The Saint of Death Row … Douglas Reunited With Bacall

The Saint of Death Row

The movies take another bite out of Stephen King (or is it the other way around?) with the really long (and I’m not kidding) The Green Mile , a prison drama starring Tom Hanks that clocks in at three hours and seven minutes. This is about an hour more than I can usually stand without nodding off or thinking about a vodka martini, but to my amazement I found myself thoroughly interested and involved from start to finish. It’s a movie for people who like involved plots and good acting and forget to wind their watches.

The syrupy elevator music of 101 Strings plays “Charmaine” while the inhabitants of a retirement home for senior citizens gum dry toast. The song takes one old codger back six decades to the Depression, when he was a security guard on Death Row in a Louisiana prison, and as his memory unfolds, we are swept into an unusual story of epic proportions that combines the mysticism of The Sixth Sense with the labyrinthine sentimentality of The Shawshank Redemption , another prison flick by the same writer (Mr. King) and director (Frank Darabont). With the elements for box-office success firmly established, The Green Mile (a prison term for the green linoleum floor leading to that final walk to the electric chair) takes the audience back to 1935 and the old man turns into Tom Hanks, playing a kind man named Paul Edgecomb in charge of the executions at Cold Mountain Penitentiary.

Having walked the green mile with a lot of convicts, Edgecomb’s developed a special rapport based on understanding and trust that brings out the best in the worst of men. But he has never met anyone like John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a humongous, retarded black brute who has been condemned to death for the savage rape-murders of two white 9-year-old sisters. He looks like a ferocious giant, but he’s so gentle he cries over an injured mouse. As the story progresses, Edgecomb learns there is more to this strange human juggernaut than meets the eye.

Like the title character in Sean Penn’s 1991 film The Indian Runner , Coffey has the miraculous power to heal and cure by inhaling the breath of the sick and dying, absorbing germs, diseases and evil spirits, then exhaling them in a spray of sparkling digitally enhanced motes. When he cures the warden’s wife of cancer, Edgecomb and his prison staff face a moral dilemma: how to execute an innocent man when his story is so fantastic nobody will believe them. Meanwhile, Coffey is granted one last wish-to see his first movie-and he’s so transfixed as he faces the electric chair that he thinks the angels in Heaven are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Contrived? Manipulative? Oh, and how. But to dismiss The Green Mile as preposterous metaphysical twaddle would deny its obvious impact (you can’t help being moved) and ignore Stephen King’s power and ability to create an engrossing story that seizes and holds interest for an extended amount of screen time. A superior cast contributes mightily to the undeniable quality of the entire project: David Morse and Jeffrey DeMunn as good guards; Doug Hutchison in a showy, complex performance as a vicious, prissy-mouthed bad guard who is both a sadist and a sissy; the incandescent Bonnie Hunt, one of the screen’s most underrated treasures, as Edgecomb’s earthy, loyal wife; James Cromwell as the sympathetic warden; Patricia Clarkson, the amazing chameleon who was last seen as Ally Sheedy’s German lesbian lover in High Art as the warden’s terminally ill wife; Sam Rockwell as the most dangerous psycho in the prison population; and especially Michael Jeter as a Cajun convict who entertains his guards and fellow prisoners with a trained mouse named Mr. Jingles.

As the nicest guard in the history of the penal system, Tom Hanks is the centerpiece around whom all this creative energy flows. He’s no less heroic and sincere than usual, but from the pure look of things, it might be time to lay off the hot fudge sundaes.

Douglas Reunited With Bacall

More heroism sprinkles like holy water from Diamonds, the first movie to my knowledge ever made about a man who has suffered a stroke, played by an actor who has actually had one. At 82, indestructible Kirk Douglas has never been more welcome on the screen, and he arrives in this one armed and ready for bear. Despite a slight drooping of the mouth and the slurred speech that often results from a stroke, this legendary movie icon has battled his way back from adversity with astonishing agility. Fit and trim as a workout instructor, he has found the perfect role for his comeback in Harry Agensky, an aging boxing champion and former two-fisted ladies’ man once known as the “Polish Prince” who, although weakened by the loss of his wife and the aftershock of a stroke, now finds himself lusting for one more adventure.

Never much of a father to his own fussy, uptight son, he sees history repeating itself in the frayed tensions between his son Lance (Dan Aykroyd) and his grandson Michael (Corbin Allred). Solution: pack up three generations of Agenskys and head for Reno to hunt down a secret cache of hidden diamonds a gangster named Duff the Muff promised Harry years ago for throwing a fight. The film is not much more than a verbal sparring match between the three guys as they cross Nevada in a rusty convertible, stopping long enough to visit a pink Victorian whorehouse which Mr. Douglas declares a “family project.” The grandson loses his virginity, the sensitive and anally retentive son discovers his manhood, and the old man proves anything is possible as long as you have dignity and humor and never give up on life.

By the end of their comic misadventures, the generation gaps close, the three men form a new bond of love, need, understanding and mutual respect, and the Polish Prince finds real romance. Sweetly directed by John Asher, Diamonds is not about diamonds, but about relationships and feelings, and the thing that raises it beyond the level of a feel-good formula television movie is the power and persuasion of Kirk Douglas’ gutsy performance. The film is really a tribute to his courage and a celebration of his strength of character, indomitable spirit, and artistry.

It includes actual footage of his boxing scenes from Champion, which brought him an Oscar nomination way back in 1949, and reunites him with Lauren Bacall for the first time since they co-starred in Young Man With a Horn in 1950. Playing Sister Sin-Dee, the madam of a Nevada chicken ranch with a tough mug and a heart of spun sugar, she gets a rare chance to show vulnerability and matches her scenes with Mr. Douglas with an ageless brio of her own. They are the real diamonds in a film that might otherwise look like rhinestones.

Cider House Rules; Eloise for Sale

In the pre-Christmas madness, do not overlook The Cider House Rules , a warm, beautifully acted and photographed film for the entire family that is valiant, sensitive, thought-provoking and utterly heartbreaking. Lasse Hallström has done a fine job distilling the complex essences and conflicting themes of John Irving’s massive book about an orphanage in Maine and the extraordinary children it turns out.

Michael Caine does a carefully manicured job of acting as the kind, unconventional doctor who runstheplace.YoungTobey Ma-guire as the lad who ventures forth to find life and love in a heartless world is equally fine, and the excellent cast includes Jane Alexander,KathyBaker,Charlize Theron, Paul Rudd, Kate Nelligan and Delroy Lindo.

Space limitations prevent me from elaborating on how much this delicate, life-affirming film has affected me, but after seeing it twice, I love it more than ever. Definitely one of the best movies of the year.

If you’re looking for the best musical gift for someone with special taste this holiday season, gift-wrap a copy of the magnificent new Verve CD The Art of the Song featuring a sublime jazz quartet headed by bassist Charlie Haden, lush, lavish arrangements by the great pianist Alan Broadbent for a full orchestra of strings conducted by Murray Adler, and four vocals each by Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson. In addition to heart-stopping renditions of “In Love and Vain” and “Lonely Town” by Ms. Horn and a delicately rendered “Why Did I Choose You” by Mr. Henderson, the collection also features fresh, unique combinations of classical music and jazz in compositions written by Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Jeri Southern and Cy Coleman, and Mr. Haden himself, singing a pure, wrenching and gorgeous version of the Civil War ballad “Wayfaring Stranger” with sighing symphonic countermelodies created by the gifted Mr. Broadbent that brings tears to the eyes. This is a sophisticated collection unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and- trust me on this-one you’ll play for years to come.

For children, it’s a pleasure to note how many of Kay Thompson’s Eloise books have hit the Christmas market now that Kay is no longer around to sue. F.A.O. Schwarz has already sold out of the original Eloise , but you can pick up a copy of the long-out-of-print Eloise in Paris along with Eloise’s pink bedroom furniture, doll’s houses and accessories. Now Hilary Knight, who illustrated all of the original books, is bringing out Eloise at Christmastime , a beloved holiday classic unavailable for the past 40 years.

The eccentric Miss T., who regarded Eloise as not only her literary creation but her alter ego, is probably hurling a voodoo curse from beyond the clouds, but personally I’m happy to see the return of Eloise. She’s the perfect companion for any precocious child who ever dreamed of pouring water down the mail chute at the Plaza Hotel. And that includes me.