[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
No one can accuse Maximilian Schell of being unaware of the possibilities of visual form in the cinema—or rather, that visual form can have something to do with discovering and elucidating Truth. His earnest direction of The Pedestrian comes much nearer some sort of expressiveness than Rolf Nölte’s treatment of TheCastle, which Schell co-adapted and -produced with Nölte, and starred in, a few years ago. Close, but kein Zigarr. For ThePedestrian is more portentous than profound, framing between two episodes of soft-focus—or lost-focus—scrutiny of hazily symbolical fossils an attempt at moral self-scrutiny, of a powerful German industrialist and, by not very tentative extension, his country.
The Brood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – I’d seen David Cronenberg’s The Brood before watching the terrific new Criterion edition but it never really registered the way it did this time. Perhaps the quality of the presentation (newly remastered from a 2K master supervised by Cronenberg) helped me connect this time—Mark Irwin’s cinematography not only establishes the chilly tenor of the film, it belies the low budget with such strong, controlled images—but I think it’s more a matter of time and appreciation. I love the raw, primal imagery of Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid but here that primal body horror erupts from an environment of normalcy (albeit one of social disconnection), a seemingly stable world where the suppressed horrors are no longer held in check.
The beauty and the power of Cronenberg’s body horror—of flesh invaded, transforming, rebelling—has always been how they are completely visceral experiences that grab the viewers on a biological level and evocative metaphors at the same time. In The Brood the metaphor is both on the surface—the emotionally damaged Nola (Samantha Eggar) transforms her most powerful emotional impulses into biological incarnations of her darkest desires—and underneath it. Cronenberg quite famously explained that the film was “my version ofKramer vs. Kramer, only more realistic,” and he had the emotional bruises of a painful divorce of his own to inspire him. But what came home to me on this viewing was not the jealousies and feelings of betrayal behind divorce but the scars of child abuse that take root in the victim. Nola is a survivor of abuse and when she becomes the willing guinea pig in the radical experimental “psychoplasmic therapy” (a term right out of the zeitgeist of sixties and seventies fads) of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), she quite literally gives birth to those psychic wounds. Her mutant children are rage babies, born of her most intense, unresolved emotional storms, and they enact the vengeance she desires (perhaps without her even knowing or understanding).
[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Even as an adaptation of an un-book bestseller, it’s amazing what a non-event TheOdessaFile is. I may owe Fred Zinnemann, director of the previous Frederick Forsyth adaptation (Day of the Jackal) an apology, or at least a reconsideration. Meanwhile, the film version of Forsyth’s second book manages to botch up or overlook the few effective contrivances found in the novel, and substitutes little for them.
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
“Corpse provided by Donald Sutherland.” That acknowledgment amid the end credits of End of the Game suggests that a certain spirit of playfulness informed the film’s making. Actor-turned-director Maximilian Schell cast actor-turned-director-turned-actor Martin Ritt in the crucial role of an aging, crotchety, dyspeptic, cigar-puffing police inspector with a 30-year-old injustice on his mind, and Ritt’s performance, albeit single-note and shamelessly coddled by Schell, is undeniably playful, and quite amusing most of the time. Then there’s writer-turned-actor Friedrich Duerrenmatt playing this old writer named Friedrich (“Friedrich … Friedrich … you know, Friedrich! What the hell’s his last name?” Ritt grouses, ploughing through the volumes on his bookshelf while the camera lovingly showcases his ship’s-keel ass), to whom younger police inspector Jon Voight is sent in quest of information that his superior might very well have supplied him; Friedrich playfully puts up his hands and says, “I didn’t do it! … OK, I did do it!”—a murder, that is—while playing chess against himself (“The other one always wins—checkmated by myself!”) and muttering about the necessity of playing the game with a sufficient sense of evil.
[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. Ivesis 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….
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
War is an inescapably personal experience in Cross of Iron. Nearly always from middle-shot or closer, the soldiers see the enemy they fight: many die in the embraces of their killers. No field-size moving masses of men, no distant artillery, no “targets” and “objectives.” In Peckinpah’s war there are only people—confused, afraid, in pain, screaming for survival. Peckinpah carefully chooses images emblematic of the reality of war: a soldier’s neck emptying blood into the muddy water where he lies dead; a body that has been run over so many times it has become part of the road. The awful power of his combat scenes is heightened by contrasting qualities of light and sound for the out-of-combat sequences: the warm greens and yellows in the hospital scenes and in the idyllic field to which Sergeant Rolf Steyner’s platoon escapes after a hopeless battle in a burnt-out factory contrast starkly with the cold greens, dusty grays, muddy browns of the battle zone. The absolute silence before each of several attacks in the film serves to emphasize the fury of what follows. Never has Peckinpah’s rhythmic cutting between similar violent acts been so effective in establishing the inevitability and terrible beauty of the sense of community in the meeting—and the meting-out of death.
[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.
[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), May 25, 1977]
Hugging the wall of a trench, Steyner’s platoon looks up at a Russian tank clattering over their heads. They are the last Germans at this easternmost point on the Russian front, a rear guard where no rear guard was meant to be, deliberately stranded and now quite surrounded. They break for the nearby factory, spray the snipers out of the convoluted ductwork, but find no refuge there. The snout of another tank gun smashes through the wall, the machine following, climbing over brick and mortar and dead Germans and Russians. There is a tunnel. The platoon runs along it. In the eyehole of light behind them, the tank appears. The snout becomes an eye, and the eye a mouth, roaring after them. But only the tunnel remains to be destroyed. The platoon has risen out of a hole into sunlight, silence, and a field of the thickest, greenest grass this side of paradise.
People talk a lot about the violence in Sam Peckinpah’s films. Most of what they say has to do with drawing facile connections between bloodlust and macho sexuality, or tut-tutting over fascist mindsets, or announcing forthrightly that violence never settled anything and only begets more violence. This record is available at any number of reviewing stands and is suitable for playing at all the best parties.
The problem with these approaches to Peckinpah’s violence is that they all seek to ignore the man’s art, to seal it safely off behind a barrier of trendy labels and categories—somebody else’s categories. In so doing, ironically, they overlook how truly violent and anarchic his movies are. For Peckinpahâ€™s violence involves much more than an abundance of blood-spurting corpses and protracted death falls. It rages against the very structures of experience, explodes the linear reliability of perception and narrative, blows up the known world and then shudders as the chaos starts resolving back into the same old patterns.