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Lucien Ballard

Review: Lady Ice

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Tom Gries has at least one unpretentiously good film to his credit in Will Penny; if reports of Lady Ice‘s production troubles are accurate, then Gries, as the third director assigned the project, cannot be held entirely responsible for the myriad failures of this sloppily assembled pastiche of dubious leftovers from the slushfund of slick caper-cum-competitive-couple movies. Reverse the Dunaway-McQueen roles in the disastrous The Thomas Crown Affair so that Donald Sutherland gets to play insurance investigator to Jennifer O’Neill’s rich (and therefore) risk-hungry diamond thief, throw in an off-the-wall Bullitt-style car chase, and leaven the whole lumpen mess with some pathetically phony allusions to the trials and tribulations of an intelligent, emancipated female surrounded by dopey male chauvinists—and you’ve got the less than appetizing recipe for Lady Ice. Jennifer O’Neill rates only contemptuous yoks as she lays claim to superior feminine sensibilities while coming on like the original tanned plastic Barbie Doll ever ready with vapid visage and mindless giggling. One hopes in vain for Sutherland, who’s turned in some madly fey performances in his time, to contribute some subversively ironic distance from the ongoing embarrassments of Lady Ice, but he manfully pretends to be titillated by O’Neill’s nonexistent challenges and lopes gracelessly through his assigned paces as a Columbo of the insurance circuit.

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Savoir-être: Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.

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Review: ‘Breakout’

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

They were smart to change the title from The TenSecond Jailbreak. Even though Charles Bronson says he’s going to set his ‘copter down in the prisonyard for only ten seconds, we don’t dwell on that. If there were a title to remind us, though, we might irritably observe that minutes seem to pass by—and it’s not from suspense or Odessa-steps montage while those prison guards stare on with whuddafuck expressions on their mugs, deciding to open fire only after the whirlybird has all but made its belated exit. It must be well known to everyone who passed near a TV set during Breakout‘s opening week of summer business that this nice man who looks just like Robert Duvall has been tossed into a Mexican slammer on a trumped-up charge, and left to rot there by his business enemies, who happen to include Uncle John Huston, confirmed now in the nasty habits he picked up in Chinatown. Faithful wife Jill Ireland (who is also the faithful wife of Charles Bronson, and hence keeps working in her husband’s pictures) hires baling-wire airman Bronson to get him out somehow. Breakout isn’t nearly the offense against decency, not to mention narrative intelligence, that last summer’s saturation-promo action flick was—Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, if you’d forgot, and if you had, excuse me for bringing it up again. But Tom Gries, for whom many of us once had hopes, has unwisely decided to play most of this film as comedy, without knowing how; and if somebody says that that’s all the plot sounds worthy of, I have to point out that comedy doesn’t just happen automatically when melodrama trips over its absurdities—not comedy consistent enough to carry a whole movie. The actors are noticeably stranded by Gries’s decision and only Sheree North comes near wresting an integral characterization out of the mélange.
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Review: Breakheart Pass

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Right off, one should say that Lucien Ballard is one fine cinematographer, even though he didn’t get a chance to point his camera at anything very interesting in Breakheart Pass, a suspense ripoff dressed up as a quasi-Western. We just get a quick taste of the sort of thing he can do with Peckinpah, establishing a period feeling with a few deft swipes through a ramshackle hamlet as the movie begins, or the way he can light an exterior night scene to make the effect seem just part of the atmosphere. Most of the rest of the time we’re inside this train with most everybody in the cast, waiting as they get killed off one by one, and as it slowly becomes clear that the governor (Rich Crenna) and his henchmen are in cahoots with some toughies at the other end of the line, across Breakheart Pass, and that they’re all conspiring to take over a fort from the army and use it to receive illegal shipments of gold coming in from the fields.

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Review: St. Ives

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Oliver Procane, eccentric planner of multimillion-dollar ripoffs, has been impotent all his life; he enjoys spending his non-criminal time watching silent masterpieces by Vidor and Griffith. It’s entirely possible that J. Lee Thompson & co. were inviting congratulatory inferences here: anybody who appreciates good moviemaking must be a bit of a wimp, so let’s hear it for our manhood! If this be the rationale, St. Ives is one hell of an advertisement for a stud service. This movie is so bad that when the convoluted action takes us to a drive-in movie the same film clips can be glimpsed four times (and no, this wasn’t an exercise in staggered chronology à la The Killing—it was just staggering); that when you see Jackie Bisset in bed in longshot she’s lying on her back, but when you cut to a medium closeup she’s sitting up with a thigh hanging out; that even though the film is punctuated by Siegel-like titles (… LOS ANGELES 11:00 A.M. OCTOBER 25), temporal continuity is so shoddy the hero is privileged, on several occasions, to reveal that he made a little phonecall during some offscreen time and therefore it is perfectly permissible for the cavalry to come to his rescue…. At first it seems that we have here another howler of a miscasting job for Charles Bronson—he’s a semi-starving novelist (who nevertheless maintains a swell wardrobe in his fleabag hotelroom)—but this too is retroactively defused: well, you see, he’s trying to be a novelist, he used to be a crackerjack crime reporter, although guys who have been on the police force long enough to make detective never heard of him….

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‘Tough ole hide’: The Getaway

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

In The Getaway director Sam Peckinpah has crafted one of the tightest, cleanest, most physically compelling films to tweak your fancy in a long while. Harrumph, you say? Go soak your head in Kael, I say. Better yet, truck on out to one of the nabes and see the movie. It continues to rank among the top money-grossers of the year and will undoubtedly crop up here and there for some time to come.

The Getaway
The Getaway

From the opening frames of semi-wild beasties startled into postures of alarm by an unseen presence; from our slowly dawning realization that the animals’ tranquil sanctuary functions as precisely the opposite for other creatures caged within its walls; from the moment when throbbing, insidiously penetrating mill noises supersede the dulling monotony of prison life and inject the as-yet-unidentified situation with a crescendoing tension, The Getaway gathers its energy, begins to move, and lunges headlong away from the stasis of a centerpoint, racing toward some spot on the outer circumference of life. Peckinpah navigates the entire course with a winner’s reckless confidence and consummate control.

Most Peckinpah film buffs have their favorite scenes; my personal list runs to just over four hundred examples. But whenever I try to explain my fascination with his technique, why I find it so refreshing and exhilarating and spellbinding, why it’s so gratifying to see an incisive mind using cinematic conventions with a sense of humor and irony, I always flash on a shot from The Wild Bunch. It’s not an overtly outrageous shot by itself. No spectacular bloodletting. It’s not even particularly noteworthy scenically. It’s the kind of shot I suspect fades from memory about two seconds or less after it’s off the screen. But it strikes me as representative of Peckinpah’s technical virtuosity—a gift pooh-poohed by some insensitive soul in the pages of The Village Voice who derisively categorized Peckinpah as “the most academic manipulator of Russian montage in America since Lewis Milestone.” Lewis Milestone he definitely ain’t.

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