A classic philosophy

I’ve done many of these columns and there’s always a chance I’ve run out of things to say– or that I’ve not really said anything at all. Which is wrong, because I do know I’ve said a lot.

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When I wax philosophical, I step out of my own “zone” and see how film affects others. Looking at movie-related comments on Facebook; scanning tweets about classic stars; seeing what members frequently post about on TCM’s message boards, it’s all there. We benefit from each other’s knowledge. We grow on a personal level interacting online and sharing this knowledge.

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I’ve grown and changed as a film observer and commentator. When Robert Osborne passed away earlier this year, I thought a lot about what he said of certain motion pictures, directors, performers and performances. Who did he speak for? Was he speaking on behalf of others, or for himself and his own personal relationship with the movies? It’s weighed on my mind, because I have to ask myself the very same things. Am I writing about my own individual relationship with film– and is what I’m saying valuable after I’m done writing it?

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When I re-watched A SIMPLE PLAN recently, I remembered almost everything about my initial viewing experience in January 1999. Down to the color and texture of the seats in the theater. It was quite personalized for me. Looking at the film again brought it back and took me in a new direction, since I am now advocating for others to watch the film. It goes beyond a day eighteen and a half years ago. All of film goes beyond the initial experience if you let it. That’s what makes it classic.

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Essential: A SIMPLE PLAN (1998)

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A SIMPLE PLAN was released by Paramount in the late ’90s when neo-noir was making a bit of a comeback. Set in Minnesota, and filmed there as well as in Wisconsin, it is best remembered for its wintery landscapes and its uniformly strong acting. Bill Paxton stars as lead character Hank Mitchell, a man who would like to get ahead in life just once. Bridget Fonda plays his money-hungry wife Sarah (the Lady Macbeth of the story). And featured as Paxton’s loser brother Jacob, who helps find some loot, is Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton was nominated for a supporting Oscar, and should have nabbed it.

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The plot is quite simple. Hank and Jacob are out driving one day with Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), when they discover a deserted plane with a duffel bag that contains over four million dollars. They don’t know how the plane crashed in a snow-covered area or whose money it might have been. But if they just stay quiet, they might be able to keep the cash if nobody comes to claim it. That’s easier said than done.

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The guys take off with the dough and Hank puts it somewhere for safe keeping. But soon they decide, because of Sarah’s nagging, that they should cheat Lou out of his share. They go to Lou’s house, start drinking with him and do a little role play. Hank and Jacob want Lou to pretend he’s saying something self-incriminating. Jacob says it’s all in fun and after one too many beers, Lou does say it, which Hank secretly records on tape.

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Their little game of pretend turns into a huge tragedy when Lou realizes he’s been tricked. He goes for his rifle, and threatens to kill Hank if he doesn’t turn over the tape. Jacob comes to Hank’s defense; there is a graphic shootout that leaves Lou dead on the floor, along with his wife.Hank and Jacob decide to shoot up the place even more and make it look like Lou lost his mind and killed his wife, then himself. Somehow the sheriff believes it all.

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Things become even more complicated when an investigator (Gary Cole) shows up to locate the downed aircraft and retrieve the missing money. It is soon revealed that he’s not an actual lawman but someone only interested in getting his hands on the four million.

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Hank and Jacob return to the site of the crash with him, and there’s a standoff. To say it ends badly for Jacob is putting it mildly. Hank survives, and the movie’s coda shows him and his wife back to how they were in the beginning, struggling to survive financially (because Hank decided to burn the ill-gotten money). The best thing to do when you come across something that doesn’t belong to you is to just go about your business as if you didn’t see it. Keep life simple.

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A SIMPLE PLAN is directed by Sam Raimi and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

 

Essential: THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)

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It takes a while for some bad guys to take Pelham One Two Three. This is because Peter Stone’s screenplay concerns itself with establishing the individual identities of the crooks; showing us the various passengers on a subway they commandeer; presenting the lieutenant who inevitably gets drawn into the intrigue; and the lieutenant’s coworkers; as well as a politician who has a stake in the outcome. It’s not quite a cast of thousands but almost, and they each represent a unique point of view.

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Walter Matthau in a non-comedic role plays Lt. Zachary Garber, a savvy gent who does things by-the-book in order to thwart the criminal gang. The crooks go by color-coded names, and they are led by Robert Shaw– a mercenary who is about as ruthless as they come.

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Shaw’s cohorts include Martin Balsam as a former motorman who knows how to steer things after they get rid of the original conductor; as well as a gangster type character portrayed by Hector Elizondo. Also in this lawless group is Earl Hindman as a powerful brute. In short, these are four men you don’t want to mess with– which unfortunately some passengers learn the hard way.

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Stone’s screenplay is based on Morton Freedgood’s bestselling novel and it uses the basic scenario to give us some detailed character sketches. Stone also presents aspects of New York City that make the story’s metropolitan setting a character in its own right. Because the drama builds so gradually, we get a sense of people with interconnecting lives and competing agendas. A large portion of the action, of course, takes place underground. So we are plunged into a somewhat claustrophobic environment that becomes increasingly tense when things begin to unravel.

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The 2009 remake turned the story into a battle of wills between the lieutenant and the mastermind of the hijacking. But the 1974 version is considerably better, because it depicts a broader cross-section of people involved in the siege all trying to get out alive. Many of them do not know how to survive. The hijacking is supposed to bring a considerable sum of money to the gang for turning the hostages back over, and it is supposed to lead to the perfect getaway which they’ve painstakingly mapped out. But the lieutenant and his men put the kibosh on all that. In the end, three of the gang members have been killed and only one remains standing– the motorman/conductor played by Martin Balsam. There’s a clever twist in the last scene that prevents Balsam from getting away with the money. It’s nothing to sneeze at.

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THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is directed by Joseph Sargent and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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Visiting the set, part 2

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I went to the Frasier set twice at Paramount studios. Both visits occurred during the 11th season. The first visit was in mid-January 2004. They had just returned from a month off for the holidays. The actor who played the father lived in a suburb of Chicago; and Kelsey Grammer had a home in Hawaii. So for them, this was coming back to L.A. and back to work at the same time.

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Kelsey told us all before filming began that NBC had called him to say the network would not be renewing the sitcom. He wanted to do a 12th season. There were seven more episodes left. He said the scripts were good, and he was confident they would be ending on a good note. He said he felt the tenth season was the worst and was glad they’d improved the quality in the final year.

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Most of the behind the scenes personnel had been with him on Cheers. Many of them had worked together for two decades. Kelsey tied Jim Arness (Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke) for playing the same character in primetime for twenty seasons– nine years on Cheers plus eleven on Frasier.

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The first episode I saw was called ‘Boo!’ where Martin the father had a heart attack. It was a comedy-drama, less laughs than usual. In addition to the apartment set, there was the coffee shop set where some scenes took place. Jane Leeves, the actress who played Daphne, was still on maternity leave. But because she had found out they were being cancelled, she came to the set unannounced. They wrote her into the very last scene. She ended up appearing in every episode, though she was not supposed to be in this one.

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I returned in early March for another filming. It was called ‘Detour’ and was the last regular episode. That time a guest actress had to be fired, because there had been problems with her during rehearsals. So Kelsey flew in a gal with little or no previous TV experience who had been making a name for herself back east in the theater. She did a great job and Kelsey was immensely grateful to her. After this last regular episode, they still had a flashbacks show to assemble, then the 90-minute finale.

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I learned some interesting things from Mathilda DeCagny, the trainer who owned the terrier that played Eddie the dog. Because the show had run so many seasons, the original dog (Moose) had become too old and had to be retired. So Moose’s son (Enzo) took over. Enzo did not have the exact same coloring or number of spots. Mathilda had to add some freshly colored spots on the dog’s fur before filming to fool viewers into thinking it was the same animal.

Visiting the set, part 1

The first show I ever visited was The Golden Girls in the fall of 1991. They had metal detectors when you went inside; most of the other stages didn’t, though many probably started using them afterward. The episode I saw being filmed was ‘The Pope’s Ring’ from season 7. The director, Lex Passaris, never came down on stage. He directed the whole thing from the catwalk above using a microphone.

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The sets were like you see on screen. The living room door opened into nothing really. Just a fake backdrop on the other side. This episode had two temporary sets: a hospital room and hospital hallway. Those were built next to the main kitchen set, downstage left. Much of the action took place outside the house using the temporary sets.

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They were running short on time and had to stretch some jokes out. They gave Rue McClanahan a line about a credit card. The audience didn’t find it very funny, but the audience was asked to laugh several times, so they could record lengthy reactions with the other main characters. They padded an extra 30 seconds with that bit. At the end, they had Estelle Getty improvise a scene where her character Sophia was playing poker with the pope. Silly and not in the original script, but they were still short on time. They ended up putting longer closing credits over that improvised business.

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Estelle had trouble remembering a lot of her lines. She slowed things down considerably. At one point, she had to sit in a chair by the camera operators and take an extended break. She looked at me and smiled and I smiled back. She regained her confidence, stood up and resumed filming. It didn’t surprise me that she was soon diagnosed with dementia. She continued to play the character three more seasons, though in a reduced capacity, on the spinoff The Golden Palace; then on the other spinoff Empty Nest. She was a trouper.

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Normally I don’t watch the episodes on TV after I see them filmed. There are different reasons for this. Sometimes I just don’t happen to catch them in syndication. But I did finally see ‘The Pope’s Ring’ about a year ago on Hulu. It held up well and ended up being better than I thought it would be. It’s interesting to see something performed live in 1991, then to see the recorded version 25 years later.

Essential: PURPLE NOON (1960)

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There’s something unique about PURPLE NOON, which gives it a distinct advantage over the 1999 remake. And that’s Alain Delon who brings a special quality to the role of Tom Ripley. In an early scene we are shown that Tom emulates his French friend Philippe with whom he is carousing around Italy.

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Philippe comes in and discovers Tom wearing his clothes and admiring himself in front of a mirror. At one point Tom becomes so entranced with his image as “Philippe,” he kisses himself in the mirror. It’s more than mere narcissism, it’s a charming sort of adoration, where he is not in love with himself but with the image of what he can become. This leads him to commit murder and assume Philippe’s identity.

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In Patricia Highsmith’s novel, first published in 1955, Tom gets away with his crimes. But in PURPLE NOON, it is suggested that he has been caught– or is about to get caught at the end of the story. It’s a simple plot, really. One man covets another man’s life, has somewhat been used and abused, then takes over. Though there are greater complexities hinted at in the material.

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After Tom has eliminated Philippe in the physical sense, he becomes “Philippe,” which means psychologically the murder victim lives on. People get fooled by Tom/”Philippe”– including Marge, who is Philippe’s girlfriend in the beginning, then Tom’s girlfriend after the murder.

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Does she even know which man most satisfies her? Of course, she will never receive full attention, because he is playing a game with the police, and anyone else that might figure things out. Soon a guy named Freddy arrives from America and starts to put it all together. Tom murders Freddy, too. And in a clever twist, he pins Freddy’s killing on the dead Philippe.

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PURPLE NOON has glossy production values, but it’s also a hard-hitting psychological crime drama. The main character is a rich grifter; a man who switches from one locale to the next, and from one identity to the next. Ultimately, Tom Ripley gets what’s coming to him. When the police summon him at the end, he goes forward  without full knowledge that evidence of “Philippe” will be where he’s going. And that he will probably lead yet another life– in prison.

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PURPLE NOON is directed by Rene Clement and can be streamed on FilmStruck.

Unusual themes

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When I come up with themes each month in the Essentials forum, I go through a lot of ideas. Some ideas are good and I use them. Others are less brilliant:

Sun of a beach

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ED GEIN
PSYCHO
BEACH PARTY
PSYCHO BEACH PARTY

Fried food is in the forecast

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FRIED GREEN TOMATOES
HOME FRIES
HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS

Alpha Mail

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M
E.T.
Z
There was another letter but it was sent to three wives.

Coffin up blood

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DRACULA
DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN
DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN
I AM SARTANA, TRADE YOUR GUNS FOR A COFFIN

The answer my friend is blowing in

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THE WIND
GONE WITH THE WIND
ANNE OF WINDY POPLARS
INHERIT THE WIND