Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 29, 2016
We all make mistakes. I’ve made far too many to count at this point in my life but we learn from our mistakes as well. Sometimes, at least. One mistake I have repeatedly made in the world of cinema is not fully investigating what a movie is about before deciding whether or not to see it. I don’t mean reading up on the plot, I mean just a basic idea of the story. In many of these cases, when I finally discovered, by finally watching the movie, what it was really about, I was annoyed at myself that I hadn’t seen it sooner. Today, Peter Weir’s 1977 masterpiece, The Last Wave, airs today on TCM. It’s the poster movie for this kind of thing with me and when I finally watched it, it became an instant favorite. The same has happened for many others.
If you’d like an in depth analysis/write-up of The Last Wave, I did just that a few years ago here at the Morlocks. It’s here for the taking but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, probably best to watch it first. For years, all I knew about The Last Wave was that it was a courtroom drama. Principled attorney Richard Chamberlain defends unjustly accused aborigines in Australia. Sounded like a Stanley Kramer message movie to me, honestly, and I passed it up any chance I got. Then, finally, someone asked me about it one day because it was their favorite movie. I said I was sure it was good but I wasn’t much into courtroom dramas. That’s when he told me it had little to nothing to do with the courtroom and everything to do with paranormal mysticism, reincarnation, and the end of the world via global flood. What?! I had no idea! I watched it that week and, honestly, it’s been a favorite ever since, which is why I wrote it up here in the first place. If you still haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
Another movie I avoided for years was Niagara, with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. For whatever reason I got it into my head early on that Niagara was a fifties soap opera romance flick, a sort of bargain basement Sirk without the insight or under the radar commentary. When you spend hours upon hours every day for several years reading up on every movie you can think of and then trying to watch as many as you can, things can sometimes get crossed in your head. And with so many movies to read about and watch – and there are still so many - it’s easy to toss aside a movie that you vaguely remember seeing mentioned at some point early on and think it’s a crappy romance. Then, thanks to the internet coming along, I happened upon some conversations talking about the great thriller Niagara and realized I had been wrong all these years. I finally watched it for the first time right here on TCM and was completely over the falls in a barrel for it (sorry). It’s a terrific thriller with a great twist around the middle of the movie. Another great surprise.
Sometimes, however, the surprises are a little more jolting. Again, I can plead ignorance here but I can’t really give a reason for my ignorance except that for these titles, I just never bothered to read anything about them. And for this next one, it was a real stunner. You see, years ago, I remember seeing an old ad for Joe, the 1970 movie starring Peter Boyle and directed by John G. Avildsen. From the ad, it looked like a comedy to me along the lines of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It showed a picture of Peter Boyle with a wry smile holding a rifle and an American flag and the tagline said, “Keep America Beautiful.” So to me, as a young kid, it looked like some movie where a local “joe” becomes a local celebrity for one reason or another and through his simple but honest ways, inspires everyone. Ahahahaa, oh brother, I couldn’t have been more wrong! A few years ago it was on TCM and I thought, “Let me finally give this fluffy little movie a look.” Well, if you haven’t seen it, there’s nothing fluffy about it. And the character Joe is utterly despicable. Truly vile. A racist, blue collar man who blames everyone for his problems, especially if they’re hippies or non-white or both. And it’s story is about as dark and the opposite of light and fluffy as you can get. Spoiler: There’s no happy ending.
I had no idea, none whatsoever, for years, what Portrait of Jennie was about. None. Zero. It never really showed up in my film books and I had a vague notion that Joseph Cotten (there he is again) was a painter. So, I guess I just thought it was about a painter and his muse and it actually is but not how I imagined it. When I finally saw it, it happened as a result of falling in love with The Devil and Daniel Webster, a movie directed by William Dieterle, the man who also happened to be the director of Portrait of Jennie. I decided to give it a look, again courtesy of TCM. Wow. I had no idea it was a haunting story of a ghostly romance that climaxes with one of the most jaw dropping dream sequences in movie history. It was one of those experiences where as soon as the movie ended I slapped my head and asked myself scornfully why I waited so long to watch it.
And now one more to make this a nice round list of five movies. This one was, next to Joe, the biggest shock for me. It was a movie that, like Niagara, I had thought was some second rate Douglas Sirk knockoff. When I finally saw it, with no idea what the plot of the movie even was, I was dumbfounded, and in love. The movie? Leave Her to Heaven. Again, wow. Here I was settling down for what I thought would be a basic technicolor soap opera romance and instead got treated to a thriller revolving around one of the most sociopathic characters in movie history, Ellen Berent, played by Gene Tierney. If you’ve never seen it, let me just say that Fatal Attraction‘s histrionics don’t come close to the slow creeping dread of Ellen Berent’s zero sum game. And Alex Forrest is a cream puff next to Ellen.
We all have our blind spots. I’m sure there are still other movies out there that I’ve passed on because I have a completely different idea of what I think they are than what they really are. It happens. We movie folks try to see so many movies and read up on so many more that it’s inevitable some are going to fall by the wayside. Hopefully, if it’s a movie it turns out we’ll love, we won’t stay away forever. Of course, it’s also perfectly valid to avoid a movie if we’re pretty sure we’re not going to like it. That’s why I’ll never watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I’m just not into live action animal movies for kids.
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