Sanguinary: “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

“I pity the Tsar. I pity Russia. He is a poor and unhappy sovereign. What did he inherit and what will he leave? He is obviously a good and quite intelligent man, but he lacks will power, and it is from that character that his state defects developed, that is, his defects as a ruler, especially an autocratic and absolute ruler.” — Sergei Witte

“Because she had waited so long and prayed so hard for her son, the revelation that Alexis suffered from hemophilia struck Alexandra with savage force. From that moment, she lived in the particular sunless world reserved for the mothers of hemophiliacs.” ― Robert K. Massie

Nicholas and Alexandra is a beautifully photographed (by the great Freddie Young), epic-length adaptation of Robert K. Massie’s superb dual biography that somehow misses greatness at nearly every turn. It’s not a disaster by any means, and it’s never boring; the director, Franklin J. Schaffner, was one of the more thoughtful studio filmmakers of his era, with a nearly unerring visual sense. But if you know the history the inaccuracies bug you, and even if you don’t you keep waiting in vain for the picture to catch fire. Goldman, the author of The Lion in Winter, They Might Be Giants, Follies, Robin and Marian and Myself as Witness, wrote the intelligent and often witty screenplay (with, as the credits have it, “Additional Material” by the incendiary English playwright Edward Bond) and while the movie is wonderfully cast and contains within Richard Rodney Bennett’s splendid musical score one of the most exquisite major themes ever composed for a movie, the thing somehow sags. It may be that too much was being undertaken, in a medium that couldn’t contain it; it took Massie over 600 pages to get through the tsar and tsaritsa‘s lives while Goldman and Schaffner had only slightly over three hours in which to present the highlights, beginning with the birth of the tsarevich Alexei. Although there are some excellent set-pieces, such as the expansive depiction of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre and of the fierce oppression of the peasantry, one imagines the material could have been made to work effectively only if given the space — for example in something that did not exist, at least in America, in 1971: The television miniseries.

A less meddlesome producer might also have helped. Sam Spiegel famously drove David Lean mad and his interference ruined the Arthur Penn-directed movie of Horton Foote’s play and novel The Chase both before it was shot and after. (With Nicholas and Alexandra he initially attempted to get the picture made without compensating Massie, claiming the material was in the public domain, as history.) That Spiegel was so notorious for his control-freak approach to producing suggests the blame for the ultimate failure of this movie must be laid at his door. It is also difficult (although not impossible) to depict a weak man’s misrule over a nation, and the reasons Nicholas was so ineffectual are likely buried deep in his upbringing, which the picture doesn’t examine: He was not only gentle and almost pathologically shy but his father, Alexander III, deliberately froze his son out of any direct political experience that might have proven instructive on how to rule, particularly how to govern a nation as vast and diffuse as Russia, so that when he was suddenly made tsar, all “Nicky” really had to hold onto were tradition, his fanatical devotion to Russian Orthodox Catholicism, his abiding love for his country, and his unshakable belief in Autocracy — the Divine Right of Kings.

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Tsaritsa and tsarevich: Janet Suzman and Roderic Noble

Complicating matters almost beyond comprehension was the fact that Alexei, his and Alexandra’s only male heir, was (almost certainly as a result of centuries of European monarchical inbreeding) a hemophiliac. Massie, whose own son suffered with the disease, based his book in the belief that three major factors contributed to Nicholas’ abdication and the eventual cruel and senseless massacre of his family: Nicholas’ ineffectual leadership, growing unrest among the Russian people, and Alexandra’s anguish over Alexei’s condition, which caused her to imbue the “mad monk” Rasputin with extraordinary powers in the midst of a losing war with Germany while Nicholas was away attempting to conduct it. The reality is of course more complicated than that précis suggests, and Massie explicates it, especially concerning the failure of the Socialist Kerensky’s Provisional government and his depiction of the more radical and doctrinaire figures (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin) champing at the exile’s bit and keeping an avid eye on the main chance. It was, to use the modern parlance, a perfect storm, and the tsar was ill-equipped to survive it.

Given the necessarily compressed structure, it’s difficult for the filmmakers to generate much sympathy for the royals, and while they do express some empathy for them, and for the perennially oppressed Russian peasantry, they can do little with figures like Lenin (Michael Bryant) and Trotsky (Brian Cox) other than to ridicule their excessive fractional zeal. Important figures in modern Russian history float through without our knowing who they are or why they’re noteworthy, and through compression some events (the assassination of the Prime Minister Stolypin, for example) are juggled in time, others are rendered as both highly fictionalized and slightly truncated (Rasputin’s murder) and still others (young Alexei’s self-destructive plunge down a steep staircase on a sled) at the very least questionable. There is also some conflation of characters and at least one rather unconscionable invention: That Klementy Nagorny (John Hallam), the sailor assigned to safeguard Alexei, was arrested and shot by the Soviets for defending the tsarevich. While it is true that both Nagorny and his compatriot, Ivan Sednev, were later executed, Nagorny in fact turned against the Romanovs after their house-arrest to such a degree that, with infinite cruelty, he began to order Alexei about, treating an invalid boy as his personal servant.

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Harry Andrews, Laurence Olivier and Michael Jayston, back to camera. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

The look of the picture is beyond reproach, however, from Young’s rich, sumptuous cinematography to the Academy Award-winning costumes (Yvonne Blake and Antonio Castillo), the art and set decoration (by, among others, John Box) and the elegant, fluid editing of Ernest Walter. The movie also enjoys a Leanesque cast, what with Curt Jürgens, Roy Dotrice, Irene Worth, Harry Andrews, John Wood, Eric Porter, Michael Redgrave and Jack Hawkins in minor roles — the last of these, alas, diminished by his distinctive voice having to be dubbed by Charles Grey owing to throat cancer. Laurence Olivier also shows up, marvelously, as Nicholas’ one-time Prime Minister Count Witte, although his most effective moment, warning the tsar against the “Great War” of 1914 in his own mind, is sabotaged by uncertain staging. It’s obviously meant to be a fantasy sequence, but nothing in the presentation prepares us for this, and little in the style of its execution confirms it. And since it’s the only such sequence in the picture, its stands as a decided oddity. Better served by the filmmakers are John McEnery as the neither-fish-nor-fowl Kerensky, Ian Holm as the ambivalent Yakovlev and my favorite Doctor Who, Tom Baker, as an unabashedly lusty Rasputin… although the impact of his murder is undercut both by its brevity and its camp aspects, which seem to suggest that not only was the gay Prince Yusupov (Martin Potter) exceptionally indiscreet but that Rasputin went for boys in drag with the same enthusiasm as he did voluptuous young ladies.

Nicholas and Alexandra - Tom Baker

Tom Baker as Rasputin

Michael Jayston has the unenviable task of portraying an ineffectual man, and (predictably) received, and continues to receive, slanging for doing it well. Although weakness is, it seems to me, a perfectly good artistic subject, weak men are the bane of male actors: I once had a debate with a friend who was convinced George Segal in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was weak because his character was. If a man portrays weakness well, the weakness he captures is usually conflated with him, as a performer, or as a man. No wonder actors so often shy away from perceived weakness. I imagine the types who now litter social media with their moronic “critical” pronouncements are driven to despair by Jayston’s most affecting moment — when, following the tsar’s abdication, he falls to his knees in front of his wife and weeps like a child — but it’s terribly moving, in part because you see in it how poorly equipped Nicholas was for his position, and how terribly he muffed it. Janet Suzman as Alexandra won much greater acclaim at the time (she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar and had the ill fortune to be up against Jane Fonda in Klute) and she’s very fine, balancing the passionate wife and devoted mother with the fiercely partisan tasritsa who shares her mate’s implacable belief in the Mandate of Heaven. Young Roderic Noble is likewise quite good as Alexei, although I fail to see his (vaunted, at the time) supposed resemblance to the genuine article, and his character has been conceived as much haughtier, and less sweet-natured, than the tsarevich was reputed to be. But the moment at the end when he senses the family is about to be murdered, and kisses his father’s cheek, is brave, defiant and gently poignant at once. As their executioner, the coldly officious Yurovsky, Alan Webb, although much too old for the role, is chillingly pragmatic.

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Noble and Suzman flanking Michael Jayston as Nicholas

Nicholas and Alexandra - Alan Webb

Center: Alan Webb

The discrete manner in which Goldman and Schaffner depict the murders (or, rather, in their stylization, don’t) is perhaps cinematically effective, but it misses the horror, both visual and aural, of the massacre. It’s literally bloodless, in a movie in which blood — in the form of bloodlines, genetic concerns, hemophilia and the wholesale letting of crimson — is perhaps the central concern. Not that I would want to witness that hideous event, in widescreen and Technicolor® close-up, head-on. I am the furthest thing from a monarchist, and although I am chary of all systems and ideologies and while my own distrust of, and disgust with, the monied classes borders if it does not in actual fact reside in the realm of socialism, yet deliberate cruelty and murder are to my mind never justified. That both were visited on Nicholas, his family and his household, that the bodies were further dismembered, mutilated, burned and hidden, and that none of the family’s European relations had the moral fiber to accept it into exile and thus save their lives, are appalling enough; that the killings were performed with such bloodthirsty gusto, and so much deliberate cruelty — when the boy Alexei did not die immediately he was repeatedly kicked in the head and stabbed with bayonets —  remains an indelible stain on a revolution long overdue.

It was also a prophetic one: Its unfettered and sadistic terrors would, soon enough, be visited, not merely on the exalted Romanovs but on everyone in Russia, for the next 30 years.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: April 2020

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By Scott Ross

Oklahoma - Albert, Greenwood

Eddie Albert as the peddler, with the great Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller.

Oklahoma! (1955) [Todd-AO version / CinemaScope version] The first film adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and the finest.


Doctor Dolittle (1967)

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He’s never seen anything like it: A delightfully exuberant Richard Attenborough as Blossom, with Rex Harrison’s Dolittle and the Pushmi-Pullyu.

That Doctor Dolittle was the picture 20th Century-Fox pinned most of its hopes on in 1967 is difficult to fathom now as that same studio’s earlier devotion to the money-pit known as Cleopatra in 1962. That one nearly bankrupted them. Dolittle didn’t do as much damage but it didn’t bring much honor (let alone profits) either. I well remember the picture’s release; I was in precisely the age-group Fox was aiming it at. It was the first non-Disney movie I recall seeing so many commercial product tie-ins for — the sort of thing that we would, a decade later with George Lucas’ Star Wars merchandising, become blasé about was a big deal in ’67. There were children’s cereal tie-ins, toys, games, storybooks, paperback reprints of the Hugh Lofting originals bearing Rex Harrison’s likeness… and records. O, how they had records! The score existed as a soundtrack album, of course, but also in LPs by everyone from Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis, Jr. to Alvin and the Chipmunks. The only thing Doctor Dolittle didn’t get, surprisingly, was a Gold Key comic book. How did Arthur P. Jacobs miss that one?

I don’t think Richard Fleischer’s direction is more than merely competent, and the movie as a whole has more size than real charm. (The original Lofting books are, whatever their racial… “limitations,” shall we say?… entirely charming.) Perhaps if it had been conceived, not as a big, sprawling musical but as a smaller and more inventive non-musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle might have been a minor classic of its kind. And the presence of Harrison makes Dolittle rather too Henry Higgins-like for comfort. (Reportedly re-written that way at the star’s insistence… after he first insisted the character be as far from Higgins as possible. That’s what you get when you hire a megalomaniacal drunk as your star.) But if it hadn’t been a musical, Doctor Dolittle would have lost the one aspect that lifts it above the norm of original musical movies:  The Leslie Bricusse score.

If his screenplay is less sparkling — you can sense the prints of too many fingers on it, and the pushing of a once-sided romance that never takes flight feels weirdly like an exercise in masochism — Bricusse’s songs have a nearly unerring grasp of character, time and place that, combined with their melodiousness, their feeling for mood and their gentle humor, make them almost ideal musical-comedy numbers. Sadly, three of his prettiest ballads (“Beautiful Things,” “Where Are the Words?” and “Something in Your Smile”) were either cut after the premiere or, in the case of the first, trimmed. The footage apparently no longer exists, making the otherwise lovely Twilight Time Blu-ray a bit of a disappointment. I know there are those who hate these songs (when “Talk to the Animals” won the Oscar for Best Song cries of “Oh, no!” were heard in the auditorium) but as I have often said of the Sherman Brothers’ work, if you think it’s easy to compose a clutch of engaging and melodic songs with witty lyrics that can amuse an adult and that a child can also comprehend and appreciate, you write one.

This was the era of the big “road show” musical, and the second such movie my mother took my sister and me to (the first was The Sound of Music a year or so before) that had an Intermission; a big deal for a seven-year old in 1968. Is the movie any good? It seems to me better than its reputation would suggest, but I lack perspective on it: When a picture enchanted you as a child and holds up generally on adult re-viewing, who knows? It’s entirely possible that I feel about Doctor Dolittle the way younger people do about what I regard as the meretricious garbage they grew up with; Willow comes to mind, and The Goonies, and the movies of John Hughes. Before we trash the taste and pleasures of others’ youths, we would do well to examine our own.


The Lion in Winter (1968)
The Lion in Winter - cast

The movie adaptation by James Goldman of his 1966 play, one of those rare pictures whose wit, and spectacular performances, make it a pleasure no matter how many times you’ve seen it.


Julius Caesar (1953)

Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Edmund O'Brien rehearsing JUL

Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Edmund O’Brien rehearsing. (Everett Collection)

This moderately engaging Shakespeare adaptation benefits almost entirely from its actors, and from its typically expert Miklós Rózsa score. Certainly Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s direction is merely workmanlike, when it isn’t altogether poor, and its special effects would be inadequate in a high school production. (The storm sequence is almost hilariously bad; I pictured Tom Courtenay off-stage, frantically pounding on kettle-drums and sheet-metal.) James Mason makes a splendid Brutus, acting entirely on principal and haunted by his own deeds, and although she has one scene only, Deborah Kerr as Portia matches him, her warm voice and understated anguish the perfect compliment to his brooding. John Gielgud, long absent from the screen, made a superb return as Cassius, that mellifluous bassoon of a voice first seducing Brutus, then hectoring him and, finally, locating the character’s latent sense of honor. Best of all is Marlon Brando’s Anthony. Although the play is really Brutus’, to Anthony was given the great funeral oration, with which the character subtly alters the mood of the all-too-pliable mob through irony and rhetoric. (Brando creates a nice moment when, his back to the Roman crowd, he smiles briefly, knowing he has them. Mussolini would surely have approved.) Brando went to Gielgud for advice on diction and phrasing, but the approach is unmistakably his own. He makes each phrase sound natural, as if it just occurred to him. He’s not imitating Gielgud; he’s not imitating anyone.

On the far side of these splendid players is the gaseous Grande Dame posturings of the appalling Greer Garson. Her acting epitomizes what used to be meant by publicists and newspaper writers when they trotted out the word “distinguished.”


Demon Seed (1977)
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An effective, although not exceptional, adaptation of Dean Knnotz’s creepy, truly disturbing cyber-horror novel, arguably more relevant now than it was in 1977. Fritz Weaver is an A.I. expert who has created a living computer, and Julie Christie is his estranged wife, who becomes its first victim. The picture suffers from its modest budget and the limitations of the 1970s special effects (about to be rendered altogether redundant by George Lucas) and from a lack of interior logic in its Robert Jaffe/Roger O. Hirson screenplay:  When Gerrit Graham as one of Weaver’s employees goes to check on Christie and is murdered by “Proteus IV,” his disappearance is ignored by everyone for the crucial month the computer requires for Christie to carry and give birth to its progeny. Donald Cammell directed competently, although with very little style; but for Bill Butler’s rich cinematography, Demon Seed could almost have been a made-for-TV movie. Jerry Fielding’s musique concrète score is effective in context, although I can’t imagine wanting to listen to it in isolation, although Butler, who two years earlier shot Jaws, brings warmth to a cold story with his supple lighting and color. Almost unreservedly grim, the picture has one good in-joke: The chilly, unemotional voice of Proteus IV was provided by the equally frigid Robert Vaughn.


The Mouse on the Moon (1962)
The Mouse on the Moon - Moody, Rutherford (resized)

A mildly amusing adaptation of Leonard Wibberly’s satirical novel, itself a sequel to his enormously popular The Mouse That Roared and its inevitable movie. As with the movie of that book, The Mouse on the Moon is more twee than funny, although it manages a few laughs. Margaret Rutherford is charming as the Grand Duchess, although her role is shorter than one would like, and she is, curiously, less sweetly moving than Peter Sellers was in the role! A lot of good farceurs are in this one, including Ron Moody as the corrupt Prime Minister, Bernard Cribbins as his earnest son, Terry-Thomas as a less than efficacious English spy, the Broadway actor Tom Aldredge (husband of the costume designer Theoni V.) as a hapless Pentagon assistant and David Kossoff as the preternaturally cheerful and unhurried scientist whose discovery that the tiny Duchy’s combustible wine can be used as fuel for a space capsule sets the plot in motion. Michael Pertwee (brother of Jon) wrote the script, and Richard Lester directed in a style that is rather sedate for him — but A Hard Day’s Night was just around the corner.


The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

Importance of Being Earnest - Criterion

Only a true auteur (or anyway an auteurist home video company) could seriously attach a possessive credit to The Importance of Being Earnest other than Oscar Wilde. Yes, Anthony Asquith wrote the adaptation and directed it, but I suspect he would be appalled at being named, as Criterion does, the “creator” of this movie. Thus does the viral insanity of Andrew Sarris infect everything.

Wilde’s “Serious Comedy for Trivial People” is one of the great pleasures the English-speaking theatre affords, its torrent of polished witticisms and dizzying aperçus piling up in a manner so intoxicating that in addition to laughing, often, we sit in the theatre smiling in perfect bliss for the play’s three delirious acts. The 1952 movie is briefer than the play — it runs a fast 95 minutes — yet somehow we miss nothing. And if both Michael Redgrave (as Jack) and Michael Denison (Algernon) are a good decade older than their roles, Asquith’s framing device of a theatrical performance is superfluous and Denison’s perennial mode of expression is something between a smirk and a sneer, rendering him less impish than unpleasant, everything else is absolutely right. Asquith’s pitch and pacing are exactly correct, and his cast is nearly perfect. Redgrave, with his dashing mien and rich, plummy voice, is an ideal Jack Worthing, perfectly matched by the serene imbecility of Joan Greenwood’s Gwendolen and Dorothy Tutin’s Cecily. Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson are, as always with these two sublime comedians, oases of hilariously unflappable British reserve. And if it does nothing else, the movie preserves Edith Evans’ peerless Lady Bracknell. Her performance is so perfectly calibrated, her characterization so utterly certain of the rightness of its extreme rectitude and absurd traditions, her memory must present a formidable hurdle to any actor assaying the role. How do you make it your own when she got every line so magnificently right before you? And yes, everything you may have heard about her reading of the outraged line “A handbag?” is correct; no matter how many times I hear it, Evans’ exquisite comic phrasing always elicits from me a gale of explosive hilarity. As an added fillip, Desmond Dickinson’s rich photography, like the delicious British light music score by Benjamin Frankel, makes the thing like a colorful bonbon, as charming to look at as to digest.

John Simon always maintained that intelligent laughter was the very best sort. There are fewer pure fonts of it than this.


Satchmo (1988)
Satchmo - Giddins
The superb jazz (and, lately, movie) critic Gary Giddins’ heartfelt 1988 tribute to one of his idols, and mine. Written by Giddins and co-directed by him and Kendrick Simmons, Satchmo charts the astonishing youthful rise of one of the few undisputed musical geniuses of the 20th century, illustrating just why he, more than anyone of his time, defined the parameters of the form and the place of the great solo artist within it; his sometimes troubled middle-age; and his transcendent emeritus years, when the taint of Uncle Tomism, never fair, began to fall away and Armstrong’s importance could be more broadly understood. When his great Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings from the late 1920s were reissued on LP around the time Giddins’ documentary was airing on PBS, they were a revelation: While Armstrong was hardly the first jazz performer — the genre predated his arrival in it by decades — those records made it feel as if he was inventing jazz right on the spot. Next to an astonishment like “West End Blues,” almost everything that came before was literally marking time.

Despite Hattie Winston’s passionless and undistinguished narration, Satchmo does for Armstrong, in 90 minutes, what it takes Ken Burns, in Jazz, 10 episodes to do. The live footage of Armstrong in Copenhagen in 1933 alone justifies the entire event.


Divorce American Style (1967)

Divorce American Style - 1967

Dick Van Dyke has clearly had it up to here with Debbie Reynolds. Well, who wouldn’t?

Few things date faster than topical humor. Divorce American Style was old-hat two years after its release, when no-fault divorce became the law of the land in California, where the movie is set, and its then-scathing satire instantly devolved from amusingly au courant to hopelessly passé. So if you like the picture as I do and have since seeing it on television in the mid-‘70s, you have to approach it as a period-piece — even though its Norman Lear/Robert Kaufman screenplay has infinitely more bite to it than William Rose’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the script that bested it at the 1967 Oscars. This was one of Dick Van Dyke’s few non-family friendly projects of the ‘60s, and one of his best. He’s the husband impoverished by his state’s punitive divorce laws, although I would think being married to Debbie Reynolds was punishment enough. While there is some sharp dialogue and several cleverly conceived and executed sequences, usually set to Dave Grusin’s inspired faux-Baroque music (the opening titles, in which the evening’s suburban arguments are orchestrated by a conductor; the scene in which each warring spouse attempts to thwart the other’s abilities to strip their join bank holdings; the Sunday-fathers’ gathering of the clans; and a prolonged silent fight between Reynolds and Van Dyke, punctuated entirely by slamming doors and sliding cabinets) much of the humor of the picture lies in its canny casting: Jason Robards, Jr. as the tragi-comic divorcée hoping to pair his ex (Jean Simmons) with Van Dyke, to get him off the financial hook that is literally destroying his heath; Shelley Berman and Richard Gautier as overly pally divorce lawyers; Joe Flynn as an ethical philandering husband; Martin Gabel as a humorless couples’ therapist; Lee Grant as an insulted call-girl; Tom Bosley as a divorced man explaining the intricacies of weekend fatherhood to a bewildered Van Dyke; Van Johnson as a square, mother-ridden car dealer; and in smaller roles, Emmaline Henry, the “hip hypnotist” Pat Collins (as herself), Shelley Morrison, Eileen Brennan as Robards’ girlfriend (this was her first movie) and, as Van Dyke and Reynolds’ knowing sons, Gary Goetzman and Tim Matheson, the once and future Jonny Quest. Conrad L. Hall’s muted color photography and Ferris Webster’s often effective editing make this one of the rare ‘60s comedies that has more in common with the kineticism of The Graduate than with the glorified Universal television look of a Doris Day vehicle. After a second bracing Van Dyke black comedy (Cold Turkey in 1971) and the 1973 Ryan O’Neal caper The Thief Who Came to Dinner the director Bud Yorkin and his writer and co-producer Norman Lear would develop All in the Family for television and pretty much turn their backs on the movies for good. Interesting too that the fruits of their TV empire, the aptly-named Tandem Productions, which encompassed All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and Sanford and Son, should now be referred to solely as Norman Lear’s. There’s nothing like having good P.R.


Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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The first Disney animated feature in widescreen and among the most charming of all full-length cartoons.


Hearts of the West (1975)
Hearts of the West - Bridges, Arkin

Hearts of the West is one of those puzzlers that occasionally crop up: A bright,  funny little movie about a hapless Candide in the early days of cheap talkie Westerns with a charming script and a wonderful cast that went by the wayside when it was released and, for reasons that absolutely defy logic, bombed at the box office. What were its “must-see” competitors in the marketplace in October, 1975? Tom Laughlin in The Master Gunfighter? Diana Ross in Mahogany? The “Blaxploitation” Western Take a Hard Ride? That last is not a slur, by the way; I like Take a Hard Ride enormously. I’m simply saying that Hearts of the West had very little real competition for moviegoers’ bucks, and none remotely as good.*

Sharply and wittily written by Rob Thompson and efficiently directed by Howard Zieff, it’s a breezy, quirky fable of a Western-obsessed youth (Jeff Bridges), determined to become a novelist, who after inadvertently foiling a pair of con artists (Richard B. Shull and Anthony James) and accidentally absconding with their loot, takes refuge with the cowboys at a Poverty Row studio. Thompson, who later wrote for Northern Exposure and Monk, has a gift for the unexpected; his characters don’t always act the way we think they will, and his narratives veer off into avenues that, while perhaps puzzling at first, eventually resolve themselves as, within the gentle madness of the conception, eminently reasonable. And, unlike with Richard Rush’s far more highly lauded The Stunt Man,  Thompson respects the physical realities of filmmaking. Everything about the picture works, from the soft, lovely cinematography by Mario Tosi and the sometimes hilariously accurate art direction by Robert Luthardt and set decoration by Charles B. Pierce to the cunning period costumes by Patrick Cummings and Ron Talsky. Zieff’s direction is clean and uncluttered, and he gets the most from Thompson’s script and from his actors, who aside from a typically wonderful Bridges include Alan Arkin as an excitable director, the sublime Blythe Danner as his practical assistant, and Andy Griffith as a Western gunfighter with a secret. It was the best screen role Griffith had lucked onto since the 1957 A Face in the Crowd, and you can well understand why he was still bitter about the movie’s financial failure a decade later.


The Mosquito Coast (1986)

The Mosquito Coast - Mirren, Ford, Phoenix

After the apocalypse: Helen Mirren and River Phoenix look to Harrison Ford for a sane reaction to their disaster. They won’t get it.

When I first saw The Mosquito Coast on its release in 1986, I clocked more walk-outs in the audience than for any picture of my experience since Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 1977. There were any number of reasons for audience discontent in the case of the latter. As to the former, I think there were two.

First, Harrison Ford’s previous picture, a year earlier, had been Witness, a huge hit in which he played an implacable cop and which built to a big, violent finish. Here he was a mercurial obsessive who blithely endangers his family by repeatedly trying to set up a kind of half-assed Utopia in Honduras, dragging them from one untenable encampment to another, and slowly going mad. This was not what an audience expected of Han Solo, much less of Indiana Jones.

Second (and worse) “Father,” as Ford’s character is usually called, does not grow and change for the better. A mass audience can take a character as weird and arrogant as this only when it receives assurance that he will see the error of his ways. Even Oedipus putting out his eyes is more acceptable to it than watching a beloved actor descend into madness and death assaying a character who (as the asparagus farmer played by Dick O’Neill notes of him) is “the worst kind of pain-in-the neck: A know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” If you’re open to the experience, however, and to its bitter vision, The Mosquito Coast is that rare thing: An American movie that does not compromise.

Paul Schrader’s screenplay telescopes some of the narrative of the superb Paul Theroux novel (the Fox family’s miserable journey is more protracted in the book) and softens some of its nastier edges. I couldn’t understand, for example, why in Theroux the younger Fox children are so antagonistic toward Charley (River Phoenix) who is a nice, sensitive kid even if he only recognizes the full extent of his father’s endangering madness when it’s far too late — just as in the book Father’s bullying, while grounded in his determination to prepare his children for survival in a world he believes is reverting to savagery, ranges well beyond cruelty; Allie Fox is perhaps a minor-league sadist, but anyone who’s grown up with such a parent knows that even low-grade sadism is deeply wounding to the children who are its targets. As with all adaptations of fine literature, much is necessarily lost along the way, but on balance Schrader captures the tone of the book, especially in Charley’s narration, which carries over from the novel and allows the viewer, as it did the reader, some perspective on his Quixotic father.

The Mosquito Coast is one of those pictures that seems to benefit from its director not being an American. Perhaps, as an Australian, Peter Weir was able to look at Allie, and at the world he escapes from, plain. There’s a sense that the filmmakers admire Father’s vision, even as they look askance at how he achieves it. And when Allie inadvertently destroys and pollutes his manufactured Paradise, Ford gets Father’s response exactly, and staggeringly, right: Every set-back becomes a new beginning, and he claims he’s overjoyed at the prospect, utterly unable to see how each such fresh start in the face of failure is another slow death for his wife and children. I think his performance as Allie Fox is the finest Harrison Ford has ever given, and it’s garnered him scant honor. That audience indifference to artistic integrity, a collective shrug, says much about why we get the movies we do: We deserve them.


The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)
The Weavers - Wasn't That a Time!

Jim Brown’s absolutely wonderful documentary, ostensibly on the final Carnegie Hall reunion concert by The Weavers but really about American values in adversity and defiance in the face of repression is especially relevant now, as hundreds of millions behave like sheep over a winter influenza virus and gratefully permit their various versions of Big Brother to squeeze yet more liberty from their already diminished lives.


Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
Far from the Madding Crowd - Christie, Bates
Whether or not one is an aficionado of Thomas Hardy’s, and despite the author’s occasional 19th century Chauvanism toward women, Far from the Madding Crowd is an easy book to love. Its four major characters are beautifully drawn, none of them shaded entirely one way or the other; as in life, they are neither heroic, nor villainous, although each is entirely human and therefore eminently capable of both heroism and villainy. The essential narrative is relatively simple: A single woman (Bathsheba Everdine) entrances three separate men (Shepherd Oaks, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy). The novel’s progress is over several years as each of the men pursues her, gives up (Oaks), temporarily wins her (Troy) or, unable to, is driven to a mad act of violence (Boldwood). That Batheheba is entirely to blame for Boldwood’s infatuation is not in question — indeed, she shoulders the blame willingly and repeatedly. But should anyone be forced to surrender all hope of future happiness over a youthful prank? Yet Boldwood is not an ogre, merely a man possessed; and if Troy is more than a bit of a cad, he too has his moment of reckoning, although he is unable to resist the temptation to return to the scene when fate has permitted him a handy escape. Of the three only Oaks is able to integrate his love for Bathsheba into his working life, and only he regards her on equal terms and not as a conquest or an ornament. And while it is clear that while Hardy too admires Bathsheba’s independence (she inherits a farm, and works it successfully) we can only assume at the end that, once Oaks’ own inheritance is merged with hers, it will be his farm entirely. Well,  one cannot undo the traditions and legalities of the past, although Christ alone knows today’s “woke” filmmakers seem to believe they can if they just ignore them hard enough.

I’m not sure why, since it hews very close to its source, this beautiful and intelligent adaptation by Frederic Raphael and John Schlesinger doesn’t work. Its nearly three-hour running time ensures that most of the central events of the novel are represented; the only major incident not included is Bathsheba’s early rescue of Oaks from suffocation. And the location shooting thoroughly captures the  atmosphere of Hardy’s “Wessex,” a geography of the mind not dissimilar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (The movie was shot around Dorset, where the author lived and wrote.) Yet despite its splendid cast and handsome photography — Nicholas Roeg was the cinematographer — the movie never quite catches fire. I think the lack has to do with an accumulation of little things; small details Schlesinger and Raphael either miss, or make too much of. I don’t mean the casting of the famously blond Julie Christie as the (equally famously) raven-haired Bathsheba. I’m referring to the overuse of rack-focus; the elongation of the sequence in which Troy shows off his swordsmanship for Bathsheba, which Schlesinger turns into something so over-the-top its erotic metaphor becomes nearly pornographic and his later appearance disguised as Dick Turpin is presented as part of a raucous slapstick circus; the loss of affecting detail in the novel, such as the way Hardy reveals after the murder that Boldwood had painstakingly assembled an entire new wardrobe for his hoped-for bride, or that his execution is stayed at the 11th hour, or even that he attempts suicide and is foiled; or, conversely, needless invention, such as the way, at the end, Oak and Bathsheba’s quiet wedding is turned by the filmmakers into a very public fête.

Far from the Madding Crowd - poster (resized)

What absolutely does work are the performances of the actors. Christie catches Bathsheba in all her moods and contradictions; Bates locates Oak’s stoicism as well as his  gentle yet dogged professionalism and determination; Stamp is both dashing and  mercurial — here coldly commanding, there over-brimming with passion; and Finch, who has the most difficult role in the picture, makes Boldwood dignified and tragic in equal measure. The production design (Richard Macdonald), art direction (Roy Smith), set decoration (Peter James) and costumes (Alan Barrett) are similarly fulsome and apt, and I cannot imagine how the glorious musical score by Richard Rodney Bennett, with its exquisite main theme, could be bettered.

Schlesinger and Roeg, highly proficient throughout even with my reservations about the totality of their work, handle some of the set-pieces splendidly, such as the terrible moment when the younger of Oaks’ two border terriers drives his flock over the cliffs, or the terrible final trek taken by poor Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome) to the workhouse, or the sequence in which Oaks, finding all the men drunk on Troy’s brandy, undertakes the necessary covering of Bathsheba’s ricks of wheat in a punishing thunderstorm, joined in the endeavor by Bathsheba herself, perfectly illustrating how well they work together. But the movie’s failure boils down, ultimately, to a matter of its elements being simultaneously too much, and not enough: After Bathsheba leaves him following their first romantic encounter, Stamp’s Troy sits on the side of the hill in wide shot and the unseen sun above is repeatedly hidden by, and emerges from behind, the clouds, the darkness rolling over the land and being chased again by rays of light. It’s one of the loveliest effects in nature, especially when the field for viewing is vast enough. Here, you get the sense that Schlesinger and Roeg were so in love with it, and so lost in contemplation of its pictorial glory, that they lingered over the moment interminably. There’s a metaphor in that, and not the one they had in mind.


*It appears the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier comedy Let’s Do it Again was the big winner in October of 1975presumably on the strength of Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, then the inexplicably popular star of Good Times, in a co-starring rolealong with the Walter Hill period bare-knuckle boxing picture Hard Times and the belated True Grit sequel (and African Queen rip-off) Rooster Cogburn starring the unlikely duo of John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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By Scott Ross

An exercise in high style by the director Sidney Lumet. Based on the popular Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, this is the granddaddy of all those second-rate “all-star cast” whodunits, few of which could conjure up either a comparable look or a players list quite as chic: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, and Michael York are the suspects, Richard Widmark is the victim, Martin Balsam is the Wagon Lit official assisting Poirot’s investigation, and Albert Finney is the fussy little Belgian possessor of the famed “little gray cells.” (The second-billed actors are Colin Blakely, Denis Quilley and George Coulouris —  best remembered as the guardian and nemesis of Charles Foster Kane — as the assisting physician.)

Finney, nearly unrecognizable under the ornate moustache, patent-leather hair and ageing make-up, gives a deliciously robust performance. Poirot aficionados may cry foul, but there’s surely more than one way to play the role; Peter Ustinov, for example, was a delightful, and very compassionate, Poirot, but, with his bulk, hardly the “little man” the character is invariably described as by Christie.

Paul Dehn wrote the nifty screenplay, with an un-credited assist from Anthony Shaffer; Christie refused to allow a movie of this perennial favorite until movie censorship relaxed enough to allow her original ending to be filmed, and if you haven’t seen, or read, it, I won’t spoil her reasons for you here. The lush score is by Richard Rodney Bennett, and his lilting waltz theme for the locomotive nearly drove Bernard Herrmann mad (“No!” he bellowed on hearing it. “It’s the death-train!”) The beautifully gauzy color cinematography is by the great Geoffrey Unsworth, and the marvelous Orient Express sets were the work of Tony Walton, who designed the staterooms and other compartments to scale and with four walls, allowing Lumet to shoot each suspect interview twice, once straight on and a second time from below, making the eerie claustrophobia even more real, and more unsettling.

The essential elegance of the project was perfectly summed up by the late Richard Amsel in his superbly stylized poster.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross