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Robert Shaw

Review: The Hireling

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

The Hireling is, I believe, Alan Bridges’s first film. Aside from rather too frequently belaboring the contrast between indifferent wealth and pathetic poverty in the early part of the film, Bridges manages to pretty much avoid the stylistic excesses to which debuting directors are often prone. However, his muted, somewhat eviscerated approach works both for and against this adaptation of an L.P. Hartley novel (Hartley also wrote The GoBetween which Joseph Losey brilliantly translated to the screen). Bridges’s tone is occasionally just right for this enervated tale about the relationship between a neurasthenic aristocrat (Sarah Miles, whose performance won her a special citation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and her stolidly correct hired chauffeur (Robert Shaw), but cumulatively it begins to wear on one’s nerves like a too precisely, albeit tastefully, furnished room. Too much order, too little deviation from a predictable pattern—but admittedly, the style recapitulates the theme. For Leadbetter the chauffeur, with all of his emerging middle-class virtues—manliness, discipline, common sense–hasn’t got a prayer of playing Mellors to Lady Franklin’s Constance Chatterly, or of disturbing in any felt way the insulated world in which his lady lives, if not thrives. Fresh out of a sanitarium, Lady Franklin is still whey-faced and rheumy-eyed with grief over her husband’s untimely demise. What she needs, and what she gets from Leadbetter, whose car and company she hires, is human contact without threat or expectation, the kind of unjudging acceptance that only therapists and servants of a certain era can provide. As she violates class convention after convention in her pursuit of sanity and begins to bloom with renewed health, the disorder of passion enters the doggedly disciplined life of Leadbetter, who turns gradually sick with jealousy and desire. What feels to him like the intimacy of shared experience between man and woman is merely the intimacy one may cultivate with a favored, though ultimately invisible, servant.

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Erasable Bond

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Watching the last three James Bond films in close succession, one constantly sees contrasts. Not so with the first two films of the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, which frequently play together as a double feature. They invite comparison rather than contrast, their parallels in plot and style having established a “James Bond formula” with which viewers quickly became familiar, expecting its recurrence in subsequent films. Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice fulfilled the expectation.

But the juxtaposition of the next two films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, which also have circulated as a double bill, impresses the viewer more with differences than similarities, provoking one to redefine his notion of exactly what a James Bond film is, or is supposed to be. And the most recent offering, Live and Let Die, compared with its two immediate predecessors, comes off decidedly third-best.

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Review: The Hireling

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

I first saw The Hireling last summer, during a week full of events filmic and otherwise. Shortly thereafter, the chief impressions I carried with me were the sight of Sarah Miles near-deathly white, a strained smile on her face and wet rosy bruises beneath her eyes, and the feeling of having watched some schematic playing-out of the old English class warfare game. Perhaps, after my recent second viewing has receded into the past, these formerly overriding impressions will reassert themselves. But I’m inclined to doubt it. The film is an exemplary study of how class structures both create opportunities for privileged intimacy between two persons of different castes and certify the ultimate withering of such relationships; there can be no more succinct image of the hopelessness of the lower-class lover’s situation than the final scene of the chauffeur slamming his prized Rolls-Royce (which he hires out, along with his services) into first one wall, then another, then another, in a claustrophobic courtyard. This level of the film is very clear—and ‘schematic’ isn’t really a fair word to apply; ‘lucid’ is more like it. The fact is that, as the film plays—at least, as it plays a second time—the social comment simply does not stand out starkly. The societal system is there, almost palpably; but it’s merely one part of the film’s structure. Of equal importance—and, with the social theme taken more or less for granted, of greater importance—are the richly inhabited, sympathetically nuanced performances of Shaw and Miles, and the abiding sense of Alan Bridges’s sensitive, detailed, impeccably craftsmanlike realization.

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Review: The Sting

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

The Sting‘s credit sequence offers an immediate clue to the directorial tone and aesthetics which slimily pervade the whole film: it consists of vintage pictorials depicting various scenes in the movie; pretty soon these old-time pulp-fiction illustrations begin to include not only characters but also cameras and technicians. The viewer is set up to be grabbed by the artifice, the imitation of a past genre and time, only to be forced to recognize the underpinnings of the illusion, the fact of ultimate fakiness. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not objecting to artifice—it’s what makes all art, and much of life, worth paying attention to. Art is artifice, lying, the highest form of the confidence game. Films are not real; they demand, like novels and poems, one’s suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be taken in, and thus, to be taken out of one’s limited human experience. But there’s a profound difference between the cinematic magician who performs prodigies of illusion for our delight and instruction, or the one who mesmerizes us even as he calls our attention to the ways and means of his prestidigitations (Hitchcock and Truffaut, for instance), and the charming but heartless hack who cons us into a queasy delight with his fabrications, then pricks the bubble, and laughs hugely at our gullibility.

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Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is nothing to occasion the breaking-off of all engagements in order to go see it, but it delivers a good time; and while TV-trained Joseph Sargent directs it crisply enough, what lifts it above telefilm-level expectations is Peter Stone’s very bright job of scripting. Taking the John Godey bestseller as a serviceable basic structure, Stone has devised the most adroit, yet regionally credible, verbal business for virtually everybody who opens his mouth in the course of the picture; a character may lack a name but he won’t be permitted to contribute dead space on the soundtrack. Godey’s own dialogue was not without pretensions to smartness, but all his ethnic fussiness over the black militant among the subway hostages is swept out of mind by the overdressed jiveass’s first line to a coolly amused Robert Shaw: “Whatsamatter, dude, ain’tchoo never seen a sunrise before?” Somebody decided to change the book’s black transit cop Clive Prescott into a jowly Lieut. Garber tailor-made for Walter Matthau, but Stone redresses the balance in a nifty throwaway: Garber, coming face to face late in the film with a highly competent, encouragingly authoritative police inspector he’s known only by voice (Julius Harris), executes a visual and verbal stumble: “Oh I didn’t know you were a—I thought you were a taller man—or shorter—what the hell …”

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Review: Jaws

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

Jaws begins with a chillingly realistic sequence of shots that are at the same time metaphysically portentous and eerily beautiful. The camera pans slowly across a group of college people singing and drinking around a beach campfire, cuts a fluid swath along a bluish twilight New England sand dune, eases into a placid sea behind a pretty girl, and follows her as she swims fatefully out over those murky depths where we all know what is waiting. As the girl splashes innocently against a postcard sunset, we cut to a couple of quick shots whose point of view is somewhere below the water, evilly hovering, gazing up at the girl’s form and the dusk sky which swims and shimmers above her like an out-of-focus image of another world. The underwater camera and the presence it represents move progressively closer, intercut with shots of the girl from the surface, until finally she gets this funny look on her face, bobs once or twice like a cork floater on a fishing line, and goes shooting through the water at shark speed. And then she’s gone. There’s this silence, this beautiful fading sunset, a few harmless waves lapping the beach….

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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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Review: Robin and Marian

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

A lot of things work against Richard Lester’s new film Robin and Marian. In the first place, as two of England’s most treasured heroes, those ur-Communists Robin Hood and Little John, Lester has cast (horrors!) two rowdy Scots, Sean Connery and Nicol Williamson. In the second, he has allowed the film itself to take a back seat to the heavily flacked return to the screen of Audrey Hepburn. Further, he has settled for an always inappropriate and often downright bad film score from John Barry which threatens to sabotage some of the film’s best moments (one keeps wishing period music had been used). And, worst of all, he has accepted from James Goldman a selfconscious and often labored screenplay that, in attempting to capture the conflict between a man’s mortality and the timelessness of myth, is at best adequate, and at worst overwritten with an embarrassing sappiness (Marian’s final profession of love to Robin falls somewhere between Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s counting of the ways and Maria von Trapp’s enumeration of a few of her favorite things). In fact, Goldman’s screenplay bears some uncomfortable similarities to that other Goldman’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: the image of the fair-fighting hero debunked with a kick to the balls; two heroes in a hesitant jump from a high place (cf. “I can’t swim!” with “We might hurt ourselves!”); and the woman eternally fond of them both, but desperate to dissuade them from following the suicidal course of reckless adventurism.

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Review: End of the Game

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

“Corpse provided by Donald Sutherland.” That acknowledgment amid the end credits of End of the Game suggests that a certain spirit of playfulness informed the film’s making. Actor-turned-director Maximilian Schell cast actor-turned-director-turned-actor Martin Ritt in the crucial role of an aging, crotchety, dyspeptic, cigar-puffing police inspector with a 30-year-old injustice on his mind, and Ritt’s performance, albeit single-note and shamelessly coddled by Schell, is undeniably playful, and quite amusing most of the time. Then there’s writer-turned-actor Friedrich Duerrenmatt playing this old writer named Friedrich (“Friedrich … Friedrich … you know, Friedrich! What the hell’s his last name?” Ritt grouses, ploughing through the volumes on his bookshelf while the camera lovingly showcases his ship’s-keel ass), to whom younger police inspector Jon Voight is sent in quest of information that his superior might very well have supplied him; Friedrich playfully puts up his hands and says, “I didn’t do it! … OK, I did do it!”—a murder, that is—while playing chess against himself (“The other one always wins—checkmated by myself!”) and muttering about the necessity of playing the game with a sufficient sense of evil.

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Review: Swashbuckler

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

In this life sure things are rare, and it were churlish not to pay tribute to one when found. Very well, then: see James Goldstone marked down as the director of a given film and rest assured it will be a shambles. Not that a mindless pirate picture would be the easiest project to bring off in the Seventies with a modicum of style and dash—commodities almost in shorter supply than sure things. But even if a director were capable of steering round the improbabilities in a pirate-meets-girl, pirate-foils-nasty-dictator, pirate-gets-girl-without-losing-a-PG-rating script, he’d still have to do something about making other generic conventions seem effortlessly natural: conveying a sense of fun and exuberance that would make those nonstop guffaws over the joys of fighting, guzzling and wenching seem other than forced, or the absence of any notion of danger—even when the air is full of live steel and cannonaded masonry—seem the only proper response to a world made for devil-may-care adventure. A gregarious raconteur like Raoul Walsh has it in his blood; a Michael Curtiz can cram his frames and send them hurtling after one another with such dizzying stylishness that any feeling of extravagant artifice all but becomes a virtue; even when a stolid craftsman like Henry King is in charge, the solemnity of his responsibility in marshalling a big-budget period picture lends a narrative stability of its own. Goldstone doesn’t come near suggesting any of these guys (although at one point he keeps the duelling Peter Boyle and Robert Shaw out of sight behind a staircase, and if you happen to spot their shadows on the wall amid the clutter of extras, you might feel generous enough to count it as failed-Curtiz) and, worse, has no consistent idea what to do on his own hook.

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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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