Monthly Report: August 2021


By Scott Ross

Note the First: Although I have endeavored to post these capsule review collections as close to the first of each month as possible, I a) have a full-time job, hence a limited amount of time to write; and b) have been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on that writing. The wholesale insanity of the last 18 months; of my mayor and governor and county commissioners using a manufactured viral outbreak as the excuse they’ve been waiting for, presumably all their lives, to behave like would-be dictators; of seeing a sociopathic hack hailed as American’s Doctor™, medical science and sensible care turned on their heads as if the entire world had fallen down the rabbit hole after Alice, a demented old bigot installed in the Oval Office and self-anointed tech billionaire health czars blithely informing us we will likely be “locked down” for years; and of the constant harassment over useless masks and applied duress requiring I either risk my future health by taking an experimental gene therapy masquerading as a vaccine, submit to weekly tests and disclose my health status to my employers in violation of HIPPA laws, or lose my job… these and related stresses have conspired to sap what little mental, physical and emotional energy I have, leaving very little for creative activity. But then, I strongly suspect that driving us all nuts is part of the plan; even jolly old “Santa Klaus” Schwab, who should know, let it slip last year that we are in the midst of “the world’s biggest psychological experiment.” After a year and a half of this psychic pressure, I’m lucky I can write my own name, let alone a monthly digest of coherent critical thought.

Note the Second: As always, click on the highlighted text for links.

Fail-Safe (1964) A quietly terrifying adaptation by the screenwriter Walter Bernstein and the director Sidney Lumet of the remarkable Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler nuclear-nightmare novel with a superb cast headed by Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman and Frank Overton.

Charley Varrick (1973) A smart, tough crime drama directed by Don Siegel featuring a strong central performance by Walter Matthau. The tight screenplay by Dean Riesner and Howard A. Rodman was adapted from “The Looters,” a fast, violent little pulp novel by John H. Reese which is even more brutal than the movie: Charley, the older of the two robbers who pull off a bank heist whose proceeds are unexpectedly stuffed with Mafia money, is not only a nasty piece of work in himself but dies horribly at the hands of a psychotic Southern cracker hitman long before the story is finished. The movie Charley is nearly as gruff as his literary coeval but not as ruthless, although he does set up his problematic young partner (Andy Robinson) for possible death at his own hands. Siegel, who literally signed this in the credits as “A Siegel Film,” keeps the action rolling and the violence, while not excessive, disturbing. He’s abetted in this by his screenwriters and by Michael C. Butler’s beautifully rendered widescreen cinematography, Frank Morriss’ effective editing and a taut score by Lao Schifrin with a pulsating, agitated main theme that perfectly encapsulates the picture’s mounting tension. Although Reisner and Rodman used very little of Reese’s novel, which jumps from one character to another in a way that illuminates all of them without digressing from the narrative, they seized on one of its peripheral aspects, to excellent effect: Charley’s crop-dusting business, with its slogan “The Last of the Independents.” (Siegel was so enamored of that he wanted to name the movie after it but was overriden by Universal.) They also used Charley’s piloting, and his past as a barnstormer, to neat affect at the end. Interestingly, their finale was echoed later in Brian Garfield’s book Hopscotch, which in its turn made a memorable vehicle… for Walter Matthau.

Moviegoers of 1973, who had perhaps forgotten that Matthau had a long history of dramatic roles in addition to his peerless way with comedy, might have been surprised by his superb performance here… if they saw it; the picture was a flop at the box office. Robinson, the Zodiac knock-off killer of the atrocious Dirty Harry, sometimes seems to be reprising that performance, the way Steve Railsback couldn’t quite shed Charlie Manson in The Stunt Man. Joe Don Baker is appropriately mercurial as the hitman and the good supporting cast includes John Vernon as the shady bank president; Woodrow Parfrey as his prissy manager; Felicia Farr (the wife of Matthau’s best friend Jack Lemmon) as a secretary with secrets she’s willing to share with Charley along with her favors; Norman Fell as an FBI agent; William Schallert as a small-town sheriff; Benson Fong as a Chinese gangster; Jacqueline Scott as Charley’s doomed wife; Marjorie Bennett as his nosy old trailer park neighbor avidly and with delighted relish assuring anyone who’ll listen that she just knows rapists are after her; and the marvelous Tom Tully as a pawnbroker in a wheelchair who gets a memorable demise. The best performance aside from Matthau’s is that of Sheree North as a cool, savvy photographic forger. What North does with the character is astonishing; she takes an interesting small role and turns it into a complete human being, with an inner life and, for all I know, a soul. And to think that if she’s remembered at all it’s as a plate of 1950s cheesecake.

Charles Butterworth, Fred Astaire, Paulette Goddard, Artie Shaw, Burgess Meredith. (ImagoImages. Copyright: Courtesy Everett Collection. MBDSECH EC075)

Second Chorus (1940) Fred Astaire famously referred to this as “the worst film [he] ever made.” I assume he meant the worst musical — he certainly made worse movies — but even then I’m not sure he was right. Silk Stockings had a bigger budget, and a Cole Porter score, but it isn’t much fun. Nor are Three Little Words or Blue Skies, despite the great “Puttin’ on the Ritz” routine in the latter, with its nine reflected Astaires. Not, mind you, that Second Chorus is a patch on his best features. It’s perhaps the most dramatically thin of all his musicals, with a central conflict (Fred and Burgess Meredith as superannuated musical college roommates constantly one-upping each other) that becomes steadily more obnoxious. As one of the picture’s producers Astaire merits as much of the blame for it as anybody, but it’s hard for me to really dislike anything with Fred Astaire in it, or Paulette Goddard, for all that she’s no singer and assuredly no dancer. Playing himself, Artie Shaw comes off as a stiff and Meredith is almost shockingly unlikable, but admirers of the Preston Sturges stock company will enjoy seeing Jimmy Conlin as a collection agent. Best of all is Charles Butterworth as a millionaire big band fiend and amateur mandolinist. It was Butterworth who in Every Day’s a Holiday delivered the immortal line, “‘You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.” He was later immortalized by Daws Butler, who used Butterworth’s distinctive speaking voice as the inspiration for innumerable characters on the Jay Ward Rocky and Bullwinkle shows and for Cap’n Crunch in those ubiquitous 1960s Ward-produced Quaker Oats commercials. The minute you hear his voice you’ll recognize it.

H. C. Potter directed with no particular flavor or distinction at all, from a screenplay by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter, to which Johnny Mercer and Ben Hecht also contributed, the latter without credit. I sense Hecht’s fine Italian hand in the scenes between Meredith and Butterworth, and maybe in some of the nastier stunts Astaire and Meredith pull on each other, which have the feel of warmed-over Gunga Din. What Johnny Mercer added only the Show Biz gods remember, although he did write some nice lyrics, especially to “Poor Mr. Chisolm” and the jaunty “I Ain’t Hep to That Step (But I’ll Dig It).” Bernie Hanighen wrote the music to the former, which becomes a big band suite both danced and conducted by Astaire, and Fred’s longtime RKO musical director Hal Bourne composed the latter. (Astaire and Meredith play dueling trumpeters, and their playing was dubbed by Billy Butterfield and Bobby Hackett respectively.) But the creative poverty of the thing is indicated by the people involved not even bothering to come up with a name for the college art which Astaire and Meredith are perpetual students: At a dance, a cheap sign hanging over the bandstand reads, simply, “University.”

Shaw threw in some nice tunes, including a swinging “Concerto for Clarinet,” but he wasn’t any happier with Second Chorus than Astaire was. He did, however, have this to say about Fred: “I liked him because he was an entertainer and an artist. There’s a distinction between them. An artist is concerned only with what is acceptable to himself, where an entertainer strives to please the public. Astaire did both.”

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) It would be pretty to think this is the last we will ever hear of a franchise that has for years shown itself about as useful as a set of bald tires in a monsoon, but I think we all know it won’t be: Disney spent too much to buy the Lucas empire; it’s not about to slaughter a cash-cow that extensive. Those of us, however, who strongly suspected The House of Mouse would completely fuck up Star Wars have been vindicated. The studio did this partly out of arrogance (refusing to consult with Lucas or even to listen to the man who created these worlds) and partly from its own, admittedly profitable but creatively bankrupt tendency to indulge in endless remakes of what has gone before, a trait I imagine would have driven the founder of the company to a state of permanent conniption. The entire Disney Star Wars series has been a retread of themes and even entire plots that had been exhausted by George Lucas years ago. The final installment is not merely a coffin for a cinematic entity that had nowhere to go unless it jettisoned its own past, but, for anyone above the age of 12 armed with a scintilla of creative intelligence and independent thought, the three final nails in that casket.

The essential disaster at the core of this unnecessary movie is not merely that J.J. Abrams (and Chris Terrio, his co-scenarist) could not let go of the damned Skywalker family and their overworked parent/child dynamics, but that he was reduced to remaking Return of the Jedi. And who in his right mind would want to remake the weakest, more perfunctory movie in the original series? Even granting that the filmmakers were placed in a nearly impossible position by Carrie Fisher’s death following The Last Jedi, the very premise of this one is so ludicrous, so utterly and entirely risible, that it cannot stand up to the slightest scrutiny: That the Emperor, thrown to his explosive death at the climax of Jedi has miraculously not merely survived but become more powerful than before. Pull the other one, J.J. That it took no fewer than four writers to concoct this monumentally stupid narrative probably says more about the 40 year decline and fall of post-70s Hollywood than anything since the worldwide success of Titanic. Worse, Abrams & Co. were so consumed with trying to make this laughable situation work, and with pumping air into the dead-at-birth love/hate rivalry between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s annoying Kylo Ren, they neglected the one thing about the series that gave it a simulacrum of actual life: The human relationships around the action. We had every reason, after the second picture, to expect we would see more of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico and John Boyega’s Finn, yet they are reduced here to glorified walk-ons, Finn not even being allowed to express his feelings for Rey at the end. Things are so shakily inconsistent that, when the young Luke is pictured training his sister, the face we see is not Fisher’s from the ’70s or early ’80s extracted from an earlier movie and digitally edited in (as Hamill’s image obviously is) but that of her daughter, who looks so little like her you don’t realize who she’s supposed to be until the fast little scene is over. Now, what the hell was that in aid of?

The plot, such as it is, and the abundance of Fisher outtakes from the two previous* movies permitted Abrams to keep Leia alive until the mid-point, while Mark Hamill appears as the Jedi shade of Luke and even Harrison Ford gets to show up as a ghost of some sort, or perhaps he’s an hallucination. By that juncture I’d stop caring about the distinction and was able to concentrate once again on speculating how a young man with a mug as militantly unattractive as Adam Driver’s can become a movie star despite lacking a scintilla of charm, humor or photogeneity. And for the first time in the series the unremitting ennui this movie spawned affected even the John Williams score. I’ve never heard this master of cinematic composition so dispirited, marking time with endless reprises of past Star Wars music and generating, if my ear did not deceive me, no new themes at all. If Williams can’t work up any enthusiasm, how can we be expected to? The single saving grace of the picture is the marvelous Daisy Ridley, and even she isn’t enough. Having out of curiosity imbibed in the first installment, I felt obligated out of a similar sense of inquisitiveness to see the wretched thing through to the end. Never again. My adolescence was not such a picnic that I’m eager to revisit it at regular intervals for the rest of my life.

*Or do I mean, as I mistyped originally and which error — or Freudian slip — was caught by Eliot M. Camarena, “pervious”?

The Revengers (1972) A strange, fascinating Western starring William Holden that moves in unexpected directions, manages to be effective in both its horrific and its comic elements, and features beautiful widescreen work by the cinematographer Gabriel Torres and a remarkable performance by Susan Hayward as a sharp frontier nurse that lifts the movie into a realm few genre pictures achieve. Holden plays a former Union officer whose family is brutally massacred by a vicious band of Comancheros and who gathers from a Mexican prison a team of outlaws to pursue the killers. There are elements here of both The Searchers and The Dirty Dozen, although without, thankfully, the lip-smacking sadism of the latter, and the outlaws are entertaining without making you feel they’re about to commit fresh atrocities every 10 minutes. And each time you feel you have the measure of the movie and a surer sense of where it’s going the screenwriter, Wendell Mayes, surprises you. (Steven W. Carabatsos, the author of the screen story, deserves a nod here as well.) William Holden, a personal favorite since as a teenager I saw him in Network, gives one of his thoughtful late-career performances; his character is eaten up with bitterness but he doesn’t know how to focus his anger when the cause of it (Warren Vanders) escapes his grasp. Ernest Borgnine, as the braggart Hoop, is extremely funny and the wonderful Jorge Luke is unexpectedly touching as a young bandito who imagines Holden is his long-lost father. The picture is nicely directed by the veteran Daniel Mann, but Pino Clavi’s music, emulating the archaic/contemporary aspects of Ennio Morricone’s compositions for Sergio Leone, often feels misplaced and overly melodramatic, although it’s one of those curious scores that, while largely inapt in the picture for which it was composed, makes for rather pleasant listening divorced from it.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) A charming, funny 1920s spoof nearly undone by the ’60s mania for big, overlong musical roadshow attractions.

Is a maiden all the better when she’s tough? (Imago Images. Copyright, Everett Collection.)

The Mikado (1960) The enjoyable Bell Telephone Hour reduction of the comic operetta starring Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko. After being introduced to Gilbert and Sullivan during his vaudeville years, Groucho was an aficionado for life, and thrilled to be asked to play the Lord High Executioner on this live broadcast which also starred Robert Rounsville as Nanki-Poo, Barbara Meister as Yum-Yum, Stanley Holloway as the Pooh-Bah, Dennis King as the Mikado and Helen Traubel as Katisha. For a 54-minute truncation, the show, directed by the noted Savoyard comedian Martyn Green, is a fair reading of the original. Holloway is a robust delight as the last word in corrupt officials and Traubel a good match for Groucho, almost a musical Margaret Dumont. But the crowning attraction of anything starring Groucho Marx is, of course, Groucho Marx. He doesn’t attempt to Anglicize his performance in the slightest: His Ko-Ko is Rufus T. Firefly transposed to the stages of the D’Oly Carte; his patter songs could have been written, not by Gilbert but by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar. He even, at one point, performs the same herky-jerky dance moves beloved of Captain Spaulding in Animal Crackers, and when you consider that he was 70 at the time, those twisty high backward kicks are even more impressive. He’s so much himself that in “As someday it may happen” the line “And all third persons who on spoiling tête-à-têtes insist” is rendered as “And all thoid poisons who on sperling tête-à-têtes insist…” It’s a shame the only print that exists is a black-and-white kinescope, because photos of the production suggest the original color broadcast was a knockout. Still, it’s got Groucho, and that makes up for almost anything.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967): A nice 90-minute movie smothered in two and a half hours of excess


By Scott Ross

A charming, funny 1920s spoof nearly undone by the late-’60s mania for big, overlong musical roadshow attractions. The blame for this presumably lies at the feet of the producer, the taste-free Ross Hunter, especially since the many unnecessary musical numbers all feel inorganic to the story, shoehorned in to justify the enterprise. This is a shame as Richard Morris’ amusing screenplay, while sending up the conventions of the Flapper era, is clever without condescension, and George Roy Hill’s direction is a stylized delight. Julie Andrews (who made her Broadway debut in Sandy Wilson’s own Roaring ’20s pastiche The Boy Friend) is, while admittedly a bit too old for the naïf she’s playing, extremely game, even mugging or offering a moue to the audience while silent-movie super-titles hilariously limn Millie’s unworldly thoughts.

The picture is a spoof of period attitudes more than of the 1920s themselves, with its eponymous heroine determined to become a “modern” by, as she sings in voice-over, raising her skirts and bobbing her hair… and marrying her boss, whoever he might be. Millie thinks she’s Lorelei Lee but she hasn’t the heartlessness to play the femme fatale nor the innate boobery to pull off a dumb act, and the contrast between what she’s convinced herself she wants and what she actually does is a good part of the comedy, which Andrews plays with aplomb. And while his singing voice was dubbed (by Jimmy Bryant, who also doubled for Richard Beymer in West Side Story) James Fox is engagingly peppy as a sort of Nordic-featured Harold Lloyd-type go-getter, an identification that is reinforced in one of the picture’s best sequences, in which he and Andrews trade falls out of a high-rise office window.

Moore is endearingly dopey, but I wish her role was lengthier, and that she’d been given something to sing or at least a bit more dancing. But John Gavin is surprisingly funny as an ultra-straight country club stiff; the way his eyes widen when he’s been shot with a paralyzing blow-dart is more memorable than anything he ever did in a serious role. In the large supporting cast, Philip Ahn makes the most of his extended cameo as a wealthy Long Island family’s loyal if somewhat mysterious retainer and Pat Morita and Jack Soo are perfect as the villainess’s henchmen… although you will be left to wonder at the appalling inadequacy of Soo’s bald-head makeup and perhaps to ask why two Japanese character actors were cast as Chinese (which among other things reverses the wartime practice of casting Japanese roles with Chinese performers, all American citizens of Japanese descent being busy submitting to internment.) Cavada Humphrey gives good account of a pinched-faced bat of a corporate termagant, Herbie Faye gets to polish off his patented disgruntled New York curmudgeon and Mae Clarke, once famous for having a grapefruit shoved into her face by James Cagney in Public Enemy, shows up in an un-credited bit as an irritated secretary.

The two major supporting roles populated by theatre stars illustrate both the acumen of the people who put this movie together, and their simultaneous wrong-headedness. As Mrs. Meers, the white-slaving girls’ hotel proprietor, the great Beatrice Lillie, whose film career was nowhere near as extensive as it merited, exhibits her uncanny gift for doing much with little; a mere grimace, a rolling eye and an aggravated ersatz Chinese expletive (“Oh, shoo sho, shoo sho!”) from Lillie is wittier than a dozen wisecracks in almost any contemporary comedy of the period. At the extreme other end of this small splendor, alas, lies Carol Channing.

One of those Broadway freaks who used to crop up periodically in movies and television (Ethel Merman was another) Channing somehow managed to get an Academy Award™ nomination for her extreme performance here as the emaciated mother hen gathering in Fox, Moore and Andrews, and if you aren’t a fan you’ll likely be scratching your head wondering what the hell everyone was thinking. It isn’t just that she’s broad, as Merman also was before the camera, or that her recurring laugh is as phony as her big blond wig. Had the conception of the role been made non-musical, “Muzzy Van Hossmere” could have been captivating. With Channing blasting out the songs in her wide-eyed steamroller fashion, however, Muzzy is a conspicuous bore, as irritating as a Midwestern hausfrau laboring under the weird delusion that she can out-sing Maria Callas. I hope the Academy members who nominated this weird, vulgar (and somehow unsavory) turn were properly shamed in the spring of ’68 when Angela Lansbury showed up to perform Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s snappy title song for the Oscar® telecast. Although the song-and-dance was so overproduced it could have been the work of Ross Hunter himself, with her savvy, her ebullience, her energy, her high-cut skirt and her enviably shapely gams, Lansbury walked off with the evening and showed Hollywood what its increasingly expensive string of big flop musicals might have had. (Not that it ultimately did her movie career much good.)

Aside from their possible (if dubious) value as cautionary warnings, the traditional musical numbers in Thoroughly Modern Millie add nothing to the picture, and in fact detract from our interest and amusement. The only ones that do not, and that have a feeling of cleverness or integrity are those (“Baby Face,” “Jimmy,” “Poor Butterfly,” the title song) which take place in Millie’s head. It’s worth noting as well that these voice-over songs are related to the character’s thoughts and emotions; they aren’t just there to be Big Musical Numbers. They also have the advantage of visual irony, adding a layer, however thin, of wit. (Moore and Gavin also get one of the musical jokes: whenever their eyes meet we hear an anachronistic but amusing Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddyesque rendition of Victor Herbert’s “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” which must have given either Gene Wilder or Mel Brooks an idea for Young Frankenstein.) Similarly, the best dances in the picture are the smallest: The way the various characters (Millie and Miss Dorothy first, then Mrs. Meers and later her Chinese henchmen) break into terpsichorean routines to kick the hotel’s ancient stalled elevator into life. It’s here that Joe Layton’s choreography really shines as Millie and Dorothy perform a nonchalant series of ’20s tap steps to an arrangement of “Stumbling,” Mrs. Meers kicks the wall and pointedly stomps her elaborately shod feet in a parody of automation, and her minions do an elegant deadpan sand-dance to — wait for it — Richard Whiting’s “The Japanese Sandman.” (Again: Why did they make these two characters Chinese?)

The production numbers, by contrast, are formed along, on the one hand, tired old lines (the New Dance Sensation in “The Tapioca,” Channing’s acrobatic vaudeville turn to Gershwin and DeSylva’s “Do it Again”) and, on the other, to rip-off (the wedding dance to Sylvia Neufeld’s “Trinkt Le Chiam,” obviously intended as a sop to lovers of the then-current Broadway smash Fiddler on the Roof, specifically to Jerome Robbins’ Bottle Dance at the climax of Act One.) And why is Millie engaged to sing at a Jewish wedding, or any other function? It’s Miss Dorothy who’s supposed to be the aspiring performer and Muzzy who’s the former chorus girl; Millie is a career girl on a matrimonial path. This is exactly what I mean when I say these numbers are shoehorned in. They have nothing, but nothing, to do with Millie, or with the movie’s plot. They have to do only with nervous studio executives convincing themselves that if they stuff a sufficient number of songs into a picture it could be the next Sound of Music. Conversely, when the songs remain in Millie’s mind they work, and even add to the fun, as when André Previn’s arrangement of “Baby Face” interpolates an unseen choir evoking Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Morris (who also wrote the book for the Meredith Willson stage musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown) had a way with an unemphatic comic line, which reaches a kind of apotheosis when Millie, whose stolid boss (Gavin) thinks of her as one of the boys and calls her “John,” decides to go the sexpot route, tarting up her makeup, perching on his desk and breathing her lines huskily at him until, inevitably, she goes too far:

Millie: Do you have a mo’?
Trevor Graydon: A what?
Millie: A moment. I would just love to get a man’s opinion of Rudolph Valentino.
Graydon: Huh?
Millie: I mean, in The Sheik, he takes Agnes Ayres by brute force, and she enjoys it. She enjoys it… a lot. What is your opinion of brute force, Mr. Graydon?
Graydon: Well, I’m not for it. No, I’m not for it at all. No, that is not what women really want today. The late war has upset them. Now they are disillusioned. They yearn for truth. Give them a young man they can trust. Tom Sawyer, at twenty.
Millie: I never read Tom Sawyer. Was he… sexy?
Graydon: He was only twelve.
Millie: (Seductively) So? If ya got it, ya got it.

Which is when Graydon sends Millie scurrying.

George Roy Hill, while not necessarily a great filmmaker, was a great popular entertainer, and I don’t think any opprobrium ought to be attached to that. If he only directed 14 pictures, the list includes some of the most enjoyable, or at least most interesting, pictures of their time: The World of Henry Orient, Hawaii, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Great Waldo Pepper. Slap Shot, A Little Romance, The World According to Garp and The Little Drummer Girl. He was a journeyman director, perhaps, but also a stylist, and Millie is almost a companion piece to The Sting in its rich evocation of an era and its playful self-consciousness, at least about transitions; sequences in the picture do not fade, they iris out, with various geometric shapes taking the place of the conventional iris. There’s a wonderfully staged and edited scene with Andrews and Fox necking in his car, in which the couple repeatedly disappears into the cushions, only to almost instantly reappear where they logically can’t. Millie also shares with The Sting Hill’s fondness for working on sets, including elaborate city streets. And here is as good a place as any to acknowledge the picture’s splendid art direction (Alexander Golitzen and George C. Webb), set decoration (Howard Bristol), special effects (Dave Fleischer and Albert Whitmore, both uncredited) and the superb matte work by Albert Whitlock. especially those he painted for the high-rise sequence. The only exceptions to the general excellence in these departments are the notably poor rear-screen projection during the aerial scenes; this must have pained the director, an aviator and airplane buff. Hill is also ably abetted by the beautifully colored, deep-focus cinematography by Russell Metty (credited) and Russell Harlan (uncredited… there’s a story in that) and Stuart Gilmore’s witty editing. And whatever my reservations about the musical numbers, André Previn‘s arrangements of the songs are delicious, as is the incidental score by Elmer Bernstein, who won his only(!) Academy Award™ for it. Since Bernstein composed magnificent scores for two of Hill’s best previous pictures (The World of Henry Orient and Hawaii) I can only assume his involvement here was at Hill’s insistence.

That Thoroughly Modern Millie is so engagingly written, acted, designed, directed, photographed, edited and scored only makes its flaws more dispiriting. Just as you’re having a breezy good time, you’re hit with another inane, overstated musical number and it’s like coïtus interruptus recurring at irregular intervals. Although draped in imported silk sheets and cushioned by the softest of queen-size mattresses, the movie never comes.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Picturing the unthinkable: “Fail-Safe” (1964)


By Scott Ross

Brigadier General Black (Dan O’Herlihy): You’re justifying murder.
Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau): Yes, to keep from being murdered.
Black: In the name of what? To preserve what? Even if we do survive, what are we? Better than what we say they are? What gives us the right to live, then? What makes us worth surviving, Groeteschele? That we are ruthless enough to strike first?
Groeteschele: Yes! Those who can survive are the only ones worth surviving.

A quietly terrifying adaptation of the remarkable Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler nuclear-nightmare novel, Fail-Safe had the ill luck to come up against another movie’s hilariously comedic take on similar material, and to suffer accordingly. The Burdick/Wheeler book takes a dispassionate look at the events of a single day during which a tiny technical failure leads, with a sickening inevitability, to the destruction of Moscow and New York City; as the minutia of numbing Defense Department procedures and arguments slowly accrue, the tension is slowly tightened, each successive potential solution to the growing crisis breaking down in its turn until it is nearly unbearable… and then it gets even worse. With very few exceptions, Walter Bernstein’s tight, well judged screenplay follows the novel, and its dialogue, closely. Thought, and psychological revelations and implications, are of course, like prose itself, untranslatable, my chief objection to literary adaptation. But the original dialogue of the novel is so good, so sharp, so illuminating of character, and so judiciously and intelligently utilized by Bernstein, that it nearly carries the day by itself.

The word, in movies, is not the world, however; acting, photography, editing and direction are of intrinsic importance. Despite a minimal independent budget which precluded elaborate sets, and a concentrated effort on the part of the Pentagon to block the filmmakers from getting their hands on any stock footage of modern U.S. bombers (including from commercial sources, which had pretty obviously received pressure from the DOD… What? You thought American fascism was a new phenomenon?) the director, Sidney Lumet, achieves something very close to the book’s terror, only once giving in to hysteria, and that in an understandable lapse. I’m referring to the scene near the end in which the lead bomber pilot’s wife is brought to his base in Omaha to plead with him not to unload his two nuclear bombs over the Russian capitol. The actress in the scene, Janet Ward, is not to blame; indeed, one doffs one’s hat in her direction for baring her emotions in so naked and concentrated a fashion. The scene is the only one, aside from that in which the technical glitch that sets off the holocaust is depicted, which doesn’t come directly from the novel, but what I’m getting at is that the pleading wife is a character Burdick and Wheeler quite rightly eschewed: They knew that by the story’s climax it was far too late for such melodramatics, however heartrending. The inclusion of the wife also violates the movie’s otherwise cool, almost journalistic bird’s eye view of events. I assume the scene was Bernstein’s, and if so Lumet is equally at fault for indulging him. It’s the only moment in Fail-Safe that smacks of cliché.

And then there is the matter of how the fateful mechanical failure is explicated. In the novel, it’s merely one small fuse in a grid that burns itself out while the technicians are distracted by something trivial. Even with a constricted budget it seems to me that Lumet could have re-created this moment with minimal fuss. Instead, an elaborate-looking electronic box must be replaced, the only advantage of which is that the scene introduces the character played by an almost shockingly sober Dom De Luise, who will later have a memorable dramatic moment when he must violate every instinct that has been drummed into him by his government and military masters and which nearly causes him — as it ultimately does to the troubled Air Force colonel played by the remarkable Fritz Weaver — emotional collapse. That’s a minor cavil, I suppose, yet depicting the almost incredibly mundane cause of a world nuclear crisis, and its complete lack of note by the human beings assigned to safeguard against it, would, I argue, have added a layer of terrible, unnoticed and un-remarked upon irony to the picture, as it did to the book. Was this deemed too subtle for a mass audience? And even if its inclusion by Burdick and Wheeler smacks of dollar-book Freud, the enigmatic bullfight nightmare Brigadier General “Blackie” Black (Dan O’Herlihy) dreams at the beginning of the movie is specific (strips of the bull’s hide being torn away by an unseen matador) in a way that is beyond both the live-action and animation technologies of the early 1960s to suggest, especially on a reduced budget. This renders the mysterious imagery, which in the book has a certain poetry, entirely prosaic. Worse, in his dying moments, Black is made to gasp out his sudden realization that the bull in his dream was himself. Well, thanks for overstating the bleeding obvious, fellas. That, somehow, is more horrific to him than his just having annihilated the population of New York, including his beloved wife and sons, with two 20-megaton nuclear bombs?

In most other respects Fail-Safe is a representative Sidney Lumet movie, close in spirit and technical acumen to the great black-and-white pictures which both preceded (Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Pawnbroker) and succeeded it (The Hill) and effectively acted by its largely male cast.

Walter Matthau debates Dana Elcar on the topic of mutual assured destruction.

Despite his fealty to the original novel, Walter Bernstein had of necessity to elide over some of Burdick and Wheeler’s content, or to change aspects of it to suit the very different medium of film. Two omissions in particular alter the authors’ attempts to bring their narrative into line with the realities of the world of 1962, when their book was first published. The Cuban Missile Crisis had not occurred when they were writing Fail-Safe (weirdly, McGraw-Hill brought the book out on 22 October, the exact middle of the event) but I suspect the Missiles of October were largely responsible for it becoming such an enormous bestseller.* In the Fail-Safe novel, although it was set in the future (1967), the Soviet Premier is identified by name as Nikita Khrushchev and the American President, while un-named, is described by the authors in ways that indicate he was clearly meant to be perceived by the reader as Jack Kennedy, presumably in the last years of a projected second term. (By the time of the Fail-Safe movie, of course, Kennedy had been dealt with by Allen Dulles et al.) Similarly, the icily intellectual yet strategically demented social scientist and born-again nuclear overkill preacher Groeteschele is pretty obviously based on Herman Kahn, whose book Thinking About the Unthinkable bequeathed a lasting phrase to the American lexicon. But Burdick and Wheeler go further, both mentioning Henry Kissinger and describing Groeteschele’s German-Jewish identity in a way that makes a reader who, like myself, came into puberty during the Nixon Administration perceive the character’s ideologically extreme pronouncements as the very essence of Kissingerian thinking. But Bernstein was limited by the censorship of the period (and perhaps by Lumet’s needs) and so lost a telling aspect of Groeteschele’s character. In the movie, as in the book, after pontificating on nuclear matters at a Washington party, he (Walter Matthau) is picked up by a chilling sociopath (Nancy Berg) who commands him first to drive her home, then to stop in a secluded spot where, after coolly yet breathlessly expressing her erotic arousal at the prospect of total nuclear annihilation, she expects to be made love to. In the movie, after slapping her sharply across the face and snarling, “I am not your kind,” Groeteschele does drive the deranged harpy home. In the novel he does and says precisely the same to her… and fucks her anyway. This seems as true to life, and to Groeteschele’s character, as the fact that the professor’s glacially psychotic monologue at the party takes place in the wee hours of the morning and not, as Bernstein and Lumet have it, at dawn, do not. This, in a city whose professional class residents are known to retire early is pushing the You Are There/single-day documentary aspect of the picture well past its breaking point.

Finally, Bernstein and Lumet are forced to abandon one of the book’s finest conceits. As the negotiations go on and the President realizes too much increasingly precious time is being wasted waiting for Krushchev’s interpreter to translate into English for him, and for his own translator to in turn transmute the Premier’s Russian into English, he requests that the Soviet leader rely solely on Buck, the President’s man. This is not merely expedient; the Premier agreeing to it indicates the level of trust developing between himself and the American president. However, the only way this intelligent solution could work in the more literal terms of a motion picture would have been for Lumet to have used an American actor who spoke fluent Russian. And how many of them were floating around in 1964? How many are now?

Groeteschele is such a philosophical monster he would be unbelievable if we didn’t know Kahn and Kissinger were every bit as appalling, and as fanatic. Take these lines of his, when it becomes obvious the bombers will make it to Moscow and the professor urges the President to use the accident as a pretense for world conquest, arguing that Russians, being essentially ideological automatons, lack the qualities of other human beings:

These are Marxist fanatics, not normal people. They do not reason they way you reason, General Black. They’re not motivated by human emotions such as rage and pity. They are calculating machines. They will look at the balance sheet, and they will see they cannot win.

If that speech is not a perfect encapsulation of the insane mutually-assured destruction “defense” policies (quite appropriately abbreviated as “MAD”) that have governed America throughout my entire time on this planet, it’s a pretty close approximation. And of course it is one that is refuted by the filmmakers, especially in the scenes involving Henry Fonda’s president and the troubled SAC commander played by the splendid Frank Overton.† In the former, Fonda and the unseen Premier come to a hard-won (if unspeakably tardy) mutual realization that their nations have failed humanity, which in the American’s case is doubly tragic, resulting in the imminent death of his wife along with everyone else in New York. With Overton’s General Bogan the revelation is simpler, if no less emotional: The discovery between himself and his Soviet counterpart that despite a harrowing body-count brought about by nationalistic distrust each is all too heartbreakingly human and neither can hate the other for the sin of his geographic origins.

The voice of reason: Dan O’Herlihy’s Brigadier General refutes the hawks.

In spite of his personal coldness, as a movie persona Henry Fonda had become by 1964 less the great actor he had (like his best friend, James Stewart) long since proven himself to be but in addition a figure of warmth and rectitude who could probably, had he so chosen, have been elected president. I don’t mean to suggest Fonda was nothing but a symbol — he was still an actor of great ability, and remained so to the end — merely that no one, seeing this movie when it was new, would have balked at Mister Roberts going to Washington. (Although he proved too good a man for the office in the splendid movie of Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man the same year.) His performance in Fail-Safe is very nearly, save for some pointed lines spoken to and with his Russian interpreter, a sustained monologue, like Peter Sellers’ conversation with the unseen (and unheard) Premier Kissoff in Dr. Strangelove but without the gallows laughter. The emotional cost of the bargain he makes with the Russian, never articulated, is staggering, and Fonda expresses the nearly unendurable psychic pain the president is experiencing without special pleading. That restraint makes it all the more moving.

O’Herlihy too is affecting as a career soldier with deep misgivings about the madness piling up around him, and Matthau, on the cusp of stardom as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple on Broadway and as “Whiplash Willie” for Billy Wilder in The Fortune Cookie, gives Groeteschele the frightening aspect of the True Believer who has so thoroughly fallen under the spell of his own convictions he can no longer admit to anyone else’s perspective having the least merit; for him, mass-extinction is a small price to pay if it proves his theses to his own satisfaction. William Hansen, familiar to lovers of 1776 as Caesar Rodney, gives a fine account of the Defense Secretary, and in the smaller roles Edward Binns, Russell Collins, Sorrell Booke, Hildy Parks and Frieda Altman are equally memorable. But best among the supporting cast are Weaver and Larry Hagman. Weaver, one of our finest actors, his career largely confined to the stage, does small marvels as a young colonel who, already under personal stress from his brawling alcoholic parents and further distressed by the exceptional events which force collaboration between international enemies against all his prior training and indoctrination, cracks completely. There’s a scene between him and Frank Overton, who has just seen the people Weaver sprang from, in which neither can acknowledge the embarrassment each feels at this glimpse of private Hell that is wonderfully acted and directed, and the Colonel’s emotional and intellectual collapse is a precise, harrowing performance by Weaver in which what is unspoken is more powerful than what may be shouted. As Buck, the President’s interpreter, Hagman gives a performance that is so good it (and his subsequent appearance for Lumet in The Group) ought, had the weekly success of I Dream of Jeannie not intervened, have marked him as one of our most promising young dramatic actors. The way Hagman performs the interpretations, hesitating between the Premier’s silences and his words and phrases contributes enormously to the documentary quality of the picture.

Fritz Weaver in the throes of nervous breakdown.

Gerald Hirschfeld’s black-and-white cinematography seems exactly right, for the material and for Lumet’s approach to it, capturing the tension of the events and emphasizing the photographic realism the filmmakers were working toward. There are more close-ups in Fail-Safe than was the norm for Lumet, which I suspect was only partly to do with his operating on a limited budget; the more urgent prerequisite seems to have been the story, and its effects on the people involved. It’s impossible to shoot a jet pilot effectively without getting in close, especially when for much of the picture his breathing apparatus obscures most of his face, leaving only the eyes for expression. John and Faith Hubley, animators who were among the founding members of UPA in the ’40s, were responsible for designing and animating the “Big Board” on which the off-screen action of the various fighter-planes and bombers is represented and it’s a tribute to the simplicity of their designs, and their skill in doing much with little, that what might have been seen as a budget liability became a positive asset; the Board dominates your memory of the picture, just as it physically dominates the available space. Ralph Rosenblum’s taut editing too contributes to the strong impact Fail-Safe still makes today. His and Lumet’s selection of a dozen images of New York, and their rapid freeze-frames of them, are as memorable, and as agonizing, as they are, in their insignificant significance, terrible. I first saw the picture on television 40 years ago, and those images have been with me since.

Fail-Safe was produced independently, and should have been in theatres months before Dr. Strangelove opened. Lumet always maintained that had his movie opened first, both it and the Kubrick picture might have been hits but that coming after, his own was predictably dead in the water. Alas, Peter George, who wrote the novel on which Strangelove was based, and who was credited with Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern on the screenplay, sued Lumet & Co. for copyright infringement. I wonder who put him up to it. Kubrick, I assume, since his name was also on the suit. It’s a question worth asking because, with Burdick and Wheeler’s novel a long-standing bestseller, George could have sued them for plagiarism, and did not; he (and Kubrick) waited until the movie based on the Fail-Safe novel was about to begin shooting. While it is possible that Burdick and Wheeler knew of George’s novel, it’s a) rather unlikely and b) a spurious claim on George’s behalf. I once saw an old 1958 Ace paperback of Red Alert, the book in question, in a second-hand bookshop when I was a teenager, and it was obvious from my perusing of the cover that it was an obscure title in a cheap edition from a minor mass-market publishing house, most of whose original print-run was probably pulped six months after it hit the newsstands, at least in the United States. (George was Welsh and the hardcover, titled Two Hours to Doom, was published in the U.K. by Boardman… hardly a household name in America. Nor did it receive a hardbound printing here.) So much for “a.” As for “b,” it is hubris bordering on psychotic narcissism to maintain that you alone of the millions of people on the planet during the 1950s and early ’60s imagined a scenario in which a nuclear holocaust was brought about by either human or mechanical error. Besides, the precipitating act in Fail-Safe is the failure of a small computer component — an accident — while in Strangelove (and Red Alert) it’s the deliberate, paranoid act of a Curtis LeMay-type military madman. It is true that, in the George book, an American city is offered up in payment by the president for the potential bombing of Russia, but it’s Atlantic City, not New York. George might have had some grounds there against Burdick and Wheeler but otherwise, the scenarios in the two books, whatever their surface similarities, could not be further apart.

Moreover, it’s telling that even when Ace, reprinting George’s novel in the ’60s, before Strangelove was released, made specific reference in their front-cover copy to the then-bestselling Fail-Safe, still their author did not sue Burdick and Wheeler. The lawsuit was pretty obviously a ploy to eliminate competition for Dr. Strangelove at the box-office, especially since Kubrick owned “the creative rights” to George’s novel. (Perhaps Ace’s phrase “the original” was meant to bolster the suit’s chances?) As a result of the out-of-court settlement, Columbia Pictures acquired Fail-Safe and was free to release it however it liked. And since the studio also financed and distributed Strangelove… Columbia, giving Fail-Safe a perfunctory release months after Kubrick’s comedy hit the screen, condemned it to oblivion. I’m not claiming Lumet’s picture is as great or as memorable as Strangelove. It isn’t, not least because, as horrific as the events Kubrick, George and Southern illuminate, their picture — while admittedly scoring off points similar to those Bernstein and Lumet made with a grim replication of reality — is also screamingly funny.‡

Bernstein, Lumet and Max Youngstein, who produced Fail-Safe, at least deserved a decent chance for their movie to be seen. They didn’t even get that much. But Peter George was, it is said, unhappy with the comedic/satirical thrust of Dr. Strangelove. Which makes him, I suppose, one of the sorest winners in movie history.

*The book’s three-issue serialization in The Saturday Evening Post even more eerily brackets the Cuban Crisis: The magazine’s cover dates (13, 20 and 27 October) fit squarely within those of the Crisis (16 – 28 October). Burdick and Wheeler were hardly the first novelists to imagine a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, but the coincidence is a little unnerving.

†Overton’s weary face and unforgettable vocal timbre are likewise indelible in his role as the essentially decent sheriff Tate in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

‡Interestingly, Peter George’s later novelization of Strangelove for Bantam bears the title “Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove,” with Kubrick’s name in a font several times larger than the author’s.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Miracle in Florence: “A Room with a View” (1985)


By Scott Ross

I am about to commit a minor sacrilege, which in itself is not unusual but which might raise some literary eyebrows: I like the Merchant Ivory movie of E.M. Forster’s novel more than the book itself. Nearly everything that is said, and done, in the picture is also said and done in the novel, but the tone is different in each. Where Forster is dry, serious and phlegmatic, Merchant Ivory are warm, comic and effusive. Yet at no time do the filmmakers overbalance the narrative or turn sentimental. The movie’s buoyant comic/romantic/satirical timbre is consistent from the charming opening titles with their colorful Italian writing-paper designs to the final image of erotic-romantic abandon. It’s a small miracle of adaptation. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay is nimble and felicitous and James Ivory’s direction, which gets full pictorial value (especially in Florence) on an extremely limited budget, like the lush cinematography of Tony Pierce-Roberts and the superb musical score by Richard Robbins, anchored to Puccini, never stumbles. If like me you saw it when it was new you may cherish it as one of the most charming experiences of a very uncertain era in movies.

All of which would scarcely matter if the movie hadn’t been cast to such perfection, beginning with Helena Bonham Carter as Forster’s young heroine Lucy Honeychurch. She not only resembles the Lucy of the novel, but is nearly unerring in showing us, without ostentation, exactly how repressed Lucy is, and how badly she is chafing under a yolk of respectability she doesn’t believe in but thinks she must uphold. The way she says, in response to the comments of Denholm Elliott’s free spirit, who sees her more plainly than anyone in her family, “Poor girl? On the contrary, I think myself a very fortunate girl. I’m thoroughly happy, and having a splendid time” with stiff, unhappy fury, says everything. Maggie Smith, as Lucy’s pinched maiden cousin Charlotte, could have rendered nothing more than a smart satirical sketch of the woman and still have given an accurate portrait. But while Smith is too inventive and accomplished a comedian not to see the rich humor of this silly, self-important, self-deluded (and self-justifying) woman, she is also too fine an actress, and too intelligent, to simply parody her. She locates the reality just below the comic, allowing Cousin Charlotte to take her place in the Pantheon of great Maggie Smith characterizations from Jean Brodie to Judith Hearne. Elliott too finds the humor in Mr. Emerson, but it’s tinged with a melancholy, or a disappointment, too deep for mere words. Daniel Day-Lewis, a wonderful character actor and a lousy leading man, also makes the absurd Cecil Vyse both amusing and somehow human, as do Judi Dench, absurdly expansive as the Elinor Glyn-inspired lady novelist, and Rosemary Leach as Lucy’s kind, pragmatic mother. Julian Sands is appropriately handsome and unreadable as George Emerson, Simon Callow makes a most pleasing Reverend Mr. Beebe, and Rupert Graves is adorably Edwardian as Lucy’s younger brother Freddy. The sight of him lolling about on the Honeychurch lawn in tight-seated white flannels is more erotically intriguing than any number of ubiquitous contemporary shots of Mel Gibson’s naked ass… although we are later treated to more explicit views of both Graves’ and Sands’ physiques in the movie’s famous, somewhat homoerotic, bathing scene.

“There are no jewels more becoming a lady.”: The Emersons bring cornflowers to the Misses Alan.

As the elderly Misses Alan, the marvelous old troupers Fabia Drake (Miss Catharine) and Joan Henley (Miss Teresa) are perfect pocket illustrations of what was gained in the lighter touch of the filmmakers. In Forster’s novel, the Victorian Misses Alan are steel-backed, severe and easily scandalized. In the movie, they are gentle, pliant, sweet-natured and (especially Miss Catherine) open to possibilities. The sight of Fabia Drake admiring in a mirror the cornflowers George and his father have placed in her hair is indelible, and makes her utterly beautiful. Miss Catharine it is who assures Cousin Charlotte, offended by the indelicacy of Mr. Emerson offering his and his son’s rooms to her and Lucy, that “things that are indelicate can sometimes be beautiful.” It is far too easy to deplore the old, as Forster does in his novel, and depict them as hidebound, censorious and disapproving. How refreshing, then, to see two elderly spinsters so sweetly encouraging of youth, and so entirely unthreatened by it.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: July 2021


By Scott Ross

Moscow on the Hudson (1984) One of Paul Mazurksy’s lesser efforts, but with compensatory charms. Despite a strong narrative core — impromptu Russian defector acclimating himself to his New York exile — and a splendid star performance by Robin Williams, the movie is repetitive, diffuse and overlong; although only 115 minutes, it might have been far more effective at 90. The picture is, however, capped by a lovely scene in a diner, where the Russian’s bitterness at America not living up to his idealized expectations falls away on the evidence of several other immigrants’ experience. As always with Mazurksy, there is much sharp dialogue, a number of good characterizations, and some fine performances: In addition to Williams, who captures the humor, the sadness and the paranoia of his character, Maria Conchita Alonso contributes a rich performance as his Italian girlfriend; Cleavant Derricks is excellent as a Macy’s security guard who becomes the émigré‘s best friend; Aleksandr Benyaminov is endearing as his nonconformist grandfather; Tiger Haynes is warm and charming as Derricks’ own grandfather; Saveliy Kramarov is unexpectedly funny as the KGB agent who is Williams’ bête noire; and Elya Baskin, who is both manic and surprisingly moving as a would-be defector. (The movie is, in a way, Baskin’s own story.) The rich, warm cinematography is by Donald McAlpine, and David McHugh composed a charming musical score. The occasionally trenchant screenplay is by Mazursky and Leon Capetanos and the Russian sequences were shot at the Bavarian Studios in Munich.

The Miracle Worker (1962) The emotionally overpowering adaptation of William Gibson’s play, beautifully directed by Arthur Penn and marvelously acted, especially by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) Although not David Cornwell’s first novel under the pseudonym John le Carré — he’d done two elevated whodunnits previously, which introduced his great creation George Smiley — The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the first to catch fire. And while le Carré was far from the first fiction writer to suggest that the world of the international spy was less glamorous than grubby, its appearance in the time of the early James Bond pictures carried the unpleasant but necessary shock of realism, which the inevitable movie version did much to transport into popular art, although it did surprisingly little business. Perhaps word-of-mouth damaged it; it’s as bleak and hopeless a look at deadly Cold War games-playing by both sides as may be imagined. That’s not a criticism, but it’s hardly a selling point for mass response. Nor is Richard Burton’s performance calculated to comfort; as Leamas, the story’s anti-hero, the actor burrows into the role so thoroughly that it’s nearly impossible to separate the spy’s real character from the drunken, embittered persona he projects. The movie is never less than intelligent (the screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper wisely follows the novel closely) and Martin Ritt’s direction, like the stark black-and-white cinematography by the great Oswald Morris, is virtually without flaw. The superb supporting cast includes Oskar Werner as Burton’s German interrogator, Claire Bloom as his British soul-mate, Bernard Lee as the grocer he attacks to get himself arrested, Cyril Cusack as his MI6 “Control,” Michael Hordern as an easily wounded Soviet in-between and, in smaller roles. Sam Wannamaker, George Voskovec and Robert Hardy. Only Peter van Eyck seems out of place, through overuse as a villain too easily spotted as a meanie, but Rupert Davies is the living physical embodiment of George Smiley as le Carré describes him. The only less than truthful note is the set for Burton’s behind-the-Iron Curtain trial, which is too elaborate by half. Sol Kaplan’s musical score is as stark and spare as the movie it accompanies.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972) An exceptionally well-made, often disturbing, remarkably even-handed Cavalry picture written by Alan Sharp, the Scottish iconoclast who also wrote the 1976 Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves, perhaps the greatest under-rated thriller of the 1970s. Although some of the violence is horrifying, especially during the picture’s first third, its impact is oddly mitigated by the saturated, bright rose blood, which to a modern eye looks nothing like the real thing. Sharp was at pains to distinguish his fiction from the historical fact: “The events described in the film are accurate in the sense they have factual equivalents,” he said, “but the final consideration was to present an allegory in whose enlarged features we might perceive the lineaments of our own drama, caricatured, but not falsified. The Ulzana of Ulzana’s Raid is not the Chiricahua Apache of history, whose raid was more protracted and ruthless and daring than the one I had written about. He is the expression of my idea of the Apache as the spirit of the land, the manifestation of its hostility and harshness.” Ulzana’s opposite in the movie is Ke-Ni-Tay, the Indian tracker played with extraordinary grace and gravity by Jorge Luke, who beautifully compliments the aging Army scout embodied by Burt Lancaster at his most engagingly taciturn. Robert Aldrich, whose work as a whole is seldom what one would call subtle, directed with intelligence and even sensitivity, and Frank De Vol composed an exceptional score, anchored to a spritely martial theme that would have warmed John Ford’s heart. Joseph Biroc’s stark, gorgeous images of Arizona, Colorado and Nevada are, alas, marred by some dismayingly shaky camera operation.

As the tyro lieutenant whose Christian ideals are shattered by the torture-murders of various white settlers, the young Bruce Davison reminds you once again, as he has throughout his career, that good looks and irreproachable talent are not always enough to place an actor where he deserves to be on the Hollywood totem-pole.

Yellow Submarine (1968) Although the production schedule was impossible (one year when the average for a cartoon feature was three), the budget was extremely limited (as was the animation), the people behind it (George Dunning and Al Brodax) had lately been responsible for the terrible Saturday morning Beatles cartoons and the boys, interested only in satisfying their three-picture deal with United Artists, couldn’t be bothered even to voice their own characters, the result of the effort was one of the most visually sumptuous and imaginative animated pictures ever made. Its lushness is so fulsome it’s almost overwhelming and it wears its cleverness lightly; its wit is as playful as its design. (Although Jeremy, the peripatetic “Nowhere Man,” is a sly dig by the screenwriter Lee Minoff at Jonathan Miller, who had directed one of his plays in New York.) I’ve never understood how a movie this visually rapturous, and featuring the songs and images of the most popular rock band in the world, made so little money at the box office (less than $1 million at a time when the big hits routinely took in $50 million) and that Fantasia was considered a “head” movie and not Yellow Submarine. The rich, glorious designs were the work of Heinz Edelmann, Jon Cramer and Dick Sawyer and the charming script was by Minoff, Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and, before he discovered that love meant never having to say you’re sorry, Erich Segal.

Blood Work (2002) As long as the movie, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood and written by Brian Helgeland, sticks to its source, it’s a very good police-procedural laced with compassion and a certain sly wit. Alas, about two-thirds of the way in, Helgeland and Eastwood depart from Michael Connelly’s taut, intelligent novel and the whole thing collapses into who-do-you-think-you’re-kidding? absurdity and coincidence. That’s not just a shame, it didn’t help; Blood Work was one of Eastwood’s rare massive flops.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) The Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane musical, sumptuously designed for the screen and cleverly directed by Vincente Minnelli, with an odd central performance by Barbra Streisand that teeters on the precipice of the obnoxious.

Phil Silvers arrived with ulterior motives but now looks as if Gina Lollobrigida is about to rape him. Photo by RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968) Another relic from my increasingly distant childhood, also (like The Miracle Worker) initially viewed in a television airing, and which photogenically is ugly as hell but which otherwise holds up remarkably well as a certain type of broad but extremely funny period sex-farce. The plot is no more relevant to life, or true to it, than a Basile fairy tale; the characters are sheerest stereotype; most of the narrative arc can be read well in advance of every point; Telly Savalas over-acts appallingly; the color photography is lackluster and doesn’t begin to take advantage of the Italian setting; the camerawork is often shaky; the rear-screen process work is sub-standard even for 1968; too many lines were badly dubbed; and the direction by Melvin Frank would barely pass muster for a contemporary Universal Movie of the Week. Yet the script, by Frank, the British wit Denis Norden and the Caesar’s Hour, M*A*S*H and Dick Van Dyke Show contributor Sheldon Keller, is often hilarious; Phil Silvers, Shelley Winters and Lee Grant contribute marvelous support; Riz Ortolani composed an often delightful musical score with a breezy main theme; and, as “Mrs. Campbell,” Gina Lollobrigida at 40 is both luscious and very, very funny. Silvers in particular has one of his best movie roles: As one of three possible American fathers of Lollobrigida’s grown daughter (the others are Savalas and Peter Lawford) he takes a basic comedy shtick — turning to the camera and reacting with an increasingly flabbergasted mix of puzzlement and disbelief each time a different door is slammed in his face — and makes it riotous three times in a row. The picture is so enjoyable because, while it is utter nonsense, it’s done with such good humor, and the performers have so much aplomb and are so likable, that whatever the movie’s faults you can easily find yourself wishing the studios still knew how to make genuinely funny comedies, even if they weren’t pretty to look at, and with comedians this damned good at making people laugh.

Remarkably, there were no fewer than two Broadway musical versions of this story, neither of whose creators admitted to stealing the plot and characters! The first, the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane Carmelina of 1979, was a fast flop featuring Georgia Brown in the lead and a score woven with strands of gold; if there is, for example, a more spine-tingling expression of middle-aged erotic hopefulness than “One More Walk Around the Garden,” I don’t know it.

The second, Mama Mia! had songs by ABBA.

Come back, Melvin Frank! All is forgiven!

A Room with a View (1985) The nearly miraculous adaptation by James Ivory, Ismael Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala of E.M. Forster’s novel.

Bloomer Girl (1956 “Producer’s Showcase” television version) Hard on the heels of the Oklahoma! revolution, E. Y. Harburg concocted a stage musical that, while comic in tone, challenged Oscar Hammerstein by taking in 19th century feminism, slavery, abolition and the Civil War and, in collaboration with Harold Arlen, offered one of the greatest of 1940s musical scores. The original 1944 production also pilfered Oklahoma!‘s chief comic, Celeste Holm and, as director and musical stager, its choreographer Agnes de Mille. The 90-minute television version, filmed 12 years later, has a younger heroine in Barbara Cook and, alas, only half the score, the racier material jettisoned for live broadcast. (Although an occasional bawdy reference still sneaks through.) Although Cook is not the comedian Holm was and lacks her dry wit, she possessed one of the most sparkling lyric sopranos ever to be heard on Broadway, in 1956 a few months shy of making history in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and she’s charming as Evelina. (Holm could carry a tune, but only so far; Cook’s voice was just this side of the Heavenly Choir.) Keith Andes has the unenviable task of trying to make a slave-owning Southern roué palatable for a mid-20th century audience (admittedly easier in 1956 than now) but his rich baritone compensates; when he and Cook perform “Right as the Rain” together, the moment is, in spite of the primitive technology and a poor Kinescope transfer, thrilling.

Carmen Matthews is a marvelous Dolly Bloomer, warm and wry in equal measure, Paul Ford animates Evelina’s hoop-skirt manufacturing father with his robust, patented comic bluster and Roy Spearman as Andes’ runaway slave Pompey, while not the actor Dooley Wilson, the role’s originator, was, has a far better singing voice and performs a soaring version of “The Eagle and Me” that makes Wilson’s otherwise amiable performance on the Original Cast Album seem anemic. Brock Peters also shows up, as part of the trio singing “I Got a Song,” and de Mille, recreating her Civil War ballet, also brought back her principal dancers from the show: James Mitchell, Emy St. Just and Betty Low. It isn’t necessarily an ideal reading of the show — far too much of its great song score was cut — but it’s a rather good introduction. The musical’s original book by Sig Herzig and Fred Saidy was adapted by Leslie Stevens and the program was briskly and imaginatively directed by Alex Segal.

The Group (1966) This adaptation by its screenwriter/producer Sidney Buchman of Mary McCarthy’s entertaining novel about eight Vassar graduates fails, as might be expected, to capture the characters’ thoughts, which make up much of the book’s content, or the author’s satirical bent. It’s also one of Sidney Lumet’s weaker pictures as a director, the shortcomings of his approach to the material exacerbated by Boris Kaufman’s uncertainty with color.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Tomorrow we’ll be sober: “The Group” (1966)


By Scott Ross

This adaptation by its screenwriter/producer Sidney Buchman of Mary McCarthy’s entertaining novel about eight Vassar graduates fails, as might be expected, to capture the characters’ thoughts, which make up much of the book’s content, or the author’s subtle satirical bent. It’s also one of Sidney Lumet’s weaker pictures as a director, the shortcomings of his approach to the material exacerbated by Boris Kaufman’s uncertainty with color.* (A master of black-and-white, he was never quite comfortable with, or conversant in, lighting for color. And his use of rear-screen is stinking.) And too the picture is slightly miscast, with the great Shirley Knight playing the pragmatic Polly when she probably should have been given the meatier, more peripatetic role of Kay. I disagree with Pauline Kael, who observed the filming and wrote a long, influential piece on it, that Joanna Pettet is herself a victim of miscasting. Perhaps because I had forgotten my earlier reading of “Filming The Group” I didn’t realize while watching the picture that Pettet was British, and known as a comic actress. Yet I admired her performance, although admittedly it did not break my heart, which Knight might well have. That is also of course the fault of the movie’s seeming to endorse the notion that Kay’s death is an accident, rather than remaining, as McCarthy is, ambivalent, if leaning toward the suicide theory endorsed by some of the women.

Jessica Walter, as the ambitious virgin Libby, gives the movie’s worst and most affected performance; she’s so arch and nasty you can’t imagine any of the other girls embracing her, and that would-be silvery laugh of hers sounds like an audition for the role of Gertie Cummings in a road-company production of Oklahoma! Fortunately, the ever-wooden Candice Bergen has the smallest role, and for once her pinched, above-it-all mien serves the character: As the much-discussed but little-seen Lakey, the revelation of whose Lesbiansim slightly unhinges some of the group, Bergen at the end displays a tight, condescending smile while giving Kay’s appalling estranged husband (Larry Hagman) the psychological vengeance he deserves, and it’s exactly right. Elizabeth Hartman makes an effective Priss, desperately trying to live up to the demanding nursing theories of her imperious obstetrician husband (James Congdon) but the always wonderful Joan Hackett fares best of the octet as the unfortunate Dottie, who allows the heel to whom she loses her virginity (Richard Mulligan) to plunge her into more or less permanent dispsomaniacal melancholia. On the masculine side of things, Hal Holbrook as Polly’s married inamorata has the most effective scene, and although even he can’t quite overcome the literary quality of his dialogue, that he almost succeeds is a relief, and a small triumph. James Broderick, alas, has the thankless task of being too good to be true as her eventual husband, but Robert Emhardt as her happily manic-depressive papa is just about perfect. But the good Carrie Nye is nearly wasted as Norine Blake, the brevity of whose appearance in the movie may possibly be due to the third of its length which was cut just prior to release. At three hours, the picture might have outlasted its welcome, but at least it would feel less rushed and like a “greatest hits” version of the novel.

Much of Kael’s account of the filming is a concerted attack on Lumet, for whom she had scant use as a filmmaker, so a good deal of its content has to be taken with a bag of salt. This was particularly perverse on her part, considering that it was Lumet who gave her the gig, and it was during this stint that she made the jaw-dropping statement at an informal gathering that her job as a critic was to show Lumet the direction he needed to go; he quite properly riposted that she wanted “the creative experience without taking any of the creative risk.” Still, if Kael’s journalism is at all accurate, Lumet was at that stage of his directing career somewhat pedantic with his actors, often wrong-headed, and in the main dismissive of the very material he was filming; he was said to hate McCarthy’s novel, so Kael may well have been correct in ascribing Lumet’s motives in taking the picture on as opportunistic. (Although most of her criticisms of him, and his previous movies, I take strong issue with, including her ludicrous assertion that he presented himself as some sort of “genius,” and clearly wasn’t. Even Orson Welles, so often tarred with that pejorative epithet — and in show-biz its use is always pejorative — never called himself a genius; it was everyone else who did.)

While it is true that McCarthy’s own attitude toward her group, which presumably was inspired by girls she knew at Vassar, and whose models included herself, was satirical, and more than a little catty, one can easily imagine what a cultural thunderclap The Group was when it was first published in 1963. I haven’t read her previous novels, and I gather that her 1942 The Company She Keeps was also frank about sex and sexuality. But The Group must have caused jaws to drop precipitously. Not that it is in any way pornographic, but McCarthy treats of women’s erotic and bodily concerns, including breastfeeding and the toilet training of small children, with a matter-of-fact frankness that must have both titillated some readers and liberated others. Indeed, I assume that Marilyn French took much of the structure and social/sexual observation of The Group as models for her very fine 1977 feminist novel The Women’s Room. Some of this is reflected in the movie, but not enough.

He ends up bedding Joan Hackett, but Richard Mulligan really wants Candice Bergen. If he only knew…

Buchman, whose credits as a screenwriter include such acknowledged movie classics as Holiday, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Talk of the Town and, uncredited, The Awful Truth, Lost Horizon and Sahara and who was hounded from America for his politics during the HUAC hysteria, exhibited an admirable fealty to McCarthy’s book: He invented almost no original dialogue, occasionally lifting some interior observations from the author’s prose and dropping it into a character’s speech. Yet somehow the picture doesn’t quite work, dramatically. It’s interesting, and engaging, but it seldom lights fire. The movie’s budget must have had something to do with the sparse attendance at both Kay’s wedding and her funeral, but whatever the reason those sequences give the wrong impression of her, and the blame for such things has to be left at a producer’s feet. As writer and producer, however, Buchman’s worst mistake is his indulgent, ironic intrusion of high-spirited Vassar glee-club choruses of songs such as “Come Landlord Fill The Flowing Bowl”† on the soundtrack which accompany the depiction of each character reaching her lowest ebb. It’s the sort of thing that might work once, at an especially pointed moment, but is so heavy-handed and repetitious here as to beggar belief.

During my re-reading of the Kael piece I found one passage especially revealing: When Lumet tells her he got out of acting, which he’d been doing to notable success since childhood,‡ because it was such a “faggy” way to earn a living. That doesn’t shed any light on how he directed The Group, but it may go some way toward explaining why Lumet’s early pictures, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, are so militantly homophobic in tone.

*For cineastes and other image junkies steeped in late 20th and early 21st century auteurism and who swoon at any evidence of a moving camera, Lumet does pull off a nice, well-timed 360-degree pan around a table at which the group is sitting, and talking. The picture also contains more montage than Lumet-watchers are used to, although whether this is a good or a bad thing I couldn’t say.

Come landlord fill the flowing bowl until it doth run over
Come landlord fill the flowing bowl until it doth run over
For tonight we’ll merry merry be, for tonight we’ll merry merry be
For tonight we’ll merry merry be
Tomorrow we’ll be sober

‡Despite their personal difficulties, Lumet very effectively cast his father, the Yiddish theatre actor Baruch Lumet, as Polly’s gentle Trotskyite neighbor.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Victim of time: “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” (1970)


By Scott Ross

While not a great movie musical, On a Clear Day has been a personal favorite of mine since I saw it on television in the mid-’70s and it remains an engaging comic fantasy, lushly directed by Vincente Minnelli and beautifully shot by the great Harry Stradling Sr.* Its chief progenitor, Alan Jay Lerner, is likewise one of those creative figures, first encountered in childhood, toward whom I admit to having very few critical faculties; his lyrics always seem to me first-rate and even when I know his book-writing isn’t on a par with them, there is always, for me, something to enjoy in his work. The original stage musical was troubled (it’s never a good sign when you replace your leading man on the road) but the score was glorious, Lerner’s typically literate and witty lyrics sitting atop Burton Lane’s wonderful melodies like gems in a royal diadem. Although the show was not a great success, such were the times then that even a moderate hit musical could get a movie sale, what with all the studios chasing that ever-illusive “next Sound of Music.” And since Barbra Streisand had recently won the Academy Award for Funny Girl and was filming Hello, Dolly!

It was as iffy a proposition for the screen as it had been for the stage, dealing as it did with a mousy little zhlub named Daisy Gamble desperately trying to quit smoking to please her stuffy boyfriend and with psychiatry, hypnotism, ESP and reincarnation thrown into the mix. (After Frederick Leowe retired, Lerner had tried to get it going as the self-punning “I Picked a Daisy” with Richard Rodgers but their partnership never jelled.) On a Clear Day was planned and shot as a three-hour road-show attraction, with more of the show’s charming songs in the can, including a bizarrely costumed futuristic sequence at the end. One can well imagine the panic among the Paramount suits as the costs and the running time rose. Someone had second thoughts, anyway, probably after the box-office failure not only of Dolly! but of Paramount’s previous Lerner road-show Paint Your Wagon, and an hour was summarily cut, mostly musical numbers… the very reason the picture was made to begin with.† Curiously, Minnelli never mentions this in his memoirs, although a few vocal tracks have surfaced, such as Larry Blyden and Streisand performing the slyly satirical “When We’re Sixty-Five” (the deletion explains why Blyden’s role as her controlling nerd of a fiancé feels truncated) and Jack Nicholson’s attractive light baritone number “Who is There Among Us Who Knows?”, new to the score, as was Streisand’s amusing duet with herself (“Go to Sleep”) and her gloriously sexy, nearly pornographic, ballad of seduction “Love with All the Trimmings,” whose orchestral introduction is an instrumental of the show’s mock-madrigal “Tosy and Cosh.” Allegedly Streisand’s “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn” was filmed, and cut; you can still hear a bit of its melody in the underscore of the scene where Yves Montand takes her to dinner. And while the show’s “She Isn’t You,” refashioned from a love ballad sung by the philandering husband of Melinda, Daisy’s earlier incarnation, to a solo for Yves Montand, was likewise trimmed, Streisand got a feminized version, sung to Montand, as “He Isn’t You.” (I told you I love this score.)

Nicholson offers Streisand a cigarette. Note the rich, saturated color palette in Harry Stradling’s lighting.

Minnelli developed a reputation for caring overmuch about surfaces than content — during the filming of Some Came Running he had an entire ferris wheel moved a few feet, twice — and for being old-fashioned in his artistic outlook. (The ’60s were not a great decade for him.) But On a Clear Day has a bright, contemporary look to it that distinguishes it cleanly from his fabled Technicolor® MGM musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis or An American in Paris or The Band Wagon, or even the more stylistically relaxed Gigi. The only time his designer’s mania goes wonderfully unchecked is during the Regency “regression” sequences, where Daisy is revealed in her 19th century incarnation as Melinda Tentrees and the lush surroundings (which include the Royal Pavilion at Brighton) and Cecil Beaton costumes suit the narrative. And for a man supposed to have been “past it,” Minnelli contributes some amusing contemporary touches, such as the delightful way Montand’s “Come Back to Me” sequence is shot and edited, taking in Central Park, Lincoln Center, some thrilling helicopter shots of the Pan Am building (ask your parents) and, wittily, having the Frenchman’s voice coming out of the mouths of chefs, children, poodles and an old couple whose distaff side is represented by the great Judith Lowry. I don’t wish to take anything from Lerner, who adapted the screenplay from his musical book, but this clever notion feels directorial to me. Likewise, while the flashback to Melinda’s orphanage childhood is obviously written, it’s shot in high comic style, like a knowing spoof of Oliver! On the other end of the humor scale are Lerner’s misogyny (“Oh, God! Why didn’t you create woman first, while you were still fresh?”) and his having Montand’s interest in reincarnation spark a trendy little student riot by students “seeking a fresh cause for rebellion.” No wonder so many young people in the Sixties hated musicals.

Speaking of Lerner: He too was at an ebb in the late ’60s, after the twin phenomena of My Fair Lady and Gigi and the succès d’estime of Camelot. Yet even for the movie of Paint Your Wagon, despised by many, he was able to come up, in “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door,” with my very favorite lyric in “There’s so much space between the waiting heart and whispered word.” And if his On A Clear Day wisecracks occasionally fall flat, especially when Montand is required to speak them (“Melinda’s soul inside of you? God! What a housing shortage!”) the lyrics he wrote for the musical contain some of his sharpest metaphors, most cunning japes and best plays on words. Take this, from “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here”, sung to the flowers we see growing in time-lapse in Streisand’s rooftop garden:

Wake up, bestir yourself
It’s time that you disinter yourself

RSVP, peonies, pollinate the breeze
Make the queen of bees hot as brandy

Come up and see the hoot we’re giving
Come up and see the grounds for living

Or, in the verse to the title song:
And who would have the sense to change his views
And start to mind his ESPs and Qs

Or, in “Love with All the Trimmings”:
For I’ll decode every breath and every sigh
‘Til your every lover’s wish is fulfilled before it’s made
Toss in some jealousy and doubt,
Should it be required,
Not rest ’til there’s nothing more desired

“Come Back to Me”: Montand on the roof of the Pan Am Building

Or, in “Come Back to Me”:
In a Rolls or a van,
Wrapped in mink or saran

Let your tub overflow,
If a date waits below, let him wait for Godot!

Come in pain or in joy,
As a girl — as a boy!

Or, in “What Did I Have I Don’t Have Now?”:
I don’t know why they re-designed me
He likes the way he used to find me

I’m just a victim of time, obsolete in my prime
Out-of-date and outclassed by my past

Why is the sequel never the equal?
Why is there no encore?

What would I give
If my old know-how still knew how?

(Lyrics © Chappell & Co., Inc.)

I don’t think Noel Coward or Cole Porter would have been ashamed to have written any of those lines, but there didn’t seem much honor for Lerner in having done so. Well, perhaps it was the times; in the era of Woodstock and Jesus Christ Superstar it was hard to get much of anyone other than Sinatra fans and music saturated show-queens interested in the rarified craft of the Broadway musical. Consideration of which never seemed to bother Burton Lane, whose musical invention in On a Clear Day is no less felicitous than in the more highly acclaimed Finian’s Rainbow, whose 1968 movie, despite Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, is nowhere near as much fun as this. While generally speaking and except for the “Come Back to Me” sequence New York City isn’t used terribly well, I very much admire Nelson Riddle’s characteristically peppy arrangements of the songs and even small things like the clever main and end titles by Wayne Fitzgerald which mirror the notion of past, present and future lives in a vast, ever-moving continuum.

Montand was and is considered lugubrious as Melinda’s long-distance lover, and he can be a bit heavy-going, but John Cullum, the show’s male lead after Louis Jordan was axed in Boston, was unknown to movie audiences and, aside from Frank Sinatra and in spite of all the big, overblown studio musicals of the period, there weren’t many male singing-and-acting stars around. (Dick Van Dyke, the only popular screen actor/comedian of the time with musical bona fides, would have been all wrong for this.) Larry Blyden, who made something of a career of the type, contributes a perfect Second City portrait of blinkered ambition as Daisy’s boyfriend and Mabel Albertson is warm and motherly as Montand’s secretary, but Simon Oakland’s role as his academic colleague seems as truncated as Bob Newhart’s as a buttoned-down college prexy, the sort of thing he could almost do in his sleep. Jack Nicholson’s part, stripped of its music, I mentioned before, but not Roy Kinnear’s as the Prince Regent, his role reduced to a single scene and hardly worthy of his rich comic gifts.

And now we come to Streisand… and a small sigh of regret. Although her comic aplomb and timing are intact, and while she looks luminous as Malinda in the Regency sequences, her performance as Daisy is oddly irritating. It’s as if she wanted to make the cleavage between Melinda and Daisy so complete there could be no bleed-through from one to the other. But by doing so she makes Daisy less an endearing oddball than a slovenly, whining frump. It’s a strange performance, one that teeters on the precipice of the obnoxious and doubtless sent some admirers of the show back to the Original Cast Recording, where they could take solace in Barbara Harris’ delightful take on Daisy Gamble. Even Streisand’s singing as Daisy is problematic, affected and so overburdened with hand gestures there are times she seems less like herself than some satirically-minded drag-queen doing a keen parody of her. (That terrible, teased-up pageboy haircut of hers doesn’t help either.) She’s better when calmer, or when expressing comic anger at Montand, or when, as Melinda, she tamps down on the annoying mannerisms. And she looks great in those Beaton costumes, infinitely better than she does in the militantly unflattering Arnold Scaasi schmattes Daisy is forced to wear. She sings better as Melinda too; nothing in her early 19th century incarnation is forced, or overdone, as nearly everything Daisy does is. The characterization of Daisy reminds me of John Simon‘s great aperçu, in which he asserted that if Streisand were to be hit by a Mack truck “it would be the truck that would die.” Daisy Gamble could land a semi in traction.

“Love with All the Trimmings”: Streisand in one of Cecil Beaton’s sexy Regency gowns, complete with turban. What she is about to do with that glass borders on the pornographic.

As nice as it would be to see the road-show edit of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, I am not waiting for Paramount to search their vaults for the cut numbers, any more than I expect the company to release a Blu-ray of the original cut of its Blake Edwards/Julie Andrews fop Darling Lili. (So far, they haven’t even issued a Blu-ray of the previous DVD, merely a repacked version of that.) Perhaps if the studio was self-owned, it might care, but as it, and nearly every other major studio, is controlled by a multinational corporation — in this case, Viacom — no one who’s been paying attention to these things over the last couple of decades could reasonably expect a bottom-line organization to spend two cents on legacy. Say what you will about the vulgar old moguls of the past, but at least they actually loved movies; Viacom, like most entertainment conglomerates, gives a damn only about immediate profit. Even on a clear day, pennywise suits like them can only see the present.

*I also remember seeing the television teaser trailers for the picture in 1970, before I really understood who Streisand was, and their repeated refrain (“This is Barbra Streisand?”) as they depicted her in various costumes and personas.

†Perversely, Paramount, in the persons of Robert Evans and Gulf & Western’s Charles Bludhorn, pushed Blake Edwards to add more and more musical numbers to his Julie Andrews comedy-with-music Darling Lili, and to shoot complex aerial sequences in Ireland during its wettest months, then blamed him for the cost overruns. Lili ultimately fared worse than On a Clear Day at the box-office when it opened a week after Minnelli’s picture, at least partly because it cost three times as much to make. The more modestly-budgeted On a Clear Day had a clearer path to profit, especially with Streisand starring in it.

Text (aside from the excerpts from Lerner’s lyrics) copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Tightrope act: “Switch” (1991)


By Scott Ross

Quick: How many great female physical comedians have their been? Aside from Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, I mean? Mabel Normand was both funny and charming, and could hold her own even with Chaplin. Louise Fazenda, who looked a bit like Joe E. Brown in drag, was often hilarious but both she and Normand are pretty much forgotten. For that matter, neither Lucy nor Burnett performed much physical humor in their movies. Carole Lombard had her moments, especially her slugging match with Frederic March in Nothing Sacred, but she never had a wholly knockabout movie role. And Doris Day, who was occasionally involved in physical humor, wasn’t particularly funny at it, largely because the tone of her comedies were usually loud and shrill when slapstick was involved and such things in her movies tend to be done to her. She’s not responsible for the mayhem the way the great silent stars generally were. Even in the pictures written and directed by Blake Edwards, arguably the last great American proponent of elegantly conceived and executed slapstick, the great physical gags were performed mostly by men. (Peter Sellers, Jack Lemmon, Dudley Moore, Richard Mulligan, Burt Reynolds, John Ritter.) Not here: In Switch, Edwards assigns Ellen Barkin all of the picture’s physical comedy, and she’s exhilaratingly adept; her comic aplomb carries through her entire performance. Only toward the end, when the narrative takes on a more serious tone, is she less than achingly hilarious. Added to which, like Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, Barkin is playing two roles at once.

Although most contemporary reviewers of the picture (most of whom hated it) claimed Edwards had remade the flop 1964 George Axelrod farce comedy Goodbye, Charlie, he hadn’t. The basic premise of Switch is similar to Axelrod: A womanizing cad is murdered during an assignation and comes back as a woman, with whom the man’s incredulous best friend slowly falls in love. But Edwards rings a crucial change on the set-up. In Switch the unprincipled Lothario Steve Brooks (Perry King) is sent back with a mission — find a woman who loves him, or go to Hell — a quest further complicated when Satan (Bruce Martyn Payne) demands Steve be brought back to life as a woman. Throughout the picture, then, Barkin is playing not, as Andrews does as Victoria, “a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman,” but a man in a woman’s body, pretending to be that woman and, despite his track record with the opposite sex, understanding nothing about how women behave or even how they move. She’s a bit like Steve Martin in All of Me, the male spirit battling against the female, except that Martin’s character kept his own body and “Steve Brooks” has this pesky woman’s exterior to contend with. Barkin never loses sight of that essential comedic device, and when as a woman with a man’s soul she tries to walk in heels she’s uproariously funny. Furthermore, “Steve” is a crude, unsubtle seducer, so generally obnoxious we wonder how his essentially gentle best friend Walter (Jimmy Smits) can abide him, and when “Amanda Brooks” (as Steve wittily dubs his feminine self) behaves normally, as Steve, Walter immediately thinks she’s a Lesbian. (“Pal, if I’m gay,” Amanda snaps back, “Clint Eastwood is a transvestite.”) But Barkin isn’t playing Amanda as a stereotypical Bull Dyke; she’s playing the role as a boorish, vulgar, argumentative sexist creep — she’s playing Steve. Barkin is so good, and so goddamned funny, she seems to be successfully re-addressing the decades-old screen imbalance of female slapstick all by herself.

Tony Roberts exudes his usual warmth and charm as a sneering advertising executive, but Jimmy Smits and Ellen Barkin more than compensate.

Edwards directs with his usual aplomb and lightness of touch, and he gets a great comic performance from JoBeth Williams as Steve’s killer, a sexy and surprising one from Lorraine Bracco as a potential client for whose advertising account Amanda is almost willing to sleep with to acquire and, briefly, a wittily hilarious turn by Jim J. Bullock as a phony psychic. Dick Bush, who also shot Victor/Victoria, provides rich, clean cinematography and although Edwards eventually removed Henry Mancini’s ineffective musical score (I have the Varèse Sarabande CD and it’s a stultifying bore) he included, in the main and end titles, a beautiful recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” by Paul Young & Clannad. Mitchell’s song has been my favorite pop song of the 1960s since I first heard it as a teenager and Edwards’ use of it manages, by the picture’s end, to be both thematically appropriate and gently moving.

Your reaction to Switch may be less enthusiastic than mine — no performance form is more divisive than comedy, and I admit I had a couple drinks while watching it — but at least Steve Brooks doesn’t end up, as Charlie does in the last scene of Goodbye, Charlie, being reincarnated as a Great Dane.

Lucination: “Sorcerer” (1977)


By Scott Ross

I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience, but for myself there was no period in my movie-going (and watching, if we include television airings of older pictures) history than that which fell between the ages of 12 and 18. I’ve always been strongly affected by movies, from my earliest memories of them, which stretch back to my 3rd or 4th year of life, but when you’re younger — at least when I was growing up — the fare you’re exposed to is softer and much less prone to send shockwaves through your system, certain Disney animated features excepted. While I was in the process of becoming movie-mad, the pictures I watched on TV ranged all over the genre map, but seeing more adult fare, such as The ApartmentThe Americanization of EmilyKluteIrma La DouceSweet Charity (you can see I was a sucker for Shirley MacLaine), The French Connection and The Manchurian Candidate, altered my view, not just of movies but of life. Going to see Cabaret on my 13th birthday was revelatory, and convincing my mother to let me go to the movie of Marathon Man when I was 15 and still relatively sheltered in what I knew of cinematic blood and violence expanded my visual and emotional senses; the movie exploded in my brain like a dumdum bullet, and nothing I saw between autumn of 1976 and summer 1977 made a comparable impact until Sorcerer opened. I haven’t seen the picture since I was 16, but I was forcibly struck, watching it again recently, by how many images I recalled from that single viewing at the end of the ’70s.

The movie is said to be a re-make of the 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot The Wages of Fear, but it isn’t really. William Friedkin, the picture’s progenitor and director, perhaps to avoid being slammed for attempting a new edition of an almost universally-esteemed classic of post-war French cinema, claimed his was an adaptation of the slender Georges Arnaud novel on which Clouzot had based his version, but I take issue with that as well. Sorcerer, tersely written by Walon Green, is more a variation on both Clouzot and Arnaud; there’s nothing in Friedkin’s movie as agonizing on a human level as the sequence in the crater rapidly filling up with oil in which Yves Montand accidentally drives the truck packed with nitroglycerine over Charles Vanel’s leg, and the climax, although darkly ironic, is not at all like Clouzot’s genuinely shocking final scene. Nor does the picture have the rich existential or philosophical qualities of The Wages of Fear, novel or movie. Yet (and I say this as one who often admires Friedkin’s work even as I deplore his obnoxious egotism and self-promotional braying about both the paucity of his collaborators’ gifts and his own alleged genius — anything good in a Friedkin picture, you understand, is hisSorcerer is almost profligate in its forceful presentation of intensely memorable moments:

The French embezzler’s public suicide; the crash of the robbers’ getaway car into the semi on the city street and Roy Scheider’s bloody, wounded stumble away from the wreckage; the charred bodies of the peasant oil rig workers after the explosion; the trucks on the rickety rope-bridge in the torrential rain bearing down on the men trying to guide them, their ancient grills like the mouths of weird, hungry automatons*; the huge fallen tree across the only road and Scheider’s wild, frustrated reaction to it; the tense, silent preparations for destroying the obstacle; and Scheider’s drive through the weird, hallucinatory lunar landscape as his compatriot lies dying on the floor of the cab. (Although most of the movie was shot in the Dominican Republic, the latter sequence was filmed in New Mexico’s Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness.) Dick Bush, who later lit Victor/Victoria, was Friedkin’s initial cinematographer but the director, unhappy with Bush’s jungle photography, replaced him with John M. Stephens, whose work on Sorcerer is among the most astonishing of 1970s American filmmaking. Although by no means a great movie (I’m not sure it’s necessarily even a good one) the picture is certainly among the most photographically striking ever made in color.

Some have averred that Scheider’s character is a nod to Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs. The hat does support that contention.

Sorcerer marked my first experience since seeing Doctor Dolittle in 1968 when I was a small boy of an overture before the feature. Because both I and the others with whom I went to see the movie were teenagers in the ’70s and had pretty much missed the whole road-show experience, we had no idea it was an overture… if you can call music by Tangerine Dream an overture to anything. Yet watching the Friedkin-approved Blu-ray, which does without it, I actually missed that overture a little. I can’t think why.

*This image, which also graced the movie’s poster, made me think before I saw it that the movie was somehow related to The Exorcist. There is also a fast shot of a bas-relief demon that also suggests a kinship with Friedkin’s previous mega-hit. Indeed, Friedkin himself felt the movies were related, although there is nothing in the narrative of Sorcerer to suggest a supernatural connection.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Wrestling with the angel: “The Miracle Worker” (1962)


And Jacob was left alone, and wrestled with an angel until the breaking of the day and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him; and the angel said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And Jacob said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. — From Genesis 32:22, pointedly recited as grace by James Keller in The Miracle Worker

By Scott Ross

I have no idea whether William Gibson’s remarkable drama about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan is still taught by junior and high school English teachers — I encountered it twice in my classes during the late 1970s — just as I don’t know whether 12 Angry Men (excuse me: Persons!) is still being read. Who knows, perhaps in the 21st century a more or less feral girl-child folding her napkin is considered a hopeless example of classic white privilege, or that the mere notion of reaching a profoundly afflicted girl, and teaching her how to communicate with others, may currently be deemed an embodiment of anti-deaf oppression. And since the wonderful movie made from Gibson’s play is in black and white, good luck getting almost anyone born after 1970 to give it a look. Well, it’s their loss, for aside from Victor Jory’s tendency to overplay Captain Keller’s bluster this is an almost perfect transliteration of a noted stage production that neither loses what made it effective in the theatre nor imposes theatrical stylization on the movie transcription, although very little was altered either by Gibson as the screenwriter or by Arthur Penn as the director.

Due, I strongly suspect, to one of the many antidepresssants prescribed for me a decade or so ago I have a tendency when moved to tear up faster and more intensely than I did before, or wish to now. Even so there are still only a handful of movies guaranteed to reduce me to a veritable puddle, and The Miracle Worker is at the top of the list, where it has been since I first saw it on television over 40 years ago. The precise moment I become uncontrollably lachrymose while watching it is during the shattering emotional climax, when young Helen Keller (Patty Duke) finally understands what the word “water,” spelled so often into her palm by Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan, means. Keller is now so famous (or was anyway when I was young) that the ultimate outcome of her long battle with Sullivan in the picture is a foregone conclusion. In spite of this, the moment of recognition, in the play and especially in the movie, is overwhelming. The dawning of a thought, or in any case the initial grasping of a concept, is one of the most difficult tasks set before any actor — and, when it’s pulled off with the requisite veracity, among the most satisfying to watch. To see it on the face of a performer as young as Duke was then, and in a character as wayward and seemingly unreachable as little Helen, is akin to the slap in the face she gives Annie in their first extended encounter; it shocks with its suddenness, and with its complete verisimilitude. In that moment we sense an entire universe, an entire life, extending before this wild, barely domesticated child she previously had no reason, and certainly no hope, of imagining possible. Few things in human reality can be more celebratory than opening the door to a world of possibilities for another being, especially for a child, and seeing them walk through it.

The full triumph of that, in The Miracle Worker, is not only Duke’s, or Penn’s for his sensitive direction of a young actress, nor even Gibson’s incisive writing or the irreproachable performances by Jory and Inga Swenson as the elder Kellers, at the end of it. Bancroft, throughout her entire performance, prepares us for the moment, and her reaction to Helen’s awakening drives our emotional response as much as the event itself. Before it begins, Annie has reached the nadir of her experience in the Keller household, and more or less hung up her hopes of ever being able to guide Helen to an understanding of what she’s tried to teach her, so that when the child suddenly realizes that the word “water” applies to the wet fluid sloshing over her hands from the outside pump and first speaks it (after her remembered six-month-old fashion) then spells it, her teacher is at first too stunned to move. Slowly, as the seemingly impossible is made flesh, astonishment gives way to understanding, and excitement (“She knows!“) and to intense concentration as, taking Helen’s suddenly insatiable need as her lodestar, she rapidly spells into the girl’s hand everything she touches. Seldom, I think, have tensions in an American drama which have been built up over the course of the action to such an excruciating level been exploded so eloquently and with such economy of style, bringing everything to bear on the result, from the high level of the acting by all concerned, the perfect conception and writing of the scene by Gibson and the unerring direction by Penn* of action, camera and performance to the expressive cinematography of Ernesto Caparrós and the beautifully judged editing by Aram Avakian. It’s such an intensely felt, and photographed, a sequence that the emotions it expresses come across with an almost violent shock.

There have been roughly two million movies made from American stage plays, or maybe it’s just felt that way. Yet very few of them are more than perfunctory. You might, if pressed, come up with a short list that got made into genuinely great movies, but after you’ve named the 1931 The Front Page, The Philadelphia Story, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, The Iceman Cometh, the 1996 The Crucible, Six Degrees of Separation and Angels in America, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with many more. 12 Angry Men is a very good job, but many of the others, even when very good indeed, were fatally compromised, usually (before the demise of the Production Code) by censorship, such as two Tennessee Williams adaptations: A Streetcar Named Desire (with Brando but without Blanche’s young husband’s homosexuality), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (no reference to Brick’s possible bisexuality). The 1956 Baby Doll, from Williams’ one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, was notorious in its time, and it’s a lot of fun, but it’s hardly a great picture, any more than The Little Foxes is, despite much in it that is fine. Often we have to be content that a movie captures a great stage performance (Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, for example, or Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday) or a wonderful film turn (Grant and Hepburn in Holiday, and Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century). The Miracle Worker belongs on the short list; there’s little in it I can imagine being bettered, and it’s among the most emotionally plangent, and satisfying, movies of the 20th century, a well-acted picture that’s also exceptionally well-made.

Penn was theatre and live television-trained, but you’d never know it looking at his best movies, such as Bonnie and ClydeNight Moves and this superbly realized adaptation of the play he’d staged for Broadway in 1959. (He’d also directed an earlier television version for Playhouse 90, starring the redoubtable Teresa Wright as Annie Sullivan.) United Artists, which financed the picture, didn’t want either Duke or Bancroft; they offered a $5 million budget if Penn would agree to Elizabeth Taylor, and it’s a measure of Penn’s integrity that he refused, taking a mere half-million and eking out the necessary budget by infusing it with part of his own salary, which Bancroft and Gibson did as well.† Everything works here; Gibson’s emotionally taut screenplay about the combustible interaction between the wild young Helen and her determined teacher has a sense of urgency that is nearly overpowering. And if Sullivan’s eventual triumph is a miracle (the phrase “Miracle Worker” was bestowed on her by Mark Twain, who financed Helen’s college education) the movie brings forth small miracles too, especially in the acting.

Although both Bancroft and Duke had long New York runs with the material under their belts, nothing in the picture feels studied, or overly worked out. The shape of the scenes may feel inevitable, betraying to a degree their television and Broadway origins, but the action never seems less than true, and even brutal, as in the epic, harrowing 9-minute dining room battle between Helen and Annie that reportedly took five days to film and carries more dramatic fireworks than most cinematic military engagements. The original playscript was trimmed from three acts in the theatre to a more manageable 106 film minutes, and if my memory of the play does not betray me, the only things missing are some extended flashbacks to the asylum where Annie and her crippled younger brother Jimmy were forced to endure, and a more protracted attempt by the cynical James Keller (Andrew Prine, and splendid) to breach his father’s love. This is synopsized in the movie, and although as an insufficiently loved son my sympathies are with Jamie, at greater length his quest would have gotten in the way of what is most compelling about the material. While the play was both naturalistic (stylized sets and haunting voices from Annie’s past, including that of her doomed brother, on tape) and realistic (the action, especially the violence Helen inflicts) the movie is based entirely in realism, except for the dreaming flashbacks to Annie’s childhood, blown up repeatedly to images so coarse-grained they are impenetrable, phantoms of the past, their sound likewise distorted.

The lovely Inga Swenson as Mrs. Keller seems to be playing most of her material on her nerve endings; it must have been exhausting for her. (It would be interesting to have seen Patricia Neal in the role on Broadway, for I can’t imagine two actresses less alike in voice, technique, tone or temperament.) Victor Jory as the mercurial pater familias I have spoken about above. Kathleen Comegys gives good account of the kind but exasperating Aunt Ev, and young Michael Darden as the black child Percy, pressed into midnight service as a sleepy cat’s-paw, is extraordinarily right. But the honors belong, quite properly, to Duke and Bancroft, both of whom won Oscars for their incendiary performances. Although there is, ultimately, extraordinary tenderness between the two, their major scenes are constructed by Gibson as battles royal, and the two give these scenes everything. Patty Duke was too old for the role in 1959 (Helen is supposed to be nearly seven) and much too old for it in 1962. But her small stature compensates, and if she isn’t six, her performance is so persuasive in every other respect, it sweeps away these reservations.‡ Duke seems to have had no fear as an actress; her performance as Helen is so guileless, so spontaneous and unguarded it can still strike the viewer with the force of the early Brando. And at least Brando never had to play identical cousins.

Penn and Bancroft on location.

Anne Bancroft was in Hollywood from 1952 and left after five years of increasingly thankless jobs (Gorilla at Large, anyone?); she must have been thrilled to have the opportunity, not merely to show what she was capable of, or even to re-create one of the two Gibson roles in which she had starred, and triumphed, on the stage (the other was Gittel Mosca in Two for the Seasaw, played on film by Shirley MacLaine) but for once to play a great part on film. Her Annie Sullivan is, as might be expected when an actor has played a part in the theatre for hundreds of rehearsals and performances, assured, yet without obvious calculation. Some actors’ performances ossify over time, or become fixed in amber, and the “definitive records” on film of their career-defining roles are sometimes overly precise and worked out, but Bancroft’s never feels less than entirely spontaneous. The only, very slight objection I have to her Annie Sullivan is the Irish accent, and not from any aesthetic standpoint — it sounds creditable enough — but because Sullivan herself didn’t have one; it was a device Penn came up with during Broadway rehearsals to help Bancroft differentiate her characterization of Annie from Gittel, with the result of course that now everyone who plays Sullivan gives her a dashing brogue. Although Sullivan was a mere 20 at the time of the events Gibson describes in his play and Bancroft was nearly 10 years older than that, yet she somehow conveys both Annie’s youth, her immature impetuousness and her headlong determination, crucial factors in breaking down not only Helen’s defenses but those of her well-meaning but overly indulgent parents. And while Sullivan could easily seem to be a human steamroller, Bancroft locates her regret, and her vulnerability, banked down deep within that indomitable will of hers, with unerring precision and without ever seeming to ask for pity. It’s that very, seemingly innate, strength of Bancroft’s that creates the needed contrast and which when Annie sees she’s finally reached the girl makes her response so haunting; as Helen spells “ground” into her fingers, Bancroft’s “Yes!” (really “Ye-e-ss!“) is filled with a staggering combination of emotions — it’s an almost agonized expression of relief, and hope, and is among the most stirring, and memorable, single word interjections in the history of American movies.

Credit for at least some of the power of the movie’s climax must be apportioned to Laurence Rosenthal for his intensely moving score, which at the end nearly equals Elmer Bernstein’s for To Kill a Mockingbird in sheer, aching beauty and emotional release.

The heresy I am about to state may come as a surprise even to casual readers of these pieces, particularly since I’ve previously made it plain in these pages that film music is an abiding passion for me, and movie scoring a facet of filmmaking to which I give a great deal of my attention when watching, and writing about, movies. However: It seems to me that most movies, especially contemporary ones, could do without any score at all other than, as with the movies Peter Bogdanovich directs, a diagetic one. Moviegoers’ reactions got trained in what is essentially a 19th century tradition pretty early on, when the silent pictures they went to were accompanied by pianists and organists in the smaller venues and entire symphonic orchestras in the larger. (Except in their earliest days, silent movies were seldom really silent.) This practice became exponentially more intrusive when talkies became the norm, and the worst excesses of score composition blossomed in the 1940s when it seemed that no on-screen act or emotion, however vestigial, could be said to exist unless it accompanied by strings and a choir invisible. Thanks in part to the Star Wars template I’ve seen movies, such as the 2003 Peter Pan, in which not a single frame of film was permitted to breathe on its own without the score crashing in on it. It’s the sonic equivalent of wall-to-wall carpeting. And I’m not blaming John Williams for this; he correctly perceived that the original Star Wars required that sonic boost, in part because he understood its origins in the pop art of 1930s movie serials. But what works for one movie, or even one series of movies, is not appropriate to everything else, and music has once again, as it did in the ’40s, become yet another way for nervous producers and know-nothing studio executives to hedge their bets.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule on scoring, obviously, and whether the majority of pictures need musical underlining or not, it’s nearly impossible to imagine certain movies without it. Would Lawrence of Arabia be as effective without Maurice Jarre’s desert theme? Chinatown minus Jerry Goldsmith’s plangent scoring for trumpet? The shower murder in Psycho sans Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings? Rosenthal is one of those inspired craftsmen who has quietly written a brace of brilliant works (A Raisin in the Sun, The Comedians, The Return of a Man Called Horse, Who’ll Stop the Rain, the 1981 Clash of the Titans and, for television, the magnificent score for The Power and the Glory) but has seldom received the praise he deserves, limited his contribution here to a little over 30 minutes’ scoring. At least partially as a result of its brevity, then, his music for The Miracle Worker is that much more effective, and affecting. “What I was really trying to do was, in some way, capture the feeling of living in a world of darkness and silence,” he is quoted as saying in Nat Segaloff’s Arthur Penn biography. He further represented Annie and Helen by “the hollowness of those two clarinets and the weaving, falling series of progressions which is part of the theme.” When those progressions reach a crescendo in the pump scene, they are not pulling tears from us — they’re providing a cloud onto which we can climb and safely pile our responses. Rosenthal knows when to pull back as well, to let the scene breathe. He never abuses the trust placed in him.

You’re free of course to agree or disagree with me about any or all of this. But if that devastating climax, in which an almost desperate young teacher finally reaches her nearly impossible student’s subterranean Id and draws her out into the world doesn’t move you, I would respectfully suggest you seek immediate help.

*Unerring as it stands, although not without mistakes in getting there. Penn initially shot the pump sequence from the vantage point he understood best from having seen the play so many times in the theatre: At a distance. Immediately on seeing the rushes he knew the approach was all wrong, and re-shot it, presumably on his own dime.

†UA was every bit as parsimonious with the advertising as with the budget, so while the picture made a small profit, that it didn’t do considerably better, based on the reviews, must be laid at the feet of Arthur Krim & Co.

‡ I have seen Duke’s age during production of the movie listed as anywhere from 13 to 16 depending on the source. It was shot in the spring and summer of 1961. Duke was born in December of 1946; she was 14.