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Movietone News 23

Review: The Thief Who Came to Dinner

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

The spectre of Blake Edwards hangs over The Thief Who Came to Dinner because two of his frequent collaborators worked on it and because Edwards himself might have made the film go, which Bud Yorkin hasn’t managed to do. Thief cries out for Edwards’s special knack of imparting a combined sense of cool, elegant modernity, subdued emotionality, and unpolemical bitterness that implies a previous history for the characters and a meaningful present-tense context for the generic games being played on screen. Yorkin and his screenwriter Walter Hill (who also worked on Hickey and Boggs and The Getaway) can’t decide whether to go for suspense, comedy, or romance (Edwards could have had all three with delirious simultaneity) and end by providing little of each.

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Review: Scorpio

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

Michael Winner was once identified with middle-aged impersonations of youth pictures (The System aka The Girl Getters, You Must Be Joking, The Jokers). What was so striking about most of those pictures was that nobody, least of all the swinging youths, had much fun. In the past couple of years Winner and a supporting company including writer Gerald Wilson, cameraman Robert Paynter, and Peckinpah’s favorite scorer Jerry Fielding have dubiously gifted us with a series of films so grim-lipped, so relentlessly machined, so barren of hope for the dramatis personae or the audience that simply to name them is to experience the chill of premature extinction: Lawman, The Nightcomers, Chato’s Land, and—latest till now—The Mechanic. What has kept moments of these films alive—as distinct from twitching galvanically in helpless response to Winner’s gratuitous zooming, craning, and this’ll-getcha cutting—is the incidental pathos of aging stars floundering in delicately superannuated genres being mercilessly perpetuated by an unsympathetic and sometimes downright ugly sensibility; I recall especially Burt Lancaster and Sheree North in Lawman (though the highly contemporary Robert Duvall also distinguished himself therein by taking to chaps and saddle with the same unimpeachable naturalness with which he became a coldblooded consigliere) and Marlon Brando as an old/young Quint in The Nightcomers, that ill-advised supposition of what happened before The Turn of the Screw. In all of these films (middle-)age has been threatened by sterile youth already on the verge of anachronism, and the course of events has more often than not been an irreversible and deadly predictable process of mutual annihilation.

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Review: Roma

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

Roma is a product of Fellini’s self-indulgence. He puts everything he’s loved about Rome, and himself, upon the screen, in semi-documentary style, with the only unifying factor being a weak autobiographical framework. It’s like a big home movie shot by lovingly nostalgic professionals. The color is exquisite, and many of the individual segments are unforgettable. For instance, at one point we’re treated to an ecclesiastical fashion show, complete with red-carpeted runway, announcer, lively organ music, and increasingly fantastic outfits modeled by nuns, priests, bishops, and a pope (whose robe comes with flashing lights). During scenes of Rome of thirty years ago, a rather insipidly handsome actor plays Fellini as a young man, making his way through lusty dinners in a piazza and even lustier evenings in whorehouses. There’s a graceful transition from past to present in the film—showing much of the director and his crew in the later parts—ending in a nocturnal zoom through the city by a motorcycle gang. Apocalyptic? Who knows? Fellini never gets further than suggesting bits of meaning; one gets the impression that that isn’t his point. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be his point, less so than in The Clowns, Roma, a conglomeration of episodes—visually fascinating as they may be—leaves even seasoned Fellini lovers a little cold.

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Review: Sleuth

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

The only thing really wrong with Sleuth is that it isn’t much much better than it already is and that, by its very nature, it can’t be. On the level of craftsmanship it is an unqualified joy. Anthony Shaffer’s lines are crisp, civilized, cozily cruel. As a sort of literary and sexual Colonel Blimp, Laurence Olivier tries on postures and accents up to and including that of a frontier sheriff and leaves one dumb with admiration of his technique. Michael Caine’s ineradicable cockneyness prevents his being quite acceptable as a semi-Italian hairdresser, but it is simply birth that stands in his way, not any shortage of passion, flair, nuance. The performances and performers are, as one would expect, worth the price of admission. In terms of inventiveness if not of expressiveness, Joseph Mankiewicz probably earned his Oscar nomination: in a play adaptation that takes place mostly in one room, he scarcely employs a single camera setup more than once, yet never succumbs to the surely constant temptation to visual grotesquerie or stroke-my-boom flamboyance as a means of stressing his directorial presence (cf. Peter Medak in parts of The Ruling Class and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg). Moreover, the redoubtable Oswald Morris, who finally won his Oscar for—of all things—Fiddler on the Roof, turns the several sets into unostentatious wonderlands of light, color, unexpected softnesses side-by-edge with unnervingly precise contours and corners.

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Review: The Day of the Jackal

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

The critical ascendancy of Fred Zinnemann has always bewildered me. Still more bewildering is the question of how to engage his inadequacy in critical terms. How about this? Fred Zinnemann is the sort of filmmaker who gives good taste a bad name. His work is pretentious, and the pretentiousness is of a special kind: a pretense to delicacy, to discretion; an ostentatious avoidance of emotional excess and dramatic patness. Even in a film taken from a prize-winning historical play, A Man for All Seasons (1966), with a screenplay still rife with pregnant lines and deftly turned speeches, one kept having a sense of the event—if not necessarily the point—passing one by, so that when a last-moment narrator ticked off the ignominious comeuppances of Sir Thomas More’s persecutors following upon his dispatch, one chuckled not only at the intended irony but also at the unintentional one: that this turning of the tables of historical justice (or irrelevance) didn’t quite matter either.

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Review: César and Rosalie

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

There’s no good reason why this film shouldn’t be entitled César and Rosalie and David since that’s a much more complete and accurate indication of what’s going on herein. Rosalie (Romy Schneider) is the mistress of César (Yves Montand), a vulgar but dynamic and likable junk tycoon given to explosive demonstrations of affection one moment, rage the next. She has a child, a little daughter, by a painter named named Antoine whom she married after the love of her life, another artist named David (Sami Frey), bugged out to the States without a word of explanation. After five years David returns as unexpectedly as he departed; Rosalie, without ceasing to love César, finds she’s still interested. César, doing his utmost to appear subtle and to take things in stride, belatedly catches on and threatens to make a shambles of all their lives. The film proceeds along familiar enough lines with Rosalie gravitating first to one man, then to the other. It is the violently changeable César who finally concedes that he cannot cope with “imagination,” as personified by David, and that Rosalie cannot be content without both of them; he invites his rival to share their seaside idyll. At that point Rosalie finds herself confronted with a particularly incongruous Jules-and-Jim relationship in the making and clears out entirely—only to return, a year later, just as the two men have settled into a mutually supportive (though not necessarily homosexual) lifestyle. And at that questionable juncture, the film terminates.

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Review: Two People

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

Two People represents the triumph of cinematic presence and naturally lush surfaces over script and selling campaign. Well, not quite a triumph, perhaps, but Two People is a much better movie—or experience to be had at the movies—than most descriptions of it have indicated, least of all its own Segal-like sell and Lelouchian outtakes. Peter Fonda, who handled his own self-directed star turn in The Hired Hand with unexpected modesty, takes a truly stellar leap toward attractiveness as a Vietnam deserter who has wearied of life in various exiles and has elected to go home and serve his time in order to get his own life back. Indeed, the whole film yearns toward taking a self-purging step beyond the puerilities of the Easy Rider school of contemporary self-loathing (and amid all that film’s virtues there certainly were more than a few puerilities).

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Review: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

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

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid vies with The Ballad of Cable Hogue as Sam Peckinpah’s most personal film. Not that Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway, or even that compromised early project The Deadly Companions could have been made by any other man. But those films at least flirt with conventional notions of how movies are built, notions derived from viewing other men’s work. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is thoroughly perverse in conception and realization—and in its refusal (several people have remarked it independently) to get out of one’s skull the day after one has seen it, and the day after that. It is not my intention, here, to do much more than to record my astonishment, admiration, and awe, and (since it has been graced by a particularly contemptible, willfully misrepresentative review in the local evening paper) to urge anyone who cares for movies to see the picture at the earliest opportunity. M-G-M hasn’t so much released the film as set it outside the company vault and wait to see whether some passerby notices; it opened locally at two drive-ins and a plaza twin in Bellevue. Impatient moviegoers are warned: aside from the generally known fact that Sheriff Pat Garrett was somehow involved in the death of William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, the viewer has nothing to go on but his faith in the eventual emergence of a narrative; characters appear, seem to be known to the other characters, are not pointedly introduced or given time to develop the sort of identity we normally expect from a motion picture inhabitant, and may in fact die before we’re clear on who they were or why they appeared in the first place (though often we learn much more about them later, from the effect their absence has). Violence-baiters are also admonished: this is possibly Peckinpah’s bloodiest film, certainly the most carcass-strewn since The Wild Bunch; virtually every sequence is built around a killing, usually more than one.

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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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