Sunday, July 31, 2011


Alfred Hitchcock always wanted to make a film involving a chase scene across the presidential faces of Mount Rushmore. He had no specific idea for a plot.  All he knew was he wanted the hero to hide from villains in Lincoln's nose while suffering an uncontrollable sneezing fit. In 1957, Hitchcock teamed with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell Of Success) to write what would become North By Northwest.  (The working title was The Man In Lincoln's Nose.)

Hitchcock wanted the story to start with a murder at the United Nations and he wanted a plot where the protagonist is mistaken for a non-existent secret agent.  Somehow, Lehman and Hitchcock combined these elements into an original spy thriller.  The film includes several Hitchcock signatures: an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, POV shots forcing the audience to engage in voyeurism, a hero with an unresolved mother complex, a creative chase scene and the use of a famous landmark.  Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistaken by Communist spies as an undercover agent named George Kaplan.  After being kidnapped, Grant escapes across country, falls in love with a beautiful blonde and desperately tries to figure out who George Kaplan is.

James Stewart wanted to play the lead role but Hitchcock preferred Cary Grant. The director waited until Stewart committed to the Otto Preminger film Anatomy Of A Murder before casting Grant.  For the female lead, Hitchcock wanted Sophia Loren but she wasn't available.  He opted for Eva Marie Saint who'd come to prominence in On The Waterfront.  Saint was from the method acting school for which Hitchcock had notorious disdain.  When a method actor once asked Hitchcock, "What's my motivation," he replied, "Your salary."  Eva Marie Saint later said that Hitchcock gave her only three pieces of direction.  "Keep your voice low, always look directly at Cary Grant and stop moving your hands so much."

North By Northwest was Cary Grant's fourth Hitchcock film, and he could be demanding.  Throughout North By Northwest, Grant is almost always on the left side of screen presenting the right side of his face to the camera.  He preferred the right side of his face because of a small mole on his left cheek.  Grant was also a known penny-pincher.  A few weeks into production, Saint was impressed by how many autographs Grant gave to star struck fans.  She later learned Grant charged fifteen-cents per signature.

Hitchcock was denied permission to film at the United Nations building. Undeterred, he hid in the rear of a cleaning supply truck while the crew secretly filmed master shots of Cary Grant walking into the UN.  Hitchcock was also denied permission to film at Mount Rushmore.  South Dakota Senator Karl Mundt felt portraying a murder at the location would "desecrate the monument."  MGM created a massive replica of Mount Rushmore in a Culver City soundstage.  The set was so large it included 100 ponderosa pine trees.

The most famous scene in the film is a crop duster chase through a barren cornfield.  The 8-minute tension-filled scene is largely silent and has no music. Cary Grant stands beside a highway in the middle of nowhere thinking he's about to meet George Kaplan.  A stranger appears and points out a crop duster plane in the distance telling Grant, "That's funny.  He's dusting crops where there ain't no crops."  The resulting scene is one of the most iconic in movie history.

North By Northwest was the first spy film filled with deadpan humor.  The film served as a creative template for the James Bond movies that came out a few years later.  Cary Grant's drink of choice is a Gibson--gin & dry vermouth--similar to Bond's "shaken, not stirred" martini.  The crop duster scene is blatantly copied as a helicopter chase in From Russia With Love.  And the pre-Bondian dialogue includes lines like, "I never make love on an empty stomach."

Renowned graphic designer Saul Bass created the film's opening credits. Hitchcock's signature cameo appears just after the credits.  He arrives late at a bus stop and misses the bus.  The modernist home owned by the villain at the peak of Mount Rushmore was based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design.  The house didn't actually exist.  It was recreated in an MGM studio.

North By Northwest was nominated for 5 Academy Awards.  The American Film Institute lists it as one of the top ten movies ever made.  The film's title is taken from Hamlet and the meaning is a class MacGuffin (unexplained plot point) since north by northwest is not a true aviation direction.  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, July 25, 2011


This woodcut is an amalgam of Nixon campaign posters. The slogan was actually used in his 1972 re-election campaign while the image is from 1960. I wanted to make Nixon look happy but as his battle with JFK was falling apart, he must have been miserable. Eisenhower helped sink Nixon when he was asked to name one positive thing Nixon accomplished as Vice President. Eisenhower's response: "If you give me a week , I might think of one." Ouch! (5" x 7", black ink print)

The Bootlegger's Son

It was August 1960, three months before the presidential election, and the polls gave Richard Nixon a slim lead over John F. Kennedy.  Nixon had the advantage of being the reigning Vice President under Eisenhower and Republican strategists were labeling Kennedy as "too young and inexperienced." There was also suspicion of Kennedy's Roman Catholic religious affiliation.  Some Protestants feared Kennedy would take his orders directly from the Pope in Rome.

In a speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy addressed the issue directly.  "I am not the Catholic candidate for President.  I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic.  I do not speak for my Church on public matters and the Church does not speak for me."

Nixon's campaign was plagued by bad luck.  In a televised interview, a reporter asked President Eisenhower to cite an example of a major idea Nixon contributed during Ike's presidency.  Eisenhower responded, "If you give me a week I might think of one."  This undercut Nixon's claim of having greater experience than Kennedy.  Democrats turned the comment into a TV commercial.

Nixon suffered a serious knee infection which caused him to lose two important weeks of campaigning. Nixon had pledged to campaign in all 50 States.  He ended up wasting valuable time visiting states where he had no chance to win or states that had few electoral votes.  (He spent the final weekend before the election visiting Alaska that had only 3 electoral votes while Kennedy spent the final weekend in Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania.)

The candidates' choices of running mates were crucial.  In a move later deemed a "stroke of genius," Kennedy chose Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson.  Kennedy and brother Robert despised LBJ for his attacks on the Kennedy family, but Kennedy recognized he needed the support of traditional Southern Democrats most of whom had backed Johnson as the Democratic nominee.

Nixon chose former Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as his running mate.  Lodge made numerous campaign mistakes including a pledge--not approved by Nixon--that as president Nixon would appoint a black person to his cabinet.  The remark was viewed as pandering by African Americans and it also offended southern whites that still supported segregation.

1960 was the first year the presidential debates were televised.  The first debate would be the turning point of the campaign.  Nixon had not fully recovered from his knee infection and he looked pale, sickly and tired.  He also refused makeup causing his bearded stubble to show prominently on the black and white television sets of the era.  (After the first debate, Nixon's mom called him to ask if he was sick.)

Kennedy took time off before the first debate.  He relaxed at home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts and acquired a generous tan.  As the debates began, Kennedy looked calm and confident while Nixon appeared irritable and ill at ease. Subsequent studies claimed that tv viewers overwhelmingly believed Kennedy won the first debate while a much smaller radio audience believed Nixon won. The post-debate polls seemed to validate this theory as Kennedy moved from a small deficit into a small lead.

On October 19, Martin Luther King was arrested in Atlanta while leading a civil rights march.  Nixon refused to become involved.  Kennedy placed calls to political authorities to get King released from jail.  After the incident, King's father endorsed Kennedy leading to favorable publicity in the black community. Kennedy would win the black vote by a huge margin helping to secure victories in New Jersey, South Carolina, Illinois and Missouri.

On election night, November 8, 1960, Nixon watched the returns from his suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (where Robert Kennedy would be killed in 1968).  JFK watched with his family from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. The early returns from northeastern states and midwestern cities gave Kennedy a large lead.  Later returns from rural areas in the Midwest helped Nixon close the gap.  Before midnight, the New York Times went to press with the headline "Kennedy Elected President." Times managing editor Turner Catledge soon realized the election was too close to call.  (He feared another "Dewey Beats Truman" debacle.)  Not until the next afternoon was Kennedy finally conceded the election.

Kennedy won the popular vote by less than two-tenths of a percentage point (112,000 votes).  In the electoral college, the vote was 303 to 219, the closest election since 1916.  Thanks to Johnson, Kennedy carried most of the South including North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

Some Republicans believed Kennedy benefitted from voter fraud in Illinois and Texas.  Kennedy won Illinois by just 9,000 votes (out of 4.75 million votes).  He was helped by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's political machine that gave him a 450,000 vote advantage in the windy city.  In Texas, where Lyndon Johnson was a standing senator, Kennedy won by 46,000 votes.  Some Republicans argued that Johnson's political machinations in the state's lower Rio Grande Valley produced forged votes for Kennedy.  But the state Board of Elections, whose members were all Democrat, certified Kennedy as the winner in Texas.

Had he won Texas and Illinois, Nixon would have earned 270 electoral votes, one more than the 269 votes needed to become president.  Nixon's supporters urged him to pursue recounts and challenge Kennedy's victory. But three days after the election, Nixon gave a speech stating he would not contest the election. Kennedy was president and the Camelot era was about to begin. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Jewish Superhero

His name is synonymous with magic, but Harry Houdini (born Erich Weiss) rose to fame as an escape artist and stunt performer. Long before David Blaine, Houdini perfected the art of death-defying public spectacle. He hung from skyscrapers while tied in a straightjacket and he immersed himself in freezing rivers while trapped in a barrel.

The son of a rabbi, Houdini became a strong moral figure in the magic community often resolving disputes between competing magicians. In 1906 he started the magazine Conjurer's Monthly which helped unite magicians who had no union at the time.

Legend has it that Houdini was killed by a punch to the stomach.  Though parts of the story are accurate, it's not the whole truth.  Here are the details.

It was October 18, 1926.  Houdini was scheduled to perform at the Princess Theater in Montreal.  On the day of the performance, Houdini gave a lecture at McGill University about exposing fraudulent spiritualists and mediums.  After the speech, three students visited Houdini backstage.

As the students entered his dressing room, Houdini was lying on a couch reading mail.  One of the students, Joselyn Gordon Whitehead, brought up the question of Houdini's strength and his ability to take a punch to the stomach.  Houdini stated that his stomach could resist much, but he did not offer to test the statement.  He remained reclined on the couch having broken his ankle a few days earlier while performing his famous Water-Torture Cell Escape.

Suddenly, Whitehead struck several fierce blows into Houdini's gut.  Houdini winced in pain and gestured for the student to stop.  Houdini stated he'd not been given time to prepare.  Had he known the punches were coming, he would have stood up.

By mid-afternoon, Houdini was suffering from severe stomach pain.  He made it through that evening's performance as well as two more shows the next day.  On a train to Detroit for a week of new shows, his stomach pain had become insufferable.  His wife Bess wired ahead for a doctor whom met them in the Detroit theater dressing room.  Houdini had a 104-degree temperature.

The doctor urged that Houdini go straight to the hospital.  Houdini proclaimed, "I'll do this show if it's my last."  By the show's third act, Houdini could not go on.  His assistants finished his act and Houdini finally agreed to go to the hospital.

The surgeon determined that Houdini had a ruptured appendix and he was suffering from peritonitis.  These were the days before antibiotics and Houdini's condition was serious.  Houdini hung on for four days before undergoing a second operation.  Though he seemed to be recovering, Houdini died a few days later on Halloween.

Newspaper reporters wrote that the blows to Houdini's stomach had killed him. Today, medical experts agree that appendicitis caused by blunt trauma is not possible.  Houdini was likely already suffering from appendicitis when Whitehead punched him.  (His wife Bess confirmed Houdini was in discomfort for weeks.) Houdini possibly wrote off his pain as a residual effect from the blows thus delaying the medical treatment that might have saved his life.  At the time of his death, Houdini was just 52 years old.  (5" x 7", black ink print with watercolor)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Le Voyage Dans La lune

A Trip To The Moon was a French silent film made in 1902 by Georges Melies. Just 14 minutes long, the movie is recognized as the first science fiction film ever made. The movie is a surrealistic romp with giant mushrooms and insect aliens that attack six astronauts after they crash their spaceship into the moon's eye. Director George Melies was a French illusionist and magician. He became a filmmaker as an extension of his illusionist act. He became a pioneer in the use of special effects originating such filmic devices as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves and hand-painted color. Between 1896-1913, Melies directed 531 films. He intended to release A Trip To The Moon in the United States but Thomas Edison's film company made secret copies of the movie and distributed it throughout the country. Melies ultimately went bankrupt and most of his movies were either lost or destroyed. The only known hand-colored print of A Trip To The Moon was rediscovered in 1993 in a state of near-complete decomposition. A frame-by-frame restoration began in 1999 and was completed in 2010. The restored version premiered in 2011, 109 years after its original release. Martin Scorcese's film Hugo depicts a fictionalized version of George Melies' life and journey through film. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Evils of Alcohol

The temperance movement can be traced back to 1784 when Dr. Benjamin Rush first declared alcoholism "a disease."  He made the connection between the poor and sick and how much alcohol they consumed.  In the 1820's, a new movement with strong religious connections claimed that alcohol led to crime, sin and ultimately Hell.  The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826 and "demon rum" became their primary target.  By 1830, the average American man over 15 years old consumed seven gallons of pure alcohol a year (three times today's average).

Temperance was popular among abolitionists who viewed alcohol as an evil commensurate with slavery.  The movement was rooted in America's Protestant churches.  They first urged moderation, then voluntary abstinence and finally government prohibition.  Maine was the first state to ban alcohol sales and consumption in 1851.  (They remained dry until passage of the 21st amendment.)

The popular artist Nathaniel Currier created a lithograph called The Drunkard's Progress.  The chart featured the nine stages of a drinker.  Stage 1 was called "a glass with a friend."  Stage 4 was "drunk and riotous."  Stage 6 was "poverty and disease."  Stage 8 was "desperation and crime" while the final stage was "death by suicide."

After the Civil War, Europeans migrated en masse to America.  The Germans and Irish gained a reputation for heaving drinking and rowdy behavior.  In 1869, the National Prohibition Party was formed focusing on legislation against alcohol.  The movement gained support from the Anti-Saloon League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Ku Klux Klan.

This odd alliance considered alcohol responsible for the destruction of families and for inciting societal crime and violence.  Organizers released pamphlets and newsletters with specious claims.  "Medical experts" wrote that alcohol was made from poisonous substances like tobacco, hemlock, nut vomica and opium.  They said the nutty taste of Madeira wine came from cockroaches dissolved in the liquid.  They also claimed "alcohol was made from excrement released in the fermentation process."  In other words, to drink alcohol was to drink poop.

A 1900 book called Leaves of Healing by Reverend John Alexander Dowie claimed that doctors conducted experiments by injecting cats with small doses of alcohol.  The cats became paralyzed and quickly died of alcohol poisoning. Dowie condemned breweries and taverns as murder factories, further writing that alcohol was no less a poison than arsenic.  (He conveniently ignored the fact most over the counter medical remedies contained at least five percent alcohol.)

Temperance advocates also focused on the flammable properties of alcohol. They claimed that people who drank too much would spontaneously combust. They said this occurred when alcohol fumes leaked from a person's skin and ignited when exposed to a nearby heat source.

The KKK claimed that minorities who drank too much were likely to commit crimes against innocent white folks.  White women would be raped and white men murdered.  The Klan targeted bootleggers, tarring and feathering them as punishment.

The WCTU preached that the effects of alcohol were passed down to future generations.  They said the offspring of drinkers would suffer from stunted growth, disfigurement and insanity.  They further stated that drinking caused "fat organs" and caused the heart to become enlarged and ultimately explode.  Beer drinkers would die from "dropsy" (an old term for edema) and drinkers of cheap spirits like run and gin would get blood poisoning.  Radical temperance advocates like Carrie Nation attacked saloons with a hatchet destroying alcohol supplies and bar fixtures.  Other supporters like Mary Hunt urged temperance instruction in schools.  By 1900, Congress passed legislation making anti-alcohol classes mandatory in schools across the country.

Silent filmmakers found a lucrative niched making movies with an anti-alcohol message.  In 1902, Pathe made Les Victimes de L'Alcoolisme, one of their most profitable films.  Absinthe, a 1913 film by Gem Pictures, is the only surviving American temperance film from the era.

The 18th Amendment in 1919 made it illegal to produce, transport of sell alcoholic beverages in the United States.  The "noble experiment" spawned an age of bootlegging and organized crime led by Al Capone in Chicago and Legs Diamond in New York.  Mob violence became a national nightmare and public outcry quickly grew.  The passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933 ended prohibition.  It also functionally ended the temperance movement.

The WCTU still exists.  They have shifted their focus to activism and advocacy for women's rights.  They continue to preach about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.  But like their early days, they have returned to supporting voluntary abstinence instead of mandatory prohibition.  (5" x 7", black ink print)

At Breath's End

Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 French film Breathless is one of the most influential movies ever made.  Along with Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge, Breathless signaled the emergence of French New Wave Cinema known as the "nouvelle vague."  The movement purported to see filmmaking in a new way viewing film directors as auteurs responsible for everything on screen.  Godard utilized documentary style hand-held cameras, natural lighting and frequent jump cuts.  Breathless was shot on location in Paris without permits and the style is daring, frenetic and raw.

The story is deceptively simple.  Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a smalltime gangster who idolizes American crime films and yearns to be Humphrey Bogart.  He steals a car in Marseilles, shoots a policeman and turns to his American girlfriend played by Jean Seberg who tries to help him escape to Italy.  Seberg ultimately betrays him to police and in the closing scene he is shot to death in the street.

The film is a "nihilistic road movie" with a pre-punk rock sensibility.  The plot is disjointed, the dialogue meanders and the film quality is overexposed and grainy.  Godard could not afford a camera dolly so he pushed the cinematographer around in a wheelchair.  He started production without a shooting script and he wrote scenes each morning and filmed them the same day.  The put Belmondo and Seberg off balance since they had no time to rehearse or build character motivation.  Their frustration and confusion yielded an edge and naturalism to their performance that came off as completely real.

The storytelling is ragged at times, shifting from kinetic action to leisurely dialogue where nothing much happens.  Godard embraced style over story and his movies can seem pompous, self-obsessed and even clunky at times. In Breathless, passersby stare directly at camera and the jump cut editing makes the plot hard to follow.  But this was Godard's intent.  He wanted audiences to see movies in a new way even if the viewing experience was uncomfortable.

Godard once said, "To make a film all you need is a girl and a gun." Breathless embodies this ethos.  The movie is inspired by the American gangster genre and Godard pays homage to his predecessors.  Belmondo's character quotes dialogue from John Huston's The Maltese Falcon.  Seberg tries to evade police by escaping into a cinema where Otto Preminger's Whirpool is playing.  The lobby card outside the cinema displays Bogart's final film The Harder They Fall.

Godard's influences included jazz, the Beat Generation, film noir and the Italian neorealist filmmakers of the late 40's and early 50's.  Breathless was as much a documentary about Paris as it was a crime thriller and romance.  The free-form realism and lack of regard for traditional storytelling methods influenced directors like Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma.  Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde has been referred to as a more violent version of Breathless.

No American director owes a greater debt to Godard than Quentin Tarantino. The films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were virtual homages to Breathless including non-linear plot lines, non sequitur dialogue, aspiring tough guys and stylish anti-heroes.  The famous dance scene in Godard Band of Outsiders directly influenced the John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance sequence in Pulp Fiction.

Breathless still embodies the essence of cool.  In 2012, the British Film Institute ranked the film as the 13th best movie of all time.  It was made for just $90,000 and shot in three weeks.  A half-century later, the film remains fresh and spontaneous and still inspires people the world over to flock to Paris. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Friday, July 22, 2011


The 1927 German Expressionist film Metropolis is the most influential science fiction movie ever made.  Fritz Lang's nightmarish vision inspired Star Wars, Blade Runner and Brazil.  George Lucas modeled the design of C3PO after the robot in the film.  Stanley Kubrick imitated the mechanical right hand of one of the characters in Dr. Strangelove.  The creators of Superman named their comic book city after the film.

Metropolis offers a futuristic view of industrialized life as an external utopia masking a vision of Hell on earth.  Thriving capitalists live in a modern city above ground while workers struggle in an oppressive compound below.  The story follows the son of the wealthy "city master" as he tries to mediate the gap between the haves and have-nots.  Lang focuses on the inevitable class divide of modern cities between oppressed workers and the political bourgeoisie.

Lang believed that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it.  He was a critic of the industrial age and his gothic art deco production and heavy Biblical symbolism likened modern cities to the Tower of Babel.  Lang claimed "the film was born from my first sight of skyscrapers in New York in 1924."  The story was also inspired by Karel Capek's play R.U.R. about a robot revolt and by the writings of H.G. Wells.

The movie was made in Germany during the Weimar period, the republic preceding the Nazi era.  Lang's wife Thea Von Harbou wrote the screenplay.  She later became a passionate member of the Nazi party causing Lang, who was Jewish, to divorce her.  Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were big fans of the film considering the story a social blueprint.  After the film's release, Goebbels met with Lang and told him he could become an honorary Aryan adding, "Mr. Lang, we decide who is Jewish and who is not."  Lang immediately left Germany for America never to return.

Production began in 1925 and lasted more than a year.  The film utilized 750 supporting actors, 26,000 male extras, 11,000 female extras, 750 children and, as written in the promotional notes, "100 Negroes and 25 Chinese."  The film's budget reached 5 million Reichmarks ($200 million today), the most expensive film made up to that point.

Metropolis gained acclaim for groundbreaking special effects.  Miniature sets were filmed with stop-motion photography depicting a city with massive skyscrapers, monorails, futuristic airplanes and gridlocked freeways.  The film was the first to use the Schufftan Process, a special effect where a large mirror is placed at a 45-degree angle between the camera and the miniature sets.  Actors performed in front of the mirror making it appear as if they were interacting with the environment.  (The technique was later replicated by matte paintings.)  The movie also utilized double-exposures, massive Tesla coils with leaping electrical sparks and a futuristic "television phone" created by aiming a film projector through a translucent screen.

Lang was a perfectionist with a reputation for cruelty.  He drove cast and crew hard with little regard for their safety.  During a scene where the worker's underground quarters is flooded, Lang directed the child extras to hurl themselves into the water jets.  Several children nearly drowned.  In the scene where the female robot is burned at the stake, Lang insisted on using real flames. The dress of actress Brigitte Helm caught fire and she was nearly burned alive.

When the film was finally released, the running time was 2 1/2 hours.  German audiences were mesmerized by the special effects but critics scoffed at the sentimental truce between labor and management.  (A title card in the final scene reads: "Between the mind and the hands, the heart must mediate.")  Lang was crestfallen when H.G. Wells wrote, "I have recent seen the silliest film.  I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier."

The film flopped in Germany.  Paramount acquired the US rights and cut the film to 90 minutes.  Lang's original version was lost to posterity.  In 1984, composer Georgio Moroder was the first to attempt a restoration.  He released a color-tinted version of the film with an original soundtrack by Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar.  The newly restored film was nominated for two Razzie Awards for worst movie of the year.

Kino released a restored version of Metropolis in 2002 with the original score from composer Gottfried Huppertz.  The version was well received, making the rounds of revival houses and museums.  In 2008, a 16mm negative of Lang's original version was discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. The print was in poor condition and several sequences could not be salvaged. The print was restored and released on Blu-Ray in 2011. (5" x 7", black ink print)

C'est La Vie

The French Connection is a 1971 police thriller starring Gene Hackman. Hackman plays Jimmy 'Popeye Doyle,' a racist, trash-talking cop chasing drug smugglers between France and New York.  Based on the life of actual NYC Detective Eddie Egan who broke a drug smuggling ring in 1961, the film features the most famous car chase in movie history.

William Friedkin was a young, unknown director with four movies under his belt. He'd just made the unpopular gay-themed film The Boys In The Band and his career was going nowhere.  He called legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks for advice.  Hawks told him, "People don't want stories about people's problems or any of that psychological shit.  They want action stories."

The French Connection was Friedkin's stab at an action film.  This was the Vietnam-era and the movie reflected the murky morality of the period.  The hero is gruff, unsympathetic and not afraid to shoot bad guys in the back.  The villain is suave and likable and, in true anti-genre fashion, he gets away with his crime in the end.

The lead role of 'Popeye Doyle' was turned down by a spate of Hollywood stars. Steve McQueen felt the movie was too much like Bullitt.  Lee Marvin hated New York cops.  James Caan feared the character was too unlikable.  Jackie Gleason called the story depraved.  Robert Mitchum thought the screenplay was garbage. Peter Boyle turned down the role because he wanted more romantic parts. Amazingly, the role was initially given to New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, a non-actor. Breslin was summarily fired after Friedkin learned he didn't know how to drive.

Gene Hackman had burst on the scene in 1967 after his appearance in Bonnie And Clyde.  Friedkin gave the role of 'Popeye Doyle' to Hackman without the benefit of an audition, script reading or screen test.  When reading the screenplay, Hackman cringed at the racist dialogue he had to utter.  Only after spending a week on the New York streets with Eddie Egan (the real 'Popeye Doyle') did Hackman realize the dialogue reflected real life.

The film starts out slow for an action movie.  An hour goes by before gunshots are fired.  The story focuses on the drudgery of police work, the uneventful stakeouts, the hours of paper work.  Cops slowly cruise city streets looking for criminals.  Details are subtle, the tone brooding (much like Scorcese's Taxi Driver that came out five years later).  The film has a documentary feel as if we're watching unedited B-Roll from 1970 New York.  At one early point we can see the first World Trade Center Tower under construction in the background.

When the action finally kicks in, it's relentless.  The highlight is a scene where a car chases an elevated subway line through Lower Manhattan.  The chase was not in the original script.  Producer Phil D'Antoni, who also produced Bullitt (with it's memorable San Francisco car chase), suggested the idea to Friedkin.  Details were improvised on a last-minute location scout.

The chase was filmed without obtaining proper city permits.  Traffic was cleared for five blocks in each direction and the filmmakers shot between 10am-3pm.  Off-duty NYPD officers teamed with assistant directors to direct traffic.  The producers had permission to control traffic signals on streets where they ran the chase car. But the chase illegally spilled onto streets where there was no traffic control forcing stunt drivers to evade real cars and pedestrians.  The crash that occurs midway throughout the chase involved a local man driving to work when his car was suddenly struck by the picture car.  He was unhurt but producers had to pay for his car repairs.

A camera was mounted on a car's bumper for low-angle POV shots of the streets racing by.  The camera was undercranked to 18 frames per second enhancing the sense of speed.  Famed stunt driver Bill Hickman drove at 90 mph for 26 blocks without stopping.  Friedkin wanted a hand-held camera in the back seat. His camera operators, all of whom were married with children, felt the scene too dangerous.  Friedkin, young and single, operated the camera himself.

Hackman did some of his own stunt driving until he struck another vehicle and crashed into a concrete pillar.  At this point, the producers pulled the plug. Friedkin lacked the coverage he wanted but he made do with the footage.  The final scene has no music, only the ambient sounds of screeching tires, car horns and smashing metal.  Friedkin claims he edited the scene to the tempo of Santana's "Black Magic Woman."

The French Connection spawned an era of documentary-style cop movies dedicated to gritty authenticity and morally ambivalent characters.  The film won 5 Academy Awards.  It was the first R-Rated movie to win Best Picture.  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Strange Love

In 1963, America was in a heightened state of anxiety.  The country had witnessed the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the escalation of the Vietnam conflict, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The Cold War was at its peak and civilization was at the brink of nuclear annihilation.  Director Stanley Kubrick was obsessed about the possibility of nuclear war.  He read a novel by Peter George called Red Alert about a rogue US Military Officer who attempts to trigger an unauthorized nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Kubrick paid $3,500 to option the screen rights to the novel.  He began writing the screenplay, a dramatic thriller he titled Edge Of Doom.

Kubrick completed the screenplay around the time the United States discovered Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba.  Public anxiety was so intense Kubrick realized the only way to tell the story was as a satirical comedy.  He began remaining the screenplay in comic form.  He explained, "Confront a man in his office with a nuclear alarm and you have a documentary.  If the news reaches him in his living room, you have a drama.  If it catches him in the lavatory, the result is comedy." (An early draft of the comedy screenplay begins with extra-terrestrials observing earth after a nuclear holocaust.)

Kubrick decided his new comic approach required a sense of inspired lunacy.  He turned to novelist Terry Southern, writer of the book Candy that offered an absurd look at modern sexuality.  Kubrick told Southern to come up with "the most outrageous thing a character can say and still be credible."  Southern responded with classic dialogue.  Base Commander Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) says, "I can no longer sit back and let the international Communist conspiracy sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids."  Later, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) yells out, "Gentleman, you can't fight in here!  This is the War Room!" Southern came up with the name "Dr. Strangelove."  Kubrick added the film's subtitle, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

The film was shot at Shepperton Studios in England.  The primary set was the awe-inspiring War Room.  Production Designer Ken Adam devised initial sketches inspired by the classic films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis.  The huge triangular room was 130 feet long, 100 feet wide and 35 feet high.  A massive electronic "Big Board" showing the paths of bombs headed toward Russia  took up the back wall.  Crew members wore slippers to avoid scratching the shiny black Formica floor. The room's centerpiece was a 22-foot diameter circular table suspended under a ring of light.  Kubrick insisted the table be covered by green felt to give the impression of a high-stakes poker game (even though the film was shot in black and white).

Ken Adam also had to recreate the interior of a B-52 Bomber without the cooperation of the US Government.  His only reference photo was a blurry image of a B-52 cockpit featured on the cover of an obscure book called Strategic Air Command.  Adam built the sent from his imagination spending hours designing switches and warning lights.  His ultimate creation was so accurate that military air personnel thought Adam had obtained unauthorized access to an actual B-52. Kubrick feared he might be investigated by the FBI for revealing government secrets.

When it came to casting, Kubrick approached Peter Sellers who'd appeared in his last film Lolita.  Sellers would play three roles: RAF Captain Lionel Mandrake, American President Merkin Muffley and wheelchair-bound, ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove.  The part of Mandrake was easy for Sellers.  He'd impersonated British officers for years.  For President Muffley, Sellers initially portrayed the role as a meek, effeminate character constantly using an inhaler to treat a bad cold. Kubrick instructed Sellers to be more serious since Muffley was the only character who understood the consequences of his actions. Sellers mimicked the voice and gestures of Adlai Stevenson for the new persona.  The role of Dr. Strangelove was an amalgam of RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn and rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun.  Much of Sellers' dialogue was improvised as when he refers to the president as "Mein Fuhrer."  Kubrick and Sellers both denied patterning Dr. Strangelove after Henry Kissinger.

Sellers initially agreed to play a fourth role that of B-52 pilot Major King Kong. During rehearsals, Sellers & Kubrick were seated in a plane suspended 15 feet off the ground.  Sellers fell out of the plane and broke his leg.  Kubrick had to recast Major Kong.  He turned to Slim Pickens, a character actor he'd seen in the Marlon Brando film One-Eyed Jacks.  When Pickins arrived on set, he wore a cowboy hat, fringed jacket and weathered cowboy boots.  The crew assumed he's come in costume not realizing this was how Pickins always dressed.  The final scene of Pickins riding the nuclear bomb toward Russia remains the most iconic image in the film.

George C. Scott was cast as General Buck Turgidson.  The part was loosely based on hawkish, anti-Communist General Curtis LeMay.  Scott, known for his volatility and heavy drinking, initially resisted Kubrick's urgings to play the role for laughs.  After Kubrick destroyed him in several games of chess, Scott relented. General Turgidson is stuck in perpetual adolescence pouting when scolded by the president and taking calls from his mistress while he's in the War Room.  He is always the optimist as when he voices his opinion about nuclear war.  "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed.  But I am saying no more than 10 to 20 million killed, depending on the breaks."

Production on Dr. Strangelove was completed in spring 1963.  The original climax to the film featured an epic pie fight in the War Room.  Kubrick removed the scene fearing the farcical aspect would undermine the film's satirical tone.  The first test screening was scheduled for November 22, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated.  The film was delayed until January 1964.  Because of the tragedy, one line of dialogue had to be changed.  When Slim Pickens say, "A fellow could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with that stuff," the line is reduced as "Vegas."

The film was a box office and critical success.  Theaters promoted the film by giving away pocket radioactivity detectors.  The movie ultimately received four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Screenplay.  AFI called the movie the #3 comedy of all time behind Some Like It Hot and Tootsie. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan became president, he asked to see the White House War Room.  His Chief of Staff had to tell him no actual War Room ever existed.  (5" x 7", black ink print)