She went through my soul: “Poltergeist” (1982)


By Scott Ross

A catch-phrase that really caught on.

A catch-phrase that really caught on.

For every avid filmgoer there are those rare, popular movies whose first viewings are so powerful they alter the contours of experience. For this viewer, Poltergeist was one of the most indelible.

If, as I do, you love good horror movies, or ghost stories, your love is apt to be largely un-requited, and disappointed on a fairly regular basis. There simply have not been enough great ones. There are those that make an enormous impact on the wider culture but which, over time, can seem nugatory at best, ludicrous at worst. The 1931 Dracula is a fine (or rather, not so fine) example of the phenomenon. Seen today, this early talkie is beset by the technical limitations of the nascent sound-film; static dialogue sequences, stilted performances, and great long periods of sleep-inducing ennui. Stack Bela Lugosi’s hammy, self-regarding turn as the Count against Boris Karloff’s magnificent, shockingly sympathetic performance as Frankenstein’s Creature that same year, and its deficiencies become almost overwhelming. The only performer who really registers in Dracula is the unfortunate Dwight Frye, doomed as he was to increasingly minor roles, as Renfield; he’s as over-the-top as Lugosi, but his bizarre inflections and terrifyingly mad grin stay with you.

Dwight Frye

Dwight Frey as Renfield.

The master list of truly great horror movies, alas, adds up to a paltry few: Frankenstein; King Kong (1933); The Invisible Man (1933); The Bride of Frankenstein (1935); The Thing (from Another World) (1951); Dead of Night (1945; the influential ventriloquist sequence starring Michael Redgrave, anyway); a few of the RKO Val Lewtons (the 1942 Cat People and the 1945 The Body Snatcher especially); the 1960 Hamer Brides of Dracula (if only for Peter Cushing’s jaw-dropping self-cauterization of the vampire’s bite); Psycho (1960, although it’s less a horror picture per se than an all-too human, contemporary shocker); Rosemary’s Baby (1968), less horrific than unsettling, especially if you’re a woman who has ever experienced or even contemplated pregnancy, and far funnier than was noted at the time; perhaps Planet of the Apes (1968); The Legend of Hell House (1971); The Exorcist (1973); Jaws (1975); Carrie (1976); Alien (1979); Dressed to Kill (1980); the woefully under-seen The Changeling (1980) and Wolfen (1981); Fright Night (1985); Aliens (1986); The Silence of the Lambs (1990), more police procedural, perhaps, than outright horror, and what you don’t see is more chilling than what you do; Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and The Sixth Sense (1999). Television managed to produce two masterworks in The Night Stalker and Duel (both 1971), one very good, if desperately truncated adaptation of a Stephen King (IT, 1990) and although I haven’t seen the Jack Palance Dracula, about which I hear good things, very little else since.  (It’s a mark of real deficiency in the genre to note that horror’s most successful late 20th century practitioner has had so few good adaptations. Aside from Carrie, most of the 1983 Cujo and parts of the generally ludicrous 1980 Kubrick edition of The Shining, Stephen King’s work has produced only one great transliteration — and, at that, not a horror picture at all: Frank Darabont’s 1994 The Shawshank Redemption. There is something certifiably wrong with the people who make these things, that King’s batting average as a source is so undernourished.)

I recognize that I’ve left off this list a number of accepted “classics” of the genre — The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920); London After Midnight (1927); Black Sunday (1960); The Innocents (1961); Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978); The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) — and can only offer the feeble but nonetheless binding excuse that I’ve never seen them. (I did see part of one Elm Street sequel, and that was plenty.) I also realize I’ve omitted any number of movies others love. The simple explanation is, I don’t happen to share the enthusiasm of the mavens for items like the following, whatever their individual or incidental accomplishments: The 1925 Phantom of the Opera (despite Lon Chaney’s extraordinary performance, and unforgettably grotesque appearance); The Mummy (1932); Freaks (1932, whose final image is so disturbing I cannot bring myself to watch the movie a second time… and what is the use of a “classic” you can’t bear to see again?); The Island of Lost Souls (1932); The Uninvited (1944), to which Poltergeist owes an obvious debt; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); the deeply unpleasant Peeping Tom (1960); Village of the Damned (1960); The Birds (1963); The Tomb of Ligeia (1964); and The Haunting (1963), which despite fine work by Julie Harris and Claire Bloom and that memorable breathing door, isn’t a patch on Shirley Jackson’s superb novel except in its re-characterization of the parapsychologist’s wife, in the book is a caricaturish, meddlesome battle-ax.

Others are good but, by larger or smaller degrees, manage to skirt greatness: The Barrymore Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920); The Old Dark House (1932); The Wolf Man (1941), hobbled as it is by the appallingly amateurish performance of Lon Chaney, Jr.; perhaps the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (if you ignore its reactionary McCarthy-ite allegory… or is it anti-McCarthy?); The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957); Theatre of Blood (1973, which is ultimately too mean-spirited to be wholly enjoyable); Hallowe’en (1978, fatally marred by the supernatural implications at the end); the satirical 1978 Philip Kaufman version of Body-SnatchersAn American Werewolf in London (1981); The Company of Wolves (1984); the funny-frightening Arachnophobia (1990); Neil Jordan’s elegant Anne Rice adaptation Interview with a Vampire (1994); and, perhaps, Tim Burton’s 1999 Washington Irving fantasia Sleepy Hollow, or even his and John Logan’s very effective 2007 adaptation of the Sondheim-Wheeler Sweeney Todd.

Similarly, while I love it with an affection one reserves for Three Stooges shorts, Deep Rising (1998) can hardly be counted among the masterworks in the field any more than its writer-director Stephen Sommers’ later Mummy movies. And while there are horror comedies I hold in esteem — Bob Hope’s 1940 romp The Ghost-Breakers, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), Ghostbusters (1984), Beetlejuice (1988), even the 1974 Young Frankenstein — these must be accounted as special institutions and not really what we mean when we talk about great horror movies.

The foregoing is to suggest both the paucity of really satisfying cinematic horror, and why Poltergeist was, and remains, a high-water mark for the genre — for me. One of the sharpest and most informed movie admirers I know found it “studied.” (But then, he also loves the later Kubrick, the last word on “studied” as far as I’m concerned, so caveat emptor.)

I first saw the picture in early June, just after its opening. It was a weeknight, so the theatre was largely empty; but one small gaggle of teenagers more than made up for the sparse audience, hooting and yakking throughout the first reel. I was on the verge of heading to the lobby to complain when the tree smashed through the window of the children’s bedroom and all Hell broke loose. After that, I never heard a peep from those kids. And that goes some way to suggesting the stunning power of that sequence, which the filmmakers had painstakingly prepared us for during the movie’s first 20 minutes (is that what my friend meant by “studied”?) yet which burst with a suddenness and intensity that was genuinely shocking.

Tobe Hooper, who the credits tell us directed the movie, was widely suspected of being little more than a figurehead on the production, to the point that its producer (and story author) Steven Spielberg took out an ad in Variety to quell the rumors. But Spielberg’s imprint on Poltergeist is not merely evident in its pace and lighting (that tell-tale kukaloris!) but in the way the characters and their milieu are introduced. The first reel of the movie bears an aura similar to sequences of domesticity in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Fathers, mothers and children in everyday interaction, warm but not idealized. The Freelings — low-key father Stephen (Craig T. Nelson), earthy mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), eye-rolling teenager Dana (Dominique Dunne), overly sensitive son Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and adorable but not precocious youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) — are normal to the point of being mundane, yet strikingly individualized and almost documentary in their casual, ad-libbed normality; their suburban world is bordered by cookie-cutter architecture, Star Wars posters on the children’s walls… and the cathode tube.

Carol Anne meets

Carol Anne meets “The TV People.”

Indeed our first important image is of a television, Stephen sprawled out a chair in front of it, asleep, as the broadcast day ends. (Younger viewers may have to have that concept, and the pre-signoff playing of the National Anthem, explained to them; they’ve never known anything except the 24-hour cycle.) And the picture ends with Dad, in a credulity-stretching yet emotionally satisfying moment, banishing the TV from the Freeling’s motel room. Spielberg said the movie was his “revenge on television,” and he wasn’t kidding. Stephen and a neighbor nearly come to blows over control of their remotes, and the small screen, as in so many American households, is ubiquitous; it’s on in every room in which there is a set. Its banalities infect everything; as Diane makes a bed, she’s singing, not the latest pop hit but a then-current Miller Beer jingle. And it is from the television that un-welcome visitors first make themselves known to the little girl and, later, violently forge a portal to the interior walls of the Freeling home. (Side-note: The inclusion in one scene of a clip from A Guy Named Joe is not merely an in-joke for those who know Spielberg’s identification with it; the discussion of the intersection between life and death is very much germane to Poltergeist.)

The portal opens...

The portal opens…

The opening sections play up this ordinariness bordering on banality… until, at breakfast, some odd things happen: Robbie’s milk glass shatters as he’s holding it, and his silverware curls while he’s not looking. Still, there’s nothing spectacular at play until that spine-chilling moment when Diane turns back to the dining area to see all the chairs stacked on the table. What makes the incident especially startling is the way Hooper keeps Williams and O’Rourke in view throughout; only when Diane turns back and gasps do we see what she does. (I clocked this; the crew had fewer than 7 seconds to remove the chairs around the table and place the stacked ones on top of the table. Even presuming the second batch of chairs were glued together, that’s still pretty impressive.) It’s this pleasurable little shock that let me know, in 1982, that I was seeing something very different from the normal run of spook-fests.


The first of many startling moments. Diane: The… TV people? Carol Anne: Un-huh.

Another of Poltergeist‘s prime assets, one that puts it far above the usual run of escapist entertainment, is the lived-in, almost vérité quality of the acting. Much of the dialogue in the early sequences has the same ad-libbed feel that gave the domestic scenes in Jaws their verisimilitude — a sense of reality that grounds the characters and that makes the terror, when it explodes, all the more shocking. In private, Stephen and Diane josh each other with an ease of long standing, and the children (young Oliver Robbins especially) perform with a naturalness seldom seen in a major Hollywood production. That Spielberg, whatever his unofficial function here (he is reputed to have been on set nearly every day of the shoot, and Zelda Rubinstein claimed he directed all of her scenes) has a special affinity for, and with, children was evident as early as Jaws, but not even the kids in E.T. have quite the unaffected spontaneity Robbins, Dunne and O’Rourke exhibit here. (Although the children in Close Encounters were every bit as believable.) Robbins’ reaction to realizing he’s hearing Carol Anne’s voice coming from inside the television is so good it brings chills; anyone who’s ever been so frightened he or she could not produce speech, let alone a cry (“Scream, ladies and gentlemen! Scream for your lives!”) will recognize the phenomenon instantly. It’s one I’d never seen done quite so well in a movie before and have since only seen as convincingly once (Laura Dern in another Spielberg, Jurassic Park.)


Robbie “finds” Carol Anne. Young Oliver Robbins is almost preternaturally good in this sequence.

Although my library includes a fairly extensive collection of movie “novelizations,” I don’t think I’ve actually read one in 30 years or more. But I sat down with James Kahn’s Poltergeist “tie-in” recently, and found it remarkably fulsome, and markedly different from the finished picture. Unusually, its cover proclaims it as “Based on the Story by Stephen Spielberg and the Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor” rather than merely the latter. Kahn’s narrative deviates only in that it contains much about the parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight in the movie) and a great deal more about Tangina Barrons, who in Spielberg’s original conception was a woman haunted by her psychic gift, going forth through astral projection to do battle with what she calls “The Beast” on the plain of existence in which little Carol Anne Freeling is trapped. It’s fascinating, and makes Tangina much more central to the narrative; it also reassures the reader about her motives, which in the movie as shot are slightly ambiguous. (Kahn’s source might have been Spielberg’s earlier story-draft, which he eventually conflated with the work of Grais and Victor for the final screenplay.) As it turned out, introducing Lesh and Tangina separately, and after Carol Anne’s disappearance, suits a more streamlined, less amorphous, approach. And here we come to one of the movie’s great strengths: Beatrice Staright’s superb performance.

Martin Casella, Beatrice Straight and Richard Lawson encounter the restless spirits inhabiting the children's bedroom.

Martin Casella, Beatrice Straight and Richard Lawson encounter the restless spirits inhabiting the children’s bedroom.

Dr. Lash and Diane are dumb-struck by what's coming their way.

Dr. Lash and Diane are dumb-struck by what’s coming their way.

Viewers of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network had already seen Straight’s stunning rendition of a monologue of grief, anger and rhetorical flourish — although brief, the role, and her reading of it, won her an Oscar. I believe she’s even better in Poltergeist, not least because she’s on screen longer. Dr. Lesh calls upon Straight to exude intellectual rigor, professional competence, mounting terror, and deep, embracing warmth in equal measure. She is, in a way, the beating heart of the movie. She has a couple of reactions in Poltergeist that I treasure (her look of shock on seeing Carol Anne’s room in a state of full possession, and the way her hand flutters to her face when the full extent of the Freeling’s un-welcome visitation is made manifest) but her finest scene of masterfully sustained acting is the one in which she talks, in a whisper, to Diane and Robbie. It’s an annealing sequence, beautifully acted, that brings a kind of desperately needed respite from all the supernatural goings-on which precede, and succeed, it. It’s also splendidly written, which is not something one expects, or very often gets, at a spook movie.

Beatrice Straight, as the parapsychologist frightened out of her wits. The lovely sequence in which she whispers the nature of hauntings to little Oliver Robins, is a small master-class in luminous acting.

Beatrice Straight, as the parapsychologist frightened out of her wits. The lovely sequence in which she whispers the nature of hauntings to little Oliver Robins, is a small master-class in luminous acting.

The women of Poltergeist are exceptionally strong, as written and performed, and share a bond that does not extend to the male characters. Diane becomes, in a sense, Supermom by the climax, willing herself through sheer, terrified determination. But Dr. Lesh and (to a smaller but no less plangent extent) Tangina act as surrogate mothers to her as well; the older women’s embraces comfort and sustain her. This intensely feminine aspect went largely un-remarked upon at the time of the movie’s release, but I’ve always felt it lies at the very center of the narrative, and is an essential part of its effectiveness. Motherhood itself is seldom as felt in a movie as it is in Diane’s anxious love. When a sudden gust in the den portends Carol Anne’s presence, Williams’ reaction, alternating from astonishment to joy to nearly hysterical anxiety (“She just moved through me… It’s my baby. She went through my soul…“) are almost palpable. It would take a sterner heart than mine not to melt at that moment.

Zelda Rubinstein. As the Southern-accented psychic, she is dominating, witty and a wholly unexpected delight, even as we are unsure at first how to take her, or even what her motives are.

Zelda Rubinstein. As the Southern-accented psychic, she is dominating, witty and a wholly unexpected delight, even as we are unsure at first how to take her, or even what her motives are.

The entrance of Tangina into the proceedings is so individualized I think it would have been a shame to have introduced her earlier, as Spielberg’s original story suggested. (That Kahn describes the character in the novel as a dwarf presumes that the casting of Rubinstein was no fluke.) Our lack of preparation and “back story” also give her an unknown, and unknowable, quality, and we may be forgiven for wandering, briefly, as Diane does at a crucial moment, whether Tangina is all she says, or some curious agent of The Beast. One drawback, or perhaps unintentional, mis-direction occurs in the finished film that is explained more fully in the novel; when Tangina says of the chief malevolence in the house, “To us, it is The Beast,” the sudden turn of phrase, and the other characters’ reactions to it, lead us to think she is referring to no less a presence in the house than Satan himself, and may cause some confusion as to exactly what we’re seeing later, when Diane is menaced by spectral beast in the movie’s wild, accelerated climax.

There are two additional missteps in the movie as released. The first is the abrupt cut to Stephen and Diane with their genially hostile neighbor, especially as it comes in mid-dialogue. I’ve often wondered what’s missing between those scenes. The second is a rather poor special effect, in a movie almost over-brimming with exceptionally well-executed ones. When Dr. Lesh’s assistant Marty (Martin Cassella) hallucinates in the mirror and begins tearing off the flesh of his face, the countenance seen in his reflection is so obviously a made-up dummy that it completely dissipates the horror. I think it’s the quality of his hair: Marty’s is loose and lank; the hair on the Marty in the mirror seems plastered down to its head. (In Spielberg’s story, the sequence is even more terrifying, as Marty imagines he’s being overrun, and devoured, first by insects, then by a horde of rats; he later hallucinates turning into The Beast that bit him earlier.)

Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

I remark on this lapse only because the rest of the movie’s effects (executed by ILM) are so spectacularly successful, and so perfectly integrated. This is notably true of the extended climax, in which the house itself seems to be doing its best to deter Diane’s repeated attempts to free Robbie and Carol Anne from the newly opened portal. Her confrontation with The Beast is both beautiful and almost unbearably scarifying, but the moments leading to, and away from it are rendered with equal panache. There is, first, the way Diane is physically manipulated, up the wall of her bedroom and across the ceiling; it’s the old “upside room” trick, so memorably enacted by Stanley Donen when Fred Astaire dances all over the walls in Royal Wedding, but on a much grander and more astonishing scale. Hitchcock’s simultaneous zoom and pull-back effect in Vertigo has been imitated widely, but only Spielberg has used it appropriately, and twice: Once in Jaws, at the moment Roy Scheider feels most disoriented, fearful and isolated, and here, as Diane attempts to race down a hallway that elongates as she’s running, suddenly shrinking back to normal dimensions as she struggles to move forward. It’s a great moment in a movie filled with them.

Poltergeist - beast

Diane Freeling confronts The Beast.

Craig T. Nelson, like JoBeth Williams, is eminently strong, and equally likable, as Stephen Freeling. I particularly relish the quiet, affectionate manner in which he greets Carol Anne as he’s lowering the den lights (“Hello, Sweet Pea”) and the confidence he shows as an actor when confronting his boss (the always dependable James Karen) at the climax. The way his voice careens into nearly incoherent screeching (“You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones! Why? Why?”) is deeply impressive. Only a performer of great confidence can afford to let hysteria take over quite so completely without being unmanned by it.

Poltergeist - Nelson Karen and Speileberg

James Karen and Craig T. Nelson sure LOOK as though they’re being directed by Steven Spielberg…

Special mention must be made of Matthew F. Leonetti’s sumptuous cinematography, which is responsible for much of the movie’s effectiveness, and of Michael Kahn’s kinetic editing. Like the direction, it eschews flash in favor of long scenes played with minimal fuss. The sight (and sound) of Beatrice Straight, Oliver Robbins and JoBeth Williams just talking, quietly, is as compelling as any of the more apocalyptic sequences. It’s an art that Hollywood, in its drive to (as they say in the ad biz) “blow you against the back wall of the theatre” has forgotten, seemingly forever.

Gatefold detail of the 2013 Mondo release of a 2-LP vimyl soundtrack album.

Gatefold detail of the 2013 Mondo release of a 2-LP vinyl soundtrack album.

The movie’s greatest collaborator after Hooper and Spielberg, however, is Jerry Goldsmith. Setting aside the annoying book-end device of children’s laughter electronically manipulated to sound like a gaggle of Rosemary’s offspring, the soundtrack LP quickly became one of my personal touchstones. In a career spanning some 50 years of scoring, and taking in everything from intimate drama to special-effects comedy, it would perhaps be unfair to cite Poltergeist as Goldsmith’s masterpiece. But its effectiveness, in what it brings to the movie, and as music, simply cannot be overstated. The “Carol Anne” theme, gentle and haunting at once, is the cornerstone of the score, imbuing the Freeling household with its own sense of innocence touched by something ineffably unsettling. But the “action” cues — particularly “Twisted Abduction,” “Night Visitor,” “Let’s Get Her/Rebirth” and “Night of the Beast” — are so muscular, so chromatically varied, instrumentally complex and gripping, they amount to almost a master-class in what a genius composer can bring to a film which, already strong, is made damn near invincible by his contributions. Sentiment rather than relative merit seemed to dictate Goldsmith’s being shut out at the Academy Awards that year by John Williams’ score for another Spielberg creation. I’m not knocking either Williams or E.T., which in its own rights is a landmark. But the more I listen to the Poltergeist soundtrack, the more convinced I become that this is one of the quintessential movie scores, to be placed in a Pantheon that includes Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Psycho, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws and Close Encounters as a prime representative of the art.

Much ineluctable noise has been made since 1982 concerning the fates of two of the three young actors who played the Freeling children, and I don’t intend to rehearse that here… nor to ennoble the specious, insensitive talk of a “curse” attending the movie; Dominque Dunne’s murder was horrific, as was poor little Heather O’Rourke’s demise via medical misadventure. To imply otherwise, to suggest that somehow these young people “tempted” some god of chaos by appearing in a goddamn movie is to dishonor their deaths, and their lives. Just as using the current, odious Hollywood phrase “re-boot” to describe the planned 2015 “remake” of Poltergeist itself is to dignify the ghoulish (and creatively anemic) cinematic equivalent of grave-robbing.

Diane discovers she's not alone in the swimming pool. Do you find yourself thinking of Karen Allen in the tomb of the Ark? (Those skeletons, by the way, were real.)

Diane discovers she’s not alone in the swimming pool. Do you find yourself thinking of Karen Allen in the tomb of the Ark? (Those skeletons, by the way, were real.)

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Jill Clayburgh in Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” (1978)


By Scott Ross


An Unmarried Woman, written and directed by Paul Mazursky, was a touchstone for me when it opened in 1978. I kept going back to see it, over and over throughout that spring, and bringing women friends with me. It was a foreign country, kids; they did things differently there. Like making mature, intelligent, sexy and truthful movies about human beings… and especially, about women.

Why Jill Clayburgh did not take home the Academy Award the next year for her fulsome, achingly honest performance I’ll never know. Which would I rather sit through? The earnest, phony pieties of Coming Home again, or the joy of An Unmarried Woman?

Baby, there’s no contest.

Goodspeed, Mr. Mazursky. Thanks for the laughs, and the love.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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


By Scott Ross

all-the-presidents-men-movie-poster-1976-1020270638Los Angeles, CA. May, 2011. Richard Stayton writes a compelling piece in the Writers Guild of America (West) magazine Written By (, 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 certified movie star, and that it was the author who recommended his 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 (no pun intended) moment in the movie 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.


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 want to be Woodstein. What they don’t want is to have to do the work. That Bill Clinton, with his 1996 Telecommunications Bill, guaranteed the death of the vaunted (and necessary) American free press and replaced it with one wholly subservient to corporate desires is, for once, almost beside the point.

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 today, 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 screen 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. And perhaps to reflect as well that, from the first instance to the last, both those initial Post articles and the movie that celebrates them, are the work of the what is arguably the last, un-sung, hero of American life: The writer.

Look on these Works, ye Modern, and despair.

The past is a foreign country.


Pakula - All the Presidents Men (TIME)

*Maybe it was seeing that phrase “gutless betrayal” in Goldman’s book that turned Redford from a friend to such an implacable foe; he seemed to feel personally affronted that Pauline Kael’s reviews got reprinted in her books. I wish I shared Redford’s conviction that books are immortal, since these days it seems only movies are.

**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.

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

A dirty shade of gray: “Testimony” (1988)


“For some reason, people think that music must tell us only about the pinnacles of the human spirit, or at least about highly romantic villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They’re gray. A dirty shade of gray. And it’s in that vague gray middle ground that the fundamental conflicts of our age take place.” — Dmitri Shostakovich (Attributed, in the still-disputed 1979 memoir Testimony, edited by Solomon Volkov)

By Scott Ross

Thankfully, the Tony Palmer/David Rudkin film of Testimony is not notably gray, at least in its visual tone. In Nic Knowland’s sumptuous cinematography, it is for the most part brilliantly, adamantly, gloriously black-and-white. I doubt there had been a more strikingly lit and photographed monochromatic movie, at the time of Testimony‘s late ’80s release, since Gordon Willis’ rapturous work on Manhattan nine years earlier. The film is also, despite some longueurs and a smattering of symbolic pretension, as strikingly and exhilaratingly cinematic as the best work of Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese.

I first saw Testimony on PBS in the spring of 1990 and was so taken with it I watched it over again when it was repeated a few days later. Seeing it a third time I am fully persuaded that, if not the finest attempt to explicate that essentially unknowable enigma we call the artistic temperament, it is certainly among the tiny minority of victors in the field. What it is not is in any way a standard, or even atypical, example of that almost entirely useless stock entity, the “biopic.” In my immediate experience as a moviegoer only Warren Beatty’s Reds and Scorsese and John Logan’s The Aviator truly broke out of that mold, even if the latter expunged the bisexuality of Howard Hughes and the former both obliterated John Reed’s similar eroticism and overdid the deathless heterosexual romance. Nor is Reds incidental to Testimony: In Reds the Revolution first inspires excitement then dismantles it as the Socialist dream crumbles in internecine sectarianism and totalitarianist brutality. In Testimony there is no passionate optimism; the dream has already soured to a waking nightmare.

Testimony is impressionistic, fractured and superbly aligned to the music of its subject, in a sense approximating its rhythms in optic-dramatic terms. What is also, unavoidably and understandably, black and white, are the crushing, homicidal Soviet system that encompassed the arc of Shostakovich’s life and career, and the chilling understatement of Terence Rigby’s Stalin, who more than represents it. Ben Kinglsey’s Dmitri sees his friends and neighbors disappear — or rather, doesn’t — with a hideous regularity and his own position as the primary composer of Soviet Socialism grandly raised and debilitatingly stymied depending on official whim and pleasure. That we never see Stalin give the order is incidental, and implicit; nothing that happened to Uncle Joe’s favorite composer, good or bad, could have without it.


Although Palmer and Rudkin (the latter of whom wrote the bracingly intelligent screenplay) eschew the overt depiction of bloodshed — Stalin was responsible for upward of 30 million murders of Russian citizens, effectively making Hitler a piker — the threat of it is seldom far from the surface, both in our minds and in the composer’s. Kingsley’s understated and ironic posthumous voice-overs fill in a few details, such as the arrest and execution of Vsevolof Meyerhold (Robert Stephens) and of the official purging of his great friend Mikhail Tukhachevsky (Ronald Pickup) and his seeming detachment, coupled with an incisive visual or two, chills the blood far more effectively than would the display of viscera. Indeed, the movie’s most terrifying moment consists of a static shot of a lighted window and the retraction of all other sound as Shostakovich describes the murder of Meyerhold’s wife, her screams as her eyes are cut out by the knives of her sanctioned killers deliberately silenced just as they were undoubtedly heard but assiduously ignored by her neighbors, waiting in hushed terror for the midnight knock on their own apartment doors. The only exception to this assiduous avoidance of violence is Palmer’s use of documentary footage of Holocaust dead late in the movie, and that is as it should be: No depiction of screen violence, however realistic, could quite compare to that appalling reality, and might, by contrast, only seem obscenely trivial.

Testimony piano

Palmer’s framing is uncannily apt throughout and his long, involved tracking shots are not mere technical ostentation. They capture the composer’s resolute, practiced treks through the grubby mazes of Soviet bureaucracy, accompanied, always, by perfectly selected excerpts from Shoshtakovich’s oeuvre. The director, who also edited, seems to have shot Testimony to music rather than the usual, reverse, post-production practice. (The score was performed by the London Philharmonic and conducted by Rudolf Barsha, occasionally on-camera, and in color.) There are a few surreal moments, such as the composer playing a bizarrely Constructivist piano, and while these flights of fancy occasionally feel oppressively symbolic, they are less important than Shostakovich’s own fluctuating fortunes and ultimate survival of the Stalinist regime.

What Testimony gets absolutely right, in concept, design and production, and in Kingsley’s magnificent performance, is the everyday horror of a system that murders its citizens as effectively with words as with knives. The long central sequence of the official 1948 denunciation of Shostakovich and others by that uniquely dangerous and self-important ignoramus Zhdanov (John Shrapnel) and the composer’s own shamefaced and public self-censure, depicted on the movie’s poster, is perhaps the finest explication of helpless artistic degradation in Western movie history. The later, stomach-churning scene of Shostakovich’s squirming equivocation in America, then, is, despite its effectiveness, almost anticlimactic: The dirty gray death of his soul has already been accomplished. The rest is just the body’s discomfort at still going on.

Ben Kinglsey as Dmitri Shoshtakovich.

Ben Kinglsey as Dmitri Shoshtakovich.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Legend of Hell House (1973)


By Scott Ross

hell pbWhen at 16, I made the acquaintance of Stephen King, with ‘Salem’s Lot, I enjoyed it enormously for what it was. But the book paled next to Richard Matheson’s 1970 masterpiece Hell House. Encountered at 15, the novel took the top of my head off, what with its classic haunted manse, its bickering specialists in the occult, its periodic supernatural explosions and, especially (oh my god!) with that obscene crucifix in the chapel. I read ‘Salem’s Lot again a few years ago and found it more or less anemic. Very young work. Yet a similar revisit to Hell House a year or so ago proved to me that Matheson’s novel is one of true standard-bearers of the genre. While appreciating that one can never experience a cinematic or literary (or indeed any real) shock with anything approaching the power of the initial encounter, re-reading this quintessential spook story convinces me that Matheson’s are the real goods, which on a second helping may pale slightly, but will never pall.

The surprisingly cheesy, morbid poster for a notably subtle horror movie.

The surprisingly cheesy, morbid poster for a notably subtle horror movie.

The inevitable movie, scripted by Matheson, is — especially considering the American International pedigree conferred on it in the person of its producer, James H. Nicholson — remarkably understated, hewing to the novel in most particulars (minus, naturally, that priapic crucifix, which was no doubt the first element of the narrative to go by the wayside) and eschewing piled-on atrocity; what is only sensed is far more unsettling than what is exhibited on-screen. The only curious aspect of the film is its misleading title. The legend of the Belasco mansion, commonly called “Hell House,” occurs well before the events depicted in the story, during the satanically sybaritic reign of its owner… and in its aftermath, 25 years before Hell House, when the first group of researchers is torn to tatters by Emeric Belasco’s vengeful shade. I can only assume that title was an imposition by schlockmeister Nicholson.

Pamela Franklin in a trance-state. Note the ectoplasm.

Pamela Franklin in a trance-state. Note the ectoplasm.

Credit must be given to Nicholson, however, for uniformly perfect casting: Pamela Franklin, as compassionate as she is tremulous as the mental medium; Roddy McDowall, in his histrionic prime as the tormented sole survivor of the otherwise decimated previous psychic detective team; the splendid (and criminally under-used) Clive Revill, tightly-coiled and chilly to the touch as the all too analytical parapsychologist; and Gayle Hunnicutt, lustrously beautiful and eminently shatterable as his somewhat neglected wife. (Sadly, the producer died before his movie’s premiere.)

Rational science, embodied by Clive Revill, confronts spiritualism in the reluctant person of Roddy McDowall. Note the slightly distorted composition and the oppositional spaces the actors occupy.

Rational science, embodied by Clive Revill, confronts spiritualism in the reluctant person of Roddy McDowall. Note the slightly distorted image and the oppositional spaces the actors occupy in the composition.

Transposing the action of the novel from New England to Great Britain and working with what is fairly obviously a limited budget the director, John Hough (a minor name, that) and his gifted cinematographer Alan Hume pile on the atmosphere, surrounding the actors in a tenebrosity thick enough to cut and relieved only by restricted islands of murky light. The characters are isolated, not merely by their position in the house but by their lonely, secretive personas, emphasized by Hume’s photographing them through a variety of distorting lenses. The disconcerting electronic music of Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson also adds to the growing sense of unease; it’s not, strictly speaking, a musical score so much as an unnerving soundscape highlighted by an ethereal rhythmic beating effect, like the incessant throb of a giant, unseen heart. (The heart of Hell House itself?)

Gayle Hunnicutt in what is, for her character, an inconguously suggestive mood. For the house itself, outré sexuality is the norm.

Despite the economically limited scope, the movie contains strikingly few really risible moments, such as the patently phony cat attack on Franklin*; the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is done better, and on a smaller budget. We miss, too, Matheson’s extended sequence of Revill being dragged to his death, here reduced to a more standard shock image as Hunnicutt and McDowall discover his bloody corpse. (The Franklin character’s stunning death in the novel, courtesy of that profane rood, is also omitted.) But for the time, and considering the niggardly budget, the finale, and the dinner scene in which Revill is attacked by ordinarily inanimate objects in the dining room, are remarkably done, and genuinely frightening. Generally, however, and unlike today’s CGI-obsessed (and correspondingly both lazy and audience-pandering) filmmakers, the scenarist and director emphasize the human aspects of the story: McDowall’s refusal to open his senses to the house; Revill’s preoccupied arrogance; Hunnicutt’s neglected state, which leaves her dangerously vulnerable to erotic possession; Franklin’s deep belief in her abilities, in its way as presumptuous and wrong-headed as Revill’s deluded rationality.

McDowall in the final, apocalyptic face-off with the shade of Emeic Belasco.

McDowall in the final, apocalyptic face-off with the shade of Emeic Belasco.

It all leads to McDowall unmasking Belasco, in the movie’s effective, thematically unified and — even if the corporeal demon’s prostheses are perhaps too modern in design — emotionally satisfying climax. (Belasco’s perfectly preserved corpse is “played,” incidentally, by Michael Gough.) A friend expressed some mild surprise that The Legend of Hell House has not (yet) been, to use an odious term for an odious practice, “re-made.” If (when?) this happens, it follows that story, logic, character and literacy will almost certainly be replaced by narrative indifference, implausibility, cardboard delineation and the usual sour jokes that pass for wit in these sub-literate times. Not to mention teasing, slickly Kubrickian glimpses of sexual pathology and the usual dispiriting over-reliance on wall-to-wall musical scoring and a numbing plethora of computer-driven effects.

Heaven protect us from that Hell.

*The moronically literal-minded point to the movie’s bookend shots of the black cat outside the Belasco house as a continuity error, forgetting, in their knuckle-headed obsessiveness, that The Legend of Hell House is a ghost story: Earthly logic need not apply. And anyway, who says it’s the same cat?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Agony and the Impotence: 12 Monkeys (1995)


By Scott Ross

twelve-monkeys-1996-movie-poster1 12 Monkeys locandinapg11Terry Gilliam is, to my mind, the most important fantasist currently working in movies, a magician whose finest achievements are the cinematic equivalent of a novel by William Kotzwinkle or E.L. Doctorow: Bracing, intelligent, daring, exhilarating, lyrical. Dangerous. Although his most distinctive projects are, generally, those he initiated, and on whose screenplays he collaborated, he has occasionally been a most effective director-for-hire on other people’s movies. It is a perversity of the filmic gods that two of these, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, have been his biggest box-offices successes. Even odder, perhaps, the latter is one of his most artistically triumphant.

Bruce Willis with the splendid Madeline Stowe.

Bruce Willis with the splendid Madeline Stowe.

The presence of Bruce Willis no doubt had something to do with the movie’s box office appeal, although one cannot imagine the star’s average fans (12-year-old boys of all ages) being best-pleased with the result — nor, for that matter, with the later The Sixth Sense. But it is to the actor’s credit that he periodically takes on chancy work, and in which he tends to give his best performances even if, at times, the movies themselves (In Country, Pulp Fiction) are less interesting (in the case of the former) or fully satisfying (the latter) than he himself is in them. I can just hear his agent’s screams of anguish when he opted for 12 Monkeys… and at a salary considerably less than either were used to receiving.

Terry Gilliam on set.

Terry Gilliam on set.

Inspired, if not precisely based on, Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée12 Monkeys posits a future bleaker and even less hopeful than that of Brazil, but with the possibility of, if not Eden or Utopia (much less Shangri-La) some form of human redemption. That concept, coupled with the question of relative madness, constitute essential Gilliam territory. Here, working from a profoundly logical script by David and Janet Peoples — and on what must, in the perennially bloated Hollywood of today, be considered an almost obscenely tiny budget — Gilliam fashioned a movie experience that is pretty much non pariel.

Cole begins to understand... but not, alas, everything.

Cole begins to understand… but not, alas, everything.

Thus Willis’ James Cole, the hapless, angry but essentially decent prisoner/experimental monkey of good (if fascistically-implemented) intentions, may be read as mad or all too sane, and the ambiguity is intentional. Is the future which uses him — and all but uses him up — an inward manifestation of insanity to which all his outward acts are related, or is he in fact exactly what he claims? It may be putting too fine a point on things that his one-time psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) explains, in a lecture, “Cassandra in Greek legend, you recall, was condemned to know the future but to be disbelieved when she foretold it. Hence the agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” She, of course, believes Cole is violently, dangerously insane, and her faith, tenuous as it may be, in the new god of psychotherapy, ultimately infects even him. Thus he begins to question the evidence of his experience even as Kathryn doubts her own and just as she is slowly coming to accept that everything he has claimed just may be the truth. This is perhaps not what Aristotle had in mind when he defined the Classical tragic unities, but in thematic terms (at least those of Gilliam and the Peoples) the juxtaposition is a perfect, ironic narrative “rhyme,” one fully in keeping with the movie’s scrupulously maintained, if seemingly illogical, order.

Part of the unsettling  hybrid decor of the future, past wed, uncertainly, to present.

Part of the unsettling hybrid decor of the future: Past wed, uncertainly, to present.

To say more would be to spoil the experience for those who have not yet shared it, although like any work of complexity and vision, 12 Monkeys yields more layers, engenders more plangent emotion, with each new viewing. Aside from sheer image size, the thing that cannot, sadly, be replicated in the living room (or wherever it is people watch movies these days) is what, in the theater, was an elemental factor in appreciating the whole: The superb sound design which, when called for, located certain dialogue (real, imagined or ambivalent) above, behind, and around the spectator, a device whose uncertain eeriness placed us in Cole’s confused position as much as the unsettlingly grungy decor.

Brad Pitt: The most beautiful young actor in Hollywood as wall-eyed psycho.

Brad Pitt: The most beautiful young actor in Hollywood as wall-eyed psycho.

Cavils with the movie are few, and almost incidental. Over and above their startling appearance we may wonder, quite properly, why sub-Saharan animals would elect to remain in a climate as inhospitable as that of Philadelphia, especially in the winter. Just for the sake of an unexpected shock? The green-hued homage to Vertigo in the movie theater lobby feels misplaced and unsatisfying except to a Hitchcock aficionado, as neither we nor, presumably, Cole and Railly, have seen another Madeleine’s transformation in that film. (They leave the revival house theatre too early to have seen that.) As the biological scientist whose concerns over his schizophrenic son’s uncertain activities prompts him to make precisely the wrong decision at exactly the wrong moment — and, also ironically, to trust the one person he shouldn’t — the usually reliable (and here, otherwise splendid) Christopher Plummer exhibits one of the phoniest Southern accents ever heard in a major movie. Brad Pitt, cast as the son just prior to his ascendancy to stardom, seemed off-putting and over-broad in 1995. Curiously, his performance feels exactly right nearly 20 years later. Willis, as is his wont when he believes in a project enough for forego audience-pleasing action and his own starry salary, is superb as Cole, and Stowe is revelatory, making each step of Kathryn’s journey explicable and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

Topside: In the absence of humans, the animals reclaim the earth. (The lion will be explained later; just don't dwell too long on why he never migrated south.)

Topside: In the absence of humans, the animals reclaim the earth. (The lion will be explained later; just don’t dwell too long on why he never migrated south.)

One of the movie's many superbly surrealistic, yet utterly logical (and sublimely lyrical) images.

One of the movie’s many superbly surrealistic, yet utterly logical (and sublimely lyrical) images.








Aside from the performances, and the Peoples’ exhilaratingly literate dialogue and refreshingly adult approach to character, incident and structure, what binds 12 Monkeys and holds its place in the memory is Gilliam’s unique and hauntingly original imagery. All of it, moreover, rigorously applied to, and in service of, the overall effect of the narrative, like Paul Buckmaster’s cunning use of the “Introduccion” to the Suite Punta del Este of Astor Piazzola (and of his own strategically recurrent, and achingly beautiful, violin theme), the striking cinematography of Roger Pratt and the beautifully realized editing of Mike Audlsey. Gilliam’s control over, and use of, these and others of his materials is astonishing, particularly given the movie’s almost ridiculously reduced budget which, in an action franchise picture, would have otherwise merely accounted for its star’s salary.

Carol Florence and David Morse in the beautifully ambiguous final scene. Let the endless, insipid Internet debates begin!

Carol Florence and David Morse in the beautifully ambiguous final scene. Let the endless, insipid Internet debates begin!

Arguments have raged for years over the scene that follows the movie’s climax, but if you’ve paid sufficient attention to the preceding sequence, it’s perfectly placed, and pays off magnificently, if not overtly — like the haunting eyes of little Joseph Melito, a child witnessing the culminating event of his own future. Aside from its questionable grammar, I have often been perplexed by Horace Walpole’s brief that, “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” I know no one I respect who does not possess both perspicacity and empathy. For us life is not one thing or another; at best, it is tragi-comic. Gilliam et al. respect, and understand, that. It’s rare enough to be treated, in these days of appalling over-simplification of everything, to a movie whose makers do not serve everything up like a set of instructions on how to think (although that’s also rare) or how, and what, to feel (far more common.) The seeming anti-climax of 12 Monkeys is a grace-note in a world grown increasingly graceless.

12 Monkeys James Cole eyes

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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


By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The iconic, if surprise-killing, poster.

The famous (if surprise-killing) poster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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

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

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

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

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

Spoken like a true asshole.

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

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

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

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

***You can, thankfully, get the full score, along with Ellis’ compositions for the 1975 sequel, on the recent La-La Land soundtrack CD. Both were available previously from Film Score Monthly, but — due to space limitations — without the wonderful Jimmy Webb song “Everybody’s Going to the Moon,” performed by The Three Degrees. The La-La Land set, on two discs, includes it.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross