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.


somethingwicked_coverimage

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.


Three Days of the Condor gettyimages-591378586-612x612

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

Quarterly Report: July — September 2019

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By Scott Ross

Home-viewing from The Armchair Theatre over the last three months; because there isn’t a single bloody thing in the cinemas worth the time, petrol, cash or personal energy it would take to go out. Although I will admit I was convinced by a friend to attend a special screening of Daughters of the Dust… thereby proving the point.

Tootsie Jessica Lang and Dustin Hoffman
Tootsie (1982) Take one vanity project for a notoriously self-involved actor (Murray Schisgal writing a screenplay about acting for Dustin Hoffman); mix with a separate script by Don McGuire concerning an out-of-work performer donning drag for a soap-opera role that borrows a bit too liberally from Some Like it Hot, even unto its blond object of affection and unwanted middle-aged suitors; add in re-writes by a small army of scenarists headed by the great Larry Gelbart and including, un-credited, Barry Levinson, Robert Garland and Elaine May; bake by a director widely known as one of Hollywood’s most notorious writer fuckers (Gelbart claimed the movie was stitched together from any number of scenarists’ drafts), and the result should have been a disaster. Instead, through some weird alchemy it not only wasn’t but somehow those ingredients contrived to blend so well the picture became a small classic of its kind. Revisiting Tootsie from a 35-year remove, it seems almost miraculous: A popular comedy that tickles the mind as often as it does the ribs. And the direction, by Sydney Pollack, never a favorite filmmaker of this writer, looks as good now as it did in 1982; whatever its internal flaws (including a series of consecutive events supposedly encompassing a single evening that Gelbart later wrote was “a night that would have to last a hundred hours”) the picture is strikingly lovely, with Owen Roizman’s sumptuous lighting and the crisp, witty editing by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp giving it a patina of warmth and sophistication, a rare combination for any movie comedy. Hoffman’s “Dorothy Michaels” ranks as one of the great comic creations in American movies, yet the actor also locates the loneliness of the character — or, rather characters, since everything Dorothy says and does is filtered through Michael Dorsey’s brain and emotions — and an essential sweetness and decency Michael himself lacks when he’s wearing pants.* As the unwitting object of Michael’s interests, Jessica Lange was a revelation in 1982, lightness and gravity in balance, and what she does is still astonishing in the sheer rightness of her every glance, inflection and wistful hesitation. Terri Garr is no less entrancing, in what is surely her best screen performance, and Bill Murray gets the picture’s best lines as Michael’s playwright roommate. (May created the character, and wrote his speeches.) Against his own wishes, Pollack took on the role of Hoffman’s agent, and their scenes together, reflecting some of the very real anger and frustration each felt toward the other, are among the movie’s comic highlights. The great supporting cast includes Dabney Coleman as the sexist television director, Charles Durning and George Gaynes in the Joe E. Brown role(s), Doris Belack as the savvy “daytime drama” producer, Geena Davis as a nurse in the soap-within-a-film’s fictional hospital, and the late Lynne Thigpen as the show’s floor manager. Dave Grusin, who often floundered when composing for dramatic pictures, wrote for Tootsie one of his most felicitous comedy scores. It isn’t funny in itself, nor does it try to be; its alternate moods of peppy urbanity and plangent emotionalism make for a perfect juxtaposition that reflects the plot’s development and moods without attempting either to compete with them, or to ape the action.

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* Hoffman based Dorothy’s soft Southern vocal mannerisms on those of his friend Polly Holiday.


They Might Be Giants - finale

George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward in the movie’s radiant, moving final moments.They Might Be Giants (1971)

They Might Be Giants (1971) James Goldman has long been one of my favorite writers. While nowhere near as prolific (nor as well known) as his brother William, his smaller output includes the 1965 play and subsequent movie 1968 The Lion in Winter (for which he won an Academy Award); the beautifully compressed book for the landmark Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince Follies, arguably the single greatest theatrical musical of the 20th century; the wonderfully conceived and unexpectedly moving Robin and Marian (1976); a superb novel about King John, Myself as Witness, in which Goldman re-examined an historical figure he felt he had maligned in his previous writing; and the play on which this lovely picture was based and for which he wrote the beautifully structured adaptation. Hal Prince produced the play’s only major production in London, later castigating himself for hiring the wrong director (Joan Littlewood) for the piece, although Goldman himself said he was unhappy with the script, which he subsequently withdrew from further production. The movie, while disappointing financially — presumably those involved expected another Lion in Winter — is a blissful variation on Arthur Conan Doyle, in which a mad retired jurist (George C. Scott) called Justin Playfair, who believes he is Sherlock Holmes, is examined by a psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) named Mildred Watson. They meet as antagonists, form an uneasy alliance and drift toward romance, while Playfair seeks a rendezvous with the elusive Professor Moriarty. It may sound twee, and there are many on whom its gentle charms are no doubt lost, but it’s a funny, and surprisingly emotional, rumination on the relative insanity of a brilliant, harmless paranoid and of the increasingly mad society to which he is expected to conform. That last notion no doubt seems trite, but it has seldom been handled with such deftness and wit. Anthony Harvey, who also directed The Lion in Winter, shot the picture with a nervy energy that captures the New York City of the early 1970s, not as if under glass but as a living stage for Playfair’s intrigues. Scott and Woodward tear into their roles with the relish of great actors who know in their bones they’ve got their hands on some of the choicest dialogue around, and the rich supporting cast includes Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan, Theresa Merritt, Eugene Roche, James Tolkan, Kitty Winn, Sudie Bond, Staats Cotsworth, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Benedict, M. Emmet Walsh and Louis Zorich. There’s also a brief but extremely effective chamber score by John Barry, arranged and augmented by Ken Thorne. Two home-video versions exist: One (a Universal Vault DVD) running under 90 minutes, reflects the theatrical release while the other, the television edit (on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber) is longer, and includes the wry, delightful extended sequence in an immense Manhattan grocery store. It could, I suppose, be argued that the story doesn’t need the grocery sequence, and the climax plays well without it. But it also seems to me that the movie is enriched by its inclusion, and diminished by its excision. So, caveat emptor.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.

Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.


Daughters of the Dust_Trailer

Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant

Daughters of the Dust (1991) Julie Dash’s dreamlike evocation of Gulla society on a small South Carolina island in the early years of the 20th century was well-received critically but not a box-office success. 20/20 hindsight by knee-jerk commentators now has it that the picture was badly handled by its distributor because its writer-director was not only a woman, but a black woman. Yet I don’t see how this luminously photographed exercise in non-linear rumination could have been a popular success in any era: It’s so diffuse it seems less Impressionistic than merely undefined; we can scarcely tell what the various narrative threads are, much less what they mean. What’s best about the picture, aside from Arthur Jafa’s exquisite cinematography, are the wonderful faces of the expressive actors, especially those of Cora Lee Day as the family matriarch clinging to her African roots and religion, Cheryl Lynn Bruce as her overly-devout Christian granddaughter, and Barbara-O as her mirror opposite, a wayward young woman who left the island for a man but who now is involved with a younger woman. But 60 minutes into this hour-and-52-minute glorified student film my eyes had long since begun to glaze over and even those interesting faces weren’t enough to clear them.


The Last Hard Men - Heston and Coburn

The Last Hard Men (1976) A tough, bloody Western from an unsparing Brian Garfield novel, starring Charlton Heston and James Coburn as old antagonists on a collision course. Although (unlike in the book’s ending) the movie’s climax seemingly leaves his character’s survival in doubt, and while the actor was too young for the role — as Garfield wrote it, the former lawman is in his 60s, and becoming increasingly frail — Heston is quite a good match for the ruthless Coburn, and the filmmakers (Andrew V. McLaglen was the director, and Guerdon Trueblood wrote the script) don’t flinch from the story’s most horrific moment, when the Heston figure’s daughter (Barbara Hershey) is gang-raped by Coburn’s team of escaped prisoners. The role of Hershey’s earnest suitor is the sort of part the young Jeff Bridges could have turned into a third lead by doing almost nothing, and while Chris Mitchum is attractive, he’s completely out of his depth; as an actor he was never much more than the pretty son of a movie star. While the performance of Michael Parks, as the sheriff who accompanies Heston on part of the quest to retrieve his daughter, suffers from his role being less interesting than in the Garfield book, the actors playing Coburn’s gang (Jorge Rivero, Thalmus Rasulala, Morgan Paull, Robert Donner, Riley Hill and especially Larry Wilcox and John Quade) are an impressively frightening bunch and Duke Callaghan’s widescreen cinematography is lustrous. Leonard Rosenman composed a terse, uncompromising score (it was later made available on CD) which was then replaced by a collection of newly-recorded cues from several of Jerry Goldsmith’s  previous 20th Century-Fox titles 100 Rifles (1969), Rio Conchos (1964), Morituri (1965) and the 1966 Stagecoach. I assume this was due to their being more traditional action cues and Western pieces than Rosenman’s dark, brooding compositions. But while they are splendid in themselves, if you’re already familiar with them from their sources they’re a needless distraction.


Invisible Monster titcd

The great title card for one of Jonny Quest‘s creepiest episodes. If only the animation for the show had been this good!

Johnny Quest: The Complete Original Series (1964 – 1965) When I was a child the Saturday morning re-airings of this 1964 one-shot, an impressive attempt by Joseph Barbera and William Hanna to create and direct a weekly prime-time animated adventure series,‡ made an enormous impression. It was the first “serious” animation I’d ever seen, its often eerie plot-lines were, for a 5-year old, fascinatingly scary… and in the titular figure, the irrepressible blond-topped All-American Jonny, lay my first big crush.† The gifted comics artist Doug Wildey designed the show and its central cast: Plucky Jonny, his slightly mystical adopted Indian brother Hadji, father Benton Quest and bodyguard Race Bannon (who, white hair aside, was, somewhat confusingly for me, almost a dead-ringer for my own father). Produced in the so-called “limited” format pioneered by Hanna-Barbera, and which Chuck Jones astutely referred to as “illustrated radio,” the series, re-viewed from an adult perspective, contains highly variable animation; there are times when the characters are beautifully drawn, while at others they are remarkably poorly drafted, and this older viewer could certainly do with less of Jonny’s annoying little dog Bandit. But the stories are nearly always, despite a 26-minute limitation, well-plotted and exciting, often with an agreeable avoidance of earthly explanation for seemingly supernatural phenomenon. Children, like many of their adult counterparts, love to be frightened, and they especially love ghost stories and impossible monsters; it was a consistent reliance on rationality than killed my initial enthusiasm for the later H-B Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Among the pleasures of the series were, and are, the voices, especially the appealing Tim Matheson as Jonny, the undemonstrably masculine Mike Road as Race, the charming Danny Bravo — who seems to have based his vocal characterization on Sabu — as Hadji, Vic Perrin as the show’s recurring villain Dr. Zinn and occasional guest artists such as Keye Luke, Jesse White, J. Pat O’Malley and even, astonishingly, Everett Sloan as an unrepentant old Nazi. Hoyt Curtin’s superb main title theme, with its bracing mix of big band and James Bond, is another asset; most of the incidental music is his, with additional and uncredited compositions by Ted Nichols. Many of the series’ best (and creepiest) episodes were written by William Hamilton: “The Robot Spy,” “Dragons of Ashida,” “Turu the Terrible,” “Werewolf of the Timberland” and “The Invisible Monster.” Among the others of especial note are “The Curse of Anubis” (Walter Black), “Calcutta Adventure” (Joanna Lee), and “Shadow of the Condor” and “The House of Seven Gargoyles” (both by Charles Hoffman). The recent Warner Archives Blu-Ray collection, while it contains few extras, looks terrific.

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† Like Top Cat and The JestsonsJonny Quest lasted only a single prime-time season. But when you’re a child, you’re not counting episodes, and due to repeated Saturday morning re-airings all three shows seemed to run forever.

‡How typical of me that my first big crush would be not another boy but a cartoon character… Still, I don’t know whether it was so much that I was attracted to Jonny as that I longed to be him. And isn’t hero-worship often what early same-sex crushes amount to?


Klute - Fonda and Sutherland (Klute comforts Bree)

Klute (1971)
The truly chilling paranoia thriller starring Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda, who as the call-girl Bree Daniels gives what I consider the finest performance by an American movie actor of the last 50 years.


In the Heat of the Night - Sidney Poitier, Jester Hairston and Rod Steiger

Rod Steiger, Jester Hairston and Sidney Poitier

In the Heat of the Night (1967) This tense, unblinking police procedural coated in a patina of social critique was one of the great successes of its year, which also saw the premier of Bonnie and Clyde. And while the picture is very much of its time in its examination of racist bigotry in the then-current American Deep South, it’s also a brisk, exciting detective thriller that holds up remarkably well, not least due to the crisp direction by Norman Jewison and to the picture’s precise Stirling Silliphant screenplay. Indeed, I prefer Silliphant’s creative adaptation to John Ball’s original novel, in which race is an important component, yet is less central to the narrative’s tensions than in the much bolder, angrier, movie, especially via the incendiary central relationship between Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s Chief Gilliespie. It should be remembered that the picture was in release only three years after the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, and the sense of dangerous rot and slowly simmering violence Jewison captures onscreen is as palpable as the oppressive, humid heat of its Mississippi setting. (Although most of it was  shot in the southern Illinois town of Sparta.) Poitier gives a performance of wit, implacable inner strength and fierce integrity. There are a number of moments in the picture where what we see in a character’s face is more revealing, and quietly powerful, than what is said. Poitier has one such scene, when Steiger dismisses him, and his assistance in the murder investigation. Perhaps the most difficult thing an actor can do is to allow us to see him thinking. Too many actors project thought in those moments, and it’s nearly always phony. With Poitier, the impact registers itself in, first, his disbelief, followed by his fury, and, finally, a soft, subtle smile. He gets it; he’s been here before. Yet none of what we see is obvious, or overdone. Lee Grant, as the widow of the murder victim, has a similar scene where, shocked into silence by the news of her husband’s death, she reacts against Poitier’s gentle attempt to seat her with an anguished, rigid gesture that slowly turns to acceptance and, more potently, the need to be comforted. It’s devastating to watch. As the racist sheriff, Steiger, at the height of his screen prowess, meets his co-star blow-for-blow. Gillespie is as much an outsider in the town as Virgil, and as distrusted by the locals. His tension is coiled deep, and he expresses that inner explosiveness in the way he compulsively chews gum, stopping only when he has something to say, or when comprehension breaks through his consciousness. The supporting roles are so perfectly cast they seem inevitable — absolutely real: Warren Oates as a patrolman with a secret; Larry Gates as  a smooth and powerful old racist; the usually genial William Schallert as the bigoted mayor; Beah Richards as the local abortionist; Quentin Dean as a white-trash slut; Anthony James as a smirking creep; Scott Wilson as a prime suspect in the killing, whose changing relationship to Virgil is far warmer than what transpires between Tibbs and Gillespie; and Jester Hairston as an Uncle Tom butler outraged by Tibbs slapping his employer. (If you look sharp, you’ll also see Harry Dean Stanton as a cop.) That slap was a blow for liberty, and must have resounded sharply in many places across the globe, not merely the Southern United States. The dark, expressive cinematography is by Haskell Wexler — cheated by the constricted budget of a crane, he and Jewison make frequent, and often very effective, use of zoom lenses. Hal Ashby provided the fluid editing, and Quincy Jones’ score, mixing jazz and blues, has a nervous, funky energy perfectly in keeping with the movie’s sense of dark foreboding, and he composed a terrific main title song (with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman) that’s sung with passionate soul by Ray Charles. Jones’ cue for Wilson’s attempted escape (and suggested by Jewison) is a highlight, puttering out expressively as the murder suspect realizes he’s licked — the musical equivalent of a runner who’s out of breath.


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Ghostbusters (1984) Horror comedy was far from a new concept when Ghostbusters was made — Harold Lloyd starred in something rather redundantly called Haunted Spooks in 1920 — but until 1981 and An American Werewolf in London there had never been one with elaborate special-effects, and even that was modestly budgeted; Ghostbusters cost six times as much (its budget was between $25 and 30 million.) Most of its predecessors tend to be either comedies with a few ghostly appurtenances (cf., Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein and Don Knotts’ The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) or genuine horror with black comedy overtones (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood, Phantom of the Paradise and, indeed, American Werewolf in London) but Ghostbusters takes nothing seriously. Its writer/stars, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, see everything as funny, and since The Ghostbusters themselves seldom panic, we spend the entire movie in a state of amused relaxation right along with them; the audience takes its cue from laid-back smart-ass Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, for whom the entire natural world is a sardonic joke, so why should the supernatural world be any different? Murray’s comic persona is so relaxed he’s like a more sarcastic version of Bing Crosby. The picture is inconsequential — you smile through most of it, even if you seldom laugh out loud — yet at the same time memorable; several of its set-pieces, phrases and gags became instant cultural touchstones, and after seeing the movie you’ll likely never look at a bag of marshmallows the same way. Sigourney Weaver has a good, serio-comic role as the woman whose apartment is being taken over by an ancient deity, Rick Moranis is sweetly oblivious as a dweeby neighbor, Annie Potts is the Ghostbusters’ preternaturally un-fazable secretary, William Atherton is an officious prick from the EPA (why do so many satires go after EPA rather than corporate polluters?) and Ernie Hudson gets a largely thankless role as the token black member of the team. László Kovács shot the movie beautifully, and the veteran Elmer Bernstein composed a score that, anchored to a loping main theme, was almost too effective: Despite his having composed in his long career everything from epics (The Ten Commandments) and Westerns (The Magnificent Seven) to thrillers (The Great Escape) and intimate dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird) and in every conceivable format from symphonic to jazz, the success of Airplane!, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf, Trading Places and Ghostbusters got him typecast for years as purely a comedy composer.


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Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Welles‘ minor masterpiece, and the last time he was permitted the luxury of the studio system’s largess.


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The Pink Panther (1963)
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)
The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

How Blake Edwards took his love for silent comedy routines deep into the post-War pop consciousness.


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Chinatown (1974) The modern classic by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski.


Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice (1988) I misunderstood Beetlejuice when it was new; my contemporary review (fortunately now lost to the landfills) betrayed a certain — and to me, now, inexplicable — inability to keep pace with Tim Burton’s patented blend of amiability and dark comic outrage. It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate his often exhilarating blend of comedy and horror; the Large Marge sequence in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure made me laugh so hard I nearly fell out of my seat. But I somehow wasn’t ready for an entire feature with that sensibility, unfettered. Revisiting Beetlejuice now, as I feel compelled to do every few years, I can’t help wondering why my younger self couldn’t relax enough to embrace such a cheerfully anarchic comedy as this one. Written by Michael McDowell (sadly, one of all too many creative men who succumbed to AIDS) and Warren Skaaren (also now prematurely dead, of bone cancer) from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, it’s a spook-fest for jaded children, a supernatural comedy that stints neither on the humor nor the paranormal. As the nice young Connecticut couple who discover they’re dead and doomed to live with the wacko modern artist and her bourgeois real-estate developer husband they can’t scare away, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis embody the spirit of the whole enterprise; they’re too sweetly gentle to make decent ghosts. As the titular “bio-exorcist,” Michael Keaton was a revelation, and his performance still amazes; nothing he’d done in movies up to that point had prepared us for the primal forces he unleashed in himself as Beetlejuice. His non-stop patter, loopy asides, gross-out wit and sheer brazen crudity were like nothing we’d seen in a movie comedy before. I think you’d have to imagine how movie audiences reacted the first time they saw the Marx Brothers to understand the impact that performance had on us in 1988. The strong supporting cast includes a very young Winona Ryder as the developer’s slightly off, death-obsessed teenage daughter; the peerlessly self-satisfied Jeffrey Jones as her father; the ever-treasurable Catherine O’Hara as his nasty, pretentious wife; Sylvia Sidney, in her of her final performances, as Baldwin and Davis’ case-worker, making the most of a role that is really little more than a delicious sick joke; Glenn Shadix as an obnoxious interior designer§; and Dick Cavett as a blasé society snob. Danny Elfman composed one of his brightest early scores, which deftly incorporates some of Harry Belafonte’s calypso hits. The first time I saw Beetlejuice, the use of “Day-O” offended me; now that sequence strikes me as one of the happiest in the picture. That’s one of the perks of revisiting old movies: Realizing that it wasn’t the original, uncategorizable, picture that was to blame for your dismissal of it, and being happy that you’ve lived to become a person who can surrender himself to it.
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§ Although Shadix’s performance struck me at the time as an exercise in extreme stereotype, the actor was himself gay.


The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Duvall, Arkin, Williamson watch

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) Nicholas Meyer’s ingenious Sherlock Holmes pastiche.


Blackbeard's Ghost - Ustinov and Jones

Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) I don’t know how I missed this one when it was released, as I habitually saw every new (or newly reissued) Disney movie, animated or live-action. It’s just possible it didn’t make it to the small Ohio town we were living in then, although every other children’s movie of the time did. In any case, I only discovered it when I came across the Disneyland soundtrack album — receiving the record for Christmas of 1970, I nearly wore it out through re-playing. It was my introduction to Peter Ustinov, who narrated it, and who starred as Blackbeard; the LP featured dialogue, mostly between him and Dean Jones, with a little Suzanne Pleshette shoehorned in, and I was entranced by Ustinov’s idiosyncratic way with a funny line, his ineffable charm, and (to borrow a phrase from Harlan Ellison in a different context) the “ineluctable rodomontade” of his florid verbiage. As I grew older and became more familiar with Ustinov, and with his performances and his work as a playwright and screenwriter, I began to suspect that he had re-written the Blackbeard script (or at least, his lines) as he had on Spartacus. And if you love Ustinov as I do, Blackbeard’s Ghost, while silly, generates a lot of laughter. Although basing their screenplay on a very good children’s novel by Ben Stahl, in which two boys accidentally conjure up the shade of the pirate, still very much the bloodthirsty ghoul of legend, the movie’s writers (Don Da Gradi and Bill Walsh) ditched that premise in favor of pure comedy, making this far tamer Blackbeard’s more-than-reluctant compatriot the new coach of a hopeless college track team. That the coach is played by Jones is a help; whatever criticisms might be levied at the Disney pictures in which he starred, the actor (on whom I had a slight childish crush) always brought enormous conviction to them, and his outbursts of incredulous anger are as ingratiating as the engaging grin that occasionally splits his handsome face. The slapstick in the picture, directed with no special distinction by Robert Stevenson, is sometimes dopey and occasionally better than that, and the invisibility effects by Eustace Lycett and Robert A. Mattey are, as usual with Disney, well done, as are the lovely background matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw. The screenplay has a pleasing lightness, enriched by what I again assume were Ustinov’s additions. The laughter the Disney Blu-Ray drew from me was considerable, even if nearly all of it was generated by Ustinov, who still makes me roar at lines I memorized off that record album when I was nine. Although Elliott Reid overdoes his bit as a television sportscaster, Pleshette is, as always, simultaneously biting and adorable as Jones’ inamorata; Joby Baker makes a good showing in the unaccustomed role of the villain; Elsa Lanchester gets a good scene or two as Jones’ dotty landlady; Richard Deacon is amusingly dry as the college dean; and Herbie Faye, Ned Glass, Alan Carney and Gil Lamb all have good bits in Baker’s restaurant-cum-gambling den. The plot revolves in large part around Blackbeard’s old home, maintained as an hotel by his descendants, little old ladies with nothing else to cling to. I mention this because one of them — and I have no idea which — is identified on the imdb as Betty Bronson. That’s a name more forgotten now than it was 50 years ago, but 45 years before, that Bronson was enchanting youngsters as the screen’s first Peter Pan. I would like to think that Walt Disney, one of whose final productions Blackbeard’s Ghost was, knew that, and gave the old trouper a job. Anyway, it would be pretty to think so.


INTO THE WOODS

Anna Kendric sings “On the Steps of the Palace,” my favorite number in Stephen Sondheim’s dark/light score. “He’s a very smart Prince / He’s a Prince who prepares / Knowing this time I’d run from him / He spread pitch on the stairs…”

Into the Woods (2014) Although I have been a Sondheim fanatic since discovering the Company cast album in 1976, and while the original production of Into the Woods was the first Broadway musical I saw before its cast recording had been released, I deliberately avoided the movie of it when it was new, on the basis of three proper names with which it was associated: “Disney,” “Rob” and “Marshall.” Perhaps only in Hollywood could a minimally talented hack like Rob Marshall reap such rewards (and a-wards) by removing the guts from ballsy musical plays like Chicago and Nine. After countless producers and screenwriters, including Larry Gelbart, had worked at it, what was Marshall’s great “break-through” on Chicago? Turning all the musical numbers into dream-fantasies Renee Zellweger imagines. If you have to justify why people are singing and dancing in a musical, why the fuck are you making a musical? Still, with a screenplay by James Lapine, the original book writer and director of Into the Woods, perhaps there was only so much damage Marshall could do to it. Well, it was someone’s brilliant idea to cast the magnificent Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s Father and then butcher his role so completely he’s left with no songs and only a couple of lines, confusingly delivered, since we can’t tell who he is, whether he’s real or a phantom, and haven’t any idea whether his son (James Corden) knows either; and to let Chris Pine as an 18th century prince sport a trendy two-day growth of beard on his chin.‖ The picture looks splendid, which I attribute largely to its cinematographer Dion Beebe, its set decorator Anna Pinnock, its costumer Colleen Atwood and its production designer Dennis Gassner. And it’s largely well cast, with actors who can sing: Corden; Meryl Streep, sardonic but subdued as The Witch; lovely Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife; cute Daniel Huttlestone as a full-throated Jack; Lilla Crawford as a foghorn-voiced Little Red Riding Hood; Johnny Depp as her Wolf; Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother; and Anna Kendrick who, although attractive only from a single angle… and that one her director seldom favors… is an otherwise charming and effective Cinderella. Into the Woods was significantly better than I’d expected. Yet I still tremble whenever I hear another name yoked with this director’s: “Rob,” “Marshall”… and Follies. Hasn’t that poor show suffered enough?

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‖As my friend Eliot M. Camarena once asked, do people like that when they’re children announce, “When I grow up, I wanna look like Fred C. Dobbs!”?


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The Art of Love (1965) A surprisingly brainless affair to have come from the typewriter of the witty Carl Reiner, riding high in 1965 with the deserved success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which he created and oversaw, and for which he wrote many of the most memorable early episodes. The best thing about this moderately black farce concerning a failed American artist in Paris whose supposed suicide instantly drives up the prices fetched for his work by his duplicitous best friend (James Garner) is Van Dyke as the artist. His comedic timing, seemingly boneless body and inimitable way with a line or a situation are the equal of the great comedians he worshiped, and it’s one of the great ironies of modern history that he came along at a time when movie and television comedies were so often loud, witless and inane. Had Blake Edwards not already collared Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon, what a find Van Dyke would have been for that fellow student of slapstick! Reiner can’t really be blamed for the general dopiness of the movie, since he was working from an existing story by two other writers (Alan Simmons and William Sackheim) and the movie’s young director, Norman Jewison, doesn’t appear to have been a great deal of help to him. The Art of Love is attractive to look at — it was shot by Russell Metty — but inert, marking time with things like Angie Dickinson’s fainting shtick (it’s funny the first time), Elke Sommers’ perpetual innocent act and the braying of Ethel Merman, apparently cast as a madam just so she could belt out an instantly forgettable nightclub number. The usually ingratiating Garner has little to play here but his character’s cheesy self-centeredness, and Reiner stoops to such things as plunking a cartoon Brooklynite Yiddishe couple (Irving Jacobson and Naomi Stevens) in the middle of Paris. Still, Jay Novello has a couple of funny bits as a nervous janitor and little Pierre Olaf does miracle work as an umbrella-toting police detective, Cy Coleman provided a perky score (with additional music by Frank Skinner), and DePatie-Freleng came up with some modestly amusing main title animation. There’s little excuse, however, for a comedy — especially one with Dick Van Dyke — whose only big laugh comes at the very end, and absolutely none for its indulging in such feeble wheezes as the periodic introduction of a Madame Defarge-like hag, complete with knitting needles, who shows up every now and then to screech her delight at Garner’s impending execution. But at least I now understand what my mother meant when she once told me that after seeing this one on television when I was a boy I walked around the house for a week saying, “Guillotine! Guillotine!”


Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree (1978) That Sherlock Holmes occupied a revered, albeit fictional, place in the same late Victorian Britain that saw the appalling murders in Whitechapel has intrigued Sherlockians for decades. What more natural meeting could there be than between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant consulting detective and “Saucy Jacky,” as that figure of horror known popularly as Jack the Ripper styled himself in a letter to the papers? Derek Ford and Donald Ford (the former known primarily for his snickering sex comedies) imagined Holmes investigating the murders in the 1965 A Study in Terror, and the same year in which this more recent attempt was released saw the publication of Michael Didbin’s dark little novel The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, very much concerned with Jack. The elements are there even in the mind’s eye: The dimly gaslit cobblestone streets, the hansom cabs and private cabriolets, the enveloping fog that swallows up forms, faces and screams of terror and pain. That Bob Clark, the onlie begettor of Porky’s should, of all people, have directed as beautiful a fiction as Murder by Decree is as puzzling as his making that perfect adaptation of Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story. But then, as Orson Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, “Peter, you only need one.” The literate screenplay by the playwright John Hopkins emphasizes a more riant, and more passionate, Holmes than is the norm, and Christopher Plummer could scarcely be bettered in the role as the filmmakers, if not Conan Doyle, conceived it. His performance reaches two peaks, one infinitely quiet (his reaction to Geneviève Bujold’s heartbreaking madwoman), the other bristling with outrage at what his betters (including John Gielgud as the Prime Minister, unidentified in the picture but clearly made up to resemble Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) have been up to. Hopkins also, blessedly, gives us a Watson who is as far from the Nigel Bruce model as can be imagined. And while the irreplaceable James Mason is a bit hoary for the role, his aplomb is undeniable; a moment of especial charm is the way he expresses dismay at Holmes, and with a look of genuine hurt, when the former squashes the lone pea on the doctor’s plate. And if he is occasionally the voice of hidebound Empire, Mason’s (and Hopkins’) Watson is also equally as capable of wit as Holmes as, for example, when Sherlock asks his compatriot why his friend deems him only “the prince of detectives” and wishes to know who is king. I won’t spoil the joke here, nor the conclusion of this intricately plotted exercise, based on some theories by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd in their contemporaneous book The Ripper File. The exceptional cast includes a starchily smug and imperious Gielgud; the wrenching Bujold; Frank Finlay as an uncharacteristically deferential Inspector Lestrade; David Hemmings as the police inspector in charge of the case (and who bears absolutely no relationship to the very real Frederick Abberline); Susan Clark as a heartrending Mary Kelly; Anthony Quayle as the dangerously reactionary Sir Charles Warren; Peter Jonfield as a chillingly psychotic chief villain; and Donald Sutherland as the shaken spiritualist Robert Lees, who believes he’s seen the Ripper. Despite a few unnecessary visual flourishes, Clark’s eye is nearly unerring, abetted to an exceptional degree by the rich and expressive cinematography by Reginald H. Morris and the astonishing production design of Harry Pottle; I don’t know whether Pottle is responsible for the staggeringly effective matte paintings of London used in the picture, but whoever painted them, they put you absolutely there. The only real miscalculation in the movie is the highly derivative musical score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer from which I heard distinct liftings from John Williams (the scene in Jaws of Richard Dreyfus investigating Ben Gardner’s boat), Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann (those eerie strings) and Richard Rodney Bennett (the opening sequence of Murder on the Orient Express) and in which — aside from the plaintive traditional Irish tune for Mary Kelly — there is little that is either original, interesting, useful or pleasing to the ear.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

The stylized elegance of social rot: “Chinatown” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

Chinatown is one of those movies of the last great period of American pictures that, while not wildly successful at the box office, has since accrued to itself the luster of a pop masterpiece, one that rewards repeated viewings as only the great works do.

The picture’s screenwriter, Robert Towne, based the background of his dark detective thriller on events and characters in early Los Angeles history that was bearing bitter fruit by the late 1930s, the time of Chinatown: The machinations that created the system bringing potable water to a desert city that probably should never have been built. (Although, curiously, Towne’s murder victim, Hollis Mulwray, is a bit of a populist, something his historical progenitor William Mulholland never was.) Towne, one of the era’s most prominent and respected script doctors (Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, The Parallax View, The Missouri Breaks, Heaven Can Wait, Marathon Man, Reds) and sole author writer of striking adaptations (The Last Detail) and originals (Shampoo) used the hard-boiled detective format as a prism through which to refract some of the more sordid details of American public life, and as such Chinatown is very much a product of its post-Nixonian time. The basic, Chadleresque elements are there: The mysterious woman who may or may not be a femme fatale (in fact, the movie has two of them), the shadowy case that reveals itself as more complex and dangerous than the private dick at first surmises, the unexpected peril, and the deadly omnipresence of wealthy, powerful men. The cynical public overlay — the hoodwinking of a city’s citizens by murderous oligarchs — perfectly suited mid-’70s America (and may have limited the picture’s popularity) but should not be considered mere revisionist window-dressing; it’s at the rotten core of Towne’s vision, and that of the movie’s inspired director, Roman Polanski.

Chinatown - Huston, Nicholson

Take, for example, this exchange between the rich and powerful Noah Cross (John Huston) and the detective, J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), whose name Cross repeatedly mispronounces as “Gitts”:

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gitts! The future.

That sort of dialogue is a mainstay in the work of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald, but until the collapse of the Production Code was seldom heard in an American movie. And there is more in that final statement of truth than is contained in a hundred “tough” detective pictures of the alleged “Golden Age.”

Towne and Polanski are also artful and canny in their recurrent motifs: Watches, binoculars, camera lenses and other reflective surfaces (most definitely including water) are continually, although not obtrusively, in evidence throughout Chinatown, and that many of these items are the useful appurtenances of the detective’s trade is not incidental. John A. Alonzo’s lustrous cinematography embraces both the dark and the light; indeed, his evocation of 1937 L.A. is cheerfully sun-drenched, the colors both muted and shiny. The picture is among the most beautifully shot and elegantly edited (by Sam O’Steen) of its time, and its evocative sets by Richard Sylbert and exquisite costumes by his sister-in-law Anthea Sylbert are beyond praise. Whatever may be said of Polanski personally — it was only four years after Chinatown‘s release that he infamously seduced a 13-year old girl (in Nicholson’s home) and fled the country to avoid a potential prison term — his value as a filmmaker has seldom been as strongly in evidence as in this characteristically troubling evocation of moral rot. (Ironic, that.) His control of the material, and his unerring eye for the small details that illuminate life, are total, and make their own strong argument in favor of that screenwriter’s despair, the ludicrously and ignorantly misapplied auteur theory.

Chinatown - Dunaway, Nicholson

Nicholson, whose hair loss was increasingly obvious during this period (and is accentuated by the center-parted, patent-leather style he sports as Gittes) has nevertheless seldom looked as beautiful on film as he does here, his physical allure interestingly at odds with the cruder aspects of the character. Gittes is a man less of contradictions than of surfaces (that word again): He affects a cool, suave urbanity with his clients and quarries, but it’s mere patina. The (deliberately un-explained) events of his past, and the loss he incurred through his own misguided chivalry, have both hardened and inflamed him; when he explodes in anger, you sense that passion as something he is at great pains to tamp down, and when it erupts, it’s terrifying.

Chinatown - Nicholson, Dunaway

“My sister… my daughter.”

As the thickly veiled maelstrom at Chinatown‘s center, Faye Dunaway is equally as taut, and as roiled, beneath a chilly exterior. Seldom has this problematic actress’s classical beauty been so pronounced, or so perfectly used. Dunaway uses the character’s reticence as both a shield and a tantalizing clue, such as with her intermittent stutter, most prominent when she says, “my f — my father.” When her manufactured stoicism cracks and her emotionalism breaks through, the effect is devastating. Far more than her award-winning turn in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, in which she is both funny and frightening but is essentially embodying a satirical cartoon, Evelyn Mulwray is Dunaway’s master performance.

John Huston, still very much a working filmmaker at the time of Chinatown‘s release (he was soon to mount his splendid dream project, The Man Who Would Be King) was a marvelous presence in the right role, usually one that called upon both his near-legendary charm and his underlying dangerousness. Orson Welles, so astute in his opinions of actors, got it right I think when he told Peter Bogdanovich that Huston had a certain “loony” quality that was “great in the right part.” Noah Cross is certainly that part. He embodies the languid venality, casual brutality and elegant murderousness that underlies all great fortunes, especially in America, and when he tells Nicholson that, “under the right circumstances, a man is capable of… anything,” you more than believe him. (Towne also gives him a line I suspect Billy Wilder would have been happy to have written: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”)

The supporting cast is an exceptionally rich one, with a clutch of superb character actors embodying the many “types” on which the detective story traditionally depends but making them vital, intrinsic to the enterprise: Perry Lopez as Gittes’ police force nemesis and uneasy informant; John Hillerman as a notably oily bureaucrat; Diane Ladd as a paid imposter; Roy Jenson as a thug with a badge; Dick Bakalyan as another of Gittes’ police rivals; Joe Mantell and Bruce Glover as his detective agency confederates; James Hong as the Mulwray’s poker-faced butler; Burt Young as an over-emotional client (“You can’t eat the blinds, Curly. I just had them installed on Wednesday.”) who is not above a little wife-beating; and, especially, Polanski himself as the terrifying little hood who cuts Gittes’ nose at the city reservoir in the movie’s most intense and unsettling sequence.

Chinatown - knife

Polanski commissioned the interesting Phillip Lambro, who composed an eerie, disturbing score, but ended up being less than enamored with the results after Bronislau Kaper, who had attended a preview, convinced him it hurt the picture. Jerry Goldsmith was then hired to compose a new one. It’s fascinating to compare the two scores, which thanks to a release on the now-defunct Perseverance label (which at the insistence of Paramount Pictures was titled Los Angeles, 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanski) we now can. Lambro captures the picture’s pervasive sense of underlying dis-ease, elegant social rot and increasing menace, and if his approach was less rapturous than Goldsmith’s, many of the tracks are similar in structure to what Goldsmith delivered. This is not to suggest that Goldsmith was guilty of plagiarism, merely that the two composers used approaches that, while similar, were separated by their respective artistic palettes. That Goldsmith’s was the greater talent, and that his gifts for both creating excitement and applying a lush romanticism were superior to Lambro’s, is evident, and proof that he was, ultimately, the right choice for the movie. His sultry saxophone-driven main theme became something of an instant classic, familiar even to those who had never seen the picture. (Although you can hear a sample of Lambro’s compositions on the movie’s official trailer.)

Oddly, Chinatown is misunderstood even by its champions, many of whom slap it with the ludicrous (and vastly ignorant) imprimatur of film noir when it is no such thing. Noirs, so-called, were a product purely of their time — roughly the 1940s and early 1950s — and of the exigencies imposed on the people who made what were often, and with the exception of such possible early examples as The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity (or even, at a stretch, Citizen Kane), low budget quickies whose makers devised ingenious lighting patterns to disguise cheap sets and threadbare amenities. That the shadowy look of these pictures enhanced their dark contours was merely a happy by-product, now seized on by ignoramuses as proof of genius. Explaining this to people who don’t get it is not unlike trying to convince them that the sexual slang term “gunsel” does not mean a cheap hood, and is just as tiring.

And, interestingly, Chinatown‘s deservedly lauded screenplay has been used by others to support their agendas, sometimes in complete opposition, and contradiction. The odious Syd Field for one held it up as a model of the effective scenario even as, in his disastrously influential book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, he urges potential scenarists to eschew all of Chinatown‘s strengths: Its nihilism, its complexity and its avoidance of happy endings. On the other end of the spectrum, Harlan Ellison cited it as a prime example of a director’s meddlesome intrusions ruining(!) a screenwriter’s work, in Polanksi’s revising Towne’s original climax — the very aspect of the picture that everyone remembers, and that gives the movie its overlay of nearly unbearable despair. Towne wrote an ending in which the Huston character is shot by his daughter, who rides off into the night with Gittes. Polanski, whose childhood during the War as a Jewish refugee was said to be the basis of Jerzy Kosinki’s harrowing novel The Painted Bird and whose wife and unborn child were hacked up by maniacs, knew that life is not a movie, and both his ending, and the now-famous (Polanksi-written) words that end the picture (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”) are, I would argue, intrinsic to the movie’s continuing fascination; they’re a large part of what makes it a classic.*

How a man as bright as Ellison could, in his otherwise understandable desire to defend the screenwriter against unwarranted directorial interference, get that one so stunningly wrong is one of one of the great mysteries of modern life.


* Dunaway claims that it was her idea to have the shot that kills Evelyn go through her eye, a metaphor for her own Oedipal state, and that her make-up man designed the gruesome prosthesis used in the scene out of a fake nose once worn by Kim Darby’s double. Knowing Polanski’s sensibilities, that first claim seems highly unlikely.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Chinatown poster

Armchair Theatre 2018

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By Scott Ross

Continuing my reluctant withdrawal from moviegoing, due to perpetual disappointment both with new work and with the new theatre audience — neither of which seems to be improving; indeed, the latter now infects every performance venue in the land — I saw only two pictures in a theatre last year… and they were from the 1970s and ‘80s. Additionally, the summer and autumn of 2018 were for private reasons exceptionally difficult for me, and entertainment was something I was able to devote very little time or attention to. Here’s to a much more movie-intensive 2019, whatever the venue.

And herewith, the movies (and other video items) I did manage to see during the year recently passed.

BOLD                                     Denotes very good… or at least, better than average.
BOLD + Underscore          A personal favorite


1.
Older titles re-viewed on a big theatre screen

the front page - 1974_main title

The Front Page (1974) Thanks to the Carolina Theatre in Durham I was able to add one more Billy Wilder picture to my list of his work seen on a big theatre screen, having missed this adaptation (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) of the Hecht-McArthur perennial when it was first released. I have a complicated relationship with The Front Page: As an adolescent, influenced — as were so many of my generation — by Woodstein, and perhaps even more so by Carl Kolchak, I aspired to be a journalist. My interests eventually led me elsewhere, but that early appreciation of the Fourth Estate remains, even if it has now, as increasing numbers of people have begun to believe, become a fifth column. And no play had a greater influence on popular American culture than this breakneck 1928 farce-melodrama; all of the great newspaper comedies of the 1930s (especially those featuring Lee Tracy, who had the starring role in the play) flowed from its influential fount, and it absolutely cemented our image of the hard-bitten, ink-stained, wisecracking reporter… a figure now utterly obliterated by $30,000-a day neoliberal shills for the Establishment. Yet as much as I admire it, I don’t find the play especially funny, except in the 1940 Howard Hawks variation His Girl Friday, and that’s due largely to the charm of Cary Grant, the fast-talking zing of Rosalind Russell and the fizz they spark off each other. (The final line is funny, but once you know it, it’s not one that elicits much of a laugh next time around.) The newsmen depicted are, in the main, appalling — less the bulwark of free-press democracy than shabby, cynical hacks more concerned with snappy headlines than with anything approaching the truth. Some would no doubt argue that’s the point of the thing, but the authors clearly intended the play as a paean to the type, not a critique. That their star characters, Hildy Johnson and his unscrupulous editor Walter Burns, eventually manage to keep a corrupt Chicago mayor and sheriff in check is almost by-the-by; they wouldn’t do so unless their own liberty was at stake. That’s not to mention the casual bigotry of the piece: The word “nigger” is used by some of the reporters when “colored,” the general nomenclature of the time, not only would do, but did, elsewhere in the play, and the character of Bensinger is the piss-elegant pansy type prevalent in the ‘20s and ‘30s, all too easily ridiculed, and ridiculous. That Wilder and Diamond not only didn’t improve on that stereotype in 1974 but actually embellished it, making a cute young cub reporter (Jon Korkes) the object of Bensinger’s attentions, is a mark against their movie. (An end-credits post-script reveals — presumably for a boffo laugh… which, sadly, it probably got from a 1974 audience — they’ve left the newspaper business and opened an antique shop together. Why not a florist’s while you’re at it?) As was their wont when adapting material by others, Wilder and Diamond made a number of changes to the original, and some critics were unreceptive; Wilder later admitted that he hadn’t understood how deeply venerated the play still was. It’s a lively enough transliteration, with a fine performance by Walter Matthau as Burns, a good one by Jack Lemmon as Hildy despite his being too old for the role, and a controversial turn by Carol Burnett as Molly Malloy. (She famously apologized, to a planeload of passengers whose in-flight entertainment it was, for her performance.) Yes, she’s strident, but she’s also vulnerable, although not nearly as endearing as Austin Pendleton as the convict Earl Williams, whose imminent execution and eventual escape sets the plot (which Walter Kerr memorably described as “a watch that laughed”) in motion. And some of the scenarists’ alterations are pleasing, such their stab at making the role of Hildy’s fiancée less thankless, and casting the young Susan Sarandon in the part. There is also excellent support by Charles Durning, Alan Garfield, Dick O’Neill and Herb Edelman (as Hildy’s fellow reporters), a blustery Vincent Gardenia (was there any other kind of Vincent Gardenia?) as Sheriff Hartman, a suave Harold Gould as the Mayor, Paul Benedict as the emissary from the governor, and wonderful old Doro Merande as the Criminal Courts Building custodian Jennie. As Bensinger, alas, David Wayne makes the worst of a bad job. While largely set-bound, the picture has a rich look to it, and there’s even a wild Keystone Kops-like chase through the Chicago streets. The opening credit sequence, set to a spritely Billy May rag (the production company was Universal, no doubt keen to have another Sting-like radio smash on its hands) and depicting the mechanized assembling of a newspaper from page one typeset to completed broadside, is a two and half-minute gem.


the-changeling-ghostballer

The Changeling (1980) A beautiful rumination on the basic ghost story. Its admittedly thin screenplay is augmented by the usual marvelous George C. Scott performance, rare intelligence behind the camera — the director was the underrated Peter Madek — and a remarkably rich musical score (mostly by Ken Wannberg, with an assist from Rick Wilkens, anchored to an exquisite little music box theme by Howard Blake.) It’s one of those movies that has seen extremes of response: Dismissed, when not bludgeoned, by the critical fraternity on its 1980 release, it was restored and reissued in 2018 to ludicrous over-praise by people who can only deal in absolutes, and in an eminently dismissible interrogatory style: “Is The Changeling the most terrifying movie ever made?” The answer, even for partisans of the picture such as myself, is no. Not even close. But that hardly disqualifies the picture from being seen, and embraced, as a stylish — and surprisingly plangent — exercise in supernatural emotionalism that rewards repeated viewing. Thanks to my friend Eliot Camarena for suggesting this one to me a few years back.



2. Documentary

I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1973) Jerry Bruck, Jr.’s illuminating portrait of the fiercely idiosyncratic progressive journalist and, for many years, publisher of the eponymous newsletter still considered among the best, and most reliable, of progressive American news and opinion journals. Viewed courtesy of a kind friend who for the last several years has been my personal source for previously undiscovered (at least by me) cinematic gems.

untold history - showtime
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States
(2012) A staggeringly effective multipart examination of the dark underbelly of our history no American public school educator will touch: This one-time Republic’s century-plus evolution into the world’s most avaricious, and murderously dangerous, empire. Reactionaries, conservatives, liberals and their corporatist ilk will, if they sample it, no doubt sputter with impotent fury. And even for those of us who’ve been paying attention these last few decades, the revelations on display here will astonish and enrage. Yet even after 12 exhaustively documented hours* (and which feel more like two) neither Stone nor his co-authors Peter Kuznick and Matt Graham succumbs entirely to despair, and their Untold History is, finally, an impassioned call to arms that refuses to admit the defeat of essential values… provided we want them badly enough to fight for their reinstatement. “The record of the American Empire is not a pretty one,” they write. “But it is one that must be faced honestly and forthrightly if the United States is ever to undertake the fundamental structural reforms that will allow it to play a leading role in advancing rather than retarding the progress of humanity.” The Untold History is a vital step in facing that record. Now: Is there the popular will to make the changes we need?


Rush to Judgment (1967) This collaboration between the radical American documentarian Emile de Antonio and the Warren Report-debunking Mark Lane is in essence a 98-minute cinematic edition of the latter’s bestselling jeremiad of the same year. Lane’s is the research on which fifty years of responsible investigation into the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and its subsequent and violent cover-up, are based. And, as nearly as I can determine, none of his central findings have in the intervening decades been proven incorrect.


Directed by John Ford (2006 edit) Peter Bogdanovich revisited his lovely 1971 documentary/overview in 2006. Alas, his new interview footage (with Clint Eastwood and Harry Carey, Jr.), shot on video, lacks, as Joseph McBride correctly noted in his review, the “vibrant look” and “elegant mobility” of their earlier counterparts. Nor does Eastwood add anything of value to what was observed originally by John Wayne, James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara and Henry Fonda. Still, the prickly sessions with Ford himself, the representative sequences Bogdanovich lovingly culled from his pictures, and the original Orson Welles narration are evergreen, and certainly reason enough to revisit this very personal Valentine to perhaps this most American (in both the good and bad connotations of the word) of 20th century filmmakers.



3. Video/Made for Television

Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me
(2009) A pleasant, if not especially inspired, Clint Eastwood-produced TCM centenary portrait of our finest pop lyricist.

night-stalker-blu-ray-1000-01
The Night Stalker
(1972) 
No American made-for-television movie had a higher viewership in its time than this wonderful, and genuinely scary, adaptation by Richard Matheson of a then-unpublished Jeff Rice novel, and it has lost little of its power, or its humor, in the decades since. The inspired casting of, and performance by, Darren McGavin as pain-in-the-ass investigative reporter (remember them?) Carl Kolchak is half the fun, and the supporting roles are no less vividly limned: Simon Oakland as his dyspeptic editor; Ralph Meeker as that oxymoron, a helpful FBI agent; Elisha Cook, Jr.’s professional snitch; Peggy Rea’s cameo as a switchboard operator bribable with foodstuffs; Larry Linville’s no-nonsense coroner; Charles McGraw’s polished, slippery Chief of Las Vegas police; and Barry Atwater, cunningly revealed in stages by the director, John Llewellyn Moxey, as the vampire. There’s also a terrific score by Dan Curtis’ house composer Robert Corbert. The new Kino Blu-Ray restoration is mouth-watering, making The Night Stalker look as good as it must have when first aired. My favorite bit of Kolchakian rhetoric (“Now, that is news, Vincezo. News! And we are a newspaper! We’re supposed to print news, not suppress it!”) is one that has, thanks to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Bill of 1996 and the subsequent, nearly total corporate takeover of all news media, become even more sadly pertinent.

The Night Strangler (1973) This inevitable sequel to The Night Stalker is nowhere near as good as its record-breaking predecessor, and pointed up the major flaw of the subsequent weekly series: That supernatural crimes keep popping up wherever Carl Kolchak goes, and that only he believes in them. But it’s atmospheric as hell, what with its remarkable abandoned city beneath the streets of Seattle, from whence a new serial murderer emerges. And it has McGavin and Matheson (not to mention Simon Oakland) and that’s almost enough. It also has a feast of fine supporting roles embodied by Scott Brady, Wally Cox, John Carradine, Al Lewis, Margaret Hamilton, Jo Ann Pflug as Kolchak’s co-conspirator, and Richard Anderson as the urbane villain. Dan Curtis directed this one, and it’s also out in a sumptuous-looking Kino Blu-Ray.


The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy (2012) If, as I do, you can’t quite imagine life without the mad, unbridled wit of Mr. Brooks, this Shout! Factory set is five discs of bliss. (Six, if you count the accompanying CD. Which isn’t to mention the nifty hardcover book.) The DVDs consist of Brooks’ television appearances, an uproarious reunion interview with Dick Cavett, a five-part Mel and His Movies documentary, shorts (including Brooks’ and Ernest Pintoff’s Academy Award-winning The Critic) and even episodes of Get Smart! (one show is enough to make us wonder why we loved it so much in the ‘60s), When Things Were Rotten (which is no better now than it was in 1974) and Mad About You. There is never such a thing as too much Mel Brooks but even if there were, this set would support Mae West’s contention that too much of a good thing can be wonderful.



4. Seen a second… and final… time

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) Robert Altman and co-scenarist Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Arthur Kopit’s trenchant, theatrical play Indians lost much in the translation, and the result is an occasionally diverting mess. A fine cast (Paul Newman, Joel Grey, Burt Lancaster, Geraldine Chaplin, Kevin McCarthy, Harvey Keitel) flounders in material too diffuse to have a discernible shape or point of view.


Von Ryan’s Express (1965) Joseph Landon and the redoubtable Wendell Mayes adapted David Westheimer’s fascinating World War II thriller, and lost thereby much of what made it enthralling. To their credit, they kept the central figure’s prickly, unlikable character, and their star, Frank Sinatra, never winks at the audience. But the ending, which sacrifices Colonel Ryan on the altar of carnage, and which has no correspondence in Westheimer’s book, is wholly unnecessary. Mark Robson directed crisply, Trevor Howard makes a good foil for Sinatra, Vitto Scotti shows up as a train engineer, and the propulsive score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of his finest early works.


The Black Cauldron (1985) When I saw this animated Disney adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain pentalogy on its release, I found it exceptionally impressive visually but largely uninvolving on a human level. In the intervening years I read, and fell in love with, Alexander’s entrancing series of novels for young people, so seeing the picture again was dispiriting. The novelist’s scope is Tolkeinean in its breadth, characterization and action, and 80 minutes is too skimpy a running-time to even begin encompassing it. But the books are as well deeply moving, something the movie never is, even with an illogical tear-jerker of a climax added on. The action takes in only a small set of events from, essentially, the first and second novels in the series, and the vast canvas of characters has been reduced to a mere handful, with one major figure (the Horned King’s tiny henchman Creeper) created out of whole cloth. Or ink-and-paint, as may be. One could go on at length, but why bother? Elmer Bernstein composed a splendid score, and young Grant Bardsley makes a properly questing Taran. The other voices include Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, Arthur Malet, Billie Hayes, John Hurt (as the Horned King) and John Byner, very fine as Gurgi. Among the familiar Disney names associated with the picture are Roy Disney (dialogue), John Musker and Ron Clements (story), and, in the animation department, Ruben Aquino, Hendel Butoy, Pixote Hunt, Glen Keane, John Lasseter, Rob Minkoff, Phil Nebbelink, George Scribner and Andreas Deja, all of whom would go on to far better things.



5. New to Me: Meh

bye bye braverman - godfrey cambridgeBye Bye, Braverman
(1968) This adaptation by Herb Sargent of Wallace Markfield’s 1964 novel, directed by Sidney Lumet, is richly populated with wonderful actors (George Segal, Jack Warden, Joseph Wiseman, Sorrell Booke, Phyllis Newman) and is on a certain level a vivid comic depiction of 1960s New York Jewish intellectuals. Sargent’s screenplay elides some of the archness of Markfield’s self-consciously (and, to my ear, anachronistic) “Jewish” dialogue, but, alas, is no more substantial, and its climax is even wispier. Godfrey Cambridge does have a marvelous scene as a cabbie, and Alan King gets a sly satirical sequence as a pompous Rabbi.


The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots (1970) Another Lumet adaptation, by Gore Vidal this time, and of a Tennessee Williams flop (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) is the last word in weird. And although Robert Hooks is, as always, excellent, his presence as the mulatto bastard brother of James Coburn’s shabby white racist makes a hash of the action, since “Chicken” is supposed only to be somewhat dark-skinned, and not, as depicted here, obviously black. Lynn Redgrave gives a winning account of Myrtle, Coburn is fascinating, and the thing was shot, beautifully, by James Wong Howe. But it’s a curio merely, and a rather disagreeable one.


The Cowboys (1972) A real misfire. William Dale Jennings’ sumptuous novel (based on his own rejected original screenplay) was turned, by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., into a crude, morally objectionable revisionist Western, the ambiguity of the original lost by the appalling placement of John Williams’ rousing “Cowboys” theme at a crucial juncture. John Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne almost triumph over this unsavory mélange, unimaginatively directed by Mark Rydell. But Bruce Dern, as the chief villain, wallows in overstated ugliness.

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Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster

Executive Action (1973) What might have been a galvanizing fictionalized critique of accepted wisdom on the assassination of John Kennedy was turned in its pre-production into an oddly tame affair. The original script, by the JFK assassination researcher Mark Lane and the playwright Donald Freed (cf., the Nixonian fantasia Secret Honor, filmed by Robert Altman) and later adapted by them into a compelling paperback novel, made no bones about CIA involvement in Kennedy’s murder. The subsequent screenplay, by Dalton Trumbo, muddies these waters to the point of nearly complete opacity: From which shadowy organization, if any, is Burt Lancaster’s team derived, if not directed? Your guess would be as good as mine. Lane and Freed also focus their narrative very effectively on two of the conspirators’ descending life spirals, both of which the picture eschews, to its ultimate detriment. That said, the sight of three old Hollywood lefties (Lancaster, Will Geer and Robert Ryan, whose last film this was) as sinister reactionary collaborators holds a sly kick.


Play Misty for Me (1971) Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut is a time-capsule movie in any number of ways: As a depiction of the artistic colony of Carmel, California (where Eastwood resides, and was once a bar-owner — and later the mayor) at the beginning of the 1970s; the hair, autos, interior design and clothing of the time; the emergent style of Hollywood filmmaking as practiced by bright young directors feeling their oats; and, perhaps most interestingly, as an example of a narrative form that would no doubt be greeted with howls and Twitterized hisses today. “What? A thriller with a knife-wielding psycho… and she’s a woman? How dare they? And Eastwood goes to bed with her and then dumps her just because she’s a little unstable? #Hatred for the Mentally Ill! Maybe it was men like him who made her crazy! So she stabs his housekeeper — does that make her a bad person? (His Black housekeeper. #Racist!) And then he punches her? #Abuse! #Sexist Pig!” Never mind that one of the screenwriters (Jo Helms, who also crafted the story) was a woman. (The other was Dean Riesner.) Much more to the point is that fact that Eastwood’s character, an FM jazz d.j., behaves in such a demonstrably stupid manner throughout the rising action. And his directorial flourishes date the picture far more than the actors’ clothing, reaching their nadir in a soft-focus romantic montage with Donna Mills, set to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which became a Top 40 hit. There is a nice sequence at the Monterey Jazz Festival, a narrative development obviously close to the director’s heart, Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel shows up in a pair of nice bits as a barkeep and Jessica Walter does wonders with a character so frighteningly mercurial you wonder why her co-star doesn’t take out an immediate restraining order against her. But then, if he had, there might not be any movie. (I said he was stupid.) The great Bruce Surtees was the cinematographer.


Broken Arrow (1950) This early attempt at being fair to Native Americans — the screenwriter, uncredited until decades later, was the then-recently blacklisted Albert Maltz — is overly earnest, stilted in its dialogue (which James Stewart’s opening narration hastens to warn us is due to the Apache language being spoken solely in English) and, while beautifully shot in color by Ernest Palmer, was directed with no distinction whatsoever by Delmer Daves, whose oeuvre only a confirmed Sarrisite could love. Jeff Chandler, whose stardom has always seemed to me one of American cinema’s great enigmas, is Cochise. The best one can say is that at least he doesn’t embarrass himself. Debra Paget is rather lovely as Stewart’s eventual Apache bride, and Will Geer — himself about to be blacklisted — has a small, showy role as an angry settler. Mickey Kuhn, who memorably played Montgomery Clift as a boy in the early part of Red River, also appears, as Geer’s son. Stewart, alas, has little to tax him histrionically until late in the picture.


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Night Passage (1957) I’ve seldom seen a good Western novel so thoroughly — and, to my mind, perversely and irresponsibly — ruined by Hollywood as what the makers of this one did to Norman A. Fox’s remarkable little book. But either the producer or the screenwriter (the redoubtable Borden Chase) removed the guts from Fox’s story, one that couldn’t have been more of a ready-made movie if it had been typed in screenplay format. A terrific picture could, and should, have been made from it, preferably in black-and-white, but neither Chase nor James Neilson, the ploddingly literal director, trusted what they had. There’s not even more than a few minutes’ worth of night in the damn thing… and that with a director of photography as certifiably great as William H. Daniels! Audie Murphy gives a good account of the nominal villain; you get the sense that he, at least, read the book. But Brandon deWilde, while game, is years too young for a role that should have been cast with an adolescent, and Dan Duryea is truly dreadful; the characteristic habit of his role is laughter, but each time Duryea breaks into it, the braying result is as phony as the backdrops the actors are framed against in the medium shots and close-ups. As good as James Stewart is in the lead, he’d have been twice as effective if more of Fox had made it onto the screen. Indeed, the only actor in Night Passage who’s a true breath of fresh air is Olive Carey, and it’s notable that her character, a wise, cheerful old muleskinner, wasn’t in the novel at all. The picture reaches its creative nadir in an added sequence that probably pained Norman Fox as much as, if not more than, what they took out of his book: A would-be comic brawl among querulous Irish laborers that is no funnier here than it was the many times John Ford attempted it, usually with Victor McLaglen. An extended sequence, on a moving train-car, provides the only real suspense in the picture: You keep looking at Stewart and deWilde, and those rushing waters far down below, and wondering how much insurance was issued on the actors.


6. New to Me: Worth (or More Than Worth) the Trip

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From Noon ‘Til Three (1976) Frank D. Gilroy wrote and directed this delightful Rashomon-like parable, from his own ingenious little novel, which takes off from variations on what may have happened between a bank robber and a young widow during a crucial three-hour liaison. Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland are surprisingly charming as the lovers, and if the finale is less downbeat than the climax of the book its payoff is in its way no less pointed. Elmer Bernstein composed the delicious score, and the lyrics to his eponymous waltz are by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. (Bernstein and Alan Bergman appear on-screen as early Tin Pan Alley hacks, plugging the song.) Lucien Ballard added his usual luminous cinematography, and the Twilight Time Blu-Ray transfer makes splendid show of it.


Violent Saturday (1955) A good crime drama depicting the planning of a bank robbery in a mining town that gets a lift from the performances of Stephen McNally, Richard Egan, Sylvia Sidney, J. Carrol Naish, Margaret Hayes, Tommy Noonan and Lee Marvin. Sydney Boehm wrote it, from a novel by William L. Heath, and it’s crisply directed by Richard Fleischer. With its small town full of adulterous dames, peeping Toms and kleptomaniac librarians, the picture suggests what might have happened had Richard Stark written Peyton Place. Charles G. Clarke provided vivid Technicolor® cinematography, Hugo Friedhofer composed the taut and intelligently-spotted suspense score, and there’s a spectacular finale at a farmhouse owned by, of all people, Ernest Borgnine in an Amish beard and accent. Victor Mature, playing a man embarrassed that his son thinks he’s a coward, struggles manfully with a lousy part. He doesn’t overcome it, although he fares rather better with the villains.


The Crucible (1996) This excellent Nicholas Hytner-directed film of the 1953 Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials — and, in part, the playwright’s response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities — when seen in the years since the Democrats instigated a brand-new Red Scare on “evidence” no more substantial than that concocted by the terrified young Salemite Abigail Williams, carries with it a new and unavoidable metaphor: Hillary Clinton is Abigail.


The Landlord (1970) Hal Ashby’s directorial debut is a determinedly quirky take on what used, rather prettily in America, to be called “race relations.” The perennially under-rated Beau Bridges plays a wealthy ne’er-do-well who capriciously buys a Brooklyn apartment building, selfishly concerned only with refurbishing his own apartment and utterly unprepared for the wild array of his new black tenants, whom he plans to evict. The superb cast includes Diana Sands, Lee Grant, Pearl Bailey, Lou Gossett Jr., Mel Stewart and Robert Klein. Kristin Hunter wrote the novel on which the actor and playwright Bill Gunn based his cutting screenplay. Gordon Willis was the cinematographer.


The Public Eye (1992) Howard Franklin wrote and directed this beautifully photographed (by Peter Suschitzky) attempt at a latter-day, albeit period, film noir, basing the central character played by Joe Pesci on the idiosyncratic photojournalist Arthur Felling, aka “Weegee.” It doesn’t entirely work either as a character study or as a thriller, but it’s a highly original conceit, and Pesci, who has a tendency to repeat himself, is refreshingly restrained here. The always interesting Barbara Hershey also stars, and Stanley Tucci has a fine role as a hood with a conscience. Some of Wegee’s distinctive photos are featured, along with work by others.


Hombre (1967) One of several collaborations between Martin Ritt and the aforementioned screenwriters Ravetch and Frank, this one based on an Elmore Leonard Western. It’s an expansive movie, shot by the great James Wong Howe in widescreen and muted color, but doesn’t, finally, add up to a great deal. Paul Newman is the eponymous anti-hero, a taciturn young Caucasian raised by Apaches, and his performance is very nearly silent. It’s the kind of thing Steve McQueen made a fetish of, but that was due to his own well-deserved insecurities as an actor; you’ve only to picture any of McQueen’s defining roles with Newman instead, to comprehend the gulf that lay between them. Only a performer of Newman’s range and seriousness could really pull off the conceit, and he’s splendid here, as is the rather astonishing supporting cast: Frederic March, Diane Cilento, Cameron Mitchell, Martin Balsam, David Canary and, especially, the great Richard Boone. If not an ideal movie, it’s certainly an intelligent one.

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Tom Sawyer: Huck and Tom eavesdrop on their own funeral.

Tom Sawyer (1973) Conceived and written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman and financed by, of all things, The Reader’s Digest, this musical variation on Mark Twain turns out to be a welcome, and very pleasant, surprise. Johnny Whittaker is Tom to the life, especially in the delightful fence-painting sequence; with his curly mass of strawberry hair and those half-attractive/half-ordinary features, Whittaker passes for a young Sam Clemens, which is who Tom is anyway. As Becky Thatcher, Jodie Foster (in only her third film appearance) is already poised and appealing; and Celeste Holm is the Aunt Polly of one’s fondest dreams, exasperated and warm in equal measure. The Shermans elevated Muff Potter to featured status, giving Warren Oates a chance to shine (although his vocals were dubbed) and the supporting cast includes Jeff East, very good as Huckleberry Finn; Lucille Benson as the Widow Douglas; Henry Jones as the cane-wielding pedagogue; and, as “Injun Joe,” the impressive Kunu Hank (no actor, his entire performance was dubbed). It’s about as likable a piece of Americana as you could wish, and the Sherman songs are their distinctive, patented mix of word-drunk whimsy (“Gratifaction”) and incisive character writing (“Tom Sawyer,” “How Come?,” “If’n I Was God,” “Aunt Polly’s Soliloquy”). My only real complaint concerns the cavern sequence, too brightly lit to achieve the terror intended; the 1938 David O. Selznick version got it much better, and remains one of the most frightening memories of my life as a children’s matinee moviegoer in the late 1960s. (Obviously, Injun Joe is dispatched in a less grisly manner in both pictures than the truly nightmarish demise Twain gave him in his book.) The director, Don Taylor, shot the picture in Missouri, and his approach to the material — and indeed, that material itself — never falls into the elephantiasis that doomed so many movie musicals of the time. There’s a marvelous, long helicopter tracking shot of Whitaker running through fields toward the Mississippi to meet the steamboat docking there which is as lovely as it is exuberant; the airy, attractive cinematography is by Frank Stanley, and looks especially good in the Twilight Time Blu-Ray. John Williams supervised the music and also served, with Irwin Kostel, as orchestrator. The movie does contain an odd detail, one that would never pass muster today: When, in their duet ”Freebootin’,” Tom and Huck swim naked off Jackson’s Island, the camera catches, almost gratuitously, what seem to be deliberate (if brief) glimpses of their bare bottoms thrust above the water. We can tell they’re not wearing anything in the sequence; what was the point of embarrassing adolescent actors that way?


Huckleberry Finn (1974) Also featured on the Twilight Time Tom Sawyer release, this inevitable sequel fails on nearly every level. Yet somehow you don’t hate it. Sawyer’s producer, Arthur P. Jacobs, died before the picture began shooting, and his absence is felt throughout, especially as the director, J. Lee Thompson, clearly had no idea how a musical should be shot. László Kovács’ cinematography is gorgeous, but the predominance of muddy tones (and mud itself), while appropriate to a story set on the Mississippi, is at variance with the material. It might work for a straight adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it’s disastrous for a musical. And Thompson’s staging is no help either; when the Duke and the King (David Wayne and Harvey Korman) are introduced with an energetic soft-shoe, they’re reduced to stomping around in the mud; what should soar with comic invention merely lies there, inert and gasping for air. As Huckleberry Finn is not merely one of my favorite novels but a cornerstone of American literature, I was surprised that the picture didn’t offend me. But the technique that worked so well for the Sherman Brothers on Tom Sawyer — they called it “A Musical Adaptation” rather than attempting a perfect transliteration — doesn’t suit this book, whose incidents are so well-remembered, and so crucial to the narrative, that variations can only disappoint. The death of Colonel Grangerford (Arthur O’Connell) in the feud here, for instance, simply lacks the heartbreak and horror of young Buck Grangerford’s murder, witnessed by Huck. (When Buck himself appears, it is not as the Colonel’s grandson, but as a black boy slave.) Nor is there anything in the picture as horrific as the tarring-and-feathering of the King and the Duke. Worse, the Shermans, having omitted the attempted lynching of Colonel Sherburn, give some of his lines to the King! East, whose second picture this was, is unable to breathe much life into a character whose struggles are largely internal, and not well illuminated in the screenplay, and Paul Winfield makes a dignified and endearing Jim, but the movie lets them both down; at the end they simply part and the picture fades off into nothingness. Korman and Wayne probably come off best, although Gary Merrill’s brief turn as Pap is properly unpleasant, and Natalie Trundy has a nice cameo as Mrs. Loftus. But the Sherman songs are a great deal less buoyant and memorable than those in Tom Sawyer. I suspect the material, darker and more pointed, was simply not a part of their creative wheelhouse.


Run of the Arrow (1957) Samuel Fuller’s examination of race in post-Civil War America focuses on an Irish Confederate (Rod Steiger) who, refusing to accept Lee’s surrender, turns his back on white civilization. If you admire this most idiosyncratic of writer-directors, as I do, this one is essential viewing. Astonishingly, there are those now who don’t get that Steiger deliberately loses his accent when speaking Sioux when it’s blazingly obvious Fuller intended these dialogues, as the makers of Broken Arrow did, as representing the Siouan language in English. They think it’s just bad acting. Christ, how unbelievably obtuse Americans have become!

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The Tamarind Seed
(1974)
Blake Edwards’ return to filmmaking following his disastrous experiences on Darling Lili, Wild Rovers and The Carey Treatment is a fascinating, intelligent and very effective little romantic thriller (from a good novel by Evelyn Anthony) on Cold War tensions. It’s bright, tense, well-conceived and often witty, with good performances from Julie Andrews, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle and a brief but extremely effective John Barry score.

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The Traveling Executioner (1970)
Had Gerrie Bateson written The Traveling Executioner as a novel rather than a screenplay, it might have been hailed as a modern neo-Southern Gothic black comedy on a par with the best of Flannery O’Connor. The picture, directed by Jack Smight, has the feel of the form, and if it’s difficult to imagine quite how it could ever have caught on with a large audience, then or now, it’s also in its small way superior to the later, much-heralded John Huston adaptation of O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Bateson, whose only movie this was (he wrote a Night Gallery and a Mission: Impossible before disappearing from the business forever) completed it for a film-school assignment, and it exhibits a smart novice’s go-for-broke quality. It’s ruthlessly efficient, rather like the device the smirkingly-named Jonas Candide (Stacey Keach) creates for quick penal executions, and carries through without compromise from its premise to its unsettling climax. Keach, fresh from Arthur Kopit’s play Indians and with his long hair worn in an anachronistic ponytail, is splendid, never appealing for audience sympathy as a less secure performer might. Although the tone veers from knockabout comedy to genuine tragedy, the picture feels entirely of a piece. My only cavil is with the ending, in which the dejected mortician played by Bud Cort takes on Jonas’ persona, and takes over his job. Having botched things so spectacularly, what state — even a backwards Deep Southern one — would let him continue executing felons? The Jerry Goldsmith score is a marvel, ranging from a circus-like waltz theme whose calliope gives way to an ersatz Gospel hymn, to a tender, moving accompaniment for Jonas’ soothing verbal depictions for his victims of an annealing vision he calls “The Fields of Ambrosia.” Love it or hate it, it’s certainly unlike any other movie you’ll ever see.


The Comancheros (1961) A big, colorful, episodic John Wayne vehicle that never takes itself seriously for a moment, and doesn’t ask you to either, and all the more likable for that. (Although Wayne’s character was subservient to that of Stuart Whitman’s in the Paul I. Wellman novel on which it was based.) The backstory is in some ways even more interesting than the picture — see the Wikipedia entry — and it was the final work of Michael Curtiz, whose illness forced him to withdraw during shooting; Wayne himself completed the movie. Clair Huffaker’s script was eventually re-written by Wayne stalwart James Edward Grant when the actor was cast in a role intended first for James Garner. The flavorsome cast includes Ina Balin, Bruce Cabot, Jack Elam, Jack Buchanan, Gwinn “Big Boy” Williams, and Henry Daniell. Nehemiah Persoff makes an elegant, wheelchair-bound villain, and Lee Marvin is both amusing and frightening as a mercurial, whip-wielding gun-runner who, scalped by Comanches, wears his remaining hair in a long braid down one side of his head. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score in his characteristic Big Western mode, and it’s a honey, rousing and relentlessly melodic.


Wall Street (1987) Although supposedly made in tribute to his stockbroker father, Oliver Stone’s movie is really a disgusted response to the bald, grasping greed of the Reagan era. And while Michael Douglas is perhaps my least favorite actor of his generation, I must admit he has a feel — come by naturally, one presumes — for embodying sleaziness. I am if anything less enamored still of Charlie Sheen, Martin’s less gifted son, but even he is in good form here, as Bud Fox, an ambitious young trader who willingly allows himself to become corrupt. (Is it coincidental that he shares the first name of Jack Lemmon’s equally climbing would-be junior executive in The Apartment?) Martin Sheen himself provides splendid contrast as Bud’s honest dad, Hal Holbrook has some nice moments as a seasoned broker, James Karen is solid as Bud’s predictably mercurial boss, and Terence Stamp does well by an icy corporate raider. Only Darryl Hanna proves a true embarrassment; in her big break-up scene with the younger Sheen, she’s appalling. Whatever his limitations as an actor, he’s trying to do honor to the moment, but she gives him nothing to play against. Stone, who wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser, has a fine feeling for the trappings and appurtenances of the time and place, although when the picture ends you may find yourself shrugging with indifference at the whole thing.

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Gazarra and Bogdanovich. Two pimps. At least Jack’s whores give pleasure.

Saint Jack (1979) Largely ignored on its release, and barely given a chance to find an audience, this adaptation by Peter Bogdanovich, Howard Sackler and Paul Theroux of the latter’s caustic picaresque novel set in the Singapore of the 1960s and early ‘70s is beautifully made and wonderfully acted, especially by its star, Ben Gazzara, who gives a performance in which every word and sparing gesture is so honest we feel like eavesdroppers. Bogdanovich and his collaborators — although presumably not Theroux — deviate from the book’s structure (it’s both linear and temporally fragmented) and its events in substantial ways, particularly in their depiction of the Hong Kong-based accountant played with understated garrulity by Denholm Elliott; he dies early in the novel, but pops up repeatedly in the picture, and since Elliott is so pleasing a presence, even Theroux devotees may not mind.  Bogdanovich himself shows up, in a coldly effective portrayal as a wealthy fixer. (Amusingly, his ever-present aide and chauffeur walks as if he has a stick shoved permanently up his ass.) George Lazenby appears late in the movie as a liberal Senator, the unintentional means of Jack’s redemption. Interestingly, Bogdanovich changes the odd but essentially innocent liaison between the politician and a young woman Jack is supposed to spy on into one between Lazenby and a native rent-boy, making Jack’s rejection of the plot even more pointed. I say “interestingly” because Bogdanovich has seemed in his writing to be at best rather uneasy with homoeroticism. Robby Müller photographed the picture, beautifully, on location.


The Immortal Story (1968 — Criterion) Orson Welles’ intriguing adaptation, for French television, of the Isak Dinesen story was his first project not filmed in black-and-white. And while he disdained color, he shortly became a master of it; his subsequent F for Fake is the most beautiful of movies, and among the most pictorially splendid of Welles’ own work. Welles was also a realist, and he understood that color was increasingly important to distribution, indeed the dominant mode of world cinema, and especially, television. (The Immortal Story was shot by Willy Kurant.) Welles appears as the wealthy catalyst of the events, Roger Coggio is his ambiguous aide-de-camp, Norman Eshley is the virginal young sailor and the luminous Jeanne Moreau is the impecunious woman at the center. Since I have not read Dinesen’s story, I am not sure what is missing in the loss of authorial voice, and indeed I would like to know how Dinesen ends the narrative, because I’m not at all certain how I am supposed to feel, and what it all means. On that basis — one of the most basic to movies — The Immortal Story must, I suppose, be accounted an artistic failure; a picture that depends on our understanding of the story it is based on and cannot express its own intentions clearly enough to stand on its own is not a success. Or perhaps I’m just thick-headed. Despite the foregoing, anything Welles put his name to is, perforce, worth seeing, and more than once. I’m sure I’ll be watching this one again… although I also suspect that it, like his adaptation of The Trial, will never be a personal favorite.



7. Revisited with pleasure

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Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale in various attitudes of perplex, phony grief and calculation.

The Death of Stalin (2017) Armando Iannucci co-wrote (with David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows) and directed this at once hilarious and horrifying black comedy based on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, and it’s one of the finest — and funniest — political satires in motion picture history. Granting there haven’t been that many of those takes nothing away from this audacious, witty, occasionally shocking and blazingly intelligent movie. Even the casting amuses: When Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor show up (as, respectively, Khrushchev, Molotov and Malenkov) they elicit sly chuckles. There is, however, nothing remotely amusing about Simon Russell Beale’s chilling performance as the appalling Lavrentiy Beria. Rat-like both in action and physiognomy (courtesy of some superb prosthesis by Kristyan Mallett), pathologically sadistic and lethally efficient, Beale’s Beria is a genuine sociopath who only exhibits human feeling when it’s his own neck on the line. Buscemi and Tambor take top honors among the comedians but the entire picture is beautifully cast, with standout work especially from Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina. Foolishly, “Me Too” accusations against Tambor led to the producers erasing him from the poster while the picture was still in theatres. One wonders where this insanity will end. With Errol Flynn being digitally erased from The Sea Hawk, presumably.


Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) An enjoyable farce starring James Caan, Elliott Gould, Diane Keaton and Michael Caine whose screenplay, one gathers, was muddled by that hack Mark Rydell; Caan averred Rydell “completely” re-wrote what he called a “wonderful script” — by John Byrum, with later revisions by Robert Kaufman and Don Devlin — adding, “The director sacrificed jokes to tell a story no one cared about.” (Leslie Anne Warren, who is featured in the deliberately overripe, and amusingly sabotaged, play-within-the-film, claimed she couldn’t get work for five years after the picture opened.) If you approach this period farce with appropriately lowered expectations it’s buoyant and engaging, if not especially hilarious. The muted ending is another detraction, turning as it does Keaton’s radical newspaper publisher into a rank, gold-digging opportunist. Among the delicious supporting cast: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Michael Conrad, Burt Young, Bert Remsen and the always delightful Jack Gilford. The early 1900s décor is sumptuous, heightened by the burnished cinematography of László Kovács and the bouncy score is by the great David Shire, who also appears, briefly, as the blasé pianist accompanying Harry and Walter’s vaudeville act.


The Front Page (1931) The first time I saw this Lewis Milestone-directed version of the Hecht and McArthur play, in an admittedly poor print, it seemed to me one of those creaky, set-bound early talkies that illustrated why the camera needed to be freed from the tyranny of the sweat-box microphone. But the restored edition, made available on Criterion’s splendid recent release of His Girl Friday, showed me just how wrong I was. Culling footage from the domestic, British and foreign versions of the picture, and a 35mm print from the Howard Hughes Collection struck from the original nitrate negative in 1970, the Academy Film Archive re-assembled and restored the movie to spectacular life. Although Lee Tracy, the original Hildy Johnson, was engaged elsewhere in Hollywood (and playing very similar roles) Pat O’Brien makes a suitable substitute, and that insufferable old reactionary Adolphe Menjou is a very credible Walter Burns. Best among the supporting cast are Walter Catlett (as Murphy), Mae Clarke (Molly Malloy), Slim Summerville (Pincus), Frank McHugh (McCue) and, as Bensinger, the peerless Edward Everett Horton.


Harper (1966) William Goldman wrote this sharp adaptation — and slight updating — of Ross Macdonald’s initial Lew Archer novel The Moving Target, removing, thankfully, most of the original’s ugly homophobia in the process. (Perhaps at Paul Newman’s request? That is sheer speculation on my part, but something about the subject of homosexuality clearly bugged Macdonald; every Archer novel I’ve read contains at least one unsavory Lesbian or gay man, and Newman was notably squeamish about such sexual demonizing. The one exception in the picture is the murderous thug played by Roy Jenson whom Harper queer-baits, to predictable results.) The star, coming off The Hustler and Hud, was convinced that the letter “H” was lucky for him, hence the change from Archer to Harper. The rich supporting cast includes Lauren Bacall as a paraplegic ice-queen; Julie Harris as a drug-addicted singer-pianist; Arthur Hill as Archer’s lawyer pal; Janet Leigh as his dry, cynical ex-wife; Pamela Tiffin as a spoiled rich girl; Robert Wagner, pretty and dangerous as a glorified pool-boy; Shelley Winters as a former Hollywood starlet turned blowsy man-trap; Harold Gould as a sheriff; and Strother Martin as a phony spiritualist. Johnny Mandel wrote the brief, jazzy score. Appropriate to the tawdry sadness that overlies the Archer books, Goldman’s twists are less clever than deflating, particularly the last one, and he gets off some pretty fair hard-boiled lines of his own, the best and most famous being one for Newman: “The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise.”


Dick Tracy (1990) Warren Beatty’s witty take on the notably grisly Chester Gould strip, complete with a color palette evoking the bright hues of the Sunday newspaper comic page… and which scores of ignorant American critics referred to at the time of the picture’s release as having been done in “primary colors”… which of course would have meant only in red, blue and yellow. Maybe they were taking their cue from Richard A. Sylbert, the movie’s designer(!), who said the same thing(!!) in a number of contemporary interviews. It’s a fast, enjoyable ride (Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. are the credited screenwriters) decked out with some marvelous pastiche songs by Stephen Sondheim, a Danny Elfman score that emulates Gershwin as well as his usual hommages to Herrmann and Rota, glorious photography by Vittorio Storaro, and a terrific cast to embody the many odd, pre-Fellini grotesques of Gould’s imagination. Aside from Beatty himself as Tracy, Madonna as his temptress Breathless Mahoney (she gets a great Sondheim number in the Harold Arlen mode called “Sooner or Later”), the delicious Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart and the gifted Casey Korsmo as Junior we also get Seymour Cassel (Sam Catchem), Michael J. Pollard (Bug Bailey), Charles Durning (Chief Brandon), William Forsythe (Flattop), Ed O’Ross (Itchy), Mandy Patinkin (88 Keys), R. G. Armstrong (Pruneface), Paul Sorvino (Lips Manlis) and, in an inspired bit of kidding, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles. Dick Van Dyke, alas, is wasted as a crooked D.A., but Al Pacino has a veritable field-day as the chief villain “Big Boy” Caprice. It’s the perfect role in which to indulge his penchant for explosive over-acting; like Akim Tamiroff in Touch of Evil, he’s both menacing and very, very funny. Mike Mazurki also shows up, in a bit. He’s a living link to the past the movie depicts, as is Mel Tormé, whose voice we hear on the radio crooning Sondheim’s “Live Alone and Like It.”

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Lily Tomlin in the great sequence in which three women hear Keith Carradine perform “I’m Easy” and each is convinced he’s singing directly to her.

Nashville (1975) — Criterion
Robert Altman and Joan Tewksbury’s unrivalled nonesuch, one of the greatest movies of a great movie period.


Tom Jones (1963) — Criterion John Osbourne wrote and Tony Richardson directed this elegant, playful, French New Wave-inspired adaptation of the sprawling Henry Fielding novel, which made Albert Finney an international star. (It made a then-astonishing $36 million in its initial release, on a $1 million budget.) Five and a half decades on, the bawdiness which titillated its contemporary audience has become about as shocking to the sensibilities as an octogarian grandmother saying, “Fuck,” but the performances, and Walter Lassally’s exquisitely rendered cinematography, remain enchanting, and the famous “eating scene” between Finney and Joyce Redman is still riotously suggestive. Although I am averse to the hack-phrase “breaking the fourth wall,” which is most often used by the sort of people who think direct address was invented in Hollywood sometime around the year 2000, it’s notable that Richardson and Osbourne (and yes, dear auteurists, the moments were scripted) have fun twitting the audience with acknowledgments of the camera: Redman’s impressed, impish shrug to the audience when she realizes she’s slept with her own son is still jaw-droppingly hilarious. Susannah York makes a charming Sophie Western, Hugh Griffith is a roistering Hogarthian feast as her father, and the rest of the fine supporting cast (Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, George Devine, David Tomlinson, Jack MacGowran, David Warner, Peter Bull, Angela Baddeley, John Moffatt, Lynn Redgrave) are a comprehensive delight. Micheál Mac Liammóir adds his rich, plummy actor’s tones to Osborne’s narration which, while it does not often quote Fielding directly, approximates his style with aplomb. The witty score is by John Addison, and Antony Gibbs provided the sprightly editing.


The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) Terry Gilliam is, arguably, our greatest movie fantasist — and, inarguably, has the worst luck of any major filmmaker; there is nothing as insane in the Gilliam universe as the people for whom he has worked. On Munchausen, he was saddled with a very strange, possibly criminal, German producer and yoked to corrupt Italian artisans and the wildly expensive and inefficient facilities at Cinecittà, rendering much of his original vision compromised… and, when the picture was completed, suits and countersuits by the completion bond company and the indifference of a new regime at Columbia Pictures which preferred taking a $38 million loss to promoting a project of the previous administration. Yet Gilliam delivered a movie of such richness it is nearly overstuffed with delights. Seeing it in a theatre in 1988 was an exhilarating experience, one comparable to the high you get if you’re lucky enough to watch Lawrence of Arabia on a wide commercial screen. The director and his co-scenarist, Charles McKeown, made going to the movies an act of veneration, and the Cineplex a palace of wonders: An ancient European city besieged by Ottoman artillery; encounters with Death; a wild nocturnal ride on a cannonball; a hot-air balloon made of women’s undergarments; a flight to the Moon; a corresponding plunge to the center of the earth; ingestion by a giant sea monster; incarceration in, and escape from, a Turkish seraglio; and a character whose impossible feats of sprinting make him the human equivalent of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner. Nor are these marvels wholly (or even necessarily partly) realistic. Munchausen is, if anything, about the advantages of storytelling artifice over absolute verisimilitude, and the movie is filled with delicious theatrical concepts — another age’s deliberately exaggerated invocation of splendor. The great Giuseppe Rotunno shot the picture, which features John Neville as the Baron, Sarah Polley as the skeptical child he endeavors to convert, Eric Idle as Berthold, Jonathan Pryce as an officious officer, Oliver Reed as Vulcan, Uma Thurman as Venus, Valentina Cortese as the Queen of the Moon and a prototypically untrammeled Robin Williams (in the credits he’s “Ray D. Tutto,” a homonym approximation of the Italian “king of all”) as the King.


The Godfather (1972) I doubt I can add anything to the millions of words that have been written, and said, about Francis Coppola’s adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel, with Jaws a prime exemplar of the notion that third-rate source material can, when filtered through the sensibilities of supernally gifted popular artists, yield first-rate movies. The Blu-Ray edition of the “Coppola Restoration” is exquisite.

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Rio Bravo (1959) I have a good friend who positively loathes Howard Hawks. I am precisely the opposite. I don’t love his movies equally, and I know dreck when I see it, whoever made it. But when I think of the creative filmmakers (as opposed to the many hacks for hire whose oeuvres made Andrew Sarris swoon) whose best work I most enjoy, Hawks — with Wilder, Welles and Chuck Jones — comes high on the list. Rio Bravo is one of those pictures that, if I begin watching it, I know I’m in for the duration. It is, in a way, a perfect distillation of everything Hawks did well, and all his thematic quirks. That sort of thing can be deadly, but, working with the excellent screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, Hawks keeps things light and, despite the lengthy running time, so relaxed and enjoyable you don’t even mind the cavalier attitude he took toward re-staging for a new picture what had already worked for him once. (He apparently had never heard that old movies were regularly showing up on television. And he would later essentially remake Rio Bravo twice, in the 1967 El Dorado and his final movie, the very likable 1970 John Wayne Western Rio Lobo.) All of the Hawksian concerns are here: Intense male camaraderie bearing more than a whiff of the homoerotic; fast talk between cynical men and sharp, witty women (Angie Dickinson is pretty much Bacall in To Have and Have Not, albeit without Bacall’s ineffable je ne sais quoi); and action that, while headed for an explosion, dawdles charmingly on seeming irrelevancies that add immeasurably to its texture. Made in part as a response to High Noon, whose plot Hawks found infuriating, in Rio Bravo the protagonists spend much of the picture preparing for an impending assault by outlaw killers, and the rest of the Texas town might as well not even exist. Aside from Wayne, giving one of his most relaxed and endearing performances, the cast includes Dean Martin, very good in an essentially dramatic role; Walter Brennan, lovably cantankerous; and the astonishingly beautiful Ricky Nelson as a young gunslinger. Russell Harlan photographed the picture and Dmitri Tiomkin scored it, less bombastically than was his usual wont.

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The Verdict (1982) Paul Newman’s performance as Frank Gavin, a broken-down, ambulance-chasing lawyer handed a life-changing case he’s expected to lose is so keenly observed many of us in 1982 were convinced there was no way the Academy could continue denying him his Oscar®. We hadn’t counted on the typical response to Gandhi: Alcoholics (and the physically and mentally handicapped) usually get awards, but not as many as historical figures. (23 in the “Best Actor” category, at last count.) Scarcely less impressive than Newman are James Mason as his urbane opposing counsel; Charlotte Rampling as his ambiguous love interest; Jack Warden as his mentor; Milo O’Shea as a political hack of a judge; Edward Binns as a Bishop; Julie Bovasso as an angry potential witness; Wesley Addy as a self-important surgeon; Joe Seneca, both dignified and apologetic as Newman’s chief medical expert; and Lindsey Crouse in a striking turn as an unexpected witness. (You can also, if you look closely, spot the young Bruce Willis as a courtroom observer in the climactic scene.) I am by no means an admirer of that overpraised reactionary David Mamet, but this almost insanely overrated playwright got nearly everything right here,† and jettisoned most of what made Barry Reed’s novel such an irritatingly second-rate exercise. (Rampling’s character in the book, for example, is a one-dimensional schemer — a corporate bitch; Mamet gives her moments of aching humanity, and when Newman decks her in justifiable fury, you hate neither of them.) Sidney Lumet directed, with his customary intelligence and unobtrusive artistry, and Andrzej Bartkowiak provided the autumnal imagery. My only cavil with Newman’s otherwise scathingly honest performance: Frank smokes, constantly, but Newman never inhales, and it’s almost shockingly phony to watch. Wouldn’t it have been better to have dropped the cigarettes entirely than let your star look that foolish?


The Boys from Brazil (1978) Perhaps there were too many old Nazis running around in the late ‘70s… by which I mean, on the nation’s movie and television screens. I have a feeling that, after Marathon Man (1976) explored the narrative possibilities of resurrecting Mengele, The Odessa File (1974) played out its revenge fantasy, television weighed in with Holocaust and The Wall, and this, Ira Levin’s masterly speculation on cloning Hitler, had come and gone, there was little appetite left for the subject. Which might explain why the very fine Thomas Gifford thriller The Wind Chill Factor, positing nothing less than that Nazism was not only alive and well but integral to Western governmental organization, was announced, on the jacket of its paperback edition, as “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture”… and promptly never was. In any case, The Boys from Brazil gave us, of all people, Gregory Peck as Mengele, Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man’s Mengele stand-in) as a Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter, James Mason as Peck’s comrade and eventual nemesis, Uta Hagen as a bitter old one-time Nazi guard, and the gifted Jeremy Black in multiple roles, each intensely dislikable, as the boys. The supporting cast is especially effective, and includes Lilli Palmer, Steve Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Bruno Ganz, Walter Gotell, Wolfgang Preiss, Michael Gough, and Prunella Scales. The screenplay, by Heywood Gould (who later wrote the effective cop study Fort Apache—The Bronx) was largely true to Levin’s work, Franklin Schaffner directed it with verve (and staged a notably gory climax) and Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his essential ‘70s scores, hinging it on an at once exuberant and sinister waltz theme — coffee mit bitters. And if the picture lacks the gravitas and the nerve-wracking grip of Marathon Man, it’s that rare thing, an intelligent thriller, and Peck has a high old time of it playing militantly against type.


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
A perennial favorite since I first encountered it on television around 1969, this most likable of all Don Knotts comedies gets a workout on my Blu-Ray player every October.

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JFK: The Director’s Cut
(1991/1997) Love it or despair of it, Oliver Stone’s incendiary examination of the Kennedy assassination was one of the most important movies of its time, its popularity leading directly to the establishment of the Assassination Records Review Board. That the Board has not, as directed by law, made public “all existing assassination-related documents,” that the CIA has not permitted the release of the most incriminating information, and that we are still awaiting some confirmation of the essential facts, is hardly Stone’s fault. To expect more would, one suspects, be tantamount to believing in Santa Claus, or in the non-existence of an American Empire. Based primarily on On the Trail of the Assassins, Jim Garrison’s memoir of prosecuting what is to date (and a half-century ago) the single case brought against any of the conspirators and on Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, Stone and Zachary Sklar fashioned a fiercely cinematic examination of the assassination and its largely transparent official cover-up that so enraged the Establishment it was attacked even while it was being shot — Time magazine even published a critique on an early script, making blatantly false claims about its content. That more than slightly hysterical response only intensified when the picture opened big; its success must have truly unnerved the CIA and its plants in the American press. Pat Dowell, the film critic for The Washingtonian, found a mere 34-word capsule review killed for being, however brief, positive, and even The Advocate piled on; I am ashamed to admit their screaming headline (“JFK: Pinko Fags Offed the Prez!”) kept me from the theatres in 1991… and from Stone’s work generally, for years. Well, it was my loss. And I should have realized, once nearly every mainstream media outlet in America inveigled against the movie, that Stone was touching a very raw nerve. He and Sklar were criticized even by dedicated assassination researchers like Mark Lane, who did not seem to understand that a feature is not a documentary. And while it is true that they conflated some characters, made composites of several participants (the racist male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon, for example, is based on a number of real figures)‡, speculated — as all assassination journalists, given no official confirmation, must — and (horrors!) invented dialogue, that is what filmmakers do. One can reasonably nit-pick over a scene such as the one in which the terrified David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) says more than one imagines he would to Garrison’s team, but to dismiss the picture entirely because a dramatist dramatized is to admit you know nothing about movies, and understand less. But Stone’s critics make up their own rules where he is concerned… that is, when they don’t ignore his pictures entirely. There are sequences in JFK that are among his finest work: The long sequence with “X” (Donald Sutherland), the former operative based on L. Fletcher Prouty and John Newman, is, in its melding of dialogue and music (by John Williams) and its gripping juxtaposition of images, the work of an absolute master. One can reasonably quarrel with Kevin Costner as Garrison, an imposition, one assumes, by Warner Bros. as box-office insurance. It’s a role rather beyond not merely his limited abilities but his physiognomy and vocal timbre; Garrison sounded more like Gregory Peck than anyone else and was of comparable and imposing physical stature. Costner isn’t bad by any means, merely conventional. He gets exceptional support, moreover, from the large cast, which includes Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison, Edward Asner as Guy Banister, Brian Doyle-Murray as Jack Ruby, John Candy as Dean Andrews, Jr. and Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin. Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight and Jay O. Sanders play members of Garrison’s legal team, John Larroquette shows up as a lightly disguised version of Johnny Carson, and Garrison himself appears, briefly, as Earl Warren. Robert Richardson was the cinematographer, and the kinetic editing was the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. JFK is most effectively enjoyed in its 206-minute “Director’s Cut.” Appropriately, the most disturbing moments in the picture stem from Stone’s use of the Zapruder footage which, however altered by the CIA, is still horrific after 55 years. As Richard Belzer is fond of reminding people, whatever one’s feelings about John F. Kennedy, or how and why and by whom he was killed, a man died that day in Dallas — horribly.

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The number of the Beast: Sam Waterston as Richard Helms.

Nixon (1995) Criminally ignored — when not slammed outright, by the same chorus of professional neoliberals and CIA plants who reflexively ganged up to “discredit” JFK in 1991 — on its release, this Oliver Stone picture, written by Stone with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, is less a conventional “biopic” than an epic meditation on post-war American political realities, using as its anchor that most Shakespearean of Presidents. (Much of the idiot criticism the movie engendered centered on Stone’s audacious depiction of Richard M. Nixon as a multi-faceted human being… the first obligation of the dramatist.) It’s a film that looks better with each viewing, particularly in Strone’s home-video “Director’s Cut,” which among other things restored what to me seems its most absolutely essential sequence, between Anthony Hopkins’ RMN and a silkily foreboding Sam Waterston as the CIA Director Richard Helms — the single segment of the picture that most directly addresses Stone’s central thesis: That the President, whoever he (or in future, she) might be, is a temporary employee of a National Security State so overweening, and so powerful, it is a beast with its own sinister momentum, over which the Commander in Chief has no recourse, defense, or power. One senses in its excision from the 1995 theatrical release the fine Italian hand of the Walt Disney Company. Elaine May once observed that “They” always know what your movie is about — the very reason you wanted to make it — because it’s what they make you cut first.

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The Russia House (1990)
A beautifully lucid and bracingly intelligent spy thriller out of le Carré that, unlike the run of these things, rewards repeated viewings as few such entertainments ever do.


The Front (1976) Even at 15 I knew that this earnest dramatic comedy written, directed by and starring a number of blacklist survivors carried with it more than a whiff of wish-fulfillment. Yet it carries you along, and engenders a great deal of good will, despite Woody Allen’s amateurish performance, and general repulsiveness of personality, in the lead. The nadir of Allen’s appearance here is his questioning by a HUAC panel. The great screen actors allow a director to photograph thought; at the crucial moment, all Allen knows how to do is blink and stare. Walter Bernstein was the screenwriter and Martin Ritt directed. The supporting cast includes Andrea Marcovicci (struggling against a poorly written part), Michael Murphy (very good as a blacklisted television writer), Zero Mostel (obnoxious in a largely obnoxious role), Herschel Bernardi as a harried network producer, Remak Ramsey as a slithery investigator, Lloyd Gough and David Margulies (also playing blacklistees, which Gough was), Charles Kimbrough and Josef Sommer (as HUAC members) and in a small early role, Danny Aiello. The great Michael Chapman (The Last Detail, The White Dawn, Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Raging Bull) provided the warm, burnished cinematography of a lovely, and lovingly recreated, 1950s New York.

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Winchester ’73 (1950) This first of many taut collaborations between James Stewart and the director Anthony Mann is tough to beat. It’s practically a Western noir, shot by the great William H. Daniels in beautifully rendered black-and-white and written (by Robert L. Richards, with an important final revision by Borden Chase) seemingly in hot type. Stewart, to my mind the single finest actor in American movie history, plays a man obsessed, at which he excelled — the sort of role that allowed this beloved figure to limn the darker contours of American life. Some think this is a post-war innovation, but if you look over Stewart’s filmography you become aware that this dramatic tendency (which he shared with Cary Grant, an actor just barely second to him in range and ability) goes back at least to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, and that even in such sparkling comedies as The Philadelphia Story and The Shop Around the Corner he hints at discordant rumblings beneath an often placid surface. The splendid cast includes Shelley Winters as a tarnished angel, Millard Mitchell as Stewart’s trusted friend, Charles Drake as a congenital coward, John McIntire as a laconic seller of firearms, the ever-likable Jay C. Flippen as a Cavalry officer, Rock Hudson as a dangerous Indian, the wonderful Will Geer (who was shortly to be blacklisted) as Wyatt Earp, Stephen McNally as the object of Stewart’s quest, Tony Curtis in a small role as a soldier and Dan Duryea as a cheerful psychopath; the scene in which Stewart interrogates him, nearly breaking his arm, is a small masterpiece of unexpected violence. Stewart’s profit participation deal with Universal for this and the film of Harvey made him a very wealthy man.

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The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) — Criterion Whenever I contemplate what RKO did to what might have been Orson Welles’ masterpiece, not merely disemboweling it but destroying the original negative, I become physically ill. Yet even in its severely truncated form, Ambersons is a movie of such exquisite textures it demands to be seen, studied and yes, even loved. Perhaps no American literary adaptation has so conscientiously retained its author’s voice, with Welles himself memorably narrating Booth Tarkington’s un-emphatic yet revealing descriptive prose. Perhaps only a master radio dramatist, as Welles certainly was, would have been as concerned with the sound and shape of authorial tone, and Tarkington’s lovely novel was quite clearly one that resonated with him; he adapted it for radio twice before embarking on the movie. Unavoidably out of the country as the picture was being edited, and lacking the right of final cut he enjoyed on Citizen Kane, Welles was powerless to stop the picture’s evisceration: His initial cut ran 148 minutes, the preview edit was 131, and the final release print was further hacked to a mere 88 — fully an hour shorter than Welles intended. It was one of those two previews that so frightened management at RKO, when his ending, and Agnes Moorehead’s performance, received what he later called “roars of laughter from some stupid Saturday night audience.” That climax, it should be noted, was the one area in which Welles’ narrative diverged from Tarkington’s, and certainly it was depressingly dark.§ But the studio’s solution, allowing several hacks (one of whom was the editor, Robert Wise) to re-shoot in an appallingly unambiguous manner, not even attempting to match the style to that of Welles, are disastrous, and it takes a strong constitution to bear them; the final scene is especially stomach-churning. (The movie’s composer, Bernard Herrmann, was so incensed by the damage done to the picture he demanded his credit be removed.) Matters weren’t helped by the slowness with which Stanley Cortez lit the stages for his admittedly shimmering cinematography — and indeed, the time he wasted likely would have allowed Welles to edit it to both his and RKO’s satisfaction; Cortez was eventually fired and replaced with Jack MacKenzie. What still exists is among the finest work, not merely by Welles, but by anyone. There are sequences, like the ball in the Amberson mansion, and two on the streets of the Midwestern city in which the story takes place that are among the most quietly astonishing ever committed to celluloid. And his cast is first-rate: Tim Holt as Georgie Minafer, the spoiled, headstrong scion of the family; Ray Collins as his laconic uncle; Dolores Costello as his indulgent mother; Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan, her quondam and future suitor; Anne Baxter as his daughter, and Georgie’s inamorata, strangely unable to resist this appalling boy; Richard Bennett, deeply moving as the Amberson patriarch; and Moorehead in a towering performance as Georgie’s embittered spinster aunt, who foolishly if unwittingly sets in motion the wheels of the family’s eventual destruction. Her scene with Holt toward the end, where she bravely resists her own rising hysteria until she can no longer stave it off, is one of the peerlessly great moments in movie acting. Welles always wondered why she didn’t get an Academy Award for her performance, and you will too.


* Ten, if you don’t watch Stone’s two Prologues detailing the last years of the 19th century and the earlier years of the 20th — and you should; they provide the necessary context to what follows. There is also on the Blu-Ray set a splendid, long colloquy between Stone and Tariq Ali that is not to be missed.

†Except the ending. Infamously, Mamet concluded his screenplay without the jury returning a verdict, then left the picture in a childish huff when his wisdom was questioned. (The producer suggested that, had they filmed the picture as Mamet wrote it, the marquees would have to have read “The Verdict?”)

‡One of them, Perry Russo — who as far as I know was not a hustler, although the question of his sexuality is a curious one — was Garrison’s star witness. Interestingly, Russo appears nowhere in JFK.

§In the novel, the eventual redemption of both Georgie Minafer and Eugene Morgan is accomplished through a bizarre deus ex machina: Eugene, while in New York, visits a medium, whose “control” convinces him he must “be kind.” Welles later told Peter Bogdanovich that his ending was “not to un-do any fault in Tarkington,” but surely he was either mis-remembering, or protecting Tarkington’s reputation, which he quite reasonably felt deserved contemporary re-evaluation.
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Post-Script
I have, since writing the above, heard Oliver Stone admit that he cut the Richard Helms sequence from Nixon on his own volition and not, as I assumed, due to studio interference. I respectfully submit that he was wrong. That single scene is what Stone’s Nixon is really all about.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Grown-up love: The Russia House (1990)

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By Scott Ross

When The Russia House was released in late 1990, I was reminded by much of the critical reaction to it of David Denby’s 1987 charge that The Manchurian Candidate was made in “another country” — one where a moderately complex thriller could be produced that would be a critical and a popular success. Made for a cost of slightly under $22 million, modest even then (and which figure included unprecedented and extensive location work in the Soviet Union) the picture opened to dismissive when not downright bewildered reviews by fools who couldn’t follow it, and a box office indifference that meant it barely broke even here in the U.S., even with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer as its stars. “Confusing!” was the cry of the critical fraternity; one can only hope the people who thought and wrote such things never tried to read one of John le Carré’s truly complicated novels, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — I suspect the attempt would have cracked their brains irreparably.

Revisiting the picture now, in the recent Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-Ray, I was struck first by how many of its images of a Russia heretofore unseen by most Western eyes had remained with me these last 28 years; second by the degree of fealty to le Carré’s book Tom Stoppard exhibited in his slyly witty screenplay; third by the perfection of the movie’s casting; and finally, by the despairing sense that nothing has really changed in Western geopolitics, only gotten far, far worse. Today it isn’t (or, in some cases, isn’t only) the Cold War-benumbed CIA and Pentagon or even the feral and sociopathic Reagan and Bush Administrations that are pushing for deadly confrontations with Russia but alleged liberals desperate to delude themselves that, if they hold their toes at the correct angle and the stars align just right, the hated Trump will be removed from, and Hillary Clinton magically step into, the Oval Office.

The Russia House also reminds the appreciative viewer of what a loss it has been to American movies that Fred Schepisi has made, or been permitted to make, so few pictures in the decades since. Who else could have moved so freely, and with such assurance, between projects as diverse as Barbarossa, Iceman, Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark and Six Degrees of Separation (the latter of which I regard as the most successfully cinematic adaptation of any modern American play, at least until the Angels in America Mike Nichols prepared for HBO)? While I am far from a natural auteurist, it seems to me that Schepisi’s keen eye and equally acute intelligence radiate through every frame of The Russia House (which was luminously shot by his most frequent cinematographer, Ian Baker, and crisply edited by Peter Honess and an uncredited Beth Jochem Besterveld) without calling attention to technique as some of his showier, and far more lauded, contemporaries invariably did, and do. He combined the visual splendor of a Classicist with the daring of a revolutionary, searching always for arresting methods by which to convey information, even in sequences that must of necessity involve a moving panel of talking heads. As with old masters like Ford or Welles or even Sidney Lumet when Schepisi pans, or cuts, or goes to a close-up, the pan or the cut or the close-up means something. It isn’t there just to wake up the audience, or to keep it in the continual state of electrification now seemingly de rigeur in successful American movies.

Fred Schepisi - The Russia House

Fred Schepisi

This style seems to me perfect for The Russia House, a narrative which depends on our paying attention, to listening, and to looking deeply into the faces of its actors, because there are games afoot here, deadly games, and the human element doesn’t factor among the self-satisfied spymasters conducting the proceedings, only one of whom (the gentle Ned, played with a genuine sense of rue by the wonderful James Fox) truly understands before it is too late how perilously the un-planned-for hangs on so fragile a frame as human emotion.

As “Barley” Blair, the bibulous and quietly, even wittily, self-loathing minor publisher who unwittingly precipitates the events of the narrative and who is then compelled to participate in them, Sean Connery had a role thoroughly befitting the actor he had become after shaking off the mantle of James Bond, and toward which he had perhaps been shambling all along. Barley is in a sense the anti-Bond: Deeply suspicious of the motives of his own country (let alone America) and incapable of sustaining human contact he is, as he quite rightly describes himself as seeming, an un-made bed. When his interest in his Russian contact Katya blossoms into deeper feeling, he is as astonished as she is. And when he admits to her, with a look of rapture as unexpected as it is moving, that “it’s unselfish love, grown-up love… It’s mature, absolute, thrilling love,” that declaration becomes one of the great and giddy statements ever made in a movie.

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Quick study: Barley (Connery) uses his newly acquired understanding of spycraft to communicate silently with Pfeiffer’s Katya.

Pfeiffer, coming off her delicious performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys with its incandescently sexy rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee,” was fast becoming the pin-up for a newer age, one in which intelligence and talent might matter as much as bone structure. After watching her radiant performances in Baker Boys, The Witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob and Dangerous Liaisons, I thought little was beyond her grasp, and that the future would surely hold more, and greater, treasures. Alas, how ephemeral are the gifts of the Gods… or of a changing audience, at any rate. How could the thrall of seeing a Classical beauty stretching her thespic wings compare with watching Schwarzenegger thrillingly blow up or mow down a few hundred more bad guys? Apparently, it couldn’t. She’s virtually without flaw here, inhabiting the character of Katya so completely she reveals herself to us only as she slowly warms to Barley. Her reluctant heroism, and her perpetual (and fully comprehensible) anxiety, seem as natural and unforced as her expressions of exuberant exultation at the denouement. No wonder Barley is willing to risk everything for her.

Aside from Fox, whose basic thoughtfulness and decency serves as a necessary counter-balance to the air of chauvinistic self-righteousness that surrounds it, the supporting cast is a wonder: Roy Scheider, at once coolly efficient and, paradoxically, passionately cynical as Fox’s CIA counterpart; Michael Kitchen, assaying a role one could easily have imagined Fox playing a decade or so earlier, limns the essential heartlessness of the Cold War game he’s playing with one orb, while eying a knighthood with the other; the splendid J.T. Walsh as a dangerous Pentagon martinet; David Threlfall, heartbreaking a few seasons earlier as Smike in the RSC Nicholas Nickleby, almost equally endearing as Barley’s unflappable handler in the Soviet Union; the late John Mahoney as Scheider’s CIA cohort; and, spectacularly, the great, mad filmmaker Ken Russell, who embodies Carré’s Walter to the life. At once exuberantly flamboyant (“This is just like school! Dear old, bloody old, school!”), witty (“You live in a free society; you have no choice”) and brutal (“Kick them in the balls every time they get to their knees”) Russell’s Walter is the merry prankster as stern taskmaster, the twittering old auntie whose ostentatious nelliness everyone around him tolerates because he’s so damn good at what he does. Everyone, that is, but the tight-arsed American “advisers,” for whom presumably every Brit is a faggot anyway, until proven otherwise.

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The great Roy Scheider

It was no surprise to me to hear recently that Jerry Goldsmith regarded the music he composed for The Russia House as his favorite among his own scores to that time; it’s as good as anything he ever wrote. More startling was the discovery (from Julie Kirgo’s Twilight Time liner notes) that the rhapsodic theme, so seemingly and pluperfectly Slavic in tone, he’d already attempted to place in two other pictures without success. It’s wonderfully re-imagined here for the saxophonist Branford Marsalis (the sax is Barley’s instrument) and carries with it a yearning romanticism wholly in keeping with the feelings Katya awakens in Barley. The suspense cues are equally apt, and never overdone. This is le Carré, after all, not Ian Fleming.

The world being far from perfect there are a few minor cavils to be noted with the adaptation. The pseudonym of the Russian scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer) whose decision to betray his country to safeguard the world sets the plot in motion goes by, in le Carré, “Goethe,” has been changed to “Dante,” presumably on the assumption that most audiences would be puzzled by the former but at least have heard of the latter. And the splendid May Sarton aperçu, from Journal of a Solitude (“One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being”) which serves as the epigraph to the novel is, although used several times in the course of the picture, never attributed to her, which seems at best a matter of gross ingratitude. The loss of a narrator, often disastrous in a literary transmigration, is in this case mitigated by the simple fact that as an MI6 operative in the novel he serves as a way in for the outsider, whereas in a movie, we are always inside. Most tellingly, the filmmakers omit Walter’s furious response to being removed from the team at the insistence of the squeamish Americans, who weren’t in on the thing from the beginning but once footing the bill are determined to bull their way around the end… to their own cost. The self-regarding impositions the CIA and Pentagon teams bring to the movie are only slightly diminished by this lapse, however; The Russia House is in itself a sharply etched portrayal of the high-handed manner with which we treat Britain as, at best our lapdog, at worst an impediment to what we want and are by God going to get.

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Decent human beings: Barley and “Dante” (Brandauer) at a crucial moment.

I’m not sure I can think of anything else against the picture, and if the final moments of it are more overtly “happily-ever-after” than the more guarded, not-yet-fulfilled optimism of the book, it’s an ending that can make you deliriously happy, weeping into your popcorn at the sheer, fulfilling, grown-up joy of it.*

In these times, as in 1990, that seems to me more than an adequate trade-off, especially at the end of a movie that has played so fairly with its audience, and its source.


*Curiously, that emotional release is undermined when the scene is silently replayed, nearly in toto, at the end of the credits. In case we missed it the first time? For yet another tug at the heartstrings? Because the filmmakers wish us to understand that this is what it’s all been about? If we haven’t gotten that by then, it was too late. And in any event, it’s an odd lapse in a movie as otherwise rigorously un-sappy as this one.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2017

Standard

By Scott Ross

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



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

 

 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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



Theatrical Documentary

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


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


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


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



Selected Short Subject

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



Made for television

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


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


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


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



Television series

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


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

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



Seen a second time… and will never see again

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


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


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


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


New to Me: More than worth the trip

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


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


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


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


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


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

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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



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

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


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

The nature of man: The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)

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By Scott Ross

John Huston revered literature, but he made his best movies by adapting the second rate. He seemed never to quite understand that a great novel is not merely a good story, well-drawn characters or even memorable dialogue. Greatness in prose is a matter of style, and style, as with exceptional descriptive passages, cannot be transmogrified from one medium to another. Thus — with the single, notable exception of adapting The Dead* — when his sights were lowered, he often achieved the greatness he sought and which so often eluded him when tackling The Great Novel. (Moby-Dick will do as an example.)

When I use the term “second-rate,” I imply nothing derogatory. Who, after all, relishing a good mystery, would not have been proud to have written The Maltese Falcon? Huston fared better with plays — there’s little to be ashamed of in his transliteration to the screen of Maxwell Anderson’s Key Largo, and his movie of The Night of the Iguana is, arguably, the finest of all Tennessee Williams screen adaptations — and his best literary translations are from the lower but by no means trashier rungs of literature: The mystery (Falcon could scarcely be bettered in this regard), the spy thriller (The Kremlin Letter), the action-romance (The African Queen), the Western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the black-comedy crime saga — admittedly a fairly exclusive genre (Prizzi’s Honor) — or even the imperialist Boy’s Own adventure (The Man Who Would Be King). While I know that it is revered by almost everyone else, I am left cold by Huston’s adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle; I much prefer his 1963 screen edition of Philip MacDonald’s The List of Adrian Messenger. As neat a little whodunit as can be imagined, the picture also has the benefit of brevity: Its pleasures fit very comfortably within its 94-minute running-time, even if certain aspects of the narrative are, on the one hand, outré and unnecessary and, on the other, tend to stick in the craw.

Chief among the former is the movie’s disguise gimmick which, while in keeping with the m.o. of the picture’s mass-murdering villain, is not especially well carried off, despite the make-up being devised by Bud Westmore; the various false faces look exactly that — phony. Further, the entire enterprise is something of a cheat, in that some of Kirk Douglas’ supposed impersonations were carried out by another actor (Jan Merlin), some of the cameos are voiced by a second (Paul Frees) and Burt Lancaster, one of the picture’s ballyhooed guest-stars (and who include Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra) doesn’t appear in the picture at all, until his on-screen unmasking at the end. But more troubling is what was likely Huston’s major interest in making the movie at all.

The filmmaker moved to Ireland in the 1950s, occupied a manor and became the local Master at Hounds. Gore Vidal, writing about Teddy Roosevelt’s vaunted love of the physical and his veneration of the manly art of killing, often referred to the sissy’s need to overcompensate. Huston was an equally sickly child, and one senses in his enthusiasms for bullying, womanizing, fisticuffs and the shooting down of animals (not to mention his nausea over homosexuality) a similar preoccupation. Fox-hunting played a great role in his self-imposed Irish exile, and The List of Adrian Messenger contains perhaps the most fulsome celebration of that sick-making blood-sport ever committed to film. Add to this the implicit veneration of the peerage, and it becomes difficult to overlook aspects of the picture unsettling to those of a more egalitarian or humane bent. Confronted at the start of the climactic hunt by a group of placard-waving protesters, one of whom chastises him with, “What harm has the fox done to you?” the insufferable Master (Clive Brook) ripostes, “The fox and l know more of life than you do. It is man’s nature to hunt. It is the fox’s to be hunted.” Aside from its speciousness, this pompous, self-justifying statement elides one very important part of the equation: The fox is, primarily, a hunter, with few natural mortal enemies, only one of whom hunts him purely for sport. And what sport! Or is watching a pack of hounds tearing a living animal to shreds your idea of a good time too? Brook’s character earlier rails against the North American practice of “dragging” — running a scented cloth over the grounds to confuse the dogs — as “an abomination.” What he himself is pleased to perpetuate is a far greater, and far less innocent, abomination.

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Foxes and Hounds: George C. Scott lures his suspect toward a final unmasking.

These cavils to one side, The List of Adrian Messenger is, in the main, an intelligent, amusing yarn, vividly shot (apart from some embarrassing rear-screen work) in crisp, clear deep-focus black and white by Joseph MacDonald, and deliciously scored by Jerry Goldsmith, using as his motif a curious little oboe-accented march that Kurt Weill might well have composed in the 1920s.

Stunt-casting aside, the movie is perfectly played by its largely splendid cast: George C. Scott, affecting a “good show, old boy” Mayfair accent; Douglas, relishing his own ingenious duplicity as the killer; Jacques Roux as a charming Gallic Watson to Scott’s Sherlock Holmes; Herbert Marshall radiating veddy British stoicism as a stuffy representative of the law; and, most deliciously, Marcel Dalio and Gladys Cooper in a very funny turn as a marquess and her preening charlatan of a second husband.

Tony Huston, the director’s unfortunate son — you’ll have to read Lawrence Grobel’s excellent tripartite biography The Hustons to understand that remark — does what I suppose is his best as a most un-British scion to the landed gentry, although the character as presented in his first scene is a perfect horror. You cringe at the sound of this pre-adolescent youth spouting off Old Boy dialogue interchangeable from that of his 80-year old reactionary stiff of a grandfather, knowing that the peerage, like Douglas’ killer, has claimed yet another victim.

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*The Red Badge of Courage has its partisans, but what we have of that was too truncated by studio hands to represent Huston’s complete vision.


Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Living for Himself: “The Detective” (1968)

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By Scott Ross

Roderick Thorpe’s thick 1966 bestseller The Detective — strangely compelling through 500 pages in which no real action of the type beloved by moviemakers occurs — centers on an insurance investigator, and while the makers of the 1968 screen adaptation obviously felt that Joe Leland had to be made an actual cop, they remained remarkably faithful to the substance of Thorpe’s narrative: Two seemingly unrelated cases, spread over time, come crashing together in the direst of fashions as Leland’s marriage falls to pieces. Most remarkably for the period, the picture’s screenwriter, the redoubtable Abby Mann, retains Thorpe’s laissez-faire attitude toward homosexual men in those dark, pre-Stonewall days of furtive existence. Thorpe is less sympathetic, perhaps, than simply non-judgmental, but even that is saying something for the era in which he was writing. And if this all seems a bit tame by 21st century standards, it’s notable that Leland’s live-and-let-live attitudes are embodied by no less a figure of normative, if publicly exaggerated, heterosexuality than Frank Sinatra.

More socially liberal than his famous, mercurial, switch of political parties would indicate — wholly typically, he turned his back on a lifelong affiliation with the Democrats after a silly tiff with Bobby Kennedy (who drove everyone away from his brother eventually, including Jack’s old friend Gore Vidal) — Sinatra is in fact the ideal spokesman for the forward thinking the makers of The Detective attempted to espouse. His Joe Leland is highly ethical, repulsed by the ass-kissing games departmental politesse require, disgusted by his city’s duplicitous attitudes toward the racially despised and economically dispossessed, and deeply disturbed by the floating morality of the people he is expected to represent. Sinatra, a far subtler actor than his “ring-a-ding-ding” Rat Pack persona might suggest, is never more effective than when he conveys, without words, a characteristically eloquent sense of ethical nausea.

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Sinatra’s Joe Leland, assisted by Al Freeman, Jr., examines a mutilated corpse. (Screen-capture via BluRay.com)

Movies, of course, are always of their time, and The Detective is very much representative of its own. It’s a rather astonishing picture to have been released before the establishment of the MPAA ratings, in both content and language. (I’m not certain, but this may have been the first time the dread word “penis” was uttered in an American movie.) But the most telling point here is that the occasional (and, one presumes, somewhat shocking in 1968) use of ugly epithets like “fag” come from the mouths of creeps rather than — as would become, in the sickeningly routine fashion of future American movies for another 20 years — the heroes. Leland is never glib, or stereotypically homophobic. Indeed, in his grilling of his prime suspect, the gym-rat Felix Tesla, played with intense psychosis by Tony Musante, Leland himself trembles on the verge of homoeroticism, placing his hand on Musante’s wrist and leaning in as he questions him. It’s very close to a seduction, although the crazed Tesla is too wrapped up in his own demonic energies to notice. (The treatment of him by Leland’s fellow cops is both fascistic and sexually suspect.)

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Leland questions Felix Tesla (Tony Musante) in a fashion that is almost a seduction.

The Detective is peopled by an exceptionally strong supporting cast that includes the cool yet vulnerable Lee Remick as Leland’s estranged wife Karen; Jack Klugman, very fine as one of Joe’s more trusted compatriots; Ralph Meeker, insufferably smarmy as a cop on the take; Horace McMahon, projecting a surface benevolence that barely covers his smug complaisance; Robert Duvall as a queer-baiting colleague to whom Leland metes out a little street justice; the splendid Al Freeman, Jr. as a rookie detective with his eye as much on the main chance as any of his white coevals; Renée Taylor as Klugman’s ess, ess, mein kind Jewish wife, forever offering bagels and lox; and William Windom as the murderer, whose self-loathing rivals and indeed parallels (if for vastly different reasons) that of Leland himself.

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James Inman as a bitchy queen about to be dispatched by a self-hating William Windom. Although he reads Windom’s sexual beads, he has no clue with whom he is dealing.

The recent Blu-ray transfer from Twilight Time, a company that emphasizes its releases’ musical soundtracks, is superb, beautifully capturing the veteran cinematographer Joseph Biroc’s sumptuous lighting and crisp, expansive Panavision framing. (And which include a few instances of Panavision lens flare, which I’ve been a sucker for since seeing Kelly’s Heroes on television when I was 12.) There’s not much the home video manufacturers can do about the terrible rear-screen projection in the sequences of Sinatra’s nocturnal driving, in which no attempt was made to replicate the play of light and shadow on a man in a moving vehicle, but these things too are emblematic of their time. About Gordon Douglas’ direction, the best that can be said is that he at least doesn’t get in the way of things too much… although he is over-fond of the zoom lens. And while Jerry Goldsmith’s score is brief, it’s sharp and effective, with lonely horns blowing the bluesy theme and one especially vivid action cue that takes in what sounds like a sitar.

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Thorpe resurrected Joe Leland in the much shorter but no less effective novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which later became the basis of another successful picture, the 1988 smash Die Hard. (20th Century Fox was contractually obligated to offer the then 70-year-old Sinatra the leading role, and was no doubt relieved when he passed.) Thorpe is responsible for the bare-feet-cut-on-glass plot wrinkle, although his story emphasizes its protagonist’s age, of which Leland is all too aware, and its author’s climax is too deeply sad for a Hollywood epic of late ’80s vintage to encompass. Still, Fox may have been uneasy about there even being a novel out there which predated its Bruce Willis blockbuster; there was a perfunctory paperback tie-in reissue of Thorpe’s novel in America, but if you want a good contemporaneous edition, with studio poster art on the cover, you’ll have to hunt down the British Penguin tie-in. Good luck with that; it took me years.

In a twist that is less ironic than a commentary on the cultural mores of its time, the voice-over narration for The Detective’s original trailer solemnly declares its setting is “a city sick with violence — full of junkies, prostitutes” (here the editor cuts to a police bust of gay cruisers on the Battery) “and perverts.”

It’s as if the people who put together the preview never even saw the movie they were advertising… or worse, that they agreed with Duvall and Freeman.


Text copyright 2016 by Scott Ross

She went through my soul: “Poltergeist” (1982)

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By Scott Ross

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A catch-phrase that really caught on.

For every avid filmgoer there are those rare, popular movies whose first viewings are so powerful they alter the contours of experience. For this viewer, Poltergeist (1982) was one of the most indelible.

If, as I do, you love good horror movies, or ghost stories, your love is apt to be largely un-requited, and disappointed on a fairly regular basis. There simply have not been enough great ones. There are those that make an enormous impact on the wider culture but which, over time, can seem nugatory at best, ludicrous at worst. The 1931 Dracula is a fine (or rather, not so fine) example of the phenomenon: Seen today, this early talkie is beset by the technical limitations of the nascent sound-film; static dialogue sequences, stilted performances, and great long periods of sleep-inducing ennui. Stack Bela Lugosi’s hammy, self-regarding turn as the Count against Boris Karloff’s magnificent, shockingly sympathetic performance as Frankenstein’s Creature that same year, and its deficiencies become overwhelming. The only performer who really registers in Dracula is the unfortunate Dwight Frye, doomed as he was to increasingly minor roles, as Renfield; he’s as over-the-top as Lugosi, but his bizarre inflections, unhinged chortle and terrifyingly mad grin stay with you.

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Dwight Frey as Renfield.

The master list of truly great horror movies, alas, adds up to a paltry few: Frankenstein; King Kong (1933); The Invisible Man (1933); The Bride of Frankenstein (1935); The Thing (from Another World) (1951); Dead of Night (1945; the influential ventriloquist sequence starring Michael Redgrave, anyway); several of the RKO Val Lewtons (the 1942 Cat People, the 1943 I Walked with a Zombie and the 1945 The Body Snatcher especially); the 1960 Hamer Brides of Dracula (if only for Peter Cushing’s jaw-dropping self-cauterization of the vampire’s bite); Psycho (1960, although it’s less a horror picture per se than an all-too human, contemporary shocker); Rosemary’s Baby (1968), less horrific than unsettling, especially if you’re a woman who has ever experienced or even contemplated pregnancy, and far funnier than was noted at the time; perhaps Planet of the Apes (1968); The Legend of Hell House (1971); The Exorcist (1973); Jaws (1975); Carrie (1976); Alien (1979); Dressed to Kill (1980); the woefully under-seen The Changeling (1980) and Wolfen (1981); Fright Night (1985); Aliens (1986); The Silence of the Lambs (1990), more police procedural, perhaps, than outright horror, and what you don’t see is more chilling than what you do; Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and The Sixth Sense (1999). Television managed to produce two masterworks in The Night Stalker and Duel (both 1971), one very good, if desperately truncated adaptation of a Stephen King (IT, 1990)* and although I haven’t seen the Jack Palance Dracula, about which I hear good things, and aside from series like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, funny and frightening in equal measures, very little else since.

I recognize that I’ve left off this list a number of accepted “classics” of the genre — The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920); London After Midnight (1927); the Fredric March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931); Black Sunday (1960); The Innocents (1961); Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978); The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) — and can only offer the feeble but nonetheless binding excuse that I’ve never seen them. (I did see part of one Elm Street sequel, and that was plenty.) I also realize I’ve omitted any number of movies others love. The simple explanation is, I don’t happen to share the enthusiasm of the mavens for items like the following, whatever their individual or incidental accomplishments: The 1925 Phantom of the Opera (despite Lon Chaney’s extraordinary performance, and unforgettably grotesque appearance); The Mummy (1932); Freaks (1932, whose final image is so disturbing I cannot bring myself to watch the movie a second time… and what is the use of a “classic” you can’t bear to see again?); The Island of Lost Souls (1932); The Uninvited (1944), to which Poltergeist owes an obvious debt; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); the deeply unpleasant Peeping Tom (1960); Village of the Damned (1960); The Birds (1963); The Tomb of Ligeia (1964); and The Haunting (1963), which despite fine work by Julie Harris and Claire Bloom and that memorable breathing door, isn’t a patch on Shirley Jackson’s superb novel except in its re-characterization of the parapsychologist’s wife, in the book a caricaturish, meddlesome battle-ax.

Others are good but, by larger or smaller degrees, manage to skirt greatness: The Barrymore Dr. Jekyll (1920); The Old Dark House (1932); The Wolf Man (1941), hobbled as it is by the stunningly amateurish performance of Lon Chaney, Jr.; perhaps the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (if you ignore its reactionary McCarthy-ite allegory… or is it anti-McCarthy? No one seems sure.); The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957); Theatre of Blood (1973, which is ultimately too mean-spirited and gruesome to be wholly enjoyable); the stylish Brian DePalma spoof The Phantom of the Paradise (1974); Hallowe’en (1978, fatally marred by the supernatural implications at the end); DePalma’s thin but exhilarating The Fury (1977); the satirical 1978 Philip Kaufman version of Body-Snatchers; An American Werewolf in London (1981); The Company of Wolves (1984); the funny/frightening Arachnophobia (1990); Neil Jordan’s elegant Anne Rice adaptation Interview with a Vampire (1994); and, perhaps, Tim Burton’s 1999 Washington Irving fantasia Sleepy Hollow, or even his and John Logan’s very effective 2007 adaptation of the Sondheim-Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd.

Similarly, while I love it with an affection one reserves for Three Stooges shorts, Deep Rising (1998) can hardly be counted among the masterworks in the field any more than its writer-director Stephen Sommers’ later Mummy movies. And while there are horror comedies I hold in esteem — Bob Hope’s 1940 romp The Ghost-Breakers, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), Ghostbusters (1984), Beetlejuice (1988), even the 1974 Young Frankenstein — these must be accounted as special institutions and not really what we mean when we talk about great horror pictures.

The foregoing is to suggest both the paucity of really satisfying cinematic horror,† and why Poltergeist was, and remains, a high-water mark for the genre — for me. The maxim De gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”) certainly applies here, as it does to any aspect in life where personal prejudices are concerned. One of the sharpest and most informed movie aficionados I know found Poltergeist “studied.” But then, he also loves the later Kubrick, the last word on “studied” as far as I’m concerned, so (to invoke another Latin maxim) caveat emptor.

I first saw the picture in early June of 1982, just after its opening. It was a weeknight, so the theatre was largely empty; but one small gaggle of teenagers more than made up for the sparse audience, hooting and yakking throughout the first reel. I was on the verge of heading to the lobby to complain when the tree smashed through the window of the children’s bedroom and all Hell broke loose. After that, I never heard a peep from those kids. And that goes some way to suggesting the stunning power of that sequence, which the filmmakers had painstakingly prepared us for during the movie’s first twenty minutes (is that what my friend meant by “studied”? And would he still feel the same if Spielberg’s name wasn’t on the picture?) yet which burst with a suddenness, and an intensity, that were genuinely shocking.

Tobe Hooper, who the credits tell us directed the movie, was widely suspected of being little more than a figurehead on the production, to the point that its producer (and story author) Steven Spielberg took out an ad in Variety to quell the rumors. But Spielberg’s imprint on Poltergeist is not merely evident in its pace and lighting (that tell-tale kukaloris) but in the way the characters and their milieu are introduced. The first reel of the movie bears an aura similar to sequences of domesticity in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Parents and children in everyday interaction, warmly limned but never idealized. The Freelings — low-key father Stephen (Craig T. Nelson), earthy mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), eye-rolling adolescent Dana (Dominique Dunne), overly-sensitive middle child Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and adorable, but not precocious, youngest Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) — are normal to the point of being mundane, yet strikingly individualized and almost figures of documentary in that very casual, seemingly ad-libbed normality; their suburban world is bordered by middle class cookie-cutter architecture, Star Wars posters on the children’s walls… and the ever-present cathode tube.

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Carol Anne meets “The TV People.”

Indeed, our first important image is of a television, Stephen sprawled out a chair in front of it, asleep, as the broadcast day ends. (Younger viewers may need to have that concept, and the pre-signoff playing of the National Anthem, explained to them; they’ve never known anything except the 24-hour cycle.) And the picture ends with Dad, in a credulity-stretching yet emotionally satisfying moment, banishing the TV from the Freeling’s motel room. (You try pulling one of those things out of a wall; they’re anchored.) Spielberg said the movie was his “revenge on television,” and he wasn’t kidding: Stephen and a neighbor nearly come to blows over control of their remotes, and the small screen, as in so many American households, is ubiquitous; it’s on in every room in which there is a set. Its banalities infect everything; as Diane makes a bed, she’s singing, not the latest pop hit or a song from her youth but the then-current Miller Beer jingle. And it is from the television that un-welcome visitors first make themselves known to Carol Anne and, later, violently forge a portal to the interior walls of the Freeling home. (Side-note: The inclusion in one scene of a clip from A Guy Named Joe is not merely an in-joke for those who know Spielberg’s identification with it; the discussion of the intersection between life and death is very much germane to Poltergeist. Its inclusion is pointed, but lightly handled.)

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The portal opens…

The opening sections play up this ordinariness bordering on banality… until, at breakfast, some odd things happen: Robbie’s milk glass shatters as he’s holding it, and his silverware curls while he’s not looking. Still, there’s nothing spectacular at play until that spine-chilling moment when Diane turns back to the dining area to see all the chairs stacked on the table. What makes the incident especially startling is the way Hooper keeps Williams and O’Rourke in view throughout; only when Diane turns back and gasps do we see what she does. (I clocked this; the crew had fewer than seven seconds to remove the chairs around the table and place the stacked ones on top of it. Even presuming the second batch of chairs, and the table, were glued together, that’s still pretty impressive.) It’s this pleasurable little shock that let me know, in 1982, that I was seeing something very different from the normal run of spook-fests.

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The first of many startling moments. (Diane: The… TV people? Carol Anne: Un-huh.)

Another of Poltergeist’s prime assets, one that puts it well above the usual run of escapist entertainment, is the lived-in, almost vérité quality of the acting. Much of the dialogue in the early sequences has the same ad-libbed feel that gave the domestic scenes in Jaws their verisimilitude — a sense of reality that grounds the characters and that makes the terror, when it explodes, all the more shocking. In private, Stephen and Diane josh each other with an ease of long standing, and the children (young Oliver Robbins especially) perform with a naturalness seldom seen in a major Hollywood production. That Spielberg, whatever his unofficial function here (he is reputed to have been on set nearly every day of the shoot, and Zelda Rubinstein claimed he directed all of her scenes) has a special affinity for, and with, children was evident as early as Jaws, but not even the kids in E.T. have quite the unaffected spontaneity Robbins, Dunne and O’Rourke exhibit here. (Although the children in Close Encounters were every bit as believable.) Robbins’ reaction to realizing he’s hearing Carol Anne’s voice coming from inside the television is so good it brings chills; anyone who’s ever been so frightened he or she could not produce speech, let alone a cry (“Scream, ladies and gentlemen! Scream for your lives!”) will recognize the phenomenon instantly. It’s one I’d never seen done quite so well in a movie before and have since only seen as convincingly once (Laura Dern in another Spielberg, Jurassic Park, ordering her suddenly boneless legs to run.)

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Robbie “finds” Carol Anne. Young Oliver Robbins is almost preternaturally good in this sequence.

Although my paperback library includes a fairly extensive collection of movie “novelizations,” I don’t think I’ve actually read one in 30 years or more. (They’re just fun to collect, and to look at.) But I sat down with James Kahn’s Poltergeist “tie-in” recently, and found it remarkably fulsome, and markedly different from the finished picture. Unusually, its cover proclaims it as “Based on the Story by Stephen Spielberg and the Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor” rather than merely the latter. Kahn’s narrative deviates only in that it contains much about the parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight in the movie) and a great deal more about Tangina Barrons, who in Spielberg’s original conception was a woman haunted by her psychic gift, going forth through astral projection to do battle with what she calls “The Beast” on the plain of existence in which little Carol Anne Freeling is trapped. It’s fascinating, and makes Tangina much more central to the narrative; it also reassures the reader about her motives, which in the movie as shot are slightly ambiguous. (Kahn’s source might have been Spielberg’s earlier story-draft, which he eventually conflated with the work of Grais and Victor for the final screenplay.) As it turned out, introducing Lesh and Tangina separately, and after Carol Anne’s disappearance, suits a more streamlined, less amorphous, approach. And here we come to one of the movie’s great strengths: Beatrice Straight’s superb performance.

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Martin Casella, Beatrice Straight and Richard Lawson encounter the restless spirits inhabiting the children’s bedroom.

Audiences at Paddy Chayefsky’s Network had already seen Straight’s stunning rendition of a monologue of grief, anger and rhetorical flourish — although brief, the role, and her reading of it, won her an Oscar®. I believe she’s even better in Poltergeist, not least because she’s on screen longer. Dr. Lesh calls upon Straight to exude intellectual rigor, professional competence, mounting terror, and deep, embracing warmth in equal measure; she is, in a way, the beating heart of the movie. She has a couple of reactions in Poltergeist that I treasure (her look of shock on seeing Carol Anne’s room in a state of full possession, and the way her hand flutters to her face when the full extent of the Freeling’s un-welcome visitation is made manifest) but her finest scene of masterfully sustained acting is the one in which she talks, in a whisper, to Diane and Robbie. It’s an annealing sequence, beautifully acted, that brings a kind of desperately needed respite from all the supernatural goings-on which precede, and succeed, it. It’s also splendidly written, which is not something one expects, or very often gets, at a spook movie.

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Beatrice Straight, as the parapsychologist frightened out of her wits. The lovely sequence in which she whispers the nature of hauntings to little Oliver Robins, is a small master-class in luminous acting.

The women of Poltergeist are exceptionally strong, as written and performed, and share a bond that does not extend to the male characters. Diane becomes, in a sense, Supermom by the climax, willing herself through sheer, terrified determination. But Dr. Lesh and (to a smaller but no less plangent extent) Tangina act as surrogate mothers to her as well; the older women’s embraces comfort and sustain her. This intensely feminine aspect went largely un-remarked upon at the time of the movie’s release, but I’ve always felt it lies at the very core of the narrative, and is an essential part of its effectiveness. Motherhood itself is seldom as felt in a movie as it is in Diane’s anxious love. When a sudden gust in the den portends Carol Anne’s presence, Williams’ reaction, alternating from astonishment to joy to nearly hysterical anxiety (“She just moved through me… It’s my baby. She went through my soul…”) are almost palpable. It would take a sterner heart than mine not to melt at that moment.

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Zelda Rubinstein. As the Southern-accented psychic, she is dominating, witty and a wholly unexpected delight, even as we are unsure at first how to take her, or even what her motives are.

The entrance of Tangina into the proceedings is so individualized I think it would have been a shame to have introduced her earlier, as Spielberg’s original story suggested. (That Kahn describes the character in the novel as a dwarf presumes that the casting of Rubinstein was no fluke, although she was a midget rather than a dwarf, and identified herself as such.‡) Our lack of preparation and “back story” also give her an unknown, and unknowable, quality, and we may be forgiven for wandering, briefly — as Diane does at a crucial moment — whether Tangina is all she says, or some curious agent of The Beast. One drawback, or perhaps unintentional, mis-direction occurs in the finished film that is explained more fully in the novel; when Tangina says of the chief malevolence in the house, “To us, it is The Beast,” the sudden turn of phrase, and the other characters’ reactions to it, lead us to think she is referring to no less a presence in the house than Satan himself, and may cause some confusion as to exactly what we’re seeing later, when Diane is menaced by a spectral beast in the movie’s wild, accelerated climax.

There are two additional missteps in the movie as released. The first is the abrupt cut to Stephen and Diane with their casually hostile neighbor, especially as it comes in mid-dialogue. I’ve often wondered what’s missing between those scenes. The second is a notably poor special effect, in a movie almost over-brimming with exceptionally well-executed ones. When Dr. Lesh’s assistant Marty (Martin Cassella) hallucinates in the mirror and begins tearing off the flesh of his face, the countenance seen in his reflection is so obviously a made-up dummy that it completely dissipates the horror. I think it’s the quality of his hair: Marty’s is loose and lank; the hair on the Marty in the mirror is fuller, and seems plastered onto its head. (In Spielberg’s story, the sequence is even more terrifying, as Marty imagines he’s being overrun, and devoured, first by insects, then by a horde of rats; he later hallucinates turning into The Beast that bit him earlier.)

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Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

I remark on this lapse only because the rest of the movie’s effects (executed by ILM) are so spectacularly successful, and so perfectly integrated. This is especially true of the extended climax, in which the house itself seems to be doing its best to deter Diane’s repeated attempts to free Robbie and Carol Anne from the newly opened portal. Her confrontation with The Beast is both beautiful and almost unbearably scarifying, but the moments leading to, and away from it are rendered with equal panache. There is, first, the way Diane is physically manipulated, up the wall of her bedroom and across the ceiling; it’s the old “upside room” trick, so memorably enacted by Stanley Donen when Fred Astaire dances all over the walls in Royal Wedding, but on a much grander and more astonishing scale. Hitchcock’s simultaneous zoom-forward/pull-back effect in Vertigo has been imitated widely, but only Spielberg has used it appropriately, and twice: Once in Jaws, at the moment Roy Scheider feels most disoriented, fearful and isolated, and here, as Diane attempts to race down a hallway that elongates as she’s running, suddenly shrinking back to normal dimensions as she struggles to move forward. It’s a great moment in a movie filled to busting with them.

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Diane Freeling confronts The Beast.

Craig T. Nelson, like JoBeth Williams, is eminently strong, and equally likable, as Stephen Freeling. I particularly relish the quiet, affectionate manner in which he greets the unseen Carol Anne as he’s lowering the den lights (“Hello, Sweet Pea”) and the confidence he shows as an actor when confronting his boss (the always dependable James Karen) at the climax. The way his voice careens into nearly incoherent screeching (“You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones! Why? Why?”) is deeply impressive. Only a performer of great confidence can afford to let hysteria take over quite so completely without being unmanned by it.

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James Karen and Craig T. Nelson sure look as though they’re being directed by Steven Spielberg…

Special mention must be made of Matthew F. Leonetti’s sumptuous cinematography, which is responsible for much of the movie’s effectiveness, and of Michael Kahn’s dynamic editing. Like the direction, it eschews flash in favor of long scenes played with minimal fuss. The sight (and sound) of Beatrice Straight, Oliver Robbins and JoBeth Williams just talking, quietly, is as compelling as any of the more apocalyptic sequences. It’s an art that Hollywood, in its drive to (as they say in the ad biz) “blow you against the back wall of the theatre” has forgotten, seemingly forever.

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Gatefold detail of the 2013 Mondo release of a 2-LP vinyl soundtrack album.

The movie’s greatest collaborator, however, after Hooper and Spielberg, is Jerry Goldsmith. Setting aside the annoying book-end device of children’s laughter electronically manipulated to sound like a gaggle of Rosemary’s offspring, the soundtrack LP quickly became one of my personal touchstones. In a career spanning some 50 years of scoring, and taking in everything from intimate drama to special-effects comedy, it would perhaps be unfair to cite Poltergeist as Goldsmith’s masterpiece. But its effectiveness, in what it brings to the movie, and as music, simply cannot be overstated. The “Carol Anne” theme, gentle and haunting at once, is the cornerstone of the score, imbuing the Freeling household with its own sense of innocence touched by something ineffably unsettling.§ But the “action” cues — particularly “Twisted Abduction,” “Night Visitor,” “Let’s Get Her/Rebirth” and “Night of the Beast” — are so muscular, so chromatically varied, instrumentally complex and gripping, they amount to almost a master-class in what a composer of genius can bring to a film which, already strong, is made damn near invincible by his contributions. Sentiment rather than relative merit seemed to dictate Goldsmith’s being shut out at the Academy Awards® that year by John Williams’ score for another Spielberg creation. I’m not knocking either Williams or E.T., which in its own rights is a landmark. But the more I listen to the Poltergeist soundtrack, the more convinced I become that this is one of the quintessential movie scores, to be placed in a Pantheon that includes Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Psycho, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws and Close Encounters as a prime representative of the art. (By contrast, Williams’ E.T. score has a tendency, like the movie it accompanies, to pull tears as manipulatively as The Sound of Music.)

Much ineluctable noise has been made since 1982 concerning the fates of two of the three young actors who played the Freeling children, and I don’t intend to rehearse that here… nor to ennoble the specious, insensitive talk of a “curse” attending the movie; Dominque Dunne’s murder was horrific, as was poor little Heather O’Rourke’s demise via medical misadventure. To imply otherwise, to suggest that somehow these young people “tempted” some god of chaos by appearing in a goddamn movie is to dishonor their deaths, and their lives. Just as using the current, odious Hollywood phrase “re-boot” to describe the planned 2015 “remake” of Poltergeist itself is to dignify the ghoulish (and creatively anemic) cinematic equivalent of grave-robbing.

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Diane discovers she’s not alone in the swimming pool. Do you find yourself thinking of Karen Allen in the tomb of the Ark? (Those skeletons, by the way, were real.)

* It’s a mark of real deficiency in the genre to note that horror’s most successful late 20th century practitioner has had so few good adaptations. Aside from Carrie, most of the 1983 Cujo and parts of the generally ludicrous 1980 Kubrick edition of The Shining, Stephen King’s work has produced only one great transliteration — and, at that, not a horror picture at all: The writer-director Frank Darabont’s 1994 The Shawshank Redemption. There is something certifiably wrong with the people who make these things, that King’s batting average as a source is so appallingly undernourished.

† If my list of good titles seems extensive, reflect for a moment on how many hundreds, if not thousands, of horror pictures have been made since the early 1900s.

‡ And yes, there is a difference: Midgets are normally-proportioned in every way but height. (Think of Hervé Villechaize or Meinhardt Raabe… or indeed any of Raabe’s fellow “Singer Midgets” in The Wizard of Oz.) Dwarves have thicker, stumpier extremities. (cf., Billy Barty, Warwick Davis, Peter Dinklage and Kenny Baker.) It’s believed by many that it is the latter who are most insistent on both groups being identified as “little people,” and on labeling “midget” a pejorative. Further deponent sayeth not; that’s one culture war I’m not about to takes up arms in.

§ It takes little away from the effectiveness of the “Carol Ann Theme” to note that Lalo Schifrin used the motif of a slightly eerie lullaby to similar effect in the infinitely inferior American-International, allegedly “true” The Amityville Horror three years earlier.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Enlarging the scope: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1970s

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By Scott Ross

At the dawn of a new decade and after several years scoring for television and movies, Jerry Goldsmith was more than ready for the challenges ahead. He hit 1970 running, and pretty much never stopped. Right out of the gate, Goldsmith composed one of the most prominent themes of the era: His bold, classical, yet forward-looking martial motif for Patton.

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On its face, Goldsmith’s Patton theme follows the parameters of a long line of military marches, particularly those for movies — including his own. Yet those ghostly horn fanfares at the beginning (their reverberating effects achieved by Goldsmith’s use of the Echoplex tape-delay system) and the similarly eerie organ chords that seem to emanate from a distant past, are what the theme is really about: George S. Patton’s sense of himself as an invincible force, not merely of his own time but of all history, reincarnated from the shades of the ancients in his beloved historical war-texts. As bound up in the past as this is (the march’s cadences are distinctly Celtic) the use here by Goldsmith of recent musical reproduction technology points to his increasing fascination with what synthesized sound could do for his craft. Incredibly — but all too believably — while the score was nominated for that year’s Academy Award®, Goldsmith lost once again, this time to… Francis Lai(!) and his saccharine Love Story for which only the theme, endlessly iterated on pop recordings, is remembered.

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No matter. Goldsmith went onward, composing a remarkable, appropriately bifurcated, East-West score for Tora! Tora! Tora! that is (as so often with him) better than the movie deserved, and an energetic late Western score, Rio Lobo, for Howard Hawks, featuring an exquisite Spanish guitar theme, performed during the main titles by Tommy Tedesco. In 1971 Goldsmith moved further into electronica than anyone could have anticipated with his truly unnerving music for the horror thriller The Mephisto Waltz, in which he incorporates (along with the expected interpolation from Liszt) such other-worldly strings and Hell-tormented moans that listening to the score on its own with the lights off could constitute a true act of courage.

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That same year Goldsmith composed a vivid, exciting and appropriately melancholy score for Blake Edwards’ sad, elegiac Western Wild Rovers, the movie itself later butchered by the loathsome James Aubrey at MGM. At Christmas of 1971, home viewers could hear Goldsmith’s music for The Homecoming, that loveliest of holiday movies, out of Earl Hamner, Jr’s semi-autobiography. When the special spawned a series, The Waltons, Goldsmith was tapped to write the theme, resulting in a piece of music that, in just over a minute, conjures Depression rural America, Hamner’s slightly fictionalized family, the splendid Richard Thomas, and the warmth that eventually became a comedic by-word but which, at least in the early years, was quite genuine, and without falling into manipulation and bathos. All that from six well-chosen notes.*

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For 1973’s escape epic Papillon, Goldsmith composed a lilting, Gallic waltz on which he rang dramatic variations. For the first television miniseries (a concept much discussed at the time) based on the inexplicably popular Leon Uris novel QB VII† Goldsmith drew overtly on his own Jewishness for the first time, in music that keens as though with the voices of the six million dead.

Chinatown+Original+Motion+Picture+Soundtrack+folderMany Goldsmith aficionados cite 1982 and the triple-play of Poltergeist, The Secret of NIMH and First Blood as the Anno Principium of the composer’s great period. To be comprehensive, one could as easily point to 1966 and The Sand Pebbles, which for all intents and purposes begins his career-long ascendancy. If you don’t wish to extend things quite that far back, I would respectfully suggest 1974 as the year from which there really is no looking back, only, appropriately, forward. And the score that affixes Goldsmith’s place in the filmmusic firmament is the masterly Chinatown. Taking its cue from the Roman Polanski/Robert Towne classic’s pace, milieu, look, period and understated, doomed romanticism, the score has moments of languid eeriness, unnerving tension and bittersweet, minor key melodiousness whose key component is a jazzy, slightly foreboding solo trumpet line. Goldsmith’s score replaced that of Phillip Lambro, who was only recently permitted by the studio to release his version on disc, and even then providing it did not mention Chinatown in either the title or the description. Listening to Los Angeles 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanski (fuck you, Paramount) one can see that Polanski led Goldsmith down very similar symphonic paths indeed. I’m not suggesting Goldsmith lifted from Lambro, but it is fascinating to note how not dissimilar (to use a deliberate double negative) the two scores are. But Lambro’s does not have a similarly (and insistently) memorable trumpet theme, and that may have been the dark/romantic sound the movie’s producer, Robert Evans, was after.‡ Additionally, I would not pretend that the two competing works are equal in quality; Lambro’s score is splendid, but Goldsmith’s is a masterpiece.

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For the 1975 Charles Bronson prison-escape thriller Breakout, Goldsmith provided a score of tremendous velocity, anchored by a Latin underpinning appropriate to the movie’s Mexican setting. Later that year he wrote one of his most accomplished scores, for The Wind and the Lion, the right-wing fantasist (I nearly typed “fascist”… by mistake?) John Milius’ epic fantasia on the so-called “Perdicaris Incident” of 1904. The movie, which, in Wikipedia’s apt phrase, “blends historic facts into a violent fictional adventure,” commanded from Goldsmith a magnificent score filled to overflowing with “exotic” Arabic strains, robust adventure writing, and unabashed romanticism. “The function of a score,” Goldsmith once noted, “is to enlarge the scope of a film. I try for emotional penetration — not for complementing the action. For me, the important thing about music is statement. I can’t describe how I arrive at the decision to make a statement, I simply feel it and react to it.” Seldom has such reaction yielded a more sublime response.

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The 1976 Logan’s Run, a rare science fiction picture at a time when the genre was considered a sure-fire loser (Hollywood needed to wait only one year longer to learn how wrong that thinking was, at least regarding space-fantasy) elicited from Goldsmith a score based on an sonic notion that complimented the movie’s theme: The highly artificial, hermetically-sealed world of the future, with its pleasure-games and enclosed reality (represented by electronica) contrasted with the world that’s been left behind — verdant, lush and full of possibilities (full, rich orchestral arrangements.) The central theme, which builds rhapsodically, is exquisite. Much more notable, and remunerative, was The Omen, which still, shockingly, remains Goldsmith’s sole Academy Award® winner. That’s not a slam. It’s a superb horror-movie score, anchored to the sinister, Stravinskiesque (if ungrammatical) Latin choral anthem “Ave Satani” (itself up that year, for Best Song!) but, alas, largely in the service of the filmmakers’ blood lust for progressively grander and ever more ingenious means of graphically killing off its cardboard characters. Screw Friday the 13thThe Omen is the true progenitor of ’80s slasher-porn.

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The same year as The Omen, Goldsmith composed what he regarded as his own favorite among his scores. Islands in the Stream amounts in a way to the anti-Omen; personal where the previous movie is impersonal, character-driven as opposed to effect-driven, elegiac where The Omen is deeply foreboding. One of Goldsmith’s not-infrequent collaborations with Franklin J. Schaffner, the director of Patton, and based on a posthumously-published, semi-autobiographical and incomplete Hemingway novel, Islands is one of the composer’s most ingratiating, and most melancholy, scores. Yet it is suffused with emotional highs — it’s filled with wonder. The long (nearly 12-minute) cue “The Marlin,” depicting the George C. Scott character’s younger son battling to land a gigantic fish from his father’s boat is, at least in Goldsmith’s hands, as stark, exciting and intensely memorable as Hemingway’s description of it. I don’t know why the composer felt as strongly as he did about this material, or why it so moved him, and, really, one doesn’t need to. This is film music that, alone, and without choral accompaniment, sings.

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Contract on Cherry Street, a good 1977 television thriller starring Frank Sinatra — from an even better novel, by Phillip Rosenberg — drew from Goldsmith a score that, unique for the home-screen of its time (or even now) was full-bodied, completely orchestral, one that would have enhanced any theatrical film of its type, then or today. The writing is muscular, exciting, subtle and crackling with energy, yet with moments of haunting emotionalism. No one but Goldsmith could have composed it.

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Peter Hyams’ 1977 paranoia thriller Capricorn One, about a faked Mars landing, drew on post-Watergate cynicism about the government (and our concomitant elevation of dogged reporters to hero status — almost entirely alien in these post-free press days) for a far-fetched but entertaining yarn, heightened by Sam Waterson’s wise-cracking and ultimately moving performance as one of the doomed astronauts (O.J. Simpson was the other; only James Brolin came out of it alive. Well, of course.) Goldsmith’s score compliments the material handily, from its ominous, heraldic, opening chords to its uplifting finale, although a comparison with Contract on Cherry Street does indicate some discrete sharing of arrangement and motif.

Which brings us rather neatly to the matter of the compositional phase. One hears it a great deal when listening to a single composer over an extended period: The recurrence of color, motif, orchestration — even entire phrases. If you listen to, say, Capricorn One and follow it up with The Great Train Robbery, Alien, The Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist and Night Crossing, the similarities in tone and arrangement fairly scream at you. This isn’t self-plagiarism, it seems to me; I suspect it’s natural, a creative outgrowth of both where the composer is at a given time, and what his or her concurrent harmonic interests are.

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For the inevitable Omen sequel, in 1978, starring William Holden and Lee Grant this time out, Goldsmith used his “Ave Satani” theme more sparingly, supplementing it with new choral material that occasionally apes the croaking sound of ravens. (A bird crucial to one character’s bloody demise.) As he did with its predecessor, the composer piles on the action cues with aplomb. It’s better writing than pap of this sort merits.

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William Goldman’s Magic was essentially un-filmable, relying as it did on a literary device that must, necessarily, fall by the wayside in a visual transliteration: In the book we’re unaware that Corky Withers’ comedy partner, Fats, is a ventriloquist’s dummy until well into the story; in the movie, we know immediately. Still, Magic was creepy fun, inspired by the Michael Redgrave sequence in Dead of Night, and a chance to enjoy one of my then-favorite “unknown” actors, Anthony Hopkins, in a starring role. Goldsmith’s harmonica motif is appropriately unnerving, in the Bernard Herrmann manner, and the score as a whole is a dandy.

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Michael Crichton wrote and directed the adaptation of his own, fact-based, historical novel, in 1978, and The Great Train Robbery is good, juicy Victorian amusement from beginning to improbable end, especially with such seasoned pros as Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland along for the ride. Goldsmith’s waltzing train motif is a prime asset, adding a major dramatic thrust to the narrative, and on which the composer rings seemingly endless changes. If ever a movie score can be called “fun,” it’s this one; it’s as if the high of Korngold’s Sea Hawk theme extended over a movie’s entire score.

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The 1979 Alien was easily one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my movie-going life. Knowing virtually nothing about it before buying my ticket, I was wholly unprepared for the genuine shock awaiting me; when that damn thing burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I had a five-minute attack of hyperventilation in the theatre. Goldsmith was famously unhappy with the final mix as heard in the movie, where music from his score for Freud was tracked in to replace his original main title, some Howard Hanson appeared instead of his own end credits music, and his elaborate, driving theme for the alien was removed from the final print. For Goldsmith aficionados, the best solution is the 2007 Intrada release, which couples the complete score and the 1979 LP tracks with alternate cues and bonus items. Goldsmith’s score sets the tone, for the movie itself and for the entire coming cinematic franchise: Dark, moody, expressionistic. Harrowing.

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Goldsmith ended the decade as he’d begun it, with one of his most-cherished works. Few fans, or critics, were best pleased with the long-awaited Star Trek movie, but there were no similar complaints about Goldsmith’s majestic score; indeed, his theme for The Enterprise quickly supplanted Alexander Courage’s original television main title, and is the immediately identifiable “sound” of the subsequent Star Trek universe. (Courage, interestingly, became one of Jerry Goldsmith’s most frequent orchestrators, and Goldsmith’s own “sound” is intimately bound up in that of Courage.) It took many years for the full soundtrack of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be released, but it belongs in the collection of any Goldsmith aficionado. Or, indeed, that of any serious student of the form. Although the electronics for this space epic are kept to a minimum, there’s a Blaster Beam effect that is superbly integrated into the score, and the whole is nearly as good, in its more modest way, as John Williams’ music for the first Star Wars movie. The 3-disc La-La-Land release brings it all together, eked out by alternate cues and a reproduction of the original 1979 soundtrack re-recording. Essential.

Three years after the release of Star Trek, Goldsmith would have his unofficial Annus Mirabilis. But I daresay he’d been giving us years of wonder all along.


* Goldsmith also composed music for some of the early episodes of The Waltons, but any hopes of a CD highlighting those scores, and that marvelous theme, have been dashed by the intelligence that Lorimar, the company that produced the series, destroyed the tapes. So much for the virtues of the free enterprise system.

† It goes without saying that the Holocaust is one of the most important, and monstrous, events of the 20th century, and one can well understand the emotional involvement of Uris’ readers in QB VII. But the book, based on the author’s own legal experience with a man he named as a Nazi doctor in his novel Exodus, is written — “hacked” would be a better word — with no finesse whatsoever. Worse, it exhibits an appalling misogyny and evokes an allegedly heterosexual, totally masculine world in which women are either pussy, or nothing.

‡ In addition to the Los Angeles 1937 CD, you can also hear Lambro’s music under Chinatown‘s original trailer.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross