Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

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By Scott Ross

Note: For fuller reviews of some of the movies below, click on the highlighted titles.

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Churchill

The Sign of Four / The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) A pair of Sherlock Holmes adaptations by Charles Edward Pogue for British television starring the irreplaceable Ian Richardson which, while not precisely faithful to Conan Doyle, are rich in atmosphere and, in Richardson, boast perhaps the finest Holmes before Jeremy Brett sealed the franchise.


Underworld U.S.A. - Dolores Dorn, Robertson

Underworld U.S.A. (1961) Mediocre Samuel Fuller is still worth watching, although we might have expected better of a former ace crime reporter than this half-baked yarn concerning revenge served at freezing temperature. But then, the picture dates from an uncertain period for Fuller, the years wherein he meandered between the sting of House of Bamboo (1955) and Forty Guns (1957) and the astonishment of Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Most of the Fuller pictures from that time are curios, quasi-successful but tamer affairs than those that came before. This one, suggested by some Saturday Evening Post pieces by Joseph F. Dinneen, has its moments but the plot isn’t feasible in the slightest, the romance seems shoe-horned in, and I don’t buy Cliff Robertson as a hardened criminal for a moment. (But then, I don’t buy Robertson as pretty much anything.) Much better are Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother, David Kent as his adolescent self, Dolores Dorn as his would-be paramour, Larry Gates as the cop-turned-D.A. who’d like to nail the mobsters and set Robertson straight, and Richard Rust as a smiling, sweet-faced sadist who seems to literally seduce Robertson into the mob; their initial meetings feel like an extended courtship dance.

Despite some beautiful set-ups (the cinematographer was Hal Mohr) and a few effective scenes, Underworld USA ultimately has too many sequences like Rust’s running-down of a little girl on her bicycle: Fuller doesn’t show the killing, only the child’s mother calling to her from an upstairs window and the girl (Joni Beth Morris) looking back just before impact. Instead of enhancing the horror, these rather studied choices diminish it; they’re like the worst of Hitchcock — which is bad enough only a fool would emulate it. Like Verboten!, Run of the Arrow, The Crimson Kimono, Hell and High Water and Merrill’s Marauders, Underworld USA is less a good movie than a collection of some good scenes in search of a better place to go.


Scorpio - Scofield

Scorpio (1973) An avis of increasing rarity, the intelligent thriller, anchored by the performances of Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and the magnificent Paul Scofield.


The Maltese Falcon - The stuff that dreams are made of

The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston’s extraordinary debut as a writer/director, a masterpiece of detective fiction featuring Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough performance as Sam Spade.


The Man Who Would Be King - Caine, Plummer, Connery

The Man Who Would Be King (1975) Another of John Huston’s group quests toward ultimate failure, a tangy adaptation of Kipling with a superb trio of leading players in Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer.


A Study in Terror - John Neville and Donald Huston

A Study in Terror (1965) A clever, if implausible, mating of Sherlock Holmes with the Jack the Ripper mythos, which isn’t a patch on the later Murder by Decree (1978) but which boasts an excellent Holmes in the person of the classical actor John Neville, later immortalized as Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam. Donald Houston is a good Watson, the splendid Anthony Quayle an excellent Doctor Murray, Frank Finlay in a part he reprised in Murder by Decree is an intelligent(!) Lestrade, and it’s fascinating to see a very young Judi Dench in a pivotal role. The boxer Terry Downes has a sexy, and surprisingly well acted, cameo role, and John Scott composed an effective score which, even when it brings in bongo drums(!!) does so in a way that feels wholly appropriate.

The cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is a bit on the bland side, period television color where chiaroscuro was called for, and James Hill’s direction, while brisk and effective, lacks the sick-making horror the subject demands. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the movie is Georgia Brown, the original Nancy of the musical Oliver!, whose warm whiskey-contralto has long been a favored sound in my home. She shows up twice, as a pub singer in Whitechapel (presumably on the basis of her performance of the Lionel Bart song “Oom-Pah-Pah” in Oliver!) and if you only listen, she’s perfect. Her face, alas, explains why others got to play her stage roles in movies. She grew into her looks eventually and became a handsome older woman, but in 1966 hers was not the type of physiognomy guaranteed to queue up the paying customers.


The Life of Emile Zola - Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff

The Life of Émile Zola (1937) I first encountered this all-too-typical Warner Bros. biopic on television in my early adolescence, and all I really remembered was the material dealing with Captain Dreyfus. Seeing it again, now, I understand why: It’s one of the few inherently dramatic portions of the narrative. While the picture’s Dreyfuss (Joseph Schildkraut) was whitewashed — it was his arrogance of personality as much as the fact of his Jewishness that precipitated his false arrest and cynical imprisonment — and the anti-Semitism downplayed, at least the subsequent trial of Zola for J’Accuse has spark, courtesy in part of Donald Crisp as the outraged attorney Labori. Those who have complained that the scapegoating of Dreyfus in the picture is depicted as entirely devoid of religious bigotry have apparently never noticed (and I admit it is fast) the juxtaposition of the insert-shot of the Captain’s file reading, “Religion: Jewish” with Harry Davenport’s line damning him as, of two suspects, the man to charge with treason. The implication is entirely obvious. But what can be expected of people who for decades have sung hosannas to Paul Muni’s unconscionably hammy performance as Zola? His constant shameless mugging for the camera indicates a self-regard so thorough an audience has little need to bother; he clearly thinks he’s adorable enough, why should we make it redundant?

L’affaire Dreyfus eats up so much screen time — and at that omits the role of Alfred’s older brother, promoting the idea that it was his wife who most successfully pressed the case for his innocence — that it would have made more sense to focus on it entirely rather than to attempt squeezing in the rest of Zola’s biography, and with such brevity; his early decades here are a whirl-wind of narrative cliché and the people (his wife, Alexandrine, played by Gloria Holden; Morris Carnovsky’s Anatole France; Grant Mitchell’s Clemenceau; and Vladimir Sokoloff’s Cézanne) are little more than names and attitudes. That it took no fewer than three scenarists (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine) to bake the thin crust upon which the insufficient filling of this movie rests says something… although just what, I couldn’t say. Gale Sondergaard struggles valiantly with the underwritten role of Lucie Dreyfus and at least retains her dignity, but Schildkraut (who, rather unbelievably, won an Oscar® for this) is reduced to little more than periodically screaming, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!” He does get one nice scene, however, when, freed at last after a decade on Devil’s Island he repeatedly hits the open doorway inviting him back to the outside world, turns, and retreats to his hated cell; in that moment you know everything you need to about the learned behavior of prisoners. The picture’s director, William Dieterle, does what he can with the material, and it is at least a very brisk movie, with very few longueurs despite its 116-minute running-time. Tony Gaudio’s black-and-white cinematography is rich, and beautifully lit; on the big screen in 1937 it must have seemed luminous.


Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood, Jaimz Woolvett

Unforgiven (1992) Clint Eastwood’s award-winning Western, a beautiful, even poetic, rumination on the cost of killing.


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The Last Picture Show (1971) The damn near perfect adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s suberb coming-of-age novel by McMurtry and the director Peter Bogdanovich.


Big Jake - Boone

Big Jake (1971) Enjoyable late-period John Wayne, with an intelligent script and a savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant.


somethingwicked_coverimage

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) A badly muddled misfire purportedly adapted from Ray Bradbury’s magical literary fantasy.


California Split - Altman

California Split (1974) Robert Altman’s first feature utilizing the 8-track recording system that made Nashville possible, a genial character study of two degenerate gamblers played charmingly by George Segal and Elliott Gould.


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The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh  (1963) An atmospheric and intelligent rendition, from Walt Disney, of Russell Thorndyke’s 18th century rogue Dr. Syn starring a splendid Patrick McGoohan.


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Targets (1967/1968) Peter Bogdanovich’s extraordinary, disturbing first feature as a writer-director anatomizing both the sick state of Hollywood and the weird anomie of a serial killer is all too relevant to 21st century America.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Mason, Lorre, Douglas and Henried resized

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Walt Disney’s first movie to be filmed in CinemaScope — it was also in 4-track stereo —  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was at the time one of the most expensive Hollywood productions ever attempted (between $5 and $9 million, imagine) and had it flopped would have been disastrous to the studio. The picture turned out so well it was one of the two top-grossers of its year, earning $28 million in 1954. And if it is less than absolutely ideal, especially in its confusingly British-Christian characterization of Jules Verne’s Sikh Captain Nemo, the movie is technically almost without a flaw, beautifully designed and shot, lengthy but involving, with literally marvelous art and set decoration (Peter Ellenshaw contributed some typically beautiful matte paintings)* and a splendid quartet of above-the-title actors. It’s the perfect Boy’s Adventure movie: Rich color photography by Franz Planer (his underwater and day-for-night effects are especially pleasing), an exciting score by Paul J. Smith, assured direction by Richard Fleischer, and an intelligent, often witty, adapted screenplay by Earl Felton that combine to form an exceptionally enjoyable night’s entertainment and in which human conflict, interior as well as exterior, are not elided.

Aside from the presence of the seal Sophie (that she needed water we never see her enter or exit from is evident from her shiny and obviously moistened skin) and the now-questionable “humor” of black cannibals getting zapped by Nemo’s protective electricity (why was it considered funny then?) the humor is refreshingly adult and mostly supplied by Kirk Douglas as the harpoonist Ned Land and Peter Lorre as Paul Henried’s assistant. Douglas also gets to sing a nifty ditty by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel called “A Whale of a Tale” which becomes one of the movie’s leitmotifs and makes a nice, belated compensation for his having left, in 1944, the original cast of On the Town, where he had the lead. James Mason is so good as Nemo you forgive Disney for messing with the original. That superb light baritone of Mason’s, combined with his elliptical speech patterns and highly idiosyncratic line readings, make him commanding, tragic and ironic at once.

The special effects, all of course in those days done by hand, are deeply impressive even now, with only one or two indifferent rear-screen bits muffing the whole. Walt produced this one himself, and his acumen shows: When the fight with the giant squid, originally shot against a red sunset on a static sea, both proved lifeless and revealed too many of the technicians’ wires, Disney suggested they re-shoot it at night, and during a storm at sea. It made all the difference; overnight, as it were, a poor sequence became a classic.

* The picture won Oscars® for Best Art Direction – Color (John Meehan, Emile Kuri) and Best Special Effects (John Hench, Joshua Meador), although according to Wikipedia, “the movie’s primary art designer, Harper Goff, who designed the Nautilus, was not a member of the Art Directors Union in 1954 and therefore, under a bylaw within the Academy of Motion Pictures… was unable to receive his Academy Award for Art Direction.”


The Adventures of S Holmes - Rathbone and Zucco

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) 20th Century Fox’s immediate follow-up to its The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939, proves what a fluke the studio’s first Holmes picture was. Allegedly based on the William Gillette play, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes bears no resemblance to it, nor to the 1916 movie in which Gillette himself starred. Although the movie has a fine, foggy atmosphere — Leon Shamroy was the cinematographer — the narrative is asinine, and even insulting; two of Holmes’ typical lines are, “Whatever Watson has found out, you’ll know inevitably. I have unbounded confidence in his lack of discretion” and (to Nigel Bruce as the Doctor) “I’m afraid you’re an incorrigible bungler.” It concerns the machinations of a bearded(!) Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to humiliate Holmes, by whom he is eventually thrown off the Tower of London(!!) and Zucco has a high old time of it, all but baring his fangs and gnashing his teeth. In the supporting cast, Terry Kilburn is a good Billy, Mary Forbes charming as a matron, Anthony Kemble-Cooper has a nice turn as a gentle upper-class twit avant la lettre, and Basil Rathbone has an enjoyable bit in disguise as a music hall entertainer. But Ida Lupino is wasted as the damsel in distress and the picture is both lumpy and formless. The director of this flavorless mélange was someone named Alfred L. Werker; this was probably his only well-remembered movie. Nowhere in the credits of the picture will you see the name of Arthur Conan Doyle… for which omission I presume his heirs were duly grateful.


HealtH lobby card resized

HealtH (1979/1982) An often very amusing political satire directed by Robert Altman involving the race for president of a health convention. It’s an allegory about Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, with Lauren Bacall as a narcoleptic 83-year old virgin (Ike) and Glenda Jackson as a prating intellectual (Stevenson) who talks, dryly and utterly without emotion, through everything and everyone. Paul Dooley is an obnoxious hypocrite of a third-party candidate who is a mass of prejudices and whose shtick is holding his breath under water, Carol Burnett is very funny as a representative of the President — since the picture was filmed in 1979, presumably Jimmy Carter — and James Garner is only slightly less so as her estranged husband, working for Bacall. Donald Moffat shows up in a sinister performance as Bacall’s frightening brother; Henry Gibson is a political operative whose first sequence in drag as an old woman is so convincing you almost wonder who that interesting actress is; Diane Stilwell is Jackson’s secretary who can’t type and who has supplied Jackson with a portable tape recorder, with which she is pretty obviously in love; MacIntyre Dixon is marvelous as the convention manager; Alfre Woodard is the hotel’s determinedly sunny convention representative vexed by this unmanageable collection of loons; Ann Ryerson is Bacall’s physician who lacks the ability to enjoy sex; the singing group The Steinettes appear throughout the movie, singing brightly and inanely at every conceivable opportunity; and Dick Cavett plays himself, vainly attempting to interview Bacall and Jackson and perennially frustrated by Bacall’s unexpected sleeping fits (if that isn’t an oxymoron.) Altman and Dooley wrote the sharp screenplay with Frank Barhydt, and it’s a relaxed, cheery, sometimes hilarious ensemble comedy. Why any of the people involved thought that a satire on Eisenhower and Stevenson was relevant to anything, or anyone, in 1979 remains a mystery, but everyone in the picture is terrific with the notable exception of Bacall. We watch her thinking we know she was famous for something once, but from her performance we can’t recall just what; after 1966 she always seemed to be playing the paralyzed rich-bitch from Harper — she’d become all surface, the grande dame in her element. What the hell happened to that woman? She was better at 19, when she knew almost nothing about acting.


Matewan - Chris Cooper

Matewan (1988) John Sayles’ magnificent evocation of a violent, largely forgotten incident of the 1920s involving West Virginia miners arrayed against vicious coal industry gun-thugs.


Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

Casualties of War (1989) A deeply unsettling examination of an American atrocity in Vietnam directed by Brian De Palma which is best when it sticks to the facts but is never less than compelling even when it’s embracing war movie clichés that would have embarrassed John Wayne.


Little Drummer Girl - Kinski, Keaton

The Little Drummer Girl (1984) This surprisingly good attempt by the screenwriter Loring Mandel and the stylish journeyman director George Roy Hill at condensing one of John Le Carré’s large, complex thrillers is compromised but, curiously, not undone, by its central miscasting. With her signature red hair and championing of Palestinian rights, the actress Charlie in the novel was obviously meant to remind readers of Vanessa Redgrave. Unlike Redgrave (or Diane Keaton, the Charlie of the movie) it was central to the Le Carré novel that Charlie was young, in her early 20s, passionate but unformed, and not nearly as worldly, or as informed, as she thinks she is. Likewise, casting Yorgo Voyagis, Keaton’s junior by a year, as the Israeli agent who seduces Charlie into falling in love with him while seeming to put her off (and who becomes her guide and instructor in the elaborate “theatre of the real” the actress is enticed into against a Palestinian bomb-maker) rather than a distinguished, reticent, aging actor of the time — Paul Scofield might have been ideal, or even Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates — eliminates Charlie’s obvious father-fixation. These rather essential cavils aside, Keaton is excellent as Charlie, locating both her anger and her pain, although I don’t believe for a minute an American would be headlining a small British theatre troupe. Unlike Keaton, Klaus Kinski is an almost perfect casting choice for Kurtz, whose complicated scheme keeps Charlie, and the audience, in the dark until the climax; Kinski absolutely gets the Israeli agent’s bonhomie, his middle-aged charm and his deadly seriousness. Like the book, the movie is highly ambivalent about Zionism even as it largely accepts the more than dubious notion that violence is the proper response to terror. The strong supporting cast includes Sami Frey, Michael Cristofer, Eli Danker, Philipp Moog, Anna Massey, Thorley Walters and David Suchet. My only complaint about the production design is the truly terrible coat Keaton is forced to wear through much of the picture. She can’t carry it off, but I can’t imagine the woman who could. Such is Le Carré’s brilliance that Charlie’s last line, slightly altered from the novel, has stayed with me since I saw this one 35 years ago.


Thieves Like Us resized

Thieves Like Us (1974) As Pauline Kael once suggested of him, Robert Altman made two bad movies for every good one, and in-between another that was essentially lousy but with enough good, or even great, moments in it to sustain your interest. Examples of this last include The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Short Cuts, Gosford Park… and Thieves Like Us; it has some splendid things in it, and is beautifully cast, and shot. But it’s both elliptical and repetitive in weird and off-putting ways, and you sit there wondering what you’ve missed when you haven’t missed a thing. In the sequence in which the movie’s young central characters Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Keechie (Shelley Duvall) make love for the first time while listening to a radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet, for example, and we hear the same between-act announcement from the narrator at three separate intervals, we don’t know what it means. Is the sequence a fantasy of Keechie’s or Bowie’s? Is one scene real and the other two fantastic? But because they don’t seem to be anything other than what they appear to be — sequential moments broken up in the cutting — nothing about these scenes really supports that hypothesis. So why did Altman choose to disorient us at this important juncture? Why, for that matter, is there a discussion between Carradine, Bert Remsen and Ann Latham in which it seems Bowie and Keechie have become notorious Bonnie and Clyde figures, their doings reported in the newspapers, when we have seen no such thing? It feels as though there’s a reel missing, or at least a few scenes. Speaking of which, why is Remsen’s violent death only spoken about, in a radio news story, and not seen? The omission feels like narrative cheapness. Kael said of Thieves Like Us that it was, “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films — a masterpiece.” What movie did she see?

The picture was shot on location in Mississippi, which Altman was told was “the asshole of America” but which he and his French cinematographer Jean Boffety found beautiful, and their fondness for the place and the people shows; the look of the movie is almost like a living Impressionist painting. The excellent cast includes John Shuck, Louise Fletcher, Al Scott, Tom Skerritt and Joan Tewkesbury, who also collaborated with Altman on the script and would write Nashville for him (she’s the woman at the train station Duvall talks to at the end). Calder Willingham also worked on the screenplay, based on the 1937 Edward Anderson novel which originally provided the basis for the 1950 They Live by Night, directed by Nicholas Ray.


Three Days of the Condor gettyimages-591378586-612x612

Three Days of the Condor (1975) Although Three Days of the Condor rather needlessly complicates the novelist James Grady’s original plot, there are some real compensations, not least of which is intelligence.


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The Thief and the Cobbler (1993/2013) Richard Williams’ astonishing animated Arabian Nights feature, still incomplete but reconstructed by Garrett Gilchrist in his Recobbled Cut Mark 4.


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The Great Train Robbery (1978) Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (known in Britain as The First Great Train Robbery, to distinguish its action in the minds of potential ticket-buyers from the much more contemporaneous, and well-remembered, “Great Train Robbery” of 1963) is one of those richly appointed, beautifully shot and wonderfully cast entertainments that make for a wry, exciting evening’s amusement as long as you know that, while depicting on an actual incident, the picture is largely fictional and should be taken as such. Based on the 1855 theft of gold from a moving train, and on the writer/director’s own novel, the picture is a cheery, funny escapade with some sharp digs at the British upper class, and glorious production design that puts you absolutely in Victorian era London (although it was shot largely in Ireland.) Sean Connery is the ersatz nobleman of dubious means, suave but dangerous, who plans and executes the theft; Lesley-Anne Down is his actress lover who proves useful in a number of necessary diversions; Donald Sutherland, often hilarious, is the safe-cracker; and Wayne Sleep is the ill-fated criminal acrobat who runs afoul of Connery.

Crichton’s direction is elegant and wonderfully paced; he seems always to know exactly where to place the camera. Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his most distinctive scores for the picture, anchored to a charming waltz he then transforms into variants: Slowed down it evokes the atmosphere of London’s mean streets, simplified it becomes a romantic guitar accompaniment for Connery and Down’s bedroom scenes and sped up it’s rousing background music for the robbery. One of the movie’s great pleasures is the lush widescreen color cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, to whom Crichton dedicated it. A painter with light, Unsworth shot some of the most sumptuous looking movies of the 1960s and ‘70s: Becket (1964), the Olivier Othello (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Olivier’s Three Sisters (1970), Cabaret (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Royal Flash (1975), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Superman (1978) and Tess (1979). The fine supporting cast includes Alan Webb, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd and Malcolm Terris as a smug, hypocritical bank official. The final joke has no basis in historical reality, but takes the movie out on a high, and very funny, note.


Heat - Pacino

Heat (1995) Michael Mann’s complex, character-driven heist movie has the texture of a sun-lit nightmare: L.A. as a warm place to die a chilly death.

Heat - De Niro


The Thrill of it All - Day, Reiner, Garner

The Thrill of it All (1963) A shrill, occasionally funny farce, meant to satirize television advertising but so dishonest about that it merely gums the subject rather aggressively. Doris Day is an obstetrician’s wife who gets corralled into performing impromptu cleanser commercials for a cheesy live drama omnibus show (in 1963?) and finds her marriage on rocky (or, if you prefer, soapy) ground. It’s too ephemeral to take seriously for a moment — The Glass Bottom Boat had more gravitas — but it’s a pretty thin gruel to have come from the combined talents of Carl Reiner (screenplay) and Larry Gelbart (story, with Reiner). Some of the scenes have that terrible look so representative of the era’s color television episodes, but the cinematographer, Russell Metty, occasionally gets in some pleasant lighting. It would have been almost impossible at that time to imagine the director, Norman Jewison, ever making movies as rich as In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, but at least his pacing is brisk.

James Garner brings his usual charm and comic outrage to the husband, and the supporting cast includes Reiner (in several bits), Arlene Francis, Edward Andrews, Reginald Owen (playing Andrews’ father, the sort of role Andrews himself would corner in the coming years), Zasu Pitts as a rape-obsessed housekeeper, Elliott Reid as an advertising man, Alice Pearce, Herbie Faye, Hayden Rorke, Burt Mustin, Robert Strauss, Lennie Weinrib, Lillian Culver, King Donovan, Bernie Kopell and, in a voice-over, Paul Frees. I could also swear I heard Madge Blake’s voice, but can find no proof of her participation. Brian Nash and Kym Karath play Day and Garner’s small children; Karath is best remembered as Gretl, the tiniest of the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music two years later. The picture is inoffensive, even with its dated attitudes toward women in the workplace; the one absolutely unforgivable element is the appalling, mickeymouse musical score by (Frank) De Vol.


Alias Nick Beale

Alias Nick Beal (1949) A dark political fantasy that, on balance, seemed designed to satisfy everyone who ever thought a politician had sold his soul, which is pretty much all of us. (Today people like Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t even bother to hide their corruption; they display it openly, and their worshipers call us names if we say anything about it.) Beautifully directed by John Farrow and with a brisk, intelligent screenplay by Jonathan Latimer from a story by Mindret Lord, the movie is so sharply observed it puts to shame all the cringe-making, faux-populist projects of Frank Capra, a man with a deep distrust of “the people” even as he desperately kept trying to woo them. Thomas Mitchell plays the crusading District Attorney who in his frustration at being unable to nail a mobster makes a casual wish he never expected to have granted, and Ray Milland is “Nick Beal,” the Satanic figure with the means to deliver. Mitchell gives his usual fine performance, and Audrey Totter is excellent as a good/bad girl, but Milland really delivers. There was always something a little unpleasant about him as an actor that lingered below his surface charm. Billy Wilder tapped it in The Lost Weekend, and Farrow really mines it here. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, even in a bad print, is rich and atmospheric, and about the only miscalculation in this 82-minute gem is the uncharacteristic, almost shockingly emphatic, score by the otherwise subtle Franz Waxman. With Fred Clark as a machine boss, Geraldine Wall as Mitchell’s saintly wife, a very young Darryl Hickman as a reform-school candidate and George Macready as, of all things, a minister. (Thanks for this one, Eliot M. Camarena!)


Citizen Kane - Moorehead

Citizen Kane (1941) I ended one year, and began another, with the same film. It isn’t among my very favorite pictures, nor even my favorite among those of its co-author, director and star. But Orson Welles’ debut is still among the most enjoyable movies ever made, and it yields new pleasures and unexpected contours with every viewing. This time I noticed, for the first time, the way Welles keeps the lighted window at Xanadu in the same spot throughout the prologue, even when it’s a reflection in water. That may not be strictly logical, but it certainly is impressive.

Text copyright 2019 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.


They Might Be Giants - finale

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

A much bigger circle: “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The 1971 film transmigration of the 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most beautifully made of all adaptations from the musical stage, and certainly one of the most faithful. By filming it in as realistic a manner as possible, and as close to the birthplace of its progenitor, Sholem Aleichem, as the director, Norman Jewison, could get (Yugoslavia), the filmmakers honored the material as well, I think, as the source. What fell away, inevitably, was much of the very thing that made Jerome Robbins’ original so striking and even, in the terms of the musical theatre of its time, revolutionary. Any truly theatrical experience, play or musical, that exists in a heightened, stylized state can only be diminished by literalism. This is why any sane admirer of Follies, say, can only hope no movie ever gets made of it. Unless (as here) the material can support the transliteration, and the filmmakers are able to balance the inevitable losses with considerable gains of their own.*

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Boris Aronson’s set design for the interior of Tevye’s home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.

Realism cannot take in, for example, the potent abstraction of Boris Aronson’s original Fiddler set. Inspired by (but in no way slavishly reproducing) the shtetl-based paintings of Marc Chagall, Aronson constructed a series of stage images that fully expressed the key concerns of Robbins and his collaborators: Not merely the sense of tradition (arrived at through Robbins’ insistent, necessary, question, “What is this show about?”) but the crucial aspect of the circle which binds the community, the people of the play, even the faith itself. Aronson placed Tevye’s home in a central position; above it he depicted a semi-circle of upside-down houses, and around it several more, representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler himself, they are precariously balanced — even topsy-turvy — but they hold.

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“Tradition”: Zero Mostel’s Tevye leads the original company of the stage musical.

Nor can a realistic style encompass the inherent theatricality of the piece as a whole, especially as Robbins directed and choreographed it — as when, for example, in the opening, Tevye is suddenly joined by the figures of the villagers, hands linked, emerging from either side of the stage to create the circle that stands for Anatevka itself. A couple of songs in the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick were also shed during filming, but their omissions are more than adequately compensated for by the filmmakers’ otherwise rare fealty to the score, superbly enhanced by John Williams’ rich, sensitive and often thrilling arrangements.

Thus, what was lost. (For some die-hards, the replacement of Zero Mostel with the earthier and less ostentatious Topol was likely also a grievous deficiency.) So what was gained? On a simplistic, yet pleasurable, level, the land itself — vast, verdant, arable, even majestic — and the physicality of Anatevka, especially the magnificently realized wooden shul with its stunning, intricate murals, glimpsed in the opening number and, at the climax, gazed at in anguished silence by Zvee Scooler’s Rabbi as he prepares to depart its walls forever. (In her splendid book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Lisa Solomon reports that Jewison wanted the production designer Robert F. Boyle’s original building preserved but, by the time he’d reached an agreement in Israel for its transportation it had, heartbreakingly, already been torn down.) And too, the pogrom that destroys the wedding of Tevye’s daughter Tzeitl at the end of the first act is, because of film’s innate ability to realistically depict such events (Cossacks on horseback, flaming torches, shattered glass, the shredding of the young couple’s gifts) far more gripping, and powerful, on the screen than it can ever be on the stage.

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Tevye and his director: Topol and Newman Jewison.

The strength of photographic imagery in the movie of Fiddler begins almost immediately, and to the point; as Topol warms up “Tradition,” Jewison and his editors (Robert Lawrence and Anthony Gibbs) cut, in rhythm, to Anatekva’s various articles of faith as well as to the villagers themselves, engaged in their respective tasks. Not quite the image of the circle as enacted by the company on the stage, but each rapidly glimpsed clip sets, and reinforces, the theme of communal traditions as the glue that allows those in the Russian Pale of Settlement “to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking [their] neck[s].” Nowhere in the show, or the movie, of course, do the authors (Joseph Stein in his book and screenplay, Bock and Harnick in their score and, although un-involved with the movie, Jerry Robbins) suggest that the bending of ritual leads to the eventual expulsion of Anatekva’s Jews. It’s all of a piece: The advent of 20th century modernity and czarist anti-Semitism, conspiring by accident to alter the face, and form, of institutional observance. Tevye, seemingly the least hidebound of the older Anatevkans, bends, as he says, only so far. And although he is unwilling to break entirely, even he softens enough by the end to at least express his parting concern for his wayward daughter Chava, if only through the intermediary of his eldest, Tzeitl.

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Topol, that “huge dancing bear of a man,” singing “Tradition.”

The one, indispensable, element of the movie’s strength must be accounted the performance of (Chaim) Topol as Tevye. As a Sabra the actor was, in common with many of his fellow Israelis of the time, not especially attuned to Yiddishkayt. (Indeed, many were entirely antipathetic.) But Topol’s size, his vigor, his warmth and his courage — as much as, when compared to that of Mostel, his smaller but no less compelling theatrical presence — bring him closer to us, and perhaps even to Sholem Aleichem. Pauline Kael, in her review of the movie, which she called “the most powerful movie musical ever made,” referred to Topol as “a huge dancing bear of a man.” That’s just about perfect, I think. Although the then-35-year-old actor was (if only slightly) younger than Zero Mostel when he first assayed the role, he carries with him an authority, and an expansiveness, that goes far beyond the touches of gray in his hair and beard. And while he is a far more handsome man than Mostel, sings better and more easily attains the higher notes without noticeable strain, what’s essential, even elemental, about Topol is the sense he projects of a man who, while firmly affixed to the appurtenances of his faith, is capable of elasticity — the flexibility a plant, however well rooted, needs to survive.†

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The lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the composer (Jerry Bock)

Essential, too, are the songs by Bock and Harnick. It is not merely fashionable to dismiss them; most of the show’s original reviews expressed reservations (is that the polite term?) about this immensely treasurable score. But as much as Sholem Aleichem himself, the Fiddler songs are inextricably linked to the show’s sense of identity, its abundant charm and humor, and its remarkable power. Bock, one of his era’s most accomplished musical dramatists, as at home in New York’s Tenderloin as in Hungarian milieu of 1930s She Loves Me, steeped himself in Yiddish folk melody and klezmer, and refracted it through the prism of his own exceptional composition acumen. While the ultimate tone of, and concept for, Fiddler (then called Tevye) was not set during much of the writing process there is in Bock’s supple, often yearning, melodies the concert of the shtetl, at once vigorous and elegiac. And they are perfectly complemented by Harnick’s alternately playful, moving, direct and ruefully funny lyrics all of which seem, as he said of his experience wedding his words to Bock’s music for “Sunrise, Sunset,” to “crystallize on the music,” as though there could be no other possible lyrics to any of those tunes. (Although there were, reportedly, dozens of attempts for every song that finally placed.) I’ve noted this before, but I think it bears repeating: If you think evoking Sholem Aleichem’s people, and place, and doing so while keeping in your mind the correct rhythms and cadences, and the needs of the performers, and making the humor or the pathos land properly and effectively on 1,500 minds and hearts and pairs of ears hearing them for the first time, is easy, then go ahead: You write something as effective as “Tradition” or “Anatevka.” I’ll wait.

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Norma Crane (Golde) and the Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon (Yente the Matchmaker). Note Picon’s playful signature.

Kael, who loved the movie in spite of what she saw as the “squareness” of Jewison’s direction and the (to her) Broadway jokes and disposable songs, nevertheless carped about the performance of Molly Picon as Yente the Matchmaker. For all her gifts, Kael sometimes seemed to go to inordinate lengths to separate herself from her own Jewishness. I don’t mean her less than laudatory remarks about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (with many of which I agreed — not least her complaints about its sheer, numbing length — but which got her in a lot of hot water with some readers and colleagues); I refer instead to her rejection of some of the richer veins of humor which American show business has accepted as a delicious gift from its creative Jews but which, for Kael, smacked either of special pleading or of unconscious self-abasement. She was hardly alone in this. Indeed, as Solomon points out in Wonder of Wonders, resistance to, and rejection of, Yiddish theatrical traditions lies at the heart of controversies that attended every mid-century attempt to place Sholem Aleichem’s stories on the stage; second and third generations of Jewish-Americans didn’t want all that schmaltz and inflection with which their parents and grandparents cluttered up a brave new assimilationist world. So, nu? But Yente — her very name a Yiddish convention — is, while admittedly an invention of the show’s book writer Joseph Stein, very much a part of the soil of the shtetl — indeed, its soul — at least as delineated by the creative team that put the show together. Even granted Robbins’ understandable aversion, as Solomon also tells us, to making his Sholem Aleichem musical The Return of the Goldbergs, who better to embody Yente’s very yenteism than Picon? As the one-time, undisputed queen of the Yiddish theatre (although when she began she neither spoke nor understood Yiddish) Picon knew this woman in her very bones; the kvetching and kvelling, the self-martyring geshrais, the constant smug (and self-justifying) nudzhnikness of a woman who is despaired of but never entirely dismissed (all those children to be wed!) Picon’s performance, always pleasurable, is especially — sorry, it’s the only word that will do — piquant, now that Molly herself is no longer with us.

No such grumbles greeted Norma Crane’s Golde, although Kael did complain that the role was under-written. Perhaps. But so is everyone’s, aside from Tevye; after all, the show is not called Hello, Golde! What Crane achieves in her limited screen-time is a highly believable portrait of a careworn, un-lettered woman of the earth with a great deal of love but no time for sentiment. Crane (who died, shockingly young, of breast cancer, three years after the movie opened) had an almost Classical beauty, but hers is no glamour-puss Golde. No-nonsense, she bears her husband’s mischievous wiles as she does her daughters’ unruliness: with a shrug, an exasperated bark, or a sighing aside (“You can die from such a man…”) Yet Crane’s strength of character is not merely admirable, it’s necessary. How else could a woman like her bear the vicissitudes of that life? And when she breaks, after Tevye orders her on the road to forget her middle child Chava, the effect of her normally ram-rod straight body, black-clad as though in mourning and whipped by the winter wind, bent double in hopeless despair, is harrowing.

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As Tzeitl, the eldest of the three marriageable daughters (the youngest pair are marginal) the curiously beautiful Rosalind Harris makes an impression that can remain with you a lifetime. At a precocious 20 when the film was made, Harris carries herself with both a wry dignity and an open honesty of expression that she lingers in your memory long after Tzeitl’s major part in the family drama is over. And as her nebbishy swain Motel, the adorably tongue-tied Leonard Frey is utterly endearing. Frey, who played the Rabbi’s son Mendl in the 1964 production (and who would eventually graduate to Motel on stage) had just come off reprising his definitive Harold in the movie of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Here, he is scarcely recognizable as the actor who portrayed that acid-tonged, “32-year old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.” He nabbed an Academy Award® nomination for Motel (as Topol did for his Tevye) and one would have thought that, if he could successfully negotiate those two, wildly disparate, roles, the world should have been open to him. (Alas, it wasn’t, and he succumbed to AIDS at 50, in 1988, leaving behind the sense that an important career had, somehow, been thwarted aborning. By homophobia? Perhaps. Or maybe just the usual Hollywood myopia.) When he finds his voice at last, his serenading of Harris, and their delighted dance to “Wonder of Wonders” is one of the most rapturous numbers of its kind ever filmed.

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Bending, but not breaking: Perchik (Michael Glaser), Hodel (Michele Marsh) receive Tevye’s permission, and his blessing.

Michele Marsh, as Hodel, is a touch too conventionally cute, but she does convey the spirited independence of the role and sings a notably beautiful, poignant “Far from the Home I Love.” Hodel’s vis-a-vis, Perchik, is a bit of a pill in his ardent Socialist mania, which could make him a self-righteous boor in the wrong hands. Blessedly, Michael Glaser (later, as Paul Michael Glaser, the Starsky of television’s Starsky and Hutch) brings a kind of thoughtless, arrogant charm to the part, making Hodel’s eventual willingness to follow him as far as Siberia at least explicable.‡

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Neva Small as Chava.

The third daughter, Chava is, in her way, crucial to the success of the narrative.  Her determination to not merely throw over tradition for love but to engage in apostasy, risking the eternal enmity and alienation of her beloved family and the entire Jewish circle of Anatevka, must be absolutely grounded or the increasingly troubling arc of the play’s darker second act can topple off its delicately balanced wheels. In Neva Small, Jewison found his ideal. In each of the show’s succeeding marriage stories, one gets the sense that these girls have been paying sharper attention to Tevye’s warm interior than his gruff exterior, and play off it in ways that place their father in ironic binds. But in the Chava story, that reading has not been nearly close enough; she pushes back harder, and more devastatingly, than she knows. Small somehow manages to embody both her father’s idealized vision of her (his “little bird,” his cherished Chavelah) and the less perfect self of reality. Inquisitive, keen, at once guarded and openhearted, Small’s face radiates intelligence and love in equal measure, making Chava’s eventual estrangement (and Tevye’s anguish) deeply, personally, traumatic.

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Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

The smaller roles were cast with similar care. Zvee Scooler, who played the innkeeper for the entire seven-year run of the play, makes a superb Rabbi. His gaunt, moving face and his gentle gravitas do much, I think, to take the curse off a role some Jewish commentators felt was too condescendingly comic on Broadway. Paul Mann’s Lazar Wolf, with his charmingly Santa Claus-like mien, is nicely judged as well, neither as boorish as Tevye at first believes nor as completely docile in the face of marital defeat as the peripatetic dairyman might hope. Louis Zorich likewise does wonders with the off-handedly anti-Semitic Constable who — in a scene added by Stein to the screenplay — makes agonizingly clear what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Well, maybe not “good” so much as halfway decent.)§ And the Welsh singer Ruth Madoc is an unforgettable Fruma-Sarah in the inspired dream sequence, wildly funny in her uncannily witchy ululations.

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“The Dream”: Tevye and Golde menaced by Fruma- Sarah (Ruth Madoc.)

Which brings us rather nicely around to the strengths of Jewison’s imagery. Onstage, “The Dream” leaps from one form of heightened theatricality (Aronsons’ set) to another (folk-inspired ghost story.) In the movie the effect of the humor, and the quality of its tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness, in the midst of the filmmaker’s “square,” quotidian visual palette, is even stronger, and funnier. (There’s a shot of Topol reacting to Fruma-Sarah with knock-kneed terror that is especially uproarious.) It’s a folk nightmare, the colors de-saturated, the costumes and make-up both over-the-top and eerie. That push-pull of the pragmatic and the fantastic is also true of the sudden distancing effect Jewison goes in for when Tevye confronts his daughters’ romantic yearnings: Topol is seen at a vast remove, suspended in agrarian space between his core beliefs and his overmastering love for his children. But when he speaks/sings, “Look at my daughter’s eyes…” the director immediately closes on those expressive orbs, bringing Tevye, and us, instantly back to the crux of the material’s emotional center. Likewise, the gorgeously realized “Chava Ballet” is rendered as a hallucination-like reverie, Tevye’s sense of his immediate world crumbling in the face not only of modernity but of the inevitable loss a parent experiences when his children move, as they must, away from his sphere of influence, and love.

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The “Chava Ballet.”

In his quest to hone Fiddler to its essentials, the director Jerry Robbins left the choreographer Jerome Robbins somewhat high and dry; that “Chava Ballet” arrived at its effective abbreviation only after a much longer, more frenzied and frightening, number outstayed its welcome. But Robbins at least had a first act topper in the famed “Bottle Dance” during Tzeitl’s nuptials. Inspired by a trick he witnessed a red-bearded wedding guest perform at two different Jewish weddings, the dance has since become so much a part of the Fiddler ethos that many assume it’s an actual freylekh. Having been fired from the movie of West Side Story for the very deliberateness that led his theatrical collaborators to despair but which enhanced his unique staging, Robbins was never truly considered to helm the movie of his most successful stage musical, so it was up to his assistant, Tom Abbott, to re-create the original choreography, and it’s nowhere more ebullient or felicitous as during the wedding. Not only the sinuous “Bottle Dance” itself but the entire sequence is informed by Robbins’ meticulousness in recreating the exuberant, uninhibited, even frenetic, merry-making he witnessed at various Jewish weddings preparatory to mounting the show. And it’s here that Jewison makes one of his few missteps. The dance is shot, and edited, too casually, denying us the pleasure of watching those limber bodies going through their joyous paces. This is even more obvious when watching the Canadian Broadcasting documentary about Jewison on the Fiddler DVD, when the CBC’s camera placement during the “Bottle Dance” trumps Jewison’s own. Dance on film is always a sticky problem. Fred Astaire felt, with no small justification, that the camera should be placed at a distance (and not further cluttered up by fancy editing) so the audience could appreciate the footwork. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen concurred, and they never interfere with our enjoyment of, and exultation in, even the most complex numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. So documentary realism does have its limits, especially in musicals.

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Fiddler on the Roof was, seemingly, a tough sell in the mid-1960s. Not only was the material overtly, even proudly, Jewish (as indeed were the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was based) but its action embraced a pogrom and the saddest of all possible climaxes — the enforced expulsion of an entire people. In comfortable, and comforting, hindsight, one can always look back and say, of a hit, “Well, of course…” (I always thought John Simon was being more than slightly disingenuous when he opined during that decade that the most enormous possible sure-fire Broadway hit would be “a big, vulgar musical about black, Jewish homosexuals.” Simon’s target was theatrical parochialism, I know. But let’s not be ridiculous.) No, Fiddler was no sure thing, in 1964 or 1971. What sold it, and continues to sell it, was the collective intelligence, even genius, of its creators as much as — and I would argue, more than — the universality of the underlying material. The unwavering devotion of Robbins, Bock, Harnick, Stein and the original producer Harold Prince to telling this story well, and with scrupulous dedication to its shades of meaning within a specific confluence of humanity, was picked up, and codified, by Jewison & Co. in sumptuous turn. Those final, ineffably moving, images of a new Diaspora infused both with hope (in the amorphous forms of Palestine and America) and hopelessness (in the unutterable grief of the dispossessed that presages the Shoah) contain, in microcosm, everything that made, and makes, Fiddler on the Roof such an imperishable fact of life.

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Exodus: The haunting finale.


* One of my five favorite movies is the 1972 Bob Fosse version of Cabaret, itself, under Harold Prince’s direction, a highly stylized show. But as Fosse and his collaborators re-imagined the material, hewing more closely to the Christopher Isherwood model and throwing out the “book” songs, it’s the exception that proves the rule. Especially as the name most often reported in connection with a movie of Follies is — saints preserve us! —Rob Marshall.

† Topol was the London Tevye in 1967, based in part on the producer Richard Pilbrow’s having seen his 1964 Israeli comedy Sallah (or Shallah Sabbati) and thus expecting to meet much older man. Topol, who had succeeded Bomba Zur as Tevye during the highly successful 1965 Israeli Fiddler, was not what you would call proficient in English before he starred in London, and it’s interesting to compare his performance on the movie soundtrack with that on the ’67 Columbia cast recording, as his inflections in the latter tend to Anglicized pronunciation: “You may ahsk” rather than “You may ask.”

‡Glaser/Perchik lost out on a solo in the movie. Motel’s original number during rehearsals for, and early performances of, the show (“Now I Have Everything”) was eventually ceded to Bert Convy’s Perchik but Jewison didn’t think it right for the movie. Jerry Bock’s replacement melody, “Any Day Now,” is among the finest and most rousingly apposite he ever composed, and Harnick’s lyrics are in admirably quirky character. But the moment is a bit of a dead-end, and it’s probably just as well the number was cut. You can hear it, in Glaser’s somewhat over-taxed rendition, on the Fiddler soundtrack CD and the DVD.

§ Zorich is probably best known for his role on Mad About You as Paul Reiser’s father Burt. From conductor of pogroms to befuddled Jewish pater familias — that’s one hell of a range.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

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By Scott Ross

One of the most beautiful movie musicals ever made. The staggeringly successful Broadway original received splendid screen transference from the director, Norman Jewison (who, despite his name, and the content of this movie, is Gentile). Most of the great Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score was retained although, of necessity, the show’s vividly theatrical, Chagal-inspired Jerome Robbins direction and Boris Aronson sets were not. (Robbins’ original choreography was recreated for by his long-time assistant Tom Abbott.) The movie is simply a different animal, a vibrant re-creation of Russian stetl life before the Revolution, and the Eastern European locations, shot by Oswald Morris, are ravishing.

Casting the Israeli actor Topol as Tevye the milkman was inspired; he’s so virile and appealing, so utterly right, you become aware of how disastrous the role’s originator, the great but oversized Zero Mostel, would have been in the movie. (Topol played the lead in the West End production.) Norma Crane is the steel-backed yet palpably warm Golde; Molly Picon brings a bit of classic Yiddish theatre to the meddlesome matchmaker Yenta; the late Leonard Frey is the sweetly timid Motel Zamzoil; and the wonderful Rosalind Harris plays the family’s eldest daughter. Curiously, while the source material had for many years the longest run of any Broadway show, the movie was not as correspondingly successful.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross


A later, more detailed, analysis from 2014

https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/a-much-bigger-circle-fiddler-on-the-roof-1971-2/