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Review of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Adventure
Rated G

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is available now on DisneyPlus, but since it came out on Blu-ray last year as a Disney Movie Club exclusive copies are also turning up on eBay now, if your family is building a Blu-ray library.

With Treasure Island (1950) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Disney made it clear that they were going to be big-time players in the live-action filmmaking business. How big? Well, to do the Jules Verne undersea adventure justice, Disney decided to shoot it in CinemaScope and Technicolor, which was so brand new that this was one of the first major films to get the vivid colors and ultra-widescreen treatment. Disney also spent a half-million dollars to reshoot the famous squid scene in order to get it right, and back in the 1950s that was a lot of Mickey money.

But it paid off. Anyone who’s been to one of the Disney theme parks knows that it’s all about attention to detail, and that holds true with the live-action adventures as well. It’s also about family and a certain level of wholesomeness. Though 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea features sci-fi elements, slave exploitation, and a mad captain who wants to destroy humanity to save it, this remarkable adventure is perhaps even more remarkable because it’s rated G. Ships explode and it’s known that lives are lost, but nothing graphic is shown except for that epic giant squid battle, a shark encounter, and a large- and small-scale fight where one main character is shot. Apart from several characters smoking, the use of the word “hell,” one character getting drunk, and some outdated cultural depictions of cannibals, it’s all pretty sin-free. Yet it remains exciting nearly 70 years later.

Verne was a visionary who was ahead of his time, but that also makes it last into the future, where some of his predictions came true and others remain to be discovered or implemented. It’s quite fascinating climbing aboard the uranium-powered Nautilus and witnessing how he’s able to derive everything from the sea.

In many respects, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a multi-layered monster movie. Set in the 1868, the film begins with reports of a monster that’s destroying ships worldwide. Professor Aronnaux (Paul Lukas) wants to investigate, and with his assistant (Peter Lorre) tries to book passage on a ship that can actually recruit a crew willing to go to sea in the midst of all this monster mania. Even when the “monster” is exposed as a futuristic submarine, other monsters take its place, like the kraken-sized squid and the crazed Nemo himself. James Bond films would thrive off of villains cut from the same cloth: men who are convinced humanity is too full of hate and violence and needs a fresh start, a destruction of the many and survival of the elite few as envisioned by the evil genius.

Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) is at his best as a harpooner who doesn’t believe the monster tales and seeks refuge aboard a strange surfaced vessel after their own ship is sunk. Along with the professor and his assistant, he finds himself the captive “guest” of Capt. Nemo (yes, Finding Nemo is a tip of the hat to this character), played brilliantly by James Mason (Lolita, A Star Is Born, North by Northwest), who, with the organ playing, the misplaced sincerity, the stormy menace lurking under the surface of calm civility and sophistication, gives us a complex character who’s both sympathetic and antagonistic.

The Oscar-winning special effects still hold up pretty well, considering their age—better than the stop-motion Ray Harryhausen effects that charmed a generation. Filmed in The Bahamas and Jamaica, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea nonetheless has a few scenes that were obviously shot in a pool at a Universal Studios back lot. Some of the more complex shots required close to 400 technical staff to film, and with a reported (over)budget of $9 million 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the most expensive Hollywood movie to date. Added touches for family viewing include an adorable pet seal aboard ship and a catchy sailor’s song (“A Whale of a Tale”) performed by Douglas and the crew.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 127 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Rated G for general audiences

Language: 1/10—Other than a few “hells,” nothing here

Sex: 1/10—The harpooner has two women on his arms at one point and there’s some innuendo in a sailor’s song, but nothing that little ones will get

Violence: 4/10—Slaves are whipped in the distance, there’s a gun (and hand-to-hand) battle at one point, and there’s that giant squid fight

Adult situations: 2/10—One character is shown briefly drunk, while several characters briefly smoke

Takeaway: The first screen adaptation occurred in 1916, and a handful of others followed on the big screen and television; Disney is rumored to be working on a remake (Captain Nemo), but until something better comes along this is the version of the Verne classic that’s the most accomplished and entertaining

 

 

Review of GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Rated PG

Not long ago Disney Movie Club released an exclusive Blu-ray version of the live-action adventure-comedy George of the Jungle, and even if you’re not a member there are copies to be had on eBay—many of them reasonably priced and still in shrink-wrap

Popular when it debuted in 1997 ahead of the original Jay Ward cartoon’s 30th anniversary, George of the Jungle grossed close to $175 million worldwide. It features a rare blend of comedy: humor that appeals to kids, but also humor that’s clever enough for adults. Fans of the cult-classic ‘60s TV series will appreciate that director Sam Weisman got the tone and treatment right. It’s one the most entertaining live-action film versions of an animated TV series—though admittedly that’s kind of a backhanded compliment, given such feature-length disappointments as The Flintstones, Casper, Dudley Do-Right, Fat Albert, and Inspector Gadget.

Still, I wouldn’t pay attention to the 5.5 out of 10 rating that close to 80,000 readers gave it at the Internet Movie Database, and I’d ignore the 56 percent “rotten” critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Legendary reviewer Roger Ebert was more on the money when he pronounced George of the Jungle a three-star movie (out of four). As he wrote when it was first released, this live-action film starring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) “tries for the look and feel of a cartoon,” with the results being that it’s “sort of funny some of the time and then occasionally hilarious.”

It’s true. George of the Jungle is amusing throughout, but then you get these surprise laugh-out-loud moments—so many that I’d have to say the film borders on being consistently funny. There are clever one-liners, pop-culture allusions, running gags, pratfalls and physical comedy (even a banana peel joke), and yes, some mild scatological humor. And don’t worry about outdated cultural jungle stereotypes. They’re met head-on, and it’s the “native bearers” and super-intelligent talking Ape who get the last laugh.

After an animated title sequence that features the theme song and establishes the backstory of how George came to be raised by apes—and is a little clumsy when it comes to vine-swinging (“Watch out for that tree!”)—the film switches to live action, melding Jay Ward’s original characters, theme song and concepts with the Tarzan/Greystoke legend. More

Review of ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A
Romantic comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Audrey Hepburn’s appeal was that she somehow managed to convey both innocence and sophistication—a girl-next-door who was oddly glamorous at the same time. Two films showcased that exquisite balancing act best: Sabrina (1954) and Roman Holiday (1953). Thanks to Paramount, which recently released the latter on Blu-ray for the first time, a new generation of movie-lovers can appreciate the performance that earned Hepburn her only Best Actress Academy Award.

Hepburn plays royalty in Roman Holiday, but there are other Hollywood “royalty” involved as well. Three-time Best Director Oscar-winner William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur) is behind the camera. Dalton Trumbo, the most (in)famous of the McCarthy-era blacklisted Hollywood 10, was responsible for the story and co-wrote the screenplay. Though uncredited, Trumbo won an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, and legendary costume designer Edith Head added another Oscar to her own mantle for her work on Roman Holiday. And while Gregory Peck wouldn’t win his Best Actor Oscar (To Kill a Mockingbird) for another 10 years, he plays off Hepburn memorably in this very different kind of romantic comedy.

If Roman Holiday were described as a high-concept film during an elevator pitch, it could best be summed up as It Happened One Night meets The Prince and the Pauper in Rome.

Hepburn plays Princess Ann, heir to the throne of a fictional European nation who’s wrapping up a tour with a visit to Rome. Absolutely fatigued and on the brink of a nervous breakdown, she yearns to be common, to live an ordinary life, to get away from all the obligations that accompany being a princess. So what does she do? There’s no one to trade places with, but she sneaks out anyway and goes AWOL for 24 hours. The complication: the doctor had just given her a shot to “calm her down,” and it makes her incredibly sleepy and gives her the appearance of being intoxicated.

Like Clark Gable’s newsman in It Happened One Night, Peck plays a journalist who stumbles onto a runaway “royal,” and like Gable’s newsman, once he realizes her identity, he schemes to write and sell an exclusive “personal” story, all the while being careful not to let her out of his sight . . . or to reveal his ulterior motive. Eddie Albert, of TV’s Green Acres fame, plays Joe’s best friend, a photographer named Irving, and together they attempt to document this escaped princess on her carefree one-day Roman holiday. More

Review of MR. TOPAZE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

The British Film Institute called Mr. Topaze “essential viewing for all Sellers fans,” and I agree. For one thing, I Like Money, as this 1961 film was later retitled, was the first theatrical feature directed by comedian Peter Sellers . . . and also his last, because he was so stung by its failure and critics’ barbs.

It’s of interest for that fact alone, but more importantly, Mr. Topaze gives viewers an interesting glimpse into an evolving dynamic between Sellers and actor Herbert Lom that began with The Ladykillers (1955) and continued with this film, The Pink Panther (1963), and four more Inspector Clouseau comedies: A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). Fans of those detective comedies especially will enjoy seeing Sellers and Lom play off of each other in Mr. Topaze as a kind of warm-up for their later rivalry as Clouseau and Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus.

Like Clouseau, Mr. Topaze is French, earnest, a little naïve and awkward, easily manipulated, slightly clumsy, seemingly feckless, and totally meek compared to most of the males he encounters. Topaze, whose prize possession seems to be a stuffed skunk he keeps on his desk, doesn’t have a commanding presence or one that inspires respect—not even among his students, who prank him without fear of repercussions. But he’s a genuinely nice guy with scruples, a dedicated teacher who loves his profession and hangs inspirational mottos all over his classroom—including one that cautions how money is a test of friendship. “I see you take my kindness for weakness,” he tells one of the pranksters. “I may look like a complete fool,” he says, “but I am not, I assure you.”

That’s debatable, of course. He leads the kind of quietly dull life that prompted James Thurber’s Walter Mitty to escape into fantasy. In love with the daughter of his school’s headmaster (Michael Gough), Topaze makes little headway, partly because of his personality and partly because of hers. As Ernestine (Billie Whitelaw, who looks a bit like Janet Leigh) tells her father after he learns that she got Topaze to grade a huge stack of her papers for her, “If I can find a man who’s fool enough to do my homework for me,” what’s the harm? More

Review of THE DANCING DOGS OF DOMBROVA (DVD)

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Grade: B
Comedy-Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

It’s not uncommon to take a chance on a CD or movie based on the title. But don’t be misled by this one. The “dancing dogs” in The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova is singular—a memory embedded in the mind of an old Jewish woman we never see onscreen, except for a brief cellphone video. Dombrova itself, as depicted in the film, is a desolate wintry place populated with characters and scenes that the Coen brothers might have concocted, had they decided to make an indie film abroad. The Coens specialize in films for mature audiences, and The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova, from director Zack Bernbaum, follows that same road, but with far less violence or language. His third and most accomplished full-length feature would probably merit a PG-13 rating instead of an R.

There’s a little bit of a Fargo feel to this Canadian film in English and Polish, with English subtitles. Shot in Romania, it follows an estranged adult brother and sister who have traveled from Canada to Poland in order to fulfill their dying grandmother’s wish: that they should find the house in Dombrova where she lived before she was herded off to the concentration camps and dig up the bones of the beloved dog she left behind. The dog could dance, she tells them.

We first meet recovering alcoholic Sarah Cotler (Katherine Fogler, from TV’s Suits, Murdoch Mysteries) and her prissy, superior brother Aaron (Douglas Nyback, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, TV’s Hell on Wheels) when they land at an isolated train station late at night. Told that there are no taxis, they wait on the platform until less cautious Sarah walks toward a car in the shadows that has a driver sitting in it. And so the adventure begins: with a sullen, peasant-stock female driver who understands English but never speaks and drives a car with a leaky gas tank that has to be constantly refilled.

That’s the level of quirkiness viewers encounter on this understated, dark-comedy road-trip, where you’ll meet:

—Two local “mafia” types that sit in lawn chairs in the snow outside a food truck in the middle of nowhere

—The proprietor of the only B&B in town, who’s subbing for parents that just up and left

—The young son of the taxi driver, who keeps taking notes because he’s an aspiring “human detective”

—A rabbi whose synagogue seems as empty as the rest of Dombrova

—A clerk at the local town hall for whom it takes three months to find a local street address

—Revelers at a local wedding reception held in next to the parking lot of a convenience store

—A peasant farmer with a scythe who curses and shoots her German Luger at trespassers

—A priest who also has something to confess

Quirky characters make an indie film fun to watch, and when the sequence of events and tone smack of the original theatrical Fargo, but without the extreme violence and language, it becomes even more appealing for families wanting to push their own cinematic boundaries—even if the underlying premise of estranged family members finding each other again is one we’ve seen before.

The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova won Best Feature at the 2019 Canadian Film Fest and the Canadian Filmmakers’ Festival, and Fogler was voted Best Actress at the Albuquerque Film & Music Experience. But really, people, it should be The Dancing DOG of Dombrova.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 102 minutes (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Omnibus / Film Movement
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: 5.1 Surround Sound (English, with some Polish)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for language and adult situations)

Language: 4/10—There’s one f-bomb and fewer than a dozen lesser swearwords

Sex: 3/10—Nothing is shown, but an unmarried woman talks about having “buns in the stove” and there’s an argument over her “bastard child”

Violence: 2/10—A gun is fired and someone is shot

Adult situations: 4/6—The wintry landscape is bleak and vodka is the social drink of choice, offered often, and there is some smoking 

Takeaway: Quirkiness is a tightrope, but director Bernbaum manages to walk it nicely from beginning to end, with pacing that’s indie leisurely but not indie dragging

Review of CRESCENDO (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

When this 2019 German film debuted at the Munich International Film Festival, the audience gave it a standing ovation. I’m not surprised. The film tells the story of a world-renowned German conductor who travels to Tel Aviv to assemble a youth orchestra composed of both Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a gestural stunt sponsored by a group whose next project involves a cause in Africa. But while the main message of Crescendo involves Israeli-Palestinian accord, a subtext is that all people ought to get along—including Jews and Germans, the latter whom, conductor Eduard Sporck suggests, should be forgiven for the sins of their Nazi parents and grandparents.

Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann) is warm and engaging as the fictional maestro who must work not only with the typical egos and attitudes of the artistically gifted, but also with two groups that hate each other and have stories in their families that reinforce and justify that cultural hatred. So while we see Sporck audition and rehearse his young musicians, a large portion of film time is devoted to his finding ways to broker peace, to break through the barriers with musicians at a retreat in Italy, neutral ground, rather than Tel Aviv, as originally planned.

Crescendo is multi-language, with spoken English and German and English subtitles. By American standards, it would be slapped with an R rating because an f-bomb is tossed near the beginning and again at the end. Only one is usually permitted for a film to slip into a PG-13 rating. But those two words, which come at emotional high points and are used for emphasis, are joined by only one other noticeable swearword in a film that’s otherwise PG.

If there are teens in your family who got hooked on the Australian TV-series Dance Academy, the few personal dramas that we get in Crescendo will seem familiar. There’s a romantic side plot featuring a Israeli French horn player named Shira (Eyan Pinkovitch) who quickly falls for a quiet and sensitive West Bank clarinetist named Omar (Mehdi Meskar), and there’s a competition side plot between the best Israeli violinist (Daniel Donskoy as Ron) and the best violinist from across the border (Sabrina Amali as Layla). The Palestinians’ families also appear, but for the most part Crescendo builds to its musical and thematic climaxes through Sporck’s efforts to bring them all together to work in both musical and metaphorical harmony. More

Review of SERGEANT YORK (1941) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Biopic
Not rated (would be PG)

Hollywood legend Gary Cooper won two Best Actor Oscars: one for his performance in High Noon (1953) as a marshal facing a showdown on the day of his marriage to a Quaker pacifist, and the other for his portrayal of a real-life conscientious objector who became an American war hero in Sergeant York. And Cooper plays York with the same kind of aw-shucks naiveté as he gives Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, a film he would make the following year.

Based on Alvin C. York’s personal diary, this 1941 black-and-white biopic was made to inspire a nation near the start of America’s involvement in WWII. But it also helped to fund an interdenominational Bible school—the main reason a reluctant York finally agreed to let Hollywood dramatize his life story and WWI heroism for the big screen.

Typical of biopics from the period, Sergeant York is wholesome, folksy, sentimental, and moralistic. But with director Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo) behind the cameras, it’s also an example of compelling narrative storytelling.

Mostly set in an impoverished backwoods corner of rural Tennessee, Sergeant York spends four-fifths of its 134-minute run time showing how York, a hard-working mama’s boy, went from being a frequent hell-raising drinker to a born-again Christian opposed to killing. Like Daniel Boone, who recorded one of his exploits on a tree near the York homestead, York is a crack shot and crafty outdoorsman, and early in the film he disrupts a church service by shooting his initials into a tree.

A young but still raspy-voiced Walter Brennan plays the pastor, while Joan Leslie (Yankee Doodle Dandy) is the love interest and British actress Margaret Wycherly plays the taciturn mother who stands by her boy no matter what he does. When the announcement comes that all young men are expected to go to Europe to fight and Alvin says, “Maw, what are they a’fightin’ for?” She replies, “I don’t rightly know. I don’t rightly know.” But she knows he has to go fight, no matter what his newfound religion tells him. More

Review of THE IPCRESS FILE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Spy drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, a name familiar to Bond fans because it was Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli who gave us Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. But don’t approach this one thinking it’s a cousin to the slightly campy and always sexy James Bond adventures. The Ipcress File has more in common with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), because it offers a more realistic view of spies and also prominently features brainwashing—a term credited to Edward Hunter, who in 1950 wrote about mind-control techniques that China used on American prisoners of war.

By “a more realistic view of spies” I mean that there are no exotic locations, no scantily clad women willing to do anything for their country, and no physical conflict, really, until we’re some 30 minutes into the film. Before that there’s a little sleuthing and surveillance and a lot of trying to find one’s place in a new post of assignment.

Based on Len Deighton’s novel, which came out the same year as The Manchurian Candidate, this 1965 film is rated #59 on the BFI list of 100 greatest British films. Instead of the peppy and campy action in the Bond films, Saltzman and director Sidney J. Furie (Iron Eagle, The Appaloosa) chose to play it low-key, concentrating instead of unique shots and camera angles to keep viewers interested.

Harry Palmer (a young Michael Caine) is assigned to investigate a series of kidnappings of leading scientists who turn up eventually with their minds completely erased. Somewhere along the way Palmer finds a clue—the word “Ipcress”—and it leads him through a tangled web of deceit, double agents, and spies keeping tabs on other spies. The latter, in fact, was something that Ian Fleming described as commonplace in the early days of Cold War spying, and it feels authentic here. But as a result of all this truth-in-spying, the pace is considerably slower than a Bond film. Takes and scenes are longer as if to suggest real time. More

Review of I AM A DANCER (1972) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Dance documentary
Not rated (would be G)

Ballet Dancers Guide lists five “most legendary” dancers in history: Marie Taglioni (1804-84), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), and Margot Fonteyn (1919-91). You can see two of them dance in this newly released Blu-ray of the 1972 Pierre Jourdan film.

Nureyev, who also makes the top four list of “most famous ballet dancers in history,” according to DanceUS.org, is the focus of this documentary, but don’t expect to learn a lot about Nureyev’s life. This isn’t a cradle-to-grave biography, and it doesn’t intercut old photos and film clips with talking heads.

I Am a Dancer, is less biography and more of a montage of Nureyev dancing: in training, in rehearsal, and in performance. And unlike documentaries that are heavily scripted and edited, Jourdan, for the most part, just turns on his camera, relying on viewers to appreciate the long takes as a means of understanding the dedication, hard work, and passion that it takes to become or remain one of the world’s most talented dancers. We do get a few moments when Nureyev appears on camera responding to interview questions—“I live in my suitcase, and my only ground is my work”—and we do get periodic voiceover narrations written by John Percival and voiced by Bryan Forbes, but for the most part any narration is minimal.

In other words, if you’re looking for Nureyev’s story—how a young man born on a Trans-Siberian train ended up as a dancer in the Kirov Ballet, became the first artist to defect from the Soviet Union to the West, found a new home as principal dancer with The Royal Ballet in London, then served as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and tragically died of AIDS at the age of 54—you’ll have to look elsewhere. The White Crow, a controversial 2019 biopic starring Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev, fills that bill.

I Am a Dancer showcases a great dancer dancing, but I can’t say that this is great filmmaking. In fact, a gimmicky “fly’s-eye” lens that shows multiple images is so over-used that it’s annoying and detracts from the dance, while the Vaseline lens for other shots seems Playboyesque and dated. That the film earned a Golden Globe nomination is somewhat surprising, though it’s possible that at the time it was considered “brave” to let the story mostly tell itself. More

Review of P.J. (1968) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
Crime drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The pandemic has prompted most major studios to delay theatrical releases and slow down the production of home theater titles. Since Covid has made shut-ins of us all, big studios have released fewer films new to Blu-ray and DVD and more titles that are rereleases in the relatively new ultra-HD 4K format. But not Kino Lorber. They continue to remaster lesser-known older films for Blu-ray that feel like pleasant surprises when you watch them.

P.J. is a good example of that. This all-but-forgotten 1968 private detective film—which has never before been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray in the U.S.—has one foot in the hard-boiled PI genre, and another foot in the groovy sixties that inspired Mike Meyers to poke fun of the decade in his Austin Powers spy spoofs. In fact, there’s a club scene where two female go-go dancers do their go-go thing in a gigantic martini glass, swirling and shimmying around like a couple of human olives, and that scene feels as if it could have been shot for an Austin Powers film. Oh behave!

The music seems straight out of Austin Powers too, so fans of that parody will enjoy seeing where the inspiration came from—not this film precisely, but films like it that were produced during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Yet P.J. is also strongly evocative of other neo-noir PI films from the period, like Harper, Klute, Tony Rome, Night Moves, and the Robert Mitchum version of Farewell, My Lovely.

George Peppard (TV’s The A-Team, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) plays a down-but-not-out New York PI who takes a bodyguard job because it’s preferable to getting his legs broken by loan sharks and mob bosses. The Korean War vet is hired to protect the mistress (Gayle Hunnicutt) of the rich and powerful (and shady) William Orbison, played against type by the rotund Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Ironsides). What P.J. doesn’t know is that the job isn’t just dangerous—somebody has already shot at her—it’s also a set-up. Who wants her dead? Who’s behind it all? Who’s using him as a pawn? And why does Orbison flaunt his affair in front of his wife, even forcing his wife to meet the “other woman”? More

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