[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
Recently I encountered a phenomenon—I refuse to call it a book—labeled TheOnlyGoodIndian and coauthored by Ralph and Natasha Friars. Its specific sins against the English language and any recognizable form of ratiocination are catalogued elsewhere in this issue. I mention this pseudo-scholarly study of the American Indian’s martyrdom by cinematic slings and arrows only because it exemplifies a particularly cavalier attitude towards product and consumer alike, an attitude rampant not only in selfrighteous critical tracts like the Friars’, but also in an increasing number of current films. People like the Friars don’t have to make sense (either stylistically or thematically), don’t have to work at selling their shoddy wares even on the level of persuasive polemic. Why? Because their readers are pre-sold, previously primed to ingest that which already constipates their thinking. Not, admittedly, a new process—this recycling of pap that effects no change, no growth, only a mild to offensive case of intellectual flatulence. Still, recent movies like TheLastofSheila, The Harrad Experiment, and most particularly Badge 373, HarryinYourPocket, and TheLegendofHell House impel one to speculate about a spiraling trend towards just this sort of bland diet in the cinema.
The Last of Sheila cashes in on the audience’s putative taste for the games (rich) people play, not to mention psychic stripping, a spectacle many in our group-therapy-ridden society have come to relish in and for itself with or without any therapeutic payoff for the individual involved. Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who, with close friend Tony Perkins, wrote Sheila‘s screenplay—is reputedly hooked on the puzzle-game habit himself. Perhaps as a result, the film retains the half-thought-out, initially grabby but ultimately flabby quality of a neat idea cooked up by old buddies with shared interests over late-night scotches.
[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
Tom Gries has at least one unpretentiously good film to his credit in Will Penny; if reports of Lady Ice‘s production troubles are accurate, then Gries, as the third director assigned the project, cannot be held entirely responsible for the myriad failures of this sloppily assembled pastiche of dubious leftovers from the slushfund of slick caper-cum-competitive-couple movies. Reverse the Dunaway-McQueen roles in the disastrous The Thomas Crown Affair so that Donald Sutherland gets to play insurance investigator to Jennifer O’Neill’s rich (and therefore) risk-hungry diamond thief, throw in an off-the-wall Bullitt-style car chase, and leaven the whole lumpen mess with some pathetically phony allusions to the trials and tribulations of an intelligent, emancipated female surrounded by dopey male chauvinists—and you’ve got the less than appetizing recipe for Lady Ice. Jennifer O’Neill rates only contemptuous yoks as she lays claim to superior feminine sensibilities while coming on like the original tanned plastic Barbie Doll ever ready with vapid visage and mindless giggling. One hopes in vain for Sutherland, who’s turned in some madly fey performances in his time, to contribute some subversively ironic distance from the ongoing embarrassments of Lady Ice, but he manfully pretends to be titillated by O’Neill’s nonexistent challenges and lopes gracelessly through his assigned paces as a Columbo of the insurance circuit.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Gene Hackman’s quietly desperate face looms huge in so many frames of Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film that by the end of the movie we know his features just about as intimately as Harry Caul (played by Hackman) knows the lines of the conversation he has bugged. Both we and he are, in a sense, obsessed: we, the viewers, by Harry’s troubled image on the screen; Harry, by the voices he hears and the implications, slowly realized, of what those voices are saying. This hardly seems a coincidence—Coppola obviously intended it that way. Closeups, especially of Hackman, virtually fill the movie, serving perfectly to visually reinforce the theme of violated privacy with which the story is so much concerned. The correlation between those who bug and those who are bugged (bugger and buggee?) is ultimately turned into a nearly inevitable irony as Harry’s situation is reversed and he becomes the one who is watched and listened to. Indeed, the screenplay as a whole moves just a bit too predictably and ends up being too readily reachable, too readily analyzable, what with its neat ambiguities and psychological uncertainties and sticky relevancies (not to mention some of the painfully pointed dialogue: “You’re not supposed to feel anything about it,” a blond seductress says to Harry just before swiping his tapes of the conversation; “It’s just a job”). But if you’re willing to disregard some of the story’s weaknesses as narrative and actually look at the film more closely, you might find it has some visually interesting ways of “saying” things.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 movie TheRainPeople is generally referred to as one of the director’s “personal” films, by which is presumably meant (1) that the story was Coppola’s own and (2) that he didn’t have nearly the bucks which Paramount Pictures supplied for likely moneymaking projects such as TheGodfather. In light of this, it is not surprising that TheRainPeople is a quiet, modestly conceived film revolving around a minimum of characters whose problems are pretty much everybody’s problems. Alienation and lack of communication are key themes, and TheRainPeople, if less socially relevant than The Conversation, seems to be a psychologically more credible examination of the things that tend to keep people apart.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
They were smart to change the title from TheTen–SecondJailbreak. Even though Charles Bronson says he’s going to set his ‘copter down in the prisonyard for only ten seconds, we don’t dwell on that. If there were a title to remind us, though, we might irritably observe that minutes seem to pass by—and it’s not from suspense or Odessa-steps montage while those prison guards stare on with whuddafuck expressions on their mugs, deciding to open fire only after the whirlybird has all but made its belated exit. It must be well known to everyone who passed near a TV set during Breakout‘s opening week of summer business that this nice man who looks just like Robert Duvall has been tossed into a Mexican slammer on a trumped-up charge, and left to rot there by his business enemies, who happen to include Uncle John Huston, confirmed now in the nasty habits he picked up in Chinatown. Faithful wife Jill Ireland (who is also the faithful wife of Charles Bronson, and hence keeps working in her husband’s pictures) hires baling-wire airman Bronson to get him out somehow. Breakout isn’t nearly the offense against decency, not to mention narrative intelligence, that last summer’s saturation-promo action flick was—DirtyMaryCrazyLarry, if you’d forgot, and if you had, excuse me for bringing it up again. But Tom Gries, for whom many of us once had hopes, has unwisely decided to play most of this film as comedy, without knowing how; and if somebody says that that’s all the plot sounds worthy of, I have to point out that comedy doesn’t just happen automatically when melodrama trips over its absurdities—not comedy consistent enough to carry a whole movie. The actors are noticeably stranded by Gries’s decision and only Sheree North comes near wresting an integral characterization out of the mélange. Keep Reading
Leave out Robert Downey, Jr., and The Judge looks like a painfully old-fashioned exercise in the Tradition of Quality. Big-city defense attorney Hank Palmer (that’s Downey) comes home to Indiana just in time to see his father (Robert Duvall), a respected judge, arrested for vehicular homicide. Father and son do not care for each other, but the dominoes are poised to let Hank stick around and mount a spirited defense.
In the course of the trial, family dynamics are tested, Hank brushes up against an old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), and zero coolness points are awarded to anyone involved in the movie. Well, maybe Billy Bob Thornton earns a few as a sleek prosecutor (think George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder), but otherwise this is a very square film, suitable for limited Oscar buzz and a safe choice for seeing with your parents.
The Killer Elite / Noon Wine (1966) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – By even the most generous measure, The Killer Elite (1975) is one of Sam Peckinpah’s weakest film. Which, by Peckinpah standards, is still a cut above a great many films. He manages to get his own sensibility into the tale of black ops mercenaries in a culture of betrayal and retribution, with James Caan as the contract killer who returns from a crippling injury by sheer force of will and the desire for vengeance, and he stage some terrific set pieces to go with Caan’s brutal odyssey. It’s right in tune with the cinema of paranoia and conspiracy that bloomed in the seventies while also jumping on the martial arts craze with Caan taking on ninja warriors as well as his former partner (Robert Duvall). But it’s also a talky script and Peckinpah doesn’t really seem engaged in the stakes or the characters of this story, though Pack fans will appreciate appearances by Bo Hopkins and Gig Young.
What makes this disc essential is its very special supplements: the American home video debut of Peckinpah’s 1966 made-for-television drama Noon Wine, an intimate 52-minute production shot on a combination of film and videotape and broadcast on TV once. Adapted by Peckinpah from the short novel by Katherine Ann Porter, this is an intimate production shot in a stripped down style that puts the focus on character and language. Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland are the frontier couple who hire a Swedish drifter (Per Oscarsson) as a ranch hand and Theodore Bikel the traveler who tries to poison their minds with stories that the Swede is a dangerous madman. Robards plays one of Peckinpah’s most nuanced characters and de Havilland is a quiet force of moral backbone. Lovely and devastating.
The master 2-inch tape was destroyed by ABC decades ago and until recently the only surviving copies were poor quality B&W kinescope recordings. This edition is mastered from 1-inch videotape copy of the master recording. It shows its age and provenance—lo-fidelity image, electric color, the occasional tape glitch—but looks remarkably good considering.
Both programs feature commentary by film historians and Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, which is very useful for both and frankly a labor of love when it comes to Noon Wine. What a treat. Also includes the featurettes “Passion and Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite” and “Promoting The Killer Elite” and trailers and TV and radio spots. There may not be much interest for this disc outside of seventies action completists and devoted Peckinpah fans, but it is essential for anyone who loved Peckinpah’s movies. This double-feature shows two sides of Sam at their most extreme.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Sherlock Holmes is an item nowadays. When Billy Wilder’s exquisitely personal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmesopened at Christmastime 1970, he was such a commercial irrelevancy that the cashiers at the now-deceased Blue Mouse, where the picture was showing, were taking calls for Love Story at their sister theater, the Music Box, across the street (I phoned up one evening to ask when “the show” started, and arrived in midfilm—it had never occurred to the harried phone person that somebody wanted to see the show in her theater; I eventually did see it the next evening, with about eight other people in attendance). While the Wilder picture is well on the way to winning its proper place in the annals of cinema, it’s hard not to resent the fickleness of fate and mass audience tastes—or the commercial inevitability of Nicholas Meyer’s trivially amusing bestseller The Seven Percent Solution finding its luxurious way to holiday screens via a property packager like Herbert Ross. The resultant film is enjoyable enough most of the time—handsome in its production values (Ken Adam has already demonstrated his skill at period reconstruction in Barry Lyndon,and Oswald Morris has been one of the best color cameramen in the business since he and John Huston began remixing the Technicolor palette in Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick),blessed with several appealing, if manneristic, performances, and somewhat more adventurous in its narrative idiom(s) than was Meyer’s novel as a work of literature.
[Originally published inQueen Anne & Magnolia News, December 22, 2010]
Adaptations are always difficult – for the filmmakers, of course, but also for viewers who know the original and face a challenge in trying to meet the new movie on its own terms. With True Grit, the latest offering from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, there are not one but two previous versions: Charles Portis’ excellent 1968 novel and the famous 1969 film. I nearly wrote “well-known 1969 film,” but given some of the asinine things written or said about it lately, it’s clear many people do not, in fact, know the film; they just draw on a reservoir of cliché assumptions that pass for received wisdom.
The Coens’ True Grit is an extremely faithful adaptation of Portis’ book but not a remake of the earlier picture. Virtually all the dialogue – glorious, crusty, 19th-century ornate – comes from Portis and can be heard in both movies. Both tell the same story Portis did, with some not-ruinous softening in the 1969 version and none at all in the new one. Certain shot setups in the new picture closely resemble shots Henry Hathaway and his cameraman Lucien Ballard made 41 years ago, but the Coens aren’t imitating or paying homage. It’s simply that there’s only one vantage from which to frame certain moments in the story.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Sam Peckinpah’s newest film opens with a whirling drill bit boring through a wall. But, whether by design or accident, The Killer Eliteis not the study of espionage screwings and counter-screwings it might have been. In fact, for all its action, it is essentially a talk film. Everybody talks at for-hire protection agent Mike Locken, though he’s almost never interested. His killer-corporation boss, visiting him in the hospital after Locken has been wounded, reflects on the irony of his own situation: “My father was a minister. That’s what he wanted me to be.” To this embarrassingly inappropriate reverie Locken retorts, “Who the hell cares?” winning the applause of the viewer impatient with Strange Interludes. “Heroism is Out,” another character reminds him; but Locken curiously doesn’t sense the sterility in a new age when murder is no longer the passionate response of an individual but the paid service of a corporation.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Orion’s The Great Santinihas been sitting on the shelf for about a year now and seems unlikely to move off it unless pay-TV pops for it.* The second (surely there can’t be more?) directorial effort of screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was the first), the film seems unsalable in the present Hollywood scheme of things. It is, for one thing, a small movie, without the sort of topical hook that might lend it the opportunistic urgency to make a distribution and publicity push worthwhile. It is also a hopeless mess. Its central showpiece and only detectable raison-d’Ãªtre is Robert Duvall’s tour-de-force characterization of Marine superâ€“fighter-pilot and congenital bad-/hardass “Bull” Meechumâ€”an extension (whether or not it was so intended) of Duvall’s Col. Kilgore (Apocalypse Now). The film gets underway in Spain, 1962, with a demonstration of Meechum’s superior aerial tactical skills, then a demonstration of his hellraising skills at a party jointly celebrating his air team’s besting of their Navy rivals and his own transfer home to assume his first squadron commandâ€”and incidentally rejoin his devout Southern Catholic wife (Blythe Danner) and four offspring. Bawling mock-seriousâ€”but also deadly-seriousâ€”orders at the familial troops, he packs them up at 0300 hours to drive to Beaufort (that’s bewfert), S.C., and settle into his new billet. The rest of the movie enlarges on the dynamics of life in a Marine household, with especial attention being paid to the relationship of Meechumâ€”self-styled The Great Santiniâ€”and his 18-year-old son (Michael O’Keefe). Son resents the hell out of Dad, and drops an occasional hint that he may not sign on for an obligatory four-year tour after he’s completed college (he’s currently a high-school senior); but their relationship is also fiercely lovingâ€”as, indeed, virtually all Meechum’s relationships appear to be, one way or the other.
[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), October 17, 1979]
It was like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.
Apocalypse Now is a dumb movie that could have been made only by an intelligent and talented man. It pushes its egregiousness with such conviction and technical sophistication that, upon first viewing, I immediately resolved to withhold firm judgment until I’d seen the film again: perhaps I’d missed some crucial irony, some ingenious framework that, properly understood, would convert apparent asininity to audacity. I didn’t find it. It isn’t there. What is there is the evidence of a reasonably talented filmmaker having spectacularly overextended himself—Francis Ford Coppola who, having had a toney pop epic widely accepted as great cinema, felt he was ready to make Citizen Kurtz.
How poetically apposite it must have seemed, that the property Orson Welles nearly undertook to film before making history with Citizen Kane was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. How artful of Destiny to have stayed his hand, so that around the end of the 1960s John Milius could show Coppola, his fellow film school alumnus, a script transposing the 1898 novella from deepest imperial Africa to the morass of the Vietnam War. Kurtz, the scholarly representative of the ivory trade turned savage demigod, would become a Special Forces officer who had started fighting both sides of the war with a private native army based upriver in Cambodia; Marlow, Conrad’s conscientious truthseeker and narrator, was to be transmuted into a hitman for the generals and an interested civilian agency.
It’s easy to see what appeal this held for Milius, with his unabashed enthusiasm for superheroes and “man’s inherent bestiality” (he has been involved subsequently with Dirty Harry, Jeremiah Johnson, The Wind and the Lion, Hardcore, and 1941, among other films). Easy to see, too, how he would have made a more directly action-oriented film out of it (the best sequence in the film, the Air Cav raid on a Vietnamese village, is pure Milius in concept, as is Robert Duvall’s surfing and napalm freak Colonel Kilgore, the only fullblooded characterization).
Coppola kept Milius’s action set-pieces but elected to frame them within a narrative structure that engenders a hallucinatory suspension, rather as the opening deathdream of Xanadu in Kane casts a spell that pervades the most dramatically vivid scenes in that film. He called his particular brand of hallucination “film opera,” and relied on it “to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War.” It was a bold stroke, inspired, and fatally ill-advised.
A sense of narrative suspension is entirely appropriate to an adaptation of the Conrad novella, in which Marlow’s very telling of the tale is the definitive act over and above the events narrated. But Coppola’s Marlow character is unqualified to provide the ethical and emotional referent so crucial to the drama. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) begins the film in such a moral, physical, and spiritual funk that it’s impossible to conceive how he could be further undone by a journey into any heart of darkness; nor have we reason to impute to him any capacity for illumination. There is no room for him to fall into knowledge, no way for the journey upriver into the jungle to develop its proper resonance: the snake of civilization swallowing its pre-evolutionary tail. Willard is one of Coppola’s affectless monsters like Michael Corleone at the end of the Godfather saga, but without the preceding six hours of film to explain how he got that way.*
Everything is foregone. And it may be protested, of course, that that is How It Is. Mankind fell a long time ago; Vietnam was only the flowering of a corruption intrinsic to our national identity; “This is the end,” the Doors sing at the beginning. That’s profound—or sophomoric doodoo, depending how it’s put across. “Rosebud” is dollarbook Freud, as Welles called it, if you take it in isolation; but if you believe that the true Rosebud is not a sled, not a snowglobe, but the whole intricate up/down, in/out, past/present, light/dark, living/dead construct, that Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane, not a man but a movie, the sum of all the contradictory jigsaw pieces of evidence, of identity, then Rosebud is brilliant, a cinematic stab at, say, William Faulkner’s goal of writing the history of the world “between one cap and a period.”
So foregone can be good. But it takes a stylist of considerable range and power to sustain that kind of narrative suspension. Conrad was such a stylist; Welles, too. It just may be that Francis Ford Coppola is not a stylist at all. He has a good eye, he composes his frames and shot sequences with intelligent purpose, and certainly he inspires a steely concentration in his actors (he needs more from them than most directors do); but he is a one-thing-at-a-time director. A given shot makes a single, clear statement. There is no resonance—although there is sometimes a built-in interpretation of the statement that is foregrounded so deliberately it can’t resonate.
This is true even of his American art film The Conversation, a movie that seems to explore the ambiguity of media (as Kane does in spades). But whatever ambiguity it possesses is a function of the screenplay, not the direction. The central set-piece—the conversation recorded by several microphones, played back a dozen times, filtered, synthesized, and also revisualized (presumably in the mind’s eye) from a multiplicity of camera angles till it yields sinister, contradictory meanings—is fine as suspense stuff, but it’s ambiguity-by-the-numbers: “I could have shot this scene all these different ways” instead of “I shot it right the first time and locked everything in.” (Indeed, Coppola did go back and reshoot the scene when his editors called for additional footage to tinker with.)
Coppola is an excellent screenwriter (v. the achievement of polishing Mario Puzo’s The Godfather for the screen) and he has actually received more honors for his screenplays than for his direction. But he knows that the cinema is a director’s medium, that the director is superstar. Pretty clearly, he determined that Apocalypse Now would be taken first and foremost as a director’s movie (as Kane, for all the brilliance and detail of its script, is a director’s movie). And, the miscalculations about the Marlow figure aside, it is as a director’s movie that Apocalypse Now most resoundingly flops.
A lot of people who can see the problem with the film’s scenario logic and characterizations nevertheless manage to come out cheering because of the “visual power.” May I propose that “visual” is the most abused term in the filmcrit lexicon? It is not enough for a film to be full of moving subjects and moving camera, flaring lights and inky shadows, towering compositions and tricky dissolves. That can add up to arrant pictorialism, a miscellaneous lightshow, or meretricious folderol. It isn’t “visual” unless it’s informed by an organic intelligence. There is organization in Coppola’s film, but organicity it’s not. His motifs don’t grow—they merely recur. His images, even when technically impressive, don’t reverberate with possibility—they freeze up with literalness. They don’t suggest—they denote.
To take a central image in both Conrad’s novella and Welles’s film, “darkness” becomes infinitely suggestive: of corruption, and the sacred privacy of the soul; the terror of the unknown, and the bliss of unconsciousness; unanswerable Nothingness, and uncreated worlds waiting to be intuited by an artist-god. To Coppola, it means that when you get to Kurtz’s compound you turn out the lights and let Marlon Brando mumble in the dark.
Style isn’t decoration. It isn’t something an artist imposes on content. It’s the life-energy of the work of art. It’s life itself. The best artists feel awe toward their medium. It doesn’t seem to hold any terror for Coppola. He’s not a stylist—he’s a technologist who confuses art with state-of-the-art. Harry Caul in The Conversation could get emotionally involved only with the phantoms created through his sophisticated sound system; the centrality of technology to the method of that film prefigures the creative formula of Apocalypse Now. Coppola can buy better technology than anyone who’s made movies before. He knows that 70mm cinematography is capable of incredible richness and texture, and that Walter Murch can mix more levels on a soundtrack than you can even identify. This produces a kind of depth, geophysically speaking, but other sorts are missing. Coppola’s film is “operatic” because it’s heightened—and thin.
In thrall of the kinesthetic firepower available to him, apparently confident that it will lift anything to new levels of expressiveness, Coppola perpetrates some of the most astonishing banalities in the history of prestige pictures. A phantasmagoric U.S.O. show in a Vietnam lagoon is a zapper for about as long as it takes Willard’s river patrol boat to round the bend and afford a good look at it; after that, it’s endless fascination with a Hugh Hefner Playmate rubbing an M-16 between her thighs, which seems to have something to do with sex and violence. A sun- and drug-zonked surfer in the boat crew paints his face like military camouflage and basks in the constant flickering of a meaningless night battle; Kurtz later appears similarly daubed, and of course there are all those primitive Cambodians painted head to toe: who is civilized and who is savage?! The man who once orchestrated the stunning juxtaposition of a Corleone baptism and the nationwide elimination of the family’s enemies here has Kurtz’s natives slaughtering a ceremonial bullock while (can you dig it?) Willard swims through some handy primeval slime to assassinate Kurtz. It’s as if Coppola were making an audiovisual aid for people who had never been introduced to any of these concepts before.
And yet he reaches the nadir when straining for the most intellectual—and silliest—signification. Both Kurtz and a spacey disciple of his (Dennis Hopper) quote T.S. Eliot—and not only Eliot, but “The Hollow Men,” a poem that bears an epigraph from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness! And then the camera tips portentously to discover copies of From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough—Eliot’s key mythic source material in composing “The Waste Land”—lying in Kurtz’s quarters. I mean, what the hell does the man think he is doing? Are we to understand that Brando’s Kurtz knows there was an earlier, fictional Kurtz whose footsteps he is retracing? Is this the ultimate form of narrative suspension? Is Coppola indicating his own serene acceptance of the inevitability with which Apocalypse Now will be subsumed in the racial consciousness?
Apocalypse Now is nothing if not an attempt to make a serious and important work of art. One must admire Coppola’s crazy courage in laying fortune, career, even his home on the line to get the film made. And if he reached beyond his range as an artist, well, that is an honorable failing. But one thing is unforgivable. Francis Coppola based his film on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; he even went back to Conrad to restore material omitted from that first John Milius screenplay. Almost everything that is any good in the film, that has lasting power to disturb, is based on Conrad’s original vision. A seaman from the Polish Ukraine, who learned to use the English language with a majesty and subtlety few have equaled, created one of the definitive works of—and on—the Western imagination. There are no credits on Coppola’s film, but the programme book has columns of them. Joseph Conrad’s name is never mentioned, although a photo caption reverently notes: “September 3, 1976. Marlon Brando arrives. He reads Heart of Darkness and shaves his head for the Colonel Kurtz role.”
Richard T. Jameson
*The reference, in 1979, was to The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two; G-III was made in 1990.