[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
In GentlemanJim a basic premise of the humor is that a good face-to-face brawl is one of the things that make life worth living. Here the physical and the sensual are a good deal less destructive than in White Heat and a good deal more pervasive than in Meand MyGal and TheBowery. Seen alongside TheRoaring Twenties and WhiteHeat, this movie’s celebration of turn-of-the-century urban vigor establishes it as a vision, imaginary or otherwise, of a time when personal wholeness and physical joy were much more accessible and more fully communal. But the conflict between eros and civilization turns up again, largely in the form of a refined young lady, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who watches “Gentleman Jim” (Errol Flynn) performing on a theatre stage and wonders aloud why anyone would pay good money to see this guy—a bankteller turned boxer—as an actor. The question is a bit of an in-joke and the answer, of course, lies in Flynn himself: he may or may not be much of an actor, but he has great physical appeal. Vicki Ware and Jim Corbett are at odds through much of the film, but their sexual antagonism doesn’t boil over into romance until her hitherto-verbal belligerence begins to assume tones that are more physical and less uninhibited. Up to that point, their relationship seems a function of their differing responses to Vicki’s remark that “After all, we all started out in the same wooden washtub.” She means this only in a snootily abstract way, as an affirmation of democratic principle, but he takes it in a wholly physical sense, as an unbuttoned acceptance of skin-to-skin pleasures.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
While TheRoaringTwenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
The American Film Institute tribute to James Cagney (CBS-TV, March 18) was enjoyable almost in spite of itself. Through a barrage of film clips and above all through the poise and presence of Cagney himself, the event somehow managed to keep the man’s best qualities in the air, even as that air was thickened with a fog of Hollywooden self-congratulatory egotism. Showbiz extravaganzas like this one have a way of becoming exercises in self-publicity, and the various contributions of George C. Scott, Doris Day, George Segal, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra (most of all) and others tended to make much of the affair into a showcase for the payers of tributes, with the tributee more or less left to be part of the audience.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
The Cock-eyed World is a plodding, heavyhanded and rather entertaining sequel, with sound, to WhatPrice Glory?. The Flagg-Quirt stuff is less than thrilling, partly because of Edmund Lowe’s mismatched assets and liabilities, partly because the repartee keeps reverting to the “Aw—sez you” tack. But there’s a good deal to savor at an agreeably crude level. An early bit of in-joke dialogue has Quirt lamenting the newfangled notions about how a soldier should talk—seems that it’s not right for a soldier to swear anymore. Quirt and Flagg quickly exchange insults about how the lack of swearing will reduce the other’s working vocabulary to practically nil. This sidelong reference to talking-picture taboos out of the way, Walsh, McLaglen, Lowe and friends go about the business of making a rowdy picture without benefit of its predecessor’s “silent” profanity.
Flagg keeps his pet monkey in a chamber pot; Quirt gets thumped by a jealous Russian strongman who seems to be named Sanavitch and who looses a truly Herculean spray of saliva at Quirt’s face from a range of about two feet; Quirt calls Flagg a horse’s neck and “You great big horse’s ancestor”; Flagg greets a ladyfriend with “How’s my Fanny?” and the comic stooge (El Brendel) introduces a map-bearing Latin girl as “the lay of the land” (“The what?” asks Flagg with a straight face and great interest); and yet another female strikes the stooge, a Swede, as “yoos my tripe.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
WhatPriceGlory?, like the successful play from which it is drawn, works with some of the era’s anger is directed less toward war itself than toward some of the era’s topical themes—in particular, as the title implies, the disillusionment that had befallen many of the youthful participants in World War I. But especially as directed by Raoul Walsh, the film version thrives on comedy that is sometimes satirical and often ribald. And that comedy only occasionally intersects with the anti-war feeling implied in the title.
Eileen Bowser has written that the film is “the archetypal celebration of war as a game played by roistering comrades.” Certainly, the central Flagg-Quirt relationship, with combative friendship and devotion to duty as its key elements, seems to work in that direction. But while the film never approaches the radical disgust that Dos Passos, Hemingway, Céline and others expressed toward the war, it does evoke a more complex and less romanticized attitude than Bowser indicates. The warriors—some of them, anyway—are romanticized, but the war isn’t, one of the results of which is an interesting tension between personal flamboyance and public destruction.
My contributions to MTN#45 (the “Raoul Walsh issue”) were riding the crest of what was, at the time, my freshly discovered enthusiasm for Warner Brothers films of the Thirties and Forties, including especially William A. Wellman’s pictures from the pre-Code era, Raoul Walsh’s films from some of the best years of his career (1939-1949), and almost anything with James Cagney in it. I’d already written about some of this in “Life with Warners” (MTN#6). Me and My Gal (Fox, 1932) and Gentleman Jim (Warner Brothers, 1942), first encountered amid a wonderful flood of studio-vault re-releases circa 1970, were the tipping points for my ventures into Walsh territory.
In 2015, those enthusiasms have continued vitality for me, and I’m still very interested in Walsh. But I’m less inclined to view Walsh’s directorial persona (or Walsh the auteur) in the relatively exclusive terms laid out in MTN#45. Part of this is a matter of my having come to think of Walsh and a number of other favorite directors among his contemporaries—Allan Dwan, William Wellman, Henry Hathaway—less as movie authors than as gifted overseers of the “genius of the system.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Interviewer: One critic, Andrew Sarris, has said, “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.” Do you feel that’s too precious a criticism, or that it’s on the nail?
RaoulWalsh: I guess it’s so. Everyone has his own impression of things. Maybe the guy was drunk.
In Manpower, a movie about powerline repairmen, there’s a funny scene at a diner. Various workmen are ordering their meals. The counterman shouts each order back to the cook, but—in the time-honored tradition of the American greasy spoon—he translates each request into the surrealistic lingo of short-order chefs. A cup of coffee with cream is “a blackout, and blitz it!” A hamburger to go is a “cow and convoy”; a bowl of chili “with plenty of peppers”—”one Mexican heartburn.” A cut of beef, “juicy and with no fat” = “one impossible”; hash is “take a chance”; and a bowl of cherries, “one George Washington!” Some comedy involving a slot machine intervenes, but the camera returns to the counter where the head lineman, thinking of his wife, makes a request of his own: “Gimme a nice little bottle of wine—and giftwrap it.” The counterman turns toward the kitchen and, facing the camera in closeup, shouts, “The grapes of wrath—in a sport jacket!” End of scene.
[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
The Phantom of the Paradise is funny and entertaining. It’s best as a comedy grounded in rock culture and it’s somewhat less successful as a humorous horror film. Perhaps because rock music has a power that exceeds that of a routinely developed horror plot, there’s a skittish lack of conviction to its terror side—even with an enjoyably gory ending. But its sendups of various rock&roll fashions are often good and it does rather nicely with its sense of the gangsterish side of the business.
[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
Beforehand, the 19th San Francisco Film Festival looked less than scintillating. The parts of it that I was able to see were, by most accounts, the best parts, and if that’s so, then the first impression was not entirely wrong. The 1975 edition of the festival wasn’t bad, but … I’m not sure that there were any absolutely first-rate films in the 12-day program. For me, Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, Louis Malle’s BlackMoon, and SelfService, a Bruno Bozzetto cartoon, came closest. Lina Wertmüller’s SweptAwaybyanUnusualDestinyintheBlueSea ofAugust got a much warmer reception than I thought it really deserved (the word-of-mouth consensus seemed to be that this was the Festival’s high point). And Luchino Visconti’s ConversationPiece got a much cooler reception than I thought it deserved, but—given the nature of the film—that was not too surprising.
For me personally, the proceedings were made especially memorable by the presence of J Joseph Mankiewicz as well as by the various contributions of Louis Malle. The Festival’s tribute to Mankiewicz (a string of film clips followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session) ranks with the best of the tributes I’ve seen in other years at San Francisco. And Malle, who made no fewer than three appearances before the public and press, left his mark via both BlackMoon and his charmingly perceptive remarks about his own work and others’. But one sign of the Festival’s disappointingly middlebrow direction is that other Festival honorees included Jack Lemmon, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman, and Steven Spielberg—all or most of whom are worthy figures, but none of whom has reached a point where a retrospective might really mean something. Lemmon, of course, comes closest to an exception. But Hackman, for example, has been in films for only a little over a decade and Spielberg, as everybody knows, would still be wet behind the ears were he not so precociously “successful.” (Just for the record, Lemmon “in person” is very like the man we know from the movies, while Caine “in person” is quite another fellow altogether.)
In honor of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, Parallax View offers a festival flashback: the Movietone News report from the 20th SFIFF.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
The 20th San Francisco International Film Festival was … lively.
A half-dozen outstanding films from Europe were perhaps the most newsworthy events (and my list does not include the two popular successes of the festival, Truffaut’s Small Change and Kurosawa’s DersuUzala,whose screenings I was unable to attend). But it was also a memorable festival because of its stimulating variety. Last year’s program was singularly dull, and even its high points seemed to confirm a sense of despair and dead ends, artistically and otherwise. [See “Out of Season”, MTN 46.] But this year San Francisco not only came up with good movies; it also managed to be festive in a way that livened one’s sense of the art and its possibilities.
Films by Alain Tanner, Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Claude Miller, Eric Rohmer, and Marco Bellocchio all demonstrated that, contrary to well-founded rumors, the cinema is not dead yet. And there was more: Hollywood on Trial, a documentary, became the catalyst for some revealing “political” moments; Pierre Rissient’s One Night Stand drew an audience reaction which suggested that Nouveau Puritans are everywhere, still; a goodly number of short films reaffirmed the value of work being done in that less-publicized area of filmmaking; and recent Spanish cinema, thanks to some special screenings, began to look like a significant factor in current moviemaking.
[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
‘B’ MOVIES. By Don Miller. Curtis Books. 350 pages. $1.50. KINGS OF THE Bs. Edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn. Dutton. 561 pages. $6.95.
“If some bright new critic should awaken the world to the merits of Joseph Lewis in the near future,” Andrew Sarris once wrote, “we will have to scramble back to his 1940 record: Two-Fisted Rangers, Blazing Six-Shooters, Texas Stagecoach, The Man from Tumbleweeds, Boys of the City, Return of Wild Bill, and That Gang of Mine.Admittedly, in this direction lies madness.”
Sarris was referring to Lewis’ days as a director of B movies on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” and, as he later noted, Lewis has been “discovered,” and so those seemingly forgotten B movies from 1940 are marked by auteurists and cultists for future research. And perhaps it is a form of madness that auteurists or anyone else should want to seriously examine the low-budget films turned out as program fillers on Hollywood’s production lines. For there is little indication so far that this aspect of Hollywood’s history deserves fuller appreciation, and the films themselves have been mostly unavailable since the last great splurge of B movies on television.
But the Poverty Row films of Lewis, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Andre DeToth, Anthony Mann and others loom as tantalizing examples of talent and inspiration triumphing over limited means. These directors gained recognition of one sort or another and went on from the Bs to bigger budgets and better things. But has their later success given their B movies a visibility not granted so far to worthy B directors who never graduated to heftier budgets? At present, we have little way of knowing. Felix Feist, for example, is a director about whom next to nothing has been written, but my own chance encounter with The Devil Thumbs a Ride (RKO, 1947) had sufficient appeal to make him a subject for further research of my own. Similarly, BlackAngel(Universal, 1946) and a Sherlock Holmes entry like TheScarletClaware enough to indicate that Roy William Neill is a director worthy of attention.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
THE NEW WAVE. By James Monaco. Oxford University Press. 372 pages. $15.95.
The French New Wave is the richest single “trend” in the cinema of the second half of this century, and the only aspect of film history that presently seems to have much relevance to the muddled movie art of the 1970s. It may also be the last significant “national” period in our increasingly internationalized film world. Also, it just may be as big a part of “the problem”—of contemporary movies—as it is of “the solution.” But none of this, it turns out, is especially important in James Monaco’s new book.
Monaco’s The New Wave is really a book about Truffaut and Godard with chapters on Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette. The author’s version of la nouvelle vague omits Resnais, Varda, Derny, Malle, Rozier and other relevant figures, and limits itself to what is really the Cahiers du Cinéma branch of the New Wave. All five of Monaco’s directors are former Cahiers critics, and Monaco is especially interested in the ways in which their films take a critical approach to the nature of film language. The result is, at least in part, a book about movies-as-film-criticism—all the more so since Monaco devotes considerable space to the directors’ declared intentions for their film work.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]
VISIONARY FILM. By P. Adams Sitney. Oxford University Press. 452 pages. $13.95. ABSTRACT FILM AND BEYOND. By Malcolm LeGrice. The MIT Press. 160 pages. $12.50. THE CUBIST CINEMA. By Standish D. Lawder. New York University Press. 265 pages. $11.75 (paperback). THE ESSENTIAL CINEMA. Edited by P. Adams Sitney. New York University Press. 380 pages. $20 (paperback $8.95). A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE CINEMA. The American Federation of the Arts. 176 pages. $5.95 (paperback). STRUCTURAL FILM ANTHOLOGY. Edited by Peter Gidal. British Film Institute / New York Zoetrope. 140 pages. $2 (paperback). COVER TO COVER. By Michael Snow. New York University Press. No pagination. $12.50 (paperback).
It’s not possible for me to give as fully authoritative a critique of these books as I would like—and that, as it happens, has a lot to do with my calling attention to them here. By and large, these volumes are concerned with films whose circulation and accessibility have not matched the critical interest which they have generated in print. Most of these films qualify as “underground” or “experimental” in a system of distribution and exhibition wherein the “mainstream” is limited almost exclusively to feature-length narrative films. I am perhaps as guilty as the next reviewer of concentrating on feature films with comparatively wide audience appeal, and yet for some time now I’ve found it rather odd that our views of film art and its history place so much emphasis on feature films and so little on short films and nonnarrative movies. Or, to focus the issue a little closer to the objects of this review: how is it that the American feature film, however rich and engaging, has inspired no book comparable to Sitney’s on “The American Avant-Garde”? and how is it that Sitney’s avant-garde, such a rich and engaging subject, can be such a dim entity for what I assume is the majority of even the most serious moviegoers? and how is it that the more radical forms of modernism seem to have less acceptance in film than in any other art form? Answers to these questions might embrace a variety of habits, assumptions, and circumstances. But the very existence of these books suggests that the “avant-garde” may be much harder to ignore in the future, particularly with respect to American and British cinema.
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
One tends to think of Luis Buñuel’s “early” career in terms of long desert spaces between highly personal landmarks: almost two decades of relative anonymity between the collaboration with Dalí—Un Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’ôr(1930)—and the explosive resurfacing occasioned by Los olvidados(1950), and then a decade of ostensibly “commercial” filmmaking between Losolvidadosand Viridiana(1961), which in turn initiated a period of big and small masterpieces extending to the present. As a new biography by Francisco Aranda makes evident, Buñuel was much more involved in film in the Thirties and Forties than has generally been recognized; and, as retrospective tributes and newly available 16mm prints show, Buñuel’s “commercial” work is much more interesting than disparaging remarks about the director’s “Mexican period” would lead us to believe. One might go even further: some of Buñuel’s lesser-known Fifties films are so good that they may alter our sense not only of Buñuel but of film in the Fifties as well.
Of the movies the director made between Los olvidadosand Viridiana,perhaps only Nazarín(1958) has any great currency. But at least half a dozen titles from the period, many of them out of circulation until recently, are of special importance. Subida al cielo (1951) and Él(1953), two films which have been generally available, rank as small masterpieces—the one a devastatingly surreal B picture*, the other a superbly succinct psychological study which has something of the seductiveness and sting of Belle de Jour(1967). Susana(1951), Abismos de pasión (1954), and RobinsonCrusoe(1953) are literary adaptations of considerable interest. A number of “commercial” films from just before and after Los olvidados—GranCasino (1947), Elgrancalavera (1949), La hija del engaño (1950), Ilusionviaiaen tranvia (1953), and Elrioy la Muerte (1954) rate as appealing minor works. But three others—Ensayode un crimen (1955), La Mort en ce jardin (1956), and TheYoungOne (1960)—deserve to be known by more than Buñuel aficionados alone. All three reflect a radical filmmaker’s approach to a conservative, conformist age, and all three are among Buñuel’s wisest and most engaging films.
* * *
La Mort en ce jardin (Death In the Garden) is an “ambitious” film whose best moments prove more interesting than its plot—perhaps deliberately so. One senses Buñuel is wary of letting the film’s journey (through a dictatorship and a jungle) become too much of an easily interpretable allegory. Buñuel’s cinema is consistently and rigorously opposed to easy, readymade answers, and LaMortreflects this through a group of characters who constantly keep us off balance, and through a series of small digressions from a deceptively linear plot. The film is a sort of pilgrims’ progress, but one which is more intent on moral distinctions than on clearcut moral lessons. Anti-Catholicism and anti-imperialism both loom large, and Buñuel links them quite directly with each other. But the film’s major insights have more to do with the nature, extent and price of individual freedom. All of the characters, including an unusual missionary priest, Father Lizzardi (played by Michel Piccoli), are individualists and entrepreneurs of one sort or another. The story’s movement reveals their discovery and/or neglect of the connections each has with his fellows.
Four characters have special importance in the film’s South American setting. Castin (Charles Vanel), an aging diamond-miner, dreams of returning with his daughter (Michèle Girardon) to France and opening a restaurant. He also wants to marry Djin (Simone Signoret), a prostitute who is interested in his money but not in him. Lizzardi preaches acquiescence when the workers plan an armed rebellion against the government’s nationalization of the diamond mines. Chark (Georges Marachal), a lone wolf adventurer, disdains the government and the rebellion; but when he is arrested for freelance diamond smuggling and thereby mixed up in the general police-state brouhaha, he escapes and temporarily fights alongside the rebel leaders with a vengeance. When all of these people are thrust together in flight, he becomes their guiding light—in a way which encompasses both the conventions of the adventure film and the idiom of Buñuel’s cinema. Chark, in fact, is unique in that respect: no other Buñuel film I know of has a figure who is so commanding without being corrupt at the same time. Buñuel is not a director whom we think of as a creator of heroes, but Chark’s independence, ferocity, and lack of sentiment bring him closer to the conventional hero than is usually permitted in Buñuel’s more personal movies.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance; that to be very poor and very beautiful ismost probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying “This medium is not good,” he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it isalways a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything. —Raymond Chandler (1949)
Raymond Chandler was given to talking things up in a way that Howard Hawks never has been, but part of what is remarkable about the above statement is its aptness as an aesthetics for Hawks’ films as well as for Chandler’s fiction. Even in readily likeable potboilers like Tiger Shark and The Crowd Roars, the hard-edged integrity that distinguished later and more accomplished Hawks films was already making itself felt. Indeed, in Chandler’s fiction as in movies like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and RioBravo, the mixture of highly commercial genre and sharply individualized intelligence exerts an enduring fascination. Thus, that Hawks should end up filming a Chandler novel seems more than merely appropriate. Keep Reading