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Gene Hackman

Review: Scarecrow

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

Scarecrow, the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg (Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Panic in Needle Park), is a warmly authentic and unselfconscious examination of a highly unlikely friendship between two misfits whose respective stances vis-à-vis life seem, at first glance, totally incompatible. Al Pacino turns in an understated performance, mannered yet unpretentious, as Lion, a diminutive dropout from the school of hard knocks—hard knocks being what you get if you stand still, allow people to get too close, get serious; in short, if you grow up. Instead, Lion chooses to stay on the move: five years at sea to dodge the scary stasis of matrimony and fatherhood, a current trip as a constantly clowning naïf whose jokes block blows and caresses with a desperate lack of discrimination. On his way back to claim his son, Lion picks up a father of sorts, an unpredictable bear of a man named Max (Gene Hackman). Max, unlike the cowardly Lion, gets in the way of hard knocks—as well as less hostile strokes—as often as he can, indeed more often than he should, since he frequently ends up in jail after one of his enthusiastic rough-and-tumbles. He is a man willing to mark and be marked by the men and women whom his life touches in his peregrinations about the country. Though at first Max comes off as much the less “practical” or survival-minded of the two friends, it soon becomes clear that the reverse is true. Lion’s comic camouflage and strategic withdrawals ultimately result in the loss of his son (and by implication his own adulthood) and, ironically, all contact with the world he tried too hard, too successfully, to keep at bay.

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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: Zandy’s Bride

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

It may be a peculiarity of my character that a little of Jan Troell’s unassumingness goes a very long way. There’s something very admirable—and certainly “grownup,” to anyone passionately concerned that the movies grow away from Melodrama and towards Life—about his talent for capturing the offhand beauties of a field, a rock, the picturesque yet undecorative angle from which the whimsy, at once gentle and profound, of a pregnant woman indulging in her last reverie on a swing is observed and defined. The New Land begins (at least, as it is shown in this country) with a slow, obscurely motivated zoom-out from a deep stand of trees somewhere in 19th-century Minnesota, the sound of … an axe? a gun? a wheel? … reverberating within. Anything could be happening there—something surely seems to be happening there—and in its own good time the land and the film may reveal that something to us.

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Review: Young Frankenstein

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

If I suggest that Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is more fond than funny, I don’t mean at all to imply that it isn’t funny. It is. But the first response of any devotee of classic horror films, especially the cycle out of Universal Studios in the Thirties and early Forties, must have to do with Brooks’s—and Wilder’s, but especially director Brooks’s—conspicuous scrupulousness about and passionate love for the old films he’s remembering and celebrating. No opportunistic schmuck out to poke facile fun at antique movies is going to bother setting up his camera in such a way that it will observe Frederick (Froedrich?) von Frankenstein carefully framed at his breakfast table by two gracefully curving chairbacks; in such niceties of style even more than the restoration of the “original” laboratory equipment does Brooks reveal himself a true obsédé and an honorable heir to the eerily delicate comic-horror tradition of James Whale.

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Review: French Connection II

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

I liked The French Connection a lot in 1971, but I’m rather afraid to look at it again because I think I remember most of what’s there. Not that I don’t remember many other films vividly, films I’ve no doubt I can revisit any number of times and find them and me enriched every time. But there’s something about the feel of the first French Connection, the strategy of the film as a film, that makes me suspect I’ve savored most of what it had to offer—and that was no meager portion—during my two first-run visits. French Connection II isn’t as functionally perfect as its predecessor, but I suspect—stress, again, suspect—that its interstices leave contemplative room I might occupy again with profit. Put it another way: French Connection (I) struck me as a brilliant package film, a producer’s picture in which director, screenwriter, cameraman, editor, et al. were hitting their marks with breathtaking precision and enough originality that cries of “Manipulation!” seemed silly—indeed, ungrateful. FC-II, sequel or no, comes off as more of a felt work, and what I make contact with through it is a director.

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Review: Night Moves

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Films dealing with crises of identity, as opposed to celebrations of identity, in films by Peckinpah and perhaps Mazursky, are beginning to come out with a frequency that reflects a genuine urge to explore the phenomenon of contemporary selfconsciousness. Karel Reisz’ confused but curiously honest The Gambler, Coppola’s The Conversation, and, most recently, Antonioni’s The Passenger all deal with people who end up with no clearly delineated ideas about just who they might (or might not) be, even after looking at and for themselves in a variety of existential nooks and crannies throughout the films. Gene Hackman, who also starred in Coppola’s movie about a paranoid wiretapper, is now the self-searching protagonist of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves—a fittingly equivocal title for a film in which the potential dynamism of an action genre is suppressed to the level of creeping lethargy, while the metaphor of motion remains valid in terms of the shifting currents of personality and identity with which Penn is chiefly preoccupied. Hackman informs the movie with a bleak sense of non-heroism as a private eye who handles divorce cases, a man who distances himself from life by assuming a disinterested, often bitterly cynical point of view, prying out a1l the answers (it seems) while missing the meaning, until finally there is no discernible meaning, just a lot of dead or almost dead people swirling in the washed-out glare of an overexposed sea.

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Review: ‘Bite the Bullet’

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

Bite the Bullet will be easy for some people to underrate and easy for others to overrate—which evens out to saying it’s a pretty good movie. Richard Brooks has hardly specialized in Westerns, but those he’s made are worth remembering: The Last Hunt, an utterly original tale about buffalo hunters, full of pain and cold, and vouchsafing Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger rare opportunities to acquit themselves admirably; and The Professionals, a fat and sassy Mexican-bandido thing that bit off its gritty-romantic conceits too neatly for serious credibility but still yielded a generous portion of thrills, laughs, and shameless glory. Bite the Bullet is built around a 700-mile endurance race sponsored by a newspaper called The Western Press. The reporters and a few high-toned gamblers, promoters, and horse-owners travel by railroad while a satisfyingly diverse band of aspirants and one hired rider—cover the terrain the hard way.

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Review: ‘French Connection II’

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

The main strength of William Friedkin’s The French Connection lay in the driving pace of its montage, which assembled the film’s fragmentary narrative into a single, compelling forward movement toward the climax and the inevitable results of Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s recklessness, revealed in the cryptic final title. John Frankenheimer has, by contrast, always leaned heaviest on frame composition to express his vision, and as a result his new film is a French Connection of quite a different cut.

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Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 2

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Mine has been a sheltered existence: I never attended a film festival before. And as a matter of fact I attended only four days of this one. But four more disillusioning and dispiriting days I don’t expect, or want, to experience for quite a while, thank you.

It was bad enough knowing that the Joseph L. Mankiewicz tribute, The Romantic Englishwoman, Les Ordres, Black Moon, the Michael Caine tribute, Conversation Piece, the Louis Malle tribute, Chronicle of the Years of Embers, and Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August—to list them in approximate sequence of anticipatory enthusiasm—would take place before teaching and Film Society commitments permitted us to wing south. The remainder of the program was dominated by unknown and hence unanticipatible quantities, save only for the latest film by the director of The Hireling (which we most wanted to see), a three-hour Soviet WW2 epic by Bondarchuk (which we least wanted to see), a new French film starring Jeanne Moreau (which closed the festival and which, because of return-flight connections, we knew we couldn’t see), and tributes to Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda, and Stanley Donen. Of these last, Hackman and Fonda were two eminently admirable people whose work and ever-emergent identities are so much a part of the contemporary cinematic experience that any summary tribute to either seemed a little inappropriate; but I was perfectly prepared to admit that some tribute designer might very well be able to put the consistently likable creations of director Donen into clearer perspective for me, and besides, the general interruptedness of his career in the late Sixties and early Seventies tended to redouble the justification for a festival salute now that that career seems to be off and running once more. And of course, a film festival is a film festival (isn’t it?), and who knew which of those untried films and filmmakers might be the L’avventura or Viridiana, the Godard or Jancsó, of 1975?

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Review: A Bridge Too Far

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

In the final shot of A Bridge Too Far, a Dutch widow, accompanied by a doctor, her children, and a cart loaded with a few precious possessions, moves slowly across the entire width of the Scope screen, leaving behind her home in Arnhem, ravaged by the worst pocket of the ill-fated Allied sortie into Holland in fall of 1944. One of the woman’s children has fallen behind the group and is playing at soldier, a stick held at shoulder arms. It’s a shot that contrasts sharply with the final shot of Attenborough’s first directorial effort, Oh! What a Lovely War: from a family tending a single grave, the camera cranes back and up, slowly but relentlessly, revealing row upon row upon row of identical white crosses, stretching incredibly away as far as the eye can see. That shot had power without subtlety; the finish of Attenborough’s newest film is subtler but powerless. Both end-shots are representative of the token manner in which Attenborough has come to handle the problem of war.

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Review: Superman

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

People come up and they ask, “Is Superman any good?” The unspoken question seems to be: “Could they spend all that money and generate all that hype and fail to make anything but a dog?” The answer to both is Yes: the movie is a lot of fun, and the lot of talented people involved have managed to get a lot of their talent very enjoyably on view.

How satisfied you feel about Superman will depend in part on how readily you accommodate the idea of its partaking of three different, but provocatively counterpointed, styles. The first segment, a reel-or-so’s worth of film, deals with the last days of the Mighty Man’s native planet Krypton, an ice-mirror environment where the electric whiteness of Marlon Brando’s hair—he’s Jor-El, father of Kal-El, the as-yet-unrenamed baby Superman—and the solarized, lucent whiteness of the costumes suggest both the abstract superiority (though not necessarily superior abstractness) of the race and the imminence of their burning themselves out. From Brando’s opening peroration before the grim, grey, titanic floating physogs of the other ruling elders, while three unspeakably depraved Kryptonians stand trapped within a shaft of light and a sort of perpetually self-balancing Möbius strip, this episode is stunningly visualized in audacious sci-fi terms, and a note of high sentence is convincingly sustained in the face of inspired preposterousness. (It is only after leaving the theater that one realizes the three monstrous villains, exiled to the blackest reaches of the universe via a genuinely disturbing special effect, have never been referred to again. As with the earlier Salkind superproduction, The Three/Four Musketeers, there is another part to Superman mostly in the can already; tune in next Christmas for the terrible vengeance of Non, Ursa, and the satanic General Zod!…) As a solar storm predicted by the all-wise Jor-El shatters the crystalline splendor of Krypton civilization, the elder dispatches his only begotten son in his own personal starship, complete with memory bank of instructive aphorisms to prepare the infant for life on Earth—a backward planet, but a not-inhospitable destination for a healthy boy with such a dense molecular structure.

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