The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Running Man (1963)

No matter how many movies you see, some flicks, directors and stars have a way of avoiding you somehow.  The names might ring a bell or leave an impression, but that's about it.  British director Carol Reed is one of those movie-related topics for me. Besides thinking that he was a she (come on, the guy's name is Carol), I really just had no idea what kind of movies he'd made.  But continuing to branch out in movie choices, I watched his classic The Third Man last year and have since found out I'd unknowingly seen a few more of his movies, including 1963's The Running Man, since changed to Ballad of the Running Man so as not to confused with the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of The Running Man.  

In a career that spanned just over 30 movies, Reed carved a niche out for himself as a solid storyteller able to make the usual/the norm visually interesting.  Of the movies I've seen of his, the camera style is unique with a variety of types of shots from angles and perspectives you wouldn't normally think of.  He often filmed in black and white -- although not in 'Running' -- and had an eye for creating a movie that was interesting to watch in terms of story and to the eye, never a boring sequence in sight.  Okay, maybe one or two, but less than most directors.

After an insurance claim is denied because he let the renewal go a few days late, pilot Rex Black (Laurence Harvey) concocts a plan to get some badly needed money.  He fakes his own death in a crash at sea after signing up for a new insurance plan, and a few months later his wife Stella (Lee Remick) gets a check from the insurance company that assures they'll never be poor again. Stella waits a few months and meets Rex -- now posing as an Aussie businessman with bleach blond hair -- in Spain where they prepare for their future.  Rex begins to bring up the idea of pulling the insurance scam again only to have a surprise dropped in his lap.  The insurance agent (Alan Bates) who handled the recent case with Stella is in Spain too.  But what are his intentions? Is he vacationing or investigating? Paranoia and worry settle in, but can Rex and Stella figure out what's going on before it's too late? 

If I've figured anything out about Reed and his storytelling technique, it's that he likes to keep his viewers guessing.  And after some slow early moments here, Reed ratchets up the tension with each passing scene.  When Bates' Stephen shows up in the same Spanish town, the new couple of crooks are instantly put on the defensive.  Rex and Stella can't be mean or ignore this curious stranger without setting off alarm bells, but is Stephen just interested in Stella or is it something deeper?  Even though they're crooks, I found myself rooting for the couple, well maybe just Stella.  There's not really much of a twist when the answer comes, but the more surprising things come in the last 20-30 minutes after the supposed twist.

For a story meant to keep you on your toes, Reed has a way of disarming you in the same scenes he sends a shiver up your back.  The movie was filmed in Andalucia and Gibraltar, and for fans of spaghetti westerns, you even see some familiar locations, especially the bullfighting ring from A Bullet For Sandoval.  So while the story develops, the background works almost as a travel guide for the area from the sun-swept country roads near the ocean to the idyllic little towns with its motels, markets and vendors.  Choosing not to film in black and white was a wise choice here as Spain gets to show off its beauty.

As the credits rolled at the beginning of the movie, all I could think was "Man, after those first three names I don't recognize anybody."  Well, my worries were unfounded as the main trio dominates the movie with little outside interference from the supporting cast.  I continue to catch up with Harvey who I've only see in four or five movies.  He can be very theatrical in his parts, but the guy can straight up act.  His character goes through the biggest transformation, and not always a good one; a slighted man looking for a second chance after a mistake to a vengeful, greedy individual wanting piles of cash.  Remick is his wife, a woman who loves her husband despite what he becomes.  Bates is the wild card, keeping you guessing as to exactly what's he up to. Of the supporting cast, the only face I recognized was Fernando Rey as a Spanish police investigator. 

During the last act of the movie, the old idea that "bad things happen to bad people" certainly rings true.  I didn't necessarily like the ending as one character keeps a huge secret to themselves rather than reveal it.  The impact is obviously huge and caught me off guard and disappointed at the same time.  None of this is enough to deter me from recommending the movie.  After those early struggles with pacing, 'Running' finds it rhythm and quickly settles in for the ride.

The Running Man <---TCM clips (1963): ***/****

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