“When the king is off his arse, nobody sleeps!”: Peter O’Toole, 1932-2013

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By Scott Ross

If ever a role was appropriately cast, it was that of Alan Swann. Not that Peter O’Toole, who played the alcoholic, Errol Flynnesque swashbuckler in that problematic but rather lovely valentine to Mel Brooks’ youth, My Favorite Year, was ever one who could be accused of being what Swann protests he is in what remains the most memorable line of Norman Steinberg’s screenplay (“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”) But O’Toole was, like Swann, an almost legendary roisterer and public drunk, as with so many of his male contemporaries. I hesitate, as always, to employ the overused hack-word “legendary,” but in O’Toole’s case, as with Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Lee Marvin and Oliver Reed, his capacity for bibulousness was so famous it almost demands the adjective. O’Toole’s father was an alcoholic, so it may well be that Peter’s condition was inherited. But I often wonder if men like these, outwardly macho in so many ways, turn to drink in part because something in them recoils from making a living at play-acting; one has only to glance at the number of digital speculations on this or that male actor’s sexuality to know that the profession itself is still, in some curious way, suspect in the eyes of many. (Although Burton for one rejected the notion.)

By the time O’Toole assayed My Favorite Year, he had been sober for several years; he’d come close to dying in the mid-’70s from digestive distress, exacerbated by drink. He understood the Alan Swanns of the movie world very well, and while there is in his deliciously comic performance no obvious grab for sympathy, by the time he made his absurd, triumphant final stand, I was moved to tears by the sheer, heady bravado of the thing.

It was, in a way, a culmination of two decades of magnificent film performances. While he made his movie debut in 1960, and for Disney, no less, it was his stunningly effective, rigorously intelligent, remarkably ambiguous central performance in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (in a screenplay credited initially to Robert Bolt but written primarily by Bolt and the blacklisted Michael Wilson) that heaved him to cinematic immortality. O’Toole’s Lawrence is a performance so rich, so varied, so ultimately un-knowable, it could easily have served as the climax of anyone else’s movie career, let alone its mere beginning. Although in life T.E. Lawrence looked rather more like Leslie Howard, if he was not very much like O’Toole in other ways, he ought to have been.

He was the tormented Henry II in Becket (1694), seemingly love-sick for the man he must ultimately have murdered in order to cement his power; the sexy center of Woody Allen’s ludicrous, over-produced but amusing What’s New, Pussycat? (1965); and the perfect squire for Audrey Hepburn in the amiable How to Steal a Million (1966) before (as an older Henry) being beautifully matched, blow-for-blow, by that other Hepburn, Katharine, in James Goldman’s eminently quotable The Lion in Winter (1968) in which he memorably roars, “When the king is off his arse, nobody sleeps!” Indeed. 1968 was not the first time O’Toole was — there is no other word for it — robbed at the Oscars®. Nor would it be the last.

He was a remarkably, subtly effective Chipping in the 1969 Goodbye, Mr. Chips with its (to me anyway) underrated Leslie Bricusse score and, in 1972, staggeringly good as the insane Lord Gurney in the alternately wildly, riotously, hysterically funny and deeply unsettling movie adaptation of Peter Barnes’ satirical attack on his alleged betters, The Ruling Class, in which the young Earl begins believing he is Jesus Christ and ends, chillingly, and appropriately, equally certain he is Jack the Ripper. It is among the greatest performances of a great period of movies, on a par with Nicholson in Chinatown, Beatty in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Brando and Pacino in The Godfather and Sutherland in Klute.

Lady Gurney: How do you know you’re God?
Jack: Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.

A period of poor movies followed, perhaps a reflection of O’Toole’s growing alcoholism. He made a spectacular return to form, however, in 1980, as the enigmatic, obliquely sinister filmmaker Eli Cross in Richard Rush’s absolutely non-pariel adaptation of the Paul Brodeur novel The Stunt Man. Naturally, it netted him an Academy Award® nomination. And just as naturally, he lost, this time to Robert DeNiro’s appallingly self-indulgent performance in the staggeringly overrated Raging Bull.

Two years later, O’Toole was Alan Swann on the big screen and the surprisingly compassionate, conflicted Lucius Flavius Silva on the small, in the beautifully crafted miniseries Masada. He was Reginald Johnson, Pu Yi’s teacher in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor in 1987, and received a final Oscar® nod in 2006 for Venus. The big prize eluded him, although the Academy, in its usual purblind practice, conferred an honorary statuette on him in 2003. He wasn’t very happy about it.

Awards, however, are far from the point. An actor who can give us, in a span of two decades, Lawrence, Henry (twice), Mr. Chips, Jack Gurnsey, Eli Cross and Alan Swann, was a force of brilliance whose like we will surely, with the general decline, both in film acting and of the movies themselves, never see again. That he was witty in himself and, for many years (and in spite of his serial addiction) remarkably beautiful,* was icing on an already delectable cake.

So, screw the flights of angels, Peter†; may the singing that sees you to your rest issue from one hell of a swinging bash. A last fling won’t kill you now.


* Noel Coward to O’Toole: “If you had been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.”

† He was one of those, too — actually three — in the 1966 John Huston/Christopher Fry film of The Bible.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Post-Mortem: Diane Miller Disney and Sid Field

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By Scott Ross

Two deaths in the news within a couple of days of each other captured my attention last month. One saddened me. The other…

Look: As an atheist, I respect life too much ever to gloat over anyone’s death. But I would have to verge on sainthood not to feel that the world might have been better off had certain people never entered it. So when they leave it…

Diane Miller Disney died on the 19th of November at 79, from complications that set in after a fall this past September. She seems to have been a remarkable person in many ways. One example: Her championing of Frank Gehry’s design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall ensured its completion as Gehry envisioned it. As Christopher Hawthorne noted in his Los Angeles Times appreciation of the Hall on its 10th anniversary, “Only when Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller made a final gift contingent on Gehry’s full control of the design was the impasse broken.” http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/disneyhall/la-et-cm-disney-hall-hawthorne-dto,0,4655702.htmlstory#ixzz2lPuTA9FP

David Colker’s Times obituary of Disney puts it rather more bluntly: “Miller used two powerful weapons — her name and her money — to keep Gehry on the job, and she didn’t let up until she knew his position was safe.”
http://www.latimes.com/obituaries/la-me-diane-disney-miller-20131120,0,778420.story#ixzz2lPthmbDv

There is no shame in this, surely, and much to appreciate, particularly in a woman who shunned the natural limelight (to coin an oxymoron) to which she was uneasy heir as a daughter of Walt. She was able to wield extensive monies in support of the things she cared about, and did so. When one thinks of the plethora of hereditary blowhards in the world who take and take from everyone — but especially from the poor, and from those whose cheap labor supports them and their reactionary ideals (the Walton family springs immediately to mind) one can scarcely help admiring Diane Miller. That she helped found the Disney Family Museum as well as the Disney Concert Hall largely, perhaps, from her sense that her father’s memory was in danger of being lost amid the perennial hoopla, good and bad, that regularly attends coverage of the corporation that bears his name, hardly diminishes her very real passion: Her philanthropic work on behalf of concert music in San Francisco and the Napa Valley, and exposing the young to it, are only tangentially related to her father, if at all.

I was interested to read that Miller was horrified by a book I thought superb, Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Well, naturally. Walt was her father, a man she adored. And while Gabler’s book was by no means hackwork or a concerted smear on his memory — no Marc Elliot he — I was until recently unaware of how many factual errors it appears to contain. Animation being one of my great passions, I suspect I noted a few as I read it. But they did not sink the book for me, as they appear to have for others. Michael Barrier, author of a competing (and less well-read) Disney biography, has compiled some fairly damning examples.

But Barrier, if his blog is any guide, appears to have a horror of “liberalism,” particularly of the Eastern variety, and so resents Gabler’s take on Disney, rebutting as it does so many of the myths — self-generated, or indulged in after Disney’s death by the company and exacerbated by popular misconception — that have accreted to the man.* If Gabler gets some of the details wrong, I can live with that, however uneasily. Others will correct them, and have done so. But the reach of his book, and its attempt to comprehend a man of so many vast contradictions — and, it would seem, so much dissatisfaction with the world and frustration at his own inability to create any other he could relax in for long — struck this reader as exhilarating, even profound. That Gabler’s approach may have caused the Disney family grief, or anger, I can well understand, and sympathize with. And as Diane Disney Miller seems to have been a lovely woman, of great heart, I am sorry for that. I hope in time to undertake a more critical re-examination of Gabler’s book.


One book I will be happy never to assay again, however, is the most popular volume of the now-late Sid Field.

It is a truism that no one man, or text, can be blamed for the sickening state of American movies, of course, but in Field’s case, I am tempted to make an exception. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Field’s hideously deified “bible” of the craft, made its appearance in 1979. Within five years, the adult movie was dead.

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I am not laying the demise of a form that sustained Hollywood, and its audience, for 60 years (despite the overwhelming impulse of the businessmen to check it that kept us, until the late 1960s and early ’70s, from enjoying the sort of cinematic honesty that is taken for granted in countries other than our own, and which still protects tender American sensibilities from such horrors as having to acknowledge that small children have genitals) solely at Fields’ feet. The massive success of Star Wars, and Hollywood’s slavering desire to replicate it, are as responsible for the shift as anything this self-styled “guru” of mediocrity wrote, or published.

Still… Consider Fields’ two basic theses: All screenplays must have a three-act structure, and all scripts must have regularly spaced “plot points.” And he has examples! Famous examples! Pick any random thousand movies and look for ways to cram your dicta into them; doubtless, you too can create any sort of drivel in the form of a rubric and shoehorn whatever contrivances you wish onto their surfaces. But for all that Field championed items such as Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown, his horribly influential Screenplay relied upon the formulaic in all things. It demanded the clichéd; it deified hackwork. That Chinatown itself violates nearly every one of Field’s precepts for a successful screenplay is merely rancid icing on an especially indigestible cake.

The influence of Fields, and his absurdly dogmatic book, on two generations of screenwriters has been drear. Many defend Screenplay via the spurious notion that while, yes, Fields had a formula, it is those without talent who abuse that formula, and who are to blame for the bad rap some of Field’s readers (such as myself) have given him. But the movie industry took Field, and his specious formulas, to heart all too readily, to the point where nothing that deviates from them has stood much chance of being produced by a Hollywood studio in 30 years. Some very gifted screenwriters have come to grief employing these peremptory notions, right along with the hacks. In the Fields version of the movies, dangerously individualistic ideas are to be scorned, the arresting narrative flourish that eschews the rigidly commonplace is to be avoided, and endings that do not resound with happiness are the worst of all committable sins. Where does his precious Chinatown fall on that scale?†

In the Fieldsian universe, there must never be a Greed, or a Magnificent Ambersons (let alone a Citizen Kane.) Or a Klute, a Nashville, a Cabaret, a Godfather, a GoodFellas. Brigid O’Shaughnassy must get off at the end, and fall into Sam Spade’s arms. McCabe must rise from that snowbank and rescue Mrs. Miller from her opium dream. The Blind Girl simply has to fall in love with the Tramp. Scottie will pull Madeline back from the edge of the tower, Norma Desmond will refrain from shooting Joe Gillis in time to show him the error of his ways and send him back to Betty Schaefer’s arms, the Wild Bunch will ride off together into the sunset with Robert Ryan, and Evelyn Mulwray will escape her father and drive away, laughing, with J.J. Gittes. Endings must be tidy — and, above all, happy. Ambiguities must be expunged. Nihilism and despair must be conquered by the magic wand of positive thinking. Pre-adolescent dreaming must prevail. Dialogue may occasionally be piquant, but shall not be permitted to go over anyone’s head. No shading allowed.

Precisely what, over the past two or three decades, has gradually driven from the theatres of America we who once practically lived to go to the movies.

So long, Sid. Thanks for all the laughs.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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*Barrier also has scant respect for Pinocchio, the movie I consider the finest animated feature ever made, or for Friz Freleng, whom I regard as one of the four of five certified geniuses of short subject animation. I have also, since writing the above, read Barrier’s Disney biography, and find his conclusions about Walt remarkably similar to Gabler’s. So, as Baby June Hovak never said: Caveat emptor, everybody.

†Field no doubt would have preferred Towne’s original ending, in which Evelyn does get away, gunning down her incestuous father into the bargain. The climax we now know and, if not love, at least understand and appreciate, was invented by Roman Polanski, and implemented against Towne’s strong objections. Even Harlan Ellison, no mean story-man himself, later leapt to Towne’s defense, citing Polanki’s interference as a prime example of auteurism gone wild when of course it is exactly the opposite: Evidence of what can happen when a great filmmaker brings his personal experience and outlook to bear on already strong material, deepening it. Without that appallingly appropriate ending, Chinatown would be half the movie we remember, and would almost certainly not have attained the classic status it now enjoys. Ellison could have chosen any one of a thousand other such stories, and been on the mark; for him to miss this obvious point, in his zeal to come to the aid of a fellow scribe, is staggering.

Left behind at the digital revolution: Favorite film scores not (yet?) on CD

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By Scott Ross

If one loves movies, and movie soundtracks, one presumably has a mental wish-list of scores that never received a commercial release. I can vividly remember letting out a very audible gasp the day I stumbled across the Varѐse Sarabande studio recording by the conductor Laurie Johnson’s of Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest score in the soundtrack bin at Sam Goody’s in 1980. True, it wasn’t the actual soundtrack, but it was North by Northwest! A cherished score that, from its debut in 1959, had — inexplicably, to me — never been issued on LP. I was equally excited to stumble across a Herrmann-conducted Psycho album some time later, although seeing the movie again made me realize that the composer had slowed down the tempos far too much (often by half), losing a great deal of slashing terror in the process.

The turn of the century saw the emergence of specialty labels devoted to preserving and issuing the work of the great movie composers. Film Score Monthly was the leader, and more either followed, or expanded: Buy Soundtrax, Prometheus, Intrada, Varѐse, Perseverance, Percepto (although these last two seem to have disappeared), La-La Land, Quartet, Kritzerland and (briefly, before Time-Warner took it over and began farming out the soundtrack jobs to other labels) Rhino/Turner and Rhino Handmade. That last must have really hurt, as Rhino, through Turner, had been the hands-down leader in releasing quality discs of musicals and dramatic scores from the vast MGM library, in fulsome packages that, unlike the MGM albums of the period (and the 1970s reissues) presented the scores entire, with previously truncated songs heard complete for the first time. Singin’ in the Rain in particular benefited from Rhino/Turner’s handling if it.

Now, of course, we’re told that the compact disc itself is a dying format. Based on the difficulty in finding a decent used CD player these days (there are no new ones), I have to assume it’s true… or at least, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know that a host of problems attend these things, not least of them dealing with studios and musicians’ unions over what are called “re-use rights.” But while even the venerable FSM has lately given up the ghost, a few of the labels above are still kicking, and they’re going at the problems full-tilt. So, the soundtrack nut can perhaps be forgiven for hoping that a few of his favorite scores, up to now only available on LP (if at all) will one day make the leap to digital. The following constitute my personal wish-list.


*8. How Sweet It Is! An old favorite, with, alas, no CD reissue… yet (Kritzerland? Quartet? La-La Land?) I don’t remember much about the movie, and I don’t recall it being especially funny (except for one riotous moment involving Debbie Reynolds and Vitto Scotti, depicted in pink on the album cover’s kaleidoscope.) But I love this score. I’m not sure how much of it is actual soundtrack and how much filler, or re-recorded for the album, both heavy practices in the late ’60s. It was my introduction to Patrick Williams, and to Jimmy Webb as a name; he wrote two kooky, exceptionally melodic, beautifully arranged and very likable songs for it. (I’d already heard many of his compositions on the radio, of course, without knowing he’d written them.) Pat Williams is not nearly as well-known as he ought to be. This was his first movie scoring job. It’s very much of its period (1968) but unlike, say, David Grusin’s banal background score for The Graduate, you can listen to even the dance music in it with great pleasure, and no embarrassment at how upper middle-class/pseudo-hip and “dated” it sounds. I doubt this one will ever get a CD release, as it’s far too esoteric. But a boy can dream, can’t he?

7. That Darn Cat Robert F. Brunner’s bright, jazzy caper music for the likable 1965 Disney comedy, bookended by Bobby Troup’s vocal renditions of the Sherman Brothers song. One of the few pure orchestral scores Disney ever released on LP, and we still have no CD edition. Intrada has been releasing some well-loved Disney scores of late (John Barry’s The Black Hole, Paul Smith’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Elmer Bernstein’s The Black Cauldron, etc.) so perhaps wishing for this one is not as wild an idea as it might seem. 

†6. The Bad Seed Alex North was a far greater, and more important, film composer than his public profile would indicate. Here, he limns the depths of a murderous pre-pubescent through the motif of a childish piano exercise, filtered through a demonic orchestration that builds to terrifying heights. Not, alas, on CD, at least in America.

 

5. Silent Movie John Morris was Mel Brooks’ house composer, and his score for Silent Movie is half the fun of the entire enterprise. That this absolutely treasurable comic score has not been reissued (and expanded) on CD is a source of unending dismay and frustration to me.

4. Lawrence of Arabia The score for David Lean’s unmatched epic for the intelligent audience received a reissue of the original 1962 soundtrack LP (on Varѐse) in the ’80s and a fine 2-disc studio reading by Nic Raine on Tadlow; additionally, the 50th anniversary BluRay boxed set contained a soundtrack CD with two extra tracks not on the official release. But the complete soundtrack remains a dream. I’m not a great fan of Maurice Jarre in general, and this is quite possibly not even his best work in a notably spotty career. Still, it’s a score whose original tracks deserve to be heard in their entirety, and the theme itself is so inexorably wed to our image, not only of David Lean’s remarkably intelligent epic, but of the Arabian desert itself that it almost constitutes an entire new genre of movie scoring.


‡3. Modern Times Chaplin’s “Smile” theme became ubiquitous, especially after Jerry Lewis adopted it. But this is, quite simply, a great comedy score. Chaplin was aided immeasurably in its preparation by David Raksin, but the music is pure Charlie: Startling, wistful, uproarious, and intensely melodic. In 2014, Timothy Brock prepared and conducted a beautiful studio recording of the complete score, but the only commercial release I know of the soundtrack on CD was for a European compilation that paired the original United Artists LP tracks with Raksin’s Laura suite and Herrmann’s Jane Eyre.

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§2. Psycho “Black and white music” for an iconic thriller, performed by string quartet. Nothing ever sounded like it before, and it’s been endlessly imitated since. I don’t think any theme before Jaws evoked so much unease in so many people as Herrmann’s slashing, scarifying “Shower Murder” with its bird-like, screeching strings. Even when you’re expecting the outburst, it still packs a wallop. The above artwork is from a Russian LP release that claimed to be the real thing, but I note that nowhere does it sport the word “soundtrack,” so I’m dubious. (It’s one of two such boots I’ve seen in recent years.) As I noted previously, Herrmann’s own languid re-recording leaves a lot to be desired. Joel McNeely’s on Varѐse is far better, and closer to the film’s fevered tempi. But why Universal, which made a mint on Psycho in 1960, did not deign to release a soundtrack LP at the time, remains an utter mystery to me. (They similarly eschewed an LP of Herrmann’s Cape Fear, and that picture too was profitable. And this at a time when studios released soundtrack albums for damn near everything.) Agonizingly, the original film tracks have since been lost. It’s a fate Psycho shares with all too many classic American scores.

|1. To Kill a Mockingbird That Elmer Bernstein never won an Academy Award for composing is telling. (His sole Oscar is for scoring the non-song portions of Thoroughly Modern Millie.) That he didn’t win one for this one is an outright scandal. It’s my favorite, not merely of his work, but among all movie scores, but my preference is incidental: No one had ever captured the wistfulness and terror of childhood so well before, and no one other than John Williams has come close since. The resolution of those final, elegiac, chords, never fails to send chills of bliss down my spine and tears of emotional release springing to my eyes. Bernstein himself re-recorded it twice, once for his subscription-only label (which was subsequently re-issued by Warner Bros.) and once for Varѐse. The 1962 Ava Records soundtrack showed up on CD, briefly, in the late 1980s, but the reproduction was wretched. A later Intrada edition, in a boxed set of Bernstein’s Ava releases, is of infinitely better quality. Although there is still no complete reissue of the entire score, Universal has been cooperating of late with Intrada on items like full restorations of key Henry Mancini scores of the early 1960s. And so I live in hope, dancing without musick.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross


*Update: The British label Vocalion released How Sweet it is!, all 28 glorious minutes of it, in 2016. A brief recording, but a wonderful one. You can order it on Amazon.

†Update the second: La-La Land reissued this one late in 2017. Two down, six to go…

‡Update the third: The original Modern Times LP tracks too have become available, in a European stand-alone CD from Gonzo Distribution L.

§Update the fourth: The Soundtrack Factory label has recently issued a very good Psycho CD, coupled with the previously-released Vertigo.

|Update the fifth: Soundtrack Factory has released a good edition of the original Ava To Kill a Mockinbird soundtrack LP, coupled with Bernstein’s irresistible 1958 studio album Blues and Brass. But that still is not the entire score.

I had a bad feeling about this: My “Star Wars” problem

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By Scott Ross

Some cultural commentators and movie lovers disdain the Star Wars pictures, for any number of perfectly legitimate reasons. But unlike nearly everyone else of my generation, I had an aversion to Star Wars long before I actually saw it.

I was working in Reference at my high school library the day that now-famous Time magazine came across the desk. One of my responsibilities was to stamp in the new periodicals, which had the added perk of allowing me to see them before anyone else. (Not that there was much clamor for any of them, other than when the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” arrived, and I gave less than a damn about that.) An avid movie fanatic who at 16 was about to receive his first taste of the freedom that came with having an after-school job and a car of his own — both of which, coupled with the kind of job it was, would enable him to go to many more movies — I noticed the side top banner of the May 30 issue immediately: “Inside: The Year’s Best Movie.”

Once I’d worked my way through the pile of magazines I was checking in, I turned back to this one. “The Year’s Best Movie”? I wasn’t yet plugged in, as I would soon be, to the growing press for all things Hollywood, and didn’t have a mental list of forthcoming titles. (It still surprised me that the weekly top-10 box office figures were printed in the paper along with actual news.) But if you bear in mind that this was an era of really interesting American studio movies being released on a fairly regular basis, you can imagine what sort of film I was thinking might be deemed — and by Time magazine, mind you — “the best of the year.” And in early May, yet; not exactly the time of year for hard-hitting drama.

The 1976 releases had been rather good, sometimes exceptionally so. Being dependent on my mother to ferry me to the movies (and my meager allowance to pay for the tickets… and when I say “meager,” I mean a dollar a week) I hadn’t seen all those titles from 1976 I wanted to, and would later. Still, I had seen, and loved, Marathon Man, Network, The Seven Per Cent Solution, The Front, Murder by Death, Silver Streak and Silent Movie. And consider a few of that year’s other titles, the ones I missed: Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Carrie, Family Plot, Harlan County USA, Mikey and Nicky, Robin and Marian, Bound for Glory, The Outlaw — Josey Wales, Next Stop Greenwich Village. The comedies hadn’t been altogether bad either: Car Wash, The Bad News Bears, Freaky Friday, The Ritz. True, some of the bigger, or more bruited, entries didn’t pan out (King Kong, Logan’s Run, Nickelodeon, Welcome to L.A., The Missouri Breaks) and there were huge hits that had done nothing to pique my interest (A Star is Born, The Omen and the year’s big title, Rocky, which I would see during the coming summer, and loathe.) So, while I had seen little art in that Bicentennial year, the possibilities for good new American movies seemed, in ’77, if not limitless at least open.

So, I flipped through Time to “The Year’s Best Movie” … and saw…

Oh.

Spaceships and little robots. Uh-huh.

I put Time and its Best Movie of the Year back on the pile, and promptly forgot about it.

By the early part of summer ’77 I had that part-time job at last. The fact that said position was at a two-screen movie theatre — the then-limit in “multiplex” — and entitled me, in lieu of a decent salary, to a pass allowing me to see any movie in town (provided I waited until at least the second weekend of a new picture’s opening) made it, despite the low pay and the vicissitudes of working for an especially un-pleasant, humorless, piggy-eyed little putz of a theatre owner, just about the best job I could imagine having at the time. I spent that summer seeing movie after movie. Two a day sometimes. And what was out there was infinitely better than what we were showing: Having passed on Star Wars, the owner of our theatre had opted instead for the Burt Reynolds redneck-fest Smokey and the Bandit (the 4th top-grossing movie of that year, incidentally) for one screen; I forget what was on the other, but since we ran perhaps two or three decent movies the entire year I worked there, it couldn’t have been very inspiring, whatever it was. The Peter Benchley-scripted The Deep or Neil Simon’s lame Murder by Death follow-up The Cheap Detective, possibly. That was the sort of trash we tended to play. For months.

If I wanted to see a good movie, I usually had to go to a competing theatre. There was at the time an old movie-house across from the NC State campus in Raleigh that showed hard-core porn at night and, of all things, foreign and “art” films during the day. I spent many pleasant hours there (during the day, I hasten to add) and at other cinemas in the area, enjoying fare like The International Tournée of Animation (I forget which number), Man on the Roof, Providence, the uproarious Watergate satire Nasty Habits, Ettore Scola’s A Special Day, Slap Shot, the problematic but moving A Bridge Too Far, The Spy Who Loved Me, Annie Hall (which after later viewings became something of a magic talisman for me; so much for the love of teenagers), the underrated Rollercoaster (about which I’ve written elsewhere in these pages), the not entirely successful but intensely expressed William Friedkin version of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer and, especially, the absolutely lovely Disney animated feature The Rescuers.

But what I resolutely did not see was Star Wars.

My best friend Michael felt the acting was poor and the dialogue silly, but he loved it anyway, and tried, vainly, throughout that summer to get me to see it with him. I just couldn’t see the point. By this time, of course, the movie had become a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon. One couldn’t avoid hearing about it. But I was much too big a snob to be taken in by the hype. If any movie was that popular, I argued — conveniently forgetting in my superior attitude the examples of both The Godfather and Jaws — how could it possibly be any good? The People (sniff!) were not to be trusted in these matters.

Besides, my 1977 summer was magical enough without recourse to whooshing futuristic spacecraft and funny robots. I couldn’t have articulated that at the time, of course, because I was simply too busy being young, reasonably independent, and, absurdly for a 16-year-old, happy, to recognize that time as magical. Had I known how I would feel by the end of the following year, I might have recognized the time I was enjoying as a golden period. But that would have required prescience far beyond my meager share. All I could say for certain was that the Star Wars behemoth did not interest me, either culturally or cinematically.

And as if to cement those feelings, a movie opened around Christmas that year that far outstripped (in my admittedly ignorant mind) any hold a silly space-opera could have had on me. By design, I knew almost nothing about it beyond the two-page ad I’d seen in the New York Times before that extraordinary night, the second weekend into its run, when I braved the shopping mall crowd and took it in.

In those days, I didn’t mind going to the movies by myself. Since during the summer I so often went in the daytime, when my close friends were working their own part-time jobs, and since I was so completely movie-mad, not finding anyone to accompany me didn’t dampen my ardor. (I even went to late-shows by myself. A drag, but if no one can go with you, do you just not go to a double-bill of Rebecca and Notorious?) That evening, I was on my own. I settled into a seat in the very close and crowded theatre, and spent the next two and half hours more entranced than I think I’d ever been in my life by a single motion picture.

This was my Star Wars. Screw hairy aliens and space battles. Close Encounters of the Third Kind fulfilled my needs, exceeded my expectations and was, for all its size and scope, both deeply human and deeply humane.

I was to work at the Mission Valley Cinema I & II in Raleigh until Michael, needing assistance at the large mall peanut shop his father owned and at which he was the manager, and knowing my frustration with the beady-eyed homunculus who owned the theatres, offered me a part-time position, and I took it. By then I was more than exhausted with Mr. Nance and his choice of films. True, we’d somehow gotten a pair of exceptional movies, neither of which made a dime (Robert Altman’s dreamlike 3 Women and the fine adaptation of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) and a few that were not bad in themselves, if also not entirely successful artistically: Tony Richardson’s Joseph Andrews had moments (and Michael Hodern) but was no Tom Jones; Fred Zinnemann and Alvin Sargent’s Julia was lovely but diffuse; and Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which came with a climax so shattering I was barely able to move my legs enough to open the exit doors for the patrons on its first night, was also unpleasant — so much so that I clocked more walkouts for it than for any other movie we played that year. We also got, courtesy of George Lucas’ new celebrity, a reissue of American Graffiti, an early so-called “Director’s Cut” mostly featuring additional footage of the newly regnant Harrison Ford. But the general run of our features tended to the likes of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. A Piece of the Action. Orca. Kingdom of the Spiders. High Anxiety. The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. The World’s Greatest Lover. And not one but two dogs that more or less killed off Henry Winkler’s nascent film career, Heroes and The One and Only.

As usual, all the really good movies were playing somewhere else.

Michael was almost as much of a movie-nut as I was; we went to many together, a lot of them late-shows of classic Hollywood features of the ’30s and ’40s exhibited at that weird old art cinema/porno grindhouse. I’d generally go to anything he was interested in seeing, and vice-versa. But when Star Wars came back for the summer of 1978, I put my foot down. No amount of cajoling would move me… until the night he finally succeeded in pretty much dragging me, kicking and kvetching, to the damn thing. When he called to say, “Let’s go” I was settling in for the night. I’d taken out my contact lenses. I didn’t want to go out — and certainly not to see That Movie! No amount of suasion on my part would work this time, however, and his last words before he hung up were on the order of, “I’ll be there in five minutes; put in your lenses.”

Well… I sort of loved it.

Admitting that I had actually enjoyed Star Wars was one of the harder confessions I’d ever made. Looking back, it’s not hard to understand why even a snob like me could surrender. I wasn’t exactly the prime audience for big-budget, effects-laden spectacle, especially of the space-fantasy variety. But I’d seen enough to know how poor, and limited, those I had seen were — with, interestingly, the exception of Close Encounters, which had far better effects than Star Wars, due largely to Spielberg blowing up his frames from 35 to 70 mm, rendering them better than anything I’d ever seen. After seeing that, the much-vaunted jump to hyperspace was a letdown, although I can understand why it had turned so many kids on the year before.

That’s probably the most difficult thing to explain to someone too young to have seen (or even been around to see) Star Wars in 1977 or ’78: In the ensuing years, largely due to George Lucas’ success at pushing for, and achieving, much of what he wanted, on this movie and every subsequent entry into the series, those effects now, if not seeming exactly old-hat, are at least taken for granted by two generations raised on them — and on their CGI-generated successors. But if you were around to see Star Wars (or Close Encounters) when it was still new you can’t quite get younger people who have grown up on this stuff to understand how stunningly effective that original movie really was. They’ve never lived without such wonders, as many have never done without, and cannot imagine their lives without, personal computers, portable cell phones, flat-screen HD-TVs and video on demand. Trying to explain to Millennials how jaw-droppingly unexpected the things in Star Wars and Close Encounters were to audiences in the late ’70s is a bit like the parents of my mother’s and father’s generation attempting to impart how magical radio was to children who’d never known life without television.

The look of the thing, from that opening shot of the battle cruiser’s impossibly long underside to the light sabers and the holographic stop-motion chess pieces, was unlike anything most of us had ever seen — seemingly effortless, as though the images had gone straight from Lucas’ brain to the screen itself.

And knowing rather more about movie history than most of my peers, I immediately “got” the affectionate tributes to the Buck Rogers serials and Errol Flynn swashbucklers, most memorably represented in Luke and Leia’s breathless swing across the Death Star chasm.

I also appreciated the old-fashioned optical wipes and lap dissolves, which I had only ever seen employed in one previous contemporary movie (Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein.) And the fact that the externals of the picture, as well as the sets, which could be gleaming and clean, also reflected a certain disheveled look, a grunginess we’d not seen before in a space-fantasy context, where nothing ever looked lived-in, added to the appeal. I also responded, as everyone did, to that magnificent, leitmotif-ridden John Williams score, which managed to be simultaneously revolutionary (full, thickly-textured symphonic music at a time when film scoring tended toward electronica and small combos) and retro (evocative of the past) at one and the same time. Williams had been of special interest to me since The Towering Inferno and Jaws, composing for the latter the most recognizable theme since Bernard Herrmann terrified the nation with Psycho. Not coincidentally, the unprecedentedly double LP soundtrack went platinum, selling 2,000,000 units in the U.S. alone, virtually unheard of for a movie score. (His more tonally complex and interesting Close Encounters LP, a single disc, sold considerably less well.)

If I had a complaint at the time, it was a relatively minor one: The jump to light-speed never held for me the visceral excitement I wanted from it. (See above.) I’d expected, hearing about it beforehand, something that would slam my back against the theatre seat and turn my head around. It didn’t. Nor was seeing the movie, finally, long after the rest of America had (far too many times in some cases) a Damascus Road conversion for me. I preferred Close Encounters, then, and I still do. Only when The Empire Strikes Back opened two years later did I sense that, for all the dazzle and fun of the first movie, a real human element had latterly entered the Lucas omniverse, one whose darkness, emotional content, ambiguous ending and simple room for breathing space (the Yoda sequences) satisfied me completely.

Not being of an especially scientific frame of mind, I wasn’t aware — as indeed I suspect most people who saw the movie also weren’t — until being told that space is a vacuum. Two years later, 20th Century-Fox, which had by then made more millions on Star Wars than on any movie since The Sound of Music, released Alien with the instantly famous tag-line, “In space, no one can hear you scream”; it was almost a dig at Lucas himself and his many loud rocket whines and space-explosions. Which, like noticing the young woman in the drawing of the old lady, cannot be ignored once it’s been pointed out. For Lucas, in space, everyone can hear you scream.

My second “Star Wars Problem” was to arrive later, when I absorbed fully how its shattering fiscal impact had altered the movie game, ending that era of more personal filmmaking the best of the ’70s had come to represent — much of it, alas, too late for me to have enjoyed except later, in revival houses and on home video. Not that Lucas (or Spielberg, for that matter, since the phenomenal success of Jaws is usually cited in these calculations) is, or was, wholly “to blame” for what happened. It’s the usual course of events when dealing with the craven, the avaricious and the cowardly*: The studio Suits want more of what they think The Public likes, and less of what they think of as foul-tasting medicine. L & S are surely culpable, as producers, for their subsequent descents into pap and juvenilia and the deleterious effects of that on the larger culture — think of the number of people who saw it as children and now believe Willow is a classic — but the overwhelming success of Jaws and Star Wars was, in both cases, wholly unexpected by their directors, and not a concerted attack on the Pakulas, Altmans, Mazurskys and Coppolas of the movie world. You can’t plan for that sort of thing, whatever the frightened temporary heads of the studios may believe. As William Goldman famously noted of Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” They merely believe they do… after the fact.

If I’m still dubious about a single aspect of a cinematic enterprise that I admit has given me periodic pleasure over the ensuing years, it’s the slightly acrid dogmatism of the thing. For a liberal of his time, Lucas’ reliance on what Harrison Ford’s Han Solo regards as a “hokey religion” is at best philosophically oxymoronic. The Jedi’s “Think less, feel more” mantra carries a queasy whiff of fundamentalism, despite the obvious compassion behind the mysticism. Another contradiction: For a series of movies as symbiotically dependent upon special effects as these, the lesson of Return of the Jedi, in which the Ewoks with their organic, “primitive,” skills and weaponry, triumph in battle against the technologically advanced Imperial forces, makes for a tutorial of rather doubtful provenance.

And, too, I’m bothered by the perception, expressed on one of the recent Star Wars DVDs, that Lucas somehow banished the post-Nixonian national malaise and made it okay to have fun at the movies again. It’s obvious that Star Wars touched a nerve in its vast audience. But if you extrapolate that rather smug mentality to its equally obvious conclusion, are we as a culture really better off with fewer Klutes, Chinatowns and McCabe and Mrs. Millers, and more Top Guns, Independence Days and Titanics? For the most successful independent filmmaker since Walt Disney, that’s rather more dubious a legacy than I think George Lucas might wish to have on his conscience.


*Which sounds suspiciously like a Hollywood law-firm: “Hello, Craven, Avaricious and Cowardly. How may I help you?”


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Knowing how people move: Madame Medusa takes off her makeup

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By Scott Ross

When The Rescuers opened in 1977, I went to see it, as a dutiful but not terribly hopeful 16-year old who felt that the Disney animators had pretty much lost their way. I grew up on their stuff, of course, and counted a 1967 reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs among the most powerful movie-going experiences of my then very young life. I had loved Cinderella on reissue as well, but I was absolutely potty about The Jungle Book when I saw it in 1968. It became my world: Jungle Book comic books, Jungle Book puzzles, Jungle Book Colorforms and paint-by-numbers scenes, a whole box of Royal Pudding customer premium Disneykins figurines (dear god, how I wish I’d held onto those!), the Jungle Book soundtrack album (I drove my parents to despair with that one.) I was, I think, at just the right age for it: A cartoon-mad seven-year-old, seeing his first new Disney feature, not terribly long after Walt’s death.


But while I had enjoyed The Aristocats, and Robin Hood, and a mid-’70s reissue of The Sword in the Stone, I got much more from 101 Dalmatians and Fantasia  and Pinocchio and Dumbo when they went into rotation. By comparison to the new, Walt-less work, those pictures had a richness with which the more recent movies couldn’t really compare. It wasn’t the post-50s Xerox process that struck me, however vaguely, as thin; it was the stories themselves, and the characters, and the means by which the Nine Old Men were telling those stories and presenting those characters. In retrospect, I suppose it was largely the fault of Woolie Reitherman, the named director of the features. His pictures aren’t terribly inspired, and he seemed to abhor heart — I don’t mean sentimentality, but genuine sentiment. And there is a difference. It’s something Disney himself may have embraced too heavily at times, but I would rather the unabashed emotional pull of, say, the “Baby Mine” sequence in Dumbo than almost anything in The Fox and the Hound.

Some of the fault may lie with Disney himself, more aloof as the years went on and far less involved in the production of his studio’s animation (although he was still the greatest editor his animators ever had.) Somehow, though, someone — perhaps John Lounsbery or Art Stevens, both of whom co-directed with Reitherman — managed to get that heart back into The Rescuers, whatever Woolie’s reticence; it’s present from the first moment, and the first notes of the Artie Butler score (I have only to hear are the initial strains of “Rescue Me” and I go misty) and it’s seldom far from the action. Situated within those more emotive parameters, however, is Milt Kahl’s superb, satirical character work on Madame Medusa, the movie’s hilariously frumpy villain.

Kahl said the character was his vengeance on an ex-wife, but Medusa’s facial design surely owes something to the great Geraldine Page, who provided her voice. (Kahl did nearly all the animation for the character.)

Madame Medusa and her vocal (and performance) alter ego, Geraldine Page.

Like his confreres Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, Kahl was a master of behavioral animation. (Kahl worked his special magic on the Tar Baby sequence in Song of the South, the amusingly narcissistic Brom Bones in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the slightly befuddled Fairy Godmother — as well as the pugnacious King and his humorless Duke — in Cinderella, Madame Mim in The Sword in the Stone, and the suavely frightening Sher Khan — as well as King Louie and Kaa — in The Jungle Book.) “Anyone worth his salt in this business,” he said, “ought to know how people move […] You have to understand movement, which in itself is quite a study. You have to be an actor. You have to put on a performance.” With Medusa, his final work on a Disney feature, Kahl gave the performance of a lifetime.

A Milt Kahl sketch of Medusa in all her over-the-top glory.

Madame Medusa is personality animation with a vengeance. Her every movement is fulsome, from her big, sagging bosom and the ghastly hips her walk leads with, to her set of damn near independently working teeth. Much of Kahl’s inspiration no doubt came from Page’s ripe, deliberately hammy vocal work, but Medusa is his creature. (There’s no one remotely like her in Margery Sharpe’s “Miss Bianca” novels, on which the movie was based.) And her crowning moment as an animated figure, and Kahl’s as her creator, is the simple removal of a false eyelash. It takes less than a minute of screen time, but once seen it’s never forgotten.

I can still remember the genuine sense of awe I felt when I first saw it, even as the moment made me laugh out loud. It could only have been done with animation, and only then by an animator who understood movement and personality to his bones.

One of Kahl’s original animation drawings from the “make-up scene” in The Rescuers.

The sequence comes as Medusa attempts using child psychology on Penny, the small orphan she’s kidnapped to help retrieve a priceless diamond from the grotto of a Louisiana bayou. As she talks in what she believes is an encouraging manner to Penny, she’s removing her voluminous makeup before a mirror.

Page gives a particularly rich reading to the line Medusa is speaking during the action of pulling off the second of two false eyelashes (“Then we must try harder, mustn’t we?”) her voice taking on a slightly irritated lilt that works beautifully with the action Kahl animates. It’s a perfect illustration of “squash-and-stretch” animation.

The first two images represent the lash that doesn’t give Medusa trouble.

It’s the other one that’s the source of her brief, wonderfully comic struggle:

Kahl’s animation drawing and, below, a finished cel from the next moment in the action.

Above, and below, Kahl’s animation drawings. The final stretch, as it were. What’s missing (because I couldn’t find it online) is the way the aging flesh around Medusa’s eye, freed from the lash, undulates briefly before sagging back into place — the topper, as comedians say, to the joke.

If this isn’t “putting on a performance,” I don’t know what is. A simple moment of action, wholly incidental to the narrative but infinitely rich in personality. 36 years later it still makes me smile — and marvel.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

One enfant terrible breaks faith with another: Tynan, Kael and “Kane”

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By Scott Ross

Through the good graces of my best friend who, being a sensible sort, does not cling as I do to outmoded technology, I recently enjoyed Simon Callow’s reading, on cassette, of Kenneth Tynan’s diaries, as edited by John Lahr. In one early entry, Tynan is shattered to discover his notion of Orson Welles as the Compleat Artist is false: He’s just read Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” in the New Yorker, and declares that she “proves conclusively that Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane.”

Kael, of course, did no such thing.

I am an enormous admirer of Kael’s, a zealot even; despite every effort, during her time at the New Yorker and since her enforced retirement (she had Parkinson’s) and her death, by others to discredit her, I remain steadfast in my belief that, whatever her flaws, she was, and remains, the finest movie critic not merely of her age but for any age. When she was wrong, however — and by “wrong” I do not mean, “I disagree with her opinion about X” — she was spectacularly wrong. And she was seldom more wrong than she was in “Raising Kane.

Any essay critical of Welles — of whom, it should be noted, Kael was in fact a noted supporter — that uses John Houseman as its chief source is benighted from the start. One can easily imagine with what barely submerged glee Welles’ one-time producer (and long-standing enemy) related his version of events to Kael. Her own motives are less clear. It’s been suggested that she had Hollywood ambitions of her own, and that, in elevating Kane’s co-scenarist of record, Herman J. Mankiewicz, himself a former New Yorker critic, she was further ennobling herself, by proxy. Once the piece was published, and Welles’ friends and admirers had their say via Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Kane Mutiny” rebuttal in Esquire (a jeremiad reportedly revised by Welles himself) she rather uncharacteristically confessed her doubts about her original piece to her then-friend Woody Allen, and worried that she didn’t know how to respond. His advice: Don’t. She never did.*

Pauline Kael in 1972, photographed (unusually, with her glasses) by Jill Krementz.

 

Nor did she “prove” in any demonstrable, let alone “conclusive” fashion that Welles had nothing to do with Kane’s superb screenplay. A cursory look at any of the other movies he directed and for which he also wrote the scripts, by himself — which is to say all of them except Kane and the un-produced The Big Brass Ring — reveals Orson Welles’ “voice” as a writer, a style and set of preoccupations manifest in films as seemingly unrelated as Touch of Evil, Mr. Arkadin, The Lady from Shanghai, F for Fake and even what little has been seen, and heard, of The Other Side of the Wind. Only when he adapted the work of others (Tarkington for The Magnificent Ambersons, Kafka for The Trial and Shakespeare for Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff/Chimes at Midnight) is the sound of the dialogue not patently presented in Welles’ distinctive cadences as a dramatist. Although it is probably impossible at this juncture to definitively prove that Welles or Mankiewicz (or even, perhaps, Houseman?) wrote this or that line, or monologue, for Kane, the quality of that verbiage, and the observations, are of a piece with the dialogue in the pictures Orson wrote either alone or (in the case of the published screenplay for The Big Brass Ring) co-authored with his companion, Oja Kodar.† Or are we to believe he “stole” all of those credits as well?

But Welles was also notorious for his prevarications, and this habit of giving himself credit in the absence of anyone who might have contradicted him became worse with time. Even Kael acknowledged of Welles that, when an artist has been cheated, repeatedly, of his due, he may be prone to self-aggrandizement. Certainly, Welles must have grown as sick of having his work misinterpreted, and condemned, by ignoramuses as he became of being asked about Kane. It may well be, too, that Mankiewicz, with Houseman’s collusion, modeled more than a few of Charles Foster Kane’s biographical details and characteristic idiosyncrasies on Welles and that Orson in turn may have been too sheepish about them to object. Master showman that he was, he may even have acknowledged their effectiveness as part of the drama, if only to himself. It may not be true, as Welles told Bogdanovich, that the script of Kane was scissored-and-pasted from his own version of the script and Mankiewicz’s, or that Mankiewicz’s “contributions” (as Orson called them) were more significant in part than as a whole. Whatever the truth of it, the movie of Citizen Kane resounds with Welles, not merely visually or in the sound of the picture but in the shape and tone of the words themselves.

Orson Welles at work on the script for The Other Side of the Wind in the early 1970s. At right, Peter Bogdanovich with the young critic and Welles scholar Joseph McBride. Both had roles in the movie.

For his own part, Kenneth Tynan was a magnificent theatre critic, but a less reliable movie reviewer. Tynan’s rhapsody on the London production of Welles’ own, splendidly theatrical Moby Dick — Rehearsed makes one pine to have seen it. “With this Moby Dick,” Tynan wrote, “the theatre becomes once more a house of magic.” Of Orson’s debut in movies Tynan famously wrote, “Nobody who saw Citizen Kane at an impressionable age will ever forget the experience; overnight, the American cinema had acquired an adult vocabulary.”

So what did Tynan see in Kael’s misguided adventure to convince him that his idol had feet of clay? (It’s significant that, in speaking to Terry Gross about the second volume of his own Welles biography, Callow, the reader of Tynan’s diaries on tape, used the exact same words as the diarist when he proclaimed, equally fraudulently, that “Orson Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane.”) Alas, the entry that records Tynan’s shock at seeing a lifelong hero reduced, as it were, to a rather fat heap of ashes, is all too brief. Tynan does not bother to note how Kael “proved” Orson’s claims of authorship false.‡

And in that, he resembles Kael herself, all too closely.

________________________________________

* Kael also seldom had a kind word thereafter for one of Bogdanovich’s pictures.

† Welles’ highly dubious but thoroughly enjoyable screen “memoir” The Cradle Will Rock script was likewise published after his death.

‡ Just as, in another diary entry, he quotes Gregory Peck at length, sneering at liberals and discussing his conversion to the true faith of conservatism, when it’s obvious to the reader that the man to whom Tynan’s had been talking at Hollywood party is Charlton Heston.

 

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Broadsword calling Danny Boy: “Where Eagles Dare” (1968)

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Major Smith: Lieutenant, in the next 15 minutes we have to create enough confusion to get out of here alive.
Lt. Schaffer: Major, right now you got me about as confused as I ever hope to be.

Clint Eastwood (Lt. Schaffer) and Richard Burton (Major Smith).

By Scott Ross

I read the novel Where Eagles Dare a few years ago, as part of a veritable fit of Alistair MacLean. But I hadn’t seen the movie until a couple of months ago when, in search of something enjoyable, I pulled a copy of the DVD from my formidably voluminous cache of “to watch” titles. In his venerable TV Movies (or whatever it’s called these days) Leonard Maltin describes this 1969 thriller as a “modern-day version of a Republic serial, with slam-bang cliff-hanger action that never lets up.” Of course, he wrote that entry years before Raiders of the Lost Ark was made, and Where Eagles Dare, for all that it is hugely enjoyable, doesn’t have the stylishness or the referential, rich humor of that. But it’s great fun. (If one can use “fun” for a WWII adventure wherein a large number of people die…)

MacLean wrote the novel and the screenplay simultaneously — remarkably, it was his first script for a movie — and there is no fat. The film is 2 and 1/2 hours long, but you never feel a lull.* The plot is one surprise after another, with the audience never quite sure where the Richard Burton and Mary Ure characters’ loyalties are. One of the incidents I most remembered from MacLean’s book was a long sequence where Smith (Burton) shifts the “truth” over and over again. While I was reading, I found it curiously “stagey,” for a novel. I’m not sure I can explain that. But when you actually see that scene in the movie, it works. It plays beautifully.

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As for the two action sequences concerning the cable cars… Sapristi knuckoes! as Spike Milligan might have remarked. On a widescreen, in the theatres of 1968, their remarkably sustained suspense must have had audiences squirming and shoving themselves against the backs of their seats.

Burton struggles with two foes in what could have been the climax of any other movie; there’s still another half-hour of Where Eagles Dare to go.

Ron Goodwin’s score is splendid, particularly his main theme, which, like the alpine schloss Burton, Eastwood et al. must reach in their mission, builds and ascends, higher and higher up the chromatic scale before resolving itself.

I also was struck by how beautiful Ingrid Pitt was in a supporting role — a much more interesting face than Mary Ure’s. Ure looks a bit like an interchangeable Bond Girl; Pitt is just strikingly lovely.

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The villainous Gestapo man is Darren Nesbitt, who was one of my favorite Number 2s in The Prisoner (the “It’s Your Funeral” episode.) I looked up Nesbitt’s Imdb entry later and noted that his most recent role, in 2012, was as “Man on Bus.”

God, but the Show Biz is a miserable bitch.


*I wondered if there had been an intermission, and thought from my reading of the book that I knew where it would be. I pulled out the Film Score Monthly soundtrack CD afterwards to listen to it again and, sure enough, there was a beak, and exactly where I assumed it would land. The intermission, oddly, is elided over on the Warner/MGM DVD.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Rollercoaster (1977)

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By Scott Ross

I first saw Rollercoaster at 16, at an especially rotten little shopping center duplex cinema in Raleigh, North Carolina; it had earlier been a single-screen theatre until some genius decided to split it in half, around 1974 or ’75 — I remember seeing Jaws there — and the place was like two small coffins separated by what seemed like strips of plywood wedged between the auditoriums. In ’77 I don’t recall what was playing next door, except that I remember seeing whatever that was the week before. The theatre held 99-cent showings every Tuesday evening; whatever the other movie may have been (the atrocious Fire Sale, possibly) I recall, while watching it, the sound and feel of Rollercoaster’s utterly gratuitous Sensurround process bleeding through the walls and vibrating up from the floor, which is precisely as annoying as you think.

It was that very, expendable, addition that had kept me from Rollercoaster initially. One of Universal’s periodic attempts at manufacturing a fad, Sensurround debuted, appropriately, with Earthquake in 1974, sticking up its noisy, bombastic head at periodic (and wholly doomed) intervals until mercifully giving up the ghost for good in 1978. But I had a high school friend who was pretty much game for anything at the cost of only a buck, so we went.

My friend wasn’t particularly impressed with Rollercoaster, but I was — in spite of its being, essentially, a made-for-television movie decorated with widescreen, a few mild profanities and that ubiquitous sound-and-shake process. Its pedigree was, in fact, very television for the time: The movie’s canny screenplay was by William Link and his (now late) writing partner Richard Levinson.

Richard Levinson (left) and William Link.

The team responsible, among other things, for Columbo, Levinson and Link had also written and produced the now hopelessly dated but, in 1972, exceptionally brave teevee movie That Certain Summer starring Hal Holbrook as a divorced father, a young Martin Sheen as his lover, and Scott Jacoby as Holbrook’s alienated son. In later years I would especially admire Levinson and Link’s neat cat-and-mouse thriller Murder by Natural Causes, their evocation of 1957 Little Rock (Crisis at Central High) and their marvelously convoluted three-hander Guilty Conscience with the drop-dead cast of Anthony Hopkins, Swoosie Kurtz and the divine Blythe Danner.

Rollercoaster was another exercise in L & L’s patented games-playing: A chilly young man (Timothy Bottoms) sets off a series of bombs at large amusement parks around the country, the escalations gradually revealing themselves as blackmail — so perfect a terrorism plot I’m surprised no one in these post-PATRIOT Act times has re-made the movie… or tried to re-enact it.


Matching wits with this unknown (and largely unseen) antagonist is the always-engaging George Segal as Harry Calder, a California ride inspector. Naturally, once Harry deduces what the boyish sociopath is up to, no one in charge of the investigation takes him seriously until — also naturally — The Young Man (as Bottoms is billed) strikes again. From there on, Rollercoaster focuses on Harry, as The Young Man puts him through a series of seemingly pointless maneuvers though Virginia’s King’s Dominion park (and, later, the Six Flags Magic Mountain in California) as the Fibbies pursue them both.

It is finally Harry, the Young Man’s cats-paw, alone and feeling increasingly extraneous (and foolish) who is able — once the psychopath’s original plans are frustrated and he resorts to an improvised act of vengeance — to suss out Bottoms’ modus operandi.

Put that baldly, you may well wonder what the attraction was for me, and why I went back to Rollercoaster a second time, Sensurround and all. But, gimmicks aside, the movie has a fascination even after you’ve seen how it comes out. It certainly wasn’t due to any great job of filmmaking: The director, James Goldstone, came from television and, after, pretty much stayed there. Rollercoaster was Universal’s “event” movie that summer, the one the studio was sure was going to be the big hit of 1977. (They, along with everyone else, just didn’t reckon on something called Star Wars.)

Goldstone directing Widmark on the set.

Much of Rollercoaster’s effect on me was due to L & L’s smart, wry screenplay.* A part of it was undoubtedly my then-nascent sexuality; Timothy Bottoms was a dreamboat… which made my later discovery of some egregious, homophobic statements by the actor especially disheartening.

Some of that effect surely sprang from David M. Walsh’s expansive, and occasionally effectively vertiginous, widescreen cinematography: The otherwise fine 2:35 DVD presentation can’t come close to approximating the sensations you got in the theatre as Walsh’s camera took you through the rides themselves and, in one especially hair-raising moment (later appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for The Shining) seemingly off the tracks and away, into the sky. And a large portion of my admiration was the result of Lalo Schifrin’s superb score; I played the soundtrack LP a lot that summer. It’s still a favorite.

While Richard Widmark makes the most of his role as a bellicose special agent, much of the very fine supporting cast is underutilized: Henry Fonda as Segal’s sour boss, Harry Guardino as a local police inspector, and Susan Strasberg as Segal’s inamorata. But you do get to see a teenage Helen Hunt, Jodie Foster’s main competition in the “bright pubescent” sweepstakes, as the divorced Harry’s daughter, if that’s any compensation. (Although you may wonder, from a dramaturgical point of view, exactly why Strasberg and Hunt show up, against Harry’s wishes, at Magic Mountain in the final reel; they’re not put in peril, which is what you expect, and while the willingness of the screenwriters to thwart that cliché is admirable, it makes the pair’s unexpected appearance — especially as Harry convinces them to leave the park as soon as he sees them — feel entirely extraneous.)

Wait… is that Jodie Foster?

However, if you are, as I am, a life-long fan of George Segal, nearly any excuse to watch him at work is sufficient. Segal is one of those rare actors, like Elliott Gould in the same period, who without seeming to do much of anything radiates likability, and quiet intelligence. And since Harry Calder is in nearly every scene following the terrifying accident in the opening reel, he becomes the audience’s surrogate; his confusion is ours, his rages and frustrations our own as well.

I suspect my positive response, then, was due to a blend of elements, not the least of which was the wholly unexpected surprise of being treated, even at 16 and even in the summer, like someone with a mind during the unfolding of what was, essentially, a slick studio programmer.

Or maybe you just had to be there.

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*Tommy Cook and Sanford Sheldon are credited with, respectively, “story” and “screen story.” One smells a whiff of Writer’s Guild arbitration threat there.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Aliens (1986)

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By Scott Ross

Your basic bug-eyed monster story elevated to the level of popular art through the incisive screenplay and razor-sharp direction of James Cameron — a talented hack now permanently afflicted with Bigititus. An admittedly unnecessary sequel to Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon’s stunning 1979 original (which Walter Hill refined, as potential director, before moving on) this one foregoes the haunting, grimy atmospherics and elegiac horror in favor of mounting terror, aggressive action and staggeringly effective cutting. The so-called “Director’s Cut” (1992) adds an aching depth of feeling to Cameron’s conception of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley as well as illustrating how smart and adaptable Stan Winston’s aliens — based on H.R. Geiger’s original designs — really are.

The movie’s title, with its added plural, may have been nothing more than a laudable effort to avoid the by-then ubiquitous Roman numeral. (Does anyone remember that it was Francis Ford Coppola who unwittingly started the numbered sequel trend?) But it may also be a metaphor: Who, exactly, are the aliens? The deadly xenomorphs who, however they actually got there, were on the planet first? Or the humans who first colonize, then come in force to “wipe them out”? I wouldn’t waste too much time on that thought, but it’s interesting to conjecture.

Although its narrative contours, and ensemble cast, make it resemble a World War II Marine epic — if Alien was a horror movie in space, Aliens isn’t really even of the same genre — Cameron’s script ultimately disdains that blatant machismo; everyone who espouses, or practices, a “kick-ass” attitude, is dead by the end.

James Horner composed a (for him) unusually fine score, although time constraints forced him to write very quickly, and he lifted themes and orchestrations from his own, also very effective, music for the underrated 1981 supernatural thriller Wolfen. (At least this time he stole from himself for a change.) Weaver’s Aliens co-stars include the always-splendid Lance Henriksen — who has one of the most interesting faces in American movies — as the android Bishop, and, as that living oxymoron a gentle Marine, Michael Biehn, whose slight overbite is sexier than Mel Gibson’s ubiquitous ass any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

 

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Mr. Arkadin (1955) Aka, “Confidential Report”

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By Scott Ross

A tantalizing enigma, like its writer/director and star. Compromised as much as any Orson Welles production, by budget, sound problems — how that must have maddened him! — and lack of adequate post-production facilities, yet Mr. Arkadin is, with Citizen Kane, one of Welles’ two most perfectly entertaining movies. It was released in several versions, depending on the region, and Welles’ elaborate flashback structure was entirely absent in at least one of them. But if you’re a Welles aficionado, as I am, the recent, three-disc boxed set from Criterion provides a means of piecing it all (or mostly) together. If you watch the two, truncated, versions of the movie first and then the “comprehensive” edition stitched together by Criterion, you find each reflecting on, and enriching, the others. Although Criterion is, quite rightly, at pains to point out that there can be no definitive version without Welles, the final disc is probably as fine a representation of his intentions as we’re ever likely to get.

The narrative arc is a bit too close to that of Citizen Kane (third-party reporter investigating the life of the central figure) for true originality, and the budgetary poverty of the thing is written all over it. But it’s beautifully written — the “novelization” is included in the Criterion package, as signed by Welles, who always maintained “some hack” wrote it — with a superb gallery of rich characterizations buoying up the enterprise.

Chief among these pleasures is Michael Redgrave’s marvelous turn as the Polish antiques dealer, the splendidly named Burgomil Trebitsch. It’s a queen-y role — one Welles could not have gotten away with under prevailing American Production Code censorship — but not offensively so, either in its conception by Welles (himself recently the recipient of some, not unwarranted, sexual speculation) nor by the nominally bisexual Redgrave, who has a high time of it with his hair net and his oddly sweet, if seedy, charm.

The most moving of the vignettes is the one with Katina Paxinou as Sophie, as mysterious in her way as Arkadin himself, if more notably vulnerable.

Suzanne Flon is nearly as affecting, in a subtler and more cheerful manner, as the Baroness Nagel; even in her impoverished state, she has ethics. (Although it doesn’t matter; Arkadin gets from her exactly what he wants anyway.)

Mischa Auer shows up too, in a curious, and slightly gruesome, flea circus sequence. Oddly, his voice on the soundtrack (like that of the murder victim at the beginning of the movie) is clearly Welles’. I don’t know, or no longer remember, why Orson re-dubbed Auer’s lines here, as he did with Robert Coote’s Roderigo in his 1952 Othello, and Criterion offers no explanation.

Akim Tamiroff, who was to return to the Welles fold as the memorably comic villain Grandi in Orson’s 1958 Touch of Evil, gives a superb performance as the dying ex-con Zouk, the final piece of the Arkadin puzzle, and the last to be eliminated by the fiercely private multi-millionaire. Tamiroff is so good, especially when working with Welles, that one is constantly asking why he is not more widely known, and revered, as a character actor. Whinnying, screeching, conniving, less afraid of violent death than of missing his final Christmas goose, his is an unforgettable presence in the movie.

Arkadin himself is essentially a supporting role, even an extended cameo, played by Welles himself in his deliciously plummy style, but his presence hangs over the whole thing like a malevolent fog.

As to Arkadin’s famous toast “to character”: It has since become something of a by-word among Welles critics, who — fatuously — see in it a confession as revealing of the filmmaker as of the character he’s playing.

Do they also believe Welles thought he was Basil Zaharoff? It’s a fictional character, you clots!

“Now I’m going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked a frog to carry him. ‘No,’ said the frog, ‘No thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me, and the sting of the scorpion is death.’  ‘Now where,’ asked the scorpion, ‘is the logic of that?’ For scorpions would try to be logical. ‘If I sting you, you will die, I will drown.’ So the frog was convinced to allow the scorpion on his back. But, just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. ‘Logic!’ cried the dying frog as he started under, taking the scorpion down with him. ‘There is no logic in this!’ ‘I know,’ said the scorpion, ‘but I can’t help it. It’s my character.’ Let’s drink to character.”

 

All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross