Tag Archives: Wolfgang Peterson

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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