Watching the skies: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at 40

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By Scott Ross

I’ve written about hundreds of movies over the last 40 years but have somehow contrived to avoid writing appreciations of my five favorite pictures. This has not necessarily been out of any conscious avoidance on my part; if any specific reason applies I suppose it’s the desire to do justice to whatever I put my hand to, and my love for these movies is so strong, and so personal, I suppose I’m afraid that my limitations will allow me to do them full honor. In addition, my preference, for the purposes of this blog, is to write directly after having seen a movie, or seen it again, when the images and dialogue and performances, and my responses to them, or their remembered pleasures, are still fresh in my mind. I wanted to write a review of the present subject for my high school paper when it was in release but somehow and for reasons that now escape my memory never did. Having just seen it again on a big screen, after a 40 year wait, I think it’s time I made the attempt.

If the foregoing seems unduly personal (if it does, the remainder of this essay will almost certainly feel embarrassingly intimate) I can only offer in my defense the fact that, when one loves a movie as much as I love this one, and has nurtured that affection for four decades, the matter is itself intensely and entirely personal. And anyway, I seldom consciously employ an omnipotent critical voice, especially where an object of such love is concerned. So I beg your indulgence if the following ends up being as much about me as about one specific picture. Although I have what actors call a sense memory of where I saw almost any movie I could name, that’s simply a quirk of recollection; it seems to me that one’s biography is linked, inextricably, to anything we feel as strongly about as I do this one specific movie.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my avoidance of Star Wars as a 16-year old burgeoning movie fanatic, following my confrontation by Time magazine’s May 1977 front cover come-on (“Inside: The Year’s Best Movie”) and my indifference, once I opened the feature, to what I saw as space-ships and cute robots. It was part of my position as student aide at my high school library to stamp in the new periodicals, so I guess I saw that Time story before most of my peers. Similarly, one Monday morning in the fall of that year while behind the reference desk I opened the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section to see a two-page spread heralding another new movie. On the verso side were the soon-to-be famous descriptions of J. Allen Hayek’s three stages of a phenomenon new to me; on the recto, that stunning logo image of the deserted highway, its vanishing point conflating with a corona of light behind it, and, at the bottom of the trade credits, those five magical words: “Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg.”

In these movie-conscious times, when the doings of actors and filmmakers are recorded with panting avidity by nearly every publication and even the box-office of new theatrical releases is granted breathless exposure in 5-minute news roundups, it must be difficult for the young to imagine a time when these (I would argue, despite my love for the medium, less than trivial) matters were not common coinage long before a new movie hit the multiplex. But even I, becoming as the result of my part-time job at a local cinema duplex besotted with the movies, was not exactly au courant concerning what was coming, especially if, as in this case, I hadn’t seen a trailer yet. (Oddly, considering how often I went to the movies then, I never did see that trailer until it was included on the DVD set years later.) I had heard of the picture, with its enigmatic title (“Kind” striking me as an especially odd noun for a movie) in some brief (and smugly admonishing) account that stressed the then-enormous budget overruns that so worried a cash-strapped Columbia Pictures, but that was all I knew about it. As a fan of the movie Jaws, I knew Spielberg’s name very well, and was aware that he hadn’t placed a new project in the theatres in two years.  What I still did not know was much of anything about this one, aside from its cost.

Close Encounter of the First Kind:
Sighting of a UFO
Close Encounter of the Second Kind:
Physical Evidence
Close Encounter of the Third Kind:
Contact

That double-truck ad haunted me as nothing else I’d seen related to a new movie had, probably since childhood. I fairly levitated with anticipation; like Alvin longing for his hula hoop, I could hardly stand the wait.

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This is a magazine spread rather than the original double-truck Times ad I saw but, aside from the banner at the bottom it’s identical in art and poster content.

Felicitously, between the appearance of that ad and the opening of Close Encounters, I had the opportunity to see Jaws again on a big screen, pretty much by happenstance. When the State Fair opened in October, the owner of the theatre at which I worked after school and on weekends, knowing that movie attendance dropped off precipitously during “Fair Week,” routinely scheduled a pair of older movies he could pick up cheaply from a distributor. For one screen he booked a sleazy yawn of a picture called Jennifer on My Mind, about which I mercifully remember almost nothing except the terminally boring heroine’s car-accident demise at the end. For the other, Jaws.

I had loved the movie at 14, and certainly believed it a definite improvement on Peter Benchley’s potboiler novel, but what had stayed with me most (aside from purely visual moments like the simultaneous zoom-forward/pull-back shot of Roy Scheider reacting to the boy’s death on the raft) was the sheer, sick-making dread it built up before (literally) exploding it at the end. Seeing the picture again, both it and I two years older, I was struck by how funny it was —  how its humor kept puckishly intruding into the dialogue, as a respite from the superbly mounting terror of its set-pieces. I also perceived anew the conflict between its three male antagonists, as a kind of satire on machismo, Robert Shaw’s Ahab-like Quint battling the less mature but more educated giddiness and obstreperousness of Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper and Scheider’s pragmatic, thoughtful cop (an oxymoron?) occupying a kind of annealing middle space between two extremes of masculine identity. I was also struck by how wonderfully Spielberg observed domestic scenes, not just with how natural the children were in their behavior but the slyness and well-worn comfort that existed between Scheider and Lorraine Gary. It likewise seemed to me that this young filmmaker had an amiable way of giving underwritten roles like Gary’s the space to breathe; one of the sharpest and most striking moments in the picture is her exit from it, first walking and then racing from Quint’s shack as if pursued by the hounds of Hell.

Because movie theatre owners at that time could, by law, get away with sub-minimum wage in my state, the chief compensation for their mostly teen and college-age staffs was the movies themselves, not only those at our complex but elsewhere. Accordingly, we all had 12-month universal passes to anything playing at an area theatre. The only proviso was that we were not to use them on the opening weekend of a new picture. So, despite my fixation on the new Spielberg, I duly, if impatiently, waited a week. The following Friday, no one I knew and with whom I regularly went to the movies had the night free, but I was in those days (unlike today) perfectly willing to go alone. It was a crisp December evening — that sticks with me too, for some reason — when I set out for what was then a new notion: A six-screen multiplex. (In the late 1970s movie theatres still tended to be either stand-alone, single screens or, at most, double that.) I had kept to a promise I’d made to myself to avoid reading anything about the picture — reviews or anything else, including the Newsweek cover story I was itching to get my hands on (I could have cheerfully murdered my newspaper staff advisor for revealing, in her usual absent-minded “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that, should I?” manner, that Devil’s Tower figured into the plot) so as the house lights dimmed, I sat in a state of delicious anticipation. It was rewarded moments later, with the slow build of a sustained chord in John Williams’ score that ended with a crash and the screen becoming filled with light and it remained with me, keenly, for two hours and 15 minutes, as I entered into a state of wonder I’m not sure I’d ever before encountered at the movies, and know well I’ve never experienced since.

I’m reminded as I write this of Evelyn Keyes’ description to an interviewer of being at the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind (in which she played, as the title of her memoir had it, Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister): “It was as if I’d never seen a movie before, and haven’t really since one since.” That Close Encounters of the Third Kind was, and remains, the single most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen, was certainly due in large part to the staggering assurance of its director and to his largesse of vision, as well as to the beautifully conceived and executed effects that buoyed and enhanced that vision. Yet equally as effective I think was the prevailing sense of mystery. Not as to what was happening and why — that was self-evident — but the uncertainty of it all. If you walked into this picture unawares, you had no idea, really until the final 15 minutes or so, whether the visitation its characters were going to receive was benign, or malevolent. If all you knew were the UFO movies of the past, you’d almost have to conclude that things couldn’t end well. There had not, aside from the hectoring aliens of the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, been a single American picture in which the visitors from outer space meant us anything other than harm. And indeed even here, where the tone was reasonably light, there hung a question mark, particularly during and after the terrifying night abduction of the little boy played by that amazing child Cary Guffey. Until the moment, very near the climax, when those lost to what we could only presume were similar kidnappings began to emerge from the Mothership on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” things could still have gone terribly, dangerously wrong. You just didn’t know, and nothing in the movie’s look or sound or texture gave you reassurance anywhere close to complete. So when Guffey descended from the ship, his cherubic face brimming with joy, you might have felt a surge of relief as well as joy: Things were going to be okay.

One of the gentlest people I know positively loathes this picture. He names it the single worst movie he’s ever seen, and I think I know why; it’s that very benevolence of spirit implicit in Guffey’s beatific smile that bugged certain people then, and that irritates them now. So that when that final, magical exchange of gestures occurs between François Truffaut and the leading alien, those who are incapable of giving in to the generosity of heart, or to what I think of as the grace, of the picture and who have been squirming with either indignance or boredom, or both, must be ready to hurl something at the screen. If you can’t give yourself up to the… there’s almost no other word… cosmic munificence of that moment, and the sense of hope that radiates from it, the entire thing has no doubt been a colossal hunk of especially redolent old cheese.

It isn’t that I’m especially or organically optimistic, and I certainly wasn’t as a teenager. I had hopes, of course; they’re built in to adolescence, however cynical you might fancy yourself. My childhood was bordered on Viet Nam, assassination and Watergate, and whatever illusions I had about the goodness of my fellow human beings I lost from being subjected to some pretty representative examples of them in junior high. I have retained, I’m happy to say, some childlike joy, which I think is essential to psychic balance, even if, as in my case, it’s concentrated in my passions for animated cartoons, children’s books and Gold Key comics, Peanuts strips and the movies of my youth. I’m not sure that delight obtained in my response to Close Encounters, although I can well imagine those who despise the picture as my friend does smirking that my affection for it has all the hallmarks of childishness. It may well be that the character of Roy Neary, the Everyman of the movie portrayed with such alternating zest, despair and wonder by Richard Dreyfuss, was one I could on some level relate to at 16. In footage added to the ill-conceived Special Edition of the picture in 1980 (and now a permanent part of Spielberg’s preferred cut, which is the one Sony has restored and reissued to theatres) Roy tries without success to interest his disdainful children into a screening of Pinocchio. Although I hadn’t seen it since its re-release in 1971, Pinocchio was the Disney feature I loved most of those I’d seen, and I silently willed those kids to abandon their dopey enthusiasm for Goofy Golf and listen to their excited father. So did Spielberg: not for nothing did he obtain the rights from Disney to incorporate “When You Wish Upon a Star” into John Williams’ score for Close Encounters’ finale. Roy is Pinocchio, and at the end he gets to abandon his child-man persona and become a real boy again. But whatever my sub-conscious identification with Dreyfuss, to sit in rapt enchantment for two hours and fifteen minutes while those images of wonder washed over me was more than sufficient to crack my cynical shell, and when Truffaut’s Lacombe and the E.T. communicate at the end, the wonderfully articulated Carlo Rambaldi alien returning the Kodály hand-signals for the five notes transmitted by the extra-terrestrials, and ends by imitating Lacombe’s radiant smile, any reservations I may have entertained about the filmmakers’ intent crumbled to dust. I left that theatre on a high I’ve never forgotten, one only the rarest of movies is capable of transmitting and which is as elusive as those UFOs that keep teasing Neary throughout the picture. I get it consistently from the endings of Some Like it Hot and A Hard Days’ Night and Singin’ in the Rain and Victor/Victoria and, yes, Pinocchio… and even Star Wars, that movie I avoided and so disdained without bothering to see it in 1977. But not many others, so I don’t think I’m naturally a sap when it comes to these things.

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Carlo Rambaldi’s extra-terrestrial smiles back at Lacombe in the moving finale.

The bath of hopefulness that suffused me as the climax played out has little or nothing to do with belief; whether there are beings outside our understanding and experience seems to me, as it seemed to me then, one less of faith than of odds — why, the passionate assurance of the religious that we are the only perfect creation of God to the contrary, should we assume we are unique in the vastness of space? The movie’s other tag, beyond its explanation of Dr. J. Allen Hynek’s three stages of the close encounter (which, curiously, Spielberg never gives us in the picture itself) was “We Are Not Alone,” a phrase that, fittingly, expresses both optimism and potential dread. But more simply, and beyond the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, my hopeful side was touched by the sheer, big, open-heartedness of the ending, and by that exchange between Lacombe and the alien spokesman: A gesture, a smile, and we may touch each other, and express our common life-force. It doesn’t matter whether the recipient is of spheres beyond the earth or simply another race or nationality or even gender. The smile is what matters. It spoke of a gentleness, a respect and a wish for mutual peace, that transcended Spielberg’s fantasy — and indeed the tenor of movies both at the time and now, born of cynicism and a disturbing taste, shared between movie makers and their audience, for escalating forms of violence. No one in the business, outside the Disney studios, was expressing those sentiments in 1977, and almost no one is concerned with them now. The desire for understanding, the imagination that empathy requires, had become rare by that time, and slightly suspect, and feels even more isolated now, when even Steven Spielberg no longer embraces them. What was special then is even more rarified four decades on.

Sentiment in movies is something to be embraced when you’re in good hands, but sentimentality almost never is, and it is certainly true, and contrary to those who found the picture unbearable, that while Spielberg eschews the rank exploitation of it in Close Encounters, his sentimentality in subsequent pictures often became gloppy as hell; even as fine a fantasy as E.T. can at moments cause your teeth to ache. But I’d almost rather have that, which in Spielberg’s case was at least heartfelt, than the ugly, cold, violent and puzzling fury of something like his 2005 War of the Worlds, which feels like an angry old man’s contemptuous reaction to the benignity of his own past work. I’m reminded of George Stevens, who made a number of sparkling comedies before the war but who, after helping to liberate Hitler’s death camps, never made a happy picture again. Something about making Schindler’s List in 1993 appears to have permanently altered Spielberg’s outlook, and not for the better. He has repeatedly said he isn’t the same person as the young man who made Close Encounters, or even Jaws, and it would be foolish and even a little creepy to expect him to be — like a parent willing a favored child back to infancy. Yet with War of the Worlds Spielberg seemed to be gleefully pissing on everyone who’d ever loved his earlier pictures — especially Close Encounters. A lot of people have cherished the hope, since the 1990s, that he might one day return to the sort of optimistic pictures that made his name; but while I think the darkening of his worldview enhanced his best post-Schindler work, the wrenchingly felt Munich, on the evidence of War of the Worlds I would say that if he has lost the capacity for wonder and the openness of heart that propelled and enlivened Close Encounters and E.T., perhaps it would be best for all concerned if he stayed away from fantasy for good. There are more than enough filmmakers around now who are only too happy to grind their audiences’ faces in sadism, gore and misery. Does he really need to be one of them?

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Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind Mothership

The Mothership emerges, with illogical magnificence.

Whatever its disadvantages in loss of surprise, seeing a movie you love a second time has ample compensations, if only the simple joy of reliving what made you so happy the first time. With Close Encounters, the subterranean anxiety about the outcome which attended that first screening was eliminated, the anticipation of pleasure taking its place. I was able to relax more fully and appreciate the contours — the totality — more fully. Things like the naturalness of the domestic sequences and the behavior of the UFOs themselves, which now no longer held any threat and could be seen as Spielberg intended, as playful rather than potentially deadly. While the abduction of Guffey’s Barry Guiler was still creepily frightening (Jesus Christ, those screws coming up and out of the heating-grate!) and full of anguish for Barry’s mother, a second viewing made manifest what had only been sub-conscious the first time: That the aliens have chosen Barry for his sweet, ingratiating innocence — that they are attracted to the ingenuousness of the child, just as they have marked Roy Neary for his childlike curiosity and delight. The image of Barry opening the door of the house is not just totemic, it’s emblematic of the movie itself; he’s saying, as the entire picture does, “Welcome! Come in!”

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Barry Guiler opens the door.

When I finally did see Star Wars — dragged all but kicking by my best friend the following summer — I was conscious, in spite of my general enjoyment and even, to my surprise, delight with it, that many of the special effects that so many other people reveled in were a disappointment and suffered by comparison with the effects in Close Encounters. Spielberg was canny enough to determine that his effects looked far better shot in 35mm and blown up to 65. I was conscious of a lot of blue-screen in Star Wars, but with the Spielberg picture I never saw the joins. And that 65mm frame gives the entire picture a scope that does wonders for the sense of enchantment you get from it. It’s not merely widescreen —it’s enormous. It doesn’t overpower you, but it enthralls you, and brings you into it, in a way that, among epics, only Lawrence of Arabia really does. That is a large measure of my decades-old desire to see it again in a theatre. The biggest home plasma television in existence can’t do for you what seeing the movie projected on that massive screen does.

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Dreyfuss’ truck in the alien spotlight/

And the images sing, as the UFOs are said to sing to those who see them and to whom subliminal messages are passed marking them out as chosen, even if they never know it: The sparkling eyes and ancient, smiling face of Eumenio Blanco as Truffaut gently turns his head to look at his partial sunburn; the way Bob Balaban is swallowed up by sand blown by the desert wind as he yells out his confusion; the blinding light that falls on Dreyfuss’ truck as he’s scrutinized at the railroad crossing; the changing expressions of little Cary Guffey as he surveys the ransacked kitchen (and, we presume, the new friends who’ve come to visit); the Disneyesque, Dopey-like, perpetually tardy little spacecraft, represented by a red Tinkerbell light as it darts about, seeking to catch up with the armada; the streaking alien craft zooming through the toll-booth; the clouds roiling in the night skies (achieved by injecting paint into fresh water sitting atop saline); the ship in the desert; Dreyfuss, bathed by a red night-light, fully-clothed and being deluged by the bathroom shower as he sits weeping in his isolation and despair (a sequence cut in 1977 but added back in 1980); the crane-shot revealing Devil’s Tower to two breathless pilgrims; the birds falling from the trees as they’re hit with non-lethal gas; the Mothership hovering over the landing field as technicians scramble to take readings, their hair and clothing and instruments lifted by the static charge; Bob Baker’s elongated marionette emerging from the Mothership, its arms upraised in benevolent greeting; Guffey’s beaming face as he emerges from the ship; the aliens surrounding their chosen initiate, his childlike delight drawing them like light attracting a swarm of moths.

If Close Encounters has flaws for me, they’re few, and for the most part minor. That big plane of glass that shatters when the Mothership responds to the synthesizer attempting communication with its first great chord should blow in and not out, although you can understand for the actor’s sake why it doesn’t. Also, when the Mothership makes it initial appearance, seeming to rise up from below Devil’s Tower, the physics make no sense; the thing is immense, and would have to emerge from the bowels of the earth to create that effect, but you’re so delighted by the image that even as you critique it you don’t really mind. There are little glitches, too, such as the fact that the newscaster on Neary’s television makes an aside to Walter Cronkite when the broadcast is clearly manned by Howard K. Smith. (Spielberg had always planned for Cronkite to play himself, and the veteran newsman was willing, but CBS corporate policy negated his appearance.) The largest leap of faith is Neary’s, and it’s one that simply never occurred to me at 16, or 19 — perhaps because my relationship to my own father was so uneasy — but has since bothered Spielberg great deal: Roy’s leaving his children behind as he eagerly embarks on his new interstellar life at the end. However impossible his marriage may be, however lost Roy Neary feels and however childlike his enthusiasm, asking what sort of father would make that decision is more than a fair question.

Some critics at the time bemoaned the lack of characterization in Close Encounters, but what I think they were really missing was dialogue. I’d be interested to know what the comparative ratio is in the screenplay (credited to Spielberg solely but worked on as well by Jerry Belson, John Hill, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins) of dialogue to action, because Close Encounters strikes me, as it struck me in 1977, as having perhaps the least amount of talking in it of any picture I can think of since the advent of sound. The dialogue is not only spare, but much of it — especially Teri Garr’s — not only feels improvised but was. Garr’s role, and Melinda Dillon’s’ as Barry’s mother Jillian, are in terms of dialogue among the shortest of any picture of its time, but they’re not in any way under-nourished. That’s partly the effect of good casting: Garr and Dillon do so much with so little that they’re astounding; Dillon was subsequently nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, and it was, as these things go, well deserved. Among the images and moments that have remained most vivid with me for 40 years are those involving her elastically mobile face and body: How she places her fingers on the motel television screen as Devil’s Tower is revealed, as if touching a religious icon, or the way she bites her finger ecstatically, grinning and bouncing up and down on her feet at the light-show she witnesses at the climax, or her despairing cry (“Ba-ar-y!”) as she runs through the woods. And little Cary Guffey at four years old still seems to me the most preternaturally expressive child the movies have seen since Jackie Coogan in The Kid. Even granting that many of the reactions Spielberg got from him involved elaborate subterfuge and thoughtful preparation, Guffey’s wide eyes and heart-melting smile are still astounding to see. He’s the spirit of the movie itself, in a way, open and beguiling. It’s not an actor’s performance, but a state of natural delight, sustained and without calculation or guile. For him the alien visitors are spirited playmates bringing wondrous new toys. It’s no wonder he opens that door.

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Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr)

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Dreyfuss with the marvelously expressive Melinda Dillon.

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Barry (Cary Guffey) meets his new friends. Spielberg put ruse on top of surprise to elicit Guffey’s beautiful, spontaneous reactions.

Guffey’s adult counterpart is Truffaut, in whose countenance and demeanor (particularly in his performance as Dr. Jean Itard in L’enfant sauvage) Spielberg saw an embodiment of gentle wisdom and spiritual largesse. It’s certainly no accident that it is Lacombe who exchanges greetings with Rambaldi’s articulated alien at the end, and if the actor had some difficulty with his occasional English dialogue (his mispronunciation during an early take of the line “They belong here more than we” as something like, “Zey beelong ‘ere Mozambique” delighted the crew, who printed up T-shirts bearing the sentence, even amusing the easily-embarrassed Truffaut himself) it is in his face, and his eyes, and his smile, that Close Encounters finds its true animating spirit.

 

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Truffaut’s radiant smile.

Aside from those quickly-famous five notes, John Williams’ score for Close Encounters got short-shrift generally in 1977 (he did win the Academy Award, but for Stars Wars) and this seems more than a little unfair. His compositions here are less showy, perhaps, and contain fewer motifs, but his musicianship is even more impressive than in the Lucas picture, not least for its embrace of atonality, which gives much of the score an ethereal, otherworldly feel that is perfectly in keeping with the picture’s theme. He didn’t need to emulate Korngold here as he did in Star Wars, and much of his work in Close Encounters seems based as much on the Dies irae as on the five notes he and Spielberg painstakingly selected before filming began and which are so much a part of the movie’s overall scheme and texture. That the Latin hymn translates to “Day of Wrath” in no small way contributed, if my ears are correct in placing that eight-note theme with the Dies irae, to my underlying un-ease on seeing the movie the first time. This is in no way a hopeful set of notes, although Williams doesn’t use it in a manner that feels at all deathish, in contrast to Stephen Sondheim, who built much of Sweeney Todd on the same octave. But unlike his work on the Star Wars movies, Williams was not tracking action in Close Encounters as much as he was limning and helping to define the picture’s moods. Not that he doesn’t excite you at several junctures, especially near the beginning and toward the end. But only at the climax does his innate romanticism burst through, in those soaring, even Wagnerian, strains that accompany the heavenward flight of the UFOs during the credits. (He’d do something similar for the lifting off of the rescue craft at the climax of E.T., although his emotionalism there is less restrained there than here. In Close Encounters Williams accompanies the release of emotion; in E.T. he almost seems to be tearing it out of you.

I see that I haven’t begun to touch on Dreyfuss’ extraordinarily modulated and often wildly funny performance; on Bob Balaban’s quiet excellence as Truffaut’s translator; on Vilmos Zsigmond’s exquisite lighting and expansive, muted palette; on Michael Kahn’s kinetic editing, or Joe Alves’ phenomenally effective production designs, Roy Arbogast’s marvelous visual effects, or even on Spielberg’s astonishingly assured and often witty direction —impressive when measured on any scale but staggering for a young man of 30. (Note for a single example the way he put together the great sequence in which the air traffic controller played by the splendid Bill Thurman handles the picture’s first close encounter, which in its confidence in holding on interesting faces communicating with disembodied voices and sonar blips — the filmmaker’s belief that the tension of the scene can build, and release, without our ever seeing the event that so captures the characters’ anxious concerns — is in its way as impressive as the movie’s biggest set-pieces.) But that’s the way it is when one is confronted by something as rich and satisfying and even, just conceivably, as profound as Close Encounters. If there’s anything as gratifying as finding that something one loved as deeply as my adolescent self loved this movie still holds up, still enchants and entrances and elates, it’s the satisfaction of discovering that the 16 year-old me was, in loving it, absolutely justified.

You can go home again.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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Rotting Bridges: Track of the Cat (1954)

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The Bridges ranch in all its desolate glory.

By Scott Ross

An exercise in color by the director William Wellman (in tandem with with his superb lighting director, William H. Clothier) to create a CinemaScope/WarnerColor picture in black and white, Track of the Cat found little love on its release, or even now. That preposterous boob Bosley Crowther whinged in the New York Times that the movie had “no psychological pattern, no dramatic point,” whereas it not only has a point, and an almost dizzying psychological pattern, in fact it contains several of them. Leonard Maltin meanwhile makes reference in his capsule review to Tennessee Williams when of course the correct theatrical progenitor would be Eugene O’Neill —  if not indeed Euripides. That no one at the time, including his friends and associates, got what Wellman was after in his complicated visual scheme drove him nuts, and in later years he dismissed the movie as a failure artistically as well as financially. But genuine boldness in subject matter and pictorial representation is rare enough in American film that its progenitors ought not be made to feel, even if they fall short of their ambitions, ashamed when they attempt it.

It is certainly true that the picture’s visual splendor, particularly in its nearly overwhelming, snow-blasted locations (Washington and Arizona standing in for early 1900’s Montana) tends to dwarf the drama at its center… for a while. But the dramatic focus, taken from a Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel and crisply and intelligently adapted by A.I. Bezzerides, is no less important than, or impressive as, the movie’s awe-inspiring exteriors and cunningly designed color palette. There is dialogue here I think O’Neill would not have been embarrassed to have written, and a striking critique —  downright dangerous in those McCarthyite days —  both of the American family and of its obsessive grip on religion, violence, hypocrisy, greed and mother-love. Nor is my having twice cited O’Neill inapt, or accidental. The Bridges share a kinship with any number of that dramatist’s families, whether genetic or, in the case of The Iceman Cometh, adoptive: The individual members are by turns envious, regretful, embittered, Oedipal, and rapacious in both the corporeal and psychic senses. They, like “the doomed Tyrones,” spend a long day’s journey into night, but past it, into day, back into night, and on to uncertain dawn.

Some, like the repellent Ma (Beulah Bondi) clutch their unrealistic optimism like a talisman, if only to cleave to an illusion of control over everyone else. Others, such as the crude and hyper-masculine Curt (Robert Mitchum) become so enraptured of their own seeming invincibility that, when hope seems brightest, they plunge, heedlessly,  into ruination. Still others seek solace in bitter sisterhood (Teresa Wright’s Grace), bibulousness (Philip Tonge’s Pa) or blighted visions (Carl Switzer’s Indian hired hand Joe Sam). And then there is the youngest, Harold (Tab Hunter), mother-emasculated and unable to speak for himself, even with the threat of losing his girl (Diana Lynn). Only the eldest brother, Arthur (William Hopper) seems to have found some measure of peace, if only in the wooden figures he whittles or the pages of the book of Keats he carries with him, a very knowing gift from his sister. Whether it was Wellman’s intent to depict so bleakly raw and despairing a family as an American paradigm I cannot guess, but in so symbol-laden an enterprise as this, nothing should be regarded as accidental.

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Familia Americanus: The bilious Bridges break their fast. From left: William Hopper (back to the camera), Robert Mitchum, Beulah Bondi and Tab Hunter. Note the vivid splash of color in Mitchum’s jacket, offset by the blacks and grays that surround it.

The inciting incident bringing these disparate passions to a boil is the threat to the Bridges’ livestock from a “painter,” a wild cat of some sort, never seen but representing the nameless, existential dread and un-articulated evil that stalks the various members of the family and their hired help. This is what I mean by symbolism; it’s more than a little heavy, and, as we never see the cat in question, finally too pat and convenient for a movie that really doesn’t need it. What eats at the Bridges is what’s taken residence in their various minds and souls; the painter is merely its somewhat obvious external form. It’s the sort of metaphor that can work well in a novel, a poem or even a play, but that, in a generally realistic movie, seldom feels less than pretentious. But Track of the Cat should not be judged in toto on one of its two most lugubrious flaws. (The other is Roy Webb’s excruciatingly obvious and overblown musical score.) What Wellman and Co. got right is of so much greater importance than the bits they may have fluffed.

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Mitchum’s Curt, frozen into immobility at being stalked.

The sense of physical isolation, both at the ranch and on the trail, is so stunningly achieved that the getting back inside the house, even with its confusion of warring personalities, still feels like a refuge, however illusory. With that cast, and Bezzerides’ (or perhaps Clark’s?) deliciously ripe dialogue, the miasma on the interior is as pungent as the perils to be faced out of doors. And if Williams can be cited, by Maltin, why not Lillian Hellman? Indeed, sister Grace’s recriminatory outbursts nearly echo Regina Giddens’ incendiary “I hope you die! I hope you die soon! I’ll be waiting for you to die!” Curt is almost better off with the painter. But then, he smugly thinks he can take them both on.

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Mourning becomes the Bridges: Teresa wright, Philip Tonge and Beulah Bondi.

Did anyone of his time leave behind such an indelible delineation of laconic, everyday evil as Robert Mitchum? Curt Bridges is, in his quieter, slier fashion, spiritual cousin to cape Fear‘s Max Cady and The Preacher in The Night of the Hunter: Self-righteous, macho, sure of his eternal dominance over everyone around him, spoiling for a fight, angling for what we can only presume to be the rape of his younger brother’s intended. The cry Mitchum unleashes as he stumbles blindly, and at his moment of triumph, into the abyss recalls the unearthly scream he let out when Preacher was shot by Lilian Gish, with the added irony that the self-appointed deity Curt only falls when he loses his Hemingwayesque cool, and panics like an ordinary mortal. As Ma, the magnificent Bondi reminds us anew of what was lost when she was not cast as Ma Joad. There are moments when her hard-won stoicism, achieved under decades of duress, becomes her; yet in the next she displays such appalling, Medusa-like cunning, delivered with a beneficent smile any cat would envy, that it chills the blood. No wonder young Hal (not to mention besotted old Pa) folded under her gaze.

Despite its overt masculine concerns, Track of the Cat soars most often under its more subtle feminine power, for aside from Bondi’s presence, the picture boasts in Diana Lynn and Teresa Wright two of its era’s most intelligent and histrionically credible performers. Wright, rather curiously, went from troubled ingenue (The Little Foxes, Shadow of a Doubt) to mother roles in an astonishing short time; by 1953 she was already playing Spencer Tracy’s wife and Jean Simmons’ mother. But no matter the chronological position she occupies, her honesty as an actor cuts through all cant and pretense like a laser. Lynn, who has the rather unenviable task of persuading us she us Tab Hunter’s elder by only two years when she was (in The Major and the Minor) playing teenage adopted sister to Ginger Rogers in 1942, had a comparable wit and verisimilitude; she seems incapable of giving a slovenly performance. William Hopper limns his necessarily brief role as Arthur with gentleness and a distinct lack of self-pity that pricks him out from the other Bridges as surely as Mitchum’s blood-red jacket. Philip Tonge makes almost Fieldsian meals from the screenplay’s rich banquet of lines, and, at a mere 26, Carl (“Alfalfa”) Switzer is both figuratively and literally unrecognizable as the ancient, haunted Joe Sam. If Tab Hunter seems on the surface any less impressive, it is only because Hal is such a passive character (that dramaturgical terror of all red-blooded American males) that he tends to osmose into the very woodwork. That we retain an affection for him, and, finally, a respect, is surely at least a small tribute to Hunter’s own appropriateness in the role. This cast, working in concert, is so refreshingly and demonstrably great that one can easily imagine them going on the road together to perform a repertoire of Strindberg, Williams, Sophocles and O’Neill. How often can that be said of a Western?

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Arthur’s funeral.

Wellman’s mastery of his camera, evident throughout, reaches a muted crescendo during the funeral of Arthur. He holds on this grouping, seen from a corpse-eye view, for the entirety of the sequence, unsettling the viewer with a softly powerful restatement of the Keats sonnet so beloved of Arthur Bridges, “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” In this brutal natural environment, all of the Bridges are conscious of standing alone on the shore of the wide world. It’s an eloquent, beautiful, quietly devastating metaphor, sustained as only a great craftsman can manage, or desire.

It’s interesting to note that the movie credits Batjac, John Wayne’s company, as its producer. That’s as startling as almost anything else in the picture.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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The movie’s hilariously misleading poster campaign, which seems to take a cue from Curt Bridges’ private plans for his brother’s girl.

Assassination: Cutter’s Way (1981)

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My only cavil with Cutter’s Way, aside from that dopey title and the way the murdered girl’s vengeful sister (Ann Dusenberry) gets abandoned as the narrative races to its wrenching conclusion, is Jack Nitzche’s dreary musical score, a variation on his atmospheric doodling on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, glass harmonica and all. Jaws and Star Wars may have heralded the end of personal moviemaking in this country, but at least they brought orchestral composition back from its penny-pinching banishment.

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

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Ivan Passer

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Postscript
I have now read the Thornberg book, which I’ve had for years in my library, and understand exactly what Fishin meant. I won’t explicate his remark in case you’ve not seen the picture or wish to read the novel (always assuming you can find a copy, which is no sure bet) but Thornberg’s denoument is far more ironic and despairing than Fishin and Passer’s, and the personal ante along the way is upped considerably, and rather horribly, by Cutter and Mo’s having a toddler in the house. It seems to me, after reading the Thornberg that Fishin deserves even more credit for the artistic success of the picture than I’ve already afforded him: He not only removed the narrative impediments and sense of climactic déjà vu; he turned Thornberg’s device on its head for the movie’s affecting final moments. The screenwriter’s solution is no less striking, even shocking, than the original author’s, and is far more emotionally satisfying. As with the final page of the novel, the movie’s ambiguity concerning the central crime remains tantalizingly unresolved, right up to the last, chilling, line of dialogue.

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Avner and Ali in contemplative mood.

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

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Daniel Craig

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Louis and Avner: An uneasy alliance.

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

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

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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Gabor as Jane Avril.

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

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

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Ferrer as Lautrec.

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

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Suzanne Flon.

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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The cancan at Moulin Rouge in full roar.

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

Peddling disaster: Wrong is Right (1982)

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross