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Super Sidney’s “Lost” movie

lost_man []The late 1960′s were a hell of time. It looked like the country was ripping apart at the seams. There was the Vietnam war going on full blast (even worse because of the Viet Cong Tet offensive the year before, which the U.S. military was totally unprepared for), the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, urban riots torching major cities, college student protests, and those long-haired smelly hippies with their “free love” and drugs.

And then there was the whole Black Power, Black is beautiful, afro-wearing, Black Panthers, Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power raised fist salute on the awards podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, movement. Black people were angry. And you think this country is divided now? You kids don’t have any idea. It’s ALWAYS been divided!

And in Hollywood, one person who was affected by this change was Sidney Poitier or “Super Sidney” as he was called back then. Without question, one of the biggest stars during the 60′s and 70′s. But by 1968-69, he was seen by many as an old fashioned relic. A safe, assimilationist figure out of step with the angrier and more radical times. Eventually Poitier felt this too, and decided to change his image, and he did that with the 1969 Universal film The Lost Man.

A box office failure at its release, and the only film directed by veteran screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur, the film was an urban contemporary remake of director Sir Carol Reed’s 1947 British film Odd Man Out, with James Mason, about a wounded Irish Republican Army leader on the run in Belfast. Lost Man is about the leader of a black militant group, played by Poitier, on the run, after a factory robbery by his gang. Both films end with the lead characters dying just before they make their final escape.

However there’s one major problem with The Lost Man. It’s not good.

True, there is a real fascination with seeing Poitier trying to portray a character so much unlike himself and trying to change his image; but nevertheless it’s a real failure. Albeit a truly fascinating one that deserves to be seen at least once.

First of all, though you have to give him an “A” for effort, Poitier is simply miscast in the role, and clearly looks uncomfortable throughout the film. Poitier was not and could be a radical. Though his achievements in films were themselves radical and groundbreaking, there was no reservoir of anger in him. A limited actor like Jim Brown, who was made for this role, could have projected that anger and militancy with just his cold stare. But Poitier, looking more like an corporate executive on a weekend holiday in the Hamptons, wearing shades, stiffly strutting around and saying lines like, “Can…you…dig…it…man?” while giving high fives, borders on comical.

Second, the film (as you can see by the clips at the bottom) was made in the typical, pedestrian, flatly lit, studio bound style of most middle-of-the-road commercial 60′s Hollywood films, more suitable for a Rock Hudson/Doris Day movie, and which diluted whatever impact the film could have had.

Instead of going for an aggressive, looser, hand-held camera approach (which Melvin van Peebles would do with Sweet Sweetback Badasssss Song just two years later) that would have been more appropriate for the subject matter, the flat handling of the movie makes it just another studio project of the era, instead of a truly groundbreaking studio film of the same era, such as The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde.

The third problem, and this was one of the biggest criticisms of the film when it came out, was the interracial subplot between Poitier and a liberal white social dame played by Joanna Shimkus (who shortly afterward became Mrs. Poitier). It was rather hard for audiences to wrap their heads around the idea of a black militant leader trying to get back at the evil white establishment, while in the meantime on the run and romancing a white chick. Where was a sister when you needed her?

Unfortunately, The Lost Man was never released on DVD, though you might be able to find an old used VHS tape (they’re still around are they?) of the film. If possible check it out if you ever have the opportunity. It’s definitely not even remotely a great film by any definition, but it is a rather interesting example of Hollywood and a major star, trying to get current with the times back then, and a reflection of a rather interesting period in this country not that long ago.

Below are some brief scenes which take place just before the robbery.

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