Galloping tintypes: “Nickelodeon” (Director’s Cut and Original Theatrical Version, 1976)

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By Scott Ross

Like his friend and sometime mentor Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich was fascinated by the very early days of American moviemaking and longed to make a picture about them, especially after interviewing Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh, both of whom were there from the beginning. Many of their anecdotes (and those of Leo McCarey, among others) inform the action of Nickelodeon. And while it’s a genial, entertaining movie it’s also overlong and largely inconsequential. I suspect part of the problem was its inception. Bogdanovich had a script on the subject, and so did W.D. Richter. Figuring there couldn’t be two such movies made at the same time, Bogdanovich decided the best option was to combine them, and one feels the pieces don’t quite fit. Nickelodeon aspires to what used (in those glorious days before the hideous portmanteau neologism “dramedy” was loosed upon a credulous world) to be called the “comedy-drama.” But the best of that breed, such as Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s The Apartment, blend the comic and the dramatic seemlessly, whereas the tone of this movie fluctuates wildly between frantic action, broad slapstick humor, melodrama and the introspectively bittersweet. There’s a scene, for example, in which the only thing that separates the usually reliable Hamilton Camp as a studio producer here from Harold Gould’s rabid head of Engulf & Devour in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie is that Camp doesn’t have foam spraying from his mouth.

I suspect there is a great movie to be made about the war between independent picture-making organizations and the violent Patent Company thugs Thomas Edison employed to maintain his monopoly on moving pictures — the conflict is why the burgeoning industry eventually settled in California — but Nickelodeon isn’t it. For one thing, it gets sidetracked by the romantic triangle at its center between the screenwriter and nascent director Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal), the reluctant cowboy star “Buck” Greenway (Burt Reynolds) and their nearsighted inamorata Kathleen Cooke, played with some sweetness but little heft by Jane Hitchcock. The set-up might have achieved greater weight had Bogdanovich been given his head on the casting; his original choices for those roles were John Ritter, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. He was able to use Ritter in a good part in the picture, as Harrigan’s cameraman (and Stella Stevens’ cast-off lover) but one can easily imagine how inspired he would have been in the starring role, just as Bridges would have lent Buck both a melancholy and a genuine naïveté Reynolds, who is otherwise fine, can’t quite manage, and Shepherd would almost certainly have given Kathleen (in the director’s phrase) an erotic “threat” that doesn’t exist in Hitchcock’s pleasant but unexceptional performance. He also wanted Welles for the role of the expansive “blanket” producer eventually played, with typical richness, by Brian Keith, and there are moments when you can just hear Welles barking out the character’s hilarious non-sequiturs and unflappable pronouncements (“We’ll have to leave now. This room is on fire.”)

Bogdanovich crams so many references to silent comedies, notably those of Keaton and Lloyd — and even, in Hawksian fashion, thefts from his own pictures, as in the mis-matched suitcases that recall the central plot device of What’s Up, Doc? — into Nickelodeon that he overbalances it. The first quarter in particular is stuffed with frenetic incident to such an extent its narrative is difficult to follow until it settles into the long stretch of Harrigan learning his new trade with renegade mogul Keith’s surreptitious movie company in Cucamonga (actually filmed in Modesto). There’s a nice directorial touch, however, in the use of the old “iris out” effect, which Kovács, like the cinema photographers of yore, achieved in-camera, allowing Nickelodeon to retain its sharp imagery by not subjecting the film to optical printing. (That process, which reproduces the original film, each succeeding generation losing sharpness and clarity, is why foreign films with subtitles — at least in the pre-digital age — always looked grainy, which the uninitiated assumed meant those filmmakers were somehow more courageous and innovative than our domestic breed… although why anyone would think graininess an advantage is beyond me.) And there is much period detail Richter and Bogdanovich get absolutely right, from the scene of O’Neal editing his film by cutting the negative and the way his people are called “movies” (the early parlance for “moving picture people”) by citizens they meet on an L.A. street to the wonderful long dolly shot in which the actor moves from one adjacent silent movie shooting-stage to another to another until he’s passed through five of them in a space not much longer than that encompassed by a suburban back yard.

Nickelodeon - colorNickelodeon - BW

The director, who had famously shot The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon in black-and-white, lost his battle on the topic with Columbia Pictures for Nickelodeon. Working with his cinematographer, the great László Kovács, Bogdanovich lit the picture for monochrome, always hoping he might one day be able to convert it from color. On the “Director’s Cut” DVD, which pairs it with The Last Picture Show, he did just that, also adding back in about five minutes of footage he’d been forced to trim in 1976. The additional material, particularly that involving the complicated sexual situation with Stevens’ character, is not without its uses. But despite my general indifference to color film, I’m not convinced that Nickelodeon was harmed by what was imposed upon it, nor that the black-and-white version in this case is appreciably better… especially when one is confronted in the theatrical version (also on the 2-disc set) with a pair of dawn skies shot by Kovács, one purple and one streaked with red, and both of which are breathtaking.

I also take issue with the way Bogdanovich puts a lovely sentiment once spoken to him by James Stewart into Brian Keith’s mouth at the climax. When Stewart said of movies that, “if you’re good… you’re giving people little, tiny pieces of time that they never forget,” he did so in the context of an anecdote about a man who’d remembered something the actor had done in a picture years earlier, and which had stayed with him. In the world of 1915, by contrast, there hadn’t yet been that kind of time-lapse; the sentiment feels out of place, and rings (as it most certainly didn’t do in Stewart’s case) strangely hollow. Much better is the way at the end of the movie Harrigan’s troupe, depressed or disgusted for differing reasons after attending the Hollywood premiere of what will later be titled The Birth of a Nation, sees a war scene being shot in a lighted greenhouse and is transfixed, all its preoccupations dissipated by the sight. “Look,” O’Neal observes with a kind of reverence. “They’re making a movie!”

Nothing else in Niceklodeon quite conveys the obsessive love of motion pictures contained in that brief, all-but-whispered phrase.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Canvas sky and muslin tree: “Paper Moon” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

Paper Moon is a gorgeous evocation of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the superb Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray. Peter Bogdanovich, fresh off the one-two punch of The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?, engaged the great cinematographer László Kovács to work magic in black and white; together they made a serious comedy, one whose imagery bears comparison to the 1930s photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans yet which wears it, for the most part, lightly. It concerns Ryan O’Neal’s bunco expert Moses (“Moze”) Pray — he cons widows with Bibles gilt-embossed with their names, allegedly ordered by their late husbands — and the precocious orphan (Tatum O’Neal) he’s trying to take to her aunt’s house against her will and who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter.

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, Ryan O'Neal

Tatum O’Neal is never more appealing in Paper Moon than when she smiles.

Bogdanovich worked with Sargent on restructuring the screenplay, removing it from the Deep South of Brown’s book and essentially only filming the first half. The second, involving an elaborate con intended to fleece a supposedly rich old woman, feels less organic than the first, set as it is in New Orleans rather than small Southern towns and keeping Addie and Moses (called “Long Boy” in the novel) apart for long stretches. It was a smart idea of Bogdanovich’s as well to pay off Moze and Addie’s escape from the law by having the rather sinister Kansas Sheriff (John Hillerman) track them down in Missouri and give Mose a brutal beating — which, fortunately, the filmmakers don’t suffer us to watch.

The Sheriff and his bootlegger twin brother are far from the only examples of period Americana Addie and Moze encounter: There are also the widows on whom they fob off their Bibles (and to whom, in some odd way, they’re doing a sentimental kindness); the friendly shopkeepers and clerks on whom they perpetrate that bit of grift involving making change which, if you’ve ever been its intended victim, as I once was while working as a bookseller, you well remember the sensation of; a pack of strange sibling hillbillies led by Randy Quaid whose rattletrap truck Mose attempts to swap for the snazzy Ford V-8 he knows every lawman in Kansas will soon be on the lookout for; a gullible hotel clerk (Burton Gilliam) who thinks he looks like a matinee idol; and an outrageous cooch dancer-cum-part-time whore called Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) and her adolescent maid Imogene (the astonishing P. J. Johnson). Although Johnson, no actress, does very little, she’s such a natural that her every word and gesture seem wonderful, and she’s aided immeasurably by her director’s cutting; her throwaway line about Miss Trixie (“I tried to push her out of a window in Little Rock once”) is even funnier for the abrupt cut that happens just as we’re wondering if we really heard her right.

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Madeline Kahn as Miss Trixie is so good she lifts the picture into the comedic stratosphere. At the director’s request, Sargent wrote Kahn a beautiful scene on a hillside, funny and unexpectedly touching, in which Trixie pleads with Addie for a brief shot at happiness. Kahn’s genius is evident from the way she segues from disingenuously coaxing Addie (“How’d you like a coloring book? Would you like that? You like Mickey the Mouse?”) to, after tripping and falling, shrieking, “Oh, son of a bitch!” and it was probably that sequence that got her a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination.

She might have won had she not been put in competition, foolishly, with Tatum O’Neal. Since O’Neal is in almost every scene of the picture, and at least as much of it as her father, I don’t know what she can be thought to be supporting, other than the movie as a whole; the novel wasn’t, after all, called Moses Pray. I had somehow misremembered what Bogdanovich and others had said about her performance and had it in my head that it was pulled out of her by her director and patched together by the movie’s editor, Verna Fields. This appears to be far from the case. She had, like Johnson, never acted before, and while certainly Bogdanovich had to work especially delicately with his 8-year old star, she was required to do too much, in too many of his trademark long, unbroken takes, for her performance to have been manufactured. In another of Sargent’s great scenes which have no antecedents in Brown’s novel, she and her father argue for two minutes while driving down a flat Midwestern road,  filmed by Bogdanovich without a cut and during which the junior O’Neal must remember not only a complex dialogue sequence but a great deal of business involving a map and a cigar box while remaining in character and fluctuating between angrily sullen and sweetly agreeable. That’s a set of directions even accomplished actors would have difficulty pulling off; for a child her age, and without camera experience, it’s astonishing.

Paper Moon - Tatum and Ryan O'Neal

This isn’t the only sequence in which Tatum O’Neal exhibits almost preternatural range, but it’s perhaps the most illustrative. She’s especially endearing when she smiles — which Addie doesn’t, often. And why should she? Raised by a single mother, who is taken from her too soon, she’s saddled with a man who, while he might be her father, is anxious to dump her as quickly as he can, but no so anxious he doesn’t make some fast cash on her first. That two hundred dollars becomes the crux of the action in Paper Moon, as Moze first tries to pay the kid off and then realizes without admitting it aloud that they make a good team. (In Brown’s book, Long Boy is a much shrewder character, sending his money off to a bank account, but this might have made his movie counterpart seem both too slick and too well-heeled.)  Tatum O’Neal has some of the quickness and ingenuity that marked Jackie Coogan’s performance in The Kid, and there’s a slight resemblance, especially in Addie’s boyish haircut. (Even her husky voice is one you might expect to come from the mouth of a little boy.) There’s a lovely scene in which she rises from bed, takes her treasure-box into the bathroom and poses in the mirror like her deceased mother that is a small marvel. Yes, Bogdanovich was off-camera, telling her what to do, but there’s doing, and doing well, and that makes all the difference.*

I vividly remember how, in the ’70s and early ’80s, any picture shot in black-and-white was deemed “arty” or “pretentious,” and that Paper Moon was likewise traduced. This is, and was, utter codswallop. You can film anything you like in monochrome. You don’t have to have a specific artistic-symbolic reason. For Bogdanovich, the 1930s setting simply demanded it. And while I would never go as far as his friend Orson Welles, who claimed that no great acting performance had ever been given in color, I’ve never been especially enraptured by color film, nor seen any great need for it, outside of travelogue and spectacle. Maybe it helps to have been born and grown up in a transitional period when television and movies were moving from black-and-white to full-time color, and having never in one’s own family enjoyed a color television set; I didn’t have one of my own until I was nearly 30. But whatever the case, color seems important to me only for big, splashy musical numbers or pictures like Around the World in 80 Days, and the black-and-white palette (which is indeed a palette) seems to me far richer and more expressive, especially for drama and for movies set in the recent past.

László Kovács was such a wizard with light and shadow that he was able to produce glorious images in black, white and gray and deep-focus. (The director’s estranged wife, Polly Platt, did the superb production and costume design.) I disagree with Welles and Bogdanovich that the eye sees that way — you’ve only to consciously notice how you perceive foreground and background to know it doesn’t — but deep-focus not only gives the scenes texture and the objects in them contrast but allows for subtle juxtapositions, such as the way a forlorn Addie, glimpsed behind Moze, is contrasted in a reverse-angle shot of a train station agent by the two children happily playing in the yard behind him. The director’s penchant for long, complex scenes played in full, always satisfying, is given free reign in Paper Moon, and seeing them today is especially poignant because while few filmmakers refrained from a lot of cutting in the ’70s, almost no one does now. These sequences, which never call attention to themselves, are usually not noticed, especially by image-junkies who need speed and rapid-eye-movement editing to get their cinema fix. For Bogdanovich, even a 360 degree panning shot, during a highway chase, feels elegant and doesn’t call attention to itself. (Although I gather he complained that no one noticed. If you want the critics to see that sort of thing, you have to be one hell of a lot more obvious in the way you achieve it. Study Scorsese if you seek to learn Elevation to the Pantheon of Cineastes in 10 Easy Lessons.)†

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, PJ Johnson

O’Neal and P. J. Johnson

Ryan O’Neal clearly learned a great deal about comedy from starring in What’s Up, Doc? for Bogdanovich. He’s cool and polished here, and not above showing us that Moze is not quite as smooth as he thinks he is. The mustache the actor sports, and his short period hair, also remove some of his prettiness,  and his frequent comic contretemps with his real-life daughter are among the picture’s high spots. Among the many beautifully observed minor performances are those by Liz Ross, Yvonne Harrison, Eleanor Bogart and Dorothy Forster as widows conned by Moze and Addie, Rose-Mary Rumbley as Addie’s Aunt Billie, Dorothy Price as a garrulous and friendly old saleslady, and Dejah Moore as a pleasant but rather dim young salesgirl bilked by Addie out of a $20 Bill. As with many “road” movies, the ending of Paper Moon is bittersweet, and you may be forgiven for feeling wistful when Addie forsakes the obvious love and comfort she’d get from staying in her aunt’s home for the dubious charms of life on the road as a grifter with her possible father. But could Addie ever really be content with so sedate an existence after the excitement and fun of doing business with Moze?

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal with moon

The movie’s title was suggested to Bogdanovich by the great 1932 Harold Arlen/”Yip” Harburg song (Say, it’s only a paper moon/ Sailing over a cardboard sea…)‡ he was considering for the picture’s diagetic background score of period recordings. The filmmaker instinctively understood, just from the title, how beautifully that paean to carnival make-believe fit the picture’s con-artist milieu. (Welles said the idea was so good Bogdanovich ought to forget making the movie and just release the title.) Meeting resistance to the title change from Paramount, the director got Sargent to write an appropriate moment involving a paper moon to their preexisting carnival scene, which also had the felicitous advantage of providing a lovely moment at the picture’s climax showing how much Moze and Addie mean to each other, without them saying so. The song also inspired the movie’s famous poster image. Of course, in the movie, the poignancy of Addie’s paper moon photo is that Moze is too busy ogling girls at a peep-show to sit with her. But that too has resonance; one of the emotions Moze must surely be feeling when he finally looks at it is regret.


*We live in such a weirdly Puritanical age just now that should any filmmaker today dare show a little girl in her underwear he’d doubtless be condemned as a pornographer, and worse. And if he got his child star to smoke organic cigarettes on cue…

†I don’t know whether Bogdanovich planned it, or if it was simply an unexpected gesture by his star, but there’s a fast moment when Ryan O’Neal slams on the brakes at a service station and both Tatum and P. J. Johnson bounce out of their seats that is absolutely hilarious. If Paper Moon was a slapstick comedy, they’d both have gone flying out of the car. But I don’t know that it would have been any funnier that way than it is.

‡Although credited to Arlen, Harburg and Billy Rose, “Paper Moon” was written by Arlen and Harburg for the flop Ben Hecht and Gene Fowler play The Great Magoo, which Rose produced. It was customary in those days for producers to claim song-writing credit they hadn’t earned, and Rose was one of the era’s biggest customers.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Impropriety: “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972)

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By Scott Ross

Eunice: Don’t you know the meaning of propriety?
Judy: Propriety; noun: conformity to established standards of behavior or manner, suitability, rightness, or justice. See “etiquette.”
— Madeline Kahn to Barbra Streisand (and vice-versa) in What’s Up, Doc?

I’m not sure what astonishes me more: That it has been 48 years since I saw this modern “screwball comedy” on its initial release, or that it is still so charming, and so very, very funny, nearly a half-century later.

Having scored an unexpected success with the black-and-white period drama The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich wanted a change of pace: Something like Bringing Up Baby, with a heroine who makes life difficult for a stuffy but handsome academic. He “stole” (his words) the idea of a lost collection — igneous rocks here in place of Baby‘s dinosaur bones — a bespectacled professor, his even stuffier fiancée, a ripped jacket, a comic chase and, working with David Newman Robert Benton, added a musicologist’s convention in San Francisco and three identical plaid overnight bags. (Buck Henry, doing the final rewrite, came up with a fourth bag, its contents suggested by the recently released and published Pentagon Papers.) The result was the director’s second of three consecutive hits — Paper Moon was to follow — and a comedy that had my 11-year old self laughing so long and so hard he, quite literally, nearly fell out of his theatre seat.

What's Up, Doc - Streisand as Judy (resized and cropped)

What’s Up, Doc? was also my first exposure as a moviegoer, or watcher, to Barbra Streisand, and I was captivated by her poise, her fast Brooklynite line-readings and Yiddish inflections (“Eunice? That’s a person named Eunice?”), her comic timing, her inimitable singing voice (heard at the beginning and the end and in a brief sequence during the third act), her sharp fashion sense (that cunning little cap), her big expressive eyes, her long sandy-colored hair and, yes, even her looks, which my mother corrected my pronouncement by calling “striking” but which seemed to me then (and seem to me still) strangely beautiful.

And Mom was shocked when I came out seven years later…

Seeing What’s Up, Doc? again, on the beautifully rendered Blu-ray edition, I’m struck by what I now apprehend as Bogdanovich’s recurrent directorial signatures: The long takes, usually done in full and often requiring complex movement, not by a hack’s camera as is now so often the case, but by the actors; the eschewing of a background score; the crispness of the images (the director of photography was the splendid László Kovács) and the editing (Verna Fields); the always apposite production design (Polly Platt — note that Ryan O’Neal’s tie is of the same plaid pattern as the overnight bags); and the wit, both verbal (“Don’t you dare strike that brave, unbalanced woman!”) and visual: When Sorrell Booke chased Mabel Albertson down a hotel hallway with the intention of tripping her, I remember being doubled over with laughter; when, later, the pair was glimpsed, struggling on the carpet, Alberton fastening her teeth onto Booke’s leg, I found myself gasping for air. The set up was absolutely perfect, and the timing could not be improved upon. Once we’d seen her hit the floor like Buster Keaton that first time, we knew what was coming, and when it happened it was riotously, blissfully funny. The picture also employed so many stuntmen, in so many varied roles, that Bogdanovich insisted they all get a credit during the end title sequence, the first time to his knowledge it had ever been done.* Streisand herself almost qualifies; she put herself in danger, twice, for Bogdanovich in the streets of San Francisco.

What's Up, Doc - Albertson and BookeThat’s not to mention the marvelous supporting cast: Kenneth Mars as a comic stand-in for the critic John Simon; Austin Pendleton as the toothsome head of a philanthropic foundation; Albertson as the rich old lady with a penchant for hot-pants and young men; Phil Roth as a harried Federal agent; Michael Murphy, his temples touched with gray, presumably to make him more resemble Daniel Ellsberg, as… well… essentially, Daniel Ellsberg; Booke as the larcenous hotel detective; Graham Jarvis as a prototypically annoying bailiff; John Hillerman as a preternaturally unflappable hotel manager; and Liam Dunn, until then a casting director, as the San Francisco judge attempting to hold onto his nerves and his sanity, both hanging by the thinnest of threads. (He also gets one of the biggest laughs in the picture with only two, perfectly spaced, words.) If you look quickly you’ll also spot Randy Quaid and John Byner as convention delegates, M. Emmet Walsh as a cop, and, if your eyes are sharper than mine, Christa Lang (Samuel Fuller’s wife) as Quaid’s wife.

 

What's Up, Doc - Madeline Kahn

The movie’s greatest casting coup, however, was Bogdanovich’s introducing to the screen Madeline Kahn as Eunice, Ryan O’Neal’s impossible bride-to-be. Kahn is not only astonishingly funny in herself, especially in the small sounds of confusion and fear she makes under her breath but, as an attractive young actress new to movies, rather brave in allowing the filmmakers to make her as physically (on top of personally) unappealing as possible. Certainly Kahn was better cast than Ryan O’Neal in the Cary Grant role. I’ve never thought O’Neal was bad as Howard Bannister, but comedy is not among his strengths, or in any case was not in 1972. (He was much better suited to Moses Pray in Paper Moon the following year; the experience of What’s Up, Doc? doubtless taught him a great deal about comic performance.) O’Neal, previously the masculine heart-throb of Love Story, was almost too conventionally beautiful for a comedic role, especially of the absent-minded professor type. Cary Grant was devastatingly handsome too, and sexy as hell. But Grant was somehow able to look convincingly obtuse and his comic frustration had a kick, especially when he whinnied like an outraged nag. O’Neal enjoyed far less experience with comedy than Grant had by that point in his career (none, in fact) and fewer ideas of how to make the farce work for him. He is good at looking dreamy and distracted, however, and effective in expressing a certain comic bewilderment; there is a very funny moment when he turns to the camera and seems to be asking us why this nightmare is happening to him.

What's Up, Doc - Streisand and O'Neal

What’s Up, Doc? is, in its way, a comedy of castration. Howard is a kind of handsome male frump, guided via the metaphorical ring through his nose by an officious termagant, and further tormented by Streisand’s anarchic Judy Maxwell. Although the latter loosens him up, as Katharine Hepburn does to Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, she, like Eunice, is pushing him this way and that, if only in opposition to their manipulations. Still, the imagine of him in 10 or 20 years as Eunice’s completely emasculated spouse is so terrible a notion that he, like the audience, has to be relieved when Judy collars him at last. (That Eunice fastens on to Austin Pendleton’s Larrabee so quickly suggests she has an eye for soft, pliable men no less acute than Judy’s.)

But that’s an avenue of inquiry almost as academic as whether Howard Bannister’s igneous rocks can make music, and nearly as governed by propriety. Thankfully, What’s Up, Doc? itself is gloriously improper.

What's Up, Doc - O'Neal, Bogdanovich, Streisand resized

Bogdanovich, himself movie-star handsome, with his stars.

*In the later Disney comedy Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978) the stunt crew got a similar credit during the main titles.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2017

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By Scott Ross

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



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

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


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

Guffey at the door F58

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

 

 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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



Theatrical Documentary

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


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


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


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



Selected Short Subject

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



Made for television

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


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


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


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



Television series

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


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

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



Seen a second time… and will never see again

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


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


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


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


New to Me: More than worth the trip

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


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


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


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


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


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

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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



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

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


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