Episode 38: This Gun for Hire (1942, Frank Tuttle) / Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

Where would Hollywood be without the literary adaptation?

Accusing the system of unoriginality has never been out of style and with good reason: before there was other media to plunder, turning books into movies was a great way to turn a profit, from Gone With The Wind to the bible. During the golden age of the airport novelist, which came and went between the creation of television and the ability to watch Lost on a Game Boy, pulpy imaginations like that of Stephen King and Tom Clancy ruled the skies. Our movies in this episode reflect the best and worst of the mass-produced page turner seat filler fodder – fifty years, a thousand worlds and one Frank apart.

This Gun For Hire came from the pen of The Third Man author Graham Greene under the original, subtler title of A Gun For Sale. Partially fashioned as a showcase for the up and coming Veronica Lake, the scant 80 minute story allows her two nightclub song and magic numbers before throwing her on the lam with Alan Ladd in a fast paced plot of espionage and cold blooded revenge. Rumors have persisted that this pairing was conceived in consideration of the two rising stars’ relatively low stature – literally 4″11′ (hers) and 5″6′ (his).

Lake is every bit as wry and sexy as she was in Sullivan’s Travels but the show surprisingly belongs to Ladd, whose morally shifty hitman makes the film one of the most formative early works of fim noir. Also great is Tuttle’s direction and the supporting cast, particularly Laird Cregar as the slimy, corpulent double-crosser whom Ladd is gunning for.

Despite a more prolific involvement in film from the very beginning of his career than Greene, Michael Crichton still had to wait 15 years to see the film version of his 1980 thriller Congo. Upon seeing the results he may well have preferred to wait longer or not to have begun the process at all. This film is an abject disaster on every conceivable level, failing to produce either the escapist fantasy the filmmakers intended or an unintentional work of hilarious incompetence.

Being produced on the heels of Jurassic Park, one gets the sense that the studio responsible felt that Crichton’s name alone guaranteed a hit. Thus the low cost casting of b-movie hired guns like Joe Don Baker, Tim Curry and Bruce Campbell alongside low cost indy darlings like Laura Linney and Dylan Walsh. Even more cynical is the withholding of the story’s star creatures, a bunch of marauding killer gorillas, until literally the final 15 minutes of the film. Jurassic Park would not be the same film with only 15 minutes of dinosaurs, and killer apes are a poor substitute for dinosaurs in the first place.

To make the children of America who only wanted to see more people being chased through jungles by PG-13 monsters wait through over an hour of idiotic banter between Ernie Hudson and an animatronic gorilla is nothing short of fraud. For sheer lack of even the most rudimentary distracting spectacle, Congo is perhaps the worst film of 1990s Summer blockbuster era.




Episode 36: The Stranger (1946, Orson Welles) / Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001, Kevin Smith)

Kevin Smith and Orson Welles have a lot in common. Firstly, they’ve both written and directed many of their own films. Secondly, they star in their own films. Thirdly, they like to eat. Okay, so they have three things in common.

The Stranger is quizzically one of Welles’ lesser known works despite being one of his most accessible. In a plot seemingly inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, Welles himself portrays a Nazi war criminal hiding undetected in the milieu of small town America while plotting his future schemes. He’s so evil he kicks dogs! Hot on his trail is Edward G. Robinson, who nyaah sees through his perfect American accent and begins to turn the screws on Welles’ newly married bride, the lovely Loretta Young. When confronted, Welles strings her along as long as he can. But for how long?

Many sophisticated crane and tracking shots distinguish this modestly budgeted thriller as a warmup for later Welles classics such as Touch Of Evil. Despite his own dismissal the project as mere work for hire – which it certainly is – work for hire from Orson Welles amounts to an entertaining thriller easily in league with any other. While Robinson’s character is not particularly developed, Young’s is a minor masterpiece of tragic love for a man she has begun to understand is bad without fathoming the true extent of his evil. Welles does not give so much as a single noble quality to his beast.

Unlike a work-for-hire job, Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is nothing less than one man’s completely unwarranted magnum ode to himself. Back in 2001, Miramax was far from bankruptcy and was actually willing to fund such folly. This is 22 million dollars they probably wish they had back right now. Smith has never been a serious moneymaker screenwriter on the level of, say, Joe Eszterhas or Shane Black, but what he lacked in misogyny he made up for with good casting, unpretentious comedy and the cutting edge gimmick of having his characters talk about Star Wars and Marvel comics for no reason.

His accumulated goodwill as the comic writer-director for geeks in the 90s finally put him over into the mainstream with Dogma. Then he had a choice to make. Either branch out beyond his New Jersey buddy comedy that began with Clerks five years earlier, or do more of the same. Promising to his lovingly patronized merchandise-consuming online fan following that Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back would be the final film in that mold – replete with cameos by the characters of each previous film – he wrote a stream of consciousness ripoff of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure starring himself. Then he broke his promise with Clerks 2 after Jersey Girl bombed.

We give a little extra time in this episode to his evisceration, but only because we were once fans ourselves.