Once upon a time, a TV cowboy named Clint got handed a script for a low-budget Italian Western that he immediately recognized as a hastily redressed version of Yojimbo. He took the job, for a free trip to Italy (or so he claims), and in the process helped reinvent an entire genre. A Fistful of Dollars opened today in the U.S. in 1967.
The Coen Brothers have their own take on the American West, no less bloody and equally compelling. They traveled to familiar ground — Texas — for their film debut, Blood Simple, and never looked back. A near-perfect piece of southern-fried noir, it remains on the short list of their very best films… and that’s saying something. It opened today in 1985.
Other, less Clint-tastic movies released today include George Cukor’s 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield — featuring W.C. Fields in one of his most memorable roles as Mr. Micawber — and the Matt Reeves-helmed found-footage giant monster mash-up Cloverfield, released today in 2008.
It was a good day for bad men at the movies, starting with Sergio’s Leone’s legendary The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, released in the U.S. on December 29, 1967. Leone wrapped a strange anti-war message into his farewell to The Man with No Name, as well as providing the great Eli Wallach with his finest role.
Sam Peckinpah had his own thoughts about humanity’s capacity for violence — some good some bad, but always compelling — and perhaps found his most troubling expression of it in Straw Dogs: a story of the limits of pacifism and the sad fact that self-defense remains a necessary right. It opened today in 1971.
If those boys weren’t bad enough, then there’s always the greatest monster in literary history. 1995 saw a fresh new take on William Shakespeare’s Richard III hit theaters today, with England remade as a fascist dictatorship and Ian McKellen delivering perhaps the finest performance of his career as the titular ruler. Annette Bening, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne and Robert Downey, Jr. also lent their talents to the production.
Finally, there’s Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking, an examination of the death penalty that won Susan Sarandon an Oscar and came damn close to scoring one for Sean Penn as well. People who shy away from the film because of the shrill politics of the principals will be surprised to see how even-handed it is: respecting both sides equally and presenting a take on it that ferments fruitful discussion instead of preaching at us until we scream. It opened the same days as Richard III, in 1995.
It was a fairly quiet date as far as releases go, owing to our perennial post-Christmas malaise. Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound hit theaters in 1945, a second-tier effort from the master, but still notable thanks mostly to Salvador Dali’s haunting dream sequences. (On the more gossip-y end of things, the production involved a secret tryst between stars Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman… who were both married to other people at the time.) Ten years previous, one of the more notable films of swashbuckling legend and noted anti-Semite Errol Flynn first hit theaters: Captain Blood.
Other notable films released today include Ridley Scott’s breathtaking combat picture Black Hawk Down in 2001; Nigel Hawthorne scoring a well-deserved Oscar nomination for the title role in The Madness of King George in 1994 (he lost to Tom Hanks and don’t even get us started on that…); and Clint Eastwood returning to his signature role in Magnum Force in 1973.
Before winning an Oscar for Best Director — the first woman to do so — Kathryn Bigelow undertook an ambitious attempt to redefine the vampire genre. It entailed a clan of feral wanderers (played by most of the supporting cast of Aliens, including the late great Bill Paxton) traveling across America’s forgotten highways in search of blood and pulling a hapless country boy (Adrian Pasdar) into their embrace in the process. It was audacious, bold and wildly original, and while it didn’t catch fire at the box office (The Lost Boys seemed to have a lock on the public’s imagination at the time), it has since attained cult status among horror aficionados everywhere. I’ll go further and call it the greatest vampire movie ever made. It was Near Dark and it opened 30 years ago today in 1987.
Further down the scale, we find a minor-but-notable effort from Don Siegal: Coogan’s Bluff, starring Clint Eastwood as an Arizona sheriff sent to New York to extradite a suspect for murder. The fish-out-of-water vibe is middling at best, though Eastwood makes an appealing hero as normal. It opened today in 1968.
Having found himself a western superstar, Clint Eastwood didn’t have any compunctions taking the gloves off when he felt he had something to say. Case in point: High Plains Drifter, a searing indictment of the basket case our country had become at the time (unlike now, when we’re all doing just fine, thanks). It’s raw and searing and quite crude at times, but the power of Eastwood’s vision cannot be denied, and it eventually opened up a long and fruitful career for the man as a director. Also, John Wayne hated it. HATED it. High Plains Drifter opened today in 1973.
As Gen-X icons go, Pump Up the Volume doesn’t have quite the cache of, say, Heathers or The Goonies. But it’s a fine film in and of itself, featuring Christian Slater as a lonely high school student who finds his voice — and a surprisingly discontented audience — when he starts broadcasting a pirate radio show out of his basement. Credit it for taking its concept to its logical conclusion without once losing sight of its core message. Don’t trust The Man, kids. The Man lies. Pump Up the Volume opened today in 1990.