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Lamont Johnson

Review: The Last American Hero

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Last American Hero is an entertaining genre picture with a serious-sounding title, and so it runs the risk of being underrated in some quarters and overrated in others. Its vision is more casual than the title would imply, yet richer than its unadorned folksiness pretends. First and foremost, it is a highly charged but straightforward story about a young stockcar racer (Jeff Bridges) riding skill, arrogance, and need into the big money. Lamont Johnson and crew prove responsive to both the racing scene and the cars themselves, and give a sense of the action that is close to the excitement but free of adulatory packaging. Although the title suggests the possibility of an exercise in the pre-digested, pre-fab cynicism which seems to be a staple of contemporary American cinema, this action film focuses on its people as much as its action, and a good deal of its power comes from the way its sharply etched characters develop in various convincingly observed milieux. Valerie Perrine as a sort of stockcar groupie overcompensating for a lonely adolescence, Gary Busey as Bridges’s oafish yet alert brother, Art Lund as their wearily rugged-individualist father, and Ed Lauter as a sinuously efficacious racing manager are all major collaborators in enlivening and authenticating a project that might easily have been routine.

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Review: Lipstick

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Lipstick is Dino de Laurentiis’ latest lynch-fury kit, designed to soap up the viewer, tease him through the requisite stages of arousal and frustration, and ultimately leave him peacefully drained, with a terrycloth caress of redeeming social import to beguile him out of postcoital triste. I’m by no means persuaded that Dino’s place should be closed down. Death Wish provided a particularly gratifying fantasy experience to coincide with the hoped-for but never-quite-expected ouster of Tricky Dick, and the black viewers who screamed “Kill him!” at the climax of Mandingo were able to pass the popcorn salt to their white neighbors in the lobby without a hint of either Uncle Tom servility or glacial Muslim irony. But the new film is interestingly confused in ways that may compromise the patron’s simple pleasure, and the reason could be that Lamont Johnson is less of an erogenous engineer and more of a director than either Michael Winner or Richard Fleischer, the respective shot-callers of the earlier de Laurentiis productions.

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Review: One on One

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

Benson’s and Segal’s screenplay for One on One must have been particularly inviting to Lamont Johnson, combining as it does the interest in two-character confrontations that keynotes virtually all of the director’s work with the admiration for little-guys-who-become-winners-through-sheer-cussedness that Johnson exhibited in The Last American Hero. For me (and, I suspect, for Johnson, too), One on One is the quintessential Johnson film to date. In it, Johnson takes a delicate subject that many another director might easily have turned to syrup, and creates a dramatic, engaging, affecting story of determination and triumph. In the pre-credits prologue, opposition is established as the key motif of the film, as Johnson crosscuts from one side of the gym to the other during a high school basketball game, from one set of cheerleaders to the other, from the high school coach to a college coach who is there as a scout. Tension between opposing points of view or allegiances fighting for domination of the spirit of smalltown basketball star Henry Steele is already established for us even before the disparate viewpoints themselves are stated through dialogue.

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