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

Looks and Smiles (9/12)
Continental Divide (9/18)
Das Boot (German release 9/17)
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (9/18)
Raggedy Man (9/18)
Only When I Laugh (9/23)
Southern Comfort (9/25)
True Confessions (9/25)
Chariots of Fire (9/27 – US)

September 1981 had a better quality to quantity ratio compared to that of August 1981, with dramas making up most of the notable releases, including an epic war drama from Germany and one very underrated thriller. But ironically one of the year’s worst reviewed films is the most memorable of September 1981’s releases due to its memorable campy, over the top performance that would be parodied over the next several decades. But September 1981 saw the North American release of (spoiler alert) the year’s Academy Award winning Best Picture, with a film score that is still recognizable and used (mostly for parody) forty years later. The top nine grossing films released in September 1981 would earn over $170 million at the North American box office.

Mommie Dearest (9/18) is probably best known for a scene involving an impassioned monologue about wire hangers and the over the top, nightmarish performance of Faye Dunaway, who is likely the first person people who saw the movie think of when they hear Joan Crawford’s name. Had Mommie Dearest been a fictional story and not based on the tell all book of the same title by Joan’s daughter Christina Crawford, the film could have been a successful psychological thriller (the trailer alone plays like that of a horror film, and effectively at that!). Despite the twelve total nominations for the Golden Raspberry (Razzie) Awards and the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards (with eight total wins, including Worst Actress for Faye Dunaway), the film still earned $19 million against its $10 million budget. From dysfunctional families we move on to dysfunctional friendships in director George Cukor’s Rich and Famous (9/23) starring Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset in a contemporary melodrama about two old friends navigating twenty two years of evolved personalities and professional jealousies that could strain even the strongest friendships. Best Friends is based on the 1940 play Old Acquaintance, and was Golden Age director George Cukor’s final film. But despite his incredible career with a filmography that includes The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight and My Fair Lady, Best Friends is an uneven film that would earn mixed reviews and take in $5 million against its $11 million budget.

Another critical and financial flop of September 1981 was writer/director Andrew Bergman’s comedy So Fine (9/25) starring Ryan O’Neal, a comedy released at the height of the designer jean craze of the early 80’s. O’Neal plays Bobby Fine, an academic who saves his father’s garment business by accidentally creating the next fashion fad with a line of designer jeans. Bergman would go on to write the 1985 comedy classic Fletch and write and direct The Freshman (1990) and Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), but So Fine’s push for laughs falls flat, and earned less than $5 million against its $10 million budget. Michael Schultz’s Carbon Copy (9/25) starring George Segal and Denzel Washington is a comedy about a Caucasian father introduced to his previously unknown African American son, and soon looses his job and family as he maintains a presence in his newfound son’s life. Segal and Washington play their roles with a charming familiarity that draws in the audience, but the script relies heavily on racial humor and at times is crassly stereotypical pushing for the cheap laughs. It’s hard to watch this film without wincing at more than a few of the jokes and gags that don’t age well after forty years (including the film’s title). But despite the film’s missteps, Carbon Copy is notable for Denzel Washington’s big screen debut, and earned over $9 million against its $6 million budget.

Director Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a story within a story, comprised of a lush Victorian era period drama told in parallel with a contemporary fictional behind-the-scenes making of the film, complete with rehearsals, meal breaks and an affair between the co-stars. Meryl Streep plays the mysterious title character Sarah Woodruff, a Victorian era housemaid who hauntingly stands at the edge of a pier each day awaiting the return of the French lieutenant who left her and her reputation destroyed, and Anna the modern day actress playing her in the film production of her story. Jeremy Irons plays Charles Smithson, a young paleontologist who sacrifices his own reputation and his future to help her. In the present day (for 1981), actors Anna (Streep) and Mike (Irons) are having an affair during filming, with Mike doing most of the emotional heavy lifting. Though the story starts out slow, and individually the period and contemporary scenes would not have enough plot to effectively expand into two separate full length feature films, director Karel Reisz effectively melds them into a cohesive story grounded in the emotional turmoil of the characters in Harold Pinter’s screenplay, with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons beautifully photographed by Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man, Glory, Dune). The French Lieutenant’s Woman found an audience, earning $26 million against its $8 million budget as well as five Academy Award nominations including Best Actress for Streep and Best Adapted Screenplay for Pinter.

Director Ulu Grosbard’s True Confessions (9/25) is a pulp/noir L.A. mystery (co-written by Joan Didion) set in the 1940’s starring two top actors in Robert Duvall and Robert DeNiro. Duvall plays Tom Spellacy, an LAPD detective working a murder case that starts with the discovery of a severed prostitute and spirals into the seedy world of pornography. His brother Monsignor Desmond Spellacy, played by DeNiro, is the bishop’s right hand man and a little too close to the key players in Tom’s murder investigation. The film is as much about Tom and Desmond’s brotherly dynamic as it is a murder mystery, though sometimes at the expense of the latter. True Confessions is a solid film that is rich in texture, with top notch production design and wardrobe that recreates 1949 Los Angeles. But the story is brought down by the slow pace, under developed characters, and anticlimactic ending. And at times it feels as if the writers held back in depicting the main plot element of the sleazy underground world of prostitution and stag films. Despite a gruesome murder and the twists and turns into places that are best not seen, the story falls flat. It doesn’t properly raise the stakes or build on the heightened tension between the characters, which is a disappointment when you have two powerhouses like DeNiro and Duvall playing opposite each other. Considering this was DeNiro’s first film after his role as Jake Lamotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull one year earlier, it’s overly subdued. On paper this film has everything to create an engaging film, but even with the talent attached True Crimes didn’t find an audience, earning $12 million against its $10 million budget.

Raggedy Man (9/18) is a hidden, if not forgotten gem of 1981. Set in 1944 Texas, Sissy Spacek plays Nita, a divorced mother of two who is stuck in her job as a telephone operator for the local phone company and the target of unwanted advances by townies Calvin and Arnold played by William Sanderson and Tracy Walter. A young sailor named Teddy (played by Eric Roberts) arrives in the middle of a rainy night to make a long distance phone call to let his hometown sweetheart know he’s coming home to see her, only to find out from her father she married another man. With no place to go, Nita takes him in for his four day leave, which soon becomes the talk of the small town. Teddy, Nita and her sons Henry and Harry spend an idyllic few days together, but life doesn’t get any easier when the town creeps won’t leave her alone, her boss won’t give her a job transfer, and a mysterious, wandering “raggedy man” watches her at home. Spacek and Roberts are perfect opposite each other, and the performances from young Carey Hollis and Henry Thomas (pre-E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) steal a few of the scenes. Roberts is one of my favorite actors of the 80’s, particularly for his work in The Pope of Greenwich Village and The Coca Cola Kid. His performance as the kind and charming Teddy would be turned on its ear two years later in 1983 with his subsequent over the top (in a good way) performance as Paul Snider in Bob Fosse’s Star 80. Director Jack Fisk (Spacek’s husband) crafted a beautifully shot film, with an emotional tone brought together perfectly with Jerry Goldsmith’s score, Ralf Bode’s cinematography (which beautifully captures small town life) and Edward Warschilka’s editing. Despite mostly positive reviews, it earned just under $2 million at the box office.

Looks and Smiles (9/12) directed by Ken Loach (My Name Is Joe, Bread and Roses) is a fictional drama shot in an almost documentary style that follows a young couple, Mick (Graham Green) and Karen (Carolyn Nicholson), navigating their feelings for each other and their economically depressed city in Margaret Thatcher’s England. Mick is seventeen, out of school and out of work, with only the Army as an option to escape unemployment and start his own life. His friend Alan follows through and joins the Army but Mick’s parents won’t allow him to enlist. One night out at a club he meets Karen who works in a shoe store and they start to date. Mick has a stable home life but no job, Karen has a steady job but a strained home life. Barry Hines’s script accentuates the bleakness of their day to day lives and lack of future prospects, captured in black and white by cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, The Mission, The Boxer). The disaffected youth do anything they can to occupy their days (even if it means stealing a motorcycle for fun), sitting and waiting their turn in the employment office with only dead end jobs available and a sign encouraging them to leave for London. Looks and Smiles low key tone and Loach’s fly on the wall approach enhances Mick’s sense of hopelessness that is in turn felt by the audience. His casting of young actors Graham Green and Carolyn Nicholson (Looks and Smiles was their only screen credit) brings out the innocence of their characters. But their lack of acting experience and the film’s laid back style of direction leads to a slow pace that sometimes requires patience from the audience over the the film’s hour and forty four minutes.

Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (9/25) was reviewed on Fante’s Inferno back in 2019 (click here for my earlier review), and is one of the more cerebral and underrated thrillers of 1981 that is worth revisiting. Set in the Louisiana Bayou in 1973, the film follows a squad of national guardsmen on maneuvers. Their morale is apathetic at best and it doesn’t get any better with arrival of Hardin (played by Powers Boothe), a transfer from Texas who just wants to put in his time and get home to his wife. Their situation goes from bad to insanely bad when they piss off the wrong Cajuns and their commanding officer Captain Poole (played by Peter Coyote) is killed. Lost and pursued in the swamps, their desperation takes a toll on their already fragile cohesion as they descend into paranoia and infighting. Director Walter Hill’s resume includes classic films like The Warriors and 48 Hours, but Southern Comfort is one of his lesser known films that deserves more attention and acclaim. It truly stands out as a great psychological thriller with strong performances by Powers Booth, Keith Carradine and the supporting cast of Fred Ward, T.K. Carter and Peter Coyote. It received better than average reviews but didn’t find an audience to recoup its $7 million budget.

Michael Apted’s Continental Divide (9/18) starring John Belushi and Blair Brown is a romantic comedy about a hard nosed Chicago journalist out of his element in the Rocky Mountains. Belushi plays Chicago journalist Ernie Souchak, whose columns consistently call out the city’s political machine until one of his pieces gets him beaten up by two city cops. Sent out of town to lay low, Souchak tracks down Dr. Nell Porter (played by Blair Brown) for an interview about her work researching American bald eagles. But she’s not interested in having her story told and they immediately start to grate on each other as Souchak is now stuck there until his guide returns in two weeks. But opposites ultimately attract as Souchak begins to appreciate mountain life and Porter appreciates him. Continental Divide is a classic fish out of water story with great use of the locations and a script that doesn’t overachieve with its pleasant pace and grounded cast. Belushi’s turn at some of the more dramatic scenes takes a little getting used to at first (especially for the generations of fans that were initially introduced to his work on Saturday Night Live, Animal House and The Blues Brothers) but Blair Brown’s performance complements him well as he develops his rom-com legs. Michael Apted’s (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist) low key directing and Lawrence Kasdan’s (The Big Chill, Body Heat) screenplay allowed a comedic genius like John Belushi to graduate to a role based less on outrageousness (a la Animal House, The Blues Brothers) and more on subtlety. It pains me to think of what roles Belushi could have played had he not died at the age of 33 in 1982. While Continental Divide didn’t match the box office success of Belushi’s earlier starring roles, it earned a respectable $15 million against its $9 million budget.

In Only When I Laugh (9/23), Marsha Mason plays Georgia Hines, a New York actress just out of rehab for alcoholism, whose fragile bearings are tested when her teenage daughter Polly (played by Kristy McNichol) moves in with her, and her ex-boyfriend (played by David Dukes) offers her a part in his new play about their turbulent relationship. Keeping her grounded are her close friends, the perpetually under employed actor Jimmy (James Coco) and the looks obsessed socialite Toby (Joan Hackett). Neil Simon’s script vacillates between snappy and schmaltzy with non-stop dialogue among the four main characters, which would work great on the stage (the film is based on Simon’s 1970 play The Gingerbread Lady) but doesn’t give a film audience time to decompress. Director Glenn Jordan (The Buddy System, Mass Appeal) expertly crafts each scene with solid camera work by David M. Walsh (The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl, Max Dugan Returns) despite the script’s overly manufactured plot. It’s still a solid film with engaging performances by Mason, McNichol, Hackett and Coco who reach for the audience’s empathy as each of their characters face their own personal dramas (Georgia’s turbulent post-rehab day to day life, Polly’s yearning for a relationship with her mother, Jimmy’s stalled acting career and Toby’s failed marriage). Mason and McNichol are paired well together as mother and daughter, but unfortunately McNichol is given less to work with compared to the rest of the cast. Only When I Laugh earned $25 million at the box office, and Mason, Hackett and Coco would all earn Academy Award nominations for their performances, along with Golden Globe nominations for Coco, McNichol and Hackett (who would go on to win her Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress).

Director Wolfgang Peterson’s World War II submarine drama Das Boot (9/17) is a film that when brought up in conversation among fans of cinema seems to have an air of reverence associated with it which is absolutely deserved. It premiered in West Germany on September 17, 1981 to critical acclaim and international box office success. Based on the 1973 book Das Boot by Lothar-Gunther Buccheim about his experiences on a German U-boat during World War II, the film follows the crew of U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic, led by the experienced but jaded Captain (played by Jurgen Prochnow). It’s 1941 and the German U-boat fleet is stretched thin by losses, lack of support, and less experienced crew members that would have previously been considered too young for service. Lieutenant Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) is an enthusiastic war correspondent on board to document the crew and life aboard the vessel. His enthusiasm and excitement is soon tempered by boredom and diminishing hygiene, with attacks on the British fleet few and far between, and long, uneventful stretches at sea that are only broken up when they are under attack from the British destroyers and their U-boat pushed to the brink of destruction. But the crew, while rough around the edges, is reliable and loyal to their captain even when their orders and struggle for survival border on the impossible.

Few films set in wartime submarines capture the camaraderie, claustrophobic environment and day to day life like Das Boot. The story grabs the audience from the first scenes on U-96, and is perfectly paced for its over three hour run time. Peterson and cinematographer Jost Vacano (The Neverending Story, Robocop, Total Recall) give the film an epic scale despite the claustrophobic interior of the submarine, making this a film that must be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate the camera work. The film relies less on underwater sequences and battle scenes (though there are more than a few) but more on the internal struggles of the characters. We don’t need to see a full sequence of a British destroyer pursuing U-96 because the looks on the crew’s faces and the ominous “ping” is more than enough to heighten the tension. Das Boot would earn over $11 million in the US and Canada and almost $85 million worldwide. Wolfgang Peterson would go on to direct several popular films of the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000s: The Neverending Story (1984), Air Force One (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000), Troy (2004), while the great actor Jurgen Prochnow would have a long career with roles in films such as Dune (1984), The English Patient (1996) and Air Force One (1997).

Director Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire was released in the UK in March 1981 (and admittedly I should have included this in my March 1981 retrospective post), and premiered in the US on September 25, 1981 at the New York and Los Angeles Film Festivals prior to its wide North American release in April 1982. The historical drama follows runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell in the years leading up to their competing in the 1924 Olympics. Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) is the confident, undefeated runner from the University of Cambridge whose sometimes arrogant personality is the complete opposite of the humble, religious Liddell (Ian Charleson) of Scotland who sees his talent as a runner as a gift from God. Against the wishes of his sister, Liddell chooses to compete in the 1924 Olympics before returning to missionary work in China. Abrahams is shocked and his confidence shattered when he loses a race to Liddell, but puts his pride aside and approaches coach Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) to privately train him for the Olympics, much to the chagrin of the Cambridge masters (played by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) who unsuccessfully try to talk Abrahams out of it.

Chariots of Fire has all the elements of an Oscar bait period drama, but that’s not to say it’s unworthy of the critical acclaim it earned upon its release and the beloved status it has earned over the next forty years. It’s a beautifully produced film with sympathetic characters memorably brought to the screen by Ben Cross, Ian Holm, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell. The costume and production design bring a rich representation of the years 1919 to 1924 to the screen, including a simple but wonderfully shot sequence of the 1924 Olympic opening ceremony (a far cry from today’s over produced spectacles). But despite the emotional tug the movie brings out of the audience through the film’s incredibly sincere characters (particularly the supporting characters of Lord Andrew Lindsey and Aubrey Montague played by Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell respectively), the story is not historically accurate: Lord Andrew Lindsey (played by Havers) was created for the story and based on real life English runner Lord David Burghley who did not want to be a part of the film, among other changes that were made for the script. This is an enjoyable, crowd pleasing film (in a good way), with the production design, cinematography and editing complemented by one of the most famous film scores in the history of cinema by Vangelis (Blade Runner). Chariots of Fire would earn $58 million at the North American box office and seven Academy Award nominations, winning four including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score.

Next Up: Fante’s Inferno continues its retrospective with the films of October 1981!

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

Gallipoli (August 7)
Heavy Metal (August 7)
They All Laughed (August 14)
An American Werewolf in London (August 21)
Prince of the City (August 21)
Body Heat (August 28)

August had traditionally been one of two months of the year (including January) in which studios would dump their low expectation releases, almost as a self fulfilling prophecy to their box office underachievement. But while August 1981 contained more than its fair share of clunkers, a few soon to be classics were surprisingly part of the mix. In all there were sixteen U.S. releases that month, with horror and sex leading the box office with An American Werewolf in London, Private Lessons and Body Heat taking the first three spots in domestic receipts. For a traditionally weak month of movie going, the top ten grossing releases still brought in almost $140,000,000 at the domestic box office, with six of these films making August 1981’s notable list. But this is August that we’re covering, so first the not so notables…

Slasher films Student Bodies (August 7), Deadly Blessing (August 14) and Hell Night (August 28) collectively earned over $15 million domestic. Director Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing led them at over $8 million, with a solid story but somewhat overbearing performances. An Eye for an Eye (August 14) is what you would expect of a police action thriller starring Chuck Norris. And with a cast that includes Christopher Lee and Richard Roundtree, it got the job done and more than doubled its $4 million budget. First Monday in October (August 21) starring Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh was a political comedy set in the U.S. Supreme Court. The film was pushed up by several months for its August release to coincide with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court a month earlier, but the weak plot involving corporate malfeasance led to an ultimately bland comedy that only earned $12 million. The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia was a country music themed drama starring Kristy McNichol and Dennis Quaid as Amanda and Travis, siblings traveling to Nashville to further their musical careers. But the talented Travis is his own worst enemy, unable to keep himself out of trouble, while Amanda is the only one that believes in him. It earned $14 million at the domestic box office and doubled its $7 million budget.

Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (August 28) was the month’s outrageous (and not in a good way) comedy starring icons Alan Arkin and Carol Burnett in the title roles. Arkin plays a washed up former baseball player and Burnett plays a Carmen Miranda impersonator who both get caught up in an overdone and implausible plot involving government documents. Directed by David Lowell Rich, it was one of August 1981’s biggest bombs, earning just over $200,000 against its $7 million budget. Condorman (August 7) was Disney’s foray into the superhero genre, but despite the budget and production value, from the opening credit sequence to the closing credits the film is just silly. Michael Crawford stars as Woody Wilkins, the creator and artist of the successful comic book character Condorman who gets in over his head in a good old fashioned Cold War spy game with KGB agents Natalia Rambova (Barbara Carrera) and Krokov (played by the always great Oliver Reed). Fans of comics and the superhero genre will bristle at Crawford’s two dimensional, caricatured representation of a comic artist and his characters. The film’s $14 million budget made great use of the locations (which at times reminded me of June 1981’s For Your Eyes Only), but the weak script and effects led to an almost $10 million loss. There was nothing to save this film.

Private Lessons (August 28) starring Sylvia Kristel was the third highest grossing film of August 1981 with $26.3 million at the domestic box office. But despite its financial success, it’s a shallow, lackluster addition to the wave of 80’s teenage sex comedies that were popular in the first half of the decade. Films such as Losin’ It, Class and My Tutor were produced to bring the teenage wish fulfillment fantasies of high school boys having affairs with 30 something women to the big screen. While these films weren’t exactly known for their contributions to cinematic history, Private Lessons was on the bottom tier of the early 80’s sex comedies. Sylvia Kristel (best known for the Emmanuelle series of erotic films) plays Nicole, the new maid working and living in the Fillmore home and the object of 15 year old Philip “Philly” Fillmore’s fantasies. Nicole seduces Philly and they begin an affair that to even Philly’s nervous surprise might be too good to be true (with especially cringeworthy scenes by today’s standards). Adapted by Dan Greenburg from his 1968 novel “Philly” and directed by Alan Myerson, Private Lessons is shot and plays like a low budget B-movie (the acting is especially low grade), with little to show for its $2.8 million budget.

Tarzan, the Ape Man (August 7) was director John Derek’s showcase of his wife Bo Derek after she had achieved international acclaim in 1979’s 10. Set in 19th century Africa, Derek plays Jane Parker, the headstrong and newly rich daughter of explorer James Parker (Richard Harris), who she has tracked down during his search for a legendary ivory graveyard. Her arrival at his camp is unexpected (he was expecting a cannon delivery), their relationship already strained by his abandonment when she was a year old and her mother’s recent death. Working their way through the jungle, they hear the cries of the Tarzan, who according to James is a hundred feet tall white ape. Overall the film has good cinematography and an even pace, but even with the talents of the great Richard Harris the story is flat and Tarzan’s introduction is anticlimactic. Despite the negative reviews Tarzan, the Ape Man earned $36.5 million domestically against its $8 million budget, making it the #2 top earning film of August 1981, though it’s the kind of film that makes you walk out from the theater wondering why you spent your hard earned money on the ticket.

Honky Tonk Freeway (August 21), director John Schlesinger’s (Midnight Cowboy, Hamburger Hill) ensemble comedy has William Devane playing Kirby T. Calo, the Mayor of Ticlaw, Florida, a town that takes pride in its roadside attractions. But when they’re about to get bypassed by the newly constructed interstate highway, Ticlaw turns to desperate measures not to lose their tourists. Unfortunately strong production value and the talented cast bring very little depth to the overall story. It earned $2 million domestically against its $18 million budget. More time should have been devoted to William Devane’s character than the ten minor characters, who by the midpoint of the film still hadn’t reached Florida. Honky Tonk Freeway is also a film out of its time, one that in tone and pace is more aligned with 70’s comedies such as Thank God It’s Friday or Cold Turkey. More surprising than director John Schlesinger wasting his talent on this unengaging film was the similarity in parts of film’s score to that of 1981’s classic comedy Stripes (both of which were composed by Elmer Bernstein).

And now the notable films of August 1981:

They All Laughed (August 14) is a well-intentioned romantic comedy written and directed by Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc?, Paper Moon) about two New York City private investigators who fall in love with the married women they are paid to follow. It’s an upbeat film that captures the good in the New York City of its day, which is a refreshing change from the crime ridden and post apocalyptic New York City shown in films such as Wolfen and Escape From New York. Being a Bogdanovich film, They All Laughed channels an earlier cinematic era with dialogue and “meet cutes” reminiscent of a Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The film is crafted with heart and is carried by a strong cast that includes Audrey Hepburn (what a dream it must have been to direct her!), Ben Gazzara and John Ritter, as well as the talented supporting cast of Colleen Camp, Blaine Novak (who co-wrote the film) and the angelic Dorothy Stratten (in her final film role, released one year after her tragic murder in 1980). Bogdanovich, still in mourning over Stratten (they had been in a relationship at the time of her death, which he goes into in depth in the excellent documentary One Day Since Yesterday) bought the film back from the studio in order to re-release it himself. It didn’t come close to recouping its $8.6 million budget, leading to personal financial disaster for Bogdanivich. While the story lags at times and should have taken more time to fully flesh out the main characters, They All Laughed deserves to revisited for its charm and the performances of its ensemble cast, especially Gazzara and Hepburn’s scenes.

In director Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (August 21), Treat Williams plays NYPD Detective Frank Ciello, a Special Investigations Unit detective who works narcotics but (along with his partners) takes advantage some of the shady opportunities that are made available to them, whether it’s using drugs taken from a bust to pay informants or pocketing some of the ill gotten money. When he’s approached by Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Cappalino (played by Norman Parker) to weed out corrupt cops in the NYPD, Ciello stonewalls him at first. But after seeing the effects of heroin on an informant he pays with the drug for information, Frank has a change of heart and cooperates with the investigation, but under the strict rule that he will not turn in his partners. As the investigation continues, and the hundreds of wiretapped conversations pile up, Frank soon realizes he’s a cog in a machine with few people he can trust to watch out for him. No director does a New York City cop story like Sidney Lumet. Francis Ford Coppola’s and Martin Scorsese’s New York based films have an operatic tone, while Lumet’s films are street level. He knows how to shoot every corner and angle of New York City to bring out the most for the shot. Prince of the City is about 30 minutes too long, which may have turned audiences off, but overall the film is an engaging police drama with a memorable first starring role for Treat Williams. It barely broke even at the box office, but is a film that should be revisited.

Body Heat (August 28), written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado, Grand Canyon) continued 1981’s successful string of neo-noir classics– From the opening credit sequence you know the film will live up to its title. William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a nickel lawyer who gets caught up with Matty Walker, a lonely woman from the right side of the tracks played by Kathleen Turner in her breakout film debut. Matty is exactly the type of person Ned should know better than to get involved with: mysterious and married with an older husband (played by Richard Crenna) who’s rarely around. The story doesn’t waste any time, and before long they’re in her empty home and he’s gotten himself involved in a level of trouble he should have expected: Matty wants her husband dead. Ned is quickly in over his head, learning that lust is a hell of a drug, and there are always too many tracks to cover. Hurt and Turner play perfectly against each other, with Kasdan’s snappy dialogue hitting the right tone of 40s and 50s noir giving the film a genuine a throwback quality. Composer John Barry’s (Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves, eleven James Bond films) score hits just the right tone, and Bill Kenney’s (Rocky IV, Rambo II and III) production design and Richard H. Kline’s (Camelot, Soylent Green, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) cinematography practically make you feel the heat in the air and the ice in the drinks. This film brings everything together the way The Postman Always Rings Twice should have. It earned $24 million domestic against its $9 million budget.

Gallipoli directed by Peter Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Dead Poets Society) is in my opinion not only one of the best World War I films ever made, but also the best film of 1981. Set in 1915 Australia, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) and Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) play runners that quickly grow from competitors to close friends when they travel across the continent to enlist in the Army to serve in World War I, despite their difference in motivations. Archy feels a sense of duty, lying about his age to join up against his family’s wishes while Frank doesn’t think it’s their country’s war to fight. Archy enlists with the Light Horse, but Frank can’t ride a horse and is rejected. Eventually Frank and his friends Billy (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie) and Snowy (David Argue) join the infantry. Archy and Frank soon find themselves reunited in Egypt as they train for their deployment to Gallipoli. Frank leaves his mates in the infantry to join Archy with the Light Horse and they soon have to adapt to life in the trenches against the army of the Ottoman Empire. Though it only earned $5.7 million in the U.S., Gallipoli is the most complete drama of 1981, with a fantastic cast (Mark Lee truly held his own as the lead) and a story written by David Williamson (The Club, The Year of Living Dangerously) that draws on friendship, duty and the horrors of trench warfare during World War I. The ending still gives me chills to this day. With all of the notable films of 1981 to watch, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli should be near or at the top of any list.

The 1980s were a great time for animation (of the traditional, hand drawn variety) and Heavy Metal (August 7) is no exception, standing out as one of the great, animated cult classics of the decade along with American Pop (February 1981), Fire & Ice (1983) and the criminally underrated, nearly forgotten Rock & Rule (1983). Heavy Metal is an animated feature film inspired by the illustrated sci-fi and fantasy stories of Heavy Metal magazine. Written by Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum and directed by Gerald Potterton, the film begins with a mysterious green orb, the Loc-Nar, brought back to Earth from space by an astronaut. The Loc-Nar melts him in front of his terrified daughter and proceeds tells her of its influence throughout space and other worlds, represented in the film’s subsequent scenes that differ in animation style much like in the magazines. On an artistic or technical level, Heavy Metal is not the best animated film of the 80’s (and like the magazine has sometimes received criticism for its stories skewing too heavily toward a male audience), but the film’s edgy stories ranging from dystopian to horror to scifi (with a little comedy along the way) make for a memorable ride.

An American Werewolf in London

Release Date: August 21, 1981
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine
Written and Directed by John Landis; Cinematography by Robert Paynter; Make Up Effects by Rick Baker

In director John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (August 21) American students David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), on a three month backpacking trip through Northern England to Italy, stop in a Yorkshire pub filled with locals that don’t welcome strangers. After taking the not so subtle hint that they’re unwelcome, they’re sent out into the cold, rainy night with the warning to stick to the roads, avoid the moors, and beware the moon. David and Jack quickly veer off the road and are pursued by a very loud, growling wolf. Unable to get back to the road in time, Jack is attacked and killed, but as the wolf starts on David, the townspeople shoot it dead. But before passing out, David sees the wolf transformed to a human. David wakes up scarred in a London hospital three weeks later, but when questioned by police his memory of being attacked by a wolf conflicts with the official report: that he and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic that was shot by the locals in their defense.

During his hospital recovery he’s haunted by nightmares progressing from dreams of himself running in the woods stalking prey, to his family being murdered. He’s visited by the bloodied but quite cheerful corpse of Jack, who tells David they were attacked by a werewolf, turning David into a werewolf and dooming Jack to walk the earth undead until the werewolf’s curse is broken. In order for him to truly die the last werewolf’s bloodline must be destroyed: David. Jack tells David he must kill himself before he kills others. The good news: his nurse Alex Price, played by Jenny Agutter (Walkabout, Logan’s Run) takes him in upon his discharge and they begin a relationship. The bad news: there will be a full moon in two days. But in the meantime David’s doctor Hirsch (John Woodvine) drive up north to the Slaughtered Lamb pub to see if David’s on to something about being attacked by a werewolf.

An American Werewolf in London is the best horror film of 1981, with a story and cast that strike the perfect balance between horror and quirkiness. David Naughton carries the weight of David the character throughout his progression from guilt for Jack’s death, disbelief at his circumstances, and his responsibility for his lycanthropic actions. Jenny Agutter’s performance as Alex keeps him grounded through his descent, and Griffin Dunne’s Jack steals the movie as the glue that keeps the story moving forward (also keep an eye out for a young Rik Mayall in the Slaughtered Lamb). But it’s Rick Baker’s makeup effects, especially in Jack’s post mortem scenes and David’s transformation that put An American Werewolf in London in a superior class of the genre compared to 1981’s low budget slasher films, earning him his first of seven Academy Awards for Best Make Up. My only critique is the overbearing soundtrack of moon related songs (including several renditions of Blue Moon) that takes away from Elmer Bernstein’s score. While An American Werewolf in London didn’t match the box office success of director Landis’s earlier hits Animal House and The Blues Brothers, it earned $30 million at the domestic box office against its $5.8 million budget and was a successful transition for Landis to the horror genre.

Next Up: Fante’s Inferno revisits the films of September 1981!

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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 (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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Southern Comfort (1981)

Release Date: September 25, 1981
Starring: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Franklyn Seales, Lewis Smith, Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, Brion James, Peter Coyote
Written by: Michael Kane, Walter Hill, David Giler
Directed by: Walter Hill

I love rediscovering an obscure film from the 80’s that still hits on all cylinders decades later.  When my family first got cable TV in 1981 it gave me exposure to quality (and some not so quality) films that I normally would not have been introduced to at our local cinemas.  Southern Comfort, directed by Walter Hill, is one of those great films that was easy to find on cable TV back then but became harder to find over the years.  With the film’s recent availability on Amazon Prime, it was time to revisit it.

Walter Hill is best known for The Warriors and 48 Hours, but his impressive list of films includes hard hitting dramas (Hard Times, The Driver), a beloved comedy (Brewster’s Millions), an action film (Red Heat) and less conventional dramas like the neo-noir Streets of Fire and blues themed Faustian tale Crossroads.  But the 1981 drama/thriller Southern Comfort is a solid film that inexplicably slipped through the cracks over time despite an engaging story and great cast.

The film begins in 1973 Louisiana.  Army National Guardsmen are on maneuvers in the bayou.  Captain Poole (played by Peter Coyote) assembles a squad of eight men for a standard recon mission.  Their morale is apathetic at best and it doesn’t get any better with arrival of Hardin (played by Powers Boothe), a transfer from Texas who wants to put in his time and get home to his wife.  Stuckey (played by Lewis Smith) tries to lighten the mood by firing blank rounds from his machine gun at Poole’s second-in-command Sergeant Casper (played by Les Lannom), which shows the amount of respect they have for him (and also makes a viewer wonder why the surrounding troops didn’t respond to it as a threat – my one caveat with the film).  Spencer (Keith Carradine) boosts the men’s motivation when he tells them he has hired several prostitutes to wait for them at a rendezvous point at the end of their recon mission.

Several hours into the recon mission Captain Poole realizes their course has been blocked by a river that rose with the winter rains.  Their choice is to continue forward to find their rendezvous point or backtrack to base and start the recon all over again.  At a trapping post, faced with a river they are unable to cross and the entertainment waiting for them at their eventual rendezvous point, they “requisition” three canoes from local trappers who aren’t around to give permission.  At the suggestion of straight laced high school coach Bowden (played by Alan Autry but credited as Carlos Brown), the squad leaves one canoe behind with a note explaining where they will find the other canoes.  But despite the soldiers’ best intentions the trappers are not happy with a group of outsiders interfering with their property.

The group is halfway across the river when the French speaking Cajun trappers angrily make their presence known.  Reece (played by Fred Ward) manages to get a few rude words out in French.  Poole attempts to explain they’ll get their canoes back, but the situation spirals out of control when joker Stuckey fires a couple of dozen blank rounds at them.  The trappers, unaware they are blanks, return fire and shoot Poole in the head, killing him.  Leaderless and lost, the guardsmen now need to survive in unfamiliar territory without live ammunition.

Fear and infighting within the group set in.  Spencer reveals that Reese has his own box of live ammunition.  Casper orders him to turn it over to distribute among the squad but Reese is more than willing to give Casper a bullet to the head to keep his stash.  Hardin sneaks up behind Reese with a knife to his throat and the bullets are turned over.  Casper does his best to keep order and lead the squad, but despite his experience and knowledge of military procedure, he’s unable to command the respect of the men.

The next day they find the trappers cabin and capture the only inhabitant, a one-armed trapper (Brion James).  But the group has different ideas as to how their new prisoner should be treated.  After Simms (played by Franklyn Seales) cracks him across the jaw he’s unwilling to talk.  Bowden’s composure erodes and he’s hellbent on payback.  Oblivious to the supplies they could have collected, he sets the trapper’s cabin on fire and nearly kills all of them when a storage of dynamite goes off.  With even less live ammunition they continue through the bayou dragging both a prisoner and Poole’s lifeless body.  They can’t find the highway and they take it as a morbid sign when they encounter eight dead rabbits (one for each of them) hanging in their path.

Without a compass, Spencer and Casper disagree over which direction to go.  As they attempt to get their bearings, a group of hunting dogs attack them with Stuckey and Cribbs (played by T.K. Carter) getting the worst of it.  The squad is now the hunted, descending into fear, despair and paranoia with each deadly trap they encounter.  When they’re not feeling the presence of their hunters, the squad begins to turn on itself.  Bowden cracks and is tied up so as not to become a danger to himself and the squad.  Reese tries his own methods of interrogation on their prisoner which leads to a knife-wielding showdown with Hardin.  With no end to their ordeal in sight, Casper’s quoting of the manual finally turns the men against him and they follow Spencer.

No spoilers here.  Walter Hill’s direction and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo’s photography of the bayou puts the audience right in the middle of the squad’s nightmare.  It’s the portrayal of the “local’s” desire to protect their land and way of life that effectively brings out the growing fear and desperation of the guardsmen (a few shots are not for the squeamish).  It’s too easy to compare Southern Comfort to the critically acclaimed Deliverance (unfortunately even the film’s poster is guilty of this), but Southern Comfort stands on its own as a powerful psychological drama that keeps the audience engaged to the very end.

Southern Comfort is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Amazon.  As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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Movies For Memorial Day 2016

With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 30th, I would like to thank all military veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.

Some of my earliest movie memories are of watching old combat films from the 40’s and 50’s on a black and white TV on Saturday afternoons at my grandparents house.  They were mostly lower budget films and I’ve forgotten many of their titles, but those Saturday afternoon films on TV made the combat movie one of my favorite film genres.

Every year I check the TV listings and streaming services for the best military themed films to watch over Memorial Day Weekend.  Turner Classics always has a solid lineup of feature films, but Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have a great selection of feature films and documentaries as well.  Here are some highlights:

On Turner Classic Movies (All Times Eastern):

Saturday May 28th:

11:15 AM: The Flying Leathernecks (1951)
1:00 PM: They Were Expendable (1945)
8:00 PM: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
11:00 PM: A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Sunday May 29th:

3:00 PM: Mister Roberts (1955)
8:00 PM: Glory (1989)
10:15 PM: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Monday May 30:

3:30 AM: The Big Parade (1925)
9:00 AM: Sergeant York (1941)
2:15 PM: The Great Escape (1963)

Netflix:

Restrepo (2010)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
The Longest Day (1962)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Enemy Below (1957)
Brothers In War (2014)
Unsung Heroes: The Story of America’s Female Patriots (2014)
Honor Flight (2012)
World War II In Colour (2009)
Ken Burns: The War (2007)
Ken Burns: The Civil War (1990)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

Amazon Prime:

Band of Brothers (2001)
Ken Burns: The Civil War (1990)
The World At War (1973)
Taking Chance (2009)
The Longest Day (1962)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
Rescue Dawn (2006)
When Trumpets Fade (1998)
The Man Left Behind (2012)
The Enemy Below (1957)
Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

Hulu:

Medal of Honor: The History (2014)
War Stories with Oliver North (2001)
A Time for Honor (2002)

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Movies For Memorial Day 2015

With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 25th, I’d like to take this moment to thank all veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.

The combat film has always been one of my favorite cinematic genres, with Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, and of course Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ranking highly among my all time favorite films.  Memorial Day Weekend in my home also includes a screening of the amazing Band of Brothers.  

Every year I check the TV listings, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video for the best military themed films and documentaries to watch over the holiday weekend.  As always, Turner Classic Movies has several classics in their lineup this weekend.  Amazon Instant Video has an elaborate selection, but unfortunately few of those titles are available on Amazon Prime (though you can never go wrong with Band of Brothers, The Civil War, and Patton).  Netflix doesn’t have as many feature film options as Amazon Instant Video, but has a good selection of documentaries.  Here are some highlights:

On Turner Classic Movies (all times Eastern):

Saturday 5/23:

6:00 AM – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
5:30 PM – Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
10:30 PM – Glory (1989)
12:45 AM – The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Sunday 5/24:

6:00 AM – Sahara (1943)
12:00 PM – The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
2:00 PM – Bataan (1943)
6:00 PM – The Steel Helmet (1951)

Monday 5/25:

6:45 AM – The Green Berets (1968)
8:00 PM – Battleground (1949)
10:15 PM – Patton (1970)

Netflix (Streaming):

Wings (1927)
The Longest Day (1962)
Patton (1970)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)
The Civil War (1990)
The First World War From Above (2010)
Vietnam in HD (2011)

Amazon Instant Video:

Band of Brothers (2001)*
The Pacific (2010)*
Medal of Honor (2008)*
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)*
The Civil War (1990)*
American Sniper (2014)
Lone Survivor (2013)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Gallipoli (1981)
All Quiet On the Western Front (1930)
Sergeant York (1941)
The Fighting 69th (1940)
Patton (1970)*
The Big Red One (1980)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Great Escape (1963)
The Longest Day (1962)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
The Green Berets (1968)
Glory (1989)
The Steel Helmet (1951)
* = Available on Amazon Prime

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Runaway Train (1985)

Runaway Train Movie Poster

Release Date: December 6, 1985
Starring: John Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca DeMornay, John P. Ryan, Kenneth McMillan, T.K. Carter, Kyle T. Heffner
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiey; Screenplay by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa

Some movies are meant to be watched during the winter months.  John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror film The Thing is the first one that comes to mind.  And with a snowstorm working its way through New York last night, I was looking for a film that suited my environment.  One that stuck out on Netflix was the 1985 drama Runaway Train starring Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home), Eric Roberts (Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village) and Rebecca DeMornay (Risky Business, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle).  Here’s a film that I vividly remember not seeing when it was released in theaters and subsequently on cable back in the 80’s.  I still don’t understand why I let this movie slip through the cracks since it had the elements of a hard hitting drama and a solid cast that would have been more than enough to get me to screen it at least once back then.  Luckily for me it’s currently available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime, so better late than never.

The story begins at Alaska’s maximum security Stonehaven Prison, where according to assistant warden Ranken (played by John P. Ryan) the average sentence is 22 years.  Ranken has a particularly sadistic streak for hardened inmate Manny Manheim (Voight), keeping him welded shut in his cell for three years after several previous escape attempts.  When Ranken is ordered by a Federal court to allow him out of his cell, Manny makes the most of the opportunity and plans a new escape with his brother Jonah.  Ranken fully expects Manny to make another attempt over the wall, and welcomes the opportunity so he can finally take Manny out permanently.  During a prison boxing match, an inmate attacks Manny with a knife as Ranken stands in the rafters with a guard ready to shoot, but Manny sees through his game and eggs Ranken on to take his best shot.  Jonah is injured defending Manny and ends up in the prison hospital, unable to make the escape.

Fellow inmate and former boxer Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) helps Manny slip by the guards by hiding him in a laundry cart, and decides to join Manny in his escape.  From the outset, the older, wiser Manny has to deal with the raw, impulsive Buck.  They work their way out the prison through the sewer, but it’s the dead of winter and they have to run several miles to a rail depot in order to hop a train to freedom.  While raiding an employee locker room for warmer clothes, Buck leaves his prison shirt (with inmate number) behind.  While this oversight is more than enough to get Ranken on their tails, they have another twist of fate in store for them.  Manny picks the best looking train of the lot, and they hop on to the rear car to hide.  But as the train departs, the conductor suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving Manny and Buck completely unaware they are on a death ride.

The railroad company’s dispatch office is notified of the runaway train and dispatchers Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) and Dave Prince (T.K. Carter) attempt to stop the train through their computer system.  But the brakes have burned off and the train, which has just collided with the caboose of an oncoming train, is accelerating toward a chemical plant.  They are ordered by company representative Eddie McDonald (played by Kenneth McMillan) to derail the train, unaware that anyone is on board.  As the train approaches the derailment point, someone on board sounds the horn and the company is forced to get the train back on the main railroad line.  Sara (Rebecca deMornay), a railroad employee, was napping on the train and woke up to realize the conductor had overridden the brake system and they are on course for a collision.  But danger also lurks behind them as Ranken is hot on Manny and Buck’s trail.

No spoilers here.  This is a great movie and deserved the acclaim it received, particularly the Academy Award nominations for Voight (Best Actor) and Roberts (Best Supporting Actor).  Voight brings out his inner Charles Bronson as Manny, and the dynamic between his character and Roberts’ Buck is the glue that binds the action sequences so the film isn’t just a non-stop adrenaline rush.  Manny not only keeps Buck in check from the moment they escape Stonehaven, but also tries to beat some sense into him so he doesn’t get caught later on down the road.  This monologue is the perfect example of the generation gap between them:

The supporting cast also makes the film more than an action movie.  Kenneth McMillan (Ragtime, The Pope of Greenwich Village), one of my favorite character actors of all time, is fun to watch as the stressed out company representative Eddie MacDonald; Rebecca DeMornay’s character Sara is a departure from her more famous roles in Risky Business and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and holds her own against two escaped convicts; but John P. Ryan’s performance as Ranken stole the movie and added a hunter/hunted dynamic to the story that reminds the audience of the danger that is waiting for Manny and Buck even if they make it off the train alive.  Concidentally, the scenes of Ranken giving chase reminded me of the character Kraven the Hunter from The Amazing Spider-Man comic books.

I definitely won’t let another 30 years go by before enjoying Runaway Train again, and will include it on my list of winter films going forward.

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