Something Evil (1972)

Welcome to the blog marathon "Spielberg - The Early Years". In this marathon I'll be re-watching the early works of Steven Spielberg, in an attempt to discover how he became the director we all know and love.


This is the second and last Steven Spielberg TV movie. After this the Bearded One would turn his attention to theatrical feature films, and never look back.

Something Evil was produced for CBS and aired the 21st of January, 1972. It reportedly did very well. While it's inferior to Duel (1971) in many ways, it's still an intriguing film, partly because we can once again draw parallels to other films in Spielberg's career, but also because the story mirrors a certain Oscar winning occult movie. More on this later. First, let's see which ordinary life is all set to be messed up by Mr. Spielberg...


The Worden family is enjoying a quiet picnic in the countryside, somewhere in Pennsylvania. While her two kids are playing, their mother, Marjorie (Sandy Dennis), is sketching a old farm house. The place is for sale and Marjorie suddenly hits upon the idea that the family should buy the house, so they can get away from the noisy city. Her husband, Paul (Darren McGavin), reluctantly agrees, and before you can say "who died in the barn?" the family has moved in, despite warnings from the locals that there's something strange about the house. And sure enough trouble soon rears its ugly head.

One night Marjorie is woken by the sound of a child crying somewhere in the house, but she's unable to find the source of the sound. When she returns to the house she finds her son crying from a nightmare. The first of many.

A few days later, after a party at the Worden house, a couple on their way home is killed in a mysterious car accident. At the party the woman had displayed knowledge about the occult. More strange and increasingly disturbing events lead Marjorie to conclude that something evil is threatening the family. Her husband thinks she's crazy, but Marjorie turns to a local paranormal expert for assistance. But what if she's right? What if the Devil himself has laid claim to this family? Surely there's a price to pay for such interference...?


With a running-time of a mere 73 minutes Something Evil doesn't leave a whole lot of room for unnecessary detours, but since the story is simple, effective, and without any overcomplicated subplots the film never feels rushed.

The story begins with the death of an old farmer, the previous owner of the house, we gather. The man falls to his death after being chased by an unseen force. The scene is far from conclusive, so we don't know exactly what's going on, we just know something is wrong. That uneasy feeling is all Spielberg needs. He slowly and confidently builds up the tension in the family, and constantly plays with our natural mistrust of anything we can't see with our own two eyes. For a long time everything that happens in the film could be attributed to the mother's uneasy state of mind. Though, of course, we eventually learn what's really going on.

Even as the mystery unravels, Spielberg makes do with very simple means. Like when Marjorie, in a case of absurd family bonding, paints a giant pentagram on floor of the kids' bedroom. The scene is treated almost casually by Spielberg. It could have been a big MOMENT, with thunder and lightning strikes, or it could have been ruined by an imposing score, but the director keeps a tight grip on reality. His primary focus is the family, and as a result the interactions between the actors are totally believable. They completely sell the scene, despite the fact that we're dealing with the supernatural. This approach applies to the whole film, and leads to a powerful and frightening drama.

By the same token Something Evil isn't quite as visually aggressive or impressive as Duel - only during the demonic sequences later in the film, where Spielberg allows himself to go a little nuts! Still, I don't want to leave the impression that this is a boring or slow film, trust me when I say that there is a handful of moments here that are easily as scary as anything in The Exorcist (1973).

To quickly wrap up the other visual highlights, I want to call attention to a party scene early in the film that demonstrates Spielberg's fondness for creating chaotic montage-style scenes, which play out on multiple levels, both in terms of the images and the soundtrack. Spielberg experimented with variations of this in both his Columbo episode and in Duel, but now he seems to be on the verge of perfecting the technique. I also noticed that there's an awful lot of zooming here, which could perhaps be attributed to the compressed TV schedule, nevertheless it gives the film a slightly less cinematic feel compared to Duel, but perhaps that's because we're looking at the film with modern eyes. By the way, Something Evil was shot by future Jaws (1975) cinematographer Bill Butler.

I mentioned The Exorcist earlier and we might as well deal with the elephant in the room. Yes, there are a few similarities between Something Evil and The Exorcist. The novel behind the latter movie had been published in 1971, and the film version must have been in production when Something Evil was shooting. The story most likely was inspired by The Exorcist, but Spielberg certainly wasn't influenced by the film, since it had not yet been completed. I feel like we can also draw parallels to Rosemary's Baby (1968), in the way the mother becomes slowly obsessed with the demonic presence.

Another interesting comparison lies in Spielberg's own future. 10 years later he wrote and produced Poltergeist (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper (though, reportedly Spielberg more or less took over during post-production, but that's another story.) Clearly the film was an attempt to take the story of Something Evil and push it even further. The family dynamics are updated, and the supernatural aspect is given a boost.

Nothing scares me quite as much as stories about demons, possessions, the occult, or the Devil. I still can't watch The Exorcist without turning on all of the lights in my apartment, and to this day I still remember being scared out of my mind watching Poltergeist with my father, when I was way too young.

Something Evil can easily keep up with these two iconic films. That says it all. And for those still keeping track, Spielberg was only 26 when he directed this film.


The only really big problem with Something Evil is that it's bloody difficult to get a hold of. It has (at the time of writing) never been released to the home video market, so if you want to see it, you have to catch it on TV, or perhaps borrow somebody's old VHS recording. It's also possible to find this on the interwebs, with a little digging around, but the source will still just be some kind of TV recording. I really wish someone would pick this up and make a cool little special edition available. The film deserves it.

And with that, we leave the small screen and head for the big one. Not a moment too soon, I might add.

Next up: Where we're going, we definitely need roads.


This-Boy-is-a-Genius-O-Meter: 6/10.

Beard Factor: No beards again. What's going on?! I do not support this complete lack of facial hair.

Composition: 50% Poltergeist, 30% The Exorcist, 10% Rosemary's Baby, 10% zoom.

The Sound of Williams: Naught. Score is composed by Wladimir Selinsky.


The Runaways (2010)

The year is 1975 and in a short while the face of Rock 'n Roll is going to be changed forever. This is the story of the all-girl band The Runaways. Supposedly the first female rock band ever. It's the story of a flame that burned bright and furiously, but went out as fast as it started. It's the story of Joan Jett, the chick who didn't want to be like all the other ditsy girls, and it's the story of Cherie Currie who stumbled on to fame and couldn't handle it. I don't need to bore you with the details of this sordid plot, if you can spell W-I-K-I, you can find out the rest for yourself.

So welcome to Girl Power for the '70s. Twilight (2008) star Kristen Stewart sheds her emo skin, and gets down and dirty in the role of Joan Jett. Dakota Fanning sticks her crotch in our face more than once, playing Cherie Currie, just to be sure we know she not the little girl we remember from War of the Worlds (2005) anymore. Meanwhile Michael Shannon does his best Eddie Izzard, as The Runaways' manager Kim Fowley. The other members of the band are barely in the frame.

When you tell the story of a band's rise to fame and fall from grace, assuming the events play out over more than a weekend, it will inevitably be reduced to a string of highlights. If done right, it can be poetry, a breezy ride that covers many years in the span of a few minutes, where we, the viewers, can fill in the blanks ourselves. If done wrong, you'll get the constant sense that you're missing some subtotals - that something important happened during the parts we skipped over. That's the feeling I get when watching The Runaways. A few examples: Joan Jett meets the manager. He introduces her to a drummer. Later they meet Cheerie. And the next thing we see is a band of five girls... So where did the other girls come from, again? Then they play for about 12 people in a living room, and the next thing we know they're on the road doing their first tour. Say what now?! And when they go up on the stage they sing these great, angry songs, perfect for the band, but when were these written, and who wrote them? Plus, let's not forget the affair between Joan and Cheerie! They share a kiss, we get the sense that they jump into bed together, but that part of the story is never mentioned again. Surely this had some influence on their relationship?

Think of a film like Goodfellas (1990). As we skip through the years, through the good times and the bad, there's always a clear voice that guides us, and I'm not just talking about Ray Liotta's voice-over. We know where we are at all times and we know why. Almost Famous (2000) is another example of a film that mostly consists of highlights, or scattered recollections if you will,  but it still manages to create a beautiful flow. The Runaways does not.

I feel like the characters are miles away from me. It's so hard to sense anything through the thick haze of distorted rock songs blasting away on the soundtrack, too loud to be enjoyed or ignored. It's hard to see through the veil of angry cries, the booze, the heavy makeup and the unruly hair. I can't get eye contact with these people, I can't get a lock on who they are. I know the basics - they want to play in a band, they don't want to be ordinary housewives - but beyond that I learn nothing about them.

I love Kristen Stewart, and she certainly looks the part. She sings and dresses like the real Joan Jett, but the film invites more questions than it answers. Why is she so angry? What does she want? What is she thinking? I know nothing about Jett after watching this film. To be fair this is actually Cherie Currie's story, more than it's the of story The Runaways. We learn a few more details about her, but the film is dangerously close to reducing her to a rock-cliché of booze, pills, and sex. First she's insecure, then she becomes a rock god, then she becomes a prima donna. Welcome to every single "rise to fame"-story ever written. As a landscape of sound and images The Runaways works perfectly well, but try to go any deeper and you'll be met with a wall of rock 'n roll noise.

The Runways (the band) went down in flames, as all such passionate ventures must in the end, but when the film is over, I'm not any closer to finding out why they were important and why it all went wrong. If the first thing I do after I've seen a biopic, is go online, to find out what really happened, then you've done something wrong. This film captures the mood of the time when The Runaways became a big hit, but it fails to explore the meaning behind their success.


Cop Out (2010)

I shall refrain from holding the title of this film up as the ultimate example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but believe me, it's taking all of my powers.

Cop Out is directed by indie auteur Kevin Smith. It's the first of his films that he didn't write himself, but considering his vehement defense of the project, we shall not take that into account here. I haven't read the script, so I have no way of knowing how close the film sticks to the original text, but I'll just go ahead and blame Kevin Smith for everything anyway. After all, the buck stops with the director, and since he has so willingly jumped out in front of my bus, it shall be my exquisite pleasure to stomp on the speeder, and put the wipers on "ultra-high", as I aim directly for Smith's perplexed face.

The story, such as it is, concerns a pair of mismatched cops, Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis, who are suspended without pay in the middle of an investigation. Willis, who has to pay for his daughter's wedding, is now forced to sell an old baseball card, to pay for the whole show. When the card is stolen the two cops have to take on a powerful drug dealer to get it back. And that's pretty much it.

The plot is very, very thin, but there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. It's very '80s-ish, which is also okay. Stories like this have been told - and have worked - since the the dawn of man. I believe the very first cave drawings featured a couple of mismatched cops who had to work together to catch a buffalo or something. Classic stuff in other words. All good.

What's not so good is the fact that this is a HORRIBLE, STUPID, AWKWARD and CLUMSY film. It's a film so desperately UNFUNNY and UNCHARMING that you'll be tempted to pull out your own fingernails as you watch it, just to feel something, anything! When I say it's stupid, I don't mean ha-ha stupid. No, this is just frustratingly stupid! You know, the kind of frustration you feel when you think about the government or taxes. The story is so badly told, and so BORING that after an hour Bruce Willis is forced to recount the whole thing, just to be sure nobody has forgotten what this is really all about.

Lame ass scenes where unfunny guys talk about who's going to pay for a wedding are the order of the day here, and considering that one of these guys is Smith alumni Jason Lee it's quite startling how bad these scenes work. I can imagine the production meeting: "Let's hire Jason Lee and make him be totally unfunny!" "Yeah! That's a great idea!"

Here's the thing: Plot doesn't really matter all that much in a cop-buddy movie. It just has to be there, so our guys have something to do, it's all about the chemistry between the leads. Well, the pairing of Tracey Morgan and Bruce Willis is a GIGANTIC problem. Willis looks tired and old. The script gives him nothing to work with. Absolutely nothing. Tracy Morgan is the worst actor on the planet. I dislike him in every sense of the word, and would literally dance around in the street if he drowned himself in a toilet. It's exhausting beyond belief to watch him trying to be funny. He has nothing to offer this world. He has ZERO comedic timing. He's unbelievable as a human being. Together Morgan and Willis have NO chemistry AT ALL. Their scenes are so empty and devoid of life that you'll think you've accidentally pressed the pause button on your remote, until it dawns on you that two actors have been trying to convince you of something for the past 5 minutes.

And don't get me started on the whole Adam Brody and Kevin Pollak as the competing team of cops. I mean, have you SEEN Stakeout (1987), Kevin Smith? That's how sh*t is done! In a world where films like The Last Boy Scout (1991), Lethal Weapon (1987), or even Running Scared (1986) exist, there's NO room for lackluster efforts such as this.

In the most mind-numbingly clueless piece of casting Smith has chosen the most indifferent Latino actor he could find to play the drug dealer. Is THAT supposed to be THE bad guy, I mean our enemy no. 1? Really?! He looks like he should play Random Latino Guy #11. This guy has the screen presence of a door knob. He looks like somebody's retarded cousin who wandered on to the set. Perhaps he was, and Smith didn't have the heart to tell him. Or Smith thought he'd struck gold, because the guy was SO MUCH better that the piece of navel lint he originally cast.

It doesn't take long for the director to descend into embarrassing antics like dressing people up in weird costumes, or painting a penis on their face (actually I think both of those happen in the first scene), and that's the high point of the movie. From then on the film deteriorates to feces jokes, and scenes where people don't understand Spanish. Here's a little free comedy advice for ya Smith: The fact that a person doesn't speak Spanish does not constitute a joke. If you want comedy from people speaking different languages, you kind of have to do something more with the scene. Oh, there's also a guy who - ready for comedy genius? - REPEATS stuff! Yeaaaaaaaah! AWESOME! He like repeats what people say. Sooooooo funny. This must have come from the mind of an 8-year old.

Is this really the work of the guy who did the hilarious Clerks (1994), the stupidly wonderful Mallrats (1995), the poignant Chasing Amy (1997), and the surprisingly mature Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)? Even if we assume that Smith didn't write a single word of the dialogue in Cop Out, he should still be able to infuse the film with just a little bit of the flair he demonstrated in his other projects, right?

Smith got into a whole lot of hot water, when he got mad at critics who trashed the film. I was all ready to defend him, because he's usually never given a fair chance, but I must admit that anything bad anybody has ever said about this film is probably valid. Smith's point was that every film isn't Schindler's List (1993), and that everyone should ease up on Cop Out, because it was just an unambitious film, made for laughs.

There are two problems with this: 1) There's no reason you shouldn't have ambitions just because you're making a funny film, and 2) Cop Out isn't funny. I've been watching Smith films since his debut with Clerks, and this is by far his worst film. It's SO BAD that it makes me love his other films a little less. After watching Cop Out it has become painfully clear that Kevin Smith may be the best director in the world, when it comes to a Kevin Smith film, but he sure as shit can't direct anything else.

Cop Out makes me sad. You make me sad, Kevin Smith.


Duel (1971)

Welcome to the blog marathon "Spielberg - The Early Years". In this marathon I'll be re-watching the early works of Steven Spielberg, in an attempt to discover how he became the director we all know and love.


At 11:32 AM Mann passed the truck.

With this simple sentence begins an equally simple short story, Duel, from writer Richard Matheson, about a man being chased by a truck. The film Duel would soon prove to be anything but simple. Originally envisioned as a movie of the week, Duel premiered on ABC the 13th of November, 1971. It was so successful that it was later expanded and released as a theatrical feature film in Europe two years later. The film set a new bar for what could be achieved on TV. Compare this to the giant-mutant-shark-CGI-movies of the week that Sci-Fi Channel makes these days, I dare you.

Most importantly Duel became responsible for kick-starting Steven Spielberg's career. He simply refused to let the TV format limit him. He took the job very seriously, but he saw it as a stepping stone to something better. This is the work of a director who wanted to make MOVIES. He didn't want to work in TV, so he was dead set on proving himself. Duel was the perfect vehicle for that, if you'll forgive the pun.


Mann (Dennis Weaver) is on his way to an important meeting.

On a dusty empty road in the middle of Nowhere USA, he passes a truck. He thinks nothing more of this, until the truck suddenly roars past him to take the lead again. A moment later Mann overtakes the truck once more. This innocent game continues for a while, but when the truck is back in the lead, it suddenly blocks the road, preventing Mann from passing it, causing him to grow increasingly frustrated.

At one point it seems like the truck has given up, and with the wave of a hand the driver indicates that Mann can now pass him. Mann overtakes the truck in a hurry and only narrowly misses a frontal collision with an oncoming car. Frustration gives way to fear, when the reality of the situation dawns on Mann: The truck is trying to kill him!


Without a doubt a film ostensibly as simple as Duel could not have been made today. A man. A car. A dusty road. And a truck. That's all. And yet with these few components Steven Spielberg crafts a suspense thriller to rival to works of Alfred Hitchcock at his best. An epic struggle that pits man against machine, and pushes him to the brink of sanity.

With an extremely tight shooting schedule Duel was no easy job. Spielberg claims it was shot in a mere 13 days! Not only that, but the brutal post-production schedule, gave him only 3,5 weeks from the day the last shot was in the can, till the film was scheduled to be shown on TV. Madness, even by today's standards. Yet with all this pressure behind him, Spielberg performs perfectly. And yes, I don't mind giving him all the credit here, even though he didn't write the story, because this is a director's film, if ever I saw one.

Duel is a 90 minutes long chase scene, with limited dialogue. Every sensation we feel along the way has to be created with the camera and through editing. There are no big sweeping dialogues for the actors to chew on here. The chase is the star here. From the moment the chase begins to the bitter end, the film tightens its grip on the audience. Every scene enforces the sense of impending doom, and there's a constantly accelerating sense of claustrophobia, throughout the film. Quite a feat for a film that takes place mostly on the open road!

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how inventive Spielberg is with his camera. The neverending dust road races by, each mile similar to the one before, and yet Spielberg constantly comes up with new ways to shoot the same thing. Credit for this should be shared with the writer Richard Matheson, who meticulously planned the route for his screenplay, and cinematographer Jack A. Marta's dynamic images. Spielberg also scores some easy points by having actor Dennis Weaver drive the car most of the time, and shooting everything on location. You just can't buy that kind of realism, no matter how much CGI you throw at it!

The villain of the piece, the truck itself, is one of the most frightening creations of Spielberg's career! In the DVD special features the director talks about casting the perfect truck, and he sure as hell found it. What a beast! A smoking, dirty, noisy monster of steel! Big letters on the back warn that the content of the truck is "flammable", and when we look into the cab we rarely see more than a silhouette of the driver inside. It's a completely mundane sight, yet Spielberg manages to make it the most frightening thing ever.

My only gripe with the film (and I'm a little unclear whether this is more prominent in the extended version) is the voice-over. On the soundtrack we occasionally hear Dennis Weaver's thoughts, through an increasingly desperate whispering voice, contemplating his dire situation. That's not really necessary. The masterful film-making leaves no doubt about Mann's feelings at any point.

Duel is also worth investigating in the context of Spielberg's entire body of work, since it explores themes he would return to again and again.

The most dominant theme in Duel concerns the emasculated man, tamed by modern society - and the women in his life - robbed of the beast inside. With steel, grease, and petrol the taunting driver asks: "What are you going to do, Mann? Are you still a man, Mann?" This unprovoked menace doesn't just threaten Mann's life. It rips a giant hole in the fabric of Mann's secure, suffocating universe.

If we expand this idea we could draw parallels to Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977), where Roy has his imagination suffocated by his wife, or even the Indiana Jones series, where Indy is likewise tamed by the academic world, and is only truly happy, when he's out of the office.

Forcing an ordinary man to face a seemingly insurmountable challenge is a mainstay of Spielberg movies. In a way this tale of man vs. machine, could also be seen as a prelude to the man vs. beast theme of Jaws (1975), which also pits a middle-class man against an unstoppable force, or Jurassic Park (1993) for that matter.

The screenplay for Duel was not written by Spielberg, nor were the screenplays for Jaws, Jurassic Park, or the Indiana Jones movies, but I don't think the fact that these subjects find their way back into Spielberg's movies time after time can be written off as pure chance. He seems drawn to these themes. If we focus only on the stories he's written himself - The Sugarland Express (1974), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist (1982), The Goonies (1985) - it's clear that they all deal with completely ordinary people facing extreme circumstances. Coincidence? Hardly.

Is that why his films became so popular? They might often deal with fantastic stories, but the characters are just regular folks like you and me. Easy to identify and sympathize with.


Duel is a great thriller. It's a 90 minute ride to hell. As simple as it is effective.

Today a film such as this would be shot on a green screen set, and half the shots of the truck would be computer generated. This is why it's important to go back to the classics. Because the adrenalin rush of watching a chase like this, shot real-for-real, is unbeatable.

Duel also provides an early insight into a filmmaker taking his first steps towards the larger arena of feature film making. As such it is essential viewing.

Next up: It's heeeere!


This-Boy-is-a-Genius-O-Meter: 6/10. Now... Let's give him some more money and see what he can do.

Beard Factor: Mild. A small moustace.

Composition: 85% driving, 10% McCloud, 5% sandwich.

The Sound of Williams: Naught. Score is composed by Billy Goldenberg. And it's not really music it's mostly just noise.


Columbo: Murder by the Book

Welcome to the blog marathon "Spielberg - The Early Years". In this marathon I'll be re-watching the early works of Steven Spielberg, in an attempt to discover how he became the director we all know and love.


We'll start this Spielberg marathon ever so softly, with the Columbo episode Murder by the Book, which aired the 15th of September 1971. It was the first regular episode that aired, and Steven Spielberg was only 25 years old when he directed it. It followed two TV-movies. The first, Prescription: Murder, was aired on the 20th of February 1968, while the second, Ransom for a Dead Man, aired almost 3 years later.

Before being given this opportunity Spielberg had worked on several other TV-shows, including Night Gallery and The Psychiatrist. Very soon, though, this young TV director, would graduate to the major leagues...


Two writers, Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) and James Ferris (Martin Milner), have found fame and fortune writing a series of mystery novels, but now their partnership is ending, because Ferris wants to write about more serious subjects on his own.

Franklin is not too happy about this, especially because he didn't actually do any of the writing, he just handled the publicity, while Ferris did the all the real work. So what the hell is he going to do now? Why, kill his partner and collect the insurance money of course! So this is what he does. Franklin believes he's devised a bulletproof plan to bump off his partner. A plan so clever, no one will be able to see through it. No one except Lt. Columbo.


The Columbo format is fairly unusual in serialized TV, because the identity of the killer and the exact nature of his (or her) crime is revealed to us upfront. This also means that our title character never shows up until 10 or 20 minutes have passed, which is also unusual. And when he does show up we're not meant to guess along with the cunning detective, like in so many other crime shows, because we're not dealing with a traditional mystery. Instead of trying to figure out how the killer thinks, we have to figure out how the detective thinks, our eyes are not focused on the trail of clues leading to the bad guy, but rather the bad guy's furious attempt to erase that trail, either through actions, or through dialogue. Truthfully Columbo (played with perfect timing by Peter Falk) is never actually the lead character, we stay with the bad guys, we rarely follow Columbo when he leaves. The format has its advantages, but certainly also its drawbacks. You don't want to watch more than a couple of Columbo episodes back to back, trust me on this.

For its first many years the Columbo series was more like a series of TV movies than a regular TV show, and the "episodes" would run somewhere between 90 and 75 minutes. This particular episode is of the short variety, which is a good thing, because those episodes tend to be better paced.

In preparation for this review I also re-watched the first two Columbo TV movies that came before, to get an idea about what Spielberg added to the show, if anything. I was actually surprised to find that almost all of the idiosyncrasies we've later come to associate with the shabby looking lieutenant were present and accounted for in his very first outing.

The episode itself is a pretty entertaining, conventional fare. Our killer is overly smug, and quite condescending towards Columbo, which makes his unavoidable downfall all the more satisfying. Also, this episode features not one, but TWO murders, so there's enough action to keep us occupied.

When turning our attention to Spielberg's contribution, it's important not to romanticize his influence. He was just a simple staff director back then, very low on the food chain. Still, the episode does feature some quite impressive elements that can only be contributed to the director, things the writers or the producers would not have been involved in. It turns out that the young Spielberg was quite an adventurous young fellow! There's a lot more experimenting going on here, than I would have expected.

The entire opening sequence, for example, plays out with nothing more than the sound of a busy typewrite on the soundtrack. Everything else is muted. The sound of the typewriter returns later, when it's incorporated into the score providing an effective heartbeat to the story. I can't help but recall Atonement (2007), where director Joe Wright uses the same technique to tie his opening together. I'm not saying that Wright copied a Columbo episode, I just think that it's an interesting and very cinematic approach to something as "trivial" as a TV show. When we get to that traditional first interrogation, at the scene of the crime, Spielberg shoots the scene in a very chaotic style. A frantic witness is questioned by two detectives in the middle of a busy, semi-dark room, intercut with handheld shots of cops trying to clean up the place. Later in the episode, when another body is found, the sound landscape consists of radio-chatter from the police band, in a sort of montage style, while the camera slowly zooms in on the scene from afar, a style reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 masterpiece The Conversation (1974). None of these scenes have that traditional (perhaps a bit) sleepy Columbo feel, we're familiar with. In fact I would be surprised if I found visual "stunts" like these in any show produced before the '90s!

The episode also provides us with an early example of another Spielberg favorite: The One-Shot-Scene, when Columbo interrogates a suspect, while cooking an omelet for her. The scene plays out over a few minutes, in a very tiny kitchen, and consists of nothing more than two actors and some dialogue. Rather than shooting it the traditional way - two close-ups, and a wide master shot - most of the scene is shot in one take. Spielberg repositions the camera a few times, but mostly it's the actors' pacing around that keeps the frame alive. Notice how well this scene works, compared to scenes in other shows where the actors are standing frozen on their marks in front of an unresponsive camera. The elements are the same, but the sense of dynamic that this approach brings to the scene makes all the difference.

I said earlier that we shouldn't romanticize Spielberg's contribution to this episode, but looking at the examples mentioned above, and comparing this to other episodes of the series, it's easy to get carried away. There are too many clever visual touches, and too much playing around with compositions, for this to be the work of a random director for hire.

The director behind this episode was clearly trying to prove a point.


Columbo is what he is, and the story in Murder by the Book is perhaps not any more memorable than countless other crime dramas from the '70s, however, the visual flair at display here is hard to ignore.

There's no doubt that Steven Spielberg's work in this particular episode caught the eye of the powers that be. This must have been one of the main reasons he was hired to direct a certain TV movie called The Duel (1971).

All things being equal Murder by the Book is a fun episode, and it can easily be watched out of context. So do that, and realize that even Steven Spielberg had to work for a living once, but he managed to do so, without phoning it in.

Next up: We're gonna need a bigger truck.


This-Boy-is-a-Genius-O-Meter: 4/10. There's something there. There's definitely something there.

Beard Factor: Zero. No beards. At all.

Composition: 65% crime drama, 30% police brutality, 5% murder, 0% special effects.

The Sound of Williams: Naught. Score is composed by Billy Goldenberg, but it's quite clever.


Spielberg Marathon - The Early Years

When little Steven took his first steps many, many years ago, were they vastly different from so many other baby steps? Could you tell - even back then - that he was going to be brilliant?

We all know who and what Steven Spielberg is now, but when did he become the filmmaker we love? How did he become the guy who doesn't need any introduction? To investigate this, my next blog marathon will focus on the early works of Steven Spielberg.

In other words we'll start with his early TV stuff - the Columbo episode, and the two TV films he did. Then we'll cover his feature films, stopping short of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which in my mind, marks the beginning of a new chapter in his professional life.

The roster looks something like this:

Columbo - Murder by the Book (1971) (TV) Review
Duel (1971) (TV) Review
Something Evil (1972) (TV)
The Sugarland Express (1974)
Jaws (1975)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
1941 (1979)

Over the next couple of weeks, once again coinciding with a break from my weekly podcast, I'll be re-watching and reviewing these films on this very blog. You'll notice that I haven't indicated any dates for when these reviews will appear. I do have a plan, but since this is summer, and so much can happen, I'll just play it fast and loose. You might say, I'm making this up as I go...


Cool Movies

- If the summer is getting too hot for you


Summer is here. Some morons like sweating and getting burned, while their brains are slowly boiling, preventing any rational thought. Instead the rest of us can retreat to the dark dungeon of the TV-room and cool off with some cool movies.

So without further ado, this is my list of the coolest cool movies...



1) Whiteout (2009)

This is a spectacularly sh*tty movie, however, it all takes place in Antarctica. For a tour de force of everything this beautiful region has to offer, look no further! The titular weather phenomenon is pretty cool, but the best moment is when our heroine loses two of her fingers to the cold, just because she takes off her glove for a moment! That's how freakin' cold this movie is!

2) The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Oh man, THIS is the sh*t. The whole WORLD freezes over! A new ice age is coming! How can you beat that? This is a multi-million dollar feast of outrageous weather. Hurricanes, storms, tornadoes, super-freezing winds, floods! It's damn near biblical! My favorite scene is the one where the helicopters freeze mid-air, because of a super-cool storm! The only reason this isn't at the top of the list: The "bad" weather ends...

3) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The cold sensation in our hearts at the end of this film is easily matched by the opening, which takes place on a freakin' ice planet! Battle in the snow, snow creatures, snow everywhere! Point of curiosity: How did the snow creature manage to freeze Luke into the ceiling, while he's hanging upside down? I'm only asking because I would like to pull that stunt on a few friends who like the sun a little too much.

4) The Thing (1982)

Most of this film takes place within the confines of a small research facility on Antarctica, which is why it's not no. 1. But besides that it's every bit as cold and isolated as Whiteout, plus it's got a sinister shape-shifting monster, and some really gross makeup effects! The cool thing about this creature is that even if everything, including itself, freezes to death, it still wins. It's almost like the thing is a kindred spirit to me.

5) Eight Below (2006)

Okay, so this is a Disney film for the whole family. It stars Paul Walker. And some dogs. Yeah, I know, not much to recommend it, but stay with me. The film follows Paul Walker as he roams the Antarctic with a dog sled. Then the weather becomes SO BAD (or good, as it were) that he has to go home, and then we follow the dogs by themselves, as they struggle to stay alive alone. In other words: Plenty of great weather, and since we're mostly dealing with dogs, there's not an awful lot of talk to ruin our enjoyment.

6) Dead Snow aka Død snø (2009)

This horror movie takes place in a snow-covered mountain region of Norway. A bunch of innocent skiers are attacked by living dead soldiers from The Third Reich. Nazi zombies are, needless to say, a major drawback, but don't write this experience off yet. Right up until the moment they pull your arms off, and eat you alive, you can enjoy the beautiful white landscapes, without a care in the world.

7) Antarctic Journal aka Namgeuk-ilgi (2005)

Turns out that horror movies in particular love the Antarctic! This film follows a team from Korea in their attempt to reach the so-called "Antarctic Point of Inaccessibility" the most difficult place to reach on Earth. Usual expedition troubles ensues, but then the team finds an old journal from a British expedition 80 years ago, which oddly mirrors their own experiences... Freaky!

8) Ice Age (2002)

Computer animated movies for kids featuring fluffy animals are, by their very nature, not particularly cool, but this one warms (actually cools) my heart. I can't imagine anything more fun that walking through 5 feet of snow with a few good friends. Then of course there's the fact that we're in the middle of an ice age, which is excellent all by itself! I like that we try to make kids appreciate ice and snow at a very early age. It's a good trend.

9) The Last Winter (2006)

Another great little horror movie! This time we're in Alaska. Global warming is causing the temperature to rise dramatically in the cold regions of the Earth, but what happens when water that has been frozen for millions of years is suddenly thawed? What horrors will be unleashed upon the world? This is another good reason why we should explore methods to induce a new ice age! I mean, all this heat is just too risky. Plus in an Ice Age the first ones to go will be those lazy bums who enjoy lying on the beach while their brains evaporate. It's a good idea to thin the herd like that every now and then.

10) Die Another Day (2002)

Not really relevant for this list, until the last act of the story, which takes place in Iceland in a palace, BUILT out of ice! That's right! The whole thing is just ice! How do you do that sh*t? So cool! And we're in Iceland! The ice is right there in the name of the land! There's also an invisible car, but I feel like maybe I shouldn't mention that.

Honorable Mentions

Since I haven't seen Frozen (2010) yet, I can't really include that, but I'm betting it will be spectacular! Then there's Snow Falling on Cedars (1999). There's snow! It's falling! Awesome!

I also love the icy third act of The Shining (1980), and Cliffhanger (1993) was suggested by my buddy Dennis. Die Hard 2 (1990) is very cool, but too much of it takes place in a warm airport. Runaway Train (1985) was featured on a previous list, but could have made the cut as well.

Finally, if you still have trouble staying cool, check out a few selected episodes from the fantastic Survivorman TV series. In episode "1.08: Plane Crash" Survivorman Les Stroud simulates crashing with a small plane in snow-covered Northern Ontario. Or check out episode "2.03: Labrador", where he attempts to dog sled his way through the forests of Labrador in the middle of the freezing winter. That is sooooooo cool.


Alright, fair enough, I admit this was another silly and pointless list, but no one stands up to defend cold weather.

Who the hell decided that warm, disgusting, crappy weather should be called "good weather", while beautiful snow, rain, and sub-zero temperatures are referred to as "bad weather"? I sure as sh*t didn't vote for that. Honestly, I think it makes more sense if we switch it around.

"Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow..."

Yes, please.