Necrology: April 2020

Standard

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

 

Monthly Report: January, 2020

Standard

Scott Ross

As my quarterly reports seem to be getting longer and longer, and because I’m watching more movies of late, I’m trying a monthly capsule in place of my usual quarterlies. At least this month. If I see fewer movies in future I may go back to the quarterly model, or perhaps a bimonthly accounting.

As ever, click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.

Gilbert (2017)

Gilbert and Dara Gottfried

Neil Berkeley’s surprisingly sweet, even moving, portrait of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried.


Anything Goes (1954)

Anything Goes - Sinatra, Merman and Lahr

“Good evening, friends…” Sinatra, Merman and Lahr in an unreasonable facsimile of Anything Goes.

A mess, with compensations. Not content with re-jiggering the 1934 original, the adapting writer Herbert Baker turns a resolutely 1930s Cole Porter show into a “Roaring ’20s” musical and, favoring idiot Charleston dance breaks and “Runyanland”-inspired stage antics, cuts one of Ethel Merman’s best numbers (“Buddy Beware”) and leaves Bert Lahr, as the gangster Moonface, without his solo (“Be Like the Bluebird”). He also turns Billy (Frank Sinatra) into an agent, renames him “Harry” and has him pining for Merman’s Reno Sweeney, rather than, as in the original show, the other way around. Okay, I get it: They had to trim the play to fit the 60-minute Colgate Comedy Hour format, so Billy’s inamorata Hope had to go and the role of Reno’s English fiancée Evelyn Oakley (Arthur Gould-Porter) became practically a walk-on. But that’s no excuse for the raging inanity that marks much of the rest.

The commercial release on DVD comes courtesy of the lyricist Stephen Cole, to whom Merman’s heirs gave her kinescope copy, and it looks terrific. Nor can an aficionado complain about the casting; the opportunity to see Lahr in his prime is worth sitting through the thing. It’s also, as he would have said, a kick to see Sinatra, at the peak of his form, in a live broadcast. Merman was identified with the role (or at least, with its songs)  but she’s an odd choice for Sinatra’s love-match; I kept looking at her big frame and flabby, middle-aged arms and wondering what the hell that healthy young man was doing making love to a fat, braying old broad.

That’s the problem with having stars re-create their big roles decades after the original premieres, although Merman is in great voice throughout. Lahr, of course, as the comic has no such problems, and this Anything Goes at least preserves for generations who never saw him perform live, or who know him only as The Cowardly Lion, his peerless way with a line and his trademark “g-nong, g-nong” expression, lifted and slightly altered by Curly Howard in the ’30s. Still, it’s hard to credit that this tasteless mélange was produced by Leland Hayward and Jule Styne. Styne has been dead for years, but if someone had done this to one of his musicals, we’d still hear him screaming about it.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White - bedroom

Walt Disney’s first animated feature still delights — and terrifies —  80-plus years later.


Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty - spindle

One of the most visually compelling of the animated features made at his studio while Walt Disney was alive, Sleeping Beauty, initially released in Super Technirama 70mm, is a knockout on a wide theatre screen… a pleasure I am sorry to say few in America will ever enjoy again as I did with Disney cartoons, often, in my youth. It still looks good on a plasma screen, and its climax is beautifully animated, but it’s a rather cold movie — a triumph of design over substance. Disney, busy with his park, let Eyvind Earle impose his style, based in large part on John Hench’s evocations of the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, on the picture, and often backed Earle over his animators. The major problem with Sleeping Beauty is that what should be its central character is little more than a cypher. Cinderella, the previous Disney animated feature focused on a young woman (as opposed to the girl Alice in Alice in Wonderland) gave its heroine rich character, and dimension, from the very first scene. She was kind, and generous, and we understood that, while laboring in terrible circumstances, she never wasted a moment feeling sorry for herself, even if she occasionally (and deservedly) expressed resigned irritation. The teenage Brier Rose/Aurora, this story’s princess, has only one important sequence (directed by Eric Larson) before she falls under the wicked fairy Maleficent’s spell, and while it’s a lovely one, and lengthy, it isn’t enough. And in its aftermath, when she learns her identity from the fairies who raised her and is told she’s betrothed and can’t see the boy she’s met in the forest, her reaction seems petty, like a petulant schoolgirl throwing an after-school fit because her mother’s grounded her.

None of the other characters are especially fulsome except Maleficent, and that’s largely due to Marc Davis’ animation (he also animated Aurora) and Eleanor Audley’s superb vocal performance. Three who come close to being well-defined are the good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, animated almost entirely by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. (Milt Kahl’s Prince Phillip has dimensions, but he’s no more fully sketched-in than the Princess.) Wolfgang Reitherman, who later took Disney animation into an almost entirely sentiment-free realm as the director of every feature between 1961 and 1977, was responsible for the picture’s most effective sequence, the epic battle between Phillip and Maleficent in the form of a great dragon. Interestingly, Reitherman’s mediocre work as the director of the hipper, less emotionally plangent titles of the ’60s and ’70s, is bordered by two of the studio’s best features, 101 Dalmatians and The Rescuers. Somehow, something more came through in those pictures. Whatever it was, a tincture or two should have been applied to Sleeping Beauty.


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons 194373582Although it physically sickens me whenever I think about what RKO did to it, I tend to see what could have been Orson Welles’ masterwork more or less yearly as I get older, and, as with Citizen Kane, usually notice something fresh in it I hadn’t quite seen before — some little detail, or even just a look on one of the actors’ faces, that had previously eluded me and that enriches the experience. And each time I see it, Agnes Moorehead’s performance moves me more. It’s among the most naked jobs of acting in movies; I don’t think the kind of shrill, bitter, self-pitying loneliness she evokes as Fanny Minifer has its equal anywhere in American film, and she doesn’t make you wince; despite yourself, you pity her. That Moorhead was herself as plain as Fanny in the story makes her work doubly impressive, and poignant. And she isn’t afraid to look ugly, as when she mocks Georgie (Tim Holt); you understand, without being told (although it’s made explicit later in the picture) that she has put up with this spoiled brat’s mean-spirited teasing for 20 years, and is giving back in the same, immature, vein — the only response possible. Although Welles maintained that Moorehead’s best scene was removed from the picture and burned, she has two sequences that are almost shocking in their raw emotionality.  One, famously, is near the end, when insupportable reality drives her to hysteria. But the first, when she realizes just how terrible are the consequences of her hurt carelessness, is, although briefer, in its way even greater. The way, leaning over on the staircase nearly in pain, Moorehead moans out Fanny’s misery and regret (Oh, I was a fool!) as if she’d like to push every harmful word she’s ever spoken back down her own gullet, and choke on them, is so utterly without guile or calculation it’s almost a new form of acting. Stanislavsky would have had little to teach her.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Anatomy of a Murder - Gazarra, Stewart
Otto Preminger was a superficially gifted filmmaker who, perhaps because he was as publicity-conscious as Hitchcock, routinely got credit for more than he deserved, and ink for outraging the system, itself largely out of proportion to his achievements. (Groucho Marx: “I drove by Otto Preminger’s house last night… or is that A House by Otto Preminger?”) I give him a certain amount of credit for unblinkingly depicting addiction and withdrawal in The Man with the Golden Arm (1954) and for twitting the idiot Production Code with The Moon is Blue (1953) but his alleged genius eludes me. That said, Anatomy of a Murder stands not merely as the finest of all courtroom dramas, and a sneakily subversive one, but as one of the greatest of all popular American movies. Much of the credit goes to the sceenwriter, Wendell Mayes, for taking a mildly diverting (and somewhat self-serving) novel by a former Michigan County Prosecuting Attorney — and then state Supreme Court Justice — and improving it in nearly every way. I don’t know how much of this revision was guided by Preminger, but the movie’s deep sense of ambiguity, regarding the law, the behavior of its characters and the case itself was surely shared by the picture’s director. James Stewart gives a career-high performance as the wily defense attorney, and he’s met blow-for-blow by the supporting cast: Lee Remick as a curiously sensual rape victim (one can just hear today’s “a woman never lies” crowd gnashing their teeth and murmuring, “How very dare they!”), Ben Gazzara as her intelligent brute of a husband, Arthur O’Connell as a bibulous former attorney, Kathryn Grant as the murder victim’s heir, George C. Scott as a sneering prosecutor, Orson Bean as an Army shrink, Russ Brown as a trailer park caretaker, Murray Hamilton as a hostile witness, John Qualen as  a prison deputy, Howard McNear as an expert witness, Jimmy Conlin as an habitual drunkard happy to sacrifice his liberty for a case of fine liquor, Don Ross as a shady con, Joseph N. Welch — himself lately, and famously, a defense attorney for the Army against a certain Senator from Wisconsin — as the presiding judge and, sublimely, Eve Arden as Stewart’s wry and long-suffering secretary. Few months have passed since my seeing this movie the first time that I haven’t had occasion to hear Arden’s “If I was on that jury I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t know” reverberate softly in my head.

Anatomy of a Murder - Eve Arden resized

Preminger will never be a favorite of mine, but this movie certainly is.


Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Of all the gin-joints…

I hope it isn’t true, as I have read, that Millennials and their even younger counterparts don’t know, have not heard of and have never seen, one of everybody else’s favorite movies… but I suspect it is. Because it’s in black-and-white? Because it’s older than Star Wars? Because it’s concerned with people, as opposed to special effects? Well, they don’t know who Jack Kennedy was either, or care that he was probably murdered by their government. Whatever the reasons, the losses are theirs entirely. Or soon will be. And then they’ll be the world’s.

Still… imagine a time, 40 or 50 years from now, when no one remembers Casablanca. I’m glad I’ll have been long dead.


My Dinner with André (1981)
My Dinner with Andre

In the nearly four decades since this nonpariel movie was released, I don’t think a week has gone by without my recalling something André Gregory said in it. So much of what he and Wallace Shawn discuss seemed at the time both extreme and all too possible. Now their conversation feels entirely prescient.

Wallace Shawn: “I actually had a purpose as I was writing this: I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.”


Key Largo (1948)
Key Largo - Bogart on boat
This adaptation, by Richard Brooks and John Huston, of Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 blank verse drama retained little but the basic narrative set-up, a character or two, and the title. The antagonists of the reactionary Anderson’s play were Mexican bandidos, and the Humphrey Bogart character was a deserter from the Spanish Civil War. (He’s also, in typical poetic/nihilist 1930s fashion, killed at the end, after redeeming himself. Huston and Brooks let Bogie off that unnecessary hook.) As a high-tension melodrama, the picture is vastly entertaining as long as you don’t take it seriously for a moment.

Among the things that can’t take much scrutiny is Huston’s desire to make a cheap hood like the Edward G. Robinson character stand in for all the evil of the post-war world. But if you ignore the unworkable metaphors and Lauren Bacall’s inability to do much of anything except smolder and concentrate instead on the performances by Robinson, Bogart and, especially, Claire Trevor as a broken-down alcoholic former gun-moll, as well as the thick Florida atmosphere, the mechanics of the thriller plot, the bits of dialogue that don’t strain for profundity and the best moments of Huston’s direction, Key Largo always makes for a robust evening’s entertainment. The Max Steiner score is a little easier to take than some of his earlier bombast, and the cinematography by Karl Freund is really sumptuous. Freund was the lighting director on some remarkable silents (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Variety, 1925; Metropolis, 1927; and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927) as well as the 1931 Dracula and the 1936 Camille. He was later responsible, in conjunction with Desi Arnaz, for the development of the three-camera technique for television comedy and was, from 1951 to 1957, the director of photography on I Love Lucy. That hasn’t anything to do with Key Largo, but it’s impressive.


Night Moves (1975)

Night Moves 6

Paul Vitello, in his 2013 New York Times obituary of the Scottish novelist and sometime screenwriter Alan Sharp, wrote that “his best-known narratives created and then disassembled audience expectations about all the usual Hollywood verities, especially the triumph of justice, love and friendship,” and it seems pretty obvious it was Sharp whose sensibilities most informed this little-seen but essential 1970s detective thriller. It’s as dark and nihilistic as Chinatown, and while I would not claim for it the richness of that landmark of ’70s cinematic Americana, it’s an infinitely better movie than some of the more well-known Arthur Penn-directed pictures of the time like Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a Los Angeles P.I. with a crumbling marriage, on the trail of a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith). The mystery isn’t that search — Harry finds the girl fairly easily — but what is going on with her stepfather in Florida, and why she is suddenly killed, seemingly by accident.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. As the femme fatale, Jennifer Warren’s line-readings are so odd they eventually become false and off-putting, a key telephone answering machine message goes un-listened to and with no dramatic payoff, in an early appearance as a mechanic James Woods doesn’t just chew the scenery but every engine in sight, and some of the scenes don’t seem fully shaped. But it’s wonderfully observed, always intelligent, often witty, and even Griffith is good in it, perhaps because she’s an adolescent and, for once, her little-girl voice is appropriate. The terrific supporting cast includes Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Janet Ward and John Crawford, Michael Small composed the brief but effective score, and the beautiful photography is by the great Bruce Surtees.


Sahara (1943)
Sahara 1943
I don’t know how a movie this implausible can be, conversely, so cleverly contrived, so intelligently written and so engagingly acted. Sahara certainly had some impressive writers involved in it: The screenplay was by John Howard Lawson (with an un-credited assist by Sidney Buchman) and Philip MacDonald wrote the story. The main titles tell us that the picture was based on “an incident depicted in the Soviet photoplay The Thirteen” (Тринадцать, or  Trinadtsat, listed in the credits as 1936 but actually 1937) but a cursory look at the plot for that Russian movie suggests that Sahara is in fact a direct adaptation; the only aspects that seem notably different are the setting (the African desert in 1943 as opposed to Turkestan before the war), the antagonists (Nazis rather than Asian bandits as the besieged heroes’ bêtes noire) and their much greater number. The picture concerns the remnants of a tank crew, a troupe of British Medical Corpsmen its members encounter while on retreat, a Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner, a duplicitous Nazi (as if there were any other kind), a phalanx of German soldiers and a desert well. Although not above the occasional war-movie cliché, Sahara is refreshingly restrained and only rarely gives out with one of those bits of Allied propaganda that were de rigueur during the War but which have induced cringes in audiences ever since. The incidentals, such as Rudolph Maté’s crisp, glorious cinematography, Miklós Rózsa’s prototypical score and the Imperial County, California locations, could scarcely be bettered.

Zoltán Korda’s direction is straightforward and without fuss, yet takes time to examine the faces of the actors, and they’re worth lingering over: Humphrey Bogart, of course, as the tank commander, the amusingly named Joe Gunn, but also Dan Duryea in an immensely likable performance as Bogie’s pilot; Bruce Bennett as his navigator; Richard Nugent as the British Captain; Rex Ingram as the Sudanese; and J. Carrol Naish as the Italian. Lloyd Bridges shows up just long enough to get strafed by machine-gun fire, linger a bit, and die, and Peter Lawford is alleged to be among the British but I didn’t spot him. Naish is splendid as the conflicted prisoner (he got an Oscar® nod for it) and if Ingram with his distinctive speech patterns couldn’t be anything but American and isn’t any more believable a Sudanese than he was an Arabian djinn in the Kordas’ 1940 The Thief of Bagdad, anyone who quibbles about that is just spoiling for a fight.

Having recently re-encountered The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Key Largo, I’m in a Bogart mood these days; this entry, while on no account one of his best, made for a more than adequate diversion. And at 98 minutes, Sahara was exactly the right length.


Cutter’s Way (1981)
Cutter's Way - John Heard and Jeff Bridges
A beautifully observed study of three more or less desperate people in the form of a grungy thriller, based on an interesting novel, and improving on it. Jeffrey Alan Fishin wrote the incisive screenplay, the recently-deceased Ivan Passer directed with economy and compassion, and I don’t see how the performances by the leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn) could be improved upon. One of the last gasps of 1970s personal cinema, and one of the best arguments for it.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology, 2019: Actors and Theatre Personnel

Standard

By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Actors

Carol Channing - Hello, Dolly

Carol Channing, 97.
It was common when I was young to hear people lamenting that Channing didn’t get to play Dolly Gallagher Levi in in the movie of her most famous stage musical. Had those people seen Thoroughly Modern Millie? (Had the Academy, which gave her a Best Supporting Actress nomination for it?) With her popping eyes, elaborate wigs, wide mouth, facial tics, grand gestures, deliberate baritone (sometimes bass) singing voice, and teasing, outsized persona, Channing’s affect was less feminine than that of a drag queen with a uterus. On stage, as Dolly, she probably seemed ingenious; in her few screen roles and with the camera capturing each grimace and moue and the mike picking up every nuance of her kewpie-doll gushing Channing was, like Ethel Merman (another absurdly outré performer these same ignoramuses used perpetually to cite as “wasted by the movies”) a freak, lacking only the appurtenances of the side-show. With her character in it limited to dialogue only (or better still, re-cast) and with no elaborate musical numbers to show her off her freak attributes, Millie might have emerged as a minor comedy classic rather than the pleasant but overblown (and, because overlong, tiring) exercise it became.*

Kaye Ballard - The Golden Apple resized

Kaye Ballard, 93.
Ballard (née Catherine Gloria Balotta) was another Broadway freak, with a huge voice, a good range, and, in comedy, an arch performing style perhaps best suited to TV farce like The Doris Day Show and The Mothers-in-Law, where she played her excited volubility against Eve Arden’s dry acerbity (although the plots were strictly from I Love Lucy.) Yet her appeal was considerable — she was more human than Channing — and when she got her teeth into a great, sultry ballad like the Jerome Moross / John La Touche “Lazy Afternoon” in The Golden Apple, she could be incandescent, even hair-raising. Her tandem act with the treasurable Alice Ghostly in the original, Julie Andrews-starred 1957 Cinderella, in which the pair sang the knowing “Stepsisters’ Lament” duet, remains indelible. Another splendid Ballard recording: “There’s Always a Woman”, a bitch-fest cut from Anyone Can Whistle which Ballard performed with the great Sally Mayes on the Unsung Sondheim album. The way she rolls the word “delicious” off her spiteful tongue is a vest-pocket tutorial in how to get the absolute, zesty most out of a tiny line reading.

Was Ballard a Lesbian? To quote Robert Preston in S.O.B., “Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?”

Julie Adams, 92.
Adams was fine in a very good 1953 James Stewart Western, Bend of the River, but, cultural memory being what it is, will likely be remembered longest for being menaced, in a white one-piece, by the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Albert Finney, 82.Albert Finney - Tom Jones

Although he walked away from Lawrence of Arabia before it began, Finney triumphed as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones in the hilariously earthy 1963 adaptation by John Osborne and directed by Tony Richardson; the famous “eating scene” between Finney and Joyce Redman is still among the most paralyzingly funny sequences in post-war movies. As adept at comedy as he was at drama, Finney was also as devoted to the stage as to film, ever returning to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Feydeau, his true métier. He could be subtle or hammy, as required, and his conviction was total; even in the veriest trash he is never less than watchable. Among his best movie performances: Opposite Audrey Hepburn in the time-shattering Stanley Donen/Frederic Raphael dramatic comedy Two for the Road (1967); a delicious Ebenezer in Scrooge (1970); unrecognizable as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974); the conflicted, and increasingly frightened, police detective of Wolfen (1981); the agonizingly obsessive husband in Shoot the Moon (1982); the Donald Wolfit-inspired “Sir” in The Dresser (1983); the doomed, alcoholic British consul in Under the Volcano (1984); the unsinkable Irish mobster in Miller’s Crossing (1990); as Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version (1994); the paterfamilias of Sidney Lumet’s astonishing final feature, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007); and, movingly, the unbowed ancient caretaker of Skyfall (2012). In 1975, he performed an amusing cameo in Gene Wilder’s spoof The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. It’s difficult for me, who grew up watching him, and who cherished his presence, to imagine to a world without an Albert Finney in it.

Jan-Michael Vincent. 73. Jan-Michael Vincent resized
Once both disarmingly attractive, and charmingly amiable (
“Danger Island” on The Banana Splits Show, The World’s Greatest Athlete, Bite the Bullet, Big Wednesday), later a victim of alcoholism and diabetes, Vincent ended up a bitter, angry and staggeringly homophobic single amputee. A sad ending to a once-promising career.

Beverley Owen, 81.
The original Marilyn on The Munsters, for them as cares. Which I don’t. Why did I post this? Because I care about you

Katherine Helmond, 89.Brazil - Katherine Helmond

When she played the perpetually confused Jessica Tate on Soap, one puzzled stare into the camera by this woman, perfectly timed, was enough to put me on the floor. She had her best movie role as Jonathan Pryce’s cosmetically-obsessed mother in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Gilliam’s depiction was prescient; we’ve since witnessed 35 years’ worth of women, and men, whose every gaze into a mirror must include a profoundly disorienting lack of immediate recognition.

Denise Nickerson, 62. Remembered by moviegoers of my generation as the obnoxious Violet in the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Seymour Cassel, 84.
Active largely in American independent movies, especially for John Cassavetes (Too Late Blues, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night and Love Streams) he also had roles in more mainstream pictures such as Coogan’s Bluff (1968), The Last Tycoon (1976), Valentino (1977), Convoy (1978), Dick Tracy (1990), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and Indecent Proposal (1993).

Georgia Engel
, 70.
With her slightly breathless, baby-doll voice, zany logic and sweetly expressed forthrightness Engel, a late addition to the cast, was an endearing  Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and, later, Ray Romano’s mother-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond.)

Peter Mayhew
, 74.
Mayhew was the man beneath the mask and the shaggy, bandoliered body as Chewbacca in five Star Wars pictures and, like so many giants (he had Marfan syndrome), a gentle soul.

Barbara Perry, 97.
A reliable character actor known for her series performances (The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, Bewitched) Perry earned her immortality in the Ross household as the first Pickles Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Peggy Lipton
, 72.
I’ve never been happy my friend Michael Dorfman committed suicide, but I’m slightly relieved he’ll never have to hear of the death of his first big TV crush.

Harvey Korman, Tim Conway

Harvey Korman and Tim Conway in a segment of the recurring Kenny Solms and Gail Parent soap-opera spoof “As the Stomach Turns.” Korman is the hilariously Yiddish-inflected Marcus, Conway The Oldest Man. (AP Photo/CBS)

Tim Conway, 85.
The Carol Burnett Show didn’t really need Tim Conway; it was funny enough already, and a much more devastating blow than Conway’s never being on it would have been the loss of Harvey Korman (as time eventually proved) or even Vicki Lawrence. But Conway, in his recurring guest appearances, gave the series some of its funniest, and most memorable moments… particularly when the rest of the cast was reacting to him on-camera. What most civilians didn’t know (a friend and fellow young actor complained to me when we were both 12 that the people on the Burnett show were “unprofessional”!) was that Conway, like Nancy Walker, merely walked through rehearsals; what we were seeing on the air the cast was also seeing for the first time. And while his actions were certainly devious, and perhaps a little sadistic, the break-ups became part of the shtick of the show. My father used to relish the way Conway broke Korman up, and he wasn’t alone; their double-act became one the classic running-gags of 1970s American television. In addition to his Oldest Man character, which he’d performed in his nightclub act with Ernie Anderson Conway also contributed to the show his phlegmatic Swedish businessman Mr. Tudball (a character he created), forever battling Burnett as his inept secretary Mrs. “A-Wiggins” and once, in the soap spoof “As the Stomach Turns,” had a memorable slow-motion fall down a staircase. (Conway always knew exactly how, and where, to put the button on any physical gag.) He also, infamously, got broken up himself by Lawrence during one of his elongated, un-scripted interpolations, an agonizingly pointless anecdote about a “Siamese elephant.” As with Jonathan Winters, whom in his improvisational genius Conway in some ways resembled, his gifts were never fully employed, or appreciated, in his movie work, although he developed a third double-act on-screen, this time with Don Knotts. Those pictures are variable, but Conway’s work on the Burnett show is evergreen and, quite literally, peerless. There was no one like him.

Sylvia Miles, 94.
Brash personality more than actor, Miles was a hard-edged Sally Rogers in the Carl Reiner pilot Head of the Family which eventually became (with, blessedly, Rose Marie in the role) The Dick Van Dyke Show. She won the first of her two Oscar® nominations as a kept woman who ends up taking not sex but money from Jon Voight’s Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and her second for her boozy, blowsy loser in Farewell, My Lovely (1975). Miles famously dropped a salad into the lap of the critic John Simon, a comestible that grew to become all manner of hefty dishes in her retelling. Miles also starred, with Joe Dallesandro, in Andy Warhol’s 1972 Sunset Boulevard spoof Heat. Didn’t Warhol get that Sunset Boulveard was a black comedy to begin with?

Max Wright, 75.
An idiosyncratic and often very funny character actor (Reds, Simon, All That Jazz) Wright found his greatest fame in the aggressively stupid alien-puppet situation comedy ALF, and is now associated solely with tabloid sleaze-stories about his addictions and sexual encounters with homeless men. Sigh.

Arte Johnson, 90.

Arte Johnson and Ruth Buzzi

Tyrone F. Horneigh (Arte Johnson) and Gladys Ormphby (Ruth Buzzi) in their accustomed spot on Laugh-In.

Remembered almost solely for his run on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where he introduced such indelible characters as a German soldier who seems not to have noticed that the War had ended years earlier (“Very interesting…”) and Tyrone F. Horneigh (pronounced, in a sop to the era’s network standards and practices, as “Horn-eye”), the degenerate old man who plunked himself down on the park bench occupied by his unwilling inamorata Gladys Ormphby (Ruth Buzzi), rasped indecent nothings to her, and was rewarded by a smack with her handbag, eventually toppling off the bench while intoning some dopey “punch”-line. It was a predictable, one-joke running-gag… and, especially if you were an 8-or 9-year old as I was, a very funny one; the only Laugh-In character I imitated as often as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine was Johnson’s Tyrone.

Freddie Jones, 91.
Onstage Jones was the originator of “Sir” in Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, and while he appeared in movies as divergent as Marat/Sade and Far from the Madding Crowd (both 1967), The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (1968), Harry Nilsson’s Son of Dracula (1973), Juggernaut (1974), the delightful John Cleese/Chekhov short film Romance with a Double Bass (1975), Ladies in Lavender (2004) and seemingly countless British films and television series, he stays most vivid in the theatre of my mind as the abusive, terrifying ringmaster of the 1980 The Elephant Man.

Maude - Arthur and Macy

Bill Macy, 97.
God finally got you for that, Walter.

Rip Torn, 88.
Famously widowed by Geraldine Page (the bell on their New York apartment read “Torn Page”) and older cousin to Sissy Spacek, Torn once attacked Norman Mailer with a hammer (well, which of us at one time or another wouldn’t have liked to?), allegedly pulled a knife on Dennis Hopper (again, who didn’t want to?) and was a notable drunk. And while he appeared in prominent or supporting roles in movies such as Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), Tropic of Cancer (1969, as Henry Miller), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Nasty Habits (1977), Coma (1978), The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1969), Cross Creek (1983, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award®), Men in Black (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) he was infinitely less interesting an actor than his wife and cousin. Machismo is a fucking bore.

David Hedison, 92.

Live and Let Die - Hedison and Moore resized

Live and Let Die: When David Hedison’s voice emerges from an automobile accessory, Roger Moore’s James Bond observes, “A Felix lighter.”

Immortal in some circles as The Fly (1958), Hedison was the most congenial of Felix Leiters, twice: Live and Let Die in 1973 and License to Kill (1989) in which he first married, then suffered the fate Ian Fleming devised for the character in the novel Live and Let Die. (“He disagreed with something that ate him.”)

Russi Taylor, 75.
The curse of having the longest-running animated series in television history is that over time your voice actors tend to die. Taylor was a Simpsons stalwart from the beginning, providing the voices for the twins Sherri and Terri, the German exchange student Üter and the conniving nerd Martin Prince.

Fonda family

The Fondas: One of the creepiest family snapshots in post-war Americana. Everyone (except Jane) is pointedly not looking at anyone else, and she will spend the rest of her life trying to please Daddy by repeatedly marrying him.

Peter Fonda, 79.
The less-talented of Henry’s children, Peter enjoyed his greatest success with the appallingly overrated Easy Rider in 1969, in which, as co-scenarist and co-star of this annoying, pretentious, self-indulgent mess, he bore much responsibility for the subsequent inundation of numbingly bad “youthquake” movies that washed up on shore in its wake. Considering the profoundly dysfunctional family from which he sprang, I am unsurprised to have discovered that Fonda, enraged at President Trump’s immigration policies (very little different from Obama’s) Tweeted that, “We should rip Barron Trump from the arms of First Lady Melania Trump and put him in a cage with pedophiles.” (He also “suggested that Americans should seek out names of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in order to protest outside of their homes and the schools of their children.” – Lisa Gutierrez, The Kansas City Star) Thus was Fonda a typical liberal, trumpeting his concern for others while wishing harassment and rape on minors. Imagine his outrage had anyone suggested such things about the Obama daughters, or the children of Obama’s officials. But then, I guess the children of prominent figures are only off-limits if their parents are perceived as liberals. On the subject of Millennials voting, to parents concerned their children might cast a vote for Trump, Fonda’s advice was to “take their early ballots, fill them out [emphasis mine] and mail them in, or take the ballot to the voting place and give it to the officials… no more worrying!” I think we can easily imagine his reaction had his father suggested such a thing in, say, 1968. But as I’ve often said (and tire of having to say): Scratch a liberal, find a fascist. (Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for Fonda’s Tweet advocating paternal voter-fraud.)

Anna Quayle, 86.
Warmly recalled by musical aficionados for her Tony® award-winning performance in the Newley/Bricusse Stop the World — I Want to Get Off, Quayle was also the women with whom John Lennon has a funny dalliance on the stairs in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the child-hating Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and as the maid of Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).

Valerie Harper, 80.

Rhoda - Kavner, Harper and Walker

The Morgensterns of Rhoda: Find the Gentile. (Hint: There are two of them.) Nice Hanukkah decorations, by the way. Love that menorah.

Adults of (ahem!) a certain age will vividly recall their first glimpse of Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, washing the windows of the Minneapolis apartment she thought was going to be hers on the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970 and memorably sparring for the next seven years with Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom. Her subsequent spin-off, Rhoda made her, arguably, the most famous Jew on television, but Harper was a Gentile. (So — and please brace yourself—was Nancy Walker.) Although Rhoda was never as good, or as respected, as the show that spawned it, it was sometimes gut-bustingly funny (it helped if you relished Jewish humor, which I did, and do) and Rhoda’s wedding was the highest-rated television episode of the ‘70s before Roots.

Carol Lynley, 77.
Lynley, who was strikingly pretty, had a tendency to extreme emotionality (Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Poseidon Adventure) but in the right role (as Darren McGavin’s grounded girlfriend in the 1972 television movie The Night Stalker for example) she could be quite engaging.

Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green

Phyllis Newman, 86.
Newman won a Tony® for her comedic role in the Jule Styne/ Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical Subways Are for Sleeping, a spread in LIFE magazine, and Green’s undying love. (They married soon after and were together until his death.) Newman’s character appeared in a nothing but a towel the entire evening, and her 4-minute solo “I Was a Shoo-Inwas a comic goldmine. I also cherish the way she introduced “Who’s That Woman?” in the 1986 concert version of Follies; when Newman says, “If I do this number… we all do this number!” there can be no argument.

Dihann Carrol - Julia resized

Julia: Dihann Carroll with Marc Copage as her son.

Diahann Carroll, 84.
The first black performer to win a Tony® for Best Actress (Richard Rodgers’ No Strings, 1962) Carroll was also in the movies of Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) and had the lead in the Broadway musical House of Flowers whose rich Harold Arlen/Truman Capote score included the exquisite ballad “A Sleepin’ Bee.” From 1968-1973 she was the young widowed mother Julia for NBC, often cited as the first non-stereotyped black woman on television. (Although Carroll herself said Julia was “the white Negro.”) But it was a sweet series, often poignant and sometimes very funny, as in this exchange between Julia and her new employer (Lloyd Nolan as what Harlan Ellison would have called “a crusty-but-lovable doctor”), with whom she has been placed by an agency:

Julia: Did they tell you I’m colored?
Dr. Chegley: What color are you?
Julia: Why, I’m Negro.
Dr. Chegley: Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?

Rip Taylor

Rip Taylor, 88.
Two Rips loosed in one year! Taylor’s shtick — the toupee, the flamboyant (read, “screaming queen”) persona, the confetti — was so over the top you either roared, or rolled your eyes and switched channels. I often roared.

Michael J. Pollard, 80.
From Bye Bye Birdie on stage to Bonnie and Clyde on screen is quite a leap, and while Pollard lacked the physical attributes ever to become a star, he was always engaging, even when, as in Bonnie, he was practically a moron. (While Beatty infamously vetoed the manage David Newman and Robert Benton wrote into their Bonnie script, which would have involved Pollard, had his objection been aesthetic rather than cowardly I wouldn’t have blamed him.) Pollard later had a charming role in Steve Martin’s 1987 Roxanne and an unexpectedly moving one in Scrooged (1988).

Joan Staley, 79.
A model and an actor, Staley will always occupy a warm chamber of my heart for her delightful performance opposite Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

Philip McKeon. 55.
McKeon replaced Alfred Lutter after the pilot as the son in television’s Alice, weirdly spun from the far superior movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I include him largely because he was never spoken of as being involved with a woman and also never declared himself one way or another, for which some smug fool on Pinterest praised him for “keeping [his private life] where it belongs.” Hey, buddy — would you still say that had McKeon posed for photos with a wife and children?

Ron Leibman, 82.

Ron Leibman and Sally Field - Norma Rae

The fish he wanted to hook: Ron Leibman and Sally Field in Norma Rae.

Leibman was the very definition of a working actor in America. He divided his time between stage, movies and television, racking up an array of marvelous, buoyant performances in each: The Hot Rock (1972), superb as the union organizer Reuben in Norma Rae (1979), breaking his wrist while making a typically vehement point as the D.A. in Night Falls on Manhattan (1996); racking up an Emmy® in the title role of the short-lived Kaz (1978-79); playing Kilroy in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real in 1959 and appearing in productions of A View from the Bridge, Dead End, The Deputy, Uncle Vanya (as Astrov), Beckett’s End Game (as Clov), Volpone, The Three Sisters, We Bombed in New Haven, Richard III (as Richard), I Ought to Be in Pictures, Tartuffe (in the title role, naturally), Neil Simon’s Rumors, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (as Roy Cohn, a performance that yielded him a Tony®), Angels in America: Perestroika, The Merchant of Venice (as Shylock) and Kushner’s version of A Dybbuk. His zest for acting was obvious, and infectious, and only once (in the 1974 The Super Cops) have I seen him give a bad performance. But since the picture itself was conceived and executed as a cartoon, Leibman’s overacting was of a piece with the rest.

René Auberjonois MASH resized

René Auberjonois, 79.
A year before his sweetly ineffectual Father Francis “Dago Red” Mulcahy in MASH, Auberjonois was camping up a storm on Broadway as Katharine Hepburn’s gay rival Sebastian in the Alan Jay Lerner/Andre Previn Coco, singing the vicious satirical tango “Fiasco” and winning a Tony® in the process. He went on to perform in three additional pictures for Robert Altman: 1970’s Brewster McCloud, in which he played a lecturer who slowly evolves into a giant bird, the glorious McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Images (1972). He did more television than movies (Benson, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and I also remember him as a robust swashbuckler in a 1976 TV movie called Panache, which, being an inveterate fan of Cryano de Bergerac and Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies, I had to watch. On Broadway he was Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1972), The Good Doctor, Neil Simon’s 1973 adaptation of several short Chekhov plays; the Duke in Roger Miller’s Huckleberry Finn musical Big River (1984), the 2004 revival of Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox and, in the Cy Coleman musical City of Angels (1989) had a veritable field day with Gelbart’s trademark mixed metaphors and David Zippel’s too-clever-by-half lyrics. In 1987 Auberjonois gave perfect voice to the rapacious, Inspector Clouseau-like French chef in The Little Mermaid (1987), gleefully singing, in the best Folies Bergère style, Howard Ashman’s delicious lyric “Les Poissons.”

Carrol Spinney cropped

Carol Spinney. 85.
The once and future Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Danny Aiello, 86.

Do the Right Thing - Lee, Aiello
Aiello’s stardom, such as it was and for as long as it lasted, came late: He was for years a union rep for bus workers, and a bouncer at The Improv, before being cast in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and as Tony Rosato in The Godfather Part II (1974), in which he ad-libbed the line, “Michael Corleone says hello!” during the failed hit on Michael V. Gazzo’s Frank Pentangeli. He was a frightening racist cop in the excellent Fort Apache — The Bronx (1981), Mia Farrow’s abusive husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1085) and Cher’s hapless, mother-ridden fiancée in Moonstruck (1987). His best work on film, and his most prominent role, was as the pizzeria owner Sal in Spike Lee’s literally incendiary Do the Right Thing (1989). An essentially decent man, Sal is too hidebound to budge even slightly. It’s his pizza shop; why should he accommodate his black patrons… even though they’re pretty much the only ones he has? Sal’s tragedy is that he could have easily prevented the conflagration that explodes in the movie’s gripping last act, but didn’t know how to integrate his Italian pride with a responsibility to the neighborhood in which he makes his living.

Sue (née Suellyn) Lyon, 73.
Lolita - 1962
Lyons became an overnight pop icon in 1962 as Lolita in the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Nabokov’s book, itself wildly controversial when it was published in 1955. Lyon’s casting was, one presumes, a compromise: Too advanced in age and too developed physically at 14 to really represent the 12-year old “Lo” of the novel (she looked at least 16, and yes, those two year jumps matter) Lyons took some of the heat off the filkmmakers — but she also turned in an exceptional performance opposite James Mason’s peerless Humbert Humbert. Two years later she was the lubricious teenager in love with Richard Burton’s defrocked minister in the superb John Huston movie of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana in which among other things she had a strange, wonderful scene, suggested by Williams, in which the pair walk on broken glass in their bare feet. She was very good as a missionary in China in John Ford’s final picture, the underrated 7 Women (1966) and had leading roles in The Flim-Flam Man and Tony Rome in 1967. Aside from her beauty, which was obvious, she brought a sharp intelligence to everything she did. Whenever I see Carol Lynley in a movie I mentally re-cast her role with Lyons; it improves whatever I’m watching by at least 25 per cent. Lyons’ final acting role was in 1980. Her loss was the audience’s as well.


II. Theatre

Harold Prince, 91. The last of the great, visionary super-dirctors of the American musical theatre, the man who put together such shows as Cabaret, Company and Follies the way a great playwright does.

Betty Corwin, 98.
Corwin’s was not a name known outside New York, or theatre and library circles (or New York theatre and library circles) but anyone who cares about plays and musicals should give her a tip of the hat. It was her idea to create archival video records of the offerings on and Off-Broadway, and to house them in a special collection (Theatre Film and Tape Archive) at the New York Library for the Performing Arts. And while these are obviously not the flashier, and more professional, two-and-three camera affairs later developed for PBS programs such as Theatre in America (remember when PBS actually cared about theatre? Remember when PBS cared about anything other than money?) they are a treasure-house nonetheless. How else would you be able to see a video tape of the original Follies, or A Chorus Line? Bless you, Betty.

Beyond the Fringe - So That's the Way You Like it

Beyond the Fringe: The Shakespeare parody “So That’s the Way You Like it.” Miller with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.

Sir Jonathan Miller, 85.
Hearing that anyone has dementia or has died of Alzheimer’s is depressing, but especially so when the person in question has lived a life of the mind. Miller was such a polymath his theatrical career is almost the least of his interests, and achievements. Miller began as a member of Beyond the Fringe, all of whom became important figures in theatre and movies and British comedy, particularly the actor/playwright Alan Bennett. He was also a physician, a theatrical director (the agonizing Merchant of Venice with Olivier was his) and an author. For 40 years I have treasured his Fringe monologue “The Heat Death of the Universe” with its immortal last line: Turn your face to the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen… trot by.



*
Channing could also be a beast. I strongly suspect what she put Mary Martin and James Kirkwood through during rehearsals and road-tour for the latter’s comedy Legends! hastened his death by heart attack two years later. (And that’s not to mention Martin’s increasing deafness or her justifiable fury at her character’s monologue about breast cancer being cut by the producer, which caused her to back out of an eventual Broadway production, killing the show’s chances. See Kirkwood’s Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing.)

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

Standard

By Scott Ross

Note: For fuller reviews of some of the movies below, click on the highlighted titles.

The Sign of Four / The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983)

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Churchill

A pair of Sherlock Holmes adaptations by Charles Edward Pogue for British television starring the irreplaceable Ian Richardson which, while not precisely faithful to Conan Doyle, are rich in atmosphere and, in Richardson, boast perhaps the finest Holmes before Jeremy Brett sealed the franchise.



Underworld U.S.A.
(1961)

Underworld U.S.A. - Dolores Dorn, Robertson

Mediocre Samuel Fuller is still worth watching, although we might have expected better of a former ace crime reporter than this half-baked yarn concerning revenge served at freezing temperature. But then, the picture dates from an uncertain period for Fuller, the years wherein he meandered between the sting of House of Bamboo (1955) and Forty Guns (1957) and the astonishment of Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Most of the Fuller pictures from that time are curios, quasi-successful but tamer affairs than those that came before. This one, suggested by some Saturday Evening Post pieces by Joseph F. Dinneen, has its moments but the plot isn’t feasible in the slightest, the romance seems shoe-horned in, and I don’t buy Cliff Robertson as a hardened criminal for a moment. (But then, I don’t buy Robertson as pretty much anything.) Much better are Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother, David Kent as his adolescent self, Dolores Dorn as his would-be paramour, Larry Gates as the cop-turned-D.A. who’d like to nail the mobsters and set Robertson straight, and Richard Rust as a smiling, sweet-faced sadist who seems to literally seduce Robertson into the mob; their initial meetings feel like an extended courtship dance.

Despite some beautiful set-ups (the cinematographer was Hal Mohr) and a few effective scenes, Underworld USA ultimately has too many sequences like Rust’s running-down of a little girl on her bicycle: Fuller doesn’t show the killing, only the child’s mother calling to her from an upstairs window and the girl (Joni Beth Morris) looking back just before impact. Instead of enhancing the horror, these rather studied choices diminish it; they’re like the worst of Hitchcock — which is bad enough only a fool would emulate it. Like Verboten!, Run of the Arrow, The Crimson Kimono, Hell and High Water and Merrill’s Marauders, Underworld USA is less a good movie than a collection of some good scenes in search of a better place to go.



Scorpio 
(1973)

Scorpio - Scofield

An avis of increasing rarity, the intelligent thriller, anchored by the performances of Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and the magnificent Paul Scofield.



The Maltese Falcon
(1941)

The Maltese Falcon - The stuff that dreams are made of

John Huston’s extraordinary debut as a writer/director, a masterpiece of detective fiction featuring Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough performance as Sam Spade.



The Man Who Would Be King 
(1975)

The Man Who Would Be King - Caine, Plummer, Connery

Another of John Huston’s group quests toward ultimate failure, a tangy adaptation of Kipling with a superb trio of leading players in Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer.



A Study in Terror
(1965)

A Study in Terror - John Neville and Donald Huston

A clever, if implausible, mating of Sherlock Holmes with the Jack the Ripper mythos, which isn’t a patch on the later Murder by Decree (1978) but which boasts an excellent Holmes in the person of the classical actor John Neville, later immortalized as Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam. Donald Houston is a good Watson, the splendid Anthony Quayle an excellent Doctor Murray, Frank Finlay in a part he reprised in Murder by Decree is an intelligent(!) Lestrade, and it’s fascinating to see a very young Judi Dench in a pivotal role. The boxer Terry Downes has a sexy, and surprisingly well acted, cameo role, and John Scott composed an effective score which, even when it brings in bongo drums(!!) does so in a way that feels wholly appropriate.

The cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is a bit on the bland side, period television color where chiaroscuro was called for, and James Hill’s direction, while brisk and effective, lacks the sick-making horror the subject demands. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the movie is Georgia Brown, the original Nancy of the musical Oliver!, whose warm whiskey-contralto has long been a favored sound in my home. She shows up twice, as a pub singer in Whitechapel (presumably on the basis of her performance of the Lionel Bart song “Oom-Pah-Pah” in Oliver!) and if you only listen, she’s perfect. Her face, alas, explains why others got to play her stage roles in movies. She grew into her looks eventually and became a handsome older woman, but in 1966 hers was not the type of physiognomy guaranteed to queue up the paying customers.



The Life of Émile Zola
(1937)

The Life of Emile Zola - Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff

I first encountered this all-too-typical Warner Bros. biopic on television in my early adolescence, and all I really remembered was the material dealing with Captain Dreyfus. Seeing it again, now, I understand why: It’s one of the few inherently dramatic portions of the narrative. While the picture’s Dreyfuss (Joseph Schildkraut) was whitewashed — it was his arrogance of personality as much as the fact of his Jewishness that precipitated his false arrest and cynical imprisonment — and the anti-Semitism downplayed, at least the subsequent trial of Zola for J’Accuse has spark, courtesy in part of Donald Crisp as the outraged attorney Labori. Those who have complained that the scapegoating of Dreyfus in the picture is depicted as entirely devoid of religious bigotry have apparently never noticed (and I admit it is fast) the juxtaposition of the insert-shot of the Captain’s file reading, “Religion: Jewish” with Harry Davenport’s line damning him as, of two suspects, the man to charge with treason. The implication is entirely obvious. But what can be expected of people who for decades have sung hosannas to Paul Muni’s unconscionably hammy performance as Zola? His constant shameless mugging for the camera indicates a self-regard so thorough an audience has little need to bother; he clearly thinks he’s adorable enough, why should we make it redundant?

L’affaire Dreyfus eats up so much screen time — and at that omits the role of Alfred’s older brother, promoting the idea that it was his wife who most successfully pressed the case for his innocence — that it would have made more sense to focus on it entirely rather than to attempt squeezing in the rest of Zola’s biography, and with such brevity; his early decades here are a whirl-wind of narrative cliché and the people (his wife, Alexandrine, played by Gloria Holden; Morris Carnovsky’s Anatole France; Grant Mitchell’s Clemenceau; and Vladimir Sokoloff’s Cézanne) are little more than names and attitudes. That it took no fewer than three scenarists (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine) to bake the thin crust upon which the insufficient filling of this movie rests says something… although just what, I couldn’t say. Gale Sondergaard struggles valiantly with the underwritten role of Lucie Dreyfus and at least retains her dignity, but Schildkraut (who, rather unbelievably, won an Oscar® for this) is reduced to little more than periodically screaming, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!” He does get one nice scene, however, when, freed at last after a decade on Devil’s Island he repeatedly hits the open doorway inviting him back to the outside world, turns, and retreats to his hated cell; in that moment you know everything you need to about the learned behavior of prisoners. The picture’s director, William Dieterle, does what he can with the material, and it is at least a very brisk movie, with very few longueurs despite its 116-minute running-time. Tony Gaudio’s black-and-white cinematography is rich, and beautifully lit; on the big screen in 1937 it must have seemed luminous.



Unforgiven
(1992)

Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood, Jaimz Woolvett

Clint Eastwood’s award-winning Western, a beautiful, even poetic, rumination on the cost of killing.


The Last Picture Show (1971)

MBDLAPI EC004

The damn near perfect adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s suberb coming-of-age novel by McMurtry and the director Peter Bogdanovich.



Big Jake
(1971)

Big Jake - Boone

Enjoyable late-period John Wayne, with an intelligent script and a savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant.


Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

somethingwicked_coverimage

A badly muddled misfire purportedly adapted from Ray Bradbury’s magical literary fantasy.


California Split (1974)

California Split - Altman

Robert Altman’s first feature utilizing the 8-track recording system that made Nashville possible, a genial character study of two degenerate gamblers played charmingly by George Segal and Elliott Gould.


The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh  (1963)

Scarecrow-of-romney-marsh-feat-10

An atmospheric and intelligent rendition, from Walt Disney, of Russell Thorndyke’s 18th century rogue Dr. Syn starring a splendid Patrick McGoohan.


Targets (1967/1968)

targets-7

Peter Bogdanovich’s extraordinary, disturbing first feature as a writer-director anatomizing both the sick state of Hollywood and the weird anomie of a serial killer is all too relevant to 21st century America.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Mason, Lorre, Douglas and Henried resized

Walt Disney’s first movie to be filmed in CinemaScope — it was also in 4-track stereo —  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was at the time one of the most expensive Hollywood productions ever attempted (between $5 and $9 million, imagine) and had it flopped would have been disastrous to the studio. The picture turned out so well it was one of the two top-grossers of its year, earning $28 million in 1954. And if it is less than absolutely ideal, especially in its confusingly British-Christian characterization of Jules Verne’s Sikh Captain Nemo, the movie is technically almost without a flaw, beautifully designed and shot, lengthy but involving, with literally marvelous art and set decoration (Peter Ellenshaw contributed some typically beautiful matte paintings)* and a splendid quartet of above-the-title actors. It’s the perfect Boy’s Adventure movie: Rich color photography by Franz Planer (his underwater and day-for-night effects are especially pleasing), an exciting score by Paul J. Smith, assured direction by Richard Fleischer, and an intelligent, often witty, adapted screenplay by Earl Felton that combine to form an exceptionally enjoyable night’s entertainment and in which human conflict, interior as well as exterior, are not elided.

Aside from the presence of the seal Sophie (that she needed water we never see her enter or exit from is evident from her shiny and obviously moistened skin) and the now-questionable “humor” of black cannibals getting zapped by Nemo’s protective electricity (why was it considered funny then?) the humor is refreshingly adult and mostly supplied by Kirk Douglas as the harpoonist Ned Land and Peter Lorre as Paul Henried’s assistant. Douglas also gets to sing a nifty ditty by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel called “A Whale of a Tale” which becomes one of the movie’s leitmotifs and makes a nice, belated compensation for his having left, in 1944, the original cast of On the Town, where he had the lead. James Mason is so good as Nemo you forgive Disney for messing with the original. That superb light baritone of Mason’s, combined with his elliptical speech patterns and highly idiosyncratic line readings, make him commanding, tragic and ironic at once.

The special effects, all of course in those days done by hand, are deeply impressive even now, with only one or two indifferent rear-screen bits muffing the whole. Walt produced this one himself, and his acumen shows: When the fight with the giant squid, originally shot against a red sunset on a static sea, both proved lifeless and revealed too many of the technicians’ wires, Disney suggested they re-shoot it at night, and during a storm at sea. It made all the difference; overnight, as it were, a poor sequence became a classic.

* The picture won Oscars® for Best Art Direction – Color (John Meehan, Emile Kuri) and Best Special Effects (John Hench, Joshua Meador), although according to Wikipedia, “the movie’s primary art designer, Harper Goff, who designed the Nautilus, was not a member of the Art Directors Union in 1954 and therefore, under a bylaw within the Academy of Motion Pictures… was unable to receive his Academy Award for Art Direction.”


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

The Adventures of S Holmes - Rathbone and Zucco

20th Century Fox’s immediate follow-up to its The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939, proves what a fluke the studio’s first Holmes picture was. Allegedly based on the William Gillette play, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes bears no resemblance to it, nor to the 1916 movie in which Gillette himself starred. Although the movie has a fine, foggy atmosphere — Leon Shamroy was the cinematographer — the narrative is asinine, and even insulting; two of Holmes’ typical lines are, “Whatever Watson has found out, you’ll know inevitably. I have unbounded confidence in his lack of discretion” and (to Nigel Bruce as the Doctor) “I’m afraid you’re an incorrigible bungler.” It concerns the machinations of a bearded(!) Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to humiliate Holmes, by whom he is eventually thrown off the Tower of London(!!) and Zucco has a high old time of it, all but baring his fangs and gnashing his teeth. In the supporting cast, Terry Kilburn is a good Billy, Mary Forbes charming as a matron, Anthony Kemble-Cooper has a nice turn as a gentle upper-class twit avant la lettre, and Basil Rathbone has an enjoyable bit in disguise as a music hall entertainer. But Ida Lupino is wasted as the damsel in distress and the picture is both lumpy and formless. The director of this flavorless mélange was someone named Alfred L. Werker; this was probably his only well-remembered movie. Nowhere in the credits of the picture will you see the name of Arthur Conan Doyle… for which omission I presume his heirs were duly grateful.


HealtH (1979/1982)

HealtH lobby card resized

An often very amusing political satire directed by Robert Altman involving the race for president of a health convention. It’s an allegory about Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, with Lauren Bacall as a narcoleptic 83-year old virgin (Ike) and Glenda Jackson as a prating intellectual (Stevenson) who talks, dryly and utterly without emotion, through everything and everyone. Paul Dooley is an obnoxious hypocrite of a third-party candidate who is a mass of prejudices and whose shtick is holding his breath under water, Carol Burnett is very funny as a representative of the President — since the picture was filmed in 1979, presumably Jimmy Carter — and James Garner is only slightly less so as her estranged husband, working for Bacall. Donald Moffat shows up in a sinister performance as Bacall’s frightening brother; Henry Gibson is a political operative whose first sequence in drag as an old woman is so convincing you almost wonder who that interesting actress is; Diane Stilwell is Jackson’s secretary who can’t type and who has supplied Jackson with a portable tape recorder, with which she is pretty obviously in love; MacIntyre Dixon is marvelous as the convention manager; Alfre Woodard is the hotel’s determinedly sunny convention representative vexed by this unmanageable collection of loons; Ann Ryerson is Bacall’s physician who lacks the ability to enjoy sex; the singing group The Steinettes appear throughout the movie, singing brightly and inanely at every conceivable opportunity; and Dick Cavett plays himself, vainly attempting to interview Bacall and Jackson and perennially frustrated by Bacall’s unexpected sleeping fits (if that isn’t an oxymoron.) Altman and Dooley wrote the sharp screenplay with Frank Barhydt, and it’s a relaxed, cheery, sometimes hilarious ensemble comedy. Why any of the people involved thought that a satire on Eisenhower and Stevenson was relevant to anything, or anyone, in 1979 remains a mystery, but everyone in the picture is terrific with the notable exception of Bacall. We watch her thinking we know she was famous for something once, but from her performance we can’t recall just what; after 1966 she always seemed to be playing the paralyzed rich-bitch from Harper — she’d become all surface, the grande dame in her element. What the hell happened to that woman? She was better at 19, when she knew almost nothing about acting.


Matewan (1988)

Matewan - Chris Cooper

John Sayles’ magnificent evocation of a violent, largely forgotten incident of the 1920s involving West Virginia miners arrayed against vicious coal industry gun-thugs.



Casualties of War
 (1989)

Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

A deeply unsettling examination of an American atrocity in Vietnam directed by Brian De Palma which is best when it sticks to the facts but is never less than compelling even when it’s embracing war movie clichés that would have embarrassed John Wayne.


The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

Little Drummer Girl - Kinski, Keaton

This surprisingly good attempt by the screenwriter Loring Mandel and the stylish journeyman director George Roy Hill at condensing one of John Le Carré’s large, complex thrillers is compromised but, curiously, not undone, by its central miscasting. With her signature red hair and championing of Palestinian rights, the actress Charlie in the novel was obviously meant to remind readers of Vanessa Redgrave. Unlike Redgrave (or Diane Keaton, the Charlie of the movie) it was central to the Le Carré novel that Charlie was young, in her early 20s, passionate but unformed, and not nearly as worldly, or as informed, as she thinks she is. Likewise, casting Yorgo Voyagis, Keaton’s junior by a year, as the Israeli agent who seduces Charlie into falling in love with him while seeming to put her off (and who becomes her guide and instructor in the elaborate “theatre of the real” the actress is enticed into against a Palestinian bomb-maker) rather than a distinguished, reticent, aging actor of the time — Paul Scofield might have been ideal, or even Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates — eliminates Charlie’s obvious father-fixation. These rather essential cavils aside, Keaton is excellent as Charlie, locating both her anger and her pain, although I don’t believe for a minute an American would be headlining a small British theatre troupe. Unlike Keaton, Klaus Kinski is an almost perfect casting choice for Kurtz, whose complicated scheme keeps Charlie, and the audience, in the dark until the climax; Kinski absolutely gets the Israeli agent’s bonhomie, his middle-aged charm and his deadly seriousness. Like the book, the movie is highly ambivalent about Zionism even as it largely accepts the more than dubious notion that violence is the proper response to terror. The strong supporting cast includes Sami Frey, Michael Cristofer, Eli Danker, Philipp Moog, Anna Massey, Thorley Walters and David Suchet. My only complaint about the production design is the truly terrible coat Keaton is forced to wear through much of the picture. She can’t carry it off, but I can’t imagine the woman who could. Such is Le Carré’s brilliance that Charlie’s last line, slightly altered from the novel, has stayed with me since I saw this one 35 years ago.


Thieves Like Us (1974)

Thieves Like Us resized

As Pauline Kael once suggested of him, Robert Altman made two bad movies for every good one, and in-between another that was essentially lousy but with enough good, or even great, moments in it to sustain your interest. Examples of this last include The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Short Cuts, Gosford Park… and Thieves Like Us; it has some splendid things in it, and is beautifully cast, and shot. But it’s both elliptical and repetitive in weird and off-putting ways, and you sit there wondering what you’ve missed when you haven’t missed a thing. In the sequence in which the movie’s young central characters Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Keechie (Shelley Duvall) make love for the first time while listening to a radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet, for example, and we hear the same between-act announcement from the narrator at three separate intervals, we don’t know what it means. Is the sequence a fantasy of Keechie’s or Bowie’s? Is one scene real and the other two fantastic? But because they don’t seem to be anything other than what they appear to be — sequential moments broken up in the cutting — nothing about these scenes really supports that hypothesis. So why did Altman choose to disorient us at this important juncture? Why, for that matter, is there a discussion between Carradine, Bert Remsen and Ann Latham in which it seems Bowie and Keechie have become notorious Bonnie and Clyde figures, their doings reported in the newspapers, when we have seen no such thing? It feels as though there’s a reel missing, or at least a few scenes. Speaking of which, why is Remsen’s violent death only spoken about, in a radio news story, and not seen? The omission feels like narrative cheapness. Kael said of Thieves Like Us that it was, “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films — a masterpiece.” What movie did she see?

The picture was shot on location in Mississippi, which Altman was told was “the asshole of America” but which he and his French cinematographer Jean Boffety found beautiful, and their fondness for the place and the people shows; the look of the movie is almost like a living Impressionist painting. The excellent cast includes John Shuck, Louise Fletcher, Al Scott, Tom Skerritt and Joan Tewkesbury, who also collaborated with Altman on the script and would write Nashville for him (she’s the woman at the train station Duvall talks to at the end). Calder Willingham also worked on the screenplay, based on the 1937 Edward Anderson novel which originally provided the basis for the 1950 They Live by Night, directed by Nicholas Ray.


Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Three Days of the Condor gettyimages-591378586-612x612

The filmmakers behind this adaptation of a good thriller novel by James Grady called Six Days of  the Condor — Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, who wrote the script and Sidney Pollack, who directed — did more than lop off three days; they used little more than the book’s basic plot, and a few key incidents. (They also transferred the setting from Washington, D.C. to New York. Why?) What I suspect was Robert Redford’s vanity also got in the way of narrative sense: When Grady’s Condor, survivor of a mass killing in a CIA literary shop, goes on the lam one of the first things he does is alter his appearance by getting a close haircut. Redford keeps his modishly long locks, even unto his ludicrous half-muttonchop sideburns. But at least the hair is his — Cliff Robertson wears one of the most elaborately stacked toupees I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t someone suggest to him that when a well-known, Oscar®-winning middle-aged actor suddenly shows up in a movie with bigger, thicker and fuller hair than he had in his 20s, the audience knows he’s wearing a rug?

Although Three Days of the Condor rather needlessly complicates Grady’s plot, there are some real compensations, not least of which is intelligence, and the screenwriters’ filling out of the novelist’s rather perfunctory feminine coeval for the hero, well embodied by Faye Dunaway. True, we could do without the dollar-book Freud “Condor” instantly psychoanalyzes her with, the phoniness of which is best judged by imagining how outraged he would be if she did it to him. With her famous blond hair dyed brown, Dunaway is almost unrecognizable — it’s astounding how that single change alters her features, softening the severity of her Classical beauty and making her seem more human, and more attainable. And there’s an amusing variant to the novel in Condor’s manipulation of the New York City telephone lines, although his spilling his story of Central Intelligence Agency mayhem to the New York Times, intended as a post-Watergate nod to the nobility of the press, merely seems foolhardy and, for a CIA employee, laughably naïve. The first call a Times reporter or editor would make after such a revelation would be to CIA.

John Houseman performs one of his standard haughty old men on whose every word others are required to hang, and Robertson telegraphs his character’s duplicity from his first scene. But Max von Sydow, as the chief assassin, is a more shaded character, and has a splendid scene near the end with Redford. Pollack’s direction is highly competent and occasionally more, as with the fight scene in Dunaway’s apartment. Like Pollack’s Tootsie, which also boasted the cinematography of Owen Roizman, Three Days of the Condor is often astonishing to look at; Roizman’s images are mouth-wateringly crisp, and (at least on Blu-ray) as fine-grained as any color film you will ever see. That may be more than a good thriller even requires, but how often these days is that observation relevant?


The Thief and the Cobbler  (1993/2013)

thief_cobbler-1430160095

Richard Williams’ astonishing animated Arabian Nights feature, still incomplete but reconstructed by Garrett Gilchrist in his Recobbled Cut Mark 4.


The Great Train Robbery (1978)

Great Train Robbery-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000 resized

Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (known in Britain as The First Great Train Robbery, to distinguish its action in the minds of potential ticket-buyers from the much more contemporaneous, and well-remembered, “Great Train Robbery” of 1963) is one of those richly appointed, beautifully shot and wonderfully cast entertainments that make for a wry, exciting evening’s amusement as long as you know that, while depicting on an actual incident, the picture is largely fictional and should be taken as such. Based on the 1855 theft of gold from a moving train, and on the writer/director’s own novel, the picture is a cheery, funny escapade with some sharp digs at the British upper class, and glorious production design that puts you absolutely in Victorian era London (although it was shot largely in Ireland.) Sean Connery is the ersatz nobleman of dubious means, suave but dangerous, who plans and executes the theft; Lesley-Anne Down is his actress lover who proves useful in a number of necessary diversions; Donald Sutherland, often hilarious, is the safe-cracker; and Wayne Sleep is the ill-fated criminal acrobat who runs afoul of Connery.

Crichton’s direction is elegant and wonderfully paced; he seems always to know exactly where to place the camera. Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his most distinctive scores for the picture, anchored to a charming waltz he then transforms into variants: Slowed down it evokes the atmosphere of London’s mean streets, simplified it becomes a romantic guitar accompaniment for Connery and Down’s bedroom scenes and sped up it’s rousing background music for the robbery. One of the movie’s great pleasures is the lush widescreen color cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, to whom Crichton dedicated it. A painter with light, Unsworth shot some of the most sumptuous looking movies of the 1960s and ‘70s: Becket (1964), the Olivier Othello (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Olivier’s Three Sisters (1970), Cabaret (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Royal Flash (1975), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Superman (1978) and Tess (1979). The fine supporting cast includes Alan Webb, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd and Malcolm Terris as a smug, hypocritical bank official. The final joke has no basis in historical reality, but takes the movie out on a high, and very funny, note.


Heat (1995)

Heat - Pacino

Michael Mann’s complex, character-driven heist movie has the texture of a sun-lit nightmare: L.A. as a warm place to die a chilly death.

Heat - De Niro


The Thrill of it All (1963)

The Thrill of it All - Day, Reiner, Garner

A shrill, occasionally funny farce, meant to satirize television advertising but so dishonest about that it merely gums the subject rather aggressively. Doris Day is an obstetrician’s wife who gets corralled into performing impromptu cleanser commercials for a cheesy live drama omnibus show (in 1963?) and finds her marriage on rocky (or, if you prefer, soapy) ground. It’s too ephemeral to take seriously for a moment — The Glass Bottom Boat had more gravitas — but it’s a pretty thin gruel to have come from the combined talents of Carl Reiner (screenplay) and Larry Gelbart (story, with Reiner). Some of the scenes have that terrible look so representative of the era’s color television episodes, but the cinematographer, Russell Metty, occasionally gets in some pleasant lighting. It would have been almost impossible at that time to imagine the director, Norman Jewison, ever making movies as rich as In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, but at least his pacing is brisk.

James Garner brings his usual charm and comic outrage to the husband, and the supporting cast includes Reiner (in several bits), Arlene Francis, Edward Andrews, Reginald Owen (playing Andrews’ father, the sort of role Andrews himself would corner in the coming years), Zasu Pitts as a rape-obsessed housekeeper, Elliott Reid as an advertising man, Alice Pearce, Herbie Faye, Hayden Rorke, Burt Mustin, Robert Strauss, Lennie Weinrib, Lillian Culver, King Donovan, Bernie Kopell and, in a voice-over, Paul Frees. I could also swear I heard Madge Blake’s voice, but can find no proof of her participation. Brian Nash and Kym Karath play Day and Garner’s small children; Karath is best remembered as Gretl, the tiniest of the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music two years later. The picture is inoffensive, even with its dated attitudes toward women in the workplace; the one absolutely unforgivable element is the appalling, mickeymouse musical score by (Frank) De Vol.


Alias Nick Beal (1949)

Alias Nick Beale

A dark political fantasy that, on balance, seemed designed to satisfy everyone who ever thought a politician had sold his soul, which is pretty much all of us. (Today people like Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t even bother to hide their corruption; they display it openly, and their worshipers call us names if we say anything about it.) Beautifully directed by John Farrow and with a brisk, intelligent screenplay by Jonathan Latimer from a story by Mindret Lord, the movie is so sharply observed it puts to shame all the cringe-making, faux-populist projects of Frank Capra, a man with a deep distrust of “the people” even as he desperately kept trying to woo them. Thomas Mitchell plays the crusading District Attorney who in his frustration at being unable to nail a mobster makes a casual wish he never expected to have granted, and Ray Milland is “Nick Beal,” the Satanic figure with the means to deliver. Mitchell gives his usual fine performance, and Audrey Totter is excellent as a good/bad girl, but Milland really delivers. There was always something a little unpleasant about him as an actor that lingered below his surface charm. Billy Wilder tapped it in The Lost Weekend, and Farrow really mines it here. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, even in a bad print, is rich and atmospheric, and about the only miscalculation in this 82-minute gem is the uncharacteristic, almost shockingly emphatic, score by the otherwise subtle Franz Waxman. With Fred Clark as a machine boss, Geraldine Wall as Mitchell’s saintly wife, a very young Darryl Hickman as a reform-school candidate and George Macready as, of all things, a minister. (Thanks for this one, Eliot M. Camarena!)


Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane - Moorehead

I ended one year, and began another, with the same film. It isn’t among my very favorite pictures, nor even my favorite among those of its co-author, director and star. But Orson Welles’ debut is still among the most enjoyable movies ever made, and it yields new pleasures and unexpected contours with every viewing. This time I noticed, for the first time, the way Welles keeps the lighted window at Xanadu in the same spot throughout the prologue, even when it’s a reflection in water. That may not be strictly logical, but it certainly is impressive.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

“The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” / “Doctor Syn — Alias the Scarecrow” (1963 / 1964)

Standard

By Scott Ross

As a cartoon-obsessed child, I was an inveterate watcher of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (originally Walt Disney Presents, later The Wonderful Wold of Disney.) Most of the episodes, of course, had little to do with animation, at least after Walt stopped hosting the show; it was more a showcase for Disney’s live-action movies, either cut into multiple parts or made directly for television. In 1973, QB VII gained note as the first “mini-series” for television, but Walt had done it two decades earlier with his influential, three-part Davy Crockett series — one part longer than the Leon Uris, please note, about which so much was made in the early ’70s — run during the Disney show’s first season in 1954, before being edited into a much briefer theatrical feature.

scarecrow still

The Disney series that had the strongest impact on me was the 1970 re-airing of the three-part 1963 The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. What I was unaware of then was that Walt had originally produced the series, in 1963, with an eye to re-editing it into a theatrical feature, which he duly did, releasing a 96-minute edition (as Dr. Syn — Alias the Scarecrow) in Britain before airing the three-part edition on American television in 1964.* I was also unaware, not being a viewer at that time of either Secret Agent or The Prisoner, of the series’ star, Patrick McGoohan. What gripped me were the eerie, malevolent spectre of Syn in his terrifying Scarecrow garb, complete with cross-bar emerging from the shoulders, and that ghastly, sneering laugh. Although we are given to understand, fairly early in the narrative, that this hair-raising figure with his hellish rasp of a voice is in fact the Robin Hood-like pastor of Dymchurch parish, an eerily effective aura of menace and the quasi-supernatural still pervade the series. What shocked my nine-year old sensibilities most, however, was, in Part Two, the mock-hanging of the gang’s traitor Ransley (Patrick Wymark); extremely strong meat for a more or less sheltered pre-pubescent for whom thanks to an overly-sensitive mother — the most intense televised experience in suspense had been watching re-runs of Jonny Quest.

Disneyland_WDTDrSyn

The Disney collectors’ tin series of DVDs briefly (it was a fast sell-out) included a two-disc set containing the original 1964 tripartite run of the show, complete with Walt’s avuncular, if slightly duplicitous, introductions† and the theatrical release version, in gorgeous color and widescreen format. (The director of photography was Paul Beeson.) Alas, the Blu-ray edition, available only to members of the Disney movie club or to collectors willing to pony up a premium on EBay contains only the original series, omitting the movie.

I’ve just re-visited these splendid examples of Disney “synergy” (how the octopoidal Michael Eisner must have loved them!) and so a few observations seem in order. First, and surprisingly, when one considers how much had to be cut, the shorter theatrical release holds up remarkably well, considering it is only half the length of the original series. It lacks, curiously, the atmospheric opening sequence that was such a hallmark of the longer television edition and which contains Terry Gilkyson’s memorably folk-flavored “Scarecrow,” itself something of a lyrical puzzle. “Scarecrow!/Scarecrow!/The soldiers of the King feared his name,” runs the opening line.” Do they? I see scant evidence of this claim in the action of the movie(s). And this, which makes perhaps for effective balladeering but almost no narrative sense:

So the King told all his soldiers,
“Hang him high or hang him low!
But never return
‘Til the day I learn
He’s gone in the flames below;
Or you’ll hang —
With the great Scarecrow!”

Well, I mean, really. The King (played in a single scene, and with an appropriate Teutonic inflection, by Eric Pohlmann) says no such thing. And how can they “Hang with the great [Who calls him “great”? Certainly not George III!] Scarecrow” if they do indeed return without him? Speaking of music, the score, by Gerard Schurmann, is wildly over the top, in a manner very un-Disney. Say what you will about Walt’s occasional bent to sentimentality, the scores he commissioned are usually far subtler than the banging, crashing, string-and-brass-heavy cues Schurmann came up with here. Even the one nice touch — flutes fluttering up, then abruptly down, in a pair of tense sequence — has the feel of “Mickeymousing” although, since the music doesn’t accompany a specific action, it isn’t.

Scarecrow-of-romney-marsh-feat-5

The Scarecrow menaces Ramsey

Syn’s Scarecrow hood, while effective, is also highly unlikely, since the Disney make-up artists molded the mask for effective speaking by taking a cast of McGoohan’s head, something the Reverend Doctor himself would hardly have bothered doing for himself.

There is virtually nothing else to criticize. By which I do not mean that The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is a perfect work, merely, for a children’s series, an unusually engaging and sophisticated one. The English pedigree doubtless helped — it was loosely based on Russell Thorndyke’s far grimmer, and racier, books — and the (mostly) British cast is a decided asset, especially in McGoohan’s amused dual portrayal of Syn and the Scarecrow, on the one hand kindly (if slightly arch) and gentle, while on the other (seemingly) vicious and threatening; in the great Michael Hordern’s multi-faceted Squire of Dymchurch, no supporter of either Scarecrow or Redcoat, and with a private ax to grind against the King’s Navy; in George Cole’s smiling jack-of-all-trades sexton Mr. Mipps; in the smirking cruelty of Geoffrey Keene’s General Pugh; in the comic rages of Kay Walsh’s innkeeper Mrs. Waggett; in Alan Dobie’s imperious prosecutor; in Eric Flynn’s earnest Lt. Brackenbury, knowing he’s abetting an evil system but not quite able to buck it… until he does; in Patrick Wymark’s self-involved and venal Ramsey, who nevertheless evokes pity in the viewer; in Elsie Wagstaff as the kind, aged Mrs. Ransley, viciously ill-used by her stepson; and, most particularly, in Sean Scully’s remarkably poised John Banks, son to the Squire and secret cohort of the Scarecrow. Scully has the requisite attractiveness of a Disney boy-hero (he was previously the Prince and the Pauper, also for Disney) but gives a performance infinitely more measured and mature as befits John’s social rank  than any comparable job by a young American of the period.

Scarecrow-of-romney-marsh-feat-8

A rather gaunt-looking Patrick McGoohan, with Sean Scully

There’s an enormous amount of day-for-night shooting in the series, most of it first-rate. (The director was James Neilson, who later helmed the delightful 1967 Disney comedy The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin), and some equally good matte work. (By whom?) The script, by Robert Westerby, is tidy and compact — clever always, witty when called for and neither under- nor over-wordy; and the costumes, art direction and set decoration, by Anthony Mendleson, Michael Stringer and Peter James respectively, could scarcely be bettered.

In either full-length or foreshortened version, The Scarecrow benefits from Walt Disney and his creative staff treading with such skill that exceptionally difficult terrain: The line between juvenile and adult. A child of six or seven can follow this story easily, yet an adult in his 50s (ahem) will never be bored, or annoyed, and indeed will pick up, and savor, a great deal more of the film’s (or films’) historical references and period flavor, along with wallowing in the almost gratuitous splendor of that remarkable cast… and being, as I was in 1970, suitably spooked by the rest.

Dr Syn - poster


* The movie was only shown on American theatre screens in 1975.

† Disney claims Dr. Syn existed: “One of the strangest characters who ever lived,” Walt avers. “A real-life [emphasis mine] Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He lived in England nearly 200 years ago.” No, he didn’t; although Thorndyke based Dr. Syn’s activities on those of the 18th century Hawkhurst Gang, the character himself lived entirely in the brain of the author, at least before his novels were loosed upon a ravening public. The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was based largely on the 8th such volume, the 1960 Christopher Syn, which listed the American William Buchanan as co-author.


Lyrics copyright Walt Disney Music Company. All other text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

“The Sign of Four” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1983)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Two Sherlock Holmes adaptations written by Charles Edward Pogue for British television, shot simultaneously and starring one of my very favorite actors, the peerless Ian Richardson. If you don’t know his Francis Urquhart in the original House of Cards  you are missing one of the great, sly characterizations of the modern age. There was much more to Richardon’s career than Urquhart, of course: Fifteen years with the RSC; Jean-Paul Marat in the original Marat/Sade (and the subsequent filmed edition); the first Henry Higgins in a production of My Fair Lady to more than challenge Rex Harrison, for which performance he won the Tony Award and in which role you can savor him on the 1976 revival cast recording; Bill Haydon (“Tinker’) in the Alec Guinness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a superb Anthony Blunt in the television movie Blunt: The Fourth Man; numerous small roles in American movies, dozens of English television performance and likely hundreds of appearances on the British stage. Pogue’s teleplays take more liberties with Conan Doyle’s novels than is required, even inventing sub-plots, especially in Baskervilles. But Richardson is so savory and the pair of movies so well mounted (by Desmond Davis and Douglas Hickox respectively) and thick with Victorian atmosphere, they may be forgiven these unwarranted alterations. And Richardson is such a treat in each that he alone more than justifies the making of both pictures; as well as luxuriating in that mellifluous voice of his and reveling in his unerring dramatic instincts, I particularly relish his unexpected displays of wry humor, winking at Watson or choking back a guffaw at a galumphing police inspector.

The Sign of Four - Ian Richardson and David Healy

The Sign of Four: David Healy (Watson) and Ian Richardson (Holmes) in the Sholtoes’ attic.

The Sign of Four boasts the less apt of the two Watsons in David Healy’s overripe (and over-aged) portrayal, although at least we are spared the May-December pairing that would have ensued had Pogue hewn more closely to Conan Doyle’s plot and driven Mary Morstan (the lovely Cherie Lunghi ) into the good doctor’s arms.  But the scenarist seems to have understood that Doyle based Thaddeus Sholto (Richard Heffer) at least in part on Oscar Wilde, giving him a home filled with Indian exotica and making the character a languid dandy. I don’t know why he felt is necessary to have the poor man killed by Jonathan Small (Joe Melia), or to have Small kidnap Miss Marston, but Pogue is otherwise reasonably true to the novel, and to its introduction of the redoubtable Toby — although that noble beast is once again portrayed in a movie by a bloodhound when Doyle, through Watson, specifically states that he is not of that breed. There’s also a surprise ending worthy more perhaps of O. Henry than A. Conan Doyle, and it’s rather a shame more isn’t done with the story of the Four in India. But the Thames atmosphere, as photographed by Dennis C. Lewiston, is almost palpable, Terence Rigby gives a fine account of Inspector Layton and John Pedrick as Tonga presents an image calculated to haunt the dreams of any young Holmes fanatic.

HoundB2

Baskervilles: Denholm Elliott, David Churchill and Ian Richardson

Pogue takes even greater liberties in Baskersvilles than he did with The Sign of Four, what with adding a role (the mercurial, drunken artist Lyons, essayed here in typically swaggering style by Brian Blessed) merely alluded to by Doyle, and beefing up another, that of Lyons’ wife Laura (Connie Booth), estranged from him in the novel but here living unhappily with him on the moors. The scenarist further muddies the waters (or the bog, if you prefer) by having the strange bearded man in London not merely shadow Sir Henry Baskerville (David Langton) but take a shot at him on the street; making Laura a murder victim and Lyons a red herring; by having Jack Stapleton (Nicholas Clay) take pot-shots at Homes, Watson (Donald Churchill) and his sister Beryl (Glynis Barber) before running off to his death; and by Inspector Lestrade (Ronald Lacey) showing up to seek the escaped convict Selwyn. Most of these are unnecessary diversions, presumably added because Holmes would otherwise be off-stage for as long in the movie as he is in the novel… although the latter scene at least gives the viewer the unexpected pleasure of hearing Lestrade tell a heavily disguised Holmes to bugger off. (Richardson has a high old time of it in his gypsy make-up, telling fortunes and twitting a prototypically unsuspecting Watson on the moors.) In the flashback to the origins of the Baskerville curse, the midnight sight and sound of a horse being sucked down into the Grimpen Mire is a terror worthy of Goya, or at least Arch Oboler; Ronnie Taylor’s cinematography throughout is appropriately drear and unnerving; Denholm Elliott provides a characteristically warm and pleasing Dr. Mortimer; Churchill is a far less fustian Watson than Healy; Eleanor Bron and Edward Judd are an excellent pair of Barrymores; the hound is a ghastly sight; and the picture benefits from a truly inspired musical score by the perennially underrated Michael J. Lewis, a major composer perpetually toiling at minor projects. The ending suffers from a deep character lapse, however, when for the sake of conventional romance Sir Henry forgives Beryl Stapleton for conspiring against him with her mad brother Jack. Not bloody likely.

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Elliott, David Langton, Glynis Barber

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

End of the Line Cafés: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960/1973)

Standard
The Iceman Cometh (NET) - Hirschfeld

The Iceman Cometh: The 1960 television edition as seen by Al Hirschfeld. Left to right: Hilda Brawner, Myron McCormick, Jason Robards and Julie Bovasso.

By Scott Ross

If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The Iceman Cometh vies with very few fellow contenders for a most respectable second place. And if family is the great subject of 20th century American dramatists, there is no family play that can touch Long Day’s Journey in its merciless yet pitying dissection of the means by which our immediate relations shape, and misshape, us, and the unshakable, death-grip hold they exert on us: How, even when we comprehend, and confront, the psychic murders parents and children visit on one another, we are unable to fully forgive, let alone forget, them.

The Iceman Cometh (1946) - James Barton

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of Eddie Dowling’s 1946 staging. That static, nearly linear row of tables couldn’t have helped.

While the nuclear unit is not the dramatic center of The Iceman Cometh, family is never very far from the surface. The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon themselves form an uneasy, shifting, kind of family, made up largely of disaffected brothers and eccentric uncles, with Harry himself the predictably mercurial pater familias. And for many of these men, some sort of familial uncoupling forms the basis of dipsomania. Larry Slade, the “old foolosopher,” a one-time Anarchist, claims he’s long finished with the movement, yet it was his ultimately untenable involvement with young Don Parritt’s mother, rather than the movement per se, that soured him on his youthful pipe-dream of political upheaval. Parritt himself, who looks to Larry as a potential father-figure, has betrayed the movement to the police for a mess of pottage, ostensibly for money but really to get back at his indifferent mom, that self-same paragon of the movement who so effectively killed Larry’s activism. The one-time “brilliant law student” Willie Oban was likewise undone by the arrest and imprisonment of his bucket-shop proprietor father, and Jimmy Tomorrow pretends the cause of his bibulousness was his wife’s infidelity when it is far more likely that the reverse was true: That it was he, not her, who was unfaithful. Even “The General” and “The Captain,” old Boer War antagonists now inseparable companions in methomania, have been disowned by their families at home, while Harry deludes himself that he has withdrawn from life outside due to his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, in reality a nagging termagant he could barely stand. And Hickey, whose arrival is so widely anticipated — and whose sudden reversal of persona is just as avidly despaired of — has finally reached the limit of his capacity to torture, and be tormented by, his endlessly forgiving wife Evelyn. If a happy Tolstoyean family lurks in the background of any of the habitués of Harry Hope’s saloon, the playwright hasn’t been moved to recall it. And what O’Neill doesn’t get around to discussing, and in detail, likely doesn’t exist.

Eugene O'Neill - Time cover

O’Neill generally (and Iceman most specifically) can feel like strong medicine, even to his admirers. For Arthur Miller, himself no slouch in the practice of heavy-handedness, O’Neill “is a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils.” Pauline Kael classified Iceman as “the greatest thesis play in the American theatre.” And Kenneth Tynan was absolutely correct when he noted of it, “Paul Valery once defined a true snob as a man who was afraid to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d’heure about halfway through The Iceman Cometh.”

Indeed, I avoided both reading and seeing Iceman for decades, for precisely the reasons explicated above. Well, that and its 4-hour length, which cowed me. But no one who considers himself a playwright, or a critic, has any business avoiding O’Neill, or this play, indefinitely. Despite its obviousness, its insensitivity, its longueurs, its lack of poetry and its undeniable position as a thesis play, The Iceman Cometh is, somehow, indispensable. It says little, and at great length and volubility, and one can argue endlessly about whether O’Neill is averring that human beings need their pipe-dreams in order to live (Kael) or that the specificity of a barroom/flophouse filled with alcoholic bums invalidates its universality (Tynan.) I would say that O’Neill is not necessarily claiming anything for everyone but that, if he was, it is that pipe-dreams are less what allow us to face the impossibilities of life as they are the inevitable run-off of personal guilt and the fantasies permitting those who feel themselves failures to believe in some sort of hope, however tenuous or unattainable, for the future.

Iceman - Robards

Robards as Hickey

O’Neill premiered Iceman in 1946, with a production starring James Barton that was both unappreciated and puzzled over, and which ran only briefly; it took another decade for the play to be rediscovered, in the popular Circle Rep re-staging by José Quintero. And while there is as yet no “definitive,” complete video rendering of this unwieldy, occasionally stupefying but undeniably powerful dramatic cantata, two exceptional, if slightly abridged, editions were, thankfully, preserved for posterity. The first, Sidney Lumet’s 1960 video staging, produced by the nascent public broadcasting entity National Educational Television (NET) would be notable if only for its capturing of Jason Robards, Jr.’s universally acclaimed characterization of Hickey but is, despite its visual limitations, much more than merely a showcase for a great actor’s defining performance. The second, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 movie for the short-lived subscription series American Film Theatre, while lacking Robards, has a visual palette far richer and gives us as well, in a uniformly superb cast, the final performances of two great American actors.

Iceman - Myron McCormick

Myron McCormick, the Larry of 1960

Iceman - Robert Ryan

The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973)

Since the play is at base a contest between Larry and Hickey, the casting of the two roles is crucial. About Hickey, more anon. But in its Larry, the AFT production has the decided edge in Robert Ryan. Then 59 — and, although he did not know it during the filming, dying — this greatest of unheralded American actors gives the performance of a lifetime. The movie camera helps, of course, but what is written on Ryan’s craggy, lived-in face is unique to him. As a lifelong leftist, the role of a former anarchist drowning in his bitterness must have held great appeal, but Ryan also brought to the movie the experience of his performance as James Tyrone opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in a Long Day’s Journey revival, so his O’Neill bona fides are secure. He lends a gentleness, and a grace, to Larry that is absent in Myron McCormick’s effective but more obvious 1960 reading; in Ryan, the warring impulses of instinctive pity and a desperate desire to an indifference he cannot feel are as absolute, and as heartrending, as his conflicting hope for, and fear of, “the big sleep” of death.

Crucial too to the 1973 edition too is the Harry Hope of Fredric March. One of the most important actors of his time, March was a popular matinee idol (A Star is Born), twice an Academy Award® winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) and, latterly, the creator of James Tyrone in the 1956 premiere, following O’Neill’s death, of Long Day’s Journey. At 76, March plays the 60 year-old Harry with rare gusto, his malleable face stretching from the slackness of both bottomless self-pity and irritable garrulity to the infectious grin of devilish (and innately sadistic) merriment that make it instantly clear why, aside from his largesse with liquor, the denizens of what Larry calls “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller” adore him and put up with his periodic grousing. I don’t mean to slight Ferrell Pelly, who played the role in 1956 and again in 1960. If March’s performance did not exist, Pelly’s would seem sublime. But March’s does.

Iceman - Robards and Farrell Pelly

Robards with Farrell Pelly as Harry Hope

Iceman - March, Ryan and Pedi

Fredric March as the Harry Hope of 1973.

The Parritts of the Lumet and the Frankenheimer are, by contrast, a virtual draw. The 1960 Parritt, Robert Redford, is so staggeringly good you can only lament how seldom, once he became a star, he has been given — or allowed himself to take — a role that gave him so much latitude. It isn’t that the self-hating young man is a great role, or even a terribly good one. It’s more a device, and an occasionally irritating one, but that merely makes Redford’s achievement all the more remarkable. There’s nothing guarded here, as there so often is with Redford’s later appearances; the moods are sudden and startling, the outbursts at once annoying and deeply moving. I think it’s the best work he’s ever done.

Iceman - Robert Redford JPEG

Robert Redford as Parritt

Iceman - Ryan and Bridges

Jeff Bridges as Parritt in 1973

Jeff Bridges had been giving fine performances for some time before the 1973 Iceman, so his appearance here may have seemed less spectacular than Redford’s at the time. And, as with Ryan, he’s helped by the Eastmancolor camera; there are moments when you watch, filled with wonder at the beauty of his open young face. For all the schematicism of the role, Bridges brings to it the heartbreaking ardor, confusion, guilt and cruelty of youth, and more. When he feels Larry has given him permission to enact the very escape his hoped-for substitute father cannot undertake for himself, the sound he makes — something between a sobbing whimper of relief and a sigh very close to the post-orgasmic — is unforgettable.

download (1)

Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban in the Frankenheimer version.

The Iceman Cometh - Moses Gunn

Moses Gunn as Joe Mott in 1973

In the smaller roles, most of the 1960 cast are the equal of those in 1973. Two exceptions are the Willie of Bradford Dillman and the Joe Mott of Moses Gunn. James Broderick’s 1960 Willie is very fine, but Dillman’s is revelatory. We’d seen him in a profusion of thankless, largely forgettable, movie and television roles for years in the ’60s and ’70s, and he’d always seemed one of those actors, not beautiful enough to star, always reliable in support, who never quite get the chance to grasp the brass ring. Drunk, Dillman’s Willie simmers in self-disgust, and his delirium tremens is so terrifyingly right that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure, too young to be so lost, yet too long in the sauce ever to amount to anything. Moses Gunn, one of our best, and least well known, character actors, with a voice as commanding as it is recognizable, looks both like a sport and a hopeless drunk, and the way he bestirs himself to righteous anger at the others, and at himself, for their genial racism and his own complicity in it, are searing. In 1960, Maxwell Glanville was rather too robust physically to quite get the wreck Joe has become. And while his characterization is, like Broderick’s Willie, a good accounting, Gunn’s is non-pariel.

download

Tom Pedi, second from left, as Rocky. To his right is Sorrell Booke. At far right, John McLiam, the movie’s heartbreaking Jimmy Tomorrow.

Tom Pedi had the distinction of playing Rocky, the saloon’s weather-vane of a bartender who deludes himself that being a procurer does not make him a pimp, in 1946, 1960 and 1973, and is both the same, and different, in the television edition and the AFT movie. The same, in that his characterization is roughly identical in each, yet diverges if only for his having aged into it. He’s at once keenly perceptive and eye-rollingly capricious, first cozying up to then deflating the bums in Harry’s bar with the breathtaking suddenness of a born sadist. (Like owner, like barkeep…) He’s also more than slightly terrifying. Sorrell Booke, too, is in both the Lumet and the Frankeheimer. As Hugo, perpetually sozzled, waking from his stupors just long enough to express his true loathing of the proletariat he believes he loves, Booke is both comic and (to use a word that, in context, sounds like a pun but isn’t) sobering. The Jimmy Tomorrows of 1960 and 1973 also constitute a near-draw, with the knife-edge going to latter. Harrison Dowd’s Jimmy, while eschewing any sort of noticeable accent, is moving enough. But John McLiam, whose voice carries more than “the ghost of a Scotch rhythm,” has sad, limpid eyes, helped along by the color camera, and his tremulousness is no less heartbreaking than are his occasional, doomed stabs at a regained dignity. Like Dillman, he’s ultimately heartbreaking.

The Iceman Cometh - Dillman, Marvin and March

Lee Marvin’s Hickey seizes on Willie Oban (Dillman) and Harry Hope (March).

The women are more problematic. Not the actresses themselves (Hilda Brawner, Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland in ’60 and Hildy Brooks, Juno Dawson and the preposterously named Evans Evans in ’73) but the characters. Billy Wilder once allegedly — and notoriously — said of the women in his movies, “If she isn’t a whore, she’s a bore.” Well, the whores in this play are bores, devices through which O’Neill gets at his theses. The women in both casts do what they can, and Evans (married at the time to the director) rises above the material occasionally. But only barely.

Iceman - Marvin

Marvin as Hickey. (Evans Evans at right, behind him.)

Which brings us, finally, to Hickey, and the great divergence. I wonder whether Lee Marvin’s performance might have been granted more honor in 1973 had Robards’ not been broadcast thirteen years earlier. (Although Kael, who discerned too much shouting in Marvin’s long, climactic aria, may have been relying on a faulty memory; Robards also bellows.) For my part, both actors are equally fine, if in different ways. Robards may be more jocular, raising that patented sheepish chuckle of his after revealing more than he means to, and the fact that the vocal gesture is one he used in other, later roles, does not diminish its effectiveness. Marvin’s persona was never that of the glad-hander, and there is a certain tightness behind his initial bon homie that hints at the coldness with which Hickey operates; he’s spent a lifetime sizing up his marks, calculating the unstated yearnings of those he’s selling before moving in for the kill. (Not that anyone with a halfway decent mind would have much trouble figuring out this bunch.) To grouse about Marvin not being Robards is to deprive oneself the pleasure of watching an actor stretch himself, and in a role whose richness he must have known would likely never come his way again.

Sidney Lumet - 1950s

Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s

As directors, both Lumet and Frankenheimer serve O’Neill, and their actors, never getting in the way of either. Both editions cut the text a bit, and the ATF Iceman omits the (admittedly minor) character of Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s circus con-man brother-in-law, perhaps because of budget — the series producer, Ely Landau, of necessity restricted his filmmakers to one million dollars — but more likely because it was felt that one parasitic hanger-on (the corrupt former cop Pat McGloin) in Harry’s apartment was sufficient. The NET production, aired over two evenings, appears to have been live; lines are flubbed slightly now and then, and the actors begin to perspire noticeably around the mid-point of each segment. If so, it makes what Robards & Co. accomplish that much more impressive. That Lumet was trained in live television, and a past master at it, in no way dulls the luster of his achievement in directing so rich and immediate a production.

Marvin and Frankenheimer

Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set

The major differences between the two versions is one less of scale than of opportunity. (Although the television edition is more like a filmed stage-play, owing as much to the space in which it takes place as to anything else.) Lumet, working within the severe limitations of early video, is unable to get a visual balance, or to light his actors suggestively. The starkness of the image washes out contrast, and what I assume must have been very hot lights presumably negated any possibility for subtly or nuance in the visuals. Frankenheimer, working with the color cinematographer Ralph Woolsey —  and film — and able to avail himself of Raphael Bretton’s realistically solid and beautifully tatty sets, had greater opportunity to make his Iceman Cometh much more cinematic, although he is never showy. The textures of the settings, rich and shadowed and lived-in, and the ability to use far more technically advanced, and supple, film stock than the flat black-and-white video available to Lumet, allowed Frankenheimer a looser, more realistic palette. It’s notable that the two, although radically different, got their start as directors during the era of live television drama, and had, perhaps as a result, deep respect for actors and text, both crucial here. In their respective versions of this essential American drama, each man came through with honor bright. And honor, as Aristotle suggested (and as I suspect Eugene O’Neill would have agreed) is the second greatest quality of the mind, eclipsed only by courage. All three men, to one degree or another, certainly had that.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross