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In Memoriam

July / August 2011
 
In Memoriam - Profiles:
* (June 2012) Ray Bradbury 
* (October 2011) Cliff Robertson
* (July 2011) Peter Falk

* (May 2011) Tim Hetherington


Falk as Columbo
PETER FALK (1927 - 2011) - FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN
     What more can be said about the late and truly great Peter Falk?  By the time this is written and posted, probably not much.  For in our insta-news, Twitter-fied culture, word spreads rather rapidly.  And that’s okay.  Far better every web news outlet has their own respectful obit to a true cinematic legend and artist than wondering why in hell there’s no news of Falk amongst the umpteenth recapping of which over- privileged house frau dooked it out with whom on last night’s episode of the THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF … whatever.


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Murder, Inc. (1960)
     The Facts of Falk … for those who came in late.  He was born in NYC in 1927.  That famous squint was because of a glass right eye he had since age 3 after his original one was lost to the cancer retinoblastoma.  After high school his young man’s wanderlust took him through various colleges as well as short career stints with (among others) the U.S. Merchant Marines and Yugoslavian railroad before he finally found his soul’s home in acting, studying under such luminaries as Eva La Gallienne and Actors Studio guru Sandy Meisner.  Like Charles Bronson and others of his era, his early thespian endeavors where limited because of “common” looks … not to mention that glass eye.  In fact Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn once dissed a Falk screen test saying “For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes”.  Falk pressed on however, securing character roles in gangster flicks like PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960) and that same year’s MURDER, INC.  In fact it was his firebrand performance as mobster Abe Reles in MURDER, INC. which shot him to stardom and brought him his first Oscar nomination in 1961, a feat he’d repeat one year later with another nomination for Frank Capra’s POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES.  He’d appear in many films,   comedies and dramas, throughout the remainder of the decade, the most memorable of them arguably being his frequent collaborations with good friend and budding independent film making wunderkind John Cassavetes.  In the early 1970s he’d don the rumbled raincoat of his most iconic character, the (apparently) absent-minded, cigar chomping, but Sherlock Holmes-brilliant TV detective COLUMBO, that series  (including later TV movie specials) running  into the early 2000s.  And this is where our tribute kicks in.

  
     Because for many of us COLUMBO - which our parents loved and which we found ourselves eventually drawn to, was not only our first introduction to Falk, but indirectly also to the greater pleasures of the film world in general.  In the same way many were introduced to literature first through comic books (those comics leading to the science fiction novels of  Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, etc., and those leading to Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Melville and Shakespeare) so did COLUMBO make us curious enough to want to see anything else Falk had done.  We dug his “common man”-ness, so we ended up discovering the other works of those with whom he had collaborated.  There were those of more commercially popular writer/filmmakers like Neil Simon and Blake Edwards, but also the more cutting edge fare of Mr. Cassavetes and others.  Did you know even Steven Spielberg’s early career is connected to Falk.  At age 25, while a contract director with Universal TV and helming episodes of NIGHT GALLERY, THE NAME OF THE GAME and others, one of the young director’s first gigs was the debut episode of COLUMBO.  

     So
, Falk’s passing for many of us, while a bummer in and of itself, is symbolically an even bigger one, for it also symbolizes the passing of an exciting (and even more innocent) age of discovery where we learned the medium of stage and of film could not only be entertaining but daring and enlightening at the same time.  And isn’t that what’s at the core of the creative arts?  None of this which is to say Falk himself ever forgot how to just have a good time on screen.  And neither should we.  Far from it.  There are far too many snobs out there as it is.  But Falk wasn’t one of them.  He good-naturedly spoofed and referenced his own rumbled COLUMBO-like persona to great effect on many occasions.  Sometimes touchingly as in Wim Wenders’ existential love saga WINGS OF DESIRE or as the beloved story-telling grandfather in THE PRINCESS BRIDE (both 1987).  And other times hilariously, as in Neil Simon’s ensemble murder-mystery spoof MURDER BY DEATH or in his very funny cameo as the hobo in 1981’s THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER.  

     So we say a final respectful “Thank You Mr. Falk” for helping us come to love the medium.  He was one of many guides and teachers who regularly stepped out of our TV and movie screens, took our hands (and imaginations) and lead us into that vast universe called the creative arts.   

     As our personal tribute we present our “FPFF”s - Favorite Peter Falk Flicks.  If you come across one or two on the list of which you’re not familiar, do yourself a favor and give them a look-see.  All are available on Blu-ray / DVD and through Netflix, Google, YouTube and other movie streaming services.  Fire up the DVR as they all also air regularly on cable movie networks like TCM, HBO, SHOWTIME, THE MOVIE CHANNEL and others. 

The In-Laws (1979)

* THE IN LAWS (1979) - For many the quintessential Peter Falk film.  LOVE STORY and SILVER STREAK director Arthur Hiller takes a sharp turn into screwball (borderline Looney-Tunes) comedy with Andrew Bergman’s (BLAZING SADDLES, THE FRESHMAN) story of a timid dentist (Alan Arkin) becoming mixed up in the adventures of his daughter’s future father-in-law (Falk) who claims to be a CIA operative smoking out an international counterfeiting ring.  Whew!  Or is he really just straight up nuts?  Falk and Arkin had such a good time they’d re-team on another Bergman script BIG TROUBLE in 1986.


* MADE (2001) - Jon Favreu’s feature film directorial debut (he also scripted) is infused with the same off- color wit as his earlier SWINGERS (1986) and later IRON MAN (2008).  He and Vince Vaughn (since SWINGERS nicely developing into a modern Falk / Arkin comedy team) play low level slackers in the LA mob world commissioned by their boss (a funny and frightening Peter Falk) to sure up some shady biz in NYC involving business associate Sean “Diddy” Combs.  While only on screen a total of ten or fifteen minutes Falk steals the show.  


* UNDISPUTED (2002) - Hard core, ass-kickingly tough-as-nails prison drama from action director auteur Walter Hill (THE WARRIORS, THE LONG RIDERS, 48HRS, GERONIMO).  Lifer mob boss Falk sets up an in-prison title bout between recently jailed Tyson-esque heavyweight champ (Ving Rhames) and prison yard title holder (Wesley Snipes) with large scale, big money repercussions in the outside world.  Ironically this was one of the most critically acclaimed but least seen by the general public films of director Hill’s entire career.  Do yourself a favor. Check it out.  It’ll blow you away. 

THE GREAT RACE
(1965) - The 1960s saw a number of big budget, star-studded CinemaScope extravaganzas about intercontinental races between disparate characters - THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES (1965) and THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR JAUNTY JALOPIES (1969) among them.  The best by far was writer/director Blake Edwards’ (THE PINK PANTHER, PETER GUNN, VICTOR VICTORIA) sprawling adventure/comedy starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (re-teaming after SOME LIKE IT HOT) as white suited hero and mustache-twirling villain at odds during an around the world turn of the century auto race.  Jack Lemmon essentially plays the Coyote to Curtis’ Road Runner, setting all kinds of Rube Goldberg-like contraption/traps along the way.  And Peter Falk is Max Meen, Lemmon’s nefarious assistant.  While the film isn’t remembered by many today, it’s influence permeated the animation world - the 1960’s Hanna Barbera series THE WACKY RACERS being a cartoon version of THE GREAT RACE, and villainous Dick Dastardly and Muttley as cartoon take offs on Lemmon and Falk.  Highlights include the greatest western barroom brawl in cinema history and the largest pie fight ever staged.   

* THE BRINK’S JOB (1978) - After back to back successes with THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE EXORCIST (1973), then after taking a critical drubbing for SORCERER (1977), director William Friedkin lightened up with this “fact based” caper comedy more in the vein of  THE STING (1973).  Falk leads a group of none-too-bright criminals who embarrasses the Brink’s organization and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover by easily ripping off the famous security company of $1 million in Boston in 1950.  This critically acclaimed little film continues to influence the tone of caper flicks like SNEAKERS and the OCEANS trilogy to this day.  


ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS PETER FALK VICTOR BUONO ORIG 8X10
* ROBIN & THE SEVEN HOODS (1964) - In our opinion a tie for first place with THE IN LAWS as the quintessential Peter Falk film.  Arguably the second most popular of the Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. “Rat Pack” flicks (after the original OCEANS 11) this colorful musical comedy transplants the characters and story of Robin Hood to the gangster world of 1930s prohibition era Chicago.  Here Falk plays villainous mob competitor Guy Gisborne.  And it’s no mean feat that, while sharing the screen with the likes of Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Bing Crosby, Peter Lawford and Edward G. Robinson, Falk handily pockets every scene he’s in.  He also gets the biggest laughs. 

 

* IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) - Director Stanley Kramer and Spencer Tracy (JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, INHERIT THE WIND) teamed again for this grand scale chase epic featuring the largest collection of comedians ever assembled for a single film (Milton Berle, Sid Ceaser, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hacket, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Dick Shawn and cameos incl. Jerry Lewis, Jim Backus, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts and many others … even The Three Stooges).  Before kicking the bucket after a highway accident (and he literally does kick a nearby bucket while convulsing) former bank robber Jimmy Durante tells a group of roadside Samaritans where he buried a fortune in long lost stolen loot.  A mad cross-country dash then ensues to find the booty.  Amidst the pandemonium Peter Falk has a major role as a cop-hating, wise-cracking cab driver caught up in the  madness.

     The first true CinemaScope film shot with one camera, MAD, MAD’s original roadshow presentation clocked in at nearly 3 ½ hrs.  It was then cut by approx. 20 mins for general release, then eventually down to 2 ½ hrs.  Since then various versions have appeared on home video - the general consensus being the best and most complete surviving renditions are the 2001 laser disc at 182 mins, and the 2010 MGM-HD, TCM and TCMHD airings featuring the same cut digitally restored.

* HAPPY NEW YEAR (1987) - While considered not a great film (it is deadingly lethargic) it warrants a must see if for nothing else Bob Laden’s (WOLF, AMISTAD) Oscar nominated prosthetic makeup coupled with a series of colorful performances by Falk.  In this remake of Claude Lelouch’s 1973 French language caper film Falk has fun playing a master criminal who assumes numerous identities (including an elderly woman) while prepping the robbery of a large scale Florida jewelry outlet.  Lelouch, director of the original film, has a cameo in this version as the “Man on the train”. 
 
Cheap Detective poster

* MURDER BY DEATH (1976) / THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (1978) - After the Tony nominated pairing of Falk and writer Neil Simon in the Broadway version of THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVE., the two re-teamed for a duo of murder-mystery spoofs capitalizing on Falk’s now patented COLUMBO gumshoe demeanor.  MURDER BY DEATH was a fanciful bringing together of a Charlie Chan-inspired mastermind (Peter Sellers), a Nick & Nora Childs pair of crime-solving social sophisticates (David Niven & Maggie Smith), an elderly Miss Marple-like genius (Elsa Lanchester) and an American Sam Spade-ish private eye played by Falk, all in a spooky mansion during a night of Agatha Christie-style murder and mayhem.  THE CHEAP DETECTIVE was a slightly more surreal comedy with Falk again playing a Humphrey Bogart-inspired gumshoe, this time walking through a plot pastiche of elements from THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, CHINATOWN and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.  While MURDER BY DEATH was not a hit with critics both films were very popular with fans.  Both movies would also inspire Carl Reiner and Steve Martin’s similarly toned genre spoof  DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID in 1982.

Wings of Desire
* WINGS OF DESIRE (1987) - This German language romantic fantasy from director Wim Wenders (HAMMET - 1982, PARIS TEXAS - 1984, THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB - 1999) became one of the most beloved films of the decade, inspiring a sequel FARAWAY, SO CLOSE in 1993 and an American remake CITY OF ANGELS in ‘98.  Damiel, one of a pair of unseen angels watching over the city of Berlin, falls in love with a lonely trapeze artist then decides to renounce his immortality that he might be with her.  Helping him understand the ups and downs of his newfound humanity is American actor Falk playing sort of a version of himself.  For we learn the earthly and very earthy Falk was also once an angel who years ago similarly traded his immortality for the magic of life as a human being.  He becomes Damiel’s mentor.   

*
ANYTHING WITH JOHN CASSAVETES
- After launching America’s version of cinema verite’ in 1959 with SHADOWS (shot “quick and dirty” on the streets where the actors themselves didn’t always know when they were being filmed) Cassavetes became the first true American independent filmmaker, using money earned from more commercial endeavors like the JOHNNY STACCATO TV series (1959 -60), THE LLOYD BRIDGES SHOW (1962 - 63) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) to finance his projects, most starring wife Gena Rowlands and many with his close friend Peter Falk.  They include:


1) HUSBANDS (1970) - In some respects a dark, brooding version of THE HANGOVER with Falk, Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara as three men in the midst of mid-life crisis out on a tear without their families after attending the funeral of a close friend.  The script was based on improvisations by the trio long before filming commenced.


2) A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974) - After Rowlands expressed her desire to do a story about a woman dealing with the pressures of contemporary life, Cassavetes wrote a stage play about such a character who’s increasingly erratic behavior leads her husband to commit her to a mental institution, an act spiraling the entire family into a soul-searching state of depression.  Upon reading it Rowlands knew she couldn’t commit to it’s emotional rawness eight times per week on stage, so Cassavetes re-worked it as a film script.  Rejected by every studio, Cassavetes mortgaged his home and borrowed money from friends (among them Peter Falk) to film it on his own.  Falk starred opposite Rowlands as her long suffering husband.  Then when the finished movie couldn’t find a distributor, Cassavetes and Falk took it to individual theater owners and college campuses, engaging the audience in Q &A sessions before and after screenings.  The film eventually became a hit, going so far as to receive Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for both Rowlands as Actress and Cassavetes as director.  This first major mainstream success of a truly independent American film would go on to thematically influence later works such as Paul Mazursky’s AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978) as well as  KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979) and WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN (1994).

Mikey and Nicky
3) MIKEY AND NICKY (1976) - Cassavetes didn’t direct but only starred opposite Falk in this “gangster yarn” grittily following the new fangled tradition of movies like MEAN STREETS.  Cassavetes is Nicky, a low level mob screw-up in trouble for money he stole from a syndicate boss, and Falk is Mikey, his life-long friend once again showing up to bail him out of trouble.  From this simple premise we dive into an emotionally raw examination of the true meanings of friendship, family, responsibility and trust.  A contentious shoot between writer/director Elaine May (attempting to re-create the Cassavetes’ / Falk verite’ style) and Paramount resulted in the over budget film being taken over by the studio, cut, then given an obligatory “token” release in 1976.  It would be another ten years before May’s originally intended version would see the light of day.  MIKEY AND NICKY would eventually be considered a classic.   

4) In 1972 Falk would again share the screen (the TV screen this time) with guest star Cassavetes in the COLUMBO episode “Etude in Black”. 


5) BIG TROUBLE (1986) - Falk, Alan Arkin and THE IN-LAWS screenwriter Andrew Bergman (under the pseudonym “Warren Bogle”) re-united on this troubled production, originally under the direction of Bergman until taken over by Cassavetes at the studio’s behest.  Cassavetes’ final feature film (and the final collaboration between Falk, Arkin, et al) is a comedy caper detailing mild mannered insurance salesman Arkin’s involvement in a murderous money scam concocted by client Beverly D’Angelo against her nutty husband Falk.  Richard Libertini (THE IN-LAWS’ General Garcia) even shows up to add a few laughs as Dr. Lopez
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