Monthly Report: June 2020

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By Scott Ross

Gaily, Gaily (1969) I first saw this one on television (if you remember when each of the three then-major networks ran theatrical movies on a weekly basis, you are officially old) and remember very little about it except that it was loud and sometimes frenetic, that the very young Beau Bridges was appealing, that Brian Keith was his usual splendid self, and that the production design evoking turn-of-the-century Chicago was impressive. Seeing the picture again I note that it is loud and frenetic, that Beau Bridges is appealing, that Brian Keith is… but need I go on? Sometimes, with movies, one’s adolescent memories offer a more reliable guide than might be supposed.

Gaily, Gaily - Bridges, Keith
Considering the gifts of its director, Norman Jewison, and the richness of its nominal source material, there’s absolutely no excuse for Gaily, Gaily‘s being so ephemeral and insignificant. Ben Hecht’s 1962 book of reminiscence is so delightful, so fulsomely reconstructed, so alternately bittersweet and cynical, and so chock-full of possibilities for cinematic adaptation, that the movie’s eschewing nearly every one of them is utterly flabbergasting. The only anecdote Abram S. Ginnes used in his largely witless screenplay — the attempt by a hustling reporter (Keith, in the movie) to abet a quack doctor’s plan of resurrecting a hanged felon via a new miracle injection — is foolishly extended at the climax, in which the dead Bridges gets a shot of the stuff, vibrates wildly on the slab and returns to life. This vitiates the original anecdote, and the movie’s own joke payoff of it. To what end? And what are we to make, at the movie’s finish, of the series of shock-cuts by Jewison revealing the stage-lights and unfinished rafters of the elaborate main whorehouse set?* That it’s all a joke? That nothing is to be believed?

Even Hecht wasn’t that cynical.


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Crack-Up (1946) As a filmmaker, Irving Reis was a great radio director. Crack-Up is a mildly diverting RKO mystery in which you are asked to believe Pat O’Brien as a lecturer on art and Herbert Marshall as a cop. Throughout, the effect of Citizen Kane‘s visual palette on lesser moviemakers is obvious (Orson Welles’ old Mercury stalwarts Erskine Sanford and Ray Collins even show up as two of the villains) but nearly every sequence and shot is over-extended, as if Reis was afraid the proverbial illiterate yokel in the back row wouldn’t be able to follow otherwise. The best things in the picture are a scene between O’Brien and an elderly, cantankerous train station agent (Guy Beach… I think) and a sequence set in a Times Square arcade similar to the one immortalized in The Bandwagon, which also has the virtue of one good punchline, spoken by Harry Monty. Marshall, who lost a leg after being shot in the knee by a sniper during World War I, is required to move, in full-shot, rather more often than seems entirely necessary and in a manner that borders on cruelty. The oddest thing about the movie is the way the otherwise effective Leigh Harline score was mixed, either by the RKO sound editors in 1946 — which seems unlikely — or by whoever prepared this one for home video release; every note is blared at you at double the volume, at least, of the dialogue. Why?


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The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser’s glorious swashbuckler, cut in twain by its producers and wonderful in any format. The StudioCanal Blu-ray is so sumptuous it may make your mouth water.


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

Paper Moon (1973) A gorgeous evocation by Peter Bogdanovich of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the beautiful Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray, that looks even better today than it did 47 years ago. Paramount: Why is this essential 1970s American classic not available on Blu-ray?


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Nickelodeon: Director’s Cut (Black and white) and Original Theatrical Version (1976) A stylish amalgam of two scripts that really didn’t mesh. It’s that, as well as the compromised casting, that keep that kept this entertaining and often delightful picture about the early days of American movies from potential greatness.


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Monster in a Box (1992) As with Jonathan Demme in 1987 (and very much unlike that rank egotist Steven Soderbergh in 1996) the director Nick Broomfield respected his writer and star Spalding Gray, getting out of his way and letting his idiosyncratic style of presentation carry the day.  Although perhaps inevitably none of the movies of his monologues after Swimming to Cambodia had the force and feel of originality that attended that landmark picture, Gray was such a genial, intelligent and almost gleefully neurotic figure that anything he had to say was worth hearing. Here he grapples, almost literally, with the expanding bulk of his first — alas, only — novel, Impossible Vacation while contemplating nirvana of a temporary sort (the Los Angeles sun); deliberate anguish visited, as it so often is, upon others by the United States government (the war in Nicaragua); the less lethal battle of writer and subject; and the elation that quickly turns to despair (Gray’s almost universally-reviled performance as the Stage Manager in the Lincoln Center Our Town). And that Gray can eventually find as well as humor some small comfort in an unscheduled incident during the play’s wrenching final scene of projectile vomiting by the young actor playing Wally Webb (Shane Culkin, older brother of Macauley, if it matters) is somehow entirely unsurprising.


The Bridge on the River Kwai - Hayakawa, Guinness

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) A beautifully observed epic that is, essentially, a chamber play with tragic overtones and which works on several levels: As a straight adventure saga, a stirring prison-break drama, a battle of wills, and a moving meditation on the folly of pride.


Texasville - resizedTexasville (1990) Peter Bogdanovich’s follow-up to his and Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. It doesn’t have the weight or the gravitas of its predecessor, but it doesn’t try to. As with the book on which it’s based the picture is its own shambling, affable self. And like Shorty, Jeff Bridges’ pet Queensland Blue in the story, it asks to be taken not for what it might be, but only as what it is.


Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City (1990)
Picture This

George Hickenlooper’s rather strange documentary about the town that inspired Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and in which Peter Bogdanovich filmed it, and the making of the 1990 Texasville. Timothy Bottoms later claimed he reprised his role as Sonny in the sequel so he could produce this documentary, but aside from some unconvincing ruminations  which seem to be undone by Cybill Shepherd’s spontaneous behavior toward him in front of Hickenlooper’s camera, I could detect little of the bitterness the actor supposedly nurtured toward everyone on Picture Show for their alleged nastiness and lack of professionalism. A couple of Archer City residents grouse, with an inarticulate vehemence that smacks of sheer phoniness, about the production company, but as the town is reaping the financial rewards of hosting a Hollywood crew, that too seems weirdly like a put-up job for the documentarians. The DVD was obviously taken from a video source rather than the original film, and its ugliness as an artifact is mitigated only by the self-effacing charm of Bogdanovich and isolated moments such as those of McMurtry’s mother humorously telling tales on herself.


Hell House - McDowell at the climax

The Legend of Hell House (1973) Perhaps the most genuinely unnerving spook-story of its era. It still packs a wallop.


*A mansion, by the way, whose lush appointments were more likely to be seen in the residence of a Rockefeller than in the digs occupied by a clutch of Second City whores.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Home again, home again: “Texasville” (1990)

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By Scott Ross

Larry McMurtry has made a habit of revisiting the characters of his novels on an irregular basis, and Texasville was the first of three examining the ageing characters of his The Last Picture Show. While that book (his third following Horseman, Pass By which was filmed as Hud) concentrated largely on the hapless romantic Sonny Crawford and saw things mostly through his eyes, Texasville swings the emphasis to Sonny’s best friend Duane Moore (“Jackson” in the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich adaptation of Picture Show) and it’s a canny shift: As Ruth Popper, his onetime married lover observes, Sonny was sad in high school. He’s also a bachelor. Duane, an extrovert who gets depressed and has reason to, is essentially happy. And as a married man with grown and younger children, several lovers in various states of marriage and oil wells that brought him unexpected ’80s wealth and are now bankrupting him, his life is intrinsically more complicated than Sonny’s, and with more characters to bang up against.

The book, which like the movie is set in 1984, has an antic, satirical tone very much at odds with the more somber realities of The Last Picture Show, although its core is deadly serious: Aside from Duane’s impending financial ruin and the recurrent question of whether he can hold onto his decades-long marriage with the wry, T-shirt slogan-wearing Karla, the town itself is facing both an uncertain future and an impending centennial celebration; Sonny seems to be drifting into a kind of dreamy madness centered around a past that has been dead for years; and Jacy Farrow, the bored and wealthy flirt who upset both Duane’s existence and Sonny’s in 1954 (’51 in the movie), has returned following the accidental death in Europe of her young son.

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There was a lot to get into the narrative — McMurtry’s novel is 600 pages — and Bogdanovich, returning to the characters he rendered so vividly in The Last Picture Show, did honor both to them and to the book, although he had to cut nearly a half-hour from the release print, which he restored in 1992 for a Movie Channel airing. (The missing footage, alas, is not included, even as deleted scenes or extras, on the old MGM Home Video DVD, the only available version.) The writer-director even improved upon the original in not depicting Duane and Karla’s pubescent twins as the budding psychopaths of the novel, children so horrific in every way that the reader cannot comprehend how their parents have not had them ritually slaughtered as a warning to other whelps of Satan.

Aside from Sam Bottoms and Ben Johnson, whose characters died during the action of The Last Picture Show, and Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom (she and her husband were killed in a private plane crash between books) all the major players returned for Texasville: Jeff Bridges as Duane, Cybill Shepherd as Jacy, Timothy Bottoms as Sonny, Cloris Leachman as Ruth, Randy Quaid as Lester Marlow and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, and it will surprise no one that they were as effective in their roles in 1990 as they were in 1971, Bridges in particular, and not merely because he quite obviously gained a great deal of weight to play the middle-aged Duane. He uses the extra padding in his walk, which, humorously, lies somewhere between a macho Texas strut and a waddle. Annie Potts gets Karla exactly right, and there is also terrific support from the large supporting cast, especially Pearl Jones as the Jackson’s blasé housekeeper, Su Hyatt as one of Duane’s lovers who is also involved with Duane’s older son Dickie and finding deep satisfaction with him, and William McNamara as the boy himself. McNamara is just pretty enough to make you understand why Dickie makes the legs of so many young girls and middle-aged women go wobbly, and just sweet enough to illustrate how he keeps them all in a state of collective delirium: He’s like Jacy when she was young, but with an innate generosity of spirit, and a genuine interest in his conquests, that Jacy never pretended to have.

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This woman, however, is not that girl. She’s gone away, and lived, and lost, and her European life, as much as her grief, has made her less self-absorbed; she has humor now, and compassion, where Jacy only previously had a vague, slow-boiling discontent. Shepherd carries the loss lightly, for the most part, until the bittersweet climax, when she lowers her defenses, radiantly. Leachman’s Ruth too has mellowed; as an elderly woman she understands that having been given love was what mattered, not the having lost it, and she sees everyone around her with a bracing, unsentimental clarity. And Bottoms’ Sonny is the quiet, tragic figure of the story, his mind, unable to process either his old losses or his essential sadness, slowly becoming mired in 1951.

Bogdanovich made The Last Picture Show in black-and-white in part because, while location scouting in Texas, he realized that color made even the scrubbiest backgrounds look too pretty. Texasville proves him correct: No matter how desolate the landscape, and despite the cinematographer Nicholas von Sternberg’s efforts, the color film softens it. But as with the previous picture, Bogdanovich’s direction is assured — even more so 20 years later — and his trademark long scenes played in full are such a welcome change from what, by 1990, had become the nervous, MTV-directed, norm that it constitutes almost a revolutionary act to depict two human beings talking together in one space and without a series of increasingly frenetic cuts.

Texasville - Bridges and Bogdanovich

Texasville doesn’t have the weight or the gravitas of its predecessor, but it doesn’t try to. As with the book on which it’s based the picture is its own shambling, affable self. And like Shorty, Duane’s rambunctious Queensland Blue dog, it asks to be accepted not for what it might be, but only as what it is.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

Nickelodeon - colorNickelodeon - BW

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

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

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

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper Moon - Tatum and Ryan O'Neal

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

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

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

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, PJ Johnson

O’Neal and P. J. Johnson

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

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal with moon

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


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

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

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

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Impropriety: “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972)

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What's Up, Doc - Madeline Kahn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

But what if Mr Simon doesn’t like Heaven?

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By Scott Ross

John Simon - Moose Murders

I guess he forgot his “I Survived Moose Murders” T-shirt?

Years ago there was a theatre critic called Percy Hammond who was famous for his dyspeptic opinions of the local offerings. When it was announced that he was to be made a war correspondent in the 1914 conflict, one wit asked, “But suppose Hammond doesn’t like the war?” I imagine something like my headline may have occurred to some in the New York theatre when it was reported that John Simon had died at 94… although many, I suspect, will imagine he went directly to Hell, there to sit in heated splendor beside his spiritual brother, Satan.

Inevitably referred to as “acerbic” (which he joked may have had something to do with his having been born a Serb) and as either “acid” or “vitriolic,” as boring a pair of epithets for his writing as “tuneless” and “un-hummable” were for the earlier music of Stephen Sondheim, John Simon (1925 – 2019) was both more cruel about the physiognomy of performers than was strictly necessary (if you’re not playing a romantic lead, who cares whether you’re homely or overweight?) and, as he rightfully accused Kenneth Tynan, much less reliable a film than a theatre critic.

As a writer on theatre, however, Simon was seldom less than erudite, masterly and — this will doubtless enrage some, particularly those with only a cursory knowledge of his output — fair. Simon, as we all do, had his pets (Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Weaver, Philip Bosco and Lanford Wilson spring immediately to mind) but they were, generally, very good pets indeed, and as vicious as he could occasionally be — the periodic attacks on Barbra Streisand and Austin Pendleton were all the evidence some people needed to proclaim him an anti-Semite — Simon’s opinions were usually just.

Usually. I cannot fathom how a man of Simon’s intelligence and erudition could refer to the character played by Kathy Bates in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother as “a fatty,” for example, and his waffling on artists could be as baffling as it was infuriating: The same composer whose work, for Simon, enriched Chinatown in 1974 was, in ’75, due to his emulating Stravinsky for The Omen, “that pretentious hack Jerry Goldsmith.” (See Michael Feingold’s rather specious obituary of Simon in American Theatre* for a similar anecdote concerning André Ernotte, a man I became quite fond of when he directed me in a production of a short Brecht play in 1985.) Then too there were his, on the one hand, admirable refutations of both Nixonism and Vietnam and, on the other, his writing movie reviews for William F. Buckley’s National Review, as well as his weird resistance to full acceptance of homosexuals — he was capable even as late as the early ’90s of referring to a new play as “faggot nonsense”; of another, in the mid-’80s, he was heard to fume, “Homosexuals in the theatre! I can’t wait ’til AIDS gets all of them!” (He later apologized.) But despite that now infamous incident of Sylvia Miles dumping her salad on his lap — it became, he noted, an increasingly impressive entrée as the years went on — a friend who knew many members of the New York theatre community in the 1970s and ’80s tells me that each of these actors could recite with glee his or her favorite negative review of their work by Simon. And anyway, I would rather the sometimes insufferably inflexible standards of John Simon than the panting avidity of a Ben Brantley, for whom the latest staggering abortion officially sanctioned by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization is, rather than an appalling travesty, “altogether wonderful.”

In the area of movies, Simon and Pauline Kael famously traded blows in print. Her observation that she did not believe a critic should be able to enjoy only “the highest and the best” was by implication rather obviously aimed at his well-known aesthetic. (How many other movie critics of the period could she have been referring to?) He on the other hand considered her taste irredeemably vulgar if not altogether Barbaric; in a review of one of her 1970s collections, Simon was flabbergasted by Kael writing that we were living through “a legendary period for movies.” She was nearly alone in recognizing this contemporaneously and time, of course, has proven her entirely correct. A friend once said he didn’t think Simon really liked movies, or at any rate did not take them as seriously as he did theatre, music, literature and fine art. I demurred; he loved movies as much as Kael. What he didn’t care much for were American movies. This is perhaps understandable; he grew up abroad and appreciation of his adopted nation’s popular culture had not been inculcated in him from birth as it is for us natives. Interestingly, Simon (according, anyway, to Brendan Gill) was so terrified of the tiny Kael that when encountering her in public he became uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

Daniel Rosenblatt, Pauline Kael, John Simon and Dwight MacDonald

Daniel Rosenblatt, Pauline Kael, John Simon and Dwight MacDonald at a symposium. Simon had as much praise for MacDonald as he had opprobrium for Kael.

Yet there was, on balance, more in Simon to embrace than to deplore. He was, for instance, unique among theatre critics (or any critics) in being multilingual, and could for example so splendidly judge the efficacy or ill-favor of various Ibsen translations that one wished he had done his own. The best evidence in his favor are two collections from 1975: Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964 – 1974, which includes some of his best essays, and Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963 – 1973. In them you will find a bracing wit and a strong intellect confronting the best and the worst the American theatre had to offer during those essential years. Additionally, and whatever his reputation, Simon was at his best, as are all great critics, airing not his (sometimes hilariously expressed) hatreds, but singing his enthusiasms… and when he loved, no one sang with more elegiac euphoria than John Simon. One example of many was his final word on the Jason Miller play That Championship Season, in which Simon opined that if a play as demonstrably great as this was allowed to fail, “Broadway itself deserves to die.”

Speaking of death, Simon got off what I consider one of the great bons mot when, in his review of (I think) What’s Up, Doc? he observed that if Streisand were to be hit by a Mack truck, “it would be the truck that would die.” The use of the word “die” at the end is the essence of wit rather than mere sarcastic humor; it explodes the statement, conjuring up an uproarious image that perfectly caps the joke. Simon could also, like Falstaff, be not merely witty in himself but the cause that wit is in other men, as in Gore Vidal’s, “What a nightmare it must be, to wake up every morning and know you are John Simon.” Peter Bogdanovich was so incensed by Simon he named the comic villain played by Kenneth Mars in What’s Up, Doc? “Hugh Simon” in negative tribute. It didn’t bother Simon in the least. What might have was Bogdanovich’s assertion, to Dick Cavett, that Simon was “a pseudo-intellectual.” No. Simon was a fully-fledged intellectual, and Bogdanovich ought to have known the difference.


There was perhaps no review more piquant and revealing of a certain sordid Broadway reality than Simon’s critique — verified by the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who was there — of the now legendarily dreadful 1980s comedy Moose Murders, at which the sparse audience was treated to the overwhelming and unavoidable odor of fresh vomit. In Simon’s view, and he wasn’t alone, the show became its own olfactory metaphor.

Like many writers, Kael included, Simon composed his own headlines for his magazine reviews. My all-time favorite of his, in reference to the title of a meretricious C.P. Taylor play he panned therein, ran in New York in the 1980s: “All’s Well That Ends Good.”

I didn’t even need to read the review after that… although I did. I also attempted to read Good and couldn’t get through the first act. I can’t tell you, now, why I found Taylor’s play so dreary; but Simon’s one-line critique has long outlived in my memory the drama that inspired it. What more can we ask of a great critic?


*Feingold finds something odd and tragic about a man in his 90s continuing to attend, and to write reviews of, theatrical productions. When you’re 94, Mr. Feingold, perhaps you’ll tell us with what lofty pursuits you fill your waking hours? Or will you simply give up, and stare at the wallpaper?

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Everything gets old: “The Last Picture Show” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

Following a remarkable writing/directing debut which very few people saw (Targets, 1967/1968)* Peter Bogdanovich, on the advice of his then-wife Polly Platt and working with the author, adapted Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, one of the best brief “coming of age” books by an American writer. Shooting on location in Archer City, Texas (McMurtry’s hometown), in black-and-white, with a cast of actors who might be familiar but were certainly not (or not yet) stars, and on a modest $1.3 million budget, Bogdanovich delivered a small masterpiece detailing the dreariness, and the extreme anomie, of a small, windswept Texas town in the early 1950s that can, of course, stand as emblematic of any community, then or now, in which hope dies pretty much at birth, and the only things that hold people  — especially young people — together are drink, meaningless sex, and the tiny incidental pleasure of the movies they see that in no way reflect their own lives or experience.

There is scarcely a character in The Last Picture Show who is not either seeking sex, having it off with someone else’s spouse, or who has not done so in the past, sometimes from lust or even genuine love but (for the adults anyway) largely out of sheer boredom. The only exceptions that come to mind are Eileen Brennan’s Genevieve, the mother-figure toiling as a waitress due to her off-screen husband’s illness, and the smiling, mute and backwards boy Billy (Sam Bottoms) — and even he is initiated, in a disastrous encounter with a fat middle-aged whore (Helena Humann), courtesy of a few teenagers looking for something, anything, to do on a Saturday night. (We are at least spared the sequence in the novel in which the boys take turns humping a poor blind heifer, although in the movie they consider it.) I don’t wish to seem critical of these people for their erotic obsessions: Half the characters in the movie, after all, are adolescent, and thus naturally preoccupied with sex; anyone who says otherwise about his or her own teenage years is either lying, a Pentecostal, or both. But there appears to be, in Anarene/Archer City, no other activity that can engage them, aside perhaps from billiards or high school athletics. And it’s telling that the only book we see in the movie is a well-thumbed paperback of I, the Jury being surreptitiously passed from one masculine hand to another in a high school classroom. Perhaps the Coach (Bill Thurman) is right when he complains that the boys on his basketball team might be better shooters if they practiced more and jacked off less.

It is the Coach’s request that Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) drive his wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman) to her physician that sets The Last Picture Show’s most important chain of events in motion, and it is there too that McMurtry and Bogdanovich commit a curious omission. In the former’s novel, Coach Popper is known for bedding certain of his players on out-of-town trips in which he contrives to get his current favorite to share his hotel room, and that he has had only the most perfunctory conjugal relations with his wife. The screenwriters elide over this detail in their movie; thus when Ruth, weeping, says to Sonny, “You really don’t know, do you?” she seems to be referring, not to his ignorance of her husband’s furtive sexuality, but to a general naïveté in the boy’s personality. Since Genevieve warns Sonny, “One thing I know for sure. A person can’t sneeze in this town without somebody offering them a handkerchief,” we can be sure that in Anarene the Coach’s “secret” is clandestine only in his own guilty brain. It seems accepted, the way the teenagers in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys accept their teacher’s expected groping of their groins when he takes them home on his motorcycle — with a shrug and, maybe, a curious, virginal thrill.

The Last Picture Show - Leachman and Bottoms

It’s been several years since I read The Last Picture Show, so I no longer recall whether the Coach acts as a kind of procurer, sending Sonny to Ruth in the hope that he’ll satisfy her, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, the relationship between Sonny and Ruth is, along with the lingering love Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) feels for a girl he once romanced, the movie’s heart, and it is to the point that it is in no way sentimentalized. Their first sexual congress is, on Sonny’s part, oddly tentative and, on Ruth’s, so emotional her tearful gratitude is quietly agonizing. Even at the picture’s climax, when she confronts Sonny with his caddish selfishness with white-hot fury, she is pathetically incapable of not needing him. As Bottoms sits at her kitchen table, devastated by a death he probably could have prevented and by his guilt over that and his treatment of Ruth, she holds his hand to her face, beaming tearfully. It’s a shattering moment, filmed by Bogdanovich with his customary grace and measure and his laudable avoidance of the overly emphatic.

It became fashionable to knock Bogdanovich in the 1970s, for — in the eyes of his (possibly envious?) former fellow critics, anyway — making nothing but hommages to his favorite filmmakers. Ford and Hawks were the two most often cited, but if those reviewers had really been paying attention they might have noticed that if there was a true referent in Bogdanovich it was Orson Welles. Not the Welles of busy tracking sequences and kinetic editing but the Welles who made The Magnificent Ambersons and Othello: The Welles who pulled off extensive scenes without an edit while not calling your attention to his having done so, and whose concerns were more with the small and revealing moments between people, and with limning their loneliness and loss of innocence — to borrow from Thoreau, their quiet desperation — than in dazzling your eyes, although only a fool would fail to note that he did that as well. As with the idea of a young man’s falling into a bass viol during a drunken serenade having, ultimately, tragic repercussions in Ambersons, the memory of a man and a young married woman carrying on a long-ago affair, the girl lacking the courage to break with convention or her own need for security becomes heartbreaking by the end of The Last Picture Show.

Peter Bogdanovich - The Last Picture Show

If Bogdanovich took from Welles (or Ford, or Hawks) any particular stylistic or pictorial cues, it was those Old Masters’ penchants for long, sustained sequences played in full before a static camera lens. It is, pace Martin (“Look at Me!”) Scorsese, the richest and most assured form of motion picture photography, requiring, as Welles told Bogdanovich, “much more confidence from the director, and a great more skill, and presence, from the actors,” to pull off. Bogdanovich was defeated in this technique only once during The Last Picture Show, and crucially, when due to the clouds overhead and to Timothy Bottoms’ actorly pauses he was forced to make what looks like an extraneous cut to the foreground near the end of the otherwise beautifully sustained dialogue between Sonny and Sam the Lion as the latter reminisces about his one great love affair.

Bogdanovich’s director of photography on The Last Picture Show was the excellent Robert Surtees, whose career stretched back decades and who was responsible for the look of a number of superbly-shot movies: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Ford’s lush Mogambo (1953), the exquisitely mounted Oklahoma! (1955), Ben-Hur (1959), The Graduate (1967), the gorgeous Sweet Charity (1969) for Bob Fosse, William Wyler’s criminally under-seen and underrated The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), The Cowboys (1972), The Sting (1973) and The Turning Point (1977). The look of the movie is almost more Depression-era Texas than the headiness of post-War, oil-boom 1951; if there were tumbleweeds in Anarene, they’d be blowing down the un-paved streets. But that, it seems to me, is the point; Anarene is one of those places in America, if you have any sense or push, you run from as soon as you can.

The Last Picture Show - Shepherd, Burstyn

I once had a woman friend who referred to Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow in the picture as a girl “who gives bitches a bad name.” Yet even she is explicable, if perhaps the furthest thing from admirable. Jacy is that emptiest of small-town miracles, the wealthy beauty with no brains and nowhere (and no one) on whom to truly focus her desires, which are in any case so vague and diffused they are only a nagging overall sense of futility she can neither name nor dismiss, much less escape from. In her first acting role, and at 21, the former model is not only strikingly lovely but remarkably assured. You can see, observing her, why her director fell in love with her. And even when Jacy is cavalierly playing with people’s lives, she’s almost impossible to hate, although you’d rather she was more like her unhappy mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), who at least has developed some poise — although we suspect she’s always had it, and by the end proves it — and a clear vision of what she cannot change, regardless of how much she drinks or how many lovers she takes on to ameliorate her essential loneliness. “Everything gets old,” she warns Jacy, “if you do it often enough.”

I see I have scarcely begun to limn the beauty of Bogdanovich’s great ensemble cast, which includes the always-splendid Jeff Bridges as Duane, Sonny’s best friend and Jacy’s doomed squire; Timothy Bottoms’ gentle, if Callow, Sonny; his younger brother Sam’s sweet, docile Billy who loves as, in my experience anyway, only a retarded individual can, and cannot be made to hate even when he’s the unwitting butt of misguided adolescent cruelty; Eileen Brennan’s warm, sad and maternal Genevieve; Leachman’s achingly needy Ruth; and Johnson’s simple, understated Sam the Lion. Sam was a role Welles badly wanted — he knew it would win the actor who played it an Academy Award ™ — but Bogdanovich was correct in going for Johnson, who was vaguely familiar, mostly to Western movie habitués, and that Welles would have over-balanced the part. The director was also convinced that Ruth Popper was a certain Oscar-winner, and both he and Welles were right, as Johnson and Leachman took home the Supporting Actor and Actress trophies in early 1972. For Leachman it’s the role in toto, and the raw vulnerability with which she plays it. For Johnson, I suspect, it was that long monologue about the perfect love of his past that did it.

The Last Picture Show - Bottoms, Johnson, Sam Bottoms

It’s interesting to note that although she praised the movie Pauline Kael (whose spurious essay “Raising Kane Bogdanovich would blast the following year in Esquire) also found Bogdanovich’s rise as a filmmaker troubling and wrote that “even Nixon could like The Last Picture Show.” This is as bone-headed a view as those of critics a couple of years later who thought American Graffiti an exercise in nostalgia. The people in Bogdanovich and McMurtry’s picture are no less desperate than the kids in George Lucas’. If you have axes to grind, or when you see only what you want to, you miss the big picture. Speaking of which, The Last Picture Show does hold a certain nostalgic reference for me, as I first saw it in the mid-1980s when it was the final booking at a local art-house just before, like Sam’s Anarene movie house in the picture, it closed its doors for good. But McMurtry and Bogdanovich differ on that ultimate offering: In Bogdanovich’s movie it’s the 1948 Red River, clearly a special booking (and by a woman who confesses she doesn’t know how to run the place.) In McMurtry’s novel, it’s a standard 1951 “B” oater, one presumably chosen months in advance.

I suppose the director couldn’t resist making an affirmative statement in the picture he chose to run clips from. But I prefer McMurtry’s solution — it’s just another undistinguished movie, for a town that probably doesn’t merit anything better, and wouldn’t know the difference anyway.


*Bogdanovich also, under the pseudonym Derek Thomas, directed something called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) for Roger Corman, who gave him the opportunity to make Targets.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

See also:
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/paper-moon-1973/

Some kind of a man: “Touch of Evil” (1958)

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By Scott Ross

Whom the gods would destroy they first make wildly successful. For all his astonishing early success in the theatre and on radio — and despite his self-evident greatness as a filmmaker — Orson Welles was never able to create a popular movie, usually through no fault of his own. Touch in Evil is a case in point: What should have been at the very least a minor hit never really had a hope, re-edited (and, to a degree, re-shot) as it was by hacks and unceremoniously dumped onto the “B” market by Universal when the studio apparently lost all faith in the picture. Welles, having returned from self-exile in Europe, and making waves in other people’s pictures (The Long, Hot Summer and Huston’s Moby-Dick) and television shows (he was a memorable guest on I Love Lucy) was primed for a chance at the brass ring, and even in a form both truncated and fattened by others, Touch of Evil should, ideally, have been the carousel horse he needed to reach it. The source, a Whit Masterson* mystery called Badge of Evil, is mildly diverting but not especially resonant, or even particularly memorable. (I had to read a precis to even recall the plot.) But as Welles re-shaped and re-fashioned it, this inconsequential pulp material becomes something dark, disturbing and, yes, even profound.

touch-of-evil_wide-d3370810f193bdc57240f1167de629db858a0990-s800-c85

It looks unlike any other director’s work, and sounds unlike any other’s. I do not mean the overlapping dialogue or the fealty to ambient sound, although both are hallmarks of Welles, but the shape and flavor of his dialogue, as when Charlton Heston’s “Mike” Vargas says to Welles’ corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.” (He should have lived to see how well that has worked out in America.) Far more than things like the somewhat showy opening sequence, the characteristic shadows or the menacing camera angles, what distinguishes this as a Welles picture are its concerns, and the means by which the filmmaker explicates, and expounds on, them. In Badge of Evil, an assistant D.A. ponders a killing and a seemingly false confession, and his Latin wife is kidnapped, drugged and framed by his enemies. There’s also a climax involving a hidden wire recorder and a cop called Quinlan who is at the same time a thug, a dupe and a bit of a dope. The basic elements are there, but arranged conventionally. Welles, by making the suspicious municipal attorney (Heston) a Mexican with a Caucasian wife (Janet Leigh), gets instantly to the heart of American racism, which traditionally has looked with horror on dusky bucks squiring lily-white does; he then further compounds this sense of unease by having Quinlan harass and then arrest a young Mexican suspect (Victor Millan), who is later proven to be guilty. My revealing that is not exactly a spoiler; with Welles, narrative detail is scarcely the point. It is less important that the boy is guilty than that he was framed to begin with, and that in trying to coerce from Quinlan a confession for the frame-up Vargas descends to the worst sort of legal maneuvering, convincing Quinlan’s hero-worshiping partner (Joseph Calleia) to betray the man electronically. And Vargas quite literally descends, hiding under a bridge and sloshing through oily, trash-laden waters as he follows his quarry. Welles’ sympathies as a writer-director are divided: Vargas is right… but so is Quinlan. And each is equally wrong. As Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, “I don’t make those judgments, ever, about people in my pictures.” He didn’t paint Charles Foster Kane with a black-tarred brush either. Much more than “arty” camera angles and creative editing, it’s that very ambiguity, which seems to upset many literal people, that ultimately make Welles’ movies so exhilarating. As Marlene Dietrich’s Tana observes of Quinlan at the end of the picture, “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

Touch-of-Evil-Courtesy-of-FOLA

The preferred version of Touch of Evil is the one re-edited by Walter Murch in 1998 and based largely on a 58-page memo Welles famously prepared when Universal showed him their edit… although even this edition contains some footage Welles did not shoot but which Murch needed for continuity. Appropriately for a man who first made his mark as a sound editor, Murch’s great contribution to the restoration was his removing Henry Mancini’s conventional (albeit effective) “thriller” scoring from the opening sequence in favor of the more ambient sound Welles imagined, and which also contained snippets of several Mancini rock and jazz pieces, heard as they would be if an automobile was cruising a border-town’s streets and passing its many clip-joints. (Murch also took the distracting credits off the sequence and placed them at the end of the picture.) That opening, so beloved of cineastes, consisting as it does of three and a half unbroken minutes of tracking shot, while admittedly a tour de force, is to me far less impressive than the much longer, more complex, and more beautifully controlled, scene in the apartment of the accused which is also without a cut and twice as long.† Yet because it is less flashy, it goes unnoticed by most image-junkies and Scorsese acolytes. (Or am I being redundant?) Only once does Welles, who hated symbols, opt for an obvious metaphor, when the crippled, ageing, bibulous and nearly played-out Quinlan is glimpsed beneath a mounted bull’s head decorated with picadors’ lances. As Welles noted to Bogdanovich of a moment in his Othello involving Iago, “It’s instant metaphor, like instant coffee.” And we all know what instant coffee is good for.

Touch of Evil - Tamiroff and Leigh

Those who like to pretend, for their own perverse reasons, that Welles was no writer (by which accusation I presume they mean Herman Mankiewiciz didn’t just write Citizen Kane but everything else) never get what an original dramatic voice he had. There is nothing, but nothing, in the Masterson book that corresponds to Vargas’ American wife or to the two-bit gangster Grandi who menaces her, and certainly no dialogue that rivals theirs. Although frightened of this absurd little toupée-sporting hoodlum, she tells him he’s seen too many gangster movies, and he has. Welles said he got that notion from having encountered gangsters, whom he found both menacing and funny, as Grandi is. And perhaps no one could have embodied those seeming contradictions better than the splendid Akim Tamiroff, whose scenes in Touch of Evil lift the picture into a realm it wouldn’t achieve without him, just as he lifted Welles’ Mr. Arkadin and as Dennis Weaver raises the role of the terrified motel night manager here into another form of reality. Leigh somehow managed to appear in a trio of indelible roles in important pictures during this period, and to enrich all three beyond the telling. (The others are The Manchurian Candidate and Psycho.) Her armor includes sex, wit, understanding, a sharpness that camouflages but does not obscure her vulnerability, and the ability to move the viewer unexpectedly. She’d have been the ideal leading lady for Howard Hawks, and I’ve often wondered why he never cast her in anything.

Heston is rather good, although he more or less eschews any sort of accent. I remember being infuriated by the scene in Tim Burton’s appallingly overrated Ed Wood in which Vincent D’Onofrio as Welles (although voiced by Maurice LeMarche) complains bitterly of having to use the actor in his picture, which struck me then and strikes me now as a bit of ignorant snark by the screenwriters,‡ trendily directed toward an admittedly vulnerable target. Whether the story Welles later told of Heston’s inadvertently getting him the job of directing Touch of Evil is true or not — he was allegedly engaged to write and appear in it, until the actor, misunderstanding, said he would be honored to be in anything Orson Welles directed — Welles had nothing but praise for Heston subsequently. Well, what can one expect of people who deify a sub-nonentity like Ed Wood for being utterly without talent and trying anyway?

Welles, who gave a funny mock-Method performance for Martin Ritt in The Long, Hot Summer, blustering in mumbles, if I may be permitted an oxymoron, does something similar here, but to better effect because the character of Quinlan is such a human wreck, and so used to getting his way, he no longer needs to speak distinctly. Viewers of the movie today probably assume that Quinlan’s massive body was simply Welles’ usual heft, but he was well padded in face and physique. (He later told Bogdanovich a very funny anecdote about showing up at a Hollywood party before taking off his makeup and being greeted by old friends with, “Hi, Orson, you’re lookin’ great!”) Despite its obviousness, the metaphor of the bull is not inapt; although hobbled by a limp and too much candy-induced fat, there is still power in Hank Quinlan that goes well beyond the official badge of his office. You can imagine the force he’d been, just as you occasionally catch a glimpse of the rogue who once captured Tana’s heart — or who shared her bed, in any case.

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Although they had relaxed considerably between Welles’ exit to Europe in the late ’40s and his return a decade later, things were hardly free and open in America yet. The Catholic-controlled Production Code was still fully in place, if slightly more flexible than it had been, and it’s rather astonishing how much Welles got away with here, from Janet Leigh’s firmly pointed slip to the butch Lesbian played by a disguised Mercedes McCambridge (“I want to watch…”) to the implications of gang-rape by Grandi’s young hoods at the motel, even if what transpires is an only slightly less traumatizing introduction of narcotics. When Hank visits Tana’s establishment across the Mexican border, the only assumption we can make is that it’s a house of prostitution, lending a frisson of the forbidden to this exchange between the two:

Quinlan: Well, when this case is over, I’ll come around some night and sample some
of 
your chili.
Tana: Better be careful. May be too hot for you.

That Dietrich delivers that line with such bland nonchalance I suppose mitigates the salaciousness of it, but any reasonably intelligent adolescent can read between those lines.

It goes without saying that Tana does not exist in Badge of Evil, and, Welles maintained, not in the original script he adapted. “I only thought up the character,” he told Bogdanovich, “if I could get Marlene. Otherwise, no such character, no such scenes.” Bogdanovich feels Dietrich brings a quality to the picture that is “absolutely cosmic,” that “she becomes a kind of mythic figure in the film,” and it’s hard to disagree. The presence of Tana reminds us that Quinlan, so easily pegged as a villain and (as she later notes) “a lousy cop,” is human, and once mattered to someone. But beyond that, Dietrich almost seems to be summing up everything she’s ever done or been on the screen, from Morocco to Witness for the Prosecution: The cool sultriness, the misterioso, the Continental wisdom, and the sexiness that emanates from her seemingly without effort. When she looks at Quinlan’s floating body at the end, Dietrich’s eyes are both expressive and unreadable, rendering those final lines of hers as more than an epitaph for a movie corpse: They become seeds of wisdom from the earth mother.

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Touch of Evil also benefits from Welles’ appreciation of old actors and old friends, and from his ability to spot something untouched in younger performers. His use of Joseph Calleia, for example, and of Ray Collins (as the D.A.) and Joseph Cotten (as the coroner, although at least one of his lines — “Now you could strain him through a sieve” — was dubbed by Welles) but most especially in his casting of Weaver as the motel night manager who is not merely nervous but psychotic. It’s the sort of role, at that time, perhaps only Welles could have envisioned, and he lets Weaver run with it.

There’s probably a great deal more I might say, about Russell Metty’s striking black-and-white cinematography and Mancini’s effective score, which reaches a kind of glory with his pianola theme for Dietrich. But ultimately it’s Orson’s show, and that either sells it for you, or sends you packing. I will, however, say this: Welles’ last studio picture as a writer-director looks better with every passing year.

If the elegant hacks whose offerings currently hold sway at the multiplexes had the capacity for embarrassment, Touch of Evil would thoroughly shame them.



“Whit Masterson” was the pen-name of Robert Allison “Bob” Wade and H. Bill Miller and H. Bill Miller. Their second best-remembered title? Kitten with a Whip.

† There are actually two long sequences done in single takes, divided by a cutaway to another set of necessary scenes.

‡ Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Touch of Evil 1998 restoration 52634

Breaking the Pain Barrier: Blake Edwards and Inspector Clouseau

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By Scott Ross

Peter Bogdanovich is fond of citing an anecdote involving the screenwriter-director Leo McCarey, a nightclub gathering and a painstakingly prepared (and casually undone) bow-tie as an example of extending comic effect: What, in the trade, is called “topping the topper.”* Blake Edwards was equally enamored of one McCarey told him, about being on a hospital patients’ panel and hearing an elderly woman’s personal story of piled-up woe, the last element of which — her husband being blown in a freak accident through the wall of his hospital room and into the maternity ward — reduced to hysterical laughter not only the civilian McCarey but the medical personnel on the panel as well. The woman’s history wasn’t remotely funny; indeed, it was genuinely, agonizingly tragic. It was simply the appalling accumulation of painful detail that made that last, fatal indignity so irrepressibly hilarious — the description of that final explosion to her listeners, McCarey said, “broke the pain barrier.” Edwards also liked to elaborate on one of McCarey’s simple silent-comedy set-ups, concerning a character bidding his sweetheart farewell as she embarks on a streetcar, that evolved into a series of perfect toppers, a comic paradigm the younger man ever bore in mind as he constructed his own. Edwards, who more than any of his contemporaries both revered and meticulously studied the great comic masters of the silent era, was also unique in successfully replicating, and building on, their effects. Although there have been countless attempts to revive the slapstick gag in the decades since talking pictures arrived, few in sound pictures have ever really worked. Edwards’ nearly always do.

I am, obviously, generalizing; there have been many successful comedians since the silent era who utilized physical comedy successfully (Laurel and Hardy are the most obvious examples, and we can certainly include The Three Stooges) and some filmmakers who, while perhaps not being known primarily as comedy directors, could either make a very good one (What’s Up, Doc?, Bogdanovich’s often hilarious 1972 screwball, comes to mind) or insert a slapstick moment or two into their otherwise largely verbal comedies in a way that showed how well their makers understood what makes physical humor work. I’m thinking particularly of Billy Wilder, whose occasional employment of a broad physical gag in, say, The Major and the Minor or Some Like it Hot, results in riotously funny moments precisely because he and his co-scenarists were so adept at setting them up, and Wilder as the director so expert at framing them. Conversely, the periodic, and almost completely un-motivated, bursts of wild physical mayhem in the comedies of Preston Sturges nearly always leave the muscles of my face entirely unmoved. Sturges doesn’t really understand physical humor — he just throws it in now and then to reduce a character’s dignity, or for its own sake: Think of the Ale and Quail Club in The Palm Beach Story, for example, or of the many unfunny pratfalls poor Henry Fonda has to take in The Lady Eve and how these moments diminish (although, it must be admitted, never fatally) those otherwise peerless social comedies.

I’ve often thought that perhaps the reason violent humor in sound pictures so often falls flat has to do with the silence of silent comedies; you could see a scream of pain, but you couldn’t hear it. The sounds of anguish disturb us, and can kill humor pretty quickly. Not always, obviously: Oliver Hardy cries out in pain a great deal in his sound shorts and features with Stan Laurel, and we still laugh. Indeed, sometimes, as in their very first sound comedy, the 1929 Unaccustomed As We Are, the bleat Ollie makes off-screen as Edgar Kennedy punches his nose is, because we don’t actually witness the blow, all the funnier. It is character, then, and logic, that make the difference. And Edwards, virtually alone among physical comedy directors of the post-War era, understood how to create characters to whom slapstick violence can happen without our wincing in empathy, to build a series of effective gags, why they were amusing to begin with, and how to pile up the incident so that it breaks the pain barrier and plunges the audience into the same helpless laughter that gripped that patients’ panel.

I would argue that Edwards’ finest use of the McCarey principle is the long party sequence near the beginning of the 1981 S.O.B during which Richard Mulligan, standing in for Edwards himself and walking around in a daze of deeply numbing depression, repeatedly attempts to commit suicide, each foray leading ultimately to someone else’s distress or pain, a situation so fraught with mental and physical anguish that, when Edwards tops the topper, resulting in a falling body breaking Loretta Swit’s hip, there is no possible recourse except laughter; Mulligan’s genuine mental and emotional agony breaks the pain barrier. (That this sequence was inspired by one of Edwards’ own suicide attempts is instructive; even at his most despairing, the filmmaker was able to see the dark humor of the situation.) But the writer-director’s most consistent, and consistently hilarious, employment of the pain barrier concept are the comedies featuring that absolute embodiment of — to mix languages alarmingly — sangfroid in extremis, the supernally confident, utterly oblivious, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, whose collected oeuvre I have just revisited.

pinkpanthercollection

Watching the contents of Shout! Factory’s Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther Film Collection Starring Peter Sellers boxed set of Blu-rays amply confirms both Edwards’ elegance and wit as a writer and filmmaker and his ability to set up, sustain, build and explode elaborate physical gags. It helps, of course, that Clouseau is, in essence, a cartoon character: Wile E. Coyote, perhaps, or Tom of the Tom and Jerry shorts. Unlike Herbert Lom’s more mortal Chief Inspector Dreyfus, Clouseau can be injured slightly, or electrocuted, or fall through ceilings, or be blown through walls like the poor old man in Leo McCarey’s hospital story, but always returns to the scene in one piece, and with no encumbering casts, crutches or plaster bandages. (Although he does occasionally sport fried hair, or carry lingering traces of smoke.) It is his sheer indomitability as much as his perpetual and unnatural dignity in the face of a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to do or say precisely the wrong thing in any given situation, his bizarre mispronunciations, even the way attempts to rid the earth of Clouseau repeatedly result in the violent deaths of others, that ultimately drives poor Dreyfus mad.

Interestingly, the character’s extremes were arrived at pretty much by accident: While preparing to film his and Maurice Richler’s script for The Pink Panther in Rome in 1963, Edwards found himself abandoned by his original Clouseau, Peter Ustinov, in a contretemps over his putative screen wife Ava Gardner’s backing out of the project. Desperate, Edwards contacted Peter Sellers, who agreed immediately, and who began to flesh out what was intended as a supporting character with so much comedic invention that the writer-director re-conceptualized the role as filming went on. David Niven, the star of The Pink Panther, to his eternal and gentlemanly credit, agreed that Clouseau was becoming a more important figure, reckoning that whatever helped the picture succeed would redound to his own good fortune. As the movie stands, Sellers is demonstrably not the star, but shares that status comfortably with the ever-ingratiating Niven, bifurcating the picture’s narrative rather perfectly. When, the following year Edwards was faced with saving the troubled movie adaptation of Harry Kurnitz’s play A Shot in the Dark‡, he hit upon the happy notion of reviving Clouseau and making him its center. Witty and elegant overall, The Pink Panther becomes, with the addition of Sellers, comedically sublime. But The Pink Panther is to its immediate successor as the musical Company is to the later Follies: The necessary step. Splendid in itself, but despite its riches somewhat undernourished in comparison.


The Pink Panther - Peter Sellers and David Niven

Clouseau and The Phantom face off. Interestingly, when the Pink Panther attempts Niven’s maneuver during the main titles, it quite literally blows up in his roseate animated face.

The Pink Panther (1963) was Edwards and Richler’s variation on Raffles, a comparison made manifest, if not unavoidable, by the casting of Niven, who had played Raffles in 1939, as Sir Charles Lytton, aka “The Phantom,” an international playboy and secret jewel thief whose calling-card, left behind at each theft, is a white glove with a glittery “P” embroidered onto it. That The Pink Panther is a comedy and not a mystery, or even — like the later A Shot in the Dark and The Return of the Pink Panther — a comic mystery, is evident from the beginning, when Sir Charles’ compatriot (and, it is eventually revealed, his lover) Simone (Capucine) is shown to be the wife of Inspector Clouseau in disguise. Edwards and Richlin thus put horns on Clouseau early on, and provide an additional irony: The very woman Clouseau is searching for to bring him closer to the Phantom is his own mate. The fun of the picture, aside from the pleasure of watching Edwards’ obvious gift at placing his camera in the only place possible to best prolong his gags and to capture their payoffs, lies in watching the filmmaker juggle his characters, the guilty and the unknowing just missing each other, like the participants of a Feydeau farce slamming the doors of an overstuffed hotel suite.

And indeed at the halfway point, Edwards and Richlin serve up a Feydeau comedy in miniature during the long, breathtakingly inspired sequence in the Clouseaus’ Italian Alps hotel room. The Clouseaus have (presumably at Madame Clouseau’s instigation) the room adjoining Sir Charles’ suite, complete unto a convenient, hidden shared door. Edwards and Richlin have already tantalized us with a previous, five-minute sequence in the Clouseau’s room which Edwards began with his camera focused on the edge of the Clouseaus’ double-bed and which he holds on, even after Clouseau extinguishes the bedroom light. It’s a typically elegant Edwardsian set-up: We need not really see anything clearly to be amused by what is going on, as the inspector is repeatedly made to abandon the bed to do Simone’s bidding, culminating (naturally) in his stepping through the Stradivarius he has been serenading her with in a fashion that would cause even Jack Benny to blanch. Yet, this is merely the beginning of the filmmakers’ ingenuity. The scenarists now give us, in a second Jacques/Simone sequence, fifteen minutes of superbly contrived and exquisitely controlled physical comedy during which Simone Clouseau must contend, not only with her husband’s amorous advances, but with the unexpected appearances of, first, Sir Charles’ randy young nephew George (Robert Wagner) and, later, of Sir Charles himself, to each of whose presence she must keep the other in ignorance, and hide from her husband. It is during this alternately manic and leisurely two-reeler-within-a-film that Sellers’ Clouseau takes over the picture and becomes more than a character in a movie; at one and the same time the actor conjures and cements his status as a comedic icon before our dazzled eyes.

The Pink Panther titles

The title card from Friz Freleng’s superb animated credits, as elegant in their own way as Edwards’ direction of the picture.

While Sellers is the source of the lion’s share of the picture’s physical humor, Niven is the butt of two splendid gags, the best of which involves his falling into (and nonchalantly walking out of) a massive Alpine snowbank; Capucine memorably chokes on her drink and, later, slides exquisitely off the satin sheets of a bed as Clouseau attempts to make love to her; and Wagner gets a funny bathtub sequence and shares with Niven a brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, extended silent-comedy scene involving two identical gorilla costumes and an empty safe that McCarey (who created the marvelous silent mirror sequence between Groucho and Harpo in Duck Soup) might have been proud to have concocted. It is Clouseau, however, who, alone among these figures, incorporates the slapstick into his character. To catch his fingers in a spinning globe, reach up and slap a metal fireplace hood with his unprotected palm or destroy a priceless violin is as much a part of him as his mustache and the white trench-coat he habitually wears and which, to him, symbolizes his position and indeed his very identity.

With Clouseau, to be accident-prone is not enough; he must gloss over his innate physical ineptitude, or pretend it’s the result of a deliberate calculation (“I know that!“). In no other way can he maintain the absurd dignity without which his entire persona would dissolve into a complete and insignificant ruin. Edwards and Sellers enjoy puncturing this utterly unearned sense of authority whenever they can, as when Clouseau leans over in the hotel hallway to peer up at an ascending Sir Charles and forgets he’s holding a glass of milk… which pours suggestively onto the floor and which, like a later bottle of champagne that explodes in the Clouseaus’ bed, is the perfect comic embodiment of the detective’s perennial impotency with his wife. (Or, indeed, throughout the series, with any woman he romances.) It is this aplomb in the face of his own, demonstrable incompetence, much more than his increasingly impenetrable accent, that solidifies Sellers’ Clouseau as one of the great comic institutions of American movies. Yet even at the end, when he has unwittingly “revealed” himself in court as the Phantom, Clouseau triumphs: Faced with his own sudden notoriety and instant irresistibility to women, he answers a policeman’s admiring, “How did you manage it?” with a slight, smug little smile and the contented response, “Well, you know… it wasn’t easy.”

Not quite a patch on “The son of a bitch stole my watch” or “Well, nobody’s perfect” in the classic, switcheroo last-line department, but a respectable third, wholly and hilariously in character.


While A Shot in the Dark (1964) lacks the charm with which Niven, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale infuse The Pink Panther, it is far funnier, in part because Sellers is in nearly every scene but also because Edwards and his co-scenarist, William Peter Blatty (yes, that William Peter Blatty), expand the contours of Clouseau’s persona, and his insular universe. Now single, he lives not alone but with a Chinese manservant, the redoubtable Cato (Bert Kwouk), whose major duty appears to be keeping the inspector in trim by attacking him “wherever and whenever possible.” William Luhr and Peter Lehrman, in the first of their two critical studies of Edwards, find in this situation a homosexual identification, but they are reading far too much into an innocent, if admittedly outré, comic set-up. As with the milieu of Laurel and Hardy, it is specious, even hysterical (if not downright suspect) to assign sexual identity to what is essentially a fantasy world. Stan and Ollie are grown-up children, with the logic and reactions of young boys. And Clouseau, like Bugs Bunny, transcends the strict psycho-sexual readings of both nervous heterosexual academics and overly literal gay fans.

A Shot in the Dark - Sellers and Kwouk

Not tonight, Cato!: The immortal Bert Kwouk struggles with Sellers in A Shot in the Dark.

It is with A Shot in the Dark too that Edwards and Blatty introduce the character who, more than any other, will complicate and brighten the Clouseau pictures. In the interestingly named Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and the inspired performances of Herbert Lom, the series gains perhaps its most necessary element: A character who sees Jacques Clouseau precisely as the audience does, and is driven insane, not merely by Clouseau’s stunning incompetence, but the way in which that blazingly obvious inanity somehow always manages to triumph, and for which his hopeless underling is consistently rewarded. Worse, of course, is Dreyfus’ own lethal inadequacy; Clouseau, for all his incompetence, never causes the death of an innocent bystander (as opposed, in The Pink Panther Strikes Again and Revenge of the Pink Panther, to unintentionally dispatching a covey of assassins), whereas in his homicidal madness Dreyfus’ path is littered with the bodies of those he inadvertently murders trying to get at his nemesis. These deaths too break the pain barrier; one laughs, not at the killings, but at how they are brought about, and at the increasing dementia they bring on in the murderer. By the end of A Shot in the Dark there is scarcely a supporting character left standing, or in one piece.

Edwards’ enviable control as a director of comedy is made manifest during the astonishing pre-title sequence, in which, to the accompaniment of a marvelously overheated Henry Mancini ballad, he holds on the back side of a suburban mansion for nearly four-and-a-half minutes, the camera craning smoothly up and down as various amatory characters climb and descend staircases, flit in and out of bedroom doorways and evade each other’s notice, a breathtaking feat of comic timing which marks a dizzying evolution in Edwards’ elegant approach to screen humor. (Compare this with the highly-touted dormitory set Jerry Lewis had built for his 1961 The Ladies’ Man and which he uses in an extended sequence that, because it adds little or nothing to the narrative, reeks of an actor-turned-filmmaker showing off: “Look at me! I’m a director!“) A later sequence with Sellers in a nudist colony is only slightly less impressive — although admittedly much funnier — as is the superb running-gag of Clouseau, in the first instance in the series of his penchant for disguises, repeatedly attempting to follow murder suspect Elke Sommer and being picked up by the local gendarmerie for license violations, the physical traces of his latest ruse sticking out of the back of the police van as Edwards cuts to it racing across the city. Like the car chase through a deserted Roman street populated only by the drivers and a single late-night trattoria-crawler attempting to cross the boulevard with which Edwards climaxes the action in The Pink Panther, these recurring gags exhibit proof positive of the writer/director’s peerless gift for transliterating the techniques of silent comedy to the sound picture with no loss of invention and no diminution whatsoever of audience laughter.


Edwards and Sellers - Return of the Pink Panther

Both Edwards and Sellers fell on difficult times in the late ’60s and early ’70s: Sellers through making far too many bad movies§, Edwards via repeated contretemps with studios (Paramount and MGM) and studio chiefs (Charles Bludhorn, Robert Evans, the serpentine Jim Aubrey) that destroyed his pictures and, ultimately, his ability to work. Following a retreat to Gstaad with his wife Julie Andrews, the couple re-emerged in 1974 with the minor but immensely pleasurable The Tamarind Seedwhich restored Edwards’ confidence and provided both him and Andrews a respectable box-office success. With this foundation beneath him, Edwards opted to revive Clouseau, who had latterly been reduced to a Saturday morning cartoon character and diminished through the (non-Edwards) 1968 Alan Arkin vehicle Inspector Clouseau, a picture reputedly so poor as to be virtually unwatchable. Made for $5 million, The Return of the Pink Panther grossed nearly $42 million in the U.S. alone, resurrecting Sellers’ career, putting Edwards back on top and, somewhat perversely, yoking both writer-director and star to the Clouseau franchise… at a time when tensions between the two were so pronounced they could barely communicate with each other. Even well after Sellers’ death, Edwards found he could get funding from MGM/United Artists for anything he wanted to do by promising another Panther, leading ultimately to those deathless classics Curse of the Pink Panther with Ted Wass (who?) and Son of the Pink Panther starring the militantly unfunny Roberto Benigni.

I well recall the delight with which I saw Return on its 1975 release; only once before (at What’s Up, Doc? in 1972) had I laughed that much, that consistently, and that hard, in a movie theatre. By the time Edwards unreeled his achingly funny penultimate gag, I (and presumably everyone else in the packed audience) was limp and sore from continuous and at times gut-busting laughter. While, in retrospect, Edwards over-relies on sadism in Christopher Plummer’s treatment of Graham Stark’s duplicitous Pepi, and even as it isn’t the funniest entry in the series, almost everything about it works. It arguably represents the apogee of the Clouseau/Cato dynamic and of the Dreyfus character; has in Catherine Schell’s Lady Lytton the most satisfying feminine character of the series; is perhaps the best-plotted Clouseau picture after A Shot in the Dark; and, in an era in which American movie comedy was so moribund that, were it not for Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, and apart from mostly regrettable live-action Disney outings, peripheral caper titles (The Sting), comic dramas (Harry and Tonto and Paper Moon), or pitch-black satires (The Hospital and Phantom of the Paradise) there would have been virtually no comedies of note. For all the richness of 1970s cinema — to my mind the last great flowering of American movie-making and the final such Renaissance we are ever likely to get — few of the important filmmakers of the time either knew anything about effective comedy direction, or cared. All of which made Edwards’ assurance and technical sophistication so refreshing then, and, at a time of sour, sarcastic and mean-spirited post-Seinfeld comedy, so very welcome now.

While the otherwise estimable Plummer makes a far colder, and almost infinitely less charming, Sir Charles than did David Niven, the action Edwards and his co-author Frank Waldman devised for the character required a younger and more agile man, especially as regards the elaborate opening sequence, wonderfully scored by Mancini, limning the daring theft of the Pink Panther; since we only find out who the Ninja-like culprit was at the climax, it’s vital we believe Sir Charles capable of it. Likewise, Plummer’s imperturbable sangfroid is sorely needed when faced with Peter Arne’s serpentine Colonel Sharki. Schell was hired to portray Lady Lytton as much for her easy laughter as for her generous good looks or innate comic ability; whether or not the actress is actually breaking up on screen at Sellers’ antics, that the character is so obviously amused by Clouseau’s ineptitude, and so adept at hiding her reactions from him, makes her recurrent parrying with him even more delicious. It’s the only time in the series that one of the Inspector’s foils betrays a winking appreciation of his utter imbecility. Everyone else is either outraged, or takes him seriously.

Return of the Pink Panther - Sellers, Plummer and Schell

“Good Sharki, Colonel God! We were just talking about you!”: Sellers, Peter Arne, Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell in The Return of the Pink Panther.

Sellers is pudgier here than in his previous Clouseau movies, and a bit jowly, but his inspiration is just as clearly in evidence. And it is in The Return of the Pink Panther that the character’s curious mispronunciations make their first appearance. His accent is so exaggerated even the French can’t understand him: Bomb becomes “beumb,” bump “beump,” room “ruem,” monkey “muenky,” and the law “the leu.” It can come as a bit of a shock to those who were introduced to the character with the 1970s Clouseaus, and who then go back to his origins, that in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark Sellers speaks so clearly, his accent comprised of two parts soft French to one part hard Etonian. Clouseau’s later speech is an absurd joke, of course, since everyone on screen is, while he or she is supposed to be speaking French, actually talking in English anyway. But it’s a funny one; Sellers’ encounter with a French shopkeeper determined to sound more Gallic than De Gaulle bequeathed to the Panthers, in verbal terms, what the Pythons’ run-in with an obnoxious Torquay hotelier later gave to Fawlty Towers.

Return-of-the-Pink-Panther-Richard Williams

Following Richard Williams’ and Ken Harris’ glorious, exquisitely designed and animated main title — Harris’ touch is strongly evident in the Panther’s dance moves and, especially, his 180-degree turn perched on the head of a cartoon Sellers —  Edwards introduces this updated Clouseau via a series of gags emphasizing his absent-minded gallantry (saluting a pretty girl on the street, he smacks himself in the eye with his baton), his verbal quirks (“Then the muenky’s brahking the leu!“) and his single-minded — if “mind” is the correct word — pursuit of justice: Haranguing a blind street musician and his chimp, he never notices the bank robbery taking place just behind a plate-glass window and even holds open a door for the thieves. Thus in a single, cunningly devised sequence, Edwards fully establishes the (slightly revised) character for a new audience. This is followed hard on by a Clouseau/Dreyfus confrontation, and an extended Clouseau/Cato encounter emphasizing the filmmaker’s mastery of the full widescreen shot and his willingness to graft riotous new effects onto an established format, as when he not only shoots Clouseau’s flying lunge at Cato and through the top of a Dutch-door in slow-motion but slows down the soundtrack as well, making the detective’s karate cry first hilarious, then excruciatingly funny, as it mutates into a 16-rpm bellow of surprise, terror and pain. And when he repeats this explosive gag at the picture’s climax, topping the topper and making us wait ninety minutes for it, we roar both at the business itself (and how well it’s been staged), and at Edwards’ audacity in pulling off the trick again and making the repetition even funnier the second time.

Similarly, a long sequence in Gstaad involving Clouseau in disguise as a hotel porter making a shambles of Lady Lytton’s suite and doing battle with a “swine” parrot as well as a perverse light-bulb, a high-powered vacuum cleaner, an in-room sauna and a massive masseuse, is a virtual master-class on topping the topper and breaking the pain barrier; it could almost be its own silent two-reeler. And the jokes really build, paying off as the sequence un-spools, or merely repeating for a quick laugh several minutes after their initial introduction. Less elaborate but no less instructive is the way Edwards frames a disastrous attack on Clouseau by Cato in his hotel room, holding on the doorway as Sellers enters the bath, in which we know there is a tub full of water, and is swiftly followed by Kwouk; we hear their screams just before a small tsunami of bathwater cascades into the hallway, and what we imagine is far funnier than what we would have seen had Edwards shot the gag straight-on. Does any comedy director today understand this approach, or why it’s so damn funny? Do any of them care to?


The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) is the silliest of the Clouseaus, and one of the funniest. His brain having, finally, completely cracked due to his foil’s well-meaning interference, Dreyfus becomes a kind of giddy James Bond super-villain, first assembling an army of assassins and, when that fails, threatening the world with a disintegration ray if Clouseau is not killed. (I said it was silly.)  The plot is ludicrous, the special-effects crude and unconvincing, the presence of a butler/drag-queen performer (Michael Robbins) verges on the offensive ‖, the Gerald Ford/Henry Kissinger stand-ins are obvious and flat (Kissinger is too hideous a figure to have fun with and, next to a world-champion bumbler like Clouseau, the somewhat accident-prone Ford was a piker), both Leonard Rossiter and Cloin Blakely are wasted as Scotland Yard officials, and the love story involving Sellers and Leslie Anne Down as a Soviet killer is patently ridiculous; after being made love to by Omar Sharif, whom she mistakes for Clouseau, she defects. Yet the picture is almost profligate with uproarious gags, from the darkly funny psychiatric asylum opening and the Richard Williams titles with their movie hilarious parody/hommages¶, through Dreyfus spying on Clouseau’s apartment from below and preparing a bomb which, thanks to an over-pumped Quasimodo disguise and the detective’s typical dumb luck, fails spectacularly; the parade of frustrated assassins; Clouseau’s hysterically funny encounter with a set of parallel bars and his subsequent wrecking of a priceless antique piano; Graham Stark’s memorable cameo as an ancient hotelier (“That is not my dog”); Clouseau’s achingly funny attempts to scale the drawbridge of Dreyfus’ castle lair; detective and quarry becoming affected by nitrous oxide and screaming with laughter as Clouseau pulls one of his ersatz boss’s teeth (the wrong one, naturally); right up to the explosive finale, an extension of the Quasimodo sequence, in which Sellers, Downe and Kwouk are, in a vague echo of Leo McCarey’s narrative about the tragic hospital patient, thrown through the wall of Clouseau’s apartment and dumped, hilariously, into the Seine. And even that topper has a topper, with Williams’ final movie parody during the end titles.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again - Sellers

The Pink Panther Strikes Again: Clouseau demonstrates his facility, such as it is, with the nunchaku. Note the pleasing salmon in the background. The filmmaker clearly appreciated pastels, and how they photographed in color and widescreen; where almost everyone else’s comedies of the time were either garish-looking, or dull, Edwards’ interiors are full of soft, well-matched colors that contrast perfectly with the often absurd action taking place within them.

The picture also contains Mancini’s best Clouseau score, and one of the finest of his long career. One of the most difficult jobs for a movie composer to pull off is to score comedy without resorting either to “mickeymousing” or attempting to sound funny. Vic Mizzy did it wonderfully, as have John Morris, David Shire and Dave Grusin, but its masters are few. Mancini approached scoring humor much as Edwards did filming it: Seriously. While his Clouseau compositions are timed to the physical action, very rarely are they demonstrably amusing in themselves. More often they are suspenseful (Mancini’s facility with scoring tension is wildly underappreciated#) or charming, as in this picture’s delicate “Inspector Clouseau Theme,” actually first heard over Dreyfus’ spying on him from the flat beneath his, and his subsequent “Evil Theme” for Dreyfus which achieves its apotheosis in the climactic sequence, in which the last image of a disintegrating Lom is his twitching eye. Mancini’s gift for melody was so seemingly effortless, his success as a purveyor of “bachelor pad” LPs so ubiquitous, that he seldom got the praise he assuredly deserved. The Strikes Again score ranks with his Charade, The Great Race, Two for the Road, The Hawaiians and Lifeforce as true Mancini masterworks.

pink-panther-strikes-again-expanded-cd

Where The Pink Panther Strikes Again was thin, Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) is sheerest gossamer — a scandal in anemia. My friends and I knew this even then, and while we enjoyed its best moments, we felt decidedly let down by it, and a little depressed. The picture had the strong feel of creative people delivering product but having no enthusiasm for it; it’s both the shortest of the Sellers Clouseaus, and the dullest. (Even the animated titles, set to a disco version of “The Pink Panther Theme,” are a let-down.) Much of the ennui was due, apparently, to Sellers’ heart condition, and his inability — presumably because of medication — to remember lines. And although its running-time is a brief 98 minutes, the picture somehow feels longer than any of its predecessors: When you make a comedy in which Dyan Cannon and Bert Kwouk aren’t funny, something is terribly, terribly wrong. Using the word “boring” in the context of discussing the Pink Panthers was something I, up to the age of 17 anyway, never thought I’d have cause to do. And if we were that bored by it, think how Edwards must have felt.

Revenge of the Pink Panther

“I’m a little short”: Clouseau sports an Auguste Balls costuming masterpiece in Revenge of the Pink Panther. Note the hilariously incongruous sneakers and the anachronistic, spherical lit-fuse bomb, a silent-movie trope and an Edwards staple.

Revenge is so halfhearted it reprises Sellers’ indelible final line from Dr. Strangelove during a scene in which he dons a Toulouse Lautrec outfit (“I can walk!”) and doesn’t even bother to explain Dreyfus’ physical presence in the story. Wasn’t he a world-famous terrorist last time? Wasn’t he disintegrated? Yet there he is, back in the asylum, preparing once more to re-emerge from madness (and waiting, of course, for Clouseau to drive him insane again.) Lom’s presence is necessary to the comedy, if only, once Clouseau has been declared dead, for his peerless delivery of the eulogy; he’s presumed by the memorial audience to be weeping in uncontrollable grief when he is, of course, paralyzed with hysterical laughter. The business of Clouseau using his own supposed murder as a means of investigating his would-be killers undercover can feel, in retrospect, a bit ghoulish, given Sellers’ own death two years later, but as he was very much alive in 1978, one need not take that too seriously. It’s of greater import that, aside from a few good gags at the beginning (notably Clouseau’s appearance as a Swedish sailor with a peg-leg and an inflatable parrot) and again during the Hong Kong climax, it’s a dispirited — and dispiriting — exercise that left us wondering in ’78 how the series could hope to surmount the damned thing; it seemed very much a dead-end.**

At the time of its release, the most interesting aspect of The Revenge of the Pink Panther for me lay in trying to figure out whether that really was Cary Grant doing a middle-distance cameo as a businessman knocked over by Cato on the far side of the widescreen frame in the Hong Kong hotel lobby, or merely some older gentleman costumed and coiffed to look, and dubbed to sound, like him.††

Alas, it’s still the most interesting thing in the picture.


Utterly unnecessary, except that it permitted Edwards to set up the narrative for the subsequent Curse of the Pink Panther (why?), the 1982 The Trail of the Pink Panther, which he shot simultaneously with Curse, can at least be said to be funnier than its predecessor. To say that’s damning the picture with faint praise is a bit like observing that Herr Hitler was not a terribly nice fellow. But there are enough amusing outtakes from the three ’70s Clouseaus, and fill-in footage from the first two (for which — all too typically of the cavalier attitudes and disorganized practices of United Artists — no additional footage appears to exist) to satisfy our craving for Sellers, although some of the spoken introductions to these clips are ham-fisted in the extreme, and a couple of the sequences show all too plainly why they were excised to begin with, such as Harvey Korman’s extended scene as Auguste Balls, cut from The Pink Panther Strikes Again and redeemed only by Clouseau’s hilariously wrong-headed “compliments” on the hideous nose of Liz Smith’s Mme. Balls. It’s hardly Korman’s fault; he does what he can, but the sequence is simply not funny, and certainly not funny enough to have started either Strikes Again or this picture’s narrative. Similarly, a lengthy new gag involving a border collie herding Clouseau’s ancient childhood governess, while well staged and shot, just lies there, refusing to be funny.

Trail of the Pink Panther

The Trail of the Pink Panther: Harvey Korman, trying his best to be amusing as Professor Auguste Balls, fits Clouseau with new prosthetics in a sequence cut from the beginning of The Pink Panther Strikes Again.

What is best about Trail are Lom’s new scenes as Dreyfus, particularly one with his pop-song obsessed psychiatrist (Ronald Fraser) and two involving his swimming pool (you just heard Sellers saying, “swaim-ang-a peul?,” didn’t you?) which have wonderful pay-offs; and Joanna Lumley as a Parisian television reporter determined to get to the bottom of Clouseau’s disappearance. Lumley’s sharp way with a line, and her unerring instincts, make you long for her to have had the opportunity to enjoy a tête-à-tête with Sellers along Catherine Schell lines. The ever-dry Graham Stark provides a charming turn as Hercule from A Shot in the Dark and Richard Mulligan brings his unique comic inspiration and physical ingenuity to the role of Clouseau’s aged vintner father. Capucine also shows up, incongruously, as Simone Lytton née Clouseau, causing the mind to wander on intangibles — did they divorce before Sir Charles married Schell’s Claudine, then re-marry? — rather than concentrate on the admittedly less-than-compelling dialogue. David Niven looks fine, but was already suffering from motor neuron disease (known as Lou Gehrig’s in the States) and had to be dubbed. The otherwise overrated Rich Little did a surprisingly good job of it, although once you know it’s him you can’t help detecting the timbre of his voice at certain moments.

There are several good (though mostly not great) cut gags resurrected here, like the automobile cigarette lighter sequence between Sellers and André Maranne’s reliably phlegmatic François, and Clouseau’s battle with an elevator gate and a leaking bag of groceries, trimmed from what would have been a longer scene in Strikes Again following the Korman/Balls sequence. The comic highlight of the picture, however, is a truly splendid and absolutely satisfying sequence, also cut from Strikes Again, involving Clouseau, a wall telephone, two hotel windows and an utterly oblivious Mack truck of a maid (Claire Davenport, the memorable masseuse of The Return of the Pink Panther) that by itself almost justifies the entire picture and reminds us anew just how treasurable Blake Edwards was as a comic technician, and how beautifully he achieved the breaking of the pain barrier.

There is absolutely no excuse, however, for the terrible job of dubbing someone (possibly Robert Rietty?) did for Clouseau; the stresses and emphases are correct but the tone, the timbre — the very essence — of Sellers’ voice is utterly and completely missing.

There was a lesson in that. I only wish MGM/UA had heeded it.


* Bogdanovich re-created McCarey’s nightclub moment in At Long Last Love (1975) but without the necessary set-up the sequence was less amusing than vaguely obnoxious.

† Edwards dedicated his delightful 1965 The Great Race to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.” Likewise, his epic, scientifically imagined, pie fight in that memorable comedy was likely a tribute to Stan and Babe’s silent Battle of the Century of 1928.

‡ Itself based on a French farce by Marcel Achard, the 1961 A Shot in the Dark on Broadway starred Julie Harris in the Elke Sommer part, Walter Matthau in George Sanders’ role, and, of all people, William Shatner in the lead. Achard’s original French title was, in view of its subsequent movie adaptation, remarkably prescient: L’Idiote.

§ Only two of Sellers’ pictures from that time are worth seeing — both of which appeared in 1968 and neither of which was as successful as it deserved to be: The sly Paul Mazursksy and Larry Tucker-written social satire I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! and the often hilarious The Party, which Edwards directed and co-wrote with Tom and Frank Waldman but which was largely improvised. Birdie Num-Nums, anyone?

‖ I had long thought that the voice doubling Robbins’ nightclub singing, filled as it is with Julie Andrews-like swoops and vocalizations, was a teasing joke by Edwards at his wife’s expense. Turns out she did the dubbing herself. “A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?” Yes.

¶ To Alfred Hitchcock, BatmanKing KongDracula, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the RainSweet Charity‘s “Hey, Big Spender” and, most hilariously, Julie Andrews twirling on the mountain in The Sound of Music, the whole, brilliantly executed sequence anchored to the background of a gorgeous old silver movie palace.

# His cues “The Return of the Pink Panther” Parts 1 and 2 on the soundtrack album for that picture give a fair idea of how effective Mancini’s action scoring can be, even in a serio-comic context.

** In fact, Edwards planned it as the last in the series. Sellers later got MGM/UA interested in a Clouseau script he had written, and in which movie he insisted Edwards was to have no part, but died before the project could begin.

†† I still don’t know, but given Grant’s contentious relationship with Edwards on Operation Petticoat in 1959, it seems unlikely he’d had done the filmmaker the favor of a cameo… although he just might have for Cannon, his former wife.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2018

Standard

By Scott Ross

Continuing my reluctant withdrawal from moviegoing, due to perpetual disappointment both with new work and with the new theatre audience — neither of which seems to be improving; indeed, the latter now infects every performance venue in the land — I saw only two pictures in a theatre last year… and they were from the 1970s and ‘80s. Additionally, the summer and autumn of 2018 were for private reasons exceptionally difficult for me, and entertainment was something I was able to devote very little time or attention to. Here’s to a much more movie-intensive 2019, whatever the venue.

And herewith, the movies (and other video items) I did manage to see during the year recently passed.

BOLD                                     Denotes very good… or at least, better than average.
BOLD + Underscore          A personal favorite


1.
Older titles re-viewed on a big theatre screen

the front page - 1974_main title

The Front Page (1974) Thanks to the Carolina Theatre in Durham I was able to add one more Billy Wilder picture to my list of his work seen on a big theatre screen, having missed this adaptation (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) of the Hecht-McArthur perennial when it was first released. I have a complicated relationship with The Front Page: As an adolescent, influenced — as were so many of my generation — by Woodstein, and perhaps even more so by Carl Kolchak, I aspired to be a journalist. My interests eventually led me elsewhere, but that early appreciation of the Fourth Estate remains, even if it has now, as increasing numbers of people have begun to believe, become a fifth column. And no play had a greater influence on popular American culture than this breakneck 1928 farce-melodrama; all of the great newspaper comedies of the 1930s (especially those featuring Lee Tracy, who had the starring role in the play) flowed from its influential fount, and it absolutely cemented our image of the hard-bitten, ink-stained, wisecracking reporter… a figure now utterly obliterated by $30,000-a day neoliberal shills for the Establishment. Yet as much as I admire it, I don’t find the play especially funny, except in the 1940 Howard Hawks variation His Girl Friday, and that’s due largely to the charm of Cary Grant, the fast-talking zing of Rosalind Russell and the fizz they spark off each other. (The final line is funny, but once you know it, it’s not one that elicits much of a laugh next time around.) The newsmen depicted are, in the main, appalling — less the bulwark of free-press democracy than shabby, cynical hacks more concerned with snappy headlines than with anything approaching the truth. Some would no doubt argue that’s the point of the thing, but the authors clearly intended the play as a paean to the type, not a critique. That their star characters, Hildy Johnson and his unscrupulous editor Walter Burns, eventually manage to keep a corrupt Chicago mayor and sheriff in check is almost by-the-by; they wouldn’t do so unless their own liberty was at stake. That’s not to mention the casual bigotry of the piece: The word “nigger” is used by some of the reporters when “colored,” the general nomenclature of the time, not only would do, but did, elsewhere in the play, and the character of Bensinger is the piss-elegant pansy type prevalent in the ‘20s and ‘30s, all too easily ridiculed, and ridiculous. That Wilder and Diamond not only didn’t improve on that stereotype in 1974 but actually embellished it, making a cute young cub reporter (Jon Korkes) the object of Bensinger’s attentions, is a mark against their movie. (An end-credits post-script reveals — presumably for a boffo laugh… which, sadly, it probably got from a 1974 audience — they’ve left the newspaper business and opened an antique shop together. Why not a florist’s while you’re at it?) As was their wont when adapting material by others, Wilder and Diamond made a number of changes to the original, and some critics were unreceptive; Wilder later admitted that he hadn’t understood how deeply venerated the play still was. It’s a lively enough transliteration, with a fine performance by Walter Matthau as Burns, a good one by Jack Lemmon as Hildy despite his being too old for the role, and a controversial turn by Carol Burnett as Molly Malloy. (She famously apologized, to a planeload of passengers whose in-flight entertainment it was, for her performance.) Yes, she’s strident, but she’s also vulnerable, although not nearly as endearing as Austin Pendleton as the convict Earl Williams, whose imminent execution and eventual escape sets the plot (which Walter Kerr memorably described as “a watch that laughed”) in motion. And some of the scenarists’ alterations are pleasing, such their stab at making the role of Hildy’s fiancée less thankless, and casting the young Susan Sarandon in the part. There is also excellent support by Charles Durning, Alan Garfield, Dick O’Neill and Herb Edelman (as Hildy’s fellow reporters), a blustery Vincent Gardenia (was there any other kind of Vincent Gardenia?) as Sheriff Hartman, a suave Harold Gould as the Mayor, Paul Benedict as the emissary from the governor, and wonderful old Doro Merande as the Criminal Courts Building custodian Jennie. As Bensinger, alas, David Wayne makes the worst of a bad job. While largely set-bound, the picture has a rich look to it, and there’s even a wild Keystone Kops-like chase through the Chicago streets. The opening credit sequence, set to a spritely Billy May rag (the production company was Universal, no doubt keen to have another Sting-like radio smash on its hands) and depicting the mechanized assembling of a newspaper from page one typeset to completed broadside, is a two and half-minute gem.


the-changeling-ghostballer

The Changeling (1980) A beautiful rumination on the basic ghost story. Its admittedly thin screenplay is augmented by the usual marvelous George C. Scott performance, rare intelligence behind the camera — the director was the underrated Peter Madek — and a remarkably rich musical score (mostly by Ken Wannberg, with an assist from Rick Wilkens, anchored to an exquisite little music box theme by Howard Blake.) It’s one of those movies that has seen extremes of response: Dismissed, when not bludgeoned, by the critical fraternity on its 1980 release, it was restored and reissued in 2018 to ludicrous over-praise by people who can only deal in absolutes, and in an eminently dismissible interrogatory style: “Is The Changeling the most terrifying movie ever made?” The answer, even for partisans of the picture such as myself, is no. Not even close. But that hardly disqualifies the picture from being seen, and embraced, as a stylish — and surprisingly plangent — exercise in supernatural emotionalism that rewards repeated viewing. Thanks to my friend Eliot Camarena for suggesting this one to me a few years back.



2. Documentary

I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1973) Jerry Bruck, Jr.’s illuminating portrait of the fiercely idiosyncratic progressive journalist and, for many years, publisher of the eponymous newsletter still considered among the best, and most reliable, of progressive American news and opinion journals. Viewed courtesy of a kind friend who for the last several years has been my personal source for previously undiscovered (at least by me) cinematic gems.

untold history - showtime
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States
(2012) A staggeringly effective multipart examination of the dark underbelly of our history no American public school educator will touch: This one-time Republic’s century-plus evolution into the world’s most avaricious, and murderously dangerous, empire. Reactionaries, conservatives, liberals and their corporatist ilk will, if they sample it, no doubt sputter with impotent fury. And even for those of us who’ve been paying attention these last few decades, the revelations on display here will astonish and enrage. Yet even after 12 exhaustively documented hours* (and which feel more like two) neither Stone nor his co-authors Peter Kuznick and Matt Graham succumbs entirely to despair, and their Untold History is, finally, an impassioned call to arms that refuses to admit the defeat of essential values… provided we want them badly enough to fight for their reinstatement. “The record of the American Empire is not a pretty one,” they write. “But it is one that must be faced honestly and forthrightly if the United States is ever to undertake the fundamental structural reforms that will allow it to play a leading role in advancing rather than retarding the progress of humanity.” The Untold History is a vital step in facing that record. Now: Is there the popular will to make the changes we need?


Rush to Judgment (1967) This collaboration between the radical American documentarian Emile de Antonio and the Warren Report-debunking Mark Lane is in essence a 98-minute cinematic edition of the latter’s bestselling jeremiad of the same year. Lane’s is the research on which fifty years of responsible investigation into the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and its subsequent and violent cover-up, are based. And, as nearly as I can determine, none of his central findings have in the intervening decades been proven incorrect.


Directed by John Ford (2006 edit) Peter Bogdanovich revisited his lovely 1971 documentary/overview in 2006. Alas, his new interview footage (with Clint Eastwood and Harry Carey, Jr.), shot on video, lacks, as Joseph McBride correctly noted in his review, the “vibrant look” and “elegant mobility” of their earlier counterparts. Nor does Eastwood add anything of value to what was observed originally by John Wayne, James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara and Henry Fonda. Still, the prickly sessions with Ford himself, the representative sequences Bogdanovich lovingly culled from his pictures, and the original Orson Welles narration are evergreen, and certainly reason enough to revisit this very personal Valentine to perhaps this most American (in both the good and bad connotations of the word) of 20th century filmmakers.



3. Video/Made for Television

Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me
(2009) A pleasant, if not especially inspired, Clint Eastwood-produced TCM centenary portrait of our finest pop lyricist.

night-stalker-blu-ray-1000-01
The Night Stalker
(1972) 
No American made-for-television movie had a higher viewership in its time than this wonderful, and genuinely scary, adaptation by Richard Matheson of a then-unpublished Jeff Rice novel, and it has lost little of its power, or its humor, in the decades since. The inspired casting of, and performance by, Darren McGavin as pain-in-the-ass investigative reporter (remember them?) Carl Kolchak is half the fun, and the supporting roles are no less vividly limned: Simon Oakland as his dyspeptic editor; Ralph Meeker as that oxymoron, a helpful FBI agent; Elisha Cook, Jr.’s professional snitch; Peggy Rea’s cameo as a switchboard operator bribable with foodstuffs; Larry Linville’s no-nonsense coroner; Charles McGraw’s polished, slippery Chief of Las Vegas police; and Barry Atwater, cunningly revealed in stages by the director, John Llewellyn Moxey, as the vampire. There’s also a terrific score by Dan Curtis’ house composer Robert Corbert. The new Kino Blu-Ray restoration is mouth-watering, making The Night Stalker look as good as it must have when first aired. My favorite bit of Kolchakian rhetoric (“Now, that is news, Vincezo. News! And we are a newspaper! We’re supposed to print news, not suppress it!”) is one that has, thanks to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Bill of 1996 and the subsequent, nearly total corporate takeover of all news media, become even more sadly pertinent.

The Night Strangler (1973) This inevitable sequel to The Night Stalker is nowhere near as good as its record-breaking predecessor, and pointed up the major flaw of the subsequent weekly series: That supernatural crimes keep popping up wherever Carl Kolchak goes, and that only he believes in them. But it’s atmospheric as hell, what with its remarkable abandoned city beneath the streets of Seattle, from whence a new serial murderer emerges. And it has McGavin and Matheson (not to mention Simon Oakland) and that’s almost enough. It also has a feast of fine supporting roles embodied by Scott Brady, Wally Cox, John Carradine, Al Lewis, Margaret Hamilton, Jo Ann Pflug as Kolchak’s co-conspirator, and Richard Anderson as the urbane villain. Dan Curtis directed this one, and it’s also out in a sumptuous-looking Kino Blu-Ray.


The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy (2012) If, as I do, you can’t quite imagine life without the mad, unbridled wit of Mr. Brooks, this Shout! Factory set is five discs of bliss. (Six, if you count the accompanying CD. Which isn’t to mention the nifty hardcover book.) The DVDs consist of Brooks’ television appearances, an uproarious reunion interview with Dick Cavett, a five-part Mel and His Movies documentary, shorts (including Brooks’ and Ernest Pintoff’s Academy Award-winning The Critic) and even episodes of Get Smart! (one show is enough to make us wonder why we loved it so much in the ‘60s), When Things Were Rotten (which is no better now than it was in 1974) and Mad About You. There is never such a thing as too much Mel Brooks but even if there were, this set would support Mae West’s contention that too much of a good thing can be wonderful.



4. Seen a second… and final… time

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) Robert Altman and co-scenarist Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Arthur Kopit’s trenchant, theatrical play Indians lost much in the translation, and the result is an occasionally diverting mess. A fine cast (Paul Newman, Joel Grey, Burt Lancaster, Geraldine Chaplin, Kevin McCarthy, Harvey Keitel) flounders in material too diffuse to have a discernible shape or point of view.


Von Ryan’s Express (1965) Joseph Landon and the redoubtable Wendell Mayes adapted David Westheimer’s fascinating World War II thriller, and lost thereby much of what made it enthralling. To their credit, they kept the central figure’s prickly, unlikable character, and their star, Frank Sinatra, never winks at the audience. But the ending, which sacrifices Colonel Ryan on the altar of carnage, and which has no correspondence in Westheimer’s book, is wholly unnecessary. Mark Robson directed crisply, Trevor Howard makes a good foil for Sinatra, Vitto Scotti shows up as a train engineer, and the propulsive score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of his finest early works.


The Black Cauldron (1985) When I saw this animated Disney adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain pentalogy on its release, I found it exceptionally impressive visually but largely uninvolving on a human level. In the intervening years I read, and fell in love with, Alexander’s entrancing series of novels for young people, so seeing the picture again was dispiriting. The novelist’s scope is Tolkeinean in its breadth, characterization and action, and 80 minutes is too skimpy a running-time to even begin encompassing it. But the books are as well deeply moving, something the movie never is, even with an illogical tear-jerker of a climax added on. The action takes in only a small set of events from, essentially, the first and second novels in the series, and the vast canvas of characters has been reduced to a mere handful, with one major figure (the Horned King’s tiny henchman Creeper) created out of whole cloth. Or ink-and-paint, as may be. One could go on at length, but why bother? Elmer Bernstein composed a splendid score, and young Grant Bardsley makes a properly questing Taran. The other voices include Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, Arthur Malet, Billie Hayes, John Hurt (as the Horned King) and John Byner, very fine as Gurgi. Among the familiar Disney names associated with the picture are Roy Disney (dialogue), John Musker and Ron Clements (story), and, in the animation department, Ruben Aquino, Hendel Butoy, Pixote Hunt, Glen Keane, John Lasseter, Rob Minkoff, Phil Nebbelink, George Scribner and Andreas Deja, all of whom would go on to far better things.



5. New to Me: Meh

bye bye braverman - godfrey cambridgeBye Bye, Braverman
(1968) This adaptation by Herb Sargent of Wallace Markfield’s 1964 novel, directed by Sidney Lumet, is richly populated with wonderful actors (George Segal, Jack Warden, Joseph Wiseman, Sorrell Booke, Phyllis Newman) and is on a certain level a vivid comic depiction of 1960s New York Jewish intellectuals. Sargent’s screenplay elides some of the archness of Markfield’s self-consciously (and, to my ear, anachronistic) “Jewish” dialogue, but, alas, is no more substantial, and its climax is even wispier. Godfrey Cambridge does have a marvelous scene as a cabbie, and Alan King gets a sly satirical sequence as a pompous Rabbi.


The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots (1970) Another Lumet adaptation, by Gore Vidal this time, and of a Tennessee Williams flop (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) is the last word in weird. And although Robert Hooks is, as always, excellent, his presence as the mulatto bastard brother of James Coburn’s shabby white racist makes a hash of the action, since “Chicken” is supposed only to be somewhat dark-skinned, and not, as depicted here, obviously black. Lynn Redgrave gives a winning account of Myrtle, Coburn is fascinating, and the thing was shot, beautifully, by James Wong Howe. But it’s a curio merely, and a rather disagreeable one.


The Cowboys (1972) A real misfire. William Dale Jennings’ sumptuous novel (based on his own rejected original screenplay) was turned, by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., into a crude, morally objectionable revisionist Western, the ambiguity of the original lost by the appalling placement of John Williams’ rousing “Cowboys” theme at a crucial juncture. John Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne almost triumph over this unsavory mélange, unimaginatively directed by Mark Rydell. But Bruce Dern, as the chief villain, wallows in overstated ugliness.

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Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster

Executive Action (1973) What might have been a galvanizing fictionalized critique of accepted wisdom on the assassination of John Kennedy was turned in its pre-production into an oddly tame affair. The original script, by the JFK assassination researcher Mark Lane and the playwright Donald Freed (cf., the Nixonian fantasia Secret Honor, filmed by Robert Altman) and later adapted by them into a compelling paperback novel, made no bones about CIA involvement in Kennedy’s murder. The subsequent screenplay, by Dalton Trumbo, muddies these waters to the point of nearly complete opacity: From which shadowy organization, if any, is Burt Lancaster’s team derived, if not directed? Your guess would be as good as mine. Lane and Freed also focus their narrative very effectively on two of the conspirators’ descending life spirals, both of which the picture eschews, to its ultimate detriment. That said, the sight of three old Hollywood lefties (Lancaster, Will Geer and Robert Ryan, whose last film this was) as sinister reactionary collaborators holds a sly kick.


Play Misty for Me (1971) Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut is a time-capsule movie in any number of ways: As a depiction of the artistic colony of Carmel, California (where Eastwood resides, and was once a bar-owner — and later the mayor) at the beginning of the 1970s; the hair, autos, interior design and clothing of the time; the emergent style of Hollywood filmmaking as practiced by bright young directors feeling their oats; and, perhaps most interestingly, as an example of a narrative form that would no doubt be greeted with howls and Twitterized hisses today. “What? A thriller with a knife-wielding psycho… and she’s a woman? How dare they? And Eastwood goes to bed with her and then dumps her just because she’s a little unstable? #Hatred for the Mentally Ill! Maybe it was men like him who made her crazy! So she stabs his housekeeper — does that make her a bad person? (His Black housekeeper. #Racist!) And then he punches her? #Abuse! #Sexist Pig!” Never mind that one of the screenwriters (Jo Helms, who also crafted the story) was a woman. (The other was Dean Riesner.) Much more to the point is that fact that Eastwood’s character, an FM jazz d.j., behaves in such a demonstrably stupid manner throughout the rising action. And his directorial flourishes date the picture far more than the actors’ clothing, reaching their nadir in a soft-focus romantic montage with Donna Mills, set to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which became a Top 40 hit. There is a nice sequence at the Monterey Jazz Festival, a narrative development obviously close to the director’s heart, Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel shows up in a pair of nice bits as a barkeep and Jessica Walter does wonders with a character so frighteningly mercurial you wonder why her co-star doesn’t take out an immediate restraining order against her. But then, if he had, there might not be any movie. (I said he was stupid.) The great Bruce Surtees was the cinematographer.


Broken Arrow (1950) This early attempt at being fair to Native Americans — the screenwriter, uncredited until decades later, was the then-recently blacklisted Albert Maltz — is overly earnest, stilted in its dialogue (which James Stewart’s opening narration hastens to warn us is due to the Apache language being spoken solely in English) and, while beautifully shot in color by Ernest Palmer, was directed with no distinction whatsoever by Delmer Daves, whose oeuvre only a confirmed Sarrisite could love. Jeff Chandler, whose stardom has always seemed to me one of American cinema’s great enigmas, is Cochise. The best one can say is that at least he doesn’t embarrass himself. Debra Paget is rather lovely as Stewart’s eventual Apache bride, and Will Geer — himself about to be blacklisted — has a small, showy role as an angry settler. Mickey Kuhn, who memorably played Montgomery Clift as a boy in the early part of Red River, also appears, as Geer’s son. Stewart, alas, has little to tax him histrionically until late in the picture.


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Night Passage (1957) I’ve seldom seen a good Western novel so thoroughly — and, to my mind, perversely and irresponsibly — ruined by Hollywood as what the makers of this one did to Norman A. Fox’s remarkable little book. But either the producer or the screenwriter (the redoubtable Borden Chase) removed the guts from Fox’s story, one that couldn’t have been more of a ready-made movie if it had been typed in screenplay format. A terrific picture could, and should, have been made from it, preferably in black-and-white, but neither Chase nor James Neilson, the ploddingly literal director, trusted what they had. There’s not even more than a few minutes’ worth of night in the damn thing… and that with a director of photography as certifiably great as William H. Daniels! Audie Murphy gives a good account of the nominal villain; you get the sense that he, at least, read the book. But Brandon deWilde, while game, is years too young for a role that should have been cast with an adolescent, and Dan Duryea is truly dreadful; the characteristic habit of his role is laughter, but each time Duryea breaks into it, the braying result is as phony as the backdrops the actors are framed against in the medium shots and close-ups. As good as James Stewart is in the lead, he’d have been twice as effective if more of Fox had made it onto the screen. Indeed, the only actor in Night Passage who’s a true breath of fresh air is Olive Carey, and it’s notable that her character, a wise, cheerful old muleskinner, wasn’t in the novel at all. The picture reaches its creative nadir in an added sequence that probably pained Norman Fox as much as, if not more than, what they took out of his book: A would-be comic brawl among querulous Irish laborers that is no funnier here than it was the many times John Ford attempted it, usually with Victor McLaglen. An extended sequence, on a moving train-car, provides the only real suspense in the picture: You keep looking at Stewart and deWilde, and those rushing waters far down below, and wondering how much insurance was issued on the actors.


6. New to Me: Worth (or More Than Worth) the Trip

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From Noon ‘Til Three (1976) Frank D. Gilroy wrote and directed this delightful Rashomon-like parable, from his own ingenious little novel, which takes off from variations on what may have happened between a bank robber and a young widow during a crucial three-hour liaison. Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland are surprisingly charming as the lovers, and if the finale is less downbeat than the climax of the book its payoff is in its way no less pointed. Elmer Bernstein composed the delicious score, and the lyrics to his eponymous waltz are by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. (Bernstein and Alan Bergman appear on-screen as early Tin Pan Alley hacks, plugging the song.) Lucien Ballard added his usual luminous cinematography, and the Twilight Time Blu-Ray transfer makes splendid show of it.


Violent Saturday (1955) A good crime drama depicting the planning of a bank robbery in a mining town that gets a lift from the performances of Stephen McNally, Richard Egan, Sylvia Sidney, J. Carrol Naish, Margaret Hayes, Tommy Noonan and Lee Marvin. Sydney Boehm wrote it, from a novel by William L. Heath, and it’s crisply directed by Richard Fleischer. With its small town full of adulterous dames, peeping Toms and kleptomaniac librarians, the picture suggests what might have happened had Richard Stark written Peyton Place. Charles G. Clarke provided vivid Technicolor® cinematography, Hugo Friedhofer composed the taut and intelligently-spotted suspense score, and there’s a spectacular finale at a farmhouse owned by, of all people, Ernest Borgnine in an Amish beard and accent. Victor Mature, playing a man embarrassed that his son thinks he’s a coward, struggles manfully with a lousy part. He doesn’t overcome it, although he fares rather better with the villains.


The Crucible (1996) This excellent Nicholas Hytner-directed film of the 1953 Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials — and, in part, the playwright’s response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities — when seen in the years since the Democrats instigated a brand-new Red Scare on “evidence” no more substantial than that concocted by the terrified young Salemite Abigail Williams, carries with it a new and unavoidable metaphor: Hillary Clinton is Abigail.


The Landlord (1970) Hal Ashby’s directorial debut is a determinedly quirky take on what used, rather prettily in America, to be called “race relations.” The perennially under-rated Beau Bridges plays a wealthy ne’er-do-well who capriciously buys a Brooklyn apartment building, selfishly concerned only with refurbishing his own apartment and utterly unprepared for the wild array of his new black tenants, whom he plans to evict. The superb cast includes Diana Sands, Lee Grant, Pearl Bailey, Lou Gossett Jr., Mel Stewart and Robert Klein. Kristin Hunter wrote the novel on which the actor and playwright Bill Gunn based his cutting screenplay. Gordon Willis was the cinematographer.


The Public Eye (1992) Howard Franklin wrote and directed this beautifully photographed (by Peter Suschitzky) attempt at a latter-day, albeit period, film noir, basing the central character played by Joe Pesci on the idiosyncratic photojournalist Arthur Felling, aka “Weegee.” It doesn’t entirely work either as a character study or as a thriller, but it’s a highly original conceit, and Pesci, who has a tendency to repeat himself, is refreshingly restrained here. The always interesting Barbara Hershey also stars, and Stanley Tucci has a fine role as a hood with a conscience. Some of Wegee’s distinctive photos are featured, along with work by others.


Hombre (1967) One of several collaborations between Martin Ritt and the aforementioned screenwriters Ravetch and Frank, this one based on an Elmore Leonard Western. It’s an expansive movie, shot by the great James Wong Howe in widescreen and muted color, but doesn’t, finally, add up to a great deal. Paul Newman is the eponymous anti-hero, a taciturn young Caucasian raised by Apaches, and his performance is very nearly silent. It’s the kind of thing Steve McQueen made a fetish of, but that was due to his own well-deserved insecurities as an actor; you’ve only to picture any of McQueen’s defining roles with Newman instead, to comprehend the gulf that lay between them. Only a performer of Newman’s range and seriousness could really pull off the conceit, and he’s splendid here, as is the rather astonishing supporting cast: Frederic March, Diane Cilento, Cameron Mitchell, Martin Balsam, David Canary and, especially, the great Richard Boone. If not an ideal movie, it’s certainly an intelligent one.

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Tom Sawyer: Huck and Tom eavesdrop on their own funeral.

Tom Sawyer (1973) Conceived and written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman and financed by, of all things, The Reader’s Digest, this musical variation on Mark Twain turns out to be a welcome, and very pleasant, surprise. Johnny Whittaker is Tom to the life, especially in the delightful fence-painting sequence; with his curly mass of strawberry hair and those half-attractive/half-ordinary features, Whittaker passes for a young Sam Clemens, which is who Tom is anyway. As Becky Thatcher, Jodie Foster (in only her third film appearance) is already poised and appealing; and Celeste Holm is the Aunt Polly of one’s fondest dreams, exasperated and warm in equal measure. The Shermans elevated Muff Potter to featured status, giving Warren Oates a chance to shine (although his vocals were dubbed) and the supporting cast includes Jeff East, very good as Huckleberry Finn; Lucille Benson as the Widow Douglas; Henry Jones as the cane-wielding pedagogue; and, as “Injun Joe,” the impressive Kunu Hank (no actor, his entire performance was dubbed). It’s about as likable a piece of Americana as you could wish, and the Sherman songs are their distinctive, patented mix of word-drunk whimsy (“Gratifaction”) and incisive character writing (“Tom Sawyer,” “How Come?,” “If’n I Was God,” “Aunt Polly’s Soliloquy”). My only real complaint concerns the cavern sequence, too brightly lit to achieve the terror intended; the 1938 David O. Selznick version got it much better, and remains one of the most frightening memories of my life as a children’s matinee moviegoer in the late 1960s. (Obviously, Injun Joe is dispatched in a less grisly manner in both pictures than the truly nightmarish demise Twain gave him in his book.) The director, Don Taylor, shot the picture in Missouri, and his approach to the material — and indeed, that material itself — never falls into the elephantiasis that doomed so many movie musicals of the time. There’s a marvelous, long helicopter tracking shot of Whitaker running through fields toward the Mississippi to meet the steamboat docking there which is as lovely as it is exuberant; the airy, attractive cinematography is by Frank Stanley, and looks especially good in the Twilight Time Blu-Ray. John Williams supervised the music and also served, with Irwin Kostel, as orchestrator. The movie does contain an odd detail, one that would never pass muster today: When, in their duet ”Freebootin’,” Tom and Huck swim naked off Jackson’s Island, the camera catches, almost gratuitously, what seem to be deliberate (if brief) glimpses of their bare bottoms thrust above the water. We can tell they’re not wearing anything in the sequence; what was the point of embarrassing adolescent actors that way?


Huckleberry Finn (1974) Also featured on the Twilight Time Tom Sawyer release, this inevitable sequel fails on nearly every level. Yet somehow you don’t hate it. Sawyer’s producer, Arthur P. Jacobs, died before the picture began shooting, and his absence is felt throughout, especially as the director, J. Lee Thompson, clearly had no idea how a musical should be shot. László Kovács’ cinematography is gorgeous, but the predominance of muddy tones (and mud itself), while appropriate to a story set on the Mississippi, is at variance with the material. It might work for a straight adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it’s disastrous for a musical. And Thompson’s staging is no help either; when the Duke and the King (David Wayne and Harvey Korman) are introduced with an energetic soft-shoe, they’re reduced to stomping around in the mud; what should soar with comic invention merely lies there, inert and gasping for air. As Huckleberry Finn is not merely one of my favorite novels but a cornerstone of American literature, I was surprised that the picture didn’t offend me. But the technique that worked so well for the Sherman Brothers on Tom Sawyer — they called it “A Musical Adaptation” rather than attempting a perfect transliteration — doesn’t suit this book, whose incidents are so well-remembered, and so crucial to the narrative, that variations can only disappoint. The death of Colonel Grangerford (Arthur O’Connell) in the feud here, for instance, simply lacks the heartbreak and horror of young Buck Grangerford’s murder, witnessed by Huck. (When Buck himself appears, it is not as the Colonel’s grandson, but as a black boy slave.) Nor is there anything in the picture as horrific as the tarring-and-feathering of the King and the Duke. Worse, the Shermans, having omitted the attempted lynching of Colonel Sherburn, give some of his lines to the King! East, whose second picture this was, is unable to breathe much life into a character whose struggles are largely internal, and not well illuminated in the screenplay, and Paul Winfield makes a dignified and endearing Jim, but the movie lets them both down; at the end they simply part and the picture fades off into nothingness. Korman and Wayne probably come off best, although Gary Merrill’s brief turn as Pap is properly unpleasant, and Natalie Trundy has a nice cameo as Mrs. Loftus. But the Sherman songs are a great deal less buoyant and memorable than those in Tom Sawyer. I suspect the material, darker and more pointed, was simply not a part of their creative wheelhouse.


Run of the Arrow (1957) Samuel Fuller’s examination of race in post-Civil War America focuses on an Irish Confederate (Rod Steiger) who, refusing to accept Lee’s surrender, turns his back on white civilization. If you admire this most idiosyncratic of writer-directors, as I do, this one is essential viewing. Astonishingly, there are those now who don’t get that Steiger deliberately loses his accent when speaking Sioux when it’s blazingly obvious Fuller intended these dialogues, as the makers of Broken Arrow did, as representing the Siouan language in English. They think it’s just bad acting. Christ, how unbelievably obtuse Americans have become!

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The Tamarind Seed
(1974)
Blake Edwards’ return to filmmaking following his disastrous experiences on Darling Lili, Wild Rovers and The Carey Treatment is a fascinating, intelligent and very effective little romantic thriller (from a good novel by Evelyn Anthony) on Cold War tensions. It’s bright, tense, well-conceived and often witty, with good performances from Julie Andrews, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle and a brief but extremely effective John Barry score.

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The Traveling Executioner (1970)
Had Gerrie Bateson written The Traveling Executioner as a novel rather than a screenplay, it might have been hailed as a modern neo-Southern Gothic black comedy on a par with the best of Flannery O’Connor. The picture, directed by Jack Smight, has the feel of the form, and if it’s difficult to imagine quite how it could ever have caught on with a large audience, then or now, it’s also in its small way superior to the later, much-heralded John Huston adaptation of O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Bateson, whose only movie this was (he wrote a Night Gallery and a Mission: Impossible before disappearing from the business forever) completed it for a film-school assignment, and it exhibits a smart novice’s go-for-broke quality. It’s ruthlessly efficient, rather like the device the smirkingly-named Jonas Candide (Stacey Keach) creates for quick penal executions, and carries through without compromise from its premise to its unsettling climax. Keach, fresh from Arthur Kopit’s play Indians and with his long hair worn in an anachronistic ponytail, is splendid, never appealing for audience sympathy as a less secure performer might. Although the tone veers from knockabout comedy to genuine tragedy, the picture feels entirely of a piece. My only cavil is with the ending, in which the dejected mortician played by Bud Cort takes on Jonas’ persona, and takes over his job. Having botched things so spectacularly, what state — even a backwards Deep Southern one — would let him continue executing felons? The Jerry Goldsmith score is a marvel, ranging from a circus-like waltz theme whose calliope gives way to an ersatz Gospel hymn, to a tender, moving accompaniment for Jonas’ soothing verbal depictions for his victims of an annealing vision he calls “The Fields of Ambrosia.” Love it or hate it, it’s certainly unlike any other movie you’ll ever see.


The Comancheros (1961) A big, colorful, episodic John Wayne vehicle that never takes itself seriously for a moment, and doesn’t ask you to either, and all the more likable for that. (Although Wayne’s character was subservient to that of Stuart Whitman’s in the Paul I. Wellman novel on which it was based.) The backstory is in some ways even more interesting than the picture — see the Wikipedia entry — and it was the final work of Michael Curtiz, whose illness forced him to withdraw during shooting; Wayne himself completed the movie. Clair Huffaker’s script was eventually re-written by Wayne stalwart James Edward Grant when the actor was cast in a role intended first for James Garner. The flavorsome cast includes Ina Balin, Bruce Cabot, Jack Elam, Jack Buchanan, Gwinn “Big Boy” Williams, and Henry Daniell. Nehemiah Persoff makes an elegant, wheelchair-bound villain, and Lee Marvin is both amusing and frightening as a mercurial, whip-wielding gun-runner who, scalped by Comanches, wears his remaining hair in a long braid down one side of his head. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score in his characteristic Big Western mode, and it’s a honey, rousing and relentlessly melodic.


Wall Street (1987) Although supposedly made in tribute to his stockbroker father, Oliver Stone’s movie is really a disgusted response to the bald, grasping greed of the Reagan era. And while Michael Douglas is perhaps my least favorite actor of his generation, I must admit he has a feel — come by naturally, one presumes — for embodying sleaziness. I am if anything less enamored still of Charlie Sheen, Martin’s less gifted son, but even he is in good form here, as Bud Fox, an ambitious young trader who willingly allows himself to become corrupt. (Is it coincidental that he shares the first name of Jack Lemmon’s equally climbing would-be junior executive in The Apartment?) Martin Sheen himself provides splendid contrast as Bud’s honest dad, Hal Holbrook has some nice moments as a seasoned broker, James Karen is solid as Bud’s predictably mercurial boss, and Terence Stamp does well by an icy corporate raider. Only Darryl Hanna proves a true embarrassment; in her big break-up scene with the younger Sheen, she’s appalling. Whatever his limitations as an actor, he’s trying to do honor to the moment, but she gives him nothing to play against. Stone, who wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser, has a fine feeling for the trappings and appurtenances of the time and place, although when the picture ends you may find yourself shrugging with indifference at the whole thing.

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Gazarra and Bogdanovich. Two pimps. At least Jack’s whores give pleasure.

Saint Jack (1979) Largely ignored on its release, and barely given a chance to find an audience, this adaptation by Peter Bogdanovich, Howard Sackler and Paul Theroux of the latter’s caustic picaresque novel set in the Singapore of the 1960s and early ‘70s is beautifully made and wonderfully acted, especially by its star, Ben Gazzara, who gives a performance in which every word and sparing gesture is so honest we feel like eavesdroppers. Bogdanovich and his collaborators — although presumably not Theroux — deviate from the book’s structure (it’s both linear and temporally fragmented) and its events in substantial ways, particularly in their depiction of the Hong Kong-based accountant played with understated garrulity by Denholm Elliott; he dies early in the novel, but pops up repeatedly in the picture, and since Elliott is so pleasing a presence, even Theroux devotees may not mind.  Bogdanovich himself shows up, in a coldly effective portrayal as a wealthy fixer. (Amusingly, his ever-present aide and chauffeur walks as if he has a stick shoved permanently up his ass.) George Lazenby appears late in the movie as a liberal Senator, the unintentional means of Jack’s redemption. Interestingly, Bogdanovich changes the odd but essentially innocent liaison between the politician and a young woman Jack is supposed to spy on into one between Lazenby and a native rent-boy, making Jack’s rejection of the plot even more pointed. I say “interestingly” because Bogdanovich has seemed in his writing to be at best rather uneasy with homoeroticism. Robby Müller photographed the picture, beautifully, on location.


The Immortal Story (1968 — Criterion) Orson Welles’ intriguing adaptation, for French television, of the Isak Dinesen story was his first project not filmed in black-and-white. And while he disdained color, he shortly became a master of it; his subsequent F for Fake is the most beautiful of movies, and among the most pictorially splendid of Welles’ own work. Welles was also a realist, and he understood that color was increasingly important to distribution, indeed the dominant mode of world cinema, and especially, television. (The Immortal Story was shot by Willy Kurant.) Welles appears as the wealthy catalyst of the events, Roger Coggio is his ambiguous aide-de-camp, Norman Eshley is the virginal young sailor and the luminous Jeanne Moreau is the impecunious woman at the center. Since I have not read Dinesen’s story, I am not sure what is missing in the loss of authorial voice, and indeed I would like to know how Dinesen ends the narrative, because I’m not at all certain how I am supposed to feel, and what it all means. On that basis — one of the most basic to movies — The Immortal Story must, I suppose, be accounted an artistic failure; a picture that depends on our understanding of the story it is based on and cannot express its own intentions clearly enough to stand on its own is not a success. Or perhaps I’m just thick-headed. Despite the foregoing, anything Welles put his name to is, perforce, worth seeing, and more than once. I’m sure I’ll be watching this one again… although I also suspect that it, like his adaptation of The Trial, will never be a personal favorite.



7. Revisited with pleasure

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Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale in various attitudes of perplex, phony grief and calculation.

The Death of Stalin (2017) Armando Iannucci co-wrote (with David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows) and directed this at once hilarious and horrifying black comedy based on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, and it’s one of the finest — and funniest — political satires in motion picture history. Granting there haven’t been that many of those takes nothing away from this audacious, witty, occasionally shocking and blazingly intelligent movie. Even the casting amuses: When Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor show up (as, respectively, Khrushchev, Molotov and Malenkov) they elicit sly chuckles. There is, however, nothing remotely amusing about Simon Russell Beale’s chilling performance as the appalling Lavrentiy Beria. Rat-like both in action and physiognomy (courtesy of some superb prosthesis by Kristyan Mallett), pathologically sadistic and lethally efficient, Beale’s Beria is a genuine sociopath who only exhibits human feeling when it’s his own neck on the line. Buscemi and Tambor take top honors among the comedians but the entire picture is beautifully cast, with standout work especially from Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina. Foolishly, “Me Too” accusations against Tambor led to the producers erasing him from the poster while the picture was still in theatres. One wonders where this insanity will end. With Errol Flynn being digitally erased from The Sea Hawk, presumably.


Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) An enjoyable farce starring James Caan, Elliott Gould, Diane Keaton and Michael Caine whose screenplay, one gathers, was muddled by that hack Mark Rydell; Caan averred Rydell “completely” re-wrote what he called a “wonderful script” — by John Byrum, with later revisions by Robert Kaufman and Don Devlin — adding, “The director sacrificed jokes to tell a story no one cared about.” (Leslie Anne Warren, who is featured in the deliberately overripe, and amusingly sabotaged, play-within-the-film, claimed she couldn’t get work for five years after the picture opened.) If you approach this period farce with appropriately lowered expectations it’s buoyant and engaging, if not especially hilarious. The muted ending is another detraction, turning as it does Keaton’s radical newspaper publisher into a rank, gold-digging opportunist. Among the delicious supporting cast: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Michael Conrad, Burt Young, Bert Remsen and the always delightful Jack Gilford. The early 1900s décor is sumptuous, heightened by the burnished cinematography of László Kovács and the bouncy score is by the great David Shire, who also appears, briefly, as the blasé pianist accompanying Harry and Walter’s vaudeville act.


The Front Page (1931) The first time I saw this Lewis Milestone-directed version of the Hecht and McArthur play, in an admittedly poor print, it seemed to me one of those creaky, set-bound early talkies that illustrated why the camera needed to be freed from the tyranny of the sweat-box microphone. But the restored edition, made available on Criterion’s splendid recent release of His Girl Friday, showed me just how wrong I was. Culling footage from the domestic, British and foreign versions of the picture, and a 35mm print from the Howard Hughes Collection struck from the original nitrate negative in 1970, the Academy Film Archive re-assembled and restored the movie to spectacular life. Although Lee Tracy, the original Hildy Johnson, was engaged elsewhere in Hollywood (and playing very similar roles) Pat O’Brien makes a suitable substitute, and that insufferable old reactionary Adolphe Menjou is a very credible Walter Burns. Best among the supporting cast are Walter Catlett (as Murphy), Mae Clarke (Molly Malloy), Slim Summerville (Pincus), Frank McHugh (McCue) and, as Bensinger, the peerless Edward Everett Horton.


Harper (1966) William Goldman wrote this sharp adaptation — and slight updating — of Ross Macdonald’s initial Lew Archer novel The Moving Target, removing, thankfully, most of the original’s ugly homophobia in the process. (Perhaps at Paul Newman’s request? That is sheer speculation on my part, but something about the subject of homosexuality clearly bugged Macdonald; every Archer novel I’ve read contains at least one unsavory Lesbian or gay man, and Newman was notably squeamish about such sexual demonizing. The one exception in the picture is the murderous thug played by Roy Jenson whom Harper queer-baits, to predictable results.) The star, coming off The Hustler and Hud, was convinced that the letter “H” was lucky for him, hence the change from Archer to Harper. The rich supporting cast includes Lauren Bacall as a paraplegic ice-queen; Julie Harris as a drug-addicted singer-pianist; Arthur Hill as Archer’s lawyer pal; Janet Leigh as his dry, cynical ex-wife; Pamela Tiffin as a spoiled rich girl; Robert Wagner, pretty and dangerous as a glorified pool-boy; Shelley Winters as a former Hollywood starlet turned blowsy man-trap; Harold Gould as a sheriff; and Strother Martin as a phony spiritualist. Johnny Mandel wrote the brief, jazzy score. Appropriate to the tawdry sadness that overlies the Archer books, Goldman’s twists are less clever than deflating, particularly the last one, and he gets off some pretty fair hard-boiled lines of his own, the best and most famous being one for Newman: “The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise.”


Dick Tracy (1990) Warren Beatty’s witty take on the notably grisly Chester Gould strip, complete with a color palette evoking the bright hues of the Sunday newspaper comic page… and which scores of ignorant American critics referred to at the time of the picture’s release as having been done in “primary colors”… which of course would have meant only in red, blue and yellow. Maybe they were taking their cue from Richard A. Sylbert, the movie’s designer(!), who said the same thing(!!) in a number of contemporary interviews. It’s a fast, enjoyable ride (Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. are the credited screenwriters) decked out with some marvelous pastiche songs by Stephen Sondheim, a Danny Elfman score that emulates Gershwin as well as his usual hommages to Herrmann and Rota, glorious photography by Vittorio Storaro, and a terrific cast to embody the many odd, pre-Fellini grotesques of Gould’s imagination. Aside from Beatty himself as Tracy, Madonna as his temptress Breathless Mahoney (she gets a great Sondheim number in the Harold Arlen mode called “Sooner or Later”), the delicious Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart and the gifted Casey Korsmo as Junior we also get Seymour Cassel (Sam Catchem), Michael J. Pollard (Bug Bailey), Charles Durning (Chief Brandon), William Forsythe (Flattop), Ed O’Ross (Itchy), Mandy Patinkin (88 Keys), R. G. Armstrong (Pruneface), Paul Sorvino (Lips Manlis) and, in an inspired bit of kidding, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles. Dick Van Dyke, alas, is wasted as a crooked D.A., but Al Pacino has a veritable field-day as the chief villain “Big Boy” Caprice. It’s the perfect role in which to indulge his penchant for explosive over-acting; like Akim Tamiroff in Touch of Evil, he’s both menacing and very, very funny. Mike Mazurki also shows up, in a bit. He’s a living link to the past the movie depicts, as is Mel Tormé, whose voice we hear on the radio crooning Sondheim’s “Live Alone and Like It.”

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Lily Tomlin in the great sequence in which three women hear Keith Carradine perform “I’m Easy” and each is convinced he’s singing directly to her.

Nashville (1975) — Criterion
Robert Altman and Joan Tewksbury’s unrivalled nonesuch, one of the greatest movies of a great movie period.


Tom Jones (1963) — Criterion John Osbourne wrote and Tony Richardson directed this elegant, playful, French New Wave-inspired adaptation of the sprawling Henry Fielding novel, which made Albert Finney an international star. (It made a then-astonishing $36 million in its initial release, on a $1 million budget.) Five and a half decades on, the bawdiness which titillated its contemporary audience has become about as shocking to the sensibilities as an octogarian grandmother saying, “Fuck,” but the performances, and Walter Lassally’s exquisitely rendered cinematography, remain enchanting, and the famous “eating scene” between Finney and Joyce Redman is still riotously suggestive. Although I am averse to the hack-phrase “breaking the fourth wall,” which is most often used by the sort of people who think direct address was invented in Hollywood sometime around the year 2000, it’s notable that Richardson and Osbourne (and yes, dear auteurists, the moments were scripted) have fun twitting the audience with acknowledgments of the camera: Redman’s impressed, impish shrug to the audience when she realizes she’s slept with her own son is still jaw-droppingly hilarious. Susannah York makes a charming Sophie Western, Hugh Griffith is a roistering Hogarthian feast as her father, and the rest of the fine supporting cast (Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, George Devine, David Tomlinson, Jack MacGowran, David Warner, Peter Bull, Angela Baddeley, John Moffatt, Lynn Redgrave) are a comprehensive delight. Micheál Mac Liammóir adds his rich, plummy actor’s tones to Osborne’s narration which, while it does not often quote Fielding directly, approximates his style with aplomb. The witty score is by John Addison, and Antony Gibbs provided the sprightly editing.


The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) Terry Gilliam is, arguably, our greatest movie fantasist — and, inarguably, has the worst luck of any major filmmaker; there is nothing as insane in the Gilliam universe as the people for whom he has worked. On Munchausen, he was saddled with a very strange, possibly criminal, German producer and yoked to corrupt Italian artisans and the wildly expensive and inefficient facilities at Cinecittà, rendering much of his original vision compromised… and, when the picture was completed, suits and countersuits by the completion bond company and the indifference of a new regime at Columbia Pictures which preferred taking a $38 million loss to promoting a project of the previous administration. Yet Gilliam delivered a movie of such richness it is nearly overstuffed with delights. Seeing it in a theatre in 1988 was an exhilarating experience, one comparable to the high you get if you’re lucky enough to watch Lawrence of Arabia on a wide commercial screen. The director and his co-scenarist, Charles McKeown, made going to the movies an act of veneration, and the Cineplex a palace of wonders: An ancient European city besieged by Ottoman artillery; encounters with Death; a wild nocturnal ride on a cannonball; a hot-air balloon made of women’s undergarments; a flight to the Moon; a corresponding plunge to the center of the earth; ingestion by a giant sea monster; incarceration in, and escape from, a Turkish seraglio; and a character whose impossible feats of sprinting make him the human equivalent of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner. Nor are these marvels wholly (or even necessarily partly) realistic. Munchausen is, if anything, about the advantages of storytelling artifice over absolute verisimilitude, and the movie is filled with delicious theatrical concepts — another age’s deliberately exaggerated invocation of splendor. The great Giuseppe Rotunno shot the picture, which features John Neville as the Baron, Sarah Polley as the skeptical child he endeavors to convert, Eric Idle as Berthold, Jonathan Pryce as an officious officer, Oliver Reed as Vulcan, Uma Thurman as Venus, Valentina Cortese as the Queen of the Moon and a prototypically untrammeled Robin Williams (in the credits he’s “Ray D. Tutto,” a homonym approximation of the Italian “king of all”) as the King.


The Godfather (1972) I doubt I can add anything to the millions of words that have been written, and said, about Francis Coppola’s adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel, with Jaws a prime exemplar of the notion that third-rate source material can, when filtered through the sensibilities of supernally gifted popular artists, yield first-rate movies. The Blu-Ray edition of the “Coppola Restoration” is exquisite.

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Rio Bravo (1959) I have a good friend who positively loathes Howard Hawks. I am precisely the opposite. I don’t love his movies equally, and I know dreck when I see it, whoever made it. But when I think of the creative filmmakers (as opposed to the many hacks for hire whose oeuvres made Andrew Sarris swoon) whose best work I most enjoy, Hawks — with Wilder, Welles and Chuck Jones — comes high on the list. Rio Bravo is one of those pictures that, if I begin watching it, I know I’m in for the duration. It is, in a way, a perfect distillation of everything Hawks did well, and all his thematic quirks. That sort of thing can be deadly, but, working with the excellent screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, Hawks keeps things light and, despite the lengthy running time, so relaxed and enjoyable you don’t even mind the cavalier attitude he took toward re-staging for a new picture what had already worked for him once. (He apparently had never heard that old movies were regularly showing up on television. And he would later essentially remake Rio Bravo twice, in the 1967 El Dorado and his final movie, the very likable 1970 John Wayne Western Rio Lobo.) All of the Hawksian concerns are here: Intense male camaraderie bearing more than a whiff of the homoerotic; fast talk between cynical men and sharp, witty women (Angie Dickinson is pretty much Bacall in To Have and Have Not, albeit without Bacall’s ineffable je ne sais quoi); and action that, while headed for an explosion, dawdles charmingly on seeming irrelevancies that add immeasurably to its texture. Made in part as a response to High Noon, whose plot Hawks found infuriating, in Rio Bravo the protagonists spend much of the picture preparing for an impending assault by outlaw killers, and the rest of the Texas town might as well not even exist. Aside from Wayne, giving one of his most relaxed and endearing performances, the cast includes Dean Martin, very good in an essentially dramatic role; Walter Brennan, lovably cantankerous; and the astonishingly beautiful Ricky Nelson as a young gunslinger. Russell Harlan photographed the picture and Dmitri Tiomkin scored it, less bombastically than was his usual wont.

the verdict
The Verdict (1982) Paul Newman’s performance as Frank Gavin, a broken-down, ambulance-chasing lawyer handed a life-changing case he’s expected to lose is so keenly observed many of us in 1982 were convinced there was no way the Academy could continue denying him his Oscar®. We hadn’t counted on the typical response to Gandhi: Alcoholics (and the physically and mentally handicapped) usually get awards, but not as many as historical figures. (23 in the “Best Actor” category, at last count.) Scarcely less impressive than Newman are James Mason as his urbane opposing counsel; Charlotte Rampling as his ambiguous love interest; Jack Warden as his mentor; Milo O’Shea as a political hack of a judge; Edward Binns as a Bishop; Julie Bovasso as an angry potential witness; Wesley Addy as a self-important surgeon; Joe Seneca, both dignified and apologetic as Newman’s chief medical expert; and Lindsey Crouse in a striking turn as an unexpected witness. (You can also, if you look closely, spot the young Bruce Willis as a courtroom observer in the climactic scene.) I am by no means an admirer of that overpraised reactionary David Mamet, but this almost insanely overrated playwright got nearly everything right here,† and jettisoned most of what made Barry Reed’s novel such an irritatingly second-rate exercise. (Rampling’s character in the book, for example, is a one-dimensional schemer — a corporate bitch; Mamet gives her moments of aching humanity, and when Newman decks her in justifiable fury, you hate neither of them.) Sidney Lumet directed, with his customary intelligence and unobtrusive artistry, and Andrzej Bartkowiak provided the autumnal imagery. My only cavil with Newman’s otherwise scathingly honest performance: Frank smokes, constantly, but Newman never inhales, and it’s almost shockingly phony to watch. Wouldn’t it have been better to have dropped the cigarettes entirely than let your star look that foolish?


The Boys from Brazil (1978) Perhaps there were too many old Nazis running around in the late ‘70s… by which I mean, on the nation’s movie and television screens. I have a feeling that, after Marathon Man (1976) explored the narrative possibilities of resurrecting Mengele, The Odessa File (1974) played out its revenge fantasy, television weighed in with Holocaust and The Wall, and this, Ira Levin’s masterly speculation on cloning Hitler, had come and gone, there was little appetite left for the subject. Which might explain why the very fine Thomas Gifford thriller The Wind Chill Factor, positing nothing less than that Nazism was not only alive and well but integral to Western governmental organization, was announced, on the jacket of its paperback edition, as “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture”… and promptly never was. In any case, The Boys from Brazil gave us, of all people, Gregory Peck as Mengele, Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man’s Mengele stand-in) as a Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter, James Mason as Peck’s comrade and eventual nemesis, Uta Hagen as a bitter old one-time Nazi guard, and the gifted Jeremy Black in multiple roles, each intensely dislikable, as the boys. The supporting cast is especially effective, and includes Lilli Palmer, Steve Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Bruno Ganz, Walter Gotell, Wolfgang Preiss, Michael Gough, and Prunella Scales. The screenplay, by Heywood Gould (who later wrote the effective cop study Fort Apache—The Bronx) was largely true to Levin’s work, Franklin Schaffner directed it with verve (and staged a notably gory climax) and Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his essential ‘70s scores, hinging it on an at once exuberant and sinister waltz theme — coffee mit bitters. And if the picture lacks the gravitas and the nerve-wracking grip of Marathon Man, it’s that rare thing, an intelligent thriller, and Peck has a high old time of it playing militantly against type.


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
A perennial favorite since I first encountered it on television around 1969, this most likable of all Don Knotts comedies gets a workout on my Blu-Ray player every October.

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JFK: The Director’s Cut
(1991/1997) Love it or despair of it, Oliver Stone’s incendiary examination of the Kennedy assassination was one of the most important movies of its time, its popularity leading directly to the establishment of the Assassination Records Review Board. That the Board has not, as directed by law, made public “all existing assassination-related documents,” that the CIA has not permitted the release of the most incriminating information, and that we are still awaiting some confirmation of the essential facts, is hardly Stone’s fault. To expect more would, one suspects, be tantamount to believing in Santa Claus, or in the non-existence of an American Empire. Based primarily on On the Trail of the Assassins, Jim Garrison’s memoir of prosecuting what is to date (and a half-century ago) the single case brought against any of the conspirators and on Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, Stone and Zachary Sklar fashioned a fiercely cinematic examination of the assassination and its largely transparent official cover-up that so enraged the Establishment it was attacked even while it was being shot — Time magazine even published a critique on an early script, making blatantly false claims about its content. That more than slightly hysterical response only intensified when the picture opened big; its success must have truly unnerved the CIA and its plants in the American press. Pat Dowell, the film critic for The Washingtonian, found a mere 34-word capsule review killed for being, however brief, positive, and even The Advocate piled on; I am ashamed to admit their screaming headline (“JFK: Pinko Fags Offed the Prez!”) kept me from the theatres in 1991… and from Stone’s work generally, for years. Well, it was my loss. And I should have realized, once nearly every mainstream media outlet in America inveigled against the movie, that Stone was touching a very raw nerve. He and Sklar were criticized even by dedicated assassination researchers like Mark Lane, who did not seem to understand that a feature is not a documentary. And while it is true that they conflated some characters, made composites of several participants (the racist male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon, for example, is based on a number of real figures)‡, speculated — as all assassination journalists, given no official confirmation, must — and (horrors!) invented dialogue, that is what filmmakers do. One can reasonably nit-pick over a scene such as the one in which the terrified David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) says more than one imagines he would to Garrison’s team, but to dismiss the picture entirely because a dramatist dramatized is to admit you know nothing about movies, and understand less. But Stone’s critics make up their own rules where he is concerned… that is, when they don’t ignore his pictures entirely. There are sequences in JFK that are among his finest work: The long sequence with “X” (Donald Sutherland), the former operative based on L. Fletcher Prouty and John Newman, is, in its melding of dialogue and music (by John Williams) and its gripping juxtaposition of images, the work of an absolute master. One can reasonably quarrel with Kevin Costner as Garrison, an imposition, one assumes, by Warner Bros. as box-office insurance. It’s a role rather beyond not merely his limited abilities but his physiognomy and vocal timbre; Garrison sounded more like Gregory Peck than anyone else and was of comparable and imposing physical stature. Costner isn’t bad by any means, merely conventional. He gets exceptional support, moreover, from the large cast, which includes Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison, Edward Asner as Guy Banister, Brian Doyle-Murray as Jack Ruby, John Candy as Dean Andrews, Jr. and Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin. Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight and Jay O. Sanders play members of Garrison’s legal team, John Larroquette shows up as a lightly disguised version of Johnny Carson, and Garrison himself appears, briefly, as Earl Warren. Robert Richardson was the cinematographer, and the kinetic editing was the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. JFK is most effectively enjoyed in its 206-minute “Director’s Cut.” Appropriately, the most disturbing moments in the picture stem from Stone’s use of the Zapruder footage which, however altered by the CIA, is still horrific after 55 years. As Richard Belzer is fond of reminding people, whatever one’s feelings about John F. Kennedy, or how and why and by whom he was killed, a man died that day in Dallas — horribly.

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The number of the Beast: Sam Waterston as Richard Helms.

Nixon (1995) Criminally ignored — when not slammed outright, by the same chorus of professional neoliberals and CIA plants who reflexively ganged up to “discredit” JFK in 1991 — on its release, this Oliver Stone picture, written by Stone with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, is less a conventional “biopic” than an epic meditation on post-war American political realities, using as its anchor that most Shakespearean of Presidents. (Much of the idiot criticism the movie engendered centered on Stone’s audacious depiction of Richard M. Nixon as a multi-faceted human being… the first obligation of the dramatist.) It’s a film that looks better with each viewing, particularly in Strone’s home-video “Director’s Cut,” which among other things restored what to me seems its most absolutely essential sequence, between Anthony Hopkins’ RMN and a silkily foreboding Sam Waterston as the CIA Director Richard Helms — the single segment of the picture that most directly addresses Stone’s central thesis: That the President, whoever he (or in future, she) might be, is a temporary employee of a National Security State so overweening, and so powerful, it is a beast with its own sinister momentum, over which the Commander in Chief has no recourse, defense, or power. One senses in its excision from the 1995 theatrical release the fine Italian hand of the Walt Disney Company. Elaine May once observed that “They” always know what your movie is about — the very reason you wanted to make it — because it’s what they make you cut first.

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The Russia House (1990)
A beautifully lucid and bracingly intelligent spy thriller out of le Carré that, unlike the run of these things, rewards repeated viewings as few such entertainments ever do.


The Front (1976) Even at 15 I knew that this earnest dramatic comedy written, directed by and starring a number of blacklist survivors carried with it more than a whiff of wish-fulfillment. Yet it carries you along, and engenders a great deal of good will, despite Woody Allen’s amateurish performance, and general repulsiveness of personality, in the lead. The nadir of Allen’s appearance here is his questioning by a HUAC panel. The great screen actors allow a director to photograph thought; at the crucial moment, all Allen knows how to do is blink and stare. Walter Bernstein was the screenwriter and Martin Ritt directed. The supporting cast includes Andrea Marcovicci (struggling against a poorly written part), Michael Murphy (very good as a blacklisted television writer), Zero Mostel (obnoxious in a largely obnoxious role), Herschel Bernardi as a harried network producer, Remak Ramsey as a slithery investigator, Lloyd Gough and David Margulies (also playing blacklistees, which Gough was), Charles Kimbrough and Josef Sommer (as HUAC members) and in a small early role, Danny Aiello. The great Michael Chapman (The Last Detail, The White Dawn, Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Raging Bull) provided the warm, burnished cinematography of a lovely, and lovingly recreated, 1950s New York.

winchester '73
Winchester ’73 (1950) This first of many taut collaborations between James Stewart and the director Anthony Mann is tough to beat. It’s practically a Western noir, shot by the great William H. Daniels in beautifully rendered black-and-white and written (by Robert L. Richards, with an important final revision by Borden Chase) seemingly in hot type. Stewart, to my mind the single finest actor in American movie history, plays a man obsessed, at which he excelled — the sort of role that allowed this beloved figure to limn the darker contours of American life. Some think this is a post-war innovation, but if you look over Stewart’s filmography you become aware that this dramatic tendency (which he shared with Cary Grant, an actor just barely second to him in range and ability) goes back at least to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, and that even in such sparkling comedies as The Philadelphia Story and The Shop Around the Corner he hints at discordant rumblings beneath an often placid surface. The splendid cast includes Shelley Winters as a tarnished angel, Millard Mitchell as Stewart’s trusted friend, Charles Drake as a congenital coward, John McIntire as a laconic seller of firearms, the ever-likable Jay C. Flippen as a Cavalry officer, Rock Hudson as a dangerous Indian, the wonderful Will Geer (who was shortly to be blacklisted) as Wyatt Earp, Stephen McNally as the object of Stewart’s quest, Tony Curtis in a small role as a soldier and Dan Duryea as a cheerful psychopath; the scene in which Stewart interrogates him, nearly breaking his arm, is a small masterpiece of unexpected violence. Stewart’s profit participation deal with Universal for this and the film of Harvey made him a very wealthy man.

the magnificent ambersons - moorehead
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) — Criterion Whenever I contemplate what RKO did to what might have been Orson Welles’ masterpiece, not merely disemboweling it but destroying the original negative, I become physically ill. Yet even in its severely truncated form, Ambersons is a movie of such exquisite textures it demands to be seen, studied and yes, even loved. Perhaps no American literary adaptation has so conscientiously retained its author’s voice, with Welles himself memorably narrating Booth Tarkington’s un-emphatic yet revealing descriptive prose. Perhaps only a master radio dramatist, as Welles certainly was, would have been as concerned with the sound and shape of authorial tone, and Tarkington’s lovely novel was quite clearly one that resonated with him; he adapted it for radio twice before embarking on the movie. Unavoidably out of the country as the picture was being edited, and lacking the right of final cut he enjoyed on Citizen Kane, Welles was powerless to stop the picture’s evisceration: His initial cut ran 148 minutes, the preview edit was 131, and the final release print was further hacked to a mere 88 — fully an hour shorter than Welles intended. It was one of those two previews that so frightened management at RKO, when his ending, and Agnes Moorehead’s performance, received what he later called “roars of laughter from some stupid Saturday night audience.” That climax, it should be noted, was the one area in which Welles’ narrative diverged from Tarkington’s, and certainly it was depressingly dark.§ But the studio’s solution, allowing several hacks (one of whom was the editor, Robert Wise) to re-shoot in an appallingly unambiguous manner, not even attempting to match the style to that of Welles, are disastrous, and it takes a strong constitution to bear them; the final scene is especially stomach-churning. (The movie’s composer, Bernard Herrmann, was so incensed by the damage done to the picture he demanded his credit be removed.) Matters weren’t helped by the slowness with which Stanley Cortez lit the stages for his admittedly shimmering cinematography — and indeed, the time he wasted likely would have allowed Welles to edit it to both his and RKO’s satisfaction; Cortez was eventually fired and replaced with Jack MacKenzie. What still exists is among the finest work, not merely by Welles, but by anyone. There are sequences, like the ball in the Amberson mansion, and two on the streets of the Midwestern city in which the story takes place that are among the most quietly astonishing ever committed to celluloid. And his cast is first-rate: Tim Holt as Georgie Minafer, the spoiled, headstrong scion of the family; Ray Collins as his laconic uncle; Dolores Costello as his indulgent mother; Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan, her quondam and future suitor; Anne Baxter as his daughter, and Georgie’s inamorata, strangely unable to resist this appalling boy; Richard Bennett, deeply moving as the Amberson patriarch; and Moorehead in a towering performance as Georgie’s embittered spinster aunt, who foolishly if unwittingly sets in motion the wheels of the family’s eventual destruction. Her scene with Holt toward the end, where she bravely resists her own rising hysteria until she can no longer stave it off, is one of the peerlessly great moments in movie acting. Welles always wondered why she didn’t get an Academy Award for her performance, and you will too.


* Ten, if you don’t watch Stone’s two Prologues detailing the last years of the 19th century and the earlier years of the 20th — and you should; they provide the necessary context to what follows. There is also on the Blu-Ray set a splendid, long colloquy between Stone and Tariq Ali that is not to be missed.

†Except the ending. Infamously, Mamet concluded his screenplay without the jury returning a verdict, then left the picture in a childish huff when his wisdom was questioned. (The producer suggested that, had they filmed the picture as Mamet wrote it, the marquees would have to have read “The Verdict?”)

‡One of them, Perry Russo — who as far as I know was not a hustler, although the question of his sexuality is a curious one — was Garrison’s star witness. Interestingly, Russo appears nowhere in JFK.

§In the novel, the eventual redemption of both Georgie Minafer and Eugene Morgan is accomplished through a bizarre deus ex machina: Eugene, while in New York, visits a medium, whose “control” convinces him he must “be kind.” Welles later told Peter Bogdanovich that his ending was “not to un-do any fault in Tarkington,” but surely he was either mis-remembering, or protecting Tarkington’s reputation, which he quite reasonably felt deserved contemporary re-evaluation.
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Post-Script
I have, since writing the above, heard Oliver Stone admit that he cut the Richard Helms sequence from Nixon on his own volition and not, as I assumed, due to studio interference. I respectfully submit that he was wrong. That single scene is what Stone’s Nixon is really all about.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross