[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
Lipstickis Dino de Laurentiis’ latest lynch-fury kit, designed to soap up the viewer, tease him through the requisite stages of arousal and frustration, and ultimately leave him peacefully drained, with a terrycloth caress of redeeming social import to beguile him out of postcoital triste. I’m by no means persuaded that Dino’s place should be closed down. Death Wish provided a particularly gratifying fantasy experience to coincide with the hoped-for but never-quite-expected ouster of Tricky Dick, and the black viewers who screamed “Kill him!” at the climax of Mandingowere able to pass the popcorn salt to their white neighbors in the lobby without a hint of either Uncle Tom servility or glacial Muslim irony. But the new film is interestingly confused in ways that may compromise the patron’s simple pleasure, and the reason could be that Lamont Johnson is less of an erogenous engineer and more of a director than either Michael Winner or Richard Fleischer, the respective shot-callers of the earlier de Laurentiis productions.
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Lamont Johnson’s Lipstickis not as bad as it has been reported to be by many critics and reviewers, nor yet as good as it might have been. The ultimate failure of the film may be attributed to an insurmountable discrepancy of intention among writer, director, and studio. Yet it is precisely that discrepancy that makes Johnson’s directorial personality stand out so starkly in the film, and consequently makes Lipstickone of his most interesting efforts to date.
Lipstickhas been promoted more heavily than any of Johnson’s previous films; and for that reason, as well as the ads’ exploitation of its potentially sensationalistic subject matter, it will probably make more money than any other Johnson film. I’m glad of that, because that kind of success may well give Johnson the reputation and freedom to make more and better movies.
Johnson, in my estimation, has the makings of not only a major American director but also an important auteur. A rough-edged but intensely personal style, a thematic and technical consistency, and recurring concern for certain key issues and situations have manifested themselves in virtually all of his work. A brief summation of some of the more important points about Johnson’s earlier films provides an illuminating basis on which to examine the director’s presence and approach in Lipstick.
Like many contemporary directors, Lamont Johnson has gone neither from television to film nor in the opposite direction, but has applied his talents ably in both media. His earliest work of note is a made-for-TV movie called Deadlock(1969). The film, which mayor may not owe a debt to Haskell Wexler’s MediumCoolof the same year, focuses on a black district attorney in the process of becoming a Negro Politician in an important senatorial race. His image in the election campaign hinges upon his handling of the near-riot tensions in his city’s black district, brought on by overuse of the wrong kind of law enforcement action and underuse of sociopolitical recognition of the minority powers-that-be. In the course of the film, via a number of vignette-like encounters and a climactic barrage of sight-and-sound flashbacks, the D.A. recognizes he shares the guilt for the seething condition of the ghetto with a tough, bigoted police lieutenant whose personality has been too domineering for the D.A. to control.
The two-character confrontation and the racial issue recur in the following year’s MySweetCharlie, also a television movie. The film is essentially a somewhat labored sermon on social and racial polarities, embodied in the changing relationship between a bigoted white unwed mother-to-be and an itinerant black civil rights worker who hole up simultaneously in the same abandoned lighthouse. In the film’s climax, the efficacy and integrity of law enforcement—and therefore of the prevailing social order—are effectively discredited, and personal needs and relationships are seen as superseding accepted convention.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
The Turning Pointis a gentle, properly humble film whose joys are nearly always thespian rather than cinematic. The oohs and aahs that have marked response to this film in just about every quarter are pitiable, since they only serve to overrate the film and prepare the viewer for disappointment. Audiences may find themselves feeling that they are expected to like it, because it is about serious art, because it is self-consciously ambitious, and not because of its smallness, which to me is the best thing about the film. It is precisely the filmâ€™s ability to be about so many things in a small way that makes it attractive. Its meandering plotline and gratuitous â€œrelevanceâ€ are the mark of a kitchen-sink approach to psychology and moralism; and the filmâ€™s most obnoxious trait is the tendency of its characters toward ponderous self-analysis and constant moral summation, distinctly remote from the province of most peopleâ€™s daily behavior.
I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.
I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.