By Scott Ross
Note the First: Although I have endeavored to post these capsule review collections as close to the first of each month as possible, I a) have a full-time job, hence a limited amount of time to write; and b) have been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on that writing. The wholesale insanity of the last 18 months; of my mayor and governor and county commissioners using a manufactured viral outbreak as the excuse they’ve been waiting for, presumably all their lives, to behave like would-be dictators; of seeing a sociopathic hack hailed as American’s Doctor™, medical science and sensible care turned on their heads as if the entire world had fallen down the rabbit hole after Alice, a demented old bigot installed in the Oval Office and self-anointed tech billionaire health czars blithely informing us we will likely be “locked down” for years; and of the constant harassment over useless masks and applied duress requiring I either risk my future health by taking an experimental gene therapy masquerading as a vaccine, submit to weekly tests and disclose my health status to my employers in violation of HIPPA laws, or lose my job… these and related stresses have conspired to sap what little mental, physical and emotional energy I have, leaving very little for creative activity. But then, I strongly suspect that driving us all nuts is part of the plan; even jolly old “Santa Klaus” Schwab, who should know, let it slip last year that we are in the midst of “the world’s biggest psychological experiment.” After a year and a half of this psychic pressure, I’m lucky I can write my own name, let alone a monthly digest of coherent critical thought.
Note the Second: As always, click on the highlighted text for links.
Fail-Safe (1964) A quietly terrifying adaptation by the screenwriter Walter Bernstein and the director Sidney Lumet of the remarkable Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler nuclear-nightmare novel with a superb cast headed by Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman and Frank Overton.
Charley Varrick (1973) A smart, tough crime drama directed by Don Siegel featuring a strong central performance by Walter Matthau. The tight screenplay by Dean Riesner and Howard A. Rodman was adapted from “The Looters,” a fast, violent little pulp novel by John H. Reese which is even more brutal than the movie: Charley, the older of the two robbers who pull off a bank heist whose proceeds are unexpectedly stuffed with Mafia money, is not only a nasty piece of work in himself but dies horribly at the hands of a psychotic Southern cracker hitman long before the story is finished. The movie Charley is nearly as gruff as his literary coeval but not as ruthless, although he does set up his problematic young partner (Andy Robinson) for possible death at his own hands. Siegel, who literally signed this in the credits as “A Siegel Film,” keeps the action rolling and the violence, while not excessive, disturbing. He’s abetted in this by his screenwriters and by Michael C. Butler’s beautifully rendered widescreen cinematography, Frank Morriss’ effective editing and a taut score by Lao Schifrin with a pulsating, agitated main theme that perfectly encapsulates the picture’s mounting tension. Although Reisner and Rodman used very little of Reese’s novel, which jumps from one character to another in a way that illuminates all of them without digressing from the narrative, they seized on one of its peripheral aspects, to excellent effect: Charley’s crop-dusting business, with its slogan “The Last of the Independents.” (Siegel was so enamored of that he wanted to name the movie after it but was overriden by Universal.) They also used Charley’s piloting, and his past as a barnstormer, to neat affect at the end. Interestingly, their finale was echoed later in Brian Garfield’s book Hopscotch, which in its turn made a memorable vehicle… for Walter Matthau.
Moviegoers of 1973, who had perhaps forgotten that Matthau had a long history of dramatic roles in addition to his peerless way with comedy, might have been surprised by his superb performance here… if they saw it; the picture was a flop at the box office. Robinson, the Zodiac knock-off killer of the atrocious Dirty Harry, sometimes seems to be reprising that performance, the way Steve Railsback couldn’t quite shed Charlie Manson in The Stunt Man. Joe Don Baker is appropriately mercurial as the hitman and the good supporting cast includes John Vernon as the shady bank president; Woodrow Parfrey as his prissy manager; Felicia Farr (the wife of Matthau’s best friend Jack Lemmon) as a secretary with secrets she’s willing to share with Charley along with her favors; Norman Fell as an FBI agent; William Schallert as a small-town sheriff; Benson Fong as a Chinese gangster; Jacqueline Scott as Charley’s doomed wife; Marjorie Bennett as his nosy old trailer park neighbor avidly and with delighted relish assuring anyone who’ll listen that she just knows rapists are after her; and the marvelous Tom Tully as a pawnbroker in a wheelchair who gets a memorable demise. The best performance aside from Matthau’s is that of Sheree North as a cool, savvy photographic forger. What North does with the character is astonishing; she takes an interesting small role and turns it into a complete human being, with an inner life and, for all I know, a soul. And to think that if she’s remembered at all it’s as a plate of 1950s cheesecake.
Second Chorus (1940) Fred Astaire famously referred to this as “the worst film [he] ever made.” I assume he meant the worst musical — he certainly made worse movies — but even then I’m not sure he was right. Silk Stockings had a bigger budget, and a Cole Porter score, but it isn’t much fun. Nor are Three Little Words or Blue Skies, despite the great “Puttin’ on the Ritz” routine in the latter, with its nine reflected Astaires. Not, mind you, that Second Chorus is a patch on his best features. It’s perhaps the most dramatically thin of all his musicals, with a central conflict (Fred and Burgess Meredith as superannuated musical college roommates constantly one-upping each other) that becomes steadily more obnoxious. As one of the picture’s producers Astaire merits as much of the blame for it as anybody, but it’s hard for me to really dislike anything with Fred Astaire in it, or Paulette Goddard, for all that she’s no singer and assuredly no dancer. Playing himself, Artie Shaw comes off as a stiff and Meredith is almost shockingly unlikable, but admirers of the Preston Sturges stock company will enjoy seeing Jimmy Conlin as a collection agent. Best of all is Charles Butterworth as a millionaire big band fiend and amateur mandolinist. It was Butterworth who in Every Day’s a Holiday delivered the immortal line, “‘You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.” He was later immortalized by Daws Butler, who used Butterworth’s distinctive speaking voice as the inspiration for innumerable characters on the Jay Ward Rocky and Bullwinkle shows and for Cap’n Crunch in those ubiquitous 1960s Ward-produced Quaker Oats commercials. The minute you hear his voice you’ll recognize it.
H. C. Potter directed with no particular flavor or distinction at all, from a screenplay by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter, to which Johnny Mercer and Ben Hecht also contributed, the latter without credit. I sense Hecht’s fine Italian hand in the scenes between Meredith and Butterworth, and maybe in some of the nastier stunts Astaire and Meredith pull on each other, which have the feel of warmed-over Gunga Din. What Johnny Mercer added only the Show Biz gods remember, although he did write some nice lyrics, especially to “Poor Mr. Chisolm” and the jaunty “I Ain’t Hep to That Step (But I’ll Dig It).” Bernie Hanighen wrote the music to the former, which becomes a big band suite both danced and conducted by Astaire, and Fred’s longtime RKO musical director Hal Bourne composed the latter. (Astaire and Meredith play dueling trumpeters, and their playing was dubbed by Billy Butterfield and Bobby Hackett respectively.) But the creative poverty of the thing is indicated by the people involved not even bothering to come up with a name for the college art which Astaire and Meredith are perpetual students: At a dance, a cheap sign hanging over the bandstand reads, simply, “University.”
Shaw threw in some nice tunes, including a swinging “Concerto for Clarinet,” but he wasn’t any happier with Second Chorus than Astaire was. He did, however, have this to say about Fred: “I liked him because he was an entertainer and an artist. There’s a distinction between them. An artist is concerned only with what is acceptable to himself, where an entertainer strives to please the public. Astaire did both.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) It would be pretty to think this is the last we will ever hear of a franchise that has for years shown itself about as useful as a set of bald tires in a monsoon, but I think we all know it won’t be: Disney spent too much to buy the Lucas empire; it’s not about to slaughter a cash-cow that extensive. Those of us, however, who strongly suspected The House of Mouse would completely fuck up Star Wars have been vindicated. The studio did this partly out of arrogance (refusing to consult with Lucas or even to listen to the man who created these worlds) and partly from its own, admittedly profitable but creatively bankrupt tendency to indulge in endless remakes of what has gone before, a trait I imagine would have driven the founder of the company to a state of permanent conniption. The entire Disney Star Wars series has been a retread of themes and even entire plots that had been exhausted by George Lucas years ago. The final installment is not merely a coffin for a cinematic entity that had nowhere to go unless it jettisoned its own past, but, for anyone above the age of 12 armed with a scintilla of creative intelligence and independent thought, the three final nails in that casket.
The essential disaster at the core of this unnecessary movie is not merely that J.J. Abrams (and Chris Terrio, his co-scenarist) could not let go of the damned Skywalker family and their overworked parent/child dynamics, but that he was reduced to remaking Return of the Jedi. And who in his right mind would want to remake the weakest, more perfunctory movie in the original series? Even granting that the filmmakers were placed in a nearly impossible position by Carrie Fisher’s death following The Last Jedi, the very premise of this one is so ludicrous, so utterly and entirely risible, that it cannot stand up to the slightest scrutiny: That the Emperor, thrown to his explosive death at the climax of Jedi has miraculously not merely survived but become more powerful than before. Pull the other one, J.J. That it took no fewer than four writers to concoct this monumentally stupid narrative probably says more about the 40 year decline and fall of post-70s Hollywood than anything since the worldwide success of Titanic. Worse, Abrams & Co. were so consumed with trying to make this laughable situation work, and with pumping air into the dead-at-birth love/hate rivalry between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s annoying Kylo Ren, they neglected the one thing about the series that gave it a simulacrum of actual life: The human relationships around the action. We had every reason, after the second picture, to expect we would see more of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico and John Boyega’s Finn, yet they are reduced here to glorified walk-ons, Finn not even being allowed to express his feelings for Rey at the end. Things are so shakily inconsistent that, when the young Luke is pictured training his sister, the face we see is not Fisher’s from the ’70s or early ’80s extracted from an earlier movie and digitally edited in (as Hamill’s image obviously is) but that of her daughter, who looks so little like her you don’t realize who she’s supposed to be until the fast little scene is over. Now, what the hell was that in aid of?
The plot, such as it is, and the abundance of Fisher outtakes from the two previous* movies permitted Abrams to keep Leia alive until the mid-point, while Mark Hamill appears as the Jedi shade of Luke and even Harrison Ford gets to show up as a ghost of some sort, or perhaps he’s an hallucination. By that juncture I’d stop caring about the distinction and was able to concentrate once again on speculating how a young man with a mug as militantly unattractive as Adam Driver’s can become a movie star despite lacking a scintilla of charm, humor or photogeneity. And for the first time in the series the unremitting ennui this movie spawned affected even the John Williams score. I’ve never heard this master of cinematic composition so dispirited, marking time with endless reprises of past Star Wars music and generating, if my ear did not deceive me, no new themes at all. If Williams can’t work up any enthusiasm, how can we be expected to? The single saving grace of the picture is the marvelous Daisy Ridley, and even she isn’t enough. Having out of curiosity imbibed in the first installment, I felt obligated out of a similar sense of inquisitiveness to see the wretched thing through to the end. Never again. My adolescence was not such a picnic that I’m eager to revisit it at regular intervals for the rest of my life.
*Or do I mean, as I mistyped originally and which error — or Freudian slip — was caught by Eliot M. Camarena, “pervious”?
The Revengers (1972) A strange, fascinating Western starring William Holden that moves in unexpected directions, manages to be effective in both its horrific and its comic elements, and features beautiful widescreen work by the cinematographer Gabriel Torres and a remarkable performance by Susan Hayward as a sharp frontier nurse that lifts the movie into a realm few genre pictures achieve. Holden plays a former Union officer whose family is brutally massacred by a vicious band of Comancheros and who gathers from a Mexican prison a team of outlaws to pursue the killers. There are elements here of both The Searchers and The Dirty Dozen, although without, thankfully, the lip-smacking sadism of the latter, and the outlaws are entertaining without making you feel they’re about to commit fresh atrocities every 10 minutes. And each time you feel you have the measure of the movie and a surer sense of where it’s going the screenwriter, Wendell Mayes, surprises you. (Steven W. Carabatsos, the author of the screen story, deserves a nod here as well.) William Holden, a personal favorite since as a teenager I saw him in Network, gives one of his thoughtful late-career performances; his character is eaten up with bitterness but he doesn’t know how to focus his anger when the cause of it (Warren Vanders) escapes his grasp. Ernest Borgnine, as the braggart Hoop, is extremely funny and the wonderful Jorge Luke is unexpectedly touching as a young bandito who imagines Holden is his long-lost father. The picture is nicely directed by the veteran Daniel Mann, but Pino Clavi’s music, emulating the archaic/contemporary aspects of Ennio Morricone’s compositions for Sergio Leone, often feels misplaced and overly melodramatic, although it’s one of those curious scores that, while largely inapt in the picture for which it was composed, makes for rather pleasant listening divorced from it.
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) A charming, funny 1920s spoof nearly undone by the ’60s mania for big, overlong musical roadshow attractions.
The Mikado (1960) The enjoyable Bell Telephone Hour reduction of the comic operetta starring Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko. After being introduced to Gilbert and Sullivan during his vaudeville years, Groucho was an aficionado for life, and thrilled to be asked to play the Lord High Executioner on this live broadcast which also starred Robert Rounsville as Nanki-Poo, Barbara Meister as Yum-Yum, Stanley Holloway as the Pooh-Bah, Dennis King as the Mikado and Helen Traubel as Katisha. For a 54-minute truncation, the show, directed by the noted Savoyard comedian Martyn Green, is a fair reading of the original. Holloway is a robust delight as the last word in corrupt officials and Traubel a good match for Groucho, almost a musical Margaret Dumont. But the crowning attraction of anything starring Groucho Marx is, of course, Groucho Marx. He doesn’t attempt to Anglicize his performance in the slightest: His Ko-Ko is Rufus T. Firefly transposed to the stages of the D’Oly Carte; his patter songs could have been written, not by Gilbert but by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar. He even, at one point, performs the same herky-jerky dance moves beloved of Captain Spaulding in Animal Crackers, and when you consider that he was 70 at the time, those twisty high backward kicks are even more impressive. He’s so much himself that in “As someday it may happen” the line “And all third persons who on spoiling tête-à-têtes insist” is rendered as “And all thoid poisons who on sperling tête-à-têtes insist…” It’s a shame the only print that exists is a black-and-white kinescope, because photos of the production suggest the original color broadcast was a knockout. Still, it’s got Groucho, and that makes up for almost anything.
Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross