Today in Movie History: March 7

Forget the horrible sequels and worse television spin-offs. The original Highlander earned its spurs as a batshit crazy, wildly original genre exercise that created a significant cult following, and remains one of the more unique products of 1980s cinema. It opened today in 1986.

In an attempt to update classic film noir tropes for the 1970s, Robert Altman created one of its strangest and most enduring updates with The Long Goodbye, which opened today in 1973. Elliott Gould plays a Philip Marlowe out of his time and place, wandering through a Los Angeles that has left him behind in search of a mystery that not even he can quite articulate. Among its other pleasures — including Altman’s inimitable improvisational style and a fine turn from Gould — it features a very young Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his first onscreen roles.

Any Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe adaptation is welcome here, and we’ve got one of the better ones for you: The Premature Burial, the tale of a man obsessed with being buried alive, and the general consternation that results. It’s interesting in part because it’s the only Corman Poe adaptation that doesn’t star Vincent Price. (Corman wanted him, but behind-the-scenes machinations prevented it from happening.) It opened today in 1962.

Today in Movie History: January 25

We’re looking at quite a few notable films with release dates today. We’ll start with a triumph from the Silver Age of Walt Disney pictures. 101 Dalmatians remains one of the Mouse’s biggest hits (#2 behind Snow White if you adjust for inflation) and — amid the studio’s bevvy of memorable villains — delivering one Cruella de Vil, who just might take the cake. It opened today in 1961.

Nine years later, Hollywood was attempting to sort out the cultural hash of Vietnam with heavy hitters like Catch-22 and Patton making obliquely comments (both fer and agin) on the conflict. But the one that’s best stood the test of time is Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, an anti-war comedy for the ages and the inspiration for one of the most successful TV shows in history. If your only exposure to it comes from Alan Alda, you owe it to yourself to hunt this one down. It opened today in 1970.

The other releases of the day are given over to horror movies. B-movie maestro Roger Corman found a winning combination by casting Vincent Price in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. His first four were as serious as a heart attack, but for his fifth, he decided to have a little fun. The result was The Raven, starring Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff as rival sorcerers in a comic tale based loosely on Poe’s most famous poem. (The film also features an early performance from a very hammy Jack Nicholson.) It opened today in 1963.

On a more recent note… attempting to unravel the convoluted history of the Ju-On franchise can bring one to the brink of madness. Instead, we’re going to make the Japanese release date of the original film — January 25, 2003 — then go hide under the covers until that creepy little kid comes for us. Possibly wearing a coat made out of puppies. Sleep tight everyone!

 

 

Today in Movie History: December 12

The topper today is a classic from the Golden Age of Universal Horror: The Wolf Man, George Waggner’s quintessential werewolf story featuring Lon Chaney, Jr. as a good man attacked by something out of legend and transformed into a creature of the night. Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy tag along for the ride, and the results are one of the unquestioned high points of the Universal monster cycle. It opened today in 1941.

I came very close to putting The Last Detail in the pole position. Hal Ashby’s story of a kelptomaniac sailor (Randy Quaid) being taken to the brig boasts one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances ever. He plays the Shore Patrol officer charged with delivering the young man to the brig, and before that happens vows to take him out for the greatest time of his life. It opened today in 1973, and is an absolute must-see for Nicholson fans.

We’d be remiss if we went any further without mentioning Bicycle Thieves, the almost unconscionably downbeat neorealist classic about a man in postwar Rome who depends on his bicycle to secure a job, only to hunt fruitlessly for it when it’s stolen. It’s exactly as bleak as it sounds and that’s kind of the point: an attempted snapshot of life as it actually happens instead of the business-as-usual notion of obeying the necessities of a compelling story (i.e., a happy ending). Bicycle Thieves opened today in the United States in 1949.

Back on the domestic front, we have A Man for All Seasons, Fred Zinneman’s adaptation of the celebrated stage play. It concerns Thomas More (Paul Scofield), Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor who refused to go along with his plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and paid the ultimate price for it. It’s a fantastic film that earned every inch of its massive financial success (oh yeah, and six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Scofield). And its insight into the political process carries important lessons to this day. It opened today in 1966.

Speaking of Oscar winners, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is exactly the kind of mealy mouth excuse for “important” filmmaking that the Academy loves showering with praise. It reduces the issue of race relations in America to a liberal couple who may be uncomfortable that their daughter wants to marry a black man, and ends with smiles and hugs so we can all feel good about what enlightened white people we are. (Four months later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, so… yeah. Way to hit them where it hurts, movie.) Having said that, it’s a decent effort in and of itself, with fine performances from a great ensemble that includes Spencer Tracy’s last onscreen appearance. (Watching Katherine Hepburn listen to his final speech is priceless.) Just don’t mistake it for anything more important than a fun couple of hours. It opened 50 years ago today in 1967.

I’m going to close with a pair of favorites, both very light. First up is Popeye, Robert Altman’s live-action take on the famous sailor man, widely regarded as a bomb upon first released. The director clearly chaffed under the studio system that produced it, star Robin Williams was reportedly very unhappy with the experience, and it’s less-than-sterling 59% on Rotten Tomatoes suggests critical indifference at best. But if you know the character — particularly the iconic cartoons from the Fleischer Bros and the improvisational style that defined them — you can see the mad genius behind it all. (It also did much better at the box office than its reputation suggests.) Today it’s attained the status of a cult classic, and a reminder that not all comic book stories need to involve superheroes. It opened today in 1980.

Finally, there’s Three Amigos, one of those movies that you don’t think much of when you first see it, but which slowly gets funnier upon subsequent viewings until it becomes an indispensable part of your movie rotation. Fluffy and silly, yes… but I’ll bet real money you have a quote or two running through your head right now. It opened today in 1986.