Labor Day Weekend. Some people grill. Not me. No way. Too labor intensive. Some people get in their cars and drive. I’d rather bang my head against the wall for an hour. I hate driving. There are folks who bop on over to their relatives to enjoy a congenial family circle.
No family in Los Angeles.
Offspring #2 and #3 are back East. Everyone is back East — or in Israel.
“It’s just you and me,” I say to the love of my life.
So, what to do over the long Labor Day Weekend?
Oh, I know, shopping. Sales. Insane crowds. Sharp elbows.
Forget it. I hate shopping. I buy everything mail order. Clothing via L.L. Bean and Land’s End. Karen is hooked on Loehmann’s.
I know, let’s kick back, watch some movies.
So, I’ve rummaged through my library and chosen my list of movies to watch over the Long Labor Day Weekend.
But look, I’m not going to tell you to watch Casablanca, or Citizen Kane. You know about the usual suspects already. I’m here to urge you to take a look at a few little-known gems that are now on DVD, movies that you probably missed, but absolutely must see because they are just amazing, better than anything playing in the theaters right now.
There’s no theme here, just a bunch of movies that I really love and want to share with you. So, grab your favorite blankie—Karen gave me a cowboy blanket a few years ago that I chew when watching movies—curl up on your couch and hit the PLAY button.
In no particular order.
The storytelling is lean, taut and raw. Kirk Douglas’ Indian wife is raped and murdered by Anthony Quinn’s son. Douglas and Quinn used to be best friends. Douglas is now a lawman. Quinn, a powerful rancher.
Not a shot or line of dialog is wasted. The suspense builds as Douglas nabs his man and tries to board the 9:00 train from Gun Hill. Carolyn Jones (converted to Judaism when she married producer Aaron Spelling—hey, I couldn’t resist.) has a great supporting role as Quinn’s bitter mistress who, against her own self-interest, aids the badly out-gunned Douglas. The performance by Kirk Douglas has the power of Greek tragedy. A neglected classic.
Fonda, a rich kid, has been up the Amazon, studying snakes for a few years. Stanwyck, a con-artist, takes one look at Fonda and says: “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” Sturges wrote this script in Reno while awaiting his third divorce. Hmmm.
Stanwyck is, naturally, after Fonda’s fortune. Fonda is bumbling, clueless. There’s a classic scene where Stanwyck has maneuvered Fonda into her stateroom on board an ocean liner. She gets him down on his knees, slyly has him change her “slippers.” Fonda, who has not seen a woman in years, is positively melting. This might be the sexiest scene in the history of the movies, yet there is no nudity, no kisses are exchanged — and it is hilarious. I have seen this movie a dozen times and it is always fresh, bursting with energy.
3. Fixed Bayonets! 1951, The Korean war has never been a favorite for Hollywood storytellers. But writer slash director Samuel Fuller, family name originally Rabinovitch, isn’t much interested in the politics of North and South Korea. As always, Fuller concentrates on the human emotions of his central characters. Richard Baseheart plays a corporal who watches in terror as every officer above him in the chain of command is killed. Baseheart does not want to lead. He can’t even squeeze the trigger to kill an enemy soldier. Look, the sets are cheap, production values are crap, but this is a fine film because Fuller understands combat—he fought with The Big Red One in World War Two—and he cares about the ordinary GI.
The story is simple: a platoon is fighting a rear-guard action against an entire North Korean regiment. It’s a suicide mission. There’s a brilliant scene where the members of the platoon stand and watch the American army retreating along a muddy road. The GI’s left behind know that they are as good as dead. The retreating GI’s can barely look at the men who are being left behind. The music echoes eerily. Not a word of dialog is spoken. Here is war stripped to its most elemental form.
By the way, see if you can spot James Dean here in his first movie role, with three words of dialog.
4. Duck, You Sucker 1972, Rod Steiger and James Coburn star in Sergio Leone’s neglected masterpiece. Coburn plays an I.R.A. dynamite expert who has come to Mexico to continue his, er, activities, on behalf of the revolution. Steiger is a filthy bandit with no interest in politics. Naturally, these two very different characters join forces.
This film was not quite a Spaghetti Western, and the title, well, it sounds just dopey, but believe me, this is not to be missed. There’s a sequence where the camera does a simple pan as Mexican soldiers slaughter innocent people trapped in a series of ditches; the camera just casually sweeps along, no cuts, no close-ups, just one long take, and the brutality is just overwhelming. Leone was operatic in the best sense of the word and this might be his greatest film.
5. Strange Cargo 1940, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. This is one of Crawford’s greatest performances. Director Frank Borzage carefully guides her performance and does not let her fall back on her old and reliable mannerisms. She’s stripped of all glamor, movie star make-up, and no stunning wardrobe in which to flounce around. Here, she’s a hard-hearted “saloon girl” who undergoes a spiritual rebirth during an escape with a gang of convicts from Devil’s Island. Gable plays against type as a hard-edged, dangerous convict; the chemistry between Gable and Crawford is just off the charts. This is a powerful film, and a great pairing of two huge stars. We will not see their kind ever again. Guaranteed.
6. Point Blank, 1967. This might be the toughest most relentless revenge-driven movie ever made. Lee Mar
vin strides through abstract urban landscapes, killing one criminal after another, trying to collect a debt of $93,000. He’s been betrayed by everyone, including his wife. This film redefines the modern crime thriller. It’s in a whole other category and Marvin is at the top of his game. Director John Boorman is confident of every camera placement. The dialog is crisp and clipped. The screenplay was written by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse & Rafe Newhouse. I’ve heard from several sources that Marvin had a great deal of input into the final script. Use of sound is masterful, brilliant. The movie’s final sequence in the abandoned Alcatraz Prison Island is haunting; and in retrospect I now understand that this film was the last great film noir to come out of Hollywood. This is definitely a guy’s film. It’s violent and yet strangely poetic. There are moments of great tenderness as Marvin expresses an almost boyish love for his double-dealing wife. Point Blank is the odyssey of a tender man transformed into a violent juggernaut by betrayal and disappointment. Lee Marvin’s performance is riveting, probably the most disciplined of his career, as he becomes an avenging angel in pursuit of money—and his lost humanity.
7. When the Last Sword is Drawn 2002. What, you thought I was going to recommend a bunch of films and not plug a Japanese Samurai flick?
That’ll be the day.
This is an epic movie about a Samurai who fights for money. Yup, you heard me right, money. It’s the end of the Edo period in Kyoto and Kanichiro Yoshimura, born Menachem Yosselovich—no, I’m just messing with you— just wants to make enough money to support his family. His quarrelsome fellow Samurai view him as dishonorable, a money-grubbing mercenary.
The flashback structure of this movies is beautiful and multi-layered. I don’t want to give too much away except to tell you that it’s an elegy for a good man and a master warrior as seen through the eyes of his most fierce opponent.
Oh, and the sword-play is breath-taking. I chewed my blankie to shreds. It badly needs mending.
The screenplay by the remarkable Takehiro Nakajima is a structural masterpiece, and should be studied by all screenwriters and aspiring screenwriters.
This movies understands honor, loyalty, and the abiding love between a man, a woman and their children — the unit that keeps the earth on its axis. By the end of this film my face was wet with tears.
I invite all my readers to chime in with their Labor Day Weekend movie picks.
Karen and I wish all our Seraphic friends a lovely and meaningful Shabbat.