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by Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick

13 Apr 2015


With so much comical choreography, camera hijinks, and gut-busting violence, it’s easy to see Raising Arizona as a live-action cartoon.

Steve Pick: We turn our attention now to Raising Arizona, the second film from the oddball ouevre of Joel and Ethan Coen. This one came out in 1987, a time when I wasn’t paying close attention to the movie world. I do know that by the beginning of the ‘90s, Raising Arizona was considered a comedy classic by a lot of the people I hung with, even though none of them had ever asked me to go see it with them. I caught bits here and there on TV over the years, but this was my first complete immersion into this tale of true love, the ways in which Huggies make changing diapers easier than changing one’s character, and the unbearable lightness of babies. It’s a black comedy, with almost as many homages to cartoons as would be seen in the partially animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit? only a year later. It continued the phenomenal rise to stardom of Nicholas Cage, back in the days when he was a lot skinnier, and a lot less imposing on screen. It introduced many people to Holly Hunter and gave John Goodman plenty of scenery to chew. Steve, what’s your history with this film and/or its directors and actors? How do you place it in the ranking of Coen Brothers movies?

This film version of Jack Gelber’s one-room, real-time play The Connection takes place in a Greenwich Village loft that, although grungy and low-down, now presents every speck of dirt and every cockroach with a clarity probably unseen since 1961, if then. As a time capsule alone, the film’s historical and stylistic perspective is fascinating.

More than a decade before he took on the lead role in the forgotten spaghetti western Find A Place To Die (1968), Jeffrey Hunter played John Wayne’s sidekick in The Searchers (1956), arguably the best of America’s traditional westerns. Although Hunter had already appeared in a dozen films, it was his critically praised performance in this John Ford masterpiece that brought his classic good looks and powerful screen presence to the masses, and establishing him as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actors, one bound for stardom. 

Hunter followed The Searchers with prominent roles in two more Ford films, The Last Hurrah (1958) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), before he reached his career’s premature climax as Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961). He did, in the following year, put on a great though brief performance in the classic war epic The Longest Day (1962), but his name was buried under the bigger names in the cast like Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, and again John Wayne.

By this point, Hunter had found a constant companion in alcohol. With his opportunities beginning to narrow, he went all-in as the title character in the television series, Temple Houston (1963-1964), but the show was canceled after its twenty-sixth week. Perhaps in a moment of desperation, he then agreed to play Captain Christopher Pike in the very first pilot episode of Star Trek (1964). It was a role that could have brought Hunter the fame he once seemed destined for, but when NBC requested him to continue the character he refused. He said he wanted to focus on making movies.

The bigwigs of Hollywood, however, had become weary of him and his hard-drinking reputation, and it wasn’t long until the only work he could find was on B-movies filmed in Mexico, Hong Kong, or Italy. It was while filming the Italian movie, Viva America (1969), that an on-set explosion gone wrong left the troubled actor with a troubling concussion. He supposedly went into shock on the plane ride back to America; after being inspected and released by doctors, he fell down a set of stairs at his home in California and cracked his skull. Brain surgery was unsuccessful, and Hunter died in 1969 at the age of 42. 

Because he starred in it just a year before his tragic and mysterious death, Find A Place To Die is, for fans of Hunter, a must-see spaghetti western. The character he plays, Joe Collins, is an ex-confederate, booze-soaked, gringo gun-runner who is, like the title says, trying to find a place to die. Although the character doesn’t have much depth, Hunter does an excellent job of channeling his own off-screen persona through him. With his blank stares, his deep voice, and is hopeless outlook, Hunter perfectly portrays a down-and-out man who, in the end, finds that he has a consciousness in spite of all the evils flourishing around and within him.

We are first introduced to this character of Collins in a makeshift saloon built among the eroding stones of an ancient Mexican building. He sits there drinking his sorrows away as the stunningly beautiful Juanita (played by Daniela Giordano, who had been elected Miss Italy two years earlier) sings the film’s theme song. It’s a great song, and the sight of the drunken Collins watching Juanita’s smooth brown skin glisten with sweat among the shadowy ruins of the set creates a moody scene that is truly memorable. 

But the leading lady isn’t Giordano; it’s the French actress Pascale Petit. She plays Lisa Martin, the wife of an American geologist (Piero Lulli) who struck gold in the Mexican mountains. To open Find A Place To Die, director Giuliano Carnimeo shows the couple resisting an ambush by El Chato (Mario Dardanelli) and his gang. They manage to kill most of the bandits by throwing sticks of dynamite at them, but the explosions cause an avalanche, and a pile of boulders pin Lisa’s husband to the ground. She has no choice but to go look for help, and it is the saloon in which Collins is drinking that she finds first.

Collins agrees to help but since Chato and much of his gang are still in the mountains, he recruits a group of mismatched Mexicans for the task. These men include Reverend Riley (Adolfo Lastretti) who shoots vultures because they are “messengers of death”, a half-bit pimp named Paco (Reza Fazeli) who seems to be in love with his only whore, a dim-witted brute named Gomez (Giaanni Pallavicino) who looses his mind when watching Lisa skinny-dip in a pond, and the triple-crossing Fernando (Nello Pazzafini) who acts as an informer to Chato before overthrowing him and leading his gang against Collins. But Fernando isn’t alone in his desire for the gold. As Collins tells Lisa, “These men are here for only two reasons: her and the gold.”

It’s a good story with a lot of interesting characters. The action is solid and well-dispersed. The lush setting is unique for the genre. Hunter is perfect in his imperfect role. The generous screentime given to the Italian beauties, Giordano and Petit, creates a sense of eroticism that is much appreciated. But there’s not enough in Find A Place To Die to push it pass the standard spaghetti western. The characters, including Collins and the sexy seductresses, aren’t developed enough, and as a result the action, and often the acting, comes off as nothing more than fun and games. We don’t care enough about the characters, and there’s not enough at stake. For fans of Jeffery Hunter, however, it is a must-see curtain call.

At first, he was just a famous professional wrestler trying to make it in show business. As with many athletes trying to make the leap, it was not all smooth sailing. Before long, however, he was earning praise for his basic B-movie, Ah-nold lite performances. Then something happened to and with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which elevated him from wannabe to true winner. He’s now known as the franchise savior, having stepped into such struggling series like The Mummy, G.I. Joe, and The Journey to the Center of… efforts, and most importantly, the Fast and Furious films. Indeed, with the latest earning boffo box office (almost $400 million over the first weekend) and the previous installments also worldwide hits ($788 million for Six, $626 million for Five), Johnson seems poised to have his first ever billion dollar baby.

by Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick

7 Apr 2015


Cabaret depicts a scenario in which it’s impossible to stem the rising tide of Nazism, and the characters inside the titutlar club adopt a sort of nihilistic view of decadence and denial instead of facing the horrifying reality just outside.

Steve Leftridge: It’s Double Take number 11, and we have the first musical in our series of 500 Great Films. Before we get into the real nitty-gritty on this one, I noticed some interesting trends I’d like to bounce off of you. In 1972, Cabaret was among the very last musical films to enjoy widespread critical acclaim. Take the Academy Awards as a case in point: Besides Bob Fosse’s other musical of the decade, 1979’s All That Jazz, Cabaret would be the last musical to be nominated for Best Picture until 2001’s Moulin Rouge, a drought just shy of 30 years.

Just before Cabaret, in the ‘60s, musicals were still booming: four of the ten Best Picture winners were musicals. So Cabaret seems to have marked the end of the golden run of the movie musical, which brings me to my question. Can you identify any reasons for this cultural shift, when movie musicals, with but a few exceptions, died off around the time of Cabaret and have scarcely ever returned as viable box office entities? Why don’t we dig these anymore, Steve? (I’ll give you bonus points if you can tie Cabaret specifically to this sea change.)

Steve Pick: Well, it seems obvious to me that as we baby boomers got older and more influential, we wanted rock music, not showtunes. There were still plenty of musicals being made—Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Rocky Horror Picture Show—but none of them stood a chance of Oscar contention, if only because the voters at the time were skewed older and completely unlikely to care about that sort of thing. I’m not up on the Broadway world, so I don’t know what musical theatre was doing in the ‘70s. By the time I started hearing of that sort of thing again, it was the likes of Cats, and I am entirely thankful we didn’t have that become a popular movie right away. In short, tastes changed, and musical theatre changed, and there just wasn’t the right fit for the crowds going to see films.

Leftridge: Your rock-and-roll theory makes plenty of sense and explains why, as a Generation Xer, almost any new musical film I was exposed to in the ‘70s and ‘80s tried to tap into rock fever both old (Grease) and new (Fame). As you suggest, the rock revolution swept away much of what we would consider the traditional musical in favor of rock-oriented narratives like Purple Rain and Footloose. Still, live musical theatre on Broadway continued to flourish—in fact, grew more popular than ever during this period—while occasional attempts at recreating that success on the screen typically tanked, and I’m not sure we can trace it back to Elvis shaking it in Clambake or not. (Then again, as the father of a seven-year-old girl, I can assure you that musical films remain oppressively popular, as long as they’re animated. I hosted a Frozen birthday party recently, and you’d be hard-pressed to stump me on the lyrics to that particular soundtrack.)

Pick: You know, I never saw Cabaret until the past few days, and now I have to revise, with an asterisk, my long held assumption that the last great musical was Sweet Charity. The asterisk comes because, unlike all the classic musicals that preceded this one, and the awful ones that followed so many years later, the music in Cabaret is entirely presented as if it’s being performed on a stage where people are presented as musical performers. There is no instance of characters suddenly breaking into song while out on the street or in the bedroom or while eating dinner. Thus, despite the highly enjoyable selection of songs, and the intricate choreography by director Bob Fosse, it’s entirely possible to argue that Cabaret isn’t a traditional musical at all.

Fosse, who made his name in musical theatre, was a remarkable film director as well. Even though he put tremendous effort into staging and choreography, his display of the performers in Cabaret is almost never bent on showing us everything at once. He makes breathtaking use of cuts, zooms, pans, and assorted filmic tricks to bring a completely different feel to the performances than could possibly have been delivered on the stage. The ironic juxtaposition of a carefree song with the brutal beating of the club owner for having kicked a Nazi out of the cabaret simply could not have worked in any other medium. This helps make Cabaret, one of the most depressing movies, to have such a catchy, exuberant soundtrack.

Leftridge: I nearly spit up my Prairie Oyster when you claimed that Sweet Charity was the last great movie musical, although I share your enthusiasm for Fosse’s direction in Cabaret. It was only his second film, and it may well be the only truly great musical film of the ‘70s. Yes, much of that appeal is in its “backstage” musical format, which provides a logical explanation for why people are singing and dancing. So My Fair Lady this ain’t, either in tone or in style. You mention Fosse’s camera work during the musical sequences, although I didn’t notice much movement or trickery going on beyond beautifully timed cuts and some elegant framing of shots. The cinematography is downright economical compared to, say, the mauling quick-cutting of Rob Marshall’s Chicago, for instance. In Cabaret, it’s the lighting and the shot selection (and, of course, the productions themselves) on the Kit Kat Club stage that create such raw, immediate, dangerous, and thrillingly weird impressions.

I’m thinking of that blue backlighting that pours in through the orchestra in the opening “Willkommen” number or the sultry Dietrich-style burn of “Mein Herr”, with Liza in the black bowler and garters, or the bizarre sequence of the hefty mud-wrestlers getting sprayed by Joel Grey’s water bottle while the camera cuts to extreme close-ups of macabre laughter in the audience. I’m especially impressed with the way the musical numbers gracefully integrate the story’s themes and the setting’s conditions, whether it’s Liza belting out “Maybe This Time” (the movie’s showstopper, if you ask me) or Grey and Liza’s vaudeville choreography on “Money Money”. Again, it seems to me that Fosse holds back and allows some uninterrupted takes to capture an authentic view from the audience while providing just enough rhythmic editing to boost the action a bit. The juxtaposition between the lederhosen grab-ass routine and the bloody back-alley beating separates Cabaret from any musical I’ve ever seen.

Let me ask you about Liza as Sally Bowles. It’s probably her career-defining role, so what impression did you get from watching Liza work in Cabaret?

Pick: It may surprise you to know that prior to seeing this film, I’d only ever seen Liza Minnelli act on Arrested Development in the role of Lucille Austero. Nor was I overly familiar with her singing. I had seen still images from Cabaret, and I have a vague memory of seeing her sing on an Academy Awards ceremony back when the film was being feted, but I was as close to being virginal in this regard as a contemporary audience member can get in 2015. So, my impression is, wow! How did this slip by me?

As a singer and performer, she’s a natural, of course, taking the showbiz pizzazz of her mother and adding a ‘70s-era free sexuality to the mix. As an actor, she takes a character who seems flighty and surface-level and slowly reveals layers and depth. At first, she seems so carefree, so unconcerned about anything beyond having a good time, but by the end, we’ve realized how desperately she wants to love and be loved, and also how important is her desire to be a performer. That first scene when she comes in to seduce Michael York’s Brian, and he refuses her, is heartbreakingly delivered. She comes across playful and confident yet hides a world of pain in her realization that Brian must be gay (he’s not exactly, but we don’t know that yet), and that she wants to keep his friendship. I’ve rarely seen a performance of such a situation more perfectly and believably delivered.

Again and again, Minnelli draws us in with her brash persona and then nails us with the sad truth behind the facade. Her father doesn’t really love her and certainly doesn’t drop in to visit her whenever he has the chance. Her dreams of holding on to the sugar daddy Maximilian (Helmut Greim) while retaining Brian’s heart are shot down when she learns he’s been doing the same to her. Then there’s the pregnancy and ultimate decision to have an abortion. Oh, 1972, when abortion in film could be used as something to cry about yet be perfectly understandable.

I fear we are running out of time, and we have to discuss the brown-shirted, marauding elephants outside the room of Cabaret, the Nazis. Cabaret brilliantly juxtaposes the personal and the political. I’d like to get your take on the ways this is done, and what it means for the film’s ultimate themes.

Leftridge: First of all, I could talk about Liza all day—her performance in this film is fascinating—and I had no idea you were new to Liza. I would have recommended easing you in with Arthur or something; too much Liza all at once can curve your spine. But as the film’s final frame makes terrifyingly clear, those brown-shirted elephants you mention have marauded inside the room of Cabaret. This subject contains so many layers within the film: political, personal, metaphorical, sexual, and musical. The growing menace of Nazism pervades the film; there is a time when a club owner could feel free to frogmarch a uniformed Nazi member out of the bar, but we soon see what happens to that owner. Or to Brian when he kicks the Nazi flag. Or to Natalia’s dog for having the audacity to be owned by a Jewish girl. Perhaps the most chilling sequence of all is the only musical number outside the Kit Kat Club, that amazing beer garden scene, when the young boy with the perfect Aryan features and angelic voice belts out “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” with increasing fervor until the entire garden party stands and joins him in song. Eventually we get a wider shot of the boy to reveal his swastika armband and Sieg Heil salute. Most of the others are singing along as much out of fear as anything, all except one old man, who looks despondent knowing that his silent, seated protest is utterly futile.

So the film depicts a scenario in which it’s impossible to stem the rising tide, and the characters inside the club adopt a sort of nihilistic view of decadence and denial instead of facing the horrifying reality outside the club. “Leave your troubles outside. So life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful”, the MC tells the audience. By the end of the film, however, that ironic disconnect and the attempts to keep jollity alive are revealed to be little more than desperation as Sally sings, “Life is a Cabaret”, a song that captures the existential sadness just below the surface of the club’s continual pep talks. Sally’s personal life is in parallel to the film’s more overt political themes: she’s punished for her rejection of the mainstream, her gender boundary-pushing, and her sexual audaciousness. Sally’s rebelliousness keeps her in another type of denial: it prevents her from choosing marriage (albeit with a repressed homosexual) or motherhood or a life away from the stage. How about you? How do you think life is a cabaret (or like Cabaret), old chum?

Pick: First, I’m not so sure Brian is a repressed homosexual so much as a bisexual with stronger gay leanings. He really seems to connect with Sally physically and emotionally. Her realization that that connection wouldn’t be enough for him is a realization that he needs sex with men, too, not instead. But then again, I tend to see healthier sexuality on screen than is sometimes intended. As such, I think for Sally, she was denying her true self when she let herself think she could settle for a life as a homemaker and mother in small-town England. She would have been miserable even if Brian didn’t look for something else.

At any rate, we are now at a distance of 43 years from this film’s appearance in theaters. That’s longer than the time between its setting and its release, which was only 41 years. Since 1972, any attempt to deal with Nazism on screen has been way more blatantly foregrounded than this one, but I find the smaller doses of it to be way more chilling. Nazis didn’t take over Germany through a hugely obvious step toward evil. Instead, they did it slowly, winning hearts and minds one at a time, and revealing their inclinations as they went along. I thought the people singing along with “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” were not all joining in out of fear but out of determination and pride. They weren’t the first, nor certainly the last, to ask government to commit horrible acts in the name of making themselves feel better.

I’m so glad this film came up early in our project, as it has really opened me up to the experience of learning new things. I never knew Cabaret was such a powerful experience on so many levels. But I am left with one very important question that was raised but not answered about one third of the way in. Why don’t we pronounce the “g” in the word “phlegm?”

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