By Scott Ross
I discovered this morning that my August report mysteriously disappeared from the site and reverted to “draft” status. Before re-publishing I have deleted the new September post and combined it with August.
Confused? You’re not the only one.
The Gold Rush (1925) Charles Chaplin’s epic comedy. James Agee: “Anyone who saw Chaplin eating a boiled shoe like brook trout in The Gold Rush… has seen perfection.”
The Way We Were (1973) A potentially great romantic drama effectively sabotaged, mostly by the usual spineless obduracy of Sydney Pollack.
One-Eyed Jacks (1961) An interesting, well-directed, overlong allegorical Western, notable as the only movie directed by Marlon Brando. Like several such one-offs made by actors (The Night of the Hunter is probably the most prominent) the picture demonstrates that the man who made it had a genuine gift for directing even if, as Barry Gifford notes in Brando Rides Alone, his interesting little book on the movie, director Brando made sure star Marlon looked more beautiful throughout the picture than ever before on the screen, even as his weight fluctuated and his backside expanded as much as his belly.
Based on The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, Charles Neider’s 1956 variation on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the movie was part of Brando’s attempt to make himself independently wealthy as a producer so he could, he hoped, make a bundle and walk away from acting for good. Thanks in part to his father’s unreliability as a manager and to his own dithering, it was a doomed effort. The picture took years to go into production, and years more to come out of it and went through several screenwriters (Sam Peckinpah, Rod Serling, Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham and, ultimately, although uncredited, Brando himself) and one director (Stanley Kubrick) before its star took the reins. That it was seized by Paramount, re-cut, perfunctorily released and, eventually, allowed to lapse out of copyright and into cheap home video copies, is, in the area of classic irony, almost perfect. Fortunately, the picture has been restored and reissued via Criterion, allowing us to bask in the beauty of Brando’s glorious VistaVision images and to ponder what a filmmaking talent was lost in him.
The more you know about Brando, and about his tortured familial relationships, the more you may appreciate the way One Eyed Jacks expands upon the actor’s seeming need to be martyred onscreen and the dark father/son surrogacy at the movie’s core. Aside from Charles Lang’s painterly cinematography and some pungent dialogue, the picture’s chief virtue is that it is wonderfully cast; even Karl Malden is more subtle than usual. Along with his own, beautifully considered performance, Brando gets wonderful work from the entire cast: The tragic, delicate Pina Pellicer (she committed suicide three years later); the always intelligent Katy Jurado; Larry Duran in a fine turn as Brando’s Latino sidekick; the monstrous Timothy Carey as a murderously belligerent drunk; Elisha Cook Jr. as a timorous bank teller; and, especially, Ben Johnson as a slyly duplicitous outlaw and Slim Pickens as a bullying coward of a deputy sheriff. Hugo Friedhofer has never been a favorite movie composer of mine — his supposed compositional genius eludes my ears — but his work here is stellar and includes a genuinely great major theme for Brando and Pellicer.
Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1 (1943 – 1958) Friz Freleng once noted of his old Termite Terrace colleague that Avery’s MGM cartoons were the products of a desperate man, and their speed and relentlessness lend credence to that observation. They can feel, as they did to a college roommate of mine to whom I once showed a clutch of them on video tape, like assaults. But at their (and his) considerable best they are probably funnier than almost anyone else’s cartoons.
Watership Down (1978) Martin Rosen’s striking adaptation of the beautiful Richard Adams novel about a group of rabbits seeking safety and refuge in a new warren is one of the few genuinely serious, even grim, animated features made before the modern era and, while only 90 minutes long, somehow manages to limn most of the important incidents of a beloved 500-page novel and even to retain a great deal of that book’s strong emotional impact.
The Chaplin Revue (1959) A compilation of three two-reelers from Chaplin’s First National years, two from 1918 and one from 1923. Supervised by the filmmaker and including his own fine newly composed scores, this omnibus package represents an excellent glimpse of what the most original, and revered, comic mind of the era was up to then, and at least this time Chaplin didn’t, as with his 1942 reissue of The Gold Rush (1925), include any intrusive narration. A Dog’s Life has a genuine, un-sticky sweetness, even if it does switch the gender of Charlie’s canine companion at the end; Shoulder Arms gives a good account of the misery of life at the front during The War to End Wars, leavened by Chaplin’s usual genius for finding the comic even in the face of absolute despair; and The Pilgrim has a good time at the expense of the pious, especially in the long Sunday afternoon visiting sequence where Charlie, disguised as a preacher, is bedeviled by a derby coated in frosting and pestered by little Dean Riesner as a brat with a bent for smacking adults in the face.
Deep Rising (1998) I wish I could explain, even to myself, my affection for this big, dumb, loud, CGI-laden action comedy written and directed by Stephen Sommers,* who later struck gold with his equally dumb (and equally loud) Mummy pictures. It has all the subtlety of a brick dropped on the head from a great height: It takes its narrative and structural cues largely from the Alien movies; most of its humor is of that same sour, wise-ass variety that has killed real wit in American movies; the computer-generated sea monsters are a let-down, as these things tend to be; a little of Kevin J. O’Connor’s tremulous weaseliness is more than sufficient; and, even worse, Anthony Heald, perhaps the single worst American actor aside from Hart Bochner, is also on board to stink up the joint with every word he speaks. Yet something in it appeals to me. That its central actors are Treat Williams and Famke Janssen doesn’t hurt, nor does Wes Studi’s presence as one of the main villains, and Jerry Goldsmith’s propulsive score is among my favorites among his work, perhaps because it doesn’t take itself seriously, or rely on synthesizers, as so many of his later action scores did.
*Robert Mark Kamen was the first, and un-credited, screenwriter before Sommers took over the project.
Charlie Chaplin First National two-reelers (1919 – 1922) A mixed bag, although every one of them is funny in the old Mutual manner. Sunnyside (1919) is among Chaplin’s strangest movies; he often didn’t know how the picture he was working on would develop, and improvised his way through, but on this one he was really stumped, and it shows. A Day’s Pleasure (1919) which depicts a middle-class lark on board a pleasure cruise is inconsequential but frequently hilarious: Charlie performs a routine with a deck chair that would do Buster Keaton proud, and the climactic sequence involving a traffic cop and some hot tar is a gem. Payday (1922) is a rarity, in that Charlie is a working stiff and married, to Phyllis Allen as an Amazonian harridan; the best (and best shot) sequences involve his drunken attempts to get home, and the teeming rain he encounters is beautifully lit and filmed. Finest of the lot is The Idle Class (1921), a classic Tramp set-up with some side-splitting comic business. The first half involves the Little Fellow attempting to play through on a Florida golf course and encountering Mack Swain and John Rand, whom he inadvertently sets at each other’s throats. The second concerns the Tramp’s being mistaken first as a pickpocket and later for his own double, a wealthy sot with a disaffected wife (Edna Purviance). Although the climax, on a slippery dance floor, borrows a bit from both The Rink (1916) and The Adventurer (1917), it’s still wildly funny.
The Warner/M2K Diffusion DVD set includes A Study in Undercranking, a very informative documentary by the silent movie specialist and accompanist Ben Model on how varying film speeds heightens or dampens the effectiveness of Chaplin’s comedy. Since he authorized the later change to a uniform 24 frames-per-second, Chaplin himself, oddly, sometimes sabotaged his own best gags.
Unknown Chaplin (1983) This splendid three-part examination of Chaplin’s working methods was a revelation 27 years ago, and retains its fascination. Availing themselves of the filmmaker’s carefully stored outtakes, the silent movie historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill were able to reconstruct the manner in which Chaplin developed his pictures. Not through a script — which almost no one in those days used for comedy — but by in essence writing on film: Setting up a potential scenario, trying this idea or that, and only gradually discovering what his movie was. Among comedians, only Chaplin, the most well-known and popular figure in the world by 1915, could have gotten away with it. As a result, his use of raw stock was profligate; indeed, Brownlow and Gill cite the astonishing intelligence that in creating The Immigrant (1917) Chaplin ultimately used up as much film on that two-reeler as Griffith did on the whole of Intolerance. James Mason’s smooth narration is a decided asset, as are the interviews with Chaplin’s leading ladies (Georgia Hale, Virginia Cherrill) and his ex-wife, Lita Grey, which have the added benefit of reminding us, in this age of plastic surgery addiction, how lovely old women used to look.
Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies (1916 – 1917) Flicker Alley’s terrific set of two-reelers from Charles Chaplin’s first great creative period, lovingly restored, most of them looking better than they have in a century. (A century — imagine!)
Rules Don’t Apply (2016) Warren Beatty’s entertaining fantasia on Howard Hughes cannily mixes fact, fiction, events and dates in a way that will either confound or delight you, depending on whether you get what he’s up to. I was delighted.
Oklahoma Crude (1973) An entertaining comedy-drama by Marc Norman from his novel, wonderfully acted by George C. Scott, Faye Dunaway and John Mills.
The Great Train Robbery (1978) Michael Crichton’s witty, sumptuous-looking adaptation of his own entertaining novel based on the 1853 event looks, and sounds, better with every passing year.
Murder by Decree (1979) This beautiful, sad, moving mystery/thriller pitting Christopher Plummer’s magnificent Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper is not only a relic of another century; compared to the stupidity, cynicism and slick manipulation abounding in Western cinema today its intelligence, humanism and sheer craft feel as if they belong to entirely different civilization.
Pygmalion (1938) Few pictures of its period provide the refreshment, intellectual and otherwise, that this marvelous edition of Bernard Shaw’s comedy of ideas does.
Bananas (1971) Woody Allen’s second feature as a scenarist and director, which like the 1969 Take the Money and Run was co-written with Mickey Rose. It isn’t as funny as it could be, and never was, but it has several good belly-laughs, especially the scene at the airport in which the singer Eulogio Peraza has the best gag in the picture, and gives its funniest performance.
everything you always wanted to know about sex* (*but were afraid to ask) (1972) An intermittently amusing takeoff by Woody Allen on the vile David Reuben bestseller with two good sequences: One inside the body a man about to have intercourse and the other with a transvestite hilariously played by Lou Jacobi.
Day of the Outlaw (1959) This stark, intelligent, intensely beautiful black-and-white winter Western starring Robert Ryan and directed by Andre DeToth looks better with each new viewing.
Five-Star Final (1931) An early talkie with some terrific performances yolked, alas, to a godawful bunch of ham goody-goodies.
A Little Romance (1979) The lovely romantic comedy by Allan Burns out of Patrick Cauvin, beautifully directed by George Roy Hill, as beguiling now as it was a little over 40 years ago.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) William Goldman’s very original tragicomic Western, marvelously directed by George Roy Hill and beautifully filmed by Conrad Hall.
The Seven-Ups (1973) A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, concocted by one of the two real key cop figures of that picture and directed by its producer, this tense, grim New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals if it does not in fact surpass those in Connection and Bullitt. Interestingly, Scheider and his elite police team use tactics at least as fascistic as “Dirty Harry” Callahan, but unlike with Eastwood or Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, no one at the time seemed to notice.
Indiscreet (1958) It’s difficult to believe a comedy as painfully labored as this one could have been directed by Stanley Donen and starred Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Yet writers continually rhapsodize, with little justification, over its alleged “sophistication” when the words that best describe it are two others beginning with an s: “Stagy” and “smarmy.” Based by Norman Krasna on his play Kind Sir, the picture concerns the clearly erotic (not mere conventional movie “love”) affair between a rich economist and a stage actress (who, although obviously Swedish, comes complete with a just as obviously British sister). Indiscreet is so uncertain about its tone that, when we are supposed to be observing Grant and Bergman falling in love she first babbles like a middle-school student over-excited on tea then, as they walk along the streets of London together, descends into a silence that resembles deep depression. Next thing we know, hey presto! they’re lovers. Donen, using the split-screen techniques he was so enamored of, depicts the two, daringly for the period, in separate beds but seemingly in the same one and has Cary appear at one point to be patting Ingrid’s ass (oh, naughty!) Along the way we get such delights as breathless paeans to NATO, keys hidden in urns, and a butler roped into pretending he’s the insanely jealous Bergman’s secret lover. About the only saving graces of this witless endeavor are Grant briefly launching into a Curly Howard routine at a dance, a single good line of Bergman’s (“How dare he make love to me and not be a married man!”) and a marvelous supporting performance by Cecil Parker as her diplomat brother-in-law. I’m normally predisposed to be charitable to Grant, Bergman and Donen, but Indiscreet is the kind of movie that could put you off all three for life.
The Offense (1973) A disturbing cop drama that, while occasionally effective (if not especially true) as a character study, is also maddeningly directed by Sidney Lumet. Based by John Hopkins on his own play This Story of Yours (neither it nor The Offense are good titles) the picture violates the basic movie rule of confusing its audience by not identifying its location; perhaps if you live in or are otherwise familiar with the Greater London area you wouldn’t be as lost as I was, but far too much of my viewing time was wasted trying to figure out where the story was taking place. Then there is Lumet’s baffling penchant for extended takes in which a car is driven or a young girl walks down a lane. The individual shots mean little, yet we sit there thinking they must add up to something because they’re going on so long. Add to that the utter impenetrability of many of the actors’ thick regional accents, the strikingly dated and correspondingly annoying electronic “score” by Harrison Birtwistle which is somehow both “played by” the London Sinfonietta and “realized” by someone called Peter Zinovieff, the enigmatic slow-motion opening which must then be explained in detail (and in pieces) and the sheer, stagy, Sam Shepard-like unbelievability of the story and characters (you know as you’re watching exactly which scenes were lifted intact from the play) and what you mostly have to cling to are the performances by Sean Connery as a police detective enraged as much by his identification with a child molester as by the crimes themselves, Ian Bannen as the suspect, Trevor Howard as the Superintendent trying to understand what happened when Connery killed Bannen, and Vivien Merchant as the detective’s long-suffering wife. Good as they all all, even they are not enough. It’s all depressing as hell, which I mind far less than its having irritated me too.
Men in War (1957) Van Van Praag’s World War II novel Day Without End, transposed by Ben Maddow to Korea, starring the great Robert Ryan, starkly photographed by Ernest Haller and directed with taut verisimilitude by Anthony Mann.* Every time you feel the narrative move toward a war-movie cliché, Maddow and Mann turn away from it, so that at the end there are only the survivors, and that ugly, blasted hill they’ve taken at so terrible a cost. Tellingly, the Pentagon declined its assistance, allegedly over some of the men’s attitudes toward orders. Balls. That’s happened time and again in war pictures. I suspect they saw Men in War for what it really is: A perfect illustration of the futility, and the ultimate folly and obscenity, of war.
Aside from Ryan, giving one of his usual impeccably understated performances, the fine cast includes Nehemiah Persoff, Phillip Pine, L.Q. Jones, a young Vic Morrow, James Edwards as a gentle staff sergeant, Aldo Ray as a belligerent non-com concerned only with saving his shell-shocked colonel, and, as the colonel, the splendid Robert Keith, who gives a nearly wordless performance of exceptional eloquence. The brief, effective Elmer Bernstein score is in keeping with the movie’s admirable restraint.
*Look in vain for Maddow’s by-line, however; even on the Olive Films Blu-ray, almost 65 years after the picture’s release, his blacklist-era front, Philip Yordan, still gets the credit.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross