Five Films That Stay With Me

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Alan Stuart is a sometime musician, writer and critic who lives in Wellington with his wife, Pat, and George the Wonder Dog. His ramblings and miscellanies may be found at Wise Blood.

There are a bunch of strange ideas going on in The Last Sunset (Robert Aldrich 1961) At least they seemed odd to my 14 year old sensibility. The main character, Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) crosses the border into Mexico because he’s on the run and wanted for murder in the US.  Now that’s badly wrong for starters. How can Kirk Douglas be wanted for murder? No way.

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I mean, look at that face. I was fascinated by the guy. Not tall, Not dark. Not handsome. But the camera loved him and so did I.
Brendan arrives at the ranch of a former lover, Belle (Dorothy Malone) and her husband John (Joseph Cotton) and this is where it starts to get really complicated. The sheriff (Rock Hudson) pursuing Brendan turns up and the two men agree to take a herd of cattle back to Texas, yeah Texas, for the ranchers, whose surname is – wait for it – Breckenridge. They have a daughter. No, not Myra, Melissa (Carol Lynley).  Melissa reminds Brendan of the young Belle and guess what? Yep. They’re soon petting on the front porch. Well, that September/April thing is always a bit iffy but when Belle reveals that ‘Missy’ is Brendan’s daughter, I was unable to get out of my seat to refresh my Kia Ora orange juice. So, it all ends up in a gunfight of course and Kirk deliberately doesn’t load his gun so it’s kinda suicide –  a penance for carrying on like a member of the British aristocracy I suppose.
I was pretty upset by all of this and no one really wanted to talk to me about murder, incest and suicide when I got home –  so it just all kinda sat there. Stayed with me.

I don’t quite know how anybody would ever be able to get Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder 1959) out of their mind. Quite possibly the best comedy ever made and in many top 10s drawn from all genres and languages.

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Casting Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two musicians on the lam from the Chicago mob in prohibition America is inspired. Having them cross-dress in order to join Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators is a stroke of genius we can attribute to Wilder and co-writer, I A L Diamond. The plot will, by now, be familiar to most readers; the ‘boys’ meeting  Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the train trip to Florida, the French farce romancing, the run in with Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his gangsters, the denouement and Joe E Brown’s best ever pay-off line.
The miracle of this movie, though, is how its central premise of men dressed as women never wanders into anything questionable. There are numerous opportunities where that could happen but sure-footed direction and playing ensure the laughs are never gained cheaply. I saw the movie with my father when it was first released. I’ve never forgotten how the magic sparkled off the screen that night.

 

In truth, I could select almost any film by Alain Resnais for this article. His ideas about the creative process and the human condition send out grappling hooks that may not be easily dislodged. I have chosen ‘Providence’  because I have only seen it the once, when it was released in 1977, and have been unable to track down a VHS or DVD, so I might lay its ghosts.

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There’s been an awful lot printed and said about this film and its influence and significance on what followed. I do have a point of view but that’s not what I’m here for. David Mercer’s script, Miklós Rózsa’s evocative score and Resnais’ direction of his brilliant cast (Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, David Warner and Elaine Stritch) under the swirling lens of Ricardo Aronovich, conspire in space and time to achieve a dizzying treatise for mind and heart. Are those near to us a sort of construct, there to channel our artistic obligations into abstract but parallel creations? Heady stuff. I have to see it again.

 

‘To our Television Audience: In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. “Taxi Driver” suggests that tragic errors can be made’. The Filmmakers.

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The disclaimer shown at the conclusion of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976) when it was shown on US television was unexplained. Maybe John Hinckley Jr provided an explanation when he tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981. Sporting a Mohican haircut and a fixation for Jody Foster, maybe he thought he was Travis Bickle. But he wasn’t. Robert De Niro was Travis Bickle. Is Travis Bickle. And Travis Bickle is Robert De Niro. They are indistinguishable. I cannot tell them apart.
De Niro, like Charon, ferrying his passengers across the Styx and the Acheron into New York’s Hell. Travis, wanting a big rain to come and wash all the scum off the streets. De Niro, sidling up to the Secret Service agent with that crazy, mock self-assurance. Travis telling Sport, ‘Suck on this’. Alienation and suffering. Travis is the American experience. I don’t think he dies in the shoot-out either. He survives; becomes Willard and kills Kurtz in Cambodia. Travis lives. He’s here now.

 

I’m including a New Zealand film, In Spring One Plants Alone (Vincent Ward 1980) because more than anything I’ve seen, more than Tony Fomison’s paintings perhaps, it opens up a kind of limbic channel into our pre-history.

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The true story is of an elderly Tuhoe woman caring for her mentally ill son in the Uruweras. The rituals and small details of their isolated existence provide the narrative. Leon Narbey and Alun Bollinger ask their cameras to be still; to allow their subjects to wander into frame. Jack Body’s spartan music serves only to underscore the loneliness, the tragic beauty of lives far removed from our own. The only one of the five that I will properly describe as haunting.

 

 

 

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