Monthly Report: January, 2020


By Scott Ross

As my quarterly reports seem to be getting longer and longer, and because I’m watching more movies of late, I’m trying a monthly capsule in place of my usual quarterlies. At least this month. If I see fewer movies in future I may go back to the quarterly model, or perhaps a bimonthly accounting.

As ever, click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.

Gilbert and Dara Gottfried

Gilbert (2017) Neil Berkeley’s surprisingly sweet, even moving, portrait of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried.

Anything Goes - Sinatra, Merman and Lahr

“Good evening, friends…” Sinatra, Merman and Lahr in an unreasonable facsimile of Anything Goes.

Anything Goes (1954) A mess, with compensations.

Snow White - bedroom

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Walt Disney’s first animated feature still delights — and terrifies —  80-plus years later.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty - spindle

One of the most visually compelling of the animated features made at his studio while Walt Disney was alive, Sleeping Beauty, initially released in Super Technirama 70mm, is a knockout on a wide theatre screen… a pleasure I am sorry to say few in America will ever enjoy again as I did with Disney cartoons, often, in my youth. It still looks good on a plasma screen, and its climax is beautifully animated, but it’s a rather cold movie — a triumph of design over substance. Disney, busy with his park, let Eyvind Earle impose his style, based in large part on John Hench’s evocations of the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, on the picture, and often backed Earle over his animators. The major problem with Sleeping Beauty is that what should be its central character is little more than a cypher. Cinderella, the previous Disney animated feature focused on a young woman (as opposed to the girl Alice in Alice in Wonderland) gave its heroine rich character, and dimension, from the very first scene. She was kind, and generous, and we understood that, while laboring in terrible circumstances, she never wasted a moment feeling sorry for herself, even if she occasionally (and deservedly) expressed resigned irritation. The teenage Brier Rose/Aurora, this story’s princess, has only one important sequence (directed by Eric Larson) before she falls under the wicked fairy Maleficent’s spell, and while it’s a lovely one, and lengthy, it isn’t enough. And in its aftermath, when she learns her identity from the fairies who raised her and is told she’s betrothed and can’t see the boy she’s met in the forest, her reaction seems petty, like a petulant schoolgirl throwing an after-school fit because her mother’s grounded her.

None of the other characters are especially fulsome except Maleficent, and that’s largely due to Marc Davis’ animation (he also animated Aurora) and Eleanor Audley’s superb vocal performance. Three who come close to being well-defined are the good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, animated almost entirely by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. (Milt Kahl’s Prince Phillip has dimensions, but he’s no more fully sketched-in than the Princess.) Wolfgang Reitherman, who later took Disney animation into an almost entirely sentiment-free realm as the director of every feature between 1961 and 1977, was responsible for the picture’s most effective sequence, the epic battle between Phillip and Maleficent in the form of a great dragon. Interestingly, Reitherman’s mediocre work as the director of the hipper, less emotionally plangent titles of the ’60s and ’70s, is bordered by two of the studio’s best features, 101 Dalmatians and The Rescuers. Somehow, something more came through in those pictures. Whatever it was, a tincture or two should have been applied to Sleeping Beauty.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons 194373582Although it physically sickens me whenever I think about what RKO did to it, I tend to see what could have been Orson Welles’ masterwork more or less yearly as I get older, and, as with Citizen Kane, usually notice something fresh in it I hadn’t quite seen before — some little detail, or even just a look on one of the actors’ faces, that had previously eluded me and that enriches the experience. And each time I see it, Agnes Moorehead’s performance moves me more. It’s among the most naked jobs of acting in movies; I don’t think the kind of shrill, bitter, self-pitying loneliness she evokes as Fanny Minifer has its equal anywhere in American film, and she doesn’t make you wince; despite yourself, you pity her. That Moorhead was herself as plain as Fanny in the story makes her work doubly impressive, and poignant. And she isn’t afraid to look ugly, as when she mocks Georgie (Tim Holt); you understand, without being told (although it’s made explicit later in the picture) that she has put up with this spoiled brat’s mean-spirited teasing for 20 years, and is giving back in the same, immature, vein — the only response possible. Although Welles maintained that Moorehead’s best scene was removed from the picture and burned, she has two sequences that are almost shocking in their raw emotionality.  One, famously, is near the end, when insupportable reality drives her to hysteria. But the first, when she realizes just how terrible are the consequences of her hurt carelessness, is, although briefer, in its way even greater. The way, leaning over on the staircase nearly in pain, Moorehead moans out Fanny’s misery and regret (Oh, I was a fool!) as if she’d like to push every harmful word she’s ever spoken back down her own gullet, and choke on them, is so utterly without guile or calculation it’s almost a new form of acting. Stanislavsky would have had little to teach her.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Anatomy of a Murder - Gazarra, Stewart
Otto Preminger was a superficially gifted filmmaker who, perhaps because he was as publicity-conscious as Hitchcock, routinely got credit for more than he deserved, and ink for outraging the system, itself largely out of proportion to his achievements. (Burt Kennedy: “I drove by Otto Preminger’s house last night… or is it A House by Otto Preminger?”) I give him a certain amount of credit for unblinkingly depicting addiction and withdrawal in The Man with the Golden Arm (1954) and for twitting the idiot Production Code with The Moon is Blue (1953) but his alleged genius eludes me. That said, Anatomy of a Murder stands not merely as the finest of all courtroom dramas, and a sneakily subversive one, but as one of the greatest of all popular American movies. Much of the credit goes to the sceenwriter, Wendell Mayes, for taking a mildly diverting (and somewhat self-serving) novel by a former Michigan County Prosecuting Attorney — and then state Supreme Court Justice — and improving it in nearly every way. I don’t know how much of this revision was guided by Preminger, but the movie’s deep sense of ambiguity, regarding the law, the behavior of its characters and the case itself was surely shared by the picture’s director. James Stewart gives a career-high performance as the wily defense attorney, and he’s met blow-for-blow by the supporting cast: Lee Remick as a curiously sensual rape victim (one can just hear today’s “a woman never lies” crowd gnashing their teeth and murmuring, “How very dare they!”), Ben Gazzara as her intelligent brute of a husband, Arthur O’Connell as a bibulous former attorney, Kathryn Grant as the murder victim’s heir, George C. Scott as a sneering prosecutor, Orson Bean as an Army shrink, Russ Brown as a trailer park caretaker, Murray Hamilton as a hostile witness, John Qualen as  a prison deputy, Howard McNear as an expert witness, Jimmy Conlin as an habitual drunkard happy to sacrifice his liberty for a case of fine liquor, Don Ross as a shady con, Joseph N. Welch — himself lately, and famously, a defense attorney for the Army against a certain Senator from Wisconsin — as the presiding judge and, sublimely, Eve Arden as Stewart’s wry and long-suffering secretary. Few months have passed since my seeing this movie the first time that I haven’t had occasion to hear Arden’s “If I was on that jury I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t know” reverberate softly in my head.

Anatomy of a Murder - Eve Arden resized

Preminger will never be a favorite of mine, but this movie certainly is.

Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Of all the gin-joints…

Casablanca (1942) I hope it isn’t true, as I have read, that Millennials and their even younger counterparts don’t know, have not heard of and have never seen, one of everybody else’s favorite movies… but I suspect it is. Because it’s in black-and-white? Because it’s older than Star Wars? Because it’s concerned with people, as opposed to special effects? Well, they don’t know who Jack Kennedy was either, or care that he was probably murdered by their government. Whatever the reasons, the losses are theirs entirely. Or soon will be. And then they’ll be the world’s.

Still… imagine a time, 40 or 50 years from now, when no one remembers Casablanca. I’m glad I’ll have been long dead.

My Dinner with Andre
My Dinner with André (1981) In the nearly four decades since this nonpariel movie was released, I don’t think a week has gone by without my recalling something André Gregory said in it. So much of what he and Wallace Shawn discuss seemed at the time both extreme and all too possible. Now their conversation feels entirely prescient.

Wallace Shawn: “I actually had a purpose as I was writing this: I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.”

Key Largo (1948) Key Largo - Bogart on boat
This adaptation, by Richard Brooks and John Huston, of Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 blank verse drama retained little but the basic narrative set-up, a character or two, and the title. The antagonists of the reactionary Anderson’s play were Mexican bandidos, and the Humphrey Bogart character was a deserter from the Spanish Civil War. (He’s also, in typical poetic/nihilist 1930s fashion, killed at the end, after redeeming himself. Huston and Brooks let Bogie off that unnecessary hook.) As a high-tension melodrama, the picture is vastly entertaining as long as you don’t take it seriously for a moment.

Among the things that can’t take much scrutiny is Huston’s desire to make a cheap hood like the Edward G. Robinson character stand in for all the evil of the post-war world. But if you ignore the unworkable metaphors and Lauren Bacall’s inability to do much of anything except smolder and concentrate instead on the performances by Robinson, Bogart and, especially, Claire Trevor as a broken-down alcoholic former gun-moll, as well as the thick Florida atmosphere, the mechanics of the thriller plot, the bits of dialogue that don’t strain for profundity and the best moments of Huston’s direction, Key Largo always makes for a robust evening’s entertainment. The Max Steiner score is a little easier to take than some of his earlier bombast, and the cinematography by Karl Freund is really sumptuous. Freund was the lighting director on some remarkable silents (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Variety, 1925; Metropolis, 1927; and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927) as well as the 1931 Dracula and the 1936 Camille. He was later responsible, in conjunction with Desi Arnaz, for the development of the three-camera technique for television comedy and was, from 1951 to 1957, the director of photography on I Love Lucy. That hasn’t anything to do with Key Largo, but it’s impressive.

Night Moves 6

Night Moves (1975) Paul Vitello, in his 2013 New York Times obituary of the Scottish novelist and sometime screenwriter Alan Sharp, wrote that “his best-known narratives created and then disassembled audience expectations about all the usual Hollywood verities, especially the triumph of justice, love and friendship,” and it seems pretty obvious it was Sharp whose sensibilities most informed this little-seen but essential 1970s detective thriller. It’s as dark and nihilistic as Chinatown, and while I would not claim for it the richness of that landmark of ’70s cinematic Americana, it’s an infinitely better movie than some of the more well-known Arthur Penn-directed pictures of the time like Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a Los Angeles P.I. with a crumbling marriage, on the trail of a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith). The mystery isn’t that search — Harry finds the girl fairly easily — but what is going on with her stepfather in Florida, and why she is suddenly killed, seemingly by accident.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. As the femme fatale, Jennifer Warren’s line-readings are so odd they eventually become false and off-putting, a key telephone answering machine message goes un-listened to and with no dramatic payoff, in an early appearance as a mechanic James Woods doesn’t just chew the scenery but every engine in sight, and some of the scenes don’t seem fully shaped. But it’s wonderfully observed, always intelligent, often witty, and even Griffith is good in it, perhaps because she’s an adolescent and, for once, her little-girl voice is appropriate. The terrific supporting cast includes Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Janet Ward and John Crawford, Michael Small composed the brief but effective score, and the beautiful photography is by the great Bruce Surtees.

Sahara 1943
Sahara (1943) I don’t know how a movie this implausible can be, conversely, so cleverly contrived, so intelligently written and so engagingly acted. Sahara certainly had some impressive writers involved in it: The screenplay was by John Howard Lawson (with an un-credited assist by Sidney Buchman) and Philip MacDonald wrote the story. The main titles tell us that the picture was based on “an incident depicted in the Soviet photoplay The Thirteen” (Тринадцать, or  Trinadtsat, listed in the credits as 1936 but actually 1937) but a cursory look at the plot for that Russian movie suggests that Sahara is in fact a direct adaptation; the only aspects that seem notably different are the setting (the African desert in 1943 as opposed to Turkestan before the war), the antagonists (Nazis rather than Asian bandits as the besieged heroes’ bêtes noire) and their much greater number. The picture concerns the remnants of a tank crew, a troupe of British Medical Corpsmen its members encounter while on retreat, a Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner, a duplicitous Nazi (as if there were any other kind), a phalanx of German soldiers and a desert well. Although not above the occasional war-movie cliché, Sahara is refreshingly restrained and only rarely gives out with one of those bits of Allied propaganda that were de rigueur during the War but which have induced cringes in audiences ever since. The incidentals, such as Rudolph Maté’s crisp, glorious cinematography, Miklós Rózsa’s prototypical score and the Imperial County, California locations, could scarcely be bettered.

Zoltán Korda’s direction is straightforward and without fuss, yet takes time to examine the faces of the actors, and they’re worth lingering over: Humphrey Bogart, of course, as the tank commander, the amusingly named Joe Gunn, but also Dan Duryea in an immensely likable performance as Bogie’s pilot; Bruce Bennett as his navigator; Richard Nugent as the British Captain; Rex Ingram as the Sudanese; and J. Carrol Naish as the Italian. Lloyd Bridges shows up just long enough to get strafed by machine-gun fire, linger a bit, and die, and Peter Lawford is alleged to be among the British but I didn’t spot him. Naish is splendid as the conflicted prisoner (he got an Oscar® nod for it) and if Ingram with his distinctive speech patterns couldn’t be anything but American and isn’t any more believable a Sudanese than he was an Arabian djinn in the Kordas’ 1940 The Thief of Bagdad, anyone who quibbles about that is just spoiling for a fight.

Having recently re-encountered The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Key Largo, I’m in a Bogart mood these days; this entry, while on no account one of his best, made for a more than adequate diversion. And at 98 minutes, Sahara was exactly the right length.

Cutter's Way - John Heard and Jeff Bridges
Cutter’s Way (1981) A beautifully observed study of three more or less desperate people in the form of a grungy thriller, based on an interesting novel, and improving on it. Jeffrey Alan Fishin wrote the incisive screenplay, the recently-deceased Ivan Passer directed with economy and compassion, and I don’t see how the performances by the leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn) could be improved upon. One of the last gasps of 1970s personal cinema, and one of the best arguments for it.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology: January 2020


By Scott Ross

Submitting a comprehensive, annotated list at the end of 2019 was an exhausting exercise, so I’ve decided to prepare a monthly (or quarterly, depending on the density of lists of the dead) accounting in 2020. The entries below are chronological.

Buck Henry, 89. Buck Henry

America first became aware of Buck Henry not as Buck Henry but as the Dickensian (or perhaps Fieldsian?)-monikered “G. Clifford Prout,” a character the comedian Alan Abel devised as part of a longstanding (1959-1962) hoax. Prout was allegedly the president and spokesman of something called The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA.) On various talk shows of the period Henry-as-Prout would discuss his desire to clothe all naked animals, citing such slogans of the Society as, “A nude horse is a rude horse.” (You can just hear him saying that, can’t you?) He was actually taken seriously, by the hosts of the shows on which he appeared and by some viewers, who sent in unsolicited donations of money. When Walter Cronkite found out he’d been duped by Henry and that Abel was behind the hoax he called him up, furious. Abel: “I’d never heard him that angry on TV — not about Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or Fidel Castro.” (Naturally; Hitler, Saddam and Castro didn’t nearly make a fool of Cronkite on national television. Nice to know Uncle Walter had his priorities right.)

SINA - Buck Henry as Prout

Henry divided his interests largely between comedic acting and screenwriting, but had his earliest success in television when he and Mel Brooks created the idiotic spy spoof Get Smart! (Henry also devised the much shorter-lived William Daniels series Mr. Nice.) His notable screenwriting credits include The Graduate (1967, with Calder Willingham), Catch-22 (1970), the smart (if initially fag-bashing) adaptation of Bill Manhoff’s The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), the wildly funny Streisand/Peter Bogdanovich hit What’s Up, Doc? (1972; Henry did the polish on a previous screenplay by Robert Benton and David Newman), Heaven Can Wait (1978) and To Die For (1995). He was a regular on That Was the Week That Was (1964–1965) and hosted Saturday Night 17 times. His best-remembered role on that show was as “Uncle Roy,” the paedophilic babysitter in sketches which, although written by two women (Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts) would almost certainly cause the censorious youth of today to experience mass cardiac arrest. Among Henry’s movie directing credits is the charming Heaven Can Wait (1978, with Warren Beatty) and as an actor his pictures include The Graduate (he’s the owlish desk clerk at the hotel where Dustin Hoffman carries out his trysts with Anne Bancroft), Catch-22 (as Lieutenant Colonel Korn), Taking Off (1970), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Heaven Can Wait (as the officious Escort), Old Boyfriends (1979), Gloria (1980), Eating Raoul (1982), The Player (1992, as himself, hilariously pitching a Graduate sequel to Tim Robbins in the opening sequence), Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Short Cuts.

This last appearance stands as a warning against unchecked improvisation: Peering up Lily Tomlin’s skirt Henry, as a boorish amateur fisherman, murmurs, “Sometimes there’s God…” This is false as hell: I doubt the man Henry was playing had ever even seen A Streetcar Named Desire, much less have been prepared to quote from it. Henry’s improvisation was an actor’s showing off his knowledge, and Robert Altman should have known better than to leave the line in the movie.

Ivan Passer, 86. 
Ivan Passer

A noted screenwriter in his native Czechoslovakia (Intimate Lighting, Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball) Passer, along with his colleague Miloš Forman, fled the country in 1969 during the Prague Spring. Forman, with his superficial charm, became an honored and successful director in America, twice winning Academy Awards® for facile work while the more honest and introspective Passer struggled. Passer nevertheless made two of the best, if least known and remembered, pictures of the 1970s and ’80s. Passer’s Born to Win (1971, also co-written, with David Scott Milton) is one of the finest of all cinematic depictions of addiction, with George Segal as a likable junkie whose life is slowly spinning out of control and Karen Black in a remarkable performance as his girlfriend. It’s one of those time-capsule New York movies of the period, although its look is far warmer and less threatening than that of The French Connection. Even better was Cutter’s Way (1981, written by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin from Newton Thornburg’s novel), one of the key American movies of its era, a picture its financer, United Artists, might have gotten behind with greater gusto had it been made six or seven years earlier, or by Robert Altman. A rich character study in the form of a low-key thriller, it contains one of Jeff Bridges’ best early performances and a pair by John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn that could scarcely be bettered. But it was a movie out of another time; the Star Wars-jazzed 1980s audience couldn’t care less.

Lord Tim Hudson (née George Timothy Hudson), 79. 

Best known as a disc-jockey, both in his native England and in Los Angeles, Hudson contributed his voice to a pair of Disney animated pictures. In The Aristocats (1970) he’s an anachronistic long-haired, bead-wearing, guitar-playing cat in 1912 Paris; he was much more memorable in The Jungle Book (1967) as the lugubrious, Liverpudlian vulture who both looks and sounds suspiciously like a certain shaggy Beatle.

Jack Kehoe, 85.

The Sting - Jones, Redford, Kehoe

The Sting: Robert Earl Jones, Robert Redford and Jack Kehoe

Kehoe was one of those actors whose presence automatically elevated the movies he was in. He studied acting with Stella Adler, and with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. (For those who associate the “Method” solely with Lee Strasberg, it should be noted that Adler broke with the Group Theatre, and with the autocratic and wrong-headed Strasberg, in the 1930s, after a trip to Moscow to study with Stanislavski, and that it was she, not Strasberg, who taught Marlon Brando.) Among the pictures in which Kehoe appeared were The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Serpico (1973), Car Wash (1976), On the Nickel (1980), Melvin and Howard (1980), Reds (1981), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), The Untouchables (1987), D.O.A. and Midnight Run (both 1988). It was in the wonderfully-cast The Sting (1973) that I first became aware of him; he was Joe Erie, whose face Charles Durning memorably slams into a barroom table.

It says something about the nature of the movie business that Jack Kehoe’s first Hollywood role was as a bartender in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971) and one of his last, in 1990, was “Customer at Raid” in Dick Tracy 

Torn Jersey, 77.

Terry Jones

Terence Graham Parry Jones was, with his Oxford writing partner Michael Palin and the Cambridge men Eric Idle, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman (plus the American animator Terry Gilliam) one of the creators of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and, more than anyone else, responsible for the show’s unique structure. Jones’ aversion to traditional punchlines was endemic to the surrealistic nature of the show, and to much of its pleasure, but also led to its eventual dissolution; his penchant for long-form sketches, sometimes lasting the full 30 minutes, alienated Cleese (whose absence in the final series was as obvious as it was lamentable) and, one assumes, the troupe’s audience as well.

He fared better as a filmmaker: As a co-director, with Gilliam, of their feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and, solo, as the director of Life of Brian (1979). Perhaps because they were of necessity more complex than a half-hour television show and required more in the way of both characterization and of narrative, these pictures were far funnier than that last Python season, and infinitely more satisfying. Indeed, Brian is so tightly controlled and so beautifully made, in every way, one wonders why Jones never again directed a movie as good. (Neither he nor Gilliam were involved in the direction of either the 1971 And Now for Something Completely Different, a collection of their best television sketches re-shot in a more expensive format, or the very funny 1982 Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, although the latter was really just a record of the live shows the Pythons had been doing for years and not a fully-fledged saga.)

The team’s final effort, The Meaning of Life (1983) was their most elaborate (especially the charming Gilliam-directed opening, the short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance) but also their sourest and most militantly unpleasant. Grail and Brian are not merely funnier movies, they include self-contained segments that are among the Python’s most classic bits: In Grail, the French soldier taunting King Arthur; The Knights Who Say “Ni!”; the killer rabbit and The Holy Hand Grenade; the flagellants; Connie Booth as the “witch”; bringing out the dead; the anarcho-syndicalist peasants (one of whom is, of course, Jones, in drag) arguing with Arthur over his right to rule them; the Bridge of Death. And in Brian, the Shirley Bassey spoof main title; the internecine in-fighting of The People’s Front of Judea; the Latin lesson from Cleese’s Roman guard;  the rhotacistic speech impediment of Palin’s Pilate (“Stwike him, Centuwian — vewwy woughly!”), not to mention his friend Biggus Dickus; the hilariously ironic commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the cheesemakers…”); the mob chasing Brian under the mistaken belief that he’s the Messiah; and, of course, the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” finale. In a period not especially noted for its movie comedy the Pythons, and Jones particularly, split a lot of sides with intelligent laughter.

Palin maintains that Jones was “the spirit of the Pythons,” and the warmest of the bunch. (Apart, one presumes, although naturally he would not say so, from himself. However much one admires Idle, Cleese and Chapman, one hardly thinks of them, the way one does of Jones and Palin, as a bit cuddly.) Agonizingly, for a man as verbal as Terry Jones, his final years were afflicted with progressive aphasia, a form of dementia that eventually left him unable to speak.

My personal favorite Jones moment is also my single favorite bit from the original BBC Monty Python series. Quite why this strikes me as so funny I leave to my psychiatrist, but it takes place during the extended alien invasion sketch in Episode Seven. Palin is describing the thing that ordered 48 million kilts from him, something “not so much a man as… a blancmange!“:
Python - Blancmange resized
Palin: He was a strange unearthly creature — a quivering, glistening mass…

Jones: Angus Podgorny, what do y’ mean?

It’s every bad, cliché horror/science fiction movie inquiry rolled into one, and with a wig, a pair of half-glasses and a Scots accent. Of the Pythons, only Jones and Palin, I suspect, could have made it so hilarious yet so ineffably sweet.

Sonny Grosso, 89.
The French Connection - Sonny Grosso and Roy Scheider resizedThe more likable (or, at the very least, less psychotic) of the two real-life police detectives whose exploits were chronicled somewhat fictionally in Robin Moore’s book The French Connection, and almost wholly so in the subsequent 1971 movie. What Moore either didn’t know, or downplayed, was that the massive cocaine shipment  from Marseilles that made NYPD stars of “Cloudy” Grosso and Eddie (“Popeye”) Egan was a CIA operation. Win some, lose some; the Agency had better luck importing crack in the 1980s and “suiciding” the reporter who exposed it.

Grosso, played by Roy Scheider in the picture, was cast in it as well, as was Egan; that’s Sonny next to Scheider, above. He also served as a technical adviser on that movie, on The Godfather and The Seven-Ups (1973) — almost a continuation of The French Connectionand, for television, popular 1970s cop-shows like Baretta and Kojack.

Egan was a cop people feared; Grosso was one they liked.

Jack Burns, 86.

Burns and Schreiber resized

Burns and Schreiber performing their taxi driver bit at The Hollywood Palace, 1966. (Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

A minor blip on the comedy radar screen of the 1960s and ’70s, Burns had the ill luck to replace Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show (as if anyone could replace Don Knotts) and was quickly written out of the show. He was more successful teamed with the handlebar-mustached Avery Schreiber — Burns had earlier partnered, of all people, George Carlin — whom he had met while with Second City. I remember them best for their television commercials, and for their 1973 summer replacement series The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour. (Everybody got one of those in the ’70s, even mimes.) Burns’ last minor accomplishment was as a writer, announcer and occasional performer on the short-lived Fridays, a doomed attempt by ABC to concoct a rival for Saturday Night. On Fridays. In prime-time. If I saw the Andy Kaufman incident I don’t recall it; I remember exactly one sketch from that one, involving Howdy Doody. That should give you an idea of how fresh and cutting-edge the series was.

Harriet Frank, Jr., 96.

Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch

With her husband Irving Ravetch (above, right), Frank comprised the preferred screenwriting team of the director Martin Ritt, with whom he made eight movies between 1958 and 1990. And while they occasionally worked with and for others (Vincente Minnelli, Delbert Mann, Mark Rydell, Richard Flesicher and, under a pseudonym and on a picture he disowned, Blake Edwards) the bulk of their work was for Ritt. Frank and Ravetch made their names with two Faulkner adaptations, the entertaining The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and the rather strange The Sound and the Fury (1959). Hud (1963) out of Larry McMurtry was theirs, as was the very interesting Hombre (1967) and, from Faulkner again, The Reivers (1969). They botched William Dale Jennings’ splendid original The Cowboys (1972) with a ham-fisted re-write for the ploddingly literal Mark Rydell but returned to form (and Ritt) with Conrack (1974). Frank and Ravetch wrote two well-regarded late pictures for Ritt, the gentle 1985 comedy Murphy’s Romance and 1990’s Stanley & Iris. Their best screenwriting work, however, was on Norma Rae (1979). Ritt, who was blacklisted, made from the story of the North Carolina textile union activist Crystal Lee Sutton one of a tiny handful of unabashedly pro-union American pictures, and in Frank and Ravetch’s screenplay one of the sharpest, smartest and savviest of a smart and savvy era of movies. Despite some romanticization, the movie was largely true to its subject: Its best scene, one of the greatest in 1970s American film, of Sally Field as Norma holding up a hand-lettered union sign as her co-workers slowly begin turning off their machines, happened pretty much as it’s depicted.

Norma Rae - confidence

Nearly as good, in a much less dramatic manner, is this exchange between Norma and the wonderful Rob Leibman as Reuben, the union representative fighting a losing battle at her plant, until Norma joins him. When he first signs her up for the union, Reuben smiles, “You’re the fish I wanted to hook.”

Norma Rae - Sally, Ron

Norma Rae: Well… You got me. So what the hell are you gonna do with me?
Reuben: Make a mensch outta you, kid.
Norma: You are?
Reuben: Mm-hm.
Norma: What is that?
Reuben: Somebody who goes to the old folks’ home on Saturday morning instead of playin’ golf. Somebody who puts a dollar in a blind man’s cup for a pencil.
Norma: I’d do that.
Reuben: Uh-huh. But would you take the pencil?
Norma: Of course. I paid for it.
Reuben: Somewhere between logic and charity, there falls a shadow.

I’d always felt uncomfortable taking a “prize,” however insignificant, for dispensing some eleemosynary token. Since seeing Norma Rae, I’ve dropped a few dollars but I’ve never taken another pencil.

That is the power of movies to make an impression, to get you to think, or to reconsider your thoughtlessness. And it starts, as these things nearly always do, with the thought… whose natural expression is not the image, but the word.

Fred Silverman, 82.

Fred Silverman

It will doubtless be incomprehensible to many young people that there was actually a time when television shows were not something one ordered from a streaming service and watched on-demand, whenever (and wherever) we pleased: That one actually waited an entire week to see a program (and 20 or more to see an entire season unfold), and if one missed that, had to wait for something called “summer re-runs.” For those of us who recall those antediluvian days, Silverman’s was a name to recon with. At CBS, he was behind the so-called “rural purge” of 1971 in which the ax fell on some of the network’s most popular series, to some outrage — although who could really have mourned the demises of Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D., Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies? Especially when their replacements were the likes of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Waltons and Kojak? And, with a sense of integrity that would be shocking to a network executive of today, Silverman actually stood behind the shows he approved. Without that precedent, both All in the Family and M*A*S*H would have been wiped out in their first seasons, not to mention (at NBC, to which Silverman later decamped) Hill Street Blues. I don’t make a habit of praising television programmers, but if there was such a thing, after the early 1950s, as “good television,” Silverman was responsible for programming much of it. It was he who helped develop Maude, Good Times and Rhoda as spin-offs (a new term then) and The Bob Newhart Show. Silverman greenlit his share of losers that were also hits: The Jeffersons, The Price is Right, the revived Match Game and that lox of a show for which one of the leading characters (Freddy Jones) was named for him, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! But during his watch just about the only great program on CBS for which he was not responsible — and virtually all the great television series in those years were on CBS — was The Carol Burnett Show.

Freddy Jones - Scooby Doo

At ABC, Silverman saved one bad show (Happy Days) and spun off another (Laverne and Shirley) from it. He also approved so much meretricious trash that for years his network was, while hugely profitable, a hiss and a byword to anyone with a taste that ran beyond Cheez Whiz, Burger King Whoppers and Tits ‘n’ Ass: The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Donny & Marie, Eight is Enough, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Good Morning America, Battle of the Network Stars and…

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.

The only times I can recall tuning the network in during those years were when Soap was on the air (if we could find it — as with the earlier The Hot l Baltimore, a lot of affiliates, particularly in the South, refused to air it) and during the broadcast of Roots. Later, at NBC, Silverman backed one bad idea after another, perhaps proving the seldom-cited corollary to Fitzgerald’s dictum: There are no third acts in American lives. True, Hill Street was his, and the wonderfully demented and frequently hilarious daytime David Letterman Show, which, while it made me roar on the few occasions when I caught it, doubtless had housewives (there were housewives then) scratching their heads from coast to coast and wondering whatever happened to that nice J. Fred Muggs.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross


Oranges on an escalator: “California Split” (1974)


By Scott Ross

California Split is a potsherd from a culture not far removed, chronologically, from our own but which in appearance, artistic accomplishment on a popular scale, the possibility of progress and of a general maturity is as ostensibly ancient, and as forgotten, as Carthage.

Written by the actor Joseph Walsh, himself a gambler (and who has an unsettling role in the picture as a mercurial bookie) and initially developed by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, California Split focuses on two speculators, the casual novice Bill (George Segal) and the degenerate Charlie (Elliott Gould) who meet during an acrimonious game of poker, form an odd friendship based pretty much entirely on their shared addiction, and, on their uppers, travel to a high-stakes poker meet in Reno where everything they have rides on Bill’s abilities. Although not originally intended as a Robert Altman movie, that admittedly terse précis certainly suggests his approach — seemingly meandering, shaggy-dog stories that illuminate their subjects, and their characters, in ways many more “daring” or “challenging” narrative techniques and stories fail to do, and what the overwhelming bulk of movies never even attempt.

With Altman at his considerable best, only the contours remained the same, by which I mean those readily-identifiable personal traits that marked his filmmaking: The actors’ improvisations, the long takes, the large ensemble casts, the muted palettes, the zooms, the overlapping dialogue. But that is window-dressing, almost by the way. How Altman used film to explore human beings and their relationships to each other, which because it changed from film to film was never predictable, is what we should mean when we think of his work, or refer to anything as “Altmanesque.” In his and Brian McKay’s adaptation of the Edmond McNaughton novel McCabe, for example, what was removed was everything trite and predictable — the gambler dying on the street in Mrs. Miller’s arms, for example. Altman’s McCabe keeps muttering, “I got poetry deep inside me” when he hasn’t (and anyway, what man who is genuinely poetic needs to keep reassuring himself of it?) Yet at the end, sitting in the gathering snow with no witnesses to his murder, he’s become a beautiful metaphor: In death he is poetic… and Mrs. Miller is nowhere around; she’s deep in an opium dream, with Altman ending the movie on a close-up of the oblivion contained within her preternaturally glazed eyes. And that is poetry too.

California Split - Gould, Segal

Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal) about to wager on the names of the Seven Dwarfs.

Although Altman had been experimenting with overlapping dialogue at least as early as MASH in 1970 and certainly relied on it in McCabe, especially in the long first sequence in the saloon, it was for California Split that he developed his multi-track recording system without which his follow-up, Nashville, would not have been possible; it enabled him to capture several conversations at once without our losing track of what’s important. It isn’t over-used in California Split, and never becomes oppressive, but during the opening poker sequence in a large, organized gambling establishment, it’s as essential as the many extras imported from the Synanon organization (or cult, if you prefer). The faces, and the personalities, that come through in these scenes are both peripheral and essential; they’re the milieu into which we’re about to plunge, and they have a tang, an earthy charge, that ground the action and give it savor. I can’t imagine them in any other movie by any other filmmaker.

Despite the cavalier desperation of Charlie and Bill, and the glancing sadness of the women in their lives, a pair of lower-middle class prostitutes played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, this is a surprisingly buoyant movie, and it lacks the mean-spiritedness that dogs so much of ’70s cinema, especially in the realm of the homophobic. I’m thinking specifically of the sequence in which Prentiss and Welles’ date with the transvestite “Helen Brown” (Bert Remsen) is upset by Bill and Charlie’s need to celebrate their winnings. Although the two, pretending to be vice cops, send the poor man scurrying, the fact that he’s in drag is not made an issue, nor do they abuse him for it; even if their playing with him could be seen as victimization, it’s not the kind of sequence that makes you squirm. You laugh along with it, and Remsen, who plays the role of “Helen” with astonishing delicacy, is somehow able to exit with most of his dignity intact. Indeed, neither Bill nor Charlie ever lets on to “Helen” that they know he’s anything but a well-dressed and sophisticated middle-aged woman, enabling him to maintain his own necessary fiction. Had the movie been made by a professional liberal of the period like Sidney Lumet, I shudder to imagine what Bill and Charlie would have done to the poor man. Calling him a queer would have been the least of it — they’d have probably beaten him up as well. Contrast this with the later bar scene in which a blowsy drunk (Sierra Bandit) spews alcoholic invective in a monologue of self-pity remarkable in its piggishness, hurling the word “faggot” at her absent boyfriend and anyone else who crosses her. She’s clearly meant to be an offensive boor and is treated as such, even by the disgusted bartender (Jack Riley) who’s obviously beyond caring whether she hears his sarcastic comments or not. Charlie and Bill may be cheerfully amoral but they don’t engage in deliberate ugliness. This puts them on a plane above Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John in Altman and Ring Lardner Jr.’s MASH, who, as Richard Corliss observed, in their modish “irreverence” behave like frat-boy bullies to anyone who isn’t on their special wavelength.


Bert Remsen as “Helen Brown,” flanked by Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss.

In a picture like this the side-long glance is as piquant as the piercing gaze, and the incidental figures have more impact than the leads in other, less alive and incisive movies. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Charlie takes the bus to the racetrack, and can’t get the seat his superstitions demand he take because each of the other riders has his or her own gambler’s fetish, leading to an elaborate switching of seats that is wonderfully farcical but which holds its own, demented logic. And even as Charlie exploits the trusting nature of the woman he sits beside on the bus (Barbara London) when he and Bill win on the long-shot horse Charlie has told her not to bet on she becomes furious at Bill, hilariously hurling oranges at him in her rage as he rides up an escalator. As written by Walsh and directed by Altman it’s a set of scenes at once quirky, idiosyncratic, wildly funny, thoroughly on point and absolutely in character. Bill will likely never see that woman again, but he’ll always remember her…. and so will we. How do you forget someone who throws oranges at you?

Likewise, in an Altman movie even the extras and small-part roles resonate, like the hefty older woman in the opening poker scene, or the receptionist played by Barbara Colby in the magazine office at which Bill works. (A young Jeff Goldblum also shows up, as the editor, forever seeking the errant Bill, who ignores him.) The best and most memorable of these cameos is the Reno barmaid portrayed by Barbara Ruick. She hasn’t many lines, but with her engaging middle-aged mien, white cowboy hat, half-glasses, long hair, large grin, blasé good humor and un-self-conscious dance moves to a private melody only she can hear Ruick is, while nearly always in the background, intensely memorable; you want more of her.*


In Reno: Barbara Ruick at center.

Pauline Kael, who admired the picture, felt the breakfast meeting between Bill and his bookie had the feel of an expository play scene, its neatness at odds with the looser structure of rest of the picture, but I demur. It helps us understand how close to the financial edge Bill has gotten himself in a relatively short period of serious gambling, and gives what has up to then been merely a disembodied voice on the other end of Bill’s telephone a bodily presence, a life and a psychology. Walsh had become by 1974 the furthest thing from the odd minor child star† he’d been in the ’50s; as the bookie called Sparkie his jumpiness and buried rage give him dimension, and weight. You judge that violence is not his first resort — he’s been carrying Bill for months — but that he’s getting closer to it, and that in turn makes explicable Charlie’s convincing Bill to take that all-or-nothing plunge in Reno. If the sequence is squarer than most of the others in the picture, neither does it feel false or unnecessary.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT - Segal and Walsh

Bill and Sparkie (Joseph Walsh).

Elliott Gould’s gift for cheerful, amoral expansiveness suits Charlie perfectly. He accepts everything that comes his way, even being beaten up, robbed and having his nose broken by an abusive thug of a fellow gambler; before exacting vengeance, he expresses admiration for the punch he’s just received. Charlie lives for the chance, and in common with many degenerate gamblers it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether it’s big or small. (Early in their relationship he and Bill bet each other over the names of the Seven Dwarfs.) A clue to his character is that his girlfriend is a whore, a fact that never seems to bother him, except when it gets in the way of a celebration. That he doesn’t exhibit any of the standard masculine jealousy has less to do, I think, with Barbara (Prentiss) letting him crash at the apartment she shares with Susan (Welles) — unlike with Bill, we never see any other place Charlie calls home — than that getting upset about such an immutable fact of life would probably strike him as a waste of time that could be better spent on fun. He’s so loose and secure in his sexuality he isn’t self-conscious about smearing hot shaving cream on Bill’s abdomen after they’ve been beaten up, and doesn’t respond defensively when Barbara has a light suggestive response to walking in on them, as he later and out of sheer ebullience gives Segal a public kiss on the lips during Bill’s winning-streak. In Gould’s equable performance, although Charlie can be annoying he is just about the happiest, most relaxed and likable wastrel you’ll ever see.

Prentiss is amiable too, and endearingly protective of Welles, but Susan’s character is difficult to pin down. She doesn’t seem quite real, which is no reflection on Welles herself but on the conception of the role; although Susan is appropriately casual about her carnality — when she offers herself to Bill, it’s as if she’s giving him a freebie because she’s un-engaged, and bored, and he’s present — she falls in love with random johns (Bill included) and repeatedly lapses into crying jags over them. We can’t get a handle on her, and she finally becomes slightly irritating. Susan is the one area of the picture where I think Walsh, and Altman, blew it.


Bill is a far more successful creation, and I suspect Segal is largely the reason. Gould and Altman were gamblers, and Segal admits he was an innocent, which he used to help give Bill a naiveté that lets the audience in. He isn’t our surrogate, exactly, but he’s often as much at sea in Charlie’s milieu as we would be, and that confusion allows us access; when Charlie is explaining a system to Bill, he’s also telling us, but without seeming to, which would be fatal to the movie’s tone. It’s easy at this remove, in the years after he became a weekly comedic fixture on the television series Just Shoot Me, for an audience to forget what a fine dramatic actor Segal was, and is. (Not that an Academy nomination is or has ever been the final arbiter of quality but he got one, in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) As opposed to Gould, whose humor is brash, Segal is subtler, and more charming. The actors compliment each other, and when at the end Bill has what, to employ an over-used word, we can only call an epiphany, Bill’s (or Segal’s?) reserve gives the moment its quiet power.

California Split - Gould, Segal poker

Bill and Charlie, on a roll.

There’s a certain dread that goes with movies like this: The fear that you’re going to watch the main characters spiral so far downward there’s no going back, especially when, as it does here, everything rides on the outcome; it’s what happens in another under-seen George Segal picture from the ’70s, Ivan Passer’s 1971 study of a middle-class junkie, Born to Win. How Altman and his stars surmount that hurdle is exemplary, even if their muted ending upset the screenwriter. (Henry Gibson, in Mitchell Zuckoff’s oral biography of Altman, remarks that Walsh has been repeating that story “for the last 700 years.”)  When Joseph Walsh’s previous collaborator saw the picture made of the script on which he had initially worked, he lamented that Altman had squandered the climactic final third. He, Spielberg, would, he said, have shaped the material in a way that would have stroked the audience’s response to a glorious orgasm. We can all too easily, and with a shudder, imagine the Spielberg version of California Split, and be doubly grateful he never got to make it.

The DVD in my collection is the 2004 Columbia Tristar release, and it’s in full widescreen. From what I hear, the aficionado should beware the later Mill Creek release, which while slightly (3 minutes) longer is not in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio; it’s allegedly in 1:85:1, which is a considerable difference in framing, and Paul Lohmann’s images are too good to be squeezed, or “panned-and-scanned.”

I’ve also heard California Split dismissed as “minor Atlman,” but no movie that engages you on the levels this one does, or that so beautifully limns the contours of human personality and experience, is “minor” anything.

California Suite - Gould and Segal at racetrack

* Horribly, the actress, the memorable Carrie Pipperidge of the 1956 Carousel, died of a cerebral hemorrhage during filming, which may account for the brevity of her appearance. Married to the composer John Williams, who scored Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Ruick left him a widower with three children. She is the Barbara to whom Altman subsequently dedicated California Split.

† Walsh, who had a good role in Walter Hill’s minimalist 1978 crime thriller The Driver, is probably best-remembered as Danny Kaye’s young, Platonic companion in Hans Christian Andersen (1952) — which given the complex sexuality both of the Dutch writer and of Moss Hart, the author of that movie’s screenplay, feels like more than a bit of a dodge.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Assassination: Cutter’s Way (1981)


By Scott Ross

There are movies, specifically American movies, so original, and so richly observed, they defy easy categorization. This is both a virtue and a weakness; however high the critical fraternity may rate the film, if the studio that financed it can’t figure out a marketing strategy for an increasingly bifurcated niche audience, the picture can be doomed. Just as frequent, however, are those cases where a filmmaker has the ill luck to have his movie released during a management shake-up. (Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen is the modern paradigm.) It does the new regime no honor if a picture championed by the outgoing mogul is admired, or even popular. Easier to throw a minimal ad campaign at it, give it a perfunctory release, and then pull it at the first opportunity. Of Cutter’s Way (1981) its director, Ivan Passer, later noted about the almost criminally negligent manner in which United Artists dumped the picture on the market (and would have killed it entirely had not a few prominent reviewers gotten behind it): “You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people. I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it.”

Passer’s choice of words is not without irony — probably intentional — since Cutter’s Way is concerned with the murder of a teenage girl, committed by a wealthy Santa Barbara magnate, who expects to get away with it. But that encapsulation is itself inadequate, because the picture is both more and less than a thriller. It’s a downbeat meditation on specifically American themes, as intimate and emotionally wrenching as Passer’s earlier, equally striking (and similarly buried) depiction of junkie life, the woefully under-seen Born to Win of ten years earlier.

I was about to call the motivations of the John Heard character in Cutter’s Way quixotic, but it occurs to me that his literary antecedent is not the Don of La Mancha but his dark American doppelgänger, mad Captain Ahab. Alex Cutter’s white whales are, first, the war that lost him an arm, a leg and an eye, a season in Hell his close friend Richard Bone avoided, and that Cutter cannot help but carry with him; and, second, the untenable notion of bringing down the insulated, indifferent killer through blackmail. His battle wounds have left him bitter and alcoholic, two words which also describe his wife Mo (Lisa Eichorn), although she at least does not pick bar fights under the protective cloak of being physically crippled. Bone (Jeff Bridges), for his part, drifts not on vodka fumes but on a sea of irresponsibility and whatever he can cadge from rich, wealthy older women for his services — themselves deficient, if the comments of the woman (Nina Van Pallandt) he’s leaving as the picture opens are any indication; she hands him a wad of cash with the advice that he buy some vitamin E with it. During the opening reels, you may be forgiven if you don’t think you can bear spending an hour and fifty minutes with these three. But as the implications of the precipitating event Bone witnesses become clear, so too do these seemingly unpleasant characters’ individual and collective despair.


Cutter (John Heard) and Mo (Lisa Eichorn) in a typical moment.

Cutter seeks an annealing act of heroism to mitigate his pain (you can be angry at a war, but you can’t hurt it back); Bone’s first impulse is to run from complication; and “Mo” is too beaten down, and depressed, to fight back any longer, except with her words, which (if you’ll pardon the unintended play on words), when she wants them to, cut straight to the bone. And if this sounds unrelievedly bleak, like a contemporary take on O’Neill, it may illustrate why Cutter’s Way had such difficulty finding an audience; it’s hard to condense in a few words, and can seem deathish in the description. It isn’t. The characters — and the characterizations by the movie’s three leading actors — are simply so rich as to militantly defy concise encapsulation.

Seen from a 21st century perspective, Cutter’s Way — and here it must be said that the original title Cutter and Bone, taken from Newton Thornberg’s eponymous novel and rejected by UA, is a far better one — feels like one of those achingly longed-for relics from another world. Although it was filmed and (barely) released in the early 1980s, it’s a vivid remnant of ’70s filmmaking, concerned less with flash than with the messy, ungovernable interactions of actual, as opposed to idealized or cutout, people, and with that essential element Faulkner famously observed was the only thing worth writing about: the human heart in conflict with itself.

The picture’s screenwriter, Jeffrey Alan Fishin, felt that the source material was un-filmable; he saw the second half of the novel as “an instant replay of Easy Rider.” Having read the Thornberg book, I understand exactly what Fishin meant. I won’t explicate his remark in case you’ve not seen the picture or wish to read the novel (always assuming you can find a copy, or afford it, neither of which is a sure bet) but Thornberg’s denouement is far more ironic and despairing than Fishin and Passer’s, and the personal ante along the way is upped considerably, and rather horribly, by Cutter and Mo’s having a toddler in the house. Fishin deserves credit equal to Passer’s for the artistic success of the picture: He not only removed the narrative impediments and climactic sense of déjà vu; he turned Thornberg’s device on its head for the movie’s affecting final moments. The screenwriter’s solution is no less striking, even shocking, than the original author’s, and is far more emotionally satisfying. As with the final page of the novel, the movie’s ambiguity concerning the central crime remains tantalizingly unresolved, right up to the last, chilling, line of dialogue. Fishin gets to the heart of the matter more quickly, and more concisely, than a more verbally inclined scenarist could, and what’s spoken carries a weight, even in Alex Cutter’s self-consciously literary-minded, drunken smartass quips. As with Alan Sharp’s terse dialogue for the Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves (1975), to which this movie is a spiritual cousin, there isn’t a word wasted or a gesture over-emphasized. It’s the kind of concision that marks the difference between hackwork and art, even minor art, and Cutter’s Way seems to me in most ways major art indeed.

Cutter's Way - Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott as the killer: The ostentatious banality of modern evil.

Cutter’s Way is one of those movies of the period, and after, that made many people wonder who Jeff Bridges had to fuck to get the respect he deserved. For a long time, many of us considered him the best young actor of his generation… and then the best middle-aged one. As Bone, Bridges never broods. You get the feeling it’s never occurred to him; he takes everything, even injustice, as it comes, with a nonchalance that is as dangerous in its way as Alex Cutter’s explosive overreactions. Heard, who was likewise a critic’s darling but, unlike his co-star, never managed to sustain a high visibility, is tough to take at first. Guttural, snarling, raspy-voiced and unapproachable, he nevertheless lets you see just enough of Cutter’s anguish to make you squirm; his Alex is a suicide who lacks the conviction to pull the trigger. As Mo, Eichorn too may cause you to think a major acting career stalled somewhere along the journey, through no fault of her own: She turns sadness into an art form. Arthur Rosenberg deserves more than a mention as Cutter’s adoptive brother. His sweetness and solicitude toward Alex, not explained until the movie is nearly at an end, is born of a sense of responsibility alien to both Cutter and Bone, yet absolutely genuine, making his seeming betrayal of them nothing less than a hope for, if not redemption, at least the avoidance of catastrophe.


Bone’s epiphany: The face he couldn’t recall when pressed suddenly materializes in a Santa Barbara parade.

My only cavil with Cutter’s Way, aside from that dopey title and the way the murdered girl’s vengeful sister (Ann Dusenberry) gets abandoned as the narrative races to its wrenching conclusion, is Jack Nitzche’s dreary musical score, a variation on his atmospheric noodling for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, glass harmonica and all. Jaws and Star Wars may have heralded the end of personal moviemaking in this country, but at least they brought orchestral composition back from its penny-pinching banishment.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is Jordan Cronenweth’s sumptuously muted photography. I don’t pretend to know how he attained that warm, earthy palette, nor how he maintained the largely deep-focus imagery that so enriches this picture, but his work here stands with the great cinematographic achievements of the era. And Passer, who never had a major hit in this country, had an unerring sense of the movie frame; you see exactly the right image at any given moment, and you can’t quite imagine how its casual rightness could have been bettered. One moment among many: When Bone spots the killer at a Santa Barbara parade. Hitchcock would have made a fetish of this sequence; Cronenweth and Passer frame it not as The Great Reveal but as the initial clearing of a jumbled mind.  Ivan Passer, perhaps because he was a screenwriter first, had a deep feeling for the people in his pictures, and saw them as they were, without editorial judgment. It may be argued that his view of the rich was jaundiced, but, it seems to me, never inappropriately. The rich are different; they almost never get caught.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross