The Best Man (1964)

With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility

The Best Man can be boiled down to one simple reality; politics is a phoney sham in which image matters over actual policy – I mean who knew right? The Best Man is a look at what goes on behind closed doors away from the pomp and flair of the convention arena. This stands in ironic comparison to the dignified slideshow of all then 36 US presidents over the opening credits.

The Best Man is a film which doesn’t hold much appeal beyond the politics geeks like myself, although does offer a lot of insight to sink your political teeth into. Writer Gore Vidal clearly knew his political insight and this really comes through in the writing. Every other line of dialogue brings up thought-provoking talking points of political insight (“No girls in the white house” – did Vidal know something about JFK?) as two presidential candidates fight for the endorsement of a former president (Lee Tracy) in this dirty game of chess.

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No party is mentioned in the film although it is more than likely the party featured are the Democrats due Vidal’s ties to the party and with the play in which the film was based on being widely recognised as a parallel to the 1960 Democratic convention. Another hint this is the Democratic Party is the southern influence present at the convention (Democrats still dominated the south in the 1960s) from the brief shot of a woman in the convention waving a confederate flag to the former President positively referencing the confederacy.

Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) is a more conservative democrat running on an anti-communist platform from the days when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans existed. The man wants to lower taxes, increase military spending and is for state’s rights. Reportedly the ethically dubious and ruthless character was based on Richard Nixon – he even goes as far blackmailing the former president for the endorsement.

The liberal counterpoint to the conservative and strong-minded Cantwell is the liberal William Russell (Henry Fonda); a candidate tainted by extramarital affairs, a nervous breakdown and a demonstrated inability to take decisive action. It is even hinted that Russell may be an atheist based upon his comment regarding human’s animal descent only for one of his advisors to state, “No mention of Darwin, before The Garden of Eden was the world”. The Best Man does offer some comic relief however in the form of Ann Southern as Mrs Gamage, a loud-mouthed, feminist type, pestering Russell that he doesn’t appeal to the female vote.

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“Russell’s Got Muscle”

Eventually, Russell, against his will blackmails Cantwell with info outing him as a homosexual. The word homosexual is not used as first but it’s more than apparent that’s the accusation levelled against Cantwell (“What we called when I was a boy, a degenerate”). The film does, however, drop the word homosexual later on, surely one of the earliest films to do so. The Best Man was itself released on an election year and one of several political movies to be essential viewing for anyone running who is for office.

The Prize (1963)

A Different Kind of Stockholm Syndrome

The Prize is my second favourite Hitchcock film he didn’t direct (my favourite being 1941’s All Through the Night). It’s not instantly engaging from the start as there is a lot of setting up to do but becomes more and more tense as the film progresses. In classic Hitchcock fashion, once the mystery kicks in your left scratching your head wondering if the protagonist just paranoid or is something fishy really going on.

I consider The Prize one of Paul Newman’s best films, giving him the opportunity to show off his not often exposed comedic chops. Newman is one of few select actors in which I can ask the question, “honestly, who doesn’t like Paul Newman?”; does there exist a more likable screen presence?  Likewise, Edward G. Robinson’s role is reminiscent of his part in The Whole Town’s Talking, playing a dual role of characters identical in appearance but with polar opposite personalities; while the hotel setting rings a bell of MGM’s own Grand Hotel some 31 years prior. plus when you set your movie in Sweden it seems inevitable that someone will mention Greta Garbo along the way. Hitchcock himself also never fully took advantage of the cold war. Torn Curtain, although I do think is underrated, is imperfect while Topaz is one of his dullest outings. It’s satisfying to see a superb Hitchcockian thriller with a plot about West vs. East.

North By Northwest has the auction scene in which Cary Grant makes a fool of himself to get caught by the police in order to get away from the bad guys; The Prize has the same scene but ups the ante with having it taking place during a nudist meeting and of course naturally of all the countries in the world to a nudist meeting, where else but Sweden. The Prize is not quite Hitchcock’s greatest hits but it’s the closet a film comes to being so. There are other allusions to other Hitchcock films including The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and Torn Curtain. Hang on, that one didn’t come until three years after this movie. Huh, was Hitchcock inspired by this Hitchcock clone/rip-off/ homage/whatever you want to call it. As far as imitations of someone else’s work goes it doesn’t get pulled off any better than this.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)

6 Angry Card Players

The opening of A Big Hand for the Little Lady has so much frantic build up, the scoping scenery shots as far as the eye can see with a grand western music score and for what? A game of poker; but rightfully so as this may be the best poker movie I’ll ever see. I don’t know how to play poker nor do I have any interest in cards, but it doesn’t stop me from being absorbed in this fascinating and inspired comedy.

Much humour is derived from Henry Fonda’s performance as a gambling addict who attempts to act naive and innocent in order to mask his addiction; resulting in the man becoming a ticking time bomb and the suspense which derives from watching this guy throwing his livelihood away. At one point in the film, however, it stops being entirely comic in which I start feeling sorry for how pathetic Fonda’s character has become; the effective quick switched between comedy and drama is superb. Backed by a cast of charismatic gents as they bicker and tell outlandish stories of what they abandoned in order to attend the game of poker and take the rules of poker so seriously, even when a man’s life is on the line. The only issue I would take with the film is the unnecessary remaining 10 minutes which drag along after the film’s plot has been resolved.

I’d love to see this concept of a poker game going out of control expanded upon and taken to new heights. Not a remake but the same concept in a different setting and perhaps a bit zanier, I would like to see. The sub-genre of the western comedy intrigues me. Westerns as a whole I find hit and miss but when presented in comedic form I have a much easier time caring about what’s happening on screen.