Week One: Westerns, War films, and...Adult Animation?
Breakheart Pass , dir. Tom Gries (1975) ★★☆☆☆
I knew going into this that I was aiming for a diverse selection of films but that there would be a decent amount of westerns. I have a soft spot for cowboy movies as I watched them with my dad. After he passed away in 2018 I fell even more in love with the genre since it made me feel connected to him. While his focus was on older American westerns, I have definitely diverged from that path. I love the later 60s and 70s ones and love Italian westerns.
And so starts my journey. I began the year with Breakheart Pass (1975), directed by Tom Gries and starring 70s action hero Charles Bronson. The snowy landscape of the film helps it stand out from other cowboy flicks, but something about it didn't click with me. The film revolves around murders aboard a train headed to Breakheart Pass, but it doesn't really get interesting until the halfway point where we finally get carts getting derailed, people thrown off the train, and a dash of romance. It's not a bad film but it's a forgettable one.
King and Country , dir Joseph Losey (1964) ★★★★☆
It was the second day and I was already pushing my time. It might have been a little after midnight when the movie was over, but I still can say I watched this movie on Monday. Directed by Joseph Losey and produced by BHE Films in 1964, King and Country is a World War I film that is edging closer to a courtroom drama. It follows the story of a soldier, played by Tom Courtenay, who is charged with desertion and the man that risks his own reputation to defend him. Dirk Bogarde, the defense attorney, is clearly the star of this film.
Known for his appearances in other Losey pictures as well as being an actor beloved by Italian director Luchino Visconti, Bogarde worked his way through a variety of films. Perhaps his most important role was in Basil Dearden's 1961 film Victim, which was the first film to use the word "homosexual." The then-closeted Bogarde went on to star in many queer films of the 1960s, and I'm sure more of his films will pop up along my own journey.
Overall, the film struck me as nearly theatrical. Close quarters, tight blocking, and extensive monologuing from the two leads make this seem like a stage performance. The way the performance from the cast is intercut with real war footage and images drive home the injustices of war. Cut that out and stick in a laugh track and it could have passed for a heavy episode of M*A*S*H.
Heavy Metal, dir Pino Van Lamsweerde, John Bruno, Jimmy T. Murakami, Gerald Potterton, John Halas, Paul Sabella, Harold Whitaker, Jack Stokes, Barrie Nelson, Julian Harris (1981) ★★★★☆
So, it's a movie...based on a magazine? Heavy Metal is an anthology magazine that specializes in science fiction and fantasy short stories and comics. Starting in 1977, the publication released its issues to its "cult" fanbase and they continue to provide entertainment and a platform for new and emerging artists.
The film consists of shorts that are connected through "the sum of all evil" in the form of a glowing green ball. It displays different characters selling, being corrupted by, or defeating this evil entity. They are really hit or miss. The segments "Harry Canyon" and "Taarna" were clearly outstanding pieces. The first discusses the greed of humans in the future as they argue and deceive each other. The latter is the opposite, showing an alien woman who does anything to preserve peace and happiness.
This film is not for children, though. There is a surplus of violence, gore, and nudity despite it being animated. It follows in the path of Ralph Bakshi's films like Fritz The Cat (1972) which was also animated but targeted at a mature audience. You can see the through line from Fritz The Cat, to Heavy Metal, and then to modern adult animation programming on Adult Swim.
Sorcerer, dir William Friedkin (1977) ★★★☆☆
Back in college when I was learning about Auteur theory and the death of the author, I was told that if I want to have a true opinion on an artist, or more specifically a director, I would need to watch at least three of their works. This was my third Friedkin film and I don't think I know anything more about his style.
Famous for directing The Exorcist (1973) and The French Connection (1971), the only throughline in his work is the sheer amount of anxiety they cause their viewers. Sorcerer keeps its audience on the edge of their seats in the worst possible way. The film revolves around an assorted group of criminals that are paid to transport explosives through the jungle; it takes a while to get going and provides background for each driver before they all arrive at their final destination.
I have to get it credit for the visceral reaction it pulled from me, but that's about it. It's an ensemble movie in a similar vein to The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967) but lacks in your connection to any of the leads.
Cast a Dark Shadow, dir Lewis Gilbert (1955) ★★★★★
And, we finally reach a five-star film. Cast a Dark Shadow stars Bogarde as a money-hungry womanizer who targets older women for their wealth. His performance in this as well as the brilliant cinematography left me totally stunned. It's criminal that this is one of his lesser-known works.
Without spoiling too much, the film uses strategic blocking to highlight a mystery that the audience knows the answer to. It plays out like an episode of Columbo: the audience sees the murder and knows the culprit while they watch him deceive the rest of the cast. Like many of Bogarde's early works, it's available on Youtube for free as well as being featured in the PBS Lakeshore Classic Movie collection. Lovers of film noir and mysteries owe it to themselves to check this one out.