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

Living for Himself: “The Detective” (1968)

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By Scott Ross

Roderick Thorpe’s thick 1966 bestseller—strangely compelling through 500 pages in which no real action of the type beloved by moviemakers occurs—centers on an insurance investigator, and while the makers of the 1968 screen adaptation obviously felt that Joe Leland had to be made an actual cop, they remained remarkably faithful to the substance of Thorpe’s narrative: Two seemingly unrelated cases, spread over time, come crashing together in the direst of fashions as Leland’s marriage falls to pieces. Most remarkably for the period, the picture’s screenwriter, the redoubtable Abby Mann, retains Thorpe’s laissez-faire attitude toward homosexual men in those dark, pre-Stonewall days of furtive existence. Thorpe is less sympathetic, perhaps, than simply non-judgmental, but even that is saying something for the era in which he was writing. And if this all seems a bit tame by 21st century standards,  it’s notable that Leland’s live-and-let-live attitudes are embodied by no less a figure of normative, if exaggerated, heterosexuality than Frank Sinatra.

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More socially liberal than his famous, mercurial, switch of political parties would indicate—wholly typically, he turned his back on a lifelong affiliation with the Democrats after a silly tiff with Bobby Kennedy—Sinatra is in fact the ideal spokesman for the forward thinking the makers of The Detective attempted to espouse. His Leland is highly ethical, repulsed by the games of ass-kissing departmental politesse require, disgusted by his city’s duplicitous attitudes toward the racially despised and economically dispossessed, and deeply disturbed by the floating morality of the people he is expected to represent. Sinatra, a far subtler actor than his “ring-a-ding-ding” Rat Pack persona might suggest, is never more effective than when he conveys, without words, a characteristically eloquent sense of ethical nausea.

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Sinatra’s Joe Leland, assisted by Al Freeman, Jr., examines a mutilated corpse. Screen-capture via BluRay.com

Movies are, of course, always of their time, and The Detective is very much of its own. It’s a rather astonishing picture to have been released before the establishment of the MPAA ratings, in both content and language. (I’m not certain, but this may have been the first time the dread word “penis” was uttered in an American movie.) But the most telling point here is that the occasional (and, one presumes, somewhat shocking in 1968) use of ugly epithets like “fag” come from the mouths of creeps rather than—as would become, in the sickeningly routine fashion of future American movies—the hero. Leland is never glib, or stereotypically homophobic. Indeed, in his grilling of his prime suspect, the gym-rat Felix Tesla, played with intense psychosis by Tony Musante, Leland trembles on the verge of homoeroticism, placing his hand on Musante’s wrist and leaning in as he questions him. It’s very close to a seduction, although the crazed Tesla is too wrapped up in his own demonic energies to notice.

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Leland questions Felix Tesla (Tony Musante) in a fashion that is almost a seduction.

The Detective is peopled by an exceptionally strong supporting cast that includes the cool yet vulnerable Lee Remick as Leland’s estranged wife Karen; Jack Klugman, very fine as one of Joe’s more trusted compatriots; Ralph Meeker, insufferably smarmy as a cop on the take; Horace McMahon, projecting a surface benevolence that barely covers his smug complaisance; Robert Duvall as a queer-baiting colleague to whom Leland metes out a little street justice; the splendid Al Freeman, Jr. as a rookie detective with his eye as much on the main chance as any of his white coevals; Renée Taylor as Klugman’s ess, ess, mein kind Jewish wife, forever offering bagels and lox; and William Windom as the murderer, whose self-loathing rivals and indeed parallels (if for vastly different reasons) that of Leland himself.

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James Inman as a bitchy queen about to be dispatched by a self-hating William Windom. Although he reads Windom’s sexual beads, he has no clue with whom he is dealing.

The recent BluRay transfer from Twilight Time, a company that emphasizes its releases’ musical soundtracks, is superb, beautifully capturing the cinematographer Joseph Biroc’s sumptuous lighting and crisp, expansive Panavision framing. (And which include a few instances of Panavision lens flare , which I’ve been a sucker for since seeing Kelly’s Heroes on television when I was about 12.) There’s not much the manufacturers can do about the terrible rear-screen projection in the sequences of Sinatra’s nocturnal driving, in which no attempt was made to replicate the play of light and shadow of a man in a moving vehicle, but those things too are emblematic of their time. About Gordon Douglas’ direction, the best thing that can be said is that he at least doesn’t get in the way of things too much… although he is over-fond of the zoom lens. And while Jerry Goldsmith’s score is brief, it’s sharp and effective, with lonely horns blowing the bluesy theme and one especially vivid action cue that takes in what sounds like a sitar.

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Thorpe resurrected Joe Leland in the much shorter but no less effective Nothing Lasts Forever, which later became the basis of another successful picture, the 1988 smash Die Hard. 20th Century Fox was contractually obligated to offer the then 70-year-old Sinatra the leading role, and was no doubt relieved when he passed. Thorpe is responsible for the bare-feet-cut-on-glass plot wrinkle, although his story emphasizes its protagonist’s age, of which Leland is all too aware, and its author’s climax is too deeply sad for a Hollywood epic of late ’80s vintage to encompass. Still, Fox may have been uneasy about there even being a novel out there which predated its Bruce Willis blockbuster, as there was no paperback tie-in reissue of Thorpe’s novel in this country. If you want a contemporaneous edition, you’ll have to hunt down the British Penguin movie edition. Good luck with that.

In a twist that is less ironic than a commentary on the cultural mores of its time, the voice-over narration for The Detective‘s original trailer solemnly declares its setting is “a city sick with violence – full of junkies, prostitutes” (here the editor cuts to a police bust of gay cruisers on the Battery) “and perverts.

It’s as if the people who put together the preview never even saw the movie.

Text copyright 2016 by Scott Ross

American Sniper ’67: “Targets”(1968)

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By Scott Ross

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Remembered chiefly, if at all, as one of the last appearances of Boris Karloff, and the writing and directing debut of Peter Bogdanovich, Targets (which, wile made for just under $130,000 earned no money to speak of on its nervous Paramount release) is one of those movies—Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Avanti! is a good example of the type—whose reputations have slowly grown more burnished but which deserve to soar far, far higher.

The circumstances that led to the movie were hardly propitious: Karloff owed Roger Corman two days’ work; Corman wanted to give Bogdanovich (who had served as A.D. on The Wild Angels) a chance to direct, and made the offer of $125,000 to the young tyro contingent on the actor’s time and the use of 20 minutes from the Corman/Karloff 1963 collaboration The Terror. Bogdanovich, who was fascinated by the 1966 Charles Whitman University of Texas murder spree, eventually hit on the notion of weaving a Whitman-like scenario with that of an aging horror star’s decision to retire from a business to which he feels increasingly irrelevant. Bogdanovich concocted the story in the collaboration of his then wife Polly Platt, and—in an act of exceptional largesse—was essentially given a re-write of the screenplay by Sam Fuller, who refused credit on the grounds that the movie would cease to belong to the filmmaker if Fuller’s name became associated with it. Shot in late 1967 in 23 days—of which five were set aside for Karloff’s scenes—and with a combination of extraordinary economy, remarkable intelligence, and startlingly creative style, the resulting movie was (on the recommendation of Robert Evans) eventually picked up for distribution by Paramount. Unfortunately, the 1968 murders of Marin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy spooked the studio, which unceremoniously dumped Targets on the market, where, despite extremely good press, it languished. It did lead, indirectly, to Bogdanovich receiving an offer from Bert Schneider and BBS for a follow-up, which the filmmaker delivered three years later in PB’s adaptation of the Larry McMurtry novel The Last Picture Show.

All of this is, in a sense, by the way. One need know nothing about the movie’s background to appreciate its keen perception about what was in the late-‘60s American air. Targets carries with in a sense of mounting dread that quite literally explodes in its young anti-hero’s sniping of the L.A. Freeway and a local drive-in theatre where, in a coincidence that both stretches credulity and fulfills Aristotle’s unities, Karloff’s Byron Orlok is to make a personal appearance—his last public hurrah before drifting gracefully into retirement. In a scene that strongly recalls Orson Welles’ recitation of the parable of the scorpion and the frog in Mr. Arkadin, Orlok relates the Somerset Maugham version of the fable “Appointment in Samarra” for a clueless disc-jockey (effectively limned by Sandy Barron in a truly awful wig) but, despite Bogdanovich’s penchant for drawing on his obsession with American movies, nothing else in Targets remotely resembles the work of anyone else. The direction, beautifully abetted by László Kovács’ effective deep-focus cinematography, is astonishingly assured; cool, documentarian in its observation, crisply and intelligently edited by the filmmaker, PB’s work on this movie gives the lie to those who claimed, a few years later, that he was capable only of hommage and imitation. It was never a fair assessment, and on the evidence of Targets, is patently absurd. It was chic to knock Bogdanovich as much because of his success as his predilection for the work of Ford, Hawks, Welles and Fuller and, unfortunately, his arrogance in the face of success contributed to the glee at his eventual, perhaps inevitable, downfall as any particular quality—or lack of it—in his pictures.

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Karloff and Bogdanovich watch a televised airing of the 1931 prison drama “The Criminal Code,” featuring Karloff’s first important performance. Amusingly, PB’s drunken “Sammy Michaels” keeps shushing his star as he attempts to speak over the Howard Hawks soundtrack.

Because his direction does not call attention to itself in overt, ostentatious ways, it’s possible to miss just how ballsy some of Bogdanovich’s work in Targets really is. This is especially notable in a long, sustained sequence, done in a single set-up, in the home of the serial killer on the night before his emotionally detached acts of madness. Tim O’Kelly’s Bobby Thompson lives, with his wife, in the home of his parents, a stifling suburban purgatory of whites and blues as oppressively hideous as the world of warm earth-tones Orlok floats in and with which the filmmaker subtly contrasts it. Dad (James Brown) is an undemonstrative martinet whom Bobby always calls “Sir,” Mom (Mary Jackson) a quiet, complacent nag and wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan) a pretty, vacuous nonentity. This is not to suggest they deserve what happens, and Bobby’s own smiling, outward pleasantness allows no one into whatever secrets roil in the brain beneath his neat, boy-next-door haircut. Bogdanovich begins the sequence with Bobby wandering into the living room where the family sits, enraptured by the bleating inanities of Joey Bishop and Regis Philbin; follows as the elder Thompsons go off to bed and as Bobby and Ilene drift into their bedroom for a softly desultory, plaintively non-communicative talk while she prepares for her night-shift with Pacific Bell; and concludes as Bobby walks back into the den where he sits, bathed once more in the blue phosphor-dot narcotic of the tube and enveloped in his own, unreadable thoughts before moving outside to his car, where he selects a pistol from the terrifying mobile arsenal carried in the trunk. It’s a strikingly sustained piece of filmmaking, and acting, but, while it is a virtuoso gamble marred only by the subtle edit Bogdanovich was forced to interject near the end (and which is only noticeable if one knows it’s there) it is never grandiose. It does not call attention to itself, as even the most celebrated such sequences—including those in Welles’ own work—routinely do. It contains a wealth of detail, and portent, its sense of futility and of the unknowable as chilling as they are heartbreaking.

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American Gothic, ca. 1967: The Thompsons at dinner.

Similarly, the guerilla-style sequences on the Freeway (where Bogdanovich, like every other filmmaker of the time, was denied permission to film) are astonishing in their fulsomeness and detail. There is, inevitably, a certain sense of cinematic déjà vu in Bobby’s choice of elevation for his immersion into sharp-shooting; those high, white Chevron tanks instantly recall the quite literally inflammatory climax of White Heat and Cagney’s Cody Jarrett shouting, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” But Bobby is no shouter; his trigger finger, and that sharp intake of breath he habitually engages in just before a shot, speak far more effectively, and volubly, than his mild voice ever could. If one wished to, one might argue vociferously with the fact that Targets never attempts to explicate this amiable young madman’s actions. Yet his daily existence—and, perhaps, that photo of him in full military regalia on the wall of his home—suggest that such easy, didactic psychoanalysis would be beside the point, if not indeed facile, or even slightly obscene. I would argue that it is in this avoidance of any neat anatomizing of Bobby Thompson’s madness that Bogdanovich succeeds better than nearly anyone else of his time in depicting an America falling apart at the seams; the style of filmmaking feels, despite the 45 years that separate our time from this movie’s, eerily contemporary, and prescient. Had Targets been released, say, in 1973, it might have been hailed for its lack of exploitation, its aesthetic barrenness and its excoriating depiction of literally senseless violence. (The movie’s “R” rating now seems not merely harsh, but an ironic joke; you’ll see more blood and gore on an average evening’s half-hour of network mayhem than in the entire 90 minutes of Target’s running time.)

O’Kelly is so exceptional an actor as Bobby that one is left stunned at his inability to parlay his terrifyingly normal performance into a career. (He was, briefly, Dano on Hawaii 5-0 before being replaced by James McArthur.) Slim, boyishly attractive in a bland, All-American way, thrifty with his effects, and remarkably graceful of movement, O’Kelly could have been Gidget’s boyfriend, or the young married professional on the other side of your backyard fence. His very non-threatening demeanor is, in context, terrifying in its ingratiating normality. This, you feel as you watch, is where mass murderers come from; not the streets, or the world of gangland, or in the form of scruffy, shifty-eyed crazies mumbling to themselves as they pass you on the sidewalk, but the abstract ticky-tacky of affluent stratification. His smiling comment, when he is finally handcuffed by the police: “Hardly ever missed, did I?”

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The banality of evil: Tim O’Kelly’s Bobby Thompson, who chews compulsively throughout the movie, enjoys a sandwich and a Pepsi prior to shooting at drivers on the L.A. Freeway.

Bogdanovich is quite good in his own role, as Orlok’s young writer-director Sammy Michaels (the name itself is a tribute to Fuller.) Despite his self-deprecating remarks about his own performance, he gives a nicely-judged portrayal, especially in his believable drunkenness in Karloff’s bungalow the night before Bobby’s spree. When he sighs, “All the good movies have been made,” it’s hard to disagree with his assessment, even as this movie is belying that statement. The attractive Nancy Hsueh gives a good account of Orlok’s exasperated secretary, and there is nice support from Arthur Peterson and Monte Landis as contemporary studio types. Karloff, of course, is everything you could ask: Gentle yet edgy, eloquently bitter, witty, and exhausted. His confrontation with Bobby at the climax has a hypnotic inevitability about it, even as his action, and its consequence, is in its way as shocking as the acts of murders Bobby commits.

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Bobby’s mobile arsenal; perhaps the movie’s single most chilling “reveal.”

A word of praise has to be extended to Bogdanovich for serving as his own, un-credited editor, and to Verna Fields, Targets’ sound editor, for the exceptional work she did layering onto the movie’s soundtrack all the sounds of the external world excluded when the filmmakers shot so much of it silent. There is a Wellesian fullness to her work here, and you’d never guess, unless you knew, that the rich, expressive panoply of street noises, highway clamor, alternately tinny and reverberant drive-in movie speaker replication and high-powered rifle shots would, but for Fields’ artistry, not have otherwise existed.

Like Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent in Fright Night 20 years later, Orlok knows his time has passed, that he has become a living anachronism. “Oh, Sammy,” he sighs. “What’s the use? Mr. Boogey Man, King of Blood they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream.” Or did, once. Now he’s “high camp.” He goes on: “My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore… No one’s afraid of a painted monster.” No, the monsters of 1967—the monsters now—were, and are, seldom outré. Our rough beasts do not reside in castles, or lumber out of swamps, or slouch toward Bethlehem. They walk among us, mowing the grass on Saturday morning, wearing what looks and feels and smells like human skin, pretending to be our neighbors.

In a moment of quite understandable ennui as his limousine is ferried to the drive-in, Orlok gazes forlornly out the window at the depressingly commercial streets of L.A. and murmurs, “Gosh, what an ugly town this has become.” He had no idea how much worse it would become, locally and nationwide. The horror was only in its infant stage.

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Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

All for the hunting ground: Wolfen (1981)

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By Scott Ross

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I owe my affection for this underrated (and sadly under-seen) exercise in urban horror to, of all people, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Tuning in to the Saturday afternoon edition of their then-popular PBS series Sneak Previews, I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiastic recommendation of a movie that had somehow eluded my personal radar. I grabbed a newspaper, checked the listings, saw that I could still make a matinee, and headed out. I’ve seldom seen a more gratifying movie of its kind… although just what that kind might be remains a bit of a tantalizing mystery. Thriller? Horror film? Supernatural fantasy? Ecological warning? All of the above would seem the correct answer. And that is a large part of its effectiveness. Wolfen defies easy categorization. Which may also be why it under-performed at the box-office. ’80s movies were becoming increasingly genre-defined, and that rare entry that couldn’t be pigeon-holed risked instant red ink.

Although I have been unable to unearth a budget for the movie, its total U.S. receipts were $10 million, and I seem to recall reading later that year that Wolfen cost over $20 million. Its director, Michael Wadleigh, known primarily for Woodstock (and for a pair of Woodstock-related documentaries on Joplin and Hendrix) was reportedly removed from the project after it went over-budget and he delivered a 4-and a half hour rough cut. That of course means little. Many filmmakers work from a lengthy first edit, paring their movies down to acceptable length between the end of filming and release into the theatres. Hence all those stories, now (alas) accepted as fact, of Stroheim screening a 9-hour version of Greed to MGM executives. Whatever his excesses, Stroheim would certainly never have expected to release a film of that length. The tragedy is that he was never allowed to shape the material he had in hand to something acceptable that also reflected his vision. (That four editors are listed is a tip-off that something unusual went on behind the scenes.) What Wadleigh might or might not have added to, or subtracted from, Wolfen is something we’ll never know. The trailer for the movie, available on the DVD, contains longer shots and some dialogue—such as Albert Finney’s police detective suggesting to Diane Venora’s terrorism expert, “You were being lured, we were being separated” by something in an crumbling South Bronx church*—but whether entire sequences, or the narrative arc, would have evolved differently is anyone’s guess.

Captain Wilson (Albert Finney) looks askance at the possible face of his quarry.

Captain Wilson (Albert Finney) looks askance at the possible face of his quarry.

Wolfen was based, rather loosely, on a fair-to-middling Whitley Streiber horror novel which, whatever its relative virtues, was most decidedly not ecologically benign. At its climax, the characters who inspired the Finney-Venora pairing in the movie shoot it out with the non-supernatural beings, killing several and leaving the reader with the sense that humans will soon hunt down and obliterate the predators. Wadleigh’s adaptation (written by the director and David M. Eyre, Jr., with an un-credited assist from Eric Roth) presents a more enlightened, conciliatory ending—a kind of unofficial truce, in which humanity in the person of the Finney character makes a separate peace, accepting the presence of (and perhaps, the need for) what he alone fully comprehends. But whatever its ecological bona fides, Wolfen is in no way preachy… or at least, until its final moments, when Finney’s voice is heard in voice-over observing, “In arrogance, man knows nothing of what exists. There exists on this earth such as we dare not imagine; life as certain as our death, life that will prey on us as surely as we prey on this earth.” Yet even that statement does not seem, despite its loftiness, sententious, or even essentially debatable.

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The mean, barren streets of the South Bronx in “Wolfen,” where not all the predators are human.

Wolfen achieves its enveloping tension in a leisurely fashion, its opening sequence teasing out an increasing sense of dread. The movie’s first shots, of the lead-up to an abandoned South Bronx building being imploded, the cuts timed to the off-screen voice of the demolitions expert’s count-down, fix the milieu, one we saw often in those years: Of a New York degraded—bordered by hideous poverty, dangerous, frightening. A lunar landscape where only the brave or the desperate go out in the daylight, let alone in darkness. It’s the geography of misery which later in 1981 would be immortalized by Daniel Petrie in the gritty, disturbing Fort Apache—The Bronx. The violent (if inexplicable) deaths of a wealthy developer, his wife and their chauffeur/bodyguard come with shocking rapidity, but only after we sense they are being stalked by an unseen force, one whose contours will remain mysterious for some time to come. It is here too that Wadleigh and the movie’s extraordinary cinematographer Gerry Fisher first weave their compelling spell, aided by the then-recent Steadicam and an in-camera effect similar to thermography we will come to realize are the wolfen’s point-of-view. Finally, Lon Bender’s sound design, dropping ambient noise away and heightening the sounds of the creatures’ prey, especially their heartbeats, places us securely in a world beyond the normative. We are in the hands of people who understand not only that distinctive immersion into the preternatural requires for its fullest weight every device in the modern filmmaker’s tool-kit, but that to achieve a total effect its usage must be sparing.

The fulsome wide-screen look Wadleigh and his gifted collaborators designed for Wolfen almost make one weep for the loss to American movies of his nearly unerring eye. While the city is seen largely in autumnal cloudiness (except at night, of course, wherein the terrors reside) the images have a sharpness and clarity that throb and sing. That the song is a dirge in no way lessens one’s admiration.

Finney and Venora in the blighted South Bronx landscape.

Finney and Venora in the blighted South Bronx landscape.

Albert Finney, who returned after a lengthy absence to the movie fold that year with no fewer than three films, portrays Captain Dewey Wilson with little hint, until the third act, of the emotional problems that have temporarily side-lined the detective’s career. Some of his fragile psychology may have been lost when Wadleigh was taken off the movie, but what we sense is that Wilson is not a man too easily spooked, which makes his eventual fragmentation all the more effecting. Despite his somewhat sloppy, live-in appearance, Wilson is exceptionally intelligent, and it suits the casting; Finney, like Peter O’Toole, is at his best and most believable as men with bright interior lives. Wadleigh and his co-scenarists give Wilson an easy, bantering aspect that is best represented in his early scenes with Venora:

Finney: You wanna a shot?
Venora: Have you got any ice?
Fnney: Only in my heart.
Venora: Why are you a cop?
Finney: Oh, I like to kill. It’s a habit I picked up and it’s… It’s hard to shake.

As Wilson’s distaff counterpart, Diane Venora likewise brings intelligence and a light gravitas to her role. With her long hair and serious face, she’s apt to remind you slightly of a more beautiful Genvieve Bujold, and if the role of Rebecca is not as vividly defined as that of Dewey Wilson, she’s no less absorbing than he.

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Gregory Hines as Wittington. Why didn’t anyone warm him that the Black Guy always dies?

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Edward James Olmos as Eddie Holt.

The supporting cast is likewise impeccable: Gregory Hines as the smart, joking pathologist Wittington, whom we are genuinely sorry to see sacrificed to the narrative’s inevitability; Tom Noonan as the oddball zoologist Ferguson; the venerable Dick O’Neill, his forelocks always seeming to proceed him, as Dewey’s pragmatic boss Warren; Dehl Berti as the sage “Old Indian” (as the credits name him) and who seems lit from within by something we can neither grasp nor aspire to; and, especially, Edward James Olmos, looking astonishingly beautiful, as the cynical, mocking Native American Eddie Holt, who may or may not be a genuine danger. The smaller roles are nearly as juicily cast: Reginald VelJohnson has a funny bit as a morgue attendant, and the then-ubiquitous James Tolkan contributes a vivid cameo as a lab technician.

As screenwriters, Wadleigh and Eyre proved canny and adept, their dialogue not merely serving their story but providing little mental cues along the way that pay off in surprising ways, such as the exchange between Wilson and Wittington over the nearly-severed head of a corpse:

Wilson: It was instantaneous?

Wittington: Instantaneous? You seen a chicken run around with its head cut off? Hey, nobody ever thinks about the head. During the French Revolution, when they chopped heads off… they’d pick them out the basket and look them in the face. Most went out right away, in shock. Every fifth head or so was alive. Wide awake… eyes blinking, mouth trying to say something. […] The brain can live without oxygen for more than a minute. That’s a long time, buddy boy. How’d you like to see your own body and know you’re dead?

Or this, in the Indians’ down-at-heels bar, where Dewey goes after a deadly encounter with the wolfen:

Eddie: For 20,000 years, Wilson—ten times your fucking Christian era—the ‘skins and wolves, the great hunting nations, lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came. The smartest ones, they went underground into a new wilderness: Your cities. You have your technology but you lost. You lost your senses

Old Indian: In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes.

Edddie: No need for detectives.

Old Indian: In their eyes, you are the savage.

Dewey: They kill to protect family?

Old Indian: In the end, it’s all for the hunting ground.

Dewey: They kill…

Old Indian: The sick. The abandoned. Those who will not be missed.

Dewey: More than that.

Old Indian: They kill to survive. They kill to protect.

Dewey: Family?

Old Indian: Man kills for less. But in the end, it is all for the hunting ground.

In a lesser movie, these sentiments might carry with them a tinge of The Noble Savage. Here, however, they bear an almost crushing weight. Dewey has no cogent arguments, no can he; the proof of what he’s being told is all around him, disintegrating before his eyes. More, it is what provides his paycheck. Wolfen, coming at the very beginning of the Reagan Administration, was, despite its fantastic trappings, a warning. We ignored it, and others like it, at our peril. We live the result of that intransigence.

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Diane Venora, Dick O’Neil and Albert Finney, seen through wolfen eyes at the climax.

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Finney’s final stand-off with the wolfen, hunter become prey.

But Wolfen is not a “message movie.” It’s designed to intrigue, and to frighten, and it does so masterfully. If you heed its environmentalism, so much the better. But these imperatives are tucked into a film whose makers know how to scare you… and how to offer you beauty in the hunt. Its images are the kind that illustrate why seeing a movie at home, even on the widest Plasma screen, cannot begin to replicate the experience of having a film like this wash over you in a theatre. On the DVD, you can barely see the red eyes that shoot forward in the old church, a moment that in the theatre shoved you against the back of your seat, and the lyricism of those rushing, hallucinatory Louma-crane-and Stedicam shots from the wolfens’ point of view  (such as the moment when one marauding beast leaps over a fence) lose their breathtaking magic on anything smaller than a Panavision screen. Even the thermographic effects are less, although they still carry weight, as when we see the great white wolf though Dewey’s eyes, and recognize that he, at least, has gained back at least some small aspect of the sense Eddie has in mind.

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One of the wolfen, menacing Wittington just before it strikes.

Seeing Wolfen again, in the 21st century, one is struck by its concerns, not merely with ecology but with the growing surveillance state and the concomitant fixation on security from human terror as its raison d’être. While this is not hammered home, it exists, on the movie’s periphery. Post-NSA ascendancy, we are reminded again of yet another of the film’s warning not heeded.

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Dewey bifurcated. The rational man slowly comes apart as he begins to recognize that is more to the world he lives in, and thought he understood.

Wolfen features an early score by James Horner that is eerily effective, without bombast. Hearing it anew, you’ll catch motives and entire swatches of melody the composer later stole for his more well-known Aliens score. (Horner was a last-minute replacement for Craig Safan, whose initial score for Wolfen was rejected.) Well, at least he was ripping himself off and not, as is his wont, lifting from others.

A final note: When a movie one has seen, and loved, in youth, is later seen exhibited in a truncated, or censored, fashion, it can be a deeply disorienting experience. In the case of Wolfen, music rights issues necessitated the trimming, in current prints, of Tom Waits’ cameo in a Bronx dive; as his sudden, un-heralded appearance, singing “Jitterbug Boy,” was one of the signal pleasures of the original, having him quite literally dropped out of the picture disturbs one’s sense of time as well as enjoyment. In effect, a loss like this is a wrenching theft of memory. It’s a violation.

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“In arrogance man knows nothing of what exists. There exists on this earth such as we dare not imagine; life as certain as our death, life that will prey on us as surely as we prey on this earth.”

*Alert viewers will note that the voice-over on the trailer’s soundtrack does not seem to be Finney’s.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

I’m an Indian too (A Sioux): “Dances with Wolves” (1990)

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By Scott Ross

I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life, there are some that matter most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail, and it is good to see. ― Kicking Bird to Dances with Wolves

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I am about to make an appalling confession, one that may land me in some sort of critical Purgatory from whose bourn no traveler returns. Certainly it will pain the shade of Pauline Kael. It’s just that… I liked Dances with Wolves. I liked it a lot. Enough to see it twice when it was first released, and enough to sit down with the 4-hour, extended “Director’s Cut” DVD. I still like it. In fact, I like it even more in this version. So I guess there’s really no hope for me.

The memorable death of the Pawnee known as "Toughest" (Wes Studi.)

The memorable death of the Pawnee known as “Toughest” (Wes Studi.)

The critical brickbats that came Kevin Costner’s way in 1990 seemed to me at the time as overblown and hysterical as the sniping that attended Barbra Streisand’s Yentl in 1984. Pauline Kael, for all her acumen and her varied gifts as a stylist and a critic, had a remarkably low tolerance for sincerity of feeling. In “New Age Daydreams,” her review of Dances with Wolves in The New Yorker, Kael slammed the movie and its maker/star with typical panache: “This is a nature-boy movie, a kid’s daydream of being an Indian. When Dunbar has become a Sioux named Dances with Wolves, he writes in his journal that he knows for the first time who he really is. Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.” Next, right on schedule, came the carping from identity-politicians masquerading as historians: The Sioux were no less guilty than of atrocity than the Pawnees, presonified here by the terrifying, implacable character known as “Toughest”; the Lakota dialect employed by the filmmakers was all wrong; the movie was as much as a shuck as its racist movie ancestors.

Yet Michael Blake, who based his screenplay on his own novel, was vastly influenced by Dee Brown’s anguished Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; causing offense to Native Americans was the furthest thing from his mind. And as with Streisand’s Yentl, as a first feature by a novice director, Dances with Wolves was exceptional in many ways, and Costner showed a genuine flair for making movies; epic movies, moreover, which require a set of skills not given to many. After all, how many great epics have there ever been? Lawrence of Arabia, uniquely brainy as it is, and sharply controlled by David Lean. What else? Gone with the Wind, despite its original author’s avowedly racist pedigree, is pretty grand as entertainment, and funnier than most of us remember. Bridge on the River Kwai, another unusually intelligent endeavor via Lean. Parts of Spartacus, although not enough of them to justify its size, length or expense. Reds, over-lush as it is, built on a daring premise which perhaps only that consummate deal-maker Warren Beatty could pull off: A three-hour paean to American radicals nestled within a romantic cocoon. Almost everything else is flummery: Half-baked Biblical nonsenses, over-produced musical blancmanges and mindless exercises in cinematic elephantiasis with no particular style or discernible reason for being beyond the dazzle-’em-with-size excess of hack producers. Even as bright and gifted a filmmaker as William Wyler came a cropper with his foray into the genre; aside from its justly celebrated chariot-race (much of it shot by othres) Ben-Hur is a beautiful dud, un-felt epiphanies and emotional wallowings, the perfect setting for the paste jewelry that was its star.

As extreme as the slanging of Dances with Wolves was the over-praise of Costner’s achievement in making it. That the Academy awarded him the Best Director prize could not surprise anyone who understands that actors make up the largest voting bloc. They routinely award other actors in this category, as though in relief that one of their number can do something other than act. I had no special issue with the movie winning Best Picture; it’s exactly the sort of big, emotional and expansive movie the Academy goes for. But for Costner to win this award over Martin Scorsese, whose GoodFellas was, and remains, the best-directed new I’ve seen in years, was patent absurdity. But taken on its own, now that the moment has passed, Costner’s clean, character-driven direction, especially in the longer cut, is (if you are open to it) deeply satisfying.

The magnificent buffalo hunt.

The magnificent buffalo hunt.

Made on what, even then, was considered a paltry budget ($14 million) Dances with Wolves benefits enormously from its exquisite South Dakotan locations, a splendid ensemble of Native actors, and, especially, from Dean Semler’s crisp and lovingly framed compositions which, despite their beauty, are wedded to word and action never descend to postcard banality. (Compare his work here with Billy Williams’ “Look! Don’t you wish you could live here?” nature montages in On Golden Pond to understand the difference.) On a theatre screen, the famous buffalo hunt was a visual and emotional experience that could stand comfortable comparison with David Lean and Freddie Young’s siege of Aqaba in Lawrence. (Interestingly, Lean said of Costner’s movie, “I’d like to show that young man how to cut 20 minutes from his film.”)

The gentle wolf Dunbar names "Two-Socks."

The gentle wolf Dunbar names “Two-Socks.”

While Michael Blake’s spare screenplay, from a novel Costner and the movie’s co-producer, Jim Wilson, urged him to complete, may understandably be accused of naïveté and a certain idealistic elevation of Native practices over the perceived failures of American whites, there is more than ample historical evidence to support the contention that, taken on the whole, those whom we, with the supreme arrogance of the Caucasian with superior mechanical arms, labeled “savages” understood far better than we the responsibility of people to the earth from which we all take sustenance. The Hopi term koyaanisqatsi (“life out of balance”) sums up, all too neatly, the attitude of far too many inhabitants of the earth: that astonishingly egoistic sense that the planet is ours to destroy and which is most aptly described as dominionist―in more ways than one. As we stand now at an abyss largely of our own design, such flower-child simplification feels sadly and ironically justified.

The radiant Mary McDonnell as Stands with as Fist.

The radiant Mary McDonnell as Stands with as Fist.

Are the whites in Dances (Costner’s somewhat laconic Lt. Dunbar and Mary McDonnel’s incandescent Stands with a Fist obviously excepted) unfairly depicted, almost to a man, as slovenly, disgusting, physically repulsive, usurious, bigoted, thoughtless, cavalierly wasteful and grotesque when not, as with Maury Chaykin’s Major Fambrough, altogether clinically insane? Perhaps. But so they must have seemed, these marauding intruders, motivated as they were by the appalling certainty, maintained even now, that the white race is the natural inheritor of the earth, to those whose very presence stood in the path of “progress” and who must be annihilated, or at the least, “tamed” and separated, for the original sin of their very existence. After nearly 90 years of cinematic vilification at worst and dismissive marginalization at best, wasn’t it well past time for the movies to look, just once, through their eyes?

The great Graham Greene as Kicking Bird.

The great Graham Greene as Kicking Bird.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears.

Rodney A. Grant as Wind in His Hair

Rodney A. Grant as Wind in His Hair

Tantoo Cardinal, who played Black Shawl who and coached the cast on Lacota dialect.

Tantoo Cardinal, who played Black Shawl.

The beautiful Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse as the hapless Smiles a Lot.

The beautiful Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse as the hapless Smiles a Lot.

Doris Leader Charge as Pretty Shield. She also coached the cast in Sioux.

Doris Leader Charge as Pretty Shield. She also coached the cast in Siouxan Lacota dialect.

And what eyes they were! The intelligence, curiosity and guarded warmth of Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird; the gentle authority and sad wisdom of Floyd Red Crow’s chief Ten Bears; the warmth and humor of Tantoo Cardinal as Kicking Bird’s mate, Black Shawl; the sweetness and almost ethereal beauty of Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse’s Smiles a Lot; the rock solidity of Rodney A. Grant’s initially hostile, later affectionate, Wind in His Hair; and the luminous vitality of Doris Leader Charge, who both portrayed Ten Bears’ wife and worked with the cast on its Lakota dialogue. There is a whole world in those faces, rich and variegated. Setting out to make Cheyenne Autumn, John Ford needlessly denigrated himself as a portrayer of one-noted Indian savagery, but there is a wealth of respect in the depiction of Native characters like Chief John Big Tree’s Pony That Walks in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and, later, his Blue Black in Drums Along the Mohawk, that belies Ford’s self-proclamation of dishonor. Still, not even Ford, that subtle poet of the Western, ever had a cast remotely like this.

The gentle, moving farewell meeting of Dances with Wolves and Kicking Bird.

The moving, understated farewell meeting of Dances with Wolves and Kicking Bird.

The 1990 release print played roughly three hours and, with no intermission, was a little logy in spots. The “Director’s Cut” runs four, and feels completely airborne. Costner made some small cuts (eliminating the poor matching shots in a sequence with Robert Pastorelli’s amoral Timmons, for example) and the additional hour’s footage expands the movie’s contours without over-stretching them. Each new sequence adds a layer, a color, a texture, that enriches the narrative and the characterizations. And while Kevin Costner is a limited actor, he is exactly right for Dunbar, just as McDonnell’s wrinkles and laugh-lines enhance her radiance and her remarkably subtle interpretation; the way she seems to pull out of her numb, un-responsive lips the English words Stands with a Fist has long forgotten is a feat of performance that takes the breath away.

One especially pleasing aspect of the longer edition? There’s even more of John Barry’s magnificent, deeply felt, music to be heard. That alone constitutes a pleasure very close to sublime. And if my liking Dances with Wolves makes me a hopeless case critically, I am as one with Kicking Bird. Perhaps I too have feathers in my head. But in this image-mad world of instant (and just as instantly-forgotten) pleasures, just occasionally, the making of a cinematic mensch is good to see.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

And they used Bon Ami: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

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By Scott Ross

Ghost - poster

As a big-screen comedian, Don Knotts was never funnier, more endearing, or more inspired than in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, an oddly charming, silly but surprisingly smart small-town comedy. It’s one of those pleasant memories from childhood that you’re delighted to discover still holds up. Knotts’ character, Luther Hegg, is little more than an extension of, or variation on, Barney Fife; he’s what Barney might become if Andy wasn’t around to calm him with a wink to the audience. And Knotts gives into the foolishness with enormous conviction: the goggle-eyed, wild-haired terror; the slightly self-important preening of a little man who just knows he could be a big deal with the right break; the false bravado that quickly succumbs to cowardice of the first rank (a shtick Bob Hope would have been proud to own); and, curiously, the essential heartbreak and loneliness Knotts is too good an actor to sentimentalize or imbue with undue self-pity.

Ghost - Calver

Luther, told to calm himself: “Do murder and calm go together? Calm… and MURDER?” A few moments later Knotts will utter the immortal line, “Calver! What’re you doin’ here? You’re dead!”

Alan Rafkin directed, and James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum wrote the screenplay—the latter can be heard, in an amusing running gag, shouting, “Atta boy, Luther!”—with the un-credited assistance of Andy Griffith, who wanted to help launch his television co-star’s movie career with a bang. Knott’s dialogue is full of delicious character, whose qualities fit their small-town milieu: Would-be witness-stand philosophy (“When you work with words… words are your work.”); uncertain skepticism (“Well, me, I just don’t happen to believe in ghosts… particularly.”); face-saving bravado (“Why don’t you run up an alley and holler fish?”)

Luther burns to write the news, rather than just set type. The paper's jack-of-all-trades, Kelsey (Liam Redmond in a perfect performance) turns Luther's interest to the story behind an infamous murder-suicide, for reasons of his own.

Luther burns to write the news, rather than just set type. The paper’s jack-of-all-trades, Kelsey (Liam Redmond in a perfect performance) turns Luther’s interest to the story behind an infamous murder-suicide, for reasons of his own.

Made for $700,000 The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was an enormous success in the hinterlands, giving rise to a snobbish notion that it was just a corny, cheap-jack effort, whipped up fast to tickle the hicks. It isn’t. Aside from its star’s peerless, bug-eyed takes and curiously endearing persona, what make this unpretentious trifle of a movie so pleasurable are its relative intelligence and its canny observation of character. They’ve been making inexpensive showcase comedies for rising comedians for aeons now, and most of them are dumb to the point of inanity (today they’re both stupid and gross.) One crucial difference: the screenwriters and the director of this movie have a fondness for even the smallest of characters. Every role, however small, is written and performed as completely individual. The voices are unique, just right for the performers and for the town itself.

Ghost - Reta Shaw

The great Reta Shaw, as the town’s chief busybody and spiritualist, accosts editor Beckett (a pre-“Bewitched” Dick Sargent) to praise Luther’s filler story on the haunted house. Shaw is one of seemingly dozens of marvelous character actors in the movie, every one of whom is beautifully cast.

Among the gems in the supporting cast: The charming Joan Staley (in a black wig; the filmmakers thought her naturally blonde hair made her far too sexy) as Luther’s eventual inamorata, Alma; Liam Redmond provides a rich and notably thick example of Irish blarney as a busybody custodian; Lurene Tuttle as Luther’s gentle landlady; Dick Sargent as Rachel’s peripatetic newspaper publisher; Philip Ober as the litigious heir to the old Gothic mansion that forms the centerpiece of Luther’s notoriety; Herbie Faye as a nosy restaurant customer; James Millhollin as the nervous banker who finds in his imperious wife Reta Shaw both immovable object and irresistible force; Sandra Gould, who later replaced Alice Pearce as Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched, as an excitable spiritualist; ersatz Mayberry resident Hal Smith as the redoubtable Calver Weems; Hope Summers, another Mayberry habitue, as the hysteric in the credit sequence who sees the drunken Calver “murdered.” (“Bang! Right On the head! Bang!”); Eddie Quillan, in a funny bit as a hapless elevator operator; the ageless Charles Lane, in movies from the early 1930s at least, as a prosecuting attorney; Ellen Corby as trial witness who sweetly and innocently twists the knife in Luther’s back; and George Chandler, as the amiable judge. In addition, Jesslyn Fax and Nydia Westman contribute rich characterizations as a pair of squabbling old biddies in Luther’s boarding house. (Westman has another of the movie’s deathless lines: “And they used Bon Ami!”)

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Jesslyn Fax and Nydia Westman.

Ghsot - Surprise

Luther, in the old house where he’s been persuaded to spend the 20th anniversary of the murder/suicide, terrifies himself.

The art and set decorators (Alexander Golitzen, George Webb, Oliver Emert and John McCarthy) deserve a nod here for their deliciously prototypical “haunted house,” which adds so much to the spooky atmosphere and comic effect, as does William Marguiles’s sharp widescreen cinematography (the movie was shot in in Techniscope.) Vic Mizzy’s superb score is more than an asset; it’s practically an additional character in the movie. The main theme for Luther incorporates the comic and the creepy, much in the manner of Mizzy’s justly famous Addams Family main title. And that’s the composer himself you hear on the movie’s soundtrack, playing the organ with deliberate badness. (This wonderfully quirky soundtrack was finally released commercially in 2004 by Percepto, which also brought out a clutch of Mizzy’s terrific, utterly idiosyncratic movie scores.)

Joan Staley makes a valiant effort at putting Luther at his ease. Staley is utterly beguiling as a sort of grown-up Nancy Drew.

Joan Staley makes a valiant effort at putting Luther at his ease. Staley is utterly beguiling as a sort of grown-up Nancy Drew.

One moment of many can stand as an example of the kind of attention to comic detail that informs The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as a whole: In a charming, wordless bit the always delightful Burt Mustin, as another of the boardinghouse regulars, casually removes an egg from the cozy of the bickering woman next to him at breakfast, cracks it open, and eats it. No one notices, and the filmmakers don’t beat us over the head with it; it’s there, on the periphery, if we want to enjoy it. Can you imagine the people behind Jack Black movies having the courage—and the grace—to do that?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

A much bigger circle: “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

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From my Playwright at Liberty blog.

Playwright at Liberty

fiddler poster

As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” The 1971 film transmigration of the 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most beautifully made  of all adaptations from the musical stage, and certainly one of the most faithful. By filming it in as realistic a manner as possible, and as close to the birthplace of its progenitor, Sholem-Aleichem, as the director, Norman Jewison, could get (Yugoslavia), the filmmakers honored the material as well, I think, as the source. What fell away, inevitably, was much of the very thing that made Jerome Robbins’ original so striking and even, in the terms of the musical theatre of its time, revolutionary. Any truly theatrical experience, play or musical, that exists in a heightened, stylized state can only be diminished by literalism. This is why any sane admirer of Follies, say, can only…

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