“You realize who this linen girl Tanya is?” (p 612 – Pevear / Volokhonsky translation)

My Top 9:

  1. Dr. Zhivago
  2. The Pawnbroker
  3. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
  4. The Collector
  5. A Thousand Clowns
  6. King Rat
  7. The Human Condition: Part III
  8. Thunderball
  9. The Train

Note:  That’s it.  After years and years of a list longer than ten, I can only come up with nine films and one of those, The Train, was actually nominated in the Original Screenplay category even though it was based on Rose Valland’s book.

Consensus Nominees:

  1. Dr Zhivago  (144 pts)
  2. A Thousand Clowns  (120 pts)
  3. The Collector  (112 pts)
  4. The Pawnbroker  (80 pts)
  5. The Sound of Music  (80 pts)
  6. Cat Ballou  (80 pts)
  7. Ship of Fools  (80 pts)

Note:  The Golden Globes finally add their own Best Screenplay category this year.

Oscar Nominees  (Best Screenplay – Adapted):

  • Dr Zhivago
  • Cat Ballou
  • The Collector
  • The Pawnbroker
  • Ship of Fools

WGA Awards:

Drama:

  • The Pawnbroker
  • The Collector
  • A Patch of Blue
  • Ship of Fools
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Comedy:

  • A Thousand Clowns
  • Cat Ballou
  • That Darn Cat

Nominees that are Original:  The Great Race, What’s New Pussycat

Musical:

  • The Sound of Music

Golden Globe:

  • Dr. Zhivago
  • The Agony and the Ecsatsy
  • The Collector
  • A Patch of Blue
  • The Slender Thread

My Top 9

Doctor Zhivago

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film as one of the Best Picture nominees of 1965.  From the day I first saw it, back in high school, I have loved it.  David Lean was one of the first directors that I got interested in and whose films I sought out and I have been a huge fan ever since and this film is one of the reasons why.

The Source:

До́ктор Жива́го by Boris Pasternak  (1957)

I am less a fan of the novel.  I have read it twice now – once in its original translation and once in the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation.  The writing is beautiful but there really isn’t that much there.  In fact, Richard Pevear, in the introduction that latter translation, explains precisely why it doesn’t quite work for me:

“It was criticized for not being what it was never meant to be: a good, old-fashioned, nineteenth-century historical novel about the Russian revolution, an epic along the lines of War and Peace.  It was also praised for being what it was not: a moving love story, or the lyrical biography of a poet, setting the sensitive individual against the grim realities of Soviet life.  Western Marxists found that Pasternak failed to portray the major events and figures of the revolution – something he never set out to do.  Others devised elaborate allegorical readings of the novel, though Pasternak stated explicitly, in a letter to Stephen Spender (August 9, 1959) that ‘a detailed allegorical interpretation of literature’ was alien to him.’  Critics found that there was no real plot to the novel, that its chronology was confused, that the main characters were oddly effaced, that the author relied far too much on contrived coincidences.  These perplexities are understandable, but they come from a failure to pay attention to the specific composition of the novel, its way of representing reality, its was of making experience felt.” (p xiii-xiv)

So, I have an understanding of what Pasternak was attempting to do, but that doesn’t mean that what he does works for me.  It’s essentially six hundred pages of beautiful language without much to it, or, in other words, the world’s longest prose poem.  I found a perfect paragraph on page 101 that gives you an idea of what Pasternak does: “From grief, long standing on his feet, and lack of sleep, from the dense singing and the dazzling light of candles day and night, and from the cold he had caught during those days, there was a sweet confusion in Yura’s soul, blissfully delirious, mournfully enraptured.”  I can understand why the Nobel Prize went to Pasternak, with his beautiful grasp of language (especially given how that must read in Russian) but it doesn’t necessarily make for a great novel, at least for me.

The Adaptation:

“As a matter of fact, the first edict that Lean gave Bolt was to focus on the love story and downplay the politics.  Lean stressed that he was not interested in making a political statement about war and revolution.” (Beyond the Epic: The Life & Films of David Lean, Gene D. Phillips, p 328)

“Lean and Bolt also added to the screenplay two brief incidents that, like the prologue, are not in the book.  These are the first meetings of Yuri and Lara on a trolley car and Yuri’s last sight of Lara from a streetcar as she walks down a Moscow street at film’s end.  These rhyming episodes provide a narrative frame for the romantic story, which is central to the plot.  By centering the film on the love story, Lean and Bolt drastically contracted Pasternak’s narrative.” (Phillips, p 329)

” ‘The story of Doctor Zhivago is very simple,’ says Lean.  ‘A man is married to one woman and in love with another.  The trick was in not having the audience condemn the lovers.'”  (David Lean, Stephen M. Silverman, p 153)

Those quotes really kind of sum up what the writers did.  As Bolt is quoted saying in the Silverman book, you can really only get about 1/20 of the book on to the screen, so almost all of the dialogue from the novel was sacrificed and created by Bolt himself.

The Credits:

Directed by David Lean.  From the Novel by Boris Pasternak.  Screenplay by Robert Bolt.

The Pawnbroker

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film as one of the five best films of 1965.  This is the kind of film that fills me with rage in my love of film.  That’s because it was nominated for exactly one Oscar, which it lost to Cat Ballou.  It was passed over for Picture and Adapted Screenplay in favor of Ship of Fools and it was passed over in Director and Editing, both of which were won by The Sound of MusicThe Pawnbroker is an amazing film, an unforgettable experience that is not only a Holocaust film but a film about what happens after, specifically, after everything you have is taken from you and you do not die.  It is not a film for the light of heart but it is such a serious film that it was approved for bare breasts at a time when that was still very much taboo in American film.  See this and remind yourself why Sidney Lumet was such a great filmmaker and marvel at the fact that Rod Steiger didn’t win the Oscar for it.

The Source:

The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant  (1961)

What can make you stop feeling?  The sense of loss after everything you have ever loved has been taken from you and yet you don’t die.  If you survive the Holocaust when all of your family does not, if you find yourself stumbling towards America and finding a job in which people come in and beg you for a little money while handing away their goods, a job not too far from the traditional Jewish profession of usury that was all that Jews were allowed to do for so many years, how can you even allow yourself to feel?  What would be the point?  You would only need to continually turn it off in order to do your job with any shred of ability.  So do not feel.  Shut the world off, no matter the people asking for charity, no matter the entreatments towards physical affection, no matter the young man who just wants to learn from you and whose rejection will push him towards more desperate measures.

All of this, of course, is what we endure when we read The Pawnbroker.  In reading it, we are at least spared some of the brutal visual images on the screen, but since we force ourselves to picture what might have been happening, that could actually be worse.  To add even more tragedy into the story, Edward Lewis Wallant, after such an amazing second novel, would die the next year at the age of 36 of a brain aneurysm.

The Adaptation:

The basic premise and many of the specific scenes from the film come directly from the book.  There are definitely lines that didn’t exist in the original book (specifically, I don’t remember reading the key line “I didn’t die.  Everything that I loved was taken away from me and I did not die.” although I might have just missed it).  There is also less in the book about what is going on with the actual pawn brokerage in the first place because the narrative of the novel rarely ever strays away from Sol himself.  So the film opens that up and gives us more things to help understand the tragic ending that perhaps will make Sol rediscover what it is like to feel.

The Credits:

Directed by Sidney Lumet.  Screenplay: Morton Fine, David Friedkin.  Based on the novel by Edward Lewis Wallant.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

The Film:

The first time I saw this film, I thought it was a good film.  It was an interesting, but kind of slow spy film with a remarkable performance from Richard Burton.  But, when I went back to it several years later I had started reading John le Carré and I had understood how his books were a counterpoint to the Ian Fleming novels, that this was a much more realistic way of looking at how intelligence agencies actually operate.  Suddenly, I was looking at this film again from a new viewpoint and it had gone up quite a bit, all the way to a high ***.5 film.

Alec Leamas is weary.  He is waiting in West Berlin for an agent to come in, the last of his agents in East Berlin.  The rest are all dead.  So the man comes, trying to get across on a bicycle and when the lights come on him, he panics and tries to make it, but is gunned down.  So Leamas is brought back to England, brought out of the Cold War to push some papers around.  He eventually leaves the service, ends up broke, meets a young Communist woman while working in a library and ends up in jail after beating a grocer.  It turns out this is part of a plan though, a plan to take down the main East German who had picked apart the British spy network.  So, Leamas is enticed by the East Germans and ends up on the other side of the Iron Curtain playing a very deadly game of cat and mouse, trying to take down a man, although it might not be the man that he thinks it is.

John le Carré had published two books before this one, but this was the one that made him a huge success.  Ian Fleming was dead by this time, but Bond was going like gangbusters at the cinema, so filmmakers decided to try the le Carré approach, the spy who works slowly, deliberately, who uses his intelligence rather than his fists, for a film that is suspenseful without being action packed.  It works for a variety of reasons.  The first is that le Carré book is first-rate, showing the masterly direction he could take a spy thriller that would eventually lead to his masterpiece, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The second is that le Carré not only does a great job of writing the character of Alec Leamas, so beaten down by his job that you get totally sucked in when you think he is down on his luck and ends up in prison only to be rescued by a lovely young woman who has clearly fallen hard for him.  But the really smart thing was the casting of Richard Burton.  Burton, with his great Welsh accent, was one of the greatest actors who ever lived.  He so embodies the world weary agent, the man tired of being out in the cold, yet with just enough faith to fall in love at the exact wrong time bringing on the only conclusion that this film can possibly have.

I wonder what would have happened if this film was made today.  Would they have changed the ending?  This film, like the novel before, ends in the only way it really can.

The Source:

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré (1963)

The first two novels by le Carré had been interesting.  They had both revolved around George Smiley, a recently retired member of the “Circus”, the British Secret Service that was still officially denied at this point in history.  In the third book, we focus on a different character: Alec Leamas, the beleaguered head in Berlin whose agents have all been wiped out by the Eastern Germans.  So he is brought home to work at a desk, which he hates and decides not to do.  While we think we are watching the collapse of a once capable agent, we finally discover that Leamas has now been working with Smiley on a plan to be discredited so he will be recruited by the East Germans and he can go in and hopefully set things up against the man who killed his agents.

Smiley has a small supporting role in this book, being mentioned several times but only making a small appearance a couple of times (which would really only be obvious to careful readers of the first two books, or later, to readers of other Smiley books, because of the description of the character: “One was short and rather plump. He has glasses and wore odd, expensive clothes; he was a kindly, worried little man and Liz trusted him somehow without knowing why.”) before showing up at the very end of the book.

This was the novel that really cemented le Carré’s reputation as kind of the anti-Ian Fleming, the man who wrote more realistic spy fiction that steered away from the fisticuffs and action heroics of a man like James Bond.  It helped, of course, that le Carré had actually been a spy and was writing from his own experience.  But it is his stories, complicated, dense stories in which sometimes very little happens until you suddenly realize that a lot has been happening and you just don’t know it yet that are so masterful.

It is a very good book and a perfect gateway into reading le Carré.  I actually enjoy reading Fleming as well, but it is very clear that le Carré is the much more talented writer.

The Adaptation:

This is one of those really great adaptations.  By that I don’t mean that the script is of very high quality, although that of course is true.  What I mean is that the film does a magnificent job of adapting the book.  There are very few changes made from the original novel (the primary one being the name change given to the main female character so as to avoid any publicity comments about “Liz Gold” the character and the very real Liz Taylor then married to star Richard Burton).  The opening scenes do a magnificent job of sticking exactly to the book (I re-watched the film just before re-reading the book for this post and I could hear Burton saying his lines in my head as I was reading the opening scenes).  A few of the overall descriptions of how things work are truncated a little bit to make things flow more smoothly.  Most importantly, the ending of the film sticks to the ending of the novel, not going for the typical happy ending that could have easily been tacked on by less interesting filmmakers.

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by Martin Ritt.  Based upon the novel “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” by John Le Carré.  Screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper.

The Collector

The Film:

While I don’t have The Collector as a **** film (it’s close), it is, in the weak year of 1965, still good enough to be #5 for the year and earn a Nighthawk nomination for Best Picture, which also means I have already reviewed it.  Watching it this time, it was not long after writing about Alfie and that Terrence Stamp turned down the film role after playing the stage role.  Watching him in this film, I also see that he is only a few degrees off from Alex in A Clockwork Orange and I realized that his Frederick Clegg falls kind of somewhere in between Alfie and Alex, a disturbed young man whose obsessions run over his ability to think clearly.  This is the last really good William Wyler film and is a film that shouldn’t be missed, also as an example of a really good book being turned into a really good film.

The Source:

The Collector by John Fowles  (1963)

The books that John Fowles would write after the 60’s weren’t all that good.  They sometimes could hold my interest but they got pretty boring and I eventually gave up on all the ones I attempted.  However, he had already established himself as a really talented, powerful writer with the three novels that he published in this decade: The Collector, The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s WomanThe Collector was his first novel and if you were to read it after reading the other two, you would be stunned that Fowles could write something that was so much shorter, so much less intricate, riding those boundaries between modernism and post-modernism that would be the hallmarks of the other two novels and yet still be so powerful.  It’s the story of an obsessive man who has come into money and uses it to buy an isolated house out in the country that kidnaps a beautiful young woman and holds her captive.  This isn’t a thriller about the young woman’s escape or a horror story about what he does to her.  It delves into each character and allows us to understand them and see how they both fail to understand each other.  The first part of the novel gives us his point-of-view while the second part gives us her diary while in captivity, a different, but no less essential point-of-view.  What makes it all the more fascinating is that this isn’t the early first novel that Fowles wrote before developing his style.  The bulk of The Magus was actually written before this but he languished on it and it still wasn’t published when he turned to this shorter work, writing it and publishing it before going back to the work that was really speaking to him.  The Collector didn’t end up making my Top 200 list but it came quite close.

The Adaptation:

Fowles had already, in a sense, done any film adaptation of the novel a favor.  Even short books can have a lot more than can fit in a two hour film.  But this novel, while still fairly short (255 pages), actually has two overlapping narratives.  So, really, in the narrative sense (and in adapting it), you can cut out almost half the book right away.  That meant that the filmmakers already had an easier task.  However, some of that overlapping narrative doesn’t really overlap since the kidnapped female, Miranda, tells the story of her relationship with her boyfriend.  The filmmakers considered using that and actually filmed the scenes but they got dropped.  Kenneth More was originally the third biggest character in the film, playing the boyfriend but Wyler ended up deciding against it.  ” ‘When I ran the rough cut for Willy, the pace seemed too slow,’ [Editor Robert] Swink recalls.  ‘We also knew it was too long.  So we pulled out the first flashback.  It ran better.  Willy said, ‘Why don’t we take out the second one?’  It ran much better.  Eventually we decided to eliminate all of them.”  (A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler, Jan Herman p 427)

One other thing of note in the adaptation that is more implied than explicit.  Terrence Stamp had the idea that his character was impotent but once Miranda was dead, he could actually fuck her.  Wyler initially didn’t like that idea but decided later that he was more okay with it and he ended up filming the scene.  Nothing like that is ever explicitly stated in the book but it is actually a very reasonable deduction to make based on the way Fowles wrote the character.

The Credits:

Directed by William Wyler.  Screenplay by Stanley Mann and John Kohn.  Based on the novel by John Fowles.
note: These are from the end credits.  The title is the only thing in the opening credits.

A Thousand Clowns

The Film:

I probably should try not to have to see this film again.  I had really enjoyed it the first time I saw it, back around age 20, but by the time I watched it (and reviewed it) for the Best Picture project, it didn’t do nearly as well.  This time, I focused less on the carefree aspect of it and how it had appealed to me originally but on how it looks as a film and it’s pretty weak.  The editing is disjointed, the sound is all over the place and the direction is clearly lost.  As I said before, what it really has going for it is the spirit, the art direction in the apartment, and most importantly, the lead performance from Jason Robards.

The Source:

A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner (1962)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Robards does so well in the play as he had played the lead role on Broadway.  In fact, four of the six characters carry over from their original stage performances (the only changes are Barbara Harris and Martin Balsam).  The play was a big hit on Broadway, mostly because of the carefree spirit.  It’s got some nice dialogue and a great role for Robards.

The Adaptation:

Herb Gardner, adapting his own play, kept almost all of the original dialogue.  The only real difference between the film and the play is that in the film, because they weren’t confined to one set (Murray’s apartment), it ranges all over the city.  We get numerous shots of walking through New York and vista shots of New York (a lot of times we are getting the sights with the dialogue spoken over it and it’s a little jarring) and there are a lot of scenes with no dialogue whatsoever, but just designed to show off Murray’s carefree lifestyle.

The Credits:

produced and directed by Fred Coe.  screenplay by Herb Gardner based on his original play.

King Rat

The Film:

Because of timing and availability, I tend to watch films from various years at the same time.  As a result, I was watching King Rat in the same weekend that I watched The Great Escape and it seemed like the films were two very different views on the same concept.  It’s not just that The Great Escape was based on non-fiction (with a lot of fictional details) and that it was set in a POW camp in Germany while this was based on a novel (though inspired by Clavell’s actual war experiences) and set in Singapore.  It’s the experience of the men.  In The Great Escape, we have an entire camp working together, trying to get out, get back to fighting the war.  In King Rat, we have a camp of men with any hope or desire beaten out of them.  James Garner’s scrounger in The Great Escape is a good man, working with the group, getting them what they need so that they can all succeed together.  George Segal’s King is a brutally selfish man, out only for himself (though he will sometimes come through for some of those closest to him, although it’s hard to describe it as friendship) and is the constant nemesis of Grey, the hard-nose man determined to keep everyone following the rules in this harsh environment.

Who are you supposed to root for?  Segal’s King is charming and a bit suave, in spite of his circumstances and he uses every resource at his command to make life better for himself and those close to him.  He is an example of what some would say makes America great.  Grey is viewed as the rigid, unbending voice of the rules, the man who does what he is supposed to instead of what might be right, the very epitome of being British.  Caught between them is young Lt. Marlowe, a Brit who is repulsed by Grey (partially due to class differences, since Marlowe is a gentleman and Grey has risen from a working-class family) and finds himself intrigued by the King.  And, played by Tom Courtenay (in the same year that he also played Pasha, a man who, as I pointed out to my mother, is so rigid that he would rather fight the Czar than doink Julie Christie), in the best performance in a film that is not short of strong performances, he is a man designed to invoke no sympathy or empathy.

All of this is set against the fading days of the war, as we move through V-E Day and towards V-J Day.  We see John Mills as a high-ranking officer who has been reduced to his basic needs and Denholm Elliot in a strong early performance.  We watch men who demand death for a pet dog because it killed a chicken and men who would eat the dog gleefully because at least it’s a chance for some meat.  This film is a reminder that while war, for some, could bring out the best, it could just as easily bring out the basest of human emotions that would tear at others just to survive.

The Source:

King Rat by James Clavell  (1962)

Unfortunately, while you can unlearn things (like that Pluto is no longer a planet or that Ayn Rand’s first name is not pronounced like the name Anne), you can’t un-know things.  Like, for instance, I can’t forget that James Clavell was an ardent admirer of Rand and her “philosophy”. For the most part, that’s not a problem, because I’m not about to sit through hundreds and hundreds of pages of Shogun and Noble House (and those were tv mini-series, so I don’t have to care about them for this project).  But I did force myself to read King Rat and it colors my reaction to the King, since he so clearly is the kind of model that Rand loved, the selfish man looking out only for himself and showing that rugged individualism.  All of that having been said, the novel is okay but could have been a lot shorter, though at 479 pages, I should be glad that it’s not like his later novels.

The Adaptation:

The film follows the original novel fairly closely and almost every major scene in the book makes it to the screen intact.  It’s really a surprisingly strong adaptation.  In spite of being repulsed by the King when I think about him, it doesn’t color my view of the film because it’s quite well made, quite well written and has a very strong ensemble cast.  So I suppose I should give some credit to Clavell, since it really does come mostly from his original novel.

The Credits:

Written for the Screen and Directed by Bryan Forbes.  Based on a novel by James Clavell.

人間の條件 完結篇
(The Human Condition: Part III)

The Film:

In some ways, it perhaps feels wrong to only review one of the three films in this series.  In one very real sense, they are one film, though they were released over the course of three years originally (and came to the States further apart, which is why we’re only getting to this film now).  It’s the story of one man, Kaji, a pacifistic socialist who falls in love, tries to find humanism working in Manchuria in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II then being drafted into the army and finally, on a mission to return home, finding nothing but despair and dismay.  The first film (also known as No Greater Love) chronicles his romance with his wife and his work in a labor camp that leads to him being drafted into the army.  The second film (Road to Eternity) chronicles his time in the army fighting in the war against the Soviets and ends with him killing one of his own men with his bare hands to keep himself from being discovered by the Soviets.  Now we get to the third film, which in my opinion is the best of the trilogy and is the reason that it makes it into my Top 10 while the others didn’t (though, to be fair, in many previous years, it still wouldn’t have made the Top 10 but as I have said, this is a weak year).

At the conclusion of the second film, Kaji had killed a man with his bare hands and was left with the idea that he had become a monster in his desperate attempt to stay alive.  Not long after the third film opens, he is forced to actually bayonet a Soviet soldier in order to escape.  The humanism that had been the core of his beliefs in the first film (and were what lead to his being conscripted in the first place) was quickly seeping away.  This film is a journey for Kaji, literally, as he tries to escape the war and flees not only the Japanese soldiers themselves (he’s looked on as a deserter) but also the Soviets and even the Chinese (though his journey pauses here as he seeks vengeance for the death of a woman).  But it’s also a journey for Kaji within himself.  He’s still trying to hold on to any of his beliefs, both the humanism that made him kind and the socialism that made him seek equality for all.  These will be tested, however, when he ends up in a Soviet labor camp, a prisoner who agrees with their ideology (in theory) but is repulsed by their actual lives.  Watching it again I was reminded how, when I first learned about the basic tenants of socialism in junior high I realized that it was the ideal system in theory but would never work in practice because human beings are too inherently selfish to ever live in such a system the way it’s designed to work (which is why you get totalitarian communist governments).

In the end, what we get is a man who has lost everything.  He knows his wife is still out there somewhere and he has hopes of returning to her.  The last ten minutes of the film are just Kaji, walking through the wilderness as the snow continues to build.  Yet, like with so much of this long film series (if viewed as one film, it lasts almost ten hours), it doesn’t feel that long because Kobayashi has done such a good job of directing it and Tatsuya Nakadai (who has been seen in this project before in High and Low and Harakiri, but in films that were actually made after this series) gives such an intense performance that it never feels like we’re just killing time.  Out there, in the snow and nothingness, there is nothing left for him.  I am reminded of The Pawnbroker again and his famous line, the difference being that everything has been taken away from him and so he dies.  What else can he do at this point but die?

The Source:

人間の條件 (Ningen no jōken) by Junpei Gomikawa  (1958)

The original novel, published in six parts, was based in part on Gomikawa’s experiences during the war (though obviously his life didn’t have the same ending).  When it was published in 1958 in Japan it was a massive best-seller and was critically acclaimed (though also attacked for its politics).  However, it has never been translated into English, so it’s not even possible for me to read it.

The Adaptation:

While I haven’t been able to read the original novel, I can say, based on interviews available on the Criterion set that it is incredibly faithful to the original novel.  Masaki Kobayashi was so determined to keep close to the source that he would actually add in scenes before filming that had been in the book but weren’t in the working script.

The Credits:

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi.  Based on the Novel by Junpei Gomikawa.  Screenplay by Zenzo Matsuyama, Koichi Inagaki and Masaki Kobayashi.
note:  As always with languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet, I am forced to rely on translations for the credits.  Credits courtesy of Criterion.

Thunderball

The Film:

I have already written a full review of Thunderball when I did my for For Love of Film series on James Bond.  As I mentioned in that review, this is one of the better Bond films, a solid ***.5 (not great, but very good) and the last of the strong early run.  But, the caveat for that, is that it depends on how indulgent you are willing to be about underwater scenes because they take up a lot of the film.  I mentioned in the review that Thunderball and Goldfinger were both the #10 films of the year in spite of Goldfinger being the better film (it’s in a significantly better year).  The same is true in Adapted Screenplay where Goldfinger is most assuredly the stronger film but Thunderball actually ranks higher in its year because, hell, I couldn’t even manage a full Top 10 in this year.

The Source:

Thunderball by Ian Fleming; This story is based on a screen treatment by K. McClary, J. Whittingham and the author.  (1961)

In some ways, no matter what you think of the quality of Thunderball (the novel), it is the second most important of the Bond books after only Casino Royale.  That’s because it’s the novel that introduced SPECTRE, the terrorist organization made up of former SMERSH members, Mafia, and other assorted villains and, of course, its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Of course, it’s also the one that belongs the least to Fleming, as should be obvious from the title, which I pulled straight from the title page of my copy (sadly, I don’t have the copy on the right, I have the movie cover copy).  In fact, Fleming was actually sued for publishing it because he had worked with McClary and Whittingham and then turned around and rather than wait for the film to be made, turned it into one of the Bond novels.  The issue was still in the courts when Fleming died in 1964 but eventually McClary ended up with the producer’s credit and remake rights (which he did in 1983 as Never Say Never Again).  It is a solid Bond adventure, with him going up against SPECTRE to recover a purloined nuke and of course, going up even closer against Domino.

The Adaptation:

Even though it was originally written as a screenplay, the film version still differs in some considerable ways from the Fleming novel.  The main two things are the use of the double for the pilot that is seen at the health farm by Bond (not in the book) and the continued use of Fiona Volpe, the deadly (and sexy) SPECTRE agent who first kills the agent who was humiliated by Bond (that part is in the book but his killer is not female and is not extensively used again) and then tries to kill Bond himself before dying in the attempt (none of that is in the book nor is the character).  Much of the time in Nassau, however, is fairly faithful to the book.

The Credits:

Directed by Terence Young.  Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins.  Based on an original screenplay by Jack Whittingham.  Based on the original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming.

The Train

The Film:

Lots of films are about a race against time.  But most of those films, whether they be James Bond stopping a bomb or Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star, involve death as the consequence.  This film is also a race against time, but it’s to keep the Nazis from plundering French museums and taking many of the greatest works of art known to Western civilization and either stealing them or even destroying them.  The Nazis are working against the clock because they’re losing their Western Front and they have a limited time to get themselves out of Paris.  The French Resistance are also working against time, because they know if they can delay the Nazis just enough, the Allied forces will come in and the art will be saved.

So who can save the art?  Well, Burt Lancaster can, of course, because he’s the star of the film, working against Paul Scofield.  There’s a typical difference in class here, as Scofield’s Nazi colonel knows the great works of art he’s trying to take, knows their worth, both figuratively and literally.  Lancaster is just a train guy and he doesn’t know or really care about art.  In fact, he’s unwilling to help out until an old conductor that everyone knows and loves is executed after trying to stop the train from leaving.  Seeing that sacrifice, Lancaster is finally pushed too far and leads the movement to secure the art, first by stalling the trains, then derailing them.  Anything to keep the art from getting away.

Unlike what we would later see in a film like The Monuments Men (I mention it several times below because of the historical connections), this film doesn’t really care that much about the art itself.  We get a few glimpses of some paintings at the beginning and after that, it’s really just a catalog of names: Renoir!  Van Gogh!  Picasso!  Never mind that only one of those was actually French.  We must save the important art!  We never get a sense of why the art is so great and important because that’s not really what this film is about.  It’s a race against Nazis, an action thriller that continually pits Lancaster against the Nazis, against bullets and explosions, against trains, with Lancaster always coming out ahead in the end.

This is an effective thriller (of the 16 films I have seen by Frankenheimer, I rank it 5th), partially because of the story at the heart of it, partially because of Lancaster’s action driven performance and partially, at least, because of some accidents.  Lancaster hurt himself during filming and so they had to add in a scene where he is shot so as to explain his limp, but that adds pathos to his character’s arc.  Michel Simon was unavailable for later filming so they had him killed off and that helps Lancaster’s character’s growth after he tries to stop the execution.  Penn leaving the film helped allow it to become more of an action driven film and that might be what would work best for this story.  In the end, we get a fairly good, enjoyable film.

The Source:

Le front de l’art by Rose Valland  (1961)

Rose Valland, the art historian who was responsible for keeping track of famous works of art for the Resistance and helped to keep it all from falling into Nazi hands or being destroyed would write this book about her experiences specifically in stopping a train from leaving Paris just ahead of Allied forces.  She is portrayed at the beginning of the film, noting the art being taken and passing the information to others in the Resistance.  If she seems familiar, that’s because the role that Cate Blanchett plays in The Monuments Men is based on her as well.  Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Valland’s book has never been translated into English, so I am unable to read what she has to say.  But you can read about her (a little bit) in The Monuments Men and (much more so) in The Rape of Europa, both fascinating books that deal with the Nazi looting of art.

The Adaptation:

“(After Arthur Penn was fired), Walter Bernstein immediately resigned from the film and declined screen credit for his work.  In the commentary track for the film’s 1994 laserdisc release, Frankenheimer said that Nedrick Young and Howard Dimsdale wrote the script he shot, not Coen and Davis but that Young and Dimsdale (both of whom had been blacklisted) were denied credit in Writers Guild of America arbitration.” (Arthur Penn: American Director, Nat Segaloff, p 274 (fn 5)

One of the things that becomes clear, in anything you read about the film, is that once Penn was out, Lancaster pushed it for it to be a much more action based film.  Even without reading Valland’s book, I know that the events dramatized in the film contain much more action (and explosions) than what actually happened in the true story of keeping the art from ever making it far from Paris.  Like The Monuments Men would later do, with some of the same story, it would tell a much more film based story than the dramatic events which actually ensued.

The Credits:

Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Screen Story and Screenplay by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis.  Based upon “Le Front De L’Art” by Rose Valland.

Consensus Nominees That Don’t Make My Top 10

The Sound of Music

The Film:

I have seen this films more times than I would wish to.  I saw it any number of times as a kid (my mother is one of those people who really loves it, e-mailing me the other day thinking she had owned it which thankfully she does not, because I would have been forced to watch it even more as a kid) and while some of the songs would fondly stick with me (“Do-Re-Mi”), others would be the stuff of waking nightmares (“Climb Every Mountain”).  There are people who love it and I will never be able to convince them otherwise (you can get an idea from the comments in the post where my original review ran) but it is just not a great film no matter how much people might love it.

The Source:

The Sound of Music, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (1960)

This musical was inspired the story of the Trapp family singers (it says so right on the title page of the book – “Suggested by THE TRAPP FAMILY SINGERS by Maria Augusta Trapp).  But, as I mentioned in my review of the film, it was not adapted from more classical literature like other Best Picture winning musicals of the era like Gigi, West Side Story, My Fair Lady and Oliver.  As a result, the story of this musical is a bit thin, even for a musical.  It relies primarily on the songs to pull it through (and the romance, once that starts to come to life).  Luckily for them, it has more memorable songs than almost any musical to come before it with the exception of West Side Story (just because I don’t much like the songs doesn’t mean I can’t remember them).

It is, as Robert Wise will note below, a really cheesy and sticky sweet musical.  That this was the only Best Picture winner between 1948 and 1997 not to earn a writing nomination really says more about the original musical than the adaptation that was made from it.

Even though the film isn’t based on The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp, I took a stroll through it anyway, as I generally do with original sources for stage musicals (it’s called OCD – look it up).  The Sound of Music is definitely not history, let’s just say that.  How long does it seem like between the time Maria and the Captain are married and when they flee Austria?  I asked both Veronica and my mother that question and they both said around a few months.  Turns out it was 11 years.  The stage musical took the basic story of their life (young nun in training moves to big estate house to care for children, ends up marrying father, they become famous singers and end up leaving Austria to flee the Nazis) and crafted their own story.  The basic story is accurate and almost none of the details are.  It also only covers part of the book – Part I of the 300+ page book ends on page 124 when they leave Austria.  Maria actually wrote much more about their life after leaving than she did about their life in Austria.  But that’s fine.  Rodgers and Hammerstein never claimed to be giving us a history lesson and we shouldn’t take this as one.

The Adaptation:

Well, the original stage musical does not begin with a young Maria belting out “The hills are alive with the sound of music” on a mountaintop.  The musical actually begins with the nuns singing their Dominus.  Much as I find the opening to be too sickly sweet, it’s the right move for this film.

There are other changes, of course.  As with lots of musicals, songs are dropped (“An Ordinary Couple”), songs are added (“I Have Confidence”, “Something Good”) and songs are moved (“My Favorite Things” on stage is sung before she leaves the abbey as a duet with the Mother Abbess rather than to the children in the nursery – they wisely dumped that as Ernest Lehman explains in Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute, ed. George Stevens, Jr, p 492 – “it seemed somehow inappropriate for the mother abbess to be singing ‘My Favorite Things.’ I felt how much more appropriate it was for Maria to try to pacify the children, who were frightened by the thunderstorm, and to tell them what she does when she gets upset. She thinks about some other favorite things, and before you know it you’re into the number.”).

But the most remarkable thing is what the filmmakers tried to do.  Just look at this quote from Robert Wise in the book Robert Wise on His Films: “Right from the beginning, we felt that whatever we could do to diminish the overly saccharine aspects of it, and still not hurt the basic bottom line of the story and the emotional parts of it that touch and affected people, we would help ourselves. We made every effort to find ways of not getting too cute.” (p 180).  Think of that!  Think of what kind of film they might have made if they hadn’t tried to do that, given the results when they did do it.  Now, another quote from Wise in that book does point out perhaps part of the reason is so damn long: “Ernie rewrote dialogue leading into songs in several instances so they could go smoothly in and not have that sense of embarrassment of suddenly going from dialogue into song.” (p 182)

The Credits:

Directed by Robert Wise.  Music by Richard Rodgers.  Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.  Additional Words and Music by Richard Rodgers.  From the Stage Musical with Music and Lyrics by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.  Originally Produced on the Stage by Leland Hayward, Richard Halliday, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  Screenplay by Ernest Lehman.

Cat Ballou

The Film:

When I did a list of the sexiest performances in film history, there were no appearances by Jane Fonda on the list.  How can that be, you say, when I am constantly preaching about how she is so unbearably sexy, the sexiest kitten who ever walked across the screen?  Well, that’s because when I made the list, I made a specific point that the acting was a considerable portion of what went into my ranking.  If given a choice, I would chose Jane Fonda in the 60’s over any beautiful actress who has ever appeared on screen but it wasn’t until 1969, with They Shoot Horses Don’t They that Fonda really learned how to act.  Before that, she was beautiful and sensual and desirable but there was also something missing there.  So it makes it somewhat conflicting to watch any of her 60’s films, because she’s amazing to look at but she’s heard to bear.

If Fonda’s performance was the only thing lacking in Cat Ballou, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem.  But it’s a comedic Western and those types of films usually don’t go so well (though, ironically, Lee Marvin would star in one of the best of those the next year in The Professionals).  It tries to deal with serious subject matters (people being driven off their land and murdered) while keeping it all very silly and light.  It’s badly written, mostly badly acted and badly directed.  Very little of it is actually funny.

So what does this film have going for it aside from Jane Fonda looking really really good?  Well, it has an Oscar nominated song that continually tells the story throughout the film that was the last performance from Nat King Cole who would actually die of cancer before the film was released.  It also has an Oscar winning performance from Lee Marvin as both the drunken gunslinger hired by Fonda to help keep her father alive (which he doesn’t) and the villain, who it turns out is the gunslinger’s brother.  While Marvin’s performance (at least as the drunk) is entertaining, it in no way shape or form deserved the Oscar, especially in a year where Rod Steiger was nominated for The Pawnbroker (and Marvin expected Steiger to win and told him so at the Oscars).  So, while Marvin is the best thing about the film (everyone else in the film is simply terrible), he also brings the film down by having won an undeserved Oscar.

The Source:

The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Roy Chanslor  (1956)

This is a bit of an odd Western, the story of a young woman named Cat who becomes an outlaw after the death of her parents and eventually falls in love with a two-bit swindler.  The novel isn’t all that good but it has an interesting rhythm to it.  While there are constant little refrains from the “ballad”, the style of writing itself also lends itself to a more musical style, with short little paragraphs throughout the book that feel like they are just a larger, more prosaic part of the ballad.  Chanslor was already known for writing Johnny Guitar, which had become a film two years before this novel was published.

The Adaptation:

This is one of those films that takes the basic idea of the plot (a young woman turns outlaw after her parents are killed and gets involved with a gunslinger named Kid Shelleen) and then re-invents almost everything else in the film (including the entire character of Tim Strawn, let alone that he’s Kid’s brother).  Even the song in the film, though named after the novel’s title, is completely new, using none of the lyrics that appeared in the original novel.

The Credits:

Directed by Elliot Silverstein.  Screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank R. Pierson.  Based on a novel by Roy Chanslor.

Ship of Fools

The Film:

I have reviewed this film already as a Best Picture nominee.  You can read that review or you can just be assured that this film is not particularly well directed or well written and in spite of strong performances from Oskar Werner, Simone Signoret and Vivian Leigh (her final performance) is still far more boring than it has any right to be.

The Source:

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter  (1962)

The first thing I knew about this book was that the author was older when it was published.  “When the New York Times asked Marvin if he had read Katherine Anne Porter’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel before making movie, he retorted, ‘Hell, no.  A book by a seventy-two year-old broad?  Not me.'”  Reading that, some 25 years ago when I first bought Inside Oscar (the book the quote comes from, on p 382), it put a low opinion of Lee Marvin in my head.  I still have a low opinion of Marvin for skipping a book just because the author’s age but to skip this book?  Well, he lucked out in that regard.  (By the way – that quote is also an example of what is wrong with Inside Oscar, and I’m know talking about the missing “the” in the quote, which is their mistake, not mine, but that Porter won those awards for her Collected Stories, not Ship of Fools).

Porter started work on this novel in 1940 but it wouldn’t end up being published until 1962.  She didn’t spend the time idly, given the copyright page though because there are seven earlier dates before 1962 and several magazines carried portions of the book.  But in the end, there are 500 pages of novel and not much going on.  It’s the story of a very large cast of characters who are traveling by ship from Mexico (and Cuba) to Germany in 1931 with the looming spectre of Nazism about to rear its head.  You struggle to keep track of all the characters in spite of a list at the beginning of the book (29 named characters and a number of unnamed ones).  The book is much like the film, taking a diverse group of characters and shaking them up in the hope that something interesting will happen, but it’s not really Porter’s style to actually have anything happen.  The book was a smash hit (supposedly the best selling book of 1962) but it really is a dud.

The Adaptation:

“Katharine Anne Porter’s story takes place in 1931. I moved mine forward to 1933 because that was when Hitler came to power. Even though we never mention him in the picture, his ascendancy is an ever-present factor.” (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A Life in Hollywood, Stanley Kramer, p 204)

There are certain aspects of the book which are kept quite faithful.  We get to watch the develop relationship between the doctor and the Condessa, for instance.  But much of the film actually came from the pen of Abby Mann, not Porter.  The Greek chorus dwarf?  Not in the book.  The former ball player played by Lee Marvin?  Not in the book.  The death scene at the end of the book handled so poorly?  Not in the story.  They kept the basic premise and they definitely kept the anti-semitism (because it played into Kramer’s theme of moving it up to 1933) and they invented a lot of their own characters because apparently Porter hadn’t given them enough to work with.

The Credits:

produced and directed by Stanley Kramer.  screenplay by Abby Mann.
the only mention of the source is in the title card: in a film based on katherine anne porter’s ship of fools.

Multiple Nominations

A Patch of Blue

The Film:

Social progress has growing pains, especially when it is reflected in art.  The best example of that is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a movie made by and for liberals who were moving towards racial equality.  But it’s graceless and clunky and painful to watch and there were some who thought so even in 1967.  This film came two years earlier, a film just as clunky.  It means well in what it is trying to do, but it doesn’t have the grace to really do it well.  It also has the added layer of dealing with two different issues at once.

The first issue is the one which becomes obvious right at the start.  The main character in this film is blind.  It will turn out that she was blinded by her mother in an accident when she tried to throw acid on her husband.  The mother has raised the daughter, with the help of her own father, although neither one has ever done much for the daughter.  She has a small little job stringing beads while her mother works as a prostitute and her grandfather drinks their money away.  One day she goes to the park and she meets a nice man, one who interacts with her out of kindness rather than pity and that helps set up the next issue.  He’s black.  But, being blind, she doesn’t know that.

What will follow will be the really clunky part, although the WGA apparently didn’t agree since they nominated the script for Best Written Drama or the Academy, which hoisted 5 Oscar nominations on the film.  The film does have some decent acting, though Shelley Winters didn’t deserve to win a second Oscar for this film and Elizabeth Hartman definitely didn’t deserve an Oscar nomination.  Sidney Poitier is solid because he’s Poitier and he seemed made for films like this, films that moved the social progress barrier just a little bit further.  He plays the role with dignity and grace, which makes it all the more odious, of course, when the relationship is discovered.

This film goes places you could pretty much guess it would go.  It’s not particularly good (I have it as actually a **.5 film).  It’s just another example of painfully trying to make some progress through art.

The Source:

Be Ready with Bells and Drums by Elizabeth Kata (1961)

If the film is clunky, what does that say about the book?   The book doesn’t have the saving grace of Sidney Poitier or Shelley Winters.  The book is clunky in the extreme, awkwardly moving forward.  It’s also written in the first person from the blind girl’s perspective, so for most of the book we only know that there is some man who treats her kindly when he meets her in the park.  It is only in the last line of the penultimate chapter that we finally found out that he is black.  Then we get one final chapter where everything gets quickly wrapped up and he arranges to get her sent off to a school for the blind so that she can improve her life and escape her situation.  The writing isn’t any good, but thankfully it is fairly short (just over 200 pages).

The Adaptation:

Most of the film follows decently along with the book.  There are more scenes in the man’s apartment than there are in the book and the discovery that he is black is not made by the girl’s boss, as in the book, but rather by her mother.  There is also much more of a confrontation scene in the film than there is in the book.  And, of course, the film had to be upfront with us that he is black, while the book was able to suppress this information until almost the end.

The Credits:

Written for the Screen and Directed by Guy Green.  Based on “Be Ready with Bells and Drums” by Elizabeth Kata.

WGA Nominees

That Darn Cat!

The Film:

Over the course of a half-decade, Hayley Mills starred in six films for Disney.  She aged from the girl in Pollyanna to the late teen who has a surfer boyfriend practically living in her house in this, her final Disney film.  She became one of the most popular film stars in both America and her native Britain partially because of her Disney work and her hit song “Let’s Get Together” from The Parent Trap but much of her success in Britain, it must be said, is from the much more adult films she starred in (doing a much better job of showcasing her acting talent) like Tiger Bay, Whistle Down the Wind and The Chalk Garden.  Mills would be the star of this film but she would have to share her screen time with Dean Jones, who would take the baton from her and be the new Disney star for over a decade as well as DC, that darn cat that is the focus of the story.  If Jones had his charm, he didn’t really have Mills’ talent and that’s in evidence as his films aren’t nearly as good as the ones that starred Mills but that’s neither here nor there.  Here, while they share the majority of the screen time, it’s Dorothy Provine as her sister that would take home Jones at the end of the film.

The basic premise of the film runs as thus: two bank robbers kidnapped a teller when they pulled their last job, though why they would do so is never made clear and that’s odd when you remember that kidnapping was still a capital crime in many states back in 1965.  But, she manages to attach her watch to the stray cat that wanders in through the window of the apartment they are staying in (yes, this plot is as utterly as ridiculous as it sounds) and when the cat returns home, the two young women (how young is never quite clear – they both look late teens, early 20’s though in real life they were 19 and 30 when the film was released) see the watch, realize what it means and contact the FBI.  That brings Jones into the film as the young agent assigned the case which involves following the cat (to which he is allergic, of course), not only in the neighborhood, but also around the house (which brings out the imagination of the nosy neighbor next door), constantly having to track down the darn cat (that really is the cat’s name) and try to get it outside so they can find out where the bank robbers are.

In the last years of Walt Disney’s life, the company had really started producing more and more live action films aimed at kids.  The year before he had hit the peak with Mary Poppins.  But mostly there were more and more films like this one, silly little films with one of his stars.  This would be one of the most successful of the later Disney films (he would die the next year) but in no way is it one of the better ones.  If you’re going to watch a Hayley Mills Disney film, you’re much better off with Pollyanna or The Parent Trap.

The Source:

Undercover Cat by The Gordons  (1963)

The Gordons were a husband and wife team that would write suspense and mystery novels together.  This one, I suppose, qualifies as such, but it really feels more like a novel for kids.  It’s the story of how a cat manages to climb in a window where two thieving kidnappers are hiding out with their hostage and she attaches her watch to the cat.  When the cat returns to its “owners” (it’s really a stray), they discover the watch and get the FBI involved.  From there, it’s kind of a silly story about how one intrepid young FBI agent manages to capture the bad guys and even start to romance one of the young girls who “owns” the cat.

The Adaptation:

This is an example of an adaptation where they kept the general idea and changed a lot of the particulars.  Those particulars include a younger brother (deleted for the film), a surfer who kind of serves as a love interest (added for the film), a befuddled husband for the nosy next-door neighbor (added for the film), the ending (the next door neighbor is still with his chosen because the FBI agent goes for the other girl with no surfer in the book).  We also don’t meet the kidnappers and their victim until much later with the cat first appearing with the watch around its neck at the beginning of the book.  Even the name of the cat is different as “DC” in the book stands for “damn cat”.

The Credits:

Directed by Robert Stevenson.  Screenplay by The Gordons and Bill Walsh.  Based on the book “Undercover Cat” by The Gordons.

Golden Globe Nominees

The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Film:

Did the producers of this film think they might have a potential side business of cutting the first twelve minutes off this film and selling it to schools?  Before we get to the business of an actual film, we have a 12 minute lecture on the greatness of Michelangelo, showing off many of his most famous sculptures, although, ironically, not giving us anything of the Sistine Chapel.  They want to save that for the film itself.

Although that brings up an interesting “truism” that I have been thinking about which is well suited to discussing this film.  That’s the idea that biographies of writers are more to interesting to read than those of artists but biopics of artists are more interesting to watch than those of writers.  Now, that’s not always going to be the case and as it so happens this isn’t exactly the most interesting film in the world.  The reason for these things is because writers are interested in the written word and it’s easy to make that flow on the page (which is also why writers like to write fiction about writers, not only because they already know the life but because they can intermix in the fiction within fiction).  For an artist, reading a biography without actually getting the art is like getting less than half the story.  But then go to the screen.  Watching a writer sit there with pad in hand, or typing out the words doesn’t really provide a lot for the screen.  I don’t know that it adds a lot more to have an artist with brush in hand (or chisel) but at least we get the art on screen.  It gives us something to look at.

All of that being said, while the art in this film is impressive to look at because of course Michelangelo was one of the world’s foremost artists, the film only really comes to life when we have the Pope on the screen as well and we get some actual drama and not just the creation of art.  This isn’t really a biopic like say Lust for Life or Moulin Rouge (which were better films but also had much better performances from the actors playing the artists) but is rather just the dramatization of the four years (1508 to 1512) when Michelangelo was entrusted (and bribed and cajoled and basically forced) with painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  This allows for arguments with the Pope.  Michelangelo is played by Charlton Heston with his typical straightforward stoicism, with the notion that sticking his chin out and making proclamations counts as acting.  The Pope, much more intriguingly, is played by Rex Harrison.  It’s only when Harrison comes on-screen that the film itself actually comes to life (as opposed to just the art).  Indeed, by far the best scene in the film takes place nowhere near Rome itself, as the Pope and his painter stand in the middle of a war discussing the plans while the Pope’s armies wait for his signal to advance.  But the battle is held up in the name of art.  That scene is so much better than everything else in the film that you wonder how it managed to end up in the film in the first place.

The film is far from great but it isn’t bad either.  It looks good, with nice sets and costumes, has a nice (Oscar nominated) score and a fine performance from Harrison.  It was directed by Carol Reed and Heston thought it would help revive Reed’s career which had been floundering in the years since The Third Man (surely helped along by the rumors that Welles had directed it) but the irony is that Reed directed two films in Britain in between that were much better but faired poorly at the box office (An Outcast of the Islands, Our Man in Havana).  In the end, you could say Heston got it right because Reed’s next film, three years later, Oliver, would win him the Oscar, and to be fair, that is a considerably better film than this one.

The Source:

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone  (1961)

So, yes, this isn’t even an actual biography.  It’s worse.  It’s a biographical novel, which is what the writer does when they want to insert dialogue into it (or not do enough research).  If that sounds familiar, that’s because I made this complaint in my 1952 post about Moulin Rouge and then made it again in 1956 when writing about Lust for Life and even pointed out in that one that I would probably do it again here because Lust for Life was also written by Irving Stone.  If you’re going to write a biographical novel about an artists then put some of the god damn art in the book!  The whole point of their life is the art.  I don’t want to read well over 700 pages on Michelangelo’s life and then have to go search out his art myself.  Actually, I would just prefer not to have read the book at all and that’s what I recommend for others.

The Adaptation:

While the film is based, ostensibly, on the Stone novel, it was not the only source.  As Peter William Evans’ book on Carol Reed notes on p. 145, screenwriter Philip Dunne looked at a variety of sources.  The most notable was Giorgio Vassari’s Lives of the Artists, which helps provide the structure for the film as well as some of the actual dialogue.

Of course, if you have made the mistake of reading through all of Stone’s novel then you would have probably guessed this already.  That’s because while this is a 138 minute film made from a 776 page novel, the action in the film only covers 50 pages of the book, as Pope Julius II commands Michelangelo to paint the ceiling on page 499 and he dies on page 550 and there’s not even a whole lot of dialogue in those 50 pages.

To be fair to the filmmakers (and I don’t know if this was Dunne’s plan or if he did what he was told to do), this was the wise move.  Why bother to make an entire biopic when the main drama in the film is not just painting the ceiling but the friction between the Pope and his painter.  So limit yourself to those four years of Michelangelo’s life rather than the entire thing and you can actually have a dramatic arc for the film.  It doesn’t make for the strongest film ever (obviously) but it could have been a lot worse.

The Credits:

Directed by Carol Reed.  Based on the novel The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone.  Screen Story and Screenplay by Philip Dunne.

The Slender Thread

The Film:

A university student bikes across the UW campus to his car and heads off to an evening shift manning a suicide prevention hotline, something that I imagine was still a pretty new concept in 1965.  That the student is played by an actor fifteen years after he was already playing a doctor is something we can pretend to ignore since the actor in question, Sidney Poitier, not only looked younger than his years but also was an actor of such exquisite skill that he could pull playing a younger man.  That the student is also black is something we don’t have to pretend to ignore.  In spite of it still being only 1965, the race of the student is ignored.  This isn’t Poitier being asked to again play a noble young man who must overcome the question of race (thankfully, since I’ve already gotten through A Patch of Blue).  Instead, he gets a chance to shine in a different kind of role, one which asks him to play off another actor who never even appears on screen with him.

The student takes a call from a woman who starts talking about barbiturates.  As he tries to talk her down, she reveals that she’s not asking questions about the drugs; she’s already taken the drugs and just wanted a voice to talk to her while they take effect.  As he keeps her talking, keeping her alive, he rallies people around him (a psychiatrist, the police who are trying to trace the car), uses clues from things she lets slip to try to figure out where she may be and listens to her story.  Played by Anne Bancroft, she’s a tragic woman whose husband has realized that their teenage son is not his and is now seeking to divorce herself not from her marriage but from her life.

In a lesser film, this might have been a psychological drama, the deep insights into what caused this woman to make this choice.  Or it might have been more of a thriller, that desperate race against time to save her.  But Sydney Pollack, directing his first film, finds a path between those two things and keeps things from boiling over with drama or suspense.  There is certainly tension in the film as Poitier is forced to use everything in the book to keep her talking and Bancroft and Poitier are forced to play off against each other’s voices without ever being on-screen at the same time.  It’s about what people will do to try and save another person, even a person they have never met.  It’s about lending a hand because someone has fallen and helping them to stand.

This is far from a great film and it wasn’t much of a success when it was released.  Indeed, I first saw this film back in 2005 and thought it was a solid film with quite good lead performances from Poitier and Bancroft and was stunned when I first read Pictures at a Revolution in 2008 to discover what a low reputation it had.  In that book you can read about how Poitier didn’t think much of it, how Pollack thought he did a bad job with the direction, how writer Stirling Silliphant was advised to get another writing gig before the reputation of the film harmed him (which he did, working with Poitier again on In the Heat of the Night and winning the Oscar).  But I still think this is a solid film, one which manages to do something with feeling the need to beat us over the head with a message.  A man is trying to save a life and he will do everything he can to do it and when it’s Poitier on-screen doing that, you believe him.

The Source:

“Decision to Die” by Shana Alexander  (LIFE Magazine, May 29, 1964)

An interesting little piece on a woman who is both trying to kill herself and trying to find someone who will save her, it documents the day of a woman as she goes from place to place just trying to find someone who can help her and then in desperation, takes a handful of pills and calls the VA hospital where her husband has been a patient.  A nurse at the hospital manages to keep her talking long enough that the police are able to find her and save her life.  There is a kind of plea made at the end of the story in support of suicide hotlines in the hopes that the next person to go through such an ordeal would be spared the effort to find someone who will help.  The original issue of LIFE is available online through Google Books and you can actually read the entire article there.

The Adaptation:

In light of the plea at the end of the original article, it’s clear that part of the goal in the film is to make it clear that there are such places that you can call, that you don’t have to feel completely alone.  That alone is a massive change from what happened to the original woman.  Another change of course is that it isn’t a nurse who keeps her talking for over an hour but a volunteer at the hotline.  Many of the details are different as well (her problems in the original article stem from problems with her husband as a traumatized veteran) and while much of the film is made of the search for her, they are also trying to track down her husband but in real life he was at the hospital and knew what was going on fairly early in the call and was deliberately kept off the actual call for fear that if she talked to him she would consider her call complete and would hang up.  The original LIFE article seemed like a little bit of life that also was a call for a social change.  In the film, it’s almost as if it’s trying to make people aware that the change has happened and there is something you can do in this situation.

The Credits:

Directed by Sydney Pollack.  Suggested by a LIFE Magazine article by Shana Alexander.  Written by Stirling Silliphant.
The IMDb lists David Rayfiel as an uncredited writer, which is corroborated in Pictures at a Revolution.

Other Adaptations:
(in descending order of how good the film is)

  • Othello  –  On the one hand, it has Olivier in blackface.  On the other hand, it has not only Olivier, but Maggie Smith and strong performances from Frank Finlay and Joyce Redman as well.  The best acted film version of Othello of the five I have seen.
  • Kwaidan  –  The second Masaki Kobayashi film on the list (he also directed Human Condition).  Based on various Japanese folk tales, the writing isn’t that strong but the direction is and this is a ***.5 film.
  • The Hill  –  Based on the play by Ray Rigby, this low-level ***.5 film is directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Sean Connery.  Connery’s best non-Bond performance until the mid 70’s.
  • The Ipcress File  –  Beloved in Britain and the film that helped make Michael Caine a star.  Based on the novel by Len Deighton (in which IPCRESS is an acronym) in which the main character wasn’t named, in the film he became Harry Palmer, who he would play twice more on film and then twice more again on television.  High ***.
  • Diary of a Chambermaid  –  Based on the scandalous 1900 novel which had already been filmed by Renoir in 1946, this version was directed Buñuel and starred Jeanne Moreau.  It would be remade again in 2015.  While a high ***, it’s still kind of a weak link in Buñuel’s French period.
  • The Cincinnati Kid  –  The novel by Richard Jessup (trying to do for poker what The Hustler had done for pool) becomes a big starring role for Steve McQueen even if McQueen is too old to be called “The Kid”.
  • The Sons of Katie Elder  –  A complicated history that could technically qualify as original.  Began life as a true story about the Marlows (ridiculously detailed on the film’s Wikipedia page) that became an 1891 book Life of the Marlows that was reprinted in 1931, bought for screen rights in 1953, turned into a script that had little resemblance to the original story and then was made into the film with no credit to the book.  By far the best movie made by Henry Hathaway in his last 20 years as a director, it stars John Wayne and Dean Martin.
  • Baby the Rain Must Fall  –  The team that brought you To Kill a Mockingbird (producer Alan J. Pakula, director Robert Mulligan, writer Horton Foote) adapt one of Foote’s plays (The Traveling Lady) into a film with Steve McQueen and Lee Remick with strong performances from both.
  • The Hallelujah Trail  –  An epic Western comedy from John Sturges based on the novel by Bill Gulick.  At a high *** I rate it higher than many do.
  • La Tía Tula  –  The Spanish submission for Best Foreign Film in 1964.  Based on the novel by Miguel de Unamuno.  Given that Unamuno quarreled with Franco before his death it’s interesting that the Franco regime would allow this as a submission.
  • The Bedford Incident  –  Bleak Cold War Drama with Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark.  Based on the novel by Mark Rascovich.
  • The Skull  –  Amicus Productions pretends they’re making a Hammer film with this Horror film directed by Freddie Francis and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Solid film though and better than most Hammer films, based on a short story by Robert Bloch (better known for writing the original novel Psycho).
  • Contempt  –  Known by many as the film that showed Brigitte Bardot’s bare backside.  Known by me as the rare worthwhile Godard films.  Based on the novel Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia, an Italian novelist best known for the novels made into Two Women and The Conformist.
  • Woman in the Dunes  –  Director Hiroshi Teshigahara was Oscar nominated for this film based on the novel by Kōbō Abe.  The film had been nominated for Best Foreign Film the year before.
  • Inside Daisy Clover  –  Mulligan and Pakula again but this time with Gavin Lambert as the writer (adapting his own novel).  Solid performances from Natalie Wood in the title role and Ruth Gordon (who earned her first Oscar nom), even if Wood shouldn’t be playing a teenager three years after Gypsy.
  • Boeing Boeing  –  A 1960 French play becomes a 1965 Jerry Lewis Comedy that is actually fairly good.
  • Von Ryan’s Express  –  A bunch of prisoners escape from a war camp on a train.  Based on a novel by David Westheimer.
  • A High Wind in Jamaica  –  The very good novel by Richard Hughes made the Modern Library’s Top 100 list.  The film version from Alexander Mackendrick is also good but a bit more forgettable.
  • 36 Hours  –  A Roald Dahl short story (“Beware of the Dog”) is stretched into 115 minutes for a thriller with James Garner.
  • Morituri  –  Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner in a World War II Adventure film?  Sure, why not?  Based on a novel by Werner Jörg Lüddecke.
  • The Knack… and How to Get It  –  Years before becoming the romantic Phantom, Michael Crawford is a nervous dork of a teacher in this Palme d’Or winner based on the play by Ann Jellicoe.
  • Young Cassidy  –  Should have been called Young O’Casey since it’s based on Sean O’Casey’s autobiography.  John Ford started directing it but he fell ill and was replaced by Jack Cardiff.
  • The Grasshopper  –  A 1955 Soviet version of the Chekhov story that finally made it to the States in 1965, nominated for Best Picture at the BAFTAs back in 1956.  Decently done but a little dry.
  • Station Six-Sahara  –  Carroll Baker would spend much of 1965 proving that she left her acting ability in 1956 including here where she stars in a remake of the 1938 film S.O.S. Sahara which had been based on a play by Jean Martet.  We’re into low ***.
  • Samurai Assassin  –  For a samurai film starring Toshiro Mifune, pretty weak.  Based on the book Samurai Japan.
  • The Tomb of Ligeia  –  The eighth and final Corman/Poe film in terms of chronology but the seventh in terms of quality.
  • The Flight of the Phoenix  –  Mediocre film based on the novel by Elleston Trevor which didn’t stop it from being remade, also as a mediocre film, in 2004.
  • She  –  Hammer meet Haggard.  Peter Cushing stars and Christopher Lee has a smaller role in this film adaptation of the classic adventure novel which I rank several points higher than the 1935 version.
  • The Loved One  –  Evelyn Waugh’s satirical take on L.A. values doesn’t really fit the screen very well in this Tony Richardson adaptation.
  • War Gods of the Deep  –  The final film from Jacques Tourneur and released outside the U.S. as City Under the Sea.  Based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe.
  • The Red Lanterns  –  An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film in 1963 (from Greece), based on a play by Alekos Galanos.
  • In Harm’s Way  –  Better by far than the other Otto Preminger film from 1965, this World War II film with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas is based on the novel by James Bassett.
  • Life at the Top  –  Proving that unnecessary sequels have been happening for a long time, this one is based on the sequel novel to Room at the Top.
  • Dear Brigitte  –  Dear Brigitte is not a good title (even if it is because of Brigitte Bardot) but the novel’s title was Erasmus with Freckles so take what you can get.  Jimmy Stewart re-teams with his Harvey director Henry Koster with weak results.
  • The Leather Boys  –  Just because it’s good that they would be willing to make a film about a gay biker doesn’t mean the film is good.  It’s the lowest edge of ***.  Based on the novel by Gillian Freeman.
  • Lord Jim  –  Can you take a great writer-director, a great star in his prime and a great novel and still make a relentlessly mediocre film?  With Richard Brooks, Peter O’Toole and Conrad’s classic all teaming up here it seems that you can.
  • Pleasures of the Flesh  –  Mediocre Nagisa Oshima film adapted from the novel by Futaro Yamada.
  • The Pleasure Seekers  –  Three Coins in the Fountain (based on the novel Coins in the Fountain) gets a pointless remake with Ann-Margaret.
  • The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders  –  This might have been a better adaptation of the classic novel if not for a few things, like being directed by Terrence Young, like starring Kim Novak, like not waiting until the rating system was developed and they could have been more risque.
  • The Satan Bug  –  Alistar MacLean was more known for War-Adventure novels (The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare) which is maybe why he wrote this under a pseudonym.  It became a pretty weak (low **.5) John Sturges film.
  • Planet of the Vampires  –  Mario Bava takes his Horror this time with a dose of Sci-Fi.  Based on the Italian Sci-Fi story “One Night of 21 Hours”.
  • A Rage to Live  –  John O’Hara was a mostly good writer but they didn’t make for good films.  Oscar nominated for Costume Design because they needed to do away with the black-and-white / color splits.
  • Psyche 59  –  Little known enough that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page though it did earn a BAFTA nomination (Best British Black-and-White Costume Design, which is more ridiculous than the Oscars).  British Drama based on the novel by Françoise des Ligneris.
  • Horror Castle  –  We’ve now hit ** films with this film (also known as The Virgin of Nuremberg), a 1963 Italian Horror film.  Based on the novel by Frank Bogart, though Wikipedia seems to imply that the name is fake.
  • The Greatest Story Ever Told  –  Commonly derided as The Longest Story Ever Told (it originally ran 260 minutes).  Ostensibly adapted from the New Testament.  The first film for George Stevens in six years; he had won two Oscars (and earned two other nominations) in the 50’s but this mess was his only output of the decade.
  • Pinocchio in Outer Space  –  A Belgian animated film that takes the character and puts it in outer space.  You can skip this.
  • The 10th Victim  –  Based on pulp Sci-Fi writer Robert Sheckley’s story (and later novelized by him) this is a mess of a film starring the bizarre combination of Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress.
  • Carry On Cleo  –  Oscars.org had listed it as adapted, perhaps because it was a continuation of the Carry On films?  Either way, like many of the Carry On films, it’s terrible.
  • The Nanny  –  In spite of Bette Davis, the first of two terrible films based on Evelyn Piper novels.
  • Bunny Lake is Missing  –  In spite of Laurence Olivier, the second of two terrible films based on Evelyn Piper novels.
  • Harlow  –  One of two 1965 Jean Harlow biopics (I haven’t seen the other).  Nominated for a Golden Globe for Supporting Actor (which is why I’ve seen it).  Based on the biography of Harlow by Irving Shulman but it’s low **.
  • The Awful Dr. Orlof  –  Even though it’s *.5, it’s only the fifth worst film I’ve seen for the year (the bottom four are all original).  A terrible film from Jesús Franco.  Neither the IMDb nor Wikipedia list an original source but oscars.org must have listed one, perhaps because it’s basically ripped off from Eyes Without a Face.
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