Saturday, 17 December 2011

'For A Few Dollars More' - A stylish and influential western!

The 1965 western classic For a Few Dollars More (Original Italian Title: Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu) is the second film of Sergio Leone's famous Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonte.

Born in Rome, Sergio Leone had built his reputation as an assistant to the legendary Italian film director Vittorio DeSica and as an assistant director for films shot at the famous Italian Cinecitta studios, such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). It was not until the 1960s when Leone shifted his attention to the subgenre called Spaghetti Westerns, Italian films styled on the American western.


Leone's westerns may have been influenced by the Hollywood western especially the films of John Ford but differed significantly from them in terms of plot, characterisation and mood. Leone's vision of the American West is shown as more violent and morally complex than what was conveyed in the traditional American Western. Leone wanted to show the protagonists in his film as less moral than the conventional western character.

After the success in Italy of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), director Sergio Leone wanted to make a sequel but he knew that he required the lead star Clint Eastwood to agree to star in it. Eastwood had not yet seen the final print of A Fistful of Dollars and he had a few concerns about participating in the sequel. The US version had yet to be released and Eastwood was still relatively unknown, remembered only for playing the character of Rowdy Yates in the successful US western series Rawhide in the late 1950s. Eastwood was persuaded to make the sequel. The Dollars trilogy was to become hugely successful at the box office which built Sergio Leone's reputation and made Clint Eastwood a huge international star.

Television westerns were very popular in the 1960s especially in Italy and having Eastwood play the lead meant that Leone had a recognised face of an American TV cowboy even though Eastwood was not his first choice. Leone had Henry Fonda in mind.  Leone managed to have all of his dreams realised because after Eastwood starred in the hugely successful final part of the Dollars trilogy The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in 1966, he was able to hire Henry Fonda to play a memorable villain in his classic western spaghetti epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). 


Clint Eastwood as the iconic "Man with No Name"
For a Few Dollars More is my favourite Leone western. I could have chosen any of his Dollar films or Once Upon a Time in the West but for some reason the sequel does it for me. A Fistful of Dollars may be the first of the trilogy but it is a stylish remake of the Japanese classic Yojimbo. The higly regarded Japanese director Akira Kurasawa won a lawsuit against Leone for breach of copyright so it is in my opinion that this sequel develops Leone's cinematic style without standing on the shoulders of any other classic.

A typical scene shot in Techniscope, an Italian invention that retains both foreground and background focus

In For a Few Dollars More, Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef play bounty hunters who reluctantly join forces to take on the psychotic bandit El Indio (a brilliant sinister performance by Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte) and his gang (which includes Klaus Kinski as a hunchback). As in the previous film,  For a Few Dollars More was filmed using Techniscope, an Italian invention that retains both foreground and background focus.This technque gives the actor less to do and so the film could become about something else which enhances the visual style.

Sergio Leone directing Clint
This film boasts another memorable score from the now-legendary Ennio Morricone who was to write the scores to all of Leone's great films. in 2007, Morricone received a special Academy Award to honour his contribution to the art of film music (presented to him by Clint Eastwood). For a Few Dollars More is the first Leone film that contains a musical theme embodied within the film itself where the music is often diegetic and non-diegetic especially in those scenes when the pocket watch is used. The overall effect is original, haunting and memorable.

After his great films of the sixties, Sergio Leone made a only few interesting films of note and interestingly turned down the chance to direct The Godfather. It was not until 1984 when the classic gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America was released but had been re-cut before release. The restored director's cut has since been hailed as a masterpiece. Sergio Leone died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60.

Despite the fact that it is not spoken about in the same regard as the other Leone films, For a Few Dollars More is a remarkably stylish and violent western. It is as hugely influential as the other films from the trilogy and more importantly, it is very entertaining.
RATING *****
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Compilation of segments from the scores of 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964) and 'For a Few Dollars More' (1965) by Ennio Morricone. 

'A Hard Days Night' - a massively influential band starring in a massively influential film.

The Beatles has to be regarded as artistically and culturally the most most amazing rock band in history. Their influence on popular music is beyond question and along with Elvis, were the biggest music force in the world. 1964 was the first year of their global domination but many people had thought that The Beatles were nothing more than a fad that would disappear quickly. So it was inevitable that they would make a major film before the end of the year. There is nothing unique about pop stars starring in films or musicals to cash on their success but nobody quite knew just how wonderful the fab four's debut film would be.
Written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester, 'A Hard Day's Night' was made in the style of a documentary, describing a couple of days of the band as they travel to London to appear on a television show. It is a witty semi-fictional film with surprisingly fresh performances from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. It also stars memorable British stars from the period such as John Junkin, Norman Rossington, Victor Spinelli and Irish actor Wilfred Brambell as Paul's grandfather who is always described in the film as "very clean", obvious punning with his "dirty old man" character in the famous BBC sitcom 'Steptoe and Son'. 

'A Hard Day's Night' was a massive critical and financial success which influenced many films during the 1960s. The photography and editing style had been acknowledged by many pop video directors as a major influence and it was rated by 'Time Magazine as one of the all-time great 100 films. The film can also be regarded as an historical document of the British show business scene of the day. Most importantly though, ' A Hard Day's Night' is a delight to watch and as you can expect from The Beatles, the music is great too. A British cinematic masterpiece.
RATING *****
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Friday, 16 December 2011

Maureen O'Hara - A quick tribute to Ireland's greatest leading lady!


Maureen O'Hara is Ireland's most successful leading lady and one of the surviving stars from Hollywood's Golden Age. She was recently a guest on RTE's 'The Late Late Show' in Dublin and there were special recorded tributes to her from many famous luminaries such as Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Liam Neeson and Martin Scorsese.  Here is a selection of moments from Maureen O'Hara's cinema performances, assembled for an Irish Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award she received in 2004.

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Thursday, 15 December 2011

The trailer (and a short features review) for the Blu Ray version of 'Ben-Hur'

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I watched the classic 1959 William Wyler version of 'Ben-Hur' on Blu Ray last night and I must say that I was very impressed with the quality of the restoration. The high definition picture and sound just made the whole experience exciting! This DVD contains plenty of extra features including the 1925 classic silent version with Roman Novarro and Francis X Bushman. This Blu Ray contains so much and is most definitely value for money!
A few members of the cast and crew of 'Ben-Hur': William Wyler (director), Charlton Heston (actor), Joseph Vogel (MGM President), Stephen Boyd (actor), Sam Zimbalist (producer) and Haya Harareet (actress).

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The 'Adventures of Don Juan' - the last hurrah is a resounding success!

‘Adventures of Don Juan’ is a romantic adventure made in colour by Warner Bros in 1948. The film stars Errol Flynn as the great lover Don Juan and Viveca Lindfors as the Queen with Robert Douglas, Alan Hale, Ann Rutherford, Robert Warwick acting as support.

The film begins during the reign of Elizabeth I of England when Spanish nobleman Don Juan is sent back from London to Madrid after a scandal caused by his affair with the British fiancée of a Spanish duke. The Spanish ambassador in London, Count de Polan (Robert Warwick) sends a letter of recommendation to his friend Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors), asking her to provide an opportunity at the court to reform Don Juan after the rumours about his love affairs. Don Juan is hired as a fencing instructor at the Spanish Academy. But Don Juan discovers a plot by the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas) to overthrow Queen Margaret and usurp power in Spain so that he can declare war on England.


Ably directed by Vincent Sherman and written by George Oppenheimer, ‘Adventures of Don Juan’ is the last quality Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure. Flynn is well cast as the famous lover but he is now looking much older despite being only 39 when the film was released. Flynn would star in various films for another decade but the years of alcohol abuse was beginning to take its toll. However, Flynn does produce a great star turn in this film. The other performances are also worthy of the production especially from Robert Douglas as the villainous Duke de Lorca.
The film was originally to be scored by the legendary Erich Wolfgang Korngold who had composed the scores for 'Captain Blood', 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' and 'The Sea Hawk' but he had retired at the time of production. Max Steiner’s score works wonderfully and uplifts this very enjoyable adventure.
RATING *****

Thursday, 8 December 2011

THE BEST CINEMATIC SHERLOCK HOLMES IS SIMPLE TO DETECT!

It was really great to watch the 1938 film version of Arthur Conan Doyle's story 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' again. A new Holmes film is about to hit the cinemas but it is worth checking out the best ever Sherlock Holmes on film.


'The Hound of the Baskervilles' begins with Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. John Watson receiving a visit from Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill). Mortimer wishes to express his uneasiness about the arrival of Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene), the heir of the Baskerville estate and the last of the Baskervilles because of a family curse. Dr. Mortimer tells Holmes and Watson about the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, a demonic dog that first killed Sir Hugo Baskerville and then to to kill all the Baskervilles in the region. Reluctant at first, Holmes agrees to look into the case but sends Watson ahead with Sir Henry.


Pacing may be suspect at times but this is a genuinely atmospheric film and very enjoyable. Effective direction (Sidney Lanfield) and good production values are just part of what makes this vintage film so special. Basil Rathbone is quite simply the best cinematic Holmes and Nigel Bruce provides a lovable, more fumbling older Dr. Watson (even although he was only three years younger than Rathbone in real life!). Greene received top billing as Sir Henry because Fox studios did not think that the film would be such a massive hit and so the studio promoted Greene because of his youthful looks. Forget the horrible recent attempts directed by the inadequate Guy Ritchie containing the rather peculiar interpretation of Holmes by Robert Downey Jnr., the 1938 version of the 'The Hounds of the Baskervilles', followed by the 1939 classic 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' are the definite film versions of Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary character.



Saturday, 3 December 2011

'The Best Years of Our Lives' is no masterpiece!

'The Best Years of Our Lives' was released in 1946 to universal acclaim. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, written by Robert Sherwood and directed by William Wyler, the film tells the story of three US soldiers trying to adjust to their home town after the war. Starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Teresa Wright and Hoagy Carmichael, the film was praised for the honest depictions of the lives of these three men. 'The Best Years of Our Lives' was a massive box office success and won heavily at the Oscars, collecting seven Academy Awards including one for best picture. It is considered a classic by many film historians.

I think the film is extremely over-rated. With the exception of the wonderful deep focus photography by Gregg Toland and a few of the performances, I think the film struggles to be above-average at best. Some moments may be interesting but once you get around the commendable fact that Hollywood dared to make a film showing a different view of the ex-servicemen, then you have to judge the film on its own artistic merits. All I can take from this picture is that it is an interesting but over-long melodrama with a rather obvious plot.
RATING ***

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The very average 'Ides of March' does not even have an ending!!!!

I watched the highly acclaimed George Clooney political movie 'The Ides of March' a few weeks ago and I was certainly left short-changed. Good production values and performances but the story is so predictable and wafer thin. There are no twists and when the film begins to gather some momentum it ends abruptly - for no reason! No ending - not even an open ending! The film becomes completely pointless. A thoughtful twist at the end would have made such a difference! Failure snatched from the claws of victory indeed! A weak episode of 'Dallas' (with the last ten minutes wiped off) is better than this! What a disappointment!
RATING **

'SCARFACE' IS A COMPLETE FAILURE! KEEP WELL AWAY FROM THIS VERSION!!!



I watched the 1983 version of 'Scarface' at the cinema when it was released. I remember everybody talking about the theatrical poster back then but showing little concern for the film itself. I hate film reputations created by other criteria rather than the film itself. 'Scarface' is a dreadfully directed picture (Brian De Palma was the weak link in the Hollywood movie brats from the 70s) with banal dialogue (from Oliver Stone)and hammy acting (yes, even from the usually remarkable Al Pacino). I think that the poster is wonderful and I think that it is that which has produced the cult status of the remake because the film itself is quite boring. Buy the poster by all means but avoid this tedious remake! Watch the 1932 version if you want to be entertained.
RATING *

Saturday, 26 November 2011

All That Money Can Buy (aka 'The Devil and Daniel Webster') is priceless!


'All That Money Can Buy' (aka 'The Devil and Daniel Webster') was released by RKO Pictures in 1941 and I have just managed to watch it on DVD for the first time this evening. It is based on the short story by Stephen Vincent Benét about the New Hampshire farmer in the 1840s who sells his soul to the Devil. This classic film is a fine example of cinematic sophistication courtesy of a remarkable screenplay (Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benét), astounding photography (Joseph H August), classy direction (William Dieterle), superb music (Bernard Herrmann) and a stellar cast especially Walter Huston as Mr Scratch. This film is still revered by film historians around the world and is easily in the same class as 'Citizen Kane'. Sheer cinematic genius!
RATING *****

'Lost Horizon' is still a fantasy film to enjoy!

I had the pleasure to watch 'Lost Horizon' on DVD last night for the first time since I don’t know when. It is a splendid fantasy film made by Columbia Pictures in 1937, starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and HB Warner. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin from the book of the same name by James Hilton, the movie typifies the high standard of film making that Hollywood could produce back in the golden age of cinema. The story tells what happens to a group of people whose plane crashes in the Himalaya and finds a hidden place where there the people live in peace and complete happiness, living very long lives. This place is a contrast to the war stricken world they have left. Although the film had been re-cut on various occasions, almost the whole film has been restored to its full length except for six minutes for which stills had to be used for the lost sequences. Frank S. Nugent from 'The New York Times' wrote that 'Lost Horizon' is "a grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played”. It is most certainly brilliant and more enjoyable to watch than anything you can possibly see at the cinema today. RATING *****

Monday, 21 November 2011

'Frankenstein' released on this day in 1931

The horror film masterpiece 'Frankenstein' was released by Universal Pictures in the United States 80 years ago today. The film starred Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Boris Karloff (who gave quite a memorable performance as the monster). The film has so much to admire including the screenplay (Francis Edward, Garret Fort), the flawless direction (James Whale) and German Expressionist photography (Arthur Edison), not forgetting the iconic make up by the legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce. It is a film that deserves its accolades and is noted to be one of the few films made with an even more impressive sequel: 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935).
RATING *****

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Hollywood today needs film worthy of Apocalypse Now!


The original version of Francis Ford Coppolla's war classic 'Apocalypse Now' (1979) was went on limited released earlier this year and it is clearly now a film that you would wish Hollywood would have the nerve to make today. 'Apocalypse Now' (and 'Raging Bull' directed by Martin Scorsese and released a year later) marked the end of an era for mainstream Hollywood creativity. The second golden age of cinema had ended leaving a glorious run of great films which were mature and adult. Cinema has now since been dominated by infantile popcorn movies and although a few gems crop up from time to time such as 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981), 'Back to the Future' (1985) and 'Toy Story' (1995), the target audience has become increasingly younger and the movies have become mostly poorly crafted CGI-laden nonsense with no cinematic flair or creativity. Film versions of comic books are the norm now and after watching the recent version of 'Thor', I have lost interest.

For those who still don't know, the story of 'Apocalypse Now' is based on the acclaimed novel 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad and it is set during the Vietnam war. US Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent by Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) and General Corman (GD Spradlin) to carry out a mission to seek out a mysterious Green Beret Colonel named Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), whose army has crossed the border into Cambodia and is conducting hit-and-run missions against the Viet Cong and NVA. The army believes Kurtz has gone insane and Willard's job is to kill him!

The making of 'Apocalypse Now' is now the stuff of legend with stories of Martin Sheen's heart attack, the director's suicide threat and Marlon Brando's size now belonging to Hollywood folklore. The sheer scale of the film, the performances, the direction and the screenplay (by John Milius) are simply components that make up this masterpiece. It is common knowledge that movie legends Billy Wilder and Akira Kurosawa adored the film during a test screening. If you have not seen 'Apocalypse Now' yet, get the DVD and watch it on a big screen! You will definitely admire the craftsmanship and the sheer madness of this project! A masterpiece! (Rating: ***** An enjoyable epic on a massive scale).
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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

'Sweet Smell of Success' is still sweet after all these years!!!!

After watching the 1957 classic film 'Sweet Smell of Success', you will be even more amazed to learn that the initial reviews for the film were rather mixed. The film is one of those classics that has gained its impressive reputation over time!

The film tells the story of a powerful newspaper columnist who uses his connections to ruin his sister's relationship with a musician he considers inappropriate. Burt Lancaster plays JJ Hunsecker, the intimidating columnist who is expecting Eddie Falco (Tony Curtis) to produce the goods and save his sister (Susan Harrison) from marrying Steve Dallas (Martin Milner).

Hunsecker's obsessive protectiveness of his sister borders on incest and Falco's ability to grovel low to his every whim brings out two new types of cinematic protagonists - two characters whom we should detest with a whim but are fascinating to the core. The early critics got it wrong probably because they could not digest a film containing leads with no morals. However, 'Sweet Smell of Success' has gained stature over the years not just because of the superb performances by the leads, the perfect Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman script, the taut direction by Alexander McKendrick (formerly of Ealing studios), the classy score by Elmer Bernstein and the stylish photography by James Wong Howe but that the film is simply terrific! Rating: ***** (Very entertaining and very stylish. A classic!)

It has been a while!


It has been a while since my last blog but better late than never! I have not lost my passion for classic films that Hollywood and film companies from various other countries have produced over the past century! I have watched many films, have met a wonderful star from the golden era and I have even taught film studies for five years. Although I often complain about the quality of movies today, some interesting films do get made from time to time. I wish that new films are worthy of the masters from the golden age of cinema but it is very difficult for creativity to exist in a film environment where the companies are more worried about losing money than making money! That aside, I hope that everyone can share my passion for cinema regardless of what age you are! Try to avoid watching films on a laptop or a handheld device if you can! There is really only one place to watch a big film - on the big screen!
With many regards, Paul B.

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