America loves its outlaws.
Look at some of our more popular films—The Godfather, Goodfellas, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting—and consider how an entire genre, film noir, generated a slew of excellent films as well as giving birth to others. Could Brian de Palma have made Scarface without Little Caesar or to a lesser degree Public Enemy?
So, let me call this collection of little-known movies “the criminal element.”
Putting an 80’s spin, a’la “Airplane!”, on the “zany comedies” of the forties, “Ruthless People” has fashion mogul Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) planning the murder of his wife (Bette Midler) until some kidnappers seem to intercede on his behalf, threatening to kill her if he doesn’t pony up the ransom. Naturally, Sam takes every opportunity to disobey their demands, ensuring his wife’s murder.
Or so he thinks.
With Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater as the inept criminals, this film also features an unheralded actor by the name of Bill Pullman in a movie that is hilariously executed and includes a car chase along—of all places—the Santa Monica pier.
A SIMPLE PLAN
When Scott Smith released this 1993 novel, an update of the John Huston classic of money and paranoia “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, I was eager for a film version. Unfortunately, I learned that Hollywood avoided putting it on the screen because of the disturbing ending. Going back to the drawing board, Smith retooled the script in a way that satisfied the studios while still retaining its original action, changing the “why” of it.
Unfortunately, the movie was released around the same time as “Saving Private Ryan” and got buried under that film’s popularity, which is a shame because not only is the story a great study of how good people can go bad, its cast did a phenomenal job. Bill Paxton stars as the main character, but Billy Bob Thornton shines as his dim-witted brother while Bridget Fonda should have gotten an Oscar nod for her supporting role as his wife and a new mother who slowly turns into a modern-day Lady MacBeth. Just watch the scene in the hospital as she nurses the couple’s newborn to verify that.
“A Simple Plan” is essentially a monster movie where greed and suspicion are the demons, and this is one where both the book and the movie are recommended.
Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock’s earlier movie of the same name, this film is apparently based on an actual event.
“Skin Game” stars James Garner and Lou Gossett as a pair of grifters traveling through the Kansas-Missouri territories prior to the Civil War. Their con is for Garner, posing as a down-on-his-luck traveler, to sell his slave portrayed by Gossett, then break him out of wherever he is taken to move on to another small town. Also starring Andrew Duggan and Ed Asner, who presages his “Roots” part as a slaver by portraying a slave hunter, what’s most interesting is how the story skirts the envelope of daring without actually tearing it.
While this is a comedy, it also approaches and addresses the topics of racism and slavery with respect and sincere gravity.
“Sneakers” takes a tongue-in-cheek look at espionage and the early computer hackers along with organized crime and the government—although I may be repeating myself there. A renegade company that traces potential or real computer threats for corporations and government entities is contracted to steal a codebreaking device for the sake of “national security.” Its employees soon figure out they’re in a lot deeper than any of them could have anticipated.
“Sneakers” balances action with comedy through an inter-generational cast of stars such as Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, River Phoenix, and David Strathairn along with two surprises as the story wraps up.
While the hardware in this film is now outdated, the movie itself represents one fine “guilty pleasure” for movie lovers.
UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT
Where does one start in examining this movie?
I’ve long held the opinion that the seventies produced some of the best movies ever. Notice how many titles introduced at the start of this writing came from that decade.
One of the offshoots that also blossomed during that period was an offshoot from the Black Pride movement that began the decade before. Movies such as “Shaft”, “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs”, “Foxy Brown”, “Superfly”, “Blacula”, and “Cleopatra Jones” figure among the many other titles.
While most of those were action films, “Uptown Saturday Night” was comedy; it was also directed by its own star, Sidney Poitier, a steel foundry worker who discovers that his winning lottery ticket was stolen while he visited an illegal gambling house. He decides to learn who the thieves were and recover his winnings. Throwing himself into an underworld he has no history with, he deals with con men and criminals portrayed by some of the finest Black actors of the time. Several of particular note are Richard Pryor as con man Sharp Eye Washington, Roscoe Lee Browne as a slippery congressman, Paula Kelly as his hilariously vivacious wife Peggy Leggy, and Harry Belafonte, who recreates his own version of the Marlin Brando’s Godfather figure as Geechie Dan.
If you can bear watching Bill Cosby, given recent knowledge of his behavior, this film proves that Poitier was more than a dramatic actor and really had comedic chops.
So, I end my listing of suggested additions to Joseph W. Smith’s book The Best Movies You Never Saw should he decide on a follow-up.