Gregory Peck – The Chain Reaction Film Club

One of the great things about IMDb is that the URL for people betrays how early they were added to the database. For example, the first person on the IMDb, with the url ending ‘name/nm0000001/’, is Fred Astaire. There’s another film club to be had around that idea, now that I think about it.

Last time I wrote about the rather strange Last of Sheila, then waxed lyrical about two Gregory Peck fims. Anyway, so taken was I with Gregory Peck, and so enticed by the fact that he’s got a relatively small filmography for someone of his fame, that a season beckoned. And now after ten Peck films in a row I am a dedicated fan. Even though I’ve written about two of them before, I’ll look at the whole season here, because Peck deserves that sort of treatment.

From Last of Sheila we linked via James Mason to The Boys From Brazil. I enjoy Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives (the original, obvs) so another Ira Levin-based ooky thriller seemed like a safe bet. Laurence Olivier is a Nazi hunter (and the 59th person added to the IMDb), and Gregory Peck is the fiendish Joseph Mengele (and number 60, conveniently enough. The first hundred or so seem to have been added in alphabetical order!).

Peck Boys from brazil

It wasn’t great (nor was James Mason’s accent come to that), but I thought Gregory Peck was outstanding. Looking up trivia afterwards, it turned out that Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, which seemed terribly hammy to me. Peck on the other hand was critically mauled. Perhaps it’s time and acting styles passing on that have affected my view, perhaps it’s just down to taste, or perhaps it’s that I wasn’t saddled with the view of Peck that critics of the time had. He was, by all accounts, almost always cast as the good guy, the moral authority. But I can count the number of Peck films I’d previously seen on the fingers that I’d hold up at the President if I saw him.

The previous films were Roman Holiday and The Omen, neither of which I remember him from particularly. In fact, in my head Cary Grant played the lead in Roman Holiday, so what do I know!

Peck Designing Woman

It definitely wasn’t all top quality stuff in the season. Designing Woman was a fun enough romp, but would have benefited from Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant in the lead, with their screen personas more able to invite laughter at their expense. Spellbound and Mirage were a pair of duff Hitchcock and Hitchcock-wannabe thrillers. The former is notable for a Dali-designed dream sequence, the latter for an excellent Walter Matthau interlude.

Peck Mockingbird

But everything else was gold. To Kill A Mockingbird and Cape Fear both came out in 1962. Even without seeing any other Peck films, those two alone should be enough to cement an iconic image. A man of unwavering moral authority, brought to breaking point. A man for whom morality is the ultimate arbiter. I think Cape Fear is one of the very best we’ve watched as part of the Chain Reaction Film Club.

Peck Cape Fear

I’ve not seen the remake (I mooted it as a way to end the season, as Peck turns up in it, but Tim was less keen) and am a little scared of it now. I found Robert Mitchum to be skin-crawlingly horrible enough. I’m not certain I want to see where De Niro takes it.

Then there was The Gunfighter, a stripped down Western that would work well as a stage play. It’s largely set in one bar as a weary-of-fame gunfighter waits for the woman he loves and tries to fend off young hotheads and horrified matrons. It’s good stuff. The Guns of Navarone is one of those Sunday afternoon standards that I somehow missed growing up, and its band of plucky misfit soldiers assaulting a Nazi base seems to have laid the blueprints for parts of the original Star Wars trilogy.

A war film with a different tone, Twelve O’Clock High had Peck taking over a bomber unit suffering from low morale. Determined not to get attached to the men for their own good, it’s another great example of his moral strength being tested. Bouncing back to another western, The Big Country is as handsome as they come.

Peck Big Country

It’s here where Peck’s archetypal quiet competence and morality seemed to find their most natural home. Thrust into the middle of a feud which is about to bubble over, Peck outwardly takes the moral high ground, using brain over brawn. At the same time he tackles physical challenges on the quiet, determined not to use those as a means of proving himself to others.

After ten films, almost a fifth of his entire filmography, I am absolutely converted to the temple(ton) of Peck. Is he the greatest actor? No, I don’t think so. There is an unbendingness to his performances that suits his most notable roles. I think that’s also why he excelled as Mengele – a man who believes as unwaveringly in his (horrendous) actions as Atticus Finch believes in the law.

After leaving Peck behind we tackled The Ballad of Cable Hogue, then via Strother Martin we watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Made four years after The Big Country, it was a similar story of Jimmy Stewart’s moral man forced into a world where the rule of law is seemingly meaningless. When we started the Peck season I thought of him as an also-ran compared to the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Watching Liberty Valance I was struck by how much I would have liked Gregory Peck to be playing the lead instead.

It turns out that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was the 100th film in the Chain Reaction Film Club, so I’ll have a little look through what we’ve watched so far and pick out a few choice morsels. And if you haven’t looked at my post about some exciting writing news, then maybe tiptoe over here and see what’s going on.

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Chain Reactions Galore

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a Chain Reaction Film Club entry, but rest assured it has been carrying on in the background. Last time I posted about it we’d just tackled Animal Kingdom. Here’s how the chain has continued – I won’t put in a slavish entry for every film, but a few broad strokes.

From Animal Kingdom we linked to Kinky Boots via Joel Edgerton. It’s a somewhat different tone (Australian crime family to British drag queen shoe manufacturing), and although Joel and Chiwetel Ejiofor put in decent performances it never quite rises above a sort of Full Monty lite. I started drafting a post about it, but it just descended into a rant about how unfair it is that Idris Elba is always mooted as the first black James Bond but Chiwetel seldom is. He’d be excellent. So that’s you told. Apropos of nothing, my other half saw Chiwetel, Bill Nighy and Andrew Lincoln in Joe Penhall’s play Blue Orange years ago. What a cast.

ejiofor

From Kinky Boots to Inside Man to… Bond?

Using Chiwetel Ejiofor we moved on to Inside Man, a 2006 Spike Lee joint that was perfectly enjoyable. Though now I write about it a couple of months down the line I’m actually struggling to remember much about it. Chiwetel was underused though, I remember that much. Oh, get ready for a spoiler… I absolutely loved the bait-and-switch tension the title gave the film. As it deals with a bank heist the instant assumption is that either the cops or the criminals have a man on the other side. But for once that’s not quite what’s going on… I can’t remember another film that built tension purely from its title. Also, the way Jodie Foster says Baron De Rothschild is worth the entry price.

The big cheese in Inside Man was played by Christopher Plummer, and so I decided to tackle his Kipling. The Man Who Would Be King (1975) is one of those films that everyone else seemed to see repeatedly on lazy Sundays growing up, but I didn’t goddammit and I think I missed out. Michael Caine and Sean Connery are the ne’erdowells who decide to take over a country and somehow manage it until their own greed plays against them. It’s a top watch, despite Connery’s repeated ‘we two Englishmen’ lines being spewed in his Scottish accent.

Man who would be king

Nothing to see here, just two Englishmen, oh yes indeed.

Following that I was up for a season of either Connery or Caine films, and we plumped for the latter. So over the course of a few weeks we tackled Zulu (which I did see on lazy Sundays growing up, and was not quite as problematic as I feared it might now be), Gambit (1966 – an incredibly well played twist early on), The Ipcress File (it must surely rate as one of the most British films ever made, and certainly features some of the best passive-aggressive paperwork) and two of its follow ups – Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain (the law of diminishing returns applies).

Ipcress

Britishness is most definitely afoot. And ahead. And ashoulder.

Finally, having started the season with a war epic, we finished with the same. 1969’s all-star Battle of Britain which was worth watching purely for the scene of Edward Fox parachuting into a greenhouse. Here, I’ll save you a couple of hours, watch this.

Making a wonderfully fresh-faced appearance in Battle of Britain was Ian MacShane and so I poopooed the likes of Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier’s weighty filmographies and plumped instead for The Last Of Sheila.

Last of Sheila

Swearengen. Mhm.

It’s a sort of whodunnit cat and mouse affair about a film producer going on a cruise to uncover which of his chums killed his wife in a hit-and-run. Strangely enough it was the only the only film either of its co-writers ever scripted. And who were those writers? Why Psycho’s Anthony Perkins and composer extraordinaire Stephen Sondheim! Apparently they used to host murder mystery treasure hunts for their celeb chums and it spun out of that.

It’s surprisingly good and nicely twisty, however there is one deeply strange thing in it. The game the producer plays is to give each of his guests a card with a dark secret on. Over the course of a week the game is meant to be deciphering who has which card. The secrets don’t correspond to the person who has the card, but they are of course, a secret harboured by one of the other guests. Raquel Welch’s diva character is devastated when it’s revealed that she shoplifted a coat early in her career. However when it is revealed that James Mason’s character is a child molester there is no comment. It’s mentioned a couple more times in the film and, despite the fact that one of the other characters was around him when she was a child, no further comment is passed. It is completely shrugged off. Now, this was in the 70s and we’re living in a post-Saville world, but even so surely it wasn’t something to be glossed over. On the plus side, James Mason’s voice is gloriously James Masony.

From his dulcet tones in The Last of Sheila we pivoted to an occasionally German accented James Mason in The Boys From Brazil. I’m a big fan of Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, and while this wasn’t on that same level it was still enjoyable. Laurence Olivier and Steve Guttenberg are Nazi hunters (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write), and uncover Dr. Mengele alive and well in Panama. But an evil scheme is afoot… Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for it but Peck’s performance was apparently lambasted by critics at the time. Seeing it for the first time now, I’d argue that Olivier’s performance almost ruins the film and Peck is excellently monstrous.

Boys from Brazil

Peck is excellent, Mason is just enjoying the holiday.

So good was Peck in fact, that I struggled to pick just one film for the following week. But eventually I settled on Cape Fear – the 1962 version. He does actually appear in the 1991 version too so we may well get to that shortly. I know the Cape Fear episode of The Simpsons very well, though it seems like that’s more of a riff on the 90s version. I worried that Sideshow Bob’s version of Max Cady’s evil revenge story might soften Cape Fear a bit, but my gosh was I wrong. Robert Mitchum is incredibly horrible, and despite some censoring and the removal of references to child rape from the script, it’s really clear what his plan is. Peck is a muscular counterpoint to Cady and the testing of his almost inflexible moral core creates brilliant tension. One of the best we’ve seen in the 90 films we’ve tackled since the starting point of Chain Reaction.

Cape Fear

Sideshow Bob Mitchum

Phew. That’s caught me right up to speed. It’s Tim’s choice this week and I’m hoping for another Peck film. I had about 8 or 9 on my Peck shortlist without even looking at any Westerns or war films. And most importantly I could name the season ‘The Pecking Order’, so presumably we have to do it now. Got a favourite Gregory Peck film? Let me know and I’ll add it to the list!