The way to dusty death: “My Darling Clementine” (Preview and Release versions, 1946)

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By Scott Ross

It’s no secret that the industrial nature of the American movie business — and never forget that it is a business — militates against personal expression. (Not art, necessarily; as long as it took a popular form, made a huge profit and, preferably, left an opening at the end for a sequel, the studios would doubtless approve the filming of the Guernica, with a cast of thousands.) And it becomes exponentially difficult, in the absence of found footage, to know what a figure such as John Ford put into a picture that someone else subsequently took out. Darryl F. Zanuck removed as much as 30 minutes from Ford’s first cut of My Darling Clementine, enough so that, while he regarded Zanuck as the best editor in the business, Ford felt the resulting movie was no longer his. This strongly suggests that what we have of the picture now, what 20th Century-Fox released in 1946, is not merely substantially different from what Ford put his name to, but substantively so. Can we, then, truly call My Darling Clementine one of Ford’s best pictures? Or is it not instead a mutilated masterpiece?

But mutilated how, exactly? There are certainly differences even between Zanuck’s 103-minute preview version and his 97-minute release print, both available on the Criterion edition, and what is Ford’s is vastly superior to the work of the studio hack Lloyd Bacon, who shot the re-takes at Zanuck’s direction. Especially damaging is the loss of the farewell Ford shot between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs); in his version, retained for the preview, the handshake which, despite his romantic impulse, is all Earp allows himself is, in its almost pious restraint, deeply moving. The kiss on the cheek demanded by Zanuck for the release print is, by contrast, not merely conventional but a kind of violation. Fonda’s Earp is so thunderstruck by his first sight of Clementine that, even if he didn’t feel she was, however estranged from him, Doc Holliday’s woman, to touch her skin with his lips might seem to him a sacrilege. You may think this is carrying infatuation or courtly love to an absurd extreme, but it’s who Earp is. Being a great editor sometimes means knowing what not to cut. And since picture cost $2 million — some of that due to editorial overhauling, and the cost of re-shoots — and only took in $2,750,000, it can scarcely be said that Zanuck was right even on the grounds that his tampering helped. (Not that he’d have been right even if the movie had earned twice that amount.) Even a little thing, like the use of the old folk song “My Darling Clementine” as underscore, is confused. It should be used exclusively for Wyatt and Clementine, and indeed Fonda whistles it in the release print when he doesn’t know she’s in the room. But Zanuck placed it under the scene where she examines Doc’s room, which makes it seem to be a theme for Clementine and Doc as well.

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Zanuck, as head of the studio, had of course every right to balk at releasing a movie he was less than satisfied with. Still, Ford’s track record, not only with 20th Century-Fox, where he’d worked for a quarter century, but generally, was of so high an order, and the movie as it stands — even with Zanuck’s cuts — is so good, it seems impossible he could have delivered a bad cut of Clementine, even if it was long. Something else seems to have been at play here. Perhaps it was Ford’s antagonism towards his boss, which was not without justification. Certainly Zanuck’s intransigence cost him Ford’s further services; a man hardly turns down a guaranteed $600,000 a year, in 1946 or even now, if he’s happy.

But then, God knows Ford could be perverse. And one wonders if he was as naïve as some of his statements seem to indicate. Take, for example, his claim that the climactic shootout at the O.K. Corral was staged exactly as it happened. According to whom? Why, Wyatt Earp, of course. Well, just because Wyatt Earp tells you something doesn’t make it true, and I doubt Ford was that gullible. He may have been closer to revealing himself when he claimed the picture was “essentially a film for children,” yet even that doesn’t get at the truth. There is innocence in My Darling Clementine, and a sense of rigid morality, that probably appeals to children, but the movie itself is an elegy. It’s dark, not only thematically, but pictorially. (It might have been even darker had Zanuck given the director his head on the casting; Ford wanted James Stewart for Earp, but the studio chief didn’t think Stewart would be “believable.” As this was before the actor’s Western collaborations with Anthony Mann, and even before the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, we might be sympathetic to Zanuck’s point of view. But we have the advantage of hindsight; we know, as Zanuck couldn’t, how often, and how fully, Stewart tapped into the darker sides of his nature. And anyway, hadn’t Zanuck seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?) Ford’s vision of Tombstone — situated, by virtue of the movie’s being shot in Monument Valley, the neverland of Ford Country, otherwise known as Utah, rather than in Arizona, where it was actually located — is one of shadow, where even open space can feel cramped by the intrusion of a single person.

I don’t know that I agree with Tag Gallagher, in his video essay on the Criterion set, that this is Ford’s darkest picture — The Searchers is grimmer, and both The Informer and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and even the little-seen 7 Women are experiences of nearly unrelieved darkness — but it’s decidedly fatalistic. In a way it’s entirely concerned with death: It begins with the murder of Earp’s youngest brother James (although in fact James was Wyatt’s elder, and lived to the age of 84), ends with the gunfight in which all the Clantons as well as Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) die, and in between sees the violent death of Doc’s Mexican paramour (Linda Darnell) while the shadow of an early demise haunts Doc throughout. Had Ford made the movie before the war it might have been more conventional, and less Stygian. Coming after, it seems exactly as stark as it ought to be. All of which make the additions, by Zanuck and Bacon, almost obscene; the re-shoot of Wyatt at James’ grave is full of sanctimonious piety and the sort of rank sentimentality Ford and his screenwriter, Winston Miller, eschewed throughout, especially with Earp, whom they depict as taciturn and laconic to an almost pathological degree.*

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There’s a certain dispassion to Earp that verges on the sort of personal coldness Fonda himself was known for. Only when he is stirred by anger (James’ murder, the discovery of a necklace he bought for his girl on Darnell’s neck) or struck dumb (by the beauty of Clementine) does he seem fully human. The cool Fonda exhibits makes this Earp spiritual cousin to James Garner’s Wyatt in The Hour of the Gun (1967), and it doesn’t really matter much whether Fonda’s Earp is an accurate historical portrayal because it’s such a good one. Ford wanted either Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. or Vincent Price for Doc (and if thoughts of the latter doesn’t whet your appetite, you haven’t got one) but got from Victor Mature an almost shockingly right performance. It’s scaled perfectly, the sensitive physician (Holliday was actually a dentist) who can recite Shakespeare battling the brooding, dissipated, tubercular and depressive brute seemingly determined to drink his way to death and to alienate himself from any and all meaningful human contact along the way. Of the leads only Darnell is out of her depth, but then Darnell always was. “Out of her shallow” might be closer to the mark.

As usual with Ford, the support is excellent: Downs, pretty and spirited as Clementine; Walter Brennan as the merciless patriarch of the Clantons, as ready to whip his sons’ faces with a quirt as to kill a defenseless boy alone on the prairie with a herd of undernourished cattle; Tim Holt and Ward Bond as the other Earps; John Ireland as one of the nastier of the Clantons; Alan Mowbray as a fustian actor more at home now with the bottle than the Bard; Jane Darwell in a too-brief role as a madame (although as so often in Production Code-era movies you’d need a score-card to figure out that’s what she is); Francis Ford as a former soldier turned dogsbody; Russell Simpson as a garrulous old man; and, shockingly, Mae Marsh as his withered sister when a mere twenty years earlier she was Buster Keaton’s beloved in The General.

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Ford was urged to shoot the picture in color, but he knew what he could have gotten would have been less than half of what he achieved. Joseph MacDonald’s glorious, fine-grained black-and-white cinematography is among the finest Ford ever got, and that’s saying something. It has both a sheen and a quality of loss and soft, plangent longing, somewhat unspecified and all the more moving for it. Its quality of light holds little comfort and its deep shadows offer the allure only of death, just as its luxuriant, glistening rain is a harbinger of the news of cruel slaughter.

There are occasional jokes in My Darling Clementine — the best involves Darnell soaking Bond with a pitcher of milk — but only one line is really funny… and gallows-humorous at that. Observing how Doc reacts to Clementine, and she to him, Wyatt asks the bartender Mac (J. Farrell MacDonald) if he’s ever been in love.

Mac instantly responds: “No, I’ve been a bartender all m’ life.”

No wonder Ford’s Earp only shakes Clementine’s hand.

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*The movie’s producer, Samuel G. Engel, did some re-writes on location and managed to get himself an arbitrated co-author credit for them, almost certainly undeserved.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2017

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By Scott Ross

The movies and other video items I watched (or, in rare cases, went out to see) during the year just passed.
BOLD: Denotes very good… or at least, better-than-average.
BOLD+Underscore: A personal favorite.



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

Spectre 
(2015) I don’t quite know why there’s been so little love for the 24th Bond. True, it’s no Skyfall — what is? Some people I know disliked the central premise. Others think the Daniel Craig titles have turned 007 from a dashing, erudite figure into a thug: M’s “blunt instrument.” And while I have a particular fondness for Roger Moore as Bond (his was the first Bond I saw in a theatre) I admire the Craigs more than any others in the series apart from the early Connerys and the Timothy Daltons. Craig also comes closest to resembling the Hoagy Carmichael Fleming prototype. On its own terms, the picture seemed to me exciting, thematically dark in a way that appeals to me, and stylishly (and occasionally, beautifully) made.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) One of my five favorite pictures, and which I haven’t seen on a big screen since 1978. (I don’t count the 1980 Special Edition.)

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The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.


Some Like it Hot. (1959) Also at the Carolina. My favorite movie. I always see something new in it. This time I focused on Billy Wilder’s astonishing technical achievement in matching Tony Curtis’ lips to Paul Frees’ looping of “Josephine”‘s dialogue.

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New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:
None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.


Revisited with pleasure
F for Fake (1973) Orson Wellesnon pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”
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Absence of Malice
 (1981) When this Sidney Pollack-directed newspaper drama opened in 1981, it received middling reviews and seemed somehow inconsequential. What a difference 35 years of media consolidation (and deepening personal taste) can make! Those of us who cared about such things knew too many papers, magazines and broadcast stations were in the hands of too few (usually conservative) people. But we had no idea then that, 15 years later, a Democrat would, with his 1996 Telecommunications Act, usher out the flawed but vitally important American free press and replace it, eventually, with a completely corporate, wholly right-wing, one.  For this reason alone, the picture has interest. Seeing it again, however, I was struck by the intelligence of Kurt Luedtke’s dialogue, how skillfully he lays out his narrative, and how deeply satisfying his denouement — which seemed at the time merely clever — really is. That Newman, Field, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Wilford Brimley all give splendid performances is practically a given, and Melinda Dillon is shattering as Newman’s doomed sister; the sequence in which she runs desperately from house to house trying to gather up every copy of a paper carrying a story that will devastate her own life and her brother’s illustrates all too clearly not merely what a staggeringly humane and expressive actor she is, but how badly she has been served by Hollywood in the years since. Which is to say, barely at all.


Black Sunday (1977) An immensely entertaining adaptation of Thomas Harris’ topical thriller about a Black September plot, directed in high style by John Frankenheimer. A vivid relic from the decades before The PATRIOT Act was a gleam in the Deep State’s eye.


Munich (2005) Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.


Wag the Dog. (1997) It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, David Mamet, the most overrated American playwright of the past 40 years… although the fact it was made during the Clinton era may be a clue.


The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)An effective murder mystery from John Huston and Anthony Veillier out of Phillip MacDonald, burdened by an unnecessary gimmick (guest-stars in heavy makeup) and lumbered as well by its director’s tacit approval of upper-class snobbery and his love of that barbarous tradition, the fox-hunt.


The Third Man. (1949) Graham Greene wrote it. Carol Reed directed it. Anton Karras performed the soon-to-be ubiquitous music. And Orson Welles had what was arguably his best role in a movie not also written by him. The only drawback in one’s thorough enjoyment of this deservedly beloved post-war thriller is knowing the producers wanted James Stewart for the lead. Good as Joseph Cotton is, once you hear that bit of casting-that-might-have-been, it’s almost impossible to refrain from imagining Stewart’s unique delivery every time “Holly Martins” speaks a line.


Hot Millions (1968) A sleeper hit of its year, impossibly dated now in its then-striking use of computer technology, this Peter Ustinov-written comedy starring him and Maggie Smith is a movie that, for me, is a test of potential friendship. If I show it to someone and he or she doesn’t love it too, all bets are off.


Cinderella (Disney, 1950) Remarkably fresh after nearly 70 years, this beguiling rendition of the Perrault fairy tale was a make-or-break project for Disney animation, still struggling to regain its pre-war foothold. And unlike recent Mouse House product, schizophrenically made with one eye on each new heroine’s spunky feminist bona fides and the other on crafting an ageless new “Princess” to add to the lineage, there was no art-by-committee finagling here; generations of girls and boys loved Cinderella for her natural ebullience, her love of animals, and her complete lack of self-pity. (Parenthetical: Several years ago, the “Classical” music critic Lloyd Schwartz quoted a friend who cited “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as the most frightening song title he’d ever heard. I always think about that when I see the picture.)


Cotton Comes to Harlem(1970)Not as rich as the Chester Himes novel, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.


Mary Poppins (1964) This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking release, which would have put me at around four and a half. I know this because the movie was released in late August, and my sister and I were taken to it at a drive-in. Hence the “ever almost”: I remember only the beginning, and waking up in the back seat when Jane and Michael Banks were being menaced by a snarling dog in an alley. I finally got to see it again when it was reissued in 1973. I liked it then, but love it now in a way few 12 year-olds, even movie-mad pubescents as I was becoming then, ever could.


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The Great Race
(1965) Another favorite of long-standing. Seeing this on television, even on a black-and-white set, in pan-and-scan format, interrupted by commercials and spread out over two consecutive Sunday evenings, delighted me and made me an instant Jack Lemmon freak. The new BluRay edition is stunningly executed.

 

 

 


French Connection II (1975) The rare sequel that succeeds on its own terms; although it was made during the period of John Frankenheimer’s acutest alcoholism it bears his trademark intelligence, verisimilitude and equal care with both action and actors.


Juggernaut (1974) A taut, entertaining thriller directed by Richard Lester concerning a bomb set to destroy a pleasure-liner at sea.


The Front Page (1931) A new Criterion edition, beautifully rendered, of the Lewis Milestone adaptation that shows how cinematic even the earliest talkies could be when handled by a master craftsman.


Robin Hood (Disney, 1973) I loved this when it opened. But then, at 12 I was much less critical.


Death on the Nile (1978) Nowhere near as stylish or accomplished as the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express which preceded it by four years, yet it holds many pleasures, not least its stellar cast. For a 17-year old nascent gay-boy, seeing both Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury on the big screen was close to Nirvana.


The Seven-Ups (1973) A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, directed by that picture’s producer, this tense New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals those in Connection and Bullitt.


Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970) A solid comic Western directed by Don Siegel and with a sharp, leftist screenplay by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10. Shirley MacLaine and Clinton Eastwood would seem to be as mis-matched in life as their characters are here, but they make an awfully good team. Features superb photography by the redoubtable Gabriel Figueroa and a pleasing Morricone score.


The Jungle Book (Disney, 1967) I was the perfect age when this one was released to embrace a new Disney animated feature — I had previously seen both Snow White and Cinderella in re-issue — and I went duly gaga over it. I had the Jungle Book comic (I wore the over off that one through obsessive re-reading), Jungle Book Disneykins figurines from Royal Pudding, Jungle Book temporary tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a veritable hockey-puck. My poor parents. Seeing it again in 1990 I was considerably less enthusiastic, but it’s remarkable what a quarter of a century can do for a picture. I still think it’s too self-consciously hip for its own good, especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance, but the character animation seems to me wonderfully expressive, especially that by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who did half the picture by themselves.

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The Jungle Book: George Sanders lends both his voice and his physiognomy to Sher Kahn, seen obliquely threatening Sterling Holloway’s Kaa.

The Aristocats (1970) Another I was less critical about when it was new, which seemed a bit bland on video but which now looks awfully good, and that in spite of its borrowings from the infinitely superior 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, transposed to felinity. Not to be confused with The Aristocrats


The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) The pleasures inherent in seeing a relic from the time when even a trifling Western comedy was imbued with deliciously quirky characterizations and witty, fondly observed dialogue (in this case by James Lee Barrett.) It isn’t much, but for the much it isn’t, it’s rather charming.


Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I somehow managed to miss this one until about 15 years ago, when I caught it at an art-house screening. Roman Polanksi’s screenplay (almost reverently faithful to the Ira Levin novel) and direction, the gorgeous cinematography by William A. Fraker and the effective score by Krzysztof Komeda (dead, sadly, within months of its release, this depriving us of a distinctive new compositional voice in movies), combined with the performances by its largely elderly cast and a notably plangent one by the often-insufferable Mia Farrow, make this exercise in stylish, low-key horror among the finest in the genre. What I was unprepared for then was how funny it could be, especially in Ruth Gordon’s knowing performance. “Chalky undertaste” become a running joke between me and my then-boyfriend for months afterward.

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Rosemary’s Baby: Polanski’s witty framing of Ruth Gordon,



Theatrical Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro. (2016) What was effective about this meandering and ultimately unsuccessful study of James Baldwin was the many clips of him speaking. But its makers set up a premise — why was Baldwin unable to finish his tripartite memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers? — and then almost immediately abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.


Kedi. (2016) Lovely, affecting movie about the street cats of Istanbul.


Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed. (2004) A timely reminder of a true progressive groundbreaker… who was ultimately screwed by the Democratic Party. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Point of Order! (1964) Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s superb compilation of kinescopes from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Especially relevant in these through-the-looking-glass times, in which liberal Democrats are, inexplicably, behaving in a way that would make Tail-Gunner Joe proud.



Selected Short Subject

Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story, 1953) Despite that second title, it’s not really his; Welles appended cinematic bookends to an atmospheric short picture made by Hilton Edwards.



Made for television

The Epic That Never Was (1965)On the aborted I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton. A British television documentary I first read about around 1974 and which contains all the extant footage shot for the ill-fated 1934 adaptation of the Graves novel. Josef von Sternberg appears, imperiously (and predictably) blaming everyone but himself for the debacle.


W.C. Fields: Straight Up (1986) Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.


The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell (1982) Robert B. Weide again. When this delicious toast to the brothers first appeared in 1982, PBS committed the unpardonable sin of mentioning Woody Allen’s name in its promotional material, causing Allen to pitch a predictable fit and demand that Weide remove his footage. It was put back in for the DVD release, and reveals definitively that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of importance, makes no profound observations, and adds precisely zero to the critical canon on the team the documentary’s writer Joe Adamson once described as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo.


Citizen Cohn (1992) History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.



Television series

I, Claudius (1976) Still powerful, if hampered by being shot on video rather than film, and with a beautifully modulated central performance by Derek Jacobi, who transformed stuttering into an art-form.


Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The Lost Episodes (Volumes I, II and III) One of the loveliest video events of the last few years has been the release of these utterly charming kinescopes by the Burr Tillstrom Trust, which is currently working to restore 700 additional episodes. I don’t know whether today’s children, weaned on CGI and iPhones before they’re out of preschool, have the capacity to respond to the show’s gentle humors, but I would be willing to bet that if you sat a relatively unspoiled five-year-old down in front of these 30-minute charmers, he or she might be hooked for life. It would be pretty to think so.

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The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends 12 full episodes from the late ’60s and early ’70s of that wittiest and most intelligent of American chat-shows. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett , Mel Brooks, George Burns, Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis fascinate and delight; Groucho Marx banters deliciously with his young goyishe friend; Dick fawns all too fannishly over a smug, queer-baiting Bob Hope; the Smothers Brothers behave strangely (it seems to be a put-on, but of what?) and Woody Allen flaunts his repulsive look and persona. Ruth Gordon and Joe Frazier also show up, as does Rex Reed, bitching rather perceptively about the Academy Awards. Also included is the single most painful interview I’ve ever seen — and surely one of the most awkward Cavett ever conducted — with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, the beautiful but weirdly inarticulate stars of Zabriskie Point.



Seen a second time… and will never see again

The Anderson Tapes. (1971) Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?


One Day in September (1999) An Oscar winner in the documentary category, this impassioned examination of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics muffs too many facts and, ultimately, sickens the viewer; not in the way the filmmakers hoped, but by exhibiting horrid color photos of the bloodied victims, which, whatever the intention, feels like an act of heartless exploitation.


New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion (2005) This first version of the “prequel” (odious neologism) to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader, was completely re-filmed, by Rennie Harlin, whose name is, as it should be, a hiss and a byword.


Moulin Rouge (1952) Visually glorious but dramatically inert. And you can really see what in it inspired Bob Fosse when he made Cabaret. But… was there a less appealing leading actor of the Hollywood Era than Jose Ferrer?


New to Me: More than worth the trip

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
 (2015)I avoided the theatrical release of this one in a manner not unlike my aversion to the first Star Wars picture when I was 16, largely due to my loathing of the Disney Company. But after stumbling across a second-hand Blu-ray copy for an absurdly low price I thought I’d at least give it a spin. To my astonishment, this over-hyped space opera turned out more than well; it nearly obliterated the bad taste left by The Phantom Menace. J.J. Abrams’ direction, focused less on CGI effects than on human beings in conflict with each other and themselves (the latter the only thing Faulkner believed was worth writing about) was both riveting and surprisingly beautiful, and the Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt screenplay had pleasing weight and even levity. The only cavil about it is the niggling sense that the new series may be unable to shake replicating the same sort of father/son (or, in this case, grandfather/grandson) adulations and conflicts that powered the Lucas originals. Isn’t there any other plot available in that galaxy?


Across 110th Street (1972) A tough slice of New York life, circa 1971. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.


Take a Hard Ride (1975)A cheerful, entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation, with very likable performances by Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, a fine villainous turn by Lee Van Cleef, an effectively silent Jim Kelly, a reasonably clever script (by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig), good action set-pieces by the director Antonio Margheriti, and a one-of-kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.


Firecreek (1968) A downbeat Western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda that is, in Calvin Clements’ incisive screenplay, about as despairing of human nature as it’s possible to get without the viewer wanting to slash his or her wrists. A double-feature of this and Welcome to Hard Times could put you in a funk for weeks.


Wrong is Right (1982) While we’re on the topic of press irresponsibility, this Richard Brooks satire of the year following Absence of Malice gleefully exposes, Chayefsky style, the appalling consequences of the electronic media’s love of ratings — a state of affairs being disastrously played out now, from Les Moonves’ giggling admission that the All-Trump-All-the-Time campaign coverage of 2016 was raking in the bucks for CBS to the current, slathering mania of so-called liberals for Russia-Russia-Russia McCarthyism.


The Kremlin Letter (1970) A flop in its day, and roundly panned by Pauline Kael, this John Huston thriller from 1970, imaginatively adapted from the Noel Behn novel by the director and his longtime collaborator Gladys Hill and featuring an absolutely marvelous score by Robert Drasnin is infinitely finer than its detractors would have you believe. The only complaint — and it’s a failure shared by Sidney Lumet in his 1971 version of the rather ingenious Laurence Sanders novel The Anderson Tapes, in his use of Martin Balsam — lies in Huston’s miscasting of the 63-year old George Sanders as a gay spy. The character, as Behn wrote him, is an attractive young man, which makes his position within a group of spectacularly selfish mercenaries eminently explicable. As with Balsam in Anderson, the change is mind-boggling, although the notoriously homophobic Huston is far less offensive in his handling of Sanders than Lumet was with his star. But it is, finally, Richard Boone’s movie, and he makes a meal of it.

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

The Night of the Following Day (1969) One of many late-1960s Brando pictures that helped make him box-office poison, this adaptation of a Lionel White thriller boasts an impeccably arranged kidnapping, a very fine performance by Brando, a good one by Pamela Franklin as the victim, and an unequivocally great one by Richard Boone as the most terrifying of the felons. The only sour note is the ending the director (Hubert Cornfield) imposed on it, over his star’s quite reasonable objections.


Rio Conchos (1964) Thanks to these last three pictures I was finally able to comprehend why aficionados love Richard Boone, an actor I had somehow managed to go 56 years without having seen.


Act of Violence (1949)A nicely-observed thriller starring Van Heflin, the young Janet Leigh and a typically stellar Robert Ryan that gets at some dark aspects of World War II mythology and contains one sequence, in which a stalking, menacing Ryan is heard but never seen, that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.


Westward the Women (1951) An interesting Western variation, about a trail-boss transporting 138 “good women” to California. Expertly directed by William Wellman from a fine Charles Schnee original. Typically strong photography by William C. Mellor, a good central performance from Robert Taylor and an exceptionally vivid one by Hope Emerson make this, if not wholly successful, diverting and markedly original.

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William Hopper and Robert Mitchum on the Track of the Cat.

Track of the Cat (1954) One of the strongest, strangest Westerns of the 1950s, beautifully adapted from the psychologically harrowing Walter Van Tillberg Clark novel and spectacularly filmed by William A. Clothier. I think this one ranks as the most pleasing surprise of my cinema year.


Cuba (1979) A fast flop from Richard Lester that is in fact a well-observed look at the events leading up to Castro’s coup, and is infinitely finer than Havana, the terrible 1990 romance from Sidney Pollack. Sean Connery adds his rough charm, Brooke Adams is almost impossibly beautiful, there is also delicious support from Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Alejandro Rey and Lonette McKee, splendid photography by David Watkin, and a memorable score by Patrick Williams.


Rio Lobo (1970) An old-pro’s swan-song. Howard Hawks directed it, John Wayne is the star, Leigh Brackett wrote it (with Burton Wahl), Jack Elam gives juicy support, William A. Clothier shot it, and Jerry Goldsmith scored it. The only complaints I have concern some remarkably bad pulled punches by Wayne. But with a set-up this entertaining, and the stunningly pulchritudinous Jorge Rivero along for the ride, that’s a minor matter indeed.


Cutter’s Way (1981) Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.


Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (1979) Entirely unnecessary, and hampered by anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either doesn’t know or is vaguely aware of in the previous picture are revealed or dwelt on at length here — this Richard Lester-directed diversion goes down surprisingly well, abetted by László Kovács’ glorious cinematography, the charming central performances of Tom Berenger and William Katt, and yet another marvelous score by Patrick Williams, one that may stick in your head and which you could find yourself humming passages from for days or even weeks afterward.


The Social Network (2010) Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook. It’s exceptionally articulate and well-made, with gorgeously muted lighting by Jeff Cronenweth and impeccable performances by Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer. But you will be forgiven for wondering, at the end, what it all meant. At the end, one of the attorneys (Rashida Jones) representing Zuckerberg against the Winklevoss twins says, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You just want to be.” Who the hell did Sorkin think he was kidding with that one?


Up Tight (1968) Jules Dassin’s return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.


Paranormal Activity (2007) I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror hit, ingeniously executed by its writer-director Oren Peli for $15,000, are nicely nailed-down. The absolute reality Peli sets up for the picture, and which is perfectly anchored by the performances of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (for whom the movie should have opened doors but, oddly, did not) makes the periodic scares that much more effective, leading to a genuinely shocking finale.


Super 8 (2011) J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.

Super 8 Joel Courtney - 04

Super 8: Joel Courtney as the Abrams stand-in.



New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! (1966) Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.


Journey into Fear. (1943) What’s good of Orson Welles’ direction is overwhelmed by what’s bad of Norman Foster’s.


Carlton-Brown of the F.O. (1959) Middling political satire from Ealing.


The Crimson Kimono. (1959) Surprisingly unsubstantial to have come from Samuel Fuller.


Where Were You Went the Lights Were Out? (1968) Fitfully amusing blackout comedy starring Doris Day and Robert Morse that betrayed its French farce stage origins in the less ingenious second half.


Shalako (1968) The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.



The Summing-Up
So. Some mediocrities, but no real dogs this year, which was nice. As Pauline Kael once observed: Life’s too short to waste time on some stinky movie.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


Grateful thanks to my good friend Eliot M. Camarena for enlightening my movie year, and special thanks to him for Act of Violence, The List of Adrian Messenger, Moulin Rouge, Point of Order, Up Tight, Westward the Women, and especially The Kremlin Letter and Track of the Cat. Eliot is one of the sanest, most politically astute people I know, and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly.

Rollercoaster (1977)

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By Scott Ross

I first saw Rollercoaster at 16, at an especially rotten little shopping center duplex cinema in Raleigh, North Carolina; it had earlier been a single-screen theatre until some genius decided to split it in half, around 1974 or ’75 — I remember seeing Jaws there — and the place was like two small coffins separated by what seemed like strips of plywood wedged between the auditoriums. In ’77 I don’t recall what was playing next door, except that I remember seeing whatever that was the week before. The theatre held 99-cent showings every Tuesday evening; whatever the other movie may have been (the atrocious Fire Sale, possibly) I recall, while watching it, the sound and feel of Rollercoaster’s utterly gratuitous Sensurround process bleeding through the walls and vibrating up from the floor, which is precisely as annoying as you think.

It was that very, expendable, addition that had kept me from Rollercoaster initially. One of Universal’s periodic attempts at manufacturing a fad, Sensurround debuted, appropriately, with Earthquake in 1974, sticking up its noisy, bombastic head at periodic (and wholly doomed) intervals until mercifully giving up the ghost for good in 1978. But I had a high school friend who was pretty much game for anything at the cost of only a buck, so we went.

My friend wasn’t particularly impressed with Rollercoaster, but I was — in spite of its being, essentially, a made-for-television movie decorated with widescreen, a few mild profanities and that ubiquitous sound-and-shake process. Its pedigree was, in fact, very television for the time: The movie’s canny screenplay was by William Link and his (now late) writing partner Richard Levinson.

Richard Levinson (left) and William Link.

The team responsible, among other things, for Columbo, Levinson and Link had also written and produced the now hopelessly dated but, in 1972, exceptionally brave teevee movie That Certain Summer starring Hal Holbrook as a divorced father, a young Martin Sheen as his lover, and Scott Jacoby as Holbrook’s alienated son. In later years I would especially admire Levinson and Link’s neat cat-and-mouse thriller Murder by Natural Causes, their evocation of 1957 Little Rock (Crisis at Central High) and their marvelously convoluted three-hander Guilty Conscience with the drop-dead cast of Anthony Hopkins, Swoosie Kurtz and the divine Blythe Danner.

Rollercoaster was another exercise in L & L’s patented games-playing: A chilly young man (Timothy Bottoms) sets off a series of bombs at large amusement parks around the country, the escalations gradually revealing themselves as blackmail — so perfect a terrorism plot I’m surprised no one in these post-PATRIOT Act times has re-made the movie… or tried to re-enact it.


Matching wits with this unknown (and largely unseen) antagonist is the always-engaging George Segal as Harry Calder, a California ride inspector. Naturally, once Harry deduces what the boyish sociopath is up to, no one in charge of the investigation takes him seriously until — also naturally — The Young Man (as Bottoms is billed) strikes again. From there on, Rollercoaster focuses on Harry, as The Young Man puts him through a series of seemingly pointless maneuvers though Virginia’s King’s Dominion park (and, later, the Six Flags Magic Mountain in California) as the Fibbies pursue them both.

It is finally Harry, the Young Man’s cats-paw, alone and feeling increasingly extraneous (and foolish) who is able — once the psychopath’s original plans are frustrated and he resorts to an improvised act of vengeance — to suss out Bottoms’ modus operandi.

Put that baldly, you may well wonder what the attraction was for me, and why I went back to Rollercoaster a second time, Sensurround and all. But, gimmicks aside, the movie has a fascination even after you’ve seen how it comes out. It certainly wasn’t due to any great job of filmmaking: The director, James Goldstone, came from television and, after, pretty much stayed there. Rollercoaster was Universal’s “event” movie that summer, the one the studio was sure was going to be the big hit of 1977. (They, along with everyone else, just didn’t reckon on something called Star Wars.)

Goldstone directing Widmark on the set.

Much of Rollercoaster’s effect on me was due to L & L’s smart, wry screenplay.* A part of it was undoubtedly my then-nascent sexuality; Timothy Bottoms was a dreamboat… which made my later discovery of some egregious, homophobic statements by the actor especially disheartening.

Some of that effect surely sprang from David M. Walsh’s expansive, and occasionally effectively vertiginous, widescreen cinematography: The otherwise fine 2:35 DVD presentation can’t come close to approximating the sensations you got in the theatre as Walsh’s camera took you through the rides themselves and, in one especially hair-raising moment (later appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for The Shining) seemingly off the tracks and away, into the sky. And a large portion of my admiration was the result of Lalo Schifrin’s superb score; I played the soundtrack LP a lot that summer. It’s still a favorite.

While Richard Widmark makes the most of his role as a bellicose special agent, much of the very fine supporting cast is underutilized: Henry Fonda as Segal’s sour boss, Harry Guardino as a local police inspector, and Susan Strasberg as Segal’s inamorata. But you do get to see a teenage Helen Hunt, Jodie Foster’s main competition in the “bright pubescent” sweepstakes, as the divorced Harry’s daughter, if that’s any compensation. (Although you may wonder, from a dramaturgical point of view, exactly why Strasberg and Hunt show up, against Harry’s wishes, at Magic Mountain in the final reel; they’re not put in peril, which is what you expect, and while the willingness of the screenwriters to thwart that cliché is admirable, it makes the pair’s unexpected appearance — especially as Harry convinces them to leave the park as soon as he sees them — feel entirely extraneous.)

Wait… is that Jodie Foster?

However, if you are, as I am, a life-long fan of George Segal, nearly any excuse to watch him at work is sufficient. Segal is one of those rare actors, like Elliott Gould in the same period, who without seeming to do much of anything radiates likability, and quiet intelligence. And since Harry Calder is in nearly every scene following the terrifying accident in the opening reel, he becomes the audience’s surrogate; his confusion is ours, his rages and frustrations our own as well.

I suspect my positive response, then, was due to a blend of elements, not the least of which was the wholly unexpected surprise of being treated, even at 16 and even in the summer, like someone with a mind during the unfolding of what was, essentially, a slick studio programmer.

Or maybe you just had to be there.

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*Tommy Cook and Sanford Sheldon are credited with, respectively, “story” and “screen story.” One smells a whiff of Writer’s Guild arbitration threat there.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

The Lady Eve (1941)

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By Scott Ross

Sullivan’s Travels is regarded by critics as Preston Sturges’ masterpiece largely, it seems to me, because of its self-reflexiveness; critics love movies about movies more than any other genre. But this, plus The Palm Beach Story, really represent Sturges’ innate genius for writing, and pacing, a breed of American comedy that is sui generis. The eponymous character, played with an astonishing mix of sophistication and genuine feeling by the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck, sets her cap for the hapless scion of a beer barony (Henry Fonda), is thwarted by his discovery that her jovial father (Charles Coburn) is a con-man, and plots her vengeance. Fonda is made to execute too many pratfalls — slapstick was one of Sturges’ few narrative weaknesses, one I wish he had overcome — but the dialogue and the performances absolutely sparkle, and there’s a sequence early on between the amorous Stanwyck and the perennially virginal Fonda, rigid with terror and sexual discomfort, that is among the greatest (and sexiest) comedy seduction scenes ever filmed.

The supporting cast includes the delicious Eric Blore, too little seen after his brief heyday with Astaire and Rogers, and Sturges stock company regular William Demerest, who just might have had the best tough-guy act in American comedy. If you can see him in a movie again after this one without muttering “Positively the same dame!” you either haven’t been comedically moved, or you’ve got more self-control than I possess.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

The Best Man (1964)

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By Scott Ross

Gore Vidal’s comedie a clef is the best political play ever created by an American writer, which sounds like damning with faint praise but isn’t. Wisely, Vidal produced the movie version to protect his writing, and the result is a honey. It’s about compromise, rumor, character, innuendo and self-aggrandizement — everything we expect from national politics — itself done, miraculously, without compromise.

Henry Fonda is the flawed but honest Presidential hopeful, Cliff Robertson his Nixon-like opponent, and Lee Tracy is the Trumanesque former President. The dialogue is among the smartest ever heard in an American movie, and the points Vidal scores are, sadly, still relevant. On the distaff side, Margaret Leighton and Edie Adams provide superbly rendered portraits of, respectively, disgust and unbridled ambition. With Anne Southern, braying smugly as a self-appointed exemplar of Democratic women voters, and Shelly Berman as the ultimate middle-class hypocrite fame-fucker.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross