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Allen Garfield

Review: Slither

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Slither ends up being one of the major disappointments of the season because, for about half its length, it promises to be one memorable movie, and once it starts falling apart we experience a very painful sense of the diminution of large possibilities. James Caan plays a former high-school football star and unsuccessful car thief who, freshly out of prison, reluctantly pauses to have a beer with a fellow parolee and finds himself cast in a giddy American nightmare. Unseen assassins shoot up a sealed house in a golden-sunlit, bee-buzzy corner of the South while a golfing commentary drones on TV; a dying man passes on a name and an address ostensibly worth a fortune, then blows himself to smithereens; a farmer gives a hitchhiker a lift, then drops him off in the middle of nowhere because he doesn’t share the farmer’s economic burdens; a barefoot iconoclast with her whole world in the back of her station wagon picks up the hero, beds him at a motel after making sure he doesn’t have VD, then scares him by trying to hold up an all-night diner…. It goes like that, eccentric but not quite senseless, charged with intuitions of a rampant American madness that fairly emanates from train depots, dusty roads, potato cellars, trailer parks, noontime offices. A comically sinister potentiality pervades everything and everybody while—this is the best part—never giving the feeling that it’s all some sort of Message for us.

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Review: Busting

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Busting represents yet another casualty of the Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid syndrome. Telltale symptoms: a wisecracking, ultra-cool male duo (here substitute Elliott Gould and Robert Blake for Paul Newman and Robert Redford) at odds with a world they never made and cannot change, humor and mutual loyalty their only weapons against a graceless, corrupt environment. And it’s so seductive, this syndrome. It’s like being a bright-eyed whippersnapper of a kid set loose among a bunch of dull, dishonest grownups—and with a blood brother to boot! You can play at being a cop (as in Busting) or a robber (Butch Cassidy and The Sting)—makes no difference, as long as you do it with the style and verve that makes all those corrupt or rule-bound adults look like spoilsports. Shades of Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook! Leslie Fiedler must be giggling in his beard: “Come back to the raft, Sundance honey!”

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Review: The Conversation

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Gene Hackman’s quietly desperate face looms huge in so many frames of Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film that by the end of the movie we know his features just about as intimately as Harry Caul (played by Hackman) knows the lines of the conversation he has bugged. Both we and he are, in a sense, obsessed: we, the viewers, by Harry’s troubled image on the screen; Harry, by the voices he hears and the implications, slowly realized, of what those voices are saying. This hardly seems a coincidence—Coppola obviously intended it that way. Closeups, especially of Hackman, virtually fill the movie, serving perfectly to visually reinforce the theme of violated privacy with which the story is so much concerned. The correlation between those who bug and those who are bugged (bugger and buggee?) is ultimately turned into a nearly inevitable irony as Harry’s situation is reversed and he becomes the one who is watched and listened to. Indeed, the screenplay as a whole moves just a bit too predictably and ends up being too readily reachable, too readily analyzable, what with its neat ambiguities and psychological uncertainties and sticky relevancies (not to mention some of the painfully pointed dialogue: “You’re not supposed to feel anything about it,” a blond seductress says to Harry just before swiping his tapes of the conversation; “It’s just a job”). But if you’re willing to disregard some of the story’s weaknesses as narrative and actually look at the film more closely, you might find it has some visually interesting ways of “saying” things.

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Review: The Front Page

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! bombed. The Front Page may well make lots of dollars. I like to see Billy Wilder on top, but Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! will live through the ages whereas The Front Page, a calculated catch at prepackaged commercial success, is as mummified as the makeup-encased actors inhabiting it. It’s among the several worst films Wilder has ever made.

I must say the idea bothered me from the first. The director appeared to have come to terms with so many of his demons in those recent, mellow, glowingly personal pictures. The Front Page seemed a clear reversion to professional-wiseass territory—a country Wilder occasionally made his own, but the spoils of conquest only made him more bitter, so that he descended to the arid, tortured, unilluminating likes of Kiss Me, Stupid and The Fortune Cookie (better films than they were credited for at the time, but thrashing, ugly experiences all the same). The juicy cynicism of the Hecht-MacArthur property looked too readymade. And so, I fear, it’s proved to be, although one of the most serious faults of Wilder (and I.A.L. Diamond)’s version of the play is that it ignores so many of the gemlike facets of the play’s cynicism.

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Out of the Past: Get to Know Your Rabbit

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Get to Know Your Rabbit represents a transition in the work of Brian De Palma, from the unrestrained precocity of his grainy independents Greetings (1969) and Hi, Mom! (1970) to the more controlled and purposeful talent critics have seen in his recent films Sisters (1973) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Genre-parody is clearly one of the beacons of De Palma’s career so far; and what Get to Know Your Rabbit boils down to is a parody of dropping-out films. De Palma’s drop-out here, Donald Beeman (Tommy Smothers, characteristically naïve in a role that really calls for the more complex subtlety Robert De Niro brought to the earlier two films), drops all the way: from promising junior executive with an expensive apartment and a sexy mistress, to lonely flophouse roomer seeking a new lifestyle by attending a sleazy school for tap-dancing magicians. Informing the film’s plot are the untiring efforts of Beeman’s former supervisor Turnbull (superbly played by John Astin) to, first, get Donald to come back to work, and, when that fails, to build around Donald (and without his knowledge) a multimillion-dollar corporation devoted to training executive drop-outs to be tap-dancing magicians and managing their road tours through fifth-string night spots in bush-league towns.

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Review: Gable and Lombard

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

His cowlick is artfully combed and he has the verbal and behavioral tics down pretty good, but there’s so much concentration in the way he sucks his cheeks and pushes his lips out that you begin to think he’s a dental patient waiting for a negligent technician to come back and retrieve the X-ray pads. She doesn’t recall any particular Hollywood blonde of the Thirties, but then again she does manifest some signs of independent life and personality, which can’t be said for his Disneyland robot, however mechanically perfect. It seems pointless to award merits and demerits to Brolin and Clayburgh for not being Gable and Lombard, because only Gable and Lombard were Gable and Lombard, and you can make an honorable try at reconstituting Julius Caesar, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Leonardo da Vinci, Anne Boleyn, Betsy Ross, Emile Zola, Charles Steinmetz, and even Jeanne Eagels or George M. Cohan, but you can’t fake someone whose silver-screen reality is more definitively established than any “real-life” reality ever could be—the medium simply won’t permit it, and God bless the medium! Neither does it make much sense to pretend to tell the story of two entirely made-up creatures whose names just happen to be Gable and Lombard, except maybe in a surrealistic novel—although you can ring in a supporting character, mythical rather than personal, and exploit him as symbol or icon (v. Jerry Lacy’s “Bogart” in Play It Again, Sambut don’t let him get too close to the actual clips from Casablanca).

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Review: Mother, Jugs and Speed

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Although the advertising works hard to suggest Mother, Jugs and Speed is “a black and blue comedy” in the tradition of M*A*S*H, the actual film bears little resemblance to Altman’s in the areas that count. It’s a cynical comedy and it deals with unsentimental souls on the periphery of the medical profession; there the resemblance ends. Peter Yates’ direction and the agreeable-enough performances come nowhere near the textural crossriffling of Altman’s movie, and the script’s gestures toward the acknowledgment of human pain in the world out there feel as if they’d been plotted on a graph, rather than simultaneously emerging from and validating the subterranean desperation of the characters’ lifestyle.

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