One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the early days of the pandemic, Part 2
By Laurence Lerman
Okay, so my streaming excursions haven’t all been stream-of-consciousness.
New York’s COVID-19 quarantine began right around the time HBO premiered The Plot Against America, the cable giant’s ambitious adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel. In it, Roth proposed an alternate history to the mid-20th century America wherein FDR is defeated in the 1940 presidential election by national hero Charles Lindbergh. The story is seen through the eyes of the middle-class Roth family of Newark (renamed Levin in the HBO incarnation) as the country moves toward a fascist government and engenders a growing persecution of Jewish-American families.
With The Plot Against America, creators David Simon and Ed Burns (the televisions mainstays of The Wire and The Deuce fame) mount a startling and increasingly tense period drama played out as a six-part miniseries. The adaptation was aired over a half-dozen consecutive weeks through mid-April, associating it forever with the COVID-19 lockdown and, madly enough, our own current chief executive.
Following the first installment of Plot, I changed channels to another cable station and immediately bumped into 1994’s The Getaway, featuring the then-married Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s original 1972 heist flick starring Steve McQueen and his soon-to-be-wife Ali McGraw. I’d seen the original a zillion times (I love when McQueen walks into a Texas sporting goods store and buys a 12-gauge pump shotgun to use on the cops out on the sidewalk!), so I fed my McQueen jones with Bullitt, the classic 1968 policier that I hadn’t seen in a while. The streaming begins…
The whole of Bullitt—much wordier and more needlessly complicated than I remembered—doesn’t quite equal the sum of its strongest parts: McQueen, of course, always the coolest; Lalo Schifrin’s sly score; the outstanding use of San Francisco and its landmarks (Grace Cathedral, the Mark Hopkins Hotels, the Coffee Cantata café) and the very streets themselves as featured in the film’s landmark car chase, featuring the star (who did a lot of his own driving) in a ’68 Ford Mustang GT.
The story back then was that super-duper star McQueen wanted to hire British filmmaker Peter Yates to helm Bullitt after he saw Yates’ 1967 film Robbery, which featured an extended car chase during its opening heist. McQueen (whose Solar Productions was behind Bullitt) had never heard of Yates, but he obviously liked what he saw in Robbery, a film with which I was not familiar. Hell, if it was good enough to prompt Steverino to give Yates his first Hollywood gig, it would probably be good enough for me…
Robbery tells a straightforward crime story of a plot to hit England’s Royal Mail train as its coming South from Glasgow. A bunch of familiar British actors form the gang, including Stanley Baker, James Booth and Barry Foster, who had previously made his mark on me as the necktie strangler in Hitchcock’s 1972 return-to-form thriller Frenzy.
A fictionalized version of England’s real-life “Great Train Robbery” of 1963, Robbery’s highlight is the extended robbery sequence itself, not surprisingly, as well as that opening car chase, which is constructed for speed rather than stunts.
Robbery isn’t really considered a major entry in the formidable British crime canon like such stalwarts as Brighton Rock (1947), Get Carter (1971) and The Long Good Friday (1980). Another almost-ran I’d heard about was 1960’s Never Let Go, featuring a youngish Peter Sellers in one of his rare dramatic roles as a London garage owner who deals in stolen cars. Sellers’ dealings lead to all manner of nefarious and increasingly ugly goings-on involving his mistress (Carol White), a car thief (Adam Faith) and an increasingly obsessed salesman whose car has been stolen (Richard Todd).
Directed by John Guillerman and clocking in at a tight 90 minutes, Never Let Go is a mixed bag, led by Sellers’ uniquely non-comic performance and some good period London location work. But if you’re not a Sellers completist, it’s not a must-stream.
British filmmaking veteran Guillerman worked in England for nearly two decades before making it to Hollywood, where he helmed a number of undistinguished action-adventure films, but none bigger than the 1974 smash The Towering Inferno, a production so sprawling it needed two studios to produce it.
A bit less rousing than I’d remembered when I first saw it one hot Saturday night with my family while we were visiting my grandparents in Miami way back when, Towering’s inferno of stars remains its strongest element (Oscar-winning pyrotechnics, aside). Paul Newman, McQueen and Faye Dunaway (reuniting for the first time since 1968s’ The Thomas Crown Affair, though only sharing a scene or two), William Holden, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, Roberts Vaughn and Wagner, Richard Chamberlain and Fred Astaire are all set to light it up and play the beloved Seventies disaster movie game of “Which Star is Going To Make It?” That Astaire received his sole Academy Award nomination for his supporting turn is as terrible as the titular fire itself. (And frankly, that Astaire wasn’t recognized for 1953’s The Band Wagon is also a crime.)
I texted a friend just as Jennifer Jones was plunging to her doom from the dangling scenic elevator, and commented that I wasn’t all that up on Ms. Jones’ filmography save for 1944’s Song of Bernadette (for which she won her Oscar) and the inevitable Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1954) opposite her Towering co-star William Holden. My friend mentioned I should take a look at the Southern-fried 1952 melodrama Ruby Gentry, in which JJ portrays a backwoods temptress who tries to sink her hooks into a former high school flame. “It’s like Tennessee Williams lite and it also stars Charlton Heston, a disaster movie mainstay.” (He starred in 1972’s ridiculous Skyjacked, also directed by Guillerman.)
“And that would connect to Towering Inferno for your whole streaming thing,” he reasoned.
I decided to pass on Ruby—for now—but I’ve long enjoyed Charlton’s trilogy of end-of-the-world opuses, Planet of the Apes (1968) and Soylent Green (1973) and The Ωmega Man (1971), all of which seemed appropriate right around now. I opted for The Ωmega Man and popped it in (yes, I own it on DVD). Helmed by TV veteran Boris Sagal, Ωmega’s striking images of pandemic survivor Heston gunning down hordes of albino mutants in hooded robes and sunglasses in downtown L.A. and getting down with spunky Seventies mainstay Rosalind Cash went down well. It’s all set to a memorably dramatic, Baroque-styled orchestral score by Ron Grainer.
The Ωmega Man is based on the great Richard Matheson’s 1954 sci-fi classic I Am Legend, which also spawned the same-titled Will Smith-starring remake in 2007 and 1964’s The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price. Matheson was all over the place from the late Fifties through the Seventies, penning hundreds of novels, short stories, essays, screenplays and teleplays. Among a slew of noteworthy tales, he wrote one of the greatest Twilight Zone episodes ever (he authored more than a dozen of them): the Season Five entry “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which is always worth revisiting. Starring William Shatner as a man flying home from a mental ward following a nervous breakdown who’s convinced he sees a furry man-sized gremlin on the plane, “Nightmare” was directed by soon-to-be-big-time movie director Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon and Scrooged, anyone?) and holds up marvelously well. And for all the guff he receives, Shatner does a bang-up job playing a troubled man in a situation far beyond your normal fear-of-flying scenario.
Shatner’s appearances on The Twilight Zone (he also starred in the episode “Nick of Time,” another classic) demand that respect be paid to him on Star Trek, so I went to the top of the list with “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which is generally regarded as the show’s finest hour. Penned by another great sci-fi author with a bulging portfolio, Harlan Ellison, the Season One installment finds Kirk and Spock time-traveling back to Depression era New York City to find a temporally displaced Dr. McCoy. The continuum ripples find Kirk unable to prevent—while being forced to witness—the death of the 20th century woman with whom he’s fallen deeply in love. And she’s portrayed by Joan Collins, who’s as appealing here as she’s ever been—albeit sans an ounce of the risqué attitude and salaciousness that were her trademark.
Not long after I first saw her on Trek, I came face-to-face with Ms. Collins’ captivating charms again one afternoon on The 4:30 Movie, a weekday broadcast that aired on ABC-TV in New York in the Seventies and provided many a cinephile with their first-ever encounters with a host of films. Among them were Howard Hawks’ lavish 1955 production Land of the Pharaohs.
A sprawling ancient world epic offering a very fictionalized tale of the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Pharaohs stars Jack Hawkins as the Pharaoh Khufu, who’s obsessed with making the grandest of tombs for his “second life,” and juicy Joanie as Princess Nellifer, a party girl from Cyprus who becomes the Pharaoh’s second wife and then plots to kill him and the whole mishpachah to seize the throne for herself.
Hawks’ sole dip into the era’s popular brand of widescreen historical entertainment, and one of Warner’s biggest-ever productions (one scene includes nearly 10,000 extras) that counts William Faulkner (!) among its three screenwriters, Pharaoh’s spectacle isn’t nearly as memorable as the scheming Joan. Watching it for the first time since I was a young teenager, I now remember why I was uninterested in “ABC Afterschool Special”—not when The 4:30 Movie was serving up such delights as the slinkily clad Joan Collins in orange lipstick.
Land of the Pharaohs tanked at the box office, but that wasn’t the biggest news around its opening: Though the majority of the film was shot on location in Egypt, the country banned the film from its shores on the grounds of “distortion of historical facts.”
Distorting of the facts, huh? As the politics surrounding the COVID-19 virus continues to swirl, we’re all being reminded that the distortion of the truth isn’t just a Hollywood thing.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about.