Thursday, May 21, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #29 (Michael Sarrazin edition)

Harry in Your Pocket (1973) – Back in January 2008, I wrote a rather glowing review (which was appropriate, as it was a glowing product) of All Day Entertainment’s DVD box set Harry Langdon: Lost and Found and decided to use the title of this rarely seen film as a clever title for the post as well. Since that time, I have watched with a great deal of amusement at the number of hits Thrilling Days of Yesteryear receives from people Googling this movie…particular since I’d never seen it, although I was familiar with its reputation.

Well, I got the chance to rectify this last night when Turner Classic Movies showcased a slew of films starring Canadian-born actor Michael Sarrazin. Sarrazin plays an amateur pickpocket who teams up with professional “cannon” James Coburn and partner Walter Pidgeon to form what’s known in the con man’s game as a “wire job”—Pidgeon sizes up potential “marks,” Sarrazin’s girlfriend (Trish Van Devere) is the “stall” (distracting the mark) and Coburn makes off with the “poke” (loot) and immediately passes it off to Sarrazin because the number one rule is “Harry doesn’t hold.” Sarrazin and Van Devere start out with amateur status but the quartet soon becomes a force to be reckoned with—though there is considerable friction between Coburn and Sarrazin, who’s determined not be to be a “stall” the rest of his life and talks old pro Pidgeon into showing him the ropes. Pidgeon resists at first, but since he’s got a coke habit to support he acquiesces…and it is his addiction that ultimately produces tragic results for the wire job team.

Harry has acquired a considerable cult following since its debut in 1973, and while it’s a most enjoyable vehicle (Coburn and that 100,000 watt shit-eating grin are often hard to resist) it does have its flaws; Coburn’s character is a bit of a cipher (though you could argue that a man in his profession needs to be) and the film often seems to be racing to a big payoff that ultimately never materializes. The performances, however, are first-rate (Pidgeon was cited by many critics at the time for his excellent work as the veteran grifter to which I heartily concur; he pretty much steals the film) and the subject matter is particularly compelling, presented in an amoral fashion (there’s no judgment calls made here; Pidgeon says it best when he sums up his modus operandi as “It is what I do”). To my knowledge, this was producer-director Bruce Geller’s solo foray into feature filmmaking (his gifts are primarily remembered today in the medium of television, creating both Mission: Impossible and Mannix) and it’s a shame he never got a second chance at bat. If you missed this on TCM last night, it’s become a staple at and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) – Horace McCoy’s classic Depression-era novel about the participants in a grueling dance marathon (which serves as a none-too-subtle metaphor for their unhappy, cards-stacked-against-them lives) was brought to the big screen by the late director Sydney Pollack (with screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson) and though at the time it received scads and scads of critical kudos many people believe the bloom is a bit off the rose when watching the film today. I heartily disagree; Pollack made a good many films that I personally feel are way overrated—but this is one of the few I come back to again and again and still find refreshing. The main reason is the outstanding cast: Sarrazin as a drifter who’s roped into the contest by malcontent Jane Fonda (channeling her inner Faye Dunaway); Susannah York as an actress wannabe who starts out with stars-in-her-eyes dreams of Hollywood stardom and ends up cruelly exploited by the marathon’s promoters; Red Buttons as a retired sea dog who offers words of encouragement to the participants having participated in many previous marathons himself. The best in show, however, is Gig Young—who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the unctuous, manipulative master of ceremonies in what must have surely been the role of a lifetime (Young, dubbed by many as “the poor man’s Cary Grant," was also aces in the 1970 comedy-drama Lovers and Other Strangers). Horses also features superb emoting from TDOY fave Bonnie Bedelia (as the pregnant wife of Bruce Dern), Michael Conrad, Al Lewis, Severn Darden and Allyn Ann McLerie.

The Pursuit of Happiness (1971) – Like my previous statement about Sydney Pollack, I also believe that several of the films directed by the late Robert Mulligan were vastly overrated and I mentioned in his obit that this interesting feature film often got short shrift when discussing his work. I hadn’t seen it a long time (the first time I saw it I borrowed it from the Ballbuster Blockbuster store at which I was briefly employed) and I was surprised at how much of the film I had forgotten (I think I stated in the obit that most of the protagonist’s problems were brought on by the fact that he was a bit mouthy in court; last night’s viewing showed that I was clearly wrong on that score—so I must have mixed it up with some other film…though I don’t know which one).

Sarrazin is William Popper, the nonconformist son of a successful stockbroker (Arthur Hill) who has the misfortune to be driving on a rainy night when he hits an elderly Irish woman and kills her. The D.A. charges Popper with vehicular homicide, and during his trial the judge (Barnard Hughes) concentrates not on the actual crime but what he deems Popper’s “negligence” towards the law (Popper was driving with an expired license, no insurance and 22 unpaid parking tickets to his credit). He’s sentenced to a year at hard labor in prison, and while he awaits word on his appeal he finds himself entangled in an incident of prison violence (a gay man he befriended is knifed and killed in the showers) that gets him into further hot water when he attempts to tell the truth about the events and is reprimanded by the judge for his “attitude.” Stumbling onto a convenient means of escape, Popper makes the decision to flee the country after being thoroughly discouraged by the farce that is the legal system.

I really like this sleeper of a film—an entertaining social drama with some amusing jabs and sharply sarcastic barbs (the film’s producer was controversial talk-show host David Suskind) aimed at a system with which its protagonist is clearly out of step. Popper’s family—staid, conservative Republicans represented by his lawyer uncle (E.G. Marshall) and matriarchal grandmother (Ruth White)—are constantly badgering him to “clean up his act” in order to present a positive image before the justice system but it seems as if every bit of advice he heeds just puts him a deeper hole. (I thought White’s performance—this was her last feature film appearance—was screamingly funny; she continues to cling to her old-fashioned patrician values and claims that all of the world’s problems can be laid at the feet of “the Catholics, blacks and Jews.”) A young Barbara Hershey plays Sarrazin’s devoted girlfriend (Grandma White is, of course, mortified to learn that she’s Jewish) and Robert Klein seems to be challenging Dennis Hopper for how many times an actor can say “man” in a single film. A slew of familiar television faces constitute an excellent supporting cast: Sada Thompson, Ralph Waite, Rue McClanahan, David Doyle (as Sarrazin’s cellmate, an ex-State Senator), William Devane and Charles Durning (blink and you’ll miss him) as one of Sarrazin’s “guards.” (TCM even letterboxed this baby!)


nunya said...

Thank you for piquing my interest in "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"

I have heard about it for years but for some reason never even bothered to find out what it was about. I felt like it was one of those movies that you "should" see, but I never wanted to see it.

Flickhead said...

We need The Reincarnation of Peter Proud!