Brooks, Haskin, Ritt, West, Zinnemann

From the Earth to the Moon (Byron Haskin, 1958). In some respects, this is a bit of sci-fi fancifulness typical of the era when imagining trips to the moon was a common cinematic endeavor. The film is distinguished by the fact that it doesn’t imagine a bold future, instead reaching back to the distant past for its interplanetary adventure. It adapts an 18th century Jules Verne novel, sticking with the era of its publication. This means American entrepreneurs enriched by profits generated during the Civil War pulling together an unlikely launch into space. The action is turgid and the characterization wan. The whole thing grinds along without a pulse, enlivened only by the unintentional amusement that comes with watching old Hollywood pros like Joseph Cotten and George Sanders interacting awkwardly with the special effects, looking like they’re marking off time in their heads, the ticking away of minutes until they can salve their mortification with a couple tumblers of brown liquor at the nearby watering hole the only countdown that particularly concerns them.

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (Ti West, 2009). West reportedly wants nothing to do with the sequel that bears his name, mounting an unsuccessful campaign to get it credited to the pseudonym of directorial dismay, Alan Smithee. Certainly the film displays little of the patient panache that marks his recent effort House of the Devil. There’s a nicely realized shot here and there, but most of the film is a jackhammer race through inane gross-out moments and painful cliches. It can be described with a single word that could never be applied to Devil or, for that matter, Eli Roth’s original bloodbath in the woods. That word is forgettable.

The Outrage (Martin Ritt, 1964). This is Ritt’s follow up with Paul Newman to their collaboration on the riveting Hud. It’s a reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, transferring the setting to the Old West as three gents waiting at a train station in the pouring rain tell tales of a recent murder on the outskirts of town. If nothing else, the film provides the odd sensation of watching Newman play a Mexican bandit who says things like “These stupid gringos do not take time out for the siesta.” He’s solid enough in a broad character role that’s very different from the iconic material the built his fame, though the Speedy Gonzales dialect hasn’t aged especially well. Edward G. Robinson is wonderful in a small role as one of the trio at the train station, and James Wong Howe’s black-and-white cinematography is simply gorgeous.

Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960). The film begins by backpedaling, offering up a crawl that tries mightily to downplay the savaging of religion that will follow and even urging people to “prevent impressionable children from seeing it.” There may be a little William Castle showmanship to that warning too, a nudge to make the film’s messages seem even more daring. Truth is, it’s probably daring enough, casting Burt Lancaster as the hustler of the title, a born salesman who hitches his wagon to a traveling evangelist show run by the beaming Sister Sharon Falconer, played by Jean Simmons. The primary appeal, and it’s significant, is watching Lancaster strut and preen and tear through his rich material like a famished lion. The scenes where he gets to thumb his bible are naturally showstoppers, but he excels in building the entire character, most notably the way he counters ever slight and insult with a deflective booming laugh, a sly but unmistakable signal that his adversaries can swing at him all they like, but he’s impervious.

From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). And here’s Lancaster again, in one of his first really meaty roles as a military man stationed in Hawaii in 1941. Based on a hefty James Jones novel, the film has a slightly episodic structure as it follows a handful of characters as the endure interpersonal travails, unaware of the cataclysmic thundercrack of history awaiting them at the end of the year. It’s no wonder it got a spin in the late-seventies as a television mini-series followed by a brief attempt at turning it into a weekly nighttime soap. Guided by the expert hand of Zinnemann, the film works marvelously, shifting from thread to thread with an efficiency that keeps everything compelling even when a storyline is heading down a familiar, or even slightly florid, route. Lancaster’s stolid presence is countered nicely by Montgomery Clift’s raw nerve urgency as a Private who’s haunted by his past.

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