Rewritten, (almost) every line: “The Way We Were” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

The Way We Were was so popular in its day, and is so warmly remembered by those who saw it when it was new, that the glow of memory has transmuted it into something it isn’t, and never was. Far from a great romantic drama, it is a potentially great romantic drama effectively sabotaged, mostly by the usual spineless obduracy of its director, Sydney Pollack.

Once upon a Hollywood time the producer Ray Stark wooed the playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents to concoct a project for Barbra Streisand. Laurents based his original treatment on a firebrand Jewish coed he’d known at college in the 1930s. Because he’d been impressed with the 1969 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? the scenarist, to his everlasting regret, insisted that Pollack be their director. Pollack in turn wanted the lead male role for his pal Robert Redford. And thereby, as is said, hangs a tale.

As is plainly evident from the compelling novel Laurents published in 1972 based on his own original script, The Way We Were is Katie Morosky’s story. Hubbell Gardner, her goyische obsession (and eventual husband) is a supporting actor merely. Indeed, his charming emptiness is part of the point; their romance is doomed because Katie sacrifices her ideals for a beautiful, bright man who is, while politically astute, a passive, empty, uncommitted vessel into which she pours her romantic/erotic desires. And Katie’s political engagement is in the novel front and center, even when, as a Hollywood wife, she’s neglecting it.

The story works in the book in a way it never gets a chance to on-screen, where Redford’s involvement overbalances the narrative and Pollack, after a disastrous preview, panicked and cut nearly every political moment of importance, even shredding the climactic motivation for the dissolution of the Gardners’ marriage, as the pregnant Katie realizes her past has become a danger to her screenwriter husband’s present and offers to permit a divorce if they can just stay together long enough for her to deliver their child — a thing she couldn’t imagine doing in any other circumstance. By deliberately trimming these lines, and only these lines, of Katie’s, Pollack subverted the picture, and Streisand’s performance. But then, Pollack became well-known in Hollywood (perhaps as a result of The Way We Were) as a writer-fucker.

Pollack, who when he appeared on the other side of the camera was a fine actor, as a director was little but a gifted hack who, early on, made a couple of good pictures (They Shoot Horses… and The Scalphunters) and later a few more (Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie and Absence of Malice) but whose work in the main is a catalog of mediocrity with a certain pictorial prettiness. He was not, to be charitable, what one could reasonably call a deep thinker. Unlike that other Sidney, the late and much lamented Lumet (himself once an actor) Pollack seemed not to have an analytical bone in his body, and very little narrative logic. I remember, in 1986, howling with laughter to hear him praising the Motion Picture Academy for its “courage” in decreeing his expensive Hallmark Valentine Out of Africa Best Picture of its year, as if the movie was some radical departure from the accepted norm instead of exactly and precisely the sort of big, swoony romantic pap upon which in those days the Academy habitually bestowed its imprimatur. Some well-respected filmmakers (Lumet, Laurence Olivier, Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt, Roman Polanski, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Kenneth Branagh and even Redford himself) were or are actors,* and the really good ones have a feeling for how to present other actors to their best advantage. Certainly these men are not known for sabotageing their stars’ performances as Pollack did to Streisand, not once but twice. The second instance was a sequence he cut in which Katie, driving on the UCLA campus, sees a passionate young girl agitating against the actions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities who both reminds her of her youthful self and stands as an living upbraid to her own increasing complacency.

Laurents knew he was in trouble when Pollack gushed that he had come up with the best romantic screenplay anyone had written in years, “and you’re a homosexual!” Due to his commitment to Redford, Pollack insisted that Hubbell be given equal weight with Katie thus (in my admittedly minority opinion) fatally compromising the project. When Laurents eventually walked away from his own film — directors who moan about having to do this should talk to a few of the writers they habitually drive to that extreme — Pollack eventually brought on no fewer than 11 additional writers including some very fine ones like Alvin Sargent, Paddy Chayefsky, and Herb Gardner, only the first of whom would seem to have had any natural affinity for the material. Along the way someone (Sargent?), trying to resurrect the shreds of a character (poor Bradford Dillman’s) who, while peripheral in the book, at least has a presence there but who is nearly translucent in the finished picture, shoehorned in the movie’s most annoying wheeze: Hubbell and J.J. challenging each other to come up with “best”s. (“Best whiskey,” “Best year.”) As a recurrent motif it’s even more irritating than the sight of Streisand pushing Redford’s bangs across his forehead as if he was a little boy about to have his portrait photo taken, and equally as true to life.

Although it was probably cold comfort, considering the damage Pollack would ultimately do to his screenplay, once the director’s team of re-writers got through ruining the very script Pollack had raved about, Laurents was prevailed upon to return to the project, and was in a position to charge Stark & Co. through the nose for his continued participation. I like to think Laurents wrote Katie’s splendid rejoinder to Hubbell late in the movie, in the sequence at Union Station where supporters of the Hollywood Ten are attacked by shrieking McCarthyite conformists. The exchange highlights both the limits of Hubbell’s thinking, and the essential soundness, even if it sometimes lacks humor, of Katie’s:

Hubbell: I’m telling you that people — people are more important than any goddamn witch hunt. You and me! Not causes. Not principles.

Kate (Exasperated): Hubbell, people are their principles!

Or their lack of them.

Watching the Union Station sequence in 2020, the terrified mass in the movie that physically assaults the defenders of free speech (including, of course, the freedom of the attackers to oppose free speech…) is eerily and unsettling close to the equally ill-informed and frightened of today shouting into the faces of their fellow citizens for the unpardonable sin of not blindly obeying the edicts of governors, mayors and un-elected officials threatening them with arrest should they balk at slapping 95% ineffective pieces of cloth over their faces, whatever their reasons for failing to submit might be, including ill health, psychic distress or simple good sense. Plus ça change…

However butchered it was in the making, and bearing Pollack’s less-than inspired staging of most of its scenes, the picture still looks handsome, thanks to the sharp imagery, beautifully balanced color and unerring eye of its cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr., the splendid period production design by Stephen B. Grimes and set decoration of William Kiernan — there’s an especially nice touch at the beginning when Larry Parks’ name rather pointedly appears on a theatre marquee and Dorothy Jeakins’ and Moss Mabry’s subtle costume designs which perfectly re-create the sartorial look of the late ’30s, mid-to-late 1940s and early 1950s. The Oscar-winning score by Marvin Hamlisch struck me as bloodless in 1973 and seems even thinner now, particularly when I reflect that one of the composer’s direct competitors for the award was Jerry Goldsmith’s superb score for Papillon, and that among the non-nominated scores that year were Enter the Dragon (Lalo Schifrin), Scorpio (Jerry Fielding), The Thief Who Came to Dinner and Oklahoma Crude (both by Henry Mancini), Theatre of Blood (Michael J, Lewis), Cahill, United States Marshal (Elmer Bernstein), George Martin’s distinctly non-John Barryesque James Bond Live and Let Die and my own personal favorite of that year, Michel Legrand’s marvelous score for The Three Musketeers. The brief song Hamlisch composed with the lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman (and which soon became annoyingly ubiquitous) is, on the other hand, strongly and exceptionally plangent, although I have a quarrel with one of its essential lines:

“Memories may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
So it’s the laughter
We will remember…”

(©COLGEMS-EMI Music)

This, in my experience, is wholly incorrect. The memory of laughter fades; it’s the pain you can’t forget.

Laurents’ published book (and, one presumes, the screenplay on which he based it) fleshes out all the characters. The movie flattens them. And as with the fabled night in Tootsie which Larry Gelbart said “would have to last a hundred hours,” Pollack’s sense of time is so imprecise that the movie Hubbell is hired to adapt from his own first novel seems to be taking years to write. Aside, to a degree, from Patrick O’Neal as Hubbell’s director, Herb Edelman as Katie’s New York radio producer and Viveca Lindfors as a character very like Salka Viertel (in whose literary salon most writerly emigres of the period congregated) no one else in the picture has a chance to land a performance, or even to make us aware of their existence. I suppose it’s a relief that the movie omits the sequence in which Katie, devastated by her unrequited feelings for Hubbell, lets her Young Communist League pal Frankie, who is in his turn in love with her, fuck her outside the gym on prom night. Yet without that rather terrible scene, we don’t understand why Frankie informs on Katie later. And since we never see James Woods again, I would bet most people who saw the picture didn’t even remember his character’s name, when all it would have taken was an artfully edited insert near the end to remind us. Pollack’s incompetence in these areas is often genuinely shocking; it’s as if, having stitched together so many writers’ scripts, he had no idea what he was shooting, and had to discover it in the editing, after he’d made a mess of things. Either that or he was so contemptuous of the audience he figured he could get away with any inconsistency or plot gap. It’s up to the stars to pull us in, and while Redford does what he can to make Hubbell matter, it’s really Streisand who holds the thing together.

Katie is so earnest, so (to use a word often applied to Striesand in her youth) strident, particularly at the beginning, that she could easily become unbearable. Her ironic attachment to Redford’s Hubbell softens her, but doesn’t turn her into a mindless twit. (Although it’s a mark of Pollack’s failure as a director that he never makes us aware, as Laurents does in his book, that despite Katie’s assumptions Hubbell’s family background is as lower-middle class as her own.) While both stars are too old to be believable in the long college flashback early in the picture — Redford was 36 in 1972 and Streisand was 30 — she carries it off better than he does. She also has a quietly devastating moment when, putting up the drunken Hubbell for the night she climbs into bed with him and he makes love to her, perfunctorily, as if he’s performing a ritual, like putting the cat out for the night. There are few things more dispiriting in the realm of sexual love than lying naked beneath someone you’ve adored forever and being grateful nearly to tears for what’s (finally!) happening while at the same time fully cognizant that he’s so wasted he can barely remember his own name, let alone yours. The emotions that pass over Streisand’s face during this sequence encompass everything Katie is feeling without for a second doing too much or pushing too hard for effect; they would do any actress proud, let alone one not, at that time, known for her abilities in drama. (And yet the Academy gave its award that year to Glenda Jackson, for an anemic comedy no one remembers.)

Streisand never quite forgets Katie’s passions, even, in the Hollywood section of the picture, when she’s less attuned to them. Hubbell quite rightly accuses Katie of humorlessness, although it’s impossible to imagine how she could have laughed off, as he suggests she should have, her public humiliation in the sequence where she speaks at the student strike for peace. And somehow Streisand even makes Katie’s masochistic yen for Hubbell less pathetic than merely heart-breakingly human, although the Jewish-girl-with-the-nose-pining-for-the-gorgeous-guy routine was wearing more than a little thin by 1973. She’d been doing it to death, and continued to for years when, aside from her voice and her comic touch, what her fans most loved about her was that she was different. We didn’t want her demure, or small-featured, or conventionally pretty. And if Katie’s early stridency makes her a bit of a pill, I still prefer it to that soft-toned, eye-batting and rather blatantly condescending manner Streisand adopts when she’s trying to sell us on her latest political kick, usually while also hawking a record album. At least Katie Morosky had the guts to call her listeners fascist.

Interestingly, it almost seems now as though there was never a time when the phrase “the way we were” didn’t exist. It’s given to very few writers to come up with a title, or a term, that defines a concept with such sharpness and clarity that it becomes an immediate and lasting part of the language. Fitzergald’s “The Jazz Age,” coined for an essay in 1931, instantly codified the decade he was so instrumental, with The Great Gatsby, in fixing in amber. And in the modern era, who, aside from that rapidly dwindling minority called readers even remembers that it was the then-young novelist Douglas Coupland who in 1991 created the term “Generation X”? In the same way, few now know that Arthur Laurents gave us our favorite clause to describe the loves and the mores of our youths. But because The Way We Were was a movie, and one which for all its flaws is both popular and enduring, at least more people know where his phrase came from. It’s not much but in what Gore Vidal aptly called The United States of Amnesia, surely that is something.

*I don’t include Woody Allen in this company because I would have to accept that he was, or has ever been, anything like an actor. Watch The Front sometime if you want proof of what a classic non-actor he is. And if Ron Howard is indeed “well-respected” as a director, it only goes to prove why those who value serious American movies live so close to despair.

Text (except for the Bergmans’ lyric) copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: July 2020

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By Scott Ross

Daisy Miller lobby card

Daisy Miller (1974) A lovely, little-seen adaptation by Peter Bogdanovich and Frederic Raphael of the Henry James novella.


Only Angels Have Wings - Arthur, Grant

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) One of the basic Howard Hawks pictures, and perhaps the most representative. The movie concerns a small air delivery firm in the Andes, operated by Cary Grant and Sig Ruman, that is barely holding on and embraces such Hawksian concerns as the relationships among its male crew (and between Grant and the worldly dame played by Jean Arthur who plunks herself into the action) and the value of professionalism. There are some marvelous sequences, both comic and dramatic, including a genuinely shocking mid-air plane accident, and Hawks (along with Jules Furthman, his credited screenwriter) largely and admirably eschews the sentimental. But also present are the niggling questions one almost always has about Hawks as a man who sneered at what he called “the flying boys” (read: “fairies”) while repeatedly limning the wonders of (completely heterosexual, of course) masculine love, and the desirability of whiskey-voiced women who act like men. And Hawks called his critics sick! With Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth, Allyn Joslyn, Victor Kilian, Noah Beery, Jr. and, as a disgraced pilot seeking professional redemption, the splendid Richard Barthelmess.


Hour of the Gun - opening

The Earps and Doc Holiday in the opening. An influence on Sam Peckinpaw?

Hour of the Gun (1967) An unusually intelligent look, by Edward Anhalt, at Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Clnatons starring James Garner, Jason Robards Jr. and the great Robert Ryan that also features luminous cinematography by Lucien Ballard and a superb score by Jerry Goldsmith.


The Parallax View - Beatty resized

The Parallax View (1974) The middle entry in the director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial “paranoia trilogy” that began with Klute in 1971 and ended with All the President’s Men (1976) was both the most despairing and the least popular at the box-office, despite Warren Beatty as its star. Loren Singer’s 1970 novel concerned the suspicious deaths of multiple witnesses to a Kennedy-like Presidential assassination and the investigation by a reporter, who slowly realizes he’s on the kill-list, into a shadowy company called Parallax having something indeterminate to do with the murders. It’s very much a ’70s movie, in its concerns and in the approach by the filmmakers to the material, which includes a strange, lengthy film-within-the-film for the sequence in which Beatty is supposedly brainwashed. (It’s not the concept that dates the Parallax training film — surely we understand, almost a half-century later, how effective that process is — so much as the means by which Pakula and his cinematographer, the great Gordon Willis, create it.) David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote the sharp, intelligent adaptation, with an un-credited assist from Robert Towne (and, one assumes, Edward Taylor, his silent writing partner for four decades), Michael Small composed the eerie score, and the movie includes excellent supporting performances by Paula Prentiss, Hume Cronyn, William Daniels, Kenneth Mars, Walter McGinn, Kelly Thordsen, Earl Hindman and, in an effective cameo, Anthony Zerbe.


Oh, God - Burns, Denver

Oh, God! (1977) This bright, cheerful comic fantasy was one of the nicest surprises of 1977, and one of its biggest hits, even in the year of Star Wars. Its gentle humor, perfectly embodied in John Denver’s amiable central performance, is based on the impossibility of proving to the world the existence of what it most seems to want: An omnipotent deity. The director, Carl Reiner and his screenwriter, the great Larry Gelbart, in adapting Avery Corman’s 1971 novel wisely opted to make the Denver character not a Jewish reporter but more of an American Everyman. God in the Corman book was also not a little like The 2,000 Year Old Man, and Reiner even offered his pal Mel Brooks the role before, equally wisely, casting George Burns. Having resurrected himself from relative obscurity two years earlier in The Sunshine Boys, and winning an Academy Award for it, Burns seemed, then as now, the perfect choice. His God is one of understatement, supple wit and vaguely Hebraic show-biz origins, exposing phoniness without malice and overturning shibboleths with a wry smile.

The marvelous supporting cast includes Teri Garr as Denver’s flustered wife, Barnard Hughes as the bewildered judge in a legal case brought against Denver, George Furth as a disbelieving religion reporter, David Ogden Stiers as a district produce manager at the grocery chain for which Denver serves as a store assistant manager and who is mildly scandalized that the young man is not oiling his cucumbers, Ralph Bellamy as a well-appointed prosecution attorney, William Daniels as an officious grocery-chain executive, Rachel Longaker and the once-ubiquitous Moosie Drier as Denver and Garr’s children, and Dinah Shore as herself. (Reiner also shows up as a guest and does his hilarious imitation of Dorian Gray’s portrait.) The only false note is rung by Paul Sorvino as cross between Ernest Angley and Billy Graham; he’s funny, but so over-the-top he counter-balances the general believability of the other actors. But Jack Elliott composed a pleasing main theme, the cinematography by Victor J. Kemper is well-balanced, and Reiner’s direction brisk and un-cluttered. Revisiting this movie, which gave the agnostic me of 16 a great deal of joy, and finding it still fresh and charming (and very funny) was, for the atheist me of today, a distinct pleasure.


The Ballad of Richard Jewell
Richard Jewell (2019) A cautionary tale from Clint Eastwood whose message likely (and all too typically) fell on deaf ears.


The Eagle Has Landed

The Eagle Has Landed (1977) An intelligent but indifferently-mounted diminution of the excellent Jack Higgins thriller that ought to shame anyone who thinks the director John Sturges was anything but a modestly talented hack. Although he changed too much of what made Higgins’ original such a pleasure to read, Tom Mankiewicz later claimed that Sturges lost interest. Sturges himself said he only worked to earn enough for fishing, and the movie’s producer, Jack Wiener, later told the picture’s star Michael Caine that the director, who took off as soon as shooting was completed, couldn’t even be bothered to return for the editing. All of this shows in the finished product, which despite a good premise and a terrific cast, falls down repeatedly. The movie runs largely on the good will generated by its ingratiating stars (Caine, Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall, the story’s nominal villains) and what dialogue Mankiewicz retained from the novel; even Lalo Schifrin’s score lacks punch. A waste.


The Boatniks lobby card

The Boatniks (1970) When I first saw it during the summer of my ninth year I didn’t know who Phil Silvers, Robert Morse or Don Ameche were, but this amusing Disney caper-comedy turned me into an instant fan of all three, along with Norman Fell, Wally Cox and Vito Scotti. It’s a trifle, a nothing, its scattershot gags at the expense of crazed Southern California would-be mariners sometimes over-broad and obvious. Yet it contains almost as many laughs for this jaded adult as it did for his easier to please pre-pubescent self. Although in my late 50s I am less enamored of Joe E. Ross’ glottal shtick, which fractured me in 1970, I am more able now to appreciate Morse’s sweet but fumbling innocence (his role here is the antithesis of J. Pierpont Finch; this picture might be sub-titled How to Fail at Command While Really, Really Trying) as well as Silvers’ patented chiseler persona and peerless way with a comic line, Ameche’s slow-burn and bursts of disbelieving outrage, Cox’s drier-than-dry-vermouth understatement, the brief but perfect bit by Al Lewis and Florence Halop as disgusted mates stranded on a sand-bar and the freckled prettiness of Stephanie Powers contrasted to the ethereal beauty of a girl called Midori as a Japanese pearl diver who is not all she appears. The script, by Arthur Julian, is often surprisingly smart even if his plot is standard-issue — the story was by Mary Roth — and Norman Tokar directed zestfully, if without any particular distinction. William Snyder’s color cinematography looks rather good today, Robert F. Brunner provided one of his tuneful, sometimes witty, scores and there are even some mild yet eyebrow-raising adult innuendos along the way. I date my love of seaports to this movie, and my youthful interest in the Coast Guard… at least until I realized it was part of the armed forces, which killed that dream pretty quickly.


The Comic (lobby card)

The Comic (1968) A good, although not great, collaboration between Carl Reiner (as director and co-author) and one of his old Caesar’s Hour colleagues, the writer Aaron Ruben, about a slightly repulsive silent movie comedian played, with remarkable dexterity, by Dick Van Dyke and based, one hears, on several comics of the era. As a character study it’s a bit too diffuse, and we sometimes aren’t sure whether we’re meant to laugh at the contemporary sequences. The silent comedy bits, however, are marvelous. They don’t re-create, or directly imitate, the work of any specific star of the teens and ’20s, but they capture, with superb timing and construction, and un-condescending good cheer, the spirit, and the joy, of those old comedy routines. The finale, which I think is meant to be moving, goes on too long yet feels inconclusive, and there’s a horrible sequence between Van Dyke as both the comedian and as his grown-up son that illustrates perfectly why Stonewall had to happen. (Pink cigarettes — now I ask you!) The opening sequence at the comic’s funeral, however, is a gem.


To Kill a Mockingbird - Peck, PetersTo Kill a Mockingbird (1962) The lovely adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, whose qualities seem more impressive with the passing years.


All About Eve - Baxter, Holm

All About Eve (1950) The writer-director Joseph Le. Mankiewicz’s peerlessly witty comedy of Broadway manners.


Caesar’s Writers (1996) A reunion panel, sponsored by the Writers Guild, of Sid Caesar and most of the then-surviving members of those famed writers’ rooms for Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, along with the original Compass Players/Second City groups in Chicago the 1950s font from which the next 20 years of great American comedy sprang. Not surprisingly for any gathering, Mel Brooks tends to dominate, but both Neil and Danny Simon get in some good lines, the shows’ head writer Mel Tolkin (father of Michael) more or less presides, Carl Reiner has the best anecdotes, Sid himself demonstrates why he was such a pleasure to write for, and Larry Gelbart scores the evening’s best laughs. Michael Stewart and Selma Diamond were, alas, dead, and Lucille Kallen was unavailable, but Aaron Ruben, Sheldon Keller and Gary Belkin are also in attendance. This, by the way, is the full version of the panel; a briefer edition ran during PBS fund-raisers. To paraphrase the poster for Chaplin’s The Kid : Two hours of joy.


The African Queen - Hepbur, Bogart (resized)

The African Queen (1951) One of the earliest American movies to be shot extensively on location (Uganda and the Congo), a joyous collaboration between John Huston, Sam Spiegel, James Agee, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.


Rio Bravo - Nelson, Wayne, Martin

Rio Bravo (1959) In the otherwise laudatory capsule review in his movie guide, Leonard Maltin, while praising this quintessential Howard Hawks Western, complains of its over-length. I’m not sure what he means. How can a picture with no sags and no dull spots and which entertains you thoroughly from start to finish, even if it does run 2 hours and 21 minutes, ever be called “over-long”? Few movies I know are as genial, or as likable, as this one. Early in the picture Ward Bond, taking note of the team holed up in the jail and preparing to do battle against a killer’s ruthless brother, observes, “A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got?” John Wayne replies, “That’s what I got.” And as Hawks himself would doubtless have added, it’s all you need, if you’re good enough.


The Kid 22 - Coogan, Chaplin (resized)

The Kid (1921) Charles Chaplin’s first feature. If it’s slightly sentimental, and if poor Edna Purviance is required to emote melodramatically as the un-wed mother forced to give up her child, well… The tears are earned, Charlie is magnificently funny and little Jackie Coogan in the title role is still astonishing: The most beautiful child the movies had ever seen, and, as Chaplin whispered decades later to Coogan’s wife, a genius. If you don’t at least find the corners of your eyes a little moist when Charlie saves Jackie from the clutches of a pair of nasty social do-gooders, you may be beyond help.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

The fool in charge: Carl Reiner, 1922 – 2020

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Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be a fool but you’re the fool in charge. — Carl Reiner

By Scott Ross

For years I’ve been maintaining a short list of people who aren’t allowed to die. Unfortunately, the list is not preemptive; through no fault of my own, people keep falling off it: Jack Lemmon, Jerry Goldsmith, Larry Gelbart, Blake Edwards, Elmer Bernstein, Peter Ustinov, Miklós Rózsa, Billy Wilder, Alex North, Gore Vidal, William Goldman, Harlan Ellison, Toni Morrison, Barbara Cook, Hal Prince, my mother. So far, at least, Carol Burnett, Lalo Schifrin, Julie Andrews, Lily Tomlin, Sheldon Harnick, Maggie Smith, Mel Brooks and (especially) Dick Van Dyke are keeping faith with me. But recently that unconscionable rat Carl Reiner took his leave, which is just simply not cricket.

Actually, to live in decent health for 98 years, to remain compos mentos and in one’s own home, and to die in one’s sleep, is the consummation I suppose most devoutly to be wished by nearly everyone, and the most illusive; if there’s such a thing as a good death (and I think there is) that surely qualifies. But what a chunk of my life that man took with him! From what glories do we who worship talent and supplicate ourselves at the altar of comic genius bask in the reflective glow! If Carl Reiner had done nothing more than create, produce, write and guide for five glorious seasons that apotheosis of near-perfection The Dick Van Dyke Show, he would have more than earned his keep, not to mention the keep of at least another dozen.

I won’t append the phrase “like him” to that sentiment because there was no one remotely like him. Carl Reiner was a nonpareil. A one-off. A show-biz Renaissance (“Reinaissance”?) man: Actor, “writer without portfolio” (his own later description of himself in the Sid Caesar years), writer with portfolio, producer, director, novelist, playwright, screenwright, comedian. Even Mel Brooks, his closest contemporary (who not so coincidentally also happened to be his best friend) is less of a polymath, and not nearly as prolific: During the first year of the Van Dyke show — and remember, television seasons were much longer then — Reiner wrote 20 of the 30 episodes that aired; the following year he wrote 21 of 31. If any series can be described as one man’s work, The Dick Van Dyke Show was it.

The Dick Van Dyke Show - RoseMarie, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Dick Van Dyke

It was, perhaps, the show he was destined to create. As the writer-director Michael Mahler had Charles Kuralt observe in their 1994 appreciation “The Dick Van Dyke Show” Remembered, unlike with any other television situation comedy of the time, when Rob Petrie walked through the door and said, “Laura, I’m home,” we knew where he’d been, and what he’d been doing. And although Reiner himself was not an official writer on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, let alone (as Rob was for Alan Brady) Head Writer, he’d spent hours in those famed writers’ rooms between 1950 and 1957, throwing out ideas and lines of dialogue, yelling to be heard over the din of raging egos and, when he was lucky or especially inspired, getting something into a sketch in which he would also likely be performing. (Reiner was regarded as one of the best second bananas in the business then; after the 2,000 Year Old Man exploded into the popular consciousness in the early 1960s, he became known as the best.) He knew in his bones how that competitive/collaborative process worked — even if the Brady show had a much-reduced staff of three — and how the various “types” collected there contributed to the assembling of a great variety show. And if Rob was Carl, more or less, it’s no secret that Buddy Sorrell was largely an older and more curmudgeonly Mel Brooks, and Sally Rogers an amalgam of Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond. The Reiners, like the Petries, also lived in New Rochelle and also had neighbors called Jerry and Millie. While the Reiners had three children rather than one, and if Caesar was not the vain and dismissive, megalomaniac martinet Alan Brady proved to be… well, there has to be some fiction in a fictional series, hasn’t there?

Reiner wrote the pilot (Head of the Family) and the initial 13 episodes for himself, but Sheldon Leonard, the show’s eventual executive producer, thought Carl Reiner miscast, as himself. Having seen the pilot, I have to say he was right. Dick Van Dyke was a much better Carl Reiner than Carl Reiner. While both men are (oh, God… were!) charming — and Reiner was known to be a mensch — there is something inherently warm about Van Dyke that comes across without effort. Whatever indefinable alchemy informs these things, Reiner was a much more effective Alan Brady, a man with whom he had next to nothing in common, than he was a Rob Petrie. The Head of the Family pilot revealed Reiner’s creative cleverness, but not his comedic range. There is certainly nothing in it as hilariously memorable as Alan’s achingly funny confrontation with Laura Petrie over exposing his baldness on a television game-show in Bill Persky and Sam Denoff’s marvelous “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth”: Piling his various toupées on top of his head while demonstrating their uses, literally growling into the telephone, using a styrofoam head for a bongo and walking stiff-legged with his cane like a demented comic version of Everett Sloane in The Lady from Shanghai while grinning maniacally and shouting, “Oh, happy days are here again…” It’s a masterpiece in miniature, a comedic performance so touched with genius it practically levitates the television.

Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth - Carl Reiner as Alan Brady

What separates The Dick Van Dyke Show from the overwhelming rest of its sit-com rivals of the period is not merely the specificity of its show-biz milieu, the genuine affection between, and sexiness of, Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore or even the fulsome nature of the characterizations, both as Reiner conceived his ensemble and as he so brilliantly cast it. As either Jean Giraudoux or George Burns once noted, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” But the television comedy that lasts — or at least, lasted before the age of Larry David — is grounded in something more than humor. All in the Family confronted adult issues that no television show, and certainly no comedy, had ever dared touch. M*A*S*H (which the people involved were always quick to point out was not a sit-com) endured, and endures, because at its core were serious matters, addressed with as much honesty as hilarity. Even I Love Lucy, for all that we remember it best for its star’s often magnificently funny antics, was essentially about two people who however much they might have exasperated each other were also crazily in love. The Van Dyke show embodies something I think of as the comedy of embarrassment: These were essentially very decent people, and most of the humor around them sprang from their desire to be kind, to each other and to the world around them. Like benevolent reverse Basil Fawltys, they make a sticky situation worse by trying to make it better, or through an inability to let others down even when one or more of the characters (usually Rob) were being imposed upon. Their impulse to decency inevitably gums up the works. And that basic set-up springs from the god-head; the man who created those characters, and wrote those shows, was a human being.

The Dick Van Dyke Show - writer's room (Resized)

Richard Deacon, Dick Van Dyke, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, 1961. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

And God, the show was funny. Even as a small, pre-kindergarten aged child, when I watched The Dick Van Dyke Show in morning syndication I knew, without really understanding much of the verbal humor, that I was seeing something special. The first episode that grabbed me, I remember, was the 1963 “The Sam Pomerantz Scandals,” and for reasons anyone who was once a child can understand: The Laurel and Hardy routine by Van Dyke and Henry Calvin. (I was also absolutely delighted by the “I Am a Fine Musician” musical number. I had never heard the word “piccolo” before, and I at first thought Mary Tyler Moore was singing “pickle loaf,” which I regarded then, and think of now, as a vomit-inducing gastronomic atrocity.) Coincidentally last winter I re-watched the entire series, as I do every few years, this time in the nicely remastered Blu-ray set. Of 158 episodes, there are perhaps a half-dozen that are mediocre and two that are downright poor (“The Bad Old Days” and “The Twizzle,” both in Season One). That leaves 150 terrific shows and probably more episodes that may be certified as classic than can be claimed by any other comedy series, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which probably comes closest to the standard of weekly excellence Reiner & Co. pioneered and describes a level of achievement almost unheard of in the world of television comedy.

Reiner himself was responsible for the two, to me, funniest moments of the entire five-season run: Sally’s reaction to Joe Coogan in “The Life and Love of Joe Coogan” (“Where’s this tall, good-looking, charming priest?!? you wanted me to meet?”) and the following exchange, from “Who Owes Who What?”:

Mel: Oh, is that the comedy spot?
Buddy (Pointing to Mel’s head): No, Bubblehead — this is the comedy-spot.
Mel: Rob!
Rob: Buddy—
Buddy: Sally!
Sally: Mel!
Mel: Rob!
Rob: Sally!
Sally: Buddy!
Buddy: Go ahead, Curly, it’s your turn. Say, “Rob.”
Mel: Rob!!!
Buddy/Sally (Simultaneously, applauding): Beautiful. / Oh, wonderful, wonderful.


Oh, God - Burns, Denver

Even though he was one of the stars of Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, Reiner didn’t see himself as someone an audience could believe might carry a variety show as Sid did, so for the first few episodes in which he appears as Alan Brady he’s seen, in increasingly elaborate set-ups, only from the back. Yet he was certainly becoming, by that time, an extremely familiar face to audiences, what with (aside from the seven years with Caesar) roles in the movies Happy Anniversary and The Gazebo (both 1959) and The Thrill of It (which he also wrote) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (both 1963). While his first two screenplays (Thrill and the 1965 The Art of Love) were, coming from him, steps backwards, appearing in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) gave him greater visibility, and directing the movie of Enter Laughing (based on the Joseph Stein adaptation of Reiner’s own, very funny, autobiographical first novel, the screenplay for which which he authored with the playwright, and that is really coming at a piece of material from both ends) brought him some cachet, leading to The Comic (1966) with Van Dyke;  the black comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970) with its infamous “tush-biting scene”; Oh, God! (1997) a lovely collaboration with his old Caesar compatriot Larry Gelbart that was almost shockingly successful at the box-office, even in the year of Star Wars; four projects with Steve Martin, beginning with the trivial but occasionally hilarious The Jerk (1979) and culminating with the blissfully funny fantasy All of Me (1984) co-starring a luminous Lily Tomlin.

All of Me - Reiner and cast

All of Me: Reiner, Victoria Tennant, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and Richard Libertini. (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Reiner was a great appreciator, and booster, of comic talent but couldn’t always launch a performer as successfully as he did Martin or Van Dyke. Reni Santoni, the star of Enter Laughing, didn’t exactly set the comedic world on fire (maybe because he was Spanish/Corsican and playing one of America’s most famous Jews?), nor did Robert Lindsay, for whom Reiner wrote and directed the flop Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool in 1989. And if I say that, Oh, God! and All of Me excepted, I don’t think Carl Reiner’s comedy film work in toto was as great as what he did on and for television or, with Mel Brooks, on recordings, don’t think I’m being dismissive; everyone concerned with the Van Dyke show knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime gig, and that they’d be very, very lucky if anything afterward was ever as good, or as much fun. And aside from Mary Poppins for Dick and The Mary Tyler Moore Show for Mary, nothing really was.

As I re-watch The Dick Van Dyke Show periodically, so too do I listen, usually about once a year, to the 2,000 Year Old Man recordings. Most comedy albums just make you smile after the first (or third, or 10th if it’s a classic) listening. The Brooks/Reiner collaborations are not merely perennially funny. They are gut-bustingly funny. Recorded with little advance preparation, and no scripts, they are vinyl evidence of two comedic genii flying, by the seat of their pants, into the stratosphere — the equivalent in comedy terms of Louis Armstrong improvising “West End Blues” or that astonishing held note by Miles Davis on the release of “Moon Dreams.” Reiner maintained that Brooks was never funnier than when he was panicked, and that not knowing what question Carl was about to throw at him pushed his nimble brain into those realms of inventiveness that leave listeners of these sessions breathless, with both laughter and dazzlement; it’s almost impossible to imagine a comedian’s mind working that fast. But our delight, and our appreciation, goes not only to Brooks but to Reiner. Without his impeccable sense of timing, or his probing (and, dare one say it, merrily sadistic) prompts, there’d be no comedy. We are listening not to a single brilliant man but to two, each riffing off the other’s words, anticipating each other almost telepathically: Laughter, without a net.

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, 1974. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The style of the interviews was an outgrowth of Reiner and Caesar’s recurring Professor sketches and the albums featured encounters, not merely with the dapper bimillennial himself but with such immortal figures as the diet expert Dr. Felix Wheird, the head of Narzi Films Herr Adolph Hartler, the Greek artist Mercurio Mercurochrome, the filmmaker Federico Fettuccine, Warren Bland of the L.M.N.O.P. ad agency, and from The New Technique Psychiatric Society, those sterling avatars of the psychiatric profession Drs. Havika ben Hollywood (pronounced “Hollavoo”), Buck Mitcheson and Sabu Panchali. I was just listening to that track again, doubled over in laughter at bits I’ve probably heard, and laughed at, a couple of dozen times. There were two fools on those sessions, equally in charge. Now there is only one. And he’d better stay out of a Ferrari, or any small Italian car. I can only take so much in one century.

This is probably the first time in 80 years Carl Reiner did something that didn’t get a laugh.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: July — September 2019

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Daughters of the Dust_Trailer

Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant

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


The Last Hard Men - Heston and Coburn

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


Invisible Monster titcd

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

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

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

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


Klute - Fonda and Sutherland (Klute comforts Bree)

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


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

Rod Steiger, Jester Hairston and Sidney Poitier

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


Beetlejuice

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


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

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


Blackbeard's Ghost - Ustinov and Jones

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


INTO THE WOODS

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

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

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


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


Murder by Decree

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


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2017

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By Scott Ross

Note: In order to amend some older posts, and thanks to the new “improvements” WordPress has recently instituted, I am having to republish some of my previous essays. My apologies for the seeming redundancy.

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



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

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


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

Guffey at the door F58

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


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

Some-like-it-hot-screen


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


Revisited with pleasure
F for Fake (1973) Orson Wellesnon pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”
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Absence of Malice
(1981) When this Sydney 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, whose last line made me chuckle for a week, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.


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


The Great Race - Lemmon as Fate

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


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


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


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


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


Death on the Nile (1978) Nowhere near as accomplished, or as stylish, 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 an otherwise pleasing Morricone score almost undone by an annoying recurrent “hee-haw” motif.


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.

Kukla_Fran_and_Ollie

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



Seen a second time… and will never see again

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


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


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


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


New to Me: More than worth the trip

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


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


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


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


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


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

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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 Sydney 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 both anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either didn’t know or was 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.

Peddling disaster: “Wrong is Right” (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks is one of those odd Hollywood characters auteurists can’t pin down, and that’s irksome to them. They want consistency of vision; content is less important to them than a measurable idiosyncratic (hence, “personal”) style. And while I can see no particular pattern in Brooks’ work as a writer-director, nor an especially consistent style, I don’t mind that in the least: George Cukor had no particular style to speak of. Sidney Lumet’s style changed from picture to picture, and he made some of the finest American movies of the last 60 years. What I think unites Lumet and Brooks is that they shared a sense that style and approach are, rightly, dictated by content and form — a concept few auteurists can comprehend. There’s little that unites, say, Elmer Gantry and The Professionals, or $ and Bite the Bullet, except that the man who made them was highly intelligent, often witty, and irreducibly humane.

Wrong is Right (1982) was Brooks’ penultimate movie, and it was pretty much ignored by audiences of the time, who were moving deep into the Reagan Dream and didn’t wish to be disturbed from their sleep. Besides, after Network, who wanted to see another hyper-kinetic satire on television? But, while Wrong is Right comes to many of the same conclusions as Network did, the picture is not warmed-over Chayefsky. If anything, it has more in common with the later Wag the Dog in its black-humored cynicism concerning the intersection of show biz and politics, and with Larry Gelbart’s late, almost despairing, deductions (in work such as his Weapons of Mass Distraction) about the intractable mess Bill Clinton created with his disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has in the interim destroyed the entire concept of a free press, without which true democracy cannot flourish, or even function. Twenty years after All the President’s Men celebrated the professional ethics of two dogged, independent Washington Post reporters, Clinton seemed intent on killing the very notion of a press independent of corporate ownership, much as Jeff Bezos has succeeded in turning that very paper into a conduit for CIA and DNC propaganda disguised as news. In the current journalistic void, where almost nothing one sees, hears or reads in the corporate media may be trusted, Wrong is Right seems positively prescient.

Brooks based his screenplay on a thriller by Charles McCarry concerning the collision of a bitter American revolutionary, a star American reporter, and the President. Transferring the revolutionary aspect to the Middle East, the filmmaker fashioned a wild, engaging satire that, if only occasionally delivering a line that makes you laugh out loud, is never less than thoroughly engaging. Brooks’ reporter here is an adventurer-turned-journalist (Sean Connery), his revolutionary an Arabian terrorist (Henry Silva, of all people) and his President (George Grizzard) a football-obsessed career politician intent on winning a close election between himself and a Reaganesque hack (Leslie Neilsen). Added to this already heady brew is Robert Conrad as a gung-ho General called Wombat (shades of Colonel “Bat” Guano); a serpentine CIA chief (G.D. Spradlin); a ratings-mad network honcho (Robert Webber) who could now be quite easily mistaken for Les Moonves giggling about how much money CBS was making from the Trump candidacy; a smart, savvy, main-chance grabbing black female Vice-President (Rosalind Cash) bearing the surname of Jimmy Carter’s predecessor; a natty international arms dealer (Hardy Krüger) who, as these types tend, isn’t concerned with who gets a pair of nuclear bombs, as long as he gets the cash; and a slick, opportunistic Presidential aid (Dean Stockwell) the like of whom Aaron Sorkin would never have presented on The West Wing. John Saxon also shows up, as a CIA agent who is the last word in sang-froid; Katherine Ross appears — all too briefly for my taste — as a journalist with a secret life; and Ron Moody contributes a neat cameo as the Mideast potentate who sets the whole, blazing ball rolling. (As an added frisson for the modern viewer, a young Jennifer Jason Leigh pops up as a teenager only slightly less appalling than Leigh herself became as an adult.)

Although Wrong is Right clocks in at nearly two hours, the pace of the picture is so fast there is never the slightest opportunity for longueurs. That breakneck structure is attained largely through Brooks’ tight, economical (and rather bracingly theatrical) writing style, as a word or phrase uttered by one character leads directly to its echo in the mouth of another, sometimes continents away. Metaphorically, Brooks’ dialogue plumbs the rich vein usually mined by Gelbart himself; think of the self-important, ironically malaprop-spouting Colonel Flagg as the progenitor of nearly every character here, and you get a sense of the keen wit and wordplay Brooks invests into what, on the surface, is the stuff of international thrillers. The look of the picture is itself almost like TV itself as it once was; the cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp’s use of deep-focus and bright color would not have been out of place in a Universal television movie of the week of the period. And if the (admittedly infrequent) special effects are somewhat threadbare, those moments pass quickly enough — although, in the immediate post-Star Wars era, they must have seemed pretty shoddy indeed to those few moviegoers who actually purchased a ticket.

As a taste of Brooks’ delicious dramaturgical style, here’s Connery’s Patrick Hale after he has suggested to Webber that the network obtain Hardy’s suitcase bombs, and been rebuked with the accusation that he’s practicing “checkbook journalism.” (And Connery delivers it with barely-contained relish):

What kind of journalism was it when television paid half a million dollars for an exclusive on the Bay of Pigs? A million dollars to Nixon, to apologize coast to coast? CBS paid Haldeman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. NBC paid John Dean and Robert Kennedy’s assassin. ABC paid Lieutenant Calley, and for breakfast, served up the My Lai massacre. And what about the killer I put on television? From death row to the electric chair, fried meat on prime time. You paid $100,000 for that. Paid it to the killer! Do you call that journalism?

We’re in show business, baby. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Make them buy, by and by. We peddle disaster. Violence — it’s commercial! Blood and tears and football and cheers. Performers, superstars. Get them on, get them off. Next, next, fast, fast! We’re in the entertainment business, and there’s nothing wrong with that… if you call it that.

That no one in the business now will call it that makes Wrong is Right a movie less out of time than far ahead of it.


Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross