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Twilight Time Finds Love and Death in Four Films From the ’60s and ‘70s

By  · Published on March 28th, 2015

Twilight Time

Twilight Time released five titles in February, and while their monthly selections never really have an official theme between them four of the films share something of a common thread this time ‐ the importance of love and the inevitability of death.

To Sir, With Love follows a reluctant teacher’s efforts to empower teenagers to respect others and themselves, and he wins their hearts in the process. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is Roger Corman’s take on one of the more infamous gangland killings from the ’20s. Lenny features Dustin Hoffman in Bob Fosse’s biographical film about famed and troubled comedian Lenny Bruce. Finally, and fittingly, Woody Allen’s Love and Death is about both of those things.

I haven’t seen the fifth title, Stormy Weather, so we’ll just have to presume that someone in it loves and/or dies.

To Sir, With Love (1967)

Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) is an engineer in search of an engineering job in late ’60s London, but with no real prospects he accepts a teaching job at a tough high school in the city’s rough and tumble East End. The students see no reason to respect adult authority, and the other teachers see no reason to treat the kids as anything but children. Thackeray takes a different tact, instead attempting to create a classroom built on mutual respect, but it’s not an easy road to travel.

This sweetly affirmative film is remembered by many for Lulu’s title song, but it’s more than simply a vehicle for a top ten pop hit. Just as Dangerous Minds (and Jim Belushi’s The Principal!) would do years later, the film focuses on someone who successfully bridges the gap between generations in order to show the importance of education ‐ not book-learning so much as real-world learning. It’s rarely overly cheesy and instead manages a sincere, heartfelt tone.

The core strength of the film is present in Poitier’s powerful yet restrained performance. He’s a charismatic actor with more than a few roles that saw him as a man pushed to a verbal breaking point, and while the stakes here aren’t as severe as the life or death ones faced in something like In the Heat of the Night they still feel every bit as important. Poitier imbues Thackeray with real responsibility ‐ personal, professional, societal ‐ and that intense care comes through in his performance.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features two commentaries ‐ including a fun one with Judy Geeson ‐ five featurettes, an isolated score track and a theatrical trailer. The image is grainy by design but sharp in close-ups, and all of it combined makes for the label’s best February release.

[Buy it from Screen Archives here.]

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The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)

’20s Chicago is a place where prohibition has met its match ‐ gangsters turn the streets red on a daily basis as competition and corruption lead to gun fights and organized assassinations. The massacre of the title is one of the latter, a real life event, and the film explores the days leading up to the slaughter as it moves between competing criminal factions including Al Capone, Bugs Moran and other recognizable gangsters (as played by Jason Robards, George Segal, Bruce Dern and other recognizable faces).

Roger Corman’s ode to the tommy gun-toting underworld is a mix of narrative and documentary filmmaking ‐ it’s similar to 1976’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown with narration and character introductions throughout meant to walk viewers through every purportedly true detail of the incident, but that commonality extends to the film’s overall feel. It’s cold and impersonal with characters and events that seem detached, and the strongest scenes are the centerpiece ones focused on the action and killing.

Happily Corman knows his way around violent cinema, and the film delivers more than a few bloody demises. Gore aside, the action sequences are well-crafted and shot with a bigger eye than many of his earlier films too making for some visually exciting scenes. They pop enough to make the dialogue exchanges feel perfunctory by comparison.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features an isolated score track, a theatrical trailer, a few minutes of archival footage showing the real gangsters and a brief interview with Corman discussing the film’s production. The picture looks good sharpness-wise, but the colors feel a bit washed out ‐ that may very well be a part of the “faux-documentary” feel though.

[Buy it from Screen Archives here.]

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Lenny (1974)

Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) was a stand-up comedian by trade and a social provocateur by design until his death in 1968, and while he was revered by some and reviled by others there wasn’t a soul who knew (of) him who didn’t have some kind of opinion. He pushed audiences to ‐ and beyond ‐ their limits, and he did the same to those in his life.

Bob Fosse’s film eschews typical biographical format to jump around in Bruce’s adult life as informed by his wife’s recollections, and it moves back and forth between his early career and final days. The trouble comes from two areas that lead to the same result ‐ both the fractured format and Honey’s POV keeps us removed from a more personal, developing narrative. To be clear, it delves into Bruce’s personal struggles, but it’s from an outside source.

Structural/narrative problems aside, Hoffman is pretty spectacular here. He’s played the straight-talking and brusk guy before, but past characters with that trait have usually had an ulterior motive ‐ Bruce simply wants to provoke. Hoffman portrays that non-violent aggression with a dangerous edge that keeps the film watchable despite its flaws.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a commentary, an isolated score track and two trailers. The film is in black and white which goes a long way in helping the image appear sharp (when not intentionally feeling hazy with smoke and drug-addled memories).

[Buy it from Screen Archives here.]

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Love and Death (1975)

Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) is about to die, so it seems like the ideal time to tell his life story. He’s a poor Russian schmuck leading a life that sees him frequently questioning his own mortality ‐ something he knows even as a young man is far from a certainty. As Napoleon makes himself an uninvited guest (along with his army) Boris’ focus becomes the love of his life, his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), who’s planning to marry an older, more established (and unrelated) suitor. With the promise and threat of war looming, the kissing cousins discuss and debate existential issues with a casual bent.

I’m on record as being far more a fan of Allen’s early films (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, The Purple Rose of Cairo) than his later, more critically-acclaimed ones (Blue Jasmine, Magic in the Moonlight) ‐ his pure comedies work for me on a more consistent basis than his later character comedy/dramas. (Although my favorite Allen film is Match Point so, yeah.)

The film goes broad and slapsticky at times, but the biggest laughs come from angsty back and forth conversations, historical riffs and Allen’s well-timed delivery. Comedy is the film’s biggest strength, but there’s something to be said for the “big” feel of it all as the historical period and ongoing war add a grand atmosphere to the proceedings. Less effective are the actual story and characters who feel slight even by Allen’s ’70s standards.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features an isolated score track and two trailers. The image is fine

[Buy it from Screen Archives here.]

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.