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Richard T. Jameson

Something to Do With Death: A Fistful of Sergio Leone

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 9 No. 2, March-April, 1973]

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A Fistful of Dollars

Early in 1967, United Artists undertook a massive publicity campaign to sell the country on a recent acquisition that had broken box-office records in its native Italy and might, just might do the same in the States. After all, its inspiration was American—what more American than the Western? And its star was American: Clint Eastwood—true, the all-but-forgotten second lead of a TV series long sold into syndication, but the genuine article all the same. He sported a bit of stubble now, and had perfected a disinterested visual snarl that Rowdy Yates rarely had call to flash. And then there was the topography, animal and mineral. It would be hard to find corners of the American West more convincing than (and as undespoiled as) the Spanish canyons and deserts that served as exteriors alongside the Cinecittà interiors. And the faces of the supporting cast—swarthy, oily, Fellinily grotesque, latitudes and longitudes and generations and cultures away from any Central Casting selections—became landscapes themselves in huge, flyspecked closeup. The music capped and integrated the rest: memories of the Mascot-Monogram stock libraries filtered through a modern and European sensibility, the result an idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock; it was startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur, and it somehow complemented the bizarre exoticism of the film, the familiar made fresh, new, and neurotically contemporary. A Fistful of Dollars swept the nation and “spaghetti Western” became a catchword.

A Fistful of Dollars won general audiences for its stylish embellishments of the new sadism and a narrower, more discerning audience for the perverse originality of the man whose talent embraced most if not all of the preceding categories—director Sergio Leone. Leone was original, and then again he wasn’t: almost scene for scene, his movie was an uncredited swipe of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A lone gunman (Eastwood) rides into a border town where two equally reprehensible gangs are vying for control. He demonstrates his lethal competence to the satisfaction of both sides but will work for neither very long. Instead he arranges deception after deception calculated to keep the rivals at one another’s throats until all have been annihilated.

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Review: Windows

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

When Richard Fleischer visited the Seattle Film Society last spring, he bridled at the suggestion that Sven Nykvist, rather than he, had been responsible for the frame compositions in The Last Run: “That’s something a lot of people don’t understand.” Certainly no theory of film directing I ever entertained left room for the supposed metteur-en-scène to farm out that particular responsibility to the cameraman; yet it is a fact that there is a Wyler-like look to Ball of Fire (to grab the first Pantheon-class example that springs to mind) that is to be found in no other film by Howard Hawks, and the Wylerian on the premises was almost certifiably cinematographer Gregg Toland. In the lower reaches of film authorship it is not at all difficult to follow the visual spoor of, say, James Wong Howe as he labors for some mightily undistinguished directors (the best “films of Sam Wood” tend to have been shot by Howe and/or production-designed by William Cameron Menzies). And in the wretched The Drowning Pool of Stuart Rosenberg, a recurrence of insinuatingly asymmetrical widescreen compositions and lustrously dim tonal patterns flashes GORDON WILLIS, GORDON WILLIS like a neon sign.

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Review: When Time Ran Out…

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Going in, Irwin Allen’s latest disaster movie sounds as if it ought to be the ultimate in the genre. Entitled When Time Ran Out…, complete with ellipsis, and based on a novel called The Day the World Ended, the picture starts off with science-fiction-y images of a lone, safety-suited figure picking his way over a steaming grey landscape that surely does suggest a planet in line for burnout. I began to speculate whether a guy like Irwin Allen would bother ripping off a guy like Robert Altman, and have ol’ Paul Newman, from Quintet more recently than Allen’s own The Towering Inferno, materializing out of another bleak futuristic landscape (at least futuristic-in-the-making). But then the solitary stroller turned out not to be Paul at all; and the catastrophe portrayed in When Time Ran Out… proved to be nothing more than your basic Devil at Four o’Clock volcanic trashing of a single tropical island—and maybe only half the island at that.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Nicholas Meyer, the popular novelist who contrived the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Holmes, Bernard Shaw, and a Jack the Ripper–style murderer in The West End Horror, has followed colleague Michael Crichton into the movie-directing racket; and I must say that I, no admirer of his thin and opportunistic literary conceits, am pleasantly surprised at the likability of his première effort. A lot of this has to do with the charm and wonderfully specific wit of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Herbert George Wells, and Mary Steenburgen’s as Amy Robbins, one of those liberated modern women H.G. proselytized for—and the most sweetly daft creature to come our cinematic way since Annie Hall; David Warner has also been encouraged to make Jack the Ripper something more than the sort of sallow geek this actor can play in his sleep (and apparently has, every so often). Clearly what Meyer has needed all along was a way to mix actors in with his rather undistinguished language.

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Review: The Black Marble

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The second of his books that he has personally seen to the screen, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Black Marble might have been a better movie if Wambaugh & co. had not so assiduously aimed for a PG rating, and included more of the novel’s amusing raunch, verbal and sexual. The Wambaugh cop’s-instinct for the earthy and profane supplies a good deal of his writing’s sharpness; certainly his sense of characterization is not especially deep, and his inveterate inclination to sermonize about the policeman’s professional and personal lot in society could make for overbearing selfrighteousness without the piss-and-vinegar zest of his cops’ language and behavioral style. Some of this gets into the movie version of The Black Marble (which is faithful to the book in all essentials), but not nearly enough of it; and what there is tends to be robbed of its bracing pungency by Harold Becker’s direction. Only John Hancock as Clarence, the canny, sardonic black sergeant who really runs the Hollywood burglary division, credibly gets into the mode; the other actors are fairly popeyed with the effort to be street-funny folks.

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Review: Hollywood’s Wild Angel

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

I’ve never had the opportunity to see Allan Arkush and Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard;on the other hand, I suspect that I saw a fair portion of it in Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel,Christian Blackwood’s genial film dossier on Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures released the movie. From what we see, and from what Arkush and Dante gleefully confess to Blackwood’s camera and microphone, Hollywood Boulevardis an outrageous, pell-mell celebration/put-on of low-budget, high-energy exploitation filmmaking. A couple of wild’n’crazy kids with a movie camera rip off every cinematic opportunity in sight to produce a zany compendium of Z-movie sex’n’violence; the surrounding environment and not a few of its inhabitants get trashed in the process, but no big deal. Arkush and Dante, a pair of sweet-faced loons who would not look out of place at a freshman smoker, did the same thing in a slightly less destructive key—for instance, taking pictures of a few honeys firing submachine guns in Griffith Park, and splicing these in with borrowed Philippine footage of soldiers biting the dust—and then they showed the results to Roger Corman who said, Very funny, here’s the money for the lab costs, I’ll buy it. One always hoped things like that happened in Roger Corman’s neighborhood, and among the many pleasures of Blackwood’s 58-minute documentary is that that hope gets confirmed again and again.

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Review: American Gigolo

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Here’s the problem: (1) American Gigolo has just garnered a set of bad reviews of a kind that tell much more about reviewers, their blind spots and complacent assumptions, than they do about the movie. One would love to rub their professional faces in it, except that (2) American Gigolo is not a good movie, no matter that it’s a different kind of ungood movie than they suggested. Your basic consumer-reports journalist watches the bad guy open a window high above L.A. just before contemptuously dismissing the hero, and advises his readership that this is a very bad movie because the bad man is so obviously set up to fall to his well-deserved death. Basic c.-r. type has not noticed, save perhaps as a bewildering distraction, that most of the setups and movements in the film have involved people making pilgrimages from one frame-within-a-frame zone to another (against or outside windows, in or adjacent to doorways, against bookshelves, in cars, on beds; moreover, most of the time slashed, crisscrossed, and/or boxed by bold shadows). That another such frame-within-a-frame should figure so prominently, even flout plausibility, at such a crucial juncture in the narrative pilgrimage is—far from being a weakness—essential to the film’s design.

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Review: Halloween

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

A thing that bugs me about the vast majority of contemporary films is, they rarely give the feeling anyone cared much about framing them. The movement away from studio (i.e., factory) filmmaking has had a lot to do with this. Advancements in film speed, equipment mobility, and other such factors that ought to have been unqualifiedly liberating have had the counterproductive effect of encouraging slovenliness rather than responsible flexibility. A movie can get made anywhere now, one place is as good (i.e., workable) as another—and somehow that extends to frame-space as a “place” too. Throw in careless labwork (we waved byebye to real Technicolor several years ago) and you’ve got smeary colors and big, fuzzy grain to help reduce definition, and definitiveness of vision. It’s hard to maintain faith that a given movie had to look the way it does, because it could just as well have looked, well, a little different.

People won’t be talking about this as they leave their naborhood moviehouse, but one reason John Carpenter’s Halloween is so successful a marrow-freezer is that Carpenter appears to have set out to reinstate scrupulous, meaningful framing all by himself. In fact, except for its shamelessly (and irresistibly) zingy music score (by the director), Halloween achieves its considerable power almost entirely through visual means. There’s not a lot of scenario—make that screenplay—to deal with; indeed, the least satisfying thing about Halloween is its attempt to arrive at some scriptoral accounting for its ultraweird dispenser of mayhem, an Omen-era, cosmic-evil reading—”He” really can’t be stopped—that rings too familiar. At the same time, the nonending ending Halloweenreaches has a validity missing from more flagrantly copout conclusions where the filmmakers more or less simultaneously ran out of running time and ideas of what to do next. For Carpenter’s direction has undercut the idea of a world with any secure breathing-room, let alone a sanctum for salvation.

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Kubrick’s Shining

[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1980]

Camera comes in low over an immense Western lake, its destination apparently a small island at center that seems to consist of nothing but treetops. Draw nearer, then sweep over and pass the island, skewing slightly now in search of a central focus at the juncture of lake surface and the surrounding escarpment, glowing in J.M.W. Turner sunlight. Cut to God’s-eye view of a yellow Volkswagen far below, winding up a mountain road through an infinite stand of tall pines and long, early-morning shadows; climbing for the top of the frame and gaining no ground. Subsequent cuts, angling us down nearer the horizontal trajectory of the car as it moves along the face of the mountainside. Thrilling near-lineup of camera vector and roadway, then the shot sheers off on a course all its own and a valley drops away beneath us. More cuts, more views, miles of terrain; bleak magnificence. Aerial approach to a snow-covered mountain crest and, below it, a vast resort hotel, The Overlook. Screen goes black.

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A country drive with the Torrance family

Did Stanley Kubrick really say that The Shining, his film of Stephen King’s novel, would be the scariest horror movie of all time? He shouldn’t have. On one very important level, the remark may be true. But that isn’t the first level people are going to consider (even though it’s right there in front of us on the movie screen). What people hear when somebody drops a catchphrase like “the scariest horror movie of all time” is: You joined the summer crowds flocking to The Amityville Horror, you writhed and jumped through Alien, you watched half of Halloween from behind your fingers, but you ain’t seen nothing yet! And a response: OK, zap me, make me flinch, gross me out. And they find that, mostly, Kubrick’s long, underpopulated, deliberately paced telling of an unremarkable story with a Twilight Zone twist at the end doesn’t do it for them—although it may do a lot of other things to them while they’re waiting.

So Kubrick, who is celebrated for controlling the publicity for his films as closely as the various aspects of their creation, is largely to blame for the initial, strongly negative feedback to his movie. Maybe he didn’t know, when The Shining started its way to the screen several years back, that the horror genre would be in full cry, the most marketable field in filmmaking, by the time his movie was ready for delivery. But he could have seen that, say, a year ago. And still he pressed on with the horror sales hook, counting on it—along with his own eminence—to fill theaters, and to pay off the $18 million cost of the most expensive Underground movie ever made.

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Review: The Great Santini

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

Orion’s The Great Santini has been sitting on the shelf for about a year now and seems unlikely to move off it unless pay-TV pops for it.* The second (surely there can’t be more?) directorial effort of screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was the first), the film seems unsalable in the present Hollywood scheme of things. It is, for one thing, a small movie, without the sort of topical hook that might lend it the opportunistic urgency to make a distribution and publicity push worthwhile. It is also a hopeless mess. Its central showpiece and only detectable raison-d’être is Robert Duvall’s tour-de-force characterization of Marine super–fighter-pilot and congenital bad-/hardass “Bull” Meechum—an extension (whether or not it was so intended) of Duvall’s Col. Kilgore (Apocalypse Now). The film gets underway in Spain, 1962, with a demonstration of Meechum’s superior aerial tactical skills, then a demonstration of his hellraising skills at a party jointly celebrating his air team’s besting of their Navy rivals and his own transfer home to assume his first squadron command—and incidentally rejoin his devout Southern Catholic wife (Blythe Danner) and four offspring. Bawling mock-serious—but also deadly-serious—orders at the familial troops, he packs them up at 0300 hours to drive to Beaufort (that’s bewfert), S.C., and settle into his new billet. The rest of the movie enlarges on the dynamics of life in a Marine household, with especial attention being paid to the relationship of Meechum—self-styled The Great Santini—and his 18-year-old son (Michael O’Keefe). Son resents the hell out of Dad, and drops an occasional hint that he may not sign on for an obligatory four-year tour after he’s completed college (he’s currently a high-school senior); but their relationship is also fiercely loving—as, indeed, virtually all Meechum’s relationships appear to be, one way or the other.

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Review: Fame

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

Whether Fame will tally up as a hit of this flabby movie summer is not clear at this moment, but the film is having some kind of success. In Seattle the picture opened soft and swiftly built, through word-of-mouth, to better-than-average b.o. Moreover, a portion of every audience can be relied upon to burst into applause after the concluding “I Sing the Body Electric” number, in which all (save one) of the featured students in one graduating class of the New York High School of the Performing Arts step forward, rise into frame, are cut to or panned to for their consummate, energy-into-organicity moment in the limelight. It should be what the whole film has been building toward: the culmination of its hither-and-yon camerawork and cutting, the certification of the purposiveness of its dynamics, the triumphant affirmation of the glory of the individual as part and parcel of a surging communal celebration. And excuse me but I’m going to fwow up because, beautiful as these notions may sound, they are not fulfilled by the conclusion, or legitimately anticipated by any element, of Fame. Keep Reading

Review: Tom Horn

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

There are so many bad signs on Tom Horn going in, and so many holes to overleap while watching it, the marvel is that it lingers in the mind as a rather ingratiating picture. Right away one distrusts a movie with a director-for-hire from TV and a superstar for executive producer, especially when that superstar has been having a tetchy time of it, professionally and personally, the last few years. The cowriting credit for Tom McGuane both arouses hopeful interest (funky Montana flavor) and prepares one to expect another exercise in slewfooted, brokenbacked narrative (on the evidence of 92 in the Shade, The Missouri Breaks and – oh, let’s give him the delightful Rancho Deluxe). It is hard to guess which way Tom Horn is going to jump next, and the uncertainty is not attributable to spunky, uncontainable vitality: McQueen & co. just appear to have changed their minds from one act to the next, as to just what sort of movie they wanted Tom Horn to be and, for that matter, what sort of movie- or Western-hero they wanted Tom Horn to be.

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Review: The Blue Lagoon

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

I’ve never read Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s 1903 novel and I must have passed up the 1948 British film version, with Jean Simmons and Donald Houston in the featured roles, 20 times on television; for that matter, until Showtime delivers me from this specific ignorance within the next month or so, I remain one of the 42 people under, well, 42 in the Continental United States who have never seen Randal Kleiser’s Grease. Hence I am not in a position to speak of childhood classics, arthouse faves, or directorial careers betrayed. I can only say that the new movie version of The Blue Lagoon is about as dead-in-the-water an experience as you’re likely to encounter this summer season. Nestor Almendros having demonstrated that he can photograph something as putatively uncinematic as a conversation and have it come out looking ravishing, I experienced nothing like a shock of discovery upon seeing him do the same for tropical sunsets, jungle, and beach. Basil Poledouris likewise demonstrated the affinity of his musical extravaganzas to sunstruck water in Milius’s Big Wednesday; but there his music operated in the service of a directorial passion that fairly engulfed the screen (even if it never managed to serve up enough narrative substance), whereas in the context of The Blue Lagoon passion would be not so much a dirty word as just inappropriate and a trifle bewildering.

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Review: The Island

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

By heroic effort—and a curious failure to look very closely at the knife-holding hand breaking out of the Peter Benchley sea in the ad art—I managed not to know the dread secret of a certain sector of the Caribbean where small boats and their passengers and crews have been disappearing in recent years. Hence I was able to find the first half-hour or so of the latest Zanuck–Brown–Benchley sea meller agreeably titillating, especially since the hand of director Michael Ritchie was detectable in the satirical handling of the first boatload of victims, a party of American medicos chirping merrily in the tropic night about fees, patients, and their own overripeness. The Ritchie of Smile, The Candidate et al. also came through during a visit, by weekly-newsmag investigator Michael Caine and his slightly resentful child-of-divorce Jeffrey Frank, to a Miami gun shop where a goodly swarm of tourists and locals banged their rocks off on the shooting range out back; and there was an amusing interlude with a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-passenger’s-pants pilot whom Caine had engaged to fly him into the mystery zone, and who effectively crashlanded Caine and son there. And when this potty old Somerset Maugham doctor started waving petulance and disagreeable odors and flaky innuendo in Caine’s direction, well, that was sinister in an amusingly-off key. But within about five minutes of Caine and son’s abduction, from a rented motorboat, by savage zanies who turn out to be descendants of Caribbean buccaneers from Teach’s time, good faith began to run thin. Keep Reading

Review: ffOLKES

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

Eccentric heroes, and movies featuring eccentric heroes, must have the courage of that eccentricity in order to persuade audiences to accept and honor it. Roger Excalibur ffolkes is nothing if not an eccentric — so why do the wetsuits on his underwater demolition team read FFOLKES FFUSILIERS instead of (obviously!) ffOLKES ffUSILIERS? Really, my dear chap, it won’t do. Except, all right, let it go this time; for ffolkes is an engaging-enough high-adventure item in its bumptious, low-grade way. The storyline is blithely silly: A squad of piratical types masquerade as journalists in order to get aboard a supply ship that services Her Majesty’s North Sea oil derricks; they mine the ship and two of the billion-dollar rigs, then threaten to blow everything up if the Government doesn’t come across with an empire’s ransom. Can our boozing, woman-hating, cat-loving, rug-tatting hero save all the innocent souls at sea and trounce the blackguards before zero hour? Forget we asked. Keep Reading