Peddling disaster: Wrong is Right (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks is one of those odd Hollywood characters auteurists  can’t pin down, and that’s irksome to them. They want consistency of vision; content is less important to them than a measurable idiosyncratic (preferably “personal”) style. And while I can see no particular pattern in Brooks’ work as a writer-director, nor an especially consistent style, I don’t mind that in the least: Sidney Lumet’s style changed from picture to picture, and he made some of the finest American movies of the last 60 years. What I think unites Lumet and Brooks is that they shared a sense that style and approach are, rightly, dictated by content and form. There’s little that unites, say, Elmer Gantry and The Professionals, or and Bite the Bullet, except that the man who made them was highly intelligent, often witty, and inevitably humane.

Wrong is Right was Brooks’ penultimate movie, and it was pretty much ignored by audiences of the time, who were moving deep into the Reagan Dream and didn’t wish to be disturbed from their sleep. Besides, after Network, who wanted to see another hyperkinetic satire on television? But, while Wrong is Right comes to many of the same conclusions as Network did, the picture is not warmed-over Chayefsky. If anything, it has more in common with the later Wag the Dog in its black-humored cynicism about the intersection of show biz and politics, and with Larry Gelbart’s late, almost despairing, conclusions (in work such as his Weapons of Mass Distraction) about the intractable mess Bill Clinton created with his disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has in the interim destroyed the entire concept of a free press, without which democracy cannot flourish, or even function. Twenty years after All the President’s Men celebrated the professional ethics of two dogged, independent Washington Post reporters, Clinton seemed intent on killing the very notion of a press independent of corporate ownership, much as Jeff Bezos has succeeded in turning that very paper into a conduit for CIA and DNC propaganda disguised as news. In the current journalistic void, where almost nothing one sees, hears or reads in the corporate media may be trusted, Wrong is Right seems positively prescient.

Brooks based his screenplay on a thriller by Charles McCarry concerning the collision of a bitter American revolutionary, a star American reporter, and the President. Transferring the revolutionary aspect to the Middle East, the filmmaker fashioned a wild, engaging satire that, if only occasionally delivering a line that makes you laugh out loud, is never less than thoroughly engaging. Brooks’ reporter here is an adventurer-turned-journalist (Sean Connery), his revolutionary an Arabian terrorist (Henry Silva, of all people) and his President (George Grizzard) a football-obsessed career politician intent on winning a close election with a Reaganesque hack (Leslie Neilsen). Added to this already heady brew is a gung-ho General called Wombat (Robert Conrad); a serpentine CIA chief (G.D. Spradlin); a ratings-mad network honcho (Robert Webber) who could quite easily be mistaken for Les Moonves giggling about how much money CBS was making from the Trump candidacy; a smart, savvy, main-chance grabbing black female Vice-President (Rosalind Cash) bearing the last name of Carter’s predecessor; a natty international arms dealer (Hardy Krüger) who, as these types tend, isn’t concerned with who gets a pair of nuclear bombs, as long as he gets the cash; and a slick, opportunistic Presidential aid (Dean Stockwell) the like of whom Aaron Sorkin would never have presented on The West Wing. (John Saxon also shows up, as a CIA agent who is the last word in sangfroid, Katherine Ross appears—all too briefly for my taste—as a journalist with a secret life, and Ron Moody contributes a neat cameo as the Mideast potentate who sets the whole, blazing ball rolling. As an added frisson for the modern viewer, a young Jennifer Jason Leigh pops up as a teenager only slightly less appalling than Leigh herself became as an adult.)

Although Wrong is Right clocks in at nearly two hours, the pace of the picture is so fast there is never the slightest opportunity for longueurs. That breakneck structure is attained largely through Brooks’ tight, economical (and rather bracingly theatrical) writing style, as a word or phrase uttered by one character leads directly to its echo in the mouth of another, sometimes continents away. Metaphorically, Brooks’ dialogue plums the rich vein usually mined by Gelbart himself; think of the ironically malaprop-spouting Colonel Flagg as the progenitor of nearly every character, and you get a sense of the keen wit and wordplay Brooks invests into what, on the surface, is the stuff of international thrillers. The look of the picture is itself almost like TV itself as it once was: The cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp’s use of deep-focus and bright color would not have been out of place in a Universal television movie of the week. And if the infrequent use of special effects is somewhat shoddy, those moments pass quickly enough—although, in the immediate post-Star Wars era, they must have seemed pretty shoddy to those moviegoers who actually purchased a ticket.

As a taste of Brooks’ delicious dramaturgical style, here’s Connery’s Patrick Hale after he has suggested to Webber that the network obtain Hardy’s suitcase bombs and been rebuked with the accusation that he’s practicing “checkbook journalism”:

What kind of journalism was it when television paid half a million dollars for an exclusive on the Bay of Pigs? A million dollars to Nixon, to apologize coast to coast? CBS paid Haldeman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. NBC paid John Dean and Robert Kennedy’s assassin. ABC paid Lieutenant Calley, and for breakfast, served up the My Lai massacre. And what about the killer I put on television? From death row to the electric chair, fried meat on prime time. You paid $100,000 for that. Paid it to the killer! Do you call that journalism?

We’re in show business, baby. Make them laugh. Make them cry . Make them buy, by and by. We peddle disaster. Violence—it’s commercial! Blood and tears and football and cheers. Performers, superstars. Get them on, get them off. Next, next, fast, fast! We’re in the entertainment business, and there’s nothing wrong with that… if you call it that.

That no one in the business now will call it that makes Wrong is Right a movie less out of time than far ahead of it.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

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$ (1971)

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(aka, Dollars, although, uniquely, no actual title appears in the credits sequence—only an enormous golden dollar sign being flown from a crane.)

By Scott Ross

The redoubtable Richard Brooks, as writer and director, tries his hand at an original for a change, and it works beautifully. An ethically ambiguous caper thriller with elements of comedy (not, as the poster would have you believe, the reverse) $ is cheerfully amoral, rigorously clever in the very best sense, and strikingly photographed and edited. The cutting is faster than is usual for Brooks, and it’s interesting to compare his kinetic but more sedate style with that of the year’s big crime movie, William Friedkin’s cinema verite police procedural The French Connection which, like $, includes a long and elaborate chase.

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The ’60s-esque caper art for the “$” poster promises a “How to Steal a Million”-style romp. The reality was something different, and more interesting.

Brooks, however, is more humanist than the notably chilly Friedkin, his outlook informed not by sentiment or unrefined optimism but by the impulse to treat his characters as people rather than the usual cutout figures. They tend to transcend trope, and stereotype: Gert Frobe’s fat banker, for example, is a genial married lech, but his basic impulse is compassion.

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Warren Beatty, looking impossibly trim and scrumptious as only he could in the ’70s, is the security expert out to steal, not from the institution itself but from a trio of especially ripe criminals (Mafia attorney Robert Webber, enterprising U.S. Army Sargent Scott Brady and coldly murderous drug dealer Arthur Brauss) each of whom holds a safety deposit box within the German bank. They are, in Beatty’s worldview, crooks, who deserve to be ripped off.

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$ takes a little getting used to, as Brooks introduces us to the characters, without explaining them, but once the movie begins rolling the pieces click into place as you’re watching. It’s an especially satisfying audacity for a moviemaker to trust his audience’s intelligence to that degree in the creation of what is, after all, a popcorn entertainment. We can only imagine the slack-jawed consternation of any Hollywood studio executive today being confronted with that sort of narrative subtlety.

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Goldie Hawn is all giggles and self-doubt as Beatty’s accomplice, the self-confessed goof who isn’t nearly as dumb as she believes… or seems; Brady has what may be his career-best role as the relentless Sargent; and Brauss is memorably frightening as “The Candyman.”

The cinematography of Petrus Schloemp is stunningly good. The remarkably sharp, richly textured images pop off the screen, yet without self-consciousness or Technicolor camp; $ looks as contemporary as it feels.$ beatty tumblr_mc1a56pQLr1qgpddwo1_1280

Richard Brooks’ script is as crisp and intelligent as his directing. Each time you think you’ve got the measure of Beatty and Hawn, and what they’re up to, Brooks twists the plot in one additional, unexpected—but never fraudulent—direction. $ was a nice warm-up; in 1975 that impulse to confounding expectations in a positive fashion would give Brooks his finest hour as a writer-director, in the woefully underrated (and criminally under-seen) Bite the Bullet, which, like $, benefits from narrative sleight-of-hand, creative compassion, and an ending as sweetly satisfying as the finale here is wittily apt.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Professionals (1966)

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The great Robert Ryan and the much-missed Lee Marvin in “The Professionals.” They would be reunited the following year, briefly, in “The Dirty Dozen,” and seven years later in Ryan’s final film, the superb American Film Theare’s adaptation of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”

By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks was a problematic figure. As writer and director, he was, in the Hollywood of his early period, part of a unique caste. There had never been many double-threat filmmakers; of the five major scenarist/directors around when Brooks moved to the director’s chair (Charles Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, John Huston) Sturges had burned out, Chaplin was not so much a writer—The Great Dictator is proof enough of that—as he was an ad lib imaginer, Welles was living and working in Europe, and Wilder always worked with a collaborator. (And no one at that time considered Samuel Fuller a major anything.)

When Brooks tackled hard-hitting, usually urban, subjects he was very good indeed: CrisisDeadline—USA, The Blackboard Jungle. When he ventured into adapting literature, whether novels or plays, he often floundered. Orson Welles once said Brooks should have been shot for the way he mangled Lord Jim, and his Tennessee Williams adaptations (Cat on a Hot Tin RoofSweet Bird of Youth) are wonderfully acted, often beautifully observed, but impossibly hobbled by the prevailing censorship. Elmer Gantry is effective but overlong and bloated, and Brooks’ daring in taking on American religious huckerstering was blunted by nervous studio interference. He fared better with In Cold Blood, although even he shied away from some of its implications, notably the (homo)sexual, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, while memorable (especially in its shockingly terrifying finale) is a nightmare that appears to equate sexual liberty with seediness and violent death.

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Brooks had two terrific Westerns in him, however; the rousing, and deeply moving, Bite the Bullet (1975) and this one, a rip-roaring adventure out of a very likable Frank O’Rourke novel (A Mule for the Marquesa) that is expansive in the best sense, and carries with it the same humanist impulse that made Bite the Bullet so intensely memorable.

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Richard Brooks and Claudia Cardinale on the set.

Conrad Hall’s sumptuous Western cinematography must have looked incredible on a big screen. And of course, the cast is first-rate: The always interesting Lee Marvin, a very genial Burt Lancaster, the vastly underrated Robert Ryan, and the stalwart Woody Strode as the eponymous adventurers; Jack Palance as a surprisingly sympathtic kidnapper; the luminous Claudia Cardinale as the ambiguous object of the quest; and Ralph Bellamy as the unsavory source of it all.

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The Professionals shares with Bite the Bullet the rigorously unsentimental compassion Brooks finds for all his characters. He doesn’t play the black hat/white hat game. Or, even when you think he does, he pulls a switch on you and allows even the most seemingly malign of characters his or her individual humanity. (Well, everyone but Bellamy, and he’s so avariciously cynical he’s beyond redemption.) That was rare in American movies when Richard Brooks was active, and is by far rarer now.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Bite the Bullet (1975)

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By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks’ utterly original, elegiac western was a fast flop on its original release, but its reputation should soar as the years go by. It’s a kind of grand road-movie about a grueling cross-country race and the desperate characters vying for the prize.

Gene Hackman is the gentle, humane horseman and he’s supported by a dream cast including James Coburn, Jan-Michael Vincent, Ian Bannen, Ben Johnson and Candice Bergen. Brooks’ genius as a screenwriter is the way he gives each character his or her essential humanity; you may think you’ve got their numbers early on, but — like many of the people you know in life — all of them display surprising depths. Alex North composed the distinctive, propulsive score, and it’s among his best. And if the finale doesn’t move you, you may be beyond reaching.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross