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Robert C. Cumbow

Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Foreword

I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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In Black & White: gawlDurgnat

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

THE STRANGE CASE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK, or The Plain Man’s Hitchcock. By Raymond Durgnat. MIT Press. 429 pages. $15.00.

For me, Raymond Durgnat has become, over a period of years, The Man You Love to Disagree With. Not that he doesn’t often strike exactly home, or express wonderfully well what oft was thought. It’s just that he nearly always qualifies or obfuscates his arguments into obscurity or outrageous contrivance. The margins of his newest book, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, invite—in fact, insist on—the scribbled objections of inveterate Hitchcockians of almost any camp.

Subtitled The Plain Man’s Hitchcock, the book is both exhilarating and exasperating: exhilarating because it is the most complete and ambitious critical examination yet of Hitchcock’s entire body of work, and bids fair to become a definitive source for future Hitchcock criticism; exasperating because in more than 400 pages it never manages to become what it could have been. For one thing, it is hardly a “Plain Man’s Hitchcock,” since the facts on Hitchcock’s life and work, together with a good but simplistic summary of all previous Hitchcock commentary, are confined to two prefatory chapters; the specific analysis of the films, which comprise nearly 350 pages of the text, are neither comprehensive nor—even in the attempt—definitive.

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Out of the Past: Get to Know Your Rabbit

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Get to Know Your Rabbit represents a transition in the work of Brian De Palma, from the unrestrained precocity of his grainy independents Greetings (1969) and Hi, Mom! (1970) to the more controlled and purposeful talent critics have seen in his recent films Sisters (1973) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Genre-parody is clearly one of the beacons of De Palma’s career so far; and what Get to Know Your Rabbit boils down to is a parody of dropping-out films. De Palma’s drop-out here, Donald Beeman (Tommy Smothers, characteristically naïve in a role that really calls for the more complex subtlety Robert De Niro brought to the earlier two films), drops all the way: from promising junior executive with an expensive apartment and a sexy mistress, to lonely flophouse roomer seeking a new lifestyle by attending a sleazy school for tap-dancing magicians. Informing the film’s plot are the untiring efforts of Beeman’s former supervisor Turnbull (superbly played by John Astin) to, first, get Donald to come back to work, and, when that fails, to build around Donald (and without his knowledge) a multimillion-dollar corporation devoted to training executive drop-outs to be tap-dancing magicians and managing their road tours through fifth-string night spots in bush-league towns.

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Caliban in Bodega Bay

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

The birds have really made a mess of Bodega Bay. Smoke from a gasoline fire hangs heavy over the city; bodies lie in the streets: abandoned automobiles, smashed windows, and ripped woodwork are grim evidence that the human beings have not won this battle. With Mitch Brenner’s help, Melanie Daniels has escaped the glass cage of a telephone booth and made her way to the relative safety of the town’s central meeting place, a small café.

At first, the place appears empty; but, exploring further, Mitch and Melanie discover, cringing in a back hallway, a frightened group of townspeople and visitors. As Mitch leads Melanie into this refuge, a woman comes forward. We have met her earlier: a distressed mother whose concern for the safety of her two children has prompted her to demand that the café’s patrons not discuss the inexplicable violence of the birds within the range of juvenile ears. Her escape from Bodega Bay has been thwarted by the birds’ massive assault on the town, and the violent death of the traveling salesman who was to guide her to the freeway.

Gazing at Melanie with only slightly controlled hysteria, the woman says, with mounting shrillness: “They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!” Robin Wood points out that these words, spoken as they are to the subjective camera, can constitute an indictment of the audience, whose bloodthirst encourages the brutality of the birds’ attacks. But of course the woman’s outburst is met with a firm defensive slap in the face, also delivered by the subjective camera, and the opposition, though not defeated, is neutralized.

‘The Birds’ – In the diner

Hitchcock and scenarist Evan Hunter may have included this little encounter in anticipation of the likelihood that many critics and viewers would embrace that simplistic suggestion, that Melanie, witch-like, had brought a curse with her to Bodega Bay. That specific notion is dispelled by radio announcements of bird attacks in other areas, and more finally by Melanie’s own victimization by the birds. But the overtone of witchcraft is not to be discarded entirely. We have already learned that the birds’ uprising coincides with the coming of the full moon, a revelation that evokes the darker traditions of folk myth.

And—all other considerations aside—the woman’s hysterical accusation is founded in fact: the bird attacks did start with Melanie’s arrival in the town, and this inevitably gives us a sense of the birds’ significance, even though the inculpation is misdirected.

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Review: Sssssss

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Like Bug, its current traveling companion, Sssssss (which made the rounds as a top feature in 1973) is a preposterous horror film that never quite gets itself organized enough to make you want to suspend that old disbelief. But it is definitely the better half of the double feature, if for no other reason than that Bernard Kowalski knows a little bit more about making movies than Jeannot Szwarc. Kowalski, a Corman alumnus, knows enough, for example, to play for comedy until he can win audience credulity with more fully developed characters and situations. He knows how to understate, build atmosphere, and even create a middling suspense sequence now and again. And if he hasn’t yet made a good movie, his efforts have not been without their fringe benefits: the memorable caricature of sweaty, sleazy Everglades lowlifes in Attack of the Giant Leeches; the sustained transposition of masculine and feminine sexual imagery in Night of the Blood Beast; the color composition and special effects of Krakatoa—East of Java; and the Fulleresque mise-en-scène of Stiletto.

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Review: ‘Posse’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

All right. Posse is an unusual Western. But not that unusual. And it doesn’t end like nothing I’ve ever seen. In fact, it ends very much like a number of other films I’ve seen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was only the first of several to come to mind). The sociopolitical message of the confrontation between a brilliant outlaw and a self-serving politician offers little that Abe Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here didn’t provide with greater subtlety—and few people have ever accused Polonsky of understatement. Posse really doesn’t have much to say, old or new, yet it does keep insisting. The grizzled typesetter’s comment that “All politicians are full of shit” might as well have Author’s Message flashed over it. A flagrant anachronism, neither appropriate nor cute, is the remark of a newspaper editor—a double amputee whom we are forced to think of in terms of Vietnam—that “This is the age of New Journalism.” And it’s not clear whether the highly visible eagle logo at the beginning and end of the film—”To the Polls, Ye Sons of Freedom”—is intended to exhort (we should all go out and vote to keep Howard Nightingales out of office) or to ring ironically (why vote at all when “all politicians are, etc.”?). This has less to do with ambiguity than with sloppiness, a sloppiness that carries over to the film’s style.

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Review: Dog Day Afternoon

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The montage with which Sidney Lumet begins Dog Day Afternoon is at pains to get across to us just what things were like in Brooklyn at 2:57 p.m., August 22, 1972, right before a minor bank robbery became a major Event. The montage—shot and assembled as if nothing had changed in film since 1967—emphasizes people, their clothing, their attitudes, their activities on a hot afternoon. But one shot doesn’t quite belong; it draws our eyes away from the peopled street to a theater marquee, held at top-center-screen, announcing A STAR IS BORN. That wasn’t a new movie in town in ’72; and its revival at the time has no bearing on the events of Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet is really interested in the four words on the marquee only because they summarize his attitude toward the subject of his film, a sexually eccentric neurotic who attracted national attention that afternoon when he held up a bank, took hostages, and demanded a jet airliner to fly him out of the country. Never one to trust an audience, Lumet holds the shot about three times as long as necessary for us to get the point. It’s a mistake he has made frequently throughout his career, bloating many otherwise promising films. Hold too many shots too long, even by just a couple seconds, and before you know it your movie’s an hour too long. Like Dog Day Afternoon.

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Summer of ’89: ‘Vampire’s Kiss’

Beginning with Nosferatu, the vampire has been depicted on film largely as a symbol of pestilence visited upon cities. Just as disease wreaks greatest havoc on places of densest population, the classic vampire sought out the most crowded hunting grounds—the better to find an abundance of prey and the security of anonymity. The traditional movie vampire terrorizes a chosen city, plunging it into despair and either mobilizing it into search-and-destroy retribution, as in most Dracula-based films, or annihilating it utterly, as in Werner Herzog’s fierce reimagining of Nosferatu from 1979, Nosferatu the Vampyre.

But in the summer of 1989, vampirism became instead a symbol of contemporary urban angst. Far from a city in terror, the New York of Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss is indifferent to, if not completely unaware of, the menace lurking in its midst. Face it: It takes a lot to faze a New Yorker, especially in the era of Gordon Gecko. In Vampire’s Kiss, no one is afraid of, or even especially impressed with, the vampire Peter Loew has become. Or thinks he’s become.

An upwardly mobile white-collar white male from a privileged background, replete with phony mid-Atlantic accent (listen to him pronounce his surname) and sick to death of being always an agent and never an author, Peter Loew was the perfect vessel for a still-young Nicolas Cage to cap his growing reputation for over-the-top characterizations. For both Cage and Loew, self-induced madness becomes the highest form of creativity.

The character’s not-quite-successfully sublimated discontentment manifests itself early in the film, when we become aware of his propensity for dating (or making moves on) women darker than he. Maybe he’s attracted by their exoticism. Maybe he thinks they’re easier than white girls. Maybe he’s indulging a barely suppressed fascination with the marginalized elements of society. Or maybe it’s simply a reassertion of white-male dominance. Peter’s one of the privileged white guys, adventuring with women of other races, but his “perfect match,” Sharon (Jessica Lundy), and the validating female psychiatrist (Elizabeth Ashley) who picks her for him, are both white. The whole thing perfectly encapsulates the Reagan-Bush era tension between politically correct liberalism and the neo-conservatism of post-Wall Street greed (for want of a better word).

Rachel (Jennifer Beals) is Peter’s dark angel, almost certainly a figment of his imagination. Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) seems to be his steady date, though he does more to screw up the relationship than to further it, and it eventually ends, leaving Peter to walk a tightwire between the deadly lure of Rachel and the everyday workplace challenges of his office assistant, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso, downplaying her usual sexy glamour in a genuinely affecting portrayal of one of the city’s many faceless lost). Rachel begins appearing to him after a bat flies into the window of his midtown apartment and either does or doesn’t bite him (we can’t really tell, just as we can’t tell a vampire bat from the ordinary, potentially rabid, kind), bringing his date with Jackie to an unexpected climax. Vampire’s Kiss treats Peter’s vampirism as, among other things, a misogynist fantasy—a vain attempt at securing power—while allowing us to recognize what Peter doesn’t: that Alva, object of his office abuse and harassment, is the one he really wants.

The vampire has ever been the emblem of a dying aristocracy: Dracula and his progeny laid claim to titles and estates in Middle Europe, and the nightmares they visited upon towns in Germany, Britain, and—by proxy—the United States were the nightmares that a privileged and decadent upper class visits upon the poor and the working mercantile class. Vampire’s Kiss offers a new economic analysis of vampirism: the decadence of the capitalist system at the time of its worst excesses (now felt in the new millennium and limned with dark comic effect in The Wolf of Wall Street). Granted, Peter is no stockbroker. Rachel calls him, perhaps tauntingly, “my little literary genius,” and there’s no question that his embrace of vampirism reflects his unfulfilled desire to be the kind of literary luminary he can only work for. He doesn’t see himself in the mirror, even though we do—an epitome of Peter’s lack of self-understanding and his propensity for self-delusion.

At the height of his embrace of vampirism, oblivious to the fact that his fangs are plastic, the gun turned on him fires blanks, and his coffin is an overturned cheap armoire, he urges, “I’m a vampire…I can prove it!” He’s desperately seeking acknowledgment, the validation that his world has denied him. And he finally gets it, not from his psychiatrist, but in a climax reminiscent of that of George Romero’s Martin, which as early as 1977 treated very differently the exploits of a similar contemporary urban vampire (or vampire wannabe).

I don’t know much about Bierman (a “subject for further research,” as Andrew Sarris might have put it), but he had an eye on him, I’ll give him that. His sense of the city at its emptiest times and the unforgiving loneliness of crowds at its fullest, of the sunrise-sunset bookending essential to the vampire film, of the inattention of the workaday “public” to the urgency of the individual’s needs, culminating in Cage’s Peter literally talking to a post, is heady stuff. Vampire’s Kiss, pretty much never recognized, is even more important today than it was in the summer of 1989.

Originally published at Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door.

‘Homefront’: James Franco Versus Jason Statham!

James Franco

If I tell you that the ever-unpredictable James Franco plays a villain called “Gator” in a movie written by Sylvester Stallone, I would guess whatever’s forming in your mind right now is more fun than Homefront. This film is spirited—even breathless at times—but lacks the edge of craziness we’ve come to expect from the latest Franco escapade.

Stallone originally wrote the script (adapted from a novel by Chuck Logan) for himself, but handed the property to his Expendables buddy Jason Statham. It’s about an ex-undercover fed trying to lay low in Louisiana with his 10-year-old daughter (Izabela Vidovic); as these things will go, his past comes back in a complicated but violent way. Gator is the local meth-lab cooker with dreams of expanding his operation, but his associates keep letting him down—especially his strung-out sister Cassie (Kate Bosworth, getting Christian Bale–skinny) and his anxious biker-chick girlfriend Cheryl (Winona Ryder).

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Phase IV

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Saul Bass’s first feature film seems consciously to take as its premise the conviction of the mythical Dr. Nils Hellstrom that insects, given the opportunity, will inherit the earth. Phase IV offers a more startling hypothesis than The Hellstrom Chronicle, however, suggesting a set of circumstances in which ants, their capacity for organization developed into an awesome organizational intelligence, no longer need to wait for humanity to pass away, but set out to take the earth by force. Some of the advertising for the film has stated that the ants are controlled from Outer Space, but there is nothing in the movie that quite justifies this description. The only information the film gives us about the ants’ sudden acquisition of technical and tactical intelligence is that it occurs as the result of an anticipated change, implicitly associated with some astronomical event. When a biological imbalance—characterized by a decrease in ant-predators and an increase in ant population and aggression—occurs in an Arizona desert, a renowned biologist and an accomplished data systems analyst set up a research lab in a prefabricated geodesic dome in the affected area to pursue means of combating the situation.

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SIFF 2013: ‘Byzantium’

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed in Neil Jordan’s second coming to the vampire myth, Byzantium. Even seen solely as a vampire film Byzantium far surpasses Jordan’s 1994 Interview with the Vampire—and pretty much everything else in the genre. But while Jordan’s and scenarist Moira Buffini’s expansion of Buffini’s stage play A Vampire Story can be enjoyed as a straightforward—albeit narratively complex—vampire tale, it is much more. The familiar tropes of vampire lore (to which Irish folklore has contributed at least as much as middle-European) become, under Jordan’s skilled hand and eye, haunting visual metaphors for the tyranny of the body, the marginalization of the outsider, the economic suppression of Ireland, the subjection of women, and, most importantly, the means of rebellion against all of these. Vampires and whores, predators and victims—how can we tell the dancer from the dance?

In Byzantium, Jordan works wonders setting his outsiders apart from the environment they only half inhabit, while out-of-focus light sources dance in the background like leukocytes under a microscope. And when he isn’t creating conflicting layers with long lenses, he is choreographing motion on two or three planes of deep-focus activity. Background action cuts the vectors of foreground characters, which are themselves cut by the moving camera, keeping the viewing eye constantly alive, the viewing mind constantly questioning which movements are real and which are only suggested. One amazing shot, a lateral track of a beach conversation between two characters with a line of fishing boats moored behind them moves along the line of boats, gradually seeming to forget the characters altogether (and enabling us to do so as well), arriving at one boat boldly named “Our Lady,” then suddenly reverses its movement, as if the camera, Jordan’s eye, our eye, has gone too far, done too much, forgotten what it is about, and returns to the characters as if little or nothing had happened. It’s a delicious detail in an endlessly delicious movie, a celebration of color and light, a matrix of Irish anger and Irish love, with a satisfying, thrilling rightness about every move, gesture, and event. And if you remember that Bram Stoker was Irish, and that a guy named Yeats wrote poems about Irish rebellion and about a place called Byzantium—well, so much the better.

Copyright © 2013 Robert C. Cumbow

Review: The Man Who Would Be King

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

John Huston said recently he has made only three good films in the past decade: Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City, and The Man Who Would Be King. Though I’m still holding out—more or less alone, I think—for The Kremlin Letter to be included among his better works and I have serious doubts about Reflections, there is certainly no argument that The Man is one of the director’s finest achievements of any decade. It’s a pretty neat trick to make a film so completely faithful to the spirit of Kipling’s original story while not violating for even a moment the spirit of John Huston as well.

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In Black & White: Nashville

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

NASHVILLE. Bantam Books (paperback), illustrated. No pagination. $2.25.

On the spine it says “Robert Altman’s Nashville.” On the cover it says “Robert Altman’s Award-Winning Nashville, with an Introduction by Joan Tewkesbury.” On the title page, it says “Nashville, an Original Screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury.” This new and inviting little pocket-size is actually none of those things. It’s well known that Altman’s Nashville was about twice its present length before cutting, and this. book is way too tight to have been the “original screenplay.” It’s not a shooting script, either, because much of the dialogue is summarized in the directions, and too much is present in these pages that couldn’t have been known before the time of the actual shooting (for example, this book has the Monday night scene between Sueleen Gay and Wade, with no hint of the reported intention of the original screenplay that was to have her commit suicide). Yet the book isn’t simply a transcript of the film, either, because it does contain some dialogue and a lot of description that were not used in the film. What we have here, then, is not entirely Altman’s Nashville, and not entirely Tewkesbury’s.

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In Black & White: The Girl in the Hairy Paw

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

THE GIRL IN THE HAIRY PAW: King Kong as Myth, Movie, and Monster. Edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld. Foreword: Rudy Behlmer. Layout and Design: Anthony Basile. An Avon Books “Flare” Edition. Paperbound, coffeetable size. 286 pages, illustrated. $5.95.

A browser’s delight, this paperbound first printing has much to recommend it, but not without qualification. The Girl in the Hairy Paw, whose cover blurb calls it “a documentary study of King Kong,” combines the multicritical anthology approach of the “Focus” series with interesting archaeology into the origins of the film, and with the visual appeal of the better coffeetable editions—a sort of Citizen Kong Book. Virtually every aspect of the film is covered: an examination of the origin in myth and literature of the ape’s representation of the bestial side of man, humankind’s physical aggressiveness and sexual lust; studies of the literary precursors of the film (Jonathan Swift, Madame Leprince de Beaumont, H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Edgar Wallace are all proposed as direct influences); the question of authorship of the actual screenplay (Edgar Wallace’s role is generally minimized in favor of Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Willis O’Brien, but Mark Bezanson presents an article in which he describes and quotes from a Wallace draft of the original screenplay, of which none of the others seems to have been aware, but which includes scenes found in the finished film); the process of model animation; sound dubbing; Robert Fiedel’s excellent reassessment of Max Steiner’s “corny” soundtrack score; and an anthology of the film’s influence on popular myth, including a number of parodies and cartoon recreations of the giant ape. Included are items as diverse as the magnificent storyboard drawings of Willis O’Brien (which alone are worth the price of the volume), several critical articles (most previously anthologized), Fay Wray’s reminiscences, Arnold Auerbach’s interview with Kong in retirement, Bob Newhart’s monologue of the rookie night watchman in the Empire State Building on that night of nights, Mad magazine’s famous lampoon of the film, and reproductions of posters, stills, cartoons, comic book pages, advertisements, and magazine covers using the Kong motif. The one additional thing the book’s concept seems to have called for is a printing of the film’s shooting script. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been included, nor does it seem to have occurred to the editors to do so, since they never even mention the possibility.

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In Black & White: Vampire Cinema / How To Read a Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

THE VAMPIRE FILM. By Alain Silver and James Ursini. A.S. Barnes & Co.; The Tantivy Press. 238 pages. Illustrated. $10.
THE VAMPIRE CINEMA. By David Pirie. Crown Publishers: Crescent Books. 176 pages. Illustrated. $7.98.

Two recent books on vampire movies, both apparently bidding to become the definitive source on the subject, actually emerge as complementary: the inadequacies of one are the strengths of the other.

David Pirie’s The Vampire Cinema demands respect at very first glance. A green-fleshed, imposing figure of a caped vampire from Jean Rollin’s Requiem pour un Vampire glares at us from a tombstone-shaped frame, centered on a background of blood red, threatening us moviegoers and movie-book buyers with the (intended?) ambiguity of the book’s title. Unlike most coffeetable books, this one has a text every bit as good and exciting as its pictures: Pirie’s writing, except for a few grammatical eccentricities, is literate, sharp, economic, and filled with insight. The illustrations, many in color, are selected, arranged, and reproduced with the greatest integrity, reflecting Pirie’s insistence upon the centrality of landscape and milieu to the vampire film, and with a profound respect for the fact that the pictures, and their layout, carry much of the burden of the book. They are there to be looked at, studied, their captions read—not just to dazzle the eye, decorate a page, or fill up space. Alice’s rhetorical “What is the use of a book without pictures?” is particularly relevant in the case of books on film, where recourse to composition, uses of color, light, and landscape are so crucial. Unhappily, Pirie is ultimately more concerned with theme and genre than with the specific cinematic techniques so many of these pictures exemplify, and that is one of the few inadequacies in his book.

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