Assassination: Cutter’s Way (1981)

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By Scott Ross

There are movies, specifically American movies, so original, and so richly observed, they defy easy categorization. This is both a virtue and a weakness; however high the critical fraternity may rate the film, if the studio that financed it can’t figure out a marketing strategy for an increasingly bifurcated niche audience, the picture can be doomed. Just as frequent, however, are those cases where a filmmaker has the ill luck to have his movie released during a management shake-up. (Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen is a paradigm.) It does the new regime no honor if a picture championed by the outgoing mogul is admired, or even popular. Easier to throw a minimal cad campaign at it, give it a perfunctory release, and then pull it at the first opportunity. Of Cutter’s Way its director, Ivan Passer, later noted of the almost criminally negligent manner in which United Artists dumped the picture on the market (and would have killed it entirely had not a few prominent reviewers gotten behind it): “You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people. I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it.”

Passer’s choice of words is not without irony — probably intentional — since Cutter’s Way is concerned with a murder of a teenage girl, committed by an insulated, wealthy Santa Barbara magnate, who expects to get away with it. But that encapsulation is itself inadequate, because the picture is both more and less than a thriller. It’s a downbeat meditation on specifically American themes, as intimate and emotionally wrenching as Passer’s earlier, equally striking (and similarly dismissed) depiction of junkie life, the woefully under-seen Born to Win of ten years earlier.

I was about to call the motivations of the John Heard character in Cutter’s Way quixotic, but it occurs to me that his literary antecedent is not the Don of La Mancha but his dark American doppelganger, mad Captain Ahab. Alex Cutter’s white whale is the war that lost him an arm, a leg and an eye, a season in Hell his close friend Richard Bone avoided, and that Cutter cannot help but carry with him. His wounds have left him bitter and alcoholic, two words which also describe his wife “Mo” (Lisa Eichorn), although she at least does not pick bar fights under the protective cloak of being physically crippled. Bone (Jeff Bridges), for his part, drifts not on vodka fumes but on a sea of irresponsibility and whatever he can cadge from rich, wealthy older women for his services — themselves deficient, if the comments of the woman he’s leaving as the picture opens (Nina Van Pallandt) are any indication; she hands him a wad of cash with the advice that he buy some vitamin E with it. During the opening reels, you may be forgiven for thinking that you’re not sure you can bear to spend an hour and fifty minutes with these three. But as the implications of the precipitating event Bone witnesses become clear, so too do these seemingly unpleasant characters’ individual and collective despair.

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Cutter (John Heard) and Mo (Lisa Eichorn) in a typical moment.

Cutter seeks an annealing act of heroism to mitigate his pain; Bone’s first impulse is to run from complication; and “Mo”is too beaten down, and depressed, to fight back any longer, except with her words, which (if you’ll pardon the unintended play on words), when she wants them to, cut straight to the bone. And if this sounds unrelievedly bleak, like a contemporary take on O’Neill, it may illustrate why Cutter’s Way had such difficulty finding an audience; it’s hard to condense in a few words, and can seem deathish in the description. It isn’t. The characters — and the characterizations by the movie’s three leading actors — are so rich they defy easy encapsulation.

Seen from a 21st century perspective, Cutter’s Way (and here it must be said that the original title Cutter and Bone, taken from Newton Thornberg’s eponymous novel and rejected by U.A., is a far better one) feels like one of those achingly longed-for relics of another world. Although it was filmed and (barely) released in the early 1980s, it’s a vivid remnant of ’70s filmmaking, concerned less with flash than with actual human beings and the thing Faulkner once observed was the only thing worth writing about, the human heart in conflict with itself. The picture’s screenwriter, Jeffrey Alan Fishkin, felt that Thornberg’s book was un-filmable, half of which he felt was “an instant replay of Easy Rider.” Since I have not read the novel, I cannot judge what Fishkin stripped away, or invented, but his script as filmed could scarcely be improved upon. He gets to the heart of the matter more quickly, and more concisely, than a more verbally-inclined scenarists could, and what’s spoken carries a weight, even in Alex Cutter’s self-consciously literary-minded, drunken smartass quips. As with Alan Sharp’s terse dialogue for the Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves (1975), to which this movie is a spiritual cousin, there isn’t a word wasted or a gesture over-emphasized. It’s the kind of concision that marks the difference between hackwork and art, even minor art, and Cutter’s Way seems to me in most ways major art indeed.

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Stephen Elliott as the killer: The ostentatious banality of modern evil.

Cuter’s Way is one of those movies of the period that made many people wonder who Jeff Bridges had to fuck to get the respect he deserved. For a long time, many of us considered him the best young actor of his generation… and then the best middle-aged one. As Bone, Bridges never broods. You get the feeling it’s never occurred to him; he takes everything as it comes, even injustice, with a nonchalance that is as dangerous in its way as Alex Cutter’s explosive overreactions. Heard, who was likewise a critic’s darling but, unlike his co-star, never managed to sustain a high visibility, is tough to take at first. Gutteral, snarling, raspy-voiced and unapproachable, he nevertheless lets you see just enough of Cutter’s anguish to make you squirm. Alex is a suicide who lacks the conviction to pull the trigger. As “Mo,” Eichorn too may cause you to think a major acting career stalled somewhere along the journey, through no fault of her own. She turns sadness into an art form. Arthur Rosenberg deserves more than a mention as Cutter’s adoptive brother. His sweetness and solicitude toward Alex, not explained until the movie is nearly at and end, is both born of a sense of responsibility alien to both Cutter and Bone, and absolutely genuine, making his seeming betrayal of them nothing less than a hope for, if not redemption, at least the avoidance of catastrophe.

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Bone’s epiphany: The face he couldn’t recall when pressed suddenly materializes in a Santa Barbara parade. Hitchcock would have made a fetish of this sequence; Passer frames it not as The Great Reveal but as the initial clearing of a jumbled mind.

My only cavil with Cutter’s Way, aside from that dopey title, is Jack Nitzche’s dreary musical score, a variation on his atmospheric doodling on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, glass harmonica and all. Jaws and Star Wars may have heralded an end to personal moviemaking in this country, but at least they brought orchestral composition back from its banishment.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is Jordan Cronenweth’s sumptuously muted photography. I don’t pretend to know how he attained that warm, earthy palette, nor how he maintained the largely deep-focus imagery that so enriches this picture, but his work here stands with the great cinematographic achievements of the era. And Passer, who never had a major hit in this country, had an unerring sense of the movie frame; you see exactly the right image at any given moment, and you can’t quite imagine how it could be bettered. More important, Passer had a deep feeling for the people in his pictures, and saw them as they were, without editorial judgment. It may be argued that his view of the rich was jaundiced, but, it seems to me, never inappropriately. The rich are different; they almost never get caught.

Ivan Passer

Ivan Passer

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Everyone is overtaken, eventually: “Munich” (2005) and “One Day in September” (1999)

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By Scott Ross

If you were alive at the time, and of age to be aware, 5 September 1972 is unlikely to be a date you forget. I was 11; coincidentally, a 5th grade writing assignment on the subject was my first experience of composing an essay, and my first angry opinion piece. There was much I did not know then — primarily about the appalling manner in which the Bavarian government botched things so thoroughly that a deadly encounter between the Palestinian terror group Black September and 11 Israeli athletes mutated to a bloodbath; concerning the complicity of the news media, most specifically the ratings-crazed ghouls at ABC, and how much its idiocies cost the hostages; and of the indecent callousness of the International Olympic Commission, then and now* — a mounting pile of incompetence and insensitivity (and, in the end, complicity**) that compounded the ugliness of the event and turned it, inexorably, into a public horror-show. Had I known then half of what I’ve learned since, my pre-adolescent rage would almost certainly have become positively incandescent.

The value of factual narrative such as that in the 1999 documentary One Day in September, for all its slickness and even its errors of fact, is that it can stand as an exercise both of education and of remembrance. The virtue of a documentary fiction like the 2005 Munich lies in its willingness to grapple with matters beyond fact and into something very like a popular treatise on the mutability of human morality.

Kevin Macdonald, who made One Day in September, has been criticized severely — and rightly, I think — for his climactic use of imagery from the catastrophic failure at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield, in which 9 of the athletes were slaughtered. When we are told, in Michael Douglas’ voice-over narration, what happened to the nine Israeli athletes held hostage there by members of Black September, the horror does not require photographic proof to lodge in the mind. If there is anything served by the sight of those men’s bodies, mangled and bloody on the tarmac, its documentary value eludes me. It is, in its way, as obscene as the footage of athletes in the Olympic Village sunning themselves and playing ping-pong while nearly a dozen of their confederates either lie dead where they fell or sit in their suites under hostile armed guard. It most certainly does not ennoble the enterprise, or add meaning to the lives and pointless deaths of the Israeli team. Since the movie is so clearly and resolutely sympathetic to the athletes’ ordeal, one is left stunned by the filmmaker’s sudden, and nearly unwatchable, violation of them in death. Nor is this the only disparagement one can make of Macdonald: He somehow gets the very details of those senseless murders wrong, and I’ll be damned if I can understand why. Particularly since Steven Spielberg, in Munich, gets them right.**

While what the director does accomplish, while not mitigating these lapses of judgment and taste, is a thorough, and deserved, rebuke of the utter incompetence of the Germans and of the broadcast media. Not only was security at the Village so lax as to be virtually nonexistent, the final attempts to bring the situation to a satisfactory end were doomed from the start through lack of manpower, communication, proper planning and a tactical incompetence so vast as to exist somewhere well beyond the realm of the merely shocking. As for the soon-to-be venerated Peter Jennings and his television team, their own lack of foresight is simply astounding, as they continued to film and broadcast from an adjacent building, even as a hastily assembled team of German officers prepared to mount an assault. In an ever-shrinking world in which the broadcast media had, by 1972, become ubiquitous, it is both staggering and unconscionable that no one at ABC considered for a single moment as it aired these events to the world that the terrorists in the Israeli suite also had access to television sets. One Day in September does not provide any information on what happened in the boardrooms of ABC Television following the massacre at Fürstenfeldbruck, but considering Jennings’ rise at that network, I scarcely think he was regarded by Roone Aldredge and his cronies as anything but heroic.

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Spielberg is scarcely any less impassioned than Macdonald. And while he has been at pains to make it clear he intended in Munich no rebuke to the Israeli government, his somewhat fictionalized account of the events that followed the massacre is, paradoxically, even more precise and exacting. Working from a more than unusually intelligent screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, taken from George Jonas’ nonfiction account of the Mossad response to Black September, the director fashions not a revenge fantasy but a meditation on the price of vengeance and whose conclusion is, aptly and refreshingly, a question mark.

It seems unlikely that Spielberg could have achieved the emotional complexity of Munich, much less its striking, de-saturated visual scheme, without having made Schindler’s List. While it is possible to lament that the maker of Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind appears to have turned his back on the fantastic and relatively innocent adventure fare that was unique to him, and which it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone else making (making quite so perfectly) if the trade-off is a picture like Munich, then popcorn entertainment’s loss must surely be said to be serious cinema’s gain. I don’t wish to overstate the case, or turn Spielberg into some sort of intellectual manqué. There are deeper thinkers amidst the directorial ranks, and creative artists of more daring generally. But if is it impossible to think of Spielberg’s having made this morally complex exercise 40 years ago it is equally improbable to imagine any filmmaker with less of a box-office track record getting it made at all. They’d be laughed out of the studio for even suggesting it.

While some of the events at Munich are re-created, and teased out at strategic moments in the narrative, reminding both us and the character of the assassination team leader played by Eric Bana of his very raison d’être, Munich is not really about the terror of that September day. Nor is it, except incidentally, about an un-tested quartet of operatives who begin uncertainly and improve with each sanctioned killing; it is instead concerned with the very nature of deliberate, cold-blooded murder and the effect it has upon its practitioners. Only two of the five (Bana and Daniel Craig, as the most dedicated member of the team) escape with their lives, but all of them are mortally unnerved, long before their fates are determined. There are moments in the picture in which Bana appears so haggard, and haunted, he begins to resemble the survivors of a Holocaust he, as a young Sabra, knows only through largely impersonal history. And although there are a number of brief, hot debates scattered throughout the action (and in which one senses the nuanced and intellectually bracing hand of Tony Kushner) Munich is the furthest thing from a didactic picture. No conclusions are reached, no particular ideology identified or embraced, beyond the inescapable one: That blood begets blood, and its actors can never sleep untroubled. As the taciturn Carl (Ciarán Hinds) notes to Avner late in the movie, “You think you can outrun your fears, your doubts… The only thing that really scares you is stillness. But everyone’s overtaken eventually.”

The look of Munich is extraordinary, thanks in large part to Spielberg’s usual cinematographer, the splendid Janusz Kamiński, whose images are of such de-glamorized clarity they allow for no romance of the subject. Michael Kahn’s editing is likewise of such precision that there is no flab here, no attempt to linger prettily at some depiction of aesthetic beauty. But then, there is little beauty to be had in the picture; it’s as tough and uncompromised a movie as can be imagined. Morally bankrupt filmmakers can be had by the score, and their movies celebrate violence as a thing to be admired; Spielberg never lets you forget that taking a life is a dirty business —the ultimate obscenity. Even when an innocent is spared, as in the harrowing first assassination attempt when the target’s young daughter unexpectedly makes an unscheduled appearance on the scene, the moral thread is torn asunder by our knowledge that her father’s existence will not be similarly spared. There is a sequence, late in the movie, wherein a Dutch assassin (Marie-Josée Croze) is coolly, and agonizingly, disposed of, that is about as brutal and unblinking an indictment as I think can be imagined, yet even here we cannot shake with what duplicitous calculation she has disposed of one of the team. Munich has little time for innocence, nor much belief in it. What a long, hard road this is from E.T.!

Munich is so exceptionally designed and contains devices so fresh in conception and execution, that the viewer may be hard-pressed to recall seeing them in a picture before. That Dutch assassin’s death is one such moment, her stunned reaction to the silenced bullets that are draining her life as she stumbles about her houseboat both startling and, in a way, the most felt death in the picture. Another is the moment when Eric Bana’s Avner, finding his colleague dead at the woman’s hands, buries his face in the bedclothes and emits a muffled scream of anguish that expresses more than mere personal grief; Avner is an active participant in his own nightmare, and that scream is like a violent rending of his soul. Avner is also the focus of a sequence, late in the movie, which uses eroticism in a way that is almost unbearably powerful, something I’ve never seen in another director’s work and certainly never expected to see from the man of whom Francis Coppola once observed, in their relative youth, “Stevie hasn’t discovered sex yet.”

Spielberg commits only one inaccuracy in Munich I can detect. When the team assembles in London in the early spring of 1973, a poster may be seen on the street for The Sting — a picture that was not released until December of that year. This error only becomes obvious when, later, Ephraim begins a tape-recorded interrogation with a date of June, 1973. But in a movie of a length approaching three hours, that lapse is minor indeed, and all the more noticeable for being the sole discernible example of miscalculation.

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The final image: Where in time the chickens will come home to roost.

If there is a didacticism in the approach of the filmmakers, it is raised only at the end, when Avner confronts his mercurial Mossad chief Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) on the Brooklyn shore, arguing that the vengeance he and his team have enacted has led only to more bloodshed, and that the deadly tit-for-tat will, in time, merely engender more of the same — an endless conundrum of the type human beings, and their governments, seem incapable of avoiding, or extricating themselves from. Just before the end credits roll, as Avner is exiting to the left of the screen, Spielberg frames the New York skyline behind him, the World Trade Center towers visible in the background. It’s a discreet visual paradigm, a sort of silent rebuke, eloquent in its understatement.

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Avner and Ali in contemplative mood.

In a large cast, the at once ordinary yet somehow remarkably beautiful Bana is revelatory as Avner, the character (based on the actual Yuval Aviv) who resides at the center of Munich’s ethical maze. He seems open, yet is constantly guarded, so that not even his cherished wife (the radiant Ayelet Zurer) can penetrate the curtain he draws over himself. In the movie’s most pointed sequence, in which Avner, under cover, engages in a lengthy discussion of the Palestinian ethos with the unsuspecting Ali (Omar Metwally) Bana conveys a fascinating ambivalence, capped by the corresponding moment that follows, in which Avner must kill Ali. He’s been brought to consider the Palestinian as an individual, perhaps even a man he can like, and it’s the first instance in his experience in which he must end the life of someone he has come to know, however superficially. Ali is no longer simply an abstraction, and it is this killing that tests Avner’s sense of what his bomb-maker thinks of as the righteousness inherent in being a Jew. The action is not lingered over, or in any way elongated, by Spielberg, but it resonates.

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Daniel Craig

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Louis and Avner: An uneasy alliance.

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Papa and Avner in the former’s garden. While the older man expresses a fatherly feeling for the younger, he also makes it clear that Avner is not family.

Mention ought also to be made, and at length, of a number of actors here, particularly those in Avner’s team: Craig, in his first important role, to which he brings no hint of what he would later do as James Bond; Steve’s is an entirely different character altogether —  a man who, unlike Bond, kills his perceived enemies with relish. Hinds gives contributes a performance of quiet magnificence as the philosophizing Carl; the redoubtable Geoffrey Rush gives a superb account of Ephraim, alternately seductive and enraged, and making it clear that, with him, neither emotion is to be trusted; and Mathieu Kassovitz (himself due to appear in a Bond picture, as a memorable villain) makes of the independent information contractor Louis a figure at once enigmatic, gentlemanly and dangerous. The wonderful Michael Lonsdale (himself, interestingly, a former Bond villain) steals every scene in which he appears as Louis’ venerable Papa, Gila Almagor does wonder work as Avner’s mother, and Lynn Cohen provides a fine account of Golda Meir, outwardly mother-like but never less than the successful (ergo, ruthless) politician. John Williams’ superb score employs none of the maudlin over-emphasis that marred his compositions for Spielberg’s equally sentimental (and, ultimately, pointless) Saving Private Ryan. Munich is a picture so accomplished, on so many levels, that it stays in my mind as the last great, new American movie of my experience.

Yet notwithstanding all of the above, Leonard Maltin, in his popular video guide, was able to muster little enthusiasm for the picture, accusing Munich of both lacking focus and of “treading familiar ground.” You mean like all those dozens of other American movies about teams of government-sanctioned assassins that question the morality, and the efficacy, of piling violence on top of violence? In a picture of some 2 hours and 43 minutes, that places us absolutely in the midst of the planning and execution of deadly vengeance and that reflects in every particular the paranoia and mounting ethical, emotional and intellectual anxiety implicit in such activity, the very last sin of which anyone of moderate intelligence could accuse the writers and director of is not being focused.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

* The IOC continued the Games during the day of the 5th, and only acceded to public outcry the morning after the massacre of the Israeli athletes at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield. And while it sponsored a documented day-trip by the Israelis to nearby Dachau, the organization refused, 40 years later, to permit a public remembrance of the 11 murdered athletes, claiming — speciously — that it could not allow a “political” demonstration. The IOC did honor the 11 in 2016… very pointedly not during the ceremonies themselves but two days before the Games began.

** As One Day in September makes clear, the German government appears to have arranged, with Black September, the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight in October of 1972, as a result of which the three Palestinian survivors of Munich were freed and allowed to emigrate to Libya — an act designed to mitigate its own deep international embarrassment over the manner it which it mishandled the Olympic crisis.

*** I am referring here to the manner in which the hostages were killed. In One Day in September we are told that one of the Palestinian terrorists threw a grenade into the first of two helicopters in which the Israelis were being held, and that the German armed forces accidentally shot up the second. In fact, Black Sunday raked the inhabitants of the first vehicle with bullets before tossing in the grenade, then similarly sprayed the occupants of the second with gunfire. Macdonald’s errors here nearly defy belief, and certainly beggar comprehension. 

Here is My Heart… On My Sleeve, Where You Can’t Miss It: “Moulin Rouge” (1952)

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By Scott Ross

Moulin Rouge is one of the most exquisitely beautiful movies of its time — 65 years after its release its lush images and extraordinary color palette pop off the screen. It’s daringly shot and edited, in a manner that, for a contemporary viewer, feels remarkably modern. (Bob Fosse modeled his style in Cabaret in part on John Huston’s vivid depiction of chic Parisian decadence here, particularly in the exuberant cancan sequence near the beginning.) Yet for all of its thick surface veneer, its bold imagery and twitting of the then-current Production Code ethos, and the sparkle of its verbal aperçus, it’s a resolutely square movie; its narrative arc, and much of its dialogue, is rigidly pedestrian, propelled by the hoariest of “biopic” clichés. There’s enough dazzle in the picture for any ten more conventional-looking movies, but the center somehow cannot hold. Things do not so much fall apart as float away.

Huston, himself a failed artist, clearly intended to evoke not merely La Belle Époque, but the period as refracted through Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and lithographs, and the movie succeeds best as a kind of animated Lautrec tableau, by turns garish and diffused. Working with the superb British cinematographer Oswald Morris, the director frames every shot as a living work of art, yet there’s nothing fussy about their approach. The long opening sequence at the Moulin Rouge has exactly the right haze about it, a chiaroscuro effect of rambunctious high-life as seen through a fog of cigar smoke and cheap liquor. There are also a pair of tours through Lautrec’s artwork, set to music, the first of which is astonishingly avant-garde for 1952; they give little pocket histories of the artist’s development while at the same time exposing images which, because they are the work of an acclaimed visual artist, carry the imprimatur of high culture even as they depict the sort of then-shocking eroticism no Western filmmaker could hope to replicate on a screen for at least another 15 or 20 years. I don’t think this is merely representational, or in any way an accident. Huston was stretching the limits of what was acceptable to a mass audience — and to the official expurgators of popular art. One can only imagine the consternation of the Breen Office when they got a look at it.

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Gabor as Jane Avril.

If a movie could be judged solely on its mise-en-scène, Moulin Rouge could be counted one of the most successful pictures ever made. Alas, narrative art requires more of its makers than the deliverance of arresting imagery, and it’s in the human elements that the picture falters. Huston and Anthony Veiller, who wrote the screenplay, might have been better served by concocting their own fiction; as it was they were dealing with established biography (or, in this case, fictionalized biography; the source was Pierre La Mure’s eponymous novel) and had to focus their narrative on Lautrec’s experience. It takes nothing from the pathos of that life to note that the story, such as it is, involves two tropes, both baldly overstated in words: That of the misunderstood artist and of the man of deformity who believes he can never be loved, only either scorned or pitied. That’s almost too much for any moviemaker to contend with, and Huston was far from the most sensitive man who ever looked through a viewfinder. Another nearly insurmountable obstacle is the genuinely terrible score by Georges Auric, which telegraphs every emotion (and, in the case of events such as Lautrec’s fateful adolescent accident, every fall) in the worst 1940s Hollywood manner. The song he composed for Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor), “Le long de la Seine” (“It’s April Again”) has a melancholic loveliness, however, graced by a beautiful and appropriately impressionist English lyric by the screenwriter Paul Dehn. It gained great notoriety later as, variously, “Here is My Heart” and “Song from Moulin Rouge,” with appropriately terrible pop lyrics of the sort that used to make record buyers swoon and poets cringe.

It’s difficult for me to judge Jose Ferrer’s central performance, because he has always seemed to me the sort of insufferable ham who overplays by underplaying. And then there is that voice, a basso without profundity, effective in supporting roles (as in The Caine Mutiny and Fedora) but uneasy in a leading role. I still suspect he won that Oscar for Cyrano by surrounding himself, as producer, with a cast even less heroic and histrionically adept than he was. Colette Marchand got herself an Academy Award nomination for playing the object of Laurtrec’s passions, but she’s either purring duplicitously or screeching with rage; she has no middle range. (It doesn’t help that her role devolves into that of a Gallic Bette Davis — in De servitude humaine, perhaps.) Gabor somehow got second billing for an extended cameo, and she looks spectacular, but when she opens her mouth on stage and Muriel Smith’s lyric soprano pours out, you don’t believe it for a moment.

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Ferrer as Lautrec.

The finest performance in the picture is unquestionably that of the great Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hayam, whom Laurtec desires but cannot admit to loving. Flon does more with less than nearly anyone of the period; her sequence as the impoverished Baroness Nagle in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin is, with Michael Redgrave’s, Katina Paxinou’s and Akim Tamiroff’s, one of four magnificent turns in that extravagantly entertaining mélange you can’t quite imagine the movie without. With Flon the slightest look, the merest gesture, the simplest intonation reveal more than most actors can convey in ten pages of dialogue. Among the smaller roles, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee show up (although not in the same scenes) as, respectively, Mryiamme’s would-be paramour and the pointillist Georges Seurat, later of course to become the subject of a vastly superior study of art by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim.

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Suzanne Flon.

Ralph Kamplen’s occasionally kinetic editing, Julia Squire’s delicious costumes, and the mouth-watering décor by Marcel Vertès and Paul Sheriff could scarcely be bettered, and the splendid photographer Eliot Elisofon was credited as “special color consultant.” Vertès and Sheriff duly won Academy Awards; Morris, whose color work here stands with the finest ever achieved in a motion picture, was not even nominated. There’s a metaphor in that somewhere, or maybe a lesson. But like the articulated themes of Moulin Rouge it’s probably too obvious to state outright.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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The cancan at Moulin Rouge in full roar.

The nature of man: The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)

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By Scott Ross

John Huston revered literature, but he made his best movies by adapting the second rate. He seemed never to quite understand that a great novel is not merely a good story, well-drawn characters or even memorable dialogue. Greatness in prose is a matter of style, and style, as with exceptional descriptive passages, cannot be transmogrified from one medium to another. Thus — with the single, notable exception of adapting The Dead* — when his sights were lowered, he often achieved the greatness he sought and which so often eluded him when tackling The Great Novel. (Moby Dick will do as an example.)

When I use the term “second-rate,” I imply nothing derogatory. Who, after all, relishing a good mystery, would not have been proud to have written The Maltese Falcon? Huston fared better with plays — there’s little to be ashamed of in his transliteration to the screen of Maxwell Anderson’s Key Largo, and his movie of The Night of the Iguana is, arguably, the finest of all Tennessee Williams screen adaptations — and his best literary translations are from the lower but by no means trashier rungs of literature: The mystery (Falcon could scarcely be bettered in this regard), the spy thriller (The Kremlin Letter), the action-romance (The African Queen), the Western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the black-comedy crime saga admittedly a fairly exclusive genre (Prizzi’s Honor) or even the imperialist boy’s own adventure (The Man Who Would Be King). While I know that it is revered by almost everyone else, I am left cold by Huston’s adaptation of The Asphalt Jungle; I much prefer his screen edition of Philip MacDonald’s The List of Adrian Messenger. As neat a little whodunnit as can be imagined, the picture also has the benefit of brevity: Its pleasures fit very comfortably within its 94 minute running-time, even if certain aspects of the narrative are, on the one hand, outré and unnecessary and, on the other, tend to stick in the craw.

Chief among the former is the movie’s disguise gimmick which, while in keeping with the m.o. of the picture’s mass-murdering villain, is not especially well carried off, despite being devised by Bud Westmore; the various false faces look exactly that: false. Further, the entire enterprise is something of a cheat, in that some of Kirk Douglas’ supposed impersonations were carried out by another actor (Jan Merlin), some of the cameos are voiced by a second (Paul Frees) and Burt Lancaster, one of the picture’s ballyhooed guest-stars (and who include Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra) doesn’t appear in the picture at all, until his on-screen unmasking at the end. But more troubling is what was likely Huston’s major interest in making the movie at all.

The filmmaker moved to Ireland in the 1950s, occupied a manor and became the local Master at Hounds. Gore Vidal, writing about Teddy Roosevelt’s vaunted love of the physical and his veneration of the manly art of killing, often referred to the sissy’s need to overcompensate. Huston was an equally sickly child, and one senses in his enthusiasms for bullying, womanizing, fisticuffs and the shooting down of animals (not to mention his nausea over homosexuality) a similar preoccupation. Fox-hunting played a great role in his self-imposed Irish exile, and The List of Adrian Messenger contains perhaps the most fulsome celebration of that sick-making blood-sport ever committed to film. Add to this the implicit veneration of the peerage, and it becomes difficult to overlook aspects of the picture unsettling to those of a more egalitarian or humane bent. Confronted at the start of the climactic hunt by a group of placard-waving protesters, one of whom chastises him with “What harm has the fox done to you?” the insufferable Master (Clive Brook) ripostes, “The fox and l know more of life than you do. It is man’s nature to hunt. It is the fox’s to be hunted.” Aside from its speciousness, this pompous, self-justifying statement elides one very important part of the equation: The fox is, primarily, a hunter, with few natural mortal enemies, only one of whom hunts him purely for sport. And what sport! Or is watching a pack of hounds tearing a living animal to shreds your idea of a good time too? Brook’s character earlier rails against the North American practice of “dragging” — running a scented cloth over the grounds to confuse the dogs — as “an abomination.” What he himself is pleased to perpetuate is a far greater, and far less innocent, abomination.

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Foxes and Hounds: George C. Scott lures his suspect toward a final unmasking.

These cavils to one side, The List of Adrian Messenger is, in the main, an intelligent, amusing yarn, vividly shot (apart from some embarrassing rear-screen work) in crisp, clear deep-focus black and white by Joseph MacDonald, and deliciously scored by Jerry Goldsmith, using as his motif a curious little oboe-accented march that Kurt Weill might well have composed in the 1920s. Stunt-casting aside, the movie is perfectly played by its largely splendid cast: George C. Scott, affecting a “good show, old boy” Mayfair accent; Douglas, relishing his ingenious duplicity as the killer; Jacques Roux as a charming Gallic Watson to Scott’s Sherlock Holmes; Herbert Marshall radiating veddy British stoicism as a stuffy representative of the law; and, most deliciously, Marcel Dalio and Gladys Cooper in a very funny turn as a marquess and her preening phony of a second husband. Tony Huston, the director’s unfortunate son — you’ll have to read Lawrence Grobel’s splendid tripartate biography The Hustons to understand that remark — does what I suppose is his best as a most un-British scion to the landed gentry, although the character as presented in his first scene is a perfect horror. You cringe at the sound of this pre-adolescent youth affecting Old Boy dialogue, interchangeable from that of his 80 year-old reactionary stiff of a grandfather, knowing that the peerage, like Douglas’ killer, has claimed yet another victim.

*The Red Badge of Courage has its partisans, but what we have of that was too truncated by studio hands to represent Huston’s complete vision.

 

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

Peddling disaster: Wrong is Right (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks is one of those odd Hollywood characters auteurists  can’t pin down, and that’s irksome to them. They want consistency of vision; content is less important to them than a measurable idiosyncratic (preferably “personal”) style. And while I can see no particular pattern in Brooks’ work as a writer-director, nor an especially consistent style, I don’t mind that in the least: Sidney Lumet’s style changed from picture to picture, and he made some of the finest American movies of the last 60 years. What I think unites Lumet and Brooks is that they shared a sense that style and approach are, rightly, dictated by content and form. There’s little that unites, say, Elmer Gantry and The Professionals, or and Bite the Bullet, except that the man who made them was highly intelligent, often witty, and inevitably humane.

Wrong is Right was Brooks’ penultimate movie, and it was pretty much ignored by audiences of the time, who were moving deep into the Reagan Dream and didn’t wish to be disturbed from their sleep. Besides, after Network, who wanted to see another hyperkinetic satire on television? But, while Wrong is Right comes to many of the same conclusions as Network did, the picture is not warmed-over Chayefsky. If anything, it has more in common with the later Wag the Dog in its black-humored cynicism about the intersection of show biz and politics, and with Larry Gelbart’s late, almost despairing, conclusions (in work such as his Weapons of Mass Distraction) about the intractable mess Bill Clinton created with his disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has in the interim destroyed the entire concept of a free press, without which democracy cannot flourish, or even function. Twenty years after All the President’s Men celebrated the professional ethics of two dogged, independent Washington Post reporters, Clinton seemed intent on killing the very notion of a press independent of corporate ownership, much as Jeff Bezos has succeeded in turning that very paper into a conduit for CIA and DNC propaganda disguised as news. In the current journalistic void, where almost nothing one sees, hears or reads in the corporate media may be trusted, Wrong is Right seems positively prescient.

Brooks based his screenplay on a thriller by Charles McCarry concerning the collision of a bitter American revolutionary, a star American reporter, and the President. Transferring the revolutionary aspect to the Middle East, the filmmaker fashioned a wild, engaging satire that, if only occasionally delivering a line that makes you laugh out loud, is never less than thoroughly engaging. Brooks’ reporter here is an adventurer-turned-journalist (Sean Connery), his revolutionary an Arabian terrorist (Henry Silva, of all people) and his President (George Grizzard) a football-obsessed career politician intent on winning a close election with a Reaganesque hack (Leslie Neilsen). Added to this already heady brew is a gung-ho General called Wombat (Robert Conrad); a serpentine CIA chief (G.D. Spradlin); a ratings-mad network honcho (Robert Webber) who could quite easily be mistaken for Les Moonves giggling about how much money CBS was making from the Trump candidacy; a smart, savvy, main-chance grabbing black female Vice-President (Rosalind Cash) bearing the last name of Carter’s predecessor; a natty international arms dealer (Hardy Krüger) who, as these types tend, isn’t concerned with who gets a pair of nuclear bombs, as long as he gets the cash; and a slick, opportunistic Presidential aid (Dean Stockwell) the like of whom Aaron Sorkin would never have presented on The West Wing. (John Saxon also shows up, as a CIA agent who is the last word in sangfroid, Katherine Ross appears—all too briefly for my taste—as a journalist with a secret life, and Ron Moody contributes a neat cameo as the Mideast potentate who sets the whole, blazing ball rolling. As an added frisson for the modern viewer, a young Jennifer Jason Leigh pops up as a teenager only slightly less appalling than Leigh herself became as an adult.)

Although Wrong is Right clocks in at nearly two hours, the pace of the picture is so fast there is never the slightest opportunity for longueurs. That breakneck structure is attained largely through Brooks’ tight, economical (and rather bracingly theatrical) writing style, as a word or phrase uttered by one character leads directly to its echo in the mouth of another, sometimes continents away. Metaphorically, Brooks’ dialogue plums the rich vein usually mined by Gelbart himself; think of the ironically malaprop-spouting Colonel Flagg as the progenitor of nearly every character, and you get a sense of the keen wit and wordplay Brooks invests into what, on the surface, is the stuff of international thrillers. The look of the picture is itself almost like TV itself as it once was: The cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp’s use of deep-focus and bright color would not have been out of place in a Universal television movie of the week. And if the infrequent use of special effects is somewhat shoddy, those moments pass quickly enough—although, in the immediate post-Star Wars era, they must have seemed pretty shoddy to those moviegoers who actually purchased a ticket.

As a taste of Brooks’ delicious dramaturgical style, here’s Connery’s Patrick Hale after he has suggested to Webber that the network obtain Hardy’s suitcase bombs and been rebuked with the accusation that he’s practicing “checkbook journalism”:

What kind of journalism was it when television paid half a million dollars for an exclusive on the Bay of Pigs? A million dollars to Nixon, to apologize coast to coast? CBS paid Haldeman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. NBC paid John Dean and Robert Kennedy’s assassin. ABC paid Lieutenant Calley, and for breakfast, served up the My Lai massacre. And what about the killer I put on television? From death row to the electric chair, fried meat on prime time. You paid $100,000 for that. Paid it to the killer! Do you call that journalism?

We’re in show business, baby. Make them laugh. Make them cry . Make them buy, by and by. We peddle disaster. Violence—it’s commercial! Blood and tears and football and cheers. Performers, superstars. Get them on, get them off. Next, next, fast, fast! We’re in the entertainment business, and there’s nothing wrong with that… if you call it that.

That no one in the business now will call it that makes Wrong is Right a movie less out of time than far ahead of it.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

Black Sunday (1977) “What exactly is this Super Bowl?”

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By Scott Ross

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Robert Shaw, in contemplative mode as the Mossad agent David Kabakov. Note concentration camp tattoo, which thankfully goes unmentioned. It would be gilding the narrative lily to do so – and the image itself makes its own statement.

Black Sunday could probably not be made today—or at least, not the same way. Doubtless its depiction of utterly ruthless Arab and Palestinian terrorists would raise an outcry no Hollywood studio would be comfortable attracting to a big-budget thriller. Never mind that the Israeli agents portrayed in the picture are every bit as unsparing, or that the 1975 Thomas Harris novel on which it was based was written in the early–to-mid 1970s, long before the attacks of 9-11 financed if not indeed carried out by Our Friends, the Saudis but not long after the internationally televised atrocity at the Olympic Village in Munich. If I am skeptical of Movieland suits in this matter it is not that I wish to see Semitic peoples vilified. We’ve had quite enough of that, inside Hollywood and out. But Harris’ bestselling novel (his first, predating the Hannibal Lecter series by half a decade) was surely written in part as a response to Munich, and as a commentary on the viciousness, not of Palestinians or Arabs generally, but of the Black Sunday group itself. (Add that his protagonist, the Israeli David Kabakov, is, as he tells a confederate, beginning to question and thus no good to the Mossad, and you have an idea of Thomas’ ambivalent approach.) Rather I am pointing out that generating such a movie now would take more spinal and intestinal fortitude than can habitually be found among the studio brigade, terrified as they are of taking chances—something their 1970s counterparts were accustomed to on a routine basis.

Still: Imagine the reaction of Paramount executives to John Frankenheimer’s initial cut, which ended with the Goodyear blimp carrying a deadly cargo designed to kill 80,000 spectators at once crashing over the top tier of the Miami Orange Bowl as the screen goes to black. The End. Not on your nellie, mister! We paid top dollar for that goddamned book, and it’s not ending that way! Frankenheimer (who surely should have known he couldn’t get away with it) was forced to shoot additional sequences that conformed more closely to Harris’ book (although Kabakov does not go down with the ship—er, blimp—as he does in the novel) and it’s a good thing he was. Audiences who sat through a splendidly exciting two hour thriller to be greeted with that ending would have been ready to set a bomb off under the filmmakers themselves. The foregoing presumably accounts for Black Sunday’s unusually long running time (2 hours, 23 minutes) and the presence in its credits of three screenwriters (the estimable Ernest Lehman and Ivan Moffat as well as Kenneth Ross, the scenarist of the Day of the Jackal adaptation.) It may also explain some rather paltry blue-screen imagery in the movie’s final quarter hour, surely not the fault of John A. Alonzo, the movie’s accomplished director of photography. Not that any of it did Paramount much good: By the time the movie was in release, it had been beaten to the nation’s screens by a cheapjack Charlton Heston Super Bowl disaster picture called Two-Minute Warning, and, while it was the studio’s biggest grosser in 1977, it still didn’t do enough business to matter. No one’s pictures did that year, except a certain space-fantasy released by 20th Century-Fox.

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The aftermath of the bomb test: Bruce Dern extols the beauty of its symmetry to an unnerved Marthe Keller. One of John A. Alonzo’s most eloquent visual effects.

Cavils aside, Black Sunday was and remains a superb example of the thriller genre, at which Frankenheimer excelled. He was, of course, a brilliant director of drama as well—All Fall Down, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Fixer, The Gypsy Moths, The Iceman Cometh—but it is as an assured maker of action pictures that his larger reputation rests: Seven Days in May, The Train, Seconds, French Connection II, The Challenge, Ronin and, supremely, The Manchurian Candidate. The sheer logistics in his pictures took a steady head, and here Frankenheimer not only staged an exciting speed-boat chase and an agonizing, long, palm-dampening climax but had as well to accommodate thousands of sports fans at an Orange Bowl event. Not to mention the presumably nervous heads of the Goodyear Company. There is a single, continuous panning shot late in the movie which begins by following the car driven by Marthe Keller, floats up to the top tier of the Orange Bowl; and down again onto the field to pick up Robert Shaw’s eminently familiar face that is as breathtaking as it is un-ostentatious. It’s the kind of thing Spielberg became a master of, but very few picture makers other than perhaps David Lean could have carried off at that time with such seeming nonchalance.

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The producer, Robert Evans, with Frankenheimer on-set.

Keller herself is problematic, as she so often was, and the script fudges her character’s origins to oblige her Germanic roots, but the lethal Dahlia should ideally have been played by an Arabian actress. Then again, which one would have been an acceptable enough substitution to feature above the title? No such qualms concern Bruce Dern as the movie’s chief psychopath. It’s the sort of role that Dern must have resented at the time (they came to him so often) but he triumphs over the typecasting. That Michael Lander is a Vietnam vet could have been problematic. This was, after all, the era of the Nixonian lie which claimed without any evidence that such soldiers were spat on in airports, and in which so many convenient fictional villains were vets.

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Dern’s Michael Lander in full-on madman mode. Keller’s Dahlia knows him too well to register surprise.

Michael’s experiences as a prisoner of war reduced to a coerced statement of Quisling complicity by his captors during the war, and subjected to unconscionably cavalier bureaucratic treatment by the brass after, counteract that conventional narrative ploy, making him emotionally unpredictable in a way the audience can easily comprehend… although it must be said that the Michael of the movie is nowhere near as frightening a figure as he is in Harris’ book; there’s a moment in the latter where, to make a point, he pushes a kitten down a kitchen sink garbage-disposal that shocked me when I read it AT 15, and has remained vivid in my consciousness ever after. Really, I’d prefer to see that nowhere aside from the cinema of my mind.

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Detente: Shaw with the marvelous Walter Gottel.

Shaw must have relished both his paycheck, his top billing, and the opportunity to play a quietly heroic (if perhaps necessarily pitiless) hero after so many years of villainy: As that cold sociopath “Red” Grant in From Russia with Love (1963), a scarily mercurial Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, the equally dangerous Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, the chilling Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the Ahab-like Quint of Jaws, and even the Sheriff of Nottingham, in Robin and Marian. Kabakov is as dangerous as any of these, but more messily human. It is, after all, his unwillingness to gun down the vulnerable Dahlia at the beginning of the picture that makes the entire Black Sunday operation in Miami possible.

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Fritz Weaver with Shaw in the extended, nerve-wracking climax.

The great Fritz Weaver does his usual impeccable work as Kabakov’s FBI coeval; Michael V. Gazzo turns up as a sleazy go-between subjected to a typically brutal bit of questioning by the Israeli (whose ironic nickname in the Mossad is “The Final Solution”); William Daniels provides a nice turn as a sympathetic V.A. psychologist; and Walter Gotell, the splendidly multifarious General Gogol of the Roger Moore Bonds, shows up as a finely-judged Arabian ambassador. Frankenheimer himself can be glimpsed, briefly, in what those who worked with would recognize as his occasionally manic directorial mode as a CBS television director. In this splendid ensemble only the rather blank-faced Keller fails to land. The character of Dahlia was altered here from Palestinian in the Harris novel to German to accommodate her obvious Swiss origins, but her presence among so fine a cast is a puzzler. Then again, the entirety of her 1970s stardom itself never made a great deal of sense to me. She isn’t terrible, but she’s barely adequate, and, in this company, that’s nearly as bad.

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Shaw’s brutal interrogation of Michael V. Gazzo

Mention should be made here of Tom Rolph’s kinetic editing, and of Alonzo’s use of the hand-held camera, becoming rarer in those early days of the Steadicam and used here for its deliberate effect of documentary immediacy. John Williams was, at the time, not yet a household name even after composing the then-ubiquitous Jaws theme. (In a couple of months, everyone would know his name.) This may account for Paramount’s deigning to release a soundtrack album, which seems to me to have been a major miscalculation, as Williams’ score is absolutely integral to the success of the picture. (It was, thankfully, released in full thirty-three years later by Film Score Monthly.) Its main theme is an ominous twelve-note phrase (three clusters of four notes each, with a single variation in the second phrase) that, repeated, becomes a melodic accompaniment to Frankenheimer’s visuals, sowing the seeds of dread early on (although not, interestingly, during the picture’s opening credits, which are played out sans music) and carrying through to the end titles, during which a nervously triumphant fanfare takes over, one that anticipates similar thematic phrases in Williams’ later scores for Dracula and The Fury (both 1978) and that hints at an uneasy truce. This isn’t The End, that composition seems to suggest, merely a temporary lull—a sentiment his compatriot Spielberg would one day echo at the end of his own depiction of terrorism and its bloody aftermath. That we end with a nod to Munich seems appropriate to the inspiration for Black Sunday itself. Such calculated ideological violence is itself a circle, a deafening parabola from whose deathish, ironic reverberations we never seem to learn.

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Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Not With My Wife, You Don’t! (1966)

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By Scott Ross

Relatively intelligent marital farce bearing evidence of too many cooks (three screenwriters—never a good sign—among them Larry Gelbart and Peter Barnes, who later wrote The Ruling Class… what the hell was he doing here?), a couple of overextended sequences that added nothing but time to the material, and a few genuine belly-laughs, most of them having to do with an overheated Italian movie spoof; George C. Scott was never funnier than when he was overdoing it, and he overdid it blissfully there. A perky ’60s score by “Johnny” Williams, a nice Johnny Mercer lyric to go with the main titles, good color photography (by Charles Lang), and Virna Lisi, next to whom almost anyone other than Sophia Loren seemed wan and undernourished. One of those Norman Panama productions that reminds you why no one ever talks about Norman Panama today. If they ever did.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross