Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

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By Scott Ross

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

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Churchill

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


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

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

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


Scorpio - Scofield

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


The Maltese Falcon - The stuff that dreams are made of

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


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

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


A Study in Terror - John Neville and Donald Huston

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

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


The Life of Emile Zola - Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff

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

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


Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood, Jaimz Woolvett

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


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


Big Jake - Boone

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


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


California Split - Altman

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


The Adventures of S Holmes - Rathbone and Zucco

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


HealtH lobby card resized

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


Matewan - Chris Cooper

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


Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

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


Little Drummer Girl - Kinski, Keaton

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


Thieves Like Us resized

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

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


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


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


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

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


Heat - Pacino

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

Heat - De Niro


The Thrill of it All - Day, Reiner, Garner

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

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


Alias Nick Beale

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


Citizen Kane - Moorehead

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

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

A kingly crown to gain: “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

John Huston famously wanted to make an adaptation of the 1888 Kipling story in the 1950s, to star Bogart and Gable as those incorrigible adventurers “Peachy” Carnahan and Daniel Dravot. He was ultimately persuaded to cast British actors in British roles — which seems so obvious an idea its efficacy shouldn’t have had to be pointed out to him — and got thespic perfection from Michael Caine and Sean Connery… although, somewhat astoundingly, Caine was slanged at the time for being wholly over-the-top.

The Man Who Would Be King - Rubies

Danny is astounded by the size of Peachy’s ruby, which dwarfs the monster he’s unearthed.

I saw this one on its release and it holds up beautifully four and a half decades later, even if the occasional condescension (the watermelon-eating Indian on the train, for example) and the sticky Imperialist sentiments which nettled me at 14 bother me even more today. Huston and his co-scenarist Gladys Hill do more than honor the source: They make its author one of the stars, in Christopher Plummer’s wholly convincing portrayal. (He was a last-minute substitute for Richard Burton, but I can’t imagine Burton besting Plummer in the part.) The movie has a sweep that is all the more effective now for being real, not computer-generated; the cinematographer was the great Oswald Morris, who in collaboration with Huston provided the luminous images for Moulin Rouge (1952), Beat the Devil (1953), Moby-Dick (1956) and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) as well as providing the pictorial splendors for The Guns of Navarone (1961), Lolita (1962), The Hill (1965), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Oliver! (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Scrooge (1970), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Sleuth (1972), Equus (1977),  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1977), Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), The Dark Crystal (1982) and that most photogenic of John Bond epics The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). But The Man Who Would Be King is not a postcard-picture: However impressive the scenery (Morocco standing in for the Kafiri region of Afghanistan) it’s a desolate kingdom this pair is seeking, perched between forbidding mountains and the desert’s austerity. By the end, Peachy’s desire to make off with the treasure of Sikandergul makes one hell of a lot more sense than Danny’s decision to rule like Alexander, if only because the former at least indicates a possible change of scenery.

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Dravot and Carnahan enjoy chief Ootah’s hospitality.

Whatever the original reviews, I don’t see how either Connery or Caine could be bettered. Each has the humor of his character, as well as that often charmingly formal solemnity which renders the pair’s seriousness of intent at once amusing and grave. And while it’s true that Caine is called upon to be more overtly humorous than Connery, even wildly funny (I’m thinking particularly of the “One, two, three” training scene) he is no less capable than his co-star of gravitas. I think he gets the quiet madness of the character in the framing sequences exactly right, as well as the scenes in the final third of the picture in which he begins to feel Dravot distancing himself from his friend and reacts with, first, soft hurt; later, justified rage; and, at the last, stoic comprehension. And he’s beautifully matched by Connery, in whom the rich Kiplingesque absurdities roll over the tongue like a savored entrée, yet for whom the eventual hubris, and the graceful courage with which its consequences are met, are entirely correct.

The Man Who Would Be King - Huston on set

Huston, flanked by Saeed Jaffrey, Connery and Caine.

One of the more surprising pleasures of the movie is its rich score by Maurice Jarre, never a favorite composer of mine, Lawrence of Arabia notwithstanding. His work tends toward either the annoyingly esoteric (Is Paris Burning?, Ryan’s Daughter, The Mosquito Coast and the deeply perplexing Witness: Why the synthesizer in a story set among the Amish?) or romanticism so lush as to become self-parody (Doctor Zhivago, Gorillas in the Mist). Only occasionally did Jarre fulfill the promise of Lawrence, as with his klezmer-accented work for Paul Mazursky on Enemies, a love story and his splendid compositions here, anchored to the Irish song “The Minstrel Boy” much as he tied Lawrence to Kenneth Alford’s war march “The Voice of the Guns.” (Jarre combined the tune for “Minstrel Boy” with Reginald Heber’s lyrics for the rather frighteningly militaristic hymn “The Son of God Goes Forth to War,” a song that rivals “Onward Christian Soldiers” for sectarian bloodthirstiness.) Elsewhere Jarre catches the warm rhythms of India, the sere wastelands of Kafiristan and the conflicting passions of the characters, nicely complementing Huston’s images without competing with them for our attention.

The Man Who Would Be King - Kafu Selim

The eyes of age: Karroom Ben Bouih’s as the Kafu Selim

The Man Who Would Be King is as demonstrably a John Huston picture as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for, as so often in Huston, the quest ends in disaster, yet the pursuit itself reveals his characters’ essences: Peachy’s for personal gain, Dravot’s for something outside himself, yet withal in both resides a decency belied by their roguish miens. They even attain a kind of rough poetry, as with Daniel’s apology to Peachy, and the mad Carnahan’s description of Dravot’s fall — there’s nothing like it in Kipling, and it’s as memorable in its modest way as Bogart’s Shakespearean paraphrase at the end of The Maltese Falcon. Huston and Hill also expand, intelligently, on the Masonry of the Kipling, bringing it to a logical, if grandiose, conclusion. When Huston stages an epic sequence, as in the first of his heroes’ battles, he makes it intensely memorable by stopping it before it can truly begin, as both sides wait in prayerful solicitude of the line of elderly priests walking between them as later, in the midst of the protagonists’ intended escape, their treasure, like that of the prospectors in Sierra Madre, dissolves to nothing, here spilling from the horses’ backs to drop clangingly down the steep sides of a mountain hill.

The Man Who Would Be King - Kafiristan

Son of Alexander: Jaffrey, Caine and Connery at the moment of revelation.

Whether by dint of his nature or the landscape, Huston’s approach to an epic structure is intimate; we remember the faces as much as the big set-pieces: Connery’s, Caine’s and Plummer’s, but also Saeed Jaffrey’s as the sweet and absurdly loyal Billy Fish, Shakira Caine’s as the ethereally beautiful and terrified Roxanne (the terror was real — she wasn’t an actress, and didn’t know what to do), Doghmi Larbi’s as the cowardly chieftan Ootah, and, especially, the centenarian Karroom Ben Bouih’s as the ancient priest Kafu Selim. The apt and, where necessary, exquisite art direction by Alexandre Trauner with Tony Inglis and Peter James is an immeasurable aid (Trauner designed Danny’s crown) as is Russell Lloyd’s alternatively leisured and kinetic editing, and Edith Head provided her usual supple costumes — like Huston’s own designs, always firmly in character.

The Man Who Would Be King - Connery skull

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.

Fred Schepisi - The Russia House

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.

The Russia House - Barley and Dante

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

Armchair Theatre 2017

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By Scott Ross

The movies and other video items I watched (or, in rare cases, went out to see) during the year just passed.
BOLD: Denotes very good… or at least, better-than-average.
BOLD+Underscore: A personal favorite.



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

Spectre 
(2015) I don’t quite know why there’s been so little love for the 24th Bond. True, it’s no Skyfall — what is? Some people I know disliked the central premise. Others think the Daniel Craig titles have turned 007 from a dashing, erudite figure into a thug: M’s “blunt instrument.” And while I have a particular fondness for Roger Moore as Bond (his was the first Bond I saw in a theatre) I admire the Craigs more than any others in the series apart from the early Connerys and the Timothy Daltons. Craig also comes closest to resembling the Hoagy Carmichael Fleming prototype. On its own terms, the picture seemed to me exciting, thematically dark in a way that appeals to me, and stylishly (and occasionally, beautifully) made.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) One of my five favorite pictures, and which I haven’t seen on a big screen since 1978. (I don’t count the 1980 Special Edition.)

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The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.


Some Like it Hot. (1959) Also at the Carolina. My favorite movie. I always see something new in it. This time I focused on Billy Wilder’s astonishing technical achievement in matching Tony Curtis’ lips to Paul Frees’ looping of “Josephine”‘s dialogue.

Some-like-it-hot-screen
New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:
None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.


Revisited with pleasure
F for Fake (1973) Orson Wellesnon pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”
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Absence of Malice
 (1981) When this Sidney Pollack-directed newspaper drama opened in 1981, it received middling reviews and seemed somehow inconsequential. What a difference 35 years of media consolidation (and deepening personal taste) can make! Those of us who cared about such things knew too many papers, magazines and broadcast stations were in the hands of too few (usually conservative) people. But we had no idea then that, 15 years later, a Democrat would, with his 1996 Telecommunications Act, usher out the flawed but vitally important American free press and replace it, eventually, with a completely corporate, wholly right-wing, one.  For this reason alone, the picture has interest. Seeing it again, however, I was struck by the intelligence of Kurt Luedtke’s dialogue, how skillfully he lays out his narrative, and how deeply satisfying his denouement — which seemed at the time merely clever — really is. That Newman, Field, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Wilford Brimley all give splendid performances is practically a given, and Melinda Dillon is shattering as Newman’s doomed sister; the sequence in which she runs desperately from house to house trying to gather up every copy of a paper carrying a story that will devastate her own life and her brother’s illustrates all too clearly not merely what a staggeringly humane and expressive actor she is, but how badly she has been served by Hollywood in the years since. Which is to say, barely at all.


Black Sunday (1977) An immensely entertaining adaptation of Thomas Harris’ topical thriller about a Black September plot, directed in high style by John Frankenheimer. A vivid relic from the decades before The PATRIOT Act was a gleam in the Deep State’s eye.


Munich (2005) Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.


Wag the Dog. (1997) It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, David Mamet, the most overrated American playwright of the past 40 years… although the fact it was made during the Clinton era may be a clue.


The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)An effective murder mystery from John Huston and Anthony Veillier out of Phillip MacDonald, burdened by an unnecessary gimmick (guest-stars in heavy makeup) and lumbered as well by its director’s tacit approval of upper-class snobbery and his love of that barbarous tradition, the fox-hunt.


The Third Man. (1949) Graham Greene wrote it. Carol Reed directed it. Anton Karras performed the soon-to-be ubiquitous music. And Orson Welles had what was arguably his best role in a movie not also written by him. The only drawback in one’s thorough enjoyment of this deservedly beloved post-war thriller is knowing the producers wanted James Stewart for the lead. Good as Joseph Cotton is, once you hear that bit of casting-that-might-have-been, it’s almost impossible to refrain from imagining Stewart’s unique delivery every time “Holly Martins” speaks a line.


Hot Millions (1968) A sleeper hit of its year, impossibly dated now in its then-striking use of computer technology, this Peter Ustinov-written comedy starring him and Maggie Smith is a movie that, for me, is a test of potential friendship. If I show it to someone and he or she doesn’t love it too, all bets are off.


Cinderella (Disney, 1950) Remarkably fresh after nearly 70 years, this beguiling rendition of the Perrault fairy tale was a make-or-break project for Disney animation, still struggling to regain its pre-war foothold. And unlike recent Mouse House product, schizophrenically made with one eye on each new heroine’s spunky feminist bona fides and the other on crafting an ageless new “Princess” to add to the lineage, there was no art-by-committee finagling here; generations of girls and boys loved Cinderella for her natural ebullience, her love of animals, and her complete lack of self-pity. (Parenthetical: Several years ago, the “Classical” music critic Lloyd Schwartz quoted a friend who cited “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as the most frightening song title he’d ever heard. I always think about that when I see the picture.)


Cotton Comes to Harlem(1970)Not as rich as the Chester Himes novel, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.


Mary Poppins (1964) This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking release, which would have put me at around four and a half. I know this because the movie was released in late August, and my sister and I were taken to it at a drive-in. Hence the “ever almost”: I remember only the beginning, and waking up in the back seat when Jane and Michael Banks were being menaced by a snarling dog in an alley. I finally got to see it again when it was reissued in 1973. I liked it then, but love it now in a way few 12 year-olds, even movie-mad pubescents as I was becoming then, ever could.


The Great Race - Lemmon as Fate
The Great Race
(1965) Another favorite of long-standing. Seeing this on television, even on a black-and-white set, in pan-and-scan format, interrupted by commercials and spread out over two consecutive Sunday evenings, delighted me and made me an instant Jack Lemmon freak. The new BluRay edition is stunningly executed.

 

 

 


French Connection II (1975) The rare sequel that succeeds on its own terms; although it was made during the period of John Frankenheimer’s acutest alcoholism it bears his trademark intelligence, verisimilitude and equal care with both action and actors.


Juggernaut (1974) A taut, entertaining thriller directed by Richard Lester concerning a bomb set to destroy a pleasure-liner at sea.


The Front Page (1931) A new Criterion edition, beautifully rendered, of the Lewis Milestone adaptation that shows how cinematic even the earliest talkies could be when handled by a master craftsman.


Robin Hood (Disney, 1973) I loved this when it opened. But then, at 12 I was much less critical.


Death on the Nile (1978) Nowhere near as stylish or accomplished as the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express which preceded it by four years, yet it holds many pleasures, not least its stellar cast. For a 17-year old nascent gay-boy, seeing both Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury on the big screen was close to Nirvana.


The Seven-Ups (1973) A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, directed by that picture’s producer, this tense New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals those in Connection and Bullitt.


Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970) A solid comic Western directed by Don Siegel and with a sharp, leftist screenplay by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10. Shirley MacLaine and Clinton Eastwood would seem to be as mis-matched in life as their characters are here, but they make an awfully good team. Features superb photography by the redoubtable Gabriel Figueroa and a pleasing Morricone score.


The Jungle Book (Disney, 1967) I was the perfect age when this one was released to embrace a new Disney animated feature — I had previously seen both Snow White and Cinderella in re-issue — and I went duly gaga over it. I had the Jungle Book comic (I wore the over off that one through obsessive re-reading), Jungle Book Disneykins figurines from Royal Pudding, Jungle Book temporary tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a veritable hockey-puck. My poor parents. Seeing it again in 1990 I was considerably less enthusiastic, but it’s remarkable what a quarter of a century can do for a picture. I still think it’s too self-consciously hip for its own good, especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance, but the character animation seems to me wonderfully expressive, especially that by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who did half the picture by themselves.

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The Jungle Book: George Sanders lends both his voice and his physiognomy to Sher Kahn, seen obliquely threatening Sterling Holloway’s Kaa.

The Aristocats (1970) Another I was less critical about when it was new, which seemed a bit bland on video but which now looks awfully good, and that in spite of its borrowings from the infinitely superior 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, transposed to felinity. Not to be confused with The Aristocrats


The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) The pleasures inherent in seeing a relic from the time when even a trifling Western comedy was imbued with deliciously quirky characterizations and witty, fondly observed dialogue (in this case by James Lee Barrett.) It isn’t much, but for the much it isn’t, it’s rather charming.


Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I somehow managed to miss this one until about 15 years ago, when I caught it at an art-house screening. Roman Polanksi’s screenplay (almost reverently faithful to the Ira Levin novel) and direction, the gorgeous cinematography by William A. Fraker and the effective score by Krzysztof Komeda (dead, sadly, within months of its release, this depriving us of a distinctive new compositional voice in movies), combined with the performances by its largely elderly cast and a notably plangent one by the often-insufferable Mia Farrow, make this exercise in stylish, low-key horror among the finest in the genre. What I was unprepared for then was how funny it could be, especially in Ruth Gordon’s knowing performance. “Chalky undertaste” become a running joke between me and my then-boyfriend for months afterward.

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Rosemary’s Baby: Polanski’s witty framing of Ruth Gordon,



Theatrical Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro. (2016) What was effective about this meandering and ultimately unsuccessful study of James Baldwin was the many clips of him speaking. But its makers set up a premise — why was Baldwin unable to finish his tripartite memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers? — and then almost immediately abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.


Kedi. (2016) Lovely, affecting movie about the street cats of Istanbul.


Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed. (2004) A timely reminder of a true progressive groundbreaker… who was ultimately screwed by the Democratic Party. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Point of Order! (1964) Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s superb compilation of kinescopes from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Especially relevant in these through-the-looking-glass times, in which liberal Democrats are, inexplicably, behaving in a way that would make Tail-Gunner Joe proud.



Selected Short Subject

Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story, 1953) Despite that second title, it’s not really his; Welles appended cinematic bookends to an atmospheric short picture made by Hilton Edwards.



Made for television

The Epic That Never Was (1965)On the aborted I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton. A British television documentary I first read about around 1974 and which contains all the extant footage shot for the ill-fated 1934 adaptation of the Graves novel. Josef von Sternberg appears, imperiously (and predictably) blaming everyone but himself for the debacle.


W.C. Fields: Straight Up (1986) Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.


The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell (1982) Robert B. Weide again. When this delicious toast to the brothers first appeared in 1982, PBS committed the unpardonable sin of mentioning Woody Allen’s name in its promotional material, causing Allen to pitch a predictable fit and demand that Weide remove his footage. It was put back in for the DVD release, and reveals definitively that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of importance, makes no profound observations, and adds precisely zero to the critical canon on the team the documentary’s writer Joe Adamson once described as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo.


Citizen Cohn (1992) History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.



Television series

I, Claudius (1976) Still powerful, if hampered by being shot on video rather than film, and with a beautifully modulated central performance by Derek Jacobi, who transformed stuttering into an art-form.


Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The Lost Episodes (Volumes I, II and III) One of the loveliest video events of the last few years has been the release of these utterly charming kinescopes by the Burr Tillstrom Trust, which is currently working to restore 700 additional episodes. I don’t know whether today’s children, weaned on CGI and iPhones before they’re out of preschool, have the capacity to respond to the show’s gentle humors, but I would be willing to bet that if you sat a relatively unspoiled five-year-old down in front of these 30-minute charmers, he or she might be hooked for life. It would be pretty to think so.

Kukla_Fran_and_Ollie
The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends 12 full episodes from the late ’60s and early ’70s of that wittiest and most intelligent of American chat-shows. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett , Mel Brooks, George Burns, Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis fascinate and delight; Groucho Marx banters deliciously with his young goyishe friend; Dick fawns all too fannishly over a smug, queer-baiting Bob Hope; the Smothers Brothers behave strangely (it seems to be a put-on, but of what?) and Woody Allen flaunts his repulsive look and persona. Ruth Gordon and Joe Frazier also show up, as does Rex Reed, bitching rather perceptively about the Academy Awards. Also included is the single most painful interview I’ve ever seen — and surely one of the most awkward Cavett ever conducted — with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, the beautiful but weirdly inarticulate stars of Zabriskie Point.



Seen a second time… and will never see again

The Anderson Tapes. (1971) Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?


One Day in September (1999) An Oscar winner in the documentary category, this impassioned examination of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics muffs too many facts and, ultimately, sickens the viewer; not in the way the filmmakers hoped, but by exhibiting horrid color photos of the bloodied victims, which, whatever the intention, feels like an act of heartless exploitation.


New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion (2005) This first version of the “prequel” (odious neologism) to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader, was completely re-filmed, by Rennie Harlin, whose name is, as it should be, a hiss and a byword.


Moulin Rouge (1952) Visually glorious but dramatically inert. And you can really see what in it inspired Bob Fosse when he made Cabaret. But… was there a less appealing leading actor of the Hollywood Era than Jose Ferrer?


New to Me: More than worth the trip

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
 (2015)I avoided the theatrical release of this one in a manner not unlike my aversion to the first Star Wars picture when I was 16, largely due to my loathing of the Disney Company. But after stumbling across a second-hand Blu-ray copy for an absurdly low price I thought I’d at least give it a spin. To my astonishment, this over-hyped space opera turned out more than well; it nearly obliterated the bad taste left by The Phantom Menace. J.J. Abrams’ direction, focused less on CGI effects than on human beings in conflict with each other and themselves (the latter the only thing Faulkner believed was worth writing about) was both riveting and surprisingly beautiful, and the Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt screenplay had pleasing weight and even levity. The only cavil about it is the niggling sense that the new series may be unable to shake replicating the same sort of father/son (or, in this case, grandfather/grandson) adulations and conflicts that powered the Lucas originals. Isn’t there any other plot available in that galaxy?


Across 110th Street (1972) A tough slice of New York life, circa 1971. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.


Take a Hard Ride (1975)A cheerful, entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation, with very likable performances by Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, a fine villainous turn by Lee Van Cleef, an effectively silent Jim Kelly, a reasonably clever script (by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig), good action set-pieces by the director Antonio Margheriti, and a one-of-kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.


Firecreek (1968) A downbeat Western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda that is, in Calvin Clements’ incisive screenplay, about as despairing of human nature as it’s possible to get without the viewer wanting to slash his or her wrists. A double-feature of this and Welcome to Hard Times could put you in a funk for weeks.


Wrong is Right (1982) While we’re on the topic of press irresponsibility, this Richard Brooks satire of the year following Absence of Malice gleefully exposes, Chayefsky style, the appalling consequences of the electronic media’s love of ratings — a state of affairs being disastrously played out now, from Les Moonves’ giggling admission that the All-Trump-All-the-Time campaign coverage of 2016 was raking in the bucks for CBS to the current, slathering mania of so-called liberals for Russia-Russia-Russia McCarthyism.


The Kremlin Letter (1970) A flop in its day, and roundly panned by Pauline Kael, this John Huston thriller from 1970, imaginatively adapted from the Noel Behn novel by the director and his longtime collaborator Gladys Hill and featuring an absolutely marvelous score by Robert Drasnin is infinitely finer than its detractors would have you believe. The only complaint — and it’s a failure shared by Sidney Lumet in his 1971 version of the rather ingenious Laurence Sanders novel The Anderson Tapes, in his use of Martin Balsam — lies in Huston’s miscasting of the 63-year old George Sanders as a gay spy. The character, as Behn wrote him, is an attractive young man, which makes his position within a group of spectacularly selfish mercenaries eminently explicable. As with Balsam in Anderson, the change is mind-boggling, although the notoriously homophobic Huston is far less offensive in his handling of Sanders than Lumet was with his star. But it is, finally, Richard Boone’s movie, and he makes a meal of it.

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

The Night of the Following Day (1969) One of many late-1960s Brando pictures that helped make him box-office poison, this adaptation of a Lionel White thriller boasts an impeccably arranged kidnapping, a very fine performance by Brando, a good one by Pamela Franklin as the victim, and an unequivocally great one by Richard Boone as the most terrifying of the felons. The only sour note is the ending the director (Hubert Cornfield) imposed on it, over his star’s quite reasonable objections.


Rio Conchos (1964) Thanks to these last three pictures I was finally able to comprehend why aficionados love Richard Boone, an actor I had somehow managed to go 56 years without having seen.


Act of Violence (1949)A nicely-observed thriller starring Van Heflin, the young Janet Leigh and a typically stellar Robert Ryan that gets at some dark aspects of World War II mythology and contains one sequence, in which a stalking, menacing Ryan is heard but never seen, that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.


Westward the Women (1951) An interesting Western variation, about a trail-boss transporting 138 “good women” to California. Expertly directed by William Wellman from a fine Charles Schnee original. Typically strong photography by William C. Mellor, a good central performance from Robert Taylor and an exceptionally vivid one by Hope Emerson make this, if not wholly successful, diverting and markedly original.

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William Hopper and Robert Mitchum on the Track of the Cat.

Track of the Cat (1954) One of the strongest, strangest Westerns of the 1950s, beautifully adapted from the psychologically harrowing Walter Van Tillberg Clark novel and spectacularly filmed by William A. Clothier. I think this one ranks as the most pleasing surprise of my cinema year.


Cuba (1979) A fast flop from Richard Lester that is in fact a well-observed look at the events leading up to Castro’s coup, and is infinitely finer than Havana, the terrible 1990 romance from Sidney Pollack. Sean Connery adds his rough charm, Brooke Adams is almost impossibly beautiful, there is also delicious support from Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Alejandro Rey and Lonette McKee, splendid photography by David Watkin, and a memorable score by Patrick Williams.


Rio Lobo (1970) An old-pro’s swan-song. Howard Hawks directed it, John Wayne is the star, Leigh Brackett wrote it (with Burton Wahl), Jack Elam gives juicy support, William A. Clothier shot it, and Jerry Goldsmith scored it. The only complaints I have concern some remarkably bad pulled punches by Wayne. But with a set-up this entertaining, and the stunningly pulchritudinous Jorge Rivero along for the ride, that’s a minor matter indeed.


Cutter’s Way (1981) Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.


Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (1979) Entirely unnecessary, and hampered by anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either doesn’t know or is vaguely aware of in the previous picture are revealed or dwelt on at length here — this Richard Lester-directed diversion goes down surprisingly well, abetted by László Kovács’ glorious cinematography, the charming central performances of Tom Berenger and William Katt, and yet another marvelous score by Patrick Williams, one that may stick in your head and which you could find yourself humming passages from for days or even weeks afterward.


The Social Network (2010) Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook. It’s exceptionally articulate and well-made, with gorgeously muted lighting by Jeff Cronenweth and impeccable performances by Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer. But you will be forgiven for wondering, at the end, what it all meant. At the end, one of the attorneys (Rashida Jones) representing Zuckerberg against the Winklevoss twins says, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You just want to be.” Who the hell did Sorkin think he was kidding with that one?


Up Tight (1968) Jules Dassin’s return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.


Paranormal Activity (2007) I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror hit, ingeniously executed by its writer-director Oren Peli for $15,000, are nicely nailed-down. The absolute reality Peli sets up for the picture, and which is perfectly anchored by the performances of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (for whom the movie should have opened doors but, oddly, did not) makes the periodic scares that much more effective, leading to a genuinely shocking finale.


Super 8 (2011) J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.

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Super 8: Joel Courtney as the Abrams stand-in.



New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! (1966) Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.


Journey into Fear. (1943) What’s good of Orson Welles’ direction is overwhelmed by what’s bad of Norman Foster’s.


Carlton-Brown of the F.O. (1959) Middling political satire from Ealing.


The Crimson Kimono. (1959) Surprisingly unsubstantial to have come from Samuel Fuller.


Where Were You Went the Lights Were Out? (1968) Fitfully amusing blackout comedy starring Doris Day and Robert Morse that betrayed its French farce stage origins in the less ingenious second half.


Shalako (1968) The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.



The Summing-Up
So. Some mediocrities, but no real dogs this year, which was nice. As Pauline Kael once observed: Life’s too short to waste time on some stinky movie.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


Grateful thanks to my good friend Eliot M. Camarena for enlightening my movie year, and special thanks to him for Act of Violence, The List of Adrian Messenger, Moulin Rouge, Point of Order, Up Tight, Westward the Women, and especially The Kremlin Letter and Track of the Cat. Eliot is one of the sanest, most politically astute people I know, and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly.

A wine not properly chilled: “Shalako” (1968)

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By Scott Ross

Shalako (1968) has a lot going for it, mostly what the filmmakers retained of the crisp little Louis L’Amour novel on which it is nominally — alas, not maximally — based. But it’s ultimately one of those exercises one regards more with sorrow than with anger.

Although no one, I think, not preternaturally deluded would deem L’Amour a great stylist — the original Shalako feels like a pulp novella padded out to full length by the use of very brief paragraphs — the scenarists were faced, as is always the case with any fiction of even minimal literary qualities, with insurmountable problems, the chiefest being that film is a literal medium. One cannot photograph thought, only an actor thinking — which I need hardly add is not the same thing. What L’Amour’s titular hero knows cannot be expressed in dialogue other than the most risibly self-conscious sort: How to read the signs of the earth about him, and to act accordingly. Shalako survives in his desert milieu because he thinks like an Indian. There’s some hint of this in Sean Connery’s likable, taciturn, performance, but hints, however expert, are not the same as tangible knowledge.

What was filmable was L’Amour’s rather ingenious central conceit: A genteel, largely European, hunting party in the Western desert, about to be set upon by a band of renegade Apaches led by Chato, up from Mexico. For reasons now lost, presumably, to the mists of time, the people behind Shalako ditched much of what the author had so generously set before them, and weakened thereby what little narrative thread existed in the source material. (They also — for budgetary reasons? — dropped the author’s sensible use of the Cavalry.) One senses a desire to portray the Natives in a slightly better light, by making the Whites’ violation, however inadvertent, of the treaty governing the reservation the reason for the attack. Yet in a prolonged, rather horrible sequence involving Honor Blackman, they managed to make the Indians far more brutal in act and aspect than would have been had the case had they followed L’Amour’s (admittedly somewhat threadbare) plotline. And that after virtually reprising Blackman’s roll-in-the-hay with Connery in Goldfinger, this time under the notably coarser persuasions of a black-hatted Stephen Boyd.

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The brutal, humiliating death of Honor Blackman.

Shalako himself is rendered more or less as L’Amour wrote him, albeit with no attempt to justify Connery’s own obvious European origins. A more inexplicable misstep than this, however, is the casting — or, more properly, miscasting — of Woody Strode, lately an equally ludicrous Mongol warrior for John Ford*, as Chato. But even this is not so disastrous a misstep as eliminating from the picture the role of the silent assassin Tats-ah-das-ay-go, spooked by overhearing Shalako’s mention of his name and engaging in a memorable climactic battle with him, which, while ferocious, somehow emerges as an affaire d’honneur, at the climax of which Shalako salutes him as a brother warrior. Instead, the screenwriters (there were three, seldom a good sign) and the author of the “screen story,” elect to stage the combat as between Strode and Connery only to, in an utterly preposterous narrative leap, have it called as a draw by Chato’s chief and father… following which the Indians simply ride away, leaving the survivors fresh horses to ride. I trust Shalako’s compatriots were as gob-smacked by this as the audience.

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Connery, not reacting to the climax.

A number of good actors manage to acquit themselves more honorably, including Boyd (whose character in the novel suffers a far gorier fate than in the picture, one L’Amour, wisely, or in deference to the sensibilities of the time, merely sketches in), Blackman, Jack Hawkins (who, post-laryngectomy, was dubbed by Charles Grey), Alexander Knox, Peter Van Eyck, Julián Mateos and Valerie French. In the feminine lead, Brigitte Bardot is lovely, but I found her thick accent largely unintelligible. Interestingly, Blackman has the more interesting role, although it is almost a paradigm of movie stardom that she plays a supporting part; conversely, male actors, as their careers ascend, get younger and younger co-stars. Connery does get one nice, Bondian wisecrack in gentle mockery of his pedigreed hosts: Faced with a scavenged pot-luck dinner he dryly intones, “I hope at least the wine is properly chilled.”

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Stephen Boyd, as the cowardly villain. watches from safety as Blackman is dispatched.

There is also, at onset and finale, one of those terrible attempts at a hero-building ballad, sung by a Mitch Milleresque male choir of the sort one might reasonably have thought died in the 1950s. Producers in those days, of course, always thought in terms of potential hit singles; by 1968 the form was as passé as a coonskin cap. To note that the insipid lyric was penned by Jim Dale does no honor to him, so forget I mentioned it.

If the foregoing suggests that Shalako is a waste of time, I can’t say I was bored by it, merely a bit annoyed. While Edward Dmytyk’s direction is merely competent, the editing is rather good. But what distinguishes the picture is Ted Moore’s sumptuous widescreen photography. As one ages, and newer movies grow increasingly less interesting, adult and intelligent, there is no small pleasure in watching a picture of less recent vintage that — even if ultimately lacking — in cinematographic terms anyway, satisfies through a rich palette and expansive photographic techniques. These movies remind you of the enjoyment even a minimally successful enterprise held when it was put together by professionals who were at least attempting to get at something. Since I can’t conceive of how L’Amour’s book could be successfully filmed, call Shalako less a missed opportunity than a hock improperly distilled.


*In the interesting 7 Women (1967) which was, sadly, Ford’s last picture.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Peddling disaster: Wrong is Right (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks is one of those odd Hollywood characters auteurists can’t pin down, and that’s irksome to them. They want consistency of vision; content is less important to them than a measurable idiosyncratic (hence, “personal”) style. And while I can see no particular pattern in Brooks’ work as a writer-director, nor an especially consistent style, I don’t mind that in the least: George Cukor had no particular style to speak of. Sidney Lumet’s style changed from picture to picture, and he made some of the finest American movies of the last 60 years. What I think unites Lumet and Brooks is that they shared a sense that style and approach are, rightly, dictated by content and form — a concept few auteurists can comprehend. There’s little that unites, say, Elmer Gantry and The Professionals, or $ and Bite the Bullet, except that the man who made them was highly intelligent, often witty, and irreducibly humane.

Wrong is Right (1982) was Brooks’ penultimate movie, and it was pretty much ignored by audiences of the time, who were moving deep into the Reagan Dream and didn’t wish to be disturbed from their sleep. Besides, after Network, who wanted to see another hyper-kinetic satire on television? But, while Wrong is Right comes to many of the same conclusions as Network did, the picture is not warmed-over Chayefsky. If anything, it has more in common with the later Wag the Dog in its black-humored cynicism concerning the intersection of show biz and politics, and with Larry Gelbart’s late, almost despairing, deductions (in work such as his Weapons of Mass Distraction) about the intractable mess Bill Clinton created with his disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has in the interim destroyed the entire concept of a free press, without which true democracy cannot flourish, or even function. Twenty years after All the President’s Men celebrated the professional ethics of two dogged, independent Washington Post reporters, Clinton seemed intent on killing the very notion of a press independent of corporate ownership, much as Jeff Bezos has succeeded in turning that very paper into a conduit for CIA and DNC propaganda disguised as news. In the current journalistic void, where almost nothing one sees, hears or reads in the corporate media may be trusted, Wrong is Right seems positively prescient.

Brooks based his screenplay on a thriller by Charles McCarry concerning the collision of a bitter American revolutionary, a star American reporter, and the President. Transferring the revolutionary aspect to the Middle East, the filmmaker fashioned a wild, engaging satire that, if only occasionally delivering a line that makes you laugh out loud, is never less than thoroughly engaging. Brooks’ reporter here is an adventurer-turned-journalist (Sean Connery), his revolutionary an Arabian terrorist (Henry Silva, of all people) and his President (George Grizzard) a football-obsessed career politician intent on winning a close election between himself and a Reaganesque hack (Leslie Neilsen). Added to this already heady brew is Robert Conrad as a gung-ho General called Wombat (shades of Colonel “Bat” Guano); a serpentine CIA chief (G.D. Spradlin); a ratings-mad network honcho (Robert Webber) who could now be quite easily mistaken for Les Moonves giggling about how much money CBS was making from the Trump candidacy; a smart, savvy, main-chance grabbing black female Vice-President (Rosalind Cash) bearing the surname of Jimmy Carter’s predecessor; a natty international arms dealer (Hardy Krüger) who, as these types tend, isn’t concerned with who gets a pair of nuclear bombs, as long as he gets the cash; and a slick, opportunistic Presidential aid (Dean Stockwell) the like of whom Aaron Sorkin would never have presented on The West Wing. John Saxon also shows up, as a CIA agent who is the last word in sang-froid; Katherine Ross appears — all too briefly for my taste — as a journalist with a secret life; and Ron Moody contributes a neat cameo as the Mideast potentate who sets the whole, blazing ball rolling. (As an added frisson for the modern viewer, a young Jennifer Jason Leigh pops up as a teenager only slightly less appalling than Leigh herself became as an adult.)

Although Wrong is Right clocks in at nearly two hours, the pace of the picture is so fast there is never the slightest opportunity for longueurs. That breakneck structure is attained largely through Brooks’ tight, economical (and rather bracingly theatrical) writing style, as a word or phrase uttered by one character leads directly to its echo in the mouth of another, sometimes continents away. Metaphorically, Brooks’ dialogue plumbs the rich vein usually mined by Gelbart himself; think of the self-important, ironically malaprop-spouting Colonel Flagg as the progenitor of nearly every character here, and you get a sense of the keen wit and wordplay Brooks invests into what, on the surface, is the stuff of international thrillers. The look of the picture is itself almost like TV itself as it once was; the cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp’s use of deep-focus and bright color would not have been out of place in a Universal television movie of the week of the period. And if the (admittedly infrequent) special effects are somewhat threadbare, those moments pass quickly enough — although, in the immediate post-Star Wars era, they must have seemed pretty shoddy indeed to those few moviegoers who actually purchased a ticket.

As a taste of Brooks’ delicious dramaturgical style, here’s Connery’s Patrick Hale after he has suggested to Webber that the network obtain Hardy’s suitcase bombs, and been rebuked with the accusation that he’s practicing “checkbook journalism.” (And Connery delivers it with barely-contained relish):

What kind of journalism was it when television paid half a million dollars for an exclusive on the Bay of Pigs? A million dollars to Nixon, to apologize coast to coast? CBS paid Haldeman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. NBC paid John Dean and Robert Kennedy’s assassin. ABC paid Lieutenant Calley, and for breakfast, served up the My Lai massacre. And what about the killer I put on television? From death row to the electric chair, fried meat on prime time. You paid $100,000 for that. Paid it to the killer! Do you call that journalism?

We’re in show business, baby. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Make them buy, by and by. We peddle disaster. Violence — it’s commercial! Blood and tears and football and cheers. Performers, superstars. Get them on, get them off. Next, next, fast, fast! We’re in the entertainment business, and there’s nothing wrong with that… if you call it that.

That no one in the business now will call it that makes Wrong is Right a movie less out of time than far ahead of it.


Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross