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James Caan

Review: Slither

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

Slither ends up being one of the major disappointments of the season because, for about half its length, it promises to be one memorable movie, and once it starts falling apart we experience a very painful sense of the diminution of large possibilities. James Caan plays a former high-school football star and unsuccessful car thief who, freshly out of prison, reluctantly pauses to have a beer with a fellow parolee and finds himself cast in a giddy American nightmare. Unseen assassins shoot up a sealed house in a golden-sunlit, bee-buzzy corner of the South while a golfing commentary drones on TV; a dying man passes on a name and an address ostensibly worth a fortune, then blows himself to smithereens; a farmer gives a hitchhiker a lift, then drops him off in the middle of nowhere because he doesn’t share the farmer’s economic burdens; a barefoot iconoclast with her whole world in the back of her station wagon picks up the hero, beds him at a motel after making sure he doesn’t have VD, then scares him by trying to hold up an all-night diner…. It goes like that, eccentric but not quite senseless, charged with intuitions of a rampant American madness that fairly emanates from train depots, dusty roads, potato cellars, trailer parks, noontime offices. A comically sinister potentiality pervades everything and everybody while—this is the best part—never giving the feeling that it’s all some sort of Message for us.

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Out of the Past: The Rain People

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 movie The Rain People is generally referred to as one of the director’s “personal” films, by which is presumably meant (1) that the story was Coppola’s own and (2) that he didn’t have nearly the bucks which Paramount Pictures supplied for likely moneymaking projects such as The Godfather. In light of this, it is not surprising that The Rain People is a quiet, modestly conceived film revolving around a minimum of characters whose problems are pretty much everybody’s problems. Alienation and lack of communication are key themes, and The Rain People, if less socially relevant than The Conversation, seems to be a psychologically more credible examination of the things that tend to keep people apart.

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Review: The Gambler (2)

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

The Gambler is a curiously cerebral film in which the play of ideas (particularly literary assessments of the American experience) is transferred from the incestuous séance of the academic seminar to green baize gambling tables. There, those ideas are raised, not as ghosts, but as the highest stakes a man can wager. In California Split Robert Altman used gambling as an excuse for getting at the marginalia, the milieu, rather than as a metaphysical metaphor. Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter James Toback (a professor of English) are clearly after bigger fish—say, about the size of Moby Dick. For like Ahab, Reisz’s gambler bets on himself, his own power or will, to make some impression, to impose some meaning on … what? Perhaps that which resists will: fate or chance, the existential territory that refuses to be enfeoffed by the central “I-am.”

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Review: The Gambler (1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

James Caan has graduated from the half-wit college boy of Coppola’s The Rain People right into a professorship at NYCC in his latest picture, Karel Reisz’ heavyhanded non-exploration into the befuddled and befuddling id of a compulsive gambler which ultimately becomes knotted up in its own tangle of 19th century existentialism and carelessly applied Nietzschean superman metaphysics. Somehow I was more convinced by Caan’s gentle inarticulateness in Coppola’s movie than I was by the cutely masochistic cool he sardonically exudes in The Gambler, and although he’s still impaling women against walls (shades of The Godfather) and strutting about with the typical Caan machismo which fails to be tempered by his role as a teacher in Reisz’s film, the character of Axei Freed lacks some of the gritty credibility which Caan was able to give to the role of gangster Sonny Corleone. Which may not be so much Caan’s fault as that of Reisz and screenwriter Toback who, instead of trying to develop their character from the bottom up, begin in some metaphysical realm far above his head and pigeonhole his personality in a framework of neatly defined psychological concepts, with the result that Caan’s character reads like a textbook case rather than reminds us of a man.

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Videophiled Classic: Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Noon Wine’

The Killer Elite / Noon Wine (1966) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – By even the most generous measure, The Killer Elite (1975) is one of Sam Peckinpah’s weakest film. Which, by Peckinpah standards, is still a cut above a great many films. He manages to get his own sensibility into the tale of black ops mercenaries in a culture of betrayal and retribution, with James Caan as the contract killer who returns from a crippling injury by sheer force of will and the desire for vengeance, and he stage some terrific set pieces to go with Caan’s brutal odyssey. It’s right in tune with the cinema of paranoia and conspiracy that bloomed in the seventies while also jumping on the martial arts craze with Caan taking on ninja warriors as well as his former partner (Robert Duvall). But it’s also a talky script and Peckinpah doesn’t really seem engaged in the stakes or the characters of this story, though Pack fans will appreciate appearances by Bo Hopkins and Gig Young.

What makes this disc essential is its very special supplements: the American home video debut of Peckinpah’s 1966 made-for-television drama Noon Wine, an intimate 52-minute production shot on a combination of film and videotape and broadcast on TV once. Adapted by Peckinpah from the short novel by Katherine Ann Porter, this is an intimate production shot in a stripped down style that puts the focus on character and language. Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland are the frontier couple who hire a Swedish drifter (Per Oscarsson) as a ranch hand and Theodore Bikel the traveler who tries to poison their minds with stories that the Swede is a dangerous madman. Robards plays one of Peckinpah’s most nuanced characters and de Havilland is a quiet force of moral backbone. Lovely and devastating.

The master 2-inch tape was destroyed by ABC decades ago and until recently the only surviving copies were poor quality B&W kinescope recordings. This edition is mastered from 1-inch videotape copy of the master recording. It shows its age and provenance—lo-fidelity image, electric color, the occasional tape glitch—but looks remarkably good considering.

Both programs feature commentary by film historians and Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, which is very useful for both and frankly a labor of love when it comes to Noon Wine. What a treat. Also includes the featurettes “Passion and Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite” and “Promoting The Killer Elite” and trailers and TV and radio spots. There may not be much interest for this disc outside of seventies action completists and devoted Peckinpah fans, but it is essential for anyone who loved Peckinpah’s movies. This double-feature shows two sides of Sam at their most extreme.

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: The Killer Elite

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Sam Peckinpah’s newest film opens with a whirling drill bit boring through a wall. But, whether by design or accident, The Killer Elite is not the study of espionage screwings and counter-screwings it might have been. In fact, for all its action, it is essentially a talk film. Everybody talks at for-hire protection agent Mike Locken, though he’s almost never interested. His killer-corporation boss, visiting him in the hospital after Locken has been wounded, reflects on the irony of his own situation: “My father was a minister. That’s what he wanted me to be.” To this embarrassingly inappropriate reverie Locken retorts, “Who the hell cares?” winning the applause of the viewer impatient with Strange Interludes. “Heroism is Out,” another character reminds him; but Locken curiously doesn’t sense the sterility in a new age when murder is no longer the passionate response of an individual but the paid service of a corporation.

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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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