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‘Tough ole hide’: The Getaway

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

In The Getaway director Sam Peckinpah has crafted one of the tightest, cleanest, most physically compelling films to tweak your fancy in a long while. Harrumph, you say? Go soak your head in Kael, I say. Better yet, truck on out to one of the nabes and see the movie. It continues to rank among the top money-grossers of the year and will undoubtedly crop up here and there for some time to come.

The Getaway
The Getaway

From the opening frames of semi-wild beasties startled into postures of alarm by an unseen presence; from our slowly dawning realization that the animals’ tranquil sanctuary functions as precisely the opposite for other creatures caged within its walls; from the moment when throbbing, insidiously penetrating mill noises supersede the dulling monotony of prison life and inject the as-yet-unidentified situation with a crescendoing tension, The Getaway gathers its energy, begins to move, and lunges headlong away from the stasis of a centerpoint, racing toward some spot on the outer circumference of life. Peckinpah navigates the entire course with a winner’s reckless confidence and consummate control.

Most Peckinpah film buffs have their favorite scenes; my personal list runs to just over four hundred examples. But whenever I try to explain my fascination with his technique, why I find it so refreshing and exhilarating and spellbinding, why it’s so gratifying to see an incisive mind using cinematic conventions with a sense of humor and irony, I always flash on a shot from The Wild Bunch. It’s not an overtly outrageous shot by itself. No spectacular bloodletting. It’s not even particularly noteworthy scenically. It’s the kind of shot I suspect fades from memory about two seconds or less after it’s off the screen. But it strikes me as representative of Peckinpah’s technical virtuosity—a gift pooh-poohed by some insensitive soul in the pages of The Village Voice who derisively categorized Peckinpah as “the most academic manipulator of Russian montage in America since Lewis Milestone.” Lewis Milestone he definitely ain’t.

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Unstable Molecules

Iron Man 2

dir: Jon Favreau

Robert Downey Jr.: Livin' and lovin' la vida the Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr.: Livin' and lovin' la vida Iron Man

Is there an actor alive who digs himself more than Robert Downey Jr.? (Ok, possibly Richard Gere, but that’s in more of a creepy, reptilian vein.) At a time when more and more actors are going Methody opaque, Downey’s lightspeed thought processes are gloriously external, finding hidden ironies in the material while simultaneously delivering his own commentary track. Too much of a good thing can sometimes be way too much of a good thing—the actor’s best performances tend to come when he’s bouncing off of a tight-reined director, ala David Fincher in Zodiac—but when he’s cooking, it’s hard to look away.

If you like watching Downey half as much as he evidently likes himself, Iron Man 2 might make for a reasonably diverting couple of hours. That doesn’t mean it’s not a major mess, though. Flabby, disjointed, and eschewing conflict for extended scenes of improv clowning, it’s the Superheroic equivalent of a Rat Pack film.

Picking up more or less directly where the first installment left off, the story finds billonaire playboy Tony Stark dealing with his decision to go public with his secret identity, while fending off threats both internal (radiation from the device that powers him up) and external, in the form of Sam Rockwell’s competing arms dealer and Mickey Rourke’s Russian inventor with a grudge. Stuff goes boom, but in nowhere near the quantities you’d expect. This may be the only superhero movie in existence where more time is spent lounging around the hero’s swingin’ pad instead of vrooming through the sky.

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The Ballad Of David Sumner: A Peckinpah Psychodrama

[Originally published in Movietone News 10, January 1972]

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs reminds us that in our rush to civilization, we too often deny the violent origins of our favorite myths and rituals—and pretend that the primal power of our lizard brains never was. Who wants to recall that Christian Communion is a sanitized version of the actual sacrifice—sometimes involving dismemberment and cannibalism—at the heart of innumerable pagan religions? In the time of Sophocles, it was considered beneficial to communally cathect archetypal fantasies. Now we believe that if we just aren’t reminded too often (via the movies, for instance) of the dark underside of human experience, the unpleasantness will all go away, and we’ll all be polite and peaceful together. Isn’t evil all out there, not stubbornly in residence within us? Or if within us, it’s just a matter of biochemical misfires. Retro filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah should chill out, instead of unreeling incendiary words and images.

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner
Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner

In Straw Dogs, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), in Cornwall to do mathematical research, ignores the possibility of forces and emotions which cannot be contained in neat theorems or controlled by the rational mind. The Cornwall locals question him about what he’s seen of the “troubles” in America—”Did you take part, sir?”—and he quips, “Just between commercials.” For him, the reality of disorder and violence is a made-for-TV movie safely sandwiched between the plasticized fantasy-worlds of Madison Avenue. The irrational is closer to the surface in David’s wife, Amy (Susan George), who deliberately changes the pluses to minuses in David’s neat little equations, trying to tell him that his mathematical framework fails to include certain realities. (For a screwball comedy take on Peckinpah’s psychodrama, check out Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant’s scientist, unmanned and paralyzed by living too much in the head, and Katharine Hepburn, a bundle of impulse, irrationality and energy, survive by finding a point of balance between creative chaos and rigid order.)

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Sam Peckinpah by Sam Fuller

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

When he was in Koln, Germany scouting locations for his 1972 film Dead Pigeon on Beethovenstrasse, lifelong newsman Samuel Fuller was invited by a local journal to review any recent picture that had caught his fancy. We are delighted to reprint the result of that invitation here, with the auteur’s permission.

“Water is where you find it, and you won’t find it there! ”

With that simple springboard, Sam Peckinpah’s superb film of man versus men (in this case the contradictory strands of weakness and determination within Cable Hogue) is a must-see movie from WB now playing at the EI Dorado, a new moviehouse in Koln named after Howard Hawks’ sagebrush success. Unlike the lusty Hawks film or any other Western, Peckinpah’s Ballad of Cable Hogue is a sensitive, emotional, surgical job on an American desert hermit without familiar sagebrush stuffing. At times Cable Hogue’s story gnaws at one’s memory from Von Stroheim’s Greed to Huston’s Treasure of Sierra Madre—but the gnawing is short-lived because of Peckinpah’s reconstruction of the West with fiendish authenticity.

Cable Hogue is a classic because in his passion for the counter-make-believe West, its humans and inhumans, Peckinpah never varies from his obsessive desire to show you how it really was and yet never lose that cinematic touch that makes a movie a really entertaining movie. The animal behavior of Cable Hogue, brought to primate heights by Jason Robards, is quiet claw and unbared teeth—a difficult role sensitively conquered by one of the finest actors around these days.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“If I cannot rouse heaven,” says the Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, “I intend to raising hell.” It’s the hell-raising in the cinema of Sam Peckinpah that has most claimed the attention of both the director’s adverse critics and the contingent of the audience Pauline Kael has termed “the thugs”; heaven has rarely entered the discussion. Yet when Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) states, in Ride the High Country, “All I want is to enter my house justified,” the spiritual authenticity is unmistakable. And it doesn’t spring from institutionalized virtue, even if the rhetoric sounds vaguely churchified. (Peckinpah borrowed the line from his father.) Elsewhere in Ride the High Country, Judd trades Biblical quotations with a pathological fire-and-brimstone type (R.G. Armstrong), each of them footnoting chapter and verse; but the last word belongs to Judd’s partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who cuts across their dialogue to compliment Fire-and-Brimstone’s daughter, “Miss Knudsen, you cook a lovely ham hock,” then glances at Judd: “Appetite, Chapter One.”

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is one of the most joyously earthy movies ever made. It’s also quite heavenly. That both qualities are valid in the film traces from their inextricability. And the inextricability has a lot to do with Cable Hogue‘s being a very funny movie.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Plantin’ and readin’, plantin’ and readin’. Fill a man fulla lead, stick ’im in the ground, then read words at him. Why when you’ve killed a man do you then try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?

—Simms Reeves (Hank Worden), Red River

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is tough on the Lord. He gets all of the blame and none of the credit. Abandoned in a wasteland by his gold-prospecting partners, Cable calls on the Lord, albeit with untrusting upward glances. Job-like, he offers to repent for whatever the hell it was he did—mistaking his ordeal for punishment for some unspecified wrong, rather than the trial of endurance, the rite of passage that it is. When he does indeed survive, it becomes his own doing, and none of the Lord’s.

David Warner and Jason Robard as Rev. Sloane and Cable Hogue
David Warner and Jason Robard as Rev. Sloane and Cable Hogue

Conversations with God—who does not answer—bookend the film; and religion, or whatever passes for it, is never far away during the interim. The appearance of the Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane establishes The Ballad of Cable Hogue as a movie about two men who talk to God—or who perhaps have their own way with life and write the Lord in as a partner on the deal.

For the Rev. Sloane, religion is a handy vehicle of seduction—and when, after all, was it not? And why is winning someone’s body any less honorable than winning someone’s soul? When he tells Cable he has to ride into Dead Dog for the evening because “the calling is upon him,” Cable responds: “The Lord’s work? That’s a helluva thing to call it.” Then, after a pause, he recognizes the truth: “I reckon you’re right.”

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Review: Who’ll Stop the Rain?

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

“I’ve been waiting all my life to fuck up like this.” That’s the closest we ever get to the motivation of Vietnam War correspondent John (Michael Moriarty), who suddenly, unaccountably decides to buy two kilos of uncut heroin to smuggle from Saigon back to California, there to sell it at enormous profit. By the time his wife Marge (Tuesday Weld) and his old Marine Corps buddy Ray (Nick Nolte, who with a performance like this under his belt is to be completely and unconditionally forgiven for The Deep) are menaced very nearly to death by the mob (or are they the cops? or are they the mob after all?), it’s too late for John to change what he has got them all into. “I can’t believe I’ve done this,” he tells his bookseller father-in-law (a feisty David Opatoshu), who jejunely replies, “A sense of unreality is no defense.”

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Vivre Sa Vie, Summer Hours and a Crazy Heart – DVDs of the Week

Vivre Sa Vie (Criterion)

Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film marked a significant new direction for young turk director, away from the impassioned sketchiness of his furiously directed first films and into the realm of carefully composed scenes and formal visual strategies. Developed to showcase his wife and muse Anna Karina (they were on the verge of breaking up), the film follows the journey of shop girl Nana (both a reference to the Zola novel and an anagram for Anna) from frustrated aspiring actress surviving on the generosity of her dates to professional prostitute. Karina isn’t given a glamorous treatment here, not like in the playful musical A Woman is a Woman, but the camera adores her in her simple shop girl clothes and Louise Brooks “Lulu” bob and Godard directs her to the performance of her career, giving a humanity to this shallow girl. It’s not just the famous close-up of Karina, with tears streaming down her cheeks, intercut with Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but her distinctive body language, her distracted behavior around her “dates” and furtive response to a police interview.

Anna Karina as Nana, looking for something more meaningful

Godard makes it a mix of character study, social commentary and street tragedy broken into twelve distinct tableaux (the full French title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), many of them composed of carefully arranged long takes by Raoul Coutard. On the one hand it’s a provocative portrait of social and sexual politics (at one point the soundtrack reverts to a recitation of laws on the business of prostitution) directed with Godard’s distinctive gift for counterpoint and dramatic disassociation, on the other a moralistic tale of a shallow, emotionally reckless young woman ultimately punished for her ambitions and infidelities.

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Out of the Past: The Harder They Come

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

Perry Henzell’s Jamaican film The Harder They Come invites comparison with Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus in its stylistic reliance upon pulsating rhythms to carry it along with a sense of inevitability, and in its literary use of the music and lifestyle of New World blacks as the milieu for a story of mythic heroism. But The Harder They Come, though never as self-consciously poetic as the Camus film, is much more fatalistic—as close to naturalism as such a stylized film can come. Black Orpheus increasingly restricts its meaning to the restaged Attic resurrection myth, while The Harder They Come consistently delimits its range of meaning to become not just a rehearsal of a mythic pattern but also a story of music, of crime and pursuit, of the uses and abuses of religion, and most importantly, of political impact. This may sound like a grab-bag of stylistic and thematic implication; but The Harder They Come is no pastiche—it’s a true Third World film in which every element relates to its central concern for the futile struggle of a people doomed to exploitation, whether in politics, crime, or business.

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Review: Interiors

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

As if to avoid distracting mumbles of “Oh, guess where he got that!” in the middle of his unashamedly imitative first non-comedy, Woody Allen gets his most Bergmanesque shot out of the way right up front. It’s a soft, dreamy, quiet interior of a woman running her hand inquiringly across a windowpane; and it establishes straightaway the film’s inside/outside polarity, with the woman seemingly trying to comprehend the shell that separates one existence from another. The glass of the window, like the wall of the eye, or the lens of the camera, is the transparent, impenetrable, inexorable demarcation between the in-here and the out-there. Nothing new; but from here Allen goes on to build a distinctly American Bergman film, accessible, even downright obvious in contrast with the Swedish master’s arcane musings.

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Kapò and The Sadist With Red Teeth – Two Kinds of Horror and the DVDs of the Week

Kapò (Criterion: Essential Art House)

In an age where Holocaust dramas and fictional recreations of the concentration camp experience are perhaps too plentiful—how could a mere movie come close to communicating the inhumanity of such an event, even in microcosm?—Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 Kapò is something of a revelation. It’s not the earliest concentration camp drama, though they were rare in the era (Alain Resnais’ discreet, poetic and haunting nonfiction meditation Night and Fog was only a few years earlier), but it is the earliest I’ve seen. Was the history still a fresh wound that needed time to, if not heal, at least scar over before gingerly exploring the tender area? Or was the horror just too great to even comprehend?

Kapo
Kapo

Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Jew with a commitment to tackling politically volatile issues head on, took the challenge with this harrowing drama of a teenage Parisian Jew (American actress Susan Strasberg, her performance dubbed into Italian) who is literally swept up off the streets and sent to Auschwitz within minutes of the opening. Pontecorvo doesn’t give us time to settle into the situation and it’s only as when we see SS uniforms on the street that we notice the yellow star on her coat. Edith is just a kid, a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t the self-preservation to run when she watches her parents herded into a truck outside her building. Even when separated in the camp, all she can think to do is look for her parents and look for a way out, a futile gesture that ultimately save her life. While the rest of the youngsters wait patiently, unaware that they are marked for the gas chambers, she sees the reality of the camp where prisoners are stacked in bunks and the bodies of the dead are stacked like cordwood everywhere else. She’s ushered out of the cold by a mercenary survivor (an uncharacteristically generous gesture on her part, but perhaps there’s a jab of maternal protectiveness in her) and into the office of the camp doctor, who takes her coat (with the Star of David brand of death) and gives her the identity of recently deceased thief. “You’re lucky,” he says. “If no one had died tonight, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” That’s what counts for luck here.

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Review: Days of Heaven

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

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven seems made for Dolby stereo, in the way that certain films were made for Cinerama and not just in Cinerama. I was immediately struck by the film’s showy, deliberately unrealistic use of sound: left and right speakers cutting in and out, sound associated with an onscreen image coming noticeably from an offscreen location, bigger-than-life sound disembodied from its source in the frame. Indeed, Malick and Nestor Almendros have so tightly composed the frames of Days of Heaven that this use of sound is the only clue that a world exists beyond the frame; and that suits the purposes of this big, stark movie, separating its private worlds from the larger world in which its characters dwell. The crisp, sharp photography, and Jack Fisk’s meticulous art direction, offer us a very tidy world, with the same keen-edged precision seen in the worlds of, for example, Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas, or Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Undiffused light seems not merely to illuminate the images but actually to define them. And the result is a world so precise as to seem frozen, as if in an album, or in a memory—which is, of course, what Days of Heaven is, and why its tidiness bespeaks a deceptive simplicity. The frame is filled with what the girl-narrator remembers, not with realistic re-creations of an era. No one actually seems to live and work in the rooms and fields of Days of Heaven; rather, people and the environment seem to coexist as elements of a studied harmonic composition—a composition we must see as the apprehension and re-ordering of reality by the girl’s remembering mind. The fact that the film depicts many scenes that the girl could not have witnessed only further justifies the stylized simplicity with which Malick portrays events that are necessarily more of the imagination than of history.

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Review: The End / Hooper

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

From the tone of the “Emergence of Burt Reynolds” ballyhoo that heralded its arrival, I expected The End to be the bigger hit of the past summer’s two Reynolds films. But despite his competent bid for respect as a serious directorial talent in The End, Reynolds—on either side of the camera—is more engaging in the midst of the humble good-timeyness of Hooper. Hal Needham directed the latter, a stuntman’s paean to stuntmen; but one glance at the credit and cast lists for the two films makes a case for regarding both as the product of the Burt Reynolds stock company that has been slowly a-building through White Lightning, Gator and Smokey and the Bandit. These folks enjoy one another so darn much it’s pretty hard for us not to enjoy them, too.

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Review: The Lord of the Rings (Part One)

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

Looking at the photograph of Saul Zaentz and Ralph Bakshi in the October issue of Millimeter, I am struck by how much these men, after more than two years’ involvement with The Lord of the Rings, look like two hobbits themselves. It works: Bakshi’s Frodo to Zaentz’s Bilbo … but this Ring they’ve got hold of may prove just as ambiguous in its anticipated effects as the one in this two-hour first-of-two animated films, or the one in Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy series. Although Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings has a presold audience, it is an audience that will be hard to please. One thing that is almost sure to disappoint both the skeptic and the rabid fan of the film is the indefinite feeling that accompanies the end of this first part, and the knowledge that one must wait another year or two to make up one’s mind fully. Unlike Lester’s The Three Musketeers, Bakshi’s Part One is not of a piece, but ends on a deliberately to-be-continued note which makes one wish he had opted for either a four-hour feature with intermission or a two-night, two-feature extravaganza all at once, if only to achieve the kind of unity that both cinema and myth demand.

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These Are the Damned and Blu-“Rings” Times Two – DVDs of the Week

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

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