Festering like a sore: Up Tight (1968)

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Uptight lobby card
By Scott Ross

In reviewing the Jules Dassin-directed Up Tight at the time of its 1968 release, Roger Ebert complained that adapting The Informer to a contemporary black revolutionary context was a graft that didn’t take, arguing that Liam O’Flaherty’s novel did not center on IRA activities but rather on the guilt of the protagonist.
https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/up-tight-1969
But that, it seems to me, was too literal a reading for so freewheeling a project as this. Think of Up Tight less as a “remake” or even as a strict transliteration of The Informer and more as a variation on it, and you come closer, I believe, to the spirit of the thing.

O’Flaherty’s book was written in 1925 but set in 1922, following the Irish Civil War; by placing Up Tight in the black ghettos of Cleveland four days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., the filmmakers were getting at something very similar, in expressive terms, to the raw emotions the Irish experienced following partition. (The picture begins with footage of the civil rights leader’s Atlanta funeral.) King’s symbolism within black America, pro or con, cannot be understated, any less than the grief and frustration and rage that exploded after his murder.

A killing, moreover, which many now believe was carried out (or at best, sanctioned) by the United States’ shadow government. Scoffers ask why, with Dr. King’s effectiveness as a public figure largely blunted by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Establishment would bother. If we may dismiss as ludicrous the idea that a bill solves all the social ills it is meant to address — and we have only to look at the state of things now to do so with impunity — we must also ask: What was King’s focus when he was assassinated? Poverty, and war; specifically, the war in Vietnam. The powers directing the official powers may tolerate social agitation on matters of race or gender or sexuality, but when you question the very structures that hold the working and underclasses in poverty and those dictating what the historian Charles Beard called America’s “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” then something must be done about you… and something duly was. That this did not occur to the makers of Up Tight in   1968 is not a grievous fault; the picture rides on so much that was in the air at the time that it may surely be forgiven for missing a philosophical nuance here and there.

Not that Up Tight is exactly subtle. Its revolutionaries’ dialogue in particular has a blunt feel that places as much distance between us and the picture now, in the second decade of the 21st century, as lay between the 1935 John Ford/Dudley Nichols adaptation and Up Tight itself in the late 1960s. Indeed, if anything the latter feels even further in the past. The picture’s concerns, however, were very much in the present when it was written, filmed and released; race riots had broken out in 1964, accelerated after 1966 and hit special prominence in 1968 in Watts, with more to come in the early 1970s. It should be remembered as well that weapons manufacturers, the police and the NRA only got concerned with enforcing strict gun control when the Black Panthers talked of buying arms, or went out of doors with them. There were many then who believed a racial war was not merely possible but inevitable. Wither, without those endlessly articulated white fears, a Charlie Manson?

For my own part, I find the adaptation of O’Flaherty, by the picture’s star Julian Mayfield, its featured actress Ruby Dee, and Dassin himself, not only apt but cunning. Revolution was in the air then (as it damn well should be now, and shows few signs of being, save on the progressive left, liberals content to put on pink caps, denounce a monstrous egotist, snipe at that very left, and call themselves — presumably after watching The Force Awakens once too often — the “Resistance.”) And, pace Roger Ebert, revolutionary activities are very much a part of the novel, or why does O’Flaherty’s anti-hero Gyppo Nolan betray his friend Frankie Nolan in the first place? Gyppo is thrown out of the IRA for his inability to murder a Black and Tan as ordered, just as Up Tight’s protagonist, Tank Williams (Mayfield) is ejected from his revolutionary cell for his failure to assist in a robbery of arms that ends with the killing of a white security guard (and the legal implication of Tank’s best friend.)

Raymond St. Jacques - Up Tight

Raymond St. Jacques (center), Richard Williams (over St. Jacques’ shoulder) and (right) Janet MacLachlan meet in committee.

Betrayal, as a dramatic subject, requires no civil war or even its possibility, although it is in a political sense that it is perhaps most easily grasped. The wages do seem to fluctuate, however: 30 pieces of silver in the age of Judas Iscariot became 20 pounds in 1922; by the time of Up Tight they were a thousand dollars. Today they must hover around the half-million mark.

The amount hardly matters, of course; the sense of personal guilt in all three cases is where the drama lies. Like Frankie, Johnny Wells (Max Julien) is a fugitive, and Gyppo/Tank betrays his whereabouts to the police, leading directly to Johnny’s death. Tank is motivated in part by his love for Laurie (Ruby Dee) and his desire to get them both out of the poverty that has blighted their lives and the lives of her children, just as Gyppo commits his betrayal of Frankie to secure passage out of Ireland for himself and his love. And here the screenwriters of Up Tight up the ante, having the self-styled revolutionary leader B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques in an intelligent and coldly frightening performance) inform Tank that it was Johnny himself who recommended cutting his friend loose from what is called “the committee.” It is that sense of personal disloyalty (and we are never certain whether Johnny made that statement or not, although we would not be remiss in doubting it) that pushes Tank over the ethical edge into lethal stool-pigeonry.

Up Tight picture-101

The all-too studied arcade sequence.

In addition to the sometimes less-than-felicitous dialogue, Up Tight is saddled with occasional directorial flourishes that go horrendously wrong — I’m thinking in particular about the sequence in an over-lit arcade that is at once wildly theatrical and pictorially bizarre. A group of well-healed white liberals surrounds an inebriated Tank, begging to know when the revolution will take place. (One woman in particular seems, in her grinning, pleading fashion, to want to be a victim; it’s a peculiarly direct parody of the extremes of then-current white liberal guilt.) Tank is only too happy to spin an outrageous fantasy of dead telephone lines, beautiful black bank tellers informing their customers there is no money, and NASA moon-shots aborted by revolutionaries, and this outré sequence is capped by Tank and his avid listeners being reflected in fun-house mirrors, which puts all too blunt a point on the monologue’s satirical edge. Theatre of the Absurd meets filmmaking of the avant-garde school, and it’s that marriage, not the mating of O’Flaherty and late-‘60s revolution, that falls hideously flat.

Up Tight - Booker T Jones

The soundtrack album. Note Trauner’s remarkably detailed, thoroughly lived-in set.

Ebert in his contemporary review also faulted the sets by the redoubtable Alexandre Trauner, and the manner in which they were shot, by the splendid Boris Kaufman, complaining of the artificiality of the settings (he compared them, dismissively, to Catfish Row) and the extensive night shooting which, to him, rendered these sequences as somehow phony in comparison with the day shots of Cleveland’s steel mills, garbage dumps and earthworks. The critic forgot, or did not notice, that Up Tight is a story told largely at night, and for good reasons — intentions an aficionado of film noir would instantly understand, as they would also comprehend why so much of the outside action takes place in the rain that turns gutters into neon-illuminated garbage streams. Trauner’s contributions seem to me especially felicitous, particularly in Laurie’s ramshackle home, the dilapidated boarding house the embittered Tank simmers in and in the oppressive project where Johnny’s mother lives and which becomes the scene of the movie’s violent confrontation between its inhabitants and the Cleveland police. It should also be noted how well Booker T. Jones’ spare musical score (and occasional song) serves the picture, and how effective the animated titles by John and Faith Hubley are — although, oddly, their depictions of the young Tank and Johnny include a clear re-drafting of a famous 1960s Coca Cola ad featuring two young boys lying on their backs and, defying all laws of liquid gravity, sipping from glass soda bottles turned straight down and which, if you know it, may cause you to wonder how they got away without the image sans corporate lawsuit.

Uptight - Roscoe Lee Browne

Roscoe Lee Browne as Clarence spies his pigeon.

One of the more interesting curlicues in the narrative is the presence of a gay pusher and police informer called, variously, Clarence or Daisy, and played with amused panache by the marvelous Roscoe Lee Browne. The actor hardly underplays the character’s sexuality; indeed, when corrected by a white police commander over his use of the word “nigger” — the cop interjects, “Negro!” — a smiling Clarence replies, in those deliciously clipped tones of which Browne was a master, “No, sir. Nigger… stool pigeon… and faggot.” Yet, in spite of his elaborately (yet somehow tasteful) queer digs and the late presence of a somewhat hysterical young boyfriend, Browne’s Clarence is not nearly as contemptuously portrayed, or written, as any one of a phalanx of such figures cobbled up by white screenwriters, at the time and even much later. Clarence is no more despicable than Tank himself, or B.G., and considerably clearer in his conscience. Even when manhandled by B.G.’s enforcers, he displays no stereotypical, “feminine” cowardice. He stands up to it better than Tank does. One does wonder whether Browne had any input on the shaping of the role. An actor of exquisite dignity as well as diction — see The Liberation of L.B. Jones — he was himself gay, and I like to think he may have had some influence on the conception of Clarence who, while lounging about airily in a very brief bathrobe (and, incidentally, displaying a finely shaped pair of legs, as befits a former track star) never dips into caricature of the grotesque sort, all too often on display in movies of the period. If anything, he puts one of in mind of a slightly more flamboyant James Baldwin. (The blogger and critic Stephen Winter thinks the performance is a mesh of Baldwin and Jason Holliday, the subject of Shirley Clarke’s documentary A Portrait of Jason.)
http://www.talkhouse.com/loneliness-black-gay-moviegoer/

In any event, Browne’s is one of the very few such performances that, far from making you — as is usual — cringe, instead cause you to relish every moment he’s on the screen.

Up Tight teems with familiar names, although not all of them attach to specifically named characters, either in the end credits or at the usually fulsome imdb.
imdb.http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063748/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

The actress and trail-blazing black playwright Alice Childress — the very fine Trouble in Mind is hers — is listed, for example, but in what role? (I suspect she’s the smiling street preacher exhorting her flock in the rain, but I can’t be certain.) Michael Baseleon, as the now un-wanted white activist Teddy, has a good scene arguing with B.G. and Robert DoQui gets a very good sequence as a street speaker, with which he does wonders. Juanita Moore shows up all too briefly as Johnny’s understanding mother,* and Dick Anthony Williams (billed as Richard) does splendidly by Corbin, whose essential empathy is subsumed by his revolutionary aims. Frank Silvera contributes a superb supporting performance as Kyle, the voice of moderation, overwhelmed by the manner in which non-violent resistance crumbles in the face of exploding impatience of the sort Langston Hughes foresaw in his poem “Harlem” (“Or does it explode?”) Max Julien gives his brief appearances as Johnny an openness of expression that veers believably from rage at Tank’s failure to abet the robbery to, later, a gentle sweetness of spirit that suggest less an idealized revolutionary icon than a fully rounded human being. Janet MacLachlan, alas, playing his sister (and B.G.’s wife) Jeannie, is given by the writers a single mode to express— sneering fury — and is unable to overcome its limitations. On the extreme other hand, St. Jacques, looking especially handsome in full beard, limns a chilling portrait of the revolutionary whose otherwise admirable zeal has mutated into a rigid ideology that brooks no exceptions and that cuts him off from normal human emotions. Weakness is anathema to him, betrayal unforgivable. Comes the revolution, you feel, and B.G. will begin lining up for execution anyone he believes is less than 100% pure.

Ruby Dee - Up Tight! (1968)

The ever-glorious Ruby Dee as Laurie.

We expect Dee to deliver the goods, and she does, most notably in the late sequence in which Tank confesses to Laurie his involvement in Johnny’s violent death, after which she beats and scratches at him, flailing with her hands and fingers in a fury borne of equal parts grief and outrage. But Julian Mayfield, who was both a playwright and a novelist in addition to his work as an actor, is revelatory as Tank, infinitely more varied and moving than Victor McLaglen, who won the 1935 Academy Award® for his portrayal of Gyppo Nolan but who all too often in his screen roles becomes both brawling and bellicose, snarling one moment and brayingly riant the next. As Mayfield plays him, Tank is a man alienated by his times: Unprepared for the revolutionary fervor his best friend revels in, destroyed by his dismissal first from the only thing he loved without reservation (the steel mills) and later by the one substitution for it he can find (the committee.) Like Gyppo Nolan, Tank’s emotions too run the gamut, but Mayfield is more controlled, even in extremis, than McLaglen, and displays an actorly palette that suggests, poignantly, how fine a movie actor we lost when Up Tight failed at the box office. His own revolutionary concerns, and the usual fascistic surveillance of him by the FBI, may well have curtailed any such hopes all on their own; but that we will never know what he might have accomplished is, as it is always is in these cases, heartbreaking.

Julian Mayfield Up Tight! (1968)

The splendid Julian Mayfield. The depth of Tank’s pain can be easily read in those expressive eyes.

While Up Tight is necessarily dated, it, like the equally inflammatory The Spook Who Sat by the Door — and unless we as a nation begin to address the appalling inequities and sheer racism of a system whose passive consent to atrocity and active murderousness toward non-Caucasians has, since at least the 1980s, grown increasingly systemic — may prove prophetic.

The dream can only be deferred for so long. The explosion is overdue.

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*I’m reminded by the brevity of Moore’s role as Mrs. Wells of a remark made recently by, I think, Octavia Spencer, that winning an Oscar® actually diminishes one’s career: Producers who might offer a part to you, she says, decline because they think, holding a statuette, you won’t deign to take it. Or, perhaps, having been close to holding one: Moore, nominated for Imitation of Life in 1959, kept working into her 80s but never again in a role as important, or as showy.

 

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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Reckless: “Point of Order!” (1964) and “Citizen Cohn” (1992)

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Point of Order poster

By Scott Ross

If Roy Cohn had not existed, I can’t imagine why anyone would have invented him. The best one can do with such a composite figure of venality, avarice, hypocrisy, corruption and ethical rot is what Tony Kushner accomplished: To re-invent him, for dramatic purposes — as a symbol, yes, but as an appallingly human one. The great irony of Cohn’s life is that he should be best remembered as a character in an intellectual playwright’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” How the perfection of that would have rankled him!

Kushner’s Cohn is the prefect embodiment of self-loathing squeezed into bespoke Armani, a man who, even as he is stricken with “the gay plague” is able to justify himself to his physician with a monologue that sums up a sense of personal identity breathtaking in its blindness to reality:

“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels […] To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me? […] I have sex with men, but unlike nearly every other man of which this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to Washington, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand, because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.”

Paradoxically, the image of Cohn as something approximating a human being is encased, like a tsetse fly in mass-produced amber, in the kinescopes of the 1954 Army-McCarthy Hearings from which Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot concocted their mesmerizing 1964 Point of Order! I won’t call the picture a documentary, although it is certainly that, in the demotic sense of a living history. Rather the movie is a chronicle — a modern morality play if you like, one which carried with it the ultimate in unintended consequences. Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy, for whom he worked, expected these hearings to vindicate them, and to further their fruitless inquisition into alleged Communist infiltration of the government. That they were wholly unsuccessful in doing so, leaving only suicide and despair in their wake, was of no concern to them. They anticipated the televised hearings as spectacular in which they would star. The maxim “Be careful what you wish for” ought to have been hung over both men’s desks, but their preening arrogance was such that neither foresaw the ultimate outcome: Humiliation for both, and senate censure for “Tail Gunner Joe.”

McCarthy_Cohn

You can actually see, in the act of hubris that brings about their downfall, the moment when Cohn realized the jig was up: The instantly famous “Have you no decency, sir?” scene — for scene it most assuredly was — played in monologue by the Army’s counsel Joseph Welch. As McCarthy flails in the wake of the spontaneous burst of applause that erupts in the hearing room, desperately attempting to extricate himself from his own, neatly tailored straitjacket, a look of squirming panic crosses Cohn’s features. Whether, as some maintain, he warned McCarthy in advance not to attempt a smear of Welch’s colleague Fred Fisher, the squall of anguish that briefly grips Cohn at least conveys that McCarthy’s young counsel was smarter than his boss. McCarthy blunders on, and on, digging himself in deeper, unable to recognize (or perhaps realize) that he’s lost the entire war in that one moment of “recklessness and cruelty.”

That Welch was fully prepared for his seemingly spontaneous chiding of the Senator seems self-evident. That he was playing, far more expertly than the more seasoned McCarthy, directly to the television audience as well as to the spectators in that crowded hearing room (just as he defined himself, disingenuously, as a “simple lawyer” when he was quite obviously anything but) does not dilute the impact that moment had on its viewers, or indeed the way we respond to it now. If Ed Morrow’s “See it Now” exposé of McCarthy was the first nail in the junior Senator from Wisconsin’s political coffin, Welch’s indictment of him was the last.

Welch at Army-McCarthy hearings

The apotheosis of that “simple lawyer” routine was very likely a bit earlier, when, asked by McCarthy to define what a pixie is, Welch responds, with apparent good humor, “I would say that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy.” It got a good laugh, but there is something unsettling about it, as there was earlier, when, during discussion of an Army investigation into “homosexual behavior” on a Southern base, Senator after Senator fell over himself to be assured the encampment was not in his state. A pixie is more closely related to an elf (a characterization that rather fits Joseph Welch, twinkling merrily and making gentle witticisms) but the Army’s counsel surely knew that, in 1954, the word “fairy” would mean something entirely different to his audience. That he made that statement while cross-examining Cohn is telling. Welch may have been subtler than his adversary, but I don’t think he was any less devious or even — to use his own word — cruel.*

Curiously, close attention to Point of Order! causes the alert viewer to realize that, in purely legal terms, McCarthy and Cohn were often correct. More damningly, we are able to grasp, knowing the sort of man Roy Cohn was, that Secretary of Defense Robert Stevens almost certainly perjured himself when he denied Cohn had threatened him. Stevens dismisses as ridiculous the idea that Cohn could have promised to destroy both the President and the Army itself if he didn’t get his way on the treatment of draftee G. David Schine. But doesn’t what Cohn is alleged to have said sound like him?

McCarthy with Schine photo

The matter of Schine, which brought about the hearings themselves, is practically a Cohn special in itself. Whether or not he and Schine were intimate, as some have alleged, McCarthy’s counsel certainly took a strangely personal interest in the young hotel chain heir, attempting repeatedly to garner for his protégé cushy Army sinecures and intimating, in the stupidly and easily exposed cropped photo of Schine and Stevens, that the Secretary was obliging.

There was, in some quarters in 1964, criticism of deAntonio and Talbot for making less a documentary than something else. This is of course perfectly true, but not in the way their detractors meant. These commentators wanted their documentary straight, with point of view, narration, and camera manipulation. What the makers of Point of Order! had in mind was something entirely different: A document that makes its own statement, through the use of un-narrated, un-accented, found footage. It is, for example, surely no accident that, in sifting through what must, over the six-week period of those hearings, have been at least dozens of hours of footage, the then former Attorney General is glimpsed in the background multiple times, his patrician looks and perfect coiffure in notable attendance. The Kennedy acolytes don’t like to admit it, but Bobby worked for McCarthy. In this way, his presence reflects the very sort of (also hotly denied) neoliberal McCarthyism that currently has in its manic grip all manner and condition of supposed liberal Democrats.


That the footage excerpted by the makers of Point of Order! is so readily available makes the failures of Citizen Cohn (1992) all the more curious. Adapted by David Franzoni from Nicholas von Hoffman’s cleverly titled 1988 biography, the HBO movie is so cartoonish and gets things so spectacularly, terribly wrong, that one can be distracted from what’s good in it. But the worst of its excesses is its blatant ripping-off of Kushner’s epic, two-part masterwork. One of the playwright’s most deliciously theatrical conceits lies in the presence, in Cohn’s private hospital room, of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Not content with duplicating this device, Franzoni ups the ante, bringing in the shades of McCarthy, Welch, the elder Cohns, and even a black juror from Roy’s 1968 trial on a wide variety of charges. Although Citizen Cohn predates the Broadway premiere of Angels, the first play (Millennium Approaches) was printed in American Theatre magazine in 1990, so Franzoni’s appropriation of the device can hardly be a coincidence. Why Kushner didn’t sue over that one, I can’t imagine.†

Citizen Cohn - Woods

 

Some of the actors (notably Joseph Bologna as Walter Winchell, Lee Grant as Cohn’s mother, Joe Petruzzi as Cohn’s boyfriend Peter and David Marshall Grant as a Robert F. Kennedy sporting a ludicrous, wildly unkempt hairdo) succumb to the cartoon-like quality of the piece, and are lost. Others (Ed Flanders as Welch, Jeffrey Nordling as Schine, Pat Hingle as J. Edgar Hoover, Karen Ludwig as Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel Benzali as that old closet-queen Cardinal Spellman, Frances Foster and Novella Nelson as two women named Annie Lee Moss, and Allen Garfield as Abe Feller) underplay and thus fare considerably better. But it is up to Frederic Forrest (as Dashiell Hammett), John McMartin as a doctor, Josef Sommer as Cohn’s father, Tovah Feldshuh as one of his wronged clients, the wonderful Fritz Weaver as Senator Everett Dirksen and Daniel Hugh Kelly as the Congressman Neil Gallagher (who gives back to Hoover in spades what that hypocritical old fascist deals to him) to provide that special thespic something that, to be unutterably prosaic, qualifies as veritable gales of fresh air.

James Woods, as Cohn, gives one of his patented scenery-chewing performances. Ron Leibman and Al Pacino were also… I believe the polite phrase is “larger than life”… in the 1993 premiere and the 2003 telefilm (also produced for HBO) of Angels respectively. And while Pacino looks nothing like Cohn, even eschewing the man’s increasingly bald pate, his performance is so riveting and so true you forgive him everything. There is a smugness about Woods that breaks through his characterizations, and it’s really on parade here, even during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. The Cohn Americans saw on their television screens was, if voluble, quiet and almost gentle, aware of the cameras but never (unlike his boss) playing to them. Woods smirks and mugs to the veriest galleries.

Worse, the director, Frank Pierson, stages the now-infamous Welch cross-examination with utter disregard for how it played out in Washington. He has Cohn, during the “Have you no decency?” exchange, seated, not across from Welch but beside him. All to give Woods a big, showy moment of standing up and stalking out of the hearing room, to the sound of a standing ovation from the spectators for Welch that goes on and on and on; what was in history a brief, shocking explosion is reinvented as the cheers of a first-night audience screaming “Author!”

That isn’t merely bad filmmaking, it’s bad history.

It has Roy Cohn written all over it.

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*That Cohn also engaged in fag-baiting during the pernicious “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, helping to persecute other homosexual men, does not mitigate Welch’s snideness.

†Others did: Franzoni was the source, via a plagiarism suit against Spielberg and company over his screenplay, of the legal trouble that faced Amistad on its 1997 opening. He is also a screenwriter with a long and well-documented penchant of getting historical events absolutely wrong.

Text (other than Tony Kushner’s) copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

A wine not properly chilled: “Shalako” (1968)

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Shalako p3224_p_v8_aa

By Scott Ross

Shalako (1968) has a lot going for it, mostly what the filmmakers retained of the crisp little Louis L’Amour novel on which it is nominally — alas, not maximally — based, but it’s one of those exercises one regards more with sorrow than with anger.

Although no one, I think, not preternaturally deluded would deem L’Amour a great stylist — the original Shalako feels like a pulp novella padded out to full length by the use of very brief paragraphs — the scenarists were faced, as is always the case with any fiction of even minimal literary qualities, with insurmountable problems, the chiefest being that film is a literal medium. One cannot photograph thought, only an actor thinking — which I need hardly add is not the same thing. What L’Amour’s titular hero knows cannot be expressed in dialogue other than the most risibly self-conscious sort: How to read the signs of the earth about him, and to act accordingly. Shalako survives in his desert milieu because he thinks like an Indian. There’s some hint of this in Sean Connery’s likable, taciturn, performance, but hints, however expert, are not the same as tangible knowledge.

What was filmable was L’Amour’s rather ingenious central conceit: A genteel, largely European, hunting party in the Western desert, about to be set upon by a band of renegade Apaches led by Chato, up from Mexico. For reasons now lost, presumably, to the mists of time, the people behind Shalako ditched much of what the author had so generously set before them, and weakened thereby what little narrative thread existed in the source material. (They also — for budgetary reasons? — dropped the author’s sensible use of the Cavalry.) One senses a desire to portray the Natives in a slightly better light, by making the Whites’ violation, however inadvertent, of the treaty governing the reservation the reason for the attack. Yet in a prolonged, rather horrible sequence involving Honor Blackman, they managed to make the Indians far more brutal in act and aspect than would have been had the case had they followed L’Amour’s (admittedly somewhat threadbare) plotline. And this after virtually reprising Blackman’s roll-in-the-hay with Connery in Goldfinger, this time under the notably coarser persuasions of a black-hatted Stephen Boyd.

ABC FEATURE FILMS

The brutal, humiliating death of Honor Blackman.

Shalako himself is rendered more or less as L’Amour wrote him, albeit with no attempt to justify Connery’s own obvious European origins. A more inexplicable misstep than this, however, is the casting — or, more properly, miscasting — of Woody Strode, lately an equally ludicrous Mongol warrior for John Ford*, as Chato. But even this is not so disastrous a misstep as eliminating from the picture the role of the silent assassin Tats-ah-das-ay-go, spooked by overhearing Shalako’s mention of his name and engaging in a memorable climactic battle with him, which, while ferocious, somehow emerges as an affaire d’honneur, at the climax of which Shalako salutes him as a brother warrior. Instead, the screenwriters (there were three, seldom a good sign) and the author of the “screen story,” elect to stage the combat as between Strode and Connery only to, in an utterly preposterous narrative leap, have it called as a draw by Chato’s chief and father… following which the Indians simply ride away, leaving the survivors fresh horses to ride. I trust Shalako’s compatriots were as gob-smacked by this as the audience.

Shalako-poster

Connery, not reacting to the climax.

A number of good actors manage to acquit themselves more honorably, including Boyd (whose character in the novel suffers a far gorier fate than in the picture, one L’Amour, wisely, or in deference to the sensibilities of the time, merely sketches in), Blackman, Jack Hawkins (who, post-laryngectomy, was dubbed by Charles Grey), Alexander Knox, Peter Van Eyck, Julián Mateos and Valerie French. In the feminine lead, Brigitte Bardot is lovely, but I found her thick accent largely unintelligible. Interestingly, Blackman has the more interesting role, although it is almost a paradigm of movie stardom that she plays a supporting part; conversely, male actors, as their careers ascend, get younger and younger co-stars. Connery does get one nice, Bondian wisecrack in gentle mockery of his pedigreed hosts: Faced with a scavenged pot-luck dinner he dryly intones, “I hope at least the wine is properly chilled.”

Shalako - Boyd 15581_5

Stephen Boyd, as the cowardly villain. watches from safety as Blackman is dispatched.

There is also, at onset and finale, one of those terrible attempts at a hero-building ballad, sung by a Mitch Milleresque male choir of the sort one might reasonably have thought died in the 1950s. Producers in those days, of course, always thought in terms of potential hit singles; by 1968 the form was as passé as a coonskin cap. To note that the insipid lyric was penned by Jim Dale does no honor to him, so forget I mentioned it.

If the foregoing suggests that Shalako is a waste of time, I can’t say I was bored by it, merely a bit annoyed. While Edward Dmytyk’s direction is merely competent, the editing is rather good. But what distinguishes the picture is Ted Moore’s sumptuous widescreen photography. As one ages, and newer movies grow increasingly less interesting, adult and intelligent, there is no small pleasure in watching a picture of less recent vintage that — even if ultimately lacking — in cinematographic terms anyway, satisfies through a rich palette and expansive photographic techniques. They remind you of the enjoyment even a minimally successful enterprise held when it was put together by professionals who were at least attempting to get at something. Since I can’t conceive of how L’Amour’s book could be successfully filmed, call Shalako less a missed opportunity than a hock improperly distilled.

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*In the interesting 7 Women (1967) which was, sadly, Ford’s last picture.

 

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross