological statement.  It’s depressing, annoying and as noted above claustrophobic.  One of the more annoying aspects of the film is the tune that Phillip plays almost endlessly on the piano.  I grew to really hate that tune rather quickly.  Another annoying aspect of the movie is the homosexuality of Brandon and Phillip.  It’s never mentioned, of course because this movie was made in 1948.  But the dialog between them makes it clear that they don’t have a normal friendship.  And their personalities, especially Brandon’s are extremely unpleasant in a catty womanish way.  It’s not fun to see.  I would have to say I would only recommend this movie for a fan of Hitchcock who is interested in his technical skill.  The way the scenes are melded together at the film cuts is interesting but the story as I’ve described is a mess.