(On Cable TV, February 2019) There is a weightiness to The Sundowners that makes it both respectable and a burden to watch. The story of a nomadic family trying to make ends meet in outback Australia, it’s a character study (adapted from a novel) of a man unwilling to settle down, something that his wife finds increasingly untenable. Robert Mitchum stars in a very manly role, with Deborah Kerr as his long-suffering wife—despite the mostly happy marriage banter between the two, much of the film’s central conflict is about whether or not they’ll be able to reach an accommodation, and the ending is far less definite than many would have wanted. But the real reason to watch the film may have less to do with plotting and more with the impressive colour cinematography—unusually enough for 1960, much of the film was shot on location in deep Australia, featuring plenty of koalas, kangaroos, sheep and sheep-shearing. Peter Ustinov makes an impression as a refined older man somehow found in the outback. It’s a solid drama that was eventually nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), but don’t expect much in terms of resolution.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) I often complain about excessively long movies, but even at nearly three hours, I found The Longest Day riveting throughout. A meticulously detailed overview of the Allied landing in Normandy during World War II, this film takes a maximalist approach to the event: It features dozens of speaking roles in three languages, as it tries to explain what happened from the American, British, French and German perspective. Character development gets short thrift, but that doesn’t matter as much as you’d think if you consider the event as world-sweeping history featuring four nations. An all-star ensemble cast helps propel the story forward with some sympathy, as the personas of John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery (in a very funny pre-Bond role), Sal Mineo and may others guide us through the war. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and hits anthology levels with a sweeping minutes-long uninterrupted shot of urban warfare. (There’s also a great camera movement early in the film that shows the beach landing and many of the 23,000 soldiers used during filming.) While Saving Private Ryan has eclipsed The Longest Day as the definitive portrayal of D-Day, this 1962 production remains important as a historical document in itself: Many cast and crew had been in Normandy twenty years later, to the point where some actors were portraying people close to them when it happened. (Richard Todd was offered his own role and ended up taking that of his then-superior officer, and ends up speaking “to himself” during the movie.) Visually, the movie remains spectacular even fifty-five years later, and it gets better the more early-1960s stars you can spot. (This also works for historical figures—Omar Bradley is instantly recognizable in a one-shot role.) It’s an exceptional tribute to the events of June 6, 1944, a thrilling adventure story and its relatively bloodless nature doesn’t undercut its portrayal of war as being hell where anyone can die at any time. It’s quite a rewarding film, and it’s even better when you can understand more than one of the three spoken languages.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) When watching older movies, it’s natural to assume certain parameters. Aside from the occasional noir movie, themselves neutered by the restrictions of the Hays Code, most films from the fifties are presumed to be fairly soft—neutered in themes, gentle in approach, straightforward in presentation. The Night of the Hunter has endured because it is most definitely not those things. Anchored by a strong menacing performance from Robert Mitchum (in a role that clearly anticipates his turn in Cape Fear), the film soon disposes of its central female character, then turns its attention to mortal child endangerment. What’s more, director Charles Laughton applies nightmarish expressionist style to its hard-core thriller plot for a surreal experience that has as much to do with sheer style as substance. A popular and critical dud upon release, The Night of the Hunter has grown in stature since then for obvious reasons: it’s a film ahead of its time, precise in its impact and still quite impressive to take in.
(On TV, September 2017) I caught this film mostly as a prelude to watching the 1991 remake, but I’m actually impressed at how well this Kennedy-era thriller has held up. Even (slightly) pulling its punches regarding violence and sexual assault, Cape Fear does manage to be gripping and nightmarish. Much of this effectiveness has to be credited to Robert Mitchum: Gregory Peck is fine as the stalwart hero of the story, but it’s Mitchum’s incredibly dangerous ex-convict character that makes the movie work so well even fifty-five years later. The houseboat assault sequence alone, a lengthy one-shot that begins with an egg being smashed on the film’s female lead, is still off-putting even today. It certainly helps that Cape Fear has a strong Hitchcock influence (he storyboarded it; J. Lee Thompson stepped in after Hitchcock quit the project but kept most of the style intact), and remains distinctive despite imitators and a lasting influence. I was favourably impressed by the film, and actually prefer it to its slick 1991 remake in many ways.