Worthy free flicks from (among others) Hammer, Humphrey Bogart, and the Lemmon-Matthau team.
Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place (Photo: Columbia)
(Prime Cuts is a new column that suggests worthy movies presently available for Amazon Prime subscribers to watch for free.)
THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966). Over the course of 32 years, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau made 10 films together (11 if one includes JFK, in which they shared no scenes). The 1968 smash The Odd Couple might be the most popular — and I’ve always had a soft spot for 1981’s savaged Buddy Buddy — but line for line, their first joint effort might be the funniest. Yet because the movie springs from the curdled minds of director Billy Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, it offers plenty of cynicism to go along with the guffaws — to paraphrase a line from 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, it’s a Cookie full of arsenic. Lemmon plays Harry Hinkle, a CBS-TV cameraman who gets injured when Cleveland Browns player Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) accidentally plows into him on the sidelines. Harry recovers immediately from his injury and is ready to be discharged from the hospital — not so fast, counters Willie Gingrich (Matthau), Harry’s brother-in-law and, more to the point, a shyster lawyer known as “Whiplash Willie.” Willie urges Harry to fake a more severe injury in order to make the insurance company pay a fortune — fundamentally an honest guy, Harry agrees to the scheme only because he thinks it will bring back his gold-digging ex-wife (Judi West). Matthau, deservedly winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, is so unrelentingly hilarious that it’s initially easy to overlook the drama, which comes in the touching relationship between Boom Boom and Harry.
HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971). Jack the Ripper has been the focus of pursuit in such noteworthy efforts as Murder by Decree (starring Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes), Time After Time (starring Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells) and the underrated From Hell (starring Johnny Depp as Johnny Depp), but Hands of the Ripper takes a slightly different approach: Jack has long disappeared from the scene, with any atrocities now being committed by his daughter. Little Anna watches as her dad murders her mom in front of her; cut to many years later, as the grown Anna (Angharad Rees) is forced to toil for a phony medium (Dora Bryan) who not only uses her in fake séances but also rents her out as a prostitute. After a trancelike state leads to Anna dispatching of the ersatz psychic in bloody fashion, she’s rescued by John Pritchard (Eric Porter), a doctor (and fan of Freud) who offers to let her live at his home so that he may better study her. It’s not the most ideal living arrangement, as the gruesome deaths of those around him leads Dr. Pritchard to believe that Anna might be possessed by the spirit of her famous father. This latter-day offering from Hammer Films ratchets up the gore, but thankfully not at the expense of an engrossing plot that embeds its psychological content in a series of effective set-pieces. The finale, which takes place in the famous Whispering Gallery at the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is unexpectedly moving — it’s also awe-inspiring, since the lack of permission to shoot at the cathedral meant that the filmmakers had to build a replica at renowned Pinewood Studios.
IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). With so many acknowledged classics to Humphrey Bogart’s name — Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and so on and so forth — it was perhaps inevitable that at least one masterpiece would often get lost in the shuffle. That would be In a Lonely Place, a beautiful yet devastating piece of cinema that operates as a bleak film noir, a compelling murder-mystery, a scathing critique of Hollywood, and a character study of penetrating depth. In one of his greatest performances, Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a has-been screenwriter now known more for his violent temper than his former successes. He balks at adapting a trashy novel until a young hatcheck girl named Mildred (Martha Stewart) volunteers to come over to his apartment complex and help him work through it. The next morning, her corpse is discovered, making Dixon an immediate suspect — fortunately for him, new neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) finds him interesting and provides him with an alibi. Dixon and Laurel begin dating, but mitigating circumstances and Dixon’s own paranoid behavior lead Laurel to wonder if he might indeed be the killer. Nicholas Ray directed a number of fine pictures (particularly Rebel Without a Cause), but In a Lonely Place ranks as his pinnacle, with its evocative use of shadows, its themes of mistrust and persecution (a nice fit for the Red Scare era in which it was made), scripter Andrew Solt’s hard-boiled dialogue (“It was his story against mine, but, of course, I told my story better”), and superb performances by Bogart and Grahame.
JUGGERNAUT (1974). The title doesn’t provide any clues — no, this isn’t a movie about the X-Men villain — but Juggernaut is a nifty British thriller that offers maximum returns on its minimalist approach. “Juggernaut” is the name used by a blackmailer who has planted several explosives on the luxury ship the Britannic; unless he’s paid a formidable sum, the bombs will detonate, killing all 1,200 passengers alongside the vessel’s captain (Omar Sharif) and his dedicated crew. As the police (headed by Anthony Hopkins) and the company executives (headed by Ian Holm) deal with tracking down the homegrown terrorist, a bomb specialist (Richard Harris), his right-hand man (David Hemmings), and the rest of his bomb-disposal unit descend upon the ship with the assignment to defuse all of the devices before time runs out. Countless movies have featured scenes in which the hero has to choose between cutting the red wire and the blue wire, but few have been as detailed and as exciting as this one. The script by Richard Alan Simmons allows for occasional flashes of humor (mostly through Harris’ wisecracking character), while director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) refuses to kowtow to any melodramatic excesses. The fine Indian actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the recent Dumbo debacle) makes his film debut as a friendly ship steward, while Clifton James, the notorious Sheriff J.W. Pepper from a pair of middling James Bond adventures, appears as a Southern politician.
JUMPING THE BROOM (2011). Screenwriters Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs start with familiar material: the problems that develop when the dissimilar families of two lovebirds about to be married finally meet on the weekend of the wedding. The family of Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) is wealthy and living in a Martha’s Vineyard mansion; the family of Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) is lower-middle-class and stuck out in Brooklyn. There’s unease to go around, but the marquee fighters are Sabrina’s brittle mother Claudine (Angela Bassett) and Jason’s loudmouthed mom Pam (Loretta Devine). Under the auspices of Pastor T.D. Jakes (who produced the film and appears as Reverend James), director Salim Akil and the writers juggle a wide range of characters and subplots, and, to their credit, they fumble very few of them. Until Devine’s overly protective mother is unfortunately turned into the film’s closest thing to a villain during the third act, all of the characters are written as believably flawed, allowing viewers to see the right and wrong on both sides of each issue being presented. The tension between the mothers is palpable, and there are several relatives and best friends on hand to provide comic relief (Mike Epps is particularly pleasing as Jason’s laid-back uncle). Jumping the Broom is no Soul Food, but as a worthy seriocomedy about African-American family dynamics, it’s nourishing enough.
PRICELESS (2006). The title character in Fleabag looks almost as chaste as Mother Teresa when compared to Irene, the protagonist of this sparkling French comedy. Promoted by the studio as the modern-day counterpart to Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly (though the film itself evokes Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges more than Blake Edwards), Irene (played by Audrey Tautou) floats around the French Riviera looking for wealthy men to pamper and provide for her. Her current suitor Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff) has agreed to marry her, but out of boredom, she has a fling with a young millionaire named Jean (Gad Elmaleh). But it’s a case of mistaken identity: Jean is actually a bartender at the resort, and Irene is furious after Jacques dumps her and Jean (now unemployed for sleeping with a guest) is unable to provide for her. Hopelessly smitten, Jean remains in Irene’s orbit even after she lands another suitor (Jacques Spiesser), but once he finds himself the companion of an older woman (Marie-Christine Adam) who mistakes him for a gigolo, Irene softens and begins to teach this novice the rules of the game. Priceless is such a charming romantic comedy in the fairy-tale vein (a la Pretty Woman) that any ill will would be seriously misplaced. Tautou revives some of her Amelie effervescence, while The Valet‘s Elmaleh again displays an easygoing rapport with his own comic intuitions. Add to this intoxicating mix some gorgeous shots of the French Riviera, and Priceless proves to be a steal at any price — and more so when streaming for free.