(On Cable TV, September 2018) I sometimes do other things while watching movies, but as The Great Race went on, I had to put those other things away and restart the film. There is an astonishing density of gags to its first few minutes (from the title sequence, even) that require undivided attention. While the first act of the film does set up expectations that the second half fails to meet, it does make The Great Race far more interesting than expected. Clearly made with a generous budget, this is a comedy that relies a lot on practical gags, built on a comic foundation that harkens back to silent-movie stereotypes. Making no excuses for its white-versus-black characters, the film features Tony Curtis as an impossibly virtuous hero, facing the comically dastardly antagonist played with gusto by Jack Lemmon in one of his most madcap comic performance. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood has never looked better as the romantic interest (seeing her parade in thigh-high black stockings unarguably works in the film’s favour) and both Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn are able seconds. The film’s visual gags are strong, and so is writer/director Blake Edwards’s willingness to go all-out of his comic set pieces: The legendary pie fight is amusing, but I prefer the Saloon brawl for its sense of mayhem. There is a compelling energy to the film’s first hour, as pleasantly stereotyped characters are introduced, numerous visual gags impress and the film’s sense of fun is firmly established. Alas, that rhythm lags a bit in the last hour, with an extended parody of The Prisoner of Zenda that falls flat more than it succeeds (although it does contain that pie fight sequence). Still, it’s a fun film and the practical nature of the vehicular gags makes for a change of pace from other comedies. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) The premise of The Odd Couple is universal to the point of nearly being a cliché fifty years later: A neat freak and a slob having to cope with each other in a single apartment? Sure-fire laughs. After seeing the same variation a few dozen times, however, it’s not surprising that the original The Odd Couple would feel so familiar. The film seemingly takes forever to establish what seems already obvious, and some plot points (especially during the third act) now feel forced more than organic. Fortunately, other elements rescue the film from those weaker moments: Both Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are quite good in the lead roles, and the beauty of The Odd Couple’s classic structure means that the film is almost bound to be satisfying from the beginning to the end. But the film’s biggest asset remains Neil Simon’s terrific dialogue, as witty now at it was then and adding much to the now-standard formula. The result may not feel particularly fresh, but it continues to get laughs.
(On DVD, January 2018) For late-twentieth century cinephiles such as myself, Jack Lemmon is first the eponymous Grumpy Old Man, or the miserable salesman of Glengarry Glenn Ross. But this late-career Lemmon is the last act in a long list of roles, and films such as The Apartment (alongside Some Like it Hot and The Odd Couple) do suggest that young Lemmon was the best Lemmon. He’s certainly charming in The Apartment, playing a young man who has struck a most unusual arrangement with his superiors at work: His apartment made available for dalliances, in exchange for professional advancement. The film does begin in firmly comic mode, as the protagonist juggles the schedules of four executives with his own desire to sleep, and then to court an elevator attendant played by Shirley MacLaine. The first half of The Apartment plays as a proto-Mad Men, capped off by a sequence in which Lemmon dons a dapper hat and strolls out like a true New York City professional with a bright future. The look at this slice of 1960 NYC living is terrific and if the film had stopped there, it would have been already worth a look. But there’s a lot of murk under the premise of the film and The Apartment soon heads deeper in those troubled waters, shifting from suggestive comedy to much bleaker romantic drama as the protagonist ends up in romantic conflict with one of his superiors, and then in even darker territory with a suicide attempt that changes everything. Director Billy Wilder had an illustrious career, and the way he shifts adeptly between three subgenres in a single film is a great example of what he could do with difficult material. The Apartment is still unsettling today—less so than upon its release, but it still defies sensibilities. The film’s second half is a great deal less fun than the first, but it does give much of the film’s enduring power.
(On DVD, January 2018) Curiously enough, it takes longer than expected for Some Like it Hot to warm up. The first act, in which two Chicago-based musicians witness a mob murder and decide to go on the run by cross-dressing and joining an all-female musical group to Florida, is occasionally a slog. Sure, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are sympathetic enough, and Marilyn Monroe makes a striking entrance, but the film seems far too busy setting up its ridiculous situation to get many laughs. Things get much better once the story lands in a posh Florida resort, as the complications pile up and the film’s true nature starts coming out. By the time Lemmon’s character has to fake being uninterested in Monroe as she slinks all over him, or as Curtis rather likes the attention he’s getting as a woman, the film starts hitting its peak comic moments. It keeps going to a rather simple but effective final line. It helps, from an atmospheric perspective, that the Floridian passages spend quality time looking at a high-end lifestyle in which yachts are treated as mobile homes for the rich—there’s some wish-fulfillment right there. Thematically, the film has a few surprises in store: For a comedy dealing in cross-dressing and attraction based on misrepresented gender, Some Like it Hot has aged surprisingly well—it’s far less prone to gay panic than you’d expect from a movie from the fifties, and still feels almost progressive in the way it approaches same-sex attraction. As a result of its pro-love anti-hate agenda, it can be rewatched without too much trouble even today, while many (most!) movies of its era feel grossly dated. Much of this credit goes to director Billy Wilder as he allows Lemmon, Curtis and Monroe, to become a terrific comic trio and help the film get over its duller moments. The far more interesting last half makes up for an average beginning, and Some Like it Hot is still worth a look today.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) Few movies ever reached topical relevancy as definitively as The China Syndrome, released barely twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident brought the film’s themes to the forefront of the public discourse. Nowadays, The China Syndrome still plays well, largely because it’s a solid thriller with a capable trio of lead actors. What viewers may not remember (or expect) from the film is how it acts as a great primer on newsgathering in the late seventies, with Jane Fonda playing an ambitious reporter, helped along by a cameraman/technician (a dashingly bearded Michael Douglas, who also produced the film), inadvertently records evidence of a dangerous incident at a nuclear power plant. Trade details aside, the film soon moves into solid conspiracy thriller territory as the characters do their best to go public before the incident reoccurs. The ending is dark, but not quite as bleak as I remembered it. Jack Lemmon anchors the conspiracy angle in reality. Convincing procedural details, either from the TV news angle or the operations of the nuclear reactor itself, keep the film grounded in the required realism. While the film’s surface sheen is clearly from the late seventies, The China Syndrome itself hasn’t aged all that much, and you could indeed imagine a remake that wouldn’t have to change much in order to remain relevant. Still, the 1979 version remains both compelling and reflective or its era. It is well worth a look.