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Movietone News 37

Review: The Odessa File

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Even as an adaptation of an un-book bestseller, it’s amazing what a non-event The Odessa File 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.

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Review: Law and Disorder

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Ivan Passer must have taken another look at his countryman Milos Forman’s American picture, Taking Off, before addressing himself to Law and Disorder, for the new film contains several notable echoes of its predecessor: a community-enlightenment seminar in which an obviously neurotic psychologist advises the women how to defend themselves against potential rapists (cf. the pot-smoking in Taking Off); a wife’s comically grotesque attempts to turn on a jaded husband (cf. Lynn Carlin’s pixilated drunk dance); the complaint of the protagonist, a beleaguered parent with a troublesome daughter, that “normal girls run away at 16—she stays around to annoy us” (a nod to T.O.‘s central premise). There any resemblance to Forman’s adroitly judged satire and Passer’s own small masterpiece, Intimate Lighting ends. Passer’s account of several middleaged middle-American males’ endeavors to set their world a-right by forming an auxiliary police force to patrol the neighborhood attempts to limn the frustration of those who straddle the caste line between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but he lacks any feeling for the specifically American experience. Actors like Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine are difficult to control at the best of times, and Passer, who steers his way so surely through the klutzy exoticism of blowsy Czech housewives and passed-over Czech Lotharios, apparently has no notion when satirical caricature gives way to gross overplaying.

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Review: Jackal of Nahueltoro

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

“Do you know the Infant Jesus?” a voice barks. José des Carmen Valenzuela Torres, 6, huddles farther into his dirty rags. The Corporal, who has just hauled this homeless kid off the road, looks on. Wham! A big bale slams full force into little José’s right cheek. From child vagrant to child laborer, in one cut. Fait accompli. The economy is typical of Littin’s 1969 film, made in Chile, at its disturbing best. And its best coincides—unfortunately, I think—with the most debased and dehumanized phase of the hapless José’s short, unhappy life. A caption declares that Jackal is a film about “the childhood, regeneration, and death” of José Torres. What, between “childhood” and “regeneration,” no “maturity,” nothing at all?

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Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is nothing to occasion the breaking-off of all engagements in order to go see it, but it delivers a good time; and while TV-trained Joseph Sargent directs it crisply enough, what lifts it above telefilm-level expectations is Peter Stone’s very bright job of scripting. Taking the John Godey bestseller as a serviceable basic structure, Stone has devised the most adroit, yet regionally credible, verbal business for virtually everybody who opens his mouth in the course of the picture; a character may lack a name but he won’t be permitted to contribute dead space on the soundtrack. Godey’s own dialogue was not without pretensions to smartness, but all his ethnic fussiness over the black militant among the subway hostages is swept out of mind by the overdressed jiveass’s first line to a coolly amused Robert Shaw: “Whatsamatter, dude, ain’tchoo never seen a sunrise before?” Somebody decided to change the book’s black transit cop Clive Prescott into a jowly Lieut. Garber tailor-made for Walter Matthau, but Stone redresses the balance in a nifty throwaway: Garber, coming face to face late in the film with a highly competent, encouragingly authoritative police inspector he’s known only by voice (Julius Harris), executes a visual and verbal stumble: “Oh I didn’t know you were a—I thought you were a taller man—or shorter—what the hell …”

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Review: Gold

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Gold joins On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in support of the thesis that Peter Hunt is going to make one hell of a fine picture some day. The property itself is distinguished only in its preposterous anachronism and the fact that some bestseller by Arthur Hailey or Irving Wallace hasn’t provided the impetus for bringing it to the screen in this day and age. There’s this crusty, cigar-puffing old mineowner in South Africa (Ray Milland) whose grandson-in-law, a Doctor of Economics (Bradford Dillman), is getting set to knife him in the back by creating a natural disaster that will put his and all the neighboring gold mines out of business, thereby trebling the value of the world’s remaining goldfields. In this Dillman is the agent of an international financial syndicate (headed by Sir John Gielgud) who don’t mind drowning a thousand mineworkers, or even blowing up each other, if it will have a favorable effect on the stock exchange. The general manager who’s been in on the plan gets himself killed in an accident, fercrineoutloud, and so Dillman decides he must (1) promote the greatest threat to his endeavor, the supervisor of Underground Operations (Roger Moore), to the general managership and (2) divert said greatest threat’s attention during the key phase of the plan by throwing his own scrumptious wife (Susannah York) at him.

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Review: The Gravy Train

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Gravy Train offers unlimited opportunities for self-congratulation to everyone in front of or behind the camera, and in front of the screen as well. Within that dubious category of experience it’s quite a satisfying show, as amply testified to by the raucous audience reaction during the recent Harvard Exit engagement. Stacy Keach and Frederic Forrest turn in thoroughly researched performances as a pair of West Virginia rubes who reject a life of digging coal and head for the Big Town—the iconographically unbeatable Washington D.C.—to open a seafood restaurant called the Blue Grotto. How to finance it? Why, with their share of the take in a low-comedy armored-car heist—except that the slickeroo mastermind from a bigger town, New York, crosses them up and disappears with the money. The Dion brothers (Keach and Forrest) finish out the film escaping from the trap he’s set for them, running the doublecrosser to earth, and shooting it out with him in a building that’s being demolished about their ears.

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Review: Wedding in Blood

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Claude Chabrol’s self-consciously amused but ominous portrayals of the foibles of les petits bourgeois, aside from reminding us of the director’s acute filmic awareness indicate an atmosphere which borders on a kind of noir fantasy. Like Luis Buñuel (especially in his later films), Chabrol is ambiguous in the concessions he makes to reality. He may look, sometimes very closely, at real things—setting many of his scenes in a natural environment, even taking from a true account in a French newspaper his story of a man who murders his wife and his lover’s husband (not that there is anything unfamiliar about that tale)—but there is seldom anything “natural” about what we see. The sun is blindingly bright in some of the exteriors; the white mist on a lake behind Pierre and Lucienne flattens the space within the frame, as though they were standing in front of a blank canvas.

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Savoir-être: Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.

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A Passion from Hammer: ‘Dracula Has Risen From his Grave’

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

The tiny German village lies quiet in the early morning sunlight as a young boy enters the church, genuflects, crosses himself, and walks to the bell rope. With appropriate reverence, yet with the casualness of one who has performed this ritual many times before, he gives the rope a pull. Only this time, nothing happens. Confused, the boy braces himself for a mightier tug on the rope; but suddenly he yanks his hands away as if they have been burned. On the back of his hand is a drop of blood, and as his eyes move upward, he sees a scarlet band trickling down the bell rope. With a silent scream, he runs to fetch the village priest (Ewan Hooper). Though he is a mute, the boy expresses his agitation as best he can, and the priest follows him hurriedly to the church. Ascending the stairs to the belfry, the priest approaches the bell and pushes on it. Out swings, head-first and suspended from the clapper, the freshly killed body of a young woman.

Thus begins the most uncompromisingly religious vampire film I have seen, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Despite the fact that Terence Fisher gets all the publicity, and many assignations of auteurship, this lively film by second-stringer Freddie Francis gets my vote as the best of the Hammer Dracula films (though two more recent vampire ventures, Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970, and Scars of Dracula, 1972, have received limited distribution in the United States and have thus far escaped my viewing).

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Review: Phase IV

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Saul Bass’s first feature film seems consciously to take as its premise the conviction of the mythical Dr. Nils Hellstrom that insects, given the opportunity, will inherit the earth. Phase IV offers a more startling hypothesis than The Hellstrom Chronicle, however, suggesting a set of circumstances in which ants, their capacity for organization developed into an awesome organizational intelligence, no longer need to wait for humanity to pass away, but set out to take the earth by force. Some of the advertising for the film has stated that the ants are controlled from Outer Space, but there is nothing in the movie that quite justifies this description. The only information the film gives us about the ants’ sudden acquisition of technical and tactical intelligence is that it occurs as the result of an anticipated change, implicitly associated with some astronomical event. When a biological imbalance—characterized by a decrease in ant-predators and an increase in ant population and aggression—occurs in an Arizona desert, a renowned biologist and an accomplished data systems analyst set up a research lab in a prefabricated geodesic dome in the affected area to pursue means of combating the situation.

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