IMDB #175 Casino

If I ever were to finish this countdown, one of the many benefits would be this: no one would ever look at me in disbelief and say "You've never seen [FILM]? I can't believe it!"

Which is my way of confessing that I've never seen Martin Scorsese's 1995 opus Casino nor (more damningly) its spiritual companion Goodfellas.

I know, I know- but that's why we're here: to learn. Today's lesson involves nearly three hours of f-bombs, brutal violence, oldschool Vegas opulence, and incessant voice-over.

The Key Players:

Scorsese is a name known to all, even fans of animated fish. His signature style, from Mean Streets to the Oscar-winning The Departed, is oft-imitated and disseminated, and we'll sadly not visit him again until four trips in the top 70.

Except for The Departed, all of Marty's breakthrough's involve fellow Italian-American Robert De Niro, whom he shepherded to a Lead Actor Oscar in Raging Bull. De Niro's an actor of range, but mostly he's used those collaborations and roles in The Godfather: Part II and Heat and the like to cultivate a tough guy image, which he's been mining for easy laughs (Analyze This and sequel, Meet The Parents and sequel...s) for the last decade and a half.

Like a shorter, squatter De Niro with less dignity, Joe Pesci would similarly trade Scorsese-bred mobster cred (Goodfellas, Raging Bull) for broad turns like getting hit in the face with a can of paint in Home Alone (and sequel!).

Sharon Stone's breakthrough early 90s roles in Totall Recall and Basic Instinct lead to typecasting as a femme fatale for the most part, though her part hear is more than mere hustler, and she would win a Golden Globe for her trouble.

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The Story:

I'm taking a pass on this one- there's nearly three hours of intricate organized crime relations that I had trouble keeping full track of, anyway.

Suffice it to say that De Niro plays Sam "Ace" Rothstein, the country's top handicapper who's tapped by the mob to run the Tangiers Casino in Vegas- in other words he makes sure the house always wins, and gives the powers that be their cut.

He falls for a hustler named Ginger (Stone)- they marry and have a child, but she's still hung up on her former grifter boyfriend, a lowlife played by James Woods.

Sam's troubles are further complicated by Nicky Santoro, his childhood friend and brutal mob enforcer. Initially sent by the bosses to make sure no one interferes with the Tangiers operation, Nicky quickly becomes the informal crimelord of Vegas, knocking over jewelry stores and banks, and burying anyone in his way in one of the holes in the desert.

Soon the two former friends are at odds, a coke-addled Ginger threatens to run away with Sam's daughter, and the FBI and no-longer tolerant local police are always one step from closing in.

The Artistry:

Casino begins with an engrossing enough hook- in 1983, we see De Niro get in to his car right before it explodes, and then we flashback to see what lead him to that point.

What follows is a long, long journey overrun with incessant voice-over, from both De Niro and Pesci, as if they're giving a DVD commentary on the scattered scenes we're presented with. At one point even a minor go-between played by Frank Vincent gets a minute of voice-over! What?

And it's not that it's always a bad device, but I didn't find it illuminating in the slightest- usually it's De Niro wondering if he can trust his slickster wife (he can't), or compounding on the intricacies of the midwest-based crime syndicates running the show in Vegas (which comes through just as well in conversation).

The acting is memorable, at least in the second half when these characters get to define themselves without a voice-over telling us what they're already like- in a reversal of Raging Bull, Pesci plays the psychotic hair-trigger while De Niro just wants to live the straight life.

The politics of the gaming commission, the FBI, and the mob are intriguing to a point, but the pace tends to wander- a clear influence of co-screenwriter Nicholad Pileggi's original novel's basis in real life. Fascinating, for sure, but that doesn't help me out in the watching.

And I'm afraid I can't comment on the supposed shocking violence, having been thoroughly desensitized. Maybe if I'd seen Casino when it came out, and I was 11.


It all comes crumbling down- Rothstein is pushed out of his position by the gaming commission, a midwest lackey is overheard on a wire detailing nearly the entire casino scam. As the mob bosses face trial, they order hits on pretty much every loose end.

After beginning an ill-advised affair with Ginger, it's implied that Nicky is the one who rigs Sam's car to explode- but due to a unique design in the floorplate, Sam survives with minor burns and scrapes.

For the violation of protocol (the affair being worse in mob-terms than the failed hit), Nicky is beaten to death by his own crew in an Iowa cornfield. Ginger runs off with the money and jewels set aside for her (but without her daughter) and eventually ODs.

And Sam Rothstein moves to San Diego a simple sports handicapper, bemoaning the new, tourist-y Vegas that's replaced the cut-throat old one.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

It might be sacreligous to say lower, but here we are. I'm probably being unfair to Scorsese in general, because so much of what he does well he does so well that I take it for granted- rapid editing, a killer soundtrack, clean cinematography. But the sprawling, laconic story of Casino just never drew me in- it leaned to heavy on narration early and too heavy on histronics late.

The Legacy:

Apart from Stone's Globe win and Oscar nomination, Marty would be Globe-nominated as well. Otherwise it's had a middling legacy so far- and point of fact, no one's ever been shocked that I hadn't seen it yet. It was just a good hook to start with (plus Goodfellas comes up a lot).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

A Pesci/De Niro desert conrontation, recast with Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. Ah, YouTube.

Leftover Thoughts:

-To be honest, no one's ever said "You haven't seen Casino to me in an incredulous tone. Number one movie that did come up was Goonies until I finally saw it a couple of years ago.

Coming Up...

174. The Grapes Of Wrath

173. El Secreto De Sus Ojos

172. How TO Train Your Dragon


"You're waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope the train will take you, but you can't be sure."

Christopher Nolan's Inception is an astounding film. Emotionally, the film focuses on a somewhat plodding psychodrama involving Leonardo Dicaprio's character's late wife, unfortunately in the same year that he hit many of the same notes in Shutter Island. I understand the expository babbble, the laying out of the dream-stealing rules, can be a little much for people.

But the setpieces! A spinning hallway houses one of the most thrilling fistfights in recent cinematic history. A folded-over Parisian street, a collapsing ornate tea-house, a Bond-villain-like snow fortress. The bombast (thanks, Hans Zimmer!) and complex plot structure bravura of the film's second half more than make up for any sense of undue weightiness- and the performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, limited in time as they are, make the cast winning on the whole.

Inception is about dreams, yes, but it's not a "dream movie," which for some reason everyone expects it to be. Would you listen to someone tell you about a dream they had for two hours? Dreams make no sense, tell no stories- I implore the critics that found fault with Nolan for failing to capture the feel of dreaming to watch Michel Gondry's The Science Of Sleep instead- dream-logic, stopping and starting in fits and petering out into lost corners of distraction, is a good fit for awkward misfit romanticism, but not the kind of spectacle that Nolan has proved himself so adept at creating with both Batman films.

Instead, he uses the narrative idea of shared dreaming as a springboard for mind-bending exploration- there's even a form of time travel, with the flow of time different at every level of the dream. This is all a backdrop for one of the greatest heist movies, perhaps ever, even though the titular objective is to leave an idea behind instead of steal one.

Wrapping up the entire package, inviting repeat viewings and endless theorizing, is an ambiguous ending that's thrilling and tantalizing all at once. Go see Inception, as soon as you can.

And once you do, return to this post and read my contribution to the endless theorizing, below.


So many different ways to read the spinning (but wobbling!) top at the end.

1. It was totally about to fall, you guys- you saw the wobble. Why would Nolan work so hard to get us to care about Cobb's catharsis and return to his children, and then yank the rug out from under it?

2. Cobb is still lost in limbo- this would make everything from waking up on the plane onward a dream- it's plausible, since it all goes very smoothly and seems almost trancelike- and then Cobb's children appear no older and wear the same clothes they do in his dreams/memories. Also the way that he spent the entire film JUST MISSING THEM SO MUCH had me thinking in general that a lot of time had passed. I think, if this were definitely the case, that we would have ended on a fade to black on the ominously spinning top, instead of the ambiguous abrupt cut.

3. There's a cockamamie theory out there that Cobb was the one being incepted, that it was all a plot to get him to move on from Mal and release his guilt, but there are too many holes in this one- it reminds me of the ridiculous "The machine didn't work" theory people have about The Prestige. But that's not to say I can't get behind...

4. The entire film is a dream: many, many things could be used to support this theory. The mirror hotel room across the way that Mal jumps from looks suspiciously like the honeymoon suite. The "old man filled with regret" and such banter between Saito and Cobb seems dreamlike to me. And I definitely need to see the film a third time to see if the train that they pass going the other way in the very beginning in the supposedly real world is the train that Cobb and Mal used to get out of limbo.

This last one is impossible to prove definitively- but appealing in that it would spell out the metaphor of films themselves being a shared dream. Which is why a showstopping, pulse-pounding movie that also engages us is such a delight- everytime I sit in the theater, waiting to be taken far away, I know where I hope the train will take me, but I can't be sure.

Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, and it's nice to be rewarded so richly.

The Countdown: 30% Done!

I realized that I've covered precisely 75 movies for the countdown, so I thought I would generally rank my feelings for them so far. Ordering them all would take too long, and plus I can do a whole "Countdown of the countdown" when I'm done. For now I've grouped them into five categories and just listed the groups alphabetically.

Ranking things like this is always weird- I tend to make snap judgments based on whether or not I'd feel like watching that movie over and over, which can be unfair to some more emotional films. That said, I'm always going to favor comedies over tragedies, and well made films over melodrama.

I'd provide links to each entry, but that seems like a ton of work (plus they're all linked on THE MASTER LIST, which also has fun pullquotes!).


Arsenic and Old Lace
Bringing Up Baby
Casino Royale
Children Of Men
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
Duck Soup
The Gold Rush
His Girl Friday
Howl's Moving Castle
In Bruges
The Kid
Pirates Of The Carribean
The Princess Bride
Shaun of The Dead


The African Queen
Big Fish
Ed Wood
Good Will Hunting
The Incredibles
Let The Right One In
Letters From Iwo Jima
The Philadelphia Story
Planet of the Apes
Safety Last!
Stalag 17
Sweet Smell Of Success
Young Frankenstein


The Best Years Of Our Lives
The Day The Earth Stood Still
Dial M For Murder
The Exorcist
Grave Of The Fireflies
Harold and Maude
The Hustler
Infernal Affairs
In The Heat Of The Night
Judgment at Nuremberg
Kill Bill Vol. 2
The Night Of The Hunter
Roman Holiday


All Quiet On The Western Front
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
In Cold Blood
King Kong
The Lost Weekend
Out Of The Past
Rosemary's Baby
The Searchers
Shadow Of A Doubt
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


Bonnie and Clyde
Brief Encounter
The Conversation
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The Killing
Kind Hearts and Coronets
La Dolce Vita
Les Diaboliques
Little Miss Sunshine
Mystic River
A Streetcar Named Desire
Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
The Wild Bunch

This Week In Actual Movie Taglines

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Actual tagline: It's The Coolest Job Ever

Is it? What does it pay? Do you get dental? Is there a Sorcerer's Apprentice Union? Are you forced to work with Nicolas Cage and then pretend in thousands of interviews that he's not absolutely insane?


Actual tagline: Your mind is the scene of the crime.

OR: The dream is real.

Sooooooo excited for this one. Totally seeing it at midnight tomorrow. You can plan ahead for my insanely bitter rant if it doesn't get nominated for Best Picture this year.

IMDB #176 The Gold Rush

The return of Chaplin, with 1925's The Gold Rush! Are you as excited as I am?

I'd like to use this space to mention that Janus Films is preparing a touring Chaplin retrospective, with restored 35MM prints of all of the countdown films we'll cover here and more besides. See them on the big screen, with an audience full of people, also laughing! Bookmark this page and check back for city details (I'm crossing all of my fingers and toes for Milwaukee).

The Key Players:

Pretty well covered the man of the hour when we discussed The Kid. He costars with Georgia Hale, whose career didn't make the transition to sound.

Screw the regular format today. I'm just going to answer some pertinent questions to our classic subject matter.

What's The Gold Rush About?

The Tramp heads north to take part in the Alaska Gold Rush, but is waylaid by a blizzard along the way. He dodges a wanted killer, a starving fellow prospector, and strong winds to wind up in a mining town, where he falls in love with a saloon girl (Hale) that initially spurns him. Aw, what rotten luck.

Was He Sleeping With The Leading Lady This Time?

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Of course he was! That's the Chaplin way. They never married, but Chaplin had a long relationship with the sixteen-years-his-junior Hale in the 20s and early 30s.

Did The Gold Rush Inspire Still-Prevalent Pop-Culture Images?

Did it ever. Let's run them down:

1. The Roll Dance:

This endearing bit is actually tinged with a little sadness, as it occurs during a dream in which The Tramp imagines his New Year's Eve dinner party going fabulously well (when in fact nobody showed up). Plus the dance is more intricately choreographed than I expected. Homages including Benny & Joon and The Simpsons

2. Imagining People As Food

When the prospector, dazed by hunger, imagines The Tramp as a giant chicken, it's the first known example of what refers to as Meat-O-Vision, many examples of it are found on that page (fair warning, tvtropes will destroy your free time).

3. Eating Your Own Shoe

Starvation sure was hilarious back in the day. This seems to inspire more direct homages (mostly in Looney Tunes) than a boot-eating trend in general. And the literal cliffhanger at the end, with the cabin teetering on a cliff, doesn't pop up as much either, but it's still a great setpiece.

Was It Successful At The Time?

Was it ever! It's the fifth highest grossing silent film ever, and even Chaplin has named it his favorite among his many works. The years since have only been even kinder, as it works its way up AFI Lists and into the NFR (not to mention our hearts).

Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher! The only question, once we get to Modern Times, City Lights, and The Great Dictator, is which one I will like the best.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Note: This all pertains to the 1925 original version, not Chaplin's 1942 re-edit. No takebacks!

-I think after I finish the 250, I'm going to watch some classic Looney Tunes again, because they're positively rife with references to classic films that obviously went over my head when I was a kid.

Coming Up...

175. Casino

174. The Grapes Of Wrath

173. The Secret In Their Eyes

IMDB #177 Grave Of The Fireflies

Today we make only our third foray into the animated world- a glaring lack, if you ask this guy. For some reason our two-dimensional friends in the kiddie doghouse, despite the ability of any medium to touch with grave sincerity upon the human condition.

Case in point is 1988's affecting, heart-breaking Grave Of The Fireflies.

The Key Players:

Isao Takahata is the co-head of Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, and behind an equally impressive body of work. He seems to span more ranges than his friend and collaborator- anti-war, romance (Only Yesterday), comedy (My Neighbors the Yamadas), and one film, Pom Poko, in Miyazaki's eco-fable wheelhouse.

He adapts an autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka.

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The Story:

September 21, 1945: pre-teen boy Seita, his clothes worn to rags and his stomach long empty, dies in a train station- with his last breath he calls his little sister's name, "Setsuko."

Her spirit soon appears to join his, in a field of dancing fireflies, and they take some sort of spirit-train back to the city of Kobe, to flash us back several months.

March 17, 1945: Kobe is firebombed by American B-29s. Seita and Setsuko survive unharmed near the beach, but their mother is severly burned and dies soon thereafter. Their father away in the navy, they move in with a distant aunt, who does nothing but complain about the extra burden, sell their dead mother's things for food (everything being strictly rationed), and needle Seita to get a job.

Seita decides to move with his sister into an abandoned bomb shelter, and they have fun playing camp until their food runs out. Even with his mother's entire bank account, no one is willing to sell them food due to the widespread shortages and rationing in Japan as the war draws to a hopeless end. Setsuko begins to suffer from severe malnutrition.

The Artistry:

The first time I saw Grave Of The Fireflies, I knew little more than it's title and production studio, and I was punched straight in the gut by the tragic, kids'-eye-view of war. TO be fair, the same trick was pulled on the Japanese public: it was bundled with Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro as a double feature on release, and the family audience was rather taken aback.

But it takes all of the Ghibli hallmarks- powerful anti-war messages, beautiful scenery, adorable character design, nicely designed scores- and puts them to work getting us to care about these two orphans, even though we know they'll be starving to death later.

It's powerful, but it's not a polemic- other than a few generic comments rooting for his father to kick the other side's asses, Seita doesn't give much thought to the Americans- just the next meal.

And watching this film does make you hungry- as Setsuko blearily sucks on a marble instead of candy and makes riceballs from dirt, one can do little but be grateful for their own circumstances in life. Plus fresh white rice is just always delcious.


Uh, they both die. I guess the spoiler barrier isn't worth much today. Also we see their spirits look at the modern city lights of Kobe, content that there's less war-torn starvation in their hometown.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I say a little higher, if only to add more animation in the mix, especially your rare non-Pixar, non-Disney entries.

The Legacy:

The novel was made live-action style for tv in 2005, with interest no doubt piqued by the anime version.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Man I looked everywhere for the part with the actual fireflies, but no luck: there are dozens of clip videos inexplicably set to random songs (most ridiculously to Evanescence). So instead, the somber postscript to the film.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Setsuko has a tin of her favorite hard candy during the film, which is apparently a real brand that occasionally uses her image on containers. It's as if to say "Sakuma Drops: Starve To Death A Little Slower!"

Coming Up...

176. The Gold Rush

175. Casino

174. The Grapes Of Wrath

IMDB #178 Les Diaboliques

Today we take a look at a 1955 French film that I've actually seen before- thanks, film studies minor!

Les Diaboliques, or The Devils, is part thriller, part light horror, with a dash of huge shocking twist.

The Key Players:

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot was a Frenchman most famous for The Wages Of Fear (coming up rather soon on the countdown itself) and the documentary The Mystery Of Picasso. He never bridged the Atlantic to work in Hollywood, though several of his films have become remake fodder, including this one.

Simone Signoret was one France's greatest actresses, becoming the first French person of either gender to win an Academy Award for Room At The Top

The director's wife Véra Clouzot co-stars, in one her scant three film roles, all directed by Henri-Georges.

And Paul Merisse also puts in the most famous role of his long career- he also starred in Clouzot's La vérité.

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The Story:

Our plot is pretty simple: Merisse is a cruel, domineering schoolmaster- Clouzot is his wife, and English teacher with a heart condition that actually owns the school, and Signoret plays his mistress, another teacher.

You'd think they might not care for one another, but Signoret and Clouzot have become friends by mutual hatred of Merisse's brutish ways- they hatch and successfully execute a plot to drug him and drown him in the bathtub.

There are a few tense moments as they move the body in a wicker trunk, but they manage to dump in the school's pool without being seen- this way it will appear he drowned while swimming. Open and shut, right?

Nope- the body seems to have sunk, and doesn't float to the surface for a few days. Signoret arranges to have the pool drained by "accidentally" dropping her keys in there, but the body's missing. Soon Merisse's suit is delivered back to his wife, freshly dry-cleaned, and a student claims the headmaster appeared to punish him for using a slingshot.

A body is found in the river, but when Clouzot goes to the morgue it's not her husband- and a retired police detective takes a freelance interest in her case.

The Artistry:

You really have to stay to the end of Les Diaboliques to know why it's set apart from the countless other 50s thrillers that are clearly Hitchcockian in origin and influence.

The acting is unremarkable, with Signoret's cold conniving and Mrs. Clouzot's conscience-ridden overacting the best and worst parts.

It's paced slowly, and stolidly, and until the big reveal you might wonder why they couldn't whittle it down to an hour for an episode of "Hitchcock Presents."

But then...


The increasingly frail Clouzot is ordered to rest in bed, and tells Signoret it's best if they part- both are suitably freaked now that all rumors point to a ghost coming to haunt them.

Clouzot wakes to the inspector at her bedside, with his own tidings of her live and well husband- she tells him what happened, hoping that penance for her crime will stay the ghost's ire, perhaps. He assures her she'll wake up acquitted, for some reason, and sets off to investigate further on the schoolgrounds.

Then in the film's best sequence, Clouzot sees lights in her husband's office through the window, and nervously creeps down a dark hallway to find his name typed over and over on a paper in the typewriter- then the lights go out suddenly and she runs back to the bathroom, struggling to breath.

And who should be in the tub but Merisse, his hair matted and his eyes rolled back- he stands and silently points at Clouzot as she holds her chest, chokes, and dies of fright, her heart finally given out.

After a beat, Merisse removes the large false irises from his eyes, and lets Signoret in the room- it was all a plot! Now Merisse is rich, and can live with Signoret in the open. What struck me most here is the way the film portrayed Clouzot is wide-eyed and innocent, and then had the two schemers describe with total vitriol here- as in, "now that bitch will finally leave us alone" and so forth.

Of course, crime doesn't pay, and the one-step-too-late inspector steps out of the shadows just as they think they're home free.

The next day, as everyone packs to leave, the same kid that say the "dead" schoolmaster claims that Clouzot appeared to give him his slingshot back, and told him to cause mischief.

The film ends with a title card imploring the audience not to ruin the ending for other film-goers, an early anti-spoiler message.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Perhaps a little lower- it's hard to say. Les Diaboliques is certainly well-made, and the big reveal was great fun the first time I saw it, but overall rewatchability is a pretty big factor for me. Did I really feel the need to watch this again? No, but I did anyway, and that made it seem a little perfunctory. (Note: Dave told me in an email this morning that it's an "awesome film. I think it is spectacular. The mood, the twists, etc." So perhaps he will rebut this in the comments)

The Legacy:

It was remade for American audiences in 1996, with Sharon Stone in the mistress role and Chazz Palminteri unbelievably cast as a guy who scored two chicks at once.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Hey, it's the end! Lots of spoilers, naturally.

Leftover Thoughts:

-In a sad parallel, Véra Clouzot would die of a heart attack at age 46.

Coming Up...

177. Grave Of The Fireflies

176. The Gold Rush

175. Casino

IMDB #179 The Night Of The Hunter

When we toss the term "film noir" around, we largely think of attitude- the gumshoe, the gangster, the wiseguy smirking under the brim of a hat. Sure, there are shadows involved, but it's mainly a plot and character-centered reference.

But really it's a loosely defined movement that stemmed from German Expressionism, and few so-called noirs embody those roots more than 1955's The Night Of The Hunter. There's no big city shadows, whiskey-soaked private eyes, or femme fatales involved- it even has religious themes at its core- but it's noir without the cynicism and the sex appeal all the same.

The Key Players:

This would be the only credited directorial effort of Charles Laughton, an Oscar-winning actor perhaps most famous for starring in Mutiny on the Bounty, plus we saw him as Gracchus in Spartacus.

Remember Robert Mitchum from the very first countdown entry, Out Of The Past? What a journey it's been.

Child stars Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce would abandon the business by the end of the 50s to do normal person things instead, no doubt.

Silent film legend Lillian Gish would cement her status with key roles here and in Duel in the Sun after earlier playing muse for D. W. Griffith's masterpieces (though Birth Of A Nation has aged badly, for obvious reasons).

Elsewhere, Shelly Winters (A Place In The Sun, The Poseidon Adventure) gets second billing despite little screentime, and Peter Graves pops up in a minor role once more.

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The Story:

The film opens with an oddly disembodied Gish reading Bible verses to some children's oddly disembodied heads, against a backdrop of stars. What?

Soon we see some children discover a dead body in a basement, and then we meet the killer- a "preacher" named Harry Powell (Mitchum), who talks to God as he drives along, and can't remember whether it's six or twelve widows he's killed so far. He's pulled over and soon sentenced to 30 days in jail for driving a stolen car.

Next, small town crook Ben Harper (Graves), arrives home just ahead of the police to find his children John (Chapin) and little Pearl (Bruce) playing on the lawn. He hides the $10,000 that he killed two men to steal, and makes them promise not to reveal where it is, even to their mother, Willa (Winters). The family looks on as he's dragged off to jail in turn, and sentenced to hang.

Harper and Powell are of course cellmates, and the sadistic preacher learns of the hidden money (though not where it is) when Harper talks during his sleep. After his release and Harper's hanging, he heads to the small town to put the moves on the widow and try and hit it rich- the townsfolk and Willa are impressed by a debonair, seeming man of the cloth, but young John is suspicious.

Claiming to have been the prison chaplin instead of a fellow inmate, he tells Willa that her late husband confessed to throwing that $10,000 in the creek to be rid of it- this confirms John's suspicions, and a war between them begins- Powell asks over and over about the money, and John's mother won't believe that's he after it until she overhears Powell badgering Pearl for it (by now we know that it's stuffed inside Pearl's doll, which she constantly carries around).

Willa puts it together just in time to get stabbed and dumped in the river- the children set off in a schiff downstream, and a weeklong chase is on- the children beg food from houses along the bank and float on, as the creepy, hymn-singing preacher rides a stolen horse in pursuit.

They're taken in by a woman named Rachel Cooper (Gish) that already cares for three other orphans- she's a stridently devout in her purposes as our maniacal preacher, and clearly these two are headed for a showdown.

The Artistry:

For a movie I had heard nothing about, The Night Of The Hunter has a lot going for it- even a few surprisingly pervasive reference points. Mitchum's psychotic preacher has the words "LOVE" and "HATE" tatooed on his fingers, and uses them to tell a simplistic parable- so now you know where that comes from.

Laughton clearly went all out in making his directorial debut: there are elaborately framed shots over people's shoulders, indulgent singalong portions, and thematically heavy moments- Bruce sings an original song about children being caught in a web as the boat is framed by a cobweb- this after we see every animal under the sun on the way downriver.

But it's not distracting- the first half of The Night Of The Hunter drags quite a bit, but once the chase starts there's no pausing for breath. And Mitchum's absolutely commited performance deserves a lot of the credit- part charm, part rage, and a wonderful baritone singing voice. He and Chapin have a wonderful standoff each time they share the screen.

Gish knocks it out of the park as well, while Winters has a thankless part and the other child actors are a non-factor.

Mostly it's a sort of lyricism in the design of the film that makes it rise above it's heavy-handed religious talk and thematic straightforward (Gish even talks right to the camera at the end). Songs that drift in and out, the preacher on horseback framed black on the horizon, and so on.


After a great scene in which Powell tries to wait them outside of Cooper's farmhouse, she wings him with a shotgun and calls the police when he hides in the barn. John has a brief flashback to his own father's arrest when the cops cuff Powell in a very similar fashion, but he's quickly taken away, and in turn sentenced to hang.

The children stay with Cooper, who muses about how resilient children can be as the film ends on Christmas day.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher- I expected little, but it even got a hymn stuck in my head. A hymn! (see below)

The Legacy:

Though it would flop commercially and critically upon release (a chagrined Laughton would never direct again), the film's melding of German Expressionism with a thoroughly American tale of terror has influenced many of today's autuers and gained the film a considerable cult following. It's in the NFR, of course, and on lists as disparate as Empire's Greatest of all time and Bravo's scariest movie moments.

And of course TV Tropes has the list of knuckle-tattoo references, my favorite being Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons with his "LUV" and "HĀT" tattoos.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Maybe one of my favorite scenes of the countdown thus far, as Mitchum sings his creepy calling song "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" as he lurks outside the farm. Gish, brandishing a shotgun in a rocking chair in an image I swear I've seen many other places, joins in- to devout to resist the hymn despite the singer.

Leftover Thoughts:

-In Grubb's novel, the fake preacher is supposedly an allegory for the corrupting influence of religion. In the film he was mostly just a psycho.

-For some reason this 1955 film has a facebook page.

Coming Up...

178. Les Diaboliques

177. Grave Of The Fireflies

176. The Gold Rush

This Week In Actual Movie Taglines


Actual tagline: The most dangerous killers on the planet... but this is not our planet.

OR: Fear is Reborn

Thanks for trying, first tagline, but I don't think you need to work overtime selling the "mercenaries brought into fight predators" concept. That would be like Alien Vs. Predator trying to work the under the ice pyramid of death into its taglines.

Though "Fear is Reborn" seems to imply that this is a remake, rather than a thirteen-years-later sequel- not that it makes a difference, really.

Despicable Me

Actual tagline: Superbad. Superdad.

I couldn't shrug more at this one. Villain meets adorable moppet-children, has basic change of heart about villainy, yawn. Why couldn't he teach these orphans how to be super-villains themselves, in a spiritual sequel to The Professional? That I would see.

IMDB #180 The Princess Bride

Sometimes I find these things nearly impossible to write- for example, what is there to possibly say about 1987's The Princess Bride.

Unless you lost your sense of humor in a childhood boating accident, I can't imagine this utterly charming adventure film not winning you over. But I guess I'll find something to analyze.

The Key Players:

Director Rob Reiner rose to fame as 'Meathead' on "All In The Family," before embarking on a successful 80s filmmaking career reminiscient of the studio- I mean to say his biggest hits lack a discernable style, and are remembered for their stars: Stand By Me, Misery, When Harry Met Sally.., and so on. After the pinnacle of A Few Good Men's Best Picture nomination in 1992, Reiner's had few critical or commercial successes, other than the winning An American President or the modestly successful (but lame) The Bucket List.

Many stars in this one: Cary Elwes (recently seen Saw-ing his foot off) and Robin Wright (Jenny from Forrest Gump) lead the way. Veteran stage/television actor Mandy Patinkin, WWF strongman André the Giant, and thin-voiced character actor Wallace Shawn add some color. Chris Sarandon (Dog Day Afternoon) and mockumentary maestro Christopher Guest play the villains, while tv's "Columbo" Peter Falk and a pre-"Wonder Years" Fred Savage frame the story for us.

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The Story:

Allow me to explain.

No, there is too much: let me sum up. Savage is a boy sick in bed, Falk is a jovial grandfather reading him the titular story (by "S. Morgenstern," the same alleged author that screenwriter William Goldman claimed to abridge the novel from).

It's a story of true love (between Wright and Elwes) torn asunder by circumstance and a boorish prince (Sarandon). There's a giant (André), a swordsman (Patinkin) who's sworn revenge on a six-fingered man (Guest), and a scheming Sicilian (Shawn) that's often incredulous.

Pirates, right and left-handed duels, wrestling matches, torture devices, conspiracies of war, death (and mostly-death), last-minute rescues, and plenty of other things ensue. I'd go into more detail, but I bet you've seen it.

The Artistry:

I really should have given Goldman his own paragraph in the Key Players section, as the two-time Oscar winner's script is the erudite and winning heart and soul of The Princess Bride.

So many classic lines, peppered with wry asides and crackling with perfect comic timing, make this film an instant classic. We'll get to those in a special, all-quotes Leftover Thoughts at the end.

The performances are almost universally wonderful, and even André the Giant's stilted line-readings and Wright's thankless straight-person role just get more endearing with repeat viewings. Elwes brings a gentlemanly comport and immpeccable diction to the role of Westley that keeps the odd monologue from affecting the pace, and Patinkin throws himself into the most compelling subplot headlong- and Guest, on the other side, puts on an icily creepy demeanor that makes him unrecognizable to fans of Waiting For Guffman.

Billy Crystal stops by to ply his usual Catskills shtick as an aged medicine man, but it's well-purposed and in a small dose. Carol Kane and Peter Cook also have memorable cameos. In fact, the bit players elicit some of the biggest laughs from me each time I watch The Princess Bride, from "Twue wuv!" to Mel Smith's albino clearing his throat after initially speaking in a stereotypical rasp.

The score by Dire Straits' Mark Knoplfer might sound a little dated, sure, and the action scenes (outside of either fencing scene with Patinkin) seem a little corny, but that's just part of the charm: I'd be willing for a clunky wrestling match of triple the length with the Rodent Of Unusual Size in light of the classic timing of its introduction.

The storytelling framing device is the rare frame that I'll allow in film, especially in the case of fairy tales (if there's a Framing Device Acceptability Scale, then Fairy Tale Told To A Child is on one end and Elderly Deathbed Flashback is on the other).

It even allows us, through Fred Savage's young indignance, to skip over some early mushy parts involving Wright and Elwes early romance and first reunion- much the way Goldman, in "abridging" the supposed Morgenstern manuscript, glosses humorously over the long passages of the history of Florin and so forth.


True love: 1, Evil Prince: 0. Also Guest's is introduced to Inigo Montoya, reminded that he killed the father of same, and then dutifully prepared to die.

Young Savage, won over by the mushy stuff after all, asks to hear the story again the next day.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher than the Cliffs of Insanity themselves!

The Legacy:

There was almost a musical version for the stage, until Goldman insisted on 75% of the credit instead of the usual 50% with the songwriter. There may even someday be a sequel to the novel as well- until then we just updates on Goldman's battle with Morgenstern's tempestuous estate.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Favorite scene contender, out of many: The Duel.

Leftover Thoughts:

-"He's right on top of us. I wonder if he is using the same wind we are using."

-"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

-"The most famous of which is "'never get involved in a land war in Asia'"

-"Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist."

-"You just wiggled your finger. That's wonderful!"

-"Oh, you mean this gate key?"

-"Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work..."

Coming Up...

179. The Night Of The Hunter

178. Les Diaboliques

177. Grave Of The Fireflies

IMDB #181 The Incredibles

The story of Pixar is something of a legend- after slaving over the pioneering CGI-effort Toy Story for some time, the creative heads gathered for lunch, and in one afternoon generated the ideas that would become A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and lastly Wall-E.

Whether or not that's true, it's clear that from the start Pixar has built its success on compelling storytelling wed to dazzling animation- the question then, and now, is how long they can maintain such consistent heart and quality.

Lucky for them, then, that John Lasseter was finally able to lure Brad Bird away from Warner Brothers- he would seamlessly fit the brand standards in 2004 with The Incredibles, an ode to the struggle between career and family (when both career and family happen to be superheroic).

The Key Players:

Writer/director/voice actor Bird, before winning successive Animated Feature Oscars with this film and Ratatouille for Pixar, made the excellent traditionally animated The Iron Giant- which is not on the countdown (wha?) but you should see as soon as possible. Incidentally, if The Iron Giant doesn't make you cry, you're clearly dead inside.

Michael Giacchino's score is an important mood-setter for the film, and the scores of animators are of course the real key players.

There's some key voice-casting at work as well, in the welcome tradition of casting for the right sound and not star power: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Samuel L. Jackson, and Wallace Shawn number among the celebrity voices

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The Story:

The Incredibles begins with one busy night in the life of our main hero, Mr. Incredible himself. A generally invulnerable strong man (like The Thing), he patrols the streets of Municiberg, stops a suicide attempt, saves a cat from a tree, and nearly foils a bank robbery- this last is waylaid by a young fan named Buddy, who's invented rocket boots and fancies himself Mr. Incredible's new sidekick.

In the fracas, Buddy inadvertently causes an above-ground rail track to go out, and Mr. Incredible has to stop the car from plummeting. He's very nearly later for his own wedding later that night to Elasti-Girl, a stretchable superheroine with powers much like Mr. Fantastic. Frozone, an Iceman like elemental with Samuel L. Jackson's hip voice, is his best man. Life is pretty good for the heroes of the world.

Until the next day or so- the suicide attempter sues Mr. Incredible for injuries sustained in his own rescue, leading to lawsuits related to railcar-property damage, and thousands of other charges against society's so-called "supers." Soon the government is forced to relocate all known superheroes and essentially outlaw their efforts toward the greater good.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible is now just Bob Parr, put-upon insurance adjuster and father of three: ordinary infant Jack-Jack, superfast fourth-grader Dash, and sometimes invisible high-schooler Violet. His wife, Helen, uses her stretchable limbs mostly for housework and separating squabbling children- it's a life of forced ordinariness that none of them seem to care for.

Bob loses his job, and nearly blows his cover (again) with some off-time viglante work- but then a mysterious woman offers him a job battling a giant, killer robot gone rogue on a mysterious island. He dons the old suit, gets back in fighting shape, and generally lusts for life once more.

But all, of course, is not what it seems.

The Artistry:

Even as the work that went into The Incredibles broke pioneering new ground in rendering CGI human anatomy, fabrics, landscapes, and so on, what makes the movie pop visually are multiple cases of nostalgia.

It begins in a grainy, golden-age comics 1955, and transitions to 1970 suburbia, with the Googie architecture, pastel, angular cars, and art deco furniture. Then Bob is whisked to an island/volcano lair of his mysterious new employer straight out of any classic Bond film.

But praising the compostion of Pixar films is nothing new. It's the heart of The Incredibles that make it a countdown entry- any old Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs can look snazzy. Bird drew from his own, early 90s struggles to make it as a filmmaker while raising a family to characterize Mr. Incredible's dual desires to be a good dad and relive his glory days.

And while the whole "society turns against superheroes" isn't an original concept, it hadn't been well done on film to that point, really. And though Bird sets it up nicely in the beginning, he sort of shrugs off that conflict in favor of the family's more personal story as the action picks up.

Which still makes for a fine film, but leaves The Incredibles a bit philosophically unsettled. Here's the thing: the little kid, Buddy, that Mr. Incredible scolds for wanting to be his sidekick, grows into the film's supervillain: the technology wizard Syndrome. And while yes, he hatches a plan to pretend to save a major city from his own killer robot that goes predictably awry, he also announces his intention to sell his technology when he's had his fun- then everyone will be special, and thus no one will be.

The film seems to view this as the worst thing possible- the Incredibles themselves are hamstrung and haggard even deigning to rein themselves in with us normal folk. It's a peculiar brand of faux-populism that Bird promulgates here and later in Ratatouille, albeit one that would bother me more if his stories were less snappy and his characters harder to root for.

Still, even the seemingly powerless baby ends up having the most super-abilities of all, and the family ultimately rewards their inhumanly fast son for intentionally placing second in a school race. What's the lesson here?


They stop Syndrome, save the city, are at least applauded on the scene by the public (the future legal status of superfolks is left unresolved). Violet becomes more outgoing, Dash goes out for sports, the parents mend their frayed marriage.

And a fresh supervillian at the very end provides all four another grinning opportunity to whip out their nifty raccoon masks.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Oh, higher. It's a movie, it shouldn't make me jealous that I don't have any powers. Plus it's too wonderfully made and downright fun.

The Legacy:

Bird claims he's waiting for the right idea for a sequel, so who knows. It picked up Animated Feature and Sound Effects Editing at the Oscars as well.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

No capes!

Leftover Thoughts:

-Violet's powers are a pretty obvious mimic of The Invisible Woman's from the Fantastic Four, straight down to the force fields. The rest are pretty generic, I suppose, as superpowers go.

Coming Up...

180. The Princess Bride

179. The Night Of The Hunter

178. Les Diaboliques

IMDB #182 Judgment at Nuremberg

The wheel, it goes around- one entry ago I was astounded to discover a Stanley Kubrick film shorter than 90 minutes, and so today we discuss the 3:07 courtroom epic Judgment at Nuremberg.

The 1961 classic takes its inspiration from the real-life Judges' Trial at the Nuremberg Military Tirbunal in 1947. A weighty, philosophical film- the importance of the issues at its core led and all-star cast to accept pay-cuts to particpate.

The Key Players:

Director Stanley Kramer is a heavyweight behind most of Hollywood's quintessential "message" movies. He produced or directed The Wild Ones (motorcycle gangs), On The Beach (nuclear war), Inherit The Wind (Scopes trial), and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (interracial relationships) and was a nine-time Oscar nominee.

Get ready, because this cast is packed and the stately Burt Lancaster is the only one we've seen before.

Spencer Tracy, 2 for 9 in the leading actor category (a record for nominations shared with Laurence Olivier, is an all-time great we'll probably meet again. Marlene Dietrich was a German-born star most famous for her 30s work with Josef von Sternberg and Billy Wilder's Witness For The Prosecution.

Maximilian Schell (The Pedestrian, Ressurectio Blues) and Richard Widmark (Kiss Of Death, How The West Was Won) carry heavy loads as the dueling prosecutors, key witnesses are portrayed by Montgomery Clift (A Place In The Sun) and Judy Garland, and I'd be remiss if I didn't point out a young William Shatner in a minor part.

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The Story:

1947, Nuremberg: Four judges who served in the Third Reich are on trial for crimes against humanity: Ernst Janning (Lancaster), an esteemed author of the Widmark Consitution and former Minister of Justice, is among them. Their fates are to be decided by an American Tribunal, of which aged judge Dan Haywood (Tracy) is the senior member.

An eight month trial commences: a Hans Rolfe (Schell) argues passionately and skillfully for the defense- a believer in the need for continued German diginity, and an admirer of Jannings' work, he raises valid points here and there: is forced sterilization so bad, if US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is for eugenics? Are the defendants any more to blame than the world leaders that turned a blind eye to Hitler's power grab in the early going?

Arguing for the prosecution, just as passionately and even louder, is the bullwark Col. Tad Lawson (Widmark)- having already successfully convicted some war criminals, he seems driven by particular memories of liberating concentration camps (he even brings footage to show) to be as strident and unyielding as possible.

As evidence in specific charges, a forcibly sterilized man named Rudolph Peterson (Clift) and a woman whose alleged Jewish lover was executed named Irene Hoffman (Garland) are called to testify- their cases having been presided over by one or the other of the defendants- neither trial had been even close to fair.

As a backdrop to all this, Judge Haywood gets to know Mrs. Bertholt (Dietrich), the widow of an executed Nazi general whose former home he's using as living quarters. They both see in the other redeeming qualities to a people they had once known only as enemies- the knowledge of the German people of the atrocities and the line of indivdual culpability are continually brought into question.

Finally, as Rolfe essentially attempts to retry a nervous Irene Hoffman by badgering her about her supposed dailliance with a Jew, Janning stands up to stop the proceedings and make a statement. Breaking a movie-long silence, he admits his guilt and complacency in going along with the Third Reich- he had thought the growing intolerance a passing phase that was acceptable for the stability and unity the movement provided, until he realized it had become the way of life.

The Artistry:

You know, it's funny- at the beginning of the recent Nazi-drama Valkyrie, the film makes an early switch from German to English as a way of signifying "Hey, these characters are all speaking German, but you're going to hear it in English. Get it?"

I thought it was sort of a clunky transition (why not just have it English the whole time?), but Judgment at Nuremberg does it a step better: the trial is set up with interpreters and headphones, UN-style, and Widmark is even reminded to speak slowly for the interpreter to keep up. But then Schell begins his opening remarks in German before the camera ZOOMS in close and he's now in accented English! But whenever he, or another German character speak for the remainder of the film, the Americans still have to listen to the earpieces to get the translation. I got used to it, but still, why not just pretend for the sake of movies that everyone knew English?

Anyway, Stanley Kramer is anything but subtle- important zooms are prevalent during big speeches, almost underlining certain lines. This breaks up some slow-revolves during testimony, but otherwise the camerawork is stagy and to the point. The setting of post-war Nuremberg is evoked nicely, with mangled concrete rubble sharing the streets with scaffolding for rebuilding efforts, and the singing from German beer halls echoing through the town. The score is minimal, though my copy of the DVD had long "OVERTURE" and "EXIT MUSIC" pieces bookending the film itself.

Judgment is all about the script and the delivery thereof, though- and the cast is largely up to the part. Tracy is mostly a quiet audience surrogate until the very end, but Widmark and Schell make the courtroom dynamic a lot less stodgy than it could be. Lancaster seems to jump between defiant pride and deep regret with just his eyes, and the German Dietrich conveys the wounded insistence of the country's nobility.

I was a little surprised a the film's abivalence about the justice that would be served by convicting the four judges- not that it condoned the Holocaust at all (and indeed the real-life footage of concentration camps was considerably shocking for mainstream cinema at the time). It just acknowledged the reality that you couldn't try an entire people, and the line drawn between those directly responsible and those that stood by is impossible to determine. The film also considers the larger context- military types hint to both the judge and prosecutor that lighter sentences would help curry favor with the German people in the coming Cold War.


In a fiery speech, Haywood delivers the 2-1 Tribunal verdict: all four men are found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. Janning asks to see Haywood before he leaves, and tells him he repects the decision. He admits, nearly tearful, that he never thought it would come to the millions of bodies seen on the films.

Haywood replies that "it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to die you knew to be innocent."


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Slightly higher, even if I might not watch it again- is that fair? It was a breezy three hours, and as heavy-handed as the courtroom theatrics were, they were surprisingly balanced and thought-provoking.

The Legacy:

Out of four acting nominations, fifth-billed Schell would win for Leading Actor over Tracy, while Garland and Clift would lose out in Supporting for their respective scenery-gnawing. Abby Mann would win for adapting his own novel, amid nominations for Picture, Editing, Art Direction, Kramer, and Best Picture.

It was adapted for the stage in 2001 (with Schell in the Lancaster role), and AFI considers it the tenth-best courtroom drama ever.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

I would go watch this clip (embedding disabled) of Schell's opening remarks. It's when you realize that even if the outcome of the trial is predetermined, the trial itself is going to be a dogfight.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Near the end, Schell's German character speaks directly to Tracy's American character but I didn't know if he was speaking German or English!

-Someday I'll have to write a breakdown of why I respected this film but detested The Reader- there's a valid reason, I promise.

Coming Up...

181. The Incredibles

180. The Princess Bride

179. The Night Of The Hunter

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