“High Plains Drifter” (1973)
The following article contains discussions of details which the weak of heart might regard as “spoilers”. So, readers are advised approach with a sensible level of caution.
There’s something wrong in the town of Lago. When a drifter rides into town, there are none of the usual indicators of a healthy, thriving community, but rather those of a breeding ground of antisocial animus, marked by a suffocating suspicion and paranoia. The rider quietly passes by a tableau of confused and fearful faces; figures either frozen with paralytic dread, or hiding behind the safety of windows which are pathetically transparent in disguising the uniformly palpable anxiety emitted by the citizens of Lago, like a collective pheromone of desperation.It is clear there is something hanging over the minds of the townspeople; a secret whose unraveling, and the closure of which, will provide the moral fulcrum of the drama to follow.
Thus begins Clint Eastwood’s third directorial effort, “High Plains Drifter”; a confused bit of frontier misanthropy, presenting the citizens of the West as unrelievedly corrupt, cowardly, immoral and mean-spirited; a portrait so unrelentingly unforgiving, it is absent of even the equally pessimistic. but far more intelligently conceptualized. amoral center dominating the revisionist perspective of the American West in Sam Peckinpah’s seminal “The Wild Bunch”, as in comparison, Eastwood’s film suffers from a core vacuum: a missing example of any code of honor (among the townsfolk, despite a bonding born of felonious convenience, they seldom miss an opportunity to enjoy each other’s discomfort), even among the most lowly bred. This absence of a codifying bond eventually become problematic in a film claiming a thematic preoccupation with retributive closure as it continuously waffles in an inevitable collision between the- what are presented as justifiable -actions of its protagonist, versus the film’s loftier metaphysical suggestions fueling its thematic intentions.
Eastwood’s drifter arrives in the remote town of Lago seeking a drink, shave and bath, when he is harassed by a threesome of the town’s bullies who are quickly dispatched with the usual high velocity substitution of lead for verbosity, which has become de rigueur in the star’s filmic canon. This demonstration of cool and spontaneous action quickly convinces the town leaders to take on the drifter as their newest version of community protectorate, as it seems that genuine law and order have been relinquished in favor of a series of imprudent employments of willing guns as a measure of promoting the interests of the town’s unofficial Chamber of Commerce; a self-perpetuating exercise in purgatorial tail-chasing since the individuals who are the prominent threat to the community are an earlier trio of bullies- Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), Dan Carlin (Dan Vadis) and his brother Cole (Anthony James) -with whom the town shares a murderous conspiratorial history. Compounding matters is the fact that these same townsfolk then conspired to unjustly frame this threesome for a dubious robbery for which they are sent to prison; the release from which registers the urgent necessity for the stranger’s services, as the three men he has dispatched were also the ones originally hired by the town to kill the returning convicts.
If the resultant irony in the town’s collective purgatorial stratagem goes largely unexplored in Ernest Tidyman’s screenplay, this is not an isolated incidence of creative absentmindedness, as the script also cheats on clarifying important explanatory information, such as the motivating cause behind the set-up of the Bridges gang in the first place? (This action exposes a rash inconsistency in how the town’s leading characters are portrayed- the basis for the entire film -which it then begs the question: for a town as spineless as this, how did the prerequisite level of bravura emerge to plan and execute such a short-sighted plan almost guaranteed to bring fiery retaliation against them?) Where the film is generous in its attention given to the citizens of Lago, it is not for lack of expositional opportunity that the depth of narrative clarity falls short, but rather from an oddly consistent passivity toward any aspect of the story which might engage the intellect without directly leading to an act of violence. More importantly, the film shortchanges on the exact nature of Eastwood’s stranger, which confuses the direction of the film’s theme of retribution, and thus, the measure of the film’s success. That he is meant as some form of supernal wraith is made clear to the audience; emphasized by his entrance and exit from the picture, in which he appears and vanishes into a desert mirage, scenes which are certain to have a literal intention other than merely a referencing of David Lean. The first of several extended sequences illustrating the brutal whipping death of Marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) manifests itself in a dream by the stranger, with a consistency of detail with later recollections, that it can only be concluded that either that Eastwood’s character was a witness/participant, or is a resurrection of Duncan himself, with the available evidence pointing to the latter, though this dredges up further gaps in the script’s logic. For instance, if this mysterious character has deliberately traveled to Lago in order to exact revenge, why is it that he is unaccountably ignorant (and even disappointed) in the town’s inability to muster the skills to defend itself? And why does he abandon his only two confederates to the same possible fate as the other townsfolk who were actually complicit in Duncan’s murder?
But whether the character is ultimately meant to be an avenging angel or a minister of fire and brimstone, there is little in the cavalier film’s attitude toward women that might contribute to a definitive conclusion. In the film’s limited view of humanity, the act of rape appears to be the accepted form of behavior in dealing with any available female, whether the duplicitous town trollop, played with an unsavory piercing hysteria by Mariana Hill, or the sensible, sympathetic Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom), who, is disgusted with the mercenary moral waffling of her fellow townsfolk, yet whose own moral compass seems quite tolerant in her enjoyment of an act of sexual assault. Just what this democratic abuse of the female sex, and- especially -the depiction of its victim’s tolerant pleasure principle, is intended to convey within the grand scheme of the film’s theme of a victory over communal anarchy, is a mystery known only to the filmmakers.
The film is a carefully crafted continuance of the Eastwood persona, projecting the star as a nomadic frontier Nietzschean Ubermensch, generically identified (in the end credits) as “The Stranger”, no doubt to accrue a bit of cheaply unearned currency in a connective bond with the mislabeled Man With No Name from his Sergio Leone trilogy, though, in this instance, the question of his identity, as previously observed, is given to an elementary solution fairly early in the story, This solution is pregnant with vivid prodding that the film intends an expansion of the boundaries of the traditional revenge plot, though the motive remains the same, abetted, as it is, with a hefty helping of shaky metaphysics thrown in to make the proceedings appear less squalidly catering to the audience’s preoccupation with Dirty Harry-like enforcement of “justice”, though since the stranger’s actions reek of the same unrepentant amorality as those of the people of Lago, there is ultimately little to distinguish between the film’s antagonists.
It’s a set-up that might yield interesting results, as long as it is presented with a consistency of thematic purpose; such aberrations of communal characterization are not without literary western precedence (certainly no one emerges without inglorious disdain in E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times in which a similarly corruptive, mercenary mindset eventually leads to a metaphorical consumptive implosion of the town), and “High Plains Drifter” continues the revisionist erosion of the traditional symbols of authoritarian ethical guidance given solid foundation in Fordian frontier narratives- sheriff, clergyman -who, here, are represented as fools, incompetents and hypocrites; stripping away any pretense of moral comfort, yet the film fails to provide a malleable substitution for a focus of empathy. The audience is led to root for the Stranger, not as an figure of admirable qualities, but simply as the most efficient (albeit as equally sadistic in his methods as the more primitively rendered Bridges bunch) killer on hand. The film, for all of its metaphysical frosting cannot distract from the amoral attitude of the script: getting the dirty business done, not due to any coherent narrative logic, but because that’s what audiences of the Dirty Harry formula expects from such a vehicle. It’s audience pandering of the worst kind.
There’s a wonderful Jack Lemmon moment in Gene Saks’ film of Neil Simon’s stage play”The Odd Couple” in which the suicidal news writer Felix Ungar (played by Lemmon) sits dejectedly in a sleazy (though overly lit) exotic dancer bar, despondent over his recent marital break-up, he catches a glimpse of the gyrating dancer (uncredited adult cult actress and Star Trek babe Angelique Pettyjohn) before him and he does a quick leering double take with his eyes; a lightning quick reflexivity which signals the greatest weapon in his acting arsenal as America’s greatest screen farceur for almost two decades: Lemmon was the alternate Cary Grant comic romantic, less the suave sophisticate than the absurdly giddy everyman; an explosively amusing and reactive symbol of the boyish- sometimes lecherously immature -side of the masculine id. This persona, initially whittled back in the “The Fortune Cookie” completely transmogrifies by the end of “The Odd Couple” into an exhausting and extended slide into a representation of the American male in menopausal crisis.
It’s as if the actor had belatedly discovered sadness as a master key to thespian respectability and ran with it to the exclusion of those facets of his talents which not only initially solidified his fame, but are in dangerously shorter supply. Comedy may be a serious business but it is also a deceptively rarefied field of expertise to which the loss of even one skilled practitioner is deeply felt, despite the fact that Lemmon was continually lauded for his subsequent dramatic portraits, even though his emotional repertoire tended toward an effective but nevertheless repetitively fatiguing bag of tricks that lacked the continuous invention of his comic persona. If Lemmon ceased to be fun, he also lost that quality of surprise which in his earlier years would literally explode off the screen; Lemmon the provocateur becomes Lemmon the acting statesman and who needs another singularly depressing monument? (His later humorous roles would find themselves overtaken with this application of seriousness as if to stress the tragic side of the character’s folly which often sucked the energy out of the proceedings as witness the already disappointingly inert “The Front Page”.) In “The Odd Couple”, Lemmon and Matthau’s second screen collaboration, we see the progression of what began in their previous encounter, “The Fortune Cookie” in which the possibilities of comedy in his role were submerged in an often uncomfortable layer of self-pity.
Felix Ungar, the compulsive neatnik and hypochondriac separates from his wife Francis and moves in with his best friend, recent divorcee and slob Oscar Madison (Matthau) setting up an obvious situation of opposites which is predictably at the mercy of both Simon’s astuteness of ear in composing dialogues that capitalize on the farcical possibilities of the set-up while simultaneously developing fully fleshed out characters who resist any easy descent into caricature. Simon manages the transition from stage to screen smoothly enough, sensibly opening up several scenes from what is otherwise a claustrophobic one apartment setting. This is useful for several reasons: (1), it places the events and characters in the real world more than the isolating artificiality imposed underneath the proscenium arch, (2), this enables Felix and Oscar to react against newly created peripheral characters and accentuates the humor of the situation, especially in the hilarious “moose call” scene (originally only between the duo in Oscar’s apartment) in which the embarrassment caused by everyone in the restaurant also reacting to the annoyance of Felix elevates the scene to a comic level beyond mere eccentricity, and (3), it gives the film the occasion for an earlier introduction of Felix by illustrating his foiled attempt at suicidal impulses which are then wisely toned down from the original text as the play contained referential hints of a more dangerously troubled man. The downside to the few occasions of the film opening up is that it has a tendency to reinforce the staginess of the rest of the production; there are lengthy passages- unaided by serviceable but routine direction by Gene Saks -that scream sketch comedy, and there has been little to bolster the rather simplistic comic rhythms of the poker games sequences which not only emphasis the stage roots of the material, but also serve little extended function as none of the characters contribute appreciably to the plot: they’re simply comedic window dressing.
Simon’s play and screenplay adaptation are rigged games as the character of Felix necessarily has nowhere to go; he is conceived as an intractable irritant and he remains as such for the entirety of the play- even the more maudlin segments involving self-revelations with the Pigeon Sisters are more expressions of eventual self-pity (an irresistible draw for Lemmon’s increasingly unfunny mask of narcissistic misery) than in a recognition of needed change and as such they are the weakest points in the writing since the rather lengthy scene has neither a worthwhile comic payoff nor does it lead to any useful character evolution, and the sisters are a rather tiresome comic convention, feeling like leftovers from endless 1960’s Tony Curtis sex comedies or Simon’s own appalling “Come Blow Your Horn”.
However (and it’s a big however), all of the aforementioned characters are performed with an impeccably timed and spirited elan that is irresistible. The film is beholden to the professionalism of its performers in making even the most hackneyed of jokes seem relevant and fresh with the four poker pals Vinnie (John Fiedler), Murray (Herb Edelman), Roy (David Sheiner) and Speed (Larry Haines) convincingly portraying a squabbling quartet who are more than a little experienced (and irritable) over each other’s quirks of character. Best of all is the Oscar Madison of Walter Matthau who has displayed more than admirable skill in both comedy and drama (his Groeteschele in Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe” could chill blood) prior to this film, yet nothing could prepare for his defining portrait of the lovable masculine adult as perpetual boy, a continuously hilarious and skillfully nuanced performance (miraculously he manages an uncanny illusion of spontaneity considering he originated the role on Broadway) that manages to remove the sour bite of Lemmon from the film every minute he’s onscreen.
If one considers the staggering volume of western stories related on both the big screen and television (this latter sausage grinder of ideas devoured such an incomprehensible amount of scripts that even the occasional trace of originality would be almost instantaneously relegated to the realm of redundancy by the flurry of grateful copycats) one might easily extend a sigh of sympathy toward those filmmakers who continued to plug away with a devotional dedication in a genre which inspired them despite a national critical consensus that rather arrogantly proclaimed the western as weathered and obsolete as an abandoned ghost town. The western entered a phase in which the classical aesthetic conflicted with that which accompanied the contextual expressions of an emerging revisionism movement and the visual vocabulary by which the Italian “spaghetti” western asserted its identity- a reverence toward the same classical aesthetic within a form of deliberate but controlled exaggeration -creating a problematic creative atmosphere (as well as an excitingly fertile field) to those filmmakers whose instincts were nurtured within the more traditional range of the western form (regardless of their individual abilities to stretch that form into more refined regions).
Certainly the skilled scenarist Burt Kennedy was among those individuals, as well as those favored by more translucently renegade sensibilities such as Sam Peckinpah, whose oeuvre capitalizes on a sentimental attachment to extremely traditional western values (almost wholly supported by his almost total capitulation to romanticism with the Mexican peasant class which might be justifiably regarded as saccharine were it not for its lone, desperate tenancy as the sole source of primal decency in a West completely corrupted by business interests [the railroads certainly prefigure within this slanted moral dynamic], cluelessly inept government agents and a foolhardy populace) while circling this hapless moral center with a sharp editorial stick. While Peckinpah’s temperamental conceptual daring (his obsessive, often unsavory, observance of the psychic warts and scars of his “heroes” certainly contributed to his almost mythic confrontations with the studios} may have led to at least one masterwork as well as several extremely interesting genre creations of variable success, the most more formally traditionalist Kennedy seemed stuck in a creative mire with the moral pendulum always within the grasp of even his most flawed characters; thus the thematically essential original apocalyptic betrayal and unraveling of personal and societal codes inherent in E.L. Doctorow’s debut novel Welcome to Hard Times is given a hypoallergenic cleansing in Kennedy’s 1967 filmization, by a typical whitewashing of a narrative that despite the intended design of events, is reconfigured with the forced dexterity of an arthritic contortionist to bend an otherwise highly pessimistic (to the point of nihilism) literary vision to the more comforting climes of as happy and ending as possible. (One might only mentally savor the film Peckinpah might have drawn from the same rich vein of raw material.)
To offer evidence of a filmmaker continuing to be in the throes of an aesthetic turmoil one need search no further than Burt Kennedy’s 1973 “The Train Robbers” in which a singularly classical visual approach to the material is at odds with a far less formal (in terms of intelligent directorial and editorial design and a more contemporary jokiness to parts of the script) aesthetic that make a critical approach to the film difficult: it is to be treated as an undistinguished oater which aspires (and sometimes succeeds) to a greater plane, or is it Kennedy’s masterwork which has painfully lost its way?
The writer-director has conceived of a caper film of sorts, or more precisely a story told from moralist’s view outside of the reach of the corruptive breach of honor necessary in thieves conceding to the temptations of rewards outside the boundaries of the law. John Wayne plays Lane (this name and that of Ann-Margret’s Mrs. Lowe are obviously meant as nods to the lead characters in “Hondo”, though any character similarities or associations ultimately end there) an veteran gun who shares both Civil War experiences with the two senior members of the group- Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson, in a beautifully understated, overlooked performance) -and a learned respect from the remaining three (Jerry Gatlin, Bobby Vinton and the always welcome and thoroughly underappreciated Christopher George) that borders on iconography, which is a great deal of the problem with the film. Lane arrives on the scene (after a superb title sequence from which we might rightly presume a film of stature will follow) with the aforementioned Mrs. Lowe, eventually explaining to the collected group- after an unnecessary argumentative diversion which is supposed to show Lane’s inflexible code of honor in action, but merely reveals him to be impractically stubborn -that she is the widow of a train robber who now seeks a recovery the hidden lucre in order to “clear” her husband’s reputation; an explanation that is so immediately riddled with holes it leaves the impression that even though Lane’s code of honor is hardened, his head must be soft.
Despite the dubious nature of the expedition (unnoticed by all), Lane leads the band of seven across a harshly unwelcoming Mexican landscape that evidently acts as Kennedy’s Biblical harbinger of apocalyptic temptation (the journey may not take forty days and nights but the absurd excess of repetitive shots of the group poking along the gold trail may simply give that impression); the hardship endured due to both sandstorm and over-caffeinated thunderstorm makes one believe the travelers have either taken a wrong turn into Damnation Alley or that plagues of frogs and locusts are soon to follow. The inclimate conditions are fortunate as there is otherwise little incident along the journey, including an uncharacteristically sparse helping of dialogue of any consequence. If Bishop Pike’s band was justifiably monikered “The Wild Bunch”, Lane’s might be equally qualified to be nicknamed The Genteel Gents, being an assortment of both veteran adventurers and less seasoned hands (identified as those who are not yet up to Lane’s standards of frontier nobility when it really turns out he’s often just stupidly stubborn) who nevertheless almost effortlessly gel into a most congenial group of supposed expert gunmen to undertake a perilous, potentially deadly, journey in the history of westerns. (Comparing this outfit to the more extrovertedly expressive quartet of Richard Brooks’ “The Professionals” and the difference between men on a mission and journeyers to a spa retreat is almost comically apparent; never is there any sense of immediacy instilled in the script despite the busy cross-cutting randomly inserted throughout the film between the laconic progress of Lane’s gang and the furious high speed pursuit by an overpowering number of horsemen who follow Lane’s trail; a shift in presentational energies that is, at first, scarily startling but later becomes almost absurd when it is clear that in reality the hare pursuers would have easily caught up with and passed their tortoise prey within hours.)
The film certainly has a general premise with which a skilled screenwriter might craft a tale affording opportunities for insightful character development, yet there is an alarming incapacity demonstrated in the film to flesh out its characters (never mind clarifying the questionable nature of the film’s plot in the first place), made doubly intolerable by the blatant padding of the film’s already limited running time with such nonsense as the aforementioned endless riding sequences, time of which might have found a more fruitful objective in explaining just who is pursuing Lane’s gang and what is there relationship- if any -with the mysterious stranger who looks suspiciously like Ricardo Montalban. The scarcity of dialogue is also puzzling as Kennedy has, by the scant evidence allowed here, lost none of his ear for the rich but penetrating talk in which an entire world view might be expressed in the briefest of utterances; at his best he might be considered something of a poet of the lone, taciturn plains rider, which, again, makes the low quantity of dialogue an indigestible dilemma: we are placed in a dietary condition in regard to a related paucity of defined fraternal and emotional bonding and thus we feel starved for the nourishment of penetrating verbal expression. However, if in “The Train Robbers” the screenplay’s affords a charitable lack of attention to Lane’s gang, this dubious lack of distinction is redoubled in regard tp the group’s nemesis- that forever stampeding bunch of riders -to whom no identity, clear motivation nor force of purpose is attributed, thus leaving the film as a drama without a credible core of conflict.
How then could this film be mistaken for a missed career high opportunity, especially when the strongest element of a Burt Kennedy would presumably be its script, this film’s greatest failing? For whatever reason- though intelligently cumulative observation and sudden osmosis of the contemporary aesthetic developments of the genre, most pronounced in the Italian influence, comes to mind as the most likely explanation –Kennedy’s directorial aesthetic, generally workmanlike and in conflict with his more penetrating writing gifts, finds a sudden burst of creative maturation in the most classical sense: the beginning of the film not only finds textual expression in excitingly relaxed rhythms and almost breathtakingly beautiful elegant framing; the influence (as opposed to empty homage) of the opening of Leone’s “C’era una volta il West” is easily apparent, though Kennedy raises the bar of the previous film’s inventive use of sound effects as a musical accompaniment with the addition of the wind as a central presence, an invisible hand which will guide the journeyers on their path. The sequence poetically suggests a ghostly passing of time and era, an impression given greater sentimental value with the rugged frontier figure of the great Ben Johnson whose presence carries with him a great portion of the formative history of the American film western. However, this classically informed visual aesthetic continues beyond the title sequence, making clear this is the chosen illustrative dynamic, though that it is informing what will prove to be a threadbare narrative conception creates an unwieldy contextual imbalance between situation and presentation that merely reemphasizes the fatally damaging flaws of the script. (There are abrupt and obvious disruptions in this more formalized aesthetic scattered throughout the film, and these occasions feel as if the film was either rushed in production or sufficiently tampered with during production, acquitting the finished film with the occasional patchy feeling to an otherwise superior visual design.)
If Ben Johnson provides a sentimental link to the brief but colorful history of the American western, this is also a history that is also inescapably inseparable from the rise of the mythic image of star John Wayne, a particular card which the director-screenwriter caters to with additional detrimental results as the development of the film as what little character definition is granted the central role of Lane is represented only within the narrow limits of Wayne’s carefully crafted public persona at the time, rather than is meant to be representative of the legacy of Wayne– an iconic image of frontier (and thus American) masculinity, resolve and honor -all characteristics which may certainly define a particular fictitious role, to a point -but if these same characteristics create a limitation both that character and subsequently the overall design of the film, then the star’s continued grooming of his own invulnerability to human frailty becomes an issue of artistic disengagement. Here is clearly a case where a star is indeed playing himself (or his self-image), with the remainder of the cast needlessly neutered under the great oppressive weight of playing opposite not man but myth. Unfortunately, this stubborn adherence to a perfection of honorable character also undercuts the twist of the ending- affording the film’s title of multiple interpretations -by making everything presented to that point a damnable lie (and thus every character a fool): a move some may call irony, but might be more practically regarded as the end of the trail.
After the brief but colorful period of wishful societal breakdown known as the 1960’s (a period of self-aggrandizing radicalism shamelessly extended for the convenience of nostalgic longings for the heyday of hippies, communal roach clip sharing and the punishable-by-death overuse of the word “man”, when, in actuality, except for 1968-69, the decade was characterized more by Beach Blanket Annette, the Beatles, Doris Day and hillbillies in Beverly Hills than the Manson Family, Iceberg Slim and Abbie Hoffman), Hollywood films found themselves in a sudden but precarious creative flux: one in which daring film makers were allowed to pursue a more realistic and pessimistic vision of America (firmly grounded in cynicism) but one also mindful of the caprices that are the economic realities of an art form steeped in the nature of a commercial enterprise, an economic consideration in constant conflict with purely artistic endeavors.
“Executive Action” is the inevitable cinematic progeny of a growing American preoccupation with subversive conspiracy as a psychological curative to explain away national traumas as anything as remotely banal as random chance, eccentric psychopathy or simply the uncomfortable reminder that evil does exist within certain people, since there seems to be a peculiar comfort in the concept of murderous behavior derived from an organizational stratagem rather than by the violent impulses of the lone wolf. Since neither is controllable (as the results are the same) by either the collective will of society nor law enforcement (whose role emerges, as is usual in most cases of homicidal intent, in the collection of evidence rather than prevention of the act) there appears to be an advancing cultural reassurance in the concept of such anarchic actions resulting from cold deliberation rather than irrational impulse, therefore preserving the tenuous glue of society from the very possibility of falling into the scarifying abyss of absolute chaos. This dichotomy of cultural differences in how European and American political assassinations find a germanative agar is explicitly cited in the film, though a clue as to the screenplay’s faulty scholarship finds disclosure when John Wilkes Booth is included in the list of lone “madmen” as opposed to being part of a greater- well documented -conspiracy to usurp the government.
The film, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane, travels beyond a criticism of the findings of the Warren Commission (suspicions Lane clearly delineated in his 1966 tome Rush to Judgment whose skepticism was based in the scrupulously documented lax methodology of the Commission’s investigation more than indulging in alternative theories to the crime) and into a speculative account of what may have led to the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963, though from the beginning of the film it is clear that beyond a general critical assessment of the usual suspects earmarked for an evaluative report card, attention to a film of this nature must also include serious questions raised as to the specific conception of the production: just how was the alternate scenario arrived at and is it adherent to the only available path led to by the complete evidence in the case?
Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Will Geer star as fictional right-wing conservative industrialists with their finger on sufficient power to topple governments, yet who in their initial briefings about taking “executive” action against the sitting President, talk about the dangers inherent in a possible Kennedy dynasty in which a few men would be ruling over the country; the irony of these statements lost on these supposedly astute, far-thinking leaders of Capitalism. These conspirators are also seized by remarkable powers of prescience as the smallest detail of their ridiculously complex plot is foreseen, despite the fact that important circumstances would only be known by historians who are able to look backwards at a timeline of the minutest turns of fate. Therein lies one of the great problems of “Executive Action”: its unwillingness to admit that it’s a product of fanciful biased speculation (all of the major creative participants are know Hollywood liberals whose personal agenda against the political Right smears the film with a caustic air of political slander and resultant self-righteousness which veers the film into truly uncomfortable and tasteless directions of propaganda rather than a dedicated search for truth and justice as espoused by the film’s unconnected and frivolous preface and coda) rather than as a genuinely logical line of reason defined by the evidence and not merely a differing version of born of convenient assumption. Scenarist Trumbo (who one would think would know something about persecutory accusation without substantiation) does little to flesh out (and thus legitimize) the almost fetishistic conspiratorial assertions of Freed and Lane, grinding through limply written scenes between Lancaster and Ryan in which all non-liberal viewpoints are shamelessly cast as malignant rallying cries for fascism and white supremacy; among those specifically tallied off as enemies: “labor, negroes, Jews, liberals and the press.” With this supposedly “unbiased” prosecutorial stance at play, the film purports a fanciful theory of circumstances based solely on factual evidence when in fact it is entirely fabricated from a brittle tissue of conspiracy theorist’s wish fulfillment.
The opening and closing notations indicate both a disbelief on the part of President Lyndon Johnson over the findings of the Warren Commission and an astronomically unlikely actuarial study on the “suspicious” deaths of eyewitnesses to the assassination (a wildly inflated number that was produced from the source as an unfortunate result of a special brand of mathematical boo boo), yet nothing in the film’s narrative corresponds with either of these dubious bookends. If Johnson had personal suspicions of a greater conspiracy, what failure of the investigating commission (which he himself authorized) led to such a contrary view? If a British actuarial calculated astronomical odds against eighteen material witnesses dying within three years, just what is the method by which this figure has been calculated? More importantly, just who are these witnesses, and if this supposedly mass premature expiration is important in uncovering a conspiratorial web, why are none of the witnesses (nor the nature of what they witnessed) featured or even mentioned otherwise in the film? Are the filmmakers suggesting- though within the dramatized narrative this is never suggested -a necessary internecine plot unleashed to cover all possible footprints with a domino principled engagement in mass murder? (The personnel to carry out such a project wouldn’t be a problem as the film’s ridiculously overstuffed conspiracy seems to have literally hundreds of people involved in what would be more practically imagined as a very small and tightly knit covert operation.)
Problems of credibility also emerge with the fact that the only reasonable way for the plot to work seamlessly and invisibly is with the cooperation of almost every law enforcement agency in the country, from local police to the Secret Service to the FBI, and while no one can honestly dispute the ineptitude of many of the participants and the numerous fatal misjudgments made, there is also no way for the conspirators to have anticipated these actions or decisions, nor to have had unquestioned access to every file of Oswald in every agency of the government. Presuming CIA involvement, the film’s theory is dependent on a universal knowledge by the conspirators encompassing information gathered by all law enforcement agencies which is entirely contrary to the film’s own assertions that one of the fundamental flaws in the exercise of interdepartmental cooperation is that these same agencies do not share anything. Thus to make its case for a right-wing conspiracy with government ties (this last is never articulated but it’s clear the information gathered must be sourced with some for of assistance), the film engages in a continuous pattern of contradictory exposition to explain away the gaps of logic, further obscuring a rational portrait of a conspiracy by the unexplained omission of important events (most notably the shooting of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippet which led to Oswald’s arrest) or unexplored connections (Jack Ruby, depicted in a few scenes memorable only for their historic level of performance incompetence reminiscent of a Larry Buchanan film) which create troubling chasms in credibility. In a fictionally based thriller this type of narrative inattention is damaging, but it is especially ruinous in a film which, as indicated by that troublesome prelude and coda, insists on fidelity to fact and scrutiny to be administered to the entirety of the case evidence.
Since the outcome of the assassination plot is predetermined, the film doesn’t vie for suspense, though there are considerable possibilities for dramatic tension- we are witnessing the planned murder of a sitting President after all, the film told entirely from the point-of-view of the conspirators -but unfortunately, David Miller’s direction is coldly impersonal, approximating the dramatic tension of an educational film on civics, fluctuating between an overuse of documentary footage (the real John F. Kennedy inhabits so much screen time it is questionable whether under SAG rules he should receive a screen credit) which begins to border on the tasteless- especially when juxtaposed against the screenplay’s explanation as to why the President’s death is a moral imperative: inflammatory genocidal philosophies which appear to be channeling the minutes from the Wannsee Conference -and callous and crudely staged reenactments of speculative actions, all of which are designed to cast Lee Harvey Oswald as one of America’s great tragic heroes. Despite director Miller’s dismally cheap looking mise-en-scène, the film intends to be not merely an exploitative vehicle along the lines of “The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald“, but as a vehicle which stimulates an informed distrust of traditional American institutions, though its method is a cheat: presenting a confident accusation of murderous moral corruption within the power brokers of Capitalism by way of withering unalterable evidence which itself is corrupted by connective links molded by unnaturally forced and suspiciously flexible convenience.
On a brighter note, Randy Edelman’s deceptively simple score is in turns melancholy and unsettling; a composition with an appropriately elegaic timbre that brings the briefest hint of artistry to an otherwise starkly graceless production.
“The Towering Inferno” (1974)
Irwin Allen’s production of “The Towering Inferno” is proof positive that even if lightning is unlikely to strike the same spot twice, there is no restriction of the duplication of stupid ideas for movies. Based on the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, the screenplay is an inspired amalgam of Stirling Silliphant’s ability to throw aside the very worst of the two books and still manage to write a terrible screenplay.
Producer Allen’s second foray into the disaster film genre, the film’s depiction of a massive conflagration in the world’s tallest building (in San Francisco?) pretends to be a testimonial to the heroism of firemen while spending nearly three hours showing them as incapable of handling the simplest crisis without the assistance of an eclectic collection of movie archetypes: a smirky, know-it-all architect (Paul Newman) who is imbued with impossibly useful knowledge of the most infinitesimal technical details which enables him to rewire any minor circuitry in the impossibly big building despite the fact he claims to be so cotton-headed as to have been unaware of the fatal cost-cutting going on during the entire construction process; a gregarious working class bartender (Gregory Sierra) whose status outside of the prominent glare of “all-star” casting combined with his portraying a genuinely reliable working stiff- shades of Roddy McDowall in “The Poseidon Adventure” -is a safe bet to cause him gto be dispatched as injudiciously as possible; and a security man (a pre-mug shot O.J. Simpson), who takes it upon himself to waste valuable time searching for and rescuing a kitten while hundreds of people burn in horribly vivid agony. If it weren’t for the almost supernaturally heroic efforts of the Fire Chief played by Steve McQueen, who is commissioned, in a very unlikely scenario, to handle every intensely dangerous crisis personally, the skyscraper might be transformed into a genuine charnel house. This curiously singular allotment of personal heroics makes the entirety of the rest of the San Francisco Fire Department appear needlessly irrelevant (which should be wonderful news to the city during its next discussion of fiscal budget cuts), except to man the occasional rush of siren-screeching trucks which keep arriving at random moments if for no other reason that to temporarily enliven the film. However, in the spirit of Hollywood happy endings, the film concludes with a sappy reconciliation- of sorts; a last minute comradeship between McQueen’s Fire Chief and Newman’s architect who seem to suddenly forget the slaughterhouse that was the burning skyscraper and agree to look forward to a more informed (and presumably safe) future, with the Chief exiting with a wistful: “So long architect.” It’s that kind of a movie, in which the characters are identified by their professions rather than as individuals. We are constantly reminded, for example, that William Holden is the builder of The Glass Tower (the name of the doomed skyscraper). yet we know nothing else about him, nor does his presence contribute to any situation within the film! There isn’t an emergent personality in the entire film and there probably isn’t a character in the film whose name is recalled by the running of the credits. The need for casting all-star rosters in these films (certainly the disaster itself is the true drawing card) is necessary more for the nostalgic familiarity generated by the audience toward the more veteran performers, explaining why many of the more underwritten supporting roles- those most likely to encounter unexpected perils -are filled with stars from Hollywood’s “golden” era, as the aridity of character may be compensated for with accumulated personal fondness for the performer: it doesn’t matter if a phoney stocks cheat becomes a charcoal briquette, but it does if he’s played by Fred Astaire!
However, this can only carry a film so far without becoming a tiresome exercise of Predict-The-Victim, and ultimately without emotionally nourishing characters with which to empathize, the audience is left only with the spectacle of the kill in which to find succor. (There is some impressive miniature work intermingled amid the less than impressive dramatic work by a very mixed bag of new and old Hollywood.) Fred Astaire, not known primarily for his dramatic skills, is unaccountably called upon to “act” as a con man, though his performance will fool no one, and the man who brought immortal screen prestige to white tie and tails is insultingly forced to wear a rented tux. Faye Dunaway simply looks bored, doing little but sucking in her cheeks; her love scene with Newman is a complete embarrassment, yet another in a dated succession of uncomfortably coy sessions of attempting to conceal the fleshy nature of a carnal tryst with pillow arrangement and draping of fabric as to conceal all but a hint of thigh; a ludicrously faux innocent depiction of adult relations with the gratingly strained chasteness of a 1950’s soap opera. This also brings to mind a truly excessive imbalance within the disaster genre: that of the almost complete absence of necessary female roles. With the exception of Shelley Winters’ Belle Rosen in “The Poseidon Adventure”, there is not a single memorable role for an actress in the entire genre; the only contribution any are allowed to make to the stories are to either act as eye candy (Jacqueline Bisset in “Airport”, Stella Stevens in “The Poseidon Adventure”, Faye Dunaway and Susan Blakely in “The Towering Inferno”) or to act as helpless women in distress (Carol Lynley and Pamela Sue Martin in “The Poseidon Adventure”, Karen Black in “Airport 1975”, Victoria Principal and Genevieve Bujold in “Earthquake”) just waiting for the testosterone-infused hero to save the day. The intended role of the actress in the disaster film seems to reach a level of artistic satisfaction by their standing in a dramatically lit background and looking both attractive and alluring in their appropriate cosmetically designed facial smudges and a strategic rending of their garments.
Despite the formulaic nature of the disaster film, they do require a certain blunt attention to imaginatively rendered violent death, though the variations of death by fire are insignificant though the questionable taste of creating entertainment through such sadistically detailed means is not. Seldom has a major motion picture- a rare cooperative effort by two separate yet equally culpable Hollywood studios (Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox) -shamelessly conceded its entire entertainment value to be generated, without compensatory dramatic development, by the mass suffering and deaths of hundreds of innocents, either by direct immolation (there seems to be no charity extended even for the slight mercy of smoke inhalation) or by lovingly detailed plummets from dizzying heights; a variation which seems reserved especially for many of the female stars whose names appear beneath the title. This special catalog of carnage lacks even a fraudulent appearance of legitimate social value, as one might assume in an almost three hour film, the viewer might, at least, be apprised of the various methods of firefighting, but these details- except for the preposterously makeshift solutions offered by the script (ripped with a disgraceful abandonment of logic from the source novels) -give no insight into genuine strategic techniques of this most commonplace but insular profession.
This pathetic resignation of the film to strained, cardboard Hollywood formula is reflected even in the musical score by the occasionally estimable John Williams who cannot disguise the fact that even his own efforts are half-hearted at best: his love theme is the exact main title melody for his previous score on “Earthquake”.