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Burt Lancaster

Review: Scorpio

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

Michael Winner was once identified with middle-aged impersonations of youth pictures (The System aka The Girl Getters, You Must Be Joking, The Jokers). What was so striking about most of those pictures was that nobody, least of all the swinging youths, had much fun. In the past couple of years Winner and a supporting company including writer Gerald Wilson, cameraman Robert Paynter, and Peckinpah’s favorite scorer Jerry Fielding have dubiously gifted us with a series of films so grim-lipped, so relentlessly machined, so barren of hope for the dramatis personae or the audience that simply to name them is to experience the chill of premature extinction: Lawman, The Nightcomers, Chato’s Land, and—latest till now—The Mechanic. What has kept moments of these films alive—as distinct from twitching galvanically in helpless response to Winner’s gratuitous zooming, craning, and this’ll-getcha cutting—is the incidental pathos of aging stars floundering in delicately superannuated genres being mercilessly perpetuated by an unsympathetic and sometimes downright ugly sensibility; I recall especially Burt Lancaster and Sheree North in Lawman (though the highly contemporary Robert Duvall also distinguished himself therein by taking to chaps and saddle with the same unimpeachable naturalness with which he became a coldblooded consigliere) and Marlon Brando as an old/young Quint in The Nightcomers, that ill-advised supposition of what happened before The Turn of the Screw. In all of these films (middle-)age has been threatened by sterile youth already on the verge of anachronism, and the course of events has more often than not been an irreversible and deadly predictable process of mutual annihilation.

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Review: The Midnight Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

The most interesting thing about The Midnight Man is the fact that it was co-written for the screen, co-produced, and co-directed by a writer and a movie star. The fact, not any of the results or even the vagrant peculiar tensions one might expect to discern in such a collaboration. The film lacks visual distinction; the best thing to be said on that score is that both directors have avoided a customary failing of unpracticed metteurs-en-scène, tucking the camera behind chair backs or putting it through flashy but pointless paces. The cast is large and, as a list of names, interesting; but no performance is free of the taint of indecisiveness, an irritating incompleteness that has more to do with the players’ insecurity than any of the characters. The screenplay serves up a complicated plot, but it is the complication of desultory narrative lines that cohabitate without cohering; far from suggesting a writer seizing the opportunity to realize a cherished ambition, it seems like nothing so much as a Metro committee job sent back for readjustment alter readjustment by a dozen different writers who never met except maybe accidentally in the commissary.

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Blu-ray: Two takes on Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’

killersBDThe Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.

The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.

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Videophiled: Liliana Cavani’s ‘The Skin’

SkinThe Skin (aka La Pelle, Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Liliana Cavani in 1981 from the novel by Curzio Malaparte, is ostensibly a war drama, set during the American liberation of Sicily from the Fascists, but it’s really about the politics and economics of occupation. As the Allied forces (led by Burt Lancaster’s General Mark Clark) roll in, the Americans are as busy with public relations opportunities (Clark wants his Fifth Battalion to get the glory for the liberation) as with local issues, for which they defer to Curzio Malaparte (Marcello Mastroianni), an aristocrat and former Fascist who switched allegiances and fought the Fascists in Spain.

There’s not a lot of grace in Cavani’s direction—she seems occupied simply corralling such an enormous international production—but then it’s not a graceful subject. This isn’t about war, it’s about civilians caught between invading powers and soldiers in their downtime, and Cavani enjoys the chaos of this world in upheaval without letting us lose our way through. She takes us to the streets and apartment houses where the flesh trade cashes in on the new occupying army and to the heart of the Sicilian mafia, which negotiate a ransom for German POWs they’ve kidnapped (they want to get paid by the kilogram and have been stuffing them with pasta to fatten them up). True to form, the gangsters treat American military like just another syndicate.

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Videophiled Classic: James Stewart is ‘The Man From Laramie’ and Burt Lancaster drives ‘The Train’

ManLaramieThe Man From Laramie (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Anthony Mann’s seventh and final collaboration with James Stewart and his first widescreen film, is a frontier “King Lear” by way of Mann’s favorite themes of splintered families and filial betrayal. Stewart plays his usual brooding loner, a former army scout searching for the man responsible for his brother’s death. He rides into a town run by a cattle baron (Donald Crisp) with an irresponsible son (Alex Nicol) who despises him and a dutiful foreman (Arthur Kennedy) who desperately craves his father-figure’s affection and respect.

The complicated web of love, hate, and betrayal sprawls over the entire town and Stewart, less psychologically haunted than in previous Mann collaborations, becomes a catalyst that pitches the conflict into violence, usually directed at him. While the Apaches are the ostensible threat, Mann’s brutal violence reaches a new level of cruel glee in Nicol’s sadistic psychopath of a delinquent with a six shooter. At his direction, Stewart is dragged through a burning campfire, shot point-blank in the hand, beaten, ambushed, and generally made unwelcome. Kennedy provides the psychotic edge as the spurned son with a black secret. As usual Mann’s landscapes are magnificent in a country where beauty and danger lie in the same handsome wilderness. Also stars Cathy Downs as a Kennedy’s long-suffering fiancée, googly-eyed Jack Elam as shady informant, and Wallace Ford as a tracker who becomes Stewart’s ally.

Twilight Time offers a lovely widescreen transfer and offers the usual trademark extras: an isolated musical score and effects track and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

TrainThe Train (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) makes a timely arrival for anyone who was disappointed with Monuments Men. This too is a true story of the Nazi looting of Europe’s art treasures during their retreat and the efforts to stop them, but this is a tough, muscular war thriller that pits the stakes against one another: just what price are you willing to pay to protect your artistic legacy? Burt Lancaster is the proletariat resistance leader who bristles under orders to stop the art from being taken out of France – he’s more focused on killing Germans and saving civilians – and Paul Scofield is his nemesis, the aristocratic Nazi officer who oversees the mass looting of France’s greatest paintings.

John Frankenheimer (who replaced the film’s original helmer, Arthur Penn, at Lancaster’s request) directs with a muscular style that puts the themes into action and the crisp black and white photography captures the busy industrial detail of the train yard and the gritty war-torn atmosphere of France in the final days of the German occupation. The great Michel Simon is the burly engineer who sabotages the initial run and Suzanne Flon and Jeanne Moreau co-star.

This Twilight Time release features the original commentary recorded by Frankenheimer for the laserdisc release almost 20 years ago plus a new commentary track with Twilight Time founder and historian Nick Redman and film historians Julie Kirgo and Paul Seydor, as well as the usual isolated score track and eight-page booklet. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More classics and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’

Robert Aldrich’s 1977 Twilight’s Last Gleaming combines two distinct genres: the “men on a mission against long odds” adventure, a specialty of Aldrich is such films as Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen and even The Longest Yard (translated into underdog sports drama), and the conspiracy thriller that flourished in the wake of the Kennedy assassinations, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. Aldrich wasn’t an overtly political filmmaker — his sensibility was more anti-authoritarian, his films innately suspicious of the motivations of those in power — but the Vietnam allegory of Ulzana’s Raid was hard to miss. Twilight’s Last Gleaming simply takes his commentary even further.

Burt Lancaster and Paul Winfield

Burt Lancaster (who had starred in three previous films for Aldrich) leads this mission as General Lawrence Dell, a patriotic career soldier and army officer who breaks out of military prison (where he was railroaded by the military brass trying to silence him) with a volatile group of military misfits, men who follow him out of greed rather than conscience or conviction. Their mission: take command of a military silo in Montana and hold the nation hostage for a small fortune and the release of a secret government document. For the men it’s all about the money but Dell, who served in Vietnam and survived a North Korean POW camp, demands that the truth of America’s involvement be released to the public. But it’s not about hurting the country, it’s about trusting its citizens with the truth and letting them decide on the next step forward.

First term American President David T. Stevens (Charles Durning) is appalled when he reads this document, and even more appalled that men in his own cabinet, career government and military men all, were not only involved in the conspiracy but are steadfastly against releasing the document. Which, of course, leads to a game of chicken between the terrorist patriot, who threatens to unleash nuclear missiles targeted on Russia if his demands are not met, and the government, whose attempts to break into the sealed silo only push them closer to war.

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“Rope of Sand” – Burt Lancaster in North Africa

Rope of Sand (Olive)

Set in the unforgiving desert badlands and cutthroat diamond trade of North Africa, with a cast that could be the burned-out, ruthlessly mercenary evil twins of Casablanca, Rope of Sand (1949) recasts the exotic thriller with a noir sensibility under the harsh light of a desert sun. Burt Lancaster is the American hero, turned bitter and vengeful after his mistreatment at the hands of the sadistic head of security of the diamond company, and Corinne Calvet (“introduced” to American audiences here) the doll-faced femme fatale Suzanne, a mercenary gold-digger whose first act is to blackmail middle-aged company man Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains). She’s a beauty, to be sure, and plays the part as a sex kitten with claws, but she’s not convincingly worldly next to the display of hard-bitten survival from the rest of the veteran cast.

The echoes to Casablanca (which was also produced by Hal Wallis) are unmistakable, and not just from the North African setting, expatriate characters and battle of wills. Rains plays Martingale as a cousin to Casablanca’s Louis in the corporate world, with a little more venom but just as susceptible to dramatic romantic gestures, and fellow Casablanca vets Paul Henreid (this time as a villain) and Peter Lorre (all drunken melancholy as a well-informed underworld hustler) fill out the top-billed cast. Even more fun than the battle of wills between the embittered Mike and Henreid’s vain, vicious Commandant Vogel (not a Nazi but certainly symbolically channeling the role) is the gleeful gamesmanship of Martingale, who hires Suzanne to play the two off one another for his own amusement (he delights in humiliating Vogel) as much as for business.

Director William Dieterle really sinks his teeth into competitive play of blackmail, double-crossing and betrayal and keeps the edge on even as a couple of characters reveal a conscience by the end. And he nicely shifts the film from the hard daylight of the desert, the shadows more about the heat of the sun than the darkness of the soul, into a nocturnal world with intimate indoor scenes in pools of illumination and outdoor scene played in the shadows as lights cut the darkness, in particular a muscular fist-fight in the desert lit by the headlamps of a halftrack. It makes for one of the most engagingly entertaining artifacts on the margins of film noir and a terrific rediscovery debuting on DVD in a fine B&W edition. No supplements from this bare bones Olive Films release.

Sweet Smell of Success – DVD/Blu-ray of the Week (Part 2)

Sweet Smell of Success (Criterion)

“I love this dirty town.” The first and only time that Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker drops the cynical twist from his clenched smile and allows genuine appreciation cross his face in Sweet Smell of Success is when he drops that line while strolling down the nighttime streets of Broadway. It’s not a proclamation or even necessarily a compliment. He loves this town because he rules it from his tower of newsprint and television, making and breaking careers with a line and starving enemies into submission by conspicuous neglect.

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (a master of deftly-played character comedy with an edge of social satire for Britain’s Ealing Studios), written by rising screenwriter Ernest Lehmann (drawing from a career as a New York press agent) and rewritten by the acclaimed playwright Clifford Odets (who is credited with tightening the action and giving the dialogue its edge), Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most lacerating and vicious visions of the predatory urban world in the American cinema, and one accomplished without a single murder, gunshot or pulled knife. This is Broadway Noir, the dark side of the intersection of show business, politics and social register in the era when newspaper columnists and television personalities held sway over a nation and not just a slice of the demographic.

New York is the world for J.J. Hunsecker and he rules this with an iron fist and a vindictive ferocity, hovering over the film long before Lancaster even appears on screen. Hunsecker is a classier, more cultivated version of Walter Winchell for late-fifties Broadway culture and Lancaster is smooth, silky and subtle, controlled and controlling in social situations, using silence and the threat of his voice behind the words as weapons in the power struggle of conversations. There’s not an exchange where J.J. fails to remind his listener what he has on them, and what they owe him.

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Lost “Weekend”

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 20 Number 2, March-April 1984]

Mandeville Canyon is a quiet, curvy stretch of road a good ten miles from Hollywood, lined with well-appointed homes generously separated by shrub and woodland. Where the grade begins to increase, as if the road aspired to eventually climbing out of the surrounding high hills, one’s eyes cast leftward toward a graciously imposing bluff. Ranks of white fence dominate the near horizon and reappear brokenly through the trees on the hillside beyond. From the road they’re the only visible sign of “Robert Taylor’s little cabin where he used to ride horses—in point of fact, a sprawling ranch house replete with baronial dining rooms, parlors, studies, bedrooms, and enough bars to keep the clientele of a metropolitan watering hole happy.

This particular late-afternoon in December 1982, the peace of Mandeville Canyon is not secure. As we park along the roadside and climb out for the walk up the long lane, an abrupt burst of light-machine-gun fire rips the twilight. We are undismayed; indeed, the effect is reassuring, even charming. Someone is tuning up for another night’s shooting on The Osterman Weekend, the first theatrical-movie version of a Robert Ludlum bestseller and the first film Sam Peckinpah has directed in five years.

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The “Blu” Leopard, New York Confidential and Night Train to Munich: Blu-ray/DVDs of the Week

The Leopard (Criterion)

This is what Blu-ray was made for.

I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.

Burt Lancaster leads the dance
Burt Lancaster leads the dance

I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.

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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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