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Movietone News 32

Review: Ten from Your Show of Shows

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Ten from Your Show of Shows is not, strictly speaking, a movie. It is a film reproduction of kinescopic records made of live television performances from some 20 years ago. Comedy writer-director Max Liebman and his technicians have done a fine job of suiting the kinescope prints to the giant screen; and, though the end result never looks like a movie, it is eminently watchable.

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Review: Phantom India

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.

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Review: A King in New York

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Charles Chaplin’s 1956 English movie A King in New York begins with a mob surging into a palace shouting “We want the head of Charlot!” Or so the auteurist ear registers it for a moment—actually it’s Shahdov, not Charlot, the people want the head of. But Shahdov is played by Charlie Chaplin. Same difference. A King in New York has long been spoken of as Chaplin’s cinematic kissoff to the country that turned thumbs down on him and his Monsieur Verdoux in the late Forties when he became too politically outspoken—the wrong sort of politics—and found himself in a paternity suit as well; an assistant Attorney General of that country denied the British-born Chaplin a reentry visa after he’d gone abroad in the early Fifties, and so the man who was once the best-loved figure in the United States and probably the world elected to sit out the rest of his life in Switzerland.

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Review: The Mother and the Whore

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The Mother and the Whore is a sort of New Wave marathon, a three-and-a-half-hour return to the French cinema of the Sixties as well as to the generation of youth with which it was often concerned. Here that generation has reached the Seventies (and its own thirties) and is finding, once more, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jean-Pierre Léaud, that ever-evolving icon of the New Wave, is at the center of the action as an intelligent young Parisian making a career out of post-adolescence with long talks and occasional pickups in sidewalk cafés and other Left Bank environs. At the outset, Alexandre (Léaud) is living with, and apparently off, a boutique operator (Bernadette Lafont), while also making attempts at reconciliation with a previous lover (Isabel Weingarten). Soon, though, he begins a third and increasingly complex relationship with a Polish nurse (Françoise LeBrun) and eventually finds himself bedded down with both LeBrun and Lafont in the latter’s apartment. The three-way relationship undergoes a series of unresolved convulsions which focus increasing attention on Veronika (LeBrun), whose wearily selfconscious mixture of warm allure and abrupt despair perhaps make her both the mother and the whore of the title.

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Cracker Crumbs

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

At least half of Seattle knows by now that the Seattle Film Society did not show Animal Crackers as originally announced for May 18. They know because at least half of Seattle was planning to come see Animal Crackers at St. Mark’s Cathedral. This is what happened.

Animal Crackers is the one among the thirteen films of the Marx Brothers that has not been in general release for years. Like its predecessor Cocoanuts, it was based on—it virtually is—a stage show the boys did late in the Twenties. The original producer was Paramount Pictures, the studio that produced all of the first five Marx films (Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horsefeathers, Duck Soup). Paramount no longer distributes its post-silent, pre-1950 films; they were picked up for nontheatrical distribution and TV leasing by Universal MCA. Because of some hassle involving the copyright on the preexisting stage material, Universal has never troubled to clear the way toward officially rereleasing Animal Crackers. Hence its increasingly conspicuous absence on the repertory circuit otherwise wellnigh glutted with Marx Brothers movies.

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Review: The Exorcist

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

by Gregory Dean Way

Two priests chant “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed child floats in the air above her bed. The shot is a static one, both visually and behaviorally, one of the few inert moments in a film full of forward energy: The child remains rigid, resistant to the droning incantation. Paradoxically, it is at this most static moment that The Exorcist hints at truly coming alive as a worthwhile experience, by suggesting the agony of endurance that its symbolic battle of good against evil requires. However, one’s hopeful expectations go unfulfilled: The child gravitates downward far too soon; the potential for truly subjective, protracted participation by the viewer in the elemental confrontation of this two-hour picture is cast aside (one suspects because of the filmmakers’ fear of an impatient, negative viewer response to unfamiliar, nonlinear film experience). That The Exorcist should cast aside (i.e., spend so little time developing) one of its thematically most significant moments, yet sum to overkill its moments of more cretinously comprehensible shock, is a telling comment on the locus of Friedkin and Blatty’s concerns.

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Review: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

“Hey look, it floats!” cries Duddy Kravitz, from the bathtub. Duddy’s fellow Jew and fellow admirer of the bathtub buoyancy phenomenon, the diffident Leopold Bloom, luxuriated in a fantasy of himself lying, at the end of the day, “laved in a womb of warmth,” gazing at his limp member—a “languid floating flower.” Duddy, antihero of the Canadian Film Development Corporation’s almost-$1-million gamble, the poor urban Jew as 19-year-old Pischer, simply grins at his girl and points at his Putz. Yet float he does, Canada’s crass Duddy, no less than classic Bloom; and although he’d probably be the last one in the world to appreciate it, arch-individualist that he is, what gets this screen incarnation of Mordecai Richler’s supercharged, driven young Montreal “comer” aloft immediately and keeps it there is … teamwork. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a movie full of brilliant things—sharp dialogue, “star” and ”cameo” performances, fluent camerawork, period accuracy—that don’t call attention to themselves. Credit for this, surely, goes to director Ted Kotcheff. With his editor, he establishes from the start exactly that brisk, behavioral rhythm best suited to Duddy’s galvanic personality and to the story of the Kravitz apprenticeship in ruthlessness. The crux of Richard Dreyfuss’s great title performance is the quick take. Kotcheff makes the camera very fast on the uptake, too; it’s as simple as that. The result: we get caught up, willynilly, in Duddy’s own metabolism. The instant Duddy picks up on something—a facial expression, a gesture, some remark that cuts both ways—we get a quick look at Dreyfuss’s face; we catch his hair-trigger response; and Kotcheff cuts away. More often than not, that ends the scene. Goddam! I caught him, he cheats at gin rummy, my dad—the shyster! Cut away. Oh, I get it: he’s pimping! A burst of delighted laughter; cut away. Ha! what he’s doing over there, he’s masturbating, the phony, that Irwin! These quick takes and cutaways express Duddy’s quicksilver native intelligence, and more: his appetite for life, and his capacity to be surprised—to learn.

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Picture People (2)

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

WILLIAM WYLER: The Authorized Biography. By Axel Madsen. Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 456 pages. $9.95.
CECIL B. DeMILLE. By Charles Higham. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 280 pages. $10.
LIGHT YOUR TORCHES AND PULL UP YOUR TIGHTS. By Tay Garnett, with Fredda Dudley Balling. Foreword by Frank Capra. Arlington House. 347 pages. $9.95.
A SHORT TIME FOR INSANITY: An Autobiography. By William A. Wellman. Foreword by Richard Schickel. Hawthorn Books, Inc. 276 pages. $10.

Books on directors’ oeuvres are nothing new, and neither are interviews with film directors, booklength and otherwise. But it’s only recently that directors’ lives have struck publishers as likely material. Undoubtedly the popularity of Frank Capra’s The Name above the Title has been the most persuasive argument. Recently I’ve read four new additions to the genre, two biographies—one living subject, one deceased—one as-told-to autobiography, and one of the real McCoy, a personal document that in its idiosyncratic way is as valuable an addition to film literature as Capra’s. The order is that of the above titles, and I’ll talk about them in the same sequence.

***

The virtues of Axel Madsen’s William Wyler tend to become more evident after one has read Charles Higham’s Cecil B. DeMille. Both seem to be job books. Madsen gets off to a limp start condensing the erratic history of Mulhouse, the Alsace town where Willy Wyler was born in 1902, and dreaming up trite images like Leopold the father “sitting on the veranda and watching his blue cigar smoke disappear into the night” shortly before World War I became a neighborhood reality. As soon as his subject is of an age to store up his own memories for recounting five decades later, the narrative improves. Mulhouse (then Mülhausen) changing hands—and switching from German to French time—four times during August 1914; Willy following his elder brother Robert (later his producer, and a director in France) to school in Lausanne, and Robert following him to Paris; experiences with haberdashery and whores; and finally, an offer of employment from cousin Carl Lämmle—in America, Laemmle—head of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. His film career began in New York, toting interoffice memos and cans of film, but he and fellow expatriate Paul Kohner soon established Universal’s foreign-language publicity service translating into German and French publicity stories written in the Hollywood offices and, when necessary, making up their own.

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Picture People (1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

THE GREAT MOVIE STARS – THE GOLDEN YEARS. By David Shipman. Crown Publishers. 576 pages. $10.
THE GREAT MOVIE STARS – THE INTERNATIONAL YEARS. By David Shipman. St. Martin’s Press. 568 pages. $15.
JAMES CAGNEY. By Andrew Bergman. Pyramid Publications. 156 pages. $1.45 (paperback).
THE FILMS OF JAMES CAGNEY. By Homer Dickens. Citadel Press.249 pages. $9.95.
CAGNEY. By Ron Offen. Henry Regnery Company. 217 pages. $6.95.
THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BOOK. By Arlene Croce. Outerbridge & Lazard, Inc. 191 pages. $9.95.

A favorite movie moment of mine comes in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt: Joseph Cotten, playing Uncle Charlie “the Merry Widow murderer,” eludes two detectives and then makes a longdistance phone call. He asks the operator for “Santa Rosa … Santa Rosa, California” and Hitch dissolves to shots of a lyrically peaceful small town. The movie is one of the director’s very best, but the special moment I’m thinking of now is produced largely by Cotten’s way of saying the name of a town. Cotten’s voice reflects the lyrical mood of the shots that follow, but it also brings an element of longing, of regret, of lost illusions, of nearly irretrievable memories. It is all very appropriate for the character, a man subtly but permanently warped by a traumatic initiation into the violence and vulnerability that he associates with the big city in particular and the modern world in general. But the moment is also something that is unmistakably Joseph Cotten: It is enhanced by a definitive part of his screen presence, that unique mixture of a modest nobility and a weakness which is quiet, refined and fatal. And this presence in turn is, for me, a function not just of Joseph Cotten at a particular moment, but also of the Joseph Cotten I remember from Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Love Letters, Duel in the Sun, The Third Man, September Affair, etc.

I mention all this partly because of my delight in discovering that an actor whom I’d almost always found “good” has taken on a meaning that transcends questions of acting skill. Now I look forward to future viewings and reviewings of Since You Went Away, Portrait of Jenny, Niagara and others with a passion that exceeds my merely professional interest in the work of John Cromwell, David Selznick, William Dieterle, Jennifer Jones, Henry Hathaway and Marilyn Monroe. Above all, I have begun to see Joseph Cotten as a kind of auteur, as a creative force in his own right, as a film artist who has brought his own personal style to the movies (or, if not that, found it there) and who has created something lasting and genuine for which he may deserve as much credit as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, William Dieterle, King Vidor, Carol Reed … all of whom, of course, have great merits of their own.

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Review: Blazing Saddles

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The first wave of reviews said it was hilarious; the second, that it wasn’t that funny. I caught it on the third wave and it was almost that funny—assuming, that is, that you have a stomach for unrelenting bad taste, dirty jokes, and goodnatured, let’s-be-egalitarian-and-offend-everybody racist references. That wasn’t structured as a putdown—I have one of those stomachs myself. But halfway through Blazing Saddles I suddenly realized I’d guffawed good and hard at quite a few things along the way, but I could call almost none of them to mind. Like Friedkin and Blatty in their department, Mel Brooks tends to shock and run. I’d probably laugh a second time at Slim Pickens’s riding up and demanding “Whut in th’ wide wide world uh sports is goin’ on here?!” because, although it’s a dumb joke, it and Pickens were both funny the first time and Pickens would still be delightful the second. I wouldn’t be caved in a second time when John Hillerman pretentiously invokes Nietzsche and David Huddleston responds, “Ah, blow it out your ass, Howard!” with a ten-gallon scowl, because that gag lacks even the whimsy of “wide wide world of sports” and depends purely on surprise to work at all. Both Hillerman and Huddleston have done fine comic turns in the past (for Bogdanovich in What’s Up, Doc? and Newman-Benton in Bad Company, respectively; and there was also Hillerman’s truly menacing job as the sheriff—and his bootlegger brother—in Paper Moon), but Brooks encourages them to turn in only the broadest, most insubstantial, TV-variety-sketch performances.

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Review: The Apple War

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Viewing this movie is something like letting one’s mind indulge in a little game of free-association which employs all the wandering, illogical, illusory devices of a long and pleasant dream. Getting swept into its labyrinth of fairytale bumblings, mythical burlesque and social satire is as simple as falling through a rabbit hole into a kind of campy Wonderland where you almost expect Woody Allen to pop up, clad in fig leaves, perhaps tooting a souped-up pastoral on his clarinet in travesty of Pan. If you see something you don’t like here, something a little too-much, a little too facile—like the Hitlerian bit in the scene where a rumbling army of mechanized agricultural paraphernalia and boot-clicking construction workers invade the tranquil hamlet of Anglamark—hang on; you will probably be rewarded later on with something to make it all seem worthwhile. I mean, where else in the history of special effects can you find anything to compare with the spectacle of a Jolly Good Giant pissing on the flames of fascism, then eating a neo-Nazi bad guy and tossing aside his VW bug like an empty nutshell? Danielsson’s brand of satire often takes the form of similarly indulgent cinematic one-liners—maybe that is Woody Allen peeking around the corner of the local sex show as Severin the mad inventor catapults to work on a giant rubber band!—and in general his sense of parody seems more dense and sophisticated, but no less funny, than Allen’s. Ancient myth gets tangled with cinematic history gets tangled with Shakespearean allusion as our young hero swallows a toiled and troubled witch’s brew from an all-too-appropriate Coke bottle, then ventures, magic sword in hand, on a cross-country Quest which lands him on the set of a B science-fiction movie starring something resembling Godzilla—all, of course, to secure the gold which will buy off the bad guys and save the old apple orchards from the evils of overdevelopment. Of course!…

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Review: The Conversation

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Gene Hackman’s quietly desperate face looms huge in so many frames of Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film that by the end of the movie we know his features just about as intimately as Harry Caul (played by Hackman) knows the lines of the conversation he has bugged. Both we and he are, in a sense, obsessed: we, the viewers, by Harry’s troubled image on the screen; Harry, by the voices he hears and the implications, slowly realized, of what those voices are saying. This hardly seems a coincidence—Coppola obviously intended it that way. Closeups, especially of Hackman, virtually fill the movie, serving perfectly to visually reinforce the theme of violated privacy with which the story is so much concerned. The correlation between those who bug and those who are bugged (bugger and buggee?) is ultimately turned into a nearly inevitable irony as Harry’s situation is reversed and he becomes the one who is watched and listened to. Indeed, the screenplay as a whole moves just a bit too predictably and ends up being too readily reachable, too readily analyzable, what with its neat ambiguities and psychological uncertainties and sticky relevancies (not to mention some of the painfully pointed dialogue: “You’re not supposed to feel anything about it,” a blond seductress says to Harry just before swiping his tapes of the conversation; “It’s just a job”). But if you’re willing to disregard some of the story’s weaknesses as narrative and actually look at the film more closely, you might find it has some visually interesting ways of “saying” things.

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Review: The Underground Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

While maintaining a properly modest reticence myself, I spent the commercial breaks—and part of the regular showtime—wondering who really should be the one to direct the film versions of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books. Altman has the southern California feel for the milieu, but—sometimes for good, sometimes ill—he can’t leave the original of anything intact enough to suit an admirer of the original. Besides, his acid-splashing approach to interpersonal relations runs counter to the concerned decency of Macdonald and his protagonist, a sort of well-meaning-English-teacher-with-an-edge private eye with memories of a long-ago world war and a marriage that failed. Huston? Yes, the Huston of today, the Huston of Fat City rather than The Maltese Falcon, the Huston who can now take his camera where a Lew Archer has to go without the sense of slumming that mars some of his best work (The Asphalt Jungle, for instance). Bogdanovich? Maybe, yes, if he can keep from quoting The Big Sleep (Hawks’s grey-and-grey soundstage world with sprinkler rain and Max Steiner thunder music and chauffeurs getting driven off piers on the wrong side of a town that has nothing to do with real space, isn’t Archer’s California, though it was certainly Bogart/Marlowe’s). Bogdanovich has the penchant for long-take, middle-distant contemplation that the styles of both novelist and detective call for.

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Review: Zardoz

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

In the opening sequence of John Boorman’s new film, a huge stone head resembling a Greek tragic mask drifts in the air above the Irish countryside, like the floating spirit of Astaroth; it spits forth a spray of rifles and exhorts a congregation of horsemen to go forth and kill. This is the god Zardoz, who decrees that the rapidly reproducing populace must be exterminated, that the gun is good and the penis evil. Here, “deep in a possible future,” the Year 2293, we thus discover John Boorman, in his first film since Deliverance, dealing once again with the conflicts between nature’s way and humanity’s way.

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In Black & White: The Women (Pt 1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. By Molly Haskell. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 416 pages. $10.

Too often, one of the nicest things about having a Cause is that it provides cookie-cutter categorizations for almost every occasion. Human beings can be swiftly shuffled into suits of fascism, racism, male or female chauvinism, or whatever other convenient –ism lies at hand. Given the proper brand of cookie cutter, one can avoid confronting practically anything on its own terms—or in terms which stubbornly transcend or evade easy compartmentalization. The world becomes a neater place, less cluttered with complexities and nagging ambiguities when the brandished talisman of a single point of view sends all of disorderly reality scurrying into a series of carefully labeled cubbyholes.

Critics of the arts find cookie cutters particularly helpful in their craft. Art, you know, has that nasty habit of bursting the seams of the most rigorously contrived critical straitjackets—so much so that it’s still a sneaking suspicion of mine that the best response to a work of art is an eloquent silence. Film critics are not immune to the cookie-cutter syndrome—quite the contrary. The German film historian and theoretician Siegfried Kracauer was already drawing on a time-honored set of assumptions when he laced his tome on the cinema, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, with variations on a monolithic theme, that being the motion picture camera’s absolute lust for reality and concomitant abhorrence of the fantastic or surreal, anything but the bare, unvarnished Truth. (So much for Méliès and his successors!) It didn’t require much of a critical leap to arrive at the notion that the masses, the salt of the earth, had cornered the market on reality and truth. Social consciousness, documentary verity, became the sine qua non of the great film for many commentators.

Whatever the theory, the best kind of critic approaches a film with an open mind, a willingness to allow its reality to resist the framework of his critical parameters. The bad critic loves his cookie cutter more than that which it seeks to contain and will ruthlessly shape and name the work under discussion to fit the Procrustean bed of his theory. Example: Several years ago, in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael attacked four films—Dirty Harry, The Cowboys, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orangefor their unwarranted and immoral use of violence. Once Kael started wielding that cookie cutter of hers, whole arms and legs of cinematic reality were amputated, discarded as irrelevant; plot and character were distorted, reshaped so as to support her point of view.* On the other side of the fence, auteurists are not always exempt from such solipsism: nondirectorial contributions to a film may be lopped off and ignored so that the lineaments of a distinct and all-encompassing directorial personality may emerge in highest relief. God knows it’s an ongoing battle to approach anything or anyone in that state of vulnerability and receptiveness that permits, even invites, the Other to operate autonomously, to surprise us with its own unique reality. So much safer to go armed with a quiver full of preconceptions with which the most recalcitrant of realities may be “fixed with a formulated phrase.”

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