Something Awkward This Way Came

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By Scott Ross

All movies based on great literature are, necessarily, diminutions of their sources. The best one can hope for is the occasional transmogrification that distills the essence of its subject: Horton Foote’s screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind, and even it misses, presumably due to length, one of Harper Lee’s central metaphors. There are, however, some titles whose technical innovations are so strong, and whose prose is so rich and ruminative (I’m thinking at the moment of Toni Morrison’s novels and Harlan Ellison’s stories, and the meta-fictions of Gore Vidal) they should never be touched by filmmakers. All their would-be adapters can achieve is a bare-bones fealty to a narrative arc, losing the essential, interior psychology — and the idiosyncratic dialogue, so dazzling on the page, which comes off as false when spoken by actors. High on the list of books that militantly defy adaptation are Ray Bradbury’s, and especially high is this Bradbury. In its 1983 Disney adaptation, nearly everything that could go wrong with a movie of Something Wicked This Way Comes, does.

First, the casting is off: Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade are, in the novel, 13 going strong on 14 (“Both touched toward 14; it almost trembled in their hands”) and I suppose for those who no longer recall the difference between 11 and 13, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson are perfectly adequate, if determinedly unexceptional. But as both boys look no older than 10 at best, their physiognomies further dilute their wan performances. But Disney, attempting at the time to stretch into a more adult market, was also trying to have it both ways — filming material that might attract adults while casting it with actors childish enough to appeal to those moviegoers’ offspring — and so achieved (Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz notwithstanding) neither truly mature pictures, nor movies wholly appropriate for small children.

Additionally there are undercurrents of eroticism in the novel, both homoerotic (between Will and Jim, but especially on Will’s part toward Jim, an observation Bradbury would no doubt have disputed with vociferation) and heterosexual (Jim’s interest in the strange “theatre” in town of whose offerings he has caught furtive glimpses and longs for more and which one presumes are orgies being held in someone’s private home, along with his aching general desire to be older, a common dream which nearly always includes sexual experience within its yearning) and which the Disney concept cannot accept, let alone navigate — although the filmmakers shift desire to the barber, Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos), ultimately making him a prisoner of it. And however fine an actor Jason Robards, Jr. was, and as rich a portrait of Will’s aged father as he gives, Charles Halloway is only 54 in the novel, not 61…  and in Robards’ case, a hard 61, exacerbated by alcohol, that looks and feels rather more like 71.

Second, the screenplay, which not only reduces the poetic scope of the novel but alters its actions, sets what seems to me a deliberately timeless story in the 1930s, creates new characters (the double amputee Ed the Bartender), puffs up existing ones (Crosetti, Mr. Tetley, Mrs. Nightshade, Tom Fury the lightning rod salesman) or alters their narrative arcs and their characters for no discernable reason (The Dust Witch, Miss Foley), creates pat psychological alibis for Mr. Holloway’s inaction, blithely ignores period racial norms, turns the Cooger and Dark Carnival into Dr. Lao’s Circus, and literally reverses the deus ex machina of the climax. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Bradbury’s prose is a strange hybrid of craftsmanship and lyricism. He builds his stories and novels in a straightforward way, with strong plotting, but his sentences owe more to Thomas Wolfe than to the pulp tradition…” While I disagree with Ebert’s further observation that “the lyricism isn’t missed in this movie” (it’s completely missing) his take on Bradbury is apt. The man was a prose poet wed to pulp material, and his best work — Something Wicked, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, From the Dust Returned — sings. (His actual poetry hewed to rhyme, and was less interesting.) And if the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes owes a debt to Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, the progenitor of all creepy side-show stories, it’s one the book wears lightly, unlike the movie, which essentially rips Finney off.

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13 going on 11: Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson

It’s hard to know who is to blame for the movie’s fatally confused script. Bradbury adapted his book not long after its 1962 publication and attempted to get the studios interested, unsuccessfully, for years. And while what’s on the screen is credited to him, the director Jack Clayton brought John Mortimer on to prepare revisions, a decision as bizarre as it was a betrayal of Bradbury. What in the British Mortimer’s background — he was the barrister author of the Rumpole series, remember — suggested him for this project? And that the Disney suits fired Clayton, reshot several sequences and dumped Georges Delerue’s lyrical score as “too dark” confuses the issue even further. The picture is such an unholy mess it’s almost impossible even to get angry at it; the stench of desperation wafts from it like a choking miasma.

One example of many should suffice to illustrate what I mean. In Bradbury’s novel, Dark (Jonathan Pryce) sends the Dust Witch — a truly frightening and unnerving figure, eyes sewn shut, a hag reaching out with her senses, not the sultrily sexy enchantress portrayed by Pam Grier in the movie — to scour the area for Will and Jim, whose names he does not know. She does so in a monstrous balloon, which Will shoots down with an arrow, diminishing (although not, alas, destroying) her power. In the movie, Dark instructs her to find the boys and — this is important —  bring them back. An eerie green mist is then deployed on the town, reaching out for the Halloway and Nightshade homes like a pair of ghastly hands. Does the Dust Witch then do as she has been ordered? She does not. Are Jim and Will grabbed, and brought back to the carnival? They are not. They are instead assaulted in Jim’s bedroom by armies of tarantulas, which they fend off together as best they can before suddenly awakening in their separate beds, in their separate homes, implying that the entire attack was nothing but a supernaturally shared nightmare.

I don’t know what purpose the sequence was meant to serve but whatever it was, the boys are decidedly not brought back to Dark. And wasn’t their specifically ordered abduction supposedly what mattered? If so, what was the point of what we just saw? I gather a more elaborate sequence was planned, one which would have made extensive use of computer animation for the first time, but was junked as too expensive. So why concoct a replacement sequence that makes no sense? I can only assume our not seeing the carnival coming together by itself as the boys watch near the beginning — which could have been utterly, if eerily, entrancing — was, similarly, a victim of the budgetary chopping-block.

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Dark: Jonathan Pryce…

Speaking of the Dust Witch, I feel that little was gained by casting Pam Grier in the role, especially as she has so few lines and such a vague raison d’être. (In the movie she is also, naturally, the figure in the ice at the beginning. So why is she not the Ice Witch, then?) Mr. Tetley (Jack Dengel) becomes a blubbering fool at the sight of her sitting alone on a Ferris wheel seat and hastens to join her, but however heavily veiled she is, she is quite obviously a black woman. And as the picture is at pains to tell us it’s set in the ‘30s, how many white men would have been willing to make such public idiots of themselves over a figure they in their most charitable moments would have regarded, with a contemptuous sniff, as a Negress? Similarly, where in the novel the Dust Witch goes to stop Halloway’s heart and is nearly done in by his laughing in her face, here she merely slows it down. Why would Dark, who intends running Will backwards on his enchanted carousel, returning him to infancy in order to stop his mouth, leave his father alive? He wouldn’t. (And while we’re on the subject of Charles Halloway, it should be noted that the movie turns him from a somewhat disreputable if autodidact library janitor into the town’s librarian. Could the people at Disney simply not imagine a man content enough to immerse himself in literature without making its custody his profession? One assumes so, since they also subject Dark to what in the original does Cooger in because, one assumes, they could not conceive of filming his end as a dead child.)

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… and light: Jason Robards, Jr.

The picture is filled with such frustrating inconsistencies and betrayals of the original material. Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) rather than being a favorite teacher who foolishly allows herself to be seduced by the house of mirrors and is ultimately rendered a little girl, becomes a termagant, angry over the loss of her youthful beauty, who is granted it again, but at the cost of her vision. Why? Why do Jim and Will spit invective at each other constantly, yet behave as if they love each other dearly when it suits the story? Why does Tom Fury (Royal Dano) dispatch the Dust Witch as if he was an avenging Ishmael and she (ironically) the great white whale?

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Pam Grier as a dustless Dust Witch

The movie gets almost nothing right, including James Horner’s replacement score, a conventional affair with a good theme and one neat percussive effect for the spider sequence which Horner all too typically lifted for his later score for Aliens. Only two sequences really work: The long scene of the boys hiding beneath the sidewalk grate in front of Tetley’s cigar stand, and the confrontation between Dark and Mr. Halloway in the library. And they succeed because they a) in the case of the former, hew closely to Bradbury’s original; and b) in the case of the latter, lift, shuffle and reassemble Hollaway’s dialogue to the boys before Dark’s arrival into a colloquy between the forces of seductive darkness (Pryce) and strained light (Robards), suiting striking action to potent word as the Illustrated Man rips a magically illuminated page from Holloway’s father’s journals for every year of the man’s life counted down. That both sequences also give the movie’s leading actors (and the actors in the picture who most give over to the roles) something to play doesn’t hurt. Yet even this is muffed: When Robards leaves the library he wears a bloody handkerchief around his hand, but, unlike in the novel, we haven’t seen Dark crush it.

The mirror sequence near the end is rather more effective than most in the picture, but it elides the horror of Jim and Will being made blind, deaf and mute by the Dust Witch and turned into living wax figures beforehand. And the finale of the thing is as confused as the tarantula sequence, with Mr. Halloway giving only a hint of the capering hilarity that in the novel brings Jim back to life, as if actor and filmmakers were too embarrassed to make much of it. It’s such a fey conception in Bradbury you can’t, if you know the book, imagine how anyone could bring it off, convincingly, on screen. But the people behind this Something Wicked didn’t even try.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

The native eloquence of the fog people: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

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By Scott Ross

By critical consensus at least, Long Day’s Journey into Night ranks as the Great American Play. But one needn’t necessarily be a critic, or susceptible to the official canon, to attain reverence for Eugene O’Neill’s ultimate (in both senses of the word) cri-de-couer. One need only read or — preferably — see it.

Autobiography abounds in our native theatre, of course, whether by hint or inference. Seldom, however, has an American playwright drawn so extensively on his own past and family as O’Neill does here, nor to such coruscating effect. Although it may be argued quite convincingly that the author is not as hard on himself, via his dramatic alter ego, as he is on his mother, father and older brother, there is supple evidence that he did not let himself entirely off the piercing hook on which he transfixes the wriggling, doomed, damned Tyrones — who are all the more pitiably human in that they know precisely how doomed, and damned, they are.

Before his Parkinson’s-like cerebellar cortical atrophy completely debilitated him, O’Neill somehow managed to complete More Stately Mansions, A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh and this, his masterwork, all between 1939 and 1942. Such a prodigious — indeed, Herculean — undertaking is commensurate, if in a smaller way, to Shakespeare’s comparable achievement. And this during a time in which the playwright had been largely ignored, if not exactly forgotten, by most of his contemporaries. Had his own wishes in the matter of publication been adhered to, his late masterwork might not have been discovered until 1979. (Imagine!) Thankfully, O’Neill’s widow, the formidable Carlotta Monterey, ignored her husband’s instructions, and the first production of Long Day’s Journey made its appearance in America a mere three years after his death, the same year its director, José Quintero, mounted his production of Iceman, re-establishing it as a somewhat ponderous yet undeniable force and spearheading O’Neill’s redemptive posthumous rediscovery.

Long Day’s Journey into Night, “this old work of sorrow, written in tears and blood,” as the playwright described it in his dedication of the manuscript to Carlotta, is an act both of excoriation and extirpation. Even, if you like, of exorcism, although I doubt attempting to forgive his family in this manner for its many sins, both of omission and commission (a fine distinction for a lapsed Catholic like O’Neill) was entirely or even partially successful. Some psychic wounds are simply too firmly embedded ever to be eradicated. Nowhere near as ambitious, formally, as Iceman, the play is nevertheless entirely successful, and satisfying, on its own less expansive palette and in its comparatively smaller virtues. Indeed, more successful; its very autobiographical specificity allows it to achieve something beyond the O’Neill of The Iceman Cometh. From the parochial — a family in perpetual Strindbergian combat — Long Day’s Journey into Night emerges, finally, as wholly universal.

There has been some careless talk of turning the play into an opera but this, if not sacrilegious, is surely redundant. O’Neill may not have become the poet of his youthful ambitions (his stand-in, Edmund, remarks, when father James suggests he has the makings of a poet, “No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s got only the habit.”) but he certainly had the innate musicality. The play itself is operatic, both in its length and its breadth, but the four individuals in it form an intimate chamber ensemble of a twisting complexity that breaks the boundaries of formalization: Here a quartet, there a series of duets; now a solo-act, then further duets; later another trio and finally, devastatingly, a quartet once more. And in each movement the same recriminations and self-delusions are raised, the same accusations aired and hurts inflicted, the same apologies given, the same uneasy truces reached, and tremulously maintained. Less perhaps a string quartet then, than an endless battle fought among four armies of one, none of its generals ever admitting ultimate defeat or surrender, each limping off to lick his or her wounds before (to use O’Neill’s words) stammering and stumbling on to the next bloody engagement. The parts, too, as with the best dramatic work, are orchestral, ranging between winds and strings, the players themselves alternating in protean fashion on first one instrument and then another: Sonorous tubas exchange themselves for keening oboes or whingeing bassoons as mood dictates. Or are these four antagonists polymorphous/polyphonic singers, basso-profundo giving way to lyric soprano, tenor and baritone to alto?

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The sound recording based on the 1971 production starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Stacey Keach and the great Robert Ryan.

You’ll have to excuse my employment of some very mixed metaphors; this play, like the greatest works of art, has a way of making you thinks in those terms, knowing that mere descriptive prose can never begin to do the job. “I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now,” Edmund says to James, in the exchange cited above. “I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do, I mean, if I live.”

O’Neill himself does not stammer here, if his characters occasionally do. Journey is not Iceman, where the bluntness of the argument (and the bibulousness of its speakers) militates against poetic expression. The participants here are at once more intimate and more estranged, and the dialogue reflects the intelligence of the Tyrones as well as the parameters of their various educations. Mary, the mother, has only her convent schooling; father James, a once-celebrated actor, has at least absorbed the texts of his beloved Shakespeare; the sons, Jamie and Edmund, have their Harvard experience and the realist/romantic verses of the poets Jamie once held dear, whom Edmund still does and of whom his older brother now despairs. While the lines they speak are too prosaic in themselves to soar as O’Neill may have wished, the total effect of them is of a great epic poem of aching melancholy, its author (again in Edmund’s words) mastering a “faithful realism, at least.” And as he goes on, “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.” O’Neill here is their greatest, non-stammering, stammerer.

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Bradford Dillman, Jason Robards Jr., Florence Eldridge, Frederic March and David Hayes’ Frank Lloyd Wrightesque windows in the 1956 premiere Broadway production, directed by José Quintero. And the maid was played by Katharine Ross. Imagine.

Although I have seen the 1962 movie adaptation four or five times since my early 20s and never, alas, the play itself, I have never been as moved by it as I was while watching it again last night. Anyone, of any age past, say, early adolescence can grasp Long Day’s Journey into Night at least in part, just as a person of 14 or 15 might enjoy Waiting for Godot for its wit or even possibly for a certain nihilistic cynicism; there is, after all, no one as romantic, or as cynical, as a teenager. But you have, I think, to have lived long enough, and been broken enough times on the rack, to feel the full and anguished weight of the thing.

What the film’s producer, Ely Laundau (later the founder of the American Film Theatre) and its director, Sidney Lumet, accomplished goes far beyond merely transmogrifying a great play to the more immediately realistic strata of the movies. While there was some, slight, editing of the text about which the purist might reasonably quibble, I don’t see how anyone could argue against the cast, a quartet of exceedingly rare sublimity. Seldom has a movie, let alone a play, been so suffused with crystalline greatness in its principals.

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A physically ravished (and emotionally ravishing) Hepburn, with Dean Stockwell as Edmund.

Katharine Hepburn was somewhat in flux in the early 1960s. She’d reached that dangerous age, Over Forty, at which not even the greatest of her contemporaries, Bette Davis, hoped for much. She’d been doing a lot of Shakespeare on stage, and not many movies, and the astonishing beauty she had conveyed from the early ’30s was, inevitably, waning. With what gratitude must she have ripped into Mary Tyrone! There is no vanity in her performance, no special pleading other than Mary’s own. Indeed, there are moments when Lumet and his extraordinary cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, make her look (and in close-ups!) positively, and shockingly, ugly. That’s a calculated move, I suspect; Mary repeatedly bemoans how haggard she’s become with age, and we may sit back in disbelief thinking, “But she’s exquisite!” Those shots, then, have the power of a shock-cut. More, the overwhelming blow of truth: No woman of 55, not even Katharine Hepburn, can fully escape the ravishes of time. Moreover, since it is Mary’s quarter-century of morphine addiction that is the corroded heart of the matter in the play, some physical deterioration simply has to be accommodated.

Hepburn’s rightness is not merely one of physiognomy. If you’ll forgive another musical metaphor, Hepburn plays Mary like a cello: Adagio at the start, agitato creeping in; breaking the surface with shattering rubato, then temporizing, modulating, rallentando; a space of religioso here, a smattering of maestoso there; a burst of presto followed by an uncanny largo —  and always, always, non troppo. She does not tip her hand. It is only gradually that Hepburn reveals the extent of Mary’s addiction, and its hold on her moods. (Her deep love for, and concern about, Edmund is plain, but simmers with resentment, as it was his difficult birth that put her on the path toward the hop.) While agitated, especially when dancing around the topic of Edmund’s possible tuberculosis, Hepburn hints at the volcano, seemingly dormant, but pulls back before it can activate. When she finally explodes, as she must, the effect is shattering, as when, at luncheon, in the midst of a bitter denunciation of the quacks who led her down the vertiginous track to dope-fiendom, she suddenly hurls crockery to the floor with both hands on the line, “I hate doctors!” In a long career of great performances, I don’t think she ever did finer work than she does here.

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The magnificent Ralph Richardson, as James.

The same is true of Ralph Richardson’s James Tyrone. For an heroic actor with a voice whose distinction was only slightly less than that of his great coeval, John Gielgud’s, Richardson was cursed with a face whose plainness was his gravest disappointment. And while he made far too few movies, those in which he stars benefit immeasurably from his presence. As fine an entertainment as Carol Reed and Grahame Green’s The Fallen Idol (1948), for example, would be infinitely less without him — perhaps even unthinkable. His James Tyrone is, as it were, the worm’s-eye view of the man; yet for all his pettiness of spirit, mean constriction of mind and (explicable if not salutary) miserliness, we sense as well the dignity of James, his buried kindness, and the potential greatness of the actor whom Edwin Booth once praised and who, but for the wickedly gleaming lure of a sure-fire financial success (never named but surely the same Count of Monte Cristo whose massive receipts made James O’Neill even as it imprisoned him) might have rivaled, or even surpassed, his mentor in artistry. Richardson is magnificent.

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Dean Stockwell as Edmund and Jason Robards, Jr. as Jamie, with Richardson.

Jason Robards, Jr. was Jamie in the 1956 American premiere, and reprises his defining performance here, hard on the heels of his resplendent Hickey in the Lumet-directed NET production of Iceman. (He would later portray the somewhat older, even more dissipated Jamie, in the 1973 A Moon for the Misbegotten revival.) Whether or not Robards’ interpretation of the role had deepened or changed in the six years between productions I leave to those who saw both. On the screen, however, he is electrifying. Trite encomium, but none else will do. For Robards, like Hepburn (and indeed their co-stars) builds slowly, although Jamie’s disgust — at himself as much as his familial relations — is present from the beginning; it needs only the long-delayed lubrication of an epic inebriated tear to liberate itself fully. Jamie is not being disingenuous when he proclaims, in the explosive fourth act, his endearing love for Edmund, and his barely concealed hatred and jealousy. That both emotions reside in the same, despairing and disparaged, heart makes Jamie among the most fully-developed characters in modern drama, and Robards anatomizes these ever-warring, obsessive, sentiments with the skill of a surgeon and the agonized passion of only the greatest actors. He is equally effective in open misery as he is in bitter cynicism; when Mary makes her final descent (in both senses of that word) Jamie’s caustic, “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” is at once appalling and utterly comprehensible. He deserves both the slap he receives from Edmund and the reward for honest endurance of the insupportable which, for him, will never be forthcoming.

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Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet: Dean Stockwell with Hepburn.

Dean Stockwell is, among the four, the most tragic figure. I mean by this not his role as O’Neill’s stand-in but the stunning way in which, after this exceptional performance, his film career all but dried up, and that on the heels not only of Edmund but of well-regarded work in Sons and Lovers (1960) and both the stage and screen versions of Meyer Levin’s Leopold and Loeb play Compulsion. (In the latter, incidentally, he appeared with another highly gifted young actor whose mature years were largely unremarkable, Bradford Dillman. In an interesting coincidence, Dillman was Edmund in the March-Eldridge Long Day’s Journey, and would later make a superb Willie Oban in the 1973 American Film Theatre version of The Iceman Cometh.) Unique among former child actors, Stockwell blossomed in his 20s; by contrast, it would take the splendid Roddy McDowall, six years Dean’s senior (and his Compulsion co-star on the stage), far longer to be taken seriously… although McDowall’s later career would prove far rosier, and richer, than Stockwell’s.

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The Monster and his Frankenstein: Stockwell and Robards.

The young actor is just about everything one could wish of an Edmund Tyrone. His diminutive stature, as well as his good looks, which teeter on the brink of prettiness, make it instantly clear why he is doted upon, and protected, by the family. “Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet,” Jamie sneers at him, just as Mary more than once reminds Edmund that he is a baby, and wants to be petted and fussed over. What neither his mother nor his brother quite grasps but which the seemingly oblivious elder James does, is that Edmund is far from infantile. At 24 he is already a veteran of wanderlust, an avid sailor whose fondest memories are of being lost to himself on the sea, and a would-be suicide (in a flophouse that would serve as the model for Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh and in which the more mature O’Neill will locate a mother-ridden young man who will complete the act his real-life counterpart could not.) Himself only slightly older than Edmund in the play, Stockwell exhibits an astonishing, heartbreaking hold on the character. He is at once boyish and wise (or, as he and Jamie would have it, “wised-up”), striver and defeatist, a man-child for whom the future holds both infinite possibility and a crushing weight of guilt and resentment for which this, his magnum opus, will be only partial expiation. It’s all there in Stockwell’s precocious performance. See this, and weep for the artistic promise that was, inexplicably, never fulfilled.

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The fog people at the hopeless close of night.

The movie of Long’s Day’s Journey into Night was not a success at the box-office (total receipts: $500,000) but the entire cast deservedly received the Best Actor and Actress Awards that year at Cannes, and Hepburn was further nominated for an Academy Award®, although they all ought to have been. The film was cut after its release from 174 minutes to 134, and even now its “restored” version only runs 170. At least in the current edition there is some mention of the brother the older Jamie may or may not have deliberately infected, who died in infancy and the mention of whose name hits one with the force of a thunderclap: Dear God, what could O’Neill have meant by naming that baby Eugene! That he is saying, with the nihilists Heine and Nietzsche, that the best of all fates is never to have been born? (Or, having done so, exiting as quickly as possible.) That the playwright wished, on some level, it had been himself who was spared the burden of life, and of relation to this family?

Throughout, Lumet directs with the acute sensitivity that would make him one of our finest, and most humane, filmmakers. He does not obtrude. He observes, with heart and mind wide open, the vengeful perambulations of the Tyrones, never editorializing yet also never missing a beat either of their love for each other or their perfectly aimed barbs of psychic murderousness. Kaufman’s photography is luminous, both shadowed and razor-sharp, and reaches a kind of breathtaking apogee in Mary’s final, morphine dream monologue wherein the camera pulls further and further back as darkness envelopes (to quote once again from O’Neill’s dedication) “all the four haunted Tyrones.” There is nothing, at this point, that James, Jamie or Edmund can do but either ignore her, or watch, helplessly, as she moves father away from them. The fog has swallowed them all. Yet, shockingly, just at the height (or depth) of Mary’s opiate-induced transcendence, Lumet and Kaufman return to a sudden close-up Hepburn’s face as the dream-state begins to end and reality comes roaring back. The unexpected edit brings us all — the Tyrones, and those who watch them, as fascinated as children gazing at the frenzied beats of a butterfly impaled on a board — back to the soul-crushing truth of lives hopelessly burdened by a past they can neither change nor forget, for the play’s final, devastating lines: “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”

How perfect the choice of those last three words! Fond memory succeeded, hard on, by a dying fall, like the emotional obverse of Tennessee Williams’ “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly!” Obliterating light, and hope, and the promise of a dawn that, gathered up in indifferent fog (neither annealing nor malign but merely obliterative) will now never come. O’Neill may not have become the lyric poet of his aspirations, but he found an instinctive, naïve, native poetry in the everyday. And although the ending of this, his supreme effort, is unutterably, ineffably sad, yet it is also, like the play itself, cause for celebration. Muted, perhaps, and acclaimed by a voice made ragged with weeping, but the hard-won cheer is the most cherished of all, and the most deeply felt.

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They should all have been nominated, at the very least. (And won, as they did at Cannes.)


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

End of the Line Cafés: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960/1973)

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The Iceman Cometh: The 1960 television edition as seen by Al Hirschfeld. Left to right: Hilda Brawner, Myron McCormick, Jason Robards and Julie Bovasso.

By Scott Ross

If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The Iceman Cometh vies with very few fellow contenders for a most respectable second place. And if family is the great subject of 20th century American dramatists, there is no family play that can touch Long Day’s Journey in its merciless yet pitying dissection of the means by which our immediate relations shape, and misshape, us, and the unshakable, death-grip hold they exert on us: How, even when we comprehend, and confront, the psychic murders parents and children visit on one another, we are unable to fully forgive, let alone forget, them.

The Iceman Cometh (1946) - James Barton

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of Eddie Dowling’s 1946 staging. That static, nearly linear row of tables couldn’t have helped.

While the nuclear unit is not the dramatic center of The Iceman Cometh, family is never very far from the surface. The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon themselves form an uneasy, shifting, kind of family, made up largely of disaffected brothers and eccentric uncles, with Harry himself the predictably mercurial pater familias. And for many of these men, some sort of familial uncoupling forms the basis of dipsomania. Larry Slade, the “old foolosopher,” a one-time Anarchist, claims he’s long finished with the movement, yet it was his ultimately untenable involvement with young Don Parritt’s mother, rather than the movement per se, that soured him on his youthful pipe-dream of political upheaval. Parritt himself, who looks to Larry as a potential father-figure, has betrayed the movement to the police for a mess of pottage, ostensibly for money but really to get back at his indifferent mom, that self-same paragon of the movement who so effectively killed Larry’s activism. The one-time “brilliant law student” Willie Oban was likewise undone by the arrest and imprisonment of his bucket-shop proprietor father, and Jimmy Tomorrow pretends the cause of his bibulousness was his wife’s infidelity when it is far more likely that the reverse was true: That it was he, not her, who was unfaithful. Even “The General” and “The Captain,” old Boer War antagonists now inseparable companions in methomania, have been disowned by their families at home, while Harry deludes himself that he has withdrawn from life outside due to his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, in reality a nagging termagant he could barely stand. And Hickey, whose arrival is so widely anticipated — and whose sudden reversal of persona is just as avidly despaired of — has finally reached the limit of his capacity to torture, and be tormented by, his endlessly forgiving wife Evelyn. If a happy Tolstoyean family lurks in the background of any of the habitués of Harry Hope’s saloon, the playwright hasn’t been moved to recall it. And what O’Neill doesn’t get around to discussing, and in detail, likely doesn’t exist.

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O’Neill generally (and Iceman most specifically) can feel like strong medicine, even to his admirers. For Arthur Miller, himself no slouch in the practice of heavy-handedness, O’Neill “is a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils.” Pauline Kael classified Iceman as “the greatest thesis play in the American theatre.” And Kenneth Tynan was absolutely correct when he noted of it, “Paul Valery once defined a true snob as a man who was afraid to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d’heure about halfway through The Iceman Cometh.”

Indeed, I avoided both reading and seeing Iceman for decades, for precisely the reasons explicated above. Well, that and its 4-hour length, which cowed me. But no one who considers himself a playwright, or a critic, has any business avoiding O’Neill, or this play, indefinitely. Despite its obviousness, its insensitivity, its longueurs, its lack of poetry and its undeniable position as a thesis play, The Iceman Cometh is, somehow, indispensable. It says little, and at great length and volubility, and one can argue endlessly about whether O’Neill is averring that human beings need their pipe-dreams in order to live (Kael) or that the specificity of a barroom/flophouse filled with alcoholic bums invalidates its universality (Tynan.) I would say that O’Neill is not necessarily claiming anything for everyone but that, if he was, it is that pipe-dreams are less what allow us to face the impossibilities of life as they are the inevitable run-off of personal guilt and the fantasies permitting those who feel themselves failures to believe in some sort of hope, however tenuous or unattainable, for the future.

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Robards as Hickey

O’Neill premiered Iceman in 1946, with a production starring James Barton that was both unappreciated and puzzled over, and which ran only briefly; it took another decade for the play to be rediscovered, in the popular Circle Rep re-staging by José Quintero. And while there is as yet no “definitive,” complete video rendering of this unwieldy, occasionally stupefying but undeniably powerful dramatic cantata, two exceptional, if slightly abridged, editions were, thankfully, preserved for posterity. The first, Sidney Lumet’s 1960 video staging, produced by the nascent public broadcasting entity National Educational Television (NET) would be notable if only for its capturing of Jason Robards, Jr.’s universally acclaimed characterization of Hickey but is, despite its visual limitations, much more than merely a showcase for a great actor’s defining performance. The second, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 movie for the short-lived subscription series American Film Theatre, while lacking Robards, has a visual palette far richer and gives us as well, in a uniformly superb cast, the final performances of two great American actors.

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Myron McCormick, the Larry of 1960

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The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973)

Since the play is at base a contest between Larry and Hickey, the casting of the two roles is crucial. About Hickey, more anon. But in its Larry, the AFT production has the decided edge in Robert Ryan. Then 59 — and, although he did not know it during the filming, dying — this greatest of unheralded American actors gives the performance of a lifetime. The movie camera helps, of course, but what is written on Ryan’s craggy, lived-in face is unique to him. As a lifelong leftist, the role of a former anarchist drowning in his bitterness must have held great appeal, but Ryan also brought to the movie the experience of his performance as James Tyrone opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in a Long Day’s Journey revival, so his O’Neill bona fides are secure. He lends a gentleness, and a grace, to Larry that is absent in Myron McCormick’s effective but more obvious 1960 reading; in Ryan, the warring impulses of instinctive pity and a desperate desire to an indifference he cannot feel are as absolute, and as heartrending, as his conflicting hope for, and fear of, “the big sleep” of death.

Crucial too to the 1973 edition too is the Harry Hope of Fredric March. One of the most important actors of his time, March was a popular matinee idol (A Star is Born), twice an Academy Award® winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) and, latterly, the creator of James Tyrone in the 1956 premiere, following O’Neill’s death, of Long Day’s Journey. At 76, March plays the 60 year-old Harry with rare gusto, his malleable face stretching from the slackness of both bottomless self-pity and irritable garrulity to the infectious grin of devilish (and innately sadistic) merriment that make it instantly clear why, aside from his largesse with liquor, the denizens of what Larry calls “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller” adore him and put up with his periodic grousing. I don’t mean to slight Ferrell Pelly, who played the role in 1956 and again in 1960. If March’s performance did not exist, Pelly’s would seem sublime. But March’s does.

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Robards with Farrell Pelly as Harry Hope

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Fredric March as the Harry Hope of 1973.

The Parritts of the Lumet and the Frankenheimer are, by contrast, a virtual draw. The 1960 Parritt, Robert Redford, is so staggeringly good you can only lament how seldom, once he became a star, he has been given — or allowed himself to take — a role that gave him so much latitude. It isn’t that the self-hating young man is a great role, or even a terribly good one. It’s more a device, and an occasionally irritating one, but that merely makes Redford’s achievement all the more remarkable. There’s nothing guarded here, as there so often is with Redford’s later appearances; the moods are sudden and startling, the outbursts at once annoying and deeply moving. I think it’s the best work he’s ever done.

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Robert Redford as Parritt

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Jeff Bridges as Parritt in 1973

Jeff Bridges had been giving fine performances for some time before the 1973 Iceman, so his appearance here may have seemed less spectacular than Redford’s at the time. And, as with Ryan, he’s helped by the Eastmancolor camera; there are moments when you watch, filled with wonder at the beauty of his open young face. For all the schematicism of the role, Bridges brings to it the heartbreaking ardor, confusion, guilt and cruelty of youth, and more. When he feels Larry has given him permission to enact the very escape his hoped-for substitute father cannot undertake for himself, the sound he makes — something between a sobbing whimper of relief and a sigh very close to the post-orgasmic — is unforgettable.

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Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban in the Frankenheimer version.

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Moses Gunn as Joe Mott in 1973

In the smaller roles, most of the 1960 cast are the equal of those in 1973. Two exceptions are the Willie of Bradford Dillman and the Joe Mott of Moses Gunn. James Broderick’s 1960 Willie is very fine, but Dillman’s is revelatory. We’d seen him in a profusion of thankless, largely forgettable, movie and television roles for years in the ’60s and ’70s, and he’d always seemed one of those actors, not beautiful enough to star, always reliable in support, who never quite get the chance to grasp the brass ring. Drunk, Dillman’s Willie simmers in self-disgust, and his delirium tremens is so terrifyingly right that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure, too young to be so lost, yet too long in the sauce ever to amount to anything. Moses Gunn, one of our best, and least well known, character actors, with a voice as commanding as it is recognizable, looks both like a sport and a hopeless drunk, and the way he bestirs himself to righteous anger at the others, and at himself, for their genial racism and his own complicity in it, are searing. In 1960, Maxwell Glanville was rather too robust physically to quite get the wreck Joe has become. And while his characterization is, like Broderick’s Willie, a good accounting, Gunn’s is non-pariel.

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Tom Pedi, second from left, as Rocky. To his right is Sorrell Booke. At far right, John McLiam, the movie’s heartbreaking Jimmy Tomorrow.

Tom Pedi had the distinction of playing Rocky, the saloon’s weather-vane of a bartender who deludes himself that being a procurer does not make him a pimp, in 1946, 1960 and 1973, and is both the same, and different, in the television edition and the AFT movie. The same, in that his characterization is roughly identical in each, yet diverges if only for his having aged into it. He’s at once keenly perceptive and eye-rollingly capricious, first cozying up to then deflating the bums in Harry’s bar with the breathtaking suddenness of a born sadist. (Like owner, like barkeep…) He’s also more than slightly terrifying. Sorrell Booke, too, is in both the Lumet and the Frankeheimer. As Hugo, perpetually sozzled, waking from his stupors just long enough to express his true loathing of the proletariat he believes he loves, Booke is both comic and (to use a word that, in context, sounds like a pun but isn’t) sobering. The Jimmy Tomorrows of 1960 and 1973 also constitute a near-draw, with the knife-edge going to latter. Harrison Dowd’s Jimmy, while eschewing any sort of noticeable accent, is moving enough. But John McLiam, whose voice carries more than “the ghost of a Scotch rhythm,” has sad, limpid eyes, helped along by the color camera, and his tremulousness is no less heartbreaking than are his occasional, doomed stabs at a regained dignity. Like Dillman, he’s ultimately heartbreaking.

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Lee Marvin’s Hickey seizes on Willie Oban (Dillman) and Harry Hope (March).

The women are more problematic. Not the actresses themselves (Hilda Brawner, Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland in ’60 and Hildy Brooks, Juno Dawson and the preposterously named Evans Evans in ’73) but the characters. Billy Wilder once allegedly — and notoriously — said of the women in his movies, “If she isn’t a whore, she’s a bore.” Well, the whores in this play are bores, devices through which O’Neill gets at his theses. The women in both casts do what they can, and Evans (married at the time to the director) rises above the material occasionally. But only barely.

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Marvin as Hickey. (Evans Evans at right, behind him.)

Which brings us, finally, to Hickey, and the great divergence. I wonder whether Lee Marvin’s performance might have been granted more honor in 1973 had Robards’ not been broadcast thirteen years earlier. (Although Kael, who discerned too much shouting in Marvin’s long, climactic aria, may have been relying on a faulty memory; Robards also bellows.) For my part, both actors are equally fine, if in different ways. Robards may be more jocular, raising that patented sheepish chuckle of his after revealing more than he means to, and the fact that the vocal gesture is one he used in other, later roles, does not diminish its effectiveness. Marvin’s persona was never that of the glad-hander, and there is a certain tightness behind his initial bon homie that hints at the coldness with which Hickey operates; he’s spent a lifetime sizing up his marks, calculating the unstated yearnings of those he’s selling before moving in for the kill. (Not that anyone with a halfway decent mind would have much trouble figuring out this bunch.) To grouse about Marvin not being Robards is to deprive oneself the pleasure of watching an actor stretch himself, and in a role whose richness he must have known would likely never come his way again.

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Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s

As directors, both Lumet and Frankenheimer serve O’Neill, and their actors, never getting in the way of either. Both editions cut the text a bit, and the ATF Iceman omits the (admittedly minor) character of Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s circus con-man brother-in-law, perhaps because of budget — the series producer, Ely Landau, of necessity restricted his filmmakers to one million dollars — but more likely because it was felt that one parasitic hanger-on (the corrupt former cop Pat McGloin) in Harry’s apartment was sufficient. The NET production, aired over two evenings, appears to have been live; lines are flubbed slightly now and then, and the actors begin to perspire noticeably around the mid-point of each segment. If so, it makes what Robards & Co. accomplish that much more impressive. That Lumet was trained in live television, and a past master at it, in no way dulls the luster of his achievement in directing so rich and immediate a production.

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Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set

The major differences between the two versions is one less of scale than of opportunity. (Although the television edition is more like a filmed stage-play, owing as much to the space in which it takes place as to anything else.) Lumet, working within the severe limitations of early video, is unable to get a visual balance, or to light his actors suggestively. The starkness of the image washes out contrast, and what I assume must have been very hot lights presumably negated any possibility for subtly or nuance in the visuals. Frankenheimer, working with the color cinematographer Ralph Woolsey —  and film — and able to avail himself of Raphael Bretton’s realistically solid and beautifully tatty sets, had greater opportunity to make his Iceman Cometh much more cinematic, although he is never showy. The textures of the settings, rich and shadowed and lived-in, and the ability to use far more technically advanced, and supple, film stock than the flat black-and-white video available to Lumet, allowed Frankenheimer a looser, more realistic palette. It’s notable that the two, although radically different, got their start as directors during the era of live television drama, and had, perhaps as a result, deep respect for actors and text, both crucial here. In their respective versions of this essential American drama, each man came through with honor bright. And honor, as Aristotle suggested (and as I suspect Eugene O’Neill would have agreed) is the second greatest quality of the mind, eclipsed only by courage. All three men, to one degree or another, certainly had that.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

What kind of crazy story is this?: “All the President’s Men” (1976)

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By Scott Ross

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Los Angeles, CA. May, 2011. Richard Stayton writes a compelling piece in the Writers Guild of America (West) magazine Written By (http://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=67460), responding to claims made by Robert Redford that he and the late film director Alan J. Pakula completely re-wrote William Goldman’s Academy Award®-winning screenplay for All the President’s Men (1976), further insisting that only 10 per cent of Goldman’s work remained in the completed film.

Redford, who as progenitor and producer of the movie (and indeed, as unofficial godfather to the original Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book) treated his scenarist with appalling condescension during the re-writing, insisting that Goldman read an un-commissioned script Bernstein and his then-girlfriend (later, wife; still later, famously ex-wife) Nora Ephron had cobbled up emphasizing, in Goldman’s tart phrase, that Carl “sure was catnip to the ladies” — an act the screenwriter quite properly regarded as “a gutless betrayal.”* He didn’t add this, so I will: Particularly since it was Goldman’s original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made Redford a certified movie star, and that it was the author who recommended his casting as Sundance.†

On one of the supplemental documentaries featured in the 2006 DVD (and subsequent Blu-Ray) reissue of ATPM, Redford claims as well that he and Pakula “re-structured” Goldman’s work from top to bottom before filming. If William Goldman is famous for nothing else (and he is, of course, famous for many things, or was, back when people still read books) it is as the author of two statements, one about Hollywood’s endless and panicky chase after the Next Big Thing (“Nobody knows anything”) and this, on his craft: “Screenplays are structure.” That Goldman, who suggested what now, in hindsight, seems the most obvious, simple means of cracking that book’s screen adaptation (throw out the second half) and who, say what you will about the quality of his individual novels and scripts, is absolutely solid on structure, needed an actor and a director, however gifted, to give his work that very element —  particularly after a decade’s worth of scenarios, an Academy Award® and ten novels  —  most of them bestsellers — is, on the face of it, absurd.

William Goldman

William Goldman

Back to May, 2011. Richard Stayton suspects all of this too, but goes beyond it:  Through dogged, painstaking research which involves (among other things) reading every single draft he could get his hands on of the ATPM script written by Goldman and comparing that work to the film as it has stood since 1976, he concludes that William Goldman — and William Goldman alone — wrote the screenplay. And I would take this a step further. It’s my understanding of WGA nominating practice for its own awards —and Christ only knows the rules may have changed in the years since I came across this data in Harlan Ellison’s book on the “City on the Edge of Forever” Star Trek episode — that the screenwriting committee making said nominations reads those screenplays. They may also compare them to either the completed movie or to continuity scripts (essentially, transcripts of the finished film after the final edit.) In any case, the WGA duly conferred on Goldman its Best Adapted Drama award for ATPM. I have no idea what procedures the Motion Picture Academy screenwriting committee undertakes, but they may be similar. Yet I would go further still: Neither Redford nor Pakula applied for arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild for credit on this movie they, according to Redford, completely re-wrote.‡

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The astonishing overhead dissolves at the LOC.

I preface my remarks on ATPM with all of this in part because what Stayton did to prove the provenance of the screenplay is precisely what “Woodstein” undertook to unravel the mysteries attendant to the June, 1972 break-in at National Democratic Headquarters, and what the movie of their book is really all about. And here Goldman and Pakula, whatever the latter may have said to Redford, certainly agree: The movie is filled with examples of the sheer, mind-numbing, foot-wearying legwork Woodward and Bernstein went through, and which at that time was a hallmark of serious American journalism. Indeed, the highest (no pun intended) moment in the movie is an explication of exactly that. Faced with stacks and stacks of Library of Congress check-out cards, some of which might implicate E. Howard Hunt, the pair digs in. The movie cuts to a shot from above, of Redford and Hoffman at the table, poring over the cards. Pakula and his superb cinematographer, Gordon Willis, then dissolve to a higher vantage-point, the two Washington Post reporters swallowed up by the reading room, the cards spreading out before them like a small paper flood. They dissolve again, to an even higher overheard shot, almost a god’s-eye view that renders “Woodstein” as ants to a forest floor. That the search the pair is on ultimately proves fruitless is unimportant; it conveys the lengths to which two dedicated journalists go to nail down the facts they need to buttress their suppositions. The metaphor is repeated, in various ways, throughout the movie: Hoffman or Redford dwarfed by government buildings, or Redford’s car, seen via a helicopter shot, disappearing into Washington traffic. To a city whose very institutions, represented by those massive buildings, regard them as insignificant, Woodward and Bernstein are puny. Unnoticed, and unnoticeable. At least until they hit pay-dirt.

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For my generation of writers, Woodward and Bernstein were heroes. Not because their investigation ultimately led to the resignation of a notably hated President (although that was rich icing on the cake) but because their work, unappreciated at first, thorough and irrefutable at last, was, to us, a shining example of why newspaper journalism existed, and was so terribly important to the life of the Republic. Legions of us became (or wanted to become) would-be Woodsteins because of their example. Alas, far too few of us wanted the grinding, exhaustive, shoe leather-thinning grunt-work that went into it. And fewer still, in this age of 24/7 corporate cable news, instant celebrity and the blogosphere, practice it. Why dig for the truth when you can present rumor, or (even better) just make up your own “facts”? Why ask questions, and seek their answers, if airing innuendo will get you the fame and the book-deal and the featured position on Fox or MS-NBC? They still want to be Woodstein; what they don’t want is having to do the work Woodstein did. That Bill Clinton, with his 1996 Telecommunications Bill, guaranteed the death of the vaunted (and necessary) American free press and replaced it with one wholly subservient to corporate desires is, for once, almost beside the point.

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Redford as Woodward struggles to hear Kenneth Dahlberg over the noise of the Post newsroom in this riveting scene.

In this regard, if in no other, All the President’s Men looks better with every passing year. It is, moreover, a movie of rare intelligence, filled with pleasures. Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation, short attention spans and internet profusion, of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion, it is nearly impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today, at least in Hollywood.§ As such it fits neatly into that brief, shining moment, the glory that was 1970s cinema. Few studio suits now would consider green-lighting a movie in which politics are central; recognizable and fully-explicated human characters fill every frame; the ultimate outcome is already known; and a considerable portion of its greatness, and its concomitant tension, arise from long, close, unbroken shots of its stars talking on the telephone. Two such sequences in particular (one each for Redford and Hoffman) show the power of fine dramatic writing, good acting, and assured direction by people who weren’t afraid, as filmmakers are today, of holding on an actor in a medium close shot for several minutes… unless, of course, the actor and the camera are both moving, allowing yet another Scorsese-wannabe his moment of ostentatious Steadicam glory. (And would a mass audience even put up with such a thing now?)

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Jane Alexander as the unnamed CREEP bookkeeper.

Pakula must also be accorded credit, along with Willis, for the prevailing aura of increasingly justifiable paranoia the movie generates. This was something of a Pakula specialty; his previous films as a director included The Parallax View and Klute, which form with All the President’s Men a kind of unholy trinity of anxious national obsession. (Quartet, if we include the later Presumed Innocent.) That he was an actor’s director is made manifest in the performances in these movies, from the smallest role to the largest, and by his astute sense of casting. ATPM, like another Redford hit, The Sting, benefits from one of the finest all-around supporting casts of the period: Jason Robards (Ben Bradley), Jack Warden (Harry Rosenfeld), Martin Balsam (Howard Simons), the magnificent Jane Alexander giving a virtual master-class on screen acting in two scenes as the frightened, angry Committee to Re-elect bookkeeper, and Robert Walden as an amiable, anxious Donald Zegretti. And, in smaller but no less telling or important roles: Meredith Baxter, James Karen, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Nicholas Coster, Lindsay Crouse, Neva Patterson, Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday (the last two in a scene — presumably from Bernstein’s self-serving draft of the screenplay — with wholly fictionalized accents, such as Carl’s fooling Holliday’s secretary in order to see Beatty.)

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Hal Holbrook, deep in shadow as Deep Throat.

And that is not even to mention Hal Holbrook’s mesmerizing turn as “Deep Throat” (now known to have been the former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt.) It was to Deep Throat that Goldman assigned the script’s most famous (and wholly fictitious) line, “Follow the money.” But there is far more to the role than unintentional catch-phrases, as there is more to Holbrook’s riveting performance than shadow and cigarettes.|| Veiled in more ways than merely the visual, Holbrook’s Deep Throat is, despite a certain, indefinable, air of the sinister, also a man outraged, disappointed and disgusted by the Nixon Administration’s utter contempt for the law, the Constitution, and the American people. (Although it has been strongly suggested that Mark Felt was equally livid at being passed over for the Directorship of his agency after Hoover’s death, and there appears to be truth to that accusation; Felt was known by the White House to be “leaking like a sieve” to the media.) And it is in these scenes that Goldman lands some his most apposite dialogue. Some of it may come from Felt’s own remarks in the book — it’s been a few years since I last read it — but in either case, many of the movie Deep Throat’s observations are as relevant now as they were then, if not more so:

“Look: Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

And, later: “I don’t like newspapers. I don’t care for inexactitude and shallowness.”

How he would loathe the papers (and the broadcast networks) now.


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The superb Jason Robards as Ben Bradley.

Willis’ lighting is superb throughout, from the strong depth-of-focus that keeps every image crisp and allows the viewer a firm grasp of everything in the frame to the way he darkens the surroundings as the central mystery itself becomes more circuitous and frightening. In a career whose highlights included Klute, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Pennies from Heaven, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, Willis’ work here stands as a veritable exemplar of his devotion to craft, and clarity, as well as to un-self-conscious art. Equally worthy of praise is George Jenkins’ set designs, and the set decor of George Gaines, which include a meticulous re-creation of the Post’s pressroom; and the quietly efficient editing of Robert L. Wolfe. David Shire’s uncannily effective, abbreviated score too deserves mention: It’s brief (less than 12 minutes) and there isn’t a note heard until 30 minutes in, yet this spare, splendidly-spotted music — essentially winds, brass, strings and an un-emphatic but most efficacious synthesizer — performs miracle work in its subtle suggestion of a subcutaneous un-ease that slowly becomes first pervasive, then quietly terrifying.

In this year, which has just seen the 42nd anniversary of the Watergate break-in and will soon commemorate the 40th year since Nixon’s characteristically worm-like resignation, and in a world (and a country) that is essentially unrecognizable to those of us who lived through these events and dared to dream that Woodward and Bernstein just might, in their dogged, unassuming fashion, have helped to create a new political reality, it is incumbent upon us to revisit these crucial events, the meticulous, careful investigative journalism that exposed them, and the nearly flawless movie that evolved from both… and which was itself enormously successful.

And to reflect perhaps as well that, from the first instance to the last, both those initial Post articles and the movie that celebrates them, are the work of the what is arguably the last, un-sung, hero of American life: The writer.

Look on these Works, ye Modern, and despair.

The past is a foreign country.

Alas.

Pakula - All the Presidents Men (TIME)


* Maybe it was seeing that phrase “gutless betrayal” that turned Redford from a friend to such an implacable foe? He seems remarkably thin-skinned, even for an actor… about himself, anyway, if not about the feelings of others. It appeared to personally offend him that Pauline Kael’s reviews got reprinted in her books. I wish I shared Redford’s conviction that books are immortal, since these days it seems only pop songs (from the rock era only), motion pictures, old television sitcoms and commercial advertising from baby boomers’ childhoods really are.

† Goldman, perhaps wisely, did not comment on the controversy. In an emailed response to Stayton’s request for discussion he wrote, “Thanks for thinking of me. It was not a happy experience, and I don’t want to write about it anymore.” In his influential Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman wrote: “If you were to ask me, ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

‡ I would never suggest that Pakula filmed every word or scene exactly as Goldman dictated. Nearly every movie is altered, to some degree, and often improved, by its making. Circumstances change. Locations are switched. Scenes are cut. New sequences may be added. Actors improvise. Dustin Hoffman, in one of those ATPM video documentaries, makes the ludicrous claim that “you don’t film the script”; no — apparently, you film what Dustin Hoffman decides to do, and say. He also maintains (on the Tootsie DVD) that “screenplays are just blueprints,” a falsehood of epic proportions, one repeated so often by directors and producers it seems to have become Hollywood Holy Writ. A blueprint is not a suggestion. Once it has attained its final form, it cannot be altered significantly, without the entire building structure becoming unstable. You don’t, unless you are mad or self-destructive or criminally negligent, add or subtract or move walls or floors in a building under construction once the architect has signed off on the final blueprint. The “screenplays are blueprints” metaphor is both entirely specious and dismissive of reality.

§ The recent success of Spotlight seems to refute my argument, unless you reflect that the picture, which I admire, concerns itself with the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and not, as with ATPM, with the anti-Constitutional machinations of the Federal government. Both were appalling; indeed, the damage done by the Church to its most vulnerable parishioners might seem, taken on an emotional basis — and over not merely decades but centuries — to trump what Tricky and his minions achieved. But (and I most certainly do not mean to minimize or in any way denigrate the suffering of young victims of rape — I had my own “#MeToo” moment as an adolescent) the attempted murder of a democracy is, I aver, the far greater sin, if only because it affects so very many more people.

|| It is not unreasonable to suggest that Chris Carter was inspired by Holbrook, and his cigarettes, when he created “The Smoking Man” for The X-Files.



Post-Script: August 2018
I was struck, on re-reading this essay, by the sentence which begins, “Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation… of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion…”

If the current mass-insanity among first Democrats and the mainstream press (and now, increasingly, Republicans) which has led to a resurgence of Red-baiting McCarthyism unseen since 1954 and based wholly on a lie cobbled up by one candidate to “explain” her loss to another, and based as well on that candidate’s vulnerability on the “collusion” question (all those uranium bucks from the Russian Federation going to her husband and their phony Foundation) is not an illustration of the impossibility, now, of independent journalism by the major news media, I’m Ben Bradlee.


All text (other than Goldman’s) copyright 2014 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

All the President’s Men (1976)

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By Scott Ross

Alan J. Pakula, working from a superb William Goldman screenplay, wrought the best newspaper movie of all in this marvelously detailed portrait of the two Washington Post reporters who first exposed the Nixon Administration’s petty chicanery.

What makes the movie so absorbing is its documentary-like depiction of the sheer, mind-numbing meticulousness with which Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) piece the story together. It’s a great tribute to a kind of dogged, perfectionist journalism that seems to have died with the Nixon Presidency itself. The sequence at the Library of Congress, in which the little check-out cards pile up as Gordon Willis’ camera rises up and up and up, emphasizing Woodstein’s essential tininess in the grand scheme of themes, is one of my favorite moments in movies.

All the President’s Men is also a marvel in its singularly brilliant casting; every role, no matter how small, is cast to perfection. Jason Robards’ commanding Ben Bradlee leads the way, but look at this partial list of supporting players: Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Robert Walden, Nicolas Coster, Lindsay Crouse, Polly Holliday, James Karen, Neva Patterson, and (as John Mitchell, the voice on the other end of Woodward’s telephone) John Randolph. With Hal Holbrook in a rather terrifying performance as Deep Throat. The spare David Shire score is just about perfect.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross