peter hanson's field guide to interesting film
Jordan, Richard. Actor, 1938-1993. A tall, broad-shouldered WASP with intense blue eyes and a high, sweeping hairline, Jordan never quite emerged as the leading man he seemed born to become. Although he enjoyed a notable career on the New York stage and worked steadily in films and television from the early '70s to the time of his death, Jordan occupied a strange limbo between stardom and character roles. He brims with youthful ambition in early films such as "Rooster Cogburn" (1975) and "Logan's Run" (1976), then displays a more reflective quality as Albert Speer in the grim telefilm "The Bunker" (1981) and as a corrupt politician in the earnest indie "A Flash of Green" (1984). By the time of "The Hunt for Red October" (1990)—in which he plays a Southern politico who offers the memorable line "Boris, are you telling me you lost another submarine?"—Jordan seems resigned to his below-the-title status. Accordingly, there's a plaintive quality to his final screen appearance in "Gettysburg" (1994), during which Jordan's Southern general rouses his troops with a speech delivered in the actor's musical tenor.
“Junebug” (2005). Strange and slight, but nonetheless quite affecting, this acclaimed indie depicts a vivid collision between metropolitan and rural attitudes. When Chicago art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) heads to suburban North Carolina with her new husband, George (Alessandro Nivola), she’s taken with the crudely provocative “outsider” art of an eccentric painter, but she’s taken aback by the conservative values of George’s family. The offbeat script, by Angus McLachlan, captures many subtle textures of character and place, which nicely compensates for the meandering narrative. For while Madeleine is ostensibly the protagonist, the script lavishes more attention on nominally peripheral characters, notably Ashley (Amy Adams, in her breakthrough role). The wide-eyed and very pregnant wife of George’s loser brother, Ashley spends the whole movie guilelessly articulating her fascination with the sophisticated lifestyle of which Madeleine is, in Ashley’s eyes, a walking and breathing personification. Seeing the quiet ways in which Madeleine inspires and hurts this almost completely innocent character is alternately amusing and excruciating. Not everything in the picture connects, but the best vignettes are weirdly hypnotic.
Karloff, Boris. Misunderstood monster, 1887-1969. The Englishman born William Henry Pratt was by all reports a quiet man with fine manners, neither a deep thinker nor a great actor but nonetheless a diligent worker determined to maintain his dignity—making the ironies of his career numberless. Under his stage name, Boris Karloff, Pratt spent his career personifying monsters, only rarely getting opportunities to act in projects outside the horror/thriller genre; the idea that this soft-spoken individual’s visage became shorthand for terror is ludicrous. And yet that’s the power of Karloff’s crudely efficient performances, from his immortal turn as the man-made creature in “Frankenstein” (1931) to his voice work in the beloved animated short “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966), and beyond. With his dark eye sockets, gaunt cheeks, and lanky build, Karloff cut a skeletal figure, and then there was that voice: buttery and quavering, yet capable of sharpening into ferocious stabs, Karloff’s vocal instrument was as crucial to the formation of his screen persona as his distinctive facial features. However, what cemented him as an icon for generations of fantasy fans was his innate soulfulness; had he only delivered his performance as the misunderstood monster in the first three pictures of Universal’s Frankenstein series, Karloff would have been remembered forever. Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, Karloff appeared in chillers of varying types and quality, lending an almost surreal quality to his performances by blending theatricality and vulnerability; it’s as if the tension between his attempts at subtlety and the limitations of his skills produced the otherworldly flavor of his most interesting work. Classics from the early days include his vicious portrayal of a Far East madman in “The Mask of Fu Manchu,” his lovestruck performance as a haunted Egyptian in “The Mummy,” and his creepy appearance as a deformed butler in “The Old Dark house”—all, impressively, released in 1932, the year after “Frankenstein.” Enjoyable turns opposite his fellow Universal Studios monster, Bela Lugosi, were featured in 1934’s “The Black Cat” (a triumph of perverse stylization) and 1945’s “The Body Snatcher” (an underseen classic of menacing mood); the latter film was part of a successful collaboration with RKO Pictures suspense master Val Lewton. By the ’50s, the inevitable slow creep toward self-parody began, though Karloff endeared himself to TV viewers by proving he was in on the joke with small-screen appearances lampooning his image. And then, after a brief return to quasi-credibility in the ’60s, thanks to appearances in a couple of Roger Corman’s popular Edgar Allen Poe-inspired movies, it was down to a repetitive grind of forgettable low-budget shockers when gore replaced nuance as the coin of the horror-movie realm. One fascinating final statement remained, however, courtesy of erudite cinefile Peter Bogdanovich, who cast Karloff in 1968’s “Targets” as a character inspired by the actor. Aged and tired of playing the old ghoul routine, “Byron Orlock” realizes the escapist fantasies of his bygone era can’t compare to the horrors of contemporary life. There’s a temptation to read a lot of Karloff into the Orlock character, which probably isn’t fair, but “Targets” nonetheless makes a great exclamation point for Karloff’s long career, even though it wasn’t his actual last film; like Orlock, Boris Karloff was, to the last, representative of a simpler time in shock cinema—when he played the monster game, it was still all in good fun.
Keach, Stacy. Actor, b. 1941. Possessing the most famous harelip in Hollywood prior to the ascendance of Joaquin Phoenix, Keach is a silver-tongued Southerner capable of investing dramatic characters with such depth and intensity that the veil between actor and character disappears. With a silky voice, easy physical grace, and eyes that convey whole worlds of aching emotion, he gave some of the most poetic performances of the New Hollywood era, but they happened to be in largely underseen movies. After playing leads in such eccentric features as the weird-as-it-sounds "The Traveling Executioner" (1970), Keach won widespread acclaim for John Huston's downbeat boxing drama "Fat City" (1972). As a self-destructive boozer half-heartedly chasing pugilistic dreams, Keach paints a bleak but vivid portrait. He attacked similarly complicated characters in "Luther" (1973), "The Killer Inside Me" (1976), "The Ninth Configuration" (1981), and a number of highbrow TV projects, all of which displayed his disarming charisma. Following a decade of close brushes with mainstream stardom, the actor assumed the role of hard-boiled private dick Mike Hammer in the mid-'80s for a deathless TV franchise spanning two series and several telefilms. More recently, he’s appeared in the celebrated Fox series “Prison Break” (2005-2007), as Warden Henry Pope, plus the short-lived boxing series “Lights Out” (2011). FYI, Keach’s stage career is arguably even more impressive than his screen career; his many theatrical accolades include a 1970 Tony nomination, and Keach can usually be found in a play when he’s not onscreen.
Khouri, Callie. Writer-director, b. 1957. Even if the only thing Khouri ever did was create "Thelma & Louise," her 1991 screenwriting debut, she'd enjoy cinematic immortality. A brilliant, funny, provocative spin on the classic buddy movie that's fueled by feminist rage but never strident or preachy, it's a remarkable piece of writing that set expectations impossibly high for Khouri's subsequent output. Her 1995 follow-up, "Something to Talk About," is piffle by comparison, but it's still funny, spirited, and informed by Khouri's smart take on gender issues. As for the writer's third produced screenplay, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (2002) dives head-first into chick-flick territory. Buoyed by spunky performances by Ellen Burstyn and Fionnula Flanagan, "Divine Secrets" is the sort of sentimental, generation-spanning, laugh-till-you-cry movie that men only see under threat of bodily harm. Khouri, who launched her directing career with “Divine Secrets,” has stayed true to her wry, socially conscious voice throughout her filmography, which differentiates her from about 99 percent of her peers.
“Kid Blue” aka “Dime Box” (1973). Slight but appealing, this obscure Dennis Hopper dramedy epitomizes the postmodern Westerns of its era even more explicitly than films with grander reputations. Hopper plays a mediocre outlaw who gives up his guns for the life of a working man in a tiny town called Dime Box. Quickly running afoul of a stern sheriff (Ben Johnson) and befriending a soulful factory worker (Warren Oates), Hopper’s character is literally a longhair trying to make it in a world run by tightly wound straights. The parallels to the counterculture era are vibrant and pointed, right down to the moment when Hopper walks away from a shift at a crappy job, undoes his ponytail, and shakes his hair to let his freak flag fly. The movie is slow and methodical, with a number of strange subplots: Oates plays a repressed soul who in any other era would be called a closeted homosexual, and 70s stalwart Peter Boyle appears as bizarre preacher building a flying machine in the hills overlooking Dime Box. Though Hopper’s presence infuses the movie with more hippie-era cred than any other actor’s could, he’s probably too cold a player to make his rich character completely sympathetic. But even with that slight vacuum at its center, “Kid Blue” is a surprising relic of a period when new voices used old genres to make timeless statements.
“Kill Bill: Volume 2” (2004). Though the visuals of 2003’s “Kill Bill” were staggering, the narrative was juvenile and the violence was sickening. So it’s quite a surprise that “Kill Bill: Volume 2” has a beating human heart in place of the previous film’s dismembered limbs. Reprising her role as The Bride, a hitwoman turned back-from-the-dead avenger, Uma Thurman finds a strong groove melding intense martial-arts scenes with persuasive emotional breakdowns. The big difference between the two installments, of course, is that Bill (David Carradine) is an ambiguous boogeyman in the first part, but he’s a surprisingly magnetic flesh-and-blood character in the second. Utilizing his great gift for nonlinear narrative, writer-director Quentin Tarantino tells parallel stories of The Bride’s past relationship with Bill and their inevitable bloody reunion, building up a great head of psychosexual steam along the way. And though Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson still play geeky games, especially when mocking Eastern cinema tropes in campy training scenes, they mostly keep their impulses in check the second time around.
"King of the Hill" (1993). The terrific Steven Soderbergh movie you probably haven't seen, this joyous adaptation of A.E. Hochtner's Depression memoir features what should have been a star-making performance by Jesse Bradford, who later clicked as the dreamboat star of teen fare including "Swimfan" (2002). Bradford plays Aaron Kurlander, a hard-luck kid whose irrepressible imagination is his only resource when he ends up living alone in his family's St. Louis apartment. In more sentimental hands, Aaron's daydreaming might have been illustrated through fantasy sequences; instead, Soderbergh's taut script uses Aaron's fancies as a recurring theme about hope and resilience. Boasting several sequences that sparkle with exuberance and a parade of striking performances—by vets including Elizabeth McGovern and Jeroen Krabbe, and such then-newcomers as Adrien Brody and an endearingly wide-eyed Amber Benson—the movie is eccentric, smart and, most importantly, as resourceful as its protagonist.
King, Regina. Actor, b. 1971. It's hard to think of anyone better at withering put-downs than King. Even when stuck in thankless roles as smartass sidekicks in "Legally Blonde 2" (2003) and "Miss Congeniality 2" (2005), the combustible thespian makes stridency sympathetic, and her delivery of cutting lines is devastating. So when she's given room to imbue characters with deeper textures, she's formidable. King more than held her own amid the dramatic showboating of "Jerry Maguire" (1995), giving urgency to her turn as an athlete's savvy wife, and she was explosive as an ambitious, addicted backup singer in "Ray" (2004). Proving there's much more to her than indignation, she's also been a credible romantic lead in "Down to Earth" (2001) and other pictures. Beginning her career with a regular part on the shrill sitcom "227" (1985-1990), King did three pictures for John Singleton before breaking big with "Jerry Maguire" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (1998). For several years early in the 21st century, King voiced the (male) lead role on the TV version of the controversial newspaper strip "The Boondocks." Yet much of King's best recent work has been for dramatic television, notably on the social-issues anthology "American Crime" and the sci-fi freakout "The Leftovers." Her combination of grit and sensitivity continues to define her as a formidable performer.
Kinski, Klaus. Actor/maniac, 1926-1991. A wild-eyed dynamo with, by his own description, a sex drive as irresistible as his megalomaniacal charisma, Kinski enjoyed a career that was more like a scorched-earth campaign than a professional trajectory. He accepted virtually any paying movie gig, so his queasy intensity can be found in Eurojunk of every stripe, to say nothing of American bile like "Android" (1982) and "Crawlspace" (1986). He's never hard to find, since he's the pale-haired freak with flaring nostrils who's either vivisecting or mounting everything in sight. Fellow German Werner Herzog was the filmmaker who most successfully channeled Kinski's reptilian power, beginning with the mesmerizing "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), starring Kinski as a crazed conquistador with designs on his daughter. The actor mirrored that aspect of his role by openly discussing his appreciation of his real-life daughter, Nastassja Kinski, in his staggeringly vulgar autobiography "All I Need Is Love" (1988). Klaus Kinski's performances and recollections are without peer, but not for the faint of heart. He's featured, with characteristic thorniness, in the documentaries "Burden of Dreams" (1982) and "My Best Fiend" (1999).
"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (2005). Unfurling with delirious energy, this tongue-in-cheek noir actioner is a lot less chaotic than it seems. The directorial debut of screenwriter Shane Black, who patented a style of manic violence laced with bright comedy in "Lethal Weapon" (1987) and other scripts, "Kiss Kiss" is a classically constructed adventure that takes great joy in undercutting its classic construction with wry asides, irreverent interruptions, and outlandish surprises. Robert Downey Jr. plays a crook who stumbles into acting and then into a convoluted crime caper, while Val Kilmer plays the gay detective who first coaches Downey's acting and then guides his crimefighting. Ironically, these two notorious wild men give controlled performances, leaving the mischievous vamping for another day and nailing every juicy joke in Black's dense script. Their interplay is so completely entertaining that one ends up craving a sequel, no matter how unlikely that eventually may be. Breathless and naughty, the movie also overflows with ruthless satire about the netherworld of Hollywood after dark.
Kline, Kevin. Actor, b. 1947. Missouri-born Kline’s greatest professional virtue may also be his biggest professional detriment. Born with a face that exudes solidity, kindness, and whimsy, he’s easily typecast as reliable home-and-hearth characters. He also slips comfortably into broad farce, since his stage-sharpened comic timing is exquisite. So while Kline has enjoyed tremendous success as the leading player in several silly movies, it’s easy to forget what power he has when put to the right use in dramatic pieces. Kline’s early roles sent a mixed message, because he veered from the tragedy of “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) to the song-and-dance inanity of “The Pirate Movie” (1983) inside of a year. He then became writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s apparent onscreen alter-ego in “The Big Chill” (1983) and “Silverado” (1985) before bouncing between genres again in the apartheid drama “Cry Freedom” (1987) and the goofy comedy “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988). Scoring an Oscar for his inspired turn in “Wanda” seemed to secure Kline’s stature as a comedy performer, but he remained eager to tackle varied challenges both onscreen and on the New York stage. Still, those comedies kept coming, with Kline hilariously incarnating a washed-up actor in “Soapdish” (1991) and charming his way through the Capraesque presidential piffle “Dave” (1993). Kline had a banner year in 1997 by, characteristically, delivering performances at both ends of the entertainment spectrum; in “The Ice Storm,” he’s a lonely husband caught up in a soulless extramarital affair, and in “In & Out,” he’s a teacher forced to question his sexuality. Occasionally too mannered, Kline’s strikeouts can be as notable as his home runs, so it’s amazing to watch something like the Cole Porter biopic “De-Lovely” (2004) and see a performance that never quite achieves its own ambitions. But in the right context Kline is priceless, and that inherent likeability obscures a multitude of sins whenever Kline gets stuck in the wrong project. Apparently the embodiment of reliability offscreen as well, Kline has been married to onetime starlet Phoebe Cates since 1989.
Koteas, Elias. Actor, b. 1961. It was 1990, and I was headed into a New York City theater for the purpose of reviewing "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Highfalutin film student that I was, my expectations were understandably low. So I was surprised as hell when I walked out of the movie having enjoyed my first encounter with Canadian actor Koteas, a full-blooded Greek with dark features and an oddly soulful way of circling around scenes to find unexpected angles from which to approach lines and emotional shadings. Totally unaware that he'd already been in movies for five years, I lost track of Koteas until he played a masochistic, perverse DJ in "Exotica" (1994). In that, his second of three pictures so far for individualistic Canadian director Atom Egoyan, Koteas again demonstrated a singular skill for appraising moments and then landing in unexpected places that make his characters feel alive and a little strange. He has, accordingly, popped up in a broad variety of projects since then, playing a guy turned on by auto accidents in "Crash" (1996), a noble officer in "The Thin Red Line" (1998), and an intrepid photojournalist in "Harrison's Flowers" (2000).
Kotto, Yaphet. Actor, b. 1937. Sometimes mischievous and sometimes outright malicious, Kotto's screen persona demands attention whether he's hidden in an ensemble or spotlighted as a leading player. With his towering build, wide eyes, and wicked grin, he often seems poised for violence, that edge pumping electricity into his most interesting roles. Appearing in films from the early '60s, Kotto blossomed in the early '70s. He costarred with Anthony Quinn in the gritty crime picture "Across 110th Street" (1972); directed, produced, and starred in a biker picture called "The Limit" (also 1972); and played a psychotic baddie in the 007 flick "Live and Let Die" (1973). A fruitful run followed with steady parts in pictures both good and bad, and three of his best roles arrived at the end of the decade. In the 1977 telefilm "Raid on Entebee," he played African strongman Idi Amin; in 1978's "Blue Collar," he was volatile as an autoworker so desperate he resorts to crime; and in 1979's "Alien," his working-class banter with fellow mechanic Harry Dean Stanton was funny and sharp. Gently lampooning his fierce image, Kotto scored laughs as a long-suffering federal agent in the 1988 action-comedy "Midnight Run." And from 1993 to 2000, he starred in the acclaimed TV drama "Homicide: Life on the Street."
“La Femme Nikita” aka “Nikita” (1990). After a decade of making stylish oddities, Luc Besson announced himself as an action director of the first order with “Nikita,” his distaff take on high-octane espionage thrillers. The titular character, played with grace and combustible emotion by Anne Parillaud, is a feral street punk whom disreputable government types transform into a sleek killer. Though Besson stuffs the movie with whiz-bang violence, what elevates the picture are the emotional grace notes. In the film’s best scene, Nikita has to slip away from her unknowing lover to attempt a cold-blooded political murder; Besson makes the personal stakes of the moment as riveting as the life-or-death danger. Tcheky Karyo is marvelously slimy as Nikita’s handler, and Jean Reno, presaging the role he played in Besson’s “The Professional” (1994), provides grim humor as a deadly clean-up man. The sleek photography by Thierry Arbogast and the metallic score by Eric Serra give the film a gloss as neon-at-night vivid as anything in the Bruckheimer canon, while Besson ensures a human heart beats amid the spectacle.
Langella, Frank. Actor, b. 1940. If Langella prefers performing onstage to acting in movies, as he’s been quoted as saying, it’s no wonder. On Broadway, he’s appeared in a dizzying variety of classics and contemporary plays, winning a raft of awards including two Tonys. In Hollywood, he endured the humiliating role of Skeletor in the wretched kiddie flick “Masters of the Universe” (1987). The divide between his two professional worlds isn’t quite as dramatic as those extremes suggest, but it’s inarguable that filmmakers took a while to properly utilize Langella’s gifts. An imposing figure with a six-foot-four frame, penetrating eyes, and a rolling baritone, he was almost too much actor for most of his early film roles. It says a lot that between 1974 and 1981 he played Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and Zorro in various media; at the height of his leading-man appeal, only legendary characters gave Langella room to breathe. By the mid-’80s, when it became clear audiences didn’t rush to see his movies, the New Jersey native evolved into a character player of considerable grace. He also dove fearlessly into strange roles, playing pervy Clare Quilty in “Lolita” (1997) and a would-be Satanist in “The Ninth Gate” (1999). After drifting into authority-figure roles in big movies, for instance Perry White in “Superman Returns” (2006), Langella roared back to prominence, appropriately enough, with a triumphant stage role. After wowing Broadway in “Frost/Nixon,” Langella re-created his charismatic performance as Tricky Dick in Ron Howard’s film adaptation, landing a long-overdue Oscar nomination. He also earned raves by painting with a subtler palette in the touching character study “Starting Out in the Evening” (2007).
“Last Chance Harvey” (2008). In some ways a throwback to the sort of effervescent love stories that Hollywood used to churn out in massive quantities, this soft-spoken British film reminds viewers that the best special effect is great acting. Dustin Hoffman plays Harvey, a sad-sack American stranded in London on the weekend of his more-or-less estranged daughter’s wedding. Equally downtrodden is English everywoman Kate (Emma Thompson), a singleton whose closest relationship is with her needy, aging mum. The two cross paths in wholly credible fashion, then tentatively commence the grown-up equivalent of a whirlwind romance. Hoffman and Thompson, two actors who thrive when given room to frolic, are as loose and relaxed as they’ve ever been, which makes their performances consistently delightful. Unspooling in a brisk 92 minutes and benefiting greatly from elegant cinematography by John DeBorman, “Last Chance Harvey” is the rare movie romance that satisfies because it’s so persuasively real, not because it presents an intoxicating fantasy.
“Last Night” (1998). The same year that Hollywood contemplated the end of the world in “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” idiosyncratic Canadian filmmaker Don McKeller took a wildly different tack with “Last Night,” his funny and offbeat rumination about what happens when various characters realize the final curtain’s about to fall. Completely eschewing pyrotechnics and even, to my recollection, dodging any explanation for the impending apocalypse, McKeller dives straight into quirky character work. He plays an architect whose desire to die alone confounds everyone he meets; Sandra Oh and David Cronenberg, an odd couple if ever there was one, contemplate taking themselves out before the big moment; and a randy dude played by Callum Keith Rennie puts a carnal spin on the idea of going out with a bang. The quietude and clipped emotions of the piece may put off some viewers, but there’s strong emotional payoff toward the end, and the whole movie is a refreshing alternative to the customary histrionics of doomsday flicks.
“The Last of the Mohicans” (1992). Michael Mann’s extraordinary adaptation of the classic James Fenimore Cooper novel, seen through the prism of a 1936 screenplay that Mann integrated into his work, is one of the fastest-moving action films ever made, and yet it’s also a deeply felt romantic drama. Focusing on an exciting theme of love during wartime (Daniel Day-Lewis plays an Indian-raised white helping a young Englishwoman survive an odyssey through Indian-occupied territory in colonial America), Mann dazzles with heart-stopping confrontations while subtly sliding deeper ideas into the story, thus lending gravitas and insight. In particular, the culture-clash element of the film becomes more and more prominent when Hawykeye (Day-Lewis) and his intimates emerge as the final keepers of an ancient tradition. The love story between Hawkeye and Cora (Madeleine Stowe) is powerful because the characters demonstrate personal respect equivalent to the intensity of their sexual chemistry, and the movie looks and sounds breathtaking—Dante Spinotti’s photography explodes with color, while the celebrated score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones pulses with vitality and just the right amount of lyricism (especially in the haunting ballad performed by Clannad, “I Will Find You”). For anyone curious whether Mann can thrive outside the milieu of crime drama, “Mohicans” is Exhibit No. 1.
“The Last Picture Show” (1971). One of the finest literary adaptations of the ’70s, Peter Bogdanovich’s sensitive treatment of Larry McMurtry’s novel about life and death in small-town Texas during the early ’50s features an array of world-class performances fused into a bittersweet narrative that weaves gracefully between humor, pathos, and tragedy. Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges star as a pair of high-school seniors facing the slow creep of adulthood as they leave the cocoon of adolescence; Bottoms’ character slides into a confusing affair with an older woman (Cloris Leachman), while Bridges’ character realizes that his youthful romance with a wealthy beauty (Cybill Shepherd) may not last beyond graduation. The boys and their friends grope with issues of mortality, responsibility, sex, and, most troublingly, with the river of unhappiness that seems to flow through the lives of every adult they know. Though all of this may sound morbid, in Bogdanovich’s capable hands, the story is humane, revelatory, and touching. Photographed in crisp black-and-white that accentuates the barrenness of the locations, and filled with extraordinary acting (by those mentioned plus Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, and Randy Quaid), “The Last Picture Show” has such a powerful impact, and years later it still provides an inspiring example of how to blend classic storytelling techniques with modern thematic interests.
“Last Train from Gun Hill” (1959). Given that both actors were prone to melodramatic excesses, it may be hard to believe that Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn co-starred in a movie as effectively understated as their more celebrated collaboration, “Lust for Life,” was ludicrously overripe. But this taut John Sturges-directed Western thriller is a terrific example of what Douglas and Quinn could do when they contained their natural intensity within characterizations of wild men battling their own animal instincts. Douglas plays a lawman whose wife is brutally raped and killed by a thug. By sheer coincidence, the thug is the son of an old friend (Quinn). The powerful forces of a widower’s need for justice and a father’s need to protect his child, no matter how wayward, collide in a story borrowing key elements from “High Noon” (1952) and “3:10 to Yuma” (1957). That the narrative DNA is recycled takes nothing away from the entertainment value of “Last Train from Gun Hill,” which derives its potency from a literate script, engrossing performances by the leading actors, and a thrillingly old-fashioned music score by studio-era master Dmitri Tiomkin.
Lauter, Ed. Hardass, 1940-2013. A tall tough guy whose prominent nose and prematurely bald pate gave him an almost birdlike appearance even when he was in the midst of committing some onscreen atrocity, Lauter accrued more than 200 film and TV appearances, playing everything from stalwart men of action to outright wackos. For some reason I’ve always carried vivid memories of his supporting role in the obscure thriller “Executive Action” (1973), probably because of the bloodlessly efficient manner in which his unnamed character trains a team of potential presidential assassins. Lauter certainly brought more fire to parts when appropriate, as evidenced by his turn as a creepy C.O. in “The Longest Yard” (1974), but something about the icy way he handles a rifle in “Executive Action” sums up the no-nonsense craftsmanship that distinguished Lauter’s decades of rock-solid screen work.
“Lawman” (1971). Even within the wild subgenre of counterculture-era postmodern Westerns, “Lawman” is an unusual piece of work. Helmed by future “Death Wish” guy Michael Winner, it’s a lean, bloody story about a cruel cop (Burt Lancaster) who accumulates a nasty body count while hunting down the thugs involved in a riot. Though the framework of the piece is straightforward, the character bits are wholly unexpected. Lee J. Cobb, bald pate gleaming in the unforgiving sun, portrays a villain who’s alternately ruthless, poetic, noble, and pathetic. Tall and virile Richard Jordan is cleverly cast as a would-be gunman whose realizations about the costs of violence have genuine weight. And Lancaster takes no prisoners from start to finish, literally and figuratively: His ability to personify damaged sons of bitches meshes nicely with the baggage he brings to this piece because of his heroic Western portrayals. “Lawman” is tough and even somewhat literary stuff, particularly in the incredibly depressing finale.
Leigh, Jennifer Jason. Singular white female, b. 1962. As the pretty daughter of a Hollywood actor, the late Vic Morrow, Leigh could easily have taken the route of becoming a generic starlet. But almost from the beginning of her extraordinary career, she has followed her rangy muse to provocative roles and challenging movies. In two of her highest-profile juvenile performances, she starved herself to play an anorexic in the 1981 telefilm "The Best Little Girl in the World," and committed herself to the unflinching sexual aspects of the 1982 feature "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." She went even darker in subsequent movies, playing hookers in "The Men's Club" (1986) and "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1989), suffering grisly mistreatment in "Flesh & Blood" (1985) and "The Hitcher" (1986), and incarnating disturbed characters in "Sister, Sister" (1987) and "Heart of Midnight" (1988). She even found room in her busy '80s schedule to play one of her most appealing lighthearted roles, a spirited young filmmaker in "The Big Picture" (1989). By the start of the '90s, Leigh was widely appreciated for playing women struggling with addiction, mental illness, and other crippling problems in such harrowing movies as "Rush" (1991), "Single White Female" (1992), and "Georgia" (1995). Quickly developing a rarefied reputation for her meticulous research and fierce dedication, Leigh disappeared into difficult roles, adopting, for instance, the singular speech pattern of legendary wit Dorothy Parker for "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" (1994). Now firmly established as one the most adventurous actors of her generation, Leigh has dabbled in directing, co-helming the loose ensemble piece "The Anniversary Party" (2001) with actor Alan Cumming.
Lenz, Kay. Actor, b. 1953. Despite decades of screen work, two Emmys, and minor cult status as a sex symbol, Lenz remains quite obscure, possibly because her acting style tends toward slow burns and quiet intensity. She earned her first notoriety as a hippie who bewitches a straight-laced senior in the early Clint Eastwood directorial effort “Breezy” (1973). Lenz then lived the working actor’s life throughout the ’70s, balancing sporadic feature-film roles with guest shots and recurring parts on episodic TV, before catching new momentum with an Emmy-nominated turn in the seminal mini "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1976). Instead of winning the prize and a career boost, however, Lenz got typecast as white-trash temptresses in such grimy flicks as "The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday" (1976), "Mean Dog Blues" (1978), and "Fast-Walking" (1982). By 1987, she was reduced to appearing in such dreck as "Stripped to Kill" and "Death Wish 4: The Crackdown." TV saved her again in 1989, when Lenz won her first primetime Emmy for playing an AIDS victim on the series "Midnight Caller." But after a few more notable appearances, such as an Emmy-nominated recurring role on "Reasonable Doubts" (1991-1992), Lenz faded from the limelight. She’s missed, even if only by the loyal few who noticed her when she was active.
Lewis, Geoffrey. Actor, 1935-2015. Lewis was one of Clint Eastwood’s go-to guys throughout the years when Eastwood was establishing his behind-the-camera identity. A compact, muscular man with a look right out of a Zane Grey novel, Lewis had subtle gifts (including terrific comic timing) that were often obscured by his one-note roles. Nonetheless, he’s tough and funny in his string of Eastwood movies, spanning 1973’s “High Plains Drifter” to 1997’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” And Eastwood was hardly Lewis’ only employer, because Lewis was ubiquitous in films in television for years, delivering the goods when called upon for quick-hit appearances as interchangeable types and surpassing expectations when given room to show his range. Another key benefactor, for instance, was he-man auteur John Milius, who cast Lewis to great effect as a happily married gangster in “Dillinger” (1973) and as a flummoxed political operative in “The Wind and the Lion” (1975). Improbably, his biggest awards recognition came for work in a short-lived sitcom; he received a Golden Globe nomination for his work in the “Alice” spin-off “Flo” (1980-1981). Late into his long career as a character actor, Lewis pepped up in the oddest places. In 2003, for instance, he gave a haunting turn as an unscrupulous doctor on the outrageous cable series “Nip/Tuck,” and two years later he joined the bloody fun in Rob Zombie’s gorefest “The Devil’s Rejects.” The deeply versatile actor’s legacy survives in the unique screen work of his daughter, the actress Juliette Lewis, whose filmography is as electic as her father’s.
Lewton, Val. Producer, 1904-1951. A Russian-born novelist who entered movies as a story-department apprentice to super-producer David O. Selznick, Lewton came into his own as the head of an RKO B-movie unit tasked with banging out low-budget shockers. Eschewing the blunt approach popularized by Universal's monster mashes of the same era, Lewton opted for suggestion over spectacle. In pictures such as "Cat People" (1942), "I Walked With a Zombie" (1943), and "Isle of the Dead" (1945), the producer and his collaborators—directors Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and a handful of other key players—blended moody lighting, elegant dialogue, psychologically rich characterizations, and understated jolts. Seen now, the movies are hopelessly tame, but nonetheless pictorially beautiful, smart, and ghoulishly funny. "Zombie" probably holds up the best because it's as much a tragic romance as a thriller, and like several Lewton efforts, it features a deliciously bitchy performance by Tom Conway, the spitting-image brother of "All About Eve" star George Sanders. Other Lewton offerings that retain their appeal are the slow-moving but creepy duo of "The Body Snatcher" (1945) and "Isle of the Dead," both of which spotlight horror icon Boris Karloff at his most wicked and least grotesque. Warner Home Video released the whole Lewton canon onto DVD in 2005 as a jam-packed boxed set, and the accompanying documentary, "Shadows in the Dark," offers terrific insight into the producer's process even if the presentation is a little dry. Of historical interest to many and continued entertainment value to many more, Lewton's movies contain tropes and devices that are still being imitated, albeit with more viscera and less eloquence.
Lindo, Delroy. Actor, b. 1952. Possessing a particularly global lineage—born to Jamaican parents in England, he also lived in Canada and the U.S. before graduating college—Lindo projects a compelling, regal quality even when playing downtrodden or unlikable characters. First gaining notoriety in a trio of Spike Lee movies after years of stage work and small parts in movies and TV, Lindo was nearly ubiquitous in the last half of the '90s. Between 1995 and 2000, he appeared in 18 movies, playing such memorable characters as a mobster with cinematic aspirations in "Get Shorty" (1995) and a migrant worker with an awful secret in "The Cider House Rules" (1999). He continues to be a delightful presence in films, able to maximize the pathos and humor in even the most outlandish roles. For instance, in the sci-fi actioner "The Core" (2003), he very nearly makes credible the goofy role of a maverick scientist whose invention might save the earth. His interplay with costar Stanley Tucci sparkles, and his big tearjerker moments are surprisingly effective. More recently, he played the patriarch of a fractious family in the hit dramedy “This Christmas” (2007).
"Living in Oblivion" (1995). Writer-director Tom DiCillo's satire of independent filmmaking is so spot-on funny that the picture's virtual lack of narrative is not only incidental but, intentionally or not, part of the joke. Steve Buscemi, at his most amiable and least weird, plays a harried New York director desperately trying to keep his willful team on track through a day's filming on his pretentious opus. He's frazzled by a capricious movie star (James LeGros), a pissed-off leading lady (Catherine Keener), an obstinate cinematographer (Dermot Mulroney), and, among many other crises, a diminutive actor (Peter Dinklage) who wants to know why the hell every movie dream sequence involves a dwarf. Presented as a comedy but secretly a love letter to the frustrating joy of filmmaking, DiCillo's movie should be required viewing for anyone thinking of picking up a camera—those who aren't scared straight after encountering DiCillo's hilarious grotesques may just be tweaked enough to make movies.
"Local Hero" (1983). Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth has never enjoyed broad success, but this beloved comedy brought him close. A romantic, gentle story about the mesmerizing appeal of a strange little town in Scotland, the movie ingratiates itself as easily as the lilting melodies of Mark Knopfler's celebrated score. When an eccentric billionaire (Burt Lancaster) decides to buy out a town to make way for one of his oil enterprises, he sends junior exec Mac (Peter Riegert) to broker the deal. Turns out everyone in town's happy to sell except a single-minded recluse who lives in a beachfront shack. The odd tensions that arise are complicated when Mac falls in love with the town and its residents. To Forsyth's endless credit, viewers are already way ahead of Mac—the director makes the odd rhythms and iconoclastic population of rural Scotland irresistible. Taken on its own magical terms, "Local Hero" is almost flawless.
"Logan's Run" (1976). Sure, the miniature sets for the dome city are cheesy and the score is impossibly '70s, but this brisk romp hits all the right notes for escapist adventure. The setup is pure cautionary perfection—in a utopian future society, no one gets to live past 30, and anyone who fights the system gets hunted down by gun-toting "Sandmen"—but what really lingers are the snazzy design elements and the enjoyable cast. The Sandmen's uniforms look terrific on film, simple black tunics and leggings with a grey stripe across the chest, as does the stylish muzzle flare of their bitchin' pistols. Me Decade stalwart Michael York is appropriately anxious in the lead role, Jenny Agutter is sexy as always playing his rebellious love interest, Richard Jordan oozes charisma as Logan's pal-turned-hunter, and Peter Ustinov is likeably addled as a key character introduced late in the movie. Hair and teeth glittering, Farrah Fawcett-Majors pops up in an important supporting part, an appearance that the film's makers exploited when "Charlie's Angels" made her a star not long after the picture's initial release.
"Lonely Are the Brave" aka "The Last Cowboy" (1962). Kirk Douglas often selects this modern Western as his favorite of his own pictures, and he shows great taste in doing so. Adapted from Edward Abbey's novel by veteran screenwriter Dalton Trumbo—whom Douglas said contributed the only perfect first-draft screenplay the actor had ever encountered—the story concerns a present-day cowboy desperately at odds with the industrial world. A wild, maverick personality with a wicked temper, Jack Burns (Douglas) gets into trouble with the law fast, then leads his pursuers (notably sympathetic Walter Matthau and thuggish George Kennedy) on a merry chase through rugged mountains. Douglas, Trumbo, and director David Miller capture the excitement and mounting danger of the chase, gracefully building the film toward a potent climax. Often acting solo, with just his horse and the landscape to hear him, Douglas cuts an iconic figure but never loses sight of the tragically earthbound man he's playing.
“Lord of War” (2005). Nicolas Cage’s streak of scoring in numbskull actioners while flopping in ambitious oddities continued unabated with this Andrew Niccol drama about an international arms dealer who suffers various crises of conscience. While unsuccessful in some important artistic regards—such as, say, presenting a wholly convincing protagonist—this is a slick, provocative piece about the role armaments and the men behind them play in modern geopolitics. The con-man scenes depicting how the gunrunner plies his unscrupulous trade are fun, and the twisted psychology he employs to justify his lifestyle says a great deal about how individuals (and nations) swagger through the wasteland of the contemporary world without the burden of personal responsibility. The stuff involving a supermodel love interest (Bridget Moynahan) is forgettable, but the subplot about the gunrunner’s junkie brother (Jared Leto) adds heft. And appropriately enough, Amir Mokri’s gorgeous cinematography makes the whole film as coldly seductive as a shiny new assault rifle.
“The Lusty Men” (1952). While I can’t claim affection for Nicholas Ray’s entire body of work, I do find his forays into the psychology of doomed men magnetic. The monoliths in this mini-filmography are of course 1950’s “In a Lonely Place” and 1954’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” but sandwiched between those titanic movies is this tough, smart character piece about a pair of rodeo cowboys and the woman whose fate is tied to their self-destructive lifestyle. An unusually vibrant Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff, a past-his-prime rodeo rider whose tarnished allure inspires ranch hand Wes (Arthur Kennedy) to try his hand at the rodeo circuit. Jeff agrees to mentor Wes despite the objections of Wes’ level-headed wife Louise (Susan Hayward). This begins a bruising little dance in which Wes scales the heights that Jeff once scaled, while Louise desperately pleads with both men to quit while they’re ahead. Some of the histrionics are writ too large, as was the norm for pictures in the early ’50s, but the creative team grounds the piece in hard-boiled dialogue and unsentimental plotting. Mitchum paints a vivid portrait of a man incapable of embracing life’s lasting pleasures, and Kennedy efficiently depicts the emotional experience of a small man stepping, however fleetingly, into a larger man’s boots. While nominally about the rodeo circuit, and in fact loaded with tasty set designs and second-unit footage, “The Lusty Men” is really a story about the larger themes of fame, greed, and hubris. Heady stuff for a two-hour romp about busting broncs.