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Bill Butler

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: Jaws

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

Jaws begins with a chillingly realistic sequence of shots that are at the same time metaphysically portentous and eerily beautiful. The camera pans slowly across a group of college people singing and drinking around a beach campfire, cuts a fluid swath along a bluish twilight New England sand dune, eases into a placid sea behind a pretty girl, and follows her as she swims fatefully out over those murky depths where we all know what is waiting. As the girl splashes innocently against a postcard sunset, we cut to a couple of quick shots whose point of view is somewhere below the water, evilly hovering, gazing up at the girl’s form and the dusk sky which swims and shimmers above her like an out-of-focus image of another world. The underwater camera and the presence it represents move progressively closer, intercut with shots of the girl from the surface, until finally she gets this funny look on her face, bobs once or twice like a cork floater on a fishing line, and goes shooting through the water at shark speed. And then she’s gone. There’s this silence, this beautiful fading sunset, a few harmless waves lapping the beach….

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Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

In just about every Jack Nicholson performance there is a moment (often more than one moment) when Nicholson’s face reflects something suddenly and deeply wrong with the universe. In Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest one of those moments of both recognition and profound confusion comes after Billy has been trundled off to bed with Mac’s girlfriend Candy and McMurphy has disposed himself near the open window to wait. He begins by sharing some rum with Chief Bromden and finally sinks to a sitting position on the floor. Closeup on Nicholson’s face. He smiles, glancing in the direction Billy and Candy have gone, and then without warning or apparent reason the grin drops from sight, McMurphy’s mouth opens slightly, and his brows pull a little closer together. The window is open behind him, but somehow you know (regardless of whether you’ve read the book or the play) that McMurphy will not be crawling through it, and you’re not really sure why. After a moment, the smile creeps back onto Nicholson’s face, but then his eyes close and we cut to the next morning, the window still open, McMurphy and the Chief passed out underneath it.

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Review: Lipstick

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Lipstick is Dino de Laurentiis’ latest lynch-fury kit, designed to soap up the viewer, tease him through the requisite stages of arousal and frustration, and ultimately leave him peacefully drained, with a terrycloth caress of redeeming social import to beguile him out of postcoital triste. I’m by no means persuaded that Dino’s place should be closed down. Death Wish provided a particularly gratifying fantasy experience to coincide with the hoped-for but never-quite-expected ouster of Tricky Dick, and the black viewers who screamed “Kill him!” at the climax of Mandingo were able to pass the popcorn salt to their white neighbors in the lobby without a hint of either Uncle Tom servility or glacial Muslim irony. But the new film is interestingly confused in ways that may compromise the patron’s simple pleasure, and the reason could be that Lamont Johnson is less of an erogenous engineer and more of a director than either Michael Winner or Richard Fleischer, the respective shot-callers of the earlier de Laurentiis productions.

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