Brief Encounter, and six more movies

Brief Encounter (1945)

A married woman meets a married man at a train station, and they innocently share a table and tea. They fall in love, slowly, over the course of several weeks. Thus the title 'Brief Encounter' seems incorrect, but everything else is in the film is exactly right.



Jan. 9, 2023

The stars, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, are guilty about what they're up to, and desperately want to be up to it again next Thursday afternoon. It's an exquisite romance and heartbreak, an affair where they meet but once weekly, which they both know has to end.

The film is set in England in the peak of the still-upper-lip era. With both He and She having families at home, the rules of a polite society could not be broken openly. Acting upon their feelings, no matter how true, was unacceptable.

Told mostly from the woman's perspective, her hesitance is shown more than his. We see her husband and children at home, while his wife is merely mentioned in passing. The film puts the guilt on her more than him, too, with imagery of her seeing a policeman in the shadows, and a priest on a train, implying that she's on the wrong side of the great divide between right and wrong. And it's true — a woman would feel the regret and guilt more, I think, than a man. We're all about one thing and not much else.

But you have to wonder whether this old-style morality would make sense to audiences today. We're in a different world. Even while watching this — and greatly enjoying it — what popped into my mind was that an open marriage would resolve a lot of problems. But, certainly not in 1945.

That said, it's a beautiful movie, especially for anyone old enough to remember when love had such built-in rules.

Director David Lean stages it theatrically — when the camera zooms in for a close-up, the lights dim behind the face, and more lights come on. It's an obvious reminder that the story is based on a play, but it's Noel Coward, and damn if it doesn't work. The photography is black-and-white but feels rich and colorful, and the score is Rachmaninov. You'll never hear it again without remembering Brief Encounter.

Verdict: BIG YES.

Playing the doctor's best buddy, an actor named Valentine Dyall is really strange-looking. I was thinking he should've been in a horror movie instead of here, chiding his friend for having an affair. Checking his IMDB, I see he's called "the British Vincent Price," and I don't doubt it.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Forty Guns (1957) 

Here's a big-budget black-and-white western by Sam Fuller. Barbara Stanwyck is the cattle queen, and she's tough as you'd expect, but needs a man in her life, or so we're told.

There's some amusing sexual innuendo, like the makeout scene where Stanwyck interrupts the smoochin' to ask if she can touch the gunslinger's gun. "It might go off in your face," says the man she's been smoochin'.

There's also a gorgeous female gunsmith who gets kissed. "I never kissed a gunsmith before," says her beau. "Any recoil?" she asks.

The story starts slow, but gets up to speed eventually. It's not a great western and far from Fuller's best, but perfectly adequate. Great visuals, and crank up the volume as hundreds of horsemen go thundering past. 

"You may find that the woman with a whip is only a woman after all."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Harlan County USA (1976)

Documentarian Barbara Kopple spent more than a year filming coal miners on strike against a Duke Power, in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1973-74, and delivered this powerful film.

The cruelty from Duke is truly staggering — they paid about half the nationally going wage, provided no safety equipment, housed employees in dirt-floor huts with no running water, and offered nothing for the families of workers killed by blank lung disease. 

Duke Power is a multi-billion-dollar company that, by any rational or moral measure, should have been dismantled and its executives imprisoned long before I was born, but it's still raking in billions and killing people today.

The film has no narration, instead allowing the locals and shiveringly-evil company executives to speak for themselves. As the strike goes on, Duke sends armed thugs to intimidate and beat up strikers. Politicians, union officials, and the Catholic Church were all secretly aiding and abetting Duke and its subsidiaries. A man is murdered, along with his wife and daughter, because he was running to replace crooked UMW President Tony Boyle. Boyle was eventually convicted.

The documentary won the Oscar, and when it's showing the strike, the strikers, their families, and the assholes from management and the union, it's a rare glimpse via cinema at the unfairness and cruelty that's everywhere in America.

I'm recommending it, certainly, but I'm also going to commit heresy by saying it would've been much better with much less of the fourteen (14) pro-labor hillbilly folk songs that keep interrupting the narrative and eat up about a third of the film's running time. There's no denying that the music was inspiring to the strikers, historically significant, and a part of the story, but give us a "best of" selection, not the whole damned compleat collection of all their greatest hits.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Little Darlings (1980)

Rough girl Kristy McNichol and rich girl Tatum O'Neal go to the same summer camp, where they're instant enemies, and soon cajoled into a bet, to see which of them can lose their virginity first. Their selected targets are Armand Assante, hunky camp counselor, and Matt Dillon, who later became a decent actor but at this age was only annoying. 

Some of the summer camp stuff rings true to my recollection (food fight!). And some of it's preposterous — can a kid steal a school bus at summer camp, and get away with it? Would a Christian all-girls summer camp have a hairy-chested male teacher dripping testosterone like Assante, hanging around the 15-year-old girls all day? 

The film is never at all titillating, which was my big complaint when I saw it in a theater in 1980. And it's more than just a race to get deflowered. There's sensitive writing here, and McNichol is terrific again. There are a few laughs, it's sweet, and there's a moral to the story without turning it into an afterschool special. 

One of the camp kids looked ever so slightly familiar, and holy shit it's Cynthia Nixon pre-boobs. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Pin (1988) 

Terry O'Quinn, later of Lost, plays a doctor who keeps a life-sized medical mannequin in his office. He calls it Pin, and uses ventriloquism to make the doll speak, for explaining medical stuff to kids.

The Doctor, though, is repressed and aloof from his own children, and one of them, Leon, has no friends. Leon becomes fixated on the doll, which is anatomically correct. We learn this when the doctor's office assistant locks the door and boinks it.

This is based on a novel I read about half of, many years ago, but found too icky to finish. The novel is by Andrew Neiderman, who also wrote The Devil's Advocate. The movie is icky, too, and a fascinating, unsettling psychological thriller.

It builds slowly, but the build-up is as frightful as the payoff in most horror movies. There's hardly any blood, guts, or corpses, no jump scares, not anything much at all to be afraid of, except a well-written scary story. Do you like scary stories?

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Rescue Dawn (2006)

"Empty that which is full. Fill that which is empty. If it itches, scratch it."

It's 1965, and the US is bombing Laos for no reason (every tiny nation gets its turn). Bomber pilot Dieter Dengler gets shot down and imprisoned, tortured, and generally treated rotten.

Christian Bale plays Dieter as a cocky all-American cowboy with a big smile, and I'll admit I don't like Bale so it took longer than writer/director Werner Herzog intended before I warmed up to the guy. Steve Zahn plays a prison buddy of Dengler's, and Bale and Zahn are both terrific.

Herzog goes for realism here, and the prison camps are not what I've seen in other Vietnam movies. They're mere bamboo shacks, guarded by people who don't even seem to be military, and are certainly uninterested in the protocols of the Geneva Conventions.

Dengler wants to escape, of course, and as he starts plotting a way out, another prisoner reminds him that escaping probably won't be hard, but once he's out of the prison he'll still be in the jungle. He'll be hundreds of miles from anyone who won't want to simply capture him again, or kill him.

This was filmed in the jungles of Thailand, and you can feel the authenticity and danger. Herzog doesn't try turning this into an ordinary action movie, and as a result it's far better than ordinary. It's telling Dengler's story, a true tale which needs no embellishments, and I'm recommending it, definitely. This is among Herzog's best, which means it's very good.

I have two complaints, though, one small and one large.

The small: There's a crucial moment in the plot that's presented so quickly and discreetly that I missed it, and had to ask a friend "Huh?" He told me to re-watch that one particular scene, and a light bulb was lit over my shadowy head, but I do wish Herzog had filmed that event more plainly.

The large: The honest evil behind this story, any Vietnam War story, is that America had no business being there. America's participation was 100% wrong, and this country killed millions of people for nothing. Not saying so, and plainly, in any movie about that war, does a disservice to the dead.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Runaway Train (1985)

Manny (Jon Voight) is a lovable convict in a brutal Alaskan prison, where he's been in solitary for three years. A court order gets him released to the prison's general population, and after a nifty knife-fight Manny finds a way to escape, with another prisoner, puppy-dog Buck (Eric Roberts), tagging along.

Before the escape, this was well on its way to being a pretty good prison movie. Instead, though, it's a pretty damned good prison escape movie.

Manny and Buck make their way to a train depot, and onto a train that's rolling across the great northern wilderness. Things don't go smoothly, though. Things go thrillingly, because by bad luck the conductor had a heart attack and dies.

Does anybody here know how to run a train?

The original screenplay was by Akira Kurasowa, but it got rewritten, and I'm guessing that's where approximately twenty plot and logistical misfires were added in, but who cares? It's two kooky convicts on a speeding locomotive, with Rebecca DeMornay dropping in, and it's a hell of a ride.

This is Danny Trejo's show biz debut. He was hired as Eric Roberts' off-screen boxing coach, but was promptly deemed ugly enough to be given a few moments on-screen.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Coming attractions:

• Bait (2012)
• The Big Bus (1976)
• Dolls (1987)
• Kick-Ass (2010)
• Knives Out (2019)
• Mercenary Fighters (1989)
• Mr No Legs (1978)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. I am interested to see what you think of The Big Bus. It's one of those perpetual Saturday or Sunday afternoon movies that popped up often when I was a kid. I have some vague memories, but won't say them here, yet.

    1. You're afraid of leaking spoilers for The Big Bus? Big silly movie, but far funnier than I expected.

      Spoiler: The bus has some mechanical problems.

    2. Not spoilers, I didn't want to be too negative. I hated it as a kid, but I likely haven't seen it in 35 years.

    3. Well, I didn't hate it. Expected to, and it sure was stupid all the way through, but there's some funny bits in there too.

  2. Terry O'Quinn — is he always believably weird? I've never seen him play normal.

    Heaven's Gate — Saw it once and liked it a lot, saw it again a few years later and it bored me. Maybe I need to see it a third time to decide. Been a long while.

    Eric Roberts is reliably excellent. Capable of weird, like O'Quinn, but also capable of sweetness. Unfairly, when I think of him I think of Doctor Who.

  3. I recently viewed In the Mood for Love, since many people were raving about it and it's been added to the Criterion Channel. It was visually striking, no doubt. It had its moments but I still felt like it was too slight for all the raves it received. Maybe I would've liked it more if people didn't claim its undeniable greatness? I'm not a foreign film snob. I often love "little" films but I don't know, I struggled with this one.

    Speaking of Cynthia Nixon, I caught her in that staged political series, Tanner, which left me wondering why anyone finds her interesting. Some actresses really light up a screen. The latest to catch my withering eye is Aubrey Plaza, who often looks like she can't decide whether to seduce the camera or burn down the back lot -- and maybe do both for kicks. But Cynthia Nixon is like a Debbie Downer. She sucks energy from the scenes since she comes across as too posh to need the work or something. I dunno, maybe it's just me. --Arden

  4. I haven't seen anything with Aubrey Plaza that I regretted seeing. She's out of whack and I love that. A few of her movies as yet unseen are on my watchlist, coming soon.

    I know nothing of Cynthia Nixon, really. My wife watched Sex in the City, so I've seen her in that, and she ran for Governor of New York against that nepotismed douchbag. And now, Little Darlings.

    I'm unable to pirate In the Mood for Love with subtitles, so I gotta get it through the library, and there's a long wait...


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