[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
There are certain questions that tend to come up in the dark nights of the critical soul, like ferinstance: How, in a just universe, can there be a greater resemblance between the basest, most incompetent shlock and art of a very high and rarified degree, than between. say, middling-respectable shlock and moderately successful art? It’s as though the snake of aesthetic value had swallowed its tail and brought polar extremes into a condition of adjacency. The Kit Parker Films catalog carries my appalled reaction to a grade-Z horror property named Scared to Death (Christy Cabanne, 1946, with Bela Lugosi in Natural Color), which includes a discussion of the resemblance between the budgetary-imaginative limitations of this level of cinematic creation and the sorts of narrative shorthand and lacunae-leaping one encounters in avowedly surrealist artworks. If anyone wants to take the discussion further, he might well pick up on Bloodline, a multimillion-dollar dog of summer that outdoes in ineptitude any Z-movie you care to nameâ€”that is, in fact, so astoundingly poor that one almost needs a new theory of cinema to cope with it.
Now, right away I’m not the boy for the job, because no way are you going to get me to read Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline (the book, as opposed to Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline, the movie’s title in some circles), a step necessary to determine whether the original story made any sense before Terence Young and Laird Koenig got to it. But I’ll take a chance and suggest that one thing trashy bestsellers usually do supply is plot and story up the yingyangâ€”improbable plots maybe, lousy stories sure, but something the reader can pantingly follow. Bloodline the movie has quite a few plots and storiesâ€”averaging out, I’d estimate, to slightly more than one per character in the populous dramatis personae, but I’ll content myself with a main two: a scheme to smash a pharmaceutical empireâ€”implying, of course, a campaign by the good guys to prevent its being smashedâ€”and a simultaneous series of snuff-movie killings by an anonymous freako who dumps the victims’ (prostitutes) corpses in various European ports of call. Now pay attention. All the victims have a bright, bloodred ribbon around their necks. And … The first scene of the movie shows the head of the pharamaceutics corporation falling to his death on a mountainside when someone shoots through the bright bloodred lifeline supporting him. And … All the main characters/prime suspects are part of the corporation by virtue of birth, marriage, or spiritual adoptionâ€”all linked by a kind of bloodline. OK!
Aren’t you glad we’ve come this far? Especially whenâ€”and this is the genius of the strokeâ€”the movie never takes the banal course of accounting for any motivations, any cause-and-effect patterns, any connection between its narrative threads at the level of dialogue. There’s a police detective, wily old codger (Gert Frobe), who spends most of his time sitting at a computer sifting through facts about the other characters to figure out who’s doing what and why. Few of his discoveries make any apparent sense, but … he does crack the case, arriving at the scene of the last-murder-in-the-making and identifying the villain because the guy is (the boldness of it!) holding a (have you been adding up the clues?) RED RIBBON (Michelangelo Antonioni, hang up your hat)! The audacity of this central conceit could hardly be topped, but we must pay tribute to two other avant-garde strokes on the director’s part: the unabashed intercutting of spanking clear Freddie Youngâ€“shot footage of two principals in conversation near a ski lodge and grainy, offcolor, second-unit (stock?) material of anonymous sporty types milling about in the snow (this is not up to Edgar Ulmer’s astonishing day/night dam footage in Girls in Chains, but admirable in its way); and a minute(s)-long parody of commercial-freebie footage cunningly passed off as an extraneous look at the pill plant in operation. Terence Young also proudly displays his credentials as an underground cinÃ©aste and his contempt for big-bucks aesthetics by shooting even the most ordinary conversation in such a way that, from cut to cut, it’s impossible to determine who’s where in the room. Surely it’s worth it to lie low, for decades if necessary, accepting commercial assignments like James Bond pictures, until the chance finally comes to shove the retrograde narrative cinema up where it belongs.
© 1979 Richard T. Jameson
Direction: Terence Young, Screenplay: Laird Koenig, after the novel by Sidney Sheldon. Cinematography: Freddie Young. Music: Ennio Morricone.
The players: Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, James Mason, Gert Frobe, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, Irene Papas, Omar Sharif, Claudia Mori, Beatrice Straight.