Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays, Film music, Westerns

Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Foreword

I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays

MC Squared: David Patrick Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’

“I think these things matter.”—David Patrick Lowery, Some Analog Lines, 2006

The first thing that strikes you is the frame.

The classic 4:3 ratio, but with rounded corners, looking for all the world like shape of the old family-vacation slide shows of two generations ago.

In fact, we’ve seen this before. Movies sometimes start with that slide-show effect to evoke a series of memory captures, perhaps filling us in on a past that will become important to us when the movie slips into a more conventional, more contemporary frame to give us the film-proper.

But this is no prologue. This is the film, and the frame ration stays for the full running time, rounded corners and all.

The last film I remember that immediately confronted me with an unexpected frame and then defiantly kept to it—celebrated it—for its entire running time was Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s overhaul of the western, with which David Lowery’s A Ghost Story shares a relentless sense of being lost rather than destined.

A Ghost Story is, among other things, a meditation on the frame and its possibilities. The frame is an apt metaphor for the condition of Lowery’s ghost, stuck in space but free in time, like, perhaps, a note painted into a crack in the grain of a wooden wall-frame, or a message hidden under a rock to be discovered—or not—by some yet unimagined other.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Dawn of the Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Part Two of George Romero’s projected Dead trilogy begins almost literally where Night of the Living Dead left off, though it is stylistically closer to the comic-book look of The Crazies. This time Romero’s plunging in media res is even more violent and merciless than before, the fast-paced editing pulling us into shock after bloody shock before we quite understand what’s going on. We’re grateful for the first breathing spell, about ten minutes into the film. A SWAT team has just wiped out a basement full of cannibal zombies in an urban apartment building, the result of residents’ defiance of orders to deliver their dead up for burning to help authorities stomp out the plague of zombie ghouls that began in Night of the Living Dead. “Why did they put them in there like that?” someone asks, and gets the bitter reply, “They still believe there’s respect in dying.” Later, up country, where clean-up teams roam the fields picking off zombies as if in a shooting gallery, there’s a telling moment when one of the SWAT guys lines up his riflesight on an approaching zombie. As he takes aim, a quick rack-focus reveals another rifleman lining up to shoot the same zombie from 180 degrees opposite. The first guy ducks away just in time to avoid getting shot by his comrade-in-arms. There is, at this point in the film, still a difference between shooting the dead and shooting the living.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

“All aboard!” cries a voice at the opening of Martin and, as in The Crazies, George Romero’s fast cutting draws us in and pushes us forward on this crazy train ride. In Martin Romero uses closeup detail—more of objects than of people—to create a pattern of images, seemingly disparate but forming (as in Nicolas Roeg’s films) a unified impression of a single mythic event. This jarring joining-together of apparently incidental details creates a disorienting, genuinely threatening atmosphere, even while Romero’s modern vampire tale unfolds with tongue firmly in cheek. Martin demonstrates once again that Romero is a comic-book film stylist of the first order, with a riveting command of color and a knack for the comic juxtaposition of Old World Gothic horror with 20th-century American plasticity. The first thing we see teenaged Martin Matthias (John Amplas) do is murder a woman and drink her blood; yet Romero manages to get us on the boy’s side and keep us there throughout his battle with an elderly relation intent on destroying the nosferatu that has come to live in his house. In the train murder Romero puts us off guard with his emphasis on Martin’s clinical procedure: a hypodermic syringe of sedative, to keep the victim calm; a sterile razor blade, not teeth, to open the veins; the sexual aspect of a process we at first take to be rape heightened by the boy’s nudity, which is more utilitarian than sensual, a safeguard against bloodstained clothes.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, George Romero, Horror

Review: The Crazies

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

A hand unscrews a series of lightbulbs. A switch is flicked on and the room stays dark. Shadows and forms dart out of vision before they can be made out. A pretty little girl clutching a stuffed toy protests, “Billy, you’re trying to scare me!” Then there appears on the wall the shadow of a man lifting a tire iron, about to strike, and we are suddenly back in that riveting, unpredictable world of Night of the Living Dead, where make-believe horrors quickly give way to unspeakably real ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. For the first couple reels George A. Romero’s The Crazies builds overwhelming suspense, and teeters its audience breathlessly on the brink of the kind of shock orgy that made Night of the Living Dead so memorable. But what is threatened never actually materializes—at least not in any way that makes The Crazies a successfully affecting horror movie.

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Posted in: Alfred Hitchcock, by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Horror

Of Staircases and Potato Trucks: Fear and Fatness and Alfred Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.

In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.

But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Last of Sheila

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Little can be said of this film’s elusive plot without spoiling the excitement for the viewer. A movie producer invites six friends to spend a week aboard his yacht off the French Riviera, playing a six-day, port-to-port detective game. Each accepts the invitation in hopes of winning some favor from the powerful film magnate. It is a year since his wife Sheila was murdered by a hit-and-run driver; and as the producer’s skillfully devised game begins to reveal hidden secrets about the lives of the players, it becomes evident that one of them is the murderer. Suddenly there is much more at stake than the outcome of a game. Or is there? For as the film twists and turns along increasingly cerebral passageways, each new revelation becomes simply a part of a larger game. Unlike its predecessors in the “game” film genre—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, SleuthThe Last of Sheila is not based on a stageplay, and its plot never reaches a point at which the game-playing stops, gives way to reality. Quite the contrary, as the film ends the next move is left to the audience, filled with the discomforting sense that everything that happened onscreen was merely part of a still larger mystery game that remains for them to unravel.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

Review: Soylent Green

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, Soylent Green is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of Soylent Green is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Directors, Film Noir, Film Reviews, John Huston

Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors

Review: The Public Eye

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

The Public Eye begins with promise but finally has little to recommend it but some nice pictures of London. It is a sappy, soppy, misguided movie unlike anything I ever expected to see released under Sir Carol Reed’s signature. The story concerns David, a dignified, intellectual British accountant, who has met Belinda, a hip American waitress of simple philistine tastes, has dazzled her with his knowledge and culture, and has wed her. As the film opens, David retains a private detective agency to follow Belinda, who has been going out by herself a great deal, much to his suspicion. Though innocent of infidelity, she quickly establishes an intimate relationship with the detective. The two never speak or touch, cementing their peekaboo “affair” by following each other through London, day in and day out. The wife’s affections are going begging, it seems, because David’s arts-and-cultural-activities lifestyle has begun to bore her. Explaining this to David in his first few scenes as the private detective Julian Christoferou, Topol is charming and winsomely comic. But soon afterward he turns marriage counselor and determines to make David “worthy” of Belinda by spouting facile speeches about “love,” “sharing,” and “fee1ings.”

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