Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

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By Scott Ross

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

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Churchill

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


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

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

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


Scorpio - Scofield

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


The Maltese Falcon - The stuff that dreams are made of

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


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

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


A Study in Terror - John Neville and Donald Huston

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

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


The Life of Emile Zola - Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff

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

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


Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood, Jaimz Woolvett

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


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


Big Jake - Boone

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


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


California Split - Altman

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


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


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


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Mason, Lorre, Douglas and Henried resized

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

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

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

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


The Adventures of S Holmes - Rathbone and Zucco

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


HealtH lobby card resized

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


Matewan - Chris Cooper

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


Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

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


Little Drummer Girl - Kinski, Keaton

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


Thieves Like Us resized

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

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


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


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


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

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


Heat - Pacino

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

Heat - De Niro


The Thrill of it All - Day, Reiner, Garner

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

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


Alias Nick Beale

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


Citizen Kane - Moorehead

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

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Somebody to do it for you: A Robert Ryan trilogy

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By Scott Ross

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A very interesting three-film Western omnibus DVD fell into my hands this past weekend. Outlaws and Lawmen caught my eye first because it contains the interesting, Edward Anhalt-written, John Sturges-directed Hour of the Gun, which I’d enjoyed on TCM several years ago. But, perusing the cover at my favorite second-hand bookstore, something beyond that (and, to be frank, the three-dollar asking price… at a dollar a movie, who could kick?) announced itself: All three of the movies starred, or at least featured, that quintessential post-war American, the great Robert Ryan.

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Robert Ryan at the cast recording sessions for Mr. President, the musical in which he starred with Nanette Fabray. He’s likely wondering either how to get out of this mess, or wishing Irving Berlin had written him one good song…

Any movie with Ryan in a leading role is almost automatically worth a look. Like Michael Caine and Gene Hackman, Ryan was seldom capable of a bad performance, and his best work leaves the flailings of more ingratiating, and infinitely less gifted, actors gasping in the proverbial dust. As J.R. Jones noted of the perennially underrated Ryan in The Chicago Reader, “the persona that lingers is that of a strong, intelligent man guarding some storm of emotion — fear, guilt, helpless rage. Even in broad daylight he seemed cloaked in shadow.” Ryan, whose intelligence shines, cleanly, through every performance — one could no more imagine him as a mindless thug than one could accept Steve McQueen playing an intellectual — was all too often typed in dangerous, mercurial villain roles and he was never nearly as well-known, or as celebrated, as he deserved. (Even the splendid multi-volume Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies series omitted him from its 58-title roster… although Jeanette McDonald got one.) A life-long leftist, he somehow managed to dodge persecution during the HUAC years, even though he was one of the members of the much-hounded Committee for the First Amendment; one presumes his punishment for that, and for his role in the witch hunter-reviled Tender Comrade, was having to appear as a vicious Commie (was there ever any other kind?) in The Woman on Pier 13, aka, I Married a Communist.

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Robert Ryan about to dispatch Cameron Mitchell in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo. In its intimacy and homoeroticism the scene echoes a similar one in Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, but goes much further. 

Yet even when reflexively cast in the negative, Ryan crafted complex, unnerving, surprising villains. Think, for example, of his homicidal, irrationally anti-Semitic bigot in the 1947 Crossfire, one of the first of the mainstream post-war American movies to examine the dark underbelly of the victors. Think, too, what Ryan could have done with the role had it been permitted to more accurately reflect the Richard Brooks novel on which it was based, in which the victim was not Jewish but homosexual; Ryan read the book (The Brick Foxhole) and told Brooks he was determined to play the killer. Consider also The Naked Spur, one of those uneasy, Anthony Mann-directed James Stewart Westerns of the period in which the seemingly noble Stewart’s motivations are easily as venal as (and perhaps more self-serving than) those of the ironic, smiling, rather likable killer Ryan portrays. The screenwriters, Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, received an Academy nomination for their work on that, recognition few Western screenplays ever achieve, which may tell you something about just how original the movie was. In the taut, bracing neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) the focus of the terrifyingly normal Ryan character’s xenophobia was a Japanese-American homesteader. And in Sam Fuller’s striking Cinerama crime drama House of Bamboo (1955) Ryan’s gangster ichiban is suave, genial and low-keyed. Yet he executes his second-in-command (and possible lover) Cameron Mitchell, when he comes to believe the man to be a traitor, with a dispassion matched only by its suddenness and shocking brutality. In Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Ryan is once again the bigot, loathing his association with Harry Belafonte, yet willing to stomach it for the spoils of their planned bank heist. In the ironic ending, both men are incinerated, black and white bodies becoming indistinguishable.

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Good against evil, or repressed homo vs. perennial cock-tease? Terence Stamp and Ryan in Billy Budd.

Taking a small role in support of Lee Marvin, his co-star from the previous year’s The Professionals, Ryan was the very model of the petty martinet hoist with his own petard in The Dirty Dozen (1967). And while eschewing a British accent, Ryan’s master-at-arms in the Peter Ustinov adaptation of Billy Budd (1962) is more than merely the embodiment of sadistic, repressed, self-hating (again, possible) homosexuality; his Claggart is chillingly paranoid, longing for Billy’s purity of heart more than his beauty, and hating the impulse to decency in himself.*

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Ryan as Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch.

When allowed to play a role that called on other, less troubling, aspects of his humanity — which was not nearly often enough — Ryan’s coiled, sinewy tension was still seldom far below the surface: His has-been boxer in The Set-Up (1949), for instance, refusing to take a fall while knowing full well the penalty for going against the wishes of the Mob. Or take his fatally compromised Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpaw and Walon Green’s The Wild Bunch (1969), forced by circumstance to track down his old comrades for the very legal system both hold in contempt. (William Holden: “What would you do in his place? He gave his word.” Ernest Borgnine: “Gave his word to a railroad.” Holden: “It’s his word!” Borgnine: “That ain’t what counts. It’s who you give it to!”) Deke’s self-disgust is perched atop his steely professionalism and contempt for greedy incompetence, and Ryan’s essential ambivalence is as deeply moving as the sagging majesty of Holden’s lined, craggy face. In his final role, as Larry Slade in the American Film Theatre The Iceman Cometh, Ryan is both the downbeat, antagonist flip side of Marvin’s Hickey and the living proof of Hickey’s failed thesis. Clinging to a belief, and a compassion, both of which he keeps trying to convince himself he no longer feels, Ryan’s Larry is a valedictory, a testament to the quiet strength with which he played, its aching intensity, and the immediacy of his passionate, troubled accessibility as an actor.


 

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Ryan as Ike Clanton

The trio of movies on Outlaws and Lawmen places Ryan in some interesting, contradictory, territory.

In Hour of the Gun (1967), he’s Ike Clanton, ruthless and cynically manipulative. For all of its obvious virtues, Anhalt’s screenplay does not give Clanton much depth or complexity; he’s as fixed on vengeance as James Garner’s Wyatt Earp, but without Earp’s ambivalent self-awareness. Earp claims to value law above personal desire, and half-convinces himself it’s true. Yet he has Jason Robards, Jr.’s Doc Holliday around to call him on it; and while the truth may sting badly, Garner’s Earp eventually accepts the reality of the observation. Clanton, by contrast, has no one he respects, as Earp does Doc, in his inner circle. Monied, and secure in his ability to buy whatever justice he seeks (“If this was the east,” he notes, “I could make law the way they do. But the best I can do out here is buy it.”) Clanton is undone as much by misreading Earp as anything else. Leonard Matlin, in his movie guide, says Hour of the Gun “begins well, but becomes increasingly tedious.” Well, obsession is tedious; it’s how you go about depicting it, and the toll it takes on the obsessed, and his or her victims, that make or break a study of it. The movie starts where all other Earp films end: at the O.K. Corral. Everything that happens flows from that event, instead of towards it; thus the obsession of each man for the obliteration of the other.


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A study in contrast: Ryan and Lancaster in Lawman.

Lawman (1971) is, of the three, both the most interesting and the most problematic.

Gerry Wilson’s screenplay ranks among the most literate and thoughtful of any Western scenario (and yes, I’m aware that, to some, that’s damning with faint praise) and it’s primarily the dialogue which makes Lawman so fascinating. It’s certainly not helped by the self-conscious direction of Michael Winner, the man who brought you such masterworks of subtlety as The Games, Death Wish (and the first two of its four sequels) and the wholly unnecessary remake of The Big Sleep. Winner’s direction here consists largely of inapt, when not inept, framing and a nauseating over-reliance on zooms. In contrast to Hour of the Gun, whose assets include Lucien Ballard’s luminous cinematography and a superb score by Jerry Goldsmith, Lawman boasts merely workman-like photography (by the seemingly mis-named Robert Paynter); worse, the music, by the usually splendid Jerry Fielding, is shockingly over-emphatic. Well, one presumes both men gave the director what he wanted.†

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Joseph Wiseman in Lawman.

And, too, there is not much anyone could do with Burt Lancaster. A likable, athletic and even charismatic actor in the right role, when called upon to be taciturn and righteous he was just as often turgid and action-hero stalwart. He’s not bad in Lawman, mind you; he’s just not nearly as interesting as the actors who surround him. And what is best about the movie, aside from its script — at least until it goes wildly off-kilter; about which, more anon — is its rich casting of secondary roles: Lee J. Cobb as the Clanton-like boss of the ironically-named town of Sabbath, a hard man yearning for an end to the violence that made him; Robert Duvall and J.D. Cannon as farmers who get themselves in far deeper than either intends; Sheree North as Lancaster’s aging one-time lover, caught between her reluctant yen for the past and the hard but respectable realities of the present; Richard Jordan, bringing layered complexity to the de rigueur role of the trigger-happy kid; the often weird but utterly compelling Joseph Wiseman as a former Marshal with ruined legs and a wind-up clock fashioned from a human skull; the marvelous John McGiver as the pompous mayor, complete unto elaborate ear-trumpet; and, best of all, Ryan as Cotton Ryan, Sabbath’s beaten, timorous sheriff whose reputation is his abiding curse. “I remember you at Fort Bliss,” Lancaster remarks. “That’s my trouble,” Ryan answers ruefully. “Everybody remembers me at Fort Bliss.” Cotton no longer wishes to be challenged by every cheap, self-important young gunslinger in the territory. And, as he also says to Lancaster’s Maddox, “… if you’re a lawman, you’re a disease. They need you, but they hate you.”

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Frank McCarthy’s poster art is an only slightly exaggerated rendering of the movie’s violent, confusing climax.

 

Maddox speaks of, and seems to cherish, his ethical code — what he continually refers to as “the rules” (You don’t draw first “if you want to stay clean.”) And it is here that Lawman ultimately falls completely apart. Toward the sardonic climax, Maddox has decided to chuck it all, to release from jail the farmers he’s brought in, to ignore the postings on the others he hasn’t killed, and, perhaps, to go off with North. This we accept, given his 20 years and more of legal killing. (She informs him that, behind his back, he’s known as “The Widow-Maker.”) But in a sudden reversal of this, and of his own precious rules, Maddox gratuitously guns Cannon down, shooting him in the back as he flees (Cannon makes extraordinary little sounds as he runs, half-whine, half-sob.) It isn’t that Maddox’s attitudes gravitate first 180 degrees, then another 180; they go half an arc in two separate directions. Why? Neither Wilson’s script nor Winner’s direction gives a clue. It’s as though Maddox suddenly decides he wants to be that despised Widow-Maker. It’s a depressingly bifurcated ending to an otherwise sharp-witted, fascinating movie.


 

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The obvious assets of co-star Tina Louise (and the implicit sexual theat to them) decorate the original poster.

Aside from Robert Ryan, what all three pictures on the Outlaws and Lawmen disc also have in common is the inevitable mutability of the West itself.

The days of lawlessness and wide open spaces for the (often violent) taking are in each title giving way to the constricting arrival of so-called “civilizing” influences: Respectable women, law that is more than legalized slaughter, and the accumulating power of the almighty dollar, usually represented either by cattle barons or farmers. Churches, refreshingly, are not in much sanctimonious evidence among these movies; indeed, the only pastor in the three films is the bought-and-paid-for minister in Lawman played with more than slight smarminess by Charles Tyner. And in all three, the role of the men — and it is always men — who do the violent jobs no one else wishes to, is central. This is made explicit in Day of the Outlaw (1959) through the following exchange, between Ryan’s cattleman Blaise Starrett and Vic (Donald Elson), the owner of the tiny town’s general store:

Vic: I don’t hold for killin’.
Blaise: You don’t have to… as long as you got somebody to do it for you.

In Lawman, Joseph Wiseman’s Lucas notes to Lancaster’s Maddox. “You and I sit at the same table, Jared. The virtuous need us, but they can’t stand the smell.” In Hour of the Gun Wyatt Earp finally admits, “I don’t care about the rules anymore. I’m not that much of a hypocrite.” To which Doc Holliday rejoinders: “The whole thing is hypocrisy. The rules they tack on today that unless you’re wearing that badge or a soldier’s uniform, you can’t kill. But they’re the only rules there are. They are more important to you than you think. Play it that way, Wyatt, or you’ll destroy yourself.”

Whether any of this can be considered “deep,” even in opposition to the level on which most seven-day Westerns of the period operate, is of less importance than the fact such dialogues exist at all; the writers of these movies aren’t just cynical hacks, planting white hats on the heroes and darker models on the villains. They’re concerned, as all good writers are, with the gray that colors most issues, and most of the people who face them.

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In Day of the Outlaw the central conflict initially appears to be the deadly tension between cattle-herder and land-grabbing farmer spoofed so memorably by Oscar Hammerstein in Oklahoma! Here Ryan is the harsh cattleman Blaise Starrett, inflamed as much by lust for the wife of the farmer who is cutting up the plain with barbed wire fences as hatred for the man himself. The first quarter of Day of the Outlaw constitutes a set-up to the inevitable show-down between the two; but with the suddenness of a hail-storm, the script (by the ubiquitous Philip Yordan, perhaps the most notable of all fronts during the days of HUAC, for whom it is nearly impossible to separate work he did himself from that for which he claimed credit, even after the blacklist was broken) takes a strikingly different turn, with the arrival of a gang of wanted thieves led by the wounded Burl Ives.‡

Shot, fairly obviously, on a sub-B budget by Andre De Toth, Day of the Outlaw is strikingly different, in tone, visual palette and action, from the general run of bread-and-butter Westerns. Like Lawman and Hour of the Gun, the movie has something on its mind, and says it with surprising eloquence and panache. (The often-radiant black-and-white cinematography is the work of Russell Harlan.) The picture has an uncertain beginning, perhaps prompted by their being no money for alternate set-ups: Ryan and Nehemiah Persoff discuss, in long shot and via disconcerting voice-over, what Blaise has in mind for the wire-fencing farmer. This is a decided deterrent to comprehension. The dialogue is also occasionally, and deliberately, cryptic, which might not matter in a tight two-shot; the benefit of seeing faces speaking lines is that, if we are not sure what they’re talking about or where it’s going, the actors’ looks automatically help us over the hurdle, even as seeing their lips move makes comprehension of lengthy dialogue easier to follow. (Yordan is on record saying De Toth simply ran out of money on location and brought the production back to Hollywood, although surely some of that interior sequence could have been re-shot on a set.)

Once this opening sequence ends, however, De Toth seldom makes a misstep. Like a less-gifted Samuel Fuller, he seems to understand instinctively where best to place his camera and his actors, not for artistic but for dramatic effect. Moreover, he and Harlan move us into geographic areas few, if any, contemporary Western filmmakers cared to go. The final quarter of Day of the Outlaw places us on an increasingly impassable mountainside, as Ryan’s Blaise leads the cut-throats to a deliberate dead-end; Blaise wants to allow the dying Bruhn (Ives) an honorable death, and he knows he’ll eventually be murdered by the outlaws when they discover his perfidy, but he’s beyond caring. There are moments, earlier in the movie, as the camera pans across the starkly lovely Wyoming vistas, when you may find yourself wishing the picture had been filmed in color. But as Ryan, Ives and the bandits set off into the wilds amid gale-force wind, the white of the snow around, and beneath, them, marks a visual poetry comparable to that of Ansel Adams which color could only dissipate, and you’re suddenly very grateful indeed for black and white film.

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That snow, so intensely beautiful in itself, becomes a magnificent trap for the outlaws: A horse missteps and must be put down — rather horribly, but as the beast is carrying one of the more unsavory of Ives’ gang, that in itself is hideously in character. One of the remaining marauders dies, in his sleep, of exposure. Another, giving chase to Ryan, simply gives up, and gives out, coming to rest in the drifts almost picturesquely, as though his life is ebbing away in slow motion. (Could Robert Altman have seen this one? Day of the Outlaw is assuredly no McCain and Mrs. Miller, but the use of snow in both has striking similarities.) These men may live by the sword — or the gun — but they are, finally, helpless in the face of elements against which no firearm makes the slightest difference: You can’t shoot a blizzard.

Day of the Outlaw, despite that rather commonplace, utilitarian title, ultimately becomes a low-rent transcendental cautionary tale. And the angry, covetous Blaise seems cleansed by the ordeal; when he returns, to no fanfare (not even the remarkable chamber score in this movie, by Alexander Courage, overstates) he quietly announces to Persoff that there’ll be no more killing. Fade-out. The moment is no more pointed than it needs to be.

That too is a hallmark of Robert Ryan, who never shouted unless he had to. Could we ever use him today!


* While it is true that there is much to recommend the notion, posited by many Melville scholars, that Claggart is both attracted to and repelled by Billy’s goodness Stamp, in the 1962 Peter Ustinov adaptation, is so jaw-droppingly beautiful, and such a seemingly guileless seducer of men, the movie revived the “Is Claggart homosexual?” argument argument to justify their antagonism. One could as well ask, “Is Billy?” With Melville, who can tell?

† Interestingly, and as is sometimes the case, Fielding’s score — heard in isolation and divorced from the movie’s action — makes for a fine listening experience. No matter how good the score seems on CD, however, that it doesn’t work as effectively in context surely marks it as a failure.

‡ Yordan — and this time, apparently, he actually did write the script — based the movie on a novel by Lee Edwin Wells.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Through cowardice, we shall all be saved: “The Americanization of Emily” (1964)

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By Scott Ross

By 1964, Paddy Chayefsky had been present on the American movie screen for some time, particularly through adaptations of his more noted television dramas (Marty in 1955, The Catered Affair in ’56, The Bachelor Party in ’57) and stage plays (Middle of the Night, 1959) and via a 1958 original, The Goddess starring Kim Stanley as a thinly-disguised Monroe figure. These titles largely reflected the “little man” playwright niche into which Chayefsky had been crammed — much as Tennessee Williams represented, to those without perceptive imagination and who needed a quick hook on which to hang a complicated, poetic dramatist, Sex and Southern Gothic. Beginning with The Tenth Man in 1959 and Gideon in 1961, however, Chayefsky’s stage work took on greater theatricality and a deeper, darker and more allegorical word-richness.

The playwright became drunk with language, discovering a gift for rhetoric unique among American dramatists, and pretty much un-mined since his death by anyone other than Tony Kushner. In transliterating William Bradford Huie’s short novel The Americanization of Emily to the screen, this “new” Chayefsky found his first great, personal expression in a movie.

I’m not a believer, as so many in Hollywood (and among the general reading public, shrunken and misshapen as it has become) that a novel is, somehow, “incomplete” until it has been made into a film. Great literature, with a few noteworthy exceptions (To Kill a Mockingbird; Enemies, a love story; Maurice) seldom translates to great film. One is far better off approaching second- or even third-rate prose, and re-imagining its essentials for the screen than attempting to translate great narrative prose to a dramatic medium. And while Huie at his considerable best was a fine, if by now largely forgotten, stylist, the film Emily trumps the novel Emily in nearly every way.

Where Huie is largely serious, Chayefsky injects a comic-satiric tone. His chief device, which both burnishes the narrative and has conferred on the film much of its latter-day cult status, is in making his male lead, Charlie Madison, an advocate of cowardice. In the midst of war — perhaps especially a “good” one like World War II — it’s a bracing bit of sanity. It’s also one of the reasons the movie’s lead, James Garner, regards The Americanization of Emily as his favorite among his own films. (His co-star, Julie Andrews, shares Garner’s feelings.) That insistence, both by Charlie and by Chayefsky, on the nobility of the coward may have contributed to the movie’s relative failure at the domestic box-office. (It didn’t even rate a review in the New York Times.) Another factor may have been that Emily was released after Mary Poppins; few who loved that Disney musical were quite ready for a more “earthy” (and non-musical) Andrews.

Chayefsky also concocted the plot’s farcical angle, which quickly takes first a desperate, then a seemingly tragic, turn as Melvyn Douglas’ otherwise meritorious Admiral, suffering a sort of breakdown, decrees that “the first dead man on Omaha beach must be a sailor”… and orders Charlie to film the event.

Emily was shot well, if without any great distinction, by the workmanlike Arthur Hiller. It was, however, marvelously scored by Johnny Mandel, and featured a superb supporting cast including the always admirable Douglas along with James Coburn, Keenan Wynn, William Windom, Judy Carne, Alan Sues and the great British monologist Joyce Grenfell, beautifully cast as Andrews’ “dotty,” grieving mother.

It’s in Charlie’s first meeting with Mrs. Barham that Chayefsky scores his greatest rhetorical coup — and his star’s undying gratitude — as Garner delivers, with astonishingly varied understatement, one of the truly great monologues in American movies. It ought to be carved in stone somewhere, and memorized by every service-aged adolescent, and is well worth reproducing here, more or less in full:

I discovered I was a coward. That’s my new religion. I’m a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes wars. It’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny – always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some 10,000,000 humans in the interest of humanity. Next war, it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us. It’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved…

I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.

We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio… An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…

Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September… May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.

All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross