American Sniper ’67: “Targets”(1968)

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

The picture’s ended (but the imagery lingers on)

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By Scott Ross

When I first saw Alien in 1979, knowing almost nothing about it, and John Hurt gave birth to the chest-burster, I had my first attack of hyperventilation and nearly had to be taken out of the theatre. Seeing it again last night, promoted me think of other movies whose introduction into my life were experiences so intense that their initial impact has never wholly faded. The reasons vary, but what unites these disparate threads is the simple power of images—the thing that has enthralled 100 years of movie-going audiences. And even if, as I sadly believe, the movies’ best days are behind them, the images remain, behind the third eye as it were, always available for re-screening at the hint of mental recall. Here, the first titles that occur to me, and that had the greatest, and most lasting, impact.

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Mary Poppins: Very possibly the first movie I “saw,” at a drive-in with my parents, in 1964 or ’65. Being used to early bedtimes I fell asleep fairly quickly, but woke up to see the Banks children being approached by the old crone and menaced by the dog in the alley. When I saw it again, in the early 1970s during a reissue, that scene was still vivid in my mind. (As I also remember the “Step in Time” number, I think I stayed awake, as the Sherman Brothers’ song impelled, after that.)

irmaladouceIrma La Douce: This was the second movie I remember “seeing,” again at a drive-in. Must have been in 1965, when it ran in a double-feature with Tom Jones. Again, I was asleep for most of it, but remember waking up and seeing a woman with dark hair in a sleeping-mask. Fast-forward to 1972 or so, and watching it with the family on television. When Shirley MacLaine put on the sleeping mask, I had an instant flashback to that night at the drive-in. Imagine; one of my earliest movie memories is of a racy comedy about a Parisian prostitute and her mec!

WizardWest2The Wizard of Oz: On my first viewing, around age 5, I was so terrified of Margaret Hamilton’s witch I hid behind the sofa whenever she was on-screen. I did the same thing, 3 years or so later, when Darby O’Gill and the Little People was reissued, crouching down on the theatre floor at the first sight of the wailing banshee, and begging my sister to tell me when it was gone.

Lampwick2Pinocchio: One of the first movies I saw in North Carolina after the family moved there from Ohio in 1971. The transformation of Lampwick into a donkey stayed with me for decades. A nightmare sequence, terrible in its delineation of panic, terror and hopelessness. Only later, as an adult, did I come to appreciate the totality of this exceptional achievement, its beauty and its astonishing pictorial texture.

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1776: Say what you will about this one, to have come at me at the age of 11, when I was just beginning to become immersed in theatre, musicals and American history, the movie was an instant touchstone.

Cabaret7Cabaret: I saw this on a reissue, the night after having seen the original musical play in a surprisingly fine a dinner-theatre production, a present for my 12th birthday. At first I was disappointed; the movie was so different. I had been an avid listener of the 1967 cast album, borrowed repeatedly from a local library, and I missed those songs. (I was not yet the Isherwood maven I would become.) But it grew on me, steadily. I was absolutely dazed by Bob Fosse’s staging, editing and choreography, unaccountably both titillated and disappointed by the ménage that never happens, and highly amused when Michael York exploded, “Oh, screw Maximilian!”, Liza Minnelli responded coolly, “I do,” and York, after an initial shock, smiled and riposted, “So do I.” That exchange also tickled by best friend, with whom I saw the movie, and for personal reasons it would take me some time to understand… as it would to comprehend my own, nascent and very buried, sexuality.

gone-with-the-wind-gone-with-the-wind-4376036-1024-768Gone with the Wind: Love it, loathe it, dismiss it or embrace it, to see this movie on a big screen, at 13, with my mother and sister, was one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my early adolescence. The dolly-in on Clark Gable’s face (“Wow!” I whispered to my mother); Hattie McDaniel’s big, broad face; the removal of the Confederate soldier’s leg; the massive crane shot of Scarlett at the depot; the burning of Atlanta; the collapse of her horse as she sights Tara; the shooting of the renegade Union soldier; Scarlett’s “morning after” smile; her fall down the stairs; the deaths of O’Hara, Bonnie Blue and Melanie. When one is older, one can roll one’s eyes at the appalling “happy darkies workin’ for Massa,” but also more fully appreciate the rich humor of the thing, and the sheer prowess David O. Selznick showed in putting it together.

jaws-30th-anniversary-edition-20050617034815619Jaws: Seen in 1975, when it opened. Sure, I remembered poor Ben Gardner’s head scaring the bejeezus out of Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw being eaten whole. But the images that haunted me were: The shots of Roy Scheider trying to see past the beach-goers wandering past his field of vision; the simultaneous push-forward/pull back dolly shot of Scheider’s face as little Alex Kintner is attacked; and the scene of Scheider racing to the estuary. I think Spielberg’s direction really introduced me that day to the power of moving-picture images on a technical as well as emotional level.

Marathon Man - is it safeMarathon Man: The first “R”-rated movie I saw, in 1976. The sense of unnerving terror that permeates the narrative, exploding here and there as it unfurls, driving toward a violent, ironic climax. Although I had read William Goldman’s popular novel before seeing his re-imagining of it and knew what to expect of plot and character, nothing prepared me for the creeping dread, the elegantly shot and edited set-pieces with their seemingly incongruous blood and violence and horror, that John Schlesinger brought to it. Pauline Kael complained that director and film were a mis-match; that his direction was too stylish and accomplished—too serious—for what she regarded as pulp material, but I demur. It is precisely the luminous, autumnal glow and gleaming elegance of surface that make the ensuing action of the movie so disturbing and disorienting.

closeencountersdoorClose Encounters of the Third Kind: Deliberately knowing as little as I could about it, I saw this on its second weekend. (Although my loose-lipped high school newspaper advisor, who’d seen it the opening week, spoiled the Devil’s Tower mystery for our entire class.) When you aren’t aware, in advance, of whether the visitors are malign or not—and, really, even if you are—the sequence in which little Barry is abducted is absolutely terrifying. When the screws on the floor heating vent unscrewed by themselves, sending poor Gillian into a justifiable panic, we were right there with her. Yet this is the most benign of all UFO movies, and, at 16, the most completely entrancing movie I had ever seen.

1978-AN-UNMARRIED-WOMAN-006An Unmarried Woman: I saw this one solo, as was often the case at that time. I was working at a local movie theatre, had a pass, and went to damn near everything. While by no means a humorless feminist screed, Paul Mazursky’s magnificently textured exploration of what happens to one, rather typical New Yorker, when her husband of many years dumps her for a younger woman was revelatory. It seemed impossible for a man—a modern writer, anyway—to have conceived it, let alone written and directed such a complete portrait. I went back to it over and over, always bringing a woman with me (my sister, once, close friends at other times.) It feels now as though the movie came from another time, or a distant planet, where it was not only possible to make such things, but to get large numbers of people, of both genders, to see them.

Alien H3kO0Alien: I know I run the risk of admission to fogiedom when I say this, but for anyone who wasn’t there in 1979, it’s almost impossible to describe the impact Alien had on we who saw it when it was new. The working-class grunginess, the slowly building terror, the genuine shocks, the unsettlingly sensual biomechanical Giger designs, the sheer, unholy scale of the thing, were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. It was the anti-“Star Wars,” the acid-bath flip-side of Close Encounters. Movies were tough then, but seldom quite this tough—or this unrelentingly dark and claustrophobic. Few movies I’ve seen before or since have had that kind of impact. And they did it all by hand.

AllThatJazzScheider_zps9e1f9e94All That Jazz: My Star Wars—the movie I saw repeatedly over the first year or two of its release, and never tied of. For a budding playwright, besotted with theatre and longing to secure my own place in it, this mad, flamboyant epic, with its incendiary editing, hallucinatory structure, and obsession with death, became for me a kind of rite of passage.

Richard Pryor in Concert 364455-1Richard Pryor in Concert. Pryor’s first solo effort was, and remains, the single funniest movie I’ve ever seen. We were, quite literally, falling, if not out of our chairs, at least so far forward we risked serious injury, and our faces ached from laughing for some time afterward. Genius, unfettered and unrestrained, given full play, as it never was in any of his more traditional narrative movies, which somehow could not meet, match or contain the troubled meteor at its center.

goodfellas_bar_sceneGoodFellas: Arguably the most exhilarating tour de force movie of its decade. No one limns the easy allure of crime, or the shocking availability and prevalence of sudden violence quite like Scorsese.

lawrence-of-arabia-2Lawrence of Arabia: I’d seen it once, on a very small, black-and-white television. I was given the widescreen cassettes of David Lean’s restoration as a present, and to call that an improvement on my initial exposure would be comparable to noting that a sachertorte beats a Moon Pie. But finally getting to see the “Director’s Cut” on a big screen, in a theatre, knocks every previous viewing from the memory, replacing it with splendor few movies ever provide. Not merely the stunning desert vistas or the big set-pieces, but the enigma at its center, exemplified, if never fully explained, by Peter O’Toole’s magnificent performance.

the-wild-bunch-the-walkThe Wild Bunch: Another “Director’s Cut” experience, and one that left me literally, not figuratively, dazed for about a week afterward. No other movie I know, even Scorsese’s, is more concerned with violence—its effect as well as its execution. From the opening massacre, and the dreadful sight of the scorpions beset by an army of ants that forms perhaps too easy a metaphor but remains indelible, to the horses falling to the water, to the final walk of the Bunch and their terrible end, Sam Peckinpaw had me by the throat, and kept on choking.

Tired of being disappointed over and over again, I go to few new movies now. Two, I think, in the past six or seven years. But in a sense, I really don’t need to. I’m not an adolescent or a thrill-junkie, and anyway, the imagery that remains embedded in my memory from forty and more years ago and remains so vivid still does not require jostling, and certainly not replacing. I’m still discovering older movies, on disc, that, whatever their age, are new to me and that more than fulfill my requirements, so it isn’t that I’m not open to new images. But with such a rich store, I just don’t need them.

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

Neither rotten, nor wonderfully brave: “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

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For reasons that no longer matter and even though I had the dialogue soundtrack in my small but growing LP collection, I managed to miss Young Frankenstein when it opened in 1974. I saw, it, finally, a couple of years later, at a late show to which I was taken by my sister and her then-boyfriend, a screening memorably marred by the movie-long ululations of some insufferable fool who apparently also had the album and who, as if Mel Brooks’ movie was a Rocky Horror Picture Show avant le lettre, shouted out the punchlines before the actors on the screen could. Why he wasn’t beaten up during the show remains one of life’s eternal mysteries. In any case, I did know Gene Wilder, from the ill-fated 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which I saw at the age of 10, and from a television airing of the soemwhat logy but frequently hilarious 1970 spoof Start the Revolution Without Me. Although I didn’t understand quite what it was that so appealed to me about Wilder then, the child I was would have nodded in complete agreement had he encountered Pauline Kael’s contemporary comments concerning that inspired comedian.

Reviewing Revolution Kael noted: “Wilder has a fantastic shtick. He builds up a hysterical rage about nothing at all, upon an imaginary provocation, and it’s terribly funny. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to work more than once, but it works each time and you begin to wait for it and hope for it—his self-generated neurasthenic rage is a parody of all the obscene bad temper in the world.” Assaying Young Frankenstein four years later, Kael again returned to this theme, which was so much a part of Wilder’s unique comic persona: “It’s easy to imagine him as a frizzy-haired fiddler-clown in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until he slides over into that hysteria which is his dazzling specialty. As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal—his hysteria mocks hysteria—but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural. You never question what’s driving him to it; his fits are lucid and total. They take him into a different dimension—he delivers what Harpo promised.”

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Think of him intoning Leslie Bricusse’s mad doggerel with increasing hysteria on that boat trip through psychedelica in Willy Wonka, or screaming gynecological imprecations at the innards of a row of baked chickens in everything you always wanted to know about sex, or at his most panic-stricken in the early scenes of The Producers (“I’m wet! And I’m hysterical!”) and you know precisely what Kael meant. It’s a sustaining shtick; it goes with his slightly popped blue eyes and those unruly shocks of curly blonde hair. You wait for him to explode into hysteria just as you anticipate his disbelieving “Son of a bitch!” every time he’s thrown off the train in Silver Streak. It works more than once; it works every time.

Having deprived myself of Young Frankenstein, which he co-wrote, I was even more determined, at the end of 1975, to see Wilder’s debut as both screenwriter and director. I remember laughing a great deal then, more than I did on seeing it again recently, but what stayed with me were less the big set-ups that are often only modestly successful and more the odd curlicues that give it flavor: The wanton use of song and dance, exemplified by the delicious music-hall parody “The Kangaroo Hop” which Wilder performs with Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman and in which he is all jointless hips and boneless feet; Dom DeLuise’s fruity, vaudeville ice-cream seller Italianate line readings; Marty Feldman’s distinctive orbs that shoot off in separate directions and his big, ready, close-mouthed smile; Leo McKern’s peerless delight (as a plummy Moriarty) in sending up the sorts of villain roles to which he was all too often consigned before Rumpole saved him; the way a document flies out of John Le Mesurier’s hand as he exclaims a Brooksian “Woof!” after uttering an insupportable faux pas to Queen Victoria (much funnier than the sovereign’s muttered “Shit!” with which the scene ends); and Albert Finney’s amusing cameo as a member of the audience at an appalling English-language version of Un ballo in maschera: “Is this rotten, or wonderfully brave?” (It’s rotten.)

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Albert Finney’s cameo.

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Marty Feldman as Orville Sacker.

The Sherlockian parody itself is often droll, and certainly erudite. Feldman’s Scotland Yard sergeant is called Orville Stanley Sacker, a name close to Ormond Sacker, the one Conan Doyle initially gave to John Watson. And Wilder’s insanely jealous (and apparently Jewish) brother to Sherlock, Sigerson, recalls an alias under which Holmes himself went in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” one used by Nicholas Meyer in an equally playful context at the end of his Holmes pastiche The Seven Per Cent Solution. Kahn’s character is named after the Victorian singer Jenny Hill, and initially attempts to pass herself off as one Bessie Bellwood (“Won’t you come in… Miss Liar!“), another contemporary songbird. Indeed, the very title of the movie is in keeping with Doyle’s—or, if you prefer, Watson’s—method of naming his Holmes stories. If the screenplay itself is, like Blazing Saddles, rather more scattershot in total effect than the well-integrated Young Frankenstein and The Producers, it’s still a very respectable first solo effort, and certainly more intelligent than the typical American comedy… especially compared to the depressing current norm.

Douglas Wilmer's Sherlock Holmes alerts Throley Walters' Watson to the presence outside their 221-B Baker Street digs.

Douglas Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes alerts Thorley Walters’ Watson to the presence outside their 221-B Baker Street digs.

Partaking of Wilder’s movie now is a bittersweet event. Kahn, Feldman, Kern and DeLuise are all gone now, not to mention the wonderful Roy Kinnear, who contributes one of his droll turns as Moriarty’s henchman, while Wilder himself is older, and less active, although he has found a third career as a novel writer and memoirist. Brooks’ longtime musical amanuensis John Morris, who contributed the spirited underscore (and the deliciously fulsome melodies to Wilder’s song parody lyrics) is in his 80s now, and retired, as apparently is the great British production designer Terence Marsh, whose work here gives the movie much of its period authenticity and satirical wit. As with so much in American culture since the ’70s and early ’80s, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother seems the product of an entirely different country.

Caught in murderous impulse McKern's Moriarty remarks,

Caught in murderous impulse McKern’s Moriarty remarks, “You’ve got a lovely vase.” To which DeLuise pinches the professor’s cheek and ripostes, “And YOU got a lovely vace!”

Although the climax of the movie is a bit like an undernourished romantic dream from which the fizz was unaccountably let out, the deliberately bad opera libretto is of the type that makes you smile rather than loud out loud, and the enterprise as a whole is curiously insubstantial, Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother still holds undeniable pleasure.

Feldman's Orville Sacker as a supernumerary in the opera sequence. That wig doesn't do much for either of them.

Feldman’s Orville Sacker as a supernumerary in the opera sequence, accompanied by a curiously wooden signora. Those wigs don’t do much for either of them.

The single most charming sequence in the movie is the one in which, having extricated themselves from a tiny room with a buzzsaw careening down its center, Wilder and Feldman cause a shocked sensation as they slowly realize the blade has sheared away the seats of their fancy dress suits. I could have done without the flaming bandleader simpering his approval at the pairs’ exposed backsides, but the way in which Wilder conceived the gag, his acutely comic execution of it, and the delicious sangfroid with which the two comedians meet the challenge, places the scene as among the most surprising and delightful of any shot in the past 40 years. It’s hard to imagine Woody Allen coming up with this, or even Mel Brooks, and certainly neither would have given the moment its air of sweetly inevitable innocence. Perhaps, more than his comic bluster, that very guilelessness is the reason so many of us responded to Gene Wilder as an earlier generation looked on Harpo Marx, and why his essential decency belongs to another century.

Feldman and Wilder in the movie's most charming sequence. Wilder has a cute tushy.

Feldman and Wilder in the movie’s most charming sequence. Wilder had a cute tushy.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

All for the hunting ground: Wolfen (1981)

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

The mean, barren streets of the South Bronx in

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

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

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

Finney and Venora in the blighted South Bronx landscape.

Finney and Venora in the blighted South Bronx landscape.

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

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

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

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

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Edward James Olmos as Eddie Holt.

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

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

Wilson: It was instantaneous?

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

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

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

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

Edddie: No need for detectives.

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

Dewey: They kill to protect family?

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

Dewey: They kill…

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

Dewey: More than that.

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

Dewey: Family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

She went through my soul: “Poltergeist” (1982)

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By Scott Ross

A catch-phrase that really caught on.

A catch-phrase that really caught on.

For every avid filmgoer there are those rare, popular movies whose first viewing are so powerful they alter the contours of experience. For this viewer, Poltergeist was one of the most indelible.

If, as I do, you love good horror movies, or ghost stories, your love is apt to be largely un-requited, and disappointed on a fairly regular basis. There simply have not been enough great ones. There are those that make an enormous impact on the wider culture but which, over time, can seem nugatory at best, ludicrous at worst. The 1931 Dracula is a fine (or rather, not so fine) example of the phenomenon. Seen today, this early talkie is beset by the technical limitations of the nascent sound-film; static dialogue sequences, stilted performances, and great long periods of sleep-inducing ennui. Stack Bela Lugosi’s hammy, self-regarding turn as the Count against Boris Karloff’s magnificent, shockingly sympathetic performance as Frankenstein’s Creature that same year, and its deficiencies become almost overwhelming. The only performer who really registers in Dracula is the unfortunate Dwight Frye, doomed as he was to increasingly minor roles, as Renfield; he’s as over-the-top as Lugosi, but his bizarre inflections and terrifyingly mad grin stay with you.

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Dwight Frey as Renfield.

The master list of truly great horror movies, alas, add up to a paltry few: Frankenstein; King Kong (1933); The Invisible Man (1933); The Bride of Frankenstein (1935); The Thing (from Another World) (1951); Dead of Night (1945; the influential ventriloquist sequence starring Michael Redgrave, anyway); a few of the RKO Val Lewtons (the 1942 Cat People and the 1945 The Body Snatcher especially); the 1960 Hamer Brides of Dracula (if only for Peter Cushing’s jaw-dropping self-cauterization of the vampire’s bite); Psycho (1960, although it’s less a horror picture per se than an all-too human, contemporary shocker); Rosemary’s Baby (1968), less horrific than unsettling, especially if you’re a woman who has ever experienced or even contemplated pregnancy, and far funnier than was noted at the time; perhaps Planet of the Apes (1968); The Legend of Hell House 1971); The Exorcist (1973); Jaws (1975); Carrie (1976); Alien (1979); Dressed to Kill (1980); the woefully under-seen The Changeling (1980) and Wolfen (1981); Fright Night (1985); Aliens (1986); The Silence of the Lambs (1990), more police procedural, perhaps, than outright horror, and what you don’t see is more chilling than what you do; Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and The Sixth Sense (1999). Television manged to produce two masterworks in The Night Stalker and Duel (both 1971), one very good, if desperately truncated adaptation (of Stephen King’s IT, 1990) and very little else since.

I recognize that I’ve left off this list a number of accepted “classics” of the genre—The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920); London After Midnight (1927); Black Sunday (1960); The Innocents (1961); Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978); The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)—and can only offer the feeble but nonetheless binding excuse that I’ve never seen them. I also realize I’ve omitted any number of movies others love. The simple explanation is, I don’t happen to share the enthusiasm of the mavens for items like the following, whatever their individual or incidental accomplishments: The 1925) Phantom of the Opera (despite Lon Chaney’s extraordinary performance, and unforgettably grotesque appearance); The Mummy (1932); Freaks (1932, whose final image is so disturbing I cannot bring myself to watch the movie a second time… and what is the use of a “classic” you can’t bear to see again?); The Island of Lost Souls (1932); The Uninvited (1944), to which Poltergeist owes an obvious debt; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); the deeply unpleasant Peeping Tom (1960); Village of the Damned (1960); The Birds (1963); The Tomb of Ligeia (1964); and The Haunting (1963), which isn’t a patch on Shirley Jackson’s superb novel, except in its characterization of the parapsychologist’s wife, who in the book is a characaturish, meddlesome battle-ax.

Others are good but, by greater or lesser degrees, manage to skirt greatness: The Barrymore Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920); The Old Dark House (1932); The Wolf Man (1941), hobbled as it is by the appallingly amateurish performance of Lon Chaney, Jr.; perhaps the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (if you ignore its reactionary McCarthy-ite allegory); The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957); Theatre of Blood (1973, which is ultimately too mean-spirited to be wholly enjoyable); Halowe’en (1978, fatally marred by the supernatural implications at the end); the satirical 1978 Philip Kaufman version of Body-SnatchersAn American Werewolf in London (1981); The Company of Wolves (1984); the funny-frightening Arachnophobia (1990); Interview with a Vampire (1994); and, perhaps, Tim Burton’s 1999 Washington Irving fantasia Sleepy Hollow (and even his and John Logan’s 2007 adaptation of the Sondheim-Wheeler Sweeney Todd.)

Similarly, while I love it with an affection one reserves for Three Stooges shorts, Deep Rising (1998) can hardly be counted among the masterworks in the field any more than its writer-director Stephen Sommers’ later Mummy movies. And while there are horror comedies I hold in esteem—Bob Hope’s 1940 romp The Ghost-Breakers, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), Ghostbusters (1984), Beetlejuice (1988), even the 1974 Young Frankenstein—these must be accounted as special institutions and not really what we mean when we talk about great horror movies.

(It’s a mark of real deficiency in the genre to note that horror’s most successful late 20th century practitioner has had so few good adaptations. Aside from Carrie, most of the 1983 Cujo and parts of the otherwise ludicrous 1980 Kubrick edition of The Shining, Stephen King’s work has produced only one great transliteration—and, at that, not a horror picture at all: Frank Darabont’s 1994 The Shawshank Redemption. There is something certifiably wrong with the people who make these things, that King’s batting average as a source is so undernourished.)

The foregoing is to suggest both the paucity of really satisfying cinematic horror, and why Poltergeist was, and remains, a high-water mark for the genre.

I first saw it on a weeknight in early June, just after its opening. The theatre was surprisingly empty, but the small gaggle of teenagers more than made up for the sparse audience, hooting and yakking throughout the first reel. I was on the verge of heading to the lobby to complain when the tree smashed through the window of the children’s bedroom and all Hell broke loose. After that, I never heard a peep from those kids. And that goes some way to suggesting the stunning power of that sequence, which the filmmakers had painstakingly prepared us for during the movie’s first 20 minutes, yet which burst with a suddenness and intensity that was genuinely shocking.

Tobe Hooper, who the credits tell us directed the movie, was widely suspected of being little more than a figurehead on the production, to the point that its producer (and story author) Steven Spielberg  took out an ad in Variety to quell the rumors. His imprint on Poltergeist is not merely evident in its pace and lighting (that tell-tale kukaloris!) but in the way the characters and their milieu are introduced. The first reel of the movie bears an aura similar to sequences of domesticity in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Fathers, mothers and children in everyday interaction, warm but not idealized. The Freelings—low-key father Stephen (Craig T. Nelson), earthy mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), eye-rolling teenager Dana (Dominique Dunne), overly sensitive son Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and adorable but not precocious youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke)—are normal to the point of being mundane, yet strikingly individualized and almost documentary in their casual, ad-libbed normality; their suburban world is bordered by cookie-cutter architecture, Star Wars posters on the children’s walls… and the cathoid tube.

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Carol Anne meets “The TV People.”

Indeed our first important image is of the tube itself, Stephen sprawled out in front of it, asleep, as the broadcast day ends. (Younger viewers may have to have that concept, and the pre-signoff playing of the National Anthem, explained to them; they’ve never known anything except the 24-hour cycle.) And the picture ends with Dad, in a credulity-stretching yet emotionally satisfying moment, banishing the TV from the Freeling’s motel room. Spielberg said the movie was his “revenge on television,” and he wasn’t kidding. Stephen and a neighbor nearly come to blows over control of their remotes, and the small screen, as in so many American households, is ubiquitous; it’s on in every room in which there is a set. Its banalities infect everything; as Diane makes a bed, she’s singing, not the latest pop hit but a then-current Miller Beer jingle. And it is from the television that un-welcome visitors first make themselves known to the little girl and, later, violently forge a portal to the interior walls of the Freeling home. (Side-note: The inclusion in one scene of a clip from A Guy Named Joe is not merely an in-joke for those who know Spielberg’s identification with it; the discussion of the intersection between life and death is very much germaine to Poltergeist.)

The portal opens...

The portal opens…

The opening sections play up this ordinariness bordering on banality… until, at breakfast, some odd things happen: Robbie’s milk glass shatters as he’s holding it, and his silverware curls while he’s not looking. Still, there’s nothing spectacular at play until that amazing moment when Diane turns back to the dining area to see all the chairs stacked on the table. What makes the moment especially startling is the way Hooper keeps Williams and O’Rourke in view throughout; only when Diane turns back and gasps do we see what she does. (I clocked this; the crew had fewer than 7 seconds to remove the chairs around the table and place the stacked ones on top of the table.) It’s this pleasurable little shock that let me know, in 1982, that I was seeing something very different from the normal run of spook-fests.

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The first of many startling moments. Diane: The… TV people? Carol Anne: Un-huh.

Another of Poltergeist‘s prime assets, one that puts it far above the usual run of escapist entertainment, is the lived-in, almost verité quality of the acting. Much of the dialogue in the early sequences has the same ad-libbed feel that gave the domestic scenes in Jaws their verisimilitude—a sense of reality that grounds the characters and that makes the terror, when it explodes, all the more shocking. In private, Stephen and Diane josh each other with an ease of long standing, and the children (young Oliver Robbins especially) perform with a naturalness seldom seen in a major Hollywood production. That Spielberg, whatever his unofficial function here (he is reputed to have been on set nearly every day of the shoot, and Zelda Rubinstein claimed he directed all of her scenes) has a special affinity for, and with, children was evident as early as Jaws, but not even the kids in E.T. have quite the unaffected spontaneity Robbins, Dunne and O’Rourke exhibit here. Robbins’ reaction to realizing he’s hearing Carol Anne’s voice coming from inside the television is so good it brings chills; anyone who’s ever been so frightened he or she could not produce speech, let alone a cry (“Scream, ladies and gentlemen! Scream for your lives!”) will recognize the phenomenon instantly. It’s one I’d never seen done quite so well in a movie before and have since only seen as convincingly once (Laura Dern in another Spielberg, Jurassic Park.)

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Robbie “finds” Carol Anne. Young Oliver Robbins is almost preternaturally good in this sequence.

Although my library includes a fairly extensive collection of movie “novelizations,” I don’t think I’ve actually read one in 30 years or more. But I sat down with James Kahn’s Poltergeist “tie-in” recently, and found it remarkably fulsome, and markedly different from the finished picture. Unusually, its cover proclaims it as “Based on the Story by Stephen Spielberg and the Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor.” Kahn’s narrative deviates only in that it contains much about the parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight in the movie) and a great deal more about Tangina Barrons, who in the original conception was a woman haunted by her psychic gift, going forth through astral projection to do battle with what she calls “The Beast” on the plain of existence in which little Carol Anne Freeling is trapped. It’s fascinating, and makes Tangina much more central to the narrative; it also reassures the reader about her motives, which in the movie as shot are slightly ambiguous. (Kahn’s source may have been Spielberg’s earlier story-draft, which he eventually conflated with the work of Grais and Victor for the final screenplay.) As it turned out, introducing Lesh and Tangina separately, and after Carol Anne’s disappearance, suits a more streamlined, less amorphous, approach. And here we come to one of the movie’s great strengths: Beatrice Staright’s superb performance.

Martin Casella, Beatrice Straight and Richard Lawson encounter the restless spirits inhabiting the children's bedroom.

Martin Casella, Beatrice Straight and Richard Lawson encounter the restless spirits inhabiting the children’s bedroom.

Dr. Lash and Diane are dumb-struck by what's coming their way.

Dr. Lash and Diane are dumb-struck by what’s coming their way.

Viewers of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network had seen Straight’s stunning rendition of a monologue of grief, anger and rhetorical flourish—although brief, the role, and her reading of it, won her an Oscar. I believe she’s even better in Poltergeist, not least because she’s on screen longer. Dr. Lesh calls upon Straight to exude intellectual rigor, professional competence, mounting terror, and deep, embracing warmth in equal measure. She is, in a way, the beating heart of the movie. Straight has a couple of reactions in Poltergeist that I treasure (her look of shock on seeing Carol Anne’s room in a state of full possession, and the way her hand flutters to her face when the full extent of the Freeling’s un-welcome visitation is made manifest) but her finest scene of masterfully sustained acting is the one in which she talks, in a whisper, to Diane and Robbie. It’s an annealing sequence, beautifully acted, that brings a kind of desperately needed respite from all the supernatural goings-on which precede, and succeed, it. It’s also splendidly written, which is not something one expects, or very often gets, at a spook movie.

Beatrice Straight, as the parapsychologist frightened out of her wits. The lovely sequence in which she whispers the nature of hauntings to little Oliver Robins, is a small master-class in luminous acting.

Beatrice Straight, as the parapsychologist frightened out of her wits. The lovely sequence in which she whispers the nature of hauntings to little Oliver Robins, is a small master-class in luminous acting.

The women of Poltergeist are exceptionally strong, as written and performed, and share a bond that does not extend to the male characters. Diane becomes, in a sense, Supermom by the climax, willing herself through sheer, terrified determination. But Dr. Lesh and (to a smaller but no less plangent extent) Tangina act as surrogate mothers to her as well; these older women’s embraces comfort and sustain her. This intensely feminine aspect went largely un-remarked upon at the time of the movie’s release, but I’ve always felt it lies at the very center of the narrative, and is an essential part of its effectiveness. Motherhood itself is seldom as felt in a movie as it is in Diane’s anxious love. When a sudden gust in the den portends Carol Anne’s presence, Williams’ reaction, alternating from astonishment to joy to nearly hysterical anxiety (“She just moved through me… It’s my baby. She went through my soul…“) are almost palpable. It would take a sterner heart than mine not to melt at that moment.

Zelda Rubinstein. As the Southern-accented psychic, she is dominating, witty and a wholly unexpected delight, even as we are unsure at first how to take her, or even what her motives are.

Zelda Rubinstein. As the Southern-accented psychic, she is dominating, witty and a wholly unexpected delight, even as we are unsure at first how to take her, or even what her motives are.

The entrance of Tangina into the proceedings is so individualized I think it would have been a shame to have introduced her earlier, as Spielberg’s original story suggested. (That Kahn describes the character in the novel as a dwarf presumes that the casting of Rubinstein was no fluke.) Our lack of preparation and “back story” also give her an unknown, and unknowable, quality, and we may be forgiven for wandering, briefly, as Diane does at a crucial moment, whether Tangina is all she says, or some curious agent of The Beast. One drawback, or perhaps unintentional, mis-direction occurs in the finished film that is explained more fully in the novel; when Tangina says of the chief malevolence in the house, “To us, it is The Beast,” the sudden turn of phrase, and the other characters’ reactions to it, lead us to think she is referring to no less a presence in the house than Satan himself, and may cause some confusion as to exactly what we’re seeing later, when Diane is menaced by spectral beast in the movie’s wild, accelerated climax.

There are two additional missteps in the movie as released. The first is the abrupt cut to Stephen and Diane with their genially hostile neighbor, especially as it comes in mid-dialogue. I’ve often wondered what’s missing between those scenes. The second is a rather poor special effect, in a movie almost over-brimming with exceptionally well-executed ones. When Dr. Lesh’s assistant Marty (Martin Cassella) hallucinates in the mirror and begins tearing off the flesh of his face, the countenance in the mirror is so obviously a made-up dummy that it completely dissipates the horror. I think it’s the quality of his hair: Marty’s is loose and lank; the hair on the Marty in the mirror seems plastered down to its head. (In Spielberg’s story, the sequence is even more terrifying, as Marty imagines he’s being overrun, and devoured, first by insects, then by a horde of rats; he later hallucinates turning into The Beast that bit him earlier.)

Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

I remark on this lapse only because the rest of the movie’s effects (executed by ILM) are so spectacularly successful, and so perfectly integrated. This is notably true of the extended climax, in which the house itself seems to be doing its best to deter Diane’s repeated attempts to free Robbie and Carol Anne from the newly opened portal. Her confrontation with The Beast is both beautiful and almost unbearably sacrifying, but the moments leading to, and away from it are rendered with equal panache. There is, first, the way Diane is physically manipulated, up the wall of her bedroom and across the ceiling; it’s the old “upside room” trick, so memorably enacted by Stanley Donen when Fred Astaire dances all over the walls in Royal Wedding, but on a much grander and more astonishing scale. Hitchcock’s simultaneous zoom and pull-back effect in Vertigo has been imitated widely, but only Spielberg has used it appropriately, and twice: Once in Jaws, at the moment Roy Scheider feels most disoriented, fearful and isolated, and here, as Diane attempts to race down a hallway that elongates as she’s running, suddenly shrinking back to normal dimensions as she struggles to move forward. It’s a great moment in a movie filled with them.

Poltergeist - beast

Diane Freeling confronts The Beast.

Craig T. Nelson, like JoBeth Williams, is eminently strong, and equally likable, as Stephen Freeling. I particularly relish the quiet, affectionate manner in which he greets Carol Anne as he’s lowering the den lights (“Hello, Sweetpea”) and the confidence he shows as an actor when confronting his boss (the always dependable James Karen) at the climax. The way his voice careens into nearly incoherent screeching (“You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones! Why? Why?”) is deeply impressive. Only a performer of great confidence can afford to let hysteria take over quite so completely without being unmanned by it.

Poltergeist - Nelson Karen and Speileberg

James Karen and Craig T. Nelson sure LOOK as though they’re being directed by Steven Spielberg…

Special mention must be made of Matthew F. Leonetti’s sumptuous cinematography, which is responsible for much of the movie’s effectiveness, and of Michael Kahn’s kinetic editing. Like the direction, it eschews flash in favor of long scenes played with minimal fuss. The sight (and sound) of Beatrice Straight, Oliver Robbins and JoBeth Williams just talking, quietly, is as compelling as any of the more apocalyptic sequences. It’s an art that Hollywood, in its drive to (as they say in the ad biz) “blow you against the back wall of the theatre” has forgotten, seemingly forever.

Gatefold detail of the 2013 Mondo release of a 2-LP vimyl soundtrack album.

Gatefold detail of the 2013 Mondo release of a 2-LP vinyl soundtrack album.

The movie’s greatest collaborator after Hooper and Spielberg, however, is Jerry Goldsmith. Setting aside the annoying book-end device of children’s laughter electronically manipulated to sound like a gaggle of Rosemary’s offspring, the soundtrack LP quickly became one of my personal touchstones. In a career spanning some 50 years of scoring, and taking in everything from intimate drama to special-effects comedy, it would perhaps be unfair to cite Poltergeist as Goldsmith’s masterpiece. But its effectiveness, in what it brings to the movie, and as music, simply cannot be overstated. The “Carol Anne” theme, gentle and haunting at once, is the cornerstone of the score, imbuing the Freeling household with its own sense of innocence touched by something ineffably unsettling. But the “action” cues—particularly “Twisted Abduction,” “Night Visitor,” “Let’s Get Her/Rebirth” and “Night of the Beast”—are so muscular, so chromatically varied, instrumentally complex and gripping, they amount to almost a master-class in what a genius composer can bring to a film which, already strong, is made damn near invincible by his contributions. Sentiment rather than relative merit seemed to dictate Goldsmith’s being shut out at the Academy Awards that year by John Williams’ score for another Spielberg creation. I’m not knocking either Williams or E.T., which in its own rights is a landmark. But the more I listen to the Poltergeist soundtrack, the more convinced I become that this is one of the quintessential movie scores, to be placed in a Pantheon that includes Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Psycho, To Kill a Mockingbird and Jaws as a prime representative of the art.

Much ineluctable noise has been made since 1982 concerning the fates of two of the the three young actors who played the Freeling children, and I don’t intend to rehearse that here… nor to ennoble the specious, insensitive talk of a “curse” attending the movie; Dominque Dunne’s murder was horrific, as was poor little Heather O’Rourke’s demise via medical misadventure. To imply otherwise, to suggest that somehow these young people “tempted” some god of chaos by appearing in a goddamn movie is to dishonor their deaths, and their lives. Just as using the current, odious Hollywood phrase “re-boot” to describe the planned 2015 “remake” of Poltergeist itself is to dignify the ghoulish (and creatively anemic) cinematic equivalent of grave-robbing.

Diane discovers she's not alone in the swimming pool. Do you find yourself thinking of Karen Allen in the tomb of the Ark? (Those skeletons, by the way, were real.)

Diane discovers she’s not alone in the swimming pool. Do you find yourself thinking of Karen Allen in the tomb of the Ark? (Those skeletons, by the way, were real.)

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

You think I’m an idiot, don’t you?: Frederick Kerr in “Frankenstein” (1931)

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By Scott Ross

I watched Frankenstein again this evening. A word or two must be said about Frederick Kerr, who plays Baron von Frankenstein in a dithery, harrumphing manner that must be seen, and heard, to be believed. With a voice that anticipates Bertrand Russell in his dotage, Kerr gives the sort of unfortunate performance those of us with theatrical experience have all too often either seen or, if we are particularly unlucky, had to work with: A fat, grade-A hunk of glazed, honey-roasted ham on two creaky legs, “ad libbing” snorts and mutters and exhalations, “A-hem”s and “Ehs?” and “What-what?”s as if in mortal terror that the stage (or soundtrack) might actually fall silent for a single, precious moment.

The Monster never gets his hands around the right throats.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Frederick Kerr - Frankenstein

 

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

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By Scott Ross

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

Dances MPW-53627

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magnificent buffalo hunt.

The magnificent buffalo hunt.

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

The gentle wolf Dunbar names "Two-Socks."

The gentle wolf Dunbar names “Two-Socks.”

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

The radiant Mary McDonnell as Stands with as Fist.

The radiant Mary McDonnell as Stands with as Fist.

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

The great Graham Greene as Kicking Bird.

The great Graham Greene as Kicking Bird.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears.

Rodney A. Grant as Wind in His Hair

Rodney A. Grant as Wind in His Hair

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

Tantoo Cardinal, who played Black Shawl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross