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A Quartet for Brett: In Memory of a Local Movie Maven

Cinema lost a good friend last month.

Brett S. Harrison, who lived in Philadelphia during recent years but grew up in Williamsport, passed away at age 62 in May.

Older readers may recall the local Harrison Brothers Meat Packing business, co-owned by Brett’s beloved father, Donald — or perhaps Brett’s years of film criticism for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. That’s how I met him. Since I also was reviewing at the time, we became fast friends in our shared film-fandom. In fact, Brett provided considerable help when I compiled my 2020 volume on under-the-radar films — “The Best Movies You Never Saw”; this proved so crucial that I wound up dedicating the book to him.

He and I had a falling-out in January, and sadly, I had not talked to him since. But in a sense, that makes his loss all the harder, since I feel we would eventually have patched things up (probably resuming communication about some movie we both loved). Since I was unable to find an official obit on Brett anywhere, this week’s movie column will honor his memory with four titles he suggested for my book.

The first is 1985’s “Turtle Diary,” which I chose here not only because Brett enjoyed it, but also because he was a life-long animal-lover. His passion was felines — especially rescue cats! “Diary,” however, stars Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley (back when Ben still had hair!) as Londoners scheming to get two aging turtles free from the zoo and back to the ocean for their final years. It may sound unlikely, but the script by dramatist Harold Pinter plays it low-key, getting plenty of help from the leads, along with Michael Gambon as a kindly zookeeper. In any case, Pinter is less interested in the turtles than in how this modest quest provides hope in an urban milieu that seems to have been cast adrift from purpose and connection. Currently available free on YouTube.

Next up is a truly under-the-radar chestnut from 2019, “Standing Up, Falling Down.” One of many recommended by Brett, I include it here because it’s about a struggling stand-up comic — and Brett himself had labored in this field, which was quite courageous, as he had a bit of a stutter. This film contains what may be Billy Crystal’s finest performance — but he is not the comic; no, that would be Ben Schwartz, of TV’s “Parks and Rec,” whose struggling protagonist strikes up an unlikely friendship with an aging dermatologist (Crystal). The older man has much to teach despite his foibles and failures, which include a broken family and too much dependence on controlled substances. Nonetheless, it’s a surprisingly upbeat film with a lot of wisdom. Consider it a modern-day “Tuesdays with Morrie” — but with more pot and F-bombs.

Perhaps my favorite of Brett’s recommendations was yet another neglected gem, a sizzling political drama entitled “The Best Man,” scripted by novelist Gore Vidal in 1964. With a title referring to the common saying about who should win, it focuses on a presidential primary between the thoughtful but flawed Bill Russell, played by Henry Fonda, and a dashing opponent played by Cliff Robertson, whose character styles himself as a common man but is actually about as ruthless and unprincipled as a hammerhead shark. Vidal’s crackerjack dialog and counterintuitive ending are beautifully fleshed out by a stellar cast; Brett would insist I mention the fine supporting role played by Golden Age stalwart Lee Tracy, here appearing in his final film. This one is also running free on YouTube.

Our fourth film is technically not one recommended by Brett, since he and I were already in complete agreement on its excellence. It’s the one-of-a-kind 1955 noir thriller called “Night of the Hunter,” starring Robert Mitchum as a corrupt Southern preacher named Harry Powell. With the words “love” and “hate” famously tattooed on opposing hands, Powell pursues two children through Southeastern waterways and forests because he thinks they know where some money is hidden. Directed by the great British actor Charles Laughton, “Hunter” is as hauntingly and beautifully filmed as a gothic fairy tale — and it has a splendid speaking role for silent-film superstar Lilian Gish, whose gutsy matron is every bit as good as Powell is bad.

These are all dandy picks; but Brett would probably want you to watch “Hunter” first.