Flying: “Three Days of the Condor” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

The filmmakers behind this adaptation of a good thriller novel by James Grady called Six Days of  the Condor — Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, who wrote the script and Sidney Pollack, who directed — did more than lop off three days; they used little more than the book’s basic plot, and a few key incidents. (They also transferred the setting from Washington, D.C. to New York. Why?) What I suspect was Robert Redford’s vanity also got in the way of narrative sense: When Grady’s Condor, survivor of a mass killing in a CIA literary shop, goes on the lam one of the first things he does is alter his appearance by getting a close haircut. Redford keeps his modishly long locks, even unto his ludicrous half-muttonchops. But at least the hair is his; Cliff Robertson wears one of the most elaborately stacked toupees I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t someone suggest to him that when a well-known, Oscar®-winning middle-aged actor suddenly shows up in a movie with bigger, thicker and fuller hair than he had in his 20s, and which doesn’t in any case match his sideburns, the audience knows he’s wearing a rug?

Although, along with shortening its time by half, Three Days of the Condor rather needlessly complicates Grady’s plot, there are some real compensations, not least of which is intelligence, and the screenwriters’ filling out of the novelist’s rather perfunctory feminine coeval for the hero, well embodied by Faye Dunaway. True, we could do without the dollar-book Freud “Condor” instantly psychoanalyzes her with, the phoniness of which is best judged by imagining how outraged he would be if she did it to him. With her famous blond hair dyed brown, Dunaway is almost unrecognizable — it’s astounding how that single change alters her features, softening the severity of her Classical beauty and making her seem more human, and more attainable. And there’s an amusing variant to the novel in Condor’s manipulation of the New York City telephone lines, although his spilling his story of Central Intelligence Agency mayhem to the New York Times, intended as a post-Watergate nod to the nobility of the press, merely seems foolhardy and, for a CIA employee, laughably naïve. The first call a Times reporter or editor would make after such a revelation would be to CIA.

John Houseman performs one of his standard haughty old men on whose every word others are required to hang, and Robertson telegraphs his character’s duplicity from his first scene. But Max von Sydow, as the chief assassin, is a more shaded character, and has a splendid scene near the end with Redford. Pollack’s direction is highly competent and occasionally more, as with the fight scene in Dunaway’s apartment. Like Pollack’s Tootsie, which also boasted the cinematography of Owen Roizman, Three Days of the Condor is often astonishing to look at; Roizman’s images are mouth-wateringly crisp, and (at least on Blu-ray) as fine-grained as any color film you will ever see. That may be more than a good thriller even requires, but how often these days is that observation relevant? And when, today, would you see a big-budget American picture critical of, rather than slavishly cheering on, that fascist nightmare known as the CIA?

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

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By Scott Ross

Note: For fuller reviews of some of the movies below, click on the highlighted titles.

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Churchill

The Sign of Four / The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) A pair of Sherlock Holmes adaptations by Charles Edward Pogue for British television starring the irreplaceable Ian Richardson which, while not precisely faithful to Conan Doyle, are rich in atmosphere and, in Richardson, boast perhaps the finest Holmes before Jeremy Brett sealed the franchise.


Underworld U.S.A. - Dolores Dorn, Robertson

Underworld U.S.A. (1961) Mediocre Samuel Fuller is still worth watching, although we might have expected better of a former ace crime reporter than this half-baked yarn concerning revenge served at freezing temperature. But then, the picture dates from an uncertain period for Fuller, the years wherein he meandered between the sting of House of Bamboo (1955) and Forty Guns (1957) and the astonishment of Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Most of the Fuller pictures from that time are curios, quasi-successful but tamer affairs than those that came before. This one, suggested by some Saturday Evening Post pieces by Joseph F. Dinneen, has its moments but the plot isn’t feasible in the slightest, the romance seems shoe-horned in, and I don’t buy Cliff Robertson as a hardened criminal for a moment. (But then, I don’t buy Robertson as pretty much anything.) Much better are Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother, David Kent as his adolescent self, Dolores Dorn as his would-be paramour, Larry Gates as the cop-turned-D.A. who’d like to nail the mobsters and set Robertson straight, and Richard Rust as a smiling, sweet-faced sadist who seems to literally seduce Robertson into the mob; their initial meetings feel like an extended courtship dance.

Despite some beautiful set-ups (the cinematographer was Hal Mohr) and a few effective scenes, Underworld USA ultimately has too many sequences like Rust’s running-down of a little girl on her bicycle: Fuller doesn’t show the killing, only the child’s mother calling to her from an upstairs window and the girl (Joni Beth Morris) looking back just before impact. Instead of enhancing the horror, these rather studied choices diminish it; they’re like the worst of Hitchcock — which is bad enough only a fool would emulate it. Like Verboten!, Run of the Arrow, The Crimson Kimono, Hell and High Water and Merrill’s Marauders, Underworld USA is less a good movie than a collection of some good scenes in search of a better place to go.


Scorpio - Scofield

Scorpio (1973) An avis of increasing rarity, the intelligent thriller, anchored by the performances of Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and the magnificent Paul Scofield.


The Maltese Falcon - The stuff that dreams are made of

The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston’s extraordinary debut as a writer/director, a masterpiece of detective fiction featuring Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough performance as Sam Spade.


The Man Who Would Be King - Caine, Plummer, Connery

The Man Who Would Be King (1975) Another of John Huston’s group quests toward ultimate failure, a tangy adaptation of Kipling with a superb trio of leading players in Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer.


A Study in Terror - John Neville and Donald Huston

A Study in Terror (1965) A clever, if implausible, mating of Sherlock Holmes with the Jack the Ripper mythos, which isn’t a patch on the later Murder by Decree (1978) but which boasts an excellent Holmes in the person of the classical actor John Neville, later immortalized as Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam. Donald Houston is a good Watson, the splendid Anthony Quayle an excellent Doctor Murray, Frank Finlay in a part he reprised in Murder by Decree is an intelligent(!) Lestrade, and it’s fascinating to see a very young Judi Dench in a pivotal role. The boxer Terry Downes has a sexy, and surprisingly well acted, cameo role, and John Scott composed an effective score which, even when it brings in bongo drums(!!) does so in a way that feels wholly appropriate.

The cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is a bit on the bland side, period television color where chiaroscuro was called for, and James Hill’s direction, while brisk and effective, lacks the sick-making horror the subject demands. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the movie is Georgia Brown, the original Nancy of the musical Oliver!, whose warm whiskey-contralto has long been a favored sound in my home. She shows up twice, as a pub singer in Whitechapel (presumably on the basis of her performance of the Lionel Bart song “Oom-Pah-Pah” in Oliver!) and if you only listen, she’s perfect. Her face, alas, explains why others got to play her stage roles in movies. She grew into her looks eventually and became a handsome older woman, but in 1966 hers was not the type of physiognomy guaranteed to queue up the paying customers.


The Life of Emile Zola - Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff

The Life of Émile Zola (1937) I first encountered this all-too-typical Warner Bros. biopic on television in my early adolescence, and all I really remembered was the material dealing with Captain Dreyfus. Seeing it again, now, I understand why: It’s one of the few inherently dramatic portions of the narrative. While the picture’s Dreyfuss (Joseph Schildkraut) was whitewashed — it was his arrogance of personality as much as the fact of his Jewishness that precipitated his false arrest and cynical imprisonment — and the anti-Semitism downplayed, at least the subsequent trial of Zola for J’Accuse has spark, courtesy in part of Donald Crisp as the outraged attorney Labori. Those who have complained that the scapegoating of Dreyfus in the picture is depicted as entirely devoid of religious bigotry have apparently never noticed (and I admit it is fast) the juxtaposition of the insert-shot of the Captain’s file reading, “Religion: Jewish” with Harry Davenport’s line damning him as, of two suspects, the man to charge with treason. The implication is entirely obvious. But what can be expected of people who for decades have sung hosannas to Paul Muni’s unconscionably hammy performance as Zola? His constant shameless mugging for the camera indicates a self-regard so thorough an audience has little need to bother; he clearly thinks he’s adorable enough, why should we make it redundant?

L’affaire Dreyfus eats up so much screen time — and at that omits the role of Alfred’s older brother, promoting the idea that it was his wife who most successfully pressed the case for his innocence — that it would have made more sense to focus on it entirely rather than to attempt squeezing in the rest of Zola’s biography, and with such brevity; his early decades here are a whirl-wind of narrative cliché and the people (his wife, Alexandrine, played by Gloria Holden; Morris Carnovsky’s Anatole France; Grant Mitchell’s Clemenceau; and Vladimir Sokoloff’s Cézanne) are little more than names and attitudes. That it took no fewer than three scenarists (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine) to bake the thin crust upon which the insufficient filling of this movie rests says something… although just what, I couldn’t say. Gale Sondergaard struggles valiantly with the underwritten role of Lucie Dreyfus and at least retains her dignity, but Schildkraut (who, rather unbelievably, won an Oscar® for this) is reduced to little more than periodically screaming, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!” He does get one nice scene, however, when, freed at last after a decade on Devil’s Island he repeatedly hits the open doorway inviting him back to the outside world, turns, and retreats to his hated cell; in that moment you know everything you need to about the learned behavior of prisoners. The picture’s director, William Dieterle, does what he can with the material, and it is at least a very brisk movie, with very few longueurs despite its 116-minute running-time. Tony Gaudio’s black-and-white cinematography is rich, and beautifully lit; on the big screen in 1937 it must have seemed luminous.


Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood, Jaimz Woolvett

Unforgiven (1992) Clint Eastwood’s award-winning Western, a beautiful, even poetic, rumination on the cost of killing.


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The Last Picture Show (1971) The damn near perfect adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s suberb coming-of-age novel by McMurtry and the director Peter Bogdanovich.


Big Jake - Boone

Big Jake (1971) Enjoyable late-period John Wayne, with an intelligent script and a savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant.


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Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) A badly muddled misfire purportedly adapted from Ray Bradbury’s magical literary fantasy.


California Split - Altman

California Split (1974) Robert Altman’s first feature utilizing the 8-track recording system that made Nashville possible, a genial character study of two degenerate gamblers played charmingly by George Segal and Elliott Gould.


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The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh  (1963) An atmospheric and intelligent rendition, from Walt Disney, of Russell Thorndyke’s 18th century rogue Dr. Syn starring a splendid Patrick McGoohan.


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Targets (1967/1968) Peter Bogdanovich’s extraordinary, disturbing first feature as a writer-director anatomizing both the sick state of Hollywood and the weird anomie of a serial killer is all too relevant to 21st century America.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Mason, Lorre, Douglas and Henried resized

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Walt Disney’s first movie to be filmed in CinemaScope — it was also in 4-track stereo —  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was at the time one of the most expensive Hollywood productions ever attempted (between $5 and $9 million, imagine) and had it flopped would have been disastrous to the studio. The picture turned out so well it was one of the two top-grossers of its year, earning $28 million in 1954. And if it is less than absolutely ideal, especially in its confusingly British-Christian characterization of Jules Verne’s Sikh Captain Nemo, the movie is technically almost without a flaw, beautifully designed and shot, lengthy but involving, with literally marvelous art and set decoration (Peter Ellenshaw contributed some typically beautiful matte paintings)* and a splendid quartet of above-the-title actors. It’s the perfect Boy’s Adventure movie: Rich color photography by Franz Planer (his underwater and day-for-night effects are especially pleasing), an exciting score by Paul J. Smith, assured direction by Richard Fleischer, and an intelligent, often witty, adapted screenplay by Earl Felton that combine to form an exceptionally enjoyable night’s entertainment and in which human conflict, interior as well as exterior, are not elided.

Aside from the presence of the seal Sophie (that she needed water we never see her enter or exit from is evident from her shiny and obviously moistened skin) and the now-questionable “humor” of black cannibals getting zapped by Nemo’s protective electricity (why was it considered funny then?) the humor is refreshingly adult and mostly supplied by Kirk Douglas as the harpoonist Ned Land and Peter Lorre as Paul Henried’s assistant. Douglas also gets to sing a nifty ditty by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel called “A Whale of a Tale” which becomes one of the movie’s leitmotifs and makes a nice, belated compensation for his having left, in 1944, the original cast of On the Town, where he had the lead. James Mason is so good as Nemo you forgive Disney for messing with the original. That superb light baritone of Mason’s, combined with his elliptical speech patterns and highly idiosyncratic line readings, make him commanding, tragic and ironic at once.

The special effects, all of course in those days done by hand, are deeply impressive even now, with only one or two indifferent rear-screen bits muffing the whole. Walt produced this one himself, and his acumen shows: When the fight with the giant squid, originally shot against a red sunset on a static sea, both proved lifeless and revealed too many of the technicians’ wires, Disney suggested they re-shoot it at night, and during a storm at sea. It made all the difference; overnight, as it were, a poor sequence became a classic.

* The picture won Oscars® for Best Art Direction – Color (John Meehan, Emile Kuri) and Best Special Effects (John Hench, Joshua Meador), although according to Wikipedia, “the movie’s primary art designer, Harper Goff, who designed the Nautilus, was not a member of the Art Directors Union in 1954 and therefore, under a bylaw within the Academy of Motion Pictures… was unable to receive his Academy Award for Art Direction.”


The Adventures of S Holmes - Rathbone and Zucco

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) 20th Century Fox’s immediate follow-up to its The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939, proves what a fluke the studio’s first Holmes picture was. Allegedly based on the William Gillette play, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes bears no resemblance to it, nor to the 1916 movie in which Gillette himself starred. Although the movie has a fine, foggy atmosphere — Leon Shamroy was the cinematographer — the narrative is asinine, and even insulting; two of Holmes’ typical lines are, “Whatever Watson has found out, you’ll know inevitably. I have unbounded confidence in his lack of discretion” and (to Nigel Bruce as the Doctor) “I’m afraid you’re an incorrigible bungler.” It concerns the machinations of a bearded(!) Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to humiliate Holmes, by whom he is eventually thrown off the Tower of London(!!) and Zucco has a high old time of it, all but baring his fangs and gnashing his teeth. In the supporting cast, Terry Kilburn is a good Billy, Mary Forbes charming as a matron, Anthony Kemble-Cooper has a nice turn as a gentle upper-class twit avant la lettre, and Basil Rathbone has an enjoyable bit in disguise as a music hall entertainer. But Ida Lupino is wasted as the damsel in distress and the picture is both lumpy and formless. The director of this flavorless mélange was someone named Alfred L. Werker; this was probably his only well-remembered movie. Nowhere in the credits of the picture will you see the name of Arthur Conan Doyle… for which omission I presume his heirs were duly grateful.


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HealtH (1979/1982) An often very amusing political satire directed by Robert Altman involving the race for president of a health convention. It’s an allegory about Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, with Lauren Bacall as a narcoleptic 83-year old virgin (Ike) and Glenda Jackson as a prating intellectual (Stevenson) who talks, dryly and utterly without emotion, through everything and everyone. Paul Dooley is an obnoxious hypocrite of a third-party candidate who is a mass of prejudices and whose shtick is holding his breath under water, Carol Burnett is very funny as a representative of the President — since the picture was filmed in 1979, presumably Jimmy Carter — and James Garner is only slightly less so as her estranged husband, working for Bacall. Donald Moffat shows up in a sinister performance as Bacall’s frightening brother; Henry Gibson is a political operative whose first sequence in drag as an old woman is so convincing you almost wonder who that interesting actress is; Diane Stilwell is Jackson’s secretary who can’t type and who has supplied Jackson with a portable tape recorder, with which she is pretty obviously in love; MacIntyre Dixon is marvelous as the convention manager; Alfre Woodard is the hotel’s determinedly sunny convention representative vexed by this unmanageable collection of loons; Ann Ryerson is Bacall’s physician who lacks the ability to enjoy sex; the singing group The Steinettes appear throughout the movie, singing brightly and inanely at every conceivable opportunity; and Dick Cavett plays himself, vainly attempting to interview Bacall and Jackson and perennially frustrated by Bacall’s unexpected sleeping fits (if that isn’t an oxymoron.) Altman and Dooley wrote the sharp screenplay with Frank Barhydt, and it’s a relaxed, cheery, sometimes hilarious ensemble comedy. Why any of the people involved thought that a satire on Eisenhower and Stevenson was relevant to anything, or anyone, in 1979 remains a mystery, but everyone in the picture is terrific with the notable exception of Bacall. We watch her thinking we know she was famous for something once, but from her performance we can’t recall just what; after 1966 she always seemed to be playing the paralyzed rich-bitch from Harper — she’d become all surface, the grande dame in her element. What the hell happened to that woman? She was better at 19, when she knew almost nothing about acting.


Matewan - Chris Cooper

Matewan (1988) John Sayles’ magnificent evocation of a violent, largely forgotten incident of the 1920s involving West Virginia miners arrayed against vicious coal industry gun-thugs.


Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

Casualties of War (1989) A deeply unsettling examination of an American atrocity in Vietnam directed by Brian De Palma which is best when it sticks to the facts but is never less than compelling even when it’s embracing war movie clichés that would have embarrassed John Wayne.


Little Drummer Girl - Kinski, Keaton

The Little Drummer Girl (1984) This surprisingly good attempt by the screenwriter Loring Mandel and the stylish journeyman director George Roy Hill at condensing one of John Le Carré’s large, complex thrillers is compromised but, curiously, not undone, by its central miscasting. With her signature red hair and championing of Palestinian rights, the actress Charlie in the novel was obviously meant to remind readers of Vanessa Redgrave. Unlike Redgrave (or Diane Keaton, the Charlie of the movie) it was central to the Le Carré novel that Charlie was young, in her early 20s, passionate but unformed, and not nearly as worldly, or as informed, as she thinks she is. Likewise, casting Yorgo Voyagis, Keaton’s junior by a year, as the Israeli agent who seduces Charlie into falling in love with him while seeming to put her off (and who becomes her guide and instructor in the elaborate “theatre of the real” the actress is enticed into against a Palestinian bomb-maker) rather than a distinguished, reticent, aging actor of the time — Paul Scofield might have been ideal, or even Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates — eliminates Charlie’s obvious father-fixation. These rather essential cavils aside, Keaton is excellent as Charlie, locating both her anger and her pain, although I don’t believe for a minute an American would be headlining a small British theatre troupe. Unlike Keaton, Klaus Kinski is an almost perfect casting choice for Kurtz, whose complicated scheme keeps Charlie, and the audience, in the dark until the climax; Kinski absolutely gets the Israeli agent’s bonhomie, his middle-aged charm and his deadly seriousness. Like the book, the movie is highly ambivalent about Zionism even as it largely accepts the more than dubious notion that violence is the proper response to terror. The strong supporting cast includes Sami Frey, Michael Cristofer, Eli Danker, Philipp Moog, Anna Massey, Thorley Walters and David Suchet. My only complaint about the production design is the truly terrible coat Keaton is forced to wear through much of the picture. She can’t carry it off, but I can’t imagine the woman who could. Such is Le Carré’s brilliance that Charlie’s last line, slightly altered from the novel, has stayed with me since I saw this one 35 years ago.


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Thieves Like Us (1974) As Pauline Kael once suggested of him, Robert Altman made two bad movies for every good one, and in-between another that was essentially lousy but with enough good, or even great, moments in it to sustain your interest. Examples of this last include The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Short Cuts, Gosford Park… and Thieves Like Us; it has some splendid things in it, and is beautifully cast, and shot. But it’s both elliptical and repetitive in weird and off-putting ways, and you sit there wondering what you’ve missed when you haven’t missed a thing. In the sequence in which the movie’s young central characters Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Keechie (Shelley Duvall) make love for the first time while listening to a radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet, for example, and we hear the same between-act announcement from the narrator at three separate intervals, we don’t know what it means. Is the sequence a fantasy of Keechie’s or Bowie’s? Is one scene real and the other two fantastic? But because they don’t seem to be anything other than what they appear to be — sequential moments broken up in the cutting — nothing about these scenes really supports that hypothesis. So why did Altman choose to disorient us at this important juncture? Why, for that matter, is there a discussion between Carradine, Bert Remsen and Ann Latham in which it seems Bowie and Keechie have become notorious Bonnie and Clyde figures, their doings reported in the newspapers, when we have seen no such thing? It feels as though there’s a reel missing, or at least a few scenes. Speaking of which, why is Remsen’s violent death only spoken about, in a radio news story, and not seen? The omission feels like narrative cheapness. Kael said of Thieves Like Us that it was, “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films — a masterpiece.” What movie did she see?

The picture was shot on location in Mississippi, which Altman was told was “the asshole of America” but which he and his French cinematographer Jean Boffety found beautiful, and their fondness for the place and the people shows; the look of the movie is almost like a living Impressionist painting. The excellent cast includes John Shuck, Louise Fletcher, Al Scott, Tom Skerritt and Joan Tewkesbury, who also collaborated with Altman on the script and would write Nashville for him (she’s the woman at the train station Duvall talks to at the end). Calder Willingham also worked on the screenplay, based on the 1937 Edward Anderson novel which originally provided the basis for the 1950 They Live by Night, directed by Nicholas Ray.


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Three Days of the Condor (1975) Although Three Days of the Condor rather needlessly complicates the novelist James Grady’s original plot, there are some real compensations, not least of which is intelligence.


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The Thief and the Cobbler (1993/2013) Richard Williams’ astonishing animated Arabian Nights feature, still incomplete but reconstructed by Garrett Gilchrist in his Recobbled Cut Mark 4.


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The Great Train Robbery (1978) Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (known in Britain as The First Great Train Robbery, to distinguish its action in the minds of potential ticket-buyers from the much more contemporaneous, and well-remembered, “Great Train Robbery” of 1963) is one of those richly appointed, beautifully shot and wonderfully cast entertainments that make for a wry, exciting evening’s amusement as long as you know that, while depicting on an actual incident, the picture is largely fictional and should be taken as such. Based on the 1855 theft of gold from a moving train, and on the writer/director’s own novel, the picture is a cheery, funny escapade with some sharp digs at the British upper class, and glorious production design that puts you absolutely in Victorian era London (although it was shot largely in Ireland.) Sean Connery is the ersatz nobleman of dubious means, suave but dangerous, who plans and executes the theft; Lesley-Anne Down is his actress lover who proves useful in a number of necessary diversions; Donald Sutherland, often hilarious, is the safe-cracker; and Wayne Sleep is the ill-fated criminal acrobat who runs afoul of Connery.

Crichton’s direction is elegant and wonderfully paced; he seems always to know exactly where to place the camera. Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his most distinctive scores for the picture, anchored to a charming waltz he then transforms into variants: Slowed down it evokes the atmosphere of London’s mean streets, simplified it becomes a romantic guitar accompaniment for Connery and Down’s bedroom scenes and sped up it’s rousing background music for the robbery. One of the movie’s great pleasures is the lush widescreen color cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, to whom Crichton dedicated it. A painter with light, Unsworth shot some of the most sumptuous looking movies of the 1960s and ‘70s: Becket (1964), the Olivier Othello (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Olivier’s Three Sisters (1970), Cabaret (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Royal Flash (1975), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Superman (1978) and Tess (1979). The fine supporting cast includes Alan Webb, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd and Malcolm Terris as a smug, hypocritical bank official. The final joke has no basis in historical reality, but takes the movie out on a high, and very funny, note.


Heat - Pacino

Heat (1995) Michael Mann’s complex, character-driven heist movie has the texture of a sun-lit nightmare: L.A. as a warm place to die a chilly death.

Heat - De Niro


The Thrill of it All - Day, Reiner, Garner

The Thrill of it All (1963) A shrill, occasionally funny farce, meant to satirize television advertising but so dishonest about that it merely gums the subject rather aggressively. Doris Day is an obstetrician’s wife who gets corralled into performing impromptu cleanser commercials for a cheesy live drama omnibus show (in 1963?) and finds her marriage on rocky (or, if you prefer, soapy) ground. It’s too ephemeral to take seriously for a moment — The Glass Bottom Boat had more gravitas — but it’s a pretty thin gruel to have come from the combined talents of Carl Reiner (screenplay) and Larry Gelbart (story, with Reiner). Some of the scenes have that terrible look so representative of the era’s color television episodes, but the cinematographer, Russell Metty, occasionally gets in some pleasant lighting. It would have been almost impossible at that time to imagine the director, Norman Jewison, ever making movies as rich as In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, but at least his pacing is brisk.

James Garner brings his usual charm and comic outrage to the husband, and the supporting cast includes Reiner (in several bits), Arlene Francis, Edward Andrews, Reginald Owen (playing Andrews’ father, the sort of role Andrews himself would corner in the coming years), Zasu Pitts as a rape-obsessed housekeeper, Elliott Reid as an advertising man, Alice Pearce, Herbie Faye, Hayden Rorke, Burt Mustin, Robert Strauss, Lennie Weinrib, Lillian Culver, King Donovan, Bernie Kopell and, in a voice-over, Paul Frees. I could also swear I heard Madge Blake’s voice, but can find no proof of her participation. Brian Nash and Kym Karath play Day and Garner’s small children; Karath is best remembered as Gretl, the tiniest of the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music two years later. The picture is inoffensive, even with its dated attitudes toward women in the workplace; the one absolutely unforgivable element is the appalling, mickeymouse musical score by (Frank) De Vol.


Alias Nick Beale

Alias Nick Beal (1949) A dark political fantasy that, on balance, seemed designed to satisfy everyone who ever thought a politician had sold his soul, which is pretty much all of us. (Today people like Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t even bother to hide their corruption; they display it openly, and their worshipers call us names if we say anything about it.) Beautifully directed by John Farrow and with a brisk, intelligent screenplay by Jonathan Latimer from a story by Mindret Lord, the movie is so sharply observed it puts to shame all the cringe-making, faux-populist projects of Frank Capra, a man with a deep distrust of “the people” even as he desperately kept trying to woo them. Thomas Mitchell plays the crusading District Attorney who in his frustration at being unable to nail a mobster makes a casual wish he never expected to have granted, and Ray Milland is “Nick Beal,” the Satanic figure with the means to deliver. Mitchell gives his usual fine performance, and Audrey Totter is excellent as a good/bad girl, but Milland really delivers. There was always something a little unpleasant about him as an actor that lingered below his surface charm. Billy Wilder tapped it in The Lost Weekend, and Farrow really mines it here. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, even in a bad print, is rich and atmospheric, and about the only miscalculation in this 82-minute gem is the uncharacteristic, almost shockingly emphatic, score by the otherwise subtle Franz Waxman. With Fred Clark as a machine boss, Geraldine Wall as Mitchell’s saintly wife, a very young Darryl Hickman as a reform-school candidate and George Macready as, of all things, a minister. (Thanks for this one, Eliot M. Camarena!)


Citizen Kane - Moorehead

Citizen Kane (1941) I ended one year, and began another, with the same film. It isn’t among my very favorite pictures, nor even my favorite among those of its co-author, director and star. But Orson Welles’ debut is still among the most enjoyable movies ever made, and it yields new pleasures and unexpected contours with every viewing. This time I noticed, for the first time, the way Welles keeps the lighted window at Xanadu in the same spot throughout the prologue, even when it’s a reflection in water. That may not be strictly logical, but it certainly is impressive.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

End of the Line Cafés: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960/1973)

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The Iceman Cometh (NET) - Hirschfeld

The Iceman Cometh: The 1960 television edition as seen by Al Hirschfeld. Left to right: Hilda Brawner, Myron McCormick, Jason Robards and Julie Bovasso.

By Scott Ross

If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The Iceman Cometh vies with very few fellow contenders for a most respectable second place. And if family is the great subject of 20th century American dramatists, there is no family play that can touch Long Day’s Journey in its merciless yet pitying dissection of the means by which our immediate relations shape, and misshape, us, and the unshakable, death-grip hold they exert on us: How, even when we comprehend, and confront, the psychic murders parents and children visit on one another, we are unable to fully forgive, let alone forget, them.

The Iceman Cometh (1946) - James Barton

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of Eddie Dowling’s 1946 staging. That static, nearly linear row of tables couldn’t have helped.

While the nuclear unit is not the dramatic center of The Iceman Cometh, family is never very far from the surface. The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon themselves form an uneasy, shifting, kind of family, made up largely of disaffected brothers and eccentric uncles, with Harry himself the predictably mercurial pater familias. And for many of these men, some sort of familial uncoupling forms the basis of dipsomania. Larry Slade, the “old foolosopher,” a one-time Anarchist, claims he’s long finished with the movement, yet it was his ultimately untenable involvement with young Don Parritt’s mother, rather than the movement per se, that soured him on his youthful pipe-dream of political upheaval. Parritt himself, who looks to Larry as a potential father-figure, has betrayed the movement to the police for a mess of pottage, ostensibly for money but really to get back at his indifferent mom, that self-same paragon of the movement who so effectively killed Larry’s activism. The one-time “brilliant law student” Willie Oban was likewise undone by the arrest and imprisonment of his bucket-shop proprietor father, and Jimmy Tomorrow pretends the cause of his bibulousness was his wife’s infidelity when it is far more likely that the reverse was true: That it was he, not her, who was unfaithful. Even “The General” and “The Captain,” old Boer War antagonists now inseparable companions in methomania, have been disowned by their families at home, while Harry deludes himself that he has withdrawn from life outside due to his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, in reality a nagging termagant he could barely stand. And Hickey, whose arrival is so widely anticipated — and whose sudden reversal of persona is just as avidly despaired of — has finally reached the limit of his capacity to torture, and be tormented by, his endlessly forgiving wife Evelyn. If a happy Tolstoyean family lurks in the background of any of the habitués of Harry Hope’s saloon, the playwright hasn’t been moved to recall it. And what O’Neill doesn’t get around to discussing, and in detail, likely doesn’t exist.

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O’Neill generally (and Iceman most specifically) can feel like strong medicine, even to his admirers. For Arthur Miller, himself no slouch in the practice of heavy-handedness, O’Neill “is a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils.” Pauline Kael classified Iceman as “the greatest thesis play in the American theatre.” And Kenneth Tynan was absolutely correct when he noted of it, “Paul Valery once defined a true snob as a man who was afraid to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d’heure about halfway through The Iceman Cometh.”

Indeed, I avoided both reading and seeing Iceman for decades, for precisely the reasons explicated above. Well, that and its 4-hour length, which cowed me. But no one who considers himself a playwright, or a critic, has any business avoiding O’Neill, or this play, indefinitely. Despite its obviousness, its insensitivity, its longueurs, its lack of poetry and its undeniable position as a thesis play, The Iceman Cometh is, somehow, indispensable. It says little, and at great length and volubility, and one can argue endlessly about whether O’Neill is averring that human beings need their pipe-dreams in order to live (Kael) or that the specificity of a barroom/flophouse filled with alcoholic bums invalidates its universality (Tynan.) I would say that O’Neill is not necessarily claiming anything for everyone but that, if he was, it is that pipe-dreams are less what allow us to face the impossibilities of life as they are the inevitable run-off of personal guilt and the fantasies permitting those who feel themselves failures to believe in some sort of hope, however tenuous or unattainable, for the future.

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Robards as Hickey

O’Neill premiered Iceman in 1946, with a production starring James Barton that was both unappreciated and puzzled over, and which ran only briefly; it took another decade for the play to be rediscovered, in the popular Circle Rep re-staging by José Quintero. And while there is as yet no “definitive,” complete video rendering of this unwieldy, occasionally stupefying but undeniably powerful dramatic cantata, two exceptional, if slightly abridged, editions were, thankfully, preserved for posterity. The first, Sidney Lumet’s 1960 video staging, produced by the nascent public broadcasting entity National Educational Television (NET) would be notable if only for its capturing of Jason Robards, Jr.’s universally acclaimed characterization of Hickey but is, despite its visual limitations, much more than merely a showcase for a great actor’s defining performance. The second, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 movie for the short-lived subscription series American Film Theatre, while lacking Robards, has a visual palette far richer and gives us as well, in a uniformly superb cast, the final performances of two great American actors.

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Myron McCormick, the Larry of 1960

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The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973)

Since the play is at base a contest between Larry and Hickey, the casting of the two roles is crucial. About Hickey, more anon. But in its Larry, the AFT production has the decided edge in Robert Ryan. Then 59 — and, although he did not know it during the filming, dying — this greatest of unheralded American actors gives the performance of a lifetime. The movie camera helps, of course, but what is written on Ryan’s craggy, lived-in face is unique to him. As a lifelong leftist, the role of a former anarchist drowning in his bitterness must have held great appeal, but Ryan also brought to the movie the experience of his performance as James Tyrone opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in a Long Day’s Journey revival, so his O’Neill bona fides are secure. He lends a gentleness, and a grace, to Larry that is absent in Myron McCormick’s effective but more obvious 1960 reading; in Ryan, the warring impulses of instinctive pity and a desperate desire to an indifference he cannot feel are as absolute, and as heartrending, as his conflicting hope for, and fear of, “the big sleep” of death.

Crucial too to the 1973 edition too is the Harry Hope of Fredric March. One of the most important actors of his time, March was a popular matinee idol (A Star is Born), twice an Academy Award® winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) and, latterly, the creator of James Tyrone in the 1956 premiere, following O’Neill’s death, of Long Day’s Journey. At 76, March plays the 60 year-old Harry with rare gusto, his malleable face stretching from the slackness of both bottomless self-pity and irritable garrulity to the infectious grin of devilish (and innately sadistic) merriment that make it instantly clear why, aside from his largesse with liquor, the denizens of what Larry calls “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller” adore him and put up with his periodic grousing. I don’t mean to slight Ferrell Pelly, who played the role in 1956 and again in 1960. If March’s performance did not exist, Pelly’s would seem sublime. But March’s does.

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Robards with Farrell Pelly as Harry Hope

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Fredric March as the Harry Hope of 1973.

The Parritts of the Lumet and the Frankenheimer are, by contrast, a virtual draw. The 1960 Parritt, Robert Redford, is so staggeringly good you can only lament how seldom, once he became a star, he has been given — or allowed himself to take — a role that gave him so much latitude. It isn’t that the self-hating young man is a great role, or even a terribly good one. It’s more a device, and an occasionally irritating one, but that merely makes Redford’s achievement all the more remarkable. There’s nothing guarded here, as there so often is with Redford’s later appearances; the moods are sudden and startling, the outbursts at once annoying and deeply moving. I think it’s the best work he’s ever done.

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Robert Redford as Parritt

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Jeff Bridges as Parritt in 1973

Jeff Bridges had been giving fine performances for some time before the 1973 Iceman, so his appearance here may have seemed less spectacular than Redford’s at the time. And, as with Ryan, he’s helped by the Eastmancolor camera; there are moments when you watch, filled with wonder at the beauty of his open young face. For all the schematicism of the role, Bridges brings to it the heartbreaking ardor, confusion, guilt and cruelty of youth, and more. When he feels Larry has given him permission to enact the very escape his hoped-for substitute father cannot undertake for himself, the sound he makes — something between a sobbing whimper of relief and a sigh very close to the post-orgasmic — is unforgettable.

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Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban in the Frankenheimer version.

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Moses Gunn as Joe Mott in 1973

In the smaller roles, most of the 1960 cast are the equal of those in 1973. Two exceptions are the Willie of Bradford Dillman and the Joe Mott of Moses Gunn. James Broderick’s 1960 Willie is very fine, but Dillman’s is revelatory. We’d seen him in a profusion of thankless, largely forgettable, movie and television roles for years in the ’60s and ’70s, and he’d always seemed one of those actors, not beautiful enough to star, always reliable in support, who never quite get the chance to grasp the brass ring. Drunk, Dillman’s Willie simmers in self-disgust, and his delirium tremens is so terrifyingly right that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure, too young to be so lost, yet too long in the sauce ever to amount to anything. Moses Gunn, one of our best, and least well known, character actors, with a voice as commanding as it is recognizable, looks both like a sport and a hopeless drunk, and the way he bestirs himself to righteous anger at the others, and at himself, for their genial racism and his own complicity in it, are searing. In 1960, Maxwell Glanville was rather too robust physically to quite get the wreck Joe has become. And while his characterization is, like Broderick’s Willie, a good accounting, Gunn’s is non-pariel.

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Tom Pedi, second from left, as Rocky. To his right is Sorrell Booke. At far right, John McLiam, the movie’s heartbreaking Jimmy Tomorrow.

Tom Pedi had the distinction of playing Rocky, the saloon’s weather-vane of a bartender who deludes himself that being a procurer does not make him a pimp, in 1946, 1960 and 1973, and is both the same, and different, in the television edition and the AFT movie. The same, in that his characterization is roughly identical in each, yet diverges if only for his having aged into it. He’s at once keenly perceptive and eye-rollingly capricious, first cozying up to then deflating the bums in Harry’s bar with the breathtaking suddenness of a born sadist. (Like owner, like barkeep…) He’s also more than slightly terrifying. Sorrell Booke, too, is in both the Lumet and the Frankeheimer. As Hugo, perpetually sozzled, waking from his stupors just long enough to express his true loathing of the proletariat he believes he loves, Booke is both comic and (to use a word that, in context, sounds like a pun but isn’t) sobering. The Jimmy Tomorrows of 1960 and 1973 also constitute a near-draw, with the knife-edge going to latter. Harrison Dowd’s Jimmy, while eschewing any sort of noticeable accent, is moving enough. But John McLiam, whose voice carries more than “the ghost of a Scotch rhythm,” has sad, limpid eyes, helped along by the color camera, and his tremulousness is no less heartbreaking than are his occasional, doomed stabs at a regained dignity. Like Dillman, he’s ultimately heartbreaking.

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Lee Marvin’s Hickey seizes on Willie Oban (Dillman) and Harry Hope (March).

The women are more problematic. Not the actresses themselves (Hilda Brawner, Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland in ’60 and Hildy Brooks, Juno Dawson and the preposterously named Evans Evans in ’73) but the characters. Billy Wilder once allegedly — and notoriously — said of the women in his movies, “If she isn’t a whore, she’s a bore.” Well, the whores in this play are bores, devices through which O’Neill gets at his theses. The women in both casts do what they can, and Evans (married at the time to the director) rises above the material occasionally. But only barely.

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Marvin as Hickey. (Evans Evans at right, behind him.)

Which brings us, finally, to Hickey, and the great divergence. I wonder whether Lee Marvin’s performance might have been granted more honor in 1973 had Robards’ not been broadcast thirteen years earlier. (Although Kael, who discerned too much shouting in Marvin’s long, climactic aria, may have been relying on a faulty memory; Robards also bellows.) For my part, both actors are equally fine, if in different ways. Robards may be more jocular, raising that patented sheepish chuckle of his after revealing more than he means to, and the fact that the vocal gesture is one he used in other, later roles, does not diminish its effectiveness. Marvin’s persona was never that of the glad-hander, and there is a certain tightness behind his initial bon homie that hints at the coldness with which Hickey operates; he’s spent a lifetime sizing up his marks, calculating the unstated yearnings of those he’s selling before moving in for the kill. (Not that anyone with a halfway decent mind would have much trouble figuring out this bunch.) To grouse about Marvin not being Robards is to deprive oneself the pleasure of watching an actor stretch himself, and in a role whose richness he must have known would likely never come his way again.

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Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s

As directors, both Lumet and Frankenheimer serve O’Neill, and their actors, never getting in the way of either. Both editions cut the text a bit, and the ATF Iceman omits the (admittedly minor) character of Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s circus con-man brother-in-law, perhaps because of budget — the series producer, Ely Landau, of necessity restricted his filmmakers to one million dollars — but more likely because it was felt that one parasitic hanger-on (the corrupt former cop Pat McGloin) in Harry’s apartment was sufficient. The NET production, aired over two evenings, appears to have been live; lines are flubbed slightly now and then, and the actors begin to perspire noticeably around the mid-point of each segment. If so, it makes what Robards & Co. accomplish that much more impressive. That Lumet was trained in live television, and a past master at it, in no way dulls the luster of his achievement in directing so rich and immediate a production.

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Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set

The major differences between the two versions is one less of scale than of opportunity. (Although the television edition is more like a filmed stage-play, owing as much to the space in which it takes place as to anything else.) Lumet, working within the severe limitations of early video, is unable to get a visual balance, or to light his actors suggestively. The starkness of the image washes out contrast, and what I assume must have been very hot lights presumably negated any possibility for subtly or nuance in the visuals. Frankenheimer, working with the color cinematographer Ralph Woolsey —  and film — and able to avail himself of Raphael Bretton’s realistically solid and beautifully tatty sets, had greater opportunity to make his Iceman Cometh much more cinematic, although he is never showy. The textures of the settings, rich and shadowed and lived-in, and the ability to use far more technically advanced, and supple, film stock than the flat black-and-white video available to Lumet, allowed Frankenheimer a looser, more realistic palette. It’s notable that the two, although radically different, got their start as directors during the era of live television drama, and had, perhaps as a result, deep respect for actors and text, both crucial here. In their respective versions of this essential American drama, each man came through with honor bright. And honor, as Aristotle suggested (and as I suspect Eugene O’Neill would have agreed) is the second greatest quality of the mind, eclipsed only by courage. All three men, to one degree or another, certainly had that.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

What kind of crazy story is this?: “All the President’s Men” (1976)

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By Scott Ross

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Los Angeles, CA. May, 2011. Richard Stayton writes a compelling piece in the Writers Guild of America (West) magazine Written By (http://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=67460), responding to claims made by Robert Redford that he and the late film director Alan J. Pakula completely re-wrote William Goldman’s Academy Award®-winning screenplay for All the President’s Men (1976), further insisting that only 10 per cent of Goldman’s work remained in the completed film.

Redford, who as progenitor and producer of the movie (and indeed, as unofficial godfather to the original Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book) treated his scenarist with appalling condescension during the re-writing, insisting that Goldman read an un-commissioned script Bernstein and his then-girlfriend (later, wife; still later, famously ex-wife) Nora Ephron had cobbled up emphasizing, in Goldman’s tart phrase, that Carl “sure was catnip to the ladies” — an act the screenwriter quite properly regarded as “a gutless betrayal.”* He didn’t add this, so I will: Particularly since it was Goldman’s original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made Redford a certified movie star, and that it was the author who recommended his casting as Sundance.†

On one of the supplemental documentaries featured in the 2006 DVD (and subsequent Blu-Ray) reissue of ATPM, Redford claims as well that he and Pakula “re-structured” Goldman’s work from top to bottom before filming. If William Goldman is famous for nothing else (and he is, of course, famous for many things, or was, back when people still read books) it is as the author of two statements, one about Hollywood’s endless and panicky chase after the Next Big Thing (“Nobody knows anything”) and this, on his craft: “Screenplays are structure.” That Goldman, who suggested what now, in hindsight, seems the most obvious, simple means of cracking that book’s screen adaptation (throw out the second half) and who, say what you will about the quality of his individual novels and scripts, is absolutely solid on structure, needed an actor and a director, however gifted, to give his work that very element —  particularly after a decade’s worth of scenarios, an Academy Award® and ten novels  —  most of them bestsellers — is, on the face of it, absurd.

William Goldman

William Goldman

Back to May, 2011. Richard Stayton suspects all of this too, but goes beyond it:  Through dogged, painstaking research which involves (among other things) reading every single draft he could get his hands on of the ATPM script written by Goldman and comparing that work to the film as it has stood since 1976, he concludes that William Goldman — and William Goldman alone — wrote the screenplay. And I would take this a step further. It’s my understanding of WGA nominating practice for its own awards —and Christ only knows the rules may have changed in the years since I came across this data in Harlan Ellison’s book on the “City on the Edge of Forever” Star Trek episode — that the screenwriting committee making said nominations reads those screenplays. They may also compare them to either the completed movie or to continuity scripts (essentially, transcripts of the finished film after the final edit.) In any case, the WGA duly conferred on Goldman its Best Adapted Drama award for ATPM. I have no idea what procedures the Motion Picture Academy screenwriting committee undertakes, but they may be similar. Yet I would go further still: Neither Redford nor Pakula applied for arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild for credit on this movie they, according to Redford, completely re-wrote.‡

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The astonishing overhead dissolves at the LOC.

I preface my remarks on ATPM with all of this in part because what Stayton did to prove the provenance of the screenplay is precisely what “Woodstein” undertook to unravel the mysteries attendant to the June, 1972 break-in at National Democratic Headquarters, and what the movie of their book is really all about. And here Goldman and Pakula, whatever the latter may have said to Redford, certainly agree: The movie is filled with examples of the sheer, mind-numbing, foot-wearying legwork Woodward and Bernstein went through, and which at that time was a hallmark of serious American journalism. Indeed, the highest (no pun intended) moment in the movie is an explication of exactly that. Faced with stacks and stacks of Library of Congress check-out cards, some of which might implicate E. Howard Hunt, the pair digs in. The movie cuts to a shot from above, of Redford and Hoffman at the table, poring over the cards. Pakula and his superb cinematographer, Gordon Willis, then dissolve to a higher vantage-point, the two Washington Post reporters swallowed up by the reading room, the cards spreading out before them like a small paper flood. They dissolve again, to an even higher overheard shot, almost a god’s-eye view that renders “Woodstein” as ants to a forest floor. That the search the pair is on ultimately proves fruitless is unimportant; it conveys the lengths to which two dedicated journalists go to nail down the facts they need to buttress their suppositions. The metaphor is repeated, in various ways, throughout the movie: Hoffman or Redford dwarfed by government buildings, or Redford’s car, seen via a helicopter shot, disappearing into Washington traffic. To a city whose very institutions, represented by those massive buildings, regard them as insignificant, Woodward and Bernstein are puny. Unnoticed, and unnoticeable. At least until they hit pay-dirt.

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For my generation of writers, Woodward and Bernstein were heroes. Not because their investigation ultimately led to the resignation of a notably hated President (although that was rich icing on the cake) but because their work, unappreciated at first, thorough and irrefutable at last, was, to us, a shining example of why newspaper journalism existed, and was so terribly important to the life of the Republic. Legions of us became (or wanted to become) would-be Woodsteins because of their example. Alas, far too few of us wanted the grinding, exhaustive, shoe leather-thinning grunt-work that went into it. And fewer still, in this age of 24/7 corporate cable news, instant celebrity and the blogosphere, practice it. Why dig for the truth when you can present rumor, or (even better) just make up your own “facts”? Why ask questions, and seek their answers, if airing innuendo will get you the fame and the book-deal and the featured position on Fox or MS-NBC? They still want to be Woodstein; what they don’t want is having to do the work Woodstein did. That Bill Clinton, with his 1996 Telecommunications Bill, guaranteed the death of the vaunted (and necessary) American free press and replaced it with one wholly subservient to corporate desires is, for once, almost beside the point.

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Redford as Woodward struggles to hear Kenneth Dahlberg over the noise of the Post newsroom in this riveting scene.

In this regard, if in no other, All the President’s Men looks better with every passing year. It is, moreover, a movie of rare intelligence, filled with pleasures. Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation, short attention spans and internet profusion, of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion, it is nearly impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today, at least in Hollywood.§ As such it fits neatly into that brief, shining moment, the glory that was 1970s cinema. Few studio suits now would consider green-lighting a movie in which politics are central; recognizable and fully-explicated human characters fill every frame; the ultimate outcome is already known; and a considerable portion of its greatness, and its concomitant tension, arise from long, close, unbroken shots of its stars talking on the telephone. Two such sequences in particular (one each for Redford and Hoffman) show the power of fine dramatic writing, good acting, and assured direction by people who weren’t afraid, as filmmakers are today, of holding on an actor in a medium close shot for several minutes… unless, of course, the actor and the camera are both moving, allowing yet another Scorsese-wannabe his moment of ostentatious Steadicam glory. (And would a mass audience even put up with such a thing now?)

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Jane Alexander as the unnamed CREEP bookkeeper.

Pakula must also be accorded credit, along with Willis, for the prevailing aura of increasingly justifiable paranoia the movie generates. This was something of a Pakula specialty; his previous films as a director included The Parallax View and Klute, which form with All the President’s Men a kind of unholy trinity of anxious national obsession. (Quartet, if we include the later Presumed Innocent.) That he was an actor’s director is made manifest in the performances in these movies, from the smallest role to the largest, and by his astute sense of casting. ATPM, like another Redford hit, The Sting, benefits from one of the finest all-around supporting casts of the period: Jason Robards (Ben Bradley), Jack Warden (Harry Rosenfeld), Martin Balsam (Howard Simons), the magnificent Jane Alexander giving a virtual master-class on screen acting in two scenes as the frightened, angry Committee to Re-elect bookkeeper, and Robert Walden as an amiable, anxious Donald Zegretti. And, in smaller but no less telling or important roles: Meredith Baxter, James Karen, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Nicholas Coster, Lindsay Crouse, Neva Patterson, Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday (the last two in a scene — presumably from Bernstein’s self-serving draft of the screenplay — with wholly fictionalized accents, such as Carl’s fooling Holliday’s secretary in order to see Beatty.)

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Hal Holbrook, deep in shadow as Deep Throat.

And that is not even to mention Hal Holbrook’s mesmerizing turn as “Deep Throat” (now known to have been the former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt.) It was to Deep Throat that Goldman assigned the script’s most famous (and wholly fictitious) line, “Follow the money.” But there is far more to the role than unintentional catch-phrases, as there is more to Holbrook’s riveting performance than shadow and cigarettes.|| Veiled in more ways than merely the visual, Holbrook’s Deep Throat is, despite a certain, indefinable, air of the sinister, also a man outraged, disappointed and disgusted by the Nixon Administration’s utter contempt for the law, the Constitution, and the American people. (Although it has been strongly suggested that Mark Felt was equally livid at being passed over for the Directorship of his agency after Hoover’s death, and there appears to be truth to that accusation; Felt was known by the White House to be “leaking like a sieve” to the media.) And it is in these scenes that Goldman lands some his most apposite dialogue. Some of it may come from Felt’s own remarks in the book — it’s been a few years since I last read it — but in either case, many of the movie Deep Throat’s observations are as relevant now as they were then, if not more so:

“Look: Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

And, later: “I don’t like newspapers. I don’t care for inexactitude and shallowness.”

How he would loathe the papers (and the broadcast networks) now.


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The superb Jason Robards as Ben Bradley.

Willis’ lighting is superb throughout, from the strong depth-of-focus that keeps every image crisp and allows the viewer a firm grasp of everything in the frame to the way he darkens the surroundings as the central mystery itself becomes more circuitous and frightening. In a career whose highlights included Klute, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Pennies from Heaven, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, Willis’ work here stands as a veritable exemplar of his devotion to craft, and clarity, as well as to un-self-conscious art. Equally worthy of praise is George Jenkins’ set designs, and the set decor of George Gaines, which include a meticulous re-creation of the Post’s pressroom; and the quietly efficient editing of Robert L. Wolfe. David Shire’s uncannily effective, abbreviated score too deserves mention: It’s brief (less than 12 minutes) and there isn’t a note heard until 30 minutes in, yet this spare, splendidly-spotted music — essentially winds, brass, strings and an un-emphatic but most efficacious synthesizer — performs miracle work in its subtle suggestion of a subcutaneous un-ease that slowly becomes first pervasive, then quietly terrifying.

In this year, which has just seen the 42nd anniversary of the Watergate break-in and will soon commemorate the 40th year since Nixon’s characteristically worm-like resignation, and in a world (and a country) that is essentially unrecognizable to those of us who lived through these events and dared to dream that Woodward and Bernstein just might, in their dogged, unassuming fashion, have helped to create a new political reality, it is incumbent upon us to revisit these crucial events, the meticulous, careful investigative journalism that exposed them, and the nearly flawless movie that evolved from both… and which was itself enormously successful.

And to reflect perhaps as well that, from the first instance to the last, both those initial Post articles and the movie that celebrates them, are the work of the what is arguably the last, un-sung, hero of American life: The writer.

Look on these Works, ye Modern, and despair.

The past is a foreign country.

Alas.

Pakula - All the Presidents Men (TIME)


* Maybe it was seeing that phrase “gutless betrayal” that turned Redford from a friend to such an implacable foe? He seems remarkably thin-skinned, even for an actor… about himself, anyway, if not about the feelings of others. It appeared to personally offend him that Pauline Kael’s reviews got reprinted in her books. I wish I shared Redford’s conviction that books are immortal, since these days it seems only pop songs (from the rock era only), motion pictures, old television sitcoms and commercial advertising from baby boomers’ childhoods really are.

† Goldman, perhaps wisely, did not comment on the controversy. In an emailed response to Stayton’s request for discussion he wrote, “Thanks for thinking of me. It was not a happy experience, and I don’t want to write about it anymore.” In his influential Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman wrote: “If you were to ask me, ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

‡ I would never suggest that Pakula filmed every word or scene exactly as Goldman dictated. Nearly every movie is altered, to some degree, and often improved, by its making. Circumstances change. Locations are switched. Scenes are cut. New sequences may be added. Actors improvise. Dustin Hoffman, in one of those ATPM video documentaries, makes the ludicrous claim that “you don’t film the script”; no — apparently, you film what Dustin Hoffman decides to do, and say. He also maintains (on the Tootsie DVD) that “screenplays are just blueprints,” a falsehood of epic proportions, one repeated so often by directors and producers it seems to have become Hollywood Holy Writ. A blueprint is not a suggestion. Once it has attained its final form, it cannot be altered significantly, without the entire building structure becoming unstable. You don’t, unless you are mad or self-destructive or criminally negligent, add or subtract or move walls or floors in a building under construction once the architect has signed off on the final blueprint. The “screenplays are blueprints” metaphor is both entirely specious and dismissive of reality.

§ The recent success of Spotlight seems to refute my argument, unless you reflect that the picture, which I admire, concerns itself with the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and not, as with ATPM, with the anti-Constitutional machinations of the Federal government. Both were appalling; indeed, the damage done by the Church to its most vulnerable parishioners might seem, taken on an emotional basis — and over not merely decades but centuries — to trump what Tricky and his minions achieved. But (and I most certainly do not mean to minimize or in any way denigrate the suffering of young victims of rape — I had my own “#MeToo” moment as an adolescent) the attempted murder of a democracy is, I aver, the far greater sin, if only because it affects so very many more people.

|| It is not unreasonable to suggest that Chris Carter was inspired by Holbrook, and his cigarettes, when he created “The Smoking Man” for The X-Files.



Post-Script: August 2018
I was struck, on re-reading this essay, by the sentence which begins, “Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation… of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion…”

If the current mass-insanity among first Democrats and the mainstream press (and now, increasingly, Republicans) which has led to a resurgence of Red-baiting McCarthyism unseen since 1954 and based wholly on a lie cobbled up by one candidate to “explain” her loss to another, and based as well on that candidate’s vulnerability on the “collusion” question (all those uranium bucks from the Russian Federation going to her husband and their phony Foundation) is not an illustration of the impossibility, now, of independent journalism by the major news media, I’m Ben Bradlee.


All text (other than Goldman’s) copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Sting (1973)

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By Scott Ross

One of the best-cast American movies ever made. The pleasures of this quintessential caper-comedy (by David S. Ward under George Roy Hill’s stylish direction) are many, and not the least of them is its parade of great character actors, clearly having a ball. Along with a relaxed Paul Newman and a very appealing (if over-aged) Robert Redford, there’s mob kingpin Robert Shaw, corrupt cop Charles Durning and a supporting cast to die for: Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, John Heffernan, Dana Elcar, Jack Kehoe, Robert Earl Jones, Avon Long, and the extraordinary Dimitra Arliss as a diner waitress who isn’t quite what she seems. The art direction by Henry Bumstead beautifully evokes the Depression Era, and Marvin Hamlisch’s use of the Scott Joplin songbook, while technically anachronistic, perfectly captures, and reflects, the spirit of this sunny, cheerfully amoral comedy.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

All the President’s Men (1976)

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By Scott Ross

Alan J. Pakula, working from a superb William Goldman screenplay, wrought the best newspaper movie of all in this marvelously detailed portrait of the two Washington Post reporters who first exposed the Nixon Administration’s petty chicanery.

What makes the movie so absorbing is its documentary-like depiction of the sheer, mind-numbing meticulousness with which Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) piece the story together. It’s a great tribute to a kind of dogged, perfectionist journalism that seems to have died with the Nixon Presidency itself. The sequence at the Library of Congress, in which the little check-out cards pile up as Gordon Willis’ camera rises up and up and up, emphasizing Woodstein’s essential tininess in the grand scheme of themes, is one of my favorite moments in movies.

All the President’s Men is also a marvel in its singularly brilliant casting; every role, no matter how small, is cast to perfection. Jason Robards’ commanding Ben Bradlee leads the way, but look at this partial list of supporting players: Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Robert Walden, Nicolas Coster, Lindsay Crouse, Polly Holliday, James Karen, Neva Patterson, and (as John Mitchell, the voice on the other end of Woodward’s telephone) John Randolph. With Hal Holbrook in a rather terrifying performance as Deep Throat. The spare David Shire score is just about perfect.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross