I Saw That Coming

Fred Zinnemann had a long and varied career (including the classic From Here to Eternity, airing today on TCM, on the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor) but it was near the end of his career, with his third to last film, The Day of the Jackal, that he had one of his biggest box office hits ever.   He wasn’t sure he wanted to do it when he first got the offer but the more he thought about it, the more he was intrigued.  Here was a suspense thriller in which the entire plot revolves around a mission that the audience, or at least the historically/culturally aware audience, knows will ultimately fail.   After all, the mission is to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.  Three years before the movie was made, de Gaulle died from a ruptured blood vessel in his home.  He was not assassinated.  So anyone going into the movie would know that the Jackal (Edward Fox), the assassin followed by the movie as he moves closer and closer to de Gaulle, doesn’t succeed.  That leaves the question, where’s the suspense?  To create suspense from a situation with a known outcome was something Zinnemann couldn’t resist and unlike the Jackal, he succeeded completely.  The Day of the Jackal is a great suspense thriller, even though we know how it ends.

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Is the Biopic Obsolete?

Biopics, or biographical pictures, were once big business in Hollywood.  With The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola and Juarez, Paul Muni cemented his legacy as the biopic’s number one actor.  The same year Muni won Best Actor for playing Pasteur, Best Picture went to The Great Ziegfeld, a biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld, played William Powell.  Of course, the same thing still happens with regularity.  A whopping nine of the last fourteen best actresses (that’s nine for, five against) have won for playing a real-life person.  This year’s Day-Lewis award… sorry, I mean, Best Actor award, went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of the title character in Lincoln.   Biography has always meant two things to Hollywood:  1) Built-in audience and 2) Oscars.  But do we need them anymore?  No, not the way they used to get made, that is.  That kind of biopic is dead and gone or, at least, it should be.  It’s obsolete.

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The Journeyman Who Won an Oscar

If you had asked me when I was just growing up on the movies in the mid to late seventies who was going to be the big director of the decade, I might have answered Franklin J. Schaffner.  That wouldn’t have been a crazy answer either.  Sure, there was Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin and Hal Ashby.    Not to mention Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg,  John Boorman and Peter Bogdanovich.  Oh yeah, and let’s not forget  Bernardo Bertolucci,  John Cassavetes, Bob Fosse, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman… okay, okay, enough!  The point is, despite all those great talents, Franklin J. Schaffner was the first director I really got to know by name.

Let me rephrase that.  I knew of Welles and Hitchcock, Renoir and Kurosawa, Fellini and Powell and a host of other classic directors but, as a growing cinephile in the seventies, of the contemporary directors, Franklin J. Schaffner was the first one whose name I recognized because it just happened to be on three of my favorite movies when I was young:  Planet of the Apes (POTA), Patton and Papillon, the three P’s of my movie-loving childhood.

So you’d expect I might possibly answer, “Yeah, Schaffner, he’s the one.  He’ll be remembered.”  And then, of course, he fell off the edge of the world.   The culprit?  Some of the worst script selection in the history of Hollywood.

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Movie Tunes that Set My Toes to Tappingson

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When I was a kid in wool knickers and a collarless shirt, hitching rides on the trolley and selling “papes” with my fellow newsies… wait a minute, why is Morlock Jeff’s life flashing before my eyes?  That was weird.

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Anyway, when I was a kid, a child of the 70s during the trouble-free days of the Nixon administration, I spent a lot of my idle youth in my local movie house, The Danielson Cinema.  This being The Good Old Days (as we called them even then), the Powers That Be didn’t run commercials or word scrambles or lame movie trivia quizzes on the screen before and between movies, no.  They kept the curtains closed, the screen dark, and they played movie music.  Movie music at the movies.  And before people had cellphones or iPhones or Blackberries and had to text each other every thought and feeling or watch movies before the movie, people actually sat in their seats, doing nothing… and listening.  How did we ever lose that?  Anyway… my point isn’t to gas on about what inconsiderate, overstimulated dicks we’ve become in the last 10 years but to talk about movie music, in particular the cine-tunes that got me started on a life-long love affair with movie soundtracks.  Two themes I used to hear again and again on the PA system of The Dan (I never really called it that but now I wish I had – that would have been so cool, “I’m off to The Dan! …  If you need me, you’ll find me at The Dan!” I would have said that to my parents, too, if I’d thought of it back then- oh, well, another opportunity lost) were the theme to THE MOLLY MAGUIRES (1970) and a bit of music from PATTON (1970).  I think those two pieces of music were, if you will, the spark that started my fire… [...MORE]

My Favorite Oscar Embarrassments

These days it’s hard to imagine anything truly unexpected or unplanned happening at any Academy Award ceremony due to the incredibly high security and tightly scripted evening which allows for no guerrilla street theatre or bizarre on-stage behavior – Jack Palance dropping down and doing one-arm pushups was the rare highlight of 1992 Oscar night. In fact if anybody tries any funny business this year or at future Oscar ceremonies there’s a good chance they’d be clubbed to death by security or subdued with a taser or jailed under the Patriot Act. And we have the ’70s to blame for all this because it was a time when actors started using the podium to champion their favorite political cause or instead of showing up sent a really bizarre representative to accept their award.
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