Breeding war: “The Lion in Winter” (1968)

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By Scott Ross

To however low (and, seemingly, terminal) an ebb theatrical culture has sunk today, and as unimportant as non-musical plays are to the American theatre now, the indifference of the Broadway crowd to good new plays is scarcely a new phenomenon. In early 1966, James Goldman’s wonderfully literate dark historical comedy The Lion in Winter, despite a cast headed by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, ran a scant 92 performances before shuttering. When the far from inevitable movie adaptation premiered two years later (Martin Poll, the producer, had originally optioned Goldman’s novel Waldorf for the movies) the play almost instantly attained a “classic” status that must surely have surprised its author.

The Lion in Winter - Hopkins, Merrow, O'Toole

Goldman is, like his brother William, one of my favorite writers, and the Plantagenets were good to him: In addition to The Lion in Winter, Goldman also wrote the lovely autumnal romance Robin and Marian (1976) featuring both King Richard and King John, and the superb 1979 novel Myself as Witness, in which he revised his opinion, feeling he’d been far too hard on John in the past. (His other major works were the beautifully compact and consequently underrated book for the musical Follies and the marvelous dramatic comedy They Might Be Giants.) Goldman was, like Bruce Jay Friedman, one of the rarer comic/dramatic writers of his time in that his humor was based in wit rather than one-liners and sarcasm; with the possible exception of Friedman’s Scuba Duba (1967) there were probably more sharp aphorisms and Shavian aperçus in The Lion in Winter than in any American play of the time between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 and The Boys in the Band in 1968. Even his deliberate anachronisms are memorable, as with Eleanor’s “It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.” But what is usually forgotten when that line is quoted are the words that precede it, and those that tumble after:

Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little? That’s how peace begins. 

And warfare is what The Lion in Winter is about: Between the exiled queen (Katharine Hepburn) and her king (Peter O’Toole); between Eleanor and the two sons she does not favor (John Castle as Geoffrey and Nigel Terry as John); between Henry and those he wishes to keep from the crown (Geoffrey and Anthony Hopkins as Eleanor’s favorite, Richard); between those sons and their less-favored parents; between the boys themselves; between Henry and Philip of France (Timothy Dalton); and, although the queen denies it, between Eleanor and her possible successor (Jane Morrow as Philip’s sister Alais). Here, action is negotiation — sometimes dispassionate but most often spiked with venom — and when the verbal battles begin in earnest they are as wounding as the speakers can make them without fatality. Of the antagonists, only John is not intellectually equipped to draw blood, and of the boys only Geoff has inherited the sly cunning of which both his parents are masters; like Henry and Eleanor he is Machiavellian avant la lettre, but lacking either John’s doggedness or Richard’s physical prowess,* he is condemned always to be on the sidelines. And interestingly, Eleanor, for all her shrewdness, and her innate understanding of how best to wound Henry, consistently tips her hand, giving her estranged husband exactly the knowledge he needs to thwart her.

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“My, what a lovely girl. How could her king have left her?”

Although O’Toole was too young for his role — Hepburn was almost exactly the right age for hers — he’d played Jean Anouilh’s Henry (by way of Edward Anhalt) in the movie of Becket (1964) and the conceptions are similar. His performance here is one of those zesty, grand, playful characterizations tinged with melancholy, and even genuine despair (Jack Gurnsey in The Ruling Class, Eli Cross in The Stunt Man, Alan Swann in My Favorite Year) that dot his filmography, and O’Toole gives everything to it: Subtlety, understatement, wit, sparkle, dash, elan, anguish and, when necessary, roars of outrage, the lion bearded in his den and refusing to be slain. Hepburn too rises superbly to the challenge, and if that famous Yankee accent is only slightly disguised, it isn’t a matter of dire concern; the realistic location sets (Ireland standing in for Chinon, where in fact there was no Christmas Court in 1183) are already so at war with Goldman’s Wildean witticisms that another layer of artificiality hardly matters. Her age, which she’d begun to let show in Long Day’s Journey into Night, works for her characterization, especially in the scene where she confronts herself in a mirror; her crow’s-feet, nearly lashless eyes and the general ravages of age  upon the body — she was 60 when the picture was filmed — work wonderfully for her characterization (although she made every effort to cover her throat throughout.) When she’s lashing out at Henry, rolling about on her bed and evoking his father’s body, she’s electrifying, and when she gives up utterly, shattering. And she’s seldom been as well-matched as she is by her co-star here. Not even Spencer Tracy had the sort of feral, animal-like intensity O’Toole brings to Henry. Tracy was tough, too, but softer-spoken, and anyway Hepburn nearly always deferred to him, in a way that could be nauseatingly servile. Only in Adam’s Rib is she his equal, and even there she becomes shrill, and he wins. Goldman wrote Eleanor and Henry like deadlier versions of Benedict and Beatrice: No quarter is given by either, and however much blood is let, the match is never really over. Although, like Tracy, Henry is the eventual victor, and Eleanor is sent back to her prison, they salute each other at the end, and you know they will be at it again hammer and tongs in another year. Above everything else, for these two, engagement is all.

The Lion in Winter - O'Toole, Dalton (The royal line on Sodomy)

“What’s the official line on sodomy? How stands the Crown on boys who do with boys?”

Whether Goldman believed that Richard was homosexual — his sexuality is still debated, and uncertain — or ever had a physical relationship with Philip II is by the way; that he used the possibility so effectively is what matters, and it leads to one of the finest scenes in the movie, allowing both Dalton and Hopkins, whose first picture this was, to command our attention and for the former to illustrate that Philip is no mean plotter himself. That the sequence is also structured like a sex-farce, with the various brothers, conspiring with Philip, forced to hide behind arrases, makes it all the more delicious. Terry is a bit hampered by Goldman’s conception of John as an open-mouthed dolt but Castle is wonderfully sly as Geoffrey, making us for the most part merely guess at the character’s possible hurt from a lifetime of being ignored by both Mummy and Daddy. And although Alais is largely a pawn, and knows it (“Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look,” she says to Eleanor, who loves her and uses her equally, “and I’m the only pawn. I haven’t got a thing to lose. That makes me dangerous.”) Merrow is adept at depicting both her anguish and her understandable rage.

Although, as noted above, the movie’s dirty Medieval realism is at odds with Goldman’s brittle humor, his screenplay cunningly shifts scenes played in one set to the physical world of Henry’s brood, both inside Chinon and out. This encompasses Douglas Slocombe’s rich cinematography, Peter Murton’s thoroughly lived-in sets, the splendid costumes by Margaret Furse. John Barry’s score, which won him his third Oscar,† was criticized in some quarters for its alleged evocation of Stravinsky (specifically, one presumes, his Symphony of Psalms) but I think the stronger antecedent influences are Orff’s Carmina Burana and the dark Gregorian chants on which Barry’s striking chromatic vocalese seems to me more obviously based. And anyway, who says Igor Stravinsky is the only composer permitted to write dissonant Latin choral pieces?

The strong pictorial and thespic direction is by the former film editor Anthony Harvey, who knew when (and how long) to hold on interesting actors speaking incisive dialogue. It seems to be a lost art.

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*Goldman’s conception of Richard was as mutable as the future king himself: As Robin and Marian begins, Robin Hood (Sean Connery) has become fed up with the Third Crusade and pointedly refers to Richard Harris’ war-mongering Lionheart as “a bloody bastard.”

†1968 was an especially rich year for movie music: Barry’s competitors for the Academy Award that year were Alex North (The Shoes of the Fisherman), Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair), Lalo Schifrin (The Fox) and Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes) and two superb scores that weren’t nominated but well might have been were Schifrin’s Bullitt and Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

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By Scott Ross

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Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)
The team’s first feature, a Greatest Hits collection of now-classic comedy bits.


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My Darling Clementine: Preview edition / Release version (1946)
John Ford’s return to studio filmmaking after the Second World War. A small masterpiece diminished, although not quite ruined, by Darryl Zanuck’s interference.


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In a Lonely Place (1950)
A minor psychological thriller (based on a major popular literary exercise by Dorothy B. Hughes) with superb performances by Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, its reputation expanded to impossible dimensions of greatness by over-enthusiastic auteurists. There was no place in my review to note this, but the movie’s costumer designed low and weirdly over-broad shoulders for all of Bogart’s jackets; he looks like a badly-dressed mannequin newly escaped from the window of a vintage clothing shop specializing in zoot-suits.


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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is one of those almost miraculous studio movies that somehow got made with minimal interference and compromise and likely represents a realization that was as close to its creator’s intention as it was possible, in 1948, to come.


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Little Caesar (1931)
With The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that created, and defined, the gangster picture and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. It doesn’t hold up as well as the Cagney but Edward G. Robinson’s performance is certainly worth a look, even if he’s not especially well served by the  workmanlike script until the last five or ten minutes.


Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Hot Lead and Cold Feet
An amiable, funny but very loud Western comedy from the Disney studios in which Jim Dale plays twins — one a missionary, the other a violent rowdy — as well as their crafty old father (that’s Dale, above, with the beard), Darren McGavin is the town’s crooked mayor, Don Knotts its belligerent sheriff, Karen Valentine the feisty schoolmarm, Jack Elam an incompetent gunslinger called “Rattlesnale” and John Williams, who was apparently born old, a put-upon valet. It was made with no particular style and with little on its mind other than providing some clean laughs. For the most part, it gets them. As usual with movies of the period, the rear-screen projection is miserable, but the Deschutes National Forest locations are glorious, and even the inevitable children (Michael Sharrett and Debbie Lytton) are tolerable. Like so many comedians, Jim Dale had too odd a face for movie stardom, with a narrow head, a recessive chin and a nose that seemed to have been stretched out of putty. But he’s as nimble, affable and inventive onscreen as his stage reputation suggested; in a couple of years he would be Barnum on Broadway. The picture’s stunt crew was kept so busy its members got special credit in the opening titles, and they’re like the Proteans in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, tumbling in and out of scenes, falling off cliffs and buildings and seemingly everywhere at once.

For those who treasure pointless trivia, the movie’s associate producer was the hitherto stultifyingly obnoxious Disney child star Kevin Corcoran, who seems to have gone on to a long career as an assistant director.

Anything that kept him behind the camera rather than in front of it…


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To Have and Have Not (1944)
Arguably a trivialization, and certainly not a true representation, of its grim source, this is still one of the most entertaining movies of the Hollywood Studio era. The ultimate Howard Hawks movie, and (to my mind, anyway) his best. It’s one of the most pleasing ways I know to spend an evening, and it never fails to pick me up.


Cowboy (1958)

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A quirky, sometimes appalling, occasionally funny adaptation of a 1930 memoir by Frank Harris — yes, that Frank Harris — of his days as a youth in the United States trying to become a cattle man. (Jack Lemmon, as Harris, eschews the English accent, and indeed the filmmakers omit any sense of the character being anything but 100% American, from Philadeplhia, yet.) Dalton Trumbo, in his blacklist period, wrote the script, with Edmund H. North as his front. Intended as the cinematic equivalent of radio’s “adult Westerns” such as Gunsmoke, The Six-Shooter, Frontier Gentleman and Have Gun Will Travel, the picture is an oddity in that it contains more deliberate cruelty to animals than I think I’ve seen in any other fiction film, and with few exceptions the cattlemen on the drive are irresponsible, cowardly and murderous… and that’s when they’re at their “fun,” as when they toss around a rattlesnake which, thrown about the neck of a tenderfoot (Strother Martin) bites and kills him; when Lemmon’s Harris objects, and calls them on their responsibility for the man’s death, they all turn on him. Harris becomes more and more of a hardass and a martinet as the drive continues, and who can blame him? Cowboy isn’t merely an adult Western, it’s an anti Western. See it, and you may be so disgusted you’ll never want to see another.

While Lemmon gives his usual engaging performance, brash boyishness alternating with hard-won maturity, it’s difficult to judge Glenn Ford’s, because it’s always difficult. The surest way to keep me from giving some movie a chance is to tell me Ford is the star of it. (I’ve deprived myself of Gilda for decades because he’s in it.) He was no actor, so what exactly was he? A movie star, I suppose, but even that puzzles me; he made Gregory Peck look like Laurence Olivier. And at least Peck improved as he aged; Ford stayed resolutely Ford. Brian Donlevy has a nice role as an aging, gentle but bibulous lawman, although the director, Delmer Daves, sabotages it by having him die off-stage. Among the trail-hands are Dick York as a young rake, Richard Jaeckel as one of the worst of the hell-raisers, and King Donovan as the likable cook. Daves’ direction is serviceable but seldom more, and the widescreen cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. has a number of puzzling moments when the camera either shakes, or moves abruptly, and that feel like mistakes left in out of an over-zealous attachment to the budget.

One of the best things about Cowboy is its opening titles, the distinctive, witty work of Saul Bass set to a rousing, Coplandesque theme by George Dunning. Those two minutes are so good the movie almost can’t hope to compete with them.


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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
A Technicolor® curio. Although ostensibly based on the 1949 Broadway musical that made a star of Carol Channing, as well as on its source, Anita Loos’ comic novel of 1925, the movie jettisons the plot and most of the Jule Styne/Leo Robin score, adds a couple of pleasing songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, and although Loos’ book is one of the most famous, indeed era-defining, books of its time, capriciously alters its time-frame from the Roaring ’20s to the Mordibund ’50s.


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Wolfen (1981)
The director (and co-writer) Michael Wadleigh’s beautifully conceived and executed exercise in environmental horror, despite studio interference, is a movie that looks better — and more prescient — with every passing year.


 

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The Towering Inferno (1974)
In spite of everything, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” somehow still works, at least on the level of exciting trash.


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The Train-Robbers (1973)
A quirky, wonderfully entertaining late John Wayne Western, written and directed with intelligence, style and sly humor by Burt Kennedy.


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Cromwell (1970)
Ken Hughes, directing a script he wrote (with interpolations by the playwright Ronald Harwood) delivers a pointed depiction of the English Civil War starring Richard Harris in the title role and Alec Guinness a splendid Charles I. The political parallels to our own age and place should be studied, and countervened with all speed.


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The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of (and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on) the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler original.


Tall in the Saddle (1944)

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A fairly routine ‘40s Western with an odd addition — and no, I don’t mean what in Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks memorably termed Gabby Hayes’ “authentic frontier gibberish.” I’m referring to Ella Raines as a frontier wildcat. Raines’ character has no emotional filters, and the actress doesn’t reign her in; hers may be the most aggressively unpleasant performance in John Wayne’s filmography. She does elicit from Wayne a memorable set of responses, however, when he walks away from her in quiet defiance and she shoots in the direction of his departing back; each time one of her carefully aimed bullets hits something in front of him or to his side, he staggers slightly, and winces. Imagine… John Wayne startled… and by a woman!


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Dumbo (1941)
Arguably the most emotionally plangent of all Disney features, this 64-minute charmer about the elephant child whose oversize ears become an irresistible asset also boats one of the finest song-scores ever composed for a movie.


Born Free (1965)

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Virginia McKenna as Joy Adamson and Bill Travers as George Adamson, with the lioness who “plays” Elsa.

This adaptation of the 1960 bestseller by Friederike Victoria Adamson (nicknamed “Joy’ by her second husband) is one of the most pleasing nature movies ever made, perfect entertainment for children. Not there’s anything remotely childish about it, only that it contains beautiful shots of its African savannah setting, wonderful animal photography (the cinematographer was Kenneth Talbot), is only very occasionally upsetting, and is for the most part as comprehensible to a small child as to an adult. The picture holds the same sweet fascination as a good boy-and-his-dog story — White Fang with lions, and a girl hero — as Joy (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (McKenna’s real-life husband Bill Travers) first adopt and then attempt to reintroduce the lioness Elsa back into the wild, and Lester Cole’s screenplay is smart enough to be straightforward, and to present the relationship between the Adamsons as human and not idealized. McKenna makes a wonderful Joy Adamson, charming and maternally devoted to Elsa (the couple was, perhaps significantly, childless) and Travers is himself a bit of a lion; his prickly responses to his wife’s sentimental obsession finds its parallel with Elsa and her eventual mate.

Geoffrey Keen gives a nicely judged performance as George’s boss, and Peter Lukoye is delightful as the couple’s native retainer. James Hill’s direction is refreshingly clean and entirely uncluttered by the sorts of attention-grabbing, studiedly spectacular shots which would almost certainly mar a contemporary movie of this material. And John Barry, who won two Oscars for the picture — one for his music and one for the end title song he wrote with Don Black, the latter of which I recall as pretty much ubiquitous in the ‘60s — composed one of his distinctive scores, accommodating appropriate African rhythms (and, occasionally, instrumentation) and melding them with his own, string-and-horn-heavy melodic invention.

Horribly, both Joy and George were later murdered in Africa, in separate incidents (although her death was initially reported as the result of lion attack) perhaps proving they had less to fear from wild animals than from their own species.


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Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

That’s Life! (1986)
A remarkably assured Hollywood home-movie, sharp and unexpectedly moving. Even more than the gleefully anarchic semi-autobiography of S.O.B. (1981), That’s Life! is, despite that lousy title, perhaps Blake Edwards’ most deeply personal project.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Nothing is to be trusted: “The Tamarind Seed” (1974)

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The Tamarind Seed A70-7154

By Scott Ross

With The Tamarind Seed we come to an essential concern of movies: The pleasures that lie in a certain level of sheer, sustained craftsmanship.

I remember as a 13-year old seeing newspaper ads for the picture when it was released. I was interested, because it starred Julie Andrews, for whom I had and have an abiding fondness, and I’d seen paperback copies of the Evelyn Anthony novel on which it was based, but the movie was there and gone before I could get to it. What I didn’t know then was that it was written and directed by Blake Edwards, a name I only associated at the time with The Pink Panther cartoons which bore his possessive credit and which were at that time a staple of Saturday mornings, and the splendid 1965 super-comedy The Great Race, which I’d seen televised during a memorable, successive Sunday night airing in 1972.

Finally catching up with The Tamarind Seed on home video, I wasn’t expecting a great deal — the movie dates from a notably bad period of Edwards’ life and career. First came the disaster of Darling Lili, for which he’d received all the opprobrium despite his wanting to make a comedy with his new wife and the studio (Paramount) insisting that, since it was a Julie Andrews picture, it had to stuffed with big musical numbers, expenses be damned, and insisting he film World War I aeroplane sequences in a part of Ireland where in summer it rains every day. As if that poisonous experience was not enough, his exquisitely beautiful 1970 Western Wild Rovers was butchered by Jim Aubrey at MGM and the writer-director subsequently renounced its follow-up, 1971’s The Carey Treatment, which also bore the traces of Aubrey’s fine Italian hand. (Not for nothing did they call him The Smiling Cobra.) Edwards and Andrews retreated to Europe, where Edwards vowed to concentrate on screenwriting and to never direct a picture again. It’s a period he later spoofed in his riotous 1981 Hollywood satire S.O.B., but at the time it was anything but amusing to either him or to his wife and muse.

While The Tamarind Seed broke no box-office records, neither was it an expensive flop, as Edwards’ previous three pictures had been. (Modestly budgeted at a little under 2 and half million dollars, it returned a respectable $13 million worldwide.) More importantly, it gave Edwards back his confidence; his next three pictures, resurrecting Inspector Clouseau and rescuing Peter Sellers’ sputtering movie career, are the work of a man who, despite his recurrent depressions — Andrews called him “Blakie,” but to others he was “Blackie” — is in complete command of his craft. And that’s what you take away from The Tamarind Seed; it’s not notably deep or especially resonant emotionally, but it’s gently compelling, occasionally inspired, and throughout exhibits the deft touch of a filmmaker who knows not only where to place the camera for maximum impact but also the virtue of intelligent dialogue and when to hold on interesting actors; as Orson Welles noted in reference to John Ford’s penchant for extended medium-full shots, with that sort of confidence, a director “doesn’t need to bang around.”

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Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews during the filming of The Tamarind Seed.

It helps, of course, to have good material. Despite Leonard Maltin’s belief that the picture illustrates what “a competent director can do with sappy material,” there is nothing remotely “sappy” about Anthony’s 1970 novel. Indeed, 90 per cent of Edwards’ literate dialogue comes directly from Anthony, and what doesn’t imitates her style. And if the writer-director occasionally loses a plangent moment from the original author (such as the lingering touch between her protagonists just before a disaster — a memory that will come to haunt one of them) he more than compensates with curlicues of his own, like the long, nearly wordless suspense sequence at the airport which, in its intricacy and wit, is one I can well imagine the original novelist regarding with envy, as James M. Cain was said to feel about the ending Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler developed for Double Indemnity.*

And if Sharif and Andrews aren’t exactly Bogart and Bergman… well, who is? Andrews is called upon to exhibit one of her strengths as a dramatic performer, that rather lovely pensiveness and reserve that hints at troubled waters, and Sharif is allowed to relax the rigidity and tortured emotionalism that marred his work in Funny Girl and Doctor Zhivago respectively and to display an easy charm which can be read more than one way. Indeed, The Tamarind Seed, novel and picture, hinge on our not quite knowing from the start what this senior Russian apparatchik is really up to. He even twits the Andrews character on this, suggesting that she is far too trusting of his nature. When she protests that, despite his stated cynicism he is kind and generous he ripostes, “Kind and generous to you, perhaps — because I hope to get something out of it.” He could mean getting her into bed, his stated aim, or that he hopes to recruit her to the Soviet cause, which is what he tells his Paris Embassy coeval, the catlike General played, with beetle-browed inscrutability, by the equally feline Oscar Homolka. We have our suspicions, but it’s to Edwards’ credit that he keeps us guessing well into the picture. (Anthony, going into the characters’ thoughts, tips her hand rather sooner.) This ambiguity is made manifest when Sharif, watching Andrews’ cab drive out of sight at the end of her stay in Barbados during which they (conveniently?) meet, turns away and smiles enigmatically.

Appropriately enough for a movie concerned to a large degree with international spies, and as Peter Lehman and William Luhr point out in the first of their two studies of Edwards, looking is something the picture emphasizes. The human gaze is emphasized during the opening titles, which begin with an extreme close-up on Andrews’ right eye. (Curiously, Lehman and Luhr make the mistake of thinking the main title sequence is Edwards’ when it’s clearly  — and after five seconds, identifiably — the work of the veteran James Bond title designer Maurice Binder.) The people in The Tamarind Seed are constantly on guard against, and watching, each other. Andrews’ Judith Fallows, rebounding from a bad love affair, itself preceded by the death of a husband for whom she feels the guilt of her own waning affections before his fatal crash, eyes Sharif’s Fyodor Sverdlov warily, as he and most of the other characters involved regard everyone else… and with equally good reason. The human gaze is used in especially amusing ways during that airport sequence cited above when, in a sustained shot of Andrews, the British agent assigned to watch her (and of whom she is ignorant) and a KGB operative out to thwart Sverdlov, in irregular line on what is rather unsettlingly called a people-mover, each occasionally turning to look around and averting his or her gaze before he or she can be seen watching. And while I don’t go in much for symbols, and am generally leery of filmmakers who do, there is a pointed cut in the picture between Sharif in an old-fashioned elevator at the Russian Embassy and a tiger angrily pacing his cage at the London Zoo that makes for a nice instant metaphor: Like the animal, Sverdlov is trapped in a situation not of his making; unlike the tiger, however, the Russian has contrived a plan of escape.

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Edwards’ Judith Fallows sparring with Anthony Quayle’s mercurial British security chief. Note the salmon-colored bookcase behind her.

The filmmaker’s color palette is also telling. That close-up on Andrews’ eye in the titles is seen beneath a stark blue filter; once Sharif enters the credit sequence, everything is in deep (Communist?) red.† Edwards appears to have taken a cue from a passage in Anthony’s novel, in which Judith and Sverdlov visit a discotheque where the patrons are bathed in red light, and from Judith’s assessment of herself as True Blue; hints of blue and red, or pastel pink, are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the picture (Judith’s London townhouse is trimmed in salmon), the whole of it beautifully lit and shot by the remarkable Freddy Young.

Anthony’s book is one of many written during the period of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which take as their starting point those deplorable tensions between East and West that, at their worst, in the autumn of 1962, damn near ended in what it used to please the bureaucrats to call “mutual assured destruction” and which, out of the desperate lies of a failed hack politician to excuse her predicted loss against a game-show host, again threaten at their worst to annihilate us all. As in John Huston’s 1970 adaptation of Noel Behn’s The Kremlin Letter, a remarkable Cold War thriller that didn’t see nearly the wide audience it deserved, trust in anyone here is the very epitome of foolhardiness. Or, as Anthony Quayle’s security chief Jack Loder observes: “My line of business has taught me three things: No one is to be trusted, nothing is to be believed, and anyone is capable of doing anything.”

The chiefest irony of that statement is that Loder makes it to the very man to whom he should not, if he only knew it, be telling secrets: The British minister Fergus Stephenson (Dan O’Herlihy, billed here as “Daniel”), a remnant of the 1930s Cambridge “Homintern,” complete with bitter, shrewish, status-conscious wife (Sylvia Syms) and the one figure most immediately threatened by Sverdlov’s decision to defect to the West. Anthony has, for the period, remarkable compassion for Fergus in her novel, and Edwards and O’Herlihy share it. While Homolka is allowed to glower and sneer like the proverbial villainous spymaster of yore, O’Herlihy’s Stephenson is depicted as a gentle, likable figure, hideously yoked to a wife who loathes him, who takes in younger lovers and who enjoys throwing that fact in his face. If Mrs. Stephenson is, as she seems, the embodiment of what her husband took to despising in his youth, the audience — even the Western movie audience of 1974 — may well have forgiven him for coming to that conclusion.

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Another on-set photo, shot under red light.

That Judith remains in reserve nearly to the end, only at the last succumbing to the blandishments of the would-be lover she describes as “the most persistent man I’ve ever met” (and which sensual pleasure Anthony denies her right up to the novel’s last page) makes her eventual realization of her true feelings all the more moving. I won’t divulge the movie’s climax, or its aftermath, except to note that it is the most quietly satisfying conclusion imaginable to an international romantic thriller. Interestingly, Edwards indulges a whiff of emotional fantasy in his use of the eponymous ovule, which the more pragmatic British novelist disdained. For Anthony, as for Sverdlov, the myth of the fabled seed as a kind of fairy-tale is just that; Edwards sides with Judith. His solution may be less practical, but it both satisfies our emotions and buoys the story’s insistence on the existence of a certain innocence necessary to sustain human relations, especially in matters of love.

Which brings me nicely to John Barry’s spare, quasi-Bondian score. It’s essentially variations on a theme, or rather two themes: The first, for Judith, is for all intents and purposes the love motif, but is so hauntingly orchestrated with the composer’s trademark long string lines that it assumes darker dimensions, appropriate not only to the narrative’s intrigue but to the character’s own uncertain heart. The second, which Barry uses to underscore the intricate thriller sequences of the picture’s final third, consists of 12 notes and their close variants, with a terse snare accompaniment interspersed with Morse Code-like accents breaking in at intervals as the tension increases. If you’ve heard and admired Barry’s scores for The Ipcress File and They Might Be Giants, you might know the sort of thing I mean. The early ’70s was a period during which Edwards was temporarily on the outs with his usual composer Henry Mancini over an incorrectly perceived betrayal on Darling Lili, and it cost Mancini Wild Rovers, for which Jerry Goldsmith wrote a score whose beauty and melancholy perfectly matches that of the movie. Barry fills in nicely for Mancini here, who was equally capable of muscular writing like this but who did not get the opportunity nearly often enough.

Approach The Tamarind Seed with the right set of expectations, and I think you’ll find its subtleties and strengths, and the wit with which it regards its people and politics,  thoroughly entertaining. It’s a real writer-director’s picture, made with intelligence for an intelligent audience. Both are as rare these days as the level of knowing, understated craftsmanship of which Blake Edwards at his best was eminently capable.


*Edwards also juggled the novel’s settings: The Anthony book is laid in Washington, D.C. and New York; the movie takes place in Paris and London. The change is negligible, but for a self-imposed exile like Edwards, Europe must have felt far more hospitable than America, a country to which in 1974 he never thought he’d return.

†I seem to be arguing against myself here, but I presume the writer-director guided Binder’s basic imagery; I just don’t think everything in the main title can necessarily be ascribed to him.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

The Tamarind Seed

Note the touch: Sverdlov holds Judith’s hand as often as he can. She resists for as long as she can. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

I’m an Indian too (A Sioux): “Dances with Wolves” (1990)

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By Scott Ross

I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life, there are some that matter most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail, and it is good to see. ― Kicking Bird to Dances with Wolves

I am about to make an appalling confession, one that may land me in some sort of critical Purgatory from whose bourn no traveler returns. Certainly it will pain the shade of Pauline Kael. It’s just that… I liked Dances with Wolves. I liked it a lot. Enough to see it twice when it was first released, and enough to sit down recently with the 4-hour, extended “Director’s Cut” DVD. I still like it. In fact, I like it even more in this version. So I guess there’s really no hope for me.

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The memorable death of the Pawnee known as “Toughest” (Wes Studi.)

The critical brickbats that came Kevin Costner’s way in 1990 seemed to me at the time as overblown and hysterical as the sniping that attended Barbra Streisand’s Yentl in 1984. Kael, for all her acumen and her varied gifts as a stylist and a critic, often exhibited a remarkably low tolerance for sincerity of feeling. In “New Age Daydreams,” her review of Dances with Wolves in The New Yorker, Kael slammed the movie and its maker/star with typical panache: “This is a nature-boy movie, a kid’s daydream of being an Indian. When Dunbar has become a Sioux named Dances with Wolves, he writes in his journal that he knows for the first time who he really is. Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.” Next, right on schedule, came the carping from identity-politicians masquerading as historians: The Sioux were no less guilty than of atrocity than the Pawnees, personified here by the terrifying, implacable character known as “Toughest”; the Lakota dialect employed by the filmmakers was all wrong; the movie was as much as a shuck as its racist movie ancestors.

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The magnificent buffalo hunt.

Yet Michael Blake, who based his screenplay on his own novel, was vastly influenced by Dee Brown’s anguished Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; causing offense to Native Americans was the furthest thing from his mind. And as with Yentl, as a first feature by a novice director, Dances with Wolves was exceptional in many ways, and Costner showed a genuine flair for making movies; epic movies, moreover, which require a set of skills not given to many. After all, how many great epics have there ever been? Lawrence of Arabia, uniquely brainy as it is, and sharply controlled by David Lean. What else? Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days, both travelogue and satire. Gone with the Wind, despite its original author’s avowedly racist pedigree, is pretty grand as entertainment, and funnier than most of us remember. Bridge on the River Kwai, another unusually intelligent endeavor via Lean. Parts of Spartacus (although not enough of them to justify its size, length or expense.) Reds, over-lush as it occasionally is and built on a daring premise which perhaps only that consummate deal-maker Warren Beatty could pull off: A three-hour paean to American radicals nestled within a romantic cocoon. Almost everything else is flummery: Half-baked Biblical nonsenses, over-produced musical blancmanges (although I suppose Fiddler on the Roof qualifies as an epic in its way) and mindless exercises in cinematic elephantiasis with no particular style or discernible reason for being beyond the dazzle-’em-with-size excess of hack producers, and studios desperate to make a buck on the latest trend, even after it’s dead. As bright and gifted a filmmaker as William Wyler came a cropper with his foray into the genre; aside from its justly celebrated chariot-race (much of it shot by others) Ben-Hur is a beautiful dud: un-felt epiphanies and emotional wallowings, the perfect setting for the paste-jewelry that was its star.

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Two-Socks

As extreme as the slanging of Dances with Wolves was the over-praise of Costner’s achievement in making it. That the Motion Picture Academy awarded him its Best Director prize could not possibly shock or surprise anyone who understands that actors make up the largest voting bloc; they routinely award other actors in this category, as though in relief that one of their number can do something other than act. (Always excepting you are Barbra Streisand, anyway.) I had no special issue with the movie winning Best Picture; it’s exactly the sort of big, emotional and expansive movie the Academy goes for. But for Costner to win this award over Martin Scorsese, whose GoodFellas was, at the time, the best-directed picture I’d seen in years, was patent absurdity. Yet, taken on its own, now that the moment has passed, Costner’s clean, character-driven direction, especially in the longer cut, is (if you are open to it) deeply satisfying.

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The radiant Mary McDonnell as Stands with as Fist.

Made on what, even then, was considered a paltry budget ($14 million) Dances with Wolves benefits enormously from its exquisite South Dakotan locations, a splendid ensemble of Native actors, and, especially, from Dean Semler’s crisp and lovingly framed compositions which, despite their beauty, are wedded to word and action and never descend to postcard banality. (Compare his work here with Billy Williams’ “Look! Don’t you wish you had the money to live here?” nature montages in On Golden Pond to understand the difference.) On a theatre screen, the famous buffalo hunt was a visual and emotional experience that could stand comfortable comparison with David Lean and Freddie Young’s siege of Aqaba in Lawrence. (Interestingly, Lean said of Costner’s movie, “I’d like to show that young man how to cut 20 minutes from his film.”)

While Blake’s spare screenplay, from a novel Costner and the movie’s co-producer, Jim Wilson, urged him to complete, may understandably be accused of naïveté and a certain idealistic elevation of Native practices over the perceived failures of American whites, there is more than ample historical evidence to support the contention that, taken on the whole, those whom we, with the supreme arrogance of the Caucasian with superior mechanical arms, labeled “savages” understood far better than their foes the responsibility of people to the earth from which we all take sustenance. The Hopi term koyaanisqatsi (“life out of balance”) sums up, all too neatly, the attitude of far too many inhabitants of the earth: that astonishingly egoistic sense that the planet is ours to destroy and which is most aptly described as Dominionist — in more ways than one. As we stand now at an abyss largely of our own design, what some, like Kael, deride as flower-child over-simplification feels sadly and ironically justified.

Are the whites in Dances (Costner’s somewhat laconic Lt. Dunbar and Mary McDonnel’s incandescent Stands with a Fist obviously excepted) unfairly depicted, almost to a man, as slovenly, disgusting, physically repulsive, usurious, bigoted, thoughtless, cavalierly wasteful and grotesque when not, as with Maury Chaykin’s Major Fambrough, altogether clinically insane? Perhaps. But so they must have seemed, these marauding intruders, motivated as they were by the appalling certainty, maintained even now, that the white race is the natural inheritor of the earth, to those whose mere presence stood in the path of “progress” and who must be annihilated, or at the least, “tamed” and separated, for the original sin of their very existence, if not for their uncivilized astonishment at people who believed others may own the earth. After nearly 90 years of cinematic vilification at worst and dismissive marginalization at best, wasn’t it well past time for the movies to look, just once, through their eyes?

And what eyes they were! The intelligence, curiosity and guarded warmth of Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird; the gentle authority and sad wisdom of Floyd Red Crow’s chief Ten Bears; the knowing humor of Tantoo Cardinal as Kicking Bird’s mate, Black Shawl; the sweetness and almost ethereal beauty of Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse’s Smiles a Lot; the rock solidity of Rodney A. Grant’s initially hostile, later affectionate, Wind in His Hair; and the luminous vitality of Doris Leader Charge, who both portrayed Ten Bears’ wife and worked with the cast on its Lakota dialogue. There is a whole world in those faces, rich and variegated. Setting out to make Cheyenne Autumn, John Ford needlessly denigrated himself as a portrayer of one-noted Indian savagery, but there is a wealth of respect in the depiction of Native characters like Chief John Big Tree’s Pony That Walks in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (as there was earlier, in his Blue Black of Drums Along the Mohawk) that belies Ford’s self-proclamation of dishonor. Still, not even Ford, that subtle poet of the Western, ever had a cast remotely like this.

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The gentle, moving farewell meeting of Dances with Wolves and Kicking Bird.

The 1990 release print played roughly three hours and, with no intermission, was a little logy in spots. The “Director’s Cut” runs four, and feels completely airborne. Costner made some small cuts (eliminating the poor matching shots in a sequence with Robert Pastorelli’s bestial Timmons, for example) and the additional hour’s footage expands the movie’s contours without over-stretching them. Each new sequence adds a layer, a color, a texture, that enriches the narrative and the characterizations. And while Kevin Costner is a limited actor, he is exactly right for Dunbar, just as McDonnell’s wrinkles and laugh-lines enhance her radiance and her remarkably subtle interpretation; the way she seems to pull out of her numb, un-responsive lips the English words Stands with a Fist has long forgotten is a feat of performance that takes the breath away.

One especially pleasing aspect of the longer edition: There’s even more of John Barry’s magnificent, and deeply felt, music to be heard. That alone constitutes a pleasure very close to sublime. And if my liking Dances with Wolves makes me a hopeless case critically, I am as one with Kicking Bird. Perhaps I too have feathers in my head, but in this image-mad world of instant (and just as instantly forgotten) pleasures, just occasionally, the making of a cinematic mensch is good to see.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross