The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Written by Alan Trustman Directed by Norman Jewison
In the late 1960s, filmmaking was undergoing a transformation. It was happening both in the counter-culture, becoming prominent in the content but also in technological changes. At Expo 67, the World’s Fair held in Montreal, a pair of films showed off the revolutionary split-screen technique pioneered by Christopher Chapman. Chapman was a Canadian-born cinematographer that created the multi-dynamic image technique or “the Brady Bunch effect.” This allowed him to composite multiple film images into grids of varying sizes. This allowed a single scene to be shown from various angles and character perspectives. After Norman Jewison saw the films in exhibition at Expo 67, he wanted to use it in his new movie The Thomas Crown Affair, seeing it as useful when showing the heist scenes.
In the Heat of the Night (1967) Written by Stirling Silliphant Directed by Norman Jewison
In the Heat of the Night was a huge film in terms of its pop-culture resonance for a few decades, yet it is almost forgotten in our current age. I was aware of the seven-season television sequel that premiered in 1988. I recently discovered Sidney Poitier continued to play the character of Virgil Tibbs in two sequels. There are also seven novels in the Tibbs series. Now I’m sure not all of this media is as great as this movie, but it’s so strange for a character to have been that prominent only to have entirely vanished from the cultural discourse. As presented in this film, the character is so compelling that I have to believe the following productions just didn’t live up to the bar set by In the Heat of the Night.
Prizzi’s Honor (1985) Written by Richard Condon and Janet Roach Directed by John Huston
John Huston only had two years left in his life. I suspect he realized this. By 1982, he had to use an oxygen tank almost all hours of the day for his emphysema. He didn’t slow down in his filmmaking though making seven movies in the 1980s, even one the year he died in 1987. Prizzi’s Honor was his second to last film, the picture that won his daughter, Anjelica, her first Academy Award. Once again, he’d gather a cast of strong actors to deliver a deceptively dark comedy about love & business in the world of organized crime. I don’t think any of the films I’ve watched previously were overtly a comedy as much as this one. And it is a strange creature.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) Written by Ben Maddow & John Huston Directed by John Huston
John Huston was fascinated with the state of the urban in post-War America. We saw in Key Largo that there was a looming fear that the old Prohibition-era mobs would return to power. In The Asphalt Jungle, Huston takes a much more nuanced look at the criminal element, refusing to present them as one-dimensional and no good. The Asphalt Jungle was a challenge to get made as MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer did not like it. He was overridden by the head of production, Isadore “Dore” Schary. Schary was a Jew born in New Jersey who eventually worked his way up to run MGM after Mayer left when his direction was losing the studio money. Mayer favored dazzling wholesome spectacles, while Schary wanted darker movies that had a message.
Key Largo (1948) Written by Richard Brooks and John Huston Directed by John Huston
Back during the 1930s & 40s, it was common for a director to have two films out per year. These days that would be a surprising accomplishment, but you were expected to churn out a larger workload at the height of the studio system. John Huston was working under this type of contract at Warner Brothers, so 1948 saw the release of The Treasure of Sierra Madre in January, followed by Key Largo in July. Huston had such an eye for detail & quality he wasn’t going to let one film suffer to make the other better. He’d ensure both movies were fantastic. And that he certainly did.
Movie Review – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Written & Directed by John Huston
John Huston served in the U.S. Army during World War II, making films for the Signal Corps. He directed several films, both narrative & documentary, about soldiers and the war during this time. Despite the acclaim these pictures received, they were ultimately banned because some of them focused on failures of the U.S. military. The brass labeled them as “demoralizing to the morale of the troops.” He seemed to develop a fascination with war documentaries for the rest of his life as his daughter, Anjelica, said that when the family moved to Ireland, that was most of what they watched at home. I think something about men put in desperate situations surrounded by violence must have appealed to Huston, and it was the basis of his next film.
Casino (1995) Written by Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi Directed by Martin Scorsese
After the success of Goodfellas, both with audiences and critics, it was reasonably sure Scorsese & author Nicholas Pileggi would collaborate again on something. Five years later, they told another true story of organized crime and its deleterious effects on people’s lives in Casino. Like Goodfellas, the movie focuses on an outsider to the Italian Cosa Nostra, a Jewish man with a remarkable ability to gamble and win big. Unlike Goodfellas, Casino feels more epic in scope. These people deal with amounts of money that are far beyond what Henry Hill ever got his hands on. The story is also more balanced with its three central cast members in a way that Goodfellas never really did.
Cape Fear (1991) Written by Wesley Strick Directed by Martin Scorsese
Cape Fear came to Martin Scorsese on a trade. Scorsese had been working on Schindler’s List after Steven Spielberg had walked away at first. Spielberg was offered Cape Fear but found the story too violent for his personal filmmaking style. In turn, he offered it to Scorsese, who realized he wasn’t the right fit for Schindler’s List. The result of this switch is that we got a gorgeous remake of the 1961 Cape Fear that leans heavily into the filmmaking territory of Alfred Hitchcock.
Goodfellas (1990) Written by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese Directed by Martin Scorsese
Goodfellas is without a doubt one of the most influential films of the last 50 years. I would argue this movie has influenced East Coast Italian Americans’ portrayal far more than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films. While Coppola’s work is concerned with the mythic figures at the top, Scorsese explores the regular working class wise guys who have to hustle every day to make money and stay alive. This makes them incredibly relatable. Audiences will always relate to the guy who’s just trying to get by, then the mafia kingpin at the top. I would say Goodfellas is the best gangster film ever made.
Mean Streets (1973) Written by Martin Scorsese & Mardik Martin Directed by Martin Scorsese
Mean Streets was not the first film made by Martin Scorsese, but it certainly is the first Scorsese film. By that, I mean it is the first movie he wrote & directed that begins to explore the themes and types of characters that would turn up in his work for the next nearly five decades to the present. You can see the seeds of future projects like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas beginning to emerge. Scorsese’s signature use of music explodes from the opening scenes, and his ambition far exceeds the modest budget of this film. Mean Streets was a significant sign that new talent was emerging from the 1970s shoestring moviemaking culture, an auteur whose work would resonate for generations.