Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

Standard

By Scott Ross

Monty-Python-and-The-Holy-Grail-40th_640
Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)
The team’s first feature, a Greatest Hits collection of now-classic comedy bits.


My Darling Clementine - Darnell and Fonda

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.


in-a-lonely-place-4

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.


Treasure - Holt, Bogart, Huston

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.


Little Caesar
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…


To Have and Have Not - poster resized

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)

Cowboy-411114605-large

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.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Diamonds
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.


Olmost - Wolfen seealso_2-1

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.


 

The Towering Inferno - Newman
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.


The Train Robbers - Taylor, George, Wayne

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


Cromwell - Harris, Jayston

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.


The Big Sleep - Bogart and Bacall (resized)

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)

Tall in the Saddle - Wayne and Raines

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!


Dumbo_323

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)

Born Free (resized)

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.


That's Life - Lemmon and Andrews

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

Knight-errant on a mean street: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

Standard

 

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.” — Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

By Scott Ross

The Big Sleep was 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 novel that, with John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), was one of two war-era American pictures (three, if we count Casablanca) that cemented not only Humphrey Bogart’s tough-guy persona, but the image we carried then, and carry still, of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s detective characters. Others have played Sam Spade (on radio, anyway) and Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum and even, Heaven help us, Elliott Gould) but it’s Bogart we think of when we read those books, and Hawks’ conceptions of the “mean streets” Marlowe operated on we imagine.

The picture did not come together as easily as Falcon. There was considerable confusion in the minds, not only of Hawks and his screenwriters but, oddly, of Chandler, as to who killed the chauffeur or even whether or not he was murdered. It’s made perfectly plain in the novel, so why Chandler was fuzzy on it is baffling. (Unless his inability to remember was related to his alcoholism?) But the book has a tendency to meander, and doesn’t so much end as taper off. Worse, from Hawks’ perspective — and that of Warner Bros., which very much wanted to capitalize on the heat Bogart and Lauren Bacall generated in To Have and Have Not, and to save a suddenly valuable property from her own thespic incompetency — the daughters of Marlowe’s aged client in the novel are impossible. The younger, Carmen, is either psychotic or a moron, if not both, and the older, Vivian, a spoiled, manipulative, irredeemable rich-bitch. The screenwriters (who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) were encouraged to get some of the teasing banter going between Marlowe and Vivian that sparked To Have and Have Not, and while Vivian may be insolent in the Chandler novel, she’s hardly encouraging, so they had their work cut out for them. Perhaps to make Vivian more available, they dropped her position in the book as the wife of a missing man and brought her into the climactic scenes as an ally for Marlowe, as well as a possible mate. When even that didn’t help, Hawks was required to re-shoot a number of scenes after the 1945 preview, and added some new ones. They improve the quality of the picture immensely, although some clarifying material was lost in the process, making the movie’s plot murkier than it needed to be.

The Big Sleep - Malone, Bogart

“Why, Miss Malone – without your glasses, you’re beautiful!

Hawks’ direction of the material, however, is first-rate. In tandem with his cinematographer, the gifted Sidney Hickox, who lit To Have and Have Not and would later shoot White Heat (1949), Hawks’ images are beautifully crisp and his staging immaculate, especially in some of the re-takes. He handles the Bogart/Bacall dynamic so well, and with such cheeky erotic command, it’s a shame the three never worked together again. (A thwarted would-be Svengali, Hawks was furious when he discovered Bacall had married Bogart.) Insolent sexiness was the one thing Bacall could do well, and her dialogue sequences with Bogie are small masterpieces of innuendo and insinuation, to a jaw-dropping degree when one considers the prevailing moral censorship of the time, as is the scene in which the bookshop proprietor (Dorothy Malone) entertains Marlowe, and her literally letting her hair down, accompanied by a discreet fade-out, tells us the two are doing a lot more in that bookstore than merely sharing a drink.

The Big Sleep - Bogart, Martha Vickers

There are other interesting sexual matters on the periphery of the narrative. In the novel, the murdered blackmailer Geiger is identified as homosexual, which was of course taboo under the Production Code, but you can’t escape the implication in the accurate design of his home in the movie, with its prissy Orientalist décor (Chandler: “a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party”), nor in the presence of the avenging angel, Geiger’s young boyfriend Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty). Chandler, of course, makes his usual snide fetish of this, reassuring his (male, hetero) readers that, despite Carol’s deadliness with a gun and his butch physicality, no faggot (his word, not mine) can throw a punch. Presumably, his wrist isn’t stiff enough to land a good slug. And, just as Lundgren’s reasons for his revenge killing is obscured, his favored direction — presumably, based on the position of the em dash, “Go fuck yourself” — is diluted here as “Take a jump, Jack,” but I doubt a 1946 audience had difficulty translating it. And while Carmen visits Marlowe’s office she does not, as in the book, invade his bed, or attempt to trick him into letting her shoot him. Yet she’s still clearly a nymphomaniac, a word I use advisedly, in its psycho-medical sense, which is as one with her general air of (again, physiological) moronism. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on The Big Sleep in praise of Martha Vickers’ quite eerie performance as Carmen, but her instincts are unerring, especially those blank looks she gives as her initial response to Marlowe’s sarcasm before she realizes he’s joshing her, and her impact is considerable.

Those who have only seen a couple of Bogart movies may think they have him pegged as a rough-edged romantic, and can see little difference between his performance as Sam Spade and this one. But Bogart’s Spade is, despite his tolerant amusement at the den of thieves he’s stumbled into, tightly coiled. He’s frustrated, and angry, not merely at the gallery of prevaricators with which he’s surrounded but by his loveless affair with his slain partner’s wife and perhaps over something else, some disappointment or betrayal we can only guess at. When he slaps Elisha Cook, Jr’s Wilmur, or, later, knocks him out, there is genuine fury there, as there is when he “pretends” to throw a violent fit of pique in the Fat Man’s hotel suite; you know it isn’t entirely an act. Bogart’s Marlowe is, by contrast, more laconic, and emotionally contained. He uses his fists, or his gun, only when there’s no other option, and does so dispassionately. And although he’s also amused by the outrageous, and as cynical as Spade, he has the ethics of a knight-errant. Spade admits he’s tempted by the lure of easy money, and turns Brigid O’Shaunessy over to the homicide cops for reasons of professional ethics even he doesn’t entirely understand. Marlowe keeps his reasons to himself, but is dogged both in protecting his client and in pursuit of what he has been contracted to do, and no matter how much personal danger that doggedness puts in his path. He’s easier with women (or at least with some women) than Spade and, even when he knows Vivian is lying her head off to him, is more intrigued by her than annoyed at her lies. You also sense that he expects to be lied to, even by his clients, and enjoys watching the process and trying to discover what they’re lying about. And while he’s no one’s fool, he seems to genuinely like people more than Spade, whether they’re agreeable to him, hostile, or trying to lead him down a false trail, something Bacall’s Vivian chides him about (“You like too many people”) when he’s tied up and wondering whether he’ll get away or be slowly tortured to death.

The Big Sleep - Bogart in bookshop (resized)

“You do sell books… mmmm?”

Bogart (and his screenwriters and director) have some fun with the process of detection, occasionally in ways that twit the Breen Office, as when Marlowe visits Geiger’s alleged rare book shop. In Chandler, he assumes the persona of a stereotypical, lisping pansy-type. In the movie Bogart raises the brim of his hat, lowers his shades and mugs in an outrageous, indeterminately effeminate manner one suspects Hawks figured would be just eccentric enough to defy anyone pinning it down definitely as gay. As with John Huston’s pulling off the various homosexual characters in Falcon, a contemporary viewer may feel less offense at the implication than amusement that the people involved got away with it.

Hawks honors his source as much as possible, albeit with some variations and elisions, even to the extent of replicating the autumn Los Angeles rains that are the novel’s near-constant atmospheric phenomena. The action of the book is necessarily compacted, and streamlined, as with Vivian no longer being the wife of the missing Sean (Rusty in Chandler) Reagan. Much of the dialogue, other than the suggestive byplay between Bogie and Bacall, comes directly from the novel, and the action follows it very closely. The only major change is the explosive, cleverly constructed finale which Hawks, with his habitual disregard for crossing the same river twice, recycled for the climax of Rio Bravo (also written by Leigh Brackett) thirteen years later, and since Rio Bravo is such a damnably entertaining picture, I suspect only those who dislike Hawks’ movies generally get worked up about that. There’s some marvelous repartee between Bogart and Bacall in the re-imagined sequences, including an improvised Ma-and-Pa routine between Marlowe and Vivian and an unseen police officer they confuse and antagonize in equal measure. (Bogart’s “Oh, I wouldn’t like that” in response to a buzz of a line over the telephone makes it clear the cop has just suggested something identical to Carol Lundgren’s preferred instruction in the novel.) And if the Marlowe of the movie is not as disgusted with his own, unwitting, complicity in the process of death as Chandler’s detective, neither is he indifferent to it.

The Big Sleep - Cook, Bogart

As usual with Hawks, the supporting roles are wonderfully cast, and the performances, however brief, perfectly modulated: Dorothy Malone’s sharp, sly bookseller, who never makes a wrong move even when required to remove her glasses and let down her hair to get a reaction from Marlowe; John Ridley’s alternately suave and dangerous casino proprietor who knows far more than he ever lets on; Peggy Knudsen as his supposedly estranged wife; Regis Toomey’s nicely judged police inspector; Charles D. Brown’s butler, less silkily insinuating than his coeval in Chandler; Sonia Darrin as a bad girl two men die for and who isn’t worth a beating let alone a murder; Charles Waldron’s strikingly honest and unself-pitying old reprobate; and, especially, Elisha Cook, Jr’s low-key hustler, hoping to parlay a little information into a payday. “Harry Jones” is almost the flip-side of Wilmur in Falcon, soft-spoken, un-threatening, courageous when it matters and even capable of being mildly offended at one of Marlowe’s nastier cracks; his understated reaction shames the speaker, who slowly (if too late) begins to appreciate the true-blue quality of the “little man,” even in the face of certain, and particularly unpleasant, death.

Max Steiner’s score is briefer and less obtrusive than usual, and he came up with a couple of very fine motifs, especially the minor-key love theme for Bogart and Bacall. When even as bombastic an auditory scene-stealer as Steiner can be inveighed upon to embrace subtlety, it’s a pretty good indication that something more interesting than normal was going on.

The Big Sleep - poster

Copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

What gold makes of us: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)

Standard

By Scott Ross

“It isn’t the gold that changes man, it is the power which gold gives to man that changes the soul of man. This power, though, is only imaginary. If not recognized by other men, it does not exist.” — B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

“That’s the gold. That’s what it makes of us. Never knew a prospector yet that died rich.” — Howard (Walter Huston) in the film

If those two statements seem contradictory, John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is still 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. Nearly everything Traven gets at in the book is there, only with fewer lengthy parables and less Marxist hectoring. And if Huston slightly reverses the author’s message at the end, it’s not a fatal reinterpretation, or even a misinterpretation. It’s simply a means of making the best of things, and leaving the audience a little something to dream on: Traven’s survivors share a bitter joke, and defeat. Huston’s shoulder the black irony as well, but both are left with something to look forward to.

Traven’s economic Marxism is not incorrect, mind you, merely pushed at a bit too hard: The narrative itself is its own Marxist parable and doesn’t require such heavy editorializing. It’s the same problem one encounters so often with Brecht; when creative writers, even proven artists, become rigidly dogmatic their tendency to the pedantic militates against their artistry, and hammering home a point to make sure the slowest mind in the back stalls can grasp it sure plays hell with art. Traven isn’t as boringly doctrinaire as Brecht, but his digressive parables are overlong and all come to the same point: Where riches are concerned, men and women destroy each other, and themselves, pursuing them. Since the narrative arc of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre makes that abundantly clear, the parables become slogs to get through, even when they’re written with grace and peppered with sharp observation; we want to get back to the story, and the author isn’t going to oblige us without a lecture first.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bogart and Holt resized

Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs and Tim Holt as Curtin.

The one digression that feeds directly into the action of the book, the appalling massacre by a cadre of bandits of passengers on a train they’re robbing, is foreshortened in the movie, the calculated murderousness elided. (Although one suspects that, if the brigands gained control of the train, a lot more than cash would be taken.) Huston makes his three protagonists direct participants in the defense of the train whereas in Traven’s book the incident is reported on to suggest that the bandits, although their ranks are gradually thinned out by the Mexican Federales, and while they are scattered about in smaller groups, are still a danger. The bandidos who bedevil Traven’s characters are random, and varied, while Huston has his actors encounter the central villain, referred to as “Gold Hat,” three times. That may make for easier audience identification, but it stretches credulity past the breaking point. That’s one of the few missteps Huston makes. Another is his using some of Warners’ rather poorly disguised outdoor sets and not really attempting to disguise them with better lighting. Reality, captured in more natural light, renders contrivance superfluous, if not in a way obscene; compared in the same picture to Huston’s vibrant location shots in Mexico, the manufactured outdoor sets look even phonier than is usual with these things.

If you weren’t aware that this was his first studio picture since 1942, you’d never know there was such a gap between Huston’s movies. Not that he had been idle; as a Motion Picture Unit officer, he made a number of documentaries for the armed forces and, even if most are tainted by Huston’s re-creating incidents depicted in them, he doubtless picked up invaluable experience on the ground that affected his post-war work, as well as emotional experience that expanded and deepened his point of view. Unlike John Ford, who as as result of his armed service activities became besotted with all things military, Huston left the European Theatre with a lifelong loathing for war. And it’s telling that his most anguished documentary, the 1946 Let There Be Light, about the treatment of emotionally damaged vets, was, following a single screening at the Museum of Modern Art, suppressed by the U.S. government for over 35 years. After all, we mustn’t let the mass public ever see the true human cost of allowing their sons to become cannon-fodder.

As the picture’s screenwriter, Huston honors the source, as he did with The Maltese Falcon, and  although he takes more liberties with Traven than he did with Hammett, you don’t mind most of them. He streamlines a slightly unwieldy narrative, and focuses it, removing the digressions. On the negative side, although Huston adds little, those additions he does make are not necessarily felicitous: For example, the way Curtin (Tim Holt) reminisces about an Edenic summer spent working with migrants, a monologue of joyous hard labor that smacks of capitalist propaganda; or the convenient sentimental letter Bruce Bennett’s Cody (Lacaud in the novel, where he isn’t killed) has in his pocket, which is read aloud after his death and which sets the agriculturally-inclined Curtin to thinking about the man’s young widow.* And when Howard (Walter Huston) is kept at the Indian village, instead of chafing at his enforced vacation as he does in the book, his reverie is a virtual paradise of the senses: Fruit and melon fed to him by beautiful girls who coo over him as he lies in a hammock receiving gifts of squealing piglets. It’s poster-art tourism as a state of mind, and the mind isn’t really Howard’s. (Perhaps it was Huston’s?) Interestingly, while Gold Hat’s famous lines about badges are taken directly from Traven, Humphrey Bogart’s most well-remembered exclamation (“Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean”) is pure John Huston, as is the sequence with the gila monster. And if the writer-director softened Traven’s Socialism, and completely eliminated his intelligent and entirely justified anti-clericism, he left in the original author’s critique of unfettered capitalism, and of the way riches — or even the mere promise of them — alter human beings for the worse. Getting away with that, in the happily capitalist late 1940s, and under a Production Code that glorified bankers, was not nothing.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bedoya

No stinking badges: Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat.

As a filmmaker Huston serves his screenwriter, and Traven. He fully captures the grungy milieu of post-oil boom Mexico, when American corporate interests had just about finished raping the land and carrying away the Mexican people’s natural treasure, leaving a gigantic labor void in their careless wake where stranded workers, many of them foreign, were ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous fly-by-night speculators like Barton MacLane’s Pat McCormick. (No wonder Traven laid his Marxist lessons on with a trowel.) Huston also evens things out a bit, as in the sequence in which Dobbs and Curtin brace their fellow American McCormick, who owes them their wages for weeks of back-breaking work and pretty obviously has no intention of paying, in a bar. In Traven, the pair subdue him quickly. In Huston, it’s a well-matched battle, McCormick giving as good as he gets until he’s finally overmastered by superior numbers. (Although the staging is sometimes awkward and some of the punches are too obviously pulled, lessening the impact of the action.) But it was censorship that flattened out what should have been the movie’s most dramatic moment, when Dobbs is decapitated by Gold Hat. If you watch closely and know to look for it, you can after the edit that follows see ripples in the water where his head, in the shot Huston was forced to cut, rolled into the river. The picture was already tough and unsettling; did the Hays Office imagine this moment was going to drive its viewers irrevocably ’round the bend?


One of the pleasures of the book, and especially of the movie made from it, is the conception of Howard, the old hand who leads Dobbs’ expedition in search of gold. He could have been a twinkling, saintly bore, too true to be good; perhaps aware of this, Traven (and even more so Huston) make Howard wise but not omniscient and, as he explains to Dobbs and Curtin, more trustworthy but not necessarily more honest than his companions. It’s a also role that could have been emptily and annoyingly garrulous if the hands of a lesser actor than John Huston’s father.

Treasure - Holt, Bogart, Huston

“Go ahead, go ahead, throw it. If you did, you’d never leave this wilderness alive.” Walter Huston’s Howard is unimpressed by Dobbs’ anger.

Walter Huston, while never a film-star, was often the best thing about any movie he appeared in and, in the 1936 William Wyler-directed adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth, gave one of the so-called Golden Era’s indisputably great performances — and in one of the truly splendid, and uniquely adult, American movies, not merely of its time but of any time. Huston’s voice was one which, as recognizable in its subtler way as that of Cagney or Robinson, could wind itself as easily around virtue as rascality. His range was so extensive he could play Satan (in The Devil and Daniel Webster) or Abraham Lincoln, a corrupt president or an honest banker (surely an oxymoron even for Frank Capra!), George M. Cohan’s dad or Ambassador Joseph Davis, and be utterly convincing as each. He even, while appearing as Peter Stuyvesant in the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson musical Knickerbocker Holiday, had the late 1930s equivalent of a Top 40 hit in “September Song.” His rendition, as precariously pitched as a Gertrude Lawrence aria, remains definitive.†

At John’s suggestion, Walter removed his dentures for the role. On his own impulse, he spoke Howard’s lines very fast; he reasoned that, when a man is honest, he doesn’t have to think a great deal about what he’s saying. Although his son undermines him at a crucial juncture, lingering too long on Howard’s doubtful countenance when Dobbs and Curtin pledge their good faith to each other — the moment could have been twice as effective at a third the length — it’s nearly impossible to think of Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre without grinning at the sheer love of acting he displays. The moment when, taking a leaf from Traven’s description he begins dancing a jig (one Huston said was taught to him by Cohan) and letting loose with gales of wheezy cackling as he taunts his compatriots for their ignorance is one of the highest moments in American movies. (That it also lays the groundwork for Howard’s burst of what Traven called “Homeric laughter” at the end is surely not coincidental.) But it isn’t all mad dances and explosive laughter; Huston is equally good in calmer moments, when his quiet dignity commands attention. Think, for example, of that extraordinary sequence, so beautifully lit and shot by the cinematographer Ted McCord, in which the old prospector ministers to the little Indian boy whose puzzling coma is what brings Howard into the camp. Howard is no doctor; he knows that most of what he’s doing is dumb-show, and that the child will either recover or not without his assistance. Yet even his showing off has a gentle serenity that commends to him our rapt approval. Walter Huston won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for this performance, but even if he hadn’t, it would be still be among the imperishable treasures of American film.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bogart and Blake

“You can take dat to da bank, señor“: Little Bobby Blake, about to have a glass of water thrown into his face by Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart, meanwhile, is Dobbs to the life. He fixes the character’s desperation, and his embarrassed awareness of his own extreme poverty, from the first moments, and his performance strongly suggests the actor knew, whatever the ultimate box-office returns of the movie, that this was going to be a career-high role. In the previous seven years, due in large part to the success of Huston’s debut as a filmmaker, The Maltese Falcon, Bogey had become a major star, at least the equal at Warners of Bette Davis if not indeed her superior at the box office. His public romance with (and later marriage to) Lauren Bacall deepened the new aura of sexiness that had surrounded him after his emergence as a romantic leading man in Casablanca, and while moviegoers liked him best as a tough hero Bogart couldn’t be limited that way; although he’d struggled a long time to get the sort of better roles (and better pictures) that led to this new popularity, he was too good an actor to be put into a box and, whatever the feudal qualities of the Hollywood system’s creative servitude, too valuable to his studio to be forced into roles he didn’t want in scripts he didn’t like.

Dobbs is the antithesis of Rick Blaine of Casablanca, or Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe or even Harry Morgan of To Have and Have Not. He is closer, physically, to Duke Mantee, the scruffy gangster Bogart portrayed in the stage play (and, later, film) The Petrified Forest. Not that he’s a gangster, or anything close. But his unshaven state is not dissimilar, nor is his essential roughness of personality. Dobbs isn’t unlettered, exactly; in both the novel and the movie of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre you get the sense he’s at very least a high school graduate. It’s more a matter of his bitterness, and his degradation. Like many Americans at that time, he’s been stranded in Mexico with no means of getting back home for so long he’s more than begun to wonder if he’ll die in Tampico, or end up a complete derelict. That’s he’s relatively young — not as young as Curtin, but young enough — is no comfort; what do youth or health mean when you can’t find work? Dobbs’ situation is Traven’s ultimate rebuke of the notion of capitalism itself, in which your very existence depends on some rich bastard hiring you, usually for as little as he can get away with, and his paying you that only when you can catch him. Bogart gets all of this across, almost without speaking. And Huston, as the writer and director, deepens our appreciation of Dobbs, as when Bogart, seeing a lit, discarded cigarette in the street, hesitates and is beaten to it by a small Mexican boy.§

As in the novel, Dobbs’ change of persona in the movie is gradual. He isn’t presented, either by Traven or by Huston, as even potentially villainous, merely as a man on his uppers for so long his ideals (which may only be skin-deep anyway) don’t require much of a nudge to slip away entirely. Although he doesn’t admit to such thoughts, as Howard does,  the very decent Curtin has his moment of temptation, when the mine caves in on Dobbs and he pauses before going to his rescue; you can see Tim Holt, as Curtin, weighing the odds and calculating how much richer he will be if Dobbs perishes. The difference between him and Dobbs, and between Dobbs and Howard, is that their basic decency intervenes. Dobbs is missing something fundamental in his psyche that might ward off his baser impulses, and Bogart is almost uncanny in the way he makes that lack work for him as an actor. It’s in the lines, of course, and the story’s rising action, but the final and most important push is his. The desperation Bogart lets us glimpse early in the picture, together with the character’s growing paranoia, prepares us for his ability to wrap his mind, increasingly unbalanced by the presence of the gold slung over the backs of their mules, around the idea of killing Curtin, and we’re not shocked by it when he shoots him. It says something fundamental about the idiocy of award races that Academy voters, faced with Bogart’s just about perfect performance, didn’t nominate him for its Best Actor Oscar® that year… although they did find room for Dan Dailey in a musical no one remembers. One would almost think the nominating members of the Academy in 1949 were 21st century Democrats.


Treasure of the Sirra Madre - finale

Homeric laughter: Holt and Huston in the ironic finale.

It speaks well of Tim Holt’s innate resourcefulness as an actor that as Curtin he is able to not merely hold his own between Bogart and Walter Huston but manage as well to be nearly as fine in a far less showy part. The son of a silent movie personality, and a young man determined to be a Western movie star, Holt worked largely in B-movies (what Orson Welles referred to as “all sorts of six-day Westerns”) yet managed to be in several big pictures in roles of varying importance: Stella Dallas (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Swiss Family Robinson (1940), Back Street (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946, as Virgil Earp) and the two pictures for which he is best remembered, this one and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, in which Holt is superb as Georgie Minifer, monstrously spoiled and eminently deserving of his “comeuppance.” In Curtin Holt assays Georgie’s antithesis, a man of a basic decency, and makes him memorable. Watch him especially in the scene where Howard laughs at the loss of their gold: Holt looks puzzled at first, then shocked, then frightened at Howard’s sudden hilarity, before slowly giving in to the cosmic joke of it. That’s one nice piece of acting.

While most of the movie’s running time concerns itself with Bogart, Huston and Holt, Bennett creates a strong impression in his brief role as Cody, and MacLane is typically blustery (Bogart and Huston fans will remember him as the surly police detective in The Maltese Falcon bent on nailing Sam Spade for… whatever he can) as the duplicitous contractor Dobbs and Curtin have to nearly beat into a coma just to receive their pay. Little Robert Blake (billed as “Bobby”) does a beautiful job as a hustling street urchin, Alfonso Bedoya is genuinely frightening as “Gold Hat,” John Huston makes a strong showing as a white-suited American whom Dobbs pandhandles once too often, and Jack Holt, Tim’s actor father, shows up in the last-rung flophouse where Dobbs and Curtin first encounter Howard.¶

Treasure - Steiner (Rhino CD)

Steiner’s score on a Rhino/Turner CD release. Note the cleaned-up star portraits from the original poster, and the superfluous señorita promising the potential ticket-buyer a little sex with his treasure-hunting. Alas, the first third of the master tapes are missing, but the disc beautifully represents Steiner’s best score after King Kong and Gone with the Wind… and one of his least annoying. 

In addition to the then-unusual amount of location shooting, which gives the picture much of its solid verisimilitude, Huston was abetted enormously by McCord’s rich black-and-white cinematography. McCord had a splendid eye for contrast, and his images are rich and resonant. The people involved in this project seemed to know it was special; even the often bombastic Max Steiner delivered a score that is more subtle than was his wont. Aside from his appropriately fable-like opening theme and a recurrent motif for the trio of gold-miners that has the feel of plodding uphill with burrows but without the sort of dogged literal-mindedness that spoiled Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, Steiner’s finest accomplishment here is the way he scored the sequence in which the men watch, and wait, for the arrival of the bandits at their camp. He scores the onset with a long, sustained chord by harp and other strings and low rolling drums which, repeated, accentuates the tension nearly to the breaking point. It’s so effective it was later duplicated by John Williams for the sequence in Jaws where Quint prepares to hook the shark, and where it was equally successful.

Huston’s direction throughout is almost shockingly right. The camerawork is clean and effective, the pacing, despite an unusually long running-time for the period, is brisk yet never hurried, and attention is paid in exactly the correct proportions to place, and to people. This, I think, is part of the advantage of being a writer-director. And like Howard Hawks, or George Cukor, both filmmakers intimately involved in the crafting of their movies’ screenplays (especially Hawks, who like Hitchcock was usually an un-credited writer on his scripts) Huston seemed to know instinctively how to group his actors, and where to place his camera, to achieve the maximum dramatic impact, without calling attention to himself. If this translates as a lack of style among pure image junkies — if they cannot appreciate how a director can frame his material without distracting the audience with fancy camera moves — they deserve nothing better than a steady diet of Scorsese and Coen.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was fairly costly ($2,474,000) and it took in less than twice its budget, earning $4,095,000 on its initial release. But it was highly praised, by people who seemed to grasp that darker, less compromised movies than had been the norm for decades were now in the wind, and that John Huston was not merely a figure to watch, but very likely one of the people who would be pushing the medium hard in the future. Whoever B. Traven was, one likes to imagine he did not feel betrayed by the motion picture made, so lovingly and so well, from his most famous book.

Walter and John Huston - Oscars

Walter and John on Oscar® night 1949. The first, and so far only, father/son winners in the same year, for the same picture.


*Curiously, although Curtin explicitly states that his golden summer was spent in California (the San Joaquin Valley), Max Steiner, the movie’s composer, called his music for this sequence “Texas Memories.” And while I am not fond of the letter Huston added, which strains to jerk tears for a character about whom we know little and care even less, the line about the crops (“the upper orchard looks aflame and the lower like after a snowstorm”) is lovely.

†I still can’t figure out what the progressive Weill was doing in collaboration with a reactionary like Anderson, especially on a show whose villain was a stand-in for FDR. But they worked together four times, so the playwright (and occasional lyricist) must have offered something to Weill in the way of artistic compensation.

§The boy seems to be Bobbie Blake — he wears the same sort of striped shirt and dirty overalls as Blake in his later scenes in the movie — but he’s on screen for so brief a moment it’s difficult to tell for certain.

¶Welles used, anachronistically, a poster for a Jack Holt silent during one of the street sequence in Ambersons, “just to make Tim happy.”

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: January, 2020

Standard

By Scott Ross

As my quarterly reports seem to be getting longer and longer, and because I’m watching more movies of late, I’m trying a monthly capsule in place of my usual quarterlies. At least this month. If I see fewer movies in future I may go back to the quarterly model, or perhaps a bimonthly accounting.

As ever, click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.

Gilbert and Dara Gottfried

Gilbert (2017) Neil Berkeley’s surprisingly sweet, even moving, portrait of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried.


Anything Goes - Sinatra, Merman and Lahr

“Good evening, friends…” Sinatra, Merman and Lahr in an unreasonable facsimile of Anything Goes.

Anything Goes (1954) A mess, with compensations.


Snow White - bedroom

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Walt Disney’s first animated feature still delights — and terrifies —  80-plus years later.


Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty - spindle

One of the most visually compelling of the animated features made at his studio while Walt Disney was alive, Sleeping Beauty, initially released in Super Technirama 70mm, is a knockout on a wide theatre screen… a pleasure I am sorry to say few in America will ever enjoy again as I did with Disney cartoons, often, in my youth. It still looks good on a plasma screen, and its climax is beautifully animated, but it’s a rather cold movie — a triumph of design over substance. Disney, busy with his park, let Eyvind Earle impose his style, based in large part on John Hench’s evocations of the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, on the picture, and often backed Earle over his animators. The major problem with Sleeping Beauty is that what should be its central character is little more than a cypher. Cinderella, the previous Disney animated feature focused on a young woman (as opposed to the girl Alice in Alice in Wonderland) gave its heroine rich character, and dimension, from the very first scene. She was kind, and generous, and we understood that, while laboring in terrible circumstances, she never wasted a moment feeling sorry for herself, even if she occasionally (and deservedly) expressed resigned irritation. The teenage Brier Rose/Aurora, this story’s princess, has only one important sequence (directed by Eric Larson) before she falls under the wicked fairy Maleficent’s spell, and while it’s a lovely one, and lengthy, it isn’t enough. And in its aftermath, when she learns her identity from the fairies who raised her and is told she’s betrothed and can’t see the boy she’s met in the forest, her reaction seems petty, like a petulant schoolgirl throwing an after-school fit because her mother’s grounded her.

None of the other characters are especially fulsome except Maleficent, and that’s largely due to Marc Davis’ animation (he also animated Aurora) and Eleanor Audley’s superb vocal performance. Three who come close to being well-defined are the good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, animated almost entirely by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. (Milt Kahl’s Prince Phillip has dimensions, but he’s no more fully sketched-in than the Princess.) Wolfgang Reitherman, who later took Disney animation into an almost entirely sentiment-free realm as the director of every feature between 1961 and 1977, was responsible for the picture’s most effective sequence, the epic battle between Phillip and Maleficent in the form of a great dragon. Interestingly, Reitherman’s mediocre work as the director of the hipper, less emotionally plangent titles of the ’60s and ’70s, is bordered by two of the studio’s best features, 101 Dalmatians and The Rescuers. Somehow, something more came through in those pictures. Whatever it was, a tincture or two should have been applied to Sleeping Beauty.


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons 194373582Although it physically sickens me whenever I think about what RKO did to it, I tend to see what could have been Orson Welles’ masterwork more or less yearly as I get older, and, as with Citizen Kane, usually notice something fresh in it I hadn’t quite seen before — some little detail, or even just a look on one of the actors’ faces, that had previously eluded me and that enriches the experience. And each time I see it, Agnes Moorehead’s performance moves me more. It’s among the most naked jobs of acting in movies; I don’t think the kind of shrill, bitter, self-pitying loneliness she evokes as Fanny Minifer has its equal anywhere in American film, and she doesn’t make you wince; despite yourself, you pity her. That Moorhead was herself as plain as Fanny in the story makes her work doubly impressive, and poignant. And she isn’t afraid to look ugly, as when she mocks Georgie (Tim Holt); you understand, without being told (although it’s made explicit later in the picture) that she has put up with this spoiled brat’s mean-spirited teasing for 20 years, and is giving back in the same, immature, vein — the only response possible. Although Welles maintained that Moorehead’s best scene was removed from the picture and burned, she has two sequences that are almost shocking in their raw emotionality.  One, famously, is near the end, when insupportable reality drives her to hysteria. But the first, when she realizes just how terrible are the consequences of her hurt carelessness, is, although briefer, in its way even greater. The way, leaning over on the staircase nearly in pain, Moorehead moans out Fanny’s misery and regret (Oh, I was a fool!) as if she’d like to push every harmful word she’s ever spoken back down her own gullet, and choke on them, is so utterly without guile or calculation it’s almost a new form of acting. Stanislavsky would have had little to teach her.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Anatomy of a Murder - Gazarra, Stewart
Otto Preminger was a superficially gifted filmmaker who, perhaps because he was as publicity-conscious as Hitchcock, routinely got credit for more than he deserved, and ink for outraging the system, itself largely out of proportion to his achievements. (Burt Kennedy: “I drove by Otto Preminger’s house last night… or is it A House by Otto Preminger?”) I give him a certain amount of credit for unblinkingly depicting addiction and withdrawal in The Man with the Golden Arm (1954) and for twitting the idiot Production Code with The Moon is Blue (1953) but his alleged genius eludes me. That said, Anatomy of a Murder stands not merely as the finest of all courtroom dramas, and a sneakily subversive one, but as one of the greatest of all popular American movies. Much of the credit goes to the sceenwriter, Wendell Mayes, for taking a mildly diverting (and somewhat self-serving) novel by a former Michigan County Prosecuting Attorney — and then state Supreme Court Justice — and improving it in nearly every way. I don’t know how much of this revision was guided by Preminger, but the movie’s deep sense of ambiguity, regarding the law, the behavior of its characters and the case itself was surely shared by the picture’s director. James Stewart gives a career-high performance as the wily defense attorney, and he’s met blow-for-blow by the supporting cast: Lee Remick as a curiously sensual rape victim (one can just hear today’s “a woman never lies” crowd gnashing their teeth and murmuring, “How very dare they!”), Ben Gazzara as her intelligent brute of a husband, Arthur O’Connell as a bibulous former attorney, Kathryn Grant as the murder victim’s heir, George C. Scott as a sneering prosecutor, Orson Bean as an Army shrink, Russ Brown as a trailer park caretaker, Murray Hamilton as a hostile witness, John Qualen as  a prison deputy, Howard McNear as an expert witness, Jimmy Conlin as an habitual drunkard happy to sacrifice his liberty for a case of fine liquor, Don Ross as a shady con, Joseph N. Welch — himself lately, and famously, a defense attorney for the Army against a certain Senator from Wisconsin — as the presiding judge and, sublimely, Eve Arden as Stewart’s wry and long-suffering secretary. Few months have passed since my seeing this movie the first time that I haven’t had occasion to hear Arden’s “If I was on that jury I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t know” reverberate softly in my head.

Anatomy of a Murder - Eve Arden resized

Preminger will never be a favorite of mine, but this movie certainly is.


Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Of all the gin-joints…

Casablanca (1942) I hope it isn’t true, as I have read, that Millennials and their even younger counterparts don’t know, have not heard of and have never seen, one of everybody else’s favorite movies… but I suspect it is. Because it’s in black-and-white? Because it’s older than Star Wars? Because it’s concerned with people, as opposed to special effects? Well, they don’t know who Jack Kennedy was either, or care that he was probably murdered by their government. Whatever the reasons, the losses are theirs entirely. Or soon will be. And then they’ll be the world’s.

Still… imagine a time, 40 or 50 years from now, when no one remembers Casablanca. I’m glad I’ll have been long dead.


My Dinner with Andre
My Dinner with André (1981) In the nearly four decades since this nonpariel movie was released, I don’t think a week has gone by without my recalling something André Gregory said in it. So much of what he and Wallace Shawn discuss seemed at the time both extreme and all too possible. Now their conversation feels entirely prescient.

Wallace Shawn: “I actually had a purpose as I was writing this: I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.”


Key Largo (1948) Key Largo - Bogart on boat
This adaptation, by Richard Brooks and John Huston, of Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 blank verse drama retained little but the basic narrative set-up, a character or two, and the title. The antagonists of the reactionary Anderson’s play were Mexican bandidos, and the Humphrey Bogart character was a deserter from the Spanish Civil War. (He’s also, in typical poetic/nihilist 1930s fashion, killed at the end, after redeeming himself. Huston and Brooks let Bogie off that unnecessary hook.) As a high-tension melodrama, the picture is vastly entertaining as long as you don’t take it seriously for a moment.

Among the things that can’t take much scrutiny is Huston’s desire to make a cheap hood like the Edward G. Robinson character stand in for all the evil of the post-war world. But if you ignore the unworkable metaphors and Lauren Bacall’s inability to do much of anything except smolder and concentrate instead on the performances by Robinson, Bogart and, especially, Claire Trevor as a broken-down alcoholic former gun-moll, as well as the thick Florida atmosphere, the mechanics of the thriller plot, the bits of dialogue that don’t strain for profundity and the best moments of Huston’s direction, Key Largo always makes for a robust evening’s entertainment. The Max Steiner score is a little easier to take than some of his earlier bombast, and the cinematography by Karl Freund is really sumptuous. Freund was the lighting director on some remarkable silents (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Variety, 1925; Metropolis, 1927; and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927) as well as the 1931 Dracula and the 1936 Camille. He was later responsible, in conjunction with Desi Arnaz, for the development of the three-camera technique for television comedy and was, from 1951 to 1957, the director of photography on I Love Lucy. That hasn’t anything to do with Key Largo, but it’s impressive.


Night Moves 6

Night Moves (1975) Paul Vitello, in his 2013 New York Times obituary of the Scottish novelist and sometime screenwriter Alan Sharp, wrote that “his best-known narratives created and then disassembled audience expectations about all the usual Hollywood verities, especially the triumph of justice, love and friendship,” and it seems pretty obvious it was Sharp whose sensibilities most informed this little-seen but essential 1970s detective thriller. It’s as dark and nihilistic as Chinatown, and while I would not claim for it the richness of that landmark of ’70s cinematic Americana, it’s an infinitely better movie than some of the more well-known Arthur Penn-directed pictures of the time like Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a Los Angeles P.I. with a crumbling marriage, on the trail of a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith). The mystery isn’t that search — Harry finds the girl fairly easily — but what is going on with her stepfather in Florida, and why she is suddenly killed, seemingly by accident.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. As the femme fatale, Jennifer Warren’s line-readings are so odd they eventually become false and off-putting, a key telephone answering machine message goes un-listened to and with no dramatic payoff, in an early appearance as a mechanic James Woods doesn’t just chew the scenery but every engine in sight, and some of the scenes don’t seem fully shaped. But it’s wonderfully observed, always intelligent, often witty, and even Griffith is good in it, perhaps because she’s an adolescent and, for once, her little-girl voice is appropriate. The terrific supporting cast includes Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Janet Ward and John Crawford, Michael Small composed the brief but effective score, and the beautiful photography is by the great Bruce Surtees.


Sahara 1943
Sahara (1943) I don’t know how a movie this implausible can be, conversely, so cleverly contrived, so intelligently written and so engagingly acted. Sahara certainly had some impressive writers involved in it: The screenplay was by John Howard Lawson (with an un-credited assist by Sidney Buchman) and Philip MacDonald wrote the story. The main titles tell us that the picture was based on “an incident depicted in the Soviet photoplay The Thirteen” (Тринадцать, or  Trinadtsat, listed in the credits as 1936 but actually 1937) but a cursory look at the plot for that Russian movie suggests that Sahara is in fact a direct adaptation; the only aspects that seem notably different are the setting (the African desert in 1943 as opposed to Turkestan before the war), the antagonists (Nazis rather than Asian bandits as the besieged heroes’ bêtes noire) and their much greater number. The picture concerns the remnants of a tank crew, a troupe of British Medical Corpsmen its members encounter while on retreat, a Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner, a duplicitous Nazi (as if there were any other kind), a phalanx of German soldiers and a desert well. Although not above the occasional war-movie cliché, Sahara is refreshingly restrained and only rarely gives out with one of those bits of Allied propaganda that were de rigueur during the War but which have induced cringes in audiences ever since. The incidentals, such as Rudolph Maté’s crisp, glorious cinematography, Miklós Rózsa’s prototypical score and the Imperial County, California locations, could scarcely be bettered.

Zoltán Korda’s direction is straightforward and without fuss, yet takes time to examine the faces of the actors, and they’re worth lingering over: Humphrey Bogart, of course, as the tank commander, the amusingly named Joe Gunn, but also Dan Duryea in an immensely likable performance as Bogie’s pilot; Bruce Bennett as his navigator; Richard Nugent as the British Captain; Rex Ingram as the Sudanese; and J. Carrol Naish as the Italian. Lloyd Bridges shows up just long enough to get strafed by machine-gun fire, linger a bit, and die, and Peter Lawford is alleged to be among the British but I didn’t spot him. Naish is splendid as the conflicted prisoner (he got an Oscar® nod for it) and if Ingram with his distinctive speech patterns couldn’t be anything but American and isn’t any more believable a Sudanese than he was an Arabian djinn in the Kordas’ 1940 The Thief of Bagdad, anyone who quibbles about that is just spoiling for a fight.

Having recently re-encountered The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Key Largo, I’m in a Bogart mood these days; this entry, while on no account one of his best, made for a more than adequate diversion. And at 98 minutes, Sahara was exactly the right length.


Cutter's Way - John Heard and Jeff Bridges
Cutter’s Way (1981) A beautifully observed study of three more or less desperate people in the form of a grungy thriller, based on an interesting novel, and improving on it. Jeffrey Alan Fishin wrote the incisive screenplay, the recently-deceased Ivan Passer directed with economy and compassion, and I don’t see how the performances by the leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn) could be improved upon. One of the last gasps of 1970s personal cinema, and one of the best arguments for it.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

A kingly crown to gain: “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975)

Standard

By Scott Ross

John Huston famously wanted to make an adaptation of the 1888 Kipling story in the 1950s, to star Bogart and Gable as those incorrigible adventurers “Peachy” Carnahan and Daniel Dravot. He was ultimately persuaded to cast British actors in British roles — which seems so obvious an idea its efficacy shouldn’t have had to be pointed out to him — and got thespic perfection from Michael Caine and Sean Connery… although, somewhat astoundingly, Caine was slanged at the time for being wholly over-the-top.

The Man Who Would Be King - Rubies

Danny is astounded by the size of Peachy’s ruby, which dwarfs the monster he’s unearthed.

I saw this one on its release and it holds up beautifully four and a half decades later, even if the occasional condescension (the watermelon-eating Indian on the train, for example) and the sticky Imperialist sentiments which nettled me at 14 bother me even more today. Huston and his co-scenarist Gladys Hill do more than honor the source: They make its author one of the stars, in Christopher Plummer’s wholly convincing portrayal. (He was a last-minute substitute for Richard Burton, but I can’t imagine Burton besting Plummer in the part.) The movie has a sweep that is all the more effective now for being real, not computer-generated; the cinematographer was the great Oswald Morris, who in collaboration with Huston provided the luminous images for Moulin Rouge (1952), Beat the Devil (1953), Moby-Dick (1956) and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) as well as providing the pictorial splendors for The Guns of Navarone (1961), Lolita (1962), The Hill (1965), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Oliver! (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Scrooge (1970), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Sleuth (1972), Equus (1977),  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1977), Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), The Dark Crystal (1982) and that most photogenic of John Bond epics The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). But The Man Who Would Be King is not a postcard-picture: However impressive the scenery (Morocco standing in for the Kafiri region of Afghanistan) it’s a desolate kingdom this pair is seeking, perched between forbidding mountains and the desert’s austerity. By the end, Peachy’s desire to make off with the treasure of Sikandergul makes one hell of a lot more sense than Danny’s decision to rule like Alexander, if only because the former at least indicates a possible change of scenery.

The-Man-Who-Would-Be-King-John-Huston-1975-1

Dravot and Carnahan enjoy chief Ootah’s hospitality.

Whatever the original reviews, I don’t see how either Connery or Caine could be bettered. Each has the humor of his character, as well as that often charmingly formal solemnity which renders the pair’s seriousness of intent at once amusing and grave. And while it’s true that Caine is called upon to be more overtly humorous than Connery, even wildly funny (I’m thinking particularly of the “One, two, three” training scene) he is no less capable than his co-star of gravitas. I think he gets the quiet madness of the character in the framing sequences exactly right, as well as the scenes in the final third of the picture in which he begins to feel Dravot distancing himself from his friend and reacts with, first, soft hurt; later, justified rage; and, at the last, stoic comprehension. And he’s beautifully matched by Connery, in whom the rich Kiplingesque absurdities roll over the tongue like a savored entrée, yet for whom the eventual hubris, and the graceful courage with which its consequences are met, are entirely correct.

The Man Who Would Be King - Huston on set

Huston, flanked by Saeed Jaffrey, Connery and Caine.

One of the more surprising pleasures of the movie is its rich score by Maurice Jarre, never a favorite composer of mine, Lawrence of Arabia notwithstanding. His work tends toward either the annoyingly esoteric (Is Paris Burning?, Ryan’s Daughter, The Mosquito Coast and the deeply perplexing Witness: Why the synthesizer in a story set among the Amish?) or romanticism so lush as to become self-parody (Doctor Zhivago, Gorillas in the Mist). Only occasionally did Jarre fulfill the promise of Lawrence, as with his klezmer-accented work for Paul Mazursky on Enemies, a love story and his splendid compositions here, anchored to the Irish song “The Minstrel Boy” much as he tied Lawrence to Kenneth Alford’s war march “The Voice of the Guns.” (Jarre combined the tune for “Minstrel Boy” with Reginald Heber’s lyrics for the rather frighteningly militaristic hymn “The Son of God Goes Forth to War,” a song that rivals “Onward Christian Soldiers” for sectarian bloodthirstiness.) Elsewhere Jarre catches the warm rhythms of India, the sere wastelands of Kafiristan and the conflicting passions of the characters, nicely complementing Huston’s images without competing with them for our attention.

The Man Who Would Be King - Kafu Selim

The eyes of age: Karroom Ben Bouih’s as the Kafu Selim

The Man Who Would Be King is as demonstrably a John Huston picture as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for, as so often in Huston, the quest ends in disaster, yet the pursuit itself reveals his characters’ essences: Peachy’s for personal gain, Dravot’s for something outside himself, yet withal in both resides a decency belied by their roguish miens. They even attain a kind of rough poetry, as with Daniel’s apology to Peachy, and the mad Carnahan’s description of Dravot’s fall — there’s nothing like it in Kipling, and it’s as memorable in its modest way as Bogart’s Shakespearean paraphrase at the end of The Maltese Falcon. Huston and Hill also expand, intelligently, on the Masonry of the Kipling, bringing it to a logical, if grandiose, conclusion. When Huston stages an epic sequence, as in the first of his heroes’ battles, he makes it intensely memorable by stopping it before it can truly begin, as both sides wait in prayerful solicitude of the line of elderly priests walking between them as later, in the midst of the protagonists’ intended escape, their treasure, like that of the prospectors in Sierra Madre, dissolves to nothing, here spilling from the horses’ backs to drop clangingly down the steep sides of a mountain hill.

The Man Who Would Be King - Kafiristan

Son of Alexander: Jaffrey, Caine and Connery at the moment of revelation.

Whether by dint of his nature or the landscape, Huston’s approach to an epic structure is intimate; we remember the faces as much as the big set-pieces: Connery’s, Caine’s and Plummer’s, but also Saeed Jaffrey’s as the sweet and absurdly loyal Billy Fish, Shakira Caine’s as the ethereally beautiful and terrified Roxanne (the terror was real — she wasn’t an actress, and didn’t know what to do), Doghmi Larbi’s as the cowardly chieftan Ootah, and, especially, the centenarian Karroom Ben Bouih’s as the ancient priest Kafu Selim. The apt and, where necessary, exquisite art direction by Alexandre Trauner with Tony Inglis and Peter James is an immeasurable aid (Trauner designed Danny’s crown) as is Russell Lloyd’s alternatively leisured and kinetic editing, and Edith Head provided her usual supple costumes — like Huston’s own designs, always firmly in character.

The Man Who Would Be King - Connery skull

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Sitting under the gallows: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Late in John Huston’s just about perfect adaptation of The Maltese Falcon Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade tells his unreliable paramour Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) that they have to get their stories straight for the police who will arrive within minutes. In Spade’s memorable phrase, “We’re both of us sitting under the gallows!” Huston in his memoirs maintains that he saw no particular continuity of style in his work — an unconscious echo of Andrew Sarris’ typically rash condemnation of him — and while this may be true on a purely technical level, yet Huston had a theme peculiar to him and to which he returned again and again in the screenplays he adapted from the novels of others: What I think of as group excursions toward failure. In picture after picture Huston’s characters are sitting under the gallows… and, one way or another, they usually hang.

Sometimes the “group” is two people (Prizzi’s Honor) and occasionally the failure falls on a solitary figure only (Moulin Rouge, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Under the Volcano, Wise Blood, The Dead). But in nearly every movie John Huston directed, whether he wrote (or co-authored) the screenplay, and whether the tone is dramatic, comic, serio-comic or satirical, his protagonists do not succeed. It is a motif as obvious, and as pervasive, as those of disguise and deception in Billy Wilder’s movies, or loneliness and loss of innocence in Orson Welles’. Only when the movie is a romantic adventure (The African Queen and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a “biopic” (Freud), an adaptation of a play (Key Largo, The Night of the Iguana) or a fantasy of one sort or another (Victory, Annie) do the central characters succeed… and even then, their triumph is usually muted and may even seem like punishment. Does Richard Burton’s Reverend Shannon look overjoyed at the end of Iguana when he says he may have some trouble “getting back up the hill” and Ava Gardner’s Maxine ripostes, “I’ll get you back up, baby. I’ll always get you back up”? Huston famously argued with Tennessee Williams over Maxine during the shooting of the picture; the playwright saw her as a spider, and she is. Shannon is her fly, and he knows it. But then, the director regarded Williams’ attitude as a misogynist/homosexual response to an earthy, sensual heterosexual woman. That Williams was forever wedded to the many sympathetic portraits of women in his work (including, along with the neurotic, some notably erotic ones) and that Huston’s own misogyny is legend, puts paid to the argument between them.*

Maltese Falcon - Huston and his stars

Huston and his principal Falcon cast: Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart, all in character.

While one would have to be a trained psychologist perhaps to comprehend what in Huston’s weird mind drew him to his principal theme, or identified it as important — perhaps, as with his colleague and friend Orson Welles it was disappointment at finding himself a mediocre painter — one has only to think of the prospectors of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; the criminals in The Asphalt Jungle (co-written with Ben Maddow); the adventurers and criminals in Beat the Devil (Huston with Truman Capote); the mariners of Moby-Dick (Huston with Ray Bradbury); The Misfits (Arthur Miller); the spies of The Kremlin Letter; and the hopeful imperialist duo in The Man Who Would Be King (both by Huston with his associate Gladys Hill), to see the pattern.

So it is entirely in character that John Huston should end the screenwriting phase of his career with High Sierra, whose doomed ex-con Roy “Mad Dog” Earle both enhanced Humphrey Bogart’s profile and set the downbeat standard for Huston’s more mature work as a writer-director (and, later, director of others’ scripts.) His major weakness, as Lawrence Grobel pointed out in his mutli-generational biography The Hustons,† was his predilection for second-rate literature — for W.R. Burnett and Rudyard Kipling as opposed to, say, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder (although he got to Wilder just before he died). Of course it can be argued, and indeed I have done so elsewhere, that the greatest prose resists transmigration to another medium, which can only reduce it to the bare outlines of dialogue and plot, whereas a canny adapter can make art out of the third- and even fourth-rate; ergo, while Huston foundered on Malcolm Lowry and Flannery O’Connor he soared with C.S. Forester and Noel Behn. Indeed, only twice, with the very fine but studio-mutilated The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) and the sublime The Dead (James Joyce) did John Huston do full honor to a great work he admired. (As his final completed work, The Dead did honor to him as well.)


The Maltsese Falcon had already been filmed, twice at Warner Bros.’, first under its own title in 1931 (it was reissued later as Dangerous Female) and then in 1936 as a comedy-mystery starring Warren William and Bette Davis (Satan Met a Lady). Huston, and Henry Blanke, his producer, felt that the studio had not gotten the book’s values on the screen, and the directing tyro was on the right track when he asked his secretary to re-type the novel in standard script form: It’s a book of dialogue as much as of plot, and damn good dialogue at that. Except for Sam Spade’s paraphrase of Shakespeare at the end, nearly every line spoken in Huston’s movie comes directly from Hammett, or is a slight variation. His deviations are largely for the sake of telescoping, although rather less explicably he omits the sequence in which Spade tosses Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s flat. She assumes it was either Joel Cairo or the young gun-thug Wilmer, and without that scene we make the same assumption. It may be that Huston couldn’t find a way around Hammett’s frame (Spade slipping out while O’Shaughnessy sleeps in his bed) that would satisfy the censors. He had also, perforce, to delete the moment in which Spade forces Brigid, whom he suspects of palming a thousand-dollar bill, to submit to a strip-search. Perhaps such sops to conventional morality were a ruse, or acted as one, because what the screenwriter did get past the Production Code is jaw-dropping. Take, for instance, the moment in the novel in which Spade and Brigid first become intimate. Hammett’s Brigid wonders explicitly if she can buy the detective off with her body; Huston’s Brigid asks, anent Spade’s mention of money, “What else is there I can buy you with?” and his Spade instantly kisses her, roughly, stroking her cheekbones with his thumbs, not caressingly but as if he’d like to raise them just a bit and use them to gouge out her eyes.

Maltese Falcon - Lorre with cane

Sometimes a walking-stick is just a walking-stick: Lorre as Joel Cairo.

Even more astounding, however, is that Huston served up a cinematic mystery in which the genteel culprits are comprised almost entirely of homosexual men, and one rather promiscuous dame who’s a pathological liar. And if Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo is less flagrantly gay than as described by Hammett — in the book he’s depicted as a mincing, thin-armed, heavy-bottomed fairy — he is nevertheless introduced by a gardenia-scented calling card (lavender in the novel) and, as he talks to Spade, sucks briefly at the tip of the decidedly phallic handle of his walking-stick. If that wasn’t eye-popping enough, Huston retains just enough of the dialogue in which Cairo and O’Shaughnessy snipe at each other over a boy in Istanbul she couldn’t make and he did that when she lunges at him, you know precisely why. Cairo’s sexuality is also on display later when, after he and The Fat Man (Sidney Greenstreet) have sold the gunsel Wilmer out and Spade has cold-cocked him, Lorre hovers over Elisha Cook, Jr. like a mother hen. The movie’s Kasper Gutman, like Hammett’s, is more ambiguous — the more so for Huston’s omitting Gutman’s duplicitous young daughter, who pretends being drugged to waylay Sam in his search for Brigid — but it’s hard to miss the implication that Wilmer is not merely the man’s bodyguard but his kept boy, particularly in Gutman’s, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son.” And where Hammett invokes the term “gunsel” a single time only, Huston uses it repeatedly; the movie’s Spade rarely calls Wilmer anything else.

And here we pause for a lesson which seems increasingly necessary… and is seldom, if ever, heeded. I’ve tried myself, more than once, but here goes: Chiefly I think because of this movie, the word “gunsel” (Yiddish, literally “gosling”) has come to mean a cheap hood when it was used in Hammett’s time exclusively in reference to the passive young partner in homosexual union with an older man: A bottom. That’s the reason Bogart’s Spade uses the word so often in his needling of Wilmer, and why the boy gets so angry when he does. Huston’s very knowing employment of the epithet for a gun-toting kid has, unfortunately, given rise to know-nothings casually tossing it off to indicate a gunman of any kind. Thus we get such howlers as Dennis Lehane, in his otherwise excellent crime novel Live by Night, evoking the unintentionally hilarious image of “an army of gunsels.” Not exactly the Spartan 300. Well, Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon is both a gunsel and a cheap hood.

Huston may not have been able to let Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) refer to Cairo as “queer”; permit his Spade to sneer, when Wilmer reacts against Cairo’s physical solicitude, “Lovers’ quarrel”; or do more than indirectly imply the situations, but as in the book there is clearly something going on between Wilmer and Joel in the movie, and the imposed ambiguity is an asset. Huston also upped the ante when Spade twits the police lieutenant, Dundy, repeatedly referring to him as Detective Polhaus’ “boyfriend” or “playmate.” I like to think that it tickled Huston to throw so much “sex perversion” at the Breen Office in one movie, and for that largely Catholic censorship organization to miss it all.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart and Cook

Gunsel and cheap hood: Sam Spade confronts Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) in the lobby of Cairo’s hotel.

Of greater impact in The Maltese Falcon than these matters is the visual style of the picture, one of the progenitors of what post-war French critics deemed film noir (literally, “dark film”) and which was and remains so misunderstood. The shadowed look was, usually, of necessity on below-B movie budgets. That the chiaroscuro effects aided the storytelling was something of a happy accident, but low-key lighting was most often used to camouflage cheap sets with modest light sources. Even Orson Welles and Gregg Toland resorted to these tricks on Citizen Kane, not a “B” picture but one made at a cost-conscious studio with every reason to be nervous, and Kane is now, like Falcon and Double Indemnity, considered by many as one of the de facto early noirs. (Although, again, Indemnity was an “A” project from the outset.) And while Kane had not begun its theatrical run when Falcon was shooting — it was delayed by the contretemps with Hearst — I suspect Huston had seen and admired it, as his movie debut as a director also, like Welles’ and unusually for the period, favors visible ceilings and close, low angles.

Huston’s San Francisco is a city not merely of fog but of night. Only two, brief, outdoor sequences occur during daylight hours, and even the short scene (the murder of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s business partner) imposed on the picture by nervous executives for the benefit of patrons who can’t piece something together even when it’s discussed in detail, while directed by someone other than Huston, takes place on a fog-bound, deserted street in the hours just after midnight. The Maltese Falcon is a movie of dark rooms with drawn shades (only Spade’s apartment has diaphanous curtains, and, perhaps significantly, his windows are almost always open.) Huston’s cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a master of light who also shot the Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, All Quiet on the Western Front, Mutiny on the Bounty and three James Whale projects (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man). He also, coincidentally, lit Satan Met a Lady, and a year after Falcon he would produce the sumptuous photography for Bogart’s vehicle to immortality, Casablanca. This was a man who understood darkness, and how to exploit it.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart in shadow

The dark night of the soul is sometimes two a.m. rather than three: Spade after learning of the death of his partner.

Speaking of Bogart brings us to the fourth reason for the picture’s lasting appeal beyond Hammett’s story, Huston’s compact screenplay and his subsequent stripped-down direction: The movie’s superb cast. Although a far cry from the green-eyed “blond Satan” of Hammett’s description, Bogart is in every other way the ideal Sam Spade — indeed, the one who defined the role forever, as he did five years later with his Philip Marlowe, and after whom (pace Howard Duff) no others need apply. “Spade has no original,” Hammett once wrote. “He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” You can take Hammett’s words about Spade and apply them equally to Bogie. Nearly every man in the 1940s wanted to be him, or to at least possess his self-assurance.

And Sam Spade was the role Bogart had been waiting for. After years of supporting parts, thankless inanities and almost-leads he’d burnished his reputation considerably playing “Mad Dog” Earle for Raoul Walsh (and scenarist John Huston) and Spade was, for the actor, a definite step up: This time he wasn’t a criminal, and although emotionally wounded, he at least didn’t die in the end. Bogart won the role after George Raft, who was possibly Hollywood’s least precise chooser of roles, passed, largely because Huston was, as director, an unknown quantity. Raft made a habit of turning down parts that paved the way for others, especially Bogart: The gangster “Baby Face” Martin in Dead End, Roy Earle, Spade, “Gloves” Donahue in All Through the Night and, allegedly, Rick Blaine in Casablanca, the part that cemented Bogart’s stature as not only a bankable star but a desirable, even sexy, leading man.‡ Spade calls forth from Bogart a unique set of attitudes. He is, on the one hand, a detached observer and, on the other, and in his own fashion, passionate about justice. A pitiless cad (he’s carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, and, throughout the picture, treats her with barely disguised contempt) yet despite Brigid’s… I believe the polite phrase would be “unreliable veracity”… he’s genuinely shattered at the end by his own decision to surrender her to the police. He seems to be every bit as avaricious as the casually murderous gang he’s drawn into assisting — note the manic gleam in his eye when he unwraps the falcon, and the dark glee with which he exclaims to Lee Patrick as his secretary Effie, “We’ve got it, Angel! We’ve got it!” — but remaining on the level is ultimately of more interest to him than treasure-hunting. Nor does Bogart tip his hand; we’re unsure until the finish just how far he’ll go.

There’s also remarkable equanimity in Bogart’s performance; although he needles Wilmer mercilessly (and not without reason) he’s more amused by than contemptuous of Cairo when the perfumed dandy holds him up a second time, and his startled laughter at the little man’s audacity feels absolutely real. The same holds true when, exasperated by the Fat Man’s intransigence, he smashes his drinking glass and gives the old chiseler what for; the rage is incandescent, yet when he exits Gutman’s suite he’s grinning at his own performance, even unto the hand he suddenly notices is shaking in the aftermath of his outburst. And when at the climax he explains to Brigid why he’s sacrificing her, he looks absolutely poleaxed by the whole thing. That haunted gaze of his, staring at nothing as he tries to make Brigid understand what she cannot begin to comprehend, marks Spade’s emotional wounding as surely as the faraway look in his eyes when, after Polhaus (Ward Bond) asks him what the black bird is he replies, “The, uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” It’s a dream he’s trying to shake, and we sense there will indeed be as he suggests to Brigid “some rotten nights,” and a lot more of them than he lets on.

That is, I think, one hell of a performance.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart and Astor

“We’re both of us sitting under the gallows.”

The casting of Mary Astor as Brigid is truly inspired. In the Hammett novel, she is, altogether improbably, a girl in her early 20s. With the more mature but no less alluring Astor in the role, the character’s lies and evasions take on both greater believability and a peculiar resonance: Brigid becomes a woman with a past, and a sense of desperation that goes beyond her fear of violent death.§ It’s a tribute to Astor’s fulsome performance that we are never quite certain, even after repeated viewings, where the lies end and the truth begins; when she breaks down at the climax, is her reaction wholly to the certainty of life behind bars, or even hanging, or does she perhaps actually love Sam Spade, at least a little? He can’t tell, and neither can we. The final shot of her, behind elevator door bars that creepily evoke the cell waiting for her at Tehachapi, is as devastating as Astor’s shell-shocked gaze.

As Cairo, Peter Lorre beautifully illustrates why in Berlin he was considered one of the finest young stage actors of his generation. The baby-fat he’d exhibited as the child-murderer in M was long gone by 1941 (although, at least in part due to morphine addiction, his heaviness would return) and the leanness of his face becomes Cairo as much as the curled hair that suggests the Levantine of Hammett’s novel. And despite the clear implications of a homosexual persona, there is nothing prissy or effeminate about Lorre’s performance, merely a weary sophistication alternating with an excitability that just verges at times on hysteria. Although Cairo is amoral, we somehow don’t dislike him, as it is nearly impossible to dislike Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, no matter how threatening he may seem. His avuncular jocularity somehow skirts being tiresome — an improvement over the novel, in which the character is both repetitious and, ultimately, exhausting — and the figure becomes at once unknowably malign and irresistible. He is not, incidentally, called “The Fat Man” in the novel. That moniker was one of Huston’s most apposite additions.

Maltese Falcon - Greenstreet, Lorre and Bogart

The supporting roles are no less impressively cast. Lee Patrick does wonder-work with Effie Perine, showing none of the masochistic hurt of the character in the novel that makes her seeming to push Brigid on Spade so perverse. Gladys George’s Iva Archer is nicely judged, as is Ward Bond’s ambivalent Detective Polhaus, and Barton MacLane gets the right measure of surliness in Lieutenant Dundy, soured by the prospect of Spade’s not being a killer. (Walter Huston also shows up, unbilled, as a walking corpse, a role he undertook to give his son some needed confidence on the first day of filming.)

Although Elisha Cook Jr.’s Wilmer is not the pretty boy of the novel, the actor clearly read the book; when attempting to shadow Spade on the street he keeps his eyes shaded by his lashes just as Hammett describes the character. Cook also has an effective scene in Spade’s apartment when, knowing he’s being sold out, he threatens the private detective through barely controlled tears. He understand at that moment that he is indeed only a boy, not the hardened thug he pretends to be, and that the ease with which he’s murdered at least one man in imitation, one presumes, of the gangsters he’s seen at the movies has finally caught up with him.

The Maltese Falcon is one of those rare movies one can see again and again with complete happiness, ever succumbing to its mesmeric blandishments, always finding something new. I initially saw it, at a library screening, when I was perhaps 11 or 12 (it was my first Bogart picture), have watched it repeatedly in the years since — including twice recently in preparation for writing this — and know that I will revisit it many times in the future. It would be a masterpiece of its kind had it been written and directed by an old pro with a couple dozen such pictures under his belt. For a novice to have made it is almost beyond belief.

Huston’s people may be doomed, but when they’re this good, they are indeed the stuff that dreams are made of.


*Huston was comfortable enough with gay men as long as their public miens comforted his bigotry, as with Capote. It was only when confronted with a homosexual man (Montgomery Clift) whose persona eschewed the flamboyant that he couldn’t handle it.

†Along with illuminating the lives of Walter and John, Grobel takes in as well the youths and early careers of Angelica, Tony and Danny.

‡Raft also said no to Double Indemnity, to Billy Wilder’s relief. About the only good role he said yes to was that of Spats Columbo in Some Like it Hot. Would The Maltese Falcon be half the picture it is with him? Would High SierraDouble Indemnity? Care to see Raft in Bergman’s arms? His complacency was American cinema’s benison.

§In one of the essays that accompany the published screenplay (in the Rutgers Films in Print series) one Ilsa J. Bick refers to Astor, absurdly, as “matronly.” I wonder how old Bick was when she wrote that.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: July — September 2019

Standard

By Scott Ross

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

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

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


They Might Be Giants - finale

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

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

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

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


Daughters of the Dust_Trailer

Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant

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


The Last Hard Men - Heston and Coburn

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


Invisible Monster titcd

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

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

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

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


Klute - Fonda and Sutherland (Klute comforts Bree)

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


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

Rod Steiger, Jester Hairston and Sidney Poitier

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


Ghostbusters1984_45

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


Touch-of-Evil-7-e1382097512115-940x460

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


the_pink_panther_blake_edwards_and_peter_sellers_on_the_set_of_the_return_of_the_pink_panther

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

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

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


Chinatown_091pyxurz1

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


Beetlejuice

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


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

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


Blackbeard's Ghost - Ustinov and Jones

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


INTO THE WOODS

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

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

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


the-art-of-love-lg

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


Murder by Decree

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


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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

Standard

By Scott Ross

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

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

Chinatown - Huston, Nicholson

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

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

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

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

Chinatown - Dunaway, Nicholson

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

Chinatown - Nicholson, Dunaway

“My sister… my daughter.”

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

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

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

Chinatown - knife

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

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

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

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


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

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Chinatown poster

Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: April — June, 2019

Standard

By Scott Ross

The Doors - Kilmer

The Doors (1991) Oliver Stone’s examination of Jim Morrison, co-written with J. Randal Johnson, has been harshly criticized, not least by members of The Doors, for distorting him and for emphasizing his pretension and his self-destructive behavior. But when a rock star, and a young man of 27, dies suddenly I submit that we may at least wonder whether drugs and alcohol may have played a role. On the other hand, the Morrison depicted in The Doors is so repellent and narcissistic it’s difficult to know how he could have possessed the charisma, and the creativity, to become a cultural icon. This is not to say that Val Kilmer is charmless in the role — indeed, he is exceptionally compelling — merely that the obnoxious qualities Morrison displays here are so prominent they cancel out his attributes.

The movie holds fascination despite these cavils. No one’s pictures look the way Stone’s do, or are put together remotely as he assembles them. The Doors has an appropriately trippy quality, and not only in the drug sequences. Stone emphasizes Morrison’s death obsessions literally, to the point of having both the spirit of an elderly Native shaman (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) and Richard Rutowski as Death stalking Kilmer at periodic points, such as when Rutowski dances more than suggestively behind Morrison during an orgiastic concert appearance; Stone said he wanted to convey the image of Death “fucking him in the ass,” which is curious considering how the picture shies away from any suggestion of Morrison’s alleged bisexuality — a claim his bandmates also, of course, vociferously deny.

But then, as everyone surely knows by now, rock music, unlike every other performing category on earth, is composed wholly and entirely of heterosexuals.



Alexander - Bagoas
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut
(2004 / 2013) I missed Oliver Stone’s epic study of Alexander the Great when it was released in 2004, but I certainly remember the rank homophobia that attended it, from audiences, critics and entertainment reporters. The sexuality of Alexander the Great has been a matter of controversy for centuries, but one would like to have believed that by the beginning of the 21st, some reasonableness on the subject might obtain. Instead the movie was derided, with schoolboy snickers, as Alexander the Gay. Even if one ignores his intense relationship with Hephaistion, or chooses to assume that he was chaste with his young eunuch courtier Bagoas, that Alexander married late, and left no heir, is surely indicative of something.

My own readings on Alexander have been limited to Mary Renault’s glorious fictions, particularly her splendid The Persian Boy, told from the perspective of Bagoas. Stone and his co-scenarists, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, based their screenplay largely on the historian Robin Lane Fox’s book on Alexander, but Renault was an inspiration as well, largely I would assume via Fire from Heaven, her novel of his formative years. (A third, Funeral Games, describes the events immediately following his death, likely by murder.) The scenarists frame their narrative around the reminiscences of the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and limn the forces that shaped Alexander, from early childhood to the end. Of necessity, Stone and his co-authors omit much, including the burning of Persepolis, the particulars of which are still uncertain. And, rather surprisingly for Stone, there is no voice in the picture, however small, critical of Alexander for his voracious need of conquest. Rather, the filmmaker is besotted with the warrior king’s creative attempts to unify the vanquished and respect their cultures. That is not to say that this is not in itself admirable — and unusual, in any age. Merely that, whatever his virtues, Alexander was an insatiable imperialist, taking by force land that did not belong to him and, however benignly, enslaving the people who lived on it.

That said, the picture is superbly mounted, with the sort of breathtaking sweep only a master could achieve, and a cast of fascinating characters, chief among them of course Colin Farrell’s at once fierce yet essentially gentle Alexander. In his dyed-blond beauty, he is, appropriately both to the subject and to Stone’s conception, a deeply romantic figure. (There is, indeed, a rather gratuitous, if admittedly attractive, shot of him, naked and filmed from behind as he rises from a bed, that fully reveals not merely Farrell’s shapely backside but his genitalia and which would not be out of place in a pornographic video.) Val Kilmer is a likewise full-bodied Philip, lusty to a fault — his rape of an underling leads directly to his assassination — and, despite his crudeness and bluster, an essential guide to his son. Christopher Plummer has a nice scene as Aristotle; Jared Leto is a fine Hephaistion, wearing his love for Alexander both lightly and with palpable hurt at no longer sharing his erstwhile adolescent lover’s bed; and Francisco Bosch makes a lovely Bagoas, although obviously older than his historical precedent. The movie’s finest performance, however, is that of Angela Jolie as Alexander’s mother Olympias. Passionate and scheming, and as ruthless as her husband, Jolie’s Olympias makes abundantly clear why Alexander kept her at arm’s length. Rosario Dawson makes a memorable Roxane, animalistic and raging with jealousy. When naked on her wedding night, however, her bared breasts are revealed as pendulous and unappealing, although I am well aware than many heterosexual men consider them “hot.” That sex-scene contrasts strikingly with the one, later, between Alexander and Bagoas; where with Roxane he is aggressive, indeed even brutal, matching her bestial nature, with Bagoas he is tender and loving. One suspects that, while making love to another young man is natural, he must stir himself artificially to have sexual relations a woman… and that he understands his bride all too well.

Stone’s theatrical edit ran 175 minutes; a subsequent “Director’s Cut” for DVD was 167; the home video labeled “The Final Unrated Cut” ran 214; and Stone’s 2013 “Ultimate Cut” 206. In this edition the filmmaker took out much of what he had placed in the third version, feeling he had added in too much. At any length, this is a picture that isn’t going to satisfy many: The Leonard Maltin movie guide describes it as the first of Stone’s movies that can be called “boring.” Taste is a personal matter, of course — de gustibus non est disputandum, and all that jazz — but the sort of mind that could find Stone’s lavish, violent, engrossing examination of Alexander and his world “boring” is not one with which I would care to spend much time.


The Stunt Man - crane
The Stunt Man (1979) The virtues, and the weaknesses, of this essential one-off remain intact after four decades.


zeppo_marx_groucho_marx_animal_crackers_dictation_scene1

“Jameson, take a letter to my lawyer…”

Animal Crackers (1930) This was my first Marx Brothers movie, seen at a late-show screening when I was 15. That event took place a couple of years after Steve Stolier was instrumental in getting Universal to strike a new print and release it to theatres, where it proved surprisingly popular. Or perhaps not so surprisingly; the 1960s vogue among college students both for old movies and for their anti-hero stars (Bogart, Cagney, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marxes) was still with us in 1974, and the night I saw the picture, in tandem with my mother — whom I blessed then, and still do, for taking me to a movie at 11.30 on a Saturday night in summer and not complaining about it — the place was nearly full, the big audience roaring at Groucho’s 45-year old puns and topical jokes. My love for the Marxes, whom I had previously encountered only in print, photos and old recordings, increased a hundred-fold that night. And Mom had a good time, too.

I discovered only comparatively recently that Paramount truncated several scenes and trimmed some mildly risqué dialogue from this “Pre-Code” comedy for a late-‘30s reissue of the movie, so the inclusion of a clean, un-censored copy on The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Blu-ray boxed set is particularly welcome. If you know the picture already you won’t see reinstated entire scenes you don’t recall, but the mild shock of hearing Groucho engage in some additional, suggestive repartee in his “Jameson, take a letter” sequence with Zeppo, or realizing that even the “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” opening number was slightly expurgated, will simply add to your pleasure at seeing this lively, joyous enterprise again. Especially since, even more than the somewhat deadly 1929 movie of The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers gives a prime example of just how spontaneous and original Mrs. Marx’s boys must have been on the stage.



The Manchurian Candidate
(1962) Pet peeve, which over the years has become even petter, or peevier: People who use the phrase “Manchurian Candidate” and think they’re referring to an assassin. Raymond Shaw, the hapless marksman brainwashed to commit a crime once considered “unthinkable,” is not the eponymous figure of Richard Condon’s sharp, strange novel, written in the late 1950s but, science-fiction like, projected as the narrative of a future event; the “Manchurian Candidate” is in fact his hated stepfather, the at once bibulous, doltish and McCarthyesque Senator John Iselin. Pauline Kael thought the book “fool-proof” for adaptation, and so slighted George Axelrod’s exceptional screenplay: While he retains much of Condon’s slightly off-center dialogue, Axelrod’s changes are felicitous, and beyond mere streamlining. They are also the very things auteurists go into rapture over, presuming that it simply must have been the movie’s director, John Frankenheimer, who devised the dizzying, disorienting approach to the flashback sequences in Manchuria. That these are beautifully shot and edited is undeniable, but the concept was entirely Axelrod’s. It’s also axiomatic among the ignoratti that Frank Sinatra, one of the movie’s producers, kept the picture out of circulation following a single television airing in the mid-1970s (where I first encountered it) out of deference to the memory of Jack Kennedy. Not at all. He merely wanted more money than he was being offered.

Manchurian Candidate

Note the way the filmmakers frame a live political event: Power-mad Lansbury watches, not her dippy Senator husband, but the way he’s showing up on television.

The moment late in the movie in which Shaw’s manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury) plants a deep kiss on his lips was shocking in 1962, but Condon goes even further, both with the character’s hellish personality and with her incestuous impulses; her first lover was her father, and she does far more than merely kiss Raymond. Lansbury was universally admired for her performance, and she should be. So, for that matter, should Sinatra: As Marco, the viewer’s surrogate, he hits every note with precisely the correct emotional weight. Fortunately, Axelrod removed the ugliest aspect of the character — his (to me, truly brainwashed) determination to save the Medal of Honor from embarrassment, up to and including re-programming Raymond to kill the Iselins and then himself. Axelrod has more respect, for both Raymond and Marco.

The rich supporting cast includes Janet Leigh in a very strange role (no less strange in the novel) whose meaning is open to interpretation; James Gregory as that consummate dope Johnny Iselin; Khigh Dhiegh as the chief Chinese doctor, whose frequent laughter and ready smile are the very opposite of sinister, which somehow makes them even more appalling; and the always splendid John McGiver as a representative of that now thoroughly dead specimen, the liberal Republican. David Amram’s effective score includes one of the most striking main title themes ever heard in an American movie.


Winter Kills - Perkins

Winter Kills (1979) Another Condon adaptation, but nowhere near as successful as The Manchurian Candidate, largely because the writer and director, William Richert, diverges so often from his source. The Condon novel is, like its predecessor, both steeped in American political realities and history, and wildly, almost grotesquely, satirical. It’s a market Condon had cornered, and the wise filmmaker follows his lead. Richert deviates in crucial ways, and in so doing loses much of the demented logic of the book involving a Kennedyesque family, an assassinated president, a deep conspiracy involving intelligence and the Mafia, the American surveillance state and the family’s young scion (Jeff Bridges) suddenly hauled into the middle of it.

Not all of Richert’s alterations are deleterious, however, particularly his use of a woman on a bicycle as the herald of atrocity and his re-imagining of the communications maven played in the picture by Anthony Perkins. Indeed, when I first saw the picture nearly 40 years ago, it was a single throwaway line of Perkins’ — one with no antecedent in Condon — and the way it was delivered, and filmed, that stuck with me.* He also gets a climactic moment with Jeff Bridges that encapsulates the movie’s odd, almost off-hand, approach to black comedy. But what Condon’s fictions really need for effective transmigration to the screen are not wholesale re-writers but creative editors. The fun of his books lies as much in peeling back their layers of deceit and deception as in their peerless dialogue; pull too many pins out of Condon’s puzzles, their entire edifices collapse and you’re left scrambling to pick up the pieces and rebuild without a blueprint. Thus we get Sterling Hayden as a nutso general who is what General Jack D. Ripper might have become if the world hadn’t ended in Dr. Strangelove and Dorothy Malone as Bridges’ idiotic mother, a character long dead in the novel and wholly unnecessary. Worse, Richert turns the Bridges character’s one real ally inexplicably against him at the end — that, or his final scene is so confusingly shot and edited I misunderstood what was happening. Possibly both.

The casting is largely a help, although Toshiro Mifune is wasted in a nothing role, and there isn’t nearly enough of Richard Boone, or of Eli Wallach as a Jack Ruby stand-in. Belinda Bauer is appropriately unfathomable as Bridges’ sometime lover and Elizabeth Taylor puts in a brief but juicy cameo, but John Huston as “Pa” Kegan and Jeff Bridges as his diffident son are utterly perfect. Most of Pa’s lines in the novel sounded as if they were written for Huston’s curious, half-whimsical/half-sinister drawl, and the image of him at the end, clinging to a gargantuan American flag, is both appalling and funny. Bridges meanwhile is ideally cast as the audience surrogate, a young iconoclast who didn’t know his late brother all that well, is equally fascinated and repulsed by his infinitely wealthy father, and trying vainly to go his own way. With his big, open, handsome face and his ability to express both worldliness and shocked naïveté, no one of his age and weight in the ‘70s could play soiled innocence quite as well as Bridges.


American Graffiti 6

American Graffiti (1973) Universal Pictures had so little love for this extremely low-budget George Lucas project the studio nearly blew what eventually became a financial behemoth (13th on the list of top-grossing American movies as late as 1977) and a cultural touchstone of the decade.


Marathon Man - Scheider and Olivier

Marathon Man (1976) This dark, visceral adaptation by William Goldman and John Schlesinger of Goldman’s “What-If?” novel about a Mengele-like Nazi unavoidably drawn to New York City was one of the first “R”-rated movies I ever saw, and it shook me to the core. Pauline Kael was put off by the movie’s classical realism, believing the book’s potboiler status demanded a slicker approach, but I disagree; Schlesinger’s elegant verisimilitude gives the pulp plotting both a stylish patina and a prevailing sense of dread that drenches the narrative like a fever-dream. As the screenwriter, Goldman cleverly re-imagined his exciting novel for the screen, and his increasingly frightening use of the question “Is it safe?” briefly became a part of the American cultural language… and inspired a new fear of your friendly neighborhood dentist that was only slightly less pronounced than the embarrassed terror with which swimmers regarded the sea a year earlier, after the release of Jaws.


French Connection - Alan Weeks

The French Connection (1971) One of the toughest, most visceral crime movies of its time, and one that still packs a wallop.


Last Jedi - Ridley and Hamill

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Am I the only one who suspects the only way the Disney Star Wars series can survive is if its creators move past their predecessors? Fortunately, through plotting and attrition, that necessary goal is closer: J.J. Abrams, belatedly fulfilled Harrison Ford’s 1983 wish, killing off Han Solo in his initial movie; Rian Johnson sent Luke Skywalker to his reward here (though one strongly suspects Abrams will use his spirit, a la Alec Guinness, in his upcoming The Rise of Skywalker); and, sadly for those who loved or admired her, Carrie Fisher’s addictions took her out of the picture permanently after she completed her scenes in this, the second installment of the current trilogy. Will any of this spur Abrams’ and Johnson’s successors in future Star Wars projects to abandon the (real or surrogate) fathers-and-sons through-lines of nearly every episode in the franchise so far? Surely there is more than one plot-line in that galaxy!

This observation will probably earn me extreme opprobrium, but I make it without rancor or cruelty: Fisher’s death at least spares us during the forthcoming final third the Hillary Clintonesque conception of Leia by Abrams and Johnson, and which presumably inspired Clinton’s deranged, transductive and Trump-maddened acolytes to begin calling themselves “The Resistance.” Fisher’s delivery in these pictures was so slurred one couldn’t help wondering whether, like her presumed inspiration, Leia’d been off somewhere in the intergalactic woods drinking chardonnay.

The truly hopeful signs of this series have been the development of their central characters: Rey, embodied by the extraordinary Daisy Ridley; John Boyega’s complicated Finn; Kelly Marie Tran’s endearing Rose Tico; and, to a lesser extent, Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, who has had less character development. But Adam Driver, as interesting as he is capable of being, was an odd choice to portray the offspring of Han and Leia, as he looks like neither Fisher nor Ford. Worse, he embodies the inability of the filmmakers to abandon the narrative yokes of the last 40 years of Star Wars movies. Still, he’s just mercurial, and unbalanced, enough to be somewhat unpredictable.


Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait (1978) There are few pleasures quite like discovering that a movie you loved in your youth is not only in no way dated but is every bit as delightful as you remembered. Warren Beatty’s directorial debut (he shared the job with Buck Henry) remains impressive: A gentle, quirky comic fantasy, perfectly cast and, within its fantastic framework, utterly logical. Beatty and the great Elaine May based their screenplay on the 1941 Robert Montgomery comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, itself taken from a play by Harry Segall called Heaven Can Wait… later the title of a 1943 Ernst Lubitsch/Samson Raphaelson collaboration starring Don Ameche, itself a life-after-death fantasy.

The picture concerns a rising professional quarterback called Joe Pendleton (Beatty, looking almost impossibly trim and desirable) who, taken too soon by a presumptuous angel (Henry) is sent back to earth in the body of a rapacious industrialist lately murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and secretary (Charles Grodin). Joe’s determination to lead his old team in the upcoming Super Bowl drives the plot, which aside from the hilariously homicidal lovers includes Joe’s accommodating guardian angel Mr. Jordan (James Mason), a passionate and outraged British environmentalist (Julie Christie), Joe’s befuddled former trainer (Jack Warden) and three sublimely unflappable servants (Joseph Maher, Hamilton Camp and Arthur Malet.) It’s among the most agreeable comedies of its era, wonderfully light on its feet — both emotionally plangent and dry as vermouth.


Who Framed Roger Rabbit image-29

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) With this single movie, the entire landscape of animation was altered, for a time.


*”Don’t panic; panic is counter-productive.” Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Context is everything.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2017

Standard

By Scott Ross

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



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

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


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

Guffey at the door F58

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

 

 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

The Jungle Book 165.2

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

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


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


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

Rosmary's Baby large_gordon

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



Theatrical Documentary

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


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


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


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



Selected Short Subject

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



Made for television

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


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


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


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



Television series

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


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

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



Seen a second time… and will never see again

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


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


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


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


New to Me: More than worth the trip

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


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


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


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


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


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

The Kremlin Letter 1_613x463

The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

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


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


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


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

Track-of-the-cat-wellman3

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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! (1966) Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.


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


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


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


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


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



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

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


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