Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

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By Scott Ross

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


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


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


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


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…


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


Cowboy (1958)

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

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

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


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.


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


 

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


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


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


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


Tall in the Saddle (1944)

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


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


Born Free (1965)

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.


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Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

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

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Watching the Watchmen: “Cromwell” (1970) and “The Train Robbers” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

When multinational corporations, most of them in no way related to the various entertainment industries that provided the bulk of what Americans read, saw and heard, began to take over the major movie studios beginning in the early 1960s —  these would eventually include oil giants, insurance holding companies and even a firm known primarily for its parking lots and, later, a major soda-pop maker* —  a vital change took place in how the people who ran them thought about movies. No one who has studied the big Hollywood studios even cursorily can fail to observe that, crudity, vulgarity and lack of education to one side, the men who ran M-G-M, Paramount, Columbia, RKO, Universal, 20th Century-Fox, the Goldwyn Studio and Warner Bros. genuinely loved movies, and in a way that would be completely alien to the suits who later took over their dream factories. Moreover, these men understood that, however much they ran after mass public taste and tried to cater to it, each new picture they made, no matter how like the last successful picture they made, was unique. Unlike a shoe or a car or a service station or a parking lot or a bottle of Coke, no two movies were identical. It was that basic fact of movies that the corporate types failed to grasp, and which led to the idiotic five-year industry-wide chasing after of a Sound of Music style hit musical, the heedless (and fruitless) pursuit of which nearly bankrupted the lot of them.

The inability of the corporate mind to comprehend something as variable as popular art is the primary reason a) for the cookie-cutter mentality of most big movies and b) why corporations should steer clear of movie-making. It was noted, in the ’90s, that Japanese manufacturing concerns were baffled by the American entertainment companies they had purchased. They were unable to fathom a product that was not based on the mass-production model, which movies cannot. Motion pictures, as I noted above, are not a line of tape decks. Not that this basic fact of enterprise has stopped the businessmen owners of most studios from trying to make them that way. It’s one of the reasons sequels are so popular among the suits.

Look: It’s always been difficult to get anything worthwhile made in the movie industry, where the cost of production is high and courage is required to gamble on a picture that challenges the viewer, upsets the established norms or otherwise threatens to be of interest primarily to those above the common denominators of native intelligence. And that’s where pop movie critics came in.

These reviewers — for genuine critics they were not — tended to write for newspapers, where they could be counted upon by their editors (and, of greater importance to their publishers, the paper’s corporate advertisers) to praise dreck and pan originality; to maintain the established order and smack down anyone who threatened to upend it. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was the model in this, although he was hardly alone. When the big newsweeklies gained ascendancy, they too offered up a parade of styleless hacks and soulless nonentities, which is one of the reasons no one at Time or Newsweek knew what to do with men like John O’Hara, Manny Farber and James Agee. It took a critic for a general interest magazine (Pauline Kael at The New Yorker) to elevate the discussion, and that more than a decade following Agee’s death and after she had floundered at popular venues like McCall’s and The New Republic. And in the period during which Kael was establishing herself and proving to be the best thing that had happened to movie criticism since the days when Farber and Agee were writing for The Nation, the paperback capsule collection took off, a phenomenon that likely warmed any number of corporate hearts, turning movie criticism as it did away from sharp, idiosyncratic (and thus, unpredictable) rumination and back to easily digested consumer guidance.

I first discovered the late Steven H. Scheuer’s Movies on TV in my 5th grade teacher Miss Anderson’s bookcase of paperbacks, which she graciously allowed us to borrow from, in late 1972 or early ‘73.† As I was then slowly becoming more interested in movies (beyond Disney animated features, I mean) leafing through Scheuer’s book and reading his capsule reviews was, for a budding film novice, an exciting activity. I was curious about how he judged movies I had seen, mostly on television, but also about those I’d heard of and hadn’t yet viewed, and those I’d never heard of at all. Discovery is half the fun, after all, of examination. A couple of years later I got a copy of the updated edition (Scheuer’s first was published in 1959) in my Christmas stocking, as well as the new reprint of Leonard Maltin’s then-titled TV Movies, which had debuted in 1969 when its compiler was all of 19. When I had money of my own, I purchased new editions every two years (the schedule both used until Maltin began updating yearly), and used them, as I still do, as reference material. Yet even at the age of 14 I recognized that Scheuer’s was the better book; being less concerned with quantity than quality, his reviews were longer, and more obviously written as genuine (if necessarily brief) criticism: Scheuer was less tolerant of trash, and less influenced by Hollywood; his reviews were tougher, and more literary (or at least, stylish) and he more often pointed his readers to worthwhile movies they might never have discovered on their own. It was in his book, for example, that one found reference to the largely unknown, or forgotten, X-rated 1970 cinematic adaptation of Tropic of Cancer starring Rip Torn, which I have never seen cited anywhere else since. Where Maltin & Co. bested Scheuer, aside from including more entries, was in a greater accuracy regarding running-times, and including longer cast lists. TV Movies (published by Signet; Scheuer’s was a Bantam book) was also laid out in a superior typeface, and the asterisks in Maltin’s capsule reviews were both more elegant and easier on the eye.

Despite my own adolescent addiction to these books, with which I sometimes argued vociferously, I sincerely hope no adult ever used either to decide whether to watch a movie or to avoid one. (Although in my heart I know many did.) Especially as, to conserve space, both Maltin and Scheuer began cutting some reviews entirely and drastically shortening others, removing the very thing that made them interesting to begin with: The occasional quirky line or observation that stuck in the heads of movie-besotted teenagers. (My best friend and I each had our favorite quips from the mid-’70s, which in subsequent editions we discovered were missing.) As with that other influential consumer guide, the Siskel and Ebert show with its reduction of movie criticism to thumbs up or down, the Maltin and Scheuer books, whatever their relative virtues, not only helped dumb down discourse on film; they also, to a dismaying degree, kept potential viewers away from pictures they might otherwise have seen, and enjoyed. As a young man, I let what George Lucas later termed (for the nasty two-headed dragon in his doleful collaboration with Ron Howard, Willow) the “Eborsisk”‡ steer me away from movies when they were new which I later saw, and in a number of cases loved, on my own. Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz is a good example, and two very fine pictures I watched recently, both of which I would, if I took either Scheuer or Maltin as gospel, have avoided, will also serve as paradigms.

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Siskel and Ebert… or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The first — commended to me by Eliot M. Camerana, whose exceptionally sane and perceptive blog you should subscribe to if you haven’t already — was the 1970 British historical film Cromwell with Richard Harris as the redoubtable Oliver and Alec Guinness as Charles I, a picture I have known of for decades (Miss Anderson’s bookcase again; she had the tie-in novelization) but had never seen.

Here is Maltin:

“(**) Turgid historical epic has everything money can buy, but no human feeling  underneath.  Harris is coldly unsympathetic… one feels more sympathy for King Charles I… which is not the idea.”

Maltin (or whoever on his editorial team wrote this capsule) is correct that the battle sequences, photography (by the great Geoffrey Unsworth) and period costumes (by Nino Novarese) are splendid, and that Frank Cordell’s score is “amateurish.” It is, frankly, stupid music, in the worst Max Steiner tradition, with dialogue sequences underlined by crashing chords and keening strings as if great dramatic events are being portrayed when they are merely interesting rather than earth-shattering. The only time Cordell’s music bestirs itself into appropriate life is when, in the first of the big battle sequences, it apes Alex North’s score for Spartacus.

But as to that “coldly unsympathetic”… Did Maltin not understand that Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan? How bloody warm did he expect the man to be? And just because Charles is soft-spoken, or we see him behave with kindness toward his eldest son and Papist wife, or delightedly playing blind man’s bluff with his daughter and younger son does not mean he is, ipso facto, a sympathetic character. Sociopaths, madmen and blood-soaked tyrants are as capable of affection to those they know and love as saints. Need we, perforce, judge them as more worthy of our empathy than the colder man whose passions, however coolly expressed, embrace such concepts as democracy, the need for representative government, and an opposition to tyranny?§ If John Adams was indeed “obnoxious and disliked” — his own words — would we not still rather have him than George III? And leaving aside my own abhorrence at rating movies as if they were restaurants, that two-star designation should be taken with, at the very least, skepticism. Maltin is, after all, the man who gave The Avengers three-and-a-half and called Oliver Stone’s Alexander “boring.”

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Richard Harris as Cromwell, with Michael Jayston as Henry Ireton.

Scheuer at least liked the picture, but gave it only a rating of **1/2. For this reader and movie aficionado, two-and-a-half stars are what you give pointless nothings like Shreck or handsome, overblown epics like Becket — mediocrities, in other wordsnot to something as sharply written and beautifully crafted as Cromwell. And here, again, we are at the nub of my argument: Had I left it to Maltin and Scheur, rather than relying on the recommendation of a friend whose taste and perception I trust, I wouldn’t have bothered with Cromwell, and would therefore have deprived myself of an exceptional movie experience.

That is the basic value thoughtful, nuanced criticism has over consumerist capsule reviews. Not that a thoughtful critic can’t also steer you wrong, but if you read any writer regularly over time, you begin to suss out his or her thinking. You know, if you read Kael for any length of time, roughly what she is likely to dismiss and what she will embrace. (I speak of her in the present tense because while the individual issues of the magazines for which her reviews were written have long since moldered in landfills her writing is still alive, and, collected in books, can be read at one’s leisure.) The same was true of Agee, and John Simon. And the only way to really develop a relationship with a critic is to read long-form reviews… although, with Kael, you can get a measure of her tastes even in the capsules that used to be published in the listings pages of The New Yorker and which were reprinted as 1001 Nights at the Movies. But I argue that her briefer critiques and Agee’s, when, as he sometimes did, he wrote up several movies in one review are no less valuable as writing than her (and his) fuller pieces, whereas what you find in Maltin’s books is, in essence, a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Sometimes written with wit, but most often merely functional.

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Robin Stewart as Prince Charles and Alec Guinness as The King.

Cromwell succeeds, for me at any rate, on every level: As drama, as historical re-creation, as character study, and as martial epic. Its screenplay, credited to the director Ken Hughes (the playwright and scenarist Ronald Harwood received consultant credit, suggesting he polished if not re-wrote Hughes’ script) is both expansive and intimate, stinting neither on the battles of the English Civil War nor the internecine intrigues that inform governance. It is true that some momentous events, such as the siege of Bristol by the Parliamentary forces, occur off-stage, but here budgetary concerns may have overcome dramaturgy (the movie cost £9 million, or 8 million in U.S. dollars) and in any case there is such a thing even in epics as battle-fatigue. Anyone who has read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and has gotten to the point in the final volume where he can no longer distinguish one clash of arms from another knows the feeling. (It was the same in the Peter Jackson adaptation of The Return of the King, only more so; what was dull on the page became both annoying and enervating on the screen.)

Cromwell explicates a complex series of historical events with remarkable concision. Even if you know nothing about the Roundheads, or Charles’ reign, or the Civil War he precipitated by such anti-democratic actions as suspending Parliament for twelve years, you are given the relevant information in complete, and graspable, terms, and without obviousness or pedantry or — and this is the great scourge of historical movies — the cheating of hindsight. The dialogue is intelligent, limpid and witty, and if Harris tends, as he always did, to extremes either of the under-emoted or the rhetorically explosive and Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert overdoes the sneering popinjay, he at least redeems himself in his final scene, finally shocked into recognition that the king’s opposition is a force to be reckoned with and that Charles is exactly the man his enemies believe him to be. (It’s a realization that also occurs, too late, to Nigel Stock’s Sir Edward Hyde.) The other performers, particularly Guinness, are splendid and if I wish there was more of Robert Morely as Manchester, Charles Grey as Essex and Frank Finlay as one of Harris’ estate peasants, brutalized by the King’s enforcers, surely wanting more is preferable to its opposite.

John Stoll’s sumptuous production design adds both luster and verisimilitude and Hughes’ direction seems to me exactly right. While it perhaps lacks a certain panache, it also never falters, or falls into grandiosity — historical pomp and ostentation because the budget permits it and a crass producer demands it. I was particularly taken with the almost Shakespearean depiction of opposing prayers to the same God, on either side of a looming battle, for victory. “Every man who wages war believes God is on his side,” Cromwell tells Ireton. “I’ll warrant God should often wonder who is on his.” There is also, in the manner with which Harris turns away from the public spectacle of Charles’ execution, and leans his head against the wall in pained regret, a genuine and moving eloquence. Whatever his quarrels with the king, this is not the outcome Cromwell desired.

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Cromwell’s soldiers during battle: The human, plebeian face of war.

Its general excellence as a motion picture aside, I have a further reason for appreciating Cromwell. And although I am generally chary of Symbolism (and its furtive little brother Allegory) and while I’m aware that the picture occasionally plays a little loose with the facts, it is almost impossible for a modern viewer of this movie to see it and not reflect on the all too clear parallels between 16th century Britain and 21st century America. Is Robert Morley’s Manchester saying, “if we in Parliament cannot gain from ruling the country there’s really very little point in our being here at all” really that far removed from Nancy Pelosi’s repeated crowing about being “the biggest” fund-raiser in the House? No wonder Cromwell calls Parliament a brothel. With economic and social inequity at its greatest in this country since what it pleased Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to call “the Gilded Age”; with a line of increasingly imperial presidencies stretching from Johnson to Trump making it abundantly clear that banks and investors own our leaders, and our needs are not to be met if it is to cost them a penny; with armaments our only real product and endless war our most important export; with our international (and, increasingly, national) matters of interest wholly subject to the mad whims of a National Security State that murders president and citizen alike, here and elsewhere, as it pleases; with our legislation in the hands of the most nakedly corrupt Congress and Senate in American history — and don’t think for a moment that one of our permanent ruling parties is the moral superior of the other when it comes to graft made wholly legal by their enactment of the laws that protect them; with the allegedly liberal party now routinely rigging primary elections and both of them busily disenfranchising as many voters as they can; as a people we are facing a decision, and it is apt to be both more vital, and faster in coming, than we suppose. To wit: Do we live up to our platitudes about democracy, or do we shrug shamefacedly and admit that we have, as Twain also once suggested, sold our liberties for a slogan? Would we sit back and let an American king dissolve the other two branches of our government for a dozen years, as Charles did, and only return them to some sort of limited power when he needs to raise funds for yet another pointless war? Do we now, as we did in 2001 and 2002, surrender all freedoms for the anemic (when not downright sinister) promise of security? Or is the American Experiment well and truly over? I suspect that in the events currently unreeling here (and over a virus that, so far, has killed a minuscule fraction of the U.S. population compared to the tens of thousands taken every winter by other forms of influenza) and in our common response to them, may well lie the answer. I’m not exactly what you would call hopeful about it. But if ever we needed an Oliver Cromwell to restore some semblance of the Republic, it is now. The question is, would he, or she, be a Cincinnatus… or a Stalin?

I’ll close this section by noting that another 1970 picture, Tora! Tora! Tora!, cost almost three times what Cromwell did, returned only a fifth of that in revenues, and Richard Fleischer, its producer and director, went on to enjoy a lengthy and increasingly profitable career in Hollywood. Ken Hughes, meanwhile, who said of Cromwell — the highest-grossing British movie of its year — that it was “the best thing I’ve ever done,” was reduced in the coming years to personal poverty, and to directing such deathless milestones as the Mae West bomb Sextette and, finally, a 1980s slasher flick called Night School.

Christ, but The Show Biz is a miserable bitch.


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Leading with his gut: John Wayne with Ben Johnson, Christopher George, Rod Taylor and Ann-Margaret in The Train Robbers. Note the upside-down train cars in the sand.

The second item whose pleasures both Maltin and Scheuer warned me away from — or would have, had I read their capsules, and heeded them — was the writer-director Burt Kennedy’s delightful 1973 comedy-Western The Train Robbers. While certainly far less consequential than Cromwell and, I would argue, badly titled (John Wayne’s gang of adventurers are not bandits, and his character is motivated by the effects of a robbery)  watching this charmer was just about the best use of 90 minutes I’ve indulged in all year.

If you are predisposed, as I am, to liking Kennedy’s Westerns (among other things he wrote and directed an effective adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, and was the director of the delicious James Garner spoofs Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter and likely an uncredited writer on both) you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship, and the easy wit, on display here. Wayne, with one lung gone, is notably raspier but no less relaxed or authoritative (if that isn’t an oxymoron) than he ever was, but your appreciation of Ann-Margaret’s performance as the woman behind the mission will depend, I suppose, on how you feel about pneumatics. The supporting cast is a treat, however, and includes Ben Johnson, Christoper George, Rod Taylor, Bobby Vinton and Jerry Gatlin in Wayne’s gang and Ricardo Montalban as the mysterious, cigar-smoking gunman following them. Curiously, none of the other characters, all but one of them part of a band of outlaws against which Wayne’s troupe arrays itself, is identified, or even seen except from a distance or during pitched gun battles. I don’t know that their facelessness makes them notably more threatening — William Goldman and George Roy Hill pulled that business off much more effectively with their Super Posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — but it’s an interesting conceit, and leaves us free to enjoy, without distraction, Wayne and his compatriots; to mark the often pungent dialogue (Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it”); to chuckle at the twist ending; and to gawp at one of the most striking sets you’ll ever see in a movie: A train, upside down in the desert sands. Like the ship in the Gobi in Spielberg’s revamped Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s one of those unexpected images that stick with you.

The picture was shot by the gifted William H. Clothier, who was also the cinematographer for John Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the exceptional and underseen Firecreek, Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks and William Wellman’s extraordinary black-and-white-in-color chamber Western Track of the Cat. Here his images shimmer, and Kennedy’s direction throughout is sure, sharp and beautifully composed. Albert Whitlock provided some nice matte paintings and Dominic Frontiere’s score is just about perfect, with a martial undertone that is both grand adventure accompaniment and a subtle reminder to us of Wayne, Johnson and Taylor’s shared past as prickly Union compatriots. And if there are in the picture a couple of odd echos — of the opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the credit sequence where Johnson waits for an incoming train, and of Richard Brooks’ own entertaining Western caper The Professionals — they’re more than made up for by Kennedy’s otherwise keen originality.

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Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it.”

What has Maltin to say of The Train Bobbers in his **1/2-starred capsule? “Low-key film emphasizes character instead of action.” Again, one wonders what movie he saw. Yes, Kennedy’s script is character-driven; but it has at least three major action set-pieces, and several smaller incidents along the way that should be enough to satisfy Western fans. Indeed, The Train Robbers has at least as much action as Rio Lobo, to which Maltin assigned three stars. Could it be, perhaps, that this is because Rio Lobo was a Howard Hawks picture, and Hawks is a critics’ darling? I liked that specific picture well myself, and like Hawks pictures generally, so this isn’t a matter of relative merit but of critical consistency.

Maltin’s critique, however, is a rave compared to Scheuer’s: “(*1/2) Dull Western…”¶

As always, these things are a matter of taste, and individual reaction. But how a crisp little exercise like this one, with a witty script, charming performances, an unusual plot and some equally unique action sequences can be called “dull” is at best a mystery, and brings us back to the beginning: When criticism devolves into nothing other than consumer guidance, it ceases to function, as it needs to, as a corrective to mere P.R. flackery.

“In this age of consumerism film criticism all over the world — in America first but also in Europe — has become something that caters for the movie industry instead of being a counterbalance.” — Wim Wenders

In other words: It elevates trash, and shits on originality.

The Train Robbers - Montalban

Ricardo Mantalban as the mysterious gunman. Note the band of brigands to the left. That image, I would say, is hardly what you would call dull filmmaking.


*Only one of the majors  — Universal — was purchased by an entity involved in entertainment, and that was largely innocuous pop music; MCA already knew how to market offal.

†Miss Anderson also let me take a book of my choice at the end of the school year, I suspect because I was her most ardent and frequent borrower, as well as the student she saw as the most likely future writer.

‡Lucas also named his chief villain in Willow “General Kael.” I’ll bet that sent Pauline to her fainting-couch.

§Richard Harris’ Cromwell is as heatedly passionate as I think anyone could ask, so I’m not even sure what Maltin means by that “coldly”; indeed, Harris is, if anything, sometimes overly emphatic.

¶I said before that Scheuer’s were the better-written reviews, but I’m quoting in this essay from the last edition (1993) of his book, and by that time he’d cut his previously more fulsome capsules down to the bare minimum. A lot of style was leeched from these as a result, and most of the reason for reading them in the first place.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Old Reliable: “Big Jake” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

A good Western from John Wayne’s late period, with a sharp and even occasionally witty screenplay by Harry Julian Fink and R. (Rita) M. Fink, a characteristically robust Elmer Bernstein score and a typically savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant. It’s the sort of movie in which characters remind each other that it’s 1909, presumably to prepare the audience for the sight of sniper rifles and REO Touring Cars in what looks like the Old West, and where an old reprobate (John Wayne) does battle with his estranged and snarky older sons (Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum) as well as with the heavies who have kidnapped his youngest for a hefty (million-dollar here) ransom. And if the movie is no more, or less, than what many Wayne fans of the time expected, there are a few surprises along the way, the picture is seldom less than engaging, and it even holds an occasional, modernist twist: Instead of circling Conastogas in an Indian raid, for example, we get Federal Marshals hiding behind their REOs. And where “Little” Jake (Ethan Wayne) is shown at the beginning in the appalling “sissy” clothes of the period, complete with frilly white collar and wide-brimmed and beribboned hat, we are least spared “Big” Jake ridiculing the boy or having to teach him how to be a man.

Maureen O’Hara gives her usual flinty performance as Jake’s estranged wife (and with a creditable American accent); the younger Mitchum is better and more naturally charming here than in the later The Last Hard Men; the junior Wayne likewise acquits himself admirably; Harry Carey, Jr. is almost shockingly nasty as the oldest of the kidnappers; and there’s a clever Magic Lantern show in the opening titles, narrated by George Fenneman, no less. There’s also some lovely  matte-work by Albert Whitlock and the often beautiful cinematography is by William H. Clothier, whose previous pictures as director of photography included Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the striking Track of the Cat for William Wellman, Merrill’s Marauders for Samuel Fuller, the dark Stewart-Fonda Western Firecreek and Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks. Harry Gerstad’s editing is crisp and utilitarian, some odd moments of discontinuity nothwithstanding, and Bernstein’s score includes, along with his customarily ebullient title  theme, some nifty writing for harp and guitar as percussion during the final battle.

The screenplay contains the same style of laconic yet lightly crackling dialogue that distinguishes the exchanges in Rio Bravo, and a nicely stated threat by Boone which Wayne deftly turns on him: “Anything goes wrong, anything at all… your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault… it won’t matter I’m gonna blow your head off.” The generally likable script by the Finks (who also in 1971 created the quasi-fascistic “Dirty Harry” Callahan) nonetheless descends into occasional low throughs, as when Wayne resurrects his own “That’ll be the day” in The Searchers and, later, paraphrases John Huston’s paraphrase of Shakespeare from The Maltese Falcon.

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Richard Boone as the chief villain. You were expecting maybe Chico Marx?

Wayne, whose gravelly voice here betrays his medical historyhe’d had a lung removed from cancer — gives the sort of relaxed, amusing and assured performance expected of him, and he gets a great antagonist in Boone. As John Fain, whose only concern is money, Boone is intelligent, seemingly reasonable and casually murderous; he’s not looking to kill, but he’s not averse to it if it gets him what he wants. It’s the sort of role he made his own in pictures as diverse as Rio Conchos, The Night of the Following Day and The Kremlin Letter. His approach to arch villainy here is erudition, eloquence and a genial surface beneath which runs a river of ice water. I would imagine the Finks wrote the character’s dialogue with Boone in mind; once an actor develops a screen persona that works, even a base hack can hear that voice in his head as he’s typing.

One weird note: Jake has a reliable old Apache compatriot called Sam Sharpnose (played richly but with what would now be an unthinkable lack of appropriate ethnicity by Bruce Cabot) and a big, dark Collie he calls “Dog” who metes out toothy justice whenever he’s commanded. Both are dispatched in the big final shoot-out, chopped to bits by a frightening machete-wielding psychopath yet when the dust settles, not a moment is spared to respect either of them; it’s heigh-ho and on our way, with a happy final freeze-frame of the “Big” and “Little” Jakes. Since Jake himself isn’t heartless, I can only presume the filmmakers had additional material at the end that was cut by the studio. Further, the deaths of Sam and Dog are so discreetly recorded that neither emits so much as a soft mewl as he’s being hacked to ribbons. That’s carrying circumspection to rather an extreme, don’t you think?

Big Jake was directed with no special distinction whatsoever by George Sherman, whose last movie this was in a long career without a single significant title in it.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2018

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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


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

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


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



2. Documentary

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

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


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


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



3. Video/Made for Television

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

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

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


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



4. Seen a second… and final… time

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


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


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



5. New to Me: Meh

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


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


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

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Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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



7. Revisited with pleasure

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Between Hay and Grass: The Cowboys (1972)

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By Scott Ross

There was probably no adequate way a movie could be made of William Dale Jennings’ 1971 novel The Cowboys that would not have been a diminution of the material, in 1972 or even now. Possibly someone in Europe, where audiences are less prudish, and don’t go insane at the suggestion that children are anything less than entirely innocent (or neuter) could have managed it better — especially in Italy, which had at the time a feel for Western authenticity and a notable lack of squeamishness. Certainly an artist, of any nationality, might have made a noble stab at the thing, but if the man you hire for the job is Mark Rydell, the last thing you’re interested in is art.

And the problem isn’t merely the sudden and horrible (if, in context, wholly explicable) intrusion into the narrative of a violence that, in a picture populated by adults, would not have raised a dust cloud but which, as encountered in this story, set some critics’ hair on fire… although that would have been enough of a challenge. Nor is the difficulty wholly or even substantially to do with the inevitable difficulties attendant on adapting prose as rich and masterful as Jennings’; one accepts that a movie is not a book, however much one may regret the loss either of authorial voice or of detail. (The Cowboys is not a lengthy book, but there was much to lose, and the filmmakers lost far more than they needed to.) The major obstacle to producing an acceptable adaptation of this story has to do with what Jennings understood, both about the realities of the West, and about adolescent boys in it.

That Jennings was a Westerner by birth, and a founding member of both the Mattachine Society and ONE, Incorporated (something that, had John Wayne known it, would likely have given him apoplexy) I feel certain contributed to his understanding, on any number of levels. The book is not merely a “revisionist” Western — which in this case merely translates to a certain documentary realism, within a somewhat fanciful structure — but an attempt by its author to capture for a wide readership the authentic vernacular of the time and place. In a lengthy glossary addendum Jennings explains those terms in ways that, while never more than suggestive, and often eloquent, likely caused the pure of heart to blanch. He defines the word “bunky” (or “bunkie”) for example both in the sense of what we think was meant, and which slang term we still use, as well as by its largely unspoken meaning, as someone with whom a man (or boy) shared a bedroll for more than merely warmth or convenience.* In his preface to this glossary Jennings, a quarter of a century before Annie Proulx explained the obvious to a mass audience, observed wryly, “It seems unwarranted to assume that no such thing existed. Men do not cease to be men simply because there are no women around. Yet western historians and Hollywood would have us believe that erectile tissue was completely missing in the metabolism of the West.” Tissue belonging, let’s remember, to adolescent boys; not for nothing does the drive’s black cook Charlie Nightlinger (re-Christened “Jebediah” in the picture) note that their blankets are so crinkly he’s surprised they can roll them up in the morning.

Yet Jennings first wrote The Cowboys as a treatment for a potential John Wayne movie, which he then reconsidered as a novel, so one has to assume he understood that much of what he was trying to portray would inevitably fall by the wayside. (That he envisioned Wil Andersen, the ageing rancher at the heart of the story, as a role for Wayne seems obvious from even a cursory perusal of the book; you can hear Wayne reciting that dialogue as you read it.) Not that the author ever depicts anything sexual between any of the boys. It’s all implication, as when Wil wonders which of them will become bunkies on the trail; he’s been around long enough to know the score, and one imagines he had some experience of his own as a youth. Still, one can hear the panicked studio heads as they contemplated Jennings’ first draft screenplay: “Jesus Christ! We’ve got a picture where we kill off John Wayne three-quarters through, have pubescent and adolescent boys getting drunk and running into whores and then later turning into killers! You want to imply they might have humped each other too?”

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That Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, Rydell’s screenwriters on the previous The Reivers, get a credit over Jennings in the main titles is telling. And while I admire the Ravetches’ screen work, especially for Martin Ritt, and most especially on Norma Rae, I can’t help feeling that all the little “improvements” in the picture, and which collectively diminish it, are theirs. For all I know, Jennings’ script may not have been filmable; but the Ravetches’ seems to have been all too filmable. Put simply: What’s good in the picture comes from Jennings’ book. What’s bad comes from someplace else.

Like the wholly gratuitous manner in which little Charlie Schwartz (Stephen R. Hudis) announces he’s Jewish, or the unnecessary plot-twist involving the chief villain menacing one of the boys and swearing him to secrecy. While the people involved at least included the sequence in which the boys get drunk on Nightlinger’s private stash,† even retaining his and Wil’s eavesdropping on them and having the bottle passed to them in the dark, they made a fundamental miscalculation in stranding Wil entirely among strangers. In Jennings’ novel, while Andersen is forced by circumstance to take on as hands for a crucial cattle-drive from Bozeman, Montana to Belle Fourche a dozen un-tested schoolboys (plus a slightly older, and more seasoned, Mexican youth) Nightlinger is his regular cook, and not, as in the picture, a last-minute substitution. The screenwriters do worse than put Wil at a disadvantage; they rob him of a needed contemporary — a comrade who knows him at least as well as he knows himself, if not better, and with whom a sense of shared history imbues every sentence the pair exchange. That they re-tailored Nightlinger from a colorfully sub-literate former slave to the more cultivated and urbane figure of the movie likely had to do with liberal guilt as much as the casting of the ever-delicious Roscoe Lee Browne, who inhabits the role as completely and comfortably as the unaccustomed but attractive beard he sports on his face.

The Cowboys - Roscoe Lee Browne

Roscoe Lee Browne as Nightlinger

The preparation for the drive takes up nearly half the novel, and that length is necessary. The picture gets the team out of Bozeman pretty quickly. But worse than this loss is that the boys themselves are less individually delineated in the movie than in the book, a necessary telescoping that nonetheless hurts the narrative and the growing sense as it goes along of Wil’s hands becoming a team. Why the group was reduced from a round dozen (plus Cimmaron, the Mexican) to 11 is anyone’s guess, although the most obvious elision is the boy nicknamed “Horny Jim” in the book and whose compelling erotic spellbinding is entirely imaginative. Jim would have been no more welcome in 1972 than the sequence with the traveling madam and her small Conestoga train of whores. They make an appearance, at mid-point, the procurer given husky life by the redoubtable Colleen Dewhurst, but her purpose is less clear. In the novel, Nightlinger arranges cut-rate initiations for the boys, and it is here as much as in any implicit homoeroticism that the Warner Brothers suits must have put their collective feet down. As it stands now in the movie, the scene with Dewhurst is merely an intriguingly brief, and not especially useful, diversion.

The Cowboys poster

Killing little Charlie Schwartz off in mid-stream makes as little story sense as eliminating his crippled leg. There’s a cattle stampede in Jennings’ book — non-lethal, as it turns out, although precipitated by a similar event to the one that takes Charlie’s life here — but one suspects budgetary constrictions account for the abbreviated oddness of the sequence. The only purpose it serves is to get the filmmakers off a narrative hook; when Charlie dies in the novel, it’s as a result of being shot by one of the rustlers who kill Wil and make off with the herd, and at whom the boys’ wholly justifiable violence is directed. Again one presumes there was no way anyone involved was going to depict that event. But Charlie’s early death, and his lack of involvement in one boy’s working out the Vivaldi Concerto in D on his guitar, robs the movie of Jennings’ final line of dialogue, which in context is devastating.

My citing of the above is not gratuitous. It brings us to the crux, and the thing that drove the commentators mad in 1972: The boys becoming vigilantes — and worse — after Wil Andersen’s death.

As Jennings presents it, the boys’ deliberate and systematic enactment of violence against the rustlers led by the one called Long Hair (enacted in the picture with pop-eyed, spittle-flying psychosis by Bruce Dern) is not merely justifiable. It’s a matter of survival. While Long Hair has murdered their surrogate father, he’s also stolen the man’s herd and stranded the boys in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from home. Their only means of getting back alive, let alone of regaining the herd, is to outsmart the rustlers… which does not admit of leaving any of them alive. And even as the violence is cunningly orchestrated by the cowboys, meted out over a matter of days and arranged initially to look like accidental death (the killings eventually set the rustlers at each other’s throats), their acts are never depicted with authorial approval. Indeed, far from hatching the plans himself as he does in the picture, Jennings’ Nightlinger is so appalled by the calmly enacted bloodthirstiness of these otherwise sweet, good-natured boys that witnessing it performs a kind of psychic murder on his soul.

The Cowboys - Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern in full bull-goose loony mode.

The filmmakers were probably going to get pilloried for this no matter what they did. But where they erred worst, it seems to me, and most avoidably, was in the way the long, violent sequence at the end of the boys’ war against the rustlers was put together, especially in its musical accompaniment. Bringing in John Williams’ big, Coplandesque main theme as the battle intensifies is probably what set the reviewers off in 1972, because it seems to do precisely what the movie’s critics alleged: Urge the audience to cheer it on. I like to think this was not the composer’s doing but Rydell’s as director and producer; Williams can be bombastic, and overly lush, but I can’t think of any other time in his long career when he could be accused of insensitivity. Some of the mickey is taken out of this by the shots of the boys’ faces as they drive Wil’s herd into Belle Fourche.‡ The accusation most frequently leveled was that the movie endorsed murder as the means by which a boy becomes a man, and indeed the faces Rydell depicts here are devoid of innocence or pleasure. But neither are they celebratory, nor their deeds celebrated. Rydell may be less an artist than a gifted hack but whatever his reasons for bringing in the big strings and horns at that crucial juncture described above, I don’t seriously maintain he made the leap that killing equals maturity.

The Cowboys required an epic widescreen presentation (the early engagements even included an Overture, an Intermission, an Entr’acte, and Exit Music) but Rydell isn’t up to the challenge, even with so gifted a cinematographer as the great Robert Surtees. The director’s images are unexceptional, pedestrian. He does get off one nice effect, when, early on, Wil lets his horses out of the paddock. It’s an elegant means of depicting the character having decided to forego this year’s drive without making the actor say it. Rydell almost immediately undoes the good impression this makes, however, by including an irritating bit of foreshadowing involving a young and an older bull in battle.

Cowboys Deluxe_grande

At least the picture is, with the notable exception of Dern, well-acted. Wayne knew and admired the novel, and it shows; when he speaks to the boys in the schoolhouse near the beginning of the picture, he keeps his fingers in his pockets, but not his thumbs, exactly as Jennings describes Wil doing on numerous occasions. But Wil doesn’t clear the schoolroom of girls and teacher through a great wash of deliberate obscenities as he does in the book — although I again suspect he might if the picture was made today — and although prideful he is never as hard, or as tough on the boys, as he is in the novel where, interestingly, his threats have a weight not even John Wayne can match. And while he visits the graves of his two sons and alludes to them in speech, we don’t get a sense from the screenplay of why Wil is wracked with guilt over their deaths, something Jennings in his novel teases out masterfully. That lapse, of course, is no fault of the actor’s, nor is the trace of uncharacteristically blunt sentiment Wil is given before he dies; if Wayne doesn’t do anything here he hasn’t done before (and if he’s rather obviously doubled in his stunts) he at least appears to be trying to stretch further than Rydell and the Ravetches.

Dewhurst is likewise pleasing, if ultimately wasted, as the traveling madam. Slim Pickens gets a good, albeit too-brief, turn as a saloon-keeper, Allyn Ann McLerie makes the most of her appearance as the schoolmarm, and Sarah Cunningham nicely underplays her abbreviated role as Wil’s wife Annie, another character given a great deal more heft and presence in the novel. Browne, with that most distinctive and unforgettable of voices, is his usual breath of fresh air, but in place of a character as real as Jennings’ Nightlinger, was given a monologue of such airy (and pointless) abstraction its only discernable purpose is to impress the gullible boys. Big deal.

The then 22-year old A. Martinez makes a fine Cimmaron, although he’s neither as handsome as Jennings describes him nor as ruthless. Roughly half the youngsters could act when cast, while the other half were seasoned riders; they worked together so effectively to shore each other up during pre-production that, in the picture, you’d be hard pressed to decide which boy hailed from which group. Among them, Hudis is very good indeed as Charlie Schwartz, as are the young Robert Carradine as Slim, Norman Howell as the God-burdened Weedy, Sean Kelly as “Stuttering Bob,” Mike Pyeatt as Homer, Alfred Barker as Fats and Clay O’Brien as the wonderfully named Hardy Fimps.

Although Wayne’s Wil, in a line from the novel, describes the boys initially as “between hay and grass,” the movie itself is more fish than fowl, and far more hay than grass.


*I am reminded by this of the way the similar demotic term “gunsel” has almost completely lost its original meaning, presumably by its use in the movie of The Maltese Falcon. John Huston, adapting Dashiell Hammett, knew as well as his source that the word implied a passive young man in a homosexual relationship. It’s precisely why Bogart’s Sam Spade uses the word to twit Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Wilmer, and why Wilmer gets so angry when he does. Today it apparently only means the other thing Bogart calls Cook: A cheap young hood.

†Naturally enough, however, they dropped Horny Jim’s drunken suggestion that the boys engage in a circle-jerk. No one was going there in 1972. Come to think of it, who would do so in 2018?

‡It’s a remarkably small parade of beeves and once again one senses a budget that simply wouldn’t allow for anything like the vast teeming herd Jennings describes in the book.

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John Wayne on set, with Rydell to the left. Note the placement of Wayne’s hands.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2017

Standard

By Scott Ross

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



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

 

 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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



Theatrical Documentary

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


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


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


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



Selected Short Subject

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



Made for television

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


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


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


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



Television series

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


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

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



Seen a second time… and will never see again

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


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


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


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


New to Me: More than worth the trip

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


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


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


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


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


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

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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.