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Jack Smight

Review: Damnation Alley

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

The gripping first few sequences of Damnation Alley are linked by slow-fade-to-black/ slow-fade-in interludes reminiscent of the time-passes-things-change ambience of 2001: A Space Odyssey; but the aimlessness of inconclusive ideas and what passes for special visual effects leave this new day-after-Doomsday thriller well out of the running in comparison with Kubrick’s masterpiece. There are pretensions aplenty, but the film tends to hinge on crucial assumptions that remain unexplained. The city of Albany, New York, survives as an unscathed verdant oasis through a massive nuclear strike that destroys most of the United States, and furious ecological disasters that follow; there is no evidence of radiation sickness in any of the survivors, despite the fact that they go outside only weeks after the holocaust. More trivial questions bother the mind as well, such as why Air Force Major Eugene Denton’s white shirt stays spotless throughout a cross-country odyssey involving tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, firestorms, and combat with mountain men left over from Deliverance and cockroaches left over from Bug. The pictures bother the eye the same way. Spectacular color effects are virtually ruined by brutally mismatched film stocks, painfully obvious composite splits, shaky rear-projection, unsteady matte lines. The disorienting effect created is quite different from the one that was apparently intended.

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Out of the Past: The Illustrated Man

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

Before anything happens in The Illustrated Man, a voice (Claire Bloom’s) warns us that those who try to see beyond their own times find themselves facing problems that cannot be explained in present-day terms. This gets reprised at the very end of the movie, by which time just about nothing actually has been explained. The Illustrated Man is a very odd movie indeed, and here and there a thoroughly frustrating one. I can’t decide how much of the obfuscation is genuine poetic mystery and how much a sheer cop-out on the part of screenwriter-producer Howard Kreitsek (not very active since this 1969 movie) and director Jack Smight. But the film, for all its many faults, stays with me and I fancy its inner workings are worth teasing out.

Time is of the essence. When and where are we? Ms. Bloom’s opening voiceover accompanies an image of a tranquil countryside lake. We hold on this and at long last the old Warner-Seven Arts logo inscribes itself on the screen. An old-fashioned automobile parks a naive-looking youth (Robert Drivas) by the lake and moves on; we never see its driver again. Willie, the youth, is soon joined by a surly fellow carrying a bag with a dog in it. The stranger, Carl (Rod Steiger), middle-aged, needing a shave, broken-nosed, seems to come from nowhere and is plainly needing funds. “You hoboing?” he asks Willie. The 1930s? Of course. But what’s a Depression bum doing with a Pekinese, of all dogs? And why is it cooped up in a bag all the while? “He likes it hot,” snarls Carl: “Like me!” He kids us not. Though the midday sun blazes and the sweat pours off Willie, Carl is begloved and booted, and covered in an enormous coat. Why? This question, at least, gets an answer, and swiftly.

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