The Two of Us Need Look No More

Ben continues the story of Willard from the perspective of his rat. Ben was undoubtedly the smartest member of Willard’s rat colony. It’s because of him, the rats were able to turn on their master. Ben picks up immediately after Willard’s death. Almost all of the focus is on Ben leading his rat army to find food, survive in the sewer, and attack anyone who threatens them. The body count is bigger, but Ben is not your typical horror sequel.

It’s actually the source of the Academy Award nominated chart topping Michael Jackson song “Ben.” I know what you’re thinking, “How does a movie about killer rats produce such a beautiful song?” You could always sense that Ben was jealous of Willard’s favoritism towards Socrates. Well now Ben has a friend to call his own. Danny is a sick boy who finds comfort in Ben. Lee Montgomery is a precious child actor who sells the unlikely friendship. Rosemary Murphy and Meredith Baxter play Danny’s mother and sister who try to protect him.

Joseph Campanella and Arthur O’Connell play an officer and reporter who try to wipe out the infestation. Though the original novel was titled Ratman’s Notebooks, they don’t become relevant until the police need information on the trained rats. You don’t know who to root for when swarms of rats are exterminated with flamethrowers. I didn’t think it was possible, but I actually cried for a rat when an injured Ben returns to Danny and the Michael Jackson song starts to play. Ben is so unorthodox, it works.

Ben

Ben in the sewer

Preceded by: Willard

Ratman

Willard made animal attack movies popular again. Leading to several copy cats. I never would’ve known about Willard if not for my mom’s recommendation. Based on the Stephen Gilbert novel Ratman’s Notebooks, Willard is about a social outcast who is constantly pushed around by the people in his life. Willard’s only friends are the rats that he trains into his own personal army. I don’t have a fear of rats, but hundreds of rats crawling around would freak me out.

I assumed Willard would be entirely about rat attacks, but that isn’t the case at all. Willard is more of a character study with slow building horror. A young Bruce Davison is pathetic, but not entirely hopeless. The Bride of Frankenstein herself Elsa Lanchester plays Willard’s overbearing sick mother that he lives with. Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine is Willard’s manipulative boss who took over his father’s company and Oscar nominee Sondra Locke is the only woman who shows him kindness.

Willard faces possible foreclosure on his house and other problems that the rats can solve. His most beloved companion is white rat Socrates, but his most loyal friend is Ben. Ben is a black rat who genuinely looks sinister thanks to several well-trained rats in the movie. So many people deserve Willard’s wrath, but only his boss gets swarmed by rats. When Willard turns on the rats, he feels their wrath as well. Willard is slower than I expected, but the rats are worth the build up.

Willard

Willard talks to Socrates and Ben

Followed by: Ben

The Monster that Ate Everybody

Beware! The Blob is a B movie’s B movie. Even though The Blob ended with a question mark, it took 14 years to get a sequel. I knew about the 1958 original for years, but the 1972 Beware! The Blob is practically lost. The cast isn’t entirely unknown, but the director is probably the most notable aspect. Beware! The Blob is shot by J.R. himself Larry Hagman. Although the budget was increased, somehow the quality feels worse.

The acting is even more bizarre with characters who are only around to get eaten. The plot is a much more 70’s version of the original with hippies running around. The Blob returns when a dimwitted engineer brings a sample back from the arctic. It’s clearly a sequel, even though characters can be seen watching The Blob on TV. The rampage starts up again with the Blob eating flies and cats before consuming half the town.

The Blob itself is bright red and resembles jelly more than it did before. Roles are reversed with teenager Lisa having to convince her boyfriend Bobby of the attacks. Of course no one believes them until it’s too late. This time the final rampage is at a bowling alley and the source of cold that defeats it is an ice rink. The sequel ends with another question mark, but nothing ever materialized. Beware! The Blob is a product of the 70’s.

Beware the Blob

The Blob attacks

Preceded by: The Blob

Well, Do Ya… Punk?

The Enforcer reinforces the appeal of Dirty Harry. This time the story was written by two amateur fans of the franchise. Which is probably why it feels like just another installment. The Enforcer is shorter than Magnum Force since Clint Eastwood was adamant about keeping the focus on action. He fully intended to direct the sequel himself, but the job went to his trusted assistant director James Fargo instead. This time Inspector Harry Callahan fights a group of militants known as the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force. The Enforcer is very 70’s with the hippies as villains.

Just like before, Callahan gets in hot water with his superiors after using excessive force in a liquor store robbery. Harry’s latest unlucky partner is given a lot more importance. Female Inspector Kate Moore is brought on board to shake up the police force. Tyne Daly holds her own alongside Eastwood as an eager partner and possible love interest. Callahan continues to break the rules by enlisting help from another militant group led by Mustapha. Other actors have returned, but Albert Popwell has now played three very different characters.

The People’s Revolutionary Strike Force are just as violent as other antagonists with their leader Bobby Maxwell being particularly unhinged. Violence is expected, but nudity feels more like an obligation at this point. Set pieces are even bigger with the Mayor being kidnapped and held for ransom at Alcatraz. When Callahan is temporarily suspended, he takes the law into his own hands once again. Only this time it’s a rocket launcher instead of his .44 Magnum that does the job. The Enforcer should be enough to keep fans satisfied.

3. The Enforcer

Dirty Harry takes aim

Preceded by: Magnum Force & Followed by: Sudden Impact

Do I Feel Lucky?

Magnum Force fires on all cylinders. The Dirty Harry franchise went the Bond route of giving each sequel a unique title. Magnum Force refers to a force of bad guys that Inspector Harry Callahan has to deal with. Magnum refers to his signature .44 Magnum with a reference to the iconic line in the opening credits. Former Clint Eastwood TV & movie collaborator Ted Post became the new director, but the former was a lot more controlling than he was before. The idea for the sequel came from a scrapped pitch for the first movie that Eastwood decided to rework.

Callahan investigates a literal cop killer delivering vigilante justice to unsuspecting criminals. Proving that Dirty Harry isn’t as anti-law as people think he is. Magnum Force is significantly more violent and filled with a lot more nudity. There are mass shootings at a pool party and a particularly disturbing scene where a prostitute is killed by a pimp using drain cleaner. The pimp is played by a returning Albert Popwell. Callahan has a good partnership with equally unlucky black Inspector Early Smith.

Magnum Force is the longest instalment with a lot of focus on Harry’s personal life. We see his friendships and love life with a random Asian girl. There’s also time for an entire shooting competition. Most of it works because the action is so much bigger. Callahan twarts a store robbery, but a plane hijacking as well. He deals with a bomb and Hal Holbrook as his superior who isn’t as clean as he appears. Callahan faces more than one “dirty cop” in a thrilling climactic motorcycle chase. Magnum Force knows its limitations, but makes it work anyway.

2. Magnum Force

Dirty Harry takes aim

Preceded by: Dirty Harry & Followed by: The Enforcer

.44 Magnum

Dirty Harry gave us the original loose-cannon cop who plays by his own rules. 1971 was a big year for gritty police procedurals. While The French Connection won Best Picture and Shaft won Best Original Song, Dirty Harry didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. Even though it’s an undoubtable action movie classic, the idea of a morally ambiguous “dirty cop” protagonist was controversial at the time. Inspector Harry Callahan is the most iconic role of Clint Eastwood’s career, after the Man with No Name. A cop was a natural progression from a cowboy, but the role wasn’t always meant for Eastwood. Everyone from John Wayne to Frank Sinatra were considered for the part.

Many actors and directors turned down Dirty Harry due to its content. Director Don Siegel brought a dirty realism to San Francisco and Eastwood brought his signature scowl to Callahan. Dirty Harry is full of intense violence and naked women. Harry stands out not as a “dirty cop,” but as the cop who does all the dirty jobs. He frequently disobeys orders and shoots to kill. One of the most iconic scenes in movie history is Callahan casually stopping a bank robbery with his .44 Magnum and asking a criminal played by Albert Popwell, “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya… punk?”

Dirty Harry is assigned hispanic rookie officer Chico Gonzalez who gets in over his head when faced with a dangerous psychopath. The ‘Scorpio’ killer is a sharpshooter based on the Zodiac Killer. Newcomer Andy Robinson is both pathetic and disturbing in the role. Despite killing a kidnapped girl, the law fails to keep ‘Scorpio’ behind bars. Leading Callahan to take the law into his own hands after he hijacks a school bus full of children. The intense confrontation ends with a clever, much more angry callback to Harry’s infamous ultimatum. Dirty Harry throws away the badge and all the rules that come with making a great action flick.

1. Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry takes aim

Followed by: Magnum Force

It’s Showtime, Folks!

All that Jazz was the best way to end the flashy 1970’s. Making it the final musical nominated for Best Picture in over a decade. Music based film’s thrived in the 80’s, but they just weren’t as prestigious as they used to be. Bob Fosse kept them alive with Cabaret and made his last big mark with the semi-autobiographical All that Jazz. Joe Gideon is unmistakably Bob Fosse. Both are a director and choreographer with a series of vices. Joe is an overworked chainsmoker with the same routine of showering, popping pills, applying eye drops, and saying “It’s showtime, folks!” in the mirror. Joe’s most prominent vices are his frequent sexual conquests.

All that Jazz is loaded with scantily clad dancers and topless women. Joe frequently cheats on his girlfriend Katie played by Fosse’s real life partner Ann Reinking. Leland Palmer plays his supportive dancer ex-wife Audrey based on Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon. They not so surprisingly have a daughter named Michelle that he tries to do right by. Roy Schneider toes a fine line between sleazy and sympathetic. There’s a lot going on, but All that Jazz is easy to follow. Joe deals with editing a film called The Stand-Up based on Lenny. The movie plays in the background with actor Cliff Gorman going through the 5 stages of grief.

At the same time Joe works to choreograph the stage show NY/LA based on Chicago. The title is of course taken directly from the famous lyric. Sexually charged numbers like them are why All that Jazz won Best Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Original Score. The movie has more of a fantasy angle with Joe telling his life story to Jessica Lange as the angelic Angelique. Other before they were famous celebrities include John Lithgow as a fellow director. When Joe inevitably suffers a heart attack, he hallucinates an elaborate stage performance. There are plenty of good songs, but the final variety show number “Bye Bye Life” is a big standout. All that Jazz is a musical that gave the decade its last great performance and all that jazz.

All that Jazz

Dancers perform NY/LA

Russian Roulette

The Deer Hunter is the first Best Picture winner about the Vietnam War. Made at a time when the war was still a controversial subject. Making The Deer Hunter the first major Hollywood movie to truly capture the harsh reality of the war. Predating Apocalypse Now by one year. The Deer Hunter has similarly been called one of the greatest movies of all time, but I knew I needed to work myself up to it. My only knowledge of the film was its use of the deadly game Russian Roulette. A game where a player puts a single bullet in a revolver, spins the barrel, and has 1 to 5 odds of dying. You can imagine the controversy when several impressionable youths decided to take part in the game.

The Deer Hunter was always meant to center around Russian Roulette, but the Vietnam part came later. It originally took place in Vegas with the title The Man Who Came to Play. Whether the game’s presence in Vietnam was factually accurate or not doesn’t stop it from being a powerful theme throughout the 3 hour movie. Lesser known director Michael Cimino was apparently very difficult to work with on set. Taking control of both the writing and editing process. The Deer Hunter is way longer than it needs to be, but events are split into a distinct three act structure…

The Deer Hunter

Mike and Nick play Russian Roulette

The Deer Hunter takes place before, during, and after Vietnam. The first act is dedicated to establishing the characters before they’re shipped off. Since Cimeno wasn’t a big name at the time, the movie needed an all-star cast to draw attention. The Deer Hunter managed to secure Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale. They all play Slavic-American members of a tightnit steel worker community. This was sadly Cazale’s final film since he was dying of terminal cancer at the time. Cazale has the rare distinction of only acting in Best Picture nominated movies. Including The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Streep mostly took a role because she was with Cazale at the time. This was only Streep’s second movie, yet she managed to get nominated for her first of several Oscars.

The three primary servicemen are De Niro as Mike, Walken as Nick, and Savage as Steven. Mike and Nick are best friends, but they’re both in love with Streep’s emotionally damaged character Linda. Steven gets married to Angela before being sent to Vietnam. A lot of time is spent on every little detail of the wedding. Though it is important to see the characters in happier times. That includes everyone singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in a bar and going on the titular deer hunt. All three friends are joined by Cazale’s Stan, George Dzundza’s John, and real life foreman Chuck Aspegren’s Axel. The first deer hunt sees Mike kill a deer no problem. The second act abruptly shifts to Vietnam. Mike, Nick, and Steven think honor and glory is waiting for them, but they should’ve listened to the soldier they met earlier at the wedding.

Explosions and civilian casualties aren’t given nearly as much attention as the first game of Russian Roulette. Viet Cong are depicted with a ruthless fixation on the game of chance. Steven breaks down completely and Nick is forced to play against Mike. It’s incredibly tense, but Mike manages to get them out of the situation. Mike keeps a levelhead throughout the conflict, but Nick isn’t so lucky. Although De Niro was rightfully nominated for Best Actor, it’s Walken who deserved his Best Supporting Actor win. Nick’s PTSD gets to him and he goes AWOL in Saigon. The third act sees Mike return home a changed man. He can’t face his own welcome home party, he deliberately fails to kill a deer, and he makes a move on Linda.

Steven winds up alive, but he faces the all too common loss of his legs and confinement in a veteran hospital. When Mike searches for Nick in Saigon, he finds another changed man. Nick’s transformation into a despondent heroine addicted professional Russian Roulette player is haunting. The scene has just as much tension as the earlier scenes, but this time it doesn’t end so well for the fallen soldier. Though I’m sure ending with his friends gathered to sing “God Bless America” wasn’t trying to make a statement. The Deer Hunter was up against another Vietnam war movie called Coming Home, but the former had a greater impact that earned it Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. The Deer Hunter leaves an impression.

The Deer Hunter

Mike goes deer hunting

Goodbye Doesn’t Mean Forever

The Goodbye Girl is love at first fight. It’s another romantic comedy nominated the same year as Best Picture winner Annie Hall. The difference is Annie Hall starts off hopeful, then becomes cynical, while The Goodbye Girl starts off cynical, then becomes hopeful. Neil Simon developed the story in the middle of a marriage with Robert De Niro in mind, before settling on the start of a blossoming relationship. Aside from Best Picture, Simon was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

The Goodbye Girl centers around three colorful characters who wind up living together in a sublet New York apartment. Paula McFadden is a former dancer turned cynical single mother whose boyfriend ditches her. Lucy is her precocious 10 year old daughter who stays with her in the apartment. Paula’s boyfriend complicates things by subletting their apartment to Elliot Garfield. Elliot is an eccentric Chicago actor who plays his guitar late at night, sleeps in the nude, and metatates in the morning. Paula and Elliot hate each other at first, but their hilarious chemistry is too good even when they fighting.

The entire trio was nominated including child actress Quinn Cummings who gives a performance worthy of a young adult. Marsha Mason is just as dedicated, but it was rising star Richard Dreyfuss who became the youngest actor ever to win Best Actor for playing an actor no less. Elliot struggles with his career and a particularly bad Richard III performance. Paula struggles with raising Lucy and trusting another man not to leave. I was happy to see them fall in love. As David Gates says, The Goodbye Girl proves “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever.”

The Goodbye Girl

Elliot and Paula have a discussion with Lucy

Follow the Money

All the President’s Men wasted no time covering the 1972-1974 Watergate Scandal. It’s the quintessential 70’s political thriller that has nothing to do with All the King’s Men. 1976 was another tricky Best Picture race that saw All the President’s Men go up against Taxi Driver, Network, and eventual winner Rocky. Some say All the President’s Men should’ve won, but I tend to root for the underdog. The film did win Best Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Sound. All the President’s Men was adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name that Robert Redford picked up immediately.

Alan J. Pakula was chosen to direct and Redford played one of the two Washington Post reporters responsible for getting the scoop on Watergate. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are practically synonymous with journalism. I won’t act like I fully understand all the politics, technical terms, or methods that went into a story like this, but all I know is that I was fully invested. Performances are top-notch and the paranoia fueled tension is palpable. Redford plays Woodard with journalistic integrity. Dustin Hoffman plays Bernstein as high-strung, but capable.

Together they report on the initial burglary, seek out uncooperative sources, face cover ups, and deal with the fact that their lives might be in danger. Their most famous informant who tells them to “Follow the Money” is the mysterious “Deep Throat” played in the shadows by Hal Holbrook. “Deep Throat” has been parodied so many times throughout the years. The cast is particularly stacked with Ned Beatty making another significant cameo the same year as Network. Only Jason Robards managed to win for playing the hotheaded head of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee. While Jane Alexander was nominated for playing the hesitant Bookkeeper. Richard Nixon is only ever seen on TV. All the President’s Men is an effective portrayal of the power of free press.

All the President's Men

Bob Woodward (right) and Carl Bernstein (left) work on their story