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The Exiles (1961)

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This is another case in which I will dispense with the negatives first. Because if you track down this film – and you probably should – they will lead you to consider changing your mind and abandoning this film halfway through.

The Exiles is clearly and obviously an indie film by an inexperienced filmmaker, working with an inexperienced cast and crew. This is only Kent McKenzie’s second film; his first was a short-subject documentary he made during film school, which addressed a recent slum-clearance project launched in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles and how it impacted some of the longterm residents who would have to move. However, while he was working on that film, McKenzie met several Native Americans who lived in Bunker Hill; most of them young, broke, and outcasts. Instead of including them in his first film, McKenzie chose to make a second documentary just about them.

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It’s not really clear whether this is meant to be a documentary or a drama, however; it’s more of an indie slice-of-life thing, in the style of John Cassavetes’ Shadows. There’s sort of a plot – we follow a small group of people, many of whom seem to know each other, as they pass a “typical” night in their lives. Occasionally we hear them speaking over the action, talking about their lives; one woman discusses how she wishes her husband would get a job, because she’s pregnant and wants their kid to do better; another discusses how he joined the Navy to get off “the rez” but ended up here in Los Angeles without much to do so he just stayed put when he got discharged. There’s also some dialogue in the film – but it’s half-assed and desultory, the kind of inconsequential stuff people say when there isn’t much to talk about. (It’s also very clearly dubbed in, suggesting that the original footage had bad sound quality and McKenzie had to drag everyone back.)

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And it makes sense that there isn’t much for our cast to talk about because on this night, not much happens. The pregnant woman makes dinner for her husband and heads to a movie as the rest head for a bar. Another couple at the bar has a teasing debate about whether they should stay there or go dancing, and “going dancing” finally wins out – only when they stop at a gas station en route, he’s already too drunk to dance. A fight breaks out at another bar. One of the gang makes a detour back home to hit up his sister for money, helping himself to it while her family all stares listlessly at a TV program. Towards the end, as our movie-going lonely wife heads to stay with a friend, the others all gather on a hilltop for more drinking and dancing before stumbling home at dawn. Nothing much really happens; none of these people’s lives is ever going to really change.

That’s exactly the point, though.

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The Exiles was made at a time when most people usually only saw “Indians” as supporting characters in John Wayne movies, either to be revered or fought; meanwhile, McKenzie was saying, here were some actual “Indians” right there living among them, and they were just regular people who weren’t getting anywhere near a fair shake. There’s no dramatic moment of finger-pointing or blame here; no one curses “the white man” for taking their land long ago, nor is there any kind of trumped-up conflict between white snobs and our cast. It’s pretty ordinary, and boring, but that’s the point, that our cast’s lives are also ordinary and boring, in a heartbreaking way.

McKenzie makes an unfortunate tiny bid to the “noble savage” stereotype right at the beginning, with an introduction featuring historic portraits of various nation’s chiefs and some by-now familiar scenes of Sioux on horseback standing beside tipis as he intones that our cast’s ancestors had once lived free on this land before “the white man” forced them into reservations, cutting them off from their old way of life and leaving this current generation uprooted and aimless. But this introduction is brief, and it’s the casts’ own words that stick more in the mind – the pregnant Yvonne saying that she’s happy she is going to have a child of her own, since it’s what she always wanted, but then admitting that “I used to pray for things in church back on the rez, but I never got them – and so I stopped, and I don’t even say my prayers any more now”. Or her husband Homer saying that sometimes he picks a fight in bars “because otherwise you’re just sitting there doing nothing”.

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During its original release, The Exiles never got a truly fair shake either. It was part of the Venice Film Festival, but never got any kind of theatrical distribution; it was licensed only to be shown in schools. However, it had enough of an “underground” following – especially among other Native Americans hungry to see their lives represented accurately – that it helped fuel a cultural and activist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. The film itself fell off the public radar until the early 2000s, when another filmmaker used clips in a documentary of his own about Los Angeles depictions in film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. People were struck by this film they hadn’t heard about, and ultimately Spokane-Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie backed an effort to restore McKenzie’s work and finally give it a theatrical release.

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The Ladies Man (1961)

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Three years ago now, I hit an unusual milestone – I had encountered a movie, Judge Priest, which I was very tempted to stop watching halfway through. For the past three years I have told people that was “the only film I was ever tempted to give up on”.

This film, a Jerry Lewis vehicle, is now the second film to earn that dubious distinction.

I hated this, y’all. Hated hated hated hated it. And this time the dislike wasn’t about the objectionable nature of the script (as was the case with Judge Priest); it was just plain bad. I also hated the previous film I’d seen with Jerry Lewis – but at least Artists and Models tempered things with some Dean Martin in the mix as well. In fact – it looks like The Ladies Man keeps all the things I hated most about Artists and Models, and threw out everything which made that film tolerable; Dean Martin and the plot are out, leaving only mugging manchild Jerry Lewis with an endless barrage of schtick.

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I mean, they make some kind of attempt at a plot at first; Lewis plays “Herbert H. Heebert” (the “H” is also for “Herbert”, he says at one point), whom we first meet on graduation day from his small town college. He has been waiting until graduation to propose to his sweetheart, but rushes to her immediately following to find her in the arms of the star quarterback. The shock is enough to break his heart and make him swear off women forever. So it is “ironic” that when he goes off to The Big City to seek his fortune, the only work he can get is as the super in a prestigious women-only hotel and boarding house.

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But that only occupies the first third of the movie; after Herbert is hired and underway, things just sort of….happen. Herbert knocks over some things while dusting. Herbert has a run-in with one of the resident’s dates, who happens to be a mafioso. Herbert has another run-in with another one of the resident’s dates, who’s someone famous that Herbert doesn’t recognize. A TV show comes to film live at the boarding house since the owner, Mrs. Helen Wellonmellon (Helen Traubel) is a former opera star, and Herbert repeatedly photobombs the event. Herbert meets the hotel pet, “Baby”. Herbert finally sneaks into the one room he has been told to avoid – only to find a woman dangling from the ceiling, clad in what I can best describe as “Spider Man Fetish Wear”, and then hallucinates an entire Big Band dance break. And so on and so on.

Maybe twice there are nods to a through-line – early on, Mrs. Wellonmellon urges the residents to come up with little things for Herbert to do so he “feels needed” and doesn’t quit on them. A bit later, Herbert has a scene with one of the residents, Fay (Pat Stanley), who’s just blown an audition; he gives her a bit of a cheer-up speech. Both of these points are totally dropped until the very last sequence, when a glum Fay spontaneously chastises the others for exploiting Herbert, and insisting they should treat him more fairly because “he’s a nice guy”. There is a “heartwarming” moment between Herbert and all the women, spearheaded by Fay, where they all insist that they genuinely like him and wish he would stay on. He agrees – and suddenly a lion starts roaming loose in the hotel, and I couldn’t tell you why.

That’s not a plot, that’s a bunch of random gags thrown together. I will grant that some of those jokes are funny; early on, during the “college graduation” scene, the professors name Herbert the class valedictorian, and the camera then cuts to a crowd shot of the graduates – with Herbert, seated towards the back, leaping excitedly into the air like an over-enthusiastic whack-a-mole. But then immediately after that we join Herbert’s parents outside in the campus green – where Herbert excitedly runs hither and yon shouting for his “Maaaaaa!” while Herbert’s parents stand in one spot, trying in vain to stop him. (There’s also a “sight gag” where we are kept from seeing “Ma” until the very end of the scene, where we see it is Jerry Lewis in really bad drag; I wasn’t amused.)

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But as funny (or not) as the gags are, there is simply not enough framework to hang them on, and there is no comeuppance from any of the hijinks Herbert gets up to. I’m not opposed to gags that go nowhere as a rule; the 1980 comedy Airplane! is similarly “a bunch of gags thrown together”. But there’s much more of an overall plot throughout, so it still feels like a single story as opposed to An Excuse For Jerry Lewis To Be Stupid.

Think about that. Airplane has a stronger plot than this film.

I was discussing this with some friends after, and used an interesting analogy: I was focusing on how Dean Martin wasn’t in the picture any more to hold Jerry Lewis back, and compared it to how John Lennon and Paul McCartney were ideal collaborators because each was a check on each other’s worst impulses, and so after the Beatles split up, “John no longer had a check on his weird, and Paul no longer had a check on his twee.” I then went on to say that this film was therefore “the cinematic equivalent of listening to Wonderful Christmastime for two solid hours”.

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Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961)

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So I’m going to do something a little different with this recap; this was a rewatch for me, and I was familiar with the movie and the novella it’s based on. And it’s a film that casts a long shadow, for both good and bad reasons. So – I am going to acknowledge some of this film’s warts first; and it’s got some fairly big ones.

Most people who see this story as the tale of a carefree society girl named Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) and how finally finds love with her neighbor Paul Varjak (George Peppard) tend to gloss over one detail – both Holly and Paul are sort-of, kind-of prostitutes. Holly subsists on the string of dates with rich guys who pay her for “conversation” and slipping her money “for the powder room”, while Paul is a struggling writer being put up in his apartment by a wealthy older woman (Patricia Neal), who’s been discouraging him from working on any new stories so he can be free to “work on a novel” (and, conveniently, to fool around with her). Holly is even a criminal, even though she’s ignorant of that fact – she has no idea her weekly visits to a mob boss in prison, followed by a debrief with his lawyer, are their way of using her to communicate in code.

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This film also has one of the most blatantly offensive cases of “yellowface” acting in cinema – Paul and Holly’s landlord is a Japanese photographer, Mr. Yunioshi, who is played by Mickey Rooney sporting a pair of hideously oversized prosthetic teeth. He is written as a total over-the-top caricature, a depiction so broad that even people back in the 1960s thought it was a bit much. I’m not even going to dignify that with an image.

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Speaking of yellowface – is there such a thing a “straightwashing”? Because this film engages in that too – in the original novella, Paul’s character was gay, and he and Holly were simply very close friends. They don’t end up as a couple in the end of Truman Capote’s work, they don’t fall in love, and at some point they even break up, kind of. Granted, a sympathetic depiction of a gay man may have been a bridge too far for 1961, so it’s not that much of a surprise they changed things – but it’s still disappointing.

….So. That’s the bad news. The good news is that despite all of that, this is still a sweet and enchanting film.

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Much of that has to do with Audrey Hepburn, who is absolutely delightful here. Ironically, Truman Capote thought she was all wrong – he had been gunning for Marilyn Monroe to play Holly, but Monroe ultimately turned the part down, and Capote never really got over it. As for Hepburn, she felt that she might not be up for the part, and throughout filming kept pestering director Blake Edwards asking for reassurance she was doing okay. I can see why Capote was hoping for Monroe – her character from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is similarly on the hunt for a rich husband, and Monroe’s own past as a Kentucky girl named “Norma Jean” echoes Holly’s own early years as a rural Texan named “Lula Mae”.

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But I get the feeling that Monroe would be a little too….waifish for this part. Holly goes through some serious hard luck, and has gone through even harder luck before the film – and she’s also not looking to be kept as a pampered plaything. She’s doing that only because it gives her the money to have the freedom she really wants, but can’t have as a single woman. With Monroe, Holly would have been a woman looking to be a pampered plaything so she could be taken care of – with Hepburn, Holly is a woman who resorts to being a pampered plaything so she has the money to make her own choices. And Hepburn is tough, but also sweet and goofy and kooky – basically she is the Holly which the film and novella are talking about.

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As for Paul – well, George Peppard is….serviceable. But this isn’t really his fault; the part is pretty much a nonentity. He’s the straight man to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl here, and such roles are always a boring straight-man part; here especially so, since a lot of what made the character interesting in Capote’s novella had to be cut; Paul became a Straight Man in both senses of the word. So Peppard does the best he can with what he’s been given. (I did get uneasy a couple times when the love-smitten Paul insisted to Holly that she “belonged” to him, however.)

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But this is Hepburn’s film, anyway, and she outshines all of the flaws to the point that most people forget about them, focusing instead on how perfectly she embodies Holly and shows the sadness behind the blithe and carefree society girl. This is a film you definitely should go into with eyes open, but it is still worth it.

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Lola (1961)

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Lola (Anouk Aimée) has the title role in this French New Wave film, but we don’t actually meet her for a good while – and I’m not convinced she’s the lead anyway. Then again, she’s something of a lynchpin holding several very different – and still related – subplots together.

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One concerns Roland (Marc Michel), an aimless slacker living in an apartment above a sleepy cafe in the French town of Nantes; he keeps losing jobs because he blows them off, and is constantly borrowing money from the cafe owner and from a neighbor, a widow pining for the return of her own missing son Michel. While browsing in a bookstore one day, he meets Madame Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette), shopping for an English textbook for her fourteen-year-old daughter, Cécile (Annie Duperoux). Roland has that very textbook and offers to give it to them free – remarking as he does that Cécile was the name of an old childhood friend of his. However, Roland does not include the detail that Cécile was also a major early crush.

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Meanwhile, across town, Lola is entertaining Frankie (Alan Scott), an American sailor in town on leave who is smitten with her. Lola’s been stringing him along a bit – she’s a single mum raising a seven-year-old boy, so she isn’t above a bit of quasi-sex work for the money. Also, Frankie also reminds her of her son’s dad – Michel. (Yep, same Michel). Frankie tries persuading her to come to the USA with him, but she refuses – she’s holding out hope Michel will return one day.

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These plots soon cross-pollinate even further, when Frankie runs into Cécile while she is out shopping for a comic book. He’s grabbed the book she wants before she can get to it, so he offers to share it – and she’s soon girlishly smitten with the handsome sailor. At the same time, across town, Lola and Roland run into each other – delighting Roland, for she is his Cécile, all grown up.

Roland confesses to his crush later, as they’re catching up – but Lola turns him down, admitting she is still pining for Michel. It’s enough of a kick in the pants to inspire Roland to try to get some kind of a Proper Job so maybe Lola will change her mind – but then he sees her with Frankie, and starts to feel he’s been played a little. But little does Roland know that Lola is still turning Frankie down for a long-term thing – something which drives Frankie out on a wander where he runs into Cécile again, who’s still just as smitten herself. And while all that’s going on, Michel’s mother keeps insisting she’s seen him in town…

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Other critics I’ve read suggest that this is a film full of coincidences and missed-connections, with Roland just so happening to run into Lola just after meeting Cécile, and then just so happening to see her with Frankie just as he’s resolved to straighten out his act. And Lola just barely escapes missing out on a connection of her own later.

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But I’m more inclined to think that this film is about how those early childhood romantic obsessions can really stick, and sometimes tend to mess you up a little. Roland hasn’t seen Lola/Cécile in nearly 15 years at the time of the film, but is still carrying a torch for her. Meanwhile, Lola is still tied to Michel – not because of their child, though; she still has some misty, rose-colored memories of a day when he ran into her at a carnival on her 14th birthday and went on all the rides with her, and he was just so darn handsome dressed up in a sailor suit and everything that she was hooked. And to emphasize that, Frankie and Cécile have their own outing at an amusement park, on Cécile’s own birthday, shot in loving slo-mo in a way that suggests that even though Frankie’s about to ship out back to the US, that Cécile is going to be swooning over Frankie’s memory for a long time to come – and this romantic fantasy may have some disastrous results.

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I do have one nit to pick – Alan Scott’s performance is fine, but throughout he speaks both French and English with such a strangely clumsy accent that I honestly thought he was a French actor who was trying to sound like an American who was bad at French. His clumsy French makes sense, but the clumsy English was puzzling – especially since Scott was American, born in New Jersey and living most of his life in New York before retiring to Connecticut. However, it also looks like he spent much of the 60s and 70s doing other French film and TV, so…maybe it’s just me. (Incidentally, in the US he and his wife were better known as commercial jingle writers who also did the odd song for Sesame Street. )

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The Hustler (1961)

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Lately, there’s been a bit of a lament amongst some film and TV fans, about how a lot of the films being made today are either reboots or sequels or relaunches of earlier works; the Candyman series got a sequel this year, as did The Matrix and Halloween and Sex And The City and Dexter and The Wonder Years and even Doogie Howser, and on and on. But this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened – in fact, I remember there being a similar relaunch/reboot/sequel craze in the 80s and 90s. In my review for Psycho I mentioned that I was already “spoiled” for a lot of it – part of how was spoiled was from remembering the reviews about the 1983 sequel, a much lesser-quality film. The 1980s saw sequels to plenty of other classics – Rocky, Grease, Alien, Caddyshack, and others – and while some caught the right spirit of the original (or in some rare cases even surpassed it), others looked a bit more like money grabs, leaning on the reputation of the more famous original to bring in viewers while simultaneously missing the point, and potentially ruining the originals for future viewers.

And I came very close to having had The Color of Money ruin The Hustler for me (see, that’s where I was going with this). What maybe saved me is that I never actually saw that sequel – only the clips used in the music video for Eric Clapton’s song from the soundtrack, which was in heavy rotation on MTV when I was about fifteen. From what I can see in those clips today, and what I’ve read since, it looks like that film is more about the pool playing and the hustle for money – and to my mind, The Hustler is about something quite different entirely.

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Don’t get me wrong – there is pool here. “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) is a young-and-hungry player, teamed up with his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) and traveling the country doing low-level hustles. But Eddie isn’t into the money so much as he’s into the love of the game – he is good at pool, and he knows it. He’s just into the thrill of doing what he knows he’s good at. In fact, he’s so good that he’s convinced he can beat the famous pool shark Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), and turns up in Minnesota’s pool hall to challenge him towards the beginning of the film. Minnesota ultimately beats him, of course – but it takes him 24 hours to do so, and Eddie goes down swinging, only dropping out when he has no more money to lay down as stakes for any further games. But Eddie later discovers Charlie withheld some of their money for safety’s sake, and abandons Charlie, striking out on his own for New York.

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Along with getting his feet wet in small pool halls, Eddie meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a part-time student and part-time barfly who ultimately takes him in. Sarah seems to have him pegged pretty quickly – “I’ve got troubles and I think maybe you’ve got troubles,” she tells him early on, wondering aloud if they should “maybe leave each other alone”. But these two troubled people end up fitting together – he encourages her to give up drinking, she nurses him through some broken thumbs after rubbing some poolsharks the wrong way. She opens up to him about her sad past. He opens up to her about why he loves the game so much. They truly start to heal the broken bits in each other.

So that’s why it’s all the more tragic when Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) drops by; Bert is a professional gambler friendly with Minnesota Fats who heard about Eddie’s game, and wants to bring him back out on the road. He’ll be able to get Eddie back in on a game with Minnesota, for sure…

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I know that still sounds like a lot of pool. But for me, the heart of the film is actually Eddie and Sarah’s relationship, and how Eddie is torn between joy in what he does and disgust with what he has to do just to do it. There’s a lengthy speech he has in the middle of the film, while on a picnic with Sarah, where he discusses how his love of the game is at odds with the hustling he has to do: “Just had to show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s really great. You know, like anything can be great [….] brick-laying can be great if a guy knows what he’s doin’ and why and if he can make it come off.” Pool playing is Eddie’s flow state – but the only way he’s ever known where he can exercise that flow state is to make a devil’s bargain with gamblers who exploit him for money. Sarah comes close to making him realize he doesn’t need to do things that way – but the lure is too great, and he gets pulled back towards his older habits, unaware what the cost might be until it’s too late. That’s the same story as The Red Shoes, in a way – and that’s how it landed with me.

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Piper Laurie and Paul Newman are of course heartbreakingly excellent here. But the real standout for me was Jackie Gleeson as Minnesota Fats – I’d only ever associated him with his TV role in The Honeymooners, all words and bluster, but here he is completely different – stoic, quiet, an oasis of perfect calm. He’s a Poolroom Buddha who’s obtained the very kind of enlightened state where pool is all he needs to worry about – the very state Eddie wants to reach. But Eddie misunderstands the path he needs to take to get there – which makes him a sucker for the tips and tricks and abuse that Bert and Charlie try to foist on him. But tips and tricks don’t get you there – it’s tapping into that flow state, only speaking when you need to and only doing what you need to, and knowing when to stop. Gleason speaks and does very, very little, but when he does, it’s flawless – and so when Minnesota praises Eddie’s playing, eventually, we know it’s sincere. The tragedy is that it also comes too late.