Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: January – March 2019

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By Scott Ross

Nothing I’ve seen so far this year has elicited in me a great desire to write a full review. Hence this installment of minis.

The Man from Larrabee (1955)
The sixth and final collaboration between James Stewart and the director Anthony Mann is a solid adult Western, although not a patch on their best work together. It’s based on a well-regarded novel by Thomas T. Flynn, originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, and with a screenplay credited to Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. Burt was a frequent contributor to Stewart’s splendid, short-lived radio series The Six-Shooter; Yordan was one of the busiest fronts of the blacklist era, but as he claimed authorship of any number of disputed scripts whose actual writers later challenged his participation, it’s anyone’s guess whether he wrote a word of this one, or who else might have. The credit itself is less urgent than that the material begins promisingly and, while never less than intelligent, devolves irredeemably into melodrama — probably because there is simply too much plot for one brief movie to contain. Stewart, seeking the seller of rifles to Apaches (and whose Cavalry brother has died as a result) finds himself at loggerheads with an isolated town’s wealthiest and most powerful family of ranchers, led by Donald Crisp, secretly going blind and haunted by recurring dreams in which a stranger murders his arrogant son (Alex Nicol). His foreman (Arthur Kennedy), meanwhile, struggles to make his worth clear to the old man while battling the owner’s spoiled, impulsive progeny. And that’s not to mention the son’s fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell), nor Crisp’s nearest rival (Aline MacMahon), who has an agenda of her own. You see what I mean about the overlarded plot? Stewart, Crisp, Kennedy and MacMahon acquit themselves admirably, Jack Elam shows up as a villainous ranch-hand, Charles Lang’s Technicolor and CinemaScope photography is sumptuous, George Duning contributed a fine score, and Mann’s direction is both taut and expansive. Unfortunately, their combined efforts don’t add up to much. Interestingly, Mann later began another Stewart Western, the deeply disappointing Night Passage and quit, feeling — quite rightly — that the thing was “trash.” Mann was entirely correct; had the finished movie hewn closer to Norman A. Fox’s very effective short novel, it might have been an ideal picture for him, and for Stewart.

Bend of the River (1953)
This one is everything The Man from Laramie isn’t. Based on the 1950 novel Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulick (whose later The Hallelujah Train is perhaps the wittiest and most delightful Western novel ever written) it features a finely-wrought screenplay by the redoubtable Borden Chase, stunning cinematography by Irving Glassberg of the Oregon wilderness (the glimpses of the Mt. Hood area are especially mouth-watering), a rousing Hans J. Salter score, tight Anthony Mann direction, a compelling story and terrific central performances by James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy — although the latter plays what amounts to a precursor of his The Man from Laramie character. The picture concerns the efforts of a former border-raider turned scout (Stewart) to supply a wagon-train of homesteaders with the crucial provisions they need to survive their first Oregonian winter. Somehow that précis makes the thing sound deadly, but it isn’t; the movie is done with the intelligence, humor and dramatic integrity that mark Gulick’s work, and at 91 minutes it’s self-contained and compelling. There’s a spectacularly effective climactic gun battle, and the fine supporting cast includes Julie Adams, Jay C. Flippen, Rock Hudson, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano and Frances Bavier. In such company you don’t even mind the presence of Stepin Fetchit.

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The Hot Rock (1972)
William Goldman, a longtime admirer of Donald E. Westlake’s comic caper novels, wrote this one, a transliteration of the first in Westlake’s ingenious Dortmunder series (originally planned, curiously, as a “Parker” novel for the author’s grittier non de plume Richard Stark.) Goldman’s screenplay is a model of adaptation: Everything that makes the book work is there, perfectly trimmed to screen-time, with very little interpolation from the screenwriter, and no fat whatsoever. Goldman’s script deviates in minor ways, and they only add to the pleasure: First by giving Dortmunder an ulcer — a comic invention I’m surprised Westlake never thought of — and second by letting his crew emerge triumphant; his ending is so perfectly realized it makes you grin in appreciation. (Although I am not widely read in the Dortmunder novels, those I have assayed invariably end with the team losing its illegal quest in some ironic manner. Goldman upends this, and you’re grateful for the deviation.) The entire picture, wittily directed by Peter Yates, generates goodwill; you know from the first scene that you’re in good hands, and that allows you to relax and enjoy the ride. It helps too that the characters are comically idiosyncratic but never cute or self-consciously “wacky.” The plot concerns the theft, for an African delegate (Moses Gunn, wry and very funny) of a fabulous gem; once the caper is pulled off, it runs into seemingly endless complications. Robert Redford is Dortmunder, too smart for his makeshift crew of hapless would-be jewel thieves but too desperate, and maybe too essentially decent, to do any better. His cohorts are George Segal, Ron Leibman and Paul Sand; Charlotte Rae has a good cameo as Leibman’s mother(!), with whom he listens to race track recordings; and Zero Mostel makes a kosher feast of his role as a duplicitous lawyer (or am I being redundant?) whom Goldman slyly promotes from the Sand character’s uncle to his father. Quincy Jones composed a spritely earworm of a main theme in march cadence, and the picture is one of those time-capsule movies that vividly capture the New York of the period: For example, during an unsettlingly vertiginous open helicopter trip (Leibman says he was terrified) we catch long glimpses of the World Trade Center, then nearing completion. Surprisingly, considering Redford’s ascendancy at the time, The Hot Rock lost money on its release. Seeing it now, you can’t imagine why; it’s one of the cheeriest caper movies ever made, sunny and amusing. Watching it makes you feel happy and refreshed — good all over.

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True Crime
(1999)
There was an interesting movie in the journalistic story behind this one, but it was completely transformed between reality and realization, and not I think for the better. I presume the people who made it (Clint Eastwood, the director and star; the credited screenwriters, Larry Gross and Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff — as well as Andrew Klaven, on whose novel it was based) saw the story of a dogged journalist’s painstaking investigation of a miscarriage of justice as too prosaic and mundane: There was only one man’s freedom at stake, after all. The stakes, so beloved of the Hollywood suits, were duly raised, the central premise made more urgent by an innocent man’s impending execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s a schizophrenic movie; its central narrative is compelling and often defeats second-guessing, yet its arc is itself a cliché and the picture is cavalier in its sudden devolution into superman-type heroics and an anguished inner-city grandmother’s instant conversion to Eastwood’s comic sidekick. At the same time, the filmmaking is often so assured the damn thing almost works. Eastwood, however, was far too mature at this point in his career to play the serial cocksman, and the sight of him with his shirt off is no longer arousing — it’s distracting. If he wasn’t also the director, it would even seem cruel: You’re not enjoying the sensuality, you’re counting the folds in his flesh. And at 69 the former sex symbol looks years older. If the women with whom he consorts were as superannuated as he is, there might have been some poignancy to the enterprise. As it stands, his womanizing is just embarrassing. Eastwood’s character, a once-celebrated reporter named Steve Everett, behaves as if he considers himself catnip to the distaff. This too could carry a certain frisson, if the movie made us aware of how hollow that conceit is. Instead, the young women he hits on, even as they’re turning down his threadbare seductions, grin at him as if they’re flattered by the old rake’s attention. The actor had also, at that point, lost so much of the almost feline grace he’d exhibited in his prime that when he walks across a room you’re aware that the parts no longer move the way they once did. It happens to us all, of course, but most of us aren’t operating under the merciless glare of arc-lights and widescreen cameras. There’s some good acting here, however, especially by James Woods as Everett’s indulgent editor; Denis Leary, subdued for once as the supervisor itching for a reason to fire Everett; Lisa Gay Hamilton as the grieving wife of the accused; Diane Venora as Everett’s long-suffering mate; Hattie Winston as the grandmother of a deceased felon; Bernard Hill as a prison warden; Michael Jeter as a weasely, unreliable witness; Frances Fisher as an angry D.A.; and little Francesca Eastwood as Everett’s tiny daughter. As the condemned man, Isaiah Washington is astonishing. He’s so good, so sure-footed in his emotional responses to the insupportable, you wish the movie that surrounds him was as deep as his characterization; his reaction to seeing his young daughter for the last time is raw and unforgettable. True Crime isn’t a disaster by any means, but it’s sure an oddity.

Any Given Sunday (1999) I’ve always thought televised football was at once stupid, loud, overlong and boring. Amazingly, it took the considerable and combined talents of John Logan and Oliver Stone to deliver an equally stupid, loud, overlong and boring movie about the game. There are two central stories, involving, primarily, a Miami franchise head coach (Al Pacino) and his struggle to hold onto his job and, secondarily, concentrating on a rising young star quarterback (Jamie Foxx) who first becomes an arrogant show-off and then must learn to be a humble team-player by the play-out. There are also sub-plots involving an aging team captain (Dennis Quaid) nursing a potentially debilitating injury and the team’s embattled owner and general manager (Cameron Diaz), and the characters include a duplicitous team physician (James Woods), a veteran linebacker with a cortisone addiction (Lawrence Taylor) and an egomaniacal sports reporter (the odious John C. McGinley, doing his usual overbaked caricature). Shall I go on? If all you want is two and a half hours of scabrous people and their petty problems and rivalries, or have always hoped to see a detached human eyeball in bloody close-up, Any Given Sunday is for you.

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W (2008)
Oliver Stone was, ludicrously, slanged in 2008 for not making George W. Bush more of a caricature, and for sympathizing with his central character. That succumbing to the former is the sign of a hack or a satirist (all too often the same thing) and that embrace of the latter is the primary job of a dramatist does not seem to have occurred to the partisans among Stone’s critics. To take on the first accusation: How much more may an artist caricaturize a man who is already a walking self-parody? Stone’s Bush, as written by the scenarist Stanley Weiser and enacted by the redoubtable Josh Brolin is, it seems to me, George W. to the life: Belligerent, untutored, ill-informed, appallingly ignorant — narcissistic in the proscribed macho manner of the Texas playboy who has seldom, if ever, heard the word “no” and been forced to comply with it. To address the second allegation: Although Bush as a man is not as complex as the 37th President of the United States, nor as essentially and tragically bifurcated, this indictment was also leveled at Stone in 1995 when Nixon premiered, and was no more legitimate then. Again, only a parodist or a creative hack reduces his subject to abject villainy. Was Shakespeare traduced for locating the humanity in both Caesar and Brutus? Do we not in part respond to Citizen Kane precisely because Orson Welles offered him in more than a single dimension? And while W is not as ultimately plangent, or as moving, as Nixon, it is certainly nothing to whinge or sneer at. It encapsulates and anatomizes its subject in sharp and often very amusing vignettes that hint strongly at the central emptiness within its eponymous subject. Is that, somehow, the same as bestowing laurels on him? The only area in which I think Stone errs is in his and Weisner’s conception of George H.W., and in their casting of James Cromwell, who neither looks nor sounds like the elder Bush. If any member of the dynasty depicted here deserves vilification, surely it is Bush Senior, that unrepentant liar, conscienceless CIA operative (who claimed, like Nixon, not to remember where he was on the day Kennedy was murdered) and un-indicted war criminal. Ellen Burstyn comes off much better as Barbara Bush, but then, the woman herself scarcely seemed to deserve the unholy brood she gave birth to. Richard Dreyfuss makes an appropriately serpentine Dick Cheney, alternately sneering and bullying. (Although he and Stone apparently differed on the characterization.) The always splendid Scott Glenn gives a good account of Donald Rumsfeld, Toby Jones provides a correspondingly fine embodiment of the Pecksniffian Karl Rove, and Stacey Keach is fascinatingly ambiguous in a role that was conceived as a composite of several of Bush’s spiritual advisors… whose collective failure with their charge is all too obvious and instructive.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
Interestingly, this sequel to the 1987 Wall Street is richer and more entertaining than its predecessor, at least until the wholly unnecessary — and utterly unbelievable — climax. The last-minute deus ex machina conversion of the merrily amoral Gordon Gekko rends the fabric of his character: Although he’s appalling, his actions have a unity that renders him whole; turning him into a penitent fairy godfather smacks either of studio interference, or a last-minute cowardice on someone’s part. Because we’re unsure of him through most of the picture, Michael Douglas becomes mesmerizing. And when, near the end, he reveals himself as wholly unchanged, the effect is both delicious and sick-making. It makes that sudden reversal a betrayal of the character, and of our apprehension of him. Shia LaBeouf is a more benign version of the Charlie Sheen character in the first movie (Sheen himself makes a cameo), although I think overall he’s a rather limited actor. Josh Brolin has a good role as LeBeouf’s nemesis, Carey Mulligan is permitted a wide range of emotional response as Gekko’s estranged daughter, Susan Sarandon has a few juicy scenes as LeBeouf’s mother, and Eli Wallach is as usual a deft delight as a high-rolling old financier. Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff wrote the mostly (until that unfortunate climax) intelligent screenplay, Rodrigo Prieto provides some lovely cinematography, and Oliver Stone directs not as if he’s taken on an obligation but as though the subject is fresher with him now than it was 23 years earlier, proving that Thomas Wolfe’s famous dictum concerning staging a return is not a universal truth.

Snowden
Snowden
(2016)
One of the least seen of Oliver Stone’s important pictures, Snowden sits on the shelf with the writer-director’s explorations of American governmental power (JFK, Nixon, W.) and, like Nixon, is both intelligently written and surprisingly moving. Perhaps audiences in 2016 already thought they knew the Snowden story; if they were consuming the Western corporate media’s coverage of his announcement, they didn’t, and don’t. Stone and his co-scenarist, Kieran Fitzgerald, depict Edward Snowden as an exceptionally bright young man of conventional conservative bent, “patriotic” in the way of so many American youths who have incorporated the deliberate inculcation of their public schools, a passive press and all-too active governmental indoctrination into their view of the world. His gradual awakening to the means by which — and the lengths to which — his employers are able, and willing, to go to infiltrate every aspect of his fellow Americans’ lives, and his determination to expose both, form the core of the narrative. (The screenplay was based in part on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. That Harding has since allowed the Clinton machine’s absurd claims of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election to unhinge him completely should, one supposes, not mitigate his former good work.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as the eponymous anti-hero, and however much one might deplore the reactive manner of Snowden’s thinking, Gordon-Levitt’s performance conveys the young man’s basic decency and kindness as well as his slow awakening in wholly explicable terms. It was the role many of us who have admired this gifted young actor since his sitcom years were waiting for, and it’s a genuine pity that so few have seen it, and that he received no major award nominations for it. Shailene Woodley is equally fine as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, as are the superb Melissa Leo as the documentarian Laura Poitras and Zachary Quinto as the irreplaceable (and un-repressible) Glenn Greenwald. Nicolas Cage plays a character suggested by the estimable former National Security analyst — and fellow whistle-blower — Bill Binney, and Snowden himself appears briefly at the end of the picture. Craig Armstrong’s musical score is a strong asset, as is Anthony Dod Mantle’s rich cinematography and the kinetic editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy. The ultimate willingness of one so young to leave behind his life, love and family in the furtherance of an ideal becomes quietly devastating, and for this, Stone is to be commended. Yet it is a measure of the contempt in which Oliver Stone is held by the government stenographers who now comprise the ranks of corporate journalism that a movie as vital and important as Snowden received far less press than a lumbering exercise like Any Given Sunday. And it is equally illustrative of where the American movie audience is now that Sunday was a hit domestically, Snowden a flop.


Born on the Fourth of July
(1988)
I missed this picture when it was new, owing partly to my perpetual aversion to its star, but had I seen it in 1988 I suspect I would have appreciated it more. I had attempted, a few years before, to get through Ron Kovic’s memoir, but was defeated by its grim and seemingly unremitting horror. Now that I have read it, Oliver Stone’s adaptation (written with Kovic) almost seems to affirm some of the criticisms often leveled at his work as sensationalist and excessive. In the main I do not agree with the opprobrium with which Stone is so frequently assaulted, but Born on the Fourth of July all too obviously embodies those faults others — admittedly, and largely, his political opponents —invariably see in Stone. Kovic’s book is so vivid, incendiary and felt, it scarcely required embellishments like the wholly fictitious Kara Sedgwick character, or Tom Cruise’s romantic run-through-the-rain-to-the-prom. It most especially did not need the sequence in which he and Willem Dafoe (in, again, a role for whom there is no antecedent in Kovic’s life) roll around on the Mexican sand and argue over whose claims of baby-killing are the most true. Even such incidents as Kovic’s shattering his leg and nearly losing it are turned, by Stone, into vulgar, overstated show-pieces (he was merely exercising his useless limbs at home, not parading around in a demented attempt to prove he could walk) and when, at the climax, Kovic is beaten by cops at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, Stone cheats fact by turning it into Kovic’s heroic last-stand when the reality — he was brutally assaulted by para-military creeps who, when they finally realized he was, as he’d been telling them, a wounded vet, behaved with shame-faced obsequiousness — was so much more inherently and honestly dramatic. Wouldn’t that make a better sequence than presenting Kovic as storming (or anyway, wheeling) back into the convention hall to “take” it, a cinematic fantasy that manifestly did not occur? That sort of phony uplift is contemptible, and beneath a man of Stone’s gifts. I will grant that the picture brings up a subject Americans do not like to address, and which Kovic’s book repeatedly rubs our noses in: The sudden emasculation of the sexually incapacitated. That such lifelong impotence is routinely visited on one so young is one of the great, unspoken tragedies of war. Cruise is, as usual, insufferably over-dramatic, an amateur actor who only knows how to perform when the scene calls for overt, hectoring anger. One of the few unadulterated pleasures of the picture is the performance of Raymond J. Barry as Kovic’s gentle, shattered father, unable to cope with the wreck his country has made of his child. There’s dignity in that, and quiet honesty. It’s something Born on the Fourth of July could use more of.

Lord Love a Duck - Gordon and McDowall
Lord Love a Duck (1966)
George Axelrod and Larry H. Johnson’s determinedly strange adaptation of a little-known novel by Al Hine is the last thing in “mod” era outré. The great Roddy McDowall, nearing 40 but playing — somehow believably — 18 is Alan “Mollymauk” Musgrave, a young genius and idiosyncratic non-conformist, who plays everyone around him against each other (and themselves) in furtherance of the attainment of the vacuous desires of his unrequited inamorata Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld). Axelrod threw all of his bitterness at then-current California popular culture onto the screen, with results that are less riant than determinedly, even dementedly, weird. Thus we get health fads, psycho-babble and smother-love (all embodied by Ruth Gordon), drive-in religious services, physical culture, fly-by-night motion picture production, permissive educational policy (Harvey Korman, in the movie’s funniest performance, is the easily-manipulated, shame-facedly lecherous high school principal), the pathos of the almost-was actress as hopeless lush (Lola Albright as Weld’s mother), cliquish snobbery and, for good measure, repressed and guilty incestuous craving (Max Showalter, giggling guiltily as her father). It doesn’t really hang together, and it’s not nearly either as hilarious nor as poignant as Axelrod seemed to think it was, but it has cult status, and if you’re at all interested in what was happening to the movies in that uncertain period between buttoned-down suppression and full-scale candor, it demands a viewing. Interestingly, Axelrod intended us to hear McDowall screaming “Fuck you!” at his captors during the bizarre climax but was overruled. The shattering of that taboo had to wait another few years, for Robert Altman to include a football game ad-lib by John Schuck in his final cut of MASH.

 

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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