A kingly crown to gain: “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

John Huston famously wanted to make an adaptation of the 1888 Kipling story in the 1950s, to star Bogart and Gable as those incorrigible adventurers “Peachy” Carnahan and Daniel Dravot. He was ultimately persuaded to cast British actors in British roles — which seems so obvious an idea its efficacy shouldn’t have had to be pointed out to him — and got thespic perfection from Michael Caine and Sean Connery… although, somewhat astoundingly, Caine was slanged at the time for being wholly over-the-top.

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Danny is astounded by the size of Peachy’s ruby, which dwarfs the monster he’s unearthed.

I saw this one on its release and it holds up beautifully four and a half decades later, even if the occasional condescension (the watermelon-eating Indian on the train, for example) and the sticky Imperialist sentiments which nettled me at 14 bother me even more today. Huston and his co-scenarist Gladys Hill do more than honor the source: They make its author one of the stars, in Christopher Plummer’s wholly convincing portrayal. (He was a last-minute substitute for Richard Burton, but I can’t imagine Burton besting Plummer in the part.) The movie has a sweep that is all the more effective now for being real, not computer-generated; the cinematographer was the great Oswald Morris, who in collaboration with Huston provided the luminous images for Moulin Rouge (1952), Beat the Devil (1953), Moby-Dick (1956) and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) as well as providing the pictorial splendors for The Guns of Navarone (1961), Lolita (1962), The Hill (1965), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Oliver! (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Scrooge (1970), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Sleuth (1972), Equus (1977),  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1977), Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), The Dark Crystal (1982) and that most photogenic of John Bond epics The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). But The Man Who Would Be King is not a postcard-picture: However impressive the scenery (Morocco standing in for the Kafiri region of Afghanistan) it’s a desolate kingdom this pair is seeking, perched between forbidding mountains and the desert’s austerity. By the end, Peachy’s desire to make off with the treasure of Sikandergul makes one hell of a lot more sense than Danny’s decision to rule like Alexander, if only because the former at least indicates a possible change of scenery.

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Dravot and Carnahan enjoy chief Ootah’s hospitality.

Whatever the original reviews, I don’t see how either Connery or Caine could be bettered. Each has the humor of his character, as well as that often charmingly formal solemnity which renders the pair’s seriousness of intent at once amusing and grave. And while it’s true that Caine is called upon to be more overtly humorous than Connery, even wildly funny (I’m thinking particularly of the “One, two, three” training scene) he is no less capable than his co-star of gravitas. I think he gets the quiet madness of the character in the framing sequences exactly right, as well as the scenes in the final third of the picture in which he begins to feel Dravot distancing himself from his friend and reacts with, first, soft hurt; later, justified rage; and, at the last, stoic comprehension. And he’s beautifully matched by Connery, in whom the rich Kiplingesque absurdities roll over the tongue like a savored entrée, yet for whom the eventual hubris, and the graceful courage with which its consequences are met, are entirely correct.

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Huston, flanked by Saeed Jaffrey, Connery and Caine.

One of the more surprising pleasures of the movie is its rich score by Maurice Jarre, never a favorite composer of mine, Lawrence of Arabia notwithstanding. His work tends toward either the annoyingly esoteric (Is Paris Burning?, Ryan’s Daughter, The Mosquito Coast and the deeply perplexing Witness: Why the synthesizer in a story set among the Amish?) or romanticism so lush as to become self-parody (Doctor Zhivago, Gorillas in the Mist). Only occasionally did Jarre fulfill the promise of Lawrence, as with his klezmer-accented work for Paul Mazursky on Enemies, a love story and his splendid compositions here, anchored to the Irish song “The Minstrel Boy” much as he tied Lawrence to Kenneth Alford’s war march “The Voice of the Guns.” (Jarre combined the tune for “Minstrel Boy” with Reginald Heber’s lyrics for the rather frighteningly militaristic hymn “The Son of God Goes Forth to War,” a song that rivals “Onward Christian Soldiers” for sectarian bloodthirstiness.) Elsewhere Jarre catches the warm rhythms of India, the sere wastelands of Kafiristan and the conflicting passions of the characters, nicely complementing Huston’s images without competing with them for our attention.

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The eyes of age: Karroom Ben Bouih’s as the Kafu Selim

The Man Who Would Be King is as demonstrably a John Huston picture as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for, as so often in Huston, the quest ends in disaster, yet the pursuit itself reveals his characters’ essences: Peachy’s for personal gain, Dravot’s for something outside himself, yet withal in both resides a decency belied by their roguish miens. They even attain a kind of rough poetry, as with Daniel’s apology to Peachy, and the mad Carnahan’s description of Dravot’s fall — there’s nothing like it in Kipling, and it’s as memorable in its modest way as Bogart’s Shakespearean paraphrase at the end of The Maltese Falcon. Huston and Hill also expand, intelligently, on the Masonry of the Kipling, bringing it to a logical, if grandiose, conclusion. When Huston stages an epic sequence, as in the first of his heroes’ battles, he makes it intensely memorable by stopping it before it can truly begin, as both sides wait in prayerful solicitude of the line of elderly priests walking between them as later, in the midst of the protagonists’ intended escape, their treasure, like that of the prospectors in Sierra Madre, dissolves to nothing, here spilling from the horses’ backs to drop clangingly down the steep sides of a mountain hill.

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Son of Alexander: Jaffrey, Caine and Connery at the moment of revelation.

Whether by dint of his nature or the landscape, Huston’s approach to an epic structure is intimate; we remember the faces as much as the big set-pieces: Connery’s, Caine’s and Plummer’s, but also Saeed Jaffrey’s as the sweet and absurdly loyal Billy Fish, Shakira Caine’s as the ethereally beautiful and terrified Roxanne (the terror was real — she wasn’t an actress, and didn’t know what to do), Doghmi Larbi’s as the cowardly chieftan Ootah, and, especially, the centenarian Karroom Ben Bouih’s as the ancient priest Kafu Selim. The apt and, where necessary, exquisite art direction by Alexandre Trauner with Tony Inglis and Peter James is an immeasurable aid (Trauner designed Danny’s crown) as is Russell Lloyd’s alternatively leisured and kinetic editing, and Edith Head provided her usual supple costumes — like Huston’s own designs, always firmly in character.

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Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Pastiche génial: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

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By Scott Ross

A number of years ago Andre Previn told of overhearing a disgruntled patron at Tom Stoppard’s Travesties say to his wife as they were walking out, “I don’t see what’s so great about that play — it’s just a pistache!”

Ever since, I’ve thought that anonymous theatregoer’s malapropism has an even more charming quality than the word he meant, and “pistache” has become my preferred private term for something that goes beyond pastiche to create a unique work evoking the art of others, invoking a mix of historical figures to rub shoulders with fictitious ones, and fashioning from the mix a creation which goes far beyond mere cleverness or canny imitation; E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime perhaps represents the apogee of this ideal. And while Nicholas Meyer did not invent the Sherlock Holmes pastiche (there had been others: The Holmes/Jack-the-Ripper picture A Study in Terror in 1965, and some Nero Wolfe stories as far back as the 1940s) his 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was surely the most successful to then, a movie adaptation virtually guaranteed by that success.

Holmes is, in a way, a natural for such enterprises; the Victorian era is so stuffed with remarkable personages, from the Queen herself, who makes a memorable appearance in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, to “Saucy Jacky.” (See also a later entry in the cinematic canon, the 1979 Murder by Decree, with Christopher Plummer a surprisingly outraged and passionate Holmes.) Indeed, after so cunningly yoking Holmes to Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Meyer conjured up an entire raft of contemporaneous figures of the Victorian theatre (G.B. Shaw, Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, W.S. Gilbert, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Oscar Wilde) for The West End Horror, his somber 1976 follow-up. And if they are rather more peripheral to that narrative than Freud is to its predecessor, they add immeasurably to the author’s conjuring of the milieu into which Holmes and Watson immerse themselves.

Other writers’ Holmesian pastiches have embraced such historical personae as Alfred Dreyfus (The Prisoner of the Devil by Michael Hardwick), Jack again (Michael Dibdin’s brief and disturbing The Last Sherlock Holmes Story), the young Bertrand Russell (The Case of the Philosopher’s Ring by Randall Collins) and Charles Dickens (Stephen Fry’s “The Adventure of the Laughing Jarvey” — and yes, both Fry and I are keenly aware that Dickens represents an anachronism; you’ll just have to trust us both on this one) as well as fictional counterparts like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll (in Loren D. Estelman’s two short and not wholly satisfying Sherlock Holmes vs. novels), Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu Manchu (in the much finer Ten Years Beyond Baker Street by Cay Van Ash) and even several entries revolving around Professor Moriarty. And in the early Aughts, two Holmes pastiches by important writers arrived within a year of each other: Michael Chabon’s portentously titled The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. The Cullins (later filmed under the insipid title Mr. Holmes) is completely satisfying while the Chabon is oblique and, as seems increasingly and depressingly true of this writer, all too satisfied with itself.

Author Nicholas Meyer

Only Meyer — whose Holmes grappled with the Phantom of the Opera in 1993 and is about to embark on an adventure concerning the spurious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in October — really delivers the goods. He is pretty obviously steeped in what is somewhat stuffily and rather over-protectively referred to as “the Canon,” and his evocation of Conan Doyle’s style has the ring of perfect mimesis.* Not only does Meyer get Conan Doyle’s style down, in his descriptive prose, his dialogue and his wit, but in his thoughtfulness as well: In Meyer, Watson’s ruminations have depth and philosophical gravitas. They are the furthest thing from the hackery of mere connective literary tissue.

Meyer’s facility served him well when it came to re-imagining The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as a screenplay. Although there is nothing in the slightest wrong with the book, it does lack a certain glamour, and there is very little in it that feels light — two essentials for successful escapist fare at the movies, then as now. The two central plot strands of the novel (Holmes being tricked to Vienna for treatment by Freud of his cocaine addiction, and the abduction, escape and re-abduction of a blameless young woman) remain. The more ominous aspect — the fraudulent acquisition of an enormous supply of armaments with which the Kaiser may start a world war, 20 years in advance of that eventual conflagration — the filmmakers jettisoned, perhaps wisely; it’s more a literary conceit than a cinematic one, both darker and, because more abstract, less felicitous to the production of mass entertainment. For color, Meyer and his director, the highly variable Herbert Ross, made the abductee a noted theatrical figure, and added an unscrupulous Pasha and a mysterious, nasty little accomplice who nearly lures Holmes, Freud and Watson to their violent deaths. They also revised the book’s ending, embroidering an intriguingly romantic note to the close, and enriched, in an ingenious fashion, the chief reasons for Holmes’ sense of justice, his addiction and his obsession with Moriarty. Indeed, when you re-read the novel after seeing the picture you may,  during Homes’ final hypnotic state, think, “God, Meyer — you couldn’t see it, but you were so close!

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One of the great pleasures of revisiting The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in its Shout! Factory Blu-Ray edition is relishing the beauty of Oswald Morris’ deep, somewhat muted cinematography, its atmosphere enriched immeasurably by Ken Adam’s opulent production design. The picture was (wisely, I think) shot in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio rather than in 2:35:1 widescreen; the higher frame allows for a fullness of image denied the wider screen, and Morris’ are exceptionally rich even when he shoots through gauze, as he does rather noticeably whenever Vanessa Redgrave is on-screen. Another is the sheer wit and intelligence of a movie intended solely as light popular escapist fare, something American culture has lost, seemingly without hope of retrieval: Imagine even a modestly budgeted studio movie today, outside of science fiction, containing a casual use of the word “ratiocination.”

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As in 1976, the first glimpse of Nicol Williamson as Holmes is startling, used as we were then to seeing actors like Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, John Neville and Robert Stephens — or even Douglas Wilmer, in Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother — with the requisite cragginess to evoke Sidney Paget’s Strand Magazine illustrations (themselves cannily reproduced in the opening titles); we were greeted instead by a tall Scot with resolutely regular features. The moment he begins to speak, however, babbling at Robert Duvall’s Watson about the pervading evil of Moriarty with sweaty, cocaine-induced mania, all doubts are cheerfully cast aside. We can relax; we’re in good hands. A few similar doubts lingered about Duvall who, although he looks splendidly Wastonian, intones his initial lines in a somewhat studied, self-consciously Oxfordian accent. Yet this too becomes, like Williamson’s famously glottal vocal timbre, merely a matter of difference: This is not going to be a repetition of that famous double-act of clipped Rathbone and bumbling Nigel Bruce. Only once does this Watson make an observation, concerning a trail of long-stemmed lilies (“Perhaps she was wearing them in her hair”) of the type that has so often made the good doctor a figure of ridicule. I’ve always thought the concept of the blundering Watson a brazenly false one; if the doctor was as asinine a fuddlehead as Bruce portrayed him, would a man as bright and acerbic as Holmes have bothered with him for a minute?

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No uncertainty, however brief, attached itself to Alan Arkin’s extraordinary performance as Freud then, or does so now. Whether Freud was as warm as Arkin’s portrayal renders him is less important than the intelligence and honor with which this treasurable actor embodies him. And with his black beard and stylish wig, Arkin has never cut so attractive a figure as he does here. The picture’s most cunning bit of casting, however, is that of Laurence Olivier as a disheveled, timorous and inconsequential Moriarty. Olivier had lived so long with the mantle “Greatest Actor in the World” attached to him that it was easy to forget in those days what a splendid comedian he could be, perhaps especially since his most recent screen appearance at the time was as the quietly terrifying old Nazi of Marathon Man.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As Fraulein Deveraux, the victim of the kidnap plot, Redgrave is a dream of beauty, even when ravaged by captivity and the effects of forced addiction. Long before her actual appearance we glimpse her, in a Mucha-like poster reminiscent of that Art Nouveau master’s depictions of Sara Bernhardt, and the comparison suits her perfectly, as do those lilies the character adores. I have long thought Redgrave the most ethereal of all actresses, and she floats through The Seven-Per-Cent Solution like a goddess of unearthly pulchritude. I don’t know how so serious an actor is able to speak a line like, “A woman as beautiful as I, has seen everything fearful by age seventeen” without blushing in embarrassment, much less making us believe she believes it, and the small cry Redgrave gives when she realizes she has been made an addict again contains within it whole worlds of despairing disbelief.

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The supporting roles are almost too well cast, leaving us wanting far more of such radiant figures as Samantha Eggar (Mrs. Watson), Georgia Brown (Mrs. Freud), Anna Quayle (as the maid Frida) and, although he is both warmer and less corpulent than Conan Doyle’s description, Charles Gray as Mycroft. Joel Grey, who has only a handful of brief lines, makes a marvelously off-center figure of mystery as the homicidal little brigand, Jeremy Kemp is an appropriately haughty and sneering villain, and Régine gets to sing a tantalizing bit of the Stephen Sondheim “Madame’s Song,” known after its more fulsome appearance in Side by Side by Sondheim as “I Never Do Anything Twice.” (Kemp, interestingly, later played the despicable Dr. Roylott in the “Speckled Band” episode of the Jeremy Brett Holmes series, and the name “Roylott” is invoked here as well, although in a far less sinister context.) And if Watson was at pains to tell us that the redoubtable Toby was not, as he is depicted here, a bloodhound, the magnificent beast who portrays him in the picture performs the role so well he may surely be excused the fact of his breed.

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The great Richard Amsel’s initial pass on the Muchaesque poster art. He would later place Redgrave above Williamson and Arkin, remove Olivier’s face in favor of just his inscrutable hooded eyes, and take away the tempter’s cup.

Ross, who could be terribly good when he wasn’t indulging in (highly suspicious) gay-baiting, or cranking out bad Neil Simon adaptations, proves wholly up to the task here, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution looks as good as any American movie of its time. The picture’s art director (Peter Lamont) and costume designer (Alan Barrett) surely share in that credit, and while I don’t know who designed the cocaine-withdrawal nightmares Williamson’s Holmes endures, I suspect Ken Adam had something to do with it. In any case, Meyer’s conception is both disturbing and witty, calling forth as it does surrealist images from not only The Hound of the Baskervilles but “The Red-Headed League” and “The Speckled Band,” Roylott’s Indian swamp adder turning into Moriarty, an effect accomplished by Chris Barnes with rapid “subliminal” cutting. (Although no especial fan of c.g.i. myself, I imagine this might be more satisfyingly done today with computer animation.) Equally effective is the marvelous score by John Addison, anchored to an appropriate —  and appropriately melancholy — violin theme, a secondary Viennese waltz which can when necessary mutate into a more menacing state, and a tertiary Ottoman theme played on what I assume is a qanun or something very like. Astonishingly, this delightful score was only released at the time on vinyl in a composer’s LP, which was later transferred to CD along with Addison’s delicious score for Sleuth, but has never been given an official release.

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Holmes in the extremis of withdrawal.

In an otherwise curiously apologetic interview on the Shout! release, Nicholas Meyer claims credit for casting Duvall, certain the actor would provide to the picture an anti-Nigel Bruce Watson. But I am not sure for what, given the splendor both of this movie and his own contributions to it, Meyer could possibly feel the need to apologize; this almost profligately entertaining pistache owes him everything.


*Fry’s effort is the only one I’ve encountered that can truly challenge Meyer, leaving one to wish he would consider a full-length Holmesian adventure. But I strongly suspect that, for Fry, “The Laughing Jarvey” was the literary equivalent of a schoolboy jape, never to be repeated.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Here is My Heart… On My Sleeve, Where You Can’t Miss It: “Moulin Rouge” (1952)

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By Scott Ross

Moulin Rouge (1952) is one of the most exquisitely beautiful movies of its time — 65 years after its release its lush images and extraordinary color palette pop off the screen. It’s daringly shot and edited, in a manner that, for a contemporary viewer, feels remarkably modern. (Bob Fosse modeled his style in Cabaret in part on John Huston’s vivid depiction of chic Parisian decadence here, particularly in the exuberant cancan sequence near the beginning.)* Yet for all of its thick surface veneer, its bold imagery and twitting of the then-current Production Code ethos, and the sparkle of its verbal aperçus, it’s a resolutely square movie; its narrative arc, and much of its dialogue, is rigidly pedestrian, propelled by the hoariest of “biopic” clichés. There’s enough dazzle in the picture for any ten, more conventional-looking, movies, but the center somehow cannot hold; things do not so much fall apart as float away.

Huston, himself a failed artist, clearly intended to evoke not merely La Belle Époque, but the period as refracted through Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and lithographs, and the movie succeeds best as a kind of animated Lautrec tableau, by turns garish and diffused. Working with the superb British cinematographer Oswald Morris, the director frames every shot as a living work of art, yet there’s nothing fussy about their approach. The long opening sequence at the Moulin Rouge has exactly the right haze about it, a chiaroscuro effect of rambunctious high-life as seen through a fog of cigar smoke and cheap liquor. There are also a pair of tours through Lautrec’s artwork, set to music, the first of which is astonishingly avant-garde for 1952; they give little pocket histories of the artist’s development while at the same time exposing images which, because they are the work of an established master, carry the imprimatur of high culture even as they depict the sort of then-shocking eroticism no Western filmmaker could hope to replicate on a screen for at least another 15 or 20 years. I don’t think this is merely representational, or in any way an accident. Huston was stretching the limits of what was acceptable to a mass audience — and to the official expurgators of popular art. One can only imagine the consternation of the Breen Office when they got a look at it.

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Gabor as Jane Avril

If we judged a movie solely on its mise-en-scène, Moulin Rouge could be counted one of the most successful pictures ever made. Alas, narrative art requires more of its makers than the deliverance of arresting imagery, and it’s in the human elements that the picture falters. Huston and Anthony Veiller, who wrote the screenplay, might have been better served by concocting their own fiction; as it was they were dealing with established biography (or, in this case, fictionalized biography; the source was Pierre La Mure’s eponymous novel) and had to focus their narrative on Lautrec’s experience. It takes nothing from the pathos of that life to note that the story, such as it is, involves two tropes, both baldly overstated in words: That of the misunderstood artist, and of the man of deformity who believes he can never be loved, only scorned or pitied. That’s almost too much for any moviemaker to contend with, and Huston was far from the most sensitive man who ever looked through a viewfinder. Another nearly insurmountable obstacle is the genuinely terrible score by Georges Auric, which telegraphs every emotion (and, in the case of events such as Lautrec’s fateful adolescent accident, every fall) in the worst 1940s Hollywood manner. The song he composed for Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor), “Le long de la Seine” (“It’s April Again”) has a melancholic loveliness, however, graced by a beautiful and appropriately impressionist English lyric by the screenwriter Paul Dehn. It gained great notoriety later as, variously, “Here is My Heart” and “Song from Moulin Rouge,” with appropriately terrible pop lyrics of the sort that used to make record buyers swoon and poets cringe. (If it matters, they were by William Engvick. Who? Exactly.)

It’s difficult for me to judge José Ferrer’s central performance, because he has always seemed to me the sort of insufferable ham who overplays by underplaying. And then there is that voice, a basso without profundity, effective in supporting parts (as in The Caine MutinyLawrence of Arabia and Fedora) but uneasy in a leading role. I still suspect he won that Oscar® for Cyrano by surrounding himself, as producer, with a cast even less heroic and histrionically adept than he was. Colette Marchand got herself an Academy Award® nomination for playing the object of Laurtrec’s passions, but she’s either purring duplicitously or screeching with rage; she has no middle range. (It doesn’t help that her role devolves into that of a Gallic Bette Davis — in De servitude humaine, perhaps.) Gabor somehow got second billing for an extended cameo, and she looks spectacular, but when she opens her mouth on stage and Muriel Smith’s lyric soprano pours out, you don’t believe it for a moment.

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Ferrer as Lautrec

The finest performance in the picture is unquestionably that of the great Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hayam, whom Lautrec desires but cannot admit to loving. Flon does more with less than nearly anyone of the period; her sequence as the impoverished Baroness Nagle in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin is, with Michael Redgrave’s, Katina Paxinou’s and Akim Tamiroff’s, one of four magnificent turns in that extravagantly entertaining mélange without which you cannot quite imagine the picture. With Flon the slightest look, the merest gesture, the simplest intonation reveal more than most actors can convey in ten pages of dialogue. Among the smaller roles, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee show up (although not in the same scenes) as, respectively, Mryiamme’s would-be paramour and the pointillist Georges Seurat, later of course to become the subject of a vastly superior dramatic rumination on art and artists by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim.

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Suzanne Flon

Ralph Kamplen’s occasionally aggressive editing, Julia Squire’s delicious costumes, and the mouth-watering décor by Marcel Vertès and Paul Sheriff could scarcely be bettered, and the splendid photographer Eliot Elisofon was credited as “special color consultant.” Vertès and Sheriff duly won Academy Awards®; Morris, whose color work here stands with the finest ever achieved in a motion picture, was not even nominated.

There’s a metaphor in that somewhere, or maybe a lesson. And, like the articulated themes of Moulin Rouge itself, one probably too obvious to state outright.

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The cancan at Moulin Rouge in full roar.

*Although this has, to my knowledge, never been remarked on, Fosse’s juxtaposition of a satirical Kit Kat Klub schuhplattler with a brutal Nazi street beating seems to have been influenced by a similar sequence in the 1948 movie of Lillian Hellman’s play Another Part of the Forest.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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By Scott Ross

Those born after 1980 will scarcely credit it, but there was a time when the Hollywood studios did not routinely program huge, “high-concept,” multi-million-dollar action spectaculars as their main source of revenue. Smaller movies, with life-sized (as opposed to larger-than-) characters, were the norm. The spectaculars were fewer and further between — and even they had a peculiar tendency to be intelligent. These movies were made, as David Denby noted in his review of the 1987 reissue of The Manchurian Candidate, in another country, one where it was still possible to present a reasonably complex narrative without talking down to a media-surfeited, cranially-stunted audience, here and abroad. It was that country, in the year of my birth, which produced The Guns of Navarone.

I first saw the picture on television, in the early ’70s; that was in another country, too, one where the networks and local affiliates actually deigned to air movies (including many “older” titles like this one) on a regular basis, helping engender an interest, among young people like myself, in film. Although it was, perforce, in pan-and-scan format — there were at the time actual FCC rules in force prohibiting the screening of widescreen images on television — and, in our home, in black-and-white — the movie, as with so many one encounters during puberty and early adolescence, made a marked impression on me. The characters were vivid, the big set pieces excruciatingly tense, and there were odd curlicues that remained in the memory: The machine-gun appearing from beneath the sails; the shipwreck on the rocks and the subsequent perilous climb; the little girl holding a bouquet of flowers; the revelation of Anna’s treachery; the sudden, and shocking, Quisling behavior before the Germans of Anthony Quinn’s seemingly implacable Andrea.

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Carl Foreman, who both produced the picture and adapted Alistair MacLean’s adventure novel (and who, as a blacklisted scribe, did not receive credit for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai a few years earlier) added two dramatic elements and altered an existing third. In MacLean’s book, there are no conflicts between Andrea, Mallory (Gregory Peck in the movie) and Miller (David Niven); Foreman grafted onto the narrative Miller’s unspoken antagonism toward Mallory, and Andrea’s vow to murder his compatriot, once the war is over, for causing the deaths of his wife and children. In MacLean, it is a male Greek partisan who is, or is suspected of being, the traitor; in Foreman, it is the mute Anna, for whom Mallory develops tender feelings, which dovetails neatly with the Mallory/Miller sub-plot. (It isn’t going too far to call Anna an informer, a special breed of loathsome for any blacklistee.)

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Corporal Miller smells a rat. From left, Irene Papas, James Darren, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Gia Scala, Stanley Baker, Gregory Peck.

In an escapist novel, one can accept the lack of conflict between the leads; in a movie, some sort of complication is almost demanded, in an Aristotelean sense. It was a smart move on Foreman’s part, and he handled the additional dialogue with superb ease and intelligence; the Peck/Niven standoff precedes, and compels, the movie’s most poignant moment, then succeeds it, leading to the seemingly unflappable Mallory’s gesturing with his pistol in Miller’s direction (“You’ve got me in the mood to use this thing, and by God, if you don’t think of something, I’ll use it on you! I mean it!”) Niven’s mounting fury is remarkable to watch, particularly since we don’t expect it of this usually (and uniquely) charming actor, any more than we are fully prepared for a blast of excoriating rage from Peck.

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The marvelous Irene Papas.

Foreman likewise added the fierce but emotionally accessible Marie (the name of Andrea’s off-stage wife in the novel) and cast the great Irene Pappas, whose superb face absolutely sticks with you. (Anna and Marie, neither of whom have counterparts in MacLean, could be said to have sprung from Pilar and Maria of For Whom the Bell Tolls.) If Foreman lost the novel’s moving scene in which the young, injured lieutenant offers himself up as a sacrifice, he gained far more, in the main. That injury is transferred in the movie to Anthony Quinn’s “Lucky,” to whom Peck’s Mallory whispers contradictory information he hopes will be extracted by the Germans; it is this act which enrages the otherwise likable (if occasionally overbearing) Miller.

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Lee Thompson’s direction is, like Alan Osbiston’s editing, straightforward and un-fussy, yet beautifully sustained. Thompson (“Lee-Thompson,” as he was later known) had a knack for keeping as many of his ensemble cast on-screen at the same time as possible, yet the set-ups never feel stagy, or even staged. Oswald Morris’ cinematography is often strikingly effective, particularly in his vivid day-for-night shots, and even the rear-screen projection effects look better than usual, aided as they are by such events as a storm at sea. Dmitri Tiomkin’s main title theme adds an immeasurable kick, but (remarkably, for him) the composer seldom over-stresses or strains for effect. Indeed, it’s notable how often he — or Foreman, or Thompson, or somebody — opted to leave a sequence alone and let the exciting visuals speak for themselves. At the movie’s end, Tiomkin repeats, not the big theme, as might be expected, but the plaintive “Yassou,” heard first in a soft, a cappella choral arrangement, closing the movie on a grace note.

Such poise is something else that separates the country that produced The Guns of Navarone from our own.


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/