One of my favorite things is introducing people to great movies they might not have seen or even heard of.
You know, I watch a lot of movies. A whole lot. I used to watch everything. Not anymore. Movies are pretty awful today, and what it takes to produce an underrated gem is no longer part of Hollywood’s D.N.A. Hollywood’s too busy lecturing and hectoring and propagandizing and checking off Woke Boxes to surprise or move us anymore.
You see, above all, an underrated movie has to present a well-made, well-acted, and simple story that’s well-executed and universally appealing. Unfortunately, those fundamental storytelling values no longer interest the entertainment industry.
But that’s why the Good Lord gave us DVD and Blu-ray.
- Narrow Margin (1990)
Writer, director Peter Hyams’ crime thriller is a true rarity, a remake superior to the original. There’s a lot to like about director Richard Fleischer’s 1952 original, especially a hard-boiled cast including Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty forgettable. The remake is not.
A drop-dead gorgeous Anne Archer goes on a blind date with the always terrific J.T. Walsh. Bad things happen, and she ends up hiding out. Enter a hard-charging prosecutor (played by the Mighty Gene Hackman) who needs her to testify to what she saw. After an edge-of-your-seat escape, the two of them end up playing cat and mouse with a bunch of hired killers on a commuter train.
I especially like the dynamic between Archer and Hackman, how he initially misunderstands what she’s all about. It’s a mature, adult relationship that never turns to romance, which was a rarity in those days.
A top-shelf cast in a B-movie plot with A-list production values and a splendid script. Suspenseful throughout, an exciting conclusion, some nifty plot twists, and all of it delivered in 97 minutes.
- A Shock to the System (1990)
A jewel of a black comedy (adapted by my friend Andrew Klavan) about a man named Graham Marshall (Michael Caine) who grows tired of the indignities that define his home and work life, so he decides to kill everyone who makes him unhappy.
Caine is surrounded by a perfect supporting cast, including Peter Riegert, Swoosie Kurtz, Elizabeth McGovern, Jenny Wright, and Will Patton, and appears to be having a ball playing a milquetoast-turned-brilliant-sociopath.
The real beauty of the movie is that you never stop rooting for Graham. In fact, you find yourself living vicariously through him.
The story is filled with delightfully small moments filled with enormous meaning, like Riegert emasculating Caine by asking for a light. Thanks to some ingenious plotting involving a rental car and cigarette lighter, the third act is incredibly satisfying.
- The Resurrected (1991)
Director Dan O’Bannon’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story somehow ended up dying in the straight-to-video market, and for the first ten minutes or so, you are likely to believe that fate was deserved, but you gotta hang in there.
Charles Dexter (Chris Sarandon) is up to some super-creepy experimenting, and his gorgeous wife (Jane Sibbett) is worried about him, so she hires a private investigator (John Terry) to look into it.
As the minutes click by, The Resurrected sucks you into its mystery and gothic mood, which all culminates in a terrifying visit to some underground catacombs.
- White Lightning (1973)
Burt Reynolds’ first go-round as Gator McKlusky is Southern-fried noir at its best. Gator is serving time in an Arkansas prison for running moonshine. But, after his younger brother’s killed by a corrupt sheriff (Ned Beatty), Gator offers to nail him for the Feds, so he’s given a chance at parole and a very fast car.
Everything about this movie works, especially its sweaty look and feel and its theme of loyalty and betrayal. Gator’s put in a vise where the only way to get the sheriff is to betray his own people, simple people guilty of nothing more than avoiding the government’s liquor tax.
And then there’s Charles Bernstein’s score, which is so good, Quentin Tarantino lifted pieces of it for two of his own movies.
Bo Hopkins, Diane Ladd, Jennifer Billingsly, Louise Latham, Matt Clark, and R.G. Armstrong are perfect in supporting roles as characters who look like they’ve lived their whole lives in the Deep South moonshine rackets.
Reynolds, of course, is the whole show—pure charisma, a superstar on the rise.
P.S. Diane Ladd’s little blonde child is played by her real-life daughter Laura Dern.
P.P.S. The final chase between Gator and the sheriff is, in part, played for laughs. Hal Needham was the movie’s stunt coordinator, and you can see the seeds of Reynolds’ Smokey and the Bandit (1977), which Needham would write and direct, being planted right there.
- Save the Tiger (1973)
You can argue Save the Tiger is not underrated. It did, after all, finally win The Mighty Jack Lemmon a Best Actor Oscar. But other than Lemmon’s performance, it did not get very good reviews, and it’s been largely forgotten.
Well, there’s nothing I don’t love about this buried treasure, most especially its on-location photography in and around downtown Los Angeles.
I also love the extended opening scene that plays out as Harry Stoner (Lemmon) and his wife (Patricia Smith) go through the usual usual morning motions of getting ready for work.
And I really love the way it documents one of the primary hazards of urban life, which is how you are constantly running into political tripwires. At the time, the movie was criticized for addressing every social issue under the sun, but that’s a natural hazard of living in a city like Los Angeles. Politics was everywhere in 1973, and it’s even worse now. Cities suck.
Finally, I love how the movie is just an extended first act. The second-act turning point, Harry’s fateful decision, typically would’ve launched the second act. Yet, here it happens at the very end.
Save the Tiger is a character study of a desperate man who longs for a simple life he knows he could have had had he not made so many bad decisions, most of them based on greed and pride. It’s a great lesson about life, about figuring it out before it’s too late.