Tag Archives: 1981 Films

A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (June – Part 1)

Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (June 5)
Clash of the Titans (June 12)
History of the World Pt. 1 (June 12)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 12)
The Cannonball Run (June 19)
Superman II (June 19)
Dragonslayer (June 26)
For Your Eyes Only (June 26)
The Great Muppet Caper (June 26)
Stripes (June 26)

The list of films above would have made for an incredible movie summer, but the fact it only represents one single month of the Summer of 1981’s movie releases is astounding. From action to fantasy to comedy, June 1981 brought something for everyone, and I’m hard pressed to find another movie month before or since with the same depth of quality releases. June 1981 was unmatched in box office success with five films each earning more than $50 million domestically, with Raiders of the Lost Ark at the top of the year’s domestic box office with $212 million ($289 million in the US & Canada, and $389 million worldwide). In terms of the comedy and special effects of some of these films, let’s just say they were products of their time. But while some of these films haven’t exactly aged well (Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams, Clash of the Titans), forty years later some are still consistently watched (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Stripes), while others are old favorites that continue to be revisited (Dragonslayer, The Cannonball Run, For Your Eyes Only).

Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (June 5), directed by Tommy Chong, is a film that comes up on my radar every few years either on streaming video or back in the day when it would be part of a late night screening on cable TV with friends. Written by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, the film begins as the title characters make their small fortune driving around L.A. in an ice cream truck selling weed disguised in ice cream wrappers. As they dream about using the money to move to Costa Rica (Cheech) and buying more guitars (Chong), they’re tailed by LAPD officers Drooler and Noodles who get a sample to take back to their precinct for testing. Stacey Keach reprises his role as Sgt. Stedenko (previously in Up In Smoke), but this time around he’s showing the effects of being a little too into the product he’s trying to get off the streets. While they treat themselves to dinner, Cheech and Chong run into Donna (Evelyn Guerrero, reprising her role from 1980’s Next Movie) and the “crazy hamburger dude” played by Paul Reubens (also from Next Movie), who gets Chong to exchange all of their cash for a bogus check. Their attempt to get their bag of cash back takes an unexpected turn (after they almost get killed by Donna’s racist, escaped convict biker boyfriend) and they find themselves trapped in a mental institution. Nice Dreams was light on plot but has more than enough gags to keep you laughing, though the humor was definitely of its time (translation: elements of the story definitely wouldn’t be filmed today). It grossed a solid $35 million, but down from Next Movie’s $41 million in 1980.

What more can be said or written about Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 12), which was the the top grossing film of 1981 ($212 million US & Canada, $354 million total worldwide) and one of the great film franchises of all time? Before the film’s release Harrison Ford was already world famous for a couple of films called Star Wars and The Empire Strike Back, but his role as Indiana Jones in this throwback blockbuster propelled him to bankable leading man (prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford’s leading roles outside of the Star Wars franchise were in the films Hanover Street, Force 10 from Navarone and The Frisco Kid, none of which grossed $10 million in North America). Ford makes archaeology exciting and cool when Professor Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government in 1936 to find the location of the biblical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do, visiting several exotic locations (Nepal, Cairo) along the way. Producer George Lucas co-wrote the original story with Philip Kaufman (The Wanderers, The Right Stuff) as a love letter to the adventure serials of the 1940’s, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado) wrote a screenplay that incorporates the cliffhanger elements of the old movie serials and grabs the audience from the opening sequence. His script was brought to life and ingrained in our cinematic memories by director Steven Spielberg (how many times have we seen the clip of the giant stone rolling down towards Indy?) for a non-stop, action filled ride. Even after 40 years, Raiders of the Lost Ark never gets old.

Superman II (June 19) is regarded by many as the best of the Christopher Reeve Superman films. The film begins with a montage of the key scenes from 1978’s Superman: The Movie, and once the audience is back up to speed, continues with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) in Paris putting herself in harm’s way to get the world’s biggest story: a terrorist group has taken hostages on the Eiffel Tower and set up a hydrogen bomb. Clark/Superman saves her and launches the bomb into space just as it detonates, saving Paris but freeing three Kryptonian criminals (General Zod played by Terence Stamp, Ursa played by Sarah Douglas, and Non played by Jack O’Halloran – introduced in the first film’s opening trial scene on Krypton) from their exile in the Phantom Zone. Earth’s sun provides them with identical powers to Superman and they make their way to Earth with the intent of world domination (what else?). In the meantime Clark and Lois are assigned an expose in Niagara Falls, where Lois confirms that Clark is Superman. He takes her to his Fortress of Solitude where he chooses to have his powers stripped in order to be with Lois as a mortal being. But by now Zod has taken control, and Superman’s old nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has joined the fun. Though it was filmed simultaneously with 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Superman II has a more lighthearted tone and cinematography more in tune with a comic book film due to Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers) taking over directing duties after original director Richard Donner was removed from the project. Donner reportedly shot over 70% of Superman II, and several original elements pieced from outtakes were reintroduced to the film for the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in 2006. Superman II earned $108 million in North America and $190 million worldwide. In my opinion Superman II doesn’t match the original film’s heart and (in honor of Richard Donner) verisimilitude, but it’s a worthy sequel with a fun plot and dynamic visuals, making it a staple for fans of the comic book film genre.

Clash of the Titans (June 12), directed by Desmond Davis and written by Beverley Cross, is a fantasy film based on Greek mythology that showcased respected actors Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier and the classic visual effects of the great Ray Harryhausen. The film begins with King Acrisius of Argos exiling his daughter Danae and her baby Perseus to the sea for bringing shame to the kingdom. On Mount Olympus, Zeus, who had impregnated Danae and is the father of Perseus, orders Argos destroyed by the Kraken and Danae and Perseus saved. Perseus grows into adulthood as a favorite of Zeus on Seraphos, while his other son Calibos is punished for his arrogance with transformation to an abomination with horns and hooves. Calibos’s mother Thetis (played by Maggie Smith), angered by Zeus’s treatment of her son, transports Perseus (now an adult played by Harry Hamlin) from Seraphos to the island of Joppa where he is befriended by an old poet/actor named Ammon (Burgess Meredith) and begins his journey to earn the right to marry Princess Andromeda and save her city from destruction by Thetis. Clash of the Titans would be Ray Harryhausen’s last film before retiring, showcasing the effects on which he built his illustrious career in films such as 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts (also written by Beverley Cross). While the effects are dated by today’s standards (and even by the 90s for that matter) it’s a film that could be an inspiration to young, aspiring visual effects wizards who with today’s available and affordable technology could recreate Harryhausen’s effects at a fraction of the time and cost. Clash of the Titans may not hold up as well forty years later, but it’s still a joy to watch not only for the nostalgia but also because it’s refreshing to see an epic story told on a simple scale, unlike most overdone epic fantasy films of the last twenty years. It earned a respectable $41 million in North America and $70 million worldwide.

In History of the World Part I (June 12), writer/director Mel Brooks takes the audience on a comedic journey through human history beginning with the dawn of man and ending with the French Revolution (with stops at the Old Testament, Imperial Rome and the Spanish Inquisition along the way). It’s a very funny film by Mel Brooks if not at the level of previous classics Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, and is remembered and enjoyed today for several classic scenes (who could forget the catchy tune about the Spanish Inquisition?) and their memorable quotes (“It’s good to be the king…”). Watching the Imperial Rome and French Revolution scenes makes you wonder what could have been had Brooks expanded these scenes into their own feature films. At a $10 million budget, Brooks puts it all on the screen with a cast that includes Madeline Kahn, Gregory Hines and the great Harvey Korman, elaborate production design and some of the best traditional matte painting work of that era by Albert Whitlock (a behind the scenes look at that process can be seen here and Mel Brooks’s reaction to Whitlock’s work on History of the World Part I is priceless). It earned $31.7 million in under 500 theaters. If only there could have been a Part II.

Director Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (June 19) is that lighthearted, laugh a minute comedy that you just need sometimes, and is the antitheses to May’s disappointing racing film King of the Mountain. One look at the film’s poster and you know exactly what kind of ride you’re in for. Neeham (Smokey and the Bandit I & II, Hooper, Stroker Ace) with screenwriter Brock Yates (who conceived the Cannonball Run challenge and actually won it with a time of 35 hours and 54 minutes in 1971) crafted a classic example of an ensemble comedy along the lines of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but with a high octane upgrade. Racer J.J. McClure (Burt Reynolds) is focused on winning in the Cannonball Run, an illegal cross country race from Connecticut to California, with his sidekick Victor Prinzi (Dom DeLuise). They’re disguised as ambulance drivers to outsmart the smokeys, complete with a doctor of questionable qualifications (Jack Elam) and a kidnapped environmentalist as their patient (Farrah Fawcett). They’re up against racers of equally dubious tactics in former Formula 1 racer Jamie Blake (Dean Martin – whose performance makes you wonder if he really was drunk throughout this film or if he really was that good of an actor) and Morris Fenderbaum (Sammie Davis Jr.) who are driving a red Ferrari dressed as priests. The cast of cannonballers includes Jamie Farr, Roger Moore, Adrienne Barbeau, Terry Bradshaw and Jackie Chan. It’s not a perfect film, feeling a little slapdashed at times, and more than a few of the jokes wouldn’t pass today’s standards, including humor related to drinking and driving, kidnapping, cultural stereotypes, speech impediments, mental health issues and racial jokes. Ironically the tamest part of this movie is driving over the speed limit. But to its benefit, the film moves at a quick pace with a generous amount of the Burt Reynolds/Dom DeLuise comedy dynamic. This film was made to be a crowd pleaser and didn’t fail as it earned $72 million at the North American box office.

Next up, we continue our look at the films of June 1981 with four films that opened the weekend of June 26th: The Great Muppet Caper, For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, and Stripes!

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (May)

Friday the 13th Part II (5/1/81)
The Four Seasons (5/22/81)
Bustin’ Loose (5/22/81)
Outland (5/22/81)
Death Hunt (5/22/81)
Polyester (5/29/81)

May 1981 could be considered the month that the so called “sure things” ended up surely disappointing. Star driven films, acclaimed directors and timeless characters failed to live up to critical and box office expectations, but a couple of those under performing films might still be worth a look forty years later. And the releases that were notable in May 1981 included a horror sequel, two comedies, an adventure drama with two iconic leading men, an outrageous cult classic and an understated sci-fi film with a classic Western feel.

The less memorable films released in May 1981 included director Ed Bianchi’s The Fan (May 15) starring Lauren Bacall as a famous actress (Sally Ross) stalked by a delusional fan (Douglas Breen) played by Michael Biehn. The film vacillates between a dramatic thriller and a graphic slasher film but misses the mark on both with a muddled, bloated script that wasted the cast’s talent, and a heavy handed score that too often overstates the dramatic tension. It was unable to recoup its $9 million budget with a meager $3 million box office return. Happy Birthday to Me (May 15) is what you would expect of an early 80’s horror film, but accomplished director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear) elevates it from the typical slasher film with production value that exceeds most of the other horror films of 1981. But the story is overdone and the large cast of soon to be victims adds scenes that ultimately slow the pace of the film. It more than doubled its budget with a $10.6 million box office, but earned mostly negative reviews. The Burning (May 8) has three slasher tropes in the first ten minutes: a sleepaway camp, a prank gone wrong against an innocent person who, now horribly disfigured, will take his revenge out on the camp. Lower budget films have better production value than what The Burning put on the screen for its $1.5 million budget (what looks like stock footage of lightning at the 13 minute mark was especially out of place). And with a mediocre script for a derivative story, there’s little of note save for the opportunity to see the film debuts of Jason Alexander and and Holly Hunter.

Continuing our look back on the films that didn’t quite hit the mark in May 1981, director Noel Nosseck’s street racing drama King of the Mountain (May 1) starring Harry Hamlin and Dennis Hopper is one of the more frustrating examples. Despite Nosseck’s expertly crafted racing sequences with solid cinematography by Donald Peterman (Flashdance, Point Break, Men in Black) and editing by William Steinkamp (Against All Odds, Out of Africa, Scent of a Woman), King of the Mountain is weakened by unnecessary, one-dimensional, cliché characters and a script that veers off course by taking up too much time on the non-racing elements of the story. Ironically, the supporting characters are given more to work with in the script than star Harry Hamlin who plays Steve, an unambitious mechanic who puts his life on the line and his money where his mouth is as the top street racer on Mulholland Drive. While it likely wouldn’t have spawned a franchise, King of the Mountain could have been a breakthrough film in the early 80’s for the then cinematically underrepresented subject of illegal street racing.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger (May 22) was expected to be one of Summer 1981’s tentpole releases, but ended up as May’s critical and financial bomb. Negative publicity from the copyright owner’s lawsuit against 1950’s Lone Ranger star Clayton Moore combined with first time leading man Klinton Spilsbury’s difficult behavior on set led to PR and production demons before the film’s release. Despite opening in over 1,000 theaters, legendary cinematographer but first-time director William Fraker’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger earned $12 million against its $18 million budget and was outgrossed by notable films The Four Seasons, Bustin’ Loose and Outland in a crowded May 22nd weekend. Revisiting it forty years later, the slow pace, underwhelming story and Spilsbury’s uninspiring and unconvincing performance (his lines would be dubbed in post production by actor James Keach) as one of the 20th Century’s iconic heroes doomed The Legend of the Lone Ranger to obscurity. But the 1981 action figures by Gabriel are collectors items, with mint-in-box figures selling on eBay in some cases for upwards of $100 each.

Turning to May 1981’s notable films, Steve Miner’s directorial debut Friday the 13th Part II (May 1) was released one year after the immensely successful original film, earning over $6 million its opening weekend although its cumulative box office gross of $21 million was a less-than-stellar one-third of the original’s box office. Five years after the events of 1980’s Friday the 13th, new counselors in training at Camp Crystal Lake are terrorized and murdered by the subject of their ghost stories: Jason Voorhees. Despite Part II (and subsequent films) directly tying to the plot of the first Friday the 13th, the subsequent box office drop after a strong opening weekend could be a reflection of the sequel not meeting the expectations set by the classic original. But despite Friday the 13th Part II’s inability to match the first film’s cumulative box office and fan enthusiasm, it’s still notable for continuing the lucrative film series and marking the debut of the iconic Jason Voorhees that would be the (hockey masked) face of the franchise.

Death Hunt (May 22) is a film that I feel deserves a second look forty years after its initial run. Directed by Peter Hunt (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Death Hunt is a fictionalized account of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s pursuit of a solitary trapper in the Yukon Territory of 1931. Charles Bronson plays Albert Johnson, a trapper who runs afoul of a group of toughs led by Hazel (Ed Lauter). When they approach Johnson’s cabin for retribution, he kills one of them in defense. But Hazel and the gang’s discovery of Johnson’s cache of ammunition leads them to report him to the RCMP as the region’s reputed serial killer and the murderer of one of their gang. Sergeant Millen (Lee Marvin) is tasked with questioning him, but things quickly devolve and a manhunt is underway. Death Hunt recouped only half of its budget with a $5 million cumulative gross. But despite the lackluster reviews and box office, I would consider this film a must see simply for its two old school, tough as nails stars Bronson and Marvin playing opposite each other.

Bustin’ Loose (May 22) starring the great Richard Pryor had the highest opening box office in May 1981 ($6.6 million in 828 US theaters) and a cumulative gross of $31 million. Pryor plays professional thief Joe Braxton, who is spared jail time for a parole violation but is tasked by Vivian Perry (Cicely Tyson) to drive her school’s special needs students cross country from Philadelphia to Washington state in a broken down school bus. Her fiance, Joe’s parole officer Donald (Robert Christian), is against Vivian’s move and threatens Joe with jail time if he isn’t back by a specified date. Joe isn’t exactly good with kids and lets them know he’s not going to take any grief from them, but quickly realizes they’re tougher than they look. The kids are victims of emotional trauma that Vivian selflessly tries to heal, and Joe finds himself emotionally drafted into looking out for their physical safety and emotional well being. Overall Bustin’ Loose is a slightly below average comedy from Pryor compared to 1977’s Which Way is Up? (a remake of Lina Wertmuller’s classic Italian film The Seduction of Mimi) and his classic collaborations with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980). While the story capitalizes on Pryor and Tyson’s on screen chemistry, at times it plays more like a sitcom than feature film and can’t find the right balance between edgy and heartwarming. Even though Bustin’ Loose may not hold up as well forty years later, it’s notable for its success during it’s initial theatrical run and Pryor’s performance.

Outland (May 22), written and directed by Peter Hyams (2010: The Year We Make Contact, Running Scared, Timecop), is a science fiction film (along with Blade Runner) with a premise grounded in Earth’s contemporary problems represented in a futuristic interplanetary setting. Outland deals with corporate exploitation of resources and a drug dealing operation on a mining colony located on Jupiter’s moon Io. Outland has consistently been referred to as a western in space, drawing comparisons to the classic western film High Noon starring Gary Cooper. Sean Connery plays William T. O’Niel, newly assigned marshal to the Con-Amalgamate mining colony, who uncovers a less than secret drug operation for an amphetamine that is killing miners. When it becomes clear to the general manager Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle) that O’Neil won’t compromise his integrity and give in to their persuasion to turn a blind eye, a target is placed on his back and the clock counts down to the shuttle arriving with the hit men hired to kill him. But as Outland’s movie poster shows, O’Niel is ready for the fight. There’s something awesome about seeing a shotgun fight in space, especially when it’s Sean Connery as the lawman fighting for his life.

John Waters’ Polyester (May 29) is a campy comedy that spoofs suburban family life with more than a few jabs at the so called moral righteousness of the era. Divine plays Francine Fishpaw, a suburban housewife and matriarch of a dysfunctional family that endures community protests for owning the town’s adult theater. As the “normal” one of the family trying to keep it together, Francine is pushed over the edge by her cheating husband and delinquent kids in an equal opportunity offender that parodies wholesome suburban dramas and informational films of the 1950’s. It’s more polished than Waters’ 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos, and filled with Waters’ notable wit, outrageous characters and purposely over the top acting. Waters’ script and direction allows the audience to lower its guard, revel in the campy story and acting, and truly appreciate Polyester for what it is…whatever that is. And who could forget Polyester’s olfactory gimmick of Odorama?

The Four Seasons

Release Date: May 22, 1981
Starring Alan Alda, Carol Burnett, Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, Len Cariou, Sandy Dennis and Bess Armstrong
Written and Directed by Alan Alda, Cinematography by Victor J. Kemper, Edited by Michael Economou

The Four Seasons, written and directed by Alan Alda, had the second highest opening weekend in May 1981 behind Richard Pryor’s Bustin’ Loose. It ultimately grossed over $50 million against its $6.5 million budget to place it in the top ten of that year’s box office, but what makes The Four Seasons’ cumulative box office gross more impressive isthe fact it only played in 623 theaters. By 1981 Alda was well known for his starring roles in the TV series M*A*S*H (he also directed 32 episodes) and the films Paper Lion (1968), Same Time Next Year (1978) and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), but his film directorial debut of his screenplay for The Four Seasons showcased his ability to craft an expertly balanced comedy and capitalize on the talents of an accomplished cast. The chemistry in their performances brings a realism to their on screen friendships that is grounded in the emotional ebbs and flows of marriage, middle age and friendship.

The film begins in springtime as three couples, best friends, hop in a car for a trip outside New York City to a country house for a weekend of cooking, drinking and laughter to the score of Antonio Vivaldi’s Spring concerto. Jack (Alan Alda) is a lawyer married to magazine editor Kate (Carol Burnett); Danny (Jack Weston) is an dentist and culinary expert married to artist Claudia (Rita Moreno); and insurance salesman Nick (Len Cariou) is married to homemaker and novice photographer Anne (Sandy Dennis). None of them can pinpoint the moment that brought them together as friends, but their appreciation for each other is evident in Jack’s toast to their friendship, and their needling his need to accent every moment with his words. After an afternoon of one too many drinks and an impromptu fully clothed jump in a lake, Nick opens up to Jack about his unhappy and uninspiring marriage to Anne. In spite of Jack’s advice to seek counseling, he will ask her for a divorce. Nick’s desire for emotional support takes a hit when Jack doesn’t validate his feelings, but instead considers Anne’s well being over Nick’s.

By summer, they’re boating in the Caribbean on Jack and Kate’s new sailboat, but the dynamic has an uncomfortable air with Anne’s “replacement” by Nick’s new (and young) girlfriend Ginny (Bess Armstrong), who brings Nick the excitement he’s been craving. Her genuine pleasantness can’t help but confuse Jack, Kate, Danny and Claudia’s feelings towards her and their guilt over Anne. On one hand they’re skeptical of Nick’s attempt at a new life (with a tinge with envy over his and Ginny’s sex life), but on the other they really have nothing to dislike Ginny for. They understand and empathize with the need to keep things alive in a marriage, and as a group accept Nick’s new path. But by the time Autumn comes around, Ginny’s new place in their friendship takes a hit when they travel to a college Parents Day to see Nick’s daughter and Jack and Kate’s daughter and encounter Anne. She puts on a brave face around the “friends” that cut her out of their lives, lives that were more intent on keeping the group’s good times going rather than being there emotionally for a friend in need. Claudia and Kate open up to Anne and admit it was wrong and unfair of them, but promise to see her more and help with her career.

No spoilers here. Each season brings new challenges to the dynamic of the group’s friendship, and a greater awareness of their personal emotional states. The Four Seasons has a great script and direction by Alda with cinematography by Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice for All, National Lampoon’s Vacation) and editing by Michael Economou. Alda’s cast of actors are so in tune with their characters and in sync in their scenes they have no problem convincing an audience of their friendship, even when that friendship doesn’t keep up with their own personal progressions in life. Each character is given their “moment” in the film to vent their frustrations with life, marriage and sometimes each other, which makes The Four Seasons feel a little too “talky” at times. But Alda’s script keeps the audience engaged, maybe because as we get older we recognize some of the less comfortable conversations and situations represented in the film. The Four Seasons reminds us that friendships can fade over time, but the ones that endure do so because true friends can drive each other crazy and still stick by each other at the end of the day.

Next Up: Fante’s Inferno continues its retrospective with the films of June 1981, the month that started the first (and possibly the best) summer movie season.

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (Excalibur and Knightriders)

Excalibur

Release Date: April 10, 1981 (US)
Starring: Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Helen Mirren, Paul Geoffrey
Directed by John Boorman; Written by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg (based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur); Cinematography by Alex Thomson; Edited by John Merritt

John Boorman’s classic Excalibur is one of a handful of films that has had a profound effect on me from the first time I watched it (in case you’re curious, the others are Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso), and to say this film hit me at the right time is an understatement. I missed out on seeing Excalibur on the big screen at my local movie theater in April 1981, but the day the film launched on cable television I was hooked to the point where I noted each screening listed in the monthly cable guide to watch it every chance I could. Excalibur is an incredible film on all levels, especially the production design and costumes that make earlier films of the genre look too polished (the look of the film was said to be influenced by Roger Christian’s lost but ultimately rediscovered 1980 short film The Black Angel). Excalibur also came in my life as my interest in Dungeons & Dragons developed, opening my mind to a world of imagination and creativity that extended to storytelling and art (I’ve lost count of how many knights, wizards, thieves and rangers I drew back then!). So Excalibur is a very personal film for me because with each screening, even forty years later, I’m transported back to a time in my life when a group of us would meet up Saturdays for a marathon D&D game that would last into the night.

Excalibur begins with a night battle of armored knights thundering through the forest on their armored, snorting horses. Merlin (Nicol Williamson) surveys the field as the armies of Uther and Cornwall face off in the fog, swords clanging against their heavy plate mail. Uther (Gabriel Byrne) confronts Merlin about the sword he was promised, but Merlin will only give it to him if he wages a truce. The next morning, the arm of the Lady of the Lake rises from still waters to produce Excalibur. With Excalibur in hand, Uther offers his enemy Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) the lands to the sea if he enforces Uther’s will as King. As they feast to celebrate their truce, Uther can’t keep his lustful eyes off of Cornall’s wife Igrayne (Katryne Boorman), and casts the newfound peace aside to wage a war for another man’s wife.

As his army lays siege to Cornwall’s castle, Uther requests Merlin’s magic as an advantage. But Merlin will only oblige in return for the product of Uther’s lust. Uther pulls his army back, and that night Merlin uses the Charm of Making to draw in the fog, which pulls Cornwall’s men out to battle Uther’s army. Merlin transforms Uther into the form of Cornwall so he can enter the castle. Meanwhile, Cornwall is killed when he is thrown off of his horse and impaled. At that moment his daughter Morgana senses his death, but Uther arrives in the form of Cornwall and tricks Igrayne into giving herself to him. She is in disbelief the next morning when the real Cornwall’s dead body is brought back to her.

Nine months later, Igrayne has given birth to Uther’s son. But his joy as a father is short lived when Merlin arrives to receive his end of the bargain: their baby. Igrayne now realizes it was Uther that arrived in Cornwall’s place that night during the battle, screaming as Uther rips their child from her arms and hands him to Merlin, who leaves under the creepy eyes and silver tongue of Cornwall and Igrayne’s daughter Morgana. The next morning as Uther rides through the forest to get back his child, he’s ambushed and severely wounded. He staggers through the mud with Excalibur in hand to keep it from his enemies. He declares that no one will wield Excalibur but him, thrusts the sword into a stone with the last of his strength and dies.

Years later Arthur (Nigel Terry) serves as a squire to his father Ector (Clive Swift) and brother Kay (Niall O’Brien). A joust is held to give victorious knights the right to try to draw Excalibur from the stone and be named king, but the sword does not free itself for the unworthy. Arthur forgets his brother Kay’s sword back at their tent, but by the time he gets to it, it’s been stolen. Arthur chases the young thief to retrieve it but soon loses him in the woods. In desperate need of a sword he’s faced with Excalibur glowing in the stone and innocently pulls it free. Kay finds Arthur holding Excalibur, and Ector orders him to put it back in the stone so the people can see him free it. Uryens (Keith Buckley) forces his way to the stone to attempt to free it. But the sword won’t move for him and the worthy Arthur easily pulls the sword from the stone again to be declared king. Ector confesses to Arthur that Merlin brought him as a baby to them to raise as his son. Merlin appears to tell Arthur he is the son of Uther and the new king, but Uryens and his men declare trickery by Merlin and sides are drawn.

Arthur escapes the crowd to follow Merlin into the woods, questioning his ability to be king. Merlin tells him as king he will be one with the land and the land one with him. The next morning as Arthur starts to get a feel for the sword, he follows Merlin to his destiny: Leondegrance’s castle at Cameliard is under siege and Arthur leads his new allies to defend him.

Arthur and his new army arrive to the castle of a severely outnumbered Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart), who can barely hold Uryens’ men from scaling the wall. His daughter Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) sees the brave squire turned king scale the castle walls and single-handedly fight his way save Leondegrance. He then jumps into the moat, knocking Uryens off his horse and forcing him to swear faith to him as his king. Uryens refuses to swear faith to a squire, so Arthur hands him Excalibur to knight him to the surprise to everyone around him. Uryens is overtaken by Excalibur and knights the young king, swearing his undying loyalty. After the battle, Guinevere stitches up Arthur’s wound and wins his heart.

Fast forward to an older, confident Arthur who is faced with a single knight that his army cannot defeat: Sir Lancelot. Each of his knights defeated handily by the lone knight, Arthur faces Lancelot on a bridge and commands him to move for them to pass. The coolly confident Lancelot, burdened with the curse of not finding a worthy match that can defeat him, challenges Arthur to a joust. Arthur is knocked off of his horse but refuses to yield. Lancelot has the advantage but accepts hand to hand combat, making it look too easy as Arthur’s rage gets the best of him. Lancelot draws blood and Arthur is knocked onto the rocks of the falls below them. Arthur calls on Excalibur’s power and by his rage the sword breaks in half as it knocks out Lancelot. Disgusted with himself and his treatment of the worthy opponent Lancelot, Arthur throws the broken Excalibur into the water, ashamed of his vanity destroying the sword of his father. The Lady of the Lake appears with a mended Excalibur, and at Merlin’s prodding Arthur takes it from her hands in disbelief. Lancelot, finally bested and having given up his castle and land, pledges himself to the king. Time passes, and after a successful battle that ends a war Arthur calls his knights together, pledging to build a round table to tell their deeds, a castle around the table, and to marry a queen to bear an heir.

But the future the Arthur hopes for is thrown off course when Lancelot is tasked with escorting Guinevere to the wedding, and their hearts are brought together. Lancelot’s loyalty is pledged to the king, but his love to Guinevere, keeping that love in check by spending much of his time away from Camelot and the new queen. This arouses the suspicion of the now adult Morgana (Helen Mirren), who pushes Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) to accuse Guinevere of infidelity with Lancelot. Lancelot successfully defends her honor, but they ultimately give in to their temptation. Arthur discovers their infidelity and thrusts Excalibur into the ground between their sleeping bodies. Guinevere and Lancelot wake up, horrified by the sight of Excalibur. A king without a sword will lead to a land without a king, plunging the kingdom into despair and hunger for years to come.

No spoilers here. Each scene in Excalibur is reminiscent of a pre-Raphaelite painting (see John William Waterhouse’s 1888 painting The Lady of Shalot and Sir John Everett Mills’ Ophelia), with director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hell In the Pacific) filling the screen with imposing armor designed by Terry English and the lush greens of the production’s filming locations in Ireland (Cahir Castle in County Tipperary was the location of Leondegrance’s castle). The young cast is a Who’s Who of today’s dramatic royalty which includes Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and the amazing Helen Mirren. I was a surprise to me that many critics in 1981 were dismissive of the film. While Boorman’s and Rospo Pallenberg’s adaptation deviates from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur, Excalibur truly stands on its own as a pure fantasy film for its sincere, uncomplicated story. And that sincerity is unmatched by the more recent Arthurian fantasy films that with all of their flash never had the heart of Excalibur. Boorman’s direction, the cast, production design (especially the armor!) and locations are magic on the screen, critics be damned. And one magical sword gave us one timeless classic.

Knightriders

Release Date: April 10, 1981
Starring: Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Christine Forrest
Written and Directed by George A. Romero

The other (kinda sorta) Arthurian themed film released on a crowded April 10th weekend was horror director George A. Romero’s Knightriders, starring Ed Harris as the king of a traveling renaissance fair complete with knights competing in jousts on motorcycles. The film is a deviation from Romero’s better known horror films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) as a heartfelt but exciting drama representing the dynamics and social structure of the film’s renaissance fair troupe and the king trying to keep them together. But it’s the motorcycles that set the film apart from what could have been a straightforward drama, lending an authentic cool factor to the story. Like Excalibur, Knightriders was also a favorite of mine when it debuted on cable TV in the early 80’s. That was a time in my life when we spent our Saturdays playing D&D and Sunday mornings riding our Honda on dirt trails with our friends.

The film begins with Billy (Ed Harris), also known as the troupe’s King William, waking up with his Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) in a lush forest, absorbing the serenity and sounds of nature. But Linet’s watchful, concerned eye sees the crown weighing heavily on the king’s head. After his morning routine which includes self flagellation, Billy dons his helmet, starts his motorcycle and hits the road with the royally garbed Linet holding on to him. In Bakersfield, the renaissance fair is under way as locals partake in the food and trinkets, but the real show is on hold as two local deputies hassle the troupe for a bribe in spite of their legal permit. Morgan (Tom Savini) wants to pay them off and be done with it, but Billy won’t allow them to be strong armed, holding the line and daring the deputy to stop their show. Principles intact, the games begin.

Emcee Pippin (Warner Shook) introduces the motorcycle riding knights of the day’s jousting tournament as they draw lots for their opponents. Lances are sawed down to break easier, but the contact and falls are real. Morgan has his eyes on William’s crown and to get there has forged an all too real mace that outweighs the fake weapons, drawing concern from Alan (Gary Lahti) who predicts someone will get seriously hurt. That prediction nearly comes true when William is forced to defend his crown against Morgan. Already recovering from a shoulder injury that hasn’t fully healed, William stands up to the challenge and his duty as king even if he’s not fully healthy. When knocked off his bike and close to losing his crown, his knights led by Alan and Rocky (Cynthia Adler) save William from defeat and he’s brought to Merlin’s converted bus for medical treatment.

As he receives treatment from Merlin (Brother Blue), Alan gives him an earful about how he’s taking unnecessary risks that could jeopardize his health and the group. Billy gets back enough strength to return to the games, and when a young boy asks him to sign his picture in a motorcycle magazine, Billy disappoints him by declining the autograph due to the article painting him as the type of rider he refuses to be. Morgan happily signs the boy’s magazine as “the next king.” Another successful fair completed, the troupe cleans up the field, hangs up the weapons and hunts wild turkeys for their dinner as a community, each with their own roles (including Friar Tuck’s distillery).

But their night’s sleep is broken up by a nighttime raid by Bakersfield Deputy Cook (Michael P. Moran), who plants marijuana in a member of the troupe’s camper but offers Billy another chance for a payoff. Morgan practically begs him to pay Deputy Cook off so they can make their next gig, but Billy refuses and gets hauled to jail along with Ban (Marty Schiff). Billy orders the troupe to stay put until he’s back but Linet takes charge and goes against Billy’s orders, having the group pack up and get a head start to their next town. Alan gets his new girlfriend Julie (Patricia Tallman) to hit the road with him, getting her away from her drunken father and her abused mother. As Ban gets beaten up by Cook in the Bakersfield jail, Angie (Christine Forrest) and Pippin find the troupe’s lawyer Steve (Ken Hixon) who gets Billy and Ban out of jail and back on the road. But for Billy, the fight with Cook is not over.

Billy catches up with the troupe but is incensed they went against his orders. For Billy the troupe is a community and an extension of his ideals, which begins to come apart when smarmy promoter Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) attempts to sign Morgan and his knights away for a bigger and more lucrative act. Infighting and conflicts between Billy and the troupe take a toll and Billy starts to question himself as king. Lines are drawn, and one true fight for the crown must take place.

No spoilers here. George A. Romero’s Knightriders is a beloved film that forty years later still has loyal fans, myself included. The motorcycle sequences are still fantastic, making you wish they expanded the battle scenes, and Ed Harris delivers a performance that unquestionably establishes Billy’s principles and values. His heart is in this role, with no less commitment from the supporting cast that brings out the camaraderie of the troupe in their scenes. It would be unfair to dismiss the motorcycle themed plot and action sequences of Knightriders as gimmicks because Romero crafted a near perfect film on all levels. Could you imagine a drive in double feature of Excalibur and Knightriders? This is a film that lives up to the amazing image on the movie poster. Long live the king.

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (April)

April

Atlantic City (4/3/81)
Nighthawks (4/10/81)
Excalibur (4/10/81)
The Howling (4/10/81)
Knightriders (4/10/81)
The Last Chase (4/10/81)
The Hand (4/24/81)
Ms. 45 (4/24/81)

While March 1981 could be considered the month of noir, April 1981 had something for everybody with eight notable films that included two gritty New York City action thrillers (Nighthawks and Ms. 45), two horror films (The Howling and The Hand), two very different but immensely enjoyable films with knights battling in armor (Excalibur and Knightriders), a crime drama (Atlantic City) and a hard to find dystopian film that barely made a blip upon its release but developed a cult following (The Last Chase). While Excalibur and Atlantic City had the most acclaim of April’s lineup, each of the other films are must sees forty years later.

Even though April 1981’s comedy releases recouped more than their individual budgets, none make the notable list. Hardly Working, written and directed by Jerry Lewis, was a forgettable comedy about a guy that just can’t get things right at numerous jobs. It grossed $25 million domestically (plus $24 million international) despite the terrible reviews and having been shelved for almost two years prior to its release. Carl Gottlieb’s comedy Caveman (April 17) starring Ringo Starr, Shelley Long and Dennis Quaid almost quadrupled its budget with a $16 million gross, but even with the film’s charm and the cast’s on screen chemistry, forty years later it’s a curiosity piece built on slapstick that wears on an adult audience. The comedy Going Ape! starring Tony Danza as the inheritor of three circus orangutans earned $5 million at the box office, but based on the film’s quality it’s safe to say its budget didn’t come close to that amount. Writer/director Jeremy Joe Kronsberg also wrote the successful films Any Which Way You Can and Every Which Way But Loose starring the beloved orangutan Clyde and a guy named Eastwood, but Going Ape! was unable to sustain the late 70’s/early 80’s orangutan craze (sarcasm), falling flat upon its release and barely rating as a guilty pleasure forty years later.

Cop thriller Nighthawks directed by Bruce Malmuth stood out in a crowded April 10th weekend, with Rutger Hauer as an international terrorist taking his wares to the crime ridden early 80’s New York City, and Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams as the NYPD cops tasked with catching him. Early in the film undercover sergeants Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Williams) showcase their unorthodox methods in the decoy unit as they take out New York City’s street crime one thwarted mugging at a time. Meanwhile in London, Wulfgar Reinhardt (Hauer) is Interpol’s most wanted terrorist, planting bombs in support of “the cause” (which is actually not specified in the film). But Wulfgar’s misguided zeal has made him a loose cannon, with little thought of the children killed in the London bombing, and killing one of his own contacts without realizing he was carrying a passport with Wulfgar’s picture. Now he needs a new face and a new territory to earn the terrorist network’s trust as well as the money owed to him. But Interpol is one step ahead of him, banking on Wulfgar’s ego bringing him to New York City to capitalize on the press coverage in the world’s largest media market. DaSilva and Fox are assigned against their will to the new anti-terrorism unit (ATAC) in anticipation of Wulfgar’s arrival in New York. As they grudgingly work their way through the thorough but mundane training by Inspector Hartman (Nigel Davenport), Wulfgar arrives in NYC with a new face and new targets in mind.

For a police thriller set in the crime ridden, early 80’s New York City starring Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer (in his American film debut), Nighthawks is a pretty restrained film. Unfortunately it drags in the second act, overdoing it with Hartman’s classroom anti-terrorism training, but director Bruce Malmuth makes great use of the New York City locations, especially the scene at the Roosevelt Island tram. Cinematographer James Contner catches every layer of dirt on the buildings, every piece of garbage on the street, and New York City’s depressed haze from the rooftops. Hauer’s performance as Wulfgar (great name…) is a primer for his signature role as Roy Batty in Blade Runner one year later. Stallone and Williams make a great and believable team as they confidently walk where most wouldn’t as an army of two, knowing their street smarts (and the shotguns under their coats) give them an advantage over the street thugs of NYC. Williams is always cool and badass (though under utilized at times in this film), but it’s a really muted performance for Stallone, which makes Deke DaSilva the anti-Cobretti when compared to Stallone’s 1986 over-the-top cop thriller Cobra.

Ms. 45 (April 24), directed by Abel Ferrara from the screenplay by Nicholas St. John, is a hard hitting revenge film starring Zoe Tamerlis as Thana, a mute garment worker who uses the gun of one of her attackers to take her revenge on the lecherous men of New York City. The opening title, accented by five loud, clear gunshots prepares the audience for an hour and twenty minutes of Death Wish inspired vengeance, but nothing can prepare the audience for the brutality of first ten minutes of the film, which are very hard to watch. Thana’s daily life involves the gauntlet of men harassing her and her co-workers in New York’s Garment District, but her stoic innocence and vulnerability is shattered upon her return home from work when she is brutalized in two separate attacks outside and inside her home. She kills her second attacker, and in the process of disposing of his body uses his gun to protect herself and ultimately hunt the seemingly endless string of sleazy, dangerous men that draw themselves to her. Ferrara’s in your face directing style pulls no punches, but what is the line between a scene shot in an unflinching manner and a gratuitous one? Or between hard hitting drama and exploitation? But it’s a hard hitting, well shot independent film, making Ms. 45 noteworthy for 1981. Ferrara skillfully films the city streets in Thana’s thirst for revenge, from daytime shots of abandoned lots and buildings to stylized night shots that showcase Thana’s own personal transformation from meek seamstress to stylish killer (especially the scene shot at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park). But make no mistake, Ms. 45 is a film that is endured as much as enjoyed, but can still be respected for its overall cinematic merits.

In director Joe Dante’s classic horror film The Howling Dee Wallace plays Karen White, a Los Angeles news reporter dealing with severe trauma she suffered after going too deep undercover to unmask a sexual predator. At the advice of psychologist George Waggner (played by Patrick MacNee), Karen and her husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) visit his Colony for patients to continue her therapy, which they will find out is not what it seems. Bill is attacked by a werewolf and himself undergoes a transformation during a moment of infidelity with Colony resident Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks). Dee Wallace carries the emotional weight of the film from the opening scenes, but The Howling takes awhile to get to the crux of the horror, meandering through Karen’s psychological trauma and her strained marriage with Bill before living up to its title as a werewolf film. Dante got a lot of production value out of the film’s $1.5 million budget, highlighted by the locations, production design and Rob Bottin’s makeup effects for the werewolf sequences. Despite the limits of the horror make-up effects of that era when (unfairly) compared to today’s standards, there is something the latex, slime and fur brings to the screen that is missing from a flat, lifeless CGI effect, and shows the difference between “lifelike” (practical) and “realistic” (CGI). But Joe Dante’s The Howling is not a nostalgia piece for special effects comparison, but rather a layered story that’s part horror, part psychological thriller and just the right amount of camp. Definitely worth revisiting.

Martin Burke’s dystopian The Last Chase (April 10) shows its age forty years later (if you can find it), but its dated veneer shouldn’t discount it from the list of notable films of 1981. Since its cinematic blip on the radar and subsequent run on cable TV, The Last Chase hasn’t exactly worked its way up to “forgotten classic” status, but the theme of this film and the great cast makes it more engaging today. Lee Majors plays former race car driver Frank Hart, who twenty years after his career ended for causing an accident that killed two drivers, lives a tired, solitary life working as a spokesman for a now auto-less Boston’s transportation authority. Fed up with pushing anti-car propaganda by day, at night he works on a secret project reassembling his old race car for a cross country “escape” to California with the help of prep student Ring (played by Chris Makepeace). But they’ll have to outrun former Korean and Vietnam War fighter pilot J.G. Williams (Burgess Meredith) to get there. Read my full review here.

To include Oliver Stone’s The Hand (April 10) in the list of Michael Caine’s questionable film choices back in the 80’s (see Water and Jaws: The Revenge as examples) is both unfair and an inaccurate assessment of a very effective psychological thriller and diamond in the rough for 1981. Caine plays Jon Lansdale, successful cartoonist of the newspaper comic strip Mandro, who loses his drawing hand in a car accident. The loss of his livelihood takes a toll on his relationships with his wife and daughter (played by Andrea Marcovicci and Mara Hobel), and he moves to California to start over in a teaching position at a local college. But he’s haunted by his severed hand, now with a life of its own and back to hurt those around him. The Hand is an underrated film, with a chilling, understated performance by Michael Caine. My full review can be found here.

Atlantic City

Release Date: April 3, 1981 (U.S.)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Robert Joy, Hollis McLaren, Kate Reid
Directed by Louis Malle; Screenplay by John Guare; Cinematography by Richard Ciupka; Editing by Suzanne Baron

Director Louis Malle’s drama Atlantic City is technically a 1980 film, having premiered in France (September 3, 1980) and Canada (December 19, 1980) due to their co-production of the film, but I’ve included it in 1981’s list of notable films not only for its April 3, 1981 U.S. release date, but also the $12.7 million U.S. box office and the five Academy Award nominations it earned that year (Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor and Actress).

The film begins with former gangster Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) watching Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon) perform her evening ritual of rubbing lemon juice on herself in front of her kitchen window.(there’s a good reason for this) from his modest apartment near the Atlantic City boardwalk. It’s a serene moment to open the film, but Malle (My Dinner With Andre, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Vanya on 42nd Street) took screenwriter John Guare’s script and crafted a drama that expertly transitions the ebbs and flows between the quieter character driven scenes and the violent crime moments in an Atlantic City that has seen better, and rougher days.

Cut to a Philadelphia phone booth where a scruffy David (Robert Joy) scopes out a stash of cocaine left for a drug deal and swoops in to swipe it just before the intended recipients can pick it up. He takes it on the road with his pregnant girlfriend Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), making plans for when the baby arrives, even if those plans are not born out of good judgment. But their car breaks down on the highway and they’re forced to walk and hitch a ride in the back of a flatbed truck to an Atlantic City that is in a state of decay and irrelevance, evidenced by the demolition of one of its once classic hotels. David and Chrissie walk the boardwalk to one of the casinos lugging their gear like two old school hobos, standing out among the more decently dressed gamblers as they look for Sally, who’s none too happy to see them at her work and their latest attempt to mooch off of her. But yet again she falls prey to sympathy for her pregnant sister and takes David and Chrissie to her apartment just as a dapper Lou leaves his next door apartment to start his day’s work.

Lou’s job is taking care of the bedridden former beauty queen Grace (Kate Reid) by cooking her meals, walking her dog and doing her shopping. She treats him horribly but he takes it in stride (can anyone else besides the great Burt Lancaster play it this cool?). Meanwhile at Sally’s apartment, David has no problem taking her for granted, pushing another guilt trip and stealing the wallet from her purse. Her connection to the hopeless couple goes farther a strained sisterly bond: David is Sally’s ex-husband who left her for Chrissie.

Lou catches Sally on the boardwalk running back to her job. He drops off Grace’s poodle for a grooming and begins his rounds collecting small change bets for a numbers game. Sally takes a blackjack class under the watchful eyes and lecherous hands of her strict teacher Joseph, hoping to one day work her way up to dealer. As Lou drops the days bets off at a local club, an anxious David tries to cut the owner Fred in on the sale of his recent score of cocaine. Fred knows where the stash came from and refuses to do business with David, but gives him the number of a potential customer. David schmoozes Lou into letting him use his apartment, and back at Lou’s place he cuts the cocaine with powdered laxatives to double the day’s score from $2,000 to $4,000.

Lou shows David around Atlantic City, the stomping grounds he never left since he worked for the men who worked for the likes of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. He’s an understated, charming old man, but he’s not in David’s game to fill a desperation for conversation. Lou wants back into bigger action than the quarter bets he collects for Frank. They walk into the hotel where the deal will take place, but David asks Lou to take the stash up for him and collect the cash while he waits in the lobby. Lou is suspicious of a set up but David convinces him his shabby attire would work against him in the deal. He reluctantly takes it, but more as a kind uncle than a hardened dealer. As Lou walks into a smokey poker game to close the deal, David walks the streets but he’s stopped and chased by the dealers he stole from in Philly (Vinnie and Felix), sold out by Frank. He climbs up a car parking rack (a very good sequence) but is unable to get away and stabbed.

Lou surprises himself by closing the $4,000 deal and washes his face to regain his composure. He’s recognized by his old friend Buddy working as a bathroom attendant and they reminisce about their old organized crime days over a shoeshine (complete with a story about Atlantic City’s former kingpin Nucky Johnson). He leaves the hotel to the sound of sirens and flashing police lights and sees David loaded into the back of an ambulance.

Sally is working in the oyster bar when a police detective brings her wallet that was found on David. They rush to the hospital but arrive just as David is pronounced dead. Sally is neither heartbroken or surprised, and when she tries to make a collect long distance call to David’s parents in Saskatchewan they won’t even accept the charges (does it get more Atlantic City than making a phone call as Robert Goulet croons outside of the phone booth?). Lou is there to walk her home, but they stop into a diner where Lou makes the call to break the news to David’s parents. As they walk into their crummy apartment building, they finally introduce themselves and call it a night.

Lou tries to wind down with a shot of whiskey and counts the $4000 in his pocket. He watches Sally through their windows as she starts her nightly routine of rubbing lemon juice on her skin to remove the smell from her work at the oyster bar. Inspired, or rather (ahem) invigorated, he pays Grace a visit. The next day he brings Sally the paperwork for David’s services and then treats himself to a new suit before dropping off another stash of cocaine to the poker players in Room 307. With renewed confidence Lou shows that he’s in control of the transaction by firmly not accepting anything but the cash. But that newfound swagger doesn’t diminish his loyalty to his old friends, and Lou celebrates in his new fortune by helping Buddy.

He meets Sally as she gets off work to let her know David’s body will be returned to his parents in Canada. She’s suspicious to his motives but he convinces her he’s on the level. Over lunch she tells Lou her dream of moving to Monaco to work as a blackjack dealer. Intrigued by Lou, she asks him to teach her things about life and the world, but draws a line when he asks to see her again. They return to their apartment building to be met by Vinnie and Felix hell bent on reclaiming their stash. They pay Lou no mind, but manhandle Sally as they search her for the missing cocaine. Lou stands helpless, his “old school” quasi gangster persona nothing more than a shell. Sally’s apartment has been broken into and ransacked, but Lou’s was untouched so he takes the stash, packs a bag and gun, and he’s out the door.

No spoilers here. Atlantic City weaves a story that lays just the right amount of sympathy for the aged hero and nostalgia for a long gone era without compromising the crime and suspense. As the third act plays out, we begin to see Lou for who he really is, rather than who he portrays himself to be. Burt Lancaster is a gem in each of the films he starred in throughout his career, and it’s hard to imagine another actor that could have brought the same pathos and resilience to the screen in Atlantic City. He and Sarandon are perfect opposite each other as two boardwalk working stiffs developing a realistic May/December relationship, and the supporting cast brings the additional emotional weight that engages an audience in the ramifications of their actions: from the ne’er do well David’s thirst for the quick big payoff with no regard to the dangers it poses to the mother of his child, to Chrissie’s naivete and inability to take full responsibility for stealing her sister’s husband. This film is a near flawless crime drama with Richard Ciupka’s cinematography representing the bleak day to day of a near forgotten city that lost hope for better days ahead, seamlessly cut together by editor Suzanne Baron. But the main theme of Atlantic City is more than nostalgia, but also the desire and sometimes desperation to hold on to one’s own relevance in a changing world.

Next up: We round out April 1981’s notable films by revisiting old school and new(ish) school Medieval times with John Boorman’s Excalibur and George Romero’s Knightriders!

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (Thief and Diva)

Thief

Release Date: 3/27/81
Starring: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky
Written and Directed by Michael Mann
Cinematography by Donald Thoren

It was Michael Mann’s Thief that inspired this retrospective and motivated me to revisit the full list of films of 1981 to declare it the most underrated year of cinema. Older films should not be judged simply for dated elements that can detach viewers from the story, but it’s an unfortunate fact that some films don’t withstand the test of time. Thief doesn’t fall into that category and still hits on all cylinders 40 years later, with gritty cinematography, smooth editing, and a score that screams early 80s cool. These elements still inspire, which is why Thief is one of the best films of 1981 and set the stage for the great work Michael Mann would bring to television and cinema over the course of his career.

Thief hooks you in from the opening sequence, and it starts with three simple elements that are expertly brought together: The electric blue title on a black background. Rainy streets at night. A mesmerizing soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. But these signature 80’s touches shouldn’t be judged as mere tropes, but rather as the foundation for a style that would be imitated throughout the decade and beyond, making Thief one of the premiere examples of 80’s neo-noir. While the foundations of March 1981’s other noir films Cutter’s Way and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on murder and greed, Thief makes it all about the heist.

The film begins on a rainy Chicago night as three men quietly walk into a car that pulls out onto an empty street, on their way to their night’s work. Parked in a dark alley the driver sits in the car as the spotter, listening to the police radio for any hint of their activity. The tech whiz Barry (played by Jim Belushi) disables the alarm. The safe cracker Frank (played by James Caan) works an industrial drill into a seemingly impenetrable safe. They know if they each do their jobs right, there won’t be a hitch. Frank cracks the safe, throwing aside everything except the boxes of diamonds. The score successful, they methodically pack up and move on without a word. No questions about next steps or mistrust about who holds the loot, these guys are professionals down to the coveralls and separate getaway cars.

By day Frank runs a successful car dealership, but his main financial interests are based on his night work. He meets with his middleman Joe Gags at a diner to move the diamonds for cash. Gags offers to buy them outright for $185,000 and they arrange for Barry to pick up the payment. Gags lets Frank know there are some “stand up guys” that want to meet him, but Frank resists because he doesn’t want the complications. After their handshake deal Frank turns his attention to the hostess Jessie (played by Tuesday Weld), scoring a date with her for later that night. Afterwards as he takes a break from his work at the car lot, he reads a letter from his friend Okla who’s currently in prison and needs to see Frank as soon as possible.

But even the best laid plans can fall victim to an unexpected hitch. Frank gets an urgent message to call Barry who tells him he can’t make the cash pickup because Gags cheated the wrong guy, Attaglia, and was pushed out a window with their $185,000 in his pocket. Frank pays a visit to Attaglia’s steel plating company to make him cover the $185,000 that will now end up in police evidence. He’s not in the mood for Attaglia playing dumb, so Frank makes him an offer he can’t refu—, sorry, he puts a gun to Attaglia’s head and tells him he has until that night to pay up.

Frank stops at the prison to see Okla (played by Willie Nelson) who asks Frank to help him get out as soon as possible. Frank tells him to hang tight because he only has ten months left in his sentence, but Okla doesn’t have that long due to a heart condition and he doesn’t want to die in prison. Frank gives him his word he’ll get him out, and another weight is added to his shoulders.

Later that night Frank arrives at the pickup spot for his $185,000, unphased by the two men Attaglia brought with him. Meanwhile two cops on a stake out are taking pictures of the transaction, and Barry is perched on top of a nearby billboard with a gun pointed at Attaglia’s group…just in case. The creepily in control Leo (played by Robert Prosky) calmly hands Frank his money but also has a proposition for him. Leo is the upstream guy who had Gags in his pocket and runs scores all over the country. He offers Frank the opportunity to work on higher stakes jobs that could make him a millionaire in months. All jobs would be properly cased, and if he’s caught there’s also a lawyer to spring him. Frank is hesitant, but if he accepts he’s only bound to two or three jobs with the opportunity to then move on if he chooses. Frank tells him he’ll think about it.

His meeting with Leo makes him two hours late for his date with Jessie, who sits fuming in a crowded club, not interested in going on with their date. She has no patience for his excuses but he has even less patience and drags her out to his car, flashing his gun at anyone trying to stop him. On Okla’s advice, and with Jessie in the front seat as a captive audience, he comes clean about his work as a thief. Over coffee at a diner (and after Jessie calling him an asshole) they let down their guards and open up: how Frank went to prison for stealing $40, and Jessie’s ex moved drugs and died. She’s happy with her ordinary, boring life but she gives Frank a chance. This diner scene is priceless, and Frank’s moving story about how he survived prison is just one of many pieces of Thief that make it notable. Caan and Weld play their scenes with authenticity, with Jessie bridging the hard hitting scenes with moments of tenderness and devotion.

Frank calls Leo from a payphone to accept his offer, but for only for big scores, and shortly after he and Barry fly out to LA to case their first job. When he gets back he wastes no time starting a life with Jessie buying a house in the suburbs. Now the work begins. He contracts his old friend Sam, a machinist, for the equipment he’ll need to burn through the safe. Sam is surprised by the safe’s specs, which will need custom equipment that he may not even be able to build, but he’ll find a way. But while the bigger job will give him a bigger score, it also comes with bigger risks, and a bigger commitment that he may not be prepared for.

Okla’s granted early release thanks to the creative work of his lawyer and a $6,000 cash payment to the judge. Frank and Jessie try to adopt a child, but his criminal record makes them less desirable as parents and their dream is crushed. Frank calls the case worker out on her hypocrisy, telling her he was a child of the system who understands the despair of growing up in an institution. But his words and his temper get them nowhere as he and Jessie are escorted out. Mann masterfully ends the sequence with a simple shot of Frank and Jessie later that night as they sit outside their home, silently and in each others arms, as their house begins to look more empty.

Soon after Frank is tailed by two Chicago detectives and is pulled over. Sergeant Urizzi and his partner offer to “make life easier” for Frank and establish a new business relationship to the tune of giving them ten points on any score through Leo. Frank refuses, but it’s far from over and he’s now a marked man. Chicago PD watch Frank’s every move, bug his house, and take him in at gunpoint on a bogus traffic violation to “persuade” him to take their offer. Frank confronts Leo about the increase in the heat. Leo says he’ll take care of it and also helps Frank with the adoption issue. His family complete, his equipment built, and the building’s alarm password recorded, it’s time to get to work. But as Frank will realize, each new “gift” comes with strings attached, and honor among thieves doesn’t count for much.

No spoilers here. Director Michael Mann, cinematographer Donald Thoren and editor Dov Hoenig constructed a near flawless film that is perfectly matched with Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack, and arguably sets the tone for 80’s neo-noir. But it’s James Caan’s performance that truly makes the film memorable. He brings more to the role than just a safe cracker looking for one last big score (though Caan actually looks like he can crack a few safes between movies if he wanted to). The weight of his performance brings Frank’s humanity front and center: he’s a man who is loyal to his friends and ultimately wants the family that eluded him in life, and will do anything to protect it. Caan’s performance as Sonny Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather will always be his signature role, but Thief will always be Caan’s signature film.

Diva

Release Date: March 11, 1981 (France)
Starring: Frederic Andrei, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Jacques Fabbri, Thuy An Luu, Anny Romand, Chantal Deruaz
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix
Screenplay by Jean Van Hamme & Jean-Jacques Beineix (based on the book Diva by Delacorta)
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot

While the the look of Michael Mann’s Thief exudes a gritty realism, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s French crime thriller Diva stands out for the beautifully saturated cinematography and methodically crafted directing style of the cinema du look that puts the noir elements in the story and a cool 80’s new wave sheen in the visuals. For years I’d confused this film with 1987’s Aria, and revisiting Diva was a welcome rediscovery of an intriguing film that mesmerizes with each scene.

Jules (played by Frederic Andrei), a postal carrier in Paris, attends the performance of opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (played by real life soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) after his shift. Still wearing his postal hat and jacket, he stands out among the well dressed audience. But the postal bag on his lap hides a Nagra reel to reel audio recorder he uses to bootleg her performance, and gets the attention of two men sitting behind him. After the recital he briefly meets Hawkins backstage for an autograph. She is charmed by his postal outfit and politely chats with him, but Jules is quickly pushed aside by one of her acquaintances. Everyone backstage is focused on Hawkins which allows Jules to swipe her dress from the performance. He returns to his modest loft located in a mechanic’s garage with his new trophy and listens to his high quality recording of the night’s recital.

The next day while Jules is on his rounds, a young woman named Nadia (played by Chantal Deruaz) wanders in a train station, standing out among the morning commuters with bare feet and fear in her eyes. A car pulls up and two mysterious men, L’Antillais (played by Gerard Darmond) and Le Cure (played by Dominique Pinon) enter the station looking for her, but Nadia’s behavior makes the audience wonder if she’s trying to escape from them or actually draw them in. They spot her and she quickly heads for an exit. Outside the station she eyes Jules’ idling moped, but rather than stealing it she clandestinely drops something into one of the side bags. In the distance, Paula (played by Anny Romand) and Krantz (Jean-Jacques Moreau) sit at a cafe table observing Nadia but don’t intervene when the two men catch up to her. She bumps into Jules, but as he tries to help her up, Le Cure shoves him aside flashing a police identification. Paula gets up to help Nadia but she is held down by Krantz because something is “off” about the situation. Jules rides off and the goons shove Nadia into the back of their car, but she breaks free. As she tries to escape she gets an ice pick in the back, killing her instantly. As the two goons drive off, Paula curses under her breath over Nadia’s dead body.

Jules chats up young shoplifter Alba (played by Thuy An Luu) and asks her on a date. At a junk yard L’Antillais’ car is destroyed as he tries to explain the situation over with an interested party on the other end of the call. At a police precinct, Paula and her partner Nortier (Gerard Chaillou) explain to Commissioner Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) that Nadia was a prostitute who was trying to blow the lid on an international drug and prostitution ring known as the “West Indian Network.” Saporta is skeptical and doesn’t want to pursue it. The man with Paula at the station, Krantz, is an informer who had a relationship with Nadia, and he tells the chief she was going to name of the head of the West Indian Network. The chief is suddenly more interested in the case when he hears she named names on the audio tape she dropped in Jules’ moped bag.

Jules brings Alba to his flat to impress her with his recording equipment. She’s taken a liking to Jules and gives him a stolen Rolex as a gift, and he shares with her Cynthia’s performance of “La Wally” from the night before. Meanwhile at a local carnival, Krantz runs a game stand but meets the same fate as Nadia with an ice pick in his back. Back at Jules’ place, Alba is moved by Cynthia’s performance and borrows it for her boyfriend, conceptual artist Gorodish (Richard Bohringer). After Alba leaves, Jules picks up a prostitute, having her wear Cynthia’s blue dress for their tryst. While he’s at her place, the two men from the recital tear up his apartment. When Jules returns, he breaks down in tears at the destruction of his precious recordings. He stays with two friends, and the next morning one of them calls in from work to tell Jules two men came in asking about him. He borrows his friend’s motorcycle so as not to be recognized on his signature yellow moped. But while reaching into his moped’s side bag for his gloves, Jules finds Nadia’s tape. Paula and Nortier see the aftermath of Jules’ apartment realize others are interested in Nadia’s recording as well.

By now the theft of Cynthia’s dress has made front page news. Jules makes his way into Cynthia’s suite under the guise of a flower delivery. She offers him a tip, but instead he gives her back the blue dress from her performance. She recognizes Jules as the postman she met after the show, but he doesn’t get the reaction he was expecting for his honesty and she threatens to call hotel security. He confesses he’s traveled to see her European shows, giving details of each performance down to the songs performed and the encores she wouldn’t give. Cynthia warms up to him when she realizes he’s a true fan and sets up a date with him for later in the night. At her afternoon press conference, she is asked why she never records her performances to which she replies that she doesn’t agree with that combination of art and commerce, and that bootlegs are a violation. The two men from the concert take their leave from the press conference.

In a dark parking garage, L’Antillais and Le Cure meet up with the man who has a vested interest in Nadia’s bombshell recording: Commissioner Saporta, the head of the West Indian Network. He instructs them to find Jules and the tape no matter the cost, and if he goes down, they go down with him. Meanwhile Jules meets with Cynthia for their date, spending the night and early morning hours walking around Paris until they return to her suite and their acquaintance turns romantic. Her comfort with Jules allows her to let him listen to her rehearse, something she had never allowed before. That morning, Gorodish is called by the two men that saw Jules bootleg the recital and they express their interest in obtaining the recording. Soon after, they call Jules at Cynthia’s suite to shake him down for the tape. The men, Taiwanese businessmen, then show up at Cynthia’s hotel to make an offer to her manager: she signs an exclusive recording contract with them or they release the bootleg without consequences or payment to her due to Taiwan’s non-compliance with international copyright laws. Jules’ dream come true of a relationship with Cynthia is now in danger of turning into a nightmare due to his actions at the concert.

Jules leaves the hotel and is quickly tailed by Paula and detective Zapotek (Patrick Floersheim). Jules leads them on a chase through and under the streets of Paris in a chase sequence that kicks up the adrenaline. He tracks down the prostitute from the previous night and asks to hide in her place. While alone in her apartment, Jules plays Nadia’s tape. As he hears her statement of Saporta’s role in the West Indian Network, he realizes the woman giving him sanctuary is also a part of it. As he sneaks out, he’s spotted by L’Antillais and Le Cure and another chase ensues.

No spoilers here. Diva is a cool thriller that stands out for its European flair when compared to the straight shooting Cutter’s Way and Thief. Diva is filled with emotional and visual ebbs and flows, where even the smaller, somewhat inconsequential scenes decompress the film into a methodically paced thriller but reveal their importance later on. Beineix’s direction combined with the beautiful camera work and seamless edits (especially the cuts to music) assemble each scene like perfectly placed pieces of a puzzle. The script’s two levels of intrigue from Nadia’s recording and Jules’ bootleg give the film a constant energy and motion without being overbearing, and keep the audience guessing as to who will get to Jules first and who he can truly trust. Analog was never cooler.

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (March)

March

Diva (3/11/81)
Modern Romance (3/13/81)
Three Brothers (3/19/81)
Cutter’s Way (3/20/81)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (3/20/81)
Thief (3/27/81)

Continuing our retrospective on the films of 1981, the most underrated year of cinema, March 1981 could be considered the month of Noir, with two American neo-noir thrillers (Cutter’s Way and Thief), an 80’s period remake of a 1940’s film noir classic (The Postman Always Rings Twice), and an edgy French neo-noir film that had a cool contemporary 80’s sheen (Diva). Rounding out the month’s notable films were a Rom-Com for neurotics directed by and starring Albert Brooks (Modern Romance), and an Italian drama that was Italy’s submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film (Three Brothers).

Two films that opened on March 13 and made the top 5 in opening box office for March 1981 were the romantic comedy Back Roads starring Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, and the horror film The Funhouse directed by Tobe Hooper which earned $3 million and $2.7 million respectively that weekend. But while those numbers were respectable for under 1000 theaters, ultimately they don’t make the notable list for 1981. Field and Jones show great chemistry in Back Roads, in which they play a prostitute and down on his luck ex-boxer who are forced to travel from Alabama to California with limited funds and even less patience for each other. It’s a well crafted film and grossed over $11 million, but is ultimately what you would expect of the genre, and the average story is only elevated by the talents of the leads. The Funhouse is a Tobe Hooper film that seems to have slipped through the cracks over time. The man who brought Leatherface to the screen with 1974’s classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which is still one of the all time great movie titles) takes us inside a nefarious carnival as four teenagers on a double date decide to stick around the funhouse after closing time, and are trapped and pursued after they witness one of the carnies (dressed as Frankenstein) murder the fortune teller. Compared to 1981’s earlier horror releases The Funhouse has better production value, but ultimately it’s the slow pace and lack of suspense that make the film middle rate at best.

Modern Romance (also released on March 13, 1981) is a film about how not to be in a relationship. Film editor Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) puts himself through constant angst and mental torture over his relationship with Mary (Kathryn Harrold). He falls into the traps of overthinking and “grass is greener” syndrome at the expense of Mary’s patience and devotion, making him more of a partner that constantly wears you down than lifts you up. With each scene in the film the audience can recognize Robert in someone they know (or even themselves), and throughout the break ups and rebounds he really has no one to blame but himself. Sometimes you just need to make a choice and run with it. Despite Robert’s cringe worthy behavior (wrapped in Albert Brooks’ classic comedic style), Modern Romance is a romantic comedy that people can relate to more than the traditional romance films the genre is better known for. Looking deeper into the film’s title, Modern Romance is a reflection on the changes in lifestyles, dynamics and subsequently romance itself at the dawn of the 80’s, making it less about love shared by two people and more about what two individuals bring into “the relationship.”

Director Bob Rafelson’s remake of 1946’s film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (released on March 20) is one of the intriguing films of 1981. It was actually the fourth film adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel of the same title, but for the purpose of simplicity its reference as a remake in this review will be against the 1946 version directed by Tay Garnett. Every remake has to balance respecting the original film and standing on its own: a shot for shot remake can fall flat, and veering too much from the original plot where the only similarity is a shared title defeats the purpose of a remake altogether. 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice stars Jack Nicholson as Frank Chambers, a Depression era drifter who takes a job at a California rest stop owned by Nick Papadakis (John Colicos) and his younger wife Cora (Jessica Lange). Frank and Cora begin a torrid affair and soon plot to kill Nick and collect on his $10,000 life insurance policy. The plot is mostly faithful to the 1946 film that starred John Garfield as Frank and Lana Turner as Cora, it has a strong script by David Mamet, atmospheric cinematography by the great Sven Nykvist, and raw sensuality that Nicholson and Lange bring to their roles. And there lies the dilemma with 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: the individual elements are well done and the finished film is a solid production, but it’s debatable as to whether it justified a remake (it earned $12 domestic and an additional $32 million internationally). And this debate is part of the reason it’s included in my list of notable films of 1981. Had 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice not been a remake of one of the classic examples of film noir it actually could have stood on its own, though it may not have qualified as noir or neo-noir but rather as a period thriller. Movie fans should see this film not only to compare the 1946 and 1981 versions, but also the previous international adaptations Le Dernier Tournant (France, 1939) and Ossessione (Italy, 1943) as a study on the place remakes have in cinema.

Three Brothers (aka Tre Fratelli), directed by Francesco Rosi is a drama about the lives of three brothers who travel from their separate lives in Rome, Naples and Turin to their rural southern hometown upon the passing of their mother. The oldest son Raffaele (Philippe Noiret), is a judge torn over taking on a case that could cost him his life, Rocco (Vittorio Mezzogiorno, who also plays the role of their father in his younger years) is a counselor for troubled youths, and Nicola (Michele Placido) is a factory worker dealing with a failing marriage. Time in the shared bedroom of their childhood home gives them an opportunity to reconnect and reevaluate their current circumstances and what lies next for them. The film’s pace is as tranquil as the Southern countryside, and the weight of the burdens on the three brothers’ shoulders is occasionally lifted by sentimental flashbacks to the early years of their parents marriage. This film is as much a meditation as it is a drama, not on mourning but on the stages of life, the roads taken, and the complications that arise with adulthood. Sometimes, as in the case of the tre fratelli, you just need to go back home for awhile.

Cutter’s Way

Release Date: March 20, 1981 (as Cutter and Bone)
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry
Directed by Ivan Passer, Screenplay by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (based by the book Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg), Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth

Cutter’s Way, Directed by Ivan Passer and based on Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone, is a largely forgotten film that deserves to be rediscovered. Having never seen or heard of Cutter’s Way prior to this year (its currently streaming on Tubi and PlutoTV), I purposely didn’t do any research on the film prior to screening it. So it was cool to go into a screening completely unaware of what to expect, and Cutter’s Way hooked me in from the opening scenes with a tight story, subtle but atmospheric cinematography and memorable performances by Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is an underachiever drifting through life half-heartedly selling yachts for his friend’s company and barely satisfying the married women of Santa Barbara. His good looks only get him so far, and his Austin-Healey that’s seen better days can barely get him across town. On a rainy night after a forgettable tryst at a local hotel, Bone’s car breaks down on a dark side street. He sees a car stop behind him and the driver dump something in a trash can. As Bone gets out of his car to ask for help, he’s nearly run down by the silhouetted driver. Bone glances back at the trash can but the rain picks up, and he quickly walks away without seeing a woman’s lifeless legs visibly sticking out of the trash can.

Bone finds his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) at a local watering hole. Cutter, a Vietnam veteran who lost an eye, arm and leg in the war, sucks the air our of the bar with his obnoxious tongue at a table of politely quiet patrons, until a racist quip lands him one step away from getting his ass kicked by two nearby pool players. But as he’s likely done many times before, Bone talks the situation down and the offended parties walk away. Bone takes Cutter’s keys and drives to Cutter’s house, where the all too patient Mo (Lisa Eichhorn, playing the role as more martyr than saint) drinks her way through her marriage to Cutter. As they share a freshly opened bottle of vodka, Mo hardly convinces Bone that she’s actually happy and would have still married Cutter had Bone not kept drifting in an out of her life.

The next morning two sanitation workers find the bloodied body of a young woman in the garbage can. With Bone’s Austin-Healey parked just ahead, detectives pay him a visit at Cutter’s house and haul him in for questioning. After six hours of interrogation and facing the 17 year old victim’s sister, Valerie Duran (played by Ann Dusenberry), Bone is released and is met at the city’s founder’s day parade by Mo and a jovial Alex who’s relishing Bone’s picture on the front page of the newspaper as the murder suspect. As they watch the parade, Bone recognizes one of the participants, an older man with dark sunglasses, as the man he saw in the alley the night before. Cutter drags him through the parade to get a better look at him and tells Bone it’s J.J. Cord, one of the pillars of Santa Monica society.

Afterwards at a diner, Cutter continues to question Bone to see if his story aligns with the recently reported event of Cord’s car found mysteriously burned the night before, shortly after Bone would have seen it in the alley. Bone answers with every reason possible why it’s unlikely Cord killed the Valerie’s sister. As far as he’s concerned, he’s told the police everything he saw and what he told them isn’t changing. When Cutter and Valerie ambush Bone the next morning, they read him a magazine interview of Cord in which he openly mentioned occasionally picking up hitchhikers. Bone isn’t budging, even when they tell him they visited a nearby gas station where the attendant told them a man resembling Cord had bought two cans of gasoline in the middle of the night, which he could have used to set fire to his car and destroy evidence of the murder. But their not so subtle conversation at the restaurant is overheard by Cord’s wife (played by Patricia Donahue), whose composure and silence should not be confused with complacency.

Cutter devises a plan for the three of them to write an extortion note for Bone to deliver to Cort’s office. But rather than threaten Cord for hush money, their plan is to get him to incriminate himself with a payoff so they can turn him into the police. Despite Bone’s reluctance to follow through on Cutter’s crazy idea, there’s a part of him that feels the obligation to bring the girl’s murderer to justice. But a man like Cord, played with an eerie, steely coolness by Stephen Elliott, didn’t get to his place in life by giving relevance to the demands of the little people. And they learn the hard way that a position of power is the greatest advantage in spite of the truth.

No spoilers here. Cutter’s Way keeps the audience guessing whether Alex Cutter is pursuing justice or a conspiracy theory, and if the obstacles he and Bone face are coincidence or messages to back off. But these questions go deeper when we learn that Cutter was also a child of privilege who grew up in the same circles as J.J. Cord, a man known for using questionable and aggressive business tactics to get what he wants. Are Cutter’s ramblings the product of his disillusioned, post Vietnam War outlook on life, or those of a privileged rich boy with a perpetual lack of accountability? Is he seeking to take down Cord as a personal vendetta, or as a statement against the upbringing he’s now ashamed of?

Conversely Richard Bone is driven in his lack of action by self preservation. Unlike Cutter he has no personal vendettas or principles that drive him, but there is a part of him that’s desperate to break from an underachieving life stuck in a frustrating state of neutral which, like his broken down Austin-Healey, fails to move him forward.

Screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin crafted a straightforward story that isn’t convoluted by overlapping plots or overdone backstory. Ivan Passer’s direction is subtle and effective in bringing classic film noir elements to a contemporary 80’s setting, expertly cut by editor Caroline Ferriol (The Stunt Man, 9 ½ Weeks, The Seventh Sign) and enveloped by a haunting score by Jack Nitzche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Stand By Me). As the opening credits rolled, one name that caught my attention was that of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who at the time of filming Cutter’s Way was one year away from shooting the incredible Blade Runner. Cronenweth took the simple, contemporary story and locations of Cutter’s Way and elevated them on celluloid to the point where you can almost feel the early morning mist on the screen.

But Cutter’s Way should be best remembered by the performances of Bridges, Heard (in a standout performance that should have propelled him to leading man status) and the criminally underrated Lisa Eichhorn as the tragic Mo, who in the simple act of asking Bone to pass a bottle, projects the hurt in her eyes, the weight on her shoulders and her misguided love for Cutter. If not for anything else, see this movie for her performance alone.

Next up: We continue revisiting March 1981 with reviews of Michael Mann’s Thief starring James Caan and the French thriller Diva directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix.

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (January and February)

January

The first month in what was to be a very notable year for film wasn’t exactly…well, notable. January was generally known as one of the two months of the calendar year (along with August) in which studios dumped their worst films for release, and January 1981 was no exception to this tradition. That month’s schedule of forgettable low budget horror movies (Scream, Blood Beach) and under performing wide releases (The Incredible Shrinking Woman) hardly forecast what would turn into a solid year of cinema.

Joel Schumacher’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (released January 30) grossed $20 million and is probably the most remembered film from that month, but in my opinion it doesn’t crack the list of notable films of 1981. Based on 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, Lily Tomlin plays Pat Kramer, a suburban wife and mother whose body can’t stop shrinking due to exposure to chemicals in household products. Despite the film being a solid showcase of Lily Tomlin’s talent in which she plays several characters, ultimately the film doesn’t hold up due to an uneven string of scenes that parody an America dominated by advertising and consumerism too hard and to the point of caricature where an audience isn’t engaged in the message or the characters.

In contrast, director Robert Butler’s lower budget comedy Underground Aces, with an ensemble cast that includes Dirk Benedict, T.K. Carter, Melanie Griffith and Robert Hegyes, hasn’t exactly made its way up to cult status over the last forty years. It’s one of the forgotten films of 1981 (think 1976’s Car Wash but set in the valet garage of a hotel), but a surprisingly well crafted comedy with a style and humor that’s of its time, although some elements of Underground Aces’ story and characters would not hold up by today’s standards. Worth noting: cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth would go on to DP several classic films of the 1980’s: Blue Thunder, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me and The Running Man.

Scanners

Release Date: January 14, 1981
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Stephen Lack, Jennifer O’Neal, Michael Ironside and Patrick McGoohan
Cinematography by Mark Irwin, Edited by Ronald Sanders

The first standout film of 1981 is David Cronenberg’s Scanners, which premiered in the U.S. on January 14th. Cronenberg’s two previous films ranged from the gory horror of 1977’s Rabid to the psychological terror of 1979’s The Brood. 1981’s Scanners is a “psionic” thriller that is heavy on drama and suspense but with a controlled, methodical style. That’s not to say that Scanners is a subdued film, as evidenced by car chases, gun fights and just the right amount of gory special effects including a memorable head explosion. Cronenberg injects an old school style of mystery and suspense, and ramps up the tension with charged scenes involving the scanners telekinetic power, represented primarily by a heavy musical score, sound effects and the talents of the cast.

Scanners begins with a disheveled and disturbed Cameron Vale (played by Steven Lack) acting erratically in a shopping mall, taking other people’s cigarettes and food without giving any thought to his behavior or their stares. But when he hears a woman’s dismissive comments about him he projects a telepathic burst that causes her to seizure but also exposes him to the undercover agents tasked with finding his kind. He’s knocked out by a tranquilizer dart, and wakes up strapped to a bed in a research facility located in an abandoned industrial building which is run by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who informs Cameron that he is a scanner, a telepath capable of reading, controlling and destroying people’s minds. Dr. Ruth (yes, Dr. Ruth…) wants Cameron to stay at the facility as one of his subjects to teach him to use and control his telekinetic power.

In an auditorium at the company ConSec, a presenter announces he will telekinetically scan each member of the audience. He warns them of the adverse side effects of scanning, but one man, Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) agrees to be the first subject and joins him in front of the audience. Revok calmly goes along by thinking of something personal for the presenter to telepathically connect to, but it’s clear that Revok is more in control of the scan, putting them in a telepathic tug of war that leads to the presenter’s head exploding. Revok is quickly taken at gunpoint, but subtly “scans” a doctor to inject a tranquilizer into his own hand rather than Revok’s. Shortly after, as Revok pretends to be out cold in the back of a ConSec car, he telepathically controls the driver of one of the company vehicles to crash, which creates a diversion and allows him to control and overpower his captors in order to escape.

These events prompt ConSec’s new head of security Greg Keller to propose dropping the scanner program which Dr. Ruth is heading. According to Ruth, the list of 236 known scanners in their program has been compromised by an underground, subversive scanner group led by Revok. Ruth recruits Cameron to infiltrate the subversive scanners, but Keller’s concerns run deeper than skepticism, and his self interests push him to secretly meet with a yet to be revealed contact that is meant to thwart Cameron’s efforts.

No spoilers here. Despite the low tech approach to many of the telepathic elements of the film, Cronenberg wrote and directed an engaging story with cinematography by Mark Irwin (The Dead Zone, Dumb and Dumber, Old School) and editing by Ronald Sanders (The Dead Zone, The Fly, Naked Lunch). At times Cronenberg’s script can be a little too heavy on the exposition and dialogue, and the low tech, music heavy telepathic sequences take a little getting used to (and some suspension of disbelief), but Scanners is a solid thriller that gets into your head, with Cronenberg effectively representing the cacophony in Cameron’s mind and the scanners’ desperation for answers and control.

February

February 1981 had more notable films than the anemic month of January, bringing out a police drama (Fort Apache, The Bronx), a thriller (Eyewitness), a beloved international road movie (Goodbye Pork Pie), and an under appreciated animated film (American Pop). But despite the quality of these releases, the overall U.S. box office continued to lag save for Fort Apache, The Bronx’s $29 million domestic gross. The Canadian horror film My Bloody Valentine qualifies as a guilty pleasure, and two other films released in February 1981, the underwhelming action thriller Sphinx directed by Franklin Schaffner (Patton, The Poseidon Adventure) and the misguided comedy reboot Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen starring Peter Ustinov in the title role (which even back then was cringeworthy and offensive), failed to meet to expectations and were the bombs of the month.

My Bloody Valentine, directed by George Mihalka, is set in a small mining town where a deranged killer has returned after twenty years to go on a killing spree leading up to Valentine’s Day. The killer, a former miner who lost his mind and resorted to cannibalism to survive a cave in, leaves boxes of candy with the hearts of his victims and warnings to cancel the town’s first Valentine’s Day dance in twenty years. The mayor and police chief cancel the dance to thwart the killer’s promised bloodbath, but a group young of miners and their girlfriends won’t have their night taken from them and hold their own party at the mine. And as you would expect, they’re taken out one by one. This film is filled with typical horror tropes (the legend of a local killer, the younger generation not taking it seriously and just looking to have a good time, shots from the killer’s POV, messages left with his latest victims warning of future killings) but solid cinematography, direction and editing resulting in a higher production value than January’s painful to watch Scream. But the film’s strong start quickly devolves in the second act due to the script’s one dimensional characters and weak dialogue that plays more like a horror spoof forty years later. And while not making the notable list for 1981 My Bloody Valentine could be a guilty pleasure in a horror movie filled night with friends.

New Zealand’s classic road comedy Goodbye Pork Pie directed by Geoff Murphy is a film that’s sadly off the radar in the U.S. due to the fact it’s incredibly hard to find on streaming services and DVD. But in spite of this, it’s a film that I vividly remember and enjoyed watching on cable TV around 1983, and I was happy to find Goodbye Pork Pie on the list of 1981’s releases for me to include in this retrospective. The film begins with Gerry (Kelly Johnson) using the money and ID from a dropped wallet to rent (technically steal) a car and drive to Auckland. While on the road in the film’s classic yellow Mini, Gerry picks up the heartbroken John (Tony Barry) who is trying to get to Invercargill to win back his girlfriend Sue (Shirley Gruar). Police chases and hilarity ensue. This is exactly the type of film I love to find: a low budget film with a fun story, memorable characters, and cinematography that makes the most of its locations. The full version of Goodbye Pork Pie is available here.

Eyewitness directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Deep, Breaking Away, Krull) and starring Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt is February 1981’s sleeper pick. Hurt plays Daryll Deever, an office building janitor who witnesses the aftermath of a gang style hit on a Vietnamese businessman during his cleaning rounds. He tries to stay out of the investigation but ambitious television reporter Tony Sokolow (played by Weaver) tries to get the story out of him. It’s a classic 80s thriller with noir-ish tones and a straightforward plot that doesn’t overachieve. And though it didn’t recoup its $8.5 million budget, it’s still an enjoyable thriller with a great supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer and James Woods.

American Pop is another great example of director Ralph Bakshi’s incredible animation in a career that includes Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and The Lord of the Rings. American Pop is a journey through American music history told through the lives of four generations of a New York family navigating their way through the tenements of 1911 to the mean streets of the 1970s. Bakshi’s brings back the rotoscope animation style that he used in 1978’s classic The Lord of the Rings, which perfectly complements this musical drama. To this day American Pop is a step above his other non-fantasy films Heavy Traffic and Hey Good Lookin’ and is considered one of Bakshi’s best works even if it didn’t find an audience during its initial release. I hesitate to call American Pop a rediscovered classic because of how revered it is among animation fans forty years later. It’s a film worth seeking as a testament to great traditional animation and the genius and talent of Ralph Bakshi.

Fort Apache, The Bronx

Release Date: February 6, 1981
Starring Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Rachel Ticotin, Ed Asner, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier
Directed by Daniel Petrie, written by Heywood Gould
Cinematography by John Alcott, Edited by Rita Roland

Released on February 6th 1981, director Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, The Bronx is a police drama from the era of the “good old bad old days” of early 80’s New York City, with the burned out buildings and demolished blocks of the Bronx, the inescapable graffiti, and the lack of services needed to keep the city clean and safe. The film’s opening title makes it clear the film is from the perspective of the police officers to prepare the audience for a warts and all portrayal of their jobs and their beat.

The film begins with two officers sitting in their patrol car on duty in an industrial part of the Bronx. They’re approached by prostitute Charlotte (Pam Grier) who tries to sweet talk them into some business but they politely decline. But she has other things in mind as she pulls out a revolver and shoots them dead in their car. Several local kids come out of the abandoned storefronts and buildings and quickly loot the dead bodies for their guns and badges.

At the South Bronx’s 41st Precinct, seventeen year veteran officer Murphy (Paul Newman) shows his young partner officer Corelli (Ken Wahl) the ropes, and explains how the borough gets notoriety based on the cop killings and insurance fires shown on the news. They respond to a suicidal tenant in an apartment building, grabbing him just as he is about to jump off the roof, and take him to local hospital despite the fact it doesn’t have a psych ward. Nurse Isabella (Rachel Ticotin) processes him and catches the eye of the older Murphy. As Murphy and Corelli cruise for a lunch spot, they spot a purse snatcher and chase him through the park. The fortysomething Murphy can’t catch up to him and he gets away. Murphy’s colleague officer Morgan (Danny Aiello) asks why he didn’t just shoot the purse snatcher since they could have dropped a knife on him and called it self defense. Murphy disregards the advice, but not without a tinge of disgust.

Captain Dugan (Sully Boyar) is retiring from the 41st Precinct and is replaced by the “by the book” Captain Connolly (Ed Asner). Connolly arrives for his first day on the job in a precinct that’s lacking in discipline, starting with the desk sergeant who when chastised for not screening visitors, informs Connolly that he’s 22 years on the job and is happy to retire at half pension before he takes any crap from him. As the jaded Captain Dugan fills him in on the 41st Precinct (dubbed Fort Apache for being an outpost in hostile territory) Connolly is more interested in which officers are corrupt and the questionable disability claims and absences, calling Dugan out on the precinct’s lack of motivation. Dugan refuses to take the blame for the city’s failures that led to the borough’s struggles with high unemployment and crime, and wishes Connolly the best.

Murphy is the over the hill cop that should have moved up higher in the force. Corelli is the young ambitious cop who is embracing the changes of the 80s, taking in self help books and wanting to work his way up to detective. They spot a pimp beating up Charlotte and separate them, telling them to keep their drama off the street. The pimp pulls out a few bills as a thank you, but Murphy makes it clear he won’t accept the payoff by taking it out on his luxury car. Murphy tells Corelli he won’t be owned over a couple of bucks, but Corelli reminds him they live in a world they didn’t make.

Corelli and Murphy respond to an ambulance call but the building they’re called to is dark and looks abandoned, raising their suspicion. They knock on a family’s door and they’re sent to the back of a crowded, dark apartment to a sick girl’s bedroom. Only she’s not sick: she’s having a baby. She’s 13 and hid it from her family but now she’s in labor. Murphy and Corelli close the bedroom door and Murphy, who’s been through this before, talks her through the delivery. They bring the young girl and her newborn to the hospital, where Murphy tells Isabella that was his 17th delivery. She invites him to come back at the end of her shift to take her for a drink.

Murphy takes Isabella to a local bar frequented by the precinct, but he’s unable to get her to open up about herself. Murphy tells her that he made detective once, but lost his position when a criminal he busted got off light and his lawyer got Murphy bumped back down to beat cop. He could stop a hood, but not a lawyer. They head back to his place, but he soon realizes Isabella isn’t exactly who he thought she was.

Murphy is no boy scout, but his years on the force has built in him a sense of commitment to the job and the community he serves, even if it is tempered by jaded wisdom. He’s prone to voicing his opinions a little too strongly, not endearing him to Captain Connolly, but doesn’t rock the boat with his fellow officers. But when he and Corelli witness a fellow officer cross the line and murder an innocent bystander, the game changes and Murphy is forced to decide whether or not to inform on him.

No spoilers here. Fort Apache, The Bronx is a non-stop ride along with a strong cast down to the character actors and a story that shows the police as outsiders in the borough they’re tasked to protect. Director Daniel Petrie directed television from the 50’s through the 70’s, and at times Fort Apache, The Bronx feels less cinematic and more in the style of a television episode, but he keeps the drama high both inside the 41st Precinct and in the streets of the Bronx. Cinematographer John Alcott’s camera work is more understated than his previous work on Barry Lyndon and The Shining, but he films the urban landscape honestly and gets the most out of each shot. Unfortunately a few of the characters are over the top, and the story develops too many plot points to all be adequately resolved in the third act, making me wish there was an additional thirty minutes in the film to flesh out more of the characters and their motivations, especially Pam Grier’s enigmatic Charlotte whose actions in the opening scene set the tone for the film. But at the end of the day, this film belongs to Paul Newman, who plays the tired, jaded Murphy with a steely eyed pathos that draws you in to one of the decade’s better cop dramas.

So two months into 1981’s underrated year of film, there are five notable films to revisit and rediscover. Things started to pick up in March with films like Thief, Diva and Cutter’s Way, which will be covered in our next post!

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981

It’s been way too long since the last film retrospective appeared on Fante’s Inferno. My previous posts on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and 1984 were a lot of fun to write, and even more fun to research. But with each year that passed since my last retrospective in 2014, I kept telling myself to get started on the next one, only to have life get in the way of revisiting the films of the Summer of 1985 and onward. So to find the subject of my next film retrospective, I reviewed the list of film releases from 35 and 40 years ago (to stay within my unofficial 80s timeline) to revisit the classics of that era but more importantly to rediscover some forgotten gems.

I initially planned on writing a retrospective on the films of the Summer of 1981, which in my opinion had a very solid lineup. But 1981 was also the year that some of my all time favorite films were released, namely John Boorman’s Excalibur and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (both of which are still in my personal top ten list of favorite films). Over the years I’ve reviewed several films from 1981 on this site (The Hand, The Last Chase, Gregory’s Girl, Southern Comfort and Time Bandits), so looking over the entire year’s film releases made me realize that 1981 as a whole had a strong mix of classics, cult favorites, guilty pleasures, and a few underrated and forgotten films that deserve to be revisited. Many of them can be found on streaming services today, which allowed me to dig deeper into that year’s lineup and rewatch a few of the less remembered films for the first time in four decades.

But researching this cinematic year led to a very surprising and unexpected opinion: that 1981 is one of the most underrated years of cinema, not only of the 1980s, but of the last 50 years.

I know, I know, that’s a bold statement. But I wrote “underrated” and not “best” for a reason. And while 1939 is considered the definitive “Best Year of Movies,” two recent books add the films of 1962 and 1999 to the debate, and in my opinion 1994 wasn’t too shabby either. Without question the films of 1939 still hold the crown of the greatest cinematic year due to their classic, enduring qualities and the reverence with which they are held to this day. And while only a small handful of films from 1981 could be considered true classics today, the fact that many of the lesser known films from that year are still very enjoyable forty years later legitimately puts 1981 in the category of “underrated” and well worth another look.

It’s safe to say none of the films of 1981 have reached the stature of 1972’s The Godfather, though Raiders of the Lost Ark is one film from 1981 that has earned both classic and blockbuster status along the lines of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and was the highest grossing film that year. But two of 1981’s Oscar winners Reds and Chariots of Fire probably don’t get watched with the same frequency these days. If you look at the films of 1972, 1975 or 1977, you’ll see a number of great films (for example 1972 also had Deliverance, Cabaret, and Jeremiah Johnson; 1975 included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and Three Days of the Condor; and 1977 included Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever and A Bridge Too Far), but in my opinion 1981 pulls ahead in terms of the consistency in the quality of a lot of films across all genres, even the hidden gems and cult favorites.

That’s not to say there weren’t any clunkers or outright bombs that year. For every Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond and Chariot of Fire, there was Sphinx, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, and the best example of the worst type of film: Going Ape! Like any other cinematic year before or since, there are films that have been forgotten for good reason. But others may also fall into the category of “badly made but fun to watch.” One thing I never do when I revisit an older film is to judge it by today’s standards with regard to effects, cinematography, etc. I’ll mentally turn the clock back and view a film and judge it on its merits of the time. Easier said than done with some films, but I choose to give each of these a fair shake even if some were intended as B movies and lacking in production value. Even some of the lowest budget horror or action films can still be enjoyable in their own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable films of 1981:

January to March:
Scanners
Fort Apache The Bronx
Diva
Goodbye Pork Pie
Modern Romance
American Pop
Eyewitness
Cutter’s Way
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Thief

April to June:
Atlantic City
Nighthawks
Excalibur
The Howling
Knightriders
The Hand
Ms. 45
Bustin’ Loose
The Four Seasons
The Last Chase
Gregory’s Girl
Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams
Clash of the Titans
History of the World: Part I
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Cannonball Run
Superman II
Dragonslayer
For Your Eyes Only
Stripes

July to September
The Decline of Western Civilization
Escape from New York
Arthur
Blow Out
Eye of the Needle
Wolfen
Escape to Victory
Gallipoli
Heavy Metal
An American Werewolf in London
Prince of the City
Body Heat
Continental Divide
Das Boot
Raggedy Man
Southern Comfort
True Confessions

October to December
Enter the Ninja
My Dinner with Andre
The Evil Dead
Time Bandits
Ragtime
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Four Friends
Pennies From Heaven
Absence of Malice
Chariots of Fire
Taps
Quest for Fire
On Golden Pond
Reds

This list will likely bring out comments defending some of the less successful films, questioning their inclusion as “notable,” or debating whether some of the acclaimed films of that year even hold up today. A few additional titles from 1981 might also be included in this retrospective. I look forward to a spirited discussion.

First up in this retrospective will be the films of January through March of 1981!

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