He loves and she loves: “Manhattan” (1979)


By Scott Ross

Gordon Willis’ incomparable photography made Manhattan one of the most beautiful movies of the 1970s, and although reduction to home-screen size has always diminished his glorious black-and-white work on the picture* — the sequence at the Hayden Planetarium suffers especially from the transfer — what’s really aged poorly are Woody Allen’s self-righteous one-liners and pinched attitudes about people. Take for example his character’s “joke” concerning a fear of being struck by lightening and ending up like “one of those guys who sell comic books outside of Bloomingdale’s.” In his contemporary review of the movie, John Simon noted that Allen knew very well there was one man who did this, a mental unfortunate who could have benefitted most from assistance, not ridicule by a smug millionaire living on Central Park West. Nearly everything out of the mouth of Isaac Davis, Allen’s protagonist, is either a sneering observation about someone else or a feeble wheeze about himself; he’s what Alvy Singer in Annie Hall would have been without the annealing vulnerability. When near the end of the movie he confronts his philandering academician pal Yale (Michael Murphy) about personal ethics the dialogue is undercut by Allen’s inability to refrain from making jokes: Told he acts as if he thinks he’s God, Isaac ripostes, “I’ve gotta model myself after someone!” This is not the statement of an intellectual engaging in a serious argument about crucial matters of the soul; it’s the knee-jerk reaction of the former nightclub comedian who thinks he has to kill with every line. (As I don’t pretend to know where Allen lets off and Marshall Brickman, his screenwriting collaborator on this as well as on Annie Hall, begins, I’m afraid Brickman will have to accept as much blame in the aggregate as his colleague for the picture’s surfeit of yocks.)

What works in that scene is what works best throughout the picture. Allen’s growing mastery of the film medium was apparent in Annie Hall and Interiors, but his framing of the scenes in Manhattan is a quantum leap beyond either, and I don’t think it’s solely the influence of Gordon Willis. (Although God knows you can have worse mentors to learn from.) And I don’t necessarily intend that praise only in dramatic or picturesque terms. In the scene described above, Allen the actor is placed by Allen the director next to a hilariously anthropoidal skeleton, and the image is such a riotously funny juxtaposition it lifts the sequence, visually, into an entirely different, comic/surrealistic realm… even as Allen’s constant verbal schtick defeats it.† Where the picture does exhibit a real level of maturity is not in the main characters’ sleeping arrangements nor in the occasional use of the word “fuck” but in those rare moments where Allen resists the urge to kibbitz, as when, after Yale has left his wife Emily (Anne Byrne) for Mary, the Diane Keaton character (who he was involved with extramaritally at the beginning of the movie and later dumped, and with whom Isaac falls in love before Yale swoops back in to take her away) the abandoned Emily admits to Isaac over luncheon that she spent some time being angry at him for introducing Mary to Yale. We in the audience know the exact reverse was true, but Isaac cannot admit to this without also revealing that he knew all along Yale was cheating. The sense of irony has a genuine sting to it, made even more potent by Isaac’s not objecting to Emily’s statement. Knowing when to stay silent shows real growth in a dramatist. I wish Allen had learned something from that.

Aside from Willis’ wonderful photography, the next best thing in Manhattan is Diane Keaton’s marvelous, fulsome portrait of an unhappy intellectual neurotic. Mary is exactly the sort of person Keaton and Allen satirize in Love and Death, for whom art and concepts are more thrilling than people when the only thing that makes either worthwhile or effective is what creative people put into them about other human beings. Mary is ultimately more a collection of attitudes than a person we can fully comprehend or pity, but somehow Keaton brings this walking anthology of tics to life, and reminds us anew of what was lost when she and Allen stopped working together and the audience had to settle for Mia Farrow. Mariel Hemingway, as Isaac’s 17-year old girlfriend, shows remarkable poise, and her tearful reaction to Isaac opportunistically breaking up with her is heartbreakingly true. Susan Morse’s editing is among the best in any Woody Allen picture, and the George Gershwin score, blessedly free of brother Ira’s often commonplace lyrics, exhilarates.

After having children of his own, Allen rightly criticized his approach here, when Isaac lists into a tape recorder the things that for him make life worth living and never mentions his young son. But what bothers me more is the way Allen simultaneously steals from and diminishes Chaplin’s City Lights climax, which James Agee once called “the highest moment in movies.” It may not be that, but in concept, performance and directorial execution it’s among the most beautiful, and moving, moments in the history of motion pictures, and the close-up of the Tramp just before the fade-out, already unusual in Chaplin’s filmography, has a radiance and a humanity that transcend nearly everything the movie camera had achieved before Chaplin made it. And if Mariel Hemingway is a far better actress than Virginia Cherrill, Allen is just as surely no Charlie Chaplin; comparing his dopey, reluctant smile to the breathtaking look on Chaplin’s face is to note the difference between Fred Astaire dancing and a junior high schooler hoofing a routine for the annual talent show… except at least the adolescent dancer isn’t insulting Astaire’s memory. (Although the soaring Gershwin on the soundtrack almost makes it work.)

Allen the celebrity carries a certain amount of weight when we re-view his older movies. When the messy business with Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn broke and what have since been revealed as (and indeed seemed to many of us at the time) as the spurious and vindictive accusations of molestation of a half-mad collector of children were first aired, my mind instantly wandered to Isaac’s romance with the teenaged Hemingway here. Perhaps, it was was easy to muse in retrospect, the Woody Allen of 1979 was telling us something about himself? Revisiting the picture today I can also see the filmmaker and the actor reaching too hard for effect. When he’s being rowed by Diane Keaton on the lake in Central Park and trailing his fingers in the water, for example, you can see him moving his arm downward just before Isaac withdraws his hand to discover it coated with black or brown gunk, and the preparation for the sight-gag kills the joke. I wonder why I never noticed that before?

*In widescreen, a rarity for Allen, who generally works in Academy Ratio. I gather this was his notion, not Willis’.

†When I first saw Manhattan on its opening weekend with a group of my high school theatre friends, one of them (also named Scott) got hysterics looking at that skeleton; every time Allen cut back to the set-up, my friend fell apart. Scott’s laughter is forever wedded to that scene for me.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

How much is it a gallon, Jamison? or, Quotes, unquotes and quotes: The incredible disintegrating English language (It’s a doggie-dog world)


By Scott Ross

Note: Anyone under 40 who reads this should be given what I gather is the standard injunction now when dealing with the tender and easily bruised psyches of the young. So here it is:

I’m finally old enough to have grown into my fogyhood, which has been choking me at least since I was in junior high school and, to paraphrase Thoreau’s splendid phrase, not keeping pace with my companions. So don’t think I’m going to spare your feelings now. I am going to make a number of sweeping generalizations about you and your generation with regard to the way you misuse and abuse language and grammar. The neologisms “Millennial” and “Gen-Z” will flow freely here, and without a scintilla of shame on my part. I neither dismiss you as human beings nor align myself against you with others of my age on general principal, solely because you are young and we no longer are. I merely deplore the half-assed way so goddamned many of you express yourselves. And if sarcasm offends you, you would be well advised to skip this little essay entirely.

Consider that your official Trigger Warning.

In the latter half of the Broadway play and subsequent 1930 Marx Bros. movie Animal Crackers, Groucho as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding famously dictates to Zeppo as his secretary Jamison a letter to his lawyers (Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga and McCormick) that is a sparkling put-on of all such business correspondence, wickedly parodying a form of inane legalese still in use today.

Groucho: In re yours of the 5 inst: Yours to hand and beg to rep, brackets, that we have gone over the ground carefully and we seem to believe, i.e., to wit, e.g., in lieu, that despite all of our precautionary measures which have been involved, we seem to believe that it is hardly necessary for us to proceed unless we receive an ipso facto that is not negligible at this moment. Quotes, unquotes and quotes. Hoping this finds you I beg to remain—

Zeppo: Hoping this finds him where?

Groucho: Well, let him worry about that. Don’t be so inquisitive. Sneak! I say, hoping this finds you, I beg to remain, cordially yours, regards… Now read me the letter.

Which Jamison duly does, leading to this immortal exchange:

Zeppo: “Quotes, unquotes, and quotes.”

Groucho: That’s three quotes?

Zeppo: Yes, sir.

Groucho: Add another quote and make it a gallon. How much is it a gallon, Jamison?

One can only imagine with what delight, possibly alternating with nausea, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, the writers of the book for Animals Crackers, might contemplate the near-complete wreckage of American popular speech in the 21st century. I don’t know who, or what, exactly is responsible for the decline, noticeable to me when I was a teenager but seemingly accelerating, of speech and simple phrases, concepts, cliché and even individual words. But I have my suspicions. (See below.) I actually heard a young man on a podcast yesterday, while reading aloud from a newspaper article and encountering an attributed quotation cited therein, say, “Quote, unquote” and then read the quote. The open and closed quotation marks were right in front of him, in their proper place at, respectively, the beginning and end of the phrase… as, I would argue, they have been all of his reading life. When did he start thinking they only occurred at the beginning of a sentence? And this was an otherwise bright, articulate, college-educated person, one who had studied ancient Greek, fer crissake.

I realize the idiot reflexive mass-adoption of this ignorant phrase is not confined to any particular age group or demographic today. People of all ages, types and conditions now utter this cringe-inducing barbarism more often even than the dopes who say, “My thinking has gone 360 degrees on that issue” when they mean 180. But just as a trip of 360 degrees means arriving right back where you started, so too with “Quote, unquote.” If you say it before reciting the quotation, that quote is exactly and precisely nothing: The dead air between those two words becomes the quote. Is that really what you meant?

When I was 9, our classroom was visited by a representative from Funk & Wagnalls — at that time a rather shockingly suggestive punchline from Dick Martin on Laugh-In — there essentially to sell sets of encyclopedias to the parents of us breathless and easily-influenced 3rd graders. (I duly tried. Mom, having already, in 1961, invested plenty in the boring old Encyclopedia Brittanica then gathering dust in a bookcase in our living room, used only occasionally, and grudgingly, by my older sister and I, took one look at the F & W brochure I brought home from school and told me to go pound sand up my… er, to go play outside.) Years later when I remembered this come-on from the realms of corporate America the naked commercialism aimed at vulnerable children appalled me. Yet I have never forgotten the publisher’s admonishing catch-phrase, emblazoned on the pin-back buttons this woman handed out to each of us that day: “We Never Guess/We Look it Up.” As dopey as that sounds, I think of it every time the temptation arises to use a word or a concept or parrot a “fact” I have not examined. It nearly always stops me… and when it doesn’t, I inevitably regret it. The many sub-literates I am about to cite here, most of them anonymous, either misread a word or phrase, or heard someone else use it incorrectly, and couldn’t be bothered to look up the damn thing up in his Funk & Wagnalls.

Misunderstanding of complex phrases is at least explicable. The seemingly universal misuse of simple, everyday words and heretofore well-known phrases is more difficult to comprehend, such as the way “incredulous” has replaced “incredible” in the Millennial lexicon (presumably rendering the old ABC television series as That’s Incredulous!) These things occur with such regularity now that Eliot M. Camarena and I, who alert each other to these atrocities committed against language, grammar and common sense when we come across them, have considered the advisability of compiling a Millennial Dictionary to catalogue the worst offenses. The spoonerisms alone are incredible — or do I mean “incredulous”? I joke, but only slightly, that the generations of the 1980s and ’90s (not to mention the Aughts) all went to Archie Bunker Memorial Grammar School… which I presume they would pronounce as “Gramma School”… and where, one imagines, in sex ed (do schools, after Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell, even have sex ed?) they learned to identify on an anatomical chart the human “prostrate” and to become good citizens who would never, as a self-described internet journalist recently complained some of his listeners were doing with their comments, “sew discourse.”

Millennials (and their immediate successors in the so-called Gen-Z) seem to have swallowed a dictionary by mistake sometime around the age of 10, and are in the process of throwing it up, in undigested pieces, for the rest of their lives. But call them on it and their witty riposte is likely to be either the sneering “Who cares? It’s just words,” the spurious cop-out “Language changes,” or the dismissive catch-all “Okay, Boomer.”

I have exposed my own childish faux pas before in these pages, including my confusing the word “piccolo” with something my four year old brain identified as “pickle loaf,” a luncheon meat of especially repellent provenance. As a teenager, and owing to a routine on a Monty Python album, I once in my high school Honors English class mispronounced “hyperbole” as “hyper-bowl.” We all make such mistakes. It’s when we continue to make them, well into adulthood, and refuse to look up the words or phrases in question, that we risk the errors becoming a permanent part of the way we speak and write… and, because others see and hear them and likewise will not bother checking them for accuracy, of infecting the broader culture for years to come.

Herewith some outstanding examples of the breed, read or heard within recent memory. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Legendary. A once honorable word that now means either “famous,” “long-lived” or merely “worked in some profession or other for more than five years.” cf., Albert Poland, a man I had never heard of before last week but who is described in the blurb for his new theatre memoir as “Legendary Broadway and Off [not “Off-“] Broadway Producer and General Manager.” A legendary general manager?

It’s. Not a contraction of “it is.” Interchangeable now with the non-possessive form “its.” I wish someone who knows would explain this one to me. See also: “CD’s,” “Video’s,” “Movie’s,” “Record’s” and (yes, I’ve actually seen this) “Book’s.” Weirdly, and conversely, words and names that should, in their possessive form, receive an apostrophe-S, now often don’t; for example, “Chelsea’s” in the title of a recent video about the former Miss Clinton’s hand-picked wedding guest list including one Ghislaine Maxwell became “Chelseas,” which makes it sound as if there are more than one of her… a horror I haven’t the intestinal fortitude to contemplate. I suppose the old rules governing such things are now considered hopelessly oppressive, and possibly sexist, or even racist.

The word “hopelessly,” of course, inevitably leads me to:

Hopefully. The epidemic misuse of this defenseless word is one even the most dedicated grammarians gave up on well before the end of the last century. I sometimes wonder what the people who routinely employ that one incorrectly think when one of them sees Sweet Charity, which ends with the legend (legend!) “… and she lived hopefully ever after”? It must blow their parched little minds. Being an old movie, however (i.e., one made before March, 2021) I doubt any of them will ever see it.

Pundint. Used most often by politically-minded Millennials as a self-description. Since the origin of “pundit” is Hindi, maybe they’re the racists for adding a superfluous consonant to the word?

Literally. The complete misuse of this one to express exactly the opposite of its definition (“His head, like, literally exploded!”) was, like inserting the crutch-word “like” multiple times into every sentence, presumably as a place-holder while the speaker tries desperately to sort through the jumble of his or her disordered mind for the appropriate next word, despaired of decades ago. The crisis shows no signs of improving.

Like. See above.

You know. See “Like.”

Sort-of. See “You know.”

Pro-offered. Otherwise known as “proffered.”

Agree to agree. Once understood as “agree to disagree.”

Taken back. As in “When I saw that, I was taken back a bit.” Nearly always spoken by a Millennial. Where do they think they’re going? Back a year or two? Decades? To infancy?
Eliot: “There’s a Groucho radio show in which he recounts his military experience, saying that when the commanding officer burst in and found him with the man’s wife, ‘I was taken aback. I was taken aback to the guardhouse.’ These twits would not recognize the joke.”
They wouldn’t even recognize Groucho. I once had a young man over to the house who, seeing a book of photographs of the (genuinely legendary) comedian on my coffee table asked, “Who’s Groucho?” and I thought, with an inner sigh, “What won’t a man put up with for the possibility of getting laid?”

Legislators. Formerly “Legislatures.”

A consorted effort. Presumably enacted by the Prince Regent?

Expresso. Meaning “espresso.” I made that mistake when I was a teenager too, so I’m not saying I was ever perfect in my speech or deportment. I also, as a child, said (and didn’t everyone?) “pasghetti,” “Valentime’s” and “vanilla envelope.”
But I learned…

Ex cetera. Why “et cetera” even needs to be used at all outside an academic treatise we’ll leave to one side. This one, alas, is not confined to the young.

Bottle/Bag, out of. Heard on a recent podcast:
Person 1 (Millennial): I’m afraid the genie is out of the bottle.
Person 2 (Gen-Z): You’re right! The genie is out of the bag!
And took the cat with it?

Balled out. What you get when you… no, I’m not going there.

Backstory. A trite cliché used by screenwriters and other Hollywood hacks and their reflexive fans to describe the life of a character before the movie or television series begins. I recently heard a Millennial podcast host ask his guest, an eminent medical researcher, to give the audience his “origin story.” I wish it had been me. I would have said, “Well, I’m a human being and not a comic book character, so I have a biography. Would you like to hear that?” Origin story! Jesus Christ!

Verz. For “vs” or “v.,” or “versus” in legal terminology. Verz?!? Is C.V. likewise pronounced “seeve”? Who makes up this shit?

You’re/your. The former is now written almost exclusively to mean the latter, and vice-versa. (Or is that “verza”?)

Take it for granite. Do I really have to explain this one? Archie Bunker Memorial, folks.

Eggcorn. From whence mighty chickens grow, one supposes.

Kerfluffle. The sound a marshmallow might make if it exploded. Try “kerfuffle,” you clots.

Full board. The pet phrase of an estimable investigative journalist when he means to say “full bore.” For Eliot, this was reminiscent of people saying, “bull faced liar,” which sounds to me like a visual pun in a Tex Avery cartoon. “When,” Eliot asks, “was phonics eliminated from grade school?” When, indeed?

Cow-down. Another bit of nonsense, used by the same podcast host when what he obviously means is “kowtow.”
Eliot: “I see some online dictionaries attempt to justify this idiocy by claiming it should be COWER DOWN, which makes even less sense.”
This man, slightly over 40 and generally articulate, also habitually elides his “t”s. “Important” is, always, “impor’ant.” Why? Isn’t it more strenuous to not dentalize the “t,” to work around it, than to just say it? Where did Millennials pick up this weird habit? In their classes on how to use Upspeak and most efficiently obtain the proper level of vocal fry? I once, while making an appointment with a rental agency, had to ask the Millennial office drone to repeat what turned out to be the name “Martin Street” about a half-dozen times before I finally caught on. She kept saying “Mar’in.” I should have requested she spell it for me. The only times these types don’t slur over the “t” is when it’s at the beginning of the word, or when it’s supposed to be silent. I feel like yelling at them the way Truman Capote does at Peter Sellers’ Charlie Chan-like detective in the Neil Simon comedy Murder by Death when he screams, “Say your goddamned pronouns!”

Noble Prize. Used by an even more estimable investigative journalist when she means “Nobel.” How she could have reached the age she is now and has never heard the name pronounced is as puzzling as her continually (which does not mean the same as “continuously”) mispronouncing the name of the ghastly Ghislaine Maxwell, on whom she has done splendid research and reporting, as “Jizz-lane,” and her repeated references to “Mayer” (not “Meyer”) Lansky, whom one supposes was distantly related to Louis B. Mayer of M-G-M fame. As for “Noble Prize,” I picture Sir John Gielgud, head held haughtily aloft, being given a small statuette for dignity above the call of histrionics.

Schizofrania. The word the host of a particular website podcast who shall go nameless (I appreciate his investigations and insights even as his personal manner causes me distinct nervous tension) uses when he means “schizophrenia.” When he attempts the adjectival form, it sounds as if he’s saying “schizophranic,” or perhaps even “schizofrantic.” He also consistently mispronounces the name of the Harris(biden) Press Secretary: To him, Jen Psaki is, has been and always and ever will be Jen “Passkey.” (Which once more brings Groucho Marx to mind, this time in The Coconuts: “You know: Passki down the streetski.”) But I suppose even that is at least marginally better than the YouTuber I heard refer to her as “Puh-sackey.” The website MedRxiv our podcast host, having apparently having gone his entire life without encountering the universally recognized abbreviation “Rx” for medical prescription, refers to as “Med-R, xiv.” He also pronounces “exacerbated” as “exasturbated,” which sounds at least mildly dirty and — here the mind really boggles — mispronounces La Jolla, California in the snob-British form, as “Lah JOE-lah”… even thought his own heritage is Puerto Rican. I also heard him, last week, struggle mightily to pronounce the drug name “thalidomide.” (“THALL-id-OH-myde” was the closest he was able to get.) It only caused the deaths or disfigurement of tens of thousands of children 60-odd years ago, but he’d clearly never heard of it before.

It’s a doggie-dog world. And some of them have been known to eat other doggies.

Trailer. This now constitutes, in Eliot’s words, “Any video consisting of clips from a movie.” Even video advertisements for theatrical productions of plays announce themselves as “trailers.” No one has a clue what the word means.

Tout his own horn. Eliot notes, “From the Times comments re Cuomo: ‘For him to take a victory lap and tout his own horn for a job well done’…

I’m suspect. The new “I’m suspicious.” I keep wanting to ask what the speaker is a suspect in. Theft? Murder? Vaccine-hesitancy? As Eliot once commented, “The centuries of evolution and culture that go into a MIND and look what we end up with.”

Having quoted Eliot thrice in a row, I leave the floor to him for a brace of his own examples of linguistic idiocy:

  • “Speaking of a movie he really likes, one of the twits said, ‘I’ll always have a sore spot for that film.'”
  • “Serena Williams said, last week, about her tennis abilities, ‘Nobody can light a candle to me.'” [Perhaps she meant “under”? Oh. come on, Ross. We all know she didn’t.]
  • “Was about to note the complete absence of blandishments in their approach, when I remembered that from reading what millennials write they think that means insults! I recently read one who said, ‘He threw all kinds of nasty blandishments at me.’ It’s as weird as the many people of all ages who think ‘The Hoi Polloi’ refers to the wealthy class. I give up.”
  • “I must be addicted to agony, what with listening to millennial chatter. One putz discussing film kept referring to Warner Bros as in Bernie Bros. Poor guy may be drummed out of his generation because three times he slipped up and didn’t pronounce the ‘T’ in ‘often.'”
  • “Just heard a talk by a millennial. He used the ‘word’ OFTENLY. Maybe we could use a good, cleansing plague.”
  • “Did I tell you about the pipsqueak who said, of a meal, ‘It made my appetite wet’?” [Is it wrong that that remark sort of excites my libido?]
  • “BTW, heard a millennial (in a podcast, of course) discuss his success in some measly endeavor; he said, ‘I didn’t think I would accede to this degree.’ That’s up there with the other one who, changing the subject said, ‘Now let’s leeway into this next topic.’ I assume the ignorant twat meant segue.”

And speaking of segues…

Now, hold onto your lids, kids. The Old Fogy is about to pontificate.

I am afraid that Eliot and I are writing for a dwindling readership; even the more intelligent Millennials are often linguistically appalling. And they know fuck-all about the shared popular culture. Forget the 1930s — most of these people can’t identify anything from before they drew breath, or first got plunked down in front of their unpaid baby-sitter, the television set. I heard one Millennial a few months ago refer to “that old movie where the woman is singing in the flowers on the hill” and realized after a moment he meant Julie Andrews in the opening scene of The Sound of Music… I was reminded by this of the college-age clerk in a Blockbuster Video outlet several years ago who was absolutely stumped by a customer’s request for a DVD rental copy of My Fair Lady. He’d never heard of it, didn’t know what sort of movie it was or where in the shop to find it. You work in a video store, I remember thinking, and you’ve never heard of any movie that wasn’t released before the year you saw Star Wars? And you couldn’t look it up? I had to find it for your customer? I felt like asking for a salary. (This is not to mention the young Barnes and Noble bookseller around the same time who, when I called to ask whether the store had a copy of Thurber’s Dogs, which I’d hoped to purchase as a gift for a friend and after I’d patiently spelled “Thurber” for him came back to the ‘phone after an interminable wait to say he couldn’t find it in the Pets section…)

Dwindling cultural memory aside, and returning to the gravamen of my complaint about reasoning and the decline of language skills, the question I suppose is why? Why have so many people lost the ability to reason, and to speak with efficiency? As a writer, I ever bear in mind the injunction of Professor Strunk, who opined in The Elements of Style that, “vigorous writing is concise,” and concision denotes intelligence. I am more and more convinced that chemicals, television and our appalling mis-education system are the chief culprits, and that much of this was planned; the extent of the mass dumbing-down is just too large to be entirely natural. A friend is equally certain the blame for the state of mass-mindlessness, which manifests itself currently in a widespread inability to understand the basic rudiments of viral science or to look past the inflated numbers routinely issued or proclaimed by government entities, is the internet. She believes, and I think she’s on to something, that over the last two decades the Web became the unofficial babysitter of children, the way TeeVee did for those of my generation and after. God knows the majority of the people who grew up never knowing a time when the ‘net didn’t exist are now hopelessly addicted to it, unable to refrain from staring down at a small-screen version, their thumbs racing in a constant and furious blur as they hack out instant messages to all and sundry as if their very lives depended on it. (I can only imagine what arthritic agonies they will endure after a couple of decades of this repetitive motion.) Not that this activity is in any way restricted to the young. The other day I nearly ran down a pedestrian who looked considerably older than me because she couldn’t lift her eyes from her Smartphone long enough to notice the traffic bearing down on her as she crossed an intersection against the lights.

I recall with a wry smile my foolish notion, when the Internet first took root in the culture back in the mid-to-late-1990s, that since the user was required to write, rather than merely speak, greater literacy might be the result. (You may all now have a good horse-laugh at my expense.) Smooth composition and actual, as opposed to accidental, word-play, as Eliot suggested, is lost on people for whom Dumb & Dumber is — and I actually heard this opined a few weeks ago on a podcast — “high art.” No wonder we’re at a point where millions of people believe the lies they are told by government. Government! Imagine! When I was a child the cry was not only “Never trust anyone over 30” but “All governments lie.” Maybe if these half-educated semi-literates saw a president forced to resign for subverting the Constitution they might stop trusting anyone in a goddamned suit and tie. As bad or worse: They think a word or phrase means whatever they decide it does because they heard or read it wrong and are too goddamned lazy to look it up. I wonder if they’ve ever even been taught how to use a dictionary.

I hope that woman from Funk & Wagnalls is safely dead now. Not that I wish her ill, but otherwise the shock of what she would be seeing and hearing every day might give her a stroke.

I’m telling you: Archie Bunker Memorial exists. They all went there.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: May 2021


By Scott Ross

The Ipcress File (1965) It was probably impossible, in a standard narrative movie of the period, to adequately film Len Deighton’s first novel featuring his literally anonymous MI6 agent, so the people involved in making this one didn’t bother. Some of the threads of Deighton’s book remain, including the capture and attempted brainwashing of the agent, called “Harry Palmer” in the three movies in which Michael Caine appeared, although even the contours of that event have been altered. (The filmmakers were also at rather extreme pains to have Palmer assert his heterosexuality lest his eyeglasses and penchant for >>gasp!<< cooking unnerve wary ticket buyers.) The long middle section of the novel, set on an island military enclave preparing for a missile test, was jettisoned but the central question of identifying the enemy agent remained. The brainwashing techniques are less physically brutal than in the book and more techo-psychological, with the viewer being made to wonder how, if those weird lights, images and sounds assailing Palmer are supposed to be altering his mind the people, seemingly unprotected in any way, who are inflicting them are spared the effects.

I may be seeming to suggest The Ipcress File is a bad movie. It isn’t. In fact, it’s a rather good one. It’s simply not as good, or as satisfying, as Deighton’s novel. There is something to be said for fealty to the source material when adapting good novels, although the producer, Harry Saltzman, and his partner “Cubby” Broccoli were at the time routinely going further and further away from the Ian Fleming books on which their wildly popular James Bond franchise movies were ostensibly based, so perhaps he didn’t think it mattered. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that on the first day of filming the director, Sidney J. Furie, contemptuously tore up the screenplay in front of the cast and crew; he was then forced, sheepishly, to ask for someone to lend him a copy so filming could commence. Naturally, the auteurists swoon over his work. And again, I’m not knocking Furie’s direction of The Ipcress File, merely his arrogance. The picture has an unprepossessing look, achieved in part by the use of Techniscope, which gave the filmmakers fewer visual options by allowed for greater depth of field.

Saltzman deserves real credit for taking a chance on the little-known Michael Caine, and the movie’s success established him as a rising movie star. He’s splendid as Palmer; his underplaying perfectly captures the unnamed character of the Deighton novel in his cynical lack of ideological zeal. As with John le Carré, the British spymasters in Deighton’s books have no particular anti-Soviet axes to grind; the leave that to their American cousins. The excellent supporting cast includes Guy Doleman and Nigel Green as Palmer’s superiors and Gordon Jackson as a jovial Scots agent. The score by the Bond composer John Barry, emphasizing the cimbalom, essentially consists of a single theme and variations, but it’s a damn good one. The James Bond connection is maintained as well by the effective editing by Peter H. Hunt. The somewhat jumbled script was by Bill Canaway and James Doran with an un-credited “polish” by Jimmy Sangster, who allegedly was responsible for removing the novel’s ambiguity.

The Glass Bottomed Boat (1966) Occasionally when I was between the ages of eight and twelve and in my early phase of movie-love, the entire family would sit down to watch the television network premiere of a picture, usually one our parents had seen when it was new in the 1960s. This was one of them. Although we had been taken to the Doris Day/Brian Keith “family” comedy With Six You Get Eggroll in 1968, I knew Day best from her weirdly malleable television series and from the recording of “Que Sera Sera” in the collection of my mother’s EPs and 45s which she gave when I was seven and which I played incessantly, learning early the orphic glories of Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole. Being a child, I liked Day very much, and liked her especially in The Glass Bottom Boat. The biggest surprise to me in seeing this agreeable Frank Tashlin-directed space-age farce again for the first time in 50 years is that I still do.

I know all the arguments against her: That she played the perpetual virgin, that she was puerile and aggressively wholesome, that her sunny optimism was at odds with realities of the national mood — or, indeed, anything human — that she supposedly had all the sex appeal of the faithful family dog, and that her comedies were mostly un-funny. (Some of her harsher critics even maintained, foolishly, that she was a mediocre singer.) Many of her pictures, particularly the later ones, are admittedly bad. But even insufficient fluff like Pillow Talk, The Thrill of it All, Move Over Darling and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? have their moments. And if she could be shrill, particularly when her characters were outraged, or overwrought when in danger, as in the thrillers The Man Who Knew Too Much and Midnight Lace (in both of which she is otherwise quite good) she also projected an intelligence, a comic presence and an enviable gift for timing that are very appealing in screen comedy. And at least since she’s playing a widow there’s no virginity to guard in The Glass Bottom Boat, and no adorable kids to trigger your gag reflex. There is in fact no sentimentality in the picture, which I attribute both to Everett Freeman’s mildly satirical screenplay and to Tashlin’s live-action cartoon direction.

Some of the comic set-pieces are labored, some too broad and the gags are occasionally more obvious than clever. But what works, works exceptionally well, and includes the sparkling supporting cast: John McGiver, Edward Andrews, Dick Martin, Ellen Corby, Alice Pearce, George Tobias, Arthur Godfrey and Paul Lynde, who even gets a drag sequence… and God, what an ugly woman he makes! Rod Taylor, always likable, is the rocketship designer who sets his cap for Doris, Eric Fleming the meany posing as a government agent and Dom DeLuise, who is annoying in larger roles, has just the right sized one here. (Robert Vaughan also has a gag cameo at a party.) While the rear-screen projection in a few scenes is poor, Leon Shamroy’s widescreen color photography is otherwise glorious. There are also a pair of charming musical sequences. In the first, Day and Godfrey perform a duet of the deliberately silly title song, whose melody is taken from Day’s recording of “Soft as the Starlight,” written by Joe Lubin and Jerome Howard (and itself based on “Hush, Little Baby”); it feels entirely spontaneous, with Doris fluffing some of the lyrics as if she’s trying to remember a song learned from her father in childhood and which she hasn’t sung in years. The second is “Soft as the Starlight” itself, which she sings beguilingly while snuffing the candles on her father’s Catalina porch and which Tashlin films in a single, long take (at least until the end when he’s forced to make a cut due to the overhead beams.) It’s a lovely respite from the picture’s sometimes frenetic comedy — a breather, like the songs in Roman comedies.

The Love Bug (1969) This, and the “Dexter Reilly” series starring Kurt Russell, were the apogee of a certain sort of comedy associated with the Walt Disney studios. Beginning with The Shaggy Dog in 1959 and running through the 1960s and into the ’70s, these were broad farces, often with science-fiction style special effects or supernatural elements, frequently written either by Bill Walsh or (as this one was) by Walsh and Don DaGradi. The gimmicks occasionally overwhelmed the humor, but in the cleverly-titled The Love Bug the elements are perfectly balanced. It was a movie I loved at eight, and which inspired in me an enduring ardor for the classic 1960s Volkswagon Beetle, an enthusiasm my father, knowing his car engines, did his best to dampen. (Of course, Dad didn’t apply that caution to himself, as his folly in falling in love with the 1970 Sunbeam Alpine attested.)

I wouldn’t have known what it meant at the time, but I’m pretty sure my affection for the movie was related, at least in part, to a pre-pubescent crush on “Herbie”‘s driver: Dean Jones, a perennial presence in my childish Disney universe, dealing, in various shades of charm and frustration, with monkeys, great Danes, racehorses and the ghosts of pirates, his conviction as much as his good looks turning him into an ideal figure on whom to fasten my unfocused devotion. (You can imagine how much that fondness deepened in me when, at 15, I discovered the original cast album of Company and heard the extent of Jones’ vocal range. Has anyone since sung “Being Alive” as powerfully and yet with as much vulnerability as he did?) I don’t think Dean Jones gets nearly the credit he deserves as an actor, probably because of the many Disney movies in which he appeared. He has, for example, a scene in the otherwise horribly misguided adaptation of Jerry Sterner’s wonderful play Other People’s Money that in its quietly guilt-racked way is one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen, and I seem to be almost alone in having seen it. That sense of conviction I mentioned is his acting bedrock. If you wish to sell a fantasy, or a far-fetched narrative of any kind, you’d better have stars who can convey belief or you’re just slumming and the audience will know it. Good screenwriting helps, of course; the pivotal moment when Jones’ likeable but undistinguished race-car driver realizes the extent of sentient feeling that exists in the little VW and goes chasing after him through the San Francisco fog sells the rest of the picture. We can believe in Herbie because Jones does.

Except for a rather ugly little throwaway joke involving a pair of overage hippies, one of whom calls the other “Guinevere,” the picture is the most amiable family comedy imaginable, and the tricks are so well done you seldom see the joins. (A sight-gag involving David Tomlinson and a black bear was pretty obviously done in part with an animatronic bruin, but it’s funny enough you don’t mind its slight air of artificiality.) Walsh and DaGradi keep things humming with well-defined comic characters, the director, Robert Stevenson, frames the comic set-pieces efficiently, and a terrific cast of comedians does the rest. Aside from Tomlinson, either smilingly unctuous or barking with irrationally self-serving rage, this includes the chipper Michelle Lee as the young woman with whom Jones meets-cute and with whom he bickers before the inevitable clinch; Buddy Hackett as the overage flower-child Tennessee Steinmetz whose lightly and absurdly philosophical bent is a tonic; Joe Flynn as Tomlinson’s toadying associate; Benson Fong as a savvy Chinese entrepreneur; Joe E. Ross as a smiling detective; Iris Adrian as a cranky car-hop (ask your mother); and Ned Glass as an exasperated toll-booth attendant. (Gary Owens, familiar to television viewers of the time from “Laugh-In,” also shows up as a race commentator.) The drivers and stunt men, one of whom was Bill Hicks, received a special credit in the main titles, and with good reason. And the score by George Bruns adds exactly the right touch, especially in the quirky, sunny little waltz theme he composed for Herbie. It’s the essence of the little car summed up in purely musical terms and it makes me smile every time I hear it.

It’s a rare and enchanting thing to re-encounter something which gave you special pleasure in childhood and that you find you’re not ashamed to bump into again years later.

“They make ten thousand cars. They make them exactly the same way. And one or two of them turn out to be something special. Nobody knows why.” — Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) in The Love Bug

Zelig (1983) Technically, Zelig is Woody Allen’s most accomplished movie. But as he rightly pointed out when his cinematographer, the great Gordon Willis, got the first of his only two Academy Awards nomination for it, it’s a trick movie, not one of Willis’ demonstrable masterpieces of lighting like The Godfather, All the President’s Men or Manhattan. Still, it’s at least trick photography in support of something: A simultaneously funny and troubling faux documentary about a nebbish so devoid of a personality he assumes the characteristics of any man around him — a person Bruno Bettleheim, interviewed about him onscreen, describes as “the ultimate conformist.”

Some reviewers in 1983 thought that in his use of interviewees Allen was taking off from Warren Beatty’s “Witnesses” in Reds, and I wondered at the time if they’d ever seen a documentary before. Talking heads are de rigeur in these things, especially on television, and Zelig has the flavor of a vintage BBC program. Besides, Beatty’s interviewees were all there. They’d lived through the first World War and the Russian Revolution. Allen’s interview subjects are mostly writers (Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow), historians (Irving Howe), academics and psychiatrists (Bettelheim) commenting on an historical phenomenon older than themselves. (The exceptions are people like the Parisian nightclub owner Bricktop, there to give a whiff of verisimilitude to the movie.) They go with the doctored 1920s and ’30s footage in which, well before Forrest Gump, the filmmaker places his fictional protagonist among contemporary figures from Babe Ruth to Adolph Hitler.

The absurdist vein of some of the picture’s narration sounds a little too like the jokes in Allen’s New Yorker pieces and his early movies for comfort; they’re the least successful things in those projects, and we’d thought by 1983 he’d outgrown them. I also don’t buy Mia Farrow as a psychiatrist, perhaps because she needs one of her own too badly. Eric Lundegaard in his 2011 review feels that Leonard Zelig shouldn’t have spoken because hearing Woody Allen’s voice ruins the idea of the “chameleon man,” and while I’m sympathetic I would argue that seeing Allen as Zelig is a spoiler as well. Full success of the gimmick would have involved an actor almost no one had ever seen or heard before. In any case, Allen is more subdued here than usual, hence less obnoxious, and his gift for physical comedy is best represented by the hilarious moment in which he gets into a shoving match with an aged psychiatrist, all the funnier for being shown in the distance so that when it begins we’re not quite sure what we’re seeing.

The best things in the movie, aside from Allen’s imaginative use of physical types for Zelig to morph into (including, in a photograph, the famous portrait of Caruso in Pagliacchio) are Willis’ work and the music. Dick Hyman not only arranged, in his (as they used to say) inimitable style, a program of period songs, but wrote several pastiche numbers of his own: “Leonard the Lizard,” “Doin’ the Chameleon,” “You May Be Six People, But I Love You,” “Reptile Eyes” (performed by Rose Marie Jun) and even some snippets of a “Changing Man Concerto.” The musical highlight, however, is the delicious “Chameleon Days,” performed, so we are told, by Helen Kane but actually by Mae Questel. Since Kane famously sued the Max Fleischer Studios over Betty Boop, for whom Questel provided the voice, this can legitimately be cited as irony.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) A charming compilation of three Disney featurettes from the work of A.A. Milne: Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974).

Q & A (1990) Sidney Lumet, acting as both writer and director, delivers a tough, visceral account of the equally striking novel by Edwin Torres, featuring a frightening performance by Nick Nolte as a psychopathic New York City cop.

Will Penny (1967) The writer/director Tom Gries’ character study of an ageing cowboy is one of the few genuinely adult Westerns made in America, and one of the most satisfying.

The Odd Couple (1968) The funniest American play of the post-war era in its equally hilarious movie adaptation.

The Professionals (1966) Richard Brooks’ enormously engaging latter-day Western from the delicious Frank Rourke novel. It may not speak to the human condition the way Will Penny does, but it’s still one of the most entertaining movies of its era, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Laugh machine: “The Odd Couple” (1968)


By Scott Ross

If there is such a thing as a fool-proof play, Neil Simon’s 1965 comedy may be it. College groups, community theatres and high school students can perform it and, even with indifferent or downright poor performances, the laughs roll on undiminished. Of course, it’s better to see almost any play done by professionals (not that getting paid precludes bad acting) but the structure of the thing is like some exquisitely tuned clockwork mechanism, and the dialogue has a shape and beauty that go beyond funny one-liners. Anyone with a fair sense of humor can write effective one-liners. It’s the human force behind the jokes that makes our smiles more than mere musculatory reflex actions. Take, for example, Oscar Madison’s peerless response to the bereft Felix Ungar saying, late in the first act, that without his wife and children he’s “nothing”:

What do you mean, nothing? You’re something. A person! You’re flesh and blood and bones and hair and nails and ears. You’re not a fish. You’re not a buffalo… You’re you! You walk and talk and cry and complain and eat little green pills and send suicide telegrams. No one else does that, Felix. I’m telling you, you’re-the-only-one-of-its-kind-in-the-world!

I can’t speak for any other playwright, but that’s a monologue I would have happily sacrificed at least one actor on a stone slab to have written.

Oscar’s apartment, B.F. (Before Felix): John Fiedler, Herbert Edelman, Walter Matthau, Larry Haines, David Scheiner. Note the lovely parquet floor.

If the play, arguably the funniest and best-written of all post-war American comedies (at least until Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox) is nearly indestructible, how much more impressive it is when performed by a cast of great farceurs. And in the movie it has them — indeed, Gene Saks was able to cast half his original company for the picture and his replacements (Herbert Edelman, Larry Haines and David Scheiner as three of the poker players)* are splendid. I have always been nonplussed by Leonard Maltin’s observation, in his capsule review, that Jack Lemmon’s “realistic performance” as Felix “makes [the] character melancholy instead of funny.” Now, just because Lemmon is my favorite actor doesn’t mean I expect him to be everyone’s, or for others to see what I consider his nearly unerring brilliance as both a comic and a dramatic performer. But how Maltin was (and is; his opinion stands as late as the final edition of his movie guide in 2015) incapable of appraising Lemmon as a comedic technician in this role is staggering. His Felix is no less funny than Walter Matthau’s Oscar, itself a true original, a comic invention on a par with Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. And Simon, as the screenwriter, gives Lemmon a comic leg-up right at the beginning, when we see not only Felix’s suicide attempt being thwarted by a stubborn hotel window but by his own physical ailments when he tries too hard to open it. It sets the character up concisely, and nearly without words, perfectly reflecting the “nut” the poker buddies are talking about in the following scene, so that when he shows up at Oscar’s apartment we understand, better than a theatre audience ever could, exactly who he is. We’re laughing at his pain before we even know his name. Does a “realistic,” “melancholy” performance allow us to do that? Can someone who is not a comic technician of considerable instincts and aplomb make you laugh as hard as Lemmon does in the coffee shop scene (does anyone remember coffee shops?) when Felix, oblivious to the public spectacle he’s making of himself, tries to open up his blocked eustachian tubes?†

Only two years after their initial teaming in The Fortune Cookie, the Lemmon/Matthau pairing was being advertised — along with the title of Neil Simon’s phenomenal hit play — as all the justification you needed for buying a ticket. (Poster art by Robert McGinnis.)

A churl could cavil perhaps that “Oscar Madison” is too WASP-y a name to entrust to an ethnic comedian but to them I say, “Gai kaken oifen yam.” We’ve seldom been given the opportunity to see a theatre performance so beautifully preserved as Matthau’s is here, and it isn’t set in amber, worked to death by repetition. It’s fully alive, and spontaneous, the way the true classic comedic performances are on film. You know that Chaplin and Keaton and Cary Grant and W.C. Fields worked out their lines and routines in advance but they feel entirely unstudied, as if everything they do and say has just occurred to them. When Oscar, opening cans of beer, douses the poker players with the spray, it comes across as entirely fresh, even though we know Matthau probably played that action hundreds of times along the road and on Broadway. (It’s funny, now, to see him doing it with a church-key. We’ve gotten so used to pop-tops that even those of us old enough to remember a time before they became ubiquitous have to remind ourselves that we used to open drink cans that way in the 1960s.) His comic timing, and his way with a line or a set of lines, are non pariel, especially when he elides the full stops and runs mildly amusing sentences together until they are suddenly hilariously funny: “I-want-you-to-go-so-go [Briefest of pauses] When-are-you-going?”

And then there are Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as the simultaneously maddening and endearing Pigeons Sisters, and how they made those giggles of theirs seem spontaneous eight shows a week I can’t imagine. One gives credit to Gene Saks, the show’s original director, and who with Simon so beautifully re-imagined the play for the movies, for these blissful performances, especially since Saks was himself an actor, and a very good one. One of the most boring phrases ever invented for movies is “opening up,” which everyone in a suit wants a play to be when it’s filmed, as if the effectiveness of the play itself was not the reason you bought the rights to it.‡ Simon’s means of taking Oscar and Felix out of their apartment (eight rooms at the Dorchester on Central Park West, imagine!) not only don’t feel tacked on, they’re completely organic; they give additional shape to the action, and, for those who enjoy, as I do, the time-capsule aspect of movies, provide pleasing glimpses of New York City ca. 1967, such as the old Metopole Cafe, where Lemmon guiltily looks at the girl go-go dancers out of the corner of his eye and, hilariously, activates the crick in his neck knocking back his drink.

Robert B. Hauser’s gorgeously muted deep-focus widescreen photography is another asset, as is Neal Hefti’s charming brief musical score anchored to his soon-to-be-famous waltz-like main theme. Hal Pereira and Robert Benton, who the same year created the memorably cramped, accurate indoor settings for Will Penny, did superb work of a very different sort on Oscar’s expansive apartment (Walter Tyler shared the art direction chores with Pereira). The “Kep Out” message scrawled on the outer door of Madison’s children’s room and which Felix occupies, like the bunk-beds he has to sleep on, lend the perfect touch, un-remarked upon in the dialogue, that hints at a certain sentimentality Oscar maintains towards his young sons, 3,000 miles away in California. I have the almost certain feeling that, today, the people putting together a movie like this (not there are any movies like this now) would demand the screenwriter make a comment on that lest the popular audience, unused to exercising its functions of deductive reasoning, become hopelessly confused.

It is to Saks’ and Simon’s (and the producer, Howard W. Koch’s) credit that such a thing presumably never occurred to any of them, and to the credit of the American movie-going audience of 1968 that it didn’t need such things explained.

*The other, and the only carry-over from the original cast of the play, is the wonderfully church-mousey John Fiedler.

†And anyway, at least Lemmon is believable as Felix, something the terminally prissy Tony Randall seldom was on the long-lived television series… a show that never made sense to me, since Oscar’s adoption of Felix as his roommate is a temporary situation.

‡Speaking of rights: Simon’s then-agent talked him into selling the rights to his early plays to Paramount outright rather than (as any sane agent would have advised) granting the studio one-time rights to film his work. As a result, Simon never made a dime in royalties from the successful Odd Couple television series (or its three subsequent cartoon and live action versions) or from Barefoot in the Park, which also showed up in 1970 as a nearly all-black version featuring Scoey Mitchell and Nipsy Russell and which ran for only twelve episodes.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Too soon old and too late smart: “Will Penny” (1967)


By Scott Ross

One of the few genuinely adult Westerns made in America, and one of the most satisfying. Written and directed by Tom Gries and based on a teleplay he’d done for the Sam Peckinpah television series “The Westerner” in 1960, it’s an almost novelistic character study of an ageing, ordinary cowboy in a young man’s profession, like Monte Walsh in the great Jack Shaefer book, arguably the best and most completely captivating Western fiction published before Lonesome Dove. Like Walsh, Penny is incapable of stopping for longer than a few months, and then only when the job demands it; he’s been conditioned to roam. The movie confronts its eponymous loner with two crises which, while initially unrelated, merge into a single cataclysm. Nearly everything about the picture is a pleasure, from Gries’ remarkably assured script and direction and the glorious Lucien Ballard photography to the superb, lived-in sets by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and Robert Benton and the musical theme by David Raksin in which, with his usual uncanny alchemy, the composer makes every note sound both surprising and inevitable.

Perhaps the most gratifying, and revelatory, aspect of Will Penny is the superb central performance by Charlton Heston. Heston is often referred to as an heroic actor and his outsized persona, which can work in movies scaled to that big, unsubtle presence, tends to dwarf anything smaller. For me the only exception, before seeing his work here, was his wry Cardinal Richelieu in the Richard Lester/George MacDonald Fraser Three Musketeers films, which is an entirely different sort of character. But there’s something oppressive about Heston, and a little sinister even when he’s playing heroic figures; Richelieu allowed him to indulge that, and to add in small curlicues of nasty, dry wit. Here, with Heston playing a workaday, unlettered cowboy, you’d think the ordinariness would be beyond him, but he gives into it so completely there’s nothing on the screen but the character. It’s the kind of performance Paul Newman gave, often, but which we never expect from Heston. Something about the material pretty obviously inspired him, maybe pushed him to delve deeper than he was accustomed to on less interesting projects. It’s a clean performance, entirely free of heroic clutter and movie star quirks; Heston isn’t as cynical here as Eastwood often is, and he reacts to almost everything that happens to the character as if he wasn’t expecting it but is willing to accept the reality anyway.

There are those who feel that the mad preacher played by Donald Pleasence and his weird family who keep cropping up to menace the characters (and which includes a surprisingly low-keyed Bruce Dern and a mute, predatory girl) are unbelievable. They may have a point, although I think the unbalanced Quints bring an almost Faulknerian quality to the narrative. God knows they’re memorable. The supporting cast is one of almost profligate richness: Slim Pickens, fed up and surly as a trail cook; an amiable G.D. Spradlin as a rancher; Clifton James as a jolly, mercenary innkeeper; William Schallert as the combination barber/doctor in a town that doesn’t look large enough to support either; and Ben Johnson, his eye twinkling merrily, as a fair-minded cattle rancher. Best of the men are the young Anthony Zerbe as the immigrant cowboy “Dutchy,” who smilingly parlays a gunshot wound into bids for whiskey and feminine sympathy, and Lee Majors as his and Will’s friend Blue. Majors is so eminently likeable here, and so at ease in font of the camera, you may find yourself wishing he’d never been involved in television and wondering why casting directors are sometimes so damn dumb they can’t see what’s in front of them. As the woman traveling alone with a young son on the frontier whose plight intersects unexpectedly with Will’s own, Joan Hackett gives one of those understated, intelligent performances of hers that those of us who fell in love with movies in the ’60s and ’70s quickly came to treasure. And as the boy Horace, Jon Gries, the filmmaker’s son, is so wholly ingenuous you can understand why the movie’s producer Walter Seltzer insisted on his being cast. There’s nothing “Gee, whiz” or “Come back, Shane!” about the script, and that lack of phoniness extends to young Gries, who might have had a thing or two to teach an entire generation of child stars who came after him.

I called Will Penny one of the few adult Westerns when I began, and I stand by that. Much as I enjoy a good Western picture, there aren’t many that really challenge you. Unforgiven does, and The Outlaw Joey Wales, and High Plains Drifter, and Track of the Cat and The Wild Bunch of course, and parts of Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur and Day of the Outlaw and The Searchers, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. But even John Ford at his best often dealt more with concepts and simple home-truths than with the real concerns of the people in his movies. Why show a man endangering others with his violent, wild-eyed obsessions and then excuse him because he was an officer, as Fonda is excused posthumously at the end of Fort Apache? And who is Clementine but a convenient ideal Wyatt Earp can romantically leave behind at the end? When Will Penny ticks off the reasons why, despite his deep love for both the woman with whom he’s been stranded and her young son, he isn’t for her, you find yourself agreeing with everything he says even as your heart is aching for all three of them. That’s a scene that doesn’t show up often, probably because negative word-of-mouth can kill a movie’s chances at the box-office, as I suspect was the case with this one. But the climactic dialogue between Heston and Hackett earns its impact honestly.

I cited Shane above, about as badly mangled an adaptation of a great short novel as I’ve ever encountered, and the way Tom Gries wrote and directed the final scene of leave-taking in Will Penny could almost be seen as creating an anti-Shane. The restraint is everything; it breaks the heart without exposing the effort it took to do so. Will Penny deserves to be seen, if any Western does.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Inside/outside, our side/their side: “Q & A” (1990)


By Scott Ross

“Brennan ain’t no racist. He hates everybody. He’s an equal opportunity hater.”
— Detective Luis Valentin (Luis Guzmán)
on Lt. Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte)

If New York City was Sidney Lumet’s perennial subject, examining police corruption was within that sphere his particular forte, and the Edwin Torres novel Q & A seemed almost written for him to make into a movie. Torres’ taut, disturbing book, published in the 1970s, limns the investigation of a veteran police detective’s shooting of a Latino gangster by an un-tested assistant district attorney, himself once a cop, the case hopelessly complicated by the peripheral involvement of a young Latina with whom the young D.A. was once in love. As can be imagined from the foregoing, the novel was a complicated affair, and I haven’t even cited the wealthy, sophisticated drug lord with whom the girl is now living; a frightened gay junkie who, aside from being one of the police force’s paid informants, is the shooting’s only witness; his explosive-tempered drag-queen boyfriend; the young assistant D.A.’s shady superior who is somehow involved with both the Latin gang and their Mafia rivals; a black cop whose loyalty is primarily to the shooter; his coeval, the sharp, funny Puerto Rican officer on whose sound instincts the young lawyer relies; and the Jewish prosecutor, once the D.A.’s boss, who is perhaps the single person in authority the young attorney can trust. Yet as complex as that precis makes it sound, both the Torres novel and the superb picture Lumet fashioned from it can easily be followed by anyone with a functional reasoning apparatus… which is, alas, at least in America, an increasingly reduced pool of respondents.

Lumet was both the screenwriter and director on Q & A, and proved as adept at the former as he nearly always was at the latter. Part of the reason for the picture’s artistic success, I think, lies in how closely Lumet hews to Torres’ plot. Indeed, the only major component of the novel from which Lumet deviates is in eliminating the annoying, self-consciously literate speech of the District Attorney played by Patrick O’Neal, and that’s a loss to be celebrated. On the page you can’t believe in him; he sounds like a figure in a Henry James story, or a British stage play of the early 1950s. I suppose, given the character’s lowly origins, this might be considered a case of over-compensation, but that impossibly florid manner of speaking is one of the two areas of the novel Torres got wrong. The other is also related to speech: The way Al Reilly, the assistant D.A. (Timothy Hutton in the movie) veers suddenly from modulated sentences and educated thoughts to ungrammatical, slang-heavy sub-literate patois from scene to scene. Lumet’s screenplay renders both characters more consistently and believably.

While race and systemic corruption are the heart of the narrative in both book and film, Torres also cannily raises the question of the murderous cop Brennan’s buried sexuality. Indeed, the gay paid snitch (Paul Calderón in the movie) explicitly opines that while Brennan (Nick Nolte) would never admit to it, he is homosexual. It is of course a popular truism that the most viciously homophobic are those with the shakiest sexuality, and Brennan’s victimization of gay men, both in the Torres novel and the Lumet adaptation, suggests this without either author forcing the issue. Lumet, whose rather striking liberal contempt for homosexual men ran like a malodorous streak throughout much of his 1960s and ’70s oeuvre, at least until Dog Day Afternoon, honors this psychologically valid conceit although, thankfully, he spares us Brennan’s particularly horrible M.O., inserting lit cigarettes into the rectums of his “faggot” victims. Twice in the escalating violence of the picture’s last third Brennan plays seducer to a man he is about to murder; as with the scene when Brennan harasses a drag-queen prostitute on the street by groping his genitals and forcing him to admit he’s a man, we are left to wonder from this how much of the cop’s tactics are a ruse and how much an expression of genuine desire. Likewise, when he realizes that Reilly has become his enemy (“You went from our side to their side!”) he runs his large fingers along the younger man’s cheek, in a manner that feels both obliquely threatening and extraordinarily intimate, like the regretful act of a rejected lover.

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With his dark hair and mustache and his imposing physique, Nick Nolte is a quietly terrifying figure, routinely intimidating petty criminals, stool pigeons, gangsters, attorneys and even his fellow police officers to get what he wants. Brennan seems to be a man with no interior life other than a need to cover up his crimes — a true sociopath equipped with a badge and a gun.* Nolte gives himself over completely to the role; there’s no actorish special-pleading in his performance, no wink to the audience or attempt to soften Brennan up. He’s a psychopath for whom no rules apply, and he’s gotten away with it for so long he sees no reason not to believe he always will. He thinks he’s invincible. (The character has no idea he’s being conspired against from all sides, and wouldn’t believe it if someone told him.) There isn’t a weak link in the rest of the cast either, and which includes Armand Assante as the felon around whom the murders revolve, Lee Richardson as Hutton’s former boss, Charles S. Dutton and Luis Guzmán as the officers investigating the initial killing, Fyvush Finkel as a grandstanding attorney and the wonderful Dominic Chianese as a deceptively benign mafioso. Hutton, who has always been exceptional at locating the pain with which his characters live without emasculating them, does so here as well. Aside from Nolte, however, the movie’s other great acting comes from three much less famous sources.

Jenny Lumet, the writer/director’s daughter, gives a performance of enormous poise as Nancy, the Latina with whom the Hutton character was involved. And while both Al and Nancy can be apportioned equal blame for the demise of that love affair, she is, quite understandably, unable to resurrect feeling for him for what she sees as his racist reaction to meeting her beloved father without first being told he was black. Lumet uses her beautiful features (her grandmother was Lena Horne) to express Nancy’s emotions, and aside from her initial unexpected meeting with Al as he questions witnesses she has virtually no filter; whether she is angry, or bitter, or hurt, or a combination of all three, the character’s feelings are written across the actress’ features, nakedly. The only other exception is the final scene — which unlike the original author the movie’s writer/director leaves tantalizingly ambiguous, Al Reilly’s infinite hope poised above the precipice of Nancy’s ultimate acceptance or rejection. Only then is Jenny Lumet’s face unreadable, and we become grateful for the refusal on everyone’s part to depict a definitive answer to Al’s plea. As the junkie informant Roger, unable to control his appetites for blow and sex or to govern his emotions even when failing to restrain his tongue puts him in mortal peril, Paul Calderón gives a loose, brave, defiant performance, and he’s matched by the sensuous playing of International Chrysis as Roger’s lover Josè, who doesn’t understand just how dangerous Brennan is until too far late.

I have only two cavils about Lumet’s screenplay. Although he deviates from the climax of Torres’ novel, and its aftermath, I don’t think the filmmaker’s more cynical view of things inapt; we know too much now about how the cyst of corruption is lanced and dressed by those in positions to expose it to quite believe in the old Capra solutions… which anyway were scorned by the knowing even when they were new. (Lumet also reduced Brennan from an ethnically bifurcated Irish-Italian to pure Mick, I suppose to emphasize his Anglo-Saxon bigotry.) I do question why the Patrick O’Neal character insists on calling Al Reilly “Francis,” unless it’s simply the arrogance of the man. Of more concern to me, however, is why Lumet softened the contours of Brennan’s youthful crime when the one described in Torres’ book was more shocking and less explicable. But those are pretty much my only complaints about his work here, which is shot through with his usual intelligence and respect for his audience. Lumet was not interested in genre pictures, and tended in general to eschew the standard action movie set-pieces, but the conventional thriller sequences here are exceptionally well done and without the “Hey, look at me behind the camera!” excesses of others who have made crime in America their primary subject. His cinematographer, Andrzej Bartkowiak, delivers a New York which, desaturated and often rainy, somehow seems even more vibrantly alive, and the Rubén Blades score, which includes a re-working of his song “The Hit,” has exactly the right feeling — spare and foreboding, with a Latin feel appropriate to the story and its characters.

Because I was in the midst of producing my first full-length play at Hampshire College when Q & A was released, I had no time to see any movies at all and accordingly missed this one, which I regretted. It’s a pleasure to encounter it all these years later, and to salute the humane popular artistry of the man who made it.

*Since Q & A was made in 1990, decades before our tax dollars began going to Israel’s thuggish police force to train our cops in how to most efficiently escalate violence against American citizens, particularly (although by no means exclusively) those of color, that image feels rather prescient today.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

All right really: “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” (1977)


By Scott Ross

A charming compilation of three Disney featurettes: Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) and the oddly-titled Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too of 1974. (Did any of the children under the age of 12 who saw that last one know the Whig campaign slogan of 1840? It seems doubtful.) Since Walt Disney initially intended to make a feature of the A.A. Milne stories and, having decided to make short films instead wanted to link several of them together later, the picture more or less completes that process, begin in the early ’60s. I missed The Honey Tree in ’66 but caught Blustery Day when it was released with The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit two years later. Being by that time a certified pre-pubescent Disney freak I was besotted with the movie, and with Milne’s whimsical characters. (Dorothy Parker in her famous slam of The House at Pooh Corner hilariously opined that one of the verses in it caused her to fwow up and later referred to Milne’s central figure, derisively, as “Whimsy-the-Pooh.”* Interestingly, Milne himself regarded the word “whimsical” as a “loathsome adjective.”) Seeing both the originals again as an adult I’m struck by how much better The Honey Tree is, if only because it does not contain a sequence in which the Disney artists rip themselves off… and do it badly. It was a big mistake to ape the Surrealist masterpiece “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo for the “Heffalumps and Woozles” number here, and not merely because the later sequence isn’t nearly as well animated. It diminishes what came before and, almost worse, represented for Walt a step backward. Aside perhaps from approving a sequel to The Absent-Minded Professor, I don’t think he’d repeated himself so blatantly as his artists do here. Well, he was ill, and perhaps tired. Still, it says something when your splendid house composers, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, fresh off their Mary Poppins triumph, can’t come up with anything better than a song that sounds too much like “Pink Elephants,” although I admit to cherishing the hilarious line, “They’re quick and slick, they’re insincere.” It’s not everyone who would have thought to use the word “insincere” to describe figures in a nightmare.

What made the original shorts visually and narratively delightful — the use of the printed page and the self-awareness of the characters that they’re figures in stories — is carried through all three featurettes. My reservations about “Heffalumps and Woozles” to one side, and while none of them quotes from the books, the Sherman songs are effective miniatures that evoke the little poems Milne scattered throughout the stories. For those who love the original Ernest Shepard illustrations (your humble correspondent numbers among them) the Disney replacements are a bit of let-down, as they were in the earlier featurette of The Wind in the Willows in The Adventures of Icabod and Mr. Toad. But with the notable exceptions of Owl and Rabbit, they still resemble toys, with soft, undifferentiated paws and, in Pooh’s case, stitching that can break open when he performs his exercises. The single character not out of Milne, an enterprising gopher whose speech (like the Stan Freberg-voiced beaver in Lady and the Tramp) is impeded by his big teeth and who is wonderfully enacted by Howard Morris, is excused by the clever ruse (reportedly the brainchild of the story artist Larry Clemmons) of his repeatedly uttering the punning line, “I’m not in the book.”

The Honey Tree: Pooh with a mouthful of bees, as well as their honey. In a moment they will begin stretching his head in different directions, cleverly reminding viewers that he’s a stuffed animal and reassuring youngsters that he can’t really be hurt.

The quality of the animation in Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too is inferior to its predecessors, but its tone is of a piece with the others, and there’s a lovely coda which benefits from this, as Christopher Robin prepares to leave for public school and asks Pooh to remember him. This, in its un-insistent manner, is one of the sweetest, most subtle depictions of a boy bidding goodbye to his childhood in American movies, one completely unmarred by sentimentality. Indeed, while Disney (the company as well as the man) is often, quite rightly, criticized for the liberties it and he have taken with children’s literature, the Pooh featurettes are remarkable for their fealty, not merely to Milne’s plots, tone and dialogue but as well to the way his creative collaboration with Shepard resulted in layouts which, as with Tenniel’s work on the Lewis Carroll books, influence not merely how they look but how they are read. (Shepard, by the way, loathed the Disney Pooh shorts, although Mrs. Milne is said to have quite enjoyed them.)

A great deal of the charm of these featurettes lies in the apt and engaging voice work. Sterling Holloway, a Disney stalwart since performing the stork for Dumbo in 1941, used his gentle near-falsetto so effectively that, like Walt’s own original Mickey Mouse, his voice became almost inextricably linked to the character; it’s impossible now to read the simple phrase, “Oh, bother” and not hear it in one’s mind in Holloway’s characteristically unemphatic reading. The same holds true of John Fiedler’s timid Piglet, the Disney story-man Ralph Wright’s endearingly depressed Eeyore, Junius Matthews’ meddlesome Rabbit and Paul Winchell’s happy, id-dominated Tigger — these actors did their work so well they’re indelible, as is Sebastian Cabot’s warm, friendly narration, told in the sort of voice whose owner a child could safely cuddle up against at story-time. Barbara Luddy, the voices of Lady and of Merryweather in Sleeping Beauty, is a sweetly indulgent Kanga, Hal Smith makes Owl pompous yet not annoying, and the Christopher Robbins included Bruce Reitherman (Mowgli for his father Wolfgang’s The Jungle Book) and Jon Walmsley (Jason on The Waltons). Reitherman senior directed Honey Tree and Blustery Day and his “Nine Old Men” colleague John Lounsbery helmed Tigger Too and oversaw the Many Adventures compilation. Lounsbery’s visual style is not as sharply defined as Reitherman’s but his featurette is effective anyway so I suppose that’s a minor cavil. Along with Clemmons the veteran Disney writers included Ken Anderson and among the prominent artists on the animation crew were Basil Davidovich (layout), Al Dempster (backgrounds), Don Bluth, Eric Larson, Lounsbery himself and, uncredited, Les Clark, Ron Clements and Don Lusk. Milt Kahl was responsible for the lantern-jawed Tigger and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston animated Pooh and Piglet with their usual high standard of humor, sweetness and distinct personality.

A Day for Eeyore: “Bounced again.”

Some have claimed that the “softer, slower” pace and content of the Pooh featurettes was a result of Disney placing them on a pre-school level but I suspect he was simply trying to capture the essence of the Milne stories, which have a gentle, comforting outlook and an unhurried tempo. In this Disney succeeded; those qualities are carried through all of the Disney Pooh featurettes.

Arguably the best of these short pictures, and the one that most closely distills the essence of Milne, is one which followed The Many Adventures and which is available on the Blu-ray and DVD: The 1983 Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. Beautifully directed by Rick Reinert, the short seems virtually perfect and ends with one of the loveliest exchanges in the Milne books:

“Tigger is all right really,” said Piglet lazily.
“Of course he is,” said Christopher Robin.
“Everybody is really,” said Pooh.

Alan Bennett, who recorded the Pooh stories for the audio books market, remarked in his diaries of this dialogue, “The true voice of England in the Thirties.”

I daresay there are worse epithets for a time, or a people. Or perhaps I’m just a bear of very little brain.

*Parker seemed to have it in for Milne, which doesn’t surprise me. Despite my tender emotions about the Pooh books, Parker’s review of Give Me Yesterday, one of Milne’s plays, collected in The Portable Dorothy Parker, remains perhaps the single funniest piece of theatre criticism I’ve ever read. You could look it up.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Necrology: April 2021


By Scott Ross

Arthur Kopit, 83. Kopit, like his contemporary Edward Albee, came of age as a dramatist during what may be the last period in America during which it was possible to make a living solely as a produced playwright. He was remarkably prolific in his youth, writing a series of odd, funny one-acts like Chamber Music, Sing to Me Through Open Windows and The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis before achieving an Off-Broadway hit with the long-windedly titled Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, one of the few non-musicals directed by Jerome Robbins and featuring the young Austin Pendleton and Barbara Harris. (Tellingly, once it transferred to Broadway after a year’s success, it was dead within two months — presumably after all the chic phonies had made sure they were seen seeing it.)

Kopit’s work was often wildly theatrical, never more so than with his 1969 Indians, an expressionistic epic that served as a critique both of the American Indian genocide and the atrocities in Vietnam; although it ran only 96 performances, the play featured a star-making performance by Stacey Keach as Buffalo Bill, heading a cast of future notables including Sam Waterston, Tom Aldredge, Kevin Conway, Raul Julia and Charles Durning. (Robert Altman later made a bad and inconsequential movie of Indians, proving he understood nothing about what Kopit was up to.)

The playwright’s later work includes the 1978 Wings, concerning a stroke victim and which won Constance Cummings an Obie for her meticulous performance; the book for Maury Yeston’s 1982 Nine, an exhilarating musical version of the Fellini 81⁄2 directed by Tommy Tune and starring Raul Julia, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi and Anita Morris; and End of the World with Symposium to Follow (1984), a comic examination of humanity’s rush to nuclear self-annihilation. Its director, Harold Prince, requested that Kopit change the title to End of the World when too many preview ticket-buyers stuck around after the curtain call waiting for the symposium to start. Irony in America is not only dead, it never existed.

Sadly, this bright, intelligent writer was a victim of progressive dementia.

Richard Rush, 91. When Peter Bogdanovich expressed skepticism over the career of a filmmaker whose work, with a single exception, was full of mediocrities, Orson Welles replied, “Peter, you only need one.” For Rush that one was his mad, funny, frustrating and endlessly fascinating The Stunt Man of 1979. Adapted by Rush and Laurence B. Marcus from Paul Brodeur’s Vietnam-era novel, the picture was one of the cockeyed wonders of its year. Rush’s technical acumen, as much as his wit and polish as a writer and director, seemed to promise a golden career to follow. It never did. As Kenneth Turan astutely noted in the Los Angeles Times, the success of The Stunt Man was “followed by the kind of miserable luck that never seems to afflict the untalented.” Rush’s 2001 documentary The Sinister Saga of Making “The Stunt Man” is nearly as entertaining — and, concerning the American film industry, as insane — as the movie it’s about.

Barry Mason, 85. Mason co-wrote (with Tom Mccaulay) the British “Baroque pop” hit “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes”) which made me unaccountably happy when I was 9. It still does.

Johnny Crawford, 75. I’m too young to have watched The Mickey Mouse Club and I never saw an episode of The Rifleman, the series on which Crawford became an early teen heartthrob, until I was well sunk into middle age, so I’m afraid his impact on me was at best minimal. But his Wikipedia obituary entry says a great deal about where we are at the moment.

On the “Deaths in 2021” page for April, we see this: “Johnny Crawford, 75, American actor (The Rifleman, Village of the Giants, The Space Children) and singer, COVID-19,” the footnote for which links to the Hollywood Reporter. Yet at no point in that paper’s obituary do the words “COVID” or “SARS” or “coronavirus” appear. Instead we are told that, “In 2019, it was revealed that Crawford had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.” That is what killed him.

Going next to his Wikipedia entry proper, we read this: “Crawford died in a personal care home at age 75 on April 29, 2021. He had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and pneumonia, but had completely recovered according to his wife, Charlotte. Johnny later succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.” Yet the paid NSA and Fauci-ite trolls would have you believe something about the poor man’s death that is utterly and entirely untrue, as long as the misinformation continues to frighten you.

A pox (actual as opposed to imaginary) on all their houses.

Monte Hellman, 91. I once sat through Hellman’s 1971 mangum opus Two-Lane Blacktop. He died owing me two precious hours of my life back.

Billie Hayes, 96. For those of us who were children in 1969, the bizarre Sid and Marty Krofft show H.R. Pufnstuf was probably the wildest thing aimed at the sugared cereal set since The Banana Splits Adventure Hour debuted a year earlier. (And that one too contained Krofft-designed costumes.) Chief among the show’s many outré attractions was Hayes’ Witchiepoo — full name Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo — whose obsessional efforts to get her hands on Jack Wild’s talking flute Freddy was the show’s comic engine.

Although she did not originate the role of Mammy Yokum in the 1956 Johnny Mercer/Gene DePaul musical Li’l Abner, she succeeded Charlotte Rae on Broadway and reprised her performance in the weird 1959 movie (and in an even weirder, and more pointless, 1971 television special). She was later the curiously named Weenie the Genie in the equally bizarre Krofft show Lidsville. But it’s Witchiepoo for which Hayes will be remembered and on which she once even defied Stephen Sondheim and found a few rhymes for “oranges.”*

*Sondheim: “Clever rhyming is easy. To rhyme orange is no trick at all. Anybody can do it. You can say, ‘An orange or a porringer.” Or you can say, as Witchiepoo does, “Oranges, Smoranges”… although I’m not sure “clever” is the word for it.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: April 2021


By Scott Ross

King Rat (1965) An evocative, thoughtful yet curiously uninspired adaptation by Bryan Forbes of James Clavell’s debut novel, the first in his so-called Asian Saga. (The book, and the movie, are fictionalized memoirs of Clavell’s experience as a British prisoner of war in the Japanese camp at Changi.) This is one of those movies which while it honors its source and is by no means bad is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for. It’s a quality I’ve noticed before in Forbes’ work, notably Scéance on a Wet Afternoon (1964); based on the excellence of the Mark McShane novel on which it was based the picture should have been a classic but lacks some almost indefinable element that would lift it into the Pantheon. The same is true of King Rat. It’s well done, and it’s certainly well cast (George Segal, James Fox, Tom Courtenay, John Mills, Leonard Rossiter, Denholm Elliott, Alan Webb) but it’s a bore to write about. Forbes is workman-like, and earnest, but the divine spark was never lit in him. He lacks, say, both the crazy inspiration of a John Huston and the image-mad power of a David Lean. The result is work that holds your interest and is thoroughly respectable, but who wants respectability from a movie? Segal, Fox and Courtney embody their roles perfectly, although the latter’s is noticeably truncated, and the black and white photography is by Burnett Guffey, who two years on from this would light Bonnie and Clyde. The John Barry score, with its odd use of the cimbalom for a story taking place in Singapore is nonetheless splendid, anchored to one of his indelible main themes, which captures the essential melancholy and aloneness beneath King’s gregarious façade. But Clavell’s book, once you’ve finished it, haunts you. At the end of the movie all you’re liable to be thinking about is what you want for dinner.

Breakheart Pass (1975) A dandy mystery thriller in the guise of a conventional Western which despite the then extremely popular Charles Bronson in the lead somehow failed to find its audience. Based by Alistair MacLean on his 1974 novel, which itself reads like an extended treatment for a screenplay, the picture has pace, intelligence, excitement, and character: Everything we look for in a good escapist movie and including as well a plot whose modest but intriguing complications would almost certainly preclude its being made today.

Even so, Bronson was reportedly unhappy that the true nature of his character’s role in the story was revealed earlier than MacLean chose to do in his book and he was right to be upset; as much as anything else in the novel it’s the central mystery of just who the hell “John Deakin” is that keeps the reader happily turning the pages. But the picture has much to compensate for the lapse, including glorious Idaho location cinematography by the great Lucien Ballard; top-notch editing by Byron Brandt that takes in a blood-curdling sequence involving runaway train-cars filled with Union soldiers*; and a cast of old pros: Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Charles Durning, Ed Lauter, David Huddleston, Roy Jenson and Eddie Little Sky. Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland represents the younger generation, as the plucky dame who becomes Bronson’s confederate, and the former boxer Archie Moore (once a very fine if physically mis-cast Joe Mott in the live television version of The Iceman Cometh) has a fight with Bronson on top of the speeding locomotive traveling over elevated tracks above an unforgiving gorge that is the last word in white-knuckle stuff. Tom Gries directed with understated flair, and Jerry Goldsmith wrote one of his characteristically intense, propulsive scores.

At the time of the movie’s release Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times called Breakheart Pass “a fun if familiar picture but is played so broadly on such an elementary level that it can hope to satisfy only the most undemanding of viewer.” I presume Thomas meant that superfluous “of” to distinguish his intellectual capacities as far greater than those possessed by us mere undemanding types. And by sheerest coincidence while writing this I came across, in the liner rotes for Film Score Monthly’s release of the Quincy Jones score for The Split (1968) a quote from the same critic in which he uses the self-concocted word “incredibilities.” Apparently Thomas was himself undemanding, at least as far as correct grammar was concerned.

Bullitt (1968) Steve McQueen’s allure eludes me. A performer who continually asks to have his lines reduced may be, as McQueen labeled himself, a “reactor,” but he’s not an actor. As for the man’s alleged “cool,” what we most often see in him is a blankness onto which the audience projects whatever it thinks he’s thinking. And while I prefer to avoid comparing actors, which seems to me an exercise in futility, if you imagine every role for which McQueen became famous cast instead with Paul Newman, I think you can see what I mean about his essential lack. As Frank Bullitt he’s rather good, in his limited way, although it’s the picture itself, and the way it was written, directed, photographed and scored, that give Bullitt its most memorable qualities.

Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner’s screenplay, based on a clever, conventional 1963 police procedural novel by Robert L. Fish set in New York City, is sharper, more elliptical and more ambiguous than its source, except in the area of ethnicity: The movie, as was common practice at the time (due perhaps to the threat of protest by Mafia front groups or the interference of J. Edgar Hoover?) de-emphasized the presence of Italian mobsters in the narrative; “Johnny Rossi” in the Fish novel becomes “Johnny Ross” in Bullitt, and La Cosa Nostra is only ever referred to as “The Organization.” Still, I suspect a reasonably knowledgeable pubescent in 1968 could have figured out what was being implied. What resonates are the characters, and the way Bullitt chafes against the system, especially as represented by the politically ambitious San Francisco D.A. played, with mercurial oiliness, by Robert Vaughan. Lt. Frank Bullitt’s iconoclasm is made clear by the distinctive way he wears his gun holster (a trick McQueen picked up from Detective Dave Toschi, who would later became famous for his role in the SFPD’s investigation of the “Zodiac” killings) and by his Highland Green Mustang GT, which gets a memorable workout in the movie’s justifiably famous second act chase. The use of San Francisco, where nearly all the picture’s scenes were filmed, is equally distinctive, and makes you wonder why so few American movies have ever been made there.

The chase, in which Bullitt pursues the killers played by the veteran stuntmen Paul Genge and Bill Hickman, deserves every plaudit it’s been given (in spite of that green Volkswagon Beetle that keeps popping up beside McQueen as he speeds over the hills and which he repeatedly passes) but William A. Fraker’s beautiful deep-focus cinematography offers far more than chases. The British Peter Yates directs with quiet assurance; the supporting cast, which includes Don Gordon, Robert Duvall, Georg Stanford Brown, Al Checco and a luminously beautiful Jacqueline Bisset as Bullitt’s architect girlfriend, is splendid; and the score by Lalo Schifrin is one of the era’s finest. Anchored to a main title theme that can trace its lineage to Schifrin’s own “Mission: Impossible,” the score is largely diagetic. But when underscore is required, the composer delivers his characteristically snaky rhythms and casually infectious melodies in a way that is both compelling and un-insistent; take special note of the way that theme accompanies Pablo Ferro’s distinctive credits. If Bullitt is “cool,” it’s largely Schifrin who makes it so.

Prince of the City (1981) Like Serpico (1973), this Sidney Lumet-directed (and co-written) picture, based in reality, moves the time-frame up and changes the names of the participants. The former I assume was a result of budgetary constraints, the latter due perhaps to our strange libel laws. Despite these compromises, it’s an extremely well-crafted movie which while it skirts greatness is nonetheless as impressive today as it was when it was new. All the more so since this sort of big, expansive picture, made without unnecessary flourishes and concerning itself with what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself,” and which alone, he felt, made for good writing, is seldom made any longer. It’s a slightly fictionalized account of the travails of Bobby Leuci, whose activities exposing corruption in the NYPD and motivated by his overwhelming sense of guilt over his own were recounted in Robert Daley’s 1978 book. Lumet (and Jay Presson Allen, his co-scenarist) move the action from the late 1960s and early 1970s to what appears to be the late ’70s and alters the identities of the participants, including a young Rudy Guiliani. Although Lumet and Allen are scrupulous about not vilifying the people involved, it is virtually impossible to view the sanctimonious, entrapment-happy Federal prosecutor played by Bob Balaban with anything less than disgust, an emotion his real-life progenitor also engendered for readers of Daley’s book.

Prince of the City runs nearly three hours and famously has over 100 speaking roles yet never feels long. Although Allen had originally wished only to produce the picture, in part because she was uneasy about the book’s structure, she and Lumet did an artful job of juggling a complicated narrative even as they, to a degree, fictionalized it for popular consumption. For Lumet, this sort of picture was as natural as the summer sun and it’s doubtful any of his contemporaries could have planned and delivered such a long, complex movie with such economy and fluidity. Treat Williams, known primarily at that time for his stage work and, on film, for his smashing performance as Berger in the underrated Miloš Forman-directed movie of Hair (1979) and who is in nearly every scene of the movie, gives an exceptionally layered performance as “Danny Ciello,” conflicted, guilt-ridden, arrogant, loyal, compassionate and all too believably human. Also in the large cast: Jerry Orbach (in his first good movie role as one of the men Danny is loath to rat out), Paul Roebling, James Tolkan, Lindsay Crouse, Ron Karabatsos, Lee Richardson, Lane Smith, Lance Henriksen and Cynthia Nixon. (Alan King, who had recently starred for Lumet and Allen in their very funny adaption of her novel Just Tell Me What You Want has a cameo as himself.) The superb, muted and deliberately claustrophobic photography is by Andrzej Bartkowiak.

Lumet was never sure how he felt about Bobby Leuci, an ambivalence pretty obviously shared by Robert Daley in his original book. Was he sincere in his desire to confess, and to root out police corruption, or was he an opportunist? Or (and which seems likeliest) both at once? That quality, of not taking sides, is one that runs through the projects Sidney Lumet directed and it deepens his best work, which very much includes this movie. When, at the end, as he’s about to give a police lecture and a young detective on hearing his name rises and leaves saying, firmly but quietly, “I don’t think I have anything to learn from you,” the moment is played exactly right; the look on Treat Williams’ face suggests that while the dismissal stings, Danny can’t blame the cop in the least for wanting no part of him.

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) A slightly flawed masterwork of collaboration between William Goldman and the director George Roy Hill containing some of the most exhilarating airborne flight sequences ever filmed.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018) Terry Gilliam famously attempted to film this comic/dramatic fantasy, in a significantly different version, in 2000, the disasters attending it documented by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe in what became their fascinating Lost in La Mancha. Gilliam should have quit while he was behind. And since he is one of the most inventive and ingenious filmmakers alive, I get absolutely no pleasure from saying that.

Lacking both the time and the inclination to assay what I consider, on a reading admittedly aborted after several hundred pages, one of the most overrated of all “classic” novels, I’ll simply note that Don Quixote is not merely overlong but annoying, repetitive, weirdly discursive and often downright dull. Doubtless its literary satire meant something to 17th century readers, particularly in Spain, but we moderns are left mostly with famous narrative scraps: The Don and the madness which leads him to believe he is a knight-errant; his chaste devotion to his mythical Lady Dulcinea; the resolute peasant pragmatism of his squire Sancho Panza; the battle with the windmill. And if I am put off by Gilliam’s source, I am even more alienated by his choice of leading actor. If there is a more charmless, unappealing young actor around these days than Adam Driver, I don’t know who he might be.

If the picture was a mess, it might at least have been an entertaining mess. If you didn’t know Terry Gilliam was the director and co-author (with Tony Grisoni) I would defy you from guessing he was behind the camera. Only fleetingly is there ever a sense of inspiration, or a flash of that daring and intoxicating go-for-broke fantasy which is the sine qua non of Gilliam’s style. Instead the movie feels formless and and inert, as if it had been worked on too long and compromised beyond its maker’s ability to come to grips with the material. Only rarely are you amused or intrigued, and never moved. The only saving graces are Jonathan Pryce’s performance as the old man who embodies Quixote, the ethereal beauty of Joana Ribeiro as the object of Driver’s affections, the lovely music by Roque Baños and the often exquisite cinematography by Nicola Pecorini. And even they aren’t enough to salvage the last shreds of your interest.

What is sometimes more tragic than a dream deferred, is a dream realized.

Murder by Death (1976) Neil Simon’s spoof of literary and cinematic murder mystery sleuths is, like a Mel Brooks movie of the period, a scattershot affair. Much of what was funny then is still quite funny now, and the big laughs tide you over the more airless passages. It’s a movie that couldn’t be made today, and not merely because its cast is irreplaceable. (Well. Truman Capote should have been replaced, with an actor, but that’s another matter.) What I’m referring to is Simon’s parody of Charlie Chan, and Peter Sellers’ casting in the role. Never mind that “Sidney Wang” takes off, not from Earl Derr Biggers’ intelligent and articulate Chan but from the “Confucius say…” Hollywood movie version of him, or that he is made no more ridiculous than the figures in the picture based on Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot or Nick and Nora Charles (Elsa Lanchester’s “Miss Marbles” is for some reason treated less savagely, although she is more Girl Guide than little old lady). It’s the “Yellowface” issue, and the deliberate comic stereotype, that would doom the character today.

That’s not to mention two of the movie’s best and funniest characters, the blind butler and that deaf-mute maid. When I was 15, the sight of Nancy Walker “screaming her head off” nearly put me on the theater floor, and I fell completely in love with Alec Guinness’ unflappable manservant. I still find nothing offensive about them. Again, Simon isn’t poking cruel fun at the blind or the deaf but at the absurdity of these characters being employed as domestics. That Guinness, blissfully unaware that the woman can neither hear nor speak and Walker, equally uncomprehending of his blindness, are unable to communicate is a sick-joke that is inherently hilarious and is made more so by the peerless comic playing of those two old pros. The others (Sellers, Lanchester, David Niven and Maggie Smith as “Dick and Dora Charleston,” James Coco as the gluttonous “Milo Perrier” and Peter Falk and the marvelous Eileen Brennan as “Sam Diamond” and his Girl Friday) each have moments in which to shine, especially Falk and Smith. His Bogart imitation is more than creditable, and her sparkling way with a funny line reaches a kind of apotheosis when Niven whispers the meaning of necrophilia into her ear and she smiles wickedly before offering a masterpiece of upper class understatement. And when Simon has the inspired gall to invoke an old vaudeville line, Smith gives in to it, gloriously. Estelle Winwood, who was apparently never young, is even funnier as an elderly nurse than she was as “Hold Me, Touch Me” for Mel Brooks in The Producers and only Capote disgraces himself, although he’s less annoying now than he was when the picture was new for the opportunity he affords to study one of the more outré literary figures of the post-war era without having to worry that he’ll write another bad book.

The director, Robert Moore, was very successful in the theatre, where he staged among other things The Boys in the Band, Deathtrap, They’re Playing Our Song, Woman of the Year and Simon’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach and Hal David Promises, Promises. He has no particular style as a moviemaker but he knows how to frame a scene to the best advantage of his gifted cast, and how to pace what they do and say. He’s aided immeasurably by the marvelous “old dark house” set designed by Stephen Grimes, Dave Grusin’s witty underscore and the wonderful poster and main title caricatures of the cast by Charles Addams.

The Ninth Configuration (1980) Among screenwriters and novelists, William Peter Blatty was perhaps the greatest argument against a strict Jesuit education. In a world which needs the healing laughter of a good comedy far more than an impassioned sermon on the afterlife, this gifted comic writer felt he wasn’t doing enough to convince the world that his God exists. Hence, the book and movie The Exorcist, and even the phenomenal success of those didn’t satisfy him. Going back to a previous novel (Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane) that he felt was too formless Blatty sharpened and re-worked it as The Ninth Configuration, book and movie. And here I may seem to contradict my own critique of Blatty because, in spite of its author’s hectoring about faith, the final result is among the wittiest of post-war pictures, containing nearly as many quotable lines as All About Eve. Yet for all it strengths, which include a first-rate cast, it’s still a sermon, and not a very subtle one.

Filmed in Hungary due to its financer, PepsiCo’s, stipulations, The Ninth Configuration concerns a government-run asylum peopled with psychological drop-outs from the Vietnam war and what happens when a new director (Colonel Kane) is brought in to run the place. In a series of Shavian arguments, Kane and the astronaut Captain Cutshaw engage in debate about, among other things, the nature of life, the existence of a deity and the possibility of life after death, surrounded by the most entertaining collection of creative loons this side of a Marx Brothers epic. It’s a one-of-a-kind movie, crammed with marvelous performances, scintillating dialogue and surprising moments of near-slapstick hilarity. And if the ending feels a last desperate act of proselytizing you may not mind when the rest of it is so unique and engaging.

Although Blatty originally and disastrously cast the Scottish Nicol Williamson as Kane, Keach proved an inspired substitution, as does Scott Wilson as Cutshaw. Best among the supporting players are the great Ed Flanders as the asylum’s quietly acerbic resident physician with an agenda of his own, Jason Miller as an inmate determined to adapt Shakespeare for dogs and Neville Brand as the exquisitely frustrated Regular Army C.O. The splendid ensemble cast also includes George DiCenzo, Robert Loggia, Joe Spinell in an inspired performance as Miller’s carping assistant and, as a pair of sadistic motorcycle thugs, Steve Sandor and Richard Lynch. Aside from the evangelistic ending, I have only two additional complaints: I wish Moses Gunn’s role was larger, and that there was a little more of Barry De Vorzon’s very good music score. If Blatty’s bent to religious propaganda was obsessive, it has to be admitted that he could certainly be an enjoyable nudze.

Seven Days in May (1964) John F. Kennedy, who had been very keen on the movie of Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, which John Frankenheimer directed, was also enthusiastic about the potential of this adaptation of the Fletcher Knebel/Charles W. Bailey II thriller, to be directed by Frankenheimer as well. He had good reason to be; like the fictional President of the book, he was surrounded by traitors. Chief among these on the military front were the rabid anti-Communist General Edwin Walker and Kennedy’s own Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, a monstrous psychopath who in addition to being the main model for the Burt Lancaster character here, was also the likely prototype for Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper. Whether LeMay was involved in Kennedy’s assassination is, as with so many aspects of that murder, unproven (and probably unproveable). That he certainly shed no tears over JFK’s grave may be inferred with impunity. Kennedy knew to his cost that some of his worst enemies were not outside Washington but within his own Administration.

The President, alas, did not live to see the final product, for which he’d offered Frankenheimer the use of the White House, and by the time it hit the nation’s screens in 1964, the movie was doomed to low receipts by a ticket-buying public quite understandably wary of yet another violent coup, even if this one was fictional. Rod Serling’s adaptation is taut, and respectful of an almost perfectly-plotted novel, in which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Lancaster) plans the removal of the President (Frederic March) over a treaty with the Soviet Union. The picture is beautifully cast, with March giving one of his finest screen performances. Although the character’s name, Jordan Lyman, is a little too close to Lyndon Johnson for comfort, Lyman is, thankfully, no LBJ. March depicts with delicacy and precision a decent man who knows his actions are unpopular but who obeys the dictates of his conscience. That’s how you know the movie is fiction.

Lancaster gives one of those performances of his which, like his J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, are measured, inflexible, cold, and vaguely terrifying; his final face-off with March is one of the great scenes in 1960s American movies. Ava Gardner has a good scene with Kirk Douglas, Martin Balsam as March’s Chief of Staff makes you genuinely sorry when he’s removed from the narrative, Hugh Marlow and Whit Bissell are appropriately oily as two of the conspirators, John Houseman gives a nicely judged performance (his first on film) as a shady Admiral, and a young woman called Colette Jackson contributes a wonderful cameo as a bar-girl perspiring in the Texas heat. Douglas is asked to play it stalwart and well-intentioned as the Marine Core Colonel who unwittingly stumbles onto the plot against the President and gives roughly the sort of performance you’d expect; if you like him, which I do, you’ll enjoy it well enough. Best of all in the supporting cast is Edmond O’Brien as a bibulous Senator enlisted to investigate the existence of a secret military base, his rich, slightly ham-actor baritone memorably caressing his lines. Interestingly, while the time of the movie’s action is unspecified (the poster says 1970 or 1980 “or possibly tomorrow”) Frankenheimer approached it as if it was indeed the future, with video hookups and devices that would not have seemed all that out of place in 2014… although DARPA probably developed them in 50 years before that. Jerry Goldsmith composed a brief, effective score performed solely by percussive instruments. For some reason everyone who writes about this music feels compelled to say “piano and percussion,” as if they’re not the same.

Victor/Victoria (Broadway, 1995) The ill-advised stage musical adaptation by Blake Edwards of his wonderful 1982 comedy, filmed for Japanese television on its Broadway opening night. Edwards had the notion when the movie was still relatively new, and Robert Preston was attached as well as Julie Andrews until he had second thoughts, deeming the project unworkable and “an ego-trip” for Edwards. To make matters even more dismal, Henry Mancini died while the show was being written, his and Leslie Bricusse’s new songs are, almost to a number, boring, and the two written by Frank Wildhorn are even worse. Andrews famously lost her singing voice as an indirect result of reprising her movie role here, the Rob Marshall choreography is his usual uninspiring mélange of borrowed styles, Tony Roberts overdoes his nelly queen interpretation of Toddy appallingly, and the only surprises are Gregory Jbara’s wonderful performance in Alex Karras’ old role and Rachel York’s wildly funny interpretation of Lesley Ann Warren’s.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) Early 20th century history re-written as a paean to Theodore Roosevelt, and as only John Milius could have conceived it. Yet somehow, beyond its support of gunboat diplomacy and its hagiography of one of the worst imperialists in American history, it’s so intelligent, and so entertaining, you almost forgive its determined machismo. This is due in large part to the actors: Sean Connery as the Berber Raisuli who kidnaps an American widow and her young children, John Huston as John Hay and the great Brian Keith in a wonderful turn as TR. (Less the Roosevelt of history perhaps than of Milius’ besotted imagination; of the real TR the British Ambassador once warned his superiors, “We must never forget that the President is seven years old.”) As the widow, Candice Bergen gives her standard slumming job, but the movie’s most appalling performances are those of Geoffrey Lewis as the Moroccan US Consul-General Samuel R. Gummeré and, even worse, Steve Kanaly as the most avid of the American invaders. The widescreen cinematography by Billy Williams is glorious, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is one of his very best, with a genuinely rousing recurrent main theme and a gloriously rhapsodic liebeslied for Connery and Bergen. The form of the narrative is right out of a Boy’s Own adventure, but Milius’ attempts to tell it through the eyes of Bergen’s son (Simon Harrison) are ineffective; a dream sequence near the end which strives to make this notion concrete falls about as flat as an un-stuffed qatayef. But Milius does get points for depicting the love story tacitly and the kidnapped boy and girl not as the usual squeamish and terrified victims but as the cold-bloodedly curious beings children of their age actually are.

Speaking of children, in her scenes as the young Alice Roosevelt, Deborah Baxter seems so completely infatuated by Father that the look on her face as she gazes at him borders on the incestuous. Or was that meant by the filmmaker as a comment on the future Mrs. Longworth’s pathology?

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) John Milius again, this time as screenwriter solely, with John Huston directing. Hollywood (very much including Milius) liked to depict Bean as a hanging judge but history tells us was no such thing. Walter Brennan won one of his 37 assorted Academy Awards playing Bean in the William Wyler-directed The Westerner opposite Gary Cooper, where his death was every bit as fabricated as the mythic end the screenwriter concocted for him here. For Milius and Huston, Roy Bean becomes a kind of Pecos Bill figure, and when at the climax he disappears into a burning building on horseback chasing down his nemesis and never re-emerges, he’s been given a mythic exit out of American folklore cross-pollinated by its Classical European counterpart. It’s an odd picture, which Milius, who had originally hoped to direct it with Warren Oats, claims Huston and his star, the “cutsie-pie” Paul Newman, ruined. But it’s also an engaging one, once you acclimate to its tall-tale characters and structure. Despite Milius’ complaints, Newman gives into the nonsense completely and he’s vastly entertaining. The large, starry cast includes Anthony Perkins as an itinerant preacher, Tab Hunter as an early victim of Bean’s jurisprudence, Anthony Zerbe as a dangerous San Antonio hustler, Ava Gardner as Bean’s idol Lillie Langtry, Ned Beatty as his barkeep, Jacqueline Bisset as his daughter and, as if Bisset wasn’t stunning enough, a luminous Victoria Principal as his common-law wife. Roddy McDowall fulfills, in his unique fashion, the role of Bean’s pompous banker antagonist and the best of the actor cameos are those by Stacy Keach as the psychotic Albino “Bad Bob” and Huston himself in a rich comic bit as Grizzly Adams. (If you’re of my generation it might interest you to know that Bean’s pet bear is Bruno, who performed on television as “Gentle Ben.”) There’s also a terrible, headache-inducing atonal score by Maurice Jarre which also contains a pretty but pointless ballad performed by Andy Williams over a dopey picnic sequence that smacks of the producer trying to recapture the joy of Newman’s musical bicycle ride with Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy. Need I say that it doesn’t?

*At 79, Yakuma Canutt ended his storied career as the picture’s second unit director and oversaw that sequence.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Doing it right: “The Great Waldo Pepper” (1975)


By Scott Ross

And sometimes you do it right and it still doesn’t work.
— William Goldman on The Great Waldo Pepper in Adventures in the Screen Trade.

I have always avoided the trendy buzz-phrase “Spoiler Alert,” but if you haven’t seen this flawed minor masterwork of collaboration between George Roy Hill and William Goldman you may wish to skip this post in its entirety because I don’t see how anyone can discuss the movie’s most stunning moment without revealing why it carries such a wallop.

It comes at a pivotal juncture in the story, one Goldman later said killed the movie with the Boston preview audience which before then had been with the picture all the way: When the young woman (Susan Sarandon) involved with Bo Svenson and convinced by him and his fellow barnstorming pilot Waldo Pepper (Robert Redford) to do a “wing-walk” on Svenson’s biplane freezes during her first flight before the crowds and in unable to move from the spot on which she’s rooted. Knowing his friend’s plane cannot land safely with one overbalanced wing, Waldo attempts a heart-stopping rescue, moving in mid-air from his own biplane to Svenson’s, itself a harrowing stunt. As he holds out a hand for Sarandon to take hold of and she’s reaching toward him, she suddenly, agonizingly, simply drops from sight. One moment she’s there and the next, she isn’t. It’s an overpowering moment — genuinely shocking, the cinematic equivalent of a kick to the belly — and I suppose you can’t blame audiences in 1975 for turning against a picture they’d been rooting for right up to to the climax of that sequence. But you also can’t imagine the movie without it: Remove that moment (Goldman suggested they might have shot some additional footage of Sarandon falling into a convenient lake and shouting angrily at the skies) and the picture has nowhere to go. It’s horrible, but it’s essential. Goldman and Hill were true to themselves. I don’t think they can be pilloried for not also being prescient.

Constant Readers of these pages (there are two or three I know of) will be aware that I am no great admirer of Redford’s, and there are moments in The Great Waldo Pepper, such as during his grandiloquent lie to Sarandon’s family about being the “second-best” flyer in the recent war, when Redford’s sheepishness seems less the character’s than the actor’s, as if he knows he’s no good at playing this sort of brash, feckless character and the attempt embarrasses him. Fortunately, the story is the thing here, and the way it’s photographed. Hill was from boyhood fascinated with airplanes and the movie’s story was his, the only time I know of when he was not doctoring an existing script that Goldman wrote an original screenplay whose narrative belonged to someone else. Hill, who directed several of my favorite movies (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, A Little Romance) and a number of others I’m quite fond of such as The World of Henry Orient, Hawaii, Thoroughly Modern Millie and The World According to Garp, was one of those journeyman filmmakers who while his work is largely unspectacular had an almost unerring eye for style, and for where to aim his camera for maximum (if un-insistent) impact.* You don’t necessarily go out of one of his movies drunk on the images but, as with Sidney Lumet at his best, there’s scarcely a scene in a George Roy Hill picture that feels wrong, or goes awry. And as the decline of Martin Scorsese makes clear, at least to me, better good characters, in a good story, without directorial flourish, than swirling cameras and zoom-shots designed to make one’s fellow cineastes swoon.

Bo Brudin, second from left.

As I suggested above, I think the central role was mis-cast, although Goldman wrote it for Redford and thought him superb as Waldo. Aside from his sheepishness, Redford seems too guarded, and too intelligent, for a character like this who is gifted but never stops to think. (I don’t think Redford ever does much else.) Waldo ought to have had the crazy energy and mindless, go-for-broke bravado of a young Harrison Ford, although even he was a bit too sane for such foolishness, at least when he wasn’t playing Han Solo. I’m not sure who, in the mid-’70s, would have been the right casting for the role. Perhaps John Ritter, unknown then, or Bruce Dern, although Dern has nothing like Redford’s charm. Maybe Warren Beatty. Maybe no one at all. But certainly the picture would have been a risky proposition without a big star name like Redford’s attached to it, and Newman and McQueen were too old. (So for that matter was Redford. But then he was too old for most of his defining roles of the 1970s.) Goldman felt that Redford’s presence was the major reason the audience turned against the picture after the Sarandon character’s death. With anyone other than Redford, the golden movie star of those years, being unable to save her, they might not have resented it. They just couldn’t take their perfect knight showing up with tarnished armor.

Svenson too seems badly cast, and uncomfortable, although the others in the picture are just about perfect: Sarandon; Edward Herrmann as Waldo’s designer whose needless death is a strong indictment of the callous idiocy of crowds; Margot Kiddler as Waldo’s neglected paramour; Philip Bruns as the airshow entrepreneur Dillhoefer; and, most especially, Bo Brundin as the ageing German war ace Ernst Kessler, who looms large in Waldo’s imagination. Brundin has only one major dialogue scene, a long conversation with Waldo in which he makes it clear that they are both living well past their best days, and he’s so good in it he’s breathtaking. By which I also mean to praise Goldman, who wrote the pointed lines Brundin speaks; I’ve been a Goldman fanatic since I saw Butch Cassidy at age 12, and The Great Waldo Pepper seems to me, his own belief that he and Hill may have erred in killing Sarandon’s character put to one side, one of his very best original screenplays. It perfectly captures a time, and a popular wave of entertainment which passed all too quickly and ephemerally, tamed by a fickle public’s inattention and the capitalist realities that closed the lid on flying for the fun of it. (Now, of course, only the wealthy fly privately, and they endanger us all with their selfish obsession every time they go up.) Among the many pleasures the movie also provides are Henry Mancini’s alternatively spirited and introspective score, the sharp and often thrilling cinematography by Robert Surtees and the effective editing from William H. Reynolds, neither of which it seems to me could have been bettered.

And I see I’m about to contradict what I said before about George Roy Hill, because some of the images in The Great Waldo Pepper do get you high: The aerial sequences, shot in Todd-AO, are staggeringly effective, particularly those in which the planes roar toward the ground, straighten up seemingly at the last possible moment and slowly turn over as they re-ascend; you find yourself holding your breath until the feat has been accomplished. And as with Waldo’s attempt at rescuing the girl, these stunts are spectacular not simply on a technical level but because you see the ground racing by beneath the people in those planes. The filmmakers are constantly reminding you that there’s no fakery going on. Even on a home TV screen the aerial sequences are exhilarating, maybe the best work ever done in the genre.

Any movie is best seen in a theater of course, but some need that big screen more than others. This was surely one of them. Catching up with it now I am deeply sorry that when I was an adolescent I missed seeing The Great Waldo Pepper the way it was meant to be seen, and savored.

All I can tell you is that life is clear for me up there alone. In the sky I found, even in my enemies, courage, honor and chivalry. On the ground… You see, nothing in my life has ever been the same since.
— Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin
) in The Great Waldo Pepper

*It was Hill’s idea to open the picture using the old black-and-white Universal logo from the 1930s with the little plane moving over the spinning globe, just as on The Sting it was at his insistence that the picture employ the delightful anachronism of Scott Joplin’s rags to accompany a story set during the Great Depression.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross