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by Rick Hermann

Movietone News contributor

‘He’s from back home’: Man and Myth in ‘High Sierra’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

One of the most memorable scenes in High Sierra takes place when Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is driving towards Camp Shaw high in the mountains of California after being released from prison. The camera sweeps the Sierra peaks and pans down to Earle’s car as he pauses at the junction of the dirt road leading to his destination. When he starts out we see him, the mountains, and a string of pack horses led by a couple of dude ranch cowboys who are moving slowly in the opposite direction, emerging from the world Roy Earle is about to enter. It is all somehow safe and reassuring, and yet in retrospect the image becomes a fatefully and fatally ironic premonition of Roy Earle’s death at the hands of a cowboy who perches on a rocky ledge above him and picks him off with a highpowered rifle and telescopic sight. The seemingly innocent picturesqueness of the scene perfectly indexes the illusory safety of the place to which Roy Earle is retreating, at the same time it suggests one of many aspects of the mortality which stalks through the movie. Walsh doesn’t invoke that oddly incongruous cowboy image by mistake; Roy Earle, who is himself a mythic presence, is shot by a figure who not only seems to belong in some other corner of history but who might more comfortably inhabit a different cinematic genre. Cowboys shouldn’t be any more “real” than the ancient race of gangsters to which Roy and Big Mac belong, and yet it’s a cowboy who destroys the man and momentarily diminishes the mythic aura surrounding Roy Earle.

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Love Among the Ruins: 1975 in Review

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

“We might pass this way again”—the line from the song recurs throughout Stations, Roger Hagan’s exquisite documentary that stood out at this year’s Motion Picture Seminar of the Northwest and later graced a Seattle Film Society showing of Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore. I seem to be passing this way again whenever a yearly assessment of the Seattle film experience falls due in January. 1975, like other recent years we’ve lived and watched through, didn’t feel in the present the way a lot of years look in the past, like a (to compound as many metaphors as possible in this silly season) cornucopia of good movies clamoring to light our way to eternity. Which is not to say that getting up a Ten Best List has been especially difficult for me, or that 1975 has failed to generate many more movies than ten that I want to pay my addresses to.

The little films, for instance, those small-scale endeavors that make no pretensions for themselves and seem ready in advance to kid any pretensions we might make for them; not award-winners or even likely nominees, not Ten Best types as long as “Best” implies more than a conviction that one will fondly remember them. But film years, and film consciousness, don’t get fleshed out without the likes of Rafferty and the Gold-Dust Twins (Dick Richards, Alan Arkin, Sally Kellerman, Mackenzie Phillips), Rancho Deluxe (Tom McGuane, Frank Perry, William A. Fraker, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Slim Pickens, Elizabeth Ashley, Clifton James, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright), W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (Burt Reynolds, Art Carney, Thomas Rickman, John G. Avildsen), and A Boy and His Dog (L.Q. Jones, Harlan Ellison, Don Johnson, Tim McIntire, Blood). In some private last analysis I prize such movies above the more generally noticeable and certainly commendable likes of Jaws, The Return of the Pink Panther, and Farewell My Lovely because it requires no last analysis to make me uneasy about, respectively, empty manipulation, however proficient, or betting a sure thing, however accomplished that sure thing may be, or gilding a generic lily even when the gilding is as affectionate and surprisingly unpretentious as Richards’ (director of Farewell as well as Rafferty).

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Review: Race with the Devil

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

After witnessing a satanic episode of black rites and human sacrifice in some out-of-the-way Texas campsite and then trying in vain to get some action on the matter from the local police force, Peter Fonda remarks to Warren Oates, “Frank, they’re trying to screw with our brains.” Fonda’s face is dead earnest as he delivers the line, which seems like some wildly misplaced throwaway from a grade-Z science fiction flick, invested with about as much foreboding as an order for ham and eggs. It may be significant that he doesn’t say anything like, “They’re trying to fuck with our heads,” which might be edging a little too far in the direction of counter-kultcha lingo; after all, we don’t want to alienate anybody out there who might actually be getting off on Race with the Devil—an apt title indicating Starrett’s dual concentration on spooks and chases. Like a liberal politician, “screw with our brains” is restrained even in its most daring affectations of looseness, and its timidity is only accentuated by the ex-hip aura of Fonda, who’s getting a little older and a little safer than the free-spirited threat to conservative lifestyles Captain America represented in Easy Rider.

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Review: Day of the Locust

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Maybe one of the reasons I don’t much care for the John Schlesinger film of Day of the Locust is an attitude towards his characters—Nathanael West’s characters in this case—which he has avoided in other films. In Sunday Bloody Sunday there was no overt judgment, no condescension towards his people, and in fact the film’s openness was a way of questioning the successfulness and validity of relationships between people whose strengths were admirable and whose weaknesses were sympathetically portrayed. Even in Midnight Cowboy there was the redeeming love and friendship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo that gave some value to an ugly world. But in Day of the Locust Schlesinger handles his characters as though at the end of a long stick, turning irony into a cruel form of entrapment by making them seem so bereft of normally human characteristics that we wonder how they could ever possibly rise above their bathetic gropings and mutual fear and hatred of each other.

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Review: Night Moves

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Films dealing with crises of identity, as opposed to celebrations of identity, in films by Peckinpah and perhaps Mazursky, are beginning to come out with a frequency that reflects a genuine urge to explore the phenomenon of contemporary selfconsciousness. Karel Reisz’ confused but curiously honest The Gambler, Coppola’s The Conversation, and, most recently, Antonioni’s The Passenger all deal with people who end up with no clearly delineated ideas about just who they might (or might not) be, even after looking at and for themselves in a variety of existential nooks and crannies throughout the films. Gene Hackman, who also starred in Coppola’s movie about a paranoid wiretapper, is now the self-searching protagonist of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves—a fittingly equivocal title for a film in which the potential dynamism of an action genre is suppressed to the level of creeping lethargy, while the metaphor of motion remains valid in terms of the shifting currents of personality and identity with which Penn is chiefly preoccupied. Hackman informs the movie with a bleak sense of non-heroism as a private eye who handles divorce cases, a man who distances himself from life by assuming a disinterested, often bitterly cynical point of view, prying out a1l the answers (it seems) while missing the meaning, until finally there is no discernible meaning, just a lot of dead or almost dead people swirling in the washed-out glare of an overexposed sea.

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Review: Jaws

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

Jaws begins with a chillingly realistic sequence of shots that are at the same time metaphysically portentous and eerily beautiful. The camera pans slowly across a group of college people singing and drinking around a beach campfire, cuts a fluid swath along a bluish twilight New England sand dune, eases into a placid sea behind a pretty girl, and follows her as she swims fatefully out over those murky depths where we all know what is waiting. As the girl splashes innocently against a postcard sunset, we cut to a couple of quick shots whose point of view is somewhere below the water, evilly hovering, gazing up at the girl’s form and the dusk sky which swims and shimmers above her like an out-of-focus image of another world. The underwater camera and the presence it represents move progressively closer, intercut with shots of the girl from the surface, until finally she gets this funny look on her face, bobs once or twice like a cork floater on a fishing line, and goes shooting through the water at shark speed. And then she’s gone. There’s this silence, this beautiful fading sunset, a few harmless waves lapping the beach….

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Review: Lenny

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

I came away from Lenny with the vague notion that the documentary angle employed by Fosse as a structural device facilitating the necessary chronological jumps through Bruce’s career never quite worked in the manner he had intended it to. Roaming through the mystique-tinged Xanadu of Lenny’s life and times, somebody armed with a tape recorder and a notepad is asking a lot of questions about the comic, social critic, iconoclast-at-large, but at the end of each cinéma-vérité sequence there is always Dustin Hoffman, master of histrionic disguises, masked here in yet another astonishing role. Just who eclipses whom is a question I won’t try to answer, but Hoffman’s own near-mythic status has such a strong pull that it’s hard to stop thinking what a fantastic job he is doing in imitating Bruce. Lenny’s hybrid combination of documentary and dramatic narrative offers no help in locating the interface wherein their respective images cross, and in fact gives rise to inconsistencies of its own: the tone of the interviews themselves runs counter to the mainstream of the dramatic current of which Hoffman is the center. In other words, Fosse tries to provide a context of realism (the interviews) to a stageplay, but that context, too, is a “fake.” One wonders why he went to such pains to imitate this kind of atmosphere, taking it to the point of making the interviewer’s presence a sort of bumbling non-presence which can never be heard distinctly and which forgets to charge reels on the recorder, when the reality he conjures is tantamount to pointless tautology—like trying to photograph a reflection in a mirror so that it looks like the real object.

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Review: ‘And Now My Love’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, July 1975]

The first splotch of color in Claude Lelouch’s And Now My Love occurs somewhere around the end of World War Two. It is not simply a matter of suddenly switching to color stock and letting the cameras roll; instead, the scene is calculated as an eye-catching gesture that begins by looking at a military parade out in a street and then pulling back into a room where two of the characters are making love—a room with a remarkably blue wall and some very conscious lighting effects that nudge us towards an awareness of the scene’s stylized appearance. It’s perhaps the most subtle instance of life and movie intermingling in the film, and it’s so nice because it uses the medium of filmmaking to illustrate the transparent regions of style and artificiality wherein movies must become about themselves as well as about the various and sundry people and events that go to make up the story we’re watching. As for the more explicitly self-inspecting aspects of movies-in-movies, and of And Now My Love—well, cameras staring at cameras seem to hold some fascination for even the most casually infected cinemagoer.

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Review: ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

In Mean Streets Scorsese used a relatively unknown but near-perfectly cast group of actors to play out his sort-of-autobiographical story of smalltime gangsters enmeshed in the violence, death, and deadendedness of a grotto in the New York underworld. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore he has peopled the screen with a warm little community of transient characters whose slightly better-known faces communicate a greater sense of familiarity. Long before Kris Kristofferson edges his way almost imperceptibly into the corner of a frame, we’ve already been treated to a number of vivid character portrayals and bit-part niceties including Billy Green Bush’s role as Alice’s first husband, Harvey Keitel’s as Ben, Harry Northup’s brief appearance as the gosh-and-golly yokel bartender in Joe and Jim’s Café, to name but a few. No one’s around for very long—just long enough—and of course transience is one of the things with which Alice is concerned, just as Mean Streets was preoccupied with identity, fear, and mortality.

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Review: The Sunshine Boys

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Neil Simon’s way of being funny has an unappealing tinge of urbane and private nastiness to it. It’s not always something you can pin down to the printed script or the types of jokes he puts into his characters’ mouths; rather, it is a quality more subliminally (and subversively) expressed in a cumulative attitude of a writer towards his people and his audience. It is as if Simon wishes to make us feel guilty about laughing at his characters because it is so easy (too easy) to laugh at them: get a guy so enmeshed in an almost cruelly black inability to cope with life (like Charles Grodin in the Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid) and “anything he says or does is bound to appear comically inept. Simon, like Wilder, capitalizes on fallibility in a way that seems somehow unhealthy—a kind of self-contained, ruffled-lip statement that misuses comedy as a tool of exclusion. Rather than portraying any kind of strength, he would just as soon evoke cheap sentiment (like expecting us to suddenly straighten up and get serious when Willie Clark, one of the Sunshine Boys, has a near-fatal heart attack) and he is a lot better at making us cringe in embarrassment at tedious predicaments than at allowing us to let loose at a sharp one-liner or a bit of funny business that doesn’t require a five-minute take to brand into our consciousness.

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Review: ‘Middle of the World’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

A thin mist covers an eerily silent, seemingly uninhabited countryside; a car carrying two men seeps into view and, without warning, tumbles off the road and into a field. We suddenly realize that we have viewed what is perhaps death (we never do find out what happens to the men) with what amounts to a stylistic shrug of the shoulders. We hear one or two muffled bumps, the car finally comes to rest, and that’s it: no preparation, no comment, just the bare incident itself seen as though dissociated from any point of view that seems reasonably human. I’m not sure I can say just why I find that scene—which happens about three-quarters of the way through Alain Tanner’s fourth feature film—so effectively chilling. Whatever it is about it seems to spring from unanalyzable sources concealed beneath some mysterious veil of tonal incongruity, and yet the intimations of detachment one receives may find support in a more solid stylistic articulation that serves to integrate Tanner’s themes of communication and perception with a soft-spoken visual approach that is deceptively arbitrary and surprisingly precise.

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Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Black Christmas starts to get interesting in the last two minutes. After a series of killings in a college-town sorority house at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the supposed murderer, in a scene we don’t actually get to see, has been done in by his own girlfriend and a handy firepoker when she thinks that he’s set on making her his latest victim. The movie is about to end on a shot looking from the hallway of the house into the bedroom where the girl (Olivia Hussey) is sleeping, having been left alone to rest until her parents show up in a few hours. Then, with the recurrence of a few familiarly ominous chords on the soundtrack, the camera begins slowly to pan to the right through the dimly lit hallway, pausing at each doorway where a murder has occurred. So far it’s just a kind of chilly atmospheric effect, prolonging the tone of malaise and spookiness, leaving us slightly off balance even though things have been pretty well wrapped up. But that ain’t all. The camera just keeps on trucking, and we begin to hear the maddened jabberings of the heard-but-not-seen psychotic killer who apparently is still around and who apparently wasn’t Keir Dullea, the boyfriend, after all. The latch on the attic trapdoor springs shut once again (that’s his hideaway), he gently rocks a dead girl—his first victim—who sits wrapped inside a plastic bag on a rocking chair (still we don’t see him), and the final scene of the movie looks at the house from a slightly elevated perspective across the street; a cop stands guard on the front walkway, listening to a phone ring inside. The killer, who made it a habit of saying obscene things over the phone before he murdered someone, still seems to be on the loose. Strange, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much by now.

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Review: ‘Capone’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

While the gangster genre has its fair share of anti-heroes portrayed as psychotic delinquent types (perhaps a fair working definition of the cinematic hood), and while those types help define an aspect of the genre, they certainly aren’t confined to the set boundaries of its form and indeed have indicated new directions for movies that deal with organized crime and the people whose lives revolve around it. Not too surprisingly, then, Corman’s (and Carver’s) Capone is loosely related to Coppola’s Don Corleone (Gazzara even stuffs his jowls with padding), but he might, in conception at least, bear a closer resemblance to Scorsese’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets—a “gangster” story that shares the traditionally mythic elements inherent in the genre while managing its own very personal working-out of the meanings of both violence and friendship. That Johnny Boy is comparatively peripheral in Mean Streets may suggest the uniqueness of Scorsese’s film in its relationship to movies in which the alienated hood stands in a position to manipulate perspective by ensconcing himself at the metaphysical core of his cinematic universe, but Johnny Boy’s gangland genealogy traces back in a psychologically straight line to Hawks’ Tony Camonte, and there is little doubt that Corman, Carver, and screenwriter Browne at least had Scarface in mind during the making of Capone.

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Review: ‘Hard Times’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

The beginning of Hard Times comes close to successfully evoking a sensitive feel for rundown Thirties landscapes and the forced freedom of men on the move to the next city in hope of something better than what they left behind. Charles Bronson rides into town in an empty freight car, gazing out at a countryside whose facelessness is placed in perspective by a simple touch: a truckload of Depression-reared children who, perhaps enviously, stare back at Bronson as he rolls on by. He hops off the train and wanders towards a clump of deserted factory buildings, then off into the town where, like a man with nothing much to do, he sits down in a sleazy joint for a bowl of chili and a cup of coffee. Soon he’ll stumble onto a little fistfight between two hulking sluggers, the object of a few friendly bets, and he’ll take up as a fighter himself in order to win enough money to get him to the next stop. So far, though, we simply hope that his quiet and quietly depicted arrival may be building towards an understated film of real men in hard times. Bronson’s lived-in face seems as unflinchingly stoic and potentially lethal as it does in any Michael Winner movie, but there’s that lurking possibility that a period movie like Hard Times will soften its edges and crags and turn Bronson into something of a more easygoing romantic figure.

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Review: Winterhawk

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Most of what is at all worthwhile in Winterhawk has little to do with Winterhawk (Michael Dante), a mysterious Blackfoot leader who captures a white woman and boy and asks that he be given smallpox remedies in exchange for their return. No smallpox remedies are ever forthcoming; instead, a grizzled band of mountain men led by one (Leif Erickson) who’s had dealings with the Indians in the past sets out in pursuit of the captors and the captured. As it turns out, they prove to be a more interesting assortment of faces and personalities than the tight-lipped, elusive myth they chase through the mountains of Montana. Not that interesting, though: Pierce’s characters tend to resolve into thinly textured types reminiscent of the most simplistically portrayed Disney frontiersman. Still, the first scene indicating that something actually matters in the film—and resists absorption into Winterhawk‘s I’m-ready-to-be-inspired idealism—takes place when the mountain men sit at Guthrie’s (Erickson’s) table and hedge around one another’s motives for wanting or not wanting to go after the Indians.

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