26. From Here to Eternity

The soldiers drink, fuck, fight, and kill in From Here to Eternity. Entertaining as hell, even fun at times, the movie is not gung-ho about the Army – the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at the end, is the least interesting conflict. The women are betrayed, the men die dishonorably, and starring in this menagerie of damaged humans is maybe the best cast in film history.

I mean it. All five principals were nominated for an Oscar. Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed won, and Montgomery Clift was robbed for Best Actor.

Yes, Montgomery Clift, the sad, brilliant artist whose face conveyed our capacity to suffer. It is awesome to watch Clift and Burt Lancaster share scenes. They’re polar opposites. Clift is angst-ridden, complicated soldier Robert E. Lee Prewitt, who takes brutal abuse because he won’t box for the company (he was so good in the ring he once blinded a man). Lancaster is badass sergeant Milton Warden, bossing the men with confident relish. When Warden stands up to someone, someone backs off: “OK, Fatso. If it’s killin’ ya want, come on!” These diametric characters (and actors) find themselves sitting on a road, plastered, passing a bottle and bonding. (IMDB says Clift was actually drunk for this scene, and Lancaster was not. This seems sad in hindsight.)

Thanks to The Godfather, a rumor prevails that Sinatra was cast as Angelo Maggio because mobsters put a severed horse head in the producer’s bed. That’s apocryphal; Sinatra is simply perfect for the part. Maggio is cocky, and cool when he’s drunk, but there’s bitterness behind his eyes. He takes the worst abuse of anyone, and spits in his abuser’s eye.

And Donna Reed, classic TV mom, plays a hooker! But she’s the wisest of everyone, saving for a “proper” future she can’t embrace (she sneers as she describes it), but knows she must meet.

We must remember these old movies. A Hollywood blockbuster in 1953 was nothing like the giant flicks we get today. From Here to Eternity is a dirty, mean movie about complicated men and women. Compared to now, it’s quaint. And better.

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25. A Place in the Sun

Montgomery Clift’s face was pure anguish, even before his tragic life took a dark and disfiguring turn. That sad face was, in 1956, smashed horribly in a car crash after a party. He’d been filming Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor, his friend and fellow icon, and Taylor arrived at the accident and, the story goes, cradled Clift in her arms and pulled his teeth from his throat. Life as a closeted homosexual and tortured method actor was difficult before his face was reconstructed; after, it was essentially over. Clift died ten years later, succumbing to years of alcohol abuse. His acting teacher called it “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”

This context matters when watching a Clift movie. A Place in the Sun came out in 1951, and it wrenches the guts to watch Clift’s character, George Eastman, be pulled apart by his conscience.

The plot’s not complicated. A guy with no money goes to work for his rich uncle, boxing swimsuits on an assembly line. He meets a nice girl and gets her pregnant. Then – complication of complications – he meets Elizabeth Taylor. She’s rich and beyond beautiful. He falls in love… and she loves him back!

What’s he to do with the pregnant girlfriend?

The class dynamics are fascinating. (Charlie Chaplin called it “The greatest movie ever made about America.”) George is torn between two lives that can’t mix; and there’s a heartbreaking scene where his poor paramour practically begs for an abortion. Of course the doctor says no. When she demands George marry her, he agrees. But he wants Liz.

Clift’s performance is the soul of this movie. George is decent but having bad thoughts, and on that intense face he wears the agony of his predicament like the most sensitive person imaginable.

Ambiguity can be powerful. A Place in the Sun ends with a trial. Is George a murderer? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. All we know is we’re watching a wrecked man, and a great movie. There may be no better emblem of our capacity for neuroses, depression, and confliction than Montgomery Clift’s doomed face.

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24. River’s Edge

Teenagers are no good. Millennials? They spend so much time online they don’t even bother having sex any more. Generation X was “The Whiny Generation.” This theme is so timeless that journalists have been labeling teenagers as entitled little shits since the 1900s.

I like how River’s Edge does it. The movie’s from 1986, when hippies who protested Vietnam are old enough to be teachers. Here’s what Mr. Burkwaite tells his bored students: “We stopped a war, man. We took to the streets and we made a difference. We turned public sentiment around and we made people see the truth… As crazy as it all seemed, there was meaning in the madness. There was a clear and a real purpose.”

The kids absolutely do not understand. One responds “Wasting pigs is radical, man.”

This is a bizarre, unique movie that begins with a classic thriller device: a dead girl’s body. But there’s no mystery. The killer, Samson, sits beside his victim, smoking. He goes to school, where his friends are debating how to get beer, and confesses. He takes them to the body. They all knew her, but no one really cares.

The cast includes three iconic ’80s teenagers: Ione Skye (Say Anything), Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), and Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Diane Court, George McFly, and Bill were sweethearts; there are no sweethearts in River’s Edge. Their characters never answer when asked how they feel, because they don’t. They get drunk, high, have sex, even kill. But they don’t feel.

The ex-hippie teacher flips out toward the end. He asks Clarissa (Skye), “Are you upset, Clarissa? Are you? If you are, get it off your chest.” She stays silent, and he gets mad at the world: “You don’t give a damn! I don’t give a damn!” (“Are we gonna be tested on this shit?” someone asks before the bell rings.)

But Feck cares. Played by Dennis Hopper, Feck is troubled by these kids, and takes action. He’s the sort who understands them: a crippled, loner drug dealer, who murdered his girlfriend and replaced her with a sex doll.

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