Walter Matthau as Henry Graham, self-serving profligate
New York City, Summer 1969
Film: A New Leaf
Release Date: March 11, 1971
Director: Elaine May
Costume Designer: Anthea Sylbert
Tailor: Roland Meledandri
I’d long been intrigued by Elaine May’s directorial debut A New Leaf, released 50 years ago this spring, but it was an Instagram story posted by my friend Jonathan (@berkeley_breathes) showcasing Walter Matthau’s dapper wardrobe that finally prompted me to watch this offbeat classic.
Matthau brings his characteristically cantankerous charisma to to role of Henry Graham, a wasteful heir gradually blowing his family fortune on capricious spending from his immaculately tailored wardrobe to weekly maintenance for his Ferrari. The wry family lawyer Beckett (William Redfield) is tasked with managing the unmanageable Graham, who ducks Beckett’s calls of cautions as long as he can… until his last check bounces.
Gustaf Gründgens as “The Safecracker”, criminal community leader
Berlin, Fall 1930
(German title: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder)
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking masterpiece M was released 90 years ago. Self-described by the director as his magnum opus, M drew on the wave of sadistic child-murderers that had terrorized Germany through the previous decade—monsters like Carl Großmann, Fritz Haarmann, and Peter Kürten—to create a fictionalized cautionary tale centered around the crimes of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a creepy little killer who signals his presence by whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, one of the first leitmotifs on screen as Lang experimented with the capabilities of sound in his first non-silent film.
As the increased police attention has disrupted Berlin’s underworld, the ruthless master criminal known only as “Der Schränker” (The Safecracker) calls together the city’s crime lords to form a united front against the killer. Continue reading
Mike Myers as Austin Powers, swingin’ secret agent
Las Vegas, Summer 1997
Film: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Release Date: May 2, 1997
Director: Jay Roach
Costume Designer: Deena Appel
Tailor: Tommy Velasco
Several weeks ago, I delighted in the opportunity to rejoin the estimable Pete Brooker and Matt Spaiser of Bond Suits on the From Tailors with Love podcast, this time talking with Deena Appel, the prolific costume designer who created the shagadelic looks of all three Austin Powers movies. (You can find the episode split into two parts—Part 1 and Part 2—as well as Pete’s “show notes” here.)
Pete concluded our conversation by asking each participant which costume resonated most with us, and my answer—which surprised Deena at least—was the red velvet double-breasted suit that the cryogenically frozen Austin wears when re-entering the world by way of late ’90s Las Vegas in the first movie, which was released 24(!) years ago today on May 2, 1997. Continue reading
Sidney Poitier as Eddie Cook, expatriate jazz saxophonist
Paris, Fall 1960
Film: Paris Blues
Release Date: September 27, 1961
Director: Martin Ritt
Ten years ago, the United Nations established April 30 as International Jazz Day, a global celebration envisioned by Grammy-winning musician and UNESCO Goodwill ambassador Herbie Hancock “to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.” The observance feels ideal for taking a first look at the sleek style in Martin Ritt’s cooler-than-ice 1961 drama, Paris Blues, starring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as yankee jazzmen making their living in a French nightclub and romancing a pair of American tourists played by Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll. Continue reading
Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, eccentric Belgian detective
Egypt, September 1937
Film: Death on the Nile
Release Date: September 29, 1978
Director: John Guillermin
Costume Designer: Anthony Powell
Today would have been the 100th birthday of Peter Ustinov, the brilliant dramatist and diplomat who—among his many achievements—played Agatha Christie’s celebrated sleuth Hercule Poirot in a half-dozen productions.
Fluent in multiple languages, Ustinov was easily able to glide between the English and French required to play the fussy Belgian detective and was able to provide his own voice in the French and German versions of his movies, including several of the Poirot productions.
Death on the Nile was the first—and often considered the strongest—of Ustinov’s six films as Poirot. Continue reading
Gene Barry as Dr. Ray Flemming, smarmy psychiatrist
Los Angeles, Spring 1967
Film: Prescription: Murder
Original Air Date: February 20, 1968
Director: Richard Irving
Costume Designer: Burton Miller
This week in 1968, TV audiences were introduced to an unassuming yet indefatigable homicide detective in a wrinkled raincoat whose humble mannerisms and appearance belied an uncanny ability to bring murderers to justice. Oh, and just one more thing… that detective was named Columbo.
Peter Falk wasn’t the first to play the detective, nor was he even the first choice when Richard Levinson and William Link’s stage play was adapted for TV as Prescription: Murder, the first episode of what would become the long-running series Columbo. Bert Freed had originated the role in a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show, to be followed by Thomas Mitchell when Levinson and Link debuted the play Prescription: Murder two years later in San Francisco.
Prescription: Murder establishes many trademark elements of Columbo, including the delayed introduction of the shrewd but shabbily dressed lieutenant himself until after we watch the murderer of the week commit his—or her—crime.
Gene Barry set a standard in Prescription: Murder that the killers foiled by Columbo would follow for decades to come: arrogant, well-dressed, and clever enough to pull together a murder scheme that keeps them above suspicion… from all but Lieutenant Columbo, of course. Continue reading
Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, mystery novelist and wealthy patriarch
Massachusetts, November 2018
Film: Knives Out
Release Date: November 27, 2019
Director: Rian Johnson
Costume Designer: Jenny Eagan
The great Canadian actor Christopher Plummer died a week ago today at the age of 91 after three quarters of a century honing his craft across stage and screen from Shakespeare to The Sound of Music.
In his penultimate screen credit, Knives Out, Plummer starred as Harlan Thrombey, a charismatic writer who built his fortune through writing mystery novels and, on his 85th birthday, resolves to finally set his free-loading family free. Continue reading
Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke, “King of Soul”
Miami, February 25, 1964
Film: One Night in Miami
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Director: Regina King
Costume Designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Soul legend Sam Cooke was born 90 years ago today, on January 22, 1931. Although Cooke died young, shot at a Beverly Hills motel just over a month before his 34th birthday, his smooth voice endures as the pioneering “King of Soul” who not only wrote and recorded scores of classic hits but also supported, produced, and influenced some of the most talented musicians of the day.
A week ago today, One Night in Miami was released to stream on Amazon Prime Video, adapted by Kemp Powers from his own one-act play. The night in question is February 25, 1964, the night that Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight boxing championship in a surprise victory over Sonny Liston. Powers brings Clay together to celebrate his victory with Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown on a night that proves to be pivotal for all four icons. Continue reading
Humphrey Bogart as Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, professional armed robber on parole
Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, Spring 1940
Film: High Sierra
Release Date: January 21, 1941
Director: Raoul Walsh
Wardrobe Credit: Leah Rhodes
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Tomorrow marks the 80th anniversary of the release of High Sierra, arguably the movie that launched Humphrey Bogart from a Warner Bros. background player in the ’30s to superstardom in the ’40s. A violent criminal with an earnest streak, Roy Earle was the ideal role for Bogie to transition from the secondary sniveling bastard in movies like The Petrified Forest and The Roaring Twenties to the tilted-hat heroes we love in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and more.
Spencer Tracy as John J. Macreedy, one-armed war veteran
Black Rock, California, Fall 1945
Film: Bad Day at Black Rock
Release Date: January 7, 1955
Director: John Sturges
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Bad Day at Black Rock may have been one of the most requested movies I’ve been asked to write about, so when I saw that the Criterion Channel had added it to their streaming collection in December, I wasted no time in finally watching this swift and spectacular thriller that had been recommended by so many of you.
Based on Howard Breslin’s short story “Bad Time at Honda”, the account begins in the sprawling desert of eastern California, specifically the isolated berg of Black Rock, where no train has stopped in four years—the duration of American participation in World War II—until this particular day in late 1945, when the one-armed John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) requests a stop.
Conductor: Man, they look woebegone and far away.
Macreedy: Oh, I’ll only be here 24 hours.
Conductor: In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.