What kind of crazy story is this?: “All the President’s Men” (1976)

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By Scott Ross

all-the-presidents-men-movie-poster-1976-1020270638Los Angels, CA. May, 2011. Richard Stayton writes a compelling piece in the Writers Guild of America (West) magazine Written By (http://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=67460), responding to claims made by Robert Redford that he and the late film director Alan J. Pakula completely re-wrote William Goldman’s Academy Award-winning screenplay for All the President’s Men, further insisting that only 10 per cent of Goldman’s work remained in the completed film. Redford, who as progenitor and producer of the movie (and indeed, as unofficial godfather to the original Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book) treated his scenarist with appalling condescension during the re-writing, insisting that Goldman read an un-commissioned script Bernstein and his then-girlfriend (later, wife; still later, famously ex-wife) Nora Ephron had cobbled up emphasizing — in Goldman’s tart phrase — that Carl “sure was catnip to the ladies,” an act the screenwriter quite properly regarded as “a gutless betrayal.” He didn’t add this, so I will: Particularly since it was Goldman’s original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made Redford a movie star and that it was the author who recommended Redford’s casting as Sundance.

On one of supplemental documentaries featured in the 2006 DVD reissue of ATPM, Redford claims as well that he and Pakula “re-structured” Goldman’s work from top to bottom before filming. If William Goldman is famous for nothing else (and he is, of course, famous for many things, or was, back when people still read books) it is as the author of two statements, one about Hollywood’s endless and panicky chase after the Next Big Thing (“Nobody knows anything”) and this, on his craft: “Screenplays are structure.” That Goldman, who suggested what now, in hindsight, seems the most obvious, simple means of cracking that book’s screen adaptation (throw out the second half) and who, say what you will about the quality of his individual novels and scripts, is absolutely solid on structure, needed  an actor and a director, however gifted, to give his work that very element is, on the face of it, absurd.*

William Goldman

William Goldman

Back to May, 2011. Richard Stayton suspects all of this too, but goes much further. Through dogged, painstaking research, which involves (among other things) reading every single draft he could get his hands on that Goldman wrote for ATPM and comparing that work to the film as it has stood since 1976, he concludes that William Goldman and William Goldman alone, wrote the screenplay. I would take this a step further. It’s my understanding of WGA nominating practice for its own awards (and god knows the rules may have changed in the years since I came across this factoid in Harlan Ellison’s book on the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of Star Trek) that the screenwriting committee making said nominations reads those screenplays. They may also compare them to either the completed movie or to continuity scripts (essentially, transcripts of the finished film after editing.) In any case, the WGA duly conferred on Goldman its Best Adapted Drama award for ATPM. I have no idea what procedures the Academy screenwriters committee undertakes, but they may be similar. Yet I would go further still: Neither Redford nor Pakula applied for arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild for credit on this movie they, according to Redford, completely re-wrote.**

The astonishing overhead dissolves at the LOC.

The astonishing overhead dissolves at the LOC.

I preface my remarks on ATPM with all of this in part because what Stayton did to prove the provenance of the screenplay is precisely what “Woodstein” undertook to unravel the mysteries attendant to the June, 1972 break-in at National Democratic Headquarters, and what the movie of their book is really all about. And here Goldman and Pakula, whatever the latter may have said to Redford, certainly agree: The movie is filled with examples of the sheer, mind-numbing, foot-wearying legwork Woodward and Bernstein went through, and which at that time was the hallmark of American journalism. Indeed, the highest moment in the movie (no pun intended) is an explication of exactly that. Faced with stacks and stacks of Library of Congress check-out cards, some of which might implicate E. Howard Hunt, the pair digs in. The movie cuts to a shot from above, of Redford and Hoffman at the table, scouring the cards. Pakula and his superb cinematographer, Gordon Willis, then dissolve to a higher vantage-point, the two Washington Post reporters swallowed up by the reading room, the cards spreading out before them like a small paper flood. They dissolve again, to an even higher overheard shot, almost a god’s-eye view that renders “Woodstein” as ants to a forest floor. That this search ultimately proves fruitless is unimportant;it conveys the lengths to which two dedicated journalists go to nail down the facts they need to buttress their suppositions.

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The metaphor is repeated, in various ways, throughout the movie: Hoffman or Redford dwarfed by government buildings, or Redford’s car, seen via a helicopter shot, disappearing on the Washington streets. To a city whose very institutions, represented by those massive buildings, regard them as insignificant, Woodward and Bernstein are puny. Unnoticed, and unnoticeable. At least until they hit pay-dirt. For my generation of writers, Woodward and Bernstein were heroes. Not because their investigation ultimately led to the resignation of a notably hated President (although that was delicious icing on the cake) but because their work, unappreciated at first, thorough and irrefutable at last, was, to us, a shining example of why newspaper journalism existed, and was so terribly important to the life of the Republic. Legions of us became (or wanted to become) would-be Woodsteins because of their example. Alas, far too few of us wanted the grinding, exhaustive, shoe leather-thinning grunt-work that went into it. And fewer still, in this age of 24/7 cable news, instant celebrity and the blogosphere, practice it. Why dig up the facts when you can present rumor, or (even better) just make up your own “facts”? Why ask questions, and seek their answers, if airing innuendo will get you the fame and the book-deal and the featured position on Fox? They all all want to be Woodstein. What they don’t want is to have to do the work.

Redford as Woodward struggles to hear Kenneth Dahlberg over the noise of the Post newsroom in this riveting scene.

Redford as Woodward struggles to hear Kenneth Dahlberg over the noise of the Post newsroom in this riveting scene.

In this regard, if in no other, All the President’s Men looks better with every passing year. It is, however, a movie of rare intelligence, filled with pleasures. Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation, short attention spans and internet profusion, of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion, it is nearly impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today, at least in Hollywood. As such it fits neatly into that brief, shining moment, the glory that was 1970s cinema. Few studio suits now would consider green-lighting a movie in which politics are central, recognizable and fully-explicated human characters fill every frame, the outcome is already known, and a considerable portion of its greatness, and its concomitant tension, arise from long, close, unbroken shots of its stars talking on the telephone. Two such sequences in particular (one each for Redford and Hoffman) show the power of fine dramatic writing, good acting, and assured direction by people who weren’t afraid, as filmmakers are now, of holding on an actor in a medium close shot for several minutes. (Would a mass audience even put up with it now?)

Jane Alexander as the unnamed CREEP bookkeeper.

Jane Alexander as the unnamed CREEP bookkeeper.

Pakula must also be accorded credit, along with Willis,  for the prevailing aura of increasingly justifiable paranoia the movie generates. This was something of a Pakula specialty; his previous films as a director included The Parallax View and Klute, which form with All the President’s Men a kind of unholy trinity of anxious national obsession. That he was clearly an actor’s director is made manifest in the performances in these movies, from the smallest to the largest, and by his astute sense of casting. ATPM, like another Redford hit, The Sting, benefits from one of the finest all-around supporting casts of the period: Jason Robards (Ben Bradley), Jack Warden (Harry Rosenfeld), Martin Balsam (Howard Simons), the magnificent Jane Alexander giving a virtual master-class on screening acting in two scenes as the frightened, angry Committee to Re-elect bookkeeper, and Robert Walden as an amiable, anxious Donald Zegretti. And, in smaller but no less telling or important roles: Meredith Baxter, Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday, James Karen, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Nicholas Coster, Lindsay Crouse and Neva Patterson.

Hal Holbrook, deep in shadow as Deep Throat.

Hal Holbrook, deep in shadow as Deep Throat.

And that is not even to mention Hal Holbrook’s mesmerizing turn as “Deep Throat” (now known to have been the former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt.) It was to Deep Throat that Goldman assigned the script’s most famous (and wholly fictitious) line, “Follow the money.” But there is far more to the role than unintentional catch-phrases, and far more to Holbrook’s riveting performance than shadow and cigarettes.† Veiled in more ways than merely the visual, Holbrook’s Deep Throat is, despite a certain, indefinable, air of the sinister, also a man outraged, disappointed and disgusted by the Nixon Administration’s utter contempt for the law, the Constitution, and the American people. (Although it has been suggested that Mark Felt was equally livid at being passed over for the Directorship of the agency after Hoover’s death.) And it is in these scenes that Goldman lands some his most apposite dialogue. Some of it may come from Felt’s own remarks in the book — it’s been a few years since I last read it — but in either case, many of the movie Deep Throat’s observations are as relevant now as they were then, if not more so:

Look: Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.

I don’t like newspapers. I don’t care for inexactitude and shallowness.

The superb Jason Robards as Ben Bradley.

The marvelous Jason Robards as Ben Bradley.

Willis’ lighting is superb throughout, from his strong depth-of-focus that keeps every image crisp and allows the viewer a firm grasp of everything in the frame to the way he darkens the surroundings as the central mystery itself becomes more circuitous and frightening. In a career whose highlights included Klute, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Pennies from Heaven, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, Willis’ work here stands as a veritable exemplar of his devotion to craft, and clarity, as well as to un-self-conscious art. Equally worthy of praise is George Jenkins’ set design and the set decor of George Gaines, which include a meticulous re-creation of the Post‘s pressroom, and the quietly effective editing of Robert L. Wolfe. David Shire’s uncannily effective, abbreviated score deserves special mention. It’s brief (less than 12 minutes) and there isn’t a note heard until 30 minutes in, yet this spare, splendidly-spotted music — essentially winds, brass, strings and an unemphatic but effectual synthesizer — performs miracle work in its subtle suggestion of a subcutaneous un-ease that slowly becomes pervasive, and quietly terrifying.

In this year, which has just seen the 42nd anniversary of the Watergate break-in and will soon commemorate the 40th year since Nixon’s characteristically worm-like resignation, and in a world (and a country) that is essentially unrecognizable to those of us who lived through these events and dared to dream that Woodward and Bernstein might, in their dogged, unassuming fashion, have helped to create a new political reality, it is incumbent upon us to revisit these crucial events, the meticulous, careful investigative journalism that exposed them, and the nearly flawless movie that evolved from both… and which was enormously successful.

Look on these works, and despair.

The past is a foreign country.

Alas.

Pakula - All the Presidents Men (TIME)

All text (other than Goldman’s) copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

*Goldman, perhaps wisely, did not comment on the controversy. In an emailed response to Stayton’s request for discussion he wrote, “Thanks for thinking of me. It was not a happy experience, and I don’t want to write about it anymore.” (In his influential Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman wrote: “If you were to ask me, ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly all the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All The President’s Men.”

**I would never suggest that Pakula filmed every word or scene exactly as Goldman dictated. Nearly every movie is altered, to some degree, by its making. Circumstances change. Locations are switched. Scenes are cut. New sequences may be added. Actors improvise. (Dustin Hoffman, in one of those ATPM documentaries, makes the ludicrous claim that “you don’t film the script”; apparently, you film what Dustin Hoffman decides to do, and say.)

†It is not unreasonable to suggest that Chris Carter was inspired by Holbrook, and his cigarettes, when he created “The Smoking Man” for X-Files.

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Enlarging the scope: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1970s

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By Scott Ross

Jerry+Goldsmith+jerry01At the dawn of a new decade and after several years scoring for television and film, Jerry Goldsmith was more than ready for the challenges ahead. He hit 1970 running, and pretty much never stopped. Right out of the gate, Goldsmith composed one of the most iconic themes of the era: His bold, classical, yet forward-looking martial motif for Patton.

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On its face, Goldsmith’s Patton theme follows the parameters of a long line of military marches, particularly those for movies. Yet those ghostly horn fanfares at the beginning, their reverberating effects achieved by Goldsmith’s use of the Echoplex tape-delay system, and the similarly eerie organ chords that seem to emanate from a distant past, are what the theme is really about: George S. Patton’s sense of himself, as an invincible force not merely of his own time but of history itself, reincarnated from the shades of the ancients in his beloved historical war-texts. As bound up in the past as this is (the march’s cadences are distinctly Celtic) the use here by Goldsmith of recent musical reproduction technology points to his increasing fascination with what synthesized sound can do for his craft. Incredibly (but all too believably) while the score was nominated for that year’s Academy Award, Goldsmith lost once again, this time to… Francis Lai(!) and his saccharine Love Story for which only the theme, endlessly iterated on pop recordings, is remembered.

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No matter. Goldsmith goes onward, composing a remarkable East-West score for Tota! Tora! Tora! that is better than the movie deserved, and a fine late Western score, Rio Lobo, for Howard Hawks. In 1971 Goldsmith moves further into electronica than anyone could have anticipated with his truly unnerving music for the horror thriller The Mephisto Waltz, in which he incorporates such other-worldly strings and Hell-tormented moans that listening to the score on its own with the lights off would constitute an act of true courage.

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That same year Goldsmith composed a vivid, exciting and appropriately melancholy score for Blake Edwards’ sad, elegiac Western Wild Rovers, the movie itself later butchered by the loathsome James Aubrey at MGM. At Christmas of 1971, home viewers could hear Goldsmith’s music for The Homecoming, that loveliest of holiday movies, out of Earl Hamner, Jr’s semi-autobiography. When the special spawned a series, The Waltons, Goldsmith was tapped to write the theme, resulting in a piece of music that, in just over a minute, conjures Depression rural America, Hamner’s slightly fictionalized family, the splendid Richard Thomas, and the warmth that eventually became a comedic by-word but which, at least in the early years, was genuine without falling into manipulation and bathos. All that from six well-chosen notes.

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For 1973’s escape epic Papillon, Goldsmith composed a lilting, Gallic waltz on which he rang dramatic variations. For the first television miniseries (a concept much discussed at the time) based on the inexplicably popular Leon Uris novel QBVII* Goldsmith drew overtly on his own Jewishness for the first time, in music that keens as though with the voices of the six million dead.

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Many Goldsmith aficionados cite 1982 and the one-two punch of Poltergeist, The Secret of NIMH and First Blood as the Anno Principium of the composer’s great period. To be comprehensive, one could as easily point to 1966 and The Sand Pebbles, which begins his career-long ascendancy. If you don’t wish to extend things quite that far back, I would respectfully suggest 1974 as the year from which there is no looking back, only forward. And the score that affixes Goldsmith’s place in the filmmusic firmament is the masterly Chinatown. Taking its cue from the Roman Polanksi/Robert Towne classic’s pace, milieu, look, period and understated, doomed romanticism, the score has moments of languid eerieness, unnerving tension and bittersweet, minor key melodiousness whose key component is a jazzy, slightly foreboding trumpet line. Goldsmith’s score replaced that of Phillip Lambro, who was only recently allowed to release his version on disc, and even then providing there was no mention of Chinatown in either the title or the description. Listening to Los Angeles 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanksi (fuck you, Paramount) one can see that Polanski led Goldsmith down very similar symphonic paths indeed. I’m not suggesting Goldsmith lifted from Lambro, but it is interesting to note how not dissimilar (to use a deliberate double-negative) the two scores are. Lambro’s does not have a similarly (and insistently) memorable trumpet theme, and that may have been the dark/romantic sound the movie’s producer, Robert Evans, was after.**

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For the 1975 Charles Bronson prison-escape thriller Breakout, Goldsmith provided a score of tremendous velocity, anchored by a Latin underpinning appropriate to the movie’s Mexican setting. Later that year he wrote one of his most accomplished scores for The Wind and the Lion, the right-wing fantasist (I nearly typed “fascist”… by mistake?) John Milius’ epic fantasia on the so-called “Perdicaris Incident” of 1904. The movie, which, in Wikipedia’s apt phrase, “blends historic facts into a violent fictional adventure,” commanded from Goldsmith a magnificent score filled to overflowing with “exotic” strains, muscular adventure writing, and unabashed romanticism. “The function of a score,” Goldsmith once noted, “is to enlarge the scope of a film. I try for emotional penetration — not for complementing the action. For me, the important thing about music is statement. I can’t describe how I arrive at the decision to make a statement, I simply feel it and react to it.” Seldom has such reaction yielded a more sublime response.

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The 1976 Logan’s Run, a rare science fiction picture at a time when the genre was considered a sure-fire loser — Hollywood needed to wait only one year longer to learn how wrong the thinking was, at least regarding space-fantasy — elicited from Goldsmith a score based on an sonic notion that complimented the movie’s theme: The highly artificial, hermetically-sealed world of the future, with its pleasure-games and enclosed reality (represented by electronica) contrasted with the world that’s been left behind, verdant, lush and full of possibilities (full, rich orchestral arrangements.) The central theme, which builds rhapsodically, is exquisite. Much more notable, and remunerative, was The Omen, which, shockingly, is Goldsmith’s sole Academy Award winner. That’s not a slam. It’s a superb horror-movie score, anchored to the sinister Latin (if ungrammatical) choral anthem “Ave Satani” (itself up that year, for Best Song!) but, alas, largely in the service of the filmmakers’ blood-lust for progressively grander and ever more ingenious means of graphically killing off its cardboard characters. Screw Friday the 14th — The Omen is the true progenitor of ’80s slasher-porn.

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The same year as The Omen Goldsmith composed what he often said he regarded as his own favorite among his scores. Islands in the Stream accounts in a way as the anti-Omen; personal where the previous movie is impersonal, character-driven as opposed to effect-driven, elegiac where The Omen is deeply foreboding. One of Goldsmith’s not-infrequent collaborations with Franklin J. Schaffner, the director of Patton, and based on a posthumously-published, semi-autobiographical (and incomplete) Hemingway novel, Islands is one of the composer’s most ingratiating, and most melancholy, scores. Yet it is suffused with emotional highs, filled with wonder. The long (nearly 12-minute) cue “The Marlin,” depicting the George C. Scott character’s younger son battling to land a gigantic fish from his father’s boat is, at least in Goldsmith’s hands, as stark, exciting and intensely memorable as Hemingway’s description of it. I don’t know why the composer felt so strongly about this material, or why it moved him so, and, really, we don’t need to. This is film music that, alone, and without choral accompaniment, sings.

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Contract on Cherry Street, a 1977 television thriller starring Frank Sinatra, drew from Goldsmith a score that, unique for its time (or even now) was full-bodied, completely orchestral, one that would have enhanced any theatrical film of its type, then or today. The writing is muscular, exciting, subtle and crackling with energy, yet with moments of haunting emotionalism. No one but Goldsmith could have composed it.

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Peter Hyams’ 1977 paranoia thriller Capricorn One, about a faked Mars landing, drew on post-Watergate cynicism about the government (and our concomitant elevation of dogged reporters to hero status) for a far-fetched, but entertaining, yarn, heightened by Sam Waterson’s wise-racking and ultimately moving performance as one of the doomed astronauts (O.J. Simpson was the other; only James Brolin came out of it alive. Well, of course.) Goldsmith’s score compliments the material handily, from its ominous, heraldic, opening chords to its uplifting finale, although a comparison with Contract on Cherry Street does indicate some discrete borrowing of arrangement and motif.

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For the inevitable Omen sequel, in 1978, starring William Holden and Lee Grant this time out, Goldsmith used his “Ave Satani” theme more sparingly, supplementing it with new choral material that occasionally apes the croaking sound of ravens. As with its predecessor, the composer piles on the action cues with aplomb. It’s better writing than pap of this sort really deserves.

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William Goldman’s Magic was essentially unfilmable, relying as it did on a literary device that must, necessarily, fall by the wayside in a visual transliteration: In the book we’re unaware that Corky Withers’ comedy partner, Fats, is a ventriloquist’s dummy until well into the story; in the movie, we know immediately. Still, Magic was creepy fun, inspired by the Michael Redgrave sequence in Dead of Night, and a chance to enjoy one of my then-favorite actors, Anthony Hopkins, in a starring role. Goldsmith’s accordion motif is appropriately unnerving, in the Bernard Herrmann manner, and the score as a whole is dandy.

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Michael Crichton adapted and directed his own, fact-based, historical novel, in 1978, and The Great Train Robbery is good, juicy Victorian amusement from beginning to improbable end, especially with such seasoned pros as Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland along for the ride. Goldsmith’s waltzing train motif is a prime asset, adding a major dramatic thrust to the narrative. If ever a movie score can be called “fun,” it’s this one.

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The 1979 Alien was easily one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my movie-going life. Knowing virtually nothing about it before buying my ticket, I was wholly unprepared for the genuine shock awaiting me; when that damn thing burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I had a five-minute attack of hyperventilation in the theatre. Goldsmith was famously unhappy with the final mix as heard in the movie, where music from his score for “Freud” was tracked in to replace his original main title, some Howard Hanson appeared instead of his own end credits music, and his elaborate, driving theme for the alien was removed from the final print. For Goldsmith aficionados, the best solution is the 2007 Intrada release, which couples the complete score and the 1979 soundtrack LP tracks with alternate cues and bonus items. Goldsmith’s score sets the tone, for the movie itself and for the entire coming cinematic franchise: Dark, moody, expressionistic. Harrowing.

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Goldsmith ended the decade as he’d begun it, with one of his most iconic scores. Few fans, or critics, were best-pleased with the long-awaited Star Trek movie, but there were no similar complaints about Goldsmith’s majestic score; indeed, his theme for The Enterprise quickly supplanted Alexander Courage’s original television title, and is the immediately identifiable “sound” of the subsequent Star Trek universe. (Courage, interestingly, became one of Goldsmith’s most frequent orchestrators, and his own sound is intimately bound up in that of Courage.) It took many years for the full soundtrack of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be released, but it belongs in the collection of any Goldsmith aficionado. Or, indeed, that of any serious student of the form. Although the electronics for this space epic are kept to a minimum, there’s a Blaster Beam effect that is superbly integrated into the score, and the whole is as good, in its way, as John Williams’ for the first Star Wars movie. The 3-disc La-La-Land release brings it all together, eked out by alternate cues and a reproduction of the original 1979 soundtrack re-recording. Essential.

Three years after the release of Star Trek, Goldsmith would have his unofficial Annus Mirabilis. But I daresay he’d been giving us years of wonder all along.

*It goes without saying the Holocaust is one of the most important, and appalling, events of the 20th century, and one can well understand the emotional involvement of Uris’ readers in QBVII. But the book, based on the author’s own legal experience with a man he named as a Nazi doctor in his novel Exodus, is written (“hacked” would be a better word) with no finesse whatsoever. Worse, it exhibits an appalling misogyny and evokes a masculine world in which women are willing pussy, or nothing.

**In addition to the Los Angeles 1937 CD, you can also hear Lambro’s music under the movie’s original trailer. See YouTube et al.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

As long as you got somebody to do it for you: A Robert Ryan trilogy

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By Scott Ross

91spW6aNaRL._SL1500_A very interesting 3-film Western omnibus DVD fell into my hands this past weekend. Outlaws and Lawmen caught my eye first because it contains the interesting, Edward Anhalt-written (and John Sturges-directed) Hour of the Gun, which I’d enjoyed on TCM several years ago. But, perusing the cover at my favorite local second-hand bookstore, something beyond that (and, to be frank, the three dollar asking price… at a dollar a movie, who could kick?) announced itself: All three of the movies starred, or at least featured, that quintessential post-war American, the great Robert Ryan.

Robert Ryan at the cast recording sessions for "Mr. President," the musical in which he starred with Nanette Fabray. He's likely wondering either how to get out of this mess, or wishing Irving Berlin had written him one good song...

Robert Ryan at the cast recording sessions for “Mr. President,” the musical in which he starred with Nanette Fabray. He’s likely either wondering how to get out of this mess, or wishing Irving Berlin had written him just one good song…

Any movie with Ryan in a leading role is almost automatically worth a look. Like Michael Caine and Gene Hackman, Ryan was seldom capable of a bad performance, and his best work leaves the flailings of more ingratiating, and infinitely less gifted, actors gasping in the proverbial dust. As J.R. Jones noted of the perennially underrated Ryan in The Chicago Reader, “… the persona that lingers is that of a strong, intelligent man guarding some storm of emotion — fear, guilt, helpless rage. Even in broad daylight he seemed cloaked in shadow.” Ryan, whose intelligence shines, cleanly, through every performance — one could no more imagine him as a mindless thug than one could accept Steve McQueen playing an intellectual — was all too often typed as dangerous, mercurial villains and was never nearly as well-known, or as celebrated, as he deserved. (Even the splendid Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies series omitted him from its 58-title roster, although Jeanette McDonald got one.) A life-long leftist, he somehow managed to dodge persecution during the HUAC years, even though he was one of the members of the much-hounded Committee for the First Amendment; one presumes his punishment for that, and for his role in the witchhunter-reviled Tender Comrade, was having to appear as a vicious Commie (was there ever any other kind?) in The Woman on Pier 13 , aka, I Married a Communist.

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Robert Ryan about to dispatch Cameron Mitchell in Sam Fuller’s “House of Bamboo.” In its intimacy and homoeroticism the scene echoes a similar one in Fuller’s “I Shot Jesse James,” but goes much further.

Yet even when reflexively cast in the negative, Ryan crafted complex, unnerving, surprising villains. Think, for example, of his homicidal, irrationally anti-Semitic bigot in the 1947 Crossfire, one of the first of the mainstream post-war American movies to examine the dark underbelly of the victors. Thank, too, what Ryan could have done with the role had it been permitted to more accurately reflect the Richard Brooks novel on which it was based, in which the victim was not Jewish but homosexual; Ryan read the book (The Brick Foxhole) and told Brooks he was determined to play the killer. (In a sense, he did just that, later, as Claggart to Terence Stamp’s Billy Budd.) Consider also The Naked Spur, one of those uneasy, Anthony Mann-directed James Stewart Westerns of the period in which the seemingly noble Stewart’s motivations are easily as venal as (and perhaps more self-serving than) those of the ironic, smiling, rather likable killer Ryan portrays. The screenwriters, Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, received and Academy nomination for their work, something few Western screenplays ever achieve, which may tell you something about just how original the movie was. In the taut, bracing neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) the focus of the terrifyingly normal Ryan character’s xenophobia was a Japanese-American homesteader. And in Sam Fuller’s striking Cinerama crime drama House of Bamboo (1955) Ryan’s gangster ichiban is suave, genial and low-keyed. Yet he executes his second-in-command (and possible lover?) Cameron Mitchell, when he comes to believe the man to be a traitor, with a dispassion matched only by its suddenness and shocking brutality. In Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Ryan is once again the bigot, loathing his association with Harry Belafonte, yet willing to stomach it for the proceeds of their planned bank heist. In the ironic ending, both men are incinerated, black and white bodies becoming indistinguishable.

Good against evil, or repressed homo vs. perennial cock-tease? Terence Stamp and Ryan in "Billy Budd."

Good against evil, or repressed homo vs. perennial cock-tease? Terence Stamp and Ryan in “Billy Budd.”

Taking a small role in support of his co-star from the previous years’ The Professionals, Lee Marvin, Ryan was the very model of the petty martinet hoist with his own petard in The Dirty Dozen (1967). And while eschewing a British accent, Ryan’s master-at-arms in the Peter Ustinov adaptation of Billy Budd (1962) is more than merely the embodiment of sadistic, repressed, self-hating (again, possible) homosexuality; his Claggart is chillingly paranoid, longing for Billy’s purity of heart more than for his beauty,  and hating the impulse to decency in himself.

Ryan as Deke Thornton in "The Wild Bunch."

Ryan as Deke Thornton in “The Wild Bunch.”

When allowed to play a role that called on other, less troubling, aspects of his humanity (which was not nearly often enough) Ryan’s coiled, sinewy tension was still seldom far below the surface: His has-been boxer in The Set-Up (1949), for instance, refusing to take a fall while knowing full well the penalty for going against the wishes of the Mob, or his fatally compromised Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpaw and Walon Green’s The Wild Bunch (1969), forced by circumstance to track down his old comrades for the very legal system both hold in contempt. Deke’s self-disgust is perched atop his steely professionalism and contempt for greedy incompetence, and Ryan’s essential ambivalence is as deeply moving as the sagging majesty of William Holden’s lined, craggy face. In his final role, as Larry Slade in the American Film Theatre The Iceman Cometh, Ryan is both the downbeat, antagonist flip-side of Marvin’s Hickey and the living proof of Hickey’s failed thesis. Clinging to a belief, and a compassion, both of which he keeps trying to convince himself he no longer feels, Ryan’s Larry is a valedictory, a testament to the quiet strength with which he played, its aching intensity, and the immediacy of his passionate, troubled accessibility as an actor.

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Ryan as Ike Clanton.

Ryan as Ike Clanton.

The trio of movies on Outlaws and Lawmen places Ryan in some interesting, contradictory, territory. In Hour of the Gun he’s Ike Clanton, ruthless and cynically manipulative. For all of its obvious virtues, Anhalt’s screenplay does not give Clanton much depth or complexity; he’s as fixed on vengeance as James Garner’s Wyatt Earp, but without Earp’s ambivalent self-awareness. Earp claims to value law above personal desire, and half-convinces himself it’s true. Yet he has Jason Robards, Jr.’s Doc Holliday around to call him on it; and while the truth may sting badly, Garner’s Earp eventually accepts the reality of the observation. Clanton, by contrast, has no one he respects, as Earp does Doc, in his inner circle. Monied, and secure in his ability to buy whatever justice he seeks (“If this was the east,” he notes, “I could make law the way they do. But the best I can do out here is buy it.”) Clanton is undone as much by misreading Earp as anything else. Leonard Matlin, in his movie guide, says Hour of the Gun “begins well, but becomes increasingly tedious.” Well, obsession is tedious; it’s how you go about depicting it, and the toll it takes on the obsessed, and his or her victims, that make or break a study of it. The movie starts where all other Earp films end: at the O.K. Corral. Everything that happens flows from that event, instead of towards it. Thus the obsession of each man for the obliteration of the other.

A study in contrast: Ryan and Lancaster in "Lawman."

A study in contrasts: Ryan and Lancaster in “Lawman.” Note that the “coward” wears the white hat, the lawman the black.

Lawman (1971) is, of the three, both the most interesting and the most problematic. Gerry Wilson’s screenplay ranks among the most literate and thoughtful of any Western scenario (and yes, I’m aware that, to some, that’s damning with faint praise) and it’s primarily the dialogue that makes Lawman so fascinating. It’s certainly not helped by the self-conscious direction of Michael Winner, the man who brought you such masterworks of subtlety as The Games, Death Wish (and the first two of its four sequels) and the wholly unnecessary remake of The Big Sleep. Winner’s direction here consists largely of inapt, when not inept, framing and a nauseating over-reliance on zooms. In contrast to Hour of the Gun, whose assets include Lucien Ballard’s luminous cinematography and a superb score by Jerry Goldsmith, Lawman boasts merely workman-like photography (by the seemingly mis-named Robert Paynter) and shockingly over-emphatic music by the usually splendid Jerry Fielding. Well, perhaps both men gave the director what he wanted.

Joseph Wiseman in "Lawman."

Joseph Wiseman in “Lawman.”

And, too, there is not much anyone could do with Burt Lancaster. A likable, athletic and even charismatic actor in the right role, when called upon to be taciturn and righteous he was just as often turgid and action-hero stalwart. He’s not bad in Lawman, mind you. He’s just not nearly as interesting as the actors who surround him. And what is best about the movie, aside from its script (at least until it goes wildly off-kilter; about which, more anon) is its rich casting of secondary roles: Lee J. Cobb as the Clanton-like boss of the ironically-named town of Sabbath, a hard man yearning for an end to the violence that made him; Robert Duvall and J.D. Cannon as farmers who get themselves in far deeper than either intends; Sheree North as Lancaster’s aging one-time lover, caught between her reluctant yen for the past and the hard but respectable realities of the present; Richard Jordan, bringing layered complexity to the de rigueur role of the trigger-happy kid; the often weird but utterly compelling Joseph Wiseman as a former Marshal with ruined legs and a wind-up clock fashioned from a human skull; the marvelous John McGiver as the pompous mayor, complete unto elaborate ear-trumpet; and, best of all, Ryan as Cotton Ryan, Sabbath’s beaten, timorous sheriff whose reputation is his abiding curse. “I remember you at Fort Bliss,” Lancaster remarks. “That’s my trouble,” Ryan answers ruefully. “Everybody remembers me at Fort Bliss.” Cotton no longer wishes to be challenged by every cheap, self-important young gunslinger in the territory. And, as he also says to Lancaster’s Maddox, “… if you’re a lawman, you’re a disease. They need you, but they hate you.”

Frank McCarthy's poster art is an only slightly exaggerated rendering of the movie's violent, confusing climax.

Frank McCarthy’s poster art is an only slightly exaggerated rendering of the movie’s violent, confusing climax.

Maddox speaks of, and seems to cherish, his ethical code — what he continually refers to as “the rules”: You don’t draw first “if you want to stay clean.” And it is here that Lawman ultimately falls completely apart. Toward the sardonic climax, Maddox has decided to chuck it all, to release from jail the farmers he’s brought in, to ignore the postings on the others he hasn’t killed, and, perhaps, to go off with North. This we accept, given his 20 years and more of legal killing. (North informs him that, behind his back, he’s known as “The Widow-Maker.”) But in a sudden reversal of this, and of his own precious rules, Maddox gratuitously guns Cannon down, shooting him in the back as he flees (Cannon makes extraordinary little sounds as he runs, half-whine, half-sob.) It isn’t that Maddox’s attitudes gravitate first 180 degrees, then another 180; they go half an arc in two separate directions. Why? Neither Wilson’s script nor Winner’s direction gives a clue. It’s as though Maddox suddenly decides he wants to be that despised Widow-Maker. It’s a depressingly bifurcated ending to an otherwise sharp-witted, fascinating movie.

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The obvious assets of co-star Tina Louise (and the implicit sexual threat to them) decorate the original poster.

Aside from Robert Ryan, what all three pictures on the disc also have in common is the inevitable mutability of the West itself. The days of lawlessness and wide open spaces for the (often violent) taking are in each title giving way to the constricting arrival of so-called “civilizing” influences: Respectable women, law that is more than legalized slaughter, and the accumulating power of the almighty dollar, usually represented either by cattle barons or farmers. (Churches, refreshingly, are not in much sanctimonious evidence among these movies; indeed, the only pastor in the three films is the bought-and-paid-for minister in Lawman played with more than slight smarminess by Charles Tyner.) And in all three, the role of the men — and it is always men — who do the violent jobs no one else wishes to, is central. This is made explicit in Day of the Outlaw through the following exchange, between Ryan’s cattleman Blaise Starrett and Vic (Donald Elson), the owner of the tiny town’s general store:

Vic: I don’t hold for killin’.

Blaise: You don’t have to… as long as you got somebody to do it for you.

In Lawman, Joseph Wiseman’s Lucas notes to Lancaster’s Maddox. “You and I sit at the same table, Jared. The virtuous need us, but they can’t stand the smell.” In Hour of the Gun Wyatt Earp finally admits, “I don’t care about the rules anymore. I’m not that much of a hypocrite.” To which Doc Holliday rejoinders:

The whole thing is hypocrisy. The rules they tack on today that unless you’re wearing that badge or a soldier’s uniform, you can’t kill. But they’re the only rules there are. They are more important to you than you think. Play it that way, Wyatt, or you’ll destroy yourself.

Whether any of this can be considered “deep,” even in opposition to the level on which most seven-day Westerns of the period operate, is of less importance than the fact such dialogues exist at all. The writers of these movies aren’t just cynical hacks, planting white hats on the heroes and darker models on the villains. They’re concerned, as all good writers are, with the gray that colors most issues, and most of the people who face them.

Ryan as Blaise Starrett in "Day of the Outlaw."

Ryan as Blaise Starrett in “Day of the Outlaw.”

In Day of the Outlaw (1959) the central conflict initially appears to be the deadly tension between cattle-herder and land-grabbing farmer spoofed so memorably by Oscar Hammerstein in Oklahoma! Here Ryan is the harsh cattleman Blaise Starrett, inflamed as much by lust for the wife of the farmer who is cutting up the plain with barbed wire fences as hatred for the the man himself. The first quarter of Day of the Outlaw constitutes a set-up to the inevitable show-down between the two; but with the suddenness of a hail-storm, the script (by the ubiquitous Philip Yordan, perhaps the most notable of all fronts during the days of HUAC, for whom it is nearly impossible to separate work he did himself from that for which he claimed credit, even after the blacklist was broken) takes a strikingly different turn, with the arrival of a gang of wanted thieves led by the wounded Burl Ives.

Shot, fairly obviously, on a sub-B budget by Andre De Toth, Day of the Outlaw is strikingly different, in tone, visual palette and action, from the general run of bread-and-butter Westerns. Like Lawman and Hour of the Gun, the movie has something on its mind, and says it with surprising eloquence and panache. (The often radiant black-and-white cinematography is the work of Russell Harlan.) The movie has an uncertain beginning, perhaps prompted by their being no money for alternate set-ups: Ryan and Nehemiah Persoff discuss, in long shot and via disconcerting voice-over, what Blaise has in mind for the wire-fencing farmer. This is a decided deterrent to comprehension. The dialogue is occasionally, and deliberately, cryptic, which might not matter in a tight two-shot. The benefit of seeing faces speaking lines is that, even if we are not sure what they’e talking about or where it’s going, the actors’ looks automatically help us over the hurdle, even as seeing their lips move makes comprehension of lengthy dialogue easier to follow. (Yordan is on record saying De Toth simply ran out of money on location and brought the production back to Hollywood.)

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Burl Ives and Ryan preparing to face very different kinds of death on impassable mountain terrain.

Once this opening sequence ends, however, De Toth seldom makes a misstep. Like a less-gifted Samuel Fuller, he seems to understand instinctively where best to place his camera and his actors, not for artistic but for dramatic effect. Moreover, he and Harlan move us into geographic areas few, if any, contemporary Western filmmakers cared to go. The final quarter of Day of the Outlaw places us on an increasingly impassable mountainside, as Ryan’s Blaise leads the cut-throats to a deliberate dead-end; Blaise wants to allow the dying Bruhn (Ives) an honorable death, and he knows he’ll eventually be murdered by the outlaws when they discover his perfidy, but he’s beyond caring. There are moments, earlier in the movie, as the camera pans across the starkly lovely Wyoming vistas, when you may find yourself wishing Day of the Outlaw had been filmed in color. But as Ryan, Ives and the bandits set off into the wilds amid gale-force wind, the white of the snow around, and beneath, them, marks a visual poetry comparable to that of Ansel Adams which color could only dissipate, and you’re suddenly very grateful indeed for black and white film.

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That snow, so intensely beautiful, becomes a magnificent trap for the outlaws: A horse missteps and must be put down (rather horribly, but as the beast is carrying one of the more unsavory of Ives’ gang, that in itself is hideously in character.) One of the remaining marauders dies, in his sleep, of exposure. Another, giving chase to Ryan, simply gives up, and gives out, coming to rest in the drifts almost picturesquely, as though his life is ebbing away in slow-motion. (Could Robert Altman have seen this one? Day of the Outlaw is assuredly no McCain and Mrs. Miller, but the use of snow in both has striking similarities.) These men may live by the sword (or the gun) but they are, finally, helpless in the face of elements against which no firearm makes the slightest difference. Day of the Outlaw, despite that rather commonplace, utilitarian title, ultimately becomes a sort of transcendental cautionary tale. And the angry, covetous Blaise seems cleansed by the ordeal; when he returns, to no fanfare (not even the remarkable chamber score in this movie, by Alexander Courage, overstates) he quietly announces to Persoff that there’ll be no more killing. Fade-out. The moment is no more pointed than it needs to be.

That too is a hallmark of Robert Ryan, who never shouted unless he had to. Could we ever use him today!

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

A much bigger circle: “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

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From my Playwright at Liberty blog.

Playwright at Liberty

fiddler poster

As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” The 1971 film transmigration of the 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most beautifully made  of all adaptations from the musical stage, and certainly one of the most faithful. By filming it in as realistic a manner as possible, and as close to the birthplace of its progenitor, Sholem-Aleichem, as the director, Norman Jewison, could get (Yugoslavia), the filmmakers honored the material as well, I think, as the source. What fell away, inevitably, was much of the very thing that made Jerome Robbins’ original so striking and even, in the terms of the musical theatre of its time, revolutionary. Any truly theatrical experience, play or musical, that exists in a heightened, stylized state can only be diminished by literalism. This is why any sane admirer of Follies, say, can only…

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Sleeping on the skin of a nightmare: “The Naked Kiss” (1964)

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By Scott Ross

NAKED KISS1If I’ve seen a movie with a stronger, stranger, wilder and more compelling opening than Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, I can’t remember it.

Even reading, in Fuller’s posthumously published memoir A Third Face, the basic plot of this astonishment, and how that remarkable opening was achieved, cannot quite prepare you for that first shot. Of the Fullers I’ve seen so far, it is this immediately involving visual statement that has best exemplified its progenitor’s “grab ’em by the balls” philosophy of filmmaking. I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated, but when you see it (and you should) bear in mind the writer-director’s youthful beginnings at the New York Graphic. Little Sammy learned early — at at time when most boys his age had not yet graduated to long pants — the innate value to the journalist of the strongman opening sentence. And there was surely no stronger cinematic opener in movie-houses of 1964 than this one, yet it’s only the beginning. When, 91 minutes later, The Naked Kiss ends, you’ll grant you’ve seen something utterly unlike anything else.

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The movies have had a fascination with prostitutes almost from the beginning, and it went on, enthusiasm undimmed even when the writers had, under the yoke of the odious, Catholic-driven, Production Code, to disguise their intentions beneath cloaks of obfuscation. The year before The Naked Kiss was released, Billy Wilder, taking advantage of the waning censorship standards, had his greatest box-office success with his and I.A.L. Diamond’s simultaneously unguarded and surprisingly poignant comedy Irma La Douce. (The original musical, from France via the West End, and from which Wilder extracted the musical numbers, benefited both from the more relaxed “moral” attitudes of the stage and the show’s own, charming, level of innocence.) But no contemporary film I can think of tackled the subject so head-on as this one, and definitely not for laughs.

There is nothing remotely funny about Kelly, or her situation. Having extricated herself from her seamy procurer and working solely on her own, she finds herself in a seemingly idealized small town and, all too bitterly aware that time is against her (“Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life”) settles in, against the odds, as beloved nurse to a hospitalful of handicapped children. She even seems to find love, and the promise of future respectability, with the town’s wealthy scion. But as in life, though all too seldom at the movies, these things have a way of disintegrating. The Naked Kiss emerges, less as the “shocker” advertised than as one of the fullest portrayals ever made of a woman engaged, as they now say, in the sex trade, unparalleled until Jane Fonda’s fulsome portrait of Bree Daniels in Klute five years later.

Constance Towers' Kelly confronts her self, in a decisive moment from "The Naked Kiss."

Constance Towers’ Kelly confronts her self, in a decisive moment from “The Naked Kiss.”

Constance Towers, known to me before this only as a performer in musicals (she was and remains the Anna Leonowens of my dreams) has one of the strongest faces I’ve ever encountered in a movie; she’s in virtually every scene of The Naked Kiss but you’d be hard-pressed to take your eye off her even if she wasn’t. Towers had enormous regard for her director, and it’s clear that Fuller returned the esteem. He uses her extraordinary physiognomy both to conceal and to reveal. Even when you’re not sure why she’s reacting as she is, as in the sequence in which her wealthy suitor (Michael Dante) first kisses her, the moment has exceptional power.

Towers and Dante.

Towers and Dante.

Kelly is one of the most fully delineated female characters of her era, and I wish the man who created her had done more studies of complex, troubled, strong-willed women like her. For a filmmaker as concerned with masculine stories as Fuller, his conception of Kelly is a revelation. And for all his pulp entertainment sensibilities, and his occasionally unpolished dialogue, his sensitivity to Kelly (and, by extension, to women generally, in or out of “the profession”) is exquisitely limned. Kelly is a sister under the skin to such finely depicted Fuller heroines as Jean Peters’ Candy in Pickup on South Street, Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond in 40 Guns and Shirley Yamaguchi’s Mariko in House of Bamboo — women who are flawed, proud, sometimes difficult, intermittently inexplicable, but imbued with an innate humanity that is never condescended to by their creator.

Samuel Fuller and his star on-set. The affection was surely mutual.

Samuel Fuller and his star on-set. The affection was surely mutual.

Working outside the Hollywood system, Fuller was able to get into The Naked Kiss some astonishing details. Kelly’s narrative arc does not merely take in the degrading, soul-killing life of the of prostitute; it encompasses explicitly stated (if discretely illuminated) pedophilia and the hypocrisy of the law. The police chief, Griff (Anthony Eisley) tries to run Kelly out of his town, but only after he has enjoyed her erotically himself. Other hypocrisies abound; of the many people in Grantville who come to love her, not one offers her comfort when she’s arrested, only after she’s released. Indeed, if I have any real quarrel with Fuller’s dramaturgy, it’s that I would prefer that Kelly, rather than embracing and kissing her women friends at the finale, had spat in their faces instead.

"Ten... ten... and five." Kelly repays the duplicitous madam (Virginia Grey) in one of the movie's most striking sequences.

“Ten… ten… and five.” Kelly repays the duplicitous madam (Virginia Grey) in one of the movie’s most striking sequences.

There are several splendid supporting performances in The Naked Kiss: the robust, jocular Patsy Kelly as the hospital’s head nurse; Marie Devereux as Buff, Kelly’s unhappy colleague who is drifting perilously close to the kind of life from which Kelly has walked away; Betty Bronson, the screen’s very first Peter Pan, in a lovely performance as Kelly’s landlady, witheringly referred to as the town’s oldest virgin; Virginia Grey as the soignée madam who gets an especially brutal comeuppance from Kelly and who will later return it in kind; and Gerald Michenaud as the legless child who is the special recipient of Kelly’s buried mother-love.

Fuller’s dialogue, despite some embarrassingly blunt passages, brims with his patented street eloquence, as when Kelly warns the wayward Buff away from the lure of selling herself: “You know what’s different about the first night? Nothing. Nothing… except it lasts forever, that’s all. You’ll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare for the rest of your life… And you’ll meet men you live on… and men who live on you. And those are the only men you’ll meet… You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife.” He is also unafraid of showing Kelly’s lack of education, as when she mispronounces Gerthe’s name; she’s a dilettante, self-educated, a reader who has never heard the name of the poet she admires.

Kelly senses something off in Grant's kiss. What it is she doesn't say, and Fuller doesn't explain, until it suits them both to do so.

Kelly senses something off in Grant’s kiss. What it is she doesn’t say, and Fuller doesn’t explain, until it suits them both to do so.

Watching the extras on the Criterion edition, I was struck once again by how often Fuller’s most ardent defenders degrade him even as they enthuse over his work. Wim Wenders, for example, calls Fuller’s direction here “crude.” Why? Because he was unafraid of energy, even shock, as means of artistic expression? If Fuller’s is a pulp sensibility, then so is William Faulkner’s. There isn’t a frame of The Naked Kiss, exquisitely shot in black and white by the redoubtable Stanley Cortez (who also lit Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and the Charles Laughton-directed Night of the Hunter) that is less than eloquent, and frequently more than that. My only real issue with the movie is Paul Dunlap’s sappy, ultra-conventional score, square and old-hat where Fuller, and his movie, are anything but. Everything else is as startling, and as perfectly realized, as it must have been the day the movie opened in 1964. Its immediacy, seriousness of purpose, and aching humanism puts almost every other movie released that year to red-faced shame.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross