“Play It Again, Sam” (1972)
It would seem like a smart move to begin the film version of Woody Allen’s theatrical opus “Play It Again, Sam” with the airport finale from”Casablanca”, as the difference in screen image between the heroically noble Rick Blaine and Allen’s slack-jawed Allan Felix immediately establishes the foundation of the psychological dependence based on idolatry with Allen’s movie maven whose relationship failures are methodically italicized when compared to the polished artifice of his Golden Age Hollywood romantic fantasies.
Much of the film’s humor is derived by emphasizing the drastic gulf between Bogart’s idealized masculine movie persona (who appears periodically to offer what is meant as sage wisdom) and Allen’s fawning but almost pathologically awkward horndog; though this is a conceit which becomes increasingly strained when it becomes apparent that the often inconsistent, film noir embellished advice given by the trenchcoated Dear Abby is merely the product of a phantasmagoric apparition solely at the mercy of Allan’s own insecure predispositions toward women; with Bogart’s B-movie philosophizing emanating entirely from Allan’s own inability to operate with confidence with the opposite sex while confusing and altering the admired behavior of his figurative mentor to coincide with Allan’s own romantic shortcomings. The film sacrifices a great deal of the cushion of sympathy it should be engendering for it’s unlikely romantic idealist lead with its embracing of some very problematic attitudes about attracting women, not the least of which is the discussed notion that women find the idea of rape desirable.
The film chronicles the efforts of Allan’s post-divorce attempts to reenter the dating scene, with the assistance of his best friend Dick (Tony Roberts) and his wife Linda (Diane Keaton). While Allan indulges in a constant stream of wholly self-effacing commentary (much of the film’s first act feels like little more than of Allen’s stand-up comedy routines updated with visuals), his character is also affronted when similarly critical personal observations are in the offing externally; especially from (as he imagines with an obsessive fervor equal to that of his Bogart conjurings) his ex-wife Nancy (Susan Anspach). However, this tendency toward unrelenting neurotic self-deprecation becomes tiresome (not to mention repetitive) truths point where the attacks on Allan’s masculinity and sensitivity, rather than generating empathy, seem more than justified.
The greatest failure in a film obsessed by the romantic impulse is to fail to conjure a single genuinely romantic moment (even a climactic kiss is tainted with the insertion of an intrusive joke). This is compounded by the film’s slavish insistence on recreating the love triangle dynamic of “Casablanca” with Allan, Linda and Dick substituting for Rick, Ilse and Victor, though the pretense at an equitable sacrificial nobility is obscured as Allan has deliberately engineered the violation of his best friend’s marriage in the first place. When Allan quotes the dialogue verbatim from the classic film, joyously exclaiming- in what is meant to be a cathartic moment .-that he has waited to say these words his entire life, it is not, as the movie asserts, the triumph of a man finding his own voice, but merely a continuing concession to the distancing comfort of artifice in defining his own personal operational social construct
Herbert Ross’ correct tends toward the unimaginative, and Owen Roizman’s cinematography is unaccountable muddy. Has San Francisco ever looked as dank? The cast features notable comic turns by Jerry Lacy as an amusing Bogart; Susan Anspach gracing the material a surprisingly witty performance in a role that could have easily turned shrewish, Jennifer Salt in a gracefully bravura turn in a small but vital role of a date gone horribly wrong yet who bravely feigns an anchoring normalcy to what could have resulted in a drastically overplayed scene; and Tony Roberts, who is saddled with the chore of straight man, but also with the worst lines in the script. As is typical with Diane Keaton, she seems under the perpetual influence of dental gas which neither aids with her trademark fuzzy line readings nor screams romantic allure.
“Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw” (1976)
When bored carhop Bobbie Jo Baker (Lynda Carter) asks charmless drifter Lyle Wheeler (Marjoe Gortner) who his hero is, the answer should be the more accurate “Clyde Barrow” rather than the asserted “Billy the Kid” as the violent trajectory to be taken by these two characters will be unmistakable to anyone who has seen Arthur Penn’s landmark 1967 film, though now admittedly executed on a lesser scale both in style and substance.
Mark L. Lester’s “Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw” purports to tell the story of a couple doomed in an inescapable spiral of crime, yet the film is embarrassingly short on the essential narrative element of character motivation. The only reason for Bobbie Jo and Lyle’s descension into truly meaningless lawlessness is that the film needs an excuse to fill its paltry 88 minutes with badly staged car chases and shootouts once it has already exhausted the audience’s patience with a numbing succession of music interludes shamelessly inserted to kill time while invaluable expository dialogue is drowned out by a soundtrack promoting irrelevant country western crooning; though, perhaps, on the basis of the decipherable dialogue by Vernon Zimmerman, Lester’s conciliation toward obscurity is more along the lines of a public service. Surely, the standards demanded of a literate American culture need no further dumbing down by yet another drive-in feature with no ambition, no originality and no reason to exist.
Petty criminal Lyle Wheeler (who unexplainedly participates in what seem to be flash quick draw competitions) seduces carhop Bobbie Jo Baker by stalking her outside of her home in a stolen car. Enchanted by this demonstration of romantic gamesmanship, she wisely drives into the desert with a perfect stranger, where they stroll hand in hand through the brush until she ups the ante in this dizzying dance of amour fou by serenading Lyle with a guitar (a neat trick considering she boarded his car empty handed). Blinded by love and obviously afflicted with a tin ear, Lyle encourages his paramour to pursue stardom in country music; with the first step naturally being to add Bobbie Jo’s best friend Essie (Belinda Balaski) to the group dynamic as a sort of ersatz mascot and then to indulge in sitting naked in a mud pool and consuming peyote in the company of an elderly Indian mystic who, we are to presume, has been lounging about in the wilderness just for such opportune occasions to cop a feel. The police, portrayed here as ineffectual as if they were designated Officers Moe, Larry and Curly ( at one point in the picture we’re supposed to find it the height of comic hilarity when they inadvertently slaughter a hotel room full of the wrong people), lose the threesome in a particularly unconvincing auto pursuit, leading Bobbie Jo to seek refuge and assistance with her stripper sister Pearl (Merrie Lynn Ross) and her lowlife boyfriend Slick (Jesse Vint), who immediately involves Lyle in a botched robbery resulting in Lyle’s shooting a guard in the face.
The remainder of the film is a disjointed succession of robberies, chases, gun battles and characters introduced and disappearing without explanation; none of which is directed with the slightest suggestion of knowledge in how to stage an action scene. Nor is Lester apparently gifted with extracting memorable results from a dubiously skilled cast. Marjoe Gortner persists in his one career consistent performance mode which might best be described as blunt force impertinence. Lynda Carter fares somewhat worse as she leans entirely on acting with a vacant smile. Her final scene is a humiliating demonstration of acting overreach from which the audience might be charitably advised to shield their eyes in embarrassment. As expected, Jesse Vint neither raises or lowers his performance bar; unsurprising for an actor whose prolific appearances never failed to deliver hammy representations of both unappetizing and disposable characters. Only Belinda Balaski displays real acting chops, though even her performance seems strangely erratic due to the inconsistent patchwork manner in which her role is written. Still, in managing to be affecting and appealing in her ease with fulfilling demands of each individual scene, it would be a happy prospect to see this actress in a role that is sufficiently conceived to challenge her talents.
“A Reflection of Fear” (1972)
Cinematographers who assume the director’s mantle often produce movies which heavily favor the visual rather than the contextually comprehensible, with the fledgling filmmaker often failing to make allowances for the fact that rarely can a film achieve its intended goals with an overreliance upon the pictorial to the exclusion of almost everything else (Jack Cardiff’s “Girl on a Motorcycle” is a case in point).
In the case of William A Fraker’s “A Reflection of Fear”, the film was rumored to have had extensive post-production reworking and interference from the studio, though in those unfortunate cases there is generally a sense of diminution of the film’s intentions, whereas in Fraker’s film there is hardly a occasion where any two contiguous scenes offer a clue as to what the audience is expected to decipher from the plot which is a series of contradictory convolutions wrapped within tediously conventional psychological thriller genre tropes.
Marguerite (Sondra Locke) is a fifteen year old who has been raised in a completely reclusive environment with no friends and few personal connections outside of her strangely domineering mother, Katherine (Mary Ure) and grandmother, Julia (Signe Hasso). Her inflexibly restrictive and lonely existence, which seems to have promoted an extreme form of delusional interaction with imaginary companions, is about to experience a serious disruption with the arrival of her father, Michael (Robert Shaw), who has been absent from her life for ten years. The purpose of Michael’s visit is to obtain a divorce from Katherine so that he might marry his girlfriend Anne (Sally Kellerman), though in their reconciliation, it is obvious to everyone that there is more than a healthy father-daughter attraction between Michael and Marguerite.
Were the mysteries which the film proffers of any but the most generic variety, the small flourishes of visual gamesmanship might not be as frustrating, but the positively primitive unsubtlety of the film’s introductory exposition of Marguerite exposes every narrative twist the film believes it has up its sleeve, while the director seems oblivious to the odd confliction between the unremarkable nature of the material and the meticulously ostentatious form which its presented. Unfortunately for all concerned (including screenwriters Edward Hume and John Lewis Carlino), we’ve seen it all before and the overly familiar is seldom made less so even if the proceedings are dolled up with the overly diffused lighting of László Kovács that pours on the ethereal quality which Fraker obviously intends with a trowel, yet, more often than not, the misty visuals oppress the already strained material by imposing an allegorical visual dream state that the material is too flimsy to support. The movie strains for Art while, in reality, it is little more than an overdressed confection with a tasteless, tawdry core. The unrelievedly languid pacing promises a deliberate revealing of the story’s more abnormal elements, yet the script is incredibly stingy in allowing the audience entrance to the root causes of the central characters’ shattered dynamic; any understanding of which is essential for later events (especially a final reveal that is as preposterous as it is unexpected) to even begin to make sense. There are scattered hints at a troubled past yet these are obscure; never for a moment contributing to clarity in the narrative. For example, Katherine bitterly asks of Michael in regards to his fiancé, “does she know about you?”; a question pregnant with suggestiveness from an adulterous disposition to latent homosexuality, yet there is no follow up information provided to give the query meaning and so it laid aside on the shelf and forgotten. The film plays like a crossword puzzle without the benefit of clues.
Rather than Fraker eliciting a genuine sense of unease, he merely has his actors exchange enough furtive glances to fuel a dozen melodramas. We first meet Marguerite as she talks to her “little friends” under the gaze of a microscope and then as she argues with her “secret” friend Aaron, who will figure prominently as a red herring to the violent actions to follow, though anyone practiced in the dull trickery of such films cannot help but notice that whenever Aaron speaks, Marguerite’s mouth is conveniently out of frame. Despite the rather tired psychological trappings and the inevitable murderous incidents (the police procedural portions of the film are so patently derivative that the investigating detective [Mitchell Ryan] seems to be able to barely disguise a case of the yawns.) there is never the feeling of forward momentum. There is, however, one truly disturbing element running through the film, and that is the undisguised incestuous passion Marguerite displays toward Michael. This aberrance of familial affections (traveling well beyond the boundaries of mere infatuation as exhibited in a disturbing scene in which Michael and Anne’s attempt at lovemaking is interrupted by the adjacent masturbatory cries by Marguerite for her father) may be central to the unexplained rupture that may be the source of the film’s mystery, and although the audience is requested to demonstrate an extreme patience with the film’s relentless exhibitions of the fondling of Michael by Marguerite (all the more disquieting since Michael never disproves the impression that such attentions are anything but welcome), this behavior is never placed in a context suitable to explain and thus, to excuse its prominent inclusion.
Both Signe Hasso and the gifted Mary Ure are wasted in thankless one-note roles solely characterized by stiff-necked maternal authoritarianism. In the case of the unfortunate Sally Kellerman, her efforts are those of a drowning woman, her energetic performance attempts an infusion of a welcome bit of humanity, but flounders due to only a sporadic inclusion in what should be crucial events. The strangely muted romanticism between Anne and Michael makes the emergence of anything resembling a chemistry between the characters impossible, and Robert Shaw’s performance is one entirely comprised of coiled repression. One awaits the cathartic eruption of impotent rage, sorrow, or any emotion which might unlock the mystery as to just what is going on in his head; but none is in the offing. However, Sondra Locke is in splendid form as the emotionally arrested Marguerite, though the pleasure of her performance arrives through individual moments, rather than as a cohesive whole given the vacuum at the center of the script and the absence of a dramatic narrative arc. There is one truly erotic scene, shot from behind Michael, in which Marguerite’s hands sinuously grasp onto him with at first a tremulous and then a ferociously possessive longing, proving, at the very least, that Ms. Locke was gifted with infinitely expressive appendages.
Still, for all of the talent involved, one can only wonder why all of the talent was involved. “A Reflection of Fear” is all smoke and mirrors.
“Cancel My Reservation” (1972)
Bob Hope’s last starring film role is so wince inducing, audience members may be in danger of developing permanent facial tics. This would-be murder mystery, based on a novel by Louis L’Amour, but here intended for laughs, imagines stars Hope and Eva Marie Saint as a sort of modern day Nick and Nora Charles, but without any visible effort to replicate the chemistry, sophistication, wit or actual sense of mystery of the “Thin Man” series.
Hope plays a 42 year old (now, that’s funny) television talk show host Dan Bartlett who, after an on-air tiff with his co-host/spouse Sheila, is medically advised to take a solo vacation to their house in Arizona, where he discovers the dead body of a young Indian woman and even though the bodies begin to pile up, there never seems to be a particular immediacy on the part of the bumbling police (Keenan Wynn and Doodles Weaver doing their best to elicit snickers with material that’s dead on arrival), thus allowing for Dan and his newly arrived wife to play amateur sleuths. However, it might have occurred to someone during the shoot that a mystery comedy should, at a minimum, contain a fair amount of laughs and a trace of intrigue, as when neither objective is reached, the results must be professionally dispiriting; as evidenced by the only notable killing in the film: the protracted 99 minute death rattle which signifies the end of the star’s career in the movies.
Director Paul Bogart proves himself unable to negotiate the material to a place beyond the artificially imposed episodic bookending of storytelling that was his métier as evidenced by his extensive résumé in broadcast television; his limited film work to this point consisting of a pair of undistinguished James Garner vehicles and a curious 1966 filming of a celebrated production of “Three Sisters”, most notable only for some injudicious recasting to make the project more palatable for a commercial marketplace (though one can hardly envision throngs of art house moviegoers waiting in a theater queue rapturously espousing “you haven’t seen Chekov, until you’ve seen it with Shelley Winters!”). There isn’t one single camera setup that doesn’t scream 24″ picture tube, nor does Bogart seem to have the ability to extract any tension with a laborious pacing that affords excessive time to ponder the clumsily incidental nature of the script (every ten minutes or so the film seems to lag as if pausing for a word from Chrysler) which, by a simple application of elementary mathematics (by excluding either the falsely accused or the dead), the identity of the killer should be easily revealed (or by simply paying attention, since the film openly gives this information away within the first twenty minutes). However, in lieu of mystery, what we are treated to are Bogart’s geriatric versions of action sequences: an unfunny motorcycle ride in front of a blue screen, an extended rock climb to visit with an Indian seer (an exhaustive effort which turns out to be fruitless save to kill precious screen time) and a ludicrously protracted menace by the world’s painfully slowest hydraulic car lift. Pass the Nodoz.
For decades, Hope was one of the most reliable of film stars, trading on a lightning quick-wittedness which was his weapon in masking a character’s nervous insecurities (in that he was, in essence, a pre-scandal version of the Woody Allen neurotic horndog persona for the WW2 generation) with a gift for perfectly timed delivery of hilariously anachronistic sarcastic wisecracks as asides which effectively and quite casually continually breached the fourth wall. Hope’s delivery of what are essentially sidebar observations were always meant for the audience rather than as a part of his direct interaction with his fellow performers (with the exception of Crosby, who was always in on the joke). This allowed the viewer to become a knowing confidante with Hope’s character; whose position in the film regardless of the milieu, was that of a blithe figure of harmless (being that his humor was born of self-defense rather than active aggression), if anarchic anti-authoritarianism; with his signatory style as much of an art form of expression as the simile was to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. However, in “Cancel My Reservation”, that diamond sharp delivery has been worn down to spitting out the jokes by rote with an undercurrent of bitterness (the result of professional dissatisfaction with the work?) that makes the truly bad writing all the more painful.
Unfortunate as well, are the actors of proven accomplishment- Eva Marie Saint, Chief Dan George and Ralph Bellamy -who nevertheless carry on with great poise in roles that offer absolutely nothing in terms of substance. The dramatic portions of the story are completely undeveloped, while the awkwardly inserted jokes are mean-spirited and desperate. Additionally there is an overabundance of then-topical references (Ari Onassis, Twiggy, Dick Cavett, Rona Barrett, Marcus Welby) that are more reminiscent of jokes told during one of his “surprise” appearances on The Tonight Show than as witticisms organic to the situations at hand, as well as a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos by a number of Hope’s celebrity cronies- Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson, John Wayne -during a brief lynching fantasy which are so oddly performed and shot at such indirect angles, they give the impression of hastily assembled afterthoughts as if such celebrity inclusion would grant quite meaningless Hollywood Seals of Approval. In any case, such shopworn material imposes unneeded antiquarian date stamps on a film that was already horribly dated when it was new.
Two additional notes: Anne Archer makes an attractive early appearance in a major role that eventually proves absolutely meaningless the plot, while Forrest Tucker acquaints himself with an intense violent aggressiveness that would serve the film well were the film called “Walking Tall”. However, in a note of extreme irony, this same irredeemable character is responsible for the only truly funny moment in the film, involving the sketching of a murder suspect. Comedy is a funny business.