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Roddy McDowall

Review: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Curious that both films built around the legendary Judge Roy Bean, self-styled purveyor of Law West of the Pecos, should suffer so grossly from mode trouble. The Westerner, directed by William Wyler in 1940, featured one of the all-time great performances on screen in the presence of Walter Brennan (nominally a “supporting actor,” in which category he copped a richly merited third Oscar); Brennan’s irrepressible craziness as the lethal scoundrel with an unreasoning devotion to the beauty of Lily Langtry and an ill-advised sentimental tolerance of drifter Gary Cooper, who ended up killing him, almost saved this confused western that vacillated without conviction between freakishly comical behavioralism and socioeconomic sanctimoniousness about farmers in cattle country, and, visually, between the near-stereoscopic crispness of Gregg Toland’s realistic cinematography and some jarringly pointless and punk process work. John Huston’s new Roy Bean film has no problems as gross as that, but neither has it anything as potently good as Brennan’s characterization to recommend it. Paul Newman can’t resist waving his professional integrity like a flag, and this generally works for the worst (e.g., the hysterical and monolithically conceived WUSA); here integrity takes the form of flamboyantly trying on an unglamorous character part and, moreover, playing it in a single comic key. As George Roy Hill remarked in his documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman can play comedy successfully only when he doesn’t remember to tell himself he’s playing comedy. (There is, incidentally, an unforgivable Son of Butch Cassidy number involving Newman, Victoria Principal, a bear, and a song about the marmalade, molasses, and honey that keep falling on my head.)

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Five Sleazy Pieces

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Recently I encountered a phenomenon—I refuse to call it a book—labeled The Only Good Indian 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 The Last of Sheila, The Harrad Experiment, and most particularly Badge 373, Harry in Your Pocket, and The Legend of Hell House impel one to speculate about a spiraling trend towards just this sort of bland diet in the cinema.

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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.

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Review: Dirty Mary Crazy Larry

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Coming away from Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, an MTN colleague remarked that it had to be the most confused movie to cross our path in a long while. I disagreed, preferring to reserve the term “confused” for films that have somewhere they want to go but can’t quite decide how to get there, or others that may have more (perhaps very interesting) things to say than they can encompass. I felt that the makers of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry knew exactly what they were doing: they had nothing whatsoever to “say,” but they did have a handy file-card index of issues and ideas that other road-movie makers had addressed themselves to, and they could pull a card every five minutes and insert its text into somebody’s dialogue. Result: a quasi-intellectual zapper to occupy coequal status with the other disconnected shocks in the movie, be they the most unimaginative of scatological putdowns (any verbal exchange in excess of five lines can be handily terminated by having one party tell the other to “Kiss my ass!”), utterly unmotivated characterological turnabouts (two old buddies fall out, two sworn enemies fall in, and the three persons involved become the best of comrades, all within less than three minutes), or—who’d ever guess?!—car crashes.

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Review: Embryo

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Attention to detail is of the essence in a fantasy film. If fantasy is to have the desired effect, everything hinges on the viewer’s willingness to suspend disbelief and submit to the film’s premises wherever they may take him. But if every shot, every moment, every idea offers only new evidence as to how unlikely the proceedings are, no viewer will sit patient for long. Only the very best science fiction films escape the need to explain and justify themselves. But Ralph Nelson’s Embryo seeks to escape it through the back door, by disclaiming any affiliation with science fiction. An opening title assures us that this film is about the possible abuses of things which are already medical possibilities. The disclaimer might have some effect, were it not for Nelson’s inattention to detail, which repeatedly emphasizes the film’s hokiness to the total exclusion of whatever credibility the Thomas-Doohan screenplay might have had to begin with.

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Fright Night (1985)

In a couple of weeks a new version of Fright Night will be released, with Colin Farrell in the vampire-next-door role and David (Doctor Who) Tennant as the has-been horror movie star reduced to hosting the local spook show. Those are two good reasons to give it a look, yet really, was it necessary to do a remake of the 1985 picture? Not quite a classic, but a film of considerable wit, creepiness, and—yes—charm. Landmark’s Egyptian Theatre (805 E. Pine St.) is slipping in a showing of the original at midnight Friday and Saturday, Aug. 12-13. Here’s a review I wrote in The Weekly back in the day. – RTJ

Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, a horror host beyond price

Told that a man has just moved into the long-vacant house next door, Charley Brewster’s single-parent mom sighs, “With my luck he’ll probably be gay.” The signs are not propitious. Actually there are two men; they call each other Jerry and Billy, wear sweaters a lot, and apparently adore restoring rambling old houses so they’ll have somewhere to display their antiques. But if truth be told, their relationship is a good deal more exotic than that implies, and they are interested in women. Teenage Charley spies quite an attractive one getting undressed in the upstairs window one night—and Jerry leaning over her shoulder with a mouth suddenly sprouting fangs.

Fright Night is a tidy little contemporary variation on the vampire horror movie. It’s somewhat selfconscious about being a variation: The title also applies to the local TV station’s late late show hosted by a washed-up, campy horror star named Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), and the film goes for the comedic jugular quite a bit of the time. But Fright Night is finally, and satisfyingly, closer in spirit to Roman Polanski’s dark-humored Dance of the Vampires (aka The Fearless Vampire Killers) than to a silly sendup like Love at First Bite. It observes the rules of the vampire game, and restores the stinging juice of life to conventions that had been packed away to desiccate in the costume department.

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