Valedictory: “Fright Night” (1985)

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Revised Version of a critique written for The Middlebury College in October 1985

By Scott Ross

The title conjured up a number of images, none of them especially promising. Not another slasher film, please god! But, being an unofficial lifetime member of any Roddy McDowall appreciation society that might be out there, I considered it my duty to give the movie at least a cursory glance. I’ve given it more than that, twice now, and even at a second viewing Fright Night remains one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the movies since Steven Spielberg scared the bejeezus out of me with Poltergeist.

There’s some elemental quality in the horror genre that generations of movie­goers have tapped into, time and again. Without going into the complex psychology of the attraction, there is something about the horrific that touches some chord in people — a deeply rooted and seldom explored chamber of the darker parts of our souls that filmmakers learned how to exploit very early on. This is something that Tom Holland, the writer­director of Fright Night understands well, and he’s served up two terrific hours of it in this witty exercise in genre-bending.

The horror film has never been a particularly reputable genre, and its glories have been rare. The macabre sensibilities of James Whale gave rise to the two undisputed classics in the field, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but that was in the early 1930s. (Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula is a terrible movie, and a reminder that — inexplicably — no Dracula film has ever used Bram Stoker’s superb novel as a basis.) The work of his successors (mostly hacks) have served to make Whale’s contributions seem Tolstoyan in comparison. And in some strange fashion, the occasional stylistic successes (like The Haunting of Hill House and The Legend of Hell House) are as frustrating as they are satisfying; they merely whet our appetites for elegant trash, but they’re essentially self-contained. The hiatus between events worthy of notice becomes more protracted, the disappointments more discouraging. I imagine the same holds true for Fright Night.

The picture concerns a high school student (William Ragsdale) who discovers he’s living next door to a vampire (played with a delicious mix of charm and menace by Chris Sarandon). That’s it really, but one of the wonders of the movie is that it plays fair by the conventions. Even if he occasionally goes for the obvious effect, Holland doesn’t tamper with the time-honored traditions of vampire lore. The film’s surprise ending may seem like both a cheap shot and a break with tradition, but it’s neither. It’s simply the logical conclusion to an action whose elements are presented to the initiated as a given, and a knowing wink that says … Maybe, maybe not. There is a remarkable respect for the rudiments of gothic horror unities here; even as it pokes sly fun at fustian nonsense, Fright Night pushes all the right buttons and pulls all the correct switches associated with our cherished ideas of how a good vampire tale is supposed to affect the viewer.

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Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys

But the film’s most important component lies in the casting of Roddy McDowall. As Peter Vincent, “the Great Vampire Killer” — host of a silly, third-rate TV chiller theatre called “Fright Night” — McDowall serves as a cunning reminder that what we’re watching is make-believe. Through the juxtapositions of the movie’s rising action with Vincent’s repeated appearances on the tube nonchalantly dispatching Hollywood vampires, Holland is winking at us even as he’s piling on the more horrific trappings of his own “Fright Night.” Peter Vincent is the joke within the joke. Nor is McDowall’s casting accidental; he’s shown up on enough horror tinged Twilight Zone and Night Gallery episodes, TV movies and theatrical releases to have become a part of the genre himself. His performance both validates the form and pokes mischievous fun at it.

Although it’s a joy to watch McDowall ham it up as Peter Vincent, glorying in his own essential hokiness, you become aware as the film rolls on of the actor’s mastery of craft. His performance seems deliciously camp at first, as he struts about in pompous fashion — until he realizes that, for the first time in his synthetic life and career, he’s dealing with a real vampire. At the same time, McDowall is artfully etching a portrait of abject failure — a pathetic shill who knows in his bones that his time is up, a time he never really had to begin with. When these disparate strands crystallize, Vincent’s veneer cracks; he becomes correspondingly more terrified, and we get the movie’s only complete injection of non­surface acting. (Although the curiously sexy Stephen Geoffreys, as the movie’s requisite high-school pariah, a giggling oddball nicknamed “Evil,” has moments that go deeper than the others.*) He’s a charlatan, this Peter Vincent — broken-down and seedy, with his actorish posturings and calculated authoritative timbre, but as McDowall plays him, the character has a conscience; watch him as he wrestles with his own terror and you become cognizant of this shallow figure’s actual depth.

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Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, staving off a rapacious Chris Sarandon.

There is a long sequence late in the film, as Vincent stands mute witness to the (seeming) death throes of a demon that is positively moving because of the unspoken pity McDowall evinces. I’m not certain all of the emotions that play across his weathered, oddly beautiful features were written into the script per se, and I doubt they could be. But McDowall gives them to us, subtly and movingly, through his own unassailable artistry ­ the sheen of craft that resonates throughout his performance.

Despite the cleverness of the movie’s admittedly double-edged title, it has a point of view. When Vincent’s stint as a late­-show host comes to an end, he laments the taste of the horror viewing public: “Nobody wants to see vampires any more. What they want are demented madmen running around in ski­-masks, hacking up young virgins.”† This seems to me a key speech, for even as we’re being royally entertained, Holland reminds us that his movie is something of a dead-end. He’s reminding us that it’s all a sham. Even as Richard Endlund’s often-brilliant special effects are conjuring up images straight from medieval concepts of Hell, the movie is itself almost funeral: a final specimen of a dying species. Whichever way you care to view it, Fright Night is quite a valedictory.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

*Geoffreys (who had an overbite that killed me) pinged my “Gaydar” back in ’85, and with reason; he eventually beefed up a bit and drifted into gay erotica, becoming, as I understand it, a “power-bottom” in pornos.

†Peter Vincent spoke too soon. Now everybody seems to want to see vampires, and zombies. The hack who figures out a way to make zombie-vampires work will launch the franchise to end them all.

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Rotting Bridges: Track of the Cat (1954)

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The Bridges ranch in all its desolate glory.

By Scott Ross

An exercise in color by the director William Wellman (in tandem with his superb lighting director, William H. Clothier) to create a CinemaScope/WarnerColor picture in black and white, Track of the Cat (1954) found little love on its release, or even now. That preposterous boob Bosley Crowther whinged in the New York Times that the movie had “no psychological pattern, no dramatic point,” whereas it not only has a point, and an almost dizzying psychological pattern, it in fact contains several of them. Leonard Maltin meanwhile makes reference in his capsule review to Tennessee Williams when of course the correct theatrical progenitor would be Eugene O’Neill — if not indeed Euripides. That no one at the time, including his friends and associates, got what Wellman was after in his complicated visual scheme drove him nuts, and in later years he dismissed the movie as a failure artistically as well as financially. But genuine boldness in subject matter and pictorial representation is rare enough in American movies that its progenitors ought not be made to feel, even if they fall short of their ambitions, ashamed when they attempt it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arthur’s funeral.

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

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Post-Script

I have since read Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s original novel —  as striking a literary experiment as its adaptation was a cinematic one —  and the reading confirms that nearly every line of dialogue in the picture comes directly from the book, and what doesn’t is strongly suggested by it. (Arthur talking to Curt on Hal’s behalf, for example.) What isn’t from Clark is the movie’s least interesting arc: Harold’s “becoming a man.” His trial is implied in the novel, but it’s so much a part of the lore of Western pulp that the author wisely eschews it. While the filmmakers telescoped Curt’s experience in the mountains, from three long nights’ vigils to two, the last being both the most harrowing, and the most hallucinatory — by the novel’s end, when Hal and Joe Sam shoot the (decidedly not black) panther, the reader cannot help wondering whether what Curt hallucinated was entirely based on terrified fantasy. Clark, an environmentalist who would seem to have had far more in common with Arthur and Hal than with the dominionist Curt, doesn’t say so outright, but the inescapable conclusion is that the cat is mad. If so, it’s a madness that spreads to its human prey, even those kept snugly back home.

 

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

Assassination: Cutter’s Way (1981)

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By Scott Ross

There are movies, specifically American movies, so original, and so richly observed, they defy easy categorization. This is both a virtue and a weakness; however high the critical fraternity may rate the film, if the studio that financed it can’t figure out a marketing strategy for an increasingly bifurcated niche audience, the picture can be doomed. Just as frequent, however, are those cases where a filmmaker has the ill luck to have his movie released during a management shake-up. (Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen is a paradigm.) It does the new regime no honor if a picture championed by the outgoing mogul is admired, or even popular. Easier to throw a minimal ad campaign at it, give it a perfunctory release, and then pull it at the first opportunity. Of Cutter’s Way (1981) its director, Ivan Passer, later noted of the almost criminally negligent manner in which United Artists dumped the picture on the market (and would have killed it entirely had not a few prominent reviewers gotten behind it): “You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people. I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it.”

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

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

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

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

Seen from a 21st century perspective, Cutter’s Way — and here it must be said that the original title Cutter and Bone, taken from Newton Thornberg’s eponymous novel and rejected by UA, is a far better one — feels like one of those achingly longed-for relics from another world. Although it was filmed and (barely) released in the early 1980s, it’s a vivid remnant of ’70s filmmaking, concerned less with flash than with the messy, ungovernable interactions of actual, as opposed to idealized or cutout, people, and with that essential element Faulkner once observed was the only thing worth writing about: the human heart in conflict with itself.

 

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

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

The picture’s screenwriter, Jeffrey Alan Fishin, felt that Thornberg’s book was un-filmable, half of which he saw as “an instant replay of Easy Rider.” Having read the Thornberg book, I understand exactly what Fishin meant. I won’t explicate his remark in case you’ve not seen the picture or wish to read the novel (always assuming you can find a copy, which is no sure bet) but Thornberg’s denouement is far more ironic and despairing than Fishin and Passer’s, and the personal ante along the way is upped considerably, and rather horribly, by Cutter and Mo’s having a toddler in the house. Fishin deserves credit equal to Passer’s for the artistic success of the picture: He not only removed the narrative impediments and sense of climactic déjà vu; he turned Thornberg’s device on its head for the movie’s affecting final moments. The screenwriter’s solution is no less striking, even shocking, than the original author’s, and is far more emotionally satisfying. As with the final page of the novel, the movie’s ambiguity concerning the central crime remains tantalizingly unresolved, right up to the last, chilling, line of dialogue. Fishin gets to the heart of the matter more quickly, and more concisely, than a more verbally inclined scenarist could, and what’s spoken carries a weight, even in Alex Cutter’s self-consciously literary-minded, drunken smartass quips. As with Alan Sharp’s terse dialogue for the Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves (1975), to which this movie is a spiritual cousin, there isn’t a word wasted or a gesture over-emphasized. It’s the kind of concision that marks the difference between hackwork and art, even minor art, and Cutter’s Way seems to me in most ways major art indeed.

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

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Bone’s epiphany: The face he couldn’t recall when pressed suddenly materializes in a Santa Barbara parade.

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

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

 

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

Moulin Rouge (1952) is one of the most exquisitely beautiful movies of its time — 65 years after its release its lush images and extraordinary color palette pop off the screen. It’s daringly shot and edited, in a manner that, for a contemporary viewer, feels remarkably modern. (Bob Fosse modeled his style in Cabaret in part on John Huston’s vivid depiction of chic Parisian decadence here, particularly in the exuberant cancan sequence near the beginning.) Yet for all of its thick surface veneer, its bold imagery and twitting of the then-current Production Code ethos, and the sparkle of its verbal aperçus, it’s a resolutely square movie; its narrative arc, and much of its dialogue, is rigidly pedestrian, propelled by the hoariest of “biopic” clichés. There’s enough dazzle in the picture for any ten, more conventional-looking, movies, but the center somehow cannot hold; things do not so much fall apart as float away.

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

 

 

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Gabor as Jane Avril.

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

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

 

 

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Ferrer as Lautrec.

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

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Suzanne Flon.

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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The cancan at Moulin Rouge in full roar.

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

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By Scott Ross

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

When I use the term “second-rate,” I imply nothing derogatory. Who, after all, relishing a good mystery, would not have been proud to have written The Maltese Falcon? Huston fared better with plays — there’s little to be ashamed of in his transliteration to the screen of Maxwell Anderson’s Key Largo, and his movie of The Night of the Iguana is, arguably, the finest of all Tennessee Williams screen adaptations — and his best literary translations are from the lower but by no means trashier rungs of literature: The mystery (Falcon could scarcely be bettered in this regard), the spy thriller (The Kremlin Letter), the action-romance (The African Queen), the Western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the black-comedy crime saga — admittedly a fairly exclusive genre (Prizzi’s Honor) — or even the imperialist boy’s own adventure (The Man Who Would Be King). While I know that it is revered by almost everyone else, I am left cold by Huston’s adaptation of The Asphalt Jungle; I much prefer his 1963 screen edition of Philip MacDonald’s The List of Adrian Messenger. As neat a little whodunit as can be imagined, the picture also has the benefit of brevity: Its pleasures fit very comfortably within its 94-minute running-time, even if certain aspects of the narrative are, on the one hand, outré and unnecessary and, on the other, tend to stick in the craw.

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

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

 

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

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


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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

Peddling disaster: Wrong is Right (1982)

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By Scott Ross

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

Wrong is Right (1982) was Brooks’ penultimate movie, and it was pretty much ignored by audiences of the time, who were moving deep into the Reagan Dream and didn’t wish to be disturbed from their sleep. Besides, after Network, who wanted to see another hyper-kinetic satire on television? But, while Wrong is Right comes to many of the same conclusions as Network did, the picture is not warmed-over Chayefsky. If anything, it has more in common with the later Wag the Dog in its black-humored cynicism concerning the intersection of show biz and politics, and with Larry Gelbart’s late, almost despairing, conclusions (in work such as his Weapons of Mass Distraction) about the intractable mess Bill Clinton created with his disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has in the interim destroyed the entire concept of a free press, without which democracy cannot flourish, or even function. Twenty years after All the President’s Men celebrated the professional ethics of two dogged, independent Washington Post reporters, Clinton seemed intent on killing the very notion of a press independent of corporate ownership, much as Jeff Bezos has succeeded in turning that very paper into a conduit for CIA and DNC propaganda disguised as news. In the current journalistic void, where almost nothing one sees, hears or reads in the corporate media may be trusted, Wrong is Right seems positively prescient.

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

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

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

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

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

That no one in the business now will call it that makes Wrong is Right a movie less out of time than far ahead of it.Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

Not With My Wife, You Don’t! (1966)

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By Scott Ross

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross