It turns out that two of my favorite movies also are my favorite Christmas movies: “The Bishop’s Wife” and “Die Hard.” At first glance, these pictures separated by a span of more than four decades have nothing in common — but both celebrate the power of faith and redemption in subtle and entertaining ways.
In 1947’s “The Bishop’s Wife,” clergyman David Niven believes that heaven-sent angel Cary Grant is the answer to his prayers for help in squeezing millions from an obnoxious old matron to build a cathedral whose construction she’s micromanaging. But Niven’s marriage to Loretta Young is headed into stormy seas, and he gets more than he bargained for when Grant charms everyone from a comic-relief agnostic to the bishop’s wife — played by professional Catholic Loretta Young.
Their faith restored, the agnostic turns to religion, the matron gives her millions to the poor, and Niven realizes that his wife has the power to give him heaven on earth.
Another marriage is on the rocks in 1988’s “Die Hard,” in which New York cop Bruce Willis travels to Los Angeles to attend a Christmas party in the skyscraper headquarters of a Japanese multinational where his estranged wife Bonnie Bedelia is a top executive. When terrorists take over the building, several characters are forced to find faith in themselves.
A cop who has been afraid to fire his gun since accidently killing a kid becomes a hero, a desk-flying police chief learns to respect street cops and Willis and Bedelia symbolically reaffirm their marriage vows when they must snap open the clasp on a Rolex watch she’s wearing to drop villain Alan Rickman to his death.
Cerebral use of Christmas music ranging from Run DMC to Beethoven to Sinatra adds greatly to the holiday spirit.
When I was a kid, I loved the outer-space adventures of the original “Star Trek” series, which I found entertaining and thought-provoking. But another series at that time managed to scare the living bejeezus out of me — and still does. That program is “The Invaders,” introduced each week with an ominous opening sequence:
The Invaders: Alien beings from a dying planet. Their destination: The Earth. Their purpose: To make it their world. David Vincent has seen them. For him it began one lost night on a lonely country road looking for a shortcut that he never found. It began with a closed, deserted diner and a man too long without sleep to continue his journey. It began with the landing of a craft from another galaxy. Now David Vincent knows that the Invaders are here, that they have taken human form. Somehow, he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun.
The show’s first season is now available on DVD and I’ve been watching “The Invaders” with new appreciation. Unlike a lot of series from that era, it sure holds up. The few effects are done well and the attention paid to lighting, music and art direction rivals that of many contemporary theatrical films.
Cloned from Quinn Martin Productions’ “The Fugitive,” this show follows “architect David Vincent,” played by 29-year-old Roy Thinnes. Although he gains allies in the second season, Vincent initially leads a desperate, one-man campaign to expose the vanguard of an alien invasion. The aliens themselves are among the reasons why the series proved so frightening. They’re only shown in their human forms, which often aren’t 100 percent perfect, and can be identified usually -— but not always -— by a misshapen pinkie finger.
To maintain their human shape, the invaders must periodically step into regeneration tubes. Only occasionally, a human gets to see an invader in its actual native form. Those who do often are driven to the point of madness.
And although within the context of the series these humans see the invaders, viewers never do. We see only the humans’ terrified reaction to these aliens, which makes their presumed appearance all the more terrifying.
Almost as terrifying are the ways in which the invaders infiltrate human society. They’re small-town sheriffs, government officials, leading scientists -— and in one notable episode even a stripper played by Suzanne Pleshette. It’s a rich vein of paranoia later mined to similarly chilling effect by “The X-Files.”
Although it’s difficult to believe these invaders really are here from “another galaxy,” they’ve definitely come a long way and their resources are being stretched to near the breaking point. Their most effective weapons are seldom a large scale effort, but rather treachery, brainwashing — and a nasty little disk that when pressed to a human’s neck induces death by cerebral hemorrhage.
But the biggest problem facing David Vincent is that it’s next to impossible for him to prove that the invaders are here because when one is injured or shot, they just about always go up in a blaze of spontaneous combustion.
Most of the episodes in this set have been transferred in crisp color and with a rich soundtrack that allows Dominic Frontiere’s eerie musical score to properly frost your spine. Roy Thinnes, now 70, introduces each episode and is also featured in a supplemental interview in which we learn that some of the show’s crew thought UFOs were no laughing matter.
Series creator Larry Cohen narrates much of “The Innocent,” which, although he didn’t write it, is his favorite episode. Cohen offers up some interesting stories, but his narrative tends to wander. And he also gripes way too much about how his “Created by Larry Cohen” credit is at the end of each episode rather than at the beginning. Larry: If it’s any consolation, I noticed and remembered it. So much so that when I saw “It’s Alive,” “Q” and “The Stuff” years later, I thought wow, this is by the guy who created “The Invaders”!
Genre fans will especially enjoy “The Innocent,” which was originally telecast March 14, 1967. It’s not hard to see why Cohen counts this episode among the best. In it, Vincent is abducted and taken aboard a flying saucer by one of the invaders’ leaders — played by Michael Rennie, famed for his portrayal of Klaatu in the seminal saucer movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
This episode illustrates how “The Invaders” sparingly used special effects to such advantage. Vincent is driven to a mission revival ranch house and taken to see Rennie — and then he’s escorted into the back yard where he’s manhandled into the saucer. It all plays out as matter of factly as if hoods were stuffing a snitch into a Lincoln.
The saucer design itself no doubt tapped into its own wave of paranoia. Inspired by the spacecraft reported by 1950s contactee George Adamski, it was in a way the series co-star, a character that all of us hoped to see more of than we did.
Perhaps the saucer’s best appearance is in “The Mutant,” which finds David Vincent tracking down reports of a crashed saucer in the Desert Southwest. The scene in which he stumbles upon aliens repairing their saucer does a great job of laying the early groundwork for vectoring the Roswell legend.
I first saw “Two-Lane Blacktop” during high school in its initial release back in 1971. I saw it at a drive-in theater — probably the Lakeshore Drive-In in Edgewater, Colorado, although it could have been at the Wadsworth or West. (My parents always felt the Lakeshore attracted too many hoods, so we were discouraged from going there.)
Even with the threat of hoodlums aside, this road film made a big impression on me then. The plot of “Two-Lane Blacktop” is simple: Two cars race across the American heartland and, ultimately, we see that its characters are going absolutely nowhere. If anything, I guess this movie forces viewers to fill in the blanks.
Filling in those blanks proved easy for me. Our family moved several times during my adolescence and I was intimately familiar with highways and horizons. Once, in a grand but ultimately disastrous adventure, my dad moved us cross-country from Colorado to California, then to Alaska, and then back to Colorado. And we drove all the way. The Alaska Highway has been burned into my brain, along with memories of crossing Utah, Nevada and the vast northern expanses of the Yukon Territory — when gasoline was sold in imperial gallons and we picked up a hitchhiker who, we later found out, was an escaped murderer being pursued by the RCMP.
Maybe this why when I headed out on my own and moved to Wyoming and, later, Arizona, I found myself looking forward to the long, lonely drives. In an odd way, I find myself enjoying the start of the trip and the midpoint more than the arrival. In fact, the arrival usually is a let-down. “Two-Lane Blacktop” has no let-down; its characters never reach their destinations and are still traveling when the movie ends.
Director Monte Hellman hadn’t made a movie like much of the others out there at the time. I had managed to sneak into R-rated “Dirty Harry” at the Paramount Theater in downtown Denver and really appreciated what I perceived to be its sophisticated storytelling techniques. However, that Don Siegel film seemed hopelessly mainstream compared to “Two-Lane Blacktop,” which frequently has been described as nothing less than existential.
I missed out on Anchor Bay’s limited release of the film about 10 years ago, so the next time I saw “Two-Lane Blacktop” was last year, when it was available for something like six months as part of Comcast’s free on-demand movie service. Although I must have watched it a dozen times and enjoyed it, there was still something missing, mostly because this anamorphic widescreen movie had been converted to the dreaded “full screen” pan-and-scan format.
Thankfully, the film is now available in its original format on a new Criterion Collection release. Take a look at the frame grab I’ve placed here. It shows Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson at a small-town gas station where the decision is made to race all the way to Washington, D.C., for pink slips. Just imagine cropping that image to 1.8 times its width; Hellman’s thoughtful widescreen composition demands letterboxing at its native 2.39:1 ratio.
The supplemental material on Criterion’s two-disc set provides additional insight into the making of “Two-Lane Blacktop” and its creators’ mindset. In one segment, Hellman’s daughter drives the director and several of his film students from Los Angeles out to one of the remote, high-desert locations used in the film. In another, Hellman interviews James Taylor, who has apparently never watched the film he starred in almost 38 years ago.
There’s no musical soundtrack to “Two-Lane Blacktop” in the usual sense; music in the movie is heard in the background from radios. That’s why the best interview by far is with Kris Kristofferson, whose “Me and Bobby McGee” sets the tone for the film. Kristofferson’s original version of his song plays in the background as James Taylor challenges Warren Oates to the cross-country race. The result is a haunting, almost melancholy yearning for the open road.
Interestingly enough, when I bought this Criterion version from Amazon, I was prompted to buy it as a package deal with “Vanishing Point” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,” two other car chase films of the 1970s. Both are entertaining, but fall far short of reaching the classic level of “Two-Lane Blacktop.”