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Gordon Willis

Review: The Drowning Pool

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

First Artists’ logo appears at the beginning of The Drowning Pool, and the first artist to think about most of the way through the film is Paul Newman, for whom the production has been conspicuously tailored even if the cut is ultimately unflattering. Newman scored a hit with—and by his own testimony “had a ball” making—Harper, the 1966 retooling of an early Lew Archer book (The Moving Target). If director Jack Smight and screenwriter William Goldman observably strained to maintain an illusion of wry deftness, they were still clever and remained rather ingratiating about the whole thing; and Newman, cracking wise with just the right degree of collegiate selfconsciousness, seemed like a dream older-brother. Newman is almost a decade older now and his Lew Harper has moved cinemagenically closer to the Lew Archer of later Ross Macdonald novels (although The Drowning Pool happens to be an early one). As Harper brought onscreen a divorced wife who was only mentioned in the novels, The Drowning Pool has been adjusted so that the lady who calls the private eye to come to her assistance in Louisiana bayou country (a location change from the Southern California of the books, doubtlessly for the sake of fresh scenic resources) is the same slightly fading flower who shared a cozy week with him while vacationing in his territory some years earlier. Aside from permitting the husband-and-wife team of Newman-Woodward a screen relationship more satisfying to their fans, and lending new kinkiness to the play the lady’s adolescent daughter makes for Harper, the alteration serves no good purpose.

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Review: Annie Hall

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

In Annie Hall Woody Allen has created his most personal, most serious, most painfully funny, and best film. The first three don’t necessarily imply the last, but in this case that’s the way it works out. The concern with the interrelation between comedy and pain—a transformation of the earlier Allen’s more prosaic concern with love and death—is the center of the film, as it is the center of the life of standup comic Alvy Singer, Allen’s thinly disguised portrait of himself. The simultaneous egocentricity and self-denigration implied in Allen’s portrayal of Singer—and, indeed, in Allen himself—is summed up in his delivery of a classic joke in his opening, Bergmanesque monologue. Like most of the jokes Freud cites in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, it’s not the kind of joke you laugh at: “I wouldn’t want to join a club that would have me for one of its members.” True, Allen’s throwaway style evokes a chuckle; but for Alvy Singer there is more painful truth in this paradox of a joke than there is comic hilarity. It’s actually the second of two jokes that open the film, the first being an even less laughable one about life being ugly, miserable, depressing, and all too short.

The proposition that life is both agonizing and dear is sustained throughout. When record entrepreneur Tony Lacy invites Alvy Singer to a party that promises to be “very mellow,” Alvy declines, explaining, “When I get too mellow I ripen, and then I rot.” The vision of life-vs.-death pervades everything (“All the books you ever gave me had Death in the title,” girlfriend Annie Hall complains), and the double-layered vision is reflected emphatically in the film’s imagery. Alvy was born and raised in a house underneath the rollercoaster at Coney Island: superficial joy on top of nervous depression: corrosive death gnawing at the underpinnings of assertive life. Alvy’s comedy—and the play he writes about himself and Annie near the end of the film—is his response to pain, and it is a fantasy response. The play ends the way Alvy wishes the real relationship with Annie had climaxed. Elsewhere he casually produces Marshall McLuhan from behind a theater lobby sign to refute the bullshit artist in the ticket line who pontificates about McLuhan without knowing his work. “If life could only be like this!” Alvy tells the camera, acknowledging and embracing his own dependence on a fantasy of a world that will reaffirm and justify him and his ideas. In the film, people on the street don’t mind being stopped by Alvy to give their point of view, or elucidate their corner of the world; and many of them seem to have information and understanding to which he is not privy, though they are happy to share it with him and offer advice.

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Review: Interiors

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

As if to avoid distracting mumbles of “Oh, guess where he got that!” in the middle of his unashamedly imitative first non-comedy, Woody Allen gets his most Bergmanesque shot out of the way right up front. It’s a soft, dreamy, quiet interior of a woman running her hand inquiringly across a windowpane; and it establishes straightaway the film’s inside/outside polarity, with the woman seemingly trying to comprehend the shell that separates one existence from another. The glass of the window, like the wall of the eye, or the lens of the camera, is the transparent, impenetrable, inexorable demarcation between the in-here and the out-there. Nothing new; but from here Allen goes on to build a distinctly American Bergman film, accessible, even downright obvious in contrast with the Swedish master’s arcane musings.

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Review: Comes a Horseman

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

The title of Alan J Pakula’s latest film echoes the old stock melodrama line “Along comes Jones” and that’s no accident. Here we have a tough-but-tender cowgirl working her dead father’s ranch with only a lovable grizzled old coot for a ranchhand; a somber villain moving through his dark house like Dracula in his castle, hatching designs on the heroine’s land as well as her body; a land-grabbing industrialist conspiring with the local banker to turn rangeland into oil wells; a tall, quiet wrangler winning the girl’s heart and saving her land to boot; singing cowboys, fireside heart-to-hearts, a crisis with hero and heroine trapped by villain in a burning building, a climactic shootout, and boy-gets-girl. From the tentative cynicism of The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Pakula hasreturned with a vengeance to the romantic melodrama of his earlier films, all characterized by essentially corny ideas handled in an utterly uncorny manner. Kluteand Comes a Horsemanare but two special cases of the same basic plot overlay: tough professional man saves woman from villainy and from herself, winning her heart in the process. And The Sterile Cuckoo, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Klute, andComes a Horsemanmay all be seen as variations on the theme of simple, direct man dealing with complex, independent woman.

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Review: Windows

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

When Richard Fleischer visited the Seattle Film Society last spring, he bridled at the suggestion that Sven Nykvist, rather than he, had been responsible for the frame compositions in The Last Run: “That’s something a lot of people don’t understand.” Certainly no theory of film directing I ever entertained left room for the supposed metteur-en-scène to farm out that particular responsibility to the cameraman; yet it is a fact that there is a Wyler-like look to Ball of Fire (to grab the first Pantheon-class example that springs to mind) that is to be found in no other film by Howard Hawks, and the Wylerian on the premises was almost certifiably cinematographer Gregg Toland. In the lower reaches of film authorship it is not at all difficult to follow the visual spoor of, say, James Wong Howe as he labors for some mightily undistinguished directors (the best “films of Sam Wood” tend to have been shot by Howe and/or production-designed by William Cameron Menzies). And in the wretched The Drowning Pool of Stuart Rosenberg, a recurrence of insinuatingly asymmetrical widescreen compositions and lustrously dim tonal patterns flashes GORDON WILLIS, GORDON WILLIS like a neon sign.

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13 Ways of Looking at The Parallax View

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

1.

parallax_view_poster
The Parallax View

The Parallax View is an interesting suspense thriller with a thin plot involving a newspaper reporter named Frady (Warren Beatty) and his independent investigation of an employment bureau for assassins.

2.

The Parallax View is Alan Pakula’s hommage to Alfred Hitchcock, employing many of the Master’s techniques and devices, particularly his penchant for experimenting with different kinds of suspense and various ways of fulfilling—or not fulfilling—audience expectation. Pakula primes us for Hitchcock allusions with his precredit sequence, a high-altitude assassination and fistfight culminating in a fall from the Space Needle. The Needle is used even more casually than Hitchcock used the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur) and Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest).

3.

Like much of Hitchcock’s best work, and like Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir, The Parallax View works consistently against its soundtrack. The film’s most arresting sequences take place while the track booms away irrelevantly with parade marches, political speeches, patriotic music. There is almost no crucial dialogue, and whole scenes—most notably one aboard an airplane threatened by a bomb—are played out against a subdued jumble of background noise. Later, a politician is murdered while his pre-recorded speech drones on. But while a blind person could not begin to follow the film, neither could a deaf person fully grasp its impact; for the ironic contrast between sight and sound in The Parallax View significantly amplifies the film’s theme of deliberately deceptive appearances. Michael Small’s sparse music score nicely reflects this irony in its use of a quick series of falling notes for solo trumpet. At its best moments, it calls to mind heroic aspirations echoing ineffectually off the spacious, sterile architecture that becomes the film’s principal and most memorable visual image.

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The Parallax View: An Introduction

[Originally published on the Turner Classic Movies website on March 2009.]

Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, a political thriller with an unmistakable resemblance to the Kennedy assassination, was not the first conspiracy thriller to emerge from Hollywood – you can trace the lineage back to The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 – and it was not a hit when it was fitfully released in 1974. But its reputation and stature has only grown in the years since and it is arguably the definitive conspiracy thriller of the seventies.

Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady
Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady

Warren Beatty stars as investigative reporter Joe Frady, though when we first glimpse him in the film he’s merely a face in the crowd around Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce). He tries to bluff his way into an exclusive gathering for the Senator at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle but is rebuffed and thus left on the ground when the Senator is shot and the gunman killed in an escape attempt. “There is no evidence of a conspiracy,” concludes a panel of judges, who proclaim it the work of a lone gunman. (We, of course, know there was at least one accomplice who slipped to safety.). It’s the film’s answer to the Warren Commission and Pakula shoots the tribunal floating in a sea of shadow, a tiny image that slowly, ominously grows larger as the credits roll. By the end of the sequence, they fill the screen with an image as distorted as their conclusions.

In those first few minutes, Pakula establishes an atmosphere of unease and a distrust of authority that never lets up. When we catch of with Frady three years later, being hounded by the police for his investigations into drug crimes and enforcement, he comes on like a dogged reporter from a thirties newspaper drama with seventies style, a mix of old school and modern sensibility. But even he is dubious of conspiracy claims until fellow reporter and ex-girlfriend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) turns up dead (a suicide is the ruling, but Frady doesn’t buy it). She’s the seventh of twenty witnesses to the Senator Carroll shooting to die in the three years since, and once Frady takes up the case, he discovers that he is also now a target. With the tacit support of a paternal editor (Hume Cronyn), Frady follows his clues to the mysterious Parallax Corporation and, with the help of a former FBI agent (Kenneth Mars) and a psychologist (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), catches the interest of a sinister recruiter (Walter McGinn). “If you qualify, and we think you can, we’re prepared to offer you the most lucrative and rewarding work of your life.”

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