Breaking the Pain Barrier: Blake Edwards and Inspector Clouseau

Standard

By Scott Ross

Peter Bogdanovich is fond of citing an anecdote involving the screenwriter-director Leo McCarey, a nightclub gathering and a painstakingly prepared (and casually undone) bow-tie as an example of extending comic effect: What, in the trade, is called “topping the topper.”* Blake Edwards was equally enamored of one McCarey told him, about being on a hospital patients’ panel and hearing an elderly woman’s personal story of piled-up woe, the last element of which — her husband being blown in a freak accident through the wall of his hospital room and into the maternity ward — reduced to hysterical laughter not only the civilian McCarey but the medical personnel on the panel as well. The woman’s history wasn’t remotely funny; indeed, it was genuinely, agonizingly tragic. It was simply the appalling accumulation of painful detail that made that last, fatal indignity so irrepressibly hilarious — the description of that final explosion to her listeners, McCarey said, “broke the pain barrier.” Edwards also liked to elaborate on one of McCarey’s simple silent-comedy set-ups, concerning a character bidding his sweetheart farewell as she embarks on a streetcar, that evolved into a series of perfect toppers, a comic paradigm the younger man ever bore in mind as he constructed his own. Edwards, who more than any of his contemporaries both revered and meticulously studied the great comic masters of the silent era, was also unique in successfully replicating, and building on, their effects. Although there have been countless attempts to revive the slapstick gag in the decades since talking pictures arrived, few in sound pictures have ever really worked. Edwards’ nearly always do.

I am, obviously, generalizing; there have been many successful comedians since the silent era who utilized physical comedy successfully (Laurel and Hardy are the most obvious examples, and we can certainly include The Three Stooges) and some filmmakers who, while perhaps not being known primarily as comedy directors, could either make a very good one (What’s Up, Doc?, Bogdanovich’s often hilarious 1972 screwball, comes to mind) or insert a slapstick moment or two into their otherwise largely verbal comedies in a way that showed how well their makers understood what makes physical humor work. I’m thinking particularly of Billy Wilder, whose occasional employment of a broad physical gag in, say, The Major and the Minor or Some Like it Hot, results in riotously funny moments precisely because he and his co-scenarists were so adept at setting them up, and Wilder as the director so expert at framing them. Conversely, the periodic, and almost completely un-motivated, bursts of wild physical mayhem in the comedies of Preston Sturges nearly always leave the muscles of my face entirely unmoved. Sturges doesn’t really understand physical humor — he just throws it in now and then to reduce a character’s dignity, or for its own sake: Think of the Ale and Quail Club in The Palm Beach Story, for example, or of the many unfunny pratfalls poor Henry Fonda has to take in The Lady Eve and how these moments diminish (although, it must be admitted, never fatally) those otherwise peerless social comedies.

I’ve often thought that perhaps the reason violent humor in sound pictures so often falls flat has to do with the silence of silent comedies; you could see a scream of pain, but you couldn’t hear it. The sounds of anguish disturb us, and can kill humor pretty quickly. Not always, obviously: Oliver Hardy cries out in pain a great deal in his sound shorts and features with Stan Laurel, and we still laugh. Indeed, sometimes, as in their very first sound comedy, the 1929 Unaccustomed As We Are, the bleat Ollie makes off-screen as Edgar Kennedy punches his nose is, because we don’t actually witness the blow, all the funnier. It is character, then, and logic, that make the difference. And Edwards, virtually alone among physical comedy directors of the post-War era, understood how to create characters to whom slapstick violence can happen without our wincing in empathy, to build a series of effective gags, why they were amusing to begin with, and how to pile up the incident so that it breaks the pain barrier and plunges the audience into the same helpless laughter that gripped that patients’ panel.

I would argue that Edwards’ finest use of the McCarey principle is the long party sequence near the beginning of the 1981 S.O.B during which Richard Mulligan, standing in for Edwards himself and walking around in a daze of deeply numbing depression, repeatedly attempts to commit suicide, each foray leading ultimately to someone else’s distress or pain, a situation so fraught with mental and physical anguish that, when Edwards tops the topper, resulting in a falling body breaking Loretta Swit’s hip, there is no possible recourse except laughter; Mulligan’s genuine mental and emotional agony breaks the pain barrier. (That this sequence was inspired by one of Edwards’ own suicide attempts is instructive; even at his most despairing, the filmmaker was able to see the dark humor of the situation.) But the writer-director’s most consistent, and consistently hilarious, employment of the pain barrier concept are the comedies featuring that absolute embodiment of — to mix languages alarmingly — sangfroid in extremis, the supernally confident, utterly oblivious, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, whose collected oeuvre I have just revisited.

pinkpanthercollection

Watching the contents of Shout! Factory’s Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther Film Collection Starring Peter Sellers boxed set of Blu-Rays amply confirms both Edwards’ elegance and wit as a writer and filmmaker and his ability to set up, sustain, build and explode elaborate physical gags. It helps, of course, that Clouseau is, in essence, a cartoon character: Wile E. Coyote, perhaps, or Tom of the Tom and Jerry shorts. Unlike Herbert Lom’s more mortal Chief Inspector Dreyfus, Clouseau can be injured slightly, or electrocuted, or fall through ceilings, or be blown through walls like the poor old man in Leo McCarey’s hospital story, but always returns to the scene in one piece, and with no encumbering casts, crutches or plaster bandages. (Although he does occasionally sport fried hair, or carry lingering traces of smoke.) It is his sheer indomitability as much as his perpetual and unnatural dignity in the face of a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to do or say precisely the wrong thing in any given situation, his bizarre mispronunciations, even the way attempts to rid the earth of Clouseau repeatedly result in the violent deaths of others, that ultimately drives poor Dreyfus mad.

Interestingly, the character’s extremes were arrived at pretty much by accident: While preparing to film his and Maurice Richler’s script for The Pink Panther in Rome in 1963, Edwards found himself abandoned by his original Clouseau, Peter Ustinov, in a contretemps over his putative screen wife Ava Gardner’s backing out of the project. Desperate, Edwards contacted Peter Sellers, who agreed immediately, and who began to flesh out what was intended as a supporting character with so much comedic invention that the writer-director re-conceptualized the role as filming went on. David Niven, the star of The Pink Panther, to his eternal and gentlemanly credit, agreed that Clouseau was becoming a more important figure, reckoning that whatever helped the picture succeed would redound to his own good fortune. As the movie stands, Sellers is demonstrably not the star, but shares that status comfortably with the ever-ingratiating Niven, bifurcating the picture’s narrative rather perfectly. When, the following year Edwards was faced with saving the troubled movie adaptation of Harry Kurnitz’s play A Shot in the Dark‡, he hit upon the happy notion of reviving Clouseau and making him its center. Witty and elegant overall, The Pink Panther becomes, with the addition of Sellers, comedically sublime. But The Pink Panther is to its immediate successor as the musical Company is to the later Follies: The necessary step. Splendid in itself, but despite its riches somewhat undernourished in comparison.


 

The Pink Panther - Peter Sellers and David Niven

Clouseau and The Phantom face off. Interestingly, when the Pink Panther attempts Niven’s maneuver during the main titles, it quite literally blows up in his roseate animated face.

The Pink Panther (1963) was Edwards and Richler’s variation on Raffles, a comparison made manifest, if not unavoidable, by the casting of Niven, who had played Raffles in 1939, as Sir Charles Lytton, aka “The Phantom,” an international playboy and secret jewel thief whose calling-card, left behind at each theft, is a white glove with a glittery “P” embroidered onto it. That The Pink Panther is a comedy and not a mystery, or even — like the later A Shot in the Dark and The Return of the Pink Panther — a comic mystery, is evident from the beginning, when Sir Charles’ compatriot (and, it is eventually revealed, his lover) Simone (Capucine) is shown to be the wife of Inspector Clouseau in disguise. Edwards and Richlin thus put horns on Clouseau early on, and provide an additional irony: The very woman Clouseau is searching for to bring him closer to the Phantom is his own mate. The fun of the picture, aside from the pleasure of watching Edwards’ obvious gift at placing his camera in the only place possible to best prolong his gags and to capture their payoffs, lies in watching the filmmaker juggle his characters, the guilty and the unknowing just missing each other, like the participants of a Feydeau farce slamming the doors of an overstuffed hotel suite.

And indeed at the halfway point, Edwards and Richlin serve up a Feydeau comedy in miniature during the long, breathtakingly inspired sequence in the Clouseaus’ Italian Alps hotel room. The Clouseaus have (presumably at Madame Clouseau’s instigation) the room adjoining Sir Charles’ suite, complete unto a convenient, hidden shared door. Edwards and Richlin have already tantalized us with a previous, five-minute sequence in the Clouseau’s room which Edwards began with his camera focused on the edge of the Clouseaus’ double-bed and which he holds on, even after Clouseau extinguishes the bedroom light. It’s a typically elegant Edwardsian set-up: We need not really see anything clearly to be amused by what is going on, as the inspector is repeatedly made to abandon the bed to do Simone’s bidding, culminating (naturally) in his stepping through the Stradivarius he has been serenading her with in a fashion that would cause even Jack Benny to blanch. Yet, this is merely the beginning of the filmmakers’ ingenuity. The scenarists now give us, in a second Jacques/Simone sequence, fifteen minutes of superbly contrived and exquisitely controlled physical comedy during which Simone Clouseau must contend, not only with her husband’s amorous advances, but with the unexpected appearances of, first, Sir Charles’ randy young nephew George (Robert Wagner) and, later, of Sir Charles himself, to each of whose presence she must keep the other in ignorance, and hide from her husband. It is during this alternately manic and leisurely two-reeler-within-a-film that Sellers’ Clouseau takes over the picture and becomes more than a character in a movie; at one and the same time the actor conjures and cements his status as a comedic icon before our dazzled eyes.

The Pink Panther titles

The title card from Friz Freleng’s superb animated credits, as elegant in their own way as Edwards’ direction of the picture.

While Sellers is the source of the lion’s share of the picture’s physical humor, Niven is the butt of two splendid gags, the best of which involves his falling into (and nonchalantly walking out of) a massive Alpine snowbank; Capucine memorably chokes on her drink and, later, slides exquisitely off the satin sheets of a bed as Clouseau attempts to make love to her; and Wagner gets a funny bathtub sequence and shares with Niven a brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, extended silent-comedy scene involving two identical gorilla costumes and an empty safe that McCarey (who created the marvelous silent mirror sequence between Groucho and Harpo in Duck Soup) might have been proud to have concocted. It is Clouseau, however, who, alone among these figures, incorporates the slapstick into his character. To catch his fingers in a spinning globe, reach up and slap a metal fireplace hood with his unprotected palm or destroy a priceless violin is as much a part of him as his mustache and the white trench-coat he habitually wears and which, to him, symbolizes his position and indeed his very identity.

With Clouseau, to be accident-prone is not enough; he must gloss over his innate physical ineptitude, or pretend it’s the result of a deliberate calculation (“I know that!“). In no other way can he maintain the absurd dignity without which his entire persona would dissolve into a complete and insignificant ruin. Edwards and Sellers enjoy puncturing this utterly unearned sense of authority whenever they can, as when Clouseau leans over in the hotel hallway to peer up at an ascending Sir Charles and forgets he’s holding a glass of milk… which pours suggestively onto the floor and which, like a later bottle of champagne that explodes in the Clouseaus’ bed, is the perfect comic embodiment of the detective’s perennial impotency with his wife. (Or, indeed, throughout the series, with any woman he romances.) It is this aplomb in the face of his own, demonstrable incompetence, much more than his increasingly impenetrable accent, that solidifies Sellers’ Clouseau as one of the great comic institutions of American movies. Yet even at the end, when he has unwittingly “revealed” himself in court as the Phantom, Clouseau triumphs: Faced with his own sudden notoriety and instant irresistibility to women, he answers a policeman’s admiring, “How did you manage it?” with a slight, smug little smile and the contented response, “Well, you know… it wasn’t easy.”

Not quite a patch on “The son of a bitch stole my watch” or “Well, nobody’s perfect” in the classic, switcheroo last-line department, but a respectable third, wholly and hilariously in character.


While A Shot in the Dark (1964) lacks the charm with which Niven, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale infuse The Pink Panther, it is far funnier, in part because Sellers is in nearly every scene but also because Edwards and his co-scenarist, William Peter Blatty (yes, that William Peter Blatty), expand the contours of Clouseau’s persona, and his insular universe. Now single, he lives not alone but with a Chinese manservant, the redoubtable Cato (Bert Kwouk), whose major duty appears to be keeping the inspector in trim by attacking him “wherever and whenever possible.” William Luhr and Peter Lehrman, in the first of their two critical studies of Edwards, find in this situation a homosexual identification, but they are reading far too much into an innocent, if admittedly outré, comic set-up. As with the milieu of Laurel and Hardy, it is specious, even hysterical (if not downright suspect) to assign sexual identity to what is essentially a fantasy world. Stan and Ollie are grown-up children, with the logic and reactions of young boys. And Clouseau, like Bugs Bunny, transcends the strict psycho-sexual readings of both nervous heterosexual academics and overly literal gay fans.

A Shot in the Dark - Sellers and Kwouk

Not tonight, Cato!: The immortal Bert Kwouk struggles with Sellers in A Shot in the Dark.

It is with A Shot in the Dark too that Edwards and Blatty introduce the character who, more than any other, will complicate and brighten the Clouseau pictures. In the interestingly named Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and the inspired performances of Herbert Lom, the series gains perhaps its most necessary element: A character who sees Jacques Clouseau precisely as the audience does, and is driven insane, not merely by Clouseau’s stunning incompetence, but the way in which that blazingly obvious inanity somehow always manages to triumph, and for which his hopeless underling is consistently rewarded. Worse, of course, is Dreyfus’ own lethal inadequacy; Clouseau, for all his incompetence, never causes the death of an innocent bystander (as opposed, in The Pink Panther Strikes Again and Revenge of the Pink Panther, to unintentionally dispatching a covey of assassins), whereas in his homicidal madness Dreyfus’ path is littered with the bodies of those he inadvertently murders trying to get at his nemesis. These deaths too break the pain barrier; one laughs, not at the killings, but at how they are brought about, and at the increasing dementia they bring on in the murderer. By the end of A Shot in the Dark there is scarcely a supporting character left standing, or in one piece.

Edwards’ enviable control as a director of comedy is made manifest during the astonishing pre-title sequence, in which, to the accompaniment of a marvelously overheated Henry Mancini ballad, he holds on the back side of a suburban mansion for nearly four-and-a-half minutes, the camera craning smoothly up and down as various amatory characters climb and descend staircases, flit in and out of bedroom doorways and evade each other’s notice, a breathtaking feat of comic timing which marks a dizzying evolution in Edwards’ elegant approach to screen humor. (Compare this with the highly-touted dormitory set Jerry Lewis had built for his 1961 The Ladies’ Man and which he uses in an extended sequence that, because it adds little or nothing to the narrative, reeks of an actor-turned-filmmaker showing off: “Look at me! I’m a director!“) A later sequence with Sellers in a nudist colony is only slightly less impressive — although admittedly much funnier — as is the superb running-gag of Clouseau, in the first instance in the series of his penchant for disguises, repeatedly attempting to follow murder suspect Elke Sommer and being picked up by the local gendarmerie for license violations, the physical traces of his latest ruse sticking out of the  back of the police van as Edwards cuts to it racing across the city. Like the car chase through a deserted Roman street populated only by the drivers and a single late-night trattoria-crawler attempting to cross the boulevard with which Edwards climaxes the action in The Pink Panther, these recurring gags exhibit proof positive of the writer/director’s peerless gift for transliterating the techniques of silent comedy to the sound picture with no loss of invention and no diminution whatsoever of audience laughter.


Edwards and Sellers - Return of the Pink Panther

Both Edwards and Sellers fell on difficult times in the late ’60s and early ’70s: Sellers through making far too many bad movies§, Edwards via repeated contretemps with studios (Paramount and MGM) and studio chiefs (Charles Bludhorn, Robert Evans, the serpentine Jim Aubrey) that destroyed his pictures and, ultimately, his ability to work. Following a retreat to Gstaad with his wife Julie Andrews, the couple re-emerged in 1974 with the minor but immensely pleasurable The Tamarind Seed, which restored Edwards’ confidence and provided both him and Andrews a respectable box-office success. With this foundation beneath him, Edwards opted to revive Clouseau, who had latterly been reduced to a Saturday morning cartoon character and diminished through the (non-Edwards) 1968 Alan Arkin vehicle Inspector Clouseau, a picture reputedly so poor as to be virtually unwatchable. Made for $5 million, The Return of the Pink Panther grossed nearly $42 million in the U.S. alone, resurrecting Sellers’ career, putting Edwards back on top and, somewhat perversely, yoking both writer-director and star to the Clouseau franchise… at a time when tensions between the two were so pronounced they could barely communicate with each other. Even well after Sellers’ death, Edwards found he could get funding from MGM/United Artists for anything he wanted to do by promising another Panther, leading ultimately to those deathless classics Curse of the Pink Panther with Ted Wass (who?) and Son of the Pink Panther starring the militantly unfunny Roberto Benigni.

I well recall the delight with which I saw Return on its 1975 release; only once before (at What’s Up, Doc? in 1972) had I laughed that much, that consistently, and that hard, in a movie theatre. By the time Edwards unreeled his achingly funny penultimate gag, I (and presumably everyone else in the packed audience) was limp and sore from continuous and at times gut-busting laughter. While, in retrospect, Edwards over-relies on sadism in Christopher Plummer’s treatment of Graham Stark’s duplicitous Pepi, and even as it isn’t the funniest entry in the series, almost everything about it works. It arguably represents the apogee of the Clouseau/Cato dynamic and of the Dreyfus character; has in Catherine Schell’s Lady Lytton the most satisfying feminine character of the series; is perhaps the best-plotted Clouseau picture after A Shot in the Dark; and, in an era in which American movie comedy was so moribund that, were it not for Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, and apart from mostly regrettable live-action Disney outings, peripheral caper titles (The Sting), comic dramas (Harry and Tonto and Paper Moon), or pitch-black satires (The Hospital and Phantom of the Paradise) there would have been virtually no comedies of note. For all the richness of 1970s cinema — to my mind the last great flowering of American movie-making and the final such Renaissance we are ever likely to get — few of the important filmmakers of the time either knew anything about effective comedy direction, or cared. All of which made Edwards’ assurance and technical sophistication so refreshing then, and, at a time of sour, sarcastic and mean-spirited post-Seinfeld comedy, so very welcome now.

While the otherwise estimable Plummer makes a far colder, and almost infinitely less charming, Sir Charles than did David Niven, the action Edwards and his co-author Frank Waldman devised for the character required a younger and more agile man, especially as regards the elaborate opening sequence, wonderfully scored by Mancini, limning the daring theft of the Pink Panther; since we only find out who the Ninja-like culprit was at the climax, it’s vital we believe Sir Charles capable of it. Likewise, Plummer’s imperturbable sangfroid is sorely needed when faced with Peter Arne’s serpentine Colonel Sharki. Schell was hired to portray Lady Lytton as much for her easy laughter as for her generous good looks or innate comic ability; whether or not the actress is actually breaking up on screen at Sellers’ antics, that the character is so obviously amused by Clouseau’s ineptitude, and so adept at hiding her reactions from him, makes her recurrent parrying with him even more delicious. It’s the only time in the series that one of the Inspector’s foils betrays a winking appreciation of his utter imbecility. Everyone else is either outraged, or takes him seriously.

Return of the Pink Panther - Sellers, Plummer and Schell

“Good Sharki, Colonel God! We were just talking about you!”: Sellers, Peter Arne, Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell in The Return of the Pink Panther.

Sellers is pudgier here than in his previous Clouseau movies, and a bit jowly, but his inspiration is just as clearly in evidence. And it is in The Return of the Pink Panther that the character’s curious mispronunciations make their first appearance. His accent is so exaggerated even the French can’t understand him: Bomb becomes “beumb,” bump “beump,” room “ruem,” monkey “muenky,” and the law “the leu.” It can come as a bit of a shock to those who were introduced to the character with the 1970s Clouseaus, and who then go back to his origins, that in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark Sellers speaks so clearly, his accent comprised of two parts soft French to one part hard Etonian. Clouseau’s later speech is an absurd joke, of course, since everyone on screen is, while he or she is supposed to be speaking French, actually talking in English anyway. But it’s a funny one; Sellers’ encounter with a French shopkeeper determined to sound more Gallic than De Gaulle bequeathed to the Panthers, in verbal terms, what the Pythons’ run-in with an obnoxious Torquay hotelier later gave to Fawlty Towers.

Return-of-the-Pink-Panther-Richard Williams

Following Richard Williams’ and Ken Harris’ glorious, exquisitely designed and animated main title — Harris’ touch is strongly evident in the Panther’s dance moves and, especially, his 180-degree turn perched on the head of a cartoon Sellers —  Edwards introduces this updated Clouseau via a series of gags emphasizing his absent-minded gallantry (saluting a pretty girl on the street, he smacks himself in the eye with his baton), his verbal quirks (“Then the muenky’s brahking the leu!“) and his single-minded — if “mind” is the correct word — pursuit of justice: Haranguing a blind street musician and his chimp, he never notices the bank robbery taking place just behind a plate-glass window and even holds open a door for the thieves. Thus in a single, cunningly devised sequence, Edwards fully establishes the (slightly revised) character for a new audience. This is followed hard on by a Clouseau/Dreyfus confrontation, and an extended Clouseau/Cato encounter emphasizing the filmmaker’s mastery of the full widescreen shot and his willingness to graft riotous new effects onto an established format, as when he not only shoots Clouseau’s flying lunge at Cato and through the top of a Dutch-door in slow-motion but slows down the soundtrack as well, making the detective’s karate cry first hilarious, then excruciatingly funny, as it mutates into a 16-rpm bellow of surprise, terror and pain. And when he repeats this explosive gag at the picture’s climax, topping the topper and making us wait ninety minutes for it, we roar both at the business itself (and how well it’s been staged), and at Edwards’ audacity in pulling off the trick again and making the repetition even funnier the second time.

Similarly, a long sequence in Gstaad involving Clouseau in disguise as a hotel porter making a shambles of Lady Lytton’s suite and doing battle with a “swine” parrot as well as a perverse light-bulb, a high-powered vacuum cleaner, an in-room sauna and a massive masseuse, is a virtual master-class on topping the topper and breaking the pain barrier; it could almost be its own silent two-reeler. And the jokes really build, paying off as the sequence un-spools, or merely repeating for a quick laugh several minutes after their initial introduction. Less elaborate but no less instructive is the way Edwards frames a disastrous attack on Clouseau by Cato in his hotel room, holding on the doorway as Sellers enters the bath, in which we know there is a tub full of water, and is swiftly followed by Kwouk; we hear their screams just before a small tsunami of bathwater cascades into the hallway, and what we imagine is far funnier than what we would have seen had Edwards shot the gag straight-on. Does any comedy director today understand this approach, or why it’s so damn funny? Do any of them care to?


The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) is the silliest of the Clouseaus, and one of the funniest. His brain having, finally, completely cracked due to his foil’s well-meaning interference, Dreyfus becomes a kind of giddy James Bond super-villain, first assembling an army of assassins and, when that fails, threatening the world with a disintegration ray if Clouseau is not killed. (I said it was silly.)  The plot is ludicrous, the special-effects crude and unconvincing, the presence of a butler/drag-queen performer (Michael Robbins) verges on the offensive ‖, the Gerald Ford/Henry Kissinger stand-ins are obvious and flat (Kissinger is too hideous a figure to have fun with and, next to a world-champion bumbler like Clouseau, the somewhat accident-prone Ford was a piker), both Leonard Rossiter and Cloin Blakely are wasted as Scotland Yard officials, and the love story involving Sellers and Leslie Anne Down as a Soviet killer is patently ridiculous; after being made love to by Omar Sharif, whom she mistakes for Clouseau, she defects. Yet the picture is almost profligate with uproarious gags, from the darkly funny psychiatric asylum opening and the Richard Williams titles with their movie hilarious parody/hommages¶, through Dreyfus spying on Clouseau’s apartment from below and preparing a bomb which, thanks to an over-pumped Quasimodo disguise and the detective’s typical dumb luck, fails spectacularly; the parade of frustrated assassins; Clouseau’s hysterically funny encounter with a set of parallel bars and his subsequent wrecking of a priceless antique piano; Graham Stark’s memorable cameo as an ancient hotelier (“That is not my dog”); Clouseau’s achingly funny attempts to scale the drawbridge of Dreyfus’ castle lair; detective and quarry becoming affected by nitrous oxide and screaming with laughter as Clouseau pulls one of his ersatz boss’s teeth (the wrong one, naturally); right up to the explosive finale, an extension of the Quasimodo sequence, in which Sellers, Downe and Kwouk are, in a vague echo of Leo McCarey’s narrative about the tragic hospital patient, thrown through the wall of Clouseau’s apartment and dumped, hilariously, into the Seine. And even that topper has a topper, with Williams’ final movie parody during the end titles.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again - Sellers

The Pink Panther Strikes Again: Clouseau demonstrates his facility, such as it is, with the nunchaku. Note the pleasing salmon in the background. The filmmaker clearly appreciated pastels, and how they photographed in color and widescreen; where almost everyone else’s comedies of the time were either garish-looking, or dull, Edwards’ interiors are full of soft, well-matched colors that contrast perfectly with the often absurd action taking place within them.

The picture also contains Mancini’s best Clouseau score, and one of the finest of his long career. One of the most difficult jobs for a movie composer to pull off is to score comedy without resorting either to “mickeymousing” or attempting to sound funny. Vic Mizzy did it wonderfully, as have John Morris, David Shire and Dave Grusin, but its masters are few. Mancini approached scoring humor much as Edwards did filming it: Seriously. While his Clouseau compositions are timed to the physical action, very rarely are they demonstrably amusing in themselves. More often they are suspenseful (Mancini’s facility with scoring tension is wildly underappreciated#) or charming, as in this picture’s delicate “Inspector Clouseau Theme,” actually first heard over Dreyfus’ spying on him from the flat beneath his, and his subsequent “Evil Theme” for Dreyfus which achieves its apotheosis in the climactic sequence, in which the last image of a disintegrating Lom is his twitching eye. Mancini’s gift for melody was so seemingly effortless, his success as a  purveyor of “bachelor pad” LPs so ubiquitous, that he seldom got the praise he assuredly deserved. The Strikes Again score ranks with his Charade, The Great Race, Two for the Road, The Hawaiians and Lifeforce as true Mancini masterworks.

pink-panther-strikes-again-expanded-cd

Where The Pink Panther Strikes Again was thin, Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) is sheerest gossamer — a scandal in anemia. My friends and I knew this even then, and while we enjoyed its best moments, we felt decidedly let down by it, and a little depressed. The picture had the strong feel of creative people delivering product but having no enthusiasm for it; it’s both the shortest of the Sellers Clouseaus, and the dullest. (Even the animated titles, set to a disco version of “The Pink Panther Theme,” are a let-down.) Much of the ennui was due, apparently, to Sellers’ heart condition, and his inability — presumably because of medication — to remember lines. And although its running-time is a brief 98 minutes, the picture somehow feels longer than any of its predecessors: When you make a comedy in which Dyan Cannon and Bert Kwouk aren’t funny, something is terribly, terribly wrong. Using the word “boring” in the context of discussing the Pink Panthers was something I, up to the age of 17 anyway, never thought I’d have cause to do. And if we were that bored by it, think how Edwards must have felt.

Revenge of the Pink Panther

“I’m a little short”: Clouseau sports an Auguste Balls costuming masterpiece in Revenge of the Pink Panther. Note the hilariously incongruous sneakers and the anachronistic, spherical lit-fuse bomb, a silent-movie trope and an Edwards staple.

Revenge is so halfhearted it reprises Sellers’ indelible final line from Dr. Strangelove during a scene in which he dons a Toulouse Lautrec outfit (“I can walk!”) and doesn’t even bother to explain Dreyfus’ physical presence in the story. Wasn’t he a world-famous terrorist last time? Wasn’t he disintegrated? Yet there he is, back in the asylum, preparing once more to re-emerge from madness (and waiting, of course, for Clouseau to drive him insane again.) Lom’s presence is necessary to the comedy, if only, once Clouseau has been declared dead, for his peerless delivery of the eulogy; he’s presumed by the memorial audience to be weeping in uncontrollable grief when he is, of course, paralyzed with hysterical laughter. The business of Clouseau using his own supposed murder as a means of investigating his would-be killers undercover can feel, in retrospect, a bit ghoulish, given Sellers’ own death two years later, but as he was very much alive in 1978, one need not take that too seriously. It’s of greater import that, aside from a few good gags at the beginning (notably Clouseau’s appearance as a Swedish sailor with a peg-leg and an inflatable parrot) and again during the Hong Kong climax, it’s a dispirited — and dispiriting — exercise that left us wondering in ’78 how the series could hope to surmount the damned thing; it seemed very much a dead-end.**

At the time of its release, the most interesting aspect of The Revenge of the Pink Panther for me lay in trying to figure out whether that really was Cary Grant doing a middle-distance cameo as a businessman knocked over by Cato on the far side of the widescreen frame in the Hong Kong hotel lobby, or merely some older gentleman costumed and coiffed to look, and dubbed to sound, like him.††

Alas, it’s still the most interesting thing in the picture.


Utterly unnecessary, except that it permitted Edwards to set up the narrative for the subsequent Curse of the Pink Panther (why?), the 1982 The Trail of the Pink Panther, which he shot simultaneously with Curse, can at least be said to be funnier than its predecessor. To say that’s damning the picture with faint praise is a bit like observing that Herr Hitler was not a terribly nice fellow. But there are enough amusing outtakes from the three ’70s Clouseaus, and fill-in footage from the first two (for which — all too typically of the cavalier attitudes and disorganized practices of United Artists — no additional footage appears to exist) to satisfy our craving for Sellers, although some of the spoken introductions to these clips are ham-fisted in the extreme, and a couple of the sequences show all too plainly why they were excised to begin with, such as Harvey Korman’s extended scene as Auguste Balls, cut from The Pink Panther Strikes Again and redeemed only by Clouseau’s hilariously wrong-headed “compliments” on the hideous nose of Liz Smith’s Mme. Balls. It’s hardly Korman’s fault; he does what he can, but the sequence is simply not funny, and certainly not funny enough to have started either Strikes Again or this picture’s narrative. Similarly, a lengthy new gag involving a border collie herding Clouseau’s ancient childhood governess, while well staged and shot, just lies there, refusing to be funny.

Trail of the Pink Panther

The Trail of the Pink Panther: Harvey Korman, trying his best to be amusing as Professor Auguste Balls, fits Clouseau with new prosthetics in a sequence cut from the beginning of The Pink Panther Strikes Again.

What is best about Trail are Lom’s new scenes as Dreyfus, particularly one with his pop-song obsessed psychiatrist (Ronald Fraser) and two involving his swimming pool (you just heard Sellers saying, “swaim-ang-a peul?,” didn’t you?) which have wonderful pay-offs; and Joanna Lumley as a Parisian television reporter determined to get to the bottom of Clouseau’s disappearance. Lumley’s sharp way with a line, and her unerring instincts, make you long for her to have had the opportunity to enjoy a tête-à-tête with Sellers along Catherine Schell lines. The ever-dry Graham Stark provides a charming turn as Hercule from A Shot in the Dark and Richard Mulligan brings his unique comic inspiration and physical ingenuity to the role of Clouseau’s aged vintner father. Capucine also shows up, incongruously, as Simone Lytton née Clouseau, causing the mind to wander on intangibles — did they divorce before Sir Charles married Schell’s Claudine, then re-marry? — rather than concentrate on the admittedly less-than-compelling dialogue. David Niven looks fine, but was already suffering from motor neuron disease (known as Lou Gherig’s in the States) and had to be dubbed. The otherwise overrated Rich Little did a surprisingly good job of it, although once you know it’s him you can’t help detecting the timbre of his voice at certain moments.

There are several good (though mostly not great) cut gags resurrected here, like the automobile cigarette lighter sequence between Sellers and André Maranne’s reliably phlegmatic François, and Clouseau’s battle with an elevator gate and a leaking bag of groceries, trimmed from what would have been a longer scene in Strikes Again following the Korman/Balls sequence. The comic highlight of the picture, however, is a truly splendid and absolutely satisfying sequence, also cut from Strikes Again, involving Clouseau, a wall telephone, two hotel windows and an utterly oblivious Mack truck of a maid (Claire Davenport, the memorable masseuse of The Return of the Pink Panther) that by itself almost justifies the entire picture and reminds us anew just how treasurable Blake Edwards was as a comic technician, and how beautifully he achieved the breaking of the pain barrier.

There is absolutely no excuse, however, for the terrible job of dubbing someone (possibly Robert Rietty?) did for Clouseau; the stresses and emphases are correct but the tone, the timbre — the very essence — of Sellers’ voice is utterly and completely missing.

There was a lesson in that. I only wish MGM/UA had heeded it.


* Bogdanovich re-created McCarey’s nightclub moment in At Long Last Love (1975) but without the necessary set-up the sequence was less amusing than vaguely obnoxious.

† Edwards dedicated his delightful 1965 The Great Race to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.” Likewise, his epic, scientifically imagined, pie fight in that memorable comedy was likely a tribute to Stan and Babe’s silent Battle of the Century of 1928.

‡ Itself based on a French farce by Marcel Achard, the 1961 A Shot in the Dark on Broadway starred Julie Harris in the Elke Sommer part, Walter Matthau in George Sanders’ role, and, of all people, William Shatner in the lead. Achard’s original French title was, in view of its subsequent movie adaptation, remarkably prescient: L’Idiote.

§ Only two of Sellers’ pictures from that time are worth seeing — both of which appeared in 1968 and neither of which was as successful as it deserved to be: The sly Paul Mazurksy and Larry Tucker-written social satire I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! and the often hilarious The Party, which Edwards directed and co-wrote with Tom and Frank Waldman but which was largely improvised. Birdie Num-Nums, anyone?

‖ I had long thought that the voice doubling Robbins’ nightclub singing, filled as it is with Julie Andrews-like swoops and vocalizations, was a teasing joke by Edwards at his wife’s expense. Turns out she did the dubbing herself. “A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?” Yes.

¶ To Alfred Hitchcock, BatmanKing KongDracula, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the RainSweet Charity‘s “Hey, Big Spender” and, most hilariously, Julie Andrews twirling on the mountain in The Sound of Music, the whole, brilliantly executed sequence anchored to the background of a gorgeous old silver movie palace.

# His cues “The Return of the Pink Panther” Parts 1 and 2 on the soundtrack album for that picture give a fair idea of how effective Mancini’s action scoring can be, even in a serio-comic context.

** In fact, Edwards planned it as the last in the series. Sellers later got MGM/UA interested in a Clouseau script he had written, and in which movie he insisted Edwards was to have no part, but died before the project could begin.

†† I still don’t know, but given Grant’s contentious relationship with Edwards on Operation Petticoat in 1959, it seems unlikely he’d had done the filmmaker the favor of a cameo… although he just might have for Cannon, his former wife.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Advertisements

Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: April — June, 2019

Standard

By Scott Ross

The Doors - Kilmer

The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone’s examination of Jim Morrison, co-written with J. Randal Johnson, has been harshly criticized, not least by members of The Doors, for distorting him and for emphasizing his pretension and his self-destructive behavior. But when a rock star, and a young man of 27, dies suddenly I submit that we may at least wonder whether drugs and alcohol may have played a role. On the other hand, the Morrison depicted in The Doors is so repellent and narcissistic it’s difficult to know how he could have possessed the charisma, and the creativity, to become a cultural icon. This is not to say that Val Kilmer is charmless in the role — indeed, he is exceptionally compelling — merely that the obnoxious qualities Morrison displays here are so prominent they cancel out his attributes.

The movie holds fascination despite these cavils. No one’s pictures look the way Stone’s do, or are put together remotely as he assembles them. The Doors has an appropriately trippy quality, and not only in the drug sequences. Stone emphasizes Morrison’s death obsessions literally, to the point of having both the spirit of an elderly Native shaman (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) and Richard Rutowski as Death stalking Kilmer at periodic points, such as when Rutowski dances more than suggestively behind Morrison during an orgiastic concert appearance; Stone said he wanted to convey the image of Death “fucking him in the ass,” which is curious considering how the picture shies away from any suggestion of Morrison’s alleged bisexuality — a claim his bandmates also, of course, vociferously deny.

But then, as everyone surely knows by now, rock music, unlike every other performing category on earth, is composed wholly and entirely of heterosexuals.



Alexander - Bagoas
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut
(2004 / 2013)
I missed Oliver Stone’s epic study of Alexander the Great when it was released in 2004, but I certainly remember the rank homophobia that attended it, from audiences, critics and entertainment reporters. The sexuality of Alexander the Great has been a matter of controversy for centuries, but one would like to have believed that by the beginning of the 21st, some reasonableness on the subject might obtain. Instead the movie was derided, with schoolboy snickers, as Alexander the Gay. Even if one ignores his intense relationship with Hephaistion, or chooses to assume that he was chaste with his young eunuch courtier Bagoas, that Alexander married late, and left no heir, is surely indicative of something.

My own readings on Alexander have been limited to Mary Renault’s glorious fictions, particularly her splendid The Persian Boy, told from the perspective of Bagoas. Stone and his co-scenarists, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, based their screenplay largely on the historian Robin Lane Fox’s book on Alexander, but Renault was an inspiration as well, largely I would assume via Fire from Heaven, her novel of his formative years. (A third, Funeral Games, describes the events immediately following his death, likely by murder.) The scenarists frame their narrative around the reminiscences of the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and limn the forces that shaped Alexander, from early childhood to the end. Of necessity, Stone and his co-authors omit much, including the burning of Persepolis, the particulars of which are still uncertain. And, rather surprisingly for Stone, there is no voice in the picture, however small, critical of Alexander for his voracious need of conquest. Rather, the filmmaker is besotted with the warrior king’s creative attempts to unify the vanquished and respect their cultures. That is not to say that this is not in itself admirable — and unusual, in any age. Merely that, whatever his virtues, Alexander was an insatiable imperialist, taking by force land that did not belong to him and, however benignly, enslaving the people who lived on it.

That said, the picture is superbly mounted, with the sort of breathtaking sweep only a master could achieve, and a cast of fascinating characters, chief among them of course Colin Farrell’s at once fierce yet essentially gentle Alexander. In his dyed-blond beauty, he is, appropriately both to the subject and to Stone’s conception, a deeply romantic figure. (There is, indeed, a rather gratuitous, if admittedly attractive, shot of him, naked and filmed from behind as he rises from a bed, that fully reveals not merely Farrell’s shapely backside but his genitalia and which would not be out of place in a pornographic video.) Val Kilmer is a likewise full-bodied Philip, lusty to a fault — his rape of an underling leads directly to his assassination — and, despite his crudeness and bluster, an essential guide to his son. Christopher Plummer has a nice scene as Aristotle; Jared Leto is a fine Hephaistion, wearing his love for Alexander both lightly and with palpable hurt at no longer sharing his erstwhile adolescent lover’s bed; and Francisco Bosch makes a lovely Bagoas, although obviously older than his historical precedent. The movie’s finest performance, however, is that of Angela Jolie as Alexander’s mother Olympias. Passionate and scheming, and as ruthless as her husband, Jolie’s Olympias makes abundantly clear why Alexander kept her at arm’s length. Rosario Dawson makes a memorable Roxane, animalistic and raging with jealousy. When naked on her wedding night, however, her bared breasts are revealed as pendulous and unappealing, although I am well aware than many heterosexual men consider them “hot.” That sex-scene contrasts strikingly with the one, later, between Alexander and Bagoas; where with Roxane he is aggressive, indeed even brutal, matching her bestial nature, with Bagoas he is tender and loving. One suspects that, while making love to another young man is natural, he must stir himself artificially to have sexual relations a woman… and that he understands his bride all too well.

Stone’s theatrical edit ran 175 minutes; a subsequent “Director’s Cut” for DVD was 167; the home video labeled “The Final Unrated Cut” ran 214; and Stone’s 2013 “Ultimate Cut” 206. In this edition the filmmaker took out much of what he had placed in the third version, feeling he had added in too much. At any length, this is a picture that isn’t going to satisfy many: The Leonard Maltin movie guide describes it as the first of Stone’s movies that can be called “boring.” Taste is a personal matter, of course — de gustibus non est disputandum, and all that jazz — but the sort of mind that could find Stone’s lavish, violent, engrossing examination of Alexander and his world “boring” is not one with which I would care to spend much time.


 

The Stunt Man - crane
The Stunt Man (1979)
The virtues, and the weaknesses, of this one-off remain intact after four decades. What still works in Richard Rush’s adaptation of the Paul Brodeur novel (on which Rush shares screenplay credit with Laurence B. Marcus) are the carnival fun-house milieu, the mood of comic desperation, the freewheeling energy, the vivid characterizations and the acting — especially in the peerless performance of Peter O’Toole as the flamboyant director of the film-within-a-film, hovering omnisciently in his special crane and dispensing bumptiousness and aperçus with equal aplomb. Rush builds up the atmosphere of Wonderland uncertainty so beautifully that by the climax we’re fully persuaded things could go any number of ways.

What bothers me about the picture now are the things that bugged me in 1979. First is the performance of Steve Railsback as the fugitive pressed into assuming the mantle of the title figure. At the time, having seen Railsback’s intense, chilling turn as Charles Manson in the television Helter Skelter, I thought my dis-ease with him here was residual. I’ve watched The Stunt Man numerous times since then, and am forced to conclude it’s not my prejudice that’s to blame, but Railsback — and Rush as the screenwriter and director. That he’s distrustful, even hostile, is understandable; that he exhibits a charmless, snarling arrogance and a seething, hyper-masculine proprietary claim on Barbara Hershey’s affections stamp him as someone to be avoided, not embraced. Yet everyone seems to love him. Why?

Second is the enforced anti-war metaphor, which felt misplaced during the period just before Reagan. (Not that there is ever a lack of war in the world, or of covert and hostile American actions, but Vietnam was a fading memory by the time Rush finally got the picture made.) Brodeur’s novel, published in 1971, concerns a young conscript who escapes from the bus taking him to basic training, and has an anti-Vietnam atmosphere baked into the situation. And in that book, the movie the young hero stumbles into is an avant-garde affair, largely improvised, not a big-budget war picture seeking relevance.

Third, the stunts themselves feel like cheats. As surely everyone remotely interested in movies knows by now, and knew then, filmmaking is a laborious (and often boring) process involving many set-ups, and rehearsals for the big set-pieces and stunts. Here, Railsback is repeatedly thrown into a continuous series of elaborate bits, and the on-screen cameras follow him from the beginning of each to the end, with no breaks. If this was meant by Rush to heighten the unreality of O’Toole’s set, it’s a miscalculation; all I am aware of when I watch these sequences is how impossible those big scenes would be to capture on a single pass.

Movie aficionados will recognize the Hotel Coronado setting as the place Billy Wilder shot much of Some Like it Hot.


zeppo_marx_groucho_marx_animal_crackers_dictation_scene1

“Jameson, take a letter to my lawyer…”

Animal Crackers (1930)
This was my first Marx Brothers movie, seen at a late-show screening when I was 15. That event took place a couple of years after Steve Stolier was instrumental in getting Universal to strike a new print and release it to theatres, where it proved surprisingly popular. Or perhaps not so surprisingly; the 1960s vogue among college students both for old movies and for their anti-hero stars (Bogart, Cagney, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marxes) was still with us in 1974, and the night I saw the picture, in tandem with my mother — whom I blessed then, and still do, for taking me to a movie at 11.30 on a Saturday night in summer and not complaining about it — the place was nearly full, the big audience roaring at Groucho’s 45-year old puns and topical jokes. My love for the Marxes, whom I had previously encountered only in print, photos and old recordings, increased a hundred-fold that night. And Mom had a good time, too.

I discovered only comparatively recently that Paramount truncated several scenes and trimmed some mildly risqué dialogue from this “Pre-Code” comedy for a late-‘30s reissue of the movie, so the inclusion of a clean, un-censored copy on The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Blu-ray boxed set is particularly welcome. If you know the picture already you won’t see reinstated entire scenes you don’t recall, but the mild shock of hearing Groucho engage in some additional, suggestive repartee in his “Jameson, take a letter” sequence with Zeppo, or realizing that even the “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” opening number was slightly expurgated, will simply add to your pleasure at seeing this lively, joyous enterprise again. Especially since, even more than the somewhat deadly 1929 movie of The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers gives a prime example of just how spontaneous and original Mrs. Marx’s boys must have been on the stage.



The Manchurian Candidate
(1962)
Pet peeve, which over the years has become even petter, or peevier: People who use the phrase “Manchurian Candidate” and think they’re referring to an assassin. Raymond Shaw, the hapless marksman brainwashed to commit a crime once considered “unthinkable,” is not the eponymous figure of Richard Condon’s sharp, strange novel, written in the late 1950s but, science-fiction like, projected as the narrative of a future event; the “Manchurian Candidate” is in fact his hated stepfather, the at once bibulous, doltish and McCarthyesque Senator John Iselin. Pauline Kael thought the book “fool-proof” for adaptation, and so slighted George Axelrod’s exceptional screenplay: While he retains much of Condon’s slightly off-center dialogue, Axelrod’s changes are felicitous, and beyond mere streamlining. They are also the very things auteurists go into rapture over, presuming that it simply must have been the movie’s director, John Frankenheimer, who devised the dizzying, disorienting approach to the flashback sequences in Manchuria. That these are beautifully shot and edited is undeniable, but the concept was entirely Axelrod’s. It’s also axiomatic among the ignoratti that Frank Sinatra, one of the movie’s producers, kept the picture out of circulation following a single television airing in the mid-1970s (where I first encountered it) out of deference to the memory of Jack Kennedy. Not at all. He merely wanted more money than he was being offered.

Manchurian Candidate

Note the way the filmmakers frame a live political event: Power-mad Lansbury watches, not her dippy Senator husband, but the way he’s showing up on television.

The moment late in the movie in which Shaw’s manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury) plants a deep kiss on his lips was shocking in 1962, but Condon goes even further, both with the character’s hellish personality and with her incestuous impulses; her first lover was her father, and she does far more than merely kiss Raymond. Lansbury was universally admired for her performance, and she should be. So, for that matter, should Sinatra: As Marco, the viewer’s surrogate, he hits every note with precisely the correct emotional weight. Fortunately, Axelrod removed the ugliest aspect of the character — his (to me, truly brainwashed) determination to save the Medal of Honor from embarrassment, up to and including re-programming Raymond to kill the Iselins and then himself. Axelrod has more respect, for both Raymond and Marco.

The rich supporting cast includes Janet Leigh in a very strange role (no less strange in the novel) whose meaning is open to interpretation; James Gregory as that consummate dope Johnny Iselin; Khigh Dhiegh as the chief Chinese doctor, whose frequent laughter and ready smile are the very opposite of sinister, which somehow makes them even more appalling; and the always splendid John McGiver as a representative of that now thoroughly dead specimen, the liberal Republican. David Amram’s effective score includes one of the most striking main title themes ever heard in an American movie.


Winter Kills - Perkins

Winter Kills (1979)
Another Condon adaptation, but nowhere near as successful as The Manchurian Candidate, largely because the writer and director, William Richert, diverges so often from his source. The Condon novel is, like its predecessor, both steeped in American political realities and history, and wildly, almost grotesquely, satirical. It’s a market Condon had cornered, and the wise filmmaker follows his lead. Richert deviates in crucial ways, and in so doing loses much of the demented logic of the book involving a Kennedyesque family, an assassinated president, a deep conspiracy involving intelligence and the Mafia, the American surveillance state and the family’s young scion (Jeff Bridges) suddenly hauled into the middle of it.

Not all of Richert’s alterations are deleterious, however, particularly his use of a woman on a bicycle as the herald of atrocity and his re-imagining of the communications maven played in the picture by Anthony Perkins. Indeed, when I first saw the picture nearly 40 years ago, it was a single throwaway line of Perkins’ — one with no antecedent in Condon — and the way it was delivered, and filmed, that stuck with me.* He also gets a climactic moment with Jeff Bridges that encapsulates the movie’s odd, almost off-hand, approach to black comedy. But what Condon’s fictions really need for effective transmigration to the screen are not wholesale re-writers but creative editors. The fun of his books lies as much in peeling back their layers of deceit and deception as in their peerless dialogue; pull too many pins out of Condon’s puzzles, their entire edifices collapse and you’re left scrambling to pick up the pieces and rebuild without a blueprint. Thus we get Sterling Hayden as a nutso general who is what General Jack D. Ripper might have become if the world hadn’t ended in Dr. Strangelove and Dorothy Malone as Bridges’ idiotic mother, a character long dead in the novel and wholly unnecessary. Worse, Richert turns the Bridges character’s one real ally inexplicably against him at the end — that, or his final scene is so confusingly shot and edited I misunderstood what was happening. Possibly both.

The casting is largely a help, although Toshiro Mifune is wasted in a nothing role, and there isn’t nearly enough of Richard Boone, or of Eli Wallach as a Jack Ruby stand-in. Belinda Bauer is appropriately unfathomable as Bridges’ sometime lover and Elizabeth Taylor puts in a brief but juicy cameo, but John Huston as “Pa” Kegan and Jeff Bridges as his diffident son are utterly perfect. Most of Pa’s lines in the novel sounded as if they were written for Huston’s curious, half-whimsical/half-sinister drawl, and the image of him at the end, clinging to a gargantuan American flag, is both appalling and funny. Bridges meanwhile is ideally cast as the audience surrogate, a young iconoclast who didn’t know his late brother all that well, is equally fascinated and repulsed by his infinitely wealthy father, and trying vainly to go his own way. With his big, open, handsome face and his ability to express both worldliness and shocked naïveté, no one of his age and weight in the ‘70s could play soiled innocence quite as well as Bridges.


American Graffiti 6

American Graffiti (1973)
Universal Pictures had so little love for this extremely low-budget George Lucas project the studio nearly blew what eventually became a financial behemoth (13th on the list of top-grossing American movies as late as 1977) and a cultural touchstone of the decade. And although it actually takes place in the 1960s — the poster tagline famously read, “Where Were You in ‘62” — this picture, its wall-to-wall soundtrack of period oldies, the concurrent Broadway musical Grease and the subsequent unofficial (and infinitely more conventional) Graffiti television spinoff Happy Days led to a nostalgia craze for all things 1950s. Not everyone was so happy about those days, however. Progressives such as the film historian and critic Marjorie Rosen who lived through the ‘50s recalled the era as a time of stultifying conformity, reactionary politics and bullies wearing D.A.’s and motorcycle jackets. Yet even Rosen’s contemporaries among the original reviewers confused Lucas’ genuinely innovative, and rather despairing, look at the time of his youth as just a funny, nostalgic exercise. You mean the way nearly every teenager in Modesto, California is desperate to get out of it and the rest waste their time endlessly cruising the streets, waiting for something to happen and encountering hoods and speed-demons hoping to get someone else to risk his life in a race just to feel halfway alive? Some fun!

Although Ron Howard had been famous from childhood, the rest of the cast was pretty much unkown, and included a somewhat porky Richard Dreyfuss as the Lucas surrogate; a relaxed and likeable Paul Le Mat as a laid-back mechanic/hot-rodder who’s like the legendary gunslinger in a hoary Western, sighing as he’s challenged once again by some punk with a souped-up engine; Charles Martin Smith as the perennial loser; Cindy Williams as Howard’s girlfriend; Candy Clark as a sweet-natured good-time girl; the young Mackenzie Phillips as a misfit “tween”; Bo Hopkins as a street-thug; as well as Kathleen Quinlan, Joe Spano and Harrison Ford, some of whose scenes, trimmed at Universal’s demand, were restored by Lucas in 1978, as Le Mat’s latest challenger. Wolfman Jack also shows up, as himself. (Well, who else would he be?)

Lucas was responsible for the picture’s self-contained, almost European structure (one night in late summer, from dusk to dawn) and shot it guerilla-style, for a little over three-quarters of a million dollars. Although Ron Eveslage and Jan D’Alquen are credited with the sharp cinematography, Haskell Wexler received a consulting credit and likely deserved the lion’s share of the praise for how beautifully composed and lighted the widescreen images, filmed largely at night, really are. The ensemble construction of the screenplay — Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck filled it out, and added humor, never Lucas’ forte — is almost Chekhovian, and when the picture ends you feel you’ve spent the night observing these young people and wondering where each will be next year at the same time. If that isn’t classic filmmaking, it’s certainly something you don’t see every day in America. 46 years later, you barely see it at all.


Marathon Man - Scheider and Olivier

Marathon Man (1976)
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/marathon-man-1976/


French Connection - Alan Weeks

The French Connection (1971)
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/never-trust-anyone-the-french-connection-1971/


 

Last Jedi - Ridley and Hamill

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Am I the only one who suspects the only way the Disney Star Wars series can survive is if its creators move past their predecessors? Fortunately, through plotting and attrition, that necessary goal is closer: J.J. Abrams, belatedly fulfilled Harrison Ford’s 1983 wish, killing off Han Solo in his initial movie; Rian Johnson sent Luke Skywalker to his reward here (though one strongly suspects Abrams will use his spirit, a la Alec Guinness, in his upcoming The Rise of Skywalker); and, sadly for those who loved or admired her, Carrie Fisher’s addictions took her out of the picture permanently after she completed her scenes in this, the second installment of the current trilogy. Will any of this spur Abrams’ and Johnson’s successors in future Star Wars projects to abandon the (real or surrogate) fathers-and-sons through-lines of nearly every episode in the franchise so far? Surely there is more than one plot-line in that galaxy!

This observation will probably earn me extreme opprobrium, but I make it without rancor or cruelty: Fisher’s death at least spares us during the forthcoming final third the Hillary Clintonesque conception of Leia by Abrams and Johnson, and which presumably inspired Clinton’s deranged, transductive and Trump-maddened acolytes to begin calling themselves “The Resistance.” Fisher’s delivery in these pictures was so slurred one couldn’t help wondering whether, like her presumed inspiration, Leia’d been off somewhere in the intergalactic woods drinking chardonnay.

The truly hopeful signs of this series have been the development of their central characters: Rey, embodied by the extraordinary Daisy Ridley; John Boyega’s complicated Finn; Kelly Marie Tran’s endearing Rose Tico; and, to a lesser extent, Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, who has had less character development. But Adam Driver, as interesting as he is capable of being, was an odd choice to portray the offspring of Han and Leia, as he looks like neither Fisher nor Ford. Worse, he embodies the inability of the filmmakers to abandon the narrative yokes of the last 40 years of Star Wars movies. Still, he’s just mercurial, and unbalanced, enough to be somewhat unpredictable.


 

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait (1978)
There are few pleasures quite like discovering that a movie you loved in your youth is not only in no way dated but is every bit as delightful as you remembered. Warren Beatty’s directorial debut (he shared the job with Buck Henry) remains impressive: A gentle, quirky comic fantasy, perfectly cast and, within its fantastic framework, utterly logical. Beatty and the great Elaine May based their screenplay on the 1941 Robert Montgomery comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, itself taken from a play by Harry Segall called Heaven Can Wait… later the title of a 1943 Ernst Lubitsch/Samson Raphaelson collaboration starring Don Ameche, itself a life-after-death fantasy.

The picture concerns a rising professional quarterback called Joe Pendleton (Beatty, looking almost impossibly trim and desirable) who, taken too soon by a presumptuous angel (Henry) is sent back to earth in the body of a rapacious industrialist lately murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and secretary (Charles Grodin). Joe’s determination to lead his old team in the upcoming Super Bowl drives the plot, which aside from the hilariously homicidal lovers includes Joe’s accommodating guardian angel Mr. Jordan (James Mason), a passionate and outraged British environmentalist (Julie Christie), Joe’s befuddled former trainer (Jack Warden) and three sublimely unflappable servants (Joseph Maher, Hamilton Camp and Arthur Malet.) It’s among the most agreeable comedies of its era, wonderfully light on its feet — both emotionally plangent and dry as vermouth.


 

Who Framed Roger Rabbit image-29

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/who-framed-roger-rabbit-1988/


*”Don’t panic; panic is counter-productive.” Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Context is everything.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Milestone: “Klute” (1971)

Standard

By Scott Ross

It is more than a truism that movies (and men) often locate women within an inhuman bifurcation: Madonna or Whore. Klute‘s Bree Daniels is perhaps the ultimate hooker role — sharp, intelligent, cool, and, however frightened she is by the unknown stalker who may or may not be threatening her life, in control.

Or is she? As portrayed by an astonishing Jane Fonda, Bree’s nervous energy constantly smolders just under the skin, until it periodically bursts through in justifiable rage. She’d rather be a model, or an actress, than a call-girl, but as we see from her attempts to enter either profession, the control belongs to others. Mostly men, but not entirely: At a fashion ad cattle-call the woman in charge (Mary Louise Wilson) sees Bree and the other hopefuls solely, and entirely, only as the various facets of their bodies the creative team wishes to exploit; when Bree is asked to show her hands, Wilson casually rejects them as “funny” before going to the next aspirant. Similarly, when Bree visits an actors’ agent (Anthony Holland) he pushes the hair of her shag cut off her forehead and tells her not to hide her face. Since Holland was gay and his on-screen persona reflects that, the implication is that even men who aren’t interested in Bree sexually feel they have the right to touch her without permission.

b9ca137c526fb3245b44b6594527e705

The elegant meat-rack at the high-fashion magazine.

Klute’s screenwriters, the brothers Andy and Dave Lewis, were television scribes desperate to break away from the small screen, and they fashioned in their script a curious hybrid. Their eventual director, the redoubtable Alan J. Pakula, later remarked upon Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that a melodrama cannot also be a character study, yet this is precisely what the Lewises devised, what interested Pakula, and what has made Klute so well-respected, and so memorable, for nearly a half-century; whatever the movie’s virtues or weaknesses as a thriller, there had never been a more fulsome, detailed, and honest, study of a whore in American movies when the picture opened, and there hasn’t been another to touch it since.

It has been suggested that the eponymous figure, played with both enormous restraint and great, if minimalist, feeling by Donald Sutherland, is a supporting character in the movie, and it’s difficult to argue, although calling it Bree, as Roger Ebert suggested, would have been wrong; a thriller needs mystery, and the name “Klute” is just odd and mysterious enough to be intriguing to a ticket-buyer. I know it was to me when, as an adolescent, I caught the picture on television. Still, once the picture moves past its opening sequence, Bree is in nearly every scene, and Klute is more involved in her actions and behavior than in the intrigues the suspense format requires. In this way the movie is the polar opposite of Pakula’s subsequent masterwork, All the President’s Men, which is almost entirely unconcerned with the private lives of its protagonists. Not that the plot is by the way; John Klute’s search for his missing friend and for the man whose unnerving anonymous calls to Bree strand her on the knife’s edge, are what the narrative is nominally about, and without them the lives of Bree and Klute would never intersect. But the filmmakers see Bree Daniels whole, and not merely as a technical contrivance.

27b71be408a63359fe6037c9b316bf23For all that it is concerned with sexuality, Klute is almost chaste in its presentation of Bree. There is a moment, early on, in which we see how she operates with a john, where for a brief moment one of Fonda’s breasts is exposed. But while we see the pair in bed later (and, as when Klute finally succumbs to Bree’s blandishments, Pakula shoots it from the shoulders up) the camera is focused on Fonda, seen in a tight close-up as she feigns passion, and takes a surreptitious look at her watch. Pauline Kael found this moment the only false note in Fonda’s performance, observing that Bree’s looking at her wrist before or after she coos encouragement into her client’s ear would have been valid but that to do so during it was indulging in a cheap laugh. I disagree. Part of Bree’s sense of control is being on top of every aspect of her paid trysts, and a prostitute is always aware of the progress of time. Time after all is her (or his) ultimate enemy. Other than child stars, models, dancers and athletes, no one ages out of desirability faster than a whore.* As the fashion writer Amy Fine Collins notes on the new Criterion edition of Klute, Fonda’s wardrobe in the picture constitutes a curious split. On the one hand, she usually wears high collars, but just as often revealing skirts, and her breasts are unfettered by brassier whether she is at home, on the job, or in the streets. Bree parades her sexuality openly, yet she’s protecting some part of herself. Her outfits are both a come-on and a holding back.

Klute is one of those time-capsule movies, like The French Connection, Born to Win or Marathon Man, that capture in amber the look and feel of New York City as it was in the 1970s, after white-flight reduced its tax revenues and before gentrification began to push its poorer (and darker) residents out. And while she is reduced by circumstances into living in a hovel next to a funeral parlor, Bree behaves as if she’s still ensconced on Park Avenue; the Mermaid dress she sports with a feather boa when she visits the elderly garment merchant (Morris Strassberg) is clearly a remnant from palmier days and must once have set her back several thousand dollars.

Fonda in Mermaid dress

Bree in the mermaid dress

There is despair around the peripheries of the picture’s action, and while it is palpable — the scene in which Bree and Klute inadvertently foil two strung-out junkies’ attempt at a heroin connection is, in the couple’s mute, stunned anguish, nearly unbearable — it never overwhelms the movie. The marginal existence of Klute’s whores, johns and junkies is neatly offset by Gordon Willis’ lighting of the perfectly appointed office in which the psychopath (Charles Cioffi) is seen in his natural milieu. With its huge sliding panel (a photo of Neil Armstrong’s moon-walk) it becomes a kind of dark sanctum, accessible only to the man whose wealth and insularity imply a control he barely hangs onto. Although we don’t quite know what Cioffi is up to, the filmmakers telling us who the killer is before the mid-point points out the difference between a suspense movie and a mere mystery.

Pakula’s direction is remarkable throughout. Being more interested in actors than in flash, his style is mutable. Yet it’s never dull, or ostentatious. All that connects Klute and All the President’s Men are their sense of comprehensible paranoia — a third Pakula picture during this period, The Parallax View of 1974, completed a disturbing triptych on American themes — their intelligence, and the presence of Willis as the cinematographer. Pakula is the auteurist’s despair: A filmmaker whose approach is dictated not by identifiable touches recycled with variation from movie to movie but by the material in them. The look of Klute is nearly documentarian, which is as it should be; even within the contrivances of the thriller plot, the picture captures a life as it is lived, in all its messy contradictions.

The editing, credited to Carl Lerner, is crisp and pointed; there is a striking moment early on when Klute’s friend literally disappears from the picture. Michael Small’s music is, like his score for Marathon Man, eerily unsettling, all the more so in his use of Sally Stevens’ ethereal vocalese, so effective that Lalo Schifrin included her in his music for Dirty Harry later in the year. Willis’ cinematography is, as always with this painter of light, masterly, the bright sunlit streets contrasted with the nocturnal darkness that conceals, enshrouds, and threatens. The Lewis’ screenplay is taut and judicious, doling out no more information than is necessary for us to comprehend the basic set-up and to follow as it unwinds, and their dialogue never makes a misstep. It’s sharp and, occasionally, pleasingly elliptical, as when Bree, thinking she’s seen the last of Klute, taunts him. When he refuses to rise to the bait, all she’s left with is an angry, “Fuck you!” She thinks she and her underground compatriots have “gotten” to Klute, but he gets to her by dismissing her cynicism as empty posturing. There’s no need to go any further into it. Writing well is sometimes knowing when to stop.†

19183145.jpg-r_1280_720-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx

The Lewises also give Fonda a classic monologue. When, during his first interrogation of her Klute makes reference to the old gentleman, Bree laces into what she reads as his judgmental attitude with barely controlled fury:

You saw that? Goddamn you! He’s 70 years old! His wife’s dead. He’s cut garments since he was 14. He’s maybe in his whole life had one week’s vacation, and I’m all he’s got! And he never lays a hand on me! What harm is there in that? What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You a talker? A button freak? Like to have your chest walked around with high-heel shoes? You like to have us wash your tinkle? Or do you get it off wearing women’s clothes? Goddamn hypocrite squares!

And indeed, the scene between Fonda and Strassbreg is, in its way, the gentlest and most revealing in the picture. While he plays an old recording of a cimbalom-laden waltz, she spins out the fantasy of erotic Continental romance she knows he wishes to hear as she slowly begins removing her clothing. It illuminates at once how quick-thinking Bree is, how much she relies on her acting ability to ply her trade, and how in control of the scenario between herself and her client she really is. If Klute was less disgusted by the mere idea of prostitution, he might notice these things.

In the large supporting cast, Roy Scheider has a good, if brief, early role as Bree’s one-time pimp. Although the character is repellent, Scheider soft-pedals him, making him seem eminently personable and reasonable, yet the actor never lets us forget how dangerous he is, especially to Bree. Cioffi is disturbingly normal, pretending to be concerned about the disappearance of Klute’s friend (and his employee), stringing Klute along and, at the climax, calmly playing for Bree a tape recording of his horrific murder of the junkie as she silently weeps; that he is so disengaged from this event, and that we don’t know what he was doing to the girl as she screams in anguish, make the thing twice as chilling.

509ebtnVP2elGOQm8E8c5X5uwPyRu1_original

Fonda and Scheider. Note the proprietary hand on her shoulder.

Aside from Holland and Strassberg there are also good roles for Dorothy Tristan as the junkie whore; Rita Gam as an angry, jilted Lesbian; Nathan George as a police detective; Shirley Stoller as a repulsive madam presiding over a joyless collection of bored whores and middle-aged johns; and Jean Stapleton, by the time of the picture’s June release an instant television star on All in the Family, as a comically harassed secretary. Candy Darling shows up as a club patron, Veronica Hamel is one of the models dismissed by the advertising team and Richard Jordan is a victim of Bree’s drug-addled flirtatiousness. Rosalind Cash has a tiny role in a nightclub. Richard Schull and Sylvester Stallone also allegedly appear, although when I see the picture I never notice either of them.

aSpeW79Sutherland, one of the most interesting actors of his generation, gives a performance of unerring exactitude, reacting in an understated manner to almost everything he sees and never pushing for effect. It’s a self-effacing performance, all the more so for the actor’s being willing, at that stage of his career (he’d just appeared as Hawkeye Pierce in MASH) to submerge himself in a secondary lead opposite the woman with whom he was romantically involved. Sutherland’s Klute is never snide or insinuating — although Bree perceives him as both — just quietly dogged. He cares about his missing friend, and while he doesn’t wish to believe the man capable of brutalizing women, it’s an idea he’s willing to accept if it gets him closer to his goal. Having unintentionally gotten a woman killed, Klute takes pity on her junkie boyfriend, slipping him some bills from his wallet. It’s a gesture the man is too zonked to do anything but accept, yet we sense that, for Klute, however much it was, it could never be enough. His essential decency is never far from the surface as when, trying to comfort Bree, his hand hesitates before making contact with her body.

9565-576a

There’s also a nice switch on domestic roles late in the picture, when he and Bree stop at a sidewalk vendor’s stalls and she watches with relaxed amusement while he tests the fruit with his long fingers. As in the sequences in which he watches over her as she sleeps or attempts to soothe her fevered brow, it’s as if he’s perfectly happy to accept a more traditionally and stereotypically “feminized” position, performing as mothers do without thinking. It speaks to Sutherland’s thespic gifts that he never makes a show of these moments, or comments on them with either his face or his gestures.

Sutherland in Klute

As Bree, Jane Fonda’s acting is so spontaneous it almost seems to be observed by a hidden documentary camera, yet you’re never in doubt that she knows exactly what she’s doing. Pakula observed to Dick Cavett (in an extra on the Criterion disc) in 1978 that she couldn’t have given the same performance in 1971 had she been the woman, and the actress, she later became — that her nervousness and her uncertainties, about herself and her off-screen activities, bled into her approach to the part. (She tried to get out of playing Bree, thinking she was wrong for the role, but Pakula knew it was her nerves speaking.) As with Sutherland, there is not a moment in her performance that reads as false, or “acted.” She’s beyond acting here, and she never censors Bree Daniels or tamps down on the less pleasant aspects of her personality. She can be cruel, as when she seduces Klute only so she can dismiss his ardor afterward, yet you don’t hate her, no matter what she says, or does.

gettyimages-530788572-594x594

Pakula directing Fonda. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fonda’s line readings, always unusual, seem exactly right even when they’re a little off-kilter or she places the stress on a different word, or even on a different syllable, than you expect. It’s part of what makes her performance so astounding, and so fresh, no matter how many times you watch it. Although some lines were changed during shooting, as is nearly always the case, only the sessions between Bree and her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan, in a nicely calibrated performance) were actually improvised. It was a clever notion of Pakula’s, forcing Fonda to confront her feelings about the character, about what she does for a living, and how she feels about it. Bree becomes more complex, more vulnerable and interesting — more alive — as a consequence, especially when she speaks with trepidation about her growing feelings for Klute. That’s a complication she never counted on, and being vulnerable to and with another human being shakes her.

Nor is Fonda afraid to let herself look slovenly, or zonked-out, or, as in the climax, notably moist; while Cioffi plays that hideous tape, you become aware not only of the tears falling down Fonda’s cheeks but of the thin strings of mucous hanging from her nose. That’s partly what I mean by her being, in Klute, beyond acting. What she does with the role is as powerful now as when the movie was new; Jane Fonda’s performance as Bree Daniels is one of the finest, of any kind, ever committed to film.

No, I’ll go further: It’s the single greatest performance by an American screen actor in the past 50 years.


*By “desirability,” I do not necessarily mean erotic attraction; I’m referring to professional limitations, artificial or otherwise.

†In the shooting script, Bree does later ask Klute what he meant by “pathetic,” but he doesn’t answer.

71vyoTCFesL._SX425_

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Maggie: A Girl of the Screen

Standard

(Written for another, now defunct, blog in January of 2006.)

By Scott Ross

The shade of Stephen Crane will I hope forgive me, for I come in praise of Margaret Dumont. Arguably the greatest “straight-man” in the business. That paragon of public virtue who stood more abuse — verbal and physical — from Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo (not to mention the likes of W.C. Fields) than any one woman should ever have to shoulder alone.

Now, Groucho always maintained that she never understood any of the jokes or why their audiences laughed (an image even Dumont was happy to feed the press). But I challenge you to watch any scene in which she appears opposite the Bros. Marx and convince yourself that’s a true picture of her. It’s possible — just barely — for an actor to get by on that sort of thing maybe once, if the director is clever enough to elicit a performance out of confusion or wooden-headness. But try making a career of it.

Animal Crackers - Groucho and Dumont

No, she got the jokes and then some. No one who was that much of a thickie could have performed so knowingly and with such grace and comedic polish. Imagine building an entire performing life out of being the butt of the joke. (And a bigger butt there never was, so to speak; cf. the “stateroom scene” in A Night at the Opera.) Was anything meaner ever said of a dowager than Groucho’s “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did” in Duck Soup? Dumont’s reactions are models of comic timing, and if they’re a little broad, as though she was still playing to back of house on Broadway, that doesn’t detract from her charm. After all, was Groucho subtle? Was Chico? How about Harpo?

I was trying to resist the urge to quote endlessly from the movies themselves, but I find I’ve had to succumb to temptation. After all, it’s the only way to illustrate what that sainted woman had to bear from the lips of the Great Grouch.

In Duck Soup:
Groucho: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Dumont: Why, he’s dead.
Groucho: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Dumont: I was with him to the very end.
Groucho: No wonder he passed away.
Dumont: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Groucho: Oh, I see, then it was murder!

Dumont: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Groucho: Is that so? How late do you stay open?

Duck Soup - Groucho and Dumont

Groucho: I suppose you would think me a sentimental old fluff, but, uh, would you mind giving me lock of your hair?
Dumont: A lock of my hair? Why, I had no idea—
Groucho: I’m letting you off easy: I was going to ask for the whole wig.

Duck Soup - Groucho and Dumont 2
In A Night at the Opera:
Groucho: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
Dumont: Really?
Groucho: Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (Aside to the audience) If she figures that one out, she’s good.

A Night at the Opera - Dumont and Groucho

But she could take it — luckily for us. A Marx Bros. movie without her is a poor thing indeed. (Well, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers had Thelma Todd, but that’s a wholly different animal, if you’ll pardon the expression. Todd, a spunky comedian in her own right, could more than hold her own, especially with Groucho; their demented tango on the balcony in Horse Feathers is a thing of comic beauty.)

Maggie even has a fan club. And it may give you a measure of the affection and esteem with which Groucho regarded her that, despite his public pronouncements about her alleged lack of humor, he hired her to do a dialogue sketch with him on a comedy show in the mid-1960s. She died a few days later — happy, one hopes, in the knowledge that she still had it, and that someone wanted to see it.

Even if Dumont didn’t get the jokes, she was herself funny as hell. Aside from Toddy, Groucho never had a better foil. That alone cements her place in movie history. And if only for that, she is, quite properly, immortal.

Non-Marx Text Copyright 2006 and 2019 by Scott Ross

I’ll take what’s behind Door Number Three, Monty

Standard

[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

“… if you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture, you would pretty much be left with Let’s Make a Deal.” — Fran Lebowitz, “Tips for Teens” in Social Studies, 1981

Well, they removed a whole lot of us, and that’s pretty much what we have now.

Someone, years ago in a Premiere magazine piece on the effect of AIDS on Hollywood — and I fervently wish I could track this statement down but a copy of the article continues to elude me — gave what to me was a perfect definition: That, historically, gay men had functioned in popular American culture as a “buffer” between art and commercialism, and that the buffer had now been removed.

I think it perfectly plain, when you look at the post-’80s product, on screen and in New York, that this is absolutely the case. Sadly, many of those gay men in the creative arts who lived through the plague, have either been co-opted into the appalling state of things by lure of money or further fame or both, or see no difference. Some of them once did astounding, even revolutionary work and now contribute mainly to the utter creative ennui (an oxymoron, I know) that is the norm. Maybe they’ve just been exhausted by the strain. But those who arrived on the scene after the peak years of crisis apparently join in enthusiastically, out of sheer lack of will, talent… and taste — the one essential attribute in which we artsy fags once wrapped ourselves, and took justifiable pride in.

I am fully persuaded that the three greatest blows to American popular culture in the past century were, in chronological order, the Production Code, the Blacklist, and AIDS.

We’ve never fully recovered from any of them.

Do we, as a nation, even care to?

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: January – March 2019

Standard

By Scott Ross

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

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

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

Hot_Rock_1972_203_613x463
The Hot Rock (1972)
William Goldman, a longtime admirer of Donald E. Westlake’s comic caper novels, wrote this one, a transliteration of the first in Westlake’s ingenious Dortmunder series (originally planned, curiously, as a “Parker” novel for the author’s grittier non de plume Richard Stark.) Goldman’s screenplay is a model of adaptation: Everything that makes the book work is there, perfectly trimmed to screen-time, with very little interpolation from the screenwriter, and no fat whatsoever. Goldman’s script deviates in minor ways, and they only add to the pleasure: First by giving Dortmunder an ulcer — a comic invention I’m surprised Westlake never thought of — and second by letting his crew emerge triumphant; his ending is so perfectly realized it makes you grin in appreciation. (Although I am not widely read in the Dortmunder novels, those I have assayed invariably end with the team losing its illegal quest in some ironic manner. Goldman upends this, and you’re grateful for the deviation.) The entire picture, wittily directed by Peter Yates, generates goodwill; you know from the first scene that you’re in good hands, and that allows you to relax and enjoy the ride. It helps too that the characters are comically idiosyncratic but never cute or self-consciously “wacky.” The plot concerns the theft, for an African delegate (Moses Gunn, wry and very funny) of a fabulous gem; once the caper is pulled off, it runs into seemingly endless complications. Robert Redford is Dortmunder, too smart for his makeshift crew of hapless would-be jewel thieves but too desperate, and maybe too essentially decent, to do any better. His cohorts are George Segal, Ron Leibman and Paul Sand; Charlotte Rae has a good cameo as Leibman’s mother(!), with whom he listens to race track recordings; and Zero Mostel makes a kosher feast of his role as a duplicitous lawyer (or am I being redundant?) whom Goldman slyly promotes from the Sand character’s uncle to his father. Quincy Jones composed a spritely earworm of a main theme in march cadence, and the picture is one of those time-capsule movies that vividly capture the New York of the period: For example, during an unsettlingly vertiginous open helicopter trip (Leibman says he was terrified) we catch long glimpses of the World Trade Center, then nearing completion. Surprisingly, considering Redford’s ascendancy at the time, The Hot Rock lost money on its release. Seeing it now, you can’t imagine why; it’s one of the cheeriest caper movies ever made, sunny and amusing. Watching it makes you feel happy and refreshed — good all over.

MSDTRCR EC020
True Crime
(1999)
There was an interesting movie in the journalistic story behind this one, but it was completely transformed between reality and realization, and not I think for the better. I presume the people who made it (Clint Eastwood, the director and star; the credited screenwriters, Larry Gross and Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff — as well as Andrew Klaven, on whose novel it was based) saw the story of a dogged journalist’s painstaking investigation of a miscarriage of justice as too prosaic and mundane: There was only one man’s freedom at stake, after all. The stakes, so beloved of the Hollywood suits, were duly raised, the central premise made more urgent by an innocent man’s impending execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s a schizophrenic movie; its central narrative is compelling and often defeats second-guessing, yet its arc is itself a cliché and the picture is cavalier in its sudden devolution into superman-type heroics and an anguished inner-city grandmother’s instant conversion to Eastwood’s comic sidekick. At the same time, the filmmaking is often so assured the damn thing almost works. Eastwood, however, was far too mature at this point in his career to play the serial cocksman, and the sight of him with his shirt off is no longer arousing — it’s distracting. If he wasn’t also the director, it would even seem cruel: You’re not enjoying the sensuality, you’re counting the folds in his flesh. And at 69 the former sex symbol looks years older. If the women with whom he consorts were as superannuated as he is, there might have been some poignancy to the enterprise. As it stands, his womanizing is just embarrassing. Eastwood’s character, a once-celebrated reporter named Steve Everett, behaves as if he considers himself catnip to the distaff. This too could carry a certain frisson, if the movie made us aware of how hollow that conceit is. Instead, the young women he hits on, even as they’re turning down his threadbare seductions, grin at him as if they’re flattered by the old rake’s attention. The actor had also, at that point, lost so much of the almost feline grace he’d exhibited in his prime that when he walks across a room you’re aware that the parts no longer move the way they once did. It happens to us all, of course, but most of us aren’t operating under the merciless glare of arc-lights and widescreen cameras. There’s some good acting here, however, especially by James Woods as Everett’s indulgent editor; Denis Leary, subdued for once as the supervisor itching for a reason to fire Everett; Lisa Gay Hamilton as the grieving wife of the accused; Diane Venora as Everett’s long-suffering mate; Hattie Winston as the grandmother of a deceased felon; Bernard Hill as a prison warden; Michael Jeter as a weasely, unreliable witness; Frances Fisher as an angry D.A.; and little Francesca Eastwood as Everett’s tiny daughter. As the condemned man, Isaiah Washington is astonishing. He’s so good, so sure-footed in his emotional responses to the insupportable, you wish the movie that surrounds him was as deep as his characterization; his reaction to seeing his young daughter for the last time is raw and unforgettable. True Crime isn’t a disaster by any means, but it’s sure an oddity.

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

W Josh Brolin gwb080901_560
W (2008)
Oliver Stone was, ludicrously, slanged in 2008 for not making George W. Bush more of a caricature, and for sympathizing with his central character. That succumbing to the former is the sign of a hack or a satirist (all too often the same thing) and that embrace of the latter is the primary job of a dramatist does not seem to have occurred to the partisans among Stone’s critics. To take on the first accusation: How much more may an artist caricaturize a man who is already a walking self-parody? Stone’s Bush, as written by the scenarist Stanley Weiser and enacted by the redoubtable Josh Brolin is, it seems to me, George W. to the life: Belligerent, untutored, ill-informed, appallingly ignorant — narcissistic in the proscribed macho manner of the Texas playboy who has seldom, if ever, heard the word “no” and been forced to comply with it. To address the second allegation: Although Bush as a man is not as complex as the 37th President of the United States, nor as essentially and tragically bifurcated, this indictment was also leveled at Stone in 1995 when Nixon premiered, and was no more legitimate then. Again, only a parodist or a creative hack reduces his subject to abject villainy. Was Shakespeare traduced for locating the humanity in both Caesar and Brutus? Do we not in part respond to Citizen Kane precisely because Orson Welles offered him in more than a single dimension? And while W is not as ultimately plangent, or as moving, as Nixon, it is certainly nothing to whinge or sneer at. It encapsulates and anatomizes its subject in sharp and often very amusing vignettes that hint strongly at the central emptiness within its eponymous subject. Is that, somehow, the same as bestowing laurels on him? The only area in which I think Stone errs is in his and Weisner’s conception of George H.W., and in their casting of James Cromwell, who neither looks nor sounds like the elder Bush. If any member of the dynasty depicted here deserves vilification, surely it is Bush Senior, that unrepentant liar, conscienceless CIA operative (who claimed, like Nixon, not to remember where he was on the day Kennedy was murdered) and un-indicted war criminal. Ellen Burstyn comes off much better as Barbara Bush, but then, the woman herself scarcely seemed to deserve the unholy brood she gave birth to. Richard Dreyfuss makes an appropriately serpentine Dick Cheney, alternately sneering and bullying. (Although he and Stone apparently differed on the characterization.) The always splendid Scott Glenn gives a good account of Donald Rumsfeld, Toby Jones provides a correspondingly fine embodiment of the Pecksniffian Karl Rove, and Stacey Keach is fascinatingly ambiguous in a role that was conceived as a composite of several of Bush’s spiritual advisors… whose collective failure with their charge is all too obvious and instructive.

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

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


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

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

 

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

The impossibility of reason: “Platoon” (1986)

Standard

“Somebody once wrote, ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” — Letter from Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) to his grandmother


By Scott Ross

Seeing Oliver Stone’s breakout movie on its original release was one of those experiences that are so intensely felt that one rather resists a second viewing. But as I am in the process of re-evaluating Stone’s work, how could I not revisit this seminal picture? That Platoon rewards the returning viewer is not surprising; that what felt like dramaturgical flaws in it three decades ago* now largely strike one as much more subtle and integrated is a very pleasant surprise.

Although the picture functions as kind of exorcism for its writer-director, Platoon is not merely an exercise in cinematic memoir, and the assurance of its writing and direction strikes me now, as it did then, as heralding a unique talent, which indeed it did. The picture also reminds us of how appealing Charlie Sheen seemed at the time (the ardor, at least on my part, didn’t last long.) And if Platoon becomes an allegory, its central character pulled between father-figures saintly (Willem Dafoe) and Satanic (Tom Berenger), the metaphor feels less willfully imposed today than it did in 1987… although Dafoe occasionally seems too good to be true, especially in our first real glimpse of him, smiling welcomingly at Sheen from his hammock, and in a way that could be misinterpreted as seductive.

Platoon 4402522_stdThis seems as good a place as any to take note of the subsequent sequence of the “cool” soldiers dancing to Smokey Robinson. There’s a charming shot of Sheen being silently asked to join, declining, and being pulled to his feet that is almost a homoerotic parody of a high-school mixer, and the dance itself is both joyously comradely and vaguely romantic. I am not making a case here for a deeper reading of this moment. It’s merely an observation: Enforced single-gender institutions like the armed forces of the period make such social accommodations necessary — there are historic photos as well of isolated cowboys dancing together — but they’re very rarely depicted in popular entertainment, and just as rarely commented on. Billy Wilder did something similar in Stalag 17, and it’s seldom remarked upon either.

Although I’ve never been in a combat unit, it seems to me that Stone gets it all right: The heat, the rain, the insects, the boredom, the confusion, the terror… and, especially in that CIA-directed war, the creeping realization that there is no clear purpose to any of it. When the emotions of Sheen’s platoon-mates boil over, and precipitate atrocity against a Vietnamese village, the causes are demonstrably more than the convenient racism that accompanies them. (There were, as our engagement in Vietnam imploded, well over 200 documented cases of “fragging” — the murder by troops of their commanding officers — and behind them was precisely that advanced level of unmitigated frustration.) I recall this sequence especially well because, during it the film at the theatre in which I was seeing it with an older friend broke and when I turned to talk to him, he was staring straight ahead and unable to speak; afterward he, a former Navy man during the Vietnam period, told me he’d spent decades deriding the anti-war movement of the time. That My Lai-like sequence rocked him, on an extremely personal level, and forced him to confront his own, long-cherished, ideas. This is not merely evidence of the power of film generally, but the power of this film specifically.

It could be argued, I suppose, that Stone didn’t need to depict the battle for his surrogate’s soul as epitomized by the Dafoe/Berenger conflict — that the events of combat themselves were defining enough. I would counter that there is a classic dramatic unity to this central notion, and the only criticism I might make of it is that it may be a bit more explicitly stated than necessary. But opposition in drama is a basic unit of construction, and the gulf that lays between them is the abyss into which the traditional naïf must stumble on his way to deciding who he is, and what he believes.

platoon1711a

In the large ensemble cast, which along with Sheen, Dafoe and Berenger includes Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, Reggie Johnson, Corey Glover, Johnny Depp, Chris Pedersen, Richard Edson, James Terry McIlvain and Dale Dye, only John C. McGinley gives an actorly performance. But then, McGinley is nearly always bad; his continued career is one of those, like that of Anthony Heald, which defy rational explanation. He does have one good moment, however: When his plea for respite is turned against him, his face carries a look of such stunned disbelief that the cosmic unfairness seems to have cracked his mind irreparably.

Georges Delerue, who had composed the music for Stone’s previous picture, the incendiary Salvador, contributed a brief, lyrical score and which included a heartfelt passage Stone ultimately rejected in favor of the Barber Adagio for Strings. Claire Simpson provided the effective editing and the cinematographer, Robert Richardson, gave the movie both a pictorial lushness† and a stark reality that encapsulate Chris Taylor’s experience, particularly in the long siege sequence which climaxes the picture. And if Dafoe’s death scene, with its Christ-like symbology and Barber strings, still feels overstated, it’s undeniably moving for all of that. One of the primary lessons the movies teach us is that you can be manipulated and still experience genuine emotion.

platoon-bodies

After the night battle

It took gumption to get Platoon made — Stone wrote his initial pass on the material in 1968, and ran into the predictable resistance to the material of studio suits throughout the ‘70s — and it’s the sort of impassioned work we may associate with young firebrands. In retrospect, this and Stone’s subsequent Born on the Fourth of July won acclaim (and Academy Awards) in part because by the ‘80s Vietnam was a collective experience many in both the general populace and the press could agree had been an appalling enterprise… even if the whole truth was still unknown by the one and suppressed by the other, as indeed it is to this day. It was only when Stone upset the status quo by extending his critique of American values into areas of recent political turmoil and accepted falsehoods peddled by both the government and that very same which had previously lauded him press that he lost his position as media darling, unlikely ever to be regained.‡ The love showered on him pretty much dried up with JFK, and the implacable hatred of that very establishment Stone rightly attacks has gone unabated ever since; I suspect they’d like to see Stone’s Oscars® taken from him now, preferably by force.

Text (aside from quotes from Oliver Stone’s screenplay) copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.”

Platoon - Berenger and Dafoe

Berenger and Dafoe: Two fathers


*Pauline Kael: “The film has been widely acclaimed, but some may feel that Stone takes too many melodramatic shortcuts, and that there’s too much filtered light, too much poetic license, and too damn much romanticized insanity… The movie crowds you; it doesn’t leave you room for an honest emotion.”

†I’ve never seen this mentioned in criticism of his pictures but Oliver Stone has a clear affinity for the green of nature; it’s there in nearly every movie he makes. Sometimes, as in the recent Snowden (2016) it fairly pops off the screen.

‡Although doubtless he would like his movies to reach the wider audience it once did, and which the corporate media could turn toward his work if it chose to, I doubt Stone misses being beloved by the likes of The Washington Post or The New York Times.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross