By Scott Ross
Continuing my reluctant withdrawal from moviegoing, due to perpetual disappointment both with new work and with the new theatre audience — neither of which seems to be improving; indeed, the latter now infects every performance venue in the land — I saw only two pictures in a theatre last year… and they were from the 1970s and ‘80s. Additionally, the summer and autumn of 2018 were for private reasons exceptionally difficult for me, and entertainment was something I was able to devote very little time or attention to. Here’s to a much more movie-intensive 2019, whatever the venue.
And herewith, the movies (and other video items) I did manage to see during the year recently passed.
BOLD Denotes very good… or at least, better than average.
BOLD + Underscore A personal favorite
1. Older titles re-viewed on a big theatre screen
The Front Page (1974) Thanks to the Carolina Theatre in Durham I was able to add one more Billy Wilder picture to my list of his work seen on a big theatre screen, having missed this adaptation (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) of the Hecht-McArthur perennial when it was first released. I have a complicated relationship with The Front Page: As an adolescent, influenced — as were so many of my generation — by Woodstein, and perhaps even more so by Carl Kolchak, I aspired to be a journalist. My interests eventually led me elsewhere, but that early appreciation of the Fourth Estate remains, even if it has now, as increasing numbers of people have begun to believe, become a fifth column. And no play had a greater influence on popular American culture than this breakneck 1928 farce-melodrama; all of the great newspaper comedies of the 1930s (especially those featuring Lee Tracy, who had the starring role in the play) flowed from its influential fount, and it absolutely cemented our image of the hard-bitten, ink-stained, wisecracking reporter… a figure now utterly obliterated by $30,000-a day neoliberal shills for the Establishment.
Yet as much as I admire it, I don’t find the play especially funny, except in the 1940 Howard Hawks variation His Girl Friday, and that’s due largely to the charm of Cary Grant, the fast-talking zing of Rosalind Russell and the fizz they spark off each other. (The final line is funny, but once you know it, it’s not one that elicits much of a laugh next time around.) The newsmen depicted are, in the main, appalling — less the bulwark of free-press democracy than shabby, cynical hacks more concerned with snappy headlines than with anything approaching the truth. Some would no doubt argue that’s the point of the thing, but the authors clearly intended the play as a paean to the type, not a critique. That their star characters, Hildy Johnson and his unscrupulous editor Walter Burns, eventually manage to keep a corrupt Chicago mayor and sheriff in check is almost by-the-by; they wouldn’t do so unless their own liberty was at stake. That’s not to mention the casual bigotry of the piece: The word “nigger” is used by some of the reporters when “colored,” the general nomenclature of the time, not only would do, but did, elsewhere in the play, and the character of Bensinger is the piss-elegant pansy type prevalent in the ‘20s and ‘30s, all too easily ridiculed, and ridiculous. That Wilder and Diamond not only didn’t improve on that stereotype in 1974 but actually embellished it, making a cute young cub reporter (Jon Korkes) the object of Bensinger’s attentions, is a mark against their movie. (An end-credits post-script reveals — presumably for a boffo laugh… which, sadly, it probably got from a 1974 audience — they’ve left the newspaper business and opened an antique shop together. Why not a florist’s while you’re at it?)
As was their wont when adapting material by others, Wilder and Diamond made a number of changes to the original, and some critics were unreceptive; Wilder later admitted that he hadn’t understood how deeply venerated the play still was among members of the press. It’s a lively enough transliteration, with a fine performance by Walter Matthau as Burns, a good one by Jack Lemmon as Hildy despite his being too old for the role, and a controversial turn by Carol Burnett as Molly Malloy. (She famously apologized, to a planeload of passengers whose in-flight entertainment it was, for her performance.) Yes, she’s strident, but she’s also vulnerable, although not nearly as endearing as Austin Pendleton as the convict Earl Williams, whose imminent execution and eventual escape sets the plot (which Walter Kerr memorably described as “a watch that laughed”) in motion. And some of the scenarists’ alterations are pleasing, such as their stab at making the role of Hildy’s fiancée less thankless, and casting the young Susan Sarandon in the part. There is also excellent support by Charles Durning, Alan Garfield, Dick O’Neill and Herb Edelman (as Hildy’s fellow reporters), a blustery Vincent Gardenia (was there any other kind of Vincent Gardenia?) as Sheriff Hartman, a suave Harold Gould as the Mayor, Paul Benedict as the emissary from the governor, and wonderful old Doro Merande as the Criminal Courts Building custodian Jennie. As Bensinger, alas, David Wayne makes the worst of a bad job. While largely set-bound, the picture has a rich look to it, and there’s even a wild Keystone Kops-like chase through the Chicago streets. The opening credit sequence, set to a spritely Billy May rag (the production company was Universal, no doubt keen to have another Sting-like radio smash on its hands) and depicting the mechanized assembling of a newspaper from page one typeset to completed broadside, is a two-and-a-half minute gem.
The Changeling (1980) A beautiful rumination on the basic ghost story. Its admittedly thin screenplay is augmented by the usual marvelous George C. Scott performance, rare intelligence behind the camera — the director was the underrated Peter Madek — and a remarkably rich musical score (mostly by Ken Wannberg, with an assist from Rick Wilkens, anchored to an exquisite little music box theme by Howard Blake.) It’s one of those movies that has seen extremes of response: Dismissed, when not bludgeoned, by the critical fraternity on its 1980 release, it was restored and reissued in 2018 to ludicrous over-praise by people who can only deal in absolutes, and in an eminently dismissible interrogatory style: “Is The Changeling the most terrifying movie ever made?” The answer, even for partisans of the picture such as myself, is no. Not even close. But that hardly disqualifies the picture from being seen, and embraced, as a stylish — and surprisingly plangent — exercise in supernatural emotionalism that rewards repeated viewing. Thanks to my friend Eliot Camarena for suggesting this one to me a few years back.
I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1973) Jerry Bruck, Jr.’s illuminating portrait of the fiercely idiosyncratic progressive journalist and, for many years, publisher of the eponymous newsletter still considered among the best, and most reliable, of progressive American news and opinion journals. Viewed courtesy of a kind friend who for the last several years has been my personal source for previously undiscovered (at least by me) cinematic gems.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States (2012) A staggeringly effective multipart examination of the dark underbelly of our history no American public school educator will touch: This one-time Republic’s century-plus evolution into the world’s most avaricious, and murderously dangerous, empire. Reactionaries, conservatives, liberals and their corporatist ilk will, if they sample it, no doubt sputter with impotent fury. And even for those of us who’ve been paying attention these last few decades, the revelations on display here will astonish and enrage. Yet even after 12 exhaustively documented hours* (and which feel more like two) neither Stone nor his co-authors Peter Kuznick and Matt Graham succumbs entirely to despair, and their Untold History is, finally, an impassioned call to arms that refuses to admit the defeat of essential values… provided we want them badly enough to fight for their reinstatement. “The record of the American Empire is not a pretty one,” they write. “But it is one that must be faced honestly and forthrightly if the United States is ever to undertake the fundamental structural reforms that will allow it to play a leading role in advancing rather than retarding the progress of humanity.” The Untold History is a vital step in facing that record. Now: Is there the popular will to make the changes we need?
Rush to Judgment (1967) This collaboration between the radical American documentarian Emile de Antonio and the Warren Report-debunking Mark Lane is in essence a 98-minute cinematic edition of the latter’s bestselling jeremiad of the same year. Lane’s is the research on which fifty years of responsible investigation into the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and its subsequent and violent cover-up, are based. And, as nearly as I can determine, none of his central findings have in the intervening decades been proven incorrect.
Directed by John Ford (2006 edit) Peter Bogdanovich revisited his lovely 1971 documentary/overview in 2006. Alas, his new interview footage (with Clint Eastwood and Harry Carey, Jr.), shot on video, lacks, as Joseph McBride correctly noted in his review, the “vibrant look” and “elegant mobility” of their earlier counterparts. Nor does Eastwood add anything of value to what was observed originally by John Wayne, James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara and Henry Fonda. Still, the prickly sessions with Ford himself, the representative sequences Bogdanovich lovingly culled from his pictures, and the original Orson Welles narration are evergreen, and certainly reason enough to revisit this very personal Valentine to perhaps this most American (in both the good and bad connotations of the word) of 20th century filmmakers.
3. Video/Made for Television
Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me (2009) A pleasant, if not especially inspired, Clint Eastwood-produced TCM centenary portrait of our finest pop lyricist.
The Night Stalker (1972) No American made-for-television movie had a higher viewership in its time than this wonderful, and genuinely scary, adaptation by Richard Matheson of a then-unpublished Jeff Rice novel, and it has lost little of its power, or its humor, in the decades since. The inspired casting of, and performance by, Darren McGavin as pain-in-the-ass investigative reporter (remember them?) Carl Kolchak is half the fun, and the supporting roles are no less vividly limned: Simon Oakland as his dyspeptic editor; Ralph Meeker as that oxymoron, a helpful FBI agent; Elisha Cook, Jr.’s professional snitch; Peggy Rea’s cameo as a switchboard operator bribable with foodstuffs; Larry Linville’s no-nonsense coroner; Charles McGraw’s polished, slippery Chief of Las Vegas police; and Barry Atwater, cunningly revealed in stages by the director, John Llewellyn Moxey, as the vampire. There’s also a terrific score by Dan Curtis’ house composer Robert Corbert. The new Kino Blu-Ray restoration is mouth-watering, making The Night Stalker look as good as it must have when first aired. My favorite bit of Kolchakian rhetoric (“Now, that is news, Vincezo. News! And we are a newspaper! We’re supposed to print news, not suppress it!”) is one that has, thanks to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Bill of 1996 and the subsequent, nearly total corporate takeover of all news media, become even more sadly pertinent.
The Night Strangler (1973) This inevitable sequel to The Night Stalker is nowhere near as good as its record-breaking predecessor, and pointed up the major flaw of the subsequent weekly series: That supernatural crimes keep popping up wherever Carl Kolchak goes, and that only he believes in them. But it’s atmospheric as hell, what with its remarkable abandoned city beneath the streets of Seattle, from whence a new serial murderer emerges. And it has McGavin and Matheson (not to mention Simon Oakland) and that’s almost enough. It also has a feast of fine supporting roles embodied by Scott Brady, Wally Cox, John Carradine, Al Lewis, Margaret Hamilton, Jo Ann Pflug as Kolchak’s co-conspirator, and Richard Anderson as the urbane villain. Dan Curtis directed this one, and it’s also out in a sumptuous-looking Kino Blu-Ray.
The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy (2012) If, as I do, you can’t quite imagine life without the mad, unbridled wit of Mr. Brooks, this Shout! Factory set is five discs of bliss. (Six, if you count the accompanying CD. Which isn’t to mention the nifty hardcover book.) The DVDs consist of Brooks’ television appearances, an uproarious reunion interview with Dick Cavett, a five-part Mel and His Movies documentary, shorts (including Brooks’ and Ernest Pintoff’s Academy Award-winning The Critic) and even episodes of Get Smart! (one show is enough to make us wonder why we loved it so much in the ‘60s), When Things Were Rotten (which is no better now than it was in 1974) and Mad About You. There is never such a thing as too much Mel Brooks but even if there were, this set would support Mae West’s contention that too much of a good thing can be wonderful.
4. Seen a second… and final… time
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) Robert Altman and co-scenarist Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Arthur Kopit’s trenchant, theatrical play Indians lost much in the translation, and the result is an occasionally diverting mess. A fine cast (Paul Newman, Joel Grey, Burt Lancaster, Geraldine Chaplin, Kevin McCarthy, Harvey Keitel) flounders in material too diffuse to have a discernible shape or point of view.
Von Ryan’s Express (1965) Joseph Landon and the redoubtable Wendell Mayes adapted David Westheimer’s fascinating World War II thriller, and lost thereby much of what made it enthralling. To their credit, they kept the central figure’s prickly, unlikable character, and their star, Frank Sinatra, never winks at the audience. But the ending, which sacrifices Colonel Ryan on the altar of carnage, and which has no correspondence in Westheimer’s book, is wholly unnecessary. Mark Robson directed crisply, Trevor Howard makes a good foil for Sinatra, Vitto Scotti shows up as a train engineer, and the propulsive score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of his finest early works.
The Black Cauldron (1985) When I saw this animated Disney adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain pentalogy on its release, I found it exceptionally impressive visually but largely uninvolving on a human level. In the intervening years I read, and fell in love with, Alexander’s entrancing series of novels for young people, so seeing the picture again was dispiriting. The novelist’s scope is Tolkeinean in its breadth, characterization and action, and 80 minutes is too skimpy a running-time to even begin encompassing it. But the books are as well deeply moving, something the movie never is, even with an illogical tear-jerker of a climax added on. The action takes in only a small set of events from, essentially, the first and second novels in the series, and the vast canvas of characters has been reduced to a mere handful, with one major figure (the Horned King’s tiny henchman Creeper) created out of whole cloth. Or ink-and-paint, as may be. One could go on at length, but why bother? Elmer Bernstein composed a splendid score, and young Grant Bardsley makes a properly questing Taran. The other voices include Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, Arthur Malet, Billie Hayes, John Hurt (as the Horned King) and John Byner, very fine as Gurgi. Among the familiar Disney names associated with the picture are Roy Disney (dialogue), John Musker and Ron Clements (story), and, in the animation department, Ruben Aquino, Hendel Butoy, Pixote Hunt, Glen Keane, John Lasseter, Rob Minkoff, Phil Nebbelink, George Scribner and Andreas Deja, all of whom would go on to far better things.
5. New to Me: Meh
Bye Bye, Braverman (1968) This adaptation by Herb Sargent of Wallace Markfield’s 1964 novel, directed by Sidney Lumet, is richly populated with wonderful actors (George Segal, Jack Warden, Joseph Wiseman, Sorrell Booke, Phyllis Newman) and is on a certain level a vivid comic depiction of 1960s New York Jewish intellectuals. Sargent’s screenplay elides some of the archness of Markfield’s self-consciously (and, to my ear, anachronistic) “Jewish” dialogue, but, alas, is no more substantial, and its climax is even wispier. Godfrey Cambridge does have a marvelous scene as a cabbie, and Alan King gets a sly satirical sequence as a pompous Rabbi.
The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots (1970) Another Lumet adaptation, by Gore Vidal this time, and of a Tennessee Williams flop (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) is the last word in weird. And although Robert Hooks is, as always, excellent, his presence as the mulatto bastard brother of James Coburn’s shabby white racist makes a hash of the action, since “Chicken” is supposed only to be somewhat dark-skinned, and not, as depicted here, obviously black. Lynn Redgrave gives a winning account of Myrtle, Coburn is fascinating, and the thing was shot, beautifully, by James Wong Howe. But it’s a curio merely, and a rather disagreeable one.
The Cowboys (1972) A real misfire. William Dale Jennings’ sumptuous novel (based on his own rejected original screenplay) was turned, by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., into a crude, morally objectionable revisionist Western, the ambiguity of the original lost by the appalling placement of John Williams’ rousing “Cowboys” theme at a crucial juncture. John Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne almost triumph over this unsavory mélange, unimaginatively directed by Mark Rydell. But Bruce Dern, as the chief villain, wallows in overstated ugliness.
Executive Action (1973) What might have been a galvanizing fictionalized critique of accepted wisdom on the assassination of John Kennedy was turned in its pre-production into an oddly tame affair. The original script, by the JFK assassination researcher Mark Lane and the playwright Donald Freed (cf., the Nixonian fantasia Secret Honor, filmed by Robert Altman) and later adapted by them into a compelling paperback novel, made no bones about CIA involvement in Kennedy’s murder. The subsequent screenplay, by Dalton Trumbo, muddies these waters to the point of nearly complete opacity: From which shadowy organization, if any, is Burt Lancaster’s team derived, if not directed? Your guess would be as good as mine. Lane and Freed also focus their narrative very effectively on two of the conspirators’ descending life spirals, both of which the picture eschews, to its ultimate detriment. That said, the sight of three old Hollywood lefties (Lancaster, Will Geer and Robert Ryan, whose last film this was) as sinister reactionary collaborators holds a sly kick.
Play Misty for Me (1971) Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut is a time-capsule movie in any number of ways: As a depiction of the artistic colony of Carmel, California (where Eastwood resides, and was once a bar-owner — and later the mayor) at the beginning of the 1970s; the hair, autos, interior design and clothing of the time; the emergent style of Hollywood filmmaking as practiced by bright young directors feeling their oats; and, perhaps most interestingly, as an example of a narrative form that would no doubt be greeted with howls and Twitterized hisses today. “What? A thriller with a knife-wielding psycho… and she’s a woman? How dare they? And Eastwood goes to bed with her and then dumps her just because she’s a little unstable? #Hatred for the Mentally Ill! Maybe it was men like him who made her crazy! So she stabs his housekeeper — does that make her a bad person? (His Black housekeeper. #Racist!) And then he punches her? #Abuse! #Sexist Pig!” Never mind that one of the screenwriters (Jo Helms, who also crafted the story) was a woman. (The other was Dean Riesner.) Much more to the point is that fact that Eastwood’s character, an FM jazz d.j., behaves in such a demonstrably stupid manner throughout the rising action. And his directorial flourishes date the picture far more than the actors’ clothing, reaching their nadir in a soft-focus romantic montage with Donna Mills, set to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which became a Top 40 hit. There is a nice sequence at the Monterey Jazz Festival, a narrative development obviously close to the director’s heart, Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel shows up in a pair of nice bits as a barkeep and Jessica Walter does wonders with a character so frighteningly mercurial you wonder why her co-star doesn’t take out an immediate restraining order against her. But then, if he had, there might not be any movie. (I said he was stupid.) The great Bruce Surtees was the cinematographer.
Broken Arrow (1950) This early attempt at being fair to Native Americans — the screenwriter, uncredited until decades later, was the then-recently blacklisted Albert Maltz — is overly earnest, stilted in its dialogue (which James Stewart’s opening narration hastens to warn us is due to the Apache language being spoken solely in English) and, while beautifully shot in color by Ernest Palmer, was directed with no distinction whatsoever by Delmer Daves, whose oeuvre only a confirmed Sarrisite could love. Jeff Chandler, whose stardom has always seemed to me one of American cinema’s great enigmas, is Cochise. The best one can say is that at least he doesn’t embarrass himself. Debra Paget is rather lovely as Stewart’s eventual Apache bride, and Will Geer — himself about to be blacklisted — has a small, showy role as an angry settler. Mickey Kuhn, who memorably played Montgomery Clift as a boy in the early part of Red River, also appears, as Geer’s son. Stewart, alas, has little to tax him histrionically until late in the picture.
Night Passage (1957) I’ve seldom seen a good Western novel so thoroughly — and, to my mind, perversely and irresponsibly — ruined by Hollywood as what the makers of this one did to Norman A. Fox’s remarkable little book. But either the producer or the screenwriter (the redoubtable Borden Chase) removed the guts from Fox’s story, one that couldn’t have been more of a ready-made movie if it had been typed in screenplay format. A terrific picture could, and should, have been made from it, preferably in black-and-white, but neither Chase nor James Neilson, the ploddingly literal director, trusted what they had. There’s not even more than a few minutes’ worth of night in the damn thing… and that with a director of photography as certifiably great as William H. Daniels! Audie Murphy gives a good account of the nominal villain; you get the sense that he, at least, read the book. But Brandon deWilde, while game, is years too young for a role that should have been cast with an adolescent, and Dan Duryea is truly dreadful; the characteristic habit of his role is laughter, but each time Duryea breaks into it, the braying result is as phony as the backdrops the actors are framed against in the medium shots and close-ups. As good as James Stewart is in the lead, he’d have been twice as effective if more of Fox had made it onto the screen. Indeed, the only actor in Night Passage who’s a true breath of fresh air is Olive Carey, and it’s notable that her character, a wise, cheerful old muleskinner, wasn’t in the novel at all. The picture reaches its creative nadir in an added sequence that probably pained Norman Fox as much as, if not more than, what they took out of his book: A would-be comic brawl among querulous Irish laborers that is no funnier here than it was the many times John Ford attempted it, usually with Victor McLaglen. An extended sequence, on a moving train-car, provides the only real suspense in the picture: You keep looking at Stewart and deWilde, and those rushing waters far down below, and wondering how much insurance was issued on the actors.
6. New to Me: Worth (or More Than Worth) the Trip
From Noon ‘Til Three (1976) Frank D. Gilroy wrote and directed this delightful Rashomon-like parable, from his own ingenious little novel, which takes off from variations on what may have happened between a bank robber and a young widow during a crucial three-hour liaison. Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland are surprisingly charming as the lovers, and if the finale is less downbeat than the climax of the book its payoff is in its way no less pointed. Elmer Bernstein composed the delicious score, and the lyrics to his eponymous waltz are by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. (Bernstein and Alan Bergman appear on-screen as early Tin Pan Alley hacks, plugging the song.) Lucien Ballard added his usual luminous cinematography, and the Twilight Time Blu-Ray transfer makes splendid show of it.
Violent Saturday (1955) A good crime drama depicting the planning of a bank robbery in a mining town that gets a lift from the performances of Stephen McNally, Richard Egan, Sylvia Sidney, J. Carrol Naish, Margaret Hayes, Tommy Noonan and Lee Marvin. Sydney Boehm wrote it, from a novel by William L. Heath, and it’s crisply directed by Richard Fleischer. With its small town full of adulterous dames, peeping Toms and kleptomaniac librarians, the picture suggests what might have happened had Richard Stark written Peyton Place. Charles G. Clarke provided vivid Technicolor® cinematography, Hugo Friedhofer composed the taut and intelligently-spotted suspense score, and there’s a spectacular finale at a farmhouse owned by, of all people, Ernest Borgnine in an Amish beard and accent. Victor Mature, playing a man embarrassed that his son thinks he’s a coward, struggles manfully with a lousy part. He doesn’t overcome it, although he fares rather better with the villains.
The Crucible (1996) This excellent Nicholas Hytner-directed film of the 1953 Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials — and, in part, the playwright’s response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities — when seen in the years since the Democrats instigated a brand-new Red Scare on “evidence” no more substantial than that concocted by the terrified young Salemite Abigail Williams, carries with it a new and unavoidable metaphor: Hillary Clinton is Abigail.
The Landlord (1970) Hal Ashby’s directorial debut is a determinedly quirky take on what used, rather prettily in America, to be called “race relations.” The perennially under-rated Beau Bridges plays a wealthy ne’er-do-well who capriciously buys a Brooklyn apartment building, selfishly concerned only with refurbishing his own apartment and utterly unprepared for the wild array of his new black tenants, whom he plans to evict. The superb cast includes Diana Sands, Lee Grant, Pearl Bailey, Lou Gossett Jr., Mel Stewart and Robert Klein. Kristin Hunter wrote the novel on which the actor and playwright Bill Gunn based his cutting screenplay. Gordon Willis was the cinematographer.
The Public Eye (1992) Howard Franklin wrote and directed this beautifully photographed (by Peter Suschitzky) attempt at a latter-day, albeit period, film noir, basing the central character played by Joe Pesci on the idiosyncratic photojournalist Arthur Felling, aka “Weegee.” It doesn’t entirely work either as a character study or as a thriller, but it’s a highly original conceit, and Pesci, who has a tendency to repeat himself, is refreshingly restrained here. The always interesting Barbara Hershey also stars, and Stanley Tucci has a fine role as a hood with a conscience. Some of Wegee’s distinctive photos are featured, along with work by others.
Hombre (1967) One of several collaborations between Martin Ritt and the aforementioned screenwriters Ravetch and Frank, this one based on an Elmore Leonard Western. It’s an expansive movie, shot by the great James Wong Howe in widescreen and muted color, but doesn’t, finally, add up to a great deal. Paul Newman is the eponymous anti-hero, a taciturn young Caucasian raised by Apaches, and his performance is very nearly silent. It’s the kind of thing Steve McQueen made a fetish of, but that was due to his own well-deserved insecurities as an actor; you’ve only to picture any of McQueen’s defining roles with Newman instead, to comprehend the gulf that lay between them. Only a performer of Newman’s range and seriousness could really pull off the conceit, and he’s splendid here, as is the rather astonishing supporting cast: Frederic March, Diane Cilento, Cameron Mitchell, Martin Balsam, David Canary and, especially, the great Richard Boone. If not an ideal movie, it’s certainly an intelligent one.
Tom Sawyer (1973) Conceived and written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman and financed by, of all things, The Reader’s Digest, this musical variation on Mark Twain turns out to be a welcome, and very pleasant, surprise. Johnny Whittaker is Tom to the life, especially in the delightful fence-painting sequence; with his curly mass of strawberry hair and those half-attractive/half-ordinary features, Whittaker passes for a young Sam Clemens, which is who Tom is anyway. As Becky Thatcher, Jodie Foster (in only her third film appearance) is already poised and appealing; and Celeste Holm is the Aunt Polly of one’s fondest dreams, exasperated and warm in equal measure. The Shermans elevated Muff Potter to featured status, giving Warren Oates a chance to shine (although his vocals were dubbed) and the supporting cast includes Jeff East, very good as Huckleberry Finn; Lucille Benson as the Widow Douglas; Henry Jones as the cane-wielding pedagogue; and, as “Injun Joe,” the impressive Kunu Hank (no actor, his entire performance was dubbed). It’s about as likable a piece of Americana as you could wish, and the Sherman songs are their distinctive, patented mix of word-drunk whimsy (“Gratifaction”) and incisive character writing (“Tom Sawyer,” “How Come?,” “If’n I Was God,” “Aunt Polly’s Soliloquy”). My only real complaint concerns the cavern sequence, too brightly lit to achieve the terror intended; the 1938 David O. Selznick version got it much better, and remains one of the most frightening memories of my life as a children’s matinee moviegoer in the late 1960s. (Obviously, Injun Joe is dispatched in a less grisly manner in both pictures than the truly nightmarish demise Twain gave him in his book.) The director, Don Taylor, shot the picture in Missouri, and his approach to the material — and indeed, that material itself — never falls into the elephantiasis that doomed so many movie musicals of the time. There’s a marvelous, long helicopter tracking shot of Whitaker running through fields toward the Mississippi to meet the steamboat docking there which is as lovely as it is exuberant; the airy, attractive cinematography is by Frank Stanley, and looks especially good in the Twilight Time Blu-Ray. John Williams supervised the music and also served, with Irwin Kostel, as orchestrator. The movie does contain an odd detail, one that would never pass muster today: When, in their duet ”Freebootin’,” Tom and Huck swim naked off Jackson’s Island, the camera catches, almost gratuitously, what seem to be deliberate (if brief) glimpses of their bare bottoms thrust above the water. We can tell they’re not wearing anything in the sequence; what was the point of embarrassing adolescent actors that way?
Huckleberry Finn (1974) Also featured on the Twilight Time Tom Sawyer release, this inevitable sequel fails on nearly every level. Yet somehow you don’t hate it. Sawyer’s producer, Arthur P. Jacobs, died before the picture began shooting, and his absence is felt throughout, especially as the director, J. Lee Thompson, clearly had no idea how a musical should be shot. László Kovács’ cinematography is gorgeous, but the predominance of muddy tones (and mud itself), while appropriate to a story set on the Mississippi, is at variance with the material. It might work for a straight adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it’s disastrous for a musical. And Thompson’s staging is no help either; when the Duke and the King (David Wayne and Harvey Korman) are introduced with an energetic soft-shoe, they’re reduced to stomping around in the mud; what should soar with comic invention merely lies there, inert and gasping for air. As Huckleberry Finn is not merely one of my favorite novels but a cornerstone of American literature, I was surprised that the picture didn’t offend me. But the technique that worked so well for the Sherman Brothers on Tom Sawyer — they called it “A Musical Adaptation” rather than attempting a perfect transliteration — doesn’t suit this book, whose incidents are so well-remembered, and so crucial to the narrative, that variations can only disappoint. The death of Colonel Grangerford (Arthur O’Connell) in the feud here, for instance, simply lacks the heartbreak and horror of young Buck Grangerford’s murder, witnessed by Huck. (When Buck himself appears, it is not as the Colonel’s grandson, but as a black boy slave.) Nor is there anything in the picture as horrific as the tarring-and-feathering of the King and the Duke. Worse, the Shermans, having omitted the attempted lynching of Colonel Sherburn, give some of his lines to the King! East, whose second picture this was, is unable to breathe much life into a character whose struggles are largely internal, and not well illuminated in the screenplay, and Paul Winfield makes a dignified and endearing Jim, but the movie lets them both down; at the end they simply part and the picture fades off into nothingness. Korman and Wayne probably come off best, although Gary Merrill’s brief turn as Pap is properly unpleasant, and Natalie Trundy has a nice cameo as Mrs. Loftus. But the Sherman songs are a great deal less buoyant and memorable than those in Tom Sawyer. I suspect the material, darker and more pointed, was simply not a part of their creative wheelhouse.
Run of the Arrow (1957) Samuel Fuller’s examination of race in post-Civil War America focuses on an Irish Confederate (Rod Steiger) who, refusing to accept Lee’s surrender, turns his back on white civilization. If you admire this most idiosyncratic of writer-directors, as I do, this one is essential viewing. Astonishingly, there are those now who don’t get that Steiger deliberately loses his accent when speaking Sioux when it’s blazingly obvious Fuller intended these dialogues, as the makers of Broken Arrow did, as representing the Siouan language in English. They think it’s just bad acting. Christ, how unbelievably obtuse Americans have become!
The Tamarind Seed (1974)
Blake Edwards’ return to filmmaking following his disastrous experiences on Darling Lili, Wild Rovers and The Carey Treatment is a fascinating, intelligent and very effective little romantic thriller (from a good novel by Evelyn Anthony) on Cold War tensions. It’s bright, tense, well-conceived and often witty, with good performances from Julie Andrews, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle and a brief but extremely effective John Barry score.
The Traveling Executioner (1970)
Had Gerrie Bateson written The Traveling Executioner as a novel rather than a screenplay, it might have been hailed as a modern neo-Southern Gothic black comedy on a par with the best of Flannery O’Connor. The picture, directed by Jack Smight, has the feel of the form, and if it’s difficult to imagine quite how it could ever have caught on with a large audience, then or now, it’s also in its small way superior to the later, much-heralded John Huston adaptation of O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Bateson, whose only movie this was (he wrote a Night Gallery and a Mission: Impossible before disappearing from the business forever) completed it for a film-school assignment, and it exhibits a smart novice’s go-for-broke quality. It’s ruthlessly efficient, rather like the device the smirkingly-named Jonas Candide (Stacey Keach) creates for quick penal executions, and carries through without compromise from its premise to its unsettling climax. Keach, fresh from Arthur Kopit’s play Indians and with his long hair worn in an anachronistic ponytail, is splendid, never appealing for audience sympathy as a less secure performer might. Although the tone veers from knockabout comedy to genuine tragedy, the picture feels entirely of a piece. My only cavil is with the ending, in which the dejected mortician played by Bud Cort takes on Jonas’ persona, and takes over his job. Having botched things so spectacularly, what state — even a backwards Deep Southern one — would let him continue executing felons? The Jerry Goldsmith score is a marvel, ranging from a circus-like waltz theme whose calliope gives way to an ersatz Gospel hymn, to a tender, moving accompaniment for Jonas’ soothing verbal depictions for his victims of an annealing vision he calls “The Fields of Ambrosia.” Love it or hate it, it’s certainly unlike any other movie you’ll ever see.
The Comancheros (1961) A big, colorful, episodic John Wayne vehicle that never takes itself seriously for a moment, and doesn’t ask you to either, and all the more likable for that. (Although Wayne’s character was subservient to that of Stuart Whitman’s in the Paul I. Wellman novel on which it was based.) The backstory is in some ways even more interesting than the picture — see the Wikipedia entry — and it was the final work of Michael Curtiz, whose illness forced him to withdraw during shooting; Wayne himself completed the movie. Clair Huffaker’s script was eventually re-written by Wayne stalwart James Edward Grant when the actor was cast in a role intended first for James Garner. The flavorsome cast includes Ina Balin, Bruce Cabot, Jack Elam, Jack Buchanan, Gwinn “Big Boy” Williams, and Henry Daniell. Nehemiah Persoff makes an elegant, wheelchair-bound villain, and Lee Marvin is both amusing and frightening as a mercurial, whip-wielding gun-runner who, scalped by Comanches, wears his remaining hair in a long braid down one side of his head. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score in his characteristic Big Western mode, and it’s a honey, rousing and relentlessly melodic.
Wall Street (1987) Although supposedly made in tribute to his stockbroker father, Oliver Stone’s movie is really a disgusted response to the bald, grasping greed of the Reagan era. And while Michael Douglas is perhaps my least favorite actor of his generation, I must admit he has a feel — come by naturally, one presumes — for embodying sleaziness. I am if anything less enamored still of Charlie Sheen, Martin’s less gifted son, but even he is in good form here, as Bud Fox, an ambitious young trader who willingly allows himself to become corrupt. (Is it coincidental that he shares the first name of Jack Lemmon’s equally climbing would-be junior executive in The Apartment?) Martin Sheen himself provides splendid contrast as Bud’s honest dad, Hal Holbrook has some nice moments as a seasoned broker, James Karen is solid as Bud’s predictably mercurial boss, and Terence Stamp does well by an icy corporate raider. Only Darryl Hanna proves a true embarrassment; in her big break-up scene with the younger Sheen, she’s appalling. Whatever his limitations as an actor, he’s trying to do honor to the moment, but she gives him nothing to play against. Stone, who wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser, has a fine feeling for the trappings and appurtenances of the time and place, although when the picture ends you may find yourself shrugging with indifference at the whole thing.
Saint Jack (1979) Largely ignored on its release, and barely given a chance to find an audience, this adaptation by Peter Bogdanovich, Howard Sackler and Paul Theroux of the latter’s caustic picaresque novel set in the Singapore of the 1960s and early ‘70s is beautifully made and wonderfully acted, especially by its star, Ben Gazzara, who gives a performance in which every word and sparing gesture is so honest we feel like eavesdroppers. Bogdanovich and his collaborators — although presumably not Theroux — deviate from the book’s structure (it’s both linear and temporally fragmented) and its events in substantial ways, particularly in their depiction of the Hong Kong-based accountant played with understated garrulity by Denholm Elliott; he dies early in the novel, but pops up repeatedly in the picture, and since Elliott is so pleasing a presence, even Theroux devotees may not mind. Bogdanovich himself shows up, in a coldly effective portrayal as a wealthy fixer. (Amusingly, his ever-present aide and chauffeur walks as if he has a stick shoved permanently up his ass.) George Lazenby appears late in the movie as a liberal Senator, the unintentional means of Jack’s redemption. Interestingly, Bogdanovich changes the odd but essentially innocent liaison between the politician and a young woman Jack is supposed to spy on into one between Lazenby and a native rent-boy, making Jack’s rejection of the plot even more pointed. I say “interestingly” because Bogdanovich has seemed in his writing to be at best rather uneasy with homoeroticism. Robby Müller photographed the picture, beautifully, on location.
The Immortal Story (1968 — Criterion) Orson Welles’ intriguing adaptation, for French television, of the Isak Dinesen story was his first project not filmed in black-and-white. And while he disdained color, he shortly became a master of it; his subsequent F for Fake is the most beautiful of movies, and among the most pictorially splendid of Welles’ own work. Welles was also a realist, and he understood that color was increasingly important to distribution, indeed the dominant mode of world cinema, and especially, television. (The Immortal Story was shot by Willy Kurant.) Welles appears as the wealthy catalyst of the events, Roger Coggio is his ambiguous aide-de-camp, Norman Eshley is the virginal young sailor and the luminous Jeanne Moreau is the impecunious woman at the center. Since I have not read Dinesen’s story, I am not sure what is missing in the loss of authorial voice, and indeed I would like to know how Dinesen ends the narrative, because I’m not at all certain how I am supposed to feel, and what it all means. On that basis — one of the most basic to movies — The Immortal Story must, I suppose, be accounted an artistic failure; a picture that depends on our understanding of the story it is based on and cannot express its own intentions clearly enough to stand on its own is not a success. Or perhaps I’m just thick-headed. Despite the foregoing, anything Welles put his name to is, perforce, worth seeing, and more than once. I’m sure I’ll be watching this one again… although I also suspect that it, like his adaptation of The Trial, will never be a personal favorite.
7. Revisited with pleasure
The Death of Stalin (2017) Armando Iannucci co-wrote (with David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows) and directed this at once hilarious and horrifying black comedy based on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, and it’s one of the finest — and funniest — political satires in motion picture history. Granting there haven’t been that many of those takes nothing away from this audacious, witty, occasionally shocking and blazingly intelligent movie. Even the casting amuses: When Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor show up (as, respectively, Khrushchev, Molotov and Malenkov) they elicit sly chuckles. There is, however, nothing remotely amusing about Simon Russell Beale’s chilling performance as the appalling Lavrentiy Beria. Rat-like both in action and physiognomy (courtesy of some superb prosthesis by Kristyan Mallett), pathologically sadistic and lethally efficient, Beale’s Beria is a genuine sociopath who only exhibits human feeling when it’s his own neck on the line. Buscemi and Tambor take top honors among the comedians but the entire picture is beautifully cast, with standout work especially from Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina. Foolishly, “Me Too” accusations against Tambor led to the producers erasing him from the poster while the picture was still in theatres. One wonders where this insanity will end. With Errol Flynn being digitally erased from The Sea Hawk, presumably.
Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) An enjoyable farce starring James Caan, Elliott Gould, Diane Keaton and Michael Caine whose screenplay, one gathers, was muddled by that hack Mark Rydell; Caan averred Rydell “completely” re-wrote what he called a “wonderful script” — by John Byrum, with later revisions by Robert Kaufman and Don Devlin — adding, “The director sacrificed jokes to tell a story no one cared about.” (Leslie Anne Warren, who is featured in the deliberately overripe, and amusingly sabotaged, play-within-the-film, claimed she couldn’t get work for five years after the picture opened.) If you approach this period farce with appropriately lowered expectations it’s buoyant and engaging, if not especially hilarious. The muted ending is another detraction, turning as it does Keaton’s radical newspaper publisher into a rank, gold-digging opportunist. Among the delicious supporting cast: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Michael Conrad, Burt Young, Bert Remsen and the always delightful Jack Gilford. The early 1900s décor is sumptuous, heightened by the burnished cinematography of László Kovács and the bouncy score is by the great David Shire, who also appears, briefly, as the blasé pianist accompanying Harry and Walter’s vaudeville act.
The Front Page (1931) The first time I saw this Lewis Milestone-directed version of the Hecht and McArthur play, in an admittedly poor print, it seemed to me one of those creaky, set-bound early talkies that illustrated why the camera needed to be freed from the tyranny of the sweat-box microphone. But the restored edition, made available on Criterion’s splendid recent release of His Girl Friday, showed me just how wrong I was. Culling footage from the domestic, British and foreign versions of the picture, and a 35mm print from the Howard Hughes Collection struck from the original nitrate negative in 1970, the Academy Film Archive re-assembled and restored the movie to spectacular life. Although Lee Tracy, the original Hildy Johnson, was engaged elsewhere in Hollywood (and playing very similar roles) Pat O’Brien makes a suitable substitute, and that insufferable old reactionary Adolphe Menjou is a very creditable Walter Burns. Best among the supporting cast are Walter Catlett (as Murphy), Mae Clarke (Molly Malloy), Slim Summerville (Pincus), Frank McHugh (McCue) and, as Bensinger, the peerless Edward Everett Horton.
Harper (1966) William Goldman wrote this sharp adaptation — and slight updating — of Ross Macdonald’s initial Lew Archer novel The Moving Target, removing, thankfully, most of the original’s ugly homophobia in the process. (Perhaps at Paul Newman’s request? That is sheer speculation on my part, but something about the subject of homosexuality clearly bugged Macdonald; every Archer novel I’ve read contains at least one unsavory Lesbian or gay man, and Newman was notably squeamish about such sexual demonizing. The one exception in the picture is the murderous thug played by Roy Jenson whom Harper queer-baits, to predictable results.) The star, coming off The Hustler and Hud, was convinced that the letter “H” was lucky for him, hence the change from Archer to Harper. The rich supporting cast includes Lauren Bacall as a paraplegic ice-queen; Julie Harris as a drug-addicted singer-pianist; Arthur Hill as Archer’s lawyer pal; Janet Leigh as his dry, cynical ex-wife; Pamela Tiffin as a spoiled rich girl; Robert Wagner, pretty and dangerous as a glorified pool-boy; Shelley Winters as a former Hollywood starlet turned blowsy man-trap; Harold Gould as a sheriff; and Strother Martin as a phony spiritualist. Johnny Mandel wrote the brief, jazzy score. Appropriate to the tawdry sadness that overlies the Archer books, Goldman’s twists are less clever than deflating, particularly the last one, and he gets off some pretty fair hard-boiled lines of his own, the best and most famous being one for Newman: “The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise.”
Dick Tracy (1990) Warren Beatty’s witty take on the notably grisly Chester Gould strip, complete with a color palette evoking the bright hues of the Sunday newspaper comic page… and which scores of ignorant American critics referred to at the time of the picture’s release as having been done in “primary colors”… which of course would have meant only in red, blue and yellow. Maybe they were taking their cue from Richard A. Sylbert, the movie’s designer(!), who said the same thing(!!) in a number of contemporary interviews. It’s a fast, enjoyable ride (Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. are the credited screenwriters) decked out with some marvelous pastiche songs by Stephen Sondheim, a Danny Elfman score that emulates Gershwin as well as his usual hommages to Herrmann and Rota, glorious photography by Vittorio Storaro, and a terrific cast to embody the many odd, pre-Fellini grotesques of Gould’s imagination. Aside from Beatty himself as Tracy, Madonna as his temptress Breathless Mahoney (she gets a great Sondheim number in the Harold Arlen mode called “Sooner or Later”), the delicious Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart and the gifted Casey Korsmo as Junior we also get Seymour Cassel (Sam Catchem), Michael J. Pollard (Bug Bailey), Charles Durning (Chief Brandon), William Forsythe (Flattop), Ed O’Ross (Itchy), Mandy Patinkin (88 Keys), R. G. Armstrong (Pruneface), Paul Sorvino (Lips Manlis) and, in an inspired bit of kidding, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles. Dick Van Dyke, alas, is wasted as a crooked D.A., but Al Pacino has a veritable field-day as the chief villain “Big Boy” Caprice. It’s the perfect role in which to indulge his penchant for explosive over-acting; like Akim Tamiroff in Touch of Evil, he’s both menacing and very, very funny. Mike Mazurki also shows up, in a bit. He’s a living link to the past the movie depicts, as is Mel Tormé, whose voice we hear on the radio crooning Sondheim’s “Live Alone and Like It.”
Nashville (1975) — Criterion
Robert Altman and Joan Tewksbury’s unrivalled nonesuch, one of the greatest movies of a great movie period.
Tom Jones (1963) — Criterion John Osbourne wrote and Tony Richardson directed this elegant, playful, French New Wave-inspired adaptation of the sprawling Henry Fielding novel, which made Albert Finney an international star. (It made a then-astonishing $36 million in its initial release, on a $1 million budget.) Five and a half decades on, the bawdiness which titillated its contemporary audience has become about as shocking to the sensibilities as an octogarian grandmother saying, “Fuck,” but the performances, and Walter Lassally’s exquisitely rendered cinematography, remain enchanting, and the famous “eating scene” between Finney and Joyce Redman is still riotously suggestive. Although I am averse to the hack-phrase “breaking the fourth wall,” which is most often used by the sort of people who think direct address was invented in Hollywood sometime around the year 2000, it’s notable that Richardson and Osbourne (and yes, dear auteurists, the moments were scripted) have fun twitting the audience with acknowledgments of the camera: Redman’s impressed, impish shrug to the audience when she realizes she’s slept with her own son is still jaw-droppingly hilarious. Susannah York makes a charming Sophie Western, Hugh Griffith is a roistering Hogarthian feast as her father, and the rest of the fine supporting cast (Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, George Devine, David Tomlinson, Jack MacGowran, David Warner, Peter Bull, Angela Baddeley, John Moffatt, Lynn Redgrave) are a comprehensive delight. Micheál Mac Liammóir adds his rich, plummy actor’s tones to Osborne’s narration which, while it does not often quote Fielding directly, approximates his style with aplomb. The witty score is by John Addison, and Antony Gibbs provided the sprightly editing.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) Terry Gilliam is, arguably, our greatest movie fantasist — and, inarguably, has the worst luck of any major filmmaker; there is nothing as insane in the Gilliam universe as the people for whom he has worked. On Munchausen, he was saddled with a very strange, possibly criminal, German producer and yoked to corrupt Italian artisans and the wildly expensive and inefficient facilities at Cinecittà, rendering much of his original vision compromised… and, when the picture was completed, suits and countersuits by the completion bond company and the indifference of a new regime at Columbia Pictures which preferred taking a $38 million loss to promoting a project of the previous administration. Yet Gilliam delivered a movie of such richness it is nearly overstuffed with delights. Seeing it in a theatre in 1988 was an exhilarating experience, one comparable to the high you get if you’re lucky enough to watch Lawrence of Arabia on a wide commercial screen. The director and his co-scenarist, Charles McKeown, made going to the movies an act of veneration, and the Cineplex a palace of wonders: An ancient European city besieged by Ottoman artillery; encounters with Death; a wild nocturnal ride on a cannonball; a hot-air balloon made of women’s undergarments; a flight to the Moon; a corresponding plunge to the center of the earth; ingestion by a giant sea monster; incarceration in, and escape from, a Turkish seraglio; and a character whose impossible feats of sprinting make him the human equivalent of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner. Nor are these marvels wholly (or even necessarily partly) realistic. Munchausen is, if anything, about the advantages of storytelling artifice over absolute verisimilitude, and the movie is filled with delicious theatrical concepts — another age’s deliberately exaggerated invocation of splendor. The great Giuseppe Rotunno shot the picture, which features John Neville as the Baron, Sarah Polley as the skeptical child he endeavors to convert, Eric Idle as Berthold, Jonathan Pryce as an officious officer, Oliver Reed as Vulcan, Uma Thurman as Venus, Valentina Cortese as the Queen of the Moon and a prototypically untrammeled Robin Williams (in the credits he’s “Ray D. Tutto,” a homonym approximation of the Italian “king of all”) as the King.
The Godfather (1972) I doubt I can add anything to the millions of words that have been written, and said, about Francis Coppola’s adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel, with Jaws a prime exemplar of the notion that third-rate source material can, when filtered through the sensibilities of supernally gifted popular artists, yield first-rate movies. The Blu-Ray edition of the “Coppola Restoration” is exquisite.
Rio Bravo (1959) I have a good friend who positively loathes Howard Hawks. I am precisely the opposite. I don’t love his movies equally, and I know dreck when I see it, whoever made it. But when I think of the creative filmmakers (as opposed to the many hacks for hire whose oeuvres made Andrew Sarris swoon) whose best work I most enjoy, Hawks — with Wilder, Welles and Chuck Jones — comes high on the list. Rio Bravo is one of those pictures that, if I begin watching it, I know I’m in for the duration. It is, in a way, a perfect distillation of everything Hawks did well, and all his thematic quirks. That sort of thing can be deadly, but, working with the excellent screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, Hawks keeps things light and, despite the lengthy running time, so relaxed and enjoyable you don’t even mind the cavalier attitude he took toward re-staging for a new picture what had already worked for him once. (He apparently had never heard that old movies were regularly showing up on television. And he would later essentially remake Rio Bravo twice, in the 1967 El Dorado and his final movie, the very likable 1970 John Wayne Western Rio Lobo.) All of the Hawksian concerns are here: Intense male camaraderie bearing more than a whiff of the homoerotic; fast talk between cynical men and sharp, witty women (Angie Dickinson is pretty much Bacall in To Have and Have Not, albeit without Bacall’s ineffable je ne sais quoi); and action that, while headed for an explosion, dawdles charmingly on seeming irrelevancies that add immeasurably to its texture. Made in part as a response to High Noon, whose plot Hawks found infuriating, in Rio Bravo the protagonists spend much of the picture preparing for an impending assault by outlaw killers, and the rest of the Texas town might as well not even exist. Aside from Wayne, giving one of his most relaxed and endearing performances, the cast includes Dean Martin, very good in an essentially dramatic role; Walter Brennan, lovably cantankerous; and the astonishingly beautiful Ricky Nelson as a young gunslinger. Russell Harlan photographed the picture and Dmitri Tiomkin scored it, less bombastically than was his usual wont.
The Verdict (1982) Paul Newman’s performance as Frank Gavin, a broken-down, ambulance-chasing lawyer handed a life-changing case he’s expected to lose is so keenly observed many of us in 1982 were convinced there was no way the Academy could continue denying him his Oscar®. We hadn’t counted on the typical response to Gandhi: Alcoholics (and the physically and mentally handicapped) usually get awards, but not as many as historical figures. (23 in the “Best Actor” category, at last count.) Scarcely less impressive than Newman are James Mason as his urbane opposing counsel; Charlotte Rampling as his ambiguous love interest; Jack Warden as his mentor; Milo O’Shea as a political hack of a judge; Edward Binns as a Bishop; Julie Bovasso as an angry potential witness; Wesley Addy as a self-important surgeon; Joe Seneca, both dignified and apologetic as Newman’s chief medical expert; and Lindsey Crouse in a striking turn as an unexpected witness. (You can also, if you look closely, spot the young Bruce Willis as a courtroom observer in the climactic scene.) I am by no means an admirer of that overpraised reactionary David Mamet, but this almost insanely overrated playwright got nearly everything right here,† and jettisoned most of what made Barry Reed’s novel such an irritatingly second-rate exercise. (Rampling’s character in the book, for example, is a one-dimensional schemer — a corporate bitch; Mamet gives her moments of aching humanity, and when Newman decks her in justifiable fury, you hate neither of them.) Sidney Lumet directed, with his customary intelligence and unobtrusive artistry, and Andrzej Bartkowiak provided the autumnal imagery. My only cavil with Newman’s otherwise scathingly honest performance: Frank smokes, constantly, but Newman never inhales, and it’s almost shockingly phony to watch. Wouldn’t it have been better to have dropped the cigarettes entirely than let your star look that foolish?
The Boys from Brazil (1978) Perhaps there were too many old Nazis running around in the late ‘70s… by which I mean, on the nation’s movie and television screens. I have a feeling that, after Marathon Man (1976) explored the narrative possibilities of resurrecting Mengele, The Odessa File (1974) played out its revenge fantasy, television weighed in with Holocaust and The Wall, and this, Ira Levin’s masterly speculation on cloning Hitler, had come and gone, there was little appetite left for the subject. Which might explain why the very fine Thomas Gifford thriller The Wind Chill Factor, positing nothing less than that Nazism was not only alive and well but integral to Western governmental organization, was announced, on the jacket of its paperback edition, as “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture”… and promptly never was. In any case, The Boys from Brazil gave us, of all people, Gregory Peck as Mengele, Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man’s Mengele stand-in) as a Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter, James Mason as Peck’s comrade and eventual nemesis, Uta Hagen as a bitter old one-time Nazi guard, and the gifted Jeremy Black in multiple roles, each intensely dislikable, as the boys. The supporting cast is especially effective, and includes Lilli Palmer, Steve Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Bruno Ganz, Walter Gotell, Wolfgang Preiss, Michael Gough, and Prunella Scales. The screenplay, by Heywood Gould (who later wrote the effective cop study Fort Apache—The Bronx) was largely true to Levin’s work, Franklin Schaffner directed it with verve (and staged a notably gory climax) and Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his essential ‘70s scores, hinging it on an at once exuberant and sinister waltz theme — coffee mit bitters. And if the picture lacks the gravitas and the nerve-wracking grip of Marathon Man, it’s that rare thing, an intelligent thriller, and Peck has a high old time of it playing militantly against type.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
A perennial favorite since I first encountered it on television around 1969, this most likable of all Don Knotts comedies gets a workout on my Blu-Ray player every October.
JFK: The Director’s Cut (1991/1997) Love it or despair of it, Oliver Stone’s incendiary examination of the Kennedy assassination was one of the most important movies of its time, its popularity leading directly to the establishment of the Assassination Records Review Board. That the Board has not, as directed by law, made public “all existing assassination-related documents,” that the CIA has not permitted the release of the most incriminating information, and that we are still awaiting some confirmation of the essential facts, is hardly Stone’s fault. To expect more would, one suspects, be tantamount to believing in Santa Claus, or in the non-existence of an American Empire. Based primarily on On the Trail of the Assassins, Jim Garrison’s memoir of prosecuting what is to date (and a half-century ago) the single case brought against any of the conspirators and on Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, Stone and Zachary Sklar fashioned a fiercely cinematic examination of the assassination and its largely transparent official cover-up that so enraged the Establishment it was attacked even while it was being shot — Time magazine even published a critique on an early script, making blatantly false claims about its content. That more than slightly hysterical response only intensified when the picture opened big; its success must have truly unnerved the CIA and its plants in the American press. Pat Dowell, the film critic for The Washingtonian, found a mere 34-word capsule review killed for being, however brief, positive, and even The Advocate piled on; I am ashamed to admit their screaming headline (“JFK: Pinko Fags Offed the Prez!”) kept me from the theatres in 1991… and from Stone’s work generally, for years. Well, it was my loss. And I should have realized, once nearly every mainstream media outlet in America inveigled against the movie, that Stone was touching a very raw nerve. He and Sklar were criticized even by dedicated assassination researchers like Mark Lane, who did not seem to understand that a feature is not a documentary. And while it is true that they conflated some characters, made composites of several participants (the racist male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon, for example, is based on a number of real figures)‡, speculated — as all assassination journalists, given no official confirmation, must — and (horrors!) invented dialogue, that is what filmmakers do. One can reasonably nit-pick over a scene such as the one in which the terrified David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) says more than one imagines he would to Garrison’s team, but to dismiss the picture entirely because a dramatist dramatized is to admit you know nothing about movies, and understand less. But Stone’s critics make up their own rules where he is concerned… that is, when they don’t ignore his pictures entirely. There are sequences in JFK that are among his finest work: The long sequence with “X” (Donald Sutherland), the former operative based on L. Fletcher Prouty and John Newman, is, in its melding of dialogue and music (by John Williams) and its gripping juxtaposition of images, the work of an absolute master. One can reasonably quarrel with Kevin Costner as Garrison, an imposition, one assumes, by Warner Bros. as box-office insurance. It’s a role rather beyond not merely his limited abilities but his physiognomy and vocal timbre; Garrison sounded more like Gregory Peck than anyone else and was of comparable and imposing physical stature. Costner isn’t bad by any means, merely conventional. He gets exceptional support, moreover, from the large cast, which includes Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison, Edward Asner as Guy Banister, Brian Doyle-Murray as Jack Ruby, John Candy as Dean Andrews, Jr. and Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin. Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight and Jay O. Sanders play members of Garrison’s legal team, John Larroquette shows up as a lightly disguised version of Johnny Carson, and Garrison himself appears, briefly, as Earl Warren. Robert Richardson was the cinematographer, and the kinetic editing was the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. JFK is most effectively enjoyed in its 206-minute “Director’s Cut.” Appropriately, the most disturbing moments in the picture stem from Stone’s use of the Zapruder footage which, however altered by the CIA, is still horrific after 55 years. As Richard Belzer is fond of reminding people, whatever one’s feelings about John F. Kennedy, or how and why and by whom he was killed, a man died that day in Dallas — horribly.
Nixon (1995) Criminally ignored — when not slammed outright, by the same chorus of professional neoliberals and CIA plants who reflexively ganged up to “discredit” JFK in 1991 — on its release, this Oliver Stone picture, written by Stone with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, is less a conventional “biopic” than an epic meditation on post-war American political realities, using as its anchor that most Shakespearean of Presidents. (Much of the idiot criticism the movie engendered centered on Stone’s audacious depiction of Richard M. Nixon as a multi-faceted human being… the first obligation of the dramatist.) It’s a film that looks better with each viewing, particularly in Strone’s home-video “Director’s Cut,” which among other things restored what to me seems its most absolutely essential sequence, between Anthony Hopkins’ RMN and a silkily foreboding Sam Waterston as the CIA Director Richard Helms — the single segment of the picture that most directly addresses Stone’s central thesis: That the President, whoever he (or in future, she) might be, is a temporary employee of a National Security State so overweening, and so powerful, it is a beast with its own sinister momentum, over which the Commander in Chief has no recourse, defense, or power. One senses in its excision from the 1995 theatrical release the fine Italian hand of the Walt Disney Company. Elaine May once observed that “They” always know what your movie is about — the very reason you wanted to make it — because it’s what they make you cut first.
The Russia House (1990)
A beautifully lucid and bracingly intelligent spy thriller out of le Carré that, unlike the run of these things, rewards repeated viewings as few such entertainments ever do.
The Front (1976) Even at 15 I knew that this earnest dramatic comedy written, directed by and starring a number of blacklist survivors carried with it more than a whiff of wish-fulfillment. Yet it carries you along, and engenders a great deal of good will, despite Woody Allen’s amateurish performance, and general repulsiveness of personality, in the lead. The nadir of Allen’s appearance here is his questioning by a HUAC panel. The great screen actors allow a director to photograph thought; at the crucial moment, all Allen knows how to do is blink and stare. Walter Bernstein was the screenwriter and Martin Ritt directed. The supporting cast includes Andrea Marcovicci (struggling against a poorly written part), Michael Murphy (very good as a blacklisted television writer), Zero Mostel (obnoxious in a largely obnoxious role), Herschel Bernardi as a harried network producer, Remak Ramsey as a slithery investigator, Lloyd Gough and David Margulies (also playing blacklistees, which Gough was), Charles Kimbrough and Josef Sommer (as HUAC members) and in a small early role, Danny Aiello. The great Michael Chapman (The Last Detail, The White Dawn, Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Raging Bull) provided the warm, burnished cinematography of a lovely, and lovingly recreated, 1950s New York.
Winchester ’73 (1950) This first of many taut collaborations between James Stewart and the director Anthony Mann is tough to beat. It’s practically a Western noir, shot by the great William H. Daniels in beautifully rendered black-and-white and written (by Robert L. Richards, with an important final revision by Borden Chase) seemingly in hot type. Stewart, to my mind the single finest actor in American movie history, plays a man obsessed, at which he excelled — the sort of role that allowed this beloved figure to limn the darker contours of American life. Some think this is a post-war innovation, but if you look over Stewart’s filmography you become aware that this dramatic tendency (which he shared with Cary Grant, an actor just barely second to him in range and ability) goes back at least to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, and that even in such sparkling comedies as The Philadelphia Story and The Shop Around the Corner he hints at discordant rumblings beneath an often placid surface. The splendid cast includes Shelley Winters as a tarnished angel, Millard Mitchell as Stewart’s trusted friend, Charles Drake as a congenital coward, John McIntire as a laconic seller of firearms, the ever-likable Jay C. Flippen as a Cavalry officer, Rock Hudson as a dangerous Indian, the wonderful Will Geer (who was shortly to be blacklisted) as Wyatt Earp, Stephen McNally as the object of Stewart’s quest, Tony Curtis in a small role as a soldier and Dan Duryea as a cheerful psychopath; the scene in which Stewart interrogates him, nearly breaking his arm, is a small masterpiece of unexpected violence. Stewart’s profit participation deal with Universal for this and the film of Harvey made him a very wealthy man.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) — Criterion Whenever I contemplate what RKO did to what might have been Orson Welles’ masterpiece, not merely disemboweling it but destroying the original negative, I become physically ill. Yet even in its severely truncated form, Ambersons is a movie of such exquisite textures it demands to be seen, studied and yes, even loved. Perhaps no American literary adaptation has so conscientiously retained its author’s voice, with Welles himself memorably narrating Booth Tarkington’s un-emphatic yet revealing descriptive prose. Perhaps only a master radio dramatist, as Welles certainly was, would have been as concerned with the sound and shape of authorial tone, and Tarkington’s lovely novel was quite clearly one that resonated with him; he adapted it for radio twice before embarking on the movie. Unavoidably out of the country as the picture was being edited, and lacking the right of final cut he enjoyed on Citizen Kane, Welles was powerless to stop the picture’s evisceration: His initial cut ran 148 minutes, the preview edit was 131, and the final release print was further hacked to a mere 88 — fully an hour shorter than Welles intended. It was one of those two previews that so frightened management at RKO, when his ending, and Agnes Moorehead’s performance, received what he later called “roars of laughter from some stupid Saturday night audience.” That climax, it should be noted, was the one area in which Welles’ narrative diverged from Tarkington’s, and certainly it was depressingly dark.§ But the studio’s solution, allowing several hacks (one of whom was the editor, Robert Wise) to re-shoot in an appallingly unambiguous manner, not even attempting to match the style to that of Welles, are disastrous, and it takes a strong constitution to bear them; the final scene is especially stomach-churning. (The movie’s composer, Bernard Herrmann, was so incensed by the damage done to the picture he demanded his credit be removed.) Matters weren’t helped by the slowness with which Stanley Cortez lit the stages for his admittedly shimmering cinematography — and indeed, the time he wasted likely would have allowed Welles to edit it to both his and RKO’s satisfaction; Cortez was eventually fired and replaced with Jack MacKenzie. What still exists is among the finest work, not merely by Welles, but by anyone. There are sequences, like the ball in the Amberson mansion, and two on the streets of the Midwestern city in which the story takes place that are among the most quietly astonishing ever committed to celluloid. And his cast is first-rate: Tim Holt as Georgie Minafer, the spoiled, headstrong scion of the family; Ray Collins as his laconic uncle; Dolores Costello as his indulgent mother; Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan, her quondam and future suitor; Anne Baxter as his daughter, and Georgie’s inamorata, strangely unable to resist this appalling boy; Richard Bennett, deeply moving as the Amberson patriarch; and Moorehead in a towering performance as Georgie’s embittered spinster aunt, who foolishly if unwittingly sets in motion the wheels of the family’s eventual destruction. Her scene with Holt toward the end, where she bravely resists her own rising hysteria until she can no longer stave it off, is one of the peerlessly great moments in movie acting. Welles always wondered why she didn’t get an Academy Award for her performance, and you will too.
* Ten, if you don’t watch Stone’s two Prologues detailing the last years of the 19th century and the earlier years of the 20th — and you should; they provide the necessary context to what follows. There is also on the Blu-Ray set a splendid, long colloquy between Stone and Tariq Ali that is not to be missed.
†Except the ending. Infamously, Mamet concluded his screenplay without the jury returning a verdict, then left the picture in a childish huff when his wisdom was questioned. (The producer suggested that, had they filmed the picture as Mamet wrote it, the marquees would have to have read “The Verdict?”)
‡One of them, Perry Russo — who as far as I know was not a hustler, although the question of his sexuality is a curious one — was Garrison’s star witness. Interestingly, Russo appears nowhere in JFK.
§In the novel, the eventual redemption of both Georgie Minafer and Eugene Morgan is accomplished through a bizarre deus ex machina: Eugene, while in New York, visits a medium, whose “control” convinces him he must “be kind.” Welles later told Peter Bogdanovich that his ending was “not to un-do any fault in Tarkington,” but surely he was either mis-remembering, or protecting Tarkington’s reputation, which he quite reasonably felt deserved contemporary re-evaluation.
I have, since writing the above, heard Oliver Stone admit that he cut the Richard Helms sequence from Nixon on his own volition and not, as I assumed, due to studio interference. I respectfully submit that he was wrong. That single scene is what Stone’s Nixon is really all about.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross