Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Film Farewell to Two Old Pros



"The Lord's bounty may not be for sale, but the Devil's is — if you can pay the price."

Gil (Randolph Scott)

Mariette Hartley is mostly known for her work on television programs — except for a time in the late '70s and early '80s when she was so convincing in her Polaroid commercial work with James Garner that many people apparently believed they really were married.

Consequently it is easy to overlook her movie career, but the fact is she did have a movie career, and it started with Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country," which premiered on this day in 1962.

The stars of the show were Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two old pros nearing the ends of their careers. It was to be Scott's final film appearance. McCrea would make a few more, but it would be his last significant role.

McCrea played an aging lawman who was hired to escort a shipment of gold through dangerous territory. In hindsight, he kind of resembled Gus and Woodrow in 1989's Lonesome Dove — he had been tough and respected in his prime, but he was way past his prime, and this represented his last opportunity to have an adventure. But he knew he couldn't do it alone. To help him with his task McCrea hired an old friend (played by Scott) who made a living as a sharpshooter named The Oregon Kid.

Scott had more on his mind than making a few dollars a day to guard someone else's money. He was bringing along a young protege and they intended to persuade McCrea to steal the gold rather than protect it. Well, they planned to steal the gold, anyway, whether McCrea went along with them or not. It would be a lot easier on everybody if he went along — but his cooperation was neither expected nor necessary.

On the way, with this as a backdrop, the men spent a night on a religious fanatic's farm where they encountered Hartley, who played his daughter. She wanted to escape her father and planned to elope with her boyfriend.

To that end, she insisted on joining up with McCrea and Scott the next day, leading to several complications and setting up an eventual reconciliation between McCrea and Scott, who had grown apart in some ways over the years, as even the best of friends can do.

As was so frequently the case, Peckinpah's film dealt largely with the human conflict between values and ideals. It wasn't as violent as his later efforts, most notably "The Wild Bunch," but it was more cerebral; thus it can be recommended to movie fans who do not ordinarily like to watch westerns. It didn't feature as much violence as "The Wild Bunch," but that doesn't mean violence was missing entirely. It simply means it wasn't as brutal as it came to be in later Peckinpah movies.

Violence was always an element — at least — of a Peckinpah movie. But "Ride the High Country" was about more than that. It was about right and wrong; even the naive character Hartley played could see that, but she could also see that it was more complicated than that implies.

"It isn't that simple, is it?" she asked McCrea at one point.

"No, it isn't" McCrea, the virtuous man in this western morality play, answered. "It ought to be, but it isn't."

Right vs. wrong was just one of many themes that were explored in "Ride the High Country." Others were: age vs. youth, chastity vs. debauchery, strictness vs. wickedness. It didn't stop there. "Ride the High Country" was loaded with conflicts.

I know people who only like westerns if they have a lot of shooting, and such people won't be disappointed with "Ride the High Country." But I have always felt that one of the main attractions of a western is the sweeping panoramic views of western landscapes. Much of the modern West is still frontier, even with modern highways running through it; still there are more and bigger cities in the western half of the U.S. than there were a century ago.

In another century it may be as congested as the eastern half of the country — which is why I am all in favor of preserving images of it while we still can.

"Ride the High Country" had some gorgeous cinematography (even though much of it was filmed in the Los Angeles area), but it received no Oscar nominations, not even for its cinematography.

In hindsight that seems odd, given how its following has grown over the years. In fact, many people will say "Ride the High Country" was Peckinpah's finest movie.

If you have seen "The Wild Bunch," you know that is high praise indeed.

And if that is true, much of the credit goes to Scott and McCrea. Not only did they give riveting performances. They were originally cast in opposite parts — and, quite quickly, came to the conclusion individually that they should swap roles — which they did, and it made all the difference.

A coin flip at the Brown Derby determined whether Scott or McCrea would get top billing in the credits. Scott won, but it could just as easily have been McCrea; their contributions to the movie's success were equal.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Kubrick Crazy



"These are great days we're living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we're gonna miss having anyone around that's worth shooting."

Crazy Earl (Kieron Jecchinis)

I've seen enough Stanley Kubrick movies that I am pretty sure I could identify one even if I stumbled onto one I had never seen before while I was channel surfing.

Some directors are like that. They use certain styles — for example, certain types of lighting or camera angles — in all their films.

If you've seen some of Kubrick's movies, you're bound to recognize things like shots that show as much of a room as possible, giving the shot unusual depth.

Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," which was first shown on this day in Beverly Hills in 1987, was like that. I first saw it on the big screen and knew who directed it long before I went to see it. But if my first exposure to it had been a few years later when it was showing on TV and I stumbled onto it when it was already half over, I'm sure I could still figure out rather quickly who had directed it.

I always thought one of the most telling signs that it was a Kubrick movie was the performance of Vincent D'Onofrio who played an overweight Marine recruit.

The character's weight was an important part of the story. The character was originally written as a "skinny ignorant redneck" but was rewritten as fat and clumsy instead. This required D'Onofrio to put on 70 pounds — the greatest weight gain for a movie role ever (eclipsing Robert De Niro's record of 60 pounds for "Raging Bull"). Physical transformations are big in Kubrick movies.

More telling than that, though, are facial expressions. And D'Onofrio, a weak–minded overweight recruit who was ridiculed mercilessly by his sergeant (R. Lee Ermey, a Marine–turned–actor whose name became a household word with this movie), finally snapped.

When the audience caught up with him in the barracks lavatory late one night, the expression on his face was one Kubrick's audiences had seen before — most notably on the faces of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" and Malcom McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange."

But I've got to tell you. I thought D'Onofrio did Kubrick crazy best. Even better than Nicholson.

D'Onofrio shot his sergeant, then shot himself so he wasn't a factor in what happened in the rest of the movie.

But there was plenty of Kubrick crazy in the second half of the movie.

The rest of the movie was about one of D'Onofrio's fellow recruits (Matthew Modine) and his participation in some of the atrocities of the Vietnam War at the time of the Tet offensive that essentially doomed the American war effort.

From what I have heard, just about everyone who served in 'Nam was at least a little Kubrick crazy — some more than others. And the experiences of the platoon with which Modine found himself in the city of Huế during the Tet offensive certainly seemed to bear that out.

In case you aren't up on your Vietnam War history, Huế was the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the conflict. Fighting there lasted nearly a month. Thousands were killed or wounded on both sides.

It is always striking to me how violent the movie is — but, of course, you can't really make a movie about war that isn't violent, can you? And while it is tempting to criticize Kubrick for making an excessively violent movie, the nonfiction account of that war is filled with even worse.

It also occurs to me when I watch this movie that it must take a special mentality to fight a war. I suppose it has always been that way, even when the weapons in use were not as sophisticated as they are today (although the automatic weapons of today are certainly more efficient than the weapons that were used in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War). So many people are shot (graphically) in full view of the audience and the other characters in the movie.

I tend to put myself in the position of those other characters. Would I be able to carry on with an offensive after watching one of my best friends get killed in front of me? I feel like I would at least need some time to grieve before channeling my energies in another direction — so maybe it is a good thing that I was never called upon to fight in a war.

But in "Full Metal Jacket" — and probably in reality — there was no time to grieve, not even for Modine when a buddy from his boot camp days (Arliss Howard) was shot by a sniper and died in Modine's arms.

They found the sniper — turned out to be a young girl, probably in her teens. One of the guys in the platoon shot her and as she lay dying she begged for someone to end her life and her misery, repeatedly saying just two words — "Shoot me." Modine finally performed the mercy killing.

"Full Metal Jacket" was nominated for one Oscar — Best Adapted Screenplay — but lost to the big winner on Oscar night that year, "The Last Emperor."

More Than Meets the Eye



In the early 1970s, there was probably no more popular work of fiction than "Jaws."

Nearly everybody read it, and then it was made into what was probably the first true summer blockbuster.

Author Peter Benchley's next novel, "The Deep," was also successful, and the movie it inspired, which premiered on this day in 1977, was one of the top moneymakers in the United States — a considerable feat when you think of the movies that premiered in 1977, movies like "Star Wars," "Smokey and the Bandit," "Close Encounters," "Annie Hall" and "Saturday Night Fever" to name a few.

But neither the book nor the movie did nearly as well as "Jaws."

In its own way, though, I thought the story was just as suspenseful — although it got overshadowed by off–screen controversy about something minor that was on the screen. Jacqueline Bisset played one–half of a vacationing couple (Nick Nolte was the other half) who discovered sunken treasure while diving on the reefs of Bermuda. In the diving sequences, Bisset could be seen in a rather revealing T–shirt.

It is still an iconic image. Ask someone who is over a certain age what comes to mind when Bisset's name is mentioned, and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that the answer will be her wet T–shirt in "The Deep."

Given that Bisset has been in several dozen movies, that doesn't seem fair, and it almost certainly would not raise any eyebrows today, but remember this was 40 years ago.

It is also important to remember that "The Deep" was made when Bisset was 32 and still getting movie roles primarily because of her youthful beauty. Still beautiful but no longer young, she has continued to make movies into her 70s, proving that looks may change but talent never does.

There can be no denying the boost those shots gave the movie at the box office. Even its producer believed they made him a wealthy man, but the story was enough to keep audiences on the edges of their seats.

The divers found all kinds of treasure — the old–fashioned kind (jewelry and the like) and the new kind (ampules of morphine from a ship that sank during World War II).

And therein lay the plot of the movie. In the grand tradition of shallow summer escapism, the movie had nothing remarkable to say. It was just a good movie to watch on a summer afternoon or evening.

In 1977 that sort of thing was believed to be behind us. It was practically an article of faith that escapism movies would dwindle in the years ahead and deeper and more complex topics were the new order. But the summer of 1977 was loaded with escapism.

So much for that theory.

What made "The Deep" work for audiences, I suppose, was the fact that it was plausible escapism.

"Jaws" wasn't really plausible. It was inspired, as I understand it, by a real event — but the very rarity of that event (a great white shark in the North Atlantic) is what makes it implausible. Like most horror stories, believable implausibility made "Jaws" work.

The story of Nolte and Bisset was the kind of thing that, seemingly, could happen to anyone.

Benchley, of course, is not remembered for "The Deep." He is remembered for writing "Jaws" and the series of movies it inspired.

Ironically, I guess, two members of the cast of "The Deep" appeared in the "Jaws" movies — Robert Shaw played the shark hunter in the original, then played a treasure hunter in "The Deep" and Louis Gossett Jr. was a drug kingpin in "The Deep," and then played a SeaWorld park owner in one of the "Jaws" sequels.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Impossible Mission



"I reckon the folks'd be a sight happier if I died like a soldier. Can't say I would."

Samson Posey (Clint Walker)

I've been fortunate. I've never had to fight in a war.

When I was a kid, I guess I expected to be in a war. The war in Vietnam had been raging as far back as I could remember, and as I got older, I guess I assumed that my time to go would come in due course. I never really thought twice about it. But the war ended well before I turned 18.

If I had been in a war, though, I would probably assume that, if command wanted to attempt a truly extreme mission, they would want really extreme people to carry it out — you know, murderers, rapists and the like.

"The Dirty Dozen," which premiered 50 years ago today, was about such a mission — and such a unit.

In advance of the D–Day invasion, a select unit of the Army's worst was assembled for a special mission — to assault a chateau that was hosting a meeting of high–ranking German officers. By eliminating these officers, the Nazis' ability to react to the invasion of Normandy would be severely thwarted.

It was a hazardous mission, but these men were regarded as expendable. At best they had been convicted of crimes for which they had been given sentences of at least 20 years. Nearly half had been given death sentences.

If they succeeded in their objective, those who survived would be pardoned and returned to active duty, but few were expected to survive, successful or not. Their commander (Lee Marvin) repeatedly reminded them during their training that most of them would not be returning.

And that was OK, too.

After all, if they died in this mission, they would die a soldier's death. On the other hand, if their death sentences were carried out, they would die by hanging — definitely not a soldier's death. Hanging is typically regarded as a criminal's death.

And in the meantime they would have to be fed, clothed and sheltered for who knew how long.

Of course, one would be just as dead either way. It was the method of death that would pass the final judgment on the life. Everything else was incidental.

At the time of its release some people criticized the violence in "The Dirty Dozen," and a pretty good case could be made that it was excessively violent, needlessly so, particularly at the end. But isn't that the nature of war? Isn't war — all war whatever one may think of the rationale for it — excessively violent, needlessly so?

When you get right down to it, war is messy, and the people who fight in wars don't always play by the generally accepted rules.

"The Dirty Dozen" had an all–star cast, but some of the performers were more memorable than others — like Donald Sutherland and Jim Brown and Telly Savalas — and Ernest Borgnine, who played the officer who appointed Marvin and Bronson and provided them with the list of convicts they would train.

You know, the violence probably was a little over the line, but, as I say, war is messy, and the mission wasn't carried out by a Sunday school class.

A seemingly impossible mission calls for incorrigible people to carry it out.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Influence of a Great Teacher



"I don't know how to answer you except to say that I teach you truths. My truths. Yeah, and it is kinda scary, dealing with the truth. Scary and dangerous."

Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier)

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a truly great teacher.

"To Sir With Love," which premiered on this day in 1967, was the story of a truly great teacher — who, in the mold of many truly great teachers, did not start out to become a teacher at all. Sidney Poitier played the teacher who was sidetracked — temporarily — from his goal of becoming an engineer. He had applied for an engineering position but had heard nothing; acting on the conviction that one must have a job, he applied for work as a teacher in the slums of East London — and got the job.

And he encountered a classroom of the most sullen, rebellious students imaginable.

It took awhile, but they finally warmed up to each other — enough that Poitier's character rightly concluded that the education his students required couldn't be found in books. They needed discipline and survival skills they weren't learning at home.

So he implemented a new method for education in his classroom. He and the students would treat each other as adults with the proper respect.

He realized that his students also needed self–respect when he came to school one day and found that a used sanitary napkin had been burned in the fireplace. That was when he did something he had pledged not to do. He lost his temper.

"I am sick of your foul language, your crude behavior and your sluttish manner," he told the girls in his class. "There are certain things a decent woman keeps private, and only a filthy slut would have done this and those who stood by and encouraged her are just as bad. I don't care who's responsible — you're all to blame. Now, I am going to leave this room for five minutes by which time that disgusting object had better be removed and the windows opened to clear away the stench. If you must play these filthy games, do them in your homes, and not in my classroom!"

That was the inspiration for his new system. It was successful at first as Poitier shared his wisdom about, as he put it, "life, survival, love, death, sex, marriage, rebellion."

If you have never seen the movie, there are several noteworthy quotes from this section that you might want to post in your office or wherever they can be most inspirational to you. One of my favorites is this one: "I believe one should fight for what one believes. Provided one is absolutely sure one is absolutely right."

But Poitier lost the support of many of his students over his handling of a confrontation between a student and a gym teacher.

In retaliation, they did not invite him to the class dance — nor would they accept his contribution toward the purchase of a wreath for the funeral of the mother of one of the students.

As the school year drew to a close, Poitier's character received an engineering job offer. He had applied for the job before taking the teaching position so he had been waiting for nearly a year.

And he won back his students' admiration when he beat the class ringleader in a boxing match, then recommended that the student teach the younger pupils how to box when school resumed. He was invited to the dance, where the students presented him with a gift. Poitier got choked up and left the room without telling the students that he was planning to take the engineering job he had craved all year.

While he was away from the group, he realized that he had unfinished work as a teacher and tore up the job offer letter.

It was a good movie and, coming from a family of educators, I like movies that tell about influential teachers. They get little enough credit for all the things they do.

But every time I watch "To Sir With Love," it seems strange to me that, given the time when the movie was made, race was virtually a nonissue in it. Perhaps things were different in England in 1967, but America was seeing race riots from coast to coast. It got worse less than a year later when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

Racial conflict was really percolating in America in the '60s, but, as I say, maybe it was different in England.

There have been many movies about influential teachers, but few, if any, others have had their theme songs reach No. 1 on the pop charts. Scottish singer Lulu made her movie debut as one of Poitier's students and reached the top of the charts with "To Sir, With Love" in the fall of 1967.

Additional music for the movie was provided by The Mindbenders, a popular British group of the time. Ironically, considering the fact that the Beatles had released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" about two weeks earlier, an album that contained the song "Getting Better" with the refrain "It's getting better all the time," a Mindbenders' song from "To Sir With Love" told audiences that things were getting harder.

I doubt that there was any collaboration between the two. If there had been, I'm sure we would have heard something about it in the last half century. I'm sure it was a coincidence that two songs that were so similar and yet so contradictory were unveiled at nearly the same time.

The movie was directed by James Clavell, whose real claim to fame was as a novelist, but he had a flair for directing, too. He just didn't do it too often.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A One-Two Punch



Recent days have felt like a one–two punch to me — I guess boxing aficionados would call it a combination.

I heard yesterday that Adam West, the star of the 1960s Batman TV series, had died at the age of 88, unleashing memories of my childhood.

About 24 hours earlier, Glenne Headly, an actress whose work I have greatly respected as an adult, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 62.

They were both body blows for me — I guess the greater was the one from West's death although, given his age, I should have expected it. I didn't know he had been suffering from leukemia, which is not the death sentence it was when I watched West in my childhood, but when one is nearly 90, any disease has the potential to be fatal.

Batman's run ended in 1968 so I probably watched it in syndication. So did my best friends in those days. When we played together — and that was darn near every day — our games were almost always variations on Batman episodes we had seen recently. We made capes out of bath towels and played games in which we were the caped crusaders on a mission to save not only Gotham City but the whole world from some dark menace.

Sometimes we created villains to suit the circumstances of our games. Most of the time, though, we simply used characters we had seen on TV, like the Riddler, the Joker and the Penguin. (I never liked playing one of the villains much, but I did rather enjoy playing the Penguin with his distinctive quacking sound.)

Batman is a cherished memory from my childhood. There have been many Batmen in the movies, but West will always be Batman to me. West even played Batman in a movie once, but if you want to watch it you really have to look for it.

You don't have to look too far to find Headly's movies although most of her recent work has been on television.

I don't remember the first time I saw her in anything, but she definitely made an impression on me in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." When I heard of her death, I also thought of "Mr. Holland's Opus," in which, as usual, she wasn't the star, but she left her mark.

I did not think of "Dick Tracy," but apparently many people did. I liked the movie. It just didn't come to my mind.

I did think of her television work, mostly Lonesome Dove in which she played an Arkansas sheriff's wife who was still attached to a bad–boy lover.

To my great regret, I didn't mention Headly's work when I observed the 25th anniversary of Lonesome Dove a few years ago. But, as always, she could be a scene stealer, no matter what she did. And, while her screen time in Lonesome Dove was probably brief, it was memorable.

The same could be said of her work several years later in the made–for–TV movie "And the Band Played On" in which she played one of the researchers in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. As usual, she was surrounded by many talented people; also as usual, she left an impression.

They both did.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Bigfoot in the House



"Nancy, I'm not a doctor, but it's got no pulse, it's not breathing, and it's cold as a Popsicle. Believe me, honey, whatever he is, he's definitely dead!"

George (John Lithgow)

As I have mentioned here before, I usually like to look for the lesson or moral of a movie or TV show I write about.

But sometimes you don't want to watch something with a lesson or a moral. Sometimes you just want to escape. Know what I mean?

And if anyone in the movie industry knows about escapism, it's Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg didn't direct "Harry and the Hendersons," which made its debut on this date in 1987, but the production company he founded — Amblin Entertainment — produced it. And, unless you happen to believe in Bigfoot, it was pure escapism — reminiscent of "E.T." in many ways.

(In fact, I know people who think "Harry and the Hendersons" was better than "E.T." Personally, I don't, but that's just me.)

Actually, there was a lesson or two — kinda — at the end, but I'll get back to that.

When the movie began, the Henderson family (John Lithgow, Melinda Dillon and their children, played by Margaret Langrick and Joshua Rudoy) had been on a hunting/camping trip in the Pacific Northwest and were on their way to their home in Seattle when their car struck a large figure whose details were obscured by glare.

At first it appeared to be a bear but, upon closer inspection, the Hendersons concluded it must be Bigfoot. They also concluded it was dead and decided to bring it back with them, figuring it would be worth a lot of money to them.

But the creature (played by 7–foot actor Kevin Peter Hall) was not dead and, after learning rather belatedly that the world at large was not ready to accept the notion of Bigfoot's existence, they decided to make him a member of the family.

That was quite a challenge by itself. "Harry" (in the movie, it was suggested that his name originated from his appearance — but, in fact, it was an homage to Harry Nilsson. Bill Martin, who wrote the screenplay for the movie, also wrote some songs for Nilsson's "Harry" album) was not exactly domesticated and caused considerable damage to the house and the car.

And he was shocked to see Lithgow's hunting trophies on the wall. After all, some of them could have been Harry's friends.

But he was a gentle giant. His destructive behavior wasn't deliberate. It was mostly a matter of not knowing how his bulk and strength could affect his new environment — but you sure didn't want to make him mad.

He was remarkably intelligent. After only a short time with the Hendersons, he seemed to understand what they said to him. He even managed to speak one word of English before the end of the movie. Even in a situation in which observers really had to suspend their disbelief, that was tough to swallow.

It is safe to say that everyone had adjustments to make.

And while they were making those adjustments, there were other characters from outside the family circle who became involved in the story — notably a Bigfoot researcher (Don Ameche) and a Bigfoot–obsessed hunter (David Suchet).

Their contributions to the plausibility of the story were significant, and I'll leave it to you to discover how — if you're so inclined.

But as for the lessons of the story, which I mentioned briefly earlier ...

"Harry and the Hendersons" essentially told viewers not to judge a book by its cover. In this story some humans could — and did — behave in more beastly manners than the beast. Harry's compassion was genuine, but you had to look past his intimidating exterior to see it.

For those with more saintly dispositions, there was a lesson in the story that went like this: Forgiveness is a powerful thing. Do it whenever you can.

And another theme that was a little ahead of its time — but would be embraced by many today — is the suggestion that we should play an active role in protecting our environment.

It was more entertaining than I expected, and it was definitely a family friendly movie in the sense that objectionable language was kept to a minimum.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

'Mrs. Miniver' Is Dated But Still Relevant



"I know how comfortable it is to curl up with a nice, fat book full of big words and think you're going to solve all the problems in the universe. But you're not, you know. A bit of action is required every now and then."

Carol (Teresa Wright)

William Wyler's "Mrs. Miniver," which arrived in theaters on this day 75 years ago, occupies an elevated position in the history of World War II movies.

And it contains what was long the most intense battle scene I personally had ever seen in motion pictures (until "Saving Private Ryan" and its graphic depiction of D–Day). But its intensity was on a psychological more than visual level — which may still make it the most intense of its kind.

There may be no more powerful battle scene — and excruciating in its length and growing sense of claustrophobia — than the one in which the Minivers (Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson) and their children huddled in a crude bomb shelter waiting out a German air raid. In the grand British tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip, they tried to pass the time with conversation about mundane topics — like knitting — while the tension from the hellish cacophony of bombs and bullets from outside built to an unbearable level.

It was all the more powerful as an illustration of how war can touch anyone; it has no regard for age, race, gender or social status. The Minivers lived in the comfortable world of the upper class, a world where Mrs. Miniver could calmly go about her daily routine while her husband participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk, but they were brought to their knees by World War II the same as their cook and maid.

As the vicar observed in a pivotal sermon near the end of the movie, "There's scarcely a household that hasn't been struck to the heart.

"And why?"
he went on to ask. "Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?"

Aren't these the questions many ask today when people are dying in airports, at concerts and in restaurants and nightclubs rather than battlefields?

The movie hasn't aged particularly well, but the message is still a good one: War truly is hell and is not made less so by the knowledge that it was started by someone else. If there were plans to remake "Mrs. Miniver" today, the characters probably could use some work — Garson's character particularly seemed a bit naive, especially when she confronted the downed German paratrooper in her kitchen, but perhaps that illustrated how off guard many people were caught by the Nazi threat and the reality of war.

Her daughter–in–law in the movie, played by Teresa Wright, seemed far more grounded in reality than Garson's character (who, for example, refused to permit Nazi bombing raids to ruin her roses — later in a climactic bombing raid that set up the vicar's sermon, a rose that had been nominated in a local flower show competition was named for Mrs. Miniver).

Garson did her part for the war effort propaganda that "Mrs. Miniver" really was. Her character was brave and noble — and in real life she did her part for the war effort at home, too, but Winston Churchill said "Mrs. Miniver" did more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers.

"Mrs. Miniver" received a dozen Oscar nominations and won half of them. The movie won Best Picture. Wyler won Best Director. Garson won Best Actress (and delivered a record–long acceptance speech). Wright won Best Supporting Actress (beating co–star Dame May Whitty). The movie also won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Black–and–White Cinematography.

Pidgeon was nominated for Best Actor but lost to James Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Richard Ney, who played Garson's son in the movie, became her husband the following year. The union lasted until 1947.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Turning the Page



"Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

Horace Mann

My parents were both teachers. My mother taught first grade, and my father (who is still living) taught on the college level. Early in their marriage they were missionaries in Africa.

Neither of them ever spoke to me of whether they felt they had left their marks on their students — although I am sure that they, like all other teachers, must have wondered about that from time to time. I can understand that because I, too, have been a teacher, and I must confess that there have been times when I have wondered if I have influenced my students.

Well, I know I influenced some of my students but not all — and most teachers probably aren't satisfied with a batting average that low.

But there are so many variables in education. Sometimes it seems to me that teachers have to be happy with what they can get. It's a lesson most of us learned in Little League. You'd like to bat 1.000, but you can't. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to make contact with the ball. Maybe our problem was we learned that lesson in the context of the baseball diamond, not the classroom.

In the episode of Twilight Zone that premiered on this night in 1962, "The Changing of the Guard," an aging literature professor at a boys school (Donald Pleasence) pondered that very question after being informed that he had been terminated — although he was told to regard it as retirement, not termination, since he was well past the traditional retirement age.

Later that evening, after contemplating his years in the classroom and the countless boys who had paraded through it, the professor concluded that he had wasted his life, that he had left no mark on the young men he had tried to teach.

Despondent, he went out into the cold of Christmas Eve night with the intention of killing himself near a statue of educator Horace Mann in the campus courtyard. But just as he was about to pull the trigger, he was interrupted by the ringing of a phantom bell and he was inextricably drawn into his classroom — where he encountered the ghosts of some of his students.

One by one they told him how he had influenced them. Some had shown great heroism or courage when they died. Others had sacrificed themselves in pursuit of knowledge that could benefit future generations.

And the professor was persuaded that, while he may not have won one of Horace Mann's victories for humanity, he had helped others to do so and could, therefore, claim to share those victories.

It was kind of an interesting twist on the theme of "It's a Wonderful Life." The protagonist comes to realize the influence he has had on the lives of others. In that movie, of course, George Bailey discovered how different life would have been if he had not been there. In the episode of Twilight Zone that aired 55 years ago tonight, the professor discovered the difference his presence had made. It didn't imply a world in which he hadn't existed at all.

Nor did it suggest that the course of history would have been changed if he had not been there, only that he made his contribution. I guess that is the one thing we all crave — the reassurance that the efforts of our lives have not been in vain.

The title of the episode is a reminder to me of all the changes in life. Sometimes we're prepared for them, sometimes we are not.

A change is happening in my own life this weekend that makes this anniversary particularly poignant for me. I think I am prepared for it, but I guess I won't know until it happens. My father, a retired professor, is moving into a senior living facility, and I will be helping him with his move. I remember, as a teenager, helping him move my grandmother (his mother who was also a teacher when she was a young woman) into such a facility. It turned out to be the last stop for her, but she functioned independently for another year or so, driving her car and spending time with her friends, until her health would no longer permit it.

I expect this will be the last stop for my father, too, but there really is no reason he cannot continue to function as he has for awhile yet. He is in good health. He still drives. He enjoys the company of friends — and, even though he has made new friends in the place where he is moving, he continues to see the friends who have been part of his life as long as I can remember — and I am sure he will continue to see them, to have dinner with them, to attend the symphony with them.

At some point that will end. Everything does. And when it does, it will simply be another changing of the guard.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

'O.K. Corral' Was Entertaining If Not Entirely Accurate



"All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime, a woman or a friend."

Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster)

I love to watch movies that are based on famous people or events from history — like John Sturges' "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," which made its debut on this day in 1957.

But I seldom recommend such movies to people as reliable sources for, say, facts a student could use in a term paper.

For that kind of purpose, you're usually better off referring to books on the subject, and that is certainly the case here.

Not that the real gunfight at the O.K. Corral was lacking in drama, but, as is so often the case, the facts apparently weren't dramatic enough, which led to several historical inaccuracies.

None of those inaccuracies alone could change the outcome of the gunfight — but the cumulative effect was enough make you wonder who survived and, for that matter, who won the shootout.

Most of that would be speculation, but you would be right to wonder who was actually there. Johnny Ringo, a well–known outlaw played by John Ireland in the movie, wasn't there at all and shouldn't have been a character in the movie. Nevertheless he was.

Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) apparently was in Tombstone that day, but the movie suggested that he came there with Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster). That wasn't true. He showed up much later.

And, while the movie indicated that Earp saved Holliday's life, it was actually the other way around.

Jo Van Fleet and Rhonda Fleming played the female roles in the largely male ensemble. Van Fleet played Holliday's girl, and Fleming played Earp's love interest. As I understand it Van Fleet's character was, in real life, a prostitute and Holliday's common–law wife. I haven't been able to find out anything about Fleming's character, but I do know that Earp came to Tombstone with a common–law wife of his own. He had three during his lifetime and none had the name of Fleming's character in the movie.

These inaccuracies didn't prevent the movie from being a big box–office hit.

It was entertaining, and I suppose folks were willing to overlook some things.

Like the fact that the actual gunfight lasted just 30 seconds, three men were killed in mostly face–to–face encounters and only a few firearms were involved. In the movie the gunfight lasted five minutes, and there were considerably more fatalities shot from medium range with a large arsenal.

But, hey, if you're gonna have a movie with the word gunfight in the title, you've got to have a lot of guns and a lot of gunshots, right?

"Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" was nominated for two Oscars and lost both — Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing.

By the way: Dennis Hopper, who was appearing in only his fourth movie, was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, which is where Wyatt Earp was sheriff a few years before the gunfight occurred.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Goodbye to Gregg Allman



I am powerless to resist.

Ever since I heard yesterday of the death of Gregg Allman, I have been listening to my CDs of his music — at home, in my car, wherever I am, whatever I'm doing.

Thoughts of Gregg Allman bring back many fond memories for me. The Allman Brothers Band may have been my favorite band when I was in my teens, and I still enjoy listening to those recordings today.

There is some music I listened to in my teens that makes me cringe when I hear it today. "What was I thinking?" I want to ask myself even though the answer is obvious. I was a teenager, and you know how teenagers are.

But the Allman Brothers music never affects me that way.

It is drizzly and overcast this morning in Dallas, Texas, and I have been listening to the Allmans and remembering those days in my life. It has always seemed to me that Southern blues/rock music was made for a day like today, which makes it an appropriate time to mourn Allman's passing.

The Allman Brothers were responsible for bringing that genre to us. There have been many Southern rock bands over the years, but Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band were the pioneers. They made sure we got the music, then passed the baton to others. Some handled it well; others did not.

But none ever matched what they achieved.

I feel a personal link between Dallas and the Allman Brothers. My grandparents lived here, and my family came here to visit frequently when I was growing up. I can remember buying cassettes of Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers during our visits — Dallas always had far better music stores than central Arkansas did, as far as I was concerned — and listening to them on my portable cassette player on my grandmother's porch.

Frequently, as I recall, it was raining when I listened to those tapes.

Farewell, Gregg Allman.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Settling a Score



Lomax (Kirk Douglas): Do you always wear a gun over your underwear?

Taw Jackson (John Wayne): Just lately.

The war wagon concept dates back hundreds of years — to the Middle Ages when heavily armored wagons were used as both offensive and defensive weapons.

Their usefulness on the battlefield waned as the weaponry and tactics of war evolved. Perhaps it was inevitable, given how many horses it must have required to haul those things around. They weren't exactly your standard stagecoaches.

But apparently they found another use later on — as the forerunners to the armored car in which all sorts of things of value have been transported from one place to another over the years.

And the name of the western that premiered on this day in 1967, "The War Wagon," referred to an armored (and armed) wagon that carried a shipment of gold. The shipment belonged to a mine owner who had framed a rancher (John Wayne). The rancher ended up in prison, and the miner confiscated his land — then found gold on it.

The rancher's prison sentence was reduced for good behavior, and he returned to his old stomping grounds with the intention of robbing the miner of a shipment of that gold.

To assist him in this endeavor, he recruited a man (Kirk Douglas) who shot him several years earlier. Kennan Wynn played another one of Wayne's recruits as did Howard Keel.

It probably goes without saying that Wayne had scores to settle with both the miner who framed him and took his land and the man who shot him. That's a ticklish situation, to put it mildly. But Wayne managed to tiptoe delicately through the minefield.

When you've got apparent scores to settle with both your enemies and your allies, you don't have a lot of margin for error.

Wayne and Douglas had a kind of a friendly competition going on, though. At one point, after they had confronted and gunned down two bad guys (one of whom was Bruce Dern), Douglas remarked, "Mine hit the ground first."

To which Wayne replied, "Mine was taller."

The rest of the movie was about the caper — the attempt to get away with all that gold. And, while I usually try to find some moral or lesson in a movie or TV episode about which I am writing, I can't think of one for "The War Wagon." It was just good entertainment.

I know Wayne made westerns that were humorous as well as westerns that were dramatic. Most, I would say, would be categorized among the latter. That represented most of my exposure to the Duke, anyway.

But "The War Wagon" was different. It leaned more toward humorous, with Wayne's character more bemused than indignant about his circumstances — and I have always found that refreshing.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Earning Your Wings



"What's the signal for 'I'm sorry'?"

Agnes (Carol Burnett)

I really like Twilight Zone. There aren't many episodes I won't watch. In fact I have seen most of them multiple times.

I like Carol Burnett, too. There aren't many things that she has done in her career that I won't watch.

But you can't combine the two — although the powers that be tried to do that very thing 55 years ago tonight in an episode called "Cavender Is Coming." Such a combination is definitely an acquired taste, much like Richard Nixon's favorite food (cottage cheese with ketchup).

For my money it was the worst of the Twilight Zone episodes. It just wasn't a comedy series — although it did have its amusing moments. "Cavender Is Coming" always struck me as a slapstick kind of episode, not really a typical Twilight Zone episode.

It wasn't an isolated case, either. There were a few other Twilight Zone episodes that were silly and slapstick in nature as well, but "Cavender Is Coming" didn't straddle the line the way the others did. It went well past it.

In my mind, that is probably Twilight Zone's greatest shortcoming. From time to time, Twilight Zone's writers felt compelled to veer into comedy — and always fell flat on their faces in the attempt, too.

Anyway ...

I presume, gentle reader, that you have seen "It's a Wonderful Life," the Christmas classic starring Jimmy Stewart. Well, "Cavender Is Coming" followed a similar premise. An angel named Cavender — played by Jesse White, who was probably better known to people of my generation as the Maytag repairman even though he had a rather extensive career in movies and TV programs before he started making TV commercials — was trying to earn his wings. His assignment was to help a clumsy woman (Burnett) improve her life in 24 hours. The thing was that, while her life wasn't perfect, she wasn't unhappy.

Cavender had had other opportunities to earn his wings, but he had failed to do so, and it was taking longer with him than it had with any other angel. Consequently, failure to achieve this objective would result in demotion.

But a good performance would cause his superiors (one of whom was John Fiedler, who always played mousy parts but nevertheless was in several of the best movies of his time, including "12 Angry Men," "True Grit" and "The Odd Couple") to reconsider his case.

As you can probably imagine, this put Cavender under some pressure. Things weren't helped by Burnett's response, which was (to put it mildly) skeptical.

But he persuaded her that he was the real deal through a few "miracles" that were predicated on the belief that wealth equals happiness. That was an easy assumption to make, given that Burnett was unemployed and behind on her rent when he was given his assignment.

Burnett disabused him of that after he had transformed her into a wealthy socialite living in a mansion. He arranged for her to have a big party with lots of debutantes and celebrities — all the things he thought should make her happy.

One of the guests at the party was future Beverly Hillbillies star Donna Douglas, who was making her second appearance on Twilight Zone. She had a bit part as a debutante in this episode; she was the star (although someone else spoke her lines) in "The Eye of the Beholder" in the previous season.

Douglas spoke her own lines in "Cavender Is Coming," but she only had a couple of them.

It is a shame, really, that Twilight Zone made the episode so slapstick because it had a pretty good message about happiness that kind of got lost.

The bewildered and exasperated Cavender, desperate to get his wings, demanded, "Don't you want to be happy?" after Burnett told him she didn't want to live in the mansion and throw parties for debutantes.

"You don't understand me," she replied. "I was happy. I want it the way it was."

Cavender couldn't understand that. "The way it was? Unstable, unresolved and unemployed?"

Burnett smiled and nodded. "Disconnected, discombooberated and behind in my rent. But that's for me."

In other words, the happiest people aren't the richest people. They're just happy with what they have — and that makes them rich, as Cavender conceded near the end of the episode.

"You are the richest woman I know," Cavender told her. "You have an abundance of wealth. And it seems that I've had to travel a very long distance to find out that cash and contentment aren't necessarily synonymous."

That is probably true although it may also be true that, as Mrs. Howell once said on Gilligan's Island, "Whoever says money can't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Same Old Same Old



Steven Spielberg is probably the most gifted filmmaker of my lifetime.

But I'll be the first to say that sequels are just not his thing.

He's a terrific story teller, but his inclination is to tell the story in a single sitting, usually not in installments — even when the response to one of his movies appears to be a cry for more — and move on to the next project.

"Jaws," for example, was great. The sequels, not so much. But Spielberg really didn't have a hand in them.

Inexplicably, he was the director of both the original "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," which premiered on this day in 1997. The original was a first–rate example of Spielberg's filmmaking at its best; the second was an uncharacteristic example of giving in to the temptation to make some easy money essentially repeating yourself.

Well, it might have been better if Spielberg had repeated himself. Instead he tried to concoct an entirely new story with basically the same ingredients. Spielberg knows how to push all the right buttons to get the desired response from the audience, but these movies centered on the dinosaurs that had been created by Richard Attenborough's character in the first movie. It was almost as if Spielberg directed a documentary.

(That would have pleased my journalism professors. Their advice to us was always that, whenever we wrote about something, we should be like flies on the wall. "The reader shouldn't even know you're there," one of my professors said.)

Attenborough had a cameo role in the sequel. So did the child actors who played his grandchildren in the earlier movie.

And Jeff Goldblum was back — but none of the others returned. Instead you had Arliss Howard, Julianne Moore and a whole new cast of good guys and bad guys, all brought together to explore an island where the dinosaurs had been bred before being brought to Jurassic Park where they would be the main attraction. When the park was abandoned, the isolated supply island was forgotten.

Except by the audience. If I remember correctly, there was nothing to forget because this island was never mentioned in the original.

That was just one of the many hurdles Spielberg had to clear in order to make this movie. And I guess he succeeded in most of his objectives, but when the movie was finished and showing in the theaters, it lacked the one thing it needed the most, the one thing that just about every Spielberg movie has — a sense of awe, of wonderment.

Call it the Wow Factor. It is when Spielberg merges all the best elements of filmmaking that are at his disposal at the time.

I remember that moment in the original "Jurassic Park." It was when all the guests saw a wide assortment of dinosaurs in an open field. There was no comparable moment in the sequel.

I'm not saying Spielberg didn't try. But the dinosaurs in his sequel were always aggressive. The audience knew why, of course, and understood. But it got in the way of what one expects from Spielberg. He is the gold standard, always on the cutting edge.

His imagination takes us places we never dreamed we would go. He does the dreaming and turns it into movie reality. To borrow the words of 19th–century British poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Spielberg is "the music maker and the dreamer of dreams."

Sequels just aren't his thing.

Making movie magic is his thing.

Spielberg has never struck me as a director of violent movies. I know he directed "Jaws" — but the shark never became a malevolent monster. It did what animals do — it hunted for food. In "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the dinosaurs were malicious. They killed indiscriminately. Hunger had little to do with it.

Oh, there was a sense of wonder — initially — from some of the cast members — and most of the folks in Spielberg's audiences.

It could hardly be avoided. Spielberg's dinosaurs appeared to be the real thing. It was hard for audiences, whether watching the original or the sequel, not to be astonished by what they saw.

But where Spielberg came up short was by not reimagining the material and coming up with a unique story that did the visuals and the human characters justice.

That's when Spielberg has always been at his best — when, in addition to the movie making bells and whistles, he also gave audiences a story that surprised them, that wasn't what they expected.

Film critic Roger Ebert agreed with me, by the way.

"Perhaps the time to do the thinking on this project was before the first film, when all the possibilities lay before Spielberg," Ebert wrote 20 years ago. "He should have tossed aside the original Michael Crichton novel, knowing it had given him only one thing of use: an explanation for why dinosaurs might walk among us. Everything else — the scientific mumbo–jumbo, the theme park scheme — was just the recycling of other movies."

Recycled is the right word, I think. When I saw "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," at a theater, I kept thinking that I had seen it before — just not with dinosaurs. I still can't say that it reminded me of a specific movie, just a genre — the monster movie.

Another thought that I had was that Spielberg's dinosaurs were always getting loose and terrorizing humans in the rain. In the original movie, it was during a rain storm — at the time I presumed it was some sort of tropical storm — that the dinosaurs escaped their pens and roamed the island.

They did essentially the same thing under the same circumstances in the sequel, and when I watched the movie, I presumed again that it was some sort of tropical island.

But then the plot called for one of the adult dinosaurs to be taken to San Diego where, sure enough, it was raining. Now, San Diego has a very agreeable climate most of the year with little rain — maybe a foot or so all year.

So that part, that this vessel carrying a living dinosaur, arrived in San Diego on one of the few rainy days of the year, probably surprised some people in the audience — but that really isn't the kind of surprise I've been talking about.

It was more recycling.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Looking for Light at the End of the Tunnel



"'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is a film about a man who experiences the catastrophe I most feared during my recent surgeries: 'locked–in syndrome,' where he is alive and conscious but unable to communicate with the world. My dread, I think, began when I was a boy first reading Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Premature Burial' at an age much too young to contemplate such a possibility."

Roger Ebert

When I was 13 years old, I broke my right arm and had to wear a cast for eight weeks.

I'm right–handed, which means I had to function without the use of my dominant arm for two months. It was during the school year, and it was extremely challenging for me to try to write with my left hand.

I adapted the best I could, and my teachers were understanding. And, after eight weeks, I was permitted to use my arm again.

At least once in our lives, I suppose, everyone is faced with the deprivation of something that one has come to take for granted. Usually that deprivation is limited in some way — and temporary.

And that is the key point, isn't it? It is temporary. I didn't like wearing a cast or having to try to do things with my left hand for eight weeks — but I knew it wouldn't last forever. I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. I could see it. With both eyes.

And that was the point. There was light at the end of that tunnel.

It's been a long time since I broke that arm, but I have thought about it frequently over the years, often in the context of incarceration. When I worked as a newspaper reporter, I covered the police and courthouse beat for awhile, which meant I had to cover trials from time to time. Those trials involved offenses that, if the defendants were found guilty, would mean time in prison.

I'm not sure when I started thinking about my broken arm in the context of incarceration, but I kind of feel like it must have been when I was covering trials. It has continued to this day.

Some of the offenses carried lengthy — but limited — sentences; people convicted of such offenses knew they would spend several years in prison, but their incarceration would end someday.

But most of the trials I covered were murder trials — and, while there were exceptions, most of the defendants knew that, if convicted, they could expect to spend the rest of their lives in prison. There would be no light at the end of that tunnel.

Jean–Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine, was not convicted of a crime, but he faced a kind of life in prison when he suffered a massive stroke in December 1995 that left him with a condition known as "locked–in syndrome" a condition in which the patient is almost entirely paralyzed but is, nevertheless, aware of what is happening around him/her and able to communicate only through eye movement and blinking. In more extreme situations, the eyes are paralyzed as well.

In this condition, Bauby dictated his memoir through a tedious eye–blinking procedure in which his assistant would repeatedly recite the alphabet until he blinked to indicate which letters came next. It took an average of two minutes to dictate each word.

The memoir was turned into a movie that made its debut 10 years ago today at the Cannes Film Festival. The book and the movie were titled "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Director Julian Schnabel was rewarded with Best Director at the Cannes festival.

Schnabel, by the way, was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards but lost to the Coen Brothers, and the movie was nominated for three other Oscars as well.

"Like a sailor seeing the shore disappear, I watch my past recede, reduced to the ashes of memory."

Jean–Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric)

To a casual observer, Bauby appeared to have a wonderful life. He was editor of a popular magazine. He had a beautiful ex–mistress (Emmanuelle Seigner), with whom he had three children, and a beautiful new mistress. But then he had his stroke.

Most of the muscles in his body were useless after that, but his mind remained clear, and his imagination was strong. I'm a writer, and I can say that many things could be taken from me and I could manage somehow, but if I no longer had a clear mind and a strong imagination, I would not want to keep going.

Bauby had both of those things, but he still didn't want to keep going — at first. The writer within him knew there was a story that needed to be told.

That story was rich with ironies.

A few days before his stroke "Jean–Do," as he was known, was visiting his frail 92–year–old father (Max von Sydow) and gave him a shave because he could not shave himself.

After Jean–Do's stroke, his father observed in a phone call to his son (with his assistant interpreting his eye movements for his end of the conversation), that they were both locked in — he was physically unable to leave his apartment and his son was locked inside his body.

That was his perception. He wanted to be with his son but he couldn't. Others couldn't bring themselves to face the new reality. Their perceptions frightened them too much.

We all face barriers in our lives. Jean–Do's father faced a physical barrier. The others faced an emotional barrier.

That is certainly something I have experienced first hand. Most of the time I have not known I was seeing someone for the last time, but there have been a few times in my life when I have seen someone and I knew — usually because of a medical condition — it would be the last time, but I could never bring myself to say the word goodbye.

Perhaps it seemed too much like giving up. I regret that, but I don't regret feeling afraid. It is a natural, honest and normal human response. It is all a matter of perception, I suppose.

All my life I have heard that perception is reality and that may never have been more true than it was when applied to the life of Jean–Dominique Bauby.

The stroke was the reality, but it was the perception that colored the picture for Bauby and those around him. He saw his affliction as being like one of those heavy diving bells that divers once wore to get a constant supply of oxygen when they were in the water. Bauby felt the diving bell was dragging him to the bottom of the sea.

But many of those around him did not see a diving bell. Instead they saw his spirit as a butterfly that was rising above it all.

Thus the name of the book — and the movie.

And as grim as the topic may sound, it really is a rewarding movie experience.

I want to read the book.

Friday, May 19, 2017

No Good Guys



More often than not, it seems to me, the Oscars voters like to reward feel–good movies. I suppose, after spending most of the year profiting from violence and exploitation, Hollywood likes to shine the spotlight on its more uplifting — and decidedly more infrequent — positive efforts.

I don't mean that the Best Picture always goes to a Disney movie or anything like that. The characters in the Oscar winners do have their flaws, but there is usually something ennobling about at least one of them, too, something that tells the audience that no one is irredeemable. (Look, this guy is X, Y or Z, and yet he still managed to be A, B or C.)

There's nothing wrong with that. It's good to draw attention to movies that praise those qualities to which we should all aspire — even if the movies aren't box–office successes and the qualities they embrace aren't especially prevalent.

The box–office successes typically focus on the things that we all find unpleasant, but many people choose to spend their entertainment dollars watching those movies, anyway — perhaps in part due to an understanding that there are far more sinners than saints in this world.

Sometimes, though, Hollywood rewards movies in which none of the characters seems to have any good qualities. Such was the case when the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 10 years ago today, won the Oscar for Best Picture.

And since its commercial release, the movie has become the Coens' biggest moneymaker — ever. Winning Best Picture didn't hurt at the box office, of course.

Neither did the facts that the Coens shared the Oscar for Best Director, and Javier Bardem won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the thoroughly evil hit man Anton Chigurh.

If there were any redeemable characters in "No Country for Old Men," they must have been the random minor characters who had the misfortune of crossing paths with Chigurh — and the audience never knew enough about them to conclude whether they really were redeemable.

Chigurh, though, was a mystery, a real enigma, although not entirely to at least one person — the arrogant bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) who was put on his trail. Harrelson's character observed that Chigurh was a psychopathic killer, but "You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He's not like you. He's not even like me."

For that matter, no one knew how to pronounce Chigurh's name. One character pronounced it sugar, but there was nothing sweet about him. I suppose that was intended to be a paradox. The Coens like to work those in when they can.

Anyway, Chigurh was hired to recover the money from a drug deal that went bad in the west Texas desert. Josh Brolin, playing a struggling welder out hunting antelope, stumbled onto the scene and found the loot — more than $2 million — sparking a cat–and–mouse chase that is the heart of the story.

Brolin's circumstances may have aroused the audience's sympathy as he tried to get away with the money and, at the same time, protect his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), but he really had no redeeming quality. He was every bit as ruthless, if not as violent, as Chigurh, the man who pursued and, ultimately, killed him.

Chigurh also killed the bounty hunter who was hired to bring him down.

Harrelson's performance was adequate but never really rose above my rather modest expectations. I enjoyed watching him on Cheers!, but I have hardly been blown away by his theatrical work, probably stemming from his post–Cheers! work in "Indecent Proposal," although that was far from his first movie. Unfortunately, it was not far from his best.

Most of the time Harrelson has been a supporting character — as he was in "No Country for Old Men."

And to be honest, that is what nearly all of the characters in the movie were. I suppose that is what nearly all the characters in every movie are, even the movies with "all–star" casts. Some of those stars, regardless of their statures in Hollywood, will be in supporting roles. How well they succeed depends upon how well they are able to keep their often considerable egos in check when only two of them are truly the stars of the show.

Even though he shared top billing with his lesser–known co–stars, Tommy Lee Jones was a supporting character as the rural West Texas sheriff hot on the trail of Brolin and Chigurh. He must have known that all along.

His character was about to retire, and his greatest contribution to the movie was serving as the inspiration for its title. Well, the actual wording comes from a poem from Yeats, but in the context of the story, Jones' character began the movie with his general lament that the area was so violent — and, at the end, he spoke of his dreams of his father, who had also been a sheriff, and how in one of the dreams his father, who was on horseback, told him he was going on ahead in a snowy mountain pass to make a fire and wait.

There was no place for him in West Texas. It was no country for old men.

In his way, I guess, Jones' character was seeking redemption — perhaps a way to win his father's approval — but he was really just looking for a way out of the place that was not meant for old men. I guess we all want that, to escape. That doesn't make us any nobler or any more worthy of admiration than anyone else.

"I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow," Jones' character remarked near the end of the movie. "And he didn't. I don't blame him. If I was him I would have the same opinion of me that he does."

His remarks were pithy, short and sweet as so many Texans are inclined to be — and that comes from a lifetime of observing Texans, including my own grandparents, who lived there most of their lives, and my parents, who did not.

As I say, the characters who may have had more cause for redemption were the minor ones who came in contact with Chigurh purely at random.

Carla Jean was such a character. She wasn't with Brolin when he stumbled onto the scene of the drug deal. She didn't play the cat–and–mouse game Brolin played with Chigurh. The only time she ever saw or spoke to him was near the end of the movie, when he came presumably to kill her.

I say presumably because the audience never saw him take her life — only his departure from the house where she had been staying and his casual glance at the soles of his boots. Knowing the character as the audience did, that strongly suggested that he might have been concerned that he had stepped in something — like fresh blood.

But the viewers never knew that for certain.

The genre of "No Country for Old Men" has always been a bit ambiguous.

I've heard some people call it film noir, even though that evokes thoughts of a private investigator — and, while it does deal with a crime — several crimes, in fact — film noir really isn't sufficient to describe it.

Of course, a serious problem with film noir is that it is something of a moving target when it comes to its definition. I would say that it can be whatever you want it to be. (And with the Coens there is no telling what that might be.)

Neither is it entirely accurate to call "No Country for Old Men" a western. That makes people think of cowboys and Indians, horses and stagecoaches, cattle drives and roundups.

And yet it is both at the same time — modern–day film noir and modern–day western. Not stereotypical of either. It defies easy and conventional description.

Kind of like the Coen brothers.