Cinema's Hidden Pearls: Part I

One of nature's rarest items, a pearl is produced within the soft tissue (specifically the mantle) of a living shelled mollusk. Just like the shell of a clam, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form, which has been deposited in concentric layers. Truly flawless pearls are infrequently produced in nature, and as a result, the pearl has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable. Hidden pearls exist in the world of movies, as well: films that, in spite of being brilliantly crafted and executed, never got the audience they deserved beyond a cult following.

Here are a few of our favorite hidden pearls in the world of film:

1. Night Moves (1975)
Director Arthur Penn hit three home runs in a row with the trifecta of Bonnie & Clyde, Alice's Restaurant and Little Big Man, all critical and box offices smashes. Filmed in 1973 from Scottish writer Alan Sharp's script, Night Moves offered a modern film noir starring Gene Hackman as a former pro football star turned private eye who undergoes a journey of self-discovery after taking on what appears to be a routine missing person's case. Warner Bros. didn't know what to do with the film's unique blend of old-school private eye and post-modern existentialism, delaying the film's release until 1975, where it still failed to find an audience. In retrospect, no other film captures the post-Vietnam/Watergate ennui that swept the U.S. in the mid-70s better than Night Moves. It's one of Hackman's best performances and Sharp's script contains more quotable dialogue than any ten modern movies put together. Look for young Melanie Griffith and James Woods in early roles, and Jennifer Warren (whom stardom oddly eluded) as one of the saddest, sexiest and most tragic femme fatales in film history.

2. The Killer Inside Me (2010)
Author Jim Thompson is acknowledged as a master of the hard-boiled crime novel and The Killer Inside Me as his undisputed masterpiece. Told from the POV of a small town sheriff who is slowly succumbing to mental illness and an unquenchable thirst to kill, it's one of the most unsettling books ever written. English director Michael Winterbottom, working from John Curran's screenplay adaptation, sets the story in post-WWII West Texas, where Sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) finds his demons overtaking him with startling speed and efficiency. Shot and designed in a way that's reminiscent of the painter Edward Hopper, with washed out colors and characters who seem to drift past one another, The Killer Inside Me is a stunning piece of cinema, far superior to the 1975 version, starring the excellent Stacy Keach, but which was shot like an exploitation film. Winterbottom also wisely doesn't tone down the book's brutality, and its hyper-realistic depiction of violence earned the film an NC-17 rating.

3. Martin (1977)
Pittsburgh-based indie filmmaker George A. Romero is renowned as the father of the zombie picture, with his legendary Dead Films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, et al), but his finest, most disturbing film is the little-seen Martin. Shot on location in and around Pittsburgh in 1976, Martin follows the life of an alienated teen (John Amplas) who believes (correctly or incorrectly) that he's a vampire. Like its predecessors, Romero's low-fi brand of filmmaking gives the proceedings an unsettling documentary realism and the viewer is immediately drawn into Martin's desperate existence. His affair with a lonely housewife (the lovely Elyane Nadeau) is one of the most heartbreaking human interactions you'll see in any movie. By the end of Martin, you're not quite sure whether he's really undead or just psychotic, and it ultimately doesn't matter. Like all great films, Martin is about one thing on its surface, but something else completely underneath.

4. Los Olvidados (aka The Young and the Damned, 1950)
Luis Bunuel was primarily known as a satirist and surrealist who ran with figures like Salvador Dali and Man Ray during the 1920s and '30s. However, his single excursion into neo-realism resulted in one of the most powerful films ever made. Shot primarily with non-professional actors he found on the streets of Mexico City, where the film was shot, Los Olvidados follows a gang of slum kids and their primal, hopeless existence, one where your first meal in days or a violent death might waiting around any corner. A subject of heated controversy upon its release in Mexico in 1950, its theatrical commercial run only lasted three days due to the enraged reactions from the press, government, and upper and middle class audiences who found its barbed critique of Mexico's indifference to its underclass tough to stomach.

5. Over the Edge (1979)
Over the Edge could be called "Son of Los Olvidados," as director Jonathan Kaplan and writers Tim Hunter and Charlie Haas surely were influenced by the aforementioned, in this fact-based story of suburban teens running amuck in a planned community. Matt Dillon makes his film debut as the "bad kid" who influences the more sensible Michael Kramer, who tries to navigate the minefield of adolescence in an increasingly brutal landscape, populated by unsupervised, privileged kids whose level of boredom and ennui boils over into one of the most stunning climaxes of teen anarchy ever photographed. The film was pulled from its original theatrical release by Orion Pictures after Paramount's The Warriors (another cult favorite) was blamed for gang-related violence in some theaters. After finding a second life on HBO in the '80s, the film has gained a fervent following and remains a potent and powerful time capsule, a Lord of the Flies for the pre-MTV generation. Great period rock soundtrack just adds to the film's authenticity.

6. Seconds (1966)
Director John Frankenheimer stepped away from his usual subject matter of political intrigue to helm this brilliant, terrifying and utterly bizarre tale that can only be described as "a Faustian Twilight Zone." John Randolph stars in the first act of the film as a middle-aged bank executive who has all the trappings of success, but feels unfulfilled. After receiving a mysterious phone call from an old friend he thought long dead, Randolph is "offered" the chance to be re-born as an entirely new man, who turns out to be Rock Hudson. Hudson gives a layered, agonized performance, the best of his career, as a man who realizes all too late the old saying "no matter where you go, there you are." Stunning black & white cinematography by James Wong Howe.

7. The Stunt Man (1980)
Richard Rush's story of an escaped convict (Steve Railsback) who hides out with a film company shooting a war epic helmed by a tyrannical director (the great Peter O'Toole), is part comedy, part thriller, part satire, part love story and wholly, utterly unique. Filmed in 1978, but not released until 1980, The Stunt Man didn't set the box office on fire, in spite of receiving three Academy Award nominations, but remains a cult favorite that continues to be discussed by critics, scholars and cinefiles. Not to be missed.

8. The Wanderers (1979)
Philip Kaufman, the greatest American director you've never heard of, directed his own adaptation (along with wife Rose Kaufman) of Richard Price's novel detailing Bronx gang life in the rapidly changing landscape that was 1963. Led by an amazing group of young actors (Ken Wahl, John Friedrich, Tony Ganios and Linda Manz), most of whom strangely didn't go on to stardom, The Wanderers blends nostalgia, pathos, surrealism and drama seamlessly to create an utterly unique experience. Again, an amazing period soundtrack boosts the proceedings more.

9. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Actor L.Q. Jones, a veteran actor who appeared in most of Sam Peckinpah's films, got behind the camera for this brutal story of post-apocalyptic survival, adapted from Harlan Ellison's novel. Don Johnson, pre-Miami Vice, stars as Vic, a young punk who roams the wasteland with his talking dog, Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), looking for food to eat, women to have sex with (willingly or not) and any kind of shelter they can find. After stumbling upon an underground society that tries to mimic what life was like before the bombs fell, Vic and Blood discover sinister goings on under the surface of civility. Not for every taste, to be sure, and hampered occasionally by its low budget, but still a startling, uncompromising work.

10. Cutter's Way (aka Cutter and Bone, 1981)
Jeff Bridges stars as Richard Bone, a burned-out former Ivy League tennis star who spends his days and nights in Santa Barbara doing odd jobs and pimping himself out to rich housewives and widows. After a late night tryst, Richard spots a figure dumping the body of a young girl in a dark alley. He tells his pal, disabled, embittered Vietnam vet Alex Cutter (John Heard) about it, and Cutter is convinced local fat cat J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) must be responsible, though they have no tangible proof. Lisa Eichorn, a stunning actress who never got her due, is sensational as Cutter's alcoholic wife, Mo. Less a conventional mystery than a portrait of how the '60s generation were chewed up and spit out, Cutter's Way is a stunning social and political allegory, which builds to a shattering climax under director Ivan Passer's sure hand.