Super 8 (2011)


By Scott Ross

Super 8 Joel Courtney - 04

J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


Valedictory: “Fright Night” (1985)



Revised Version of a critique written for The Middlebury College in October 1985

By Scott Ross

The title conjured up a number of images, none of them especially promising. Not another slasher film, please god! But, being an unofficial lifetime member of any Roddy McDowall appreciation society that might be out there, I considered it my duty to give the movie at least a cursory glance. I’ve given it more than that, twice now, and even at a second viewing Fright Night remains one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the movies since Steven Spielberg scared the bejeezus out of me with Poltergeist.

There’s some elemental quality in the horror genre that generations of movie­goers have tapped into, time and again. Without going into the complex psychology of the attraction, there is something about the horrific that touches some chord in people — a deeply rooted and seldom explored chamber of the darker parts of our souls that filmmakers learned how to exploit very early on. This is something that Tom Holland, the writer­director of Fright Night understands well, and he’s served up two terrific hours of it in this witty exercise in genre-bending.

The horror film has never been a particularly reputable genre, and its glories have been rare. The macabre sensibilities of James Whale gave rise to the two undisputed classics in the field, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but that was in the early 1930s. (Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula is a terrible movie, and a reminder that — inexplicably — no Dracula film has ever used Bram Stoker’s superb novel as a basis.) The work of his successors (mostly hacks) have served to make Whale’s contributions seem Tolstoyan in comparison. And in some strange fashion, the occasional stylistic successes (like The Haunting of Hill House and The Legend of Hell House) are as frustrating as they are satisfying; they merely whet our appetites for elegant trash, but they’re essentially self-contained. The hiatus between events worthy of notice becomes more protracted, the disappointments more discouraging. I imagine the same holds true for Fright Night.

The picture concerns a high school student (William Ragsdale) who discovers he’s living next door to a vampire (played with a delicious mix of charm and menace by Chris Sarandon). That’s it really, but one of the wonders of the movie is that it plays fair by the conventions. Even if he occasionally goes for the obvious effect, Holland doesn’t tamper with the time-honored traditions of vampire lore. The film’s surprise ending may seem like both a cheap shot and a break with tradition, but it’s neither. It’s simply the logical conclusion to an action whose elements are presented to the initiated as a given, and a knowing wink that says … Maybe, maybe not. There is a remarkable respect for the rudiments of gothic horror unities here; even as it pokes sly fun at fustian nonsense, Fright Night pushes all the right buttons and pulls all the correct switches associated with our cherished ideas of how a good vampire tale is supposed to affect the viewer.


Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys

But the film’s most important component lies in the casting of Roddy McDowall. As Peter Vincent, “the Great Vampire Killer” — host of a silly, third-rate TV chiller theatre called “Fright Night” — McDowall serves as a cunning reminder that what we’re watching is make-believe. Through the juxtapositions of the movie’s rising action with Vincent’s repeated appearances on the tube nonchalantly dispatching Hollywood vampires, Holland is winking at us even as he’s piling on the more horrific trappings of his own “Fright Night.” Peter Vincent is the joke within the joke. Nor is McDowall’s casting accidental; he’s shown up on enough horror tinged Twilight Zone and Night Gallery episodes, TV movies and theatrical releases to have become a part of the genre himself. His performance both validates the form and pokes mischievous fun at it.

Although it’s a joy to watch McDowall ham it up as Peter Vincent, glorying in his own essential hokiness, you become aware as the film rolls on of the actor’s mastery of craft. His performance seems deliciously camp at first, as he struts about in pompous fashion — until he realizes that, for the first time in his synthetic life and career, he’s dealing with a real vampire. At the same time, McDowall is artfully etching a portrait of abject failure — a pathetic shill who knows in his bones that his time is up, a time he never really had to begin with. When these disparate strands crystallize, Vincent’s veneer cracks; he becomes correspondingly more terrified, and we get the movie’s only complete injection of non­surface acting. (Although the curiously sexy Stephen Geoffreys, as the movie’s requisite high-school pariah, a giggling oddball nicknamed “Evil,” has moments that go deeper than the others.*) He’s a charlatan, this Peter Vincent — broken-down and seedy, with his actorish posturings and calculated authoritative timbre, but as McDowall plays him, the character has a conscience; watch him as he wrestles with his own terror and you become cognizant of this shallow figure’s actual depth.


Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, staving off a rapacious Chris Sarandon.

There is a long sequence late in the film, as Vincent stands mute witness to the (seeming) death throes of a demon that is positively moving because of the unspoken pity McDowall evinces. I’m not certain all of the emotions that play across his weathered, oddly beautiful features were written into the script per se, and I doubt they could be. But McDowall gives them to us, subtly and movingly, through his own unassailable artistry ­ the sheen of craft that resonates throughout his performance.

Despite the cleverness of the movie’s admittedly double-edged title, it has a point of view. When Vincent’s stint as a late­-show host comes to an end, he laments the taste of the horror viewing public: “Nobody wants to see vampires any more. What they want are demented madmen running around in ski­-masks, hacking up young virgins.”† This seems to me a key speech, for even as we’re being royally entertained, Holland reminds us that his movie is something of a dead-end. He’s reminding us that it’s all a sham. Even as Richard Endlund’s often-brilliant special effects are conjuring up images straight from medieval concepts of Hell, the movie is itself almost funeral: a final specimen of a dying species. Whichever way you care to view it, Fright Night is quite a valedictory.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

*Geoffreys (who had an overbite that killed me) pinged my “Gaydar” back in ’85, and with reason; he eventually beefed up a bit and drifted into gay erotica, becoming, as I understand it, a “power-bottom” in pornos.

†Peter Vincent spoke too soon. Now everybody seems to want to see vampires, and zombies. The hack who figures out a way to make zombie-vampires work will launch the franchise to end them all.

Armchair Theatre 2017


By Scott Ross

The movies and other video items I watched (or, in rare cases, went out to see) during the year just passed.
BOLD: Denotes very good… or at least, better-than-average.
BOLD+Underscore: A personal favorite.

Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen
I don’t quite know why there’s been so little love for the 24th Bond. True, it’s no Skyfall — what is? Some people I know disliked the central premise. Others think the Daniel Craig titles have turned 007 from a dashing, erudite figure into a thug: M’s “blunt instrument.” And while I have a particular fondness for Roger Moore as Bond (his was the first Bond I saw in a theatre) I admire the Craigs more than any others in the series apart from the early Connerys and the Timothy Daltons. Craig also comes closest to resembling the Hoagy Carmichael Fleming prototype. On its own terms, the picture seemed to me exciting, thematically dark in a way that appeals to me, and stylishly (and occasionally, beautifully) made.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. One of my five favorite pictures, and which I haven’t seen on a big screen since 1978. (I don’t count the 1980 Special Edition.)


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.

Some Like it Hot. Also at the Carolina. My favorite movie. I always see something new in it. This time I focused on Billy Wilder’s astonishing technical achievement in matching Tony Curtis’ lips to Paul Frees’ looping of “Josephine”‘s dialogue.


New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:

None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.

Revisited with pleasure

F for Fake. Orson Welles’ non pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”

Absence of Malice
When this Sidney Pollack-directed newspaper drama opened in 1981, it received middling reviews and seemed somehow inconsequential. What a difference 35 years of media consolidation and deepening personal taste can make! Those of us who cared about such things knew too many papers, magazines and broadcast stations were in the hands of too few (usually conservative) people. But we had no idea then that, 15 years later, a Democrat would, with his 1996 Telecommunications Act, usher out the flawed but vitally important American free press and replace it, eventually, with a completely corporate, wholly right-wing, one.  For this reason alone, the picture has interest. Seeing it again, however, I was struck by the intelligence of Kurt Luedtke’s dialogue, how skillfully he lays out his narrative, and how deeply satisfying his denouement, which seemed at the time merely clever, really is. That Newman, Field, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Wilford Brimley all give splendid performances is practically a given, and Melinda Dillon is shattering as Newman’s doomed sister; the sequence in which she runs desperately from house to house trying to gather up every copy of a paper carrying a story that will devastate her own life and her brother’s illustrates all too clearly not merely what a staggeringly humane and expressive actor she is, but how badly she has been served by Hollywood in the years since. Which is to say, barely at all.

Black Sunday. An immensely entertaining adaptation of Thomas Harris’ topical thriller about a Black September plot, directed in high style by John Frankenheimer. A vivid relic from the decades before The PATRIOT Act was a gleam in the Deep State’s eye.

Munich. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.

Wag the Dog. It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, the most overrated American playwright of the past 40 years… although the fact it was made during the Clinton era may be a clue.

The List of Adrian Messenger. An effective murder mystery from John Huston and Anthony Veillier out of Phillip MacDonald, burdened by an unnecessary gimmick (guest-stars in heavy makeup) and lumbered as well by its director’s tacit approval of upper-class snobbery and his love of that barbarous tradition, the fox-hunt.

The Third Man. Graham Greene wrote it. Carol Reed directed it. Anton Karras performed the soon-to-be ubiquitous music. And Orson Welles had what was arguably his best role in a movie not also written by him. The only drawback in one’s thorough enjoyment of this deservedly beloved post-war thriller is knowing the producers wanted James Stewart for the lead. Good as Joseph Cotton is, once you hear that bit of casting-that-might-have-been, it’s almost impossible to refrain from imagining Stewart’s unique delivery every time “Holly Martins” speaks a line.

Hot Millions.
A 1968 sleeper hit, impossibly dated now in its then-striking use of computer technology, this Peter Ustinov-written comedy starring him and Maggie Smith is a movie that, for me, is a test of potential friendship. If I show it to someone and he or she doesn’t love it too, all bets are off.

Cinderella (Disney, 1950) Remarkably fresh after nearly 70 years, this beguiling rendition of the Perrault fairy tale was a make-or-break project for Disney animation, still struggling to regain its pre-war foothold. And unlike recent Mouse House product, schizophrenically made with one eye on each new heroine’s spunky feminist bona fides and the other on crafting an ageless new “Princess” to add to the lineage, there was no art-by-committee finagling here; generations of girls and boys loved Cinderella for her natural ebullience, her love of animals, and her complete lack of self-pity. (Parenthetical: Several years ago, the “Classical” music critic Lloyd Schwartz quoted a friend who cited “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as the most frightening song title he’d ever heard. I always think about that when I see the picture.)

Cotton Comes to Harlem. Not as rich as the Chester Himes novel, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.

Mary Poppins. This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking 1964 release, which would have put me at around four and a half. I know this because the movie was released in late August, and my sister and I were taken to it at a drive-in. Hence the “ever almost”: I remember only the beginning, and waking up in the back seat when Jane and Michael Banks were being menaced by a snarling dog in an alley. I finally got to see it again when it was reissued in 1973. I liked it then, but love it now in a way few 12 year-olds, even movie-mad pubescents as I was becoming then, ever could.

The Great Race - Lemmon as Fate
The Great Race.
Another favorite of long-standing. Seeing this on television, even on a black-and-white set, in pan-and-scan format, interrupted by commercials and spread out over two consecutive Sunday evenings, delighted me and made me an instant Jack Lemmon freak. The new BluRay edition is stunningly executed.


French Connection II. The rare sequel that succeeds on its own terms; although it was made during the period of John Frankenheimer’s acutest alcoholism it bears his trademark intelligence, verisimilitude and equal care with both action and actors.

Juggernaut. A taut, entertaining thriller directed by Richard Lester concerning a bomb set to destroy a pleasure-liner at sea.

The Front Page.
1931: A new Criterion edition, beautifully rendered, of the Lewis Milestone adaptation that shows how cinematic even the earliest talkies could be when handled by a master craftsman.

Robin Hood. (Disney, 1973.) I loved this when it opened. But then at 12 I was much less critical.

Death on the Nile. Nowhere near as stylish or accomplished as the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express which preceded it by four years, yet it holds many pleasures, not least its stellar cast. For a 17-year old nascent gay-boy, seeing both Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury on the big screen was close to Nirvana.

The Seven-Ups.
A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, directed by that picture’s producer, this tense New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals those in Connection and Bullitt.

Two Mules for Sister Sarah.
A solid comic Western directed by Don Siegel and with a sharp, leftist screenplay by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10. Shirley MacLaine and Clinton Eastwood would seem to be as mis-matched in life as their characters are here, but they make an awfully good team. Features superb photography by the redoubtable Gabriel Figueroa and a pleasing Morricone score.

The Jungle Book
(Disney, 1967) I was the perfect age when this one was released to embrace a new Disney animated feature — I had previously seen both Snow White and Cinderella in re-issue — and I went duly gaga over it. I had the Jungle Book comic (I wore the over off that one through obsessive re-reading), Jungle Book Disneykins figurines from Royal Pudding, Jungle Book tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a hockey-puck. My poor parents. Seeing it again in 1990 I was considerably less enthusiastic, but it’s remarkable what a quarter of a century can do for a picture. I still think it’s too self-consciously hip (especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance) for its own good, but the character animation seems to me wonderfully expressive, especially that by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who did half the picture by themselves.

The Jungle Book 165.2

The Jungle Book: George Sanders lends both his voice and his physiognomy to Sher Kahn, seen obliquely threatening Sterling Holloway’s Kaa.

The Aristocats. Another I was less critical about when it was new, which seemed a bit bland on video but which now looks awfully good, and that in spite of its borrowings from the infinitely superior 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, transposed to felinity. Not to be confused with The Aristocrats

The Cheyenne Social Club. The pleasures inherent in seeing a relic from the time when even a trifling Western comedy was imbued with deliciously quirky characterizations and witty, fondly observed dialogue (in this case by James Lee Barrett.) It isn’t much, but for the much it isn’t, it’s rather charming.

Rosemary’s Baby
. I somehow managed to miss this one until about 15 years ago, when I caught it at an art-house screening. Roman Polanksi’s screenplay (almost reverently faithful to the Ira Levin novel) and direction, the gorgeous cinematography by William A. Fraker and the effective score by Krzysztof Komeda (dead, sadly, within months of its release, this depriving us of a distinctive new compositional voice in movies), combined with the performances by its largely elderly cast and a notably plangent one by the often-insufferable Mia Farrow, make this exercise in stylish, low-key horror among the finest in the genre. What I was unprepared for then was how funny it could be, especially in Ruth Gordon’s knowing performance. “Chalky undertaste” become a running joke between me and my then-boyfriend for months afterward.

Rosmary's Baby large_gordon

Rosemary’s Baby: Polanski’s witty framing of Ruth Gordon,

Theatrical Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro. What was effective about this meandering and ultimately unsuccessful study of James Baldwin was the many clips of him speaking. But its makers set up a premise — why was Baldwin unable to finish his tripartite memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers? — and then almost immediately abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.

Kedi. Lovely, affecting movie about the street cats of Istanbul.

Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed
A timely reminder of a true progressive groundbreaker… who was ultimately screwed by the Democratic Party. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Point of Order! Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s superb compilation of kinescopes from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Especially relevant in these through-the-looking-glass times, in which liberal Democrats are, inexplicably, behaving in a way that would make Tail-Gunner Joe proud.

Selected Short Subject

Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story) Despite that second title, it’s not really his; Welles appended cinematic bookends to an atmospheric short picture made by Hilton Edwards.

Made for television

The Epic That Never Was. On the aborted I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton. A British television documentary I first read about around 1974 and which contains all the extant footage shot for the ill-fated 1934 adaptation of the Graves novel. Josef von Sternberg appears, imperiously (and predictably) blaming everyone but himself for the debacle.

W.C. Fields: Straight Up.
Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.

The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. Robert B. Weide again. When this delicious toast to the brothers first appeared in 1982, PBS committed the unpardonable sin of mentioning Woody Allen’s name in its promotional material, causing Allen to pitch a predictable fit and demand that Weide remove his footage. It was put back in for the DVD release, and reveals definitely that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of any importance, makes no great pronouncements and adds precisely zero to the critical canon on the team the documentary’s writer Joe Adamson once described as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo.

Citizen Cohn. History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.

Television series

I, Claudius. Still powerful, if hampered by being shot on video rather than film, and with a beautifully modulated central performance by Derek Jacobi, who transformed stuttering into an art-form.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The Lost Episodes (Volumes I, II and III)
One of the loveliest video events of the last few years has been the release of these utterly charming kinescopes by the Burr Tillstrom Trust, which is currently working to restore 700 additional episodes. I don’t know whether today’s children, weaned on CGI and iPhones before they’re out of preschool, have the capacity to respond to the show’s gentle humors, but I would be willing to bet that if you sat a relatively unspoiled five-year-old down in front of these 30-minute charmers, he or she might be hooked for life. It would be pretty to think so.


The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends. 12 full episodes from the late ’60s and early ’70s of that wittiest and most intelligent of American chat-shows. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett , Mel Brooks, George Burns, Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis fascinate and delight; Groucho Marx banters deliciously with his young goyishe friend; Dick fawns all too fannishly over a smug, queer-baiting Bob Hope; the Smothers Brothers behave strangely (it seems to be a put-on, but of what?) and Woody Allen flaunts his repulsive persona. Ruth Gordon and Joe Frazier also show up, as does Rex Reed, bitching rather perceptively about the Academy Awards. Also included is the single most painful interview I’ve ever seen — and surely one of the most awkward Cavett ever conducted — with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, the beautiful but weirdly inarticulate stars of Zabriskie Point.

Seen a second time… and will never see again

The Anderson Tapes. Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?

One Day in September. A 1999 Oscar winner in the documentary category, this impassioned examination of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics muffs too many facts and, ultimately, sickens the viewer; not in the way the filmmakers hoped, but by exhibiting horrid color photos of the bloodied victims, which, whatever the intention, feels like an act of heartless exploitation.

New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion. This first version of the “prequel” (odious neologism) to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader, was completely re-filmed, by Rennie Harlin, whose name is, as it should be, a hiss and a byword.

Moulin Rouge.
Visually glorious but dramatically inert. And you can really see what in it inspired Bob Fosse when he made Cabaret. But… was there a less appealing leading actor of the Hollywood Era than Jose Ferrer?

New to Me: More than worth the trip

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I avoided the theatrical release of this one in a manner not unlike my aversion to the first Star Wars picture when I was 16, largely due to my loathing of the Disney Company. But after stumbling across a second-act Blu-ray copy for an absurdly low price I thought I’d at least give it a spin. To my astonishment, this over-hyped space opera turned out more than well; it nearly obliterated the bad taste left by The Phantom Menace. J.J. Abrams’ direction, focused less on CGI effects than on human beings in conflict with each other and themselves (the latter the only thing Faulkner believed was worth writing about) was both riveting and surprisingly beautiful, and the Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt screenplay had pleasing weight and even levity. The only cavil about it is the niggling sense that the new series may be unable to shake replicating the same sort of father/son (or, in this case, grandfather/grandson) adulations and conflicts that powered the Lucas originals. Isn’t there any other plot available in that galaxy?

Across 110th Street. A tough slice of New York life, circa 1972. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.

Take a Hard Ride.
A cheerful, entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation from 1975, with very likable performances by Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, a fine villainous turn by Lee Van Cleef, an effectively silent Jim Kelly, a reasonably clever script (by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig), good action set-pieces by the director Antonio Margheriti, and a one-of-kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Firecreek. A downbeat 1968 Western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda that is, in Calvin Clements’ incisive screenplay, about as despairing of human nature as it’s possible to get without the viewer wanting to slash his or her wrists. A double-feature of this and Welcome to Hard Times could put you in a funk for weeks.

Wrong is Right. While we’re on the topic of press irresponsibility, this Richard Brooks satire of the year following Absence of Malice gleefully exposes, Chayefsky style, the appalling consequences of the electronic media’s love of ratings — a state of affairs being disastrously played out now, from Les Moonves’ giggling admission that the All-Trump-All-the-Time campaign coverage of 2016 was raking in the bucks for CBS to the current, slathering mania of so-called liberals for Russia-Russia-Russia McCarthyism.

The Kremlin Letter. A flop in its day, and roundly panned by Pauline Kael, this John Huston thriller from 1970, imaginatively adapted from the Noel Behn novel by the director and his longtime collaborator Gladys Hill and featuring an absolutely marvelous score by Robert Drasnin is infinitely finer than its detractors would have you believe. The only complaint — and it’s a failure shared by Sidney Lumet in his 1971 version of the rather ingenious Laurence Sanders novel The Anderson Tapes, in his use of Martin Balsam — lies in Huston’s miscasting of the 63-year old George Sanders as a gay spy. The character, as Behn wrote him, is an attractive young man, which makes his position within a group of spectacularly selfish mercenaries eminently explicable. As with Balsam in Anderson, the change is mind-boggling, although the notoriously homophobic Huston is far less offensive in his handling of Sanders than Lumet was with his star. But it is, finally, Richard Boone’s movie, and he makes a meal of it.

The Kremlin Letter 1_613x463

The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

The Night of the Following Day. One of many late-1960s Brando pictures that helped make him box-office poison, this adaptation of a Lionel White thriller boasts an impeccably arranged kidnapping, a very fine performance by Brando, a good one by Pamela Franklin as the victim, and an unequivocally great one by Richard Boone as the most terrifying of the felons. The only sour note is the ending the director (Hubert Cornfield) imposed on it, over his star’s quite reasonable objections.

Rio Conchos. Thanks to these last three pictures I was finally able to comprehend why aficionados love Richard Boone, an actor I had somehow managed to go 56 years without having seen.

Act of Violence. A nicely-observed 1949 thriller starring Van Heflin, the young Janet Leigh and a typically stellar Robert Ryan that gets at some dark aspects of World War II mythology and contains one sequence, in which a stalking, menacing Ryan is heard but never seen, that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.

Westward the Women. An interesting Western variation, about a trail-boss transporting 138 “good women” to California. Expertly directed by William Wellman from a fine Charles Schnee original. Typically strong photography by William C. Mellor, a good central performance from Robert Taylor and an exceptionally vivid one by Hope Emerson make this, if not wholly successful, diverting and markedly original.


William Hopper and Robert Mitchum on the Track of the Cat.

Track of the Cat. One of the strongest, strangest Westerns of the 1950s, beautifully adapted from the psychologically harrowing Walter Van Tillberg Clark novel and spectacularly filmed by William A. Clothier. I think this one ranks as the most pleasing surprise of my cinema year.

Cuba. A fast flop from Richard Lester in 1979, it’s actually a finely observed look at the events leading up to Castro’s coup, and is infinitely finer than Havana, the terrible 1990 romance from Sidney Pollack. Sean Connery adds his rough charm, Brooke Adams is almost impossibly beautiful, there is also delicious support from Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Alejandro Rey and Lonette McKee, splendid photography by David Watkin, and a memorable score by Patrick Williams.

Rio Lobo. An old-pro’s swan-song. Howard Hawks directed it, John Wayne is the star, Leigh Brackett wrote it (with Burton Wahl), Jack Elam gives juicy support, William A. Clothier shot it, and Jerry Goldsmith scored it. The only complaints I have concern some remarkably bad pulled punches by Wayne. But with a set-up this entertaining, and the stunningly pulchritudinous Jorge Rivero along for the ride, that’s a minor matter indeed.

Cutter’s Way.
Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic 1981 drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.

Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. Entirely unnecessary, and hampered by anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either doesn’t know or is vaguely aware of in the previous picture are revealed or dwelt on at length here — this Richard Lester-directed diversion goes down surprisingly well, abetted by László Kovács’ glorious cinematography, the charming central performances of Tom Berenger and William Katt, and yet another marvelous score by Patrick Williams, one that may stick in your head and which you could find yourself humming passages from for days or even weeks afterward.

The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook. It’s exceptionally articulate and well-made, with gorgeously muted lighting by Jeff Cronenweth and impeccable performances by Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer. But you will be forgiven for wondering, at the end, what it all meant.

Up Tight. Jules Dassin’s 1968 return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.

Paranormal Activity. I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror 2007 hit, ingeniously executed by its writer-director Oren Peli for $15,000, are nicely nailed-down. The absolute reality Peli sets up for the picture, and which is perfectly anchored by the performances of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (for whom the movie should have opened doors but, oddly, did not) makes the periodic scares that much more effective, leading to a genuinely shocking finale.

Super 8.
J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.

Super 8 Joel Courtney - 04

Super 8: Joel Courtney as the Abrams stand-in.

New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.

Journey into Fear. What’s good of Orson Welles’ direction is overwhelmed by what’s bad of Norman Foster’s.

Carlton-Brown of the F.O. Middling political satire from Ealing.

The Crimson Kimono. Surprisingly unsubstantial to have come from Samuel Fuller.

Where Were You Went the Lights Were Out?
Fitfully amusing blackout comedy starring Doris Day and Robert Morse that betrayed its French farce stage origins in the less ingenious second half.

The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.

The Summing-Up
So. Some mediocrities, but no real dogs this year, which was nice. As Pauline Kael once observed: Life’s too short to waste time on some stinky movie.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Grateful thanks to my good friend Eliot M. Camarena for enlightening my movie year, and special thanks to him for Act of Violence, The List of Adrian Messenger, Moulin Rouge, Point of Order, Up Tight, Westward the Women, and especially The Kremlin Letter and Track of the Cat. Eliot is one of the sanest, most politically astute people I know, and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly.

Festering like a sore: Up Tight (1968)


Uptight lobby card
By Scott Ross

In reviewing the Jules Dassin-directed Up Tight at the time of its 1968 release, Roger Ebert complained that adapting The Informer to a contemporary black revolutionary context was a graft that didn’t take, arguing that Liam O’Flaherty’s novel did not center on IRA activities but rather on the guilt of the protagonist.
But that, it seems to me, was too literal a reading for so freewheeling a project as this. Think of Up Tight less as a “remake” or even as a strict transliteration of The Informer and more as a variation on it, and you get closer, I believe, to the spirit of the thing.

O’Flaherty’s book was written in 1925 but set in 1922, following the Irish Civil War; by placing Up Tight in the black ghettos of Cleveland four days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., the filmmakers were getting at something very similar, in expressive terms, to the raw emotions the Irish experienced following partition. (The picture begins with footage of the civil rights leader’s Atlanta funeral.) King’s symbolism within black America, pro or con, cannot be understated, any less than the grief and frustration and rage that exploded after his murder.

A killing, moreover, which many now believe was carried out (or at best, sanctioned) by the United States’ shadow government. Scoffers ask why, with Dr. King’s effectiveness as a public figure largely blunted by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Establishment would bother. If we may dismiss as ludicrous the idea that a bill solves all the social ills it is meant to address — and we have only to look at the state of things now to do so with impunity — we must also ask: What was King’s focus when he was assassinated? Poverty, and war; specifically, the war in Vietnam. The powers directing the official powers may tolerate social agitation on matters of race or gender or sexuality, but when you question the very structures that hold the working and underclasses in poverty and those dictating what the historian Charles Beard called America’s “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” then something must be done about you… and something duly was. That this did not occur to the makers of Up Tight in 1968 is not a grievous fault; the picture rides on so much that was in the air at the time that it may surely be forgiven for missing a philosophical nuance here and there.

Not that Up Tight is exactly subtle. Its revolutionaries’ dialogue in particular has a blunt feel that places as much distance between us and the picture now, in the second decade of the 21st century, as lay between the 1935 John Ford/Dudley Nichols adaptation and Up Tight itself in the late 1960s. Indeed, if anything the latter feels even further in the past. The picture’s concerns, however, were very much in the present when it was written, filmed and released; race riots had broken out in 1964, accelerated between 1966 and 1968 and hit special prominence in 1968 with Watts, with more to come in the early 1970s. It should be remembered as well that weapons manufacturers, the police and the NRA only got concerned with enforcing strict gun control when the Black Panthers talked of buying arms, or went out of doors with them. There were many then who believed a racial war was not merely possible but inevitable. Wither, without those endlessly articulated white fears, a Charles Manson?

For my own part, I find the adaptation of O’Flaherty, by the picture’s star Julian Mayfield, its featured actress Ruby Dee, and Dassin himself, not only apt but cunning. Revolution was in the air then (as it damn well should be now, and shows few signs of being, save on the progressive left, liberals content to put on pink caps, denounce a monstrous egotist, snipe at the left, and call themselves — presumably after watching The Force Awakens once too often —  the “Resistance.”) And, pace Roger Ebert, revolutionary activities are very much a part of the novel, or why does O’Flaherty’s anti-hero Gyppo Nolan betray his friend Frankie Nolan in the first place? Gyppo is thrown out of the IRA for his inability to murder a Black and Tan as ordered, just as Up Tight’s protagonist, Tank Williams (Mayfield) is ejected from his revolutionary cell for his failure to assist in a robbery of arms that ends with the killing of a white security guard and the legal implication of Tank’s best friend.

Raymond St. Jacques - Up Tight

Raymond St. Jacques (center), Richard Williams (over St. Jacques’ shoulder) and (right) Janet MacLachlan meet in committee.

Betrayal, as a dramatic subject, requires no civil war or even its possibility, although it is in a political sense that it is perhaps most easily grasped. The wages do seem to fluctuate, however: 30 pieces of silver in the age of Judas Iscariot became 20 pounds in 1922; by the time of Up Tight they were a thousand dollars. Today they must hover around the half-million mark. The amount hardly matters, of course; the sense of personal guilt in all three cases is where the drama lies. Like Frankie, Johnny Wells (Max Julien) is a fugitive, and Gyppo/Tank betrays his whereabouts to the police, leading directly to Johnny’s death. Tank is motivated in part by his love for Laurie (Ruby Dee) and his desire to get them both out of the poverty that has blighted their lives and the lives of her children, just as Gyppo commits his betrayal of Frankie to secure passage out of Ireland for himself and his love. And here the screenwriters of Up Tight up the ante, having the self-styled revolutionary leader B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques in an intelligent and coldly frightening performance) inform Tank that it was Johnny himself who recommended cutting his friend loose from what is called “the committee.” It is that sense of personal disloyalty (and we are never certain whether Johnny made that statement or not, although we would not be remiss in doubting it) that pushes Tank over the ethical edge into lethal stool-pigeonry.

Up Tight picture-101

The all-too studied arcade sequence.

In addition to the sometimes less-than-felicitous dialogue, Up Tight is saddled with occasional directorial flourishes that go horrendously wrong — I’m thinking in particular about the sequence in an over-lit arcade that is at once wildly theatrical and pictorially bizarre. A group of well-healed white liberals surrounds an inebriated Tank, begging to know when the revolution will take place. (One woman in particular seems, in her grinning, pleading fashion, to want to be a victim; it’s a peculiarly direct parody of the extremes of then-current white liberal guilt.) Tank is only too happy to spin an outrageous fantasy of dead telephone lines, beautiful black bank tellers informing their customers there is no money, and NASA moon-shots aborted by revolutionaries, and this outré sequence is capped by Tank and his avid listeners being reflected in fun-house mirrors, which puts all too blunt a point on the monologue’s satirical edge. Theatre of the Absurd meets filmmaking of the avant-garde school, and it’s that marriage, not the mating of O’Flaherty and late-‘60s revolution, that falls hideously flat.

Up Tight - Booker T Jones

The soundtrack album. Note Trauner’s remarkably detailed, thoroughly lived-in set.

Ebert in his contemporary review also faulted the sets by the redoubtable Alexandre Trauner, and the manner in which they were shot, by the splendid Boris Kaufman, complaining of the artificiality of the settings (he compared them, dismissively, to Catfish Row) and the extensive night shooting which, to him, rendered these sequences as somehow phony in comparison with the day shots of Cleveland’s steel mills, garbage dumps and earthworks. The critic forgot, or did not notice, that Up Tight is a story told largely at night, and for good reasons — intentions an aficionado of film noir would instantly understand, as they would also comprehend why so much of the outside action takes place in the rain that turns gutters into neon-illuminated garbage streams. Trauner’s contributions seem to me especially felicitous, particularly in Laurie’s ramshackle home and the dilapidated boarding house the embittered Tank simmers in and in the oppressive project where Johnny’s mother lives and which becomes the scene of the movie’s violent confrontation between its inhabitants and the Cleveland police. It should also be noted how well Booker T. Jones’ spare musical score (and occasional song) serves the picture, and how effective the animated titles by John and Faith Hubley are — although, oddly, their depictions of the young Tank and Johnny include a clear re-drafting of a famous 1960s Coca Cola ad featuring two young boys lying on their backs and, defying all laws of liquid gravity, sipping from glass soda bottles turned straight down and which, if you know it, may cause you to wonder how they got away without the image sans corporate lawsuit.

Uptight - Roscoe Lee Browne

Roscoe Lee Browne as Clarence spies his pigeon.

One of the more interesting curlicues in the narrative is the presence of a gay pusher and police informer called, variously, Clarence or Daisy, and played with amused panache by the marvelous Roscoe Lee Browne. The actor hardly underplays the character’s sexuality; indeed, when corrected by a white police commander over his use of the word “nigger” — the cop interjects, “Negro!” — a smiling Clarence replies, in those deliciously clipped tones of which Browne was a master, “No, sir. Nigger… stool pigeon… and faggot.” Yet, in spite of his elaborately (yet somehow tasteful) queer digs and the late presence of a somewhat hysterical young boyfriend, Browne’s Clarence is not nearly as contemptuously portrayed, or written, as any one of a phalanx of such figures cobbled up by white screenwriters, at the time and even much later. Clarence is no more despicable than Tank himself, or B.G., and considerably clearer in his conscience. Even when manhandled by B.G.’s enforcers, he displays no stereotypical, “feminine” cowardice. He stands up to it better than Tank does. One does wonder whether Browne had any input on the shaping of the role. An actor of exquisite dignity as well as diction — see The Liberation of L.B. Jones — he was himself gay, and I like to think he may have had some influence on the conception of Clarence who, while lounging about airily in a very brief bathrobe (and, incidentally, displaying a finely shaped pair of legs, as befits a former track star) never dips into caricature of the grotesque sort, all too often on display in movies of the period. If anything, he puts one of in mind of a slightly more flamboyant James Baldwin. (The blogger and critic Stephen Winter thinks the performance is a mesh of Baldwin and Jason Holliday, the subject of Shirley Clarke’s documentary A Portrait of Jason.)
In any event, Browne’s is one of the very few such performances that, far from making you — as is usual — cringe, instead cause you to relish every moment he’s on the screen.

Up Tight teems with familiar names, although not all of them attach to specifically named characters, either in the end credits or at the usually fulsome imdb.

The actress and trail-blazing black playwright Alice Childress (Trouble in Mind) is listed, for example, but in what role? (I suspect she’s the smiling street preacher exhorting her flock in the rain, but I can’t be certain.) Michael Baseleon, as the now un-wanted white activist Teddy, has a good scene arguing with B.G. and Robert DoQui gets a very good sequence as a street speaker, with which he does wonders. Juanita Moore shows up all too briefly as Johnny’s understanding mother,* and Dick Anthony Williams (billed as Richard) does splendidly by Corbin, whose essential empathy is subsumed by his revolutionary aims. Frank Silvera contributes a superb supporting performance as Kyle, the voice of moderation, overwhelmed by the manner in which non-violent resistance crumbles in the face of exploding impatience of the sort Langston Hughes foresaw in his poem “Harlem” (“Or does it explode?”) Max Julien gives his brief appearances as Johnny an openness of expression that veers believably from rage at Tank’s failure to abet the robbery to, later, a gentle sweetness of spirit that suggest less an idealized revolutionary icon than a fully rounded human being. Janet MacLachlan, alas, playing his sister (and B.G.’s wife) Jeannie, is given by the writers a single mode to express— sneering fury — and is unable to overcome its limitations. On the extreme other hand, St. Jacques, looking especially handsome in full beard, limns a chilling portrait of the revolutionary whose otherwise admirable zeal has mutated into a rigid ideology that brooks no exceptions and that cuts him off from normal human emotions. Weakness is anathema to him, betrayal unforgivable. Comes the revolution, you feel, and B.G. will begin lining up for execution anyone he believes is less than 100% pure.


Ruby Dee - Up Tight! (1968)

The ever-glorious Ruby Dee as Laurie.

We expect Dee to deliver the goods, and she does, most notably in the late sequence in which Tank confesses to Laurie his involvement in Johnny’s violent death, after which she beats and scratches at him, flailing with her hands and fingers in a fury borne of equal parts grief and outrage. But Julian Mayfield, who was both a playwright and a novelist in addition to his work as an actor, is revelatory as Tank, infinitely more varied and moving than Victor McLaglen, who won the 1935 Academy Award® for his portrayal of Gyppo Nolan but who all too often in his screen roles becomes both brawling and bellicose, snarling one moment and brayingly riant the next. As Mayfield plays him, Tank is a man alienated by his times: Unprepared for the revolutionary fervor his best friend revels in, destroyed by his dismissal first from the only thing he loved without reservation (the steel mills) and later by the one substitution for it he can find (the committee.) Like Gyppo Nolan, Tank’s emotions too run the gamut, but Mayfield is more controlled, even in extremis, than McLaglen, and displays an actorly palette that suggests, poignantly, how fine a movie actor we lost when Up Tight failed at the box office. His own revolutionary concerns, and the usual fascistic surveillance of him by the FBI, may well have curtailed any such hopes all on their own; but that we will never know what he might have accomplished is, as it is always is in these cases, heartbreaking.

Julian Mayfield Up Tight! (1968)

The splendid Julian Mayfield. The depth of Tank’s pain can be easily read in those expressive eyes.

While Up Tight is necessarily dated, it, like the equally inflammatory The Spook Who Sat by the Door — and unless we as a nation begin to address the appalling inequities and sheer racism of a system whose passive consent to atrocity and active murderousness toward non-Caucasians has, since at least the 1980s, grown increasingly systemic — may prove prophetic.

The dream can only be deferred for so long. The explosion is overdue.


*I’m reminded by the brevity of Moore’s role as Mrs. Wells by a remark made recently by, I think, Octavia Spencer, that winning an Oscar® actually diminishes one’s career: Producers who might offer a part to you, she says, decline because they think, holding a statuette, you won’t deign to take it. Moore, nominated for Imitation of Life in 1959, kept working into her 80s but never again in a role as important, or as showy.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Reckless: “Point of Order!” (1964) and “Citizen Cohn” (1992)


Point of Order poster

By Scott Ross

If Roy Cohn had not existed, I can’t imagine why anyone would have invented him. The best one can do with such a composite figure of venality, avarice, hypocrisy, corruption and ethical rot is what Tony Kushner accomplished: To re-invent him, for dramatic purposes — as a symbol, yes, but as an appallingly human one. The great irony of Cohn’s life is that he should be best remembered as a character in an intellectual playwright’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” How the perfection of that would have rankled him!

Kushner’s Cohn is the prefect embodiment of self-loathing squeezed into bespoke Armani, a man who, even as he is stricken with “the gay plague” is able to justify himself to his physician with a monologue that sums up a sense of personal identity breathtaking in its blindness to reality:

“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels […] To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me? […] I have sex with men, but unlike nearly every other man of which this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to Washington, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand, because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.”

Paradoxically, the image of Cohn as something approximating a human being is encased, like a tsetse fly in mass-produced amber, in the kinescopes of the 1954 Army-McCarthy Hearings from which Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot concocted their mesmerizing 1964 Point of Order! I won’t call the picture a documentary, although it is certainly that, in the demotic sense of a living history. Rather the movie is a chronicle — a modern morality play if you like, one which carried with it the ultimate in unintended consequences. Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy, for whom he worked, expected these hearings to vindicate them, and to further their fruitless inquisition into alleged Communist infiltration of the government. That they were wholly unsuccessful in doing so, leaving only suicide and despair in their wake, was of no concern to them. They anticipated the televised hearings as spectacular in which they would star. The maxim “Be careful what you wish for” ought to have been hung over both men’s desks, but their preening arrogance was such that neither foresaw the ultimate outcome: Humiliation for both, and senate censure for “Tail Gunner Joe.”



You can actually see, in the act of hubris that brings about their downfall, the moment when Cohn realized the jig was up: The instantly famous “Have you no decency, sir?” scene — for scene it most assuredly was — played in monologue by the Army’s counsel Joseph Welch. As McCarthy flails in the wake of the spontaneous burst of applause that erupts in the hearing room, desperately attempting to extricate himself from his own, neatly tailored straitjacket, a look of squirming panic crosses Cohn’s features. Whether, as some maintain, he warned McCarthy in advance to not attempt a smear of Welch’s colleague Fred Fisher, the squall of anguish that briefly grips Cohn at least conveys that McCarthy’s young counsel was smarter than his boss. McCarthy blunders on, and on, digging himself in deeper, unable to recognize (or perhaps realize) that he’s lost the entire war in that one moment of “recklessness and cruelty.”

That Welch was fully prepared for his seemingly spontaneous chiding of the Senator seems self-evident. That he was playing, far more expertly than the more seasoned McCarthy, directly to the television audience as well as to the spectators in that crowded hearing room (just as he defined himself, disingenuously, as a “simple lawyer” when he was quite obviously anything but) does not dilute the impact that moment had on its viewers, or indeed the way we respond to it now. If Ed Morrow’s “See it Now” exposé of McCarthy was the first nail in the junior Senator from Wisconsin’s political coffin, Welch’s indictment of him was the last.


Welch at Army-McCarthy hearings

The apotheosis of that “simple lawyer” routine’s was very likely a bit earlier, when, asked by McCarthy to define what a pixie is, Welch responds, with apparent good humor, “I would say that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy.” It got a good laugh, but there is something unsettling about it, as there was earlier, when, during discussion of an Army investigation into “homosexual behavior” on a Southern base, Senator after Senator fell over himself to be assured the encampment was not in his state. A pixie is more closely related to an elf (a characterization that rather fits Joseph Welch, twinkling merrily and making gentle witticisms) but the Army’s counsel surely knew that, in 1954, the word “fairy” would mean something entirely different to his audience. That he made that statement while cross-examining Cohn is telling. Welch may have been subtler than his adversary, but I don’t think he was any less devious or even — to use his own word — cruel.*

Curiously, close attention to Point of Order! causes the alert viewer to realize that, in purely legal terms, McCarthy and Cohn were often correct. More damningly, we are able to grasp, knowing the sort of man Roy Cohn was, that Secretary of Defense Robert Stevens almost certainly perjured himself when he denied Cohn had threatened him. Stevens dismisses as ridiculous the idea that Cohn could have promised to destroy both the President and the Army itself if he didn’t get his way on the treatment of draftee G. David Schine. Doesn’t what Cohn is alleged to have said sound like him?

McCarthy with Schine photo

The matter of Schine, which brought about the hearings themselves, is practically a Cohn special in itself. Whether or not he and Schine were intimate, as some have alleged, McCarthy’s counsel certainly took a strangely personal interest in the young hotel chain heir, attempting repeatedly to garner for his protégé cushy Army sinecures and intimating, in the stupidly and easily exposed cropped photo of Schine and Stevens, that the Secretary was obliging.

There was, in some quarters, criticism of deAntonio and Talbot for making less a documentary than something else. This is of course perfectly true, but not in the way their detractors meant. These commentators wanted their documentary straight, with point of view, narration, and camera manipulation. What the makers of Point of Order! had in mind was something entirely different: A document that makes its own statement, through the use of un-narrated, un-accented, found footage. It is, for example, surely no accident that, in sifting through what must, over the six-week period of those hearings, have been at least dozens of hours of footage, the then former Attorney General is glimpsed in the background multiple times, his patrician looks and perfect coiffure in notable attendance. The Kennedy acolytes don’t like to admit it, but Bobby worked for McCarthy. In this way, his presence reflects the very sort of (also hotly denied) neoliberal McCarthyism that currently has in its manic grip all manner and condition of supposed liberal Democrats.

That the footage excerpted by the makers of Point of Order! is so readily available makes the failures of Citizen Cohn (1992) all the more curious. Adapted by David Franzoni from Nicholas von Hoffman’s cleverly titled 1988 biography, the HBO movie is so cartoonish and gets things so spectacularly, terribly wrong, that one can be distracted from what’s good in it. But the worst of its excesses is its blatant ripping-off of Kushner’s epic, two-part masterwork. One of the playwright’s most deliciously theatrical conceits lies in the presence, in Cohn’s private hospital room, of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Not content with duplicating this device, Franzoni ups the ante, bringing in the shades of McCarthy, Welch, the elder Cohns, and even a black juror from Roy’s 1968 trial on a wide variety of charges. Although Citizen Cohn predates the Broadway premiere of Angels, the first play (Millennium Approaches) was printed in American Theatre magazine in 1990, so Franzoni’s appropriation of the device can hardly be a coincidence. Why Kushner didn’t sue over that one, I can’t imagine.††

Citizen Cohn - Woods


Some of the actors (notably Joseph Bologna as Walter Winchell, Lee Grant as Cohn’s mother, Joe Petruzzi as Cohn’s boyfriend Peter and David Marshall Grant as a Robert F. Kennedy sporting a ludicrously, wildly unkempt hairdo) succumb to the cartoon-like quality of the piece, and are lost. Others (Ed Flanders as Welch, Jeffrey Nordling as Schine, Pat Hingle as J. Edgar Hoover, Karen Ludwig as Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel Benzali as that old closet-queen Cardinal Spellman, Frances Foster and Novella Nelson as two women named Annie Lee Moss, and Allen Garfield as Abe Feller) fare considerably better. But it is up to Frederic Forrest (as Dashiell Hammett), John McMartin as a doctor, Josef Sommer as Cohn’s father, Tovah Feldshuh as one of his wronged clients, the wonderful Fritz Weaver as Senator Everett Dirksen and Daniel Hugh Kelly as the Congressman Neil Gallagher (who gives back to Hoover in spades what that hypocritical old fascist deals to him) to provide that special thespic something that, to be unutterably prosaic, qualifies as veritable gales of fresh air.

James Woods, as Cohn, gives one of his patented scenery-chewing performances. Ron Leibman and Al Pacino were also… I believe the polite phrase is “larger than life”… in the 1993 premiere and the 2003 telefilm (also produced for HBO) of Angels respectively. And while Pacino looks nothing like Cohn, even eschewing the man’s increasingly bald pate, his performance is so riveting and so true you forgive him everything. There is a smugness about Woods that breaks through his characterizations, and it’s really on parade here, even during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. The Cohn Americans saw on their television screens was, if voluble, quiet and almost gentle, aware of the cameras but never (unlike his boss) playing to them. Woods smirks and mugs to the veriest galleries.

Worse, the director, Frank Pierson, stages the now-infamous Welch cross-examination with utter disregard for how it played out in Washington. He has Cohn, during the “Have you no decency?” exchange, seated, not across from Welch but beside him. All to give Woods a big, showy moment of standing up and stalking out of the hearing room, to the sound of a standing ovation from the spectators for Welch that goes on and on and on; what was in history a brief, shocking explosion is reinvented as the cheers of a first-night audience screaming “Author!”

That isn’t merely bad filmmaking, it’s bad history.

It has Roy Cohn written all over it.


*That Cohn also engaged in fag-baiting during the pernicious “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, helping to persecute other homosexual men, does not mitigate Welch’s snideness.

††Others did: Franzoni was the source, via a plagiarism suit against Spielberg and company over his screenplay, of the legal trouble that faced Amistad on its 1997 opening. He is also a screenwriter with a long and well-documented penchant of getting historical events absolutely wrong.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

A wine not properly chilled: “Shalako” (1968)


Shalako p3224_p_v8_aa

By Scott Ross

Shalako has a lot going for it, mostly what the filmmakers retained of the crisp little Louis L’Amour novel on which it is nominally — alas, not maximally — based, but it’s one of those exercises one regards more with sorrow than with anger.

Although no one, I think, not preternaturally deluded would deem L’Amour a great stylist — the original Shalako feels like a pulp novella padded out to full length by the use of very brief paragraphs — the scenarists were faced, as is always the case with any fiction of even minimal literary qualities, with insurmountable problems, the chiefest being that film is a literal medium. One cannot photograph thought, only an actor thinking — which I need hardly add is not the same thing. What L’Amour’s titular hero knows cannot be expressed in dialogue other than the most risibly self-conscious sort: How to read the signs of the earth about him, and to act accordingly. Shalako survives in his desert milieu because he thinks like an Indian. There’s some hint of this in Sean Connery’s likable, taciturn, performance, but hints, however expert, are not the same as tangible knowledge.

What was filmable was L’Amour’s rather ingenious central conceit: A genteel, largely European, hunting party in the Western desert, about to be set upon by a band of renegade Apaches led by Chato, up from Mexico. For reasons now lost, presumably, to the mists of time, the people behind Shalako ditched much of what the author had so generously set before them, and weakened thereby what little narrative thread existed in the source material. (They also — for budgetary reasons? — dropped the author’s sensible use of the Cavalry.) One senses a desire to portray the Natives in a slightly better light, by making the Whites’ violation, however inadvertent, of the treaty governing the reservation the reason for the attack. Yet in a prolonged, rather horrible sequence involving Honor Blackman, they managed to make the Indians far more brutal in act and aspect than would have been had the case had they followed L’Amour’s (admittedly somewhat threadbare) plotline. And this after virtually reprising Blackman’s roll-in-the-hay with Connery in Goldfinger, this time under the notably coarser persuasions of a black-hatted Stephen Boyd.


The brutal, humiliating death of Honor Blackman.

Shalako himself is rendered more or less as L’Amour wrote him, albeit with no attempt to justify Connery’s own obvious European origins. A more inexplicable misstep than this, however, is the casting — or, more properly, miscasting — of Woody Strode, lately an equally ludicrous Mongol warrior for John Ford*, as Chato. But even this is not so disastrous a misstep as eliminating from the picture the role of the silent assassin Tats-ah-das-ay-go, spooked by overhearing Shalako’s mention of his name and engaging in a memorable climactic battle with him, which, while ferocious, somehow emerges as an affaire d’honneur, at the climax of which Shalako salutes him as a brother warrior. Instead, the screenwriters (there were three, seldom a good sign) and the author of the “screen story,” elect to stage the combat as between Strode and Connery only to, in an utterly preposterous narrative leap, have it called as a draw by Chato’s chief and father… following which the Indians simply ride away, leaving the survivors fresh horses to ride. I trust Shalako’s compatriots were as gob-smacked by this as the audience.


Connery, not reacting to the climax.

A number of good actors manage to acquit themselves more honorably, including Boyd (whose character in the novel suffers a far gorier fate than in the picture, one L’Amour, wisely, or in deference to the sensibilities of the time, merely sketches in), Blackman, Jack Hawkins (who, post-laryngectomy, was dubbed by Charles Grey), Alexander Knox, Peter Van Eyck, Julián Mateos and Valerie French. In the feminine lead, Brigitte Bardot is lovely, but I found her thick accent largely unintelligible. Interestingly, Blackman has the more interesting role, although it is almost a paradigm of movie stardom that she plays a supporting part, for male actors, as their careers ascend, get younger and younger co-stars. Connery does get one nice, Bondian wisecrack in gentle mockery of his pedigreed hosts: Faced with a scavenged pot-luck dinner he dryly intones, “I hope at least the wine is properly chilled.”

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Stephen Boyd, as the cowardly villain. watches from safety as Blackman is dispatched.

There is also, at onset and finale, one of those terrible attempts at a hero-building ballad, sung by a Mitch Milleresque male choir of the sort one might reasonably have thought died in the 1950s. Producers in those days, of course, always thought in terms of potential hit singles. By 1968 the form was as passé as a coonskin cap. To note that the lyric was penned by Jim Dale does no honor to him, so forget I mentioned it.

If the foregoing suggests that Shalako is a waste of time, I can’t say I was bored by it, merely a bit annoyed. While Edward Dmytyk’s direction is merely competent, the editing is rather good. But what distinguishes the picture is Ted Moore’s sumptuous widescreen photography. As one ages, and newer movies grow increasingly less interesting, adult and intelligent, there is no small pleasure in watching a picture of less recent vintage that — even if ultimately lacking — in cinematographic terms anyway, satisfies through a rich palette and expansive photographic techniques. They remind you of the enjoyment even a minimally successful enterprise held when it was put together by professionals who were at least attempting to get at something. Since I can’t conceive of how L’Amour’s book could be successfully filmed, call Shalako less a missed opportunity than a hock improperly distilled.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Watching the skies: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at 40



By Scott Ross

I’ve written about hundreds of movies over the last 40 years but have somehow contrived to avoid writing appreciations of my five favorite pictures. This has not necessarily been out of any conscious avoidance on my part; if any specific reason applies I suppose it’s the desire to do justice to whatever I put my hand to, and my love for these movies is so strong, and so personal, I suppose I’m afraid my own limitations may me to do them less than full honor. In addition, my preference, for the purposes of this blog, is to write directly after having seen a movie, or seen it again, when the images and dialogue and performances, and my responses to them, or of their remembered pleasures, are still fresh in my mind. I wanted to write a review of the present subject for my high school paper when it was in release but, somehow and for reasons that now escape my memory, never did. Having just seen it again on a big screen, after a 40 year wait, I think it’s time I made the attempt.

If the foregoing seems unduly personal (if it does, the remainder of this essay will almost certainly feel embarrassingly intimate) I can only offer in my defense the fact that, when one loves a movie as much as I love this one, and has nurtured that affection for four decades, the matter is itself intensely and entirely personal. And anyway, I seldom consciously employ an omnipotent critical voice, especially where an object of such love is concerned. So I beg your indulgence if the following ends up being as much about me as about one specific picture. Although I have what actors call a sense memory of where I saw almost any movie I could name, that’s simply a quirk of recollection; it seems to me that one’s biography is linked, inextricably, to anything we feel as strongly about as I do this one specific movie.

I’ve written elsewhere about my avoidance of Star Wars as a 16-year old burgeoning movie fanatic, following my confrontation of Time magazine’s May 1977 front cover come-on (“Inside: The Year’s Best Movie”) and my indifference, once I opened the feature, to what I saw as merely space-ships and cute robots. It was part of my position as student aide at my high school library to stamp in the new periodicals, so I guess I saw that Time story before most of my peers. Similarly, one Monday morning in the fall of that year while behind the reference desk I opened the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section to see a two-page spread heralding another new movie. On the verso side were the soon-to-be famous descriptions of J. Allen Hayek’s three stages of a phenomenon new to me; on the recto, that stunning logo image of the deserted highway, its vanishing point conflating with a corona of light behind it, and, at the bottom of the trade credits, those five magical words: “Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg.”

In these movie-conscious times, when the doings of actors and filmmakers are recorded with panting avidity by nearly every publication and even the box-office of new theatrical releases is granted breathless exposure in 5-minute Public Radio news roundups, it must be difficult for the young to imagine a time when these (I would argue, despite my love for the medium, less than trivial) matters were not common coinage long before a new movie hit the multiplex. But even I, becoming as the result of my part-time job at a local cinema duplex, truly besotted with the movies, was not exactly au courant concerning what was coming, especially if, as in this case, I had yet to see a trailer. (Oddly, considering how often I went to the movies then, I never did see that trailer, until it was included on the VHS set years later.) I had heard of the picture, with its enigmatic title — “Kind” striking me as an especially odd noun for a movie — in some brief (and smugly admonishing) account that stressed the then-enormous budget overruns that so worried a cash-strapped Columbia Pictures, but that was all I knew about it. As a fan of the movie Jaws, I knew Spielberg’s name very well, and was aware that he hadn’t placed a new project in the theatres in two years.  What I still did not know about this one was much of anything, aside from its cost.

Close Encounter of the First Kind:
Sighting of a UFO
Close Encounter of the Second Kind:
Physical Evidence
Close Encounter of the Third Kind:

That double-truck ad haunted me as nothing else I’d seen related to a new movie had, probably since childhood. I fairly levitated with anticipation; like Alvin longing for his hula hoop, I could hardly stand the wait.

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This is a magazine spread rather than the original double-truck Times ad I saw but, aside from the banner at the bottom it’s identical in art and poster content.

Felicitously, between the appearance of that ad and the opening of Close Encounters, I had the opportunity to see Jaws again on a big screen, pretty much by happenstance. When the State Fair opened in October, the owner of the theatre at which I worked after school and on weekends, knowing that movie attendance dropped off precipitously during “Fair Week,” routinely scheduled a pair of older movies he could pick up cheaply from a distributor. For one screen he booked a sleazy yawn of a picture called Jennifer on My Mind, about which I mercifully remember almost nothing except the terminally boring heroine’s car-accident demise at the end. For the other, Jaws.

I had loved the movie at 14, and certainly believed it a definite improvement on Peter Benchley’s potboiler novel, but what had stayed with me most (aside from purely visual moments like the simultaneous zoom-forward/pull-back shot of Roy Scheider reacting to the boy’s death on the raft) was the sheer, sick-making dread it built up before — literally — exploding it at the end. Seeing the picture again, both it and I two years older, I was struck by how funny it was —  how its humor kept puckishly intruding into the dialogue, as a respite from the superbly mounting terror of its set-pieces. I also perceived anew the conflict between its three male antagonists, as a kind of satire on machismo, Robert Shaw’s Ahab-like Quint battling the less mature but more educated giddiness and obstreperousness of Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper and with Scheider’s pragmatic, thoughtful cop (an oxymoron?) occupying a kind of annealing middle space between two extremes of masculine identity. I was also struck by how wonderfully Spielberg observed domestic scenes, not just with how natural the children were in their behavior but the slyness and well-worn comfort that existed between Scheider and Lorraine Gary. It likewise seemed to me that this young filmmaker had an amiable way of giving underwritten roles like Gary’s the space to breathe; one of the sharpest and most striking moments in the picture is her exit from it, first walking and then racing from Quint’s shack as if pursued by the hounds of Hell.

Because movie theatre owners at that time could, by law, get away with sub-minimum wage in my state, the chief compensation for their mostly teen and college-age staffs was the movies themselves, not only those at our complex but elsewhere. Accordingly, we all had 12-month universal passes to nearly anything playing at an area theatre. The only proviso was that we were not to use them on the opening weekend of a new picture. So, despite my fixation on the new Spielberg, I duly, if impatiently, waited a week. The following Friday, no one I knew and with whom I regularly went to the movies had the night free, but I was in those days (unlike today) perfectly willing to go alone. It was a crisp December evening — that sticks with me too, for some reason — when I set out for what was then a new notion: A six-screen multiplex. (In the late 1970s movie theatres still tended to be either stand-alone, single screens or, at most, double that.) I had kept to a promise I’d made to myself to avoid reading anything about the picture — reviews or anything else, including the Newsweek cover story I was itching to get my hands on (I could have cheerfully murdered my newspaper staff advisor for revealing, in her usual absent-minded “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that, should I?” manner, that Devil’s Tower figured into the plot.) So, as the house lights dimmed, I sat in a state of delicious anticipation. It was rewarded moments later, with the slow build of a sustained chord in John Williams’ score that ended with a crash and the screen becoming filled with light and it remained with me, keenly, for two hours and 15 minutes, as I entered into a state of wonder I’m not sure I’d ever before encountered at the movies, and know well I’ve never quite experienced since.

I’m reminded as I write this of Evelyn Keyes’ description to an interviewer of being at the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind (in which she played, as the title of her memoir had it, Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister): “It was as if I’d never seen a movie before, and haven’t really since one since.” That Close Encounters of the Third Kind was, and remains, the single most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen, was certainly due in large part to the staggering assurance of its director and to his largesse of vision, as well as to the beautifully conceived and executed effects that buoyed and enhanced that vision. Yet equally as effective, I think, was the prevailing sense of mystery. Not as to what was happening and why — that was self-evident — but the uncertainty of it all. If you walked into this picture unawares, you had no idea, really until the final 15 minutes or so, whether the visitation its characters were going to receive was benign, or malevolent. If all you knew were the UFO movies of the past, you’d almost have to conclude that things couldn’t end well. There had not, aside from the hectoring aliens of the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, been a single American picture in which the visitors from outer space meant us anything other than harm. And indeed even here, where the tone was reasonably light, there hung a question mark, particularly during and after the terrifying night abduction of the little boy played by that amazing child Cary Guffey. Until the moment, very near the climax, when those lost to what we could only presume were similar kidnappings began to emerge from the Mothership on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” things could still have gone terribly, dangerously wrong. You just didn’t know, and nothing in the movie’s look or sound or texture gave you reassurance anywhere close to complete. So when Guffey descended from the ship, his cherubic face beaming, you might have felt a surge of relief as well as joy: Things were going to be okay.

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Carlo Rambaldi’s extra-terrestrial smiles back at Lacombe in the moving finale.

The bath of hopefulness that suffused me as the climax played out has little or nothing to do with belief; whether there are beings outside our understanding and experience seems to me, as it seemed to me then, one less of faith than of odds — why, the passionate assurance of the religious that we are the only perfect creation of God to the contrary, should we assume we are unique in the vastness of space? The movie’s other tag, beyond its explanation of Dr. J. Allen Hynek’s three stages of the close encounter (which, curiously, Spielberg never gives us in the picture itself) was “We Are Not Alone,” a phrase that, fittingly, expresses both optimism and potential dread. But more simply, and beyond the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, my hopeful side was touched by the sheer, big, open-heartedness of the ending, and by that exchange between Lacombe and the alien spokesman: A gesture, a smile, and we may touch each other, and express our common life-force. It doesn’t matter whether the recipient is of spheres beyond the earth or simply another race or nationality, or even gender. The smile is what matters. It spoke of a gentleness, a respect and a wish for mutual peace, that transcended Spielberg’s fantasy — and indeed the tenor of movies both at the time and now, born of cynicism and a disturbing taste, shared between movie makers and their audience, for escalating forms of violence. No one in the business, outside the Disney studios, was expressing such sentiments in 1977, and almost no one is concerned with them now. The desire for understanding, the imagination that empathy requires, had become rare by that time, and slightly suspect, and feels even more isolated now, when even Steven Spielberg no longer embraces them. What was special then is even more rarified four decades on.

Sentiment in movies is something to be embraced when you’re in good hands, but sentimentality almost never is, and it is certainly true (and contrary to those who found the picture unbearable) that while Spielberg eschews the rank exploitation of it in Close Encounters, his sentimentality in subsequent pictures often became gloppy as hell; even as fine a fantasy as E.T. can at moments cause your teeth to ache. But I’d almost rather have that, which in Spielberg’s case was at least heartfelt, than the ugly, cold, violent and puzzling fury of something like his 2005 War of the Worlds, which feels like an angry old man’s contemptuous reaction to the benignity of his own past work. I’m reminded of George Stevens, who made a number of sparkling comedies before the war but who, after helping to liberate Hitler’s death camps, never made a happy picture again. Something about making Schindler’s List in 1993 appears to have permanently altered Spielberg’s outlook, and not for the better. He has repeatedly said he isn’t the same person as the young man who made Close Encounters, or even Jaws, and it would be foolish and even a little creepy to expect him to be — like a parent willing a favored child back to infancy. Yet with War of the Worlds Spielberg seemed to be gleefully pissing on everyone who’d ever loved his earlier pictures — especially Close Encounters. A lot of people have cherished the hope, since the 1990s, that he might one day return to the sort of optimistic pictures that made his name; but while I think the darkening of his worldview enhanced his best post-Schindler work, the wrenchingly felt Munich, on the evidence of War of the Worlds I would say that if he has lost the capacity for wonder and the openness of heart that propelled and enlivened Close Encounters and E.T., perhaps it would be best for all concerned if he stayed away from fantasy for good. There are more than enough filmmakers around now who are only too happy to grind their audiences’ faces in sadism, gore and misery. Does Spielberg really need to be one of them?

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The Mothership emerges, with illogical magnificence.










Whatever its disadvantages in loss of surprise, seeing a movie you love a second time has ample compensations, if only the simple joy of reliving what made you so happy the first time. With Close Encounters, the subterranean anxiety about the outcome which attended that first screening was eliminated, the anticipation of pleasure taking its place. I was able to relax more fully and appreciate the contours — the totality — more fully. Things like the naturalness of the domestic sequences and the behavior of the UFOs themselves, which now no longer held any threat and could be seen as Spielberg intended, as playful rather than potentially deadly. While the abduction of Guffey’s Barry Guiler was still creepily frightening (Jesus Christ, those screws coming up and out of the heating-grate!) and full of anguish for Barry’s mother, a second viewing made manifest what had only been sub-conscious the first time: That the aliens have chosen Barry for his sweet, ingratiating innocence — that they are attracted to the ingenuousness of the boy, just as they have marked Roy Neary for his childlike curiosity and delight. The image of Barry opening the door of the house is not just totemic, it’s emblematic of the movie itself; he’s saying, as the entire picture does, “Welcome! Come in!”

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Barry Guiler opens the door.

When I finally did see Star Wars — dragged all but kicking by my best friend the following summer — I was conscious, in spite of my general enjoyment and even, to my surprise, delight with it, that many of the special effects that so many other people reveled in were a disappointment and suffered by comparison with the effects in Close Encounters. Spielberg was canny enough to determine that his effects looked far better shot in 35mm and blown up to 65. I was conscious of a lot of blue-screen in Star Wars, but with the Spielberg picture I never saw the joins. And that 65mm frame gives the entire picture a scope that does wonders for the sense of enchantment you get from it. It’s not merely widescreen —it’s enormous. It doesn’t overpower you, but it enthralls you, and brings you into it, in a way that, among epics, only Lawrence of Arabia really does. That is a large measure of my decades-old desire to see it again in a theatre. The biggest home plasma television in existence cannot do for you what seeing the movie projected on that massive screen can.


Dreyfuss’ truck in the alien spotlight.

And the images sing, as the UFOs are said to sing to those who see them and to whom subliminal messages are passed marking them out as chosen, even if they never know it: The sparkling eyes and ancient, smiling face of Eumenio Blanco as Truffaut gently turns his head to look at his partial sunburn; the way Bob Balaban is swallowed up in sand blown by the desert wind as he yells out his confusion; the blinding light that falls on Dreyfuss’ truck as he’s scrutinized at the railroad crossing; the changing expressions of little Cary Guffey as he surveys the ransacked kitchen (and, we presume, the new friends who’ve come to visit); the Disneyesque, Dopey-like, perpetually tardy little spacecraft, represented by a red Tinkerbell light as it darts about, seeking to catch up with the armada; the streaking alien craft zooming through the toll-booth; the clouds roiling in the night skies (achieved by injecting paint into fresh water sitting atop saline); the ship in the desert (also added to the Special Edition); Dreyfuss, bathed by a red night-light, fully-clothed and being deluged by the bathroom shower as he sits weeping in his isolation and despair (a sequence cut in 1977 but added back in 1980); the crane-shot revealing Devil’s Tower to two breathless pilgrims; the birds falling from the trees as they’re hit with non-lethal gas; the Mothership hovering over the landing field as technicians scramble to take readings, their hair and clothing and instruments lifted by the static charge; Bob Baker’s elongated marionette emerging from the Mothership, its arms upraised in benevolent greeting; Guffey’s radiant face as he emerges from the ship; the aliens surrounding their chosen initiate, his childlike delight drawing them like light attracting a swarm of moths.

If Close Encounters has flaws for me, they’re few, and for the most part minor. That big plane of glass that shatters when the Mothership responds to the synthesizer attempting communication with its first great chord should blow in and not out — something I noticed at 16 — although you can understand for the actor’s sake why it doesn’t. Also, when the Mothership makes it initial appearance, seeming to rise up from behind and below Devil’s Tower, the physics make no sense; the thing is immense, and would have to emerge from the bowels of the earth to create that effect, but you’re so delighted by the image that even as you critique it you don’t really mind. There are little glitches, too, such as the fact that the newscaster on Neary’s television makes an aside to Walter Cronkite when the broadcast is clearly manned by Howard K. Smith. (Spielberg had always planned for Cronkite to play himself, and the veteran newsman was willing, but CBS corporate policy negated his appearance.) The largest leap of faith is Neary’s, and it’s one that simply never occurred to me at 16, or 19 — perhaps because my relationship to my own father was so uneasy — but has since bothered Spielberg great deal: Roy’s leaving his children behind as he eagerly embarks on his new interstellar life at the end. However impossible his marriage may be, however lost Roy Neary feels and however innocent his enthusiasm, asking what sort of father would make that decision is more than a fair question.

Some critics at the time bemoaned the lack of characterization in Close Encounters, but what I think they were really missing was dialogue. I’d be interested to know what the comparative ratio is in the screenplay (credited to Spielberg solely but worked on as well by Jerry Belson, John Hill, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins) of dialogue to action, because Close Encounters strikes me, as it struck me in 1977, as having perhaps the least amount of talking in it of any picture I can think of since the advent of sound. The dialogue is not only spare, but much of it — especially Teri Garr’s — not only feels improvised but was. Garr’s role, and Melinda Dillon’s as Barry’s mother Jillian, are, in terms of dialogue, among the shortest of any picture of its time, but they’re not in any way under-nourished. That’s partly the effect of good casting: Garr and Dillon do so much with so little that they’re astounding; Dillon was subsequently nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar® for her performance, and it was, as these things go, well deserved. Among the images and moments that have remained most vivid with me for 40 years are those involving her elastically mobile face and body: How she places her fingers on the motel television screen as Devil’s Tower is revealed, as if touching a religious icon, or the way she bites her finger ecstatically, grinning and bouncing up and down on her feet at the light-show she witnesses at the climax, or her despairing cry (“Ba-ar-ee!”) as she runs through the woods. And little Cary Guffey at four years old still seems to me the most preternaturally expressive child the movies have seen since Jackie Coogan in The Kid. Even granting that many of the reactions Spielberg got from him involved elaborate subterfuge and thoughtful preparation, Guffey’s wide eyes and heart-melting smile are still astounding to see. He’s the spirit of the movie itself, in a way, open and beguiling. It’s not an actor’s performance, but a state of natural delight, sustained and without calculation or guile. For him the alien visitors are spirited playmates bringing wondrous new toys. It’s no wonder he opens that door.


Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr)

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Dreyfuss with the marvelously expressive Melinda Dillon.

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Barry (Cary Guffey) meets his new friends. Spielberg put ruse on top of surprise to elicit Guffey’s beautiful, spontaneous reactions.

Guffey’s adult counterpart is Truffaut, in whose countenance and demeanor (particularly in his performance as Dr. Jean Itard in L’enfant sauvage) Spielberg saw an embodiment of gentle wisdom and spiritual largesse. It’s certainly no accident that it is Lacombe who exchanges greetings with Rambaldi’s articulated alien at the end, and if the actor had some difficulty with his occasional English dialogue (his mispronunciation during an early take of the line “They belong here more than we” as something like, “Zey beelong ‘ere Mozambique” delighted the crew, who printed up T-shirts bearing the sentence, amusing even the easily-embarrassed Truffaut himself) it is in his face, and his eyes, and his smile, that Close Encounters finds its true animating spirit.


Truffaut’s radiant smile.

Aside from those quickly-famous five notes, John Williams’ score for Close Encounters got short-shrift generally in 1977 (he did win the Academy Award®, but for Stars Wars) and this seems more than a little unfair. His compositions here are less showy, perhaps, and contain fewer motifs, but his musicianship is even more impressive than in the Lucas picture, not least for its embrace of atonality, which gives much of the score an ethereal, otherworldly feel that is perfectly in keeping with the picture’s theme and sense of uneasy mystery. He didn’t need to emulate Korngold here as he did in Star Wars, and a good deal of his work in Close Encounters seems based as much on the Dies Irae as on the five notes he and Spielberg painstakingly selected before filming began and which are so much a part of the movie’s overall scheme and texture. That the Latin hymn translates to “Day of Wrath” in no small way contributed, if my ears are correct in placing that eight-note theme with the Dies Irae, to my underlying un-ease on seeing the movie the first time. This is in no way a hopeful set of notes, although Williams doesn’t use it in a manner that feels at all deathish, in contrast to Stephen Sondheim, who built much of Sweeney Todd on the same octave. And unlike his work on the Star Wars movies, Williams was not tracking action in Close Encounters as much as he was limning and helping to define the picture’s moods. Not that he doesn’t excite you at several junctures, especially near the beginning and toward the end. But only at the climax does his innate romanticism burst through, in those soaring, even Wagnerian, strains that accompany the heavenward flight of the UFOs during the credits. (He’d do something similar for the lifting off of the rescue craft at the climax of E.T., although his emotionalism is less restrained there than here. In Close Encounters Williams accompanies the release of emotion; in E.T. he almost seems to be tearing it out of you.)

I see that I haven’t begun to touch on Dreyfuss’ extraordinarily modulated and often wildly funny performance; on Bob Balaban’s quiet excellence as Truffaut’s translator; on Vilmos Zsigmond’s exquisite lighting and expansive, muted palette; on Michael Kahn’s lively editing, or Joe Alves’ phenomenally effective production designs, Roy Arbogast’s marvelous visual effects, or even on Spielberg’s astonishingly assured and often witty direction —impressive when measured on any scale but staggering for a young man of 30. (Note for a single example the way he put together the great sequence in which the air traffic controller played by the splendid Bill Thurman handles the picture’s first close encounter, which in its confidence in holding on interesting faces communicating with disembodied voices and sonar blips — the filmmaker’s belief that the tension of the scene can build, and release, without our ever seeing the event that so captures the characters’ anxious concerns — is in its way as impressive as the movie’s biggest set-pieces.)

But that’s the way it is when one is confronted by something as rich and satisfying and even, just conceivably, as profound as Close Encounters. If there’s anything as gratifying as finding that something one loved as deeply as my adolescent self loved this movie still holds up, still enchants and entrances and elates, it’s the satisfaction of discovering that the 16 year-old me was, in loving it, absolutely justified.

You can go home again.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind 2