Review: North Dallas Forty

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

You don’t have to care or even know much about football to enjoy North Dallas Forty. Ted Kotcheff doesn’t seem to know much about football either, but that didn’t stop him from making a film about it. Well, no, not really. North Dallas Forty is barely about football at all, in the sense that sports movies are ordinarily about their sporting subject. It begins on the morning after one game and ends not long after the next contest, the only one we see—and we see it for only the last two minutes of playing time. Based on an awfully good novel by ex–Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent (which I’m grateful to the filmmakers for leading me to read), the movie specifically homes in on the world of pro football as exemplified by the North Dallas Bulls (in the book, the real thing, the Dallas Cowboys). As computer-programmed by the North Dallas coaching and management arms, football becomes a kind of corporate warfare wherein the players are just so much materiel and the game is a business, the business a game.

That last sentence is boiled down from several of the several dozen aphorisms to be found in the script. They’re found in the novel, too, but they work better there because they, like the rest of the narrative, are absolutely tied in with the wryly funny, informedly bitter point-of-view of Gent’s fictional counterpart Phil Elliott, a wide receiver who tends to piss off the coaches with his “immature” attitude and his co-players with cryptic observations on what Freud would have to say about some of their behavioral fetishes. Elliott’s presence is the sine qua non of every sequence in the movie, but Ted Kotcheff isn’t a talented enough director to sustain (maybe even to recognize the need for) point-of-view direction; hence Gent/Elliott’s sharp perceptions about the weird world around him get diffused into a generalized, only lumpishly stylized narrative in which the verging-on-surrealistic satire gets garishly overstated just outside the personal space of Phil and his most charismatic teammates.

Kotcheff and producer–co-adapter Frank Yablans never manage to individuate the exploitive management types as Gent did in his book. Both his One on One experience and a physiognomic aptitude for portraying Bible Belt selfrighteousness stand G.D. Spradlin in good stead as the head coach, B.A., and he makes a vivid impression; but Kotcheff can’t bring off a last-ditch attempt to suggest that B.A. and Phil do understand each other in a way that the other owner-manager types can’t pick up on. This penultimate scene only caps a growing suspicion that the director never worked through his ambivalence (confusion?) about pro football. But North Dallas Forty holds together as a film despite directorial crudity and possible bewilderment because Nick Nolte has got inside every creaking bone, cracking muscle, and ragged sigh marking Phil Elliott’s passage through the pro killing-ground. It’s a beautiful, a truly heroic performance, and it could carry the film singlehanded.

But it doesn’t have to. Kotcheff may have led as experienced a performer as Charles Durning into overplaying (bellowing and chugging Maalox throughout the film), but he must have done something right to elicit such extraordinary support from some brand-new actors. (Unless—nasty speculation, this—they took their lead from Nolte and dug in to create a unified front against owner-management on the filmmaking level.) Country-western performer Mac Davis is a bit stiff in some of the more tendentious poses he’s forced into, like his we’ll-sum-it-all-up- for-you-now,-folks farewell scene with Nolte, but otherwise he proves to be the kind of screen natural you can’t take your eyes off; it’s surprising, on reseeing the movie, to discover he isn’t onscreen quite as often as the many vivid memories of him would suggest. And Oakland Raider John Matuszak, as the mountainous O.W. Shaddock, not only gets a frightening, exhilarating frenzy into a pre- and a post-game lockerroom scene; he also supplies one of the prize comic moments of the year solemnly asking the coach for a copy of the odious inspirational poem they’ve just listened to.

RTJ

© 1979 Richard T. Jameson

NORTH DALLAS FORTY
Direction: Ted Kotcheff. Screenplay: Frank Yablans & Ted Kotcheff and Peter Gent, after Gent’s novel. Cinematography: Paul Lohmann. Production design: Alfred Sweeney. Editorial consultant: Thom Noble; editing: Jay Kamen. Music: John Scott. Production: Yablans.
The players: Nick Nolte, Mac Davis, Bo Svenson, John Matuszak, G.D. Spradlin, Charles Durning, Steve Forrest, Dabney Coleman, Dayle Haddon, Savannah Smith, Marshall Colt, Guich Koock, Tommy Reamon, Cliff Frazier, James F. Boeke, John Bottoms, Grant Kilpatrick.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.