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Nightmare Alley (Fox 1947 with Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell)

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Powerful and unusual melodrama Nightmare Alley marked a radical change of direction for its star, Tyrone Power who was taking a calculated risk playing a totally unsympathetic character. It was a move that was to win him critical plaudits and he regarded his performance as the best of his career but Power’s fans were unable to accept him as the unscrupulous anti-hero.

Power plays an opportunistic sideshow barker in a seedy carnival who steals the secret code used in their mind-reading act by JOAN BLONDELL and IAN KEITH, unintentionally causing the latter’s death. He and his wife, COLEEN GRAY, leave the carnival where, after a period in nightclubs as “The Great Stanton, Mentalist”, he teams up with bogus psychologist HELEN WALKER to fleece wealthy clients. He forces his wife to become part of the act but, during a bout of fake spiritualism, she inadvertently reveals him as a fake. Making his escape, Power becomes an alcoholic and ends up first as a hobo and then as a carnival freak who, for a bottle of liquor a day and a place to sleep, bites the heads off live chickens as a side-show attraction…

Impressive support came from Blondell, Gray, Walker, Keith and MIKE MAZURKI as the carnival strong man, and there was a memorably etched performance from TAYLOR HOLMES as an aged industrialist who believes that Power will be able to help him communicate with his dead sweetheart and gives him $150,000 to build a tabernacle.

Nightmare Alley

Tyrone Power with Joan Blondell.

Edmund Goulding’s careful and atmospheric direction, the effective screen adaptation of Gresham’s novel by Jules Furthman, Lee Garmes’ expressionistic low-key monochrome cinematography and Cyril Mockridge’s eerie and apposite score, allied to Power’s central performance, gave Nightmare Alley a considerable power which still impresses even in these liberated times of overt screen gore and horror.

(The circus featured in the film, incidentally, was the Patterson-Yankee carnival, which was rented by the studio and rebuilt on ten acres of the Twentieth Century-Fox back-lot).

USA / Twentieth Century Fox / 112 minutes / 1947 filmed in black and white

Writer: Jules Furthman / Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham / Music: Cyril Mockridge / Cinematography: Lee Garmes / Producer: George Jessel / Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Ian Keith, Mike Mazurki, James Flavin, Roy Roberts

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California Split (Columbia 1974, Elliott Gould, George Segal)

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California Split

California Split is a movie about the adventures of two card players, and it stars two of 70s-era Hollywood’s most prolific male actors. Elliot Gould (M*A*S*H, 1970) plays Charlie Waters, a small-time card player who has the charisma and moxie of someone who’s way better at the tables than he actually is. Alongside him is George Segal (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966) who plays Bill Denny, a magazine writer who moonlights as a casual player. Charlie and Bill meet in a California poker parlour game that turns heated over a dealt card hitting the floor, raising concerns of cheating. Despite this, the game continues, and one of them wins. This leads to the two players getting mugged by one of the game’s sore losers, giving them an experience that’s worth bonding over. The two become fast friends and this starts them off on a poker adventure that will test and reveal their true spirit.

In a 1974 review, Roger Ebert called California Split a “magnificently funny, cynical film”, which is probably the best way to describe the succeeding events following Bill and Charlie’s meet up. Regarded by many to be one of the best poker movies ever made, California Split is a quirky but ultimately realistic and darkly comedic look into the life and mind of card players. Despite this, you don’t really need to know a thing about poker beforehand in order to enjoy the movie. It’s a classic American adventure movie that has inspired countless other road trip movies and casino films.

From start to finish, California Split follows Bill and Charlie through the race tracks, seedy bars, private poker parties, Vegas’ second-rate casinos, treating bruises with hot shaving cream, waking up to massive hangovers, and even another mugging in which their instincts are put to the test. The result is less of a movie with careful exposition, and more of what feels like an inside look into the hilariously nightmarish world of America’s casino scene. The Telegraph calls the film one of Robert Altman’s best out of his extensive catalogue. It is brilliantly pieced together by his signature subtle visual prose, realistically overlapping dialogue, and the bravely understated introductions of his many quirky characters, California Split is one of the 70s’ definite must-see adventures. Such was the film’s realism that PartyPoker state that legendary player Thomas Austin Preston Jr. aka ‘Amarilo Slim’ had a small part. In his time Slim was known as one of the greatest ever poker players, winning 4 WSOP bracelets, and would have been an inspiration for the two main characters.

California Split is definitely a treat not just for card players, but for anyone who likes well-crafted movies about friendship and the makings of the American Dream.

main stars
George Segal, Elliot Gould Ann Prentis, Gwen Welsh, Edward Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Bert Remsen

crew details
Director: Robert Altman
Producer: Joseph Walsh, Robert Altman
Director of Photography: Paul Lohmann
Editor: O. Nicholas Brown, Lou Lombardo
Composer: Phyllis Shotwell
Screenwriters: Joseph Walsh
Production Designer: Leon Ericksen

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Broken Arrow (1996, John Travolta, Christian Slater)

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Broken Arrow

Great blockbusters have simple, paper-thin plots but succeed because of great characters and fast-moving action and Broken Arrow, John Woo’s second Hollywood outing after Hard Target proves that. Air Force Major Vic Deakins (John Travolta) is bitter after being passed over for promotion but has a pension plan: steal a Stealth bomber armed with nuclear warheads and sell them to the highest bidder.

The only fly in the ointment is his number two, Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater) but hitting the eject button mid-flight solves that. As Hale, aided by Forest Ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis), sets off in pursuit of Deakins, with the authorities believing he had a hand in the theft anyway, the missiles change hands several times and, as the film draws to its climax, are primed and ready to explode.

What Woo, best known for all out Hong Kong thrillers such as The Killer and Hard Boiled , brings to the film is a series of all out action sequences, from exploding copper mines to fights on a burning train, from a bus that has to clear a gap in the freeway to a car chase across the flats of Utah. The cat-and-mouse duel between Travolta (a most satisfying villain) and Slater is non-stop and Graham Yost, who scripted Speed and Hard Rain , writes in enough exposition to keep the plot believable but the rest is all in Yoo’s capable hands.

USA / 1996

Director: John Woo
Writer: Graham Yost

Cast: John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Findo, Frank Whaley

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Forever Amber (1947, Linda Darnell, Cornell Wilde)

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Forever Amber

Forever Amber was adapted from Jerome Cady’s rollicking novel. Cromwell is dead and Charles II – played by George Sanders – is on the throne in this lavish costume drama. Cornel Wilde and his noble friend Richard Greene, on their way to London to claim rewards from the king for services rendered, stop at a country inn where Darnell sets her cap at Wilde and asks him to take her with him to London. When he refuses, Darnell runs away from the home of her lowly foster-parents and takes up residence at a tavern where she knows Wilde will stay.

Her cunning plan works when Wilde makes her his mistress but trouble is round the corner when under the patronage of Charles he becomes a privateer and goes off on an expedition, leaving Darnell with his money. Losing this in a swindle and hauled into debtors prison a highwayman prisoner, John Russell, helps her to escape with him and she begins works as his decoy. When Russell is killed, Darnell becomes the mistress of Captain Glenn Langan, who places her in the theatre where she enjoys the King’s protection. Her son, by Wilde, is born and when he returns from sea, he kills Langan in a duel before heading off again leaving Darnell free to marry elderly Earl Richard Haydn. For Darnell her career upward continues eventually becoming the King’s mistress until Wilde returns from his success in America, their son electing to return to the New World while Darnell finds herself jilted by the King and without a position at Court.

Time magazine described the film as, “an account of Slut’s Progress” and this is indeed a fabulous opulent epic drama from low life to high life and down again.

USA / 1947

Director: Otto Preminger
Writers: Philip Dunne, Ring Lardner Jr, adaptation by Jerome Cady, from the novel by Kathleen Winsor

Cast: Linda Darnell, Cornel Wilde, Richard Greene, George Sanders, Glenn Langan, Richard Haydn, Jessica Tandy, Ann Revere

 

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