Crisis: “That’s Life!”(1986)

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By Scott Ross

A remarkably assured Hollywood home-movie, sharp and unexpectedly moving. Even more than the gleefully anarchic semi-autobiography of S.O.B. (1981), That’s Life! is, despite that lousy title, perhaps Blake Edwards’ most deeply personal project. Using a basic outline for each scene and allowing his actors to improvise the script, Edwards turns his own suicidal depressions, and his wife’s vague anxieties about her voice, into a serio-comic examination, not of the male mid-life crisis (which in any case he’d already limned, better than just about anyone else, with “10” in 1979) but of the crippling sense of personal failure that grips even the most successful of us when we stare 60 in the face.

That's Life - Lemmon and Andrews

Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

Jack Lemmon essentially plays Edwards himself, transmuted from a writer/director to a successful Los Angeles architect called Harvey Fairchild, and delivers a performance with so many layers it’s almost too much to take in with a single viewing: He’s bright, witty, acerbic (when not plain sarcastic), obnoxious, self-pitying, narcissistic and, ultimately, heart-breaking. It’s a job of acting that could sit well in an O’Neill drama; it may make you wish Lemmon had played Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. And if at times you want to slap Harvey for his insensitivity, you also have to remind yourself that we are privy to information (that his wife has just a biopsy on her throat) he isn’t. Julie Andrews, more or less assaying herself, brings to mind Moss Hart’s famous line about her, that she possessed “that wonderful British strength that makes you wonder why they lost India,” only without the disdainful imperialism. If you’ve read her lovely memoir Home Work, you understand that “Gillian Fairchild” is pretty much who Andrews is, and was, as a wife and mother. Her love is bountiful, but has its limits, and a refusal to stand by and watch her loved ones destroy themselves is the most important of those. Each of them gets a moment of wrenching emotionalism in the picture: Lemmon, when he’s attempting to induce heart failure via stationary bike and reduced to a mass of confused and shattered agony, Andrews when she’s given some unexpected but absolutely necessary comfort by Sally Kellerman as her peerlessly loopy neighbor, and they’re perfectly placed within the loose narrative framework: Too early and the moments would seem too much; too late, and they’d be far too little.

This is one of those movies you either respond to whole-heartedly, or you hate. I loved it in the 1980s, when I was young, and I love it more now, not least because Edwards, like Lemmon, is gone, but largely because its aching humanity becomes closer to my own reality as the years pass. This isn’t S.O.B., or a Pink Panther movie, where the laughs, no matter how grim their undertones, come with regularity. The humor here peeps out from beneath the pain, like vanilla ice cream covered in dark chocolate, and for the most part isn’t related to gags, although there are a couple, such as Harvey being trapped between the sprinklers on his lawn. That’s a nicely executed moment, and produces, as intended, a smile rather than a guffaw. The after-effects of Lemmon’s visit to a palm-reader played with delicious comic sensuality by his own wife, Felicia Farr, is, conversely, undercut by its suddenness. I won’t say any more, not wishing to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the picture, but it takes a lot longer than an hour to feel the effects of what Harvey’s experiencing. That’s one of only two brief lapses in the movie, and the ultimate payoff, near the end, is worth it. (At least it’s funny. The other big sight gag, in which neither the self-absorbed Harvey nor the admitting nurse in a hospital E.R. take the slightest note of the other patients stumbling by, screaming or dazed and bleeding, doesn’t come off at all. It certainly breaks Edwards’ “pain barrier,” but it isn’t either believable or amusing, even in the blackest possible context.)Thats Life - lobby card 4

That’s Life! is wonderfully cast, partly with family: The Fairchild girls are played by Andrews’ daughter Emma Walton as well as her daughter with Edwards, Jennifer, and Chris Lemmon is their son. Aside from Farr and Kellerman, Robert Loggia shows up as an alcoholically philosophical priest, and while his role is brief, Rob Knepper gives a marvelous performance as Emma’s boyfriend. Jordan Christopher is nicely judged as the Fairchild’s physician, and Teddy Wilson adds immeasurable warmth as their (presumably gay) cook and housekeeper. Does anyone else remember Wilson from the short-lived Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds series Roll Out in 1973? (Does anyone else remember Roll Out?) Only Matt Lattanzi is problematic, as Jennifer’s husband. I cast no aspersions, but, like Jake Gyllenhaal, Lattanzi never seems convincing to me as a heterosexual.

Edwards, whose collaborator on the outline was his own psychoanalyst, Milton Wexler, filmed the picture largely at his and Andrews’ Malibu home using a non-union crew, adding to the home-movie quality. Alas, his superb cinematographer, Harry Stradling, Jr., was forced to leave the project at his own union’s orders, but Anthony B. Richmond’s lighting matches Stradling’s so well you can’t tell where one left off and the other began. (That’s Life! was shot pretty much in sequence.) And although the budget was low, the picture flopped anyway. Maybe it was that dumb title; the movie was originally called Crisis, which presumably scared the distributor. I guess it was one of those cases where everyone’s right, and nobody wins.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

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By Scott Ross

Monty-Python-and-The-Holy-Grail-40th_640
Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)
The team’s first feature, a Greatest Hits collection of now-classic comedy bits.


My Darling Clementine - Darnell and Fonda

My Darling Clementine: Preview edition / Release version (1946)
John Ford’s return to studio filmmaking after the Second World War. A small masterpiece diminished, although not quite ruined, by Darryl Zanuck’s interference.


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In a Lonely Place (1950)
A minor psychological thriller (based on a major popular literary exercise by Dorothy B. Hughes) with superb performances by Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, its reputation expanded to impossible dimensions of greatness by over-enthusiastic auteurists. There was no place in my review to note this, but the movie’s costumer designed low and weirdly over-broad shoulders for all of Bogart’s jackets; he looks like a badly-dressed mannequin newly escaped from the window of a vintage clothing shop specializing in zoot-suits.


Treasure - Holt, Bogart, Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is one of those almost miraculous studio movies that somehow got made with minimal interference and compromise and likely represents a realization that was as close to its creator’s intention as it was possible, in 1948, to come.


Little Caesar
Little Caesar (1931)
With The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that created, and defined, the gangster picture and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. It doesn’t hold up as well as the Cagney but Edward G. Robinson’s performance is certainly worth a look, even if he’s not especially well served by the  workmanlike script until the last five or ten minutes.


Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Hot Lead and Cold Feet
An amiable, funny but very loud Western comedy from the Disney studios in which Jim Dale plays twins — one a missionary, the other a violent rowdy — as well as their crafty old father (that’s Dale, above, with the beard), Darren McGavin is the town’s crooked mayor, Don Knotts its belligerent sheriff, Karen Valentine the feisty schoolmarm, Jack Elam an incompetent gunslinger called “Rattlesnale” and John Williams, who was apparently born old, a put-upon valet. It was made with no particular style and with little on its mind other than providing some clean laughs. For the most part, it gets them. As usual with movies of the period, the rear-screen projection is miserable, but the Deschutes National Forest locations are glorious, and even the inevitable children (Michael Sharrett and Debbie Lytton) are tolerable. Like so many comedians, Jim Dale had too odd a face for movie stardom, with a narrow head, a recessive chin and a nose that seemed to have been stretched out of putty. But he’s as nimble, affable and inventive onscreen as his stage reputation suggested; in a couple of years he would be Barnum on Broadway. The picture’s stunt crew was kept so busy its members got special credit in the opening titles, and they’re like the Proteans in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, tumbling in and out of scenes, falling off cliffs and buildings and seemingly everywhere at once.

For those who treasure pointless trivia, the movie’s associate producer was the hitherto stultifyingly obnoxious Disney child star Kevin Corcoran, who seems to have gone on to a long career as an assistant director.

Anything that kept him behind the camera rather than in front of it…


To Have and Have Not - poster resized

To Have and Have Not (1944)
Arguably a trivialization, and certainly not a true representation, of its grim source, this is still one of the most entertaining movies of the Hollywood Studio era. The ultimate Howard Hawks movie, and (to my mind, anyway) his best. It’s one of the most pleasing ways I know to spend an evening, and it never fails to pick me up.


Cowboy (1958)

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A quirky, sometimes appalling, occasionally funny adaptation of a 1930 memoir by Frank Harris — yes, that Frank Harris — of his days as a youth in the United States trying to become a cattle man. (Jack Lemmon, as Harris, eschews the English accent, and indeed the filmmakers omit any sense of the character being anything but 100% American, from Philadeplhia, yet.) Dalton Trumbo, in his blacklist period, wrote the script, with Edmund H. North as his front. Intended as the cinematic equivalent of radio’s “adult Westerns” such as Gunsmoke, The Six-Shooter, Frontier Gentleman and Have Gun Will Travel, the picture is an oddity in that it contains more deliberate cruelty to animals than I think I’ve seen in any other fiction film, and with few exceptions the cattlemen on the drive are irresponsible, cowardly and murderous… and that’s when they’re at their “fun,” as when they toss around a rattlesnake which, thrown about the neck of a tenderfoot (Strother Martin) bites and kills him; when Lemmon’s Harris objects, and calls them on their responsibility for the man’s death, they all turn on him. Harris becomes more and more of a hardass and a martinet as the drive continues, and who can blame him? Cowboy isn’t merely an adult Western, it’s an anti Western. See it, and you may be so disgusted you’ll never want to see another.

While Lemmon gives his usual engaging performance, brash boyishness alternating with hard-won maturity, it’s difficult to judge Glenn Ford’s, because it’s always difficult. The surest way to keep me from giving some movie a chance is to tell me Ford is the star of it. (I’ve deprived myself of Gilda for decades because he’s in it.) He was no actor, so what exactly was he? A movie star, I suppose, but even that puzzles me; he made Gregory Peck look like Laurence Olivier. And at least Peck improved as he aged; Ford stayed resolutely Ford. Brian Donlevy has a nice role as an aging, gentle but bibulous lawman, although the director, Delmer Daves, sabotages it by having him die off-stage. Among the trail-hands are Dick York as a young rake, Richard Jaeckel as one of the worst of the hell-raisers, and King Donovan as the likable cook. Daves’ direction is serviceable but seldom more, and the widescreen cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. has a number of puzzling moments when the camera either shakes, or moves abruptly, and that feel like mistakes left in out of an over-zealous attachment to the budget.

One of the best things about Cowboy is its opening titles, the distinctive, witty work of Saul Bass set to a rousing, Coplandesque theme by George Dunning. Those two minutes are so good the movie almost can’t hope to compete with them.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Diamonds
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
A Technicolor® curio. Although ostensibly based on the 1949 Broadway musical that made a star of Carol Channing, as well as on its source, Anita Loos’ comic novel of 1925, the movie jettisons the plot and most of the Jule Styne/Leo Robin score, adds a couple of pleasing songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, and although Loos’ book is one of the most famous, indeed era-defining, books of its time, capriciously alters its time-frame from the Roaring ’20s to the Mordibund ’50s.


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Wolfen (1981)
The director (and co-writer) Michael Wadleigh’s beautifully conceived and executed exercise in environmental horror, despite studio interference, is a movie that looks better — and more prescient — with every passing year.


 

The Towering Inferno - Newman
The Towering Inferno (1974)
In spite of everything, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” somehow still works, at least on the level of exciting trash.


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The Train-Robbers (1973)
A quirky, wonderfully entertaining late John Wayne Western, written and directed with intelligence, style and sly humor by Burt Kennedy.


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Cromwell (1970)
Ken Hughes, directing a script he wrote (with interpolations by the playwright Ronald Harwood) delivers a pointed depiction of the English Civil War starring Richard Harris in the title role and Alec Guinness a splendid Charles I. The political parallels to our own age and place should be studied, and countervened with all speed.


The Big Sleep - Bogart and Bacall (resized)

The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of (and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on) the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler original.


Tall in the Saddle (1944)

Tall in the Saddle - Wayne and Raines

A fairly routine ‘40s Western with an odd addition — and no, I don’t mean what in Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks memorably termed Gabby Hayes’ “authentic frontier gibberish.” I’m referring to Ella Raines as a frontier wildcat. Raines’ character has no emotional filters, and the actress doesn’t reign her in; hers may be the most aggressively unpleasant performance in John Wayne’s filmography. She does elicit from Wayne a memorable set of responses, however, when he walks away from her in quiet defiance and she shoots in the direction of his departing back; each time one of her carefully aimed bullets hits something in front of him or to his side, he staggers slightly, and winces. Imagine… John Wayne startled… and by a woman!


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Dumbo (1941)
Arguably the most emotionally plangent of all Disney features, this 64-minute charmer about the elephant child whose oversize ears become an irresistible asset also boats one of the finest song-scores ever composed for a movie.


Born Free (1965)

Born Free (resized)

Virginia McKenna as Joy Adamson and Bill Travers as George Adamson, with the lioness who “plays” Elsa.

This adaptation of the 1960 bestseller by Friederike Victoria Adamson (nicknamed “Joy’ by her second husband) is one of the most pleasing nature movies ever made, perfect entertainment for children. Not there’s anything remotely childish about it, only that it contains beautiful shots of its African savannah setting, wonderful animal photography (the cinematographer was Kenneth Talbot), is only very occasionally upsetting, and is for the most part as comprehensible to a small child as to an adult. The picture holds the same sweet fascination as a good boy-and-his-dog story — White Fang with lions, and a girl hero — as Joy (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (McKenna’s real-life husband Bill Travers) first adopt and then attempt to reintroduce the lioness Elsa back into the wild, and Lester Cole’s screenplay is smart enough to be straightforward, and to present the relationship between the Adamsons as human and not idealized. McKenna makes a wonderful Joy Adamson, charming and maternally devoted to Elsa (the couple was, perhaps significantly, childless) and Travers is himself a bit of a lion; his prickly responses to his wife’s sentimental obsession finds its parallel with Elsa and her eventual mate.

Geoffrey Keen gives a nicely judged performance as George’s boss, and Peter Lukoye is delightful as the couple’s native retainer. James Hill’s direction is refreshingly clean and entirely uncluttered by the sorts of attention-grabbing, studiedly spectacular shots which would almost certainly mar a contemporary movie of this material. And John Barry, who won two Oscars for the picture — one for his music and one for the end title song he wrote with Don Black, the latter of which I recall as pretty much ubiquitous in the ‘60s — composed one of his distinctive scores, accommodating appropriate African rhythms (and, occasionally, instrumentation) and melding them with his own, string-and-horn-heavy melodic invention.

Horribly, both Joy and George were later murdered in Africa, in separate incidents (although her death was initially reported as the result of lion attack) perhaps proving they had less to fear from wild animals than from their own species.


That's Life - Lemmon and Andrews

Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

That’s Life! (1986)
A remarkably assured Hollywood home-movie, sharp and unexpectedly moving. Even more than the gleefully anarchic semi-autobiography of S.O.B. (1981), That’s Life! is, despite that lousy title, perhaps Blake Edwards’ most deeply personal project.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology, 2019: Filmmakers and Movie-Related

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By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Movie Industry
Ron W. Miller, 85.
Speaking of Disney. Miller, husband to Walt’s daughter Diane, was President and CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1978–1984, a crucial period in which under his leadership, and owing to a slate of mediocre animated and live-action pictures, the studio seemed headed for, to quote from Booth Tarkington, a state of bustitude. When a greeting card company in Ohio attempted a hostile takeover that backfired (Disney ended up owning them), Michael Eisner was in and Miller was out. Some of us, who rooted for the company in ‘84, have since grown to wish it had died.

David V. Picker
, 87.
Picker was, in his modest way, part of a golden age. Working at United Artists he brought Tom Jones (1963) to the studio, as well as A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) and, as CEO, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Last Tango in Paris (1972). He later produced Juggernaut, Lenny (both 1974), Royal Flash and Smile (both 1975). Still later, as president of Paramount, he approved and helped to develop Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Ordinary People (1980). He then produced three Steve Martin/Carl Reiner collaborations (The Jerk in 1979, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in 1982 and The Man with Two Brains in 1983). As president at Lorimar he supervised Being There (1979) and Blake Edwards’ Hollywood satire S.O.B. (1981). Then, at Columbia, he brought in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) and Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). He later produced Leap of Faith (1992) and, in 1996, The Crucible. Along the way, Picker also greenlit Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.

Wayne Fitzgerald, 89.
If you were a keen moviegoer (or, via television, movie-watcher) in the 1970s and ‘80s, chances are you saw some of Fitzgerald’s best and most distinctive work as a main title designer: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Little Big Man and The Owl and the Pussycat (1970); Chinatown, The Conversation, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Godfather — Part II (1974); Funny Lady and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); The Missouri Breaks (1976); Slap Shot, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl (1977); Heaven Can Wait and The Deer Hunter (1978); Apocalypse Now (end titles) and The Muppet Movie (1979); Private Benjamin and Nine to Five (1980); Reds, Pennies from Heaven and Body Heat (1981); Tootsie (1982); The Outsiders, The Big Chill and Terms of Endearment (1983); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986); The Milagro Beanfield War (1988); Dick Tracy (1990); Groundhog Day and Grumpy Old Men (1993); Wyatt Earp and Maverick (1994).

Robert Evans, 89.

Marathon Man - Hoffman and Evans resized

Who is able to out-point whom is a signifier of power. Which man enjoyed the prerogative more in 1976? Robert Evans had it, but Dustin Hoffman obviously believed he did. (Well, he would, wouldn’t he?)

The famously combative producer and studio executive, satirized by several filmmakers and actors over the years, not without cause. As head of production at Paramount he shepherded a spate of terrific movies into the theaters: The President’s Analyst (1967), The Odd Couple (1968), The Detective (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969), A New Leaf (1971, although the studio fiddled with Elaine May’s cut and forced her to re-shoot the ending), Plaza Suite (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), “Save the Tiger” (1973) and The Conversation (1974). As an independent producer, Evans was involved in two classic thrillers (1974’s Chinatown and the 1976 Marathon Man), another very good one (Black Sunday, 1977) and several movies of varying quality: Urban Cowboy (1980), Popeye (1980), the 1984 The Cotton Club (which involved him, peripherally, in a highly-publicized murder), the 1990 Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes. His later productions showed both him, and his industry, in serious decline: Sliver (1990), The Phantom (1996), The Saint (1997) and the unncessary remake of The Out-of-Towners (1999). He was also married seven (!) times and, with his brother Charles, an admitted trafficker in cocaine; being rich, famous and, although not a Gentile, at least nominally Caucasian, Evans naturally received a plea bargain. He was spoofed by David Mamet and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog (“I gave a magnificent performance,” Evans said of it), Blake Edwards in S.O.B., Orson Welles in The Other Side of the Wind and, I gather, the series Entourage, which I have never seen. The screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, almost equally notorious, proclaimed in his memoir that “all lies ever told anywhere about Robert Evans are true.”

It should be noted as well that Evans was responsible for both Love Story (1970) and The Great Gatsby (1974).



II. Peripherally Related to the Movies

Claus von Bülow and Alan Dershowitz
Claus von Bülow
, 92.
Accused murderers (why does our legal phraseology suggest one is a murderer if  merely accused?) seldom get more notable than von Bülow, the Danish-British socialite initially convicted of putting his wife Sunny into a persistent vegetative state after twice having attempted to kill her. His conviction was, quite properly, reversed on appeal when the celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz took on the case. But as the screenwriter Nicholas Zazan and the director Barbet Schroeder suggest in their fascinating 1990 movie account, there is guilt, and guilt. Claus (Jeremy Irons) may not have given Sunny (Glenn Close) the insulin injection that put her in a coma, but he may not have helped her either. Reversal of Fortune, adapted from Derhowitz’s book, presents an ambiguous narrative in which, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., Sunny narrates from beyond our ken.

Dershowitz, in a later book, described a party given by Claus at which Norman Mailer, hearing the lawyer explain why von Bülow was innocent, took offense that he wasn’t having dinner with a killer, and left.

James Le Mesurier, 48.
The co-founder of the White Helmets, who proved that the Big Lie succeeds far more often than the little one. With the complicity of our world-wide corporate media, Le Mesurier managed to convince a great deal of humanity that his organization, the White Helmets, was an humanitarian aid service and didn’t behead civilians in Syria. His efforts were so effective the spurious 2016 propaganda “documentary” won an Academy Award and the cheers of idiot the Hollywood ignorati. His alleged suicide, which has all the hallmarks of a CIA hit — any time you hear a shady character associated with America’s Permanent Government has taken a dive out a window it’s time to employ a certain basic skepticism — has inspired at least two theories that should comfort the spooks at Langley that, once again, their manipulation of public sentiment has been largely successful.


III. Filmmakers

James Frawley with Kermit

James Frawley, 82. A one-time actor (i.e., The Monkees, or as Joe Galardi, the union rep in the 1965 Dick Van Dyke Show episode “Fifty-Two, Forty-Five or Work”) who moved into television direction (The Monkees and That Girl) and occasional films. His 1976 all-star disaster-movie spoof The Big Bus predated Airplane! but was not nearly as successful, but the 1979 The Muppet Movie was the perfect big-screen introduction for Jim Henson’s eponymous troupe. Among his other television directing credits: Magnum, P.I., Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Cagney & Lacey, Law & Order, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Smallville, Judging Amy, Grey’s Anatomy. I will remember Frawley with fondness for the beautiful “Rainbow Connection” sequence in The Muppet Movie, so entrancing it could have closed the picture rather than opening it.

Stanley Donen, 94.Singin in the Rain - O'Conner, Donen and Kelly

A stylist whose technique was occasionally too busy, and sometimes not enough to cover up for thin and undeveloped material (Lucky Lady, anyone?) Donen was also responsible for some of the most elegant and witty musicals and comedies of the post-War era. A few years ago, a book appeared on the making of Singin’ in the Rain, which Donen co-directed with Gene Kelly. Since this is my favorite movie musical, it’s a book I’d waited nearly 40 years to read. I was staggered that the authors, one of whom, a PhD, was a Civil War historian, were both complete dilettantes when it came to film. That this tome, filled with factual errors, was a university press publication was dispiriting enough. What was worse was the manner in which its authors went out of their way (as Gene Kelly himself did throughout his life) to diminish Donen’s contributions to that picture, and to the others he co-directed with Kelly, painting him as a non-creative zhlub who sat in a director’s chair while Kelly did it all. If Donen contributed nothing to their movies, why did Kelly work with him so often? Why did MGM keep giving him projects?

Well, the proof is in the pudding. Among the movies Donen directed: On the Town (1949, with Kelly), Royal Wedding (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952, with Kelly), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955, also with Kelly), Funny Face and The Pajama Game (with George Abbott, both 1957), Indiscreet and Damn Yankees! (again with Abbott, both 1958), The Grass is Greener (1960), Charade (1963), Arabesque (1966), Two for the Road and Bedazzled (1967), Movie Movie (1978).

Gene Kelly’s filmography without Donen? Invitation to the Dance, The Happy Road, The Tunnel of Love, Gigot, A Guide for the Married Man, The Cheyenne Social Club, That’s Entertainment Part II… and Hello Dolly!

Tell me another, Doctor.


Romeo and Juliet - Zeffirelli bed
Franco Zeffirelli, 96.
A designer and director of plays and opera, Zeffirelli’s first movie was the 1967 Burton/Taylor The Taming of the Shrew, a picture as beautiful as it is maddening; for much of the film, Kate’s dialogue is removed, in favor of a series of enraged, shrewish yowlings. Why film Shakespeare and then remove his lines? Zeffirelli fared much better with his 1968 Romeo and Juliet. Casting the lovers, for the first time on film, not with venerated older actors but with beautiful young people (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) and giving them a sexy, nude morning-after scene made the picture a huge hit with teenagers. Deeply supportive of the Catholic Church, a two-term Senator from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and accused at least twice of the harassment and sexual assault of young male actors, he is a problematic figure, but for the many who fell in love with Whiting and Hussey, in ’68 or after, Romeo and Juliet is his ultimate legacy.

D. A. Pennebaker, 94.

D.A. Pennebaker Original Cast Album - Company

Stephen Sondheim coaching Beth Howland on her performance of  the dizzying patter in “Getting Married Today” during D.A. Pennebaker’s essential 1971 documentary Original Cast Album: Company. Steve Elmore, center.

One of the few truly important documentary filmmakers of the post-war era, whose work includes the 1967 Dylan feature Don’t Look Back; the 1968 music festival documentary Monterey Pop; the 1973 David Bowie feature Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; Moon Over Broadway (1997); with his partner Chris Hehedus The War Room, the revealing 1993 look at Bill Clinton and the neoliberals who helped elect him; and the 2004 record of the one-woman stage memoir Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. For musical theatre mavens, Pennebaker will forever be immortal for his 1971 Original Cast Album: Company, which captured the hectic, marathon recording of the cast recording that helped define Stephen Sondheim’s 1970s sound, and, in the saga of Stritch’s inability to nail “The Ladies Who Lunch” after singing for hours, exposed a bit of the dark underbelly of Broadway.

Richard Williams, 86.
Richard Williams, Roger and Oscar resized
This one is a heartbreaker. Responsible for what is arguably the finest of all renderings of A Christmas Carol in his 25-minute animated version first shown on ABC in 1971, released theatrically the following year and subsequently given the Academy Award® for Best Animated Short Film, creative animator for the brilliant title sequences for the two Pink Panthers that resurrected the franchise (Return of… and Strikes Again) and revolutionary animating director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Williams’ own perfectionism may have cost him completion of his 30-year dream project The Thief and the Cobbler. (Itself a kind of compensation after the demise of his hoped-for adaptation of Indries Shah’s The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Masrudin, an edition of which he had illustrated.) Since a test-reel for Cobbler was Williams’ entrée to Disney, and the 1992 Aladdin seemed almost inescapably so gleeful a public screwing of the very man whose genius had made Roger Rabbit possible, I have always blamed The Mouse for the way things turned out. The Eisner regime was certainly the villain here, but Williams’ own intransigence — his insistence on longer and longer sequences, and re-doing existing ones — caused him to run out of time; Warners’, which was financing the picture, pulled out rather than compete with Aladdin in the motion picture bazaar, with only 15 minutes of footage left to wrap up the project. The Completion Bond Company then fired everyone involved, including Williams, farmed out animation to South Korea, re-animating existing sequences and adding superfluous musical numbers that, if anything, made Cobbler seem more like an Aladdin rip-off rather than, as we know, the other way round. That Miramax, which snarfed up this new version (called, naturally, The Princess and the Cobbler, although it was eventually released as Arabian Knight) was then owned by Disney puts the final, un-funnily ironic nail in the picture’s coffin.

Williams was prodigiously gifted, an artist whose chosen medium was the most painstaking and time-consuming of them all. That this genuine visionary — to see his Cobbler, or merely parts of it, and even reduced to the size of a computer screen, is to experience a genuine sense of awe and of wonder and to be truly dazzled by its execution entirely by hand — was reduced to hosting animation masterclasses to earn his keep is an almost perfect paradigm for the artist in an age of rampant, and many-tentacled, commercialism. One is reminded, irresistibly, of another 20th century master incapable of completing his final project before it was taken from him, and whose indecisiveness at crucial moments exacerbated the process. And if Richard Williams was not quite in Orson Welles’ league, I strongly suspect that Welles would have recognized in him a fellow magician, his table folded, forced to sing for his supper.

Richard Williams and Vincent Price develop their villain Zig-Zag the Grand Vizier resized

The Thief and the Cobbler: Richard Williams and Vincent Price developing the character of Zigzag, the Vizier (to whom Aladdin‘s Jafar bears more than a passing resemblance) and his odious avian pet Phido, whom the Vizier somewhat resembles.


Lee Mendelson, 86.

A Charlie Brown Christmas resized

Mendelson was the producer of every Peanuts television special and movie from 1965 to 2015, making his work with Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez beloved of at least two generations and likely more. It started with an un-aired (until 1969) documentary called Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz, which led to the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). I was slightly too young to have watched it on its premiere — or if I did, to remember it — but I vividly recall seeing the next two, both in 1966: Charlie Brown’s All Stars! and, especially, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which began my lifelong love for, and identification with, Linus Van Pelt. Several good Peanuts specials followed: You’re in Love, Charlie Brown, 1967; He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown, 1968; It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, 1969; and You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown, 1972. I stopped watching them after that, although I was wild about Mendelson’s hour-long 1973 television edition of the 1967 Off-Broadway musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown by Clark Gesner and which starred the now-forgotten Wendell Burton as Charlie Brown, Bill Hinnant (the only hold-over from the show) as Snoopy, Mark Montgomery as Schroeder and Barry Livingston (Ernie of My Three Sons) as Linus. Mendelson also produced The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (1968), the charming movies A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and Snoopy Come Home (1972), the latter of which boasts a song score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and 18 episodes of the delightful Saturday morning series The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show (1983 – 1985).

One could argue that with their use of limited animation the Schulz specials and films contributed to the cheapening of hand-drawn cartoons, but what Mendeslon, Melendez and “Sparky” achieved was the perfect symbiosis: Although generally not directly adapted from specific Peanuts panels, the Schulz projects distilled and embodied what made the strip, itself somewhat limited visually, so very special: Its charming humor, plangent emotionalism and philosophical bent. In an increasingly crass, vulgar and noisy society, the gentleness and essential humanism of the Peanuts cartoons, their action and dialogue as accessible to children as to their parents and grandparents, provide an alternative and a necessary corrective. I too grew up in a world filled with junk, and noise: G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, Rankin-Bass specials, terrible cartoon series, dopey music, inane commercials (and kiddie shows that existed to endorse them) and endless hours of Saturday morning pap. But it was also a world that offered the gentle, friendly presences of Captain Kangaroo, Kukla, Fran & Ollie and Charles Schulz.

Thanks, Mr. Mendelson, for adding a small measure of grace to a largely graceless medium and an increasingly boorish world.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Breaking the Pain Barrier: Blake Edwards and Inspector Clouseau

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By Scott Ross

Peter Bogdanovich is fond of citing an anecdote involving the screenwriter-director Leo McCarey, a nightclub gathering and a painstakingly prepared (and casually undone) bow-tie as an example of extending comic effect: What, in the trade, is called “topping the topper.”* Blake Edwards was equally enamored of one McCarey told him, about being on a hospital patients’ panel and hearing an elderly woman’s personal story of piled-up woe, the last element of which — her husband being blown in a freak accident through the wall of his hospital room and into the maternity ward — reduced to hysterical laughter not only the civilian McCarey but the medical personnel on the panel as well. The woman’s history wasn’t remotely funny; indeed, it was genuinely, agonizingly tragic. It was simply the appalling accumulation of painful detail that made that last, fatal indignity so irrepressibly hilarious — the description of that final explosion to her listeners, McCarey said, “broke the pain barrier.” Edwards also liked to elaborate on one of McCarey’s simple silent-comedy set-ups, concerning a character bidding his sweetheart farewell as she embarks on a streetcar, that evolved into a series of perfect toppers, a comic paradigm the younger man ever bore in mind as he constructed his own. Edwards, who more than any of his contemporaries both revered and meticulously studied the great comic masters of the silent era, was also unique in successfully replicating, and building on, their effects. Although there have been countless attempts to revive the slapstick gag in the decades since talking pictures arrived, few in sound pictures have ever really worked. Edwards’ nearly always do.

I am, obviously, generalizing; there have been many successful comedians since the silent era who utilized physical comedy successfully (Laurel and Hardy are the most obvious examples, and we can certainly include The Three Stooges) and some filmmakers who, while perhaps not being known primarily as comedy directors, could either make a very good one (What’s Up, Doc?, Bogdanovich’s often hilarious 1972 screwball, comes to mind) or insert a slapstick moment or two into their otherwise largely verbal comedies in a way that showed how well their makers understood what makes physical humor work. I’m thinking particularly of Billy Wilder, whose occasional employment of a broad physical gag in, say, The Major and the Minor or Some Like it Hot, results in riotously funny moments precisely because he and his co-scenarists were so adept at setting them up, and Wilder as the director so expert at framing them. Conversely, the periodic, and almost completely un-motivated, bursts of wild physical mayhem in the comedies of Preston Sturges nearly always leave the muscles of my face entirely unmoved. Sturges doesn’t really understand physical humor — he just throws it in now and then to reduce a character’s dignity, or for its own sake: Think of the Ale and Quail Club in The Palm Beach Story, for example, or of the many unfunny pratfalls poor Henry Fonda has to take in The Lady Eve and how these moments diminish (although, it must be admitted, never fatally) those otherwise peerless social comedies.

I’ve often thought that perhaps the reason violent humor in sound pictures so often falls flat has to do with the silence of silent comedies; you could see a scream of pain, but you couldn’t hear it. The sounds of anguish disturb us, and can kill humor pretty quickly. Not always, obviously: Oliver Hardy cries out in pain a great deal in his sound shorts and features with Stan Laurel, and we still laugh. Indeed, sometimes, as in their very first sound comedy, the 1929 Unaccustomed As We Are, the bleat Ollie makes off-screen as Edgar Kennedy punches his nose is, because we don’t actually witness the blow, all the funnier. It is character, then, and logic, that make the difference. And Edwards, virtually alone among physical comedy directors of the post-War era, understood how to create characters to whom slapstick violence can happen without our wincing in empathy, to build a series of effective gags, why they were amusing to begin with, and how to pile up the incident so that it breaks the pain barrier and plunges the audience into the same helpless laughter that gripped that patients’ panel.

I would argue that Edwards’ finest use of the McCarey principle is the long party sequence near the beginning of the 1981 S.O.B during which Richard Mulligan, standing in for Edwards himself and walking around in a daze of deeply numbing depression, repeatedly attempts to commit suicide, each foray leading ultimately to someone else’s distress or pain, a situation so fraught with mental and physical anguish that, when Edwards tops the topper, resulting in a falling body breaking Loretta Swit’s hip, there is no possible recourse except laughter; Mulligan’s genuine mental and emotional agony breaks the pain barrier. (That this sequence was inspired by one of Edwards’ own suicide attempts is instructive; even at his most despairing, the filmmaker was able to see the dark humor of the situation.) But the writer-director’s most consistent, and consistently hilarious, employment of the pain barrier concept are the comedies featuring that absolute embodiment of — to mix languages alarmingly — sangfroid in extremis, the supernally confident, utterly oblivious, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, whose collected oeuvre I have just revisited.

pinkpanthercollection

Watching the contents of Shout! Factory’s Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther Film Collection Starring Peter Sellers boxed set of Blu-rays amply confirms both Edwards’ elegance and wit as a writer and filmmaker and his ability to set up, sustain, build and explode elaborate physical gags. It helps, of course, that Clouseau is, in essence, a cartoon character: Wile E. Coyote, perhaps, or Tom of the Tom and Jerry shorts. Unlike Herbert Lom’s more mortal Chief Inspector Dreyfus, Clouseau can be injured slightly, or electrocuted, or fall through ceilings, or be blown through walls like the poor old man in Leo McCarey’s hospital story, but always returns to the scene in one piece, and with no encumbering casts, crutches or plaster bandages. (Although he does occasionally sport fried hair, or carry lingering traces of smoke.) It is his sheer indomitability as much as his perpetual and unnatural dignity in the face of a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to do or say precisely the wrong thing in any given situation, his bizarre mispronunciations, even the way attempts to rid the earth of Clouseau repeatedly result in the violent deaths of others, that ultimately drives poor Dreyfus mad.

Interestingly, the character’s extremes were arrived at pretty much by accident: While preparing to film his and Maurice Richler’s script for The Pink Panther in Rome in 1963, Edwards found himself abandoned by his original Clouseau, Peter Ustinov, in a contretemps over his putative screen wife Ava Gardner’s backing out of the project. Desperate, Edwards contacted Peter Sellers, who agreed immediately, and who began to flesh out what was intended as a supporting character with so much comedic invention that the writer-director re-conceptualized the role as filming went on. David Niven, the star of The Pink Panther, to his eternal and gentlemanly credit, agreed that Clouseau was becoming a more important figure, reckoning that whatever helped the picture succeed would redound to his own good fortune. As the movie stands, Sellers is demonstrably not the star, but shares that status comfortably with the ever-ingratiating Niven, bifurcating the picture’s narrative rather perfectly. When, the following year Edwards was faced with saving the troubled movie adaptation of Harry Kurnitz’s play A Shot in the Dark‡, he hit upon the happy notion of reviving Clouseau and making him its center. Witty and elegant overall, The Pink Panther becomes, with the addition of Sellers, comedically sublime. But The Pink Panther is to its immediate successor as the musical Company is to the later Follies: The necessary step. Splendid in itself, but despite its riches somewhat undernourished in comparison.


The Pink Panther - Peter Sellers and David Niven

Clouseau and The Phantom face off. Interestingly, when the Pink Panther attempts Niven’s maneuver during the main titles, it quite literally blows up in his roseate animated face.

The Pink Panther (1963) was Edwards and Richler’s variation on Raffles, a comparison made manifest, if not unavoidable, by the casting of Niven, who had played Raffles in 1939, as Sir Charles Lytton, aka “The Phantom,” an international playboy and secret jewel thief whose calling-card, left behind at each theft, is a white glove with a glittery “P” embroidered onto it. That The Pink Panther is a comedy and not a mystery, or even — like the later A Shot in the Dark and The Return of the Pink Panther — a comic mystery, is evident from the beginning, when Sir Charles’ compatriot (and, it is eventually revealed, his lover) Simone (Capucine) is shown to be the wife of Inspector Clouseau in disguise. Edwards and Richlin thus put horns on Clouseau early on, and provide an additional irony: The very woman Clouseau is searching for to bring him closer to the Phantom is his own mate. The fun of the picture, aside from the pleasure of watching Edwards’ obvious gift at placing his camera in the only place possible to best prolong his gags and to capture their payoffs, lies in watching the filmmaker juggle his characters, the guilty and the unknowing just missing each other, like the participants of a Feydeau farce slamming the doors of an overstuffed hotel suite.

And indeed at the halfway point, Edwards and Richlin serve up a Feydeau comedy in miniature during the long, breathtakingly inspired sequence in the Clouseaus’ Italian Alps hotel room. The Clouseaus have (presumably at Madame Clouseau’s instigation) the room adjoining Sir Charles’ suite, complete unto a convenient, hidden shared door. Edwards and Richlin have already tantalized us with a previous, five-minute sequence in the Clouseau’s room which Edwards began with his camera focused on the edge of the Clouseaus’ double-bed and which he holds on, even after Clouseau extinguishes the bedroom light. It’s a typically elegant Edwardsian set-up: We need not really see anything clearly to be amused by what is going on, as the inspector is repeatedly made to abandon the bed to do Simone’s bidding, culminating (naturally) in his stepping through the Stradivarius he has been serenading her with in a fashion that would cause even Jack Benny to blanch. Yet, this is merely the beginning of the filmmakers’ ingenuity. The scenarists now give us, in a second Jacques/Simone sequence, fifteen minutes of superbly contrived and exquisitely controlled physical comedy during which Simone Clouseau must contend, not only with her husband’s amorous advances, but with the unexpected appearances of, first, Sir Charles’ randy young nephew George (Robert Wagner) and, later, of Sir Charles himself, to each of whose presence she must keep the other in ignorance, and hide from her husband. It is during this alternately manic and leisurely two-reeler-within-a-film that Sellers’ Clouseau takes over the picture and becomes more than a character in a movie; at one and the same time the actor conjures and cements his status as a comedic icon before our dazzled eyes.

The Pink Panther titles

The title card from Friz Freleng’s superb animated credits, as elegant in their own way as Edwards’ direction of the picture.

While Sellers is the source of the lion’s share of the picture’s physical humor, Niven is the butt of two splendid gags, the best of which involves his falling into (and nonchalantly walking out of) a massive Alpine snowbank; Capucine memorably chokes on her drink and, later, slides exquisitely off the satin sheets of a bed as Clouseau attempts to make love to her; and Wagner gets a funny bathtub sequence and shares with Niven a brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, extended silent-comedy scene involving two identical gorilla costumes and an empty safe that McCarey (who created the marvelous silent mirror sequence between Groucho and Harpo in Duck Soup) might have been proud to have concocted. It is Clouseau, however, who, alone among these figures, incorporates the slapstick into his character. To catch his fingers in a spinning globe, reach up and slap a metal fireplace hood with his unprotected palm or destroy a priceless violin is as much a part of him as his mustache and the white trench-coat he habitually wears and which, to him, symbolizes his position and indeed his very identity.

With Clouseau, to be accident-prone is not enough; he must gloss over his innate physical ineptitude, or pretend it’s the result of a deliberate calculation (“I know that!“). In no other way can he maintain the absurd dignity without which his entire persona would dissolve into a complete and insignificant ruin. Edwards and Sellers enjoy puncturing this utterly unearned sense of authority whenever they can, as when Clouseau leans over in the hotel hallway to peer up at an ascending Sir Charles and forgets he’s holding a glass of milk… which pours suggestively onto the floor and which, like a later bottle of champagne that explodes in the Clouseaus’ bed, is the perfect comic embodiment of the detective’s perennial impotency with his wife. (Or, indeed, throughout the series, with any woman he romances.) It is this aplomb in the face of his own, demonstrable incompetence, much more than his increasingly impenetrable accent, that solidifies Sellers’ Clouseau as one of the great comic institutions of American movies. Yet even at the end, when he has unwittingly “revealed” himself in court as the Phantom, Clouseau triumphs: Faced with his own sudden notoriety and instant irresistibility to women, he answers a policeman’s admiring, “How did you manage it?” with a slight, smug little smile and the contented response, “Well, you know… it wasn’t easy.”

Not quite a patch on “The son of a bitch stole my watch” or “Well, nobody’s perfect” in the classic, switcheroo last-line department, but a respectable third, wholly and hilariously in character.


While A Shot in the Dark (1964) lacks the charm with which Niven, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale infuse The Pink Panther, it is far funnier, in part because Sellers is in nearly every scene but also because Edwards and his co-scenarist, William Peter Blatty (yes, that William Peter Blatty), expand the contours of Clouseau’s persona, and his insular universe. Now single, he lives not alone but with a Chinese manservant, the redoubtable Cato (Bert Kwouk), whose major duty appears to be keeping the inspector in trim by attacking him “wherever and whenever possible.” William Luhr and Peter Lehrman, in the first of their two critical studies of Edwards, find in this situation a homosexual identification, but they are reading far too much into an innocent, if admittedly outré, comic set-up. As with the milieu of Laurel and Hardy, it is specious, even hysterical (if not downright suspect) to assign sexual identity to what is essentially a fantasy world. Stan and Ollie are grown-up children, with the logic and reactions of young boys. And Clouseau, like Bugs Bunny, transcends the strict psycho-sexual readings of both nervous heterosexual academics and overly literal gay fans.

A Shot in the Dark - Sellers and Kwouk

Not tonight, Cato!: The immortal Bert Kwouk struggles with Sellers in A Shot in the Dark.

It is with A Shot in the Dark too that Edwards and Blatty introduce the character who, more than any other, will complicate and brighten the Clouseau pictures. In the interestingly named Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and the inspired performances of Herbert Lom, the series gains perhaps its most necessary element: A character who sees Jacques Clouseau precisely as the audience does, and is driven insane, not merely by Clouseau’s stunning incompetence, but the way in which that blazingly obvious inanity somehow always manages to triumph, and for which his hopeless underling is consistently rewarded. Worse, of course, is Dreyfus’ own lethal inadequacy; Clouseau, for all his incompetence, never causes the death of an innocent bystander (as opposed, in The Pink Panther Strikes Again and Revenge of the Pink Panther, to unintentionally dispatching a covey of assassins), whereas in his homicidal madness Dreyfus’ path is littered with the bodies of those he inadvertently murders trying to get at his nemesis. These deaths too break the pain barrier; one laughs, not at the killings, but at how they are brought about, and at the increasing dementia they bring on in the murderer. By the end of A Shot in the Dark there is scarcely a supporting character left standing, or in one piece.

Edwards’ enviable control as a director of comedy is made manifest during the astonishing pre-title sequence, in which, to the accompaniment of a marvelously overheated Henry Mancini ballad, he holds on the back side of a suburban mansion for nearly four-and-a-half minutes, the camera craning smoothly up and down as various amatory characters climb and descend staircases, flit in and out of bedroom doorways and evade each other’s notice, a breathtaking feat of comic timing which marks a dizzying evolution in Edwards’ elegant approach to screen humor. (Compare this with the highly-touted dormitory set Jerry Lewis had built for his 1961 The Ladies’ Man and which he uses in an extended sequence that, because it adds little or nothing to the narrative, reeks of an actor-turned-filmmaker showing off: “Look at me! I’m a director!“) A later sequence with Sellers in a nudist colony is only slightly less impressive — although admittedly much funnier — as is the superb running-gag of Clouseau, in the first instance in the series of his penchant for disguises, repeatedly attempting to follow murder suspect Elke Sommer and being picked up by the local gendarmerie for license violations, the physical traces of his latest ruse sticking out of the back of the police van as Edwards cuts to it racing across the city. Like the car chase through a deserted Roman street populated only by the drivers and a single late-night trattoria-crawler attempting to cross the boulevard with which Edwards climaxes the action in The Pink Panther, these recurring gags exhibit proof positive of the writer/director’s peerless gift for transliterating the techniques of silent comedy to the sound picture with no loss of invention and no diminution whatsoever of audience laughter.


Edwards and Sellers - Return of the Pink Panther

Both Edwards and Sellers fell on difficult times in the late ’60s and early ’70s: Sellers through making far too many bad movies§, Edwards via repeated contretemps with studios (Paramount and MGM) and studio chiefs (Charles Bludhorn, Robert Evans, the serpentine Jim Aubrey) that destroyed his pictures and, ultimately, his ability to work. Following a retreat to Gstaad with his wife Julie Andrews, the couple re-emerged in 1974 with the minor but immensely pleasurable The Tamarind Seedwhich restored Edwards’ confidence and provided both him and Andrews a respectable box-office success. With this foundation beneath him, Edwards opted to revive Clouseau, who had latterly been reduced to a Saturday morning cartoon character and diminished through the (non-Edwards) 1968 Alan Arkin vehicle Inspector Clouseau, a picture reputedly so poor as to be virtually unwatchable. Made for $5 million, The Return of the Pink Panther grossed nearly $42 million in the U.S. alone, resurrecting Sellers’ career, putting Edwards back on top and, somewhat perversely, yoking both writer-director and star to the Clouseau franchise… at a time when tensions between the two were so pronounced they could barely communicate with each other. Even well after Sellers’ death, Edwards found he could get funding from MGM/United Artists for anything he wanted to do by promising another Panther, leading ultimately to those deathless classics Curse of the Pink Panther with Ted Wass (who?) and Son of the Pink Panther starring the militantly unfunny Roberto Benigni.

I well recall the delight with which I saw Return on its 1975 release; only once before (at What’s Up, Doc? in 1972) had I laughed that much, that consistently, and that hard, in a movie theatre. By the time Edwards unreeled his achingly funny penultimate gag, I (and presumably everyone else in the packed audience) was limp and sore from continuous and at times gut-busting laughter. While, in retrospect, Edwards over-relies on sadism in Christopher Plummer’s treatment of Graham Stark’s duplicitous Pepi, and even as it isn’t the funniest entry in the series, almost everything about it works. It arguably represents the apogee of the Clouseau/Cato dynamic and of the Dreyfus character; has in Catherine Schell’s Lady Lytton the most satisfying feminine character of the series; is perhaps the best-plotted Clouseau picture after A Shot in the Dark; and, in an era in which American movie comedy was so moribund that, were it not for Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, and apart from mostly regrettable live-action Disney outings, peripheral caper titles (The Sting), comic dramas (Harry and Tonto and Paper Moon), or pitch-black satires (The Hospital and Phantom of the Paradise) there would have been virtually no comedies of note. For all the richness of 1970s cinema — to my mind the last great flowering of American movie-making and the final such Renaissance we are ever likely to get — few of the important filmmakers of the time either knew anything about effective comedy direction, or cared. All of which made Edwards’ assurance and technical sophistication so refreshing then, and, at a time of sour, sarcastic and mean-spirited post-Seinfeld comedy, so very welcome now.

While the otherwise estimable Plummer makes a far colder, and almost infinitely less charming, Sir Charles than did David Niven, the action Edwards and his co-author Frank Waldman devised for the character required a younger and more agile man, especially as regards the elaborate opening sequence, wonderfully scored by Mancini, limning the daring theft of the Pink Panther; since we only find out who the Ninja-like culprit was at the climax, it’s vital we believe Sir Charles capable of it. Likewise, Plummer’s imperturbable sangfroid is sorely needed when faced with Peter Arne’s serpentine Colonel Sharki. Schell was hired to portray Lady Lytton as much for her easy laughter as for her generous good looks or innate comic ability; whether or not the actress is actually breaking up on screen at Sellers’ antics, that the character is so obviously amused by Clouseau’s ineptitude, and so adept at hiding her reactions from him, makes her recurrent parrying with him even more delicious. It’s the only time in the series that one of the Inspector’s foils betrays a winking appreciation of his utter imbecility. Everyone else is either outraged, or takes him seriously.

Return of the Pink Panther - Sellers, Plummer and Schell

“Good Sharki, Colonel God! We were just talking about you!”: Sellers, Peter Arne, Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell in The Return of the Pink Panther.

Sellers is pudgier here than in his previous Clouseau movies, and a bit jowly, but his inspiration is just as clearly in evidence. And it is in The Return of the Pink Panther that the character’s curious mispronunciations make their first appearance. His accent is so exaggerated even the French can’t understand him: Bomb becomes “beumb,” bump “beump,” room “ruem,” monkey “muenky,” and the law “the leu.” It can come as a bit of a shock to those who were introduced to the character with the 1970s Clouseaus, and who then go back to his origins, that in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark Sellers speaks so clearly, his accent comprised of two parts soft French to one part hard Etonian. Clouseau’s later speech is an absurd joke, of course, since everyone on screen is, while he or she is supposed to be speaking French, actually talking in English anyway. But it’s a funny one; Sellers’ encounter with a French shopkeeper determined to sound more Gallic than De Gaulle bequeathed to the Panthers, in verbal terms, what the Pythons’ run-in with an obnoxious Torquay hotelier later gave to Fawlty Towers.

Return-of-the-Pink-Panther-Richard Williams

Following Richard Williams’ and Ken Harris’ glorious, exquisitely designed and animated main title — Harris’ touch is strongly evident in the Panther’s dance moves and, especially, his 180-degree turn perched on the head of a cartoon Sellers —  Edwards introduces this updated Clouseau via a series of gags emphasizing his absent-minded gallantry (saluting a pretty girl on the street, he smacks himself in the eye with his baton), his verbal quirks (“Then the muenky’s brahking the leu!“) and his single-minded — if “mind” is the correct word — pursuit of justice: Haranguing a blind street musician and his chimp, he never notices the bank robbery taking place just behind a plate-glass window and even holds open a door for the thieves. Thus in a single, cunningly devised sequence, Edwards fully establishes the (slightly revised) character for a new audience. This is followed hard on by a Clouseau/Dreyfus confrontation, and an extended Clouseau/Cato encounter emphasizing the filmmaker’s mastery of the full widescreen shot and his willingness to graft riotous new effects onto an established format, as when he not only shoots Clouseau’s flying lunge at Cato and through the top of a Dutch-door in slow-motion but slows down the soundtrack as well, making the detective’s karate cry first hilarious, then excruciatingly funny, as it mutates into a 16-rpm bellow of surprise, terror and pain. And when he repeats this explosive gag at the picture’s climax, topping the topper and making us wait ninety minutes for it, we roar both at the business itself (and how well it’s been staged), and at Edwards’ audacity in pulling off the trick again and making the repetition even funnier the second time.

Similarly, a long sequence in Gstaad involving Clouseau in disguise as a hotel porter making a shambles of Lady Lytton’s suite and doing battle with a “swine” parrot as well as a perverse light-bulb, a high-powered vacuum cleaner, an in-room sauna and a massive masseuse, is a virtual master-class on topping the topper and breaking the pain barrier; it could almost be its own silent two-reeler. And the jokes really build, paying off as the sequence un-spools, or merely repeating for a quick laugh several minutes after their initial introduction. Less elaborate but no less instructive is the way Edwards frames a disastrous attack on Clouseau by Cato in his hotel room, holding on the doorway as Sellers enters the bath, in which we know there is a tub full of water, and is swiftly followed by Kwouk; we hear their screams just before a small tsunami of bathwater cascades into the hallway, and what we imagine is far funnier than what we would have seen had Edwards shot the gag straight-on. Does any comedy director today understand this approach, or why it’s so damn funny? Do any of them care to?


The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) is the silliest of the Clouseaus, and one of the funniest. His brain having, finally, completely cracked due to his foil’s well-meaning interference, Dreyfus becomes a kind of giddy James Bond super-villain, first assembling an army of assassins and, when that fails, threatening the world with a disintegration ray if Clouseau is not killed. (I said it was silly.)  The plot is ludicrous, the special-effects crude and unconvincing, the presence of a butler/drag-queen performer (Michael Robbins) verges on the offensive ‖, the Gerald Ford/Henry Kissinger stand-ins are obvious and flat (Kissinger is too hideous a figure to have fun with and, next to a world-champion bumbler like Clouseau, the somewhat accident-prone Ford was a piker), both Leonard Rossiter and Cloin Blakely are wasted as Scotland Yard officials, and the love story involving Sellers and Leslie Anne Down as a Soviet killer is patently ridiculous; after being made love to by Omar Sharif, whom she mistakes for Clouseau, she defects. Yet the picture is almost profligate with uproarious gags, from the darkly funny psychiatric asylum opening and the Richard Williams titles with their movie hilarious parody/hommages¶, through Dreyfus spying on Clouseau’s apartment from below and preparing a bomb which, thanks to an over-pumped Quasimodo disguise and the detective’s typical dumb luck, fails spectacularly; the parade of frustrated assassins; Clouseau’s hysterically funny encounter with a set of parallel bars and his subsequent wrecking of a priceless antique piano; Graham Stark’s memorable cameo as an ancient hotelier (“That is not my dog”); Clouseau’s achingly funny attempts to scale the drawbridge of Dreyfus’ castle lair; detective and quarry becoming affected by nitrous oxide and screaming with laughter as Clouseau pulls one of his ersatz boss’s teeth (the wrong one, naturally); right up to the explosive finale, an extension of the Quasimodo sequence, in which Sellers, Downe and Kwouk are, in a vague echo of Leo McCarey’s narrative about the tragic hospital patient, thrown through the wall of Clouseau’s apartment and dumped, hilariously, into the Seine. And even that topper has a topper, with Williams’ final movie parody during the end titles.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again - Sellers

The Pink Panther Strikes Again: Clouseau demonstrates his facility, such as it is, with the nunchaku. Note the pleasing salmon in the background. The filmmaker clearly appreciated pastels, and how they photographed in color and widescreen; where almost everyone else’s comedies of the time were either garish-looking, or dull, Edwards’ interiors are full of soft, well-matched colors that contrast perfectly with the often absurd action taking place within them.

The picture also contains Mancini’s best Clouseau score, and one of the finest of his long career. One of the most difficult jobs for a movie composer to pull off is to score comedy without resorting either to “mickeymousing” or attempting to sound funny. Vic Mizzy did it wonderfully, as have John Morris, David Shire and Dave Grusin, but its masters are few. Mancini approached scoring humor much as Edwards did filming it: Seriously. While his Clouseau compositions are timed to the physical action, very rarely are they demonstrably amusing in themselves. More often they are suspenseful (Mancini’s facility with scoring tension is wildly underappreciated#) or charming, as in this picture’s delicate “Inspector Clouseau Theme,” actually first heard over Dreyfus’ spying on him from the flat beneath his, and his subsequent “Evil Theme” for Dreyfus which achieves its apotheosis in the climactic sequence, in which the last image of a disintegrating Lom is his twitching eye. Mancini’s gift for melody was so seemingly effortless, his success as a purveyor of “bachelor pad” LPs so ubiquitous, that he seldom got the praise he assuredly deserved. The Strikes Again score ranks with his Charade, The Great Race, Two for the Road, The Hawaiians and Lifeforce as true Mancini masterworks.

pink-panther-strikes-again-expanded-cd

Where The Pink Panther Strikes Again was thin, Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) is sheerest gossamer — a scandal in anemia. My friends and I knew this even then, and while we enjoyed its best moments, we felt decidedly let down by it, and a little depressed. The picture had the strong feel of creative people delivering product but having no enthusiasm for it; it’s both the shortest of the Sellers Clouseaus, and the dullest. (Even the animated titles, set to a disco version of “The Pink Panther Theme,” are a let-down.) Much of the ennui was due, apparently, to Sellers’ heart condition, and his inability — presumably because of medication — to remember lines. And although its running-time is a brief 98 minutes, the picture somehow feels longer than any of its predecessors: When you make a comedy in which Dyan Cannon and Bert Kwouk aren’t funny, something is terribly, terribly wrong. Using the word “boring” in the context of discussing the Pink Panthers was something I, up to the age of 17 anyway, never thought I’d have cause to do. And if we were that bored by it, think how Edwards must have felt.

Revenge of the Pink Panther

“I’m a little short”: Clouseau sports an Auguste Balls costuming masterpiece in Revenge of the Pink Panther. Note the hilariously incongruous sneakers and the anachronistic, spherical lit-fuse bomb, a silent-movie trope and an Edwards staple.

Revenge is so halfhearted it reprises Sellers’ indelible final line from Dr. Strangelove during a scene in which he dons a Toulouse Lautrec outfit (“I can walk!”) and doesn’t even bother to explain Dreyfus’ physical presence in the story. Wasn’t he a world-famous terrorist last time? Wasn’t he disintegrated? Yet there he is, back in the asylum, preparing once more to re-emerge from madness (and waiting, of course, for Clouseau to drive him insane again.) Lom’s presence is necessary to the comedy, if only, once Clouseau has been declared dead, for his peerless delivery of the eulogy; he’s presumed by the memorial audience to be weeping in uncontrollable grief when he is, of course, paralyzed with hysterical laughter. The business of Clouseau using his own supposed murder as a means of investigating his would-be killers undercover can feel, in retrospect, a bit ghoulish, given Sellers’ own death two years later, but as he was very much alive in 1978, one need not take that too seriously. It’s of greater import that, aside from a few good gags at the beginning (notably Clouseau’s appearance as a Swedish sailor with a peg-leg and an inflatable parrot) and again during the Hong Kong climax, it’s a dispirited — and dispiriting — exercise that left us wondering in ’78 how the series could hope to surmount the damned thing; it seemed very much a dead-end.**

At the time of its release, the most interesting aspect of The Revenge of the Pink Panther for me lay in trying to figure out whether that really was Cary Grant doing a middle-distance cameo as a businessman knocked over by Cato on the far side of the widescreen frame in the Hong Kong hotel lobby, or merely some older gentleman costumed and coiffed to look, and dubbed to sound, like him.††

Alas, it’s still the most interesting thing in the picture.


Utterly unnecessary, except that it permitted Edwards to set up the narrative for the subsequent Curse of the Pink Panther (why?), the 1982 The Trail of the Pink Panther, which he shot simultaneously with Curse, can at least be said to be funnier than its predecessor. To say that’s damning the picture with faint praise is a bit like observing that Herr Hitler was not a terribly nice fellow. But there are enough amusing outtakes from the three ’70s Clouseaus, and fill-in footage from the first two (for which — all too typically of the cavalier attitudes and disorganized practices of United Artists — no additional footage appears to exist) to satisfy our craving for Sellers, although some of the spoken introductions to these clips are ham-fisted in the extreme, and a couple of the sequences show all too plainly why they were excised to begin with, such as Harvey Korman’s extended scene as Auguste Balls, cut from The Pink Panther Strikes Again and redeemed only by Clouseau’s hilariously wrong-headed “compliments” on the hideous nose of Liz Smith’s Mme. Balls. It’s hardly Korman’s fault; he does what he can, but the sequence is simply not funny, and certainly not funny enough to have started either Strikes Again or this picture’s narrative. Similarly, a lengthy new gag involving a border collie herding Clouseau’s ancient childhood governess, while well staged and shot, just lies there, refusing to be funny.

Trail of the Pink Panther

The Trail of the Pink Panther: Harvey Korman, trying his best to be amusing as Professor Auguste Balls, fits Clouseau with new prosthetics in a sequence cut from the beginning of The Pink Panther Strikes Again.

What is best about Trail are Lom’s new scenes as Dreyfus, particularly one with his pop-song obsessed psychiatrist (Ronald Fraser) and two involving his swimming pool (you just heard Sellers saying, “swaim-ang-a peul?,” didn’t you?) which have wonderful pay-offs; and Joanna Lumley as a Parisian television reporter determined to get to the bottom of Clouseau’s disappearance. Lumley’s sharp way with a line, and her unerring instincts, make you long for her to have had the opportunity to enjoy a tête-à-tête with Sellers along Catherine Schell lines. The ever-dry Graham Stark provides a charming turn as Hercule from A Shot in the Dark and Richard Mulligan brings his unique comic inspiration and physical ingenuity to the role of Clouseau’s aged vintner father. Capucine also shows up, incongruously, as Simone Lytton née Clouseau, causing the mind to wander on intangibles — did they divorce before Sir Charles married Schell’s Claudine, then re-marry? — rather than concentrate on the admittedly less-than-compelling dialogue. David Niven looks fine, but was already suffering from motor neuron disease (known as Lou Gehrig’s in the States) and had to be dubbed. The otherwise overrated Rich Little did a surprisingly good job of it, although once you know it’s him you can’t help detecting the timbre of his voice at certain moments.

There are several good (though mostly not great) cut gags resurrected here, like the automobile cigarette lighter sequence between Sellers and André Maranne’s reliably phlegmatic François, and Clouseau’s battle with an elevator gate and a leaking bag of groceries, trimmed from what would have been a longer scene in Strikes Again following the Korman/Balls sequence. The comic highlight of the picture, however, is a truly splendid and absolutely satisfying sequence, also cut from Strikes Again, involving Clouseau, a wall telephone, two hotel windows and an utterly oblivious Mack truck of a maid (Claire Davenport, the memorable masseuse of The Return of the Pink Panther) that by itself almost justifies the entire picture and reminds us anew just how treasurable Blake Edwards was as a comic technician, and how beautifully he achieved the breaking of the pain barrier.

There is absolutely no excuse, however, for the terrible job of dubbing someone (possibly Robert Rietty?) did for Clouseau; the stresses and emphases are correct but the tone, the timbre — the very essence — of Sellers’ voice is utterly and completely missing.

There was a lesson in that. I only wish MGM/UA had heeded it.


* Bogdanovich re-created McCarey’s nightclub moment in At Long Last Love (1975) but without the necessary set-up the sequence was less amusing than vaguely obnoxious.

† Edwards dedicated his delightful 1965 The Great Race to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.” Likewise, his epic, scientifically imagined, pie fight in that memorable comedy was likely a tribute to Stan and Babe’s silent Battle of the Century of 1928.

‡ Itself based on a French farce by Marcel Achard, the 1961 A Shot in the Dark on Broadway starred Julie Harris in the Elke Sommer part, Walter Matthau in George Sanders’ role, and, of all people, William Shatner in the lead. Achard’s original French title was, in view of its subsequent movie adaptation, remarkably prescient: L’Idiote.

§ Only two of Sellers’ pictures from that time are worth seeing — both of which appeared in 1968 and neither of which was as successful as it deserved to be: The sly Paul Mazursksy and Larry Tucker-written social satire I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! and the often hilarious The Party, which Edwards directed and co-wrote with Tom and Frank Waldman but which was largely improvised. Birdie Num-Nums, anyone?

‖ I had long thought that the voice doubling Robbins’ nightclub singing, filled as it is with Julie Andrews-like swoops and vocalizations, was a teasing joke by Edwards at his wife’s expense. Turns out she did the dubbing herself. “A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?” Yes.

¶ To Alfred Hitchcock, BatmanKing KongDracula, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the RainSweet Charity‘s “Hey, Big Spender” and, most hilariously, Julie Andrews twirling on the mountain in The Sound of Music, the whole, brilliantly executed sequence anchored to the background of a gorgeous old silver movie palace.

# His cues “The Return of the Pink Panther” Parts 1 and 2 on the soundtrack album for that picture give a fair idea of how effective Mancini’s action scoring can be, even in a serio-comic context.

** In fact, Edwards planned it as the last in the series. Sellers later got MGM/UA interested in a Clouseau script he had written, and in which movie he insisted Edwards was to have no part, but died before the project could begin.

†† I still don’t know, but given Grant’s contentious relationship with Edwards on Operation Petticoat in 1959, it seems unlikely he’d had done the filmmaker the favor of a cameo… although he just might have for Cannon, his former wife.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2018

Standard

By Scott Ross

Continuing my reluctant withdrawal from moviegoing, due to perpetual disappointment both with new work and with the new theatre audience — neither of which seems to be improving; indeed, the latter now infects every performance venue in the land — I saw only two pictures in a theatre last year… and they were from the 1970s and ‘80s. Additionally, the summer and autumn of 2018 were for private reasons exceptionally difficult for me, and entertainment was something I was able to devote very little time or attention to. Here’s to a much more movie-intensive 2019, whatever the venue.

And herewith, the movies (and other video items) I did manage to see during the year recently passed.

BOLD                                     Denotes very good… or at least, better than average.
BOLD + Underscore          A personal favorite


1.
Older titles re-viewed on a big theatre screen

the front page - 1974_main title

The Front Page (1974) Thanks to the Carolina Theatre in Durham I was able to add one more Billy Wilder picture to my list of his work seen on a big theatre screen, having missed this adaptation (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) of the Hecht-McArthur perennial when it was first released. I have a complicated relationship with The Front Page: As an adolescent, influenced — as were so many of my generation — by Woodstein, and perhaps even more so by Carl Kolchak, I aspired to be a journalist. My interests eventually led me elsewhere, but that early appreciation of the Fourth Estate remains, even if it has now, as increasing numbers of people have begun to believe, become a fifth column. And no play had a greater influence on popular American culture than this breakneck 1928 farce-melodrama; all of the great newspaper comedies of the 1930s (especially those featuring Lee Tracy, who had the starring role in the play) flowed from its influential fount, and it absolutely cemented our image of the hard-bitten, ink-stained, wisecracking reporter… a figure now utterly obliterated by $30,000-a day neoliberal shills for the Establishment. Yet as much as I admire it, I don’t find the play especially funny, except in the 1940 Howard Hawks variation His Girl Friday, and that’s due largely to the charm of Cary Grant, the fast-talking zing of Rosalind Russell and the fizz they spark off each other. (The final line is funny, but once you know it, it’s not one that elicits much of a laugh next time around.) The newsmen depicted are, in the main, appalling — less the bulwark of free-press democracy than shabby, cynical hacks more concerned with snappy headlines than with anything approaching the truth. Some would no doubt argue that’s the point of the thing, but the authors clearly intended the play as a paean to the type, not a critique. That their star characters, Hildy Johnson and his unscrupulous editor Walter Burns, eventually manage to keep a corrupt Chicago mayor and sheriff in check is almost by-the-by; they wouldn’t do so unless their own liberty was at stake. That’s not to mention the casual bigotry of the piece: The word “nigger” is used by some of the reporters when “colored,” the general nomenclature of the time, not only would do, but did, elsewhere in the play, and the character of Bensinger is the piss-elegant pansy type prevalent in the ‘20s and ‘30s, all too easily ridiculed, and ridiculous. That Wilder and Diamond not only didn’t improve on that stereotype in 1974 but actually embellished it, making a cute young cub reporter (Jon Korkes) the object of Bensinger’s attentions, is a mark against their movie. (An end-credits post-script reveals — presumably for a boffo laugh… which, sadly, it probably got from a 1974 audience — they’ve left the newspaper business and opened an antique shop together. Why not a florist’s while you’re at it?) As was their wont when adapting material by others, Wilder and Diamond made a number of changes to the original, and some critics were unreceptive; Wilder later admitted that he hadn’t understood how deeply venerated the play still was. It’s a lively enough transliteration, with a fine performance by Walter Matthau as Burns, a good one by Jack Lemmon as Hildy despite his being too old for the role, and a controversial turn by Carol Burnett as Molly Malloy. (She famously apologized, to a planeload of passengers whose in-flight entertainment it was, for her performance.) Yes, she’s strident, but she’s also vulnerable, although not nearly as endearing as Austin Pendleton as the convict Earl Williams, whose imminent execution and eventual escape sets the plot (which Walter Kerr memorably described as “a watch that laughed”) in motion. And some of the scenarists’ alterations are pleasing, such their stab at making the role of Hildy’s fiancée less thankless, and casting the young Susan Sarandon in the part. There is also excellent support by Charles Durning, Alan Garfield, Dick O’Neill and Herb Edelman (as Hildy’s fellow reporters), a blustery Vincent Gardenia (was there any other kind of Vincent Gardenia?) as Sheriff Hartman, a suave Harold Gould as the Mayor, Paul Benedict as the emissary from the governor, and wonderful old Doro Merande as the Criminal Courts Building custodian Jennie. As Bensinger, alas, David Wayne makes the worst of a bad job. While largely set-bound, the picture has a rich look to it, and there’s even a wild Keystone Kops-like chase through the Chicago streets. The opening credit sequence, set to a spritely Billy May rag (the production company was Universal, no doubt keen to have another Sting-like radio smash on its hands) and depicting the mechanized assembling of a newspaper from page one typeset to completed broadside, is a two and half-minute gem.


the-changeling-ghostballer

The Changeling (1980) A beautiful rumination on the basic ghost story. Its admittedly thin screenplay is augmented by the usual marvelous George C. Scott performance, rare intelligence behind the camera — the director was the underrated Peter Madek — and a remarkably rich musical score (mostly by Ken Wannberg, with an assist from Rick Wilkens, anchored to an exquisite little music box theme by Howard Blake.) It’s one of those movies that has seen extremes of response: Dismissed, when not bludgeoned, by the critical fraternity on its 1980 release, it was restored and reissued in 2018 to ludicrous over-praise by people who can only deal in absolutes, and in an eminently dismissible interrogatory style: “Is The Changeling the most terrifying movie ever made?” The answer, even for partisans of the picture such as myself, is no. Not even close. But that hardly disqualifies the picture from being seen, and embraced, as a stylish — and surprisingly plangent — exercise in supernatural emotionalism that rewards repeated viewing. Thanks to my friend Eliot Camarena for suggesting this one to me a few years back.



2. Documentary

I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1973) Jerry Bruck, Jr.’s illuminating portrait of the fiercely idiosyncratic progressive journalist and, for many years, publisher of the eponymous newsletter still considered among the best, and most reliable, of progressive American news and opinion journals. Viewed courtesy of a kind friend who for the last several years has been my personal source for previously undiscovered (at least by me) cinematic gems.

untold history - showtime
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States
(2012) A staggeringly effective multipart examination of the dark underbelly of our history no American public school educator will touch: This one-time Republic’s century-plus evolution into the world’s most avaricious, and murderously dangerous, empire. Reactionaries, conservatives, liberals and their corporatist ilk will, if they sample it, no doubt sputter with impotent fury. And even for those of us who’ve been paying attention these last few decades, the revelations on display here will astonish and enrage. Yet even after 12 exhaustively documented hours* (and which feel more like two) neither Stone nor his co-authors Peter Kuznick and Matt Graham succumbs entirely to despair, and their Untold History is, finally, an impassioned call to arms that refuses to admit the defeat of essential values… provided we want them badly enough to fight for their reinstatement. “The record of the American Empire is not a pretty one,” they write. “But it is one that must be faced honestly and forthrightly if the United States is ever to undertake the fundamental structural reforms that will allow it to play a leading role in advancing rather than retarding the progress of humanity.” The Untold History is a vital step in facing that record. Now: Is there the popular will to make the changes we need?


Rush to Judgment (1967) This collaboration between the radical American documentarian Emile de Antonio and the Warren Report-debunking Mark Lane is in essence a 98-minute cinematic edition of the latter’s bestselling jeremiad of the same year. Lane’s is the research on which fifty years of responsible investigation into the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and its subsequent and violent cover-up, are based. And, as nearly as I can determine, none of his central findings have in the intervening decades been proven incorrect.


Directed by John Ford (2006 edit) Peter Bogdanovich revisited his lovely 1971 documentary/overview in 2006. Alas, his new interview footage (with Clint Eastwood and Harry Carey, Jr.), shot on video, lacks, as Joseph McBride correctly noted in his review, the “vibrant look” and “elegant mobility” of their earlier counterparts. Nor does Eastwood add anything of value to what was observed originally by John Wayne, James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara and Henry Fonda. Still, the prickly sessions with Ford himself, the representative sequences Bogdanovich lovingly culled from his pictures, and the original Orson Welles narration are evergreen, and certainly reason enough to revisit this very personal Valentine to perhaps this most American (in both the good and bad connotations of the word) of 20th century filmmakers.



3. Video/Made for Television

Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me
(2009) A pleasant, if not especially inspired, Clint Eastwood-produced TCM centenary portrait of our finest pop lyricist.

night-stalker-blu-ray-1000-01
The Night Stalker
(1972) 
No American made-for-television movie had a higher viewership in its time than this wonderful, and genuinely scary, adaptation by Richard Matheson of a then-unpublished Jeff Rice novel, and it has lost little of its power, or its humor, in the decades since. The inspired casting of, and performance by, Darren McGavin as pain-in-the-ass investigative reporter (remember them?) Carl Kolchak is half the fun, and the supporting roles are no less vividly limned: Simon Oakland as his dyspeptic editor; Ralph Meeker as that oxymoron, a helpful FBI agent; Elisha Cook, Jr.’s professional snitch; Peggy Rea’s cameo as a switchboard operator bribable with foodstuffs; Larry Linville’s no-nonsense coroner; Charles McGraw’s polished, slippery Chief of Las Vegas police; and Barry Atwater, cunningly revealed in stages by the director, John Llewellyn Moxey, as the vampire. There’s also a terrific score by Dan Curtis’ house composer Robert Corbert. The new Kino Blu-Ray restoration is mouth-watering, making The Night Stalker look as good as it must have when first aired. My favorite bit of Kolchakian rhetoric (“Now, that is news, Vincezo. News! And we are a newspaper! We’re supposed to print news, not suppress it!”) is one that has, thanks to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Bill of 1996 and the subsequent, nearly total corporate takeover of all news media, become even more sadly pertinent.

The Night Strangler (1973) This inevitable sequel to The Night Stalker is nowhere near as good as its record-breaking predecessor, and pointed up the major flaw of the subsequent weekly series: That supernatural crimes keep popping up wherever Carl Kolchak goes, and that only he believes in them. But it’s atmospheric as hell, what with its remarkable abandoned city beneath the streets of Seattle, from whence a new serial murderer emerges. And it has McGavin and Matheson (not to mention Simon Oakland) and that’s almost enough. It also has a feast of fine supporting roles embodied by Scott Brady, Wally Cox, John Carradine, Al Lewis, Margaret Hamilton, Jo Ann Pflug as Kolchak’s co-conspirator, and Richard Anderson as the urbane villain. Dan Curtis directed this one, and it’s also out in a sumptuous-looking Kino Blu-Ray.


The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy (2012) If, as I do, you can’t quite imagine life without the mad, unbridled wit of Mr. Brooks, this Shout! Factory set is five discs of bliss. (Six, if you count the accompanying CD. Which isn’t to mention the nifty hardcover book.) The DVDs consist of Brooks’ television appearances, an uproarious reunion interview with Dick Cavett, a five-part Mel and His Movies documentary, shorts (including Brooks’ and Ernest Pintoff’s Academy Award-winning The Critic) and even episodes of Get Smart! (one show is enough to make us wonder why we loved it so much in the ‘60s), When Things Were Rotten (which is no better now than it was in 1974) and Mad About You. There is never such a thing as too much Mel Brooks but even if there were, this set would support Mae West’s contention that too much of a good thing can be wonderful.



4. Seen a second… and final… time

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) Robert Altman and co-scenarist Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Arthur Kopit’s trenchant, theatrical play Indians lost much in the translation, and the result is an occasionally diverting mess. A fine cast (Paul Newman, Joel Grey, Burt Lancaster, Geraldine Chaplin, Kevin McCarthy, Harvey Keitel) flounders in material too diffuse to have a discernible shape or point of view.


Von Ryan’s Express (1965) Joseph Landon and the redoubtable Wendell Mayes adapted David Westheimer’s fascinating World War II thriller, and lost thereby much of what made it enthralling. To their credit, they kept the central figure’s prickly, unlikable character, and their star, Frank Sinatra, never winks at the audience. But the ending, which sacrifices Colonel Ryan on the altar of carnage, and which has no correspondence in Westheimer’s book, is wholly unnecessary. Mark Robson directed crisply, Trevor Howard makes a good foil for Sinatra, Vitto Scotti shows up as a train engineer, and the propulsive score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of his finest early works.


The Black Cauldron (1985) When I saw this animated Disney adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain pentalogy on its release, I found it exceptionally impressive visually but largely uninvolving on a human level. In the intervening years I read, and fell in love with, Alexander’s entrancing series of novels for young people, so seeing the picture again was dispiriting. The novelist’s scope is Tolkeinean in its breadth, characterization and action, and 80 minutes is too skimpy a running-time to even begin encompassing it. But the books are as well deeply moving, something the movie never is, even with an illogical tear-jerker of a climax added on. The action takes in only a small set of events from, essentially, the first and second novels in the series, and the vast canvas of characters has been reduced to a mere handful, with one major figure (the Horned King’s tiny henchman Creeper) created out of whole cloth. Or ink-and-paint, as may be. One could go on at length, but why bother? Elmer Bernstein composed a splendid score, and young Grant Bardsley makes a properly questing Taran. The other voices include Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, Arthur Malet, Billie Hayes, John Hurt (as the Horned King) and John Byner, very fine as Gurgi. Among the familiar Disney names associated with the picture are Roy Disney (dialogue), John Musker and Ron Clements (story), and, in the animation department, Ruben Aquino, Hendel Butoy, Pixote Hunt, Glen Keane, John Lasseter, Rob Minkoff, Phil Nebbelink, George Scribner and Andreas Deja, all of whom would go on to far better things.



5. New to Me: Meh

bye bye braverman - godfrey cambridgeBye Bye, Braverman
(1968) This adaptation by Herb Sargent of Wallace Markfield’s 1964 novel, directed by Sidney Lumet, is richly populated with wonderful actors (George Segal, Jack Warden, Joseph Wiseman, Sorrell Booke, Phyllis Newman) and is on a certain level a vivid comic depiction of 1960s New York Jewish intellectuals. Sargent’s screenplay elides some of the archness of Markfield’s self-consciously (and, to my ear, anachronistic) “Jewish” dialogue, but, alas, is no more substantial, and its climax is even wispier. Godfrey Cambridge does have a marvelous scene as a cabbie, and Alan King gets a sly satirical sequence as a pompous Rabbi.


The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots (1970) Another Lumet adaptation, by Gore Vidal this time, and of a Tennessee Williams flop (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) is the last word in weird. And although Robert Hooks is, as always, excellent, his presence as the mulatto bastard brother of James Coburn’s shabby white racist makes a hash of the action, since “Chicken” is supposed only to be somewhat dark-skinned, and not, as depicted here, obviously black. Lynn Redgrave gives a winning account of Myrtle, Coburn is fascinating, and the thing was shot, beautifully, by James Wong Howe. But it’s a curio merely, and a rather disagreeable one.


The Cowboys (1972) A real misfire. William Dale Jennings’ sumptuous novel (based on his own rejected original screenplay) was turned, by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., into a crude, morally objectionable revisionist Western, the ambiguity of the original lost by the appalling placement of John Williams’ rousing “Cowboys” theme at a crucial juncture. John Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne almost triumph over this unsavory mélange, unimaginatively directed by Mark Rydell. But Bruce Dern, as the chief villain, wallows in overstated ugliness.

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Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster

Executive Action (1973) What might have been a galvanizing fictionalized critique of accepted wisdom on the assassination of John Kennedy was turned in its pre-production into an oddly tame affair. The original script, by the JFK assassination researcher Mark Lane and the playwright Donald Freed (cf., the Nixonian fantasia Secret Honor, filmed by Robert Altman) and later adapted by them into a compelling paperback novel, made no bones about CIA involvement in Kennedy’s murder. The subsequent screenplay, by Dalton Trumbo, muddies these waters to the point of nearly complete opacity: From which shadowy organization, if any, is Burt Lancaster’s team derived, if not directed? Your guess would be as good as mine. Lane and Freed also focus their narrative very effectively on two of the conspirators’ descending life spirals, both of which the picture eschews, to its ultimate detriment. That said, the sight of three old Hollywood lefties (Lancaster, Will Geer and Robert Ryan, whose last film this was) as sinister reactionary collaborators holds a sly kick.


Play Misty for Me (1971) Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut is a time-capsule movie in any number of ways: As a depiction of the artistic colony of Carmel, California (where Eastwood resides, and was once a bar-owner — and later the mayor) at the beginning of the 1970s; the hair, autos, interior design and clothing of the time; the emergent style of Hollywood filmmaking as practiced by bright young directors feeling their oats; and, perhaps most interestingly, as an example of a narrative form that would no doubt be greeted with howls and Twitterized hisses today. “What? A thriller with a knife-wielding psycho… and she’s a woman? How dare they? And Eastwood goes to bed with her and then dumps her just because she’s a little unstable? #Hatred for the Mentally Ill! Maybe it was men like him who made her crazy! So she stabs his housekeeper — does that make her a bad person? (His Black housekeeper. #Racist!) And then he punches her? #Abuse! #Sexist Pig!” Never mind that one of the screenwriters (Jo Helms, who also crafted the story) was a woman. (The other was Dean Riesner.) Much more to the point is that fact that Eastwood’s character, an FM jazz d.j., behaves in such a demonstrably stupid manner throughout the rising action. And his directorial flourishes date the picture far more than the actors’ clothing, reaching their nadir in a soft-focus romantic montage with Donna Mills, set to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which became a Top 40 hit. There is a nice sequence at the Monterey Jazz Festival, a narrative development obviously close to the director’s heart, Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel shows up in a pair of nice bits as a barkeep and Jessica Walter does wonders with a character so frighteningly mercurial you wonder why her co-star doesn’t take out an immediate restraining order against her. But then, if he had, there might not be any movie. (I said he was stupid.) The great Bruce Surtees was the cinematographer.


Broken Arrow (1950) This early attempt at being fair to Native Americans — the screenwriter, uncredited until decades later, was the then-recently blacklisted Albert Maltz — is overly earnest, stilted in its dialogue (which James Stewart’s opening narration hastens to warn us is due to the Apache language being spoken solely in English) and, while beautifully shot in color by Ernest Palmer, was directed with no distinction whatsoever by Delmer Daves, whose oeuvre only a confirmed Sarrisite could love. Jeff Chandler, whose stardom has always seemed to me one of American cinema’s great enigmas, is Cochise. The best one can say is that at least he doesn’t embarrass himself. Debra Paget is rather lovely as Stewart’s eventual Apache bride, and Will Geer — himself about to be blacklisted — has a small, showy role as an angry settler. Mickey Kuhn, who memorably played Montgomery Clift as a boy in the early part of Red River, also appears, as Geer’s son. Stewart, alas, has little to tax him histrionically until late in the picture.


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Night Passage (1957) I’ve seldom seen a good Western novel so thoroughly — and, to my mind, perversely and irresponsibly — ruined by Hollywood as what the makers of this one did to Norman A. Fox’s remarkable little book. But either the producer or the screenwriter (the redoubtable Borden Chase) removed the guts from Fox’s story, one that couldn’t have been more of a ready-made movie if it had been typed in screenplay format. A terrific picture could, and should, have been made from it, preferably in black-and-white, but neither Chase nor James Neilson, the ploddingly literal director, trusted what they had. There’s not even more than a few minutes’ worth of night in the damn thing… and that with a director of photography as certifiably great as William H. Daniels! Audie Murphy gives a good account of the nominal villain; you get the sense that he, at least, read the book. But Brandon deWilde, while game, is years too young for a role that should have been cast with an adolescent, and Dan Duryea is truly dreadful; the characteristic habit of his role is laughter, but each time Duryea breaks into it, the braying result is as phony as the backdrops the actors are framed against in the medium shots and close-ups. As good as James Stewart is in the lead, he’d have been twice as effective if more of Fox had made it onto the screen. Indeed, the only actor in Night Passage who’s a true breath of fresh air is Olive Carey, and it’s notable that her character, a wise, cheerful old muleskinner, wasn’t in the novel at all. The picture reaches its creative nadir in an added sequence that probably pained Norman Fox as much as, if not more than, what they took out of his book: A would-be comic brawl among querulous Irish laborers that is no funnier here than it was the many times John Ford attempted it, usually with Victor McLaglen. An extended sequence, on a moving train-car, provides the only real suspense in the picture: You keep looking at Stewart and deWilde, and those rushing waters far down below, and wondering how much insurance was issued on the actors.


6. New to Me: Worth (or More Than Worth) the Trip

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From Noon ‘Til Three (1976) Frank D. Gilroy wrote and directed this delightful Rashomon-like parable, from his own ingenious little novel, which takes off from variations on what may have happened between a bank robber and a young widow during a crucial three-hour liaison. Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland are surprisingly charming as the lovers, and if the finale is less downbeat than the climax of the book its payoff is in its way no less pointed. Elmer Bernstein composed the delicious score, and the lyrics to his eponymous waltz are by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. (Bernstein and Alan Bergman appear on-screen as early Tin Pan Alley hacks, plugging the song.) Lucien Ballard added his usual luminous cinematography, and the Twilight Time Blu-Ray transfer makes splendid show of it.


Violent Saturday (1955) A good crime drama depicting the planning of a bank robbery in a mining town that gets a lift from the performances of Stephen McNally, Richard Egan, Sylvia Sidney, J. Carrol Naish, Margaret Hayes, Tommy Noonan and Lee Marvin. Sydney Boehm wrote it, from a novel by William L. Heath, and it’s crisply directed by Richard Fleischer. With its small town full of adulterous dames, peeping Toms and kleptomaniac librarians, the picture suggests what might have happened had Richard Stark written Peyton Place. Charles G. Clarke provided vivid Technicolor® cinematography, Hugo Friedhofer composed the taut and intelligently-spotted suspense score, and there’s a spectacular finale at a farmhouse owned by, of all people, Ernest Borgnine in an Amish beard and accent. Victor Mature, playing a man embarrassed that his son thinks he’s a coward, struggles manfully with a lousy part. He doesn’t overcome it, although he fares rather better with the villains.


The Crucible (1996) This excellent Nicholas Hytner-directed film of the 1953 Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials — and, in part, the playwright’s response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities — when seen in the years since the Democrats instigated a brand-new Red Scare on “evidence” no more substantial than that concocted by the terrified young Salemite Abigail Williams, carries with it a new and unavoidable metaphor: Hillary Clinton is Abigail.


The Landlord (1970) Hal Ashby’s directorial debut is a determinedly quirky take on what used, rather prettily in America, to be called “race relations.” The perennially under-rated Beau Bridges plays a wealthy ne’er-do-well who capriciously buys a Brooklyn apartment building, selfishly concerned only with refurbishing his own apartment and utterly unprepared for the wild array of his new black tenants, whom he plans to evict. The superb cast includes Diana Sands, Lee Grant, Pearl Bailey, Lou Gossett Jr., Mel Stewart and Robert Klein. Kristin Hunter wrote the novel on which the actor and playwright Bill Gunn based his cutting screenplay. Gordon Willis was the cinematographer.


The Public Eye (1992) Howard Franklin wrote and directed this beautifully photographed (by Peter Suschitzky) attempt at a latter-day, albeit period, film noir, basing the central character played by Joe Pesci on the idiosyncratic photojournalist Arthur Felling, aka “Weegee.” It doesn’t entirely work either as a character study or as a thriller, but it’s a highly original conceit, and Pesci, who has a tendency to repeat himself, is refreshingly restrained here. The always interesting Barbara Hershey also stars, and Stanley Tucci has a fine role as a hood with a conscience. Some of Wegee’s distinctive photos are featured, along with work by others.


Hombre (1967) One of several collaborations between Martin Ritt and the aforementioned screenwriters Ravetch and Frank, this one based on an Elmore Leonard Western. It’s an expansive movie, shot by the great James Wong Howe in widescreen and muted color, but doesn’t, finally, add up to a great deal. Paul Newman is the eponymous anti-hero, a taciturn young Caucasian raised by Apaches, and his performance is very nearly silent. It’s the kind of thing Steve McQueen made a fetish of, but that was due to his own well-deserved insecurities as an actor; you’ve only to picture any of McQueen’s defining roles with Newman instead, to comprehend the gulf that lay between them. Only a performer of Newman’s range and seriousness could really pull off the conceit, and he’s splendid here, as is the rather astonishing supporting cast: Frederic March, Diane Cilento, Cameron Mitchell, Martin Balsam, David Canary and, especially, the great Richard Boone. If not an ideal movie, it’s certainly an intelligent one.

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Tom Sawyer: Huck and Tom eavesdrop on their own funeral.

Tom Sawyer (1973) Conceived and written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman and financed by, of all things, The Reader’s Digest, this musical variation on Mark Twain turns out to be a welcome, and very pleasant, surprise. Johnny Whittaker is Tom to the life, especially in the delightful fence-painting sequence; with his curly mass of strawberry hair and those half-attractive/half-ordinary features, Whittaker passes for a young Sam Clemens, which is who Tom is anyway. As Becky Thatcher, Jodie Foster (in only her third film appearance) is already poised and appealing; and Celeste Holm is the Aunt Polly of one’s fondest dreams, exasperated and warm in equal measure. The Shermans elevated Muff Potter to featured status, giving Warren Oates a chance to shine (although his vocals were dubbed) and the supporting cast includes Jeff East, very good as Huckleberry Finn; Lucille Benson as the Widow Douglas; Henry Jones as the cane-wielding pedagogue; and, as “Injun Joe,” the impressive Kunu Hank (no actor, his entire performance was dubbed). It’s about as likable a piece of Americana as you could wish, and the Sherman songs are their distinctive, patented mix of word-drunk whimsy (“Gratifaction”) and incisive character writing (“Tom Sawyer,” “How Come?,” “If’n I Was God,” “Aunt Polly’s Soliloquy”). My only real complaint concerns the cavern sequence, too brightly lit to achieve the terror intended; the 1938 David O. Selznick version got it much better, and remains one of the most frightening memories of my life as a children’s matinee moviegoer in the late 1960s. (Obviously, Injun Joe is dispatched in a less grisly manner in both pictures than the truly nightmarish demise Twain gave him in his book.) The director, Don Taylor, shot the picture in Missouri, and his approach to the material — and indeed, that material itself — never falls into the elephantiasis that doomed so many movie musicals of the time. There’s a marvelous, long helicopter tracking shot of Whitaker running through fields toward the Mississippi to meet the steamboat docking there which is as lovely as it is exuberant; the airy, attractive cinematography is by Frank Stanley, and looks especially good in the Twilight Time Blu-Ray. John Williams supervised the music and also served, with Irwin Kostel, as orchestrator. The movie does contain an odd detail, one that would never pass muster today: When, in their duet ”Freebootin’,” Tom and Huck swim naked off Jackson’s Island, the camera catches, almost gratuitously, what seem to be deliberate (if brief) glimpses of their bare bottoms thrust above the water. We can tell they’re not wearing anything in the sequence; what was the point of embarrassing adolescent actors that way?


Huckleberry Finn (1974) Also featured on the Twilight Time Tom Sawyer release, this inevitable sequel fails on nearly every level. Yet somehow you don’t hate it. Sawyer’s producer, Arthur P. Jacobs, died before the picture began shooting, and his absence is felt throughout, especially as the director, J. Lee Thompson, clearly had no idea how a musical should be shot. László Kovács’ cinematography is gorgeous, but the predominance of muddy tones (and mud itself), while appropriate to a story set on the Mississippi, is at variance with the material. It might work for a straight adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it’s disastrous for a musical. And Thompson’s staging is no help either; when the Duke and the King (David Wayne and Harvey Korman) are introduced with an energetic soft-shoe, they’re reduced to stomping around in the mud; what should soar with comic invention merely lies there, inert and gasping for air. As Huckleberry Finn is not merely one of my favorite novels but a cornerstone of American literature, I was surprised that the picture didn’t offend me. But the technique that worked so well for the Sherman Brothers on Tom Sawyer — they called it “A Musical Adaptation” rather than attempting a perfect transliteration — doesn’t suit this book, whose incidents are so well-remembered, and so crucial to the narrative, that variations can only disappoint. The death of Colonel Grangerford (Arthur O’Connell) in the feud here, for instance, simply lacks the heartbreak and horror of young Buck Grangerford’s murder, witnessed by Huck. (When Buck himself appears, it is not as the Colonel’s grandson, but as a black boy slave.) Nor is there anything in the picture as horrific as the tarring-and-feathering of the King and the Duke. Worse, the Shermans, having omitted the attempted lynching of Colonel Sherburn, give some of his lines to the King! East, whose second picture this was, is unable to breathe much life into a character whose struggles are largely internal, and not well illuminated in the screenplay, and Paul Winfield makes a dignified and endearing Jim, but the movie lets them both down; at the end they simply part and the picture fades off into nothingness. Korman and Wayne probably come off best, although Gary Merrill’s brief turn as Pap is properly unpleasant, and Natalie Trundy has a nice cameo as Mrs. Loftus. But the Sherman songs are a great deal less buoyant and memorable than those in Tom Sawyer. I suspect the material, darker and more pointed, was simply not a part of their creative wheelhouse.


Run of the Arrow (1957) Samuel Fuller’s examination of race in post-Civil War America focuses on an Irish Confederate (Rod Steiger) who, refusing to accept Lee’s surrender, turns his back on white civilization. If you admire this most idiosyncratic of writer-directors, as I do, this one is essential viewing. Astonishingly, there are those now who don’t get that Steiger deliberately loses his accent when speaking Sioux when it’s blazingly obvious Fuller intended these dialogues, as the makers of Broken Arrow did, as representing the Siouan language in English. They think it’s just bad acting. Christ, how unbelievably obtuse Americans have become!

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The Tamarind Seed
(1974)
Blake Edwards’ return to filmmaking following his disastrous experiences on Darling Lili, Wild Rovers and The Carey Treatment is a fascinating, intelligent and very effective little romantic thriller (from a good novel by Evelyn Anthony) on Cold War tensions. It’s bright, tense, well-conceived and often witty, with good performances from Julie Andrews, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle and a brief but extremely effective John Barry score.

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The Traveling Executioner (1970)
Had Gerrie Bateson written The Traveling Executioner as a novel rather than a screenplay, it might have been hailed as a modern neo-Southern Gothic black comedy on a par with the best of Flannery O’Connor. The picture, directed by Jack Smight, has the feel of the form, and if it’s difficult to imagine quite how it could ever have caught on with a large audience, then or now, it’s also in its small way superior to the later, much-heralded John Huston adaptation of O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Bateson, whose only movie this was (he wrote a Night Gallery and a Mission: Impossible before disappearing from the business forever) completed it for a film-school assignment, and it exhibits a smart novice’s go-for-broke quality. It’s ruthlessly efficient, rather like the device the smirkingly-named Jonas Candide (Stacey Keach) creates for quick penal executions, and carries through without compromise from its premise to its unsettling climax. Keach, fresh from Arthur Kopit’s play Indians and with his long hair worn in an anachronistic ponytail, is splendid, never appealing for audience sympathy as a less secure performer might. Although the tone veers from knockabout comedy to genuine tragedy, the picture feels entirely of a piece. My only cavil is with the ending, in which the dejected mortician played by Bud Cort takes on Jonas’ persona, and takes over his job. Having botched things so spectacularly, what state — even a backwards Deep Southern one — would let him continue executing felons? The Jerry Goldsmith score is a marvel, ranging from a circus-like waltz theme whose calliope gives way to an ersatz Gospel hymn, to a tender, moving accompaniment for Jonas’ soothing verbal depictions for his victims of an annealing vision he calls “The Fields of Ambrosia.” Love it or hate it, it’s certainly unlike any other movie you’ll ever see.


The Comancheros (1961) A big, colorful, episodic John Wayne vehicle that never takes itself seriously for a moment, and doesn’t ask you to either, and all the more likable for that. (Although Wayne’s character was subservient to that of Stuart Whitman’s in the Paul I. Wellman novel on which it was based.) The backstory is in some ways even more interesting than the picture — see the Wikipedia entry — and it was the final work of Michael Curtiz, whose illness forced him to withdraw during shooting; Wayne himself completed the movie. Clair Huffaker’s script was eventually re-written by Wayne stalwart James Edward Grant when the actor was cast in a role intended first for James Garner. The flavorsome cast includes Ina Balin, Bruce Cabot, Jack Elam, Jack Buchanan, Gwinn “Big Boy” Williams, and Henry Daniell. Nehemiah Persoff makes an elegant, wheelchair-bound villain, and Lee Marvin is both amusing and frightening as a mercurial, whip-wielding gun-runner who, scalped by Comanches, wears his remaining hair in a long braid down one side of his head. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score in his characteristic Big Western mode, and it’s a honey, rousing and relentlessly melodic.


Wall Street (1987) Although supposedly made in tribute to his stockbroker father, Oliver Stone’s movie is really a disgusted response to the bald, grasping greed of the Reagan era. And while Michael Douglas is perhaps my least favorite actor of his generation, I must admit he has a feel — come by naturally, one presumes — for embodying sleaziness. I am if anything less enamored still of Charlie Sheen, Martin’s less gifted son, but even he is in good form here, as Bud Fox, an ambitious young trader who willingly allows himself to become corrupt. (Is it coincidental that he shares the first name of Jack Lemmon’s equally climbing would-be junior executive in The Apartment?) Martin Sheen himself provides splendid contrast as Bud’s honest dad, Hal Holbrook has some nice moments as a seasoned broker, James Karen is solid as Bud’s predictably mercurial boss, and Terence Stamp does well by an icy corporate raider. Only Darryl Hanna proves a true embarrassment; in her big break-up scene with the younger Sheen, she’s appalling. Whatever his limitations as an actor, he’s trying to do honor to the moment, but she gives him nothing to play against. Stone, who wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser, has a fine feeling for the trappings and appurtenances of the time and place, although when the picture ends you may find yourself shrugging with indifference at the whole thing.

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Gazarra and Bogdanovich. Two pimps. At least Jack’s whores give pleasure.

Saint Jack (1979) Largely ignored on its release, and barely given a chance to find an audience, this adaptation by Peter Bogdanovich, Howard Sackler and Paul Theroux of the latter’s caustic picaresque novel set in the Singapore of the 1960s and early ‘70s is beautifully made and wonderfully acted, especially by its star, Ben Gazzara, who gives a performance in which every word and sparing gesture is so honest we feel like eavesdroppers. Bogdanovich and his collaborators — although presumably not Theroux — deviate from the book’s structure (it’s both linear and temporally fragmented) and its events in substantial ways, particularly in their depiction of the Hong Kong-based accountant played with understated garrulity by Denholm Elliott; he dies early in the novel, but pops up repeatedly in the picture, and since Elliott is so pleasing a presence, even Theroux devotees may not mind.  Bogdanovich himself shows up, in a coldly effective portrayal as a wealthy fixer. (Amusingly, his ever-present aide and chauffeur walks as if he has a stick shoved permanently up his ass.) George Lazenby appears late in the movie as a liberal Senator, the unintentional means of Jack’s redemption. Interestingly, Bogdanovich changes the odd but essentially innocent liaison between the politician and a young woman Jack is supposed to spy on into one between Lazenby and a native rent-boy, making Jack’s rejection of the plot even more pointed. I say “interestingly” because Bogdanovich has seemed in his writing to be at best rather uneasy with homoeroticism. Robby Müller photographed the picture, beautifully, on location.


The Immortal Story (1968 — Criterion) Orson Welles’ intriguing adaptation, for French television, of the Isak Dinesen story was his first project not filmed in black-and-white. And while he disdained color, he shortly became a master of it; his subsequent F for Fake is the most beautiful of movies, and among the most pictorially splendid of Welles’ own work. Welles was also a realist, and he understood that color was increasingly important to distribution, indeed the dominant mode of world cinema, and especially, television. (The Immortal Story was shot by Willy Kurant.) Welles appears as the wealthy catalyst of the events, Roger Coggio is his ambiguous aide-de-camp, Norman Eshley is the virginal young sailor and the luminous Jeanne Moreau is the impecunious woman at the center. Since I have not read Dinesen’s story, I am not sure what is missing in the loss of authorial voice, and indeed I would like to know how Dinesen ends the narrative, because I’m not at all certain how I am supposed to feel, and what it all means. On that basis — one of the most basic to movies — The Immortal Story must, I suppose, be accounted an artistic failure; a picture that depends on our understanding of the story it is based on and cannot express its own intentions clearly enough to stand on its own is not a success. Or perhaps I’m just thick-headed. Despite the foregoing, anything Welles put his name to is, perforce, worth seeing, and more than once. I’m sure I’ll be watching this one again… although I also suspect that it, like his adaptation of The Trial, will never be a personal favorite.



7. Revisited with pleasure

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Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale in various attitudes of perplex, phony grief and calculation.

The Death of Stalin (2017) Armando Iannucci co-wrote (with David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows) and directed this at once hilarious and horrifying black comedy based on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, and it’s one of the finest — and funniest — political satires in motion picture history. Granting there haven’t been that many of those takes nothing away from this audacious, witty, occasionally shocking and blazingly intelligent movie. Even the casting amuses: When Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor show up (as, respectively, Khrushchev, Molotov and Malenkov) they elicit sly chuckles. There is, however, nothing remotely amusing about Simon Russell Beale’s chilling performance as the appalling Lavrentiy Beria. Rat-like both in action and physiognomy (courtesy of some superb prosthesis by Kristyan Mallett), pathologically sadistic and lethally efficient, Beale’s Beria is a genuine sociopath who only exhibits human feeling when it’s his own neck on the line. Buscemi and Tambor take top honors among the comedians but the entire picture is beautifully cast, with standout work especially from Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina. Foolishly, “Me Too” accusations against Tambor led to the producers erasing him from the poster while the picture was still in theatres. One wonders where this insanity will end. With Errol Flynn being digitally erased from The Sea Hawk, presumably.


Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) An enjoyable farce starring James Caan, Elliott Gould, Diane Keaton and Michael Caine whose screenplay, one gathers, was muddled by that hack Mark Rydell; Caan averred Rydell “completely” re-wrote what he called a “wonderful script” — by John Byrum, with later revisions by Robert Kaufman and Don Devlin — adding, “The director sacrificed jokes to tell a story no one cared about.” (Leslie Anne Warren, who is featured in the deliberately overripe, and amusingly sabotaged, play-within-the-film, claimed she couldn’t get work for five years after the picture opened.) If you approach this period farce with appropriately lowered expectations it’s buoyant and engaging, if not especially hilarious. The muted ending is another detraction, turning as it does Keaton’s radical newspaper publisher into a rank, gold-digging opportunist. Among the delicious supporting cast: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Michael Conrad, Burt Young, Bert Remsen and the always delightful Jack Gilford. The early 1900s décor is sumptuous, heightened by the burnished cinematography of László Kovács and the bouncy score is by the great David Shire, who also appears, briefly, as the blasé pianist accompanying Harry and Walter’s vaudeville act.


The Front Page (1931) The first time I saw this Lewis Milestone-directed version of the Hecht and McArthur play, in an admittedly poor print, it seemed to me one of those creaky, set-bound early talkies that illustrated why the camera needed to be freed from the tyranny of the sweat-box microphone. But the restored edition, made available on Criterion’s splendid recent release of His Girl Friday, showed me just how wrong I was. Culling footage from the domestic, British and foreign versions of the picture, and a 35mm print from the Howard Hughes Collection struck from the original nitrate negative in 1970, the Academy Film Archive re-assembled and restored the movie to spectacular life. Although Lee Tracy, the original Hildy Johnson, was engaged elsewhere in Hollywood (and playing very similar roles) Pat O’Brien makes a suitable substitute, and that insufferable old reactionary Adolphe Menjou is a very credible Walter Burns. Best among the supporting cast are Walter Catlett (as Murphy), Mae Clarke (Molly Malloy), Slim Summerville (Pincus), Frank McHugh (McCue) and, as Bensinger, the peerless Edward Everett Horton.


Harper (1966) William Goldman wrote this sharp adaptation — and slight updating — of Ross Macdonald’s initial Lew Archer novel The Moving Target, removing, thankfully, most of the original’s ugly homophobia in the process. (Perhaps at Paul Newman’s request? That is sheer speculation on my part, but something about the subject of homosexuality clearly bugged Macdonald; every Archer novel I’ve read contains at least one unsavory Lesbian or gay man, and Newman was notably squeamish about such sexual demonizing. The one exception in the picture is the murderous thug played by Roy Jenson whom Harper queer-baits, to predictable results.) The star, coming off The Hustler and Hud, was convinced that the letter “H” was lucky for him, hence the change from Archer to Harper. The rich supporting cast includes Lauren Bacall as a paraplegic ice-queen; Julie Harris as a drug-addicted singer-pianist; Arthur Hill as Archer’s lawyer pal; Janet Leigh as his dry, cynical ex-wife; Pamela Tiffin as a spoiled rich girl; Robert Wagner, pretty and dangerous as a glorified pool-boy; Shelley Winters as a former Hollywood starlet turned blowsy man-trap; Harold Gould as a sheriff; and Strother Martin as a phony spiritualist. Johnny Mandel wrote the brief, jazzy score. Appropriate to the tawdry sadness that overlies the Archer books, Goldman’s twists are less clever than deflating, particularly the last one, and he gets off some pretty fair hard-boiled lines of his own, the best and most famous being one for Newman: “The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise.”


Dick Tracy (1990) Warren Beatty’s witty take on the notably grisly Chester Gould strip, complete with a color palette evoking the bright hues of the Sunday newspaper comic page… and which scores of ignorant American critics referred to at the time of the picture’s release as having been done in “primary colors”… which of course would have meant only in red, blue and yellow. Maybe they were taking their cue from Richard A. Sylbert, the movie’s designer(!), who said the same thing(!!) in a number of contemporary interviews. It’s a fast, enjoyable ride (Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. are the credited screenwriters) decked out with some marvelous pastiche songs by Stephen Sondheim, a Danny Elfman score that emulates Gershwin as well as his usual hommages to Herrmann and Rota, glorious photography by Vittorio Storaro, and a terrific cast to embody the many odd, pre-Fellini grotesques of Gould’s imagination. Aside from Beatty himself as Tracy, Madonna as his temptress Breathless Mahoney (she gets a great Sondheim number in the Harold Arlen mode called “Sooner or Later”), the delicious Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart and the gifted Casey Korsmo as Junior we also get Seymour Cassel (Sam Catchem), Michael J. Pollard (Bug Bailey), Charles Durning (Chief Brandon), William Forsythe (Flattop), Ed O’Ross (Itchy), Mandy Patinkin (88 Keys), R. G. Armstrong (Pruneface), Paul Sorvino (Lips Manlis) and, in an inspired bit of kidding, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles. Dick Van Dyke, alas, is wasted as a crooked D.A., but Al Pacino has a veritable field-day as the chief villain “Big Boy” Caprice. It’s the perfect role in which to indulge his penchant for explosive over-acting; like Akim Tamiroff in Touch of Evil, he’s both menacing and very, very funny. Mike Mazurki also shows up, in a bit. He’s a living link to the past the movie depicts, as is Mel Tormé, whose voice we hear on the radio crooning Sondheim’s “Live Alone and Like It.”

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Lily Tomlin in the great sequence in which three women hear Keith Carradine perform “I’m Easy” and each is convinced he’s singing directly to her.

Nashville (1975) — Criterion
Robert Altman and Joan Tewksbury’s unrivalled nonesuch, one of the greatest movies of a great movie period.


Tom Jones (1963) — Criterion John Osbourne wrote and Tony Richardson directed this elegant, playful, French New Wave-inspired adaptation of the sprawling Henry Fielding novel, which made Albert Finney an international star. (It made a then-astonishing $36 million in its initial release, on a $1 million budget.) Five and a half decades on, the bawdiness which titillated its contemporary audience has become about as shocking to the sensibilities as an octogarian grandmother saying, “Fuck,” but the performances, and Walter Lassally’s exquisitely rendered cinematography, remain enchanting, and the famous “eating scene” between Finney and Joyce Redman is still riotously suggestive. Although I am averse to the hack-phrase “breaking the fourth wall,” which is most often used by the sort of people who think direct address was invented in Hollywood sometime around the year 2000, it’s notable that Richardson and Osbourne (and yes, dear auteurists, the moments were scripted) have fun twitting the audience with acknowledgments of the camera: Redman’s impressed, impish shrug to the audience when she realizes she’s slept with her own son is still jaw-droppingly hilarious. Susannah York makes a charming Sophie Western, Hugh Griffith is a roistering Hogarthian feast as her father, and the rest of the fine supporting cast (Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, George Devine, David Tomlinson, Jack MacGowran, David Warner, Peter Bull, Angela Baddeley, John Moffatt, Lynn Redgrave) are a comprehensive delight. Micheál Mac Liammóir adds his rich, plummy actor’s tones to Osborne’s narration which, while it does not often quote Fielding directly, approximates his style with aplomb. The witty score is by John Addison, and Antony Gibbs provided the sprightly editing.


The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) Terry Gilliam is, arguably, our greatest movie fantasist — and, inarguably, has the worst luck of any major filmmaker; there is nothing as insane in the Gilliam universe as the people for whom he has worked. On Munchausen, he was saddled with a very strange, possibly criminal, German producer and yoked to corrupt Italian artisans and the wildly expensive and inefficient facilities at Cinecittà, rendering much of his original vision compromised… and, when the picture was completed, suits and countersuits by the completion bond company and the indifference of a new regime at Columbia Pictures which preferred taking a $38 million loss to promoting a project of the previous administration. Yet Gilliam delivered a movie of such richness it is nearly overstuffed with delights. Seeing it in a theatre in 1988 was an exhilarating experience, one comparable to the high you get if you’re lucky enough to watch Lawrence of Arabia on a wide commercial screen. The director and his co-scenarist, Charles McKeown, made going to the movies an act of veneration, and the Cineplex a palace of wonders: An ancient European city besieged by Ottoman artillery; encounters with Death; a wild nocturnal ride on a cannonball; a hot-air balloon made of women’s undergarments; a flight to the Moon; a corresponding plunge to the center of the earth; ingestion by a giant sea monster; incarceration in, and escape from, a Turkish seraglio; and a character whose impossible feats of sprinting make him the human equivalent of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner. Nor are these marvels wholly (or even necessarily partly) realistic. Munchausen is, if anything, about the advantages of storytelling artifice over absolute verisimilitude, and the movie is filled with delicious theatrical concepts — another age’s deliberately exaggerated invocation of splendor. The great Giuseppe Rotunno shot the picture, which features John Neville as the Baron, Sarah Polley as the skeptical child he endeavors to convert, Eric Idle as Berthold, Jonathan Pryce as an officious officer, Oliver Reed as Vulcan, Uma Thurman as Venus, Valentina Cortese as the Queen of the Moon and a prototypically untrammeled Robin Williams (in the credits he’s “Ray D. Tutto,” a homonym approximation of the Italian “king of all”) as the King.


The Godfather (1972) I doubt I can add anything to the millions of words that have been written, and said, about Francis Coppola’s adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel, with Jaws a prime exemplar of the notion that third-rate source material can, when filtered through the sensibilities of supernally gifted popular artists, yield first-rate movies. The Blu-Ray edition of the “Coppola Restoration” is exquisite.

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Rio Bravo (1959) I have a good friend who positively loathes Howard Hawks. I am precisely the opposite. I don’t love his movies equally, and I know dreck when I see it, whoever made it. But when I think of the creative filmmakers (as opposed to the many hacks for hire whose oeuvres made Andrew Sarris swoon) whose best work I most enjoy, Hawks — with Wilder, Welles and Chuck Jones — comes high on the list. Rio Bravo is one of those pictures that, if I begin watching it, I know I’m in for the duration. It is, in a way, a perfect distillation of everything Hawks did well, and all his thematic quirks. That sort of thing can be deadly, but, working with the excellent screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, Hawks keeps things light and, despite the lengthy running time, so relaxed and enjoyable you don’t even mind the cavalier attitude he took toward re-staging for a new picture what had already worked for him once. (He apparently had never heard that old movies were regularly showing up on television. And he would later essentially remake Rio Bravo twice, in the 1967 El Dorado and his final movie, the very likable 1970 John Wayne Western Rio Lobo.) All of the Hawksian concerns are here: Intense male camaraderie bearing more than a whiff of the homoerotic; fast talk between cynical men and sharp, witty women (Angie Dickinson is pretty much Bacall in To Have and Have Not, albeit without Bacall’s ineffable je ne sais quoi); and action that, while headed for an explosion, dawdles charmingly on seeming irrelevancies that add immeasurably to its texture. Made in part as a response to High Noon, whose plot Hawks found infuriating, in Rio Bravo the protagonists spend much of the picture preparing for an impending assault by outlaw killers, and the rest of the Texas town might as well not even exist. Aside from Wayne, giving one of his most relaxed and endearing performances, the cast includes Dean Martin, very good in an essentially dramatic role; Walter Brennan, lovably cantankerous; and the astonishingly beautiful Ricky Nelson as a young gunslinger. Russell Harlan photographed the picture and Dmitri Tiomkin scored it, less bombastically than was his usual wont.

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The Verdict (1982) Paul Newman’s performance as Frank Gavin, a broken-down, ambulance-chasing lawyer handed a life-changing case he’s expected to lose is so keenly observed many of us in 1982 were convinced there was no way the Academy could continue denying him his Oscar®. We hadn’t counted on the typical response to Gandhi: Alcoholics (and the physically and mentally handicapped) usually get awards, but not as many as historical figures. (23 in the “Best Actor” category, at last count.) Scarcely less impressive than Newman are James Mason as his urbane opposing counsel; Charlotte Rampling as his ambiguous love interest; Jack Warden as his mentor; Milo O’Shea as a political hack of a judge; Edward Binns as a Bishop; Julie Bovasso as an angry potential witness; Wesley Addy as a self-important surgeon; Joe Seneca, both dignified and apologetic as Newman’s chief medical expert; and Lindsey Crouse in a striking turn as an unexpected witness. (You can also, if you look closely, spot the young Bruce Willis as a courtroom observer in the climactic scene.) I am by no means an admirer of that overpraised reactionary David Mamet, but this almost insanely overrated playwright got nearly everything right here,† and jettisoned most of what made Barry Reed’s novel such an irritatingly second-rate exercise. (Rampling’s character in the book, for example, is a one-dimensional schemer — a corporate bitch; Mamet gives her moments of aching humanity, and when Newman decks her in justifiable fury, you hate neither of them.) Sidney Lumet directed, with his customary intelligence and unobtrusive artistry, and Andrzej Bartkowiak provided the autumnal imagery. My only cavil with Newman’s otherwise scathingly honest performance: Frank smokes, constantly, but Newman never inhales, and it’s almost shockingly phony to watch. Wouldn’t it have been better to have dropped the cigarettes entirely than let your star look that foolish?


The Boys from Brazil (1978) Perhaps there were too many old Nazis running around in the late ‘70s… by which I mean, on the nation’s movie and television screens. I have a feeling that, after Marathon Man (1976) explored the narrative possibilities of resurrecting Mengele, The Odessa File (1974) played out its revenge fantasy, television weighed in with Holocaust and The Wall, and this, Ira Levin’s masterly speculation on cloning Hitler, had come and gone, there was little appetite left for the subject. Which might explain why the very fine Thomas Gifford thriller The Wind Chill Factor, positing nothing less than that Nazism was not only alive and well but integral to Western governmental organization, was announced, on the jacket of its paperback edition, as “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture”… and promptly never was. In any case, The Boys from Brazil gave us, of all people, Gregory Peck as Mengele, Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man’s Mengele stand-in) as a Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter, James Mason as Peck’s comrade and eventual nemesis, Uta Hagen as a bitter old one-time Nazi guard, and the gifted Jeremy Black in multiple roles, each intensely dislikable, as the boys. The supporting cast is especially effective, and includes Lilli Palmer, Steve Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Bruno Ganz, Walter Gotell, Wolfgang Preiss, Michael Gough, and Prunella Scales. The screenplay, by Heywood Gould (who later wrote the effective cop study Fort Apache—The Bronx) was largely true to Levin’s work, Franklin Schaffner directed it with verve (and staged a notably gory climax) and Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his essential ‘70s scores, hinging it on an at once exuberant and sinister waltz theme — coffee mit bitters. And if the picture lacks the gravitas and the nerve-wracking grip of Marathon Man, it’s that rare thing, an intelligent thriller, and Peck has a high old time of it playing militantly against type.


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
A perennial favorite since I first encountered it on television around 1969, this most likable of all Don Knotts comedies gets a workout on my Blu-Ray player every October.

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JFK: The Director’s Cut
(1991/1997) Love it or despair of it, Oliver Stone’s incendiary examination of the Kennedy assassination was one of the most important movies of its time, its popularity leading directly to the establishment of the Assassination Records Review Board. That the Board has not, as directed by law, made public “all existing assassination-related documents,” that the CIA has not permitted the release of the most incriminating information, and that we are still awaiting some confirmation of the essential facts, is hardly Stone’s fault. To expect more would, one suspects, be tantamount to believing in Santa Claus, or in the non-existence of an American Empire. Based primarily on On the Trail of the Assassins, Jim Garrison’s memoir of prosecuting what is to date (and a half-century ago) the single case brought against any of the conspirators and on Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, Stone and Zachary Sklar fashioned a fiercely cinematic examination of the assassination and its largely transparent official cover-up that so enraged the Establishment it was attacked even while it was being shot — Time magazine even published a critique on an early script, making blatantly false claims about its content. That more than slightly hysterical response only intensified when the picture opened big; its success must have truly unnerved the CIA and its plants in the American press. Pat Dowell, the film critic for The Washingtonian, found a mere 34-word capsule review killed for being, however brief, positive, and even The Advocate piled on; I am ashamed to admit their screaming headline (“JFK: Pinko Fags Offed the Prez!”) kept me from the theatres in 1991… and from Stone’s work generally, for years. Well, it was my loss. And I should have realized, once nearly every mainstream media outlet in America inveigled against the movie, that Stone was touching a very raw nerve. He and Sklar were criticized even by dedicated assassination researchers like Mark Lane, who did not seem to understand that a feature is not a documentary. And while it is true that they conflated some characters, made composites of several participants (the racist male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon, for example, is based on a number of real figures)‡, speculated — as all assassination journalists, given no official confirmation, must — and (horrors!) invented dialogue, that is what filmmakers do. One can reasonably nit-pick over a scene such as the one in which the terrified David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) says more than one imagines he would to Garrison’s team, but to dismiss the picture entirely because a dramatist dramatized is to admit you know nothing about movies, and understand less. But Stone’s critics make up their own rules where he is concerned… that is, when they don’t ignore his pictures entirely. There are sequences in JFK that are among his finest work: The long sequence with “X” (Donald Sutherland), the former operative based on L. Fletcher Prouty and John Newman, is, in its melding of dialogue and music (by John Williams) and its gripping juxtaposition of images, the work of an absolute master. One can reasonably quarrel with Kevin Costner as Garrison, an imposition, one assumes, by Warner Bros. as box-office insurance. It’s a role rather beyond not merely his limited abilities but his physiognomy and vocal timbre; Garrison sounded more like Gregory Peck than anyone else and was of comparable and imposing physical stature. Costner isn’t bad by any means, merely conventional. He gets exceptional support, moreover, from the large cast, which includes Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison, Edward Asner as Guy Banister, Brian Doyle-Murray as Jack Ruby, John Candy as Dean Andrews, Jr. and Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin. Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight and Jay O. Sanders play members of Garrison’s legal team, John Larroquette shows up as a lightly disguised version of Johnny Carson, and Garrison himself appears, briefly, as Earl Warren. Robert Richardson was the cinematographer, and the kinetic editing was the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. JFK is most effectively enjoyed in its 206-minute “Director’s Cut.” Appropriately, the most disturbing moments in the picture stem from Stone’s use of the Zapruder footage which, however altered by the CIA, is still horrific after 55 years. As Richard Belzer is fond of reminding people, whatever one’s feelings about John F. Kennedy, or how and why and by whom he was killed, a man died that day in Dallas — horribly.

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The number of the Beast: Sam Waterston as Richard Helms.

Nixon (1995) Criminally ignored — when not slammed outright, by the same chorus of professional neoliberals and CIA plants who reflexively ganged up to “discredit” JFK in 1991 — on its release, this Oliver Stone picture, written by Stone with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, is less a conventional “biopic” than an epic meditation on post-war American political realities, using as its anchor that most Shakespearean of Presidents. (Much of the idiot criticism the movie engendered centered on Stone’s audacious depiction of Richard M. Nixon as a multi-faceted human being… the first obligation of the dramatist.) It’s a film that looks better with each viewing, particularly in Strone’s home-video “Director’s Cut,” which among other things restored what to me seems its most absolutely essential sequence, between Anthony Hopkins’ RMN and a silkily foreboding Sam Waterston as the CIA Director Richard Helms — the single segment of the picture that most directly addresses Stone’s central thesis: That the President, whoever he (or in future, she) might be, is a temporary employee of a National Security State so overweening, and so powerful, it is a beast with its own sinister momentum, over which the Commander in Chief has no recourse, defense, or power. One senses in its excision from the 1995 theatrical release the fine Italian hand of the Walt Disney Company. Elaine May once observed that “They” always know what your movie is about — the very reason you wanted to make it — because it’s what they make you cut first.

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The Russia House (1990)
A beautifully lucid and bracingly intelligent spy thriller out of le Carré that, unlike the run of these things, rewards repeated viewings as few such entertainments ever do.


The Front (1976) Even at 15 I knew that this earnest dramatic comedy written, directed by and starring a number of blacklist survivors carried with it more than a whiff of wish-fulfillment. Yet it carries you along, and engenders a great deal of good will, despite Woody Allen’s amateurish performance, and general repulsiveness of personality, in the lead. The nadir of Allen’s appearance here is his questioning by a HUAC panel. The great screen actors allow a director to photograph thought; at the crucial moment, all Allen knows how to do is blink and stare. Walter Bernstein was the screenwriter and Martin Ritt directed. The supporting cast includes Andrea Marcovicci (struggling against a poorly written part), Michael Murphy (very good as a blacklisted television writer), Zero Mostel (obnoxious in a largely obnoxious role), Herschel Bernardi as a harried network producer, Remak Ramsey as a slithery investigator, Lloyd Gough and David Margulies (also playing blacklistees, which Gough was), Charles Kimbrough and Josef Sommer (as HUAC members) and in a small early role, Danny Aiello. The great Michael Chapman (The Last Detail, The White Dawn, Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Raging Bull) provided the warm, burnished cinematography of a lovely, and lovingly recreated, 1950s New York.

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Winchester ’73 (1950) This first of many taut collaborations between James Stewart and the director Anthony Mann is tough to beat. It’s practically a Western noir, shot by the great William H. Daniels in beautifully rendered black-and-white and written (by Robert L. Richards, with an important final revision by Borden Chase) seemingly in hot type. Stewart, to my mind the single finest actor in American movie history, plays a man obsessed, at which he excelled — the sort of role that allowed this beloved figure to limn the darker contours of American life. Some think this is a post-war innovation, but if you look over Stewart’s filmography you become aware that this dramatic tendency (which he shared with Cary Grant, an actor just barely second to him in range and ability) goes back at least to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, and that even in such sparkling comedies as The Philadelphia Story and The Shop Around the Corner he hints at discordant rumblings beneath an often placid surface. The splendid cast includes Shelley Winters as a tarnished angel, Millard Mitchell as Stewart’s trusted friend, Charles Drake as a congenital coward, John McIntire as a laconic seller of firearms, the ever-likable Jay C. Flippen as a Cavalry officer, Rock Hudson as a dangerous Indian, the wonderful Will Geer (who was shortly to be blacklisted) as Wyatt Earp, Stephen McNally as the object of Stewart’s quest, Tony Curtis in a small role as a soldier and Dan Duryea as a cheerful psychopath; the scene in which Stewart interrogates him, nearly breaking his arm, is a small masterpiece of unexpected violence. Stewart’s profit participation deal with Universal for this and the film of Harvey made him a very wealthy man.

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The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) — Criterion Whenever I contemplate what RKO did to what might have been Orson Welles’ masterpiece, not merely disemboweling it but destroying the original negative, I become physically ill. Yet even in its severely truncated form, Ambersons is a movie of such exquisite textures it demands to be seen, studied and yes, even loved. Perhaps no American literary adaptation has so conscientiously retained its author’s voice, with Welles himself memorably narrating Booth Tarkington’s un-emphatic yet revealing descriptive prose. Perhaps only a master radio dramatist, as Welles certainly was, would have been as concerned with the sound and shape of authorial tone, and Tarkington’s lovely novel was quite clearly one that resonated with him; he adapted it for radio twice before embarking on the movie. Unavoidably out of the country as the picture was being edited, and lacking the right of final cut he enjoyed on Citizen Kane, Welles was powerless to stop the picture’s evisceration: His initial cut ran 148 minutes, the preview edit was 131, and the final release print was further hacked to a mere 88 — fully an hour shorter than Welles intended. It was one of those two previews that so frightened management at RKO, when his ending, and Agnes Moorehead’s performance, received what he later called “roars of laughter from some stupid Saturday night audience.” That climax, it should be noted, was the one area in which Welles’ narrative diverged from Tarkington’s, and certainly it was depressingly dark.§ But the studio’s solution, allowing several hacks (one of whom was the editor, Robert Wise) to re-shoot in an appallingly unambiguous manner, not even attempting to match the style to that of Welles, are disastrous, and it takes a strong constitution to bear them; the final scene is especially stomach-churning. (The movie’s composer, Bernard Herrmann, was so incensed by the damage done to the picture he demanded his credit be removed.) Matters weren’t helped by the slowness with which Stanley Cortez lit the stages for his admittedly shimmering cinematography — and indeed, the time he wasted likely would have allowed Welles to edit it to both his and RKO’s satisfaction; Cortez was eventually fired and replaced with Jack MacKenzie. What still exists is among the finest work, not merely by Welles, but by anyone. There are sequences, like the ball in the Amberson mansion, and two on the streets of the Midwestern city in which the story takes place that are among the most quietly astonishing ever committed to celluloid. And his cast is first-rate: Tim Holt as Georgie Minafer, the spoiled, headstrong scion of the family; Ray Collins as his laconic uncle; Dolores Costello as his indulgent mother; Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan, her quondam and future suitor; Anne Baxter as his daughter, and Georgie’s inamorata, strangely unable to resist this appalling boy; Richard Bennett, deeply moving as the Amberson patriarch; and Moorehead in a towering performance as Georgie’s embittered spinster aunt, who foolishly if unwittingly sets in motion the wheels of the family’s eventual destruction. Her scene with Holt toward the end, where she bravely resists her own rising hysteria until she can no longer stave it off, is one of the peerlessly great moments in movie acting. Welles always wondered why she didn’t get an Academy Award for her performance, and you will too.


* Ten, if you don’t watch Stone’s two Prologues detailing the last years of the 19th century and the earlier years of the 20th — and you should; they provide the necessary context to what follows. There is also on the Blu-Ray set a splendid, long colloquy between Stone and Tariq Ali that is not to be missed.

†Except the ending. Infamously, Mamet concluded his screenplay without the jury returning a verdict, then left the picture in a childish huff when his wisdom was questioned. (The producer suggested that, had they filmed the picture as Mamet wrote it, the marquees would have to have read “The Verdict?”)

‡One of them, Perry Russo — who as far as I know was not a hustler, although the question of his sexuality is a curious one — was Garrison’s star witness. Interestingly, Russo appears nowhere in JFK.

§In the novel, the eventual redemption of both Georgie Minafer and Eugene Morgan is accomplished through a bizarre deus ex machina: Eugene, while in New York, visits a medium, whose “control” convinces him he must “be kind.” Welles later told Peter Bogdanovich that his ending was “not to un-do any fault in Tarkington,” but surely he was either mis-remembering, or protecting Tarkington’s reputation, which he quite reasonably felt deserved contemporary re-evaluation.
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Post-Script
I have, since writing the above, heard Oliver Stone admit that he cut the Richard Helms sequence from Nixon on his own volition and not, as I assumed, due to studio interference. I respectfully submit that he was wrong. That single scene is what Stone’s Nixon is really all about.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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 as a 13-year old 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 before I could get to it. 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 super-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 (Paramount) insisting that, since it was a Julie Andrews picture, it had to stuffed with big musical numbers, expenses be damned, and insisting he film World War I aeroplane sequences in a part of Ireland where in summer it rains every day. As if that poisonous experience was not enough, his exquisitely beautiful 1970 Western Wild Rovers was butchered by Jim Aubrey at MGM 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. (Not for nothing did they call him The Smiling Cobra.) Edwards 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 a respectable $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 notably deep or especially resonant emotionally, 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 from the original author (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 this 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 equally feline 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 make 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 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 (Judith’s London townhouse is trimmed in salmon), 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, in the autumn of 1962, 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, a 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 the most quietly satisfying conclusion imaginable to an international romantic thriller. Interestingly, Edwards indulges a whiff of emotional fantasy in his use of the eponymous ovule, which the more pragmatic British novelist disdained. 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 and admired Barry’s scores for The Ipcress File and They Might Be Giants, you might know the sort of thing I mean. The early ’70s was a period during which Edwards was temporarily on the outs with his usual composer Henry Mancini over an incorrectly perceived betrayal on Darling Lili, and it cost Mancini 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 here, who was equally capable of muscular writing like this but who did not get the opportunity nearly often enough.

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,  thoroughly entertaining. It’s a real writer-director’s picture, made with intelligence for an intelligent audience. Both are as rare these days as the level of knowing, understated craftsmanship of which Blake Edwards at his best was eminently capable.


*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 America, a country 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 necessarily 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 for as long as she can. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

As real a person as a real person: Isadore “Friz” Freleng (Part Three)

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By Scott Ross

As with Robert McKimson, Friz Freleng’s draftstmanship declined as the 1950s went along. Some of this was doubtless economic (shrinking budgets), some perhaps the once-fresh, ultimately dolorous, influence of UPA. But if his cartoons attained a flatter, less beautiful, aspect, his gag and timing senses remained sharp.

Southern Fried Rabbit (1953): Scarlet O’Hara, eat your heart out.

In the ’50s, Freleng resurrected Frank Tashlin’s Goofy Gophers, the Alphonse and Gaston of garden pests. This is their best short, I Gopher You (1954). It’s the one set in a canned goods factory that features Carl Stalling’s use of the Raymond Scott “Powerhouse.”

Tweety’s S.O.S. ( 1951): The actual ship on the waves doesn’t bother Sylvester, but a drawing of it, maneuvered up and down and from side to side, makes him sick.

The finale of Tweety’s S.O.S.

Rocky returns, this time with Bugs: Bugs and Thugs (1954)

Roman Legion Hare (1955)” One of Freleng’s most polished series of gags involves Sam and a den of lions.

 

Speedy Gonzales (1955): Robert McKimson created the Mexican mouse for Cat-Tails for Two; Freleng added the sombrero. Speedy is a bit annoying — Freleng himself disliked him — but the best visual gags in this early short featuring Sylvester are blissful.

Hare Brush, a 1955 variation on The Hare-Brained Hypnotist.

Pizzicato Pussycat (1955): Another concert-music gem.

Rabbitson Crusoe (1957): Freleng’s running gag with Sam and a lurking shark gets funnier and funnier as the short goes on.

 

The Three Little Bops (1957) is one of Freleng’s finest shorts. Narrated (and voiced) by Stan Freberg and featuring Shorty Rogers on the horn, it’s one of the few jazz-related cartoons that still holds up. “I wish my brother George was here.”

Show Biz Bugs (1957): Freleng’s ultimate show-biz satire, in which Bugs is elevated to over-the-title stardom while Daffy is relegated to the toilet. Literally. (“There can only be one explanation for white tile in a dressing room!”)

Above and below: Some terrific cartoon hoofing by Hawley Pratt.

Daffy’s “killer” finale.

“Birds Anonymous” (1957): The adenoidal “B.A.” cat (who sounds somewhat like Marvin the Martian) attempts to dissuade Sylvester from his carnivorous state.

Knighty Knight Bugs (1958): None of the Looney Tunes animators won Oscars for their best work. Typically, it was this one that captured the Academy’s heart. It’s a funny short, and the dragon is endearing. But it’s far from as good as Freleng got.

Apes of Wrath, a 1959 variation on Robert McKimson’s 1947 Bugs Bunny short Gorilla My Dreams. “Papa” has just discovered that the bundle of joy smacking him with a baseball bat was an erroneous delivery by the stork.

Hyde and Go Tweet (1960) is a very funny Jekyll-and-Hyde parody.

What does a 200-pound canary eat? Anything it wants.

The Last Hungry Cat (1961) is a sly parody of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, complete with silhouetted Hictchcockian narrator. Here, Sylvester attempts to calm his guilty nerves.

A Laughton stand-in graces Freleng’s Shishkabugs (1962), in which the monarch demands “hossenfeffer,” otherwise known as rabbit.

“The Unmentionables”: In this 1963 television take-off, Bugs cuts a rug as a slightly anachronistic flapper.

 

 

When Warners closed the animation studio in 1963, Freleng took up with his associate, the producer David DePatie. Their first great break was the job of designing the elegant main titles for Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther in 1964.

Freleng’s splendid main title sequence for “The Pink Panther,” which launched a very successful series of theatrical (and, later, television) shorts.

The Pink Phink (1964) was one of the few Panther cartoon directed by co-producer Freleng — Hawley Pratt helmed the majority — and it’s a beaut. The premise is simplicity itself: A painter swathes everything in blue paint. The panther switches it to pink. But the UPA-like design, and the ingenuity of the gags, mark the short as an endlessly inventive set of comic variations.

What was I saying about Freleng not winning Oscars for his best work? Mea culpa.

Publicity for the Panther’s first solo short.

The distinctive design of the nameless little everyman who will be the Panther’s eternal antagonist may owe something to the mustached Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther film and its sequel, A Shot in the Dark, for which DePatie-Freleng also created the title sequence.

A Shot in the Dark main title sequence. Jerry Beck, who literally wrote the book on the Panther series notes, “The titles were boarded and designed by John Dunn and the animation production was farmed out to George Dunning’s studio.”

In the subsequent DePatie-Freleng series, The Inspector, the character design is even more pointedly Sellersian. The unit gave him a phlegmatic assistant, the curiously-named Deux-Duex (the moniker actually belongs to a female character in A Shot in the Dark, called “Dudu” in that film): His surname is French but his voice and physiognomy — in as much as he seems to be a caricature of Pablo Picasso — are clearly Spanish. Pat Harrington, Jr., provided the voices for both.

A Freleng self-caricature as cranky producer.

Freleng’s partnership with DePatie gave him a much-needed creative outlet. Here, the elegant title card for all the Pink Panther shorts:

Two significant cartoon stars duke it out in this Freleng sketch from 1974.

The Ant and the Aardvark (1969) heralded a new series, the first of which was directed by Freleng. John Byner’s voice-over for the Ant was a Dean Martin sound-alike, while the Aardvark was pretty obviously based on Jackie Mason. Which I guess makes him arguably the first Jewish cartoon star.

Two masters of their art at MOMA in 1985: Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng.

Friz Freleng died in 1995, leaving behind a priceless legacy of brilliant shorts, and the unalloyed affection of several generations of animation fans. (Although Michael Barrier, author of the magnificent history Hollywood Cartoons, does not seem to be among them.)

“The key to cartoons is creating characters people like and are comfortable with, characters with their own personalities. That’s why Sylvester and Tweety were so popular and why Porky Pig was so beloved. I always tell people that Bugs Bunny is not a cartoon. He is a tall rabbit who lives somewhere in California whom I sometimes draw pictures of. He is as real a person as a real person.” — Friz Freleng, 1991

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

The Great Race (1965)

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By Scott Ross

Blake Edwards’ wildly extravagant paean to slapstick humor is excessive, overlong… and absolutely wonderful. The premise involves an early 20th century New York-to-Paris road race viewed through the delicious prism of a classic rivalry: Tony Curtis as the white-suited hero The Great Leslie, and Jack Lemmon — complete with black cape and twirlable mustache — as Professor Fate.

Edwards and his co-scenarist Arthur A. Ross add an “emancipated” female reporter (Natalie Wood, reportedly in personal misery during filming but ravishingly beautiful, fast-talking, and quite funny);

Prisoner of Zenda sub-plot featuring Lemmon in a very fey second role;

and a plethora of marvelous comedians adding diamond-bright cameos and supporting performances: Keenan Wynn, Vivian Vance, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Ross Martin, George MacCready, Dorothy Provine and, as Lemmon’s sidekick Max, the matchless Peter Falk. (“Push… the button, Max!”)

 

Lemmon gave far better performances in much greater movies, but — aside from Some Like it Hot — he was never funnier than he is here. His timing is perfection itself, and he gets more out of a single raised eyebrow than most comedians can squeeze from a roomful of props. A two-part television airing of The Great Race on successive Sunday nights was my introduction to Lemmon, at age 11. I thought he was the cat’s pajamas. I still do.

Interestingly, and appropriately, the sound effects were provided by the great Warner Bros. Cartoons editor Treg Brown, who won an Oscar; listen carefully and you’ll hear Brown’s trademark “voice” throughout. (A torpedo is one sequence bears more than a passing aural resemblance to the sounds that herald the appearance of the Tasmanian Devil.) The score, naturally for an Edwards’s movie, is by Henry Mancini, with lyrical assists from Johnny Mercer.

Blake Edwards demonstrating the science of throwing pies. His guinea pig is Natalie Wood. Jack Lemmon said of the massive pie-fight which climaxes the Prisoner of Zenda sub-plot that the first couple of takes were fun; after that, it began to feel like being hit in the face with sacks of wet cement.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross