“Fear and Desire” (1953) Starring Frank Silvera, Virginia Leith, Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp, Steve Colt. Screenplay by Howard Sackler. Produced, Photographed, Edited and Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick’s feature debut (after three short subjects) as photographer, editor, producer and director, “Fear and Desire”, is an extremely low budget war drama with art house pretensions. It is a failure as a movie, but in the context of a collective lauded career, it is an interesting early hint of a young filmmaker’s desire for elitist stature as an auteur serving up pseudo- profundity in the form of unforgiving criticism on the human condition. The film follows a quartet of soldiers (introduced in one of those pretentious and unnecessary voiceovers favored by the young Kubrick) who represent not real soldiers, but a kind of universal abstraction favorable to overly zealous emerging pseudointellectual “artists” who may manipulate their characters not as true representatives of human drama, but as cogs in a grand machination furthering the director’s greater thematic designs. Even at this formative stage of the game, Kubrick’s interests clearly lie more with ostentatious abstraction than people.
Crash landed behind enemy lines, the soldiers formulate a rather skimpy plan to return to the safety of their lines, all the while finding every opportunity to place themselves in open exposure to the enemy while noisily engaging in nonsensical speechifying that lean heavily toward incomprehensible hallucinogenic rants rather than philosophical musings. Written by future Pulitzer Prize playwright Howard Sackler, there isn’t a believable line of dialogue in the entire film; every utterance strains for a philosophical gravitas more appropriate to a haughty group of stragglers from a creative writing seminar rather than a ragtag squad of soldiers. The film features several impressively composed shots (especially during an assault on a small enemy cabin, the sole sequence which demonstrates a practiced photographic eye inching into a fledgling cinematic intelligence at work) though these too are marred by jarring editing which contributes little except to call attention to itself. The film is chronically peppered with reaction shots that look as though they are randomly selected, as if the editing of each scene was haphazardly cobbled together due to a dearth of properly matching covering footage. With the exception of the lovely newcomer Virginia Leith (as a mute maiden who seems to walk in from a different picture) and the embarrassing histrionics of a young Paul Mazursky, the acting is stilted when not wholly unmemorable. The film’s deadly pacing eventually leads to a climactically premature Twilight Zone allegorical twist that was less pretentiously (and far more succinctly) expressed in a Walt Kelly cartoon strip. ______________________________________ “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (1977) Starring Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Paul Winfield, Charles Durning, Burt Young, Gerald S. O’Laughlin, Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaeckel, William Marshall. Screenplay by Ronald M. Cohen & Edward Huebsch, based on the novel ‘Viper Three’ by Walter Wager. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Faithfulness is not always an admirable trait. When a film’s fidelity to its source material is inclusive of the more problematic characteristics of the original novel, one may question as to whether such an adaptive misjudgment is a creative inability in the filmmakers to either recognize those deficiencies or simply a failure to reconcile the material into a more workable alteration; which would beg the question as to the attraction of the material in the first place. In Robert Aldrich’s “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”, the problems manifest in Walter Wager’s novel ‘Viper Three’ are readily apparent despite a drastically altered motivational direction invested in the narrative which changes the reasons for the film’s actions if not the credibility of the characters. Disgraced General Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) and a handful of confederates (played by Paul Winfield in full street hipster mode and Burt Young inappropriately inserted to contribute his usual ethnic half-wit act that results in obliterating any trace of suspense in favor of low humor) manages to take over an ICBM complex with the ease of sneaking into a second feature at a mulitiplex. This lack of complication in muscling in on the launch control of nine intercontinental missiles is consistent with Aldrich’s uncharacteristically lackadaisical approach to the material, missing his signature muscular sense of masculine brutality while failing at committed exploration of the story’s newly found thematic concerns; which is ironically fortunate as close scrutiny would quickly reveal the thinness of the thematic reconception. By changing the motivations of Dell from egomaniacal, disgruntled mastermind interested in the world’s most impractical extortion scheme to impassioned, if naive, whistle blower, the script burdens the film with a moral foundation contrary to the actions of the characters, with methods insupportable in relation to the lack of historic import in the eventual requested confidential information, a single document confessing as to the insoluble nature of the Vietnam War; a secretive memorandum which ridiculously pales in comparison with already exposed “Pentagon Papers” and thus eliminates all but the most desperate form of legitimacy to its central philosophical conflict. The film is also impeded by a visual flatness combined with dramatic inertia, sharing a similar lack of momentum from the novel in which an interminable amount of time seems to pass while the characters do little but sit around waiting for the extended time clock to wind down; the intended sense of crisis becomes so muffled, the film feels as if its taking place underwater. The character of President Stevens (Charles Durning ) has been transformed into a pudgy teddy bear of a figure, perhaps the most unlikely and uncharismatic profile of a Commander-in-Chief in memory, though this ineffectiveness is part of an intentional design to portray a figure of youthful idealism crushed by an advisory Cabinet of patriarchal corruption (represented by elder Hollywood stalwarts including Melvyn Douglas and Joseph Cotten), a rather obvious and odious subtext reducing complex geopolitical tensions to a simpleminded generational (read: parental) betrayal of the innocent. If “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” is about anything it seems to be simply a promotional vehicle for a polarizing cynicism which is all the more galling since the film’s tone is gift wrapped in a sanctimonious sense of patronizing glibness (and staggering political ignorance); similar to Wager’s novel whose characters aren’t half as interesting as the author’s pop-trashy style would have you believe, despite the constant reminders by the author of how impressed the book is with itself. (The book is littered with self-reverential references to how ingenious the plotting is when in fact the story is rife with stupidity and missed opportunities.) Burt Lancaster seem rumpled and weary without a glimmer of the high octane explosive charge he brought to the similarly self-righteous ideologue General James Mattoon Scott in “Seven Days in May”. _________________________________________ “Psycho” (1998) Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Block. Directed by Gus Van Sant. To look upon Gus Van Sant’s supposed shot-by-shot (it’s not) remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as a grand experiment is to excuse meaningless directorial hubris as a substitution for genuine artistic evolution. It is difficult to fathom what the director nor even the studio backing such an effort were thinking, but the results are predictable, something of which Hitchcock’s original could never be accused. If the film were a result of a film school class deconstructing a classic film by way of cinematic mimeography the results could not have been any more perfunctory, disaffected and devoid of both tension and mystery. Truthfully, the film is hardly a carbon copy as there are significant differences: several instances (including in the shower scene) of nudity, differing editing rhythms (including in the shower scene), an occasion of masturbatory voyeurism, an extended end sequence which turns the final haunting image of Marion’s car being extricated into useless graphic design, intrusive hallucinogenic images during the murder scenes (as if the filmmakers were suddenly mistakenly channeling Ken Russell’s “Altered States”) and a reconfiguration of the basement showdown now featuring an aviary, a spider crawling out of a facial orifice and an extended struggle which drains every bit of horror from the original’s most primal, horrifying scene. The problem is not one of updating (one can hardly argue against filmic cloning and then despair over differences from such shameless tracings), but that they neither contribute to a new interpretation of the material nor are any changes of sufficiently relevant to the material to act as anything but a violation of the original design. (In a similar vein, Martin Scorsese’s remake of another quality thriller, “Cape Fear”, utilized the same Bernard Herrmann score as the J. Lee Thompson original, but at least the newer film otherwise had the dignity of its own reinterpretation of the story, no matter how misguided and loathsome the results.) Beyond the bizarre enactments of the lead roles, less a result of miscasting than of peculiar acting choices- Anne Heche as Marion Crane (too featherweight), Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates (too smug by half), Viggo Mortensen as Sam (too hillbilly) -there emerge from this “experiment”, two separate threads of equal analytically contentious observation. First, is the poorly considered increased sexualization of the material, though slight (Norman’s masturbation doesn’t make sense as he is far too pathologically repressed for this act- at this moment -to be credible, and the nudity is clearly only for the benefit of the audience), is inconsistent with the retention of the almost sheepishly puritanical mores expressed in the original dialogue. Also, the hollow performances create a situation which lays bare the surprisingly shallow nature of the original. in terms of character and plot development. Is it possible that the film, in its duplicative failure exposes a fundamental defect of the Hitchcockian oeuvre which is that the precision of aesthetic formality manages to masquerade an absence of inherent narrative substance; that the characters remain conceptually undeveloped when devoid of the expert cosmetic trickery?______________________________________
“The High and the Mighty”(1954) Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Jan Sterling, Robert Stack, Laraine Day, David Brian, Robert Newton, Phil Harris, Paul Fix, William Campbell, Doe Avedon, Sidney Blackmer, Karen Sharpe, Regis Toomey. Written by Ernest K. Gann, based on his novel. Directed by William A. Wellman. Buoyed by the extremely hummable (and certainly whistle worthy) theme music of Dmitri Tiomkin and a particularly sympathetic performance by John Wayne (though in a role he is far too young to be sensibly cast), William A. Wellman’s film of Ernest K. Gann’s novel “The High and the Mighty” begins with an unconscionably prolonged sequence of deadly (fatal only in the dreadful sense) character exposition inflicted to introduce the world’s most boring passenger list of less-than-stock characters into a what will be a distressed overseas flight in which the crisis of a plane with rapidly degenerating engine stability becomes secondary to horrendously amateurish flashback sequences that conversely have the effect of generating even less interest in the characters’ fates. Fortunately for all involved, there is the aforementioned Wayne, spunky dream flight attendant Doe Avedon and smart aleck Second Officer William Campbell to enliven what would otherwise be a dramatic albatross fluttering painfully slowly over the Pacific waters. Captain John Sullivan (Robert Stack) is a no nonsense, tightly wound airline pilot of the variety who will inevitably crack under the strain of a crisis situation which inevitably emerges in the film. During a commercial passenger flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, members of Sullivan’s crew begin to notice the occasional strange vibration, though even an inspection in a rear section by veteran pilot now First Officer Dan Roman (Wayne) reveals nothing out of the ordinary. In a coincidence which only occurs in movies and has the effect of partially obscuring the cause of the disastrous engine failure to not have been caused by a stray bullet, unhinged Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmer) attempts to shoot fellow passenger Ken Childs (David Brian) for sleeping with his wife, without regard to what catastrophic damage might occur to the inglorious collection of secondary players being passed off as an all-star cast in a confined airplane cabin. Fortunately, the mystery of the mysterious vibration reveals itself at this precise moment by one of the plane’s engines breaking out of it’s mount, catching fire and begin leaking fuel into the ocean below. The flight, at this time, is past its point of no return and is committed to complete its route to San Francisco though this means an almost certain fatal end for every featured player in the cast. Not that the filmmakers make you care about any of the passengers as the script’s menu of characters is strictly from the “supporting stock stereotype” handbook, each less an individual than a representation of an individual type of role, and none of whom is played with the slightest modicum of charm or empathetic attraction; as faceless and unmemorable as the luggage tossed out to increase fuel efficiency as none of the passenger flashbacks contribute a bit to the situation unfolding in the main narrative, nor contributes to an understanding of their individual reactions. Based on the relatively confined circumstances, there is little for any of the passengers to do but sit and wait. If “The High and the Mighty” could be regarded as a template for the later rise of disaster films, it is the model for a formula which aims despairingly low, operating on the assumption that the audience’s natural empathy alone toward any other human being in a crisis situation will sufficiently create compelling drama, though rather hypocritically ignoring the inherent genre specific elements which demand visceral responses from the same audience by deliberately placing these imperiled characters in danger in the first place strictly for the amusement of that audience: a modern version of unloosing the lions in the gladiatorial arena. _________________________________________ “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardiman, Marilyn Eastman, Judith Ridley, Russell Streiner, Keith Wayne. Written by George Romero and John A. Russo. Directed by George Romero. The immediate appeal of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, what makes it sizzle, is in the utilitarian crudeness of its technique in practicing practical filmmaking despite a poverty of resources rather than a dearth of ideas. The story of a mass rising of the dead to feast on the living is entirely the beneficiary of the fly-on-the-wall immediacy that occurs through a fortunate collision of crummy technical resources and blind enthusiasm; it has the feel of documentarian news footage so commonplace on television in the time before news coverage actually meant a cinéma vérité coverage of events rather than pristinely staged roundtables of waxen talking heads. Simply put: the filmmakers didn’t know enough not to do what they went ahead and did anyway. There are several misconceptions surrounding the film, the most prominent of which is that it is the granddaddy of zombie films, a case that may be accepted but is actually mistaken due to several basic misunderstandings: the first being that there were numerous supernatural films before it which featured the folkloric zombi, most notably “The Ghost Breakers”, “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Plague of the Zombies” (even the 1943 “Batman” serial had electronically controlled zombies as one of its perils), with Frankenstein’s Monster evolving into a controlled version of the resurrected dead under the control of the hunchbacked Ygor in the Universal series as well as Kharis in the same studio’s “Mummy” sequels., and secondly that it is not about zombies at all, but ghouls. In fact, no where in the film is there a reference to zombies, being that traditionally they are a result of a possession of the soul, the zombie being either alive or the resurrected undead, and under the control of the one who resurrected it, whereas the ghoul is a manifestation of a person, often undead, who consumes the flesh of humans. The little that is known about Romero’s undead stalkers (a news report indicating that the phenomenon is believed to be caused by radiation from a rocket exploded while returning from Venus) is that they fit the definition traditionally set aside for ghouls, and are even notated as such in the context of the film’s news broadcasts. There is also a misconception that Romero deliberately set about to make a statement about race in America with the casting of Duane Jones as the lead character of the piece who is summarily gunned down in the film’s finale. However, Romero, on a number of occasions has refuted such an intention with the end result being simply a matter of fortuitous casting. However, what is beyond dispute is the film’s apocalyptic fracturing of social order represented by the nuclear family and a demonstration of how easily implosive that most fundamental of societal building blocks may disintegrate. Both familial relationships- the opening sequence’s siblings Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner), and the later the Cooper family, Harry (Karl Hardiman), Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and daughter Karen (Kyra Schom) -end in acts of cannibalism, actions which form an indelible thematic thread illustrating the inescapable nihilism within screenwriters Romero and Russo’s dire conception (the unattributed borrowings from Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ are obvious, but altered enough to afford a certain level of misdirection) that views the end of the world beginning at home with the deadly turning of one’s most intimate connections. (Note the simultaneous claustrophobic tightening of the characters’ logistical placement with the incidence of familial self-destruction suggestive of an existential dead end.) The lack of Hollywood finesse and slickness advances the elemental nature of the story’s fatalism (the resolution of the events is temporary as there are no assurances that the progression of flesh-eaters has been universally halted, nor has the infectious nature of the creatures been resolved) by offering no real hope of an eventual curative to the growing epidemic: the true message of the final sequence, obscured by hosannas identifying the unintended but still interpretable racial irony, is that the defensive posture of civilization in crisis ultimately leads to anarchic behavior likely to destroy both foe and ally, thus engaging a pattern of self-destructive self-consumption. The acting, often dismissed as amateurish, contributes to the film’s on-the-spot sense of immediacy: the performances lacking in any polished subtlety more resembles the behavior of real-life when caught without the distraction of intended theatricality; the audience is so accustomed to rehearsed performance technique, more natural behavior- full of stammers, natural hesitation and awkwardness, appears as rough and unprofessional. Yet it is this lack of concession to professional polish (much, admittedly, through fortuitous lack of resource) that upends the expectations of the audience (independent horror films are rife with horrible acting, but there is a substantial difference between bad acting and, as evidenced here, non-performance) and helps ground this most outlandish of concepts squarely within the verisimilitude of his nondescript rural setting. The direction of George Romero is intelligent and visually astute, especially his cemetery opening which quickly escalates from mundane errand to unspeakable nightmare in a matter of moments; a sequence which establishes all of Romero’s themes with remarkable brevity and clarity: no matter how homebound much of the film is, it is still a chase and pursuit film of a most original variety, in which the hapless Barbra (among others) is stalked until her fate is finally reconciled in the most horrific moment of the film. The inevitability of death hangs over the film like a caul, yet it is Romero’s introduction of the inevitability of undeath where the game changes to entirely new heights of unease. There are only minor problems with the film- the news footage of Washington-based reporters and authorities is shot and performed in an exaggerated comedic style alien to the tone of the rest of the film, and there are blatant errors in coordinated timelines with the televised news footage supposedly aired live (in daylight) while the huddled survivors are watching the television (in the same time zone) in by a pitch black evening, Ed Wood moments that cannot possibly detract from the genuine accomplishments of Romero’s unsettling opus. _____________________________________________ “Bullitt” (1968) Starring Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, Don Gordon, Simon Oakland, Norman Fell. Written by Alan R. Trustman & Harry Kleiner, based on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike. Directed by Peter Yates. “Bullitt”, the first of what would become producer Philip D’Antoni’s “chase trilogy”, (the others being William Friedkin’s 1971 “The French Connection” and D’Antoni’s own 1973 “The Seven-Ups”) is notable for an exciting, impressively realized chase sequence up and down the hills of San Francisco, but also in that it marked a maturing turning point with the American cop film with its central character, police detective Frank Bullitt, finding himself in an existential crisis emerging with the unfolding with the duality of corruption (both criminal and authoritarian) revealing itself during the film’s homicide investigation; a subject of emotional, critical commentary by Bullitt’s lovely girlfriend Cathy, who acts as surrogate Greek chorus during a reflective moment in the escalating mayhem. That a traditional American police melodrama is infused with an existential undertone that might be- incorrectly -attributed to influences from contemporaneous French cinema (especially the films of Jean-Pierre Melville) would render a disservice to the significance of the important contributions of director Peter Yates, unique to his own personal style, melding a hard-edged realism with a directorial temperament sensitive to the humanism of the material, no matter how rough-hewn the characters. Based on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike, (a Robert L. Fish pseudonym) the intelligent adaptation by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner alters characters and events in significant ways while leaving the basic outline of the narrative solidly in place. Both incarnations follow the unraveling of the murder of a Mob witness under police protection, but it is in the method of telling where the story interestingly diverges. There are surface differences: in the book, the detective in named Clancy not Bullitt and the action is located in New York as opposed to the film’s San Francisco, but perhaps the most significant variation is the dichotomy between the novelistic- where character defines actions -and the cinematic, where events are used to suggest character; there is a running device in the novel suggesting Clancy’s increasing lack of sleep and physical fatigue, effectively used to increase the tension of the novel, while in the film (though the effects of deprived sleep is momentarily noted) the fatigue of detective Bullitt is of a moral corrosion, not through his own actions but in his shrugging dismissal- and therefore a brand of acceptance -of the corruption of those around him. This is different than in the source novel, where Clancy’s isolation from fellow law enforcement is mandated by their blatant incompetence, whereas Frank Bullitt’s friction with departmental authority has its basis in the self-serving politics of decisions made solely for reasons of career expediency. Bullitt’s stolidity of manner is both defensive and derisive, an armor worn to emphasize his single-minded devotion to the truth, but one that also erodes his humanity; an erosive weariness not specifically identified until very late in the game- the final shot speaking quiet wonders. There is a noticeably sketchier conception of characterization to the central characters in the film as opposed to the book; in their movie incarnations, both Bullitt and his true nemesis, the oily District Attorney Chalmers, are presented as mere archetypical figures: the former dedicated to the law while the latter sees jurisprudence as an elastic arena in which to fulfill his personal ambitions. In Yates’ accomplished film, the solution of a murder is often refreshingly secondary to examining the antagonistic schism by antithetical factions who claim an identical allegiance to the pursuit of justice, enhanced by smart, incisive dialogue and intelligent performances by not only Steve McQueen as Bullitt and Robert Vaughn as Chalmers, but engaging work by Don Gordon, Simon Oakland and Jacqueline Bisset. The film is highlighted by two major chase sequences, the aforementioned classic auto pursuit and a similarly exciting foot chase amid jets on busy airport runways, but these sequences by virtue of their sheer professionalism threaten to obscure Yates’ more important achievement with the picture and that is his use of the oft-filmed San Francisco. Never before nor since has the city been used to such effect; Yates’ camera virtually caresses the nuances and contours of the hills and buildings, imbuing the background of the film with an unmistakable air of romance yet detachment, a sense of attractive unapproachability which can only be described as a sense of “cool”. It can hardly be argued that the key to McQueen’s current reign as “the King of Cool” isn’t critically interwoven to the image Yates creates of him while submerging the picaresque atmosphere of his mise-en-scene into the very fabric of his cop/hero. McQueen’s Frank Bullitt becomes an extension of the visualized city and vice versa, and both McQueen’s iconic image and the American cop film are the better for it._________________________________________________________________ “The Hindenburg”(1975) Starring George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Roy Thinnes, Robert Clary, Charles Durning, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith. Written by Nelson Gidding, screen story by Richard Levinson & William Link, based on a book by Michael M. Mooney, Directed by Robert Wise. The movies love a mystery, especially one based on historical fact as it affords Hollywood the opportunity to do something which it prides itself on doing better than any omnipotent deity: improving on real life. This unnatural (and unwarranted) self-confidence in its own ability to transcend reality is the stuff of self-perpetuated legend and therefore has fed into the myth of Hollywood as the earthly dream factory. However, just as Hollywood studios alter and heighten reality to fit its own artificial view of the world as a puppeteer’s stage solely designed for its own brand of cynical humor and three-hanky melodrama, it also encourages a recipe for disaster when this uncontrolled creative hubris is allowed to overstep common sense in the long and laborious process of film production, leading to greater waste, production confusion and eventual paralysis of the imagination. Hollywood history is replete with examples of good intention run horribly awry both creatively and economically, resulting in ruinous failure both artistically and financially. Such an example is Robert Wise’s 1975 film “The Hindenburg”, with which the veteran director seems to have forgotten all he ever knew (which was considerable) about the rudimentary aspects of narrative filmmaking, such as tension, pacing and effective framing to emphasize scene drama and performance (not to mention to disguise deficiencies). In this speculative tale on what may have caused the fatal 1937 conflagration of the German airship while docking at Lakehurst New Jersey, Wise’s efforts are certainly not aided by the mundane scripting of Nelson Gidding, despite the presumed impressive pedigree of the screen story by crackerjack teleplay scenarists Levinson and Link who know more than a little about mystery plotting, but on the evidence at hand, seem to have shared in the director’s temporary creative amnesia. The unconvincing sabotage plot makes for a plodding film that never convinces in its historic speculation, in the process also failing to develop a solitary character (either fictional or reality based) of substance, interest nor capable of attracting audience empathy, either as a heroic figure or in a villianous capacity. This is deadly for a mystery film, especially one in which the conclusion is already known, a narrative quandry which can be successfully overcome as was the case in Fred Zinnemann’s exceptional filmization of Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal”, but finds no appreciable strategy to keep the audience engaged except for endless successions of matte shots featuring the Hindenburg gracefully skimming through the clouds accompanied by the underrated David Shire’s lovely scoring, but these almost meditative moments only serve to remind the viewer that the film is padding time better used to advance the plot and develop characters. There is no assistance from the cast as they have no material to work with and inexplicably a decision was made to abandon the use of appropriate accents, so the actors remain unchallenged in speaking their lines except in flat and unvaried tones which is rather off-putting when half of the characters are supposed to be German yet everyone sounds as if they originated from the same Midwest Kiwanis luncheon. (It also creates an occasion for a bit of confusion as Robert Clary’s french accent remains unrestrained and put to annoyingly pixilated use.) George C. Scott, plays Luftwaffe Intelligence Officer Colonel Franz Ritter as if channeling a manager of a Nebraska hardware store, generating little heat and no sense of urgency in his search for a possible saboteur and Anne Bancroft as an opium addicted German Countess Ursula von Reugen merely attempts a feature length impression of a baked ham. William Atherton, a talented performer who has displayed a disarming fanaticism in many roles generates not a scintilla of passion as Karl Boerth, the ex-Hitler Youth now airship rigger who plans to destroy the airship as act of anti-Nazi propaganda. The sabotage theory is so tepidly conceived that the scenarists have Scott discover- and cooperate with -the conspiracy by mid-film, (thereby waving goodbye to any hope for suspense or mystery in this suspense mystery) agreeing to allow the sabotage to occur; thus nullifying any usefulness he might have in the film save to spending the remainder of the flight in casual observance of a scenarist’s idea of a roster of “colorful” characters, (and thereby justifying the hiring of all of the major supporting players- all of whom looked bored) or worse yet, intermittent scenes of American investigators casually considering warnings of an impending sabotage; each scene shot as if it were an elementary school stage pageant and littered with utterly unconvincing episodic television actors. Roy Thinnes as Gestapo agent Martin Vogel, assisting Ritter in investigating the sabotage plot, is wasted with drab dialogue and an inexplicable conception of Nazis as no more than sometimes moody fellows- the “heated” arguments between Scott and Thinnes so tepidly dramatized, the two might as well be discussing differing tastes in laundry detergent. So bereft of substance is the narrative that the entire investigation (and the film) comes to a dead stop during an overly extended fictitious sequence involving a rip in the airship’s skin in which Boerth is portrayed as being in danger. This sequence is important in revealing the failure of the film in two significant ways: (1) in the misapplication of having the audience root for the character who is the presumed “villain” of the piece, and (2) the suggestion that the search for a bomber is so uninteresting that an erroneous excuse for a suspense sequence was necessary to invent to relieve the narrative foot dragging. Ultimately, the film’s sole note of significance is that it may be the only Hollywood production to ultimately portray a Gestapo officer as the de facto “good guy” of the story, since it is only Vogel who continues to pursue an aversion of the impending disaster to the bitter end. For a studio to spend an advertised twelve million dollars to present a story based upon theoretical anti-Nazi propaganda, only for the end result to actually be a film that actually works toward improving the image of the Nazi is either an act of historically ironic proportions or one of shattering incompetence. _______________________________________________________________________________ “Love and Death” (1975) Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Harold Gould. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Woody Allen’s first overt dive into the realm of the serious (though not approached seriously) is an interesting amalgam of 19th Century Russian literature, the cinema of Eisenstein and Bergman all seen through the eyes of his sarcastic horndog persona. It’s an ingenious mixture of homage sweetened with an informed but flippant air of literacy reminiscent of his best New Yorker short pieces. The comic juxtapositioning of a very contemporary New York sensibility into the rich philosophical foundations of the Tolstoyan movement provides a far more fertile ground for satire than Allen’s previous “Sleeper” which merely rubbed a clever jokiness into the face of the most obvious of SF’s dystopian conventions, with a story line so loosely constructed that it virtually ensured his satiric concept would run out of gas. (Up to “Love and Death” Allen was hampered by an inability to close his films.) With “Love and Death”, Allen finally achieves something of elliptical story structure that works wonders in including the expected thematic phantoms of his source inspirations, while at the same time allowing his free flowing burlesque to attach itself to both the classical literary and cinematic conventions of his targeted satire. The humorous frisson between the more Christian based Tolstoyan ethic and Allen’s own borscht belt shadows creates a contrapuntal tension that literally translates into a reductio ad absurdum form of comedy. It is also the most accomplished visually of Allen’s films up to that time, hardly surprising with the masterful contribution of Ghislain Cloquet. There are, however, gaping flaws in the film. The editing of the usually reliable Ralph Rosenblum (so invaluable in the shaping of Allen’s often rambling narrative structures) finds itself on the pokey side; too often waiting an extra beat on scenes clearly anticipating audience response but merely dragging the rhythms of comic verbiage to the precipice of gaping holes; an editing style perhaps more appropriate to a straightforward dramatic presentation, but then, Tolstoy wasn’t delivering punchlines was he? However, the greatest nuisance to the film is yet another disastrous performance by the woeful Diane Keaton as both Allen’s paramour and source of his greatest neurotic frustration. Having proven herself completely out of her depths in drama with her appalling performances in the first two “Godfather” films, she once again presents herself as a comedienne of note, only that note is completely flat. Performing with a constant breathless whine as if on the verge of a panic attack, she reads her lines with a perpetual expression of sleepy-eyed dopiness (as if she’s trying to read her dialogue notes from the insides of her eyelids) and a sense of dislocation worthy of the truly somnambulant. Her one comic highlight is a bit of cheap but hilarious slapstick in which, during a failed act of abduction, Keaton is constantly hit on the head with a wine bottle until collapsing into unconsciousness; proving that even the worst of comic performers are subject to the rules of gravity. ______________________________________________________________________________ “Legend of the Lost” (1957) Starring John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Rossano Brazzi, Kurt Kasnar. Written by Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell. Directed by Henry Hathaway. In Timbuktu, adventurer Joe January (Wayne) is hired by a mysterious man named Paul Bonnard (Brazzi) to guide him into the Sahara Desert, in what later is revealed to be a plan to find Bonnard’s father, a lost city and the treasure that is supposedly hidden there. Accompanying them on the trip is a local girl of ill repute, Dita, (Loren) with whom Joe spends most of the trip bickering, although there develops an almost imperceptible seed of a romantic triangle that doesn’t really develop since Bonnard is a man of piety believing in neither drink nor with sexually fraternizing with women; until later, that is, when Bonnard attempts to kill Joe in an unmotivated delusional jealous rage over Dita. None of it makes a great deal of sense, and the entire story is built on the flimsiest plot devices, with the development of a natural anticipation that the movie will eventually explain all of its suggestions of possible mystery and secret motivations and break loose to become a rousing adventure going entirely unrewarded. Neither sandstorm, nor frantic searches for desert water, nor encounters with hostile nomadic tribes, nor the central treasure hunt can breathe life into this most anemic of desert adventures, a surprising turn of events from the usually reliable Hathaway. Wayne, Loren and Brazzi appear game but are lost wandering the desert sands looking for water as well as some connective tissues that would explain just what is supposed to be happening and why the audience should care.. Interesting and exotic Libyan locations are nicely photographed by Jack Cardiff (though several key outdoor scenes have a suspicious smell of studio backlot to them), but there is no getting around the fact that once you get through the three characters constantly parrying with what is, presumably, witty banter (there is a constant shift from the dramatic to the comedic, as if the writers were throwing anything out there to see what would work), absolutely nothing happens. The entire film centers on one character’s belief in the honor of a parent and once that illusion is shattered, that character emotionally shatters creating a crisis situation that is painfully unconvincing and ludicrously developed. Though mildly colorful pictorially, this is a surprisingly lumbering waste of time. _____________________________________________________________________________ “My Little Chickadee” (1940) Starring W.C. Fields, Mae West, Joseph Callieia, Dick Foran, Margaret Hamilton, Donald Meek, Ruth Donnelly. Written by Mae West, W.C. Fields. Directed by Edward F. Cline. What would appear to be a comic match made in heaven, with West, the Queen of the insouciant double entendre and Fields, the screen’s merriest misanthrope, is actually a frustrating demonstration of the creatively debilitating effects of the Production Code. Evident from the very first scene is the gag placed on Mae West, preventing her from practicing her most signature brand of sexually provocative material; her raison d’etre. It is like handicapping Fred Astaire with cement shoes topped by spats, obliviating one of the most important foundations of her lasting appeal. Almost every opportunity for West to speak (she wrote her own dialogue) is an exercise in frustration, often awkwardly paused as if she’s imagining the dialogue she’s unable to speak before the actual uninspired lines emerge, and occasionally there seems to be a sharp edit at the end of her lines, as if she smuggled one by the censor’s and was later rudely truncated. Fields, for his part, fares much better, evidently always unfazed by the limiting restrictions of Hays, having created his own idiosyncratic vocabulary substituting for language which would be deemed “offensive”. (Clearly excited utterances such as “Godfrey Daniels!” and “Mother of Peal” have entirely different meanings than simply nonsensical declarations; Fields was far too wily a writer for that.) One of the greatest joys of Fields’ humor was his overt subversion of the “moral” parameters imposed by a hypocritically immoral industry; his blatant thumbing of the nose (in his case, not an insignificant achievement) at the bullying autocracies of society, and he is well matched in his chicanery with the able assistance of director Edward F. Cline with whom he would have many fruitful associations including the creation of the Surrealist comedy masterpiece “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break”. The finely tuned comic sensibilities of the two men, however, are evidently as strained as Miss West’s corsets in extending the humor of this otherwise wearisome western trifle beyond the specific antics of Fields, and a characteristically energetic performance by Margaret Hamilton. The plot, concerning the (not too) wanton Flower Belle (West) who is (not too) secretly in love with the marauding masked bandit, called the Masked Bandit, and her expulsion to the town of Greasewood City, is not particularly compelling material; roughly the plot equivalent of a low grade Monogram programmer, but clearly used as the framework with which to hang the humor to emanate from the two stars. Unfortunately, as stated, West is a dud- all haughty posing and flashing eyes -and without an ounce of comic energy to compensate for the absence of teasing carnal allurement, whereas Fields is effortlessly in his element- whether tending bar to a mouthy inebriated woman, or in one of the many gambling scenes (“Is this a game of chance?” someone asks. “Not the way I play it, no”, he replies.) in which his endlessly conniving carnival barker/con man personality takes firm root in his comic assault on decency and weakness. It’s a marvelous performance, stuck against a waxworks representation of another once-great comic talent. (Who would have thought that Fields’ greatest chemistry in the film would be either with Hamilton or a goat?) The irony of this situation is that reportedly (and confirmed by Fields) is that West wrote most of the screenplay herself, perfectly appropriating his caustic and subversive persona, yet unable to yield equal representation for her own unique voice in the face of the industry’s moral crusaders whose antennae was constantly pulsing with suspicion over imagined incidents of “indecency”. Indecency indeed. ______________________________________________________________________________ “36 Hours” (1965) Starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Taylor, Werner Peters, John Banner, Alan Napier. Written by George Seaton, based on the story “Beware of the Dogs” by Roald Dahl and a story by Carl K. Hittleman & Luis H. Vance. Directed by George Seaton. High level intrigue World War 2 style, following an elaborate deception by German psychiatric experts to extract top secret information about the impending D-Day invasion from Allied insider without him knowing about it; this is a radical expansion of the famous 1944 short story “Beware of the Dog” by Roald Dahl, with its more streamlined scenario of a downed, wounded RAF pilot substituted by the more grandiose vision of the “one man who holds the key to the war” formula. James Garner portrays Major Jefferson Pike, a U.S. Army Intelligence Officer who, after being briefed on the particulars of the imminent European Invasion, travels to Lisbon to meet with a recruited German double agent to ensure the Germans are anticipating the upcoming battle plans incorrectly. The expansion of the story, even with the higher stakes of D-Day in the balance, has the curious effect of diluting the intensity of the situation, drifting away from the central character and his psychological state of dislocation, to attend to the now necessary heavy expositional sequences explaining the vast mechanics of the plot. (Some of which make little sense, such as a vast dossier- more a “biography” -compiled on Pike, in preparation for this interrogatory that is only made possible by a dubiously timed trip to Lisbon at a very inopportune time; something which the Germans couldn’t have possibly foreseen years into the future.) There is also a problem of the introduction of too many subsidiary characters, which come into play only to reduce the central interesting conceit into a flabby wartime thriller which has been seen too many times before. (Pike’s escape actually takes more screen time than his interrogations!) Adding to the watering down of the film’s theme are annoyingly obvious performances by Werner Peters as the most obvious undercover Gestapo agent (he breaks into a tight collared sweat every time someone mentions Hitler without reverence) in recent memory and John Banner in an overly extended rendering of his Sergeant Schultz schtick that has the curious effect of stopping the film cold- permanently. Dahl’s initial premise is a fascinating one, and a more centralized focus on the three pertinent characters- Pike, the German psychiatrist posing as an American doctor, Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) and concentration camp refugee Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint) -would have concentrated what should be a more intimate (as was in the story) mental chess game than the distractingly dispersed scenario that emerges. In fact, the preparation for the film’s deception is so prolonged, the period in which it is enacted appears so disappointingly brief that it renders the last third of the film, not only anti-climactic, but jarring as if it’s out of an entirely separate film. The complexities of Pike’s character and its possible duel with the manipulations of Gerber are sidestepped in order to more prominently feature an exploration of the bruised psyche of Anna, which while incisively written and performed, is counterproductive to the focus which would have given the film its greatest, and presumably intended, impact. A passably interesting entertainment, but a lost opportunity for far more. ____________________________________________________________________________ “Upstairs and Downstairs” (1959) Starring Michael Craig, Anne Heywood, Mylene Demongeot, James Robertson Justice, Daniel Massey, Sid James, Joan Hickson, Joan Sims, Claudia Cardinale. Written by Frank Harvey, based on a novel by Ronald Scott Thorn. Directed by Ralph Thomas. What is it about British comedies that they seem to be populated by an unfair abundance of quirky, happily oddball characters who effortlessly operate in a world of their own individual behavioral devising- a quality that in genteel American terms might be referred to (if Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” is used as a barometer of appropriate living) as “being pixilated” but in British terms might be more appropriately identified as “eccentricity”? Successful British comedies are abundant with eccentricity, more often than not with a seemingly inexhaustible population capable of all manifestations of drollery from deliciously awkward mannerisms, to comically twisted asides. Somehow, in the world of British comedy, even the normal is slightly askew, but in a civilized way, which makes the social aberrations all the more delicious. Ralph Thomas’ “Upstairs and Downstairs” is a fine example of the sturdy social center upended by a dizzying orbit of eccentricity. The film is built upon a solitary joke- the incapability of a young couple to hire competent “help” -but it’s a solid premise for subversively escalating humor that often comes in surprising forms, and thus while the anticipation of repetitive disaster is the basis of the comedy, (this was also the basis for the comedy of Laurel and Hardy- the anticipation of the acknowledged joke to come) it is the unpredictable degrees of eccentricity which sustains the momentum to the very end. Richard and Kate (Michael Craig and Anne Heywood) are a charming , if a bit drab- entirely appropriate as the necessary fulcrum of normalcy around which the dizzier elements might spin -pair of newlyweds who find their lives immediately upended by Richard’s boss and new father-in-law “the Old Bull Moose” (the impeccable James Robertson Justice, familiar from Thomas’ “Doctor” comedies) who demands the young couple take over the firm’s entertaining of important clients. Naturally, hired domestic help is an absolute must. Joan Hickson delivers a wildly funny turn as a not-so-secretive inebriate as does “Carry On” star Joan Sims as a simpleton Wesh recruit who shares an incident filled trip back to London (was ever so much humor found in a stuck lavatory door as here?). The parade of domestic disaster- punctuated by fine running gags involving snoopy elderly sisters and a weary bobby (a delightfully patient creation featuring “Carry On” alumnus Sid James) which bookend the film revealing how truly well constructed Frank Harvey’s script is with its satisfying multi-leveled elliptical structure -seems to find a satisfactory solution with the arrival of the perky Swedish Ingrid (Mylene Demongeot), however, the film begins to take some interesting and satisfying turns into dramatic areas involving fidelity and attraction versus love that intelligently touch upon many earlier aspects of the married couple’s relationship that were previously submerged by the more overt humor. A simultaneously hilarious and charmingly romantic film (the finale brings everything full circle and is unapologetically happy), with hidden rewards to sharp eyed viewers who will find amongst many early uncredited roles a noticeable Oliver Reed and an early Rank appearance by Barbara Steele, featuring her own undubbed British accent! _______________________________________________________________________________ “Murder Inc.” (1960) Starring Stuart Whitman, May Britt, Peter Falk, Henry Morgan, David J. Stewart, Simon Oakland, Morey Amsterdam, Joseph Bernard, Vincent Gardenia. Written by Irve Tunick & Mel Barr, based on the book by Burton Turkus and Sid Feder. Directed by Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg. Tepid, meandering story of the Brooklyn gang that became the assassination arm of organized crime in the 1930’s and the means by which they were exposed, leading to the execution of syndicate kingpin Louis Lepke. The film proceeds haltingly and without sufficient focus, betraying a troubled production and the use of two different directors. When Peter Falk (in his screen debut) is onscreen as criminal assassin Abe Reles, the film comes alive, drawing from his energetic performance. Unfortunately, he is invisible for much of the second half and the film suffers with a variable performance by Stuart Whitman in an underwritten (and not particularly compelling) role as singer Joey Collins who eventually provides important testimony for investigating Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan). The focus on Collins and his wife Eadie (a predictably disastrous May Britt, whose presence in a scene seems to drain Whitman of his thespian tools) may be eventually essential in the dismantling of Lepke’s enterprises, but their story is dramatically inert when considering the abundance of criminal activity that was occurring at the same time which would have provided a richer canvas in which to appreciate the obstacles law enforcement were up against. For once, a gangster film could have benefited from a more blatant concession to the visceral, as the docudrama approach becomes dramatically arid, with the film literally ending so abruptly it seems the filmmakers simply ran out of money for completion of a final reel. The film may be of interest to film archeologists to discover early uncredited appearances by Diane Ladd, Seymour Cassel and Joseph Campanella, as well as brief turns by Vincent Gardenia, Sarah Vaughan and Sylvia Miles. ______________________________________________________________________ “A Game of Death” (1945) Starring John Loder, Audrey Long, Edgar Barrier, Russell Wade. Written by Norman Houston, based on the story by Richard Connell. Directed by Robert Wise. First remake of the classic “The Most Dangerous Game” finds big game hunter Don Rainsford yet again shipwrecked on the island of a madman who hunts humans for sport. Being that the film was shot and released at the end of World War 2, the killer protagonist has been changed from the story and film original Russian Zaroff to the German Erich Kreiger, but except for a few extra lines of valuable philosophical dialogue from Kreiger that is in keeping with the original story, the first half of the scenario is a virtual carbon copy of James Ashmore Cheelman’s 1932 adaptation, down to the harmful and unnecessary addition of the heroine Ellen Trowbridge- nee Eve- (played by the less annoying than Fay Wray Audrey Long, but far too bland nonetheless) and her brother Robert-formerly Martin- (Russell Wade, an improvement on the uselessly drunk and hammy Robert Armstrong). In fact, the film is a bit too much of a déjà vu experience with original footage popping up all over the place, and some famous shots shamelessly replicated to no good end by the still-novice director Wise, which only reminds everyone of how good the original is in comparison. Loder is a stuffier, blander Rainsford and Edgar Barrier is a more civilized and therefore less menacing presence than Leslie Banks. The film attempts some original renovations that achieve little except to extend the time before we get to the final hunt and share more screen time between Loder and Long who generate little heat, either romantic or dramatically thus never properly evincing a shared sense of danger. The final quarter of the film shifts back to imitative autopilot though the ridiculous final shot of the escaping couple sharing fluttery eyed glances manages to destroy any mood the film might have reached for, as if the characters were casually dismissing the preceding 72 minutes of carnage with a wistful shrug.
______________________________________________________________ “The War Wagon” (1967) Starring John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Howard Keel, Robert Walker Jr. Bruce Cabot, Keenan Wynn. Written by Clair Huffaker, based on his novel. Directed by Burt Kennedy. Standard serio-comic western which places Wayne in the rare role of the pseudo-bad guy, or is he?. In this film he’s Taw Jackson, an ex-con who’s out to rob the even badder guys who stole his ranch and then set him up to serve a stretch in prison. So technically there is no break in the Wayne persona, which veered explosively in John Ford’s “The Searchers” and then returned to the relative comfort zone. The supporting characters are a grab bag of western “types” usually played for background color, but in this case brought to the forefront to give the illusion of a density of incident that just isn’t there: they include a jealous, compulsive thief (Wynn), a drunken explosives expert with an inconveniently loose tongue (Walker Jr.), an Indian who can’t stay out of trouble (Keel) and Taw’s eventual partner Lomax, (Douglas) a gunslinger who is contracted to kill him and was also instrumental in helping frame him in the first place. If it all sounds rather forced and gimmicky, it is that, but Wayne and Douglas make an amusing duo helped by some brisk witty dialogue that often doesn’t know when to quit and gets too cute for it’s own good; as if the two are accompanied across the landscape by a team of overworked comedy writers. However, Bruce Cabot adds immeasurable balance as Frank Pierce, the true villain of the piece; an amoral head of the mining company which has taken over Taw’s ranch and engineered his framing after a large gold strike was discovered on it. Cabot clearly relishes the rather colorful, but wisely understated role of the owner of “The War Wagon”, an armored stagecoach equipped with rotating Gatling gun turret used to ship the supplies of gold. The Wagon is, of course, the object of Taw’s attention, as this is, in essence, a heist film in Western garb. The improbable details of the caper seem doubly dubious when fully revealed, which is why the screenplay wisely keeps the audience in the dark for the bulk of the film as to the particulars of the robbery. It’s also difficult not to build some empathy for Cabot’s Pierce since, though clearly labelled the villain in a story in which everyone’s (including Taw’s) character is suspect at best, he is the only one in the film who openly states his actions and motives without an excess of sneaking about. In this gallery of pseudo-varmints, honor among thieves is more refreshing than no honor at all . (Surely wasn’t the intention of the film maker’s, but that’s the end result.) Burt Kennedy’s direction is stylistically undistinguished, but just energetic enough to keep the elements of the caper moving at such a pace, you are left little time to consider the improbabilities of the story. Walker and Wynn are basically wasted in the underwritten clichéd roles of drunk and crazy coot, as is Howard Keel in the film’s most peculiar bit of casting. (Oddly enough, the rousing title tune by Dmitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington is sung, not by Keel, but by Ed Ames.) But, there’s no end of pleasure in the witty presence of Kirk Douglas, (it’s hardly a performance but rather reminds one of a lively talk show appearance) aided by a running gag of his mounting a horse with the some of the most dynamic aerobatics since “The Big Country”. Unfortunately, during the lengthy robbery sequence the film stumbles badly with an unnecessary sequence in which a horde of pursuing Indians are gleefully massacred by Pierce’s Gatling gun, an overtly violent (though bloodless) action that mars an otherwise harmless, though surprisingly mediocre, Western adventure. ______________________________________________________________________ “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) Starring Spencer Tracy. Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift. Written by Abby Mann. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Lengthy, literate courtroom drama, still the most intelligent film to come from Hollywood on the subject of Nazi atrocities. The subject is post-World War II war crimes tribunals, ironically taking place in Nuremberg, location of the first international attention attained by Nazi fanaticism through the “documentation” of Hitler’s National Socialist rallies (filled with alarm bells curiously unheeded at the time) in Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”. Kramer’s film is a still scathing indictment, not only of the Nazis but of Germany itself, as it dissects the disintegration of the moral fabric of an entire society who found the capability of inhuman action a small price to pay for a quick resolution of their economic and political crises. To the credit of the filmmakers, there is an attempt to interject a balanced viewpoint so what little may be understood of the attraction of evil by an entire society may be examined; but it is an intractable riddle, resistant to any one universal truth. Kramer and writer Abby Mann are well aware of this, and in a cogent creative choice, concentrate instead on the industry of denial and evasion of responsibility. The trial and the film then both reach beyond the scope of the four accused prisoners and extends to the universal question: Who is responsible? A “minority” of empowered political thugs or the entirety of Germany? And just who is responsible for “empowering” this corruptive power base? The world? Everyone? Significantly, in bringing up these important questions, the film doesn’t feel compelled to provide clarifying answers, but relies upon the trial format as a springboard for an extended criticism of historical inhumanity of any form performed in the service of political expediency. Richard Widmark brings a full ferocity, beyond the point of obsession, as the chief prosecutor, who witnessed first-hand the results of Nazi collaboration. Maximilian Schell is the prickly, often strident German defense lawyer whose defensive zeal significantly begins to mirror the very warping of valid jurisprudence that is up on trial. Marlene Dietrich brings a morally antagonistic presence to the film, that moves far beyond performance. As a publicly prominent denunciator of Germany under Nazi rule and her fellow Germans who enabled it’s flourishing, the casting of Dietrich in the role of a widow of a previously executed military war criminal usefully obscures the boundaries of sympathetic observation. The film uses her as a fulcrum on which stands the “respectability” of the German people as a whole, who insist they “knew nothing” of the Nazi atrocities occurring all around them. It is during many of these non-trial sequences that the film extends it’s fullest sense of skepticism, (and in one memorable case, terror of what may be possible if left unchecked) embodied in an impressively understated performance by Spencer Tracy, who in the role of chief jurist of the judicial proceedings becomes the observant conscience of global opinion against the unfathomable depths to which evil may flourish under the guise of Civilization. Solid supporting performances are plentiful, highlighted by haunting contributions from Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and Werner Klemperer.
“Deliverance” (1972) Starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds. Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty. Directed by John Boorman. Written by James Dickey, based on his novel. James Dickey’s cross-cultural regional survival tale “Deliverance” arrives on the screen as a bit of a letdown. Technically, the film is an impressive achievement, strikingly shot and edited, with an astonishing sound mix during the rugged rapids sequences; but the film lacks the underlying predatory menace necessary for the novel’s themes to be successfully translated to film. This is a puzzling situation since director John Boorman has, in other circumstances, displayed a sturdy control of primeval wilderness environments and an ease with explosive eruptions of violence brought on by uncontrolled masculine instincts. Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty are effective as three member of a quartet of businessmen who enter the wilderness for a weekend testing the limits of their manhood, but Jon Voight, surprisingly, remains a cipher as the fourth member who is forced against his civilized nature to become a man of action. _______________________________________________________________ “Shadows and Fog” (1992) Starring Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Donald Pleasence, Lily Tomlin, Kenneth Mars. Directed and written by Woody Allen, based on his uncredited play “Death”. One of the antagonizing characteristics of Woody Allen’s professional career is that instead of focusing on his unique and admirable strengths, he continually strives to emulate the works of his idols. In “Shadows and Fog” his imitative goals are two-fold: first to create an homage to German Expressionist cinema, especially the works Murnau, Pabst and Lang, secondly, to emulate the absurdist, existential satire of Franz Kafka. In both paths he fails miserably. Visually, the film is almost impenetrably foggy…and dark. So dark, in fact, the visual design lapses the film into a pointless obscurity so severe it neither usefully functions as homage nor as parody; it simply becomes impossible to discern what is going on under all of the colossal murk. The script is a wrongheaded lengthening of Allen’s own one-act play “Death” (first published in his humor collection “Without Feathers” along with the equally comic play “God”, a parody of Sartre) which follows the incompetent, panicked efforts to trap a serial killer, taking this small absurd burlesque and attaching needless subplots, meaningless characters and grating meditations of life and death all played as it were a community production of “Sawdust and Tinsel” failing to emulate the style of the “Carry On” series. It is certainly one of the most depressing comedies ever filmed. Beyond the disparate tones of the material imploding are the appalling performances. Surely there have been few major films by a director of importance, featuring a prestigious cast whose collective efforts fall so abysmally low on the scale of professionalism, with Allen’s own whiny, arm flailing performance reaching new plateaus in the realm of the repulsive. The film opens with a jaunty version of Kurt Weill’s “The Cannon Song” from “Threepenny Opera” setting a comic tone that disappears almost immediately, making this one film best enjoyed by leaving the theater after the opening credits conclude. _________________________________________________________ “Shaft” (1971) Starring Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi. Directed by Gordon Parks. Written by Ernest Tidyman, based on his novel. The blaxploitation hit that supposedly started the genre into short-lived high gear is neither blaxploitation nor the hit that started the genre in earnest (that was more likely the Ossie Davis film “Cotton Comes to Harlem”), but a relatively colorless entry into the NYC private eye genre with it’s sole distinction that it stars a protagonist of color. Richard Roundtree portrays p.i. John Shaft as a fashion model with an attitude that wouldn’t intimidate Helen Hayes. The hackneyed kidnap plot is less interesting than the possibilities of the inverted racial dynamic and we await the flying sparks on the level of Virgil Tibb’s infamous racism defying slap in “In the Heat of the Night”, but alas, with the exception of a few “honky” references, the heat of confrontation is missing from the film. Interestingly, Parks, a celebrated photographer displays almost no feel for his urban environs (compare this with the stellar atmospheric use of NYC in the same year’s “The French Connection”) and seems unable to develop any kind of dramatic rhythm to his narrative. The sole element raising the film above b-movie mediocrity is the acclaimed Isaac Hayes score which pulsates with the heartbeat of urban funk the rest of the film desperately lacks. ____________________________________________________________________ “SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE” (1972) Starring Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Valerie Perrine, Eugene Roche, Perry King, Kevin Conway. Directed by George Roy Hill. Written by Stephen Geller based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. When the film of a seemingly unfilmable novel manages to capture not only the substantive essence but the tone of it’s literary source, you know you’re seeing something special. Director George Roy Hill was an odd bird, capable of a complete surrender to crass commercialism (see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) yet still capable of direct, intelligent artistry in the service of that same commercialism. His film of “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a latter such film, confidently crafted with a superbly intelligent script adaptation, a roster of perfectly cast performers stressing type not star power and gossamer-like editing from the brilliant Dede Allen which effortlessly translates Vonnegut’s conceit of Billy Pilgrim’s becoming “unstuck in time” with the graceful ease of a page turning, despite the fact the page turning is out of sequence and perfectly capable of confusing the audience with a seeming randomness; though “seeming” is the operative word, as there is an intelligent design at work in which each jarring transportation is met with corresponding, collaborative elements from one sequence to another. It is managed with such artful effortlessness that we begin to take the non-linear accumulative exposition for granted. The three major reference points- Ilium, New York, Dresden. Germany and the exotic planet Tralfamadore are all superbly rendered and there is nary a weak link in the very fine cast with special mention going to Michael Sacks’ deceptively “passive” performance as the eponymous time-traveling pilgrim, Ron Leibman as the psychotically inclined Paul Lazzaro and especially Eugene Roche as Edgar Derby, the most tragic figure of all- a man who practices clarity, grace and decency in the midst of the spiraling indecency of war. _______________________________________________________________ “DRACULA” (1931) Starring Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Edward Van Sloane. Directed by Tod Browning and an uncredited Karl Freund. Written by Garret Ford, from the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Bram Stoker. The first “official” film based on Stoker’s vampiric Count has atmosphere to spare in the opening reels with Frye’s Renfield visiting Dracula’s Transylvanian castle, but once it reaches dry English soil, it become a dry English drawing room play. This is somewhat predictable since the film takes as it’s primary source, not the groundbreaking epistolary novel, but the tepid stage adaptation by Deane & Balderston. The stage bound feel of the script is not compensated for by imaginative direction; as a matter of fact Tod Browning’s efforts seems particularly hampered in this effort as if he either was disinterested in the material or felt insecure with the primitive technical constraints of early talkies. This rather anemic enterprise is saved solely by the presence of two iconic performances, the first being the acclaimed portrayal by Bela Lugosi who is able to assume the form of the courtly while all the while inhabiting a barely repressed attitude of omnipotent malignancy. One aspect barely mentioned in the catalog of hosannas toward Lugosi’s appearance as Dracula is it’s quietude. For all of his later hammy affectations in unworthy roles, this is a classic performance of virtually mute, malevolent control. (Interestingly, the first effective portion of the film is notable for it’s lack of overt sound and proves, initially anyway, what a truly successful silent film might have been made from the material.) Also vital and noteworthy is the more flamboyant performance of Dwight Frye as Renfield, whose quietly insane rasp of a laugh in the bowels of the ghostly Vesta is enough of a nightmare memory to fuel a dozen horror films. _______________________________________________________ “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton, Beah Richards, Isabel Sanford, Cecil Kellaway, Roy E. Glenn Sr. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Written by William Rose. Disgraceful, insensitive racial slur masquerading as insightful liberal tolerance comedy. Privileged Houghton arrives home with her fiancee Poitier to “comically” test the views of her “progressive” parents (Tracy, Hepburn) who apparently don’t realize there are actually real black people in the world outside of their maid. This is all supposed to be lighthearted and insightful (the films comes to a complete halt several times to deliver what can only be regarded as a sermon meant to educate the unenlightened audience) and supposedly made palatable by the presence of the legendary final coupling of Tracy and Hepburn, but all of the Tracyesque piousness and all of the glycerin soaked tears of Hepburn can’t disguise the inbred insult of the entire enterprise. Houghton’s gratingly amateurish presence (she’s Hepburn’s real-life niece) exacerbates the situation. As presented, we’re supposed to believe that a black man of supreme importance and accomplishment must still grovel to be even considered worthy for this brainless nincompoop of a trophy? (No doubt this was true; more reason for the subject to be treated seriously.) The final monologue by Tracy (with wholly inappropriate sentimental cutaway shots to a tremulously adoring Hepburn, as sickly a trivializing spectacle in the context of the important issues being desecrated as could be imagined by a clueless Hollywood) is meant to be some sort of revelatory expression on the level of the Sermon on the Mount (Kramer’s staging of the scene has the cast frozen in a tableaux worthy of the hoariest DeMille Biblical spectacle.) but just goes over the same trite “just love one another” message that can be found on any Hallmark card. Surely, this isn’t the sum total of Kramer’s wisdom after decades of producing a string of the most “idealistic” films to be found in the studio era? I’m not certain as to the direct cause of Tracy’s death immediately following the completion of the filming, but might embarrassment be a distinct possibility? __________________________________________________ “Airport” (1970) Starring Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, Lloyd Nolan. Directed by George Seaton. Written by George Seaton, based on the novel by Arthur Hailey. The film credited with instigating the disaster movie trend of the early 70’s, Seaton’s film actually takes it’s model from the soap opera, with the dialogue advancing plot exposition rather than exploring character. The “all-star” cast is an interesting mix of genuine stars, fading screen personalities and eclectic hangers-on and the whole film is approached with the earnestness of an industrial instructional short which should minimize dramatic interest, but strangely makes the blatant hokum far more appealing than it has a right to be. Oddly, the least sympathetic characters in the roster are the ones chosen for possible doom and it’s more a credit to the sturdy conventions of the genre than to filmmaking cleverness that the film manages to maintain a high end of suspense. This also may be due to the invaluable subplot featuring the winning George Kennedy as no-nonsense airline everyman Joe Patroni (“They don’t call them emergencies anymore, they call them Patronis,” he says sardonically to his hot-to-trot wife that he’d rather spend time with rather than saving an airliner full of fading character actors. A real movie guy’s guy!) which gives the film a much needed line of dark humor (certainly the cloying Helen Hayes vaudeville isn’t helpful) that amusingly makes you realize all the more what big stiffs the rest of the characters are. (Has there ever been a more passionless marital explosion than that between Lancaster and cranky wife Dana Wynter? It’s like watching a stone cliff brushed by an iceberg.) Someone at Universal must have determined the same thing as Kennedy was consigned to repeat his turn as Patroni in all of the following three “Airport” franchise sequels. No good performance goes unpunished. ___________________________________________________ “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) Starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard, Estelle Parsons, Denver Pyle, Dub Taylor, Gene Wilder. Directed by Arthur Penn. Written by David Newman and Robert Benton. Landmark American film produced at the end of the Production Code era. Taking inspiration from the more morally dubious films coming from Europe, it was first considered as a project for Truffaut or Godard. The film was notable for it’s glamorized depiction of criminal behavior, which was nothing new to anyone who’d ever seen a Cagney or Bogart film, but the method was entirely different here. The film featured attractive young stars at the peak of their dramatic powers, suited in finely tailored pseudo-era clothing which emphasized crowd pleasing artifice at the expense of realism- except in the execution of violence which was depicted in shockingly graphic new levels, especially the climactic ambush. And this film also upped the ante in the noirish undercurrent of violence depicted as an aberrant outcropping of sexual frustrations. In this film, the criminal protagonists were celebrated at the expense of everyone else, most especially law enforcement who were portrayed as petty and stupid. This was something new, and not necessarily a healthy development for film. In betraying the moral principles of The Production Code, which in itself was a culturally stifling censorial entity, the pendulum may have swung too mightily too fast, without consideration of the long-term cultural ramifications of what was being produced. The glamor of celebrity was forever inextricably mixed with the glamor of violence. This is not to dismiss the film’s obvious artistic merits, (especially the brilliantly designed editing of Dede Allen) but goes merely to explain the source of it’s simmering controversy which lingers to this day. __________________________________________________________________________