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Top 10 Movies I Saw For the First Time in 2014

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An admission: I haven’t seen enough newly-released films this year to make a traditional Top 10 list (an admission I never would’ve needed to make a couple of decades ago). Instead, I’m offering a Top 10 list of movies I watched in 2014 that I’d never seen before. A couple of these films I saw in their theatrical first-runs (it will be obvious which two those are), but the rest I saw via https://best-putlocker.com/watch-last-added-online.  So here, in chronological order of when they were made, are my personal choices for the ten best films I was pleased to encounter in 2014.You can visit https://freecouchtuner.com/couchtuner to watch best movies and web series. For the best assassin movie go through the link.

Love is a Racket (1932)loveisaracket6Lee Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ann Dvorak

William Wellman was on something of a roll at Warner Brothers in the pre-Code era. The year before, he’d directed the iconic gangster picture The Public Enemy (which put James Cagney on the map) and the even more brutal thriller Night Nurse (with a young Barbara Stanwyck at her gutsiest and Clark Gable at his scariest). Love is a Racket is a wickedly funny comedy-thriller starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Jimmy Russell, a New York gossip columnist (patterned after Walter Winchell) who hobnobs with all strata of Manhattan society, from the upper crust to the underworld. Jimmy has become so smitten with a would-be actress (Frances Dee) that he’s willing to put everything on the line (including covering up a murder) to rescue her from a slimy mobster (Lyle Talbot) who’s trying to blackmail her into letting him, well, shall we say, have his way with her. The picture’s scene-stealing honors go to Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak as Jimmy’s best buds. You can visit Lorraine Music to check more awesome movies.

Northern Pursuit (1943)Errol-Flynn-Helmut-Dantine-Northern-PursuitErrol Flynn, Helmut Dantine

One of the most endearing things about Warner Brothers was that the box office hit hadn’t been made that they couldn’t copy and often improve upon. (Maybe you’ve seen their knock-off of Algiers, a little film called Casablanca?) Northern Pursuit, the fourth collaboration between director Raoul Walsh and star Errol Flynn, was Warners’ answer to British filmmaker Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, an anti-Nazi propaganda action-adventure set in Canada. Flynn’s plays a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who pretends to be a German sympathizer to infiltrate a group of Nazis who were delivered via submarine to carry out a sabotage mission at the Canadian-American border. As with Walsh and Flynn’s previous World War II adventure Desperate Journey, the action moves at a lightning-fast pace. And speaking of anti-Nazi propaganda…

Cloak and Dagger (1946)cloak-and-daggerGary Cooper, Lilli Palmer

When, in 1933, the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels offered pioneering filmmaker Fritz Lang an opportunity to make pictures for the Third Reich, Lang did what any sensible Jew in that time and place would do; he hopped the next ocean liner out of Germany. Lang’s hatred for the Nazis resulted in a quartet of anti-Nazi espionage melodramas, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and arguably the best of the bunch Cloak and Dagger. Cloak and Dagger stars Gary Cooper as a nuclear scientist who offers to go to behind enemy lines to rescue a colleague before the Gestapo obtains the info necessary to build an atomic bomb. (Despite the predictable criticisms about miscasting, college educated Cooper is absolutely credible as a nuclear scientist.)  The film’s most justifiably celebrated sequence is the hand-to-hand mano a mano between Cooper and Marc Lawrence (as an Italian Nazi agent), a brutal fight to the death involving real pain and sadism (i.e., fighting dirty) rather than Hollywood’s usual exchange of roundhouse punches. The dialogue in the opening scene, in which Cooper expresses misgivings about any world power having the bomb, undoubtedly contributed to the movie’s screenwriters, Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., being persecuted by HUAC.

Crime Wave (1954)dt.main.ce.Stream.clsGene Evans, Phyllis Kirk, Sterling Hayden

Filmed by director Andre De Toth with a meager budget almost entirely on actual Los Angeles locations in just 13 days, Crime Wave is everything a film noir should be and more, swift, nasty, and hard-hitting. (This is the type of crime picture where characters literally burst through doors.) Song-and-dance man Gene Evans is cast against type as an ex-con newlywed whose attempts to go straight with the help his wife (Phyllis Kirk) are endangered by a gang of former partners-in-crime, two of whom have just escaped from prison. (You can’t ask for better noir villains than Ted de Corsia, Charles Bronson, and Timothy Carey.) Sterling Hayden owns the picture as an obsessive hardass of a homicide cop who plays Javert to Evens’ Jean Valjean.

The Lone Ranger (1956)07_1956 Lone_Ranger_and_TontoJay Silverheels, Clayton Moore

In the last 33 years, there have been two misguided attempts to bring the Lone Ranger, that iconic western hero of radio and television, to the big screen, the laughable The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and the even more disastrous Disney travesty The Lone Ranger (2013). Unlike those mega-budget turkeys, this more modestly-budgeted 1956 cinematic spin-off of the television series, with the definitive Lone Ranger and Tonto (Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels), got it right. Well-directed by Stuart Heisler, from a script by Herb Meadow, and with gorgeous Warnercolor cinematography by Edwin DuPar and a rousing music score by David Buttolph, The Lone Ranger is the perfect  Saturday matinee feature for “kids of all ages,” as the old advertising cliché goes. In her last screen appearance, former child and teenage star Bonita Granville (wife of the movie’s producer Jack Wrather) plays the wife of the picture’s head bad guy Lyle Bettger. (The equally loathsome “dog villain,” as in “a guy who’s so evil that he’ll kick a dog,” is played by Robert Wilke.) Both Moore and Silverheels are given opportunities to take center stage; on his own, Tonto narrowly escapes a lynch mob, and periodically the Lone Ranger goes undercover as a grizzled old geezer. (It’s obvious that Moore was having a ball playing this comic relief persona.)

The Hanged Man (1964)origNorman Fell, Robert Culp

Directed by Don Siegel for Universal, this remake of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) became the first made-for-TV movie by default after NBC rejected Siegel’s previous film The Killers (1964), which was also a remake of a 40s Universal picture intended for television, for being too violent and was released by the studio theatrically instead. (The fact that the Kennedy assassination took place before The Killers was finished didn’t help its chances of premiering on national television.) Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel Ride the Pink Horse, The Hanged Man stars Robert Culp as a burned-out gunman seeking revenge for the murder of a friend by blackmailing his former employer (Edmund O’Brien), who’s currently under congressional investigation on racketeering charges. With a supporting cast that includes J. Carroll Naish, Norman Fell, and Vera Miles (as the obligatory noir femme fetale), The Hanged Man is a testimony to Siegel’s expertise at coping with extraordinary challenges on a tiny budget. Universal decided that the remake should be set in New Orleans during Marti Gras, a requirement that Siegel achieved without any location shooting by using just one street on Universal’s backlot and lots of stock footage. The film’s also a must-see for jazz aficionados, with a score by Benny Carter and on-screen appearances by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto.

The Yakuza (1974)vlcsnap-9280052Ken Takakura, Robert Mitchum

As riveting as the young, feral Robert Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s was, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 70s and 80s was even more fascinating and nuanced. In The Yakuza, directed by Sydney Pollock from a script by Robert Towne and brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader, Mitchum gives what may well be the finest performance of his career as an ex-cop turned private investigator who returns to Japan for the first time since the aftermath of World War II at the request of an old friend (Brian Keith) whose daughter is being held captive by a crime family. Once there, Mitchum finds himself betrayed by those he trusts and discovers an unlikely ally in a former enemy (Ken Takakura making his American film debut and perfectly matching Mitchum as a commanding screen presence). According to World Cinema Paradise founder and long-time resident of Japan Stuart Galbraith IV, The Yakuza is “one of the best films in terms of a Hollywood-based production accurately depicting how Japan is and how the Japanese behave and react,” and still remains “highly regarded” in Japan.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)much-ado-about-nothing-nathan-fillion-600x315Tom Lenk, Nathan Fillion

Just like Alfred Hitchcock decided to follow his most expensive picture ever, North by Northwest (1959), with his lowest-budgeted American film, Psycho (1960), Joss Whedon followed his most expensive movie to date, The Avengers (2012), with this self-financed adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s best comedies. Shot in black & white on the grounds of his own manor in just 12 days during a brief vacation in between the principle photography and post-production of The Avengers, Whedon’s modern-day take on the Bard is a veritable love letter to classic cinema. Amy Acker and Alexis Deniof are wonderful as Beatrice and Benedict, Shakespeare’s urbane they-fight-so-much-that-they-must-be-in-love sophisticates, which became the archetypes for so many latter-day Hollywood screwball comedies. And sheer, out-loud belly laughs are provided by Nathan Fillion (as Dogberry) and Tom Lenk (as Varges), who manage to lampoon CSI-style TV cops shows while simultaneously channeling Laurel and Hardy’s physical schtick. (Fillion’s underplayed rendition of Dogberry’s “I am an ass” speech is the movie’s most sublime moment.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)captain-america-winter-soldier-sliceChris Evans, Anthony Mackie

This sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) proved that Marvel/Disney superhero movies could tackle serious issues without the overbearing pretentiousness and all-too-serious approach of DC/Warners’ equivalent pictures. In this case, the issue is America’s increasingly militarism in response to post-9/11 paranoia. As Cap (Chris Evans), the ultimate patriot, states about an elaborate preliminary-strike anti-terrorist weapons program advocated by a reactionary right-wing senator (an ironically cast Robert Redford), “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” (The film is a deliberate homage to the political thrillers of the post-Watergate era.) Of course, more than anything else, this is an adrenalin-pumping action-adventure flick, with Cap getting solid support from fellow superheroes the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) and head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), in his fight against the Hydra moles who have infiltrated both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the highest echelons of the US military and government. (Yeah, there’s some Manchurian Candidate in this flick, too.) Directors (and siblings) Anthony and Joe Russo keep the action moving at bullet-train speed, eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects (or, at least, until the finale, which is the standard CGI-fest).

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)new GOTG header 3-10Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper (voice), Dave Bastista, Vin Diesel (voice)

This was the one that the critics who’d long had their knives out for the Marvel/Disney blockbusters predicted would be Marvel Films’ first box-office disaster, mainly because it was based on an obscure comic book series that only the most dedicated fans of the genre were even familiar with. In an example of poetic justice, Guardians of the Galaxy not only wasn’t a financial flop, it also became the highest-grossing film of 2014. The lion’s share of the credit for the success of Marvel’s first out-and-out comedy film belongs to director-writer James Gunn’s quirky sense of humor. (The story goes that Marvel Films creative overseer Joss Whedon, who obviously considered Gunn to be a kindred spirit, handed the first-draft script back to him, requesting “more James Gunn.”) The goofy collection of mismatched, self-appointed “guardians” (who are actually a gang of intergalactic crooks and scam artists) are played appropriately with tongues-in-cheek by an inspired ensemble consisting of Chris Pratt (as Peter Quill aka “Star-Lord”), Zoe Saldana (as Gamora), Dave Bautista (as Drax the Destroyer), Vin Diesel (as the voice of anthropomorphic tree Groot), and Bradley Cooper (as the voice of talking raccoon Rocket). Gunn establishes the movie’s off-beat tone during the opening credits sequence, as Pratt, on his way to a heist, dances around a desolate, rain-soaked planet to the tune of Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” a “Singin’ in the Rain” moment for the New Millennium.

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Alibi featured

The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Baseball Edition): “Alibi Ike” (1935)

“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

In one of those cosmic ironies that occur so often in show business, if it wasn’t for his supporting role in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like It Hot, comedian Joe E. Brown would be almost entirely forgotten nowadays by the general public. The irony lies in the fact that Brown was one of the three Hollywood comedians who were the most popular with movie audiences during the Depression. (The other two were Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor.)

A natural-born clown with the face of a leprechaun, Brown’s abilities as an acrobat and physical comedian were second only to those of Buster Keaton. Another thing that Brown and Keaton had in common was a passion for baseball.[1] Unlike Keaton, however, Brown actually played professional baseball and even turned down an opportunity to sign up with the New York Yankees to pursue a career in show business. Not surprisingly, Brown made an unofficial trilogy of comedies about the National Pastime when he was Warner Bros.’ top comedian in the early 1930s: Fireman, Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933), and Alibi Ike (1935). The last of these, Alibi Ike, is not only the funniest of the trio, but is arguably the best damn baseball movie ever made as well.

Like Elmer the Great, Alibi Ike was based on a short story by the dean of baseball scribes, Ring Lardner. In fact, as directed by Ray Enright and scripted by William Wister Haines, Alibi Ike is a very faithful adaptation of Lardner’s story with much of the dialogue taken verbatim from its source. The main deviation from the original, which was a brief “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” tale, is a subplot involving game-fixing gangsters added to pad the story to feature length. (For Alibi Ike, the feature length in question was a brief 72 minutes. Those were the days.) Another deviation was changing the title character from a batting sensation to an ace pitcher. (Pitching offering more opportunities for visual humor, particularly Brown’s elaborate, exaggerated, corkscrew-pitch.)

Alibi 1

Alibi Ike boasted some authenticity rarely seen in sports movies. The game sequences were shot at Wrigley Field; no, not the one in Chicago, but at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, the ballpark that hosted minor league teams for about three decades and which served as a backdrop to numerous films (such as Damn Yankees) and television episodes. In addition, the majority of the non-speaking baseball player roles in the film were played not by extras, but rather by professional ball players of the period, including Herman Bell, Ray French, Wally Hebert, Wes Kingdon, Jim Levy, Frank Shellenback, Guy Cantrell, Dick Cox, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Wally Hood, Don Hurst, Smead Jolley, Lou Koupal, Bob Meusel, Wally Rehg, Ed Wells, and Jim Thorpe. (Which explains why they moved around the field like professional ballplayers and not extras pretending to be professional ballplayers.) Another notable member of the cast was an actress making her film debut, Olivia de Havilland, who played Brown’s love interest.[2] (Many up-and-coming young actresses appeared with Brown in his movies for Warners, including Ginger Rogers, Joan Bennett, Thelma Todd, Dorothy Lee, and Alice White.)

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“Alibi Ike” is the nickname bestowed on the main character for the reason explained in the first paragraph of Lardner’s story: “His right name was Frank X. Farrell, and I guess the X stood for ‘Excuse me.’ Because he never pulled a play, good or bad, on or off the field, without apologizin’ for it.” In the film, Farrell is a bushleague player traded to the Chicago Cubs. In the opening scene, Johnson (Joseph King), the team’s owner, discusses the chances for the season with crusty, middle-aged manager Cap (William Frawley).

Johnson: “I know you had nothing to work with last year but—“

Cap: “Nothing? I had the finest-trained butch of rookies you ever saw with one ball player among ‘em, Pennick. All he did was keep us from fallin’ out of the league. But Pennick, it now appears, has been sold!”

Johnson: “Oh, snap out of it, Cap. We’ve still got the rest of the club.”

Cap: “Yeah, cut off Max Baer’s right arm and you’ve still got the rest of a heavyweight champion, too.”

Johnson: “It’s not as bad as all that. Pennick was good, yes, but it’s not every year you can get a hundred thousand dollars for one man.”

Cap: “Who’s gonna pitch for us, them hundred thousand dollars?”

Johnson: “You’re sure to find something good among those new players. That boy Farrell alone struck out twenty men in one game last year.”

Cap: “Yeah, in Sauk Centre, wasn’t it? Did they claim Babe Ruth was playin’ against him in Sauk Centre? I bet I’ll have to ring a cow bell to get him in off the field.”

Johnson: “Well, at that, you can buy a lotta cow bells for a hundred grand.”

While being interviewed by a sports reporter (Jack Norton playing sober for a change), Cap receives a telegram from Farrell: “Reporting tomorrow. Sorry I was late but my calendar was wrong.” “His ‘calendar was wrong!’” fumes Cap, “Now there’s an alibi for ya!” As it turns out, Farrell does show up on that day, making a spectacular entrance while he’s at it: crashing through the fence and plowing around the field in an out-of-control jalopy, sending the players scrambling to get out of his way.

Cap forgets his anger when Farrell turns out to be the pitching phenom his rep promised. He’s even willing to excuse Farrell’s endless alibis for all occasions. His teammates, on the other hand, aren’t about to ignore Farrell’s habitual mendacity, especially a pair of jokers, Jack Mack (Eddie Shubert) and catcher Bob Carey (Roscoe Karns), who go out of their way to try catching him in a fib. Farrell’s alibis even extend to totally innocuous situations, like when, after a night of playing pool, Farrell tells the boys that he’s calling it a night and going to bed. “Don’t feel a bit sleepy” he says, “but got gravel in my shoes and my feet hurt like the dickens.” (“I should think they’d take them gravel pits outta this pool room,” cracks Carey.)

Alibi 2

Eventually, Farrell’s alibi habit gets him in hot water when he meets Dolly Stevens (de Havilland), the sister of Cap’s wife Bess (Ruth Donnelly). Farrell and Dolly are immediately smitten with each other and he soon asks her to marry him. When Bess tells Carey about the engagement, he and Jack can’t resist the temptation to razz Farrell about it, not knowing that Dolly is within earshot on the other side of the hotel lounge door, a scene that’s taken directly from Lardner’s story.

Carey: “Now wait a minute, Ike, I got a bet here with Mack and it’s up to you to settle it.”

Farrell: “Well, make it snappy.”

Carey: “Well, I bet that you and Dolly were engaged to be married.”

Farrell: (sheepishly) “Well… well, no, we’re not exactly engaged—”

Carey: “Now, listen, no alibis! This costs me real dough if I lose, so give it to us straight. Cap’s wife said you were engaged, right?”

Farrell: “Well, I… I don’t want it to cost you any money, Bob. You win.”

Carey: “What did I tell ya? Congratulations, Ike!”

Mack: “Ike, you gotta swell gal!”

Carey: “She’s a peach! You’re a lucky guy, Ike!”

Farrell: “Yeah, she’s all right, I guess, but I never cared much for girls.”

Mack: “That is, not until you met this one?”

Farrell: “Well… she’s okay, I guess, but I didn’t want to get married yet a while.”

Carey: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, let’s get this straight. Who done the asking? Her?”

Farrell: “No, not exactly her, but… but… but sometimes a fella don’t know just exactly what he’s gettin’ into. You… you take a good-lookin’ girl and a fella does just about what she wants him to. When a fella gets to feelin’ sorry for a girl, it’s all off.”

It isn’t until Farrell steps out of the lounge and sees Dolly glaring daggers at him that he realizes he’s been caught in the act. He tries to explain his remarks away as just joking around, but she won’t have any of it. Dolly angrily gives Farrell his ring back and leaves town, swearing never to see him again.

The timing couldn’t be worse; Farrell’s already in hot water, having gotten inadvertently involved with a gang of crooked gamblers. The day before he proposed to Dolly, Farrell was approached by a shady character named Lefty Crawford (Paul Harvey), who claimed to be the president of The Young Man’s High Ideals Club. Crawford asked Farrell to speak to the boys about clean living and he agreed to go with him. (Yeah, Farrell’s that naïve.) He didn’t even suspect anything when the “boys” turned out to be bunch of obviously adult hoods gathered in a seedy, smoke-filled hotel room.

Crawford: (with mock disapproval) “Now, boys, what did I tell you about that smoking? You know it’s not allowed. Put out those cigarettes and don’t let it happen again.”

Farrell: “Your president is right, boys. Where would I have been today if I had smoked?”

Thug: (deadpan) “All right, I’ll bite. Where?”

It wasn’t until Crawford made it clear that they wanted Farrell to lose a couple of games for them that light began to dawn. Farrell, of course, refused, but when Crawford literally twisted his arm, he was forced to pretend to go along with them in order to get out of there in one piece.

Farrell’s depression over the break-up with Dolly causes him to lose the next game, the first game he was supposed to “throw” for Crawford and his goons. Seeing as Farrell has never lost a game before, Johnson and Cap smell a rat and go to question him in his room. Their suspicions are seemingly confirmed when a known hoodlum, Kelly (Cliff Saum), delivers an envelope full of cash to Farrell while they’re there. Now, in addition to losing his girl, Farrell is believed to be on the take.

Per sports movie tradition, there’s always a big game that the good guys absolutely have to win in order to provide the story with a happy ending and a plot complication that threatens that happy ending. In this case, the big game is a night game that will determine if the Cubs make it to the pennant and the complication is Farrell being kidnapped by the gamblers. (Farrell offered to clear himself by setting up the gang for the cops, but the hoods got wise to his double-cross.) Farrell escapes from his kidnappers, leading to a wild chase in a stolen ambulance as he’s pursued by gang members, shooting at him from their car. At one point, Farrell accidentally drives the ambulance onto a car carrier truck and, when he realizes his mistake, he simply steals the truck, too, and resumes speeding toward the ballpark.

Coming full circle, Farrell arrives during the ninth inning by crashing the truck through the fence. Hastily outfitted in an oversized uniform, Farrell succeeds in striking out the opposing team, keeping the game tied as they go into the bottom of the ninth. Now it’s up to the Cubs to break that tie. Normally, in sports comedies, the way the heroes win the big game involves bending the rules a little (or breaking them outright). Not in Alibi Ike, though. Keeping with the film’s authenticity, Farrell manages to make the game-winning run in a legitimate (if unlikely) manner by using his acrobatic skills to avoid being tagged out at home. It hardly counts as a spoiler to mention that Dolly forgives Farrell and, in the final scene, they get married, giving the movie its promised Hollywood ending.

An underrated specialist in action films and comedies, Enright’s direction keeps Alibi Ike moving at a breathless clip and successfully guides Brown through one of his most amusing performances. Nineteen-year-old de Havilland makes a most charming and fetching young romantic lead for Brown. (Later that year, she would be teamed for the first time with her most notable cinematic partner, Errol Flynn, in Captain Blood.) And invaluable support is provided by Warners stock company members Donnelly, Karns, and, especially, Frawley, hilarious as always embodying his standard lovable old grouch persona. (Was Frawley ever young?)

Alibi Ike is currently available on DVD from Warner Archives. Like most Warner Archive releases, the DVD is short on extras (just the original theatrical trailer), but the film’s print is absolutely pristine and flawless. So far, Warner Archives has issued only four of the twenty comedies that Brown starred in for Warners, but, hopefully, there will be more forthcoming in the near future.


[1] Supposedly, when Keaton had his own production company in the 1920s, his employment application consisted of two questions: “Can you act?” and “Can you play baseball?” 50% was a passing score.

[2] De Havilland had already completed two movies before filming on Alibi Ike began, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Irish in Us, but they were both released after Alibi Ike. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream required extensive post-production work.)

Hopper 3

Anyone for Dennis

Success in Hollywood came remarkably easy for Dennis Hopper — but vanished just as quickly. It began on the day the teenage actor auditioned for the role of an epileptic in a television series called Medic. After a little small talk, he suddenly fell to the floor in a seizure. The casting director was reaching for the phone to call an ambulance when the 18-year-old jumped up and smiled broadly. The 32 other actors waiting in the corridor were sent home. Hopper had the role.

His screen performance — his body becomes rigid, he falls down and he even foams at the mouth — may not be authentic, but it reminded his grandmother of the day when as a little boy he discovered the intoxicating effects of mood-altering substances.

Hopper was born in 1936 in the Kansas dust bowl. His father went off to war — Hopper was told he was dead — and until he was 10 he spent most of his time on his grandparents’ small farm. There were “wheat fields all around, as far as you could see. No neighbors, no other kids.”

His grandfather owned an old tractor with a gas tank at the front where the radiator is usually found. The boy’s curiosity led him to remove the cap and sniff. Breathing more deeply, he reeled from the petrol fumes. But he enjoyed it.

Nearly every day, he stretched out on the hood of the tractor, inhaled and lay on his back. The sky became animated; the clouds changed into clowns and goblins. One afternoon he overdid it. The tractor’s grille and lights turned into the face of a terrifying monster attacking him. His grandfather pulled him away as he smashed at it with his baseball bat. The boy was so high he wasn’t even aware of what he was doing until his grandparents explained it to him afterwards.

It set the scene for a turbulent life. Four decades later, after a chaotic acting career disrupted by too many rages and bad trips, Hopper was in a rehabilitation clinic, where a counselor wrote that “no character he had ever portrayed on screen, including the frenetic photographer in Apocalypse Now, came close to projecting the dazed, lunatic quality” of the man himself. Hopper once said he became an actor “because I hate my parents . . . I hated my home life, the rules.”

His father was “a hard, totally secret man with no words,” whose “death” had been a ruse to cover secret work with the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) in China. His reappearance after the war confounded the boy. “Now wouldn’t that make you a paranoiac?” Hopper later said.

He claimed that his mother had been a swimming champion, whose Olympic ambitions collapsed when she became pregnant with him at 17. She took out her resentments on him. “She was wild, very emotional, a screamer and a yeller,” he said. “My mother had an incredible body, and I had a sexual fascination for her.”

His gateway to Hollywood was the southern California city of San Diego, to which the family moved when he was 13. At school he was the class clown, but he took acting lessons (to his mother’s horror). He tried to escape his parents’ disapproval by running away.

“I was a crazy kid, mixed up with a wild bunch — delinquents, I guess — but I got away from that in acting. I was into the general gang stuff. Petty theft and a lot of misdemeanors.”

Stage work at the La Jolla Playhouse brought contact with Hollywood stars like Vincent Price, an art collector who introduced Hopper to the new Abstract Expressionist painters.

Hopper’s role in Medic led to a rancorous audition with “King” Harry Cohn, the infamously coarse boss of Columbia Pictures.

Hopper claimed to have told the mogul to “go fuck” himself for criticizing Shakespeare.

Hopper 1

But he promptly landed work in 1955 with Hollywood’s hottest new actors, James Dean and Natalie Wood, on a film that became a cultural icon, Rebel without a Cause. Both stars changed Hopper’s life. Dean dazzled him. Wood drew him into a world of debauchery (with painful consequences for her when she tried to start an orgy in a bath of champagne).

Wood’s parents, Nick and Maria Gurdin, were Russian émigrés. He was an alcoholic carpenter.

Maria yearned for wealth and fame — and found it when a film crew visited their home town in northern California. She pushed four-year-old Natalie onto director Irving Pichel’s lap. She charmed him by singing a Russian folk song and was rewarded with a brief walk-on role — prompting Maria to move the family to Hollywood, where she maneuvered her daughter into her first speaking role and a career as a child actress.

By the time Rebel Without a Cause was on the horizon, Wood was 16 — too mature to play children, yet too young to play leading roles against older male stars. Her home life was tough. Her father periodically erupted in drunken rages and chased his wife around the house with a butcher knife. Her mother banned anything that threatened her earning power as an actress — including relationships with boys her own age.

“I was a rather dutiful child,” Wood said later in life, “and when my parents read the script of Rebel, they said, ‘Oh no, not this one,’ because it showed parents in a rather unsympathetic light, and yet I read it, and for the first time in my life I said, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I have to do this!’” She identified with Judy, one of the teenagers from dysfunctional families around whom the film revolves.

Rebel’s director, Nicholas Ray, then 43, was a bisexual, misogynistic womanizer addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling. Wood showed up at his office looking how she thought a sexy, mature woman should look. Heavily made up, wearing the slinkiest dress she could find and perched on high heels, she threw herself at him.

It did little to change his impressions of her as a child actress, but she ended up in his bed at the Chateau Marmont hotel on the Sunset Strip. Ray had a poolside bungalow where he enjoyed afternoon trysts with pliable young actresses, most notably Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, another candidate for the role of Judy.

He agreed to give Wood a screen test with Hopper. It took place on a rainy evening and “by the time we were finished, Natalie and I both felt like wet, unhappy animals,” he recalled.

Next day the phone rang in his apartment. A young girl’s voice said, “This is Natalie Wood. I tested with you the other night on Rebel. Remember? It was raining?”

Hopper barely remembered the skinny little girl “because I tested with about 10 women that day. But she was really funny. She told me I was great looking, and she really liked me, and she wanted to have sex with me . . .

“In the Fifties to be aggressive like that as a woman was really amazing. It was an amazing turn-on to me, for one thing. But it was certainly contrary to any kind of movement, or idea, at the time.”

Hopper picked Wood up at Ray’s hotel, where she had spent the afternoon with the director, and drove up to a lover’s lane to make out. He was about to go down on Natalie when she exclaimed, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Hopper said, “Why?” She said, “Because Nick just fucked me.”

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“I thought it was weird, okay?” Hopper recalled. “At the time I was 18 years old! I thought it was strange, I thought it was weird of her to be doing it . . . he was having an affair with a minor. It was illegal for me, too, but at least I was only a couple of years older.”

Wood became Hopper’s Hollywood tour guide, tooling around town in her pink Ford Thunderbird with him and Rebel cast member Nick Adams. They placed their hands and shoes in the imprints of the screen immortals at the entrance to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Hopper became her surrogate for James Dean, who hadn’t responded to her interest. The two young men looked similar and were both dedicated to the Method school of acting.

Wood and Hopper alternated between a search for seriousness and frivolity. Hopper said they watched foreign films, “trying to find another way of, like, working. We were very ambitious to change things.” But they also thought of themselves as the logical successors to the great names of show business and began emulating what Hopper called “wild, crazed Hollywood icons.”

Hopper said: “It was almost as if we were naive to the point: ‘If people did drugs and alcohol and were nymphomaniacs, then that must be the way to creativity, and creativity’s where we wanna be. We wanna be the best.’ She [Wood] always wanted to be the best.

“We were always envious of the generations before us,” he continued. “In the Fifties, when me and Natalie and Dean suddenly arrived, we all sort of felt like an earlier group of people who thumbed their noses at Hollywood tradition, people like John Barrymore and Errol Flynn, both of whom died as alcoholics.

“It seemed a romantic, a colorful way to go. I mean, we heard of the orgies that John Garfield used to have, the Hollywood roulette. It seemed wilder. So we tried to emulate that lifestyle. In a strange way we were trying to emulate some sort of past glory.”

Hopper and Nick Adams rented a house in the Hollywood Hills, where, with Wood, they tried to be wilder than their notorious predecessors. “For instance,” Hopper said, “once Natalie and I decided we’d have an orgy.”

Among the guests was Hopper’s high school friend Bob Turnbull, who recalled: “It was kind of a big event. She just wanted all kinds of guys doin’ her.”

Wood wanted a champagne bath, Hopper said, because, “I think she had heard that Jean Harlow or somebody had had a champagne bath. So Nick and I went and got all this champagne, and we filled the bathtub full of champagne, and we said, ‘Okay, Natalie, we’re ready for the orgy.’ Natalie takes off her clothes, sits down in the champagne, starts screaming.”

Why did she scream? “Well,” Hopper said, “because it burned her pussy. Set her on fucking fire, you know.” Hopper and the others raced the agonized Wood to the nearest emergency room, where she was treated for a “very expensive burn.”

“Of course, she had other times, too, when Dennis, Nick and I would be enjoying her company as well,” Turnbull said. “She was just a wild and crazy gal. She was just very friendly but oversexed. She was a very classy girl. She just had a whole different outlook on the morality of one’s life. She was a nice person, very polite, just a very free-flowing spirit.”

There was sexual jealousy between Hopper and Rebel’s director. Hopper told Steffi Sidney, another friend, that he went looking for Wood at Ray’s bungalow one evening and caught them having sex. “He told me about being in love with Natalie and what he was going to do, because Nick hated him,” Sidney said.

Hopper said he visited the Chateau Marmont with a gun to confront Ray, who, fortunately, wasn’t at home that night.

The anger extended to the film set: Ray tried to fire him and removed much of the dialogue from his part, a gang member called Goon. But it was on set that Rebel had its lasting effect on Hopper, as a result of his watching Dean at work. “I thought,” Hopper said, “I was the best actor in the world — I mean the best young actor. Until I saw James Dean. He fascinated me. Dean completely disregarded any direction in the script. He would do a scene differently every time. It came straight out of his imagination, his improvisation.”

Hopper tried to talk to him about his technique, but Dean preferred to stay in his dressing room, smoking marijuana and playing classical music. “I tried to get to know him. I started by saying, ‘Hello.’ No answer.”

Hopper said he finally got Dean’s attention by throwing him into the back seat of one of the cars used in the “chickie run” scene. Hopper enjoyed a student-teacher relationship with Dean, sharing peyote and marijuana. “He started watching my takes,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t even know he was there. He’d come up and mumble, ‘Why don’t you try it this way?’ And he was always right.”

The 24-year-old Dean was killed when he crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder on September 30, 1955, a month before Rebel was released. It is difficult to overstate the impact of his death on Hopper, who once spoke about him as if he were the love of his life: “I was with him almost every day for the last eight months of his life and then he died. I was haunted by the death of Dean, which had been the greatest emotional shock of my young life. He taught me so much. When he died, I felt cheated. I had dreams tied up in him, and suddenly that was shattered. The alcohol and drugs brought me temporary escape. That was the first major thing that really affected me . . . My life was confused and disoriented for years.”

Dean’s immediate legacy was a delusion that Hopper could wield the same power on set as his idol had done. To Hopper, it appeared that Dean dominated Nick Ray and called the creative shots on Rebel. Hopper, however, was not in Dean’s league.

In 1957, he engaged in an epic battle with veteran director Henry Hathaway while filming From Hell to Texas. Following in Dean’s footsteps, Hopper refused to do things the director’s way. Hathaway finally broke his will when they spent all day shooting 87 takes of a 10-line scene. Hopper was effectively banished from Hollywood studio films.

Hopper married Brooke Hayward and worked sporadically in episodic television and low-budget films. He channeled his creative energy into photography and collecting Pop Art. He directed second unit footage of Peter Fonda on The Trip and the two collaborated on Easy Rider, which became the surprise hit of 1969.

Hopper, regarded by the Hollywood establishment as “a maniac and an idiot and a fool and a drunkard” before Easy Rider, suddenly became their hot ticket to the youth market. He had creative carte blanche to direct his next film, The Last Movie. He later recalled that making The Last Movie, a disastrous project filmed in Peru in 1970, was one long sex-and-drugs orgy.

“Wherever you looked,” he said, “there were naked people out of their minds. There was a mountain of coke down there, and we went through it all. But I wouldn’t say it got in the way of the movie. I’d say it helped us get the movie done. We might have been drug addicts, but we were drug addicts with a point of view and a work ethic. It was all about the movie. If we were going to take coke and fuck beautiful women, we’d do it on camera. The drugs and the drink and the insane sex, they all fueled our creativity. At least, that’s my excuse. If you’re gonna be that debauched, it’s better to have a good reason.”

Hopper spent over a year partying with a hippie entourage while editing The Last Movie at his new home in Taos, New Mexico. He married singer Michelle Phillips on Halloween in 1970. She ran away from him days later, accusing him of handcuffing her, calling her a witch, and firing guns inside his house. The Last Movie, an incoherent, pretentious mess, alienated audiences and critics and bombed, taking Hopper’s career with it.

Hopper exiled himself to Taos, working occasionally outside the U. S. in films like Mad Dog Morgan, The American Friend, and Apocalypse Now.

The nadir came in 1982.

“I was doing half a gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine a day — and that wasn’t getting high, that was just to keep going, man,” he said. “It was like a nightmare roller-coaster paranoid schizophrenic journey that was totally crazy.”

Delusional, and convinced that the mob put out a contract on his life, Hopper performed an old rodeo stunt called the Russian Suicide Death Chair at a speedway in Houston to promote a retrospective of his art at Rice University. He sat on a chair wired with dynamite sticks and lit the fuse. He emerged from the explosion miraculously unscathed.

A German producer wanted Hopper for a film about a group of models captured by a South American drug lord. The money was more than he’d ever been offered. So he headed down to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where it was going to be made. The job became Hopper’s entry to madness.

“What happened was my manager had called and said ‘don’t give him any booze,’ so I couldn’t get a drink and I started having hallucinations,” he said. The three complimentary shots of tequila left for him in his hotel room sent Hopper over the edge. He later said they were spiked with LSD.

“I became convinced that there were people in the bowels of this place who were being tortured and cremated,” he recalled. “The people had come to save me, and they were being killed and tortured, and it was my fault.”

He escaped into the warm Mexican night but the hallucinations kept coming. He masturbated to a tree and thought he was creating a galaxy. Insects and snakes broke through his skin. He tore off his clothes and walked into the countryside. He saw mysterious lights and thought they were alien spaceships.

As dawn broke, Hopper wandered naked back to town, hurling rocks at oncoming cars. “When the police tried to get me dressed, I refused,” he said. “I said, ‘No, kill me like this! I want to die naked.’”

Some of the film crew managed to get him on a flight back to Los Angeles. “On the plane I was hallucinating, and I crawled out on the wing in midair,” he recalled. “I decided that Francis Ford Coppola was on the plane, filming me. I had seen him, I had seen the cameras, so I knew that they were there. The crew started the wing on fire, so I crawled out on it, knowing that they were filming me. I was out there, and a bunch of stuntmen grabbed me and pulled me in.”

Hopper woke up in a straightjacket in a psychiatric ward, surrounded by celebrities in straightjackets who were screaming. “I better stop drinking,” he told himself. An antipsychotic drug gave him the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It took him agonizing minutes to get food or a cigarette into his mouth.

He forswore alcohol but secretly continued using large amounts of cocaine — “half an ounce every two days, 2 days, three days at the most” — and then went totally crazy: “It’s really amazing when the telephone wires start talking to you.”

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Hopper finally questioned his behavior. “I had built in such a strong endorsement for drinking and using drugs, because, after all, I was an artist, and it was okay for artists to do that,” he said. “The reality was that I was just a drunk and a drug addict. It wasn’t helping me create. In fact, it hindered me. It stopped me getting jobs. I dealt with the rejection by taking more drink and drugs. All alcohol and drugs got me was a lot of misery.”

A year after Hopper sobered up, David Lynch, a master of the grotesque with a gift for infusing banal situations with the dread of imminent horror, cast him as gas-huffing psychotic drug dealer Frank Booth in his new film, Blue Velvet, without even meeting the actor.

Hopper called Lynch to assure him that he understood the role. “I am Frank,” he told Lynch, which gave the director some pause. Hopper viewed the film as a love story, explaining: “I understood his [Booth’s] sexual obsession. But I saw him as a man who would go to any lengths to keep his lady.”

His inimitable performance became his signature role, eclipsing everything he had done before. It would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. Though he worked constantly afterwards, he became trapped playing endless variations of Frank Booth for the rest of his life.

Before his death at 74 from prostate cancer, he summed up: “Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of, and yet they’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.”

© Peter L Winkler 2014 Excerpted from Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, published by Barricade Books. Available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle e-book, and audiobook editions from Amazon.com. Be sure to visit Peter’s website: dennishopperbook.com