Armchair Theatre 2017

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By Scott Ross

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



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

 

 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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



Theatrical Documentary

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


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


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


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



Selected Short Subject

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



Made for television

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


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


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


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



Television series

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


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

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



Seen a second time… and will never see again

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


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


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


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


New to Me: More than worth the trip

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


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


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


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


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


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

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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



New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! (1966) Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.


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


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


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


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


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



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

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


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

Festering like a sore: Up Tight (1968)

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By Scott Ross

In reviewing the Jules Dassin-directed Up Tight at the time of its 1968 release, Roger Ebert complained that adapting The Informer to a contemporary black revolutionary context was a graft that didn’t take, arguing that Liam O’Flaherty’s novel did not center on IRA activities but rather on the guilt of the protagonist. But that, it seems to me, was too literal a reading for so freewheeling a project as this. Think of Up Tight less as a “remake” or even as a strict transliteration of The Informer and more as a variation on it, and you come closer, I believe, to the spirit of the thing.

O’Flaherty’s book was written in 1925 but set in 1922, following the Irish Civil War; by placing Up Tight in the black ghettos of Cleveland four days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., the filmmakers were getting at something very similar, in expressive terms, to the raw emotions the Irish experienced following partition. (The picture begins with footage of the civil rights leader’s Atlanta funeral.) King’s symbolism within black America, pro or con, cannot be understated, any less than the grief and frustration and rage that exploded after his murder.

A killing, moreover, which many now believe was carried out (or at best, sanctioned) by the United States’ shadow government. Scoffers ask why, with Dr. King’s effectiveness as a public figure largely blunted by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Establishment would bother. If we may dismiss as ludicrous the idea that a bill solves all the social ills it is meant to address — and we have only to look at the state of things now to do so with impunity — we must also ask: What was King’s focus when he was assassinated? Poverty, and war; specifically, the war in Vietnam. The powers directing the official powers may tolerate social agitation on matters of race or gender or sexuality, but when you question the very structures that hold the working and underclasses in poverty and those dictating what the historian Charles Beard called America’s “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” then something must be done about you… and in King’s case, something duly was. That this did not occur to the makers of Up Tight in 1968 is not a grievous fault; the picture rides on so much that was in the air at the time that it may surely be forgiven for missing a philosophical nuance here and there.

Not that Up Tight is exactly subtle. Its revolutionaries’ dialogue in particular has a blunt ideological agitprop feel that places as much distance between us and the picture now, in the second decade of the 21st century, as lay between the 1935 John Ford/Dudley Nichols adaptation and Up Tight itself in the late 1960s. Indeed, if anything the latter feels even further in the past. The picture’s concerns, however, were very much in the present when it was written, filmed and released; race riots had broken out in 1964, accelerated after 1966 and hit special prominence in 1968 in Watts, with more to come in the early 1970s. It should be remembered as well that weapons manufacturers, the police and the NRA only got concerned with enforcing strict gun control when the Black Panthers talked of buying arms, or went out of doors with them. There were many then who believed a racial war was not merely possible but inevitable. Wither, without those endlessly articulated white fears, a Charlie Manson?

For my own part, I find the adaptation of O’Flaherty, by the picture’s star Julian Mayfield, its featured actress Ruby Dee, and Dassin himself, not only apt but cunning. Revolution was in the air then (as it damn well should be now, and shows few signs of being, save on the progressive left, liberals content to put on pink caps, denounce a monstrous egotist, snipe at that very left, and call themselves — presumably after watching The Force Awakens once too often — the “Resistance.”) And, pace Roger Ebert, revolutionary activities are very much a part of the novel, or why does O’Flaherty’s anti-hero Gyppo Nolan betray his friend Frankie Nolan in the first place? Gyppo is thrown out of the IRA for his inability to murder a Black and Tan as ordered, just as Up Tight’s protagonist, Tank Williams (Mayfield) is ejected from his revolutionary cell for his failure to assist in a robbery of arms that ends with the killing of a white security guard (and the legal implication of Tank’s best friend.)

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Raymond St. Jacques (center), Richard Williams (over St. Jacques’ shoulder) and (right) Janet MacLachlan meet in committee.

Betrayal, as a dramatic subject, requires no civil war or even its possibility, although it is in a political sense that it is perhaps most easily grasped. The wages do seem to fluctuate, however: 30 pieces of silver in the age of Judas Iscariot became 20 pounds in 1922; by the time of Up Tight they were a thousand dollars. Today they hover around the eight thousand-dollar mark — as cheap for the buyer as ever.

The amount hardly matters, of course; the sense of personal guilt in all three cases is where the drama lies. Like Frankie, Johnny Wells (Max Julien) is a fugitive, and Gyppo/Tank betrays his whereabouts to the police, leading directly to Johnny’s death. Tank is motivated in part by his love for Laurie (Ruby Dee) and his desire to get them both out of the poverty that has blighted their lives and the lives of her children, just as Gyppo commits his betrayal of Frankie to secure passage out of Ireland for himself and his love. And here the screenwriters of Up Tight up the ante, having the self-styled revolutionary leader B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques in an intelligent and coldly frightening performance) inform Tank that it was Johnny himself who recommended cutting his friend loose from what is called “the committee.” It is that sense of personal disloyalty (and we are never certain whether Johnny made that statement or not, although we would not be remiss in doubting it) that pushes Tank over the ethical edge into lethal stool-pigeonry.

Up Tight picture-101

The all-too studied arcade sequence.

In addition to the sometimes less-than-felicitous dialogue, Up Tight is saddled with occasional directorial flourishes that go horrendously wrong — I’m thinking in particular about the sequence in an over-lit arcade that is at once wildly theatrical and pictorially bizarre. A group of well-healed white liberals surrounds an inebriated Tank, begging to know when the revolution will take place. (One woman in particular seems, in her grinning, pleading fashion, to want to be a victim; it’s a peculiarly direct parody of the extremes of then-current white liberal guilt.) Tank is only too happy to spin an outrageous fantasy of dead telephone lines, beautiful black bank tellers informing their customers there is no money, and NASA moon-shots aborted by revolutionaries, and this outré sequence is capped by Tank and his avid listeners being reflected in fun-house mirrors, which puts all too blunt a point on the monologue’s satirical edge. Theatre of the Absurd meets filmmaking of the avant-garde school, and it’s that marriage, not the mating of O’Flaherty and late-‘60s revolution, that falls hideously flat.

Up Tight - Booker T Jones

The soundtrack album. Note Trauner’s remarkably detailed, thoroughly lived-in set.

Ebert in his contemporary review also faulted the sets by the redoubtable Alexandre Trauner, and the manner in which they were shot, by the splendid Boris Kaufman, complaining of the artificiality of the settings (he compared them, dismissively, to Catfish Row) and the extensive night shooting which, to him, rendered these sequences as somehow phony in comparison with the day shots of Cleveland’s steel mills, garbage dumps and earthworks. The critic forgot, or did not notice, that Up Tight is a story told largely at night, and for good reasons — intentions an aficionado of film noir would instantly understand, as they would also comprehend why so much of the outside action takes place in the rain that turns gutters into neon-illuminated garbage streams. Trauner’s contributions seem to me especially felicitous, particularly in Laurie’s ramshackle home, the dilapidated boarding house the embittered Tank simmers in and in the oppressive project where Johnny’s mother lives and which becomes the scene of the movie’s violent confrontation between its inhabitants and the Cleveland police. It should also be noted how well Booker T. Jones’ spare musical score (and occasional song) serves the picture, and how effective the animated titles by John and Faith Hubley are — although, oddly, their depictions of the young Tank and Johnny include a clear re-drafting of a famous 1960s Coca Cola ad featuring two young boys lying on their backs and, defying all laws of liquid gravity, sipping from glass soda bottles turned straight down and which, if you know it, may cause you to wonder how they got away with that image sans corporate lawsuit.

Uptight - Roscoe Lee Browne

Roscoe Lee Browne as Clarence spies his pigeon.

One of the more interesting curlicues in the narrative is the presence of a gay pusher and police informer called, variously, Clarence or Daisy, and played with amused panache by the marvelous Roscoe Lee Browne. The actor hardly underplays the character’s sexuality; indeed, when corrected by a white police commander over his use of the word “nigger” — the cop interjects, “Negro!” — a smiling Clarence replies, in those deliciously clipped tones of which Browne was a master, “No, sir. Nigger… stool pigeon… and faggot.” Yet, in spite of his elaborately (yet somehow tasteful) queer digs and the late presence of a somewhat hysterical young boyfriend, Browne’s Clarence is not nearly as contemptuously portrayed, or written, as any one of a phalanx of such figures cobbled up by white screenwriters, at the time and even much later. Clarence is no more despicable than Tank himself, or B.G., and considerably clearer in his conscience. Even when manhandled by B.G.’s enforcers, he displays no stereotypical, “feminine” cowardice. He stands up to it better than Tank does. One does wonder whether Browne had any input on the shaping of the role. An actor of exquisite dignity as well as diction — see The Liberation of L.B. Jones — he was himself gay, and I like to think he may have had some influence on the conception of Clarence who, while lounging about airily in a very brief bathrobe (and, incidentally, displaying a finely shaped pair of legs, as befits the former track star Browne was) never dips into caricature of the grotesque sort, all too often on display in movies of the period. If anything, he puts one of in mind of a slightly more flamboyant James Baldwin. (The blogger and critic Stephen Winter thinks the performance is a mesh of Baldwin and Jason Holliday, the subject of Shirley Clarke’s documentary A Portrait of Jason.) In any event, Browne’s is one of the very few such performances that, far from making you — as is usual — cringe, instead cause you to relish every moment he’s on the screen.

Up Tight teems with familiar names, although not all of them attach to specifically named characters, either in the end credits or at the usually fulsome imdb. The actress and trail-blazing black playwright Alice Childress — the very fine Trouble in Mind is hers — is listed, for example, but in what role? (I suspect she’s the smiling street preacher exhorting her flock in the rain, but never having seen her act I can’t be certain.) Michael Baseleon, as the white activist Teddy who can’t understand why he is now un-wanted, has a good scene arguing with B.G., and Robert DoQui gets a very fine sequence as a street speaker, with which he does wonders. Juanita Moore shows up all too briefly as Johnny’s understanding mother,* and Dick Anthony Williams (billed as Richard) does splendidly by Corbin, whose essential empathy is subsumed by his revolutionary aims. Frank Silvera contributes a superb supporting performance as Kyle, the voice of moderation, overwhelmed by the manner in which non-violent resistance crumbles in the face of exploding impatience of the sort Langston Hughes foresaw in his poem “Harlem” (“Or does it explode?”) Max Julien gives his brief appearances as Johnny an openness of expression that veers believably from rage at Tank’s failure to abet the robbery to, later, a gentle sweetness of spirit that suggest less an idealized revolutionary icon than a fully rounded human being. Janet MacLachlan, alas, playing his sister (and B.G.’s wife) Jeannie, is given by the writers a single mode to express — sneering fury — and is unable to overcome its limitations. On the extreme other hand, St. Jacques, looking especially handsome in full beard, limns a chilling portrait of the revolutionary whose otherwise admirable zeal has mutated into a rigid ideology that brooks no exceptions and that cuts him off from normal human emotions. Weakness is anathema to him, betrayal unforgivable. Comes the revolution, you feel, and B.G. will begin lining up for execution anyone he believes is less than 100% pure.

Ruby Dee - Up Tight! (1968)

The ever-glorious Ruby Dee as Laurie.

We expect Dee to deliver the goods, and she does, most notably in the late sequence in which Tank confesses to Laurie his involvement in Johnny’s violent death, after which she beats and scratches at him, flailing with her hands and fingers in a fury borne of equal parts grief and outrage. But Julian Mayfield, who was both a playwright and a novelist in addition to his work as an actor, is revelatory as Tank, infinitely more varied and moving than Victor McLaglen, who won the 1935 Academy Award® for his portrayal of Gyppo Nolan but who all too often in his screen roles becomes both brawling and bellicose, snarling one moment and brayingly riant the next. As Mayfield plays him, Tank is a man alienated by his times: Unprepared for the revolutionary fervor his best friend revels in, destroyed by his dismissal first from the only thing he loved without reservation (the steel mills) and later by the only substitutions for it he can find (the committee, and Johnny). Like Gyppo Nolan, Tank’s emotions too run the gamut, but Mayfield is more controlled, even in extremis, than McLaglen (the depth of Tank’s pain can easily be read in Mayfield’s expressive eyes) and displays an actorly palette that suggests, poignantly, how fine a movie actor we lost when Up Tight failed at the box office. His own revolutionary concerns, and the usual fascistic surveillance of him by the FBI, may well have curtailed any such hopes all on their own; but that we will never know what he might have accomplished is, as always in these cases, heartbreaking.

Julian Mayfield Up Tight! (1968)

The splendid Julian Mayfield. The depth of Tank’s pain can be easily read in those expressive eyes.

While Up Tight is necessarily dated, it, like the equally inflammatory The Spook Who Sat by the Door, may prove prophetic — unless we as a nation begin to address the appalling inequities and sheer racism of an increasingly Fascistic system whose passive consent to atrocity and active murderousness toward non-Caucasians has, since at least the 1980s, grown increasingly systemic.

The dream can only be deferred for so long. The explosion is overdue.


*I’m reminded by the brevity of Moore’s role as Mrs. Wells of a remark made recently by, I think, Octavia Spencer, that winning an Oscar® actually diminishes one’s career: Producers who might offer a part to you, she says, decline because they think, holding a statuette, you won’t deign to take it. Or, perhaps, having been close to holding one: Moore, nominated for Imitation of Life in 1959, kept working into her 80s but never again in a role as important, or as showy.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross