Between Hay and Grass: The Cowboys (1972)

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The Cowboys poster

By Scott Ross

There was probably no adequate way a movie could be made of William Dale Jennings’ 1971 novel The Cowboys that would not have been a diminution of the material, in 1972 or even now. Possibly someone in Europe, where audiences are less prudish, and don’t go insane at the suggestion that children are anything less than entirely innocent (or neuter) could have managed it better — especially in Italy, which had at the time a feel for Western authenticity and a notable lack of squeamishness. Certainly an artist, of any nationality, might have made a noble stab at the thing, but if the man you hire for the job is Mark Rydell, the last thing you’re interested in is art.

And the problem isn’t merely the sudden and horrible (if, in context, wholly explicable) intrusion into the narrative of a violence that, in a picture populated by adults, would not have raised a dust cloud but which, as encountered in this story, set some critics’ hair on fire… although that would have been enough of a challenge. Nor is the difficulty wholly or even substantially to do with the inevitable difficulties attendant on adapting prose as rich and masterful as Jennings’; one accepts that a movie is not a book, however much one may regret the loss either of authorial voice or of detail. (The Cowboys is not a lengthy book, but there was much to lose, and the filmmakers lost far more than they needed to.) The major obstacle to producing an acceptable adaptation of this story has to do with what Jennings understood, both about the realities of the West, and about adolescent boys in it.

That Jennings was a Westerner by birth, and a founding member of both the Mattachine Society and ONE, Incorporated (something that, had John Wayne known it, would likely have given him apoplexy) I feel certain contributed to his understanding, on any number of levels. The book is not merely a “revisionist” Western — which in this case merely translates to a certain documentary realism, within a somewhat fanciful structure — but an attempt by its author to capture for a wide readership the authentic vernacular of the time and place. In a lengthy glossary addendum Jennings explains those terms in ways that, while never more than suggestive, and often eloquent, likely caused the pure of heart to blanch. He defines the word “bunky” (or “bunkie”) for example both in the sense of what we think was meant, and which slang term we still use, as well as by its largely unspoken meaning, as someone with whom a man (or boy) shared a bedroll for more than merely warmth or convenience.* In his preface to this glossary Jennings, a quarter of a century before Annie Proulx explained the obvious to a mass audience, observed wryly, “It seems unwarranted to assume that no such thing existed. Men do not cease to be men simply because there are no women around. Yet western historians and Hollywood would have us believe that erectile tissue was completely missing in the metabolism of the West.” Tissue belonging, let’s remember, to adolescent boys; not for nothing does the drive’s black cook Charlie Nightlinger (re-Christened “Jebediah” in the picture) note that their blankets are so crinkly he’s surprised they can roll them up in the morning.

Yet Jennings first wrote The Cowboys as a treatment for a potential John Wayne movie, which he then reconsidered as a novel, so one has to assume he understood that much of what he was trying to portray would inevitably fall by the wayside. (That he envisioned Wil Andersen, the ageing rancher at the heart of the story, as a role for Wayne seems obvious from even a cursory perusal of the book; you can hear Wayne reciting that dialogue as you read it.) Not that the author ever depicts anything sexual between any of the boys; it’s all implication, as when Wil wonders which of them will become bunkies on the trail; he’s been around long enough to know the score, and one imagines he had some experience of his own as a youth. Still, one can hear the panicked studio heads as they contemplated Jennings’ first draft screenplay: “Jesus Christ! We’ve got a picture where we kill off John Wayne three-quarters through, have pubescent and adolescent boys getting drunk and running into whores and then later turning into killers! You want to imply they might have humped each other too?”

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That Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, Rydell’s screenwriters on the previous The Reivers, get a credit over Jennings in the main titles is telling. And while I admire the Ravetches’ work, especially for Martin Ritt, and most especially on Norma Rae, I can’t help feeling that all the little “improvements” in the picture, and which collectively diminish it, are theirs. For all I know, Jennings’ script may not have been filmable; but the Ravetches’ seems to have been all too filmable. Put simply: What’s good in the picture comes from Jennings’ book. What’s bad comes from someplace else.

Like the wholly gratuitous manner in which little Charlie Schwartz (Stephen R. Hudis) announces he’s Jewish, or the unnecessary plot-twist involving the chief villain menacing one of the boys and swearing him to secrecy. While the people involved at least retained the sequence in which the boys get drunk on Nightlinger’s private stash,† even retaining his and Wil’s eavesdropping on them and having the bottle passed to them in the dark, they made a fundamental miscalculation in stranding Wil entirely among strangers. In Jennings’ novel, while Andersen is forced by circumstance to take on as hands for a crucial cattle-drive from Bozeman, Montana to Belle Fourche a dozen un-tested schoolboys (plus a slightly older, and more seasoned, Mexican youth) Nightlinger is his regular cook, and not, as in the picture, a last-minute substitution. The screenwriters do worse than put Wil at a disadvantage; they rob him of a needed contemporary — a comrade who knows him at least as well as he knows himself, if not better, and with whom a sense of shared history imbues every sentence the pair exchange. That they re-tailored Nightlinger from a colorfully sub-literate former slave to the more cultivated and urbane figure of the movie likely had to do with liberal guilt as much as the casting of the ever-delicious Roscoe Lee Browne, who inhabits the role as completely and comfortably as the unaccustomed but attractive beard he sports on his face.

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Roscoe Lee Browne as Nightlinger.

The preparation for the drive takes up nearly half the novel, and that length is necessary. The picture gets the team out of Bozeman pretty quickly. But worse than this loss is that the boys themselves are less individually delineated in the movie than in the book, a necessary telescoping that nonetheless hurts the narrative and the growing sense as it goes along of Wil’s hands becoming a team. Why the group was reduced from a round dozen (plus Cimmaron, the Mexican) to 11 is anyone’s guess, although the most obvious elision is the boy nicknamed “Horny Jim” in the book and whose compelling erotic spellbinding is entirely imaginative. Jim would have been no more welcome in 1972 than the sequence with the traveling madam and her small Conestoga train of whores. They make an appearance, at mid-point, the procurer given husky life by the redoubtable Colleen Dewhurst, but her purpose is less clear. In the novel, Nightlinger arranges cut-rate initiations for the boys, and it is here as much as in any implicit homoeroticism that the Warner Brothers suits must have put their collective feet down. As it stands now in the movie, the scene with Dewhurst is merely an intriguingly brief, and not especially useful, diversion.

Killing little Charlie Schwartz off in mid-stream makes as little story sense as eliminating his crippled leg. There’s a cattle stampede in Jennings’ book — non-lethal, as it turns out, although precipitated by a similar event to the one that takes Charlie’s life here — but one suspects budgetary constrictions account for the abbreviated oddness of the sequence. The only purpose it serves is to get the filmmakers off a narrative hook; when Charlie dies in the novel, it’s as a result of being shot by one of the rustlers who kill Wil and make off with the herd, and at whom the boys’ wholly justifiable violence is directed. Again one presumes there was no way anyone involved was going to depict that event. But Charlie’s early death, and his lack of involvement in one boy’s working out the Vivaldi Concerto in D on his guitar, robs the movie of Jennings’ final line of dialogue, which in context is devastating.

My citing of the above is not gratuitous. It brings us to the crux, and the thing that drove the commentators mad in 1972: The boys becoming vigilantes — and worse — after Wil Andersen’s death.

As Jennings presents it, the boys’ deliberate and systematic enactment of violence against the rustlers led by the one called Long Hair (enacted in the picture with pop-eyed, spittle-flying psychosis by Bruce Dern) is not merely justifiable. It’s a matter of survival. While Long Hair has murdered their surrogate father, he’s also stolen the man’s herd and stranded the boys in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from home. Their only means of getting back alive, let alone of regaining the herd, is to outsmart the rustlers… which does not admit of leaving any of them alive. And even as the violence is cunningly orchestrated by the cowboys, meted out over a matter of days and arranged initially to look like accidental death (the killings eventually set the rustlers at each other’s throats), their acts are never depicted with authorial approval. Indeed, far from hatching the plans himself as he does in the picture, Jennings’ Nightlinger is so appalled by the calmly enacted bloodthirstiness of these otherwise sweet, good-natured boys that witnessing it performs a kind of psychic murder on his soul.

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Bruce Dern in full bull-goose loony mode.

The filmmakers were probably going to get pilloried for this no matter what they did. But where they erred worst, it seems to me, and most avoidably, was in the way the long, violent sequence at the end of the boys’ war against the rustlers was put together, especially in its musical accompaniment. Bringing in John Williams’ big, Coplandesque main theme as the battle intensifies is probably what set the reviewers off in 1972, because it seems to do precisely what the movie’s critics alleged: Urge the audience to cheer it on. I like to think this was not the composer’s doing but Rydell’s as director and producer; Williams can be bombastic, and overly lush, but I can’t think of any other time in his long career when he could be accused of insensitivity. Some of the mickey is taken out of this by the shots of the boys’ faces as they drive Wil’s herd into Belle Fourche.†† The accusation most frequently leveled was that the movie endorsed murder as the means by which a boy becomes a man, and indeed the faces Rydell depicts here are devoid of innocence or pleasure. But neither are they celebratory, nor their deeds celebrated. Rydell may be less an artist than a gifted hack but whatever his reasons for bringing in the big strings and horns at that crucial juncture described above, I don’t seriously maintain he made the leap that killing equals maturity.

The Cowboys required an epic widescreen presentation (the early engagements even included an Overture, an Intermission, an Entr’acte, and Exit Music) but Rydell isn’t up to the challenge, even with so gifted a cinematographer as the great Robert Surtees. The director’s images are unexceptional, pedestrian. He does get off one nice effect, when, early on, Wil lets his horses out of the paddock. It’s an elegant means of depicting the character having decided to forego this year’s drive without making the actor say it. Rydell almost immediately undoes the good impression this makes, however, by including an irritating bit of foreshadowing involving a young and an older bull in battle.

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At least the picture is, with the notable exception of Dern, well-acted. Wayne knew and admired the novel, and it shows; when he speaks to the boys in the schoolhouse near the beginning of the picture, he keeps his fingers in his pockets, but not his thumbs, exactly as Jennings describes Wil doing on numerous occasions. But Wil doesn’t clear the schoolroom of girls and teacher through a great wash of deliberate obscenities as he does in the book — although I again suspect he might if the picture was made today — and although prideful he is never as hard, or as tough on the boys, as he is in the novel where, interestingly, his threats have a weight not even John Wayne can match. And while he visits the graves of his two sons and alludes to them in speech, we don’t get a sense from the screenplay of why Wil is wracked with guilt over their deaths, something Jennings in his novel teases out masterfully. That lapse, of course, is no fault of the actor’s, nor is the trace of uncharacteristically blunt sentiment Wil is given before he dies; if Wayne doesn’t do anything here he hasn’t done before (and if he’s rather obviously doubled in his stunts) he at least appears to be trying to stretch further than Rydell and the Ravetches.

Dewhurst is likewise pleasing, if ultimately wasted, as the traveling madam. Slim Pickens gets a good, albeit too-brief, turn as a saloon-keeper, Allyn Ann McLerie makes the most of her appearance as the schoolmarm, and Sarah Cunningham nicely underplays her abbreviated role as Wil’s wife Annie, another character given a great deal more heft and presence in the novel. Browne, with that most distinctive and unforgettable of voices, is his usual breath of fresh air, but in place of a character as real as Jennings’ Nightlinger, was given a monologue of such airy (and pointless) abstraction its only discernable purpose is to impress the gullible boys. Big deal.

The then 22-year old A. Martinez makes a fine Cimmaron, although he’s neither as handsome as Jennings describes him nor as ruthless. Roughly half the youngsters could act when cast, while the other half were seasoned riders; they worked together so effectively to shore each other up during pre-production that, in the picture, you’d be hard pressed to decide which boy hailed from which group. Among them, Hudis is very good indeed as Charlie Schwartz, as are the young Robert Carradine as Slim, Norman Howell as the God-burdened Weedy, Sean Kelly as “Stuttering Bob,” Mike Pyeatt as Homer, Alfred Barker as Fats and Clay O’Brien as the wonderfully named Hardy Fimps.

Although Wayne’s Wil, in a line from the novel, describes the boys initially as “between hay and grass,” the movie itself is more fish than fowl, and far more hay than grass.

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*I am reminded by this of the way the similar demotic term “gunsel” has almost completely lost its original meaning, presumably by its use in the movie of The Maltese Falcon. John Huston, adapting Dashiell Hammett, knew as well as his source that the word implied a passive young man in a homosexual relationship. It’s precisely why Bogart’s Sam Spade uses the word to twit Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Wilmer, and why Wilmer gets so angry when he does. Today it apparently only means the other thing Bogart calls Cook: A cheap young hood.

†Naturally enough, however, they dropped Horny Jim’s drunken suggestion that the boys engage in a circle-jerk. No one was going there in 1972. Come to think of it, who would do so in 2018?

††It’s a remarkably small parade of beeves and once again one senses a budget that simply wouldn’t allow for anything like the vast teeming herd Jennings describes in the book.

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John Wayne on set, with Rydell to the left. Note the placement of Wayne’s hands.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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Nothing is To Be Trusted: “The Tamarind Seed” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

With The Tamarind Seed we come to an essential concern of movies: The pleasures that lie in a certain level of sheer, sustained craftsmanship.

I remember seeing newspaper ads for the picture when it was released. I was interested, because it starred Julie Andrews, for whom I had and have an abiding fondness, and I’d seen paperback copies of the Evelyn Anthony novel on which it was based, but the movie was there and gone in a trice. What I didn’t know then was that it was written and directed by Blake Edwards, a name I only associated at the time with The Pink Panther cartoons which bore his possessive credit and which were at that time a staple of Saturday mornings, and the splendid 1965 comedy The Great Race, which I’d seen televised during a memorable successive Sunday night airing in 1972.

Finally catching up with The Tamarind Seed on home video, I wasn’t expecting a great deal — the movie dates from a notably bad period of Edwards’ life and career. First came the disaster of Darling Lili, for which he’d received all the opprobrium despite his wanting to make a comedy with his new wife and the studio insisting that, since it was a Julie Andrews picture, it had to stuffed with big musical numbers, expenses be damned. As if that experience was not enough , his exquisitely beautiful 1970 Western Wild Rovers was butchered by Jim Aubrey (not for nothing did they call him The Smiling Cobra) and the writer-director subsequently renounced its follow-up, 1971’s The Carey Treatment, which also bore the traces of Aubrey’s fine Italian hand. He and Andrews retreated to Europe, where Edwards vowed to concentrate on screenwriting and to never direct a picture again. It’s a period he later spoofed in his riotous 1981 Hollywood satire S.O.B., but at the time it was anything but amusing to either him or to his wife and muse.

While The Tamarind Seed broke no box-office records, neither was it an expensive flop, as Edwards’ previous three pictures had been. (Modestly budgeted at a little under 2 and half million dollars, it returned $13 million worldwide.) More importantly, it gave Edwards back his confidence; his next three pictures, resurrecting Inspector Clouseau and rescuing Peter Sellers’ sputtering movie career, are the work of a man who, despite his recurrent depressions (Andrews called him “Blakie,” but to others he was “Blackie”) is in complete command of his craft. And that’s what you take away from The Tamarind Seed; it’s not especially deep, or emotionally resonant, but it’s gently compelling, occasionally inspired, and throughout exhibits the deft touch of a filmmaker who knows not only where to place the camera for maximum impact but also the virtue of intelligent dialogue and when to hold on interesting actors; as Orson Welles noted in reference to John Ford’s penchant for extended medium-full shots, with that sort of confidence, a director “doesn’t need to bang around.”

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Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews during the filming of The Tamarind Seed.

It helps, of course, to have good material. Despite Leonard Maltin’s belief that the picture illustrates what “a competent director can do with sappy material,” there is nothing remotely “sappy” about Anthony’s 1970 novel. Indeed, 90 per cent of Edwards’ literate dialogue comes directly from Anthony, and what doesn’t imitates her style. And if the writer-director occasionally loses a plangent moment, such as the lingering touch between her protagonists just before a disaster — a memory that will come to haunt one of them — he more than compensates with curlicues of his own, like the long, nearly wordless suspense sequence at the airport which, in its intricacy and wit, is one I can well imagine the original novelist regarding with envy, as James M. Cain was said to feel about the ending Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler developed for Double Indemnity.*

And if Sharif and Andrews aren’t exactly Bogart and Bergman… well, who is? Andrews is called upon to exhibit one of her strengths as a dramatic performer, that rather lovely pensiveness and reserve that hints at troubled waters, and Sharif is allowed to relax the rigidity and tortured emotionalism that marred his work in Funny Girl and Doctor Zhivago respectively and to display an easy charm which can be read more than one way. Indeed, The Tamarind Seed, novel and picture, hinge on our not quite knowing from the start what his senior Russian apparatchik is really up to. He even twits the Andrews character on this, suggesting that she is far too trusting of his nature. When she protests that, despite his stated cynicism he is kind and generous he ripostes, “Kind and generous to you, perhaps – because I hope to get something out of it.” He could mean getting her into bed, his stated aim, or that he hopes to recruit her to the Soviet cause, which is what he tells his Paris Embassy coeval, the catlike General played, with beetle-browed inscrutability, by the catlike Oscar Homolka. We have our suspicions, but it’s to Edwards’ credit that he keeps us guessing well into the picture. (Anthony, going into the characters’ thoughts, tips her hand rather sooner.) This ambiguity is made manifest when Sharif, watching Andrews’ cab drive out of sight at the end of her stay in Barbados during which they (conveniently?) meet, turns away and smiles enigmatically.

Appropriately enough for a movie concerned to a large degree with international spies, and as Peter Lehman and William Luhr point out in the first of their two studies of Edwards, looking is something the picture emphasizes. The human gaze is emphasized during the opening titles, which begin with an extreme close-up on Andrews’ right eye. (Curiously, Lehman and Luhr makes the mistake of thinking the main title sequence is Edwards’ when it’s clearly  — and after five seconds, identifiably — the work of the veteran James Bond title designer Maurice Binder.) The people in The Tamarind Seed are constantly on guard against, and watching, each other. Andrews’ Judith Fallows, rebounding from a bad love affair, itself preceded by the death of a husband for whom she feels the guilt of her own waning affections before his fatal crash, eyes Sharif’s Fyodor Sverdlov warily, as he and most of the other characters involved regard everyone else… and with equally good reason. The human gaze is used in especially amusing ways during that airport sequence cited above when, in a sustained shot of Andrews, the British agent assigned to watch her (and of whom she is ignorant) and a KGB operative out to thwart Sverdlov in irregular line on what is rather unsettlingly called a people-mover, each occasionally turning to look around and averting his or her gaze before he or she can be seen watching. And while I don’t go in much for symbols, and am generally leery of filmmakers who do, there is a nicely pointed cut in the picture between Sharif in an old-fashioned elevator at the Russian Embassy and a tiger angrily pacing his cage at the London Zoo that makes for a nice instant metaphor: Like the animal, Sverdlov is trapped in a situation not of his making; unlike the tiger, however, the Russian has contrived a plan of escape.

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Edwards’ Judith Fallows sparring with Anthony Quayle’s mercurial British security chief. Note the salmon-colored bookcase behind her.

The filmmaker’s color palette is also telling. That close-up on Andrews’ eye in the titles is seen beneath a stark blue filter; once Sharif enters the credit sequence, everything is in deep (Communist?) red.† Edwards appears to have taken a cue from a passage in Anthony’s novel, in which Judith and Sverdlov visit a discotheque where the patrons are bathed in red light, and from Judith’s assessment of herself as True Blue; hints of blue and red (or pastel pink) are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the picture, the whole of it beautifully lit and shot by the remarkable Freddy Young.

Anthony’s book is one of many written during the period of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which take as their starting point those deplorable tensions between East and West that, at their worst, damn near ended in what it used to please the bureaucrats to call “mutual assured destruction” and which, out of the desperate lies of a failed hack politician to excuse her predicted loss against a game-show host, again threaten at their worst to annihilate us all. As in John Huston’s 1970 adaptation of Noel Behn’s The Kremlin Letter, another remarkable Cold War thriller that didn’t see nearly the wide audience it deserved, trust in anyone here is the very epitome of foolhardiness. Or, as Anthony Quayle’s security chief Jack Loder observes: “My line of business has taught me three things: No one is to be trusted, nothing is to be believed, and anyone is capable of doing anything.”

The chiefest irony of that statement is that Loder makes it to the very man to whom he should not, if he only knew it, be telling secrets: The British minister Fergus Stephenson (Dan O’Herlihy, billed here as “Daniel”), a remnant of the 1930s Cambridge “Homintern,” complete with bitter, shrewish, status-conscious wife (Sylvia Syms) and the one figure most immediately threatened by Sverdlov’s decision to defect to the West. Anthony has, for the period, remarkable compassion for Fergus in her novel, and Edwards and O’Herlihy share it. While Homolka is allowed to glower and sneer like the proverbial villainous spymaster of yore, O’Herlihy’s Stephenson is depicted as a gentle, likable figure, hideously yoked to a wife who loathes him, who takes in younger lovers and who enjoys throwing that fact in his face. If Mrs. Stephenson is, as she seems, the embodiment of what her husband took to despising in his youth, the audience — even the Western movie audience of 1974 — may well have forgiven him for coming to that conclusion.

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Another on-set photo, shot under red light.

That Judith remains in reserve nearly to the end, only at the last succumbing to the blandishments of the would-be lover she describes as “the most persistent man I’ve ever met” (and which sensual pleasure Anthony denies her right up to the novel’s last page) makes her eventual realization of her true feelings all the more moving. I won’t divulge the movie’s climax, or its aftermath, except to note that it is among most quietly satisfying conclusions imaginable to a romantic thriller. Interestingly, Edwards indulges a whiff of emotional fantasy in his use of the eponymous ovule, which the more pragmatic British novelist disdains. For Anthony, as for Sverdlov, the myth of the fabled seed as a kind of fairy-tale is just that; Edwards sides with Judith. His solution may be less practical, but it both satisfies our emotions and buoys the story’s insistence on the existence of a certain innocence necessary to sustain human relations, especially in matters of love.

Which brings me nicely to John Barry’s spare, quasi-Bondian score. It’s essentially variations on a theme, or rather two themes. The first, for Judith, is for all intents and purposes the love motif, but is so hauntingly orchestrated with the composer’s trademark long string lines that it assumes darker dimensions, appropriate not only to the narrative’s intrigue but to the character’s own uncertain heart. The second, which Barry uses to underscore the intricate thriller sequences of the picture’s final third, consists of 12 notes and their close variants, with a terse snare accompaniment interspersed with Morse Code-like accents breaking in at intervals as the tension increases. If you’ve heard Barry’s scores for The Ipcress File and They Might Be Giants, you know the sort of thing I mean. The early ’70s was a period during which Edwards was on the outs with his usual composer Henry Mancini, and it seems to have begun with Wild Rovers (for which Jerry Goldsmith wrote a score whose beauty and melancholy perfectly matches that of the movie); Barry fills in nicely for Mancini, who was equally capable of muscular writing like this but who only rarely got the opportunity.

Approach The Tamarind Seed with the right set of expectations, and I think you’ll find its subtleties and strengths, and the wit with which it regards its people and politics,  enormously entertaining. It’s a real writer-director’s picture, made with intelligence for an intelligent audience. Both are as rare these days as the kind of knowing, understated craftsmanship of which Blake Edwards at his best was eminently capable.

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*Edwards also juggled the novel’s settings: The Anthony book is laid in Washington, D.C. and New York; the movie takes place in Paris and London. The change is negligible, but for a self-imposed exile like Edwards, Europe must have felt far more hospitable than Hollywood, a town to which in 1974 he never thought he’d return.

†I seem to be arguing against myself here, but I presume the writer-director guided Binder’s basic imagery; I just don’t think everything in the main title can be ascribed to him.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

The Tamarind Seed

Note the touch: Sverdlov holds Judith’s hand as often as he can. She resists as long as she can. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Valedictory: “Fright Night” (1985)

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

By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys

But the film’s most important component lies in the casting of Roddy McDowall. As Peter Vincent, “the Great Vampire Killer” — host of a silly, third-rate TV chiller theatre called “Fright Night” — McDowall serves as a cunning reminder that what we’re watching is make-believe. Through the juxtapositions of the movie’s rising action with Vincent’s repeated appearances on the tube nonchalantly dispatching Hollywood vampires, Holland is winking at us even as he’s piling on the more horrific trappings of his own Fright Night; Peter Vincent is the joke within the joke. Nor is McDowall’s casting accidental; he’s shown up on enough horror-tinged Twilight Zone and Night Gallery episodes, TV movies and theatrical releases to have become a part of the genre himself. (About the only thing he didn’t guest-star on was Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And I’d be willing to bet, had it lasted longer than a single season, he would have.) His performance both validates the form and pokes mischievous fun at it.

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

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

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

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

Whichever way you care to view it, Fright Night is quite a valedictory.

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*When I wrote this review, the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola Bram Stoker’s Dracula was still seven years in the future.

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

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


Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Rotting Bridges: Track of the Cat (1954)

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The Bridges ranch in all its desolate glory.

By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arthur’s funeral.

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

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

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Post-Script

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

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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

 

 

Assassination: Cutter’s Way (1981)

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

The picture’s screenwriter, Jeffrey Alan Fishin, felt that Thornberg’s book was un-filmable, the second half of which he saw as “an instant replay of Easy Rider.” Having read the Thornberg book, I understand exactly what Fishin meant. I won’t explicate his remark in case you’ve not seen the picture or wish to read the novel (always assuming you can find a copy, or afford it, neither of which is a sure bet) but Thornberg’s denouement is far more ironic and despairing than Fishin and Passer’s, and the personal ante along the way is upped considerably, and rather horribly, by Cutter and Mo’s having a toddler in the house. Fishin deserves credit equal to Passer’s for the artistic success of the picture: He not only removed the narrative impediments and climactic sense of déjà vu; he turned Thornberg’s device on its head for the movie’s affecting final moments. The screenwriter’s solution is no less striking, even shocking, than the original author’s, and is far more emotionally satisfying. As with the final page of the novel, the movie’s ambiguity concerning the central crime remains tantalizingly unresolved, right up to the last, chilling, line of dialogue. Fishin gets to the heart of the matter more quickly, and more concisely, than a more verbally inclined scenarist could, and what’s spoken carries a weight, even in Alex Cutter’s self-consciously literary-minded, drunken smartass quips. As with Alan Sharp’s terse dialogue for the Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves (1975), to which this movie is a spiritual cousin, there isn’t a word wasted or a gesture over-emphasized. It’s the kind of concision that marks the difference between hackwork and art, even minor art, and Cutter’s Way seems to me in most ways major art indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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Gabor as Jane Avril.

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

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 parts (as in The Caine Mutiny and Fedora) but uneasy in a leading role. I still suspect he won that Oscar® for Cyrano by surrounding himself, as producer, with a cast even less heroic and histrionically adept than he was. Colette Marchand got herself an Academy Award® nomination for playing the object of Laurtrec’s passions, but she’s either purring duplicitously or screeching with rage; she has no middle range. (It doesn’t help that her role devolves into that of a Gallic Bette Davis — in De servitude humaine, perhaps.) Gabor somehow got second billing for an extended cameo, and she looks spectacular, but when she opens her mouth on stage and Muriel Smith’s lyric soprano pours out, you don’t believe it for a moment.

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Ferrer as Lautrec.

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

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Suzanne Flon.

Ralph Kamplen’s occasionally aggressive editing, Julia Squire’s delicious costumes, and the mouth-watering décor by Marcel Vertès and Paul Sheriff could scarcely be bettered, and the splendid photographer Eliot Elisofon was credited as “special color consultant.” Vertès and Sheriff duly won Academy Awards®; Morris, whose color work here stands with the finest ever achieved in a motion picture, was not even nominated.

There’s a metaphor in that somewhere, or maybe a lesson. And, like the articulated themes of Moulin Rouge itself, one probably too obvious to state outright.

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The cancan at Moulin Rouge in full roar.

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*Although this has, to my knowledge, never been remarked on, Fosse’s juxtaposition of a satirical Kit Kat Klub schuhplattler with a brutal Nazi street beating seems to have been influenced by a similar sequence in the 1948 movie of Lillian Hellman’s play Another Part of the Forest.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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 W.R. Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle; I much prefer his 1963 screen edition of Philip MacDonald’s The List of Adrian Messenger. As neat a little whodunit as can be imagined, the picture also has the benefit of brevity: Its pleasures fit very comfortably within its 94-minute running-time, even if certain aspects of the narrative are, on the one hand, outré and unnecessary and, on the other, tend to stick in the craw.

Chief among the former is the movie’s disguise gimmick which, while in keeping with the m.o. of the picture’s mass-murdering villain, is not especially well carried off, despite the make-up being devised by Bud Westmore; the various false faces look exactly that — phony. 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.

The List of Adrian Messenger - Douglas and Scott

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 own 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 charlatan of a second husband.

Tony Huston, the director’s unfortunate son — you’ll have to read Lawrence Grobel’s excellent tripartite biography The Hustons to understand that remark — does what I suppose is his best as a most un-British scion to the landed gentry, although the character as presented in his first scene is a perfect horror. You cringe at the sound of this pre-adolescent youth affecting Old Boy dialogue, interchangeable from that of his 80-year old reactionary stiff of a grandfather, knowing that the peerage, like Douglas’ killer, has claimed yet another victim.

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*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