The Films of SYDNEY POLLACK

Throughout my years of watching movies, the late Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) was a filmmaker whose work I followed and came to really admire. Admittedly I have certain films of his that I like more than others (mostly due to their genres) but there’s no question he brought an integrity and quality to every one. That’s why I’m glad to be a part of this latest blogathon hosted by Seetimaar – Diary of a Movie Lover.

Sydney Pollack actually began his career in showbiz not in the director’s chair but as an actor. He appeared on classic TV shows like Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Have Gun Will Travel and Ben Casey. While working on the movie The Young Savages (1961, Dir: John Frankenheimer) as a dialogue coach he was noticed by star Burt Lancaster who suggested he should go into directing. At the time, Pollack had no interest at all in being behind the camera but later decided to leave his acting aspirations behind and try directing. His directorial debut was The Slender Thread (1965) a drama starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. It was followed by the Depression era film This Property is Condemned (1966) which starred Natalie Wood and an actor that he would befriend and work with several more times throughout his life, Robert Redford.

Sydney Pollack was a director who, like many of the greats, didn’t have a problem skipping from one genre to another. He made War Movies, Westerns, Political and Crime Thrillers, Romances, Dramas and Comedies. He never relied on just flashiness or style to tell his stories. He was a true old school filmmaker who simply chose great subject matter and brought a strong cinematic vision to his productions. This is really what impressed me most about him as an artist. For this blogathon we’ve put together a list of some of our personal favorite Pollack films which will show the dynamic range he had. If you happen to be new to his work, we highly recommend looking at his others after you’ve seen these.

THE SCALPHUNTERS (1968) This Western action adventure starred Burt Lancaster as fur trapper Huckleberry Bass who is forced by a band of Kiowa Indians to take a slave named Lee (Ossie Davis) and give up the hides he’s collected as trade. Things become complicated when a band of roving scalphunters led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) bushwack, kill The Kiowa and steal the hides. When Bass discovers this he and Lee follow Howie but Lee is captured leaving Bass to get him and the goods back. A solid Western tale with great performances. Co-starring Shelley Winters, Armando Silvestre and Dabney Coleman.

CASTLE KEEP (1969) During the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, a group of American soldiers, led by Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster) hole up at a castle which is filled with priceless art. The Count (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who lives there wants them to defend it from The Germans but also impregnate his sister so the family blood line will continue. Co-starring Peter Falk, Bruce Dern, Patrick O’Neal, Scott Wilson, Tony Bill and Al Freeman Jr.

THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY? (1969) Based on a 1935 novel, this Depression era drama focuses on an eclectic group of people in Los Angeles who try to win a dance marathon. The contest ultimately serves a backdrop to more disturbing underlying subject matter. Starring Michael Sarrazin, Jane Fonda, Red Buttons, Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia.

JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972) Following the Mexican-American War, a soldier (Robert Redford) travels to Colorado where he becomes a mountain man. Not only one of Pollack’s finest productions but a cinema classic. Co-starring Will Geer, Delle Bolton, Jack Colvin and Stefan Giersach.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) A C.I.A. researcher Joe Turner (Robert Redford) must go on the run after a band of mysterious assassins kill everyone in his office leaving him the only one alive. Not sure who to trust, including his own superiors, Turner tries to uncover who is after him and why before he’s also eliminated. A superb conspiracy thriller. Co-starring Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max Von Sydow.

THE YAKUZA (1975) A retired detective/war veteran Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) is contacted by his old friend George Tanner (Brian Keith) who asks for his help locating his daughter in Japan after shes kidnapped due to a business deal gone wrong. Kilmer accepts the job but things get more complicated and messy when people from his past in Japan get involved. A taut action-thriller and some of Pollack’s best work. Co-starring Ken Takakura, Kishi Keiko and Richard Jordan. This was the first produced screenplay by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver).

TOOTSIE (1982) – Actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) has a reputation as a perfectionist and someone who is tough to work with. This well known fact isn’t helping him progress. When he hears about an opening on a soap opera, he tries out, only with his troubles in the business he decides to go for a female role dressed as a woman named “Dorothy Michaels”. After learning he has actually been hired he uses it to help raise money for his roommate Jeff’s (Bill Murray) play. While acting on the TV show, “Dorothy” becomes a big sensation both on and offscreen. To complicate matters, Michael begins to fall in love with his co-star Julie (Jessica Lange) not knowing she is a he. This is another one of Sydney Pollack’s very best films. It’s wonderfully acted, very funny and will undoubtedly touch your heart. The story goes that Sydney Pollack was forced to play Michael’s worn out agent George by star Dustin Hoffman and he ended up giving a superb performance. Co-starring Teri Garr, Charles Durning and Dabney Coleman.

THE FIRM (1993) An ambitious law school graduate Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) grew up poor but has finally been given the chance to live the good life when he’s hired by a leading Memphis law firm that promises him lots of great perks. The trouble begins when Mitch is alerted by an FBI agent (Ed Harris) that his practice is doing business with the mob. He also learns that others who have tried to cooperate have mysteriously died. Mitch is forced to figure out a clever way to evade those who plan on killing him as well as the FBI who want him to enter witness protection and help them bust the case wide open. A true edge of your seat thriller that is one of our very favorite Pollack efforts. Based on the novel by John Grisham. Co-starring Jeanne Tripplehorne, David Strathairn, Gary Busey, Holly Hunter and Wilford Brimley.

THE ACTOR:

If you’re a fan of Sydney Pollack the director and you want to see some of his acting chops, look for him in the following films: WAR HUNT, TOOTSIE (above), THE PLAYER, HUSBANDS AND WIVES, EYES WIDE SHUT, CHANGING LANES and MICHAEL CLAYTON. We think you’ll like what he brings to his roles.

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Peter

Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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