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David Warner

Review: The Omen

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

What partly recommends and partly handicaps The Omen, the latest entry in the horror film genre, is its old-fashioned quality. The film develops its tale of the modern-day birth of Satan’s son with a modicum of special effects and supernatural gimcracks, relying instead on tried and true methods of suspense such as not letting you see things too clearly (à la Val Lewton), mining the potential inhabitedness of any given space for its lode of ominousness, and allowing the implicit contrast between ancient horror and present complacency to breed an unsettling tension. On the negative side, the script too often takes tedious refuge in the old cliffhanger device that traditionally slogs up the action in soap operas and mediocre horror films. The paradigmatic example in The Omen occurs when Gregory Peck, inadvertent parent to devilspawn, is visited by a priest who possesses all sorts of crucial information that, we know, ought to be immediately and cogently communicated. But is it? Of course not. Instead the priest incoherently proselytizes Peck, marking himself at once as an irrelevant religious fanatic and getting kicked out of the busy man’s office for his pains. This ploy ensured several more encounters between the two men before Peck ever got the point. I had gotten the point some time ago and simply went away for awhile, to wait out this spurious method of generating suspense by unnecessarily retarding and prolonging narrative development.

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Review: From Beyond the Grave

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

The anthology film is by now familiar, even old hat, to devotees of British horror product. But, as already hailed in other quarters, Amicus Productions’ From Beyond the Grave may well be the best one since Dead of Night. The context in which it is set—encounters in a little antique shop called “Temptations,” presided over by Peter Cushing at his very best—is not so much a framing story as a prevailing moral philosophy. In the course of the film five people—four legitimate customers and a would-be holdup man—enter the shop, and their behavior there will affect them for the rest of their lives—which in some cases are short indeed.

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Review: Cross of Iron

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

War is an inescapably personal experience in Cross of Iron. Nearly always from middle-shot or closer, the soldiers see the enemy they fight: many die in the embraces of their killers. No field-size moving masses of men, no distant artillery, no “targets” and “objectives.” In Peckinpah’s war there are only people—confused, afraid, in pain, screaming for survival. Peckinpah carefully chooses images emblematic of the reality of war: a soldier’s neck emptying blood into the muddy water where he lies dead; a body that has been run over so many times it has become part of the road. The awful power of his combat scenes is heightened by contrasting qualities of light and sound for the out-of-combat sequences: the warm greens and yellows in the hospital scenes and in the idyllic field to which Sergeant Rolf Steyner’s platoon escapes after a hopeless battle in a burnt-out factory contrast starkly with the cold greens, dusty grays, muddy browns of the battle zone. The absolute silence before each of several attacks in the film serves to emphasize the fury of what follows. Never has Peckinpah’s rhythmic cutting between similar violent acts been so effective in establishing the inevitability and terrible beauty of the sense of community in the meeting—and the meting-out of death.

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Cross Of Iron: On getting past the blood

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), May 25, 1977]

Hugging the wall of a trench, Steyner’s platoon looks up at a Russian tank clattering over their heads. They are the last Germans at this easternmost point on the Russian front, a rear guard where no rear guard was meant to be, deliberately stranded and now quite surrounded. They break for the nearby factory, spray the snipers out of the convoluted ductwork, but find no refuge there. The snout of another tank gun smashes through the wall, the machine following, climbing over brick and mortar and dead Germans and Russians. There is a tunnel. The platoon runs along it. In the eyehole of light behind them, the tank appears. The snout becomes an eye, and the eye a mouth, roaring after them. But only the tunnel remains to be destroyed. The platoon has risen out of a hole into sunlight, silence, and a field of the thickest, greenest grass this side of paradise.

Cross of Iron
Cross of Iron

People talk a lot about the violence in Sam Peckinpah’s films. Most of what they say has to do with drawing facile connections between bloodlust and macho sexuality, or tut-tutting over fascist mindsets, or announcing forthrightly that violence never settled anything and only begets more violence. This record is available at any number of reviewing stands and is suitable for playing at all the best parties.

The problem with these approaches to Peckinpah’s violence is that they all seek to ignore the man’s art, to seal it safely off behind a barrier of trendy labels and categories—somebody else’s categories. In so doing, ironically, they overlook how truly violent and anarchic his movies are. For Peckinpah’s violence involves much more than an abundance of blood-spurting corpses and protracted death falls. It rages against the very structures of experience, explodes the linear reliability of perception and narrative, blows up the known world and then shudders as the chaos starts resolving back into the same old patterns.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Jr. Bonner: Another Side of Sam Peckinpah

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

At a basic level, Peckinpah’s is a cinema of oppositions. When one thinks of Westerns, a genre whose configurations and conventions Peckinpah has done a lot to redefine, one tends to reduce moral tensions to a simple antagonism between forces good and evil—something Peckinpah’s films emphatically don’t do. In Jr. Bonner, the kind of moral tension that operates between Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), a onetime cowboy who has become a notably successful businessman and smalltown icon, and Jr. (Steve McQueen), a middleaged cowboy who is having trouble winning, indexes the complexity of Peckinpah’s ideas about heroism and morality. There is a scene early in the film in which Jr.* goes into a saloon in his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for a drink, and discovers Buck sitting in a corner booth. Jr. sits down and makes a pitch to Buck to fix things so that he’ll ride the bull Sunshine in the rodeo and hopefully win back some of his flagging self-esteem. (Sunshine is a bad bull who has thrown Jr. before; the cowboy is absolutely not seeking an easy ride.) Buck says, “I ain’t goin’ to make a living off somebody else’s pride,” and in the near-mythic uprightness of those few words lurks an inherent set of values that, on the one hand, stands opposed to the waywardness of Jr.’s pragmatic individualism, but that, on the other hand, suggests the same kind of dauntless adherence to archaic codes that lends the doomed Romanticism of Jr. Bonner an almost celebratory force. Buck and Jr. are two of a kind, cut from the same mythic block, even though they seem to be at odds about the means of maintaining their ways of life.

Junior Bonner
Junior Bonner

Peckinpah’s characters do not readily yield to neat moral dichotomizing. Identity is the main positive force in Peckinpah’s films, but equally crucial is the moral attitude it embodies, or from which it derives. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, we tend to forget that Hogue’s persevering out in the desert has as much to do with a somewhat nasty urge to avenge his having been cast out as it does with more enduringly admirable qualities like his love for Hildy and his societally utilitarian, and quite affable, capitalistic tendencies. Hogue (Jason Robards) is sustained in equal parts by forces which are destructive as well as those which are constructive, life-giving. Inherent in Peckinpah’s Westerns is the same dissociation of heroism from simplistic moral attitudes which figures as an essential premise in earlier Westerns by directors like Ford, Hawks, Mann, and Fuller. One has only to think of The Searchers, Red River, The Naked Spur, and Run of the Arrow to realize that the informing qualities of the modern Western protagonist include a sense of alienation, crippling flaws, blind spots, and weaknesses proportionate to the potentially tragic stature of the characters.

In Peckinpah’s Westerns from Ride the High Country through Jr. Bonner, identity clings to lives and lifestyles that seem perennially on the road to extinction. But the plight of the Peckinpah “hero,” residing in a world where even the notion of heroism is ambiguous, is more complicated than the simple fact of his propensity to vanish from the historical scene. Peckinpah’s films ultimately seek to reconcile the necessity and the futility of a Romantic worldview, a dialectic which is important in evaluating Peckinpavian morality and, subsequently, in understanding Peckinpah’s characters within that context. The two sides of that dialectic are often manifested in different characters within a given film: Jr. and Buck here, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Ride the High Country‘s Steve Judd and Gil Westrum. All these pairs in some way suggest unities; they are seen not as separate entities inherently antagonistic, but as outgrowths of the same passing world who have been unnaturally wrenched into positions of fatal contravention.

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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: The Thirty-Nine Steps

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Remaking a Hitchcock classic would appear to be prime foolishness (unless you’re Hitchcock himself), and remaking one a second time seems like evidence of a death-wish. However, the makers of this new version of The Thirty-Nine Steps do have a get-out clause of sorts: Hitchcock used almost none of John Buchan’s novel, and updated it from 1914 to the then-contemporary mid-Thirties. Ralph Thomas, for his vomitworthy 1959 version, pinched almost everything wholesale from the 1935 marvel (except such intangibles as wit, pace, charm, eroticism, ingenuity and suspense) and reduced the whole enterprise to a faded Xerox of the earlier film. Don Sharp and his team have made a great show of “going back to the original”, and the design department has gorged itself on Edwardian costumes, period automobiles, monocles, the whole eve-of-World-War-I razzmatazz. So it should look like a brand-new film, right?

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Nicholas Meyer, the popular novelist who contrived the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Holmes, Bernard Shaw, and a Jack the Ripper–style murderer in The West End Horror, has followed colleague Michael Crichton into the movie-directing racket; and I must say that I, no admirer of his thin and opportunistic literary conceits, am pleasantly surprised at the likability of his première effort. A lot of this has to do with the charm and wonderfully specific wit of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Herbert George Wells, and Mary Steenburgen’s as Amy Robbins, one of those liberated modern women H.G. proselytized for—and the most sweetly daft creature to come our cinematic way since Annie Hall; David Warner has also been encouraged to make Jack the Ripper something more than the sort of sallow geek this actor can play in his sleep (and apparently has, every so often). Clearly what Meyer has needed all along was a way to mix actors in with his rather undistinguished language.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The time-travel premise of Time after Time is coyly signified by the use of the old Warner Brothers logo music of the Forties over the opening of the film; but in this self-billed “ingenious entertainment,” most of the ingenuity lies in the conception, very little in the realization. Nicholas Meyer’s direction, predictably, lies along literary rather than cinematic lines; the production design and photography are surprisingly uninventive for a film of such fantastic possibilities; and the special effects are downright flaccid. The montage depicting H.G. Wells’s journey through time—in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, who has preceded him into the Seventies by borrowing Wells’s time machine)—is a warmed-over 2001 lightshow, with the time traveler hearing, selectively, important voices of the 20th century, but seeing nothing at all: a pale contrast to the almost unbearably exciting time trip in the George Pal The Time Machine. The technological doubletalk about the key to the machine and its drive element is unclear, as is the reason why the machine, after being used by Jack, returns to its location a few seconds later, not to the original time at which it was borrowed—but it is so obviously there just to set up the gimmick to be used in the climax that one can predict the ending barely five minutes into the film.

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