[1961] The Hustler

There’s a long and unspoken acknowledgment that the archetypal “sports movie,” has almost nothing to do with sport in favor of a life lesson. The fact that the plot, milieu, characters and themes revolve around the sport is secondary to the nested life lessons. In 1961’s The Hustler, “Fast Eddie” Felson is the best pool player around. He knows it, his loyal manager knows it and, in turn, everyone else knows it. He (we) learn(s) that it’s hard at the top; to be the best means to be lonely and satiated. The Hustler is a sports movie, but like all sports movies and like all sports, a higher meaning adds purpose to the simplicity of competition.

We meet “Fast Eddie,” as he’s known, waiting to challenge the best pool player he can find, with the goal of taking him down. We meet “Minnesota Fats,” as he’s known, a humble and talented pool player, who no one’s beaten in almost two decades. Surely an exaggeration, it sets the scene for an epic performance from both Paul Newman (as Eddie) and the incomparable Jackie Gleason (as Fats). Director Robert Rossen, intriguingly also the writer, demonstrates Eddie’s fast up-and-down character as he wins, wins, wins against Fats, only to completely fall apart and lose, lose, lose all but his original vig. About twenty minutes in, the real story starts. The man “Fast Eddie” is moving slow, having lost his confidence, his support system and his home. We meet his love interest, Piper Laurie (as Sarah), and out comes the struggle, both internal and external. Both are equally interesting.  Continue reading

[1961] The Guns of Navarone

Ok – so it’s been months since I’ve posted. Here we go.

Nineteen sixty-one saw the release and nomination of two post-World War II epic dramas. One, Judgement at Nuremberg, focused on a singular moral dilemma during the Nazi trials held at Nuremberg after the Paris Peace Conferences. This film capitalized on a particular formula – the courtroom drama – to display deep character analysis while holding other aspects like plot, setting and time static. It’s a clever and logical ordeal: Judgement at Nuremberg did not invent this process, nor did it define it. Movies like All The President’s Men and My Cousin Vinny have taken a modern approach to the concept – with wildly different motives and results, but the premise remains the same. The other, The Guns of Navarone, instead morphs the epic war film into a rag-tag collective film. Think Ocean’s ElevenZero Dark Thirty….on quaaludes.

It’s an interesting mash-up of two storytelling modes and this merger is necessarily clunky: the backdrop is World War II, but the Nazi officers’ attitudes seem relatively nonchalant and the conflict seems rather subdued. Set in the Aegean Sea, this conflict has seemingly nothing to do with the Nazi agenda insofar as the plot needed a malleable enemy. This movie is really about the connections between the cast – an emblazoned Gregory Peck as Captain Keith Mallory, an expert mountaineer, a moody and gloomy Anthony Quinn as Andrea Stavarou and smart-mouthed David Niven as Corporal Miller. Among this cast is a further rag-tag group of “doomed” men (and later…women!), sent to the island of Keros to disable radar-enabled anti-ship guns so that the Allied forces can sneak in and rescue a few thousand stranded men. That’s the plot for two-and-a-half hours.

Now, think about the simplicity of this concept: Nazis with no agenda, a black-and-white conflict with minor and almost inconsequential consequences, a cast of characters whose skills are almost irrelevant and a hackneyed moral climate….so the character palate better match that of Judgement at Nuremberg. I won’t ruin a major – the only – real conflict in this film, but I will say that since the audience knows in advance that the overall conflict will be successful, shouldn’t it have hurt to include actual, subtle drama amongst the cast besides some hurt feelings. On a scale of zero to GladiatorThe Guns of Navarone is a Sesame Street. Continue reading

[1961] Judgement at Nuremberg

Maximilian Schell took home the “Best Actor” award this year (1961) for his performance as a bombastic and highly nationalistic defense attorney, Hans Rolfe, in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement At Nuremberg. Tasked with defending a prominent judge charged with crimes against humanity, Schell (as Herr Rolfe) argues an impassioned defense wrought with big, humanitarian questions: who bears responsibility when charged with direct orders? Is it ever just to defy international and humanitarian law to protect national interest or to prolong self-survival?

The backdrop to explore these issues in Judgement and Nuremberg is the Nazi conflict draped by World War II. Sixteen years after the surrender of the German forces in Europe, the atrocities still fresh in the minds of anyone with a pulse, Kramer decides to tackle the Big Issues in a courtroom drama starring not only the aforementioned Schell, but also a wizened Spencer Tracy as a wise elder statesman, Dan Hayward, and a brazen Burt Lancaster as indicted Nazi judge, Ernst Janning. The cast does a supreme job showing the story, with perhaps a touch of overacting to do the bloated script a semblance of justice.

Abby Mann – an American – adapted his own dramatic screenplay of Judgement and Nuremberg for the screen, and at over three hours, it’s hard to imagine that all 186 minutes are necessary. But remember the scope of this narrative: we, as an audience, are asked to follow along with the Big Issues through the lens of ideologues in Tracy’s adjudicator and Schell’s defense attorney; we are asked to question the notion that Nazis were Nazis were Nazis. That is, within the scope of a mere three hours, we are asked to reevaluate our revisionist history of the Third Reich and come up with an impossible verdict. Three hours! All while the story is half-heartedly developing a benign relationship between Marlene Dietrich’s Frau Bertholt and Judge Hayward asking us to examine “correctness” in sterilizing the feeble-minded. Three hours is quite short to develop opinions on these matters. Continue reading