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Robert C. Cumbow

Review: Dawn of the Dead

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

Part Two of George Romero’s projected Dead trilogy begins almost literally where Night of the Living Dead left off, though it is stylistically closer to the comic-book look of The Crazies. This time Romero’s plunging in media res is even more violent and merciless than before, the fast-paced editing pulling us into shock after bloody shock before we quite understand what’s going on. We’re grateful for the first breathing spell, about ten minutes into the film. A SWAT team has just wiped out a basement full of cannibal zombies in an urban apartment building, the result of residents’ defiance of orders to deliver their dead up for burning to help authorities stomp out the plague of zombie ghouls that began in Night of the Living Dead. “Why did they put them in there like that?” someone asks, and gets the bitter reply, “They still believe there’s respect in dying.” Later, up country, where clean-up teams roam the fields picking off zombies as if in a shooting gallery, there’s a telling moment when one of the SWAT guys lines up his riflesight on an approaching zombie. As he takes aim, a quick rack-focus reveals another rifleman lining up to shoot the same zombie from 180 degrees opposite. The first guy ducks away just in time to avoid getting shot by his comrade-in-arms. There is, at this point in the film, still a difference between shooting the dead and shooting the living.

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Review: Martin

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

“All aboard!” cries a voice at the opening of Martin and, as in The Crazies, George Romero’s fast cutting draws us in and pushes us forward on this crazy train ride. In Martin Romero uses closeup detail—more of objects than of people—to create a pattern of images, seemingly disparate but forming (as in Nicolas Roeg’s films) a unified impression of a single mythic event. This jarring joining-together of apparently incidental details creates a disorienting, genuinely threatening atmosphere, even while Romero’s modern vampire tale unfolds with tongue firmly in cheek. Martin demonstrates once again that Romero is a comic-book film stylist of the first order, with a riveting command of color and a knack for the comic juxtaposition of Old World Gothic horror with 20th-century American plasticity. The first thing we see teenaged Martin Matthias (John Amplas) do is murder a woman and drink her blood; yet Romero manages to get us on the boy’s side and keep us there throughout his battle with an elderly relation intent on destroying the nosferatu that has come to live in his house. In the train murder Romero puts us off guard with his emphasis on Martin’s clinical procedure: a hypodermic syringe of sedative, to keep the victim calm; a sterile razor blade, not teeth, to open the veins; the sexual aspect of a process we at first take to be rape heightened by the boy’s nudity, which is more utilitarian than sensual, a safeguard against bloodstained clothes.

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Review: The Crazies

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

A hand unscrews a series of lightbulbs. A switch is flicked on and the room stays dark. Shadows and forms dart out of vision before they can be made out. A pretty little girl clutching a stuffed toy protests, “Billy, you’re trying to scare me!” Then there appears on the wall the shadow of a man lifting a tire iron, about to strike, and we are suddenly back in that riveting, unpredictable world of Night of the Living Dead, where make-believe horrors quickly give way to unspeakably real ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. For the first couple reels George A. Romero’s The Crazies builds overwhelming suspense, and teeters its audience breathlessly on the brink of the kind of shock orgy that made Night of the Living Dead so memorable. But what is threatened never actually materializes—at least not in any way that makes The Crazies a successfully affecting horror movie.

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Of Staircases and Potato Trucks: Fear and Fatness and Alfred Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.

In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.

But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.

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Review: The Last of Sheila

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Little can be said of this film’s elusive plot without spoiling the excitement for the viewer. A movie producer invites six friends to spend a week aboard his yacht off the French Riviera, playing a six-day, port-to-port detective game. Each accepts the invitation in hopes of winning some favor from the powerful film magnate. It is a year since his wife Sheila was murdered by a hit-and-run driver; and as the producer’s skillfully devised game begins to reveal hidden secrets about the lives of the players, it becomes evident that one of them is the murderer. Suddenly there is much more at stake than the outcome of a game. Or is there? For as the film twists and turns along increasingly cerebral passageways, each new revelation becomes simply a part of a larger game. Unlike its predecessors in the “game” film genre—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, SleuthThe Last of Sheila is not based on a stageplay, and its plot never reaches a point at which the game-playing stops, gives way to reality. Quite the contrary, as the film ends the next move is left to the audience, filled with the discomforting sense that everything that happened onscreen was merely part of a still larger mystery game that remains for them to unravel.

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Review: Soylent Green

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, Soylent Green is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of Soylent Green is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.

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Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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Review: The Public Eye

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

The Public Eye begins with promise but finally has little to recommend it but some nice pictures of London. It is a sappy, soppy, misguided movie unlike anything I ever expected to see released under Sir Carol Reed’s signature. The story concerns David, a dignified, intellectual British accountant, who has met Belinda, a hip American waitress of simple philistine tastes, has dazzled her with his knowledge and culture, and has wed her. As the film opens, David retains a private detective agency to follow Belinda, who has been going out by herself a great deal, much to his suspicion. Though innocent of infidelity, she quickly establishes an intimate relationship with the detective. The two never speak or touch, cementing their peekaboo “affair” by following each other through London, day in and day out. The wife’s affections are going begging, it seems, because David’s arts-and-cultural-activities lifestyle has begun to bore her. Explaining this to David in his first few scenes as the private detective Julian Christoferou, Topol is charming and winsomely comic. But soon afterward he turns marriage counselor and determines to make David “worthy” of Belinda by spouting facile speeches about “love,” “sharing,” and “fee1ings.”

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Review: The Mackintosh Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

John Huston’s newest, a spy thriller of sorts, had a short first run downtown and has slipped almost unnoticed to the neighborhood circuit. It’s just as well. Reviewers have criticized The Mackintosh Man‘s convoluted plot, but the principal weakness is a slowness of pace which allows even the moderately intelligent viewer to stay well ahead of each complication and resolution. Every twist and surprise is so over-prepared that any possibility for suspense or shock is eliminated. A motor chase through Irish mountain roads, which could have been gripping or at least flashy, is dragged out to the point of boredom. An equally promising finale, expressing Huston’s customary ironic view of the respective moralities of good guys and bad guys, is executed with a total lack of inspiration, becoming pedestrian and predictable. An impressive cast, ranging from good to excellent, is totally wasted.

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‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in Image and Music

[This essay was originally published as the liner-notes booklet for the Rhino Records / Turner Classic Movies Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD to 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1996 by Turner Entertainment Company. Portions of the essay also later appeared in a souvenir booklet included in the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY COLLECTOR’S EDITION DVD released in 2001 by Warner Brothers Entertainment. Reprinted on Parallax View by author’s permission.]

When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey first appeared on screens in spring 1968, nothing quite like it had ever been seen before. And, although the science and technology of motion picture special effects have made huge strides in the intervening years, there hasn’t been a film quite like it since. It isn’t just the spectacular – and the extraordinary believable – look of the model and special effects shots, which are as fresh and clean today as they were in 1968. It’s the courage and the audacity of the film and its maker to try something new, something provocative and challenging to the audience, something intensely intellectual yet expressed in almost completely visual terms. It had long been commonplace to regard moving pictures as a handmaiden (and poor cousin) to literature, to see language as the proper means of communicating ideas, and images as capable of expressing and arousing only feelings and sensations. 2001: A Space Odyssey dared to suggest that images might be capable of embodying and evoking real ideas about the nature and origin of human intelligence. In so doing, it revolutionized the movies and carved itself an unassailable niche in motion picture history.

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Review: Bang the Drum Slowly

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

What the reviewers have said about Bang the Drum Slowly avoiding the overwrought sentimentalism of a Brian’s Song or a Love Story is only partly true. But the film does offer honest schmaltz as a viable alternative to the tasteless kitsch of previous films about dying young. The story concerns a major-league catcher, Bruce Pearson (Robert DeNiro), who is dying of Hodgkin’s Disease, and the efforts of his roommate, pitcher-author Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), to look after Pearson’s best interests during what they both feel will be the catcher’s last season. Both the film and the novel on which it is based are purported to be not about baseball, but rather about friendship, the baseball setting being incidental. As far as I can tell, this contention was created for the blurbs, in order not to lose the audience of people who don’t know or don’t like baseball. The novel in fact may not be about baseball, but it most certainly is about a baseball team. The meat of Harris’s novel is the behavior of a given group of baseball players and the way in which that behavior is altered, in individuals and in the team as a whole, by the knowledge that one of their number is dying. This is where the film version goes awry. In trying too hard not to be “about baseball,” it plays down the supporting characters, the ballplayers themselves, to the point where the whole impact of the novel is lost. The team concept which is central to the novel is give mere lip service in some voiceover narration from the pages of the book. The tension about the outcome of the season, which underlies every word of the novel, is nonexistent in the film. Instead we have the well-acted interplay among the pitcher, the catcher, a coach, the manager, and a whore who attempts to swindle the catcher out of his insurance money. All of this was present in the novel, of course; but it supported the larger theme of the behavior of human beings as they watch someone die, and the effect the experience has on their own, unthreatened lives.

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Review: A Doll’s House

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

The Garland–Elkins production of A Doll’s House is one of two screen adaptations of Ibsen’s play to be released this year, presumably to cash in on the women’s liberation market. Joseph Losey’s film, which will reach Seattle by way of the video screen, is an adaptation for the screen in every sense of the term. Garland’s effort, on the other hand, is more a film recording of Elkins’s Broadway production of the play, starring Elkins’s wife Claire Bloom. The exasperating thing about it is that it can’t make up its mind whether to be a filmed play or a movie. The stifling atmosphere of confinement, especially important to a play in which the seen world onstage represents a world in which the protagonist is trapped, is retained for about the first third of the film, Garland keeping all the action within the walls of Torvald Helmer’s house. Thereafter, we get exterior shots, first glimpsed through windows and finally photographed by cameras in the street. Garland yields to the temptation to cut away to Krogstad’s shabby flat, and yields again; and before the film is half over the mystery of the outside world and the sense of confinement in the inner world are both lost. Presumably the increasingly frequent glimpses of a world beyond the Helmer household are intended to move us smoothly toward Nora’s departure from her husband’s house and her entry into that outer world. But this is a violation of the play itself, on two counts. First, Nora’s break from Torvald and her children is sudden, not gradual. And second, her departure is based not upon a growing awareness of the other world but a stifling disenchantment with the inner world, which, in the play, is the only world she sees and moves in.

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Erasable Bond

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Watching the last three James Bond films in close succession, one constantly sees contrasts. Not so with the first two films of the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, which frequently play together as a double feature. They invite comparison rather than contrast, their parallels in plot and style having established a “James Bond formula” with which viewers quickly became familiar, expecting its recurrence in subsequent films. Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice fulfilled the expectation.

But the juxtaposition of the next two films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, which also have circulated as a double bill, impresses the viewer more with differences than similarities, provoking one to redefine his notion of exactly what a James Bond film is, or is supposed to be. And the most recent offering, Live and Let Die, compared with its two immediate predecessors, comes off decidedly third-best.

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East Egg, West Egg, Rotten Egg: ‘The Great Gatsby’

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

A film made from a novel sets itself a double task. First, like all movies, it must strive to be good cinema; second, it must try to fulfill the expectations of those who have read the book. When the book is an acknowledged classic, the second becomes more important than the first. It is then incumbent upon the critic to deal fairly with the film on both levels, for many a film has succeeded as cinema despite (or even because of) its failure as an interpretation of literature. The Great Gatsby is, alas, not one of those films.

Not that it is necessarily disappointing or dissatisfying (although what film could be fully satisfying after such a supersaturating promotion campaign?). The way to approach The Great Gatsby is to prepare to be disappointed. If you have no illusion that the film is going to be an effective representation of the novel, then far from being disappointed, you may be pleasantly surprised. But few who love the novel will be capable of such detachment.

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Summer of ‘91: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Point Break’

Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in ‘Point Break’

In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.

Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.

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