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Walter Matthau

Review: Charley Varrick

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

The new Siegel is characteristically clean, fascinatingly and unfussily detailed, beautifully paced—a model of movie craftsmanship and a pointed affront to those slovenly wrecking derbies and indiscriminate bloodbaths that have been passing for contemporary action thrillers the last year or so. Indeed, to anyone who has alternately yawned and fidgeted through shapeless and soulless dreck like Badge 373 and The Stone Killer, wondering what it was doing to general audiences and—through them as an economic factor—what it was doing to the future of the genre, the first quarter-hour of Charley Varrick is deeply exhilarating: not only a superior exercise in suspenseful narration but also an up-to-the-moment demonstration that they still can make ’em the way they used to.

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Review: The Front Page

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! bombed. The Front Page may well make lots of dollars. I like to see Billy Wilder on top, but Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! will live through the ages whereas The Front Page, a calculated catch at prepackaged commercial success, is as mummified as the makeup-encased actors inhabiting it. It’s among the several worst films Wilder has ever made.

I must say the idea bothered me from the first. The director appeared to have come to terms with so many of his demons in those recent, mellow, glowingly personal pictures. The Front Page seemed a clear reversion to professional-wiseass territory—a country Wilder occasionally made his own, but the spoils of conquest only made him more bitter, so that he descended to the arid, tortured, unilluminating likes of Kiss Me, Stupid and The Fortune Cookie (better films than they were credited for at the time, but thrashing, ugly experiences all the same). The juicy cynicism of the Hecht-MacArthur property looked too readymade. And so, I fear, it’s proved to be, although one of the most serious faults of Wilder (and I.A.L. Diamond)’s version of the play is that it ignores so many of the gemlike facets of the play’s cynicism.

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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: The Sunshine Boys

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Neil Simon’s way of being funny has an unappealing tinge of urbane and private nastiness to it. It’s not always something you can pin down to the printed script or the types of jokes he puts into his characters’ mouths; rather, it is a quality more subliminally (and subversively) expressed in a cumulative attitude of a writer towards his people and his audience. It is as if Simon wishes to make us feel guilty about laughing at his characters because it is so easy (too easy) to laugh at them: get a guy so enmeshed in an almost cruelly black inability to cope with life (like Charles Grodin in the Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid) and “anything he says or does is bound to appear comically inept. Simon, like Wilder, capitalizes on fallibility in a way that seems somehow unhealthy—a kind of self-contained, ruffled-lip statement that misuses comedy as a tool of exclusion. Rather than portraying any kind of strength, he would just as soon evoke cheap sentiment (like expecting us to suddenly straighten up and get serious when Willie Clark, one of the Sunshine Boys, has a near-fatal heart attack) and he is a lot better at making us cringe in embarrassment at tedious predicaments than at allowing us to let loose at a sharp one-liner or a bit of funny business that doesn’t require a five-minute take to brand into our consciousness.

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Out of the Past: The Front Page

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Billy Wilder’s chief motives in making the third film version of the 1928 Hecht–MacArthur Broadway smash were plain, and he admitted them: he wanted a box-office hit, badly, and this had all the elements for a 1974 killing. It’s a buddy story, a nostalgia piece, a celebration of crusading newspapermen—Woodward and Bernstein, Prohibition-style. Add leftover sets from The Sting for good measure and another re-teaming of the odd couple, Lemmon and Matthau, the latter in a role tailor-made for him. How could it fail?

But it did, thumpingly. Why? I’d suggest the very reason that made it such a good movie, so much more than the remake of the remake of the film of the hit play. Everyone said it was a perfect vehicle for Wilder—he did himself—but this is to ignore one crucial difficulty. The Front Page is a lovely old play, and it really is extremely modern. So how does an auteur as strong as Wilder adapt it with the respect it deserves without submerging his own personality? No one could want, after all this time, to see a Billy Wilder film where Billy Wilder simply translates 46-year-old jokes, however good, into celluloid terms. At the same time, no one wants to see a film of The Front Page which ignores the splendid original. The trick was to find an element personal to Wilder within that elaborate framework, and this he did. And this is why the public stayed away, just as they had done from Kiss Me Stupid and The Fortune Cookie and even The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (which, for me, is Wilder’s masterpiece). For most of  Wilder’s later films tend to be about loneliness, despair, desperation (this is even true, to an extent, of the sunny, romantic and very beautiful Avanti!), and these things are at the forefront of his version of The Front Page.

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