Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

BREAKING AWAY (1979)










In 1979, writer Steve Tesich, a Yugoslavian émigré, was about to hit it big. He would win an Oscar for his first produced screenplay, “Breaking Away,” and would follow with five more produced screenplays in as many years, including “Eyewitness,” “The World According to Garp,” and the highly autobiographical “Four Friends,” a script that highlighted his immigrant’s belief in the triumph of the American dream over devastating tragedy. He would work with some of the most acclaimed film directors of his generation, including George Roy Hill, Arthur Penn, John Badham, and three times with his “Breaking Away” collaborator Peter Yates. His play “Division Street” would be performed on Broadway. Eventually, after 1985’s “American Fliers” and “Eleni,” he would cease writing screenplays and focus on playwriting as he become increasingly disillusioned about America and in particular its foreign policy.

In 1979, Peter Yates was at the pinnacle of his success. His second outing as a director, 1968’s “Bullitt,” with its innovative and unforgettable car chase through the street of San Francisco, had established itself as a classic. Seven feature films later, his most recent release, “The Deep,” based on author Peter Benchley’s follow-up to “Jaws,” and featuring a just as unforgettable Jacqueline Bisset, had been a popular success, ranking among the top ten grossers in a year that inlcuded "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," 'Smokey and the Bandit," and "Saturday Night Fever." The Academy would nominate him as Best Director for “Breaking Away,” which would also be nominated as Best Picture.

“Breaking Away” tells the story of Dave Stoller, played by Dennis Christopher, whose love of cycling and enthusiasm for Italian competitive cyclists leads him to take on a fanciful and perhaps delusional Italian persona, much to his father’s chagrin.


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Stoller and his working-class friends, played by up-and coming actors Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earl Haley, spend the summer days swimming at the abandoned quarry, resisting the pulls of impending adulthood, entangled in romantic relationships, and sparing with haughty students from the local college, Indiana University. They compete against an arrogant college team in a climactic bicycle race, a battle emblematic of the antipathy between the townies, descendants of the local stoneworkers, or “cutters,” and the invading college students. The character of Dave Stoller is based on legendary bicyclist, Italian enthusiast, and Tesich’s college friend Dave Blase, and the race is an actual competition held annually at Indiana University, in which Blasé and Tesich participated during their college days.

Director Yates, Cinematographer Matthew Leonetti and Designer Patrizia von Brandenstein make the most of their Indiana locations, giving the film an authentic and believable beauty.

While most of the film focuses on the friendship and trials of the four main characters, it is Paul Dooley’s performance as Dave’s put upon father Raymond that steals the show, and the relationship of the father and son that provides the emotional foundation for the film.


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Dooley delivers an astonishingly layered, unselfconscious and memorable performance, never shying away from the harsh and even cruel behavior of the character. It is his blustering inability and refusal to recognize, accept, or deal with his own parental emotions that is ultimately so endearing. He is representative of a generation or hard-working husbands and fathers for whom revealing any emotion other than anger and frustration was a sign of weakness. And due notice should be given to the less flashy but no less important performance from Barbara Barrie as Dave's charming, perceptive, understanding and patient mother. A busy television actress with memorable recurring roles in "Barney Miller" and "ThirtySomething" was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in "Breaking Away."


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But I think Dooley's performance as Raymond Stoller is what my father liked best about “Breaking Away.” I believe he may have empathized with the character. My father came from working-class roots, grew up in the depression, and along with my mother sacrificed to raise a family. He shied away from excessive expressions of emotion, but was a loving, supportive and giving parent with a son I am sure he often did not understand.


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A cartoonist, stand-up comedian and magician, Paul Dooley was discovered by director Mike Nichols, who cast him in the supporting cast of the original 1965 Broadway production of “The Odd Couple.” Dooley eventually replaced Art Carney as the persnickety Felix Ungar opposite Walter Matthau’s grouchy Oscar Madison. Dooley wrote for the landmark children’s series “The Electric Company” in the 1970’s. His first major film role was in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding.” Comfortable and proficient in improvisation, he became a favorite of the director, and appeared in a total of six of his films. He has made numerous memorable television appearances in series such as ‘ThirtySomething,” “Deep Space Nine,” “The Wonder Years,” “Desperate Housewives,” “My So-Called Life,” “Dream On,” and “The Practice.”

But his two most famous roles are as fathers in “Breaking Away” and 1984's “Sixteen Candles.”

“Breaking Away” is not the only movie featuring evocative father-son relationships on my Dad’s favorites list. The irresponsible father and the mature-beyond-his-years son in “A Hole in the Head,” the profane, combustible father and the bewildered son of “A Christmas Story,” and the unconventional, free-spirited uncle and surrogate father to a “middle-aged kid” in “A Thousand Clowns” were also favorites of my Dad.



Buy Breaking Away (Widescreen Edition)at Amazon.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Monday, June 8, 2009

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)













My Dad loved originality - unexpected twists on established genres or familiar plotlines intrigued him.

In 1972, almost everything about “The Night Stalker,” a television movie produced for "The ABC Movie of the Week,” was original and surprising. It is a merger of genres and styles, a fresh mash-up of horror, police procedurals, and “Front Page” style newspaper dramas. It eschews or reinvents all the gothic trappings previously associated with vampire movies, inserting the vampire for the first time fully into the modern world of blood banks and dragnets and forensics and bureaucracies. All the resultant ironies are fully mined in the script by acclaimed novelist and prolific short story and television writer Richard Matheson, adapted from the unpublished short story by Jeff Rice. In one scene after another, intrepid reporter Carl Kolshak is confronted with a series on increasingly inexplicable events and confounding evidence, all leading slowly and inevitably to the conclusion that the serial killer stalking Las Vegas must in fact be a real-life vampire.

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Producer Dan Curtis had some experience reinventing the vampire genre. Years before Buffy and Angel, "Twilight,” or even Frank Langella’s “Dracula,” he had romanticized the vampire in his ground-breaking daytime series “Dark Shadows.” With “The Night Stalker” he does the opposite, reducing the vampire to a mysterious, depersonalized, silent, feral, largely off-screen presence. Matheson and Curtis would within a year revisit the genre in their TV version of “Dracula” starring Jack Palance, wherein they would invent a romantic backstory for the vampire that twenty years later would be the foundation of Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation.

In “The Night Stalker,” Curtis reteams with his ‘Dark Shadows” composer Robert Cobert, who provides a striking and original score, a jazzy and bassy mix of musical styles that nicely mirrors the eclectic story elements.

There are numerous scenes that grab the imagination both in terms of content and technique – the autopsy from the corpse’s point of view, the coroner’s inquest in which the bizarre details of the murders are delivered with matter-of-fact dispassion, and the “wild brawl” in the hospital following the vampire’s raid on the its blood bank, a tour-de-force from director John Llewellyn Moxey (“The Saint,” “Mannix,” “Mission Impossible”) and Stunt Coordinator Dick Ziker with un-credited work from legendary stunt man Hal Needham.

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But the movie truly belongs to Darren McGavin. His portrayal of irascible and resolute reporter Carl Kolshak brings humor and humanity to the proceedings, and drives the movie’s pace and tone.

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McGavin was a particular favorite of my Dad’s from the time he played Casey in the TV series “Crime Photographer” in the early 1950’s. While on their honeymoon in New York in 1951, my Mom and Dad rounded a street corner and literally ran into McGavin, who they described as friendly and charming. Thirty-four years later I worked with McGavin on “Raw Deal,” and found him to be just as my parents had described.


In fifteen years working on feature films, the only autograph I ever requested was from Darren McGavin, and that was for my parents.


McGavin starred in seven TV series and guest starred in many more. He had a distinguished film career, including playing the profane father in “A Christmas Story” and an un-credited but crucial role in “The Natural.” But he is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Carl Kolshak in “The Night Stalker,” its sequel “The Night Strangler,” and the subsequent series “Kolshak: The Night Stalker.” His Kolshak is a unique and original creation, Woodstein in a seer sucker suit and a porkpie hat, volatile, passionate, funny, abrasive, sarcastic and indignant, a man with a moral code of his own making. There has never been a character quite like Carl Kolshak.

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McGavin once told me that the hardest part of his career was the constant and inevitable nighttime shooting that this series required. Having just come from working on “Blue Velvet,” with seven straight weeks of night filming, I could certainly sympathize.

"The ABC Movie of the Week" was a television anthology series of made-for-TV movies airing on the ABC network in various permutations from 1969 to 1976. Adhering to a 90 minute running length, as opposed to the two hour slot standard of previous made-for-television movies, gave many of the films an enhanced pace and urgency. “The Night Stalker” certainly benefits from this. There were several notable entries to the series, including “Brian’s Song,” with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, “Pursuit,” Michael Crichton’s directorial debut, the unforgetable “Trilogy of Terror” from Curtis and Matheson, and three more of my Dad’s favorites, “Duel,” from Matheson and director Steven Speilberg, “Something Evil,” also directed by Speilberg, and “Goodnight My Love,” written and directed by Peter Hyams and featuring the imaginative teaming of Richard Boone and Michael Dunn as private detectives in 1940’s Los Angeles. The program also spawned many successful series, such as "Starsky and Hutch," "Kung Fu," "The Six Million Dollar Man," and "Marcus Welby, M.D."



“The Night Stalker,” which manages to valiantly mask its television imposed budget restrictions, held the record as the highest rated television movie until “Roots” aired in 1977.


Buy The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler (Double Feature)
at Amazon.com
© 2009 Edward Bowen
© 2009 Edward Bowen

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