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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Brother, You Are Going Down: George Seaton's Showdown (1973)

A unfairly overlooked work from director George Seaton, Showdown (1973) is an elegiac and moving Western starring two of American film's greatest icons, Rock Hudson and Dean Martin. Opening and closing quite quickly in 1973, Showdown would turn out to be the last feature directed by the talented Seaton, an Academy Award winning filmmaker whose career stretched across four decades.

Billy Massey and Chuck Jarvis have been best friends for as long as they can remember. They played together as children and it seemed like nothing in the world could ever come between them. A splinter occurred when Chuck married Kate, a woman Billy had always been in love with. As they grew further and further apart with age, Chuck became a respected lawman while Billy turned to a life of robbing banks. After being apart for years, Billy and Chuck’s lives intersect again with tragic results.

George Seaton was born in South Bend, Indiana in the spring of 1911. His initial interest in film lay in acting but Seaton discovered fairly early on that his real talent was with the pen. After years of writing films for 20th Century Fox (including A Day at the Races and A Song for Bernadette) Seaton turned his attentions to filmmaking and he made his debut as a director with Diamond Horseshoe (1945). A talented, if undervalued director, Seaton is probably most famous for the original version of Miracle on 34th Street. Other credits include the searing Clifford Odets adaptation, The Country Girl, the charming Teacher’s Pet and the best picture winning Airport. A two time Oscar winner, Seaton would sadly die of cancer just a few years after finishing Showdown.

Showdown didn’t just mark the end of the road for George Seaton, as it would also feature one of the last major appearances by Dean Martin, who was said to be unhappy during the shoot due to the death of his favorite horse. As if that wasn’t enough, Showdown also also marked an end to the great Rock Hudson's prolific run of films that had started in the fifties and he would just work sporadically after 1973. Showdown stands a real symbolic end to a particular period in American filmmaking and at times it does feel like a nostalgic tip of the hat to the traditional Westerns that were all but dead by 1973. After all this was the period that saw directors like Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman totally transform the American Western and the fairly subdued Showdown must have seemed quite out of step to the few folks who saw it upon its initial release. Pity, as Seaton’s film is actually much closer in spirit to a film like Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid more than most would have recognized at the time.

With it lovely, and at times, haunting score by David Shire, Showdown is a very effective film throughout it's fairly short running time of 99 minutes. There is something positively epic in this little film about two friends who chose the most different of lives but never stopped caring for each other or forgot where they came from.

The acting is fine throughout with Martin and Hudson surrounded by many top tier character actors including Donald Moffat and Ed Begley, Jr. in a smaller role. Susan Clark does a good job as Chuck's wife Kate, but I always think of Tuesday Weld when I watch the film and can only imagine the multi-layered performance she would have given in the part. Hudson is at the top of his game here, middle aged and exhausted looking but still beautiful. He does a brilliant job at playing a man who has a job to do that he knows will ultimately ask him to make the hardest decision of his life. Martin is excellent as well and it is a performance that improves as the film goes along. At first it appears Dean will be giving one of his patented comic and winking performances but he does some really remarkable heavy dramatic work here as a man who knows what his destiny holds and that there isn't any escape from it.

Shot by prolific cinematographer, Ernest Laszlo, Showdown is gorgeous to look at and his photography is particularly good, although the video and TV versions in circulation ruin the film’s striking 2.35 visual design.

Showdown isn't perfect, I don't think that anyone working on it realized that they had what was close to being a really great film on their hands. It could do with being about thirty minutes longer as more characterization is needed, especially with Kate and Chuck. It feels edited a bit tight also, although the cutting by Diamonds are Forever editor John W. Holmes is mostly well done throughout. Showdown feels like a film that the studio expected to fail but that somewhere along the way Seaton and crew realized they might have a winner on their hands. I think had that thought been there at the beginning, Showdown would have turned out to be a small masterpiece. As it is a very good film with more great moments than anyone might expect.

Showdown does indeed reach greatness in its final few minutes where we see both men reaching their individual destinies. The ending of the film is particularly devastating and the look on Rock Hudson's face as the film closes is powerful, powerful stuff. Showdown shows off Rock Hudson as a master giving one of his last truly great performances.

Showdown would open and close quickly with very little critical or popular attention given to it. For most in the Summer of 1973, it was a product of a time that had slipped away. Ironically it was about two men who themselves were living in a world that had passed them by. Showdown would appear briefly on VHS in the mid nineties but has never been released on DVD. It is currently missing in action and is rarely mentioned in film circles, although it does pop up occasionally on Encore’s Western Channel.

Late in his life, Dean Martin was said to get great pleasure from watching old westerns on TV. I often think about the lovely man, sitting in his chair smoking, with perhaps a drink, and watching the flickering memories of his youth. I sometimes wonder if he ever happened to stumble across Showdown during one of those Western marathons he so enjoyed. Would he have flipped quickly by or would he have stopped, if only for a brief moment, and smiled at a film that is a lot better than anybody has ever given it credit for? There is no telling as we lost Dean, as well as Rock, years ago and I suppose in a way it is fitting, even if it is unjust, that Showdown has in its own way all but been lost to time also.

***This is a massively revised piece that I first posted several years ago here...the screenshots are new, as is much of my text. I just can't seem to shake this film...

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Art of the Movie Poster: Kieślowski's Camera Buff (1979)

Krzysztof Kieślowski would have turned seventy years old today...

The Iron Rose at Breakfast in the Ruins

Ben over at the always wonderful Breakfast in the Ruins has published an extremely personal and quite compelling look at my favorite Jean Rollin film, The Iron Rose, that everyone reading here should check out asap!

It's a marvelous piece with some really great screenshots added on for good measure.

Jean Rollin in the Eighties Poll Results

Thanks to those who voted in this newest poll centered on Jean Rollin's major works of the eighties. I am very pleased to see that Night of the Hunted came out on top in such a resounding manner but am a bit stunned that Zombie Lake beat out The Sidewalks of Bangkok! Here are the results with my own personal picks underneath:

1. Night of the Hunted 44 (80%)

2. Living Dead Girl 34 (61%)

3. Lost in New York 15 (27%)

4. Runaways 15 (27%)

5. Zombie Lake 10 (18%)

6. Sidewalks of Bangkok 7 (12%)

My own personal favorites:

1. Night of the Hunted

2. Lost in New York

3. Living Dead Girl

4. Sidewalks of Bangkok

5. The Runaways

6. Zombie Lake

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Vintage Frankfort Postcards

Bang On!: Drew Barrymore's Whip It (2009)

One of the most entertaining, inspiring and downright joyous American films of the past several years, Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009) is one of the great should have been blockbusters in recent memory and it’s a shame that more film goers haven’t embraced it. Armed with a clever and moving screenplay by Shauna Cross (who adapted it from her own book Derby Girl), a wonderful cast and sharp direction from Barrymore, Whip It is a stirring coming of age film that is equal parts funny, knowing and insightful.

Teenage outsider Bliss Cavendar can’t seem to find any sort of direction in her hometown of Bodeen, Texas and she spends most of days with her best-friend Pash at a local restaurant where they both work. Bliss, who is burdened with a caring but over-ambitious mother and a gentle but too laid-back father, begins to discover herself when she joins an Austin Roller-Derby team called the Hurl Scouts. Re-christened Babe Ruthless by her teammates, and new friends, Bliss becomes a star of the team and begins to figure out just who she really is, even if that means going against her mother’s wishes of her attending an ivy-league school and becoming the ‘proper’ woman she never was.

Cross had adapted her novel Derby Girl as a screenplay back in 2007 but had trouble getting it picked up by any studios, even though it came across the desk of several. The script found a home in 2008 when Drew Barrymore fell in love with the material and optioned it with Mandate Pictures and her own company Flower Films. One of the most beloved actors of the past few decades, Barrymore had been long been interested in stepping behind the camera for a change and, with Derby Girl, she finally found the perfect material for her first directorial gig.

Drew Barrymore was extremely hands on during the post-production for Derby Girl, now entitled Whip It, and was pivotal in selecting both the film’s cast and soundtrack (she would eventually call the selection of songs her own mix-tape for her fans) and it was clear from the get-go that she had more than enough dedication and passion to make up for her inexperience behind the camera. Nervous Mandate executives had no need to worry about Barrymore as a director though as she excelled working with her actors and crew and proved to be an economical and efficient first-time filmmaker. Also, even though she was working from someone else's material, Barrymore managed to connect Whip It to her own life and background, a move that makes the film feel intensely personal...which it no doubt is to Barrymore.

Whip It is serviced greatly by a superlative cast made up of solid character actors and newcomers, many of whom heard about the film via personal phone calls from Barrymore inviting them to come aboard. Seasoned actors such as Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern and Juliette Lewis jumped at the chance to work on Barrymore’s first film as a director and several of Drew’s friends such as Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon (who had proven so memorable with Drew in the fantastic Fever Pitch from a few years before) and stunt woman extraordinaire Zoe Bell were also brought on board for able support. Barrymore, who cast herself as the delightfully named Smashley Simpson, also snagged two of the most promising newcomers around, Alia Shawkat (who had proven so wonderful on Arrested Development) and Nashville born singer Landon Pigg for her Whip It, but the film’s success would ultimately rest on the shoulders of the 21 year old Ellen Page as Bliss, who is wonderfully moving and poetic throughout the film.

Ellen Page had been acting since the late nineties but she didn’t really begin getting deserved attention until her startling turn in 2005’s Hard Candy, a shocking film that showed Page as a powerhouse talent in the making. That promise was solidified with Page’s remarkable turn in Juno, for which she received a well-deserved Oscar nomination as Best Actress in 2007 (an award which I think she should have won). Whip It should have solidified Ellen Page as one of the premiere actors of her generation but an unfortunate Juno backlash had already set in by the time Barrymore’s film failed to captivate audiences upon its release, leaving Page’s wonderful performance nearly completely overlooked. No matter though as Whip It has future cult-classic written all over it and Ellen Page’s work driving it will eventually be recognized.

While Whip It is very much an actor’s film, Barrymore’s direction guides the work with a confident, and refreshingly unshowy, hand throughout. Unlike so many actors turned directors Drew never makes the mistake of trying to upstage the material and, with Whip It, she shows herself as a smart and subtle filmmaker with a real confidence in Cross’ script and her fabulous cast. Her direction is both stylish and relaxed and when she does take visual chances (such as the breathtaking underwater sequence between Page and Pigg) she does so with a real intelligence and vivacity.

To help on her first feature, Barrymore wisely chose one of her favorite cinematographers along and (frequent Wes Anderson collaborator) Robert Yeoman proved to be an ideal choice as Whip It is wonderfully vibrant looking and colorful. As if Yeoman’s credentials weren’t enough, frequent Paul Thomas Anderson editor Dylan Tichenor was also on Barrymore's team and his cutting skills help Whip It breeze along at a wonderfully balanced pace that is especially gripping during the exciting Roller Derby sequences.

I have seen Whip It several times since its limited release in the fall of 2009 and I can’t for the life of me understand why it wasn’t a huge hit. While the film did receive mostly positive reviews, audiences mostly just stayed away and the relatively extra-free DVD and Blu-ray release hasn’t captured enough folks attention either. Whip It is one of those get behind it films and I harbor the hope it will eventually get the attention it deserves, as it is a very special work with a lot of heart, passion and style.

While Whip It was not the hit it deserved to be Drew Barrymore has thankfully not given up on directing and she is currently rumored to be planning her follow-up feature How to be Single. I highly recommend Whip It to anyone who perhaps hasn’t given it a look yet. It’s a lovely little film filled with the kind of charm and soul that has been distinctly apparent in Drew Barrymore’s career for the past thirty years. It’s the kind of film I always imagined that little girl I felt like I grew up with would make and it’s one of my favorite American films in recent memory.

Moon in the Gutter (Month By Month)

BLOG CREATED, EDITED and WRITTEN BY JEREMY RICHEY: Began in DEC 2006. The written content of all posts (excepting quotes from reviews, books, other publications) COPYRIGHT JEREMY RICHEY.