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Five More Great Films You've Probably Never Seen

As the saying goes, life ain't fair. In the world of the dramatic arts, not everything that's popular really deserves the adulation, and many great works never achieve the success they should have, or fade into undeserved obscurity after a short stint in the spotlight. In the spirit of celebrating forgotten favorites and overlooked gems, we once more present for your consideration five great films that you probably haven't seen and (except for the first one) may not even have heard of.

Rashomon (1950)

"It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves."

You've certainly have heard of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, one of the most artistically significant films ever made, even if you've never seen it. But if you haven't seen Rashomon itself, you've almost certainly "seen" it in a sense because nearly every television series you can think of that lasted more than one season has at least one Rashomon-style episode: Star Trek: TNG, ER, Veronica Mars, Blindspot, Farscape, Hannah Montana, Supernatural, and M*A*S*H, to name but a few.

Based on the short story "In a Grove" by Japanese author Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon tells the story of the murder of a samurai – or, rather, several versions, told by different narrators, all of which contradict each other – and, at the end, it's all but impossible to tell which parts of each narrative are truth, and which aren't. While many of Rashomon's imitators and homages are worth seeing in their own right, none of them quite compares to the original, which remains just as fresh as it was 70 years ago.


-30-
(1959)


"Sir, what's that noise."
"Don't you know what that is? They're printing the funny papers."

It's a rainy night, and in the offices of the Los Angeles Examiner, Managing Editor Sam Gatlin (Jack Webb) and City Editor Jim Bathgate (William Conrad) are putting together tomorrow's morning paper. The film plays out over the next eight hours as the characters deal with breaking news stories (an airplane in distress, a lost child who fell into the storm sewers), mundane workplace interactions, and a personal issue or three. It may not sound all that impressive from that description, but the combination of sharp writing and excellent acting makes for a mesmerizing bit of slice-of-life cinema, a glimpse into what journalism was like before journalists started turning into pop-culture celebrities.

A year or two after I saw -30- for the first time on a local TV station, CBS premiered Lou Grant, a Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff which followed the titular character to a new job as an editor at a Los Angeles newspaper. I don't know if Lou Grant's creators were inspired by -30-, or even knew that -30- existed, but there was an awful lot of similarity between the two. One of Lou Grant's first-season episodes was a nearly beat-for-beat parallel to one of -30-'s main plot arcs.


Fools' Parade
(1971)


"I'm not a bank robber. I'm just an American that's come into a bank to cash a check."
"I'll see you in Hell first!"
"Well, that's very possible, Mr. Grindstaff. Very possible, indeed. And sooner than you think if you don't get me my money right quick!"

After serving a 40-year sentence in the West Virginia State Penitentiary for a crime that had something to do with dynamite, Mattie Appleyard (James Stewart) and two other newly-released convicts plan to restart their lives and open a legitimate business using the money Mattie has saved from his earnings in the prison workshop. He gets his pay – $25,452.32, a princely sum for 1935 – in the form of a check that can only be cashed at the local bank just down the street from the prison gates. A corrupt prison official (George Kennedy) is conspiring with the bank president (David Huddleston) to make sure that Mattie never gets that $25,452.32. After their first attempt to kill Mattie fails, other actors become interested in obtaining the $25,452.32 for themselves, Mattie falls back on his old demolition skills to stay alive, and things just get more complicated from there.

Fools' Parade was the last film in which James Stewart received top billing; he would only appear in eight more live action roles before his death in 1991. The train nerd in me was particularly excited to see his co-star Southern Railway locomotive 4501, which later played a prominent role in October Sky, making her first film appearance.


The Seven-Ups
(1973)


"I think we've got a whole bunch of unanswered questions here."
"Yeah, well just give us a little time and we'll get the answers."

Gritty, dark-themed crime dramas were something of a trend in the early 1970s, a period which gave us The French Connection, Shaft ("Damn right!"),Dog Day Afternoon, The Super Cops, Serpico, the Dirty Harry and Death Wish franchises, and this little overlooked gem. Buddy Manucci (Roy Scheider) leads an NYPD detective squad nicknamed "Seven-Ups" because they specialize in investigating crimes for which the minimum sentence is seven years. In the grand tradition of gritty, dark-themed 1970s crime drama detectives, their methods of crime-solving are something less than fully compliant with the U.S. Constitution.

In the course of another investigation, the squad learns that a gang is systematically kidnapping mobsters and holding them for ransom. The kidnappers are posing as NYPD detectives, leading to suspicions and rumors that the "cowboy cop" Seven-Ups are the perpetrators. In the course of trying to catch the real bad guys, Buddy discovers that one of their "reliable sources" is not as reliable as he thought.

The Seven-Ups is a well-written and very well-acted 1970s police procedural with a main plot equal in quality to its better-known contemporaries. What makes it stand out from rest is the 10-minute car chase sequence. Staged by stunt driver Bill Hickman (who also choreographed the iconic car chases in Bullit and The French Connection), filmed on New York streets in the middle of real midday traffic, starring unmodified 1970s cars that handle like the soft-suspensioned road barges they were, it is one of the most harrowing and immersive action sequences on record, arguably the best and most realistic car chase ever filmed.


Sorcerer
(1977)


"We're carrying three cases each. One is enough to blow out your fire, six cases will blow out the whole field. That means you don't think all the trucks will make it, one of us is a backup."

Nitroglycerin is touchy stuff. The slightest bump can set it off. Because of that, it was no good as a commercial explosive until a chemist named Alfred Nobel – yes, that guy, the one who founded and funded the Nobel Prizes – figured out that you could make it stable enough for transport and handling by mixing it with a silicate called "diatomaceous earth," creating a solid substance he named "dynamite." While dynamite is nice and stable when first manufactured, and stays that way for a good long time if properly stored, it eventually breaks down, liquid nitro begins "sweating" out, and it soon reverts to something that can go off with the slightest bump.

A well catches fire in a remote South American oil field, and explosives are needed to blow it out. The only supply within practical reach is a cache of dynamite which hasn't been properly stored and is sweating nitro like crazy, located on the other side of a rugged mountain range. The only practical way to transport it to where it's needed is to drive it there... in beat up old trucks... over a mountain trail that barely qualifies as a road. The drivers are four desperate men who have each come to this remote place to escape their pasts: a New Jersey gangster (Roy Scheider), a Mexican hit man (Francisco Rabal), a corrupt French financier (Bruno Cremer), and a Palestinian terrorist (Amadou) – and the rough road and unstable cargo turn out to be the least of their worries.

Directed by the excellent William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A.) and featuring a first-rate cast, a tense script, and a darkly atmospheric score by German synthesizer band Tangerine Dream, Sorcerer seemed to have all the makings of a successful thriller – but it was actually a serious box-office flop. Nobody saw it because it had the grave misfortune of hitting the theatres at the same time as a certain space opera that became a surprise pop culture phenomenon.

Oh, and by the way, that scene in the trailer and on the movie poster, with the truck swaying on the rickety rope bridge in the middle of a torrential downpour: that's not a special effects shot, it's a real truck, on a real bridge. William Friedkin called it the most complicated and difficult scene he ever filmed.

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I'm surprised to report that I haven't seen any of these films, even Rashomon. Although I've heard about Rashomon for so many years that it's almost like I did see it.

An enjoyable write-up, Baby M -- thanks.

migmit said...

Sorcerer sounds too much like Wages of Fear.

Baby M said...

Sorcerer was a remake of Wages of Fear. I've never seen the original, so I don't know how Sorcerer compares to it.

CoramDeo said...

Only one I've seen is Rashomon, and I didn't love it. Great list, though! A few I might check out.

magritte said...

I've seen Rashomon but never even heard of the others so there's stuff to look out for. Billie, I don't think Rashomon is the kind of film that knowing the plot really ruins for you...there's more to it than the gimmick. It's quite visually interesting. Maybe not my favorite Kurosawa film, but there's some stiff competition.