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Movietone News 38

Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

“The Film Funding Corporation Limited in association with Vision IV” has produced a serviceable-enough Canadian low-budget shocker in Black Christmas and pitched it at the end-of-year trade. Unless I’ve missed some subtle subtext, the tie to Christmas is tenuous: an establishing shot of wassail seen through the windows of Gothic-looking Hart House, University of Toronto (decked out with Christmas lights and disguised as a sorority house in the college town of “Bedford”), and an advertising campaign built around a Christmas wreath gift-labeled “Season’s Greeting’s” and enclosing a still of a polyethylene-wrapped corpse propped in a rockingchair. One question about this campaign teases my mind more persistently than any puzzle propounded by the film itself. Did the merchandiser who dreamed it up personally place the apostrophe before that plural s in “Greetings,” as unselfconsciously as if he were scrawling the words on a wrapped Christmas gift in the sanctity of his own home; or could FCC Ltd./Vision IV in fact be trying to hip us, via their use of this endemic seasonal illiteracy (see also: Greetings from the Smith’s, The Smith’s Live Here, etc.) to their extraordinary concern in Black Christmas for the exact social detail?

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Review: The Gambler (2)

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

The Gambler is a curiously cerebral film in which the play of ideas (particularly literary assessments of the American experience) is transferred from the incestuous séance of the academic seminar to green baize gambling tables. There, those ideas are raised, not as ghosts, but as the highest stakes a man can wager. In California Split Robert Altman used gambling as an excuse for getting at the marginalia, the milieu, rather than as a metaphysical metaphor. Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter James Toback (a professor of English) are clearly after bigger fish—say, about the size of Moby Dick. For like Ahab, Reisz’s gambler bets on himself, his own power or will, to make some impression, to impose some meaning on … what? Perhaps that which resists will: fate or chance, the existential territory that refuses to be enfeoffed by the central “I-am.”

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Review: The Gambler (1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

James Caan has graduated from the half-wit college boy of Coppola’s The Rain People right into a professorship at NYCC in his latest picture, Karel Reisz’ heavyhanded non-exploration into the befuddled and befuddling id of a compulsive gambler which ultimately becomes knotted up in its own tangle of 19th century existentialism and carelessly applied Nietzschean superman metaphysics. Somehow I was more convinced by Caan’s gentle inarticulateness in Coppola’s movie than I was by the cutely masochistic cool he sardonically exudes in The Gambler, and although he’s still impaling women against walls (shades of The Godfather) and strutting about with the typical Caan machismo which fails to be tempered by his role as a teacher in Reisz’s film, the character of Axei Freed lacks some of the gritty credibility which Caan was able to give to the role of gangster Sonny Corleone. Which may not be so much Caan’s fault as that of Reisz and screenwriter Toback who, instead of trying to develop their character from the bottom up, begin in some metaphysical realm far above his head and pigeonhole his personality in a framework of neatly defined psychological concepts, with the result that Caan’s character reads like a textbook case rather than reminds us of a man.

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Review: The Night Porter (2)

If the first half of The Night Porter at last manages to set an acceptable pace by way of intercutting between the present and past lives of the characters, the latter half sags beneath the weight of a narrative gone sour and Liliana Cavani’s gropings for some way to end the thing. It is here, as Bogarde and Rampling are besieged inside the former’s apartment by his Nazi ex-comrades (they mean to have Rampling killed because she knows too much of Bogarde’s past and his association with them—a threat whose seriousness is never made quite tenable in the screenplay), that the Bogarde character loses any credibility he might have had as a sexually hung-up, former Nazi torturer with a soft spot in his heart and a streak of childish perversity which makes his villainy seem more ridiculous than menacing. Down to their last Hershey bar and half-empty jar of strawberry preserves, they still live to make love, spending the rest of their time lying about with starved, listless expressions or wide-eyed stares of encroaching madness. Bogarde wipes the kitchen table a lot—a reference to how, earlier, he had nervously wiped the table inside the restaurant while talking to Mario, another face out of the past whom Bogarde himself subsequently murdered because he knows too much; Rampling slithers and scrounges like a hungry cat.

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Review: The Night Porter (1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

The Night Porter is a strange, richly textured affair, and one sign of its dark brilliance is its success in holding some imposing limitations at bay. For one thing, its plot is highly contrived: an Austrian hotel night porter (Dirk Bogarde) is a Nazi war criminal; he is preparing for an annual meeting of old Nazis who have organized in order to continue escaping detection; but his standing with the group is put in jeopardy by the arrival at the hotel of a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) with whom he had had a sadomasochistic love affair. Matters are made even trickier by the somewhat devious contrast of the couple’s unconventional eroticism and the Nazi group’s hypocritical puritanism. But Liliana Cavani’s graceful and intelligent direction and the performances of Bogarde, Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti and Amedeo Amodio give the proceedings (script by Cavani and Italo Moscati) a depth that they might not have otherwise had.

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Review: The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.

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Review: Don’t Look Now

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Nicolas Roeg’s previous work as a cinematographer may have a good deal to do with the purely visual sensation of watching Don’t Look Now, the third picture he has worked on as director (having co-directed Performance and soloed with Walkabout). One feels the sensitivity of some of Bergman’s recent films on which Sven Nykvist has worked, or of Jan Troell; but Roeg’s sensitivity in this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is closer to the hypersensitivity of someone (the main character, John Baxter, played by Sutherland) who notices everything and cannot help noticing everything about his environment; someone who is flooded with visual and psychic stimuli which so glut his consciousness that his sense of spatial and temporal orientation begins to wobble. For this, Venice is the perfect setting: a contusion of grotto-like canals, disintegrating stone, and faintly echoed voices—the Venice, in fact, through which Visconti’s Aschenbach stumbled in search of the boy Tadzio.

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Weddings, Etc., in Blood: ‘The Ceremony’

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Maybe, against all available evidence, there really does exist a viable culture of young film heads here in Vancouver. But I doubt it. Subtract El Topo, Siddhartha, Zachariah, the Brothers Marx—big draws like that—and what’ve you got left? An empty auditorium, that’s what. When University of British Columbia’s Cinema 16 schedules a Bogie series, it sells out, sure; what else is new? But suggest, as I did a couple of years ago to Cinema 16’s student coordinator, that future series include work by Oshima and you learn that Boy, recently screened, was not well liked, was in fact disliked: for its (sic!) “sentimentality.”

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Review: Erotic Dreams

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

It’s one hell of a note. Here’s this interesting-looking movie playing at, of all places, the Eve, a centrally located Vancouver softcore house: Erotic Dreams—originally (reliable sources) Wet Dreams. The long, narrow ad in The Province has caught my eye: “1st Erotic International Film Directors’ Festival.” A titillating uncertainty already, you see, as to whether it’s the “international film directors” who’re erotic or the Festival itself. Well, there they are, ten of ’em, international as hell, and among their names I find “Nicholas Ray (U.S.A.) … Dusan Makavejev (Yugoslavia) … Heathcote William (Great Britain).” Is this for real? Could “Heathcote William,” for example, actually be the Heathcote Williams, a major British playwright (AC/DC, The Local Stigmatic)? Or do we have here one of these tiresome Madison Avenue dodges in which a “Richard Nixon” is quoted hailing the virtues of a new brand of biodegradable prophylactic but proves (ha ha!) to be only a humble cabdriver from the Bronx? This “Dusan Makavejev,” so-called, am I to visualize some beetle-browed Balkan guy located via the Hollywood phone directory, then, or is it possible that he is the real article? Enough of speculation. I adjust my raincoat, I pay my (!) three dollars, and I enter the steamy precincts of the Eve.

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Review: The Seduction of Mimi

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

The print of The Seduction of Mimi currently being shown in Seattle has had about 30 minutes out from it. According to a friend who saw it whole two years ago at the San Francisco Film Festival, the abridgements improve the film. I find myself wondering whether they don’t partially account for its present weaknesses, which appear mainly in its overall construction. It seemed to me, as I watched the picture, that Wertmüller habitually projected her audience’s indulgence, that she counted on our goodwill to model sinew, muscle and flesh over the bare bones that join the various parts of her otherwise well-developed corpus together. It looks as if she were trying to make a complex and ambitious film using the erosion of political and social consciousness as a serious web on whioh to weave her comic woof. But since I haven’t seen the film as she intended it to be seen, I can only speculate that the occasional failures of cohesion are less her fault than that of the New Line Cinema people who subsequently hacked out that missing half-hour.

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You Only Live Once: Early American Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

As a general practice, Parallax View doesn’t post Word files of departmental MTN offerings such as “You Only Live Once,” the ongoing survey of repertory offerings around town. However, Peter Hogue’s anticipatory survey of a Hitchcock lineup in the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series contains some exceptional insights above and beyond the call of duty. Besides, Hitchcock is always in season. —RTJ

YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE

“Early/Middle Hitchcock,” roughly 1934–1946, may be the most appealing period of the great director’s career. From Strangers on a Train (1951) to date, Hitchcock is a master, a towering figure who has his complex art under complete control. But the earlier Hitchcock has a certain warmth and expansiveness that are somewhat diminished in the work of the masterful Hitch later on. Somewhere in the Forties the director’s always-ironic relationship with his audience shifts somewhat from a tolerant tantalization to a tortuous temptation. A convenient, highly visible landmark for the change comes when Hitchcock administers an ingenious shock to the audience by firing a gun in our faces at the climax of Spellbound (1945). The process, of course, isn’t as neatly patterned as all that, but a striking change in Hitch is discernible in retrospect. The basic intellectual vision behind the films remains more or less constant, but the earlier films are more relaxed and less elliptical than the later ones, and less given to inflicting themselves upon the audience. It’s as if the later Hitchcock felt he had to explain less to more recent audiences at the same time that he felt more of an inclination to teach us a lesson, to punish us even. The classic example, of course, is Psycho (1960) with its devilishly inspired manipulation of audience expectations and conventional moral assumptions (amply discussed elsewhere by Leo Braudy and Raymond Durgnat). Psycho assaults its audience repeatedly, and the current highly marketable hunger for such assaults (especially by lesser directors than Hitch) perhaps proves the master’s point, confirms his suspicions, authenticates his contempt. The Early/Middle Hitch is a little less the moralist, more the entertainer: the personal vision is fully present but there is a greater flexibility, a more playful humor, in face of the moral ambiguities that edge many of the later films toward a harrowing despair.

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Orson Welles Has a Daughter Named Rebecca

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

What do Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) have in common? Quite a lot, it seems to me. And yet, in all my reading on film, I have run across only one brief speculation on the subject: Andrew Sarris’s, in the context of his rebuttals to Pauline Kael’s Kane articles.

Both films, to begin with, deal with the search for a hidden secret in the life of an important man, and both use a flashback framework as means of narration (though Rebecca maintains a single point of view through most of its story, while Citizen Kane crisscrosses the memories of several characters in a network of flashbacks). Both films are informed by the presence of a dead person, though Charles Foster Kane is the central character in Welles’s film, while Hitchcock’s title character never appears. Nevertheless, each film’s ghostly presence is signaled by the recurrent motif of an initial-monogram, ‘R’ and ‘K,’ respectively. In each film a scandal—hushed up in Rebecca, headlined in Kane—attends the end of the important man’s first marriage, and overshadows his second marriage to a “common” woman.

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Moments out of Time 1974

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

The moment of the year, probably: Day for Night: Georges Delerue phones in from Paris to play one of the key themes for the film-in-progress, at the same time a package of books arrives for use as props in an upcoming scene. As the music plays into director Ferrand’s (François Truffaut’s) good ear, director Truffaut cuts to a closeup of the books piling. up one by one—Buñuel, Lubitsch, Godard, Hitchcock, Hawks—and two gratuitous gestures meld into a glorious affirmation of the cinema’s timeless essence….

Chinatown
Chinatown

• Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) telling, with irrepressibly vulgar delight, the lockerroom joke about making love like a Chinaman, while his aides desperately try to signal the entrance of the icily elegant Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) behind himChinatown….

Harry and Tonto: Harry (Art Carney), isolated in the sad grey light that fills a cemetery in the middle of nowhere, searching for Tonto while his bus moves on…

The Tamarind Seed: the small pulse of warmth and humanity when Judith (Julie Andrews) and Feodor (Omar Sharif) touch fingers on a drinking-glass in private communication while he and Loder (Anthony Quayle) continue to coolly negotiate for the best deal on Sverdlov’s defection…

• The gingerly auspicious drive home from the asylum in The Hireling, the cool green English land filled with the expectancy of the everyday…

• D’Artagnan’s servant (Roy Kinnear), waddling past a glumly solicitous beggar in The Three Musketeers: “Me? Not your day, is it?”…

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