Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: April — June, 2019

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By Scott Ross

The Doors - Kilmer

The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone’s examination of Jim Morrison, co-written with J. Randal Johnson, has been harshly criticized, not least by members of The Doors, for distorting him and for emphasizing his pretension and his self-destructive behavior. But when a rock star, and a young man of 27, dies suddenly I submit that we may at least wonder whether drugs and alcohol may have played a role. On the other hand, the Morrison depicted in The Doors is so repellent and narcissistic it’s difficult to know how he could have possessed the charisma, and the creativity, to become a cultural icon. This is not to say that Val Kilmer is charmless in the role — indeed, he is exceptionally compelling — merely that the obnoxious qualities Morrison displays here are so prominent they cancel out his attributes.

The movie holds fascination despite these cavils. No one’s pictures look the way Stone’s do, or are put together remotely as he assembles them. The Doors has an appropriately trippy quality, and not only in the drug sequences. Stone emphasizes Morrison’s death obsessions literally, to the point of having both the spirit of an elderly Native shaman (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) and Richard Rutowski as Death stalking Kilmer at periodic points, such as when Rutowski dances more than suggestively behind Morrison during an orgiastic concert appearance; Stone said he wanted to convey the image of Death “fucking him in the ass,” which is curious considering how the picture shies away from any suggestion of Morrison’s alleged bisexuality — a claim his bandmates also, of course, vociferously deny.

But then, as everyone surely knows by now, rock music, unlike every other performing category on earth, is composed wholly and entirely of heterosexuals.



Alexander - Bagoas
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut
(2004 / 2013)
I missed Oliver Stone’s epic study of Alexander the Great when it was released in 2004, but I certainly remember the rank homophobia that attended it, from audiences, critics and entertainment reporters. The sexuality of Alexander the Great has been a matter of controversy for centuries, but one would like to have believed that by the beginning of the 21st, some reasonableness on the subject might obtain. Instead the movie was derided, with schoolboy snickers, as Alexander the Gay. Even if one ignores his intense relationship with Hephaistion, or chooses to assume that he was chaste with his young eunuch courtier Bagoas, that Alexander married late, and left no heir, is surely indicative of something.

My own readings on Alexander have been limited to Mary Renault’s glorious fictions, particularly her splendid The Persian Boy, told from the perspective of Bagoas. Stone and his co-scenarists, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, based their screenplay largely on the historian Robin Lane Fox’s book on Alexander, but Renault was an inspiration as well, largely I would assume via Fire from Heaven, her novel of his formative years. (A third, Funeral Games, describes the events immediately following his death, likely by murder.) The scenarists frame their narrative around the reminiscences of the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and limn the forces that shaped Alexander, from early childhood to the end. Of necessity, Stone and his co-authors omit much, including the burning of Persepolis, the particulars of which are still uncertain. And, rather surprisingly for Stone, there is no voice in the picture, however small, critical of Alexander for his voracious need of conquest. Rather, the filmmaker is besotted with the warrior king’s creative attempts to unify the vanquished and respect their cultures. That is not to say that this is not in itself admirable — and unusual, in any age. Merely that, whatever his virtues, Alexander was an insatiable imperialist, taking by force land that did not belong to him and, however benignly, enslaving the people who lived on it.

That said, the picture is superbly mounted, with the sort of breathtaking sweep only a master could achieve, and a cast of fascinating characters, chief among them of course Colin Farrell’s at once fierce yet essentially gentle Alexander. In his dyed-blond beauty, he is, appropriately both to the subject and to Stone’s conception, a deeply romantic figure. (There is, indeed, a rather gratuitous, if admittedly attractive, shot of him, naked and filmed from behind as he rises from a bed, that fully reveals not merely Farrell’s shapely backside but his genitalia and which would not be out of place in a pornographic video.) Val Kilmer is a likewise full-bodied Philip, lusty to a fault — his rape of an underling leads directly to his assassination — and, despite his crudeness and bluster, an essential guide to his son. Christopher Plummer has a nice scene as Aristotle; Jared Leto is a fine Hephaistion, wearing his love for Alexander both lightly and with palpable hurt at no longer sharing his erstwhile adolescent lover’s bed; and Francisco Bosch makes a lovely Bagoas, although obviously older than his historical precedent. The movie’s finest performance, however, is that of Angela Jolie as Alexander’s mother Olympias. Passionate and scheming, and as ruthless as her husband, Jolie’s Olympias makes abundantly clear why Alexander kept her at arm’s length. Rosario Dawson makes a memorable Roxane, animalistic and raging with jealousy. When naked on her wedding night, however, her bared breasts are revealed as pendulous and unappealing, although I am well aware than many heterosexual men consider them “hot.” That sex-scene contrasts strikingly with the one, later, between Alexander and Bagoas; where with Roxane he is aggressive, indeed even brutal, matching her bestial nature, with Bagoas he is tender and loving. One suspects that, while making love to another young man is natural, he must stir himself artificially to have sexual relations a woman… and that he understands his bride all too well.

Stone’s theatrical edit ran 175 minutes; a subsequent “Director’s Cut” for DVD was 167; the home video labeled “The Final Unrated Cut” ran 214; and Stone’s 2013 “Ultimate Cut” 206. In this edition the filmmaker took out much of what he had placed in the third version, feeling he had added in too much. At any length, this is a picture that isn’t going to satisfy many: The Leonard Maltin movie guide describes it as the first of Stone’s movies that can be called “boring.” Taste is a personal matter, of course — de gustibus non est disputandum, and all that jazz — but the sort of mind that could find Stone’s lavish, violent, engrossing examination of Alexander and his world “boring” is not one with which I would care to spend much time.


 

The Stunt Man - crane
The Stunt Man (1979)
The virtues, and the weaknesses, of this one-off remain intact after four decades. What still works in Richard Rush’s adaptation of the Paul Brodeur novel (on which Rush shares screenplay credit with Laurence B. Marcus) are the carnival fun-house milieu, the mood of comic desperation, the freewheeling energy, the vivid characterizations and the acting — especially in the peerless performance of Peter O’Toole as the flamboyant director of the film-within-a-film, hovering omnisciently in his special crane and dispensing bumptiousness and aperçus with equal aplomb. Rush builds up the atmosphere of Wonderland uncertainty so beautifully that by the climax we’re fully persuaded things could go any number of ways.

What bothers me about the picture now are the things that bugged me in 1979. First is the performance of Steve Railsback as the fugitive pressed into assuming the mantle of the title figure. At the time, having seen Railsback’s intense, chilling turn as Charles Manson in the television Helter Skelter, I thought my dis-ease with him here was residual. I’ve watched The Stunt Man numerous times since then, and am forced to conclude it’s not my prejudice that’s to blame, but Railsback — and Rush as the screenwriter and director. That he’s distrustful, even hostile, is understandable; that he exhibits a charmless, snarling arrogance and a seething, hyper-masculine proprietary claim on Barbara Hershey’s affections stamp him as someone to be avoided, not embraced. Yet everyone seems to love him. Why?

Second is the enforced anti-war metaphor, which felt misplaced during the period just before Reagan. (Not that there is ever a lack of war in the world, or of covert and hostile American actions, but Vietnam was a fading memory by the time Rush finally got the picture made.) Brodeur’s novel, published in 1971, concerns a young conscript who escapes from the bus taking him to basic training, and has an anti-Vietnam atmosphere baked into the situation. And in that book, the movie the young hero stumbles into is an avant-garde affair, largely improvised, not a big-budget war picture seeking relevance.

Third, the stunts themselves feel like cheats. As surely everyone remotely interested in movies knows by now, and knew then, filmmaking is a laborious (and often boring) process involving many set-ups, and rehearsals for the big set-pieces and stunts. Here, Railsback is repeatedly thrown into a continuous series of elaborate bits, and the on-screen cameras follow him from the beginning of each to the end, with no breaks. If this was meant by Rush to heighten the unreality of O’Toole’s set, it’s a miscalculation; all I am aware of when I watch these sequences is how impossible those big scenes would be to capture on a single pass.

Movie aficionados will recognize the Hotel Coronado setting as the place Billy Wilder shot much of Some Like it Hot.


zeppo_marx_groucho_marx_animal_crackers_dictation_scene1

“Jameson, take a letter to my lawyer…”

Animal Crackers (1930)
This was my first Marx Brothers movie, seen at a late-show screening when I was 15. That event took place a couple of years after Steve Stolier was instrumental in getting Universal to strike a new print and release it to theatres, where it proved surprisingly popular. Or perhaps not so surprisingly; the 1960s vogue among college students both for old movies and for their anti-hero stars (Bogart, Cagney, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marxes) was still with us in 1974, and the night I saw the picture, in tandem with my mother — whom I blessed then, and still do, for taking me to a movie at 11.30 on a Saturday night in summer and not complaining about it — the place was nearly full, the big audience roaring at Groucho’s 45-year old puns and topical jokes. My love for the Marxes, whom I had previously encountered only in print, photos and old recordings, increased a hundred-fold that night. And Mom had a good time, too.

I discovered only comparatively recently that Paramount truncated several scenes and trimmed some mildly risqué dialogue from this “Pre-Code” comedy for a late-‘30s reissue of the movie, so the inclusion of a clean, un-censored copy on The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Blu-ray boxed set is particularly welcome. If you know the picture already you won’t see reinstated entire scenes you don’t recall, but the mild shock of hearing Groucho engage in some additional, suggestive repartee in his “Jameson, take a letter” sequence with Zeppo, or realizing that even the “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” opening number was slightly expurgated, will simply add to your pleasure at seeing this lively, joyous enterprise again. Especially since, even more than the somewhat deadly 1929 movie of The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers gives a prime example of just how spontaneous and original Mrs. Marx’s boys must have been on the stage.



The Manchurian Candidate
(1962)
Pet peeve, which over the years has become even petter, or peevier: People who use the phrase “Manchurian Candidate” and think they’re referring to an assassin. Raymond Shaw, the hapless marksman brainwashed to commit a crime once considered “unthinkable,” is not the eponymous figure of Richard Condon’s sharp, strange novel, written in the late 1950s but, science-fiction like, projected as the narrative of a future event; the “Manchurian Candidate” is in fact his hated stepfather, the at once bibulous, doltish and McCarthyesque Senator John Iselin. Pauline Kael thought the book “fool-proof” for adaptation, and so slighted George Axelrod’s exceptional screenplay: While he retains much of Condon’s slightly off-center dialogue, Axelrod’s changes are felicitous, and beyond mere streamlining. They are also the very things auteurists go into rapture over, presuming that it simply must have been the movie’s director, John Frankenheimer, who devised the dizzying, disorienting approach to the flashback sequences in Manchuria. That these are beautifully shot and edited is undeniable, but the concept was entirely Axelrod’s. It’s also axiomatic among the ignoratti that Frank Sinatra, one of the movie’s producers, kept the picture out of circulation following a single television airing in the mid-1970s (where I first encountered it) out of deference to the memory of Jack Kennedy. Not at all. He merely wanted more money than he was being offered.

Manchurian Candidate

Note the way the filmmakers frame a live political event: Power-mad Lansbury watches, not her dippy Senator husband, but the way he’s showing up on television.

The moment late in the movie in which Shaw’s manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury) plants a deep kiss on his lips was shocking in 1962, but Condon goes even further, both with the character’s hellish personality and with her incestuous impulses; her first lover was her father, and she does far more than merely kiss Raymond. Lansbury was universally admired for her performance, and she should be. So, for that matter, should Sinatra: As Marco, the viewer’s surrogate, he hits every note with precisely the correct emotional weight. Fortunately, Axelrod removed the ugliest aspect of the character — his (to me, truly brainwashed) determination to save the Medal of Honor from embarrassment, up to and including re-programming Raymond to kill the Iselins and then himself. Axelrod has more respect, for both Raymond and Marco.

The rich supporting cast includes Janet Leigh in a very strange role (no less strange in the novel) whose meaning is open to interpretation; James Gregory as that consummate dope Johnny Iselin; Khigh Dhiegh as the chief Chinese doctor, whose frequent laughter and ready smile are the very opposite of sinister, which somehow makes them even more appalling; and the always splendid John McGiver as a representative of that now thoroughly dead specimen, the liberal Republican. David Amram’s effective score includes one of the most striking main title themes ever heard in an American movie.


Winter Kills - Perkins

Winter Kills (1979)
Another Condon adaptation, but nowhere near as successful as The Manchurian Candidate, largely because the writer and director, William Richert, diverges so often from his source. The Condon novel is, like its predecessor, both steeped in American political realities and history, and wildly, almost grotesquely, satirical. It’s a market Condon had cornered, and the wise filmmaker follows his lead. Richert deviates in crucial ways, and in so doing loses much of the demented logic of the book involving a Kennedyesque family, an assassinated president, a deep conspiracy involving intelligence and the Mafia, the American surveillance state and the family’s young scion (Jeff Bridges) suddenly hauled into the middle of it.

Not all of Richert’s alterations are deleterious, however, particularly his use of a woman on a bicycle as the herald of atrocity and his re-imagining of the communications maven played in the picture by Anthony Perkins. Indeed, when I first saw the picture nearly 40 years ago, it was a single throwaway line of Perkins’ — one with no antecedent in Condon — and the way it was delivered, and filmed, that stuck with me.* He also gets a climactic moment with Jeff Bridges that encapsulates the movie’s odd, almost off-hand, approach to black comedy. But what Condon’s fictions really need for effective transmigration to the screen are not wholesale re-writers but creative editors. The fun of his books lies as much in peeling back their layers of deceit and deception as in their peerless dialogue; pull too many pins out of Condon’s puzzles, their entire edifices collapse and you’re left scrambling to pick up the pieces and rebuild without a blueprint. Thus we get Sterling Hayden as a nutso general who is what General Jack D. Ripper might have become if the world hadn’t ended in Dr. Strangelove and Dorothy Malone as Bridges’ idiotic mother, a character long dead in the novel and wholly unnecessary. Worse, Richert turns the Bridges character’s one real ally inexplicably against him at the end — that, or his final scene is so confusingly shot and edited I misunderstood what was happening. Possibly both.

The casting is largely a help, although Toshiro Mifune is wasted in a nothing role, and there isn’t nearly enough of Richard Boone, or of Eli Wallach as a Jack Ruby stand-in. Belinda Bauer is appropriately unfathomable as Bridges’ sometime lover and Elizabeth Taylor puts in a brief but juicy cameo, but John Huston as “Pa” Kegan and Jeff Bridges as his diffident son are utterly perfect. Most of Pa’s lines in the novel sounded as if they were written for Huston’s curious, half-whimsical/half-sinister drawl, and the image of him at the end, clinging to a gargantuan American flag, is both appalling and funny. Bridges meanwhile is ideally cast as the audience surrogate, a young iconoclast who didn’t know his late brother all that well, is equally fascinated and repulsed by his infinitely wealthy father, and trying vainly to go his own way. With his big, open, handsome face and his ability to express both worldliness and shocked naïveté, no one of his age and weight in the ‘70s could play soiled innocence quite as well as Bridges.


American Graffiti 6

American Graffiti (1973)
Universal Pictures had so little love for this extremely low-budget George Lucas project the studio nearly blew what eventually became a financial behemoth (13th on the list of top-grossing American movies as late as 1977) and a cultural touchstone of the decade. And although it actually takes place in the 1960s — the poster tagline famously read, “Where Were You in ‘62” — this picture, its wall-to-wall soundtrack of period oldies, the concurrent Broadway musical Grease and the subsequent unofficial (and infinitely more conventional) Graffiti television spinoff Happy Days led to a nostalgia craze for all things 1950s. Not everyone was so happy about those days, however. Progressives such as the film historian and critic Marjorie Rosen who lived through the ‘50s recalled the era as a time of stultifying conformity, reactionary politics and bullies wearing D.A.’s and motorcycle jackets. Yet even Rosen’s contemporaries among the original reviewers confused Lucas’ genuinely innovative, and rather despairing, look at the time of his youth as just a funny, nostalgic exercise. You mean the way nearly every teenager in Modesto, California is desperate to get out of it and the rest waste their time endlessly cruising the streets, waiting for something to happen and encountering hoods and speed-demons hoping to get someone else to risk his life in a race just to feel halfway alive? Some fun!

Although Ron Howard had been famous from childhood, the rest of the cast was pretty much unkown, and included a somewhat porky Richard Dreyfuss as the Lucas surrogate; a relaxed and likeable Paul Le Mat as a laid-back mechanic/hot-rodder who’s like the legendary gunslinger in a hoary Western, sighing as he’s challenged once again by some punk with a souped-up engine; Charles Martin Smith as the perennial loser; Cindy Williams as Howard’s girlfriend; Candy Clark as a sweet-natured good-time girl; the young Mackenzie Phillips as a misfit “tween”; Bo Hopkins as a street-thug; as well as Kathleen Quinlan, Joe Spano and Harrison Ford, some of whose scenes, trimmed at Universal’s demand, were restored by Lucas in 1978, as Le Mat’s latest challenger. Wolfman Jack also shows up, as himself. (Well, who else would he be?)

Lucas was responsible for the picture’s self-contained, almost European structure (one night in late summer, from dusk to dawn) and shot it guerilla-style, for a little over three-quarters of a million dollars. Although Ron Eveslage and Jan D’Alquen are credited with the sharp cinematography, Haskell Wexler received a consulting credit and likely deserved the lion’s share of the praise for how beautifully composed and lighted the widescreen images, filmed largely at night, really are. The ensemble construction of the screenplay — Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck filled it out, and added humor, never Lucas’ forte — is almost Chekhovian, and when the picture ends you feel you’ve spent the night observing these young people and wondering where each will be next year at the same time. If that isn’t classic filmmaking, it’s certainly something you don’t see every day in America. 46 years later, you barely see it at all.


Marathon Man - Scheider and Olivier

Marathon Man (1976)
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/marathon-man-1976/


French Connection - Alan Weeks

The French Connection (1971)
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/never-trust-anyone-the-french-connection-1971/


 

Last Jedi - Ridley and Hamill

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Am I the only one who suspects the only way the Disney Star Wars series can survive is if its creators move past their predecessors? Fortunately, through plotting and attrition, that necessary goal is closer: J.J. Abrams, belatedly fulfilled Harrison Ford’s 1983 wish, killing off Han Solo in his initial movie; Rian Johnson sent Luke Skywalker to his reward here (though one strongly suspects Abrams will use his spirit, a la Alec Guinness, in his upcoming The Rise of Skywalker); and, sadly for those who loved or admired her, Carrie Fisher’s addictions took her out of the picture permanently after she completed her scenes in this, the second installment of the current trilogy. Will any of this spur Abrams’ and Johnson’s successors in future Star Wars projects to abandon the (real or surrogate) fathers-and-sons through-lines of nearly every episode in the franchise so far? Surely there is more than one plot-line in that galaxy!

This observation will probably earn me extreme opprobrium, but I make it without rancor or cruelty: Fisher’s death at least spares us during the forthcoming final third the Hillary Clintonesque conception of Leia by Abrams and Johnson, and which presumably inspired Clinton’s deranged, transductive and Trump-maddened acolytes to begin calling themselves “The Resistance.” Fisher’s delivery in these pictures was so slurred one couldn’t help wondering whether, like her presumed inspiration, Leia’d been off somewhere in the intergalactic woods drinking chardonnay.

The truly hopeful signs of this series have been the development of their central characters: Rey, embodied by the extraordinary Daisy Ridley; John Boyega’s complicated Finn; Kelly Marie Tran’s endearing Rose Tico; and, to a lesser extent, Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, who has had less character development. But Adam Driver, as interesting as he is capable of being, was an odd choice to portray the offspring of Han and Leia, as he looks like neither Fisher nor Ford. Worse, he embodies the inability of the filmmakers to abandon the narrative yokes of the last 40 years of Star Wars movies. Still, he’s just mercurial, and unbalanced, enough to be somewhat unpredictable.


 

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait (1978)
There are few pleasures quite like discovering that a movie you loved in your youth is not only in no way dated but is every bit as delightful as you remembered. Warren Beatty’s directorial debut (he shared the job with Buck Henry) remains impressive: A gentle, quirky comic fantasy, perfectly cast and, within its fantastic framework, utterly logical. Beatty and the great Elaine May based their screenplay on the 1941 Robert Montgomery comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, itself taken from a play by Harry Segall called Heaven Can Wait… later the title of a 1943 Ernst Lubitsch/Samson Raphaelson collaboration starring Don Ameche, itself a life-after-death fantasy.

The picture concerns a rising professional quarterback called Joe Pendleton (Beatty, looking almost impossibly trim and desirable) who, taken too soon by a presumptuous angel (Henry) is sent back to earth in the body of a rapacious industrialist lately murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and secretary (Charles Grodin). Joe’s determination to lead his old team in the upcoming Super Bowl drives the plot, which aside from the hilariously homicidal lovers includes Joe’s accommodating guardian angel Mr. Jordan (James Mason), a passionate and outraged British environmentalist (Julie Christie), Joe’s befuddled former trainer (Jack Warden) and three sublimely unflappable servants (Joseph Maher, Hamilton Camp and Arthur Malet.) It’s among the most agreeable comedies of its era, wonderfully light on its feet — both emotionally plangent and dry as vermouth.


 

Who Framed Roger Rabbit image-29

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/who-framed-roger-rabbit-1988/


*”Don’t panic; panic is counter-productive.” Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Context is everything.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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Milestone: “Klute” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

It is more than a truism that movies (and men) often locate women within an inhuman bifurcation: Madonna or Whore. Klute‘s Bree Daniels is perhaps the ultimate hooker role — sharp, intelligent, cool, and, however frightened she is by the unknown stalker who may or may not be threatening her life, in control.

Or is she? As portrayed by an astonishing Jane Fonda, Bree’s nervous energy constantly smolders just under the skin, until it periodically bursts through in justifiable rage. She’d rather be a model, or an actress, than a call-girl, but as we see from her attempts to enter either profession, the control belongs to others. Mostly men, but not entirely: At a fashion ad cattle-call the woman in charge (Mary Louise Wilson) sees Bree and the other hopefuls solely, and entirely, only as the various facets of their bodies the creative team wishes to exploit; when Bree is asked to show her hands, Wilson casually rejects them as “funny” before going to the next aspirant. Similarly, when Bree visits an actors’ agent (Anthony Holland) he pushes the hair of her shag cut off her forehead and tells her not to hide her face. Since Holland was gay and his on-screen persona reflects that, the implication is that even men who aren’t interested in Bree sexually feel they have the right to touch her without permission.

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The elegant meat-rack at the high-fashion magazine.

Klute’s screenwriters, the brothers Andy and Dave Lewis, were television scribes desperate to break away from the small screen, and they fashioned in their script a curious hybrid. Their eventual director, the redoubtable Alan J. Pakula, later remarked upon Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that a melodrama cannot also be a character study, yet this is precisely what the Lewises devised, what interested Pakula, and what has made Klute so well-respected, and so memorable, for nearly a half-century; whatever the movie’s virtues or weaknesses as a thriller, there had never been a more fulsome, detailed, and honest, study of a whore in American movies when the picture opened, and there hasn’t been another to touch it since.

It has been suggested that the eponymous figure, played with both enormous restraint and great, if minimalist, feeling by Donald Sutherland, is a supporting character in the movie, and it’s difficult to argue, although calling it Bree, as Roger Ebert suggested, would have been wrong; a thriller needs mystery, and the name “Klute” is just odd and mysterious enough to be intriguing to a ticket-buyer. I know it was to me when, as an adolescent, I caught the picture on television. Still, once the picture moves past its opening sequence, Bree is in nearly every scene, and Klute is more involved in her actions and behavior than in the intrigues the suspense format requires. In this way the movie is the polar opposite of Pakula’s subsequent masterwork, All the President’s Men, which is almost entirely unconcerned with the private lives of its protagonists. Not that the plot is by the way; John Klute’s search for his missing friend and for the man whose unnerving anonymous calls to Bree strand her on the knife’s edge, are what the narrative is nominally about, and without them the lives of Bree and Klute would never intersect. But the filmmakers see Bree Daniels whole, and not merely as a technical contrivance.

27b71be408a63359fe6037c9b316bf23For all that it is concerned with sexuality, Klute is almost chaste in its presentation of Bree. There is a moment, early on, in which we see how she operates with a john, where for a brief moment one of Fonda’s breasts is exposed. But while we see the pair in bed later (and, as when Klute finally succumbs to Bree’s blandishments, Pakula shoots it from the shoulders up) the camera is focused on Fonda, seen in a tight close-up as she feigns passion, and takes a surreptitious look at her watch. Pauline Kael found this moment the only false note in Fonda’s performance, observing that Bree’s looking at her wrist before or after she coos encouragement into her client’s ear would have been valid but that to do so during it was indulging in a cheap laugh. I disagree. Part of Bree’s sense of control is being on top of every aspect of her paid trysts, and a prostitute is always aware of the progress of time. Time after all is her (or his) ultimate enemy. Other than child stars, models, dancers and athletes, no one ages out of desirability faster than a whore.* As the fashion writer Amy Fine Collins notes on the new Criterion edition of Klute, Fonda’s wardrobe in the picture constitutes a curious split. On the one hand, she usually wears high collars, but just as often revealing skirts, and her breasts are unfettered by brassier whether she is at home, on the job, or in the streets. Bree parades her sexuality openly, yet she’s protecting some part of herself. Her outfits are both a come-on and a holding back.

Klute is one of those time-capsule movies, like The French Connection, Born to Win or Marathon Man, that capture in amber the look and feel of New York City as it was in the 1970s, after white-flight reduced its tax revenues and before gentrification began to push its poorer (and darker) residents out. And while she is reduced by circumstances into living in a hovel next to a funeral parlor, Bree behaves as if she’s still ensconced on Park Avenue; the Mermaid dress she sports with a feather boa when she visits the elderly garment merchant (Morris Strassberg) is clearly a remnant from palmier days and must once have set her back several thousand dollars.

Fonda in Mermaid dress

Bree in the mermaid dress

There is despair around the peripheries of the picture’s action, and while it is palpable — the scene in which Bree and Klute inadvertently foil two strung-out junkies’ attempt at a heroin connection is, in the couple’s mute, stunned anguish, nearly unbearable — it never overwhelms the movie. The marginal existence of Klute’s whores, johns and junkies is neatly offset by Gordon Willis’ lighting of the perfectly appointed office in which the psychopath (Charles Cioffi) is seen in his natural milieu. With its huge sliding panel (a photo of Neil Armstrong’s moon-walk) it becomes a kind of dark sanctum, accessible only to the man whose wealth and insularity imply a control he barely hangs onto. Although we don’t quite know what Cioffi is up to, the filmmakers telling us who the killer is before the mid-point points out the difference between a suspense movie and a mere mystery.

Pakula’s direction is remarkable throughout. Being more interested in actors than in flash, his style is mutable. Yet it’s never dull, or ostentatious. All that connects Klute and All the President’s Men are their sense of comprehensible paranoia — a third Pakula picture during this period, The Parallax View of 1974, completed a disturbing triptych on American themes — their intelligence, and the presence of Willis as the cinematographer. Pakula is the auteurist’s despair: A filmmaker whose approach is dictated not by identifiable touches recycled with variation from movie to movie but by the material in them. The look of Klute is nearly documentarian, which is as it should be; even within the contrivances of the thriller plot, the picture captures a life as it is lived, in all its messy contradictions.

The editing, credited to Carl Lerner, is crisp and pointed; there is a striking moment early on when Klute’s friend literally disappears from the picture. Michael Small’s music is, like his score for Marathon Man, eerily unsettling, all the more so in his use of Sally Stevens’ ethereal vocalese, so effective that Lalo Schifrin included her in his music for Dirty Harry later in the year. Willis’ cinematography is, as always with this painter of light, masterly, the bright sunlit streets contrasted with the nocturnal darkness that conceals, enshrouds, and threatens. The Lewis’ screenplay is taut and judicious, doling out no more information than is necessary for us to comprehend the basic set-up and to follow as it unwinds, and their dialogue never makes a misstep. It’s sharp and, occasionally, pleasingly elliptical, as when Bree, thinking she’s seen the last of Klute, taunts him. When he refuses to rise to the bait, all she’s left with is an angry, “Fuck you!” She thinks she and her underground compatriots have “gotten” to Klute, but he gets to her by dismissing her cynicism as empty posturing. There’s no need to go any further into it. Writing well is sometimes knowing when to stop.†

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The Lewises also give Fonda a classic monologue. When, during his first interrogation of her Klute makes reference to the old gentleman, Bree laces into what she reads as his judgmental attitude with barely controlled fury:

You saw that? Goddamn you! He’s 70 years old! His wife’s dead. He’s cut garments since he was 14. He’s maybe in his whole life had one week’s vacation, and I’m all he’s got! And he never lays a hand on me! What harm is there in that? What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You a talker? A button freak? Like to have your chest walked around with high-heel shoes? You like to have us wash your tinkle? Or do you get it off wearing women’s clothes? Goddamn hypocrite squares!

And indeed, the scene between Fonda and Strassbreg is, in its way, the gentlest and most revealing in the picture. While he plays an old recording of a cimbalom-laden waltz, she spins out the fantasy of erotic Continental romance she knows he wishes to hear as she slowly begins removing her clothing. It illuminates at once how quick-thinking Bree is, how much she relies on her acting ability to ply her trade, and how in control of the scenario between herself and her client she really is. If Klute was less disgusted by the mere idea of prostitution, he might notice these things.

In the large supporting cast, Roy Scheider has a good, if brief, early role as Bree’s one-time pimp. Although the character is repellent, Scheider soft-pedals him, making him seem eminently personable and reasonable, yet the actor never lets us forget how dangerous he is, especially to Bree. Cioffi is disturbingly normal, pretending to be concerned about the disappearance of Klute’s friend (and his employee), stringing Klute along and, at the climax, calmly playing for Bree a tape recording of his horrific murder of the junkie as she silently weeps; that he is so disengaged from this event, and that we don’t know what he was doing to the girl as she screams in anguish, make the thing twice as chilling.

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Fonda and Scheider. Note the proprietary hand on her shoulder.

Aside from Holland and Strassberg there are also good roles for Dorothy Tristan as the junkie whore; Rita Gam as an angry, jilted Lesbian; Nathan George as a police detective; Shirley Stoller as a repulsive madam presiding over a joyless collection of bored whores and middle-aged johns; and Jean Stapleton, by the time of the picture’s June release an instant television star on All in the Family, as a comically harassed secretary. Candy Darling shows up as a club patron, Veronica Hamel is one of the models dismissed by the advertising team and Richard Jordan is a victim of Bree’s drug-addled flirtatiousness. Rosalind Cash has a tiny role in a nightclub. Richard Schull and Sylvester Stallone also allegedly appear, although when I see the picture I never notice either of them.

aSpeW79Sutherland, one of the most interesting actors of his generation, gives a performance of unerring exactitude, reacting in an understated manner to almost everything he sees and never pushing for effect. It’s a self-effacing performance, all the more so for the actor’s being willing, at that stage of his career (he’d just appeared as Hawkeye Pierce in MASH) to submerge himself in a secondary lead opposite the woman with whom he was romantically involved. Sutherland’s Klute is never snide or insinuating — although Bree perceives him as both — just quietly dogged. He cares about his missing friend, and while he doesn’t wish to believe the man capable of brutalizing women, it’s an idea he’s willing to accept if it gets him closer to his goal. Having unintentionally gotten a woman killed, Klute takes pity on her junkie boyfriend, slipping him some bills from his wallet. It’s a gesture the man is too zonked to do anything but accept, yet we sense that, for Klute, however much it was, it could never be enough. His essential decency is never far from the surface as when, trying to comfort Bree, his hand hesitates before making contact with her body.

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There’s also a nice switch on domestic roles late in the picture, when he and Bree stop at a sidewalk vendor’s stalls and she watches with relaxed amusement while he tests the fruit with his long fingers. As in the sequences in which he watches over her as she sleeps or attempts to soothe her fevered brow, it’s as if he’s perfectly happy to accept a more traditionally and stereotypically “feminized” position, performing as mothers do without thinking. It speaks to Sutherland’s thespic gifts that he never makes a show of these moments, or comments on them with either his face or his gestures.

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As Bree, Jane Fonda’s acting is so spontaneous it almost seems to be observed by a hidden documentary camera, yet you’re never in doubt that she knows exactly what she’s doing. Pakula observed to Dick Cavett (in an extra on the Criterion disc) in 1978 that she couldn’t have given the same performance in 1971 had she been the woman, and the actress, she later became — that her nervousness and her uncertainties, about herself and her off-screen activities, bled into her approach to the part. (She tried to get out of playing Bree, thinking she was wrong for the role, but Pakula knew it was her nerves speaking.) As with Sutherland, there is not a moment in her performance that reads as false, or “acted.” She’s beyond acting here, and she never censors Bree Daniels or tamps down on the less pleasant aspects of her personality. She can be cruel, as when she seduces Klute only so she can dismiss his ardor afterward, yet you don’t hate her, no matter what she says, or does.

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Pakula directing Fonda. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fonda’s line readings, always unusual, seem exactly right even when they’re a little off-kilter or she places the stress on a different word, or even on a different syllable, than you expect. It’s part of what makes her performance so astounding, and so fresh, no matter how many times you watch it. Although some lines were changed during shooting, as is nearly always the case, only the sessions between Bree and her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan, in a nicely calibrated performance) were actually improvised. It was a clever notion of Pakula’s, forcing Fonda to confront her feelings about the character, about what she does for a living, and how she feels about it. Bree becomes more complex, more vulnerable and interesting — more alive — as a consequence, especially when she speaks with trepidation about her growing feelings for Klute. That’s a complication she never counted on, and being vulnerable to and with another human being shakes her.

Nor is Fonda afraid to let herself look slovenly, or zonked-out, or, as in the climax, notably moist; while Cioffi plays that hideous tape, you become aware not only of the tears falling down Fonda’s cheeks but of the thin strings of mucous hanging from her nose. That’s partly what I mean by her being, in Klute, beyond acting. What she does with the role is as powerful now as when the movie was new; Jane Fonda’s performance as Bree Daniels is one of the finest, of any kind, ever committed to film.

No, I’ll go further: It’s the single greatest performance by an American screen actor in the past 50 years.


*By “desirability,” I do not necessarily mean erotic attraction; I’m referring to professional limitations, artificial or otherwise.

†In the shooting script, Bree does later ask Klute what he meant by “pathetic,” but he doesn’t answer.

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Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Grown-up love: The Russia House (1990)

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By Scott Ross

When The Russia House was released in late 1990, I was reminded by much of the critical reaction to it of David Denby’s 1987 charge that The Manchurian Candidate was made in “another country” — one where a moderately complex thriller could be produced that would be a critical and a popular success. Made for a cost of slightly under $22 million, modest even then (and which figure included unprecedented and extensive location work in the Soviet Union) the picture opened to dismissive when not downright bewildered reviews by fools who couldn’t follow it, and a box office indifference that meant it barely broke even here in the U.S., even with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer as its stars. “Confusing!” was the cry of the critical fraternity; one can only hope the people who thought and wrote such things never tried to read one of John le Carré’s truly complicated novels, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — I suspect the attempt would have cracked their brains irreparably.

Revisiting the picture now, in the recent Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-Ray, I was struck first by how many of its images of a Russia heretofore unseen by most Western eyes had remained with me these last 28 years; second by the degree of fealty to le Carré’s book Tom Stoppard exhibited in his slyly witty screenplay; third by the perfection of the movie’s casting; and finally, by the despairing sense that nothing has really changed in Western geopolitics, only gotten far, far worse. Today it isn’t (or, in some cases, isn’t only) the Cold War-benumbed CIA and Pentagon or even the feral and sociopathic Reagan and Bush Administrations that are pushing for deadly confrontations with Russia but alleged liberals desperate to delude themselves that, if they hold their toes at the correct angle and the stars align just right, the hated Trump will be removed from, and Hillary Clinton magically step into, the Oval Office.

The Russia House also reminds the appreciative viewer of what a loss it has been to American movies that Fred Schepisi has made, or been permitted to make, so few pictures in the decades since. Who else could have moved so freely, and with such assurance, between projects as diverse as Barbarossa, Iceman, Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark and Six Degrees of Separation (the latter of which I regard as the most successfully cinematic adaptation of any modern American play, at least until the Angels in America Mike Nichols prepared for HBO)? While I am far from a natural auteurist, it seems to me that Schepisi’s keen eye and equally acute intelligence radiate through every frame of The Russia House (which was luminously shot by his most frequent cinematographer, Ian Baker, and crisply edited by Peter Honess and an uncredited Beth Jochem Besterveld) without calling attention to technique as some of his showier, and far more lauded, contemporaries invariably did, and do. He combined the visual splendor of a Classicist with the daring of a revolutionary, searching always for arresting methods by which to convey information, even in sequences that must of necessity involve a moving panel of talking heads. As with old masters like Ford or Welles or even Sidney Lumet when Schepisi pans, or cuts, or goes to a close-up, the pan or the cut or the close-up means something. It isn’t there just to wake up the audience, or to keep it in the continual state of electrification now seemingly de rigeur in successful American movies.

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Fred Schepisi

This style seems to me perfect for The Russia House, a narrative which depends on our paying attention, to listening, and to looking deeply into the faces of its actors, because there are games afoot here, deadly games, and the human element doesn’t factor among the self-satisfied spymasters conducting the proceedings, only one of whom (the gentle Ned, played with a genuine sense of rue by the wonderful James Fox) truly understands before it is too late how perilously the un-planned-for hangs on so fragile a frame as human emotion.

As “Barley” Blair, the bibulous and quietly, even wittily, self-loathing minor publisher who unwittingly precipitates the events of the narrative and who is then compelled to participate in them, Sean Connery had a role thoroughly befitting the actor he had become after shaking off the mantle of James Bond, and toward which he had perhaps been shambling all along. Barley is in a sense the anti-Bond: Deeply suspicious of the motives of his own country (let alone America) and incapable of sustaining human contact he is, as he quite rightly describes himself as seeming, an un-made bed. When his interest in his Russian contact Katya blossoms into deeper feeling, he is as astonished as she is. And when he admits to her, with a look of rapture as unexpected as it is moving, that “it’s unselfish love, grown-up love… It’s mature, absolute, thrilling love,” that declaration becomes one of the great and giddy statements ever made in a movie.

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Quick study: Barley (Connery) uses his newly acquired understanding of spycraft to communicate silently with Pfeiffer’s Katya.

Pfeiffer, coming off her delicious performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys with its incandescently sexy rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee,” was fast becoming the pin-up for a newer age, one in which intelligence and talent might matter as much as bone structure. After watching her radiant performances in Baker Boys, The Witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob and Dangerous Liaisons, I thought little was beyond her grasp, and that the future would surely hold more, and greater, treasures. Alas, how ephemeral are the gifts of the Gods… or of a changing audience, at any rate. How could the thrall of seeing a Classical beauty stretching her thespic wings compare with watching Schwarzenegger thrillingly blow up or mow down a few hundred more bad guys? Apparently, it couldn’t. She’s virtually without flaw here, inhabiting the character of Katya so completely she reveals herself to us only as she slowly warms to Barley. Her reluctant heroism, and her perpetual (and fully comprehensible) anxiety, seem as natural and unforced as her expressions of exuberant exultation at the denouement. No wonder Barley is willing to risk everything for her.

Aside from Fox, whose basic thoughtfulness and decency serves as a necessary counter-balance to the air of chauvinistic self-righteousness that surrounds it, the supporting cast is a wonder: Roy Scheider, at once coolly efficient and, paradoxically, passionately cynical as Fox’s CIA counterpart; Michael Kitchen, assaying a role one could easily have imagined Fox playing a decade or so earlier, limns the essential heartlessness of the Cold War game he’s playing with one orb, while eying a knighthood with the other; the splendid J.T. Walsh as a dangerous Pentagon martinet; David Threlfall, heartbreaking a few seasons earlier as Smike in the RSC Nicholas Nickleby, almost equally endearing as Barley’s unflappable handler in the Soviet Union; the late John Mahoney as Scheider’s CIA cohort; and, spectacularly, the great, mad filmmaker Ken Russell, who embodies Carré’s Walter to the life. At once exuberantly flamboyant (“This is just like school! Dear old, bloody old, school!”), witty (“You live in a free society; you have no choice”) and brutal (“Kick them in the balls every time they get to their knees”) Russell’s Walter is the merry prankster as stern taskmaster, the twittering old auntie whose ostentatious nelliness everyone around him tolerates because he’s so damn good at what he does. Everyone, that is, but the tight-arsed American “advisers,” for whom presumably every Brit is a faggot anyway, until proven otherwise.

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The great Roy Scheider.

It was no surprise to me to hear recently that Jerry Goldsmith regarded the music he composed for The Russia House as his favorite among his own scores to that time; it’s as good as anything he ever wrote. More startling was the discovery (from Julie Kirgo’s Twilight Time liner notes) that the rhapsodic theme, so seemingly and pluperfectly Slavic in tone, he’d already attempted to place in two other pictures without success. It’s wonderfully re-imagined here for the saxophonist Branford Marsalis (the sax is Barley’s instrument) and carries with it a yearning romanticism wholly in keeping with the feelings Katya awakens in Barley. The suspense cues are equally apt, and never overdone. This is le Carré, after all, not Ian Fleming.

The world being far from perfect there are a few minor cavils to be noted with the adaptation. The pseudonym of the Russian scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer) whose decision to betray his country to safeguard the world sets the plot in motion goes by, in le Carré, “Goethe,” has been changed to “Dante,” presumably on the assumption that most audiences would be puzzled by the former but at least have heard of the latter. And the splendid May Sarton aperçu, from Journal of a Solitude (“One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being”) which serves as the epigraph to the novel is, although used several times in the course of the picture, never attributed to her, which seems at best a matter of gross ingratitude. The loss of a narrator, often disastrous in a literary transmigration, is in this case mitigated by the simple fact that as an MI6 operative in the novel he serves as a way in for the outsider, whereas in a movie, we are always inside. Most tellingly, the filmmakers omit Walter’s furious response to being removed from the team at the insistence of the squeamish Americans, who weren’t in on the thing from the beginning but once footing the bill are determined to bull their way around the end… to their own cost. The self-regarding impositions the CIA and Pentagon teams bring to the movie are only slightly diminished by this lapse, however; The Russia House is in itself a sharply etched portrayal of the high-handed manner with which we treat Britain as, at best our lapdog, at worst an impediment to what we want and are by God going to get.

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Decent human beings: Barley and “Dante” (Brandauer) at a crucial moment.

I’m not sure I can think of anything else against the picture, and if the final moments of it are more overtly “happily-ever-after” than the more guarded, not-yet-fulfilled optimism of the book, it’s an ending that can make you deliriously happy, weeping into your popcorn at the sheer, fulfilling, grown-up joy of it.*

In these times, as in 1990, that seems to me more than an adequate trade-off, especially at the end of a movie that has played so fairly with its audience, and its source.


*Curiously, that emotional release is undermined when the scene is silently replayed, nearly in toto, at the end of the credits. In case we missed it the first time? For yet another tug at the heartstrings? Because the filmmakers wish us to understand that this is what it’s all been about? If we haven’t gotten that by then, it was too late. And in any event, it’s an odd lapse in a movie as otherwise rigorously un-sappy as this one.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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

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 dramatic, 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; he isn’t the type. 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 or indirectly, responsible for the drugs being in New York to begin with, through its covert operations with the Corsican mob, a fact Robin Moore might not have known when he wrote his book. (On the other hand, the man wrote The Green Brerets, so he well may have, and been deliberately omitting the fact from his narrative.) It’s entirely likely, therefore, the spooks stole back the drugs that were being held in evidence, and sent it on its merry way. But it’s so much easier to blame the usual corrupt New York cops, no? CIA must have been thrilled when Egan and Grosso stumbled onto the caper; but they must also have been delighted that no one involved in this movie ever connected them to the story.

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.

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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 clever literary conceits 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