"If you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets." – Pauline Kael
The great Robert Ryan and the much-missed Lee Marvin in The Professionals. They would be reunited the following year, briefly, in The Dirty Dozen, and seven years later in Ryan’s final film, the superb American Film Theare’s adaptation of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
Richard Brooks was a problematic figure. As writer and director, he was, in the Hollywood of his early period, part of a unique caste. There had never been many double-threat filmmakers; of the five major scenarist/directors around when Brooks moved to the director’s chair (Charles Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, John Huston) Sturges had burned out, Chaplin was not so much a writer — The Great Dictator is proof enough of that — as he was an ad-lib imaginer, Welles was living and working in Europe, and as a screenwriter, Wilder always operated with a collaborator.
When Brooks tackled hard-hitting, usually urban, subjects he was very good indeed: Crisis, Deadline—USA, The Blackboard Jungle. When he ventured into adapting literature, whether novels or plays, he often floundered. Orson Welles once said Brooks should have been shot for the way he mangled Lord Jim, and while his Tennessee Williams adaptations (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth) are wonderfully acted, and even beautifully observed, they’re also impossibly hobbled by the prevailing censorship. Elmer Gantry is effective but overlong, and Brooks’ daring in taking on American religious huckstering was somewhat blunted by nervous studio interference.* He fared better with In Cold Blood, although even he shied away from some of its implications, notably the homoerotic, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, while memorable — particularly in its genuinely shocking finale — is a nightmare that appears to equate sexual liberty with seediness and violent death.†
Brooks had two terrific Westerns in him, however; the rousing, and deeply moving, Bite the Bullet (1975) and this one, a rip-roaring adventure out of a very likable Frank O’Rourke novel (A Mule for the Marquesa) that is expansive in the best sense, and carries with it the same humanist impulse that made Bite the Bullet so intensely pleasurable.
Conrad Hall’s sumptuous Western cinematography must have looked incredible on a big screen, and of course, the cast is first-rate: The always interesting Lee Marvin, a genial Burt Lancaster, the vastly underrated Robert Ryan, and the stalwart Woody Strode as the eponymous adventurers; Jack Palance as a surprisingly sympathetic kidnapper; the luminous Claudia Cardinale as the ambiguous object of the quest; and Ralph Bellamy as the unsavory source of it all.
The Professionals shares with Bite the Bullet the rigorously unsentimental compassion Brooks finds for all his characters. He doesn’t play the black hat/white hat game. Or, even when you think he does, he pulls a switch on you and allows even the most seemingly malign of characters his or her individual humanity. (Well, everyone but Bellamy, and he’s so avariciously cynical he’s beyond redemption.) That was rare in American movies when Richard Brooks was active, and is far rarer now.
*Brooks’ initial cut ended with this exchange, between Gantry and a newspaperman: Newsman: See you around, brother.
Gantry: (Over his shoulder, with a wave and a smile) See you in hell, brother.
†And yes, I am aware that Judith Rossner based her bestselling novel on the murder of an actual schoolteacher with a double life. It’s the accumulation of sordid, and to some degree degrading, detail that gives the picture its curious impression of moralism.
At first glance, Leonard Di Caprio seemed an odd choice to portray Howard Hughes, just as Cate Blanchett was far from what one expected of Katharine Hepburn. This had nothing to do with their respective talents; Di Caprio gave one of the most astonishing performances ever captured on film as Johnny Depp’s retarded younger brother Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and has built on that promise steadily through the years, while Blanchett’s gifts are obvious to anyone who experiences her work. But she has nothing like the classic beauty of the young Hepburn, and Di Caprio, with his round face, Cagneyesque features and pleasant tenor, was much less imaginable as Hughes than, say, Warren Beatty, who had hoped to make a film about this great American eccentric for decades. Or was, anyway; The Beatty of the Reds era could have pulled it off; the Beatty of today would be believable more as the older, demented Hughes than as the dashing aviation pioneer and renegade movie mogul with his movie-idol looks and youthful panache.*
Two minutes into Di Caprio’s performance in The Aviator, however, and all doubts were dismissed. Even the face seemed to alter over the movie’s running time; by the end, he was Hughes, mustache, cracked baritone voice and all. (By contrast, Blanchett never quite overcomes her somewhat lumpy, un-formed features, although her performance is superb.)
The selling points, for me, then, were not the stars but the movie’s director and screenwriter. The playwright John Logan has a history both of taking on well-known historical subjects (Leopold and Loeb and Mark Rothko before The Aviator, Alice Liddell and Sue Mengers since) and for splendid dialogue, characterization and approach. Scorsese, long a personal favorite, has more than sufficient cause, in spite of his varying box-office, to be considered the finest American filmmaker of his generation.† It seemed like a dream combo.
And so it was. In an epoch in which success in Hollywood is defined more by mass popularity with sub-literate audiences overseas than with the craft of making smart, engaging movies about recognizably human beings, Scorsese and Logan created that rarest of rarities, an intelligent epic — to my mind the most artistically successful, and satisfying such since Reds.
The look of The Aviator is remarkable; in the first third of the movie, Scorsese emulated the look of two-strip Technicolor (three-strip in the following third) giving the images a vibrancy and color that make a serious movie surprisingly light, airy and beautiful to watch. The arc of the narrative takes in Hughes’ obsessive, and seemingly capricious, follies (The Outlaw, the H-4 Hercules, sneeringly referred to as “the Spruce Goose”) and his increasing, if slowly arrived at, mental and emotional instability. The scenarist at first merely hints at the now-fabled “crazy old rich man” to come, then, in a long and agonizing sequence following Hughes’ near-fatal crash, makes it clear that whatever lucidity Hughes re-establishes is momentary only. Di Caprio heart-breakingly suggests the disorientation of those early brushes with dementia, his eyes expressing mounting panic and confusion at what his mouth is saying (“The way of the future… the way of the future…”) and it’s at once chilling and deeply moving.
After several decades of unfettered violence and gore at the movies, I am seldom shocked by what I see on an American screen. Disgusted, certainly, often repulsed and upset, at the assault on my senses. But genuine shock at the movies is rare, and in The Aviator, Scorsese and Logan pull it off not once, but twice. I can vividly remember my gasp, near the beginning, when, while Di Caprio’s Howard is shooting aerial footage for Hell’s Angels, another biplane’s propellers smack into his hand-held camera and carry it away; Hughes merely reaches for another. It’s a moment of genuine terror immediately alleviated by logical (and relieved) audience laughter. The second moment of shock comes at mid-point, during the crash of Hughes’ experimental FX-11: The stunning shot of that huge wing bisecting the upper story wall of a Beverly Hills mansion. It was so unexpected (or was, to this viewer, who knew little about Hughes’ history as a pilot) I heard myself gasp a second time. In neither sequence was the shock I felt so viscerally related to violence in the usual sense of that word, but to the sudden up-ending of the immediate surroundings, and its effect on a human being.
If I’ve any disappointment with The Aviator, it’s at the movie’s refusal to examine Hughes’ alleged bisexuality. For all I know Logan, who is gay, may have included that element of Howard’s persona in his original script. But a major, expensive ($110 million) Hollywood movie, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was hardly going in that direction. One can imagine the usual Bonnie and Clyde excuses being given and arguments offered (“We’re telling a story about a man so obsessive and weird, we can’t risk alienating the audience with that too!”)‡
That such fear of the mythical audience, even in 2004, still trumps complete honesty, in this single area at least, is itself something of a shock.
* Beatty finally played Hughes, albeit the Howard of 1958, in Rules Don’t Apply (2016), which he wrote and directed.
† I’ve revised my opinions on Scorsese in the years since the above was written. It takes nothing from his considerable achievements on Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or GoodFellas (or, indeed, The Aviator) to observe that he is, increasingly, a man more taken with the camera than with compelling story or character. He’s become almost a parody of his earlier self, annoying where he used to be exhilarating.
‡ Considering the box-office failure of Oliver Stone’s later, magnificent Alexander, ascribed to audience revulsion at “Alexander the Gay” (as the movie was derisively called) depicted therein, the suits may have had a point. An ugly one, but a point.
Barbra Streisand, examining the china on Amy Irving’s table (“A matched set/From France, yet”) in her own adaptation of I.B. Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” A beautiful, visually rich evocation of early 20th century Polish-Jewish life, Yentl also boasted a splendid central performance by its writer-director. The diva has made a lot of enemies over her career, not least due to her well-documented arrogance, although her admirable sense of perfectionism doesn’t endear herself to the conformists either. Still, one cannot help thinking that, had a male actor had made this impressive a directorial debut, he would have been showered with praise and given an Oscar.* Streisand got neither.
*cf., Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson.
Ellen Greene as Audrey, the hapless salesgirl heroine of the Mencken-Ashman Little Shop of Horrors. As fulsome vocally as she was inspired comedically, hers is a musical movie performance to stand with the classics of the genre. Greene’s impassioned release on the “Suddenly Seymour” duet with Rick Moranis sends chills racing up my spine whenever I think of it.
Although the movie is nowhere near as fine as Stephen King’s literary thriller — that the filmmakers did not trust the material is evident in their making Dolores’ daughter, who barely appears in the novel, a central character — the picture contains two superb performances. As the battered wife of an unrepentant drunk, Bates gave us the flip-side of King’s Annie Wilkes from Misery, as warm and conflicted as Annie was coldly psychotic.
Judy Parfitt as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan. The central mystery of the story — did Dolores murder the bed-ridden, seemingly unreconstructed rich-bitch Vera, or merely help her only friend end her suffering? — is also central to the role, and the British Parfitt was stunningly good. Her piquant line, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to,” ultimately proves heartbreaking in context.
Barbara Hershey (formerly Seagull) as Nina in The Stunt Man. Richard Rush, who directed and co-wrote the movie, called her “the dream girl.” She certainly was… even if her most pivotal scene ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Hershey in Barry Levinson’s brilliant comic drama Tin Men, as the wife who discovers she’s been used as the ultimate prize in an escalating competition between her car dealer husband and a disgruntled aluminum siding salesman. This is from the lovely scene in the Baltimore rain, where she confronts Richard Dreyfuss with the truth and he, unable to say the words, “I love you” can only stammer, “I wanna… I wanna be with you.” Hershey is stunningly good.
Every few years, from the late 1960s (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Lovers and Other Strangers) through the late 1980s (Die Hard), Bonnie Bedelia seemed eternally poised on the brink of stardom. Why it never happened is one of those mysteries understood perhaps only by casting directors, studio heads and the Hollywood gods.
As Harrison Ford’s seemingly placid wife in the problematic but effective Presumed Innocent, she had a great monologue sequence at the end that turned into one of the most startling, and emotionally plangent, surprise endings in recent movie memory.
Richard Amsel’s artwork, evocative of earlier eras but infused with a modernist’s wit and self-conscious sense of style, graced the posters for many of the iconic American movies of the 1970s. His magazine cover art, for TV Guide especially, shimmered and his book covers gave his subjects an eloquence to match their own achievements. He died, a victim of the AIDS pandemic, at the obscenely early age of 37, but his best work is a timeless reminder of his own, particular and unduplicable, genius.
I first encountered this signature, as distinctive as the work it ornamented, on the poster for Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. It became a talisman for me; whenever I saw it, I could feel reasonably sure of a rich visual experience to accompany the signature.
This, almost unbelievably, is the work of the 18-year old Amsel, for his high school yearbook, in 1965.
An early self-portrait.
A delightful portrait of Carol Burnett and her gifted alter-ego, Vicki Lawrence:
Amsel’s study for a cover portrait of Lucille Ball, commemorating her retirement from regular series television. As glorious as the finished product was, some hint of soul was lost in the process. The completed Lucy cover. Amsel said, “I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo, but I didn’t want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this.” He did.
Valerie Harper as Rhoda. Amsel captures the character’s quirky and stylish clothing choices.
The cover of the Divine Miss M LP.
Streisand in the curiously appropriate style of Klimt.
Lily Tomlin, for the cover of Time. She was starring in her Broadway debut, Appearing Nitely.
Amsel’s artwork for Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half-Shell Revue. Miss M as she might have been seen by Vargas.
The Divine Miss M in her most archetypal portrait. A New York friend tells me, “This was 6 stories high on The Palace Theater in Times Square.”
Midler a la Alphonse Mucha. Artwork for the Songs for the New Depression LP.
Midler’s once-indispensable backup trio, The Staggering Harlettes.
The marquee will eventually read “Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart.” Interestingly, there are no women in it to speak of in this famous memoir; Hart never mentions girls at all.
For a splendid study of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years, an appropriately shattered Scott, anchored by a Gatsby-esque figure.
The unholy marriage of Mucha and Klimt: Sacred (Duse) and profane (Madam.)
The “star” portraits are undistinguished, but Amsel’s depiction of Selznick captures his intensity, his anxiety, and his essential alone-ness.
The first Amsel I “owned”:
Marjorie Rosen’s overview of women in American movies is, to me, almost infinitely superior to Molly Haskell’s much more widely heralded From Reverence to Rape, and Amsel’s art for the paperback edition makes it that much more of a treat. Note the Art Deco filligree.
The mid-’70s era “Gatsby Craze” in full flower.
Hello, Dolly!: Amsel captures the “Gay 90s” feeling, filters it through late 1960s “pop,” and adds a Mucha headdress (with Spirographed flowers) to promote the musical that nearly broke its studio. If only the film had exhibited half as much life as Amsel’s artwork for it.
An early Amsel movie poster, for a cultural landmark.
Amsel’s first poser art for Robert Altman. The saloon-door plank and the carved filigree to either side capture the Western setting while the portraiture suggests the quirky nature of the leads in this, one of the late filmmaker’s true masterpieces.
Amsel’s jokey portrait of Burt Reynolds here is a humorous nod to his then-recent Penthouse centerfold as well and the total picture a canny evocation of Frazetta’s crime-caper movie posters of the 1960s.
A slightly (Bob) Peak-ish study, for What’s Up, Doc? Amsel limns both the oddball romance of the thing and its classic face nature (note the keys.) Streisand should have hired this man to be her full-time portraitist; she seldom looked more radiant than she did in one of his drawings.
Another one of those “If only the movie had been as distinguished” Amsel posters. That’s Ava Gardner in the background, as Bean’s unwitting inamorata Lily Langtree.
A superb Amsel image for Irvin Kershner’s underrated adaptation of the Anne Roiphe novel starring a non-singing Barbra. Note the integration of the star’s surname in the title.
One of Amsel’s most memorable designs, evoking the Saturday Evening Post of the 1930s.
Amsel based his concept for The Sting on J.C. Lyendecker’s “Arrow Collar” ads. That Lyendecker used his male lover as a model adds an interesting, if unintentional, twist to what was perceived by some critics as the movie’s un-articulated homoerotic undercurrent.
A lovely Amsel image for the last Lerner and Leowe musical, best remembered for Bob Fosse’s marvelous “Snake in the Grass” sand-dance.
I’d seen Amsel’s work before, but his brilliant design for Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Expresswas the first that really captured my attention, in 1974. It’s all there: The evocation of the 1930s, the starry cast, the train, and even the murder weapon. Wouldn’t this make you want to see the movie? (From top left: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassal, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Michael York.)
Amsel’s splendid design for the Stanley Donen mis-fire Lucky Lady. If the movie had been half as good as this…
An Amsel design for Nashville. Note that he captures the 24 main characters, the country-and-western milieu, and the sense, despite the seemingly amorphous quality of the narrative arc, that something is about to explode.
A striking Amsel design for a very, very bad movie. Elia Kazan directed this supposed evocation of 1930s Hollywood as if he’d never seen a vintage film, let alone directed one. Amsel could have taught Kazan a thing or two about real glamour.
John Wayne’s final movie: The Shootist. One dying legend playing another, framed by Amsel faces on a gold and sepia base. (From top left: Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Ron Howard, Sheree North, Lauren Bacall and James Stewart.)
Amsel evokes Fin de siècle Vienna (and, again, Alfonese Mucha) in his original design for Nicholas Meyer’s marvelous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. (From left: Nicol Williamson, Laurence, Olivier, Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave.)
The final version omits the woman’s arm and Olivier’s Moriarty, retaining only his eyes, misterioso, and moves a luminous Redgrave to the top.
Amsel’s stunning design for Julia. Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman is central, but is dominated both by Jason Robards’ Dashiell Hammett and Vanessa Redgrave’s eponymous figure — less distinct, and idealized, as Julia is for Lillian.
Striking Amsel concept art for Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated (and somewhat ill-conceived) New York, New York. The final poster used photos of Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli.
Mitchum as Marlowe. Candy Clark clings, damsel-in-distress-like to Chandler’s iconoclastic private detective. A lousy movie (when you’ve seen Bogart and Bacall directed by Howard Hawks, why bother?) but a terrific Amsel design.
Death on the Nile. It’s a variation on Amsel’s own “Murder on the Orient Express” design, but then the movie —charming as it was — was a bit of a re-tread too. But what I wouldn’t give to see all of these actors alive and kicking again! (From top: Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey. Mia Farrow, Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury.)
One of the reasons Stallone had to keep making Rocky and Rambo movies: His “big” brainchildren had an unfortunate tendency to flop, as this one did. That Felliniesque design does make you want to see the movie, though.
The completed Nijinsky design emphasizes the (so-called) love triangle, gives de la Peña sculpted pretty-boy/matinee-idol hair, and opts for a single dance: Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune.
Amsel invokes 1930s screwball comedy, as well as the Damon Runyan characters, for this forgotten 1980s remake. Sort of makes you want to shell out your $3.50 to see the movie, though, doesn’t it? Indeed, now that Matthau and Curtis are gone and Julie is an old lady, I can’t help wanting to see it, on a big screen.
The reissue poster: Nothing makes a man smile faster than a monster hit. Note Ford’s newly exposed chest and suggestive crotch-bulge.
Lily and Amsel, together again for The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Amsel was commissioned, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to create this gorgeous design for the restored, rereleased version of A Star is Born. The pose is from the movie (“Here comes a big, fat close-up!”) and was used in the original 1954 ad campaign. Amsel added the spotlights and a slight change in Garland’s costume. Compare this with the original; Amsel’s “Vicki Lester” adds a subtle sense of yearning.
Amsel captures an emblematic moment in American pop-culture for the laser-disc release pf The Seven Year Itch. An elegant presentation of what is in fact Billy Wilder’s only truly bad movie.
Amsel’s design for this Grahame Green adaptation (also known as Beyond the Limit—as though Green had written some sort of fast ‘80s kiss-kiss/bang-bang techno-thriller rather than a thoughtful examination of the cynical political murder of a minor functionary) incorporates a portrait of Michael Caine: The eyes of God, watching the lovers. La Streisand, as Yentl.