Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson, charismatic American artist
North Atlantic Ocean, April 1912
Release Date: December 19, 1997
Director: James Cameron
Costume Designer: Deborah Lynn Scott
Tailor: Dominic Gherardi
110 years ago today, the sinking of the RMS Titanic resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 passengers and crew. The global mourning and focus on transportation safety in the tragedy’s aftermath was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so to speak, as the disaster and those involved have continued to be mythologized in countless books, movies, plays, songs, and more.
Johnny Cash as Tommy Brown, homicidal gospel singer
From Bakersfield to Los Angeles, Spring 1974
Episode: “Swan Song” (Episode 3.07)
Air Date: March 3, 1974
Director: Nicholas Colasanto
Credited by: Richard Levinson & William Link
Johnny Cash was born 90 years ago today on February 26, 1932. Following more than a decade and a half of country hits, the Man in Black riffed on his own image as the villainous guest star in the penultimate episode of Columbo‘s third season, airing just a week after his 42nd birthday. Continue reading
Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, opportunistic drifter-turned-carny
Rural Kentucky, Summer into fall 1939
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Costume Designer: Luis Sequeira
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley was first adapted to the screen in 1947, just a year after its initial publication, via Edmund Goulding’s classic noir starring Tyrone Power. Guillermo del Toro’s newly released version is a less a remake of Goulding’s movie and more a reimagining of the source material from a screenplay he co-wrote with Kim Morgan, presented as a vividly stylish Gothic quasi-horror that landed a quartet of worthy Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.
Frank Sinatra, multi-talented entertainer facing retirement
Los Angeles, Summer 1971
Series: Sinatra: All or Nothing At All
Air Date: April 5-6, 2015
Director: Alex Gibney
Born December 12, 1915, Frank Sinatra had recently turned 55 when he started talking seriously with close friends about retirement. For more than 30 years, the entertainer had enjoyed a landmark career, beginning with his days as a pop idol, then a career downturn in the early ’50s that was reinvigorated by an Oscar win for From Here to Eternity and a series of concept albums for Capitol Records that launched him to massive success.
Throughout the ’60s, Sinatra evolved from one of the most popular entertainers in the nation to one of the most influential entertainers across the world. He had founded his own record label with Reprise Records, been a confidante of a sitting U.S. President (before their famous falling-out), and continued to prove his success on the charts with songs like “My Way” (despite his resentment for this particular tune.)
Like so many successful 55-year-old Americans, Ol’ Blue Eyes decided to hang up his tilted hat and retire, with his final performance to be June 13, 1971, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Alex Gibney’s 2015 HBO documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing at All was framed around the singer’s hand-chosen setlist for the concert, and how the eleven musical milestones Sinatra selected essentially told the story of his life to that point. Continue reading
Jason Statham as Nick Wild, tough security consultant and bodyguard-for-hire
Las Vegas, Christmas 2013
Film: Wild Card
Release Date: January 14, 2015
Director: Simon West
Costume Designer: Lizz Wolf
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Car Week continues into December with a little-discussed action movie that—like The Bourne Identity and Three Days of the Condor—is set during against a Christmas backdrop complete with carols on the soundtrack, though the holiday timing has little impact on the plot. (I don’t include Die Hard in this category because, as many have argued, Christmas is the reason for the whole plot!)
Reviving a role originated by Burt Reynolds in William Goldman’s 1986 movie Heat, Jason Statham plays Nick Wild, a “security consultant” for Las Vegas lawyer Pinchus “Pinky” Zion (Jason Alexander), who makes his daily commute from a seedy motel in a snazzy ’69 Ford Torino. Continue reading
Denzel Washington as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, laid-off aircraft mechanic and World War II veteran
Los Angeles, Summer 1948
Film: Devil in a Blue Dress
Release Date: September 29, 1995
Director: Carl Franklin
Costume Designer: Sharen Davis
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Like a man told me once: you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?
With its dark themes and moral questions, film noir emerged as a cinematic sanctum for depicting the struggles of returning World War II veterans. Movies like Crossfire (1947), Act of Violence (1948), and Thieves’ Highway (1949) showcased the psyche of servicemen who had been to hell and back, depicting them not solely as one-dimensional heroes but as three-dimensional humans whose postwar life requires them to come to terms not just with the trauma encountered overseas but also the impact of returning to a changed home. (I recommend reading more about the connection between veterans and noir in James Barber’s recent article “How the Struggles of WWII Veterans Came to Life in Film Noir” for Military.com.)
Protagonists made cynical by their experiences continued as a theme through the development of neo-noir, whether that’s J.J. Gittes trying to put Chinatown out of his mind or Easy Rawlins, whose lifetime has seen his mother’s early death, his father forced to leave, racial inequities, the scars of wartime service, and—where we find him at the start of Devil in a Blue Dress—just having lost his job at the Champion Aircraft assembly plant. Continue reading
Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter
San Francisco, Fall 1969 to Fall 1970
Release Date: March 2, 2007
Director: David Fincher
Costume Designer: Casey Storm
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Last week, the volunteer investigative group The Case Breakers released their research suggesting the identity of the infamous Zodiac Killer was Gary Francis Poste, adding a new suspect to a list that includes Arthur Leigh Allen, Rick Marshall, and Ted Cruz. While many experts have been quick to disprove the Poste theory, the current zeitgeist of fascination with true crime and every other podcast inspiring waves of amateur detectives encouraged me to revisit Zodiac, David Fincher’s extensively researched thriller that has been considered one of the best movies of the 21st century… despite being outgrossed by Wild Hogs during its opening weekend.
In addition to its eponymous killer, Zodiac centers around three real-life figures—San Francisco police inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and Chronicle crime writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.)—each driven to obsession by their relentless parallel pursuits to uncover the serial murderer’s identity. Continue reading
To kick off this year’s summer #CarWeek series (and on #SinatraSaturday, no less), today’s post explores the Chairman and his car as he joins a star-studded cast for a cross-country race in one of the most famous “car movie” series this side of Fast and the Furious.
Frank Sinatra as himself, entertainment legend
Las Vegas, Summer 1983
Film: Cannonball Run II
Release Date: June 29, 1984
Director: Hal Needham
Costume Design: Kathy O’Rear, Norman Salling, and Don Vargas
Look, we’re all aware that Cannonball Run II isn’t Frank Sinatra’s best movie. (And, let’s face it, even if it was his only movie, it still wouldn’t be his best!) But, after observing the fun that his Rat Pack pallies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., had in the first installment, FS arranged for a short cameo that would yield him second billing in the cast and a $30,000 payday, which he donated to charity.
According to Hal Needham, three versions of the script were written to accommodate the Chairman of the Board: one that would require one week of work, a second that would require two days, and a third version where Frank would only be needed on the set for one day. Perhaps aware that this wasn’t exactly The Manchurian Candidate, Frank wisely chose the latter option, showing up for his day on screen behind the wheel of his own red Dodge Daytona Turbo Z.
Robert Culp as Bob Sanders, swinging documentary filmmaker
Las Vegas, Summer 1969
Film: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Release Date: September 17, 1969
Director: Paul Mazursky
Costume Designer: Moss Mabry
“Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice!” is the subject of the titular toast Alice (Dyan Cannon) delivers in a shared suite at the Riviera in Las Vegas, where the foursome—so to speak—has gathered for a weekend of gambling and a Tony Bennett concert.
A discussion of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” leads to a newly open-minded Alice questioning where Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) have been leaving more than just their hearts. The swinging couple’s admissions lead to a peanut-munching Ted (Elliott Gould) confessing his own recent affair to Alice who, following her initial outrage, has the most unpredictable reaction of any of the spouses as she begins to undress and declares that the four need to have an orgy.
Although it was Bob’s breakthrough at Esalen that got the ball (or, uh, balls) rolling in exploring this degree of openness, it’s both men who require the most convincing, particularly Ted, who finally gives in after deciding: “We’ll have an orgy, and then we’ll go see Tony Bennett.” Continue reading
Warren Beatty as Joe Frady, maverick political reporter
Rural Washington state, Spring 1974
Film: The Parallax View
Release Date: June 14, 1974
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Costume Designer: Frank L. Thompson
Happy birthday to Warren Beatty, born 84 years ago today on March 30, 1937. A rising star through the ’60s, Beatty established himself as a forced to be reckoned with when he spearheaded production of Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, not only starring in but producing the acclaimed gangster film. Following his innovative success with Bonnie & Clyde, Beatty slowed down his career to only occasional movies, frequently going several years without acting while putting much of his energy into political activism and—more notoriously—dating his way through many of Hollywood’s hottest before marrying Annette Bening after the two co-starred in Bugsy.
One of Beatty’s most notable post-Bonnie & Clyde films was The Parallax View, the second in a trio of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid political thrillers of the ’70s. Continue reading