Tag Archives: 2020 Reviews

Blu-ray reissue: Funeral in Berlin (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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Funeral in Berlin – Paramount

While I enjoy the entire series, this is my favorite entry in the film trilogy (preceded by The Ipcress File and followed by The Billion Dollar Brain) that starred Michael Caine as British spy “Harry Palmer” (based on a nameless protagonist created by prolific spy novelist and non-fiction writer Len Deighton).

Caine’s Palmer is a buttoned-down antithesis of James Bond. Oh, he has the trade craft and the cold efficiency, but no flashy clothes, cars or gadgets, no adventures in exotic locales. However, he is not buttoned-down in his attitude. He’s cheeky, cynical, and anti-authoritarian to a fault (e.g. 007 remains attuned that he ultimately serves at Her Majesty’s pleasure, whereas Harry may be more inclined to scoff at aristocracy).

In this installment (directed by Guy Hamilton and adapted from Deighton’s eponymous novel by Evan Jones), Palmer is ostensibly sent to Berlin to bring a Communist defector in from the cold but becomes embroiled in a byzantine web of international intrigue and inter-agency duplicity.

You need to pay close attention, but that’s what makes it fun and keeps you guessing until the end. Similar (but superior) to the Cold War thriller The Defector, which came out the same year and featured Montgomery Clift (in his final performance).

Paramount’s Blu-ray touts a “1080p high-definition” transfer, which leaves room for interpretation as to whether it has been restored. I can only compare it to the PAL-DVD edition I own-to which it displays a marked upgrade in image and sound. No extras, but that appears to be par for the course with Paramount. Still, it’s nice to have it on Blu-ray!

Blu-ray reissue: Five Graves to Cairo (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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Five Graves to Cairo – Kino Classics

Billy Wilder’s 1943 war drama tends to get short shrift from film scholars (understandable if held up next to Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment and other heralded entries in the director’s impressive canon), but it’s solid, slam-bang “popcorn” fare for movie night.

Five Graves to Cairo was the second Hollywood feature from the Austrian-born film maker. Adapted by Wilder and Charles Brackett from the Lajos Biro play “Hotel Imperial”, it is essentially a chamber piece set in a remote hotel in the North African desert. Like Casablanca (released a year earlier), it is a contemporaneously produced WW2 adventure brimming with intrigue, selfless heroics and of course-evil Nazis.

In this case the chief villain is a real-life WW2 luminary, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, played with larger-than-life aplomb by veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim (who would give his most memorable performance 7 years later in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard).

Leading man Franchot Tone portrays a wounded British tank crewman who stumbles into the hotel half-alive a few days before Rommel and his entourage arrive for a rest from the desert campaign. Anne Baxter and Akim Tamiroff round off the excellent principal cast.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a 4K remaster that highlights John F. Seitz’s cinematography and an enlightening commentary track by film historian Joseph McBride.

Phones of the dead: 76 Days (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2020)

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Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

— Hamlet, as he ponders the skull of a deceased friend (from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet)

Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.

— From the Epilogue title card of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Barry Lyndon.

Alas. It’s so sad, their grandma died. Oh dear, he was only 60…what a pity. Rich or poor, revered or despised-Fate befalls all. What a tragedy. Nobody can escape.

— ICU nurse in 76 Days, as she disinfects personal effects of deceased COVID patients.

You know what “they” say about death and taxes. Well…what Christopher Bullock said:

’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.

Speaking for myself (although I suspect I speak for many here), one thing I surely did not see coming was the possibility of death by plague, especially as I careen toward my 65th birthday in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century. With apologies to Douglas Adams, the mere thought hadn’t even begun to speculate about the merest possibility of crossing my mind.

Yet here we are, 10 months into a global pandemic. “Wallet, keys, mask” is now my mantra before leaving the house. It’s been some time since I reached the final stage of the Kübler-Ross model (“Acceptance”). For all I know, COVID-19 was, is, and will always be here.

But it had to start somewhere, right? According to an unpublicized report from the Chinese government, the first traceable case was in November 2019; a 55-year old citizen in Hubei province. 4 men and 5 women were reported to be infected in November; none were “patient zero”. However, the eyes of the world would soon focus on the city of Wuhan. From a New York Times piece by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. published February 28th this year:

There are two ways to fight epidemics: the medieval and the modern.

The modern way is to surrender to the power of the pathogens: Acknowledge that they are unstoppable and to try to soften the blow with 20th-century inventions, including new vaccines, antibiotics, hospital ventilators and thermal cameras searching for people with fevers.

The medieval way, inherited from the era of the Black Death, is brutal: Close the borders, quarantine the ships, pen terrified citizens up inside their poisoned cities.

For the first time in more than a century, the world has chosen to confront a new and terrifying virus with the iron fist instead of the latex glove.

At least for a while, it worked, and it might still serve a purpose.

The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was able to seal off the city of Wuhan, where the Covid-19 outbreak began, because China is a place where a leader can ask himself, “What would Mao do?” and just do it. The bureaucracy will comply, right down to the neighborhood committees that bar anyone from returning from Wuhan from entering their own homes, even if it means sleeping in the streets.

So, putting aside for a moment any finger-wagging regarding totalitarian vs democratic societies, or the ethics of “medieval vs modern” methods in dealing with dire public health emergencies…how did Wuhan do? Here’s an recap from CNN, published in April 2020:

Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, reopened this month after a 76-day lockdown.

“People are visiting parks, markets, malls. On the roads there are many cars,” said Hector Retamal, a photojournalist with Agence France-Presse. “I have seen people who go swimming in the Yangtze River, other people dancing in a park. No big crowds yet, but step by step the life is returning to the city.”

The tough measures that were put in place — most people couldn’t even go grocery shopping or bury their dead — seem to have worked. New coronavirus cases, which used to number in the thousands each day, have slowed to a trickle.

Wuhan didn’t do too badly, considering they got the virus under control within 3 months, whereas here in the U.S. some 7 months later, COVID continues to rage…with impunity.

But that transition from initial mandatory lockdown to a virtually COVID-free city didn’t occur in a vacuum, nor was it facilitated by the wave of a magic wand. What exactly went down during those 76 days? What was it like to be a citizen of Wuhan during this period?

A remarkable documentary called 76 Days fills in some of the blanks. Released by MTV Films, it was co-directed by New York filmmaker Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) in association with China-based journalists Weixi Chen and “Anonymous” (the choice of anonymity by one of the trio indicates this project was likely not sanctioned by Chinese authorities).

Filmed during the early days of the epidemic and focusing on the day-to-day travails of Wuhan’s front-line health workers as they attend to the crush of first-wave COVID patients, the film was shot at great personal risk by the two journalists (Weixi Chen and Anonymous) and their small camera crews.

While the film is slickly edited in such a way to suggest everything occurs at one medical facility, it was actually filmed at four different Wuhan hospitals over a period of several months. Eschewing polemics or social commentary, the filmmakers opt for the purely observational “direct cinema” approach (there’s no narration).

One thing that gets lost in the politicization and finger-pointing surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is the ongoing human cost; and nothing hammers it home like the film’s powerful and affecting opening scene, where a distraught woman (a hospital worker in full PPE) has to be restrained by fellow medical personnel as her deceased father is wheeled out of the ICU, zipped up in a body bag.

“I’ll never see my Papa again! I want to listen to my Papa sing!” she keens as her father is whisked off to the morgue.Her compatriots are sympathetic, but remind her that she must stay strong for the sake of fellow hospital staff and all of the patients in their care. The 3-minute sequence is heartbreaking and sobering.

A harrowing scene in the ER admittance area could be from a zombie apocalypse film. People are pounding on the door and wrenching on the handle. Hospital workers keep the door locked, straining against it to keep the pressing mob of anxious souls on the other side at bay as they attempt to let in only several patients at a time.

The filmmakers follow the progress of a number of patients, from their admittance to their release (or fate). One particularly truculent elderly fisherman is so reticent to be hospitalized he keeps his cap and coat on even as he is tucked into bed by the orderly.

Afflicted by the early stages of dementia, he wanders the halls at night like a Flying Dutchman, delivering soliloquies. “How could it have come to this? This place is not bad. Free medication and hot meals,” he muses aloud to no one in particular as he shuffles along. When he reaches the end of the hall, he tugs at the doors. “It’s locked? I need to get out, to go home. Can someone please just let me go? Who doesn’t have a home? Why can’t I go home?

A pregnant woman undergoes a C-section, but has a negative antibody test prior to the birth, so she and her husband must quarantine for 2 weeks before she can hold her newborn for the first time. Following the progress of the baby girl (affectionately nicknamed “Little Penguin” by the attending ward staff) becomes a much-needed beacon of hope in the film.

The compassion and dedication of the attending staff shines throughout. “Your family is not here. So we are your family now,” a nurse assures one elderly patient in a touching moment. “You are all fearless soldiers,” marvels one tearful patient to a hospital worker.

If there is a “philosopher” of the film, it’s the nurse who spends a portion of each day notifying next of kin (you wonder how she absorbs all that grief from the other end of the call). She is determined to return personal items to families of the deceased.

“Perhaps when the epidemic is over, we’ll find ways to return them to families. To keep them…perhaps…as mementos,” she offers, as she disinfects cell phones, watches, and such. One basket is labeled “ID CARDS AND PHONES OF THE DEAD”. One cell phone beeps and reads “31 UNREAD MESSAGES”.

So what is the takeaway? Granted, the question could be “Why buy a movie ticket to wallow in more COVID misery when all I need do is turn on the news to get it for free?” For me, it gets back to that “medieval vs. modern” conundrum.

It’s wonderful that we have dedicated front-line health workers all over the world to treat the symptoms, but their number is finite. More often than not they are over-worked, and hospital capacities are maxed out with existing COVID patients. What will it take to finally eradicate the cause?

Would it kill our democracy to get just a little “medieval” on COVID’s ass, just this once?

Since 9-11 it’s become reflexive for travelers to dutifully remove shoes and belts and unpack and repack carry-on luggage before boarding a plane, but being asked to wear a mask on a long crowded flight in the midst of a pandemic crosses the line of “oppression” for some? Can all Americans be convinced to make this temporary sacrifice of personal comfort for the common good?

*Sigh* Probably not. Donald G. McNeil, Jr. from the same New York Times piece above:

China has had imperial rule since 221 B.C. The United States, born of rebellion, prizes individual rights.

There will be no national lockdown. No threats to have anyone “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame,” as one of Mr. Xi’s underlings warned those who hid cases of infection.

But local control — and the political factionalism that is endemic to democracy — can carry grave risks in the face of a crisis, [medical historian Dr. Howard Markel] noted.

In 1918 and 1919, as the Spanish influenza swept across the country in waves, various cities reacted in their own ways.

Cities like St. Louis that reacted quickly — canceling parades and ballgames, shutting schools, transit systems and government offices, ordering the sick to stay home — ultimately had fewer deaths.

In cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which were paralyzed by political feuds or pressure from local businesses to avoid shutdowns, many more ultimately died.

To overcome the divisiveness that would imperil a cohesive national response, Dr. Markel said, “you need leadership from the top — and there has to be trust. In an epidemic, the idea that ‘everyone is entitled to their own facts’ is really dangerous.”

More prophetic words have rarely been written. One thing lacking since the pandemic blew up in March is “leadership from the top”. (To paraphrase General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove: “Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American People than with your image in the history books.”)

It’s great news that major pharmaceutical companies could begin distributing vaccines in a few weeks, but it will still be months before enough of the population is inoculated to flatten the curve (hopefully) for good. That means there has to be trust in what epidemiological experts are advising us to do in the meantime to keep everyone safe.

And hopefully the incoming administration, which is already demonstrating a desire and willingness to coordinate a better-late-than-never “cohesive national response” to the pandemic can hit the ground running and send COVID-19 packing once and for all.

(“76 Days” is currently playing in virtual cinemas nationwide)

Blu-ray reissue: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28,2020)

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The Grey Fox – Kino Classics

I was overjoyed to finally retire my dog-eared VHS copy of Philip Borso’s underappreciated 1982 gem. Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller; an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (which puts it in a sub-genre that includes Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet).

The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”). The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Jackie Burroughs is excellent as well, playing a feminist photographer who has a relationship with Miner. John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit. (Full review)

Blu-ray reissue: Leave Her to Heaven ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28,2020)

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Leave Her to Heaven – Criterion Collection

There have been a lot of movies about possessive lovers, but the character of “Ellen Berent” (played by achingly beautiful Gene Tierny) takes the cake. Shot in eye-popping Technicolor, John M. Stahl’s 1945 drama (adapted by Jo Swerling from a novel by Ben Ames Williams) is equal parts film noir and twisted soaper.

Cornel Wilde co-stars as Richard Harland, a novelist who has a chance meeting with Ellen on a train. Before he knows what hit him, the slightly off-kilter but undeniably alluring socialite has introduced Richard to her well-to-do family, and in the blink of an eye, Ellen is dragging him down the aisle. Not that he resists (I mean, my god…look at Gene Tierny…look at her!) but as tends to occur in  quickie betrothals, any poisons that may lurk in the mud don’t hatch out until after the honeymoon’s over.

As pointed out by film critic Imogen Sara Smith in an enlightening video essay produced exclusively for Criterion’s Blu-ray release, Tierny was perennially underrated as an actor due to her striking looks. I heartily agree-Tierney delivers a subtly chilling performance in this film. While you could call Leave Her to Heaven the original Fatal Attraction, by comparison Glenn Close’s clingy psycho is more like a cartoon villain and far less compelling. Excellent support from Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Mary Phillips and Ray Collins.

Leon Shamroy’s cinematography has never looked this luminous on home video. Criterion’s edition features a new 2K restoration by Twentieth Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive, and The Film Foundation. A must-have for the noir fan on your gift list.

Blu-ray reissue: Essential Fellini (Box set)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2020)

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Essential Fellini – Criterion Collection box set

With such a rich oeuvre to cull from, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that it’s taken this long for someone to curate a decent Federico Fellini collection. That said, Criterion’s 2020 box set proves worth the wait. Predicated on the 100th  anniversary of Fellini’s birth, the collection cherry picks 14 of the “essentials” from his catalog, from obvious choices like La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, , Amarcord and Juliet of the Spirits to previously harder to find early works like Variety Lights and The White Sheik. All the films have been newly restored.

As the set was released only several days ago, I haven’t had a chance to make a huge dent but the two films I have watched are impeccably restored (I started with 1950’s Variety Lights because I’d never seen it, and decided to feast on my favorite Fellini Amarcord on Thanksgiving…wow. Now that is one film the 4K restoration process was made for!).

Extras. Where do I start? Two feature documentaries…Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (great doc) and I’m looking forward to Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember (3 hours!). Also included is a restored version of the curio Toby Dammit. Starring Terrance Stamp, the 40-minute film was Fellini’s contribution to the 1968 horror omnibus/Edgar Allan Poe triptych Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim and Louis Malle directed the other two segments). There are numerous commentary tracks, TV interview segments, and more.

There are two books, one is a guide to the films and the other contains essays. It’s all housed in a sturdy album-sized box, with the discs secured in “coin collector” style pockets (similar to Criterion’s lovely Bergman box set released back in 2018).

Blu-ray reissue: The Elephant Man (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2020)

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The Elephant Man – Criterion Collection

This 1980 David Lynch film (nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (John Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened to him.

While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectfully and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white (by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nod for his performance, more impressive when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Great work by the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 4K restoration, archival interviews with the director, Hurt, co-producers Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sangar (and others associated with the production), a 2005 program about the real “elephant man” John Merrick, and more.

Blu-ray reissue: Diva (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2020)

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Diva – Kino Classics

Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 cult fave kicked off a sub-genre that hoity toity critics have labelled Cinéma du look…or as I like to call ‘em: “really cool French thrillers of the 80s and 90s” (e.g. Beineix’s Betty Blue, and Luc Besson’s Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Leon the Professional). Diva not only reigns as my favorite of the bunch but would easily place as one of my top 10 films of the 80s.

Our unlikely antihero is mild-mannered postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a 20-something opera fan obsessed with a Garbo-like diva (American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). The diva has never recorded a studio album and strictly stipulates that her live performances are never to be taped and/or reproduced in any medium.

A clearly enraptured Jules attends one of her concerts and makes a high-quality bootleg recording, purely for his own edification. By chance, a pair of nefarious underworld characters sitting nearby witness Jules making the surreptitious recording and see nothing but a potential goldmine in the tape, sparking a chain of events that turns his life upside down.

Slick, stylish and cheeky with a wonderful international cast, Diva is a marvelously entertaining pop-art mélange of neo-noir, action-thriller, and comic-book fantasy. Chockablock with quirky characters, from a pair of hipster hit men (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon) who hound Jules to his savior, a Zen-like international man of mystery named Gorodish (scene-stealer Richard Bohringer) who is currently “going through his cool period” as his precocious teenage girlfriend (Thuy Ann Luu) patiently explains to Jules.

I have owned 2 DVD versions of the film over the years, the transfers were passable but less-than-ideal. Kino’s Blu-ray, while still not the diamond quality I’d been hoping for (it is obviously not restored) it is by far the best-looking print I’ve seen of the film. Extras include interviews with members of the cast and crew (which have already appeared on a previous DVD edition) and a brand new commentary track by film critic Simon Abrams. A real gem!

Blu-ray reissue: Day of the Dolphin (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2020)

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The Day of the Dolphin – Kino Classics

“Fa loves Pa!” This offbeat 1973 sci-fi film marked the third collaboration between Buck Henry and director Mike Nichols. Henry adapted the script from Robert Merle’s novel. George C. Scott is excellent in the lead role as a marine biologist who has developed a method for training dolphins to communicate in human language. Naturally, there is a shadowy cabal of government spooks who take keen interest in this breakthrough. I like to call this one a conspira‘sea’ thriller (sorry).

Kino’s 2020 Blu-ray reissue features a new 4k digital restoration, a new commentary track by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and interviews with screenwriter Buck Henry and cast members Leslie Charleson and Edward Herrmann.

Connery from A to Zed

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2020)

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I’m posting a belated tribute to Sean Connery, who passed away last week (on Halloween, no less). I already had a post planned for last Saturday, and as you may have heard there was an election thingy going on all this week that I’ve found a bit …distracting.

There’s not much of a revelatory nature I can add to the plethora of tributes that have poured in since, except to acknowledge that being of “a certain age”, Connery was a figure who loomed large in my personal pop culture iconography (I can still remember my excitement when I received a “Goldfinger” board game for Hanukah when I was 10).

He was, and will likely always be, the definitive James Bond of course; but he did tackle a number of other roles during his career well outside the realm of the suave secret agent.

With that in mind, and a nod to Bond’s service number, here are my top 7 Connery films.

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The Anderson Tapes – In Sidney Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.

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Goldfinger – While you can’t really go wrong adding any of the first four James Bond entries to a “best of Connery” filmography (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, or Thunderball), if I had to choose one as my desert island disc, I’d go with Goldfinger.

This was the first of the four Bond films directed by Guy Hamilton (he also helmed Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man With the Golden Gun). Paul Dehn’s screenplay (co-adapted by Johanna Harwood from Ian Fleming’s novel) is infinitely quotable (“No, Mr. Bond…I expect you to die!” “I never joke about my work, 007.” “You can turn off the charm. I’m immune.” “Shocking …positively shocking!”).

From its classic opening theme (belted out by Shirley Bassey), memorable villain (played to the hilt by Gert Frobe), iconic henchman (Harold Sakata as Goldfinger’s steel-rimmed bowler tossing bodyguard “Oddjob”) and the best Bond girl ever (Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore) to Q’s tricked-out Aston-Martin (with smoke screen, oil slick, rear bullet shield, revolving license plates, machine guns and my favorite – the passenger ejector seat), this will always be the quintessential 007 adventure for me.

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The Man Who Would Be King – Look in the dictionary under “ripping yarn” and you’ll find this engaging adventure from 1975, co-adapted by director John Huston with Gladys Hill from Rudyard Kipling’s short story. Stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine have great chemistry as a pair of British army veterans who set their sights on plundering an isolated kingdom in the Hindu Kush. At least that’s the plan.

Before all is said and done, one is King of Kafiristan, and the other is covering his friend’s flank while both scheme how they are going pack up the treasure and make a graceful exit without losing their heads in the process.  As it is difficult for a king to un-crown himself, that is going to take one hell of a soft shoe routine. In the realm of “buddy films”, the combined star power of Connery and Caine has seldom been equaled (only Redford and Newman come to mind). Also with Christopher Plummer and Saeed Jaffrey.

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Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout Vertigo as Alfred Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underrated 1964 film, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time precursor to dark, psycho-sexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park.

Tippi Hedren stars as an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania. Sean Connery is a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she’s a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study. His own behaviors slip as he tries to play Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

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Robin and Marian – Richard Lester’s elegiac take on the Robin Hood legend features one of Connery’s most nuanced performances. The 1976 comedy-adventure boasts a witty and literate screenplay by James Goldman (The Lion in Winter, They Might Be Giants) music by John Barry (whose name is synonymous with Bond films) and a marvelous cast that includes Audrey Hepburn (Maid Marian), Robert Shaw (the Sherriff of Nottingham), Richard Harris, Nicol Williamson, Denholm Elliott, and Ian Holm.

20 years after Robin and his merry band had their initial run-ins with Prince John and his henchman, the Sherriff of Nottingham, our Crusades-weary hero has returned to England accompanied by Little John (Williamson). Eager to reunite with his ladylove Marian, Robin is chagrined to learn that she has gotten herself to a nunnery. This is the first of many hurdles for the middle-aged (and more introspective) swashbuckler; but he is determined to have one last hurrah. Connery and Hepburn are simply wonderful together.

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The Untouchables – Sean Connery delivers one of his last truly great performances in Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime drama. While the film bears little resemblance to the late 50s TV show, it is loosely based on the same real-life memoirs of U.S. Treasury agent Elliot Ness, who helped the government build a case against mobster Al Capone in 1929.

Connery plays Jim Malone, a hard-boiled Chicago cop recruited by Ness (Kevin Costner) to be part of an elite squad of T-men who are tasked with bringing down the various criminal enterprises run by Capone (a scenery-chewing Robert De Niro) by any means necessary. Also on the team: Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia. Patricia Clarkson plays Ness’ wife. Billy Drago is memorable as Capone’s sneering hit man Nitti. Well-paced, sharply written (by David Mamet) and stylishly directed by De Palma (a climactic shootout filmed in Chicago’s Union Station is a mini masterpiece of staging and editing).

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Zardoz – I suspect my inclusion of John Boorman’s 1974 spaced-out oddity as one of Sean Connery’s “best” films will raise an eyebrow or two, but as I’ve admitted on more than one occasion-there’s no accounting for some people’s taste! Once you get past sniggering over Connery’s costume (a red loincloth/diaper accessorized by a double bandolier and thigh-high go-go boots), this is an imaginative fantasy-adventure for adults.

Set in the year 2293 (why not?), Boorman’s story centers on thuggish but natively intelligent Zed (Connery) who roams the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Earth with his fellow “Brutals” killing and pillaging with impunity. This all-male club worships a “god” named Zardoz, who speaks to them via a large flying stone head, which occasionally touches down so they can fill it with stolen grain. In exchange, Zardoz spews out rifles like a giant Pez dispenser, while intoning his #1 tenet “The gun is good, the penis is evil.”

One day Zed manages to stow away in the head just before takeoff, and when it lands he finds himself in the invisible force-field protected “Vortex”, where the elite “Eternals” live a seemingly idyllic and Utopian life that is purely of the mind. Bemused and fascinated by this “specimen” from the outside world, one of the Eternals  “adopts” Zed is as his Man Friday while his fate is being debated. But who is really studying who?

Boorman’s story takes some inspiration from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, as well as another classic fantasy that becomes apparent in the fullness of the narrative, but it still stands out from the pack for sheer weirdness. There are also parallels to A Boy and His Dog (another film I’ve seen an unhealthy number of times).

In a way the “Eternals”-what with their crystals, pyramids, and hippy-dippy philosophical musings, presage the New Age Movement. Also, they pass judgement on anyone in their collective suspected of having “negative thoughts” with a telepathic vote; if found guilty the accused is “aged”  to drooling dotage and banished from the community (that’s social media in a nutshell!).