“The Oblong Box” (1969)
Gordon Hessler’s “The Oblong Box” is a tepid and dishonest attempt at a continuation of American International’s ongoing Edgar Allan Poe inspired series of films which began with Roger Corman’s 1959 “House of Usher”, though the film’s interpolated voodoo elements have nothing to do with the author’s story (frankly, nor do any of the film’s story elements), where even the most cursory examination of the production discloses the mere use of the 1844 short story’s title as an excuse to lay claim to an associative thread. The marketing department’s claim of the film representing a Poe tale of “the living dead” is a complete fabrication, though certain to be sending impressionable novice Poe enthusiasts back to the original story which is bound to not only confound expectations but unjustly disappoint the reader searching for a material remotely similar to the supposed film representation, quite clouding the achievements of one of Poe’s lesser known but more accessible tales of the macabre. This last description may also incorrectly categorize the story as having characteristic elements of grotesquerie- the central mystery as to the purpose and contents of the “oblong box” may yield such suspicions, though the denouement reveals such presumptions to be in error, as the story’s true core is more in concert with the author’s tragic lamentations of the obsessively felt loss of an all-consuming love equally expressed in the poems The City in the Sea, Annabel Lee and The Raven rather than a story commensurate with the lurid aspects of Grand Guignol. One can only imagine the apoplectic reaction at the exploitation minded AIP to a suggestion they produce a an unmotivated series of Poe movie purely- even with the retention of its central mystery intact -lodged in the realm of romantic longueur! Also, given the propensity for increased- and often unmotivated- save for gratuitous effect -graphic violence and nudity in the series, especially in vehicles which have equally feeble association with Poe’s work, despite the possessive marketing claims (“The Conqueror Worm”, “Cry of the Banshee”). it became a certainty that whatever form the project was to take, the inclusion of such gratuity would be part of the unfaithful filmization. These exploitative elements are particularly glaring in “The Oblong Box” as they tend to arise involving peripheral characters who bear little to no importance to the film. Indeed, the newly minted narrative credited to Lawrence Huntington and Christopher Wicking is little more than a derivative excuse for a series of unmotivated murders, all depicted without any sense of mystery and not a whit of suspense. Seldom have so many suffered for so little effect.
Interestingly, the original story shares an associative thematic thread which nestles it snugly as a slightly variant continuation of Poe’s foundational intrigues within the detective realm- the majority of the short tale abiding in rather personally obsessive deductive conjecture; obsessive, in that his suspicions are initially based upon the most tenuous instincts, though at no time does the nature of what the narrator identifies as a solvable “mystery” inaugurate equal- or even casual -interest by others. In the film’s reinvention, the unimaginatively overt nature of the film’s “mystery” is presented without a hint of abstruseness, a fatal flaw compounded by the unexplained reticence of the main character to acknowledge possessing an even rudimentary insight into the extremely transparent motivations of the unconvincingly elusive killer; inaction which only prolongs the inertia of the narrative and makes the eventual “surprise” twist more frustratingly anticlimactic than necessary.
The question arises: does a film maker have an obligation to slavish fidelity to a literary source? Not necessarily, though it would be refreshing if film makers considered, for a moment, the value of finding a cinematic equivalent in capturing the tone of an author’s work, especially in the case of Poe where an almost suffocating atmosphere of morbidity is present, often- as is in the case of his “The Oblong Box” -manifested through a spiritually consumptive obsession; the protagonist (as is often the case in his stories with a macabre bent) acting through impulses that extend beyond the realm of the rational. Poe’s characters often exist in a sanity threatened by (or surrendered to) degenerative impulses through which they construct a psychic corridor leading to their own downfall. However, with “The Oblong Box”, matters of literary adaptive fidelity are rendered moot by the simple strategy of total abandonment of the eponymous source material; the central mystery of both the box and the story’s protagonist has undergoing a dismissive transference from unsettling romantic longing to a tiresome fraternally internecine revenge mystery in which the illogic of the film’s reconception fails to include any motive as to why the bodies of indiscriminate murder victims are piling up as they have no connection to the source of the killer’s motivations. Nor is there any point-of-view in which the audience is allowed to sympathize with any character. The plot of Poe’s story, though shrouded in mystery until the concluding revelation, is a continuous building of empathetic uncertainty, balanced by sympathetic portraits filtered through Poe’s typically threatening ominous portents of possible intellective instability; it is unclear as to whether the narrator is obsessively distracted or fully cognizant until the mystery reaches its tragic conclusion. The film’s purported mystery merely dribbles to an unsurprising and creatively exhausted end.
The first pairing of formidable genre stalwarts Vincent Price and Christopher Lee is by any reasonable standard a non-event, proving (as if such prior evidence as the often wasteful occasions of both classic Universal and more contemporary Hammer marquee names cohabiting in dismal vehicles weren’t example enough) that a colorful frosting cannot successfully disguise the stale cake beneath. Lee is typically wasted in a role which demands only the merest stiffly wrought officiousness, though it is clear from his almost transparently worthless contribution to the story that his casting is strictly for box-office value. The same could also be said of Price whose relationship with AIP and Sam Arkoff is particular, was reaching a boiling point of disgruntlement: his continued appearance in yet another Poe adaptation contributing no new color to either the series or the actor’s own legacy (he doesn’t even occupy the central role in the drama). Director Gordon Hessler’s main contribution seems to be a penchant for unnecessary jiggly handheld camera shots which are, presumably, meant to impart both an air of immediacy and visual modernity, yet are merely used as a transparent gimmick in an attempt to lend an air of faux innervation to a toothless scenario and obscure the fact that little is happening in the scenes.
Ultimately, the oblong box of the title is of no relevance as a narrative fulcrum and is far less an object of interest than the illogical scarlet mask worn by the killer; adorned with narrowly slotted eye holes that would grant little visibility nor any nasal apertures through which to breathe; almost guaranteeing an inability to enjoy a clear view in front of his face; if only the movie’s viewers were so favorably appointed.
“Cold Turkey”, Norman Lear’s satirical swipe at the American Heartland, shows the intended imprint of its bite in the very opening moments with a collection of welcome signs to the tiny hamlet of Eagle Rock, Iowa that undercut the original intended greetings with sarcastic graffiti which mirrors a community on the skids; a promising omen that the writer/director (in his feature film directorial debut) will bring a refreshing a layer of bitter reality to the proceedings; that within a period of evolutionary economic prosperity, there are pockets of America that have fallen into a depressive decline.
Though Lear’s film often settles too easily in the relaxed comfort of cartoon caricature, it consistently finds a sharp observance with which to spring the narrative away from a collapse into permanent buffoonery. If comparison to a similar studio era effort such as “Magic Town”, which portrayed small town America as endearing but irretrievable yokels, Lear’s portrait of Americana is barbed without undo cynicism (the filmmakers seems to appreciate the decency of their townspeople), a rarity in social satire, though it is laced with biting irony which demonstrates an intentional deflation of the best of intentions, especially when those efforts are not accompanied by the purest of motivations.
Under the suggestion of advertising exec Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart, armed with an amusingly symbolic lighter shaped like a pistol), the Valiant Tobacco Co. issues a national challenge for any town in America to stop smoking for thirty days, with the successful completion of the task rewarded with a 25 million dollar check, a rather absurdist offer deliberately calculated as a mere pretense of public relations magnanimity due to the knowledge that the addictive quality of cigarettes will make such a challenge impossible, though the town of Eagle Rock, Iowa manages to gather its citizens to take on the challenge, fueled by the promise of the much needed economic boost, and most especially by the determination of the town’s spiritual leader (though the opening shows a sign announcing several denominations though oddly none of the others make their presence known) Rev. Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) whose own motivations transcend community good and reach into hungry career opportunism. Since the character encompasses what passes for the moral center of the film, it is well served by the caustic, unsentimental portrayal by Van Dyke, who wisely resists any temptation to exploit his more garrulous screen persona which can dangerously slide into a cloying cuteness. The interesting angle of Brooks’ character is that he is fundamentally unpleasant and the film does not shy away from granting the audience access to his this less than admirable side of his personality. He is both community leader and a bully, a gracious figure of understanding and an unyielding martinet, a figure of charity and a narcissistic egotist: most of which is most explicitly on view in the scenes with his long suffering wife Natalie (Pippa Scott) who is literally brow beaten into mutism, and who- in a savagely acute moment -when she finally gathers enough courage to finally say what has been on her mind, is struck down by the image of this same self-righteous popinjay now gracing the cover of Time. (His final dismissive aisde- “don’t slouch Natalie” -defines his supremely confident arrogance over her and his dismissal that she possibly has anything he wishes to hear.)
This is a key moment in the film, effectively merging the satiric representation of several different layers of authoritarian influence, not necessarily overtly asserted but certainly conceded to by a populace enamored of the idea of relegating the responsibility of events to those they perceive as more naturally capable, both in administrative (religious and political leaders) and mass cultural (advertising and journalism) roles. This blindly surrendered power drives the film’s humor and Lear wisely depicts those in charge as nominally capable (since they are the persons with the most intelligently plotted, if surreptitious motivations), giving a more solid foundation (Van Dyke is, in essence, the straight man of this comedy) to a delicate balance of a carefully mapped satirical design; which, as one descends the community food chain, is depicted in far broader strokes; though if there is a whiff of unfairness in the film’s treatment of Nixon’s designated “silent majority”, there is also a great poignancy in which the central characters are shown to suffer the torments of their addiction withdrawals to service the community good. (The fact that neither the health benefits to smoking cessation as a motivator or the depiction of a single successful permanent tobacco withdrawal are shown are only a few of the many acid points made in the film: cynicism being generally reserved for those targets of editorial ridicule which are either suggestion in an unspoken manner or critically assailed by the fact of their mere absence within the context of the film.) The tobacco challenge instigates individual disintegration that is wittily juxtaposed against the professional backgrounds of the characters: the town physician Doctor Proctor (Barnard Hughes) becomes a virtual babbling basket case from cigarette withdrawal, the mayor (Vincent Gardenia) finds himself incapable of keeping order in his own increasingly chaotic household never mind the town, the town’s lawful authority is peculiarly consigned to members of the Christopher Mott Society (a burlesque rendition of the John Birch Society) in which the dueling patriotic zeal of leader Amos Bush (Graham Jarvis) and foul-mouthed senior citizen member Odie Turman (Judith Lowry) is, more often than not, in exasperated argumentation over imagined Communists seeking to smuggle in cigarettes, and the outwardly piously stiffnecked Reverend Brooks turns his suffering wife into a virtual sex slave as a distraction against the temptations of nicotine pangs.
If a populist subjugation to authority is the foundation on which the film explores the ease with which the average citizen surrenders personal choice (and thus, importantly, a sense of personal responsibility) for the sweet narcotic of lackadaisical mass conformity (tobacco acting merely as an all-encompassing metaphor), nowhere is this more blatantly evident than in the treatment of mass media news personalities with the idolatry usually reserved for a sighting of the Burning Bush; this last expertly and hilariously depicted- in multiple roles -by the legendary comic radio team Bob (Elliot) and Ray (Goulding), who demonstrate the sameness of the community of stolid then-contemporary news merchants (David Brinkley, Paul Harvey, Walter Cronkite, Hugh Downs), separated in character only by the merest difference in a squint or furrowed brow.
The film is buoyed enormously by the witty Copland-esque musical scoring of Randy Newman, including a the solemn anthem “He Gives Us All His Love”, which serves a dual purpose- the film actually travels in an elliptical path in which initial impressions are given new and scathingly ironic counterpoint by the finale -from quiet spiritual meditation to sneaky, politically ironic sarcasm; an aural distillation of the intensely intelligent thematic arc in Lear’s film which appears to aim low and safely but in actuality is respectful and affectionate toward the honest simplicity of the earnest values of the American heartland when unintruded upon by mercenary (and therefore corruptive) outside intermediaries. In the end, the most biting satire of the film falls squarely upon the dedicated manipulations of those more sophisticated (supposedly) outsiders (Brooks included, as his desire to leave the town in pursuit of career ambitions is expressed openly on several occasions) whose desperate need to purloin importance on the backs of the sincere efforts of innocents eventually fulfills the ambitions of both, though in doing so, as indicated in the film’s logical and smart coda, dispels any naive misconception that shaking hands with the Devil doesn’t come at a cost.
“They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” (1970)
“They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” is an entirely inconsequential follow-up to the excellent 1967 Norman Jewison crime drama “In the Heat of the Night”, retaining only the title character (the title itself is a direct lift of a line from the first film) and needlessly shifting the homicide detective’s milieu to the sunnier but far less interesting San Francisco, instead of the original film’s Philadelphia (where thebeat of Quincy Jones’ pre-“Shaft” driving urban funk might have found a more appropriately gritty venue). Were this the only difference from the first film, the geographic dislocation might have gone unnoticed, but Gordon Douglas’ sequel is far more problematic; reducing a tempestuous, indignant and interesting character into a placid generic gumshoe whose greatest concern during a homicide investigation is for his young son to clean his room.
The murder of a young woman leads to immediate suspicions directed toward politically prominent preacher Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau) ,who coincidentally is a close friend and confidant of both Lt. Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and his wife Valerie (a flavorless Barbara McNair) resulting in Tibbs’ removal as the lead in the investigation; though naturally- being that he is the star of the film, and any character played by the eminently honorable screen persona advanced by Poitier is not about to enter rogue Frank Bullitt/Harry Callahan territory -it is understood that this decision is merely for public consumption and that he will remain the actual point man in solving the case, which appears from the available evidence to consist of little more than walking into rooms with a stylish raincoat, behaving knowingly righteous as if tipping off a unspoken prescience, until the suspects (for some reason apparent to only screenwriters James R. Webb and Alan R. Trustman) betray their guilt by bolting from the scene; though no one seems to recall- despite the fact that such paranoia inducing finger pointing leads to the serious injury of one and the death of another, neither who are guilty of the crime -while the obviously guilty party is allowed to circumvent the proper administration of justice throughout the film since there would be little reason to continue the film beyond the opening credits.
Bereft of the racially tense Sparta backdrop of “In the Heat of the Night”, the film desperately grapples to find a new thematic subtext in which to explore the suddenly one-dimensional main character, though the gratingly vanilla quality of “Donna Reed Show” domesticity seem included only to show that black families are as capable of being just as dull as anyone, with the snail’s pace of the film slowing to a paralytic momentum in the frequent (and increasingly lengthy) battle of wills between Tibbs, the father (who hesitates broodingly to indicate he’s a sensitive dad before slugging the kid across the chops) and son (an effectively obnoxious George Spell who creates a corporal punishment poster child for brats meriting a polo mallet on the back of the head), which culminates in an entirely unmerited temperamental reconciliation between the generations at the fade out; perhaps the only real and unexplained mystery of the film.
“Rio Lobo” reeks of exhaustion. The final film in the lengthy and often illustrious career of director Howard Hawks, this western is a continuation of a pattern of laconic narrative drifting that has increasingly characterized the greater number of his films during the latter period of his filmmaking career, including his well regarded but insanely overrated “Rio Bravo” and his enjoyable but ultimately pointless safari ramble “Hatari!”.
Both of those films (perhaps- or not -coincidentally also scripted by Leigh Brackett who contributed to Hawks’ earlier, impossibly labyrinthine “The Big Sleep”), regardless of memorable individual sequences or even if charitably, viewed as an entertaining collective of spirited and energetic sequences fail to gel into a sound narrative whole with neither giving the impression of more than a valedictory assemblage of Hawks’ most familiar directorial signatures than of an actual structured dramatic arc. (One might easily enter the theater tardy at any point in these films without damage to appreciating the continued flow of events.) But it is the lack of passion- rather than merely the lack of equally absent energy -that is the film’s most alarming characteristic; the fundamental passion which drives the western genre in its higher level of accomplishment as elemental morality plays. Now, such dispassion is hardly unique to this film alone within the genre, in fact it is a fairly common condition within the morass of brainless copycat oaters which have proliferated the cinema since the silent days, but it is attention worthy when such a film is both a John Wayne vehicle and one directed by esteemed Auteurist icon Howard Hawks; a strange bird as cultural icon, being a studio director of almost invisible artistic ambitions but a generously employed sense of fine-tuned craftsmanship successfully employed in an impressive variety of film types including dramas, action films, screwball comedies (his output in this last is arguably unrivaled in defining the genre) but his western influence- certainly the apprentice to Ford’s sorcerer -has been wildly exaggerated and overpraised especially since his last three works in the genre are essentially variations of the same theme; an example of distressing creative anemia that would result, one would presume, in increasingly interesting offerings rather than just the opposite.
John Wayne plays Colonel Cord McNally, a Union Army officer who is engaged in a transfer of a gold shipment in a somnabulistic depiction of the Battle Between the States; there is so little immediacy evident in every action and every line delivery, that one might well assume the Civil War was merely an extracurricular intramural rivalry rather than a ferociously bloody rending between intranational brethren. McNally pursues a Confederate unit who has been stealing the shipments but despite the mayhem they cause, are rather sympathetically portrayed as simply helplessly bad actors in different color uniforms, including Sgt. Tuscarora Phillips (Christopher Mitchum) and Captain Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero) who give chase through some pictorially dreary forests (which is appropriate given the wooden nature of most of the performances) until McNally captures the two Southerners but revisits with them outside of the Army prison at the end of the war. Considering the bitterness of the conflict (historically, if not within this film’s frame of reference), the three men enjoy a happy reunion as McNally only seeks revenge at the two treasonable Union soldiers who tipped the Confederates to the gold shipments, an interest which will inevitably lead to a rather anticlimactic unveiling of the culprits in the small Texas town of Rio Lobo.
Appropriating the aforementioned flaccidity of structure the film lopes along in far too a leisurely a manner to develop any sort of momentum, nor is there any apparent interest by either the director or the screenwriters in the progression of a narrative which might define a character, develop a relationship or generate anything in the way of suspense or tension. The film’s title sequence, which one might anticipate could set the tone for the film is a bizarre acoustic guitar rendering of Jerry Goldsmith’s limp theme music shot in a way which most accurately resembles a television commercial for a mail-order album entitled Cocktails Over Strings and seems rudely juxtaposed against the rest of the film, yet within minutes of the actual start of the film’s story, it is apparent that what is being witnessed is a complete absence of a consistent rhythm from shot to shot within scenes, a lackadaisical sense of place and an almost across the board ineptitude of performance (Rivero and Mitchum are bad enough until the introduction of Jennifer O’Neill who makes the mildly disinterested Wayne look like a different John– Gielgud -by comparison.) Wayne does convey a disappointing impression of participating in a particularly dreary western-themed improv sketch (perhaps because it seems like he’s already spoken all of these same lines in dozens of other movies) amid the most colorless and disaffected group of performers assembled in one western (Victor French is a particularly inert villain); so much so that the pitiable insertion of journalist cum professional amateur George Plimpton fumbling through an essentially extras part, barely registers a notice. How could it when the subterranean thespian standards of Sherry Lansing, in one of her few film appearances, makes it very clear that as an actress she was born to be a studio exec? Only Jack Elam as the elder Phillips manages rise above the tedium, broadly overplaying the stock role of grizzled coot in a performance that in a better film would be garish burlesque, but here manages to be flammable tinder amid a pile of wet leaves.
If ever there were a film by a veteran director which screams “time to hang up the viewfinder”, “Rio Lobo” is it, with its clumsy pastiche of random episodic scene cobbled into the semblance of a tired episode of a minor television western drama that feels overlong by at least an hour even at a running time of 114 minutes. Here the cowboys didn’t ride off into the sunset, they stopped first for a nap.
________________________________________________________________ “Fritz the Cat” (1972)
Ralph Bakshi’s film of Robert Crumb’s underground comics character “Fritz the Cat” is a not particularly faithful rendering (thus the creator’s heated objections) of a counterculture icon who isn’t all that interesting in either representation in the first place. Cynical and misogynistic (not unlike most of Crumb’s underground work), the character only seems only appears be softened by the necessities of fleshing out the characters and situations into more than the faux anti-establishment placards through which his characters express Crumb’s rather tepid notions of cultural shock value.
To be honest, much of the satire is obvious, rendered on a juvenile level and dull (in keeping with the Crumb original): the depiction of police as pigs (obvious) who bumble through their useless version of law and order like an anthropomorphized Toody and Muldoon (juvenille) which results in predictably tiresome observations of the law as mindless fascists picking on innocents who are only looking to get high and laid. None of it is particularly interesting, with the film only notable as the first animated film to get the “dreaded” (so much so that it was the selling point of the film) X rating as if this were an immediate conferrer of noteworthy provocative content, when in fact, the film is rather weak kneed in exploring genuine groundbreaking material be it social, political or sexual. Not that “Fritz the Cat” doesn’t contain a wealth of sexual content that shatters decades of standards- both aesthetic and contextual -set by Walt Disney in feature animation; it features this in fairly generous portions, generally limited to frenzied gyrations as well as an abundance of large exposed breasts and buttocks (both a signature of the Crumb oeuvre, though thankfully we are spared any hardcore depictions of penetration), but this is simply meaningless prurience in the service a vacuum of significance and an absence of meritorious accomplishment. (Though for those whose aim fails to rise above the gutter, Bakshi’s contribution to the animation arts includes several graphic depictions of male urination, surely a cultural milestone that could have been flushed.) The film seems unfinished, underbudgeted haphazard and often sloppily animated, padded with obvious filler, badly performed by ill-suited vocal actors (especially by the thinly voiced Skip Hinnant as Fritz) with an equally tinny soundtrack conveying zero aural density, and undercut by a confident assurance that a logically conceived narrative is less important than a self-deluding hipster attitude: in other words, a typical Ralph Bakshi production.
The film follows NYU student Fritz the Cat in a series of random incidents loosely cemented together as a directionless road/head trip without the benefit of accumulated wisdom or interpretable experience, which only exposes the material to a cynical light on Bakshi’s (who also scripted the film) views on the world through the haze of cliché riddled misanthropy. If all of the female characters are either helium brained vessels in need of a roll in the tub (white) or walking raging hormones on the prowl for a good roll in the back of a bus (black), then the males (those who aren’t porcine coppers that is) are dimwitted druggies (white) or jivin’ violent hustlers (black), with every character spouting half mumbled jibberish that is either supposed to be enlightened or streetwise but only sounds like meandering improvisational dribbling with, again, attitude substituting for expressive clarity. If there is intended satire in all of this then it has been left on the editing room floor, as Bakshi mistakes bile for insight and vulgarity for truth; in this regard, he is- despite the artist’s objections to both Bakshi and the film –Crumb’s creative doppelganger, the only differentiation being one of editorial temperament: where Crumb is more openly caustic toward his targets, the film is limply aggressive and convinced of its own cuteness.
Fritz’ rambling experiences include encounters with a trio of clueless co-eds in a bathtub, a synagogue postulate with rabbis, a Harlem bar in which he instigates a knife fight, a bloody race riot which he also instigates and an act of industrial sabotage after witnessing a brutal beating and rape. In fact, rather than advancing any counterculture sensibilities which espouse a useful alternative to Establishment doctrine (however that might be interpreted beyond the primitivism of the unfunny police burlesque), “Fritz the Cat” is a campaign for callously wrought anarchy (certainly within the Crumb canon but in a more philosophic bent) and haphazardly ignited societal violence (entirely antithetical to Crumb’s world view despite his rampant cynicism), but Bakshi doesn’t even have the courage of his misconceived convictions as no matter what behavior his funny boy feline is guilty of the director continually presents him as a Candide-like innocent though, to present a fair comparison, Voltaire’s unfortunate hero was never guilty of arson, grand theft auto or instigating a riot, perhaps resulting in the death of hundreds or participating in the domestic terrorist act of blowing up a power plant; this last seems, for some reason, eminently forgivable as the policeman guarding Fritz’ hospital door sheds considerable tears over the little hooligan, setting the stage for a restaging of the already questionable finale to Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, a direct reference which would appear contradictory to Bakshi’s presentation of Fritz as a glib (and horny, but then so are all of the characters) but natural innocent to the manifestations of societal and political evil about him. In Bakshi’s debased view of the world, he wishes to have his cake but place it in the bottom of a urinal as well.
“Hang ’em High” (1968)
With the successful American release of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, the time was right for Clint Eastwood to re-emerge on the domestic movie front with this western tale of vigilantism/revenge, which more than any other work up to this point in the actor’s career would set the template for his cinema persona for years to come. While it is true that the Leone films established Eastwood as the lone-wolf western version of the ronin of chanbara movies, with “Hang ’em High” many of the characteristics which would define decades of Eastwood portrayals- both western and modern dress -would be cemented, in particular his recurring role as character of Police Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, which not unlike Eastwood’s role of Marshal Jedediah Cooper walks the fine line between defender of the law and vigilante, though in the case of “Hang ’em High” the instigation of Cooper’s zeal is entirely personal: he is mistakenly lynched as a murderer and cattle rustler in the opening minutes of the film, and once retaining a new appointment as a Marshal of the Oklahoma territory (he is a former lawman as well), he spends the majority of the movie in pursuit of the nine men who wronged him. Unlike the later Harry Callahan films, there is an effective authoritarian voice- who keeps Cooper’s actions from spilling into anarchic vengeance at the drop of a hat -in Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), whose judicial power oversees the entirety of the Oklahoma territory, or as the Judge describes it: “a happy hunting ground filled with bushwhackers, horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, counterfeiters, hide peelers, marauders- they’d kill you for a hat band.” It is the continuous tug of war between Cooper’s primitive impulse toward revenge (regardless of the trappings of legal pursuit) and Fenton’s idealized goal of a metamorphosis from badlands to civilization (the granting of statehood, in this context) which informs “Hang ’em High” with a latent sense of extended consequence which penetrates every character and major action in the film. Within the context of Fenton’s running discussions (arguments would be too inexact a description as the scenes between the Marshal and the Judge are surprisingly intelligent and contain an openly philosophic density uncommon in the average western), the heart of the film is revealed to be a drama of civilized people damaged in some way by the corrosive effect of the inhospitable environment in which they dwell.
The film is drenched in violent death, both in overt depiction and vivid recollection, so much so that one might wonder how the entire population of the territory wasn’t exterminated in a matter of weeks. Yet every act of violence (and certainly every death) is meaningful; contributing to the texture of each character’s existence: death and loss weigh on the people of “Hang ’em High”; both insinuating themselves into the very fabric of their psyches, causing them to become bitter, vengeful, cowardly, brittle: but always haunted. Every major character is granted an occasion to reveal an aspect of fragility within themselves: as Cooper begins a tentative courtship with the widow Rachel (Inger Stevens) who herself has suffered traumatic shocks in both her husband’s callous murder and her own victimization by multiple rapes, she has already admitted to having “ghosts”. Fenton accuses Cooper of using “the law and a badge to heal that scar on your neck”, while the judge later speaks at length about his own demons of doubt in yielding such unquestioned power of life and death over such a vast territory.
However, such confessionals are not necessarily a mark of weakness as there is an admirable- if never quite perfectly unflawed -resolute perseverance running through these same characters, formed from archetypal materials but remolded into surprisingly resonant personalities by the insightful ideas hidden just beneath the surface of Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg’s deceptively untraditional action-oriented screenplay. The film is also rife with contradictions, not errors in logic or continuity, but the kind of behavioral (a lynching versus legal executions by hanging) and attitudinal (pursuit of justice corrupted by blind vengeance versus survival instincts colored by cowardice) paradoxes which often reveal as much about how identical actions may sit at polar extremes of moral social acceptance particularly with the introduction of legislative authority which may elevate questionable actions with a protective judicial righteousness even when equal events undistinguished by the conveniently respectable cover of law are condemned with the mark of moral decrepitude.
While the film lingers over these moral complexities, it is entertaining and thought-provoking, though the film is also riddled with unfortunate and unconvincing connective plot elements necessary to ensure that events will flow in a progression complimentary to these same thematic issues. For instance, Cooper captures three rustlers and thwarts their lynching by the son and friends of the rancher killed during the theft. He must return the three to Fort Grant which is three days ride through a barren, desert environment (the geography of the film, like many westerns, is inconsistent with reality and no more resembles Oklahoma topography than the dark side of the Moon) and must do so by himself, as the acquaintances of the dead man want justice for the killers, though they are too stubborn to assist the Marshal in bringing them to justice. This convenience of illogical behavior guarantees that what is referred to as Cooper’s “historic” trek will prefigure into Fenton’s main argument for the need for unquestioned judicially enforced (literal) execution of justice. Without the “heroic” journey, there is no demonstrable example on which Fenton might base his argument (according to the judge, which is another fallacy of logic to which the script unnecessarily simplifies its own initially cogent observations) and therefore (according to the film’s obscure logic) statehood might only be achieved through the provident occurrence of unpredictable and arcanely motivated behavior. Nor is it ever explained why all of the other Marshals make their rounds with a prison wagon and armed assistance, where Cooper rides solo equipped only with a steely glare and a seemingly endless supply of cigarillos? Clearly there is an attempt to make Cooper a singular, mythic figure of law enforcement, but how does this not diminish the efforts of the other lawmen, when only Cooper’s unreliable and insensible methods (which usually result in killing the subject of the arrest warrants) are lauded as yielding the only results which are important in bringing civilization to the territory? The film also fails to address Fenton’s and the collective Marshals’ failure in being able to execute the arrest warrants against Captain Walker (Ed Begley) and his confederates- the men responsible for Cooper’s lynching in the first place -before or while Cooper is recuperating from an attempted assassination by the same conspirators.
The methodology of law enforcement by frontier enforcers is haphazard at best- we only meet one other Marshal (Ben Johnson as Dave Bliss, who rescues Cooper from the lynching tree) for any length of time and even he is dispatched off-screen without further consequences to the story -but the film truly excels in its generosity toward the subjects of the hangings. Sufficient time is spent throughout the film in building small details- usually through brief but revealing dialogue -about several of the incarcerated and convicted criminals, magnifying the moral resonance of the film’s set piece- a six man hanging -in which all of the preceding ethical conflicts are put to a pragmatic test. Each of the men is given additional time for their final declarations, and there is telling economy in how each character faces his fate which defines them as idiosyncratic individuals whose final moments are melded only through the unnatural intercession of American jurisprudence. For once, men on a gallows are not used as hollow decorative sport in the depiction of hanging as a revolting source of mass community excitement- though there is that as well -but to depict the condemned, not merely as bad men tried and convicted, but as human beings strayed on a corrupted path. With the mass hanging in “Hang ’em High”, there is no cathartic release of certainty that justice has been vengefully achieved, as Cooper himself rails against the execution of two young brothers (two of the three rustlers he delivered alone across the desert) as being morally less culpable of the crimes than the third (significant, he is one of the original nine lynching conspirators) and leaves disgusted; finding solace in the arms of a friendly brothel prostitute (Arlene Golonka), only to be shot down while the hanging proceeds up the street. Here is another occasion where illogical narrative developments conveniently seize upon a specific moment to force home otherwise arbitrary thematic points: Jed lecture the judge on the need for fairness and the answer is to be set upon by the very elements the judge is aiming to eliminate from society (though in this twisty tug-of-war of flexible conscience, Jed wants these particular men, though not for the ultimate benefit of society). Rachel’s later- presumably post-coital -concession to Cooper that perhaps she is finally ready to set aside her ghosts (the closest this film gets to a positive emotional declaration) sets the stage for an equal resolution with both Cooper and Fenton’s moral torments, yet this is not be be as the film cannily (and in its own way, consistent with the insoluble nature of the Fenton-Cooper philosophic chasm) remains open ended and, if not outright ambiguous, then sufficiently comfortable to leave its raised questions to be answered by history- if at all. At it’s heart it’s an anti-capital punishment film which admits there are occasions where the process is necessary: an endlessly debatable contradiction.
Ted Post, a veteran of episodic television programs (including several classic western series), directs the film in an unhurried, efficient style necessary in assembling weekly hour-long drama: sensibly eschewing flashy directorial flourishes while settling for the conventionality of concentrating on the substance of the scene. The film wins no points for the kind of deliberate genre expanding visual schemes that became signatory of the then-popular spaghetti western genre, nor is it informed with borrowings from the then-fashionable European New Wave (as are the western films of Monte Hellman), but rather is presented in a straightforward manner which directly mimics the unheralded discipline of direction which places the emphasis on the script rather than decorous visual impression (in many ways “Hang ’em High” most resembles an extended pilot for a continuing series, especially in its deliberately open-ended finale). The large cast, populated by a wealth of familiar character actors who are each generous afforded moments to make significant contributions to the larger mosaic, is highlighted by particularly appealing work from Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson and Bob Steele; the only two performers disappointing in their efforts being Ed Begley whose histrionic intensity is emphasized by a strange decision to pull the camera as close to him to enable a close examination of every facial pore, and a mercifully brief appearance the legendary ham-fisted Dennis Hopper, whose quick demise can only be regarded as a mercy killing.
“TRUE GRIT” (1969)
By 1969, the Western as a film genre had begun to be officially- but prematurely -declared dead, in no small part due to the overabundant proliferation of western programs on television. Yet, that same year found the release of three western films of significance, two of extreme public popularity, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “True Grit” and one, a landmark of the genre, Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”, as well as the contnued popularity of the Italian “spaghetti” western sub-genre. Of the three American features, Henry Hathaway’s “True Grit” follows the familiar conventions of the classical western unlike the encroaching trend of the anti-traditional revisionist western. Though seemingly an amiable, rambling pseudo-comedy, it is a film of uncommon psychological richness; a film steeped in the traditions of the “adult” western seemingly finding it’s first overt expression in Henry King’s “The Gunfighter”, the two remarkable 1950’s Western series of Anthony Mann/James Stewart and Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott, and finding it’s deepest expression in John Ford’s masterwork “The Searchers”, of which through both character and the starring performer, “True Grit” may be identified on the surface as a younger sibling.
Based upon Charles Portis’ acclaimed novel of tall-tale Americana, the film marks what may be the last of the great traditional westerns even though the content of the film would, in many ways, seem to be a peculiar hybrid of period realism and caricature of the mythic Western archetypes, especially those popularized in mass entertainment culture, in no small part by star John Wayne himself. However, despite the narrative trappings of classical genre tropes, “True Grit” brings something entirely new to the well-worn conventions of the western, and that is an emergent female character who is not simply a decorative character, anxiously awaiting the fate of the hero, nor is she a representation of feminine weakness or frailty who must be protected by the same hero. No, the role of Mattie Ross is smart, enterprising, stubborn, fiercely determined to bring Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), the man who killed her father to justice, and only fourteen-years-old. While there have also been an abundance of prominent children (or youths) in the western genre, never before has there been such a determinant character who is both catalyst and preeminent critic of the film’s trek toward justice. Despite the presence of Wayne, by the time of this film decades past his initial and permanent ascension to film stardom, it is Mattie’s story first and foremost.
Without apparent harm, the film abandons the book’s structure of remembrance but substitutes something more provident; a palpable sense of time slipping away (mirroring the novel’s concluding line), not in terms of mortality, but in terms of a sense of place in which character may determine its destiny without the intercession of a patronizing culture which clucks at those characters deemed outside of proper society, though they rely on these same individuals to do their dirty work (a major thematic link to “The Searchers”). Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne), a coarse, unforgiving, trigger happy U.S. Marshal is such a character: a man already seen by the community at large (Mattie makes several inquiries about the marshal and the opinions are universally unfavorable- yet oddly admiring), but the characteristics which make him an outsider, including “true grit”, are the qualities which are admirable to the young Mattie; not so incidentally, they are also the traits which define her own character. (One of the genuine pleasures of the film is the slow but skillful bonding between the two which forms on their journey; this becomes the sentimental heart of the film between two characters to whom everyone depends and yet they are essentially alone.) Mattie has no allusions as to the grave character flaws in Cogburn- he is virtually the antithesis of the archetypal taciturn lawman; he uses cocksure bluster as formidably in the field of battle as his guns, in a way that mirrors the high spirited no-nonsense practicality of Mattie’s. Certainly this resemblance of character is not lost on Rooster who at at one point admirably declares “by God she reminds me of me!”
The film is also a serio-comic meditation on a humanist angle little explored with any depth in the Western film genre, but is a certainty to have played a dramatic role in life on the plains: loneliness. (Psychological isolation was a key to the main characters in both “The Gunfighter” and “The Searchers” and was at the very core of the remarkable 1968 film “Will Penny” featuring Charlton Heston’s finest film portrayal.) As portrayed in both Charles Portis’ novel and Henry Hathaway’s film, people are separated by not only physical distance but by the distance of attitudes. (This is emphasized with the use of Colorado and Wyoming landscapes inconsistent with Arkansas and Oklahoma topography. The mountains not only loom over the characters but often threaten to engulf them into a geographic oblivion.) Isolation strikes at the heart of every major character, and draws the characters into active groups either good (Mattie and her pursuing lawmen) or bad (Ned Pepper and his gang of outlaws) as survival seems possible only by the grace of loosely formed confederacies which may be unraveled at any moment by a sudden eruption of animus or terrifyingly quick and unforeseen violence. Otherwise, it’s a lonesome, dangerous nomadic existence both for the lawman and the villain with little comfort or contentment to be earned except for the continuous promise of the chase.
In many important ways, this film has connections to Wayne’s greatest screen triumph “The Searchers” as both films are about isolation and personal dislocation with society at large. In each film, both Ethan Edwards and Rooster Cogburn are misunderstood instruments of a vengeful American society, reviled socially but tolerated to do the difficult tasks an increasingly “civilized” (in westerns, this is often comparable to weakness) society finds itself to be unwillingly engaged. In both films, though there is behavior outrageous in terms of what a genteel society rates as the norm, they are the better people; honest, direct and unflinching in their view to see what needs to be done and doing it; there is an essential and invaluable pragmatism at work in these characters. That these qualities are shared by both the aged Cogburn and the teenaged Mattie is reflective of a genuine feeling of societal exclusion which crosses generational lines (What a message to be sending during the pinnacle of manufactured youthful distrust against “the Establishment”, as if older generations were not hampered by the same anxieties.) and leads to a more affecting connection between the characters as the film progresses. Mattie’s reference to “true grit” also signals the general contempt she has for most other people whom she regards as weak, impractical.and most certainly dishonest: her insistently vocal unctuous proselytizing marks her as either a social pariah, or condescendingly dismissed as a far too headstrong child (her mind is far too adult for her age, though she is bereft of the social graces one associates with adulthood). Only twice do genuine deep emotions surface in Mattie: in a rare solitary moment in her boarding house room when in examining her late father’s pocket watch a flood of heartbreaking remembrance and loss is triggered, and the final scene where she meets Cogburn at her family resting plot. This last is an interesting and successful change from the novel: in Portis‘ original, a grown, bitter and spinsterish Mattie seeks out Cogburn only to find that he’s died shortly before her arrival, whereas the film- deprived of the structure built upon a nominal reminiscing narration -reunites the pair shortly after their adventure, where Mattie’s act of unspoken affection toward the marshal signals the film’s conclusion of a narrative circle: with Mattie warmly berating Cogburn over a minor matter, reminiscent with a similar occurrence with her father in the film’s opening, and unspoken but understood, she welcomes Rooster as a substitute father figure.
This is a significant softening of her Mattie’s inflexible, parochially intolerant character in the book, and it works to wonderful advantage. In her adaptation, Marguerite Roberts maintains Mattie’s intolerance but gives it a more manageable, practical edge; her parochial intransigence succumbing to her business sense. She is not beyond nullifying an honest business deal for her own purposes while using psalm quotations as a form of radical persuasiveness: the scenes with the horse trader – played to perfection by Strother Martin -are models of plot and character exposition through modified argumentation. Roberts also manages a tricky balancing act in reinterpreting the novel into more traditional Western forms while remaining remarkably faithful to the source. In redirecting narrative descriptions into dialogue verbatim from the text while retaining the exact exact flavor of the stylistically formal cadences of speech, most especially from Mattie, she fully represents the writing of Charles Portis onto the large screen; a major achievement in artistic adaptation. Even the concessions to Hollywood formula are achieved with finesse, and while altering several events in the concluding portion of the tale; these alterations do nothing to significantly change the character of the protagonists. Even young Mattie, while fourteen in the novel, is portrayed by the more mature Kim Darby (twenty one at the time of filming) though in abandoning the remembrance structure, the film also eliminates Portis’ finale, with an adult bitter Mattie seeking out Reuben: an ending which does not work in the book, and is well abandoned.
The film also shifts the focus from Mattie’s exclusive perspective to a more balanced Where the novel’s Mattie is a hardened, intolerant Bible quoting , the film Mattie is equally opinionated through sensible and therefore softer. She is allowed to be girlish which makes her all the more interesting. The Biblical references within the story- Tom Chaney’s Mark of Cain, the fall into the snake pit -are sensibly retained but not italicized; the subtext remains just that without overt breast beating. Its a classic story of not justice but retribution (considering all of the initial argumentation over whose jurisdiction a captured Chaney would be returned to, there is no remorse expressed when the wrongdoers are dispatched without jurisprudence).
Kim Darby brings a tomboy plainness to the role of Mattie, which suits the role handsomely, and there is nary a weak note in her performance, save one: a one-on-one scene with Glen Campbell (playing the Texas Ranger La Boeuf, who will become the third member of her party to capture Chaney) in which neither performer seems able to achieve a proper rhythm for their line readings; perhaps lacking the influence of a more seasoned actor within the scene to help guide through the difficulty of Portis’ stylized dialogue the cracks of inexperience become momentarily apparent. Campbell, for his part, is a tad inconsistent, though he is saddled with the film’s most underwritten role, often acting merely as a foil for Mattie or Cogburn’s verbal barbs. This was a shortcoming of the novel as well, and though not adequately addressed in transposition, La Boeuf is central to a dynamic change in the plot which brings a surprisingly tragic development to a presumed moment of victory. John Wayne plays the marshal against his tailored character type and it’s a bracing reminder of just how accomplished a performer he could be when allowing himself the opportunity to perform outside of the more restrictive models of masculine heroism. It is certainly one of his warmest performances, embracing a generous camaraderie with Darby (it was a rarity that a woman could emerge from the large shadow of Wayne in a film, Maureen O’Hara being the obvious exception) that allows the actor to express a touching combination of bravura and tenderness; he is particularly effective during a nocturnal reminiscence about his past that subtly hints at Cogburn’s- despite his assertions to the contrary -regrets about a life that might have been. In “True Grit”, Wayne may be wearing an eye patch, but he’s acting with both eyes wide open.
“GETTING STRAIGHT” (1970)
Imagine the panic in Hollywood studios in the late 1960’s, many already absorbed by corporations who had no more knowledge of the film business than a dairy cow has about producing Dulce de Leche, and those same businessmen following marketing studies and flow charts to indicate which way the audience of the commercial cinema marketplace was leaning; as if there were any alchemic algorithm to predict box-office success, the reality of which is amply demonstrated by the mountains of beleagered and discarded cinematic albatrosses left to twist in the proverbial winds of infamy. So, imagine this same congress of artistically inexperienced businessmen calculating the cultural sway which caused an entire industry to rush to produce films in the short-lived but hopefully lucrative rebellious youth fad, reflecting then-current anti-establishment values which would be the very antithesis of the the deciding corporate mindset. Compounding studio concerns was that they not be seen to appear to be pandering to the youth audience while not appearing to abandon the traditional adult audience demographic from which they were dependent on for their bottom-line bread and butter. (This would come later.)
The studio execs at Columbia Pictures (which at this point had managed to evade a corporate buyout through a generally sensible fiscal outlay, healthy financial returns and the avoidance of ensnarement in the RKO anti-trust case which decimated the other studios that heavily relied on their theater ownership for capital) need not have had any worries over Richard Rush’s“Getting Straight” for underneath the camouflage of hip relevance is actually a politically squeamish film which straddles every issue it pretends to address: from the antiwar movement, to black militantism, feminism, sexual freedom and generational disaffection, without taking a stand on any of them as it never states for a moment just what the are the particulars of such noisome public dissatisfaction. As the film’s main character, a Vietnam vet/former activist graduate student named Harry Bailey, reminds the university’s president- a satirically (?) named Vandenburg -“this country was born out of disorder and founded on freedom and the will of the people”; a disorder that’s evident in plenitude (especially in the latter portion of the film), yet still missing philosophic specifics which would give the characters weight, nor does the film itself ever delineate the specifics of the will of the people in question. When a film’s theme explores the value of not abandoning one’s revolutionary ideals, it cannot risk forsaking the core principle that it’s more important to understand, not what you are against, but what you are for.
Based on the witty, entertaining, but featherweight novel by Ken Kolb, the film “Getting Straight”, finds a massive amount of material excised from the source, and to screenwriter Robert Kaufman’s credit, it is labor of heavy duty pruning generally realized for the better. Gone is an entire plot line which consumed a full half of the book, concerning Harry’s employment in a department store promotions department, material which is used as a humorous counterpoint to his more idealistically based academic struggles and certainly a rather obvious satiric thread targeting capitalism and business (though eventually far too broadly burlesque for an effective punch) that would be more appropriately situated in a 1960’s David Swift comedy than in a seriocomic meditation on walking a tightrope between warring establishment and anti-establishment factions, with much of the humor derived from the similarities of wrongheadedness and the equally stubborn inability of either side to recognize this common, inelegant flaw. However, in dispensing with external narrative threads, the resulting toothlessness which needlessly colors the film’s depiction of student unrest and the university’s administrative response, undermines the legitimacy of the antagonisms which will plague both Harry’s credibility as a character and subject the represented atmosphere of political discontent with an increasingly withering scrutiny it cannot overcome.
The film follows the travails of Harry Bailey (Elliot Gould), who is studying for his Masters Degree and Teaching Certificate while continually swamped with entreaties of approval by the leaders of campus protest, seeking counsel from someone who they collectively look at as a Solomon-like veteran of radicalism (he reveals he was at the events in Selma- one presumes the reference is to “Bloody Sunday”, though this is not clarified) though the universal naivete of the students drives Harry to fits of to exasperation: characterized by jabs of sarcasms for which he apologizes and almost immediately blowing up into a furious boil, his anger most often directed at his off-and-on girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen), whose chameleon-like ability to readjust her interests (they can’t be defined as passions as she barely seems conscious of what’s ever going on about her) eventually has Harry explosively observing: “you have the attention span of a snail.” She is also a wincingly safe target, which has the unfortunate effect of making the “enlightened” Harry seem like both a sexist and a bully. Bearing in mind the often unfathomable romantic pairings in real life, this union of opposites is unconvincing in the novel and more so in the film; emphasized by the historically inept performance of Bergen (she of the classically chiseled nose which could theoretically play phonograph LPs), an unprofessional effort so ruinous it could be legitimately recommended as an additional subject for campus protest. (The most accurate way to describe her portrayal is to admit that it’s probably the best imitation of Ewa Aulin as Candy Christian available anywhere.) This vapidity of character is also injurious in how Harry’s character is defined. It is clear from the numerous trysts and even more incidents of heavy flirtation, that Harry’s sex drive advocates the free-love policy with a dedicated enthusiasm that would make Hugh Hefner blush, but this strengthens the argument that he would not burden himself- and the movie -with constant reconciliations with such a trivial partner as the helium brained Jan, unless one is willing to simplify his character to that of a walking erection visited by occasional pangs of social consciousness.
The film is plagued with further inconsistencies which undermine the very foundations of the central theme. Harry is an interesting character creation- an intellectual whose heart is sympathetic to social inequality in theory while maintaining a posture of complete nonpartisanship to either side of the actual corrective struggle -but his idealistically realized unquestioned infallibility is symptomatic of the pseudo-mythic ascendency which figures of the counterculture are afforded by dreamily enamored writers. His credibility as a representative of the legitimate revolutionary idealist class encounters discomforting limitations when his philosophic courage is put to the test by the combative factions (on both sides) which whom he is equally (though his passivity appears invisible to those who are blinded by his reputation) engaged. Harry is exhausted by the uniform vacuousness of the student leaders’ aggressive posturing, but expresses a pretense of sympathetic solidarity to their natural sense of frustration over a perception of impotence in their ability to be allowed to mold their own political and social identities. On the other hand, his anger with the university administrators, or anyone in a capacity of authority appears absolute and inflexible, perhaps an extension of his earlier radical experiences, but the eloquence of expression by these same authorities is not depicted with the unfortunate, protective glow of naÏveté the director exclusively reserves for their juniors. Rush fully intends that those with a touch of grey are the enemy of freedom and reason, and unfairly punctuates Harry’s encounters with the faculty with cheaply considered devices such as suggestive editing and compromising visualizations; either through overplayed depictions of comically insultingly sarcastic imagery or additional occasions of focus pulling (more about this in a moment), undercutting the legitimacy- and more insultingly, the sanity -of the school officials by punctuating their assurances of reasoned negotiations with quickly focused images of violent campus rioting; moments which are incredible in the preposturousness of the director’s intentions since even a simpleton would notice what is occurring on the other side of a large window. The one-sided nature of the political content extends to less chaotic situations: Harry berates a gathering of student leaders for their empty platitudes, yet later, is equally caustic with his friend Wade for making the same observations against the students Harry made in the previous scene! This might presume a kind of cynical (or more likely, confused) neutrality on Harry’s part, and his verbal combativeness doesn’t disguise the fact that despite the volume of his voice, he never takes a firm position on any issue, so his final line- “it’s not what you do, but what you are” -resounds with all of the force of a quaint needlepoint sampler, hardly the committed call for radical change. Rather it sounds like an epigram of convenience, which might expose a similar lack of depth in his thinking and certainly an absence of personal conviction: the same qualities he spends the entire film criticizing others as a lapses in their character.
If the absence of a core of genuine insight into the causes and resultant issues inflaming college campuses in the 1960’s were not enough, the film is afflicted with an irritating visual redundancy in the form of a directorial affectation which Rush employs to repeticiously obnoxious effect, and that is his penchant for incessant focus pulling. During most every two shot bit of dialogue, there is a constant shifting of spatial focus with every exchange, an intrusive effect attributable to the director rather than his talented cinematographer László Kovács as it is the film’s overriding visual motif; the design to which Rush attaches his underlying editorial approach to the material, though it’s a dislocating visual style meant, no doubt, to emphasize cosmic ironies only slightly less noticeable than a boulder falling on your head, and the device does create a genuine sense of dislocation as if that any dialogue exchange, rather than being Socratic in nature, is visually fractured into competing polemics. If Rush insists on placing bold visual quotations around every satiric point in his film, it betrays an insecurity in his material; that he feels the script’s observations are not clear enough for his actors to dramatize without irritating aesthetic punctuation. It’s a case of a director believing he is being clever, when in fact, he is being far too clever for the film’s own good.
There are, however, some enjoyments to be found in compensation for the sloppy politics, sketchy characters, Candice Bergen and visual hammer blows. The university location- all cement stairs and ramps -is used to satiric advantage, with a surprisingly light subtlety, teasingly suggesting a witty impression of a rat’s maze, with the students shuffling rapidly but seeming to never arrive at any destination. Plus, there are fortunate choices in some key roles, especially in those representing the film’s central antagonism: Elliot Gould’s Harry Bailey and Jeff Corey’s Dr. Willhunt, who engage in some of the film’s most interesting exchanges (the quality of the writing improves dramatically in Harry’s interchanges with university authority). It is in these scenes where a real disparity of educational process is debated, and the film momentarily takes flight, (until the director imposes his unnecessary bits of visual eye-poking in an unfair attempt to undercut the dignity of Willhunt’s positions) with interesting, competitive- and not entirely unreasonable -ideas expressed that, miracle of miracles, reveal that neither generation is far from the other in the essential nature of their demands (no matter how poorly formulated): both engage in a desire for short-term fixes that assure them they’ve won the day without actually bringing any change. (Willhunt’s pointed remark to Harry that “none of us are monsters” resonates far more deeply than the film merits.) There is also a biting and incisive scene in which Harry attempts to reason with university president Vandenburg (Jon Lormer), over the insultingly banal appeasement offers to the radical student elements (unless it’s the most underpopulated place of higher learning in film history, the relatively unimpressive size of the student gatherings places the protesters in a significant minority) though this is undercut in it’s last moments by the inclusion of a ridiculous gesture by Vandenburg, intended to make the man look ridiculous and out of touch, but only betraying everything that was intelligently raised in the scene. There are also some brief but welcome appearances by Harrison Ford and Brenda Sykes that manage to add some much needed non-polemic texture to the film. But best of all is Elliot Gould, who succeeds in the unenviable task of making a thinly conceived and not particularly admirable character completely likeable, and equal kudos to the fine ;Jeff Corey; in this unlikely vehicle these two actors are at the top of their form, managing to make acerbic antagonists- despite their mutual loathing -to be intelligent, quick and stimulating adversaries. Had the rest of the film had a hint of the heat generated by these two in their passionate stubbornness, fueled by a mutual self-concept of their own righteousness, it might have rightly leapt to the head of the class.
Sitting through Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s “Let It Be” is not dissimilar to sitting behind someone in a theater and staring at the back of their head, mentally trying to make them turn around: it’s pointless, it doesn’t really work and, in the end, its a pretty much a waste of time. This film features recording sessions during which The Beatles perform material which would appear on their penultimate (though the last to be recorded) album “Abbey Road” and their final album release “Let It Be”, though from the evidence presented in the film- and that’s scant – it is unclear as to what the actual purpose of this filmed document is meant to serve. Originally conceived as a companion workplace documentary to coincide with a planned televised concert and corresponding album release which would return the foursome to its technologically unfettered musical roots, the eventual grand scheme collapsing under the weight of collective indecision and growing personal animosities. The footage comprising “Let It Be” is, therefore, merely cobbled together material from an abandoned project, but retains the possibility of significant historical significance since in the intervening time between the filming and the film’s release saw the release of both “Abbey Road” and the “Let It Be” albums, but more significantly, the break-up of The Beatles as a group. Certainly, with reportedly hundreds of hours of footage shot, even the most rudimentary of documentarians would manage to capture- under the dispassionate but observant eye of the film’s cinéma vérité technique -the creative mind in flux. If it is meant as a inside look into the creative process, it is apparent that the compositional work and major musical discussions had already taken place outside the range of the cameras, and if the filmed performances were meant to represent a companion to the vinyl recording, why not include the contributions of the record producer Phil Spector, whose eventual “Wall of Sound” irretrievably altered the resulting album’s sound? If the film is meant as a document to witness the end of the major cultural phenomenon that was the group, where are any direct commentaries or confrontations related to such a fracture included in the film- beyond the incessant moping -that would justify the film’s very existence? It is rumored that such strained footage indeed exists, but was excised at the insistence of the musicians, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that “Let It Be” is not a documentary in the truest sense, but merely a promotional film gone astray. Whatever the explanation, there is no denying that the film has an feel of being carelessly unfinished. even the finale is abrupt, which may be due to unpredictable intrusion from local bobbies, however, there is no visible attempt at any sort of summing up.
The first thing immediately noticeable is the drastic shift in tone from all previous Beatles film projects, the air of solemnity if not outright directionless apathy is a reversal of the carefree and breezy public persona the quartet nurtured throughout the prior decade; an interesting portrait of collective fraternal diffusion, but oddly antithetical to the purposes of an intended background document with the sole intention of commercial promotion. With the exception of the final outdoor rooftop concert, the film is claustrophobically set in the dim space of the film cum recording studio, the isolated atmosphere magnifying the, at times, not-so-simmering hostilities. The tensions in the room (and they are considerable) are never explained, though artistic dissatisfaction is a good bet, and the film has the fly-by-night, grainy quality of 16mm unceremoniously enlarged for uncharitably grungy looking theatrical proportions (it is).
Worse yet, with the original promotional intention of the film being abandoned during production, a renovated motive for the film finds no substitute focus: as an eventual commercial for their last collaborative album “Let It Be”, there is far too much unexplained animus- though the Sphinx-like omnipresence of Lennon’s wife Yoko One in the sessions could not have helped to develop an air of conviviality (the later arrival of Billy Preston enlivens the boys considerably), as well as the film showing no cohesive intent to demonstrate the creation of the title album when it also contains versions of songs which would be used on the “Abbey Road” album. Additionally, as a form of public confessional, the members of the group remain aggravatingly mute, communicating little with each other except by way of furtive glares (few get the chance to speak as McCartney never stops); the choice of footage seems to be randomly assembled, without an eye toward following the most rudimentary aspects of album compilation: novices will leave the film equally ignorant of the group’s creative process as before they purchased their popcorn.
Those following the dubious philosophy that the greatest of actors would be compelling reading the phone book might well take a lesson in cultural icon-based optimism from “Let It Be” as there is very little to command the attention when the first two-thirds of the film are taken up with a rhythmless succession of what appear to be outtakes of guitar picking, unintelligible mumblings and fractured bits of songs: the world’s most famous band seems absolutely stymied at the very concept of having to usefully occupy its time. So random and broken are the music session that the film begins to resemble an unfinished jigsaw puzzle that forgiving minds might find intentional as symbolic of the group’s eventual fracturing, though the slipshod editing only makes the film feel unfinished: members will argue over minutae in playing a particular bar of music and the film cuts to an entirely different song, making the insider view absolutely meaningless. The resulting film leaves the impression that the talent involved assumed that as long as the movie is filled with wall-to-wall music- no matter how ftactional -that admiring viewers would be satisfied, though only dedicated afficionados of the albums in question will be able to identify the music through all of the abbreviated segmentation. It is, however, doubtful that even admirers will find anything but frustration in the continuous self-interrupting nature of the film.
Eventually, there are a few relatively uninterrupted (and expurgated from Spector’s later transgressive influence) performances of “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”, but these McCartney close-up heavy rendering only emphasize the controlling mindset of this particular member (evident in the way others seem to drift off when he’s talking) and the film’s heavy imbalance given him, often to the point where the film might be considered An Evening with Paul McCartney and Friends. However, the final third is a breath of fresh air (literally) as the group finally emerges from its somnambulism in a lively rooftop concert which seems to not only awaken their musicianship (which is alarmingly sloppy many of the earlier segments), but also their camaraderie and their signature sense of humorous anti-authoritarianism, as they seem rejuvenated in ignoring the bobbies who have arrived (in the film’s only unexpected and spontaneous bit of fun) to shut down what would prove to be an historic concert (it would be the group’s last in “public”).
Based on Stephen Gilbert’s nasty little chiller Ratman’s Notebooks, Daniel Mann’s 1971 “Willard” is a horror movie that has the feel of a domestic drama about loneliness that just happens to feature a few rat homicides. Though the film is generally faithful to the narrative letter of Gilbert’s book (though it does eliminate the escalation of criminal activity leading to the “Ratman” reference in the title), there is a tremendous disparity in creative approach: the problem lies squarely in how the film was adapted in spirit from book to film. The novel is a epistolary narrative written in a very matter-of-fact manner despite the clearly unhinged behavior in which the protagonist engages; the character being clearly deranged, but like all good madmen, only recognizes the faults in others. This is a perspective critical to which the film makers seem to have completely overlooked, as their Willard Stiles is portrayed as a fragile victim of the relentlessly coarse, stupid and insensitive people around him. Willard is a young man incapable of taking control in any social situation until emboldened by a pack of rats who become loyal to the youth, serving as surrogates to strike out against his frustrations. The story is a contemporary update of the creaky Gothic-fueled horror films featuring killer bats and other minions from the animal kingdom, as semi-anthropomorphized abetters to the villain’s criminal enterprises, stretching back to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, but it’s in the complete tonal shift from novel to film that the story becomes a dishonestly rigged game with the added thematic detraction of conceding to the popular generational polarization that was fueling American film at the time, reflecting the creative tug-of-war between “New” Hollywood and Studio Hollywood and Hollywood’s shameless pandering to the self-aggrandizing Youth Movement of the time.
The movie opens with a generic title sequence showing fiery foundry work, layered with an uninspired Alex North score which is more episodic television drama than chill inducing, an inauspicious starting point for a horror movie as it begins the film in an atmospheric vacuum: except for the fact that Willard supposedly works at the aforementioned company (we are never informed what the company actually does- it might just be a demonstration of a directorial affection for sparks), there is no clear reason for such a mundane opening unless it is part of a grander design in which the fantastic elements are to be intermingled with the deliberately mundane; a strategy which has the potential to yield interesting results (as demonstrated in Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”), but also may cause the film to fall flat by relinquishing the fullest possibilities of the horror elements through subjugation by the trivial. Unfortunately for Mr. Mann, not the most imaginative director for such a dip into the darker end of Man’s nature, his foray into the macabre succumbs to the latter circumstance, through an irretrievably damaging focus on the banal, rather than skillfully combining elements of the ordinary with the horrific, the director manages to make mundane a story which features one of the more squirm inducing animals subject to prominence in a film: rats. How is this possible?
The film, without benefit of any attempt at useful psychological probing, tells the story of Willard Stiles, a twenty-seven year old office worker at an indiscriminate business owned by Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine is full boorish cad mode), who according to Willard, stole the company from his deceased father, though the circumstances of the takeover, the senior Stiles’ subsequent death nor the psychologically damaging effects this may have had on Willard (and his mother) are never explored. Despite Willard’s heritage to the company, he is made the unofficial office buffoon: the public scapegoat for every impulse of insult and unpleasantness Martin can conjure, though by the evidence presented through Davison’s unfortunate, inconsistent performance, this bullying, though unjustifiable in method, might not be undeserved in motive. His unsatisfying work atmosphere is made doubly painful by his domestic situation and the smothering affection from his mother (Elsa Lanchester) which he has allowed to retard any social life. With the occasion of a surprise birthday party, upon his arriving home from work, the director uses the to emphasize the dislocation he feels socially: the guests being comprised entirely of his mother’s circle of friends, an overbearing conglomeration of senior grotesquery; insultingly fashionable in horror films after the example of Baby Jane Hudson and company and later finding its most prominent manifestation in the Satanic coven in, again, “Rosemary’s Baby”. The breathlessly clinging group, clearly overly excited about having anyone in the room to whom Geritol is not a food group, eagerly impart their desperately paltry grains of wisdom, ensnaring the young man with desperately useless advice that becomes an extended, vulgar version of the “plastics” scene from “The Graduate” divorced of its glibly know-it-all attitude. There are no such punctuations of hipster satire in Mann’s unrelievedly tepid handling of his material, which ignores eliciting the sense of creeping perversion which is built into the source novel and instead allows his lead character to strive at being a target for sympathetic if not empathetic attention, an important distinction from the novel that will eventually unravel all of the film’s pretensions.
Momentarily eluding his mother’s grasp, Willard retires to the overgrown backyard gardens where he encounters a rodent with whom he shares some crumbs of cake; a simple gesture which sets the plot in motion for Willard to become controller of an increasingly large and obedient rat population. Significantly, it is also the first gesture of extroverted social behavior he displays until that point: prior to this, reacting reticently, almost physically withdrawing like the proverbial tortoise, receding from human interaction; he becomes so pathologically introverted that he can barely move- a simple walk down stairs and across a yard becoming a retrospective of fumbling physical awkwardness. This is meant to endear Willard to the audience, an ignoble and dramatically irrational bit of creative decision making, as while in traditional horror films the audience may often be encouraged to enjoy the colorful antics of the villain, they are not generally encouraged to obscure their empathy against the antagonist’s victims and transfer them to the wrongdoer. The inconsistent portrayal of the film’s lead character, characterized with unfathomable blink-of-an-eye shifts in behavior from adolescent to prepubescent, undercuts the original conception of the character (and makes necessary the truncation of the “Ratman’s” reign of terror) and eventually alters the story in a radical and unintended way.
It is clear that the film wishes to have its birthday cake and eat it too, as Willard has no friends nor does he seem to have even a passing acquaintance with anyone of his age (or even his generation) which in Hollywood parlance makes him entirely susceptible to the seduction of an instrument (in this case. rats) which will compound his realistically unjustifiable impulses to eventually lash out at everyone who has done him wrong, as the rodents make it possible to exact revenge, not only against his direct against his imagined persecutors, but at the world at large. With his sudden empowerment, the sensitive Willard , through his control of the rats, seems to be relieved of any need the socialization or a sense of responsibility for his own actions, as the rats are the ones who actually enact his dirty work. With the sudden death of his mother, relieving his excuse foe his own isolation, Willard reacts by combining his social sphere (the rats) with his workplace environment, an ill-advised action which serves only to justify a premature climax to the film. It is at this point where Mann’s droopy, sentimentalized version of the immature Stiles destroys the build-up to the last act of his film. As portrayed, it is questionable as to whether or not Willard is intellectually lacking; so much so that on occasion the film resembles an alternate version of “Flowers for Algernon”. Davison’s performance is that of a tiresome, stumbling dope, regressing into childlike behavior at the drop of a hat or whenever confronted with adult responsibility: hardly the type to generate the sympathy necessary to support his eventual acts of vengeance against his boss/nemesis, when, in fact, as portrayed, Willard is simply a spoiled child in a man’s suit, who brusquely rebuffs the attentions of family friends, yet ineptly (and unsuccessfully) tries to regather their loyalty when he fails to handle his own affairs adequately.
Far too much of the antagonistic relationship is lazily reliant on the juxtapositioning of casting opposing physical types- the physically menacing, bullish Borgnine versus the physically slight, emotionally fey Davison -without the compliment of a credible evolution of antagonistic tensions. When Martin berates Willard’s sloppy work- necessitating the hiring of the temp Joan (a charming though colorless Sondra Locke) for support -rather than stepping up to his responsibility, Willard pouts and obsesses further in his escape from reality. In his mind, the setbacks of his life are caused by everyone else around him, though upon his mother’s demise and his bitter rejection of her friends, his circle of scapegoats becomes so diminished that he has little choice but to blame Mr Martin for everything bad in his life. When Martin is obliged to kill the verminous Socrates who he is hysterically discovered in the office by a secretary, never does it occur to the Willard that he, not Martin, is directly responsible- due to his own reckless misjudgment -for his friend’s death and goes about exacting his revenge and collecting his several hundred pounds of flesh. There is also that generational tension that exists in the film, portraying all of the characters older than Willard- which is everyone but one in the cast -as being mean-spirited, petty, selfish, rude and obnoxious, which may be unfair, but especially so when Willard is corpulent with such antisocial characteristics, yet he’s meant to be the sympathetic tour guide through the film. The lone unobjectionable character, who is honestly portrayed as caring and good is Joan, who develops a tentative puppy dog office romance with Willard, which affords the occasion for the one truly chilling moment in the film: when Willard, bringing Joan to his home, is surprisingly confronted with the fruit of his childish selfishness and thoughtless betrayals.
The finale is changed significantly from the book and not for the better, the novel concluding with an open-ended inevitability that is both chilling and an ironic comeuppance that hits the right tone between the ghoulish and the sadistically satisfying. However, the film has none of the force of the book’s denouement as the weakness of the portrayal of Willard comes home to roost; with the tables turned on his eleventh hour attempted abandonment of his furry horde it appears that the rats are merely reestablishing the role of Willard’s persecutors. Ifdirector Daniel Mann and screen adapter Gilbert Ralston‘s film version of the novel is to be interpreted to its logical intention, then the emotionally retarded Willard, rather than the clearly sociopathic character of the novel, becomes the eternal victim, prey to his own ill-advised resistance to his “persecutors”, with his own instrument of revenge turning the tables him; the inevitable softening of a horrific premise by mistakenly pursuing an inappropriate tonal shift. By diminishing the malevolent nature of their protagonist, the filmmakers manage to drain their story of its potential visceral vitality while ironically making it doubly mean-spirited.
“HALLS OF ANGER” (1970)
Paul Bogart’s “Halls of Anger” finds a barely perceptible niche in the often inflammatory tradition of Hollywood films that claim to expose the volatile underbelly of modern urban education, with all appropriate delinquencies bubbling forth in a gladiatorial arena bordered by blackboards and schoolyard brickbats, though in keeping with the civil rights controversies of the day, the film adds a radical racial twist to the tired formula: it injects a small number of white students into an large urban high school consisting entirely of black students. The filmmakers apparently expect this unusual (for Hollywood anyway) reversed racial combination to act as a powder keg on its own simplistic merits (as demonstrated by the crassly exploitative ads used to promote the film) in callously suggesting that violent racism is a natural condition determined solely as a matter of mathematics, (no doubt this is not an extraneous factor, but hardly the root cause) without any deeper contributory factors; an extremely lazy concession to shallow thinking that allows the filmmakers to skim the surface of both exploitation (clearly by the marketing, this is the way the producers, in retrospect, wish they’d gone) and social realism (the film never has the courage to rise above a “Room 222” level of complexity) without ever feeling the need to present ideas on any of the more profound societal issues they have raised, except to rely on the most mundane of stereotypical characters and clichéd of situations.
The film also continues a flawed tradition which continually undermines even the best efforts of this film type, and that is one of misplaced perspective: films of this nature tend to focus primarily on the tribulations of the teacher rather than the students, a self-defeating view which cynically boxes in the student as a problem to be solved rather than an unfortunate to whom education is systemically denied. Indeed, by far the most effective scene in the film is one which reflects such a burgeoning hunger to view the world with enlightened eyes, when Assistant Principal/English Teacher Quincy Davis (Calvin Lockhart) begins extracurricular lessons in reading to a pseudo-illiterate student Johnson (played with a winsome affability by Dewayne Jessie– Otis Day of later “Animal House” fame -in his film debut) through the tricky use of erotic literature to spark an interest in reading- and subsequently in several other students -leading to a lengthy quotation from D,H, Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” which so moves the young student as he steps past the text’s initial erotic appeal into an emotional response with his realization of the book’s poetry. This sequence is both funny and richly human (in fact, it was lifted for use in Penny Marshall’s 1992 “A League of Their Own”) and directly addresses the needs of the student, not simply as a challenge for the featured teacher to conquer, but in dramatizing the desperate hunger felt by a young mind touched by enrichment; surely a theme that might substantially fuel a motion picture entertainment, though this isn’t it.
“Halls of Anger” follows the forced appointment of English teacher Quincy Davis from a more privileged and racially stable high school into a seething academic cauldron; seemingly made so by the mere fact that all of the students are black, having nothing to do with impoverished social climate, economics or substandard resources, fitfully resulting in a provocative view that the students are themselves inadequate by the mere fact of their race. This destructive racist view- a perspective wholly visible in far too many urban school systems to be written off as a sudden spark of insightful, courageous writing -isn’t openly expressed as the screenplay by John Shaner and Al Ramrus is far too timid for that; though it comes dangerously close in the thankless role of school principal Boyd Wilkerson (John McLiam), an extremist martinet who openly states his disinterest in the students and his hunger for advancement to a seat in the Board of Education. The head butting debates between Wilkerson and Davis, though meant to represent antithetical philosophies on schooling (and certainly mirroring the proponents and opponents of the Civil Rights movement of the time) are disappointingly undramatic as both characters express the most primitive of platitudes designed to label the good progressive educator versus the bad repressive bureaucrat; neither proffering any substantive arguments that might embellish their characters or give sustenance to the despairingly tepid narrative.
Given the simplistic nature of the story, it is evident both characters are simply biding time, awaiting an event that will serve as a catalyst to publicly test their opposing ideas of authority. On the basis of the plot’ central crisis- the importation of the white students as a fuel to racial unrest -one might expect an explosive racial confrontation, though after a few minor episodes of intimidation even this is generally underplayed, as the bulk of the student body seems literally unfazed by the interlopers- except when egged on by a radical student named J.T. -nor do they seem to comprise an institution on the verge of explosion, except when it suits the purposes of the scenarists. (A girl is attacked and stripped in the gym shower for no apparent reason- this and other incidents are clumsily inserted without context -except to create a sense of momentum toward the film’s rather limply anticlimactic climax.) The most rebellious of the students, the glowering J.T. (played with a fine balance of menace shaded with an ironic self-awareness by the talented James A. Watson Jr. in his film debut) probably has the best line in the film when he talks of having white friends “when I was a Negro, but now that I’m Black I have none”, a sharp and penetrating observation that cries out for more exploration of his character, especially when it is revealed that he is artistically and intellectually gifted, lending the source of his anxieties and rage a far more interesting subject to mine than anything presented. Instead the viewer is treated to a story in which the filmmakers seem content that a confluence of black and white is sufficient unto itself to create controversy. This may explain why the film doesn’t truly end but simply peters out, as if the characters themselves are just plain exhausted over the trivialities offered as a cynical substitution for themes honestly considered and steeped in relevance.
Calvin Lockhart is occasionally effective as Quincy Davis, but often than not seems an actor seeking a consistency in his role; his diatribes to student victim of violence contradict his repeated statements of understanding aimed at his administrative peers, and an uncomfortable sequence involving a post-basketball game (Davis is an ex-pro player) foot bath in which he suddenly seduces his faculty colleague Lorraine Nash, (portrayed in a scandalously vaporous role by the comely Janet MacLachlan) treating her as a geisha, is uncharacteristic and downright creepy.
“FUNNY GIRL” (1968)
Film biographies have always been a tricky business. Subject to less than scrupulous adherence to the factual as opposed to an almost shameless gravitational pull toward the predictable formulaic Hollywood elements of high melodrama and low soap opera, the final product’s almost invisible comparison to genuine historic truth inescapably brings forth two fundamental responses: (1) if the subject biography was so uninteresting that it merited reinvention, what was the attraction to the subject in the first place, and (2) if the subject was so interesting, why tinker? Cinematic show business biographies are especially susceptible to this mass profusion of rampant fictionalization; more often than not embellishing a performer’s life with the same tired narrative arc- the search for success, achieving success, finding unhappiness and tragedy with success -that may dampen the audience hankies but diminishes the film into a redundant clone of dozens of previous biopics, but more importantly, tends to alter, in a damagingly diminishing fashion, the characteristics that distinguished and defined the subject personality as a legitimately significant, culturally iconoclastic person of note.
“Funny Girl”, William Wyler’s filmization of the successful Broadway musical of stage, film and radio star Fanny Brice is an exception to the above observations as it finds the occasion to actually abridge the usual biographical dramatic arc by eliminating the bulk of the first aspect of the show biz bio formula- the search for success -and in its own inimitable manner introduces a further monkey wrench into the representational maelstrom by adding the problem of a replacement image as the true image of a cultural icon. This is exactly what occurs with Wyler’s film in the presence of Barbra Streisand as the acclaimed Ziegfeld songstress, whose startling force of personality literally rides roughshod over any fading memory of Brice’s own vocal and comedic accomplishments and by extension excuses falsification in the service of glossy entertainment expediency; the rare case where an excess of talent may assist in undoing the intentions of a film. After all, why care about Brice when a formidable substitute is more than satisfactory? Frankly speaking, as a commercial for the varied and undeniable talents of Barbra Streisand the film is a rousing success (to a point), but as an artful and penetrating biography it is sadly lacking, substituting the insipid for the insightful.
Once again the question of art versus entertainment rears its intrusive head, for if the intent of a film has its basis in deliberate falsification for the purposes of streamlining the project for comfortable entertainment values by altering the historical fact to effortlessly fit into a standardized show business formula, the film then rejects all pretenses toward artistry. This is not saying that deliberate falsification is inconsistent with artistic worth, but it must be in the service of a truth that serves said artistic purpose. One can hardly lay claims that the film does not reek of Old Hollywood professionalism- it literally glistens with “Golden Age” polish, often too much to its own detriment -or that it does not often chug along with an stubborn though substantively misguided determination to entertain the dickens out of its audience, (Particularly during the well conceived musical sequences, directed by Herbert Ross, whose participation is generally obscured by the more prominent Hollywood stature of William Wyler.) but in between the set pieces there is a distinct sensation of vacuousness to the film, giving it the feel more of a Greatest Hits album than a cohesive and organically structured whole. This may be the first musical in Hollywood history whose subject and realization is centered on a singular force of personality; unfortunately, neither is Fanny Brice, but both are Barbra Streisand.
What the film suffers from is a complete absence of a sense of time and place. The entire film seems to take place in a cultural bell jar in which exterior influences are not only nonexistent but deemed unessential. In its rushed initial expositional scenes, Fanny Brice is depicted as already being a confident, seasoned performer only in need of a large enough spotlight, which within an almost supernaturally brief period is just what she gets- the need for even a minimal depiction of setbacks or support or suffering deemed unnecessary. This is a distressing decision for in eliminating the process of the germination of talent and stardom, the filmmakers have gravitated toward the celebration of celebrity over that of ability; a bizarre perspective considering the multifarious nature of talent of the subject personality. This truncation of the narrative arc eliminates the important background details which contribute color and depth to the characters in which the story revolves; denying the audience the full panorama of experience which helps to define the subject personality, defining the genesis of a major talent in its totality: what makes a star a star. Absent this contributory nourishment, the characters are reduced to mere types with whom the filmmakers find an additional cushion of ease with which to create an increasingly lazy by-the-numbers production. Even if one has no familiarity with the story of Fanny Brice, it is hammered home from the first frame that she is the stuff of stardom (a point made evident by the early song “I’m the Greatest Star”, a tune which becomes absurdly redundant- even braggadocio -given Brice’s meteoric ascension) yet the most revealing aspects of a star-on-the-rise-story are ignored in favor of a prematurely undramatic endless succession of scenes with Brice posturing on the plateau of show business success.
Oddly, by ignoring her background story, her immediate rise to fame seems oddly unjustified on the evidence of what the film presents- which is certainly not the case in Brice’s real-life resumé -as there is no comparative context given to her career story. Where, for instance, is there even a passing mention, never mind a depiction of, a rival or contemporaneous talent with whom to place in an historic perspective? In fact, the impression given is- if one’s knowledge of the era and the Ziegfeld Follies were beholden to this film alone -there didn’t seem to be any other majors stars of the era until Brice came along, which makes one question if the attraction of the Ziegfeld Follies is meant to be represented solely by parading statuesque beauties, nor is there any mention of the very existence of the world of vaudeville. Every person who should figure prominently in the story of Brice’s climb to stardom (including those highlighted in the source stage musical) are given oddly brief screen attention, each reduced to glorified cameos who weave in and out of the story without apparent purpose or influence, becoming merely stepping stones for the (as depicted) unstoppable songstress. Significantly, even the essential figure of Florenz Ziegfeld is reduced to a mere sideline cheerleader who buckles under every whim of the increasingly egomaniacal star (whose own signature character Baby Snooks is given an barely visible nod- though completely obscure unless one comes to the film armed with a knowledge of Brice’s radio career).
By sacrificing a central interest in the details of Brice’s professional life, this film diverts its attention to the particulars of her private life, yet by minimizing the supporting characters of her story this, by logical regression, creates a vacuum in which such an effort hits a proverbial brick wall. Which leaves that traditional stand-by of the showbiz bio flick- the romance -here specifically Brice’s romance with gambler Nicky Arnstein, a story which is whitewashed, sanitized and falsified to the point of science fiction. Rather than the romantically awkward, virginal character portrayed onscreen, Brice was, in fact, previously married before her relationship with Arnstein, who himself had served a prior prison sentence before they became the innocent, fun-loving duo of the film. The pair also had two children, not the one as portrayed in the film, a concession to fiction that is puzzling as it is unnecessary but just goes to show that dedicated alteration for its own sake is prized far over diligent research and truth in advertising. The Arnstein–Brice romance, as portrayed, is a dud, as seduction is imagined as a series of rendezvous between a smirking dandy and a bawdy burlesque clown, (It is not inconceivable to wonder when the pair will produce a hand mirror and a pig bladder during their less-than-convincing trysts.) the pair generating heat insufficient to thaw a snowflake; though with the dearth of dramatic material remaining in this tepidly imagined biography, that’s all there is for dramatic nourishment. The film dribbles along, occasionally enlivened by a well-performed musical number, until the token heartbreaking finale, which is not only predictable (strangulated by the one-note script, the film has no where else to go) but actually is telegraphed in the very first scenes; the film unfolds as a flashback for no reason except to lazily imitate structural sophistication.
Omar Sharif is polished to the point of glistening as the smooth but ultimately duplicitous Arnstein; the actor carrying none of the intensity from performances such as those in “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Night of the Generals”, but seemingly complacent with regenerating the dew-eyed waxworks persona he embodied in “Doctor Zhivago” and later in “Mayerling” which seemed to have a tremulous effect on sentimentally inclined viewers but actually created glacially inert dramatic cores in each vehicle, hardly the quality desirable in a film in which the romantic angle becomes the fulcrum of the narrative. (Interestingly, his character is referred to by Fanny’s mother- in a potentially interesting performance by Kay Medford, eviscerated by imprudent editorial excisions -as “the ruffled shirt”, perhaps editorially commenting on a performance based entirely on shallow, decorative surfaces?) Walter Pidgeon portrays showman Florenz Ziegfeld in a solitary tone of fey constipation.
Which leaves Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in a debut film appearance that both engages and astounds in its range and mature grasp of the technical demands of in acting before a camera; an appearance that fills the screen with a commanding presence that announces stardom and electrifies with a thrilling controlled vocal dexterity unheard on the screen (certainly not by an on-screen performer) in far too many years. It is, however, for all of the natural talent on display,not an artfully shaped, impressively accomplished performance as there is a genuine lack of character development and nuance anywhere on display. This is not entirely the fault of Streisand who certainly gives her all, but of the appallingly shallow (even by “Golden Age” Hollywood musical standards) script by Isobel Lennart which affords no opportunity for character development, with writing that seems untouched by genuine human experience. Matters are not helped by indifferent direction by William Wyler which seems more interested in keeping the actors from bumping into the cluttered production design than in illuminating his subject matter. This casual approach to the film (alarming, as his efforts here are the antithesis of his impressively tight, controlled direction of 1965’s “The Collector”) creates an enervating atmosphere, accentuating the lack of the momentum of dramatic development; instead relying on the insertion of the more explicit emotional intimacy of song lyrics over a carefully crafted progressive exposition sensitive to the deepening relationships of the characters.
Streisand’s participation is the only reason to see the film, though as a feature-length commercial for her talents that would be put to better use in later projects. Her presence is more in keeping with her heralded television specials in which she instantly imprints her own style (Instantly asserting her own versions as definitive and subsequently rendering Brice’s renditions as irrelevant; which surely wasn’t the intention of the film.) onto the song standards made famous by Fanny Brice. Streisand enthusiasts will be justifiably excited, but admirers of the real Fanny Brice need not apply.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)
The year 1969 was a particularly interesting one for the American Western, as the three most commercially notable examples of the genre demonstrate a grand variance in the dramatic shift into the revisionism movement which would all but consume this particular brand of film to the present day. If one might regard Henry Hathaway’s film of “True Grit” as the last stand of the traditional westerns (seamlessly interpolated into the traditional mold by screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, despite the surface revisionist roots of its source novel- the book was, in fact, a satire of traditional western conventions) and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” as the “straw that broke the camel’s back” of American Western revisionism, then what do we make of George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, which seems to tread lightly between both extremes of the genre, happily skipping from foot to foot from one end to the other, but without purpose, insight nor contribution to the expansion of the genre itself?
In fact, the film is a flat-footed affair, with an episodic but hardly cohesive story line; which is fine, if the related incidents have contributory points that coalesce by the end of the film, which is not the case in this instance. Instead, we are subject to the noisome gamboling of two not-so-smart alecks who are continually being chased to the death by a super posse for their series of robberies against the railroad. Without the benefit of a developing plot line, the film backs itself into a corner, as it limits itself to only two possible outcomes: the pair will escape or they will be killed. There are possibilities that such material might make for an exciting action thriller, a mindless visceral ride that would keep the audience hyped up until the foregone conclusion; such as Richard Hough’s drive-in favorite “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry”, but director George Roy Hill’s film is a laconic effort, meant to be taken as a casual lark wholly sustained on the dubious charms of the two leads, while the joke book cum screenplay of William Goldman would become a reductive blueprint of another sort that would resonate throughout the American cinema to this very day. (More about this in a moment.) Plainly stated, the film is a hodgepodge of borrowed styles, none of which integrates into a cohesive aesthetic signature; Conrad Hall’s cinematography is often quite handsome, especially if isolated into individual shots, but it too is pulled into jarringly disparate directions by the nature of the production. It’s an amalgam of disconnected directorial flourishes that accentuated previous successful films and here stirred into a cauldron assuming that even a rudimentary reapplication of said elements will result in equal artistic success. Unfortunately for all involved, the building blocks of cinema are not merely a three step cake recipe and therein lies the film’s core problems.
It begins with a title announcing “Most of what follows is true” as if a badge of historical credibility naturally elevates a film regardless of its level of artistic merit; its claims to factual fidelity dubious at best since its unlikely that the outlaw duo spent its day fleeing posses armed with a comedy writing team. Which brings our attention to screenwriter William Goldman whose “achievement” with this film placed him on an industry pedestal- of sorts -and yet it’s a script that does not weather close scrutiny well. Goldman’s specialty is a kind of deconstruction of heroic mythology which could yield interesting results, but his work is also damagingly laced with a core of hipster smugness that surrounds every dialogue exchange with a gaudy picture frame so it might be hung and the author admired for his cleverness. Unfortunately, the dialogue rings false- never convincing that the contemporary verbiage could be sourced from anywhere but a Hollywood typewriter -nor is it insightful writing, penetrating the minds of the characters. Instead, Goldman merely strings together a tiresome swatch of epigrams, exchanging the opportunity for light amusement in the sacrifice of a more profoundly satisfying density of expression. It is the model of screenwriting in which the characters speak with inglorious self-satisfaction, spouting trivial inanities in the form of sarcastic barbs and caustic tomfoolery; communication with unearned arrogant superiority instead of meaningful insights into character and motivation. It is writing for ciphers, signifying nothing. However, the script’s and film’s commercial success ensured a wave of imitative films which would follow the same loose buddy-buddy formula, increasing with frequency over the years as the ease of endlessly regenerating a generic filmic concept is a gift to a creatively impoverished Hollywood film industry.
The film opens with a silent film depiction of Butch, Sundance and their Hole in the Wall Gang, a device wholly reminiscent of the photo opening to Arthur Penn’s problematic landmark “Bonnie and Clyde” in both setting a tone for the film and to envelop the viewer in a wave of period nostalgia. The opening sequence begins with a similar sepia palette and one wonders what novel visual scheme director George Roy Hill might be employing to enrich his story, but there are hints immediately following the opening sequence that optimism may not be rewarded, as the director shows every evidence, from the first moments, that he is has failed to find a cohesive visual design to pull the increasingly fractious script into a semblance of a coherent point of view.
George Roy Hill might be fairly viewed as a journeyman director, nominally proficient in handling the technical demands of a variety of film types, and capable of applying those capabilities in translating materials seemingly more suited to his particular creative temperament (and blessed with structured screenplays) as witness his fine work in “The World of Henry Orient, “Slaughterhouse-Five” (his finest work) and “The Sting”. However, as a director of material screaming for a more visionary level of guidance he seems adrift, grasping at a multitude of directorial styles hoping one will solidify a happy confluence of a visual and written technique that might invest this rodeo of one-liners afloat with an indelible aesthetic signature. The merciless cribbing from “Bonnie and Clyde” and Bo Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” are self-evident, among other piecemeal borrowings, but there exists a persistent inconsistent tone between the direction and writing in the film; the more effective opening scene being a perfect example, (it’s the only scene with genuine tension in the entire film) as the suffused brown tones in the cinematography harken to period photography but also immerses the frame in a dusty claustrophobia, matched with tight framing that suggest not the open expanses of John Ford epics, but the ominous visual oppressiveness suggesting a Western film noir. However, as soon as Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy opens his mouth, out pour with half-witticisms, clashing with the director’s mise-en-scene and diminishing the tension of the sequence.
Newman himself doesn’t help matters by never finding a center to his character to build on (How could anyone with this underwritten role?), but certainly adopting the class clown posture is not an approach that has a chance of the actor to leave an imprint in the part. Robert Redford fares better as the Sundance Kid, despite the career long evidence of having no natural proclivity with comic performance, (his efforts always see strained as if the concept of humor was somehow not to be taken seriously) as he delivers all of his lines as if in a constipated state of aggravation (Perhaps he’d already read the script.) which, at least, casts the illusion of gravitas even in the convincing physicality he brings to the role (he does credibly move like a gunfighter), whereas Newman seems satisfied to act the grinning ninny, causing Redford’s repeated admonishments of “You just keep thinking Butch, that’s what you’re good at” to be filled with an extra, unintentional layer of irony. Katharine Ross merely trades on her popularity from “The Graduate” and looks lovely but brings nothing more to the table but a general lethargy, when a hint of coquettishness would have worked small wonders, that results in expressions of emotional vacancy consistent with her contributions in that earlier film.
Early in the film Butch, Sundance and their Hole in the Wall Gang rob the same train on two successive trips leading to an irate railroad to compile and unleash a so-called super posse against the duo, reportedly to the death. The film becomes an extended chase with remarkably relaxed unessential episodes interspersed undoubtedly in an attempt to enliven the increasingly tired banter between Butch and Sundance with a bit of variety, though after a while even the actors seem to grow fatigued of asking the same question: “Who are those guys?” The notion of an unidentified, unstoppable force in relentless pursuit characters is an occasion for increasing tension, but curiously there is a complete absence of both nervous energy or suspense in the chase, only a sense of wearisome sameness, as if the cameras were kept running until someone thought of something interesting to do. (Compare this to the previous year’s “The Stalking Moon”, an unnerving exercise in relentless pursuit by an unseen adversary -filmed by Robert Mulligan out of his presumed comfort zone but proving a talented director of an artistic temperament contrary to his material, when that material is solidly conceived, can get the dirty job done.)
There are opportunities for character development despite the chase structure of the film, but they are wasted by both the writer’s aversion to insightful dialogue (much of the script sounds like it was written in the gag a minute style of a Neil Simon, only without the humorous context) and the director’s inability to maintain a consistent tone. Between train robberies, the outlaw duo are seen enjoying the failed attempts of a marshal to raise a pursuing posse, a scene that drags on forever, without contributing an iota to the plot or the characters. Next, Sundance is on a nocturnal prowl for a woman leading to a tasteless scene of forced seduction at gunpoint, which turns out to be a feint, a snickering bit of play acting that equates rape with the romantic fantasies of both Sundance and his girlfriend Etta Place (Katharine Ross). From whom is this bit of theater enacted for? The audience? (There never seems to any genuine emotion expressed between Sundance or Etta; she seems just as happy in Butch’s company as anyone else, which suggests intriguing possibilities left unexplored.) Next, Etta awakens and rides off with Butch on a bicycle to the tune of an arcanely lyriced Burt Bacharach/Hal David song (this coming on the heels of the previous year’s example of lyric obscurity in “The Windmills of Your Minds” and before the zenith of compositional irrelevance in “Burning Bridges” from “Kelly’s Heroes”) and a faux “Elvira Madigan” pastoral landscape. Just what is going on with this film is anyone’s guess as there is no connection from one scene to the next, as if the film openly (and rather defiantly) affirms it has no recognition as to the traditional obligations of straightforward western narrative yet there are no pretenses toward a more existential experimentation à la Monte Hellman’s “The Shooting”, so what the thought process behind the clumsy divergences of style might be is anyone’s guess.
Ultimately it is a corrosive concession to the author’s hipster attitude rather than an honest exploration of a potentially interesting story that is the film’s undoing. What emerges is an aesthetic disregard for cohesive narrative storytelling, which can work if this is part of a larger intentional design, but that is not the case here. Instead, in a misconceived effort to bring what the film maker’s obviously feel is a timely “youth” vibe to what was rapidly regarded as an overly tradition bound and staid genre (This approach was also inherent in the equally unsuccessful “Zachariah”, but at least that film had the advantage of an earned self-respect in its pronounced intentions.), the film becomes a literal cinema quilt of the elements of other films with the artistic ambitions of the writer and director at constant odds yet never finding an amalgamating middle ground.
The midsection of the film- that which boundaries the pursuit of the outlaws and their flight to Bolivia, where they may still be pursued, or are, at least, psychologically ( yet another interesting avenue the film might have taken but goes frustratingly untrod) is where the aesthetic confusion of the filmmakers hits its nadir; where filmed story suddenly becomes meaningless graphic design comprised of elaborate period stills of Butch, Etta and Sundance in transit in an mundanely edited and scathingly over scored sequence substituting the pretentiously “arty” for illuminating content: it’s “La Jetée” by way of “Hello, Dolly!”.
By the time the trio reaches Bolivia, it’s clear the film is out of ideas, though curiously even creative aridity takes a backseat to an increasingly clear depiction of the panicked and terrorized victims of the merry duo’s (actually trio as Etta becomes a valuable abettor of their crimes) campaign of escalating robberies, which applies a very real face of victimization by two robbers who (as depicted) treat criminality as a personal vaudeville. This creates an inevitable dichotomy of attitude toward crime and violence when Butch and Sundance, fearing the lawmen are pursuing them still on foreign soil, decide to “go straight” and find employment as payroll guards to a mining company. With the introduction of Strother Martin as Percy Garris, the film finally introduces a character who extends a sympathetic presence outside of the Butch-Etta-Sundance (the other members of the Hole in the Wall gang are merely throwaway figures as their dispatching leaves no discernible emotional imprint and the much abused early presence of George Furth as Woodcock- the only figure of integrity in the film -is treated as a buffoon by the director) universe of self-absorption and with his sudden demise comes a startling eruption of bloody violence that pulls both the characters and the film out of its moral somnambulism and into an unpleasant consideration as to the consequences of life by way of the gun. Oddly this unpleasantness is mitigated on the one gesture of responsibility that the duo enact through the film, and the resulting wake of slaughter is not unfavorably comparable (though minimal in scope) to similar moments in Sam Peckinpah’s classic opus of the same year. The psychological toll of the violent life is finally momentarily addressed, though still in only how it affects the film’s “heroes”, a curious last minute turnabout which prefigures the fatalistic finale to come.
It’s also a moment (only a moment) of reflective solemnity that the film has not earned. By portraying the criminal spree of Butch and Sundance as a happy lark only magnifies the disregard with which the film makers approach the themes generated by their own subject matter. Had there been the slightest inkling of self-awareness by the outlaws (Etta candidly states prior to the departure to Bolivia that she will not watch them die; a moment of prognostication that should be chilling, but in the film’s callously jovial atmosphere makes her appear more as a wet blanket, though it may be the only honest moment of writing in the film), the inevitable finale might have had a rueful aftertaste, but even here the anchor of the script weighs even the final moments of the protagonists with an occasion for inexplicable bitchery instead of even a moment’s consideration that their run might be over. The celebrated freeze frame ending the film, contrary to popular consensus that it preserves the pair in a moment in history, instead marks the final cowardly aesthetic concession of a director boxed in by his own mishandling of tone. Even Peckinpah wouldn’t have been as audaciously wrongheaded to bring Bishop Pike to explicit slaughter with a one-liner on his lips.
Within the realm of the revisionist western, a movement that evolved with the alteration of thematic content rather than strictly formal considerations, the film has of no discernible value. However, with its unlikely popular success and its lasting influence of the movie industry, director George Roy Hill and screenwriter William Goldman created a commercial landmark which didn’t merely advance the continued evolution of the movie “anti-hero”, (albeit in artistically regressive directions) but also created a beacon for those eager to taste of popular success through the continued evolution of the movie “anti-achievement”.
“THE DUNWICH HORROR” (1970)
Retaining only the outline of H.P. Lovecraft’s original 1928 short story and the names of a few of the main characters, Daniel Haller’s film is a useful case study in examining the challenges with the adaptive process of “classic” horror literature into film most prominently represented at American International Pictures during the 1960’s and early 70’s. In this period, Roger Corman was able to direct a series of celebrated adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories (and a poem with “The Raven”) that were significantly altered from their original narrative details mainly due to the nature of many of the stories, rather than through arrogant evisceration. Simply put, many of the stories filmed by Corman while standards of American literature, did not contain sufficient direct incident to compel a motion picture scenario of any great length, the collision of disparate forms (literature and film) ultimately demanding a more linear form of expressing with such literary fineries as metaphor, allusion and allegory lost in translation unless one is able to administer substitutions of a visual shorthand complimentary to the literary intentions; a precarious business considering the unharmonious nature of the two art forms. However, the penny pincher Corman was also a deeply intelligent and canny film maker, unopposed to cutting production corners in order to maintain or undercut his meager budgets (such restrictions actually seemed to stimulate his imagination) but his respect for the literature of Poe is unquestioned; approaching each film (with the able assistance of some very fine scenarists including Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) with a clear purpose of reaching into the core psychology (most essential with this author) of the piece regardless of the embellishment of incident created to achieve this result, while simultaneously utilizing every aesthetic instinct at his disposal (including Freudian therapeutic insights) to explore and enhance Poe’s most fervent roots of his psychodramatic narratives.
H.P. Lovecraft, while rising appreciably during this period in both reputation and interest (though still in specialized cultish circles rather than general acceptance) had yet to be wed with a film vision that might take his conception of “cosmic horror” to a worthy visual translation; the sole examples of adaptation as of 1970 being a paltry “Die Monster Die”- another Daniel Haller film based on the story “The Colour Out of Space” (the central concept later to be blatantly stolen by Stephen King in “Creepshow”) and “The Haunted Palace”, a film misleadingly marketed as a continuation of the Corman–Poe series, when was in fact it was not even adapted from Poe, but based rather quietly based upon Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”; a film hardly conceived in a production climate of slavish transposition but rather another poor example of callous marketing aimed at box-office rather than even correct authorial attributions.
With “The Dunwich Horror” a filmmaker was finally tackling what is often regarded as the lynchpin tale in Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos”. To be fair, the makers attempt a valiant transposition to more contemporaneous settings than Lovecraft’s depiction of an isolated- and thus fueled by cringing superstitiousness -backwoods tableau, (he enjoyed emphasizing what he saw as the rural puritan primitives removed from more civilized culture in the fictional Moskatonic Valley) but the shift in time frame is a decision which comes back to haunt the director as the film unfolds, for what the picture retains from Lovecraft but is unsuccessful in transferring to another medium- the unyielding oppressive omnipotence of interdimensional horrors -plays more as a stale allusion to witchcraft, especially with the early reference to the hanging of Oliver Whatley which is reminiscent of incidents in Salem rather than the especially mysterious events in Dunwich as conjured by Lovecraft. The contemporary setting, despite the retention of the otherworldly seems more a conditional product of production and budgetary considerations rather than an attempt at creative revisionism. The sensibilities of abnormal behavior as characterized by the main protagonist Wilbur Whately, in their newly established time continuium represent more the behavioral flavor of a counterculture flower child than a deadly occultist dedicated to the ruination of Man’s existence, with the young Whately resembling no less than a strung out cultish guru reciting counterculture incantations- his troupe of phantasmagorical minions performing oddball abstract movements as if an amateurishly imitative version of a Twyla Tharp dance group from “Hair” swaying about the sacrificial altar while body painted in the most fashionable Haight-Ashbury symbols of psychedelia. Clearly Haller was reaching for similarities to Polanski’s famous impregnation dream sequence from “Rosemary’s Baby”, but the film only conjures memories of poverty level Andy Milligan dreamscapes.
What damages the adaptation is not the graduated time frame but something more conceptually fundamental: the problem lies in the shifting of the centralization of conflict. In Lovecraft’s original story, the menace of the eponymous entity is carefully but relentlessly wrought, beginning from the “horror’s” birth to a campaign of town wide ravishment, with suggestions that the atrocities will expand unimpeded into the greater civilization unless a timely solution is found. (Curiously this is a similar formula endlessly used in the desert based SF films of the 50’s.) The focus is now less on the seed of the menace- the Whatley household and the beast hidden within -than the erroneous infatuation of Nancy Wagner toward a casual pick up with an hypnotic gaze and a seemingly endless variety of date rape drugs; a character who wasn’t in the original story, but as played by former matinee kitten Sandra Dee, becomes the central figure around which all motivations- good and bad -are based. The problem this creates with the story is a matter of misdirected tensions; no longer is the story a relentless conveyance of incident building into a clash between mortal Man (whom Lovecraft generally dismissed philosophically as having no real importance nor strengths against the forces of the universe) and the mythic beings briefly referenced as The Old Ones, the balance of destruction ironically wrought with the assistance of the half-human Wilbur Whately; who in the story is prematurely developed- only fifteen years of age when the main events of the story take place -and unnaturally elongated resembling a goat, whereas in the film he looks like Dean Stockwell– hardly a dramatic trade off. This emphasis has been shifted to an uninteresting woman in distress film. The influences on display are as much from a revisitation with Rosemary Woodhouse than a head-on illustration of Lovecraft’s nihilistic cosmology, with the character of Nancy Wagner wandering through the bulk of the film in either a state of semi-conscious hypnosis or just plain drugged, begging the question that if Wilbur’s possesses preternatural powers of suggestion (a technique obviously borrowed from the nearest Dracula movie) are so able to control Nancy’s mind then why the need for pharmaceuticals? The palpable weight of impending doom so prevalent in the story is completely absent from the film, nor does Haller manage to conjure a sense of collision between Lovecraft’s usual adversarial entities: the helplessly literal scientific rationale of Man and the unknowable forces of the cosmic corruption.
Haller, a talented production designer- whose matte work of Corman’s “Pit and the Pendulum” is still a marvel to behold -displays little that shows a proclivity toward mining the rich vein of fantastical imaginings within his source material, and illustrates each sequence in the pedestrian manner of a tired boogey man spook show. Even the very conception of the “horror” seems to elude his directorial capabilities, with rattling doors, heavy breathing and annoying flashes of solarization (the most whorishly overused visual trope from the 60’s outside of the split-screen) to represent the story’s invisible nightmare. (A conception also bearing far more imaginatively wrought anticipatory suspense in the 1950’s SF classic “Forbidden Planet”.) One need but to view the richly atmospheric chase through the woods sequence in Jacques Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon”, with its suggestions of deadly terrors unseen, to understand the difference in results between a visionary and a journeyman behind the camera. Eventually, even Lovecraft’s rare concession to humanity is betrayed as his original ending of victory against the unknown (almost unheard of in his literature) is altered for a twist ending that once again mirrors the seeds of Polanski’s far more accomplished film. Spare the child, spoil the film.