Smoke and mirrors: “The Towering Inferno” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

In 1974, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” seemed like both a logical next step for Irwin Allen, progenitor of the wildly successful The Poseidon Adventure (death by water succeeded by annihilation by fire) and a topping-out of the genre. What with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman sharing over-the-title billing and the various Grand Hotel-style victims, villains, heroes and survivors including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughan, Robert Wagner and O.J. Simpson, there didn’t appear to be anywhere to go beyond it. Not that Allen took the hint; a succession of box-office loxes like The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure pretty much ended him. Nor did the Hollywood studios, which, alongside Inferno‘s direct competition, the moronic Earthquake, leaped to concoct such masterpieces of the genre as Avalanche (1978), Meteor (1979), and no fewer than three Airport spin-offs, each more stultifying than its predecessor. Only Jaws (1975), a rara avis (rara ikhthys?) that transcended genre anyway, the Richard Lester-directed thriller Juggernaut (also 1974) which is less about a disaster than preventing one,* Rollercoaster (1977) which was more a detective thriller than an outright “disaster movie,” and The Big Bus (1976), a satire on the whole phenomenon (albeit not a terribly funny one) could be said to be decent pictures. The rest were just increasingly ludicrous attempts to cash in.

When I saw The Towering Inferno, at 13-going-on-14, it more or less satisfied my unsophisticated taste for exciting trash — although even then, having read the two books it was based on, it didn’t satisfy me completely. Through one of those odd coincidences, Richard Martin Stern had written a novel (The Tower) about a new, World Trade Center-like New York building catching fire, while Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson had simultaneously published The Glass Inferno, concerning a glass-and-steel Chicago skyscraper and the freak fire that destroys it. (The movie jumped the rest of the way across the country, to San Francisco.) Warner Bros. bought the Stern book and 20th Century-Fox the Scortia and Robinson; rather than compete with each other, they co-produced the opportunistically titled The Towering Inferno (The Glass Tower would have been a more euphonious title, but would have lost the incendiary adjective), splitting the profits. Perhaps inevitably, the picture has the feel, less of a real movie, than of a business venture. Sure as hell it’s calculated to the nth degree. Its approach is schematic in the extreme, the Ross Hunter super-glamour production style mated to a form of storytelling in which character is less important than incident. The screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant, was capable of fine work (he adapted, and I think deepened, the 1967 In the Heat of the Night and did a fine job with The Liberation of L.B. Jones for William Wyler in 1970) but, perhaps at Allen’s direction, threw out most of the figures from the novels, and the best story arcs. The characters in The Towering Inferno are almost entirely comprised of cardboard. And we know what happens to that in a fire.

I wouldn’t argue that either The Tower or The Glass Inferno, both of which I have re-read and enjoyed as an adult, are great literature, but they are intelligently and imaginatively written, which is far more than can be of Silliphant’s by-the-numbers script. Stern’s book is the more sobering of the two, ending with the strong implication that the people in the uppermost floor have succumbed to heat and suffocation. (The use of a breeches buoy stretched between skyscrapers comes from his novel.) Robinson and Scortia’s book is fatter, and stronger, with a greater variety of characters (the architect, the builder and the fire chief originate here) and a compelling recurrent stylistic device: The fire, from initial spark to smoldering death, is depicted, appropriately (and frighteningly) as a Beast — a living, breathing, ravening thing feeding, growing and devouring. (The let’s-blow-the-water-tanks climax also comes from The Glass Inferno.)

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Paul Newman, with the movie’s real star.

The human figures are also more real, and less glitzy, than their counterparts in the picture, from the middle-aged gay furniture dealer† contemplating (and, briefly, before he comes to his senses, engaging in) an act of arson who forms an initially uneasy alliance with a young Latino would-be felon to the woman meeting for a loveless, dispiriting bout of sex with a married man and whose fall from the building results in the most shockingly beautiful metaphor in the novel. Silliphant instead invents an aging con-man and his quarry (Astaire and Jones) and a ’70s having-it-all clothes-horse (Dunaway) weighing love against career, while the adulterers are transformed into Wagner and his secretary — who, in Susan Flannery’s fine performance, is at least a woman with some miles on her. Interestingly, the media is entirely invisible in The Towering Inferno: There are no reporters of any kind depicted, and no television coverage on view. (None of the televisions in the building are turned on either; how likely is that?) The Scortia/Robinson novel includes an unscrupulous local television journalist who sees in the fire his main chance, and he might have been the literary source of another nasty reporter in another Fox movie set in a besieged high-rise, the William Atherton character in the 1988 Die Hard.

And yet with all of its dramturgical weaknesses, and even when viewed from a current perspective, somehow the damn thing works. Part of that, I suppose, is nostalgia: Nearly all of the movie’s stars are dead now (or, in Dunaway’s and Simpson’s cases, inactive) and seeing them today elicits a pang that we who once were able can never again go to a theatre and see Paul Newman, or William Holden, or Fred Astaire, or Richard Chamberlain in a new movie. Nor will we see a major studio picture in which the majority of the special effects are real, and not computer-generated, usually indifferently. Whatever opprobrium may be directed toward him, Allen, who directed all of the movie’s action sequences, didn’t stint; there was nothing cheap about his biggest hits. The picture’s cinematographers Fred J. Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc (the latter shot the special effects scenes) won Academy Awards for their work, and it’s richly textured, especially for a movie of this type, with no embarrassingly obvious blue-screen process shots.

The Towering Inferno soundtrack

On a personal note, I was just beginning, when The Towering Inferno was released, to develop a strong affinity for movies, and for motion picture scoring, and the soundtrack LP was, along with Michel Legrand’s 1973 The Three Musketeers, one of the first I purchased with my own money. I was knocked out by John Williams’ Main Title theme, his almost shocking “Helicopter Rescue” (although the music on that track actually appears elsewhere in the movie) and the mounting suspense, and its release, on “Planting the Charges,” which brought to my ears some of the visceral excitement the movie had elicited from me in the theater. But “Trapped Lovers” seemed to me then — and seems to me now — a work of orchestral genius, and a textbook example of how a gifted composer can create astonishingly fulsome and expressively emotional music from variations on a dreary pop tune (“We May Never Love Like This Again,” Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s inevitable follow-up to Poseidon‘s equally metaphorical “The Morning After.”) Williams goes from a slightly hysterical opening (which, in context, is wholly appropriate) to a tender and increasingly urgent, pulsing accompaniment before building to an agonizing concluding passage and a shattering climax. It’s no wonder Spielberg wanted him for Jaws.

The Towering Inferno was the first picture I can remember seeing with end-credits that lasted more than a minute. Because Allen felt strongly about acknowledging his technical team, the picture ends with a credit sequence that, set to a Williams elegy called, on the LP, “An Architect’s Dream,” ran three-and-a-half minutes… a seeming eternity at the time, although they now routinely run twice as long. And then, as now, I stayed until the end; it just seems a part of the experience even when, as Orson Welles observed (in the 1960s!) “the second assistant powder-puff fellow gets a credit.” This is much more often the case today, thanks to George Lucas’ similar desire, in 1977, to give his special effects staff on Star Wars a more public credit than was the norm. And it leaves me a bit torn: I’m all for the movies’ “grunts” being given recognition. But can’t it somehow be on paper, so that the rest of us don’t have to sit through that endless crawl every time we go to a movie?


*Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for the reminder!

†Robinson was gay, and the novels he co-wrote with Scortia usually contain at least one sympathetic homosexual man.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

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By Scott Ross

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


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


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


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


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


Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

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

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

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


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


Cowboy (1958)

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

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

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


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


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


 

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


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


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


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


Tall in the Saddle (1944)

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


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


Born Free (1965)

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

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

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

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


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Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

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

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Oranges on an escalator: “California Split” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

California Split is a potsherd from a culture not far removed, chronologically, from our own but which in appearance, artistic accomplishment on a popular scale, the possibility of progress and of a general maturity is as ostensibly ancient, and as forgotten, as Carthage.

Written by the actor Joseph Walsh, himself a gambler (and who has an unsettling role in the picture as a mercurial bookie) and initially developed by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, California Split focuses on two speculators, the casual novice Bill (George Segal) and the degenerate Charlie (Elliott Gould) who meet during an acrimonious game of poker, form an odd friendship based pretty much entirely on their shared addiction, and, on their uppers, travel to a high-stakes poker meet in Reno where everything they have rides on Bill’s abilities. Although not originally intended as a Robert Altman movie, that admittedly terse précis certainly suggests his approach — seemingly meandering, shaggy-dog stories that illuminate their subjects, and their characters, in ways many more “daring” or “challenging” narrative techniques and stories fail to do, and what the overwhelming bulk of movies never even attempt.

With Altman at his considerable best, only the contours remained the same, by which I mean those readily-identifiable personal traits that marked his filmmaking: The actors’ improvisations, the long takes, the large ensemble casts, the muted palettes, the zooms, the overlapping dialogue. But that is window-dressing, almost by the way. How Altman used film to explore human beings and their relationships to each other, which because it changed from film to film was never predictable, is what we should mean when we think of his work, or refer to anything as “Altmanesque.” In his and Brian McKay’s adaptation of the Edmond McNaughton novel McCabe, for example, what was removed was everything trite and predictable — the gambler dying on the street in Mrs. Miller’s arms, for example. Altman’s McCabe keeps muttering, “I got poetry deep inside me” when he hasn’t (and anyway, what man who is genuinely poetic needs to keep reassuring himself of it?) Yet at the end, sitting in the gathering snow with no witnesses to his murder, he’s become a beautiful metaphor: In death he is poetic… and Mrs. Miller is nowhere around; she’s deep in an opium dream, with Altman ending the movie on a close-up of the oblivion contained within her preternaturally glazed eyes. And that is poetry too.

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Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal) about to wager on the names of the Seven Dwarfs.

Although Altman had been experimenting with overlapping dialogue at least as early as MASH in 1970 and certainly relied on it in McCabe, especially in the long first sequence in the saloon, it was for California Split that he developed his multi-track recording system without which his follow-up, Nashville, would not have been possible; it enabled him to capture several conversations at once without our losing track of what’s important. It isn’t over-used in California Split, and never becomes oppressive, but during the opening poker sequence in a large, organized gambling establishment, it’s as essential as the many extras imported from the Synanon organization (or cult, if you prefer). The faces, and the personalities, that come through in these scenes are both peripheral and essential; they’re the milieu into which we’re about to plunge, and they have a tang, an earthy charge, that ground the action and give it savor. I can’t imagine them in any other movie by any other filmmaker.

Despite the cavalier desperation of Charlie and Bill, and the glancing sadness of the women in their lives, a pair of lower-middle class prostitutes played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, this is a surprisingly buoyant movie, and it lacks the mean-spiritedness that dogs so much of ’70s cinema, especially in the realm of the homophobic. I’m thinking specifically of the sequence in which Prentiss and Welles’ date with the transvestite “Helen Brown” (Bert Remsen) is upset by Bill and Charlie’s need to celebrate their winnings. Although the two, pretending to be vice cops, send the poor man scurrying, the fact that he’s in drag is not made an issue, nor do they abuse him for it; even if their playing with him could be seen as victimization, it’s not the kind of sequence that makes you squirm. You laugh along with it, and Remsen, who plays the role of “Helen” with astonishing delicacy, is somehow able to exit with most of his dignity intact. Indeed, neither Bill nor Charlie ever lets on to “Helen” that they know he’s anything but a well-dressed and sophisticated middle-aged woman, enabling him to maintain his own necessary fiction. Had the movie been made by a professional liberal of the period like Sidney Lumet, I shudder to imagine what Bill and Charlie would have done to the poor man. Calling him a queer would have been the least of it — they’d have probably beaten him up as well. Contrast this with the later bar scene in which a blowsy drunk (Sierra Bandit) spews alcoholic invective in a monologue of self-pity remarkable in its piggishness, hurling the word “faggot” at her absent boyfriend and anyone else who crosses her. She’s clearly meant to be an offensive boor and is treated as such, even by the disgusted bartender (Jack Riley) who’s obviously beyond caring whether she hears his sarcastic comments or not. Charlie and Bill may be cheerfully amoral but they don’t engage in deliberate ugliness. This puts them on a plane above Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John in Altman and Ring Lardner Jr.’s MASH, who, as Richard Corliss observed, in their modish “irreverence” behave like frat-boy bullies to anyone who isn’t on their special wavelength.

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Bert Remsen as “Helen Brown,” flanked by Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss.

In a picture like this the side-long glance is as piquant as the piercing gaze, and the incidental figures have more impact than the leads in other, less alive and incisive movies. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Charlie takes the bus to the racetrack, and can’t get the seat his superstitions demand he take because each of the other riders has his or her own gambler’s fetish, leading to an elaborate switching of seats that is wonderfully farcical but which holds its own, demented logic. And even as Charlie exploits the trusting nature of the woman he sits beside on the bus (Barbara London) when he and Bill win on the long-shot horse Charlie has told her not to bet on she becomes furious at Bill, hilariously hurling oranges at him in her rage as he rides up an escalator. As written by Walsh and directed by Altman it’s a set of scenes at once quirky, idiosyncratic, wildly funny, thoroughly on point and absolutely in character. Bill will likely never see that woman again, but he’ll always remember her…. and so will we. How do you forget someone who throws oranges at you?

Likewise, in an Altman movie even the extras and small-part roles resonate, like the hefty older woman in the opening poker scene, or the receptionist played by Barbara Colby in the magazine office at which Bill works. (A young Jeff Goldblum also shows up, as the editor, forever seeking the errant Bill, who ignores him.) The best and most memorable of these cameos is the Reno barmaid portrayed by Barbara Ruick. She hasn’t many lines, but with her engaging middle-aged mien, white cowboy hat, half-glasses, long hair, large grin, blasé good humor and un-self-conscious dance moves to a private melody only she can hear Ruick is, while nearly always in the background, intensely memorable; you want more of her.*

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In Reno: Barbara Ruick at center.

Pauline Kael, who admired the picture, felt the breakfast meeting between Bill and his bookie had the feel of an expository play scene, its neatness at odds with the looser structure of rest of the picture, but I demur. It helps us understand how close to the financial edge Bill has gotten himself in a relatively short period of serious gambling, and gives what has up to then been merely a disembodied voice on the other end of Bill’s telephone a bodily presence, a life and a psychology. Walsh had become by 1974 the furthest thing from the odd minor child star† he’d been in the ’50s; as the bookie called Sparkie his jumpiness and buried rage give him dimension, and weight. You judge that violence is not his first resort — he’s been carrying Bill for months — but that he’s getting closer to it, and that in turn makes explicable Charlie’s convincing Bill to take that all-or-nothing plunge in Reno. If the sequence is squarer than most of the others in the picture, neither does it feel false or unnecessary.

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Bill and Sparkie (Joseph Walsh).

Elliott Gould’s gift for cheerful, amoral expansiveness suits Charlie perfectly. He accepts everything that comes his way, even being beaten up, robbed and having his nose broken by an abusive thug of a fellow gambler; before exacting vengeance, he expresses admiration for the punch he’s just received. Charlie lives for the chance, and in common with many degenerate gamblers it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether it’s big or small. (Early in their relationship he and Bill bet each other over the names of the Seven Dwarfs.) A clue to his character is that his girlfriend is a whore, a fact that never seems to bother him, except when it gets in the way of a celebration. That he doesn’t exhibit any of the standard masculine jealousy has less to do, I think, with Barbara (Prentiss) letting him crash at the apartment she shares with Susan (Welles) — unlike with Bill, we never see any other place Charlie calls home — than that getting upset about such an immutable fact of life would probably strike him as a waste of time that could be better spent on fun. He’s so loose and secure in his sexuality he isn’t self-conscious about smearing hot shaving cream on Bill’s abdomen after they’ve been beaten up, and doesn’t respond defensively when Barbara has a light suggestive response to walking in on them, as he later and out of sheer ebullience gives Segal a public kiss on the lips during Bill’s winning-streak. In Gould’s equable performance, although Charlie can be annoying he is just about the happiest, most relaxed and likable wastrel you’ll ever see.

Prentiss is amiable too, and endearingly protective of Welles, but Susan’s character is difficult to pin down. She doesn’t seem quite real, which is no reflection on Welles herself but on the conception of the role; although Susan is appropriately casual about her carnality — when she offers herself to Bill, it’s as if she’s giving him a freebie because she’s un-engaged, and bored, and he’s present — she falls in love with random johns (Bill included) and repeatedly lapses into crying jags over them. We can’t get a handle on her, and she finally becomes slightly irritating. Susan is the one area of the picture where I think Walsh, and Altman, blew it.

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Bill is a far more successful creation, and I suspect Segal is largely the reason. Gould and Altman were gamblers, and Segal admits he was an innocent, which he used to help give Bill a naiveté that lets the audience in. He isn’t our surrogate, exactly, but he’s often as much at sea in Charlie’s milieu as we would be, and that confusion allows us access; when Charlie is explaining a system to Bill, he’s also telling us, but without seeming to, which would be fatal to the movie’s tone. It’s easy at this remove, in the years after he became a weekly comedic fixture on the television series Just Shoot Me, for an audience to forget what a fine dramatic actor Segal was, and is. (Not that an Academy nomination is or has ever been the final arbiter of quality but he got one, in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) As opposed to Gould, whose humor is brash, Segal is subtler, and more charming. The actors compliment each other, and when at the end Bill has what, to employ an over-used word, we can only call an epiphany, Bill’s (or Segal’s?) reserve gives the moment its quiet power.

California Split - Gould, Segal poker

Bill and Charlie, on a roll.

There’s a certain dread that goes with movies like this: The fear that you’re going to watch the main characters spiral so far downward there’s no going back, especially when, as it does here, everything rides on the outcome; it’s what happens in another under-seen George Segal picture from the ’70s, Ivan Passer’s 1971 study of a middle-class junkie, Born to Win. How Altman and his stars surmount that hurdle is exemplary, even if their muted ending upset the screenwriter. (Henry Gibson, in Mitchell Zuckoff’s oral biography of Altman, remarks that Walsh has been repeating that story “for the last 700 years.”)  When Joseph Walsh’s previous collaborator saw the picture made of the script on which he had initially worked, he lamented that Altman had squandered the climactic final third. He, Spielberg, would, he said, have shaped the material in a way that would have stroked the audience’s response to a glorious orgasm. We can all too easily, and with a shudder, imagine the Spielberg version of California Split, and be doubly grateful he never got to make it.

The DVD in my collection is the 2004 Columbia Tristar release, and it’s in full widescreen. From what I hear, the aficionado should beware the later Mill Creek release, which while slightly (3 minutes) longer is not in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio; it’s allegedly in 1:85:1, which is a considerable difference in framing, and Paul Lohmann’s images are too good to be squeezed, or “panned-and-scanned.”

I’ve also heard California Split dismissed as “minor Atlman,” but no movie that engages you on the levels this one does, or that so beautifully limns the contours of human personality and experience, is “minor” anything.

California Suite - Gould and Segal at racetrack


* Horribly, the actress, the memorable Carrie Pipperidge of the 1956 Carousel, died of a cerebral hemorrhage during filming, which may account for the brevity of her appearance. Married to the composer John Williams, who scored Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Ruick left him a widower with three children. She is the Barbara to whom Altman subsequently dedicated California Split.

† Walsh, who had a good role in Walter Hill’s minimalist 1978 crime thriller The Driver, is probably best-remembered as Danny Kaye’s young, Platonic companion in Hans Christian Andersen (1952) — which given the complex sexuality both of the Dutch writer and of Moss Hart, the author of that movie’s screenplay, feels like more than a bit of a dodge.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Stoned: 28 years of Oliver

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By Scott Ross

I am in the process of re-evaluating the work of Oliver Stone, so herewith some brief thoughts about a few of his representative pictures, 1988 – 2016.

Born on the 4th of July

Born on the Fourth of July (1988) I missed this one when it was new, owing partly to my perpetual aversion to its star, but had I seen it in 1988 I suspect I would have appreciated it more. I had attempted, a few years before, to get through Ron Kovic’s memoir, but was defeated by its grim and seemingly unremitting horror. Now that I have read it, Stone’s adaptation (written with Kovic) almost seems to affirm some of the criticisms leveled at his work as sensationalist and excessive. In the main I do not agree with the opprobrium with which Stone is so frequently assaulted, but Born on the Fourth of July all too obviously embodies those faults others — admittedly, and largely, his political opponents — invariably see in him. Kovic’s book is so vivid, incendiary and felt, it scarcely required embellishments like the wholly fictitious Kara Sedgwick character, or Tom Cruise’s romantic run-through-the-rain-to-the-prom. It most especially did not need the sequence in which he and Willem Dafoe (in, again, a role for whom there is no antecedent in Kovic’s life) roll around on the Mexican sand and argue over whose claims of baby-killing are the most true.

Even such incidents as Kovic’s shattering his leg and nearly losing it are turned, by Stone, into vulgar, overstated show-pieces (he was merely exercising his useless limbs at home, not parading around in a demented attempt to prove he could walk) and when, at the climax, Kovic is beaten by cops at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, Stone cheats fact by turning it into Kovic’s heroic last-stand when the reality — he was brutally assaulted by para-military creeps who, when they finally realized he was, as he’d been telling them, a wounded vet, behaved with shame-faced obsequiousness — was so much more inherently and honestly dramatic. Wouldn’t that make a better sequence than presenting Kovic as storming (or anyway, wheeling) back into the convention hall to “take” it, a cinematic fantasy that manifestly did not occur? That sort of phony uplift is contemptible, and beneath a man of Stone’s gifts. I will grant that the picture brings up a subject Americans do not like to address, and which Kovic’s book repeatedly rubs our noses in: The sudden emasculation of the sexually incapacitated. That such lifelong impotence is routinely visited on one so young is one of the great, unspoken tragedies of war. Cruise is, as usual, insufferably over-dramatic, an amateur actor who only knows how to perform when the scene calls for overt, hectoring anger. One of the few unadulterated pleasures of the picture is the performance of Raymond J. Barry as Kovic’s gentle, shattered father, unable to cope with the wreck his country has made of his child. There’s dignity in that, and quiet honesty. It’s something Born on the Fourth of July could use more of.


The Doors - Kilmer


The Doors
(1992) Stone’s examination of Jim Morrison, co-written with J. Randal Johnson, has been harshly criticized, not least by members of The Doors, for distorting him and for emphasizing his pretension and his self-destructive behavior. But when a rock star, and a young man of 27, dies suddenly I submit that we may at least wonder whether drugs and alcohol may have played a role. On the other hand, the Morrison depicted in The Doors is so repellent and narcissistic it’s difficult to know how he could have possessed the charisma, and the creativity, to become a cultural icon. This is not to say that Val Kilmer is charmless in the role — indeed, he is exceptionally compelling — merely that the obnoxious qualities Morrison displays here are so prominent they cancel out his attributes.

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

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



Any Given Sunday 10542_5
Any Given Sunday
 (1999) I’ve always thought televised football was at once stupid, loud, overlong and boring. Amazingly, it took the considerable and combined talents of John Logan and Oliver Stone to deliver an equally stupid, loud, overlong and boring movie about the game. There are two central stories, involving, primarily, a Miami franchise head coach (Al Pacino) and his struggle to hold onto his job and, secondarily, concentrating on a rising young star quarterback (Jamie Foxx) who first becomes an arrogant show-off and then must learn to be a humble team-player by the play-out. There are also sub-plots involving an aging team captain (Dennis Quaid) nursing a potentially debilitating injury and the team’s embattled owner and general manager (Cameron Diaz), and the characters include a duplicitous team physician (James Woods), a veteran linebacker with a cortisone addiction (Lawrence Taylor) and an egomaniacal sports reporter (the odious John C. McGinley, doing his usual overbaked caricature). Shall I go on? If all you want is two and a half hours of scabrous people and their petty problems and rivalries, or have always hoped to see a detached human eyeball in bloody close-up, Any Given Sunday is for you.


Wall Street - Sheen

Wall Street (1987) Although supposedly made in tribute to his stockbroker father, 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.


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

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

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

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


W Josh Brolin gwb080901_560

W (2008) Stone was, ludicrously, slanged in 2008 for not making George W. Bush more of a caricature, and for sympathizing with his central character. That succumbing to the former is the sign of a hack or a satirist (all too often the same thing) and that embrace of the latter is the primary job of a dramatist does not seem to have occurred to the partisans among Stone’s critics. To take on the first accusation: How much more may an artist caricaturize a man who is already a walking self-parody? Stone’s Bush, as written by the scenarist Stanley Weiser and enacted by the redoubtable Josh Brolin is, it seems to me, George W. to the life: Belligerent, untutored, ill-informed, appallingly ignorant — narcissistic in the proscribed macho manner of the Texas playboy who has seldom, if ever, heard the word “no” and been forced to comply with it.

To address the second allegation: Although Bush as a man is not as complex as the 37th President of the United States, nor as essentially and tragically bifurcated, this indictment was also leveled at Stone in 1995 when Nixon premiered, and was no more legitimate then. Again, only a parodist or a creative hack reduces his subject to abject villainy. Was Shakespeare traduced for locating the humanity in both Caesar and Brutus? Do we not in part respond to Citizen Kane precisely because Orson Welles offered him in more than a single dimension? And while is not as ultimately plangent, or as moving, as Nixon, it is certainly nothing to whinge or sneer at. It encapsulates and anatomizes its subject in sharp and often very amusing vignettes that hint strongly at the central emptiness within its eponymous subject. Is that, somehow, the same as bestowing laurels on him?

The only area in which I think Stone errs is in his and Weisner’s conception of George H.W., and in their casting of James Cromwell, who neither looks nor sounds like the elder Bush. If any member of the dynasty depicted here deserves vilification, surely it is Bush Senior, that unrepentant liar, conscienceless CIA operative (who claimed, like Nixon, not to remember where he was on the day Kennedy was murdered) and un-indicted war criminal. Ellen Burstyn comes off much better as Barbara Bush, but then, the woman herself scarcely seemed to deserve the unholy brood she gave birth to. Richard Dreyfuss makes an appropriately serpentine Dick Cheney, alternately sneering and bullying. (Although he and Stone apparently differed on the characterization.) The always splendid Scott Glenn gives a good account of Donald Rumsfeld, Toby Jones provides a correspondingly fine embodiment of the Pecksniffian Karl Rove, and Stacey Keach is fascinatingly ambiguous in a role that was conceived as a composite of several of Bush’s spiritual advisors… whose collective failure with their charge is all too obvious and instructive.


Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps with Stone

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) Interestingly, this sequel to the 1987 Wall Street is richer and more entertaining than its predecessor, at least until the wholly unnecessary — and utterly unbelievable — climax. The last-minute deus ex machina conversion of the merrily amoral Gordon Gekko rends the fabric of his character: Although he’s appalling, his actions have a unity that renders him whole; turning him into a penitent fairy godfather smacks either of studio interference, or a last-minute cowardice on someone’s part. Because we’re unsure of him through most of the picture, Michael Douglas becomes mesmerizing. And when, near the end, he reveals himself as wholly unchanged, the effect is both delicious and sick-making. It makes that sudden reversal a betrayal of the character, and of our apprehension of him. Shia LaBeouf is a more benign version of the Charlie Sheen character in the first movie (Sheen himself makes a cameo), although I think overall he’s a rather limited actor. Josh Brolin has a good role as LeBeouf’s nemesis, Carey Mulligan is permitted a wide range of emotional response as Gekko’s estranged daughter, Susan Sarandon has a few juicy scenes as LeBeouf’s mother, and Eli Wallach is as usual a deft delight as a high-rolling old financier. Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff wrote the mostly (until that unfortunate climax) intelligent screenplay, Rodrigo Prieto provides some lovely cinematography, and Stone directs not as if he’s taken on an obligation but as though the subject is fresher with him now than it was 23 years earlier, proving that Thomas Wolfe’s famous dictum concerning staging a return is not a universal truth.


Snowden

Snowden (2016) One of the least seen of Stone’s important pictures, Snowden sits on the shelf with the writer-director’s explorations of American governmental power (JFK, Nixon, W.) and, like Nixon, is both intelligently written and surprisingly moving. Perhaps audiences in 2016 already thought they knew the Snowden story; if they were consuming the Western corporate media’s coverage of his announcement, they didn’t, and don’t. Stone and his co-scenarist, Kieran Fitzgerald, depict Edward Snowden as an exceptionally bright young man of conventional conservative bent, “patriotic” in the way of so many American youths who have incorporated the deliberate inculcation of their public schools, a passive press and all-too active governmental indoctrination into their view of the world. His gradual awakening to the means by which — and the lengths to which — his employers are able, and willing, to go to infiltrate every aspect of his fellow Americans’ lives, and his determination to expose both, form the core of the narrative. (The screenplay was based in part on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. That Harding has since allowed the Clinton machine’s absurd claims of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election to unhinge him completely should, one supposes, not mitigate his former good work.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as the eponymous anti-hero, and however much one might deplore the reactive manner of Snowden’s thinking, Gordon-Levitt’s performance conveys the young man’s basic decency and kindness as well as his slow awakening in wholly explicable terms. It was the role many of us who have admired this gifted young actor since his sitcom years were waiting for, and it’s a genuine pity that so few have seen it, and that he received no major award nominations for it. Shailene Woodley is equally fine as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, as are the superb Melissa Leo as the documentarian Laura Poitras and Zachary Quinto as the irreplaceable (and un-repressible) Glenn Greenwald. Nicolas Cage plays a character suggested by the estimable former National Security analyst — and fellow whistle-blower — Bill Binney, and Snowden himself appears briefly at the end of the picture. Craig Armstrong’s musical score is a strong asset, as is Anthony Dod Mantle’s rich cinematography and the kinetic editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy.

The ultimate willingness of one so young to leave behind his life, love and family in the furtherance of an ideal becomes quietly devastating, and for this, Stone is to be commended. Yet it is a measure of the contempt in which Oliver Stone is held by the government stenographers who now comprise the ranks of corporate journalism that a movie as vital and important as Snowden received far less press than a lumbering exercise like Any Given Sunday. And it is equally illustrative of where the American movie audience is now that Sunday was a hit domestically, Snowden a flop.


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


jfk - donald sutherland
JFK: The Director’s Cut (1991/1997) Love it or despair of it, 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 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 while it was being shotTime 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 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 scenes 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.


nixon richard-helms
Nixon (1995) Criminally ignored on its release — when not slammed outright, by the same chorus of professional neoliberals and CIA plants who reflexively ganged up to “discredit” JFK in 1991 — 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, control, defense, or power. I initially sensed 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. I have since heard Stone admit that he cut the 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.


* 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.

†One of them, Perry Russo — who was not a hustler — was Garrison’s star witness. Interestingly, Russo appears nowhere in JFK.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

See also:
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/the-impossibility-of-reason-platoon-1986/

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?”

the-cowboys-jennings-mass-market

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.

The Cowboys - Rydell and Wayne

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

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Watching the skies: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at 40

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By Scott Ross

I’ve written about hundreds of movies over the last 40 years but have somehow contrived to avoid writing lengthy appreciations of my five favorite pictures. This has not necessarily been out of any conscious avoidance on my part; if any specific reason applies I suppose it’s the desire to do justice to whatever I put my hand to, and my love for this quintet of movies is so strong, and so personal, I can only offer the fearful explanation that my own limitations may cause me to do them less than the full honor to which I feel they are entitled. In addition, my preference, for the purposes of this blog, is to write directly after having seen a movie, or seen it again, when the images and dialogue and performances, and my responses to them (or, if I’m re-viewing a movie I’ve seen before, of their remembered pleasures) are still fresh in my mind. I wanted to write a review of the present subject for my high school paper when it was in release but, somehow and for reasons that now escape my memory, never did. (Probably it had to do with deadlines; ours was only a monthly publication.) Having just seen one of these five again on a big screen, and after a 40 year wait for that opportunity, I think it’s time I made the attempt.

If the foregoing seems unduly personal (and if it does, the remainder of this essay will almost certainly feel embarrassingly intimate) I can only offer in my defense the fact that, when one loves a movie as much as I love this one, and has nurtured that affection for four decades, the matter is itself intensely and entirely personal. And anyway, I seldom consciously employ an omnipotent critical voice, especially where an object of such tender sentiment is concerned; my love for any movie — or book, or painting, or piece of music — however sincere, is hardly definitive. So I beg your indulgence if the following ends up being as much about me as about one specific picture. Although I have what actors call a sense memory of where I saw almost any movie I could name, that’s simply a quirk of recollection; it seems to me that one’s biography is linked, inextricably, to anything we feel as strongly about as I do this one specific movie.

I’ve written elsewhere about my avoidance of Star Wars as a 16-year old burgeoning movie fanatic, following my confrontation of Time magazine’s May 1977 front cover tease (“Inside: The Year’s Best Movie”) and my indifference, once I opened the feature, to what I saw as merely space-ships and cute robots. It was part of my position as student aide at my high school library to stamp in the new periodicals, so I guess I saw that Time story before most of my peers. Similarly, one Monday morning in the fall of that year while behind the reference desk I opened the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section to see a two-page spread heralding another new movie. On the verso side were the soon-to-be famous descriptions of J. Allen Hayek’s three stages of a phenomenon new to me; on the recto, that stunning logo image of the deserted highway, its vanishing point conflating with the corona of light behind it, and, at the bottom of the trade credits, those five magical words: “Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg.”

In these movie-conscious times, when the doings of actors and filmmakers are recorded with panting avidity by nearly every publication and even the box-office of new theatrical releases is granted breathless exposure in 5-minute Public Radio news roundups, it must be difficult for the young to imagine a time when these (I would argue, despite my love for the medium, less than trivial) matters were not common coinage long before a new movie hit the multiplex. But even I, becoming as the result of my part-time job at a local cinema duplex, truly besotted with the movies, was not exactly au courant concerning what was coming, especially if, as in this case, I had yet to see a trailer. (Oddly, considering how often I went to the movies then, I never did see that trailer, until it was included on the letterboxed VHS set years later.) I had heard of the picture, with its enigmatic title — “Kind” striking me as an especially odd noun for a movie — in some brief (and smugly admonishing) account that stressed the then-enormous budget overruns that so worried a cash-strapped Columbia Pictures. But that was all I knew about it.

As a fan of the movie Jaws, I knew Spielberg’s name very well, and was aware that he hadn’t placed a new project in the theatres in two years. What I still did not know about this one was much of anything, aside from its cost.

Close Encounter of the First Kind:
Sighting of a UFO
Close Encounter of the Second Kind:
Physical Evidence
Close Encounter of the Third Kind:
Contact

That double-truck ad haunted me as nothing else I’d seen related to a new movie had, probably since childhood. I fairly levitated with anticipation; like Alvin longing for his hula hoop, I could hardly stand the wait.

CE3K double-truck ad

A British magazine spread rather than the original double-truck Times ad I saw but, aside from the banner at the bottom it’s identical in art and poster content.


Felicitously, between the appearance of that ad and the opening of Close Encounters, I had the opportunity to see Jaws again on a big screen, pretty much by happenstance. When the State Fair opened in October, the owner of the theatre at which I worked after school and on weekends, knowing that movie attendance dropped off precipitously during “Fair Week,” routinely scheduled a pair of older movies he could pick up cheaply from a distributor. For one screen he booked a sleazy yawn of a picture called Jennifer on My Mind, about which I mercifully remember almost nothing except the terminally boring heroine’s car-accident demise at the end. And for the other, Jaws.

I had loved the movie at 14, and certainly believed it a vast improvement on Peter Benchley’s potboiler novel, but what had stayed with me most (aside from purely visual moments like the simultaneous zoom-forward/pull-back shot of Roy Scheider reacting to the boy’s death on the raft) was the sheer, sick-making dread the thing built up before — literally — exploding it at the end. Seeing the picture again, both it and I two years older, I was struck by how funny it was —  how its humor kept puckishly intruding into the dialogue, as a respite from the superbly mounting terror of its set-pieces. I also perceived anew the conflict between its three male antagonists, as a kind of satire on machismo, Robert Shaw’s Ahab-like Quint battling the less mature but more educated giddiness and obstreperousness of Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper and with Scheider’s pragmatic, thoughtful cop (an oxymoron?) occupying a kind of annealing middle space between two extremes of masculine identity. I was also struck by how wonderfully Spielberg observed domestic scenes, not just with how natural the children were in their behavior but the slyness and well-worn comfort that existed between Scheider and Lorraine Gary. It likewise seemed to me that this young filmmaker had an amiable way of giving underwritten roles like Gary’s the space to breathe; one of the sharpest and most striking moments in the picture is her exit from it, first walking away and then racing from Quint’s shack as if pursued by the hounds of Hell.

Because movie theatre owners at that time could, by law, get away with sub-minimum wage in my state, the chief compensation for their mostly teen-and-college-age staffs was the movies themselves, not only those at our complex but elsewhere. Accordingly, we all had 12-month universal passes to nearly anything playing at an area theatre. The only proviso was that we were not to use them on the opening weekend of a new picture. So, despite my fixation on the new Spielberg, I duly, if impatiently, waited a week. The following Friday, no one I knew and with whom I regularly went to the movies had the night free, but I was in those days (unlike today) perfectly willing to go alone. It was a crisp December evening — that sticks with me too, for some reason — when I set out for what was then a new notion: A six-screen multiplex. (In the late 1970s movie theatres still tended to be either stand-alone, single screens or, at most, double that. And, yes, moviegoing was a more pleasant experience for that.) I had kept to a promise I’d made to myself to avoid reading anything about the picture — reviews or anything else, including the Newsweek cover story I was itching to get my hands on. (I could have cheerfully murdered my high school newspaper staff advisor for revealing, in her usual absent-minded “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that, should I?” manner, that Devil’s Tower figured into the plot.) So, as the house lights dimmed, I sat in a state of delicious anticipation. It was rewarded moments later, with the slow build of a sustained chord in John Williams’ score that ended with a crash and the screen becoming filled with light, and it remained with me, keenly, for two hours and 15 minutes, as I entered into a state of wonder I’m not sure I’d ever before encountered at the movies, and know well I’ve never quite experienced since.

I’m reminded as I write this of Evelyn Keyes’ description to an interviewer of being at the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind (in which she played, as the title of her memoir had it, Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister): “It was as if I’d never seen a movie before, and haven’t really since one since.” That Close Encounters of the Third Kind was, and remains, the single most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen, was certainly due in large part to the staggering assurance of its director and to his largesse of vision, as well as to the beautifully conceived and executed effects that buoyed and enhanced that vision. Yet equally as effective, I think, was the prevailing sense of mystery. Not as to what was happening and why — that was self-evident — but the uncertainty of it all. If you walked into this picture unawares, you had no idea, really until the final 15 minutes or so, whether the visitation its characters were going to receive was benign, or malevolent. If all you knew were the UFO movies of the past, you’d almost have to conclude that things couldn’t end well. There had not, aside from the hectoring aliens of the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, been a single American picture in which the visitors from outer space meant us anything other than harm. And indeed even here, where the tone was reasonably light, there hung a question mark, particularly during and after the terrifying night abduction of the little boy played by that amazing child Cary Guffey. Until the moment, very near the climax, when those lost to what we could only presume were similar kidnappings began to emerge from the Mothership on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” things could still have gone terribly, dangerously wrong. You just didn’t know, and nothing in the movie’s look or sound or texture gave you reassurance anywhere close to complete. So when Guffey descended from the ship, his cherubic face beaming, you might have felt a surge of relief as along with the joy: Things were going to be okay.

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One of the gentlest people I know positively loathes this movie. He names it the single worst movie he’s ever seen, and I think I know why; it’s that very benevolence of spirit implicit in Guffey’s beatific smile that bugged certain people then, and that irritates them now. So that when that final, magical exchange of gestures occurs between François Truffaut and the leading extra-terrestrial, those who are incapable of giving in to the generosity of heart — to what I think of as the grace — of the picture, and who have been squirming with either indignance or boredom, or both, must be ready to hurl something at the screen. If you can’t give yourself up to the… there’s almost no other word… cosmic munificence of that moment, and the sense of hope that radiates from it, the entire thing has no doubt been a colossal hunk of especially redolent old cheese.

It isn’t that I’m especially or organically optimistic, and I certainly wasn’t as a teenager. I had hopes, of course; they’re built in to adolescence, however cynical you might fancy yourself. My childhood was bordered on Vietnam, assassination and Watergate, and whatever illusions I had about the goodness of my fellow human beings I lost from being subjected to some pretty representative examples of them in junior high. I have retained, I’m happy to say, some childlike joy, which I think is essential to psychic balance, even if, as in my case, it’s concentrated in my passions for animated cartoons, children’s books and Gold Key comics, old record albums, Peanuts strips, “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” and the movies of my youth. I’m not sure that delight obtained in my response to Close Encounters, although I can well imagine those who despise the movie as my friend does smirking that my affection for it has all the hallmarks of childishness. It may well be that the character of Roy Neary, the Everyman of the movie portrayed with such alternating zest, despair and wonder by Richard Dreyfuss, was one I could on some level relate to at 16. In footage added to the ill-conceived Special Edition of the picture in 1980, and now a permanent part of Spielberg’s preferred cut, which is the one Sony has restored and reissued to theatres, Roy tries without success to interest his disdainful children into a screening of Pinocchio. Although I hadn’t seen it since its re-release in 1971, Pinocchio was the Disney feature I loved most of those I had seen, and I silently willed those kids to abandon their dopey enthusiasm for Goofy Golf and listen to their excited father. So did Spielberg: Not for nothing did he obtain the rights from Disney to incorporate “When You Wish Upon a Star” into John Williams’ score for Close Encounters’ finale. Roy is Pinocchio, and at the end he gets to abandon his child-man persona and become a real boy again.

But whatever my sub-conscious identification with Dreyfuss, to sit in rapt enchantment for two and a quarter hours while those images of wonder washed over me was more than sufficient to crack my cynical shell, and when Truffaut’s Lacombe and the E.T. communicate at the end, the wonderfully articulated Carlo Rambaldi alien returning the Kodály hand-signals for the five notes transmitted by the extra-terrestrials, and ends by imitating Lacombe’s radiant smile, any reservations I may have entertained about the filmmakers’ intent crumbled to dust. I left that theatre on a high I’ve never forgotten, one only the rarest of movies is capable of transmitting and which is as elusive as those UFOs that keep teasing Neary throughout the picture. I get it consistently from the endings of Some Like it Hot and A Hard Days’ Night and Singin’ in the Rain and Victor/Victoria and, yes, Pinocchio… and even Star Wars, that movie I avoided and so disdained without bothering to see it in 1977. But not many others, so I don’t think I’m naturally a sap when it comes to these things.

The bath of hopefulness that suffused me as the climax played out has little or nothing to do with belief; whether there are beings outside our understanding and experience seems to me, as it seemed to me then, one less of faith than of odds — why, the passionate assurance of the religious that we are the only perfect creation of God to the contrary, should we assume we are unique in the vastness of space? The movie’s other tag, beyond its explanation of Dr. J. Allen Hynek’s three stages of the close encounter (which, curiously, Spielberg never defines in the picture itself) was “We Are Not Alone,” a phrase that, fittingly, expresses both optimism and potential dread. But more simply, and beyond the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, my hopeful side was touched by the sheer, big, open-heartedness of the ending, and by that exchange between Lacombe and the alien spokesman: A gesture, a smile, and we may touch each other, and express our common life-force. It doesn’t matter whether the recipient is of spheres beyond the earth or simply another race or nationality, or even gender. The smile is what matters. It spoke of a gentleness, a respect and a wish for mutual peace, that transcended Spielberg’s fantasy — and indeed the tenor of movies both at the time and now, born of cynicism and a disturbing taste, shared between movie makers and their audience, for escalating forms of violence. No one in the business, outside the Disney studios, was expressing such sentiments in 1977, and almost no one is concerned with them now. The desire for understanding, the imagination that empathy requires, had become rare by that time, and slightly suspect, and feels even more isolated now, when even Steven Spielberg no longer embraces them. What was special then is even more rarified four decades on.

Sentiment in movies is something to be embraced when you’re in good hands, but sentimentality almost never is, and it is certainly true (and contrary to those who found the picture unbearable) that while Spielberg eschews the rank exploitation of it in Close Encounters, his sentimentality in subsequent pictures often became gloppy as hell; even as fine a fantasy as E.T. can at moments cause your teeth to ache. But I’d almost rather have that, which in Spielberg’s case was at least heartfelt, than the ugly, cold, violent and puzzling fury of something like his 2005 War of the Worlds, which feels like an angry old man’s contemptuous reaction to the benignity of his own past work. I’m reminded of George Stevens, who made a number of sparkling comedies before the war but who, after helping to liberate Hitler’s death camps, never made a happy picture again. Something about making Schindler’s List in 1993 appears to have permanently altered Spielberg’s outlook, and not for the better. He has repeatedly said he isn’t the same person as the young man who made Close Encounters, or even Jaws, and it would be foolish and even a little creepy to expect him to be — like a parent willing a favored child back to infancy. Yet with War of the Worlds Spielberg seemed to be gleefully pissing on everyone who’d ever loved his earlier pictures — especially Close Encounters. A lot of people have cherished the hope, since the 1990s, that he might one day return to the sort of optimistic pictures that made his name; but while I think the darkening of his worldview enhanced his best post-Schindler work (the wrenchingly felt Munich) on the evidence of War of the Worlds I would say that if he has lost the capacity for wonder and the openness of heart that propelled and enlivened Close Encounters and E.T., perhaps it would be best for all concerned if he stayed away from fantasy for good. There are more than enough filmmakers around now who are only too happy to grind their audiences’ faces in sadism, gore and misery. Does Spielberg really need to be one of them?

Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind Mothership

The Mothership emerges, with illogical magnificence.

Whatever its disadvantages in loss of surprise, seeing a movie you love a second time has ample compensations, if only the simple joy of reliving what made you so happy the first time. With Close Encounters, the subterranean anxiety about the outcome which attended that first screening was eliminated, the anticipation of pleasure taking its place. I was able to relax more fully and appreciate the contours — the totality — more fully. Things like the naturalness of the domestic sequences and the behavior of the UFOs themselves, which now no longer held any threat and could be seen as Spielberg intended, as playful rather than potentially deadly. While the abduction of Guffey’s Barry Guiler was still creepily frightening (Jesus Christ, those screws coming up and out of the heating-grate!) and full of anguish for Barry’s mother, a second viewing made manifest what had only been sub-conscious the first time: That the aliens have chosen Barry for his sweet, ingratiating innocence — that they are attracted to the ingenuousness of the boy, just as they have marked Roy Neary for his childlike curiosity and delight. The image of Barry opening the door of the house is not just totemic, it’s emblematic of the movie itself; he’s saying, as the entire picture does, “Welcome! Come in!”

Guffey at the door F58

Barry Guiler opens the door.

When I finally did see Star Wars — dragged all but kicking by my best friend the following summer — I was conscious, in spite of my general enjoyment and even, to my surprise, delight with it, that many of the special effects that so many other people reveled in were a disappointment and suffered by comparison with the effects in Close Encounters. Spielberg was canny enough to determine that his effects looked far better shot in 35mm and blown up to 65. I was conscious of a lot of blue-screen in Star Wars, but with the Spielberg picture I never saw the joins. And that 65mm frame gives the entire picture a scope that does wonders for the sense of enchantment you get from it. It’s not merely widescreen —it’s enormous. It doesn’t overpower you, but it enthralls you, and brings you into it, in a way that, among epics, only Lawrence of Arabia really does. That is a large measure of my decades-old desire to see it again in a theatre. The biggest home plasma television in existence cannot do for you what seeing the movie projected on that massive screen can.

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Dreyfuss’ truck in the alien spotlight.

And the images sing, as the UFOs are said to sing to those who see them and to whom subliminal messages are passed marking them out as chosen, even if they never know it: The sparkling eyes and ancient, smiling face of Eumenio Blanco as Truffaut gently turns his head to look at his partial sunburn; the way Bob Balaban is swallowed up in sand blown by the desert wind as he yells out his confusion; the blinding light that falls on Dreyfuss’ truck as he’s scrutinized at the railroad crossing; the changing expressions of little Cary Guffey as he surveys the ransacked kitchen (and, we presume, the new friends who’ve come to visit); the Disneyesque, Dopey-like, perpetually tardy little spacecraft, represented by a red Tinkerbell light as it darts about, seeking to catch up with the armada; the streaking alien craft zooming through the toll-booth; the clouds roiling in the night skies (achieved by injecting paint into fresh water sitting atop saline); the ship in the desert (also added to the Special Edition); Dreyfuss, bathed by a red night-light, fully-clothed and being deluged by the bathroom shower as he sits weeping in his isolation and despair (a sequence cut in 1977 but added back in 1980); the crane-shot revealing Devil’s Tower to two breathless pilgrims; the birds falling from the trees as they’re hit with non-lethal gas; the Mothership hovering over the landing field as technicians scramble to take readings, their hair and clothing and instruments lifted by the static charge; Bob Baker’s elongated marionette emerging from the Mothership, its arms upraised in benevolent greeting; Guffey’s radiant face as he emerges from the ship; the aliens surrounding their chosen initiate, his childlike delight drawing them like light attracting a swarm of moths.

If Close Encounters has flaws for me, they’re few, and for the most part minor. That big plane of glass that shatters when the Mothership responds to the synthesizer attempting communication with its first great chord should blow in and not out — something I noticed at 16 — although you can understand for the actor’s sake why it doesn’t. Also, when the Mothership makes it initial appearance, seeming to rise up from behind and below Devil’s Tower, the physics make no sense; the thing is immense, and would have to emerge from the bowels of the earth to create that effect, but you’re so delighted by the image that even as you critique it you don’t really mind. There are little glitches, too, such as the fact that the newscaster on Neary’s television makes an aside to Walter Cronkite when the broadcast is clearly manned by Howard K. Smith. (Spielberg had always planned for Cronkite to play himself, and the veteran newsman was willing, but CBS corporate policy negated his appearance at the last minute.) The largest leap of faith is Neary’s, and it’s one that simply never occurred to me at 16, or 19 — perhaps because my relationship to my own father was so uneasy — but has since bothered Spielberg a great deal: Roy’s leaving his children behind as he eagerly embarks on his new interstellar life at the end. However impossible his marriage may be, however lost Roy Neary feels and however innocent his enthusiasm, asking what sort of father would make that decision is more than a fair question.

Some critics at the time bemoaned the lack of characterization in Close Encounters, but what I think they were really missing was dialogue. I’d be interested to know what the comparative ratio is in the screenplay (credited to Spielberg solely but worked on as well by Jerry Belson, John Hill, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins) of dialogue to action, because Close Encounters strikes me, as it struck me in 1977, as having perhaps the least amount of talking in it of any picture I can think of since the advent of sound. It isn’t merely that the dialogue is spare, but that much of it — especially Teri Garr’s — not only feels improvised but was. Garr’s role, and Melinda Dillon’s as Barry’s mother Jillian, are, in terms of dialogue, among the shortest of any picture of its time, but they’re not in any way under-nourished. That’s partly the effect of good casting: Garr and Dillon do so much with so little that they’re astounding; Dillon was subsequently nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar® for her performance, and it was, as these things go, well deserved. Among the images and moments that have remained most vivid with me for 40 years are those involving her elastically mobile face and body: How she places her fingertips on the motel television screen as Devil’s Tower is revealed, as if touching a religious icon, or the way she bites her index finger ecstatically, grinning and bouncing up and down on her feet at the light-show she witnesses at the climax, or her despairing cry (“Ba-ar-ee!”) as she runs through the woods. And little Cary Guffey at four years old still seems to me the most preternaturally expressive child the movies have seen since Jackie Coogan in The Kid. Even granting that many of the reactions Spielberg got from him involved elaborate subterfuge and thoughtful preparation, Guffey’s wide eyes and heart-melting smile are still astounding to see. He’s the spirit of the movie itself, in a way, open and beguiling. It’s not an actor’s performance, but a state of natural delight, sustained and without calculation or guile. For him the alien visitors are spirited playmates bringing wondrous new toys. It’s no wonder he opens that door.

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Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr)

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Dreyfuss with the marvelously expressive Melinda Dillon.

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Barry (Cary Guffey) meets his new friends. Spielberg put ruse on top of surprise to elicit Guffey’s beautiful, spontaneous reactions.

Guffey’s adult counterpart is Truffaut, in whose countenance and demeanor (particularly in his performance as Dr. Jean Itard in L’enfant sauvage) Spielberg saw an embodiment of gentle wisdom and spiritual largesse. It’s certainly no accident that it is Lacombe who exchanges greetings with Rambaldi’s articulated alien at the end, and if the actor had some difficulty with his occasional English dialogue — his mispronunciation during an early take of the line, “They belong here more than we” as something like, “Zey beelong ‘ere Mozambique” delighted the crew, who printed up T-shirts bearing the sentence, amusing even the easily-embarrassed Truffaut himself — it is in his face, and his eyes, and his smile, that Close Encounters finds its true animating spirit.

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Truffaut’s radiant smile.

Aside from those quickly-famous five notes, John Williams’ score for Close Encounters got short-shrift generally in 1977 (he did win the Academy Award®, but for Stars Wars) and this seems more than a little unfair. His compositions here are less showy, perhaps, and contain fewer recurrent motifs, but his musicianship is even more impressive than in the Lucas picture, not least for its embrace of atonality, which gives much of the score an ethereal, otherworldly feel that is perfectly in keeping with the movie’s theme and sense of uneasy mystery. He didn’t need to emulate Korngold here as he did in Star Wars, and a good deal of his work in Close Encounters seems based as much on the first eight notes of the Dies Irae as on the five he and Spielberg painstakingly selected before filming began and which are so much a part of the movie’s overall scheme and texture. That the Latin hymn translates to “Day of Wrath” in no small way contributed, if my ears are correct in placing that eight-note theme with the Dies Irae, to my underlying un-ease on seeing the movie the first time. This is in no way a hopeful set of notes, although Williams doesn’t use it in a manner that feels at all deathish, in contrast to Stephen Sondheim, who built much of Sweeney Todd on the same octave. And unlike his work on the Star Wars movies, Williams was not tracking action in Close Encounters as much as he was limning and helping to define the picture’s moods. Not that he doesn’t excite you at several junctures, especially near the beginning and toward the end. But only at the climax does his innate romanticism burst through, in those soaring, even Wagnerian, strains that accompany the heavenward flight of the UFOs during the credits. (He’d do something similar for the lifting off of the rescue craft at the climax of E.T., although his emotionalism is less restrained there than here. In Close Encounters Williams accompanies the release of emotion; in E.T. he almost seems to be tearing it out of you.)

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I see that I haven’t begun to touch on Dreyfuss’ extraordinarily modulated and even wildly funny performance; on Bob Balaban’s quiet excellence as Truffaut’s translator; on Vilmos Zsigmond’s exquisite lighting and expansive, muted palette; on Michael Kahn’s lively editing, or Joe Alves’ phenomenally effective production designs, Roy Arbogast’s marvelous visual effects, or even on Spielberg’s astonishingly assured and often witty direction —impressive when measured on any scale but staggering for a young man of 30. Note, for a single example, the way he put together the great sequence in which the air traffic controller played by the splendid Bill Thurman handles the picture’s first close encounter, which in its confidence in holding on interesting faces communicating with disembodied voices and sonar blips — the filmmaker’s belief that the tension of the scene can build, and release, without our ever seeing the event that so captures the characters’ anxious concerns — is in its way as impressive as the movie’s biggest set-pieces.

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Bill Thurman at center.

But that’s the way it is when one is confronted by something as rich and satisfying and even, just conceivably, as profound as Close Encounters. If there’s anything as gratifying as finding that something one loved as deeply as my adolescent self loved this movie still holds up, still enchants and entrances and elates, it’s the satisfaction of discovering that the 16 year-old me was, in loving it, absolutely justified.

You can go home again.


Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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Everyone is overtaken, eventually: “Munich” (2005) and “One Day in September” (1999)

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By Scott Ross

If you were alive at the time, and of age to be aware, 5 September 1972 is unlikely to be a date you forget. I was 11; coincidentally, a 5th grade writing assignment on the subject was my first experience of composing an essay, and my first angry opinion piece. There was much I did not know then — primarily about the appalling manner in which the Bavarian government botched things so thoroughly that a deadly encounter between the Palestinian terror group Black September and 11 Israeli athletes mutated to an entirely avoidable bloodbath; concerning the complicity of the news media, most specifically the ratings-crazed ghouls at ABC, and how much that network’s idiocies cost the hostages; and of the indecent callousness of the International Olympic Commission, then and now* — a mounting pile of incompetence and insensitivity (and, in the end, complicity†) that compounded the ugliness of the event and turned it, inexorably, into a public horror-show. Had I known then half of what I’ve learned since, my pre-adolescent rage would almost certainly have become positively incandescent.

The value of a factual narrative such as that in the 1999 documentary One Day in September, for all its slickness and even its dismaying errors of fact, is that it can stand as an exercise both of education and of remembrance. The virtue of a documentary fiction like the 2005 Munich lies in its willingness to grapple with matters beyond fact and into something very like a popular treatise on the mutability of human morality.

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Kevin Macdonald, who made One Day in September, has been criticized severely — and, I think, rightly — for his climactic use of imagery from the catastrophic failure at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield, in which 9 of the athletes were slaughtered. When we are told, in Michael Douglas’ voice-over narration, what happened to the nine Israeli athletes held hostage there by members of Black September, the horror does not require photographic proof to lodge in the mind. If the sight of those men’s bodies, mangled and bloody on the tarmac, serves anything, its documentary value eludes me. It is, in its way, as obscene as the footage of athletes in the Olympic Village sunning themselves and playing ping-pong while nearly a dozen of their confederates either lie dead where they fell or sit in their suites under hostile armed guard. It most certainly does not ennoble the enterprise, or add meaning to the lives and pointless deaths of the Israeli team. Since the movie is so clearly and resolutely sympathetic to the athletes’ ordeal, one is left stunned by the filmmaker’s sudden, and nearly unwatchable, violation of them in death. Nor is this the only disparagement one can make of Macdonald: He somehow gets the very details of those senseless murders wrong, and I’ll be damned if I can understand why. Particularly since Steven Spielberg, in Munich (2005), gets them right.‡

What the director does accomplish, while not mitigating these lapses of judgment and taste, is a thorough, and deserved, rebuke of the utter incompetence of the German officials and of the broadcast media. Not only was security at the Village so lax as to be virtually nonexistent, the final attempts to bring the situation to a satisfactory end were doomed from the start through lack of manpower, communication and proper planning, added to a tactical incompetence so vast as to exist somewhere well beyond the realm of the merely shocking and courting incredulity. As for the soon-to-be venerated Peter Jennings and his television team, their own lack of foresight is simply astounding, as they continued to film and broadcast from an adjacent building, even as a hastily assembled team of German officers prepared to mount an assault. In an ever-shrinking world in which the broadcast media had, by 1972, become ubiquitous, it is both staggering and unconscionable that no one at ABC considered for a single moment, as it aired these events to the world, that the terrorists in the Israeli suite also had access to television sets. One Day in September does not provide any information on what happened in the boardrooms of ABC Television following the massacre at Fürstenfeldbruck, but considering Jennings’ rise at that network, I scarcely imagine he was regarded by Roone Aldredge and his cronies as anything but heroic.


Spielberg is scarcely any less impassioned than Macdonald, and while he has been at pains to make it clear he intended in Munich no rebuke to the Israeli government, his somewhat fictionalized account of the events that followed the massacre is, paradoxically, even more precise and exacting than One Day in September. Working from a more than unusually intelligent screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, taken from George Jonas’ 1984 nonfiction account of the Mossad response to Black September, the director fashions, not a revenge fantasy, but a meditation on the price of vengeance and whose conclusion is, aptly and refreshingly, a question mark.

It seems unlikely that Spielberg could have achieved the emotional complexity of Munich, much less its striking, de-saturated visual scheme, without having made Schindler’s List. While it is possible to lament that the maker of Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind appears to have turned his back on the fantastic and relatively innocent fare that was unique to him, and which it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone else making (or making quite so perfectly, anyway) if the trade-off is a picture like Munich, then popcorn entertainment’s loss must surely be said to be serious cinema’s gain. (Although I don’t think the aforementioned, with the exception of Raiders, is less than thoughtful and, in the case of Close Encounters, very possibly profound.) I don’t wish to overstate the case, or turn Spielberg into some sort of intellectual manqué. There are far deeper thinkers amidst the directorial ranks, and creative artists of more daring generally. But if is it impossible to think of Spielberg’s having made this morally complex exercise 40 years ago it is equally improbable to imagine any filmmaker with less of a box-office track record getting it made at all. They’d be laughed out of the studio for even suggesting it.

While some of the events at Munich are re-created, and teased out at strategic moments in the narrative, reminding both us and the character of the assassination team leader, Avner (Eric Bana) of his very raison d’être, Munich is not really about the terror of that September day. Nor is it, except incidentally, about an un-tested quartet of Mossad operatives who begin uncertainly and improve with each sanctioned killing; it is instead concerned with the very nature of deliberate, cold-blooded murder and the effect it has upon its practitioners. Only two of the five (Bana and Daniel Craig, as the most dedicated member of the team) escape with their lives, but all of them are mortally unnerved, long before their fates are determined. There are moments in the picture in which Bana appears so haggard, and haunted, he begins to resemble the survivors of a Holocaust he, as a young Sabra, knows only through largely impersonal history. And although there are a number of brief, hot debates scattered throughout the action (and in which one senses the nuanced and intellectually bracing hand of Tony Kushner) Munich is the furthest thing from didactic. No conclusions are reached, no particular ideology identified or embraced, beyond the inescapable one: Blood begets blood, and its actors can never sleep untroubled. As the taciturn Carl (Ciarán Hinds) notes to Avner late in the movie, “You think you can outrun your fears, your doubts… The only thing that really scares you is stillness. But everyone’s overtaken eventually.”

The look of Munich is extraordinary, thanks in large part to Spielberg’s usual cinematographer, the splendid Janusz Kamiński, whose images are of such de-glamorized clarity they allow for no romance of the subject. Michael Kahn’s editing is likewise of such precision that there is no flab here, no attempt to linger prettily at some depiction of aesthetic beauty. But then, there is little beauty to be had in the picture; it’s as tough and uncompromised a movie as may be imagined. Morally bankrupt filmmakers can be had by the score, and their movies, consciously or unconsciously, celebrate violence as a thing to be admired; Spielberg never lets you forget that taking a life is a dirty business —the ultimate obscenity. Even when an innocent is spared, as in the harrowing first assassination attempt when the target’s young daughter unexpectedly makes an unscheduled appearance on the scene, the moral thread is torn asunder by our knowledge that her father’s existence will not be similarly spared. There is a sequence, late in the movie, wherein a Dutch assassin (Marie-Josée Croze) is coolly, and agonizingly, disposed of, that is about as brutal and unblinking an indictment as I think can be imagined, yet even here we cannot shake with what duplicitous calculation she has herself assassinated one of the team. Munich has little time for innocence, nor much belief in it. What a long, hard road this is from E.T.!

Munich is so exceptionally designed, and contains devices so fresh in conception and execution, the viewer may be hard-pressed to recall seeing them in a movie before. That Dutch assassin’s death is one such moment, her stunned reaction to the silenced bullets that are draining her life as she stumbles about her houseboat both startling and, in a way, the most felt death in the picture. Another is the moment, just prior to this sequence, when Eric Bana’s Avner, finding his colleague dead at the woman’s hands, buries his face in the bedclothes and emits a muffled scream of anguish that expresses more than mere personal grief; Avner is an active participant in his own nightmare, and that scream is like a violent rending of his soul. Avner is also the focus of a sequence, late in the movie, which uses eroticism in a way that is almost unbearably powerful, something I’ve never seen in another director’s work and certainly never expected to see from the man of whom Francis Coppola once observed, in their relative youth, “Stevie hasn’t discovered sex yet.”

Spielberg commits only one inaccuracy in Munich I can detect, and, ironically, it concerns movie history. When the team assembles in London in the early spring of 1973, a poster may be seen on the street for The Sting — a picture that was not released until December of that year. (And made by Spielberg’s own Jaws producing team.) This error only becomes obvious when, later, Ephraim begins a tape-recorded interrogation with a date of June, 1973. But in a movie of a length approaching three hours, that lapse is minor indeed, and all the more noticeable for being the sole discernible example of miscalculation.

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The final image: Where in time the chickens will come home to roost.

If there is a didacticism in the approach of the filmmakers, it is raised only at the end, when Avner confronts his mercurial Mossad chief Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) on the Brooklyn shore, arguing that the vengeance he and his team have enacted has led only to more bloodshed, and that the deadly tit-for-tat will, in time, merely engender more of the same — an endless conundrum of the type human beings, and their governments, seem incapable of avoiding, nor of extricating themselves from. Just before the end credits roll, as Avner is exiting to the left of the screen, foreground, Spielberg frames the New York skyline behind him, the World Trade Center towers visible in the background. It’s a discreet visual paradigm, a sort of silent rebuke, eloquent in its understatement.

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Avner and Ali in contemplative mood.

In a large cast, the at once ordinary yet somehow remarkably beautiful Bana is revelatory as Avner, the character (based on the actual Yuval Aviv) who resides at the center of Munich’s ethical maze. He seems open, yet is constantly guarded, so that not even his cherished wife (the radiant Ayelet Zurer) can penetrate the curtain he draws over himself. In the movie’s most pointed sequence, in which Avner, under cover, engages in a lengthy discussion of the Palestinian ethos with the unsuspecting Ali (Omar Metwally) Bana conveys a fascinating ambivalence, capped by the corresponding moment that follows, in which Avner must kill Ali. He’s been brought to consider the Palestinian as an individual, perhaps even a man he can like, and it’s the first instance in his experience in which he must end the life of someone he has come to know, however superficially. Ali is no longer simply an abstraction, and it is this killing that tests Avner’s sense of what his bomb-maker thinks of as the righteousness inherent in being a Jew. The action is not lingered over, or in any way elongated, by Spielberg, but it resonates.

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Louis and Avner: An uneasy alliance.

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Papa and Avner in the former’s garden. While the older man expresses a fatherly feeling for the younger, he also makes it clear that Avner is not family.

Mention ought also to be made, and at length, of a number of actors here, particularly those in Avner’s team: Craig, in his first important big-screen role, to which he brings no hint of what he would later do as James Bond. Steve’s is an entirely different character altogether —  a man who, unlike Bond, kills his perceived enemies with relish. Hinds contributes a performance of quiet magnificence as the philosophizing Carl; the redoubtable Geoffrey Rush gives a superb account of Ephraim, alternately seductive and enraged, and making it clear that, with him, neither emotion is to be trusted; and Mathieu Kassovitz (himself due to appear in a Bond picture, as a memorable villain) makes of the French intelligence contractor Louis a figure at once enigmatic, gentlemanly and dangerous. The wonderful Michael Lonsdale (himself, interestingly, a former Bond villain) steals every scene in which he appears as Louis’ venerable Papa who, although he expresses a fatherly feeling for the younger assassin, also makes it clear to Avner that he is not family. Gila Almagor does wonder work as Avner’s mother, and Lynn Cohen provides a fine account of Golda Meir, outwardly maternal but never less than the successful (ergo, ruthless) politician. John Williams’ superb score employs none of the maudlin over-emphasis that marred his compositions for Spielberg’s equally sentimental (and, ultimately, pointless) Saving Private Ryan. Munich is a picture so accomplished, on so many levels, that it stays in my mind as the last great, new American movie of my experience.

Yet notwithstanding all of the above, Leonard Maltin, in his popular video guide, was able to muster little enthusiasm for the picture, accusing Munich of both lacking focus and of “treading familiar ground.” You mean like all those dozens of other American movies about teams of government-sanctioned assassins that question the morality, and the efficacy, of piling violence on top of violence? In a picture of some 2 hours and 43 minutes, that places us absolutely in the midst of the planning and execution of deadly vengeance and that reflects in every particular the paranoia and mounting ethical, emotional and intellectual anxiety implicit in such activity, the very last sin of which anyone of moderate intelligence could possibly accuse the writers and director of is not being focused.


* The IOC continued the Games during the day of the 5th, and only acceded to public outcry the morning after the massacre of the Israeli athletes at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield. And while it sponsored a documented day-trip by the Israelis to nearby Dachau, the organization refused, 40 years later, to permit a public remembrance of the 11 murdered athletes, claiming — speciously — that it could not allow a “political” demonstration. The IOC did honor the 11 in 2016… very pointedly not during the ceremonies themselves but two days before the Games began.

†As One Day in September makes clear, the German government appears to have arranged, with Black September, the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight in October of 1972, as a result of which the three Palestinian survivors of Munich were freed and allowed to emigrate to Libya — an act designed to mitigate its own deep international embarrassment over the manner with which it mishandled the Olympic crisis.

‡I am referring here to the manner in which the hostages were killed. In One Day in September we are told that one of the Palestinian terrorists threw a grenade into the first of two helicopters in which the Israelis were being held, and that the German armed forces accidentally shot up the second. In fact, Black Sunday raked the inhabitants of the first vehicle with bullets before tossing in the grenade, then similarly sprayed the occupants of the second with gunfire. Macdonald’s errors here nearly defy belief, and certainly beggar comprehension.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

“What exactly is this Super Bowl?”: Black Sunday (1977)

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By Scott Ross

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Robert Shaw, in contemplative mode as the Mossad agent David Kabakov. Note concentration camp tattoo, which thankfully goes unmentioned. It would be gilding the narrative lily to do so – and the image itself makes its own statement.

Black Sunday (1977) could probably not be made today — or at least, not the same way. Doubtless its depiction of utterly ruthless Arab and Palestinian terrorists would raise an outcry no Hollywood studio would be comfortable attracting to a big-budget thriller. (Especially considering the new reliance for mega-bucks on the mass of sub-literate Asian picturegoers who are the true intended audience for American movies now.) Never mind that the Israeli agents portrayed in the picture are every bit as unsparing, or that the 1975 Thomas Harris novel on which it was based was written in the early–to-mid 1970s, long before the attacks of 9-11 financed if not indeed carried out by Our Friends, The Saudis but not long after the internationally televised atrocity at the Olympic Village in Munich. If I am skeptical of Movieland suits in this matter it is not that I wish to see Semitic peoples vilified. We’ve had quite enough of that, inside Hollywood and out. But Harris’ bestselling novel (his first, predating the Hannibal Lecter series by half a decade) was surely written at least in part as a response to Munich, and as a commentary on the viciousness, not of Palestinians or Arabs generally, but of the Black Sunday group itself. (Add that his protagonist, the Israeli David Kabakov, is, as he tells a confederate, beginning to question and thus is no good to the Mossad, and you have an idea of Thomas’ ambivalent approach.) Rather I am pointing out that generating such a movie now would take more spinal and intestinal fortitude than can habitually be found among the studio brigade, terrified as they are of taking chances — something their 1970s counterparts were accustomed to doing on a routine basis.*

Still: Imagine the reaction of Paramount executives to John Frankenheimer’s initial cut, which ended with the Goodyear blimp carrying a deadly cargo designed to kill 80,000 spectators crashing over the top tier of the Miami Orange Bowl as the screen goes to black. The End. Not on your nellie, mister! We paid top dollar for that goddamned book, and it’s not ending that way! Frankenheimer (who surely knew he couldn’t get away with it) was forced to shoot additional sequences that conformed more closely to Harris’ book (although Kabakov does not go down with the ship — er, blimp — as he does in the novel) and it’s a good thing he was. Audiences who sat through a terrifically exciting two-hour thriller, only to be greeted with that ending, would have been ready to set a bomb off under the filmmakers themselves.

The foregoing presumably accounts for Black Sunday’s unusually long running time (2 hours, 23 minutes) and the presence in its credits of three screenwriters (the estimable Ernest Lehman and Ivan Moffat as well as Kenneth Ross, the scenarist of the excellent Day of the Jackal adaptation.) It may also explain some rather paltry blue-screen imagery in the movie’s final quarter hour, surely not the fault of John A. Alonzo, the movie’s accomplished director of photography. Not that any of it did Paramount much good: By the time the movie was in release, it had been beaten to the nation’s screens by a cheapjack Charlton Heston Super Bowl disaster picture called Two-Minute Warning, and, while Black Sunday was the studio’s biggest grosser in 1977, it still didn’t do enough business to really matter. Almost no one’s pictures did that year, except a certain space-fantasy released by 20th Century-Fox.†

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The producer, Robert Evans, with Frankenheimer on-set.

Cavils aside, Black Sunday was and remains a superlative example of the thriller genre, at which Frankenheimer excelled. He was, of course, a brilliant director of drama as well — All Fall Down, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Fixer, The Gypsy Moths, The Iceman Cometh — but it is as an assured maker of action pictures that his larger reputation rests: Seven Days in May, The Train, French Connection II, The Challenge, Ronin and, supremely, The Manchurian Candidate. The sheer logistics in his pictures took a steady head, and here Frankenheimer not only staged an exciting speed-boat chase and an agonizing, long, palm-dampening climax but had as well to accommodate thousands of sports fans at an Orange Bowl event… not to mention the presumably nervous heads of the Goodyear Company. There is a single, continuous panning shot late in the movie which begins by following the car driven by Marthe Keller, floats up to the top tier of the Orange Bowl, and down again onto the field to pick up Robert Shaw’s eminently familiar face, that is as breathtaking as it is un-ostentatious. It’s the kind of thing Spielberg became a master of, but which very few picture makers other than perhaps David Lean could have carried off at that time with such seeming nonchalance. (Astonishingly, the picture was made during the director’s long period of bibulousness. Which may account for his attempt at ending it on such a shocking downer.)

Keller is problematic, as she always was, by dint both of her accent and her limited abilities, and the script fudges her character’s origins to oblige her Swiss roots. The lethal Dahlia should ideally have been played by a Palestinian or Arabian actress, but which one would have been an acceptable enough substitution to feature above the title? No such qualms concern Bruce Dern as the movie’s chief psychopath. It’s the sort of role that Dern must have resented at the time (they came to him so often) but he triumphs over the typecasting. That Michael Lander is a Vietnam vet could have been problematic; this was, after all, the era of the Nixonian lie which claimed without any evidence that such soldiers were spat on in airports, and in which so many convenient fictional villains were vets, walking time-bombs “snapping” at last back home.

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Dern’s Michael Lander in full-on madman mode. Keller’s Dahlia knows him too well to register surprise.

Michael’s experiences as a prisoner of war reduced to a coerced statement of Quisling complicity by his captors during the war, and his subjection to unconscionably cavalier bureaucratic treatment by the brass after, counteract that conventional narrative ploy, making him emotionally unpredictable in a way the audience can easily comprehend… although it must be said that the Michael of the movie is nowhere near as frightening a figure as he is in the book; there’s a moment in Harris’ novel where, to make a point, he shoves a kitten down a kitchen sink garbage-disposal that shocked me when I read it at 15, and has remained vivid in my consciousness ever after. Really, I’d prefer to see that nowhere aside from the cinema of my mind. And not even there.

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Detente: Shaw with the marvelous Walter Gottel.

Shaw must have relished both his paycheck, his top billing, and the opportunity to play a quietly heroic (if perhaps necessarily pitiless) hero after so many years of villainy: As that cold sociopath “Red” Grant in From Russia with Love (1963), a scarily mercurial Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, the equally dangerous Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, the chilling Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the Ahab-like Quint of Jaws, and even the Sheriff of Nottingham, in Robin and Marian. Kabakov is as dangerous as any of these, but more messily human. It is, after all, his unwillingness to gun down the vulnerable Dahlia at the beginning of the picture that makes the entire “Black Sunday” operation in Miami possible.

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Fritz Weaver with Shaw in the extended, nerve-wracking climax.

The great Fritz Weaver does his usual impeccable work as Kabakov’s FBI coeval; Michael V. Gazzo turns up as a sleazy go-between subjected to a typically brutal bit of questioning by the Israeli (whose ironic nickname in the Mossad is “The Final Solution”); William Daniels provides a nice turn as a sympathetic V.A. psychologist; and Walter Gotell, the splendidly multifarious General Gogol of the Roger Moore Bonds, shows up as a finely-judged Arabian ambassador. Frankenheimer himself can be glimpsed, briefly, in what those who worked with would recognize as his occasionally manic directorial mode, as a CBS television director. In this splendid ensemble only the rather blank-faced Keller fails to land. Her presence among so fine a cast is a puzzler. Then again, the entirety of her 1970s stardom itself never made a great deal of sense to me. She isn’t terrible, but she’s barely adequate, and, in this company, that’s nearly as bad as being rotten.

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Shaw’s brutal interrogation of Michael V. Gazzo

Mention should be made here of Tom Rolph’s vigorous editing, and of Alonzo’s use of the hand-held camera, becoming rarer in those early days of the Steadicam and used here for its deliberate effect of documentary immediacy. Alonzo’s work reaches it apogee during preparations for the terrorist attack on the Super Bowl crowd. This sequence contains in the most striking moment in the picture, following Dern’s bomb-test, performed in an abandoned building in the desert, when we see the old wooden structure from the inside, its walls peppered from floor to ceiling by shrapnel blasts; the sunlight streaming through, giving the interior the quality of diaphanous lace. As Dern extols the beauty of the bomb’s symmetry to an unnerved Keller, the visual is in fact beautiful, and deeply chilling: We understand as Keller does what those thousands of sun-drenched pores really represent.

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The aftermath of the bomb test: Bruce Dern extols the beauty of its symmetry to an unnerved Marthe Keller. One of John A. Alonzo’s most eloquent visual effects.

John Williams was, at the time, not yet a household name even after composing the then-ubiquitous Jaws theme. (In a couple of months, everyone would know his name.) This may account for Paramount’s deigning to release a soundtrack album, which seems to me to have been a major miscalculation, as Williams’ score is absolutely integral to the success of the picture.‡ Its main theme is an ominous twelve-note phrase (three clusters of four notes each, with a single variation in the second phrase) that, repeated, becomes a melodic accompaniment to Frankenheimer’s visuals, sowing the seeds of dread early on (although not, interestingly, during the picture’s opening credits, which are played out sans musical accompaniment) and carrying through to the end titles, during which a nervously triumphant fanfare takes over, one that anticipates similar thematic phrases in Williams’ later scores for Dracula and The Fury (both 1978) and that hints at an uneasy truce. This isn’t The End, that composition seems to suggest, merely a temporary lull — a sentiment his compatriot Spielberg would one day echo at the end of his own depiction of terrorism and its bloody aftermath.

That we end with a nod to Munich seems appropriate to the inspiration for Black Sunday itself. Such calculated ideological violence is itself a circle, a corona from whose deadly radiations we never seem to learn.

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* The suits would be utterly un-manned if confronted today by something like the 1984 George Roy Hill-directed adaptation of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, which looks askance at both the PLO and the Mossad. That one, now, wouldn’t even get optioned, much less produced.

† Close Encounters of the Third Kind also did well enough to be considered a hit, and Annie Hall did exceptional business for a parochial Woody Allen picture. But only Star Wars really went through the stratosphere.

‡ It was, thankfully, released in full thirty-three years later by Film Score Monthly.


Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

My Five Favorite Movies

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By Scott Ross

I hope to write at length about each of these titles, but for the moment this set of capsules will have to suffice.

5. Jaws (1975) On the basis of this item alone, Steven Spielberg must be regarded as one of the most talented people to ever stand behind a movie camera. The source was pure potboiler, the shooting went on and on and on, the crew’s activities were stymied by a mechanical shark that couldn’t work. And out of this chaos, Spielberg delivered a masterpiece — in what was only his second theatrical feature. The time spent waiting for the shark to function added to the movie’s special quality of life observed: the co-scenarist, Carl Gottlieb (Peter Benchley did the first draft) was on hand to add punch to the script, and the actors spent so much time together that their relationships (and improvisations) made for an especially rich character palette. And, since a working shark was largely absent, Spielberg made a virtue from a deficit by not showing the monster fully until well into the picture — the unseen menace is much more terrifying. Side-note: Roy Scheider improvised the famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line on the set. With Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary and John Williams’ spectacularly effective orchestral score.

4. Pinocchio (1940) Bar none the greatest animated movie ever made in this country, and the finest work of Walt Disney’s long career. Its failure, along with that of Fantasia, caused Disney to retreat from conscious art to conscious kitsch — one of the great tragedies in popular American art. Pinocchio has never been as popular in its various reissues as more comforting fare such as Cinderella, and it’s a dark movie, no question. The Pleasure Isle transformation of Pinocchio’s truant pal Lampwick into a donkey ranks among the most terrifying animated sequences ever created, and there’s a truly disturbing image of an ax hurled at a smiling, immobile marionette that’s the stuff of childhood nightmares. But it’s an enchanting picture overall, from its great Leigh Harline-Paul Smith score to the inspired voice work of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. The movie has a deep, detailed look unparalleled in animated features and, in the whale chase, one of the most excitingly executed cartoon sequences ever put on film. I can’t hear Cliff Edwards’ pure, ethereal falsetto on the high notes at the end of “When You Wish Upon a Star” without chills running up my back.

3. Cabaret (1972) In another post I said Singin’ in the Rain was the best musical ever made, and I meant it: Bob Fosse’s transliteration of the Broadway hit Cabaret is less a musical than a drama with musical numbers. Only one of them occurs outside the context of the creepily seductive Berlin nightclub where Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles performs, and that isn’t a production number (the movie doesn’t really have any) but an impromptu anthem by an angelic-looking Aryan Youth that builds into a terrifyingly musical mob statement of National Socialistic fealty. Based rather loosely by Jay Presson Allen on the show and on its source, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin StoriesCabaret goes much further into the original’s slightly veiled sexuality than any other version of this material prior to the recent Broadway revival of the stage musical. (Isherwood famously described Michael York’s homosexuality in the movie as something undesirable and uncontrollable, “like bed-wetting” and was heard to say, after a screening, “It’s a goddamn lie! I never slept with a woman in my life!”) Is it condescending? I don’t think so. Fosse and Allen (and “consultant” Hugh Wheeler) never condemn York’s bisexual adventures, and you have to take their version of Isherwood as merely a single variation on the original material. (Although Minnelli’s using it as a pretext against marrying York is a bit much; would the real Sally Bowles have cared?) In any case, the look of the movie is overwhelming — it’s how we now think the Berlin of 1929 must have felt — and Fosse’s editing style dazzles no matter how often you’ve seen the movie. York is sumptuous to look at and, with his slightly shy smile and Isherwood-like haircut, perfectly cast. Minnelli was never better, or more controlled, and Joel Grey’s Emcee becomes a truly Mephistophelean figure, commenting on the action and winking lewdly. With Helmut Griem as the sexy bisexual count who woos both Minnelli and York, and, memorably, Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson as the ill-met lovers. The faux-Kurt Weill songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb are about as good as you can get.

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) The most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen. I can vividly remember sitting in a crowded theatre in 1977, with almost no foreknowledge of the story, and feeling this great, empathic fantasy wash over me like annealing waters. Steven Spielberg may have greater audience popularity with Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park and won his Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but Close Encounters is his true masterwork. It’s the most benign alien-invasion movie ever made, and full of wonders. (The special effects look so natural in large part because Spielberg shot them in standard ratio and then had the images blown up to widescreen.) Richard Dreyfuss makes a perfect Everyman, Francois Truffault’s face shines with gentle passion, and little Cary Guffey is an absolute amazement. The perfectly integrated score is, of course, by John Williams.

1. Some Like it Hot (1959) My favorite movie, and arguably the funniest comedy made after the advent of sound. Billy Wilder and co-scenarist I.A.L. Diamond took an episode from a forgotten German comedy and expanded it into a breakneck farce that took in gangland massacres, sexual duplicity, homosexual implication and transvestitism, turning it into one of the cheeriest comedies in movie history. Marilyn Monroe, famously unreliable, is luminous — when she’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off her. The only fault I can finds in Tony Curtis’ defining performance as an unrepentant heel is that, in the persona of “Josephine,” his falsetto was provided by Paul Frees. But it is Jack Lemmon, whooping it up as “Geraldine,” who gives the movie’s greatest performance. It’s so inspired it seems to have come (as Lemmon always claimed the character was anyway) from the moon. Lemmon was, and is, my favorite actor, and for all his fine work (in The Apartment, Irma La Douce, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race, “Save the Tiger,” The China Syndrome, Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross) I don’t think he was ever better than he is here. This is Billy Wilder’s ultimate masterpiece, the movie that summed up everything he could do without breaking a sweat. The great Joe E. Brown has the classic final line — which Wilder always claimed was written by Diamond, and vice-versa.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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By Scott Ross

32 years ago — Christ, but I’ve gotten old — and despite the enormous success of Jaws and Star Wars, popcorn movies were not yet the sole type of picture the Hollywood studios produced, or understood how to make. That fundamental shift was certainly in process, but only as a faintly detectable tremor. And anyway, there’s always been a lot trash around. But you could still go to the theatres then and see, on a pretty regular basis, the likes of Prince of the City, Blow Out, S.O.B., The Stunt Man, True Confessions — and my god, even a full-on epic about American Communists! (Reds.) Even flawed items (or anyway, they seemed flawed then) like First Monday in October, Fort Apache, the Bronx, On Golden Pond, Ragtime, Thief, Absence of Malice, Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice were, whatever their individual shortcomings, made by and for adults. There were comedies that were, mirabile dictu, actually funny — and occasionally pointed (Arthur, Buddy Buddy, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, The Four Seasons) and even the genre pictures (Dragonslayer, Wolfen, The Howling) were often beautifully crafted, intelligently conceived and written, stylishly made, and either had something pertinent to say or engaged their audiences on a level above the sub-literate.

I suppose the enormous success of Raiders was more than partly responsible for what was to come. Certainly the movie’s two most important creative forces, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, produced, separately, some of the worst and most dispiriting garbage of the decade (The Goonies, The Land Before Time, Howard the Duck, Willow.) But, as Larry Gelbart once noted of television executives (in a phrase equally applicable to movie suits), “You don’t even have to say to them, ‘Steal.’ That’s all they know how to do.”

At the moment of its release, however, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a great gale of fresh, escapist air. About the movie itself, going in on opening night all I knew about it were the images on the evocative Richard Amsel poster, a copy of which I’d picked up as a radio station giveaway (and still have in my collection) and the Big Names associated with it. I was entirely unprepared for the inspired set pieces, or for an opening sequence that packed as much of an electric wallop as the finales of most adventure pictures.

I’m no fan of Lawrence Kasdan’s as a writer-director yet even I must admit his work with Lucas — Raiders and, especially, The Empire Strikes Back* — enriched those movies immeasurably. It’s probably no accident that those two back-to-back productions represent the best work either has done. But there’s a telling name in the “Story by” credits: Philip Kaufman. As author and director of White Dawn, the marvelously witty and atmospheric 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Wanderers, the exhilarating The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it may be Kaufman who is ultimately responsible for the strong narrative arc, the engaging quirkiness of the movie’s characters and (perhaps) its Howard Hawks-like central romance.

Harrison Ford, until Raiders primarily known and remembered as the scruffily charming Han Solo, was revelatory here. Doctor Indiana Jones is almost the diametric opposite of Solo in bearing, temperament and essential character: Solemn where Han was ebullient, witty where the space jockey was more of a smart-ass, as phlegmatic as Solo was excitable. He was also one of the few men I’ve ever seen who could carry off a two-day beard — a look not nearly as ubiquitous (nor as studied) in 1981 as it has since become.

One of the wonders of the movie is the infinitely varied presence of the great Karen Allen as Indy’s inamorata. Delightfully freckled in an industry that views facial blemishes in a woman as a sin rivaled only by passing the age of forty, Allen’s Marion Ravenwood is spunky, irritable, sexy, adorable — a perfect match for Jones. None of the women in the subsequent sequels comes close to Allen in sheer strength of personality; she’s as womanly as she is formidable, and never less than wholly engaging.

Raiders is a movie full of splendid curlicues and delightful accidents. Jones, while hardly macho in the Schwarzenegger mold, is the modern equivalent of the unflappable Saturday matinee serial heroes (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon) Lucas was both emulating and updating. Yet the filmmakers were willing to wink at the audience by sending their hero up, especially in Indy’s early admission of ophidiophobia and its ultimate payoff, when Jones and Marion are sealed in the ancient tomb filled with cobras and their slithering kin.

One of the most effective moments in the movie was entirely un-planned. As originally scripted, Jones, menaced by an ostentatiously scimitar-wielding Arab, was to engage with the brute physically. Ford was suffering from a cold that day, and asked a personal privilege. The way he, Lucas and Spielberg handled the moment, with disarming comedy that utterly reversed audiences’ expectations and left them cheering and laughing at the sheer, demented logic of it, was probably better, and more memorable, than the scene as written. (It also opened the movie up to a patently ridiculous charge of xenophobia. Indy doesn’t shoot the swordsman because he’s an Arab, or even for his gaudy byplay with that scimitar. He shoots because the man is intent on killing him. Duh.)

The supporting characters were carefully cast with then-unknowns, at least in America (Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina) whose very anonymity lent a freshness to their various evocations of movie “types.” The score, by John Williams, provided not merely an indelible new movie march to his growing pantheon of almost uncannily memorable themes but was brilliantly devised, and composed, for maximum harmonic impact. The great Douglas Slocombe provided the atmospheric cinematography, and Spielberg’s cutter of choice, Michael Kahn, was responsible for the movie’s dynamic editing (with an un-credited assist from Lucas.)

There’s a charming moment, early in the film, where Indy is instructing his college archeology class. As the students file out, one boy, eyes averted, slaps an apple on teacher’s desk. I’ve seen impassioned idiot threads on the ‘net in which the movie’s aficionados argue this simple spin on the old classroom cliché endlessly. Not one of them gets that the student is gay, and rushes out of the room in embarrassment at his own (and, in the 1930s, dangerous) declaration of a college-boy crush. Do filmmakers now have to insert subtitles on these things so even the slowest, or least-informed, member of the audience understands the jokes?

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*Although the Empire screenplay is credited to Kasden and Leigh Brackett, that venerable scenarist (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) and prolific science fiction author died well before the movie was made and, while she is probably as responsible as Lucas for many of the movie’s darker narrative contours, he was reportedly unhappy with her work and hired Kasdan to punch up the script. That Lucas gave her a posthumous credit anyway is a pleasant instance of professional generosity.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross