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by Pierre Greenfield

Movietone News contributor

Review: The Corn is Green

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Emlyn Williams’s play The Corn Is Green is nothing if not aptly titled. Williams has always been a minor writer, and when writing about his homeland, Wales, which is also my homeland, he has been particularly unimpressive. He writes for tourists – coy jokes, local colour, stereotypes, and carefully transposed cliches from melodrama. People outside Wales, knowing little or nothing about the place, are inevitably caught by the curiosity value of it all, not realising that what they are really responding to is the familiarity of all this Celtic strangeness. Williams’s cliches are commonplace ones, it’s just that the setting he finds for them seems strange. Viewing a production of The Corn Is Green, the uninformed will ask, Are the Welsh really like that? Answering yes, they can then add: How quaint! And how frightfully sweet! What the play chiefly offers on top of this topographical spice is a thundering leading role for any actress d’un certain age. Miss Moffat, the schoolmarm who discovers a genius amidst the unlettered and uncouth populace of a mining community, is a lady to outgrabe the meanest mome-roth who ever breathed, and Bette Davis did nobly by her in the 1945 movie. No less of a natural for the role is Katharine Hepburn, and I’ll bet she was the prime mover in getting this present made-for-TV movie version of the old warhorse onto the assembly line. Thank God, they roped in George Cukor to direct her. The whole of the enterprise is in the work of these two: had either failed, then surely the whole would have crumbled.

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Review: The Great Train Robbery

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

It’s fairly hard, and also somewhat presumptuous and pointless, to try and get a fix on the directing career of the prolific writer Michael Crichton after only three films. Westworld would seem as different from Coma as Coma is from The Great Train Robbery (called The First Great Train Robbery in Britain, where it was made), which is a jolly period caper romp set in 1855. If all three films can be boiled down to a common core, it’s simply that Crichton believes people are better than machines, and have to be, because if they’re not, then machines are what they will themselves become.

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Review: The Medusa Touch

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Medusa Touch has had a most curious history. Richard Burton went into it hot on the heels of Exorcist II and Equus, but it took about a year to follow them into the cinemas, opening in London in June of 1978. Despite lots of names, a big budget and good notices, it then did what every film of above-average interest is likely to do in Britain: it disappeared totally from sight. (The remarks of RTJ in MTN 60-61 suggest the film got oblivion treatment in the U.S., too.) Nearly another year went by and then, blammo!, it was all over the place. Double-billed with an even older Paul Bartel movie, it got saturation bookings all over the country, and was even advertised on TV – very rare in Britain. One hopes that all this adds up to making it a hit at last.

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Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Remaking a Hitchcock classic would appear to be prime foolishness (unless you’re Hitchcock himself), and remaking one a second time seems like evidence of a death-wish. However, the makers of this new version of The Thirty-Nine Steps do have a get-out clause of sorts: Hitchcock used almost none of John Buchan’s novel, and updated it from 1914 to the then-contemporary mid-Thirties. Ralph Thomas, for his vomitworthy 1959 version, pinched almost everything wholesale from the 1935 marvel (except such intangibles as wit, pace, charm, eroticism, ingenuity and suspense) and reduced the whole enterprise to a faded Xerox of the earlier film. Don Sharp and his team have made a great show of “going back to the original”, and the design department has gorged itself on Edwardian costumes, period automobiles, monocles, the whole eve-of-World-War-I razzmatazz. So it should look like a brand-new film, right?

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Out of the Past: The Illustrated Man

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Before anything happens in The Illustrated Man, a voice (Claire Bloom’s) warns us that those who try to see beyond their own times find themselves facing problems that cannot be explained in present-day terms. This gets reprised at the very end of the movie, by which time just about nothing actually has been explained. The Illustrated Man is a very odd movie indeed, and here and there a thoroughly frustrating one. I can’t decide how much of the obfuscation is genuine poetic mystery and how much a sheer cop-out on the part of screenwriter-producer Howard Kreitsek (not very active since this 1969 movie) and director Jack Smight. But the film, for all its many faults, stays with me and I fancy its inner workings are worth teasing out.

Time is of the essence. When and where are we? Ms. Bloom’s opening voiceover accompanies an image of a tranquil countryside lake. We hold on this and at long last the old Warner-Seven Arts logo inscribes itself on the screen. An old-fashioned automobile parks a naive-looking youth (Robert Drivas) by the lake and moves on; we never see its driver again. Willie, the youth, is soon joined by a surly fellow carrying a bag with a dog in it. The stranger, Carl (Rod Steiger), middle-aged, needing a shave, broken-nosed, seems to come from nowhere and is plainly needing funds. “You hoboing?” he asks Willie. The 1930s? Of course. But what’s a Depression bum doing with a Pekinese, of all dogs? And why is it cooped up in a bag all the while? “He likes it hot,” snarls Carl: “Like me!” He kids us not. Though the midday sun blazes and the sweat pours off Willie, Carl is begloved and booted, and covered in an enormous coat. Why? This question, at least, gets an answer, and swiftly.

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Review: The Europeans

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

With the likes of Grease and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre packin’ ’em in, people keep saying the cinema is going to hell and only the most crass hold sway. However, if the Seventies gave the world porno and John Travolta, the decade also saw a revival, on a fairly grand scale, of interest in Henry James. Of all authors! What could so fastidious an artist have to say to our vulgarian’s age? Well, quite a lot, it would seem, for there have been more ventures into Jamesiana in the Seventies than in the entire previous history of film – several TV movies (two by Claude Chabrol), announced projects (Chabrol’s proposed film of The Wings of the Dove was called off, not for want of backing, but because he changed his mind about it), two wildly unJamesian but nevertheless James-inspired movies (The Nightcomers and Celine et Julie vont en bateau), and three major adaptations: Daisy Miller, La Chambre verte (from The Altar of the Dead), and now The Europeans. This last seems to me the best James movie to date, in terms of catching the author’s essence, and it’s an exquisite entertainment, immensely worth seeing.

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“Everything happens at its appointed time” – Picnic at Hanging Rock

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

This is the second feature film from director Peter Weir, the first being the uneven but fitfully brilliant The Cars That Ate Paris in 1973. Though that movie was too scrappy to make Weir seem more than extremely promising, Picnic at Hanging Rock is something else: an absolute beauty, a movie entirely worthy of cult-classic status at the very least, and a major step forward for its director and, as far as I am able to tell from my very limited experience of it, for the Australian cinema.

That so delicate and subtle a movie could be made at all in Australia, a land much associated with crass behaviour and cultural gaucherie, may surprise some. It’s not, after all, a film made there by outsiders, like Walkabout. That so beautiful-looking and technically fastidious a film could emerge from Australia certainly surprised me: all the (few) other indigenous Antipodean movies that I’ve seen, including The Cars That Ate Paris, were very rough-edged, tending towards muddy colour and threshing-machine cutting, the hallmarks of cheapo filmmaking. Picnic at Hanging Rock is gorgeous, richly textured, full of pellucid colours and images that tremble between tableau and hallucination. It draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

picnicwoods
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

It draws us, in fact, the way that Hanging Rock, the “geological miracle” that is literally as well as figuratively at the film’s centre, draws its own victims (if that’s the word for them) to … what? where? Once we are into this film, we are also into another world, where we in the audience tread only on the outskirts. Certain of the film’s inhabitants – a trio of schoolgirls and the most senior of their teachers, all visitors to the rock on the dazzlingly bright St. Valentine’s Day of 1900 – penetrate the very core of this other world. Others stay on the periphery but seem to become more aware of it, more knowing of its secrets, than we ever do. Unarguably, no one in the film who comes into contact with Hanging Rock is unchanged by it – not the fat girl who can’t keep up with her three friends and so returns to the rest of the party, at the Rock’s base, screaming and bleeding without knowing why; not the French assistante who muses that the leader of the Rock-climbing expedition has “the face of a Botticelli angel” immediately before losing sight of her forever; not the young Englishman who ventures onto the Rock in search of the missing and himself faces the unacknowledgeable. (He, incidentally, is played by Dominic Guard, the go-between of The Go-Between, now on the brink of adulthood and as baffled here by children as he was in the earlier film by adults.)

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Review: Yanks

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

As the donkey regards the carrot, so John Schlesinger looks on his screenplays: he either follows or swallows them. A follow-my-leader under the deadly misapprehension that he is an auteur, Schlesinger is happiest when partnering writers who share his tendency to scream Look at me, I’m an artist! With a Frederic Raphael (Darling) or a William Goldman (Marathon Man), he’s in show-off’s heaven, and his inability to provide the real impetus, the backbone, the solid core of a movie, the way a real artist would, is snugly disguised amidst a great deal of visual and verbal shouting. The cheesy verbal wisecracks of Darling are fleshed out by Schlesinger’s no less cheesy imagistic ones (e.g., fat ladies wolfing down the eats at an Oxfam bash), just as the greasy, lapel-seizing prose of Marathon Man is aptly pictorialised via such characteristic Schlesinger conceits as the shot of Lord Olivier framed distortingly through a glass tray whilst he slavers hammily at its contents, assorted gems. In both these movies, writer and director are as one in pretentious mediocrity, and each butters up the other. But with Schlesinger’s new film, Yanks, the screenwriters are two gentlemen with reputations for low-key, understated work, who would furthermore seem to have no great keenness for Schlesingerian ego-tripping. Colin Welland (the actor who played the cleric in Straw Dogs, and one of Britain’s best TV playwrights) and Walter Bernstein (The Front) appear only too ready to put their faith in their director and let him be the boss, guiding their scenario where’er he would lead it. And Schlesinger has no idea at all of how to be the leader, with the result that everyone gets swiftly lost.

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Review: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

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

“…[W]e are afflicted with a secret police of a sort which I do not think a democratic republic ought to support. In theory, the FBI is necessary. For the investigation of crime. But in all the years that the FBI has been in existence, the major criminals – the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra – have operated freely and happily … the FBI has not shown much interest in big crime. Its time has been devoted to spying on Americans whose political beliefs did not please the late J. Edgar Hoover, a man who hated Commies, blacks and women in more or less that order.” Thus Gore Vidal (in Matters of Fact and of Fiction); thus, too, Larry Cohen, whose biopic of “America’s top cop” delivers a kick to the bureaucratic teeth with such uninhibited zest that as much exhilaration rubs off on the audience as outraged wrath.

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Out of the Past: Skidoo

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

Otto Preminger’s stabs at comedy are few, and none got more lethal notices than this one. The public stayed away and even Preminger’s customary apologists avoided it. Gerald Pratley’s book on the director doesn’t actually make much of a case for it, just hints that the film is, you know, not really all that, well, bad, not really. The only person I know of who’ll concede that the film generates a certain amount of interest is Jonathan Rosenbaum, a critic who, for all his insight and scholarship, has not infrequently sent me clambering up the nearest wall. So when I saw the film recently, it was a surprise when it turned out to be an enjoyable curiosity.

It’s not exactly hilarious, I grant you; it fascinates rather than convulses. The screenwriter of record is Doran William Cannon, later of the even more bizarre, but absolutely splendid, Brewster McCloud. That film was, we have since learned, rewritten top-to-tail by the uncredited Brian McKay and, according to Pratley, this one had some last-minute rewrites from Elliot Baker, author of the highly enjoyable novel A Fine Madness and a few less enjoyable films. Cannon doesn’t seem to have much luck. The only other movie I know him to have worked on is one I haven’t seen, an odd-sounding 1973 item called Hex, from a story by Cannon and Vernon Zimmerman (director of The Unholy Rollers). It could be, quite simply, that Cannon is a terrible writer who occasionally has grabby ideas. Certainly Skidoo is far more intriguing on a level of mise-en-scene than on levels of dialogue, jokes or plot. But Preminger’s direction is pretty interesting and also uncharacteristically flamboyant. As a result, I prefer this weirdo movie, for all its clear faults, to other, generally more-discussed Preminger efforts; amongst his critical flops, it’s less interesting than the excellent Saint Joan, but ahead of The Human Factor or Hurry Sundown or The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. I also prefer it to at least one of his critical successes, the initially absorbing but finally very disappointing Bunny Lake Is Missing.

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Limeys in Lotusland: “The Loved One” Reappraised

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

Shortly after World War II there occurred a meeting as potent, in its own way, as the confrontation of Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man: Evelyn Waugh went Hollywood. M-G-M had purchased the film rights to Brideshead Revisited and its eccentric author had a tedious time arguing with producer Leon Gordon and writer James Kevin McGuinness as to how it should be filmed. In the end, everyone gave it up as a bad job, the movie went unmade, and Waugh returned to Somerset. But the stopover in Tinseltown had one major by-product, which appeared in 1948: Waugh’s short, scathing novel about Los Angeles, its weird ways, and in particular its burial habits: The Loved One.

As the book accumulated celebrity, Hollywood forgave and forgot in its usual way, and snapped it up for filming. Waugh himself at one time had plans to work on a film version with his friend Alec Guinness (England’s only major international film star of the time) playing Dennis Barlow, the not-very-innocent abroad who is the novel’s central character. It was also a pet project of Luis Buñuel’s (ah, what might have been!), but, despite these eminences, a film never seemed to get made.

The Loved One
The Loved One

Finally, in 1964 or thereabouts, Metro and Filmways put together what must have seemed a classic example of the great Hollywood artform, the deal. The director signed for the film was the then exceptionally hot Tony Richardson, fresh from the $40 million grossed first time round by Tom Jones (which had been forecast throughout the industry as a certain money-loser, even on its slender budget) and from the Oscar ceremonies. Inked instantly as screenwriter was the Bad Boy of American letters, the outrageous humorist Terry Southern, who was also hot as a result of co-scripting Dr. Strangelove, a significant breakthrough in terms of black or bad-taste humour.

They could do no wrong. Richardson demanded and, unusually for those days, got final cut privileges. He refused to film in a studio, although bits of Culver City turned up as location. He went a million or more over the already sizeable budget. Stars came and went. Christopher Isherwood, like Dennis Barlow a minor English writer who’d come to California (and stayed), came in to do extra scripting – an ominous sign, as he was unlikely to have forgiven Waugh for caricaturing him so contemptuously in his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags. Martin Ransohoff, of Filmways, and Robert H. O’Brien, of M-G-M, got nervous, only to find themselves in the ignominious position of being barred from the film. Richardson wouldn’t even let them see the rushes. They offered to buy him out, as they couldn’t get him on his contract. He, brimming over with cheek, offered to buy them out. Now, no one, not even a foreign Oscar-winner, can do that to a studio head and get away with it unless he can be absolutely certain of delivering the goods and making big bucks on top. Here the English flyboy came unstuck; and it is not unreasonable to say that he has been unstuck ever since. The Loved One was perhaps no end of fun as a play-with whilst the filmic ball was rolling. But when it came to hammering the rushes into some sort of final shape, the limey wunderkind found himself with an inchoate mass of celluloid. With observable difficulty, he and three editors finally turned it into an exhibitable movie (opening in the U.S. late in 1965), only to find it widely hated. The public did not come, and it cannot be said that M-G-M was in any way keen to persuade them to.

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Review: Zulu Dawn

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

It comes as no surprise that Douglas Hickox directed hundreds of commercials before starting on feature films: he has means, but not ends. When it comes to assembling the departments of a large unit into some semblance of professional order, or arranging a succession of individually striking, or at least flashy, images, Hickox knows how to operate. But in the metaphysical areas of film art he is deficient; and he is by no means sure how to tell a tale straight, either. If a script is good, Hickox isn’t bad; but if it’s bad, he’s no good, at least not where it counts. Piling on what he hopes will be taken for virtuoso displays of technique, and cover for a storyline going to hell, is simply no substitute for narrative tightness, logical plot and character development, lucid exposition or a fluid sense of movement; and we haven’t come near the realm of ideas yet. Arresting compositions here and there in Theatre of Blood, or a brisk way with crowds of extras in real, busy places in Brannigan cannot, for a single instant, blind one to the embarrassing fact that Hickox has made a terrible mess of the plots and the people. Set-pieces interest him but whole movies, it would appear, do not.

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Review: McVicar

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

McVicar isn’t a bad film, but it emphatically fails to be the brilliant one it could have been. Director and co-writer Tom Clegg not only hasn’t solved the problems inherent in the material, he hasn’t faced them; maybe he didn’t notice they were there. The story is that of John McVicar, criminal, jailed in the mid-Sixties for armed robbery, who escaped twice from jail, committed more robberies whilst out, and ended up, in 1970, recaptured and facing a 26-year sentence. This time McVicar devoted his term inside to changing his life. He enrolled as an external student and gained a first-class degree from London University – a dazzling achievement in the circumstances and a central fact, surely, in his story. Yet Clegg, instead of exploring the contradictions and hidden brilliance of the man, ignores this side of him, ignores the crucial last stretch (which led the real-life McVicar to get earliest possible parole in 1978), and bungs in the relevant information only at the very last moment as a closing caption. McVicar becomes just another crime movie, one which ends at the point where it should have become really interesting. Not only that: Clegg adds at the outset another caption suggesting that his film has been heavily fictionalised, as if he had no faith in the intriguing story.

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Review: Violette et Francois

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

Jacques Rouffio has managed this cautionary account of the non-paying aspects of petty crime very slickly indeed. Violette (Isabelle Adjani) and François (Jacques Dutronc) are two highly irresponsible, lazy, unthinking, shallow and immoral young people, but following their adventures doesn’t overdistance us from them. It’s not that we like them: for all the charm of Adjani and Dutronc, their sheer silliness is, from the outset, mildly repellent, and Rouffio doesn’t cheat to win our sympathy. But they are convincing, they’re like people we all know sometime or other, maybe even like (hush!) ourselves now and then, and Rouffio never ever gets self-righteous about their outrageous and generally deplorable conduct. Which in turn means that he never gets patronising, and this in turn has the useful effect of preventing us from getting too far removed. We don’t feel that we could be doing something more useful than spending a hundred minutes watching these unpleasant wretches, and thus we don’t feel that maybe Rouffio could be doing something more useful than making a film about them, either. Further, his technique is very assured, the film is good-looking, and there are some invigorating presences in the supporting cast: it’s really nice to see Serge Reggiani again, and there’s a particularly good cameo by Lea Massari (ageing gracefully). Thus, Violette et Francois is an entertaining movie, and a moving one, too, with considerable moral shrewdness.

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Review: Making “The Shining”

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

Time flies. The six-year-old brat in quest of an intergalactic bushbaby in 2001 is now all grown up and directing her own documentary film about what is only the third movie her father has directed since that 1968 masterwork. Televised by the BBC at a length of 35 minutes on October 4, 1980, just two days after The Shining‘s London opening, this documentary is utterly intriguing without being terribly substantial.

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