I’ve often noticed that movies that were once classics can date because so many later films have turned their once-fresh premises into formulae. Not a problem with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) a Hitchcock thriller which a British couple accidentally stumble into an assassination plot, which leads to their daughter’s kidnapping to keep them silent. Familiar plot elements, but Hitchcock works them very well (and without any of the action setpieces that are so standard for thrillers now), though there are some weak spots (a fight between the hero and thugs where they’re both throwing chairs doesn’t work at all). And the script manages to make the assassination a big deal without wasting time on explanations, with a simple “Before June 1914, had you ever heard of Sarajevo?” With Peter Lorre in his first English language role as the head villain. “It wasn’t my idea to shoot the policeman.”
WINTERSET (1936) shows the usual problems of transitioning from stage to screen—lines such as “We’re two young lovers and we went to live!” would have worked in a stage set of a rain-swept tenement street, but seem absurd in what looks like a completely real tenement on screen. The story involves Burgess Meredith desperately trying to clear his late father of murder while dying ganglord Eduardo Cianelli attempts to rub out everyone who can pin the crime on him for fear he’ll spend his last months behind bars. Cianelli is vicious enough that I could see this working as a Warner Brothers crime drama, but as is, it falls between crime thriller and serious drama and doesn’t gain a foothold in either genre. “Sometimes I think you’d like to see everyone you ever knew dead.”
SUGAR HILL (1974) is a black photographer whose response to her lover’s death is to recruit the undead legions of Baron Samedi to hunt down mobster Robert Quarry and his gang (I find myself wondering if the fact she grows an afro whenever the murders take place is supposed to be some kind of Black Power statement). Enjoyable, though not first rate blacksploitation—Blacula‘s a better horror film and Pam Grier was a more formidable avenger in Coffy. “I’m not here to accuse you—I’m here to pass sentence.”
CLEOPATRA JONES (1973) stars Tamara Dobson as a federal agent and martial artist whose anti-drug campaign results in all-out war with lesbian crime czar Shelly Winters. Dobson, again, is no Grier (what can I say? Grier’s awesome), but she comes off tougher than a lot of butt-kicking female heroes I’ve seen since (partly because her love life is solid—a devoted boyfriend—rather than wallowing in romantic angst). “Next time you pull a razor on me, you’d better shave.”
CEDAR RAPIDS (2009) is a charming film starring Ed Helms as a small-town insurance agent who leaves town for the first time ever to attend a major business conference, where he finds himself challenged in various ways by flirtatious agent Anne Heche, crass loudmouth John C. Reilly and devoutly religious Kurtwood Smith before finally attaining a delayed coming-of-age. A real charmer. Sigourney Weaver plays Helms’ lover. “I let him come inside me and take something very personal—I mean, my integrity.”
The second volume of The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant didn’t entirely work for me, so I was very pleased that Vol. 3, AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING, turned out much better. Having resurrected Covenant in the previous book, Linden Avery discovers she’s also unleashed a menace that will wipe out all reality, much to the delight of Lord Foul—and having no clue how to prevent that, she and Covenant set out to rescue Linden’s son from Foul instead. Dark, as usual, but never hopeless (if there’s one message to the books, it’s that a doomed struggle is better than rolling over and playing dead).