The Great Race (1965)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Blake Edwards’ wildly extravagant paean to slapstick humor is excessive, overlong… and absolutely wonderful. The premise involves an early 20th century New York-to-Paris road race viewed through the delicious prism of a classic rivalry: Tony Curtis as the white-suited hero The Great Leslie, and Jack Lemmon — complete with black cape and twirlable mustache — as Professor Fate.

Edwards and his co-scenarist Arthur A. Ross add an “emancipated” female reporter (Natalie Wood, reportedly in personal misery during filming but ravishingly beautiful, fast-talking, and quite funny);

Prisoner of Zenda sub-plot featuring Lemmon in a very fey second role;

and a plethora of marvelous comedians adding diamond-bright cameos and supporting performances: Keenan Wynn, Vivian Vance, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Ross Martin, George MacCready, Dorothy Provine and, as Lemmon’s sidekick Max, the matchless Peter Falk. (“Push… the button, Max!”)

 

Lemmon gave far better performances in much greater movies, but — aside from Some Like it Hot — he was never funnier than he is here. His timing is perfection itself, and he gets more out of a single raised eyebrow than most comedians can squeeze from a roomful of props. A two-part television airing of The Great Race on successive Sunday nights was my introduction to Lemmon, at age 11. I thought he was the cat’s pajamas. I still do.

Interestingly, and appropriately, the sound effects were provided by the great Warner Bros. Cartoons editor Treg Brown, who won an Oscar; listen carefully and you’ll hear Brown’s trademark “voice” throughout. (A torpedo is one sequence bears more than a passing aural resemblance to the sounds that herald the appearance of the Tasmanian Devil.) The score, naturally for an Edwards’s movie, is by Henry Mancini, with lyrical assists from Johnny Mercer.

Blake Edwards demonstrating the science of throwing pies. His guinea pig is Natalie Wood. Jack Lemmon said of the massive pie-fight which climaxes the Prisoner of Zenda sub-plot that the first couple of takes were fun; after that, it began to feel like being hit in the face with sacks of wet cement.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Mikey and Nicky (1975)

Standard

By Scott Ross

One of those great, underrated (and largely unseen) movies that make you both proud of what can be accomplished on film and despairing that such accomplishment will ever attain popular success. Peter Falk and John Cassavetes are a pair of minor-league hoods, childhood pals who don’t really like each other. Nicky (Cassavetes) is on a downward spiral but can’t stop playing at a boyishness that is no longer as charming as he thinks. Mikey (Falk) is equally attracted to, and repelled by, his friend’s inability to grow up and face the realities of life — the gravest of which is that Mikey has been secretly tasked with the job of helping to eliminate Nicky.

00c80-falkmn

This is an alternately brilliant and appallingly amateurish movie, critically reviled for its mis-matched shots (during a lengthy bus ride sequence, and in alternate cuts, Cassavetes appears both grizzled and clean-shaven), unmotivated (and barely audible) background score, visible boom mikes and naked klieg lights shockingly evident at the tops of ersatz living-room walls. Yet despite these flaws the writer-director, Elaine May, working in a form very much akin to Cassavetes’ own, crafted an astoundingly emotional examination of male friendship that is among a handful of American movies so uncompromising and visceral that at times you want to look away from the screen, embarrassed by, and for, a set of creatures on whose pathetic movements we feel we’re eaves-dropping.

When seen on video or DVD, or screened by a projectionist who knows how to frame it, Mikey and Nicky provides an experience unlike any other movie of its time; with a larger budget both for filming and advertising — and, it must be said, more surface professionalism from its director — it could have been a pop classic, like Taxi Driver. The supporting cast includes Ned Beatty, Joyce Van Patten and, in a sequence as raw and poignant as anything Robert Altman ever filmed, Carol Grace (otherwise known as Carol Marcus, muse to William Saroyan and Truman Capote, the possible model for Holly Golightly, and as Carol Matthau, the wife of Walter.) Cassavetes gives a performance of enormous range and impact; we see in him what Mikey does — both an endearing friend and a vicious, needling rebuke.

Falk is astonishingly effective as Mikey — the kind of performance that should have been universally recognized as among the greatest ever given on film. May made only a tiny handful of movies as a director, all of them (with the exception of The Heartbreak Kid) troubled in production and each one commenting, in a singular voice, on some aspect of American masculinity. If any male writer-director of the time came closer to mapping the constrained and conflicted heart of then-contemporary heterosexual men, I’m unaware of him. The movie’s climax is shattering.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross