It's the early 1920s and Jonas Cord Jr. (George Peppard) is a young man without a care in the world. Any problems he has, his rich father will solve or give him money or turn a blind eye to his antics. When Jonas' father suddenly dies from an aneurysm, a whole business empire is thrust upon Jonas. Will it crumble with the irresponsible Jonas at its helm? Far from it if he has anything to do with it. Young Cord wants to expand and grow and dominate the world. He starts the steady climb up, parlaying one factory into another and there's no market anywhere that Jonas doesn't want his hand in. He wants the power, the money, the prestige and nothing is going to stop him. But in the 1920s and 1930s, can anything actually slow Jonas down? Maybe only himself.
This was a movie I've long been aware of, one that I was vaguely familiar with because of 1966's Nevada Smith. For quite awhile it lingered on my Netflix Saved queue and lingered and lingered. Seriously....do people just hold onto the movies for months at a time?!? 'Carpetbaggers' finally popped up on the Retro Movie Channel, and I had to jump. I'm glad I did. From director Edward Dmytryk, it is a well-told story about business, ego, power, corruption and all that good, dark, sexy stuff that audiences can't turn away from. It clocks in at 150 minutes which might seem long, but the story moves at a lightning pace throughout. The timeline covers around 20 years but never feels rushed. We see the important moments from the good to the mostly bad to the really bad and often painful.
There's something simple and appealing about rise to power stories. How do they climb up? How do they stay there? What, if anything, will ultimately prove to be their downfall? This is a dark movie. There aren't good guys, just less bad guys. Everyone is out for themselves and willing to screw anyone over to get what they want with Peppard's Jonas leading the way. 'Carpetbaggers' takes place in posh hotel suites, busy movie sets, on new-model airplanes, in factories and follows Jonas with every decision he makes. It's nothing crazy original -- sure seems like a Howard Hughes-esque main character -- but there's something enjoyable, entertaining and appealing about this flick. I especially liked composer Elmer Bernstein's musical score with some familiar touches from other scores but forming its own identity. Listen HERE to the main theme.
Look at George Peppard's 1960s filmography, and you only see a couple classic movies, Breakfast at Tiffany's and How the West Was Won. But there's more there to appreciate, but he's got a handful or two of really solid movies worth seeking out. This film definitely counts. Peppard specialized in playing the anti-hero, that a-hole lead you just hate but can't look away from.This is a character who's icy, calculating, brutally efficient and with some deep-seeded personal issues. Obviously this isn't a character you're rooting for, but he's perfectly fascinating. We want to see what makes him tick. We want to see his next brutal takeover, whether it's on a personal basis or putting together a corporate buyout. An excellent performance from one of my favorites, Mr. Peppard. Nice work all around.
Peppard's Cord is the lightning rod for the story, but we meet a whole lot of other folks, most of them just as egotistical, greedy and downright lousy. Some good performances in a deep cast, starting with Alan Ladd in one of his all-time best parts as aging cowboy Nevada Smith. A checkered past to his name, Nevada tries to help Jonas knowing it can never really work. There's also Carroll Baker as Rina, Jonas' stepmother who's the same age as him and looking to make a name for herself. Slinking it up and quite sexy, Baker delivers an excellent part. There's also key supporting parts for Elizabeth Ashley (Jonas' wife), Robert Cummings (an agent turned producer), Martha Hyer (another femme fatale), Lew Ayres (Jonas' much-maligned yet capable accountant), Martin Balsam (a rival movie studio owner), Ralph Taeger (a pilot and business part of Jonas'), Archie Moore (the house servant who knows all) and Leif Erickson (Jonas' tough-love father).
If there's a weak point, it comes in the ending. I was looking for something better, something more appropriate and something DARKER. This is a tidy ending. An easy ending. The build-up makes up for it though to the point the last five minutes can't and won't ruin things. As for the connection to 1966's prequel, Nevada Smith, I think it is best to consider it two unrelated movies. Things don't jive just right, especially Brian Keith's Jonas turning into manipulative, evil Leif Erickson. One produced the other so that's cool, but that's about it. Both excellent movies, and let's leave it at that.
The Carpetbaggers (1964): ***/****