[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
It is appropriate that they just took “There she is, Miss America” away from Bert Parks. I too have been deprived of the opportunity to sing my same old song again. One could say rhetorically that after 1978 the movies had nowhere to go but up; but rhetoric is one thing and the art-industry’s capacity for self-degradation quite another. And ’79 did see a few films as empty, ugly, and offensively inept as any dreck of previous seasons: Bloodline, Prophecy, Nightwing, Sunburn, Love and Bullets, Ashanti, and the phenomenally successful Meatballs—as drecky dreck as ever dreck was. But they didn’t taint the whole scene, didn’t seem the dominant alternative to excellence. If only one or two films suggested a radical breakthrough into new zones of artistry or film consciousness, nevertheless an astounding number of movies managed to be lively, personal, nonderivative. François Truffaut may have made an utterly superfluous Antoine Doinel compendium like Love on the Run, and Federico Fellini wasted his time on Orchestra Rehearsal, an only half-good idea for a movie done with about a third of the zest and invention we’d expect of him. But good men like Blake Edwards and Peter Bogdanovich seemed to have got better; at least they were getting more credit for the beauties and intelligence of their work than they had in years. Whatever they had must have been catching because even hacks and/or poseurs like Ted Kotcheff, Peter Yates, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, and Arthur Hiller signed their names to very agreeable movies (North Dallas Forty, Breaking Away, The Brinks Job, The Electric Horseman, and The In-Laws, respectively). Going to the movies got to seem more like a pleasant pastime again instead of a masochistic compulsion.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
You know and I know, and each knows that the other knows, that 1978 was the worst year for movies since sound came in, so let’s not belabor the subject. Living through it was labor enough.
Apart from the superfluousness of such a gesture, one reason I don’t choose to mount a blistering that-was-the-year-that-wasn’t retrospective is that I was less than diligent about keeping up with the films passing through the Jet City and environs. I missed a few here-and-gone pictures I particularly wanted to see, such as Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers (which lasted less than a week and reportedly has been pulled from distribution), James Bridges’ 9/30/55 (shown as a first-run second feature in very farflung nabes), Ted Post’s Go Tell the Spartans (a short-term top feature in the same farflung nabes), Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C, and Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch. Nothing but sloth, an aversion to hype, a low sense of priority, and a careless susceptibility to predisposition—in various combinations—can account for missing longer-run items like Interiors, House Calls, Paradise Alley, FIST, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, Grease, The Wiz and Midnight Express,not to mention Lord of the Rings and Watership Down (I have never been able to get excited about feature-length animation). I intend to catch up with all of them eventually, but if anyone chooses to see my Besting and Worsting of 1978 compromised by any of these oversights, I can hardly protest. The one film I feel seriously delinquent in having missed was Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Geisha; it was shown one time only in Dana Benelli’s ASUW Major Films Series, and I was on my way to see it until a Seattle Film Society emergency obliged the then-President to change his plans.
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Nicolas Roeg’s extraordinary film is, amongst other things, a scathing satire and a science-fiction tragedy. Even the title is multi-layered. The hero is an extraterrestrial visitant who literally falls out of the sky; “falling to earth” implies a painful coming to senses; and “the man who fell” recalls “the Fall of Man,” which the plot allegorically depicts. There is also a lot of literal falling: the hero, his wife and his spacecraft tumble through various areas of space, vast and small; a central character is murdered by defenestration; crucial scenes involve descent by elevator, high-diving into a swimming pool, collapsing onto beds. The hero’s name on Earth is Thomas Jerome Newton—Thomas after the doubter, Jerome after the saint who compared men to insects, and Newton after the scientist who evolved the law of gravity after being conked by a falling apple (a symbolic enough item—the event took place in a garden, too!).
Newton was celebrated in Alexander Pope’s couplet, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night / Till God said, Let Newton Be, and all was light.” Thomas Jerome Newton seems to hold similar promise, but things don’t work out. Newton emerges from his fall to Earth carrying a British passport—a tall, spare, quiet ascetic, youthful as Dorian Gray and with a similar faintly androgynous handsomeness. He has a gift for making money. This is the purpose of his arrival on Earth, for his own unnamed planet is dying—much as the eco-warriors say ours is—and to save it, Newton has to ferry reserves of energy back to it from Earth. His technological wizardry has done nothing to save this planet, but it causes amazement here on Earth. In no time at all Newton, aided by a New York patents lawyer, has revolutionized every single one of the various communications industries, becoming a billionaire. But the effect is not to make all things light. Newton’s plan to finance a private space program fails and he is stranded on another dying planet, our own, having become one with the Earthlings. By film’s end he has become a human being and, by a terrible irony, he has lost his humanity.
Perception and loss: the twin themes of Nicolas Roeg. The hoodlum Chas in Performancegains understanding and tendresse immediately before being taken off to death. John Baxter in Don’t Look Nowsolves the mystery that has bedeviled him in the instant of his own murder. Both these films are directly recalled in the saga of Thomas Jerome Newton (Newton’s red hair is patently as false as Chas’s in his hideout period; like Baxter, he has brief ESP-style hallucinations), but the end is more like that of Walkabout,whose unnamed heroine, like Newton, does not die, but is crushed into a passive zombie-like state tinged by regret only in moments of furtive memory. Like her, Newton is at his most free and his most naked in the desert: it’s amidst the sands of New Mexico that he confesses the truth about himself to Dr. Nathan Bryce, the inquisitive scientist. Ironically, he has fled his own planet because it is turning into a desert. But it proves less desolate than the neon wasteland of New York, which literally becomes a prison for him. Captured by a mysterious organization—which might be the Mafia, might be the CIA, might be Big Business, what’s the difference?—Newton is endlessly subjected to a sort of benign torture in a succession of rooms arranged like the interlocking pieces of different jigsaw puzzles. Size varies bafflingly, as does style of decoration. In one room, empty save for a Ping-Pong table, nature itself has been subverted, turned into mere decor, the wallpaper being photographs of a California redwood forest. Truth is overwhelmed by lies: Newton’s smiling, patient torturers conduct their enormities behind a mask of kind concern, claiming to be medical men out to help him.
[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 TheStingfor 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.
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
I can’t recall ever being so disappointed by a film.
I was surprised. After all, the black, cruel jokes Chaplin is so fond of tend to appeal to me more than the pathos; the true story of Henri Landru is a fascinating one; comedies of murder have often beguiled me, from Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets toJack Smight’s No Way to Treat a Lady;and, of course, quite simply, Verdouxhas an immense reputation. My appetite for it was whetted as far back as 1964, when I was a schoolboy and when Douglas McVay eulogized it in the November films & filming. A couple of years later, I read James Agee’s famous series of articles about the film and they impressed me as some of the finest criticism of any kind that I’d ever read, and I still feel that way. So my optimism, when BBC-TV gave the film its first-ever showing on British television in February of 1977, couldn’t have been higher.
I was left wishing James Agee had written and directed MonsieurVerdouxinstead. Horrid as it is for a grown-up film buff to discover himself agreeing with Dwight Macdonald, I find Chaplin’s film a drab and essentially false achievement. Its philosophical ideas are not carried through with anything like sufficient rigour, and certainly not with the trenchant satire that might have made them work. The Sadean justification of murder (“Numbers sanctify…”) is, frankly, juvenile (since when did two wrongs make a right?), and is made more so by the insistence on what Chaplin would no doubt feel was “good taste.” It’s hard to feel the sting of death in this movie, partly because no one in it seems very much alive apart from the Martha Raye character, and partly because we are not given the horror of murder. The meaning of slaughter is far clearer in, say, Frenzy,where Hitchcock reverses the Bonnie and Clydelaugh-and-then-gasp trick, so that our revulsion for killer Bob Rusk turns, horribly but truthfully, into a kind of complicity. Our guilty mirth at Rusk’s struggles amidst the potatoes is a kind of fellow-feeling, and if we can recognize a little bit of ourselves in a murderous madman, then we might just possibly understand the darker side of human nature a little bit better. But with MonsieurVerdoux,we are denied ambiguities. Would we have any sympathy for Verdoux if we had actually seen him polishing off his unprepossessing spouses? I doubt it; and that is, I suspect, the main reason for Chaplin’s circumspection, whether consciously or not. He denies himself the hard part, skirts round the really tricky questions. Monsieur Verdoux becomes a figurehead for fuzzy ideas about morality and stops being a real human being. I didn’t sympathise with him a bit.
[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
Children have joined the cinema’s minorities, what with Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, TaxiDriver, SmallChange, BugsyMalone et al.; and if the movement has an on-screen leader it’s surely the extraordinary Jodie Foster. What, one wonders, will happen to this child in the next few years? Will the movies destroy her or will she prove too tough? Will she have a decent teens in spite of the media circus surrounding her? Her interviews reveal a bright, thoroughly sensible girl, and one keeps one’s fingers crossed.
The Canadian-made The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane isn’t the best film of her career to date, but it’s the most thought-provoking. Where do director Nicholas Gessner and scenarist Laird Koenig (who adapts his own novel with few changes) stand in relation to Rynn Jacobs, their 13-year-old heroine, played so superlatively well by Foster? Rynn is an intellectual child trying to live on her own, independent of family, school boards, adoption agencies or anyone else. Her father has taught her to avoid “them”, warning her of embourgeoisment; but now he’s dead (although nobody knows it but her) and she has to stand on her own against the forces of officialdom in the small New England town down the road from the lonely Jacobs house. She also, more pressingly, has to stand against the paedophile son (Martin Sheen) of a local bigwig. And what’s her answer? Death. Rynn has, before film’s start, polished off her own unpleasant mother with cyanide and stashed the corpse in the cellar. The bigwig—an inquisitive, patronising, rich and anti-Semitic real-estate lady (Alexis Smith), powerful on many a local committee—perishes quite accidentally when investigating unlawfully. The son finds evidence, tries blackmail and, at film’s end, notices too late the scent of bitter almonds emanating from his teacup. As he coughs and splutters, the camera just holds and holds and holds on Rynn’s angelic face, and the credits come up over it slowly, all the time without her so much as blinking.
[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
Who’s the biggest box-office star at the moment? Not Redford, not Newman, not Eastwood, but, it would seem, the Prince of Darkness, whose presence in or on the periphery of a large number of popular movies in recent years has led to what Variety might call a Beelzebub boffola. And why? Look to the times: devil movies are not a portent of impending Armageddon, as the originator of TheOmenwould have us believe, but a result. World crises in the Seventies have implied that we may well be merrily off to hell, in metaphorical terms, and it’s nothing unusual for movies to take such phrases literally. Putting it bluntly, devil movies offer a kind of reassuring disturbance. They give us something apart from the grim realities of life to worry about.
It’s an old trick. Chinatownhad the citizens of L.A. suffering from a largely invented drought, and their concern with it diverted their attention from what was really going on. When a real drought hit Great Britain in 1976, everyone had a wonderful time worrying about it, encouraged by their political masters, who were glad of a breathing space in which to tackle the actually rather more pressing problems of the pound. Britain didn’t actually die of thirst or turn into Death Valley, but it was a popular summer madness trying to figure out what might happen. The big thing was that it was a danger from outside. It wasn’t our fault. There was no way we could stop the onslaught of unimagined terrors, but we might conceivably blame people for such mundane and equally depressing (more depressing) things as unemployment, strikes, political corruption, and the balance of payments. Whenever a society is in big trouble, as Western society certainly is right now, it’s vital for the public to find all manner of bogeymen on which to vent its otherwise quite impotent wrath.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express.More than puzzles are to be teased out in these two jokey, backward-looking thrillers. Two ultra-British subjects are handled by two very American directors, and whodunit – or whodunwhat – is only one of many queries to be resolved. In essence, each is of a classic English pre-war mystery-thriller type: Sleuthsets us down in our old friend, The Remote Old Country House Where Things Are Not As They Seem, whilst Murder on the Orient Expressis a glossy confined-space thriller where The Killer Has To Be One Of A Small Number (all played by famous stars, of course) And Cannot Get Away For A While; the detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the waxed moustaches and the little grey cells, has to trap said killer in the limited space of time before the snow-plough arrives to allow the Orient Express, marooned in snowdrift, to continue its Istanbul-to-Calais route.
Let those readers who haven’t seen the films quit reading now, if they haven’t already. I aim to be so unsporting as to blow the surprise endings, and most of the inner workings of the plot, on both films. Actually, simply what happens isn’t so all-important; if it were, who would want to see either film a second time? And though neither film seems to be realistic, grim reality keeps on creeping in, to the advantage of Sleuthand the detriment of OrientExpress. Sidney Lumet, a stern social commentator, or so he would have us believe, in earlier films like The Pawnbroker, TheHill, A View from the Bridge, and, of course, Twelve Angry Men (which has the most bearing here), is revealed by a close examination of OrientExpress to be a threadbare moralist indeed; whilst Joseph Mankiewicz, widely regarded as a witticism-churning butterfly too hooked on his own bons mots to be much concerned with Life, or even visual style, has come up with as acute a study of Britain’s steel-trap class system as any native director from the so-called good old days of the island’s filmic new wave.
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Asked to name the absolute quintessence of the late-1960s film hero, whom would you choose? Benjamin Braddock? Antoine Doinel? Cool Hand Luke? Rooster Cogburn? Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid? Frank Bullitt? Wyatt or Billy from Easy Rider? My vote would go to none of these, but to Gerald Arthur Otley, the eponymous hero (played so superlatively well by Tom Courtenay) of Dick Clement’s dazzling first feature. Otley has all the wariness, all the coward’s cunning, all the what’s-in-it-for-me cynicism of the man in the 1969 street; but he also has the quick wit of the born survivor, the good luck of the sainted schlemiel who always somehow stumbles through, the street kid’s celerity in taking advantage of a sudden change in situation and the resilience of the eternally befuddled, but also eternally cocky, “little man” who gets by as much because of his smallness as his manhood. Otley is a thief, a rogue, a liar, a scrounger, a seducer of other men’s wives, and he’s no good at any of these things, and not much good at anything much else either, not even at being the layabout he so naturally is. But he has no malice in him and he loves life, even as it baffles and overlooks him.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
As everyone must know by now, the title of Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction extravaganza refers to an actual meeting with an extraterrestrial visitant; or, as the advertising more directly puts it, “contact.” “Contact” is very much what the movie is all about. No film since 2001: A Space Odysseyhas applied E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” dictum so spectacularly. Explanations are unimportant, but understanding, intuitive and visceral, is paramount. Like 2001, Close Encounters is a stunning visual experience (both films feature the dazzling work of special effects man Douglas Trumbull, who also directed the excellent SilentRunningin 1972); if it’s intellectually less profound, it has a more direct appeal to the emotions, and whether or not it’s in the same league as Kubrick’s masterpiece couldn’t concern me less. In other words, it’s good enough, for all Kubrick’s obvious influence on it, to stand on its own as a classic of the science-fiction genre, and also outside any genre considerations. And there aren’t many s-f films you can say that about.
Rumour has it that Spielberg planned to end the film by using “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the hit song from Disney’s cartoon Pinocchio,as the tune behind the closing credits.* It’s as well he didn’t; that would be spelling things out, which the film elsewhere avoids admirably, and also a touch twee. But it gives a hint of one of the film’s main aspects. It’s a magical movie, a film that exults in the potency of cinema, in the type of experience you can get only from a film, in the tools whereby a filmmaker can excite, entice and provoke his audience. And thus it becomes a film about films, and also about filmmaking. One of Spielberg’s leading actors (taking, indeed, nearly all the acting honours going) is François Truffaut, the artist as actor as critic, the man who not only came up with the longest-ever Hitchcock interview, but also once suggested that Howard Hawks’s big-game-catcher movie Hatari!was secretly an essay on the topic of filmmaking. A similar interpretation of Close Encounters holds a lot of water. When, at the film’s climax, Truffaut marshals enormous human and technical resources, shouting “Plus vite!” and “Allez!” whilst striding to and fro and waving his arms, he is, to all intents and purposes, a director controlling a set, the biggest in film history.