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Movietone News 46

In Black and White: The World of Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT. By Hugh Fordin. Doubleday. 566 pages. $15.00.

By packaging and presentation, Hugh Fordin’s book is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The serious student of film might easily pass it by, seeing only the pseudo-MGM logo and the boldly lettered subtitle: HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST MUSICALS. You have to look closer to see the real subject, in a smaller italic: The Freed Unit at MGM. I begin with this caveat emptor in an attempt to convince even people who hate film musicals that Fordin’s chronicle of MGM in its glory and subsequent decline is important reading for us all.

A while back a friend suggested “Arthur Freed as auteur” as a potential book or thesis title. The comment was somewhat facetious, but it underlined a curious fact: not only are most film-lovers unaware of Freed’s huge influence on Band Wagon, Silk Stockings, Singinin the Rain, and the 40-odd other films produced by his unit, but the very roles of producer and production unit have been little studied by film historians, much less commented on by theorists and critics. A producer is only a producer, one might say, but a good director is an auteur.

The World of Entertainment benefits greatly from this seemingly unglamorous nature of its subject. Since Freed and others like him are decidedly non-mythic figures—and even more so their “stables” of writers, musicians, and so on—Fordin has not felt obligated to delve too deeply into biography or motivation. He gives us a narrative of film production itself as a process, as evolved in Freed’s “royal family of Hollywood.”

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Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 2

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Mine has been a sheltered existence: I never attended a film festival before. And as a matter of fact I attended only four days of this one. But four more disillusioning and dispiriting days I don’t expect, or want, to experience for quite a while, thank you.

It was bad enough knowing that the Joseph L. Mankiewicz tribute, The Romantic Englishwoman, Les Ordres, Black Moon, the Michael Caine tribute, Conversation Piece, the Louis Malle tribute, Chronicle of the Years of Embers, and Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August—to list them in approximate sequence of anticipatory enthusiasm—would take place before teaching and Film Society commitments permitted us to wing south. The remainder of the program was dominated by unknown and hence unanticipatible quantities, save only for the latest film by the director of The Hireling (which we most wanted to see), a three-hour Soviet WW2 epic by Bondarchuk (which we least wanted to see), a new French film starring Jeanne Moreau (which closed the festival and which, because of return-flight connections, we knew we couldn’t see), and tributes to Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda, and Stanley Donen. Of these last, Hackman and Fonda were two eminently admirable people whose work and ever-emergent identities are so much a part of the contemporary cinematic experience that any summary tribute to either seemed a little inappropriate; but I was perfectly prepared to admit that some tribute designer might very well be able to put the consistently likable creations of director Donen into clearer perspective for me, and besides, the general interruptedness of his career in the late Sixties and early Seventies tended to redouble the justification for a festival salute now that that career seems to be off and running once more. And of course, a film festival is a film festival (isn’t it?), and who knew which of those untried films and filmmakers might be the L’avventura or Viridiana, the Godard or Jancsó, of 1975?

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Hell Italian Style

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Deus ex machina, in the form of a lawyer with clout, at long last yanks a broken Alberto Sordi up and out of the hellish Italian prison system. Then we get the usual disclaimer: “Any resemblance, etc., etc…. ” But this grueling 90-minute total immersion in the system’s casual dehumanization rings entirely too true to be so easily dismissed.

Which is not, however, to dismiss Loy’s movie as mere agit-prop; far from it. Detained Pending Trial is a complex, fully fledged work of art.

I saw it in a jampacked 24-cent, triple-feature Mexican moviehouse. The audience began by laughing raucously and appreciatively at every new discomfiture suffered by the Sordi character. Well, why not? Here’s this comfortably upper-middle-class dude, after all, a professional, a land-surveyor: and he’s a bit of a, well, let’s face it, a … tool. We meet him in Sweden, on a terrace, all dressed up and handing drinks around to these middle-aged stuffed-shirt clients. He smiles, grins, bows—the works. A real toady. Sort of well-liked by the workers on his crew, mind you; but there’s a trace of contempt blended with their affection.

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Review: ‘Capone’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

While the gangster genre has its fair share of anti-heroes portrayed as psychotic delinquent types (perhaps a fair working definition of the cinematic hood), and while those types help define an aspect of the genre, they certainly aren’t confined to the set boundaries of its form and indeed have indicated new directions for movies that deal with organized crime and the people whose lives revolve around it. Not too surprisingly, then, Corman’s (and Carver’s) Capone is loosely related to Coppola’s Don Corleone (Gazzara even stuffs his jowls with padding), but he might, in conception at least, bear a closer resemblance to Scorsese’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets—a “gangster” story that shares the traditionally mythic elements inherent in the genre while managing its own very personal working-out of the meanings of both violence and friendship. That Johnny Boy is comparatively peripheral in Mean Streets may suggest the uniqueness of Scorsese’s film in its relationship to movies in which the alienated hood stands in a position to manipulate perspective by ensconcing himself at the metaphysical core of his cinematic universe, but Johnny Boy’s gangland genealogy traces back in a psychologically straight line to Hawks’ Tony Camonte, and there is little doubt that Corman, Carver, and screenwriter Browne at least had Scarface in mind during the making of Capone.

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Mad Rooms: Shot Composition in Two Films of Bernard Girard

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

MAD ROOMS
Shot Composition in Two Films
of Bernard Girard

-Main Title-

For nearly three decades, Bernard Girard has been one of the invisible men of the American cinema. Briefly lionized for his independent feature A Public Affair (1962) and hesitantly applauded for Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966), he has remained otherwise unrenowned if not altogether unknown. In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris begins Girard’s career 18 years late (of twelve films in which he was involved between 1948 and 1966, Girard wrote nine and directed five) but properly assesses an aura of bleakness in the director’s approach:

Bernard Girard has made an interesting debut as writer-director of Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, but it is difficult to imagine where he can go from here. Dead Heat seems complete and definitive as the expression of a chilling sophistication in the treatment of the big caper genre. There is something so inhuman in the directorial attitude revealed that Dead Heat seems like a dead end.

The following year, reviewing Girard’s The Mad Room for The Village Voice, Sarris came closer to defining that bleakness: “The point in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is that we are all more or less crooked, and in The Mad Room that we are all more or less crazy, two considerable half-truths that require plots of more originality than Girard has thus far availed himself.”

In fact, originality or none, Girard is a director who has done his most memorable work trying to breathe fresh life into old genres. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and The Mad Room, which remain his two most-seen films, are built on the respective foundations of the bank-caper gimmick and the horror-of-personality idea. If he has not had the success that many other genre-oriented directors have enjoyed, it is due largely, I think, to an inability to establish an effective relationship between plot development and montage. Girard simply is not a montage director; and—odd for a screenwriter—he is not an especially literary one, either. His films just don’t hold together well enough, either sequentially or thematically (although, in this regard, his objections to producers’ final cut of The Mad Room should be recalled).

But what impresses me consistently about Girard is the occasional brilliance of his mise-en-scène. He possesses a painterly sense of composition which, though it emerges only now and again, enables him admirably to fit an entire story into his frame and still leave room to breathe. This sensitivity for composition extends not only to framing but to camera movement as well; Girard’s shot composition becomes, at its best, a kind of kinetic painting. And, lest it be objected that the composition could be the work of a competent cinematographer, since Girard himself seems mediocre in all other aspects, I must hasten to point out that similar compositional techniques of the highest quality may be observed in both Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and The Mad Room, products of two different cinematographers (Lionel Lindon and Harry Stradling Jr., respectively).

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Review: ‘Le Secret’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Le Secret bears a 1974 copyright and yet it seems much more dated than that. The films of Costa-Gavras notwithstanding, political paranoia thrillers feel so endemically American that this rather nondescript French movie comes across mostly as a by-the-numbers emulation of the U.S. model—just as contemporary French films noirs recall not such honorable homegrown predecessors as Carné–Prévert and Clouzot but rather the classic American noirs of the Forties and Fifties. This guy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, throttles a guard and escapes from this semi-medieval dungeon somewhere in the French night—a half-hour’s drive from Paris, as he and we learn. “They” had been slipping him the old Chinese water torture there, he tells a handily available ladyfriend of short-term acquaintance, because he accidentally learned a secret “they” can’t afford to have anyone know; and now “they,” of course, will be looking for him. OK. By means not narratively disclosed, Trintignant quits Paris and turns up in some woodsy terrain where he hopes to go to ground in a certain shed. Said shed having burned down—or so he is told by a jovial Philippe Noiret he encounters on a hillside—he accepts the shelter of Noiret’s own bucolic retreat for the night, and several ensuing days. The problem posed to Noiret and wife Marlène Jobert, as well as to the audience: is he a paranoiac or just someone who damn well is being persecuted? In either case, which way do they jump next?

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Review: ‘Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Brian Clemens did some of the funniest, spiffiest episodes of the delightful British TV series The Avengers. In this first feature film, an intermittently serious, Hammer-produced exploration of horror flick conventions, he tracks and pans through the woods, around carefully lit and furnished interiors, like an old pro. Mise-wise, it’s all really more than satisfactory; but whaddaya do when it’s sendup time and you look around and you got no ineffable Lady Peel (Diana Rigg), no stylish John Steed (Patrick MacNee)—just this chesty, übermenschy blond leading man (Horst Janson) and this chesty brunette love interest (Caroline Munro), neither of them exactly lighter-than-air in the comedy department? Well, you win a few and you lose a few, is what you do. You put your Aryan master swordsman on top of a hill and have him attacked by a small mob of angry, lumpen townspeople; have him kill everybody in no time flat, doing lots of fancy foot- and swordwork; have him grin and flash gay Douglas Fairbanks looks at Miss Munro, stationed at the bottom of the hill, laughing maniacally, during the carnage. Throw her a wink. It’s a lead balloon. But then, eclectic British technician that you are, you decide to stage another action scene, in the middle of a horror movie, as an irreverent homage not to the horror genre itself, but to Westerns. And for some reason, it works.

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Review: ‘Blanche’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

I think I would find Borowczyk’s feature films insupportable if they weren’t so much fun. Come to think of it, I did find Goto, île d’amour insupportable: I walked out on it. Having recently seen and greatly enjoyed Blanche (1971), it seems to me in retrospect that all I really needed to enjoy Goto equally well was a cocked eyebrow and a few grains of salt. This guy used to make cartoons after all, right? OK, he made Animated Films Shot Through With Lacerating Black Humor. Yeah, like: cartoons.

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Review: ‘Hard Times’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

The beginning of Hard Times comes close to successfully evoking a sensitive feel for rundown Thirties landscapes and the forced freedom of men on the move to the next city in hope of something better than what they left behind. Charles Bronson rides into town in an empty freight car, gazing out at a countryside whose facelessness is placed in perspective by a simple touch: a truckload of Depression-reared children who, perhaps enviously, stare back at Bronson as he rolls on by. He hops off the train and wanders towards a clump of deserted factory buildings, then off into the town where, like a man with nothing much to do, he sits down in a sleazy joint for a bowl of chili and a cup of coffee. Soon he’ll stumble onto a little fistfight between two hulking sluggers, the object of a few friendly bets, and he’ll take up as a fighter himself in order to win enough money to get him to the next stop. So far, though, we simply hope that his quiet and quietly depicted arrival may be building towards an understated film of real men in hard times. Bronson’s lived-in face seems as unflinchingly stoic and potentially lethal as it does in any Michael Winner movie, but there’s that lurking possibility that a period movie like Hard Times will soften its edges and crags and turn Bronson into something of a more easygoing romantic figure.

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Review: A Very Curious Girl

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

I caught up with Nelly Kaplan’s 1969 “Brechtian” comedy one afternoon in San Francisco when MOVIETONE NEWS failed to rate a second ticket to the Jane Fonda tribute at the film festival. While La Fiancée du Pirate (or A Very Curious Girl, as it’s known for purposes of American distribution) compelled a good deal more attention than most of the features in the 19th S.F. Film Festival, I feel dutybound to register a brief demurral as to its value as cinema. The scenario, about an umpteenth-generation, universally exploited piece of provincial trash who undoes her exploiters through a canny manipulation of her sexuality, their stuck-up susceptibility, and such unfamiliar bits of modern technology as a tape recorder and a record player—plus the fact that said scenario was devised and directed by a woman—has tended to win the film reflexively positive notice for eminently respectable sexual-political reasons. It’s a poor excuse for a movie—scarcely as incompetent as 92 in the Shade, but essentially bereft of anything resembling cinematic shape or style. One is always hesitant to protest the absence of such niceties when someone is surely waiting out there to insist, “That’s what’s Brechtian about it, ya schmuck!” But style and self-awareness have to find a meeting ground somewhere between Verfremdungseffekt and the old Hollywood slickeroo, and Nelly Kaplan (a one-time assistant to the monumentally ambitious director Abel Gance) seems to have made little attempt to find it.

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Review: Winterhawk

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Most of what is at all worthwhile in Winterhawk has little to do with Winterhawk (Michael Dante), a mysterious Blackfoot leader who captures a white woman and boy and asks that he be given smallpox remedies in exchange for their return. No smallpox remedies are ever forthcoming; instead, a grizzled band of mountain men led by one (Leif Erickson) who’s had dealings with the Indians in the past sets out in pursuit of the captors and the captured. As it turns out, they prove to be a more interesting assortment of faces and personalities than the tight-lipped, elusive myth they chase through the mountains of Montana. Not that interesting, though: Pierce’s characters tend to resolve into thinly textured types reminiscent of the most simplistically portrayed Disney frontiersman. Still, the first scene indicating that something actually matters in the film—and resists absorption into Winterhawk‘s I’m-ready-to-be-inspired idealism—takes place when the mountain men sit at Guthrie’s (Erickson’s) table and hedge around one another’s motives for wanting or not wanting to go after the Indians.

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