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My Favorite Private Eyes

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The private eye is an evergreen character for a very good reason. No matter what era or locale you choose for your story, there’s going to be greed and there’s going to be the occasional crime of passion. And the only way to sort it all out is to find an intrepid sleuth-for-hire. Here are the ones I prefer.

HUMPHREY BOGART IN “THE MALTESE FALCON”

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For a good many people, Bogey is the gumshoe gold standard. His whole vibe told you that he expected the worst from people, but hoped for the best. In “The Maltese Falcon,” a true classic, he gets to rub elbows with such stellar character actors as Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

JACK NICHOLSON IN “CHINATOWN”

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Nicholson channeled more than a little bit of Bogart in “Chinatown,” one of the best movies of the 1970s. He was feisty and dogged in his search for answers in a case that reached operatic heights (and depths) of corruption and depravity. Yet Jack also managed to be a real smartass. That’s saying something, considering what happens to his nose.

RICHARD ROUNDTREE IN “SHAFT”

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The most excellent “Shaft” song gets so much attention, you tend to forget how cool Richard Roundtree was in the title role. Unlike a lot of private eyes, he looked damn good while was chasing down leads and busting heads.

DAVID JANSSEN IN “HARRY O”

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“Harry O” wasn’t on TV for all that long, and it wasn’t a hit, but it featured a rich, nuanced role for David Janssen. His Harry Orwell was complicated, compassionate and filled with deep reservoirs of unspoken feeling. And get this – he didn’t have his own car! He would actually ride the bus around San Diego to work on his cases.

WILLIAM POWELL AND MYRNA LOY IN “THE THIN MAN”

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Powell and Loy were terrific as a team of married sleuths in “The Thin Man” and its sequels. More often than not, Powell’s Nick Charles was nursing a bad hangover, which wife Nora loved to point out. Loy and Powell’s dialogue just sparkled, no matter what sort of situation presented itself. Few movie duos since have matched their obvious chemistry.

HARRISON FORD IN “BLADE RUNNER”

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The juxtaposition of old-time, private eye tropes and futuristic gizmos served “Blade Runner” very well. Ford was a grim investigator trying to track down a bunch of violent, artificial life forms trying to blend in with the general populace. He discovered it wasn’t quite that simple. That’s how it is with private eyes. They always see the shades of gray.

ROBERT MITCHUM IN “OUT OF THE PAST”

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Quite simply, it’s one of the best film noir performances ever put on film. Mitchum personifies fatalistic stoicism as a smitten gumshoe who falls under the spell of a dangerous, mysterious dame. When the bad guy shows up, it’s – holy crap – Kirk Douglas!

JAMES GARNER IN “THE ROCKFORD FILES”

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Garner was smooth as silk as Jim Rockford, an LA private eye who lived in a trailer on the beach. Like most of the folks on this List, he was a jaded guy who still managed to be a soft touch when someone was in trouble. Garner gave the character easy humor, natural charm and a hard-earned intelligence.

JASON SCHWARTZMAN IN “BORED TO DEATH”

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The private eye as a Brooklyn hipster/struggling writer. It’s a brilliant twist on the genre, with Schwartzman perfectly cast as the self-involved, yet surprisingly effective, investigator. The supporting cast is great, too, headed up by Ted Danson.

ROBERT URICH IN “SPENSER: FOR HIRE”

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Urich’s likability, combined with the literary pedigree of Robert B. Parker’s source material, made “Spenser: For Hire” a pleasing way to spend an hour. I also liked that the show was set in Boston, that Spenser drove a Mustang and that he had the best side character on TV. That would be Avery Brooks as Hawk.

MIKE CONNORS IN “MANNIX”

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Okay, I’ll admit it. My favorite part of “Mannix” was the theme song. Connors did a fine job – but that theme song was dynamite.

JIMMY STEWART IN “VERTIGO”

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In “Vertigo,” Jimmy Stewart’s character isn’t so much trying to solve a case as he is surrendering to a personal obsession. He becomes unhinged by Kim Novak’s death and goes completely off the deep end when he encounters a woman who looks exactly like her. As always director Alfred Hitchcock pounces on the dark side of human personality.

DONALD SUTHERLAND IN “KLUTE”

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This is such an underrated performance, mainly because it’s Jane Fonda’s character who dominates the film. But Sutherland is masterful as the quiet, conservative investigator who watches everything with a piercing gaze. As the plot plays out, his strength and resolve radiate wonderfully.

KRISTEN BELL IN “VERONICA MARS”

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“Veronica Mars” took the private eye story to a scary place: high school. These weren’t soft mysteries. Young Veronica, played with plucky toughness by Kristen Bell, had to deal with murders, sexual assaults and spurned lovers, as well as a gaggle of mean girls who hated her.

DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS”

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Here we have a wonderful blend of politics, a search for a missing woman, hidden motives and a dash of racism in 1940s Los Angeles. Denzel Washington plays Easy Rawlins, a guy who loses his job and tries to pay his mortgage as a private investigator. Luckily for him, he’s got crazy Don Cheadle helping him out of a few jams.

ELLIOT GOULD IN “THE LONG GOODBYE”

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For the life of me, I don’t know why this version of Philip Marlowe works so well. It’s set in ’70s California, with lots of drugs, free love and groovy people – not exactly the usual surroundings. Gould is the key. He’s still a dour, relentless seeker of truth, like this brethren of other eras.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IN “SHERLOCK”

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I thought long and hard about whether Sherlock Holmes belonged anywhere on this List. Ultimately, I decided he did, and for me the very best Sherlock is the one on British TV, played by Cumberbatch. He’s set in the current day, but he retains the razor-sharp mind and massive quirks that make the character iconic.

PAUL NEWMAN IN “HARPER”

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Here’s the one I put at the head of the table: Paul Newman as Lew Harper, based on novelist Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series of books. Everything about this performance is excellent. He’s able to seem smart and dumb, honorable and sleezy, energetic and exhausted – all without breaking character. Newman would return as Harper years later in 1975’s “The Drowning Pool.”

Feel free to add your own favorites. And may all your herrings be red ones. Also, here’s a little treat for you:

Classic Oscar Make-Goods

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Now that the Oscar nominations are out, we all have an excuse to rummage through our vast knowledge of Academy Awards minutiae. For instance, what are the most blatant cases of Oscar make-goods? You know, instances where the Academy tried to make up for a previous error in judgement. It never works, as you’ll see.

JAMES STEWART IN “THE PHILADELPHIA STORY” (1940)

Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors, but he just didn’t deserve the Oscar for lead actor in 1940. He was great in the part, as a news reporter sent to cover a society wedding and getting in over his head, but he wasn’t even the lead actor in his own film – Cary Grant was. Plus, Henry Fonda gave a terrific performance in “The Grapes of Wrath” the same year. Most likely, Jimmy got the nod because of the previous year, when he didn’t win for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Shucks.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR IN “BUTTERFIELD 8” (1960)

By most accounts, Liz was a lock for the best actress Oscar in 1960 because she’d taken seriously ill just before Academy members did their voting and she got lots of sympathy support. She’d certainly been in better movies than this one, about a woman who sleeps around and pays emotional consequences. In particular, there was “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1958.

PAUL NEWMAN IN “THE COLOR OF MONEY” (1986)

It bordered on criminal that Newman hadn’t won an acting Oscar before “The Color of Money,” where he revisited the character of Fast Eddie Felson from “The Hustler.” You had “HUD,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Verdict” and “The Hustler” itself in previous years. Not only that, but just one year earlier, Newman had received an honorary Oscar for his body of work. When it came to Paul Newman, the Academy never got the timing right.

AL PACINO IN “SCENT OF A WOMAN” (1992)

This is the example most people remember, because it was so ridiculous. Seriously? Pacino gets best actor for his blind Army officer in “Scent of a Woman,” rather than for “Godfather II” or “Dog Day Afternoon”? Clearly, this was a bid to honor Pacino’s entire career. The problem is, it robbed another fine actor, who would need a make-good Oscar of his own in our next example…

DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “TRAINING DAY” (2001)

Back in 1992, when Pacino was chewing up the scenery in “Scent of a Woman,” Washington was earning raves as the lead in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” Washington lost that Oscar race, obviously. Several years later, he lost again despite a great performance in “The Hurricane.” So along comes the less ambitious “Training Day,” and he wins. Although I liked “Training Day” very much, I thought the Oscar here was a sentimental choice.

MARTIN SCORSESE FOR “THE DEPARTED” (2006)

Don’t get me wrong. “The Departed” is a good film and Scorsese deserves to have a directing Oscar. But no one in their right mind believes “The Departed” is a better film than “Raging Bull” or “GoodFellas.” This was just a matter of course correction.

So those are my Oscar make-goods. What are yours?

Calling All Movie Fans – Best Phones in Films

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Phone technology may have changed wildly over the past 100 years – from those nutty handsets that looked like metal daffodils to today’s sleek cells – but it hasn’t stopped screenwriters and directors from putting phones front and center at key moments in the action. Here are some of my favorite movie phone moments.

THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1939)

Might as well start with the birth of the telephone. Don Ameche does his able best as inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who makes the first successful phone call when he spills a chemical on his lap and inadvertently phones his assistant, Mr. Watson (Henry Fonda),  in another room.

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

This is more like it. In one of the best films of all time, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant play fast-talking newshounds who make a row of old phones look like cutting-edge technology. They swing those handsets around like samurai swords, carrying on multiple conversations at lightning speed.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart played one of the most romantic phone scenes in movie history here, when they shared an earpiece and receiver. Makes you wonder how many potential relationships have been spoiled by speakerphone.

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954)

A fateful phone call is the centerpiece of  Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant thriller. A devious husband (Ray Milland) has blackmailed a thug to murder his unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly). The murder is set to  take place when the wife answers the phone, except …

PILLOW TALK (1959)

This silly film about gender politics and double identities grows sillier and more odd with each passing year. That said, it is undeniably iconic in its look and sensibility – including its enthusiastic use of the split-screen phone call.

FAIL-SAFE (1964)

This, for a generation, was the ultimate phone call: The one between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that would determine whether global nuclear war would occur. Our old friend Fonda plays the American president who must come to terms with the Soviet premier as warheads threaten the world. What’s terrific here is the cold, unfeeling vibe the phone itself exudes.

ANNIE HALL (1977)

Amid the many killer jokes in “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen includes two great phone bits. One is the way Tony Roberts keeps calling his office to tell his “people” where he can be reached. The other is Jeff Goldblum’s cameo as a guy calling his therapist because he can’t remember his mantra.

THE VERDICT (1982)

What an incredible actor Paul Newman was. I’ve watched this film many times and I always marvel at Newman’s total commitment as a washed-up attorney with one last chance at redemption. Much of the character’s desperation comes through in phone calls. Not only that, but the entire movie hinges on – wait for it – a phone bill. Swear to God. And there’s a ringing phone in the final scene that is absolutely haunting.

LOCAL HERO (1983)

Movies don’t come any sweeter than director Bill Forsyth’s story of an American oil company stooge (Peter Riegert) who is sent to purchase an entire Scottish fishing village in order to build a refinery. Scotland here is a magical realm, and the only connection to the corrupt, wider world is this little phone booth.

WALL STREET (1987)

Far from a great movie, but it speaks strongly to a particular American era. Never before, and never after, would you see those dopey, gigantic mobile phones.

GOODFELLAS (1990)

For another view of phone booths, check out Martin Scorsese’s mob masterpiece (okay, ONE of his mob masterpieces). Robert DeNiro beats the crap out of this phone booth, after getting some sad news about poor Joe Pesci.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)

It’s kind of a perfect, profane time capsule of great writing and acting. David Mamet’s penetrating drama about shabby real estate salesmen just oozes with delusion and deception. All the icky sales calls are just icing on a rancid cake.

SCREAM (1996)

Give Drew Barrymore her due. She nailed this scene in the ironic/iconic  horror flick “Scream.” Tell me it didn’t give you a chill when Ghostface asked, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”

THE MATRIX (1999)

Let me be clear. I love “The Matrix.” Love it. But there’s something hilarious and crazy about the way so much of this film revolved around trying to find a decent landline.

PHONE BOOTH (2002)

The third of our phone booth trilogy, this one I think does a great job of using phone technology to make a point about how exposed we feel as individuals in an increasingly-watchful society. Then again, I could be way off. It’s a Colin Farrell thriller, after all.

THE DEPARTED (2006)

To me, this is the best use of the modern phone in a major film. Another Scorsese mob picture (this one set in Boston), it allows its characters to use their cell phones just as often as real people do. There’s even texting! But you know what I liked most? The way Jack Nicholson’s mob boss opened and closed his cell in an aggressive manner that completely mirrored his King Of All Men attitude.

So those are my picks. What are yours? This is The Jimbo List, signing off.

Good Guys Gone Bad

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Want to know what’s really scary? It’s when an actor normally associated with good-guy roles decides to go bad. In fact, it adds a whole other dimension to the badness. These are some of my favorites.

DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “TRAINING DAY” (2001)

Washington’s performance as corrupt Det. Alonzo Harris is full of explosive, confident power. By turns witty and violent, it’s a role that builds to a crescendo of creepiness. It also won Washington an Oscar.

HENRY FONDA IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” (1968)

The guy who played Tom Joad, young Abe Lincoln and the old dude from “On Golden Pond” is a very bad man. He’s a revelation, actually, playing a hired killer in this Sergio Leone western. Fonda exudes the same patient intelligence here that he does to all his movies, but in the service of greed.

CHRISTIAN BALE IN “AMERICAN PSYCHO” (2000)

When Bale commits to a part, he goes all the way. In this gory tale, he’s a rich banker with a taste for blood. Remember the crazy eyes Bale brought to “The Fighter” last year? Just add a dash of sociopathic glee and you’ve got “American Psycho.”

ROBERT MITCHUM IN “NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” (1955) AND “CAPE FEAR” (1962)

One of the all-time greats, Robert Mitchum gives a surreal performance in “Night of the Hunter,” as an insane preacher who stalks a pair of children in an attempt to find some hidden cash. Equally creepy is his Max Cady in “Cape Fear,” in which an ex-con takes revenge on the lawyer who put him in jail. There’s a terrifying scene in which Mitchum sneaks aboard a houseboat where the lawyer’s wife (Polly Bergen) is hiding. Gives me the chills.

RUSSELL CROWE IN “3:10 TO YUMA” (2007)

Here’s a classic example of an actor having more fun in the villain role. Crowe plays Ben Wade, a charismatic outlaw being escorted to the train that will take him to jail. It’s a part that is full of guile, humor and perceptiveness.

PAUL NEWMAN IN “HUD” (1963)

Towering performance by Newman in one of his best movies. Hud Bannon is a selfish, flawed, petty man who never fails to hurt those around him in a small, Texas town. Yet he’s absolutely electric and able to manipulate people who ought to know better than trust him. Nobody played simmering resentment better than Newman.

MORGAN FREEMAN IN “STREET SMART” (1987)

A lot of people haven’t seen this movie, yet it’s the reason Freeman became a prominent film actor. He played a New York City pimp named Fast Black who threw a good scare into Christopher Reeve’s character, and the audience.

HARRISON FORD IN “WHAT LIES BENEATH” (2000)

It certainly seemed as if Ford relished this opportunity to be menacing rather than macho. I won’t give away any plot details, other than to say this is a “things that go bump in the night” flick, and Ford is responsible for some of the bumps.

BURT LANCASTER IN “THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS” (1957) AND “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY” (1964)

Speaking of macho, there’s the always-intense Burt Lancaster. In “Sweet Smell of Success” he’s a sadistic, powerful newspaper columnist (go figure), and in “Seven Days in May” he’s an egomaniacal general trying to overthrow the government. Either way, you don’t want to cross him.

TOM HANKS IN “ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002)

This one might need an asterisk. Yes, Hanks plays a hit man during the Depression. Yes, he does dastardly deeds. But he spends much of the movie trying to protect his young son, so you’re still kind of rooting for him.

BEN STILLER IN “DODGEBALL” (2004)

What, you thought comedies didn’t have any good guys gone bad? Think again. Stiller is a wonderful sleazebag as evil gym owner White Goodman, who tries to ruin Vince Vaughn.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN “BATMAN AND ROBIN” (1997)

Pretty much everyone hated this movie, and I’m fine with that. But Arnold was masterfully campy as Mr. Freeze, like it or not. And his accent worked here, for once.

GREGORY PECK IN “THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL” (1978)

On the other hand, I am not as enamored of this performance. Why is it on the List? Because of its incredible hubris, friends. “The Boys from Brazil” asks us to belief Atticus Finch – ATTICUS FINCH – as Nazi monster Dr. Josef Mengele. That’s a tough one, Scout.

DON CHEADLE IN “OUT OF SIGHT” (1998)

This is what a good actor Cheadle is. Despite being so small of stature, he’s utterly convincing as a career criminal capable of sudden violence. He has the ability to play smart, funny and realistic all at once, while still being frightening. Terrific movie, by the way.

DICK VAN DYKE IN “NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM” (2006)

Not an extremely big role, but come on. This is Rob Petrie. This is Bert from “Mary Poppins.” And he’s just so … mean.

HEATH LEDGER IN “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)

Here’s our big finish and justifiably so. Ledger took an iconic character, the Joker, and transformed him into something both original and exciting. This is a great movie and Ledger is the best thing in it. You can’t take your eyes off of him, first of all. What’s more, he’s hilarious. And mysterious. And malevolent.

That’s all, folks. So who did I leave out?

A Gallery of Cinematic Eyes

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When it comes to movie magic, the eyes have it. From dramas and comedies to westerns and cartoons, there is nothing on a theater screen that holds our attention as tightly as a dazzling pair of eyes. Sometimes we forget that fact, amid the shock and awe of summer movies. Here’s a reminder.

 

PAUL NEWMAN

The gold standard for blue eyes on film. A longtime Connecticut resident, Newman used his high beams to accentuate the intensity of whatever part he was playing, from flawed heroes to insensitive rogues.

 

ANGELINA JOLIE

The reigning queen of moving picture peepers. Jolie wields the power to command the screen with a look.

 

BELA LUGOSI

There’s a reason this little, old dude remains part of the conversation about enduring movie icons after all these years, and it’s not because of his tremendous acting chops or his good looks. It’s the crazy hoodoo he performs with his orbs.

 

LENA HORNE

Still photos don’t begin to convey the playful force of Horne’s eyes. It was particularly true when she sang on the big screen.

 

MARTY FELDMAN

Was it the bug-eyed quality of Feldman’s eyes that made him so memorable? In part, sure. But the man also had perfect comedic timing. Check out “Young Frankenstein” again some time. He’s just remarkable.

 

SAURON

Best. One-eyed. Movie. Performance. Ever.

 

MALCOLM MCDOWELL

At the center of the terrifying, masterful “A Clockwork Orange” – beyond the physical and emotional violence, beyond the bleak portents of sociopathic young people and social institutions obsessed with mind controlare McDowell’s terrifying eyes.

 

BETTE DAVIS

Must I say it? The woman has Bette Davis eyes. Here’s a photo from her younger days, before her scary-eyebrow period.

 

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I can report with complete authority that this animated snake from “Jungle Book” launched thousands of snake phobias across this great land in the 1960s. Or at least one.

 

BUSTER KEATON

With all due respect to Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, I’ve always been a Buster Keaton man. My goodness, look at those sad eyes.

 

YAPHET KOTTO

Good guy or bad guy, serious or funny, Kotto’s characters are always about what’s going on behind those utterly deadpan eyes.

 

WALL-E

Come on, folks. Would this flick have worked even half as well if the lonely robot had smaller eyes? I think not.

 

LILLIAN GISH

Speaking of big eyes, Ms. Gish was a superstar of the silent era thanks to hers.

 

JACK ELAM

He and his immobile left eye (injured in childhood) found a tremendous amount of work. Elam was known mainly for supporting parts in Westerns such as “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.”

 

ELIZABETH TAYLOR

Best movie eyes of all time? It’s not even close. Taylor’s violet eyes were breathtaking.