Today in Movie History: January 19

We start off today with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who appeared in one of their very best collaborations, Woman of the Year on this date in 1942. Director George Stevens knew how to bring their incomparable comic chemistry to life, and though this was only their first movie together, it proved to be the spark that lit the flame. They were a couple for 26 years and made a total of nine films. (The last, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was finished just two weeks before Tracy’s death.)

If forgotten gems are your thing, check out The Pledge, released today in 2001. I’m no fan of Sean Penn for many, many, many reasons, but his stint in the director’s chair here is quite impressive, and elicited a brilliant late-inning performance from Jack Nicholson as a retired cop who vows to catch the killer of a small child.

Onto something a little pulpier. Tremors, the Ron Underwood joint that pitted Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward against giant carnivorous worms in the Nevada desert (and gave Michael Gross a reliable paycheck for decades’ worth of sequels) first burst its way onto screens this day in 1990.

The other notable genre film released today is the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13. While nowhere near the level of the John Carpenter original, it carries its share of grindhouse charms, and earned some visual distinctiveness by moving from Carpenter’s summer in LA to the dead of winter in the bowels of Detroit. Any port in a storm with modern January releases, and this one held its hand out with a resounding “you could do worse.”

Today in Movie History: December 29

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.