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Clifton James

Review: Kid Blue

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Kid Blue, completed more than a year ago, enjoyed a belated and unsuccessful release and arrived in the Jet City even later. Reportedly Twentieth Century Fox advertised the picture as a straight western somewhere in the country and failed to find an audience for it (whatever audience they did reach with such a pitch would surely have been grievously disappointed). The film and the rest of the nation will have a second chance to get together after a New York Film Festival showcasing offers a proper reintroduction. Meanwhile, the Harvard Exit has scored another audience coup—not so spectacular as with such earlier previously-ignored-elsewhere pix as The Conformist, Taking Off, and The Emigrants, but not bad at all. Unfortunately the sizable weeknight audience I saw the film with tended to turn on at just those places where the filmmakers lost either perspective or their artistic souls.

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Review: The Last Detail

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from The Last Detail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But The Last Detail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.

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Review: Buster and Billie

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

It’s come to be almost a given that American communal life is pervaded with violence, contained or at large. Those filmmakers who aren’t examining contemporary urban jungles from vantage points of nihilistic glee or despair turn to the American rural past to disprove any vestigial illusions we might have had about the noble savage or the pastoral innocent. From Mean Streets to Badlands, from Bad Company to Thieves like Us, from Payday to Buster and Billie, the lay of the land remains the same: brave new worlds gone wrong, gone brutal, gone back from innocence either by accident or in cold blood. America, the home of hillbilly and ghetto crazies, killers pure in heart, traveling city streets and country backroads, dwarfed by skyscrapers or the prairie, always caught, mostly dead—the last American heroes.

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Review: Rancho Deluxe

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

I have to be on the side of any film in which Harry Dean Stanton is ordered to “Hoover the Navajos”—i.e., vacuum-clean the Indian rugs. The line could only have been written by Tom McGuane, who’s made a specialty in recent years of writing almost surreally funny sendups of the New West. The rugs belong to Elizabeth Ashley, bored but miraculously goodhumored wife of rancher Clifton James who, fresh out of empires to build, has recently focused his obsessive attention on apprehending a couple of one-steer-at-a-time rustlers. In this effort he is—or is supposed to be—abetted by horsethief–turned–stock detective Slim Pickens, who manifests a disconcerting preference for sitting in front of a TV set in the bunkhouse and ignoring the clues James finds and the theories he cooks up. The hard guys interfering with James’s peace of mind (or providing him with esoteric entertainment—take your pick) are about as dangerous as defanged garter snakes: Jeff Bridges, a poor little rich boy with a spoiled marriage behind him, and Sam Waterston, an Indian whose militancy is of a benignly comic strain and whose blood traces back to Ohio Cornplanters rather than the warriors who once rode the surrounding Big Skyline.

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