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Henry Mancini

Review: The Thief Who Came to Dinner

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

The spectre of Blake Edwards hangs over The Thief Who Came to Dinner because two of his frequent collaborators worked on it and because Edwards himself might have made the film go, which Bud Yorkin hasn’t managed to do. Thief cries out for Edwards’s special knack of imparting a combined sense of cool, elegant modernity, subdued emotionality, and unpolemical bitterness that implies a previous history for the characters and a meaningful present-tense context for the generic games being played on screen. Yorkin and his screenwriter Walter Hill (who also worked on Hickey and Boggs and The Getaway) can’t decide whether to go for suspense, comedy, or romance (Edwards could have had all three with delirious simultaneity) and end by providing little of each.

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Review: Oklahoma Crude

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

What I kept thinking about throughout Oklahoma Crude was: What’s George C. Scott doing in this? Why, given the stature and range of selection that (I assume) follows on a virtually one-man triumph like Patton, would he choose to lavish himself on such an unimaginative, dramatically undifferentiated project? Perhaps that categorization implies the answer. Perhaps Scott felt an inconsequential programmer might be fun, affording a different kind of pleasure, if not necessarily satisfaction, from an Uncle Vanya on Broadway or a misfired topical melodrama like Rage on the screen. The only nice things in Oklahoma Crude—and they are very limitedly nice—are Scott’s corn-fed, sappily goodnatured reactions to some stilted sexual antagonism forced on a deadpanned Faye Dunaway. She plays a humorless harridan whose gallopingly unsatisfactory experiences with society at large and men in particular have led her to mount a last stand of the free-enterprise ethic on a hill that may or may not sit over a pool of oil in Oklahoma, a little before the First World War. He’s a larcenous no-account who’ll do just about anything and cheat absolutely anybody for money, but ultimately he finds himself falling in some kind of love and acquiring enough of a set of principles that he stays to help her in her fight against the big oil companies trying to run her off her land.

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Review: 99 44/100% Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

The title sequence of John Frankenheimer’s new film utilizes Lichtenstein-like pop art images which ultimately prove to have been inappropriate and misleading indicators of what might follow. Whereas Lichtenstein and other pop artists use conventional symbols and forms (e.g., the comic strip) as a means of commenting upon those forms and upon the social and intellectual atmosphere from which they arise, Frankenheimer appears to be bound by the very conventions he wants to parody. Thus, the ingredients of 99 and 44/100% Dead include basic gangster genre stuff, ”romantic interest,” western overtones, a lot of violence, and a hush-hush attitude toward sex coupled strangely with 1960-type Hollywood male dominance themes. And the problem comes from Frankenheimer’s failure to demonstrate decisively that all, or at least some, of these elements are not to be taken at face value. By the time the predictable climax comes along and everyone bad is dead and the girls are saved, we have a strong suspicion that this is no parody at all, but rather, that Frankenheimer is actually out to elicit genuine emotions from his audience. And this simply will not do. It is like a comedian going through his act and then, at the end, telling a sad story and expecting us to take him seriously.

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Review: 99 and 44/100% Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

The hyperchromatic comic-strip explosion terminating the credits sequence gives way to an American flag flapping over Puget Sound, and the camera half-crawls, half-pans toward the dock to pick up a black limousine sleeking toward us. The cut recalls the zany political surrealism of The Manchurian Candidate—generals snapping to attention to salute a brainwashed assassin, a fat Senator pinked through the milk carton by a silenced bullet—and what immediately follows also suggests the offbeat cinematic imagination that, eight or twelve years ago, enabled John Frankenheimer pictures to crackle. Two black-suited gangsters spill a corpse out of the backseat, his feet cased in concrete, and heave him into the drink; down the body sinks to land kachunk on the bottom among a submarine orchard of similarly weighted cadavers in various stages of corruption; and with them rests and rusts a nostalgia-ridden criminal landscape, a grand Guignol hall of memories: slot machines, chemin-de-fer tables, safes, skeleton-stuffed phonebooths and automobiles. It’s a giddily hilarious moment in spite of, more than because of, the rinkytink Mancini music on the soundtrack. And the grim comedy continues as the dumpers of the latest human detritus are themselves spilled into another part of the water mere moments later—in a less reputable corner of the graveyard.

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Review: That’s Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

I have never counted myself among the musical buffs. It’s mainly been the arousal of interest in a director—Donen, Lester, Minnelli, Cukor, et al.—that enticed me into a theater or in front of a TV screen where a musical was playing. Conversely, taking Groucho’s advice in Horse Feathers, I have more often than not seized on the unwelcome musical interludes in essentially nonmusical films to go make a sandwich or flip over to another channel to check out the credits of the movie starting there. So if I tell you That’s Entertainment is just utterly swell, I’m telling you. And it is. Utterly. There’s nary a ringer among the numbers selected—except for episodes like Jimmy Stewart c. 1936 singing “You’d Be So Easy to Love” without benefit of redubbing, or Clark Gable doing a semi-improvisatory vaudeville song and dance number in the salon of a resort hotel (Idiot’s Delight), and of course those too become marvelous in their very unexpectedness and forgotten-biographical-footnote splendor (Gable is having such an outrageously good time, Stewart an outrageously uncomfortable time). When a sequence has been compressed or otherwise excerpted, it’s been excerpted sensitively and intelligently. And “director” Jack Haley Jr. has exercised impeccable judgment in deciding when to stay with the original 1.33:1 format, when to go with the full 70mm aspect ratio, and when to let the image grow from one to the other. The color has been faithfully transferred (if it hurts your eyes it would have hurt them in 1948, or whenever), and the black-and-white looks more like black-and-white than in any other color movie in my experience. Some of the newly stereophonicked sound is a trifle distracting, the mobility of the voices occasionally getting away from the less agile figures onscreen; but mostly the great care taken with every facet of the technological renovation has paid off many times over.

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Review: The White Dawn

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

At times one feels that the elemental motions induced by the instinct to survive almost dictate a pace of their own in this movie about the initial contact between a group of nomadic Eskimos and the English-speaking world back in the days when New Bedford sailors scoured the northern reaches of the continent in search of whales. There is a certain natural sense of episodic movement in the migration of a people from one village site to another as the food supply runs low and new, richer hunting grounds must be found. There is an ease and unhurriedness in the way the camera lingers on the things Eskimos really do (or did) with their time which avoids being static because it’s really pretty interesting, whether we are witnessing the hunting of seals or the building of an igloo or the ritual pairing-off of couples following an evening of vaguely familiar-seeming games and frenzied dancing by a few of the local boys decked out in antlers. Even without the story of three sailors who are stranded somewhere in Baffin Bay and subsequently rescued by Eskimos, this would make an engaging documentary on a foreign culture; and in fact it is so difficult not to be genuinely moved by the warmth and humanness which flows so generously from The White Dawn that one is tempted to believe it a better film than, perhaps, it is.

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Review: The Return of the Pink Panther

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

MGM whacks some of the most splendid moments out of The Wild Rovers, your lovely first Western ever, then has at The Carey Treatment so badly with the shears that you’d prefer your name weren’t on it; so you find other backers and make one of the best movies of the ’74 season, The Tamarind Seed, and the intelligent audience it deserves won’t go near it because your wife’s the star and her name’s a joke in all the cleverest households. There’s no blaming Blake Edwards for covering his bets by hieing back to proven ground with Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and The Return of the Pink Panther. Return is a hit commercially and—to the extent that non–Woody Allen and non–Mel Brooks comedies are taken note of—critically, and that must feel good to Edwards. It feels good to me, too, as long as I don’t dwell on the lurking injustice of it all. (It’s hard not to graft an auteurist allegory onto the credit titles, wittily animated by the Richard Williams Studio. The cartoon Pink Panther returns to attend the gala première of the film version of his return, capers about in such serially secure guises as a Mickey Mouseketeer and the Frankenstein Monster, and ends the film by donning director’s garb and turning his crank camera on the audience, winking through a final iris-shot to leave a pink haze of elegantly blown cigarette smoke: an evanescent image appropriate to the assured whimsy both Edwards’s mise-en-scène and—another “return”—Henry Mancini’s Edwards scores effortlessly sustain.)

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Review: The Great Waldo Pepper

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

I just realized I can’t remember how the line begins, so I’m going to fake it: “Technicians provide realism—artists supply truth.” “Technicians” almost certainly wasn’t the word but the rest is legitimate as a quote. A Hollywood director says it to Waldo Pepper, who was just too late to do his stuff as an ace in the Great War and now has a job, under a phony name, as a stunt flyer for the early talkies. Pepper has just pointed out that the wrong planes are being used by the movie squadron, which happens to be reenacting the legendary air battle he knows by heart and hearkens back to in support of his personal romantic code. George Roy Hill has left himself a lot of loopholes, as usual: The director who delivers the line is, or at least would be in many imaginable circumstances, right to prefer poetic truth to the documentary variety. But he’s wrong within the emotional context of the film, and he’s pompous and defensive to boot. But Waldo’s righteousness is somewhat compromised by our memory that he more or less opened the film by laying down a verbal account of the original battle, fascinating both his immediate, Nebraska farm family audience and its counterpart out there in the darkened theater, winning them and us with a charming blend of self-effacing softspokenness and ingenuous egoism, and shortly thereafter was exposed as a fraud for having cast himself in the story at all. But Hill implicitly tipped us to that particular con by preceding his Technicolor movie proper with monochrome archive stills showing aviation heroes giving up the ghost while stunting for movie cameras; this, plus our association of Robert Redford and Hill with that earlier, supposedly pleasurable screwing-over The Sting—similarly punctuated by (painted) illustrations of a movie crew filming con artists in their maneuvers—surely constituted some kind of fair warning.

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Keeping Score – Musique Noir: Investigating the Sound of Film Noir

The sound of noir—plaintive sax solos, blue cocktail piano, the wail of a distant trumpet through dark, wet alleyways, hot Latin beats oozing like a neon glow from the half-shuttered windows of forbidden nightspots. You walk the sidewalks of big, lonely towns, with no destination in mind, following only the sounds, guided by them, wondering where they come from, what hurt souls cry out with such tones.

No one invented the sound of film noir. It grew over seven decades, teased and shaped by the touch and mood of particular composers, particular films, particular times.

The Film Scores of Adolph Deutsch

You need to start somewhere, and the best place is probably with Adolphe Deutsch. Though capable of creating melody, Deutsch indulged in his noir scores a tonal experimentation that suggests the influence of Schönberg—an appropriate choice for a film genre so heavily indebted to the look and feel of German expressionism. With scores for The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Dimitrios, Deutsch laid the foundations for a language of film noir with specific tonal gestures evocative of foreboding, suspense, surprise, high action, the shock of sudden recognition. And with Dimitrios especially (my vote for the first great noir score), he began building the orchestral sound of film noir.

The same year as Dimitrios, however, Miklos Rosza played a different card in his score for Double Indemnity. Rosza, an unapologetic romantic and exemplar of the Wagnerian strain in film scoring whose love of big melody made him the go-to guy for epic spectaculars in the 50s and 60s (and persona non grata for most of the remainder of his career), created in Double Indemnity a wondrous score, a suite of which was recently made available as an extra on Disc 3 of Tadlow’s magnificent complete El Cid. Billy Wilder gave Rosza both light and dark to work with, and Rosza rose brilliantly to the challenge. To the mood-pinned underscorings of the Deutsch approach, Rosza added melody, and threw the noir sound decisively forward. The spectacular, ominous main theme blankets the film with the sense of doom of a guy who knew all along he should have known better; the resigned, almost despairing love theme points toward his celebrated music for Hitchcock’s Spellbound two years later.

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