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Movietone News 35

Review: The Internecine Project

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, August 1974]

The Internecine Project seems to be biding time on theater screens until a place can be found for it on the CBS Late Night Movie (it’s hardly likely any network would want to waste prime time on it). Everything about it promises negligibility, and the promise is kept: a less-than-super star (Coburn), a female lead whose potential has scarcely ever been fully realized (Lee Grant), some character actors who stopped getting—or making—good parts some time ago (Andrews, Hendry), a forgettable British sub-leading man who muffed his one big chance (Jayston—Nicholas of Nicholas and Alexandra), an anonymously pneumatic foreign blonde (Christiane Kruger), an English hack with conspicuously unimaginative pretensions to distinction (Hughes), and above all the tiresomely formulaic genre in which doublecrosses are so taken-for-granted by the audience that no degree of geometric complication can do more than increase the boredom. Geoffrey Unsworth unaccountably signed on for it, but his frosty images hold no surprises, and between Hughes’s dully tricky direction and the gross miscasting of Grant as an intellectual glamour girl (more filters and soft-focus are used on her than on Lucy in Mame), he is sunk with the rest of the crew. Indeed, one almost suspects a destructive round-robin behind the scenes keeping pace with the one onscreen.

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Review: Death Wish

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

The gyroscopic suspension of Michael Winner has been reported on fairly regularly within these pages, as films like Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, Scorpio, The Stone Killer, and the unquickied Lawman have kept his name and work lucratively in the public eye; it would be hard to find a week in the past several years during which at least one Winner film wasn’t on a screen somewhere in the greater Seattle area, if only as a second feature at some drive-in. It is perhaps to the point that he also made, during that same period, a film supposing what sort of events might have led up to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (The Nightcomers); the endpoint known after a fashion, the film became the sort of closed system that his other recent works integrally describe. Most of the films operate on the principle of a war of attrition: usually there is a large cast of characters to work down from until all or all but one of the dramatis personae have been exterminated; as many roles as possible are filled with hungry has-beens whose former eminence lends them a ready identifiability and enables the viewer to keep track. Structurally, the films are depressingly nihilistic, and Winner’s soulless cleverness—a camera almost incessantly in motion, shots that dovetail to little purpose save the fact of dovetailing, bizarre, immediately graspable caricatures in place of characterizations—somehow renders them the more chilling, because slickly pointless. A sense of (fully earned) self-loathing emanates from these products, which nevertheless are highly salable in their overall gruesomeness.

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Review: The Abdication

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

I saw a sneak preview of The Abdication on Friday, August 9; when the title, unaccompanied by any credits or similar words of explanation or orientation, hit the screen, a ripple of laughter moved through the audience as they took their reference from the day’s headlines. It wasn’t the last unintentional laugh Anthony Harvey’s colossally miscalculated chamber epic drew that evening. Admittedly a two-character play involving the self-deposed Queen Christina of Sweden and the Vatican prelate, Cardinal Azzolini, assigned to decide her worthiness to be embraced by Mother (or Father) Church didn’t sound like the most auspicious pretext for a film, and tricking up that claustrophobic core with pedantically “imaginative” cuts and dissolves to stylized memory-visions of incidents in the ex-queen’s past—itself a pretty stylized procession of events—has only undercut whatever personal and ideological majesty the confrontation might have had. Indeed, no one connected with The Abdication seems to have had a very clear grasp of the ideology involved and, worse still, of how they felt about that ideology.

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Review: L’Invitation

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

A despicable type, this M. Alfred Lamel, un vrai p’tit prick. Lamel (Jean Champion) is assistant manager of the small office whose members are invited to a housewarming party by one of their coworkers. A prissily mustachioed, self-important, touchy, puritanical little man, he’s also efficiently sealed off from any threat of real human contact. What finally surprised me about Claude Goretta’s L’Invitation—and a few more surprises along the way wouldn’t have hurt this rather slow-moving Franco-Swiss movie at all—was that Lamel, le salaud, came closer to engaging my interest, my sympathy, even, than any of the other carefully assorted characters “unmasked” during the escalating anarchy of the party. Since even Lamel is something of a stick figure, I’m a bit puzzled by the critics’ fondness for the adjective “Renoiresque” in describing Goretta’s rather too neat little film. In Lamel’s character, as in none of the others, I found a trace of that Renoiresque freshness and unpredictability otherwise drained off almost entirely by Goretta into the admittedly fetching star turn delivered by François Simon (Michel’s richly talented son) as a mysteriously smiling, omniscient barman hired specially for the occasion.

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Review: Macon County Line

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, August 1974]

Macon County Line has no special meaning in Macon County Line, but that’s the least of the film’s sins against form and sense, not to mention—and I shall mention—decency. A headnote assures us that this is a true story, one that happened in Louisiana in 1954. Louisiana is a lucky break; 1954 is a lucky break. 1954 means that the first few minutes of the film may be devoted to a sort of Lords of Underbrush tapping of the nostalgia vein. Louisiana means that it’s redneck-paranoia time on the open road, and all the Stars-and-Bars, gun-cult, male-chauvinist, white-supremacist hobgoblins are at the filmmakers’ beck and call whenever they feel the need. Stir in two fun-loving ripoff artists from Chicago, enjoying their last days of freedom before forced enlistment in the Army (it’s that or serve time in the pokey), and you’ve got the makings of a confrontation. Top with one slightly cynical but also fun-loving blonde hitching a ride between two meaningless stopovers, and flash kinescopes of Joe McCarthy on a handy TV screen, just for pseudo-intellectual seasoning. And I haven’t even got to the barrel-chested cop who doesn’t notice his wife would appreciate a midafternoon lay, so wrapped up is he with the shotgun he’s bought for his disturbingly liberalminded nine-year-old son in military school, or the … well, that’ll do for now.

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Review: The Longest Yard

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Robert Aldrich pumps enough gutty style into The Longest Yard that one needn’t feel too ashamed of himself for delighting in its formulaic progress. For one thing, despite a very unpromising opening five minutes during which former football pro, current kept man Burt Reynolds does some macho strutting before his enraged ladyfriend, Aldrich has become the first director (in my experience, at least) to tap some of the likably flamboyant personality the actor habitually displays in his personal appearances. After “stealing” the woman’s sports car, leading the police a merry chase (more satisfying than most these days), and dumping the prize in the bay, Reynolds finds himself on the way to a Georgia prison where both the warden and the captain of the guard have strong feelings about football. Trouble is, the captain (Ed Lauter) happens to coach the semi-pro prison team and strongly feels Reynolds should stay out of his way; the warden (Eddie Albert ) would very much like to win the league title Lauter hasn’t been able to get for him and strongly feels Reynolds should get involved. Then there are the cons who, as one fellow deadpans, take their football seriously and have never forgotten Reynolds’s exit-in-disgrace from the sport eight years earlier for shaving points.

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Review: The Terminal Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Our Man in Vancouver and I have been carrying on a (mutually, I trust) enjoyable dialogue-by-mail over the virtues and failings of Mike Hodges’s The Terminal Man. Some of the failings were set forth in a review heading up last month’s quickies section. As it happened, I encountered the review before the film, and while I don’t wish at all to cast aspersions on a very fine commentary, I must admit that the movie thrilled me a good deal of its running time, to the extent that I feel compelled to file what has become—in the light of still other reviews—a minority report on its behalf. I don’t discount for a moment the possibility—indeed, the likelihood—that Mr. Eisler’s objections might have served as a sort of cadmium rod inserted into the cinematomic pile, catching a lethal dose of oversimplified ideas, narrative inconsistencies, and plot lacunae, and reducing my exposure to them. If so, I’m grateful, because I was then enabled to like what I saw.

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Review: Uptown Saturday Night

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Uptown Saturday Night would be a lot better film if it kept about the business of portraying Uptown Saturday night. Cram the events of this movie into one zany, frenetic dusk-to-dawn and you might, almost without worrying about it, create enough artificial pressure in space and time to make up for the fact that Sidney Poitier, directing his third feature film, still hasn’t much idea what to do with his camera. Mainly he and the movie try to get by on good faith and the proliferation of talented and likable black players—and good faith is easy to come by with Poitier himself, Bill Cosby, Roscoe Lee Browne, Richard Pryor, and the rest of the cast announced up front. Indeed, for anyone who may doubt that that’s the strategy, there are unabashed recognition shots for most of the players, so that the audience can greet them volubly without missing any exposition in the ensuing dialogue, and a sort of black Quiet Man finale—in which cameo shots of all the colorful characters are strung together in farewell—and to make up for the fact that the movie just lamely stops instead of arriving at an organically satisfying ending. Poitier also borrows a leaf from René Clair for his premise—a poor workingman (Poitier), having bluffed his way into a black gambling den, has his wallet lifted by holdup men and later learns that the numbers ticket inside is worth $50,000—and perhaps his opening, too, though here Rouben Mamoulian aficionados (are there any Rouben Mamoulian aficionados?) might protest that Mamoulian’s stage production of Porgy and Bess in the Twenties anticipated Clair’s early-sound frolics with its rhythmic, stylized-sound awakening of Catfish Row.

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Review: Dirty Mary Crazy Larry

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Coming away from Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, an MTN colleague remarked that it had to be the most confused movie to cross our path in a long while. I disagreed, preferring to reserve the term “confused” for films that have somewhere they want to go but can’t quite decide how to get there, or others that may have more (perhaps very interesting) things to say than they can encompass. I felt that the makers of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry knew exactly what they were doing: they had nothing whatsoever to “say,” but they did have a handy file-card index of issues and ideas that other road-movie makers had addressed themselves to, and they could pull a card every five minutes and insert its text into somebody’s dialogue. Result: a quasi-intellectual zapper to occupy coequal status with the other disconnected shocks in the movie, be they the most unimaginative of scatological putdowns (any verbal exchange in excess of five lines can be handily terminated by having one party tell the other to “Kiss my ass!”), utterly unmotivated characterological turnabouts (two old buddies fall out, two sworn enemies fall in, and the three persons involved become the best of comrades, all within less than three minutes), or—who’d ever guess?!—car crashes.

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Review: Breezy

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Breezy confirms the fitful but definite promise of Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter: Clint Eastwood can direct. Not brilliantly—at this point, anyway—but intelligently, and with conviction to spare. Conviction has a lot to do with the success of his third film, a movie one has only to synopsize in order to appreciate its bountiful capacity for ending up something dreadful: footloose hippie with big dark eyes, a funky hat, and a guitar keeps getting entangled with middleaged, joyless-playboy divorcé in real estate; she decides she loves him, he decides he “can’t cope” with loving her, they part, and an endearingly disproportionate dog reunites them. You can cut yourself off a generous portion of skepticism and still be won over by the cliché-trampling sincerity of Kay Lenz and William Holden in the respective roles. Eastwood himself stays offscreen this time (save for a brief atmosphere bit in longshot) and perhaps that helped his directorial concentration. Yet in another sense one almost feels his presence in the unforced sympathy he brings to both the young representatives of the counterculture (Breezy’s nicely characterized pals as well as the girl herself) and the well-preserved, semi-sporty, but distinctly middleaged lovers and other strangers Holden shares his California lifestyle with (Eastwood, almost incredibly, is pushing 50). It was by no means a given that Holden’s silvering hair and creased face should play off so movingly against Kai Lenz’s breathtakingly tawny-sleek flesh and clear eyes; shot after shot unobtrusively defines their awakening to a kind of mutual knowledge beyond facile paraphrase, and when Holden turns to Lenz in the night after recounting the failure of his marriage and fairly gasps, “You’re so incredibly new!”—well, it’s a considerably more awesome moment than anyone would have expected from a one-time cattle drover on Friday night CBS.

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Out of the Past: Detective Story

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Detective Story is a precinct-house Oedipus Rex; and though I have neither seen nor read Sidney Kingsley’s original play, I am certain that the Attic overtones are his work, not that of Yordan and Wyler. In the film, Kirk Douglas puts in one of his finest performances as the uncompromising, obsessive detective who learns, reluctantly, and to his horror, that his crusade against evil swings past the wide assortment of criminals who come daily to precinct headquarters to be questioned and booked and ultimately focuses on himself. Oedipus’s relentless inquisitiveness is equally divided between Detective McLeod (Douglas) and his gruff supervisor (Horace McMahon). Teiresias appears as a lawyer (Warner Anderson), in possession of key evidence but reluctant to share the truth he knows. Iocasta is McLeod’s wife, with a carefully guarded secret about her past (ineptly played by the miscast Eleanor Parker, in the only job of acting in the film that falls short of splendid). Even the shepherd, who gives the final bit of evidence that seals Oedipus’s doom, appears in the person of an oily racketeer (Gerald Mohr) who shares Mrs. McLeod’s secret. The film also boasts an assortment of messengers and a Chorus of helpful fellow detectives who place McLeod’s suffering in perspective. But, though the unities are generally maintained, the turgid ritualism of Greek tragedy is exchanged for a seriocomic realism by the introduction of a most interesting and well-played bunch of pathetics and grotesques: the witnesses and arrestees of an evening’s work in the precinct.

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A note on journalistic malfeasance – ‘The Tamarind Seed’

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, August 1974, from the TRACKING SHOT column]

Parallax View doesn’t usually reproduce MTN ephemera such as the catch-all column “Tracking Shot.” Howsomever, this note of mine regarding the brief passage of Blake Edwards’s The Tamarind Seed through town engages an issue which, sadly, is anything but ephemeral. –RTJ

In the lead article of this issue, Kathleen Murphy confesses to some presuppositions that disposed her against The Tamarind Seed before she went into the theater. She did go into the theater, which a lot of generally intelligent and discerning filmgoers aren’t even considering as an option, given the plethora of signals surrounding the movie—the casting, the advertising, some of the damning-with-faint-praise “favorable” reviews.

As further evidence of what is keeping people from giving a chance to a film we frankly regard as singularly fine, we quote the following throwaway from a film potpourri column in a recent number of the new Seattle Sun: “The pathetic return of Julie Andrews (who sometimes wears a slip) and Omar Sharif (who always wears a smirk). If there was a prize for bad directing, Blake Edwards would win it with this.”

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The Hong Kong Gesture

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

A procession of horses and men winds through the gate and into the large courtyard of the Four Seasons brothel. They come to a halt; dozens of big wooden crates are simultaneously lowered to the ground. We watch a man break one open. Contents: one (1) cringing maiden. The new shipment has arrived.

Among those uncrated is the courtesan of the title, Ai Nu. But this one don’t cringe, boys. Out she steps, mad as hell, and it takes the best efforts of several of the pack train’s ruffianly marauders to restrain her.

Along comes the unruffleable madame of the establishment. Total cool; total authority, That’s wasted on Ai Nu, who attacks her like a wildcat. The battle is joined.

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emigrants & immigrants

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Quite early in Jan Troell’s The New Land one realizes one is watching not a sequel, not the conclusion of a two-part magnum opus, but a second film. While The New Land represents a narrative extension of the events of The Emigrants, it also embodies a thematic and stylistic counterattack on the first film.

From the first shot of The Emigrants—the camera’s long, slow crawl over the rocky landscape of a 19th-century Swedish farm—we are aware we are watching something special; and with Troell’s hand in control of screenplay, camera, direction, and editing, we have reason to expect a one-man show, a rare level of unity and integrity in form, style, and content. In the first half-hour of the film, Troell introduces his principal characters to us through a carefully edited series of moments in their lives, selected from the passage of some five years’ narrative time. He edits not only to depict the passage of time, but also to systematically separate and dissociate his characters from their milieu: both story and style place the characters at war with their social, historical, and environmental circumstances. Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow) is frustrated by his family’s inability to improve their lot, and by his own vulnerability to the whims of nature and a God he cannot accept. His wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), has a firmer faith, but is troubled by doubts and plagued with guilt because her physical love for her husband keeps saddling them with new children she fears they cannot feed. Karl Oskar’s brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) is a fledgling intellectual, disinclined to the manual labor to which he was born. Robert’s friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt) is the opposite, a true man of the earth, but one who is excluded from human companionship because of his simpleminded innocence. Daniel (Atlan Edwall) is a religious visionary whose ideas earn him the scorn of the Christian establishment and a price on his head. His principal follower, a former prostitute named Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), is a social outcast with no regrets, whose efforts to find her own meaning are thwarted at every turn by social and religious persecution.

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A Community of Two: Blake Edwards’s ‘The Tamarind Seed’

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world…
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

More than one person, myself included, was not too terrifically turned on by the prospect of The Tamarind Seed. Despite Blake Edwards’s modest rep as a quirkily competent director, and memories of his refreshingly adult Peter Gunn television series in the late Fifties, the notion of Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif let loose in an environment “where love grows and passion flowers” (to quote the early ads) did not set my critical—or indeed, any other—pulses racing in anticipation. Mary Poppins and Dr. Zhivago, as one Movietone News writer aptly dubbed them, might make magical music for Middle America, but they aren’t the couple that comes most readily to mind in the context of passionate, grownup love. In fact, I fear I had come to cast the two as top-of-the-line Barbie and Kenny doll stars: handsomely groomed and coiffured, offending no one (and even enchanting some) with their unrelieved attractiveness, and wholesomely bereft of bothersome genitalia.

Even when I got the word that the love story was set within the spy-thriller framework, I wasn’t much more sanguine about The Tamarind Seed. I’ve about had my fill of the institutionalized world-weariness of this venerable genre. Like the cop flick, the international spy drama has come to wallow in unearned cynicism, automatic angst. Current events haven’t helped this drift towards self-congratulatory recognition of corruption here, there, and everywhere. Having been conditioned to accept it as our native element, we are all too easily and undiscriminatingly immersed in a cinematic environment in which every landmark is subject to change without notice, depending upon the ebb and flow of political and/or ideological expediency. With poleaxed complacency, we watch individuals, relationships, ethics suffer such swift sea-changes that nothing is certain, save the expectation that the ground under one’s feet will be shifting again at any moment.

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