Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Smith Family (1971)
An excellent effort doomed by seeming aimlessness
Pointing the finger at "aimlessness" as the culprit for this excellent show's early demise is, in a sense, as misleading as describing "The Smith Family" as "lighthearted." Neither term is fully adequate when discussing this series. It's more accurate to say that this is a show that deserved an audience, yet failed to find one. Quite likely, such an audience simply didn't exist; sadly, I doubt even more that one would readily materialize today.
Picture "Dragnet's" Joe Friday as a family man, happily married and determined to keep his job and his homelife separate. There you have the challenge faced by Henry Fonda's Detective Sgt. Chad Smith, and the focal point around which each episode revolved. His determination to safeguard his family's normality is illustrated by their picket fence-enclosed house on Primrose Lane (an image further reinforced by the use of Jerry Wallace's hit "Primrose Lane" as the show's theme song, sung by Mike Minor with special lyrics). Unfortunately, this normality too often translated in the series as "mundane," partially due to excellent performances by a standout cast (which included a post-Opie Ron Howard as teenage son Bob), all of whom never stepped out of character.
The show did have some solid moments to it, including the episode in which a mild-mannered middle-aged gentleman inveigles his way into the Smith household as "an old friend of Chet's" shortly before Chet is due home. The suspense builds, as we're aware that this charming, innocuous individual is actually quite mad, and determined to kill Sgt. Smith for having sent him to prison several years earlier. How Chet manages to save himself and, afterward, keep his family from learning the truth (Chet: "He had an appointment and couldn't stay for supper." Betty: "Oh, what a shame.") is handled without an excess of drama or violence, highly realistically, and delivers a superb payoff. Again unfortunately, however, such quiet heroism is rarely the fare of network TV success.
Had the show delivered a touch either of the "bells and whistles and sirens" of most contemporary police dramas, or else the alcoholism and stress-related angst which several Wambaugh-inspired series would soon introduce into cops' off-duty lives, "The Smith Family" might have stuck around significantly longer. Unfortunately, Chet Smith was simply a decent man fighting the good fight, both on the job and at home; the series' doom came as a result of his winning both fights so handily.
What a shame!
The Man Who Saved Christmas (2002)
An intelligent "feel good" Christmas tale
"The Man Who Saved Christmas" would probably fail the historical accuracy test on any number of points -- casting roly-poly Jason Alexander as the former Olympic athlete A.C. Gilbert, for example; or the fact that A.C. jr., who features prominently in the film's storyline, wasn't even born until almost a year after World War I ended -- and so, if historical accuracy is your main criterion in judging a film, skip this one.
If, however, you're after warmth with intelligence, or a dose of sweetness that is neither sappy nor cloying, with perhaps a few telling insights into human nature thrown in for good measure, I suggest taking a look at this one. Jason Alexander crafts an amazing character, balancing childlike innocence against shrewd business savvy as his A.C. Gilbert struggles in his decency to do the right thing. First, however, he has to determine for himself just what is, ultimately, that "right thing," blind, unquestioning patriotic adherence to what the government wants out of him, or to look within himself as well and to follow the voicings of his own conscience? And, if so, then how to reconcile the two?
It's a particular strength of this film that there are no clear-cut "bad guys," per se. Even the senior Gilbert's seemingly hardheaded Scrooginess (under Ed Asner's stewardship) is tempered by an affection that doesn't come off as forced; but then, neither does the man's various changes of heart as he's forced to reconcile his own attitudes with those of his sons.
The real-life A.C. Gilbert is said to have trusted in the intelligence of the children to whom he marketed his science/technology-oriented toys. The same can be said for the producers of "The Man Who Saved Christmas" and their attitude toward their audience.
Oh My Word (1965)
Two contestants (everyday people for the first four seasons, celebrity guests were added in the show's final season) listened to four panelists give possible definitions to obscure words; winning a round consisted of guessing which panelist had given the correct definition.
Simple . . . except for the presence of panelist Scott Beach (local actor, disc jockey and raconteur, whose later screen career started with an uncredited appearance -- as a killer -- in "Bullitt"). Beach exerted an erudite, professorial authority as he held forth with informed, in-depth discussions that not only gave the origin of the word and its variations but also . . . were total fabrications; yet the contestants, as though mesmerized by a cobra's stare, invariably fell for his nonsense, time and time again. Except, of course, on those occasions when he almost apologetically offered what had to be the lamest excuse for a definition (as though he'd been caught flat-footed) -- at which time, of course, his WAS the correct definition.
"Oh My Word" was that wonderfully rare blend of fact and fun. You really didn't mind learning something here; it happened while you were laughing. The rest of the panelists, all local personages with the exception of June Lockhart (what was Lassie's mom doing here?) turned in yeomanlike performances, but Beach was the draw. Even host Jim Lange ("The Dating Game," etc.) often wore an expression as though wondering why he'd bothered to show up.
A minor classic.
Who Is the Black Dahlia? (1975)
Excellent, but with an additional "side mystery" to it
**Warning: Possible spoilers for anyone unfamiliar with the story!**
The grisly murder of Elizabeth Short -- the "Black Dahlia" -- has fascinated crime-buffs (along with ghouls of various stripe) virtually nonstop since that January 1947 morning when her savaged body was discovered in a south-central L.A. vacant lot. Almost immediately, and almost without exception, this focus has been sensationalized and has tended to dehumanize Short to such an extent that it's all too easy to overlook the fact that she was a human being as opposed to merely a gaudily-nicknamed, conveniently placed puzzle.
The great exception to this treatment is 1975's "Who Is The Black Dahlia?"
The film tells two stories in parallel, and it does so very effectively. Alongside the police investigation into her murder, Beth Short's life is also examined in flashback as months and days unfold to lead her to her death. There's a sense of inevitability in the air that surrounds both stories; just as certain initial steps (or missteps) in the investigation seem to foredoom its chances of success, there is likewise an aura of "paths not taken" which seems to render the Black Dahlia's fate inescapable. As portrayed (hauntingly and convincingly) by Luci Arnaz, Short emerges as a vulnerable young woman who, for all her outward cynicism, is far too trusting. In the film's final glimpse of Beth, as you watch her walking away into infamy, you may well experience an urge to run after her, stop her, maybe buy her a cup of coffee, anything to forestall the inevitable . ..
And that final glimpse leads to the "side mystery" I alluded to in the title line. Police reports filed during the initial investigation indicate that Short was last seen walking south from the Hotel Biltmore, and yet in the film -- for which retired LAPD Sgt. Harry Hansen provided copious notes from his days (and official files) on that investigation -- she's depicted as walking west along 7th Street from the Hotel Mayfair. Curious . ..
Along with Arnaz (whose mother, Lucille Ball, was reportedly dead-set against her playing the role), the movie offers standout performances by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (as Hansen), Tom Bosley (as longtime, and well-known, police reporter Bevo Means) and a very well-designed sense of time and place to heighten the authenticity in a strong film.
Al Capone (1959)
An eerily compelling Capone . . .
Many actors have portrayed Capone over the years. It's virtually a "cottage industry," guaranteeing that yet another Capone flick will hit the screens before the collective audience has quite recovered from its yawn at the last one. And yet, for me, no one has ever come quite so close to nailing the role as Rod Steiger in this 1959 black-and-white low-budget effort.
As a matter of fact, using the term "low-budget" does this film a disservice, calling to mind as it does the run-of-the-mill output of producer/distributor Allied Artists (usually on the scale of "Attack Of The 50-Foot Mummified Woman Meets Godzilla's Teenage Werewolf Son"). For this film, however, the studio assembled a strong acting ensemble which includes Martin Balsam, Nehemiah Persoff, Murvyn Vye, and James Gregory, all of whom deliver standout performances.
Yet it's Steiger whose performance holds this film together. His Capone is a monster whose mood swings defy the term "mercurial," yet his psychopathy seems somehow strangely -- disturbingly -- human. You can sense the demons deep within him, and how they drive him, but you're never allowed to glimpse them, not even momentarily, lest you lose sight of the fact that this man truly is a monster. Eerily compelling, even hypnotic (particularly as he woos -- and wins! -- the widow of a cop he's previously murdered), Steiger invests his characterization with the bravura of the opera which the real-life Capone professed to admire. Alternately wheedling and bullying, bellicose and scheming, he assumes a larger-than-life mythos which resonates all the more uncomfortably due to a sense of plausibility, the feeling that such men do continue to exist among us.
The storyline itself is more or less factual, save for Gregory's character (which isn't even really a composite of any particular real-life law enforcement personnel), as well as a decision to re-name Balsam's character rather than use the identity of the real-life Jake Lingle, upon whom the character is based. Certain incidents have been fictionalized as to the way they happened, but that's to be expected in the interest of dramatic effect.
Overall, the film achieves an almost documentary effect. Steiger's performance makes it a very chilling documentary, indeed.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Shadow of a film
***POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD***
Frankly, most of the critical raves blandished upon "Shadow of a Doubt" can be summed up in one word: drivel.
It is not a great film, it is certainly NOT a "classic," except only in the most negative sense; it barely qualifies as even a "good" film. In fact, the most accurate judgment might be one purportedly leveled by author Dashiell Hammett at a Lillian Hellman effort: "worse than bad, it's ALMOST good." Hitchcock's missteps in this film are legion, from an unnecessary opening sequence in a Philadelphia boarding-house to a silly, equally unnecessary romantic entanglement toward the movie's end. He lets the film's pace get away from him -- an achievement in itself, given its tendency to plod at awkward moments -- and seems to lose any sense of thematic continuity from scene to scene, sacrificing the occasional strong, telling moment to a mishmash of indifferent editing.
Contemporary critics, in extolling "Shadow," seem intent on projecting much of Hitchcock's later greatness onto this film, often seeing things that aren't there. It's become quite fashionable, for example, to speak of the voluminous dark smoke issuing from the locomotive as it powers the train bringing Uncle Charlie west, seeing this as a "harbinger" of evil descending. One critic has even termed the train as "phallic" in its invasion of bucolic Santa Rosa.
Sometimes, as Freud once supposedly remarked, a cigar is simply a cigar. In this instance, the train is simply a train. Trains of that era happen to have belched dark smoke. Voluminously. And Hitchcock happened to like trains. Used them in a lot of his films. (And yes, the final train scene in "North By Northwest" IS phallic; this one, however, isn't.)
"Shadow of a Doubt" is, very simply, a film that got away from Hitchcock, one that very likely wouldn't have had he filmed it later in his career. The themes he attempts to explore are worth exploring; unfortunately, he doesn't come close to pulling it off here. It's really maddening to think just what he might have done, say, a dozen or so years later with this story.
But any "classic" encomiums attached to this film, sadly, are just so much wishful thinking.
The Lineup (1954)
Memoirs of a face on the cutting-room floor
To this day, fifty years later, I can never go by one of those still-standing Gamewells (the old police call boxes which used to stand on seemingly every other street corner in town) without expecting to find Lt. Ben Guthrie or Inspector Matt Greb leaning into it. Perhaps it's the fact that so much of this series was shot on location -- rather than on soundstages -- and perhaps it has to do with the fact that the producers used a great deal of "local talent" (sportscaster Sandy Spillman seemed to spend as much time in uniform here as he did doing the nightly sports roundup); whatever the reason, "The Lineup" managed to weave itself into the fabric of daily San Francisco life in that era. If you lived here, you grew used to seeing their production van -- with its distinctive silhouetted "Lineup" on the sides -- pulling up to ready another shot. You never knew but that you might end up in a scene. It happened to me once, waiting in line for a 'kiddie matinee' outside the Paramount theatre, only they edited the scene just before the camera panned over me. Ah well, fame is fleeting, or so they say . . .
"The Lineup" owed its inspiration to the success of "Dragnet," of course, even to the characterizations of Guthrie and Greb (while Warner Anderson's stern asceticism could make Jack Webb's Joe Friday look like Chuckles the Clown, it's not hard to imagine Tom Tully's Matt Greb and Ben Alexander's Frank Smith knocking back a few rounds and swapping lies at a cop bar together); this is where the similarities ended. "The Lineup" was tighter, its pace more in keeping with that of daily SF life, and the dialogue was refreshingly free of the "natural speech" um's and ah's in "Dragnet." Fictional as it was, it nonetheless became a fairly faithful chronicle of its time and place
That time has long since passed, and so much of the sights and the sounds of the place have changed. Yet interestingly enough, a large number of those old Gamewells still stand . . . almost as though they're waiting for Guthrie and Greb to return.
Neither of those guys, after all, would ever carry a cell phone!
The Dain Curse (1978)
A traveling circus that gets . . . nowhere
Someone, back in the misty reaches of 1977-78, had a pretty good idea: Take Dashiell Hammett's "The Dain Curse" and turn it into a TV mini-series "event." The novel itself, after all, had started out as a serialization in "Black Mask" magazine, and a legion of readers had faithfully followed its plot convolutions there, so why -- or so the reasoning must have gone -- shouldn't it work equally well on the installment plan by spreading a TV dramatization out over several nights?
This, unfortunately, was the last good idea experienced by anybody in conjunction with the production.
Any number of object lessons can -- and should be --drawn from what wound up being presented as "Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse." (Presumably, to differentiate it from "Joe Blow's The Dain Curse," an important distinction.) Object lesson #1: If you're going to slavishly follow a plot that has enough twists and turns and old fashioned red herrings to make "The Canterbury Tales" read like "Dick And Jane Floss Their Teeth," then you'd best make sure you've at least got a director and cast who can maintain a pace that will keep your audience riveted. Otherwise, you run the risk of numerous viewers snapping awake simultaneously during a commercial break and saying "For THIS we missed 'Three's Company?'"
Similarly, if you're going to adhere to the plot (and its dialogue), it's generally a good idea to cast actors who can carry it off. The novel's short and fat, middle-aged (but extremely tough) protagonist happens to also be anonymous, all for a purpose; changing him into the tall and thin, dapper (but extremely sardonic) James Coburn and giving him a name like Hamilton Nash (sounds like Dashiell Hammett, get it? wink! wink!) may gain you a bit of star power, except that he hasn't a clue how to relate to his material.
Equally to the point, if you decide to change the story's setting from San Francisco and the central California coast to New York City and some generic seashore locale, keep in mind that any number of Hammett partisans -- whose teeth are already set in terminal-grind mode by this point -- are going to expect you to have a very good reason for doing so.
In fairness, it should be mentioned that all concerned appear to give it their best shot (Hector Elizondo, as small-town sheriff Ben Cotton, and Jason Miller, as Owen Fitzstephan, are both standouts) as this "event" lurches from situation to situation; unfortunately, best shots here have a tendency to fall short of the mark, rather like a trapeze artist who can never quite make that third midair somersault in time or a high-wire artist with chronic nosebleed. The end result is a traveling circus, gamely striking its tent and moving on but getting . . . you guessed it!
Life with Elizabeth (1952)
A comedy of situations . . . and an overlooked gem
Elizabeth appeared to be an ordinary, everyday housewife of her time(the early 50s), and so she was . . . er, aside from the fact that an off-camera announcer regularly led forays to check into the goings-on around her house, of course. And then, come to think of it, she wasn't exactly the docile, unassuming "little woman" that husband Alvin always hoped (against all reason) she'd turn out to be, either.
In a word, she was an imp. She delighted in puncturing Alvin's pomposity, always lovingly, but invariably disastrously.
Introduced each week by harp music, which gave a deceptively tranquil lead-in to what was to follow, "Life With Elizabeth" wasn't a 'situation comedy' -- indeed, that concept had barely been formed at the time; instead, it was a comedy of situations, usually two to each show, individual and unrelated, each of them introduced by the off-camera announcer who then just let events unfold. Once chaos had yet again been firmly established as the order of the day, his voice would be again heard, this time presumably as her conscience: "Elizabeth!" (pause) "Aren't you ashamed?"
She usually gave it a moment's thought before shaking her head impishly.
As with the harp music, the show itself was deceptive in its simplicity, the writing, production and, not least of all, the performances of Betty White and Del Moore who were letter-perfect. Produced by a local Los Angeles TV station (at which White and Moore had been staffers), "Life With Elizabeth" seems to have lived its entire life in syndication.
And Elizabeth kept life from ever becoming dull!
Leather Jackets (1991)
The Sort of Movie You'd Wish on Your Worst Enemy
"Leather Jackets" is (probably) not the worst movie ever made; it only seems that way while you're sitting through it, wondering why you even bother while some sort of morbid fascination keeps you rooted in place as you tell yourself it can't get much worse -- even while it proceeds to do so. It's a movie that would have been right at home back in the good old days of the "troubled youth" B-films of the 50s (although they'd have had to clean up the language considerably); nobody really expected those films to make any sense or to bother with such amenities as plot coherence or character motivations. Sadly, however, time has marched on and D.B. Sweeney's Mickey is a moron (seven years he's carried a torch for Claudi and he's never noticed that she's the town punch?) while Cary Elwes' Dobbs is the sort of creature you instinctively want to step on (but only if you're not wearing your good shoes). Not much to root for between those two, and the most positive thing to be said for them is that the Vietnamese gangboys who are chasing them seem to be no better. Ironically, the only character who does prompt any real sympathy is Bridget Fonda's Claudi -- but even that's not enough once you find yourself wondering what the hell she's doing with these losers in the first place. All in all, a downer of a film, a downer of an ending, a downer of a way to waste a couple of hours . . .