I think the last movie I saw in a theater was ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Loved it. Since then, thousands of people have asked me “What movies are you watching on TV during the pandemic?” Okay, not thousands really, more like 100’s? Dozens? Make no mistake about it, at least one person in Silver City, New Mexico asked me that question. And how many others were just too shy to ask? Anyway, I decided to mention some movies from books, or movies written by notables, that I think are worth viewing. Some of these films are old. Many of them you have seen at some time or another. Some are practically forgotten. They are all worth more than one viewing. Here’s a memory jog.
1. KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)
“A neo-noir mob movie.” Why am I obsessed with this film written and directed by Australian Andrew Dominik and produced by Brad Pitt? Perhaps it’s the cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta? Each of these actors is capable of carrying a film. The credits include playwright Sam Shepard, but he barely appears. Maybe I like it because it’s adapted from a novel by noted crime writer George V. Higgins, who also wrote THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle? Higgins is a master at zooming in on the cold, unglamorous underbelly of organized crime. And he does it with a dry and a wry sense of humor. Please watch it and tell me why it’s one of my favorites.
2. RANCHO DELUXE (1976)
Novelist Thomas McGuane wrote the screenplay for this modern day western starring Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Elizabeth Ashley, Clifton James, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright and the legendary Slim Pickens in one of his greatest roles. The scene where Pickens is awakened from a nap, and is outraged because he was not allowed to finish his dream is almost as iconic as when he rode the atomic bomb at the end of DR. STRANGELOVE, or when he died by the pond at sunset in Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID while Bob Dylan sings “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
3. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
You’ve probably seen it. But how long ago has it been? It seems like a snapshot from the past and a reveal of the present. Mary Badham, as Scout, is a totally compelling character-narrator. Badham’s bother John directed SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Gregory Peck is fantastic in an Academy Award winning performance! And the movie introduces a fellow named Robert Duvall. Of course the film is adapted from the novel by Harper Lee, and Horton Foote won an Oscar for his screenplay. Directed by Robert Mulligan who helmed films as diverse as FEAR STRIKES OUT, about troubled baseball player, Jimmy Piersall. And Reese Witherspoon’s first film THE MAN IN THE MOON.
4. THE KILLING (1956)
This drama was directed by Stanley Kubrick and co-written by noir genius Jim Thompson from a novel by Lionel White. White had another film adapted from one of his books that starred Marlon Brando and yet another that was helmed by Jean-Luc Godard. Any film with Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Tim Carey and Elisha Cook Jr. is worth watching. Although it has little or nothing to do with this film, I love the Kubrick quote “The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes.”
It’s hard to match Kubrick’s list of directing credits – THE SHINING, BARRY LYNDON, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, LOLITA, SPARTACUS and what I call his Anti-War Trilogy: PATHS OF GLORY (WW1 with Kirk Douglas), DR. STRANGELOVE (Cold War with Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden) and FULL METAL JACKET (Vietnam with Mathew Modine). If you have not watched any of these, I pity you!
5. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
Adapted from the James Jones novel set on the eve of Pearl Harbor, this film won eight Academy Awards. Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine play soldiers, but it is not a war movie. It is two love stories and a search for identity. Good enough to collect eight Oscars including Best Picture, Director (Fred Zinnemann, who won three other Oscars, but not one for directing HIGH NOON ), Screenplay (Daniel Taradash), and Supporting for Sinatra and Donna Reed.
6. TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
This dangerous cinematic dance along the U.S./Mexico border is based on Whit Masterson’s noir novel BADGE OF EVIL. But since Orson Wells wrote, directed and starred in the film, Masterson has been a bit overshadowed. If one can get past Charlton Heston playing a Mexican official, Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver, Akim Tamaroff, and Marlene Dietrich are fabulous. Zsa Zsa Gabor also appears.
7. JACKIE BROWN (1997)
This is one of Quentin Tarantino’s less celebrated films, but it is highly deserving of praise. A rare instance of Tarantino adapting from someone else’s work — in this case Elmore Leonard’s, who had an astonishing 19 of his books and short stories (from HOMBRE to 3:10 TO YUMA to OUT OF SIGHT to GET SHORTY ) turned into movies and created the character on which the TV series JUSTIFIED is based. Pam Grier, Robert Foster, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda do this story justice.
Other notable movies from books that could be included: TRUE GRIT, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, MYSTIC RIVER, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THE GODFATHER, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. And consider the contributions of writer Larry McMurtry: HUD, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, LONESOME DOVE, and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to name a few.
THEMED DOUBLE FEATURES I’D LIKE TO SEE
CADDY SHACK & THE BIG LEBOWSKI
KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE
CAMELOT & MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES & SOME LIKE IT HOT & THE MISFITS (Okay, that’s 3…too much Monroe?)
UP IN SMOKE & PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
THE WILD BUNCH & BLAZING SADDLES
ROCK AND ROLL
THIS IS SPINAL TAP & ROADIE (written by Austin Sun’s own Michael Ventura and Associate*)
GONE WITH THE WIND and TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE. (may have heard this pairing elsewhere, or perhaps I dreamed it?)
James BigBoy Medlin © 2020
*James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"
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