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Richard T. Jameson

Review: L’Amour viole

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The Seattle exhibitor that gave a one-week run to Yannick Bellon’s film about a rape victim and the emotional and sociopolitical aftermath of the crime advertised the picture under its French title, L’Amour violé, admirably seeking to avoid the sensationalistic come-on of the U.S. distributor’s banner translation, Rape of Love. As it happened, local reviewers right down the line restored the U.S. title in their articles and indeed in their headlines, and went on to bracket any discussion of the film’s merits within their own various editorials on rape as a social issue. Myself, I felt little inclination to go see some female director’s tract movie on the rape question, and almost let the film get away from me. Almost but, happily, not quite. For L’Amour violé provided to be no tract, feminist or otherwise; even better, it turned out to be a damn good film in the ways that count with every movie, whether freighted with social import or not. And I found that the exhibitor (Seven Gables Theatres) was not only discreet but also precise in hewing to L’Amour violé as the title: “rape of love” ever so slightly distorts the emphasis of “love raped” and steers us away from the delicacy of Bellon’s subject and concerns.

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Review: Used Cars

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Is there a cure for Southern California? Oh, I don’t mean the smog, the materialism, “the City of the One-Night Stands,” any of that stuff—don’t bother me none. What’s getting to bother me in a big way is the barrenness of cinematic output from those children of Sunny Cal who seem to be running hog wild on the movie scene these days. We could argue about when it started. I couldn’t get too bent out of shape if somebody wanted to insist that Big Wednesday was A Bad Sign a couple of summers ago, even if I found that particular exercise in oafish metaphysics rather endearing; it surely did tend to crawl up its own nether orifice, striking monumental poses (and that’s a difficult position to strike monumental poses in) over a landscape of aspiration and endeavor so specialized as to have nothing but abstract meaning for any non-Californians—and maybe just nonsurfers—in the audience. And now Milius, for whose directorial career I continue to have high hopes, appears to prefer the role of ursine Godfather to all the up-and-coming—or at least oncoming—cinéastes south and Right of Zoetrope. First he exec-produced 1941 for Spielberg, and contributed to its story base along with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, whose I Wanna Hold Your Hand Spielberg himself had exec-produced. Now he and Spielberg have exec-produced Zemeckis–Gale’s Used Cars, which by its very title sounds like a godawfully appropriate sequel to last Christmastime’s multimillion-dollar wrecking-derby-masquerading-as-a-hohoho-comedy. And in some important and increasingly distressing ways, it is.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 1]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

When it comes to new hope for the American cinema, filmcrit types are always in the market. New hope in 1980 took the form of a low-budget festival film with the misunderstandable title Return of the Secaucus 7. It wasn’t a documentary, wasn’t a tribute to sullen or snarling radicals, wasn’t even a where-were-you-in-’72 American Graffitistyle slice of overpacked nostalgia. What it was was this genial, witty, low-key comedy, with just the right touch of rue, about a group of friends getting together for an informal reunion one summer weekend, and trying to get used to the idea of turning 30—and just a wee bit comfortably bourgeois. The screenplay was a beauty, ostensibly laidback and wide-open, yet carefully detailed without letting the pointedness show; the characters expertly drawn, no fuss, and so cleanly individualized (among other things, everyone’s dialogue has a logic and texture all its own) that for the audience and for one another they step right out of any assigned boxes, free to explore a wide range of possibilities. The result was a droll ensemble portrait shot through with the cozy vitality the Sixties used to call natural, without any of the boring unintelligence that so often went along with it.

The Return of the Secaucus 7
“The Return of the Secaucus 7” (that’s John Sayles second from left, hiding behind his cast)

The film marked the directorial debut of John Sayles, himself age 30 and one of the most solidly talented writers of contemporary American fiction. About the time Secaucus 7 went into national release, Sayles accepted an invitation to meet with a scriptwriting class at the University of Washington and share some of his experiences. Virtually all the Hollywood personnel who graciously and generously gave of their time to support this course delivered themselves of frank and cogent remarks about the realities of the film biz at the dawn of the Eighties; but even in this company Sayles was conspicuous for the comprehensiveness and lucidity of his commentary. He talked for better than two hours, first supplying a general commentary on his background in film and the circumstances of Secaucus 7‘s making, then opening the floor for questions. Having never heard so much good sense about films and filmmaking collected in one place before, movietone news requested permission to share it with a larger public; the unassuming writer-director seemed surprised that anyone would think so highly of his off-the-cuff remarks, but he agreed. “We’ll send you a transcript so you can check it out.” He thought about that a moment, then said, “No. If I said it, I’ll stand by it. Just go ahead.” And that, with very little editing and rearranging, is what we did.

I’d always been interested in doing screenwriting, realized that there weren’t too many ways into it. I didn’t want to go out to Los Angeles and start knocking on people’s doors trying to get an agent, so I went a route that isn’t much help to most people, which is that I wrote two novels and got them published. I got a literary agent out of that, and his agency had a deal with a film agency on the West Coat, so they were automatically representing my novels as screen properties. I wrote a query letter to them saying, “I also write screenplays”—which I hadn’t done at that time—”do you want to see one?” They said, “Sure, send one,” so I wrote one and sent it off to them, and they said, “Sure, we’ll represent you.” So I moved out to the West Coast.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 2]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Continued from “Part 1” here.

Your characters in Secaucus 7 are very natural; it’s as though you knew them like friends. I’d like to know how you developed your characters, how you chose them, and how you made them come alive.

I don’t really remember writing the picture. I wrote that in two weeks. But I sort of had the idea in my head beforehand. I wrote a few of the parts for actors who I knew I wanted to use. They weren’t those actors, they weren’t playing themselves, but I said, What can I write for David that he would have fun doing? I’d start writing this character. What can I write for Maggie that she would have fun doing? Another character. As the story started to fill out, I wanted to balance certain things, so I’d write another character. And then the trick in the directing was, I wanted to have that great luxury of the screenwriter, to tell them to say what I’d written and not paraphrase it or anything like that. There was no improvisation in the film. Even the charades game was totally scripted. Even the little one-liners and sound effects—not the ums and ers, but everything was scripted.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 3]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Continued from “Part 2” here.

How do you feel about writing these low-budget films? Do you see advantages in it, or are you hungry for millions of dollars per budget?

If I had millions of dollars I’d probably make millions of small films. Part of it is what I’m good at. I’m not real interested in being a field-marshal. I recently wrote a thing that isn’t going to get made because of budget reasons, that Steven Spielberg was going to produce. And he’s really good at having a huge project and is really a good organizer, and he’d probably be a good administrator—not a great politician but a good administrator of huge programs, because the things get made and things happen. I’m not interested in that or real good at that. The things that I want to do can be done more cheaply, and might as well be done more cheaply. It goes against my grain to see money that should be going on the screen going up in overhead and the cocaine budget.

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“I don’t like those hard goodbyes” – Strother Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

Strother Martin thought the folks from the Seattle Film Society wanted to meet him just because he had done some jobs of work for Sam Peckinpah and they had had Sam to tea a year or so earlier. Not that that gave him any trouble. Like any other veteran character actor he had long since got used to being the face and voice that people marked immediately without being able to attach a name. Unlike many other character actors, he had been wrong on that point for quite a few years—at the very least, since late 1967, when filmgoers first heard the line “What we have here is failure to communicate” out of the mouth of the pusselgutted chain-gang overseer in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke. Plenty of people, not just film-society types, could be relied on to look right fond whenever the name Strother Martin was dropped, and say “Oh yeah, I like him, he’s always good.”

Martin1edit
Strother Martin in Seattle in 1979 (photo by Tom Keogh, scanned from Movietone News 66-67)

The Martins were having dinner with two other cast members, Marjorie Bennett and Meg Wylie, who Joined us for the first part of our chat in an improvised semi-private diningroom. Bennett, especially familiar for her work in Robert Aldrich pictures (she and Martin had both appeared in one-scene roles in Kiss Me Deadly; her son from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Victor Buono, was out bulking in the lobby a few yards away), held forth in her best sinister-pixie style on everything from Rudolph Valentino to the fireweed-honey-from-the-sky ritual at Snoqualmie Falls Lodge. The rest of the company delightedly deferred to her. Then, after she had retired for the evening, Martin settled down to talk about, well, Sam Peckinpah, he thought, but we insisted we were interested in Strother Martin, too.

The Strother Martin we met was a fellow markedly different from the variously desperate, deranged, and depraved characters he had so often essayed. Mostly he spoke in soft, gracious tones, with a particularity of reference and inflection consistent with the classical tastes and sensibility he frequently evidenced. Every once in a while, though, when an anecdote required the quotation of a line from The Wild Bunch or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that familiar backwoodsy twang cut the air. (He was particularly proud of the appreciative reception a Harlem moviehouse audience had given his pronunciation of “pussy” while cussing out the hockey team in Slap Shot.) From time to time he lit a cigarette and got about two puffs out of it before Mrs. Martin quietly reached across and stubbed it out.

That was in March 1979. A year later, Strother Martin appeared at a Filmex program, “Characters,” devoted to the work of people like him; the entirety of his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid performance was screened. One hoped that Martin and those other colleagues present—Richard Loo was a few seats away—would be called up to take their bows. It didn’t happen. They signed a few autographs. Within months, both men had passed away.

The following remarks were recorded and transcribed by Tom Keogh and Lesley Link. As the tape started to roll, Martin was talking about an unlikely director….

…I would like to own the film on the life of Delius that Ken Russell did for the BBC? Did you see that? It was done on the PBS stations. Max Adrian played Delius. It’s Ken Russell’s best film, and it’s about one of my favorite subjects. It’s a great film; it’s better than Women in Love. I read once that Glenda Jackson said it was his best film. Such a wonderful biography. He’s meddled with a lot of composers and he’s made me very angry. I didn’t go to see “Tchaikovsky” [The Music Lovers] and I was terribly disappointed in the Mahler film, I just hated it. But I admire his images and his imagination.

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The Pakula Parallax

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 12 No. 5, September/October 1976]

There is no more classical filmmaker than Alan J. Pakula at work in the American cinema today—a description that applies at several levels. Among contemporary directorial hotshots he is a comparative veteran, having been employed in one capacity or another in the studio system since the late Forties. The meticulous production values of his films suggest more affinity to the Old Hollywood than to the Age of the Cinemobile, although the seamless fusion of location work and impeccably detailed soundstage recreations (Stroheim could scarcely have improved on stuffing the All the President’s Men wastebaskets with authentic Washington Post trash) sit well with presentday preferences for verismo.

The Parallax View
The Parallax View from the Space Needle

Similarly, the astonishing density of performance he elicits from the merest bit-player yields the kind of behavioral richness associated with the ensemble professionalism of a bygone generation of character actors. Indeed, he goes one better. Even when a performer is trotting out his or her familiar specialty number (William Daniels’ fidgety-smarmy political aide in The Parallax View, Valerie Curtin’s teary collapse when Woodstein appears at her door a second time in All the President’s Men), the character has an edge and validity that suggest Pakula has taken the player back to the origin of the shtik, and beyond.

Another salient element of the director’s “Hollywood classicism” is his almost Hitchcockian shrewdness about tone and pacing. This figures crucially in All the President’s Men‘s success as an irresistibly compelling general-audience picture which neither sacrifices seriousness of purpose nor betrays the attenuated time-and-space conditions of the events it recounts. In fact, in All the President’s Men and its companions in the so-called “paranoia trilogy,” Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974), entertainment (suspense, excitement) and art (critical perspective, formal perception, humane comprehension) are served collaterally by way of sheer, goosepimply engrossment. (And even though The Parallax View, for one, failed to dent the box office, every audience I saw it with was riveted to the screen.)

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Hitchcock’s Topaz Revisited

“It is time that we start. Will you be kind enough to follow me? What Im going to show you will be mainly the traditional things. Up here let me show you details in the production, which were rather proud of showing. As you see, flowers are made petal by petal, and this is an art, which has been in our factory for almost two hundred years, and you will see that it takes two days to complete … As you see, the flowers are molded petal by petal and stamen by stamen; even in very small flowers you can find as many as ten to fifteen stamens. The figurines which you see being ornated with flowers were first made as a gift from Danish women to our late king. Please follow me farther up here …”

topaztitle
"Topaz" - The titles over a Soviet May Day parade

The first words in Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-first feature are spoken by an unnamed guide in a Danish porcelain works. One tends not to take great notice of them while watching the film because there is so much else to see: a high Russian official, his wife and his daughter, defecting while on holiday in Copenhagen, have been pursued since the beginning of the movie several minutes earlier. Yet here they are in cold print, such a clear outline of the entire film to follow. As ever with Hitchcock, the more you look and listen, the more you discover.

The picture begins, of course, at the very beginning, with the credit sequence. It is unlikely that Hitchcock could have secured permission to take nice crisp 35mm Technicolor images of a Soviet May Day parade, but the way he employs grainy color newsreels makes them his own. Huge red banners display history’s demigods. Crowds — perceptibly composed of individuals — watch columns of marching troops, then cars and tanks visibly bearing more fighting men. The shots get closer. Finally there is just the machinery of war, looming nearer and larger, crowding human beings right off the screen. The sole remaining crowd shot is distant, indistinct, grainily frozen; a title tells us that somewhere in this mass is “a high Russian official who disagrees with his government’s policy of force and what it threatens.”

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La Femme infidèle

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, May 22, 1973]

La Femme infidele
La Femme infidele

For some time it was easy to regard Claude Chabrol as far and away the least of the nouvelle vague Big Three. Whereas Truffaut gifted us with bittersweet, occasionally wry affirmations of an abounding, Renoiresque life force and Godard challenged us to tag along as he sought new ways of looking at movies and at the world as well, Chabrol seemed to be playing games of a highly dubious, unrewardingly perverse nature. His early works, like Les Cousins and À Double Tour, reveled in the habitually petty and gradually escalating nastiness of very unattractive human beings; their occasional doses of broken-field camera movement and hothouse color tended less to exhilarate the viewer than to inculcate a sense of the director’s rash presumptuousness. (It was irritating to feel the nagging doubt that even though convention insisted such bravura displays had no place in depictions of such folks and their tainted milieux, Chabrol knew that, too, and had the germ of a serious purpose in flouting convention — though a failure of technique or timing usually flawed the unexpected track or crane or whatever, and hence restored one’s sense of complacent moral/aesthetic superiority before one was forced to concede Chabrol the point.) Bourgeois resentment tended to be upheld by the reviewers and the distributors: most Chabrols that managed to get to the States scarcely got beyond New York thanks to pans or lukewarm appreciations and soft grosses. Even at home Chabrol did not fare as his fellow critical confreres–turned–filmmakers, and eventually his resources (a wife’s personal fortune) ran out. The mid-Sixties found him making commissioned films, wishful James Bond imitations (Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche, Marie-Chantal contre le Docteur Kha, Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite). The case seemed closed. Then, about the time Godard went politicking into anticinema and Truffaut threatened to get lost in Hitchcock imitations, Chabrol came back with Les Biches, and the thing was so gorgeous, so enthralling, yet so quirkily self-aware at the same time that I, for one, began to wonder whether this once trivially quirky gentleman mightn’t turn out to be the foremost classicist of the New Wave. And after La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, and Le Boucher, I’ve stopped wondering.

La Femme infidèle looks like the director’s masterpiece to date. It’s certainly a masterpiece. From the opening, almost functional glide along the front of the Desvallées’ suburban home, the film gathers itself with delicate relentlessness and moves toward one of the most lucid and fulfilled closing shots I’ve ever experienced. A major charm and, beyond and through that, a major strength of Truffaut’s films is that they are rife with “moments.” In Baisers volés or Deux Anglaises et le Continent these moments tend to accrete toward a deep conviction of the artist’s — and sometimes his characters’ — receptivity to life’s bounty. (In the contemporary world of Baisers volés and the continuing saga of Antoine Doinel, they testify toward the ultimate shaping of a random life; in the temporally distant cinematic country of a Deux Anglaises or a Jules et Jim they reverberate with remembered heartbeats, the knowledge of missed opportunities, the tenderly comic sense of people who caught at life with such fondly absurd deliberation that they crushed it; in a La Mariée était en noir or La Sirène du Mississippi, they suggest the flutter of a sensibility (Truffaut’s) whose instincts run counter to the generic house rules. Chabrol’s films — at least, once one has sat through them and is in a position to consider the whole of the individual movie — suggest a kind of organic containment or completion. This is hardly to say that Truffaut’s films lack form. Rather, their very form encompasses a sense of spontaneity, of accident: shots and scenes may go by very rapidly, as if they were pieces of a larger spatial and temporal reality but only these snatches of perception are important to the director and to us and so they are all we see. Truffaut is capable of long-take scenes and Chabrol is capable of fragmentation; but even Chabrol’s techniques of fragmentation and disruption tend to reinforce our sense of the scene’s relation to the entire movement of the piece.

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Claude Chabrol – The Classicist

This piece was written about fifteen years ago for a cinema biographies project that never came to fruition. None of it appears to need changing, but by way of updating I’ve appended a comment on a recent Chabrol picture seen in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. —RTJ, June 24, 2009

 

Claude Chabrol
Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol was one of the “young Turk” critics-turned-filmmakers who constituted the New Wave of French cinema at the turn of the ’60s. At the time, he ran a distant third to the iconoclastic, theoretical Jean-Luc Godard and the warm-hearted, soaringly lyrical François Truffaut. But in the late ’60s, Chabrol emerged as a magisterially accomplished classicist, with an unbroken string of masterpieces that established him as one of the world’s finest directors. He has managed to remain commercially viable—indeed, awesomely prolific—over the ensuing decades, while pursuing his own distinctive, coolly detached vision of life and cinema.

He was born in Paris but raised in the provincial village of Creuse; just as Godard eventually returned to his native Switzerland, so Chabrol has often set his films far from the capital of the nouvelle vague, and frequently made the very specific climate and landscape of his narratives key to their spirit and meaning. Chabrol père was a pharmacist, and grand-père before him; Claude initially studied to follow in the family tradition, but switched to literature and then political science and the law. Arguably, all these disciplines left their mark (did the lapsed pharmacologist take ironic relish in doing a film of Madame Bovary?), but in truth he had been claimed early by the cinema. At the age of 12 he started a film club (they showed their movies in a barn), and as a student in Paris he hung out at the Cinémathèque Française with such fellow cinéastes as Truffaut, Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer, with whom he would collaborate on the first serious book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock in 1954. This was a natural outgrowth of his writing, from 1950, for the revisionist film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, which regularly denounced the big-studio “Tradition of Quality” in French filmmaking and looked to such Hollywood masters (then largely unheralded) as Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray as exemplars of personal authorship through figures of style.

In 1952, Chabrol married a woman named Agnès Goute (and assimilated her surname into one of his Cahiers aliases). She was an heiress, and in 1958—after a lamentable turn as a publicist in 20th Century–Fox’s Paris office—Chabrol drew on her fortune to finance his writing-directing debut, Le Beau Serge. This provincial drama, focused on the tensions that grow out of a visit by a friend from the city, was well received critically, and Chabrol went on to reverse the strategy—countrified Gérard Blain visits sophisticated urban relative Jean-Claude Brialy—in Les Cousins (1959), which won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

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Review: Gumshoe

Albert Finney
Albert Finney plays hard-boiled

[originally published in Movietone News, May/June 1972]

“SAM SPADE: Ginley’s the Name—Gumshoe’s the Game.” After a year of psychoanalysis, brought on by his girlfriend’s marrying his brother and terminated by his genial conclusion that the shrink is “off his head,” Eddie Ginley places the foregoing advert in a Liverpool paper. His breakfast-time reading is The Thin Man and his running patter — when not actually performing his job as emcee at a bingo club — is case-hardened Humphrey Bogart. His own voiceover commentary (“For everyone else in Liverpool it was just another Friday morning…”) eases into boyish practicality long enough to make clear Eddie doesn’t expect to be taken seriously: when a phone call sends him to that hotel room to receive a wrapped parcel from a Fat Man smoking a cigar on the other side of a tall chair, he assumes it’s just his mates’ way of slipping him a birthday present (he’s making the gloomy turn to 31). The package proves to contain a thousand pounds, a girl’s photograph, and a revolver to—presumably—do her in.

From the opening titles, nicely evocative of the old Universal Sherlock Holmes credits, Gumshoe is a minor masterpiece of faultless footwork, treading with absolute conviction that high wire of stylistic commitment with clinical absurdity lying to one side and shallow sendup to the other. Stephen Frears’ direction, Neville Smith’s dialogue, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music all take that necessary chance of pushing just a little too far, which is the only way to push far enough. But as much talent as these gentlemen evidence, Gumshoe would only be charmingly lightweight without the rigor and intensity of Albert Finney as a standup comic in a trenchcoat trying to come of age. It’s tempting to speculate on the origins of Gumshoe, and how much Eddie Ginley might have been conceived and written for Albert Finney, who was last seen in his directorial debut, Charlie Bubbles, climbing into an utterly improbable carnival balloon and sailing up out of all his insoluble problems. Charlie Bubbles moved some observers, appalled others (I stood among the latter), but it will be worth re-viewing if only to strengthen one’s appreciation of this new gem. There Charlie/Finney’s estranged wife was superbly played by Billie Whitelaw; here she plays Eddie’s lost love, to whom he repairs now and again for psychic rearmament — to stage a smoky, piano-playing, late-night reunion or to be kissed goodbye/kissed off at a railway station. In the incestuous way of private-eye thriller plotting, Gumshoe enables Eddie Ginley to pay off, by means of melodramatic ingenuity, those very psychic wounds that have necessitated his fantasy-embracing lifestyle. The ambiguity of the last lengthy shot — whether Eddie has been trapped forever in his dreamworld or whether he has taken a decisive step toward adulthood — is profound rather than facile, and thoroughly earned.

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Powell and Hitchcock

[This was written on May 15, 2001, for the Northwest Film Forum newsletter.]

Michael Powell worked uncredited as a set designer and title writer on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 movie Blackmail. Which is neither here nor there, but does serve to mark the accidental convergence of England‘s two most exciting directorial talents.

"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas [still from the Internet Encyclodedia of Cinematographers]
"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas

I was dreaming about movies the other night (it happens), and imagining a symposium in which key films would be set forth as teaching examples for a combination film series and class. An early Powell film came to mind, a personal favorite, one whose images and moods often claim me in idle moments. My wife (several of us were planning this series) objected that, while the film is enchanting, it really wasn’t appropriate as a specimen from which to draw lessons. I immediately recognized that she was right. Later—awake now, lying in bed—I recalled the dream and found myself musing on the idea of teaching from Powell’s films. And I realized that, apart from a course on Powell himself—or Powell–Pressburger, to ring in his august writing partner and co-creator of such irreplaceable classics as I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes, Emeric Pressburger—Powell movies would be inapt choices for a course on classical film style.

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“Seven Men from Now” – A Cinema Masterpiece

The following essay, adapted from a review published in Queen Anne News (Seattle), appears in the new anthology from the National Society of Film Critics, The B List, edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson (Da Capo Press).

The making of Seven Men from Now was a modest enterprise. John Wayne’s old Batjac production company had a B-movie arm in addition to the main unit, which set up A-class vehicles for producer-star Wayne, and Seven Men From Now, which clocks in at a second-feature length of just under an hour and 20 minutes, was produced under its auspices for release by Warner Bros.

Randolph Scott in "Seven Men From Now"
Randolph Scott in "Seven Men From Now"

The screenwriter, Burt Kennedy, was a newcomer who’d been scribbling for radio; the director, Budd Boetticher, was a colorful fellow who’d started as a bullfighter in Mexico, made some trim B movies in the ’40s—and one distinctive, highly personal film, The Bullfighter and the Lady (produced by Wayne, as it happens) in 1950—and then reverted to only slightly more upscale Bs later in the decade. At the time Seven Men from Now went into production, Wayne was busy giving his finest performance ever in John Ford’s Western The Searchers, so the leading role fell to Randolph Scott, a fading star who’d been working in mostly unremarkable Westerns since the mid-’40s.

No one at Batjac or at Warners was expecting more from Seven Men from Now than reasonable profitability. Yet the three men’s talents blended uncannily, producing the best movie by far ever to sport the Batjac label. It’s not just a terrific Western but a cinema masterpiece—an ironical, beautifully spare bit of storytelling that became the ideal showcase for Scott’s sandy reticence.

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Skolimowski: “Deep End”

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Love and Death,” November 15, 1983]

The original poster: hair turns to blood, or maybe just red

Jerzy Skolimowski. The name does not come trippingly to the Anglo-Saxon tongue, but it’s worth fixing in mind all the same, for Skolimowski is one of the sharpest filmmakers now living. He doesn’t get to make a lot of films, and none that he’s made has won wide or conspicuous release. But every time I see one of his best moves—Barrier, Deep End, Moonlighting, much of The Shout—I come away exhilarated and a little awestruck at the nimbleness and suggestibility of his cinematic imagination. Few films are so quirkily, relentlessly alive. Few succeed so vividly in evoking a distinctive vision of life, in which the abstract and the concrete, the accidental and the poetically inevitable, trade off and reinvigorate one another as naturally as the heart pumps blood.

Blood is the first thing we see in Deep End. Or it may be red paint. Or it may simply be (as Jean-Luc Godard had it in Pierrot le fou) red. One of the moments I always think of first when I reflect back on this movie is a daftly barbed encounter between Sue and the bathhouse cashier. Sue drifts into the cashier’s vicinity and begins lazily to consume a milkshake. The cashier, an older woman, less attractive, more desperate, and weight-conscious, does her utmost to ignore the provocation; she glares without glaring. As so often in the film, the architecture of the scene is fraught with tension and definition. Sue moves to a bench across the corridor and eases down onto it; the cashier sits, half cut off from view, in her window. Hold this no-(wo)man’s-land composition a moment. Then this disembodied hand seems to reach out of the wall beyond the cashier and paint a hot red streak up and down the background. The explanation is perfectly rational: we have had ample opportunity to notice that the baths are undergoing a token cosmetic renovation, and in this case a painter has simply been working his way down the hall that intersects our focal corridor at the back of the shot. (He steps fully into view a few seconds later, a wholly anonymous, dramatically irrelevant personage.) Still, that first shock of red bursting against the otherwise bilious environment is at once profoundly unsettling and giddily satisfying. One wants to laugh and gasp in the same breath: laugh at the outrageous obtrusiveness of this stylistic comment, and gasp at how directly it speaks to the derangement of this deceptively prosaic world.

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Skolimowski: “Barrier” ( “Bariera”)

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Voices and Visions,” April 20, 1982]

Tight shot: a man’s back, naked, bent, straining; his bands tied behind him; his head, whether yearning forward or bowed in fear and trembling, unseen. The posture faintly evokes your basic bullet-in-the-back-of-the-neck, Darkness at Noon–style execution. The Latin recitation somewhere just offscreen imparts a suggestion of religiosity to the agony. The man strains harder, balances precariously, and tips out of frame — out of existence, we might as well say, for he seems to have been lost in the white, infinite void of the empty screen.

Jan Nowicki and Joanna Szczerbic in "Barrier"

Well, forget all that, because it’s wrong. Nobody’s getting executed or awaiting the zealot’s lash, and the infinite whiteness is just the bare wall of a room in a university dormitory shared by four premed students. They’ve also shared a ritual, over the years, of collecting their spare change in a piggybank, and now the time has come to see which of them gets to keep it. They could cut cards or play one-potata two-potata, but where’s the perversity in that? No, they turn it into a ritual ordeal, wherein each aspirant assumes the aforementioned position kneeling on the edge of a table, leeeeeeeans forward, tries to pluck up a matchbox, poised about two feet out, with his mouth, and (that’s not all, no, that’s not all, that would be too easy), having plucked it, seeks to resume his former kneeling-upright position as opposed to falling very painfully on his chin, nose, brow, or all three once they’ve been compacted into a single pulpy mass. First guy to succeed wins the piggy.

It’s that simple. In fact, quite often in Barrier things prove to be that simple, although we need a little time and a little looking-around before we can appreciate the fact. What seems weird, freaky, outré frequently turns out to be just the way things are in this neighborhood. That screaming of a soul in torment as the hero roves about a strange, shrouded white corridor? Well, you see, next door there’s a dentist’s office; and the shrouds, that’s no big deal — some students are supposed to come over later and clean the place up, and I mean, we wouldn’t want the antlers (huh?!) getting dusty….

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