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Joseph Biroc

Review: Blazing Saddles

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The first wave of reviews said it was hilarious; the second, that it wasn’t that funny. I caught it on the third wave and it was almost that funny—assuming, that is, that you have a stomach for unrelenting bad taste, dirty jokes, and goodnatured, let’s-be-egalitarian-and-offend-everybody racist references. That wasn’t structured as a putdown—I have one of those stomachs myself. But halfway through Blazing Saddles I suddenly realized I’d guffawed good and hard at quite a few things along the way, but I could call almost none of them to mind. Like Friedkin and Blatty in their department, Mel Brooks tends to shock and run. I’d probably laugh a second time at Slim Pickens’s riding up and demanding “Whut in th’ wide wide world uh sports is goin’ on here?!” because, although it’s a dumb joke, it and Pickens were both funny the first time and Pickens would still be delightful the second. I wouldn’t be caved in a second time when John Hillerman pretentiously invokes Nietzsche and David Huddleston responds, “Ah, blow it out your ass, Howard!” with a ten-gallon scowl, because that gag lacks even the whimsy of “wide wide world of sports” and depends purely on surprise to work at all. Both Hillerman and Huddleston have done fine comic turns in the past (for Bogdanovich in What’s Up, Doc? and Newman-Benton in Bad Company, respectively; and there was also Hillerman’s truly menacing job as the sheriff—and his bootlegger brother—in Paper Moon), but Brooks encourages them to turn in only the broadest, most insubstantial, TV-variety-sketch performances.

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Review: The Longest Yard

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Robert Aldrich pumps enough gutty style into The Longest Yard that one needn’t feel too ashamed of himself for delighting in its formulaic progress. For one thing, despite a very unpromising opening five minutes during which former football pro, current kept man Burt Reynolds does some macho strutting before his enraged ladyfriend, Aldrich has become the first director (in my experience, at least) to tap some of the likably flamboyant personality the actor habitually displays in his personal appearances. After “stealing” the woman’s sports car, leading the police a merry chase (more satisfying than most these days), and dumping the prize in the bay, Reynolds finds himself on the way to a Georgia prison where both the warden and the captain of the guard have strong feelings about football. Trouble is, the captain (Ed Lauter) happens to coach the semi-pro prison team and strongly feels Reynolds should stay out of his way; the warden (Eddie Albert ) would very much like to win the league title Lauter hasn’t been able to get for him and strongly feels Reynolds should get involved. Then there are the cons who, as one fellow deadpans, take their football seriously and have never forgotten Reynolds’s exit-in-disgrace from the sport eight years earlier for shaving points.

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Review: The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.

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Review: I Will, I Will … For Now / The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Norman Panama and Melvin Frank used to be partners. Since neither of their latest independent efforts is worth reviewing by itself, and since both represent hazards to public health, this joint quarantine report is offered. I Will, I Will … for Now finds Panama blatantly poaching on territory Frank found profitable—and made comparatively tolerable—in A Touch of Class a couple years ago. Frank’s scenario about a salably bittersweet affair between a married man and a plucky divorcee in an expense-account version of the Jet Set has been transmuted into a wishfully trendy bit of fluff concerning a once-married couple who opt for one more try, but this time under the modish umbrella of a cohabitation contract renewable or cancellable at the end of each year. It’s hard to tell from scene to scene whether they’re with-it or congenitally oldfashioned; while that might have made for a revealing approach to the problems of maintaining an honest commitment in these parlous times of sexual revisionism, in this case the confusion bespeaks filmmakers playing both ends against the middle rather than the comic pathos of well-meaning characters. Gould and Keaton—and Paul Sorvino as the family lawyer who’d been having an affair with the new divorcee—supply the enterprise with more gentle whimsy and emotional integrity than their cinematic context deserves. As for the movie side of things, even ace cameraman John (Chinatown) Alonzo performs as if he were lensing a TV sitcom.

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‘Run of the Arrow’: Birth Pangs of the United States

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

As with many of Fuller’s films, Run of the Arrow is finally about nothing less that the United States, even though it is “just” a Western. As a matter of fact, it is perhaps the most conventionally “Western” of Fuller’s Westerns, the only one that really utilizes the redrock and sagebrush landscapes that one associates with the West of directors like Mann, Ford, and Walsh (compare, for instance, Colorado Territory‘s forbidding geography to the contours of real and potential space that encompasses a quest in Run of the Arrow), and the only one that is in color—vivid color, bright with eye-catching primary hues that become motifs on the political and historical canvas of Fuller’s story. Blood is red, and so are the stripes of the American Flag that O’Meara (Rod Steiger), a bitter Confederate soldier who leaves his home after the war. and seeks out a viable identity as a Sioux Indian, initially rejects and later accepts as his. The uniforms and wagons of the cavalry are blue, and so are the feathers on the lance of Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson), the Sioux chief whose tribe defeats that band of cavalry; so, for that matter, are the blueprints for a new fort to go up in the middle of the Sioux nation most definitely blue, creating an analogy between plans for this specific outpost and the manifest destiny blueprinted in the more encompassing vision of an America moving ever westward.

The film’s themes, which intertwine, support and counterpoint each other, operate on this dual level of significance; the personal crises of identity and the more far-reaching problems of national unity are the components of Fuller’s vision, a cumulatively dark picture of the forces that drove men west to expand the boundaries of their country. The story itself has a sinister way of revolving in ever tightening circles around the antagonism between O’Meara and Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), the Yankee officer whom O’Meara wounds with the last bullet fired in the Civil War. They meet up again out West, Driscoll as the leader of a detachment of cavalry commissioned to guard some Army engineers who intend to build a fort in Sioux territory, O’Meara as a scout for the Indians. A parallel conflict springs up between Driscoll and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), the latter a stabilizing force in a world that balances the self-hating O’Mearas against the vicious opportunists like Driscoll. Clark’s strength becomes the most reliable core of value in the film, shoring up the foundations of a reasonable patriotism that will endure beyond both the reactionary ethics of the old Sioux scout Walking Coyote (“I don’t know what this world’s coming to,” he says as a party of young bucks get drunk and prepare to string him up) and Driscoll’s incipient fascism. Clark’s spiel to O’Meara questioning O’Meara’s rejection of home and flag and ending with the parable of Philip Knowland, the man without a country (done all in one breathless take, the only movement being an honest and unashamed nudge to a slightly closer shot when the legend of Knowland is invoked) is eloquent enough to rise high above the platform jingoism of a flag-waving patriot, and is indeed infused with an almost Fordian sense of privileged participation. It counterpoints the more patly violent and potently chaotic aspects of Fuller’s films, offering us an openness and resilience that seems as essentially Fullerian as his attention-grabbing visual style and volatile worldview.

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