Untapped Fears: The Plumber (1979)

The Plumber  (1979) Directed by Peter Weir Shown: Key Art

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Our fears take many forms. I was born and (mostly) raised in California so it’s probably not surprising that I fear natural disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires, which are currently ravaging the place I call home. Others are terrified by serial killers and mad gunmen such as the Las Vegas shooter who recently killed 59 people and wounded nearly 500 others. There are those who fear monstrous creatures like werewolves, giant apes and vampires and some who have phobias triggered by clowns, arachnids or great heights. War, disease and the death of loved ones are typically things we all fear. In the case of Peter Weir’s The Plumber (1979), the main protagonist fears a discourteous plumber who invades her privacy and personal space during a string of ill-timed repairs.

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Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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Years ago I read about Cecil B. DeMille’s adventures with The Squaw Man. If you’re unfamiliar with that title, it’s the first movie DeMille ever directed, a silent Western shot in 1914. It was also the 33rd movie he directed, depending on which uncredited assists you count, in 1918. And it was the first sound Western he ever made, in 1931. At a certain point, people close to him must have asked, “Geez, what is it with you and The Squaw Man?!” Surely, if he’d lived into the 1960′s, he would have figured out a way to give it one more go, maybe with Eli Wallach this time. Whether he was trying to perfect it, make lightning strike three times or just loved the story that much, DeMille clearly felt the first time wasn’t as good as it could have been. Not being able to endlessly ruin the original with CGI updates, he simply made it again. Three years after DeMille’s last attempt, Alfred Hitchcock, in 1934, made his first attempt at The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Leslies Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role. Twenty-one years later, he gave it another go, this time with Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day and Bernard Miles, who was given the impossible task of filling Peter Lorre’s shoes. The differences between the two are minimal but the reputation of the two are quite different.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Obsession (1949)

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I know what you are thinking. Obsession (1976), the Hitchcock-inspired horror film by Brian DePalma about reincarnation, may not be his most respected work, but it is hardly forgotten. And, then there is Luchino Visconti’s Italian version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione (1943), which is often listed in film history books, so it has not been forgotten. But, have you heard of the 1949 British film called Obsession? Or, perhaps by its alternate title, The Hidden Room? Yeah, me neither.

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Shoot First, Die Later (1974)

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Here’s how I’d pitch Fernando Di Leo’s Shoot First, Die Later (1974) to any of my friends: If you’d like to see a gritty Italian crime movie that evokes The French Connection (1971) and surely influenced Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, look no further than this grim bit of business. Heck, I’ll toss in one more movie reference for good measure. Are you familiar with the re-release poster for Le Samouraï (1967), the one where Alain Delon stares expressionlessly down the barrel of a gun? Imagine him grinning instead (if you can) and there you have Shoot First, Die Later. It’s as if the French shrug at the abyss whereas the Italians meet the same raw nihilism with a smile. [...MORE]

A Daring Directorial Debut: Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)

MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS, from left: Peter Glenville, Stewart Granger, 1944

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Arthur Crabtree is chiefly remembered for helming two imaginative science fiction and horror thrillers in the late 1950s, Fiend Without a Face (1958) and Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). But before he became associated with these cult favorites, Crabtree worked extensively with Gainsborough Pictures where he photographed some of the studio’s biggest hits including The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944), which helped make Stewart Granger a star. At Gainsborough, Crabtree built a reputation as an efficient and economical cinematographer who was responsible for giving these modestly budgeted costume dramas the polish and sophistication that they desperately needed so it’s not surprising that the British studio eventually gave him the opportunity to direct. Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) is Crabtree’s first feature film and it is a strange, inventive and daring directorial debut that you can currently catch on FilmStruck as part of their “Early Stewart Granger” theme.

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Reviving the Dead: Insomnia (1997)

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There’s a moment in the 1997 thriller, Insomnia, where Detective Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgård) walks out of an autopsy and sighs, “I’m fed up with reviving the dead.” He’s with his partner, Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), an older, more relaxed police detective. His philosophy is basically, “It’s whatever you make of it.” Engstrom replies, “No, it’s not.” Vik just smiles and changes the topic. Solving one murder after another has put Engstrom in the unenviable position of constantly getting to know dead people intimately that he can never know in life. He’s tired, physically and mentally, and his newest case won’t even grant him the luxury of a dark and quiet night in which to get some sleep.

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Into Thin Air: The Vanishing (1988)

VANISHING, THE (1988)

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Years ago, I watched a made-for-television movie starring Cloris Leachman and Dabney Coleman called Dying Room Only (1973). It was written by a personal favorite of mine, Richard Matheson, and told the story of a couple on a road trip stopping off at a diner to get a bite to eat and take a rest. While Leachman sips her coffee, husband Coleman goes to the restroom and never comes back. I was fascinated and gripped until the climax, when the movie reveals what happened. I won’t spoil it for you, but when I saw The Vanishing (1988) years later, based on the book The Golden Egg, I thought two things: One, did the book’s writer watch Dying Room Only and two, I’m glad he fixed the ending.

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Sharp as a Razor: Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980)

DRESSED TO KILL (1980)

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Today it’s easy to take for granted what a big deal Dressed to Kill was when it opened in early 1980, but I think you could argue that no other film from director Brian De Palma is more important in his filmography. That’s not to say it’s necessarily his best film – after all, you have a heavy slate of masterpieces to choose from – but this is the one that gave birth to the modern erotic thriller, kicked off the wave of unrated director’s cuts on home video decades before it became the norm, drove critics to rip out their hair and charge De Palma with flagrant Hitchcock plagiarism (mainly due to the fact that Hitch died the same year this came out), and familiarized moviegoers with the concept of the body double (a nude stand-in for an actor), which had earlier played a role in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) and become the title of a later De Palma thriller in 1984. [...MORE]

Love and War: The Spy in Black (1939)

SPY IN BLACK, THE (1939)

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“We are at war. Perhaps you forgot that, as I did for awhile. You are English, I am German, we are enemies!”

“I like that better.”

“And I. It simplifies everything.”

That conversation happens late in the 1939 thriller, The Spy in Black, but it strikes at the heart of the movie. The Spy in Black is notable as the first movie that the esteemed filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked on together, though not as co-directors. This first time out, Powell was the sole director and Pressburger, the screenwriter. The movie follows more along the lines of Powell and the duo’s early work, a small, intimate film, high on efficiency, low on bloat. The story is a rather average one (spies fooling each other in an effort to win one for the war effort) distinguished by the performances of Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, and the direction of Powell. But it also distinguishes itself in taking its little story and heaping upon it the moral quandaries of love and death in war, something that quote above speaks to. And in that respect, it is one of the best spy thrillers of the 1930s.

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An Unusual Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)

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Tiger Bay is one of my all-time favorite films that I made. I still can’t get over the thrill I got when I first saw Hayley on the screen, with those wonderful big eyes … She was an ideal little person to work with because you knew … when you just looked through the lens at her that the camera loved her … You just knew that she had such a rapport with the camera and that’s what filmmaking is about – the rapport between the camera and the artist. It’s that magic that you can not explain. You either have it or you don’t. The very best actor or actress in the world, if the camera doesn’t love her, half the performance has gone.” – J. Lee Thompson

Twelve-year-old Hayley Mills made her screen debut in Tiger Bay (1959) playing Gillie, a rambunctious doe-eyed orphan living with her aunt in the British working-class neighborhood of Tiger Bay. When Gillie unwittingly witnesses a Polish sailor (Horst Buchholz) shoot his girlfriend (Yvonne Mitchell), she steals the gun to impress her young playmates and protect the charismatic killer. Over the course of the film Gillie and the murderer develop an unusual bond while trying to evade a determined police superintendent (John Mills) and escape prosecution.

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