Armchair Theatre 2017

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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.
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. 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.)
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/09/04/watching-the-skies-close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-at-40/

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The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/and-they-used-bon-ami-the-ghost-and-mr-chicken-1966/

Some Like it Hot. 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.

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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. Orson Welles’ non pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”

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Absence of Malice.
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.

Wrong is Right. 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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/peddling-disaster-wrong-is-right-1982/

Black Sunday. 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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/black-sunday-1977-what-exactly-is-this-super-bowl/

Munich. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/everyone-is-overtaken-eventually-munich-2005-and-one-day-in-september-1999/

Wag the Dog. It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, 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. 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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/the-nature-of-man-the-list-of-adrian-messenger-1963/

The Third Man. 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.
A 1968 sleeper hit, 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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/hot-millions-1968/

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. 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. This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking 1964 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.
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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/the-great-race-1965/

 

French Connection II. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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 tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a 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 (especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance) for its own good, 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. 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. 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
. 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.

Rosmary's Baby large_gordon

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



Theatrical Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro. What was effective about this ultimately meandering and 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 abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.

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

Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed
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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! 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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/reckless-point-of-order-1964-and-citizen-cohn-1992/



Selected Short Subject

Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story) 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. 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.
Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.

The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. 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 definitely that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of any importance, makes no great pronouncements 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. History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/reckless-point-of-order-1964-and-citizen-cohn-1992/



Television series

I, Claudius. 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 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. Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?

One Day in September. A 1999 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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/everyone-is-overtaken-eventually-munich-2005-and-one-day-in-september-1999/



New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion. 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.
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?
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/09/here-is-my-heart-on-my-sleeve-where-you-cant-miss-it-moulin-rouge-1952/



New to Me: More than worth the trip



Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
 
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-act BluRay 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. A tough slice of New York life, circa 1972. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.

Take a Hard Ride.
A cheerful, wonderfully entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation from 1975, 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. A downbeat 1968 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.

The Kremlin Letter. 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. 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. 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. A nicely-observed 1949 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. 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. 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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/08/13/rotting-bridges-track-of-the-cat-1954/

Cuba. A fast flop from Richard Lester in 1979, it’s actually a finely 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. 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.
Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic 1981 drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/assassination-cutters-way-1981/

Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. 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. 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.

Up Tight. Jules Dassin’s 1968 return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/festering-like-a-sore-up-tight-1968/

Paranormal Activity. I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror 2007 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.
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.

Super 8 Joel Courtney - 04

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



New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! 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.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/not-with-my-wife-you-dont-1966/

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

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

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

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

Shalako.
The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/a-wine-not-properly-chilled-shalako/



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.
https://emcphd.wordpress.com/

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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 The Asphalt Jungle; I much prefer his 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 being devised by Bud Westmore; the various false faces look exactly that: false. 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 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 phony of a second husband. Tony Huston, the director’s unfortunate son — you’ll have to read Lawrence Grobel’s splendid 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 affecting 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.

*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 — 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 exaggerated, heterosexuality than Frank Sinatra.

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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 Gore Vidal) — Sinatra is in fact the ideal spokesman for the forward thinking the makers of The Detective attempted to espouse. His Leland is highly ethical, repulsed by the games of ass-kissing 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 are, of course, 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 — the hero. 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 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.

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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 BluRay transfer from Twilight Time, a company that emphasizes its releases’ musical soundtracks, is superb, beautifully capturing the 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 about 12.) There’s not much the 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 of a man in a moving vehicle, but those things too are emblematic of their time. About Gordon Douglas’ direction, the best thing 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 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, as there was no paperback tie-in reissue of Thorpe’s novel in this country. If you want a contemporaneous edition, you’ll have to hunt down the British Penguin movie tie-in. Good luck with that.

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

A catch-phrase that really caught on.

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 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 almost 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 and terrifyingly mad grin stay with you.

Dwight Frye

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); a few of the RKO Val Lewtons (the 1942 Cat People 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, very little else since.  (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: 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 undernourished.)

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); 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 is a caricaturish, meddlesome battle-ax.

Others are good but, by larger or smaller degrees, manage to skirt greatness: The Barrymore Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920); The Old Dark House (1932); The Wolf Man (1941), hobbled as it is by the appallingly 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?); The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957); Theatre of Blood (1973, which is ultimately too mean-spirited to be wholly enjoyable); Hallowe’en (1978, fatally marred by the supernatural implications at the end); the satirical 1978 Philip Kaufman version of Body-SnatchersAn 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 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 movies.

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. One of the sharpest and most informed movie admirers I know found it “studied.” (But then, he also loves the later Kubrick, the last word on “studied” as far as I’m concerned, so caveat emptor.)

I first saw the picture in early June, 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 20 minutes (is that what my friend meant by “studied”?) yet which burst with a suddenness and intensity that was 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): Fathers, mothers and children in everyday interaction, warm but not idealized. The Freelings — low-key father Stephen (Craig T. Nelson), earthy mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), eye-rolling teenager Dana (Dominique Dunne), overly sensitive son Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and adorable but not precocious youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) — are normal to the point of being mundane, yet strikingly individualized and almost documentary in their casual, ad-libbed normality; their suburban world is bordered by cookie-cutter architecture, Star Wars posters on the children’s walls… and the 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 have 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. 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 but a then-current Miller Beer jingle. And it is from the television that un-welcome visitors first make themselves known to the little girl 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.)

The portal opens...

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 7 seconds to remove the chairs around the table and place the stacked ones on top of the table. Even presuming the second batch of chairs 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 far 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.)

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

Although my library includes a fairly extensive collection of movie “novelizations,” I don’t think I’ve actually read one in 30 years or more. 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 Staright’s superb performance.

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

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

Dr. Lash and Diane are dumb-struck by what's coming their way.

Dr. Lash and Diane are dumb-struck by what’s coming their way.

Viewers of 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.

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.

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 center 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.

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.

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.) 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 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 genially hostile neighbor, especially as it comes in mid-dialogue. I’ve often wondered what’s missing between those scenes. The second is a rather 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 seems plastered down to 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.)

Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

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 notably 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 and 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 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 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 kinetic 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.

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

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

The movie’s greatest collaborator after Hooper and Spielberg, however, 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 genius composer 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.

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.

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.)

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.)

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Enlarging the scope: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1970s

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By Scott Ross

Jerry+Goldsmith+jerry01At the dawn of a new decade and after several years scoring for television and film, 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 can 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 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. 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 such other-worldly strings and Hell-tormented moans that listening to the score on its own with the lights off could constitute an act of true 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 genuine 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 QBVII* 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.

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Many 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 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 Polanksi/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 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.**

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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, muscular 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 the 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, shockingly, was Goldsmith’s sole Academy Award winner. That’s not a slam. It’s a superb horror-movie score, anchored to the sinister (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 14th — The Omen is the true progenitor of ’80s slasher-porn.

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The same year as The Omen Goldsmith composed what he often said 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 so strongly about this material, or why it moved him so, 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 pretty fair 1977 television thriller starring Frank Sinatra, drew from Goldsmith a score that, unique for 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 borrowing 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 with its predecessor, the composer piles on the action cues with aplomb. It’s better writing than pap of this sort really deserves.

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William Goldman’s Magic was essentially unfilmable, 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 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 dandy.

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Michael Crichton adapted and directed 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 variations. If ever a movie score can be called “fun,” it’s this one.

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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 iconic scores. 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 title, and is the immediately identifiable “sound” of the subsequent Star Trek universe. (Courage, interestingly, became one of Goldsmith’s most frequent orchestrators, and Jerry’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 as good, in its way, as John Williams’ 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.

*It goes without saying the Holocaust is one of the most important, and appalling, events of the 20th century, and one can well understand the emotional involvement of Uris’ readers in QBVII. 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 a masculine world in which women are either willing pussy, or nothing.

**In addition to the Los Angeles 1937 CD, you can also hear Lambro’s music under the movie’s original trailer. See YouTube et al.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Overcoming Fear: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1960s

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“I think that the great part of creativity is overcoming fear. Fear is a given. When you sit down and have to begin something, don’t be afraid to be filled with fear, because it goes with the turf.” — Jerry Goldsmith

By Scott Ross

One of the abiding sorrows of my life is that, while I am intensely musical I play no instrument and, although I would rather sing than do almost anything else, cannot read music, or in any case can do so only in the most rudimentary fashion. (As in: I see the notes rise and fall on the staff, so know they’re either higher, or lower. Higher or lower than what, though, is another matter.) I enjoy a fairly eclectic blend of music, a variety which takes in concert works (I loathe the catch-all term “Classical” except when applied to the actual Classical era, which it seldom does), theatre scores (the odious, and largely ignorant, phrase “Show Tunes” will never pass either my lips or my typing fingers), some folk, a smattering of pop and funk (Paul Simon and Rufus Wainwright are idols and I am still partial to the Top 40 of my childhood and early adolescence), and a whole lot of jazz (Louis Armstrong is, for me, as close to a Supreme Deity as any pretend sky-god.) But what I tend to listen to most are film scores.

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Miklós Rózsa

Miklós Rózsa

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My personal Pantheon embraces Franz Waxman, whose early work, like The Bride of Frankenstein, did much to give us a grammar for movie scoring (Max Steiner got there slightly earlier, but, as with Eric Wolfgang Korngold, his scores tend to the stolid, the sentimental and the over-emphatic, with nothing like the compositional daring or the harmonic complexity that were Waxman’s stocks-in-trade); Alfred Newman and Dmitri Tiomkin, both capable of indifferent work but whose masterpieces are as fine as anyone’s; Miklós Rózsa, the supreme classicist of the so-called Golden Age, without whom both Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder would have been the poorer; Bernard Herrmann, the first great genius of the form, and a giant on whose shoulders virtually everyone who followed has stood; Carl Stalling, whose Warner Bros. cartoon scores took animation spotting to heights of playful, antic sublimity and whose best compositions are as far from simple “Mickey Mousing” as it is possible to get; David Raksin, a

Alex North with his "Honorary" Academy Award. Your compromise statuette when they won't give you an actual award for your best work.

Alex North with his “Honorary” Academy Award. Your compromise statuette when they won’t give you an actual award for your best work.

minor deity but an important one, whose best work, such as The Bad and the Beautiful and What’s the Matter with Helen? exhibit a stylistic range and a tonal flexibility that are considerable; Alex North, the first great modernist of the American film score, whose Spartacus is one of the glories of the moving-picture age; Nino Rota, who, even if hadn’t composed the score for The Godfather would be a giant, if only for his work with

Vic Mizzy, surrounded by some of the creatures for whom he wrote his memorable scores.

Vic Mizzy, surrounded by some of the creatures for whom he wrote his memorable scores.

Fellini; Jerome Moross, who despite some redundancy of style was a bracing composer of Americana; Laurence Rosenthal, whose lyricism is beyond reproach and whose score for The Miracle Worker is as close to transcendent as movie music gets; Henry Mancini, whose sound virtually defined his era but who, due to his penchant for producing easy-listening albums rather than soundtrack LPs, is still not taken as seriously as he had every right to be; John Barry, another era-definer, whose James Bond scores are infinitely richer than the series deserved and whose best work elsewhere (The Lion in Winter, Robin and Marian, Dances with Wolves) need apologize for nothing; Jerry Fielding, a fiercely idiosyncratic composer who, after years of blacklist, pushed himself to an early grave; Vic Mizzy, whose Don Knotts music, particularly The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, are among the best comedy scores in movies; Ennio Morricone, who is sometimes repetitious, and occasionally absolutely dreadful, but whose work for Sergio Leone (not to mention later masterworks like The Untouchables and The Mission) transcend their movies, and their genres; John Williams, whose more syrupy and/or emphatic excesses can be forgiven for any number of masterworks, from The Reivers to Schindler’s List (and including, of course, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Star Wars series); Lalo Schifrin, so splendid at “cool,” jazzy atmosphere that it’s impossible to imagine McQueen’s Frank Bullitt or Eastwood’s Dirty Harry without him;

John Williams and friend.

John Williams and friend.

and David Shire, whose limited output is in no way indicative of his gifts and whose incomparably rich score for Return to Oz is among the finest composed for any movie in the last 70 years.

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A pair of masters, however, share my top spot: Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith. When these twin giants took their appallingly untimely leave within a month of each other in the summer of 2004, the art and craft of movie scoring received a blow to its very soul, one from which I doubt it will ever fully recover.

Elmer Bernstein in 1967. He never won for any of his great scores, only for "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which contained very little of HIS music.

Elmer Bernstein in 1967. He never won for any of his great scores, only for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which contained very little of his music.

For me, Bernstein’s loss hurt in a way that Goldsmith’s did not. Aside from his having been, by all accounts, a courtly and rather lovely man, the sheer emotional heft of his greatest work revealed a heart as expansive as any that ever beat. If I had to pick a single cut, by any composer, as my favorite the choice would be, without question, the one labeled “End Title” in Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird (but which is actually the music accompanying the final scene, end titles in those days seldom lasting more than 30 seconds.) Those final, elegiac, annealing chords, rising impossibly high before, finally, resolving themselves, gently yet decisively, never fail first to send chills of rapture up my spine and then to move me to shameless tears. It isn’t merely the perfect climax to that movie’s story. It is, on its own, as close to perfection in emotional response, and release, as anything I’ve ever heard. It’s the music I’d want to be the last thing I ever hear in this life. Barring that, they can play it at my wake.

A young, and very handsome, Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s. He had reason to smile.

A young, and very handsome, Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s. He had reason to smile.

Jerry Goldsmith’s scores seldom move me in quite that way, although he wrote as astounding number of peerlessly lovely themes and there are quite a few whose emotional qualities, beautifully controlled and never allowed to slip into bathos, are exemplars of the scorer’s art. Almost without exception — I’ll come to a few achingly singular examples by and by — these are from his scores for smaller movies, of the type Hollywood seldom makes now, and was making fewer and fewer of as Goldsmith’s life came to its close.

One is struck by the composer’s remarks on that subject, inasmuch as the bulk of Goldsmith’s best work was in the action or thriller genre, and he really excelled at Westerns. “I like the variety,” he was quoted as saying. “But basically my choice of films [sic] is a small intimate film. Quiet film, no action, just people in relationships. That’s what I like the most.” It’s telling how relatively few of these he actually scored. Did, as I suspect, the opportunities simply vanish? “When I get a fantasy film job,” he noted, “the first thing I look for is the non-fantasy element to build the music upon. The human side of the film is what’s important, not the hardware. My work on Poltergeist is a perfect example. Most people saw it as a ghost story and a horror story. I saw it as a love story and wrote the music with that emotion in mind. There is no formula to finding what musically fits a science fiction film. I just look for the emotion. When I don’t find those, it makes things more difficult.” Judging from his later output, it must have been difficult indeed, much (if not most) of the time.

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While Goldsmith had television credits as early as 1954, his composing career only really began to build, and blossom, in the early 1960s. The familiar, glorious Dr. Kildare opening is his, but his first important credit for movies was for one of those “small intimate films,” the melancholy Lonely Are the Brave, which its star Kirk Douglas has often called his favorite from among his own work. That same year (1962) Goldsmith was engaged by John Huston for Freud (aka, Freud: The Secret Passion) and for which he composed an enormously effective, somewhat atonal, score, which earned him the first of far too many Academy Award nominations he would ultimately lose. (Does anyone really think The Omen is his best score? Possibly only the same people who would so likewise rate Bernstein’s incidental music for Thoroughly Modern Millie, his only Oscar-winner.) The following year, and in a complete change of pace, Goldsmith wrote a deliciously sly, playful, Kurt Weillian score for Huston’s tongue-in-cheek Phillip MacDonald whodunnit The List of Adrian Messenger which has, thankfully, recently been issued on a limited edition CD by Varèse Sarabande, one of several cottage outfits of varying sizes specializing in preserving American film scores, many of which also emphasize Goldsmithiana.

Somewhat surprisingly, Goldsmith did not receive an Academy nod for the much-nominated Lilies of the Field, a small, heartfelt work, although he was nominated for the subsequent Sidney Poitier drama A Patch of Blue. The composer received 18 nominations in all (Bernstein got 14) winning only once, for The Omen — a fine, if derivative, horror score, leaning heavily on faux-Stravinsky via Gregorian vocalese, but nowhere close to his best work.* Could Goldsmith’s peers have seriously imagined this was his only award-worthy score, or that it was in some way superior to The Sand Pebbles, Chinatown, Islands in the Stream, The Wind and the Lion, Lionheart, Poltergeist or even The Secret of NIMH? Granting that those are highly personal choices, I submit that any one of them displays greater emotionality and more daring, even wit, than the highly popular, and influential, Omen.

The Washington, D.C.-based political thriller Seven Days in May (1964) elicited from Goldsmith an appropriately spare, brief, martial score and the same year’s Western Rio Conchos one of the composer’s most insistent melodic ear-worms of a theme. For Our Man Flint, a cheerfully ridiculous Bond spoof starring a relaxed and genial James Coburn, Goldsmith offered up some delicious, tongue-in-cheek spy-pop that includes the riotously and deliberately inane theme-song (lyric by Leslie Bricusse) “Your Zowie Face” Z.O.W.I.E. is the organization Flint works for.) Von Ryan’s Express (1965) has some splendid things in it as well, as does The Blue Max of 1966 with its soaring main theme, although one can point here to Waxman’s superb The Spirit of St. Louis as an obvious point of sonic reference.

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No such niggling comparisons obtain for Goldsmith’s magnum opus, The Sand Pebbles (also 1966.) While the movie itself, for all its seriousness of purpose and remarkably epic qualities, is a lamentable diminution of the magnificent Richard McKenna novel, its thinness exacerbated by the disastrous miscasting of the intolerably unresponsive Candice Bergen and the almost incredibly overrated, and terminally blank, Steve McQueen in the central roles. But that score… ah, that score! Along with two lovely, and ultimately heart-wrenching supporting performances by Mako and Richard Attenborough, it is left largely to Goldsmith to provide the unsettling dramatic thrust, the aching melancholy and the almost unbearable emotional underpinning the story needs to convey the results of the tragic alliance of imperialist misadventure and explosive social upheaval. The cue “Death of a Thousand Cuts,” for Mako, is one of the most plangent things of its kind in the composer’s oeuvre, a track that continues to move the listener as much on the dozenth play-through as on the first. The Sand Pebbles is Goldsmith’s first undeniably great work for the movies, a score so intriguing, so layered, and so fraught with aching humanity that it has been released numerous times, in incrementally superior editions the last of which, on Intrada — and which contains the score as heard in the movie as well as the contents of the re-recorded “soundtrack” of the period — belongs in the library of every serious aficionado of film music.

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For Hour of the Gun, a rather good 1967 variation on the Wyatt Earp legend starring James Garner, Jason Robards and the great Robert Ryan, Goldsmith composed a terrific genre score. (Choice cuts: The propulsive main theme and the curiously un-punctuated “Whose Cattle.”) 1968 saw another iconic Goldsmith score, for Planet of the Apes. The composer had flirted before with electronica, but had not fully explored its possibilities for appropriately other-worldly sounds until this one, although the best cues (“The Hunt” and “No Escape”) are largely more traditional in composition and orchestration. Goldsmith would, in future, lean too heavily on augmented instrumentation for my taste; I admit to a decided prejudice against synthesizers and related musical hardware over sounds produced by human players — the only really good synthesized film score I’ve ever encountered is Arthur B. Rubinstein’s for Blue Thunder — but I defy anyone to seriously defend the “superiority” of Hoosiers over even such minor achievements as, say, Rudy or The 13th Warrior.

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In 1969 Goldsmith returned to television, composing the gentle, memorably optimistic theme, and some of the early scores, for the excellent, laugh-trackless comedy-drama (as they used to be called in those antediluvian days before the hideous neologism “dramedy” was incessantly heard, like the voice of the turtle, throughout the land) Room 222. He also scored the absurd but exciting Gregory Peck thriller The Chairman, and the Cukor-directed misfire Justine. For this transliteration of one-fourth of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Goldsmith contributed a vivid, enticing, spirited score in which sitar, auto harp and recorder, added to the already rich orchestral palette, evoke eroticism, exoticism and terror equally, and equally well.

At the very beginning of the next decade Jerry Goldsmith would not necessarily become a household name, but he would compose a single theme that, like Herrmann’s shower murder and Williams’ shark music, very quickly achieved nearly universal identification and in Goldsmith’s case, instantly reminding listeners of that film, its star, and the movie’s towering, contradictory real-life subject…

*Most so-called film critics, who know as little about music as they do about acting, direction, cinematography, plays, literature, history or any of the other, myriad aspects that go into making the art, seldom single Goldsmith out for praise. Or, if they do (as did John Simon in his review of the 1974 Chinatown) may be capable (as Simon was a scant two years later in a critique of The Omen) of referring to “that pretentious hack Jerry Goldsmith.” He’s done this sort of thing repeatedly in his criticism, to the point where I wonder if Simon, whom I often admire in spite of his frequent ugliness, has a peculiarly selective memory. Goldsmith cannot be an artist one year, a hack the next. Which is it, Simon?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

 

 

Poltergeist (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Debate still rages over whether Tobe Hooper directed the movie by himself or, a la Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks with The Thing, had help from his producer, Steven Spielberg. (Spielberg was an uncredited editor and also wrote the screenplay, with Michael Grais and Mark Victor.) The movie does seem to have Spielberg’s fingerprints on it — the loving observations of suburbia, the blue light bisected by flashes of white — but whoever made it, it’s among the most stylish, and downright frightening, movies of its genre.

There’s a sly, benign humor here that’s unique among horror movies, and the scenes of (very) average middle-class California domestication are as keenly observed as similar scenes in Jaws and Close Encounters. (Curiously, and creepily, all three of the children — Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins and Heather O’Rourke — died young.) Craig T. Nelson is the dead-panned yet somehow jovial pater familias while JoBeth Williams gets to play Super Mom, which somehow suits her.

The great Beatrice Straight gives a lovely performance as a warm, kindly researcher of psychic phenomena; the scene in which she whispers to young Oliver Robbins about death and “The Light” is a classic of its kind.

And there’s no psychic more phenomenal than tiny Zelda Rubinstein as the “house cleaner.” She’s a move in herself.

The always-reliable James Karen is on hand as well, and with one notable exception (the scene with the young researcher and the bathroom mirror) the special effects are both beautiful and terrifying. There’s also a gorgeous, spectacularly effective score by Jerry Goldsmith that adds immeasurably to the effect of the movie itself. It ranks as one of his very finest — and for him, that’s going some.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross