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 cad campaign at it, give it a perfunctory release, and then pull it at the first opportunity. Of Cutter’s Way its director, Ivan Passer, later noted of the almost criminally negligent manner in which United Artists dumped the picture on the market (and would have killed it entirely had not a few prominent reviewers gotten behind it): “You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people. I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it.”

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

I was about to call the motivations of the John Heard character in Cutter’s Way quixotic, but it occurs to me that his literary antecedent is not the Don of La Mancha but his dark American doppelganger, mad Captain Ahab. Alex Cutter’s white whale is 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. His wounds have left him bitter and alcoholic, two words which also describe his wife “Mo” (Lisa Eichorn), although she at least does not pick bar fights under the protective cloak of being physically crippled. Bone (Jeff Bridges), for his part, drifts not on vodka fumes but on a sea of irresponsibility and whatever he can cadge from rich, wealthy older women for his services — themselves deficient, if the comments of the woman he’s leaving as the picture opens (Nina Van Pallandt) are any indication; she hands him a wad of cash with the advice that he buy some vitamin E with it. During the opening reels, you may be forgiven for thinking that you’re not sure you can bear to spend 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; 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 they defy easy 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 U.A., is a far better one) feels like one of those achingly longed-for relics of 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 actual human beings and the thing Faulkner once observed was the only thing worth writing about, the human heart in conflict with itself. The picture’s screenwriter, Jeffrey Alan Fishkin, felt that Thornberg’s book was un-filmable, half of which he felt was “an instant replay of Easy Rider.” Since I have not read the novel, I cannot judge what Fishkin stripped away, or invented, but his script as filmed could scarcely be improved upon. He gets to the heart of the matter more quickly, and more concisely, than a more verbally-inclined scenarists could, and what’s spoken carries a weight, even in Alex Cutter’s self-consciously literary-minded, drunken smartass quips. As with Alan Sharp’s terse dialogue for the Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves (1975), to which this movie is a spiritual cousin, there isn’t a word wasted or a gesture over-emphasized. It’s the kind of concision that marks the difference between hackwork and art, even minor art, and Cutter’s Way seems to me in most ways major art indeed.

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

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

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

My only cavil with Cutter’s Way, aside from that dopey title, is Jack Nitzche’s dreary musical score, a variation on his atmospheric doodling on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, glass harmonica and all. Jaws and Star Wars may have heralded an end to personal moviemaking in this country, but at least they brought orchestral composition back from its 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 it could be bettered. More important, Passer had a deep feeling for the people in his pictures, and saw them as they were, without editorial judgment. It may be argued that his view of the rich was jaundiced, but, it seems to me, never inappropriately. The rich are different; they almost never get caught.

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Ivan Passer

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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Gabor as Jane Avril.

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

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

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Ferrer as Lautrec.

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

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Suzanne Flon.

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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The cancan at Moulin Rouge in full roar.

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

Peddling disaster: Wrong is Right (1982)

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

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 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. (While made for just under $130,000, the picture earned no money to speak of on its rather nervous original Paramount release.)

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 with his 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