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.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Webster’s defines “gimmick” as “an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, esp. one designed to attract attention or increase appeal,” and more negatively as “a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal: An offer that good must have a gimmick in it somewhere.” It is perhaps this later usage that has given the word a derogatory flavor. But a good gimmick, especially in a movie, can be the spark that gives a film life.

Some gimmicks become mainstream. At one point, sound was a gimmick (“The Jazz Singer”), color was a gimmick (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Becky Sharp”), hand-held cameras were a gimmick and rapid paced editing was a gimmick. Then there are gimmicks that are rarer, or have more limited life spans. 3-D was such a gimmick, with a short life cycle in the 1950’s before it was resurrected in the 21st century. Telling a story in reverse is an interesting seldom used gimmick (“Betrayal,” “Memento”). Giving a film the appearance of being filmed in a continuous take (“Rope”), or shooting an entire film in a continuous take ("Russian Ark") are others. Then there were the films of producer William Castle, who was famous for inserting gimmicks into his films, their promotion and their exhibition, electrifying theater seats (“The Tingler”), flying glow-in-the-dark skeletons over the audience (“House on Haunted Hill”) and providing special glasses that allowed the viewer to see on-screen ghosts (“13 Ghosts”).

In 1940, when Orson Welles was first lured to Hollywood by an extraordinary contract with RKO studios, giving him unprecedented artistic control of his films, he toyed with the notion of an intriguing gimmick. Welles had for years produced radio dramas that were largely told in the first person. He thought this might translate to film as well. What if an entire film was seen from the main character’s perspective, through that character’s eyes? What if the entire film was a series of point-of-view shots. This is the approach he adopted as he moved forward planning an ambitious adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” wherein “eye = I.” Budgetary restrictions lead to the project being abandoned, making the way for the production of “Citizen Kane.”

Eventually a filmmaker and studio took on this daunting narrative and technical challenge. The studio, which I imagine did not quite know what it was getting itself into, was MGM, and the filmmaker was actor Robert Montgomery. The film was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “Lady in the Lake.” Montgomery was making his credited directorial debut while playing the lead role of Philip Marlow, Private Detective, literally from behind the camera. Never before had almost an entire film been photographed with a subjective camera, no mean feat in 1947 when cameras were large, bulky, unwieldy devices, and before the invention of steady-cams of even the widespread use of hand-held cameras. It is even to this day an almost unique narrative device. Portions of other movies, even lengthy sequences, had been shot from a character’s unbroken perspective before, most notably in Rouben Mamoulian's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." And some television episodes experimented with the technique in the years to follow. But I do not believe there has ever been another mainstream film to adopt the technique so thoroughly and consistently. The MGM publicity department played this to the hilt in their trailer for the movie.


So this was a film that, even though the script and performances are wildly uneven, and even though it was disowned as an adaptation by Chandler, stayed with its viewers as something unique and original, something they had never seen before, a trait always attractive to my Dad, and why “Lady in the Lake” was one of my Dad’s favorite movies.

See “Lady in the Lake” on Turner Classic Movies this Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 6:30 am EST (5:30 am CST) and on January 20, 2010 at 8 am EST (7 am CST).

Buy Lady in the Lake at

Friday, November 13, 2009


The classic era of Warner Brothers gangster movies is bookended by four extraordinary, brutal and unsentimental performances from two of Hollywood’s most talented stars, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Robinson’s performance as the crude and ambitious Rico Bandello in “Little Caesar” in 1930 was followed the next year by Cagney’s as the greedy and ruthless Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy.” The studio hit a trifecta the following year when Paul Muni played a thinly veiled version of Al Capone in “Scarface.”

Then came enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (AKA the Hays Code), citing what was, and more importantly, what was not acceptable content for motion pictures. The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) had adopted the guidelines, developed through the late 1920’s, in 1930, but an enforcement entity was not in place until 1934. With its prohibitions against creating sympathy for “the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” the depiction of the use of liquor "when not required by the plot or for proper characterization," explicit presentations of the methods of crime, murder scenes unless “filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life,” brutal killings and revenge, the Code effectively ended the hard-edged portrayal of gangsters as protagonists. These tough guy characters instead morphed into likable rouges (“All Through the Night,” “Casablanca”), private detectives (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep.”), officers of the law (“G-Men,” “Bullets or Ballots”) and redeemed criminals (“High Sierra.”). It is safe to say that Warner Brothers with its penchant for gritty urban dramas and psychological complexity pushed at the edge of the Code more than any other studio, and there are some exceptions where the coarseness and brutality of the earlier films sneak through (“The Roaring Twenties”), as well as films in which the gangsters are pitted in doomed confrontations with their betters and served their just rewards (“Angels With Dirty Faces,” “Dead End”).

Both Robinson and Cagney continued to mine their tough guy personas. Robinson became an accomplished character actor in films as diverse as “Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet,” “The Sea Wolf,” “Double Indemnity,” and “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.” Cagney became one of the most successful and beloved stars in Hollywood with films such as “The Fighting 69th,” “The Strawberry Blonde,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

In 1948 and 1949, as the power of the production code was waning, both Robinson and Cagney returned to the genre and the type of characters that had made them famous – Robinson as Johnny Rocco in “Key Largo,” and Cagney as Cody Jarrett in “White Heat.” Both can be seen as aged extensions of their previous performances in “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.” And whereas “Key Largo” is a great entertainment from director John Huston in the vein of the post-code Warner Brothers films of the later 1930’s and 1940’s, “White Heat” is an unexpected and surprising revelation.

Directed with little of the polish, gloss or civility of most studio pictures of the time by Raoul Walsh, “White Heat” follows the exploits of a rampantly paranoid aging criminal and sociopath with a mother fixation and a sadistic streak, a character that Cagney plays with no sentimentality, but with an enormous amount of energy and magnetism. It is a character unlike almost any other that had headlined a motion picture since the advent of the Production Code, or perhaps even before. It is the strength of Cagney’s charisma, as well as the comparable blandness that Edmond O’Brien brings to his portrayal of Federal Agent and protagonist Hank Fallon, that adds interest and even sympathy to such a reprehensible but utterly fascinating character.

Why was “White Heat” one of my Dad’s favorite movies? I believe that while B Westerns were his genre of choice as a young boy, the Warner Brothers crime films of the late 30’s and 40’s, with their hard boiled characters and gritty environments, were the favorites of his adolescence. I think it is also the uniqueness of Cagney’s character and portrayal, as Dad was always attracted to movies with a new and different take on their stories and characters. But in the days before VCR’s and DVR’s, it was a memorable moment or even line that lodged a movie into memory. And “White Heat” has both. One of the most harrowing moments and unrestrained performances in film is when Jarrett, serving out a prison term for a crime he did not commit but instead used as an alibi for a worse crime he did commit, hears of his mother’s death, and goes literally berserk. It is a tour-de-force for Cagney.

But no one who sees “White Heat” will ever forget Jarrett’s final line, nor the circumstances surrounding it – “Top of the World, Ma.” My Dad certainly did not.

Watch “White Heat” on Turner Classic Movies, Saturday November 14 at 10 am Eastern (9 am Central) and Monday, November 30 at 1:30 pm Eastern (12:30 pm Central)

Buy White Heat at

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Friday, November 6, 2009


Woody Allen’s debut as a triple threat (co-writer, director, and actor) is a machine gun strafe of gags. Roger Ebert criticized the film, saying “I suspect it's a list of a lot of things Woody Allen wanted to do in a movie someday, and the sad thing is he did them all at once.” Having more in common with later Mel Brooks or Abrahams/Zucker movies than with the more meditative Allen comedies that would follow, “Take the Money and Run” is, as they are described in the director’s own “Stardust Memories,” one of Allen’s “early funny ones,” along with "Bananas" and "Sleeper." There is none of the character development or pathos of later efforts such as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” or “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

The film’s format as a “mockumentary,” the first of its kind, years before “Meet the Rutles (1978),” “This is Spinal Tap (1984),” or “Waiting for Guffman (1997),” allows it to be a purposefully disconnected series of gags built around the character of consistently unsuccessful career criminal Virgil Stockwell, played by Allen. I think the originality of this premise, a faux documentary that mixes playing it straight with outrageous slapstick and shtick, is what my Dad enjoyed. But the film is just as much a pastiche of "The Untouchables" and other earnestly narrated true crime television series that my Dad enjoyed.

Although “Take the Money and Run” was the first in a long series of films Allen wrote, directed, and starred in, it was certainly not the beginning of his career. He had previously been a successful gag writer and stand-up comic, had co-written and “directed” “What’s Up Tiger Lily,” a Japanese spy movie that Allen and company re-dubbed into a comedy, and had acted in such films as “What’s New Pussycat,” for which he wrote the original and largely discarded screenplay, and the original “Casino Royale.” It is reputedly his experience in the later chaotically produced film that initiated his desire to direct "Take the Money and Run” himself, after a supposedly unsuccessful attempt to get Jerry Lewis to take the job on.

Allen began an important relationship on this film with editor Ralph Rosenblum, credited as “Editorial Consultant,” who would go on to edit five more Allen features, including “Annie Hall.” He is often credited with saving “Take the Money and Run” by tightening the edit and convincing Allen to remove a violent ending emulating the bloody climax of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Rosenblum is also often credited with much of the intricate structure that makes "Annie Hall" so complelling.

But a key element to the success of “Take the Money and Run” is the performance and voice of narrator Jackson Beck, most famously the voice behind the opening of the original “Adventures of Superman” television series, voice of Blutto in the "Popeye" cartoon series, and pitchman for Little Caesar’s Pizza. The seriousness with which he plays his role adds a foundation of gravitas that buoys the outrageous comedy on screen. Beck began his prolific and lengthy career as a silent film actor, and was still doing voice work into the 1990's.

As a father, there is much in Woody Allen’s life to abhor, but this is still a funny movie, and one my Dad enjoyed long before Allen’s tragic and reprehensible behavior in later life.

Catch “Take the Money and Run” on Turner Classic Movies on November 7, 2009 at 8 pm Eastern and on December 1, 2009 at 6 pm Eastern. Here's the preview trailer.

Buy Take the Money and Run - Uncut (Widescreen Edition) at

© 2009 Edward Bowen
© 2009 Edward Bowen