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Richard Burton

Blu-ray: ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’

John le Carré’s novels of national intelligence and international espionage during the Cold War arrived as an antidote to the Bond novels of the 1950s and spy fantasy movies of the 1960s and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, his third novel, perfected his morally ambivalent perspective. This is a culture where ordinary, drab men toil away unglamorously in the shadows while bureaucrats make calculated decisions and spin elaborate schemes that put men in harm’s way. The book was published in 1963 and in 1965 it became the first of le Carré’s novels adapted for the big screen.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is directed and produced by the versatile Martin Ritt, an American with a legacy of intelligent films and mature themes, including the somber, subdued, conflicted modern western Hud. He brings the same commitment to le Carre’s vision. It’s shot on location in Britain and Europe with a British screenwriter, crew, and cast, and it has a sensibility marinated in British restraint and Le Carre’s ambivalence and mistrust of methods and motivations on both sides of the Cold War.

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Review: Equus

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

Sidney Lumet was just the right director for Equus, and just the wrong one. His certified ability to entice performances of considerable force — if not always precision and coherence — is invaluable to the film version of a play that, however much “opened up” for the screen, still depends to an extraordinary degree on the impact of actor on audience, and on his fellow players, for that matter. Equus is reasonably satisfying to watch as a collection of actor’s-moments, but only in a negative sense can it be discussed as a movie, and this is where Lumet’s essential wrongness for the project comes in. Peter Shaffer’s Equus, like brother Anthony’s Sleuth, is a highly stylized construct whose primary raison-d’etre is to provide a theatrical battle zone for a couple of skilled actors. A honey of a conceit lies at the heart of the piece, a point of convergence where sexual urgency and Christian iconography and primitive, almost primeval mystic rite overlap, intertwine, crossrefer, and get mixed up and mutated every which way, with man-on-horseback-as-godhead and man-and-woman-as-one-flesh setting up irresistibly resonant imagistic and conceptual rhymes. Pretty heavy, yes/no? Mm, could be, sure: sex and God and identity-crisis — that’s heavy-artillery stuff in anyone’s canon. But the fact is that Shaffer’s points and paradoxes are readily perceptible and paraphrasable about ten minutes into the picture, and prove to be several degrees less-sophisticated than “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. But whereas Welles needed Rosebud only as a pretext, and could dispose of it with an ironic fillip about thirty seconds before the end of his movie, Shaffer/Lumet must keep the same not-so-multifaceted sparkler twirling for the duration of their show. And that they have chosen to let psychiatrist Richard Burton periodically pour out his anguish — and suggest a few interpretive glosses — direct to the audience only exacerbates the sense of desperately limited ideational resources being wrung drier than dry.

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Review: The Medusa Touch

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Medusa Touch has had a most curious history. Richard Burton went into it hot on the heels of Exorcist II and Equus, but it took about a year to follow them into the cinemas, opening in London in June of 1978. Despite lots of names, a big budget and good notices, it then did what every film of above-average interest is likely to do in Britain: it disappeared totally from sight. (The remarks of RTJ in MTN 60-61 suggest the film got oblivion treatment in the U.S., too.) Nearly another year went by and then, blammo!, it was all over the place. Double-billed with an even older Paul Bartel movie, it got saturation bookings all over the country, and was even advertised on TV – very rare in Britain. One hopes that all this adds up to making it a hit at last.

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“The Robe” introduced a new Scope

"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray
"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray

Whatever you think of the biblical blockbuster, The Robe, there’s no question that its phenomenal popularity marked a turning point in movie history.

Twentieth Century-Fox, which previously treated it rather shabbily on DVD, tape and laser disc, is finally recognizing its significance with a Blu-ray Special Edition that’s loaded with extra features. Among them: a featurette about the history of CinemaScope, a discussion of the script’s political implications, and an enthusiastic introduction by Martin Scorsese, who vividly remembers the impact it had at the time.

Just weeks after The Robe’s much-ballyhooed debut as the first Scope release in the fall of 1953, the movie was challenging Gone With the Wind by setting new box-office records, and theater managers were widening their screens and beefing up their sound systems.

Before the year was over, Scope had won the battle over screen shape and size, and even movies designed to be “square,” like Shane, were stretched and distorted to suggest a panoramic effect. A few major-studio films, including the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born, were partially reshot to take advantage of the new process.

The Robe led the way in replacing small screens and transforming monophonic sound systems. Although some critics suggested that wide screens were suitable only for photographing snakes and funerals, and Charlie Chaplin and Frank Tashlin made fun of Scope in their late-1950s films, the system eventually had an artistic impact. Hollywood’s famous 1950s spectacles and musicals were affected, and so were such meticulously designed wide-screen classics as La Dolce Vita, The Innocents, Jules and Jim and most of Robert Altman’s movies.

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