Old Reliable: “Big Jake” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

A good Western from John Wayne’s late period, with a sharp and even occasionally witty screenplay by Harry Julian Fink and R. (Rita) M. Fink, a characteristically robust Elmer Bernstein score and a typically savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant. It’s the sort of movie in which characters remind each other that it’s 1909, presumably to prepare the audience for the sight of sniper rifles and REO Touring Cars in what looks like the Old West, and where an old reprobate (John Wayne) does battle with his estranged and snarky older sons (Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum) as well as with the heavies who have kidnapped his youngest for a hefty (million-dollar here) ransom. And if the movie is no more, or less, than what many Wayne fans of the time expected, there are a few surprises along the way, the picture is seldom less than engaging, and it even holds an occasional, modernist twist: Instead of circling Conastogas in an Indian raid, for example, we get Federal Marshals hiding behind their REOs. And where “Little” Jake (Ethan Wayne) is shown at the beginning in the appalling “sissy” clothes of the period, complete with frilly white collar and wide-brimmed and beribboned hat, we are least spared “Big” Jake ridiculing the boy or having to teach him how to be a man.

Maureen O’Hara gives her usual flinty performance as Jake’s estranged wife (and with a creditable American accent); the younger Mitchum is better and more naturally charming here than in the later The Last Hard Men; the junior Wayne likewise acquits himself admirably; Harry Carey, Jr. is almost shockingly nasty as the oldest of the kidnappers; and there’s a clever Magic Lantern show in the opening titles, narrated by George Fenneman, no less. There’s also some lovely  matte-work by Albert Whitlock and the often beautiful cinematography is by William H. Clothier, whose previous pictures as director of photography included Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the striking Track of the Cat for William Wellman, Merrill’s Marauders for Samuel Fuller, the dark Stewart-Fonda Western Firecreek and Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks. Harry Gerstad’s editing is crisp and utilitarian, some odd moments of discontinuity nothwithstanding, and Bernstein’s score includes, along with his customarily ebullient title  theme, some nifty writing for harp and guitar as percussion during the final battle.

The screenplay contains the same style of laconic yet lightly crackling dialogue that distinguishes the exchanges in Rio Bravo, and a nicely stated threat by Boone which Wayne deftly turns on him: “Anything goes wrong, anything at all… your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault… it won’t matter I’m gonna blow your head off.” The generally likable script by the Finks (who also in 1971 created the quasi-fascistic “Dirty Harry” Callahan) nonetheless descends into occasional low throughs, as when Wayne resurrects his own “That’ll be the day” in The Searchers and, later, paraphrases John Huston’s paraphrase of Shakespeare from The Maltese Falcon.

Big Jake - Boone

Richard Boone as the chief villain. You were expecting maybe Chico Marx?

Wayne, whose gravelly voice here betrays his medical historyhe’d had a lung removed from cancer — gives the sort of relaxed, amusing and assured performance expected of him, and he gets a great antagonist in Boone. As John Fain, whose only concern is money, Boone is intelligent, seemingly reasonable and casually murderous; he’s not looking to kill, but he’s not averse to it if it gets him what he wants. It’s the sort of role he made his own in pictures as diverse as Rio Conchos, The Night of the Following Day and The Kremlin Letter. His approach to arch villainy here is erudition, eloquence and a genial surface beneath which runs a river of ice water. I would imagine the Finks wrote the character’s dialogue with Boone in mind; once an actor develops a screen persona that works, even a base hack can hear that voice in his head as he’s typing.

One weird note: Jake has a reliable old Apache compatriot called Sam Sharpnose (played richly but with what would now be an unthinkable lack of appropriate ethnicity by Bruce Cabot) and a big, dark Collie he calls “Dog” who metes out toothy justice whenever he’s commanded. Both are dispatched in the big final shoot-out, chopped to bits by a frightening machete-wielding psychopath yet when the dust settles, not a moment is spared to respect either of them; it’s heigh-ho and on our way, with a happy final freeze-frame of the “Big” and “Little” Jakes. Since Jake himself isn’t heartless, I can only presume the filmmakers had additional material at the end that was cut by the studio. Further, the deaths of Sam and Dog are so discreetly recorded that neither emits so much as a soft mewl as he’s being hacked to ribbons. That’s carrying circumspection to rather an extreme, don’t you think?

Big Jake was directed with no special distinction whatsoever by George Sherman, whose last movie this was in a long career without a single significant title in it.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: April — June, 2019

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By Scott Ross

The Doors - Kilmer

The Doors (1991) Oliver Stone’s examination of Jim Morrison, co-written with J. Randal Johnson, has been harshly criticized, not least by members of The Doors, for distorting him and for emphasizing his pretension and his self-destructive behavior. But when a rock star, and a young man of 27, dies suddenly I submit that we may at least wonder whether drugs and alcohol may have played a role. On the other hand, the Morrison depicted in The Doors is so repellent and narcissistic it’s difficult to know how he could have possessed the charisma, and the creativity, to become a cultural icon. This is not to say that Val Kilmer is charmless in the role — indeed, he is exceptionally compelling — merely that the obnoxious qualities Morrison displays here are so prominent they cancel out his attributes.

The movie holds fascination despite these cavils. No one’s pictures look the way Stone’s do, or are put together remotely as he assembles them. The Doors has an appropriately trippy quality, and not only in the drug sequences. Stone emphasizes Morrison’s death obsessions literally, to the point of having both the spirit of an elderly Native shaman (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) and Richard Rutowski as Death stalking Kilmer at periodic points, such as when Rutowski dances more than suggestively behind Morrison during an orgiastic concert appearance; Stone said he wanted to convey the image of Death “fucking him in the ass,” which is curious considering how the picture shies away from any suggestion of Morrison’s alleged bisexuality — a claim his bandmates also, of course, vociferously deny.

But then, as everyone surely knows by now, rock music, unlike every other performing category on earth, is composed wholly and entirely of heterosexuals.



Alexander - Bagoas
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut
(2004 / 2013) I missed Oliver Stone’s epic study of Alexander the Great when it was released in 2004, but I certainly remember the rank homophobia that attended it, from audiences, critics and entertainment reporters. The sexuality of Alexander the Great has been a matter of controversy for centuries, but one would like to have believed that by the beginning of the 21st, some reasonableness on the subject might obtain. Instead the movie was derided, with schoolboy snickers, as Alexander the Gay. Even if one ignores his intense relationship with Hephaistion, or chooses to assume that he was chaste with his young eunuch courtier Bagoas, that Alexander married late, and left no heir, is surely indicative of something.

My own readings on Alexander have been limited to Mary Renault’s glorious fictions, particularly her splendid The Persian Boy, told from the perspective of Bagoas. Stone and his co-scenarists, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, based their screenplay largely on the historian Robin Lane Fox’s book on Alexander, but Renault was an inspiration as well, largely I would assume via Fire from Heaven, her novel of his formative years. (A third, Funeral Games, describes the events immediately following his death, likely by murder.) The scenarists frame their narrative around the reminiscences of the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and limn the forces that shaped Alexander, from early childhood to the end. Of necessity, Stone and his co-authors omit much, including the burning of Persepolis, the particulars of which are still uncertain. And, rather surprisingly for Stone, there is no voice in the picture, however small, critical of Alexander for his voracious need of conquest. Rather, the filmmaker is besotted with the warrior king’s creative attempts to unify the vanquished and respect their cultures. That is not to say that this is not in itself admirable — and unusual, in any age. Merely that, whatever his virtues, Alexander was an insatiable imperialist, taking by force land that did not belong to him and, however benignly, enslaving the people who lived on it.

That said, the picture is superbly mounted, with the sort of breathtaking sweep only a master could achieve, and a cast of fascinating characters, chief among them of course Colin Farrell’s at once fierce yet essentially gentle Alexander. In his dyed-blond beauty, he is, appropriately both to the subject and to Stone’s conception, a deeply romantic figure. (There is, indeed, a rather gratuitous, if admittedly attractive, shot of him, naked and filmed from behind as he rises from a bed, that fully reveals not merely Farrell’s shapely backside but his genitalia and which would not be out of place in a pornographic video.) Val Kilmer is a likewise full-bodied Philip, lusty to a fault — his rape of an underling leads directly to his assassination — and, despite his crudeness and bluster, an essential guide to his son. Christopher Plummer has a nice scene as Aristotle; Jared Leto is a fine Hephaistion, wearing his love for Alexander both lightly and with palpable hurt at no longer sharing his erstwhile adolescent lover’s bed; and Francisco Bosch makes a lovely Bagoas, although obviously older than his historical precedent. The movie’s finest performance, however, is that of Angela Jolie as Alexander’s mother Olympias. Passionate and scheming, and as ruthless as her husband, Jolie’s Olympias makes abundantly clear why Alexander kept her at arm’s length. Rosario Dawson makes a memorable Roxane, animalistic and raging with jealousy. When naked on her wedding night, however, her bared breasts are revealed as pendulous and unappealing, although I am well aware than many heterosexual men consider them “hot.” That sex-scene contrasts strikingly with the one, later, between Alexander and Bagoas; where with Roxane he is aggressive, indeed even brutal, matching her bestial nature, with Bagoas he is tender and loving. One suspects that, while making love to another young man is natural, he must stir himself artificially to have sexual relations a woman… and that he understands his bride all too well.

Stone’s theatrical edit ran 175 minutes; a subsequent “Director’s Cut” for DVD was 167; the home video labeled “The Final Unrated Cut” ran 214; and Stone’s 2013 “Ultimate Cut” 206. In this edition the filmmaker took out much of what he had placed in the third version, feeling he had added in too much. At any length, this is a picture that isn’t going to satisfy many: The Leonard Maltin movie guide describes it as the first of Stone’s movies that can be called “boring.” Taste is a personal matter, of course — de gustibus non est disputandum, and all that jazz — but the sort of mind that could find Stone’s lavish, violent, engrossing examination of Alexander and his world “boring” is not one with which I would care to spend much time.


The Stunt Man - crane
The Stunt Man (1979) The virtues, and the weaknesses, of this essential one-off remain intact after four decades.


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“Jameson, take a letter to my lawyer…”

Animal Crackers (1930) This was my first Marx Brothers movie, seen at a late-show screening when I was 15. That event took place a couple of years after Steve Stolier was instrumental in getting Universal to strike a new print and release it to theatres, where it proved surprisingly popular. Or perhaps not so surprisingly; the 1960s vogue among college students both for old movies and for their anti-hero stars (Bogart, Cagney, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marxes) was still with us in 1974, and the night I saw the picture, in tandem with my mother — whom I blessed then, and still do, for taking me to a movie at 11.30 on a Saturday night in summer and not complaining about it — the place was nearly full, the big audience roaring at Groucho’s 45-year old puns and topical jokes. My love for the Marxes, whom I had previously encountered only in print, photos and old recordings, increased a hundred-fold that night. And Mom had a good time, too.

I discovered only comparatively recently that Paramount truncated several scenes and trimmed some mildly risqué dialogue from this “Pre-Code” comedy for a late-‘30s reissue of the movie, so the inclusion of a clean, un-censored copy on The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Blu-ray boxed set is particularly welcome. If you know the picture already you won’t see reinstated entire scenes you don’t recall, but the mild shock of hearing Groucho engage in some additional, suggestive repartee in his “Jameson, take a letter” sequence with Zeppo, or realizing that even the “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” opening number was slightly expurgated, will simply add to your pleasure at seeing this lively, joyous enterprise again. Especially since, even more than the somewhat deadly 1929 movie of The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers gives a prime example of just how spontaneous and original Mrs. Marx’s boys must have been on the stage.



The Manchurian Candidate
(1962) Pet peeve, which over the years has become even petter, or peevier: People who use the phrase “Manchurian Candidate” and think they’re referring to an assassin. Raymond Shaw, the hapless marksman brainwashed to commit a crime once considered “unthinkable,” is not the eponymous figure of Richard Condon’s sharp, strange novel, written in the late 1950s but, science-fiction like, projected as the narrative of a future event; the “Manchurian Candidate” is in fact his hated stepfather, the at once bibulous, doltish and McCarthyesque Senator John Iselin. Pauline Kael thought the book “fool-proof” for adaptation, and so slighted George Axelrod’s exceptional screenplay: While he retains much of Condon’s slightly off-center dialogue, Axelrod’s changes are felicitous, and beyond mere streamlining. They are also the very things auteurists go into rapture over, presuming that it simply must have been the movie’s director, John Frankenheimer, who devised the dizzying, disorienting approach to the flashback sequences in Manchuria. That these are beautifully shot and edited is undeniable, but the concept was entirely Axelrod’s. It’s also axiomatic among the ignoratti that Frank Sinatra, one of the movie’s producers, kept the picture out of circulation following a single television airing in the mid-1970s (where I first encountered it) out of deference to the memory of Jack Kennedy. Not at all. He merely wanted more money than he was being offered.

Manchurian Candidate

Note the way the filmmakers frame a live political event: Power-mad Lansbury watches, not her dippy Senator husband, but the way he’s showing up on television.

The moment late in the movie in which Shaw’s manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury) plants a deep kiss on his lips was shocking in 1962, but Condon goes even further, both with the character’s hellish personality and with her incestuous impulses; her first lover was her father, and she does far more than merely kiss Raymond. Lansbury was universally admired for her performance, and she should be. So, for that matter, should Sinatra: As Marco, the viewer’s surrogate, he hits every note with precisely the correct emotional weight. Fortunately, Axelrod removed the ugliest aspect of the character — his (to me, truly brainwashed) determination to save the Medal of Honor from embarrassment, up to and including re-programming Raymond to kill the Iselins and then himself. Axelrod has more respect, for both Raymond and Marco.

The rich supporting cast includes Janet Leigh in a very strange role (no less strange in the novel) whose meaning is open to interpretation; James Gregory as that consummate dope Johnny Iselin; Khigh Dhiegh as the chief Chinese doctor, whose frequent laughter and ready smile are the very opposite of sinister, which somehow makes them even more appalling; and the always splendid John McGiver as a representative of that now thoroughly dead specimen, the liberal Republican. David Amram’s effective score includes one of the most striking main title themes ever heard in an American movie.


Winter Kills - Perkins

Winter Kills (1979) Another Condon adaptation, but nowhere near as successful as The Manchurian Candidate, largely because the writer and director, William Richert, diverges so often from his source. The Condon novel is, like its predecessor, both steeped in American political realities and history, and wildly, almost grotesquely, satirical. It’s a market Condon had cornered, and the wise filmmaker follows his lead. Richert deviates in crucial ways, and in so doing loses much of the demented logic of the book involving a Kennedyesque family, an assassinated president, a deep conspiracy involving intelligence and the Mafia, the American surveillance state and the family’s young scion (Jeff Bridges) suddenly hauled into the middle of it.

Not all of Richert’s alterations are deleterious, however, particularly his use of a woman on a bicycle as the herald of atrocity and his re-imagining of the communications maven played in the picture by Anthony Perkins. Indeed, when I first saw the picture nearly 40 years ago, it was a single throwaway line of Perkins’ — one with no antecedent in Condon — and the way it was delivered, and filmed, that stuck with me.* He also gets a climactic moment with Jeff Bridges that encapsulates the movie’s odd, almost off-hand, approach to black comedy. But what Condon’s fictions really need for effective transmigration to the screen are not wholesale re-writers but creative editors. The fun of his books lies as much in peeling back their layers of deceit and deception as in their peerless dialogue; pull too many pins out of Condon’s puzzles, their entire edifices collapse and you’re left scrambling to pick up the pieces and rebuild without a blueprint. Thus we get Sterling Hayden as a nutso general who is what General Jack D. Ripper might have become if the world hadn’t ended in Dr. Strangelove and Dorothy Malone as Bridges’ idiotic mother, a character long dead in the novel and wholly unnecessary. Worse, Richert turns the Bridges character’s one real ally inexplicably against him at the end — that, or his final scene is so confusingly shot and edited I misunderstood what was happening. Possibly both.

The casting is largely a help, although Toshiro Mifune is wasted in a nothing role, and there isn’t nearly enough of Richard Boone, or of Eli Wallach as a Jack Ruby stand-in. Belinda Bauer is appropriately unfathomable as Bridges’ sometime lover and Elizabeth Taylor puts in a brief but juicy cameo, but John Huston as “Pa” Kegan and Jeff Bridges as his diffident son are utterly perfect. Most of Pa’s lines in the novel sounded as if they were written for Huston’s curious, half-whimsical/half-sinister drawl, and the image of him at the end, clinging to a gargantuan American flag, is both appalling and funny. Bridges meanwhile is ideally cast as the audience surrogate, a young iconoclast who didn’t know his late brother all that well, is equally fascinated and repulsed by his infinitely wealthy father, and trying vainly to go his own way. With his big, open, handsome face and his ability to express both worldliness and shocked naïveté, no one of his age and weight in the ‘70s could play soiled innocence quite as well as Bridges.


American Graffiti 6

American Graffiti (1973) Universal Pictures had so little love for this extremely low-budget George Lucas project the studio nearly blew what eventually became a financial behemoth (13th on the list of top-grossing American movies as late as 1977) and a cultural touchstone of the decade.


Marathon Man - Scheider and Olivier

Marathon Man (1976) This dark, visceral adaptation by William Goldman and John Schlesinger of Goldman’s “What-If?” novel about a Mengele-like Nazi unavoidably drawn to New York City was one of the first “R”-rated movies I ever saw, and it shook me to the core. Pauline Kael was put off by the movie’s classical realism, believing the book’s potboiler status demanded a slicker approach, but I disagree; Schlesinger’s elegant verisimilitude gives the pulp plotting both a stylish patina and a prevailing sense of dread that drenches the narrative like a fever-dream. As the screenwriter, Goldman cleverly re-imagined his exciting novel for the screen, and his increasingly frightening use of the question “Is it safe?” briefly became a part of the American cultural language… and inspired a new fear of your friendly neighborhood dentist that was only slightly less pronounced than the embarrassed terror with which swimmers regarded the sea a year earlier, after the release of Jaws.


French Connection - Alan Weeks

The French Connection (1971) One of the toughest, most visceral crime movies of its time, and one that still packs a wallop.


Last Jedi - Ridley and Hamill

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Am I the only one who suspects the only way the Disney Star Wars series can survive is if its creators move past their predecessors? Fortunately, through plotting and attrition, that necessary goal is closer: J.J. Abrams, belatedly fulfilled Harrison Ford’s 1983 wish, killing off Han Solo in his initial movie; Rian Johnson sent Luke Skywalker to his reward here (though one strongly suspects Abrams will use his spirit, a la Alec Guinness, in his upcoming The Rise of Skywalker); and, sadly for those who loved or admired her, Carrie Fisher’s addictions took her out of the picture permanently after she completed her scenes in this, the second installment of the current trilogy. Will any of this spur Abrams’ and Johnson’s successors in future Star Wars projects to abandon the (real or surrogate) fathers-and-sons through-lines of nearly every episode in the franchise so far? Surely there is more than one plot-line in that galaxy!

This observation will probably earn me extreme opprobrium, but I make it without rancor or cruelty: Fisher’s death at least spares us during the forthcoming final third the Hillary Clintonesque conception of Leia by Abrams and Johnson, and which presumably inspired Clinton’s deranged, transductive and Trump-maddened acolytes to begin calling themselves “The Resistance.” Fisher’s delivery in these pictures was so slurred one couldn’t help wondering whether, like her presumed inspiration, Leia’d been off somewhere in the intergalactic woods drinking chardonnay.

The truly hopeful signs of this series have been the development of their central characters: Rey, embodied by the extraordinary Daisy Ridley; John Boyega’s complicated Finn; Kelly Marie Tran’s endearing Rose Tico; and, to a lesser extent, Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, who has had less character development. But Adam Driver, as interesting as he is capable of being, was an odd choice to portray the offspring of Han and Leia, as he looks like neither Fisher nor Ford. Worse, he embodies the inability of the filmmakers to abandon the narrative yokes of the last 40 years of Star Wars movies. Still, he’s just mercurial, and unbalanced, enough to be somewhat unpredictable.


Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait (1978) There are few pleasures quite like discovering that a movie you loved in your youth is not only in no way dated but is every bit as delightful as you remembered. Warren Beatty’s directorial debut (he shared the job with Buck Henry) remains impressive: A gentle, quirky comic fantasy, perfectly cast and, within its fantastic framework, utterly logical. Beatty and the great Elaine May based their screenplay on the 1941 Robert Montgomery comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, itself taken from a play by Harry Segall called Heaven Can Wait… later the title of a 1943 Ernst Lubitsch/Samson Raphaelson collaboration starring Don Ameche, itself a life-after-death fantasy.

The picture concerns a rising professional quarterback called Joe Pendleton (Beatty, looking almost impossibly trim and desirable) who, taken too soon by a presumptuous angel (Henry) is sent back to earth in the body of a rapacious industrialist lately murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and secretary (Charles Grodin). Joe’s determination to lead his old team in the upcoming Super Bowl drives the plot, which aside from the hilariously homicidal lovers includes Joe’s accommodating guardian angel Mr. Jordan (James Mason), a passionate and outraged British environmentalist (Julie Christie), Joe’s befuddled former trainer (Jack Warden) and three sublimely unflappable servants (Joseph Maher, Hamilton Camp and Arthur Malet.) It’s among the most agreeable comedies of its era, wonderfully light on its feet — both emotionally plangent and dry as vermouth.


Who Framed Roger Rabbit image-29

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) With this single movie, the entire landscape of animation was altered, for a time.


*”Don’t panic; panic is counter-productive.” Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Context is everything.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2017

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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.

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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.”
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.