All those human tones: “Swimming to Cambodia:” (1987)

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By Scott Ross

More than thirty years after its release, I still don’t know whether Swimming to Cambodia is, strictly speaking, a movie or an exceptionally imaginative record of a unique theatrical experience. Whatever else it is or isn’t, it’s among the most exhilarating performance pieces of its time. It made such an impression on me that throughout the late ’80s whenever his name came up in conversation I used to tell friends I wanted to be Spalding Gray when I grew up.

Swimming to Cambodia - Spalding Gray

Unlike the well-known monodramas of the past (Mark Twain Tonight!, Brief Lives, Will Rogers’ U.S.A., Give ’em Hell, Harry!, The Belle of Amherst) Gray’s one-man shows at the Performing Garage in SoHo were not based on the lives, nor in the words or writing, of anyone but their performer author, who wove idiosyncratic, funny, beautifully expressed monologues from his own experiences, showing up the majority of what were just then beginning to be called “performances artists” for the shabbily pretentious poseurs most of them most assuredly were. The most famous of Gray’s monologues was this one, concerned on a superficial level with his appearance in a small role in Roland Joffe’s shattering 1984 picture The Killing Fields and his search for “the perfect moment” in Thailand afterward but which touches on the most profoundly moving questions of human existence, notably that of the nature and origins of evil, and our own complicity in it. The long middle section, in which Gray presents a pocket history of how the United States’ Defense Department under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger deliberately (and, of course, secretly) bombed a peaceful nation and set in motion a chain of events that encompassed massacre on a small scale (Kent State) and on a massive one: The four-year horror of the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia. It’s material gone into in detail by the historian William Shawcross in his book Sideshow, and dramatically of course in the Joffe picture. But one man sitting at a desk calmly yet far from dispassionately describing the obscenities human beings are capable of performing against each other somehow makes the monstrousness so vivid the mind conjures images no camera could capture… and few audiences could bear to watch. As Alistair Cooke once noted, “I prefer radio to TV because the pictures are better.”

Take Gray’s portrait of Navy man “Jack Daniels” of Philadelphia, who makes Gray feel, “to some extent like I was looking my death in the face”; Jack, with his cute bod and pasta-shell ears, who says “with great pride” that he has “been properly brainwashed” by the Navy; Jack, chained to a wall in a waterproof chamber, “high on lots of coffee and blue-flake cocaine,” waiting to push his green button and set off a nuclear missile aimed at Russia; Jack sneering at the Russians because, along with their missiles being so poorly designed they’ll land in our cornfields, he’s convinced that on their nuclear submarines “they still speak through tubes.” We can imagine Jack down there in his chamber even now, only instead of a happily-brainwashed Commie-hating conservative he’s morphed into a Trump-deranged Baby-Boom liberal who believes Putin controls America’s perennially fixed elections. But either way, on contemplating those mythological speaking-tubes we can feel, with Gray, an “enormous fondness for the Russian navy, for all of Mother Russia: The thought of these men like innocent children speaking through empty toilet paper rolls, empty paper towel rolls, where you can still hear doubt, confusion, brotherly love, ambivalence… all those human tones, coming through the tube.”

Swimming to Cambodia is a movie I’ve loved for decades and one, like Reds and Norma Rae and The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!, that on revisiting provides something very like complete, almost tactile, pleasure. But it’s almost impossible now to see it, or even to contemplate its title, without reflecting on Gray’s suicide, and the means by which he chose to enact it sixteen years ago; the original poster art, with Gray’s head bisected below his nose by the waves, is even more disturbing in retrospect. Jonathan Demme, who directed the movie, honored Gray, and his words; this was a writer’s picture, not a director’s. Even when he and his cinematographer John Bailey make a filmic choice that draws you out of the live theatre experience through a lighting trick or an audio effect, they do so in service to the performing text — to the mood Gray is setting with it and the intensity with which he sets it. The same holds for the editor, Carol Littleton, and for Laurie Anderson’s evocative music. None of Gray’s collaborators ever gets in his way.

I would love to have seen, and heard, the full four-hour version of Swimming to Cambodia Gray performed before he and Demme pared it down to its essence, but at least one can read that in the published script. The 87 minutes the pair bequeathed give us, as with what the people behind My Dinner with André created, an absolute sense of place and time. And, as with that other very special movie, there are lines and observations here that have been brought back to my mind countless times in the decades since I first heard them. I don’t think a week has passed since I first saw this picture that I have not recalled, or repeated, Gray’s “The Mother needs a rest. Mother Earth deserves a long, long rest with no people on her.” When a movie, or a play, becomes a part of you in that way it attains a kind of radiance that transcends itself, as the best art always does.

A part of me still wants to become Spalding Gray when I grow up. And another part of me thinks that, by so fully internalizing, and so often returning to, this, his most enduring work… I sort of did.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: April 2020

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By Scott Ross

Oklahoma! (1955) [Todd-AO version / CinemaScope version]

Oklahoma - Albert, Greenwood

Eddie Albert as the peddler, with the great Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller.

The first film adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and the finest, in large part due to the intimate involvement of its original creators, and their determination to shoot as much as possible on location. R & H were not only the producers; they oversaw nearly every aspect of the production, including the planting of corn so that it would indeed be “as high as a elephant’s eye” by the time of shooting. (Sadly, Lynn Riggs, the author of Green Grow the Lilacs, the 1930 folk-play on which Oklahoma! was based, died the year before the movie was released.) When I was a small child, one of the local children’s television show hosts (I’ve forgotten which) began his daily program singing “O, What a Beautiful Mornin'”; when, never having seen the play or heard the cast recording, I first saw the movie, on a CBS Thanksgiving airing in the early 1970s, I was delighted to discover it opened with that song, and the camera moving through those leaves of corn made a strong impression. It was many years before I finally saw the widescreen version of the picture, but as fine as it is, it pales beside the Todd-AO edition. Shot not simultaneously but in tandem with the more widely-seen CinemaScope version, the Todd-AO, which runs slightly longer — it has a “road-show” Overture, Intermission music and an Entr’Acte — has a far deeper color palette (Robert Surtees was the cinematographer on both) and a richer look generally. There is more to see on the peripheries in Todd-AO, and a couple of nice effects: The way Gene Nelson’s lasso floats past the camera during the “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” number, for example, and how Aunt Eller’s gavel splits in two and seems to fly at the audience at the climax of the lunch-basket auction, which feels almost like a 3-D effect but without our having to wear those annoying glasses.

It helps, of course, that the picture was made by a director whose work was entirely in the realm of human drama. Fred Zinnemann takes the material seriously, and doesn’t attempt to stamp it with a superfluous personal style. That doesn’t mean the picture is devoid of visual interest — far from it; Zinnemann’s crisp, clean direction is the furthest thing imaginable from the anonymous style of most ’50s musicals, but never makes the style about him. Between Riggs’ original and Hammerstein’s adaptation, there was little for Sonya Levien and William Ludwig, the movie’s scenarists, to add, and although they do improve the ending slightly (it’s a bit rushed in the show). There is one addition, a brief atmospheric scene between Gordon MacRae and Jay C. Flippen, that raises a question (how did Curly get his horse and saddle back?) it doesn’t bother to answer, although it’s preceded by a lovely bit of nature photography that is almost an illustration of a Hammerstein lyric (“when the wind comes right behind the rain”) we’ll hear in a few minutes. Pretty much the only other flaw I can find in the picture is one of continuity: The Agnes de Mille “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” dream ballet clearly takes place at dusk, but when Shirley Jones and Rod Steiger leave for the party, it’s just as obviously mid-afternoon.

I once worked as assistant director on an amateur production of Oklahoma! in which the aged director, who had become a bit dotty (everyone who worked with him at that time had stories) warned his cast to ignore the “badly miscast” movie — especially Steiger and Gloria Grahame. I wasn’t sure what he meant then, and am even less certain now. MacRae and Jones are charming and in excellent voice. Zinnemann wanted James Dean for Curly, but his singing was underwhelming; Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman were also considered, as was Howard Keel, who might have been ideal except that MacRae was less well-known, which gives his presence a fresher tone. Grahame is both funny and sexy as Ado Annie, and Steiger is genuinely frightening as the psychotic Jud, although the character lost some potential sympathy when Jud’s “Lonely Room” solo was not filmed. Steiger not only sings well, but in the dream ballet managed to dance creditably too — and for de Mille. No mean feat, that. (Astonishingly, he got billing below James Whitmore’s brief role as Annie’s shotgun-toting father.) Nelson, like Grahame, has enormous charm, and his athleticism as a dancer is given a strong work-out, notably in the “Kansas City” dance; Eddie Albert is delicious as the alleged Persian peddler Ali Hakum; and the Dream Curly and Dream Laurey, James Mitchell and Bambi Lynn (the latter of whom was in the original stage production) are superb. Marc Platt, the Dream Curly of the show, has a small role as a cowboy, and Ben Johnson, of all people, can also be seen at the railroad depot. Best in the cast, however, is Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller. Known, largely on Broadway (although she was in movies from 1915 through the ’40s) as a comedian and “eccentric dancer,” she’d been sought by R & H for the stage role but wasn’t available. And if at 65 her famed high kicks are less in evidence she grounds the movie in something very like Lynn Riggs’ original folk poetry: Feisty, funny, sensible and warm, Greenwood’s Aunt Eller exhibits the sort of frontier strength people mean when they use the word “indomitable.”

Oliver Smith’s production design, realistic to a fault throughout most of the picture, reaches its creative apogee in the Dream Ballet, a perfect melding of the theatrical and the cinematic: A Surrealist landscape combining the open space both of the performance stage and of the prairie, decorated with appropriate exterior suggestions and incongruous interior objects hanging in midair, a Hellish nightmare in which a bordello’s light fixtures suddenly shoot columns of red flame, a staircase leads to nowhere, and the backdrop alters abruptly from blue sky to a menacing cyclone. Smith’s work perfectly compliments de Mille’s celebrated choreography, which is, if anything, even darker on the screen: What on stage in 1943 represented a negotiation between Jud and Laurey over Curley’s fate that ended with a compromise allowing the cowboy to live becomes, on screen, abject surrender following an act of murder. If the post-South Pacific and King and I Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals represent a pulling back from the precipice, their movie of Oklahoma! conversely shows an older de Mille still intent on pushing the limits of what dance, and musical theatre, could do.


Doctor Dolittle (1967)

Doctor_Dolittle__Attenborough, Harrison

He’s never seen anything like it: A delightfully exuberant Richard Attenborough as Blossom, with Rex Harrison’s Dolittle and the Pushmi-Pullyu.

That Doctor Dolittle was the picture 20th Century-Fox pinned most of its hopes on in 1967 is difficult to fathom now as that same studio’s earlier devotion to the money-pit known as Cleopatra in 1962. That one nearly bankrupted them. Dolittle didn’t do as much damage but it didn’t bring much honor (let alone profits) either. I well remember the picture’s release; I was in precisely the age-group Fox was aiming it at. It was the first non-Disney movie I recall seeing so many commercial product tie-ins for — the sort of thing that we would, a decade later with George Lucas’ Star Wars merchandising, become blasé about was a big deal in ’67. There were children’s cereal tie-ins, toys, games, storybooks, paperback reprints of the Hugh Lofting originals bearing Rex Harrison’s likeness… and records. O, how they had records! The score existed as a soundtrack album, of course, but also in LPs by everyone from Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis, Jr. to Alvin and the Chipmunks. The only thing Doctor Dolittle didn’t get, surprisingly, was a Gold Key comic book. How did Arthur P. Jacobs miss that one?

I don’t think Richard Fleischer’s direction is more than merely competent, and the movie as a whole has more size than real charm. (The original Lofting books are, whatever their racial… “limitations,” shall we say?… entirely charming.) Perhaps if it had been conceived, not as a big, sprawling musical but as a smaller and more inventive non-musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle might have been a minor classic of its kind. And the presence of Harrison makes Dolittle rather too Henry Higgins-like for comfort. (Reportedly re-written that way at the star’s insistence… after he first insisted the character be as far from Higgins as possible. That’s what you get when you hire a megalomaniacal drunk as your star.) But if it hadn’t been a musical, Doctor Dolittle would have lost the one aspect that lifts it above the norm of original musical movies:  The Leslie Bricusse score.

If his screenplay is less sparkling — you can sense the prints of too many fingers on it, and the pushing of a once-sided romance that never takes flight feels weirdly like an exercise in masochism — Bricusse’s songs have a nearly unerring grasp of character, time and place that, combined with their melodiousness, their feeling for mood and their gentle humor, make them almost ideal musical-comedy numbers. Sadly, three of his prettiest ballads (“Beautiful Things,” “Where Are the Words?” and “Something in Your Smile”) were either cut after the premiere or, in the case of the first, trimmed. The footage apparently no longer exists, making the otherwise lovely Twilight Time Blu-ray a bit of a disappointment. I know there are those who hate these songs (when “Talk to the Animals” won the Oscar for Best Song cries of “Oh, no!” were heard in the auditorium) but as I have often said of the Sherman Brothers’ work, if you think it’s easy to compose a clutch of engaging and melodic songs with witty lyrics that can amuse an adult and that a child can also comprehend and appreciate, you write one.

This was the era of the big “road show” musical, and the second such movie my mother took my sister and me to (the first was The Sound of Music a year or so before) that had an Intermission; a big deal for a seven-year old in 1968. Is the movie any good? It seems to me better than its reputation would suggest, but I lack perspective on it: When a picture enchanted you as a child and holds up generally on adult re-viewing, who knows? It’s entirely possible that I feel about Doctor Dolittle the way younger people do about what I regard as the meretricious garbage they grew up with; Willow comes to mind, and The Goonies, and the movies of John Hughes. Before we trash the taste and pleasures of others’ youths, we would do well to examine our own.


The Lion in Winter (1968)
The Lion in Winter - cast

The movie adaptation by James Goldman of his 1966 play, one of those rare pictures whose wit, and spectacular performances, make it a pleasure no matter how many times you’ve seen it.


Julius Caesar (1953)

Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Edmund O'Brien rehearsing JUL

Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Edmund O’Brien rehearsing. (Everett Collection)

This moderately engaging Shakespeare adaptation benefits almost entirely from its actors, and from its typically expert Miklós Rózsa score. Certainly Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s direction is merely workmanlike, when it isn’t altogether poor, and its special effects would be inadequate in a high school production. (The storm sequence is almost hilariously bad; I pictured Tom Courtenay off-stage, frantically pounding on kettle-drums and sheet-metal.) James Mason makes a splendid Brutus, acting entirely on principal and haunted by his own deeds, and although she has one scene only, Deborah Kerr as Portia matches him, her warm voice and understated anguish the perfect compliment to his brooding. John Gielgud, long absent from the screen, made a superb return as Cassius, that mellifluous bassoon of a voice first seducing Brutus, then hectoring him and, finally, locating the character’s latent sense of honor. Best of all is Marlon Brando’s Anthony. Although the play is really Brutus’, to Anthony was given the great funeral oration, with which the character subtly alters the mood of the all-too-pliable mob through irony and rhetoric. (Brando creates a nice moment when, his back to the Roman crowd, he smiles briefly, knowing he has them. Mussolini would surely have approved.) Brando went to Gielgud for advice on diction and phrasing, but the approach is unmistakably his own. He makes each phrase sound natural, as if it just occurred to him. He’s not imitating Gielgud; he’s not imitating anyone.

On the far side of these splendid players is the gaseous Grande Dame posturings of the appalling Greer Garson. Her acting epitomizes what used to be meant by publicists and newspaper writers when they trotted out the word “distinguished.”


Demon Seed (1977)
Demon Seed-lg
An effective, although not exceptional, adaptation of Dean Knnotz’s creepy, truly disturbing cyber-horror novel, arguably more relevant now than it was in 1977. Fritz Weaver is an A.I. expert who has created a living computer, and Julie Christie is his estranged wife, who becomes its first victim. The picture suffers from its modest budget and the limitations of the 1970s special effects (about to be rendered altogether redundant by George Lucas) and from a lack of interior logic in its Robert Jaffe/Roger O. Hirson screenplay:  When Gerrit Graham as one of Weaver’s employees goes to check on Christie and is murdered by “Proteus IV,” his disappearance is ignored by everyone for the crucial month the computer requires for Christie to carry and give birth to its progeny. Donald Cammell directed competently, although with very little style; but for Bill Butler’s rich cinematography, Demon Seed could almost have been a made-for-TV movie. Jerry Fielding’s musique concrète score is effective in context, although I can’t imagine wanting to listen to it in isolation, although Butler, who two years earlier shot Jaws, brings warmth to a cold story with his supple lighting and color. Almost unreservedly grim, the picture has one good in-joke: The chilly, unemotional voice of Proteus IV was provided by the equally frigid Robert Vaughn.


The Mouse on the Moon (1962)
The Mouse on the Moon - Moody, Rutherford (resized)

A mildly amusing adaptation of Leonard Wibberly’s satirical novel, itself a sequel to his enormously popular The Mouse That Roared and its inevitable movie. As with the movie of that book, The Mouse on the Moon is more twee than funny, although it manages a few laughs. Margaret Rutherford is charming as the Grand Duchess, although her role is shorter than one would like, and she is, curiously, less sweetly moving than Peter Sellers was in the role! A lot of good farceurs are in this one, including Ron Moody as the corrupt Prime Minister, Bernard Cribbins as his earnest son, Terry-Thomas as a less than efficacious English spy, the Broadway actor Tom Aldredge (husband of the costume designer Theoni V.) as a hapless Pentagon assistant and David Kossoff as the preternaturally cheerful and unhurried scientist whose discovery that the tiny Duchy’s combustible wine can be used as fuel for a space capsule sets the plot in motion. Michael Pertwee (brother of Jon) wrote the script, and Richard Lester directed in a style that is rather sedate for him — but A Hard Day’s Night was just around the corner.


The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

Importance of Being Earnest - Criterion

Only a true auteur (or anyway an auteurist home video company) could seriously attach a possessive credit to The Importance of Being Earnest other than Oscar Wilde. Yes, Anthony Asquith wrote the adaptation and directed it, but I suspect he would be appalled at being named, as Criterion does, the “creator” of this movie. Thus does the viral insanity of Andrew Sarris infect everything.

Wilde’s “Serious Comedy for Trivial People” is one of the great pleasures the English-speaking theatre affords, its torrent of polished witticisms and dizzying aperçus piling up in a manner so intoxicating that in addition to laughing, often, we sit in the theatre smiling in perfect bliss for the play’s three delirious acts. The 1952 movie is briefer than the play — it runs a fast 95 minutes — yet somehow we miss nothing. And if both Michael Redgrave (as Jack) and Michael Denison (Algernon) are a good decade older than their roles, Asquith’s framing device of a theatrical performance is superfluous and Denison’s perennial mode of expression is something between a smirk and a sneer, rendering him less impish than unpleasant, everything else is absolutely right. Asquith’s pitch and pacing are exactly correct, and his cast is nearly perfect. Redgrave, with his dashing mien and rich, plummy voice, is an ideal Jack Worthing, perfectly matched by the serene imbecility of Joan Greenwood’s Gwendolen and Dorothy Tutin’s Cecily. Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson are, as always with these two sublime comedians, oases of hilariously unflappable British reserve. And if it does nothing else, the movie preserves Edith Evans’ peerless Lady Bracknell. Her performance is so perfectly calibrated, her characterization so utterly certain of the rightness of its extreme rectitude and absurd traditions, her memory must present a formidable hurdle to any actor assaying the role. How do you make it your own when she got every line so magnificently right before you? And yes, everything you may have heard about her reading of the outraged line “A handbag?” is correct; no matter how many times I hear it, Evans’ exquisite comic phrasing always elicits from me a gale of explosive hilarity. As an added fillip, Desmond Dickinson’s rich photography, like the delicious British light music score by Benjamin Frankel, makes the thing like a colorful bonbon, as charming to look at as to digest.

John Simon always maintained that intelligent laughter was the very best sort. There are fewer pure fonts of it than this.


Satchmo (1988)
Satchmo - Giddins
The superb jazz (and, lately, movie) critic Gary Giddins’ heartfelt 1988 tribute to one of his idols, and mine. Written by Giddins and co-directed by him and Kendrick Simmons, Satchmo charts the astonishing youthful rise of one of the few undisputed musical geniuses of the 20th century, illustrating just why he, more than anyone of his time, defined the parameters of the form and the place of the great solo artist within it; his sometimes troubled middle-age; and his transcendent emeritus years, when the taint of Uncle Tomism, never fair, began to fall away and Armstrong’s importance could be more broadly understood. When his great Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings from the late 1920s were reissued on LP around the time Giddins’ documentary was airing on PBS, they were a revelation: While Armstrong was hardly the first jazz performer — the genre predated his arrival in it by decades — those records made it feel as if he was inventing jazz right on the spot. Next to an astonishment like “West End Blues,” almost everything that came before was literally marking time.

Despite Hattie Winston’s passionless and undistinguished narration, Satchmo does for Armstrong, in 90 minutes, what it takes Ken Burns, in Jazz, 10 episodes to do. The live footage of Armstrong in Copenhagen in 1933 alone justifies the entire event.


Divorce American Style (1967)

Divorce American Style - 1967

Dick Van Dyke has clearly had it up to here with Debbie Reynolds. Well, who wouldn’t?

Few things date faster than topical humor. Divorce American Style was old-hat two years after its release, when no-fault divorce became the law of the land in California, where the movie is set, and its then-scathing satire instantly devolved from amusingly au courant to hopelessly passé. So if you like the picture as I do and have since seeing it on television in the mid-‘70s, you have to approach it as a period-piece — even though its Norman Lear/Robert Kaufman screenplay has infinitely more bite to it than William Rose’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the script that bested it at the 1967 Oscars. This was one of Dick Van Dyke’s few non-family friendly projects of the ‘60s, and one of his best. He’s the husband impoverished by his state’s punitive divorce laws, although I would think being married to Debbie Reynolds was punishment enough. While there is some sharp dialogue and several cleverly conceived and executed sequences, usually set to Dave Grusin’s inspired faux-Baroque music (the opening titles, in which the evening’s suburban arguments are orchestrated by a conductor; the scene in which each warring spouse attempts to thwart the other’s abilities to strip their join bank holdings; the Sunday-fathers’ gathering of the clans; and a prolonged silent fight between Reynolds and Van Dyke, punctuated entirely by slamming doors and sliding cabinets) much of the humor of the picture lies in its canny casting: Jason Robards, Jr. as the tragi-comic divorcée hoping to pair his ex (Jean Simmons) with Van Dyke, to get him off the financial hook that is literally destroying his heath; Shelley Berman and Richard Gautier as overly pally divorce lawyers; Joe Flynn as an ethical philandering husband; Martin Gabel as a humorless couples’ therapist; Lee Grant as an insulted call-girl; Tom Bosley as a divorced man explaining the intricacies of weekend fatherhood to a bewildered Van Dyke; Van Johnson as a square, mother-ridden car dealer; and in smaller roles, Emmaline Henry, the “hip hypnotist” Pat Collins (as herself), Shelley Morrison, Eileen Brennan as Robards’ girlfriend (this was her first movie) and, as Van Dyke and Reynolds’ knowing sons, Gary Goetzman and Tim Matheson, the once and future Jonny Quest. Conrad L. Hall’s muted color photography and Ferris Webster’s often effective editing make this one of the rare ‘60s comedies that has more in common with the kineticism of The Graduate than with the glorified Universal television look of a Doris Day vehicle. After a second bracing Van Dyke black comedy (Cold Turkey in 1971) and the 1973 Ryan O’Neal caper The Thief Who Came to Dinner the director Bud Yorkin and his writer and co-producer Norman Lear would develop All in the Family for television and pretty much turn their backs on the movies for good. Interesting too that the fruits of their TV empire, the aptly-named Tandem Productions, which encompassed All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and Sanford and Son, should now be referred to solely as Norman Lear’s. There’s nothing like having good P.R.


Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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The first Disney animated feature in widescreen and among the most charming of all full-length cartoons.


Hearts of the West (1975)
Hearts of the West - Bridges, Arkin

Hearts of the West is one of those puzzlers that occasionally crop up: A bright,  funny little movie about a hapless Candide in the early days of cheap talkie Westerns with a charming script and a wonderful cast that went by the wayside when it was released and, for reasons that absolutely defy logic, bombed at the box office. What were its “must-see” competitors in the marketplace in October, 1975? Tom Laughlin in The Master Gunfighter? Diana Ross in Mahogany? The “Blaxploitation” Western Take a Hard Ride? That last is not a slur, by the way; I like Take a Hard Ride enormously. I’m simply saying that Hearts of the West had very little real competition for moviegoers’ bucks, and none remotely as good.*

Sharply and wittily written by Rob Thompson and efficiently directed by Howard Zieff, it’s a breezy, quirky fable of a Western-obsessed youth (Jeff Bridges), determined to become a novelist, who after inadvertently foiling a pair of con artists (Richard B. Shull and Anthony James) and accidentally absconding with their loot, takes refuge with the cowboys at a Poverty Row studio. Thompson, who later wrote for Northern Exposure and Monk, has a gift for the unexpected; his characters don’t always act the way we think they will, and his narratives veer off into avenues that, while perhaps puzzling at first, eventually resolve themselves as, within the gentle madness of the conception, eminently reasonable. And, unlike with Richard Rush’s far more highly lauded The Stunt Man,  Thompson respects the physical realities of filmmaking. Everything about the picture works, from the soft, lovely cinematography by Mario Tosi and the sometimes hilariously accurate art direction by Robert Luthardt and set decoration by Charles B. Pierce to the cunning period costumes by Patrick Cummings and Ron Talsky. Zieff’s direction is clean and uncluttered, and he gets the most from Thompson’s script and from his actors, who aside from a typically wonderful Bridges include Alan Arkin as an excitable director, the sublime Blythe Danner as his practical assistant, and Andy Griffith as a Western gunfighter with a secret. It was the best screen role Griffith had lucked onto since the 1957 A Face in the Crowd, and you can well understand why he was still bitter about the movie’s financial failure a decade later.


The Mosquito Coast (1986)

The Mosquito Coast - Mirren, Ford, Phoenix

After the apocalypse: Helen Mirren and River Phoenix look to Harrison Ford for a sane reaction to their disaster. They won’t get it.

When I first saw The Mosquito Coast on its release in 1986, I clocked more walk-outs in the audience than for any picture of my experience since Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 1977. There were any number of reasons for audience discontent in the case of the latter. As to the former, I think there were two.

First, Harrison Ford’s previous picture, a year earlier, had been Witness, a huge hit in which he played an implacable cop and which built to a big, violent finish. Here he was a mercurial obsessive who blithely endangers his family by repeatedly trying to set up a kind of half-assed Utopia in Honduras, dragging them from one untenable encampment to another, and slowly going mad. This was not what an audience expected of Han Solo, much less of Indiana Jones.

Second (and worse) “Father,” as Ford’s character is usually called, does not grow and change for the better. A mass audience can take a character as weird and arrogant as this only when it receives assurance that he will see the error of his ways. Even Oedipus putting out his eyes is more acceptable to it than watching a beloved actor descend into madness and death assaying a character who (as the asparagus farmer played by Dick O’Neill notes of him) is “the worst kind of pain-in-the neck: A know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” If you’re open to the experience, however, and to its bitter vision, The Mosquito Coast is that rare thing: An American movie that does not compromise.

Paul Schrader’s screenplay telescopes some of the narrative of the superb Paul Theroux novel (the Fox family’s miserable journey is more protracted in the book) and softens some of its nastier edges. I couldn’t understand, for example, why in Theroux the younger Fox children are so antagonistic toward Charley (River Phoenix) who is a nice, sensitive kid even if he only recognizes the full extent of his father’s endangering madness when it’s far too late — just as in the book Father’s bullying, while grounded in his determination to prepare his children for survival in a world he believes is reverting to savagery, ranges well beyond cruelty; Allie Fox is perhaps a minor-league sadist, but anyone who’s grown up with such a parent knows that even low-grade sadism is deeply wounding to the children who are its targets. As with all adaptations of fine literature, much is necessarily lost along the way, but on balance Schrader captures the tone of the book, especially in Charley’s narration, which carries over from the novel and allows the viewer, as it did the reader, some perspective on his Quixotic father.

The Mosquito Coast is one of those pictures that seems to benefit from its director not being an American. Perhaps, as an Australian, Peter Weir was able to look at Allie, and at the world he escapes from, plain. There’s a sense that the filmmakers admire Father’s vision, even as they look askance at how he achieves it. And when Allie inadvertently destroys and pollutes his manufactured Paradise, Ford gets Father’s response exactly, and staggeringly, right: Every set-back becomes a new beginning, and he claims he’s overjoyed at the prospect, utterly unable to see how each such fresh start in the face of failure is another slow death for his wife and children. I think his performance as Allie Fox is the finest Harrison Ford has ever given, and it’s garnered him scant honor. That audience indifference to artistic integrity, a collective shrug, says much about why we get the movies we do: We deserve them.


The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)
The Weavers - Wasn't That a Time!

Jim Brown’s absolutely wonderful documentary, ostensibly on the final Carnegie Hall reunion concert by The Weavers but really about American values in adversity and defiance in the face of repression is especially relevant now, as hundreds of millions behave like sheep over a winter influenza virus and gratefully permit their various versions of Big Brother to squeeze yet more liberty from their already diminished lives.


Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
Far from the Madding Crowd - Christie, Bates
Whether or not one is an aficionado of Thomas Hardy’s, and despite the author’s occasional 19th century Chauvanism toward women, Far from the Madding Crowd is an easy book to love. Its four major characters are beautifully drawn, none of them shaded entirely one way or the other; as in life, they are neither heroic, nor villainous, although each is entirely human and therefore eminently capable of both heroism and villainy. The essential narrative is relatively simple: A single woman (Bathsheba Everdine) entrances three separate men (Shepherd Oaks, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy). The novel’s progress is over several years as each of the men pursues her, gives up (Oaks), temporarily wins her (Troy) or, unable to, is driven to a mad act of violence (Boldwood). That Batheheba is entirely to blame for Boldwood’s infatuation is not in question — indeed, she shoulders the blame willingly and repeatedly. But should anyone be forced to surrender all hope of future happiness over a youthful prank? Yet Boldwood is not an ogre, merely a man possessed; and if Troy is more than a bit of a cad, he too has his moment of reckoning, although he is unable to resist the temptation to return to the scene when fate has permitted him a handy escape. Of the three only Oaks is able to integrate his love for Bathsheba into his working life, and only he regards her on equal terms and not as a conquest or an ornament. And while it is clear that while Hardy too admires Bathsheba’s independence (she inherits a farm, and works it successfully) we can only assume at the end that, once Oaks’ own inheritance is merged with hers, it will be his farm entirely. Well,  one cannot undo the traditions and legalities of the past, although Christ alone knows today’s “woke” filmmakers seem to believe they can if they just ignore them hard enough.

I’m not sure why, since it hews very close to its source, this beautiful and intelligent adaptation by Frederic Raphael and John Schlesinger doesn’t work. Its nearly three-hour running time ensures that most of the central events of the novel are represented; the only major incident not included is Bathsheba’s early rescue of Oaks from suffocation. And the location shooting thoroughly captures the  atmosphere of Hardy’s “Wessex,” a geography of the mind not dissimilar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (The movie was shot around Dorset, where the author lived and wrote.) Yet despite its splendid cast and handsome photography — Nicholas Roeg was the cinematographer — the movie never quite catches fire. I think the lack has to do with an accumulation of little things; small details Schlesinger and Raphael either miss, or make too much of. I don’t mean the casting of the famously blond Julie Christie as the (equally famously) raven-haired Bathsheba. I’m referring to the overuse of rack-focus; the elongation of the sequence in which Troy shows off his swordsmanship for Bathsheba, which Schlesinger turns into something so over-the-top its erotic metaphor becomes nearly pornographic and his later appearance disguised as Dick Turpin is presented as part of a raucous slapstick circus; the loss of affecting detail in the novel, such as the way Hardy reveals after the murder that Boldwood had painstakingly assembled an entire new wardrobe for his hoped-for bride, or that his execution is stayed at the 11th hour, or even that he attempts suicide and is foiled; or, conversely, needless invention, such as the way, at the end, Oak and Bathsheba’s quiet wedding is turned by the filmmakers into a very public fête.

Far from the Madding Crowd - poster (resized)

What absolutely does work are the performances of the actors. Christie catches Bathsheba in all her moods and contradictions; Bates locates Oak’s stoicism as well as his  gentle yet dogged professionalism and determination; Stamp is both dashing and  mercurial — here coldly commanding, there over-brimming with passion; and Finch, who has the most difficult role in the picture, makes Boldwood dignified and tragic in equal measure. The production design (Richard Macdonald), art direction (Roy Smith), set decoration (Peter James) and costumes (Alan Barrett) are similarly fulsome and apt, and I cannot imagine how the glorious musical score by Richard Rodney Bennett, with its exquisite main theme, could be bettered.

Schlesinger and Roeg, highly proficient throughout even with my reservations about the totality of their work, handle some of the set-pieces splendidly, such as the terrible moment when the younger of Oaks’ two border terriers drives his flock over the cliffs, or the terrible final trek taken by poor Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome) to the workhouse, or the sequence in which Oaks, finding all the men drunk on Troy’s brandy, undertakes the necessary covering of Bathsheba’s ricks of wheat in a punishing thunderstorm, joined in the endeavor by Bathsheba herself, perfectly illustrating how well they work together. But the movie’s failure boils down, ultimately, to a matter of its elements being simultaneously too much, and not enough: After Bathsheba leaves him following their first romantic encounter, Stamp’s Troy sits on the side of the hill in wide shot and the unseen sun above is repeatedly hidden by, and emerges from behind, the clouds, the darkness rolling over the land and being chased again by rays of light. It’s one of the loveliest effects in nature, especially when the field for viewing is vast enough. Here, you get the sense that Schlesinger and Roeg were so in love with it, and so lost in contemplation of its pictorial glory, that they lingered over the moment interminably. There’s a metaphor in that, and not the one they had in mind.


*It appears the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier comedy Let’s Do it Again was the big winner in October of 1975presumably on the strength of Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, then the inexplicably popular star of Good Times, in a co-starring rolealong with the Walter Hill period bare-knuckle boxing picture Hard Times and the belated True Grit sequel (and African Queen rip-off) Rooster Cogburn starring the unlikely duo of John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology: April 2020

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By Scott Ross

Note: The deaths of nearly all elderly people with pre-existing medical conditions are now routinely ascribed to “complications from COVID-19,” first by their survivors, who have suddenly become coroners the same way the McResistance received instant law degrees in 2016, and secondarily by officials doing all they can to run up the numbers — with the object, I presume, of frightening everyone in what we laughingly call the world’s democracies enough they can be persuaded to willingly surrender what little remains of their liberties. In the entries below I will not dignify this pernicious lethal idiocy with a mention.


Patricia Bosworth, 86.

Bosworth, once an actress, became a first-rate biographer (and, later, memoirist) with her Montgomery Clift in 1980. While it is, inevitably, a deeply depressing book, it is written with grace and compassion, reminding older readers that Clift revolutionized movie acting before Brando arrived on the scene, and introducing younger ones to the brilliance he paid for from childhood on with his sanity and, ultimately, with the loss of that breathtaking beauty for which he was also known and which he made the narcissistic center of his being. Bosworth’s 2012 biography of her old friend Jane Fonda is likely the best work we will ever get on a woman who, for all her intelligence and, occasionally, staggering accomplishment — her performance as Bree Daniels in Klute remains to my mind the single finest piece of movie acting of the last 50 years — is in essential ways a phony, endlessly searching for a substitute for her cold, cruel, unfeeling father. Seldom has a biographical subject been seen with such unflinching acuity by an author who is also that person’s friend.


Honor Blackman, 94.
Goldfinger - Connery, Blackman (resized)
Blackman, who first achieved fame as Diana Rigg’s predecessor on The Avengers, became a vivid icon of popular culture with the jaw-droppingly named Pussy Galore in the 1964 Goldfinger. “Icon,” like the now-ubiquitous “legendary” for anyone who ever saw a modicum of fame or notoriety for more than the requisite 15 minutes, is a buzz-word I avoid whenever possible, but in Blackman’s case it seems apropos: Pussy is the rare Bond Girl who provides even a modicum of resistance to the charms of 007 (“I’m immune,” she dryly informs him) and if the filmmakers wisely avoided the nasty use of Lesbianism that marks Galore and her Flying Circus in Ian Fleming’s novel, the implications seem obvious… at least until that memorable battle of wills in the barn that ends in a literal roll-in-the-hay that must have pleased even Fleming, whose James Bond reminds his readers in nearly every book that “women enjoy a kind of demi-rape.”


Phyllis Lyon, 95

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon - wedding

Del Martin at left, Phyllis Lyon at right: Their second wedding ceremony.

There is no way to underestimate the impact Lyon and her partner (later, wife) Del Martin had on the popular gay/Lesbian movement, nor their importance to it. They co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, co-edited its influential magazine The Ladder for eight years, and became the first open couple to join NOW, once a vital feminist organization, now alas merely another neoliberal cultural bulwark.

From Wikipedia (with my emendations, in brackets): “Both women worked to form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) in northern California to persuade ministers to accept homosexuals into churches, and used their influence to decriminalize homosexuality in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They became politically active in San Francisco’s first gay political organization, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which influenced then-mayor [the ever-conservative] Dianne Feinstein [who, but for two murders, would be a barely-remembered footnote in local San Francisco history] to sponsor a citywide bill to outlaw employment discrimination for gays and lesbians [which must have just about killed her].

The first same-sex couple married in San Francisco in 2004, Lyon and Martin’s marriage was later overturned, as were those of thousands of couples in the infamous Prop-8 vote. They were re-married in 2008; once again their wedding was the first such to take place after the ban was lifted by the California Supreme Court. Martin died two months later.

I don’t often write such sentiments, but these two women, neither of whom I ever met, will live in my heart until it stops beating.


Hal Willner, 64.

Willner was an associate producer on two Leon Redbone albums, including the early masterpiece Double Time, later becoming known for his rock-oriented tribute albums: Amarcord Nino Rota (1981), That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk (1984), and the often brilliant Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (1985) and Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (1988). His 2003 Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen did honor to my favorite composer of popular songs, but it was Willner and Greg Ford’s 1990 The Carl Stalling Project that earned him a kind of immortality in my household. Unaware of the CD’s existence, I literally gasped when I came across it in a soundtrack bin, and during the first blush of my ardor I must have listened to it more than just about any other recording in my collection, then or now; as a Warner Bros. animation fanatic that recording was, for me, the fulfillment of a dream I wasn’t really aware I had until I held it in my trembling hands. It was not merely having some of Stalling’s best and most representative Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies scores on a CD that made the album so special but as well the creative and often witty arrangements of those tracks into medleys which revealed it as a special sort of aural nonesuch. And if the 1995 Volume 2 was perhaps an inevitable let-down, that first disc retains pride of place in my sound library. Whatever else Willner ever did, he did this, and it earned him a tasty little slice of immortality.


Allen Garfield ( Goorwitz), 80.
Nashville - Blakely, Garfield
Garfield was one of those faces one saw often in the ’70s, usually in small parts or even just bits — he’s the other man on a cross during Woody Allen’s Messianic dream sequence in Bananas — occasionally in larger roles, and always a welcome presence. He was in Brian De Palma’s Greetings (1968), Robert Downey Sr’s Madison Avenue satire Putney Swope (1969), The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), a rare lead in the 1971 Cry Uncle!, The Candidate (1972), The Conversation (1974), one of the reporters in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s version of The Front Page (also 1974), The Brink’s Job (1978), One Trick Pony (1980), The Cotton Club (1984) and very good as Abe Feller in the fatally flawed 1992 HBO movie Citizen Cohn. His best supporting performances were as Ronee Blakely’s manager/husband in Nashville (1976), so focused on his wife’s career he can’t see how close she is to the edge of sanity, and as the screenwriter in Richard Rush’s 1980 The Stunt Man, in which he has a memorable comic-philosophical dinner debate with Peter O’Tooole’s slightly Satanic filmmaker Eli Cross.


Lee Fierro, 91
Jaws - Lee Fierro, Roy Scheider

Fierro became, quite rightly, immortal as the anguished mother of little Alex Kitner, the second victim of the great white in Jaws (1975). Her confrontation with Roy Scherider on the dock, filmed with beautiful understatement by Steven Spielberg, is at the emotional heart of the picture, and the most moving scene in it. Fierro’s simplicity and directness, the way she holds on to her soft-spoken dignity, her voice breaking only slightly as she pours out her grief and outrage, is a small model of effective acting. She turns a moment, and a role, that court cliché into a quiet little powerhouse. You may forget a lot of things, in any number of movies, but you never forget her.


Mort Drucker, 91

“The way he draws James Caan’s eyebrow is worth some folks’ entire careers” — Tom Spurgeon, The Comic Reporter.

Another touchstone of my youth gone. God damn it.


Alain Daviau (77)
E.T. - Henry Thomas and E.T.

Daviau was the cinematographer of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), two episodes of the 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie (“Kick the Can” for Steven Spielberg and “It’s a Good Life” for Joe Dante), Spielberg’s movies of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), the John Schlesinger-directed The Falcon and the Snowman (1975), Barry Levinson’s Avalon (1990) and Levinson and James Toback’s Bugsy (1991) and the extraordinary Fearless (1993) for Peter Weir.

It says something about the state of American movies that this masterly painter of light ended his career shooting such modern classics as Congo, The Astronaut’s Wife and Van Helsing.


Brian Dennehy (81)

The Iceman Cometh- Dennehy as Hickey, Jerome Kilty as Harry Hope

The Iceman Cometh (1990): Jerome Kilty as Harry Hope and Dennehy as Hickey.

Iceman Cometh - Dennehy, Lane

The 2012 Iceman: Dennehy as Larry Slade with Nathan Lane as Hickey.

Dennehy was one of those actors, like Brian Keith, who had everything an actor needs — good looks, an imposing presence, a fine and instantly identifiable vocal instrument and the ability to play anything from low comedy to the starkest drama — but who, for reasons perhaps best left to an alchemist to anatomize, enjoys a long and varied career yet never attains first-tier stardom. An actor’s actor, he came to the profession late, toiled for years making thankless roles memorable, or contributing small gems to good work (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, “10,” Never Cry Wolf, Gorky Park). After years of solid performances he was finally recognized, in 1985, for his role in the fantasy Cocoon… as an alien.

In the theatre, Dennehy became perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eugene O’Neill after the death of Jason Robards, Jr. He was Hickey in The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman Theatre in 1990 and the Abbey Theatre in 1992, Hughie in 2008 at Stratford, James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night in 2003 (for which he won a Tony Award) and Larry Slade in Iceman in 2012 (at the Goodman) and 2015 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, opposite Nathan Lane as Hickey. In 1999 he was Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, winning his first Tony, and in 2007 he played Matthew Harrison Brady (aka, William Jennings Bryan) in Inherit the Wind opposite Christopher Plummer as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow).

Naturally, he is now being lionized in the American entertainment press for appearing in First Blood and Tommy Boy.


Danny Goldman, 80
Danny Goldman - Young Frankenstein

Being, blessedly, too old to have been subjected to The Smurfs, for which I gather he provided a recurring voice, I know Goldman best for his roles in the movie M*A*S*H (victimized by Robert Duvall’s Frank Burns), as Billy De Wolfe’s son (if you can imagine such a thing) in the Disney comedy The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973) and as the medical student in Young Frankenstein (1974) whose questions cause an increasingly agitated Gene Wilder to stab himself with a scalpel.


Gene Deitch, 95.

Gene Deitch and sons

Dietch with his sons. Kim, at left, later became a noted underground cartoonist.

Gene Deitch model sheet

Character sheet for Tom Terrific. Note Sidney, who first appeared on the series.

If you grew up in the 1960s, Dietch’s work was a fond part of your daily life, especially his mid-’50s Terrytoons shorts, still very much in evidence on children’s television programs during my pre-school years and which included such wonders as Clint Clobber, Sidney the Elephant and, most wonderful of all, the endlessly inventive Tom Terrific. Dietch started at UPA in 1955 before moving to Terrytoons, and although he was nominated for an Academy Award for Sidney’s Family Tree in 1958, and despite the popularity of Tom on the Captain Kangaroo show, he was fired from Terrytoons. He relocated to Prague to work on an adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s parable Munro, met his future wife there, and stayed. An affecting satire on bureaucracy and authoritarianism about a boy who is drafted into the American Army, where no one will listen when he repeatedly tells them he’s only four years old, Munro won an Oscar in 1961.

Dietch did a great deal of work for King Features in the ’60s, on their ill-advised Popeye and Krazy Kat series, and also directed some truly bizarre Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM. In all of these cases his hip sense of humor and pared-down style, developed early in his career as an artist for the jazz magazine The Record Changer, clashed with the existing characters. He fared far better with projects he originated, and with none so beautifully as the Tom Terrific series, with its simple design, endearing and somewhat magical main figures (Tom and Mighty Manfred the Wonder-Dog) and their various nemeses, notably the mad scientist Crabby Appleton. Although only 26 Tom shorts were produced, their charm and inventiveness, coupled with repeated showings on the Kangaroo show, made them perennial, and immortal. Shockingly, they have never been released on home video, in any format. This must not stand!


Shirley Knight, 83

Knight was one of those actors who virtually define the word “professional.” Despite two early Oscar nominations (for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in 1960 and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1962), appearances in incendiary plays such as LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman, a Best Featured Actress Tony for Robert Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children (pictured above, left, in 1976) and a number of Emmys (including two in a single year in 1995) she remained largely unknown to the mass audience, yet was never less than splendid in anything she did. To get an idea of what I mean by professional, take a look at the 1974 Richard Lester-directed thriller Juggernaut. Her role as a woman trapped on a passenger ship carrying two bombs is minimal, but Knight gives it everything, making it memorable through her gift for understatement and the force of her obvious intelligence.


Peter H. Hunt, 81

1776 - Howard, Da Silva, Daniels (The Egg) resized

1776: Ken Howard (Jefferson), Howard Da Silva (Franklin) and William Daniels (Adams) singing “The Egg,” possibly the only late-addition song in Broadway history to have been inspired by the poster art.

Hunt directed Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s stage musical 1776, a resounding  success on Broadway in 1969, as well as the 1972 movie version, which while not necessarily a great picture was nonetheless a hugely important one to yours truly.  (See link.) Badly mangled by Jack Warner before its release, 1776 has since been restored and its missing footage (including the song “Cool, Considerate Men,” cut at the urging of Tricky Dick Nixon) edited back in. In this case at least, more is more.

Hunt also directed Samuel Gallu’s 1974 monodrama Give ’em Hell, Harry! which, sadly, did much to sell the thoroughly white-washed version of Truman we are still reckoning with to a public thoroughly fed up with Richard Nixon. If Hunt hadn’t directed the play, someone else would have. Still, it’s hard not to hold him at least a little responsible for rehabilitating a nasty little Missouri racist who, more than anyone, was the architect of the appalling arms build-up that still haunts us today, and the creation of the National Security State that makes our lives, and those of millions if not billions more across the world, the miserable things they are.

But by all means keep telling yourself it was Donald Trump who created the insanity that governs us all.

Peter H Hunt

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

 

Breeding war: “The Lion in Winter” (1968)

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By Scott Ross

To however low (and, seemingly, terminal) an ebb theatrical culture has sunk today, and as unimportant as non-musical plays are to the American theatre now, the indifference of the Broadway crowd to good new plays is scarcely a new phenomenon. In early 1966, James Goldman’s wonderfully literate dark historical comedy The Lion in Winter, despite a cast headed by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, ran a scant 92 performances before shuttering. When the far from inevitable movie adaptation premiered two years later (Martin Poll, the producer, had originally optioned Goldman’s novel Waldorf for the movies) the play almost instantly attained a “classic” status that must surely have surprised its author.

The Lion in Winter - Hopkins, Merrow, O'Toole

Goldman is, like his brother William, one of my favorite writers, and the Plantagenets were good to him: In addition to The Lion in Winter, Goldman also wrote the lovely autumnal romance Robin and Marian (1976) featuring both King Richard and King John, and the superb 1979 novel Myself as Witness, in which he revised his opinion, feeling he’d been far too hard on John in the past. (His other major works were the beautifully compact and consequently underrated book for the musical Follies and the marvelous dramatic comedy They Might Be Giants.) Goldman was, like Bruce Jay Friedman, one of the rarer comic/dramatic writers of his time in that his humor was based in wit rather than one-liners and sarcasm; with the possible exception of Friedman’s Scuba Duba (1967) there were probably more sharp aphorisms and Shavian aperçus in The Lion in Winter than in any American play of the time between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 and The Boys in the Band in 1968. Even his deliberate anachronisms are memorable, as with Eleanor’s “It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.” But what is usually forgotten when that line is quoted are the words that precede it, and those that tumble after:

Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little? That’s how peace begins. 

And warfare is what The Lion in Winter is about: Between the exiled queen (Katharine Hepburn) and her king (Peter O’Toole); between Eleanor and the two sons she does not favor (John Castle as Geoffrey and Nigel Terry as John); between Henry and those he wishes to keep from the crown (Geoffrey and Anthony Hopkins as Eleanor’s favorite, Richard); between those sons and their less-favored parents; between the boys themselves; between Henry and Philip of France (Timothy Dalton); and, although the queen denies it, between Eleanor and her possible successor (Jane Morrow as Philip’s sister Alais). Here, action is negotiation — sometimes dispassionate but most often spiked with venom — and when the verbal battles begin in earnest they are as wounding as the speakers can make them without fatality. Of the antagonists, only John is not intellectually equipped to draw blood, and of the boys only Geoff has inherited the sly cunning of which both his parents are masters; like Henry and Eleanor he is Machiavellian avant la lettre, but lacking either John’s doggedness or Richard’s physical prowess,* he is condemned always to be on the sidelines. And interestingly, Eleanor, for all her shrewdness, and her innate understanding of how best to wound Henry, consistently tips her hand, giving her estranged husband exactly the knowledge he needs to thwart her.

lion-in-winter-hepburn

“My, what a lovely girl. How could her king have left her?”

Although O’Toole was too young for his role — Hepburn was almost exactly the right age for hers — he’d played Jean Anouilh’s Henry (by way of Edward Anhalt) in the movie of Becket (1964) and the conceptions are similar. His performance here is one of those zesty, grand, playful characterizations tinged with melancholy, and even genuine despair (Jack Gurnsey in The Ruling Class, Eli Cross in The Stunt Man, Alan Swann in My Favorite Year) that dot his filmography, and O’Toole gives everything to it: Subtlety, understatement, wit, sparkle, dash, elan, anguish and, when necessary, roars of outrage, the lion bearded in his den and refusing to be slain. Hepburn too rises superbly to the challenge, and if that famous Yankee accent is only slightly disguised, it isn’t a matter of dire concern; the realistic location sets (Ireland standing in for Chinon, where in fact there was no Christmas Court in 1183) are already so at war with Goldman’s Wildean witticisms that another layer of artificiality hardly matters. Her age, which she’d begun to let show in Long Day’s Journey into Night, works for her characterization, especially in the scene where she confronts herself in a mirror; her crow’s-feet, nearly lashless eyes and the general ravages of age  upon the body — she was 60 when the picture was filmed — work wonderfully for her characterization (although she made every effort to cover her throat throughout.) When she’s lashing out at Henry, rolling about on her bed and evoking his father’s body, she’s electrifying, and when she gives up utterly, shattering. And she’s seldom been as well-matched as she is by her co-star here. Not even Spencer Tracy had the sort of feral, animal-like intensity O’Toole brings to Henry. Tracy was tough, too, but softer-spoken, and anyway Hepburn nearly always deferred to him, in a way that could be nauseatingly servile. Only in Adam’s Rib is she his equal, and even there she becomes shrill, and he wins. Goldman wrote Eleanor and Henry like deadlier versions of Benedict and Beatrice: No quarter is given by either, and however much blood is let, the match is never really over. Although, like Tracy, Henry is the eventual victor, and Eleanor is sent back to her prison, they salute each other at the end, and you know they will be at it again hammer and tongs in another year. Above everything else, for these two, engagement is all.

The Lion in Winter - O'Toole, Dalton (The royal line on Sodomy)

“What’s the official line on sodomy? How stands the Crown on boys who do with boys?”

Whether Goldman believed that Richard was homosexual — his sexuality is still debated, and uncertain — or ever had a physical relationship with Philip II is by the way; that he used the possibility so effectively is what matters, and it leads to one of the finest scenes in the movie, allowing both Dalton and Hopkins, whose first picture this was, to command our attention and for the former to illustrate that Philip is no mean plotter himself. That the sequence is also structured like a sex-farce, with the various brothers, conspiring with Philip, forced to hide behind arrases, makes it all the more delicious. Terry is a bit hampered by Goldman’s conception of John as an open-mouthed dolt but Castle is wonderfully sly as Geoffrey, making us for the most part merely guess at the character’s possible hurt from a lifetime of being ignored by both Mummy and Daddy. And although Alais is largely a pawn, and knows it (“Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look,” she says to Eleanor, who loves her and uses her equally, “and I’m the only pawn. I haven’t got a thing to lose. That makes me dangerous.”) Merrow is adept at depicting both her anguish and her understandable rage.

Although, as noted above, the movie’s dirty Medieval realism is at odds with Goldman’s brittle humor, his screenplay cunningly shifts scenes played in one set to the physical world of Henry’s brood, both inside Chinon and out. This encompasses Douglas Slocombe’s rich cinematography, Peter Murton’s thoroughly lived-in sets, the splendid costumes by Margaret Furse. John Barry’s score, which won him his third Oscar,† was criticized in some quarters for its alleged evocation of Stravinsky (specifically, one presumes, his Symphony of Psalms) but I think the stronger antecedent influences are Orff’s Carmina Burana and the dark Gregorian chants on which Barry’s striking chromatic vocalese seems to me more obviously based. And anyway, who says Igor Stravinsky is the only composer permitted to write dissonant Latin choral pieces?

The strong pictorial and thespic direction is by the former film editor Anthony Harvey, who knew when (and how long) to hold on interesting actors speaking incisive dialogue. It seems to be a lost art.

The Lion in Winter - cast


*Goldman’s conception of Richard was as mutable as the future king himself: As Robin and Marian begins, Robin Hood (Sean Connery) has become fed up with the Third Crusade and pointedly refers to Richard Harris’ war-mongering Lionheart as “a bloody bastard.”

†1968 was an especially rich year for movie music: Barry’s competitors for the Academy Award that year were Alex North (The Shoes of the Fisherman), Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair), Lalo Schifrin (The Fox) and Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes) and two superb scores that weren’t nominated but well might have been were Schifrin’s Bullitt and Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

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By Scott Ross

Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)
Monty-Python-and-The-Holy-Grail-40th_640
The team’s first feature, a Greatest Hits collection of now-classic comedy bits.


My Darling Clementine: Preview edition / Release version (1946)
My Darling Clementine - Darnell and Fonda

John Ford’s return to studio filmmaking after the Second World War. A small masterpiece diminished, although not quite ruined, by Darryl Zanuck’s interference.


In a Lonely Place (1950)
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A minor psychological thriller (based on a major popular literary exercise by Dorothy B. Hughes) with superb performances by Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, its reputation expanded to impossible dimensions of greatness by over-enthusiastic auteurists. There was no place in my review to note this, but the movie’s costumer designed low and weirdly over-broad shoulders for all of Bogart’s jackets; he looks like a badly-dressed mannequin newly escaped from the window of a vintage clothing shop specializing in zoot-suits.


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Treasure - Holt, Bogart, Huston

John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is one of those almost miraculous studio movies that somehow got made with minimal interference and compromise and likely represents a realization that was as close to its creator’s intention as it was possible, in 1948, to come.


Little Caesar (1931)
Little Caesar
With The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that created, and defined, the gangster picture and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. It doesn’t hold up as well as the Cagney but Edward G. Robinson’s performance is certainly worth a look, even if he’s not especially well served by the  workmanlike script until the last five or ten minutes.


Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Hot Lead and Cold Feet
An amiable, funny but very loud Western comedy from the Disney studios in which Jim Dale plays twins — one a missionary, the other a violent rowdy — as well as their crafty old father (that’s Dale, above, with the beard), Darren McGavin is the town’s crooked mayor, Don Knotts its belligerent sheriff, Karen Valentine the feisty schoolmarm, Jack Elam an incompetent gunslinger called “Rattlesnale” and John Williams, who was apparently born old, a put-upon valet. It was made with no particular style and with little on its mind other than providing some clean laughs. For the most part, it gets them. As usual with movies of the period, the rear-screen projection is miserable, but the Deschutes National Forest locations are glorious, and even the inevitable children (Michael Sharrett and Debbie Lytton) are tolerable. Like so many comedians, Jim Dale had too odd a face for movie stardom, with a narrow head, a recessive chin and a nose that seemed to have been stretched out of putty. But he’s as nimble, affable and inventive onscreen as his stage reputation suggested; in a couple of years he would be Barnum on Broadway. The picture’s stunt crew was kept so busy its members got special credit in the opening titles, and they’re like the Proteans in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, tumbling in and out of scenes, falling off cliffs and buildings and seemingly everywhere at once.

For those who treasure pointless trivia, the movie’s associate producer was the hitherto stultifyingly obnoxious Disney child star Kevin Corcoran, who seems to have gone on to a long career as an assistant director.

Anything that kept him behind the camera rather than in front of it…


To Have and Have Not (1944)
To Have and Have Not - poster resized

Arguably a trivialization, and certainly not a true representation, of its grim source, this is still one of the most entertaining movies of the Hollywood Studio era. The ultimate Howard Hawks movie, and (to my mind, anyway) his best. It’s one of the most pleasing ways I know to spend an evening, and it never fails to pick me up.


Cowboy (1958)

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A quirky, sometimes appalling, occasionally funny adaptation of a 1930 memoir by Frank Harris — yes, that Frank Harris — of his days as a youth in the United States trying to become a cattle man. (Jack Lemmon, as Harris, eschews the English accent, and indeed the filmmakers omit any sense of the character being anything but 100% American, from Philadeplhia, yet.) Dalton Trumbo, in his blacklist period, wrote the script, with Edmund H. North as his front. Intended as the cinematic equivalent of radio’s “adult Westerns” such as Gunsmoke, The Six-Shooter, Frontier Gentleman and Have Gun Will Travel, the picture is an oddity in that it contains more deliberate cruelty to animals than I think I’ve seen in any other fiction film, and with few exceptions the cattlemen on the drive are irresponsible, cowardly and murderous… and that’s when they’re at their “fun,” as when they toss around a rattlesnake which, thrown about the neck of a tenderfoot (Strother Martin) bites and kills him; when Lemmon’s Harris objects, and calls them on their responsibility for the man’s death, they all turn on him. Harris becomes more and more of a hardass and a martinet as the drive continues, and who can blame him? Cowboy isn’t merely an adult Western, it’s an anti Western. See it, and you may be so disgusted you’ll never want to see another.

While Lemmon gives his usual engaging performance, brash boyishness alternating with hard-won maturity, it’s difficult to judge Glenn Ford’s, because it’s always difficult. The surest way to keep me from giving some movie a chance is to tell me Ford is the star of it. (I’ve deprived myself of Gilda for decades because he’s in it.) He was no actor, so what exactly was he? A movie star, I suppose, but even that puzzles me; he made Gregory Peck look like Laurence Olivier. And at least Peck improved as he aged; Ford stayed resolutely Ford. Brian Donlevy has a nice role as an aging, gentle but bibulous lawman, although the director, Delmer Daves, sabotages it by having him die off-stage. Among the trail-hands are Dick York as a young rake, Richard Jaeckel as one of the worst of the hell-raisers, and King Donovan as the likable cook. Daves’ direction is serviceable but seldom more, and the widescreen cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. has a number of puzzling moments when the camera either shakes, or moves abruptly, and that feel like mistakes left in out of an over-zealous attachment to the budget.

One of the best things about Cowboy is its opening titles, the distinctive, witty work of Saul Bass set to a rousing, Coplandesque theme by George Dunning. Those two minutes are so good the movie almost can’t hope to compete with them.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Diamonds

Marilyn performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” with chorus. The gent at the right with the touch of gray is George Chakiris. Larry Kert was also a chorus boy in this.

A Technicolor® curio. Although ostensibly based on the 1949 Broadway musical that made a star of Carol Channing, as well as on its source, Anita Loos’ comic novel of 1925, the movie jettisons the plot and most of the Jule Styne/Leo Robin score, adds a couple of pleasing songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, and although Loos’ book is one of the most famous, indeed era-defining, books of its time, capriciously alters its time-frame from the Roaring ’20s to the Mordibund ’50s. It was shot, tellingly, by a cinematographer (Harry J. Wild) whose previous work was solely on Westerns. Maybe that’s part of the reason it doesn’t look like a Howard Hawks picture. Or could it be that, unaccustomed to musicals — the numbers were not only choreographed by Jack Cole, but directed by him as well — Hawks was bored, and phoning it it?

It’s not a total loss, by any means, although the color photography is occasionally headache-inducing. The best things in it, despite the joke casting, is the double act of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Their mammarian assets are the first tip-off that the movie isn’t set in the 1920s, when flat chests were prized by flappers, which Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond have Monroe make a point about later, in Some Like it Hot. The second hint is the alternately bland and grotesque costuming. Lorelei Lee was Monroe’s star-making role, and she’s very funny, emphasizing the resolute gold-digger aspects of the role in such a forthright manner it almost becomes a virtue and she looks, frankly, fabulous in the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number, a blonde-and-pink vision on a field of black and red. As her pal Dorothy, Russell, who knew well that her cartoon bust was the reason for her stardom, gives a wry, likable performance. Her approach is almost a comic shrug, relaxed and amused, and she’s particularly good in the otherwise ludicrous courtroom sequence in which she imitate’s Monroe’s wide-eyed, cheerfully corrupt innocence. She also has an eye-poppingly homoerotic Jack Cole number called “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” in which she cavorts in and around a bunch of Olympic athletes narcissistically intent on flexing their muscles and resolutely ignoring her; when she ends up being dunked in the pool at the end, and laughs at herself (it was accident the filmmakers left in) you like her even more.

The screenplay by the usually reliable Charles Lederer is a bore, and includes such knee-slappers as a solemn, intellectual child (George Winslow) and a randy old British knight (Charles Coburn). Even the nifty Carmichael/Adamson blues “When Love Goes Wrong” is sabotaged by a comic approach at variance with the lyrics; Lorelei and Dorothy are lamenting their failed love-lives, and grinning like idiots the whole time. It’s as if the people involved didn’t think we could hear the words. And there is one truly bizarre moment, at the beginning, when Tommy Noonan, as Monroe’s rich swain, having witnessed her and Russell performing “Two Little Girls from Little Rock” number in a nightclub, gets up from his table to go backstage and confront her and literally minces, in a way that makes Quentin Crisp look butch. While the character Noonan plays is hardly butch, there’s nothing about him to suggest he isn’t heterosexual. So what the hell was that about?


Wolfen (1981)
Olmost - Wolfen seealso_2-1

The director (and co-writer) Michael Wadleigh’s beautifully conceived and executed exercise in environmental horror, despite studio interference, is a movie that looks better — and more prescient — with every passing year.


The Towering Inferno (1974)

The Towering Inferno - Newman

Paul Newman with the movie’s real star.

In 1974, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” seemed like both a logical next step for Irwin Allen, progenitor of the wildly successful The Poseidon Adventure (death by water succeeded by annihilation by fire) and a topping-out of the genre. What with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman sharing over-the-title billing and the various Grand Hotel-style victims, villains, heroes and survivors including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughan, Robert Wagner and O.J. Simpson, there didn’t appear to be anywhere to go beyond it. Not that Allen took the hint; a succession of box-office loxes like The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure pretty much ended him. Nor did the Hollywood studios, which, alongside Inferno‘s direct competition, the moronic Earthquake, leaped to concoct such masterpieces of the genre as Avalanche (1978), Meteor (1979), and no fewer than three Airport spin-offs, each more stultifying than its predecessor. Only Jaws (1975), a rara avis (rara ikhthys?) that transcended genre anyway, the Richard Lester-directed thriller Juggernaut (also 1974) which is less about a disaster than preventing one,* Rollercoaster (1977) which was more a detective thriller than an outright “disaster movie,” and The Big Bus (1976) which was a satire on the whole phenomenon (albeit not a terribly funny one) could be said to be decent pictures. The rest were just increasingly ludicrous attempts to cash in.

When I saw The Towering Inferno, at 13-going-on-14, it satisfied my unsophisticated tastes — although even then, having read the two novels it was based on, it didn’t satisfy me completely. Through one of those odd coincidences, Richard Martin Stern had written a novel (The Tower) about a new, World Trade Center-like New York building catching fire, while Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson had simultaneously published The Glass Inferno, concerning a glass-and-steel Chicago skyscraper and the freak fire that destroys it. (The movie jumped to San Francisco.) Warner Bros. bought the Stern book and 20th Century-Fox the Scortia and Robinson; rather than compete with each other, they co-produced the opportunistically titled The Towering Inferno (The Glass Tower would have been a more euphonious title, but would have lost the incendiary adjective), splitting the profits. And it has the feel, less of a real movie, than of a business venture. Sure as hell it’s calculated to the nth degree. Its approach is schematic in the extreme, the Ross Hunter super-glamour production style mated to a form of storytelling in which character is less important than incident. The screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant, was capable of fine work (he adapted, and I think deepened, the 1967 In the Heat of the Night and did a fine job with The Liberation of L.B. Jones for William Wyler in 1970) but, perhaps at Allen’s direction, threw out most of the characters in the novels, and the best story arcs. The characters in The Towering Inferno are almost entirely comprised of cardboard. And we know what happens to that in a fire.

I wouldn’t argue that either The Tower or The Glass Inferno, both of which I have re-read and enjoyed as an adult, are great literature, but they are intelligently and imaginatively written, which is far more than can be of Silliphant’s by-the-numbers script. Stern’s book is the more sobering of the two, ending with the strong implication that the people in the uppermost floor have succumbed to heat and suffocation. (The use of a breeches buoy stretched between skyscrapers comes from his novel.) Robinson and Scortia’s book is fatter, and stronger, with a greater variety of characters (the architect, the builder and the fire chief originate here) and a compelling recurrent stylistic device: The fire, from initial spark to smoldering death, is depicted, appropriately (and frighteningly) as a Beast — a living, breathing, ravening thing feeding, growing and devouring. (The let’s-blow-the-water-tanks climax also comes from The Glass Inferno.)

The human figures are also more real, and less glitzy, than their counterparts in the picture, from the middle-aged gay antiques dealer contemplating (and, briefly, before he comes to his senses, engaging in) an act of arson who forms an initially uneasy alliance with a young Latino would-be felon to the woman meeting for a loveless, dispiriting bout of sex with a married man and whose fall from the building results in the most shockingly beautiful metaphor in the novel. Scortia instead invents an aging con-man and his quarry (Astaire and Jones) and a ’70s having-it-all clothes-horse (Dunaway) weighing love against career, while the adulterers are transformed into Wagner and his secretary — who, in Susan Blakely’s fine performance, is at least a woman with some miles on her. Interestingly, the media is entirely invisible in The Towering Inferno: There are no reporters of any kind depicted, and no television coverage on view. (None of the televisions in the building are turned on either; how likely is that?) The Scortia/Robinson novel includes an unscrupulous local television journalist who sees in the fire his main chance, and he might have been the literary source of another nasty reporter in another movie set in a besieged high-rise, the William Atherton character in the 1988 Die Hard.

And yet with all of its dramturgical weaknesses, and even when viewed from a current perspective, somehow the damn thing works. Part of that, I suppose, is nostalgia: Nearly all of the movie’s stars are dead now (or, in Dunaway’s and Simpson’s cases, inactive) and seeing them today elicits a pang that we can no never again go to a theatre and see Paul Newman, or William Holden, or Fred Astaire, or Richard Chamberlain in a new movie. Nor will we see a major studio picture in which the majority of the special effects are real, and not indifferently computer-generated. Whatever opprobrium may be directed toward him, Allen, who directed all of the movie’s action sequences, didn’t stint; there was nothing cheap about his biggest hits. The picture’s cinematographers Fred J. Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc (the latter shot the special effects scenes) won Academy Awards for their work, and it’s richly textured, especially for a movie of this type, with no embarrassingly obvious blue-screen process shots.

On a personal note, I was just beginning, when The Towering Inferno was released, to develop a strong affinity for movies, and for motion picture scoring, and the soundtrack LP was, along with Michel Legrand’s 1973 The Three Musketeers, one of the first I purchased with my own money. I was knocked out by John Williams’ Main Title theme, his almost shocking “Helicopter Rescue” (although the music on that track actually appears elsewhere in the movie) and the mounting suspense, and its release, on “Planting the Charges,” which brought to my ears some of the visceral excitement the movie had elicited from me in the theater. But “Trapped Lovers” seemed to me then — and seems to me now — a work of orchestral genius, and a textbook example of how a gifted composer can create astonishingly fulsome and expressively emotional music from variations on a dopey pop tune (“We May Never Love Like This Again,” Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s inevitable follow-up to Poseidon‘s equally metaphorical “The Morning After.”) Williams goes from a slightly hysterical opening (which, in context, is wholly appropriate) to a tender and increasingly urgent, pulsing accompaniment before building to an agonizing concluding passage and a shattering climax. It’s no wonder Spielberg wanted him for Jaws.


The Train Robbers (1973)The Train Robbers - Taylor, George, Wayne

A quirky, wonderfully entertaining late John Wayne Western, written and directed with intelligence, style and sly humor by Burt Kennedy.


Cromwell (1970)
Cromwell - Harris, Jayston

Ken Hughes, directing a script he wrote (with interpolations by the playwright Ronald Harwood) delivers a pointed depiction of the English Civil War starring Richard Harris in the title role and Alec Guinness a splendid Charles I. The political parallels to our own age and place should be studied, and countervened with all speed.


The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep - Bogart and Bacall (resized)

Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of (and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on) the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler original.


Tall in the Saddle (1944)

Tall in the Saddle - Wayne and Raines

A fairly routine ‘40s Western with an odd addition — and no, I don’t mean what in Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks memorably termed Gabby Hayes’ “authentic frontier gibberish.” I’m referring to Ella Raines as a frontier wildcat. Raines’ character has no emotional filters, and the actress doesn’t reign her in; hers may be the most aggressively unpleasant performance in John Wayne’s filmography. She does elicit from Wayne a memorable set of responses, however, when he walks away from her in quiet defiance and she shoots in the direction of his departing back; each time one of her carefully aimed bullets hits something in front of him or to his side, he staggers slightly, and winces. Imagine… John Wayne startled… and by a woman!


Dumbo (1941)
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Arguably the most emotionally plangent of all Disney features, this 64-minute charmer about the elephant child whose oversize ears become an irresistible asset also boats one of the finest song-scores ever composed for a movie.


Born Free (1965)

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Virginia McKenna as Joy Adamson and Bill Travers as George Adamson, with the lioness who “plays” Elsa.

This adaptation of the 1960 bestseller by Friederike Victoria Adamson (nicknamed “Joy’ by her second husband) is one of the most pleasing nature movies ever made, perfect entertainment for children. Not there’s anything remotely childish about it, only that it contains beautiful shots of its African savannah setting, wonderful animal photography (the cinematographer was Kenneth Talbot), is only very occasionally upsetting, and is for the most part as comprehensible to a small child as to an adult. The picture holds the same sweet fascination as a good boy-and-his-dog story — White Fang with lions, and a girl hero — as Joy (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (McKenna’s real-life husband Bill Travers) first adopt and then attempt to reintroduce the lioness Elsa back into the wild, and Lester Cole’s screenplay is smart enough to be straightforward, and to present the relationship between the Adamsons as human and not idealized. McKenna makes a wonderful Joy Adamson, charming and maternally devoted to Elsa (the couple was, perhaps significantly, childless) and Travers is himself a bit of a lion; his prickly responses to his wife’s sentimental obsession finds its parallel with Elsa and her eventual mate.

Geoffrey Keen gives a nicely judged performance as George’s boss, and Peter Lukoye is delightful as the couple’s native retainer. James Hill’s direction is refreshingly clean and entirely uncluttered by the sorts of attention-grabbing, studiedly spectacular shots which would almost certainly mar a contemporary movie of this material. And John Barry, who won two Oscars for the picture — one for his music and one for the end title song he wrote with Don Black, the latter of which I recall as pretty much ubiquitous in the ‘60s — composed one of his distinctive scores, accommodating appropriate African rhythms (and, occasionally, instrumentation) and melding them with his own, string-and-horn-heavy melodic invention.

Horribly, both Joy and George were later murdered in Africa, in separate incidents (although her death was initially reported as the result of lion attack) perhaps proving they had less to fear from wild animals than from their own species.


That’s Life! (1986)

That's Life - Lemmon and Andrews

Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

A remarkably assured Hollywood home-movie, sharp and unexpectedly moving. Even more than the gleefully anarchic semi-autobiography of S.O.B. (1981), That’s Life! is, despite that lousy title, perhaps Blake Edwards’ most deeply personal project. Using a basic outline for each scene and allowing his actors to improvise the script, Edwards turns his own suicidal depressions, and his wife’s vague anxieties about her voice, into a serio-comic examination, not of the male mid-life crisis (which in any case he’d already limned, better than just about anyone else, with “10” in 1979) but of the crippling sense of personal failure that grips even the most successful of us when we stare 60 in the face.

Jack Lemmon essentially plays Edwards himself, transmuted from a writer/director to a successful Los Angeles architect called Harvey Fairchild, and delivers a performance with so many layers it’s almost too much to take in with a single viewing: He’s bright, witty, acerbic (when not plain sarcastic), obnoxious, self-pitying, narcissistic and, ultimately, heart-breaking. It’s a job of acting that could sit well in an O’Neill drama; it may make you wish Lemmon had played Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. And if at times you want to slap Harvey for his insensitivity, you also have to remind yourself that we are privy to information (that his wife has just a biopsy on her throat) he isn’t. Julie Andrews, more or less assaying herself, brings to mind Moss Hart’s famous line about her, that she possessed “that wonderful British strength that makes you wonder why they lost India,” only without the disdainful imperialism. If you’ve read her lovely memoir Home Work, you understand that “Gillian Fairchild” is pretty much who Andrews is, and was, as a wife and mother. Her love is bountiful, but has its limits, and a refusal to stand by and watch her loved ones destroy themselves is the most important of those. Each of them gets a moment of wrenching emotionalism in the picture: Lemmon, when he’s attempting to induce heart failure via stationary bike and reduced to a mass of confused and shattered agony, Andrews when she’s given some unexpected but absolutely necessary comfort by Sally Kellerman as her peerlessly loopy neighbor, and they’re perfectly placed within the loose narrative framework: Too early and the moments would seem too much; too late, and they’d be far too little.

This is one of those movies you either respond to whole-heartedly, or you hate. I loved it in the 1980s, when I was young, and I love it more now, not least because Edwards, like Lemmon, is gone, but largely because its aching humanity becomes closer to my own reality as the years pass. This isn’t S.O.B., or a Pink Panther movie, where the laughs, no matter how grim their undertones, come with regularity. The humor here peeps out from beneath the pain, like vanilla ice cream covered in dark chocolate, and for the most part isn’t related to gags, although there are a couple, such as Harvey being trapped between the sprinklers on his lawn. That’s a nicely executed moment, and produces, as intended, a smile rather than a guffaw. The after-effects of Lemmon’s visit to a palm-reader played with delicious comic sensuality by his own wife, Felicia Farr, is, conversely, undercut by its suddenness. I won’t say any more, not wishing to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the picture, but it takes a lot longer than an hour to feel the effects of what Harvey’s experiencing. That’s one of only two brief lapses in the movie, and the ultimate payoff, near the end, is worth it. (At least it’s funny. The other big sight gag, in which neither the self-absorbed Harvey nor the admitting nurse in a hospital E.R. take the slightest note of the other patients stumbling by, screaming or dazed and bleeding, doesn’t come off at all. It certainly breaks Edwards’ “pain barrier,” but it isn’t either believable or amusing, even in the blackest possible context.)

That’s Life! is wonderfully cast, partly with family: The Fairchild girls are played by Andrews’ daughter Emma Walton as well as her daughter with Edwards, Jennifer, and Chris Lemmon is their son. Aside from Farr and Kellerman, Robert Loggia shows up as an alcoholically philosophical priest, and while his role is brief, Rob Knepper gives a marvelous performance as Emma’s boyfriend. Jordan Christopher is nicely judged as the Fairchild’s physician, and Teddy Wilson adds immeasurable warmth as their (presumably gay) cook and housekeeper. Does anyone else remember Wilson from the short-lived Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds series Roll Out in 1973? (Does anyone else remember Roll Out?) Only Matt Lattanzi is problematic, as Jennifer’s husband. I cast no aspersions, but, like Jake Gyllenhaal, Lattanzi never seems convincingly heterosexual to me.

Edwards, whose collaborator on the outline was his own psychoanalyst, Milton Wexler, filmed the picture largely at his and Andrews’ Malibu home using a non-union crew, adding to the home-movie quality. Alas, his superb cinematographer, Harry Stradling, Jr., was forced to leave the project at his own union’s orders, but Anthony B. Richmond’s lighting matches Stradling’s so well you can’t tell where one left off and the other began. (That’s Life! was shot pretty much in sequence.) And although the budget was low, the picture flopped anyway. Maybe it was that dumb title; the movie was originally called Crisis, which presumably scared the distributor. I guess it was one of those cases where everyone’s right, and nobody wins.


*Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for the reminder!

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Knight-errant on a mean street: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

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“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.” — Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

By Scott Ross

The Big Sleep was Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of — and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on — the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler novel that, with John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), was one of two war-era American pictures (three, if we count Casablanca) that cemented not only Humphrey Bogart’s tough-guy persona, but the image we carried then, and carry still, of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s detective characters. Others have played Sam Spade (on radio, anyway) and Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum and even, Heaven help us, Elliott Gould) but it’s Bogart we think of when we read those books, and Hawks’ conceptions of the “mean streets” Marlowe operated on we imagine.

The picture did not come together as easily as Falcon. There was considerable confusion in the minds, not only of Hawks and his screenwriters but, oddly, of Chandler, as to who killed the chauffeur or even whether or not he was murdered. It’s made perfectly plain in the novel, so why Chandler was fuzzy on it is baffling. (Unless his inability to remember was related to his alcoholism?) But the book has a tendency to meander, and doesn’t so much end as taper off. Worse, from Hawks’ perspective — and that of Warner Bros., which very much wanted to capitalize on the heat Bogart and Lauren Bacall generated in To Have and Have Not, and to save a suddenly valuable property from her own thespic incompetency — the daughters of Marlowe’s aged client in the novel are impossible. The younger, Carmen, is either psychotic or a moron, if not both, and the older, Vivian, a spoiled, manipulative, irredeemable rich-bitch. The screenwriters (who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) were encouraged to get some of the teasing banter going between Marlowe and Vivian that sparked To Have and Have Not, and while Vivian may be insolent in the Chandler novel, she’s hardly encouraging, so they had their work cut out for them. Perhaps to make Vivian more available, they dropped her position in the book as the wife of a missing man and brought her into the climactic scenes as an ally for Marlowe, as well as a possible mate. When even that didn’t help, Hawks was required to re-shoot a number of scenes after the 1945 preview, and added some new ones. They improve the quality of the picture immensely, although some clarifying material was lost in the process, making the movie’s plot murkier than it needed to be.

The Big Sleep - Malone, Bogart

“Why, Miss Malone – without your glasses, you’re beautiful!

Hawks’ direction of the material, however, is first-rate. In tandem with his cinematographer, the gifted Sidney Hickox, who lit To Have and Have Not and would later shoot White Heat (1949), Hawks’ images are beautifully crisp and his staging immaculate, especially in some of the re-takes. He handles the Bogart/Bacall dynamic so well, and with such cheeky erotic command, it’s a shame the three never worked together again. (A thwarted would-be Svengali, Hawks was furious when he discovered Bacall had married Bogart.) Insolent sexiness was the one thing Bacall could do well, and her dialogue sequences with Bogie are small masterpieces of innuendo and insinuation, to a jaw-dropping degree when one considers the prevailing moral censorship of the time, as is the scene in which the bookshop proprietor (Dorothy Malone) entertains Marlowe, and her literally letting her hair down, accompanied by a discreet fade-out, tells us the two are doing a lot more in that bookstore than merely sharing a drink.

The Big Sleep - Bogart, Martha Vickers

There are other interesting sexual matters on the periphery of the narrative. In the novel, the murdered blackmailer Geiger is identified as homosexual, which was of course taboo under the Production Code, but you can’t escape the implication in the accurate design of his home in the movie, with its prissy Orientalist décor (Chandler: “a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party”), nor in the presence of the avenging angel, Geiger’s young boyfriend Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty). Chandler, of course, makes his usual snide fetish of this, reassuring his (male, hetero) readers that, despite Carol’s deadliness with a gun and his butch physicality, no faggot (his word, not mine) can throw a punch. Presumably, his wrist isn’t stiff enough to land a good slug. And, just as Lundgren’s reasons for his revenge killing is obscured, his favored direction — presumably, based on the position of the em dash, “Go fuck yourself” — is diluted here as “Take a jump, Jack,” but I doubt a 1946 audience had difficulty translating it. And while Carmen visits Marlowe’s office she does not, as in the book, invade his bed, or attempt to trick him into letting her shoot him. Yet she’s still clearly a nymphomaniac, a word I use advisedly, in its psycho-medical sense, which is as one with her general air of (again, physiological) moronism. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on The Big Sleep in praise of Martha Vickers’ quite eerie performance as Carmen, but her instincts are unerring, especially those blank looks she gives as her initial response to Marlowe’s sarcasm before she realizes he’s joshing her, and her impact is considerable.

Those who have only seen a couple of Bogart movies may think they have him pegged as a rough-edged romantic, and can see little difference between his performance as Sam Spade and this one. But Bogart’s Spade is, despite his tolerant amusement at the den of thieves he’s stumbled into, tightly coiled. He’s frustrated, and angry, not merely at the gallery of prevaricators with which he’s surrounded but by his loveless affair with his slain partner’s wife and perhaps over something else, some disappointment or betrayal we can only guess at. When he slaps Elisha Cook, Jr’s Wilmur, or, later, knocks him out, there is genuine fury there, as there is when he “pretends” to throw a violent fit of pique in the Fat Man’s hotel suite; you know it isn’t entirely an act. Bogart’s Marlowe is, by contrast, more laconic, and emotionally contained. He uses his fists, or his gun, only when there’s no other option, and does so dispassionately. And although he’s also amused by the outrageous, and as cynical as Spade, he has the ethics of a knight-errant. Spade admits he’s tempted by the lure of easy money, and turns Brigid O’Shaunessy over to the homicide cops for reasons of professional ethics even he doesn’t entirely understand. Marlowe keeps his reasons to himself, but is dogged both in protecting his client and in pursuit of what he has been contracted to do, and no matter how much personal danger that doggedness puts in his path. He’s easier with women (or at least with some women) than Spade and, even when he knows Vivian is lying her head off to him, is more intrigued by her than annoyed at her lies. You also sense that he expects to be lied to, even by his clients, and enjoys watching the process and trying to discover what they’re lying about. And while he’s no one’s fool, he seems to genuinely like people more than Spade, whether they’re agreeable to him, hostile, or trying to lead him down a false trail, something Bacall’s Vivian chides him about (“You like too many people”) when he’s tied up and wondering whether he’ll get away or be slowly tortured to death.

The Big Sleep - Bogart in bookshop (resized)

“You do sell books… mmmm?”

Bogart (and his screenwriters and director) have some fun with the process of detection, occasionally in ways that twit the Breen Office, as when Marlowe visits Geiger’s alleged rare book shop. In Chandler, he assumes the persona of a stereotypical, lisping pansy-type. In the movie Bogart raises the brim of his hat, lowers his shades and mugs in an outrageous, indeterminately effeminate manner one suspects Hawks figured would be just eccentric enough to defy anyone pinning it down definitely as gay. As with John Huston’s pulling off the various homosexual characters in Falcon, a contemporary viewer may feel less offense at the implication than amusement that the people involved got away with it.

Hawks honors his source as much as possible, albeit with some variations and elisions, even to the extent of replicating the autumn Los Angeles rains that are the novel’s near-constant atmospheric phenomena. The action of the book is necessarily compacted, and streamlined, as with Vivian no longer being the wife of the missing Sean (Rusty in Chandler) Reagan. Much of the dialogue, other than the suggestive byplay between Bogie and Bacall, comes directly from the novel, and the action follows it very closely. The only major change is the explosive, cleverly constructed finale which Hawks, with his habitual disregard for crossing the same river twice, recycled for the climax of Rio Bravo (also written by Leigh Brackett) thirteen years later, and since Rio Bravo is such a damnably entertaining picture, I suspect only those who dislike Hawks’ movies generally get worked up about that. There’s some marvelous repartee between Bogart and Bacall in the re-imagined sequences, including an improvised Ma-and-Pa routine between Marlowe and Vivian and an unseen police officer they confuse and antagonize in equal measure. (Bogart’s “Oh, I wouldn’t like that” in response to a buzz of a line over the telephone makes it clear the cop has just suggested something identical to Carol Lundgren’s preferred instruction in the novel.) And if the Marlowe of the movie is not as disgusted with his own, unwitting, complicity in the process of death as Chandler’s detective, neither is he indifferent to it.

The Big Sleep - Cook, Bogart

As usual with Hawks, the supporting roles are wonderfully cast, and the performances, however brief, perfectly modulated: Dorothy Malone’s sharp, sly bookseller, who never makes a wrong move even when required to remove her glasses and let down her hair to get a reaction from Marlowe; John Ridley’s alternately suave and dangerous casino proprietor who knows far more than he ever lets on; Peggy Knudsen as his supposedly estranged wife; Regis Toomey’s nicely judged police inspector; Charles D. Brown’s butler, less silkily insinuating than his coeval in Chandler; Sonia Darrin as a bad girl two men die for and who isn’t worth a beating let alone a murder; Charles Waldron’s strikingly honest and unself-pitying old reprobate; and, especially, Elisha Cook, Jr’s low-key hustler, hoping to parlay a little information into a payday. “Harry Jones” is almost the flip-side of Wilmur in Falcon, soft-spoken, un-threatening, courageous when it matters and even capable of being mildly offended at one of Marlowe’s nastier cracks; his understated reaction shames the speaker, who slowly (if too late) begins to appreciate the true-blue quality of the “little man,” even in the face of certain, and particularly unpleasant, death.

Max Steiner’s score is briefer and less obtrusive than usual, and he came up with a couple of very fine motifs, especially the minor-key love theme for Bogart and Bacall. When even as bombastic an auditory scene-stealer as Steiner can be inveighed upon to embrace subtlety, it’s a pretty good indication that something more interesting than normal was going on.

The Big Sleep - poster

Copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Watching the Watchmen: “Cromwell” (1970) and “The Train Robbers” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

When multinational corporations, most of them in no way related to the various entertainment industries that provided the bulk of what Americans read, saw and heard, began to take over the major movie studios beginning in the early 1960s —  these would eventually include oil giants, insurance holding companies and even a firm known primarily for its parking lots and, later, a major soda-pop maker* —  a vital change took place in how the people who ran them thought about movies. No one who has studied the big Hollywood studios even cursorily can fail to observe that, crudity, vulgarity and lack of education to one side, the men who ran M-G-M, Paramount, Columbia, RKO, Universal, 20th Century-Fox, the Goldwyn Studio and Warner Bros. genuinely loved movies, and in a way that would be completely alien to the suits who later took over their dream factories. Moreover, these men understood that, however much they ran after mass public taste and tried to cater to it, each new picture they made, no matter how like the last successful picture they made, was unique. Unlike a shoe or a car or a service station or a parking lot or a bottle of Coke, no two movies were identical. It was that basic fact of movies that the corporate types failed to grasp, and which led to the idiotic five-year industry-wide chasing after of a Sound of Music style hit musical, the heedless (and fruitless) pursuit of which nearly bankrupted the lot of them.

The inability of the corporate mind to comprehend something as variable as popular art is the primary reason a) for the cookie-cutter mentality of most big movies and b) why corporations should steer clear of movie-making. It was noted, in the ’90s, that Japanese manufacturing concerns were baffled by the American entertainment companies they had purchased. They were unable to fathom a product that was not based on the mass-production model, which movies cannot. Motion pictures, as I noted above, are not a line of tape decks. Not that this basic fact of enterprise has stopped the businessmen owners of most studios from trying to make them that way. It’s one of the reasons sequels are so popular among the suits.

Look: It’s always been difficult to get anything worthwhile made in the movie industry, where the cost of production is high and courage is required to gamble on a picture that challenges the viewer, upsets the established norms or otherwise threatens to be of interest primarily to those above the common denominators of native intelligence. And that’s where pop movie critics came in.

These reviewers — for genuine critics they were not — tended to write for newspapers, where they could be counted upon by their editors (and, of greater importance to their publishers, the paper’s corporate advertisers) to praise dreck and pan originality; to maintain the established order and smack down anyone who threatened to upend it. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was the model in this, although he was hardly alone. When the big newsweeklies gained ascendancy, they too offered up a parade of styleless hacks and soulless nonentities, which is one of the reasons no one at Time or Newsweek knew what to do with men like John O’Hara, Manny Farber and James Agee. It took a critic for a general interest magazine (Pauline Kael at The New Yorker) to elevate the discussion, and that more than a decade following Agee’s death and after she had floundered at popular venues like McCall’s and The New Republic. And in the period during which Kael was establishing herself and proving to be the best thing that had happened to movie criticism since the days when Farber and Agee were writing for The Nation, the paperback capsule collection took off, a phenomenon that likely warmed any number of corporate hearts, turning movie criticism as it did away from sharp, idiosyncratic (and thus, unpredictable) rumination and back to easily digested consumer guidance.

I first discovered the late Steven H. Scheuer’s Movies on TV in my 5th grade teacher Miss Anderson’s bookcase of paperbacks, which she graciously allowed us to borrow from, in late 1972 or early ‘73.† As I was then slowly becoming more interested in movies (beyond Disney animated features, I mean) leafing through Scheuer’s book and reading his capsule reviews was, for a budding film novice, an exciting activity. I was curious about how he judged movies I had seen, mostly on television, but also about those I’d heard of and hadn’t yet viewed, and those I’d never heard of at all. Discovery is half the fun, after all, of examination. A couple of years later I got a copy of the updated edition (Scheuer’s first was published in 1959) in my Christmas stocking, as well as the new reprint of Leonard Maltin’s then-titled TV Movies, which had debuted in 1969 when its compiler was all of 19. When I had money of my own, I purchased new editions every two years (the schedule both used until Maltin began updating yearly), and used them, as I still do, as reference material. Yet even at the age of 14 I recognized that Scheuer’s was the better book; being less concerned with quantity than quality, his reviews were longer, and more obviously written as genuine (if necessarily brief) criticism: Scheuer was less tolerant of trash, and less influenced by Hollywood; his reviews were tougher, and more literary (or at least, stylish) and he more often pointed his readers to worthwhile movies they might never have discovered on their own. It was in his book, for example, that one found reference to the largely unknown, or forgotten, X-rated 1970 cinematic adaptation of Tropic of Cancer starring Rip Torn, which I have never seen cited anywhere else since. Where Maltin & Co. bested Scheuer, aside from including more entries, was in a greater accuracy regarding running-times, and including longer cast lists. TV Movies (published by Signet; Scheuer’s was a Bantam book) was also laid out in a superior typeface, and the asterisks in Maltin’s capsule reviews were both more elegant and easier on the eye.

Despite my own adolescent addiction to these books, with which I sometimes argued vociferously, I sincerely hope no adult ever used either to decide whether to watch a movie or to avoid one. (Although in my heart I know many did.) Especially as, to conserve space, both Maltin and Scheuer began cutting some reviews entirely and drastically shortening others, removing the very thing that made them interesting to begin with: The occasional quirky line or observation that stuck in the heads of movie-besotted teenagers. (My best friend and I each had our favorite quips from the mid-’70s, which in subsequent editions we discovered were missing.) As with that other influential consumer guide, the Siskel and Ebert show with its reduction of movie criticism to thumbs up or down, the Maltin and Scheuer books, whatever their relative virtues, not only helped dumb down discourse on film; they also, to a dismaying degree, kept potential viewers away from pictures they might otherwise have seen, and enjoyed. As a young man, I let what George Lucas later termed (for the nasty two-headed dragon in his doleful collaboration with Ron Howard, Willow) the “Eborsisk”‡ steer me away from movies when they were new which I later saw, and in a number of cases loved, on my own. Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz is a good example, and two very fine pictures I watched recently, both of which I would, if I took either Scheuer or Maltin as gospel, have avoided, will also serve as paradigms.

Willow - Sisbert

Siskel and Ebert… or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The first — commended to me by Eliot M. Camerana, whose exceptionally sane and perceptive blog you should subscribe to if you haven’t already — was the 1970 British historical film Cromwell with Richard Harris as the redoubtable Oliver and Alec Guinness as Charles I, a picture I have known of for decades (Miss Anderson’s bookcase again; she had the tie-in novelization) but had never seen.

Here is Maltin:

“(**) Turgid historical epic has everything money can buy, but no human feeling  underneath.  Harris is coldly unsympathetic… one feels more sympathy for King Charles I… which is not the idea.”

Maltin (or whoever on his editorial team wrote this capsule) is correct that the battle sequences, photography (by the great Geoffrey Unsworth) and period costumes (by Nino Novarese) are splendid, and that Frank Cordell’s score is “amateurish.” It is, frankly, stupid music, in the worst Max Steiner tradition, with dialogue sequences underlined by crashing chords and keening strings as if great dramatic events are being portrayed when they are merely interesting rather than earth-shattering. The only time Cordell’s music bestirs itself into appropriate life is when, in the first of the big battle sequences, it apes Alex North’s score for Spartacus.

But as to that “coldly unsympathetic”… Did Maltin not understand that Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan? How bloody warm did he expect the man to be? And just because Charles is soft-spoken, or we see him behave with kindness toward his eldest son and Papist wife, or delightedly playing blind man’s bluff with his daughter and younger son does not mean he is, ipso facto, a sympathetic character. Sociopaths, madmen and blood-soaked tyrants are as capable of affection to those they know and love as saints. Need we, perforce, judge them as more worthy of our empathy than the colder man whose passions, however coolly expressed, embrace such concepts as democracy, the need for representative government, and an opposition to tyranny?§ If John Adams was indeed “obnoxious and disliked” — his own words — would we not still rather have him than George III? And leaving aside my own abhorrence at rating movies as if they were restaurants, that two-star designation should be taken with, at the very least, skepticism. Maltin is, after all, the man who gave The Avengers three-and-a-half and called Oliver Stone’s Alexander “boring.”

Cromwell - Harris, Jayston

Richard Harris as Cromwell, with Michael Jayston as Henry Ireton.

Scheuer at least liked the picture, but gave it only a rating of **1/2. For this reader and movie aficionado, two-and-a-half stars are what you give pointless nothings like Shreck or handsome, overblown epics like Becket — mediocrities, in other wordsnot to something as sharply written and beautifully crafted as Cromwell. And here, again, we are at the nub of my argument: Had I left it to Maltin and Scheur, rather than relying on the recommendation of a friend whose taste and perception I trust, I wouldn’t have bothered with Cromwell, and would therefore have deprived myself of an exceptional movie experience.

That is the basic value thoughtful, nuanced criticism has over consumerist capsule reviews. Not that a thoughtful critic can’t also steer you wrong, but if you read any writer regularly over time, you begin to suss out his or her thinking. You know, if you read Kael for any length of time, roughly what she is likely to dismiss and what she will embrace. (I speak of her in the present tense because while the individual issues of the magazines for which her reviews were written have long since moldered in landfills her writing is still alive, and, collected in books, can be read at one’s leisure.) The same was true of Agee, and John Simon. And the only way to really develop a relationship with a critic is to read long-form reviews… although, with Kael, you can get a measure of her tastes even in the capsules that used to be published in the listings pages of The New Yorker and which were reprinted as 1001 Nights at the Movies. But I argue that her briefer critiques and Agee’s, when, as he sometimes did, he wrote up several movies in one review are no less valuable as writing than her (and his) fuller pieces, whereas what you find in Maltin’s books is, in essence, a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Sometimes written with wit, but most often merely functional.

Cromwell - Robin Stewart and Guinness

Robin Stewart as Prince Charles and Alec Guinness as The King.

Cromwell succeeds, for me at any rate, on every level: As drama, as historical re-creation, as character study, and as martial epic. Its screenplay, credited to the director Ken Hughes (the playwright and scenarist Ronald Harwood received consultant credit, suggesting he polished if not re-wrote Hughes’ script) is both expansive and intimate, stinting neither on the battles of the English Civil War nor the internecine intrigues that inform governance. It is true that some momentous events, such as the siege of Bristol by the Parliamentary forces, occur off-stage, but here budgetary concerns may have overcome dramaturgy (the movie cost £9 million, or 8 million in U.S. dollars) and in any case there is such a thing even in epics as battle-fatigue. Anyone who has read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and has gotten to the point in the final volume where he can no longer distinguish one clash of arms from another knows the feeling. (It was the same in the Peter Jackson adaptation of The Return of the King, only more so; what was dull on the page became both annoying and enervating on the screen.)

Cromwell explicates a complex series of historical events with remarkable concision. Even if you know nothing about the Roundheads, or Charles’ reign, or the Civil War he precipitated by such anti-democratic actions as suspending Parliament for twelve years, you are given the relevant information in complete, and graspable, terms, and without obviousness or pedantry or — and this is the great scourge of historical movies — the cheating of hindsight. The dialogue is intelligent, limpid and witty, and if Harris tends, as he always did, to extremes either of the under-emoted or the rhetorically explosive and Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert overdoes the sneering popinjay, he at least redeems himself in his final scene, finally shocked into recognition that the king’s opposition is a force to be reckoned with and that Charles is exactly the man his enemies believe him to be. (It’s a realization that also occurs, too late, to Nigel Stock’s Sir Edward Hyde.) The other performers, particularly Guinness, are splendid and if I wish there was more of Robert Morely as Manchester, Charles Grey as Essex and Frank Finlay as one of Harris’ estate peasants, brutalized by the King’s enforcers, surely wanting more is preferable to its opposite.

John Stoll’s sumptuous production design adds both luster and verisimilitude and Hughes’ direction seems to me exactly right. While it perhaps lacks a certain panache, it also never falters, or falls into grandiosity — historical pomp and ostentation because the budget permits it and a crass producer demands it. I was particularly taken with the almost Shakespearean depiction of opposing prayers to the same God, on either side of a looming battle, for victory. “Every man who wages war believes God is on his side,” Cromwell tells Ireton. “I’ll warrant God should often wonder who is on his.” There is also, in the manner with which Harris turns away from the public spectacle of Charles’ execution, and leans his head against the wall in pained regret, a genuine and moving eloquence. Whatever his quarrels with the king, this is not the outcome Cromwell desired.

Cromwell - Battle

Cromwell’s soldiers during battle: The human, plebeian face of war.

Its general excellence as a motion picture aside, I have a further reason for appreciating Cromwell. And although I am generally chary of Symbolism (and its furtive little brother Allegory) and while I’m aware that the picture occasionally plays a little loose with the facts, it is almost impossible for a modern viewer of this movie to see it and not reflect on the all too clear parallels between 16th century Britain and 21st century America. Is Robert Morley’s Manchester saying, “if we in Parliament cannot gain from ruling the country there’s really very little point in our being here at all” really that far removed from Nancy Pelosi’s repeated crowing about being “the biggest” fund-raiser in the House? No wonder Cromwell calls Parliament a brothel. With economic and social inequity at its greatest in this country since what it pleased Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to call “the Gilded Age”; with a line of increasingly imperial presidencies stretching from Johnson to Trump making it abundantly clear that banks and investors own our leaders, and our needs are not to be met if it is to cost them a penny; with armaments our only real product and endless war our most important export; with our international (and, increasingly, national) matters of interest wholly subject to the mad whims of a National Security State that murders president and citizen alike, here and elsewhere, as it pleases; with our legislation in the hands of the most nakedly corrupt Congress and Senate in American history — and don’t think for a moment that one of our permanent ruling parties is the moral superior of the other when it comes to graft made wholly legal by their enactment of the laws that protect them; with the allegedly liberal party now routinely rigging primary elections and both of them busily disenfranchising as many voters as they can; as a people we are facing a decision, and it is apt to be both more vital, and faster in coming, than we suppose. To wit: Do we live up to our platitudes about democracy, or do we shrug shamefacedly and admit that we have, as Twain also once suggested, sold our liberties for a slogan? Would we sit back and let an American king dissolve the other two branches of our government for a dozen years, as Charles did, and only return them to some sort of limited power when he needs to raise funds for yet another pointless war? Do we now, as we did in 2001 and 2002, surrender all freedoms for the anemic (when not downright sinister) promise of security? Or is the American Experiment well and truly over? I suspect that in the events currently unreeling here (and over a virus that, so far, has killed a minuscule fraction of the U.S. population compared to the tens of thousands taken every winter by other forms of influenza) and in our common response to them, may well lie the answer. I’m not exactly what you would call hopeful about it. But if ever we needed an Oliver Cromwell to restore some semblance of the Republic, it is now. The question is, would he, or she, be a Cincinnatus… or a Stalin?

I’ll close this section by noting that another 1970 picture, Tora! Tora! Tora!, cost almost three times what Cromwell did, returned only a fifth of that in revenues, and Richard Fleischer, its producer and director, went on to enjoy a lengthy and increasingly profitable career in Hollywood. Ken Hughes, meanwhile, who said of Cromwell — the highest-grossing British movie of its year — that it was “the best thing I’ve ever done,” was reduced in the coming years to personal poverty, and to directing such deathless milestones as the Mae West bomb Sextette and, finally, a 1980s slasher flick called Night School.

Christ, but The Show Biz is a miserable bitch.


The Train Robbers - Train

Leading with his gut: John Wayne with Ben Johnson, Christopher George, Rod Taylor and Ann-Margaret in The Train Robbers. Note the upside-down train cars in the sand.

The second item whose pleasures both Maltin and Scheuer warned me away from — or would have, had I read their capsules, and heeded them — was the writer-director Burt Kennedy’s delightful 1973 comedy-Western The Train Robbers. While certainly far less consequential than Cromwell and, I would argue, badly titled (John Wayne’s gang of adventurers are not bandits, and his character is motivated by the effects of a robbery)  watching this charmer was just about the best use of 90 minutes I’ve indulged in all year.

If you are predisposed, as I am, to liking Kennedy’s Westerns (among other things he wrote and directed an effective adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, and was the director of the delicious James Garner spoofs Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter and likely an uncredited writer on both) you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship, and the easy wit, on display here. Wayne, with one lung gone, is notably raspier but no less relaxed or authoritative (if that isn’t an oxymoron) than he ever was, but your appreciation of Ann-Margaret’s performance as the woman behind the mission will depend, I suppose, on how you feel about pneumatics. The supporting cast is a treat, however, and includes Ben Johnson, Christoper George, Rod Taylor, Bobby Vinton and Jerry Gatlin in Wayne’s gang and Ricardo Montalban as the mysterious, cigar-smoking gunman following them. Curiously, none of the other characters, all but one of them part of a band of outlaws against which Wayne’s troupe arrays itself, is identified, or even seen except from a distance or during pitched gun battles. I don’t know that their facelessness makes them notably more threatening — William Goldman and George Roy Hill pulled that business off much more effectively with their Super Posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — but it’s an interesting conceit, and leaves us free to enjoy, without distraction, Wayne and his compatriots; to mark the often pungent dialogue (Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it”); to chuckle at the twist ending; and to gawp at one of the most striking sets you’ll ever see in a movie: A train, upside down in the desert sands. Like the ship in the Gobi in Spielberg’s revamped Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s one of those unexpected images that stick with you.

The picture was shot by the gifted William H. Clothier, who was also the cinematographer for John Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the exceptional and underseen Firecreek, Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks and William Wellman’s extraordinary black-and-white-in-color chamber Western Track of the Cat. Here his images shimmer, and Kennedy’s direction throughout is sure, sharp and beautifully composed. Albert Whitlock provided some nice matte paintings and Dominic Frontiere’s score is just about perfect, with a martial undertone that is both grand adventure accompaniment and a subtle reminder to us of Wayne, Johnson and Taylor’s shared past as prickly Union compatriots. And if there are in the picture a couple of odd echos — of the opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the credit sequence where Johnson waits for an incoming train, and of Richard Brooks’ own entertaining Western caper The Professionals — they’re more than made up for by Kennedy’s otherwise keen originality.

The Train Robbers - Johnson and Taylor

Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it.”

What has Maltin to say of The Train Bobbers in his **1/2-starred capsule? “Low-key film emphasizes character instead of action.” Again, one wonders what movie he saw. Yes, Kennedy’s script is character-driven; but it has at least three major action set-pieces, and several smaller incidents along the way that should be enough to satisfy Western fans. Indeed, The Train Robbers has at least as much action as Rio Lobo, to which Maltin assigned three stars. Could it be, perhaps, that this is because Rio Lobo was a Howard Hawks picture, and Hawks is a critics’ darling? I liked that specific picture well myself, and like Hawks pictures generally, so this isn’t a matter of relative merit but of critical consistency.

Maltin’s critique, however, is a rave compared to Scheuer’s: “(*1/2) Dull Western…”¶

As always, these things are a matter of taste, and individual reaction. But how a crisp little exercise like this one, with a witty script, charming performances, an unusual plot and some equally unique action sequences can be called “dull” is at best a mystery, and brings us back to the beginning: When criticism devolves into nothing other than consumer guidance, it ceases to function, as it needs to, as a corrective to mere P.R. flackery.

“In this age of consumerism film criticism all over the world — in America first but also in Europe — has become something that caters for the movie industry instead of being a counterbalance.” — Wim Wenders

In other words: It elevates trash, and shits on originality.

The Train Robbers - Montalban

Ricardo Mantalban as the mysterious gunman. Note the band of brigands to the left. That image, I would say, is hardly what you would call dull filmmaking.


*Only one of the majors  — Universal — was purchased by an entity involved in entertainment, and that was largely innocuous pop music; MCA already knew how to market offal.

†Miss Anderson also let me take a book of my choice at the end of the school year, I suspect because I was her most ardent and frequent borrower, as well as the student she saw as the most likely future writer.

‡Lucas also named his chief villain in Willow “General Kael.” I’ll bet that sent Pauline to her fainting-couch.

§Richard Harris’ Cromwell is as heatedly passionate as I think anyone could ask, so I’m not even sure what Maltin means by that “coldly”; indeed, Harris is, if anything, sometimes overly emphatic.

¶I said before that Scheuer’s were the better-written reviews, but I’m quoting in this essay from the last edition (1993) of his book, and by that time he’d cut his previously more fulsome capsules down to the bare minimum. A lot of style was leeched from these as a result, and most of the reason for reading them in the first place.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross