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Movietone News 30

Review: State of Siege

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Several months after its intended opening and a good seven or eight months behind the rest of the country, State of Siege has arrived. If the event is somewhat anticlimactic, it was scarcely expected to be otherwise. Costa-Gavras’s previous picture, The Confession, while exemplarily evenhanded in terms of the director’s career (leftist totalitarianism getting slammed as hard as rightist totalitarianism was in Z), was a tedious experience, and even the stellar-cast Z, emotionally and physically stirring while one sat before it, has tended to grow minor in retrospect. On the consumer-report level it must be noted that State of Siege affords a better time than The Confession without quite coming up to Z for sheer excitement—although in its limited way the new film essays a more complex problem, politically and aesthetically, than either of its predecessors. Based, like them, on a true series of events, the kidnapping and assassination of American policeman Daniel Mitrione in a South American police state, the film seeks to depict the political alignments of the society in which the crime takes place, the sometimes convoluted strategies of the various factions, and the ultimate ineffectuality of the terrorism on both sides. That any complexity will be admitted by the filmmakers is not immediately apparent: the Tupamaros who kidnap Mitrione (here called Santore) are young, unspectacularly photogenic, intelligent and dedicated, while their advocates—journalist O.E. Hasse and parliamentarian André Falcon—are urbane, witty, and unflappable; their rightwing counterparts are apoplectic, shifty-eyed, shrill, self-interested. Costa-Gavras has straightforwardly defended this bias by suggesting that the Left has a, er, right to its own “John Wayne–type entertainments.” And certainly one needn’t be a rabid rad to turn on to the film; the less-than-radical viewer will—if not be radicalized—at least pick up some salutary political education, as in a voiceover montage where one government minister after another climbs out of a series of interchangeable limousines and, on his way to a top-level conference, is identified as director of this or that or those corporations, many of them American companies, some of them virtual political and economic dynasties—and these men are the government of Uruguay.

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Review: The Hireling

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

I first saw The Hireling last summer, during a week full of events filmic and otherwise. Shortly thereafter, the chief impressions I carried with me were the sight of Sarah Miles near-deathly white, a strained smile on her face and wet rosy bruises beneath her eyes, and the feeling of having watched some schematic playing-out of the old English class warfare game. Perhaps, after my recent second viewing has receded into the past, these formerly overriding impressions will reassert themselves. But I’m inclined to doubt it. The film is an exemplary study of how class structures both create opportunities for privileged intimacy between two persons of different castes and certify the ultimate withering of such relationships; there can be no more succinct image of the hopelessness of the lower-class lover’s situation than the final scene of the chauffeur slamming his prized Rolls-Royce (which he hires out, along with his services) into first one wall, then another, then another, in a claustrophobic courtyard. This level of the film is very clear—and ‘schematic’ isn’t really a fair word to apply; ‘lucid’ is more like it. The fact is that, as the film plays—at least, as it plays a second time—the social comment simply does not stand out starkly. The societal system is there, almost palpably; but it’s merely one part of the film’s structure. Of equal importance—and, with the social theme taken more or less for granted, of greater importance—are the richly inhabited, sympathetically nuanced performances of Shaw and Miles, and the abiding sense of Alan Bridges’s sensitive, detailed, impeccably craftsmanlike realization.

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Review: The Last Detail

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from The Last Detail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But The Last Detail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.

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Review: Serpico

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

A recent article in The New York Times described a seminar on Serpico that convened at the serious-sounding New School for Social Research. Tony Roberts was there, and the cop he portrayed in the film was there, and not surprisingly they had vastly differing notions regarding the authenticity and worth of Sidney Lumet’s latest movie. Sgt. David Durk (on whom the well-meaning but generally impotent character of Bob Blair—Serpico’s politicking ally—was based) criticized Serpico for catering to the already rampant contempt for and distrust of police, and warned his liberal audience that “the message … that no decent man can stand up against our system” would produce just the kind of disillusioned impotence that precludes involvement, ethical behavior—that is, the whole Serpico shtick. In response, Roberts allowed as how he didn’t want “to get into legal, moralistic, philosophic questions … they’re too complex for me.” This, right after he had just waxed melancholy about Sidney Lumet, “an honest artist, greatly concerned with truth,” whose creative integrity had been done in by “the money men.”

What a tangled web of doublethink! For indeed Serpico cries a considerable caveat to anyone contemplating bucking the system. And Roberts implies that even the creator of the film played Serpico to movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis and lost. But somehow Durk’s demurs are put off as abstract, hopelessly complex. I mean, what’s a cop’s integrity count against that of an Artist? What kind of film would Lumet, creatively unfettered, have produced? Is the implication here that “the money men” now consider cop-contempt and ethical despair eminently saleable commodities at the box office? I mention this tragicomedy of the absurd because it seems a fitting backdrop to the schizoid quality of Serpico itself. Whatever “great truth” Lumet was after and missed, whatever producer de Laurentiis did to thwart the Artist and rake in the shekels, is really irrelevant. Serpico doesn’t really come off as a triumph of nihilism, a relentless indictment of police corruption, the “system,” and all that. It’s ultimately just what’s happening while Al Pacino runs away with the show.

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Review: Group Marriage

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Group Marriage serves up the Stephanie Rothman exploitation-flick mixture pretty much as before: half commitment, half indifference. But whereas I enjoyed her Student Nurses, this one left me cold. It’s partly the actors, I think. The student nurses and their beaux, however shallowly characterized, looked like fairly lively, attractive people. But who could identify with Group Marriage‘s crew of plastic Angelenos? The three men of the film’s group marriage are a jock lifeguard, a piggish young male chauvinist who markets glibly “sick” bumper stickers, and a spineless social worker who mouths jargon and wilts under the situation-comedy glare of his blowhard supervisor. The three women are not exactly charismatic, either, though one of them is endowed with a token knack for fixing car motors and another is represented, unconvincingly, as a lawyer. Rothman introduces us to the third in a blind-date–type scene that might have been directed by some arch-M.C.P.—Dean Martin, say. The bumper sticker entrepreneur has been led to expect a “dog”; when she walks in and he lays eyes on her breasts, he instantly goes ape. Bo-o-o-ing! She remains throughout the movie merely a pair of big tits. For all Rothman’s nods in the direction of women’s liberation, no attempt is made (if you want to get heavy about all this) to raise her consciousness, nor that of the pig kid; yet both are viewed as interesting, OK people.

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Review: The Sting

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

The Sting‘s credit sequence offers an immediate clue to the directorial tone and aesthetics which slimily pervade the whole film: it consists of vintage pictorials depicting various scenes in the movie; pretty soon these old-time pulp-fiction illustrations begin to include not only characters but also cameras and technicians. The viewer is set up to be grabbed by the artifice, the imitation of a past genre and time, only to be forced to recognize the underpinnings of the illusion, the fact of ultimate fakiness. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not objecting to artifice—it’s what makes all art, and much of life, worth paying attention to. Art is artifice, lying, the highest form of the confidence game. Films are not real; they demand, like novels and poems, one’s suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be taken in, and thus, to be taken out of one’s limited human experience. But there’s a profound difference between the cinematic magician who performs prodigies of illusion for our delight and instruction, or the one who mesmerizes us even as he calls our attention to the ways and means of his prestidigitations (Hitchcock and Truffaut, for instance), and the charming but heartless hack who cons us into a queasy delight with his fabrications, then pricks the bubble, and laughs hugely at our gullibility.

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Review: Little Cigars

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Far be it from American-International to leave off supplying product, however hackneyed, until the last gasp is wrung from audience and genre alike; so in Little Cigars we have still another of those unstable meldings of comedy and crime, with a bit of violence thrown in. This low-budget late entry has a couple of extra things going for it, though. Curiosity value, above all. The titular Little Cigars, it turns out, are a troupe of midgets. In both senses of the word, they perform the genre’s customary capers. And a good thing, too. It would be hard to find in what goes on around these “little people” onscreen anything you might call a performance, exactly—least of all from full-size thesp and leading lady Angel Tompkins, though she does try her goodnatured best and has ample natural endowments for her stock floozy role as Cleo.

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Review: Day for Night

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Truffaut’s Day for Night is a delight. It’s a film about some people making a film, with Truffaut himself playing the film-within-a-film’s director, but there’s only a little cinematic selfconsciousness in it. Above all, it is a very charming entertainment. Few, if any, of Truffaut’s films have had such a heady feeling of joy and pleasure all the way through. And few, if any, of the various films made about filmmakers and filmmaking have been so self-effacing. Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Valentina Cortese play the actors in the film of one M. Ferrand (Truffaut) and each to some extent has been given a role (in Day for Night) which evokes his “real-life” image. But while Truffaut gives the Ferrand character three dream sequences in which a small boy—Ferrand and/or Truffaut as child?—steals some Citizen Kane stills from a theater display, the film is not really Truffaut’s 8 1/2.

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A Note on Style

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Although he has gone on to make such films as Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry, Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup, Hell Is for Heroes, The Killers, and The Beguiled, there are many who still regard The Invasion of the Body Snatchers as Don Siegel’s best movie. If I continue to prefer several of the others, it’s because Siegel himself seems to come through more directly. Many of the virtues of Invasion inhere in the writing of Daniel Mainwaring, an author of no mean importance whose scripts for Out of the Past (based on his own novel) and The Phenix City Story likewise postulate and effectively sustain film-worlds wherein the characters seem to breathe doom out of the very air; in Out of the Past the mutual corruptibility and mortality of Mitchum, Greer, and Douglas proceeds inevitably from the bemused sadomasochism that constitutes their behavioral style; Phenix City Story, filmed the year before Invasion, recounts the terror of a syndicate-controlled Southern town in which not only the back rooms, alleys, and dark streets but also the homes and the very minds of the citizenry prove insidiously, almost ineffably, pregnable. Then too, there’s the question of the belated and perhaps invalidating framing episodes of Dr. Bennell trying to convince Drs. Hill and Bassett about what’s happening in Santa Mira. Bob Cumbow has sorted out the interpretive problems which that gives rise to. But, in addition, I wonder how the main body of the film has been affected by the revision. In the original, did the events of the film simply unreel without benefit of voiceover commentary? Maybe, maybe not—in Out of the Past Robert Mitchum describes that past to Virginia Huston, which accounts for about half the movie, and the fact as well as the tone of the narration contributes to that film’s sense of eerie masochistic reverie. There are moments in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when Siegel’s camera just gives us Miles Bennell’s car moving through the streets of the town, fast and slow, by night and by day. Now we vvusually hear Kevin McCarthy’s voice describing the intensification of his concern, the specific doubts that specific details of the changed life of Santa Mira are stirring in his mind. But what if we didn’t hear that commentary? What would be the effect of those calculatedly mundane images and movements? I ask it with some regret because one of the grabbiest moments in the movie is the sight of the town square about 7:45 one Saturday morning; Miles peers down at it from the window of his office, and even before the pod-laden trucks arrive, that natural-sunlight scene has something unshakably awful about it.

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Imitation of Life: ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

American officials and the American public began to believe that the Soviet Union was bent on building a Communist empire and that it would halt its expansion only when forced to do so.
With this conviction, the American government took steps to block further Soviet expansion. From then on, relations between the two powers bordered on a state of war….
The Red Scare after World War II … had roots not only in the cold war but in long-buried currents of anti-intellectualism and in the rapid social changes attendant on the shift from depression to prosperity. …
Much of what was widely believed during the scare was nonsense. There was a notion, for example, that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the American government. … There was another notion that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the news media, the motion picture industry, and the clergy, so that news, movies and sermons had gulled the public into approving pro-Communist policies. These beliefs rested on the fantasy that the United States, if it chose, could shape the world to its will, and that, whenever anything went wrong, the fault had to lie at home.

—Ernest May, Anxiety and Affluence, 1945-1965

The wave of anti-intellectualism crested with McCarthy and washed over much of the remainder of the decade. Blacklisting had become such a threat that many filmmakers consciously made openly anti-Communist films, to preserve their reputations and obtain favors. Red Paranoia was so widespread that many more filmmakers reflected the fear of subversion and infiltration in their movies, even unconsciously. In either case, the monster movies of the Fifties in general reflect an intense fear of infiltration and dehumanization by a subversive, colonizing power (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Brain Eaters) or by a communal society bent on destructive expansionism (Them!, War of the Worlds). Creeping Communism became one of the main themes of monster movies in 1954, and the monster movies themselves became one of the main proponents of the battle against Communist ideology (or what was generally understood to be such). Its metaphors were monsters, from outer space, from under the earth or on it, bent on conquering the human race (always starting with the United States of America), and often determined to create a mindless Utopia devoid of feelings and individuality.

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