Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

Bigos

Below is an article about the Polish dish known as Bigos:

BIGOS

When one mentions hunter’s stew, dishes such as Burgoo, or Bruinswick Stew usually comes to mind. But there is one hunter’s stew that dates back even further. I am referring to Bigos, which is a dish that originated in the Eastern European countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine.

The dish dates back to the medieval era and can trace its roots to fourteenth century Poland. The ironic thing is that the dish’s originator was not Polish. In fact, his name was Jogaila, a Lithuanian Grand Duke who became the Polish king Władysław Jagiełło in 1385. He had created the dish – namely a hunter’s stew – for his guests at a hunting party, after he had ascended the Polish throne. The name “bigos” allegedly means “confusion”, “big mess” or “trouble” in Polish. However, Polish linguists trace the word “bigos” to a German origin. The PWN Dictionary of Foreign Words speculates that it derives from the past participle begossen of a German verb that means “to douse”. And Bigos was usually doused with wine in earlier years.

Bigos usually consists of white cabbage, sauerkraut, various cuts of meat, tomatoes, honey and mushrooms. For those who do not eat meat or do not have any available, Bigos can be prepared without it. And it can be prepared without the white cabbage. But sauerkraut is absolutely essential. The type of meat found in Bigos can be smoked pork, ham, bacon, sausage, veal and beef. However, since Bigos is a hunter’s stew, meats such as venison, rabbit or other game can usually be found, as well. The stew is usually seasoned with pepper, caraway, bay leaf, marjoram, dried or smoked plums, pimenta, juniper berries and red wine. Bigos is usually served with mashed potatoes or rye bread.

Below is a recipe for Bigos from the Simplyrecipe.com website:

Bigos

Ingredients

1 ounce dried porcini or other wild mushrooms
2 Tbsp bacon fat or vegetable oil
2 pounds pork shoulder
1 large onion, chopped
1 head cabbage (regular, not savoy or red), chopped
1 1/2 pounds mixed fresh mushrooms
1-2 pounds kielbasa or other smoked sausage
1 smoked ham hock
1 pound fresh Polish sausage (optional)
1 25-ounce jar of fresh sauerkraut (we recommend Bubbies, which you may be able to find in the refrigerated section of your local supermarket)
1 bottle of pilsner or lager beer
1 Tbsp juniper berries (optional)
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp caraway seeds
2 Tbsp dried marjoram
Salt
20 prunes, sliced in half (optional)
2 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce (optional)
1-2 Tbsp mustard or horseradish (optional)

Preparation

Pour hot tap water over the dried mushrooms and submerge them for 20-40 minutes, or until soft. Grind or crush the juniper berries and black peppercorns roughly; you don’t want a powder. Cut the pork shoulder into large chunks, about 2 inches. Cut the sausages into similar-sized chunks. Drain the sauerkraut and set aside. Clean off any dirt from the mushrooms and cut them into large pieces; leave small ones whole.

Heat the bacon fat or vegetable oil in a large lidded pot for a minute or two. Working in batches if necessary, brown the pork shoulder over medium-high heat. Do not crowd the pan. Set the browned meat aside.

Put the onion and fresh cabbage into the pot and sauté for a few minutes, stirring often, until the cabbage is soft. Sprinkle a little salt over them. The vegetables will give off plenty of water, and when they do, use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pot. If you are making the tomato-based version, add the tomato paste here. Once the pot is clean and the cabbage and onions soft, remove from the pot and set aside with the pork shoulder.

Add the mushrooms and cook them without any additional oil, stirring often, until they release their water. Once they do, sprinkle a little salt on the mushrooms. When the water is nearly all gone, add back the pork shoulder, the cabbage-and-onion mixture, and then everything else except the prunes. Add the beer, if using, or the tomato sauce if you’re making the tomato-based version. Stir well to combine.

You should not have enough liquid to submerge everything. That’s good: Bigos is a “dry” stew, and besides, the ingredients will give off more liquid as they cook. Bring everything to a simmer, cover the pot and cook gently for at least 2 hours.

Bigos is better the longer it cooks, but you can eat it once the ham hock falls apart. Check at 2 hours, and then every 30 minutes after that. When the hock is tender, fish it out and pull off the meat and fat from the bones Discard the bones and the fat, then chop the meat roughly and return to the pot. Add the prunes and cook until they are tender, at least 30 more minutes.

Bigos is best served simply, with rye bread and a beer. If you want a little kick, add the mustard or horseradish right before you eat it. Bigos improves with age, too, which is why this recipe makes so much: Your leftovers will be even better than the stew was on the first day.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

I just realized something. I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1932 novel, “Peril at End House”. I find this ironic, considering that I have seen the 1990 television movie adaptation of this novel at least three or four times. One of these days, I will get around to reading Christie’s novel and comparing it to the television adaptation. Right now, I am going to focus on the latter.

Directed by Renny Rye and adapted by Clive Exton, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” is the first full-length television movie aired on “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It is also about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s efforts to prevent the murder of a young socialite, during his vacation in Cornwall. The movie begins with Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings arriving at a Cornish seaside resort for their vacation. While conversing with socialite Magdala “Nick” Buckley on the resort’s grounds, Poirot notices that someone had fired a bullet into the brim of her floppy hat. Poirot exposes the bullet hole to Nick, who finds it difficult to believe that someone wants to kill her. She points out that aside from her house – End House – has no real assets. Poirot decides to investigate her inner circle, who includes the following:

*Charles Vyse – Nick’s cousin and an attorney
*Mr. and Mrs. Croft – an Australian couple that has leased the lodge near End House, who had suggested Nick make a will six months earlier
*Freddie Rice – a close friend of Nick’s, who is also an abused wife
*Jim Lazarus – an art dealer in love with Nick
*Commander George Challenger – a Royal Navy officer who is also attracted to Nick

Poirot eventually advises Nick to invite a relative to stay with her for a few weeks. Nick invites her distant cousin Maggie Buckley. Unfortunately, someone kills Maggie, after she makes the mistake of wearing Nick’s dress shawl during an evening party. Even worse, the killer eventually achieves his/her goal by sending a box of poisoned chocolates to Nick, while she was recuperating at a local hospital.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” possessed a certain plot device that Christie had used in several of her novels. I would describe this plot device. But to do so would spoil the rest of the story. It took me years to spot this plot device. And I should be surprised that I have not come across anyone else who has spotted it. And yet . . . I am not. The fact that it took me several years to spot this particular plot device only tells me that Christie has utilized it with great effect in some of her more interesting and well-written mysteries. Thankfully, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be one of those well-written mysteries.

I must admit that Clive Exton did a pretty damn good job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. He stuck very closely to the original novel’s plot . . . with a few changes that did no harm to the overall movie. Both Exton and Rye presented a well-paced production to the audiences. They set up the story with Poirot and Hastings’ arrival to Cornwall and continued on with without any haste or dragging feet. The only time the movie threatened to put me to sleep occurred between the story’s second murder and the revelation of the killer . . . . when the story threatened to ground to a halt. I have one last problem – namely the appearance of Chief Inspector Japp. I realize that Japp did appear in the novel. But his appearance merely dealt with Poirot’s request that he investigate the Crofts, whom the Belgian detective suspected of being forgers. The cinematic Japp immediately appeared following Maggie Buckley’s death as the main police investigator. And Cornwall is not under Scotland Yard’s main jurisdiction.

The production values for “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be top-notch. Rye shot the film’s exterior scenes in Salcombe, Devon; instead of the county of Cornwall. I found that curious. However, both he and cinematographer Peter Bartlett certainly took advantage of the movie’s setting with Bartlett’s photography of Salcombe’s charming, Old World style. This was especially apparent in the movie’s opening sequence that featured Poirot and Hasting’s arrival by airplane. Actually, production designer Mike Oxley did an excellent job of recreating an English vacation resort in the early 1930s. The production practically reeked of the Art Deco style of that time period. However, I was especially impressed by Linda Mattock’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by those costumes worn by actresses Polly Walker, Pauline Moran and Alison Sterling. My only complaints about the movie’s visual styles were the actresses’ hairstyles. No one seemed capable of re-creating the early 1930s soft bob. The actresses either wore a chignon or in the case of Sterling, a Dutch Boy bob made famous by actress Louise Brooks in the late 1920s.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” featured some solid performances by the cast. David Suchet gave his usual excellent portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was especially impressed by the on-screen chemistry he managed to produce with Polly Walker. The latter gave a standout performance as the killer’s main target, Madgala “Nick” Buckley. Walker did an excellent job of transforming Nick from the charming “Bright Young Thing” to a wary and frightened woman, who realizes that someone is trying to kill her. Alison Sterling was also excellent as one of Nick’s closest friends, “Freddie” Rice. Next to Walker’s Nick, Sterling gave an interesting and skillful portrayal of the very complex Freddie. Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson were also excellent as Arthur Hastings, Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. All three, along with Suchet, managed to re-create their usual magic. The movie also featured solid performances from Paul Geoffrey (whom I found particularly convincing as an early 30s social animal), John Harding, Christopher Baines and Elizabeth Downes. I found the Australian accents utilized by Jeremy Young and Carol Macready, who portrayed the Crofts, rather wince inducing. But since their accents were supposed to be fake in the first place, I guess I had no problems.

For some reason, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” has never become a big favorite of mine. It is a well done adaptation of Christie’s novel. And I found it visually attractive, thanks to the movie’s production team. The movie also featured some excellent performances – especially from David Suchet, Polly Walker and Alison Sterling. Naturally, it is not perfect. But that is not the problem. I cannot explain my lack of enthusiasm for “PERIL AT END HOUSE”. I can only assume that I found nothing particularly mind blowing or fascinating about its plot. It is simply a good, solid murder mystery that has managed to entertain me on a few occasions. Perhaps . . . that is enough.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1890s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1890s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1890s

1 - Sherlock Holmes-Game of Shadows

1. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Ritchie directed this excellent sequel to his 2009 hit, in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson confront their most dangerous adversary, Professor James Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

2 - Hello Dolly

2. “Hello Dolly!” (1969) – Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau starred in this entertaining adaptation of David Merrick’s 1964 play about a New York City matchmaker hired to find a wife for a wealthy Yonkers businessman. Gene Kelly directed.

3 - King Solomon Mines

3. “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) – Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson starred in this satisfying Oscar nominated adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel about the search for a missing fortune hunter in late 19th century East Africa. Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton directed.

4 - Sherlock Holmes

4. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Guy Ritchie directed this 2009 hit about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson’s investigation of a series of murders connected to occult rituals. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

5 - Hidalgo

5. “Hidalgo” (2004) – Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif starred in Disney’s fictionalized, but entertaining account of long-distance rider Frank Hopkins’ participation in the Middle Eastern race “Ocean of Fire”. Joe Johnston directed.

6. “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall and Alan Arkin starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Nicolas Meyer’s 1974 novel about Sherlock Holmes’ recovery from a cocaine addiction under Sigmund Freud’s supervision and his investigation of one of Freud’s kidnapped patients. Meyer directed the film.

Harvey Girls screenshot

7. “The Harvey Girls” (1946) – Judy Garland starred in this dazzling musical about the famous Harvey House waitresses of the late 19th century. Directed by George Sidney, the movie co-starred John Hodiak, Ray Bolger and Angela Landsbury.

6 - The Jungle Book

8. “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” (1994) – Stephen Sommers directed this colorful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of short stories about a human boy raised by animals in India’s jungles. Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes and Lena Headey starred.

7 - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

9. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003) – Sean Connery starred in this adaptation of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s first volume of his 1999-2000 comic book series about 19th century fictional characters who team up to investigate a series of terrorist attacks that threaten to lead Europe into a world war. Stephen Norrington directed.

8 - The Prestige

10. “The Prestige” (2006) – Christopher Nolan directed this fascinating adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel about rival magicians in late Victorian England. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine starred.

10 - The Four Feathers 1939

Honorable Mention: “The Four Feathers” (1939) – Alexander Korda produced and Zoltan Korda directed this colorful adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a recently resigned British officer accused of cowardice. John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson starred.

“THE STING” (1973) Review

the_sting_1_newman_redford

“THE STING” (1973) Review

Whenever film critics or film fans bring up the subject of Best Picture Oscar winners during the 1970s, the topic usually turned to movies like 1975s “ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO NEST”. But the two main Oscar winners usually discussed are the“GODFATHER” movies – 1972’s “THE GODFATHER” and 1974’s “THE GODFATHER – PART II”. The 1973 Oscar winner, “THE STING” is sometimes remembered . . . but not always with the same reverence. At least it seems that way to me.

“THE STING”, which was a caper film set during the middle of the Great Depression, reunited stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford with director George Roy Hill. The latter had directed the pair in the 1969 biopic Western, “BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID”. In “THE STING”, Newman and Redford portrayed a pair of grifters who set out to con a vicious crime boss who had ordered the death of a friend. Screenwriter David S. Ward was inspired by the careers of grifters Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose exploits were featured in David Maurer’s book, “The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man”.

The movie begins in 1936 Joliet, Illinois; in which three grifters – Johnny Hooker, Luther Coleman and Joe Erie – con an unsuspecting victim out of $11,000 in cash. Both Hooker and Erie discover from a corrupt cop named Lieutenant Synder that they had conned a numbers racket courier, who was carrying the $11,000 for a vicious crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan. Even worse, Lonnegan has discovered their identity and sent hit men to kill them. The killers manage to murder Coleman before Johnny and Joe can split up. On Coleman’s advice, Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff, a world-class grifter hiding from the F.B.I. in Chicago with his girlfriend, Billie, who runs a brothel in the city. Hooker asks Gondorff’s help in getting revenge for Luther’s death. Although reluctant to pull a con against the crime boss, Gondorff decides to use an elaborate and supposedly obsolete scam known as “the wire”, using a crew of con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlor. Hooker eventually discovers that both Lonnegan’s hitmen and Lieutenant Synder have tracked him to Chicago, and he has to maintain a step ahead of them in order to keep Gondorff’s scam on track.

While watching “THE STING”, I found myself wondering if there was anything about it that did not appeal to me. I realized that most of my problems with the film were at best, ascetic. Before the turn of the 21st century, Hollywood seemed to have great difficulty in recapturing women’s fashion in the early-to-mid 1930s . . . and that includes hairstyles. In fact, this seemed apparent in “THE STING” regarding the hairstyles for actresses Eileen Brennan and Dimitra Arliss. I hate to say this, but it looked as if Brennan was wearing a wig. And Arliss’ hairstyle reminded me of one worn by women in the 1940s, not the 1930s. Only Sally Kirkland managed to escape this fate. Hmmm . . . you know what? I cannot think of any other flaws in “THE STING”. At least not now. Perhaps I need to watch it again. I could complain about Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Scott Joplin’s music used in a movie set in the mid-1930s- especially since Joplin’s music dated back at least 30 years before the movie’s setting. But for some reason it worked. It worked. I could write an essay on how songs written at the turn of the 20th century meshed so well in a movie set during the Great Depression. But I cannot explain how this happened, other than movie magic.

However, there is so much to admire in this film. Former 20th Century Fox studio head, Darryl Zanuck, once said that the backbone to any movie is the story. And I heartily agree. Apparently, the producers of “THE STING”, Tony Bill, Julia and Michael Phillips, felt the same about the movie’s screenplay written by David S. Ward. On the surface, “THE STING” is a first-class story about grifters pulling a major con against a crime boss responsible for the death of one of their own. First of all, Ward’s script gave audiences a detailed account of the con pulled by Gondorff, Hooker and the others. Audiences not only got to see the con play out from the beginning to the end, but also its planning stages and unexpected problems. There were three major problems that the grifters had to face – namely Lonnegan’s contract on Hooker for the con that he, Coleman and Erie had pulled; Hooker’s conflict with Detective Synder, who was after the grifter for passing counterfeit money as a bribe to him; and the F.B.I., who seemed to be closing in on Gondorff. And Ward’s screenplay handled all of these plot lines with a seamless skill that led to his Academy Award win for Best Original Screenplay.

I can honestly say the same about George Roy Hill’s direction. When Hill won the Best Director Oscar for his work on “THE STING”, he had responded that with Newman, Redford and Ward’s script; he could not lose. But I have come across a good number of movies that possessed a first-rate cast and a decent script. Yet, these films still managed to result in pure crap. Another director could have screwed up with the cast and script given, but Hill did not. Instead, he transformed quality material – the cast, the crew and the script – into Oscar gold. He also injected a great deal of oomph into the movie’s storytelling by shooting it with a “Saturday Evening Post style” that included page turning chapter headings and graphics. He and cinematographer Robert Surtees imitated the flat camera style of the old Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s, which included ending each scene with a slide across the screen or a circular motion. The most interesting thing about Hill’s direction is that he managed to inject the desperate air of the Great Depression in a movie that is generally regarded as somewhat light froth. And that is a hell of a thing to accomplish. Both Newman and Redford had expressed great admiration toward Hill’s stylized direction and his firm handling of the movie during its production. After watching the movie for the umpteenth time, I can see why they held him in such high regard.

Looking at “THE STING”, I am still amazed that aside from a few locations around Southern California and Chicago, most of it was filmed on the Universal Studios lot. As a Southern Californian, I have seen those backlot locations during many visits to the studio. But I am still amazed at how Bob Warner’s special effects, the film’s art department, James W. Payne’s Oscar winning set decorations and Robert Surtees’ cinematography made me forget about the studio lot locations and convince me that I had transported back to Depression-era Chicago and Joliet. I could also say the same about Edith Head’s costume designs, which led to her winning an Academy Award. But Albert Whitlock’s visual effects – especially his matte paintings – really gave this movie its unique visual style, as shown below:

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I am happy to say that Whitlock also won an Academy Award.

“THE STING” marked the second screen teaming of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It seems a damn shame they never shot other films together, because those two are magic as a team. Hell, they were magic period. Newman was perfect as Henry Gondorff. He did a great job in portraying who proved that despite his world weary attitude, he was still the master grifter capable of operation a first-rate con job, acting as mentor to less experienced grifters and handling unexpected problems. I especially enjoyed the sly air that Newman injected into the character and one particular scene in which his Gondorff emotionally manipulated the Doyle Lonnegan character. Someone once claimed that Robert Redford was wrong for the Jay Gatsby character, because his personal background and “golden boy” looks prevented him from understanding the air of desperation that drove Fitzgerald’s character. I disagree. In fact, I would point to Redford’s portrayal of Johnny Hooker in “THE STING” as an example of why that particular criticism is utter bullshit. He did a beautiful job of conveying Hooker’s impatience, addiction to gambling and more importantly, air of desperation – traits that led him into trouble with Lonnegan and Stryder in the first place.

Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Red Grant is considered one of the best James Bond villains of all time. Frankly, I found his portrayal of crime boss Doyle Lonnegan to be a lot more scary. Lonnegan must have been one of the most chaotic characters that the actor had portrayed. On one hand, Lonnegan seemed to be the epitome of the cold-blooded businessman, who did not suffer the loss of even one penny. At the same time Shaw was excellent in portraying the gangster’s pride and hair-trigger temper that led him into moments of recklessness. “THE STING” was the first movie that ever made me take notice of actress Eileen Brennan . . . and this was seven years before her Oscar-nominated performance in “PRIVATE BENJAMIN”. I thought she gave a very sly and sexy performance as Gondorff’s grifter/madam girlfriend, Billie. This was especially apparent in one scene in which she was forced to deal with Lieutenant Synder, who was searching for Hooker. Speaking of Synder, this role marked the first major one on film for Charles Durning. I thought he did a marvelous job as the vindictive and crooked Joliet cop. Durning did an excellent job in conveying Synder’s venal nature in a very subtle manner.

Both Ray Walston and Harold Gould gave very entertaining performances as two of Gondorff’s trusted men – J.J. Singleton and Kid Twist. Walston injected a good deal of sardonic humor that I found particularly fun to watch. And Gould gave a very elegant performance as the charming Twist. Jack Kehoe, who was also in 1988’s “MIDNIGHT RUN”, did an excellent job of portraying Hooker’s loyal, yet slightly nervous partner, Joe Erie. Kehoe was especially effective in the one scene in which Erie had a brief conversation with Lonnegan during the con. I suspect a good number of people would be surprised to learn that Robert Earl Jones, who portrayed Luther Coleman, was the father of actor James Earl Jones. After watching the father’s performance as the aging grifter who served as Hooker’s mentor, it is easy to see from whom the junior Mr. Earl Jones had inherited his talent. Robert Earl Jones, despite a screen time of twenty minutes or less, gave a first-rate performance as the doomed elderly grifter.

What else can I say about “THE STING”? I managed to spot a flaw or two. But right, I cannot think of any more flaws. I would have to watch the movie again. However, between the film’s visual artistry, Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Scott Joplin’s music, David S. Ward’s excellent screenplay and the first-rate cast led by Paul Newman and Robert Redford; director George Roy Hill created magic. And it is due to this magic that “THE STING” remains one of my favorite movies of all time, to this day.

“CARDS ON THE TABLE” (2005) Review

“CARDS ON THE TABLE” (2005) Review

Most Agatha Christie fans tend to regard movie and television adaptations of her novels with a kindly eye. Especially if those adaptations closely followed its literary source. Not all adaptations have done this, including “CARDS ON THE TABLE”, ITV’s 2005 adaptation of the author’s 1936 novel.

I have always wondered how Christie fans regarded “CARDS ON THE TABLE”. I suspect many Christie fans would not regard it as a close adaptation of the 1936 novel. Also, the story turned out to be one of those mysteries of the “locked room” variety that many fans sometimes find frustrating. I say . . . almost. After all, the victim was not killed or found in a locked room. Instead, he was quietly killed, while sitting in the same room as the suspects.

The story begins when Belgian-born private detective Hercule Poirot and his friend, crime novelist Ariadne Oliver at an art exhibit, they meet the wealthy art collector Mr. Shaitana, who also has an interest in “collecting” successful murderers. He invites both Poirot and Mrs. Oliver to his dinner party for the following evening. His guests include two more “detectives” – military intelligence officer Colonel Hughes and Scotland Yard’s Superintendent James Wheeler. Mr. Shaitana has also invited four people that he believes have gotten away with murder:

*Dr. Roberts – a successful Harley Street physician who may have deliberately killed a patient
*Mrs. Lorrimer – a well-to-do socialite who may have killed her first husband
*Major Despard – a dashing ex-military explorer and hunter who may have killed a married botanist during his last expedition
*Anne Meredith – an impoverished young woman from a good family who may have killed a former employer who caught her stealing

During supper, Mr. Shaitana expresses veiled hints that the four suspects have successfully committed murder. After the meal, he organizes two bridge games – one with the suspects playing in the main drawing room, and the “detectives” playing in another room. Mr. Shaitana settles in a chair near the four suspects and fall asleep. When the “detectives” finish their game, they return to the main dining room and find Shaitana’s body, with a knife in his chest. The four “sleuths” – Poirot, Mrs. Oliver, Superintendent Wheeler and Colonel Hughes – set about investigating Mr. Shaitana’s murder.

For those Christie fans who demand that all movie and television adaptations be faithful to their literary sources, “CARDS ON THE TABLE” just might disappoint them. Director Sarah Harding and screenwriter Nick Dear obviously made changes to Christie’s story. One, they changed the identity of one of the story’s murderers. Two, they allowed two of the characters that died in the novel . . . survive. Colonel Race in the novel became Colonel Hughes in the movie, due to James Fox (who portrayed Race in 2004’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”) being unavailable for the production. And they allowed one of the characters that survived in the book to die. Harding and Dear also changed the motives for both main killers in the story. And . . . they allowed one of the investigators, Superintendent Wheeler, to become a suspect.

Did these changes ruin the story for me? Overall . . . no. First of all, I have to admit that “CARDS ON THE TABLE” is a pretty damn good story. Although I liked Christie’s novel very much, there were moments when I found it somewhat convoluted. I cannot say the same about Nick Dear’s screenplay. He managed to make Christie’s story more coherent without dumbing down the story. The movie also benefited from Sarah Harding’s competent direction. She did a first-class job in maintaining my interest in the story. Not once did her direction ground the movie to a halt. Harding also produced excellent performances from the cast. Contrary to what many may think, even competent actors and actresses can have their performances ruined by an incompetent director. But more importantly, despite the energetic pacing, she managed to maintain the movie’s suspense and mystery. This was greatly enhanced by flashbacks of not only the actual murder, but also the characters’ meetings with Mr. Shaitana.

I certainly did not have a problem with the movie’s production and look. Jeff Tessler, who has worked for both “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” and “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” did an excellent job in re-creating London of the mid-1930s. With the help of cinematographer David Marsh, Denise Ball’s art direction and the movie’s art department; Tessler’s work radiated class and style. The crew’s work also benefited from Sheena Napier’s costume designs, which I found very stylish and close to what the well-born or successful English had worn during the Thirties. I do not know who worked on the actresses’ hairstyles, but I must admit that I was impressed by how close they resembled how women styled their hair eighty years ago. My only complaint was Honeysuckle Weeks’ hairstyle, which seemed more suited to the 1940s, instead of the 1930s.

The performances featured in “CARDS ON THE TABLE” struck me as first-rate. David Suchet was excellent, as usual, in his portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was surprised that his performance seemed a little introverted and I cannot help but wonder if the presence of three other “investigators” had an impact. “CARDS ON THE TABLE” proved to be Zoë Wanamaker’s first appearance as mystery writer Ariadne Oliver and the actress never looked back. Right from the beginning, Wanamaker had a lock on the character. Also, she and Suchet created immediate chemistry on screen, which is not surprising since both had worked on stage together. I also have to comment on Alexander Siddig’s performance. Personally, I believe Mr. Shaitana might prove to be my favorite role he has ever performed. Shaitana seemed like such a departure from anything else he has done and he did such a marvelous job in radiating a mixture of mystery, humor and wit from his character.

I also enjoyed the performances from the other cast members. Aside from Suchet, Wanamaker and Siddig; I also enjoyed Tristan Gemmill as Major Despard, who seemed to be a curious mixture of warmth and coldness; Lyndsey Marshal as the charming, yet morally ambiguous Anne Meredith; Honeysuckle Weeks as Anne’s domineering roommate, Rhoda Dawes; Robert Pugh as the conservative, yet pragmatic Colonel Hughes; and David Westhead, who gave an interesting performance as the slightly suspect Superintendent Jim Wheeler. But my two favorite performances from the supporting cast came from Lesley Manville and Alex Jennings. Manville gave a very enigmatic performance as the mysterious Mrs. Lorrimer, who seemed to have a passion for bridge. And Alex Jennings gave an entertaining performance performance as the verbose Doctor Roberts, who seemed to have something of a touch of gallows humor.

Was there anything about “CARDS ON THE TABLE” that I did not like or found unappealing? Well . . . yes. I had a problem with the motives of the story’s two main killers. Mr. Shaitana’s murderer killed the former to hide a homosexual relationship. I could have tolerated this if Dear had not made the second murderer in the story a homosexual, as well. The second murderer killed due to love for another character and the latter’s interest in a third party. Both murderers turned out to be homosexual and I cannot help but wonder if Nick Dear, Sarah Harding or even the producers are homophobic. It certainly seems likely. This portrayal of two separate murderers as homosexuals proved to be one of the worst examples of bigotry I have ever encountered in any movie or television production in recent years.

Even though I found the homophobia tasteless, I otherwise enjoyed “CARDS ON THE TABLE” a lot. Nick Dear more or less did an excellent job in adapting Agatha Christie’s novel. I was very impressed by Sarah Harding’s energetic, yet atmospheric direction. And I was especially impressed by the talented cast, led by David Suchet. Despite a major setback, “CARDS ON THE TABLE” still proved to be a first-rate movie.

“THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” (1953) Review

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“THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” (1953) Review

Tyrone Power’s career took a strange turn during the post-World War II years. Although he still managed to maintain his position as one of Twentieth Century Fox’s top stars during the remainder of the 1940s, something happened as the 1950s dawned. Powers still found himself in Grade A movies during that particular decade. But he also seemed to appear in a growing number of standard costume melodramas.

Twentieth Century Fox lent Powers to Universal Pictures to star in the 1953 drama called “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. Directed by Rudolph Maté, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” told the story of a New York-born gambler named Mark Fallon, who moves to New Orleans with ambitions to create his own gambling casino. During the riverboat journey down the Mississippi River, Mark becomes the friend and protégé of an older gambler named Kansas John Polly. The pair also run afoul of a crooked gambler and two Creole siblings named Angelique and Laurent Dureau. During a poker game, Mark exposes the crooked gambler. Also Laurent Dureau loses all of his money and his sister’s priceless necklace during the game. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Mark becomes acquainted with the Dureaus’ father, Edmond Dureau. The latter admires Mark and realizes that the younger man is in love with Angelique. Unfortunately, she refuses to acknowledge Mark and sets matrimonial sights upon a friend of her brother’s, banker George Elwood. Mark and Kansas John meet and help Ann Conant, the daughter of an unlucky gambler who had committed suicide. She helps the two friends build their casino, yet at the same time, falls in love with Mark. And both she and Mark become uncomfortably aware that Laurent Dureau has fallen in love with her.

While reading the synopsis of this film, I noticed that it was identified as an adventure film. “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” does feature some action sequences that include a fist fight aboard a riverboat, at least two duels and a murder attempt. But for some reason, I am hard pressed to consider it an adventure film. There seemed to be a lot more drama and action in this film. Especially melodrama. Production wise, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” struck me as an attractive looking film. Being a constant visitor of the Universal Studios theme park, it was easy to recognize some of the exterior scenes from the studio’s back lot. I doubt that “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” had the budget to be shot on location in Louisiana. But I still would not describe it as cheap looking for a standard melodrama, thanks to Irving Glassberg’s sharp photography. Even Bill Thomas’ costume designs added to the film’s visual style. However, there was one costume worn by leading lady Piper Laurie that reflected the early 1950s, instead of the early 1850s.

I have no problems with the movie’s performances. Tyrone Powers gave a subtle, yet excellent performance as the good-hearted Mark Fallon, who had not only become enamored of New Orleans society, but also the leading lady. His chemistry with Piper Laurie struck me as pretty solid, but not particularly striking. I think Laurie’s portrayal of the aristocratic and hot-tempered Angelique seemed a bit too fiery . . . and possibly too young for the more sedate Powers. The actor seemed to have better chemistry with Julie Adams, who portrayed the sweet-tempered, yet practical and mature Ann Conant. I found myself wishing that her character was Powers’ leading lady. The lead actor certainly clicked with John McIntire, who portrayed Mark’s close friend, Kansas John Polly. The two men seemed to have created their own on-screen bromance with considerable ease. John Bear gave a very credible performance as Laurent Dureau, the careless, yet passionate young scion who happened to be the leading lady’s brother. Paul Cavanaugh was equally competent as Angelique and Laurent’s elegant father, Edmond Dureau. I would comment on the rest of the cast. But if I must be honest, I found them unmemorable . . . including Ron Randell, who portrayed Angelique’s corrupt husband, George Elwood.

While reading about the film, I also learned that “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” was a big hit during early 1953. Leslie I. Carey, even managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Recording for his work on the movie. But you know what? Despite the decent production designs, visual styles and solid performances from the cast, I have a pretty low opinion of “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. In fact, I am astounded that this movie was a box office hit. Perhaps that sounded arrogant. Who am I to judge the artistic tastes of others? I certainly do not like for others to judge my tastes or attempt to infringe their tastes upon me. But I have to say that I did not like “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”.

What was it about the movie that I disliked? Seton I. Miller’s screenplay. I found it very ineffective. In other words, I thought it sucked. Exactly what was this movie about? Mark Fallon’s struggles to build his New Orleans casino? His adventures as a riverboat gambler? His romance (it that is what you want to call it) with Angelique Dureau. Apparently, it is all of the above. But Miller’s story struck me as extremely vague and very episodic. The only storyline that remained consistent from beginning to end was the love story between Mark Fallon and Angelique Dureau. And honestly, it did not strike me as a well constructed love story. The problem seemed to be the character of George Elwood. Instead of marrying him earlier in the story, Angelique did not marry him until the final half hour.

The love story was not the only problem I had with the plot for “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. One scene featured the leading characters witnessing a dance number by slaves or free blacks in an area known as Congo Square. I am aware that such performances did occurred in 19th century New Orleans. I found it more than disconcerting that the dancers featured in the movie were white performers in blackface as African-Americans. Mark Fallon’s struggle to build a casino did not come off as much of a struggle to me. In fact, Mark, Kansas John and Ann Conant managed to build the casino within the movie’s second half hour and lose it, thanks to George Elwood’s financial manipulations by the last half hour. Not only did the banker’s financial manipulations concluded the story line regarding the casino in an unsatisfying manner, but the same could be said about how Mark and Angelique’s love story ended. I could go into detail about what happened, but why bother? It would be a waste of time. All I can say is that I found the conclusion of Miller’s story vague, rushed and very unsatisfying.

In a nutshell, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” possessed both a decent visual style and production designs. It also featured solid performances from a cast led by Tyrone Power and Piper Laurie. But the first-class costume melodrama that Universal Pictures set out to create was undermined by a vague and unsatisfying story written by screenwriter Seton I. Miller. It seemed a pity that within the seven to eight years following the end of World War II, Tyrone Power’s career led him to this.