Neo-noir I: ‘Downhill Racer’ in ‘Twilight’

Let’s lift a glass and drink to Robert Benton, a modest man of more than modest talent. Benton was born in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1932, attended the University of Texas, and made his way — as so many others have done before and since — to New York City. There he collaborated with a UT buddy, Harvey Schmidt (later to co-write The Fantasticks) on a clever book called The In and Out Book, and eventually landed a job as art director of Esquire magazine, then at the center of the New Journalism and other manifestations of American hipness. Benton and another Esquire editor, David Newman, created the magazine’s annual Dubious Achievement Awards, wrote a clever book of their own, and wrote the script of a clever musical, It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, which I saw on Broadway in 1966.

The following year, Benton and Newman really made a splash with their first screenplay, for Bonnie and Clyde. Benton made the move to directing in 1972 with the revisionist western Bad Company, and subsequently released a string of classics, near-classics, and interesting failures, including The Late Show, Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Billy Bathgate, and Nobody’s Fool. That last film, released in 1994, starred Paul Newman, and he and Benton reunited four years later forTwilight, an elegiac private eye picture. Newman is the detective, Harry Ross, who tries to sort out the truth and cling to a code of honor, however tattered.

That’s right, it’s updated Raymond Chandler, and frankly, Robert Altman did it better in The Long Goodbye. But it’s fun to watch Newman and fellow old pros Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, M. Emmett Walsh, James Garner, and Stockard Channing mix it up with the talented newcomers Reese Witherspoon, Margo Martindale, and Liev Schreiber.

The movie-in-movie scene is a corker. Hackman plays Jack Ames, an actor who’s battling cancer. He and Harry have a complicated relationship, playing cards and avoiding mutually agreed on sensitive topics. Like a lot of aging stars, apparently, Jack likes watching his own old movies, in this case, Downhill Racer (1969).

The Twilight scene is a nice one for a number of reasons, including the appreciation Benton — as both writer and director — shows for the power of silence.

‘Springtime,’ Fake Western, and Fake Quiz Show in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’

After viewing Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) — directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wolfgang Reitherman — I am of the mind that there are two terrific things about the movie. The first is the animation of the dalmatian puppies, which is incredibly lifelike and endearing. The second (related) is the use of movies-in-movie.

Specifically, One Hundred and Dalmations shows, in a vivid and clever way, film’s ability to rivet us. As this blog has repeatedly noted, the power doesn’t necessarily diminish when the film is schlocky. A bit more than us humans, the puppies — especially Lucky, who seems to want to climb into the TV, even when a commercial is on — are transfixed by a good story, to the point of forgetting it’s not real. And especially when the hero is a dog.

The two bad guys entrusted with keeping watch over the dognapped puppies are similarly transported — to the point of neglecting their duties — by the quiz show What’s My Crime?, which by this time I probably have to point out was a takeoff on the then-popular series What’s My Line? Not surprisingly, Lucky, the sort of audience member every filmmaker wants, is loving it too.

I hate to say it, but to me the worst clip is the real one. We’re back with the bad guys and the puppies. On the telly is a Disney short from 1929, “Springtime,” complete with dancing flowers. It’s so blah it can’t even hold Horace and Jasper’s attention. But the doggies are into it. Especially — even after mayhem breaks out — Lucky.

‘Double Indemnity’ in ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’

This Columbo pilot from 1971 doesn’t quite fit into the trope of aging-actresses-watching-their-old-movies, but it’s a kissing cousin, so I’m going to take a look at it and then say farewell to ’70s TV detective series. (I hope.)

It’s actually the second movie-length pilot for the Peter Falk series, the first one having aired back in 1968. Here, Falk is the Columbo the world would come to know and love, smoking and shambling in his threadbare raincoat. Also in keeping with the soon-to-be-familiar formula, the murder takes place early on (at about the 2:15 mark) and there is no mystery about it. We see Leslie Williams (played by Lee Grant, 46 years old at the time, so not that aging) shoot her husband at point blank range, and we spend the rest of the episode watching Columbo come to suspect her, and then trap her.

Indeed, one of the fun things about the episode, which was directed by Richard Irving, with a script by Dean Hargrove, is Leslie’s realization of what he’s up to, and then calling him out on it.

Leslie: You know, Columbo, you’re almost likable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it’s the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks.

Columbo: Me? Tricks?

Leslie: The humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the uh, homey anecdotes about the family: the wife, you know?

Columbo: Really?

Leslie: Yeah, Lieutenant Columbo, fumbling and stumbling along. But it’s always the jugular that he’s after. And I imagine that, more often than not, he’s successful.

Columbo: I appreciate that compliment, Mrs. Williams, and I particularly appreciate it coming from you.

The movie-in-movie scene comes about halfway in. Leslie walks in as her stepdaughter, Margaret (Patricia Mattick), is eating breakfast and watching TV.

I love it that Irving and Hargrove (and I’ll thrown in Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link, who get story credit) chose Double Indemnity as the movie on the screen. It is a classic, perhaps the classic, of film noir, with credits to die for: directed by Billy Wilder, screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novel by James M. Cain, and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. (A bit sadly, they were better known in 1971 for their TV stints in The Big Valley and My Three Sons.)

What’s more, the clip points up the ways in which Ransom for a Dead Man echoes Double Indemnity. There’s no insurance scheme in the Columbo episode, but both are about cold-blooded cases of husband-cide. And knowing Double Indemnity adds an extra wrinkly to Ransom. In Wilder’s film, it’s the victim’s daughter who first realizes the person responsible for her father’s murder is her stepmother, Stanwyck. You can just imagine Margaret coming to this point in the movie and saying to herself, “Hey, wait a minute…”

‘Diner’ in ‘The Kominsky Method’

The 2018-2021 Netflix series The Kominsky Method, produced and written by Chuck Lorre, had a lot of showbiz in-joke Easter eggs. There was the moment when Jon Cryer (playing himself as an awards-show presenter) shouts down a heckler named “Chuck”–presumably Lorre. It tickled me when some students in the acting class of Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas), students staged a scene from Lorre’s popular hit, critical whipping post Two and a Half Men. The somewhat pretentious Sandy cringed; the scene killed. And (spoiler alert), in the final season, Sandy–who has always been a those-who-can’t-do-teach kind of guy–gets cast in the title role of a big-budget version of The Old Man and the Sea, directed by Barry Levinson, playing himself.

But my favorite was the movie-in-movie scene in the penultimate episode, written by Lorre and directed by Andy Tennant. Gathered around the TV are Sandy, his ex-wife (Katherine Turner), their daughter, Mindy (Sarah Baker), and Mindy’s husband, Martin (Paul Reiser, going with the unfortunate balding pony tail look).

It’s a classic scene from Levinson’s first movie, Diner (1982), featuring Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, and–of course–Reiser himself, more or less unrecognizable. As Sandy says, “Hard to believe these guys were unknown actors when Barry cast them.”

Delicious.

Spielberg Roundup, II: ‘Dumbo’ in ‘1941’; ‘Goldfinger’ in ‘Catch Me If You Can’; ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ in ‘Munich’

When we left Steven Spielberg, he was putting various movies and TV shows into Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was his second blockbuster in a row, after Jaws. Their success gave him permission to try something completely different, 1941, which I didn’t see when it came out in 1979 and can now report is his mashup of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, in being a madcap, star-studded, slapstick movie about an aborted invasion of the U.S. Also like IAMMMMW (there’s no way to sugarcoat this), it is a mess.

The movie-in-movie scene is one of the quieter ones, and one of the more appealing. General Joseph Stillwell (Robert Stack) — who was actually stationed in California in 1941 — is portrayed as a movie buff and a softie. He sneaks into a Hollywood cinema to see Disney’s 1941 release.

That’s right, Dumbo. It makes no sense, but I guess it’s the ultimate kitchen sink in this very kitchen-sink movie.

Flash forward a quarter of a century or so. Spielberg has achieved his status as the ultimate popular entertainer, eager and able to explore a variety of cinematic forms and historical periods. Catch Me If You Can (2002) is firmly set in that moment when the early ’60s was about to turn into the middle ’60s, that is to say 1964. And what better film to stand for a certain aspect of that moment than … pause for bass line and Shirley Bassey voice … Goldfinger. I well remember the excitement when this third Bond film came out, what with Sean Connery at the peak of his form (never mind the toup), the double-entendre character names (well, one character), and the iconic cars, props and set pieces. How were we to know that the moment would pass and become passe in an instant — and the movie turn into as much a period piece as Connery’s baby-blue terrycloth swimming ensemble?

In this clip, young con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) hears himself described as “James Bond of the sky.” Then quick cuts to Goldfinger (Gert Frobe is the other guy in a swim outfit), and a dolly-shot zoom in on DiCaprio watching the movie in a theater.

As you can see, even more humorous edits ensue, culminating with DiCaprio (or his double) at the wheel of an Aston-Martin tooling through New York. It’s an entertaining sequence, yet my ultimate reaction is that it probably wasn’t worth the expense of the dolly shot, licensing Goldfinger and John Barry’s Bond music, and putting the car and a period setting in the middle of Manhattan. Not to mention the suit. Of course, if you’re Spielberg, what’s a few dollars more in the budget?

In Munich (2005), the movie-in-movie is an easy-to-miss grace note. Spielberg has frequently talked about how much he was influenced by John Ford, once saying, “I try to rent a John Ford film, one or two, before I start every movie. Simply because he inspires me and I’m very sensitive to the way he uses his camera to paint his pictures.” He used The Quiet Man in a key scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Munich is about Israel’s targeted assassination of those it suspected of involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. More broadly, it’s about the complicated morality and personal costs of such an enterprise.

In an early sequence, the Israeli operatives are following a Palestinian translator and poet living in Rome, who is on their list. We watch them watching him as he goes into a small corner store and buys some groceries. There’s a small TV playing. Presently, the man leaves the store and is murdered.

You wouldn’t know it because the TV is in fact so small, but the film that’s shown is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), one of Ford’s profound meditations on violence, its costs and its arguable necessity. I believe it’s my favorite movie-in-movie in all of Spielberg.

‘Beast with a Gun,’ ‘Detroit 9000’ and ‘Dirty Mary Crazy Larry ‘ in ‘Jackie Brown’

Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown isn’t a very good movie, but it’s interesting, which is not nothing. Re-watching the 1997 film — an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch — on HBO Max, I was struck, first, by how self-indulgent Tarantino is and, second, how he carries self-indulgence off better than most. Much of the film’s two hour and thirty-four-minute running time is occupied by Tarantino sticking a camera in front of two or three of his formidable cast (Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro), and then not turning it off for a long time. Far from being boring, the long takes usually foment a kind of fascination.

The thing I found most interesting about the movie was how, despite being set in the mid-’90s present tense, it is firmly planted in the 1970s. That applies to the soundtrack, which kicks off with Bobby Womack’s rousing “Across 110th Street” and includes a couple of great Philadelphia soul tunes from the Delfonics, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “La-la Means I Love You.” The characters played by Grier and Forster actually bond over the Delfonics, and another feature of the film is how Tarantino’s camera lingers over the interesting faces of those two ’70s icons, neither in the first bloom of youth.

The other really ’70s thing about Jackie Brown is the movies-in-movie aspect. Jackson plays a two-bit gun smuggler named Ordell Robbie and Fonda his surfer-girl girlfriend. At one point Ordell walks in on her smoking a bong:

Ordell: Goddamn girl, you gettin’ high already? It’s just 2 o’clock!

Melanie: [chuckling] It’s that late?

Ordell: You know you smoke too much of that shit, that shit gonna rob you of your own ambition.

Melanie: Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.

Indeed, the TV is always on in the apartment, and what do you know, it’s tuned to a channel whose continuous fare, somehow, is 1970s grindhouse flicks. The first we glimpse is Beast with a Gun (1977). IMDB’s plot summary: “In Italy, escaped sadistic killer Nanni Vitali and his henchmen terrorize the populace and seek revenge against those responsible for Vitali’s incarceration.”

And right, Helmut Berger it is.

Later, Jackie Brown (Grier), in a red dress, walks by the TV as it’s playing Detroit 9000, a 1973 blaxploitation flick which Tarantrino likes so much he sponsored its reissue on DVD a few years back.

The most delicious moment is Fonda watching Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1973). How come? Well, it stars her dad, Peter — shown here with Susan George, kind of a ’70s icon herself.

‘Snow White’ (and a lot more) in ‘Gremlins’

If asked to name to the most movie-conscious movie, I probably wouldn’t select Gremlins. But Joe Dante’s 1984 horror-comedy belongs in the discussion.

The film’s best-known movie-in-movie scene occurs when the apparently cute, but actually viciously destructive, title creatures have taken over the local cinema. Initially, there’s some trouble in the projection booth, but that gets sorted out.

The movie the gremlins are watching, of course, is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It’s a knowing choice, showing the striking transition in animated sidekicks from Disney’s lovable dwarfs to Dante’s disgusting critters. But gross as they are, they’re also — in their rapt involvement with what they’re watching — the sort of audience a director can only dream of.

And if you think it’s odd that a 1937 movie should be on offer in an early ’80s cinema, you shouldn’t: Disney re-released Snow White in the Christmas season roughly every decade, the last time in 1983. Gremlins is a Christmas movie as well (though it was rushed to a June release, apparently so that its studio could have some blockbuster competition against Ghostbusters and the second Indiana Jones movie). It has lots of nods to the ultimate Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, including the fact that the main character, Billy (Zack Galligan), works in a bank, and both the look and the name (the Bedford Falls-sounding Kingston Falls) of the town where it’s set.

An early movie-in-movie scene is a more explicit shout-out to Frank Capra’s classic. Billy and his mother (Frances Lee McCain) are in the family kitchen.

I love it that she doesn’t have the sound on: at this point,Wonderful Life is so familiar that it’s really not necessary. And is she crying at the ending of the movie (which would be happy tears, not sad ones, right?), or from the big pile of onions she’s just chopped?

Here are the other movies in the movie, in no particular order. I find all but one of them clever and fun.

Billy and Gizmo, the Mogwai who inadvertently spawned the gremlins, watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) on TV. The parallels are obvious.

Playing in the classroom of the high school science teacher (Glynn Turman) is Hemo the Magnificent, a 1956 documentary about the circulatory system directed by none other than Frank Capra.

Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), who is bitter at foreign imports up to and including the gremlins taking over from American-made products, finds that his TV will only play kind of the ultimate foreign film, Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus.

My favorite Easter egg takes places in the local bar, where the TV is barely visible. IMDB informs me that what’s showing on it is the 1949 Pepe Le Peu cartoon For Scent-imental Reasons, directed by Chuck Jones. And guess who’s the customer walking along the bar, looking at it? Chuck Jones himself. (Phoebe Cates is the waitress, Judge Reinhold the dude on the left.)

The one movie-in-this-movie whose point I can’t quite figure out is To Please a Lady (1950), which looks to be a pretty bad car-racing movie starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. But Gizmo and Billy’s dog clearly don’t share my opinion. There’s probably an in-joke in there somewhere, and if anyone can spot it, please let me know.

‘The Outlaw’ in ‘Citizens of the World’

My wife is obsessed with all things Italian, and through one of her email subscriptions heard about an online showing of a 2019 film called Citizens of the World (Italian title: Lontano Lontano), to benefit the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society. It seemed like a good cause and a good film, so we paid our $12.50 and streamed it.

Good choice. The movie, directed by Gianni Di Gregorio, is a very well-observed, funny, gentle and (most important) un-cliched character study of three Roman retirees who decide that the only way to make their pensions cover their living costs would be to move abroad. Complications ensue. (By the way, it’s also available for rental on Amazon.)

As a bonus, there’s an early movie-in-movie scene. One of the guys, played by the director, is a retired teacher known only as “Il Profesore.” We see him in his apartment, preparing dinner. And then:

The choice of movie serves a couple of purposes: one, the comedy of the professor’s sleeping through a shoot-’em-up and, two, more subtly, the implication that perhaps that his time, the time of black and white westerns, has passed by.

My only problem is that I can’t i.d. the movie. It’s listed neither in the Films in Films website nor the user-generated “Connections” sections of IMDB. If anyone can name the movie the professor is dozing to, I’ll put it up on IMDB myself.

Update: Shortly after posting this, I made a plea on Facebook and Twitter for help in identifying the movie. Within minutes, three separate people — Francie Halderman, Lewis Beale and Nancy Friedman (Twitter @fritinancy) — had pegged it as Howard Hughes’s infamous The Outlaw (1943), starring Jane Russell. That adds to the joke, as the Professor even sleeps through Russell’s va-va-voomitude.

I immediately filed the Connection with UMDB. Grazie tutti!

‘Mogambo’ in ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father’

When my daughter Maria was little, after reading her a bedtime story, I’d hang around in her room and we’d have what she dubbed “chat time,” where we’d talk about this and that. At the end, we’d sometimes recap what she (again) called “the train” — how the first subject led to the next, and so on, to the end. A Movies-in-Other-Movies train starts with Bombshell, where the movie-in-movies was Red Dust. Then Bombshell was used in The Prize.

And today we have The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), directed by Vincente Minelli, who was previously represented on this blog by his clever use of The Bad and the Beautiful in Two Weeks in Another Town. I had never seen The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, only the Bill Bixby sitcom that based on it, one of a bewildering number of late ’50s and ’60s shows about widowers or other single father figures raising kids — Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, Family Affair, Bonanza. (Widowed mothers — demographically more common — didn’t arrive till Diahann Carroll’s Julia in 1968. And divorced people … forget about it.)

The train is that the film Minelli chooses to have lonely and wistful Tom Corbett (Glenn Ford) watch on TV is John Ford’s Mogambo (1953), a remake of Red Dawn in which Clark Gable recreated his original role and (older guys being okay as Hollywood love interests, older women not so much) Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (shown here) took the Jean Harlow and Mary Astor parts. The scene is notable for having Tom use a wireless remote control, just as Jack Lemmon did in The Apartment.


And just to finish up the train, Eddie is of course played by Ronny (later) Ron Howard, whose birthday is today!

‘Bombshell’ in ‘The Prize’

So screenwriter Ernest Lehman cooks up a scene for the Hitchockian The Prize (1963) in which Nobel-winning novelist Andrew Craig (Paul Newman), having arrived in Stockholm and gotten involved in some skullduggery, gets a tip to go see a particular guy in his apartment. There’s no answer to a knock on the door, and Andrew walks in to find the television is on.

What should be playing? One can imagine the discussion between Lehman and director Mark Robson. A movie is more interesting than some Swedish TV show, but which one? Should be something from the studio behind The Prize, MGM, for the sake of economy. Beyond that, I can only think that Lehman and Robson opted for a film as dissimilar as can be from theirs.

What they came up with, in any case, was Jean Harlow’s Bombshell, which I discussed here because it has a scene from Red Dust, and which therefore earns this post and that one a “Double dip” tag. To make it even more discordant, it’s the scene where Harlow is telling Lee Tracy how much she wants a baby. (I can figure that out because the Swedish voice artists keeps saying “baby” and “mama.”)

I’d offer a trigger warning for the scene, but if you’ve seen more than a couple of suspense films, you know exactly what’s coming.