Best Feature Films 2020 – Supplemental

For those of you interested in a closer look, here are supplementary materials for six of the films on my top-10 list.

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The Assistant

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First Cow

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

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Nomadland

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Sorry We Missed You

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Sound of Metal

This is a lot of material for this title. As always, just pick what you want. There won’t be a test.

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That’s all for now. Stay tuned for “Feature Films – The Best of the Rest of What I Saw” in two or three days. Best documentaries and TV yet to come. Keep safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, Film, Film posters, History, Home Video, Music, Non-Fiction, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

What I Saw Last Year – Best Feature Films 2020

A year without blockbusters or movie theaters. 2020 was a radically different year for everything, not just movie-going, and 2021 still is. If someone had told me at the outset that theaters would be closed nearly a year later, I don’t think I could have gotten my head around it.

The last film I saw in a theater was Stage Fright at Film Forum on Saturday, March 14. Not a great film, but it was a Hitchcock I hadn’t seen before, and I wanted to check that box. Besides, film screenings had already begun shutting down, such as MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center. Film Forum would close that Sunday, AMC and other multiplexes by Monday. Some theaters across the country have re-opened — I don’t know how many — but film venues in New York City remain closed.

I saw 61 films in theaters before they shut down. Since then I’ve been watching them mainly online via Amazon Prime and Netflix, with some on HBO, Showtime, and from my DVD & Blu-ray disc collection. Even with theaters not open last year, I didn’t see fewer films in 2020, I actually saw more. But get this, of the 392 films I saw, only 95 of them were new films. The remaining 297 were old films, either ones I’d seen before or ones I hadn’t seen that looked interesting. Most of the year I was, in effect, running a random repertory program at home.

But of those 95 new feature films, many of them were excellent, even great. I’ve come up with a top-10 list again this year, to be followed in part two by 19 films that were very strong and deserve to be included. The hell of it is, at the start of the new year I realized that while I’d spent an inordinate amount of time last year watching old films, I’d neglected many of the new ones that were turning up on various streaming services, such as Ammonite, Another Round, and Babyteeth. I intend to catch up in the days to come, and will cover the best of those in a later post. Meanwhile, on to the best of what I saw last year, in alphabetical order.

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Dear Comrades!

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The Assistant (Kitty Green, director & writer)  This excellent, quietly disturbing film stars Julia Garner as a recent hire as an assistant in a film production office. She gets in before sunup and leaves well after sundown. Over the course of one very long day she endures many small humiliations and sexist attitudes that are taken for granted by others in the office. Her boss, never seen but always intimidating and looming via phone and intercom, is what the Me Too movement is all about. The narrative proceeds at a slow burn, an accretion of small details, and often feels like a horror movie. Garner, who we first saw in the great FX series The Americans and more recently on the Netflix series Ozark, is excellent as a wary observer struggling to get her bearings and deal with what’s expected and demanded of her. There are no histrionics or blowups that I recall, but the atmosphere is nonetheless extremely tense. It’s like a grenade waiting to off. This is a small jewel of a film, but no one would call it feel-good. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Dear Comrades! (Andrei Konchalofsky, director & co-writer)  Konchalofsky is a well-known Russian director, but I first became aware of him in 1985 when I saw his English-language film Runaway Train, with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as escaped convicts in Alaska who end up on a runaway train. That film ends with a powerful, existential image of Voight standing on top of the speeding train in the midst of a blizzard as it speeds through the night. I don’t remember much else, but that scene has stayed with me. Konchalofsky’s new film is based on an actual event that took place in 1962 in a small industrial town when government forces fired on factory workers who were striking to protest higher food prices and lower wages. Many were killed in the ensuing massacre, news of which was officially surpressed until the 1990s. Yuliya Vysotskaya, the director’s wife, plays Lyudmilla, a loyal Communist Party executive. Her frantic search for her rebellious daughter, who took part in the strike, makes up the heart of the film. It’s a great performance in a powerful film. Available via Film Forum/Neon on January 29.

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First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, director & co-writer)  Kelly Reichardt is an excellent director whose previous films have included Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Certain Women (2016). Her new film is quite special in conception and execution. In 1820, Cookie (John Magaro) is the cook for a group of trappers in Oregon territory. He meets King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the run after killing a Russian. They hook up and set up house in a settlement that’s more of less overseen by a wealthy Englishman called Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie makes biscuits that sell like hot cakes at the local marketplace, but he needs milk to continue to make them. Chief Factor has the first and only cow in the region. Cookie and King Lu begin milking the cow at night, stealing the milk, which works until it doesn’t. This is a wonderful film, filled with unusual detail. At one point, King Lu says to Cookie, “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but maybe this time we can take it on our own terms.” I think it’s unlikely that anyone at that time would say something like that, but it gives a great sense of this being a country in the making, and the beginnings of a social order. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, director & writer)   Autumn, played by Sydney Flanigan in her debut film role,  is 17 years old and pregnant. She lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, where her options are limited, to say the least. She and her cousin Skylar (played by Talia Ryder) take a bus to New York City where she plans to terminate the pregnancy. They don’t really know what they’re doing, and while paperwork and finances get sorted, they spend two nights in and around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which becomes a character in its own right. I was reminded of how stressful and uncomfortable bus stations can be, always transient, and how lonely at 2:00 am. Sydney Flanigan’s performance feels very authentic and completely natural. This film is an example of what we’re seeing more and more, narratives that don’t advance in traditional ways, that are less dramatic and less plotted. Stories develop more indirectly. Not having everything mapped out and spelled out can feel fresher and more real. That’s certainly the case with this film. Available on HBO Max.

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Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, director & writer)  Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, was one of my top three favorite films of 2018. I absolutely loved it. Nomadland is a worthy followup, and then some. Nomadland has been almost universally praised. Traditional storytelling falls away and it feels like you’ve discovered something totally authentic. This is due in part, I think, to Zhao’s method of casting real people as close versions of themselves who use their real names and experiences, as she did in The Rider. A difference this time is that Zhao employed a big-name actor, Frances McDormand, to play the lead character, Fern. This undoubtedly raised the profile of the film. Zhao also cast the quietly outstanding David Strathairn as Dave, who Fern encounters at various times on the road. Fern has lived all of her adult life in a Nevada mining town. With the death of her husband and the closing of the mine that effectively closes the town, even eliminating its zip code, Fern packs up and goes on the road, taking seasonal work where she can get it. She becomes part of a community of transient older Americans living in RVs and vans. They are fiercely independent and frequently on the move — nomads.

Zhao based the film on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder published in 2017, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Many of the people profiled in the book are characters in the film. As it did in The Rider, this lends a strong documentary aspect, a kind of non-fiction fiction, if you will. Nomadland was filmed over four months on locations in Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, and California. These people were living their lives as the movie was being filmed. You get a sense of their dignity and self-sufficiency, which is exemplified by Frances McDormand’s fearless performance. At one point, when concerned friends back in Nevada offer Fern a place to stay, she says, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right? Don’t worry about me.” Scheduled to be available for streaming February 19 on Hulu.

Note: In what feels like a cognitive disconnect, Chloé Zhao has signed to direct Eternals, a Marvel superhero film expected later this year (pandemic permitting). Her distinctive and very specific sensibility should yield very interesting results, though it’s a little like hearing that Ozu had directed a Mad Max film. Actually, that’s a movie I’d like to see.

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Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, director)  Ken Loach is a great director whose films reflect committed humanist, social, and political concerns. These include Kes (1969), Land and Freedom (1995), My Name Is Joe (1988), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and I, Daniel Blake (2016). Loach is nearly 85 years of age, and Sorry We Missed You is strong evidence that his craft, skill, and sensitivity have not diminished in the least.

As in many of his films, the characters in Sorry We Missed You are everyday people, working class, the common man (and woman). Sorry We Missed You was filmed in Newcastle, as was I, Daniel Blake, and concerns a family struggling to make ends meet and get by. Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a somewhat hapless character, has just started working for a package delivery company managed by an abusive boss. His wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) works as a home care nurse. Ricky pressures her to sell the car she uses to get to her clients in order to have the down payment for the van he has to buy to make deliveries. Abbie then has to take buses and cabs. Their teenage son Seb skips school to be with his small crew of graffiti taggers around town, and is just generally contrary. Their young daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), is stressed out by the constant bickering between her father and brother.

Working with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has created a deeply heartfelt film, sad and tragic, an essential statement. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, director & writer)  Riz Ahmed, who was great in the HBO series The Night Of (2016), here plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Ahmed’s performance sharply conveys his confusion, anger, and fear as he struggles go adjust to his new reality. Members of the deaf community portray characters in the film, which adds a level of authenticity that you can feel. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Unhinged (Derrick Borte, director)  This film is the wild card of the bunch. When I first saw Unhinged I was totally turned off. I thought it was irresponsible and gratuitous. Here’s what I had to say on Facebook one day after my initial viewing:

“Why, after a career that includes films as good as Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander, would Crowe choose for his latest something as useless and empty as Unhinged. He plays a character as ugly and irredeemable as any I’ve seen in a long time. I was relieved to learn that he was wearing a fat suit and hadn’t actually gained 200 pounds for the role. His character is completely nuts from the start when he charges into a house, brutally kills a guy and then burns the house down. No spoilers here, this is the very first scene. The film seems to exist just to exhibit a whole lot of car crashes and Crowe savagely killing a whole lot of innocent people. I tend to like violent movies, but not when they’re as gratuitous as this one is. It’s very well made, but so what? Something else is that Unhinged was touted as the first film to play in reopened theaters since the pandemic lockdown began in March. If this film reflects the times and the mood, we’re in more trouble than I thought.”

Given that, you might well wonder how it is that Unhinged is on my Best Features list. Well, a day or so after posting those sentiments I was still thinking about the film. I wanted to better understand why I’d had such a visceral reaction, so I watched two interviews with Russell Crowe (these will be included in the Best Films Supplemental post in a day or so). He talks about his initial reluctance to play this kind of basically irredeemable character, and he breaks down how he thinks the film works. He’s very articulate and insightful. What he says basically turned my head around and gave me a new way to consider what I’d seen.

What’s most disturbing about Unhinged is that there’s absolutely no rationale, justification, or explanation for what his character does. Simply called “The Man” in the credits, he’s road rage personified and that’s it. He’s unstoppable, he’s a Terminator. Invariably, in the wake of murders, mass shootings, and violent events, there are always “experts” who attempt to explain and understand what has happened. We don’t want to accept that sometimes there are no answers. That’s hard to deal with. But there’s more than road rage is going on here. Crowe’s character is a darkness that just is.

Unhinged is very well made and it’s a rough ride. The narrative is single minded, unrelenting. It winds tighter and tighter. There are no distractions or relief, comic or otherwise, to ease the tension. It’s our worst nightmare. There’s an Itchy and Scratchy level of violence, except it’s not a cartoon. Unhinged is an example of transgressive cinema. It crosses the line, goes way over.

Unhinged is not a film I plan to see again, but probably will, if only because I don’t want to. And at the same time, I do. That may not make any sense, anymore than I can explain why it’s on my list of Best Films. Like Russell Crowe’s character, it just is. Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, director)  I love this film. I’ve seen it four times and it holds up strongly. If anything, it just gets better. I wrote about it last summer, which can be accessed here. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Working Man (Robert Jury, director & writer)  It’s great to see Peter Gerety finally get a leading role after many years of solid supporting work, mainly in TV series such as Homicide: Life on the Street (1996-1999), The Wire (2002-2008), Sneaky Pete (2015-2019), and Ray Donovan (2019-2020). Like Nomadland and Sorry We Missed You, this film takes place in a working class environment with everyday people. Gerety plays Allery Parkes, who has worked for 30 years in a factory in a Rust Belt town. When the factory shuts down, Allery isn’t ready to stop working. He finds a way back into the plant and continues to go in, day after day, doing his work. That he’s not supposed to be there and is not getting paid is beside the point for Allery. How this plays out in his life and in the community is very interesting and touching. Talia Shire, known for The Godfather and Rocky films, plays his wife, Iola. Billy Brown, who my wife recognized from the series How to Get Away with Murder, plays Walter Brewer, who joins Allery in working in the closed factory. It’s a feel-good scenario, but Working Man has some bite and a few twists along the way. Available on Amazon Prime.

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That wraps up the first part of my annual survey of the feature films I liked the best from last year. Supplemental materials for these ten films will follow in a day or two. In the meantime, Happy Inauguration Day! Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

Happy New Year 2021 – To Infinity and Beyond!

2020 has felt like the longest 10 years of my life. I sure won’t miss it. The new year has got to be better, right? A vaccine that will hopefully bring the pandemic under control and get us back into movie theaters and inside restaurants. A new president who probably won’t throw tantrums or rant nonstop on Twitter. Being able to see people’s entire faces once again and not having to experience everything virtually. I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired of all this. If we’ve been in an alternative timeline this past year, some sort of bizarro world, I’m ready to be done with it.

This year’s farewell to 2020 will be the usual random collection of images and videos that may or many not make any sense together, but they struck my fancy and just feel right.

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One of my favorite actors, Sterling Hayden, in a scene from Nicholas Ray’s wonderfully bizarre Johnny Guitar (1954) that gets down to the basic necessities of life.

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Speaking of Chinatown (1974), I recently read an excellent book by Sam Wasson on the making of the film, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. It goes deep.

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And now, one of the greatest moments in all of Buster Keaton’s films, or anybody else’s for that matter. Also a metaphor for getting out of this year intact, assuming we do.

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And to end on a slightly more hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, note.

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That wraps it up for this year. Stay tuned next month for my annual recaps of the best feature films, documentaries, and television shows for 2020. Meanwhile, wear a mask, wash your hands, and stay safe. Hang in there and have a HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! Live long and prosper. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Comics, Feature films, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 6 Comments

Off the TV Screen – A Brief Diversion + Posters

While taking pictures of movies on a TV screen might seem like something one would do to pass the time while sequestered at home during a pandemic, these were taken sometime in 1978 for reasons that escape me now, though I suspect I just got a kick of doing so. Here are some that survived the ensuing years.

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At the time, I had a B&W 17″ table-model TV I’d brought with me from Minneapolis when I moved to New York in January 1977. This was before cable and flat screens, and definitely before I could buy a color set. So I have to see wide-screen films, such as Spartacus, in all their pan & scan glory, which meant seeing maybe a third of the original screen image. Of course, this was common at the time for scope films shown on television.

I was able to date these shots by the Film Comment issue on the shelf below the TV. This was the January/February 1978 issue, which I still have, along with every Film Comment issue I’ve acquired, though most of them reside in one of our closets. To its left is a copy of Leonard Maltin’s  TV Movies, the first of his many movies-on-TV books. This one was published in 1969, but I was obviously still using it in ’78.

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The following shots were taken sometime in the early to mid-1980s. By that time I’d acquired a 17″ Sony Trinitron, which was a definite step up for me — color! Dark Shadows was a weekday TV show originally shown on ABC from 1966 to 1971. I didn’t see it then, but channel 13, the local PBS station, had begun running two episodes a day, and I started watching. The series was a hoot, with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, time travel and more in the New England fishing community of Collinsport. If you’ve ever seen it, you know. Ten months into its initial run, producer Dan Curtis came up with idea of bringing the supernatural into the mix in a effort to raise the show’s low ratings. And so vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) was introduced. Dark Shadows took off and never looked back.

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Before my wife-to-be moved in with me in 2004, my apartment was basically a movie poster gallery and library. It turned out Nancy thought we should have some actual furniture for grown ups, such as a sofa and maybe some lamps, and stuff other than film posters on all the walls. Here’s what the living room was like before. This shot was taken in the ’90s before I’d had the old rug taken up and the wood floor refinished.

Here’s what it looks like now.

Definitely an improvement, a much more comfortable space, looks like people live here. And we’re both big readers, so there are a lot of books. Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally miss some of what had been on display before, especially the King Kong poster, but that’s okay.  Here are some of those.

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This beautiful Metropolis poster was nearly six feet tall. I actually parted with it long before Nancy moved in. The shot on the right was taken after I’d put it on the landing in our building for someone to claim.

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I think that wraps up this little tour. See you later. In the meantime, stay safe. Better days are coming. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, photography, TV | 2 Comments

Connery and “The Hill”

When I learned that Sean Connery had died on October 31 at age 90, it felt for a moment as if things had slipped out of gear. Later I read that Connery’s wife of 45 years, Micheline Roquebrune, had said that he’d had dementia in those last months and “was not able to express himself… It was no life for him. At least he died in his sleep and it was just so peaceful.” I can only imagine what it must be like to lose one’s self before actually dying, but it has to be a hard way to go. I don’t like to think of him like that. I prefer to see him as someone vital and virile, a strong physical presence with authority. Of course, this impression is based on years of seeing him in films; those were the characters he tended to portray. He projected intelligence and strength, but strength with feeling.

Sean Connery will be forever known as the first, and for many the best, James Bond, but I think his most interesting work can be seen in films other than those of that iconic series. Right from the start he was determined not to be trapped by the Bond character. Four of the five “official” Bond films he appeared in were made from 1962 to 1967. In the midst of that period, Connery also acted in Woman of Straw (1964), Marnie (1964), The Hill (1965), and A Fine Madness (1967).

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It was in the post-Bond years that Connery gave some of his best performances. One of my favorites is John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), co-starring with Michael Caine. Huston had tried to get this film made for many years. He planned to do it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the fifties. Subsequent proposed pairings included Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. While it’s interesting to imagine the film with those casts, I think it was worth the wait. Connery and Caine are wonderful together. This was reportedly Connery’s favorite movie role.

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Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976) is a favorite of mine, a film with great sentiment and emotion. Imagining Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the Merry Men twenty years later is a great idea, cleverly worked out. Audrey Hepburn makes a lovely Marian, and Robert Shaw is excellent as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who clearly has a fondness, or at least respect, for Robin. One of my favorite lines is when he says of Robin before their final encounter, “He’s a little bit in love with death.”

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Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), though entertaining, is not a great film, but Connery’s performance certainly is. For his role as Chicago cop Joe Malone, he received a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This brief scene with Connery and Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness gives a good sense of who Malone is.

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The Untouchables: Andy Garcia, Connery, Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith

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Connery should also be given credit for taking on John Boorman’s profoundly weird Zardoz in 1974. Once you’ve seen the WTF image below, you can never unsee it.

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But now to The Hill. Connery made five films directed by Sidney Lumet: The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Family Business (1989). I’ve not yet seen The Offence, in which Connery plays a burnt-out police detective who beats a suspected pedophile to death while interrogating him.  This certainly sounds like Lumet territory, and based on the performance Lumet got out of Connery in The Hill, I look forward to seeing it. Family Business, which I watched recently, is a rare Lumet misfire in which Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick play grandfather, father, and son involved in a hapless criminal enterprise. For me, nothing worked, it was all totally off, top to bottom.

Of these five films, the clear winner is The Hill. It was critically well received but did very little business in theaters. I’m betting not that many people have seen The Hill, or have even heard of it, but those who have know what a blistering piece of work it is.

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In Sydney Lumet’s excellent book Making Movies (1995), he writes, “The Hill is the story of a British Army prison in North Africa during World War II. Only the camp is for British soldiers, sent there for discipline problems or criminal behavior. It’s a brutal place, filled with sadistic punishments that are meant to break the spirit of anyone unlucky enough to be there.”

There is no music under the main title sequence. This opening shot runs 2 minutes 27 seconds without a cut. The camera pulls slowly back and cranes up and out to give an overview of the prison grounds. Here it is.

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Sydney Lumet is quoted as saying, “There really isn’t a lot of story. It’s all character — a group of men, prisoners and jailers alike, driven by the same motive force, fear.”

Sean Connery signed on because it was such a change of pace from James Bond. He said at the time, “It is only because of my reputation as Bond that the backers put up money for The Hill.” He later saw it as a personal triumph that lead to more challenging roles.

Before filming began, Lumet told Connery, “I’m going to make brutal demands of you, physically and emotionally.” Anyone familiar with Lumet’s work knows that he gets intense performances from actors in highly charged situations. The circumstances of the shoot also made “brutal demands.” The Hill was filmed at an old Spanish fort in Almeria, Spain, starting in September, 1964. Temperatures climbed to 114 degrees Fahrenheit and above on a daily basis. In Making Movies, Lumet writes “…the exteriors were shot in the desert. The light was blinding, the heat so horrendous that during the day we dehydrated completely. After a few days I asked Sean Connery if he was peeing at all. ‘Only in the morning,’ he said.”

The excellent cast includes Connery as a prisoner busted for refusing to carry out a suicidal order and punching out the superior officer who gave it, and  Harry Andrews as the Regimental Sergeant Major in charge of the camp, and Ian Hendry as the truly sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams, whose actions bring everything to a boiling point and beyond. Others in the cast include Ian Bannen as the humane Staff Sergeant Harris, Michael Redgrave as the medical officer, with Ossie Davis and Roy Kinnear as fellow prisoners.

Harry Andrews is a powerful actor, but Sean Connery is more than a match for him, as can be seen vividly in this ferocious scene where they go head to head. If you didn’t know you were in a Sidney Lumet movie before, you do now.

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In Making Movies, Lumet writes of his collaboration with cinematographer Oswald Morris on the visual style of The Hill. “Wanting a very contrasty negative, we used Ilford (film) stock, which was rarely used because photographers found it too contrasty. We decided to shoot the entire picture on three wide lenses: the first third on a 24 mm, the second on a 21 mm, the last on an 18 mm. I mean everything, close-ups included. Of course, the faces became distorted. A nose looked twice as big, the forehead sloped backward. At the end, even on a close-up with the camera no more than a foot from the actors’ faces, you could see the whole jail or enormous vistas of the desert behind them. That’s why I used those lenses. I never wanted to lose the critical element in plot and emotion: these men were never going to be free of the jail or of themselves. That was the theme of the picture. I wanted their surroundings powerfully present at all times.”

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It’s my firm belief that in The Hill Sean Connery gives one of his very best performances. When you know that this film was released in the same year as Thunderball, it’s interesting to think that if Connery could have played Bond like this, he would have been a really dangerous character.

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The Hill is available for rental on Amazon Prime.

The screenplay for The Hill by Ray Rigby won at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.

Sean Connery’s obituary in the New York Times can be accessed here.

My earlier post on the first three Bond films with Sean Connery can be accessed here.

That’s all for now. See you next time. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Royal Navy service, 1946-1949

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Posted in Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Shooting “Barry Lyndon” – John Alcott & Stanley Kubrick

A few days ago on Facebook someone posted a link to an interview with cinematographer John Alcott on how Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) was shot. This appeared in the March 1976 issue of American Cinematographer. The interview covers technical matters in some detail. These include lenses, film stocks, filters, shooting by candle light, and the like. A lot of this was above my pay grade, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. Plus it has some really great photographs.

The full interview can be accessed here. It is followed by an article on the special lenses used for Barry Lyndon by Ed DiGiulio, president of Cinema Products Corporation. After this piece there’s a reproduction of a letter of instructions from Kubrick for projectionists in theaters that would be showing Barry Lyndon. Kubrick was a real control freak; the level of detail and micro-management is impressive. I like to imagine the reaction of a projectionist receiving this letter. It’s a hoot.

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John Alcott (1930 – 1986) was a British cinematographer who was Director of Photography on five films for Stanley Kubrick, starting with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). On that film, which was Alcott’s first DP credit, he replaced Geoffrey Unsworth, who had to leave the production after six months due to another commitment. Alcott had been Unsworth’s camera assistant before getting promoted. Following that, Alcott shot A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining (1980).

John Alton and Stanley Kubrick

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At The Beat website, Jourdan Aldredge wrote about Alcott’s work with Kubrick in a piece called “A Look Behind the Lens of Stanley Kubrick’s Cinematographer John Alcott.” Despite the rather unwieldy title, this is an excellent overview. It also includes the following four videos:

“How Kubrick Made 2001: The Dawn of Man”

“Cinematography in A Clockwork Orange

Barry Lyndon: The Use of the Zoom Shot”

“The Cinematography of The Shining”

Aldredge’s piece can be accessed here.

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Shooting a number of scenes in Barry Lyndon exclusively by candle light gets considerable attention in the American Cinematographer interview. Here is an example of one of those scenes.

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Here are two videos that focus (so to speak) on Barry Lyndon. The first discusses the cinematography. It runs slightly under 14 minutes. The second is an overview of the film itself and runs just under 10 minutes.

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John Alcott received the Academy Award in 1976 for Best Cinematography for Barry Lyndon, one of four Oscars won by the film. Kubrick would make two more features after The Shining in 1980. Alcott would likely have continued to work with Kubrick on those final films but for the fact that he died of a heart attack in 1986. He was only 55.

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Two years ago I posted a four-part series on Stanley Kubrick. If you missed those and are interested, they can be accessed below.

Stanley K Is in the House

More Kubrick!

Still More Kubrick

Kubrick Postscript: Killer’s Kiss – 1955

Okay, that’s it for this one. See you next time. Meanwhile, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Alcott & Kubrick shooting “Barry Lyndon”

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Halloween – Odds & Ends

Here is a rather loosely organized collection of Halloween-appropriate images. None of them are half as scary as the 2020 presidential election, believe me.

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“Unusual times demand unusual pictures.” This ad copy could have been written today.

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Joan Crawford’s final feature film (1970). The ape suit was reportedly left over from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It’s good to recycle.

Joan is probably thinking of better days in the scene below.

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Artwork by Charles Burns

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“The Public Hating” appeared in the January 1955 issue of Bluebook magazine. It was Steve Allen’s first published short story, and it’s really something. That’s right, Steve Allen, the comedian and first host of the “Tonight” show. This profoundly unsettling story can be read here, at a site called SFFaudio. When the page comes up, scroll down to “Here’s a link to a PDF of the story” and click on that to read the story. It’s definitely worth the time.

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That’s all for now. Be safe. Don’t forget to vote, if you haven’t already. This one’s important. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Ted Hicks

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“Seconds” – Starting Over

Note: This contains some spoilers, so proceed accordingly.

The first time I saw John Frankenheimer’s Seconds I didn’t like it. This was in October  1966 while I was undergoing basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. Sundays were a the only day off from training. Hordes of new recruits with buzzcuts, including myself, crowded the movie theater on base to see whatever was being shown. I was excited to learn that Seconds was on the schedule. I loved the Frankenheimer films I’d seen, which included The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and especially The Train (1964). I would have gone to see whatever was playing that day, because any break from the rigidity of the daily training routine was a relief, but it was bonus that it was a film from one of my favorite directors.

I had high hopes for Seconds, about which I knew little. It was a John Frankenheimer film, and that was good enough for me. As it turned out, I was confused and disappointed by Seconds that day. I don’t know what I’d expected, but it wasn’t that. In retrospect, the film may have been too alienating and depressing for someone attempting to adjust to the structures and strictures of military life.

I wasn’t alone in my initial reaction. Though it has since developed an ardant cult following, Seconds was booed at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966. It did poorly at the box-office and wasn’t released on home video market until May 1997. Frankenheimer has said, “It’s the only film I know that has gone from failure to classic — without ever being a success.” In an essay on the film in Danny Peary’s book Cult Movies 3 (1988), Henry Blinder writes, “Seconds is quite possibly the most depressing movie ever made — it is a film of unrelieved despair.” Lewis John Carlino, the screenwriter of Seconds, has said that “…it is almost too painful to watch.”

I can’t remember how many years went by before I saw Seconds again, but I was probably out of the Air Force and back in college by the time I did. The way I saw the film changed somehow. Things that had bothered me no longer did. The statements above by Blinder and Carlino are true enough, but don’t detract from the strength of the film. I’ve seen Seconds many times since then, and have come to regard it as a great film, one of Frankenheimer’s best.

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The protagonist of Seconds is Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph), a middle-aged banking executive who lives with his wife in Scarsdale, New York, and commutes by train to his job in New York City. He feels that his life is empty and meaningless; he and his wife simply co-exist without intimacy; there’s little contact with the married daughter who lives in Denver. When a phone call from a friend Arthur thought dead offers the opportunity of a new life, a new beginning, he’s more than ready. It’s the lure of a second chance. Seconds is the story of how Arthur Hamilton is reborn as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and how that works out for him. The short answer is: not well, which is hardly a surprise given the look and feel of the film from the very first frame. Seconds is a paranoid thriller, a nasty satire with echos of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alice in Wonderland, a Kafkaesque nightmare, science fiction, and finally, a horror film.

The opening credits by Saul Bass and the first few minutes in Grand Central Terminal set the tone, aided immensely by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score with its ominous organ chords.

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The cinematography was by James Wong Howe, who used wide angle lenses (18mm and 9.7mm) almost throughout, which resulted in surreal and disorienting visuals. Frankenheimer said that Wong Howe’s contribution to the film was enormous. He received an Oscar nomination for his work. Frankenheimer was 35 and Wong Howe 60 when they collaborated on Seconds. Frankenheimer had also worked with composer Jerry Goldsmith extensively during his early years directing live television, so they were in sync.

John Frankenheimer & James Wong Howe

The rights to David Ely’s 1963 novel were purchased by actor Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis’ production company. Frankenheimer had directed their previous film, the excellent Seven Days in May, and was hired to direct Seconds. The original intent was to have one actor play both parts, Arthur Hamilton and Tony Wilson. Frankenheimer and Lewis thought Laurence Olivier was the only actor who could pull this off. Olivier reportedly agreed to do it, but the studio, Paramount, didn’t feel he was a bankable movie star. Rock Hudson was then approached. He said he could only do the post-transformation part, which resulted in John Randolph being hired to play Arthur Hamilton. Frankenheimer said that making the transition from John Randolph to Rock Hudson was his hardest task. While I don’t think it’s entirely believable that Randolph could be transformed into Hudson through plastic surgery and physical therapy, I’m willing to go along because the performances of both are so good. A footnote to this is that Frankenheimer said Seconds was shot largely in sequence, which was a great help to Randolph and Hudson’s performances. Plus they had the benefit of two weeks’ rehearsals prior to shooting.

Telegram from Frankenheimer to Hudson after one their early meetings.

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Right from start the opening credits tell us this will be a dark ride with little or no room for humor. Well, almost no room. Arthur has been given an address on a slip of paper and has to follow an absurdly circuitous route to get to his destination. Later, Mr. Ruby (played by Jeff Corey), a high-pressure salesman of sorts for the nameless company, explains to a nearly uncomprehending Arthur that his death will need to be faked using a cadaver. He can never go back. He has to walk away from everything and everyone he knows. Ruby says, “The question of death selection may be the most important decision of your life.” This seems like a joke to me. A problem I had the first tme I saw Seconds was that Jeff Corey’s character seemed too obvious, overdone. As he explains things to Hamilton, Ruby pauses several times to exclaim how great the fried chicken is that he’s eating, a meal that was intended for Arthur, who doesn’t want it. This has always seemed exaggerated to me, but I think it fits. Arthur has gone through the looking glass. Logic no longer applies.

Will Geer plays the avuncular head of the company, who sweet talks Arthur into taking the final step, in effect signing a deal with the devil. He quietly convinces Arthur that he has nothing of any value left in his life. He says, “Isn’t it easier to go forward when you know you can’t go back?”

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It’s hard to see how Arthur’s new life as Tony Wilson could ever have worked. Based on something he says while under hypnosis, the company decides that Tony should be an artist, a painter. They provide credentials, diplomas, and paintings he’s supposed to have done. They decide he’s to live in Malibu, California, in a house on the beach. He’s given a new life that he has no real control over. So it’s no real surprise when it all goes haywire. His life becomes more of a nightmare than it ever was.

Tony leaves Malibu and goes back East. He stops at his old home to visit his wife, who thinks he’s a friend of her dead husband. Tony asks her about her husband and gets hit with this: “You see, Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room.”

Tony returns to the company with the idea of being “reborn” yet again, but this time doing it “right.” He doesn’t realize that’s not in the cards. He failed as a newborn and is now in a queue to become a cadaver when he matches the requirements of a death to be faked for a new “client.”

It’s hard to overstate how good Rock Hudson is in this film. Known up to this point mainly for light romantic comedies with the likes of Doris Day, it would have been difficult to imagine him in a part like this in a film like this. He later said this was the best work he ever did. The scene at the end, when he’s strapped on a gurney and realizes what’s happening, seems to go beyond acting. It’s truly harrowing and, as the screenwriter said, “…almost too painful to watch.”

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The final scene of Seconds (8:23). Rock Hudson goes all in, nothing left in the tank.

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John Randolph

Frankenheimer & Hudson

Frankenheimer on set.

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Supplemental

Rock Hudson talks about filming a scene in Scarsdale. Includes footage of John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe at work. (4:18)

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Article on James Wong Howe’s cinematography for Seconds.

“The Surreal Images of Seconds” – American Cinematographer January 31, 2018

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Selection of scenes highlighting Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Seconds.

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I’ll close with posters for Frankenheimer’s superb “paranoia trilogy.” Be safe. — Ted Hicks

P.S. Seconds is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Dieselpunk – Retro Futures

As often happens, when I was recently looking online for one thing, I came across something else entirely that took over my attention. These are images depicting such things as flying locomotives and aircraft carriers, which are highly detailed, simultaneously retro and futuristic. Because they were just so cool to look at, I began randomly saving them on my computer, not overly concerned with where they came from or what they might represent. But a little context doesn’t hurt, so I looked further.

The images come out of something called dieselpunka term I was totally unfamiliar with. Per Wikipedia, this is “…a genre similar to steampunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and post-modern sensibilities…the term has since been applied to a variety of visual art, music, motion pictures, fiction, and engineering…The name ‘dieselpunk’ is a derivative of the 1980s science fiction genre cyberpunk, and represents the time period from World War I until the 1950s, when diesel-based locomotion was the main technological focus of Western culture. The ‘-punk’ suffix attached to the name is representative of the counterculture nature of the genre…The term also refers to the name given to a similar cyberpunk derivative, ‘steampunk,’ which focuses on science fiction based on industrial steam power and which is often set within the Victorian era.”

I’ve read a lot of science fiction and am a big fan of William Gibson’s novels Neuromancer (1984) and Count Zero (1986), and his short-story collection Burning Chrome (1986). Neuromancer was the ground breaker; these works — with influences from punk subculture and hacker culture — were instrumental in establishing  cyberpunk as a genre. Gibson and Bruce Sterling co-authored The Difference Engine (1990), an early novel in the steampunk genre, which I’ve yet to read.

Still with me? I think now I should show some of the images that so attracted me. I’ve also found three videos that expand the horizons, so to speak. I’ll start with one of those.

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Much of this depicts war weaponry and military gear. It nags at me that here’s a kind of fascist vibe to some of this.

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Some of the more playful inventions depict airborne ships (as in boats).

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This video is an excellent display of the dieselpunk aesthetic, though the way women are presented suggests adolescent fantasies at work.

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The dieselpunk illustration above shows the influence of actual railway ads of the 1930s below.

 

 

 

 

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Typical dieselpunk cityscapes. These are also evocative of the film Blade Runner (1982).

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Even though it predates the term dieselbpunk, the alternative comic book Mister X (Vortex Comics, 1983-1990) is certainly part of that world. I used to have a bunch of these, but they are now gone, alas.

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An example of the influence of dieselpunk in our culture — though definitely not in the mainstream — can be seen in “Dieselpunk Brew,” produced by World Brews, a craft beer company in California. I think this is an interesting tangent. If I was still drinking, I’m sure I’d have to take a run at it.

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Dieselpunk vehicles.

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Rosie the Riveter pressed into dieselpunk service.

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Films that include aspects of dieselpunk and sometimes cyberpunk include the following:

20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, director – 1954)

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, director – 1982)

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, director – 1985)

Dark City (Alex Proyos, director – 1998)

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, director – 2015)

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, director – 1927)

Mortal Engines (Christian Rivers, director – 2018)

Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, director – 1987)

The Rocketeer (Joe Johnston, director – 1991)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, director – 2004)

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, director – 2013)

(All are available for streaming on Amazon Prime, with the exception of Metropolis, which is available on MUBI. Snowpiercer is also available on Netflix.)

Metropolis

20,000 Leagues under the Sea

Blade Runner

Mad Max: Fury Road

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This final video displays a range of dieselpunk art. It credits the artists and is accompanied by a very cool version of “Minnie the Moocher.”

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As I said at the beginning, dieselpunk is a term and a subject I was previously unaware of. So when I Googled it, I was startled to see the pages and pages of links that came up. There’s a whole world of this stuff that’s under the mainstream radar. Check it out, if you’re interested to find out more.

That’s all for now. Be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Flying Fortresses in My Life – Supplemental

For a deeper dive, here are materials additional to part one.

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This is an excellent documentary on the B-17 with includes reminiscences by WWII veterans. It runs just under an hour.

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Target for Today is a feature-length documentary produced as a training film in 1944. It was directed by Hollywood filmmaker William Keighley. It details in rather numbing, painstaking detail how a bombing mission is planned and carried out, step by step from start to finish. The line readings by most of the on-screen participants are so stilted you just know they have to be the real people. But whatever else you can say, it’s certainly instructive.

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This clip demonstrates the digital restoration of 16mm footage shot by William Wyler in 1943 for the documentary The Memphis Belle.

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This short clip shows movie stunt pilot Paul Mantz belly-landing a B-17F for the film Twelve O’Clock High (1949).  As per the description on YouTube by Don Holloway, “Plenty of pilots had solo-landed shot-up Flying Fortresses during the war, but nobody was sure you could take off that way; the throttle levers required two pilots. Offered the then unheard-of payment $4,500 (about $46,000 today), Mantz welded a steel bar across the throttle cluster and got the Fortress airborne. According to the story, while approaching downwind for the cameras, lost rudder authority and wiped out some film crew tents. The footage was so good it can be seen again, from a slightly different camera angle, in 1962’s The War Lover, with Steve McQueen.” Besides being recycled for The War Lover, this footage was also used in at least one episode of the TV series 12 O’Clock High, an adaptation of the 1949 feature film.

Note: The original clip in this post has since been removed from YouTube. Here is a replacement that shows the same footage.

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12 O’Clock High aired on ABC for three seasons from 1964-1967. Episodes can be seen on YouTube. Here’s one of them. It runs about 46 minutes .

This series also generated comic books and even a board game.

 

 

 

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I read a lot of war comics when I was growing up. One of the best illustrators of these was Russ Heath. His incredibly detailed style was immediately identifiable. Here are a few examples.

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B-17s were also popular as model kits. Here are two examples.

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I’d like to close with two personal accounts sent to me after part one appeared last Friday. They both illustrate the randomness and absurdity of the violence that could happen at any time. It’s black humor at its most acidic, worthy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Or would be, if they weren’t so tragic.

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Someone I’ve know for quite a few years contacted me on Facebook. David told me his father was in training to be the ball-turret gunner on a B-17. The gunner was crammed into a clear ball-shaped capsule on the bottom of the fuselage that could rotate 360 degrees and fire twin .50 caliber machine guns. While still completing training, the plane in front of his exploded and an airman bailed out. Somehow the parachute got caught up in the ball turret of his dad’s plane. Nothing could be done and they landed dragging this poor guy along the runway. His father was completely freaked out and he finished the war as a radio instructor. David remembers the strife on his dad’s face when he recounted the experience.

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Susan Waggoner, a friend of mine since college in Iowa City and later here in New York, sent me the following, which she gave me permission to include:

“My dad’s younger brother also flew out of England – was at an air base near Exeter, and they did bombing raids over Germany. Dale was the bombardier. One night they took a direct hit on their way home. Pilot was trying to get them close enough to England to crash land there, so he told the guys to empty the guns and throw them over the side. Must have been chaos. One of the guns did not get completely emptied, went off and shot my uncle just under his left eye. He died instantly. Dale  was the baby of the family and died a few days short of his 19th birthday.”

Dale Waggoner

“For most of my life, we only knew that he had been killed in action, and after reading Catch-22 I worried that he had died like Snowden, all alone in that cold bomb bay. So when the internet opened the world up, I checked and found the site for his bomber group. I was lucky in that several of those men were still alive. They were great! They all wrote to me, told me they remembered Dale as a hard working Iowa kid who liked pranks, and a shared a bit about their time there…

“…The other eye opener I got from Dale’s crew was that I’d always assumed he would have been the youngest member of the crew. He wasn’t. One of the guys was 15! He’d lied to get in, married his girlfriend before being deployed, and now she was at home expecting twins. People grew up fast back then.”

Dale (standing left) and his bomber crew

“Have you ever looked at the casualty rates for those bomber squads? The number of KIA’s was jaw dropping. Dale is buried over there, in a British cemetery honoring Americans killed during the war.

“I have often thought, as I’ve grown older, how big a role that war played in all our lives. It was all around us – all of us grew up making tents from army blankets or using Navy towels. I still have my dad’s footlocker. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo seemed like it was on the late night movies all the time. My dad was a nervous flyer because he’d been on an aircraft carrier plane that crashed into the water on takeoff – almost died because he got pinned underwater under a heavy metal bar but had one those adrenaline bursts and got it off himself so he could swim to the surface.. He never told me any of this. Those men didn’t talk much.” — Susan Waggoner

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That does it for now. I’d like to re-dedicate this post to my dad, Milton Hicks, and also to David’s dad and Dale Waggoner of Alta, Iowa. — Ted Hicks

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