Monthly Report: May 2020

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By Scott Ross

Romeo and Juliet (1968) It’s difficult to explain to the young today why this adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy was such a sensation. But for a teenage audience in 1968, seeing the almost perfectly endowed Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in bed, the old showbiz pun “There won’t be a dry seat in the house” would not have been out of place.

Romeo and Juliet - Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey


The Weavers - Wasn't That a Time (1982)
The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982) Few movies refresh me like Jim Brown’s 1982 documentary about The Weavers and their final Carnegie Hall concert. Whenever I see it I am reminded of Marlene Dietrich’s comment about Orson Welles: “When I have seen him, and talked with him, I feel like a plant that’s just been watered.”‡


Swimming to Cambodia - Spalding Gray

Swimming to Cambodia (1987) More than thirty years after its release Swimming to Cambodia is still among the most exhilarating performances pieces of its time.


Uncle Vanya 1957

Uncle Vanya (1957) An interesting but not wholly successful transcription of Chekhov’s great 1898 comedy of rural life in tsarist Russia hampered largely by a cramped, uncertain set — at one point, when George Voskovec’s Vanya stands on the stairs and grips the railing, it sways — and  staid, unimaginative direction, both of the actors and the camera. (That’s not to mention the exterior of the house, glimpsed at the beginning of each act and which is an almost staggeringly ugly, and stunningly phony, painting.) Based on a recent stage production overseen by Franchot Tone and, with the exception of the movie’s Yelena, performed by the same cast, it’s one of those perfectly respectable productions of a classic play that, although it gets everything more or less right, in no way inspires or elates its audience.

Tone, who directed the stage production and co-directed by movie with John Goetz, is a rather good Dr. Astrov. But he has little variance, only once, with Dolores Dorn’s Yelena,  showing the sort of excitability that is the pathetically unavailing obverse of the doctor’s alcoholic taciturnity. (Tone is also of the school, which blessedly no longer holds sway, that equates Astrov’s physiognomy with that of his creator, complete with beard and prince-nez. So was Olivier, of course. But he was Olivier, and Tone is merely Tone.) Much better are Voskovec’s Vanya, his plainness of face an outward badge of his mediocrity and his failure; Dorn’s Yelena, bored and indolent and knowing it but unable to change; Peggy McCay’s Sonia, a bit too angry at the start but gradually achieving un-forced pathos; and Mary Perry’s old nurse Marina, tiresomely devout yet too essentially nice to despair of completely.

There are two nice touches: One, a portrait photo of Clarence Derwent’s Serebriakoff [sic] on the wall capturing the character in all his pompous self-importance and two, the witty manner in which Goetz and Tone have Vanya reveal his hiding-place for the morphine he’s stolen from Dr. Astrov, almost as if he’s secreted it in a series of nesting-dolls. The only attempt by the directors at being “cinematic,” however, is to render the characters’ occasional monologues as voice-overs. This not only adds nothing, but is annoying in itself. And the Stark Young translation is, like the rest of the production, serviceable and intelligent without achieving the (to employ a deliberate oxymoron) flights of prosaic exhilaration on which this most essential of plays can, and should, transport us.


Bank Shot - groupBank Shot - silhouette

Bank Shot (1974) Everything that William Goldman and Peter Yates got right in their 1972 adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s “Dortmunder” novel The Hot Rock Wendell Mayes and Gower Champion got wrong with this one. It starts with changing Dortmunder’s name (to “Walter Upjohn Ballantine,” if you care), pasting big bushy brows over George C. Scott’s eyes and giving him a lisp, and goes downhill from there. Even the redoubtable Harry Stradling, Jr.’s cinematography is less ravishing than usual, and such good comedians as Sorrell Booke, Joanna Cassidy and Bibi OsterwaJold overplay every scene and line of dialogue. Only Clifton James as an intellectualizing warden and a young Bob Balaban as a former FBI agent turned potential thief triumph over their material, and in James’ case we spend much of the movie scratching out heads as to why a prison warden is heading up an interstate manhunt.

Mayes was a screenwriter of no small repute (he wrote the superb adaptation of Anatomy of a Murder) but has to bear most of the responsibility for Bank Shot‘s nearly complete failure. Pretty much the only thing that works in the picture is Westlake’s ingenious basic plot, but the tone and the dialogue have been reduced to 1970s sitcom-level… and not of the Mary Tyler Moore or All in the Family variety; think The Dukes of Hazard, with an A-list star. This was the second of two movies directed by the Broadway director and choreographer Champion after the 1963 Debbie Reynolds comedy My Six Loves. I haven’t seen that one, but if Bank Shot is any indication, Bob Fosse doubtless lost no sleep contemplating his rival’s film career. There is exactly one interesting piece of staging, when Dortmunder’s… er, I mean Walter Upjohn Ballantine’s… gang redecorates the mobile bank they’ve just stolen, in silhouette and by pantomime. But it’s theatre imagery, not a movie moment, and as the picture’s only bit of stylization, it stands out as nakedly as Scott’s phony eyebrows. Still… I can just imagine the people responsible for this almost militantly unfunny mess poking each other in the ribs during dailies and congratulating themselves on how clever their director was.


Firefly (2002) cast

Firefly (2002 – 2003) No other network television series, cancelled less than midway through its first season, has enjoyed an afterlife like Firefly‘s. Released on DVD with only 14 episodes (including the un-aired, two-hour pilot) Joss Whedon’s space fantasy was unlike anything that had been attempted before on network television, and far more interesting than almost anything that’s been done since… with the exception of Whedon’s own Dollhouse, likewise canceled much too soon. This gifted producer/writer/director’s perennial refusal in the late 1990s and early Aughts to serve up an easily-digestible précis for any of his shows, or to make them conform to a single, easily promotable category, must have irked the network suits. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a comedy? A fantasy? A horror series? A drama? It was, of course, all of the above, and more. Why did it matter how it was categorized, except that television is inherently about selling, and a series that can’t be summed up in one word, or two, frustrates easy sales?

Firefly was typical, atypical Joss Whedon. (“Hey — can we market it as Han Solo in the Old West?”) And while it was, foolishly — and all too typically now — canceled before it could build up an audience, it achieved such cult status that Whedon was eventually able to write and direct a theatrical feature to tie up some of the series’ loose ends (although, alas, not all of them) and it’s a show that those who love it, love with deeper feeling than they do the far better established hits they’re fond of. Its orphaned status is a part of that affection; as passionate as I was and am for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and although Firefly ran a small fraction as long as that televisual nonpariel, yet I think I love its tiny successor just a little bit more. Probably because, as with James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith, one fights harder for the causes that are lost, and has more affection for them.

The future-world of Firefly is one in which the earth has long since become uninhabitable, American and Chinese culture and even language have melded, and where technology is as advanced as in the galaxy of Star Wars but in which the terra-farmed planets the crew of the Serenity visit resemble Gunsmoke‘s Dodge City more than George Lucas’ Coruscant. Intriguingly, even in the pilot, which FOX stupidly decided to eschew airing, the creators (Whedon and Tim Minear, his partner on the show) don’t explain this, and you sense as the episodes roll out that the mysteries would have been explicated incrementally had the show not been killed. (Even the eventual Serenity movie doesn’t, for example, have time to explain the significance of the “Blue Hands” corporation, although I think we can guess.) That lack of spoon-feeding speaks to Whedon’s belief, probably misplaced, in the intelligence, and patience, of the audience. This may have backfired — Serenity was also a flop — but how many creators of television series (or, increasingly, of movies) assume their viewers have any perspicacity whatever?

Watching Firefly again naturally led me to…


CLH.Oe.0804.serenity

Serenity (2005) Some beloved characters are killed, others find redemption, and we do finally see a few of the fearful Reavers (if not, thankfully, what they do). The original crew of the Serenity returns, although — alas — the wonderful Ron Glass makes only two brief appearances as Shepherd Book. But in addition to Nathan Fillion (Captain Mal), Gina Torres (Zoe), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), the adorable Jewel Staite (Kaylee), Sean Maher (Simon) and Summer Glau (River) there are also: The charming David Krumholtz as a hacker called “Mr. Universe” and the astonishing Chiwetel Ejiofor as the terribly thorough and endlessly resourceful “Operative” out to track Simon and River down, a superbly effective score by David Newman, a few genuinely terrifying sequences, some beautiful camera work by Jack Green, typically fluid direction by Whedon and, as usual, dialogue by him that is both witty and plangent. Sadly, while Serenity cost $39 million, a pittance in 21st century movie terms, its box office take was only slightly more, which is about as depressing as news of the decreasingly intelligent mass audience gets. And if you are a true sadist and you wish to see me to cry, just whisper into my ear the phrase, “I am a leaf on the wind — watch how I soar.”


Nicholas and Alexnadra

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) A beautifully photographed (by the great Freddie Young), epic-length adaptation of Robert K. Massie’s superb dual biography that somehow misses greatness at nearly every turn. It’s not a disaster by any means, and it’s never boring; the director, Franklin J. Schaffner, was one of the more thoughtful studio filmmakers of his era, with a nearly unerring visual sense. But if you know the history the inaccuracies bug you, and even if you don’t you keep waiting in vain for the picture to catch fire.


Cops and Robbers - poster art

Cops and Robbers (1973) A sharp caper comedy original by Donald E. Westlake, which he then adapted into a more serious novel. The plot, and the incidents, are nearly identical in each (although their climax in the movie is more satisfying); only the tone has changed, and it makes all the difference between a comedy, and a gutsy thriller with some comic dialogue and overtones.  The plotting, as usual with Westlake, is ingenious, although I prefer how, in the book, what the newly-minted miscreants do with the bearer-bonds they steal from a Wall Street brokerage was obviously worked out beforehand rather than improvised, as it is in the picture. The editor and sometime director Aram Avakian put it all together briskly (it runs 89 minutes), and David L. Quaid’s cinematography perfectly captures both Long Island suburbia and the contours of “Fun City” in the early 1970s. Cliff Gorman and Joseph Bologna are likable and funny as the cops desperate to escape their increasingly untenable professional lives, and while most of the supporting roles are brief, Delphi Lawrence has a good role as a rich crime victim, Dolph Sweet gives a rich performance as the cops’ grocery store manager neighbor (complete with plaid shorts and knee-length red socks),  John P. Ryan and Nino Ruggeri are fulsome as Mafia bosses,  Shepperd Strudwick is effectively smarmy as a more institutionalized thief, and Joe Spinell, immortal as Willi Cicci in the the first two Godfather pictures (“The Family had a lotta buffahs“) is amusing as a minor hood.


Lovers - Castellano, Keaton, Arthur

Richard Castellano with Diane Keaton and Beatrice Arthur. Those hairdos don’t do much for either of them.

Lovers and Other Strangers (1970) This very funny adaptation of Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor’s connected omnibus of short plays about marriage is now the curious relic of another age: A time when there were actual Broadway plays as well as musicals; even a moderately successful show (in this case, 70 performances) could get a movie deal; dialogue, character, conflict and performance were more important than directorial shenanigans and special effects; the songs that accompanied the action were both original and attractive; and fascinating women got as much screen time as interesting men.


The Chase - Dickinson, Brando

The Chase (1966) There was, potentially, a compelling movie in Horton Foote’s very fine 1956 novel (based in turn on his play of 1952) but it was sabotaged both before the fact, and after. First, the producer, Sam Spiegel, hired Lillian Hellman to write the adaptation. Quite apart from the fact that her adaptations of other writer’s work was generally less than salient, instead of hewing to Foote’s book she used it, she claimed, “as a departure,” about which the original author noted, “and she did depart.” (He also once said Hellman departed so far he couldn’t find his original work in her adaptation.) The novel, about a decent and honest Texas law officer (that’s how you know it’s a fiction) placed in an untenable position when an escaped felon makes for home is, at base, the portrait of a man experiencing a complete nervous breakdown. In Hellman’s hands — or Spiegel’s, since he ran the script through the typewriters of several others including Michael Wilson, Ivan Moffit and, finally, even Foote himself, who could do nothing with the mess he’d inherited — The Chase becomes an indictment of capitalism (how… shocking), a depiction of motiveless and hysterical mob violence and even, trendily for the time, a condemnation of racism before finally devolving into, an imbecilic echo of Dallas in November of 1963. Everything, in fact, but what Foote was actually writing about. (For those who care about such things, it was the movie’s director, Arthur Penn, who came up with the stupid, and all-too-obvious, Ruby-shoots-Oswald climax. So much for the virtues of auteurism.)

Spiegel wasn’t content with making a shambles of the original material: During the shooting he replaced the Robert Surtees, the ailing director of photography, without consulting his director and, afterward, compounded the problems by screwing that same man out of the ability to edit the picture or even be involved in the process. The tension is evident throughout: Joseph LaShelle’s color and widescreen cinematography is impressive, in a deep-focus, Old Hollywood fashion, but that wasn’t how Penn liked to work, and the style of The Chase doesn’t resemble that of his best movies, like The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. Not that Penn had much of an opportunity to enrich material Hellman, Speigel (& Legion) had already, on the one hand, flattened out and, on the other, bloated beyond belief. In the Foote novel, the Sheriff (here played as interestingly and as well as Marlon Brando could manage under the circumstances) feels that the object of “the chase” is not the prison farm escapee Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) but himself; that a reckoning is due, and that he is going to be found wanting at the end of it. This is replaced in the picture by the town’s rather inexplicable mass hatred of him, and complicated by Bubber’s wife (Jan Fonda) being involved, not with a poor one-armed bootlegger, as in the book, but the scion (James Fox) of the town’s wealthiest banker and oilman (E.G. Marshall), the former an old friend of Bubber’s. I don’t intend going much further into this, because I can feel my eyelids droop just typing it, but a lot of talent was buried herein, as was a good dramatic score by John Barry.

Many in hindsight see the brutal sequence in which a trio of vigilantes led by Richard Bradford beats Brando nearly to death in his office as Penn edging toward the bloody violence that exploded in Bonnie and Clyde the following year, but it seems, like everything else in the movie, such as the pointless and hysterical conflagration by the mob of an automobile graveyard near the end, to have been imposed on it by the producer. But then it was the 1960s, and good liberals could never be too condescending or superior to Southerners.


Gray's Anatromy 28351id_141_large

Spalding Gray in one of the movie’s more sedate visual moments.

Gray’s Anatomy (1996) Spalding Gray’s follow-up to his 1991 Monster in a Box might have been a typically ironic and surprisingly affecting Gray performance piece, but was so tricked up by his megalomaniac director it’s hard to keep track of the author’s words, or his performance. Writing about Swimming to Cambodia I said of Jonathan Demme and his collaborators that they never got in Gray’s way. Here, that’s all Steven Soderbergh does. He and his idiot cinematographer Elliot Davis begin by taking Gray’s audience, a central part of his performance, away, and proceed to pound square visual pegs into round aural holes for nearly 80 minutes, continually grafting artsy photographic business and cinematic trickery onto the material until it can barely cry “Uncle!” It says something essential about Soderbergh that he cut so much of Spalding Gray’s material prior to filming that the resulting movie was nearly 20 minutes too short, necessitating the wholly extraneous black-and-white interview padding that bookends and occasionally interrupts the action. I realize Gray, and his director and co-author Renée Shafransky, agreed to Soderbergh’s insane meddling, but I cannot think either knew just how badly they were going to be served by it. If you have to subject yourself to this, best to chase the movie with an extra on the Criterion disc, a videotaped performance of Gray’s charming 1980 monologue A Personal History of the American Theatre: One man, his reminiscences, a desk, a bunch of play titles, the burble of audience laughter, and nothing else required.


Vanya on 42nd Street resized

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) Although this Uncle Vanya is much more theatrical than the Franchot Tone, it is also, conversely, far more cinematic. It also has the superior cast. André Gregory had been rehearsing them in the David Mamet adaptation for years, with no intention of performing it (although later they did, for very small, selected audiences) merely to explore a dramatic text in depth over a lengthy period. That he chose for this experiment my favorite play is perhaps more than a happy accident, as at the time Gregory was in his late 50s and as much as anything Vanya is about dissatisfaction, regret, loneliness and a general ennui — which, while not the sole province of middle- and old age are certainly preoccupations in both. Performed in the then-crumbling New Amsterdam Theatre (subsequently refurbished by a certain deep-pocketed entertainment corporation) and filmed by Gregory and Wallace Shawn’s My Dinner with Andre collaborator Louis Malle, whose last picture this was, Vanya on 42nd Street is beautifully observed, both pictorially and histrionically, in the first case by cinematographer Declan Quinn and in the second by Gregory, Malle and a cast whose individual and ensemble playing is nearly above reproach.

If Larry Pine is less charming an Astrov than he might be, and less of an opportunistic rotter, yet he has moments when you feel the doctor’s dislocation from life acutely. Brooke Smith is, with Joan Plowright, one of the two best Sonyas I’ve seen, and in some ways superior; Shawn is perhaps more impish than is the norm for Vanya but is no less heartbreakingly ordinary for that; and the aged musical and comedy performer George Gaynes is an utter revelation as Professor Serybryakov. Best of all is the great Julianne Moore as the professor’s young wife, the pivot about whom all else in Vanya revolves. Hers is the first Yelena I have seen who is an absolute human being, not merely a figure on whom the others project their emotions, and one moreover whose lassitude and boredom are emblematic of more than mere youthful self-absorption. Moore is so ready with a laugh or a smile that when, alone on stage near the end of the second act she breaks down, the effect of those astonishingly beautiful features of hers crumbling into abject despair is devastating.

My only complaint about this picture, in 1994 or now, an astonishing (to me) quarter-century later, is the prosaic quality of the Mamet script, and his and Gregory’s adamant refusal to allow Sonya to place her head on Vanya’s knees at the climax. If people cannot express themselves fully at the moment of their greatest emotional self-revelation, physically as well as with their voices, I don’t see why the play is being done to begin with. It’s like watching, as I once did years ago, a production of A Doll House in which when Nora leaves there is no door-slam.


What's Up, Doc - O'Neal, Bogdanovich, Streisand resized

What’s Up, Doc? (1972) I’m not sure what astonishes me more: That it has been 48 years since I saw this modern “screwball comedy” on its initial release, or that it is still so charming, and so very, very funny, nearly a half-century later.


*Alas, in Jim Brown’s self-produced DVD, the amusing sequence illustrating the many recorded versions  of “The Hammer Song,” some of them hilarious (such as Mitch Miller’s and Senator Sam Irvin’s) is gone, presumably a victim of the usual insane music re-use problems. This, in a movie about a singing group Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes started, and concerning a song they wrote!

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: July — September 2019

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By Scott Ross

Home-viewing from The Armchair Theatre over the last three months; because there isn’t a single bloody thing in the cinemas worth the time, petrol, cash or personal energy it would take to go out. Although I will admit I was convinced by a friend to attend a special screening of Daughters of the Dust… thereby proving the point.

Tootsie Jessica Lang and Dustin Hoffman
Tootsie (1982) Take one vanity project for a notoriously self-involved actor (Murray Schisgal writing a screenplay about acting for Dustin Hoffman); mix with a separate script by Don McGuire concerning an out-of-work performer donning drag for a soap-opera role that borrows a bit too liberally from Some Like it Hot, even unto its blond object of affection and unwanted middle-aged suitors; add in re-writes by a small army of scenarists headed by the great Larry Gelbart and including, un-credited, Barry Levinson, Robert Garland and Elaine May; bake by a director widely known as one of Hollywood’s most notorious writer fuckers (Gelbart claimed the movie was stitched together from any number of scenarists’ drafts), and the result should have been a disaster. Instead, through some weird alchemy it not only wasn’t but somehow those ingredients contrived to blend so well the picture became a small classic of its kind. Revisiting Tootsie from a 35-year remove, it seems almost miraculous: A popular comedy that tickles the mind as often as it does the ribs. And the direction, by Sydney Pollack, never a favorite filmmaker of this writer, looks as good now as it did in 1982; whatever its internal flaws (including a series of consecutive events supposedly encompassing a single evening that Gelbart later wrote was “a night that would have to last a hundred hours”) the picture is strikingly lovely, with Owen Roizman’s sumptuous lighting and the crisp, witty editing by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp giving it a patina of warmth and sophistication, a rare combination for any movie comedy. Hoffman’s “Dorothy Michaels” ranks as one of the great comic creations in American movies, yet the actor also locates the loneliness of the character — or, rather characters, since everything Dorothy says and does is filtered through Michael Dorsey’s brain and emotions — and an essential sweetness and decency Michael himself lacks when he’s wearing pants.* As the unwitting object of Michael’s interests, Jessica Lange was a revelation in 1982, lightness and gravity in balance, and what she does is still astonishing in the sheer rightness of her every glance, inflection and wistful hesitation. Terri Garr is no less entrancing, in what is surely her best screen performance, and Bill Murray gets the picture’s best lines as Michael’s playwright roommate. (May created the character, and wrote his speeches.) Against his own wishes, Pollack took on the role of Hoffman’s agent, and their scenes together, reflecting some of the very real anger and frustration each felt toward the other, are among the movie’s comic highlights. The great supporting cast includes Dabney Coleman as the sexist television director, Charles Durning and George Gaynes in the Joe E. Brown role(s), Doris Belack as the savvy “daytime drama” producer, Geena Davis as a nurse in the soap-within-a-film’s fictional hospital, and the late Lynne Thigpen as the show’s floor manager. Dave Grusin, who often floundered when composing for dramatic pictures, wrote for Tootsie one of his most felicitous comedy scores. It isn’t funny in itself, nor does it try to be; its alternate moods of peppy urbanity and plangent emotionalism make for a perfect juxtaposition that reflects the plot’s development and moods without attempting either to compete with them, or to ape the action.

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* Hoffman based Dorothy’s soft Southern vocal mannerisms on those of his friend Polly Holiday.


They Might Be Giants - finale

George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward in the movie’s radiant, moving final moments.They Might Be Giants (1971)

They Might Be Giants (1971) James Goldman has long been one of my favorite writers. While nowhere near as prolific (nor as well known) as his brother William, his smaller output includes the 1965 play and subsequent movie 1968 The Lion in Winter (for which he won an Academy Award); the beautifully compressed book for the landmark Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince Follies, arguably the single greatest theatrical musical of the 20th century; the wonderfully conceived and unexpectedly moving Robin and Marian (1976); a superb novel about King John, Myself as Witness, in which Goldman re-examined an historical figure he felt he had maligned in his previous writing; and the play on which this lovely picture was based and for which he wrote the beautifully structured adaptation. Hal Prince produced the play’s only major production in London, later castigating himself for hiring the wrong director (Joan Littlewood) for the piece, although Goldman himself said he was unhappy with the script, which he subsequently withdrew from further production. The movie, while disappointing financially — presumably those involved expected another Lion in Winter — is a blissful variation on Arthur Conan Doyle, in which a mad retired jurist (George C. Scott) called Justin Playfair, who believes he is Sherlock Holmes, is examined by a psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) named Mildred Watson. They meet as antagonists, form an uneasy alliance and drift toward romance, while Playfair seeks a rendezvous with the elusive Professor Moriarty. It may sound twee, and there are many on whom its gentle charms are no doubt lost, but it’s a funny, and surprisingly emotional, rumination on the relative insanity of a brilliant, harmless paranoid and of the increasingly mad society to which he is expected to conform. That last notion no doubt seems trite, but it has seldom been handled with such deftness and wit. Anthony Harvey, who also directed The Lion in Winter, shot the picture with a nervy energy that captures the New York City of the early 1970s, not as if under glass but as a living stage for Playfair’s intrigues. Scott and Woodward tear into their roles with the relish of great actors who know in their bones they’ve got their hands on some of the choicest dialogue around, and the rich supporting cast includes Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan, Theresa Merritt, Eugene Roche, James Tolkan, Kitty Winn, Sudie Bond, Staats Cotsworth, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Benedict, M. Emmet Walsh and Louis Zorich. There’s also a brief but extremely effective chamber score by John Barry, arranged and augmented by Ken Thorne. Two home-video versions exist: One (a Universal Vault DVD) running under 90 minutes, reflects the theatrical release while the other, the television edit (on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber) is longer, and includes the wry, delightful extended sequence in an immense Manhattan grocery store. It could, I suppose, be argued that the story doesn’t need the grocery sequence, and the climax plays well without it. But it also seems to me that the movie is enriched by its inclusion, and diminished by its excision. So, caveat emptor.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.

Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.


Daughters of the Dust_Trailer

Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant

Daughters of the Dust (1991) Julie Dash’s dreamlike evocation of Gulla society on a small South Carolina island in the early years of the 20th century was well-received critically but not a box-office success. 20/20 hindsight by knee-jerk commentators now has it that the picture was badly handled by its distributor because its writer-director was not only a woman, but a black woman. Yet I don’t see how this luminously photographed exercise in non-linear rumination could have been a popular success in any era: It’s so diffuse it seems less Impressionistic than merely undefined; we can scarcely tell what the various narrative threads are, much less what they mean. What’s best about the picture, aside from Arthur Jafa’s exquisite cinematography, are the wonderful faces of the expressive actors, especially those of Cora Lee Day as the family matriarch clinging to her African roots and religion, Cheryl Lynn Bruce as her overly-devout Christian granddaughter, and Barbara-O as her mirror opposite, a wayward young woman who left the island for a man but who now is involved with a younger woman. But 60 minutes into this hour-and-52-minute glorified student film my eyes had long since begun to glaze over and even those interesting faces weren’t enough to clear them.


The Last Hard Men - Heston and Coburn

The Last Hard Men (1976) A tough, bloody Western from an unsparing Brian Garfield novel, starring Charlton Heston and James Coburn as old antagonists on a collision course. Although (unlike in the book’s ending) the movie’s climax seemingly leaves his character’s survival in doubt, and while the actor was too young for the role — as Garfield wrote it, the former lawman is in his 60s, and becoming increasingly frail — Heston is quite a good match for the ruthless Coburn, and the filmmakers (Andrew V. McLaglen was the director, and Guerdon Trueblood wrote the script) don’t flinch from the story’s most horrific moment, when the Heston figure’s daughter (Barbara Hershey) is gang-raped by Coburn’s team of escaped prisoners. The role of Hershey’s earnest suitor is the sort of part the young Jeff Bridges could have turned into a third lead by doing almost nothing, and while Chris Mitchum is attractive, he’s completely out of his depth; as an actor he was never much more than the pretty son of a movie star. While the performance of Michael Parks, as the sheriff who accompanies Heston on part of the quest to retrieve his daughter, suffers from his role being less interesting than in the Garfield book, the actors playing Coburn’s gang (Jorge Rivero, Thalmus Rasulala, Morgan Paull, Robert Donner, Riley Hill and especially Larry Wilcox and John Quade) are an impressively frightening bunch and Duke Callaghan’s widescreen cinematography is lustrous. Leonard Rosenman composed a terse, uncompromising score (it was later made available on CD) which was then replaced by a collection of newly-recorded cues from several of Jerry Goldsmith’s  previous 20th Century-Fox titles 100 Rifles (1969), Rio Conchos (1964), Morituri (1965) and the 1966 Stagecoach. I assume this was due to their being more traditional action cues and Western pieces than Rosenman’s dark, brooding compositions. But while they are splendid in themselves, if you’re already familiar with them from their sources they’re a needless distraction.


Invisible Monster titcd

The great title card for one of Jonny Quest‘s creepiest episodes. If only the animation for the show had been this good!

Johnny Quest: The Complete Original Series (1964 – 1965) When I was a child the Saturday morning re-airings of this 1964 one-shot, an impressive attempt by Joseph Barbera and William Hanna to create and direct a weekly prime-time animated adventure series,‡ made an enormous impression. It was the first “serious” animation I’d ever seen, its often eerie plot-lines were, for a 5-year old, fascinatingly scary… and in the titular figure, the irrepressible blond-topped All-American Jonny, lay my first big crush.† The gifted comics artist Doug Wildey designed the show and its central cast: Plucky Jonny, his slightly mystical adopted Indian brother Hadji, father Benton Quest and bodyguard Race Bannon (who, white hair aside, was, somewhat confusingly for me, almost a dead-ringer for my own father). Produced in the so-called “limited” format pioneered by Hanna-Barbera, and which Chuck Jones astutely referred to as “illustrated radio,” the series, re-viewed from an adult perspective, contains highly variable animation; there are times when the characters are beautifully drawn, while at others they are remarkably poorly drafted, and this older viewer could certainly do with less of Jonny’s annoying little dog Bandit. But the stories are nearly always, despite a 26-minute limitation, well-plotted and exciting, often with an agreeable avoidance of earthly explanation for seemingly supernatural phenomenon. Children, like many of their adult counterparts, love to be frightened, and they especially love ghost stories and impossible monsters; it was a consistent reliance on rationality than killed my initial enthusiasm for the later H-B Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Among the pleasures of the series were, and are, the voices, especially the appealing Tim Matheson as Jonny, the undemonstrably masculine Mike Road as Race, the charming Danny Bravo — who seems to have based his vocal characterization on Sabu — as Hadji, Vic Perrin as the show’s recurring villain Dr. Zinn and occasional guest artists such as Keye Luke, Jesse White, J. Pat O’Malley and even, astonishingly, Everett Sloan as an unrepentant old Nazi. Hoyt Curtin’s superb main title theme, with its bracing mix of big band and James Bond, is another asset; most of the incidental music is his, with additional and uncredited compositions by Ted Nichols. Many of the series’ best (and creepiest) episodes were written by William Hamilton: “The Robot Spy,” “Dragons of Ashida,” “Turu the Terrible,” “Werewolf of the Timberland” and “The Invisible Monster.” Among the others of especial note are “The Curse of Anubis” (Walter Black), “Calcutta Adventure” (Joanna Lee), and “Shadow of the Condor” and “The House of Seven Gargoyles” (both by Charles Hoffman). The recent Warner Archives Blu-Ray collection, while it contains few extras, looks terrific.

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† Like Top Cat and The JestsonsJonny Quest lasted only a single prime-time season. But when you’re a child, you’re not counting episodes, and due to repeated Saturday morning re-airings all three shows seemed to run forever.

‡How typical of me that my first big crush would be not another boy but a cartoon character… Still, I don’t know whether it was so much that I was attracted to Jonny as that I longed to be him. And isn’t hero-worship often what early same-sex crushes amount to?


Klute - Fonda and Sutherland (Klute comforts Bree)

Klute (1971)
The truly chilling paranoia thriller starring Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda, who as the call-girl Bree Daniels gives what I consider the finest performance by an American movie actor of the last 50 years.


In the Heat of the Night - Sidney Poitier, Jester Hairston and Rod Steiger

Rod Steiger, Jester Hairston and Sidney Poitier

In the Heat of the Night (1967) This tense, unblinking police procedural coated in a patina of social critique was one of the great successes of its year, which also saw the premier of Bonnie and Clyde. And while the picture is very much of its time in its examination of racist bigotry in the then-current American Deep South, it’s also a brisk, exciting detective thriller that holds up remarkably well, not least due to the crisp direction by Norman Jewison and to the picture’s precise Stirling Silliphant screenplay. Indeed, I prefer Silliphant’s creative adaptation to John Ball’s original novel, in which race is an important component, yet is less central to the narrative’s tensions than in the much bolder, angrier, movie, especially via the incendiary central relationship between Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s Chief Gilliespie. It should be remembered that the picture was in release only three years after the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, and the sense of dangerous rot and slowly simmering violence Jewison captures onscreen is as palpable as the oppressive, humid heat of its Mississippi setting. (Although most of it was  shot in the southern Illinois town of Sparta.) Poitier gives a performance of wit, implacable inner strength and fierce integrity. There are a number of moments in the picture where what we see in a character’s face is more revealing, and quietly powerful, than what is said. Poitier has one such scene, when Steiger dismisses him, and his assistance in the murder investigation. Perhaps the most difficult thing an actor can do is to allow us to see him thinking. Too many actors project thought in those moments, and it’s nearly always phony. With Poitier, the impact registers itself in, first, his disbelief, followed by his fury, and, finally, a soft, subtle smile. He gets it; he’s been here before. Yet none of what we see is obvious, or overdone. Lee Grant, as the widow of the murder victim, has a similar scene where, shocked into silence by the news of her husband’s death, she reacts against Poitier’s gentle attempt to seat her with an anguished, rigid gesture that slowly turns to acceptance and, more potently, the need to be comforted. It’s devastating to watch. As the racist sheriff, Steiger, at the height of his screen prowess, meets his co-star blow-for-blow. Gillespie is as much an outsider in the town as Virgil, and as distrusted by the locals. His tension is coiled deep, and he expresses that inner explosiveness in the way he compulsively chews gum, stopping only when he has something to say, or when comprehension breaks through his consciousness. The supporting roles are so perfectly cast they seem inevitable — absolutely real: Warren Oates as a patrolman with a secret; Larry Gates as  a smooth and powerful old racist; the usually genial William Schallert as the bigoted mayor; Beah Richards as the local abortionist; Quentin Dean as a white-trash slut; Anthony James as a smirking creep; Scott Wilson as a prime suspect in the killing, whose changing relationship to Virgil is far warmer than what transpires between Tibbs and Gillespie; and Jester Hairston as an Uncle Tom butler outraged by Tibbs slapping his employer. (If you look sharp, you’ll also see Harry Dean Stanton as a cop.) That slap was a blow for liberty, and must have resounded sharply in many places across the globe, not merely the Southern United States. The dark, expressive cinematography is by Haskell Wexler — cheated by the constricted budget of a crane, he and Jewison make frequent, and often very effective, use of zoom lenses. Hal Ashby provided the fluid editing, and Quincy Jones’ score, mixing jazz and blues, has a nervous, funky energy perfectly in keeping with the movie’s sense of dark foreboding, and he composed a terrific main title song (with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman) that’s sung with passionate soul by Ray Charles. Jones’ cue for Wilson’s attempted escape (and suggested by Jewison) is a highlight, puttering out expressively as the murder suspect realizes he’s licked — the musical equivalent of a runner who’s out of breath.


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Ghostbusters (1984) Horror comedy was far from a new concept when Ghostbusters was made — Harold Lloyd starred in something rather redundantly called Haunted Spooks in 1920 — but until 1981 and An American Werewolf in London there had never been one with elaborate special-effects, and even that was modestly budgeted; Ghostbusters cost six times as much (its budget was between $25 and 30 million.) Most of its predecessors tend to be either comedies with a few ghostly appurtenances (cf., Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein and Don Knotts’ The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) or genuine horror with black comedy overtones (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood, Phantom of the Paradise and, indeed, American Werewolf in London) but Ghostbusters takes nothing seriously. Its writer/stars, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, see everything as funny, and since The Ghostbusters themselves seldom panic, we spend the entire movie in a state of amused relaxation right along with them; the audience takes its cue from laid-back smart-ass Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, for whom the entire natural world is a sardonic joke, so why should the supernatural world be any different? Murray’s comic persona is so relaxed he’s like a more sarcastic version of Bing Crosby. The picture is inconsequential — you smile through most of it, even if you seldom laugh out loud — yet at the same time memorable; several of its set-pieces, phrases and gags became instant cultural touchstones, and after seeing the movie you’ll likely never look at a bag of marshmallows the same way. Sigourney Weaver has a good, serio-comic role as the woman whose apartment is being taken over by an ancient deity, Rick Moranis is sweetly oblivious as a dweeby neighbor, Annie Potts is the Ghostbusters’ preternaturally un-fazable secretary, William Atherton is an officious prick from the EPA (why do so many satires go after EPA rather than corporate polluters?) and Ernie Hudson gets a largely thankless role as the token black member of the team. László Kovács shot the movie beautifully, and the veteran Elmer Bernstein composed a score that, anchored to a loping main theme, was almost too effective: Despite his having composed in his long career everything from epics (The Ten Commandments) and Westerns (The Magnificent Seven) to thrillers (The Great Escape) and intimate dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird) and in every conceivable format from symphonic to jazz, the success of Airplane!, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf, Trading Places and Ghostbusters got him typecast for years as purely a comedy composer.


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Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Welles‘ minor masterpiece, and the last time he was permitted the luxury of the studio system’s largess.


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The Pink Panther (1963)
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)
The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

How Blake Edwards took his love for silent comedy routines deep into the post-War pop consciousness.


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Chinatown (1974) The modern classic by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski.


Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice (1988) I misunderstood Beetlejuice when it was new; my contemporary review (fortunately now lost to the landfills) betrayed a certain — and to me, now, inexplicable — inability to keep pace with Tim Burton’s patented blend of amiability and dark comic outrage. It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate his often exhilarating blend of comedy and horror; the Large Marge sequence in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure made me laugh so hard I nearly fell out of my seat. But I somehow wasn’t ready for an entire feature with that sensibility, unfettered. Revisiting Beetlejuice now, as I feel compelled to do every few years, I can’t help wondering why my younger self couldn’t relax enough to embrace such a cheerfully anarchic comedy as this one. Written by Michael McDowell (sadly, one of all too many creative men who succumbed to AIDS) and Warren Skaaren (also now prematurely dead, of bone cancer) from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, it’s a spook-fest for jaded children, a supernatural comedy that stints neither on the humor nor the paranormal. As the nice young Connecticut couple who discover they’re dead and doomed to live with the wacko modern artist and her bourgeois real-estate developer husband they can’t scare away, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis embody the spirit of the whole enterprise; they’re too sweetly gentle to make decent ghosts. As the titular “bio-exorcist,” Michael Keaton was a revelation, and his performance still amazes; nothing he’d done in movies up to that point had prepared us for the primal forces he unleashed in himself as Beetlejuice. His non-stop patter, loopy asides, gross-out wit and sheer brazen crudity were like nothing we’d seen in a movie comedy before. I think you’d have to imagine how movie audiences reacted the first time they saw the Marx Brothers to understand the impact that performance had on us in 1988. The strong supporting cast includes a very young Winona Ryder as the developer’s slightly off, death-obsessed teenage daughter; the peerlessly self-satisfied Jeffrey Jones as her father; the ever-treasurable Catherine O’Hara as his nasty, pretentious wife; Sylvia Sidney, in her of her final performances, as Baldwin and Davis’ case-worker, making the most of a role that is really little more than a delicious sick joke; Glenn Shadix as an obnoxious interior designer§; and Dick Cavett as a blasé society snob. Danny Elfman composed one of his brightest early scores, which deftly incorporates some of Harry Belafonte’s calypso hits. The first time I saw Beetlejuice, the use of “Day-O” offended me; now that sequence strikes me as one of the happiest in the picture. That’s one of the perks of revisiting old movies: Realizing that it wasn’t the original, uncategorizable, picture that was to blame for your dismissal of it, and being happy that you’ve lived to become a person who can surrender himself to it.
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§ Although Shadix’s performance struck me at the time as an exercise in extreme stereotype, the actor was himself gay.


The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Duvall, Arkin, Williamson watch

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) Nicholas Meyer’s ingenious Sherlock Holmes pastiche.


Blackbeard's Ghost - Ustinov and Jones

Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) I don’t know how I missed this one when it was released, as I habitually saw every new (or newly reissued) Disney movie, animated or live-action. It’s just possible it didn’t make it to the small Ohio town we were living in then, although every other children’s movie of the time did. In any case, I only discovered it when I came across the Disneyland soundtrack album — receiving the record for Christmas of 1970, I nearly wore it out through re-playing. It was my introduction to Peter Ustinov, who narrated it, and who starred as Blackbeard; the LP featured dialogue, mostly between him and Dean Jones, with a little Suzanne Pleshette shoehorned in, and I was entranced by Ustinov’s idiosyncratic way with a funny line, his ineffable charm, and (to borrow a phrase from Harlan Ellison in a different context) the “ineluctable rodomontade” of his florid verbiage. As I grew older and became more familiar with Ustinov, and with his performances and his work as a playwright and screenwriter, I began to suspect that he had re-written the Blackbeard script (or at least, his lines) as he had on Spartacus. And if you love Ustinov as I do, Blackbeard’s Ghost, while silly, generates a lot of laughter. Although basing their screenplay on a very good children’s novel by Ben Stahl, in which two boys accidentally conjure up the shade of the pirate, still very much the bloodthirsty ghoul of legend, the movie’s writers (Don Da Gradi and Bill Walsh) ditched that premise in favor of pure comedy, making this far tamer Blackbeard’s more-than-reluctant compatriot the new coach of a hopeless college track team. That the coach is played by Jones is a help; whatever criticisms might be levied at the Disney pictures in which he starred, the actor (on whom I had a slight childish crush) always brought enormous conviction to them, and his outbursts of incredulous anger are as ingratiating as the engaging grin that occasionally splits his handsome face. The slapstick in the picture, directed with no special distinction by Robert Stevenson, is sometimes dopey and occasionally better than that, and the invisibility effects by Eustace Lycett and Robert A. Mattey are, as usual with Disney, well done, as are the lovely background matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw. The screenplay has a pleasing lightness, enriched by what I again assume were Ustinov’s additions. The laughter the Disney Blu-Ray drew from me was considerable, even if nearly all of it was generated by Ustinov, who still makes me roar at lines I memorized off that record album when I was nine. Although Elliott Reid overdoes his bit as a television sportscaster, Pleshette is, as always, simultaneously biting and adorable as Jones’ inamorata; Joby Baker makes a good showing in the unaccustomed role of the villain; Elsa Lanchester gets a good scene or two as Jones’ dotty landlady; Richard Deacon is amusingly dry as the college dean; and Herbie Faye, Ned Glass, Alan Carney and Gil Lamb all have good bits in Baker’s restaurant-cum-gambling den. The plot revolves in large part around Blackbeard’s old home, maintained as an hotel by his descendants, little old ladies with nothing else to cling to. I mention this because one of them — and I have no idea which — is identified on the imdb as Betty Bronson. That’s a name more forgotten now than it was 50 years ago, but 45 years before, that Bronson was enchanting youngsters as the screen’s first Peter Pan. I would like to think that Walt Disney, one of whose final productions Blackbeard’s Ghost was, knew that, and gave the old trouper a job. Anyway, it would be pretty to think so.


INTO THE WOODS

Anna Kendric sings “On the Steps of the Palace,” my favorite number in Stephen Sondheim’s dark/light score. “He’s a very smart Prince / He’s a Prince who prepares / Knowing this time I’d run from him / He spread pitch on the stairs…”

Into the Woods (2014) Although I have been a Sondheim fanatic since discovering the Company cast album in 1976, and while the original production of Into the Woods was the first Broadway musical I saw before its cast recording had been released, I deliberately avoided the movie of it when it was new, on the basis of three proper names with which it was associated: “Disney,” “Rob” and “Marshall.” Perhaps only in Hollywood could a minimally talented hack like Rob Marshall reap such rewards (and a-wards) by removing the guts from ballsy musical plays like Chicago and Nine. After countless producers and screenwriters, including Larry Gelbart, had worked at it, what was Marshall’s great “break-through” on Chicago? Turning all the musical numbers into dream-fantasies Renee Zellweger imagines. If you have to justify why people are singing and dancing in a musical, why the fuck are you making a musical? Still, with a screenplay by James Lapine, the original book writer and director of Into the Woods, perhaps there was only so much damage Marshall could do to it. Well, it was someone’s brilliant idea to cast the magnificent Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s Father and then butcher his role so completely he’s left with no songs and only a couple of lines, confusingly delivered, since we can’t tell who he is, whether he’s real or a phantom, and haven’t any idea whether his son (James Corden) knows either; and to let Chris Pine as an 18th century prince sport a trendy two-day growth of beard on his chin.‖ The picture looks splendid, which I attribute largely to its cinematographer Dion Beebe, its set decorator Anna Pinnock, its costumer Colleen Atwood and its production designer Dennis Gassner. And it’s largely well cast, with actors who can sing: Corden; Meryl Streep, sardonic but subdued as The Witch; lovely Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife; cute Daniel Huttlestone as a full-throated Jack; Lilla Crawford as a foghorn-voiced Little Red Riding Hood; Johnny Depp as her Wolf; Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother; and Anna Kendrick who, although attractive only from a single angle… and that one her director seldom favors… is an otherwise charming and effective Cinderella. Into the Woods was significantly better than I’d expected. Yet I still tremble whenever I hear another name yoked with this director’s: “Rob,” “Marshall”… and Follies. Hasn’t that poor show suffered enough?

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‖As my friend Eliot M. Camarena once asked, do people like that when they’re children announce, “When I grow up, I wanna look like Fred C. Dobbs!”?


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The Art of Love (1965) A surprisingly brainless affair to have come from the typewriter of the witty Carl Reiner, riding high in 1965 with the deserved success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which he created and oversaw, and for which he wrote many of the most memorable early episodes. The best thing about this moderately black farce concerning a failed American artist in Paris whose supposed suicide instantly drives up the prices fetched for his work by his duplicitous best friend (James Garner) is Van Dyke as the artist. His comedic timing, seemingly boneless body and inimitable way with a line or a situation are the equal of the great comedians he worshiped, and it’s one of the great ironies of modern history that he came along at a time when movie and television comedies were so often loud, witless and inane. Had Blake Edwards not already collared Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon, what a find Van Dyke would have been for that fellow student of slapstick! Reiner can’t really be blamed for the general dopiness of the movie, since he was working from an existing story by two other writers (Alan Simmons and William Sackheim) and the movie’s young director, Norman Jewison, doesn’t appear to have been a great deal of help to him. The Art of Love is attractive to look at — it was shot by Russell Metty — but inert, marking time with things like Angie Dickinson’s fainting shtick (it’s funny the first time), Elke Sommers’ perpetual innocent act and the braying of Ethel Merman, apparently cast as a madam just so she could belt out an instantly forgettable nightclub number. The usually ingratiating Garner has little to play here but his character’s cheesy self-centeredness, and Reiner stoops to such things as plunking a cartoon Brooklynite Yiddishe couple (Irving Jacobson and Naomi Stevens) in the middle of Paris. Still, Jay Novello has a couple of funny bits as a nervous janitor and little Pierre Olaf does miracle work as an umbrella-toting police detective, Cy Coleman provided a perky score (with additional music by Frank Skinner), and DePatie-Freleng came up with some modestly amusing main title animation. There’s little excuse, however, for a comedy — especially one with Dick Van Dyke — whose only big laugh comes at the very end, and absolutely none for its indulging in such feeble wheezes as the periodic introduction of a Madame Defarge-like hag, complete with knitting needles, who shows up every now and then to screech her delight at Garner’s impending execution. But at least I now understand what my mother meant when she once told me that after seeing this one on television when I was a boy I walked around the house for a week saying, “Guillotine! Guillotine!”


Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree (1978) That Sherlock Holmes occupied a revered, albeit fictional, place in the same late Victorian Britain that saw the appalling murders in Whitechapel has intrigued Sherlockians for decades. What more natural meeting could there be than between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant consulting detective and “Saucy Jacky,” as that figure of horror known popularly as Jack the Ripper styled himself in a letter to the papers? Derek Ford and Donald Ford (the former known primarily for his snickering sex comedies) imagined Holmes investigating the murders in the 1965 A Study in Terror, and the same year in which this more recent attempt was released saw the publication of Michael Didbin’s dark little novel The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, very much concerned with Jack. The elements are there even in the mind’s eye: The dimly gaslit cobblestone streets, the hansom cabs and private cabriolets, the enveloping fog that swallows up forms, faces and screams of terror and pain. That Bob Clark, the onlie begettor of Porky’s should, of all people, have directed as beautiful a fiction as Murder by Decree is as puzzling as his making that perfect adaptation of Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story. But then, as Orson Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, “Peter, you only need one.” The literate screenplay by the playwright John Hopkins emphasizes a more riant, and more passionate, Holmes than is the norm, and Christopher Plummer could scarcely be bettered in the role as the filmmakers, if not Conan Doyle, conceived it. His performance reaches two peaks, one infinitely quiet (his reaction to Geneviève Bujold’s heartbreaking madwoman), the other bristling with outrage at what his betters (including John Gielgud as the Prime Minister, unidentified in the picture but clearly made up to resemble Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) have been up to. Hopkins also, blessedly, gives us a Watson who is as far from the Nigel Bruce model as can be imagined. And while the irreplaceable James Mason is a bit hoary for the role, his aplomb is undeniable; a moment of especial charm is the way he expresses dismay at Holmes, and with a look of genuine hurt, when the former squashes the lone pea on the doctor’s plate. And if he is occasionally the voice of hidebound Empire, Mason’s (and Hopkins’) Watson is also equally as capable of wit as Holmes as, for example, when Sherlock asks his compatriot why his friend deems him only “the prince of detectives” and wishes to know who is king. I won’t spoil the joke here, nor the conclusion of this intricately plotted exercise, based on some theories by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd in their contemporaneous book The Ripper File. The exceptional cast includes a starchily smug and imperious Gielgud; the wrenching Bujold; Frank Finlay as an uncharacteristically deferential Inspector Lestrade; David Hemmings as the police inspector in charge of the case (and who bears absolutely no relationship to the very real Frederick Abberline); Susan Clark as a heartrending Mary Kelly; Anthony Quayle as the dangerously reactionary Sir Charles Warren; Peter Jonfield as a chillingly psychotic chief villain; and Donald Sutherland as the shaken spiritualist Robert Lees, who believes he’s seen the Ripper. Despite a few unnecessary visual flourishes, Clark’s eye is nearly unerring, abetted to an exceptional degree by the rich and expressive cinematography by Reginald H. Morris and the astonishing production design of Harry Pottle; I don’t know whether Pottle is responsible for the staggeringly effective matte paintings of London used in the picture, but whoever painted them, they put you absolutely there. The only real miscalculation in the movie is the highly derivative musical score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer from which I heard distinct liftings from John Williams (the scene in Jaws of Richard Dreyfus investigating Ben Gardner’s boat), Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann (those eerie strings) and Richard Rodney Bennett (the opening sequence of Murder on the Orient Express) and in which — aside from the plaintive traditional Irish tune for Mary Kelly — there is little that is either original, interesting, useful or pleasing to the ear.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

It doesn’t want people: “The Changeling” (1980)

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By Scott Ross

“That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”

Thanks to the recommendation of a very good friend, I finally got to this elegant exercise in horror, a movie I somehow managed to miss during its original release. Odd, in that, at that time, I went to damn near any movie that either starred, as The Changeling (1980) does, a favorite actor, or that held any sort of cinematic promise. Directed, with an uncanny eye for beauty, by the gifted Peter Madek, the man responsible for two superb early 1970s adaptations of exceptional British plays (The Ruling Class and One Day in the Death of Joe Egg) and based, so the story goes, on phenomena the credited story writer Russell Hunter encountered in Colorado, this is an exceptional, and remarkably stylish, ghost story. Further, and most unusually, it’s a ghost story with a patina of sadness that, while subtly limned, is at times nearly unbearable.

The Changeling is far from a perfect work. Its characterizations are thin and rely largely on the star-power of George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas to bring fulsomeness to them. And there are niggling little bits of interior illogic; unless the recently widowed, Romantic-style composer Scott portrays is as wealthy as Leonard Bernstein, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept his inhabiting the massive Victorian Seattle mansion he rents from the local Historical Society, whatever the discount.

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George C. Scott has an unnerving encounter. No violence here, or even the threat of it, yet this is one of the most unsettling scenes in the movie.

Still, what is remarkable about the movie, aside from its intelligent refusal to overplay its creepy hand, are its emotional plangency and the rich, saturated photography of John Coquillon. Medak and the screenwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox concocted a horror movie as if in reaction to every bad, or at least obvious, spook-picture ever made. In this, the picture resembles the 1944 The Uninvited — also about a composer, and in which Victor Young introduced the theme that became known as “Stella by Starlight.” The psychic disturbances Scott encounters are unnerving, but, until the climax, more unsettling than apocalyptic. The Changeling, unlike so many high-concept horror movies that both preceded and followed it, isn’t interested in shocking you every 20 minutes. And it’s that very evenness of tone and eschewing of the obvious that make the various supernatural visitations in the house so quietly unnerving; Medak and his collaborators make the sight of a child’s ball bouncing down a staircase and settling in a hallway seem more unsettling than a full two hours of non-stop, ghoulishly hysterical special effects.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

I wish Jean Marsh had more than a single scene, and I could easily have done with more of the great Melvyn Douglas, whose year 1980 certainly was (he won the Academy Award® that spring for his beautiful performance in Being There) and Madeline Sherwood, who has all-too-brief a role as Van Devere’s practical mother. There is, however, a séance sequence that is absolutely unique in my experience of horror films, made compelling by a notably intense illustration of automatic writing, something I don’t recall ever having seen in a movie before. More importantly, the sense of grief that underlies The Changeling, in both the recent and in the distant past, gives The Changeling a sense of gravitas that makes its ultimate revelations deeply moving.

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Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the film is not its central mystery, but an exterior one: Its “R” rating. Only a few, mild, obscenities are uttered; there’s no sex, real or implied; and even the crucial sequence of little Joseph in the bath is staged, shot and edited discreetly, as such things must be to keep the country sane. (In Europe, unlike America, they admit, and perhaps even accept, that a child has genitals.) While the climax does include some ghostly violence, it’s hardly gratuitous, nor is it especially grisly. If keeping the impressionable kiddies away was the idea, there’s a hell of lot more for a parent to object to in any number of supposedly “child-friendly” features that achieved the coveted “PG,” so precious to movie studios, then and now.

But then, no one has ever accused the MPAA of sanity.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross



A Few Second Thoughts on The Changeling, May 2018

Thanks to the Carolina Theatre in Durham scheduling the new Canadian restoration of The Changeling as a regular feature (as opposed to a special screening of the original) I was able to revisit the picture, four years after being introduced it — and, pleasurably, on a big screen. The re-viewing has prompted me to a new evaluation, inspired in part by the lively discussion my best friend and I had afterward. Happily, it seems an even richer and more subtle picture now, although the supposed 4K restoration has its problems. The opening scenes carry heavy grain, and the sound was in some ways rather poor, which may be inherent to the movie itself, produced somewhat cheaply and without a stereo sound mix. (We get spoiled, don’t we, by THX? Even those of us who, like myself, seldom go to a new movie.) Still, I seldom encounter a problem at this theatre’s screenings of much older movies, so I must assume the occasional problems, especially with Trish Van Devere’s dialogue, were there in 1980. Perhaps they resist cleaning up?

That said, The Changeling holds up remarkably well to a second viewing, the inevitable loss of tension grounded in a foreknowledge of its events notwithstanding. Indeed, the picture seems even more ingenious and, in its avoidance of audience-pleasing cliché, even more quietly daring.

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I had forgotten, while writing up my initial impressions in 2014 immediately after seeing it, the movie’s splendid use of ambient sound, specifically the periodic pounding noises George C. Scott encounters in the old mansion. And if these spectral soundscapes owe a little something to The Haunting, they’re no less remarkably carried off, providing a tantalizing early mystery for Scott’s John Russell, one that leads him to deeper exploration of the various paranormal phenomenon in the house — and, ultimately, to a heartbreaking revelation, especially for a man who has had his own child violently taken from him, however accidental the means. This is what I meant, above, by the almost unbearable sadness the picture encompasses, and about which I will say little, not wishing to spoil anyone else’s experience of it, except to note that I was struck, on this second viewing, by how logical the unseen presence’s heedless, demanding, hectoring of the Scott character is: The ghost is a child; he’s understandably angry. He wants what he wants, and he wants it now. This too has a pay-off, in the moment when the elderly Melvyn Douglas is confronted by Scott with his putative father’s crimes; his chin trembles as he faces Scott’s accusations, and, informed of the insupportable, bursts into pathetic weeping, like a hurt and resentful little boy, crying out at the suggestion that his parent was anything less than wonderful and perfect. Despite his octogenarian status, he is still a child as well.

My friend wondered, during our impromptu post-mortem, what the Scott character gets out of the experience. I would say nothing… except an even deeper grief. That’s the special grace of a movie as idiosyncratic as this one. There is no facile, happy pay-off at the end, no sense (to use an idiotic hack-word) of “closure.” Although a certain balance has been redressed by the fade-out, no one is any better off. Even the house has to die. (Although, if the appearance among the ruins of the little wheelchair and music box are to be taken at face value, even that is not entirely satisfactory to the victim.)

The thinness of the characterizations is still an issue, but a less nagging one at a second viewing, in part because the story is so beautifully and compellingly told, and due as well to how resourceful the actors are, particularly Scott. One may wonder, as my friend did, why the Van Devere character’s mother is even there, since she has no real stake in the action, except that she provides an emotional anchor for her daughter. And my earlier preoccupation with the cost of renting such a looming pile was mitigated this time around by the talk of how impossible it’s been for the Seattle Historical Society to unload it onto a tenant. Additionally, my previous essay title was mis-chosen: The old harridan at the Society may believe the house “doesn’t want people,” but that’s a misinterpretation by someone at a remove, who has never lived in the place; it does want people, rather desperately as it turns out. It — or rather, the spirit of its restless inhabitant — wants the aide of people, but, being an angry manifestation, and very young, goes about asking for that succor in all the wrong ways. It takes someone attuned to loss to be, at first intrigued enough and, later, anguished enough, to see through the clumsiness of the attempt to the aching heart of what is being demanded.

In the past four years, I have also become a great admirer of The Changeling’s score, especially important in a good ghost story but also of great urgency in a narrative whose major character is himself a composer. There’s a complicated back-story to that musical soundtrack, even as the picture itself had a rather torturous route to the screen: Howard Blake composed the thematically important central lullaby, but (presumably through poor communication on the part of the producers) was replaced as composer by Ken Wannberg, whose compositions were then fleshed out by the Canadian Rick Wilkins, making for a complex set of music credits. The music-box theme, both sweet and achingly yearning, is one of two central motifs in the picture; the other is a remarkable atmospheric piece that encompasses both the Scott character and the essential — and deeply disturbing — mystery of the house itself.*

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Peter Medak’s direction, particularly given the niggardly budget imposed upon him, is beautifully fluid and precise, yet with room for poetic metaphor. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance to the story of water, yet never overplays this, as he also handles the vertiginous qualities of the grand staircase; the moment in which Scott and a compatriot are shown, from above, digging out a crucial well hidden by the floorboards of a contemporary house, is a perfectly rendered visual bookend. (My friend and I were equally struck by the way Scott, when the police have come to remove the bones of the dead hidden there, instantly lights up a cigarette — he smokes throughout the picture — in the woman’s home without asking permission, and no one says a word. Imagine such a scene in a movie made nearly 40 years after this one! No filmmaker today would conceive of such a thing, except to illustrate by it how disgusting, boorish and horrible the character committing this atrocity is.) The séance sequence remains as riveting as ever, particularly when wedded to the way the Scott character realizes, later, that he too has succumbed to a crucial spell of automatic writing.

Speaking of subtlety: I wonder how many of the dolts who write literalist comments on imdb understand that the Douglas character isn’t really in the house at the end? The audience of 2018 expects, and demands, that everything be spelled out for it in the most obvious manner. No doubt the lazy- minded preview attendees and dread focus groups of today would also insist on a love/sex scene between the Scott and Van Devere characters. (And would you want to see George C. Scott in the nude?) It’s to the credit of Medak, and to the scenarists, William Gray and Diana Maddox, that they were not bound by such conventions, and that they, and the producers, were content to tell a small, perfectly delineated, spook story without recourse to mile-a-minute, chop-chop editing, ubiquitous special effects and pandering to a sub-literate audience’s expectations.

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While I am still a perplexed by that “R” rating, perhaps it as my friend suggested: A reaction to the picture’s central act of violence. Although the murder sequence was filmed with great restraint (the boy, in long shot, seems to have been wearing a flesh-stocking) it’s still squirmingly difficult to watch, and the age of its victim may have been the deciding factor in the MPAA’s schoolmarmish rating, retained for the movie’s re-release. It’s the most appalling crime imaginable, not in the sense of gore (there is none) but in the parameters of its circumstances. The picture is not, as a recent, Bettinger Law-courting headline posited, “the scariest movie ever made.” No. Not even close. The Changeling is not a traditional blood-and-guts horror picture. Nor is it a screeching spook-fest. It is an unusually understated and richly textured ghost story, with grave emotional plangency at its core, that never telegraphs its effects or insults the intelligence of its audience. (Pretending otherwise to whet the appetites of the uninitiated risks setting up unreasonable, and unrealistic, expectations that can only lead to disappointment.) And that one, horrific act, performed with mad, unfeeling, cold-blooded calculation, is — pardon, but there is no other word for it — haunting. Not in the standard way of such things, for there is nothing supernatural about it. It is, simply, the sort of thing whose unspeakable cruelty can haunt your memory long after you’ve shaken off the more casually outré blood-letting of many, much lesser, movies.


*Interestingly, on the recent limited edition Blu-Ray reissue, Wannberg expresses his belief that the music-box tune is too harmonically complex, and should have been simpler. This may be so, but Blake’s theme is one I can easily imagine, set to lyrics, as a popular song of the period encompassing young Joseph’s boyhood. Further, it seems to me to encapsulate the picture, and its emotions, beautifully: It’s charming and sweet, yet plaintive and a little odd.


Additional text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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

When I use the term “second-rate,” I imply nothing derogatory. Who, after all, relishing a good mystery, would not have been proud to have written The Maltese Falcon? Huston fared better with plays — there’s little to be ashamed of in his transliteration to the screen of Maxwell Anderson’s Key Largo, and his movie of The Night of the Iguana is, arguably, the finest of all Tennessee Williams screen adaptations — and his best literary translations are from the lower but by no means trashier rungs of literature: The mystery (Falcon could scarcely be bettered in this regard), the spy thriller (The Kremlin Letter), the action-romance (The African Queen), the Western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the black-comedy crime saga — admittedly a fairly exclusive genre (Prizzi’s Honor) — or even the imperialist Boy’s Own adventure (The Man Who Would Be King). While I know that it is revered by almost everyone else, I am left cold by Huston’s adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle; I much prefer his 1963 screen edition of Philip MacDonald’s The List of Adrian Messenger. As neat a little whodunit as can be imagined, the picture also has the benefit of brevity: Its pleasures fit very comfortably within its 94-minute running-time, even if certain aspects of the narrative are, on the one hand, outré and unnecessary and, on the other, tend to stick in the craw.

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

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

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

These cavils to one side, The List of Adrian Messenger is, in the main, an intelligent, amusing yarn, vividly shot (apart from some embarrassing rear-screen work) in crisp, clear deep-focus black and white by Joseph MacDonald, and deliciously scored by Jerry Goldsmith, using as his motif a curious little oboe-accented march that Kurt Weill might well have composed in the 1920s.

Stunt-casting aside, the movie is perfectly played by its largely splendid cast: George C. Scott, affecting a “good show, old boy” Mayfair accent; Douglas, relishing his own ingenious duplicity as the killer; Jacques Roux as a charming Gallic Watson to Scott’s Sherlock Holmes; Herbert Marshall radiating veddy British stoicism as a stuffy representative of the law; and, most deliciously, Marcel Dalio and Gladys Cooper in a very funny turn as a marquess and her preening charlatan of a second husband.

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

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


Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

The Hospital (1971) / Network (1976)

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By Scott Ross

Don’t ask me to choose a favorite between these two outrageous panegyrics by Paddy Chayefsky. In his gifts for dark comic exaggeration and exhilarating histrionic rhetoric, the late playwright had no American peer, and these talents were never more manifest than in this pair of lacerating black farces. Contemporary critics were put off by Chayefsky’s occasionally hysterical (and, it was alleged, messianic and reactionary) takes on modern medicine and the corporatization of television news but as the years go by, both seem positively prescient. It’s impossible to imagine these movies, with their dizzying verbal acrobatics, being made today, at least in Hollywood — the best we can get these days is Aaron Sorkin, a poor substitute indeed for Cheyesfky — but it’s no accident that both pictures won Oscars® for their screenplays.

The Hospital has so many great actors in roles large and small that its ensemble, like that of All the President’s Men, is virtually a Who’s Who of 1970s thespic artists: George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, Barnard Hughes, Nancy Marchand, Frances Sternhagen, Roberts Blossom, Lenny Baker, Robert Walden, Richard Dysart, Katherine Helmond and Stockard Channing. Hughes is so good he’s got two roles, both marvelous.

“I am the fool for Christ, and Paraclete of Caborca.”

Network’s cast is equally stellar, with William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight firing off Chayefsky’s often achingly funny verbal eruptions in the leading roles. The number of Oscars® awarded for the movie’s actors is a measure of the screenwriter’s abounding gifts: Finch, Dunaway and Straight were given statuettes (Finch posthumously), while Beatty — like Straight — was nominated for a single monologue. That’s how rich a Chayefsky script could be.

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you… will … atone!

Finch is superb, and his angry exhortation “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” became an instant catchphrase — ironic in that this seemingly populist watch-cry is uttered by an un-hinged schizophrenic.

But it’s Holden who keeps the whole thing together, and — as in The Wild Bunch — his great, sad, worn and lived-in countenance at this stage of his life was one of the most moving faces in the movies. Although he was prominently featured in Blake Edwards’ rich Hollywood satire S.O.B., Max Schumacher in Network was his last starring role in an important movie, and he gave it a lifetime’s passion. Arthur Hiller, never an inspired director, did well enough by The Hospital, as he did with Chayefsky’s great, underrated The Americanization of Emily, while Sidney Lumet filmed Network like a sly documentarian, tongue firmly in cheek.

 

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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By Scott Ross

This legal drama, directed by Otto Preminger from a fine, meticulous screenplay by Wendell Mayes (far more interesting and ambiguous than the Robert Traver novel on which it was based) broke a lot of taboos in its day. For the first time in an American movie, audiences heard words like “panties” and “spermatogenesis” — spoken by Jimmy Stewart, for God’s sake! But that’s not the reason to watch, and savor, this brilliant, understated look at the underbelly of American jurisprudence. Stewart’s “simple country lawyer” routine masks the nearly unflappable tenacity of a man who will do almost anything to win, yet never seems to be doing anything at all. Preminger and Mayes deliberately leave the movie’s ambiguous moral conundrums unresolved, which is what lingers in your mind, long after the final credits have spun.

With a superlative supporting cast including Lee Remick, Ben Gazarra, Arthur O’Connell, George C. Scott, Kathryn Grant, Eve Arden, Murray Hamilton, John Qualen, and, as the presiding magistrate, Joseph N. Walsh, the lawyer who used his own faux-naif shtick to help bring down Joseph McCarthy. Duke Ellington contributed a rare — and splendid — score; those final, unnervingly high and unresolved notes by Johnny Hodges are as ambiguous as the finale itself. (Ellington also appears on-screen, as the piano-player Pie-Eye.)

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross