‘Essential’ Reno flicks

Our picks for 10 top Northern Nevada movies

PHOTO/DON DONDERO: Marilyn Monroe at Pyramid Lake during the filming of "The Misfits" in 1960. (Frank and Susan Mullen Collection)

What better time than Nevada Day weekend to stage your own Silver State on the Silver Screen Film Festival?

Get tangled up in your Nevada roots; explore, via celluloid, our sagebrush ocean; virtually wander the casino floors of yesteryear; and see long-departed Hollywood legends tread the paths that you’ve walked in Reno and Northern Nevada. From Donner Pass to Pyramid Lake and from the Black Rock Desert to Elko, we live on location.

Robin Holabird, who was Nevada’s film commissioner for 21 years and is the author of books about movies in Nevada and around the world, has studied our celluloid landscape. She also hosts a video tour of Reno movie locations on the Historic Reno Preservation Society web page.  In the introduction to her book, “Elvis, Marilyn, and the Space Aliens,” Holabird explained the variety of attractions the state holds for Hollywood filmmakers and the nation’s movie-goers.

“(The) way that movies and television affect attitudes about Nevada hits me repeatedly. Projects shooting in the state provide immediate impact when producers spend millions of dollars by hiring crew members and paying for accommodation, locations and other services. But these projects’ lingering effect comes from images they portray, the way famous people and places connect in a wild, wonderful and wacky world vastly different from Middle America.  Nevada blends beautifully with extreme and intense pop culture icons.”

— Robin Holabird, author and former Nevada film commissioner.

Beginning with the 1897 Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight in Carson City, hundreds of feature films have been shot, at least partially, in Nevada. Even culling that herd down to a “top 10” list just for the northern part of the state is, of course, wholly subjective and objectively impossible. In some cases, a movie was chosen based on the number of local scenes, rather than overall quality. But there are a few films listed that arguably would appear in many people’s selections.

Some classics and some… not so much

We aren’t claiming the titles are the best movies that involve Northern Nevada – although a few are true cinema gems. But taken together they represent a cross section of how Hollywood sees (or once saw) us northerners, and perhaps, how we’d like to see ourselves.

Here, in no particular order, and subject to the writer’s bias (and questionable taste), are 10 Reno movie “essentials.” All are available, instantly, for streaming on digital platforms, some for free, others often with HD versions for $3.99 and SD quality for $2.99. All are connected to the northern part of the Silver State:

“The Misfits,” 1961:  This one’s a classic, written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston. The stars are Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy grace the supporting cast. The movie was filmed on locations around Northern Nevada, including Reno and Dayton, in 1960. It was both Monroe’s and Gable’s last completed picture. The cast stayed at the long-lost-and-lamented Mapes Hotel. The plot: Monroe comes to Reno to get a quickie divorce and develops a friendship with her landlady (Ritter). She winds up hanging out with an aging cowboy (Gable), his rodeo-riding pal (Clift), and his pilot buddy (Wallach). The three men chase down mustangs in the desert because it “beats (working for) wages.” No plot summary can do justice to this film. From the writing to the acting to the cinematography, it still shines 60 years later. If you see just one movie on this list, make this the one. Available for streaming on Amazon Prime, $3.99 in HD.

SCREEN CAPTURE “THE MISFITS”: Marilyn Monroe and Thelma Ritter on the old Virginia Street Bridge. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t toss her ring into the Truckee River.

Study with the GI Bill; fish with a prayer

“Apartment for Peggy,” 1948: Based on a novelette by Faith Baldwin, this is the tale of a depressed college professor, played by Edmund Gwenn. Gwenn was more cheerful a year later as Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street.” The professor is thinking about going the route of Socrates and leaving this mortal coil, but he winds up renting part of his home to a young couple (played by William Holden and Jeanne Crain). They help him gain a new perspective on life. OK, that doesn’t sound like much, but wait, there’s more! The movie was shot in Reno just after World War II, when the University of Nevada  campus quad was ringed with trailers that served as housing for the hoards of ex-servicemen who were getting an education thanks to the GI Bill. There are lots of views of the post-war campus and glimpses of downtown Reno at a time when the Biggest Little City was poised to get a bit bigger. Free on YouTube.

“The Godfather, Part II,” 1974: The second part of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is a prequel-sequel to the original film. Robert De Niro is young Vito Corleone and, decades later, Al Pacino is his son, Michael, who becomes the heir to the family business. The film traces Vito’s journey from Sicily to New York and Michael’s (Pacino) ascendance to the title of Godfather. Michael has moved the family’s headquarters to Lake Tahoe, where his brother, Fredo, relies on the Blessed Virgin Mary to assist him during a fishing trip. She’s apparently not listening. The California estate where some of the scenes were filmed, including Michael’s son’s First Communion celebration which opens the film, is currently listed for sale at an estimated $5.5 million. On Prime Video, $3.99.

The Mustang Ranch meets Hollywood

“Charlie Varrick,” 1973: Charley Varrick and his pals rob a small-town bank only to discover that they absconded with Mob money and they are now the prey of hit men. OK, so the plot’s been done before. But what makes this neo noir of interest to Northern Nevadans is a cameo by the late Joe Conforte in scenes shot inside the old Mustang Ranch legal brothel in Storey County. Varrick, a stunt pilot when he isn’t robbing banks, is played by Walter Matthau, just before his mug devolved into a well-worn catcher’s mitt. A hulking Joe Don Baker is a relentless hit man. Prime Video, Google Play, $3.99.

Love Ranch,” 2010: Speaking of Joe Conforte, “Love Ranch” is based on the fatal shooting of Argentinean boxer Oscar Bonavena just outside the Mustang Ranch in 1976. In real life, Joe’s wife, Sally, managed the by then low-ranked heavyweight contender. A Mustang security guard did a stretch in the Nevada pen for the dirty deed. In the movie, whose plot centers on a love triangle, Helen Mirren plays a character based on Sally and Joe Pesci portrays the brothel owner. The drama is directed by Taylor Hackford and has scenes filmed in Reno and Storey County. In a phone interview with a Reno newspaper reporter in 2010, Conforte, then on the lam in Brazil, said that he enjoyed the film. So there’s a major positive review. Google Play, $2.99.

The Wild West, then and now

“The Oxbow Incident,” 1943: Based on the 1940 novel by Nevada’s own Walter Van Tilburg Clark and directed by William A. Wellman, the movie stars Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews and Mary Beth Hughes. A great supporting cast includes Anthony Quinn, Harry Morgan and Jane Darwell. It’s the tale of two saddle tramps caught up in a posse that turns into a lynch mob. Swift justice is done and lessons are learned amid the rabbit brush and juniper bushes. (OK, it was filmed in California, but it’s a Nevada tale.) The flick probably would have won a Best Picture Oscar, but it was up against “Casablanca.” Free on YouTube.

 “Pink Cadillac,” 1989:  This movie, involving white supremacists who couldn’t shoot straight, is oddly topical this year. The film stars Clint Eastwood as a bounty hunter who is chasing Lou Ann, a character played by Bernadette Peters. Lou Ann steals her husband’s car when she flees the marriage, but the pink auto is crammed with counterfeit money that belongs to the husband’s neo-Nazi buddies. Peters, the Caddy, the cash, and Clint race off to – where else? – Reno. Action, romance and hilarity ensue. Spoiler alert: the white supremacists don’t get their funny money back. Google Play, iTunes, $3.99.

“The Shootist,” 1976: The movie takes place in 1901 in Carson City and some scenes were filmed there. John Wayne, in his last film appearance, plays aging gunfighter J.B. Books. Books is dying of cancer and is marked for death by rivals who want to take credit for his demise before the disease can claim him. Wayne also had terminal cancer at the time of filming, a detail that makes the Duke’s excellent performance even more poignant. The supporting cast includes Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brian, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Sheree North, and Scatman Crothers. This also is one of the gems. iTunes, $3.99.

Betting on Virginia Street

“Sister Act,” 1992: The movie begins and ends in Reno, but most of the film supposedly takes place in San Francisco (yet, several of those scenes also were shot in Reno). It’s funny and has some great singing. Seeing Whoopi Goldberg, dressed in a nun’s habit, yelling the f-word at a gaming table, is alone worth the price of streaming. Goldberg stars as a Reno lounge singer who witnesses a murder. She then hides out in a convent so she can live to testify at a trial. The comedy also features the all-penguin cast of Maggie Smith (as the Mother Superior), Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkena and Mary Wickes. Harvey Keitel is the Reno mob boss. Amazon Prime, SD, $2.99.

“California Split,” 1974: A comedy-drama directed by Robert Altman and starring Elliott Gould and George Segal as a pair of gamblers loose in Reno. The film is a time capsule of Virginia Street and some of its casinos in the early 1970s. A high point of the film is a high-stakes game with real-life world poker champion Amarillo Slim portraying himself. Amazon Prime, Vudu, $2.99.

There are many other flicks with plenty of Reno- area locations, including “Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble,” “Top Gun,” “Waking Up in Reno,” “Kingpin,” “The Cooler,” and a lot more. Maybe we’ll post a sequel sometime before next Nevada Day.

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