Essential: LITTLE BOY BLUE (2017)

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There are two sides to every story and this production does not present them. LITTLE BOY BLUE is a British miniseries from late last year that focuses on the death of Rhys Jones, a suburban boy whose brutal murder rocked a nation.

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Writer Jeff Pope relies mainly on the Jones’ version of events, in addition to information from media reports as well as transcripts from the trial. Initially we see Rhys and his family before the murder living a simple daily life. Then after he is killed, their world turns upside down and the lead investigator is introduced. This leads to our seeing the perpetrators, a gang of older boys who were in the middle of a drug transaction when Rhys accidentally got in the way. These subplots use the facts of the case, but they are clearly devised to make the viewer feel sorry for Rhys’ family. I guess that’s understandable given the situation, but Pope might have done better to provide us with an unvarnished look at society, and why this crime happened in the first place.

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I would have preferred to see the story a bit more from the point of view of the boys that where charged, as well as their families. All the lower class characters in this tale are presented as untrustworthy and unreliable, out to cover things up. There is no sympathetic rendering of the struggles they face; not even the mothers are presented in any kind of sympathetic light. One of the mothers ultimately does the right thing and tells the truth in court, but a lawyer quickly tries to discredit her statements as false because she’s supposedly a known liar.

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As for the detective assigned to the case, we are told at the end he became friends with the victim’s family. So obviously all the scenes in which he appears are going to be slanted to make him look heroic. During the investigation he often clashed with a female superior, so she is depicted as someone who interfered with the investigation. Basically she is cast as the villain, because she didn’t do more to help the Jones family get justice against the perpetrators more quickly.

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Because this is a miniseries, it was designed to air in four separate installments. The production itself is too long. Four full hours is way too much to devote to this story. Each of the four one-hour installments I watched had at least 15 minutes that could have been cut. Meaning this could have been told in a much more compact three hours if the narrative had been tightened.

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In the first segment we get shots of the mother doting on her son. She is shown ironing and putting clothes into his dresser drawers. We also see her and her husband discuss what color to paint a living room wall. As well as lingering shots of soccer balls in the backyard. In the second segment the police review video footage of the killing with nothing new being figured out. A montage or lap dissolve compressing these non-events would have been sufficient. The third segment features the police on their computers– at one point the director and editor cut to a keyboard as a police officer debates typing something. Why? There’s no reason for all the wasted screen time. Then we have the courtroom scenes in the fourth segment where the action seems to pause so we can see the mother praying for justice.

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The filmmakers do not seem to know how to tell the story more expediently. It’s like their primary goal is to just fill up screen time. There are also a lot of long tracking shots outdoors, meant to convey realism. Some of these work rather well. Especially in the first part where the victim is killed.

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After a while the long outdoor shots become an artistic nuisance. In some cases you can tell the actors have to wait to deliver their dialogue because they’re placed ahead of the camera crew waiting for the microphones to catch up to them so their dialogue can be audibly recorded. As a result we get a stilted and belabored presentation of a story that is entertaining only in how transparent its biases are and how transparently artistic the people behind the camera are trying to put this over on the viewers. Rhys Jones deserved better.

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LITTLE BOY BLUE can be streamed on BritBox.

 

Essential: THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974)

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As most people know this was Steven Spielberg’s feature film debut, and it flopped at the box office. It does not stick to the facts of what happened to Ila Fae Dent (Goldie Hawn) and her husband Bobby Dent (William Atherton) in early May 1969. First of all, their names are changed; and their journey across Texas was significantly shorter than what is depicted in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Also the real-life incident was fraught with great uncertainty and more danger than what is seen on screen.

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Spielberg fudged the facts to increase the movie’s entertainment value. He had a comedy actress in Goldie Hawn, so he turned the situation into a light-hearted anti-establishment road movie. The film could have been much more suspenseful if he’d just stuck with the facts. Another thing that brings it down– Spielberg decided the officer (Michael Sacks) they kidnap should become their buddy on the lam. He added a line at the end where the officer defends them after they’ve been brought to justice, which is incredibly unrealistic.

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In the movie the couple takes the officer hostage because they want to prevent their child from going to a foster home. In real life there were two children from Ila Fae’s previous marriage, and they were staying with their grandma. So she was not about to be prevented from seeing them. Also, in real life, the couple kidnapped the officer by luring him to an abandoned cabin so they could get a ride, though they had no idea of where they intended to go. Bobby Dent did not break out of prison, as we see dramatized in the film; he’d already been released after serving time. And of course, the real Ila Fae did not look anything like Goldie Hawn.

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The captain (Ben Johnson) did allow them to keep driving, while dozens of cop cars followed at a safe distance. They were permitted to stop for gas more than once, get snacks and use the restroom– things Spielberg pokes fun at on screen. After the incident was over, the captain told the media he just wanted to make sure they didn’t hurt anyone so that is why he did not blockade them.

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The real-life chase only lasted five hours, but Spielberg has stretched it out to two days. A sequence where they spend the night in a used car lot is intended to provide “romance on the run” but strains credibility. Ultimately Bobby Dent was ambushed by an FBI agent. Ila Fae was then taken into custody, while the officer they kidnapped survived unharmed. The last part of the film depicts Bobby’s fatal shooting, but it’s staged with creative license and dragged out for about five minutes. In real life it all came to a very abrupt end.

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THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS airs occasionally on TCM.

Essential: ONE FOOT IN HELL (1960)

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Made near the end of Alan Ladd’s career, ONE FOOT IN HELL is tougher than most westerns. It’s about a man named Mitch Barrett who seeks revenge on a town for the death of his wife. Aaron Spelling co-authored the screenplay and he gives Ladd plenty of opportunity to demonstrate a range of emotions, which the actor does with skill.

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Mitch Barrett goes crazy due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, and we’re supposed to sympathize and even applaud his brand of vigilante justice. The whole town did not actually kill his pregnant wife, but none of them would help when she had a difficult delivery. She lost the baby and then lost her life. So Mitch is grieving badly, and he unleashes his anger at the ones he holds most responsible. This includes a hotel manager, a store owner and a lazy sheriff.

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Ladd seems to enjoy the dramatic possibilities of the story. His older-looking appearance adds to the grittiness of the film. There are shocking scenes where Mitch murders the sheriff then takes over his job. He gains everyone’s admiration as the new lawman, acting as if he’s forgiven them for the death of his wife. But of course, Mitch hasn’t really gotten over it, and becoming sheriff is just an opportunity to take the law into his own hands.

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In addition to Ladd’s revenge-minded character, we have a drifter named Dan Keats, played by Don Murray. Dan Keats is an alcoholic ex-soldier in need of money. There is also a prostitute (Dolores Michaels) in search of a better life; as well as a suave pickpocket (Dan O’Herlihy). It’s a unique ragtag group, and each one plays a key role in the given scenario. Eventually these people join up with Mitch to rob the town bank.

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Of course, things don’t go smoothly. But Mitch will not go down without a fight. The story reaches a climax inside the local saloon, where Mitch is gunned to death. I won’t tell you who shoots him, because it’s very surprising. After Mitch is killed, Spelling’s story does provide a happy ending, or at least a partially happy conclusion, when Dan Keats and the prostitute decide to reform. They agree to do their time and then reconnect when they get out.

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It’s not the best film ever made, but has several things going for it. There are a lot of great outdoor scenes. It’s photographed in CinemaScope and in color with Fox’s typically good production values. The theme of a man taking on those who’ve wronged him is one Ladd would revisit in 13 WEST STREET, a noir where he fights delinquents. In this story, Ladd battles more “respectable” folks. He has gone to hell, and hell can’t handle him.

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ONE FOOT IN HELL is directed by James B. Clark and can be streamed on Starz.

Essential: THE HANGMAN (1959)

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When Robert Taylor was TCM’s Star of the Month a few years ago, THE HANGMAN was one of the few titles on his resume the channel didn’t air. The actor made it in the late 50s. He’s older, but still in good shape and still every inch the star. Taylor like most aging leading men had turned to westerns, and the genre suits him just fine.

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The film is directed by Michael Curtiz, nearing the end of his Hollywood career. And the screenplay is one of Dudley Nichols’ last efforts (he died six months after THE HANGMAN was released). Costars include Fess Parker whose amiable charms are a nice contrast to no-nonsense Taylor; as well as Tina Louise and Jack Lord who had worked together in GOD’S LITTLE ACRE a year earlier. Lord is particularly good; he’s given the villain role but manages to be quite likable on screen.

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Taylor plays a marshal named Mac Bovard who doesn’t care for the nickname people have given him. It was earned because of his ability to track down fugitives and bring them to justice– usually the men he rounds up are found guilty and hanged soon afterward. The situation is something Mac wants to put in the past, and after catching a guy named Butterfield (Lord’s character), he intends to head west and start a new career as a lawyer. The problem is that Butterfield is using an alias and the only one who can positively identify him is a former girlfriend known as Selah Jennison (Tina Louise).

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It’s obvious Mac and Selah will fall in love, when Selah accompanies the lawman on his journey to apprehend Butterfield. But it’s hardly a conventional romance because she decides to betray him and help Butterfield escape custody. Complicating matters is Buck Weston, the friendly sheriff played by Parker.

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Buck has also taken a shine to Selah, and he wants to marry her. After she’s forgiven for betraying Mac, she must choose between the two men. The characters don’t really hold grudges very long in this story. Mac has a change of heart after he recaptures Butterfield and ends up letting him go. Something that impresses Selah and makes her choose Mac over Buck.

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We have learned along the way that Butterfield’s crime involved the death of Mac Bovard’s brother. So for much of the picture’s running time there is a personal need for Mac to make sure Butterfield gets what’s coming to him. But by the end of the story, he realizes a hanging would probably be too harsh, since Butterfield did not actually cause the death and was mostly an innocent bystander. Maybe Mac also lets him go, so that in addition to getting the girl he will no longer be known as The Hangman.

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Paramount did not allocate a huge budget for this western programmer. But given the talent involved, there is a certain pedigree this entertainment has which other expanded “B” westerns lack. In some ways it looks like they’ve borrowed sets that were probably in use for western TV shows of the day, so there is a bit of ordinariness in how the town and the hotel rooms look. They were mainly just trying to tell a good story, and I’d say they succeeded.

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Probably the best part of the film, aside from main cast, is character actress Mabel Albertson. She plays a society woman who appears in a comic relief subplot during the first half. Widow Hopkins comes to town on the same stage as Mac Bovard, and she assumes she might charm him into having dinner with her and spending time together. Mac snubs her, because she’s rather pushy, and he has an important job to do. Mrs. Hopkins then finds out Mac brought Selah Jennison to the hotel on another stage, without benefit of marriage, and she gets a bit spiteful. But as much as her heart’s been broken, I don’t think she’d want to see anyone hanged for it.

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THE HANGMAN can be streamed on Starz.