The Best Brian Dennehy Movies You’ve Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we look back on the career of a late, great acting talent!)

We lose people everyday, but while most of us will be lucky to live on in other people’s memories, actors have a chance at immortality through their films. We lost another one of the greats recently with the passing of Brian Dennehy, but we still have his movies. He worked pretty steadily from 1977 on with a mix of supporting roles and leads, playing big teddy bears and even bigger tough guys, and he was rarely less than memorable.

His best and best-remembered are a mix of films from the 80s and 90s with the likes of First Blood (1982), Cocoon (1985), F/X (1986), Best Seller (1987), Gladiator (1992), and Tommy Boy (1995), while three of my personal favorites include Colin Higgins’ Foul Play (1978), Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado (1985), and Alan Pacula’s Presumed Innocent (1990). With more than sixty features and over a hundred television appearances, Dennehy has been in plenty of pictures you’ve enjoyed and even more good to great ones you’ve probably never seen. So let’s take a look at six of the latter!

Little Miss Marker (1980)

Times are tough during the Great Depression, but Sorrowful Jones makes a living as a bookie with few complaints. That changes when a gambler leaves his six-year-old daughter as a marker – and never returns. Tasked with a new responsibility, Sorrowful finds his priorities changing even as he meets nice woman and goes head to head with a local gangster.

This delightful little comedy is a starring vehicle for Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews, and while the pair make an odd couple they’re both doing good, lively work here. It’s a fast-moving comedy aided with comedic turns by both Bob Newhart and Tony Curtis as the local mobster. It’s funny and sweet in equal measure, and while it’s lightweight there’s always room for harmless entertainment.

Dennehy takes a supporting role here as Blackie’s (Curtis) right-hand muscle, and it’s a fun performance. He spends much of the film in silence and communicates through a series of grimaces and smirks when he’s not simply walking around with his imposing stature. It’s a comedy so he never gets too rough or serious, but he shows an affection for physical humor in the finale as a little old lady slams him in the crotch with a weighted bag. It’s silly, and Dennehy is fully along for the ride.

Little Miss Marker is currently available on DVD.

Split Image (1982)

Danny is a college athlete with a bright future and a loving family, but he’s also a little bit lost. When a pretty young woman catches his eye he soon finds himself on a three-day weekend at a totally cool compound populated by friendly people and a charismatic leader spouting the word of god and breaking down the evils of the world. Seeing no other option, his parents hire a foul-mouthed counter-programmer to kidnap the boy and restore his self.

Director Ted Kotcheff has a rather diverse filmography ranging from the terrifying Wake in Fright (1971) to the ridiculous Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), and in 1982 he delivered the one-two punch of First Blood and this mostly forgotten drama (both with Dennehy). Its approach to cults was more timely then and less exploitative, but while the drama never aims to be what some viewers might expect from “cult” movie it still succeeds at being thrilling at times and frightening at others.

The cast is pretty strong starting with Michael O’Keefe (Caddyshack, 1980) as Danny. He’s recognizably fun at first, but his shift into one of the brain-washed is convincingly dramatic. Karen Allen is the girl he falls for, Peter Fonda is the seductive cult leader, and Peter Horton turns up as one of the weirdos. Dennehy plays Danny’s dad, and while it’s a supporting turn it’s a compelling one seeing him break down in tears at the realization of what his son has become. He sees his own failures, and it’s a haunting moment amid the drama.

Split Image is currently available to stream.

The Belly of an Architect (1987)

Stourley Kracklite is an American architect who arrives in Rome with his wife Louisa as a guest commissioned to direct an exhibition honoring a newly respected 18th century architect. What should be a wondrous vacation and inspiring assignment, though, instead becomes a painful spiral. His stomach begins to ache terribly, his relationship starts to crumble towards infidelity, and his understanding of what exactly he’s doing with his life.

Peter Greenaway is a somewhat unique voice as a filmmaker with a couple dozen features under his belt, the majority of which are as far removed from mass appeal as movies can be. He’s had a few break through into critically acclaimed awareness including The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) and The Pillow Book (1996), but this late 80s effort was the first. It’s a gorgeous film as Greenaway’s eye is a fantastic match for the architectural beauty of Rome, and the ideas it explores are engaging even to those who no shakes about buildings and structures.

Dennehy portrays Kracklite as a determined, confident man, and that makes his subsequent cracking all the more powerful. He sees his ideas challenged as new truths are unearthed, but more than that, he finds his love to be far more fragile than he knew. All of it jumbles together leading towards tragedy, and it’s made more affecting through a performance that captures the surprise of unexpected loss.

The Belly of an Architect is currently available on DVD.

Indio (1989)

The rain forests are in constant decline due to humanity’s greed and mismanagement of the Earth’s resources, but there will always be people willing to stand up to it all. When a corporation begins bulldozing a road through indigenous villages with local government support, only one man brings the fight to them – a half Indian/half American U.S. Marine named Indio.

Director Antonio Margheriti got a recent awareness bump through a name-drop in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and hopefully that drove people to check out his varied filmography of action, horror, westerns, and other genre efforts. This late 80s effort isn’t among his best regarded, but it’s a solid action picture in the vein of First Blood. Gun fights in the jungle, explosions, and helicopter shenanigans ensue!

Dennehy, of course, co-stars in First Blood as well, and he once again is the poor fool challenging our hero. The difference here is that rather than be an outmatched but well-intentioned local lawman, Dennehy is playing an ex-U.S. Army Colonel who’s intentionally killing villagers, razing the land, and targeting Indio for death. He’s a bad man, and Dennehy nails the cockiness and greed that fuels his actions.

Indio is not currently available.

In Broad Daylight (1991)

Len Rowan is a big, bad man who lives his life as he pleases. That includes stealing, intimidating, harassing, and assaulting anyone who stands in his way in and around his small Missouri town. The locals are scared but grow increasingly frustrated as Rowan skirts the law by using and manipulating the system to his advantage. A civilized community can only take so much.

This television movie is based on a true story which is both shocking and sadly believable, and yes, the real events also took place in Missouri. It’s a suspenseful and tense watch, and while it works as a thriller it finds its greatest power as an indictment of a legal system that enables criminals to evade justice. Rowan’s own wife (a young Marcia Gay Harden) isn’t spared from his rage, but while she sticks by him out of fear others find the limit to their cowardice.

Dennehy takes the lead here, and he is terrifically terrifying. He’s a brute who exudes menace, and it’s clear that he enjoys instilling fear in people, both men and women alike. There’s a glee in his eye while he’s threatening those around him, but it’s never mistaken for fun, and the dyed hair (and eyebrows) aid in his transition towards pure malevolence. The story is essentially a Western moved into modern day, and it’s far better and more engrossing than its TV movie trappings would suggest.

In Broad Daylight is not currently available.

Driveways (2019)

Kathy and her young son Cody arrive in a small town to pack up her recently deceased sister’s house, and it’s a purposeful trip for a woman who’s at something of a loss with her own life. Cody’s unfazed by the change as he finds an unlikely friend in the Korean War veteran who lives next door.

There’s a welcome simplicity to this small, quiet gem of a film that comes through in its performances and characters. The plot, as much as there is one, sees people connecting with others when they need it most. It’s a film about kindness, acts both big and small, that can make positive differences in other people’s lives, and it finds beauty in the process. Director Andrew Ahn follows up his acclaimed Spa Night (2016) with something softer but every bit as human.

Hong Chau does magnificently subtle work as Kathy while young Lucas Jaye captures youth and growing up at its most innocent and fearless. Dennehy plays the vet next door, and as is fitting for one of his final roles it’s an emotionally satisfying character brought to life with warmth and wisdom. He’s a bit less jaunty than most viewers will remember him being, but there’s still a sparkle in his eyes and the occasional lift in his step. There’s a familiarity to the film’s construct, but Ahn and his cast find an affecting humanity in their interactions and observations making for a movie that leaves viewers satisfied, relaxed, and hopefully looking forward to finding friendships new and old in the days to come.

Driveways premieres May 7th on VOD.

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