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Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II

August 12, 2016 4 comments


French Quarter scenes


Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II

From the land of Yes, sir…Yes, ma’am…and Y’all have a good time

©by Leo Adam Biga


After never being in the American South the first 57 years of my life, I made a purely pleasure road trip to St. Louis and Memphis  in June. My partner Pamela Jo Berry and I made the journey with her daughter Beaufield and Beau’s husband Rob and their baby boy Shine. We took in the National Blues Museum, the St. Louis Basilica and the St. Louis Fine Art Museum. We toured Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum. We checked out the Beale Street scene. Good food and music were plentiful.

On the way home we stopped in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri for some more down home country sights and experiences. Then, just two months later, Pam and I headed to the South again – only this time to the Deep South for her family reunion. We traveled with Pam’s mother Janis and two of Pam’s sisters, Pat and Theresa, to Kansas City, where we rendezvoused with close family friend Jill Anderson. Caravanning with us in another car to K.C. were Pam’s nieces Ashley, Amber and Aubrey and nephews Christopher and Tyler. While the others flew from KC to the site of the reunion, New Orleans, Pam and I drove with Jill to The Big Easy. En route, we passed through Arkansas and Mississippi and made it to the epicenter of Let the Good Times Roll by way of Baton Rouge.

We just got back from four days and three nights in the tropical clime of that storied port city best known for its rich cuisine, jazz and blues music, raised cemetery plots, voodoo subculture and stew pot mix of French, African. Creole, Cajun, African-American influences and traditions. New Orleans is first and foremost a city of the waters – both ocean and fresh water – whose diversity comes to it from every nook and cranny courtesy the international boats that dock and disembark there. The heavily trafficked Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain all intersect New Orleans and feed the city with distinct elements of river culture, community and commerce.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we had to get there and our staging ground for the drive down south was Kansas City. On the ride into K.C. Pam, her sisters and mother would instantly react to any good soul, R&B and jazz tunes by swaying and grooving to the music. I am afraid that even sharing close quarters with four black women this white guy still didn’t acquire any soul, not even by osmosis.

We spent a night in K.C. at the industrial chic apartment Jill shares with her roommate Jake, who generously gave up his bed to us. That night in K.C. before splitting up the next morning for our New Orleans jags by plane and care, we all went out to eat. Walking to the bar-restaurant we passed through the lively Country Club Plaza district with its Spanish-style architecture adorning shops, galleries and eateries. We hadn’t walked more than a couple blocks when Pat, followed quickly by Theresa and ultimately Janis, joined a line dance in progress at a little open square that three DJs turned into an outdoor dance floor.

At the Granfalloon Restaurant & Bar everyone in our party except me went for the Taco Tuesday special. Always the outlier, I went for the Falloon Burger with its Angus beef patty topped by smoked cheddar and peppered bacon on a Brioche bun. This good eats was on point.






Now let me share some more impressions and incidents from the rather circuitous path we followed in making our way down to the Heart of Dixie and that town of grassroots mystique called New Orleans, the original Crescent City. Instead of taking the Interstate, we opted to drive on a series of highways in a south by southeasterly direction. This meandering approach was a collective decision and included taking a scenic river path into New Orleans but as you’ll read that didn’t turn out the way we envisioned.

Well into our slog through Missouri and somewhere near the Arkansas border we happened upon an off-the-beaten-track Amish-run farmstead, where we stocked up on fresh fruit and veggies, including juicy, just picked Missouri peaches. A pit stop for gas and provisions turned up an unexpected delight when Pam spotted battered, deep-fried chicken livers and gizzards for sale as a uniquely Southern road snack. She and I both grew up eating those organ meats and so with every bite it took us back to our childhoods. I never did acquire an appetite for gizzards, but livers, well, that’s a whole other matter. These were just as they should be – soft and creamy inside with a flavorful not too crunchy breading on the outside. If cooked just right, as they were, it’s not an oily dish at all. Of all the good food we ate on the trip, and as you will read we ate some downright righteous stuff, the livers may have been the single best bite of the whole experience.

Traversing the surprisingly hilly country of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas we stopped to visit Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs. This impressive glass and steel structure sits atop native stone in a clearing amid forest. More than 400 windows provide a panoramic immersion experience  in nature that is both serene and sacred. Pam and I meant to stop there on our earlier trip down South but never made it, and so getting to see it on this trip was well worth the wait.

We stopped in Little Rock, where with more time at our disposal we would have visited civil rights memorials, but settled instead for dinner at Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken in the city’s downtown River Market district. The chicken comes spicy hot and it was better than average but not that much to brag about. Neither were the pedestrian sides. Our waitress was a bona fide Southern sweetheart who at one point sat herself down at our table for a down home, right quick break from being on her feet all day and a welcome to Little Rock how-de-do. Jill’s rental car got a less than how-de-do ticket violation for being parked in a spot where the citation read no parking is allowable at any time, This unwelcome surprise came despite no visible warning not to use that spot. The full lot’s only signage declared, “Public Parking.” Pam and I encouraged Jill to protest the ticket via whatever means the city of Little Rock allows. This wouldn’t be the last time Jill’s car attracted the unwanted attention of law enforcement despite our collective best efforts to obey the law.

We stayed a night at a Days Inn in Pine Bluff. All three of us skipped the promised complimentary breakfast after discovering it consisted entirely of white flour, sugar-based products that are no-no’s for people with diet restrictions like two of us.

Speaking of food, we had killer snacks on the ride down thanks to Jill, who packed a nice supply of her homemade vegan tamales featuring Jack Fruit and a yummy, spicy blend of seasonings.

Half-way on the aforementioned scenic river route in Louisiana Jill mapped out is when we realized we were lost or at least not where we should be because all we saw were flood control berms and heavy industry complexes. The sheer size and scale of operation of those various industry works were a sight to behold but decidedly not scenic. High above us ran conveyance systems from either side of the road. Do the overhead pipes carry water from the river to feed into whatever industrial processes are going on there? Don’t know. All I know is that whatever does happen at those plants is securely tucked away behind barbed wire and perhaps electrified fences. The giant works themselves, with their smoke stacks, cranes, valves and such, have a kind of heavy beauty to them in their interlocking tangle of mechanics and machinery, Not everything we glimpsed was so oppressive. There were a few roadside shotgun shack residences and bars. All through the parts of the South we traveled we saw lots of played out towns and abandoned structues that reminded me of what one sees trekking across Nebraska or any rural stretched. We did pass a raggedy plantation as well as some dreamland site full of white stone structures. Convinced we needed to ask someone where we were in relationship to the Mississippi River and to New Orleans, we pulled into an automotive and towing business called Joey’s on the side of the road and hollered at the first person we saw, who just happened to be Joey. In his thick Creole accent he informed us we were on the wrong side of the river to see anything remotely scenic and provided clear directions for getting us into New Orleans.


"Live like a Saint, Laugh like a Who Dat, Love New Orleans like nothing else." By popular demand, we have finally made a shirt of the quote on the wall at our Magazine Street shop. They are words to live by. Printed on Next Level tees for a curvier fit. Female size is a slight scoop neck. Pre-shrunk. Female sizes are a heathered grey tri-blend, Unisex are black cotton.:
New Orleans tagline to take to heart


We were no more than a few minutes traveling across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, which is the world’s longest bridge over a body of water with its nearly 24 mile span, when we hit rush hour traffic. Lake Ponchartrain is so immense and my sense of geography so poor, that I assumed we were over the Gulf of Mexico at that point. Then things really got interesting when a thunderstorm broke out and rain went from moderate to heavy to a torrential downpour. Visibility was reduced to a car or two in front of us, in back of us and on either side of us. Amidst all that gray and all those vehicles it was a claustrophobic inching along that tested faith and patience. Finally the shroud lifted and we got back to a semblance of normal travel speed. but bursts of jagged lightning bolts hitting a few hundred yards away made for an ominous arrival in our destination city. The Superdome loomed large ahead as we snaked our way through jam-packed streets to find the Embassy Suites on Julia Street, where we stayed three nights.

Over the next four days we ended up doing the French Quarter and French Market, but we avoided Bourbon Street. As a prelude to our first French Quarter foray the entire family gathered for the reunion took a riverboat cruise aboard the Steamboat Natchez. The food was disappointing but the cruise did give an appreciation for the grandeur of the river and for the scale of its commercial traffic as a bustling thoroughfare of ships and barges transporting people and provisions. Naturally, there was a “house” band entertaining us with old-timey jazz and ragtime music.

Our first truly New Orleans meal came at Peche Seafood Grill just a couple blocks from the hotel. Pam had a smothered catfish entree that she loved though I didn’t care for the red chili sauce that covered it. I had a killer gumbo with a scrumptious side of roasted beets and pistachios accented by fresh thyme.

Very near Peche is an Emeril’s restaurant and since we’re both big fans of his from watching cable cooking shows we decided to do dinner there one night. Eating at Emeril’s was hands down the best and most expensive meal we had on the trip. Trying to keep costs down, we both opted for the grilled salmon dish served on a bed of farro (a barley-like grain) and a tomato and corn chouchou, with some pickled string veggies tied in a bow atop the fish. The salmon was prepared perfectly, with the skin a nice black and crisp and the flesh moist and buttery. This was fine dining done right. The experience included at least four different wait staff who attended to us, each with a specific function, and somehow none made themselves obtrusive or a nuisance.

I forget what night it was down there, but Pam and I were walking back to the hotel after dinner and decided to explore a little bit and we heard, as you often do there, live music coming from somewhere. We followed the sound and before we knew it we were enveloped by a small marching band and their brassy instruments and dozens of rollicking merrymakers dancing to the joyous rhythms of When the Saints Go Marching In.



Steamboat Natchez


The day of the cruise didn’t begin so well but it certainly ended nicely. Waiting in line to board the boat became a mini-ordeal because of the oppressive heat and humidity that left us from more temperate Northern and Western climes sodden messes. Hand held fans were our only relief until we got inside the AC of the dining cabin. After a pale imitation of Southern cooking for lunch we went outside to stand or sit along the deck. A cool spray of water got kicked up by the paddle wheel below and a refreshing breeze made being outside in New Orleans a comfortable time for once.

We no sooner clambered off the boat then we headed right for the French Quarter, where a Satchmo Summerfest featuring live jazz and a sidewalk art show of diverse work drew good crowds. There’s much to see and do in the Quarter, of course, and we stopped in a number of galleries and shops, including a praline shop whose proprietor was a very short lady speaking in a very big voice. Her natural amplification made it sound like she was speaking through a bull horn. Our walking party through the Quarter consisted of Pam and me, Pam’s sisters Cheryl and Veronica, and Pam’s brother John.

During the course of our adventures in New Orleans we passed any number of praline places but we never got any. We were both trying to be good with our diets in a place where the abiding philosophy is diets-be-damned. But we had moments of splurging with food and other things.

Our stroll through the Quarter and on back to the hotel seemed like a forced march at times because of he humidity. It clings to you as if you’re walking with a warm damp towel over your head.

If we ever get back to New Orleans, I would like to have more time to explore the Quarter and to peak into those distinctive, tightly packed homes and buildings with their multicolored pastel facades, arched entryways, cozy balconies, ample windows with shutters and interior courtyards.

We also never got around to visiting a plantation or a cemetery. Next time must-dos.

The French Market is a big bazaar off the French Quarter filled with commercial buildings and open air stalls. We perused its Flea Market, where you can find an impressive variety of cooked to order food, fresh produce, apparel, jewelry, art and a hundred and one other things for sale. Pam had some interesting encounters with a charismatic vendor there by the name of Stefano Velaska. The story goes he wound up in New Orleans after fleeing his native Czechoslovakia, where he purports to have been a wanted dissident. He has been a vendor at the market since 1990. He’s also a founding member of the Dutch Alley Artist’s Co-op located within a short walk of his booth. He makes and sells his own handcrafted jewelry. He apparently suffered heavy losses in the Katrina disaster. He likes to quote Tennessee Williams and whether serious or not, he tried to interest Pam in interesting me to visit NOLA’s red light district to marvel at if not sample the whores. She was not sure how to take that or what to do with it but he twice “propositioned” her with the suggestion, which coming from a mustachioed, heavy-accented, flamboyant man in a decorated top hat does make one wonder or pause. Not far from the Flea Market is the famous Cafe DuMonde and its signature beignet and coffee. The takeout and gift shop lines went on forever and the open air dining area was packed too but we managed to just walk right in and sit right down. These were our first beignets, the legendary doughy delights smothered in powdered sugar, and I must say they’re quite good but hardly the revelation I was led to believe. During our repast there two older women turned out in gaudy mardi gras garb sat at nearby table and Pam asked if she could photograph them and they complied. A great pleasure on this trip was that Pam took photos practically everywhere we went. She is a superb photographer who years ago made a name for herself for her photojournalistic and art photography before life intervened and she eventually dropped the camera and morphed into a mixed media artist. Seeing her little by little pick up the camera again does my heart good. We intend to work together on a project one day featuring her images and my words.

Joining us after awhile at Cafe du Monde were Pam’s sisters Veronica, Victoria and Cheryl. We found a neat little gallery featuring the work of an artist who’s also the gallery owner.

During our meanderings through the French Market we heard some good jazz being played by a variety of musicians, including a sidewalk trio of a young man drumming and singing, an older man blowing his trombone and a young girl tearing it up on the trumpet. They attracted quite a few onlookers and admirers. Count us among them, Pam got some great shots of them.

The big family gathering that reunion week was a dinner and dance at Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant. The staff put out a nice buffet spread highlighted by a great jambalaya and these scrumptious little meat pies. The main bill of fare though was the four generations of the Williams-Jackson family gathered for this celebration. Family and friends of family joined as one. Folks came from California, Nebraska, Missouri, Virginia and Georgia. Pam’s mom  Janis, who is called Mother by one and all, headed the program, assisted by her daughter Cheryl. A cousin of Pam’s named Alexandra from the Kansas City side of the family has a beautiful, trained singing voice and she treated us to a rendition of “Ave Maria” and a gospel hymn. An unannounced segment of the reunion dinner program featured Pam’s daughter Beaufield Berry and her man Rob Fisher ecchanging marriage vows before the assembled Williams-Jackson clan. They wanted to share their wedded union with the extended family. I happened to be holding their 2-year-old son Shine during most of the ceremony and while he was just fine he sure couldn’t understand what mommy and daddy were doing up there.

We baby sat Shine two nights there after long days when we knew we weren’t getting back out into the party fray. We left the late nightlife revelry to the younger folks. Besides, we have a ball with Shine, whose sweet joy takes the edge off everything.

Once in New Orleans we didn’t see much of our driver, Jill, but we did find out she got a parking ticket for an expired meter and then a tow boot put on her car, which is no way for a city to treat the visitors who keep its economy afloat. After that, we decided it was better to pay the hotel parking garage fee of $37 a day, which all three of us originally balked at, and we split the cost with her. It turned out to be cheaper than searching for the scant street parking available and then getting hammered by the parking Nazis there.

For our return journey back home we took a much more direct route. We won’t soon forget the stark landscape of Mississippi, the winding roads of Arkansas and the rolling fields of Missouri. We crossed some spectacular old bridges that are epic and sculptural in addition to being practical. We were passing through Cleveland, Mississippi this past Sunday when hunger overtook us and not knowing where to stop we took a flyer on the Southern Cafe & Grill, which to our delight offered the best roadside, all-you-can-eat buffet imaginable for $10.99. Everything in that buffet line was country soul food done right: greens, lima beans, green beans, mashed potatoes, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, both fried and broiled chicken and some wonderful chicken stew-like dish. All of it was down home, real deal, succulent pleasure personified. It was one of those, Now-you-can-take-me-home-Lord meals that just don’t come around that often. We knew we were in the right place when after church crowd began filing in – white and black – dressed in their Sunday finest.

We spent another night at Jill and Jake’s place in K.C. before heading back to Omaha with Beau and Shine. After two straight adventures in the South I really like it there. The humidity does a number on me but its doable. I like the people, the landscapes, the attractions and the lifestyle. Mostly, from what I could see, the South is, just like the Midwest and pretty much everywhere for that matter, made up of honest, hard working folks who don’t take themselves too seriously but who have fierce pride of ownership in the places they call home. They love sharing their culture with outsiders if you show genuine interest in it.



Beau and Pam


As an interracial couple visiting the South in 2016 we don’t have to contend with the cruelties and dangers that mixed couples and people of color faced in the past. We never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. Seeing Confederate flags proudly displayed in the windows of homes and on private flag poles gives a moment of pause but those sights are few and far between. Pretty much everywhere we went we were greeted with cordiality, kindness and politeness. We even got a compliment from some random guy in Eureka Springs about what a great looking couple we are. Pam, as often happens with her, was told more than once how beautiful she is and how lovely her clothes are.

We were in good hands with Jill behind the wheel and she’s great company. A very sweet and smart woman who doesn’t stand for any nonsense.

I don’t know when we will next get back to the South, except that Pam feels called to do some serious family research in Georgia, where there are mysteries in her family line she is bound and determined to unravel. Depending on what she finds, it could be the makings of a highly personal photo essay or book or film or all or none of the above. If we don’t make it down there in 2017, we do know the next family reunion is set for Atlanta in 2018, so one way or the other I will be posting a new installment of my Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary. Until then, I’m dreaming of that heavenly Sunday buffet and counting candied yams, not calories.


Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

June 1, 2016 4 comments

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

©by Leo Adam Biga

Just got back mid-evening on Memorial Day from a one-week family road trip down South. We were two mixed race couples of different generations heading down to Dixieland. Beaufield Berry and Rob Fisher, plus their baby Shine along for the ride. Then there was Pamela Jo Berry (Beau’s mother) and myself. Pam and I rode shotgun with the baby while Rob and Beau took turns driving. Eight days and a couple thousand miles of travel is a lot for anyone, especially a 21-month old, but Shine was a remarkable trouper.

Our happy band of travelers pit-stopped in Kansas City to board a dog before wending our way in a southernly direction to our vacation’s first real destination, St. Louis. We toured the St. Louis Art Museum and the new National Blues Museum. The first rates 4-stars and the second 3-stars. Some in our party did the City Museum downtown. The single most impressive thing we did and viewed was tour the St. Louis Basilica a truly magnificent sacred structure that left us in a state of awe. I know, not exactly a fun thing to do, but meaningful and impactful, Immersed in that wonder. I swear that my soul stirred and my vision expanded.

Civil Rights Museum.
“I can’t explain how it feels to be here. I have goosebumps the whole time. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m grateful…this is a must see. You HAVE to come here. They start at Africa and walk you all the way through.” –Beau


Lorraine Motel - National Civil Rights Museum

Lorraine Motel – National Civil Rights Museum

Graceland. ❤️❤️❤️‪#‎bucketlistchecked‬  – Beau


“They ain’t playin with these collard greens down here.” – Beau

Enjoyed a great meal at Mango Peruvian Restaurant. The biggest impression we left with was how St. Louis, just like our Midwestern sister cities Kansas City, Chicago and Minneapolis and our Western sister city Denver, all have monumental public spaces. both indoors and outdoors, that Omaha sadly lacks. Those cities also retain much more of their historic buildings than Omaha and so the quality and the character of their architecture is much more compelling than what we have left. Our travel party of four adults and a not quite 2 year old comfortably shared a Residence Inn suite. Our shuttle drivers were ambiable men who gave us a few godo tips on where to go and what to do.

Memphis was next among our bucket list destinations and its mega attractions of Graceland and the civil Rights Museum provided two vastly distinct history experiences. Each in its own way and for its own attributes rates 5 stars. Graceland offers more than what any of us expected in terms of personalizing Elvis and his place in the collective popular culture consciousness. The Civil Rights Museum sensitively and intelligently blends the preserved Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated with a surrounding museum. The extensive exhibits walk you through the legacy of slavery from pre-colonial times all the way through to the Emancipation Proclamation and its messy aftermath. It informs you of the earliest efforts for equal rights that culminated in the modern civil rights movement. It takes you through the birth of that movement and King’s rise within it. It places you as well as any exhibit possibly could right in the thick of the protests, demonstrations, sit-ins and marches.

Beale Street proved surprisingly short but we consumed some mouth watering and flavorful food there, including a killer gumbo and some righteous greens and cornbread, and we caught some down home blues thanks to the Queen of Beale Street, Miss Ruby Wilson. Our waiter at B.B. King’s restaurant was a gregarious ambassador for the charms of Memphis, We stayed at an AirBnB-found private home in a quiet Country Club-like neighborhood. It was a spacious, comfy, unpretentious family dwelling with a great big old covered patio and deck we meant to do a grill out on but never quite got around to. If felt like a home away from home. The drive out of Memphis gave us a thrilling view between the Bass Pro Shops’ pyramid headquarters and the steel arched Hernando de Soto Bridge spanning a picturesque segment of the Mississippi River.
The only things I was sorry we didn’t make time for were tours of the legendary Sun and Stax Records.



-Branson MO Strip, Branson Attractions!:


Christ of the Ozarks ‪#‎eurekasprings‬



We were to have continued south to Nashville, where we planned to do the Grand Ole Opry and some music studios, but our accommodations got double booked in a major AirBnB snafu. So in classic improv fashion we double backed and spent our last few nights on a lakefront condo between Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri. It made for a nice Plan B compromise getaway within the larger getaway. Eureka Springs was a delightful surprise to us for its rich mix of historic buildings, eclectic architecture and hippie trippy vibe meets redneck kitsch. We were surprised too by the hilly, rocky terrain of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri that alternated with lush forests and big beautiful valleys. Saw far more Confederate flags and references to Dixie than we spied in Tennessee. As two mixed race couples down South we never felt uncomfortable, though the sight of those old wound symbols was a bit upsetting. But everybody we met, with very few exceptions, was friendly and inviting. Branson was far less visually and aesthetically pleasing than Eureka Springs, but in all fairness we only drove through its main strip or drag with all the theaters and shows. Our stroll time there was limited to another section of town devoted to shops and eateries. We mean to go back one day to take in some of those iconic Branson attractions.

Staying on that lake provided a tranquil respite to all the ferrying around from point to point. The only harrowing part of the whole trip was driving at night on dim-lit winding roads from Memphis to Eureka Springs. The weather the whole time we were away was moderate with plenty of sunshine and some stunning skyscapes and sunsets for good measure. The only inclement encountered happened on the return jaunt home between K.C., where we retrieved the dog, and Omaha, when we drove through a storm cell that kept opening up on us. Adding to the excitement of heading home was Beau, who is a playwright, fretting if she’d make it home in time for a 7:30 p.m reading compilation of some of her new work at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. Construction delays and storm surges worked against us before the road and the sky finally cleared and she made it back with plenty of time to spare.


Beau, Rob and Shine



All in all, a good, positive, fun-filled bonding time and adventure shared by people who love each other. A much needed break from the grinding routine and rut. Thank you Beau for planning such a cool gypsy experience and for expertly changing things on the fly the few times when plans did go awry. You did a great job with the accommodations and making sure we all saw and did things that touched our hearts and expanded our minds. Thank you Rob for being our steadfast main driver and all around leavening agent with your good sense and humor. Thank you Shine for being the joyful life spirit who engenders love and trust. Thank you Pamela for being the Queen Earth Mother whose serene example of going with the flow became our team mantra. Thank you God for fending off the panic attack-like freakouts that have spoiled some of my travels. This was all good and easy going down,  just like a Southern Fried Chicken dinner smothered in homemade peppered gravy. A real Pot Liquor-rich flavored, stick-to-the-ribs good time.


All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment

All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…

First off, blessings to all the Louisianans affected by the flooding. We were just down there before the deluge and troubles began, having driven through areas of Baton Rouge and surrounding towns and parishes en route to Pam’s family reunion in New Orleans, During our Southern Fried Love Road Trip II – link to my diary of that experience at – we only got one whiff of the torrential rains that can fall there. As brief as our exposure was when caught in a blinding downpour on the Lake Ponchartrain Bridge, it was plenty enough to make us nervous. Can’t imagine living in areas so prone to flooding. But what I’m really sharing in this post are my gathering thoughts about the oppressive humidity of the Deep South. While in the midst of that sog and sap I couldn’t find words to do it justice, except a few choice curses. Not even for a time upon my return could I manage to describe it. Now that I have a semblance of my wits about me, I will try to articulate how all consuming it felt. I mean, I knew it would be hot and I thought I was prepared for what everyone told me would be a humidity unlike any I’d felt before, but I never imagined its thoroughly invasive properties. Every time I left AC environs for the outside my pores spontaneously opened to release at first a film and then a full cascade of sweat. It often felt as if I’d been caught in a storm. That none too comfortable sticky, clammy feeling is most unpleasant. It’s essentially walking around in damp clothes. i did find relief when infrequent breezes thankfully appeared to create natural air conditioning of the most refreshing kind.



After being subjected to that muggy climate I can see how the humidity itself may be enough to explain the origins of Southern Gothic literature with its hyperbole, histrionics, eccentrics, grotesqueries and magic realism. Then add to that voodoo, fundamentalism, evangelism, hellfire Baptist devotion, devout Catholicism, swamps, backwoods, plantations, chain gangs, football, jazz, blues, country and soul food, not to mention the legacy of slavery, the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, and you have the makings for high drama, combined with doses of the surreal and the supernatural. The stark rich-poor, urban-rural divide lends itself to tragicomedy. Just like the humidity, that rich broth of culture oozes out until it envelops you in a steam bath of pleasure and pain. Beads of sweat and drops of rain mark the spot. The myriad struggles and conflicts of that place find release in the grace of slow rhythms that the heavy, moist air seems to regulate. As a visitor, there is no mistaking you are in a Southern Realm or Southern State of Mind, and just to remind you that you’re far from home is that all pervasive, stifling veil of sodden heat you cannot deny or escape, except indoors.

Funny thing about that humidity is that as draining as it could be, it sure never dampened my appetite.

Then there’s an undeniable sultry quality to all the humidity down there. People wear fewer, lighter clothes down there and, well, you know…I swear I felt like going all Stanley Kowalski to my Stella, Pam, by stripping down to a T-shirt in the French Quarter and calling for her to come to me in her slip. Visions of high strung Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor characters and overwrought scenes and delusions of being a character in God’s Little Acre kept coming to mind. But that was the heat talking. Maybe that Rum and Coke, too. But just thinking and writing about the humidity now makes me breakout in a sweat, so give me another cold one and pass the pralines.

And somebody please hand me a fan – and a change of clothes. While you’re at it, if you have any of those battered, deep fried chicken livers we found at a roadside store, I’ll take me some of those, too. The key is to eat, drink and be merry and not let the humidity bog you down or bum you out. After all, when in the South, do as Southerners do.

Life Itself XIX: Set the Scene True Life Stories

September 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself XIX:

Set the Scene True Life Stories



Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II…ad-trip-diary-ii

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

Goin’ down the Lincoln Highway with Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson…-anders-erickson/


Stretch of the Lincoln Highway in Elkhorn, Neb.


Leo Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford in Africa…awford-in-africa

The Champ Goes to Africa: Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends…rter-and-friends



Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi: Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum…-become-a-museum

Omaha Corpus Christi procession draws hundreds…n-draws-hundreds

Iraq War veteran Jacob Hausman battles PTSD and finds peace…-and-finds-peace/


A Hospice House Story: How Phil Hummel’s End of Life Journey in Hospice Gave His Family Peace of Mind and Granted Him a Gentle, Dignified Death…-dignified-death

Extremities: As seen on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” – Mary Thompson takes her life back one piece at a time

Greg Pivovar, owner of the Stadium View shop, poses in his store in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, May 27, 2010. Pivovar is a one-man welcoming committee for College World Series fans. The Omaha attorney greets every (legal age) customer with a free can of beer and nudges them toward the barbecue, brats or, when LSU is in town, seafood jambalaya.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Greg Pivovar, owner of the Stadium View shop, poses in his store in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, May 27, 2010. Pivovar is a one-man welcoming committee for College World Series fans. The Omaha attorney greets every (legal age) customer with a free can of beer and nudges them toward the barbecue, brats or, when LSU is in town, seafood jambalaya.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik) — AP

The Little People’s Ambassador at the College World Series…ege-world-series

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA lose home base…es-its-home-base/

The Bone Hunter: Paleontologist Michael Voorhies Uncovers Dinosaur Fossils

Dr. Michael Voorhies

Dr. Michael Voorhies


Dream catcher Lew Hunter: Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains

After whirlwind tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser goes gently back to the prairie, to where the wild plums grow…-wild-plums-grow/

Keeper of the Flame: Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser…inner-ted-kooser/


Verne Holoubek’s Road Less Traveled: How Harley Davidson, Printed T-Shirts, and the Counter-Culture Movement Helped this Former Nebraska Farm Boy Make Pop Culture History

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too…roaden-minds-too/

Freedom riders: A get on the bus inauguration diary

From the Archives: A Road Trip Sideways…-ride-to-freedom/

Therman Statom works with children to create glass houses and more…kids-art-brigade

  • *
    Linda Walker of Bay Shore, New York lifts her hand in prayer as President Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th president of the United States in Washington on Tuesday Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/ St. Petersburg Times, Martha Rial) ** TAMPA OUT. USA TODAY OUT. HERNANDO TODAY OUT. CITRUS COUNTY CHRONICLE OUT **

  • *
    Crowds gather on the National Mall in Washington for the swearing-in ceremony of President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean”…gem-of-the-ocean/

Back in the Day: Native Omaha Days is reunion, homecoming, heritage celebration and party all in one…party-all-in-one/



It’s a Hoops Culture at The SAL, Omaha’s Best Rec Basketball League…asketball-league

Hadley Heavin’s Idiosyncratic Journey as a Real Rootin-Tootin, Classical Guitar Playing Cowboy…r-playing-cowboy

Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater…-orpheum-theater


Alexander Payne’s Circuitous Journey to His Wine Country Film Comedy…ntry-film-comedy

My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary

UNO Wrestling Retrospective – Way of the Warrior, House of Pain, Day of Reckoning…day-of-reckoning/

The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline…se-of-discipline

Heart and Soul: Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter Keep it Real at the Downtown Boxing Club…town-boxing-club/

New school ringing in Liberty for students…rty-for-students

Bobby Bridger’s Rendezvous

A Passion for Conservation: Tara Kennedy…ion-tara-kennedy

A Rosenblatt Tribute


ER, An Emergency Room Journal

Merciful Armies of the Night, A Ride-Along with Paramedics

War and Peace: Bosnian refugees purge war’s horrors in song and dance that make plea for harmony

Bertha’s Battle: Bertha Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, struggles to keep the Great Plains Black History Museum afloat

Favorite Sons: Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd…lse-little-italy/

Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style


Devotees hold fast to Latin rite…o-the-latin-rite/

Show goes on at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start

From the Archives: Opera comes alive behind the scenes at Opera Omaha staging of Donizetti’s “Maria Padilla” starring Renee Fleming…ing-rene-fleming

It was a different breed then: Omaha Stockyards remembered…yards-remembered/

Separate Voices, Separate Lives: The Alien Abduction Chronicles…ction-chronicles

Life Itself X: Food Stories Through the Years – A Pot Liquor Love Archive

Issue 25

Life Itself X: Food Stories Through the Years

A Pot Liquor Love Archive

Follow my food writing at:

and in 

Food & Spirits Magazine

The Reader

Omaha Magazine

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet…ory-and-art-meet

Journalist-author Genoways takes micro and macro look at the U.S, food system…u-s-food-system

Finicky Frank’s puts out good eats

Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition…ream-to-fruition

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity in North Omaha…y-in-north-omaha

Good Memories and Good Eats

Soul food eatery Omaha Rockets Kanteen conjures Negro Leagues past and pot liquor love menu…liquor-love-menu


Tacos and Tequila Take Center Stage at Hook & Lime

Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry…t-for-her-poetry

Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club…low-country-club

Culinary artist Jim Trebbien…ommunity-college

Eat to live or live to eat, Omaha’s culinary culture rises …

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired

Chicken is King at Time Out Foods

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II

Book depicts area whole foods culture in stories, recipes …

Anne and Craig McVeigh Bring Beacon Hills Take on American Comfort Cuisine Back to Where Their Food Careers Started















Within Our Reach: Feeding a Starving World

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert…t-in-north-omaha

Omaha Culinary Tours: 

New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction…urist-attraction

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones…brate-milestones

Chef-Owner Jenny Coco Proves She Can Hang with the Boys

Shirley’s Diner

A. Marino Grocery

Omaha Chapter American GI Forum

Omaha’s Pitch Man: 

Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Willy Theisen is Back with His Next Big Business Venture…business-venture/

Entrepreneur and Dealmaker Greg Cutchall…er-greg-cutchall/

Doing Things the Dario Way Nets Omaha Two of its Most Distinctive Restaurants

Passing the Torch at the Dundee Dell

Vic’s  Corn Popper Owners Do More Than Make Snacks: They Mentor Young People…tor-young-people

George Payne and the Virginia Cafe: 

Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne…-alexander-payne

“The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story”

Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary…documentary-film

George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old…-never-grows-old/

In Memoriam: George Eisenberg

Issue 22

Itzel Anahi Lopez: Young Latina on the rise…tina-on-the-rise

A Different Kind of Bistro

The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin…of-the-bagel-bin

Big Mama’s Keeps It Real

A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha’s-keeps…ve-ins-and-dives

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe…e-community-cafe

Favorite Sons: 

Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd…lse-little-italy

Allan Noddle’s food industry adventures show him the world…ow-him-the-world

Cousins Bruce and Todd Simon Continue the Omaha Steaks Tradition…steaks-tradition

This version of Simon Says positions Omaha Steaks as food service juggernaut…rvice-juggernaut

A Soul Food Summit

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe

An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards…omaha-stockyards

It was a different breed then: 

Omaha Stockyards remembered…yards-remembered


Pot Liquor Love: A cornucopia of food stories, past and present, you may have missed

A cornucopia of food stories, past and present, you may have missed. Sample these as part of your summertime epicurean indulgence.

Brought to you by your purveyor of Pot Liquor Love–

©Leo Adam Biga 

A Soul Food Summit | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

Shirley’s Diner | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

A. Marino Grocery | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

Omaha Chapter American GI Forum | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

The Great Omaha Chocolate Festival – The Reader

A Culinary-Horticulture Marriage | Edible Omaha

New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban …

Eat to live or live to eat, Omaha’s culinary culture rises …

A Different Kind of Bistro – The Reader

JOURNEYS: Within Our Reach: A Starving World – Metro …

Pot Liquor Love: Chicken is King at Time Out Foods | Leo …

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I | Leo Adam Biga’s My …

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II | Leo Adam Biga’s …

Book depicts area whole foods culture in stories, recipes …

Good Memories and Good Eats – The Reader

Righteous Southern Grub at Dixie Quicks | Food & Spirits …

Maria Bonita | Omaha Magazine

Passing the Torch at the Dundee Dell | Food & Spirits Magazine

Anne and Craig McVeigh Bring Beacon Hills Take on American…

Doing Things the Dario Way Nets Omaha Two of its Most …

Chef-Owner Jenny Coco Proves She Can Hang with the Boys …

Mary Current and her Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce | Leo Adam …

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe – Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside ……/the-long-goodbye-for-bohemian-cafe-iconic- omaha-eatery-closing-after-92-years/‎

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired | Food & Spirits …

Tacos and Tequila Take Center Stage at Hook & Lime | Food …

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity – The Reader

In Case You Missed It – Hot Movie Takes from July-August 2017

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Crooked Way” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

If you’re a fan of great black and white photography and specifically the work of master of light John Alton, who helped establish the look of film noir, then “The Crooked Way” (1949) is a must-see. This is not a great film, but it is a good one. If only the script, direction and acting were at the same level of artistry as the lighting and cinematography, it would be remembered as a classic. But it’s well worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a solid crime, mystery, suspense story whose shadow world is gorgeous to behold in the hands of Alton. The hook behind this film is quite compelling. A mild-mannered World War II U.S. Army combat vet has suffered a head wound that’s left him with a total amnesia break  The military is only able to tell him he had some connection to Los Angeles. Otherwise, he has no family or history to go on to tell him who he is and what he did in life before the war. John Payne plays the poor sap who goes to L.A, in search of answers and almost immediately two cops pick him up and take him to headquarters, where he discovers he was a notorious criminal that LAPD ran out of town and warned never to return. From there, Payne’s character begins piecing together his unsavory profile and it leads him into ever murkier, more dangerous territory, until he has both the underworld and law enforcement gunning for him. It’s all very Jason Bourne-like but the creators of this film didn’t have the imagination or instincts or good sense to show us that Payne’s character is a lethal weapon. Instead, he’s always taking his lumps and never dishing them out. Until the very end. And even then he’s a bit of a weak sister. The story needed him to be much tougher. Payne had the build and looks to pull it off, but that’s not how the filmmakers saw his character, and it hurts the piece. Bourne is a great character because he’s active, never passive, whereas this character is far too prone to take a beating rather than to dish one out.

Payne was a rather stiff, emotionally stunted actor whose limited range imposed limits on what he could bring to a part. He was always better when he played with good people and here he’s not helped much by actors playing, his rival, Sonny Tufts, and his love interest, Ellen Drew. Rhys Williams adds some life and blarney to the cop after all of them. Percy Helton added his usual eccentric presence to the proceedings.

The location for the showdown at the end offered a visual playground for Alton and director Robert Florey to work with and they made the most of it. This may be the only film of Florey’s I’ve seen and from what I read he was a second-feature director working in crime and horror genres and later a prolific TV director. Some of his B films are held in high regard and so I have to assume he was responsible for some of the arresting visual flourishes here as well as for the very good pace the film maintains. It would have been interesting to see what he could do with a better script and cast. I already know he made the most of Alton’s talents and the visual palette of this film is still the primary reason to see it, though you won’t feel shortchanged in the entertainment department either.

“The Crooked Way” is available in full and for free on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes  –  Jerry Lewis, RIP

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Few popular entertainers have been as polarizing in their own lifetime as comic, filmmaker and humanitarian Jerry Lewis managed to be. In the years immediately after World War II he became one-half of perhaps the biggest live entertainment act in show biz history – Martin and Lewis. He played the silly clown that entertainers like Tim Conway, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler would take up after him. Martin and Lewis also teamed up for a large number of hit feature films. After Lewis and Martin split to pursue very successful solo careers, Lewis headlined some films but soon got the itch to creatively control his own starring vehicles, and so he made himself a do-everything comedy writer, director, actor in the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton. He was a very talented man but he wasn’t in their league. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen would follow Lewis. While Brooks’ best films were about on par with those of Lewis, Allen proved to be a far superior filmmaker than them. Lewis did enjoy a solid decade or so of success with the comedy films he made, even developing a hard to explain critical and popular following in France, where he was revered as an auteur and genius of comic cinema. Go figure. My personal take on this is that Lewis was unafraid to play the fool who was often a weak failure and the French liked that he punctured the American facade of superiority, strength and success. Lewis was an innovator in film production by becoming one of the first if not the first directors to use video playback technology on the set. Some of his comic bits were quite inspired. He was also capable of moving us with empathy, bordering on pity. Too often, however, his material was awkward, tone deaf, even amateurish. When he was on, his silliness worked, but when he was off, his work read just plain stupid, and that’s a kiss of death.

His films began to fall increasingly out of favor with audiences and out of touch with the times. For a long time he became better known as the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon host than for his screen and stage work. But, like the survivor he was, he then reinvented himself as a fine dramatic actor in film and television. If you’ve never seen Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” starring Robert De Niro, make a point to, because its a great dark comedy in which De Niro’s never been better and Lewis gives a superb straight dramatic performance that nearly steals the picture out from under De Niro. Lewis also received raves for his work in TV’s “Wiseguy” and in some later features. As the telethon turned into an ever harder to watch spectacle and his political incorrectness made him a fringe figure, a never completed Holocaust feature he made in Europe and tried to suppress – “The Day the Clown Cried” – came to light. When snippets from the never released picture began leaking on the Web, this bold, some say misguided attempt to stretch himself became an object of great speculation and scrutiny. What little there is to see is quite provocative. I believe Lewis made a stipulation in his will that the film not be shown publicly until years after his death.

Here’s a link to my Hot Movie Take on “King of Comedy”:…/king-of-comedy-a-dark-reflection-of-our-times/

Hot Movie Takes – “The Seven-Ups”

@By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Philip D’Antoni produced two of the best police-crime pictures of their era in “Bullit” and “The French Connection” and, depending on how you look at it, he paid homage to or ripped off those earlier films by producing and directing “The Seven-Ups.” I always avoided seeing “The Seven-Ups” because I remember reading that it was a pale imitation of “The French Connection” but now that I’ve seen it for myself I have to report that while it owes a huge amount to that great film and to “Bullit” it is a very strong work in its own right. “The Seven-Ups” may not be quite as good as those two, but it’s well worth your time. This is the only feature film D’Antoni directed and he proved more than adequate to the task. Indeed, working with some of the very creatives and consultants behind “French Connection,” including editor Gerald B. Greenberg,  technical advisor Sonny Grasso, composer Don Ellis , star Roy Scheider and co-star Tony Lo Bianco, he captures the same gritty reality and intense energy that William Friedken so indelibly committed to the screen. Scheider’s detective character of Buddy is based on Grasso’s own exploits just as they were in “French Connection.” Here, Scheider is basically playing the same character of Buddy, only this time leading a secret New York City mob investigative unit that goes by the name “The Seven-Ups” and uses extra-legal methods to make its cases. Unlike “French Connection,” Buddy and his colleagues are strictly working a domestic angle in “The Seven-Ups” that has them breaking up protection rackets. Buddy’s chief informant Vito (Tony Lo Bianco), a wise guy connected pal from the neighborhood they grew up in, turns out to be playing Buddy and the mob in a dangerous business of kidnappings for cash. When one score goes awry and one of Buddy’s men is killed, the film turns from investigation to revenge story.

The portrayals of the cops and mobsters are very believable and it’s clear each side uses unsavory tactics to get what they want. In this way, it’s very much a shades of gray story the way “Bullit” and “french Connection” are. D’Antoni makes great use of actual New York locations and stages an outstanding car chase midway through and an excellent manhunt climax .Scheider is superb as the grizzled detective who will practically go to any means in order to make a case or to get even. Scheider has that world-weary, existential thing about him that makes him a good fit for this kind of material. This was perhaps his first starring role and he makes the most of it. He’s just about as impressive as Gene Hackman was as Popeye Doyle in “French Connection.” The actors portraying his fellow investigators aren’t given much to work with in terms of dialogue but they also didn’t bring much to their parts except for a sense of working stiff commitment, solidarity and camaraderie.

The whole film rests on the uneasy relationship between old friends on opposite sides of the law and the eventual betrayal and rupture that occurs. Scheider and Lo Bianco are electric together. Less effective is the inside look at the mob. It’s not bad, but just not up to the deep, convincing takes you find in the films of Coppola or Scorsese, for example. But that’s a minor quibble since this story is mainly told from the police POV and it gets that insular world down pat. The bad guys we do spend the most time with are mob associates and rogues looking to get over The Man and they are the rank opportunists they appear to be.

Hot Movie Takes  – 1967: A Memorable Year in Movies 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Some of my recent Hot Movie Takes have focused on films celebrating 50 year anniversaries this year. In reviewing what I wrote, it occurred to me that an unusual number of very good English-language films were originally released in 1967. More than I previously thought. My previous posts about films from that banner year covered “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Point Blank” and “The Graduate,” respectively. In doing some online checking, I found several more notable films from ’67, including some I hold in very high regard, Thus, I feel compelled to write about some of them, too. In this new post I reflect on this overlooked year in movies and give some capsule analyses about the pictures I’ve seen and feel most strongly about. I may eventually develop separate posts on ’67 movies of special merit or with special meaning to me.

Let me start by listing the movies I consider to be the best from that year of those I’ve seen. In descending order, my ’67 picks are:

Will Penny

Bonnie and Clyde

In Cold Blood

The Producers

The Graduate

In the Heat of the Night

Cool Hand Luke

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Point Blank

The Fearless Vampire Killers

Who’s that Knocking at My Door?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

El Dorado

You Only Live Twice

The Dirty Dozen

To Sir, with Love

Barefoot in the Park

The War Wagon


Beach Red

Wait Until Dark

Throughly Modern Millie

That list includes a crazy range of cinema representing the crossroads the medium found itself at in that bridge year between Old and New Hollywood. A couple venerable but still vibrant filmmakers contributed to the year’s output: John Huston with his then-unappreciated and misunderstood “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and Howard Hawks with the middle film, “El Dorado,” of his Western trilogy that began with “Rio Bravo” and ended with “Rio Lobo.”

Richard Brooks, who rose to prominence as a screenwriter before becoming a highly successful writer-director, had the best movie of his career released in ’67, “In Cold Blood,” which is still as riveting, disturbing and urgent today as it was a half century ago. It captures the essence of the masterful; Truman Capote book it’s adapted from. The semi-documentary feel and the atmospheric black and white look are incredibly evocative. Though neither was exactly a newcomer, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson were strokes of genius casting decisions and they thoroughly, indelibly own their parts. I believe “In Cold Blood” features one of the best opening credit sequences in movie history. Even though the film doesn’t actually show overt violence, the intimate, voyeuristic way the Clutter killings are handled actually make the horror of what happened even more disturbing. Those scenes took what Hitchcock did in “Psycho” and pushed them further and really set the stage for what followed in the crime and horror genres.

Distinguished producer turned director Stanley Kramer chose that year to give us the most pregnant message picture of his career – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Burt Kennedy, who owns a special place in movie history for his writing and producing that great string of Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher starring Randolph Scott, gave us an entertaining as hell if less than classic Western he wrote and directed – “The War Wagon” – starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas.

More random cinema stirrings from that list:

Warren Beatty asserted himself a Player with the success of “Bonnie and Clyde,” which he produced and starred in. Its director, Arthur Penn, had made a splash with his second feature, “The Miracle Worker,” only to recede into the shadows until “Bonnie and Clyde” made gave him instant cachet again. The film also helped make Faye Dunaway a star. And it was the launching pad for its writing team, Robert Benton and David Newman, to become in-demand talents, both together and individually. Finally. that film, along with “The Wild Bunch,” took American cinema violence to a new place and stylistically introduced European New Wave elements into the mainstream.

“The Graduate” similarly ignited the New Hollywood with its inventive visual style, contemporary soundtrack and cool irony. Beneath that cool exterior are red hot emotions that finally burst forth in the latter part of the picture.

“Will Penny,” the film I have as the best from that decade among the pictures I’ve seen, may not be familiar to many of you. It should be. The Tom Gries written and directed Western contains the best performance of Charlton Heston’s career. The stiff, arrogant, larger-than-life weightiness that made him a star but that also trapped him is no where to be seen here. He is the very epitome of the low-key laconic cowhand he’s asked to play and he’s absolutely brilliant in the minimalistic realism he brings to the role. The supporting players are really good, too, including a great performance by Joan Hackett as the love interest, strong interpretations by Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe as his riding companions, and superb character turns by Clifton James, G.D. Spradlin, Ben Johnson and William Schallert. The villains are well played by Donald Pleasance as the evening angel patriarch of a mercenary family and Bruce Dern as one of his evil sons. Schallert, as a prairie outpost doc, beautifully delivers one of my favorite lines in movie history when put upon by Will (Heston) and Blue (Majors) to fix their ailing companion Dutchy (Zerbe) and, smelling their rankness and shaking his head at their daftness, sends Will and Blue away so he can get to work with: “Children, dangerous children.”

The story of “Will Penny” is exquisitely modulated and even if the climax is a little frenetic and over the top, it absolutely works for the drama and then the story ends on its more characteristic underplayed realism. The satire of the piece is really rather stunning, especially for a Western. This was an era of American filmmaking when certain genre films, especially Westerns and film noirs, were generally not deemed worthy material for Oscar nominations. If “Will Penny” came out years later or even today it would be hailed as a great film and be showered with awards the way Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” was (“Will Penny’s” better in my book).

The crime story that is the backdrop of “In the Heat of the Night” is pretty pedestrian and mundane but what makes the picture sing is the core dramatic conflict between black Northern cop Virgil Tibbs and white Southern cop Bill Gillespie in the angst of 1960s Mississippi. That’s where this film really lives and gets  its cultural significance. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are crazy good working off each other.

“Cool Hand Luke” was the latest vehicle for the series of rebel figures Paul Newman played that made him a star (“Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “The Long Hot Summer,”  “Hud,” “The Hustler,” “Harper”) and he took this one to the hilt. It’s not really a great movie, though it’s very engaging, but Newman is a treat to watch as he repeatedly tests authority. The film includes an amazing number of then obscure but soon to be well-known character actors.

For my tastes, “The Producers” is the best comedy ever made. It is an inspired work of looniness that decades later transferred into a successful Broadway musical. No offense to Nathan Lane, but he’s no Zero Mostel in the role of Max Bialystock. Everything hinges on Max, the brash, boorish, desperate, impossible has-been of a producer reduced to seducing wealthy old women to get some of their cash to live on. When he hires nebbish accountant Leo Bloom to examine his books and hears Leo muse to himself that a play could make more as a failure than as a success by raising, in advance, far more money than the play will ever cost to put on, Max instantly seizes on the wild-hair idea as a scheme to get rich. After terrorizing and seducing sweet, dissatisfied Leo to participate in this larceny, the two embark on a grand guignol adventure to find and mount the worst play they can find. They’re sure they’ve found it in “Springtime for Hitler,” a demented musical homage to the fuhrer penned by a certifiable lunatic who believes what he’s written is a serious work of art. Not taking any chances, Max hires a raving drag queen director and encourages him to go over the top with Busby Berkeley numbers and a dim-witted lead playing Hitler as a drug-crazed hippy. Despite their best efforts and complete confidence the play will open and close in one night to disastrous reviews and the audience walking out in disgust, Max and Leo discover to their despair that they have a hit on their hands. “Where did we go right”” a desolate Max asks rhetorically. Mel Brooks wrote a greet screenplay and perfectly cast Mostel and Wilder as the fraudsters. They were never better on screen than here. We care about them, too, because the heart of the comedy is a love story between these two men, who are opposites in every way except in their mutual affection for each other. You might say each completes the other.

Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn deliver truly inspired performances as the stark raving mad playwright and as the flower child Hitler, respectively.

That same year, 1967, introduced the world to a future cinema giant in Martin Scorsese. His little seen debut feature “Who’s that Knocking at My Door?” – starring a very young Harvey Keitel – contains themes that we have come to identify with the filmmaker’s work. Sure, it’s raw, but it’s easy to see the characteristic visual and sound flourishes, urban settings and dark-spiritual obsessions that would infuse his “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “King of Comedy” and “Goodfellas.”

It was also the year that Roman Polanski released his first American film, “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” a sumptuous feast for the eyes send-up of the vampire genre.

I know “The Dirty Dozen” is a popular flick with an eclectic and even iconic cast in a wartime adventure that’s pure entertainment hokum but I find it too much of it canned and over-produced. Lee Marvin holds the whole thing together but outside of his performance and some routine training and combat scenes, there’s not a whole lot there. It pales in comparison to other anti-war films of that era, such as “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “MASH.”

“Barefoot in the Park” is a contrived but endearing romantic comedy that showcases Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in two of their more liable if less than taxing parts. They’re both good light comedians when they want to be and early in their careers there was little to suggest in their screen work they would be fine dramatic actors as well. Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick basically steal the show with their overripe but delicious performances as the parallel older couple to the young couple engaged in navigating the hazards of love.

The conceits of “Wait Until Dark” were barely acceptable when I was a kid, but not so much anymore  We’re asked to believe that a blind woman, Susy, (Audrey Hepburn) alone in her apartment can summon the courage and presence of ming to ward off a gang of thieves, one of whom is a cold-blooded killer. The henchmen, played by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, concoct elaborate games of deception to try and get what they want, which is a drug stash she unknowingly possesses. The whole con setup is way too implausible as is the way Susy prevails against all odds. I mean, it’s one of those movies where we know the protagonist is going to survive but we’re asked to put aside our intelligence and common sense. I don’t what the picture looks like on a big screen, as I’ve only seen it on television, but on the small screen at least it badly suffers from the apartment supposedly being in total blackness, and thus blinding the last bad guy, when Susy’s clearly visible.

Here are several more films of note from ’67. It’s also quite a hodgepodge. I’ve seen portions of many of them but not enough of any one film to comment on it.


Two for the Road


How I Won the War

The President’s Analyst

The Night of the Generals


Far from the Madding Crowd

The Way West

In Like Flint

Casino Royale


Valley of the Dolls

Hour of the Gun

The Taming of the Shrew

Five Million Years to Earth

Poor Cow

A Guide for the Married Man

How to Succeed in Business Wothout Really Trying

The Trip

Hells Angels on Wheels

The Honey Pot

The Happiest Millionaire

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Rough Night in Jericho

Tony Rome

The Flim-Flam Man


Up the Down Staircase

The Whisperers

A Matter of Innocence

The Incident

The Comedians

Woman Times Seven


Divorce American Style

Hot Movie Takes  – “Bonnie and Clyde” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Fifty years have not aged “Bonnie and Clyde” in the least. This seminal American film from 1967 plays just as fresh and vital today as it did half a century ago. In their script David Newman and Robert Benton treated the story of the Depression-era bank robbing couple of the title in such a way as to make their criminal escapades resonant with the social-cultural rebellion of the Sixties. Director Arthur Penn, in turn, found just the right approach – visually, rhythmically and musically speaking – to make Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and their gang romantic, tragic and pathetic all at once. The casting is superb. Warren Beatty has never topped his performance as the enigmatic Clyde. Faye Dunaway makes what could have been a one-dimensional part complex with her multi-layered portrayal of Bonnie. Gene Hackman is a life force as Buck Barrow. Estelle Parsons almost goes too far as Blanche but keeps it together just enough to add an hysterical tone. And Michael J. Pollard brings his characteristic weirdness as CW Moss. Gene Wilder adds manic glee in a brief but memorable interlude as Eugene Grizzard. There are some great turns by nonactors, including Mabel Cavitt as Bonnie’s mother, that add authenticity. There is a free, open, rollicking, bordering on cartoonish levity to the gangster proceedings artfully counterpointed by fatalistic grimness. The story unfolds in the Dust Bowl, Bible Belt ruins of poverty, farm foreclosures, bank runs, desperation, conservatism and fundamentalism and all that comes through in various scenes and sets. It’s also the story of two star-crossed lovers who can never quite consummate their attraction for each other, perhaps because they negate rather than fulfill each other.

More than most films, “Bonnie and Clyde” captures the parallel strains of American naivety, idealism and dream-making alongside its penchant for venality, corruption and violence.

Penn made some very good films, but this was his best, with the possible exception of “Night Moves.” I believe “Bonnie and Clyde” works so well because the script is so good at describing a very specific world and Penn and Co. are so good at realizing that on screen. It’s said the Robert Towne also contributed to the script. Like with any great film, you can feel the all-out commitment its makers had in capturing something truly original. Yes, the film is in a very long line of gangster pics, but rarely before or after has one so effectively balanced comedy and drama, myth and history, romanticism and reality. Editor Dede Allen’s work in creating the frenetic yet highly controlled pace of the film is outstanding. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is a splendid blend of Hollywood gloss meet documentary meets French New Wave. The different tones of the film made old-line Warner Brothers studio execs nervous because they didn’t know what to make of it or do with it. Some veteran critics didn’t get it upon their first look. Most notably, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, was practically shamed into giving the film a second watch when his initial negative review was so out of step with the critical mainstream who saw it as a bold, exciting and entertaining take on an old Hollywood genre.

Sure, the film may seem somewhat tepid or tame in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s darkly comic visions of gangster worlds. But there had to a “Bonnie and Clyde” before there could be a “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction” and a “Memento” or “The Dark Night.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” is credited with jumpstarting the American New Wave or New Hollywood that we associate with the late ’60s through the late ’70s. If that’s true, then several other films from around that same decade, some of them made years before “Bonnie and Clyde,” also greatly contributed to that movement, including:

Splendor in the Grass

The Manchurian Candidate

Wild River

David and Lisa

Nothing But a Man

A Thousand Clowns


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Graduate

Point Blank

In the Heat of the Night

The Producers


The Wild Bunch

East Rider

Midnight Cowboy

Take the Money and Run



Five Easy Pieces

The Landlord

Harold and Maude

Dirty Harry

Beatty produced “Bonnie and Clyde” and it was THE project that made him a real Player in Hollywood. He’s gone on to act in and produce and direct some very good films but I’m not sure he’s ever done anything that worked so well as this. He did make one other great film as an actor in Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” I am a big fan of two films Beatty acted in, wrote and directed: “Heaven Can Wait” and “Reds,” which are rather safe and conventional compared to “Bonnie and Clyde” but no less entertaining. But for my tastes anyway Beatty’s never made a better film than the very first one he appeared in: “Splendor in the Grass.” On that project he had the very good fortune to work with a master at the peak of his powers in director Elia Kazan and to inherit a great script by William Inge. Beatty learned from the outset how important it is to align himself with the best talent and aside from a few notable exceptions, he did that during the ’60s and ’70s.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Diplomatic Courier” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The Cold War became a topic of many 1950s and 1960s Hollywood films and one of the early ones to deal with the subject was 1952’s “Diplomatic Courier” directed by Henry Hathaway from a script by Casey Robinson and Liam O’Brien. The screenplay was an adaptation of a novel by Peter Cheyney. Pretty much any Hathaway film is a safe bet for being engaging, solidly produced entertainment and this picture is no different. But he was a director of limitations and here working with a script that’s good but not great, the result is an espionage tale that just isn’t smart enough to be anything more than a slightly better than average routine thriller. The best things about it are its lead players Tyrone Power as the title character, Patricia Neal as a mysterious American woman he gets entangled with and Hildegard Knef as the Romanian woman of intrigue who throws his world in disarray. Then there is the excellent use of actual Eastern European locations and visceral exterior and interior photography by Lucien Ballard. The story also gets great mileage out of its premise that a U.S. State Department courier with no special training or ability gets caught up in dangerous, deadly spy games that become very personal for him.

Power makes a believable and sympathetic ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances figure when his old U.S. Navy veteran pal doesn’t hand off the diplomatic pouch as expected behind the Iron Curtain. A complicated sequence on a train and in train stations ensues that ensnares Power deep into a brewing international incident. I kept thinking that Power would have made a very good leading man in a Hitchcock film. I am very impressed by Knef, whom I’d never heard of before. She practically steals the picture out from everyone else with her portrayal of a refugee playing different sides against each other. Neal never looked more beautiful than she does in this pic and her ability to play both hard and soft comes in handily here as a widow who is and is not what she appears to be. Stephen McNally gives his typical no-nonsense, hard as nails performance as a U.S. Army officer who enlists Power for more hazard duty. Karl Malden brings some color to his part as a good-old-boy sergeant who keeps coming to Power’s rescue. As a by-the book and eager-beaver M.P. Lee Marvin, in one of his first speaking parts, gets to banter a few words with Power. Despite only being on screen for a minute. the dynamic Marvin makes his presence felt. Michael Ansara is appropriately dour and menacing as a Soviet bad guy. And Charles Bronson looks aptly Slavic and tough as another Soviet goon, though he doesn’t get to speak any lines.

On the down side, there are some gaping logic and credibility holes, the clumsily.staged action scenes land flat and the stock Soviet agents lack the verve of three dimensional characters. I mean, one part of me knew that Power would somehow negotiate the duplicity and survive the ordeal, but another part of me would have liked for things to get a bit more harrier than they do, though by the end the stakes are for keeps. But the whole thing is played a bit too much by the numbers safe and antiseptic where it could have used more down and dirty grit. On the whole though, it’s probably a better movie than it needed to be in terms of sheer production value and performance. Not quite a classic, but a worthy addition to anyone’s curated spy and mystery cinema collection.

“Diplomatic Courier” is available for free and in full on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Nightmare Alley” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Ever encounter a movie you heard about your whole life that you build up certain expectations around only to finally see it and have it leave you wanting? Well, that’s my experience with “Nightmare Alley,” a 1947 drama starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Colleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki and Ian Keith. The hothouse script is by Jules Furthman (from a William Lindsay Gresham novel) and the taut direction is by Edmund Goulding. The brooding photography is by Lee Garmes. I think the film suffers a bit from false advertising because today it’s billed as a film noir and I just don’t see it neatly fitting that genre. I consider it more akin to the Todd Browning horror show “Freaks” than any of the classic noirs from that period, with the possible exception of Edgar Ullmer’s “Detour.” Sure, “Nightmare Alley” reeks with darkness – from its theme to its look – but that alone does not make a noir. Its plot of a man reaching too far and then suffering a terrible fall is more a classical narrative than a noir narrative. Tyrone Power plays the ill-fated protagonist – an overambitious carny willing to do anything to get ahead. Many consider this to be Power’s best film performance. He is quite good in it. He fought hard for the movie to be made and for him to go against type and I admire him for it.

Indeed, I feel Power was a very underrated actor. I think his extreme good looks worked against him in terms of the kinds of parts he was forced to settle for in the old studio system. While he didn’t have the talent of another incredibly handsome actor, Montgomery Clift, he did have a grit and depth, besides his considerable charm and charismam that often times wasn’t acknowledged. The part in “Nightmare Alley” demanded a lot and he was up to it. I think he could have had the same kind of postwar career another pretty boy, William Holden, enjoyed had he been given the same caliber parts. Whenever Power did get a superior script and director, he rose to the occasion, as in “Witness for the Prosecution” for Billy Wilder, “Rawhide” for Henry Hathaway and “The Long Gray Line” for John Ford.

“Nightmare Alley” is in the spirit of the pre-Code exploitation movies that depicted the depravity of desperate in zealous pursuit of money, power, fame. Its harsh, unsparing stuff. Joan Blondell is just okay as the spiritualist but the movie would have been much better with a stronger actress in the part. Barbara Stanwyck would have been perfect. Blondell’s character and her alcoholic husband, in a superb performance by Ian Keith, have a low rent act together in a small-time carnival. The couple used to be headliners in vaudeville and in posh clubs. They devised a code that became the key to their act but ever since the bottle brought him down they’ve been reduced to traveling side show performers. In the carnival, Power is a part of the act, and behind Keith’s back he and Blondell carry on an affair and eventually scheme to leave him behind and reconstitute the act using the code. When Keith dies by accidentally drinking poison he thought was liquor, Power is taught the code by Blondell and by a young performed played by Colleen Gray who adores him. Power isn’t above playing the field with her and when the two are forced to marry he convinces her they should leave the carnival and strike out on their own. The pair soon make it big with their mentalist act. But Power isn’t satisfied and his relentless coveting after more gets him mixed up with a hustler even more cunning and dangerous than him. He crosses many ethical. moral lines to get what he wants. His inevitable and even foretold epic fall is eerily parallel to what happened to Keith and other former headliners who suffered similar fates. There’s a moralistic salve at the end that lessens the impact but it’s still a powerful conclusion to a nightmarish tale.

I have to think this movie would have been a classic in the hands of Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder or Orson Wells, whose baroque visual styles and cynical tones would have been tailor made for the material. Edmund Goulding was a journeyman pro who lacked their dark visions and sensibilities. I got the impression he tried to sanitize the film and raise it from its B origins when in fact he should have reveled in its perversity and celebrated its exploitation roots. That may have been a studio-imposed thing, too.


Hot Movie Takes  – “The Longshot” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

I admit it, I something of a film snob, but the other night I put away my elitism long enough to watch a quirky, sometimes hilarious, even inventive, but more often just plain silly and ultimately too dumb 1986 Tim Conway scripted and starring comedy vehicle called “The Longshot.” It’s an odd little number for several reasons, not the least of which is that it was directed by Paul Bartel of “Eating Raoul” fame and executive produced by Tony and Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols. Conway is the ringleader of a dimwitted group of friends hopelessly addicted to playing the ponies and hoping they will finally score big even though they always find ways to lose, even when they have a sure thing. His loser cohorts are played by Harvey Korman, Jack Weston and Ted Wass. Each character is actually more fully developed than you would expect from a B film like this and that is one of its saving graces. These are good actors given a chance to play with some rich comic parts and they have a field day with it. There are some nice character turns by actors playing the various archetypes found at any race track – in this case Hollywood Race track.

The boys believe they’ve stumbled onto an inside fix that will make them big winners. They need to play large in order to bet large but they are good as broke. So in typical nitwit fashion they borrow money from the mob. Along the way Conway’s character barely escapes becoming a gelding at the hands of a deranged woman played by Stella Stevens. When the sure thing at the track ends up being a ruse, it looks like curtains for our four stooges until Conway remembers what their horse’s former trainer told him about getting the nag to run like the wind.

Much of the film plays like a Jerry Lewis comedy, which is to say that when it’s works it’s surprisingly good but when it falters it really stinks and in between it’s just okay. The first third of “The Longshot” is quite strong and had me thinking it just might be a worthy companion piece to one of my all-time comedy favorites, “Let It Ride,” which is about a horse player, but “The Longshot” is unable to sustain things. Like most films that show some real promise and then let you down, this one settles for things that in better hands would never be acceptable and, when all is said and done, it’s just not smart enough. Yes, even a film about four dummies needs to be really smart in order for the gags to come off (witness the Farrelly brothers comedies).

On the positive side, Conway, Korman, Weston and Wass work very well off each other and each has some shining individual moments. Some of the physical comedy bits are pretty inspired. And there are some very good lines and scenes, though not nearly enough. Conway and Bartel also tend to let many comic bits go on too long and to beat some tired old gags to death.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Mountain Road” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Daniel Mann’s feature film directorial career got off to rousing start in the 1950s with “Come Back, Little Sheba,” “About Mrs. Leslie,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” “Hot Spell,” “The Last Angry Man” and “Butterfield 8,” all prestige pictures based on plays or novels. Mann knew his way around a drama and there are some fine things that stand the test of time in those films, though they all pale against the best films of that or any era.

One of his lesser known efforts, “The Mountain Road” (1960), may be his most enduring big screen work. Mann very ably directed an Alfred Hayes script based on a Theodore White novel to create a mature, unvarnished look at racism and cultural dissonance in the American military campaign aiding China’s resistance of invading Japanese forces in World War II. This movie has much in common with John Ford’s “The Searchers” in that they both deal head-on with a racist protagonist hell-bent on revenge against indigenous peoples. In the Ford film, it’s  John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards who hates Native Americans and will stop at nothing, even killing his own niece, to exact his brand of justice. Like all racists, Edwards dehumanizes the Native to justify his attitudes and actions. He’s a returning Civil War veteran who lost his way and his connection to civilized society in the years after the war. When Indians attack and kill family members, kidnapping his niece, he sets out on an epic, blood-thirsty manhunt. In “The Mountain Road’ James Stewart’s Major Baldwin is a civilian engineer turned Army demolition officer assigned to blow up an airfield and bridge in the face of advancing Japanese troops. Baldwin is a good man but he can’t hide his antipathy for the Chinese. All the men in his unit harbor the same ill feelings, with the notable exception of Collins (Glenn Corbett), who admires Chinese culture and tries hard respecting Chinese ways.

In addition to Corbett, there are some very fine supporting performances by actors playing the other men comprising the demo team: Harry Morgan, Rudy Bond, Mike Kellin, James Best, Eddie Firestone, Alan Baxter. Frank Silvera plays a Chinese colonel attached to the unit.

Baldwin commits his men to extra duty when he agrees to have them block a key mountain pass and to blow a major ammunition dump. The small convoy is repeatedly delayed by the refugee-choked roads. The assignment develops a further complication when the outfit is obliged to transport an indigenous woman whose Chinese officer husband was executed by the Japanese. Lisa Lu plays the educated, high principled Madame Su-Mei Hung who acts as a buffer between the Americans and the Chinese. En route to where the Americans are taking her, Baldwin and Hung develop romantic feelings for each other. But even their warm regard cannot survive the enmity he exhibits when one of his men is trampled to death by starving refugees and the rage he goes into when two more of his men are killed and their bodies desecrated by irregular Chinese soldiers. Baldwin systematically, brutally seeks retribution against the renegades and leads his men in committing a war crime to exact payback. Madame Su-Mei Hung is horrified by their actions but is particularly sickened that he would not only condone but actively participate in such behavior.

Dealing so frankly with American G.I. xenophobia and atrocity in a Hollywood film was pretty much unheard of at the time. I mean, this goes far beyond “South Pacific” and “Sayonara” and is closer to “Bad Day at Black Rock” in terms of its malevolent tone and social critique.


Hot Movie Takes  – “Jackie Brown” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Quentin Tarantino dug Hollywood exploitation movies of the 1970s and ’80s and he cast two veteran actors from those movies, Pam Grier and Robert Forster, to play the leads in his superb “Jackie Brown” (1997). The film’s a faithful adaptation of the Elmore Leonard Novel “Run Punch.” This is my personal favorite among the Tarantino movies I’ve seen (the others being “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” “Inglorious Basterds”) because it has the clearest exposition lines and the tightest control over his often florid verbal and visual language. Tarantino knew he wanted Grier for the role and so he changed the character from a Caucasian in the book to African-American and changed her name, too, I knew something of Grier before the film but I’d never seen any of her movies in their entirety and so her performance as the title character was a revelation to me. She brings total conviction and believability to playing a strong, street-smart, together woman trying to get by the best way she knows how as a stewardess for a crap airline. But the job doesn’t pay squat and so she has a little action going on the side – running illegal arms money from L.A. to Mexico and back for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie knows the risks and how the system works and so when she’s caught she begins working the system against itself and against her criminal employer.

Forster is equally convincing as bail bondsman Max Cherry, a real pro at what he does but at a point in life where he’s looking for an opportunity to get make a chance. Max is street wise, too, and he knows that in Jackie Brown he’s met someone who is at least his match. He’s older than her but she appreciates his integrity and keeping it real with her, He admires her beauty, her savvy and how she carries herself and her business with a real calm in the midst of chaos. He does the same in his own way and it’s why Jackie comes to trust him with her scheme.

Perhaps the best thing Tarantino does as a writer-director is to create rich, multi-dimensional characters and then to cast the right actors in those roles so that we feel they really inhabit the worlds they traverse. His characters seem so real because they carry – through the words they speak, the situations they appear in and the behaviors they exhibit – a history and context that is palpable, even if not seen. It’s right there in the dialogue and the actions, the gestures and the expressions, the body language and the settings.

Jackson has never been better as the charismatic gun runner Ordell, who stands in the way of Jackie and Max steering his stash, which is exactly what they conspire to do. Early on, we see how Ordell is ruthless in protecting his interests when he kills an associate he only thinks may inform on him. Later, when he suspects Jackie is turning state’s evidence against him, he plots eliminating her, too, but he finds she is not so easily intimidated or disposed of. Robert De Niro is wonderfully low key as fresh out of prison life criminal Louis Gara, an old associate of Ordell’s, Gara is more than a little lost in the outside world and becomes the next loose cannon threatening to bring down Ordell’s world. Bridget Fonda is very good as the irritating Melanie, a white surfer girl Ordell keeps as a front for his illicit activities. And Michael Keaton shines as overly eager federal agent Ray Nicolette.

While the film has all the treachery and duplicity we’ve come to expect from a Tarantino flick,, there’s a subtle romance story at the heart of this one that separates it from all the rest. Grier and Forster generate real sparks together even though they only fertilely act on the mutual attraction that binds them.

As a film, the whole works runs like a finely-tuned mechanism, without a false start or note or measure. The two-hours go by in a flash. Tarantino’s penchant for bending time and revisiting moments from different perspectives can be off-putting and jarring, but not here. This technique adds layers of meaning and depth to the mosaic.

It’s a great looking and sounding film, too, with gritty cinematography by Guillermo Navarro and a pitch-perfect music soundtrack of black power soul and R&B songs that help set the mood and tell the story.

I love the fact that Jackie, a middle-aged black woman,  is the mastermind heroine who uses all her wiles to beat both the law and Ordell. She’s not a femme fatale because she’s totally straight with Max from the start. He knowingly and willingly goes along with her plan and when they pull it off she clearly wants him to go away with her to enjoy the score they made as a team. The ambiguous ending leaves to our imagination if Max and Jackie will end up together. That’s only right since these two mature, independent-minded people only found each other by coincidence and then used each other to get what they wanted. Even though they have feelings for each other, this story is not about finding love – but freedom and getting out from under The Man.

“Jackie Brown” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Human Desire” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Part of my sick at home triple feature yesterday was the 1954 Fritz Lang film noir “Human Desire,” which I’d only seen a few minutes of before, and I must say this is a very good film. Lang makes great use of actual settings for this story of a railroad engineer who gets sucked into a whirlpool of deceit and murder that threatens to bring him down. Glenn Ford plays the engineer, a recently returned single war veteran looking to make s fresh start in his hometown. His uncomplicated life turns nightmare when he begins an affair with a manipulative married woman (Gloria Grahame) who is embroiled in a sick relationship with her abusive husband (Broderick Crawford). When the controlling Crawford character goes too far in a jealous rage, he holds this act over Grahame and it binds her to him despite their mutual loathing for each other. When she begins reeling in Ford to do her dirty work for her and eliminate her husband from the equation, he finds himself going down an ever darker path with no good end in sight.

This picture pretty much has it all in terms of film noir:

a brazen femme fatale; a fatalistic plotline; a conflicted protagonist; a brutish villain; and dream-like, expressionistic black and white photography by Burnett Guffey that captures both the harsh and romantic aspects of rail life and the sweet and confining aspects of small town America. Lang makes the trains, their whistles and schedules both a practical and symbolic part of the narrative. Ford’s character represents the wide open freedom of the rails. He’s his own man – until he’s not, For Grahame’s character, the sound of a train is a wistful reminder of how close yet distant her own freedom is from the trap she’s made of her life. And for Crawford, the harsh, hard, unbending rails are a prison of his own making.

The inspiration for this movie is the Emile Zola novel “La Bete humaine,” which Jean Renoir made into a classic film. I’m not sure the Lang version is a classic but it’s certainly a better than average noir. I think a stronger cast would have made the film better, and here I’m referring to Ford and Grahame. Neither was a great actor. They both do an adequate job here but I would have preferred, say, William Holden and Elizabeth Taylor. As the heavy, Crawford is fine, though again I would have preferred, say, Rod Steiger or Ernest Borgnine or Robert Ryan.

I also found ridiculous that the daughter of Ford’s best friend, played by Edgar Buchanan, has supposedly grown from awkward teen to mature young woman in the space of the three years Ford was gone to war. The actress playing her has got to be around 30. And she’s a real dish and it’s hard to conceive that Ford would jeopardize everything for Grahame’s neurotic and married character and ignore this real catch, who by the way adores him, under his own roof (he’s boarding with her family). I guess it’s an instance of the guy going for the bad girl over the good girl just the way some women do for guys.

The film reminds of Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and of the James M. Cain classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” but in the end it is a singular, stand-alone American cinema work.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Lineup” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Got another old crime film fix in last night watching “The Lineup” on YouTube. This 1958 Don Siegel directed and Stirling Silliphant scripted police procedural is a tale of two movies about police investigating an illicit drug smuggling ring in San Francisco. When the movie is focused on the two detectives and their colleagues trying to crack the case, it’s pretty routine, nothing special to write home about fare. But when focused on the crooks and their accomplices, it’s quite engaging for giving us two out of the ordinary villains in killer Dancer played by Eli Wallach and his Svengali-like associate, Julian. played by Robert Keith (father of Brian Keith). Dancer is a from the streets tough being groomed in the finer things by the erudite Julian. Their unusual, philosophical, literate, irreverent, sarcastic repartee is something akin to what the Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta characters exhibit in “Pulp Fiction.” The  exchanges between Dancer and Julian almost make you forget they’re cold blooded sociopaths – until their malice and menace leak through.

The violence in the movie is also harsher and more jarring than what you’re used to from the cinema of that era. There’s an extended car chase at the end that ranks among the best in screen history. The callous tone of the film was certainly influenced by the Cold War.

Siegel and cinematographer Hal Mohr make great use of Frisco locations and Siegel and Bruce Surtees would do the same years later in “Dirty Harry.” Indeed, one of the distinguishing marks of Siegel’s work was his obvious interest in and flair for shooting on location and using actual places. It’s visible in virtually all his best movies and gives them a vital realism. Siegel also knew how to cut his films for maximum pace and urgency, though the older he got the slower the rhythms he employed, and not always to the work’s advantage.

If the detectives, played by stiff Warner Anderson and ambivalent Emile Meyer, had been made half as interesting as the bad guys, this could have been a minor masterpiece. But as it is, the dull, strictly by the numbers police stuff bogs down the film and is out of balance with the far more dynamic criminal goings-on and characterizations. Even so, it’s a better than average crime picture. Better than the last Siegel film I posted about – “Private Hell 36,” which he made a few years earlier. Siegel was already a good director by the ’50s but he got better as his career went on. He would go on to make some superior genres pics starting in the late ’50s trough the late ’70s:

Edge of Eternity

Hell is for Heroes

The Killers

Coogan’s Bluff

Two Mules for Sister Sara

The Beguiled

Dirty Harry

Charley Varrick

The Shootist

Escape from Alcatraz

I consider “Hell is for Heroes,” “Dirty Harry,” “Charley Varrick” and “The Shootist” as genuine classics and I greatly admire the rest of those films as well,

A couple more of his films from this period have very good reputations, including “Madigan,” but I’ve only seen a few minutes of it and so I need to make an effort to watch the whole thing before making a call on it.

Of course, before “The Lineup,” Siegel made some very good films as well, most notably “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Big Steal.” There are a few others from that earlier period that are well thought of that I need to see, including “Riot in Cell Block 11.”

By the way, the Wallach and Keith characters are not the only charismatic villains in “The Lineup.” Richard Jaeckel is good as the getaway driver Sandy McLain and Vaughn Taylor is superb as the enigmatic The Man, Larry Warner, a Mr. Big figure who’s reference throughout the whole picture and only seen near the very end. Taylor only has a couple minutes to make an impression and he does.

“The Lineup” was inspired by a radio and TV series of the same name and theme.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Producers” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Mel Brooks has had a hand in a few comedy film classics as both writer and director, One of them, “Young Frankenstein,” he co-wrote with its star Gene Wilder. But it was Brooks and Brooks alone who wrote his very first feature, “The Producers.” It’s a farce in the same spirit of Billy Wilder’s 1960 “Some Like It Hot,” though with a very different plot. Like that earlier film, “The Producers” (1967/1968) is so damn good because the writing is truly inspired and the pitch perfect cast throw themselves into their roles with such aplomb. The central idea behind both films is cute and in lesser hands would not have been able to hold up for 90 or 100 minutes. But Brooks, whose writing can be plain bad and whose comedic can be wildly uneven, structured a very strong, cohesive script that only has a few lapses in judgment and taste in it. I believe the real strength of the piece is in the very inventive plot. Two desperate losers, Max and Leo, scheme to make a fortune by getting investors to put up far more capital than the actual budget and then doing everything possible to ensure the play is a one-night only flop, thus leaving the producers off the hook to pay back their financiers. Max and Leo endeavor to find the worst possible material and are sure they’ve done so with “Springtime for Hitler,” a staggeringly bad, offensive tribute to the fuhrer and Nazism. They take further precautions by hiring a director whose tasteless vision for the story is beyond belief. And as final insurance, they cast an actor in the lead role of Hitler who makes the evil dictator a misunderstood hippie.

Convinced their production is a dreadful abomination sure to turn off any audience and thus destined to bomb on opening night, the producers are shocked when their play is warmly received as a novelty comedy. As a devastated Max says to Leo, “Where did we go right?” Because the play’s a hit, it’s only a matter of time before the fraud the producers committed is found out and they can’t possibly satisfy all their investors. But what really makes the story sing is the humanity of Max and Leo, who are total opposites, and their love for each other. Max is loud, crude, abrasive and afraid to show his vulnerable side, whereas Leo is a meek, gentle soul afraid to risk anything outside the box. Both are lonely, unfilled men looking for a reason to live. Each finds in the other what’s missing in himself. Of course, having two actors perfect for those parts brought the characters to full, vivid life. We really care about them.

The other thing that makes “The Producers” work so well is how Brooks isn’t timid at all in tackling outlandish, sensitive, controversial subject matter. He manages to do this without being tacky and where he is tacky it works for the story. With plot-lines that include a mad playwright obsessed with celebrating Hitler, a drag queen director turning the play into a Busy Berkley-“Hair” hybrid and a producer (Max) not above seducing little old ladies out of their money, this farce plays like a dark comedy. That’s just how it is with “Some Like It Hot” with its gender-bending plot and Jack Lemmon’s character seemingly changing sexual preference by movie’s end. And just as Lemmon and Curtis were totally committed to their parts, so are Wilder and Mostel. The sheer, unadulterated, ballsy freedom of the material and its interpretation is what captured me when I first saw “The Producers” and it’s still what captures me today.

When I first heard that Brooks had adapted “The Producers” into a musical, I was taken aback, until I realized its over-the-top quality, combined with it already being about staging a musical, provided a ready-made canvas for such a treatment. I mean, Max and Leo are practically comic opera characters as originally written anyway and even watching the film now it’s not hard to imagine them bursting into song amidst such emotionally-keyed, histrionic and campy goings-on.

I’ve never seen the Broadway version or the new movie made from it, both with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the parts that Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder so memorably played, and I don’t care to. The original is just too dear to me and I’m afraid I would be most unkind to any updating. For me and for a lot of other fans, the original is an untouchable cinema classic.

The Producers (1968) trailer – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Heroes of Telemark” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Kirk Douglas enjoyed a brilliant career from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s before an inexplicable drought in quality films that’s now lasted half a century. No actor in Hollywood made more good films than he did from about 1947 through about 1967. But from that point forward, it’s hard to find even a single good film he made with the possible exceptions of “Posse,” which he also directed, “The Fury” and “The Man from Snowy River.” Last night on YouTube I rewatched a film from the latter part of his quality years – the 1965 war thriller “The Heroes of Telemark” directed by Anthony Mann. It’s a good film based on true life events but it doesn’t compare with another World War Ii movie he appeared in that same year, Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way.” The point is, Douglas was still a major star in important projects. No one could know it at the time but his real peak occurred at the end of the ’40s through the early ’60s, and he would never again regain relevance or stature, not even as a character actor and supporting player. It’s hard to explain.

At the peak of his powers he worked with great directors on excellent films:

William Wyler, “Detective Story”

Billy Wilder, “Ace in the Hole”

Howard Hawks, “The Big Sky”

Vincente Minnelli, “Lust for Life”

Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory”

Alexander Mackedrick, “The Devil’s Disciple”

John Sturges, “Last Train from Gun Hill”

John Frankenheimer, “Seven Days in May”

And let’s not forget “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” “Lonely are the Brave” and the aforementioned “The Vikings” and “In Harm’s Way.”

Some point to Douglas’ scenery-chewing propensities for why he fell out of favor with filmmakers and audiences but this is an actor capable of great subtly too. Indeed, his best performance may be in the very understated role of a modern day cowboy in “Lonely are the Brave,” which was the favorite of his films by the way. And if overacting, very much a subjective, in-the-eye-of-the-beholder thing, is such a mortal sin, then how do you explain the sustained excellent careers of Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson Al Pacino, Samuel L. Jackson or even Johnny Depp?

“The Heroes of Telemark” is one of those well-mounted big physical productions in which the characters tend to get lost amidst all the outdoor locations and the action. Much of it was shot in and around the very mountainous sites in Norway where the actual events the movie depicts took place. Even with its fidelity to place, and we’re talking gorgeous snow covered slopes and cliffs turned treacherous by marauding Nazi troops, the characters become more props than human beings. That’s not the actors’ fault. It’s the fault of a script by Ben Barzman and Ivan Moffat and of the direction by Mann that leave some gaping exposition and character development holes that no amount of local color or scenery or derring-do can cover up. This is ironic, too, because Mann was a director known for staging high drama in rugged outdoor locales (see his series of Westerns with James Stewart) and expertly having the settings and the characters communicate with each other. For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to pull that off with this war movie.

Still, the film mostly works and takes you on a satisfying ride filled with suspense, adventure, heroism. It’s just that there’s something missing. It doesn’t help that Douglas and co-star Richard Harris don’t seem to have much of chemistry. I mean,I know they start as antagonists and only eventually become friends, but there’s no there-there when the pair are on screen together. The part of Kirk’s love interest and ex-wife played by Ulla Jacobsson is okay but nothing special. Her father is played by Michael Redgrave, and in many ways he delivers the most interesting performance in the film but unfortunately he’s only on screen for a few minutes.

The actors playing the various German officers are appropriately sinister.

The upload of this film online is pretty darn good but the clarity, especially in the night scenes, is somewhat muddy,

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Vikings” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Richard Fleischer was a journeyman Hollywood director from the mid-1940s through the late 1980s who moved  indiscriminately from one genre to another and from projects of certifiable to dubious quality. Because his work was all over the place and he wasn’t a writer per se himself, it’s hard to assign a particular style to him except to say his better films consistently showed visual flair and his stories crackled with real verve. His father was the great animator Max Fleischer and if anything the son Richard Fleischer displayed an almost graphic novel sensibility to the way his movies looked, sounded and played. That was brought home to me last night watching one of his biggest hits, “The Vikings,” a sumptuous 1958 epic starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh, James Donald and Alexander Knox. It’s grand entertainment served up with stunning Nordic locations and rich, if stereotypical, portrayals,, of Viking life. The film demonstrates Fleischer’s ability to handle epics, and he made several of them, but this was probably his most successful alongside “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Barrabas.”

Helming the Disney adaptation of the Jules Verne classic about the fictional Captain Nemo, he got a reputation as a special effects director and went on to make many films that relied on heavy effects work, such as “Fantastic Voyage,” “Doctor Doolittle,” “Tora, Tora, Tora,” “Amityville 3D” and “Conan the Destroyer.” But there was another side of Fleischer that he should have cultivated even more and that was his real gift for making taut crime thrillers. As good as “The Vikings” is and it actually holds up very well (it would make a great revival pic on the big screen), Fleischer’s best work came on pictures like “The Narrow Margin,” “Violent Saturday,””Compulsion,” “The Boston Strangler,” “The Last Run,” “10 Rillington Place,” “The New Centurions” and “Mr. Majestyk.” But he kept returning to period costume pics that were more about exploitation (“Mandigo,” “Red Sonja”) than evocation.

“The Vikings” is a happy hybrid of exploitation and history, resulting in an always gorgeous to look at spectacle that falls short of great because of a mediocre script. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who went on to direct his own Viking feature in “The Long Ships,” helped Fleischer create a visually beautiful film. Fleischer and his team of craftsmen worked with real ships on real fjords and with genuine castles in authentic locations to execute many of the film’s dynamic set pieces and action sequences.

The stirring score by Mario Nascimbene hits just the right notes of legendaric saga, vigor and adventure.

Ernest Borgnine and Kirk Douglas deliver full-blooded performances as a high-spirited Viking father and son duo bedeviled by a scheming English slave, played by a sullen Tony Curtis. Early in the film, Douglas and Curtis have a confrontation that results in Douglas sustaining a terrible injury. Curtis is bound to rocks off shore to drown but is saved by the Gods and claimed by an English spy (James Donald) employed by the Vikings to make maps that guide their raids on the English countryside. The spy recognizes a talisman around the slave’s neck that has great implications. It turns out the Curtis character, who was taken as a child in a Viking raid, is the heir to both Viking and English kingdoms. His blood father is the Borgnine character (who impregnated an English princess during a raid) and his blood brother is the Douglas character. Only Donald doesn’t tell him who his father is. When the Vikings kidnap an English princess (Janet Leigh) for ransom, Curtis vies for her affections with Douglas. The two men are sworn enemies and a deadly conflict to the end is ensured when Curtis escapes with Leigh. In the aftermath of the pursuit, Borgnine meets a spectacular death. The climactic fight between Curtis and Douglas lives up to the expectation.

Something’s that’s always bothered me about the film and still does after watching it again last night is that the Curtis and Leigh characters are not well developed and they both come across as cold, rather cruel individuals. They’re cardboard cutouts compared to Douglas and Borgnine, who are full of life. But, given Hollywood mores of the time, the Vikings are cast as barbarian villains who rape and pillage, and the English are cast as cultured victims. Things were a little more complex than that. I think the movie would be more satisfying if everybody got what they wanted rather than killing off the supposed bad guys. I mean, they’re way more interesting than the heroes here. And it’s not like the English characters don’t have all kinds of guilt, manipulation and blood on their hands. I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

This was one of several films that Curtis and Leigh made together when they were married.

Douglas followed this epic by producing and starring in one of the greatest epics ever made, “Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick.

By the way, until recently there were only awful uploads of “The Vikings” on YouTube, but someone has put up a superb upload of the film. Better watch it while it lasts. The same for another Douglas flick, “The Heroes of Telemark.” I’m watching it tonight.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Fruitvale Station” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

I saw and greatly admired writer-director Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” (2016) before I watched the film that first put him on the map, the 2013 drama “Fruitvale Station.” Now that I’ve absorbed the earlier film and found it an impressive work as well, it’s abundantly clear that Coogler’s one of the bright new American filmmakers to have arrived on the scene. He’s also part of a New Wave of African-American filmmakers making their marks (Barry Jenkins, Malik Vitthal, Dee Rees, Jordan Peele).

“Fruitvale” is a bio-pic that dramatizes the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, who in 2009 was wrongfully killed by an Oakland rapid transit police officer. Before the shooting, Grant and his male friends were brutalized by officers. There was no cause for the officers’ actions. The young African-American men got into a brief undeventful altercation with some race baiting white supremacist gang bangers on the train New Year’s night. No one was hurt. The black men were clearly profiled by the white officers because they were the only ones detained. None of this is conjuncture, Virtually the entire encounter was captured on video by several onlookers. The cops, not the young men, were the problem here. Coogler sets up the final tragic moments of Grant’s life through an unvarnished, semi-documentary approach that portrays the 22-year-old, warts and all, as someone trying to better himself and the lives of his girlfriend and daughter. Like too many young black males from inner cities, Grant faced a lot of challenges. As the movie plays out, we learn about  his criminal and incarceration history, his anger issues, his problems holding a job and the street life pressures and threats he confronts that can turn violent in an instant. We also learn he’s a sweet, silly kid with a lot of growing up to do who deeply cares for his family and is desperate to make a new start. He just doesn’t know how and society doesn’t do well by individuals like him.

Outrage over his unnecessary death at the rail system’s Fruitvale Station, among a series of officer involved wrongful death scenarios around the nation, was a flash-poins for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Coogler drew on his own experience as a young black man in America and his work counseling youth on a San Francisco correctional facility to humanize the story and keep it real. Michael B. Jordan, who went on to star in Coogler’s “Creed,” brings a very authentic balance of harshness and gentleness, street smarts and naivete to his interpretation of Grant. Melonie Diaz and Ariana Neal are believable as his girlfriend and daughter, respectively. They, along with his mother, played beautifully by Octavia Spencer, all worry about Oscar because they know that trouble follows him and that danger lurks in the streets. Sadly, ironically, his death comes not at the hands of a gang banger or a stereotypical bad guy, but at the hands of rouge cops overreacting to a situation and doing the exact opposite of what they’re called to do: protect and serve.

Coogler favors an intimacy and immediacy to the way his films look and feel, and he was well served in this regard on “Fruitvale” by cinematographer Rachel Morrison. When Coogler and Morrison do go wide or long or slow, it has a greater effect than it would otherwise because of the intimacy and fluidity of what precedes and follows it. Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti found the same balance on “Creed.”

Both of Coogler’s first two features have musical scores by Ludwig Göransson.

The emergence of African-American filmmakers en mass the last several years is a healthy development in U.S. cinema as fresh, dynamic new voices and perspectives are added to the cultural stew. The days when Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Michael Schultz, Sidney Poitier, Stan Lathan, Bill Duke, Charles Burnett, Charles Lane and Spike Lee were pretty much the only black American filmmakers are long gone. Individuals such as Carl Franklin, Kasi Lemmons, John Singleton, Julie Dash, Tim Reid, Cheryl Dunye, Kenny Leon, Antoine Fuqua, Regiald Hudlin, the Hughes Bros., F. Gary Gray, Tyler Perry began asserting themselves. And now a whole new wave has appeared after them, led by Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Mailk Vitthal, Dee Rees, and Jordan Peele, and more yet.

“Fruitvale Station” is showing on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Private Hell 36” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Besides Netflix, my other regular source for discovering films these days is YouTube. I am always a sucker for a good film noir and so I decided to give “Private Hell 36” a look. Before seeing it, I was excited because the 1954 film had several things going for it. Director Don Siegel always showed a real flair for crime dramas. Co-writers Collier Young and Ida Lupino were true-crime screen veterans. Stars Howard Duff, Steve Cochran, Dean Jagger, Dorothy Malone, plus Lupino doing triple duty as supporting co-star and co-producer through her and Collier’s own Filmways company, all brought some acting chops. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey lit many classic crime films.

In terms of execution, the black and white picture does feature appropriately moody photography and music for its tale of one bad cop (Cochran) coercing his partner (Duff) into absconding with a large stash of counterfeit money tied to a murder suspect they’ve been investigating. Cochran’s character of Cal Bruner is a rogue and loose cannon who sees an opportunity to cash in quick and goes for it. He’s single and involved with a key witness in the case, a nightclub singer played by Lupino  Duff’s character of Jack Farnham is a stable, honest cop and a married man (his wife’s played by Malone) with a kid. He’s a straight-shooter and though at first tempted to take the money himself he wants nothing to do with the hot loot. Meanwhile. Bruner doesn’t hesitate to pocket it, Farnham tries talking him out of it and then reluctantly goes along to get along with his partner. But Farnham is increasingly tormented by this criminal act he’s a party to. The secrets and lies to cover up the deed make him hate himself and the world. With Farnham ready to crack and spill the beans, Bruner’s liable to do anything to stop him.

It’s a good plot-line but getting to that moral conflict takes way too long and the writing and acting just  don’t go deep enough to make this a classic, which I think it had the potential to be in more talented hands. I believe the film strayed too far from the core dramatic tension and spent too much time on the budding relationship between the bad cop and the singer-witness. There are also several dull scenes with the cops and witness scouting a race track to try and spot the suspect, who’s known to play the ponies. These scenes nearly stop the movie in its tracks – no pun intended. One telling scene there would have sufficed. And the wise police captain played by Jagger is a totally routine stock character who adds very little to the story except for the contrivances involving him at the end.

Much more could have been done with the stash site for the ill-gotten gains that is the inspiration for the film’s title.

All in all, it’s a fair to good movie that should keep you watching, but this is B movie fare all the way., which is to say that this potboiler didn’t have aspirations to anything more, and if it did, it failed to realize them.

Look for my Hot Movie Take on another. better crime film from that same era, “The Hitch-Hiker,” which Lupino directed, produced and co-wrote. She was a maverick woman filmmaker in Hollywood when there was no one else of her gender directing features or episodic television shows.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953)

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

After hemming and hawing about watching one of the six features that Ida Lupino directed (she did not receive credit for two more features she had a hand in directing), I finally sat down to see what’s considered to be one of her best efforts. the 1953 film noir “The Hitch-Hiker.” By the way, I don’t really consider this to be a noir work, not because it mostly takes place in daylight outdoors, but because it lands for me more for me as a crime picture with a homicidal maniac at the center of it than it does as some fatalistic black mood piece. Besides, there’s no femme fatale in it. The film plays a lot like the Cagney classic “White Heat,” although this is not up to that level. Part of the reason why this film doesn’t rise to that quality is that William Talman, though quite good as the hitchhiking fiend escaped convict, is no Cagney, and Lupino is no Raoul Walsh (the director of “White Heat”). It doesn’t help that the actors, Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O’Brien, playing the two buddies taken hostage by the killer, have their own limitations. Lovejoy lacks personality or charisma, O’Brien tends to overact. Together, the two have zero chemistry. But the real problem here is the script by Lupino and Collier Young. It’s just not smart enough. The dialogue is lacking. And to my thinking anyway the film has far too many cutaways from the central conflict around the two hostages being forced to drive the killer to his intended getaway and their presumed deaths. The action and tension keep getting interrupted by these cutaways to the progress of the police manhunt. This really dilutes the power of the suspense of the men being trapped in an impossible situation. It would have been better to stay with their peril and to only monitor the manhunt and roadblocks via the car radio.

Also, I question the film’s interpretation of the killer as a bully who uses his gun to intimidate and control people. A bully is one thing. A sociopath is another.

I also don’t like the film’s ending, I mean, you know that our two heroes are somehow going to get out of this dilemma, so there’s no real sense of relief when they do. But the way that the killer, when it comes right down to it, is so easily overpowered and apprehended is a real letdown. A crime film is only as good as the menace of the villain and here the villain is ultimately made out to be a coward and a pushover. That works against the basic premise of good crime movies, which is that the villain is a deadly threat who can only be defeated by overwhelming force or by extraordinary bravery or extreme cunning. But that’s not at all what happens. Instead, the movie chooses a moralistic position that this killer and by implication all killers really are nothing more than cowards hiding behind their gun or knife. In other words. that they’re bullies. Take their weapon away from them, it suggests, and they’re nothing.

Still, the movie has many things that do work. The men in danger scenes are strong. The rough-hewn settings are interesting. Even with those annoying cutaways, the film has a well-paced, urgent rhythm. The photography by Nicholas Musuraca makes good dramatic use of the claustrophobic interior car scenes and of the exterior desert and waterfront scenes. But I felt more could have been made of the isolated locales the protagonists traverse and of the treacherous interactions the three men have with people during the several stops along the way they make for repairs and supplies.

Much like the other ’50s noir I posted about today, “Private Hell 36,” this film is definitely no classic, not even of its genre, but it does work. Just not as well as it might have with a better script and cast. And it certainly proved that a woman, in this case Lupino, could direct an effective male-driven action picture.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Numbers Station”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

No sooner did I get off the heavy subject movie bandwagon, then I jumped right back on, and this time it was the 2013 thriller “The Numbers Station” starring John Cusack. He plays an American assassin named Emerson whose pangs of conscience on a job get him sent from active field duty to a desk job at a secure rural England site where ciphers are broadcast to agents in the field. He was on the receiving end of those broadcasts and now he’s charged with protecting their very existence and dissemination. His colleague at the station, which is an old U.S. military base, is a female civilian named Katherine played by Malin Akerman. The two work in a reinforced bunker and his task is to ensure that she arrives at work every day and executes her broadcasting duties. If she doesn’t show up or perform her duties, the implication is that she will be killed. She doesn’t know at first that the ciphers she sends out activate hits and bombings outside the bounds of normal governmental-military operations. When the site is compromised by a team of terrorists who force another broadcaster to release execution orders against higher ups in “the company,” protocol calls for Emerson to kill Katherine because she knows too much about these black-op, extra-legal goings-on. Emerson, of course, has developed some feelings for Katherine and can’t bring himself to follow those orders. Meanwhile, the station is still under siege and Emerson is pressured by both the company he works for and by the rouge trespassers left to eliminate her if he has any expectation of walking away from the situation. At a certain point, she discovers who he really is and what he’s not only capable of doing but is bound to do. Thus, he finds himself in a fight for his life and with his conscience to do the right thing before confronting one or the other of the threats outside the station. He must also try to convince her that he means her no harm and that they are in this predicament together.

Cusack is very good as the programmed killer struggling with feelings of empathy and ideas of morality in a secretive, by the numbers world where emotions and values s are seen as liabilities. But Cusack’s intelligent, ironical nature is better suited to other kinds of films and his talents are, frankly, wasted here in a part that, as written, doesn’t have much depth to it. He does what he can to deepen the material, but there’s just not much there to work with. It doesn’t help that Akerman lacks charisma and she and Cusack have very little chemistry with one another. The whole broadcast station scenario is fairly original but the story devolves along very routine lines we’ve seen a hundred times before and you just know that the two lead characters are going to become each other’s allies and survive no matter how steep the odds. The routine, formulaic thriller and action sequences to get there don’t really make the investment of 90 minutes worth it. Indeed, the movie seems longer than it actually is because the screenplay by F. Scott Frazier and the direction by Kasper Barfoed just isn’t good enough to engage you moment by moment. At a certain point I even found myself wondering, When is this thing going to be over? It’s just good enough that I stuck with it through the end, but if I never see it again, I won’t mind.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Mistress” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

One of my favorite movies about Hollywood is 1992’s “Mistress” starring Robert Wuhl and a great cast of supporting players led by the late Martin Landau and Eli Wallach as well as Robert De Niro, Danny Aiello, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tuesday Knight, Jean Smart, Laurie Metcalf, Jace Alexander, Christopher Walken and Stefan Gierasch. Enest Borgnine has a brief cameo as himself. Barry Primus, best known as an actor, co-wrote the film with J..F. Lawton (“Pretty Woman,” “Under Siege”) and directed it. This dark comedy capture,s better than most movies about Hollywood, the ruthless, dog-eat-dog world of the industry, especially for those on the wrong side of the tracks or who have seen better days.

The tone is every bit as caustic as “Sunset Boulevard” and the comparisons to Hollywood types with gangsters are every bit as inspired as “Get Shorty’s.” Its depiction of the delirium that affects people in the industry and those wanting in is remindful of “The Player.”

Wuhl plays Marvin, a once hot writer-director reduced to directing public access television shows. Landau plays Jack, a one-time major studio producer now scrounging amidst the scrap heap of losers and  failures. Each has-been was brought down by traumatic career events and have no leverage to get back in the game. Marvin believes he’s left behind the naked hunger to have his work produced until Jack stumbles upon an old script of his and expresses interest in producing it. Jack comes off sunny and light but theres’s a desperate street sensibility in him that leaks through and it becomes increasingly obvious he’s willing to do almost anything to regain the status he once owned. Marvin, at first indignant and defiant at even the suggestion he change anything in his script, almost immediately, imperceptibly begins compromising his principles at the mere chance of getting his script made. By the end, he’s so desperate to get it made that he’s willing to discard everything and everyone dear to him in order feed that ambition.

Jack forces a young wannabe writer named Stuart on Marvin to freshen up the script and make it more marketable. The three backers Jack finds for the picture are earthy monied men who make hard bargains. As a condition for putting up the financing, each requires that his mistress appear in the movie. Each mistress is a head trip all her own. The allure of making movies or being associated with the picture business is a mistress in itself. The whole story is about the seductive appeal of the industry and how people lose perspective when they project things onto the moviemaking process. The idealized excitement and glamour of it all distorts people’s thinking. A veteran screenwriter character in the piece remarks how there’s a weird respect for people who get movies made, no matter how awful they are.

Marvin initially resists the intrusions and compromises Jack throws his way, but he eventually capitulates to all of them the closer it gets him to saying “action” on the set of his bona fide film. The whole house of cards is doomed to collapse when the three backers and their mistresses end up in the same space and all their jealousies, insecurities, hangups, egos and interpersonal dramas spill out.

Even though Jack’s backstreet wheeling and dealing has drawn Marvin into a no-win scenario, Jack really cares about his profession and won’t go down or give in without a fight. Marvin is left dazed and disillusioned by the whole ordeal. But when the phone rings again and the siren call of a meeting with a backer is broached, he’s once again pulled into that intense dream state.

If you’ve never heard of the pic, it may be because this one came and went without much fanfare or box-office. it could have been a classic and maybe even a hit with someone else in the lead part, maybe Richard Dreyfuss or Jeff Bridges in place of Wuhl. It’s not that Wuhl is bad, it’s just that he has limited charisma and depth. Otherwise, the casting is spot on. Landau was never better than as the mass of contradictions he portrays in Jack – at once a dreamer and schemer, a mensch and son-of-a-bitch, an age-less optimist and a bitter, defeated old man. As the three backers, De Niro, Wallach and Aiello find distinctive colors for their greedy, cheating characters. As the mistresses, Tuesday Knight and Jean Smart are good and Sheryl Lee Ralph is great, nearly stealing the entire show.

Laurie Metcalf does an effective job as Marvin’s wife. Christopher Walken gives his usual enigmatic performance – this time as a disturbed actor whose rash decision on the set of a movie many years earlier sent Marvin’s life and career on the skids.

Another director might have also sharpened everything and made the work stronger, but Primus did a serviceable job of bringing to life a very good but not quite great script.

You can find the full movie for free on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Harry and the Hendersons” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

After watching so many heavy movies on Netflix these past six months, it was time to lighten things up and so Pam and I gave “Harry and the Hendersons” a watch. She’d never seen it. I had, but it was at least 25 years since that viewing, so my memory of it was a bit hazy. I did recall being surprised by how much I liked this comedy about a family that adopts a Big Foot after accidentally hitting it with their car on a forest road. Re-engaging with the movie after all this time, I found myself still enjoying the silly but well executed premise of Big Foot turning out to be a very endearing, not-so-distant human cousin. Harry, as this Big Foot is dubbed, grows extremely attached to the family and they to Harry. I knew Pam would find this a laugh riot and she did. We both agree it’s mindless entertainment but the actor who plays Harry in combination with the puppeteering and the visual effects creates such a vivid reality around Harry, especially its expressive eyes and mouth, that we couldn’t help but being emotionally involved, The whole movie depends on this and it largely succeeds in getting its hooks in you and keeping them there. The other reason for the film’s success is John Lithgow. I’m not a huge fan of his, but he’s really good as the husband-father whose entire life and way of thinking is changed by having Harry around and developing a bond that won’t be broken. Melinda Dillon is wasted as his wife. The actors who play their kids are serviceable but none too memorable. David Suchet is fine as the villainous Big Foot hunter but his character and the whole sub-plot of him tracking Harry down is an annoying contrivance. Don Ameche is also a bright spot as a Big Foot researcher who has his world shaken when he comes face to face with the creature he’d begun to despair really was a myth after all.

I honestly never noticed the name of the film’s director, William Dear, the first time I saw the picture and I’ve not seen anything else from his long list of feature credits, but he does have a knack for comedy. If you’re looking for a good throwback family-run movie, you could do worse, or you could do better, but this movie will satisfy most audiences.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Shadow Dancer” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The 2012 film “Shadow Dancer” portrays the Irish Republican Army’s domestic terrorism and the MI5 or British security service’s extra-legal responses as equally morally bankrupt and provocative opposing sides of an untenable conflict.

Andrea Riseborough is mesmerizing as the protagonist Colette McVeigh, a young woman following her family’s legacy hatred of the British by committing acts of terror in the service of the IRA. We are introduced to her as a young girl, when she loses a brother at the hands of occupying British forces in her native Belfast. When we next meet her, she’s a young mother of one whose conscience or anxiety or both prevent her from fully carrying out a terroristic act in London. Detained and recruited by MI5 agents who’ve been monitoring her, she’s presented a choice by agent Mac, played by Clive Owen. Because they have her cold, it’s a foregone conclusion she will be convicted and go to prison. Perhaps for a very long time. Her boy may very well end up in state care. Or she can turn informant and help bring down operations involving her own brothers. Should she not live up to her end of the bargain, the deal is off and her freedom and life as she knew it is essentially over, The impossibility of her personal dilemma becomes the metaphor for the entire, larger conflict. Whatever she decides to do – and she does agree to be a snitch – she will betray herself, her family and the cause, which for her seems more about avenging the death of her brother than it is about any social-political ideology. Her loyalties are to her family first, the cause second.

As the plot unfolds and we see just how deeply and treacherously the hooks of the IRA are in her and in her family, not unlike underlings having to do the bidding of the Mob, it becomes obvious that she’s having to play the middle against two devils. This no-win predicament of facing threats and doubts from both law enforcement and her own gang is brought home when the scene near the start in which Mac enlists her into informing is paralleled by a later scene in which an IRA officer interrogates her, clearly distrusting her veracity and loyalty. Mac also questions her commitment. The pressure on her is unbearable. Then, with no one else to turn to, she and Mac make things even more complicated when they develop an emotional dependency on one another. Getting involved is against all protocol he’s supposed to follow and he further compromises the whole set-up when he allows his feelings for her to openly question how his superiors are cavalierly using her and then demands she be placed in the equivalent of the witness protection program. He pushes things more with his direct supervisor, played by Gillian Anderson, who recognizes he’s fallen for Colette.

Making matters worse, the local IRA chief, Kevin, is pressing hard to find a mole in the works after an operation’s botched. He suspects that Colette or one of her brothers leaked information and it’s clear he will stop at nothing, including interrogation, torture or murder, until he’s satisfied. With danger all about her, Colette and Mac plan to drop out together and run away. Then he finds case files that explain for the first time who the state is really interested in protecting in this situation and when he tries warning the family, it’s either too late or the information’s been passed onto the IRA. Betrayed once more, Colette and one of her brothers do what they’ve steeled themselves to do since childhood. For them, the war is never over and Mac ends up being just another symbol of what they hate.

Riseborough is well-matched with Owen, who gives his usual authentic angst-ridden performance. He’s one of those actors naturally adept at projecting intelligence and expressing the inner conflict of wrestling with difficult choices.

Tom Bradby adapted his own novel into the screenplay and James Marsh directed. The gritty cinematography by Rob Hardy combined with the severe locations amplify the gray, morally ambiguous and empty no-man’s-land these characters navigate at their own and others’ peril.

“Shadow Dancer” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Nightcrawler” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The best film I’ve seen in 2017 is one from 2014, “Nightcrawler,” now showing on Netflix. Jake Gyllenhaal  gives a performance as sociopath Louis Bloom that is on par with Robert De Niro’s similarly disturbed Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” Indeed, “Nightcrawler” reminds me a lot of that classic 1976 Martin Scorsese film written by Paul Schrader. It also reminds me, in terms of certain tones and story-lines, of “Network,” “The Public Eye,” the two films titled “Crash,” “American Psycho” and “Christine” (2016), which I recently reviewed here.

But the rhythms and themes are most reminiscent of “Taxi Driver.” There, the underbelly world traversed by its sociopath is New York City, where Travis Bickle uneasily straddles the mainstream and underworld of that metropolis. From his taxi, he sees a venal world in need of cleansing. As Travis grows more and more alienated and unhinged, he’s unable to interact with the mainstream in a healthy way and turns his obsession into a self-styled vigil ante mission in the underworld, In “Nightcrawler,” the subterranean world that Lou Bloom negotiates is Los Angeles. In his work as a freelance news photographer he sees the random violence and death that is his canvass as fodder for the masses.

When Bickle’s violent,  blood-soaked catharsis is finished, he is made out to be a hero. Similarly, in “Nightcrawler,” Lou finds a hungry market for his own obsession and becomes a successful entrepreneur and legitimized news photographer despite operating outside any approved code of conduct.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy does a masterful job of making you believe that a Lou Bloom can not only survive but thrive in society as a predator and voyeur in service of television news. Bloom exists on the fringes, stealing, manipulating, killing to get whatever he fixes on that he wants. When he happens upon a freelance stringer videographer, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), at the scene of a bloody accident, he quickly finds himself drawn to the cold calculation of the work. His ability to dissociate from feelings in order  to capture breaking news, no matter how private or gruesome, makes him ideal in some respects for the job. His dark intentions to gain a competitive advantage and his willingness to enact what others might only fantasize, makes him a very scary and dangerous figure. Because he has no boundaries, he crosses all moral, ethical, legal lines in obtaining footage that is pornographic because of its graphic, exploitative nature.

In the character of Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director for a ratings poor TV station, he finds a morally-ethically flexible peer so desperate to boost shares that she buys his material and in so doing encourages and becomes complicit in his outside the lines actions. But their bizarre relationship goes much deeper that. He compromises and blackmails her by finding where she’s most vulnerable and thus she not only pays exorbitant prices for his increasingly exclusive and questionable footage but she agrees to tout his work and to give him sexual favors. The filmmaker seems to be commenting on how far people are prepared to go to feed the insatiable appetites of people for the sensational, the gory, the tabloid.

I can’t say enough about Gyllenhaal’s performance. It is  brilliant in its veracity and detail, depth and subtlety, intensity and modulation. This is great work. Because his characterization is mainly interior, I enjoyed it far more than I did his characterization in “Southpaw,” which was much more exterior focused. In “Nightcrawler” Gyllenhaal really climbs into the belly of the beast and draws us into the vortex of his madness with a weird charisma that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. Russo is very good as his accomplice. Paxton is strong in his brief but telling role. And Riz Ahmed is very good as the assistant Lou hires and pulls deeper and deeper into his demented dark universe. It is a creepy, never less than riveting experience and the very fact that we can’t stop watching it despite the repulsive things it shows or suggests only goes to prove the point the story makes that we are all participants, willing or not, in this voyeuristic media-age.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Andersonville Trial” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

After years of hearing about a legendary television production of the anti-war play “The Andersonville Trial,” I finally saw it on YouTube. While it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, this adaptation of the Sol Levitt play is compelling enough for me to recommend it. There’s really nothing wrong with the physical and aesthetic aspects of the production itself. The content on the other hand is sometimes stilted by the didactic nature of Levitt’s dialogue, which is two hours worth of philosophizing, moralizing and arguing, with long stretches of calm, reasoned reflection broken up by intense rants.

George C. Scott, who starred in the piece on Broadway, directed the TV version for broadcast in 1970. He assembled a great cast to perform what is essentially a filmed play. The trial is a dramatization of the war crimes trial brought against the man in charge of the infamous, open-air Confederate prisoner of war stockade, Camp Sumter, near Andersonville, Georgia, where as many as 40,000 men were confined without shelter, sanitation, provisions. Some 14,000 died there. Swiss native Henry Wirz ran the camp under orders from higher command. After the war he was charged with “combining, confederating and conspiring, together with others to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States.” The charges carried the penalty of death by hanging. Through the course of the trial, the play explores what the personal culpability of Wirz was and really what that of anyone is in wartime for acts that result in the loss of human life. Does merely following orders excuse one from moral responsibility? While his superiors denied access to better care and more provisions for the prisoners, couldn’t Wirz have contravened those orders and done the right thing anyway, regardless of the disciplinary consequences to himself? Couldn’t he have refused the command? Wirz argues in the trial that in the event he did he would have faced court martial proceedings and that in time of war he may have been found guilty of treason and thus faced death just as he did in this trial.

Wirz was accused of personally injuring and killing some of the prisoners but the evidence for this was flimsy and largely discredited. However, there is no doubt of the horrible conditions he presided over and allowed to not only continue but to worsen, until eventually a hundred men died per day on average.

But the evidence also seems to show he found himself in an untenable human criss often referred to in the play as “hell” over which he had little control and that he became the scapegoat for the atrocities there. The fact he was an unrepentant Confederate autocrat who spoke with a thick accent likely made it easier for the tribunal to cast him as the evil monster deserving of death.

William Shattner stars as the U.S. Army’s prosecuting attorney Col. Chipman. Jack Cassidy is the defense attorney Otis Baker. Cameron Mitchell is the tribunal’s lead judge General Wallace. Richard Basehart is Wirz. They’re all very good. As you would expect, Shattner sometimes overacts in his impassioned pleas. Cassidy delivers the most intelligent performance. Mitchell is very good as the conflicted Wallace. And Basehart well captures the complexity of the desperate Wirz. These principal actors are joined by an astounding array of familiar faces and names in small but affecting roles, including Buddy Ebsen, Albert Salmi, Whit Bissell, John Anderson and Martin Sheen. Even the tribunal’s ranks feature some heavyweight actors, including Charles McGraw and Kenneth Tobey in nonspeaking but nonetheless weighty roles as men bearing witness to proceedings that anticipated the war crime trials and arguments following World War Ii.

I earlier saw this summer on YouTube John Frankenheimer’s 1996 TNT movie “Andersonville” and I recommend it as an excellent companion piece to “The Andersonville Trial” for its depiction of the horrors only talked about in the latter movie.

Hot Movie Takes  – “In Cold Blood” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Seldom has a film so thoroughly imparted a sense of dread, looming physical violence and dark, broken spirits as “in Cold Blood,” the 1967 semi-documentary style adaptation of the Truman Capote classic book. Writer-director Richard Brooks, cinematographer Conrad Hall and composer Quincy Jones create a chilling black and white world in which sociopaths Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith prey with cold calculation upon a world that on the surface they appear to be a part of but they’re really estranged from. They can lie, cheat, steal and kill without compunction because they’re cut off from their own humanity and thus dehumanize the people they encounter. Separate from each other, they’re petty life criminals, but together they form a two-headed monster capable of the atrocity they commit against the Clutter family.

Brooks found just the right balance of a dispassionate yet expressionistic point of view that offers up the pair as curious case studies who blew in like some evil aberration or fairy tale menace on the stark Plains. The naturalism imparted to the film was a marked departure for Brooks, who came out of the old studio system, and it worked quite effectively in bringing to believable life the characters and incidents at the heart of the story.

Scott Wilson as Hickcock and Robert Blake as Smith are extraordinary alone and together in this picture. They endow these characters with details that, along with the writing and settings, reveal shades of their complex personalities and the possible origins of their dysfunction and disturbance.

There are some very good character turns in the movie as well, particularly by Jeff Corey (as Hickcock’s father) and Charles McGraw (as Smith’s father.

For my tastes, I considered this the best true life crime movie I’d seen until “The Executioner’s Song.” The two stories and films share much in common with the exception of the romance angle in the latter. Indeed, the only romantic theme in the earlier film is the thinly veiled reference to a possible attraction or more between the two men.

Brooks did some very strong work in his career, which saw him go from writer to writer-director but this is probably his best film, followed by “Elmer Gantry,” which appears a bit stiff and artificial by comparison.

The unconventional (for him). perhaps New Wave-influenced approach he took “In Cold Blood” gives the film a visceral look and feel that stands the test of time.

Please note that the trailer for the film linked below is oddly old-fashioned in style and doesn’t capture the vitality or verisimilitude of the actual film experience. So, if you’ve never seen the picture, don’t discount it by that trailer.  Find the film and watch it.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Two Faces of January” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Another really good film from 2014 captured my imagination and tickled my fancy last night: “The Two Faces of January,” which is now available on Netflix. It is writer-director Hossein Amini’s adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith (“Strangers on a Train”) novel about three Americans in 1962 Greece brought together by deceit and desire into a moral quagmire that has fatal consequences for two of them. The dark, acerbic material is loaded with human treachery and Hossein’s calculating treatment of it plays a lot like a Roman Polanski film. Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst play a seemingly well to do and happily married couple, Chester and Colette, vacationing on the island, where they meet a fellow American, Rydal, played by Oscar Issac, working as a tour guide. Very quickly into things we learn that the couple’s leisurely idyll is really their escape from dire troubles at home and that Rydal, who proves a hustler, is running from something, too.

There’s a strange mutual attraction-repulsion dynamic among the three characters. Rydal sees aspects of his recently departed father, from whom he was estranged, in Chester. The young man still seeking to find himself admires the older, self-made man in his midst. Rydal is also attracted to Colette, who is much closer to his age than she is to the middle-aged Chester. She, in turn, is obviously attracted by Rydal’s natural charm and charisma. The confident but scared Chester knows a con man when he meets one and so even though he likes Rydal, he’s wary of him as a possible romantic threat and criminal complication.

When the trouble Chester and Colette have fled from violently catches up to them, Rydal stumbles onto its aftermath and helps clean up the mess, making the two men accomplices and wanted suspects. The rest of the story revolves around the increasing tension among these three desperate people, each of whom has something on the other. Mortensen, Dunst and Issac are superb. The interplay between Mortensen and Issac is particularly impressive because they convincingly play two men filled with self-hate who recognize much of themselves in each other and therefore both love and despise what they see. Chester is a lifelong criminal capable of extreme violence and yet he has a good heart. Rydal is a sweet man whose petty larceny is more about survival and sport than a way of being. They’re both cunning and adept at adapting quickly in the face of scuttled plans and looming threats.

Chester has money, violence and street smart instincts as his aces in the hole but the handicap of Rydal knowing his secrets. Rydal has the advantage of knowing the language and the burden of the truth.

The film reminded me of “A Simple Plan” in its cascade of ever more dangerous deceptions committed out of fear, lust, greed, jealousy, love and hate.

I personally feel that “The Two Faces of January” loses the considerable head of steam it builds in the first quarter of the picture. The rest of the story works well enough as the machinations turn ever more malicious. But even without knowing exactly where the drama is heading because I’ve never read its source material nor any reviews of the picture, I was also not surprised by what happens. The climax is effective but it didn’t move me as perhaps it might have had the characters’ intentions not been telegraphed so bluntly.

The anxious music. cinematography and editing all heighten the sense of people outside their comfort zones relying on guile and guts to live another day. The exotic locations serve to further the feeling that these  people are out of their elements, though here, too, Rydal has the edge on his friend turned adversary.

There are also some nice allusions to the cruel tricks the gods play on mere mortal humans who are subject to the failings and weaknesses of red hot emotions and desires.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Manhattan Project” 

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

“The Manhattan Project” is a 1986 movie that can’t help but remind one of “War Games.” Both have a precocious male teen protagonist with an unhealthy obsession for things that not only get them in serious trouble but pose a nuclear nightmare in the bargain. In “The Manhattan Project,” the insouciant Paul pulls off the unusual combo of being both a cool kid and a nerd. When a scientist played by John Lithgow learns of his interest in lasers, he invites him to tour the lab he runs and Paul (played by Christopher Collet) immediately suspects the biomedical facility is really a cover for producing weapons-grade plutonium. Collet, with a personality and delivery strikingly similar to the young Matthew Broderick who played the computer geek in “War Games,” decides to secretly build a nuclear bomb and spring it on the national science project he enters. He and his girlfriend Jenny (Cynthia Nixon) want to expose the lab’s work and Paul also wants to show the world just how smart he is. In “War Games” Broderick’s character hacks into the U.S. military’s missile defense system and engages in a game with a computer that interprets his actions as a real threat and brings the world to the brink of nuclear war. That is probably an easier scenario to imagine happening than what Paul does, which is to single-handedly steal plutonium from the secure lab, in his spare time build an operational bomb from cannibalized parts found around his home and somehow not suffer radiation sickness or blow himself up in the process. Yet the movie does a credible job getting us to buy into the scheme and that’s largely due to the writing of writer-director Marshall Brickman and the acting and chemistry of Collet and Nixon. Brickman finds a mostly successful balance between comedy and drama, though sometimes the movie veers oddly in one direction or another and seems to forget or be confused that at it’s heart it’s a light comedy with heavy themes in which no real harm will come to its protagonist. The climactic sequence plays like a flat-out drama, and it works, but its tone does contradict what preceded it. Maybe that contrast is precisely what Brickman intended. Maybe he was setting us up for that tense, high stakes final sequence. But I can how the film’s veering from one extreme to the other could be off-putting to some viewers. Having it both ways is okay, but I’m not sure Brickman’s writing or direction is up to the task. He famously collaborated on the scripts of some very good, even great Woody Allen films, but he’s no Allen as a writer and director. I mean, he’s quite good, but he doesn’t handle the various moving parts of his movie as fluidly and coherently and pleasingly as Allen does at his best.

By the way, the film’s trailer plays like the story is a straight dramatic suspenser, which it most definitely is not, which indicates to me the studio didn’t know what it had on its hands and so took the most expedient means to market it.

I think Christopher Collet does a fine job as the dashing egg-head lead and I’m rather surprised he didn’t have more of a feature career but the may he may have been one of those teen actors who didn’t transition gracefully to adult roles. I’m not overly fond of John Lithgow, even though I admire his talent. I just happen to find his voice and mannerisms a bit annoying and cloying. He is well cast, however, as the scientist who gets caught up in the drama of the story. Cynthia Nixon shines the brightest as the girlfriend of our protagonist. She almost seems too mature and worldly wise for the part but she practically steals the picture every time she’s on screen, though she’s really not given enough to do. Jill Eikenberrry is also good in an underwritten part but she does have more to play as the story moves toward its conclusion. Two more heavyweight actors appear in the piece: John Mahoney as a military officer and Richard Jenkins as the lab administrator. They’re both solid, of course, but their talents are largely wasted in generic parts.

You can watch “The Manhattan Project’ on Netflix. › watch?v=spOWFb7zfOo

Pot Liquor Love: Soul food eatery Omaha Rockets Kanteen conjures Negro Leagues past and pot liquor love menu

November 17, 2016 2 comments

Don Curry banks on his “healthy” version of soul food catching on at his niche Omaha Rockets Kanteen and Southern Pitch food truck. His niche concept is wed to a Negro Leagues baseball passion that permeates his brick and mortar and mobile eateries.  Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in November 2016 issue of The Reader

Pot Liquor Love:

Good Memories and Good Eats

Soul food eatery conjures Negro Leagues past and pot liquor love menu


Pot Liquor Love

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment



Pot Liquor Love 

Not long after Pam and I began getting to know each other, we discovered several things in common, and some of what we found we both have a real passion for has to do with food. Having been in a previous long-standing relationship with an African-American woman, I already knew that the food I grew up eating and the food that many African-Americans grow up eating share many similarities. This, despite the fact that I am of Polish and Italian ancestry, two cuisines you wouldn’t ordinarily or immediately associate with soul food. But much of the food my late parents grew up eating and that they then weaned my two older brothers and I on is what could be called peasant cooking, which is essentially what soul food entails. The peasant connotation simply refers to the fact that people of little means, whether Polish or Italian or Black, historically make do with whatever is at hand. including what they eat. The humble rooted people on both my dad’s Polish side and on my mother’s Italian side certainly made do with what they raised and tended on the land and with what scraps of meat they could afford to purchase. The same with Blacks, whose soul food tradition derives from what was available from the sweat of their own brow working the land and what they could scratch together to buy.

Thus, the Polish and Italian cuisine I grew up eating, just like the Black soul food cuisine I was introduced to years later, features lots of greens, beans, potatoes, pastas (think spaghetti and macaroni and cheese), grains (barley, rice, grits) and lower end cut, slow cooked meats, including pig’s feet, cheek, hocks,  butt, ribs, oxtails, smoked turkey wings and legs and beef liver, although some of those formerly low cut low priced meats have since become pricey gourmet items. There are pan-fried and deep-fried connections, too, between my roots and Pam’s, such as chicken livers and gizzards. and, of course, chicken.

My mom and dad split the cooking. Their go-to dishes included: smothered pork chops (his), bean soup with hocks (his and hers), oxtail soup (his), braised oxtails (hers), oven-baked chicken (his), beef stew (his), Italian stew (hers), pig’s feet (his), greens (hers),

Pam has expressed surprise over and over again when, upon talking fondly about various dishes her family enjoyed eating, I come right back with, “Yeah, we ate that, too.” She is fairly amazed even now that I have consumed more than my share of ham hocks, for example, and that I still cook with them today. We didn’t have collards, but we did have mustard and assorted other greens. My mom grew up eating dandelions and she’d once in a while incorporate them into our greens as well.

The whole idea behind this mode of cooking and eating is to stretch things in order to feed several hungry mouths without straining the budget. That means lots of soups, stews, casseroles, bakes and concoctions where you throw in everything on hand to make what Pam’s family used to call “stuff.” Every ethnic group has it own variation of this everything but the kitchen sink dish that is more about expediency than it is culinary style. But Pam and I both agree that there’s never a good enough excuse for making something that lacks flavor. We are both big on bold, robust flavors achieved through liberal seasoning and cooking methodology. When it comes to meat, and she and I are both classic carnivores, we prefer slow baking, roasting methods that produce copious amounts of natural pan drippings that we spoon right over the serving portions or that can be the base for rich, delicious gravies and sauces. You might say we are connoisseurs of pan drippings because we appreciate the layered, complex, concentrated flavors they contain.

The resulting “pot liquor” is produced whether cooking beef, pork or poultry, but you have to have cuts that are bone-in and contain some fat, too. Fat and bone, that’s where the real flavor resides, and all the seasoning and veggies you add only help enhance the flavor. Yes, pot liquor is the really deep, fat and marrow released and rendered goodness that gets deposited in those puddles, streaks and bits. We never serve a meat dish without  some of the pot liquor over it. I love that term because it’s so apt to what the essence of pan drippings are. Rendered fat and bone is where it’s at and when enough of it is released and it gets to coagulating and browning to where those alternately gooey and crusty bits collect at the bottom and edges of the roasting pan, it distills right there in the oven or even on top of the stove into a heady, briny brew that really is best described as pot liquor.

Pam knows by now that one of my favorite food things to do is to take a hunk of bread and sop up the smear of congealed pot liquor left on the pan. Oh, my, that is a burst of flavor that rivals the best bites I’ve ever eaten, Not even a 4 or 5 star restaurant can duplicate that taste.

There are other pot liquors not exclusive to meat dishes, such as the brew created by cooking collards with ham hocks. Pam makes some righteous greens with hocks or smoked turkey lumps whose pot liquor is enough to get intoxicated on when sopping it up with corn bread or pouring it over most anything.

With the holidays coming up I am already salivating at the thought of Pam’s roasted turkey – she makes the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten – and its pot liquor bounty that pairs well with the greens, the stuffing, the candied yams and everything else for that matter.

Sure, there’s more to life than food, but at the moment I can’t think what that might be. Cooking a meal for someone is as true an expression of love as I can think of. It is the epitome of sharing something precious and of delighting in someone else’s pleasure or satisfaction. Pam and I regularly take turns cooking for each other. Her home cooked meals bring me right back to my childhood and early adult years eating at home with mom and dad. She likes my cooking, too. It also takes her back. By now we both know what we like and what we don’t. Our tastes, with a few notable exceptions, are remarkably alike.

On our recent trips down South we experienced a few dishes with good to the last drop pot liquor love. Read those at–

Not sure whose turn it is in our couple cooking rotation. It doesn’t much matter though you see because whoever has the duty will be putting out big flavors. That’s what you get when you cook with love – flavor. The one cardinal sin we can’t abide is bland food. That and skimping on the pot liquor. When we sit down to dinner, it’s not so much “pass the salt” as it is “give me some more of that pot liquor, honey.”

I don’t mean to imply the lip smacking magic of our Pot Liquor Love is what keeps us together, but it sure helps.

Great Migration Stories: For African Americans who left the South for Omaha, the specter of down home is never far away

July 30, 2013 4 comments

No matter where African Americans live today there’s a very high probability that someone in their family tree and maybe even several someone got up and out of the South before the major Civil Rights protections took effect.  Making the move north or west of east was all about pursuing a better life.  The following story for The Reader ( offers a small window into a few migration stories.

A variation of this story is told in a new iBook I recently authored for the Omaha Public Schools and its Making Invisible Histories Visible project.
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of my ibook about an integration effort at Omaha’s Peony Park at-

And you can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-

Great Migration Stories: For African Americans who left the South for Omaha, the specter of down home is never far away

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


The July 31-August 5 Native Omaha Days will feature metro-wide black heritage celebrations that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the American South. But when local African American families gather for the biennial Days most can point to someone in their family tree who migrated from the South.

The same holds true for almost any black family gathering of any size here. Whatever the occasion, there’s likely a Southern strain rich in history, tradition and nostalgia.

The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the oppressive pre-civil rights South for parts all over the nation from the 1920s through the 1960s. Everyone who participated in the movement has a story. That’s certainly the case with two Omaha women who made the migration during its waning years, Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson.

Moore, 72, came from Boligee, Ala. in 1959 in her late teens. Her family had been sharecroppers but eventually become land owners.

“My grandparents lived and worked on the white man’s land,” she says. “Most everything went to the white man. They didn’t have a chance to show anything for their labors. That’s why my daddy was so inspired to get something of his own. He made it reality, too, when he saved up enough to buy 98 acres of land. He farmed it on weekends when home from his steel mill job in Tuscaloosa.

“My brothers and I grew up working the land. You got up when the sun rose and you almost worked until the sun set.”

The family still retains the property today.

Lorraine Jackson, 66, migrated from Brookhaven, Miss. in 1964 at age 17. Her grandparents were sharecroppers but eventually bought the cotton-rich land they toiled on and handed the 53 acres down to Jackson’s parents. Picking cotton was a back-breaking, finger-cutting chore. Adding insult to injury, you got cheated at the end of the day.

“You were supposed to get $3 for picking a hundred pounds but it seemed like you could never get a hundred pounds because the scales were loaded. But if you wanted to make money you picked cotton. I saved my money,” says Jackson.

The land she sweated on is still in the family’s hands.

Jackson says by the time she graduated high school she couldn’t stand being a second-class citizen anymore. She and her friends wanted out.

“That was the thing to do, you got out, you left.”

When Mississipians who’d already made the migration wrote or called or came back with news of plentiful jobs and things to do, it acted as a recruitment pitch.

“They would tell you about all the bright lights in the big cities and all the places you could go. They told you can have a better life. It made an impression that I needed to get away. I thought it was right for me. Besides, I was kind of rambunctious. I wasn’t the type to just sit there and say nothing or do nothing.

“I remember about a month before I left threatening my mom that I was going to sit at the Woolworth’s counter in town and she about had a heart attack. I said, ‘Mama, all they’re going to do is ask me to leave.’  It was time for me and I said, ‘I’m outta here.'”

Jackson came by train eager to start her new life.

Moore came by Greyhound bus and she says on the way here she was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and fear.

Each woman was among the movement”s last generation.

Another Omaha woman, Emma Hart, 87, was born in rural Ark. in 1926 but raised here, making her a child of the Great Migration.

Many other Omahans are variously fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the migration. Few first generation migrants survive. A large extended family in Omaha made their exodus here from Evergreen, Ala. over a generation’s time. A group of Christians from Brewton, Ala. migrated here in 1917 to found Pilgrim Baptist Church. Practically every black family, church, club or organization has its own migration connection and story.

The precise circumstances and motivations for leaving the South varied but the common denominator was a desire for “a better way of life,” says Hart. That’s what drove her parents to come in 1921. The Big Four packinghouses were booming then. The promise of steady work there was still a powerful lure decades later when Moore and Jackson’s generation made the move north.

Migrants may not have thought of it in these terms, but implicit in their pursuit of a better life was the search for self-determination. Only by leaving the South, they felt, could they fully engage with and benefit from all that America offered.

Moore’s parents could not exercise their right to vote in the South without courting danger. She says her father risked his anyway by driving black protestors to voting rights marches. He left her a legacy and bequest she couldn’t ignore.

“My dad sacrificed his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. My mother was concerned about Daddy getting killed because if you had a lot of people in your car during that time when the protests were happening the Klan would think you were freedom riders coming from the North.

“Daddy always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting. The people before us gave their lives so we could vote.”

Moore married in Ala. Her husband moved to Omaha ahead of her to find work and a place to live. After she joined him they started a family. She worked for a time in a packinghouse, then she got on at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store downtown. Her three brothers all moved here for a time and worked packings jobs. Those jobs were vital for many black families getting a foothold here.

“That’s where we really got our start, my husband and I,” she says. “We ended up buying two homes. It was good paying money at the time compared to other jobs we could get.”

Always looking to better herself Moore attended a local beauty college and she eventually opened her own salon – something she likely would not have been able to do then down South. Her clientele here included white customers, which would have never happened there.

Jackson, who married and raised a family in Omaha, worked in he Blackstone Hotel kitchen before going to beauty school and opening her own shop. She catered to customers of all races. An older brother preceded her to Omaha and drove a city bus for 35 years.

Both women continue doing hair today.

Emma Hart married and raised a family in Omaha, where she was almost never without work. She and many of her relatives worked in the packinghouses. Her first job came in a military laundry during World War II. Then she got on at Cudahy and when it closed she performed an undisclosed job in a sensitive area at Strategic Air Command. Two first cousins, brothers William and Monroe Coleman, enjoyed long, distinguished careers as Omaha Police Department officers. They could not have managed equivalent careers in the South then and even if they could it’s doubtful Monroe could have reached the post of acting deputy director he achieved here.

Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Great Migration, says, “The only way blacks could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”

“It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom.”

Life outside the South was hardly paradise. Blacks still encountered segregation and discrimination in employment, housing, education, recreation. The De Porres Club and the 4CL staged marches and demonstrations against inequities here. Late 1960s civil disturbances in northeast Omaha expressed rage over police misconduct. Moore and Jackson experienced first hand blacks’ confinement to a small swath of North Omaha by housing covenants and red lining. Public places were not always accommodating. Many local businesses and organizations used exclusionary practices to deny or discourage black employment and patronage.

“To a certain point there were no restrictions,” says Jackson, “but there were some undertones. You could go anywhere. There were no signs that said you couldn’t. But because I lived it I could feel it but nobody really could do anything about it. You know subtle things when you see them.”

She recalls being made to feel invisible by the way people ignored her or talked past her.

In terms of housing barriers, she says, “My goal was to move past 30th Street because I couldn’t for so long, and I did. Some goals you just had to accomplish.”

Still, restrictions here were nothing like what they were in places like Mississippi, where state-sanctioned apartheid was brutally enforced.

“MIssissippi didn’t play, It was like a foreign country,” says Jackson.

When a member of her own family got into a dispute with a white person he had to skip town in the dead of night and stay way for years before it was safe to return.

Many blacks saw no option but to pack up everything they owned and leave everything they knew to start all over in some strange new city.

“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me,” says Wilkerson.

This epic internal movement of a people wasn’t an organized thing but an organic response to harsh social-economic conditions. Punitive Jim Crow laws severely curtailed the rights of blacks. Widespread drought and blight forced many blacks off the land they worked as sharecroppers or farmers. The prospect of better paying industrial jobs in places like Omaha and Chicago, where packinghouses and railroads hired minorities, was all the reason people needed to move.

“Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration,” says Wilkerson. “For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to  plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self-determination and courage.”

Isabel Wilkerson

Those who made the trek to forge new lives elsewhere encouraged others to follow. Thus, an uninterrupted stream of migrants flowed from the South to forever change the makeup and dynamic of cities in the East, the North and the West.

Some streams fed into receiving cities located on direct rail lines from the South. Where black enclaves from certain states got established up North, they became magnets that drew ever more blacks. While Omaha received migrants from all parts of the South it primarily drew transplants from Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ironlcally, where Omaha once offered more opportunity than the South, the situation has reversed and countless Omaha blacks, many of them children and grandchildren of the Great Migration, have made a reverse migration.

But when Luriese Moore came in the late ’50s there was no doubt the Midwest was an improvement over the South. “I found it much better,” she says. For starters, there was nothing like the overt segregation she knew growing up.

“Everything was black and white just all over (there). It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening. They had one side of the street for colored and the other side for white. They had one water fountain for the black people and one for the white people. When you went into a store you just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. We couldn’t go in some exclusive stores in my hometown that sold very fine clothes. They didn’t want us to try on hats and things.

“Up here the integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the signs we saw in Ala. for blacks only or whites only. You could just go to anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store you wanted to.”

Blacks were not immune from harassment, intimidation, threats, outright violence in places like Omaha – witness the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and resulting race riot – but the South was a much more treacherous landscape.

Lorraine Jackson says while she never laid eyes on the Ku Klux Klan during the time she lived in Miss., their presence was felt in incidents like cross burnings.

“They were there. They were killing people. We saw a lot of cross burnings in front of people’s houses. We knew those people, we went to church together. That was scary. You never get that fear out of your mind. It was a fear that you had because really you hadn’t done anything, you were just black and that’s all you had to be.”

She says blacks perceived to be too aspirational or ambitious by the white ruling class could be targets. A cross burning was a message to stay in you place.

“I mean, you really had to walk careful,” says Jackson. “You were expected to work in the fields and things like that.”

Moore recalls similar menace in Alabama.

“There was one town right out from Birmingham that was known to be very dangerous and to hang black people, You could not be on the highway too much at night either because they would end up shooting you or running you off the road. Oh, I don’t even want to think about it. I had kind of pushed it out of my mind.

“My parents were wonderful parents because we were sheltered from a lot of things going on down there, Those were very crucial times. Where I came from if you didn’t do what they told you to then then they would start going around your house and everything. If they wanted your property they made it awfully painful for you to keep it. They’d start doing things to your family, pestering you, messing with you, like running you off the road. People would say, so and so had an accident, well they wouldn’t have an accident, they would be run off the road. It was mean. It was not a pleasant thing. We saw a lot of that down there.”

Moore appreciates how far African Americans have come in her lifetime.

“We’ve come to a place where things are much better and I thank God for it. We have come a long ways. When we sing ‘we shall overcome,’ well, we have overcome. I’m glad we’ve moved past that. During the time it was happening it was a bitter feeling. I felt angry. i was looking at race as the human race and they were looking at color. I just couldn’t see how a person could treat another person like that .Sin causes people to lose sight of life and to do terrible things to each other.”

Jackson says the root of racism people’s “fear of what they don’t know.”

Emma Hart doesn’t recall her parents mentioning any specific fear they fled. The poor sharecroppers just went where the jobs were and when two relatives came and made a go of it here, Emma’s parents followed.

Where Emma’s relatives in the South attended all black country schools she attended integrated Omaha grade and high schools and where her relatives lived  strictly segregated lives she lived in an integrated South Omaha neighborhood.

“Everything was mixed in South Omaha,” she says.

On one of only two visits she made to the South she experienced the hand of Jim Crow when the passenger train she was on left St. Louis for Ark. and blacks were forced to change cars for the segregated leg of the trip. That same racial protocol applied when Jackson took the train and Moore rode the bus in Jim Crow land.

Even when Moore made auto trips to the South she was reminded of what she’d left behind. “There were certain places they wouldn’t even sell us gas,” she says. “We couldn’t even get any food to eat, we had to pack up our own food to take south and to come back until we hit the St. Louis line.”

Hart may not have grown up in the South but she’s retained many Southern traditions she was brought up in, from fish fries to soul food feasts featuring recipes handed down over generations.

Lorraine Jackson keeps her Southern heritage close to her. “I brought my traditions – like Sunday dinners with the family. I raised my kids with the same culture and the same core values. There isn’t much I changed. I remained who I was – a daughter of the South. I’m very proud of it.”

Every now and then, she says, she just has to prepare “some fried chicken and biscuits from scratch” for that taste of home.

She’s sure the way she and her siblings were raised helps explain why they’ve all done well.

“All of us graduated from high school. Some of us went to college. A sister has a master’s degree. It’s amazing we’re successful. I think it was the upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong, we had to be respectful. We had a work ethic – that was another good thing. Faith was a big factor, too.”

Jackson and Moore have made regular pilgrimages to the South since moving to Omaha. They marvel at its transformation.

Moore says she never dreamed her hometown of Boligee would have a black mayor, but it does. She’s also pleasantly surprised by all the open interracial relationships, blended church congregations and mixed gatherings she sees.

Jackson says, “When I go back to Mississippi it almost shocks me to see the change. Sometimes it catches me by surprise and I think, Where am I? It’s almost better than it is here.”

Both women say that when they gather with family or friends who share their past it’s the good times they recall, not the bad times. And whether their kids and grandkids know it or not, the family’s Southern roots get expressed in the food they eat and in the church they attend and in various other ways. These Daughters of the South may have left but their hearts still reside down home.

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