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Movietone News 47

Love Among the Ruins: 1975 in Review

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

“We might pass this way again”—the line from the song recurs throughout Stations, Roger Hagan’s exquisite documentary that stood out at this year’s Motion Picture Seminar of the Northwest and later graced a Seattle Film Society showing of Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore. I seem to be passing this way again whenever a yearly assessment of the Seattle film experience falls due in January. 1975, like other recent years we’ve lived and watched through, didn’t feel in the present the way a lot of years look in the past, like a (to compound as many metaphors as possible in this silly season) cornucopia of good movies clamoring to light our way to eternity. Which is not to say that getting up a Ten Best List has been especially difficult for me, or that 1975 has failed to generate many more movies than ten that I want to pay my addresses to.

The little films, for instance, those small-scale endeavors that make no pretensions for themselves and seem ready in advance to kid any pretensions we might make for them; not award-winners or even likely nominees, not Ten Best types as long as “Best” implies more than a conviction that one will fondly remember them. But film years, and film consciousness, don’t get fleshed out without the likes of Rafferty and the Gold-Dust Twins (Dick Richards, Alan Arkin, Sally Kellerman, Mackenzie Phillips), Rancho Deluxe (Tom McGuane, Frank Perry, William A. Fraker, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Slim Pickens, Elizabeth Ashley, Clifton James, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright), W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (Burt Reynolds, Art Carney, Thomas Rickman, John G. Avildsen), and A Boy and His Dog (L.Q. Jones, Harlan Ellison, Don Johnson, Tim McIntire, Blood). In some private last analysis I prize such movies above the more generally noticeable and certainly commendable likes of Jaws, The Return of the Pink Panther, and Farewell My Lovely because it requires no last analysis to make me uneasy about, respectively, empty manipulation, however proficient, or betting a sure thing, however accomplished that sure thing may be, or gilding a generic lily even when the gilding is as affectionate and surprisingly unpretentious as Richards’ (director of Farewell as well as Rafferty).

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On the Absence of the Grail

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The interest of the reader (and one reads the Grail stories with a real interest) does not come, one can see, from the question which normally provokes such interest: WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS? One knows very well, from the beginning, what will happen, who will obtain the Grail, who will be punished, and why. Interest is caused by a totally different question, which is: WHAT IS THE GRAIL?

-Todorov, Poetique de la Prose

Obviously Bresson is not aiming at absolute realism. The rain, the murmur of a waterfall, the sound of earth pouring from a broken pot, the hooves of a horse on the cobblestones … are there deliberately as neutral agents, as foreign bodies, like a grain of sand that gets into and seizes up a piece of machinery. They are like lines drawn across an image to affirm its transparency, as does dust on a diamond—it is impurity at its purest.

-Bazin; on Diary of a Country Priest

It seems inevitable that Bresson would have eventually filmed the Arthurian legends; in a real way the director’s entire work points in this direction. An important thing to keep in mind is that in France the Arthurian legends are known by heart to virtually everyone schooled beyond the tenth grade. In adapting Lancelot, Bresson is not indulging in a sort of culture-for-the-masses approach or more-intellectual-than-thou snobbery. He is telling a story which has the value of a totally familiar myth or folk tale for francophone audiences, a fact that grants the director extraordinary liberty in his manner of telling his tale (and allows, as we will see, some important contradictions to arise and shape the work).

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Review: The Sunshine Boys

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Neil Simon’s way of being funny has an unappealing tinge of urbane and private nastiness to it. It’s not always something you can pin down to the printed script or the types of jokes he puts into his characters’ mouths; rather, it is a quality more subliminally (and subversively) expressed in a cumulative attitude of a writer towards his people and his audience. It is as if Simon wishes to make us feel guilty about laughing at his characters because it is so easy (too easy) to laugh at them: get a guy so enmeshed in an almost cruelly black inability to cope with life (like Charles Grodin in the Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid) and “anything he says or does is bound to appear comically inept. Simon, like Wilder, capitalizes on fallibility in a way that seems somehow unhealthy—a kind of self-contained, ruffled-lip statement that misuses comedy as a tool of exclusion. Rather than portraying any kind of strength, he would just as soon evoke cheap sentiment (like expecting us to suddenly straighten up and get serious when Willie Clark, one of the Sunshine Boys, has a near-fatal heart attack) and he is a lot better at making us cringe in embarrassment at tedious predicaments than at allowing us to let loose at a sharp one-liner or a bit of funny business that doesn’t require a five-minute take to brand into our consciousness.

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Review: La Via Revee

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

by Ken Eisler

Isabelle drives unhurriedly through the morning streets of Montreal in her little red Volkswagen. Along the way we glimpse women looking out of windows, kids playing—vivid ephemeral street scenes. This engrossing flow of images is interrupted only once: to accommodate an insert of some people punching in at a time clock. Now Isabelle arrives at her place of work and punches in too … a bit late. She’s in a place where people make movies. Another flowing sequence shows employees at work here: a woman bent over a table, laboriously crayonning in the empty space of an animation cell; a paunchy English-speaking executive being petulant and overbearing with a director. Isabelle heads straight for the ladies’ john. With a friendly quick smile, she joins another woman in front of the big mirror and they stand side by side busying themselves with their appearance. The woman’s face appears set, deadpan, studiedly oblivious. Oh, Christ, you think. Alienation City. But it’s the other woman, surprisingly, who at long last breaks the silence, with a “hen-talk” ·remark that is addressed, however, not directly to Isabelle but at her image in the mirror, and that also bears more than a trace of hostility. “You don’t need that paint,” she rasps. Isabelle replies in feminine kind, but without the hostility. “I love your necklace,” she exclaims, leaning over; and at this a broad smile breaks through the other woman’s mask. “I made it myself,” she says proudly, turning directly to Isabelle. The two exit together, talking, and walk down the corridor.

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Review: Dog Day Afternoon

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The montage with which Sidney Lumet begins Dog Day Afternoon is at pains to get across to us just what things were like in Brooklyn at 2:57 p.m., August 22, 1972, right before a minor bank robbery became a major Event. The montage—shot and assembled as if nothing had changed in film since 1967—emphasizes people, their clothing, their attitudes, their activities on a hot afternoon. But one shot doesn’t quite belong; it draws our eyes away from the peopled street to a theater marquee, held at top-center-screen, announcing A STAR IS BORN. That wasn’t a new movie in town in ’72; and its revival at the time has no bearing on the events of Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet is really interested in the four words on the marquee only because they summarize his attitude toward the subject of his film, a sexually eccentric neurotic who attracted national attention that afternoon when he held up a bank, took hostages, and demanded a jet airliner to fly him out of the country. Never one to trust an audience, Lumet holds the shot about three times as long as necessary for us to get the point. It’s a mistake he has made frequently throughout his career, bloating many otherwise promising films. Hold too many shots too long, even by just a couple seconds, and before you know it your movie’s an hour too long. Like Dog Day Afternoon.

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Review: Conduct Unbecoming

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Hands-down winner of the Wrongest Possible Project from the Very Beginning Award for 1975 is Conduct Unbecoming, a dreadful adaptation of a perhaps worse play, and a movie so misconceived—by the infallibly inept Michael Anderson—that its very attempts to juice itself with artificial life manage to exacerbate its turgidity. The cast list is imposing but the players, while too professional a lot to come right out and guy the piece, can’t manage to salvage it either. (What the hell, pick up the bucks via a few day contracts and hop a plane to something better: Christopher Plummer’s turn as Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King is discreetly fine enough to erase the memory of half a career’s worth of vainglorious posturing in junk like this.)

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Review: The Nickel Ride

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Despite its director’s solid critical and commercial reputation and a Cannes Festival showing, The Nickel Ride arrived in Seattle well over a year late, as a first-run second feature to a new film being ballyhooed via the moronic action-film come-on. (That the new film happens to be a fine one, meriting very different advertising and going largely unseen by its proper audience as a result of its unpleasant sell—Robert Aldrich’s Hustleis momentarily beside the point.) It’s easy to see why the film has been neglected by its distributor and downplayed by reviewers: a “depressing” story, set mostly in a dim, unglamorous locale, unfolding apparently within a generic context where hard and/or shrill action melodrama is the normal order of business—crime and those who practice or live on the edge of it—but without delivering the customary goods at the customary rhythms of shock and bruised relief, shock and bruised relief….

And to be perfectly fair, we ought to point out that The Nickel Ride is more an honorable failure than, when ya get right down to it, a good movie. Like so many of his contemporaries, from prestigious directors like Penn to the younger program picturemakers with a view to being “taken seriously,” Mulligan has turned to the film noir as a framework for spiritual dissection of the world we seem to be living in and some of the ways we elect for going about it. His frames, his spaces, his people’s movements bespeak a selfconsciousness and seriousness as impeccable as, say, Antonioni’s. Indeed, a good deal of The Nickel Ride consists of Jason Miller’s dark, massive, weary head sloped to a telephone receiver at the extreme right or extreme left of a wide Panavision rectangle hung in some gray-brown second-story space. Miller plays Cooper—Coop, if you want to be iconographic about it, though Mulligan manages not to insist—the “key-man” who holds the means of access to clandestine warehouses more violent types rely on as places to dump their freshly ill-gotten gains until the heat’s off. Cooper is also the long-established Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a godfather to his neighborhood where fixing fights and staking petty heist artists appear to be the most extreme forms of criminal behavior. It’s a job, and as Cooper leans milky-blue–suited through the gashing early-morning sun and pauses to listen to a bar-owner pal gripe about the rat race before hauling a carton of milk up to his office, anyone who has ever grown accustomed to the rituals and rhythms of a neighborhood while babysitting a store or office there will feel the correspondences in his gut.

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Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, and music scorer John Morris notwithstanding, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is no Young Frankenstein. What’s been crucially left out of the mix is virtually any feeling for those literary and cinematic forebears all but the most couthless of viewers must have in the back or front of mind. The Mel Brooks film’s attention to the traditions from which it sprang supplied it with not only resonance but also more sheer utilitarian structure than its catch-all creator had ever managed to come up with before. Lacking such scrupulousness, Wilder’s own directorial debut (he did help write Young Frankenstein) is reduced to a series of skits and skips—or hops, as it would musically have it—which stand or stumble according to the sweetness and sureness, or vagrancy and lameness, of the momentary shtick. Only one moment early in the film suggests a commitment to comedic extrapolation and embellishment of Conan Doyle’s abundant narrative quirks: As a menacing—and very literal—heavy (George Silver, the Fat Man of Gumshoe) crouches outside Sherlock Holmes’ door, Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) apprises Watson (Thorley Walters) of the fact by way of flashcard—then proceeds to run through a series of cards anticipating Watson’s ensuing reactions and questions.

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Review: The Romantic Englishwoman

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The Romantic Englishwoman affords an unexceptionably witty and civilized film experience from the first shivery glimpse of Glenda Jackson’s double reflection over the passing wintry German landscape to the last of the end credits: “A British–French Co-production”. Losey’s direction has never been more assured; the casting leaves nothing to be desired and the performances are elegantly judged; Gerry Fisher’s color cinematography is coolly ravishing, Richard Macdonald’s design precise and gracefully satirical, Richard Hartley’s score a paradigm of haut-bourgeois tastefulness with just the right hint of romantic susceptibility. Will this review continue as a rave; or is he about to heave a “Yes, but—” sigh? Well, I think we’ll keep it a rave, although at the moment I’ll inject a Yes, but delightfully as the intricate narrative game of The Romantic Englishwoman has been conceived and played, I suspect that it’s a rather self-enclosed exercise à la The Servantwith which it has clear thematic connections—while Accident remains the great Losey picture and the director’s most comprehensive work. I arrived at this only slightly disenchanted view of The Romantic Englishwoman after my second look at the film. On first viewing I was completely enthralled; and because I’d hate to compromise anyone’s similar pleasure, I’d rather say next to nothing about “what happens,” so that the viewer will be free to wonder “Is what I think is going to happen going to happen; and if it does, will it happen as I am led to expect it to; and if happens but slightly deviates from my expectations, how and why will it deviate?”

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Moments out of Time 1975

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Keith Carradine in "Nashville"
Keith Carradine in "Nashville"

• Keith Carradine singing “I’m Easy” to one or all of four women—and also, to be sure, himself: Nashville

• The awful pale blue oblong of Guinevere’s window, Lancelot du Lac: is it the only light in the world, or a glimpse into the void empty even of darkness?…

The Man Who Would Be King: Danny Dravot’s (Sean Connery’s) pleased hesitation before closing his fist on the Masonic symbol Kipling (Christopher Plummer) has just presented him at the outset of his journey—”For the sake of the Widow’s son”…

• Marvin Hollinger (Ben Johnson) rising, standing canted against the backdrop of the stadium crowd, wondering why his name is being called over the loudspeaker: his daughter lies in the morgue downtown—Hustle

Love among the Ruins: the barrister (Laurence Olivier) peers down from his window at the limousine stopped below, casually slanted across a rain-washed lane and containing the fabulous woman (Katharine Hepburn) who passed through his life for three days and nights forty years ago…

• Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), nicely disheveled from sex and sleep, springing into vitriolic rage when she learns d’Artagnan (Michael York) has discovered her secret—The Four Musketeers: The Revenge of Milady

The Return of the Pink Panther: the return of Inspector, presently Patrolman, Clouseau (Peter Sellers), tipping his baton in salute to a passing lady and elegantly tapping his eyeball…

A Woman under the Influence: At an impromptu spaghetti breakfast for tired but happy sewer workers, an endearingly ugly dago succumbs to an operatic impulse. His croaking rendition is interrupted and superseded by a more mellifluously Italianate voice, offscreen and down the table. As the shot zooms back in leisurely curiosity, a hand waves into the frame and we discover the true Caruso is black. A minor but by no means negligible example of the film’s lovely faith in unlikely potentiality…

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