Sidney Pollack Blogathon: Castle Keep (1969)

This post is part of the Sydney Pollack Blogathon spearheaded by Ratnakar of Seetimaar – Diary of a Movie Lover Blog. Check out his blog for more posts on the acclaimed director.


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Greetings, all and sundry!

After a brief, enjoyable respite between guest posts. I’ve been asked by our hostess, Ruth to add my unique perspective to the collected works and Mythos of one of the more memorable directors of the last half of the 20th century. One of the great triad of distinctly American cinema that includes John Frankenheimer and William Friedkin. Who first displayed their skill in live television and with the aid of solid reputations, moved seamlessly into film.

A director who gave equal credence and importance to words, comedic and otherwise. As to costumes, sets, locations and action. And more importantly, reaction.

With that said. Allow me a few moments of your time to wax poetic and lyric about the director and one of his early efforts.

Sydney Pollack: Castle Keep (1969) – “Something Memorable out of Nothing”

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A film that was received with mixed reviews when first released. Also one the later dearth of WWII films shot in Yugoslavia. Kelly’s Heroes among them. Pollack’s film centers around the chaotic effect of The Battle of the Bulge had on American troops involved. And a ragtag, polyglot assembly of soldiers recovering from and staying ahead of its icy chilled and ill wind.

Led by a stoic and eye patched Burt Lancaster as Infantry Major Abraham Falconer. In charge of officers who run the gamut of by the book, art historian, Patrick O’Neal as Captain Lionel Beckman. To extremely flaky Lt. Billy Byron Bix. Offset by religious, wide eyed dreamer, Tony Bill’s Lt. Amberjack. And a mix of veteran NCOs From old time tough Sgt. DeVaca (Michael Conrad) to Peter Falk‘s survivor and perpetual baker, Sgt. Rossi and Scott Wilson’s laid back, good old boy, Corporal Clearboy riding herd over a clutch of enlisted men from across the Army’s spectrum of specialties. Chief among them, Private Alistair Piersall Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.). An engineer and narrator of the tale.

Some had retreated from the initial German assault and regrouped under Falconer. Other are fresh from far off “Repple Depples” or Replacement Depots. With orders to find, occupy, defend and keep a secluded 10th century castle and village of Maldorais. Which sits on the cross point of several roads leading to Bastogne.

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Prime real estate for Allies and Germans alike. Though the Germans have tanks and infantry to help stake their claim. And the American G.I.s have whatever they carry or can get their hands on. The land is pristine, layered in snow. Forested and hilly before becoming mountainous miles away. Possessing a foggy, fairy tale look and feel. Untouched by the ravages of war as Falconer leads his ragtag brigade. While the castle itself is sturdy, shrouded in mist. With tall battlements, thick stone walls, a deep moat and ancient drawbridge. A huge courtyard, stables, well and accoutrements of a bygone age.

The interior of the castle is resplendent in every degree. Full of art treasures and antiquities. And an infertile Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who wants nothing more than a son from his wife, Therese, the Countess (voluptuous Astrid Heeren) to continue the family lineage. And for the Americans leave as soon (kind of) as possible.

Falconer sends his underlings to scout out possible defensive positions. And in the process discover the village’s brothel run by the Red Queen (Catarina Borrato) and her clowder of fetishy women. Sgt. Rossi finds a bakery run by an attractive widow and begins to fall in love with both. Lt. Bixby and Lt. Amberjack begin to gather a following of pacifists. Corporal Clearboy discovers the wonders of Greman Volkswagen engineering, And the Major comes under the attentions of the Countess.

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In other words. Unit cohesion and integrity are going to Hell. While Captain Beckman wants to gather up as many art treasures a possible and beat feet elsewhere as the German get ever closer. Sending out white caped and snow camouflaged patrols and an occasional spotter aircraft.

It is then that Major Falconer devises a strategy of hit and run. With the village being the battle field in winnowing down German troops and tanks, Fighting a strategic withdrawal with Castle Maladorais being its last stand. The troops aren’t thrilled to hear this, but know there’s no other choice.

The Red Queen’s girls are brought into the action as tanks roll down the village’s curved, narrow cobbled streets. The girls occupy various balconies in varying stages of undress. Smiling, waving and flaunting their wares to the Germans below. Before tossing flaming wicked cognac bottles of gasoline downward upon the would be occupiers and their armored machines…

I’ll leave the tale right here for Spoilers sake.

Now. What Makes This Movie Good?

Sydney Pollack at the reins of an often visually beautiful, sometimes dream like and cohesive piece of film. Clocking in at 105 minutes with very few to waste. Especially when stacked against other bigger named and budgeted, (Catch-22 leaps to mind!) yet smaller, more garbled messaged films of that time.

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Working within a very rarified and refined winter world created by William Westlake in his novel of the same name. And tweaked just a bit here and there with a screenplay by Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel. Mr. Pollack and company tread a fine line between one of the better late 1960s War Films while weaving an attractively seductive, yet surreal Anti-War Film. Mr. Pollack proves that he can stage, arrange and choreograph action sequences with the best of them. And his cast of stage, television and film stars from both sides of the ocean deliver.

What Makes This Film Great?

Mr. Pollack’s deft touch at allowing plenty of time and exposition to let the castle and village work its fairy tale magic on his cast through off beat and kind of quirky dialogue that would later become one of his trademarks. There hasn’t been a G.I. born who hasn’t thought of the possibility of “sitting out’ a war”. And the enclosed world of Maladorais offers those opportunities and distractions in abundance. Whether it is sex, a simple task like baking, which can easily become a life’s work. Or tinkering with the wonders of a first production VW. Each character is slowly seduced while Major Falconer watches from a safe distance with his diversions. Until it’s time to put childish things aside and get serious when the need arises.

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Cinematography from Henri Decae is more than one could ask for. Sharp and defined inside Castle Maladorais. Then offering extremely wide span and often misted exterior shots in the village and surrounding woods. Tailor made for Major Falconer sit astride a white stallion which becomes his personal form of conveyance.

Original music by Michel Legrand shows early signs of greatness. As it buttresses the visual and enhances emotion from lighthearted to treacherous. Art Direction by Jacque Douy and Mort Rabinowitz is lush and plush in the extreme inside the castle. And spartan and rustic inside and around the village. While Malcolm Cooke’s masterful editing saves momets and increases intensity when the Germans finally arrive.


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews


Thoughts on this film and/or Sidney Pollack? Let it be known in the comments.

Classic Flix Review: Brute Force (1947)

Welcome all and sundry to another guest review of a film I caught quite by accident. Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies late into a dark and stormy summer night.

The film Brute Force is exceptionally intriguing in more ways than one. With a screenplay by Richard Brooks, who had assisted on Burt Lancaster’s earlier, The Killers, excellent direction by Jules Dassin and B&W camera work by William H. Daniels. Brute Force has the palpable feel, gritty look and fingerprints of a 1940s Warner Brothers gangster/prisoner film, but was made by Paramount! That said, most all of the action takes place inside Westgate Prison. Stoic. Sturdy. Constantly under raining storm clouds. Separated from the city by long and foreboding drawbridge and impenetrable steel doors. Westgate is the place where bad people are sent by their betters on the mainland. Hopefully, never to return. As with any prison picture, Westgate has a constant and overwhelming surplus of prisoners.

Some are there of their own free will and actions. Others there, taking the rap for their wives’ or girlfriends’ greed or desire for a fur coat in tales told in memorable flash back. All vulnerable, with either wives or girlfriends on the outside and a constant source of worry. Adding angst and desperation to what Westgate’s administrators describe as “A Powder Keg.”
The film begins on a typical stormy morning as prisoner Joe Collins is finally released from a stretch in Solitary Confinement. Collins is played by a muscled, lean and lithe Burt Lancaster at his most close to explosive best. It seems that Collins has an axe to grind, not just for those in authority, but also with one of the prison’s many inmates, since Collins’ Solitary rap stemmed from a guard finding a pistol planted in Collins’ bunk.
Collins has had plenty of time to think and stew and also come up with the grain of an idea for an escape. An idea that needs to be dissected and expounded upon by others that Collins trusts. Those being the four other convicts that inhabit his cell and perhaps a few others.
It’s those few others (Jeff Corey, John Hoyt and Edmond O’Brien) have been come under the scrutiny of the warden’s prim and proper, thought ruthlessly, brutally sadistic Captain Munsie. For all of you who remember Hume Cronyn’s frail and forgetful Joe Finley from Cocoon (1985), take a long, solid look at Cronyn is his prime. Absolutely reveling in his expressionless Dr. Perceptron voice from Futurama and supposed moral superiority. He’s a creepy treat to watch!
Such creepiness deserves and requires a worthwhile protagonist and Burt Lancaster more than fills the bill. Laying groundwork that would serve him well in later films, Sweet Smell Of Success and Birdman of Alcatraz. Delivering soliloquies that range from intimidating to flat out scary. All while Burt’s crew start closing in on whoever planted the gun in Burt’s bunk. Cronyn’s Captain Munsie adds to the cat and mouse game by dangling early releases and easier office work in exchange for information regarding prisoner Collins.
It sets the stage for Mr. Lancaster’s brief moment of heartbreaking emotional reality in the form of a visit from his lawyer. It seems that Burt’s wife is suffering from cancer, but won’t have the operation unless he is there. Which does nothing for his friendly disposition, as the timetable for the escape is moved up and the con who planted the pistol is discovered and gotten rid of in the prison’s machine shop’s press. Meanwhile Burt is creating an alibi with a discussion with the prison’s doctor.
Cronyn ratchets thing up a bit by denying privileges, light duty and parole hearings. The prisoners revolt and gather in the prison’s massive bull pen as the first stages of the escape attempt. Guards are jumped and weapons taken. Secondary explosions occur with the aid of home-made Molotov Cocktail fire bombs tossed at the front gate’s imposing steel door. Guards in their towers prep their lever action rifles and water cooled machine guns as massed prisoners move in all directions and gunfire erupts.
The momentum is with the prisoners, however fleetingly, as Burt has a running gun battle up and down one tower’s spiral staircase. The tower with Captain Munsie in its gun emplacement. Burt and Munsie fight as the prison’s steel door remains unmoved and machine guns rake the scattered, smoldering bull pen. To go beyond what I’ve covered would tip the hand and spoil one of the great Men Behind Bars, prison films made.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Its blatant, gritty, claustrophobic, no-holds-barred look at prison life from a bygone time. That is only one brutal act, incident or accident away from complete and total meltdown. Run by a next to incompetent warden and his right hand man, Captain Munsie, who thinks he knows how much pressure to apply to which prisoner to get the desired result.
The Cat and Mouse, or game of chess played between Hume Cronyn’s Munsie and Lancaster’s Collins. Each iron willed and with expendable assets or pawns in the form of prisoners, stoolies and guards, though Munsie is far more cunning. It’s Collins’ brute force. Like the Spanish Inquisition, that no one ever expects.
The music by Miklos Roizsa and lighting, or its close to absence in many scenes heightens the tension and terse, often-whispered dialogue. While highlighting the early talents of a large chunk of actors and actresses who would become well known in the future.
The prison. Westgate is a marvel of set construction and direction, a smaller version of Alcatraz. In a film made to draw attention to the failed attempt by a groups of prisoners to escape the San Francisco Bay prison a year earlier. Every bit as detailed and instructive in its revelation as Shawshank Prison almost fifty years later, though far more threatening and imposing.

What Makes This Film Great?

Watching a young, up-and-coming Burt Lancaster, well-received from his earlier film, The Killers. Literally flexing his talents and muscles, pushing the envelope as he finds a comfortable niche. One that combines athleticism and physical strength toned while being a gymnast and acrobat. Along with the ability and talent for a camera to stay focused and follow his every move. That made a great impression here and would come into its own in later films.
Hume Cronyn was positively reveling in a role diametrically opposed to the gentle, friendly roles for which he is fondly remembered.
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Have you seen this film? Thoughts are welcome in the comments.

DVD Picks: Football Edition – by guest blogger Marcus Anderson

Special thanks to avid sports fan Marcus A. for his generous contribution in honor of Superbowl Sunday. I’ve never seen a more passionate Vikings and Twins fan, check out his extensive blogs Vikingstailgate.com and Twinnin.com blogs for your enjoyment. Here are his picks of football flicks for each genre.

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Want to start a new Super Bowl tradition? Why not make a special night out of Super Bowl Eve and rent a football movie? So “get your popcorn ready” a day early, head to the rental store (does anybody still do that?) or queue up a tale from the gridiron.  There are so many movies about football, that hard-charging American pastime, that you might not know which one to pick?

Kid-friendly:

The Game Plan (2007)
My choice for a nice wholesome parent kid football movie would have to be “The Game Plan” starring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.   The Rock is hilarious in this one, playing the Joe Kingman. the Big Macho QB for a championship contending football team in Boston. He loves the nightlife, fame, glory and money,  that is bestowed to him.

But then, Peyton unexpectedly steps into his life. No, it’s not the Colts QB, Peyton Manning, it’s his 8-year old daughter, who teaches what being a real leader is all about.

I like everything about this flick. It’s hilarious, unique (sans the predictable clichés at times) and pretty well acted. The Rock shows a comedic side that is really endearing, entertaining and fun. I could watch this movie several times over and still laugh. It has Elvis impersonations, locker room hi jinx, ballet, decent football scenes, lugs, oafs, and very enjoyable moments.  Even the soundtrack good, featuring a memorable father-daughter-football team montage to ELO’s  “Mr. Blue Sky.”

Comedy:

The Best of Times (1986)
I have never been a big fan of Robin Williams, but this is fun role for him. Jack Dundee was that kid in high school who dropped the pass that lost the game, and only chance for a small town to ever win a championship.  Years later, that poor schlep still agonizes over that “butterfingers”moment and decides to do something about it.  Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) plays the long forgotten High School QB who succumbs to the pressure and returns to help Taft High School reclaim its dignity.

There are many fun scenes in this movie, including breaking up with their wives, challenging the bully to a fight, mascot antics, mud, and a Monday Night Football game between the Vikings and Falcons.  The old saying, those that don’t know history are bound to repeat it applies in a unique way to this comedy.

Drama:

Friday Night Lights (2004)
I first heard about this “project” from a fellow classmate of mine at Macalester College back in 1983-84.  His name was Peter Berg, and when he told me of his cousin’s (H.G. Bissinger’s) project, writing a book about High School football in Texas,  I thought, “That sounds interesting,  maybe I’ll read it someday.” Years later, the book was made into a movie,  AND WHAT a movie it is.

This is the best movie about football I have ever seen. It’s bullet to the bone real, and captures the essence of football as a religion with all the tragedies intertwined within.  It captures the highs of winning and lows of losing that life can offer. It’s pressure in ecstasy as family traditions, bias, and stubbornness leak into the world of high school football.

Tim McGraw deserves recognition for this role as an overbearing father, force feeding a son to play out his lost dreams. Billy Bob Thornton is the head coach of the team, delivering the best locker room speech I have ever heard in a movie. This movie is in my collection, as are all of the first 3 seasons of the NBC TV series.

The state of Texas is the most-represented state in this week’s Super Bowl with  a total of 16 players from the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints hailing from the Lone star state. Most notable of these is Drew Brees, the starting at QB for the Saints.   Back in 1996, Brees lived the Friday Night Lights, leading  Westlake (Austin) to a 16-0 and being named the Texas Class 5A MVP.

Biopic:

Jim Thorpe: All American (1951)
My all-time favorite historical athlete who I never saw play live sports, was Jim Thorpe.  He was Bo Jackson before Bo Knew anything.  A professional football and baseball player, Thorpe  also won Olympic Gold Medals  in 1912. He was called the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th Century.

This movie stars Burt Lancaster (who  later played Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in the baseball movie “Field of Dreams”). If I could pick any sports character for Hollywood to write a new epic movie about,  it would be for the story of Jim Thorpe.  A runaway of child from an Oklahoma Indian Reservation, who became the greatest athlete in history,  (and an NFL Hall of Famer)  is a story that deserves more attention. Somebody write the script for this please!

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There are so many more football movies to recommend, but like the Super Bowl, only  a select few can make it to the finals.  If you have a Facebook account,  and want to find  out which Hollywood Football movie character you would select with a first round pick for your team, try this fun quiz.