Watching the Watchmen: “Cromwell” (1970) and “The Train Robbers” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

When multinational corporations, most of them in no way related to the various entertainment industries that provided the bulk of what Americans read, saw and heard, began to take over the major movie studios beginning in the early 1960s —  these would eventually include oil giants, insurance holding companies and even a firm known primarily for its parking lots and, later, a major soda-pop maker* —  a vital change took place in how the people who ran them thought about movies. No one who has studied the big Hollywood studios even cursorily can fail to observe that, crudity, vulgarity and lack of education to one side, the men who ran M-G-M, Paramount, Columbia, RKO, Universal, 20th Century-Fox, the Goldwyn Studio and Warner Bros. genuinely loved movies, and in a way that would be completely alien to the suits who later took over their dream factories. Moreover, these men understood that, however much they ran after mass public taste and tried to cater to it, each new picture they made, no matter how like the last successful picture they made, was unique. Unlike a shoe or a car or a service station or a parking lot or a bottle of Coke, no two movies were identical. It was that basic fact of movies that the corporate types failed to grasp, and which led to the idiotic five-year industry-wide chasing after of a Sound of Music style hit musical, the heedless (and fruitless) pursuit of which nearly bankrupted the lot of them.

The inability of the corporate mind to comprehend something as variable as popular art is the primary reason a) for the cookie-cutter mentality of most big movies and b) why corporations should steer clear of movie-making. It was noted, in the ’90s, that Japanese manufacturing concerns were baffled by the American entertainment companies they had purchased. They were unable to fathom a product that was not based on the mass-production model, which movies cannot. Motion pictures, as I noted above, are not a line of tape decks. Not that this basic fact of enterprise has stopped the businessmen owners of most studios from trying to make them that way. It’s one of the reasons sequels are so popular among the suits.

Look: It’s always been difficult to get anything worthwhile made in the movie industry, where the cost of production is high and courage is required to gamble on a picture that challenges the viewer, upsets the established norms or otherwise threatens to be of interest primarily to those above the common denominators of native intelligence. And that’s where pop movie critics came in.

These reviewers — for genuine critics they were not — tended to write for newspapers, where they could be counted upon by their editors (and, of greater importance to their publishers, the paper’s corporate advertisers) to praise dreck and pan originality; to maintain the established order and smack down anyone who threatened to upend it. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was the model in this, although he was hardly alone. When the big newsweeklies gained ascendancy, they too offered up a parade of styleless hacks and soulless nonentities, which is one of the reasons no one at Time or Newsweek knew what to do with men like John O’Hara, Manny Farber and James Agee. It took a critic for a general interest magazine (Pauline Kael at The New Yorker) to elevate the discussion, and that more than a decade following Agee’s death and after she had floundered at popular venues like McCall’s and The New Republic. And in the period during which Kael was establishing herself and proving to be the best thing that had happened to movie criticism since the days when Farber and Agee were writing for The Nation, the paperback capsule collection took off, a phenomenon that likely warmed any number of corporate hearts, turning movie criticism as it did away from sharp, idiosyncratic (and thus, unpredictable) rumination and back to easily digested consumer guidance.

I first discovered the late Steven H. Scheuer’s Movies on TV in my 5th grade teacher Miss Anderson’s bookcase of paperbacks, which she graciously allowed us to borrow from, in late 1972 or early ‘73.† As I was then slowly becoming more interested in movies (beyond Disney animated features, I mean) leafing through Scheuer’s book and reading his capsule reviews was, for a budding film novice, an exciting activity. I was curious about how he judged movies I had seen, mostly on television, but also about those I’d heard of and hadn’t yet viewed, and those I’d never heard of at all. Discovery is half the fun, after all, of examination. A couple of years later I got a copy of the updated edition (Scheuer’s first was published in 1959) in my Christmas stocking, as well as the new reprint of Leonard Maltin’s then-titled TV Movies, which had debuted in 1969 when its compiler was all of 19. When I had money of my own, I purchased new editions every two years (the schedule both used until Maltin began updating yearly), and used them, as I still do, as reference material. Yet even at the age of 14 I recognized that Scheuer’s was the better book; being less concerned with quantity than quality, his reviews were longer, and more obviously written as genuine (if necessarily brief) criticism: Scheuer was less tolerant of trash, and less influenced by Hollywood; his reviews were tougher, and more literary (or at least, stylish) and he more often pointed his readers to worthwhile movies they might never have discovered on their own. It was in his book, for example, that one found reference to the largely unknown, or forgotten, X-rated 1970 cinematic adaptation of Tropic of Cancer starring Rip Torn, which I have never seen cited anywhere else since. Where Maltin & Co. bested Scheuer, aside from including more entries, was in a greater accuracy regarding running-times, and including longer cast lists. TV Movies (published by Signet; Scheuer’s was a Bantam book) was also laid out in a superior typeface, and the asterisks in Maltin’s capsule reviews were both more elegant and easier on the eye.

Despite my own adolescent addiction to these books, with which I sometimes argued vociferously, I sincerely hope no adult ever used either to decide whether to watch a movie or to avoid one. (Although in my heart I know many did.) Especially as, to conserve space, both Maltin and Scheuer began cutting some reviews entirely and drastically shortening others, removing the very thing that made them interesting to begin with: The occasional quirky line or observation that stuck in the heads of movie-besotted teenagers. (My best friend and I each had our favorite quips from the mid-’70s, which in subsequent editions we discovered were missing.) As with that other influential consumer guide, the Siskel and Ebert show with its reduction of movie criticism to thumbs up or down, the Maltin and Scheuer books, whatever their relative virtues, not only helped dumb down discourse on film; they also, to a dismaying degree, kept potential viewers away from pictures they might otherwise have seen, and enjoyed. As a young man, I let what George Lucas later termed (for the nasty two-headed dragon in his doleful collaboration with Ron Howard, Willow) the “Eborsisk”‡ steer me away from movies when they were new which I later saw, and in a number of cases loved, on my own. Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz is a good example, and two very fine pictures I watched recently, both of which I would, if I took either Scheuer or Maltin as gospel, have avoided, will also serve as paradigms.

Willow - Sisbert

Siskel and Ebert… or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The first — commended to me by Eliot M. Camerana, whose exceptionally sane and perceptive blog you should subscribe to if you haven’t already — was the 1970 British historical film Cromwell with Richard Harris as the redoubtable Oliver and Alec Guinness as Charles I, a picture I have known of for decades (Miss Anderson’s bookcase again; she had the tie-in novelization) but had never seen.

Here is Maltin:

“(**) Turgid historical epic has everything money can buy, but no human feeling  underneath.  Harris is coldly unsympathetic… one feels more sympathy for King Charles I… which is not the idea.”

Maltin (or whoever on his editorial team wrote this capsule) is correct that the battle sequences, photography (by the great Geoffrey Unsworth) and period costumes (by Nino Novarese) are splendid, and that Frank Cordell’s score is “amateurish.” It is, frankly, stupid music, in the worst Max Steiner tradition, with dialogue sequences underlined by crashing chords and keening strings as if great dramatic events are being portrayed when they are merely interesting rather than earth-shattering. The only time Cordell’s music bestirs itself into appropriate life is when, in the first of the big battle sequences, it apes Alex North’s score for Spartacus.

But as to that “coldly unsympathetic”… Did Maltin not understand that Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan? How bloody warm did he expect the man to be? And just because Charles is soft-spoken, or we see him behave with kindness toward his eldest son and Papist wife, or delightedly playing blind man’s bluff with his daughter and younger son does not mean he is, ipso facto, a sympathetic character. Sociopaths, madmen and blood-soaked tyrants are as capable of affection to those they know and love as saints. Need we, perforce, judge them as more worthy of our empathy than the colder man whose passions, however coolly expressed, embrace such concepts as democracy, the need for representative government, and an opposition to tyranny?§ If John Adams was indeed “obnoxious and disliked” — his own words — would we not still rather have him than George III? And leaving aside my own abhorrence at rating movies as if they were restaurants, that two-star designation should be taken with, at the very least, skepticism. Maltin is, after all, the man who gave The Avengers three-and-a-half and called Oliver Stone’s Alexander “boring.”

Cromwell - Harris, Jayston

Richard Harris as Cromwell, with Michael Jayston as Henry Ireton.

Scheuer at least liked the picture, but gave it only a rating of **1/2. For this reader and movie aficionado, two-and-a-half stars are what you give pointless nothings like Shreck or handsome, overblown epics like Becket — mediocrities, in other wordsnot to something as sharply written and beautifully crafted as Cromwell. And here, again, we are at the nub of my argument: Had I left it to Maltin and Scheur, rather than relying on the recommendation of a friend whose taste and perception I trust, I wouldn’t have bothered with Cromwell, and would therefore have deprived myself of an exceptional movie experience.

That is the basic value thoughtful, nuanced criticism has over consumerist capsule reviews. Not that a thoughtful critic can’t also steer you wrong, but if you read any writer regularly over time, you begin to suss out his or her thinking. You know, if you read Kael for any length of time, roughly what she is likely to dismiss and what she will embrace. (I speak of her in the present tense because while the individual issues of the magazines for which her reviews were written have long since moldered in landfills her writing is still alive, and, collected in books, can be read at one’s leisure.) The same was true of Agee, and John Simon. And the only way to really develop a relationship with a critic is to read long-form reviews… although, with Kael, you can get a measure of her tastes even in the capsules that used to be published in the listings pages of The New Yorker and which were reprinted as 1001 Nights at the Movies. But I argue that her briefer critiques and Agee’s, when, as he sometimes did, he wrote up several movies in one review are no less valuable as writing than her (and his) fuller pieces, whereas what you find in Maltin’s books is, in essence, a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Sometimes written with wit, but most often merely functional.

Cromwell - Robin Stewart and Guinness

Robin Stewart as Prince Charles and Alec Guinness as The King.

Cromwell succeeds, for me at any rate, on every level: As drama, as historical re-creation, as character study, and as martial epic. Its screenplay, credited to the director Ken Hughes (the playwright and scenarist Ronald Harwood received consultant credit, suggesting he polished if not re-wrote Hughes’ script) is both expansive and intimate, stinting neither on the battles of the English Civil War nor the internecine intrigues that inform governance. It is true that some momentous events, such as the siege of Bristol by the Parliamentary forces, occur off-stage, but here budgetary concerns may have overcome dramaturgy (the movie cost £9 million, or 8 million in U.S. dollars) and in any case there is such a thing even in epics as battle-fatigue. Anyone who has read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and has gotten to the point in the final volume where he can no longer distinguish one clash of arms from another knows the feeling. (It was the same in the Peter Jackson adaptation of The Return of the King, only more so; what was dull on the page became both annoying and enervating on the screen.)

Cromwell explicates a complex series of historical events with remarkable concision. Even if you know nothing about the Roundheads, or Charles’ reign, or the Civil War he precipitated by such anti-democratic actions as suspending Parliament for twelve years, you are given the relevant information in complete, and graspable, terms, and without obviousness or pedantry or — and this is the great scourge of historical movies — the cheating of hindsight. The dialogue is intelligent, limpid and witty, and if Harris tends, as he always did, to extremes either of the under-emoted or the rhetorically explosive and Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert overdoes the sneering popinjay, he at least redeems himself in his final scene, finally shocked into recognition that the king’s opposition is a force to be reckoned with and that Charles is exactly the man his enemies believe him to be. (It’s a realization that also occurs, too late, to Nigel Stock’s Sir Edward Hyde.) The other performers, particularly Guinness, are splendid and if I wish there was more of Robert Morely as Manchester, Charles Grey as Essex and Frank Finlay as one of Harris’ estate peasants, brutalized by the King’s enforcers, surely wanting more is preferable to its opposite.

John Stoll’s sumptuous production design adds both luster and verisimilitude and Hughes’ direction seems to me exactly right. While it perhaps lacks a certain panache, it also never falters, or falls into grandiosity — historical pomp and ostentation because the budget permits it and a crass producer demands it. I was particularly taken with the almost Shakespearean depiction of opposing prayers to the same God, on either side of a looming battle, for victory. “Every man who wages war believes God is on his side,” Cromwell tells Ireton. “I’ll warrant God should often wonder who is on his.” There is also, in the manner with which Harris turns away from the public spectacle of Charles’ execution, and leans his head against the wall in pained regret, a genuine and moving eloquence. Whatever his quarrels with the king, this is not the outcome Cromwell desired.

Cromwell - Battle

Cromwell’s soldiers during battle: The human, plebeian face of war.

Its general excellence as a motion picture aside, I have a further reason for appreciating Cromwell. And although I am generally chary of Symbolism (and its furtive little brother Allegory) and while I’m aware that the picture occasionally plays a little loose with the facts, it is almost impossible for a modern viewer of this movie to see it and not reflect on the all too clear parallels between 16th century Britain and 21st century America. Is Robert Morley’s Manchester saying, “if we in Parliament cannot gain from ruling the country there’s really very little point in our being here at all” really that far removed from Nancy Pelosi’s repeated crowing about being “the biggest” fund-raiser in the House? No wonder Cromwell calls Parliament a brothel. With economic and social inequity at its greatest in this country since what it pleased Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to call “the Gilded Age”; with a line of increasingly imperial presidencies stretching from Johnson to Trump making it abundantly clear that banks and investors own our leaders, and our needs are not to be met if it is to cost them a penny; with armaments our only real product and endless war our most important export; with our international (and, increasingly, national) matters of interest wholly subject to the mad whims of a National Security State that murders president and citizen alike, here and elsewhere, as it pleases; with our legislation in the hands of the most nakedly corrupt Congress and Senate in American history — and don’t think for a moment that one of our permanent ruling parties is the moral superior of the other when it comes to graft made wholly legal by their enactment of the laws that protect them; with the allegedly liberal party now routinely rigging primary elections and both of them busily disenfranchising as many voters as they can; as a people we are facing a decision, and it is apt to be both more vital, and faster in coming, than we suppose. To wit: Do we live up to our platitudes about democracy, or do we shrug shamefacedly and admit that we have, as Twain also once suggested, sold our liberties for a slogan? Would we sit back and let an American king dissolve the other two branches of our government for a dozen years, as Charles did, and only return them to some sort of limited power when he needs to raise funds for yet another pointless war? Do we now, as we did in 2001 and 2002, surrender all freedoms for the anemic (when not downright sinister) promise of security? Or is the American Experiment well and truly over? I suspect that in the events currently unreeling here (and over a virus that, so far, has killed a minuscule fraction of the U.S. population compared to the tens of thousands taken every winter by other forms of influenza) and in our common response to them, may well lie the answer. I’m not exactly what you would call hopeful about it. But if ever we needed an Oliver Cromwell to restore some semblance of the Republic, it is now. The question is, would he, or she, be a Cincinnatus… or a Stalin?

I’ll close this section by noting that another 1970 picture, Tora! Tora! Tora!, cost almost three times what Cromwell did, returned only a fifth of that in revenues, and Richard Fleischer, its producer and director, went on to enjoy a lengthy and increasingly profitable career in Hollywood. Ken Hughes, meanwhile, who said of Cromwell — the highest-grossing British movie of its year — that it was “the best thing I’ve ever done,” was reduced in the coming years to personal poverty, and to directing such deathless milestones as the Mae West bomb Sextette and, finally, a 1980s slasher flick called Night School.

Christ, but The Show Biz is a miserable bitch.


The Train Robbers - Train

Leading with his gut: John Wayne with Ben Johnson, Christopher George, Rod Taylor and Ann-Margaret in The Train Robbers. Note the upside-down train cars in the sand.

The second item whose pleasures both Maltin and Scheuer warned me away from — or would have, had I read their capsules, and heeded them — was the writer-director Burt Kennedy’s delightful 1973 comedy-Western The Train Robbers. While certainly far less consequential than Cromwell and, I would argue, badly titled (John Wayne’s gang of adventurers are not bandits, and his character is motivated by the effects of a robbery)  watching this charmer was just about the best use of 90 minutes I’ve indulged in all year.

If you are predisposed, as I am, to liking Kennedy’s Westerns (among other things he wrote and directed an effective adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, and was the director of the delicious James Garner spoofs Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter and likely an uncredited writer on both) you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship, and the easy wit, on display here. Wayne, with one lung gone, is notably raspier but no less relaxed or authoritative (if that isn’t an oxymoron) than he ever was, but your appreciation of Ann-Margaret’s performance as the woman behind the mission will depend, I suppose, on how you feel about pneumatics. The supporting cast is a treat, however, and includes Ben Johnson, Christoper George, Rod Taylor, Bobby Vinton and Jerry Gatlin in Wayne’s gang and Ricardo Montalban as the mysterious, cigar-smoking gunman following them. Curiously, none of the other characters, all but one of them part of a band of outlaws against which Wayne’s troupe arrays itself, is identified, or even seen except from a distance or during pitched gun battles. I don’t know that their facelessness makes them notably more threatening — William Goldman and George Roy Hill pulled that business off much more effectively with their Super Posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — but it’s an interesting conceit, and leaves us free to enjoy, without distraction, Wayne and his compatriots; to mark the often pungent dialogue (Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it”); to chuckle at the twist ending; and to gawp at one of the most striking sets you’ll ever see in a movie: A train, upside down in the desert sands. Like the ship in the Gobi in Spielberg’s revamped Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s one of those unexpected images that stick with you.

The picture was shot by the gifted William H. Clothier, who was also the cinematographer for John Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the exceptional and underseen Firecreek, Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks and William Wellman’s extraordinary black-and-white-in-color chamber Western Track of the Cat. Here his images shimmer, and Kennedy’s direction throughout is sure, sharp and beautifully composed. Albert Whitlock provided some nice matte paintings and Dominic Frontiere’s score is just about perfect, with a martial undertone that is both grand adventure accompaniment and a subtle reminder to us of Wayne, Johnson and Taylor’s shared past as prickly Union compatriots. And if there are in the picture a couple of odd echos — of the opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the credit sequence where Johnson waits for an incoming train, and of Richard Brooks’ own entertaining Western caper The Professionals — they’re more than made up for by Kennedy’s otherwise keen originality.

The Train Robbers - Johnson and Taylor

Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it.”

What has Maltin to say of The Train Bobbers in his **1/2-starred capsule? “Low-key film emphasizes character instead of action.” Again, one wonders what movie he saw. Yes, Kennedy’s script is character-driven; but it has at least three major action set-pieces, and several smaller incidents along the way that should be enough to satisfy Western fans. Indeed, The Train Robbers has at least as much action as Rio Lobo, to which Maltin assigned three stars. Could it be, perhaps, that this is because Rio Lobo was a Howard Hawks picture, and Hawks is a critics’ darling? I liked that specific picture well myself, and like Hawks pictures generally, so this isn’t a matter of relative merit but of critical consistency.

Maltin’s critique, however, is a rave compared to Scheuer’s: “(*1/2) Dull Western…”¶

As always, these things are a matter of taste, and individual reaction. But how a crisp little exercise like this one, with a witty script, charming performances, an unusual plot and some equally unique action sequences can be called “dull” is at best a mystery, and brings us back to the beginning: When criticism devolves into nothing other than consumer guidance, it ceases to function, as it needs to, as a corrective to mere P.R. flackery.

“In this age of consumerism film criticism all over the world — in America first but also in Europe — has become something that caters for the movie industry instead of being a counterbalance.” — Wim Wenders

In other words: It elevates trash, and shits on originality.

The Train Robbers - Montalban

Ricardo Mantalban as the mysterious gunman. Note the band of brigands to the left. That image, I would say, is hardly what you would call dull filmmaking.


*Only one of the majors  — Universal — was purchased by an entity involved in entertainment, and that was largely innocuous pop music; MCA already knew how to market offal.

†Miss Anderson also let me take a book of my choice at the end of the school year, I suspect because I was her most ardent and frequent borrower, as well as the student she saw as the most likely future writer.

‡Lucas also named his chief villain in Willow “General Kael.” I’ll bet that sent Pauline to her fainting-couch.

§Richard Harris’ Cromwell is as heatedly passionate as I think anyone could ask, so I’m not even sure what Maltin means by that “coldly”; indeed, Harris is, if anything, sometimes overly emphatic.

¶I said before that Scheuer’s were the better-written reviews, but I’m quoting in this essay from the last edition (1993) of his book, and by that time he’d cut his previously more fulsome capsules down to the bare minimum. A lot of style was leeched from these as a result, and most of the reason for reading them in the first place.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

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By Scott Ross

Note: For fuller reviews of some of the movies below, click on the highlighted titles.

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Churchill

The Sign of Four / The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) A pair of Sherlock Holmes adaptations by Charles Edward Pogue for British television starring the irreplaceable Ian Richardson which, while not precisely faithful to Conan Doyle, are rich in atmosphere and, in Richardson, boast perhaps the finest Holmes before Jeremy Brett sealed the franchise.


Underworld U.S.A. - Dolores Dorn, Robertson

Underworld U.S.A. (1961) Mediocre Samuel Fuller is still worth watching, although we might have expected better of a former ace crime reporter than this half-baked yarn concerning revenge served at freezing temperature. But then, the picture dates from an uncertain period for Fuller, the years wherein he meandered between the sting of House of Bamboo (1955) and Forty Guns (1957) and the astonishment of Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Most of the Fuller pictures from that time are curios, quasi-successful but tamer affairs than those that came before. This one, suggested by some Saturday Evening Post pieces by Joseph F. Dinneen, has its moments but the plot isn’t feasible in the slightest, the romance seems shoe-horned in, and I don’t buy Cliff Robertson as a hardened criminal for a moment. (But then, I don’t buy Robertson as pretty much anything.) Much better are Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother, David Kent as his adolescent self, Dolores Dorn as his would-be paramour, Larry Gates as the cop-turned-D.A. who’d like to nail the mobsters and set Robertson straight, and Richard Rust as a smiling, sweet-faced sadist who seems to literally seduce Robertson into the mob; their initial meetings feel like an extended courtship dance.

Despite some beautiful set-ups (the cinematographer was Hal Mohr) and a few effective scenes, Underworld USA ultimately has too many sequences like Rust’s running-down of a little girl on her bicycle: Fuller doesn’t show the killing, only the child’s mother calling to her from an upstairs window and the girl (Joni Beth Morris) looking back just before impact. Instead of enhancing the horror, these rather studied choices diminish it; they’re like the worst of Hitchcock — which is bad enough only a fool would emulate it. Like Verboten!, Run of the Arrow, The Crimson Kimono, Hell and High Water and Merrill’s Marauders, Underworld USA is less a good movie than a collection of some good scenes in search of a better place to go.


Scorpio - Scofield

Scorpio (1973) An avis of increasing rarity, the intelligent thriller, anchored by the performances of Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and the magnificent Paul Scofield.


The Maltese Falcon - The stuff that dreams are made of

The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston’s extraordinary debut as a writer/director, a masterpiece of detective fiction featuring Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough performance as Sam Spade.


The Man Who Would Be King - Caine, Plummer, Connery

The Man Who Would Be King (1975) Another of John Huston’s group quests toward ultimate failure, a tangy adaptation of Kipling with a superb trio of leading players in Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer.


A Study in Terror - John Neville and Donald Huston

A Study in Terror (1965) A clever, if implausible, mating of Sherlock Holmes with the Jack the Ripper mythos, which isn’t a patch on the later Murder by Decree (1978) but which boasts an excellent Holmes in the person of the classical actor John Neville, later immortalized as Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam. Donald Houston is a good Watson, the splendid Anthony Quayle an excellent Doctor Murray, Frank Finlay in a part he reprised in Murder by Decree is an intelligent(!) Lestrade, and it’s fascinating to see a very young Judi Dench in a pivotal role. The boxer Terry Downes has a sexy, and surprisingly well acted, cameo role, and John Scott composed an effective score which, even when it brings in bongo drums(!!) does so in a way that feels wholly appropriate.

The cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is a bit on the bland side, period television color where chiaroscuro was called for, and James Hill’s direction, while brisk and effective, lacks the sick-making horror the subject demands. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the movie is Georgia Brown, the original Nancy of the musical Oliver!, whose warm whiskey-contralto has long been a favored sound in my home. She shows up twice, as a pub singer in Whitechapel (presumably on the basis of her performance of the Lionel Bart song “Oom-Pah-Pah” in Oliver!) and if you only listen, she’s perfect. Her face, alas, explains why others got to play her stage roles in movies. She grew into her looks eventually and became a handsome older woman, but in 1966 hers was not the type of physiognomy guaranteed to queue up the paying customers.


The Life of Emile Zola - Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff

The Life of Émile Zola (1937) I first encountered this all-too-typical Warner Bros. biopic on television in my early adolescence, and all I really remembered was the material dealing with Captain Dreyfus. Seeing it again, now, I understand why: It’s one of the few inherently dramatic portions of the narrative. While the picture’s Dreyfuss (Joseph Schildkraut) was whitewashed — it was his arrogance of personality as much as the fact of his Jewishness that precipitated his false arrest and cynical imprisonment — and the anti-Semitism downplayed, at least the subsequent trial of Zola for J’Accuse has spark, courtesy in part of Donald Crisp as the outraged attorney Labori. Those who have complained that the scapegoating of Dreyfus in the picture is depicted as entirely devoid of religious bigotry have apparently never noticed (and I admit it is fast) the juxtaposition of the insert-shot of the Captain’s file reading, “Religion: Jewish” with Harry Davenport’s line damning him as, of two suspects, the man to charge with treason. The implication is entirely obvious. But what can be expected of people who for decades have sung hosannas to Paul Muni’s unconscionably hammy performance as Zola? His constant shameless mugging for the camera indicates a self-regard so thorough an audience has little need to bother; he clearly thinks he’s adorable enough, why should we make it redundant?

L’affaire Dreyfus eats up so much screen time — and at that omits the role of Alfred’s older brother, promoting the idea that it was his wife who most successfully pressed the case for his innocence — that it would have made more sense to focus on it entirely rather than to attempt squeezing in the rest of Zola’s biography, and with such brevity; his early decades here are a whirl-wind of narrative cliché and the people (his wife, Alexandrine, played by Gloria Holden; Morris Carnovsky’s Anatole France; Grant Mitchell’s Clemenceau; and Vladimir Sokoloff’s Cézanne) are little more than names and attitudes. That it took no fewer than three scenarists (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine) to bake the thin crust upon which the insufficient filling of this movie rests says something… although just what, I couldn’t say. Gale Sondergaard struggles valiantly with the underwritten role of Lucie Dreyfus and at least retains her dignity, but Schildkraut (who, rather unbelievably, won an Oscar® for this) is reduced to little more than periodically screaming, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!” He does get one nice scene, however, when, freed at last after a decade on Devil’s Island he repeatedly hits the open doorway inviting him back to the outside world, turns, and retreats to his hated cell; in that moment you know everything you need to about the learned behavior of prisoners. The picture’s director, William Dieterle, does what he can with the material, and it is at least a very brisk movie, with very few longueurs despite its 116-minute running-time. Tony Gaudio’s black-and-white cinematography is rich, and beautifully lit; on the big screen in 1937 it must have seemed luminous.


Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood, Jaimz Woolvett

Unforgiven (1992) Clint Eastwood’s award-winning Western, a beautiful, even poetic, rumination on the cost of killing.


MBDLAPI EC004

The Last Picture Show (1971) The damn near perfect adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s suberb coming-of-age novel by McMurtry and the director Peter Bogdanovich.


Big Jake - Boone

Big Jake (1971) Enjoyable late-period John Wayne, with an intelligent script and a savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant.


somethingwicked_coverimage

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) A badly muddled misfire purportedly adapted from Ray Bradbury’s magical literary fantasy.


California Split - Altman

California Split (1974) Robert Altman’s first feature utilizing the 8-track recording system that made Nashville possible, a genial character study of two degenerate gamblers played charmingly by George Segal and Elliott Gould.


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The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh  (1963) An atmospheric and intelligent rendition, from Walt Disney, of Russell Thorndyke’s 18th century rogue Dr. Syn starring a splendid Patrick McGoohan.


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Targets (1967/1968) Peter Bogdanovich’s extraordinary, disturbing first feature as a writer-director anatomizing both the sick state of Hollywood and the weird anomie of a serial killer is all too relevant to 21st century America.


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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Walt Disney’s first movie to be filmed in CinemaScope — it was also in 4-track stereo —  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was at the time one of the most expensive Hollywood productions ever attempted (between $5 and $9 million, imagine) and had it flopped would have been disastrous to the studio. The picture turned out so well it was one of the two top-grossers of its year, earning $28 million in 1954. And if it is less than absolutely ideal, especially in its confusingly British-Christian characterization of Jules Verne’s Sikh Captain Nemo, the movie is technically almost without a flaw, beautifully designed and shot, lengthy but involving, with literally marvelous art and set decoration (Peter Ellenshaw contributed some typically beautiful matte paintings)* and a splendid quartet of above-the-title actors. It’s the perfect Boy’s Adventure movie: Rich color photography by Franz Planer (his underwater and day-for-night effects are especially pleasing), an exciting score by Paul J. Smith, assured direction by Richard Fleischer, and an intelligent, often witty, adapted screenplay by Earl Felton that combine to form an exceptionally enjoyable night’s entertainment and in which human conflict, interior as well as exterior, are not elided.

Aside from the presence of the seal Sophie (that she needed water we never see her enter or exit from is evident from her shiny and obviously moistened skin) and the now-questionable “humor” of black cannibals getting zapped by Nemo’s protective electricity (why was it considered funny then?) the humor is refreshingly adult and mostly supplied by Kirk Douglas as the harpoonist Ned Land and Peter Lorre as Paul Henried’s assistant. Douglas also gets to sing a nifty ditty by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel called “A Whale of a Tale” which becomes one of the movie’s leitmotifs and makes a nice, belated compensation for his having left, in 1944, the original cast of On the Town, where he had the lead. James Mason is so good as Nemo you forgive Disney for messing with the original. That superb light baritone of Mason’s, combined with his elliptical speech patterns and highly idiosyncratic line readings, make him commanding, tragic and ironic at once.

The special effects, all of course in those days done by hand, are deeply impressive even now, with only one or two indifferent rear-screen bits muffing the whole. Walt produced this one himself, and his acumen shows: When the fight with the giant squid, originally shot against a red sunset on a static sea, both proved lifeless and revealed too many of the technicians’ wires, Disney suggested they re-shoot it at night, and during a storm at sea. It made all the difference; overnight, as it were, a poor sequence became a classic.

* The picture won Oscars® for Best Art Direction – Color (John Meehan, Emile Kuri) and Best Special Effects (John Hench, Joshua Meador), although according to Wikipedia, “the movie’s primary art designer, Harper Goff, who designed the Nautilus, was not a member of the Art Directors Union in 1954 and therefore, under a bylaw within the Academy of Motion Pictures… was unable to receive his Academy Award for Art Direction.”


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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) 20th Century Fox’s immediate follow-up to its The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939, proves what a fluke the studio’s first Holmes picture was. Allegedly based on the William Gillette play, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes bears no resemblance to it, nor to the 1916 movie in which Gillette himself starred. Although the movie has a fine, foggy atmosphere — Leon Shamroy was the cinematographer — the narrative is asinine, and even insulting; two of Holmes’ typical lines are, “Whatever Watson has found out, you’ll know inevitably. I have unbounded confidence in his lack of discretion” and (to Nigel Bruce as the Doctor) “I’m afraid you’re an incorrigible bungler.” It concerns the machinations of a bearded(!) Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to humiliate Holmes, by whom he is eventually thrown off the Tower of London(!!) and Zucco has a high old time of it, all but baring his fangs and gnashing his teeth. In the supporting cast, Terry Kilburn is a good Billy, Mary Forbes charming as a matron, Anthony Kemble-Cooper has a nice turn as a gentle upper-class twit avant la lettre, and Basil Rathbone has an enjoyable bit in disguise as a music hall entertainer. But Ida Lupino is wasted as the damsel in distress and the picture is both lumpy and formless. The director of this flavorless mélange was someone named Alfred L. Werker; this was probably his only well-remembered movie. Nowhere in the credits of the picture will you see the name of Arthur Conan Doyle… for which omission I presume his heirs were duly grateful.


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HealtH (1979/1982) An often very amusing political satire directed by Robert Altman involving the race for president of a health convention. It’s an allegory about Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, with Lauren Bacall as a narcoleptic 83-year old virgin (Ike) and Glenda Jackson as a prating intellectual (Stevenson) who talks, dryly and utterly without emotion, through everything and everyone. Paul Dooley is an obnoxious hypocrite of a third-party candidate who is a mass of prejudices and whose shtick is holding his breath under water, Carol Burnett is very funny as a representative of the President — since the picture was filmed in 1979, presumably Jimmy Carter — and James Garner is only slightly less so as her estranged husband, working for Bacall. Donald Moffat shows up in a sinister performance as Bacall’s frightening brother; Henry Gibson is a political operative whose first sequence in drag as an old woman is so convincing you almost wonder who that interesting actress is; Diane Stilwell is Jackson’s secretary who can’t type and who has supplied Jackson with a portable tape recorder, with which she is pretty obviously in love; MacIntyre Dixon is marvelous as the convention manager; Alfre Woodard is the hotel’s determinedly sunny convention representative vexed by this unmanageable collection of loons; Ann Ryerson is Bacall’s physician who lacks the ability to enjoy sex; the singing group The Steinettes appear throughout the movie, singing brightly and inanely at every conceivable opportunity; and Dick Cavett plays himself, vainly attempting to interview Bacall and Jackson and perennially frustrated by Bacall’s unexpected sleeping fits (if that isn’t an oxymoron.) Altman and Dooley wrote the sharp screenplay with Frank Barhydt, and it’s a relaxed, cheery, sometimes hilarious ensemble comedy. Why any of the people involved thought that a satire on Eisenhower and Stevenson was relevant to anything, or anyone, in 1979 remains a mystery, but everyone in the picture is terrific with the notable exception of Bacall. We watch her thinking we know she was famous for something once, but from her performance we can’t recall just what; after 1966 she always seemed to be playing the paralyzed rich-bitch from Harper — she’d become all surface, the grande dame in her element. What the hell happened to that woman? She was better at 19, when she knew almost nothing about acting.


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Matewan (1988) John Sayles’ magnificent evocation of a violent, largely forgotten incident of the 1920s involving West Virginia miners arrayed against vicious coal industry gun-thugs.


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Casualties of War (1989) A deeply unsettling examination of an American atrocity in Vietnam directed by Brian De Palma which is best when it sticks to the facts but is never less than compelling even when it’s embracing war movie clichés that would have embarrassed John Wayne.


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The Little Drummer Girl (1984) This surprisingly good attempt by the screenwriter Loring Mandel and the stylish journeyman director George Roy Hill at condensing one of John Le Carré’s large, complex thrillers is compromised but, curiously, not undone, by its central miscasting. With her signature red hair and championing of Palestinian rights, the actress Charlie in the novel was obviously meant to remind readers of Vanessa Redgrave. Unlike Redgrave (or Diane Keaton, the Charlie of the movie) it was central to the Le Carré novel that Charlie was young, in her early 20s, passionate but unformed, and not nearly as worldly, or as informed, as she thinks she is. Likewise, casting Yorgo Voyagis, Keaton’s junior by a year, as the Israeli agent who seduces Charlie into falling in love with him while seeming to put her off (and who becomes her guide and instructor in the elaborate “theatre of the real” the actress is enticed into against a Palestinian bomb-maker) rather than a distinguished, reticent, aging actor of the time — Paul Scofield might have been ideal, or even Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates — eliminates Charlie’s obvious father-fixation. These rather essential cavils aside, Keaton is excellent as Charlie, locating both her anger and her pain, although I don’t believe for a minute an American would be headlining a small British theatre troupe. Unlike Keaton, Klaus Kinski is an almost perfect casting choice for Kurtz, whose complicated scheme keeps Charlie, and the audience, in the dark until the climax; Kinski absolutely gets the Israeli agent’s bonhomie, his middle-aged charm and his deadly seriousness. Like the book, the movie is highly ambivalent about Zionism even as it largely accepts the more than dubious notion that violence is the proper response to terror. The strong supporting cast includes Sami Frey, Michael Cristofer, Eli Danker, Philipp Moog, Anna Massey, Thorley Walters and David Suchet. My only complaint about the production design is the truly terrible coat Keaton is forced to wear through much of the picture. She can’t carry it off, but I can’t imagine the woman who could. Such is Le Carré’s brilliance that Charlie’s last line, slightly altered from the novel, has stayed with me since I saw this one 35 years ago.


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Thieves Like Us (1974) As Pauline Kael once suggested of him, Robert Altman made two bad movies for every good one, and in-between another that was essentially lousy but with enough good, or even great, moments in it to sustain your interest. Examples of this last include The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Short Cuts, Gosford Park… and Thieves Like Us; it has some splendid things in it, and is beautifully cast, and shot. But it’s both elliptical and repetitive in weird and off-putting ways, and you sit there wondering what you’ve missed when you haven’t missed a thing. In the sequence in which the movie’s young central characters Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Keechie (Shelley Duvall) make love for the first time while listening to a radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet, for example, and we hear the same between-act announcement from the narrator at three separate intervals, we don’t know what it means. Is the sequence a fantasy of Keechie’s or Bowie’s? Is one scene real and the other two fantastic? But because they don’t seem to be anything other than what they appear to be — sequential moments broken up in the cutting — nothing about these scenes really supports that hypothesis. So why did Altman choose to disorient us at this important juncture? Why, for that matter, is there a discussion between Carradine, Bert Remsen and Ann Latham in which it seems Bowie and Keechie have become notorious Bonnie and Clyde figures, their doings reported in the newspapers, when we have seen no such thing? It feels as though there’s a reel missing, or at least a few scenes. Speaking of which, why is Remsen’s violent death only spoken about, in a radio news story, and not seen? The omission feels like narrative cheapness. Kael said of Thieves Like Us that it was, “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films — a masterpiece.” What movie did she see?

The picture was shot on location in Mississippi, which Altman was told was “the asshole of America” but which he and his French cinematographer Jean Boffety found beautiful, and their fondness for the place and the people shows; the look of the movie is almost like a living Impressionist painting. The excellent cast includes John Shuck, Louise Fletcher, Al Scott, Tom Skerritt and Joan Tewkesbury, who also collaborated with Altman on the script and would write Nashville for him (she’s the woman at the train station Duvall talks to at the end). Calder Willingham also worked on the screenplay, based on the 1937 Edward Anderson novel which originally provided the basis for the 1950 They Live by Night, directed by Nicholas Ray.


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Three Days of the Condor (1975) Although Three Days of the Condor rather needlessly complicates the novelist James Grady’s original plot, there are some real compensations, not least of which is intelligence.


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The Thief and the Cobbler (1993/2013) Richard Williams’ astonishing animated Arabian Nights feature, still incomplete but reconstructed by Garrett Gilchrist in his Recobbled Cut Mark 4.


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The Great Train Robbery (1978) Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (known in Britain as The First Great Train Robbery, to distinguish its action in the minds of potential ticket-buyers from the much more contemporaneous, and well-remembered, “Great Train Robbery” of 1963) is one of those richly appointed, beautifully shot and wonderfully cast entertainments that make for a wry, exciting evening’s amusement as long as you know that, while depicting on an actual incident, the picture is largely fictional and should be taken as such. Based on the 1855 theft of gold from a moving train, and on the writer/director’s own novel, the picture is a cheery, funny escapade with some sharp digs at the British upper class, and glorious production design that puts you absolutely in Victorian era London (although it was shot largely in Ireland.) Sean Connery is the ersatz nobleman of dubious means, suave but dangerous, who plans and executes the theft; Lesley-Anne Down is his actress lover who proves useful in a number of necessary diversions; Donald Sutherland, often hilarious, is the safe-cracker; and Wayne Sleep is the ill-fated criminal acrobat who runs afoul of Connery.

Crichton’s direction is elegant and wonderfully paced; he seems always to know exactly where to place the camera. Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his most distinctive scores for the picture, anchored to a charming waltz he then transforms into variants: Slowed down it evokes the atmosphere of London’s mean streets, simplified it becomes a romantic guitar accompaniment for Connery and Down’s bedroom scenes and sped up it’s rousing background music for the robbery. One of the movie’s great pleasures is the lush widescreen color cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, to whom Crichton dedicated it. A painter with light, Unsworth shot some of the most sumptuous looking movies of the 1960s and ‘70s: Becket (1964), the Olivier Othello (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Olivier’s Three Sisters (1970), Cabaret (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Royal Flash (1975), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Superman (1978) and Tess (1979). The fine supporting cast includes Alan Webb, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd and Malcolm Terris as a smug, hypocritical bank official. The final joke has no basis in historical reality, but takes the movie out on a high, and very funny, note.


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Heat (1995) Michael Mann’s complex, character-driven heist movie has the texture of a sun-lit nightmare: L.A. as a warm place to die a chilly death.

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The Thrill of it All (1963) A shrill, occasionally funny farce, meant to satirize television advertising but so dishonest about that it merely gums the subject rather aggressively. Doris Day is an obstetrician’s wife who gets corralled into performing impromptu cleanser commercials for a cheesy live drama omnibus show (in 1963?) and finds her marriage on rocky (or, if you prefer, soapy) ground. It’s too ephemeral to take seriously for a moment — The Glass Bottom Boat had more gravitas — but it’s a pretty thin gruel to have come from the combined talents of Carl Reiner (screenplay) and Larry Gelbart (story, with Reiner). Some of the scenes have that terrible look so representative of the era’s color television episodes, but the cinematographer, Russell Metty, occasionally gets in some pleasant lighting. It would have been almost impossible at that time to imagine the director, Norman Jewison, ever making movies as rich as In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, but at least his pacing is brisk.

James Garner brings his usual charm and comic outrage to the husband, and the supporting cast includes Reiner (in several bits), Arlene Francis, Edward Andrews, Reginald Owen (playing Andrews’ father, the sort of role Andrews himself would corner in the coming years), Zasu Pitts as a rape-obsessed housekeeper, Elliott Reid as an advertising man, Alice Pearce, Herbie Faye, Hayden Rorke, Burt Mustin, Robert Strauss, Lennie Weinrib, Lillian Culver, King Donovan, Bernie Kopell and, in a voice-over, Paul Frees. I could also swear I heard Madge Blake’s voice, but can find no proof of her participation. Brian Nash and Kym Karath play Day and Garner’s small children; Karath is best remembered as Gretl, the tiniest of the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music two years later. The picture is inoffensive, even with its dated attitudes toward women in the workplace; the one absolutely unforgivable element is the appalling, mickeymouse musical score by (Frank) De Vol.


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Alias Nick Beal (1949) A dark political fantasy that, on balance, seemed designed to satisfy everyone who ever thought a politician had sold his soul, which is pretty much all of us. (Today people like Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t even bother to hide their corruption; they display it openly, and their worshipers call us names if we say anything about it.) Beautifully directed by John Farrow and with a brisk, intelligent screenplay by Jonathan Latimer from a story by Mindret Lord, the movie is so sharply observed it puts to shame all the cringe-making, faux-populist projects of Frank Capra, a man with a deep distrust of “the people” even as he desperately kept trying to woo them. Thomas Mitchell plays the crusading District Attorney who in his frustration at being unable to nail a mobster makes a casual wish he never expected to have granted, and Ray Milland is “Nick Beal,” the Satanic figure with the means to deliver. Mitchell gives his usual fine performance, and Audrey Totter is excellent as a good/bad girl, but Milland really delivers. There was always something a little unpleasant about him as an actor that lingered below his surface charm. Billy Wilder tapped it in The Lost Weekend, and Farrow really mines it here. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, even in a bad print, is rich and atmospheric, and about the only miscalculation in this 82-minute gem is the uncharacteristic, almost shockingly emphatic, score by the otherwise subtle Franz Waxman. With Fred Clark as a machine boss, Geraldine Wall as Mitchell’s saintly wife, a very young Darryl Hickman as a reform-school candidate and George Macready as, of all things, a minister. (Thanks for this one, Eliot M. Camarena!)


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Citizen Kane (1941) I ended one year, and began another, with the same film. It isn’t among my very favorite pictures, nor even my favorite among those of its co-author, director and star. But Orson Welles’ debut is still among the most enjoyable movies ever made, and it yields new pleasures and unexpected contours with every viewing. This time I noticed, for the first time, the way Welles keeps the lighted window at Xanadu in the same spot throughout the prologue, even when it’s a reflection in water. That may not be strictly logical, but it certainly is impressive.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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By Scott Ross

An exercise in high style by the director Sidney Lumet. Based on the popular Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, this is the granddaddy of all those second-rate “all-star cast” whodunits, few of which could conjure up either a comparable look or a players list quite as chic: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, and Michael York are the suspects, Richard Widmark is the victim, Martin Balsam is the Wagon Lit official assisting Poirot’s investigation, and Albert Finney is the fussy little Belgian possessor of the famed “little gray cells.” (The second-billed actors are Colin Blakely, Denis Quilley and George Coulouris —  best remembered as the guardian and nemesis of Charles Foster Kane — as the assisting physician.)

Finney, nearly unrecognizable under the ornate moustache, patent-leather hair and ageing make-up, gives a deliciously robust performance. Poirot aficionados may cry foul, but there’s surely more than one way to play the role; Peter Ustinov, for example, was a delightful, and very compassionate, Poirot, but, with his bulk, hardly the “little man” the character is invariably described as by Christie.

Paul Dehn wrote the nifty screenplay, with an un-credited assist from Anthony Shaffer; Christie refused to allow a movie of this perennial favorite until movie censorship relaxed enough to allow her original ending to be filmed, and if you haven’t seen, or read, it, I won’t spoil her reasons for you here. The lush score is by Richard Rodney Bennett, and his lilting waltz theme for the locomotive nearly drove Bernard Herrmann mad (“No!” he bellowed on hearing it. “It’s the death-train!”) The beautifully gauzy color cinematography is by the great Geoffrey Unsworth, and the marvelous Orient Express sets were the work of Tony Walton, who designed the staterooms and other compartments to scale and with four walls, allowing Lumet to shoot each suspect interview twice, once straight on and a second time from below, making the eerie claustrophobia even more real, and more unsettling.

The essential elegance of the project was perfectly summed up by the late Richard Amsel in his superbly stylized poster.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross