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by Peter Hogue

Movietone News contributor

Big Shots: ‘The Roaring Twenties,’ ‘High Sierra,’ ‘White Heat’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

While The Roaring Twenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.

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Jimmy the Gent

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

The American Film Institute tribute to James Cagney (CBS-TV, March 18) was enjoyable almost in spite of itself. Through a barrage of film clips and above all through the poise and presence of Cagney himself, the event somehow managed to keep the man’s best qualities in the air, even as that air was thickened with a fog of Hollywooden self-congratulatory egotism. Showbiz extravaganzas like this one have a way of becoming exercises in self-publicity, and the various contributions of George C. Scott, Doris Day, George Segal, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra (most of all) and others tended to make much of the affair into a showcase for the payers of tributes, with the tributee more or less left to be part of the audience.

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Roughhouse Comedy: ‘The Cock-eyed World,’ ‘Me and My Gal,’ ‘The Bowery’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

The Cock-eyed World is a plodding, heavyhanded and rather entertaining sequel, with sound, to What Price Glory?. The Flagg-Quirt stuff is less than thrilling, partly because of Edmund Lowe’s mismatched assets and liabilities, partly because the repartee keeps reverting to the “Aw—sez you” tack. But there’s a good deal to savor at an agreeably crude level. An early bit of in-joke dialogue has Quirt lamenting the newfangled notions about how a soldier should talk—seems that it’s not right for a soldier to swear anymore. Quirt and Flagg quickly exchange insults about how the lack of swearing will reduce the other’s working vocabulary to practically nil. This sidelong reference to talking-picture taboos out of the way, Walsh, McLaglen, Lowe and friends go about the business of making a rowdy picture without benefit of its predecessor’s “silent” profanity.

Flagg keeps his pet monkey in a chamber pot; Quirt gets thumped by a jealous Russian strongman who seems to be named Sanavitch and who looses a truly Herculean spray of saliva at Quirt’s face from a range of about two feet; Quirt calls Flagg a horse’s neck and “You great big horse’s ancestor”; Flagg greets a ladyfriend with “How’s my Fanny?” and the comic stooge (El Brendel) introduces a map-bearing Latin girl as “the lay of the land” (“The what?” asks Flagg with a straight face and great interest); and yet another female strikes the stooge, a Swede, as “yoos my tripe.”

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Two Raucous Silents: ‘What Price Glory?,’ ‘Sadie Thompson’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

What Price Glory?, like the successful play from which it is drawn, works with some of the era’s anger is directed less toward war itself than toward some of the era’s topical themes—in particular, as the title implies, the disillusionment that had befallen many of the youthful participants in World War I. But especially as directed by Raoul Walsh, the film version thrives on comedy that is sometimes satirical and often ribald. And that comedy only occasionally intersects with the anti-war feeling implied in the title.

Eileen Bowser has written that the film is “the archetypal celebration of war as a game played by roistering comrades.” Certainly, the central Flagg-Quirt relationship, with combative friendship and devotion to duty as its key elements, seems to work in that direction. But while the film never approaches the radical disgust that Dos Passos, Hemingway, Céline and others expressed toward the war, it does evoke a more complex and less romanticized attitude than Bowser indicates. The warriors—some of them, anyway—are romanticized, but the war isn’t, one of the results of which is an interesting tension between personal flamboyance and public destruction.

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Raoul Walsh by Peter Hogue: Revisiting Raoul (Walsh)

Raoul Wash

My contributions to MTN#45 (the “Raoul Walsh issue”) were riding the crest of what was, at the time, my freshly discovered enthusiasm for Warner Brothers films of the Thirties and Forties, including especially William A. Wellman’s pictures from the pre-Code era, Raoul Walsh’s films from some of the best years of his career (1939-1949), and almost anything with James Cagney in it. I’d already written about some of this in “Life with Warners” (MTN#6). Me and My Gal (Fox, 1932) and Gentleman Jim (Warner Brothers, 1942), first encountered amid a wonderful flood of studio-vault re-releases circa 1970, were the tipping points for my ventures into Walsh territory.

In 2015, those enthusiasms have continued vitality for me, and I’m still very interested in Walsh. But I’m less inclined to view Walsh’s directorial persona (or Walsh the auteur) in the relatively exclusive terms laid out in MTN#45. Part of this is a matter of my having come to think of Walsh and a number of other favorite directors among his contemporaries—Allan Dwan, William Wellman, Henry Hathaway—less as movie authors than as gifted overseers of the “genius of the system.”

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Raoul Walsh by Peter Hogue (1974)

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Interviewer: One critic, Andrew Sarris, has said, “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.” Do you feel that’s too precious a criticism, or that it’s on the nail?

Raoul Walsh: I guess it’s so. Everyone has his own impression of things. Maybe the guy was drunk.

In Manpower, a movie about powerline repairmen, there’s a funny scene at a diner. Various workmen are ordering their meals. The counterman shouts each order back to the cook, but—in the time-honored tradition of the American greasy spoon—he translates each request into the surrealistic lingo of short-order chefs. A cup of coffee with cream is “a blackout, and blitz it!” A hamburger to go is a “cow and convoy”; a bowl of chili “with plenty of peppers”—”one Mexican heartburn.” A cut of beef, “juicy and with no fat” = “one impossible”; hash is “take a chance”; and a bowl of cherries, “one George Washington!” Some comedy involving a slot machine intervenes, but the camera returns to the counter where the head lineman, thinking of his wife, makes a request of his own: “Gimme a nice little bottle of wine—and giftwrap it.” The counterman turns toward the kitchen and, facing the camera in closeup, shouts, “The grapes of wrath—in a sport jacket!” End of scene.

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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: The Phantom of the Paradise

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

The Phantom of the Paradise is funny and entertaining. It’s best as a comedy grounded in rock culture and it’s somewhat less successful as a humorous horror film. Perhaps because rock music has a power that exceeds that of a routinely developed horror plot, there’s a skittish lack of conviction to its terror side—even with an enjoyably gory ending. But its sendups of various rock&roll fashions are often good and it does rather nicely with its sense of the gangsterish side of the business.

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Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 1

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Beforehand, the 19th San Francisco Film Festival looked less than scintillating. The parts of it that I was able to see were, by most accounts, the best parts, and if that’s so, then the first impression was not entirely wrong. The 1975 edition of the festival wasn’t bad, but … I’m not sure that there were any absolutely first-rate films in the 12-day program. For me, Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, Louis Malle’s Black Moon, and Self Service, a Bruno Bozzetto cartoon, came closest. Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August got a much warmer reception than I thought it really deserved (the word-of-mouth consensus seemed to be that this was the Festival’s high point). And Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece got a much cooler reception than I thought it deserved, but—given the nature of the film—that was not too surprising.

For me personally, the proceedings were made especially memorable by the presence of J Joseph Mankiewicz as well as by the various contributions of Louis Malle. The Festival’s tribute to Mankiewicz (a string of film clips followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session) ranks with the best of the tributes I’ve seen in other years at San Francisco. And Malle, who made no fewer than three appearances before the public and press, left his mark via both Black Moon and his charmingly perceptive remarks about his own work and others’. But one sign of the Festival’s disappointingly middlebrow direction is that other Festival honorees included Jack Lemmon, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman, and Steven Spielberg—all or most of whom are worthy figures, but none of whom has reached a point where a retrospective might really mean something. Lemmon, of course, comes closest to an exception. But Hackman, for example, has been in films for only a little over a decade and Spielberg, as everybody knows, would still be wet behind the ears were he not so precociously “successful.” (Just for the record, Lemmon “in person” is very like the man we know from the movies, while Caine “in person” is quite another fellow altogether.)

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Now That’s More Like It: A Report on the 20th San Francisco Film Festival

In honor of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, Parallax View offers a festival flashback: the Movietone News report from the 20th SFIFF.

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

The 20th San Francisco International Film Festival was … lively.

A half-dozen outstanding films from Europe were perhaps the most newsworthy events (and my list does not include the two popular successes of the festival, Truffaut’s Small Change and Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, whose screenings I was unable to attend). But it was also a memorable festival because of its stimulating variety. Last year’s program was singularly dull, and even its high points seemed to confirm a sense of despair and dead ends, artistically and otherwise. [See “Out of Season”, MTN 46.] But this year San Francisco not only came up with good movies; it also managed to be festive in a way that livened one’s sense of the art and its possibilities.

Films by Alain Tanner, Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Claude Miller, Eric Rohmer, and Marco Bellocchio all demonstrated that, contrary to well-founded rumors, the cinema is not dead yet. And there was more: Hollywood on Trial, a documentary, became the catalyst for some revealing “political” moments; Pierre Rissient’s One Night Stand drew an audience reaction which suggested that Nouveau Puritans are everywhere, still; a goodly number of short films reaffirmed the value of work being done in that less-publicized area of filmmaking; and recent Spanish cinema, thanks to some special screenings, began to look like a significant factor in current moviemaking.

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Dossier ’79

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

It is appropriate that they just took “There she is, Miss America” away from Bert Parks. I too have been deprived of the opportunity to sing my same old song again. One could say rhetorically that after 1978 the movies had nowhere to go but up; but rhetoric is one thing and the art-industry’s capacity for self-degradation quite another. And ’79 did see a few films as empty, ugly, and offensively inept as any dreck of previous seasons: Bloodline, Prophecy, Nightwing, Sunburn, Love and Bullets, Ashanti, and the phenomenally successful Meatballsas drecky dreck as ever dreck was. But they didn’t taint the whole scene, didn’t seem the dominant alternative to excellence. If only one or two films suggested a radical breakthrough into new zones of artistry or film consciousness, nevertheless an astounding number of movies managed to be lively, personal, nonderivative. François Truffaut may have made an utterly superfluous Antoine Doinel compendium like Love on the Run, and Federico Fellini wasted his time on Orchestra Rehearsal, an only half-good idea for a movie done with about a third of the zest and invention we’d expect of him. But good men like Blake Edwards and Peter Bogdanovich seemed to have got better; at least they were getting more credit for the beauties and intelligence of their work than they had in years. Whatever they had must have been catching because even hacks and/or poseurs like Ted Kotcheff, Peter Yates, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, and Arthur Hiller signed their names to very agreeable movies (North Dallas Forty, Breaking Away, The Brinks Job, The Electric Horseman, and The In-Laws, respectively). Going to the movies got to seem more like a pleasant pastime again instead of a masochistic compulsion.

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Days of Purgatory (1978)

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

You know and I know, and each knows that the other knows, that 1978 was the worst year for movies since sound came in, so let’s not belabor the subject. Living through it was labor enough.

Apart from the superfluousness of such a gesture, one reason I don’t choose to mount a blistering that-was-the-year-that-wasn’t retrospective is that I was less than diligent about keeping up with the films passing through the Jet City and environs. I missed a few here-and-gone pictures I particularly wanted to see, such as Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers (which lasted less than a week and reportedly has been pulled from distribution), James Bridges’ 9/30/55 (shown as a first-run second feature in very farflung nabes), Ted Post’s Go Tell the Spartans (a short-term top feature in the same farflung nabes), Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C, and Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch. Nothing but sloth, an aversion to hype, a low sense of priority, and a careless susceptibility to predisposition—in various combinations—can account for missing longer-run items like Interiors, House Calls, Paradise Alley, FIST, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, Grease, The Wiz and Midnight Express,not to mention Lord of the Rings and Watership Down (I have never been able to get excited about feature-length animation). I intend to catch up with all of them eventually, but if anyone chooses to see my Besting and Worsting of 1978 compromised by any of these oversights, I can hardly protest. The one film I feel seriously delinquent in having missed was Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Geisha; it was shown one time only in Dana Benelli’s ASUW Major Films Series, and I was on my way to see it until a Seattle Film Society emergency obliged the then-President to change his plans.

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Slap Shots (1977)

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

I felt a little off-balance throughout film year 1977, and it took me most of that time to figure out why. Even eccentric filmwatchers fall into patterns of expectation, and my Platonic Ideal of eccentricity was taking a beating. Too many of the big, heavily financed productions the freewheeling freelance looks forward to trashing turned out to be not bad films at all. By reverse token, the year was virtually devoid of sleepers—the unexpected, born-to-be-lost-in-the-shuffle beauties like Gumshoe, Bad Company, Charley Varrick and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia the enterprising commentator looks forward to saving for posterity and, in the meantime, directing a few adventurous viewers toward. Just why there were no sleepers is hard to say. Maybe there is so much written on film nowadays that every film’s fair chance at the limelight is conceded in advance. Add to this that the Jet City has acquired an industry rep for scaring up an audience for movies that die on the vine elsewhere. Then too, in recent years we have been dubiously blessed with at least one exhibitor willing to cry sleeper every other week, so that the term has tended to be devalued hereabouts—especially when many of the so-called sleepers have proved resolutely undistinguished.

It just may be that the biggest and, in its rather trivial way, happiest surprise of the year was a George Roy Hill movie that most reviewers suddenly felt compelled to attack for having the flaws all the director’s more popular works have manifested in abundance; I went into that in my quickie of Slap Shot in MTN 54, and I continue to recall this rowdy, raunchy, sharply acted sports comedy with pleasure. And while I was liking a movie by a director I normally find exasperating in the extreme, I was let down—anywhere from mildly to precipitously—by such customarily reliable types as Sam Peckinpah (Cross of Iron), Don Siegel (Telefon), Michael Ritchie (Semi-Tough), Dick Richard (March or Die), and Robert Aldrich (The Choirboys—though not so much Twilight’s Last Gleaming). Fred Zinnemann compelled respect and gratitude for his impeccable craftsmanship, if not necessarily artistry, in Julia. Herbert Ross astonished by coming on like, of all things, a personal director in The Turning Point and, to a lesser extent, The Goodbye Girl. Robert Benton fell a little short of the promise of Bad Company with The Late Show, but that film was one of the early pleasures of the year all the same.

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1976, Which Will Be Charitably Forgotten by the Year 2000

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

1976 is a year I’m very pleased to see the back of. Several especially nice things happened to me during the past twelvemonth, but an oversupply of cloaca also insisted on hitting the fan with dispiriting frequency, and a good deal of it was cinematic cloaca. Any year in which the man who just made Nashville turns around and makes Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson, and people who really ought to know better hail Lina Wertmuller as a distaff version of the Second Coming and Network as a serious film of intellectual and aesthetic importance, and the public is asked to pay good money to watch Midway, Gable and Lombard, Won Ton Ton, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, Scorchy, The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday, Swashbuckler, Vigilante Force and A Star Is Born Barbra Streisand–style can’t be anything but the harbinger of a new Dark Age.

It didn’t help that some normally reliable film artists seemed ‘way off the beam. That The Magic Flute, Bergman’s not-very-adventurous filming of a Mozart performance, or Face to Face, a closet drama of a rather insipid creature who was welcome to stay in her closet (Liv Ullmann’s heroic performance notwithstanding), failed to move me much wasn’t particularly disheartening or even unexpected. (I wish he’d make a spy movie.) Neither, given the international coproduction problems and the preponderance of treacle in the basic makeup of The Blue Bird, was there great surprise in George Cukor’s inability (decision?) to just let the thing lie there and moult.

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In Black & White: B Movies

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

‘B’ MOVIES. By Don Miller. Curtis Books. 350 pages. $1.50.
KINGS OF THE Bs. Edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn. Dutton. 561 pages. $6.95.

“If some bright new critic should awaken the world to the merits of Joseph Lewis in the near future,” Andrew Sarris once wrote, “we will have to scramble back to his 1940 record: Two-Fisted Rangers, Blazing Six-Shooters, Texas Stagecoach, The Man from Tumbleweeds, Boys of the City, Return of Wild Bill, and That Gang of Mine. Admittedly, in this direction lies madness.”

Sarris was referring to Lewis’ days as a director of B movies on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” and, as he later noted, Lewis has been “discovered,” and so those seemingly forgotten B movies from 1940 are marked by auteurists and cultists for future research. And perhaps it is a form of madness that auteurists or anyone else should want to seriously examine the low-budget films turned out as program fillers on Hollywood’s production lines. For there is little indication so far that this aspect of Hollywood’s history deserves fuller appreciation, and the films themselves have been mostly unavailable since the last great splurge of B movies on television.

But the Poverty Row films of Lewis, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Andre DeToth, Anthony Mann and others loom as tantalizing examples of talent and inspiration triumphing over limited means. These directors gained recognition of one sort or another and went on from the Bs to bigger budgets and better things. But has their later success given their B movies a visibility not granted so far to worthy B directors who never graduated to heftier budgets? At present, we have little way of knowing. Felix Feist, for example, is a director about whom next to nothing has been written, but my own chance encounter with The Devil Thumbs a Ride (RKO, 1947) had sufficient appeal to make him a subject for further research of my own. Similarly, Black Angel (Universal, 1946) and a Sherlock Holmes entry like The Scarlet Claw are enough to indicate that Roy William Neill is a director worthy of attention.

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