The picture’s ended (but the imagery lingers on)

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By Scott Ross

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When I first saw Alien in 1979, knowing almost nothing about it, and John Hurt gave birth to the chest-burster, I had my first attack of hyperventilation and nearly had to be taken out of the theatre. Seeing it again last night promoted me think of other movies whose introduction into my life were experiences so intense that their initial impact has never wholly faded. The reasons vary, but what unites these disparate threads is the simple power of images — the thing that has enthralled a hundred years of movie-going audiences. And even if, as I sadly believe, the movies’ best days are behind them, the images remain — behind the third eye as it were, always available for re-screening at the hint of mental recall. Here, the first titles that occur to me, and that had the greatest, and most lasting, impact.

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Mary Poppins: Very possibly the first movie I “saw,” at a drive-in theatre with my parents, likely during the summer of 1965. Being only 4 years old and used to early bedtimes I fell asleep fairly quickly, but woke up to see the Banks children being approached by the old crone and menaced by the dog in the alley. When I saw it again, in the early 1970s during a reissue, that scene was still vivid in my mind, as was the chimneysweeps’ “Step in Time” dance on the rooftop, with Julie Andrews’ cannily designed red dress popping out amid all that black. (I think I stayed awake, as another Sherman Brothers’ song from the movie impelled, after that.)

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Irma La Douce: This was the second movie I remember “seeing,” again at a drive-in, probably in 1965, when it ran in a double-feature with Tom Jones. Again, I was asleep for most of it, but remember waking to see a woman with dark hair in a sleeping-mask. Fast-forward to 1972 or so, and watching it with the family on television. When Shirley MacLaine put on the sleeping mask, I had an instant flashback to that night at the drive-in. Imagine: one of my earliest movie memories is of a racy comedy about a Parisian prostitute and her mec!

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The Wizard of Oz: On my first viewing, around age 5, I was so terrified of Margaret Hamilton’s witch I hid behind the sofa whenever she was on-screen. I did the same thing, 3 years or so later, when Darby O’Gill and the Little People was reissued, crouching down on the theatre floor at the first sight of the wailing banshee, and begging my sister to tell me when it was gone.

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Pinocchio: One of the first movies I saw in North Carolina after the family moved there from Ohio in 1971. The transformation of Lampwick into a donkey stayed with me for decades. A nightmare sequence, terrible in its delineation of panic, terror and hopelessness. Only later, as an adult, did I come to appreciate the totality of this exceptional achievement, its beauty and its astonishing pictorial texture.

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1776: Say what you will about this one, to have it come my way at the age of 11, when I was just beginning to become immersed in theatre, musical theatre, movies and American history, the picture was an instant touchstone.

 

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Cabaret: I saw this on a reissue, the night after having seen the musical play on which it is based in a surprisingly fine dinner-theatre production, a present for my 12th birthday. At first I was disappointed; the movie was so different. I had been an avid listener of the 1967 cast album, borrowed repeatedly from a local library, and I missed those songs, particularly Lotte Lenya’s. (I was not yet the Isherwood maven I would become.) But it grew on me, steadily. I was absolutely dazed by Bob Fosse’s staging, editing and choreography, unaccountably both titillated and disappointed by the ménage that never happens, and highly amused when Michael York exploded, “Oh, screw Maximilian!”, Liza Minnelli responded coolly, “I do,” and York, after an initial shock, smiled and riposted, “So do I.” That exchange also tickled by best friend, with whom I saw the movie, and for personal reasons it would take me some time to understand… as it would to comprehend my own, nascent and very buried, sexuality.

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Gone with the Wind: Love it, loathe it, dismiss it or embrace it, to see this movie on a big screen, at 13, with my mother and sister, was one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my early adolescence. The dolly-in close-up on Clark Gable’s grin (“Wow!” I whispered to my mother); Hattie McDaniel’s big, broad face; the removal of the Confederate soldier’s leg; the massive crane shot of Scarlett at the depot; the burning of Atlanta; the collapse of her horse as she sights Tara; the shooting of the renegade Union soldier; Scarlett’s “morning after” smile; her fall down the stairs; the deaths of O’Hara, Bonnie Blue and Melanie. When one is older, one can also roll one’s eyes at the appalling “happy darkies workin’ for Massa” aspects, but also more fully what a pillar of iron the seemingly weak Melanie actually is, and better appreciate the rich humor of the thing, and the sheer prowess David O. Selznick showed in putting it together.

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Jaws: Seen in 1975, when it opened. Sure, I remembered poor Ben Gardner’s head scaring the bejeezus out of Richard Dreyfuss (and the packed audience in the theatre), and Robert Shaw being eaten whole. But the images that haunted me were: The shots of Roy Scheider trying to see past the beach-goers obscuring his field of vision; the stunning close-up, a few moments later (a simultaneous zoom-forward/dolly-back) of Scheider’s face as little Alex Kintner is attacked; and the scene of Scheider racing to the estuary. I think Spielberg’s direction really introduced me that day to the power of moving-picture images on a technical as well as emotional level.

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Marathon Man: The second “R”-rated movie I saw, in 1976. (The first was Blazing Saddles, in a reissue.) The sense of unnerving terror that permeates the narrative, exploding here and there as it unfurls, driving toward a violent, ironic climax, kept me in a tight grip throughout. Although I had read William Goldman’s popular novel before seeing this re-imagining of it (which he also wrote) and knew more or less what to expect of plot and character, nothing prepared me for the creeping dread, nor the elegantly shot and edited set-pieces with their seemingly incongruous blood and violence and horror, that John Schlesinger brought to it. Pauline Kael complained that director and film were a mis-match; that Schlesinger’s direction was too stylish and accomplished — too sumptuous, and serious — for what she regarded as pulp material, but I demur. It is precisely the luminous, autumnal glow and gleaming elegance of surface that make the ensuing action of the movie so uniquely disturbing and disorienting.

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Deliberately knowing as little as I could about it, I saw this one on its second weekend. (Although my loose-lipped high school newspaper adviser, who’d seen it the opening week, spoiled the Devil’s Tower mystery for our entire class.) When you aren’t aware, in advance, whether the visitors are malign or not — and, really, even if you are — the sequence in which little Barry is abducted is absolutely terrifying. When the screws on the floor heating vent unscrewed by themselves, sending poor Melina Dillon into a justifiable panic, we were right there with her. Yet this is the most benign of all UFO movies, and, for me at 16, the most completely entrancing movie I had ever seen.

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An Unmarried Woman: I saw this one solo, as was often the case at that time. I was working at a local movie theatre, had a pass, and went to damn near everything. While by no means a humorless feminist tract, Paul Mazursky’s magnificently textured exploration of what happens to one, rather typical New Yorker, when her husband of many years dumps her for a younger woman was revelatory. It seemed impossible for a man — a modern writer, anyway — to have conceived it, let alone writing and directing so complete a portrait. I went back to it over and over, always bringing a woman with me (my sister, once, close friends at other times.) It feels now as though the movie came from an ancient time, or a distant planet, where it was not only possible to make such things, but to get large numbers of people, of both genders, to see and to love them.

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Alien: I know I run the risk of admission to fogiedom when I say this, but for anyone who wasn’t there in 1979, it’s almost impossible to describe the impact Alien had on we who saw it when it was new. The working-class grunginess, the slowly building terror, the genuine shocks, the unsettlingly sensual biomechanical Giger designs, and the sheer, unholy scale of the thing, were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. It was the anti-Star Wars, the acid-bath flip-side of Close Encounters. Movies were tough then, but seldom quite this tough — or this unrelentingly dark and claustrophobic. Few movies I’ve seen before or since have had that kind of impact. And they did it all by hand.

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All That Jazz: My Star Wars — the movie I saw repeatedly over the first year or two of its release, and never tired of. For a budding playwright, besotted with theatre and longing to secure my own place in it, Bob Fosse’s mad, flamboyant epic, with its incendiary editing, hallucinatory structure, and obsession with death, became for me a kind of rite of passage.

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Richard Pryor in Concert: Pryor’s first solo effort was, and remains, the single funniest movie I’ve ever seen. We were, quite literally, falling, if not out of our seats, at least bending so far forward in them we risked serious injury, and our faces ached from laughing for some time afterward. Genius, unfettered and unrestrained, given full play, as it never was in any of Pryor’s more traditional narrative movies, which somehow could not meet, match or contain the troubled meteor at their center.

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GoodFellas: Arguably the most exhilarating tour de force movie of its decade. No one limned the easy allure of crime, or the shocking availability and prevalence of sudden violence, quite like Martin Scorsese.

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Lawrence of Arabia: I’d seen it once, on a very small, black-and-white television, in a network airing of the truncated theatrical version. I was given the widescreen cassettes of David Lean’s restoration as a birthday present, and to call that an improvement on my initial exposure would be comparable to noting that sachertorte beats a Moon Pie. But finally getting to see the “Director’s Cut” on a big screen, in a theatre, knocks every previous viewing from the memory, replacing it with splendor few movies ever provide — not merely the stunning desert vistas or the big set-pieces, but the enigma at its center, exemplified (if never fully explained), by Peter O’Toole’s magnificent performance.

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The Wild Bunch: Another “Director’s Cut” experience, and one that left me literally, not figuratively, dazed for about a week afterward. No other movie I know is more concerned with violence — its effect as well as its execution. From the opening massacre, and the dreadful sight of the scorpions beset by an army of ants that forms perhaps too easy a metaphor but remains indelible, to the horses falling to the water, to the final walk of the Bunch and their terrible end, Sam Peckinpaw had me by the throat, and kept choking.

Tired of being disappointed, over and over and over, I go to few new movies now. Two, I think, in the past six or seven years. But in a sense, I really don’t need to. I’m not an adolescent or a thrill-junkie, and anyway, the imagery that remains embedded in my memory from forty and more years ago and remains so vivid still does not require jostling, and certainly not replacing. I’m still discovering older movies, on disc, that, whatever their age, are new to me and they more than fulfill my requirements, so it isn’t that I’m not open to new images. But with such a rich store, I just don’t need them.

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

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Never trust anyone: “The French Connection” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

Possibly the last thing of which anyone who knows your humble scribe would accuse him is prudery. Still, like many writers I prefer to be a bit a bit more restrained, and a great deal less profane, in my published prose, as opposed to my plays (or indeed, my daily life). But to assess the work and personality of the American director William Friedkin means admitting that only one word will do, and it isn’t exactly decorous.

That word, in the demotic and not the literal, sense, is “asshole.”

To be sure, one may be an enormously gifted asshole, yet an asshole nonetheless — the arts are full of them, and if you’ve had anything to do with performance of any kind you’ve doubtless met, and endured, your share. Although seldom one who, as Friedkin does, seems to take positive pride in being as big an asshole as possible.

There may be other words one can use to call a man who spreads utterly debunkable, not infrequently offensive, fabrications as if they were gospel; who deliberately endangers the lives of countless innocent bystanders, not to mention those of his cast and crew, by surreptitiously staging high-speed chases on busy city thoroughfares; who claims specious co-authorship of screenplays he patently did not write; who bullies his actors, publicly and mercilessly when he is not actually, and with due premeditation, causing them excruciating physical pain* (and this is what he does to his friends!); who seldom praises the work of collaborators, and who cannot even accept a compliment without simultaneously degrading someone else. There may, as I say, be other words but I am fully persuaded that, in this case, “asshole” is the mot juste.

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William Friedkin, left, with Hackman and Fernando Rey, the movie’s chief villain.

There were, it seems, and aside from its director, a veritable clutch of assholes on the set of The French Connection (1971). Chiefest — because arguably most seminal — was Eddie Egan, the bantam cop upon whose exploits, with his partner Sonny Grosso, Robin Moore based his eponymous, and somewhat fictionalized, account. (A bestseller, moreover, which Friedkin claims not to have been able to follow. I’ve seen my share of “Hurricane Billy”’s sometimes narratively impenetrable movies, so for once I actually believe one of his claims; the man must have the attention span of a not especially perspicacious gnat.†) Neither Egan nor Friedkin wanted Gene Hackman in the movie, and both did their best to make him miserable during a shoot already damn near insupportable due to extreme New York cold. A secondary, but not inconsiderable, asshole was the veteran stuntman Bill Hickman, although he at least was not on hand as much as Egan.

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A fistful of assholes, as it were: Bill Hickman and Eddie Egan in action.

It must be admitted that as an actor Egan fulfills his part in the movie as Hackman’s supervisor splendidly, gruff and reasonable in equal measure and with what can only be described as a real New York face with which to decorate a movie largely dependent upon them. Hickman, who memorably jousted with Steve McQueen in the justifiably famous San Francisco car chase in Bullitt, and who doubled for Hackman here, likewise fires his small but telling role as Hackman’s snarling adversary with unlovable panache.

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The iconic, if surprise-killing, poster.

Much of the criticism leveled at The French Connection on its release centered on the unrepentant boorishness of the Egan character, called “Popeye” Doyle here. (“Popeye” was Egan’s nickname in life, just as Grosso, immortalized by the great Roy Scheider, was known as “Cloudy,” his appellation in the movie.) There were similar complaints about Dirty Harry that same year, notably by Pauline Kael, who loathed both characters. But aside from their doing the job of big-city police detectives with ruthless, indeed amoral, attitudes, and bearing in mind Orson Welles’ useful Touch of Evil maxim that “The job of a policeman is only easy in a police state,” the similarity ends here. The creeping fascism of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is sanctimonious, a way for the actor to hector the audience for its reliance on those deplorable shades of grey with which artists and civil libertarians (and other, to a reactionary, more or less emotionally retarded adults) view humanity. “Popeye” doesn’t pause to lecture; he’s far too busy painstakingly ferreting out drug dealers. And anyway, he wouldn’t if he could. Also, his flaws are obvious: Pervasive bigotry, a willingness to cut corners — which may have led to all those light and suspended sentences the movie’s end titles inform us were meted out in the case — and a temper that, combined with zealousness, leads to needless death. (Even some cops were troubled by Popeye’s shooting, in the picture, of the admittedly terrifying assassin played by Marcel Bozuffi, whose death gave the movie both its poster image and its most resounding success with audiences.)

What really sets The French Connection apart, then and now and from first frame to last, is Friedkin’s documentary realism. As with Midnight Cowboy (and, on the comic side, The Out-of-Towners) the city itself becomes, not merely a backdrop, but a major character — and not a pretty one: Squalid, hostile, dangerous, more than vaguely threatening, it’s the image of New York in the ’70s most of us who grew up then still associate with that period. On my first trip to Manhattan in December of 1979, I found the city unsettlingly like the one depicted here by Friedkin and his prodigiously gifted cinematographer, Owen Roizman. (It didn’t help that my visit was in winter, and my companion and I seldom saw the sun for most of the trip.) I doubt the city’s Tourist Bureau was best pleased by The French Connection, but if ever there were a time-capsule New York movie, surely it’s this one.

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The dangers of ad hoc car-chases: The auto smashing into Hackman’s here was driven by a “civilian,” the accident entirely un-planned.

The picture’s producer, Philip D’Antoni, likewise produced Bullitt, and wanted an urban chase, not merely to equal that one, but to surpass it. However one may deplore Friedkin’s ill-conceived and arrogant methods, D’Antoni certainly got what he was after. (And here is as good a place as any to acknowledge the movie’s superb editing, by Gerald B. Greenberg.)

The spare, effective score, which begins with an almost shockingly electric, if brief, main title, was by the late Don Ellis, most of whose compositions were later removed. Loath as I am to side with this particular director on the matter of film music — he infamously tossed Lalo Schifrin’s score for The Exorcist out in favor of some notably hideous screechings by Webern and Penderecki — Friedkin may have had a point here; too much underscoring could well have detracted from the effective cinéma vérité style of the movie as a whole, although I think Ellis’ dissonant approach compliments, rather than distracts from, the action, at least as it ended up in theatres.††

The supporting cast is equally splendid, from Egan, Hickman and Bozuffi to Tony Lo Bianco as the minor hood hoping to join the majors and Patrick McDermott’s portrayal of a chillingly cavalier young drug analyst. Fernando Rey, although Spanish (and according to Friedkin, anyway, not the actor he had in mind) lends the movie an unexpected whiff of Continental elegance, never more so than at the climax of his cat-and-mouse subway game with Hackman.§

Fernando Rey waves a smirking goodbye to Popeye on the subway...

Fernando Rey waves a smirking goodbye to Popeye on the subway…

... which Doyle returns, with heavy irony, at the climax.

… which Doyle returns, with heavy and satisfying irony, at the climax.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Doyle, Hackman is so wholly persuasive you’d never imagine the actor was, ethically and temperamentally, the diametric opposite of Popeye. The accent may be indeterminate, but Hackman’s is a performance of breathtaking pitilessness, unhampered by anything approaching vanity. And Scheider’s “Cloudy” Russo is a star-making performance if ever there was one. Gentler in aspect despite his rough-hewn face, he is in some sense not merely Doyle’s histrionic opposite but the audience’s surrogate as well, amused and appalled by his partner in equal measure. (Note Scheider’s barely restrained hilarity when Popeye goes into his patented, non-sequitur, “You ever been to Poughkeepsie?” spiel. Grosso, in the field, was, he says, considerably less amused.) Scheider essentially played Russo again two years later, in the D’Antoni-produced and directed The Seven-Ups, which also starred Lo Bianco and which likewise climaxed with a notably harrowing urban auto chase.

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Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman get more than they imagined when they “popeye” around at an area nightclub.

While there are, it must be said, no notable black faces among the law enforcement figures depicted in The French Connection, but plenty in the drug-bars Popeye and Cloudy invade, we twice see Hackman charming (and, at least on the surface, being charmed by) small black and Hispanic children while disguised as Santa Claus. An early, and key, exchange between Hackman and Scheider, which occurs after the latter has been knifed during an arrest, hints past Doyle’s blatant racism, to his essential misanthropy:

Popeye: You dumb guinea.
Cloudy: How the hell was I supposed to know he had a knife?
Popeye: Never trust a nigger.
Cloudy: He could have been white.
Popeye: Never trust anyone.

Spoken like a true asshole.

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“Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags… and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.”


*Ellen Burstyn, during the filming of The Exorcist. The damage to her back, deliberately precipitated by Friedkin to elicit a “better” emotional response than she was giving, is now chronic.

†Friedkin is so anti-writer that it’s difficult to get a handle on who wrote the actual screenplay. It’s credited to Ernest Tidyman, another major asshole.

††You can, thankfully, get the full score, along with Ellis’ compositions for the 1975 sequel, on the recent La-La Land double CD. Both were available previously from Film Score Monthly, but — due to single-disc space limitations — without the wonderful Jimmy Webb song “Everybody’s Going to the Moon,” performed by The Three Degrees. The La-La Land set, on two discs, includes it.

§It should come as no surprise to anyone that CIA was, either directly in indirectly, responsible for the drugs being in New York to begin with, through its covert operations with the Corsican mob, a fact it’s doubtful Robin Moore could have known when he wrote his book.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

My Five Favorite Movies

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By Scott Ross

I hope to write at length about each of these titles, but for the moment this set of capsules will have to suffice.

5. Jaws (1975) On the basis of this item alone, Steven Spielberg must be regarded as one of the most talented people to ever stand behind a movie camera. The source was pure potboiler, the shooting went on and on and on, the crew’s activities were stymied by a mechanical shark that couldn’t work. And out of this chaos, Spielberg delivered a masterpiece — in what was only his second theatrical feature. The time spent waiting for the shark to function added to the movie’s special quality of life observed: the co-scenarist, Carl Gottlieb (Peter Benchley did the first draft) was on hand to add punch to the script, and the actors spent so much time together that their relationships (and improvisations) made for an especially rich character palette. And, since a working shark was largely absent, Spielberg made a virtue from a deficit by not showing the monster fully until well into the picture — the unseen menace is much more terrifying. Side-note: Roy Scheider improvised the famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line on the set. With Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary and John Williams’ spectacularly effective orchestral score.

4. Pinocchio (1940) Bar none the greatest animated movie ever made in this country, and the finest work of Walt Disney’s long career. Its failure, along with that of Fantasia, caused Disney to retreat from conscious art to conscious kitsch — one of the great tragedies in popular American art. Pinocchio has never been as popular in its various reissues as more comforting fare such as Cinderella, and it’s a dark movie, no question. The Pleasure Isle transformation of Pinocchio’s truant pal Lampwick into a donkey ranks among the most terrifying animated sequences ever created, and there’s a truly disturbing image of an ax hurled at a smiling, immobile marionette that’s the stuff of childhood nightmares. But it’s an enchanting picture overall, from its great Leigh Harline-Paul Smith score to the inspired voice work of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. The movie has a deep, detailed look unparalleled in animated features and, in the whale chase, one of the most excitingly executed cartoon sequences ever put on film. I can’t hear Cliff Edwards’ pure, ethereal falsetto on the high notes at the end of “When You Wish Upon a Star” without chills running up my back.

3. Cabaret (1972) In another post I said Singin’ in the Rain was the best musical ever made, and I meant it: Bob Fosse’s transliteration of the Broadway hit Cabaret is less a musical than a drama with musical numbers. Only one of them occurs outside the context of the creepily seductive Berlin nightclub where Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles performs, and that isn’t a production number (the movie doesn’t really have any) but an impromptu anthem by an angelic-looking Aryan Youth that builds into a terrifyingly musical mob statement of National Socialistic fealty. Based rather loosely by Jay Presson Allen on the show and on its source, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin StoriesCabaret goes much further into the original’s slightly veiled sexuality than any other version of this material prior to the recent Broadway revival of the stage musical. (Isherwood famously described Michael York’s homosexuality in the movie as something undesirable and uncontrollable, “like bed-wetting” and was heard to say, after a screening, “It’s a goddamn lie! I never slept with a woman in my life!”) Is it condescending? I don’t think so. Fosse and Allen (and “consultant” Hugh Wheeler) never condemn York’s bisexual adventures, and you have to take their version of Isherwood as merely a single variation on the original material. (Although Minnelli’s using it as a pretext against marrying York is a bit much; would the real Sally Bowles have cared?) In any case, the look of the movie is overwhelming — it’s how we now think the Berlin of 1929 must have felt — and Fosse’s editing style dazzles no matter how often you’ve seen the movie. York is sumptuous to look at and, with his slightly shy smile and Isherwood-like haircut, perfectly cast. Minnelli was never better, or more controlled, and Joel Grey’s Emcee becomes a truly Mephistophelean figure, commenting on the action and winking lewdly. With Helmut Griem as the sexy bisexual count who woos both Minnelli and York, and, memorably, Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson as the ill-met lovers. The faux-Kurt Weill songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb are about as good as you can get.

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) The most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen. I can vividly remember sitting in a crowded theatre in 1977, with almost no foreknowledge of the story, and feeling this great, empathic fantasy wash over me like annealing waters. Steven Spielberg may have greater audience popularity with Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park and won his Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but Close Encounters is his true masterwork. It’s the most benign alien-invasion movie ever made, and full of wonders. (The special effects look so natural in large part because Spielberg shot them in standard ratio and then had the images blown up to widescreen.) Richard Dreyfuss makes a perfect Everyman, Francois Truffault’s face shines with gentle passion, and little Cary Guffey is an absolute amazement. The perfectly integrated score is, of course, by John Williams.

1. Some Like it Hot (1959) My favorite movie, and arguably the funniest comedy made after the advent of sound. Billy Wilder and co-scenarist I.A.L. Diamond took an episode from a forgotten German comedy and expanded it into a breakneck farce that took in gangland massacres, sexual duplicity, homosexual implication and transvestitism, turning it into one of the cheeriest comedies in movie history. Marilyn Monroe, famously unreliable, is luminous — when she’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off her. The only fault I can finds in Tony Curtis’ defining performance as an unrepentant heel is that, in the persona of “Josephine,” his falsetto was provided by Paul Frees. But it is Jack Lemmon, whooping it up as “Geraldine,” who gives the movie’s greatest performance. It’s so inspired it seems to have come (as Lemmon always claimed the character was anyway) from the moon. Lemmon was, and is, my favorite actor, and for all his fine work (in The Apartment, Irma La Douce, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race, “Save the Tiger,” The China Syndrome, Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross) I don’t think he was ever better than he is here. This is Billy Wilder’s ultimate masterpiece, the movie that summed up everything he could do without breaking a sweat. The great Joe E. Brown has the classic final line — which Wilder always claimed was written by Diamond, and vice-versa.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Marathon Man (1976)

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By Scott Ross

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

Dustin Hoffman is a bit… is “mature” the polite word?… for Babe Levy, Goldman’s angry, bewildered graduate student drawn into an escalating, increasingly violent maelstrom, but he’s convincing in every other way. Roy Scheider gives one of his standard superb performances as Hoffman’s laconic, dangerous brother Doc and Laurence Olivier is the smoothest, most reasonable — and thus, most terrifying — Nazi imaginable.

Marathon Man (1976) screenshot

William Devane gives a nice mix of charm and menace to Scheider’s deep-state compatriot Janeways, although their homosexual relationship, more or less explicit in the novel, is only hinted at here; Schlesinger, one of the few great “out” filmmakers, was notoriously shy of including overt homoerotic references in his movies. (Aside, obviously, from Sunday, Bloody Sunday.) The Scheider/Devane relationship, like Doc’s profession, constituted in the novel a sort of literary trick: Doc is both “Scylla,” the shadow government assassin, and Babe’s beloved older brother, and only at the moment of his death did the reader understand the two were the same character. Similarly, Janeways is introduced, sans any reference to gender, as “Janey,” leaving the reader to assume the character is a woman. So there was a nice shock there as well when he and Scylla are revealed as male-male, not male-and-female, lovers. Obviously, these devices cannot translate to the more surface-oriented world of film. And while as these things go the loss of these devices is a small one, it’s still a loss. Conversely, the Olivier character’s ironic demise — well and truly hoist on his own petard — is far more satisfying in the picture than in Goldman’s book.

The violence in the movie is sudden and bloody, but as with The Silence of the Lambs, it’s the threat hanging over the action that makes the picture feel like a bloodbath. This was, incidentally, the first Hollywood film to use the then-new Steadicam, smoothly capturing Hoffman’s various runs. The late Michael Small composed the eerie, disturbing electronics-heavy score.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

All That Jazz (1979)

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By Scott Ross

Bob Fosse’s great, outrageous semi-autobiography — an act of public navel-gazing unparalleled in American movies. It’s not exactly a flattering self-portrait. Fosse’s alter ego, Joe Gideon, is driven, occasionally cruel, self-lacerating, priapistic, and more than half in love with easeful death. (Of course, when Death looks like Jessica Lange, what heterosexual man wouldn’t flirt?)

Since Joe is portrayed by the enormously appealing Roy Scheider, the rougher edges of his character are, if not explicable, at least forgivable. And Leland Palmer, playing a lightly fictionalized Gwen Verdon, gives a smashing performance; the exhilarating sequence in which she points out Joe’s inability to maintain a semblance of fidelity, all the while performing sinewy dance exercises, is one of my very favorite moments in all of American movies.

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The splendid supporting cast includes Anne Reinking, pretty much playing herself and showing off the most delectable pair of dancing thighs since the heyday of Cyd Charisse; the late Anthony Holland as the show-within-a-movie’s hysterical, nelly composer/lyricist (a somewhat vicious, seeming amalgam of Moose Charlap, Stephen Schwartz and Fred Ebb); Max Wright as an only slightly less self-contained movie producer; John Lithgow as an oily rival director*; Wallace Shawn as an accountant contentedly pointing out that Gideon is worth more dead than alive; Cliff Gorman — Fosse’s preferred screen Lenny Bruce, until the money-men vetoed him — as Dustin Hoffman (more or less); the charming Erzebet Fioldi as Gideon’s adolescent daughter; and the great Sandahl Bergman as his principal dancer. Fosse’s real-life dance captain Kathryn Doby works here in the same capacity on-screen. The movie Fosse/Gideon edits is clearly meant to be Lenny, just as the show on which he is working is pretty obviously Chicago.

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Erzebet Fioldi and Anne Reinking in mid-jump.

This is one of those pictures people at the time either loved, or hated. I loved it. I was 18, theatre-mad, Fosse-bedazzled (I had seen Dancin’ on my first trip to New York just before the movie opened nation-wide) and I’d never encountered anything like it. Among the many memorably shot and edited set-pieces, take one at random: The long sequence around the read-through table as the cast of Gideon’s new show falls about with laughter. Fosse drops out all the sound except for Scheider’s breathing, the tapping of his nervous finger, the scrape of his chair across the wooden studio floor, the crushing of a cigarette under a boot and the abrupt breaking in two of a wooden pencil. For anyone who’s ever been in circumstances remotely like those Joe Gideon faces at that moment, or experienced a panic-attack, the total effect is instantly comprehensible: Flop-sweat intensifies the minutest details.

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Ann Reinking. The body is hers, all right, but the style is all Fosse’s.

The “Take Off with Us” number, growing out of the aforementioned Scheider-Palmer scene, didn’t just push the buttons of the characters on the screen; the same-sex pas de deux caused ripples of nervous laughter and little exclamations of disgust at more than one screening (I saw the movie repeatedly) and I was deeply impressed by Fosse’s willingness, at that time, to go that far, and with his dancers for trusting him that much.†

 

 

 

Fosse’s co-author on the screenplay was Robert Alan Arthur, Tony Walton designed the often-hallucinatory sets, the superb arrangements are by Fosse’s longtime collaborator Ralph Burns, and the sumptuous cinematography was by Giuseppe Rotunno.

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Some said that opening cattle-call audition sequence owed too much to A Chorus Line, which had beaten Chicago at the Broadway box-office (and Tony Awards) in 1975, but I respectfully demur; the more you know about Bob Fosse, the truer to his methods it rings.

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*Lithgow’s character could be almost any hot stage director of the time, from Mike Nichols down, but as he habitually wears his eyeglasses on the top of his head he’s clearly meant to be Hal Prince. Prince was offered Chicago, the source of this picture’s show-within-a-movie, when Fosse was sidelined by the heart attack depicted here, and likely would have said yes had his rival not rebounded.

†A comparable choreographic orgy Fosse staged during Chicago’s early previews was less well-motivated than the one depicted here, and reputedly a lot nastier in tone, but his collaborators managed to reign him on it. (Thanks to Ethan Mordden’s All That Jazz: The Lives and Times of the Musical Chicago for the information on this, and confirmation of the Lithgow-Prince nexus.)


All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross