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by Robert Horton

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Ride the High Country

This was written in 1990 for a film series called “Myth of the West” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. As a program note, it’s a brief introduction to Ride the High Country; its references to Peckinpah beginning to fade from film history are even keener now that it’s been over a quarter-century since his death. – Robert Horton

John Ford made something like 125 films in his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and in that time he created a cohesive, wholecloth world, especially in films of the American West. Sam Peckinpah worked in feature films from The Deadly Companions (1961) to The Osterman Weekend (1983); a dozen or so films, as well as television beginning in the late 1950s—a little over twenty years of work. Yet Peckinpah’s legacy is as rich as any modern director’s, and as unmistakable; you always know when you’re watching a Peckinpah movie. And Peckinpah did his most important work in the Western.

But it may be more appropriate to say that Peckinpah made end-of-the-Westerns. His Western films are poised at the moment of death, the passing of one life, one era, to another (maybe that’s why he used slow-motion to show his characters getting killed—he was saving, examining that final moment). The Wild Bunch (1969) is one long last gasp; the American West is disappearing, to the extent that the outlaw heroes must go to Mexico, where they find a brief glimpse of Eden. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is explicitly constructed as an American folk ballad (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan are among the actors), the stanzas of which describe two old friends who used to live a wild, wide-open life. Now, one of them has joined the side of the law, and has betrayed the other for the sake of employment and civilization. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero, a man who has a waterhole in the middle of nowhere, is killed by… a motorcar.

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Review: The Rose

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

“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long take—and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.

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Review: Cuba

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

Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batista—until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cuba runs into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this is—” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothing—and I include you, Robert—nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.

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Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

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

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

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Review: Quadrophenia

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

The movie starts out with a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be made of: A young man stares out over the golden ocean towards the sun, then turns and walks toward the camera, his silhouette remaining in the streak of sun on the waves. The camera tilts slightly so the sun is in the middle of the frame, and we cut suddenly to the front headlight of a motor scooter, charging forward at the reeling camera and driven by the same young man. Energy: that’s what Quadrophenia is about and what it is made up of. The characters in the story, British kids in the early-to-mid-Sixties, pour their energies into pills, violence, and sex, and into the collective search for self that found its expression in being part of a group—in this case, either of two extremist music factions: the rockers (getting behind Gene Vincent and traditional rock’n’roll) or the mods (The Who and the Kinks). We focus on one denizen of this world, a boy, Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), who finds a more important family within the mods than he does at home, and who is happiest when popping blues and starting fights. Director Franc Roddam manages to make Jimmy a sympathetic character as we examine his isolation amid the spurious togetherness of the mods, and his search for identity. Yet unlike the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause (which this film echoes occasionally), Jimmy doesn’t always seem to be aware of his own pathetic state. If he were a little more detached from his situation, we would at least have the feeling that there was a chance he’d break out of it. A shot of Jimmy sitting on his scooter, as we see his face reflected from four different angles in the rearview mirrors surrounding him, sums up his fragmentation: different sides, no center. His parents, who cannot understand (his father asks him “Who do yer think y’are, anyway?”—and Jimmy honestly does not know); the advertising agency for which he works, which manufactures images of phony-pretty reality; and his group, with their desperate/exultant dance after a riot, chanting “We are the mods!” repeatedly—they are all, as Rebel’s Jim had it, “tearing him apart.”

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Review: The Wanderers

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

One of the most affecting moments in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the swamping of the soundtrack with an amplified-bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” as the remaining human searched the night world for a means of escape. The cargo ship whose radio is the source of the music turns out to be loading up with pods, and as the hero sees this and the door is shut on his hopes of a getaway, the radio dial is turned from “Grace” to a newscaster’s flat voice. This scene is dramatically different from the counterpart sequence in Don Siegel’s original Body Snatchers: there the hero heard some Spanish singing, had his hopes raised that he was among feeling humans again, excitedly climbed over a hill to meet them—and discovered simultaneously that these are pod people and that that’s only a radio, not a woman singing, as the station is abruptly changed. The difference between the two versions is that Kaufman does not pretend that the music is anything but artificial, while Siegel surehandedly goes after the shock we feel when the station is switched; Kaufman seems interested in the mythic proportions of the music itself (the lyrics of the hymn, not sung but surely known by 75 percent of the audience, comment suggestively on the organized, sheeplike groups of pods: “I once was lost, but now I’m found—was blind, but now I see”), especially as they are set against the tiny visual representation of the hero. All of which finally comes around to the observation that this guy Kaufman can put music and images together real well, and that his latest film, The Wanderers, displays this talent for much of its running time.

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Review: The Changeling

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

Perhaps it’s looking back from the vantage point of a cinematically uninspiring summer that makes The Changeling seem such inoffensive fun. The qualities that The Changeling can boast—a clean, controlled look, a handful of chills, the feeling that the filmmakers are not about to shortchange us even if they’re not going to be particularly inventive—are exactly the qualities missing from the disappointing slew of first runs that turned up during June. I’ll disclose, too, a reason I was predisposed toward liking The Changeling: I’m in it. When music prof George C. Scott, having relocated in the Great Northwest after his wife and child were killed in an accident, begins his first day as lecturer, well, I’m one of his students. (Dead center, middle aisle, red flannel shirt—can’t miss me.) Anyway, if I were to write a negative review, I had the perfect lead-in: I happened to find myself in the men’s room at the same time as the director, Peter Medak, and—OK, the world may as well know—after he went to the bathroom he didn’t wash his hands. Writing this dump job I could glide into the observation that yeah, that’s the way he makes movies, too, and is The Changeling ever untidy…. Then Medak had to go and ruin my opening by making a slick, effective movie.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

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

The very title of this film, and of the Loretta Lynn autobiography on which it is based—in turn, from a song of hers—underlines some of the tensions within the movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter rather than, say, The Loretta Lynn Story implies a reliance on another for purposes of self-identification. It also suggests a nostalgia for one’s roots: a longing for a home is very important in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

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Review: The Big Red One

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

Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloween and The American Friend to settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘s good intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac or Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain is to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocket is an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.

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Review: Can’t Stop the Music

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

Disbelief. Right in the middle of the “Y.M.C.A.” number, which is right in the middle of Can’t Stop the Music, one feels one’s mouth actually hanging open. Good grief! Is this really happening? Members of a musical group called the Village People (who play streetwise dudes recruited to form an impromptu ensemble of singers/dancers) and Valerie Perrine (their manager) and Bruce Jenner (a tax lawyer with the hots for Perrine) sweep into a real Y.M.C.A. and begin performing all manner of athletic endeavor, all to a disco beat. And its all just awful. I don’t mean just the shots that you might be visualizing now—slowmotion splitscreen guys twirling through the air, a line of men diving sideways into a swimming pool à la Busby Berkeley. Those are there, all right, but we’re also treated to wildly awkward shots, like a group of nude guys horsing around in the showers (yup, you see everything down to their knees), or a whirlpool bath shot of Perrine’s breasts bobbing out of the water. These shots are even repeated during this montage—to Dolby music, mind. What makes them so jarringly out of place (uh—the shots, that is) is the uncertainty and the weirdness in the shifts from candy-flavored lightheartedness to an uncomfortable kind of wishful frankness. The problem with this sequence is the problem with the movie: Are we to view this pursuit of high spirits as sincere, or is the whole thing supposed to be a joke?

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Review: Best Boy

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

The line between cool observation and active participation in a documentary film is a flimsy and untenable one. How can anything remain truly documentary with a camera whirring away as an extra guest keeping its unblinking eye focused on the people it considers? If the project is of the “Loud Family” sort, the people cannot even ask the camera to leave the room for a moment, because everything must be captured “as it actually occurred.” What is irritating about some documentaries is the pretension that whatever is observed really would have happened just as it appears before the camera—even if that camera hadn’t been there. I don’t believe that, having probably seen too many nervous smiles and stiff movements (and many an overacted moment) in everything from documentary features to National Geographic specials. But when a filmmaker recognizes and acknowledges the degree of responsibility he takes on when he plunks a camera down in the middle of people’s lives—well, some very intriguing things can happen.

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On Staring Into the Camera: Aguirre and Bears

(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea.)

Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.

aguirre2
Aguirre, the Wrath of God

And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.

That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.

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Last Year at Graceland

Last Year at Graceland: The Story Behind Elvis Presley’s Lost Film

TCMElvis3Actual listing from the Turner Classic Movies website, August 16, 2002:

“3:00 PM – TICKLE ME/1965

A wealthy man tries to convince a bored socialite that they had an affair years earlier. Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff. D: Alain Resnais. C-91m.”

In the ill-starred filmography of Elvis Presley, Tickle Me has long been considered the lone instance of the King reaching out beyond a simplistic movie formula, and thus presents a fascinating case study for Elvis fan and serious film scholar alike. (To be sure, Girls! Girls! Girls! has its champions, but save that for another day.) Tickle Me was originally assigned to director Hal “First Take” Beauregard, who, despite his advanced age and unfamiliarity with post-World War I music, had already guided four Elvis vehicles to box-office success. Just before shooting began, Beauregard was taken off Tickle Me when it was discovered that he had been legally deaf and partly blind for the previous decade, a condition known only to himself and Presley’s manager, the legendary Colonel Tom Parker.

tickleme2
Une affiche d'Elvis

Desperate to proceed, and with a brief window available before a locked-in start date for Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Col. Parker sought advice from the only person in Hollywood older than himself: Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence of Arabia. The Colonel hoped to hire that Oscar-winning film’s director, David Lean, and indeed Lean worked on a story treatment for a week or so – but by the time he finished, Tickle Me no longer resembled its original concept. The Lean script would have necessitated re-casting, to say nothing of a three-hour running time, so Lean moved on. (Traces of his ideas can be found in the Presley vehicle Harum Scarum, its Arabian Nights atmosphere clearly influenced by Lawrence.)

This is where the saga truly becomes interesting. With only days until principal photography was scheduled to begin, Colonel Parker asked Lean for an inspiration. And Lean found one: Alain Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had exploded onto international movie screens a few years before. Resnais was in Hollywood hoping to jump-start his American career with an MGM horse-racing picture, but immediately leapt at the chance to work with the singer known in France as Le Roi du Pelvis. It was Resnais’ inspiration to enlist writer Alain Robbe-Grillet to punch up the Tickle Me script, which was originally penned by Ellwood Ullmann and Edward Bernds, a long-established writing team whose previous film was The Three Stooges in Orbit. One might expect Robbe-Grillet, widely celebrated for the 1950s Nouveau Roman movement as well as his superbly manicured fingernails, to look down on the assignment. Yet he relished the prospect of exploring U.S. culture from the inside. Later he was to recall the experience as a welcome break from the “excess of thinking” that marked his work in French literature.

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The Night of the Hunter

[originally published on Robert Horton’s blog The Crop Duster on March 1, 2009]

“I’ll be back,” the man calls out, “when it’s dark.” Those words are the warning, and the credo, of every monster that ever slouched through fairy tale or film. Toward the end of The Night of the Hunter, they are uttered by Harry Powell, the evil preacher who burns through the movie like something out of an American folklore nightmare. Few monsters have embodied the shadow side of existence more absolutely than the murderous Reverend Powell. Where Harry Powell goes, it is dark.

Night of the Hunter
Night of the Hunter

Let’s be clear straight away: The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest films in the American cinema. Although its web of influences can be identified (German Expressionism, the brothers Grimm, the films of D.W. Griffith and James Whale, Mark Twain), it is a singular movie; it resembles nothing else. It is also singular as the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton, who suffered from one of the most tortured actor’s psyches ever—and that’s a crowded field—beset as he was by his keen intellect, fragile emotions, and closeted homosexuality. Laughton’s achievement is magnificent: there isn’t a single shot without visual interest, and the narrative tone is an amazing balancing act.

Laughton had distinguished collaborators. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, whose gothic story is closely followed. To write the script, Laughton and producer Paul Gregory chose James Agee, the film critic and author of the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Night of the Hunter is also set during the Thirties). According to Laughton’s wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, Agee wrote an unwieldy document that Laughton himself had to re-write.

Aside from an excellent cast, the other major collaborator was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an unusual figure who also shot the glorious Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and the gloriously pulpy Shock Corridor for Samuel Fuller. Cortez was a master of black and white contrast, and The Night of the Hunter afforded rich opportunities for the play of light and shadow; but Cortez also had his hands full with the film’s complex blend of naturalism (no Hollywood version of Mark Twain ever had a small town look as authentic) and stark stylization. Cortez later counted Welles and Laughton as the two most formidable directors he worked with.

You know something is odd from the first moments of the film, when the disembodied heads of Lillian Gish and a group of children fill the screen, hanging amongst the stars of night. Gish’s opening remarks are shaped as a parable to the children, invoking the bible and explicitly making what follows a “tale” intended as a moral fable. “Beware of false prophets,” she warns, and the film jumps to a fantastically strange sequence introducing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). First the camera swoops down, from a great height, to see children playing in a field (hide and seek, apparently, which also describes the movie’s plot). A child looks in the cellar, only to stop short: a pair of legs sticks awkwardly, almost obscenely, from the door. The cinematic memory can’t help but flick to another great fable, The Wizard of Oz, and the legs of a dead witch curling out from beneath a similar midwestern home.

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