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by Rick Hermann

Movietone News contributor

Review: Son of Dracula

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

Kris Kristofferson seems to be about the only recent folk rock star to have come to films with any degree of dramatic acumen and at least some feel for what is involved in establishing a credible screen presence. Others—Dylan, for example, in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—seem always to be somehow looking at themselves in a mirror of selfconsciousness. While this may have something to do with writing good songs, it is disastrous in front of a camera. James Taylor, in Two Lane Blacktop, comes to mind as another screen casualty; he had to be given short, heavy “message” lines because he apparently couldn’t handle normal dialogue. But at least Taylor didn’t come on with selections from his greatest hits at every lull, which is more than can be said for Harry Nilsson in Son of Dracula.

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Review: The Apple War

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Viewing this movie is something like letting one’s mind indulge in a little game of free-association which employs all the wandering, illogical, illusory devices of a long and pleasant dream. Getting swept into its labyrinth of fairytale bumblings, mythical burlesque and social satire is as simple as falling through a rabbit hole into a kind of campy Wonderland where you almost expect Woody Allen to pop up, clad in fig leaves, perhaps tooting a souped-up pastoral on his clarinet in travesty of Pan. If you see something you don’t like here, something a little too-much, a little too facile—like the Hitlerian bit in the scene where a rumbling army of mechanized agricultural paraphernalia and boot-clicking construction workers invade the tranquil hamlet of Anglamark—hang on; you will probably be rewarded later on with something to make it all seem worthwhile. I mean, where else in the history of special effects can you find anything to compare with the spectacle of a Jolly Good Giant pissing on the flames of fascism, then eating a neo-Nazi bad guy and tossing aside his VW bug like an empty nutshell? Danielsson’s brand of satire often takes the form of similarly indulgent cinematic one-liners—maybe that is Woody Allen peeking around the corner of the local sex show as Severin the mad inventor catapults to work on a giant rubber band!—and in general his sense of parody seems more dense and sophisticated, but no less funny, than Allen’s. Ancient myth gets tangled with cinematic history gets tangled with Shakespearean allusion as our young hero swallows a toiled and troubled witch’s brew from an all-too-appropriate Coke bottle, then ventures, magic sword in hand, on a cross-country Quest which lands him on the set of a B science-fiction movie starring something resembling Godzilla—all, of course, to secure the gold which will buy off the bad guys and save the old apple orchards from the evils of overdevelopment. Of course!…

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Review: The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

An undercurrent of black humor flows just beneath the comic surface of Yves Robert’s genuinely and—for the most part—unpretentiously funny movie, but it never quite manages to rise above the laughter, not even when the spy game gets out of hand and people are lying around with bullet holes in their heads. Even though there are killings—five of them, in fact, all toward the end of the story—we are left not so much with a feeling of death as of encroaching madness. Maurice, the protagonist’s friend and colleague who sees and hears everything but understands nothing of what is really going on, feels he is simply going insane; for him, that’s the easiest way to explain the disappearance of some of the dead bodies from François’s apartment. The slow-motion treatment of the shootout scene itself, in which the opposing government agents handily exterminate one another, underscores the dreamlike quality of their deaths; moments later, the surviving thug shoots one of his superiors, then remembers himself and returns the man’s gun to him, whereupon victim promptly shoots his assassin—a clearly absurd transaction it is difficult to take very seriously. Throughout this movie, Robert plays intriguing little games, both with his characters and with us. The whole spy vs. spy premise around which the plot revolves is, initially at least, just an enlarged practical joke: Louis, the head man whose position is being undermined by an ambitious Lieutenant (rather in the fashion of corporation VPs civilly cutting one another’s throats) simply wants to teach the usurper Milan a lesson, not to bring about his death. The “lesson” involves setting up a booby trap with François Perrin (Pierre Richard), an unassuming concert violinist, the piece of cheese. Milan, Louis observes correctly, will build his own cage in the course of snatching the bait. Until the very end, Perrin remains unaware that he is at the focal point of Milan’s eavesdropping cameras—he’s supposed to be a master operator—and this becomes, on the surface anyway, the basis for the main thrust of Robert’s humor.

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Review: The Conversation

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Gene Hackman’s quietly desperate face looms huge in so many frames of Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film that by the end of the movie we know his features just about as intimately as Harry Caul (played by Hackman) knows the lines of the conversation he has bugged. Both we and he are, in a sense, obsessed: we, the viewers, by Harry’s troubled image on the screen; Harry, by the voices he hears and the implications, slowly realized, of what those voices are saying. This hardly seems a coincidence—Coppola obviously intended it that way. Closeups, especially of Hackman, virtually fill the movie, serving perfectly to visually reinforce the theme of violated privacy with which the story is so much concerned. The correlation between those who bug and those who are bugged (bugger and buggee?) is ultimately turned into a nearly inevitable irony as Harry’s situation is reversed and he becomes the one who is watched and listened to. Indeed, the screenplay as a whole moves just a bit too predictably and ends up being too readily reachable, too readily analyzable, what with its neat ambiguities and psychological uncertainties and sticky relevancies (not to mention some of the painfully pointed dialogue: “You’re not supposed to feel anything about it,” a blond seductress says to Harry just before swiping his tapes of the conversation; “It’s just a job”). But if you’re willing to disregard some of the story’s weaknesses as narrative and actually look at the film more closely, you might find it has some visually interesting ways of “saying” things.

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Review: Badlands

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

Art, because it creates its own reality, can’t be self-deluding, no matter how “unreal” it may seem. What it can do is distort reality by rearranging life’s subject matter into new and unfamiliar forms. Thus, in Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first directorial project, Kit Carruthers’ personal fantasy is distinct from Malick’s artistic fantasy, although the two run closely parallel and indeed often seem inseparable. Kit (played by Martin Sheen) insulates himself within the brash shield of a James Dean tough-guy image to the point where, by the end of the movie, all he is concerned with is going out in style. Reality, for Kit, ultimately becomes irrelevant, just as, in a similar sense, our normal conceptions of what goes on in the world apply less and less to what we are seeing on the screen as the movie progresses.

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Out of the Past: The Rain People

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 movie The Rain People is generally referred to as one of the director’s “personal” films, by which is presumably meant (1) that the story was Coppola’s own and (2) that he didn’t have nearly the bucks which Paramount Pictures supplied for likely moneymaking projects such as The Godfather. In light of this, it is not surprising that The Rain People is a quiet, modestly conceived film revolving around a minimum of characters whose problems are pretty much everybody’s problems. Alienation and lack of communication are key themes, and The Rain People, if less socially relevant than The Conversation, seems to be a psychologically more credible examination of the things that tend to keep people apart.

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Review: 99 44/100% Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

The title sequence of John Frankenheimer’s new film utilizes Lichtenstein-like pop art images which ultimately prove to have been inappropriate and misleading indicators of what might follow. Whereas Lichtenstein and other pop artists use conventional symbols and forms (e.g., the comic strip) as a means of commenting upon those forms and upon the social and intellectual atmosphere from which they arise, Frankenheimer appears to be bound by the very conventions he wants to parody. Thus, the ingredients of 99 and 44/100% Dead include basic gangster genre stuff, ”romantic interest,” western overtones, a lot of violence, and a hush-hush attitude toward sex coupled strangely with 1960-type Hollywood male dominance themes. And the problem comes from Frankenheimer’s failure to demonstrate decisively that all, or at least some, of these elements are not to be taken at face value. By the time the predictable climax comes along and everyone bad is dead and the girls are saved, we have a strong suspicion that this is no parody at all, but rather, that Frankenheimer is actually out to elicit genuine emotions from his audience. And this simply will not do. It is like a comedian going through his act and then, at the end, telling a sad story and expecting us to take him seriously.

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Review: The White Dawn

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

At times one feels that the elemental motions induced by the instinct to survive almost dictate a pace of their own in this movie about the initial contact between a group of nomadic Eskimos and the English-speaking world back in the days when New Bedford sailors scoured the northern reaches of the continent in search of whales. There is a certain natural sense of episodic movement in the migration of a people from one village site to another as the food supply runs low and new, richer hunting grounds must be found. There is an ease and unhurriedness in the way the camera lingers on the things Eskimos really do (or did) with their time which avoids being static because it’s really pretty interesting, whether we are witnessing the hunting of seals or the building of an igloo or the ritual pairing-off of couples following an evening of vaguely familiar-seeming games and frenzied dancing by a few of the local boys decked out in antlers. Even without the story of three sailors who are stranded somewhere in Baffin Bay and subsequently rescued by Eskimos, this would make an engaging documentary on a foreign culture; and in fact it is so difficult not to be genuinely moved by the warmth and humanness which flows so generously from The White Dawn that one is tempted to believe it a better film than, perhaps, it is.

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Review: Wedding in Blood

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Claude Chabrol’s self-consciously amused but ominous portrayals of the foibles of les petits bourgeois, aside from reminding us of the director’s acute filmic awareness indicate an atmosphere which borders on a kind of noir fantasy. Like Luis Buñuel (especially in his later films), Chabrol is ambiguous in the concessions he makes to reality. He may look, sometimes very closely, at real things—setting many of his scenes in a natural environment, even taking from a true account in a French newspaper his story of a man who murders his wife and his lover’s husband (not that there is anything unfamiliar about that tale)—but there is seldom anything “natural” about what we see. The sun is blindingly bright in some of the exteriors; the white mist on a lake behind Pierre and Lucienne flattens the space within the frame, as though they were standing in front of a blank canvas.

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Review: The Gambler (1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

James Caan has graduated from the half-wit college boy of Coppola’s The Rain People right into a professorship at NYCC in his latest picture, Karel Reisz’ heavyhanded non-exploration into the befuddled and befuddling id of a compulsive gambler which ultimately becomes knotted up in its own tangle of 19th century existentialism and carelessly applied Nietzschean superman metaphysics. Somehow I was more convinced by Caan’s gentle inarticulateness in Coppola’s movie than I was by the cutely masochistic cool he sardonically exudes in The Gambler, and although he’s still impaling women against walls (shades of The Godfather) and strutting about with the typical Caan machismo which fails to be tempered by his role as a teacher in Reisz’s film, the character of Axei Freed lacks some of the gritty credibility which Caan was able to give to the role of gangster Sonny Corleone. Which may not be so much Caan’s fault as that of Reisz and screenwriter Toback who, instead of trying to develop their character from the bottom up, begin in some metaphysical realm far above his head and pigeonhole his personality in a framework of neatly defined psychological concepts, with the result that Caan’s character reads like a textbook case rather than reminds us of a man.

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Review: The Night Porter (2)

If the first half of The Night Porter at last manages to set an acceptable pace by way of intercutting between the present and past lives of the characters, the latter half sags beneath the weight of a narrative gone sour and Liliana Cavani’s gropings for some way to end the thing. It is here, as Bogarde and Rampling are besieged inside the former’s apartment by his Nazi ex-comrades (they mean to have Rampling killed because she knows too much of Bogarde’s past and his association with them—a threat whose seriousness is never made quite tenable in the screenplay), that the Bogarde character loses any credibility he might have had as a sexually hung-up, former Nazi torturer with a soft spot in his heart and a streak of childish perversity which makes his villainy seem more ridiculous than menacing. Down to their last Hershey bar and half-empty jar of strawberry preserves, they still live to make love, spending the rest of their time lying about with starved, listless expressions or wide-eyed stares of encroaching madness. Bogarde wipes the kitchen table a lot—a reference to how, earlier, he had nervously wiped the table inside the restaurant while talking to Mario, another face out of the past whom Bogarde himself subsequently murdered because he knows too much; Rampling slithers and scrounges like a hungry cat.

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Review: Don’t Look Now

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Nicolas Roeg’s previous work as a cinematographer may have a good deal to do with the purely visual sensation of watching Don’t Look Now, the third picture he has worked on as director (having co-directed Performance and soloed with Walkabout). One feels the sensitivity of some of Bergman’s recent films on which Sven Nykvist has worked, or of Jan Troell; but Roeg’s sensitivity in this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is closer to the hypersensitivity of someone (the main character, John Baxter, played by Sutherland) who notices everything and cannot help noticing everything about his environment; someone who is flooded with visual and psychic stimuli which so glut his consciousness that his sense of spatial and temporal orientation begins to wobble. For this, Venice is the perfect setting: a contusion of grotto-like canals, disintegrating stone, and faintly echoed voices—the Venice, in fact, through which Visconti’s Aschenbach stumbled in search of the boy Tadzio.

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Review: Dreams and Nightmares

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

With The Sorrow and the Pity and A Sense of Loss, Marcel Ophuls raised historical cinéma vérité to the height of artistic creation. Osheroff’s style of documentary moviemaking, as applied to the political situation in Spain and the ways in which it has evolved since the Spanish Civil War, is similar to Ophuls’s in a number of ways. It employs, for example, the same device of intercutting between old footage and recent interviews with people who went through it all in a manner that lends perspective to the past events and provides a dimension of irony. But the human drama of individuals intersecting with history before our eyes is somehow made less powerful by the aura of anti-war proselytism which hangs about Dreams and Nightmares. Ophuls may be farther removed from Vichy France than Osheroff is from the Spanish Civil War (he fought in it), and Dreams and Nightmares does not try to camouflage its political barbs—no one can blame Osheroff for infusing his personal views into a film he made largely out of a sense of moral commitment. But then, Jane Fonda’s movie on Vietnam is persuasively pacifist without being politically blatant, and she is certainly just as committed as Osheroff.

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Review: Scenes from a Marriage

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

The same cramped space and abundance of facial closeups that Bergman used in Cries and Whispers dominate his latest film as well. In Scenes from a Marriage we are only infrequently offered relief from the claustrophobic intimacy resulting from Bergman’s preoccupation with the faces of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Indeed, at least one critic has commented on Bergman’s spare use of open exterior shots, without really delineating the analogy between the camera’s increasing freedom of movement as the movie progresses and the freedom gained by Johan and Marianne in their relationship. Their liaison becomes less one-sided and more of a healthy, complementary give-and-take union in which neither is forced into a role he or she may not be willing to assume—Johan as the dominant male whose efforts to initiate sex are often met with less than enthusiasm, Marianne as domestically submissive female (that she has a law career doesn’t seem to substantially alter this self-concept) who defines her life in terms of Johan’s. These are the very roles they play at the beginning of the movie during the interview with the journalist where all Marianne has to say is that she is his wife. In fact, it is not until the final segment of the film (“In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World”) that Bergman literally opens up in the way he makes use of space within the frame.

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Review: ‘Amarcord’

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

“I remember.” Perhaps that’s slightly misleading if you regard memory as purely objective recollection, which this movie obviously isn’t. And yet, no matter how strong Fellini’s tendency toward dissociation of events, scenes, etc. on any sort of rational level may be, I think Amarcord is finally more “together” than its temporal and narrative drift through this brightly colored cross-section of Fellini’s memory and imagination might indicate. People seem to come and go as they please, but after a while one is aware that more or less the same people are doing the coming and the going. In any crowded scene, just let your eyes drift toward whatever part of the frame the gravity of Fellini’s mise-en-scène seems to be pulling them, and you will see a face that looks familiar. No scene is impersonal in the sense of being just a crowd scene, and it might even be argued that the people who appear to be most especially cherished by Fellini are often those on the periphery of the milieu: the old man who recites his poem about bricks, the blind accordion player who fairly oozes an ecstatic agony as he pours his soulful melancholia onto the sidewalk, the whore Volpina who scurries catlike along walls and through dark alleys licking her lips in sexual anticipation, the thirty-ish, fading-but-yet-to-blossom Gradisca whose dreams are realized at the end of the movie when she at last finds her Gary Cooper (as the self-styled Ronald Colman points out in a toast to the newlyweds). Winding his way around this hub of eminently Felliniesque citizenry, travelling through murky labyrinths of time and space, Fellini finally winds up in control of the situation, having in the process integrated his sequences into an organic cycle which encompasses the movement of the entire film and which, by extrapolation, is molded by forces outside Fellini’s cinematic universe: seasons, life, death, youth, love, even madness.

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