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Movietone News 49

Out of the Past: ‘Pather Panchali’

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

The camera looks up at a rooftop and balcony where we see an Indian woman, clearly upper-class from her dress, intently examining a piece of pottery. She calls out, “Who’s there?” and then looks up, off screen right. Cut to a longer shot, tracking backwards right to follow her as she walks toward something that is not within the image. “Look at her!” the woman exclaims, and addresses a long tirade on theft to another woman on the roof.

The important thing about this opening minute-or-so of Pather Panchali is that it is not like the openings of most Western narrative films. The subject of the woman’s monologue turns out to be a little girl who steals guavas from the orchard (unseen) near the house. About four minutes into the film we see (without knowing their relationship) the girl’s mother in a totally silent, forest shot. The mother’s position is in turn elucidated during a shot which introduces yet another unnamed but later-to-be-significant character: the mother’s best friend. After about 20 minutes of film, we have the complete explanation of the information conveyed in the film’s first two shots, central to which is the fact that the little girl’s family used to own the orchard. The film takes that long to answer fully its first verbal message: “Who’s there?”

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Review: Gable and Lombard

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

His cowlick is artfully combed and he has the verbal and behavioral tics down pretty good, but there’s so much concentration in the way he sucks his cheeks and pushes his lips out that you begin to think he’s a dental patient waiting for a negligent technician to come back and retrieve the X-ray pads. She doesn’t recall any particular Hollywood blonde of the Thirties, but then again she does manifest some signs of independent life and personality, which can’t be said for his Disneyland robot, however mechanically perfect. It seems pointless to award merits and demerits to Brolin and Clayburgh for not being Gable and Lombard, because only Gable and Lombard were Gable and Lombard, and you can make an honorable try at reconstituting Julius Caesar, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Leonardo da Vinci, Anne Boleyn, Betsy Ross, Emile Zola, Charles Steinmetz, and even Jeanne Eagels or George M. Cohan, but you can’t fake someone whose silver-screen reality is more definitively established than any “real-life” reality ever could be—the medium simply won’t permit it, and God bless the medium! Neither does it make much sense to pretend to tell the story of two entirely made-up creatures whose names just happen to be Gable and Lombard, except maybe in a surrealistic novel—although you can ring in a supporting character, mythical rather than personal, and exploit him as symbol or icon (v. Jerry Lacy’s “Bogart” in Play It Again, Sambut don’t let him get too close to the actual clips from Casablanca).

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Review: Le Magnifique

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Who needs a spoof of Bondian spy flicks in 1976? (For that matter, who needed one in 1973 when this film was made?) For a reel or so, that’s all that Le Magnifique seems to be up to. The reel isn’t hard to endure: Le Magnifique—or rather, one-man fighting machine Bob St. Clare—is personified by Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose wit, egocentricity, and slaloming physicality are not only entertaining but also as endearing as ever. And Philippe de Broca is officially in charge, and hitting his marks frequently enough that we recall how often and how deftly he took our breath away in L’Homme de Rio and other, only slightly lesser Sixties comedies which mixed action and/or enchantment with their slapstick and drollery. In one magical instance, a backward-zooming camera pans a troupe of white-jacketed porters bearing a dozen articles of white luggage at full trot across a Mexican tarmac, to scarlet spy lady Jacqueline Bisset sitting in a sportscar and Belmondo, in dashing tropical spy haberdashery, describing a slowmotion vault into the shot and into the passenger seat of the car—the shot proceeding fluidly and funnily out of the foregoing action, accreting elements and building from chuckle to belly laugh, and then winking away before it can flatten out into complacent savoring of a comic coup. But too many comic moments aren’t magical, and seem embarrassingly anachronistic. Again, who needs a spy spoof now? As de Broca piles joke atop joke on the theme of how callously and carelessly his hero deals out death (during a passionate kiss his hollow tooth containing his emergency cyanide capsule is sucked out by the heroine and spat into a hotel swimming pool instantly awash with the corpses of other guests), it begins to look as if Le Magnifique might be yet another well-meaning but dreary protest about the decreasing value of human life in the contemporary, CIA-pervaded world.

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Review: Lipstick

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Lipstick is Dino de Laurentiis’ latest lynch-fury kit, designed to soap up the viewer, tease him through the requisite stages of arousal and frustration, and ultimately leave him peacefully drained, with a terrycloth caress of redeeming social import to beguile him out of postcoital triste. I’m by no means persuaded that Dino’s place should be closed down. Death Wish provided a particularly gratifying fantasy experience to coincide with the hoped-for but never-quite-expected ouster of Tricky Dick, and the black viewers who screamed “Kill him!” at the climax of Mandingo were able to pass the popcorn salt to their white neighbors in the lobby without a hint of either Uncle Tom servility or glacial Muslim irony. But the new film is interestingly confused in ways that may compromise the patron’s simple pleasure, and the reason could be that Lamont Johnson is less of an erogenous engineer and more of a director than either Michael Winner or Richard Fleischer, the respective shot-callers of the earlier de Laurentiis productions.

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Review: I Will, I Will … For Now / The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Norman Panama and Melvin Frank used to be partners. Since neither of their latest independent efforts is worth reviewing by itself, and since both represent hazards to public health, this joint quarantine report is offered. I Will, I Will … for Now finds Panama blatantly poaching on territory Frank found profitable—and made comparatively tolerable—in A Touch of Class a couple years ago. Frank’s scenario about a salably bittersweet affair between a married man and a plucky divorcee in an expense-account version of the Jet Set has been transmuted into a wishfully trendy bit of fluff concerning a once-married couple who opt for one more try, but this time under the modish umbrella of a cohabitation contract renewable or cancellable at the end of each year. It’s hard to tell from scene to scene whether they’re with-it or congenitally oldfashioned; while that might have made for a revealing approach to the problems of maintaining an honest commitment in these parlous times of sexual revisionism, in this case the confusion bespeaks filmmakers playing both ends against the middle rather than the comic pathos of well-meaning characters. Gould and Keaton—and Paul Sorvino as the family lawyer who’d been having an affair with the new divorcee—supply the enterprise with more gentle whimsy and emotional integrity than their cinematic context deserves. As for the movie side of things, even ace cameraman John (Chinatown) Alonzo performs as if he were lensing a TV sitcom.

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The Richard Lester Sitting-Still Film: Interview by James Monaco

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Richard Lester is sitting in the study of his house in Surrey “looking out over a garden filled with rain and daffodils.” He was raised in Philadelphia but he has spent nearly half of his 42 years in England and he has no particular wish to return to the States. England has given him his career, his wife, his children and most of his friends, for all of which he is most grateful. In addition, he has a rather perverse fondness for English weather.

In the middle Sixties, Lester seemed unstoppable. He had made, consecutively and within the space of a few years, four highly profitable films for United Artists, films whose box-office clout was exceeded only by their glowing critical reception. He turned his attention then to a couple of projects which, although they were much more personal, seemed to him to have only slightly less popular potential. He was wrong. How I Won the War, Petulia, and The Bed-Sitting Room—all brilliant, unique films—failed miserably at the box office. From 1968 to 1973 Lester watched forlornly as a dozen potential projects fell through for one reason or another. He occupied himself in the long interim making television commercials for European producers. When the Salkind family troika approached him with the prospectus for a version of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, the drought broke.

Richard Lester

Two films were made from that book. The first, The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds, was released in the spring of 1974 and did excellent business during the summer and fall; the second, The Four Musketeers, The Revenge of Milady, was scheduled for release the following spring—shortly after the ensuing interview—and promised to do as well. Hardly a month after he had finished post-production work on these, Lester was offered, and took, the job of directing Juggernaut—which was in release barely six months after he began work on it. Andrew Sarris, who was later to contradict many reviewers in preferring The Four Musketeers to The Three, wrote of Juggernaut that it “comes very, very close to being the best film I have seen all year under any auspices. It is a thriller, yes, but it is much, much more, besides.” Just .as Juggernaut was being released, Lester began work on a long-deferred project, Royal Flash.

Both Juggernaut and the Musketeers films were essentially commercial projects conceived by their producers rather than Lester, but he nevertheless managed to inject his own brand of irony and wit into them, making them considerably more interesting than they otherwise might have been. After all, Lester is an old hand at the battle of the genres, having wittily satirized the Donen-Minnelli musical with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, reconstructed the melodrama in Petulia, and destroyed for all time the war film in How I Won the War.

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Review: Breakheart Pass

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Right off, one should say that Lucien Ballard is one fine cinematographer, even though he didn’t get a chance to point his camera at anything very interesting in Breakheart Pass, a suspense ripoff dressed up as a quasi-Western. We just get a quick taste of the sort of thing he can do with Peckinpah, establishing a period feeling with a few deft swipes through a ramshackle hamlet as the movie begins, or the way he can light an exterior night scene to make the effect seem just part of the atmosphere. Most of the rest of the time we’re inside this train with most everybody in the cast, waiting as they get killed off one by one, and as it slowly becomes clear that the governor (Rich Crenna) and his henchmen are in cahoots with some toughies at the other end of the line, across Breakheart Pass, and that they’re all conspiring to take over a fort from the army and use it to receive illegal shipments of gold coming in from the fields.

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Review: The Man Who Would Be King

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

It’s hard not to think about Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre after seeing The Man Who Would Be King, for reasons that range from their broadest similarities as adventure yarns involving men balancing vision against obsession and finally losing everything in their efforts to get everything, down to minor but perhaps tellingly matched details like the strings of frisky mules who in both cases wind up spilling fortunes of gold back into the wilderness from which they came. To enumerate a few other likenesses: one could easily see the Mexican Shangri-la that Walter Huston falls into in Treasure of the Sierra Madre as something of an incipient Kafiristan (who knows that Huston didn’t have Kafiristan in mind even then, if it is true that he’s had a film version of Kipling’s story forming in his head for some twenty years) and the schism that festers briefly between Peachey Carnehan and Danny Dravot when Danny decides to take a wife and remain a .king in Kafiristan as another version of the paranoia that alienates Fred C. Dobbs from his companions and finally leads to his death—as Danny’s much less self-destructive delusions lead to his. Cutting it a little finer, there is the director’s own little joke in Treasure when Bogart (who, interestingly, was one of the actors—Clark Gable was the other—Huston originally intended to play the roles in his version of Kipling’s story) keeps on badgering John Huston to “stake a fellow American to a meal” (Huston plays a small part as a moneyed American in a Mexican city full of penniless expatriates) until Huston gets pissed off and tells Bogart, “This is the last peso you’ll get from me; from now on, you’ll have to make your way through life without my assistance!” In The Man Who Would Be King Peachey Carnehan swipes a watch from Kipling—if not the auteur, at least the author who set Peachey and Danny out into the world and into Huston’s imagination.

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Just Before Dawn: The ‘First Seattle Festival of International Films’

When recently working on readying the 49th issue of the Seattle Film Society journal Movietone News for Parallax View re-posting, I reencountered this as part of the “You Only Live Once” column on local art and classic film programming. The big event on the horizon was the “first Seattle Festival of International Films.” How big an event? Let’s just say the bigness was real. Were there as many estimable films in that initial, 19-film, two-and-a-half-weeks event as in any recent season of SIFF? Discuss amongst yourselves. —RTJ

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

The Moore-Egyptian Theatre at 2nd and Virginia has been open under new management—and a new name, having subsumed the Moore Theatre of old—since late last year. Already the Moore-Egyptian has proved a valuable addition to the local repertory map. Festivals of familiar Bergman and Truffaut are scarcely innovative, but there’s always someone out there ripe to make a (re)discovery, and they shouldn’t be denied. It was good to have a reappraisal shot at The Seduction of Mimi and Love and Anarchy after the brouhaha over Swept Away and the longdistance celebration of Seven Beauties, which still hasn’t played here (I find I prefer the formative Wertmüller, warts and all, to the arrived “major artist”). And even though it turned out to be an epic of turgidity, I’m grateful to have seen and accounted for the long-deferred Kamouraska of Claude Jutra; when a director comes up with a My Uncle Antoine, you keep looking for a while.

The “new” theater hasn’t exactly been swamped with business, and some envisioned renovations around the house will have to wait a bit. But the managers—Jim Duncan, Dan Ireland, and Darryl Macdonald—aren’t stinting at all with programming. They’re about to loose the First Seattle Festival of International Films, easily the most important event in local exhibition in … well, I’d prefer not to think overmuch about how long it’s been since anything remotely this auspicious was hazarded by a local theater.

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Une Femme Sauvage

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Early in François Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adèle H., before Adèle has met up with the young lieutenant she followed from Guernsey to Halifax, she is seen walking down a street near the military garrison, moving east to west, against the flow of pedestrian traffic (made up almost entirely of men in uniform). Though we are scarcely one reel into the film, we already know her to be, if not a liar, at least an obsessive fictionalizer, and a follower of fancy rather than fact. We sense, too, that this Lieutenant Albert Pinson whom we have not yet seen is not quite the devoted lover she has made him out to be, and that her passion for him may well be a one-way street.

A man in an officer’s cape whips by her; she whirls and cries out; he turns, and the two come face to face at center screen. The man is François Truffaut. Her face immediately tells us her error: yet she keeps looking, for longer than would seem necessary, and the officer looks back. Not a word is spoken, but a great deal more is going on in this shot than a simple case of mistaken identity.

François Truffaut and Isabelle Adjani

In the first place, the mistake is rather improbable, in light of the Albert Pinson we meet later; for this officer is darkhaired, short, and easily old enough to be the father of Adèle’s tall, blond lieutenant. The looks, in fact, which pass between the woman and the officer on the street convey not so much the embarrassment of mistaken identity as a moment of recognition. The scene primes us for that later scene, near the very end of the film, in which Adèle walks past the real Lieutenant Pinson in Barbados without a glimmer of recognition: How complete has been the introversion of romantic fantasy in the mind of this woman who once recognized a little of her lover in nearly every man, and now fails to recognize him even in himself!

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Still Life: ‘Robin and Marian’

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Ripeness has gone to rot with a vengeance in Richard Lester’s latest film. In some wasteland out at the edge of the world (patently not a holy land) a one-eyed old man and some women and children hide out in a cracked, ungarrisoned castle and do not guard a golden statue coveted by King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Richard Harris), because it’s really only a stone, and besides, it was too heavy to carry away from the turnip field where it was dug up. Not even Robin Hood’s still-illusioned alchemy can shapechange the “pig” who peevishly orders the castle razed and its inhabitants butchered back into a lion-hearted monarch. Richard’s death is flung like accidentally accurate doom from above; but Justice in this diminished world is old and one-eyed, its bolt flung in fallibly human long shot rather than sent as sign of any god’s terminal exasperation with a hero long fallen from divine or mystic or even human grace. The heroic vision that Richard once embodied, and gave Robin a taste for, is apparently laid to rest where it went bad—in a stony land of too much sun and too many senseless massacres. But although Robin, Little John, and we watch the king’s funeral cortege in longshot, it soon becomes clear that Robin has managed to internalize some vestige of the former dream, and now means to take it home—home to the cool green fastnesses of Sherwood Forest where it first thrived.

Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as Robin and Marian

If Nicol Williamson’s practical Little John finds sustenance in plain bread, the sights he’s seen in the wide world, and his love for Robin, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood is hooked on more exotic fare. Grizzled, just this side of being old, he lacks the cleverness to buy cynicism as life insurance, but is just simple enough to be a hero. He’s hardly ever able to contain the gay, brave boy who, untouched by time and circumstance, struggles free to shout “I’ll save you!” to an uncooperatively grownup Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn). Bergman’s knight in The Seventh Seal comes home from the Crusades to seek God among the ruins, but finds only ruins and, inevitably, death. Lester’s peasant-knight returns to quest for a present, if not a future, in the past, and ends by putting a period to a life that cannot, will not dwindle into obscurity and old age, but must burn out in a flash of meaning. There must be a beginning, a middle, and a proper end. Some richer, more resonant image must replace that of a spent king bleeding in the foreground of an empty stonescape, a uselessly burning castle thrust up in the dusk behind him, a monument to death without dignity or purpose.

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