Hot Millions [Eric Till, 1968]

Is it true what Wikipedia says? I hope it is. I hope the only good interior footage of the Beatles’ short-lived Apple boutique — the only footage of it actually in use, the shopgirls and customers — has Bob Newhart in it. That would be fantastic. That’s the store where Newhart’s uptight American computer nerd chooses to treat Maggie Smith’s klutzy cockney spinster during her brief attempt to vamp him, in this oddly touching caper comedy.

Rarely does something call to mind A Fish Called Wanda, a film that the word “triumph” seems to describe, though a triumph of I’m not sure what . This comes close, with a caper plot that is really a very simple plan, a very unrealistic plan, and one that the characters frequently ignore, but not for random jokes, more like random moments of heart. Instead of rapid banter, the funny lines are Peter Ustinov’s W.C. Fields-esque asides and other characters’ bemused responses. Enjoy Newhart’s nerd-resentment, Malden’s Texan bravado, and Smith’s airheadery. To compensate for all these slow talkers, the editing is odd. Longish, witty conversations end with a sour note, like every character is unsatisfied with what just happened. Quick-cut montages, like when Ustinov is traveling around Europe setting up fake companies, or when Maggie Smith is getting fired from jobs, are really, really quick-cut. You’ll see an unhurried 20-second cut to establish that a montage is occurring, and the rest of the cuts are like half a second each, and then you’re back to another long conversation and gradually figure out what the heck that montage was about.

Then, as in A Fish Called Wanda, you have very sweet love scenes. Not sex scenes, but, like, people falling in love. These move slowly. We’re led to believe that Maggie Smith’s character can only do one thing competently, play the flute, and her life is aimless and hesitant because she isn’t the sort of person who gets a job doing that. Some scenes that are intended to be uproarious [like when she’s taken her dress off to change the typewriter ribbon] just don’t have the timing to make them anything other than gentle depictions of likeable people. This is especially true in the scenes with the absent-minded genuine computer expert whom Ustinov cons and impersonates. What a nice guy. When the setting shifts to the tropics it starts to seem like one of those soulless Tony Curtis comedies of the period, and hurries to the final scene [over which the credits roll], which returns us to the satisfying pleasantness that makes up most of the movie.

Elsewhere, Karl Malden’s character is the rare movie titan of industry who is unpretentious and thinks his company is doing good work, and even knows something about what the company does. I don’t know how much we can credit the director for this [Eric Till was making his first feature film, and has had a long career mostly in TV, mostly in Canadian TV even], but Till does make us feel fond of Ustinov’s character. Who is, after all, a non-charming, secretive con artist who has very dubious reasons for exploiting people the way he does.

It’s been lamented that Ustinov’s post-Topkapi roles largely came from how “audiences wanted him to be just a funny, foreign fat man”. All I can say is that if Peter Sellers was in this film instead of Ustinov it would have been hard to stand. This is just the sort of role Sellers used to play, and he would have brought such a superior attitude to all the comic exchanges that you’d be reduced to rooting for Bob Newhart and thinking Maggie Smith is certifiably mentally challenged instead of just inattentive to detail. 35 years later Ustinov was Friedrich III of Saxony in Till’s Luther [starring Joseph Fiennes].

”It happened because my favorite director is Eric Till, with whom I worked in the past, and in fact I got an Oscar nomination as a scriptwriter — in collaboration with somebody I never met, and have not met to this day — for a film called ‘Hot Millions,’ which Eric Till directed,” Sir Peter said, referring to the 1968 film in which he also starred. ”I figure he’s the best director I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with several famous ones. He, at the age of 70, suddenly thought of me, at the age of 82, and thought I might be a good Friedrich the Wise.

”I didn’t have anything against it, except that I can hardly walk,” he said. ”But we coped with that because I leaned on things and staggered through the film in some measure. We saw eye to eye about everything, including the lack of a scene in the script, which went in eventually, in which Friedrich meets Luther. It makes it very feeble if he just looks through windows and says, ‘That’s the fellow Luther, down there — no, no, the one on the left.’ And then we were attacked by the theological advisers, who said, ‘There’s no record of them ever having met.’ I said, ‘There’s no record of most people ever having met.’ ”

See The Frog’s Eyebrows for lots more Hot Millions stills.

Straight Time [Ulu Grosbard, 1978]

Jenny: "You did great on your intelligence test." Max: "Yeah, well, you know, I could have told you that."

Ulu Grosbard hasn’t directed many films, but when he does, they’re believable, believable, believable. The camera doesn’t pay attention to anything but the actors, always following them, just a step ahead of their trajectory, in the TV-drama way. No clutter, nothing showy. Grosbard is mostly a theater director and seems to take quiet pride in how the props aren’t there to be an impressive tableau, they’re all things that might be useful to the actors. YouTube user uhhuhhim has uploaded a bunch of scenes from 1995’s Georgia, another Grosbard exemplar of directing that serves the acting. Here’s a domestic scene.

The cast of Straight Time is a roster of people who would become iconic in late middle age or older. Sandy Baron seems about 25 years younger than he did in 1984’s Birdy or his most famous role in the nineties. M. Emmet Walsh seems about 15 years younger than he did in 1984’s Blood Simple. Harry Dean Stanton seems the same age as in 1984’s Repo Man, but he has a youthful Eric-Idle-in-1970 haircut. Gary Busey embodies the guy who never follows things through and resents those who do, in a more lazy than crazy role. Jake Busey, age 6, is adorable and we worry about him. As Busey’s wife, Kathy Bates [a very rare youthful film appearance for her] is a woman who’s embraced a tragic role in life, calling to mind Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy. The one actor I hadn’t heard of, Theresa Russell, has the thoughtful husky voice, long flat hair, serene self-assurance and free-spirited [but under control] approach to relationships that call to mind Scarlett Johansson in In Good Company.  Her character makes weird choices, but seems to know what she’s doing.

Although it’s closely based on a book by noted Los Angeles criminal Eddie Bunker, the movie could really be set in Wichita or Buffalo. Cinematographer Owen Roizman [Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Network] finds no beauty in the L.A. landscape, except maybe the desert vistas that no character wants to venture into. He shows Stanton’s beautiful suburban neighborhood and gleaming swimming pool in that ironic, down-with-superficiality way that makes us know Stanton’s going to whisper “Get me out of here.”

Some people get irritated by Dustin Hoffman, and what could be seen as his attempt to find the perfect pitch for his character and then play that one note throughout the movie. It sometimes seems like he’s being unhelpful to other actors, carrying on with this solo virtuosity. If you’re of the anti-Hoffman persuasion this film will not wow you [His character is Max Dembo. Max mumbles, has mood swings that he keeps to himself until he does something inexplicable, is a hard worker, and has a nice little smile], but to everyone else I can’t help but recommend it. In fact, it goes on the list of best Sidney Lumet films, no matter who directed it.

You know how at the beginning of Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle seems like a born loser starved of love, and you can’t stand the people who won’t give him a helping hand? Straight Time does that better. You know how Dog Day Afternoon has a trio of robbers each with a fatal flaw? Compare the dynamic in Straight Time‘s jewel heist. You know how  Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has a doomed jewel heist? This one is carried out by guys who aren’t morons. You know the famous sequence in Sexy Beast when Ben Kingsley is recruiting Ray Winstone? Hoffman recruits Harry Dean Stanton away from his suburban lethargy to a new desperate endeavor, in an almost comforting way. They’re friends who love and admire but don’t trust each other. Like Sonny Wortzik’s plan, Max’s plan would go off perfectly, with no risk, unless something unlucky happens. How unlucky is he?

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution [Herbert Ross, 1976]

My memory of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution the novel is of a fairly flat adventure, what you’d expect from a Sherlock Holmes story informed by the mind-opening movements of the sixties and seventies, and with nuanced villains instead of a Rosicrucian cabal of transnational conspirators. In reality it’s far more of a study of Holmes’s addiction and compulsions. I just skipped those parts of the book as a teenager, I’m afraid, and  missed out on Sigmund Freud’s psychological revelations about Holmes’s childhood, an early instance of the “troubled backstory that justifies someone who no longer seems like a sympathetic character to our enlightened eyes” motif found in Batman Begins and Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka.

Now the movie, wow, well, the movie, coming right on the book’s heels, is a whole itinerary of fascinating points of interest, without adding up to a story with any suspense. It has some of the most charming period-styled credits you’ll see. It has a sandy-haired Sherlock Holmes [Nicol Williamson] who looks a great deal like Leslie Howard. It has an unrecognizable Robert Duvall as Watson, sounding like one of Terry Jones’s prim and pompous Monty Python stockbrokers. It has a very recognizable Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud — that great voice is suited for the Freud accent. Even better, it has Alan Arkin, as Sigmund Freud, playing court tennis, in one of the most lovingly-painstakingly-crafted historical reconstructions outside Peter Weir’s Master and Commander.

It has other actors whose ludicrous Teutonic accents I was sure would turn out to be fake. It has an old-timey train combat climax that doesn’t match The Great Train Robbery or Emperor of the North Pole, but is likewise lovingly done. It reminds us that Holmes had not one but two Victorian superpowers — being able to read someone’s mind based on basic demographic knowledge, and access to a bloodhound. It has Sir Laurence Olivier as the world’s meekest man, Professor Moriarty. It has Sherlock Holmes tormented by reptilian visions out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Even when healthy and unable to isolate himself, Holmes spends most of his time silently analyzing his inner turmoil, with brief bursts of detectiving inspired by his contempt for others. Which is what he did in the stories, but now it’s a process of healing.

Big Trouble [John Cassavetes, 1986]

The obvious response to Cassavetes’s bemusing final film Big Trouble [written by Andrew Bergman] seems like the correct one: he made it worth watching. The script gives us a bunch of characters that it would be almost impossible to make believable or relatable, but somehow we care. The film is edited in the style of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and contains a bunch of noisy caricatures, but the actors believe in it. Everything said by Valerie Curtin’s character amounts to “Alan Arkin, I am a harpy who makes your life a living hell. I need a better lifestyle. Your family needs money.” but you perceive the subtle gradations of her motivating impulses, as many as Curtin can display.

Alan Arkin and Peter Falk reprise their rapport from The In-Laws [also written by Andrew Bergman]. Beverly DeAngelo plays an ditzy version of the trophy wife/life-insurance beneficiary in Fletch [also written by Andrew Bergman]. Dialogue in the style of The Great Outdoors or the Dangerfield-Pesci exchanges in Easy Money is presented with true respect for the characters who utter it, with exceptions for the madcap Arkin-Falk-DeAngelo relationship. The wacky bright color scheme isn’t typical of the time [compare to Fletch — that’s a flashy comedy with a non-flashy look], it’s more a trick to heighten the emotions. The main characters are transplanted from a different age, like The Long Goodbye without the pathos.

It reminds me of The Hudsucker Proxy in how a big budget given to a usually-frugal director manifests in waves of minor characters, like the Chinese laborers, Arkin’s co-workers at the insurance agency, the security guards and cops and rival burglars during the invigorating final break-in sequence. Big Trouble is definitely, let’s say, the equal of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Less mean-spirited, less hilarious, and less predictable. Probably the best 1986 “Big Trouble” movie not to contain this man.