Quarterly Report: July — September 2019

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By Scott Ross

Home-viewing from The Armchair Theatre over the last three months; because there isn’t a single bloody thing in the cinemas worth the time, petrol, cash or personal energy it would take to go out. Although I will admit I was convinced by a friend to attend a special screening of Daughters of the Dust… thereby proving the point.


Tootsie (1982)
Tootsie Jessica Lang and Dustin Hoffman
Take one vanity project for a notoriously self-involved actor (Murray Schisgal writing a screenplay about acting for Dustin Hoffman); mix with a separate script by Don McGuire concerning an out-of-work performer donning drag for a soap-opera role that borrows a bit too liberally from Some Like it Hot, even unto its blond object of affection and unwanted middle-aged suitors; add in re-writes by a small army of scenarists headed by the great Larry Gelbart and including, un-credited, Barry Levinson, Robert Garland and Elaine May; bake by a director widely known as one of Hollywood’s most notorious writer fuckers (Gelbart claimed the movie was stitched together from any number of scenarists’ drafts), and the result should have been a disaster. Instead, through some weird alchemy it not only wasn’t but somehow those ingredients contrived to blend so well the picture became a small classic of its kind. Revisiting Tootsie from a 35-year remove, it seems almost miraculous: A popular comedy that tickles the mind as often as it does the ribs. And the direction, by Sydney Pollack, never a favorite filmmaker of this writer, looks as good now as it did in 1982; whatever its internal flaws (including a series of consecutive events supposedly encompassing a single evening that Gelbart later wrote was “a night that would have to last a hundred hours”) the picture is strikingly lovely, with Owen Roizman’s sumptuous lighting and the crisp, witty editing by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp giving it a patina of warmth and sophistication, a rare combination for any movie comedy. Hoffman’s “Dorothy Michaels” ranks as one of the great comic creations in American movies, yet the actor also locates the loneliness of the character — or, rather characters, since everything Dorothy says and does is filtered through Michael Dorsey’s brain and emotions — and an essential sweetness and decency Michael himself lacks when he’s wearing pants.* As the unwitting object of Michael’s interests, Jessica Lange was a revelation in 1982, lightness and gravity in balance, and what she does is still astonishing in the sheer rightness of her every glance, inflection and wistful hesitation. Terri Garr is no less entrancing, in what is surely her best screen performance, and Bill Murray gets the picture’s best lines as Michael’s playwright roommate. (May created the character, and wrote his speeches.) Against his own wishes, Pollack took on the role of Hoffman’s agent, and their scenes together, reflecting some of the very real anger and frustration each felt toward the other, are among the movie’s comic highlights. The great supporting cast includes Dabney Coleman as the sexist television director, Charles Durning and George Gaynes in the Joe E. Brown role(s), Doris Belack as the savvy “daytime drama” producer, Geena Davis as a nurse in the soap-within-a-film’s fictional hospital, and the late Lynne Thigpen as the show’s floor manager. Dave Grusin, who often floundered when composing for dramatic pictures, wrote for Tootsie one of his most felicitous comedy scores. It isn’t funny in itself, nor does it try to be; its alternate moods of peppy urbanity and plangent emotionalism make for a perfect juxtaposition that reflects the plot’s development and moods without attempting either to compete with them, or to ape the action.

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* Hoffman based Dorothy’s soft Southern vocal mannerisms on those of his friend Polly Holiday.


They Might Be Giants (1971)

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George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward in the movie’s radiant, moving final moments.They Might Be Giants (1971)

James Goldman has long been one of my favorite writers. While nowhere near as prolific (nor as well known) as his brother William, his smaller output includes the 1965 play and subsequent movie 1968 The Lion in Winter (for which he won an Academy Award); the beautifully compressed book for the landmark Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince Follies, arguably the single greatest theatrical musical of the 20th century; the wonderfully conceived and unexpectedly moving Robin and Marian (1976); a superb novel about King John, Myself as Witness, in which Goldman re-examined an historical figure he felt he had maligned in his previous writing; and the play on which this lovely picture was based and for which he wrote the beautifully structured adaptation. Hal Prince produced the play’s only major production in London, later castigating himself for hiring the wrong director (Joan Littlewood) for the piece, although Goldman himself said he was unhappy with the script, which he subsequently withdrew from further production. The movie, while disappointing financially — presumably those involved expected another Lion in Winter — is a blissful variation on Arthur Conan Doyle, in which a mad retired jurist (George C. Scott) called Justin Playfair, who believes he is Sherlock Holmes, is examined by a psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) named Mildred Watson. They meet as antagonists, form an uneasy alliance and drift toward romance, while Playfair seeks a rendezvous with the elusive Professor Moriarty. It may sound twee, and there are many on whom its gentle charms are no doubt lost, but it’s a funny, and surprisingly emotional, rumination on the relative insanity of a brilliant, harmless paranoid and of the increasingly mad society to which he is expected to conform. That last notion no doubt seems trite, but it has seldom been handled with such deftness and wit. Anthony Harvey, who also directed The Lion in Winter, shot the picture with a nervy energy that captures the New York City of the early 1970s, not as if under glass but as a living stage for Playfair’s intrigues. Scott and Woodward tear into their roles with the relish of great actors who know in their bones they’ve got their hands on some of the choicest dialogue around, and the rich supporting cast includes Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan, Theresa Merritt, Eugene Roche, James Tolkan, Kitty Winn, Sudie Bond, Staats Cotsworth, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Benedict, M. Emmet Walsh and Louis Zorich. There’s also a brief but extremely effective chamber score by John Barry, arranged and augmented by Ken Thorne. Two home-video versions exist: One (a Universal Vault DVD) running under 90 minutes, reflects the theatrical release while the other, the television edit (on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber) is longer, and includes the wry, delightful extended sequence in an immense Manhattan grocery store. It could, I suppose, be argued that the story doesn’t need the grocery sequence, and the climax plays well without it. But it also seems to me that the movie is enriched by its inclusion, and diminished by its excision. So, caveat emptor.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.

Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Daughters of the Dust_Trailer

Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant

Julie Dash’s dreamlike evocation of Gulla society on a small South Carolina island in the early years of the 20th century was well-received critically but not a box-office success. 20/20 hindsight by knee-jerk commentators now has it that the picture was badly handled by its distributor because its writer-director was not only a woman, but a black woman. Yet I don’t see how this luminously photographed exercise in non-linear rumination could have been a popular success in any era: It’s so diffuse it seems less Impressionistic than merely undefined; we can scarcely tell what the various narrative threads are, much less what they mean. What’s best about the picture, aside from Arthur Jafa’s exquisite cinematography, are the wonderful faces of the expressive actors, especially those of Cora Lee Day as the family matriarch clinging to her African roots and religion, Cheryl Lynn Bruce as her overly-devout Christian granddaughter, and Barbara-O as her mirror opposite, a wayward young woman who left the island for a man but who now is involved with a younger woman. But 60 minutes into this hour-and-52-minute glorified student film my eyes had long since begun to glaze over and even those interesting faces weren’t enough to clear them.


The Last Hard Men (1976)

The Last Hard Men - Heston and Coburn

A tough, bloody Western from an unsparing Brian Garfield novel, starring Charlton Heston and James Coburn as old antagonists on a collision course. Although (unlike in the book’s ending) the movie’s climax seemingly leaves his character’s survival in doubt, and while the actor was too young for the role — as Garfield wrote it, the former lawman is in his 60s, and becoming increasingly frail — Heston is quite a good match for the ruthless Coburn, and the filmmakers (Andrew V. McLaglen was the director, and Guerdon Trueblood wrote the script) don’t flinch from the story’s most horrific moment, when the Heston figure’s daughter (Barbara Hershey) is gang-raped by Coburn’s team of escaped prisoners. The role of Hershey’s earnest suitor is the sort of part the young Jeff Bridges could have turned into a third lead by doing almost nothing, and while Chris Mitchum is attractive, he’s completely out of his depth; as an actor he was never much more than the pretty son of a movie star. While the performance of Michael Parks, as the sheriff who accompanies Heston on part of the quest to retrieve his daughter, suffers from his role being less interesting than in the Garfield book, the actors playing Coburn’s gang (Jorge Rivero, Thalmus Rasulala, Morgan Paull, Robert Donner, Riley Hill and especially Larry Wilcox and John Quade) are an impressively frightening bunch and Duke Callaghan’s widescreen cinematography is lustrous. Leonard Rosenman composed a terse, uncompromising score (it was later made available on CD) which was then replaced by a collection of newly-recorded cues from several of Jerry Goldsmith’s  previous 20th Century-Fox titles 100 Rifles (1969), Rio Conchos (1964), Morituri (1965) and the 1966 Stagecoach. I assume this was due to their being more traditional action cues and Western pieces than Rosenman’s dark, brooding compositions. But while they are splendid in themselves, if you’re already familiar with them from their sources they’re a needless distraction.


Johnny Quest: The Complete Original Series (1964 – 1965)

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The great title card for one of Jonny Quest‘s creepiest episodes. If only the animation for the show had been this good!

When I was a child the Saturday morning re-airings of this 1964 one-shot, an impressive attempt by Joseph Barbera and William Hanna to create and direct a weekly prime-time animated adventure series,‡ made an enormous impression. It was the first “serious” animation I’d ever seen, its often eerie plot-lines were, for a 5-year old, fascinatingly scary… and in the titular figure, the irrepressible blond-topped All-American Jonny, lay my first big crush.† The gifted comics artist Doug Wildey designed the show and its central cast: Plucky Jonny, his slightly mystical adopted Indian brother Hadji, father Benton Quest and bodyguard Race Bannon (who, white hair aside, was, somewhat confusingly for me, almost a dead-ringer for my own father). Produced in the so-called “limited” format pioneered by Hanna-Barbera, and which Chuck Jones astutely referred to as “illustrated radio,” the series, re-viewed from an adult perspective, contains highly variable animation; there are times when the characters are beautifully drawn, while at others they are remarkably poorly drafted, and this older viewer could certainly do with less of Jonny’s annoying little dog Bandit. But the stories are nearly always, despite a 26-minute limitation, well-plotted and exciting, often with an agreeable avoidance of earthly explanation for seemingly supernatural phenomenon. Children, like many of their adult counterparts, love to be frightened, and they especially love ghost stories and impossible monsters; it was a consistent reliance on rationality than killed my initial enthusiasm for the later H-B Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Among the pleasures of the series were, and are, the voices, especially the appealing Tim Matheson as Jonny, the undemonstrably masculine Mike Road as Race, the charming Danny Bravo — who seems to have based his vocal characterization on Sabu — as Hadji, Vic Perrin as the show’s recurring villain Dr. Zinn and occasional guest artists such as Keye Luke, Jesse White, J. Pat O’Malley and even, astonishingly, Everett Sloan as an unrepentant old Nazi. Hoyt Curtin’s superb main title theme, with its bracing mix of big band and James Bond, is another asset; most of the incidental music is his, with additional and uncredited compositions by Ted Nichols. Many of the series’ best (and creepiest) episodes were written by William Hamilton: “The Robot Spy,” “Dragons of Ashida,” “Turu the Terrible,” “Werewolf of the Timberland” and “The Invisible Monster.” Among the others of especial note are “The Curse of Anubis” (Walter Black), “Calcutta Adventure” (Joanna Lee), and “Shadow of the Condor” and “The House of Seven Gargoyles” (both by Charles Hoffman). The recent Warner Archives Blu-Ray collection, while it contains few extras, looks terrific.

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† Like Top Cat and The JestsonsJonny Quest lasted only a single prime-time season. But when you’re a child, you’re not counting episodes, and due to repeated Saturday morning re-airings all three shows seemed to run forever.

‡How typical of me that my first big crush would be not another boy but a cartoon character… Still, I don’t know whether it was so much that I was attracted to Jonny as that I longed to be him. And isn’t hero-worship often what early same-sex crushes amount to?


Klute (1971)

Klute - Fonda and Sutherland (Klute comforts Bree)

The chilling paranoia thriller starring Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda, who as the call-girl Bree Daniels gives what I consider the finest performance by an American movie actor of the last 50 years.


In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In the Heat of the Night - Sidney Poitier, Jester Hairston and Rod Steiger

Rod Steiger, Jester Hairston and Sidney Poitier

This tense, unblinking police procedural coated in a patina of social critique was one of the great successes of its year, which also saw the premier of Bonnie and Clyde. And while the picture is very much of its time in its examination of racist bigotry in the then-current American Deep South, it’s also a brisk, exciting detective thriller that holds up remarkably well, not least due to the crisp direction by Norman Jewison and to the picture’s precise Stirling Silliphant screenplay. Indeed, I prefer Silliphant’s creative adaptation to John Ball’s original novel, in which race is an important component, yet is less central to the narrative’s tensions than in the much bolder, angrier, movie, especially via the incendiary central relationship between Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s Chief Gilliespie. It should be remembered that the picture was in release only three years after the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, and the sense of dangerous rot and slowly simmering violence Jewison captures onscreen is as palpable as the oppressive, humid heat of its Mississippi setting. (Although most of it was  shot in the southern Illinois town of Sparta.) Poitier gives a performance of wit, implacable inner strength and fierce integrity. There are a number of moments in the picture where what we see in a character’s face is more revealing, and quietly powerful, than what is said. Poitier has one such scene, when Steiger dismisses him, and his assistance in the murder investigation. Perhaps the most difficult thing an actor can do is to allow us to see him thinking. Too many actors project thought in those moments, and it’s nearly always phony. With Poitier, the impact registers itself in, first, his disbelief, followed by his fury, and, finally, a soft, subtle smile. He gets it; he’s been here before. Yet none of what we see is obvious, or overdone. Lee Grant, as the widow of the murder victim, has a similar scene where, shocked into silence by the news of her husband’s death, she reacts against Poitier’s gentle attempt to seat her with an anguished, rigid gesture that slowly turns to acceptance and, more potently, the need to be comforted. It’s devastating to watch. As the racist sheriff, Steiger, at the height of his screen prowess, meets his co-star blow-for-blow. Gillespie is as much an outsider in the town as Virgil, and as distrusted by the locals. His tension is coiled deep, and he expresses that inner explosiveness in the way he compulsively chews gum, stopping only when he has something to say, or when comprehension breaks through his consciousness. The supporting roles are so perfectly cast they seem inevitable — absolutely real: Warren Oates as a patrolman with a secret; Larry Gates as  a smooth and powerful old racist; the usually genial William Schallert as the bigoted mayor; Beah Richards as the local abortionist; Quentin Dean as a white-trash slut; Anthony James as a smirking creep; Scott Wilson as a prime suspect in the killing, whose changing relationship to Virgil is far warmer than what transpires between Tibbs and Gillespie; and Jester Hairston as an Uncle Tom butler outraged by Tibbs slapping his employer. (If you look sharp, you’ll also see Harry Dean Stanton as a cop.) That slap was a blow for liberty, and must have resounded sharply in many places across the globe, not merely the Southern United States. The dark, expressive cinematography is by Haskell Wexler — cheated by the constricted budget of a crane, he and Jewison make frequent, and often very effective, use of zoom lenses. Hal Ashby provided the fluid editing, and Quincy Jones’ score, mixing jazz and blues, has a nervous, funky energy perfectly in keeping with the movie’s sense of dark foreboding, and he composed a terrific main title song (with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman) that’s sung with passionate soul by Ray Charles. Jones’ cue for Wilson’s attempted escape (and suggested by Jewison) is a highlight, puttering out expressively as the murder suspect realizes he’s licked — the musical equivalent of a runner who’s out of breath.


Ghostbusters (1984)

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Horror comedy was far from a new concept when Ghostbusters was made — Harold Lloyd starred in something rather redundantly called Haunted Spooks in 1920 — but until 1981 and An American Werewolf in London there had never been one with elaborate special-effects, and even that was modestly budgeted; Ghostbusters cost six times as much (its budget was between $25 and 30 million.) Most of its predecessors tend to be either comedies with a few ghostly appurtenances (cf., Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein and Don Knotts’ The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) or genuine horror with black comedy overtones (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood, Phantom of the Paradise and, indeed, American Werewolf in London) but Ghostbusters takes nothing seriously. Its writer/stars, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, see everything as funny, and since The Ghostbusters themselves seldom panic, we spend the entire movie in a state of amused relaxation right along with them; the audience takes its cue from laid-back smart-ass Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, for whom the entire natural world is a sardonic joke, so why should the supernatural world be any different? Murray’s comic persona is so relaxed he’s like a more sarcastic version of Bing Crosby. The picture is inconsequential — you smile through most of it, even if you seldom laugh out loud — yet at the same time memorable; several of its set-pieces, phrases and gags became instant cultural touchstones, and after seeing the movie you’ll likely never look at a bag of marshmallows the same way. Sigourney Weaver has a good, serio-comic role as the woman whose apartment is being taken over by an ancient deity, Rick Moranis is sweetly oblivious as a dweeby neighbor, Annie Potts is the Ghostbusters’ preternaturally un-fazable secretary, William Atherton is an officious prick from the EPA (why do so many satires go after EPA rather than corporate polluters?) and Ernie Hudson gets a largely thankless role as the token black member of the team. László Kovács shot the movie beautifully, and the veteran Elmer Bernstein composed a score that, anchored to a loping main theme, was almost too effective: Despite his having composed in his long career everything from epics (The Ten Commandments) and Westerns (The Magnificent Seven) to thrillers (The Great Escape) and intimate dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird) and in every conceivable format from symphonic to jazz, the success of Airplane!, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf, Trading Places and Ghostbusters got him typecast for years as purely a comedy composer.



Touch of Evil (1958)

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Orson Welles‘ minor masterpiece, and the last time he was permitted the luxury of the studio system’s largess.


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The Pink Panther (1963)
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)
The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

How Blake Edwards took his love for silent comedy routines deep into the post-War pop consciousness.


Chinatown (1974)

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The modern classic by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski.


Beetlejuice (1988)

Beetlejuice

I misunderstood Beetlejuice when it was new; my contemporary review (fortunately now lost to the landfills) betrayed a certain — and to me, now, inexplicable — inability to keep pace with Tim Burton’s patented blend of amiability and dark comic outrage. It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate his often exhilarating blend of comedy and horror; the Large Marge sequence in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure made me laugh so hard I nearly fell out of my seat. But I somehow wasn’t ready for an entire feature with that sensibility, unfettered. Revisiting Beetlejuice now, as I feel compelled to do every few years, I can’t help wondering why my younger self couldn’t relax enough to embrace such a cheerfully anarchic comedy as this one. Written by Michael McDowell (sadly, one of all too many creative men who succumbed to AIDS) and Warren Skaaren (also now prematurely dead, of bone cancer) from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, it’s a spook-fest for jaded children, a supernatural comedy that stints neither on the humor nor the paranormal. As the nice young Connecticut couple who discover they’re dead and doomed to live with the wacko modern artist and her bourgeois real-estate developer husband they can’t scare away, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis embody the spirit of the whole enterprise; they’re too sweetly gentle to make decent ghosts. As the titular “bio-exorcist,” Michael Keaton was a revelation, and his performance still amazes; nothing he’d done in movies up to that point had prepared us for the primal forces he unleashed in himself as Beetlejuice. His non-stop patter, loopy asides, gross-out wit and sheer brazen crudity were like nothing we’d seen in a movie comedy before. I think you’d have to imagine how movie audiences reacted the first time they saw the Marx Brothers to understand the impact that performance had on us in 1988. The strong supporting cast includes a very young Winona Ryder as the developer’s slightly off, death-obsessed teenage daughter; the peerlessly self-satisfied Jeffrey Jones as her father; the ever-treasurable Catherine O’Hara as his nasty, pretentious wife; Sylvia Sidney, in her of her final performances, as Baldwin and Davis’ case-worker, making the most of a role that is really little more than a delicious sick joke; Glenn Shadix as an obnoxious interior designer§; and Dick Cavett as a blasé society snob. Danny Elfman composed one of his brightest early scores, which deftly incorporates some of Harry Belafonte’s calypso hits. The first time I saw Beetlejuice, the use of “Day-O” offended me; now that sequence strikes me as one of the happiest in the picture. That’s one of the perks of revisiting old movies: Realizing that it wasn’t the original, uncategorizable, picture that was to blame for your dismissal of it, and being happy that you’ve lived to become a person who can surrender himself to it.

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§ Although Shadix’s performance struck me at the time as an exercise in extreme stereotype, the actor was himself gay.


The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Duvall, Arkin, Williamson watch

Nicholas Meyer’s ingenious Sherlock Holmes pastiche.


Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968)

Blackbeard's Ghost - Ustinov and Jones

I don’t know how I missed this one when it was released, as I habitually saw every new (or newly reissued) Disney movie, animated or live-action. It’s just possible it didn’t make it to the small Ohio town we were living in then, although every other children’s movie of the time did. In any case, I only discovered it when I came across the Disneyland soundtrack album — receiving the record for Christmas of 1970, I nearly wore it out through re-playing. It was my introduction to Peter Ustinov, who narrated it, and who starred as Blackbeard; the LP featured dialogue, mostly between him and Dean Jones, with a little Suzanne Pleshette shoehorned in, and I was entranced by Ustinov’s idiosyncratic way with a funny line, his ineffable charm, and (to borrow a phrase from Harlan Ellison in a different context) the “ineluctable rodomontade” of his florid verbiage. As I grew older and became more familiar with Ustinov, and with his performances and his work as a playwright and screenwriter, I began to suspect that he had re-written the Blackbeard script (or at least, his lines) as he had on Spartacus. And if you love Ustinov as I do, Blackbeard’s Ghost, while silly, generates a lot of laughter. Although basing their screenplay on a very good children’s novel by Ben Stahl, in which two boys accidentally conjure up the shade of the pirate, still very much the bloodthirsty ghoul of legend, the movie’s writers (Don Da Gradi and Bill Walsh) ditched that premise in favor of pure comedy, making this far tamer Blackbeard’s more-than-reluctant compatriot the new coach of a hopeless college track team. That the coach is played by Jones is a help; whatever criticisms might be levied at the Disney pictures in which he starred, the actor (on whom I had a slight childish crush) always brought enormous conviction to them, and his outbursts of incredulous anger are as ingratiating as the engaging grin that occasionally splits his handsome face. The slapstick in the picture, directed with no special distinction by Robert Stevenson, is sometimes dopey and occasionally better than that, and the invisibility effects by Eustace Lycett and Robert A. Mattey are, as usual with Disney, well done, as are the lovely background matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw. The screenplay has a pleasing lightness, enriched by what I again assume were Ustinov’s additions. The laughter the Disney Blu-Ray drew from me was considerable, even if nearly all of it was generated by Ustinov, who still makes me roar at lines I memorized off that record album when I was nine. Although Elliott Reid overdoes his bit as a television sportscaster, Pleshette is, as always, simultaneously biting and adorable as Jones’ inamorata; Joby Baker makes a good showing in the unaccustomed role of the villain; Elsa Lanchester gets a good scene or two as Jones’ dotty landlady; Richard Deacon is amusingly dry as the college dean; and Herbie Faye, Ned Glass, Alan Carney and Gil Lamb all have good bits in Baker’s restaurant-cum-gambling den. The plot revolves in large part around Blackbeard’s old home, maintained as an hotel by his descendants, little old ladies with nothing else to cling to. I mention this because one of them — and I have no idea which — is identified on the imdb as Betty Bronson. That’s a name more forgotten now than it was 50 years ago, but 45 years before, that Bronson was enchanting youngsters as the screen’s first Peter Pan. I would like to think that Walt Disney, one of whose final productions Blackbeard’s Ghost was, knew that, and gave the old trouper a job. Anyway, it would be pretty to think so.


Into the Woods (2014)

INTO THE WOODS

Anna Kendric sings “On the Steps of the Palace,” my favorite number in Stephen Sondheim’s dark/light score. “He’s a very smart Prince / He’s a Prince who prepares / Knowing this time I’d run from him / He spread pitch on the stairs…”

Although I have been a Sondheim fanatic since discovering the Company cast album in 1976, and while the original production of Into the Woods was the first Broadway musical I saw before its cast recording had been released, I deliberately avoided the movie of it when it was new, on the basis of three proper names with which it was associated: “Disney,” “Rob” and “Marshall.” Perhaps only in Hollywood could a minimally talented hack like Rob Marshall reap such rewards (and a-wards) by removing the guts from ballsy musical plays like Chicago and Nine. After countless producers and screenwriters, including Larry Gelbart, had worked at it, what was Marshall’s great “break-through” on Chicago? Turning all the musical numbers into dream-fantasies Renee Zellweger imagines. If you have to justify why people are singing and dancing in a musical, why the fuck are you making a musical? Still, with a screenplay by James Lapine, the original book writer and director of Into the Woods, perhaps there was only so much damage Marshall could do to it. Well, it was someone’s brilliant idea to cast the magnificent Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s Father and then butcher his role so completely he’s left with no songs and only a couple of lines, confusingly delivered, since we can’t tell who he is, whether he’s real or a phantom, and haven’t any idea whether his son (James Corden) knows either; and to let Chris Pine as an 18th century prince sport a trendy two-day growth of beard on his chin.‖ The picture looks splendid, which I attribute largely to its cinematographer Dion Beebe, its set decorator Anna Pinnock, its costumer Colleen Atwood and its production designer Dennis Gassner. And it’s largely well cast, with actors who can sing: Corden; Meryl Streep, sardonic but subdued as The Witch; lovely Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife; cute Daniel Huttlestone as a full-throated Jack; Lilla Crawford as a foghorn-voiced Little Red Riding Hood; Johnny Depp as her Wolf; Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother; and Anna Kendrick who, although attractive only from a single angle… and that one her director seldom favors… is an otherwise charming and effective Cinderella. Into the Woods was significantly better than I’d expected. Yet I still tremble whenever I hear another name yoked with this director’s: “Rob,” “Marshall”… and Follies. Hasn’t that poor show suffered enough?

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‖As my friend Eliot M. Camarena once asked, do people like that when they’re children announce, “When I grow up, I wanna look like Fred C. Dobbs!”?


The Art of Love (1965)

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A surprisingly brainless affair to have come from the typewriter of the witty Carl Reiner, riding high in 1965 with the deserved success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which he created and oversaw, and for which he wrote many of the most memorable early episodes. The best thing about this moderately black farce concerning a failed American artist in Paris whose supposed suicide instantly drives up the prices fetched for his work by his duplicitous best friend (James Garner) is Van Dyke as the artist. His comedic timing, seemingly boneless body and inimitable way with a line or a situation are the equal of the great comedians he worshiped, and it’s one of the great ironies of modern history that he came along at a time when movie and television comedies were so often loud, witless and inane. Had Blake Edwards not already collared Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon, what a find Van Dyke would have been for that fellow student of slapstick! Reiner can’t really be blamed for the general dopiness of the movie, since he was working from an existing story by two other writers (Alan Simmons and William Sackheim) and the movie’s young director, Norman Jewison, doesn’t appear to have been a great deal of help to him. The Art of Love is attractive to look at — it was shot by Russell Metty — but inert, marking time with things like Angie Dickinson’s fainting shtick (it’s funny the first time), Elke Sommers’ perpetual innocent act and the braying of Ethel Merman, apparently cast as a madam just so she could belt out an instantly forgettable nightclub number. The usually ingratiating Garner has little to play here but his character’s cheesy self-centeredness, and Reiner stoops to such things as plunking a cartoon Brooklynite Yiddishe couple (Irving Jacobson and Naomi Stevens) in the middle of Paris. Still, Jay Novello has a couple of funny bits as a nervous janitor and little Pierre Olaf does miracle work as an umbrella-toting police detective, Cy Coleman provided a perky score (with additional music by Frank Skinner), and DePatie-Freleng came up with some modestly amusing main title animation. There’s little excuse, however, for a comedy — especially one with Dick Van Dyke — whose only big laugh comes at the very end, and absolutely none for its indulging in such feeble wheezes as the periodic introduction of a Madame Defarge-like hag, complete with knitting needles, who shows up every now and then to screech her delight at Garner’s impending execution. But at least I now understand what my mother meant when she once told me that after seeing this one on television when I was a boy I walked around the house for a week saying, “Guillotine! Guillotine!”


Murder by Decree (1978)

Murder by Decree

That Sherlock Holmes occupied a revered, albeit fictional, place in the same late Victorian Britain that saw the appalling murders in Whitechapel has intrigued Sherlockians for decades. What more natural meeting could there be than between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant consulting detective and “Saucy Jacky,” as that figure of horror known popularly as Jack the Ripper styled himself in a letter to the papers? Derek Ford and Donald Ford (the former known primarily for his snickering sex comedies) imagined Holmes investigating the murders in the 1965 A Study in Terror, and the same year in which this more recent attempt was released saw the publication of Michael Didbin’s dark little novel The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, very much concerned with Jack. The elements are there even in the mind’s eye: The dimly gaslit cobblestone streets, the hansom cabs and private cabriolets, the enveloping fog that swallows up forms, faces and screams of terror and pain. That Bob Clark, the onlie begettor of Porky’s should, of all people, have directed as beautiful a fiction as Murder by Decree is as puzzling as his making that perfect adaptation of Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story. But then, as Orson Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, “Peter, you only need one.” The literate screenplay by the playwright John Hopkins emphasizes a more riant, and more passionate, Holmes than is the norm, and Christopher Plummer could scarcely be bettered in the role as the filmmakers, if not Conan Doyle, conceived it. His performance reaches two peaks, one infinitely quiet (his reaction to Geneviève Bujold’s heartbreaking madwoman), the other bristling with outrage at what his betters (including John Gielgud as the Prime Minister, unidentified in the picture but clearly made up to resemble Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) have been up to. Hopkins also, blessedly, gives us a Watson who is as far from the Nigel Bruce model as can be imagined. And while the irreplaceable James Mason is a bit hoary for the role, his aplomb is undeniable; a moment of especial charm is the way he expresses dismay at Holmes, and with a look of genuine hurt, when the former squashes the lone pea on the doctor’s plate. And if he is occasionally the voice of hidebound Empire, Mason’s (and Hopkins’) Watson is also equally as capable of wit as Holmes as, for example, when Sherlock asks his compatriot why his friend deems him only “the prince of detectives” and wishes to know who is king. I won’t spoil the joke here, nor the conclusion of this intricately plotted exercise, based on some theories by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd in their contemporaneous book The Ripper File. The exceptional cast includes a starchily smug and imperious Gielgud; the wrenching Bujold; Frank Finlay as an uncharacteristically deferential Inspector Lestrade; David Hemmings as the police inspector in charge of the case (and who bears absolutely no relationship to the very real Frederick Abberline); Susan Clark as a heartrending Mary Kelly; Anthony Quayle as the dangerously reactionary Sir Charles Warren; Peter Jonfield as a chillingly psychotic chief villain; and Donald Sutherland as the shaken spiritualist Robert Lees, who believes he’s seen the Ripper. Despite a few unnecessary visual flourishes, Clark’s eye is nearly unerring, abetted to an exceptional degree by the rich and expressive cinematography by Reginald H. Morris and the astonishing production design of Harry Pottle; I don’t know whether Pottle is responsible for the staggeringly effective matte paintings of London used in the picture, but whoever painted them, they put you absolutely there. The only real miscalculation in the movie is the highly derivative musical score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer from which I heard distinct liftings from John Williams (the scene in Jaws of Richard Dreyfus investigating Ben Gardner’s boat), Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann (those eerie strings) and Richard Rodney Bennett (the opening sequence of Murder on the Orient Express) and in which — aside from the plaintive traditional Irish tune for Mary Kelly — there is little that is either original, interesting, useful or pleasing to the ear.



Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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.

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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 2017

Standard

By Scott Ross

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



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

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


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

Guffey at the door F58

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

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

Some-like-it-hot-screen



New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:

None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.



Revisited with pleasure

F for Fake (1973) Orson Wellesnon pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jungle Book 165.2

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

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

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

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

Rosmary's Baby large_gordon

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



Theatrical Documentary

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

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

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

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



Selected Short Subject

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



Made for television

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

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

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

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



Television series

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

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

Kukla_Fran_and_Ollie

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



Seen a second time… and will never see again

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

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



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

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



New to Me: More than worth the trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


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

Hot Millions (1968)

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By Scott Ross

This genial comedy is a sure test of any potential friendship: If I show it to a new acquaintance and he or she doesn’t love it, there’s probably no point in going any further.

Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith, two of the most effortlessly charming performers who ever appeared before a movie camera, play a pair of painfully lonely misfits who connect in this charming comedy co-written by Ustinov with Ira Wallach. He’s a bright, if unworldly, embezzler whose dream is to conduct a symphony orchestra. She’s his incompetent secretary, who happens to play the flute. Bob Newhart is the thorn in their side, the deliciously-monickered Mr. Natpole, and Karl Malden, both nervous and bellicose, is very funny as the ulcer-ridden executive. Robert Morley also shows up early on, and Cesar Romero has a hilarious cameo in the Rio airport.

Although the computer technology, then new, is hopelessly dated now, the picture’s dialogue is refreshingly quirky, and every scene is a small gem of comic observation. The final freeze-frame is among the sweetest and most moving of any comedy.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross