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Richard T. Jameson

Review: The Day of the Jackal

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

The critical ascendancy of Fred Zinnemann has always bewildered me. Still more bewildering is the question of how to engage his inadequacy in critical terms. How about this? Fred Zinnemann is the sort of filmmaker who gives good taste a bad name. His work is pretentious, and the pretentiousness is of a special kind: a pretense to delicacy, to discretion; an ostentatious avoidance of emotional excess and dramatic patness. Even in a film taken from a prize-winning historical play, A Man for All Seasons (1966), with a screenplay still rife with pregnant lines and deftly turned speeches, one kept having a sense of the event—if not necessarily the point—passing one by, so that when a last-moment narrator ticked off the ignominious comeuppances of Sir Thomas More’s persecutors following upon his dispatch, one chuckled not only at the intended irony but also at the unintentional one: that this turning of the tables of historical justice (or irrelevance) didn’t quite matter either.

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Review: César and Rosalie

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

There’s no good reason why this film shouldn’t be entitled César and Rosalie and David since that’s a much more complete and accurate indication of what’s going on herein. Rosalie (Romy Schneider) is the mistress of César (Yves Montand), a vulgar but dynamic and likable junk tycoon given to explosive demonstrations of affection one moment, rage the next. She has a child, a little daughter, by a painter named named Antoine whom she married after the love of her life, another artist named David (Sami Frey), bugged out to the States without a word of explanation. After five years David returns as unexpectedly as he departed; Rosalie, without ceasing to love César, finds she’s still interested. César, doing his utmost to appear subtle and to take things in stride, belatedly catches on and threatens to make a shambles of all their lives. The film proceeds along familiar enough lines with Rosalie gravitating first to one man, then to the other. It is the violently changeable César who finally concedes that he cannot cope with “imagination,” as personified by David, and that Rosalie cannot be content without both of them; he invites his rival to share their seaside idyll. At that point Rosalie finds herself confronted with a particularly incongruous Jules-and-Jim relationship in the making and clears out entirely—only to return, a year later, just as the two men have settled into a mutually supportive (though not necessarily homosexual) lifestyle. And at that questionable juncture, the film terminates.

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Review: Two People

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Two People represents the triumph of cinematic presence and naturally lush surfaces over script and selling campaign. Well, not quite a triumph, perhaps, but Two People is a much better movie—or experience to be had at the movies—than most descriptions of it have indicated, least of all its own Segal-like sell and Lelouchian outtakes. Peter Fonda, who handled his own self-directed star turn in The Hired Hand with unexpected modesty, takes a truly stellar leap toward attractiveness as a Vietnam deserter who has wearied of life in various exiles and has elected to go home and serve his time in order to get his own life back. Indeed, the whole film yearns toward taking a self-purging step beyond the puerilities of the Easy Rider school of contemporary self-loathing (and amid all that film’s virtues there certainly were more than a few puerilities).

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Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

The French Connection was about as good as a movie can get without reflecting the creative concentration of a single controlling artistic presence. Ernest Tidyman’s script evoked a convincing sense of a behavioral reality realized and sustained in pungent language that sounded as if it were spoken by people, not characters in a screenplay; William Friedkin’s direction paced that reality perfectly and extended it in patterns of action and movement; Owen Roizman’s camerawork achieved precision while staying limber and unaffectedly nervous, and Jerry Greenberg’s editing wired the whole thing into a dynamic narrative experience. One tended to accept producer Phil d’Antoni’s claims that it was his film: at no point did the picture flag, owing to the expert collaboration of a committee of accomplished artisans, but neither did it suggest (save perhaps in Gene Hackman’s performance) that its aspirations were anything but shrewdly commercial. The Friends of Eddie Coyle recalls the earlier—and better—film, especially in relation to its director. Nothing in William Friedkin’s earlier projects pointed toward The French Connection (nor did they seem related to one another). And, like Friedkin, director Peter Yates has never manifested anything but a technician’s interest in earning his wage: Bullitt, John and Mary, and Murphy’s War are comparable only in a consistent failure to get inside any of the characters and, especially in Bullitt and Murphy, a tendency to substitute facile rhetoric (McQueen’s indefensibly complacent “Bullshit!” to Robert Vaughn, followed shortly by Vaughn’s retreat behind a copy of The Wall Street Journal) for serious moral perspective.

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Review: Melvin and Howard

[originally published in The Weekly, November 5, 1980]

Middle of the night in the Nevada desert, a little ways off the Tonapah Highway. Melvin Dummar has left the main road to take a whiz. Decent young fella: even at this remove from civilization, he steps around to the blind side of his truck and looks both ways before undoing his fly. A moment later he’s back in the cab of his pickup, wheeling around to return to the highway, when his headlights sweep something. Sprawled in the dust is an old coot in a flying-jacket, with silver hair like a fright wig grown tired: a streak of dried blood below his left ear seems the natural complement of all the other stains upon his costume and person. He says he’s Howard Hughes.

Melvin and Howard is the title of this movie, and a fit and proper title it is. But the film is scarcely more “about” the putative relationship of the legendary billionaire and the gas-station operator who almost got a share of his estate than, say, All the President’s Men was about Richard Nixon and his helpmates. Less than a reel is taken up with Hughes and Dummar’s nocturnal passage to Las Vegas (where the old man asks to be dropped at the service entrance to the Sands Hotel, and bums his Good Samaritan’s last quarter); and only the last reel or so is devoted to Melvin’s receipt of “the Mormon will,” seven or eight years later, and the celebrity it brings.

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Review: Godspell

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Without having seen Jesus Christ Superstar yet, I’m hardly in a position to state definitively how the Savior is doing with and being done by the moneychangers and popcorn vendors this Year of Our Lord. Of Godspell in particular the main thing to be said is that, while the movie of “the smash off-Broadway musical” confirms all but the direst expectations engendered by the trailer and flower-power photo spreads, it’s not quite as cloying as it threatened to be. The opening five minutes or so—the gathering of eight young urban Apostles in answer to a neo–John the Baptist’s joyous call—has been conceived and executed by director-adapter David Greene most adroitly and, more to the point, with a beguiling yet unprecious ingenuity that arouses genuine excitement and anticipation in any viewer agreeably disposed to make a leap of faith in the interest of having a good cocklewarming time. Regrettably, the saucy, freshly scrubbed faces of the troupe are soon a-daub with kindergarten cosmetics, and their playground-theater antics, however genial, shortly wear out their collective welcome through sheer sameness. They’re nice kids and all that, and a few of the updated, acted-out parables are amusing, and Greene’s direction does manage the difficult feat of remaining ingenious without tipping too frequently into frippery or flippancy.

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Review: Kid Blue

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Kid Blue, completed more than a year ago, enjoyed a belated and unsuccessful release and arrived in the Jet City even later. Reportedly Twentieth Century Fox advertised the picture as a straight western somewhere in the country and failed to find an audience for it (whatever audience they did reach with such a pitch would surely have been grievously disappointed). The film and the rest of the nation will have a second chance to get together after a New York Film Festival showcasing offers a proper reintroduction. Meanwhile, the Harvard Exit has scored another audience coup—not so spectacular as with such earlier previously-ignored-elsewhere pix as The Conformist, Taking Off, and The Emigrants, but not bad at all. Unfortunately the sizable weeknight audience I saw the film with tended to turn on at just those places where the filmmakers lost either perspective or their artistic souls.

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Review: Sacco and Vanzetti

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

When challenged that the American and rightwing villains in his State of Siege were too thoroughly villainous and the leftwing revolutionaries too absurdly decent and clean-cut, Costa-Gavras disingenuously replied that he saw nothing terribly wrong in that: why shouldn’t the Left indulge itself with black-and-white entertainments when the Right had been doing so for years? Sacco and Vanzetti can cop the same plea, but it has plenty more to recommend it. John Simon named the film on his 1971 Ten Best List because, he maintained, it dramatically brought to light a reprehensible miscarriage of justice callously perpetrated by officials of the government which ought never be forgotten.

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Review: White Lightning

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The most interesting aspect of White Lightning is the squandering of available authenticity. Thanks to Fouad Said’s Cinemobile systems, there’s nowhere in this country a filmmaking crew can’t go and get a movie in the can. The latest Burt Reynolds venture, set in the Deep South, shores up its careless trashmanship with equally careless but atmospherically persuasive hunks of environment and lifestyle. The constant sheen of sweat on faces, the rotting-alive quality of colors and textures, the sense of both landscapes and society as a vast morass—these are commodities ripe for the taking, and they tend to condone the most accidental of scenarios by lending a general signification to anything that happens. Add to this the South’s conspicuous availability for mythmaking and the lackadaisical narrator is home free.

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Review: Child’s Play

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Sidney Lumet ventures once more into an ascetic community of men—here a Catholic prep school rather than the African-based British prison camp of The Hill—but this time comes up with only about half a winner. Child’s Play is a spellbinder for approximately that fraction of its duration. The boys are subjecting one another to increasingly gruesome and sometimes blasphemous mutilations while on the faculty level the senior and junior masters seem locked in a contest of wills and styles that, to the senior master at least, amounts to a battle with the very Devil. Each piece of information leaked to us strikes its note of grisly suggestibility. Are the boys possessed? Is the place itself—worthy of condemnation by secular if not clerical authorities, inadequately lighted, with red votive lamps punctuating the darkness with awful chromatic intensity—some kind of vestibule to Hell? Unhappily the whole edifice of satanic innuendo caves in like one of those lesser horror films that is grabby enough as a thriller until we finally meet the rubber monster at close quarters: when the explanation comes, it is tactically incredible, psychologically invalid, and dramatically invalidating (one of the first scenes in the film, for instance, is retroactively revealed as a cheat). The filmmakers scramble to recover their balance and our faith, but they have nothing to fall back on but the sort of ringing last-act declamations that are designed to reassure a Broadway audience that all this titillation has had a very serious point: something about schoolroom fascism, maybe, or the death of God, or like that.

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Review: The Boy Who Cried Werewolf

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Two things are tentatively okay about The Boy Who Cried Werewolf: A lot of it is filmed on location in some piney mountain country, and the film thereby falls heir to those vagrant chills that any horror movie shot in a real place with some sense of isolation about it can count on. Besides that, screenwriter Bob Homel has some completely irrelevant but amusing moments as a goodtime Jesus freak. Regrettably he is outpointed on the laugh meter by the star werewolf whose behavior before launching an attack invariably recalls Groucho Marx crouching on the opera-box railing and calling “Boogie! Boogie! boogie!” in mid-performance. As for the detestable sub-adolescent of the title, all he had to say at any point was: “All right, sheriff, then answer me this: why is the werewolf always wearing Daddy’s jacket?”
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Review: Mon Oncle Antoine

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

“Quebec, the asbestos-mining region, not too long ago.” A gray arc of mineral dust flumes through the air and a red pickup sits at the brink of a cliff. A middleaged man gets out of the truck and crawls underneath, grumbling profanely about the lousy maintenance; a conventionally handsome, cleancut young man gets out the other door and observes. Uncle Antoine, of course, and the sensitive young protagonist looking on as if already lost in reflection upon a present that is becoming the past. No. The man is not anybody’s uncle and, although he will come to loom as a symbolic figure in the film, he is not even a major character. The young man we shall not see again. Such an opening is characteristic of Mon Oncle Antoine, and also characteristic of its singularity. People who get up and leave movies that don’t zap them within ten minutes will surely get up and leave Mon Oncle Antoine. People who get up and leave movies that don’t zap them within ten minutes deserve to miss the rich experience that rewards those willing to let the life of Claude Jutra’s movie and Uncle Antoine’s town define itself in its own very good and lived-in time.

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Review: Scalawag

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

Kirk Douglas becomes yet another star to learn he ought to stay in front of the camera. His directorial debut lacks style, wit, pace, visual distinction, common sense—lacks even naïveté, which might have proved at least modestly winning. Indeed, the picture serves up some very ugly doses of casual death-dealing by a motley crew of constantly guffawing pirates who, with peglegged Douglas in the lead, scramble around Alta California in pursuit of treasure and G-rated good times. The suburban audience I saw Scalawag with had come mostly for the second-run cofeature, Charlotte’s Web, to judge by remarks overheard, but they responded to Douglas’s shambling efforts with that programmed laughter they learn from canned tracks on TV. As a performer, Douglas has usually fared best as some kind of scoundrel (his best performance, Lonely Are the Brave, is a conspicuous exception), especially such early triumphs as the malevolent, latently homosexual gangster in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) and the Machiavellian producer in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), as Howard Hawks observed in connection with The Big Sky (also ’52), when he tries to sell himself as a nice guy he is less than convincing. Scalawag asks us to delight in a nice scoundrel, but director Douglas leaves actor Douglas stranded.
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Review: Blume in Love

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

During one phase of their rising-and-falling marriage Susan Anspach says to George Segal, “We’re always putting somebody down.” One of the conspicuously consistent things about Paul Mazursky’s three films as a director—Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Alex in Wonderland, Blume in Love—is that he doesn’t put anybody down. The frantic chicness of the assumed lifestyles in B&C&T&A was the source of many laughs, but there was a winning innocence about the whole enterprise, on the characters’ part and on Mazursky’s, that saved the film from the sterile socioaesthetic oneupmanship that claims most endeavors in that risky genre. It was the director’s innocence that sustained Alex in Wonderland even amid the protracted, slavish, unimaginative gaucherie of those sub-Fellini pastiches and stillborn “Hooray for Hollywood” highjinks. And the colors of innocence and naïveté continue to fly in his latest film, and they help make Blume in Love a distinct pleasure to behold and share.

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Review: Happy Mother’s Day—Love, George

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

The best thing about Happy Mother’s Day—Love, George is some yeah-that‘s-the-way-it-looks nighttime photography by Walter Lassally. A minor technical footnote, to be sure, and not enough to redeem the sloppy ugliness of Darren McGavin’s directorial debut. The plot is very confused, and the leaking of that plot to the audience is even more contused and slew-footed (the absence of several performers listed in the credits—e.g., Thayer David as a minister—suggests that some desperate wholesale cutting has taken place at the last moment). Central to the enterprise is Ron Howard (American Graffiti‘s Steve) as a mysterious gangling youth who hops off a truck in a Maine coastal village early one morning and starts making several people uncomfortable just by his presence. Cloris Leachman drops her oatmeal because he looks like the illegitimate son she farmed out to a family of religious freaks years before. Bobby Darin goes on the prod because he’s been keeping company with Leachman, his employer at the dockside diner, and the encroachment of a new male threatens him. Patricia Neal, Leachman’s sister, starts snarling because (1) she snarls at everybody, (2) she snarls especially at males, and (3) her dewy-eyed daughter Tessa Dahl is given to staring out the window at the boy.

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