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Movietone News 52

Review: Scorchy

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Things break fast in Seattle. The light, for instance. A fellow can come home to his rooftop pad, take a sniff of midafternoon air, follow that up with a quick shower, and drift into the livingroom to find it invaded by not only a ski-masked burglar but also the mellow gold of sunset. The apartment looks lovely at just that moment, right out of an ad for Northwest living; one is reminded that cameraman Laszlo Pal more frequently occupies himself hymning the Weyerhaeuser Corporation and otherwise shooting commercials. But, to pay quickly what compliments can be paid in connection with Scorchy, our latest made-righcheer-in-town movie, much of Pal’s color camerawork is more attractive and expensive-looking than what we are accustomed to see in grindhouse actioners—which, anywhere except its home shooting base, is the category Scorchy will fall into. Presumably he cannot be blamed for the absence of any coherent directorial notion of where the camera should be put, no more than ace Aldrich editor Michael Luciano can do much about a series of one-shots which, when spliced together, suggest interlocutor A was facing due west while interlocutor B kept his gaze rigidly focused south-southeast.

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Review: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Like most films with a baseball setting, The Bingo Long Traveling All-stars and Motor Kings is not essentially about baseball. Not that baseball is altogether a bad thing for a movie to be about (though in these days of the once-great sport’s waning popularity a real baseball movie might well die at the box office); it’s just that baseball is so damned useful to film makers as metaphor. One of the most exciting moments in Bingo Long occurs when Charlie Snow, a player on the barnstorming independent baseball team of the title, slips out of the game momentarily to relieve himself and suddenly finds a razor at his throat. The razor belongs to the hired goons of funeral director Sallison Potts, who is trying to intimidate Bingo Long and his team of unaffiliated black players into giving up their enterprise and returning to his Negro National League franchise. A closeup shows us the razor against Snow’s chest; a short cry escapes his mouth before it’s stifled by one of the goons. It’s too quiet just now: Snow’s screams would be heard. “Wait till Leon tags one,” says the second goon; “wait till the crowd roars.” At bat is slugger Leon Carter, whose big hit we have been waiting for and are now dreading. The pitcher winds up and delivers—and it’s a ball. And it’s a breathless moment in the theater. But it’s also essentially a denial of the excitement of baseball. Those who know baseball and consider it important don’t need a man’s life riding on the next pitch in order for it to be an exciting, tense experience.

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Review: The Return of a Man Called Horse

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Surely Richard Harris presents a problem to directors, one that few of them have managed to surmount, camouflage, or get around, much less turn on its head and use to their advantage. To Antonioni he was mostly a carrot-topped fleshtone against emotionally apt pastel backdrops (Red Desert); Peckinpah was about two-thirds successful in exploiting his egocentric theatricality as an expression of selfdestructive romanticism on the part of a defeated Confederate officer (Major Dundee); Frankenheimer turned the whole world around him into such a comic-strip environment that his posturing became a comedically apt way of occupying frame space (99 & 44/100% Dead); Lester gave him the kind of ultra-professional specialty role in which his tics seemed existentially permissible as definitions of life lived in an unending series of vacuum pockets pressurized by imminent catastrophe (Juggernaut), and elsewhere (Robin and Marian) enabled him to attain sublimity as a mad monarch who seemed almost relieved to die an absurdist death before his actions could further subvert his heroic identity. Irvin Kershner, who has worked well with such problematical stars as Robert Shaw (The Luck of Ginger Coffey), Sean Connery (A Fine Madness), and George Segal (Loving), was virtually tripped at the starting gate by Harris’ dual influence on the Man Called Horse films as star and executive producer; indeed, the auteur of Return of a Man Called Horse is very probably Richard Harris himself. What a c1ayfooted Brando complex is at work here! What serene conviction that the viewer will vicariously relish his communion with Nature and a Nobler Way of Life, his stone-browed rages, his lingering postures of moral superiority and periodic, protracted drops into a hectoring whisper. (Leaving the theater I suggested to my companion that it’d be nice to see Harris get through an entire movie without once whispering a speech to a hall-sized body of listeners, then immediately amended my wish to see a film in which he does whisper and we cut to an interlocutor who says, “I can’t understand a fuckin’ word you’re saying!”)

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Review: Tenant

By Norman Hale

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
Macbeth

In The Tenant Roman Polanski explores again the psychic terrain of guilt, dread, paranoia, fears of sexual inadequacy and hysteria he made so familiar in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, and Chinatown. Much of The Tenant bears residual traces of Repulsion‘s treatment of insanity and the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary’s Baby. The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering. A bit of lace drifting in the breeze becomes an omen of dread; sidelong glances from normal faces acquire an insidious grotesqueness. Is there in fact a conspiracy against M. Trelkovsky (Tchaikovsky? Porchovsky?—everyone seems to pronounce it differently), the new young tenant who takes over the apartment of Mlle. Schoul, the victim of a suicide leap from her window? Are the other tenants in league to drive T. into jumping as well? What about the burglary of his apartment? The human tooth he finds hidden in a hole in the wall plugged by cotton? The Egyptian postcard? The hieroglyphics in the toilet? Are they all elements of a vast conspiracy to drive him mad?

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Review: Stay Hungry

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Bob Rafelson’s two previous films, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, were both unequivocally downers as far as the types of characters he chose to depict—uprooted failures, emotionally crippled losers—and their respective destinies on bleak, severely shrunken horizons are concerned. Nicholson’s wasted vitality in Five Easy Pieces and pathological introversions in Marvin Gardens are equally invested with a sense of the respective characters’ inabilities to cope with their problems, as well as suggestive of some unredeemable souring that arrested the maturing processes in their once-promising lives. If I didn’t exactly find anything of value about the characters in those films, I could at least pick up vibrations of a congealing, somehow consistent vision in the rather morbid cynicism that informs, especially, The King of Marvin Gardens, wherein Nicholson plays a withdrawn, late-night radio monologist whose hopelessly illusion-bound perspective gives the film’s spiritual and physical landscapes (the wasteland of Atlantic City in the winter, habitation not of beautiful women in bathing suits but of lowdown gangsters holed up inside ramshackle houses on the outskirts of some caved-in suburban tract) an unsettlingly tentative and dissolute quality.

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Review: Gator

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Although I rapped it in MTN 25, the previous Gator McKlusky adventure White Lightning lingers in the memory as a middlin’-competent entry in the fast-driving, grin-and-punch genre of Southern melodrama—nothing to urge on discriminating audiences, but undeserving of particular scorn. Burt Reynolds had yet to be intelligently directed (Aldrich and Bogdanovich were just around the bend) but as long as Joseph Sargent had Ned Beatty, Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, and Diane Ladd to fall back on, that wasn’t an insuperable liability. Unfortunately, Reynolds has joined the list of superstars who can’t resist the compulsion to direct themselves—and also the list, nearly as long, of superstars who can’t direct. Gator proposes another instance of the slaphappy ’shine-runner McKlusky enlisting—this time under pressure from the authorities—to bust up the countywide crime empire of a baaaad country boy, one Bama McCall, and the film attempts to duplicate the modest success of its predecessor partly by duplicating quite a few of its elements and strategies. The implacable glide of canoes through swamp at the opening of White Lightning, as crooked sheriff Ned Beatty prepared to drown McKlusky’s college-boy brother and a fellow protestor, is reiterated here in the convergence of revenuers’ motorboats on Gator’s familial sanctum among the mangroves, Gator’s several car chases are compressed into a single James Bond–y boat pursuit here (although automotive destructiveness rears its hood in subsequent scenes); Gator gets drunk/drugged in a steamy nighttime sequence again, and director Reynolds even recaps director Sargent’s angular strategies as a smitten female stands poised above the hero and bares her charms.

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Review: Vigilante Force

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

If George Armitage has any consciousness of the existence of film critics and their predilection for creating cult figures, he’s doubtlessly waiting for some little-magazine commentator who hasn’t turned over a rock lately to hail him as an “American primitive.” His credentials? A storyline so incredible a generous soul might mistake it for zany. Characters that beg to be taken at face value as stereotypes but don’t make sense even that way. Comic-strip pretensions toward social consciousness. A shooting style so crude and undisciplined it must express a boundless dynamism (incompetence is unthinkable). You’ve-got-to-be-kidding images like the hero’s daughter, dressed in Uncle Sam costume, running to embrace Daddy after the successful conclusion of the final purgative shootout. Etc.

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Review: Food of the Gods

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Bert I. Gordon’s initials form a whimsically appropriate acronym for the work of a man whose directorial stock-in-trade since the middle Fifties has been giantism. This time he has served up another “portion” of H.G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods, on which his 1965 Village of the Giants was also loosely based. The premise of the story involves the creation, by vengeful Nature, of a pasty substance that seeps out of the hillside on a small Canadian island, causing giantism in creatures that eat the stuff. This gives Gordon the opportunity to dwell on giant wasps, rats, chickens (?!), and a few other goodies (one of which, in the film’s only high point, is discovered by Ida Lupino behind a row of Mason jars on a cupboard shelf and is sure to delight anyone who’s ever reached into a dark area, afraid of finding something unpleasant). The wasps are animated-in à la Hitchcock’s The Birds; the chicken is a model; the rats are real, shot in closeup and writ large into the world of human beings via rear projection and matte work. But the detail of Gordon’s extreme-closeup work on the rats—though it maintains the illusion of size and generally conceals the model and matte work—leads to poor perception of spatial relationships and a frustratingly shallow depth of field: A big rat, yes: but where is he in relation to the players, and to the other rats we just saw in the preceding shot? In most cases, there’s no telling. Further, the bigness of Gordon’s creatures, unlike that of Wells’s, is not matched by a similar bigness of idea. Little attention is paid to the script’s early, labored explanation that the food of the gods has no effect on adult animals but causes overgrowth only in juveniles. And a pregnant woman who—logic demands—is in the story so that her infant will somehow ingest the “F.O.T.G.” and grow large (something like this happens in Wells’s novel), ultimately serves no dramatic purpose at all, except to give birth at the height of a rat attack, under even less comfortable circumstances than Melanie Wilkes.

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Review: Crime and Passion

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

A well-researched case history would probably be more relevant than a conventional review in determining Crime and Passion’s just place in the annals of film. Films like this one come to us in such a clearly piecemeal condition that it’s difficult to envision them as anything but foredoomed second-feature material. A contingency-be-damned formalist might insist on trying to find a lucid and traceable progression from the opening overheads of a bright-colored sportscar careening dangerously through city traffic to the final, emotionally apt shot of a quasi-Mabusian figure literally frozen in contemplation of a distant fairy-tale castle where two lovers half-playfully, half-dolefully wait for his Death to come claim them. If such an analysis be possible, I’ll read it with gratitude. Meanwhile, Crime and Passion seems typical of off-the-wall projects that somehow ricochet out of control the moment they hit their locations on the Continent (in this case, Austria), so that, after a while, no one can quite remember when they come on set any given day just what, ultimately, they wanted their movie to do or be about, or just how the particular scene at hand was supposed to slant them toward that objective.

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Review: St. Ives

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Oliver Procane, eccentric planner of multimillion-dollar ripoffs, has been impotent all his life; he enjoys spending his non-criminal time watching silent masterpieces by Vidor and Griffith. It’s entirely possible that J. Lee Thompson & co. were inviting congratulatory inferences here: anybody who appreciates good moviemaking must be a bit of a wimp, so let’s hear it for our manhood! If this be the rationale, St. Ives is one hell of an advertisement for a stud service. This movie is so bad that when the convoluted action takes us to a drive-in movie the same film clips can be glimpsed four times (and no, this wasn’t an exercise in staggered chronology à la The Killing—it was just staggering); that when you see Jackie Bisset in bed in longshot she’s lying on her back, but when you cut to a medium closeup she’s sitting up with a thigh hanging out; that even though the film is punctuated by Siegel-like titles (… LOS ANGELES 11:00 A.M. OCTOBER 25), temporal continuity is so shoddy the hero is privileged, on several occasions, to reveal that he made a little phonecall during some offscreen time and therefore it is perfectly permissible for the cavalry to come to his rescue…. At first it seems that we have here another howler of a miscasting job for Charles Bronson—he’s a semi-starving novelist (who nevertheless maintains a swell wardrobe in his fleabag hotelroom)—but this too is retroactively defused: well, you see, he’s trying to be a novelist, he used to be a crackerjack crime reporter, although guys who have been on the police force long enough to make detective never heard of him….

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Götterdämmerung in Technicolor: Fritz Lang’s ‘Rancho Notorious’

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

O listen … listen well:
Listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck,
Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the song of the gambler’s wheel,
A souvenir of a bygone year,
Spinning a tale of the old frontier
And a man of steel,
And the passion that drove him on, and on, and on.

It began, they say, one summer’s day
When the sun was blazing down;
‘Twas back in the early Seventies
In a little Wyoming town.
So, listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the Wheel of Fate
As round and round with a whispering sound
It spins, it spins
The old, old story of
Hate, Murder and Revenge!

Any movie that gets underway with a song like that is going to be a little strange. And Rancho Notorious is strange. Peculiar. Outrageous. Utterly distinctive. I can only sympathize with any Western fan who dropped into his local grindhouse some night in 1952 for an hour-and-a-half of vicarious gunplay and eye-soothing scenery. Although it includes a goodly amount of shooting, a jailbreak, a bank holdup, a vicious fistfight and some token (very second-unit–style) hard riding, Rancho Notorious offers little in the way of genre compensations. Its theme ballad forgoes the customary easy jogging rhythms of most Western music for a tortuous, neurotic progression all its own; the mode is epic, but closer to Brechtian Epic than big-country epic. Indeed, the song bids to be exemplary: we are advised to “listen, listen well.” The didactic note is consistent with the previous work of a director who has specialized in putting his protagonists through hellish learning experiences (a character in one film speaks of having watched himself burn to death a dozen times over in a newsreel of his “lynching”; another Lang film consists mostly of a dream wherein the protagonist witnesses himself succumbing to what seems a single harmless temptation, then being lost in a morass of guilty complications that serve to confirm his waking self in straitlaced morality). And the film is exotically personal. It is drolly, thrillingly right that the last four words of the chorus should coincide with the credit title DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG: Rancho Notorious is a Teutonic revenge drama that partakes of the conventions and uses of the American Western—gunmen on horseback settling disputes against mythic backgrounds—without ever leaving the Fritz Lang universe. Siegfried, Kriemhild, and Hagen Tronje would feel right at home at Chuck-a-Luck.

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Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

It isn’t too likely that a U.S. Senator would arrange the mass murder of several bands of Confederate renegades after their postwar surrender; less likely still that he would himself be present at the grisly deed; and least likely of all that the ex-Confederate officer charged with rounding up and bringing in the guerrillas would, upon watching the massacre, have no more to say than “Dammit, Senator, you told me those men would be decently treated!” There are only two ways to take an outrageously implausible story and turn it into the Winning of the West; and if you don’t have the audacity of a Sergio Leone you might just get by with the humble, trusting naïveté of Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has demonstrated, over the past few years, a steadily decreasing tendency to imitate his mentors (most notably Siegel and Leone) as he continues to develop a style of his own. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of the directorial style of another western legend who got behind the camera, John Wayne, in its penchant for relying on explicit, often moralistic dialogue, on larger-than-life heroes and villains (often viewed from low angles), and on the instant, positive expressiveness of a powerful screen presence (Eastwood’s own) more than acting versatility or directorial imagination.

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The Great American Eating Machine

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

The recurrence of certain thematic ideas clues us to a consistency of vision at work in Steven Spielberg’s last three films. For one thing, all are “disaster films” in the sense that they deal with the revelation of character in time of stress. Each of the three films, in one way or another, treats of a battle to the death between a pursuer and a pursued, each respecting and fearing the other’s power. Most fascinating, though, is the fact that all three films deal in some significant way with people’s relationship to machines. (It comes as no surprise that Spielberg’s current work-in-progress, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is about human encounters with UFOs.) Even his earliest television work is marked by an interest in the struggle of the human against the Object. The second section of the Rod Serling trilogy Night Gallery (1969) starred Joan Crawford as an art collector who arranges for an eye transplant, and awakes from the operation just in time for a New York power blackout, with frantic results. A more mature made-for-TV feature, Something Evil (1970), pitted Sandy Dennis against a houseful of poltergeists. But it was with Duel (1972) that Spielberg first dealt specifically with that curiously American simultaneous dependence upon and fear of machines.

"Duel" - The tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon

Richard Matheson’s script for Duel is a vertiginous plunge into the American collective unconscious, with an enormous, wheezing tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon that irrationally menaces the allegorically surnamed hero, David Mann. His first name is as apt as his surname: the fact that the driver of the truck remains unseen turns the truck itself into a giant Philistine enemy opposing this modern David. Spielberg presents the truck to us not from the point-of-view of Mann’s eyes, but from a fragile point deep inside the mind of the threatened salesman. In closeup, the truck is always overpoweringly huge; in middle- and longshot its size is emphasized by comparison with Mann’s car, making the truck more than ever an insatiable monster bent on gobbling up helpless prey.

The metaphoric impact of all this is heightened by the fact that Mann has chosen to drive this winding, hilly country road to avoid freeway traffic. In his life’s journey he has strayed—but willingly—from the Dantean true path, and found himself confronted by a ravening beast. The snake, too, that most allegorical of creatures, makes its appearance in one of the film’s most interesting scenes, Mann’s stop at a garage that, in the tradition of Cable Hogue’s “Cable Springs” stagecoach stop, offers an exhibit of snakes as a roadside attraction. Interestingly, the snake sequence comes just after an incident in which the truck has nearly forced Mann into the path of a train at a crossing, and precedes the climactic sequence in which a radiator hose gives out and spews steam about as Mann’s car grinds to a halt on a steep grade. Whether this is an intentional proliferation of phallic symbolism or merely a sequence of variations on shape, Spielberg’s emphatic treatment of the images demonstrates his awareness of the coincidence.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Jr. Bonner: Another Side of Sam Peckinpah

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

At a basic level, Peckinpah’s is a cinema of oppositions. When one thinks of Westerns, a genre whose configurations and conventions Peckinpah has done a lot to redefine, one tends to reduce moral tensions to a simple antagonism between forces good and evil—something Peckinpah’s films emphatically don’t do. In Jr. Bonner, the kind of moral tension that operates between Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), a onetime cowboy who has become a notably successful businessman and smalltown icon, and Jr. (Steve McQueen), a middleaged cowboy who is having trouble winning, indexes the complexity of Peckinpah’s ideas about heroism and morality. There is a scene early in the film in which Jr.* goes into a saloon in his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for a drink, and discovers Buck sitting in a corner booth. Jr. sits down and makes a pitch to Buck to fix things so that he’ll ride the bull Sunshine in the rodeo and hopefully win back some of his flagging self-esteem. (Sunshine is a bad bull who has thrown Jr. before; the cowboy is absolutely not seeking an easy ride.) Buck says, “I ain’t goin’ to make a living off somebody else’s pride,” and in the near-mythic uprightness of those few words lurks an inherent set of values that, on the one hand, stands opposed to the waywardness of Jr.’s pragmatic individualism, but that, on the other hand, suggests the same kind of dauntless adherence to archaic codes that lends the doomed Romanticism of Jr. Bonner an almost celebratory force. Buck and Jr. are two of a kind, cut from the same mythic block, even though they seem to be at odds about the means of maintaining their ways of life.

Junior Bonner
Junior Bonner

Peckinpah’s characters do not readily yield to neat moral dichotomizing. Identity is the main positive force in Peckinpah’s films, but equally crucial is the moral attitude it embodies, or from which it derives. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, we tend to forget that Hogue’s persevering out in the desert has as much to do with a somewhat nasty urge to avenge his having been cast out as it does with more enduringly admirable qualities like his love for Hildy and his societally utilitarian, and quite affable, capitalistic tendencies. Hogue (Jason Robards) is sustained in equal parts by forces which are destructive as well as those which are constructive, life-giving. Inherent in Peckinpah’s Westerns is the same dissociation of heroism from simplistic moral attitudes which figures as an essential premise in earlier Westerns by directors like Ford, Hawks, Mann, and Fuller. One has only to think of The Searchers, Red River, The Naked Spur, and Run of the Arrow to realize that the informing qualities of the modern Western protagonist include a sense of alienation, crippling flaws, blind spots, and weaknesses proportionate to the potentially tragic stature of the characters.

In Peckinpah’s Westerns from Ride the High Country through Jr. Bonner, identity clings to lives and lifestyles that seem perennially on the road to extinction. But the plight of the Peckinpah “hero,” residing in a world where even the notion of heroism is ambiguous, is more complicated than the simple fact of his propensity to vanish from the historical scene. Peckinpah’s films ultimately seek to reconcile the necessity and the futility of a Romantic worldview, a dialectic which is important in evaluating Peckinpavian morality and, subsequently, in understanding Peckinpah’s characters within that context. The two sides of that dialectic are often manifested in different characters within a given film: Jr. and Buck here, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Ride the High Country‘s Steve Judd and Gil Westrum. All these pairs in some way suggest unities; they are seen not as separate entities inherently antagonistic, but as outgrowths of the same passing world who have been unnaturally wrenched into positions of fatal contravention.

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