John Frankenheimer’s Service Comedy

I’m a big admirer of John Frankenheimer’s early work from such live TV dramas as The Comedian (1956) and Days of Wine and Roses (1957) to his peak achievements of the sixties: All Fall Down (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966). I’ve also enjoyed several of the more commercial projects he helmed throughout his career such as Seven Days in May (1964), Black Sunday (1977) and Ronin (1998). Unfortunately, his reputation has suffered over the years due to several box office bombs and critically maligned movies – The Horsemen (1971), Story of a Love Story aka Impossible Object (1973), 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), Prophecy (1979), Dead Bang (1989), and especially The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), which had a highly publicized and chaotic production history.  Yet the most notoriously panned film of his career is easily The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) and in Frankenheimer’s own words, “It was the only movie I’ve made which I would say was a total disaster.”  So, I finally decided to see for myself if the movie lives up to its notoriety.

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The Year of the Hare

Man’s best friend is a hare as depicted in the Finnish comedy-drama THE YEAR OF THE HARE aka Janiksen Vuosi (1977), directed by Risto Jarva.

Road trip movies in which the main character goes on a journey with his pet is not that unusual in the annuals of cinema although the pet is usually a dog (Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, 2008) or a cat (Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, 1974). What makes Janiksen Vuosi (English title, The Year of the Hare, 1977) decidedly offbeat is that the protagonist Kaarlo Vatanen (Antti Litja) bonds with a hare that his car has hit and nurses it back to health as they wander into the wilderness. Vatanen, a marketing executive, has become completely disillusioned with modern life and tries to abandon everything – his career, his wife, his possessions – and get back to nature, living off the land and the kindness of strangers. In the process, he discovers a new best friend in the wounded hare, which is never given a name.

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Sex Trafficking in Marseilles

Human trafficking is recognized as a form of modern day slavery today but it has been around for decades. In the early 20th century the white slave trade in Europe became a major crime phenomenon in which hundreds of young women went missing only to end up enslaved in prostitution rings. This criminal activity provided the basis for countless melodramas and sexploitation films but one of the most entertaining and accomplished efforts is the French feature Des Femmes Disparaissent (1959), which was released in the U.S. in 1962 as Road to Shame. Women Disappear is a more accurate translation for the original title but the movie is a tautly directed thriller which has the look of a vintage noir with moody black and white cinematography by Robert Juillard (Forbidden Games, Gervaise).

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The Jimmy Piersall Story

Anthony Perkins plays baseball player Jimmy Piersall in the 1957 biographical drama FEAR STRIKES OUT.

There are enough films about baseball and famous ballplayers in the American cinema to constitute its own subgenre but Fear Strikes Out (1957) is a special case that stands alone. Based on the autobiography by James A. Piersall, the former outfielder and shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, and Albert S. Hirshberg, the film is less about Jimmy Piersall’s brilliant though erratic career and more about his struggle against bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). 

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Siren of the Danube

One of the most important Czech films to emerge during the Czech New Wave of the 1960s was The Shop on Main Street (Czech title: Obchod na Korze, 1965), which was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1966 and snagged a Best Actress nomination for Ida Kaminska the following year. The important thing to note is that The Shop on Main Street was not really a part of the Czech New Wave. The film’s directors, Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, were more than a generation older than the young upstarts of that movement that included Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde), Ivan Passer (Intimate Lighting) and Jan Nemec (Diamonds of the Night), among others. And even though The Shop on Main Street made Kadar and Klos internationally famous, their other films are not as well known to most American filmgoers. That is a shame because their final collaboration, Adrift (1971), is one of their most fascinating features but the troubled production behind it is possibly one of the reasons it is almost unknown today.

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Secret Agenda

Is there really such a thing as “The Perfect Crime”? In theory the plot might seem infallible but what about the unforeseen surprise that could wreck the whole thing? It could be the benign interference of a neighbor or a stranger or even an accidental mishap involving the architect of the crime. An excellent example of what could go terribly wrong at the last minute can be found in The Hidden Room (aka Obsession, 1949) directed by Edward Dmytryk.

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Aleksandr Mitta’s Ekipazh

The Russian film poster for Ekipazh aka AIR CREW (1980).

Who said Hollywood holds the patent on the disaster film genre? There have been numerous contenders from other countries that are fine specimens of the form such as Submersion of Japan aka Tidal Wave (1973) by director Shiro Moritani, Ian Barry’s doomsday thriller The Chain Reaction (1980) from Australia, and Renzo Martinelli’s Vajont – La Diga del Disonore (2001), based on the 1963 flooding of Longarone, Italy after the collapse of the Vajont Dam. One of my favorites, however, is a variation on 1970’s Airport and its sequels entitled Ekipazh (English title: Air Crew, 1980), directed by Aleksandr Mitta. It was made in the Soviet Union during the final decade before it became the Russian Federation. The film, which is equal parts soap opera, suspense thriller and disaster epic, focuses on three pilots and assorted crew members who embark on a flight to rescue survivors from an earthquake in a mountain mining town. 

The U.S. poster for the 1980 Russian disaster drama Ekipazh aka AIR CREW.
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Master of Illusions

Director Federico Fellini on the set of Satyricon (1969); Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

“Fellini’s work is like a treasure chest. You open it up and there, right in front of your eyes, a world of wonders springs up – ancient wonders, new ones, provincial wonders and universal ones, real wonders and fantastic ones.” – Martin Scorsese

The Oscar nominated director of Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) is just one of the usual suspects (along with Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky) rounded up to pay homage to the great Italian director in The Magic of Fellini (2002), a 56-minute documentary written and directed by Carmen Piccini.

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Don’t Mess with a Vietnam Vet

Among the slew of Hollywood movies that followed in the final days of the Vietnam War and used that as the subject, Rolling Thunder (1977) is a fascinating aberration. On the one hand, it flirts with serious issues and societal problems addressed in such post-Vietnam dramas as Coming Home (1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) but it is also a violent revenge film that exploits a Vietnam veteran as an avenging angel.

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Ode to a Grecian Isle

Hristo (Takis Emmanuel) and Joana (Irene Papas) have a conversation about donkeys on the island of Santorini in STEPS (1966).

Who says trying to run away from your problems can’t be therapeutic? Sometimes you just need some time alone in a completely different environment to sort yourself out and get a different perspective. That is exactly what Joanna does. An aspiring artist who is stuck in a dead end existence in Athens, Greece, she takes a one month vacation away from the city. It is also a brief escape from living with her depressed father, who is still grieving over his wife’s death. Joanna takes a ferry to the island of Santorini and it is there that she opens up to new possibilities in her life as well as a renewed desire to make art again. This is the basic set-up of May Sarton’s 1963 novel Joanna and Ulysses but the 1966 film version entitled Steps (Greek title: Ta Skalopatia) takes numerous liberties with the story and turns it into something much more ambiguous and unresolved, courtesy of screenwriters Vassilis Vassilikos, Glenn P. Wolfe and Leonard Hirschfield, who also directs. It would be Hirschfield’s sole directorial feature.

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