Tag Archives: Steve Martin

Yes Mr. Mamet we know you are clever. “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997). Our third look at actor Steve Martin in our tribute to him.

You all know my opinion on movies by now; that is, can there be such a thing as a movie which is too intelligent?  Nope.  But it can try way too hard to seem intelligent.  That’s the case with The Spanish Prisoner.  Written and directed by David Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner has many of the hallmarks of great films: intelligent plot, fascinating twists and turns, smart dialog, and an interesting atmosphere or mood.  I like this film a lot, but I can’t call it a great film because Mamet tries too hard to prove he’s clever—which we already knew.

Mamet is probably one of the most prolific and famed playwrights of our time.  However, I recently read in the Guardian that Mamet’s last 6 plays have been serious box office flops—one was even announced closed after the first day it opened having only 17 professional performances.  Read the article here  I think the problem is, and I’ve said this before in our review of Gengarry Glenross, that Mamet has one underlying theme and most of his work is a variation on that theme.  Simply put, that people are selfish jerks and would step over their own mother for a dollar.  The Spanish Prisoner is no exception only it is much more complicated and elaborate than his big three “Oleanna” “American Buffalo” and of course “Glengarry Glenross.”

Campbell Scott (son of George C. Scott) and also a graduate of my alma-mater (where he was a visiting professor when I attended university) is the victim of a truly intricate con known as the Spanish Prisoner.  “The Spanish Prisoner” is a con game that dates back to the 19th century. Typically, the con man informs a victim of a wealthy man held prisoner in Spain. The con man then convinces the victim to put up funds to rescue the wealthy man in exchange for a larger sum of money once the prisoner is released, as well as obtaining the hand of a young, beautiful woman, typically the wealthy man’s daughter. The con game ends once the victim has been cleaned or realizes that he has been duped from the beginning.


Steve Martin plays Jimmy Dell. Now, in truth, Martin is brilliant. Prior to this film, I viewed him as a an actor who could only play the “put-upon guy.” Yet here he plays a suave and brilliant businessman, and he does it incredibly well.  In The Spanish Prisoner, Martin takes over the screen with his performance.


The title is a direct reference to the specific con game, an updated version of which Joseph A. ‘Joe’ Ross (Campbell Scott) suddenly finds himself caught in.  A small clog in the machinery of a large firm, he invents an unnamed and un-shown “Process” which is guaranteed to make untold masses of money for the company he works for.  On a business trip to the Caribbean, he meets millionaire Julian ‘Jimmy’ Dell (Steve Martin) and is befriended by an even lowlier coworker, the secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), who obviously has a thing for him.  Back home, he slowly begins to feel that his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) is out to screw him, but before he can protect his interests, he not only finds out that it is actually Jimmy who is out to screw him but actually gets the screw job.  A twist and a turn and a twist and a turn and a double and triple twist and turn later, Ross is not only bereft of The Process but is also seemingly framed for the murder of his buddy George Lang (Ricky Jay).  Everything everywhere points to Ross, while Jimmy is nowhere to be found. With the help of Susan, he sets out to prove his innocence, but the film still has a good dozen twists to go before the last line of smart dialogue is crisply delivered.  In the end it turns out not only was it his employer who was behind the scheme but that the U.S. Marshalls (disguised as Japanese tourists) were watching the whole time thereby wrapping up this incredibly complex artifice in a few minutes.

The truly horrible thing about this film is Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pigeon, who plays a mere secretary at Joe’s firm.  Apparently she has had a role in every one of Mamet’s plays since their marriage in 1991.  That is not a good thing.  Listening to her in this film is like nails scratching on a chalkboard.  She tries to come off as the quirky cute temptress but instead bogs down the film with her annoying dialog, speech patterns and voice inflections.  I mean it is hard to put up with.  Putting that to one side,  it’s a tricky plot, and Mamet never lets his audience forget just how tricky it is, just as he never lets anyone forget that he’s a writer, or maybe preferably a Writer. And boy can he write.  One gets the sense, listening to his dialogue, which he just loves to write, that he loves the sound of his own words that he loves the wordplay and clever twisting of familiar quotes and clichés to new purposes.  One does not get the sense that he has ever actually heard the way real people talk, or that he has any feel for (or interest in) writing in such a way that actors can actually deliver his lines without coming across as stilted and inhuman.  Maybe he doesn’t care, maybe he’s quite content creating this stylized Mamet world where these humanoid figures sort of look and sometimes act like people, but speak as though they learned about human interactions by studying high school productions of Shakespeare.  There’s stylized dialogue that works (His Girl Friday, still the model for artificial but infectious patter), and then there’s stylized dialogue that merely calls attention to its own stylization without compensating for it by being, you know, clever or fun or intelligent. Maybe you can guess which category this falls into: “Money, it depresses everyone but what did it ever do for one?”

Let me stress that you should not read this review as a condemnation. I like this film and I recommend it.  But I feel the film artificially limits my ability to love it because of these entirely avoidable flaws.  Had Mamet stopped telling me how intelligent he is (which we already knew), then this could have been a great movie.  As it is, it’s a good movie which wasted its potential to become a great movie.


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Posted by on June 13, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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The second movie in our tribute to Steve Martin: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982).

As you know, we here at JPFmovies are in the midst of tribute to the legendary comic Steve Martin.  Our first review was The Man With Two Brains (1983).  The year before The Man With Two Brains was released Carl Reiner and Steve Martin were teamed up again in the second of four films the two would collaborate on.  The film uses a very interesting technique of inter-splicing of scenes from eighteen classic detective/film noir thrillers into the narrative.  The story is a Bogart-Sam Spade type of private detective, played by Martin, trying to solve the case of his beautiful client while falling in love with her.  Sound familiar?  Something like the Maltese Falcon?  Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid both pays tribute and satirizes the film noir genre.  According to my research, Reiner and Martin assembled group known for their technical expertise; in fact, many of them had worked on the original films featured in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.  Luckily they were still alive. 

Apparently Edith Head (to date she is the most honored woman and costume designer in Academy Award history) was the costume designer for six of the eighteen films featured within the picture: Notorious (1946) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).  She outfitted Martin with twenty suits during production, each created to integrate seamlessly into the original classic action.  She died and 1981 and Dead Men was her last film was dedicated to her. 

The Film’s musical director had to ensure that the audience could not tell the difference between the old and the new music.  The man in charge of production had the really tough job because of the high number of different scenes from all the clips; eighty-five separate sets were created.  The production manager found the actual train compartment used in Suspicion (1941) with Cary Grant – this set piece would be used in the scenes featuring Martin interacting with Grant that only helped to increase the realism of the action.

Without the resources such as blue screen technology and computer animation that are available today, Dead Men had to rely on precise perspective filming.  Many of the films of the forties and fifties used camera views that shot over the shoulder of the characters allowing the makers to replicate the set-up of the shot, with a stand-in posing as the shoulder with Martin in full view. Another technique used was filming Martin in front of a screen on which the classic film was projected; with the proper perspective and angles in place, the two films effectively merged for the viewer.

Among the actors who appear from classic films are Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Wally Brown, James Cagney, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Charles McGraw, Fred MacMurray, John Miljan, Ray Milland, Edmund O’Brien, Vincent Price, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and Norma Varden.  If that is not an all-star cast you tell me what is.

In the opening scene, John Hay Forrest (George Gaynes), noted scientist and cheese maker, dies in a single-vehicle car accident (represented by the car wreck scene from Keeper of the Flame). In the next scene, private investigator Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) is reading a newspaper when Forrest’s daughter, Juliet (Rachel Ward), enters his office and faints when the paper’s headline reminds her of her father’s death.  Upon coming to, she hires Rigby to investigate the death, which she thinks was murder. In Dr. Forrest’s lab, Rigby finds two lists, one titled “Friends of Carlotta” and the other “Enemies of Carlotta”, as well as an affectionately autographed photo of singer Kitty Collins, whose name appears on one of the lists.  His search is interrupted by a man posing as an exterminator (Alan Ladd, in This Gun for Hire), who shoots Rigby in the arm and frisks the lists from the seemingly dead investigator. 

Rigby manages to find his way to Juliet’s house, where she sucks out the bullet, snakebite-style, and points Rigby to the club at which Kitty sings. Juliet also reveals a note to her father from her alcoholic brother-in-law, Sam Hastings, which in turn reveals that Dr. Forrest gave him a dollar bill “for safekeeping”. Despite warnings that the mentally disturbed Leona will not be of much use, Rigby calls Leona, who after a rambling discussion, hangs up (Barbara Stanwyck, in Sorry, Wrong Number). On the way out, Juliet asks Rigby to leave further news with her butler or cleaning woman. Mention of the latter causes Rigby to go berserk due to his own father running off with the cleaning woman and his mother dying of a broken heart.

Rigby tracks down alcoholic Sam (Ray Milland, from Lost Weekend) and gets Dr. Forrest’s dollar, which has “FOC” (Friends of Carlotta) names scrawled on it — including Kitty Collins and Swede Anderson (Kitty’s boyfriend). Rigby tracks down Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, from The Killers) at the Brentwood Room. He asks if she’s one of Carlotta’s friends, which causes her to leave abruptly. He trails her to a restaurant, where she ditches her brooch into her soup. Rigby subsequently retrieves the brooch, which contains an “EOC” list, on which all names are crossed out, except Swede Anderson’s. Rigby visits Swede (Burt Lancaster, from The Killers) but while Rigby prepares a “java”, Swede is killed. 

Rigby goes to the train station to collect the contents of locker 1936, which contains more lists. A “handsome” guy (Cary Grant, from Suspicion) follows him onto a train but, Rigby puts him to sleep with the help of his harmonica. Rigby finds F.X. Huberman, whose name he found on one of the lists and who turns out to be a “classy dame,” throwing a party (Ingrid Bergman, from Notorious). She flirts with Rigby (represented by Cary Grant’s silhouette), then drugs his drink and steals the locker key.

Rigby wakes up back at his office, where Juliet informs him that Sam Hastings fell out of a window to his death. She also has a New York Times reference for him from her father’s office. The reference is to an article about a South American cruise ship called Immer Essen (German for always eating) on whose last voyage Sam Hastings was a passenger. When Marlowe (Bogart, from The Big Sleep) calls, Rigby questions him about Walter Neff, the ship’s owner, and learns that Neff cruises supermarkets looking for blondes.

Rigby goes into drag by disguises himself as a blonde and meets Neff (Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity).  Rigby drugs him and finds documents about the Immer Essen, including a passenger list identical to an EOC list, and articles about the ship’s imprisoned captain, Cody Jarrett, who refuses to talk to anyone about it but his mother.  Rigby then dresses up in drag again as Jarrett’s mother to visit Jarrett in prison without arousing the prison guards’ suspicion (James Cagney from White Heat).  He tries to win Jarrett’s confidence by explaining the Friends of Carlotta are after him. Rigby doesn’t learn anything from Jarrett though, so he cashes in a favor with the warden to act as a prisoner for a few days.  Jarrett turns out to be a Friend of Carlotta after all, kidnaps Rigby on a jail break, and shoots him while he’s still in the trunk of the getaway car.

After sucking out a third bullet, Juliet leaves for the drugstore for medicine. On her way out, a call comes in from an old flame (Joan Crawford, in Humoresque). Juliet overhears parts of it, takes it to be a double dating by Rigby and closes the case. While Rigby is drinking, thinking himself betrayed by Juliet, Marlowe calls and tips Rigby off that Carlotta is an island off Peru. There Rigby tracks down the hideout where he finds Juliet, her father (actually still alive), and her butler, who introduces himself as Field Marshal Wilfried von Kluck (Carl Reiner).

Rigby and the Field Marshal compete about the right to explain what happened. It turns out that Dr. Forrest had been tricked into divulging a secret cheese mold by Nazis posing as a humanitarian organization.  Once he discovered their true intent, to use the mold’s corrosive properties to destroy America and make a comeback, he assembled a list of Nazi agents, the “Friends of Carlotta.” Before he could divulge the names to the FBI, he was abducted and his death faked to prevent a police investigation.  The Immer Essen, a cruise ship passing by, witnessed the corrosive effects of the mold tests, making all passengers “Enemies of Carlotta” and targets for murder. Rigby is captured but Juliet gets the Field Marshal to say “cleaning woman,” causing Rigby to go berserk, break his chains and overpower the Nazis.  While Juliet gets Rodriguez, the Field Marshal manages to pull one of the switches, destroying Terre Haute, Indiana, before being shot dead by Rigby who remakes that they just got a new public library.

Here is a list of the films used in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid:

This Gun for Hire (1942)

The Glass Key (1942)

Double Indemnity (1944)

The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Killers (1946)

Deception (1946)

Humoresque (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

Dark Passage (1947)

White Heat (1949)

Johnny Eager (1941)

Keeper of the Flame (1942)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Bribe (1949)

Suspicion (1941)

Notorious (1946)

I Walk Alone (1947)

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The film grossed about 4 million in its first weekend and has grossed to date about 18 million.  All in all a very interesting film and get an A for creativity since I have not seen a film try what Dead Men accomplished intermingling the old and the new of film history.  The cheese mold think is a little corny but watching it is like watching the “best of” of some great old film noir movies.  Go ahead and watch it it is even safe viewing for the whole family.


Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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It’s been awhile since we here at JPFmovies have run a tribute. Let’s take a look at long time comic Steve Martin. In the first of three films: They say two heads are better than one, but are they? The Man With Two Brains, starring Steve Martin & Kathleen Turner (1983).

It is 1983, Steve Martin had just made Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (directed by Carl Reiner–   don’t worry we will get to that one) and the he again teams up with Reiner to make The Man With Two Brains.  Before making the Reiner movies, Martin already had a solid reputation as an American comic.  Contrary to popular belief, he was never a cast member of Saturday Night Live, rather he guest-hosted the show 15 times.  On the show, Martin popularized the air quotes gesture using four fingers to make double quote marks in the air to symbolize the questioning the veracity of some statement in a droll way.  Moreover, Martin and Dan Aykroyd played “Georgi” and “Yortuk” the Festrunk Brothers, a couple of inept Czechoslovak would-be playboys popularizing the phrase I am a couple of “Wild and Crazy Guys.”  Since it was the old days, Martin really earned his fame through his albums (much like Richard Pryor) several went platinum and “Wild and Crazy Guy” topped out at number 2 on the American Billboard Charts.

Recently Martin (at age 67) became the father of a baby girl naming her ‘Conquistador’ to “Avoid Those Weird Hollywood Names.” On Letterman Martin said the name made a “statement,” I agree it sure does.  I believe his most recent movie “The Big Year” was released in 2011.  Despite Martin’s genius (he is also an accomplished author, tv & film writer—authoring for instance The Jerk) he has made some pretty dreadful films.  Sargent Bilko, the Pink Panther—both one and two-as well as Cheaper by the Dozen—again one and two—simply were not good movies (in my opinion of course).  Martin is also an avid art collector owning works by artists  Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper just to name a few.  In 2006, he sold Hopper’s famous Hotel Window (1955) at Sotheby’s for $26.8 million.  Those are some big names for big bucks.

Now on to the film.


The Man with Two Brains features Steve Martin (until then) some would say at his zany best.  Playing Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, he is a smug but brilliant surgeon, and is being interviewed by some prestigious journal.  As a surgeon, Hfuhruhurr pioneered a radical medical technique the proverbial cranial screw-job method.   Hfuhruhurr—a name gag that runs through the entire film—is still grief-stricken over death of his wife Rebecca.  While driving and being interviewed Martin hits the hot Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner) with his car and naturally he’s the only man on the planet who can (and does) save her life.


Dolores is an ardent gold-digger. Recently cut out of her most recent victim’s will, she’s on the prowl for a new chump and, from a hospital bed, Hfuhruhurr is the best prospect. After some finger-sucking, Hfuhruhurr is caught in the gorgeous, sexy and deadly black widow’s web.  However Dolores is just a tease, denying Hfuhruhurr consummation of their marriage while happily playing with the gardener. Naturally stressed by her sexual manipulation, Hfuhruhurr goes on a honeymoon to Austria.

Austria turns out to be a very bizarre place.  The elevator doesn’t hit the bottom floor, so Hfuhruhurr has to climb out halfway down.  There’s also a mysterious Elevator Killer (Merv Griffin) that kills people before they reach the top floor.  There’s a secret laboratory located in an average looking condominium on the outside, but inside is a classic European mad scientist castle.  There, behind paper thin walls a Dr. Necessiter (David Warner) is conducting the weirdest experiments ever by keeping several live brains in jars though their bodies are dead.


Hfuhruhurr is in heaven and develops a telepathic connection with brain number 21 Ann Uumellmahaye (not credited Sissy Spacek).  Hfuhruhurr literally dumps Dolores into a pile of crap making a “citizen’s divorce.” Unfortunately Uumellmahaye’s brain is deteriorating fast, Necessiter and has only been able to transfer people into apes to which Hfuhruhurr famously replies “I can’t fuck a gorilla.”

Thanks to the elevator killer, who uses Windex to murder his victims, Hfuhruhurr and Necessiter manage to get Uumellmahaye into Dolores’s body who turns the sexy femme fatale into a blimp because she is a compulsive eater, he loves her for who she is not what she looks like.  Presumably, after he agonizes while carrying her over the threshold, they live happily ever after.

The Man With Two Brains is not a bad film.  It manages to maintain the running gags throughout the movie.  The comedy is amusing rather than doubled over funny as this is a lighter comedy.  Turner does a magnificent job of playing the proverbial black widow; her lines are both hysterical and infuriating.  She could not have done a better job.  If you were following Martin’s trail of films you would see that he is becoming more comfortable on camera making The Man With Two Brains a pleasant movie.


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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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Until Now I’ve Never Heard of a Film Having a “Mild” Cult Following: My Blue Heaven (1990).

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I am one of the “mild” cult followers of this movie.  I remember watching this film’s review by the famed duo Siskel & Ebert who gave it a big old thumbs down let’s take a look:

I knew when I saw their review my only option was to see the film.  Generally whatever that dynamic duo gave a thumbs up too, the odds were better than 50/50 that I would go the other way.  Well, My Blue Heaven is an acquired taste.  For me and my band of merry men the more we watched it the more we appreciated it.  We often found ourselves quoting the movie in any number of social situations.  The film had a strong writer, Nora Ephron (who died in 2012 at the age of 71) the author of When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia and starred Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, and Joan Cusack.  All three are virtually legends in the comedy genre (whether you like them or not, one must concede their standing).

So what is it about this film that made arguably the two most famous film critics give it a thumbs down?  Well one said was merely an extension of Martin’s SNL wild and crazy guy routine.  Another reason was that Joan Cusack “wasn’t as funny as some of her other characters.”  Nonsense I say.  All three of the stars each have some great lines, but only if you don’t take the film (or yourself) too seriously.  Not only that, but we are treated to Fats Domino singing the theme song throughout the film.

One fact that those fools Siskel and Ebert left out is that the film was noted for its relationship to the movie Goodfellas, which was released one month after My Blue Heaven.  Both movies are based upon the life of the criminal Henry Hill, although the character is renamed to “Vincent ‘Vinnie’ Antonelli” in My Blue Heaven.  While Goodfellas was based upon the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, the screenplay for My Blue Heaven was written by Pileggi’s wife, Nora Ephron, and much of the research for both works was done in the same sessions with Hill.

The film’s story line is relatively simple:  Vincent “Vinnie” Antonelli (Steve Martin) is a former mobster recently inducted into the Witness Protection Program with his wife, Linda.  The two are under the watchful eye of Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis).  Vinnie and Barney soon find common ground when both of their wives leave them due to their lifestyles.  When he succeeds in getting Vinnie to a suburb in California and a private house, Barney has one more problem: he must make sure the jovial and sometimes rascally Vinnie adheres to proper protocol until he testifies against other more powerful mobsters

Moranis gets Martin out of one jam after another with Cusack, so to repay him, Martin fixes Moranis up with her, perhaps the only person in California more uptight than he is.  Meanwhile, not unexpectedly, Martin has a profound influence on Moranis’ way of life, helping him loosen up and enjoy.  There are flaws here, scenes that don’t quite click and a temporary sluggishness that sets in somewhere in the final third.  But on the whole Ephron and director Herbert Ross (“Footloose”) keep things going with clever, inventive bits of business and a telltale romance between Moranis and Cusack.  For those into one-liner’s this is a movie that is perfect for you as there is a line from My Blue Heaven that can be used in a plethora of situations.

The film took in $23 million at the box office but was received coolly by most critics, with the New York Times calling it “a truly funny concept and a disappointment on the screen.”  However, years of repeats on cable television have, according to one critic “earned the film a mild cult following.”  What probably pissed off Siskel and Ebert is the fact Warner Bros. purposely kept critics around the country from seeing it before it opened.  That usually means the movie is a dog and the studio wants to avoid reviews for the all-important opening weekend.

The bottom line is that “My Blue Heaven” is a much needed farce with three of the best comic actors — Steve Martin, Joan Cusack and Rick Moranis — in good form.  Watch is a couple of times before you pass judgment on this film.


Posted by on January 7, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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