Never trust anyone: “The French Connection” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

Possibly the last thing of which anyone who knows your humble scribe would accuse him is prudery. Still, like many other writers I prefer to be a bit a bit more restrained, and a great deal less profane, in my published prose, as opposed to my plays (or indeed, my daily life). But to assess the work and personality of the American director William Friedkin means admitting that only one word will do, and it isn’t exactly decorous.

That word, in the demotic and not the literal, sense, is “asshole.”

To be sure, one may be an enormously gifted asshole, yet an asshole nonetheless — the arts are full of them, and if you’ve had anything to do with performance of any kind you’ve doubtless met, and endured, your share. Although seldom one who, as Friedkin does, seems to take positive pride in being an asshole.

There may be other words one can use to call a man who spreads utterly debunkable, not infrequently offensive fabrications as if they were gospel; who deliberately endangers the lives of countless innocent bystanders, not to mention those of his cast and crew, by surreptitiously staging high-speed chases on busy city thoroughfares; who claims specious co-authorship of screenplays he patently did not write; who bullies his actors, publicly and mercilessly when he is not actually and with, due premeditation, causing them excruciating physical pain* (and this is what he does to his friends!); who seldom praises the work of collaborators and who cannot even accept a compliment without simultaneously degrading someone else. There may, as I say, be other words. I am fully persuaded that, in this case, “asshole” is the one that best does the job.

William Friedkin, left, with Hackman and Fernando Rey, the movie's chief villain.

William Friedkin, left, with Hackman and Fernando Rey, the movie’s chief villain.

There were, it seems, numerous assholes on the set of The French Connection aside from its director. Chiefest — because arguably most seminal — was Eddie Egan, the bantam cop upon whose exploits, with his partner Sonny Grosso, Robin Moore based his eponymous book. (A bestseller, moreover, which Friedkin claims not to have been able to follow. I’ve seen my share of “Hurricane Billy”‘s sometimes narratively impenetrable movies, so for once I actually believe one of his claims.**) Neither Egan nor Friedkin wanted Gene Hackman in the movie, and both did their best to make him miserable during a shoot already damn near insupportable due to extreme New York cold. A secondary but not inconsiderable asshole was the veteran stuntman Bill Hickman, although he at least was not on hand as much as Egan.

A fistful of assholes, as it were: Bill Hickman and Eddie Egan in action.

A clutch of assholes, as it were: Bill Hickman and Eddie Egan in action.

It must be admitted that as an actor Egan fulfills his part in the movie as Hackman’s supervisor splendidly, gruff and reasonable in equal measure and with what can only be described as a real New York face with which to decorate a movie largely dependent upon them. Hickman, who memorably jousted with Steve McQueen in the justifiably famous San Francisco car chase in Bullitt, and who doubled for Hackman here, likewise fires his small but telling role as snarling adversary with unlovable panache.

The iconic, if surprise-killing, poster.

The famous (if surprise-killing) poster.

Much of the criticism that was leveled at The French Connection centered on the unrepentant boorishness of the Egan character, called “Popeye” Doyle here. (“Popeye” was Egan’s nickname in life, just as Grosso, immortalized by the great Roy Scheider, was known as “Cloudy,” his appellation in the movie.) There were similar complaints about Dirty Harry that same year, some of them notably made by Pauline Kael, who loathed both characters. But aside from their doing the job of big-city police detectives with ruthless, indeed amoral, attitudes, and bearing in mind Orson Welles’ useful maxim that “The job of a policeman is only easy in a police state,” the similarity ends here. The creeping fascism of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is sanctimonious, a way for the actor to hector the audience for its reliance on those deplorable shades of grey with which artists (and other less emotionally retarded adults) view humanity. “Popeye” doesn’t pause to lecture. He’s far too busy painstakingly ferreting out drug dealers. And anyway, he wouldn’t if he could. Also, his flaws are obvious: Pervasive bigotry, a willingness to cut corners — which may have led to all those light and suspended sentences the movie’s end titles inform us were meted out in the case — and a temper that, combined with zealousness, leads to needless death. (Even some cops were troubled by Popeye’s killing of the admittedly terrifying assassin played by Marcel Bozuffi, whose death gave the movie both its poster image and its most resounding success with theatre audiences.)

What really sets The French Connection apart, then and now and from first frame to last, is Friedkin’s documentary realism. As with Midnight Cowboy (and, on the comic side, The Out-of-Towners) the city itself becomes, not merely a backdrop, but a major character — and not a pretty one. Squalid, hostile, dangerous, more than vaguely threatening, it’s the image of New York in the ’70s most of us who grew up then still associate with that period. On my first trip to Manhattan in December of 1979, I found the city unsettlingly like the one depicted here by Friedkin and his prodigiously gifted cinematographer, Owen Roizman. (It didn’t help that my visit was in winter.) I doubt the city’s Tourist Bureau was best pleased, but if ever there were a time-capsule New York movie, it’s this one.

The movie’s producer, Philip D’Antoni, likewise produced Bullitt, and wanted an urban chase, not merely to equal that one, but to surpass it. However one may deplore Friedkin’s ill-conceived and arrogant methods, D’Antoni certainly got what he was after. And here is as good a place as any to acknowledge the movie’s superb editing by Gerald B. Greenberg.

The dangers of ad hoc car-chases: The auto smashing into Hackman's here was driven by a "civilian," the accident entirely un-planned.

The dangers of ad hoc car-chases: The auto smashing into Hackman’s here was driven by a “civilian,” the accident entirely un-planned.

The spare, effective score, which begins with an astonishingly electric, if brief, main title, was by the late Don Ellis, most of whose compositions were later removed. Loath as I am to side with Friedkin on the matter of film music (he infamously tossed Lalo Schifrin’s score for The Exorcist in favor of some notably hideous screechings by the like of Webern and Penderecki) he may have had a point here; too much underscoring could well have detracted from the admittedly effective cinéma vérité style of the movie as a whole, although I think Ellis’ dissonant approach compliments, rather than distracts from, the action, at least as it ended up in theatres.

The supporting cast is equally splendid, from Egan, Hickman and Bozuffi to Tony Lo Bianco as the minor hood hoping to join the majors and Patrick McDermott’s portrayal of a chillingly cavalier drug analyst. Fernando Rey, although Spanish (and according to Friedkin, anyway, not the actor he had in mind) lends the movie an unexpected whiff of Continental elegance, never more so than at the climax of his cat-and-mouse subway game with Hackman.

Fernando Rey waves a smirking goodbye to Popeye on the subway...

Fernando Rey waves a smirking goodbye to Popeye on the subway…

... which Doyle returns, with heavy irony, at the climax.

… which Doyle returns, with heavy and satisfying irony, at the climax.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Doyle, Hackman is so wholly persuasive you’d never imagine the actor was, ethically and temperamentally, the diametric opposite of Popeye. The accent may be indeterminate, but Hackman’s is a performance of breathtaking pitilessness, unhampered by anything approaching vanity. Scheider’s “Cloudy” Russo is a star-making performance if ever there was one. Gentler in aspect despite his rough-hewn face, he is in some sense not merely Doyle’s histrionic opposite but the audience’s surrogate as well, amused and appalled by his partner in equal measure. (Note Scheider’s barely-hidden hilarity when Popeye goes into his patented non-sequitor “You ever been to Poughkeepsie?” spiel. Grosso, in the field, was, he says, less charmed.) Scheider essentially played Russo again two years later, in the D’Antoni-produced The Seven-Ups, which also starred Lo Bianoco and which likewise climaxed with a notably harrowing automobile chase.

Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman get more than they imagined when they "popeye" around at an area nightclub.

Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman get more than they imagined when they “popeye” around at an area nightclub.

There are, it must be said, no notable black faces among the law enforcement figures depicted in The French Connecton, but plenty in the drug-bars Popeye and Cloudy invade, yet we twice see Hackman charming (and, at least on the surface, being charmed by) small black and Hispanic children. An early, and key, exchange between Hackman and Scheider, which occurs after the latter has been knifed during an arrest, hints past Doyle’s blatant racism, to his essential misanthropy:

“Popeye”: You dumb guinea.
“Cloudy”: How the hell was I supposed to know he had a knife?
“Popeye”: Never trust a nigger.
“Cloudy”: He could have been white.
“Popeye”: Never trust anyone.

Spoken like a true asshole.

"Now I'm gonna bust your ass for those three bags... and I'm gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie."

“Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags… and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.”

*Ellen Burstyn, during the filming of The Exorcist. The damage to her back, deliberately precipitated by Friedkin to elicit a “better” emotional response than she was giving, is now chronic.

**Friedkin is so anti-writer that it’s difficult to get a handle on who wrote the actual screenplay. It’s credited to Ernest Tidyman, another major asshole.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Zodiac (2007)

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By Scott Ross

It’s tempting to wonder what the fate of Zodiac might have been had it been made, say, 25 or even 15 years earlier. A few of the best movies of any given year perform dismally at the box-office, of course; who, in their time, saw Make Way for Tomorrow or Dodsworth? There was a period, however, and not so long past, when it was exceedingly rare that a film this good, even great, was seen by so few people. Today, chances are it won’t get made at all, or will be produced only on a marginal budget, or with compromises that cripple its very originality and essential integrity, and still few serious moviegoers will partake of it.

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Among its many remarkable achievements, Zodiac absolutely recreates the look and feel of its places and times. This was achieved to a large degree with strikingly seamless CGI — one of the very few instances in recent memory of computer imagery serving the movie rather than, as is the overwhelmingly usual case, the other way around.

As with any complex work of art, what makes Zodiac succeed so stunningly well is manifold. There is, first, the determination of its filmmakers — the screenwriter James Vanderbilt, the producer Brad Fischer and the director David Fincher — to treat the material without sensationalism, graphic gore or pat conclusions. Since no definitive guilt has ever been established for the killer, or killers, responsible for what became known in the late 1960s and early ’70s as “the Zodiac murders” in and around San Francisco, the filmmakers, as with the author of two related books (and the movie’s central figure) Robert Graysmith can only speculate, and that, in the case of the movie, without absolute conviction. Second, the creative team’s centering their story not on Zodiac but the effect of his (their?) killings on several people associated with the case either directly (such as the detectives Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong and, to a lesser degree the crime reporter Paul Avery) or indirectly (Graysmith and his young family.) Third, that the movie eschew dwelling on the murders themselves in favor of sharp, shocking indications that disturb as much as, if not more than, more graphic illustration would have. And, finally, that it concentrate on the unsettling ripples with which these unsolved, violent crimes penetrate, not merely the surface but the essential core of those who become, as Graysmith and Toschi do, obsessed with them.

Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) really knows how to show a lady (Chloë Sevigny) a good time on a date.

Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) really knows how to show a lady (Chloë Sevigny) a good time on a date.

Graysmith, a Chronicle cartoonist at the time of the murders and not even a reporter, becomes so enraptured by Zodiac that obsession is almost too polite a word. Although Toschi too is deeply committed to solving the cases, even he has other work to do, and does it. Avery’s situation is altogether more pitiable; after being directly threatened, the flamboyant, arrogant reporter becomes, by turns, easily startled, furtive, and increasingly alcoholic. In some terrible way, Paul Avery was Zodiac’s last, unclaimed, victim.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) before the eventual deterioration.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) before the eventual deterioration.

It’s perhaps no accident that Zodiac is among the best-cast movies of its time, just as All the President’s Men was in its: Fincher reveres, as I do, the 1976 investigation by William Goldman and Alan J. Pakula into Watergate and its eventual decoding by Woodward and Bernstein. Too, the starkly lit look of the Chronicle in Zodiac echoes the visualization of the Post in the Pakula picture, and Graysmith stands in well for “Woodstein,” notably during his nocturnal adventures. Jake Gyllanhaal does well by Graysmith despite being, in my experience of his work, utterly incapable of convincingly playing a heterosexual. He’s outshone considerably by Mark Ruffalo’s alternately charmingly affable and no-nonsense Dave Toschi, and by Robert Downey, Jr.’s superbly illuminated Paul Avery. Equally impressive, in less spectacular roles, are Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s partner Bill Armstrong; Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith’s eventual second wife; John Carroll Lynch as the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen; Brian Cox in a marvelous turn as the media-savvy Melvin Belli; and the always interesting Phillip Baker Hall, splendid as the SFPD’s handwriting expert. Charles Fleischer, the once and future Roger Rabbit, contributes, in what just may be the most hair-raising sequence in the movie, a small miracle of a cameo as an oxymoronically bland yet ineluctably sinister cinema manager.

The distinctive manbner in which Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) wore his service revolver was immortalized by Steve McQueen in "Bullitt." He was also the reluctant inspiration for a very different sort of San Francisco cop, Eastwood's Dirty Harry Callahan, whose initial picture was a thinly-disguised Zodiac knock-off.

The distinctive manner in which Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) wore his service revolver was immortalized by Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.” He was also the reluctant inspiration for a very different sort of San Francisco cop, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan, whose initial picture revolved around a thinly-disguised Zodiac knock-off.

Brian Cox as Marvin Belli.

Brian Cox as Melvin Belli.

Graymith (Gyllanhaal) with Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill.

Graymith (Gyllanhaal) with Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill.

Charles Fleischer as Bob Vaughn, in the movie's most unnerving scene.

Charles Fleischer as Bob Vaughn, in the movie’s most unnerving scene.

There are, to be sure, a few aspects of Zodiac that either puzzle unnecessarily, or which are inconsistent. An inconsistency may be minor and still confuse. Why, for example, when Graysmith says he has two children, do we only see one, until he remarries? Further, we don’t know why he’s single, or how he has custody of his young son. Is he divorced? Widowed? And where is that other child? The puzzles are more problematic. Why is so little made, for example, of the physical differences between the killer (or killers) at Vallejo and Lake Barryessa and the suspect in the murder of San Francisco cabbie Paul Stine? The former are said to have been committed by a very large man, possibly bald, or at least with lank hair, the latter by a smaller man with a crew-cut. (And whose clothing, moreover, was not noticed to have been spattered with blood.) This is no small matter, for much of the endless speculation about the case hinges on such disparities. Indeed, Graysmith and others speculate that The Zodiac may have worn wigs to disguise his appearance, something James Vanderbilt’s screenplay does not address (or, if it did, the reference was later cut.) Additionally, for a movie as scrupulous and intelligent as this one, there is rather too much reliance on accepted theories about Zodiac. Some strong questioning of circular thinking may have been in order here.

The banality of evil? John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Lee Allen in the climax of "Zodiac."

The banality of evil? John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Lee Allen in the climax of “Zodiac.”

According to Fincher, one of the cuts the studio insisted upon before release of the 157 minute theatrical cut (his own runs 162) was the elimination of one of its more compelling sequences, available in the so-called Director’s Cut on DVD, in which Toschi and Armstrong rattle off to an off-screen magistrate their reasons for seeking a search-warrant via speaker-phone, and await the answer. Since Fincher was emulating in Zodiac, both for his cops and for Graysmith, the slogging labor Woodward and Bernstein go through in All the President’s Men, this mandated omission is doubly irksome. And it points, once again, to the real problem facing the serious American filmmaker today: How does one cope with an increasingly impatient and sub-literate audience which, in addition to being unable or unwilling to follow a reasonably complex narrative (if not, indeed, both) is accustomed to, and demands, a thrill-a-minute approach to everything it sees?

John Simon concluded his original, rave review of the Jason Miller drama That Championship Season by noting that if this play did not succeed, Broadway itself deserved to die. Zodiac, as far as I am concerned, says the same thing about the movies. That a film this good could not find a substantial audience, and did not succeed, indicates that Hollywood too deserves death, and the sooner the better.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Post-Script

I neglected in the above to make mention of two additional aspects of Zodiac that contribute so mightily to its effectiveness: Its look, and its score, both effectively bifurcated. The look is the work of the late Harris Savides, the movie’s cinematographer, who gave it two, equally distinctive aspects, of light and of dark: The muted glow of its Northern California exteriors by day and the deeply unsettling blankness of its many night sequences. The score is comprised largely through pop songs of the period that serve as guideposts to their times and partly by David Shire’s minimalist chamber accompaniment. (That he also memorably scored All the President’s Men is not coincidental.) Shire’s score owes something, no doubt, to Herrmann’s music for Psycho but only in passing; the rest is the nearly unerring genius of a composer who has been utilized far too seldom by American filmmakers but whose scores are, without exception, splendid. Fincher’s alternating use of period Top 40 items like “Easy to be Hard,” “Soul Sacrifice,” “Jean” and “Baker Street” place the scenes squarely within their chronology and, occasionally, add more than a frisson of atmosphere: After seeing Zodiac I can virtually guarantee you will never hear “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” in quite the same way.

There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime…

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By Scott Ross

When asked to name my favorite novel, I am never certain how to answer. Do I chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its sparkling vernacular, its unerring narrative voice, its rich humor (and equally rich horror) and the masterly fashion in which it confronts, head on, the essential hypocrisy of American racism? Perhaps The Great Gatsby for its crystalline prose and absolute evocation of its era? Or Bleak House, for its panoramic narrative, satirical brilliance and aching humanity? Maybe Ragtime for its astonishing style and sweeping vision? Or Beloved for the stunning poetry of its prose and its unblinking fantasia on the profoundest issue facing a nation willing to build itself on one person’s right to own another? Possibly To Kill a Mockingbird for its unsentimental view of childhood, its unflinching portrait of bigotry, its correspondingly glowing depiction (and defense) of decency and its unique position as the only novel of a born writer? Perhaps The Eighth Day or The Magnificent Ambersons or East of Eden for their respective depictions of American families in flux, their understated irony and their expansiveness of heart? Or, if we stretch the word to embrace a collection of related stories, might I not suggest Goodbye to Berlin for the way its lepidopterist author pins its squirming, restive characters firmly to an irrevocable delineation of time and place?

No. I can’t decide. Ask me instead which novels I’ve read most often. That’s a much easier one. MASH probably heads the list, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. But I’ve read it at least a half-dozen times since the age of 14, and always with great joy. Still, the pseudonymous Richard Hooker’s episodic collection of dark comic sketches from Korea, whatever its pleasures, pales next to Muriel Spark’s magnificent mainstay The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Know its characters, and its slight, impressionistic plot as well as you might from a previous reading, or from either the play or the famous movie (or indeed the seven-part British miniseries) made from it and this slim, slightly autobiographical tapestry continues to delight from inauspicious beginning to unforgettable end, each successive reading over time revealing more of its perfectly pitched tone, its striking manipulation of the temporal, its ironic (but never bitter) detachment, and the mellifluous, biting (but never savage) dialogue of which Spark was long a past-mistress.

jeanbrodie

This is Brodie as I first knew her, in a flea-market purchase from around 1976, a 1969 Penguin movie tie-in whose stark back-cover warning (“For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A.”) made this 15 year-old tremble slightly and wonder if, in buying it, I was transgressing international law. I was drawn to it, not for its relation to a movie I had still to see (or a television series that was yet to air) but because a favorite local director had mounted a splendid high school production of the play that season.

A Miss Muriel Spark in her prime.

A Miss Muriel Spark in her prime.

Brodie, perhaps appropriately for a novel whose center is not so much eccentricity but sexual jealousy, is in a curious way represented by two sets of women: One literary, the other histrionic. First of course, Muriel Spark, who bequeathed Miss Brodie to the world (and who based her to a large degree on a certain Miss Kay, her own teacher at, as Jean Brodie would note, “an impressionable age.”) Next, Jay Presson Allen, who adapted the book for the stage and who would later transmogrify her own adaptation into film.

Jay Presson Allen, Brodie's dramatic amanuensis.

Jay Presson Allen, Brodie’s dramatic amanuensis.

The other set consists of the four women who variously brought Miss Brodie to life: Vanessa Redgrave (in London), Zoe Caldwell (Broadway), Maggie Smith (film) and Geraldine McEwan (television.) Not to mention the countless amateur actors who have breathed life and fire into Spark’s unconventional, admirable, maddening, foolish, and ultimately dangerous pedagogue on more stages separately than even the redoubtable Misses Redgrave, Caldwell, Smith and McEwan have together.

Vanessa Redgrave, the statuesque Brodie of the London stage.

Vanessa Redgrave, the statuesque Brodie of the London stage.

Zoe Caldwell, Brodie in New York.

Zoe Caldwell, Brodie in New York.

Maggie Smith, immortalizing Brodie on film. (With Jane Carr, bovine in brain and body, as Mary Macgregor.)

Maggie Smith, immortalizing Brodie on film. (With Jane Carr, bovine in brain and body, as Mary Macgregor.)

Gerladine McEwen, the Brodie of British television.

Gerladine McEwen, the Brodie of British television.

I cannot speak for the McEwan series, as I still have not seen it, but for all the acting pyrotechnics and the juicy roles for its cast, Allen’s play (and subsequent screenplay) is, perhaps inevitably, a diminution of the novel. I don’t claim for Brodie the same greatness one confers on the finest prose — it isn’t a patch on, say, Doctorow’s or Morrison’s or Fitzgerald’s — but if it isn’t first-tier, it’s nonetheless an entrancingly high second. Although Allen retained a bit of the book’s framing device (involving a nun reluctantly famous for her surprise best-seller), trenchant dialogue and and spicy observations she had, perforce, to jettison Spark’s loose temporal structure in favor of a more linear approach. Had she been a more daring, or in any case a different sort of playwright, Allen might not have matched Spark but she could have at least maintained pace with the novelist theatrically. But as she was essentially a boulevard comedian (or, at best, an adherent of comédie d’intrigue) and not an ironist, Allen built her narrative toward a dramatic show-down where Spark embraced a witty dying fall tinctured with ironic paradox.

In Spark’s Brodie, the self-deluding pedagogic iconoclast has no idea who has “betrayed” her to the authorities for her dangerous — indeed ultimately, if unintentionally murderous — extolling of Fascism, refusing to accept the evidence directly before her in the person of Sandy, the single “Brodie girl” she has most severely, and disastrously, underestimated. Allen climaxes her adaptation with a recriminatory confrontation between the two which, it must be admitted, ends spectacularly, with Brodie memorably shouting, “Assassin!” at Sandy’s departing back.* I once saw the Brodie movie in tandem with Paul Newman’s Rachel, Rachel, in a pointed double-bill. My best friend noted, afterward, that while the latter was deeply felt, and exceptionally moving, the former was more a showcase for its scenery-chewing star. I suspect it was largely that very concluding encounter that led him to prefer Rachel, itself — despite being one of the most deeply affecting portraits of loneliness ever committed to film — slightly hysterical.

"Victim" and "assassin":  Brodie and Sandy in the movie's climactic engagement.

“Victim” and “assassin”: Brodie and Sandy in the movie’s climactic engagement.

Certainly, in Maggie Smith’s deliciously ravenous hands, Jean Brodie is a veritable acting feast. Although her passions are all too real, her affect more than borders on self-conscious camp. One can easily imagine Charles Busch assaying Brodie and, with very little exaggeration, giving a nearly identical performance. I don’t say that as a criticism; as Allen (and the director, Ronald Neame) imagined her, this Jean Brodie virtually demands a comic technician willing to be as ridiculous yet oddly pitiable as Smith. That she occasionally seems, in 1930s Edinburgh, like a deliberately pretentious modern drag-queen avant la lettre merely adds, in a funny way, to her overall potency. On film Smith has been better (as in Ian McKellan’s Richard III and, especially, the flawed but almost agonizingly effective The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), more quietly plangent (Hot Millions, A Room with a View), wittier (A Private Function) and far funnier (Murder by Death, California Suite.) But she has almost never, aside from Alan Bennett’s magnificent Talking Heads television monologue Bed Among the Lentils, had a leading role as plummy as Miss Jean, or one that has called upon her to pull together everything she does so well in a single performance.

Maggiebrodie

Maggie in her, and Brodie’s, prime.

More notably Sparkian, in the movie, are Smith’s coevals: Pamela Franklin, blankly cunning as Sandy; Gordon Jackson, whose Mr. Lowther somehow makes cowardice seem endearing; and, supremely, Celia Johnson as Brodie’s bete noir Miss Mackay. It’s a vast tribute to Johnson’s gifts that she embodies the head of the conservative Marcia Blaine School with such outward reasonableness, even a certain inflexible charm, never allowing the character’s dogged fixation on Brodie to lapse into simple churlishness or stock villainy. You feel that she is, despite Jean’s underestimation of her, every bit as formidable, and cunning, a foe as Brodie herself, and with far greater (and, inevitably, deadlier) patience. That Mackay is small-minded in her attitudes and, as such, a much greater, because institutionalized, danger to her young charges than Brodie could ever be, does not mitigate her belief in the essential order of things, a tenet as unalterable as Brodie’s more flamboyant devotion to, as her insidious phrase insinuates, molding her girls in her own implacable image.

The great Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay.

The great Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay.

Surely the sharply observational ironist in Spark, who famously converted to Roman Catholicism, knew what she was about when Brodie says, repeatedly, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Substitute “child” for “girl” and you have the very essence of Catholic (and indeed, every religion’s) indoctrinal teaching. She is able to see Brodie plain, as a deliberate spell-binder, a foolish monster sacré, and, as Sandy says, “a ridiculous woman” who, in her self-contradictory embrace of Fascism, is directly responsible for sending one such impressionable girl (Joyce Hammond in the novel, Mary McGregor in the play and movie) to her violent death. She may also, as Allen’s art teacher Teddy Lloyd (two-armed where Spark imagined him with one) accuses her, be afraid of her own impassioned sexuality, all too eager to procure a substitute lover from among her girls (Rose in the novel, Jenny in play and movie.) Yet she is no phony. Whatever her motives, Brodie’s devotion to teaching, in her own, wildly original fashion, is true enough. And she does manage, for better or worse, to remain in the minds of her students, as all great teachers do, long after they have forgotten the mediocre run of the overwhelming mill.

Brodie, uncharacteristically up against it, in one of the movie's forceful encounters with Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens.)

Brodie, uncharacteristically up against it, in one of the movie’s forceful encounters with Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens.)

This may be what I mean when I maintain that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in common with those novels we return to again and again at irregular intervals as our lives progress, yields greater pleasures and pithier insights with each new reading. It is easy, as an adolescent, to ridicule Brodie herself, and to see in her only a preening ridiculousness. Later, we may feel that she has indeed been wronged. And, still later, to find we can embrace both her sterling lack of academic orthodoxy (her approach to education, based on the Latin verb educere, is “a leading out”) and Sandy’s self-justification when she maintains, “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.” Seeing people whole demands of us a rejection of childish side-taking, that very egocentrism of which Jean Brodie is rightly accused yet which gives her such a disarmingly original hold, not merely on those special girls called (often with barely contained jealousy) The Brodie Set, nor on the reader, but on life itself. Without it, Brodie withers. With it, she soars. Vaingloriously, yes, even recklessly. But Jean Brodie is, however dangerously, alive in a way few fictions ever are.

“For those who like that sort of thing,” Miss Brodie sniffs at a girl whose avocations reveal, to her, a smallness of vision, “That is the sort of thing they like.” It may not be my favorite, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the sort of thing I like very much indeed.

*On the DVD commentary, Brodie’s director Ronald Neame says that Smith wanted to say the word “Assassin” quietly, to herself but was vetoed by himself and Robert Fryer, the movie’s producer. He adds that, seeing the film again so many years later, he thinks Smith was right and they were wrong.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Victory at Sea (1952 – 1953)

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By Scott Ross

For an industry in its infancy the 26 episodes of Victory at Sea, broadcast every Sunday afternoon from October 1952 to May 1953 were an unparalleled achievement. And for a nation (and, indeed, a planet) for whom the Second World War was still a very fresh memory, the series must surely have been as compelling as anything the new medium had ever broadcast. 60 years later and despite its occasionally strident tone, it is still a remarkable, often stunning, example of the documentarian’s art.

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(The edition I watched, released in an inexpensive 2-disc set by Mill Creek, has been criticized as truncated, but is also reputedly far better in picture quality and sound reproduction than the far more expensive History Channel set. One does wonder why NBC would allow one of its most honored and profitable series to lapse from copyright protection, but lapse it did.)

What is almost instantly apparent about Victory at Sea is how extraordinarily well its producer, Harry Salomon and his chief editor, Isaac Kleinerman, handled the phenomenal task of collecting, collating and editing an estimated 60 million feet of footage to 61 thousand for broadcast. Remarkable too is the series’ comprehensive overview, from Japan’s incursions into China to the return of America’s veterans. The footage, strikingly visceral and often deeply moving, is exceptional as well when one reflects on the immediate peril its many, unnamed photographers shared with the soldiers, sailors and Marines in the frame.

Few things date as fast, however, as another era’s dramatic conventions, and it is here that Victory at Sea occasionally founders. Fist, its narration. Leonard Graves tries for a dramatic gravitas but all too often shows himself an incorrigible ham. Second, its scripts. Salomon and Richard Hansen aim for a kind of simplicity laced with poetics that fall, all too predictably often, into sanctimony, empty jingoism and even downright Judeo-Christianist chauvanism. What was sorely needed was an Ed Murrow or a Norman Corwin; what Victory at Sea settled for was something far less exalted: Two William McGonagalls of prose.

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Richard Rodgers, who received a credit as the series’ sole composer, in effect created some 15 or 20 minutes’ worth of themes—many of them superb—leaving his estimable arranger, Robert Russell Bennett, to perform the bulk of the actual scoring. Bennett, for all his gifts (and it is rumored he secretly composed much of Rogers’ orchestral output as well as those of Kern and Porter) was not nearly the dramatic composer Rodgers was. His work here tends, all too often, to the overly emphatic, matching, rather than overcoming, the series’ dramatic flaws.

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Salomon would have done better to trust his own footage, which has a raw power that requires no adornment. The immediacy of the battle footage, and the terrible sense of loss it engenders, is something no fiction, at whatever multi-million dollar budget, can begin to approximate. Not that Salomon and company push the carnage. Indeed, it is only around the halfway mark that human cadavers begin to show up with regularity, as if the producer was easing us into a reality far grimmer than the mortal statistics Graves intones. For the viewer endowed with a sense of humane imagination, of course, the loss of life is always present; every ship bombed and sunk, every building brought down, presumes a terrible death-toll. Despite the Allies’ ultimate defeat of the hideous efficacy of the fascist powers, that is the innate sadness, built in to Victory at Sea, that almost overwhelms everything else.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross