R.I.P., Gene Wilder


I’m so sorry to hear of the death of Gene Wilder at age 83.

Besides being known as cinema’s original Willy Wonka, there was a time when you could have claimed he was one of the funniest men in American movies. If you start naming his most memorable films, you’ll want to arrange your own comedy marathon for them. I won’t bother naming them all here, because more enterprising websites and blogs probably already have (although who could forget his co-writing and performing peak with Mel Brooks, Young Frankenstein?).

But I’d like to leave you with one of Wilder’s littler-known comedy trinkets. In 1971, he performed in an ABC-TV movie (which didn’t get aired until three years later) titled Thursday’s Game. While it’s just a “cult” movie, it has quite a pedigree: It was written by James L. Brooks (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Taxi”), it stars Wilder and Bob Newhart, and the supporting cast includes Valerie Harper, Nancy Walker, and Ellen Burstyn.

I’ve embedded the entire movie below, but you might not want to watch the entire thing unless you’re a die-hard Wilder or Newhart fan. It’s cute enough, but dated and rather leisurely paced. But the scene that sets up the movie’s premise is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

The set-up: Wilder, Newhart, and their buddies have been playing a Thursday-night poker game for years, but only for penny-ante stakes. One of the buddies decides they ought to get serious about the game and play for real money.

The scene begins at the 8:09 mark. Bear with me, and watch the scene at least until Wilder and Newhart walk into the kitchen. It’s priceless.

(And rest in peace, Jerome Silberman.)


THE ABSENT-MINDED WAITER (1977) – An early movie gem from Steve Martin

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Early on in his fame, Steve Martin gave massive credit to Jerry Lewis’ style of zaniness. The Absent-Minded Waiter is an obvious homage to Lewis’ wacko style, and a superb one at that.

Cynics will say it’s little more than an extended early-“Saturday Night Live” sketch –early-era “SNL” vet Buck Henry even has a major role — but for sheerly silly laughs, it can’t be beat. Martin plays the most moronic waiter ever hired for a restaurant. Henry plays a war-veteran of AMW’s shenanigans who brings his wife (Teri Garr) to the restaurant for a crash course.

Martin and co-writer Carl Gottlieb hit pay dirt a couple of years later with The Jerk, but this is an extremely funny warm-up for that feature. (In fact, Martin used it as a prologue for his live stand-up act for years.) It’s no-hold-barred craziness, and since it lasts only seven minutes, it’s just long enough to be hilarious and not unbearable.


CRY OF THE CITY (1948) – As intelligent and beautiful as film noir gets


The following is my entry in The Film Noir Blogathon, being hosted Aug. 12-14, 2016 by Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ lively critiques of a variety of film noir movies!


Cry of the City is a mesmerizing film-noir about Martin Rome (Richard Conte), a criminal currently recovering from bullet wounds after having a shoot-out with a cop that left the cop dead. On the other side of the law is Police Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature), a cop who is singularly obsessed with bringing Rome down. The police suspect that Rome carried out a jewel robbery with Teena (Debra Paget), a young girl who briefly visited Rome in the prison ward. The robbery is yet unsolved, and Candella thinks that if he can track down Teena, he can resolve the robbery and end Rome’s crime career in one fell swoop.

The plot sounds cliched, yet the superlative acting, stark photography, gritty screenplay (co-written by an uncredited Ben Hecht), and taut direction by noir veteran Robert Siodmak (Criss Cross) result in a riveting tale. The story is presented most unglamorously, showing how both the villains and the good guys suffer.

Rome acts and talks like a cool crook but is frequently brought to heel by characters even shadier than he is — a self-serving lawyer (Berry Kroeger), a very mannish female masseuse (Hope Emerson). Candella puts himself and his partner (Fred Clark) through the wringer trying to catch Rome, and the movie lightly hints that Candella doesn’t completely act in virtuous-cop mode — that it might be a feather in his cap to bring down this major hoodlum.

The problem with a lot of film-noir is that it gets lost in stylishness at the expense of plausibility. Because Cry of the City takes the time to add some shades of nuance to its characters and settings, the viewer ends up having a stake in its outcome — which is deliciously delivered, by the way, right up to its haunting final shot. I’m for any movie that treats moviegoers like thinking adults, and Cry of the City fits the bill quite satisfyingly.

BORN TO KILL (1947) – You can’t always get what you want


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

There are a lot of people in Born to Kill who want only precisely what they can’t have.


Let’s start with the biggest one first. Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) simply wants everything. He has an outsized sense of entitlement that would make Donald Trump look humble. To him, everything and everybody is a toy, intended for his amusement until he wearies of it and moves on to the next toy.

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Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) has just finalized a divorce in Reno and already has another man waiting in the wings — her ostensible fiancee, a rich man named Fred (Phillip Terry). (Unaddressed in the movie is the fact that Helen is already engaged to Fred before the ink on her divorce paper has even dried. So chances are that her dalliance with Fred might have been at least one cause of the divorce.)

On the night that Helen is preparing to leave Reno to meet up with Fred in San Francisco, she happens to stop back at her boarding house one more time. There, she discovers that two people have been murdered. Helen takes the sight unusually quietly and doesn’t even phone the police about it. Nothing must delay her trip to Frisco, after all, so why get involved?

But Helen gets involved whether she wants to or not. On the ferry to her train, she strikes up a conversation with a dashing man:  Sam, who unbeknownst to Helen was the one who committed the murders. The two hit it off, take the train to Frisco together, and then part ways, with the duo making a vague plan to meet up again in Frisco.


One night, Sam drops by unexpectedly while Helen is entertaining her foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long). Helen is heir to a fortune that Sam sees as his ticket to the good life. Since Helen has now dismissed Sam as a one-night stand, he figures he’ll take up with Georgia.


Lest I divulge any more of the plot, let me mention a couple more hangers-on who can’t have what they want. Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard, Detour) is a boozy old spinster who runs the boarding house where the murder takes place. All she wants is good, mindless times, and she nearly pays for it with her life.

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Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) is Sam’s sycophant. All he ever wants is a crumb of Sam’s approval, which he rarely gets. (If Marty’s desperation to please Sam strikes you as a little more than platonic, you wouldn’t be the first moviegoer to think so.)

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About the only one who gets what he wants is detective Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), but that might be because he sets his sights pretty low. He uses a sparkling and expansive vocabulary in an attempt to rationalize his mercenary ways. As such, he’s about the only person in the movie who tells things like they really are, functioning as a rather sleazy Greek chorus. (For that reason, he’s probably my favorite character in the movie.)

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All of this is directed to a noir-thee-well by Robert Wise, who seems to flitter around these lowlifes and regard them even more shadily than the verbose detective does. Claire thinks that all she has to do to avoid her part in a murder plot is to distance herself from it. But Fate has a way of drawing these similarly sketchy people together, like a rope that will quietly lasso them in and then draw a noose around each of their necks.

Born to Kill is a thoroughly gripping film-noir entry, a perfect movie to watch when you’re feeling down about your lot in life. It’s as if the movie was saying, “Relax — you could be one of these people.”

CLOCKWISE (1985) – John Cleese in a very well-timed farce


The following is my entry in The 3rd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, being hosted Aug. 5-7, 2016 by Terence at the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ critiques of a wide variety of British and Britain-themed movies!


(WARNING:  Major spoilers abound!)

Clockwise is a sadly overlooked item in the film oeuvre of John Cleese. Although on the surface, Cleese’s characterization is basically a variation on Basil Fawlty, Cleese really gives his all and makes it a very worthwhile farce.

Cleese plays Brian Stimpston, a self-satisfied and very exacting headmaster of a comprehensive school (a school for ages 11 and above, to those of us Yanks who don’t know). When Stimpston is elected to chair the annual Headmasters’ Conference — an honor usually bestowed only upon headmasters of private schools — Stimpson lets it go to his already swelled head. We first see and hear him in his office, rehearsing his conference speech, in which he makes quite a point of what an “historic occasion” his appointment is.  Stimpson is frequently interrupted by teachers and students who are confused about where they are supposed to be on campus at that time. Stimpson consults his meticulous set of calendars and quickly sets them right. Stimpson believes that the key to life’s happiness comes in keeping everything on schedule.

Sadly, Fate’s schedule isn’t as smooth as Stimpson’s. Stimpson intends to take the 10:00 train to his conference, wherein he will greet his fellow headmasters at 3:00 and give his speech at 5:00. But a simple, one-word misunderstanding causes Simpson to both miss his train and lose his speech.

Stimpson tries to get hold of his long-suffering wife to take him to the conference, but he just misses connecting with her. In his efforts to reach the conference in time, Stimpson happens across Laura (Sharon Maiden), a truant student he knows, and Mrs. Way (Ann Way), a former girlfriend of his. Once the two women are kind (and naive) enough to provide transportation for Stimpson, he becomes single-minded in purpose, determined to reach the conference at all costs — never mind that Stimpson chalks up several crimes for them and himself along the way.

I’m usually not a fan of farce, because it tends to employ what the late film critic Roger Ebert called “The Idiot Plot” — the kind of plot where the story would be over in two minutes if the main characters didn’t act like complete idiots. But Michael Frayn’s well-thought-out screenplay runs like…well, clockwork. All of the plot twists come from simple and quite plausible actions, and yet one by one, they end up bringing havoc to the orderly life of Stimpson.

This farce is also wonderful because nobody overplays his or her hand. All of the actors are low-key and wonderful, even when their characters are in circumstances that should cause them to blow their tops. Consequently, we the audience can sympathize and laugh with them rather than at them.

And John Cleese is at his finest. Stimpson’s unctuousness is probably the glue that holds him together — even he only occasionally really loses it, rather admirably considering the spiraling mess in which he finds himself. Cleese pretty much lets his body language speak for itself, which of course means he’s hilarious.

If you’ve ever been late for an important appointment and felt as though it was the end of the world, Clockwise is sure to be your kind of comedy.