Today in Movie History: September 20

We’re starting today with The Battle of Algiers, a searing semi-documentary — commissioned by the Algerian government — about their fight for independence from the French. It weighs both sides of the conflict in surprisingly even-handed terms, as well as providing stunning insight into the nature and fallout of insurgent violence to enact political change. It opened in the U.S. today in 1967, and God help us, but it remains just as pertinent today is it did when it was first released.

Terry Gilliam is a unique filmmaker whose best movies are treasures. When they don’t work, of course, they go straight off the rails, but few people would deny that The Fisher King ranks among the high points. It works in part because the story stays grounded in reality without diminishing the fantastical elements that Gilliam excels at. Robin Williams earned an Oscar nomination for his turned as a homeless lunatic (he lost to Anthony Hopkins) while Mercedes Ruehl nabbed the statue for her supporting turn. The best of them may have been Jeff Bridges, however: anchoring the madness as a shock jock paying the piper for his misdeeds. The Fisher King opened today in 1991.

Gilliam, of course, merely marches to a different drummer. When it comes to Oliver Stone, we edge delicately into the realm of “barking mad.” He won an Oscar for writing the screenplay to Midnight Express, the tender, heartfelt story of an American drug smuggler caught and imprisoned in Turkey. I won’t go too deeply into the details except to say that you should never ever ever get caught smuggling drugs in Turkey. Midnight Express opened today in 1978.

I wouldn’t call Stanley Tucci a filmmaking eccentric, but a passion project like Big Night doesn’t come along every day. He co-wrote, co-directed (with fellow thespian Campbell Scott) and co-starred in the film, about a failing restaurant run by two brothers whose devotion to great food can’t drum up the customers they need.  If you’re looking for culinary porn, this is the movie for you. It opened today in 1996.

We’ll close with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the ubiquitous Tennessee Williams play sbrought to the screen by director Richard Brooks. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor play a feuding couple who arrive in Mississippi to celebrate the birthday of her father “Big Daddy” (Burl Ives). The usual cocktail of psychological torment and overheated Southern Gothic ensues. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened today in 1958.


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