The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Review

Director: Jonathan Demme

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Intense from the get-go, The Silence of the Lambs is an instant classic that won an Oscar for Best Picture, the only horror movie to win that award so far. The plot follows aspiring FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who must use the help of imprisoned cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to catch a woman-murdering serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). Does it deserve its reputation as one of the finest psychological thrillers of all time? I’d say so.

It just might be the perfect performances that keep The Silence of the Lambs on track. Anthony Hopkins gives a masterclass acting job as cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, effortlessly getting under the skin of the viewers. The mind games he plays are enough to warrant giving the feature a thumbs-up. His role won him an Oscar and Dr. Lecter was named the number-one villain in American cinema history as part of the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains retrospective in 2003. It would be a mistake to forget about Jodie Foster, who also won an Oscar for her part. Her character was named the sixth greatest American screen hero in the celebration mentioned above.

Dark, serious, and macabre, The Silence of the Lambs earns its R rating, but doesn’t go overboard with the gore, probably making it watchable for most adult audiences. It’s very fast-paced and efficient, making the minutes fly by when experiencing it. If I had to find a fault with it, it would be that the ending feels less conclusive and a bit more sequel-baity than desirable, but that’s a minor flaw.

This bone-chilling horror-thriller flick is nothing short of gripping. Even the critics generally loved it, even if they seem to avoid calling it a “horror movie,” favoring the term “thriller.” Perhaps they were too embarrassed to admit that they liked an entry into the horror genre? Also, just how big is “Buffal0 Bill’s” basement supposed to be anyway?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the last, if not the last, of the major gangster pictures of the 1930s, The Roaring Twenties ends a chapter in mob movie history on a decent note. The story here is about World War I veteran Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), who gets mixed up with bootleggers during Prohibition and rises up among their ranks. It feels more epic-scale than many other films in this subgenre, but some intimacy is lost in translation.

The Roaring Twenties tries to juggle many elements: action, romance, music, historical background, etc., trying to please every type of moviegoer. The main plot of the flick is often overcome by a love triangle, and there’s just as much singing as there is shoot-’em-up, bang-bang stuff. The truth is, it feels more nostalgic than hard-boiled, lacking a certain meanness necessary for this sort of crime feature to work properly.

That being said, the action sequences are pretty good when they arrive (the movie definitely ends on a high note). There are some engaging montages to express the passage of time, although the narration for these sequences (done by John Deering) feels a bit dated nowadays. Raoul Walsh’s direction is solid, but the clean-feeling script doesn’t always help him.

The Roaring Twenties is just too romantic for its own good, both in the sense of the lovey-dovey stuff and in terms of rose-tinted nostalgia. It feels like one of James Cagney’s “bigger” films, but it’s certainly not among his best, in my book. It just doesn’t have the ultra-gritty intimacy of The Public Enemy (1931), the heroic badassery of ‘G’ Men (1935), or the lurid sadism of White Heat (1949). I’m not saying “don’t watch it,” just keep your expectations in check.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Petrified Forest (1936) Review

Director: Archie Mayo

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Petrified Forest was the film that caused the world to take notice of Humphrey Bogart. It’s not his best movie, but it’s still a good one. One day, a small group of gangsters led by Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) hold hostage a remote diner/gas station in the middle of the Western United States, crashing a love triangle between wandering poet-at-heart Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), the diner’s waitress, Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), and the gas station attendant, Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran). It’s a compact, atmospheric drama with clearly-drawn characters

For a crime picture, this one takes place entirely outside of gangland. In fact, being based on a 1935 play of the same title, almost all of the action takes place at a roadside diner “on the edge of nowhere” or its immediate exterior. You can tell it was based on a play, but this doesn’t hurt the flick. I wouldn’t recommend The Petrified Forest if you’re just looking for physical action, though, as the body count is minuscule, although there is a shootout at the end.

For the most part, it’s the characters that keep this feature afloat. This is Humphrey Bogart’s show, as he plays his role – sort of a more murderous version of John Dillinger – with a tightly-wound intensity. Leslie Howard’s character is an insufferable asshole, but he certainly stands out. Also worthy of note is Gramp Maple (Charley Grapewin), Bette Davis’ character’s grandfather, an old-timer who just can’t wait to see somebody get killed. The few interactions between the two black characters, a gangster named Slim (Slim Thompson) and a chauffeur for a rich couple named Joseph (John Alexander) are priceless.

The Petrified Forest is very much above-average, even if it sometimes threatens to sink under Howard’s character’s philosophical ramblings. Fortunately for the audience, Bogart and his crew show up, adding some extra tension. Fans of Bogie or of relatively early organized crime movies will want to seek this one out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) Review

Director: John Sturges

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the movies that director John Sturges brought to the world before his two masterpieces – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) – was 1959’s Last Train from Gun Hill. In the Old West, Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) sets out to the town of Gun Hill to arrest the two men who raped and murdered his Native American wife, Catherine (Ziva Rodann). However, that town is now completely under the domination of his former best friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), now a mob-boss-like cattle baron. To complicate matters, Belden’s son, Rick (Earl Holliman), is one of the killers.

The film’s plot may sound a bit unwieldy in text, but the relatively straightforward storytelling keeps things understandable. The only aspect slowing down the action is a subplot involving the character of Linda (Carolyn Jones), which probably could’ve been reduced to tighten up the picture. Still, physical action is fairly common in Last Train from Gun Hill, although these moments are pretty short. For a while, the film feels like Die Hard (1988) set in a Wild West hotel.

The feature’s musical score is average, despite being provided by the great Dimitri Tiomkin. Although the primary draw of this western is to see Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn face off against each other, I feel the need to point out a couple of members of the supporting cast. Brad Dexter, who would play Harry Luck in The Magnificent Seven, shows up as Beero (nice name), Quinn’s character’s head henchman. Also, the guy who plays Lee Smithers, the member of the raping duo who’s not Earl Holliman’s Rick, is Brian G. Hutton, who would go on to direct Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).

Fans of John Sturges will probably enjoy this no-frills, pro-law-and-order western film. It’s no life-changing experience, but it is a rock-solid movie with a respectable amount of action and an intriguing plot. If you’ve seen it and liked it, I’d highly recommend the other two classics directed by Sturges that I mentioned at the beginning of this review.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Little Caesar (1931) Review

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Little Caesar is famous for being one of the first major gangster movies of the sound era. It may be a bit creaky by today’s eye, but it holds up pretty well. The plot, which may sound familiar, is about small-time hoodlum Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) joining the mob to make a name for himself. Made during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this picture raised concerns that it was celebrating the outlaw lifestyle.

The standout element of Little Caesar is Edward G. Robinson’s performance as the titular character. He’s really a natural, making most of the rest of the cast look like they’re made out of wood. Check out the flophouse scene for some of Robinson’s best acting in the feature. While we’re on the subject of acting, take a gander at Thomas E. Jackson’s turn as police officer Sergeant Flaherty. I can’t tell if it’s the most brilliant performance I’ve ever seen…or the worst. Not every character registers, but enough do to make it coherent.

Little Caesar has fair-enough pacing. Sometimes things move pretty quickly (the first shot of the movie, after the opening credits, is a stickup, after all), and sometimes there’s just a hair too much talking. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, because it’s never boring and the runtime is only 79 minutes. The whole flick is a little primitive-feeling at times, but that’s pretty much expected for a 1931 release.

It’s Robinson that breathes life into this entertaining crime-drama (it’s the role that made him a star). It’s not an action movie, so don’t expect a bunch of explosions and you might have a good time. There are better Pre-Code gangster films out there – namely Scarface (1932) and The Public Enemy (1931) – but this one beat them all to the punch.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Kongo (1932) Review

Director: William J. Cowen

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Four years after the silent West of Zanzibar (1928) was released, a sound remake, titled Kongo, was sent to theaters. This forgotten gem ups the macabre and salacious content of the original, making it one of the more boundary-pushing films of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (the time period in the early 1930s before the Production Code started being enforced). This twisted tale is about a magician living in Africa named “Deadlegs” Flint Rutledge (Walter Huston) plotting his vengeance on Gregg Whitehall (C. Henry Gordon), the man who paralyzed him from the waist down in a brawl and ran away with his wife. This one’s so nasty (for its time) it sometimes gets classified (incorrectly, in my opinion) as a member of the horror genre.

Like the original movie, West of Zanzibar, Kongo is all about its depraved, slimy atmosphere. Like fellow Pre-Code adventure film Island of Lost Souls (1932), it has the stench of sweat and cruelty all over it. One notable aspect of this one is Walter Huston’s sleazy performance. Check out that scar on his cheek that resembles one of the facial markings that the Joker from The Dark Knight (2008) would have.

Kongo is based on a 1926 play of the same name, and, yeah, it sometimes shows. The action rarely leaves Huston’s character’s African compound or its immediate surroundings. When it does leave this setting, it’s sometimes footage reused from West of Zanzibar. Still, it’s a pulpy movie that doesn’t really feel as claustrophobic as this might lead you to believe.

As with the silent original, I can’t exactly recommend this one to everyone, as the depiction of native Africans is problematic and bound to offend many. However, those who can overlook that aspect will be rewarded with one of the best motion pictures of the Pre-Code period. It’s not quite as taut as the shorter West of Zanzibar, but it is more lurid, so I guess I prefer this version by a hair.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

West of Zanzibar (1928) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This seedy adventure-melodrama predominately set in Africa is one of the more entertaining movies of the silent era. A magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney) seeks revenge on Crane (Lionel Barrymore), the man who paralyzed him from the waist down in a fight and stole his wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsdon). Even if you don’t think that you’d like a silent movie, this engaging picture runs only 65 minutes long, so, if you ever come across it, I’d recommend watching it.

West of Zanzibar thrives on its sweaty, grimy atmosphere. It’s an old Hollywood movie, but it’s certainly not nice and clean. Lon Chaney is in firm control of the film, expertly playing a vengeance-driven man who has no command of his legs. He’s both pathetic and evil. The competent musical score from an uncredited William Axt keeps things moving along smoothly and may make you forget that what you’re watching is silent.

This drama is based on the 1926 play Kongo, so it occasionally has a stagey nature to it, but it’s forgivable considering how dynamic and fast-paced the storytelling is. The story itself is superb, both capturing the imagination and repelling the audience with its drunkenness, ritualistic sacrifice, implied prostitution, murder, paralyzed villain, etc. If you think silent films were all about silly, Charlie Chaplin-esque antics, you need to watch West of Zanzibar.

This one comes highly recommended, being an excellent example of sharp, economical storytelling. Would I recommend it to everyone? Not quite. The picture’s depiction of native Africans is bound to offend many viewers, so consider yourself warned. If you can excuse that, I’d say “check it out,” along with its sound-era remake, Kongo (1932), where Walter Huston plays the Chaney role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.