Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors

Limelight: Seattle film year 1973, cut and dried

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

Where were you in ’73? … Nope, doesn’t make it. But neither, in some ways, did ’73. I’m not sure what was lacking. Shuffling together the most pleasurable and significant-seeming memories of films that arrived in the Jet City and its environs this past year, I’ve managed to come up with better than fifty titles to be considered for honors. Yet something eludes me, did most of the year. Certainly there was no sleeper masterpiece of 1973, nothing to stand as the Gumshoe or Bad Company of its season; and ingratiating surprises like Gumshoe and Bad Company are the breath of life to the Constant Filmgoer. The Last Tango in Paris was so incessantly and all-pervadingly hyped that it never had a chance to do what it should have to our sensibilities, individually and collectively; as Kathleen Murphy has remarked, “Imagine just walking in off the street some night and going into, say, the Broadway and having that jump off the screen at you without forewarning”; and if I am less sure at the moment that Last Tango would have jumped off the screen, I’ll still have to cop a plea and try to see the film again as a movie rather than a rite of spring.

But that’s not the only factor that leaves me off-balance as I prepare to pass on the year from the vantage of eternity. Other masters and petit maîtres were represented by disappointing work—Rohmer with Chloë in the Afternoon, Truffaut with the horrrendously bad Such a Gorgeous Kid like Me (which, typically of ’73, arrived the same week as the exquisite Two English Girls)—and frustrating exercises that might have signaled new directions or cranky self-indulgence. Some hair-raising acting and memorable images aside, Cries and Whispers had me about convinced of its insular inutility until a last glowing moment that might have redeemed all the self-flagellation that preceded it. To paraphrase and rearrange Andrew Sarris on Viridiana, I went to see Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie expecting not only a good movie but also a great film; the movie was delightful but the greatness wasn’t immediately apparent—though of all my judgments-in-suspension for this annum, I’m most confident of Discreet Charm‘s coming through when I get around to a revisit. Of Fellini’s Roma, the official big scene—the ecclesiastical fashion show—seemed even limper than most of the director’s token extravaganzas of recent years; I preferred the luci del varietà evening in which earthiness rather than ego would not be contained. But on the whole Roma was a dreary extension of the entertainingly self-satiric method of I clowns.

It will be protested—surely has been by now—that it’s rather presumptuous to worry about eternity, and indeed I don’t; eternity will take care of itself and the movies that matter very nicely. Not too long ago, Peter Bogdanovich thought the time was ripe for doing a Ten Best of 1939, and of course he was quite right. My big ten for 1972 has already changed: not that I regret my nods in MTN 20, but now, on the basis of repeat viewings, I’d definitely find spots on the list for John Huston’s Fat City and Polanski’s Macbeth. Even as I approach 1973’s, I can practically predict what titles will slip, if not quite fall away, as delights of the season that will age without improving. But I’ll include those titles anyway—it’s their time.

As usual, we in Seattle are all too aware of what hasn’t arrived here in its proper year. Without doing any special research I can regret the absence of: La Nuit américaine (Day for Night), The Exorcist, State of Siege, La Grande Bouffe, Mean Streets, Les Noces rouges, La Rupture; Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams; The Last Detail, Juste avant la nuit, What?, Love, Distant Thunder, Réjeanne Padovanni, Serpico, Badlands, Cinderella Liberty, Breezy…. And a glance at the movies page of any New York paper would doubtlessly serve to double that list.

My own reckoning of 1973 will find new titles in the minority, so great is the press of all those long-delayed entries. But I’m sorry I missed, or had to miss, A Sense of Loss, Four Nights of a Dreamer (goddam Movietone News production! which also did me out of The Last American Hero, though that one I was able to catch on second run), Sisters, The Adversary, Bang the Drum Slowly, Soylent Green, The Public Eye, Ludwig—The Mad King of Bavaria, A Doll’s House (Garland), Hit, Jesus Christ Superstar, Showdown, Lady Caroline Lamb, and all the kung fu pix, ’cause you never know….

Except that right now I know this:

1. THE LIFE OF OHARU (Saikaku Ichidai Onna) (Kenji Mizoguchi; Japan, 1952) and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (Sam Peckinpah; U.S.A., 1973). Or, The Beautiful and the Damned. Oharu is considered the film in which Mizoguchi attained his full maturity as a director; Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is currently the focal point of controversies legal and critical, and has been exhibited only in a mutilated version. My personal instinct about Garrett is that MGM’s cutting may have diminished its perfection, as RKO’s infamous recutting of The Magnificent Ambersons undeniably reduced one of Welles’s and the cinema’s highest masterworks, but the greatness of Ambersons has grown more apparent with each passing year and the same will happen to Peckinpah’s film. The “incomprehensibility” of the film observed by several commentators is more a function of their own myopia. Garrett has a movement all its own, and it is a movement which speaks of identity and legend, extinction and honor, beauty and terror. I have likened it to the meaningful movement of Miklós Jancsó’s films, which would also probably be termed incomprehensible if they had an MGM lion in front of them. Although their temperaments differ vastly, Peckinpah and Mizoguchi both express themselves through the most sublime forms. These films, one old, one new, are both timeless, and the best pictures of 1973 in Seattle. (Oharu was first shown by The Seattle Film Society; Garrett, at the National Cinema Crossroads in Bellevue.)

3. TWO ENGLISH GIRLS (Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent) (François Truffaut; France, 1972). Truffaut returns to the source (the same author, at least) and the form of Jules and Jim, but he returns an older, wiser, more tenderly witty filmmaker, and he may have realized his masterpiece here. As seen through Nestor Almendros’s color camera, every slope of lawn, angle of stair, cool blue of lake and ruddy reflection of firelight makes fumbling toward wisdom a palpable, hurtful thing. (Seattle Film Society and, subsequently, The Movie House)

4. LIMELIGHT (Charles Chaplin; U.S.A., 1952). A Chaplin fan I’m not (maybe it’s vitamin deficiency on my part) but one needn’t be enamored of The Tramp to respond to the autobiographical splendor of this summation of a life lived beyond professional prime and public tolerance. It’s luminous and, like most of the other titles on this list, in some way, inexpressibly sad and triumphant at the same time. (Edgemont Theatre)

5. CHARLEY VARRICK (Donald Siegel; U.S.A., 1973). The movie of the year, and if the distinction is lost on anyone, my condolences. Siegel is becoming one of the masters of the contemporary American cinema by dint of sheer survival (not inappropriate for the creator of “The Last of the Independents”); his technical fluency, which is nonpareil, also has something to do with it. Siegel’s feelings are too often his own business for him to attain the first rank as an artist—yet how to separate his emotional reticence from the virtues of self-possession that he celebrates, and how to mistake his irony, as crackling as dry ice, for anything but the expression of a distinctive personality? (Fifth Avenue Theatre)

6. MON ONCLE ANTOINE (Claude Jutra; Canada, 1971).lf it had nothing else going for it, Mon Oncle Antoine would still demand to be mentioned as a film about coming-of-age in which the young hero does not get laid. As with Pat Garrett‘s awesome sense of existential drift, this small-scale but hugely resonant sampling of life in an out-of-the-way Canadian town has a feeling for time and ripening that has nothing to do with melodramatic urgency. Not the least of its beauties is the director’s own performance as Uncle Antoine’s clerk. (Edgemont; subsequently, ASUW film series)

7. THE SORROW AND THE PITY (Le Chagrin et la pitié) (Marcel Ophuls; France, 1969). The Sorrow and the Pity puts the document back in documentary and reaffirms it as a legitimate approach to tragedy. The faces and voices are unforgettable; they are the faces and voices of history, which prove to be just like our own. The effect is alternately and sometimes simultaneously horrifying and inspiring. (CineMond Theatre)

8. LATE SPRING (Banshun) (Yasujiro Ozu; Japan, 1949). Ozu may be an acquired taste, but it’s most easily acquired through pictures like this and the 1932 I Was Born, But… (which is done out of its standing as a 1973 film because of a single ASUW showing by Peter Hogue several years ago). Late Spring is practically melodramatic by the standards of later Ozu: characters are surprised, get hysterical; Chishu Ryu even does some marvelous double-takes. A widower permits his daughter to believe he wants to remarry, so that she herself will marry and be happy. The daughter agrees to marry and be happy because she believes her father wants to be free to remarry. People prevail, with dignity and much gentle humor. An apple paring falls to the floor, an old man’s head bows in private sorrow, and the sea rolls toward the shore. (Seattle Film Society)

9. IMAGES (Robert Altman; Ireland, 1972). Altman’s most precisely formal movie details the fragmentation of a woman’s psyche in unforgettable images at once dreamlike and razor-sharp (cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond). Madness seems inseparable from imagination. Next stop: The Long Goodbye. (Varsity Theatre)

10. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (George Lucas; U.S.A., 1973). Ken Robinson says it very well elsewhere in this issue: “solid, though not resonant.” But Lucas’s beautifully machined memory of growing up and out of Modesto, California, is irresistibly dynamic, hilarious, perceptive, and haunted by the allure of pop beauty. It’s more than mere fashionable nostalgia, and it stands up very well even after the first enchanting look. (Renton Village Cinema)

If I could stretch Ten into eleven or twelve, I’d love to add two more Seattle Film Society premieres to The List; Jean Renoir’s 1938 La Bête humaine, perhaps less than a masterpiece, but a film so rich in its sense of life and of cinematic possibility that the few flaws scarcely matter; and Bo Widerberg’s Raven’s End (1965), that rare work of art that manages to honor art and political commitment with a mutuality few of us are capable of.

On the other hand, if someone were to hold me to 1973 or 1972-73 titles, my personal instincts—if not necessarily my best judgment—would insist that I open Nos. 7-10 to the following:

O Lucky Man! – Between the Griffithian iris-shot that focuses us on Malcolm McDowell as an about-to-be-victimized coffee-picker in a primitive, small-screen monochrome political number and the final iris-like spotlight that picks him out of a crowd and certifies his stardom, critic-director Lindsay Anderson conducts a neo-Brechtian film tour of his own artistic and sociopolitical conscience, with a healthy autobiographical assist from McDowell himself. Alternately obvious and outrageous, boring and exciting, self-satisfied and self-mocking, O Lucky Man! May be a mess and is almost certainly a failure by conventional standards, but both times I sat through its 167-minutes length I developed not only admiration but also a grudging affection for it. At the very least Anderson is to be commended for reintroducing a good old reactionary sense of the importance of the individual in leftwing filmmaking.

The Mattei Affair – By no means an easy or particularly pleasing film, Francesco Rosi’s anti-linear biography of an elusive political figure kicked the moss off some of the too-cozy foundations of my film thinking. I am grateful.

Avanti! – Billy Wilder continues in the winningly mellow vein of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and pulls off—as several people have already observed—the nearest thing to a Lubitschean comedy in, god, how many years!

The Last American Hero – Lamont Johnson’s unassuming, no-nonsense movie about a dirt-smart driver on bootleg trails and Southern speedways kept reminding me of Henry Hathaway movies from the late Thirties and Forties: cleanly and interestingly shot, well-paced without flaunting its speed, unprofoundly but solidly characterized. There should be one like it every year. (And, incidentally, the SRO second-run bill of this film and Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North [Pole] gets my vote as the bargain double feature of the twelvemonth.)

Other good things: Utamaro and His Five Women, Days and Nights in the Forest (which may be some kind of great film, but I’ll wait till I see a decent print of it), Scarecrow, Sleeper, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Ruling Class, Glen and Randa, Payday, The Emigrants and The New Land (not that good), Blume in Love, Raw Meat (Death Line), A Touch of Class, Dillinger, Paper Moon, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Day of the Dolphin (more on that next month—meanwhile, stay uninformed as possible and just go see it), Long Ago Tomorrow (The Raging Moon), Two People, Wedding in White, Kid Blue….

If I had the power to urge nominations on the people who give awards, I’d speak up for:

Best Director: It seems silly, on the face of it, to consider anyone in this category but the director of the No. 1 film. Leaving aside the non-recent titles for the sake of awards-giving, I’d be presented the clear choice of Sam Peckinpah for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Howsomever, this category always strikes me as being made to acknowledge not necessarily the most searing vision of the year—Peckinpah, hands down—but the most sheerly accomplished, consummate job of work. In this light the men who delighted me most were Don Siegel, with Charley Varrick, and François Truffaut, Two English Girls.

Best Actor: No clear mandate. Some of the best work ever by James Coburn (Pat Garrett), Gene Hackman (Scarecrow), James Mason (Child’s Play), Robert Mitchum (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), George Segal (A Touch of Class, Blume in Love), Max von Sydow (The Emigrants/The New Land), and did I mention Marlon Brando (The Last Tango in Paris). Still, the mantle descends on Gian Maria Volonté for Sacco and Vanzetti and The Mattei Affair.

Best Actress: Harriet Andersson harrowingly good in Cries and Whispers, Tatum O’Neal quite unprecedented in Paper Moon, Jane Fonda deeply intelligent and subtle as Nora in Losey’s A Doll’s House, Liv Ullmann very wholecloth in The Emigrants/The New Land—but Susannah York has had it sewn up all year for Images.

Best Supporting Actor: Rich, as usual. Four memorable young men in American Graffiti: Richard Dreyfuss, Ronnie Howard, Paul LeMat, Charlie Martin Smith—so who’s the star? Kris Kristofferson unpredictable as summer lightning in Pat Garrett and, very differently, in Blume in Love. Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, formerly the Gorch brothers, equally adroit at keeping caricaturish roles from getting out of hand in Kid Blue. John Houseman scoring a once-in-a-lifetime triumph as Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. Claude Jutra shining in his own Mon Oncle Antoine. Geoffrey Lewis and Harry Dean Stanton giving Dillinger more memorable moments than it may have deserved. John Vernon’s impeccably peccable Mafia junior exec in Charley Varrick. Whom does that leave? Joe Don Baker as Charley Varrick‘s Molly. It’s Baker.

Best Supporting Actress: Jacqueline Scott, also Charley Varrick—she died in the first reel but her unspoken-of memory pervaded the whole film. Sheree North also very fine there, but she comes in a collective second with Françoise Verley in Chloë in the Afternoon and Nell Potts in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Cindy Williams has been the least-heralded but, for my money, was the most effective girl in American Graffiti.

Best Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond, for both Images and The Long Goodbye. Close, and by all means a cigar: John Coquillon, Pat Garrett; Nestor Almendros, Two English Girls (but not Chloë); Vittorio Storaro, Last Tango; Haskell Wexler et al., American Graffiti; Zsigmond, Scarecrow; Miroslav Ondricek, O Lucky Man!; Jan Troell, The Emigrants/The New Land; Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers (but not Siddhartha); Laszlo Kovacs, Paper Moon (but not Slither or Steelyard Blues).

Best Screenplay: An unbreakable three-way tie among William Roberts for The Last American Hero, François Truffaut and Jean Gruault for Two English Girls, and Rudolph Wurlitzer for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—especially as revised by and filtered through the old rednecked peckerwood with the megaphone (read the Signet Books screenplay for a lesson in who writes the dialogue you hear).

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson