“THE FORMULA” (1980)
Perhaps the most interesting point of discussion regarding John G. Avildsen’s film “The Formula” is the irony of its presumably unintentionally honest title. If there has been in recent memory a big studio release thriller so laden in an unimaginatively arrogant manner with the baggage of numbing predictability (and that’s saying a lot), its’s likely an example hidden away through the mercy of a process of selective memory witness protection.
George C. Scott plays Lt. Barney Caine, a Los Angeles police detective investigating the brutal killing of his friend and former colleague. Caine is the type of cop who speaks entirely with the the kind of snappy retorts that screenwriters count as impressively faux noir, though he doesn’t seem to have sufficient investigative instincts to notice that every time he questions a suspect they are shot dead within seconds. Could a multinational global conspiracy be afoot? You betcha, and with the full participation of those folks traditionally useful in such movie matters involving tipping the scales of global harmony (?) as we know it: former members of the lost Reich. However, in the agonizing seconds it must have taken writer Steve Shagan (adapting his own novel, which gives new meaning to the phrase “beating a dead horse”) to devise his entirely derivative plotting, little regard seemed to have been given toward incident. Rather the narrative unfolds as a series of interviews, most of which seem to point out the same facts: all involving a German wartime project called Genesis and a process of manufacturing synthetic fuel.
If a thriller surrounding the concept of crude oil price fixing doesn’t seem like the most opportune premise for cinema excitement, that calculation fails to take into account the lethargic method in which events transpire. Seldom can a murder mystery retain a semblance of engagement when the audience is unavoidably far ahead of the characters in the film. (Unless, perhaps, it’s intended as some sort of parody, which considering the laughably somber tone of the film, this most assuredly is not.) The chief villain of the piece is Adam Steiffel, an oil tycoon whose primary interest seems to be awkwardly pausing to recall his lines or making unrelated (to the plot anyway) references to such essential items as Milk Duds, knockwurst and dying frogs. That the role of Steiffel is inhabited by Marlon Brando certainly explains the out-of-synch line readings and perhaps even the oddball references which suspiciously sound like the type of peculiarly obtuse contributions which he is known to favor. In any case, the mystery of his complicity in all of the skullduggery to follow is certainly the least well-kept secret in the film (except to unconvincingly hapless Lt. Caine) and a harbinger of the film’s exceptional eventual surrender to ennui in failing to bring everything that has occurred in the film to a conclusive point: which again raises the question of the inattention given by the film’s creators to the film’s supposed mysteries. Alert viewers will be tipped off to the film’s only genuine (though far from original) twist by the presence of Marthe Keller, the late 70’s go-to girl when engaging in murderous global conspiracies. Here, at least, Miss Keller seems to have relaxed into her casting inevitability and gives what in a film meriting serious attention would be considered an impressively nuanced performance, probably the most accomplished of her brief American film career.
Surprisingly, this enervated film begins with an intense flashback sequence which swiftly relates all of the necessary background information later laborious excavated by Lt. Caine. Of particular interest is an intense performance by Richard Lynch as a German general. This actor, often relegated to roles of one-note villainy, struts his stuff in a welcome but all too short appearance, proving what a real actor can do when given the atypical opportunity.
Finally, it’s time to speak about the blight that has become Marlon Brando. Since “The Missouri Breaks” this actor, constantly lauded as the best thing to happen to the thespian arts since ancillary residuals, has paraded a succession of performance offenses that are uncaring, disinterested and mocking of both the audience and his fellow professionals. Surely, anyone granted the honorific of a legend should not be capable of such depths of underachievement, especially within the gleeful throes of deliberation. There is a scene in “The Formula” (of the mere three in which he appears despite his starring credit) in which his now-familiar penchant for reading his lines from cue cards manifests itself with such abandon that you can literally follow his eyes as they skip from line to line. In this film he is fitted with what appears to be a facial prosthetic, which could be anything from a simple appliance to a lodged pork chop, that alters his already lazy speech patterns to resemble either Elmer Fudd or Brando doing a very bad impression of Brando.
In his debut novel ‘Coma’, Robin Cook presented an unlikely set of circumstances concerning a vast criminal conspiracy within a fictitious Boston hospital, that stretched the very pretense of plausibility as the incidents of mayhem pile up far too rapidly to not be noticed by anyone of responsible character or authority. The novel is one of those breathless thrillers that seem to exist outside of the constraints of reality (this is true of most contemporary action movies as well), so that the heroine- in this case a beautiful (naturally) medical student named Susan Wheeler, whose nose for sniffing out mischief makes her the hospital rounds equivalent of Nancy Drew -is able to demonstrate abilities enabling her to penetrate the labyrinth of a secretive operation that would baffle seasoned experts, though her alarmist proclivities never extend to thinking of picking up a telephone to the police even as the mysteriously undetected bodies begin piling up at an laughable rate.
These types of thriller plots operate on what might be best described as the Blind World Principle, in which it is assumed that while the hero/heroine is possessed of the acumen of Sherlock Holmes, the remainder of the characters must be incognizant to anything that goes on about them. Many of these problems are initially addressed and seemingly corrected in Michael Crichton’s filmization, which for the first fifty minutes is an efficiently orchestrated piece of low-key storytelling, keenly reimagining the pulp elements of the novel into a more realistic framework; knowingly playing off of the audience’s inviolable sense of psychological foreboding toward the impersonal environs of a hospital which, ironically, is the arena dedicated to the most personal of bodily intrusions. After such an auspicious first half in which the film is comfortably in the company of the best film procedurals (Bo Widerberg’s “Mannen på taket”, for example), Crichton unaccountably abandons the film’s unaffected verisimilitude (in which the resistance to sensational Hollywood melodrama is similar to that as seen in Alan J. Pakula’s fine thriller, equally imbued with a paranoiac core, “All the President’s Men”) is a case study in a director going spectacularly wrong when not trusting their creative instincts in favor of conceding to the tried and true, but generic, mechanics of constructing a movie thriller.
Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold), a surgical resident at the Boston Memorial Hospital receives both a personal and professional shock when her best friend Nancy (Lois Chiles) is admitted for a routine procedure resulting in brain death. The next day, another apparently healthy young patient, Sean Murphy (Tom Selleck) who is admitted for routine knee surgery, falls into a similar irreversible coma. Finding little comfort from her boyfriend, chief resident candidate Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), whose own curiosity as to the suspicious coincidence is mollified by a greater interest in hospital politics and its effect on his own career advancement, Susan pursues an aggressive course of internal investigation which inflames the ire of the hospital’s prominent Chief of Anesthesiology Dr. George (Rip Torn, who wears officious pique like a second skin) and the Chief of Surgery, Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark, in fine form), the latter who eventually displays a tentative paternal sympathy for the junior doctor.
So far the film has approached the story with a measured, almost clinical approach befitting the film’s setting; quietly grounding what seem like extraordinary circumstances into the unremarkable vicissitudes of inevitably impersonal large institutions. Rather than suspiciously conspiratorial resistance, Susan’s inquiries are met with professional indignation and the dispassionate gaze of a clinician’s eye which to the layperson seems familiarly jaded (The brain deaths are explained away as unfortunate but statistically probable; a chillingly dismissive but realistic way of saying “business as usual.”). This cannot help but strike a paranoiac chord with anyone who has taken a step in the psychologically dehumanizing sterility of the modern hospital (volumes could be written about the sensorial effect the potent smell of antiseptic alone has on the psyche). Crichton taps into this discomfort of contradiction; of fearing the very resources of one’s salvation. What truly unnerves is not so much the deepening medical mystery, but the fact that Susan is only character in the film who allows a break in her professional demeanor and to regard the patients as something more than statistical casualties. Her emotionalism is dismissed as a weakness by both Mark and her superiors, yet what they fail to realize is that it is that same quality which ignites her stubborn constitution in seeking out the truth to questions others are, in her view, are irresponsibly failing to pursue. The clue which actually convinces her of something criminally amiss is openly visible, yet the hubris of the senior medical hierarchy ( especially as represented by Dr. George) blinds them in looking beyond the minutiae of detail to notice what is waving a flag right in front of their faces.
However, the movie goes spectacularly wrong in the second half. Where there was concision and modulation of plotting and tone, the film shifts into Film Thriller 101 high gear and not unlike Robin Cook, director Crichton is suddenly chasing the visceral jolt of big effects, unmindful that they are rapidly unwinding his careful reconstruction of the novel with the book’s own rapid succession of narrative crushing implausibility, including the employment of the kind of generic steely-eyed killer (Lance LeGault) so favored by writers of thrillers (the variety of which is lauded, by the author, for their cool professionalism while they ignore the fact that they leave a string of evidence behind them that Helen Keller could follow) whose participation leads to events that stretch the very fabric of credibility. The film’s set piece, a visit to the mysterious Jefferson Institute (an imposing concrete sarcophagus where the first thought that might occur is that no matter how they cook the books, the air conditioning bills alone would be cost prohibitive), a futuristic warehouse for long-term coma patients, is a classic example of creative disorientation as exemplified by the odd appearance of Elizabeth Ashley as the supervisory nurse, Mrs. Emerson, a virtual caricature of Louise Fletcher’s lamb’s eyes over a fixed cobra smile as Nurse Ratched. Ashley’s countenance is all overplayed hooded robotic glare as if she were an extraterrestrial poseur in a crummy 50s science fiction film; a performance so ludicrously distracting, one cannot help but think it was a misplaced homage to the mechanical good time gals of Crichton’s own “Westworld”.
However, if one wishes for a reliable indicator in pointing out the film’s sudden panicked grabs at quick shock effects, nothing could be of more illustrative value than the scoring by Jerry Goldsmith. During the film’s first fifty minutes, the musical track is absent; enhancing the sense of docudrama, yet with the first ominous cue, the remainder of the movie is at the mercy of relentless alarms of impending doom, crisis and danger. Seldom has a director so brazenly signaled that he has lost faith in the audience’s ability to pick up on the bluntly obvious signposts of imperilment without such continuous kick-in-the-shins prodding. The totality of the film is a resounding disappointment, especially given the solid pedigree of the man behind the camera, with Crichton in presumably comfortable (certainly familiar) territory in both medical background and his extensive experience in constructing top-notch mystery narratives under the pseudonym Richard Stark while attending Harvard Medical School. Yet in capitulating to the convenient yet moldy caprices of the thriller genre, Crichton does himself and his film a disservice by reverting to the primitivism of the cheap movie thrill and in putting his poor heroine through more exhausting rapid fire formula perils than any actress has had to contend with since the days of Pearl White.
“Juste avant la nuit” (1971)
If Claude Chabrol is casually regarded as the Gallic Hitchcock, the too easily accepted comparison betrays a basic misunderstanding of not only the French filmmaker but of the Master of Suspense (Chabrol’s own public adoration of Hitchcock tends to blur critical viewpoints, more so than in Hitchcockian comparisons with the far lesser-case De Palma) While both Chabrol and Hitchcock spend an inordinate amount of attention on the shadier localities of Man’s better nature, the results are far from psychologically (and certainly not aesthetically) complimentary.
One fundamental difference between the two filmmakers is in directorial temperament- the truth of the matter is that Hitchcock’s films have a greater interest in the mechanics of plotting than character, whereas Chabrol’s are immersed in the minutiae of the psychological. In comparison to those of his French counterpart, the Hitchcockian character is a relative cipher, often made charming by the extraneous means of witty banter or fortuitous casting choices. However, in ascribing psychological depth to Hitchcock’s characters, one, more often than not, encounters shallow mining, as their personalities are generally defined by reflex reactions to the elaborate mousetraps set in motion by the director; since the majority of his plots are orchestrated to manipulate the players (and by de facto, the audience) as pawns incapable of movement or action independent of the needs of the intricate interlocking set pieces which at the heart of the grand designs of his cinematic puzzles.
This might explain why one of the most discussed and critically disparaged sequences in any Hitchcock film is at the finale of “Psycho” when the psychiatrist, portrayed by Simon Oakland, laboriously lays out a lengthy Freudian explanation as to what has just occurred, a supremely uncinematic sequence uncharacteristic of “the Master of Suspense” whose m.o. is in the advancement of plot through a visible manipulation of mise-en-scene, montage and camera movement, but, more importantly, it is the most conventional of any denouement in the director’s canon, as it is a rare instance where a mental state of a character is the most (the film is a betrayal of his suspense vs. shock effect aesthetic) critical MacGuffin in the film.
In the successful Hitchcock film, the gaps in logic (which are manifest) are masqueraded by a propulsive momentum in which the viewer’s eye is in a constant state of distraction; his uncanny ability to misdirect the voyeuristic complacency of movie going is among his greatest skills, one which he employed to greater and greater effect in his career; so much so that when he reached the limits of his invention for visual gimmickry, his films, left with only their blueprinted narratives and dim levels of credibility of character suffered grievously. Still, the aforementioned explanatory scene in “Psycho” is particularly instructive in its divergence from the usual Hitchcockian film, in that the protracted monologue slides the film closer to that of the pedestrian drawing room mystery, in which the labyrinthine motivations of the perpetrator are laid bare through laborious explanatory recaps, not through a cumulative objective examination of a depraved pathology. Necessary in a narrative structure entirely dependent on misdirection (a prior unappreciated triumphant example of Hitchcock’s power to play with the expectations of the audience occurred in “Stage Fright”, involving a masterful, yet simplistic, strategy in objective remembrance , entirely logical- and psychologically true in execution -yet met with derisive cries of foul from audiences and critics alike), the scene is an awkward, but necessary fit in providing a film, based entirely on sleight of hand, with meaningful psychological connections. If the scene feels tacked on (substantively there is nothing particular wrong with the scene as written), possibly it is that it essentially exposes an elemental rift in the Hitchcock aesthetic; attempting to- in one brief scene -to throw the audience a quick sales pitch without overtly admitting to the poverty of cognitive credibility in the rest of the film. That being said, it is almost impossible to think of any Hitchcock character who might have a life extending beyond the boundaries of his films, whereas Chabrol’s characters seem captured in the process of interrupting ordinary existence gone awry for the duration of the film.
“Juste avant le nuit” (“Just Before Nightfall”) begins in such an incongruous fashion with our meeting, married advertising executive Charles Masson (Michel Bouquet) with his mistress Laura (Anna Douking), the wife of his best friend François (François Périer), in flagrante delicto in the midst of sexual roleplaying involving asphyxiation. Almost imperceptibly, things go awry in what seems a practiced ritual with hints of sadomasochism, as Charles casually chokes Laura to death. That he neither seems to apply sufficient pressure to snuff her out nor that she barely seems to notice without a struggle sets the standard for the dispassionate tone of the film to come. The French appear far too polite for such niceties as making a fuss in a murder scene.
This tone of melancholic complacency will persist throughout the film; it is among the quietest and most meditative/subtle murder thrillers ever conceived, with the central conflict entirely comprised of an internal reconciliation with a moral conscience. Chabrol’s film is about the self-consumption associated with psychological guilt (the question of culpability in a legal sense is made to appear almost comically irrelevant, as he is never a target of investigative suspicion) and with this Chabrol does something interesting with his set-up from the very beginning: he fails to reveal whether or not the murder was intentional or accidental; only later during bouts of tortured reflection does Charles contemplate any deliberation of motive and attempts too convince himself that he acted with a willful murderous intent. However, the reality of that claim remains deliberately elusive as it may simply be an extended manifestation of his guilt and the need for atonement. Charles’ consumptive anxiety increases exponentially after desperate confessions to both his sympathetic wife (with whom he enjoys what seems to be a comfortably affectionate but sexless relationship) Hélène (Stéphane Audran) and friend François result in unexpected forgiveness, granting Charles a momentary reprieve until the more pronounced demons of his better nature begin gnawing at his mind. The expected consolation sought in the act of confession (a subtext of Catholic guilt- another commonality present in much of the Hitchcockian oeuvre -runs undeniably through the film), fails to ease his sense of contrition which grows to consume him to the point of surrendering to the unsuspecting police. That this underlying guilt fails to visibly manifest itself until far into the story is one of the film’s strengths; Charles’ initial continuation of his normal, unfettered domestic and work routine initially might be considered as the behavior of a sociopath, but this is only an extended calm before the psychic storm, with Charles quietly deteriorating while struggling to maintain a façade of tranquility. Only later does it become clear he is not stricken with a fear of prosecution, but dread that he won’t be caught.
By absenting Charles from police suspicion, the film removes the external threat from the protagonist and with the threat of exposure and arrest unsatisfied, Charles is forced to further internalize the full force of his anxieties. Chabrol’s lack of prioritization in the matter of the homicide’s investigation (we are privy to a few brief interrogations which are uncharacteristically- for a movie murder inquiry -polite and nonthreatening) accounts for a blackly comic irony later in the film when the same investigating inspector arrests a different criminal- an embezzler in Charles’ employ -an act which mocks Charles’ hunger for his own denied absolution. The film leads to a solemn but stunning conclusion in which an act of sympathetic love might also be construed as an act of mercenary necessity, and certainly the continuation of the pattern of moral ambiguity which, in Chabrol’s world, is inescapably part of human nature, despite the surface respectability of his characters.
Regardless of the control Chabrol exhibits as director or in his skillfully nuanced script (based upon Eduoard Atiyah’s novel The Thin Line, which was successfully adapted five years earlier by Mikio Naruse in his antepenultimate film “Onna no naka ni iru tanin” / “The Stranger Within a Woman”), it is the richness of skillfully contained expression in the performances of his actors, many of whom are part of his recurring repertoire of players, which makes the delicately modulated psychological drama of “Juste avant la nuit” ring true. Audran is warm and sympathetic, granting an almost impossibly saintly humanism to a role that could have easily cascaded into the cloying. However, most impressive of all is Michel Bouquet who, as the haunted Charles, is trapped in an inescapable spiritual extinction borne from his own actions, becoming the very personification of Eliot’s hollow men.
In the world of cinema sex, Just Jaeckin’s 1974 film “Emmanuelle” holds a rather special position between the then newly popularized concept of “porno chic” and the continuing exploration of sexual politics within the framework of the artistically inclined cinema; while in Hollywood, newly liberated from the moral chastity belt of the Production Code, studios were blindly inching their way through the cultural ether, succumbing to the infantile predilection of admitting to the very existence a sexual nature in the human experience by flashing a bare buttock or a pair of breasts in the most sniggery manner possible.
That the porno end of the spectrum quickly made it’s limited aesthetic intentions clear by the ceaseless procession of gynecological “tunnel shots” and ejaculatory excesses had the curious effect of anti-eroticism as the continuous depiction of coitus interruptus necessary for the seemingly important evidence of male climax, lending the supposed celebration of heterosexual carnality an unintended and certainly curiously unrecognized concession to the homoerotic. This ironic disengagement of intimacy at the moment of satisfaction rendered an ironic impotence toward the illusion of the sought completion of the any genuine immersive (save for either base curiosity or prurience which are themselves exhausted by the numbing repetition inherent in the porn genre) erotic charge (thus with explicit sexuality, film lost one of its most stimulating characteristics: the sensorial excitement of the imagination (the brain being the most sexual organ in the body) nullifying one of the key elements of judicial guidelines warning about the dangers in pornography- that it results in sexual stimulation or arousal -when in fact, artistically successful material of a sexually charged nature would naturally lead to such physiological or stimulated psychological responses. To expect an aspiring work of art to fail in its stimulative value based upon destructively misinformed standards encouraged not by critics or educated cultural canon but by myopic judiciary creates qualitative void advanced, not by aesthetic but moral evaluations.
At issue in the subject of sexuality in cinema is not whether a stimulative effect is immoral (and thus subject to laws of illegality) but whether stimulative effect is a direct consequence of the nature of the erotic and therefore should be judged solely on the merits of its aesthetic presentation and its subsequent effect in arousing from the audience the anticipated stimulative response. That sexuality is the remaining censorial stigma of American cinema (with the most extreme depictions of violence finding a welcoming home even with the most conservative of restrictive bodies: the MPAA) is clearly antiquated sediment from the laborious history of artistic repression as an extension of a misplaced puritan ethic that fails to recognize true artistry must be open to all areas of the human spectrum. The conundrum that faces the explicitly sexual in the medium of cinema is to approach it with a significant artistry within a validly dramatic context (The application of aspirations toward the loftier target of Art are both hypocritical and unnecessary since there exists no equal qualification for films of non-sexual content to meet the standards of artistry to avoid the wrath of censorial or- worse -prosecutorial intervention. . Certainly there have been countless films internationally (Excluding, in the context of this discussion, the purely hardcore “adult” cinema.) which have dealt with the sexual, many without any explicit depiction of the sexual act, and in the case of a more purely intellectualized exploration of the carnal instinct such as Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee”. “Emmanuelle, for all of its gauzy soft-core imagery intermixed with colorful travelogue backdrops of Thailand (When was it that Bangkok became the destination of choice for imprudent decadent behavior by the tourist class? Whatever happened to Perth Amboy?), is as grounded in phoney naivete as its namesake young wife who arrives to live with her diplomatically ranked husband only to have her sexual “innocence” shattered by every man and woman who comes within handshaking distance. Naturally, anyone who would have sexual relations with two different strangers after initiating such engagements with a rousing aisle seat exhibition of self abuse on the flight to Bangkok, would be hard pressed to be identified as a sexual novice, but such are the caprices of the Gallic view of the world.
This same aura of sexually sophisticated hokum informs every minute of “Emmanuelle” with its false assertions that its intentions reach beyond that of the hard core feature: both are determined to present the weakest definition of character and plot simply to get to the mattress action; without the sex, the films wouldn’t exist. Based on the novel by Emmanuelle Arson (a pseudonym for “The Sand Pebbles” actress Mariyat Adrianne, though the work has also been attributable to her husband; though it remains trash regardless of genetic lineage), neither the character of Emmanuelle nor her diplomatic husband (whose duties seem limited to poking his own wife or raping those of his friends) nor any of the myriad women acquaintances (all in convenient states of undress) would be identifiable in a police line-up, so arbitrarily anonymous are their appearances which seem chosen as much for the ability to affect pouty lips as a substitution for genuine acting ability.
The problem with the film as a work above the average hardcore porn feature of the day is that they share a common banality: weak-minded narratives whose only genuine function is to supply the flimsiest excuse for voluminous exhibitions of sexual congress without a complimentary context which infuses the sexual material with a dramatic import signifying either significant character growth (or, at least, revelation) or thematic excavation. Instead, despite the gauzy lighting schemes, exotic settings and impeccably coiffed starlets (it must have been hell maintaining the integrity of both makeup and hairdos in the midst of such a humid climate complicated by the sweaty intersecting of bodies during the film’s seemingly endless annotation of concupiscent couplings that borders on becoming an erogenic travelogue) there is no purposeful reason for the sexual content except as a source of titillation: continuous surface without substance, which inevitably not only fails as erotica, but becomes tiresomely humorless: the film also shares much with the so-called “landmarks” of the “porno chic” era as it takes itself far too seriously in a desperately unambiguous grab at legitimacy if not artistry.
This last is embarrassingly obvious with the introduction of the elderly gentleman Mario (an extremely self-conscious Alain Cuny) who becomes a de facto libertine version of Pangloss to Emmanuelle’s Candide (if, indeed, someone who has been passed through more hands than a collection plate in a revival tent meeting can be said to be an innocent) and whose lack of physical participation in his teachings nevertheless fails to prevent him from bringing the film to a crashing halt with his endless philosophical pontifications on the sensual existence, while the film veers off into less savory aspects of consensual relations with Emmanuelle suffering a rape (her second in the film, though under Mario’s labyrinthine tutelage seems a necessary component toward the girl achieving an increasingly fuzzy Pleasure Principle) as well as such exotic distractions a woman smoking a cigarette with an unlikely orifice, which, in the context, is clumsily inserted as if the film were either a spontaneously misdirected erogenic travelogue (Mondo Nicotine Sexualis?). or a panicked attempt to introduce anti-censorial credibility by illustrating a Surgeon General’s advisory against smoking that ends up hitting too far below the belt.
On the plus side is the pleasingly comely Sylvia Kristel whose approach to the eponymous role might actually be fortuitously aided by a believable air of bewilderment consistent with her prior acting inexperience, though while horizontally positioned she is capable of parting her lips quite effectively during judiciously strategic moments of breathily faked orgasm; not exactly a supernumerary ability to be sure, but a commensurate achievement when compared to that of photographer cum director Just Jaeckin who proves that in the world of cinema dramatists, he certainly knows how to properly frame a bowl of tropical fruit.
“The Cotton Club” (1984)
It’s a gangster epic, it’s a musical: it’s two failures in one. Francis Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” is another example of Hollywood’s continued tradition of minimizing the history and legacy of black culture in America and the exclusion of this culture as anything but a colorful backdrop to the more, by extension of traditional thinking, interesting concerns of white characters, even if they happen to be fictional creations. The film’s central setting is the eponymous Harlem nightclub which featured some of the most important musical talent of America’s black community while owned and patronized by whites, though there is no attempt to tell the story of the club nor of the evolution of music which occurred on its stage as the film veers into a mixture of white gangsterism and badly conceived stock characters, none of which would merit interest specific to the landmark club nor its roster of legendary performers. failing to explain its significance nor as to illustrate the emergence of the Black talent which featured prominently. Instead what we get is a silly melodrama, the kind of which in the past would have been pumped out with assembly line fervor at either the majors B-picture divisions, or in abundant number by Poverty Row studios whose product often flowed with a surprising energy to compensate for the lack of richer production values, which is, or should be, right up a resourceful director’s comfort zone. Instead, the increasingly ponderous filmmaker, working with inflationary bloat, delivers a lazy and insulting exercise in cheap crime melodrama usurping a rare opportunity for a significant view of extraordinary black talent; both of the past and the present.
This probably sounded like a promising collaboration between Francis Coppola, the director of “The Godfather” films and author William Kennedy, the chronicler of the underbelly of the American Dream in his vivid ‘Albany’ novels, but the resultant disjointed, unfocused and unbelievable exercise in Coppola’s increasingly uncontrolled stylistic excess, is made palatable only through (of all things) an old-style juicy performances by James Remar as Dutch Schultz which reeks of overly ripe cheese but is a desperately needed boost of golden age Warner Bros. zing in the arm of narrative inertia to compensate for the unrelievedly hollow core of a massively overproduced film with pretensions of grandeur that is also unfortunately fatally saddled with an embarrassingly sexless Diane Lane vamping like a five-year-old pageant contestant, and the ever reliable waxwork known as Richard Gere who mistakes his Clark Gable mustache for instant glamor and seems distracted by preening at himself in every available mirrored surface.
What either of these fecklessly played creations- equally dim in authorial conception -are doing in a film about Harlem’s famous musical night spot is a matter explaining the screenplay’s contortionist method of intersecting half-developed narrative tentacles all of which lead to an occasion in which a white musician (a precedent entirely fictional) is allowed to perform on the stage of the exclusively black performing nightclub. (Gere insisted on this perversion of history as a condition of his participation as if the presence of his callow smirking mug weren’t enough of an offense.) Meanwhile, Dutch Schultz runs amok while up-and-coming Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne, characterized with his usual overly starched glower) while club owner Owney Madden and his sidekick Frenchy Demange (Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne) cavort like a roadshow company of “Staircase”. The musical numbers are over edited in a style borrowed from Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” which visually punctuated the specific staccato rhythms of his choreography but does nothing here but fracture already misframed shots of moving torsos or disembodied legs in needlessly disappointing dance sequences which are meant to highlight Coppola’s flair for feel for music (a claim instantly disposable with a simple recollection of “One From the Heart”) or his incessant trivializing of every dramatic moment by showing off with decorous but impractical optical wipes and dutch angle in which the director seems to be attempting to make “Babes on Broadway” by way of “The Third Man”; it’s as if Busby Berkeley were assigned to direct Howard Hawks’ “Scarface”. Coppola is constantly showing off, as if he were a first year film school student given the reins to an unlimited budget and is desperately trying to impress the class instructor by painting his signature all over every frame. It’s a virtual textbook of visual technique, but without any resemblance to common sense as to how the aesthetic will compliment the drama. This is a problem which began cropping up within his ultimately insoluble collision between visual dynamics and hallucinogen flavored storytelling with “Apocalypse Now” and continued through his Las Vegas-based disaster); a reach for the avant-garde within the realm of commercial filmmaking that is an admirable challenge though one answered in an extremely ill-advised manner. Rumors of dozens of scripts does little to dispel the obvious: had Coppola worked with the most concise, focused and profound screenplay in Hollywood history, his gaudy direction would have sabotaged the project from the start. The film is also a further indication of Hollywood’s aversion to producing material in which black prominently figure in the landscape, with this story of Harlem’s most celebrated nightclub featuring so few faces of color, it could be taking place on the set of “Hello, Dolly!” (and not the Pearl Bailey-led cast). When historic figures such as Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway are featured, they are relegated to fleeting glimpses as if their contributions to music are no more than that of a blurry extra, it’s no wonder that that fictional colossus of music and film culture, the vacuous and spectacularly untalented Dixie Dwyer, is allowed to push aside the true musical legends of American culture to practice his most public act of self-adoration. The film ends with the execution of Schultz intercut with Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines, scandalously wasted by Hollywood) dancing a number which probably wouldn’t make a great deal of sense were it not used for this stale visual intersection, leading to the question: is Coppola paying homage to himself or is he simply out of ideas?
“2010” returns the audience to the proximity of the planet Jupiter, the location of the fateful showdown between the murderous computer HAL 9000, astronaut David Bowman and a particularly troublesome black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The slavish adherence (for once) to the laws of science in a SF film is just one of the many characteristics which make”2001″ a landmark of the cinema, though it is certainly the film’s metaphysical obtuseness that has promulgated the film’s reputation as some sort of philosophical Rosetta Stone by which endless speculation has been generated as to the exact meaning of events. For another movie to presume to present an ersatz cheat sheet which will lay out the solutions to the mysteries of the earlier film, might well be considered an unnecessarily presumptuous folly: a brazenly ill-considered act of coattail dragging firmly representative of a long standing tradition by which a studio might cynically bleed dry one of their most revered accomplishments; in this instance, with a sequel specifically designed to strip away those interpretively daunting aspects of the Kubrick film which grant it a poetic grandeur eclipsing its hoarier compositional elements.
However (and it’s an enormous however), the direct source material for Peter Hyams’ “2010” is derived not from “2001” but from that film’s co-scripter Arthur C. Clarke’s own novel 2010: Odyssey Two, which itself is a sequel to the Clarke/Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey companion novel to the film of which Clarke is also credited with co-authorship, itself being partially inspired by Clarke’s own 1951 short story Sentinel of Eternity. Logically one might presume that by adhering to Clarke’s novelistic version of the story, Hyams creates something of a breach between his film and Kubrick’s, with the newer film also abandoning the tricky satirical stylization of dialogue which continually says nothing and its extremely formal visual aesthetic which seems to discard the Eisensteinian imperative of the montage as an essential tool of artistic expression , and instead embraces the grimier, utilitarian depiction of the future popularized in SF films ever since Ridley Scott’s “Alien”. But it is the sweaty literalism of “2010” which creates the greatest departure from Kubrick’s deliberately stately ethereal obscurity, a literalism which is problematically present in the novelization of the 1968 film, and doubly so in Clarke’s follow-up novel, so much so that in the film Hyams has made from the novel, it is actually a corresponding sequel to the original 1968 novelization rather than Kubrick’s film itself. Such are the twisty corridors emerging from the world of ancillary products.
This dichotomy of source influences is demonstrated in the first moments, with the voice of David Bowman (Keir Dullea) declaring “My God, it’s full of stars”, later identified as the last transmission from the astronaut before disappearing, though a line which did not appear in the film, though featured prominently in both the Clarke/ Kubrick novelization and the Clarke’s sequel novel, thus establishing from the initial moment a fidelity to the novelistic version of the story rather than the cinematic. This is not a minor transitional point but a most critical bellwether indicating by which direction the film will find its aesthetic muse: Clarke or Kubrick, with the guiding path clearly compatible with the former. The film then gives an account of an summation report by Dr. Heywood Floyd, the director of the Discovery Mission played in “2001” by William Sylvester and here by Roy Scheider (a fortuitously buff choice since, for some inexplicable reason, Dr. Floyd spends the first twenty minutes of the film either devoid of long pants or shirt), essentially giving the briefest of recaps as to the major action of Kubrick’s film, accompanied by stills from the earlier film, though culminating (again) with that arrant quotation by Bowman, reemphasized for a third time in another aural representation. Surely in a lengthy film such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” in which less than one third of the film contains dialogue and which Kubrick’s method was (especially taking in to account his dramatization of an intentionally limited function of human discourse) to simultaneously regress and advance the dramaturgical mechanics to an almost purely visually sensorial experience, the overly explicit phrase “my God, it’s full of stars” would become the ultimate in irrelevant redundancy as Kubrick’s depiction of the same concept excludes the need to unnecessarily state the obvious.
From this seemingly minor element alone we can determine that Hyams’ course is to follow the more literal course of Clarke’s novel and thus finding compatibility with a more straightforward methodology toward narrative drama: eschewing the ethereal for the everyday, and also instilling glimpses of a humanism to the original characters which seems particularly foreign to Kubrick’s oeuvre. While the film’s dialogue no longer retains a characterizing substantive vagueness- perhaps wandering into overtly blunt discourse (often it seems as if the actors are delivering plot summaries rather than dialogue) -it is nonetheless softened in two memorable instances: the first between Floyd and the Russian ship’s captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren, splendidly played) with a simple exchange of familial information, and more pointedly in the second between Floyd and Discovery engineer Dr. Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) which disarmingly relays a moment of trivial but shared intimacy over memories of stadium hot dogs (After agreeing on brown mustard over yellow, Curnow comments with unironic finality, “That’s important.”) that expresses the humanity of the characters in terms that are diametrically opposed to Kubrick’s celebrated editorial cynicism over the lack of the same within his characters. Indeed, the final scene between Chandra and HAL culminates in an unspoken emotional understanding that truly blurs the distinctive boundary between a human and his awkward progeny of sentient intelligence that would be truly unthinkable in the earlier film’s universe of vacant connectivity.
There are a few alterations which do not effect the central mission in the film- the accompanying of Floyd, Curnow and HAL 9000 creator Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban) on a Soviet voyage to uncover what happened to the Discovery and further investigation of the immense monolith which is closely situated near the craft -nor the finale which basically discards every mystery of the first film in favor of a ham-fisted creationist encounter session; that approximates an interplanetary group hug rather than advancing an increased sense of wonder in the cosmos. Criticism for this thematic capitulation of the metaphysical to the pedestrian must be laid squarely on the shoulders of Clarke and his novel, which presents an entirely new problem in fairly assessing Hyams’ film, and that is to which should the director be held under critical scrutiny when the fidelity to the source material renders comparison with a previous film alone somewhat problematic since the preferred source material is Clarke’s book and therefore must be seen through the alterations inherent in that particular representational prism. Since one harmonious film encompassing both aesthetic perspectives would be impossible as an approach founded in literalism is bound to dispel the enigmatic intentions characterizing Kubrick’s film, it renders such an attempted symbiosis intractable.
However, the inclusion of a pedestrian political crisis with which Hyams insistently intrudes upon the mission’s focus is a miscalculation of staggering proportions. In the midst of deciphering the first indicators of extraterrestrial contact, the film continuously prods the open wounds of geopolitical instability simply to add a “timeliness” to a feature that constantly cries to be anywhere but earthbound. Perhaps Hyams realized how sticky Clarke’s finale actually was and decided to cloak it in increased significance by having the actions of the monolith be the titular savior of humanity. Floyd’s last minute reference to those behind the monolith as “the landlord” implies how gracelessly thudding the entire story has come crashing to Earth (A needlessly out of place scene set in front of the White House could have come from any one of a hundred hackneyed thrillers and feels it.) while the dilution of the central plot continues. (Just how much plot detail was left on the cutting room floor to make time for the hundredth utterance of “I hope there’s a world for you to come back to”?) If a mini-Cuban Missile Crisis in Honduras is deemed essential to keep the viewers engaged when the depiction of the first aggressive contact with another life form is being unveiled, it stands to reason that- at least to the filmmakers -the SF elements are deemed insufficient to keep the viewer’s attention. For their part, outside of an initial spirited conversation between Floyd and Russian scientist Dmitri Moisevich (Dana Elcar) which sets up the action, all of the earthbound scenes and characters seem to be conceived with a strange mixture of exasperating dullness (as Floyd’s wife Caroline, the usually spunky Madolyn Smith is given nothing to do except to glower moodily and fade into the walls) and cliche. Even Chandra’s exchange with the computer SAL 9000 (capably vocalized by the robotically voiced Candice Bergen under the exotic pseudonym Olga Mallsnerd) seems to exist solely for the sake of planting a key question which will later be repeated to greater resonant effect.
If “2010” were meant to settle the confusion over the meaning in Kubrick’s cleverly arcane 1968 film, it does so rather unconvincingly (Frankly, it doesn’t really try all that hard, given that the film takes the inexplicable turn into a last minute escape-within-an-inch-of-your-life pseudo-action film.). The simplistic explanation of HAL’s malfunction ignores specific occurrences of the first film which remain unaddressed and of all of the enigmas contained within the 1968 film, this is the least interesting as it falls into a familiar pattern of SF computers running amok while distracting from greater metaphysical questions which, frankly, neither Kubrick nor Clarke was equipped to directly confront. The fullest meaning of the “stargate” sequence is never addressed (simply because none of the characters outside of Bowman knew of its existence and he spends the entirety of this film being frustratingly coy about everything) and nothing is ever mentioned about the Star Child (though it does make an awkward appearance as if the closet of the first film was being given a vigorous Spring cleaning onscreen) for basically the same reasons. “2010” reasons that the monolith represents an alien life form/creator (Well, we all knew this!) and that instead of suggesting an unknowable wisdom through celestial chorales of Ligeti music, has now taken to shooting destructive energy pulses into any approaching object as if the giant shiny black plank had suddenly taken its operational strategies from watching too many Star Trek episodes.
“2010” might best be judged as a freestanding production, independent of Kubrick’s film, and under such reduced standards it’s a skillfully made, fairly absorbing SF adventure with believable performances and the presentation of several exciting scientific concepts while also ignoring some very fundamental laws of physics (why is it that filmmakers insist on portraying sound in the vacuum of space?): unnecessary breaches of credibility which are intended to ratchet up the action sequences, but is that really where the primary interest lies with the audience for the film? And after evolutionary leap of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, does not the field of cinematic science fiction deserve more? Director Peter Hyams has shown a consistent talent for energetic action sequences, but his weakness for allowing loose threads of illogic to suffocate the more complicated contortions of his often novel scenarios is evident even in a more sensibly structured narrative in which his more muscular efforts at producing the requisite thrills expected in today’s SF films merely puts a band-aid over a gushing creative hemmorage; delaying the inevitable disappointment of a space play which simply has no substantial final act.
“The Return of the Living Dead” (1985)
ZOMBIE ALERT: The following review may contain spoilers as well as spoiled flesh. If you have never seen the film being discussed, as a cautionary note it is advised that you might want to use your brains- while they are still intact -to determine whether you wish to continue.
Dan O’Bannon’s “The Return of the Living Dead” is a surprisingly funny film as long as it pays both homage to and deconstructs the myths about George Romero’s seminal 1968 thriller “Night of the Living Dead”. However, when the mass assault of the undead kicks into high gear, while still having the occasional jolt or comic twist that comes out of left field (including a reanimated corpse who is wittily motivated to call over a recently ambushed ambulance crew’s radio to “send more paramedics”) it both descends into standard horror tropes and reveals the dirty little secret of all “zombie” films: once the munching starts and the barricades go up, there’s really no place to go with the formula.
Which is a shame, as up to that point the film is a sharp satirical of elemental horror movie tropes which go bang, boo and squish in the dark. The early rhythms of the film are so quick, you find yourself laughing at the verbal and visual gags before you even realize how silly the set ups are; a small triumph of solid, witty writing and fortuitous performances of genuine comic gusto by veteran character actor James Karen and movie newcomer Thom Mathews who are appropriately cast as veteran Frank and newly hired Freddy, a pair of employees of the Uneeda Medical Supply Co., who inadvertently unleash the gaseous contents of a sealed drum which according to Frank contains the evidential link to the “true story” on which Romero’s film was based.
It seems that what was originally targeted at Deadheads, in effect, revived dead heads: a militarily contracted chemical toxin intended to destroy marijuana was released in a VA hospital, reanimating several corpses in the morgue; the remains of which have been inadvertently shipped to Uneeda, sealed in barrels where, for years, they have remained untouched in the basement, that is until accidentally breached by Frank, rendering both he and Freddy “unconscious”, with the remaining vapor escaping through the building’s ventilation system, reviving a cadaver as well as the odd split dog and assortment of mounted butterflies. Meanwhile, in the cemetery next door, a group of Freddy’s friends are gathered, waiting for his work shift to end; a disparate group of punk culture enthusiasts and posers used to contemporize the setting, though which should also grant fertile opportunities for O’Bannon to satirize said the particular anarchistic vibes of the cultural cliques within the framework of a nihilistic genre satire (inclusive also is the participation of Army Colonel Glover [Jonathan Terry], whose lives with 24-hour clenched teeth over the location of the missing barrels). Unfortunately, any anticipated cross-reference satire never emerges as once O’Bannon moves his attention away from the core trio (which also includes Uneeda owner Burt played by Clu Gulager) both the energy and the comic invention visibly flag, as a matter-of-fact, with the exception of affording the opportunity to have a few of the “punk” group dispatched vividly by the zombies, none of the group’s characters contribute anything to the advancement of the plot. An extended sequence with the characters in the cemetery unnecessarily trickles on without any comic or dramatic weight, seeming only to exist for the sake of its centerpiece: a gratuitous and embarrassingly pointless striptease and nude dance by the group’s stock nympho Trash (Linnea Quigley). Even Trash’s confession that her greatest fear of dying- to be eaten alive by a group of old men -is such an egregiously obvious plant (what are the odds such an event will occur in a film about flesh eating zombies, hmm?) amid a sequence that is otherwise vaporous in content, that the later occurrence fails to resonate at all.
Similarly, when the film moves to the neighboring mortuary, there is an identical dissolution of energy, much of this having to do with the performance of Don Calfa as the mortician Ernie, who delivers a carefully modulated but moody performance that’s on an entirely different wavelength than the Uneeda trio, knocking down the Hawksian energetic interplay down to a crawl (in one oddly languid moment, he stops to clip away a torn cuff from his pants, a bit of business that takes forever and stops the movie dead in its tracks), which might have been more effective if the unveiling situation began to unravel his complacency to the point of matching the trio’s initial energy level, but that does not occur. This differing performance rhythm also becomes problematic with the arrival of the outside help from the “real world” (anyone outside of the contained cul-de-sac on which the three principle locations- Uneeda, cemetery, mortuary -are situated), characters who approach the spiraling dilemma with the clueless precision of the situationally dumbfounded and thus provide the comic tension between the calm and the mortified, the logical and the nightmarish. Most of the reason for the unbridled escalation of the zombie attacks is the fact that the “outside” characters react with the cool logic of reality, with the knowledge that such things as the walking undead are fanciful inventions of fictional stories and films, whereas the smaller besieged coterie are alerted to the fact that the seeds of childhood sleeplessness are quite manifest and invulnerable to the common sense of the daylight hours: the outside world simply isn’t in on the joke.
In not pursuing this possibly rich vein of comic tension with an inventiveness equal to the film’s beginnings, the O’Bannon divests his film of its greatest attraction: an empathetic endearment to the core characters that ratchets up the suspense as to what will happen to them. Also, the director- almost from the beginning -pursues a direction which will have the most vital of consequences in boxing his story into a thematic corner: an almost fetishistic accumulation of the physical effects of a slow transmogrification from living to undead without a complimentary psychological one (as it turns out, the released toxic gas actually killed Freddy and Frank, and the remainder of the film relates their slow, painful ascension into the realm of the life challenged rather than creatively using their change in interesting and humorous ways. For instance, among the many evolutionary steps that find advancement in this film (unlike the Romero films which are often graced with mistaken attributions) is the view that the undead (specifically referred to as zombies, whereas in “Night of the Living Dead” they are identified as “ghouls”) are entirely capable of cognizant thought and communicative expression (yes Virginia, there is zombie consciousness) which is demonstrated with the aforementioned zombie calling for more assistance/food and the initial barrel’s “Tarman” who devises a winch in which to open a locked door so why is it that the majority of the resurrected- including Freddy when he turns -are conveniently reverted to mindless savagery when an amusing use of their continued intelligence could have been used for heightened satiric purpose? (The purely feral participants could have been limited to either the more decomposed or those who revived after partial brain consumption, setting up limitless possibilities of a zombie class structure.) This weakening inconsistency manifests in several areas which also brings unneeded limitations to O’Bannon’s creative arsenal: it is never explained if those who expire from zombie attack alone are also resuscitated or whether it requires an exposure to the initial toxic elements, which might explain Trash’s revival (unless this is simply an opportunity for her to walk around sans clothing later in the film) but still doesn’t explain punker Suicide’s (Mark Venturini) failure to reemerge. Nor is it explained if exposure the toxins through the rain stimulates the dead, does it also have a transformative effect on the living as did the initial gas on Freddy and Frank?
By presenting the film as both a satiric commentary on and a disclaimer of the myths of filmic flesh-eating zombies, yet to present such gaping holes in the logical consistency within the film’s thematic ambitions is creatively shabby. Still, there are interesting additions to the burgeoning zombie mythos which “The Return of the Living Dead” may lay claim beyond the advanced intellectual capacity of its undead and that is both a bold difference in their mobility- they can run and are not confined to shuffling about -and their dietary choice-brains rather than random flesh -which is revealed by a captured half-corpse (in a scene eerily reminiscent of a similar one in the same year’s “Lifeforce”) as a temporary curative from the “pain” of death. However, despite the introduction of the possibility of individualized personalities emerging within the undead ranks, due to their cognizant abilities, there is no development of recognizably individualized subjects who will be reintroduced throughout the film (not unlike the original cemetery ghoul played by Bill Heinzman in “Night of the Living Dead”), create a menace that has within it a palpable identity rather than simply a swelling mass of marauding brain chompers. O’Bannon allows exponentially increasing mathematics to take precedence over a subversively altered but identifiable humanity, a characteristic of virtually every zombie film produced, along with a similar anonymity among the greater percentage of the victims which may be ingredients for coldly engineered visceral thrills but falls short on emotional resonance with a greater reach.
With its mixture of the blackly comic with the bloodthirsty (fans of grue will find an abundance of crimson laced with a knowing wink), “The Return of the Living Dead” falls short in its ambitions as they simply exceed the perpetuation of the script’s original direction. This begs the question: which is more disappointing, a film which fails but shows glimpses of what might have been or a film which aims low and succeeds on its own impoverished standards?
Ralph Bakshi continues a downward spiral of technical quality of animation detail while simultaneously making preparatory practice motions toward his later incomplete rendering of “Lord of the Rings” in the dismal 1977 “Wizards”, a film which by all available evidence is hampered by a lack of completion funds, or completion interest on the part of Bakshi, or both. The film is a blatant amalgam of scattershot varieties of art styles and past film references, without the reverential tug of homage that often is the refuge of artistic plagiarism; though in the case of “Wizards” the usefulness in the borrowings is as equally ill-served by the most mundane of scenarios- a post-apocalyptic (why?) tale of sibling wizards in which the declaration of a war between technology and magic (though in its lurid context on Nazi propaganda what it’s genuinely about is the power of the movies to alter popular consciousness: the technological “marvel” able to excite the vanquishing armies is merely a film projector, significantly referenced as the “dream machine”) is declared in a rather crudely executed title card, though in the Eisenstein-inspired (the evil wizard Blackwolf even resembles Ivan the Terrible) wholesale slaughter of massive rotoscoped armies becomes irrelevant with a last minute switch which betrays the formal delineation between magic and weaponry (and thus undercuts the entire announced intention of the film), so the real difference between the brothers seems to be merely cosmetic (shades of “The Dunwich Horror”!).
However, much as the premise of the film is lackluster and spectacularly lacking in an imaginative reach, the truly appalling feature of “Wizards” is it’s shoddy, cheap and cut-rate production values. Beginning with titles so generic they would embarrass a student film, Bakshi (who also produced and wrote as well as assuming directorial duties: truly an auteur of the awful) immerses the viewer in an overly complicated overview of background information illustrated by attractive drawings which are clearly intended as production graphics for a much greater story, obviously truncated by deficiencies of resources. The problem with an animated film unfolding in still images might present a problem to most directors, but one cannot underestimate the perseverance of Ralph Bakshi who apparently finds no issue with cobbling together a greater enterprise from the scraps of pre-production leftovers. Thus the first five minutes of the film are rendered in deeply detailed images which are in jarring contrast to the astonishingly lazy cel animation which is to follow, and the randomness of the background design is annoyingly distracting with unaccountable shifts in influence from Bosch to Escher to “Flesh Gordon” (the phallic turret which is home to the cigar chomping Avatar is an unmistakeable “borrowing”) to Terrytoons without missing a beat, with the badly designed characters all looking stylistically out of place, luridly colored figures (the influence of Vaughn Bodé evident to the point of grand theft) which range from the morbidly cartoony to the saccharine cute cartoony, inclusive of the director’s signature rendering of women as either curvaceous sex bimbos, or prostitutes, an unfortunate holdover from his earlier gritty urban cartoons.
In this regard, the entire film resembles a test reel of design choices, each worse than the next, though this does not excuse the limp and unremarkable voice work which only increases the displeasure of the vacuous banalities which are intended to pass for dialogue. Only Susan Tyrrell as the uncredited narrator manages any significant contribution, her gravelly voice lending an undeserved dimension of surface depth to the otherwise obvious formulaic elements of the script.
John Badham’s “Dracula” (significantly altered from the original title, “Dracula, a Love Story” in it’s initial test screenings) is the product of a lack of point-of-view when dealing with material that is overly familiar to the public, to the point where every invention of lore and legacy is impressed upon the imagination of even those not particularly interested in vampires or horror films in general. It’s remarkable how acutely universal the details of vampiric lore, as blueprinted in Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel, has penetrated the public consciousness, and this universality of acquaintanceship is both a blessing and a curse for film makers; the former, as it demands less of original thinking and offers the comfort of preconceived expectations, and the former as the over-familiarity of those expectations demand more original thinking to offset the stale predictability of traditional expectations.
Within this creative Catch-22, director Badham and his scenarist W.D. Richter often appear paralyzed in a quagmire of indecisiveness in which direction the film should travel.
The film, inspired by a popular Broadway revival of the creaky stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which overcame its wearisome concession to reducing the intense horror sequences of the novel into an arid drawing room melodrama through an ingenious production design tailored by illustrator/author Edward Gorey and an overt conversion of the title character from a mysterious supernatural monster into a magnetic Gothic seducer by the fortuitous casting of Frank Langella. Granting the nature of cinematic design, Gorey’s contributions were predictably the first thing to go, though with the retention of the stage play’s fundamental revision of the bloodsucker as paramour (a rather natural ascension from Stoker’s female character’s surrender to the Count as a symbol of the woman’s rejection of the conformity to Victorian sexual inhibitions), an evolutionary step which is more inclined to be attributable to the signatory heaving bosoms of Hammer Films than representations of romance in the source novel.
Langella’s Dracula is a sensual creation; a Byronic lady-killer (in several senses of the word) whose stare literally vibrates with sexual energy- his eyes seem orgasmically charged -though, curiously, this only seems to have a subsuming effect on the fairer sex and the mentally enfeebled- as portrayed in an excessively slobbery manner by Tony Haygarth’s Renfield -a rather quaint remnant of the notion that a woman’s psyche was of a more fragile nature by nature of her gender, though the fact that this Trilby-like susceptibility to a powerful masculine suggestion is equally shared by those bereft of fullest mental faculties, is a antiquated prejudice which places the material back to a specific era of time whose gender structure is rendered rather meaningless by the reconception of the character of Lucy (whose name is inexplicably switched with that of Mina for no real reason) as a modern, radicalized independent woman, who is clearly meant to interject a more contemporary, almost antagonistic, component to the narrative in which the chauvinistic assertions of male dominance in regard to both intellectual and emotional resilience is proffered without a supportive explanation as to the bumbling inability of the male characters to spring into action until such attention to circumstances will require a harried pursuit usually leading to tragic dead ends. This retained sense of suppressive Victorian gender propriety- Mina is portrayed as little more that a tittering imbecile -is thrown a monkey wrench by the reimagined Lucy (Mina in the novel) as a modern protofeminist which might have been an intriguing notion had not the film maker’s lost their nerve and allowed the character quickly abandon her elevated reason to melt into the arms of the Count (and danger) at the first moment of convenience, culminating in the film’s greatest folly: a carnal tryst abstractly conceived as a poor James Bond credits sequence (the footage was designed by Bond title designer Maurice Binder) which gives an approximation of a vampiric love scene as scene from the surface of a wholly inappropriate sun.
The inconsistency of character is merely a more glaring example of an overall problem with the film. For a Gothic romance (even in the guise of a horror story), the brutality of violence is strikingly vivid and gratuitous. For instance, the opening sequence of the film involving the grounding of the ship Demeter ends with an inspired, sensually charged moment depicting Mina’s discovery of Dracula that begins with a noisome, frantically edited slaughter of the ship’s captain; a sweeping juxtaposition of style from overtly violent graphic horror to the poetically suggestive erotic that swings in widely distracting arcs which undermine any cumulative effect of the film either in a romantic or horror vein. Nor do the trappings of vampire lore inspire either adherence or, more importantly, any sense of consistency necessary for a legitimate suspension of disbelief: a vital building block for a genre such as the horror film which is often formed by the rules of its own logic, but a logic that must stay true to its own formulations throughout the film. This is especially important in a film based upon tropes which, as previously indicated, to which the audience is well versed. Indications of this type of inattention to the laws of its own stated nature are present in abundance in one important scene in particular: the discovery of the undead Mina, in which the demonstrated rules against a vampire casting reflections is undercut by Van Helsing’s first sighting his resurrected daughter reflected in a puddle of water. That the film also presents the now-vampiric woman as a colorless, mouldered ghoul rather than as being represented as soulless but physically indistinguishable version of her living self. In comparison, how romantically appealing would the Count be if he were composed of tattered, rotting flesh? The film also skirts about one of the cardinal rules of vampire lore which is the deadliness of exposure to sunlight, which- despite the film’s explicit finale -finds Dracula wandering about during dusky hours, amid shadows and even when there’s just a hint of haze in the air.
The effectively elegant moments of romanticism are undone by the film’s constant swerves into the grotesque, much of the material portrayed with operatic gaudiness, especially the entirely unnecessary sequences in Dr. Seward’s asylum which are punctuated with leering, drooling faces thrust into the camera as if Andy Milligan were staging a back alley version of “Marat/Sade”. John Badham is clearly capable of supernally evocative scenes, but appears uncommonly uneasy in hesitating to feed the baser appetites of the most commonplace audience appetite for grue and gore, effectively undercutting both his more eloquent visual expressions and the sublimely original performance of Frank Langella. Unfortunately, the film, despite its casting pedigree is otherwise unremarkable in its featured performances, with Laurence Olivier emerging as a surprisingly unmemorable Van Helsing, but worst of all, a coldly unappealing turn by Kate Nelligan, who in the role of Lucy and the film’s central target of seduction, expresses all of the warmth of a frost heave.
For all of the current nostalgic postulating over the 1970’s being the last “Golden Age” of American Cinema (it certainly didn’t feel that way on a week by week basis, but the distasteful chaff is always separated from the nourishing grain through the filters of treasured remembrance), there were many essential elements which helped characterize the studio era of Hollywood film making that suddenly appeared extinct. By the end of the 1960’s the charm of the movie musical was supplanted with garish, insupportable elephantine production values, the film noir disappeared with the absurdly shortsighted obsolescence of black and white cinematography, and westerns- once the purest of American culturally mythological forms -were suffused in a climate of contemporary revisionism which resulted in many interesting and sometimes artificially challenging works, but were absent of that special quality to which Hollywood, for all of its faults- and God knows they were legion -were almost unparalleled in infusing into even the grimmest of narratives (often to the detriment of the film, but that subject of immoderation requires more consideration than space currently permits), and that is class. For an example of the infusion of the aforementioned quality into what might seem a peculiar circumstance- homicide, after all, isn’t generally thought of as a charming situation -one need look no further than Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film “Murder on the Orient Express”, a fizzy confection that is the perfect antidote for the generally dour films of that particular period, concerned as they were with the disintegration of traditional values, trust, authority, societal structures- just about everything -and the films of today’s special brand of cinema which favor computer generated creatures over flesh and blood humans with the gift of performance craft. Lumet’s film, by 1974 already a throwback to bygone days and a miracle that it was even produced, is in equal portions sophisticated, charming, funny when it’s supposed to be funny and dramatic when it’s not, entertainingly effervescent in a way that comes naturally when real actors are allowed to play with the full richness of their gifts and supremely, satisfyingly elegant (it literally glitters through Geoffrey Unsworth’s diffused, gauzy lighting design)- and remember, this is directed by a man lauded for his mastery of gritty urban crime drama. It is a film, to use a fatigued axiom: as they used to make them, or more correctly, how we rather optimistically imagine how they made them.
The opening sequence, designed and directed by master animator Richard Williams, recalls the days of the immediacy announced by gaudy headline montages and the menaces of flickering, shadowy silent cinema; it is a sequence distinguishable from the rest of the film in both the kinetic drive of its action and the obscurity of its details. The set-up for the mystery to follow, the sequence is a brief but immersive chronicle of the abduction and death of Daisy Armstrong, daughter of celebrated aviator Hammish Armstrong- with all resemblances to the Lindbergh kidnapping intentional and expectedly recognized. Despite the surface casualness of the film- most of it unfolds on in a few confining passenger cars on a motionless train blocked by a snowdrift- the film never feels inert or deprived of the fluidity of action that grabs the moviegoers attention, as the action is entirely cerebral- puzzle solvers will get a good workout -and the opening sequence begins the game immediately with a generous smattering of clues which will be continuously referenced in the investigation to follow. Lumet and his adapting screenwriter Paul Dehn show a welcome understanding of the difference between the reading of an Agatha Christie mystery (the film is based on her popular novel) and watching the same story on a movie screen: the former process allows the reader to absorb and review the fine details of the story at their own pace, while no such cushion of attention exists in film; the audience has one chance to get it right. Despite the danger of a confusing, continuously shifting version of events and a fairly substantial number of both witnesses and suspects, the exposition of the facts (and thus the clues of the mystery) are presented in a pleasing, leisurely manner and surprisingly straightforward, though this certainly does not mean that the solution to the mystery is a pushover, but it does indicate that the construction and presentation of the narrative is one which rises to a particularly unique challenge: that of being a film almost entirely comprised of dialogue exchanges (outside of the opening sequence, there is no real action in the film) in the static setting– the bulk of the film is confined to not only the eponymous train which isn’t even in motion (its progress halted by a snowdrift), but to a few passenger cars and cramped compartments –which ill affords the variety of either location or movement (both physical and visual) to avoid the pitfalls of inertia. The bulk of the film, both stylistically and atmospherically is 180 degrees removed from the opening expository sequence (though the information contained in those few minutes provide the key to the entire story in more ways than one) and the promise of an intensely visceral mystery thriller is abruptly put to rest with an immediate switch to a time frame seven years later which signals a change to a far more placid expositional dynamic. However, the shift in gears is deliberate, for what the film will feature, and what differentiates it from most other mystery films, is a heavy reliance on character rather than plot mechanics; it is the relentless peeling away of layers of each suspect’s mind by the Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (an unrecognizable Albert Finney) which propels the story forward and engages the viewer as an active participant in the solution of the crime (the closeness of proximity given the closed quarters of the setting gives the illusion of our watching over Poirot’s shoulder during his interrogations, and his amusingly confounded “sidekick” in the drama, M. Bianchi (a winning Martin Balsam), the director of the railway line, acts as a surrogate for the audience in voicing an appropriately exasperated “he (she) did it” at the conclusion of each inquiry.
These interrogatory episodes are the heart of the film and they are wittily balanced in both what they reveal and conceal. Naturally each is a mini-showcase for a different member of the cast, and if the physical production speaks of old Hollywood glitter, the level of casting has carried this impression to the next level, with an impressive mix of accomplished stars (who are, significantly, first and foremost actors) from both the studio era and the contemporary scene, each bringing with them a recognizable public persona which is used to enhance the necessarily thumbnail nature of their portrayals. For example, Lauren Bacall’s wonderfully outspoken Mrs. Hubbard uses the actress’ familiar no-nonsense temperament to her role which places the audience in an immediately comfortable frame of reference. So too with John Gielgud’s polished but witty facade as the model of the gentleman’s gentleman, and Anthony Perkins’ of reference to his known persona as the emotional troubled mama’s boy (from a certain unnamed film) through which his initial demeanor of calm is slowly and deliciously unraveled. Special mention should also go to Ingrid Bergman’s sheepish missionary, Wendy Hiller’s splendid portrait of royal decrepitude and Richard Widmark as a businessman whose shady past is the catalyst for the entire affair. Both Vanessa Redgrave and Sean Connery shine in their very limited roles, with Redgrave pouring on a coquettishly seductive playfulness that energizes her scenes (she seems to be the only suspect who gets under Poirot’s armor) and Connery being the very model of the old British school of military officers (there’s a streak of Kipling running through the performance that would find grand expression in “The Man Who Would Be King”), though the role might have been enhanced a bit further with just a touch of the Bondian suavity this fine actor can convey so effortlessly. Only Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset disappoint, with the former appearing to be at a loss to find a focus (or reliable accent) for his role of an ambassador, and the latter looking unsurprisingly lovely yet inert in the most- admittedly -underwritten role of the film.
Then, there is Albert Finney. This actor who famously resisted film stardom but nonetheless became one through his sheer depth of talent (his output has been slim by industry standards- though well chosen -and while not always successful, his films are always of interest), despite his occasional forays into attempting to disguise himself underneath layers of cosmetic applications (as in this film and in his turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in the musical “Scrooge”), though prosthetics cannot disguise a natural film thespian at work; you want to see a Finney film just to see what he’ll do with the role and to enjoy the talent at play, and what’s a better definition of a genuine movie star than that? That he is playing a Belgian detective armed with an accent undeterminable- and probably of his own invention -matters not a whit, for Finney handily penetrates the essence of the character which has annoyed and delighted readers for generations: an insufferable popinjay who also is the most brilliant observer of seemingly trivial minutiae since Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street resident; Poirot is himself a theatrical artist, his detective work a continuous performance for the approval of his audience (anyone in the room). His Poirot is an ebulliently self-satisfied dandy whose greatest delight is in solving a case, primarily in proving a cleverness superior to anyone around him. That the case at hand proves motivated by factors outside of the usual temptations of criminality, the eminent detective is faced with an inevitable question of ultimate moral culpability with a decision to be made, determined by factors outside the purview of the law. During these moments, Finney brings new dimensions to the well traveled (in literature anyway) detective- in fleeting flickers of frustration in which doubts emerge as the value of his having solved the case, and by extension causing the subsequent ethical dilemma -as a champion of righteousness in the form of law, but, perhaps surprisingly, more so in what is morally just.
Lumet’s film entertains on a number of (to borrow a word) elementary levels: as a dazzling and eminently original mystery (Christie’s ingenuity in plotting is all in perspective, the solution a clever play on the phrase “who done it?”), a classy showcase for the kind of “character” performance which used to the deepen and enrich American cinema and has been all but forgotten in the new age of the singular promotion of celebrity masquerading as the excuse for charmless “movie star” vehicles, and finally in generating a genuinely old-fashioned satisfaction in the audience, an appreciation really, to a group of professionals who expended their talents and took the time, money and effort to produce this light but distinctive bauble simply for our viewing pleasure.
Sometimes, you have to love the movies.
“The Missouri Breaks” (1976)
A BRIEF NOTE: The recently posted You Can’t Go Homestead Again: Notes on Western Revisionism was actually the introductory portion of this very review, which was not only running a bit lengthy, but also threatened to dilute the attention away from the film in question. However, a look at that prior posting may serve to solidify certain points in the following review.
Midway through “The Missouri Breaks” there is an interesting scene in which rustler Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) confronts hired assassin Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) who is luxuriating in a scented bubble bath. The set-up is similar to that of a traditional western leading to a climactic confrontation, and this is exactly what the audience is led to believe will happen here, but rather than the emergent contest of firearms proficiency (and thus addressing the individual character’s fortitude in pursuing such a drastic line of response), the scene ends without a purposeful resolution. It is a scene which signals a heretofore openly unacknowledged provocation between the two characters in an already barely coherent contest of escalating gamesmanship, though despite the anticipation of immediate action, it becomes merely an incident of verbal antagonism: the western version of a hissy fit. It is also a scene key to an understanding of what the film’s creators have in mind- or more importantly, what they lack -as far as their conception of their characters and in a broader sense, their skewered conception of the western film. The scene leads to no immediate resolution, but an uncharacteristic hesitation of action that seems to have no clear purpose except to afford Clayton the opportunity to systematically whittle down Logan’s companions one at a time. The scene is symptomatic of what is wrong with “The Missouri Breaks” despite its lofty creative artistic pedigree- or more exactly, because of it -which gives us a film where the expectations of traditional western roles have been upended; but not in a good, or more importantly, meaningful way. There is no doubt that the intention of director Penn and screenwriter Thomas McGuane is to travel an iconoclastic path, but one that is significantly rooted in the well-worn tropes of the traditional American western; the film is littered with noticeable echoes of past movies.
So, what differentiates “The Missouri Breaks” from the pervasive flood of revisionism which emerged in the first half of the 1970’s? Plenty, as the film takes its direction from literary conceits rather than those strictly cinematic; the tone of the script is unmistakeable to anyone familiar with McGuane’s work, especially his debut novel The Sporting Club, with which a passing familiarity proves helpful in understanding (though not necessarily appreciating) the personality dynamics at play. The cruelly absurdist escalation of the events in that novel and the strained but mysteriously bonded relationship between the book’s central characters, Quinn and Stanton, find within “The Missouri Breaks”, both thematic revisitation and a palpable sense of situational deja vu in the relationship between Logan and Clayton. However, what passes muster in literature often finds an unhappy agar in celluloid translation (as proved by the miserable film “The Sporting Club”, not entirely the fault of the film makers, though there is that too) and the irreconcilable problems central to McGuane’s aimless narrative, which is not an example of revisionism in any sense, but rather an example smart alecky indolent posturing signifying naught but a barely concealed contempt for both the critical need for a moral center which might inevitably come into play (one gets the impression that such notions might be considered quaintly antiquated by the author), and a general misunderstanding of the genre in which he is working. The absurdist nature of the behavior within the film finds neither clarifying connective logic within the author’s thematic invention, in which the satiric elements might find cogent expression. Nor does the director seem particularly attuned to what McGuane is attempting to express. The entire film unfolds as a confused exercise in stylistic tail chasing, with the predominant emphasis placed upon the quaintly primitive moral structure of the western as an object of ridicule, in which no ideas are justified in articulating: if there is a fault in the film let damnation find a cause within the western itself as an untenable genre type. “The Missouri Breaks” assumes that not only is the western dead, that if it ever conveyed any legitimate artistic merit to begin with, the creative well has long since gone dry. The resulting film is mocking in a pretentiously smug way that bespeaks of unmistakeable contempt for both the mythic formula of the American western itself, and the characters who populate its stories. It’s an incredibly elitist stance of an Eastern pseudo-intellectual (McGuane claims a genuine affection for the western. God help the genre which invokes his wrath!) with little feel for the people within his own writing, except a derisive classist snobbery. In “The Missouri Breaks”, Arthur Penn and Thomas McGuane have collaboratively concocted the world’s first brazenly sniggery western.
The film neither attempts to revise history nor attempts a fresh perspective in the fictionalized image of the West. Instead it is a cowboy drama suspiciously absent of the feel of the cowboy, generating the bizarre sensation that we are consciously watching a group of people playing at playing cowboys. It’s an intellectual conceit wrapped in a Halloween masquerade, only the trick’s on the viewer. The metamorphic shifts in traditional western dynamics are decorative party novelties meant to distract from the vaccuum at the film’s core, and as such they result in meaning- or even symbolizing -nothing. If Clayton is representative of a shift of a representative of forced law by way of a hired gun who is revealed to be, not only a hired assassin, but an uncontrollable homicidal killer (a snarky bit of hipster post-Vietnam anti-authoritarianism which is as editorially anachronistic as if Clayton showed up brandishing a trident), this is nothing new in the genre: the preceding examples are too numerous to mention without an appendix, for example, the hiring of a psychotically motivated bounty hunter as a sheriff in Andrew V, McLaglen’s“Chisum”- certainly considered by no one to be a bellwether film -might signal that film as a landmark in the psychological redressing of the western mythos.
The film is also fairly conventional in its depiction of transplanted civilization, despite the decorative trappings of ranch baron Braxton’s mansion looming monolithically over his land in an image in which one cannot help but recall Wendell Minor’s cover illustration for Richard Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster. The social dynamic has not been reinvented as much as intended to mirror that of greater Eastern society, as it caters to the needs of the controlling interests, though even the other ranchers concede ultimate authority to Braxton himself, an unexplained bit of self-appointed demagoguery which seems fortified merely by no weapon more formidable than Braxton’s arrogant presumptuousness, a plot thread openly screaming for further exploration of the affected characters, but ignored. Since the film might just as well be called “Frontier Power and How to Get It”, it’s remarkable how little attention is payed to the actual power dynamics at play. The picture of industry is peculiar in the film as there is a great deal of posturing by the land barons but never once do we see any sign of actual process of productive labor; every character in the film seems contented that looking picturesque in their period garb is effort enough in establishing their occupation. Even the exploits of the rustlers seem ill-conceived and energy wasteful, producing little more than aroused prairie dust and further occasions for John Williams score to despoil the quietude with its relentless hillbilly yammering.
So, just what is Arthur Penn’s movie about anyway? Well, in its own way “The Missouri Breaks” can be seen as an entirely new breed of film: revisionist revisionism, though whether there was either a public or artistic demand for such an animal is a question for further speculation. It is not a matter of reinventing revisionism, per se (from the surface, this would appear to be a redundant enterprise) but actually applying the fundamentals of such an extravagant cultural shift in perspective not to revise both the historical mythology and principle thematic traditions of the genre, but to render these elemental building blocks obscure, to make every gesture obsolete, every utterance bereft of meaning. One of the tenets of revisionism is that it should have a conclusive destination, however, “The Missouri Breaks” displays interest in neither thematic reconstruction nor historical clarification, nor in even the most basic principles of narrative storytelling. Much has been made of revisionism as an evolution of both contextual elements and aesthetic form, usually citing the emergence of the so-called “spaghetti” western virtually simultaneous with the apparently permanent move toward revisionism in the American western, however, much of the exaggerated and stark visual scheme (which can often be described as excessively protracted or spatially expansive in design, to wit, the entirety of the narrative essence of “C’era una volta il West” would have been economically staged by a Budd Boetticher in under twenty minutes rather than Sergio Leone’s severely protracted three hours) which defines the Italian-style of western is an amalgam of formal visual elements previously associated with the American western (especially John Ford) itself, the Italian’s own peplum genre and even the widescreen compositional aesthetic as seen in the Japanese samurai film, most notably as exampled by the films of Akira Kurosawa. This convenient confluence of the emergence of a newly recognized (though not as enthusiastically recognized as a product of influence) visual vocabulary along with the severe shift in contextual form gave the impression that the two separate elements were somehow inextricably intertwined, which is nonsense, as revisionism in regard to the westerns in the cinema, is entirely a matter of contextual elements; those overly familiar tropes which have become so overused that the entire genre borders on cliché, most especially in matters defining of the morality tale to which the genre had become singularly identified (in no small part by the skillfully crafted and entertaining, but entirely artificial standards set by John Ford). Novelist Thomas McGuane probably thought it a clever and modern idea to go the extra step in deconstructing the already strained deconstruction of the genre, though the inversion of genre tropes for their own sake, without regard to the resulting schizophrenic paralysis this random monkeying incurs upends any attempt at both a consistency of thematic content and a cohesive structure within his narrative.
When Sam Peckinpah opens his “The Wild Bunch” with a bold main credits sequence depicting a group of children tormenting and burning a scorpion battling ants, the visuals resonate with a corruptive power of innocence gone feral, turning away from the tenets of unspoiled civilization into an abyss of moral rot which the remainder of the film explores with a genuinely refreshing, consistent and unbiased eye. There emerges a natural empathy toward truly bad men of the “Bunch” who are surrounded by men (and women and children!) just as bad or worse (as they don’t follow the same carefully delineated perverse code of honor as the members of the “Bunch”, who- if nothing else – show a unquestioned and ultimately fatal loyalty toward each other),and who- if not entirely sympathetic -are followed intimately enough by the audience to identify them as characters beyond simplistic archetypes, but more importantly, characters whose subsequent actions fulfilled the promise of these opening moments an unwavering focus toward a consistent thematic development. This opening, and the following bank robbery gone awry, slaughtering a passing parade of temperance campaigners (the representation of moral society under assault) caught in the cross-fire by the “Bunch” and the pursuing, ambushing gang of bounty hunters hired by the railroad interests (an eye opening representation of what passed for paid law and order), in a ballet of carnage in which the civil disciplines of proper society are forever In every instance, events and actions support and nurture Peckinpah’s themes, in a great gasp of revisionism which extends the uglier aspects of the traditional western to their logical but heretofore unexplored extremes. There is no such adherence to thematic fidelity in “The Missouri Breaks”, as a matter of fact much of the film seems a product of over thinking and self-satisfied overreaching; producing a tale as dry and arid (and lifeless) as a doctoral dissertation on alkali dust, while certain moments reach out and shout for attention as their peculiar synthesis of the ordinary and the innovative may invest a scene with pretense of idiosyncracy, but in the overwhelming vacuum of the film, its the same as a bratty child making rude faces pressed against a window: much noisome disturbance without a justifiable result.
The opening sequence is both picturesque and unexpectedly revealing. Three riders- the land baron Braxton (John McLiam), his foreman Pete (Richard Bradford) and Sandy, a young rustler (Hunter von Leer) -approach from the distance, engaging in a polite but noticeably strained dialogue until reaching a edenistic tableaux where a community picnic seems to be in progress, though it is soon revealed that the purpose of the gathering is the hanging of the young rustler, who in an act of unbelievable storytelling convenience, quietly performs the task himself. Much has been made of this opening scene with its seemingly shocking dichotomy between a violent, cruel act of murder and its pastoral community setting, but what is it exactly that’s being expressed? It’s certainly nothing new as hangings as popular public spectacle and entertainment have long been a staple of the western, with two of the most obvious examples being Ted Post’s “Hang ’em High” and Henry Hathaway’s “True Grit”, though in both cases, the executions are the results of lawful trial and convictions, while the unlawful, unmistakeable lynching which opens “The Missouri Breaks” places events on a different philosophical plateau which promises a film of fresh directions, resulting in one of the most avoidable frustrations: the lost opportunity for a genuinely original take on the clash between arcane manifestations of the forces of law and lawlessness in an essentially anarchic social structure which exists within a pretense of civil legitimacy. In this film’s conception, law is not a force of social order but of social control, guided by the land barons, though once Braxton hires the regulator Clayton to solve the rancher’s rustler problems (we are told they collectively don’t approve of this strategy, but apparently have no willingness to defy Braxton and back it up), the power shifts to more ominous Clayton: he is the only character in the piece who doesn’t misread Braxton’s community status to translate to unquestioned authority over the law (Clayton is also not alone in recognizing, in this circumstance, there is no law, but he is the only one who is increasingly deadly relying onthat realization). and with that insight, acts accordingly to his own uncontrolled instincts. Braxton’s authority, tenuously achieved through mere bravura (One wonders at the incredibly simple-minded conception of McGuane’s rural folk; no where is there evidence of the practical wisdom wrought from years of hard living. Braxton is presented as superior simply because he owns an impressive personal library and is the most book literate.) is no match for his hired gun who, at first, toys with Logan and then with Braxton himself; explicitly demonstrated in a bizarre scene in which Clayton amuses himself by spying on a tryst between Logan and Braxton’s daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) and then on an outraged Braxton who is also spying on the couple, an incident which Clayton later mockingly recalls to his employer, who immediately- and impotently -fires his killer, though it is clear Braxton has already lost control of the situation and his hired gun.
Braxton’s attitude is marked by arrogant bluster which blinds him in foreseeing the shortsightedness of his actions, every one of which results in irreversible consequences: his response to whether or not the recently hanged Sandy was a desperado, is a casual, “we put the man out of his misery”, and it speaks more about his character and the more interesting thematic possibilities of the film (had the author been willing) than any other line in the script. This comment precipitates Logan- himself a rustler, with Sandy a member of his gang -purchasing a small ranch connecting to Braxton with the intention of stealing the man’s stock and reselling it; though it remains unexplained how this destruction of an enemy is furthered by the subsequent strategy of elaborate vegetable gardening and attempted horse thievery against the Royal Canadian Police? This last enterprise depicts Logan’s gang as a desperate frontier Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a demonstration of incompetence which is previously illustrated in a sequence of tiresome and unfunny physical pratfalls as the gang renovates its newly purchased ranch, and especially in an extended train robbery played for a comic effect that is, no doubt, supposed to recall the hijinks of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” but is throws off the serious tone of the film, although nothing says high comedy like lynchings, impalement, a drowning, throat cutting and evisceration by gun blast.
Clayton and Logan’s first meeting depicts the regulator as one of those figures in popular culture who seem uncannily prescient as to whom his target of assault is from the moment of introduction, which is convenient for ease of story progression, but lacks a certain plausibility (actually, a great deal), though there is the suggestion that this may have to do with Logan’s rather disapproving attitude toward Clayton and his profession (his derision toward the gunman’s method of killing- from a great distance with a Creedmoor rifle -with the accusation that it prevents him from getting his hands dirty, and by implication is a cowardly act -will later resurface in a moment of exquisite irony, in the film’s only truly effective moment, when Logan finally takes action himself), a reaction which makes little sense since we have already been informed that the other ranchers have expressed similar discomfort. Clayton responds as a hybrid of Poirot and Columbo, resulting in a second meeting at Logan’s ranch, in which the assassin makes his suspicions bluntly clear. It is a show of the film’s lack of interest in its own characters that there is never a sense of the hunt, not suspense generated by a tightening noose, nor even a depiction of hesitation in the immediate accusatory behavior of Clayton toward Logan. Nor is it made clear when Braxton himself is aware of Logan’s possible criminal activity, as he shows no outward indications of direct suspicions but displays no surprise when confronted with more direct accusations. Clayton, for his part is introduced from the start as a wandering but deadly oddball, however, as the film progresses, he becomes less intriguing as his behavior is revealed to be, not merely the idiosyncrasies of a theatrical eccentric, nor even of an uncontrolled psychopath (more perhaps, an uncontrolled actor), but- disappointingly -merely that of a bully; an extension of the unfettered power granted him by both Braxton, and the other ranchers by way of their timorous consent. Clayton is merely acting out the baser impulses of his employer, who is restricted from direct action (in the opening sequence, it was necessary for the lynching victim to do Braxton’s dirty work for him)by their own innate cowardice. Or it could simply be an unfortunate by-product of a combination of trashy writing and bad performance.
Neither is there an appreciable development in the conception of women characters in either the enlightened (the modernistic view) or moral (the classical perspective) equivalent to a revisionist view of the western. If anything, the lone major female character- the rest subsumed to fleeting portrayals of whores, madams or spontaneous sex partners -is a portrait that is both narrow and unsophisticated, conceived by a writer whose continued flaw in this weakness in creating female characters is noteworthy. If the portrayals of Logan’s men are scandalously underdeveloped (when there’s only one death of a character in the entire film that generates a sense of loss, there’s a definite problem) there is no excusing the sloppily conceived role of Jane Braxton, a flaw only inflamed by the clunky performance by newcomer Kathleen Lloyd, whose idea of delivering dialogue is to expel her lines as if she were attempting to grind a swallowed fly. The role of Jane Braxton begins as all starch and fire: she is the first (and only) character in the film to openly demonstrate a break with what is meekly accepted as normal and to verbalize a resistant discord with the casual disregard for human life that is the self-serving community standard of justice. She brings a ringing, parochial Eastern view to the uncivilized west- though, interestingly, not naïvely as is the genre norm of the male tenderfoot out of place in a roughened society, but as an individual imbued with education and an obvious exposure to enlightened views. That she descends like a meteorite into the standard one-dimensional romantic partner is typical of the script’s extraordinarily lazy sense of character; she becomes obsolete right before out eyes.
Penn is a rarity: a skillful director who operates without a personal style, completely at the mercy of his material, though capable of adopting an aesthetic palette which gives a visual signature transposing the written style of his scripts. It’s an interesting talent, but one requiring first-rate material; there’s an absolute necessity that he be met halfway by the screenwriter. Unfortunately, McGuane’s script is content deficient, sketchily structured (and that’s being generous) and character inconsistent in an ungainly, ramshackle manner that more resembles notes for a first-draft rather than a finished shooting script. Unfortunately, one of Penn’s undeniable gifts- his ability to extract interesting performances from his actors -fails him here, with the lone exception of Harry Dean Stanton as Logan’s friend and confidant Cal. Stantonis blessed with that rare ability to make his characters feel worn and lived in, as if every action or thought were resulting from an accumulation of a lifetime’s experience. (The film would be far more interesting if the film were centered on his character, and there are moments when the camera seems to linger on the actor for just a bit longer than expected, where you can sense Penn agrees.) Seldom has a conglomeration of talented performers been given the opportunity to do so little. When they are summarily dispatched, the viewer is left with only the novelty of the timing of the killings (in flagrante, in mid-defecation) which has the odd result of making the circumstances of the deaths notable but not the fate of the characters. (Despite the casting of prominent character actors- John Ryan, Frederic Forrest, Randy Quaid -the members of Logan’s gang are completely unmemorable and interchangeable.) What does it say about a film when a killing of a rabbit has more resonance than the violent deaths of the majority of the human cast?
Much has been made of the odd (to say the least) performance of Marlon Brando as Clayton, a continuous parade of changing costumes (an illogical character trait that seems impractical without the assistance of a handy steamer truck for mid-prairie wardrobe changes) , accents and identities, which has been blamed for altering the character and subsequently the film, and although it is impossible to rationalize just what the actor had in mind, his performance in no way explains a similar inconsistency in the character of Logan, which the film nor the self-conscious portrayal of Jack Nicholson whose tone is as varied in direction as a weather vane in a tornado.