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Karen Black

East Egg, West Egg, Rotten Egg: ‘The Great Gatsby’

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

A film made from a novel sets itself a double task. First, like all movies, it must strive to be good cinema; second, it must try to fulfill the expectations of those who have read the book. When the book is an acknowledged classic, the second becomes more important than the first. It is then incumbent upon the critic to deal fairly with the film on both levels, for many a film has succeeded as cinema despite (or even because of) its failure as an interpretation of literature. The Great Gatsby is, alas, not one of those films.

Not that it is necessarily disappointing or dissatisfying (although what film could be fully satisfying after such a supersaturating promotion campaign?). The way to approach The Great Gatsby is to prepare to be disappointed. If you have no illusion that the film is going to be an effective representation of the novel, then far from being disappointed, you may be pleasantly surprised. But few who love the novel will be capable of such detachment.

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Review: Law and Disorder

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Ivan Passer must have taken another look at his countryman Milos Forman’s American picture, Taking Off, before addressing himself to Law and Disorder, for the new film contains several notable echoes of its predecessor: a community-enlightenment seminar in which an obviously neurotic psychologist advises the women how to defend themselves against potential rapists (cf. the pot-smoking in Taking Off); a wife’s comically grotesque attempts to turn on a jaded husband (cf. Lynn Carlin’s pixilated drunk dance); the complaint of the protagonist, a beleaguered parent with a troublesome daughter, that “normal girls run away at 16—she stays around to annoy us” (a nod to T.O.‘s central premise). There any resemblance to Forman’s adroitly judged satire and Passer’s own small masterpiece, Intimate Lighting ends. Passer’s account of several middleaged middle-American males’ endeavors to set their world a-right by forming an auxiliary police force to patrol the neighborhood attempts to limn the frustration of those who straddle the caste line between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but he lacks any feeling for the specifically American experience. Actors like Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine are difficult to control at the best of times, and Passer, who steers his way so surely through the klutzy exoticism of blowsy Czech housewives and passed-over Czech Lotharios, apparently has no notion when satirical caricature gives way to gross overplaying.

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Review: Day of the Locust

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Maybe one of the reasons I don’t much care for the John Schlesinger film of Day of the Locust is an attitude towards his characters—Nathanael West’s characters in this case—which he has avoided in other films. In Sunday Bloody Sunday there was no overt judgment, no condescension towards his people, and in fact the film’s openness was a way of questioning the successfulness and validity of relationships between people whose strengths were admirable and whose weaknesses were sympathetically portrayed. Even in Midnight Cowboy there was the redeeming love and friendship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo that gave some value to an ugly world. But in Day of the Locust Schlesinger handles his characters as though at the end of a long stick, turning irony into a cruel form of entrapment by making them seem so bereft of normally human characteristics that we wonder how they could ever possibly rise above their bathetic gropings and mutual fear and hatred of each other.

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‘Family Plot’: A Diamond in the Rough

by Evan Morgan

Alfred Hitchcock’s career proper begins with a blonde girl’s dying scream and ends on a similarly coiffed woman’s knowing wink. These bookends aren’t indicative of some tonal change over the course of the master’s work; Hitchcock the tragedian and Hitchcock the jester have been here all along, harmoniously sharing the same stage from the start. But it matters that Hitch closes his final film with a sparkle in his—and Blanche’s—eye. For a cinematic genius whose greatest masterpieces plumb the dark depths of primal obsession, chronic guilt, and abhorrent violence, the last shot of Family Plot glitters with a surprising whimsy. And while it’s hardly the crown jewel of his career, Hitchcock bids adieu with a film appropriately studded in gleaming diamonds.

Barbara Harris in ‘Family Plot’

But contra Hitch himself, Family Plot is no simple slice of cake. It oozes with corrosive greed, sadistic sex, and casual death, all festering under the blisteringly omnipresent California sunshine. It slowly peels back the shiny baubles to reveal a world built upon deceit in all its forms: financial, personal, and cinematic. In other words, Family Plot takes place in Hollywood.

The vaguely defined San Fernando setting—a handful of scenes appear to take place in San Francisco—connects the film to Hitchcock’s other California films: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. And like those films, Family Plot places a clear emphasis on acting. Everyone must, in some way or another, perform a lie to get what he or she wants. Many of Hitchcock’s previous characters were forced to act, as a means to save their skin or hide their sick desires. But something about the Golden State—with its relentless demand for optimism and association with Tinseltown—brings performance to the foreground in the California films. No surprise, then, that Family Plot opens with a spurious, sarcastic séance.

Hitchcock drops us into the middle of one of Blanche Taylor’s (Barbara Harris) psychic experiences. The hints of the supernatural in Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds might lead us to assume something genuinely paranormal is going on. But Hitchcock quickly reveals how normal this situation is. As Blanche quickly peeks her eye out from behind her hands—subtly hinting at the film’s final wink—we realize how often she has performed this little masquerade. It’s an amusing moment that sets up the film’s comic tone. But it also cues us to the role acting, and its connection to deceit and money making, will play as the story unfolds.

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Review: Crime and Passion

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

A well-researched case history would probably be more relevant than a conventional review in determining Crime and Passion’s just place in the annals of film. Films like this one come to us in such a clearly piecemeal condition that it’s difficult to envision them as anything but foredoomed second-feature material. A contingency-be-damned formalist might insist on trying to find a lucid and traceable progression from the opening overheads of a bright-colored sportscar careening dangerously through city traffic to the final, emotionally apt shot of a quasi-Mabusian figure literally frozen in contemplation of a distant fairy-tale castle where two lovers half-playfully, half-dolefully wait for his Death to come claim them. If such an analysis be possible, I’ll read it with gratitude. Meanwhile, Crime and Passion seems typical of off-the-wall projects that somehow ricochet out of control the moment they hit their locations on the Continent (in this case, Austria), so that, after a while, no one can quite remember when they come on set any given day just what, ultimately, they wanted their movie to do or be about, or just how the particular scene at hand was supposed to slant them toward that objective.

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