[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
The Gambler is a curiously cerebral film in which the play of ideas (particularly literary assessments of the American experience) is transferred from the incestuous séance of the academic seminar to green baize gambling tables. There, those ideas are raised, not as ghosts, but as the highest stakes a man can wager. In CaliforniaSplit Robert Altman used gambling as an excuse for getting at the marginalia, the milieu, rather than as a metaphysical metaphor. Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter James Toback (a professor of English) are clearly after bigger fish—say, about the size of Moby Dick. For like Ahab, Reisz’s gambler bets on himself, his own power or will, to make some impression, to impose some meaning on … what? Perhaps that which resists will: fate or chance, the existential territory that refuses to be enfeoffed by the central “I-am.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
James Caan has graduated from the half-wit college boy of Coppola’s TheRainPeople right into a professorship at NYCC in his latest picture, Karel Reisz’ heavyhanded non-exploration into the befuddled and befuddling id of a compulsive gambler which ultimately becomes knotted up in its own tangle of 19th century existentialism and carelessly applied Nietzschean superman metaphysics. Somehow I was more convinced by Caan’s gentle inarticulateness in Coppola’s movie than I was by the cutely masochistic cool he sardonically exudes in TheGambler, and although he’s still impaling women against walls (shades of TheGodfather) and strutting about with the typical Caan machismo which fails to be tempered by his role as a teacher in Reisz’s film, the character of Axei Freed lacks some of the gritty credibility which Caan was able to give to the role of gangster Sonny Corleone. Which may not be so much Caan’s fault as that of Reisz and screenwriter Toback who, instead of trying to develop their character from the bottom up, begin in some metaphysical realm far above his head and pigeonhole his personality in a framework of neatly defined psychological concepts, with the result that Caan’s character reads like a textbook case rather than reminds us of a man.
Once Upon A Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is Sergio Leone’s portrait of a 20th century American success story as a gangster epic of greed, loyalty, betrayal, and power, seen through the haze of an opium high. Shuffling back and forth through the century, from New York’s East side in 1923, where scrappy street kids Noodles and Max form a partnership that will blossom into a mob empire, though the glory days of the depression cut short by mob warfare, to 1968, when the graying Noodles (Robert DeNiro) returns from a 35 year exile to the scene of the crime to discover what really happened to his partner and best friend Max (James Woods) all those years ago, this is Leone’s most passionate, elegant, brutal, and elegiac film. William Forsythe and James Hayden complete the gangster quartet, with Joe Pesci and Burt Young as gangster cohorts. Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, and young Jennifer Connelly co-star. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his most haunting and beautiful.
The film was originally released in the US in a butchered version cut by over an hour and torn from its evocative time-shifting structure to a traditional linear narrative. It was restored to its 229-minute European cut decades ago but earlier this year it was expanded with an additional 22 minutes of footage that Leone was forced to cut out before its Cannes premiere in 1984. The added footage was taken from workprint material and, faded and sometimes damaged, stands out against the well-reserved and beautifully-mastered material from the previous cut. Among the restored sequences is a legendary scene with Louise Fletcher as a cemetery director, previously only glimpsed in publicity stills (you can see the clip below). Susan King goes over the history of the cuts and the scope of the restoration in an article for the Los Angeles Times.
It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray along with an excerpt from the documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone and trailers. A deluxe Blu-ray Book edition also features the previous Blu-ray release of the 229-minute European cut, which features commentary by Richard Schickel, and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the “Extended Director’s Cut.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
Sylvester Stallone’s meticulous job of screenwriting—street-poetry dialogue coupled with a healthy sense of humor and a sharp attentiveness to odd colloquialisms and fight-ring dialect—is largely responsible for making Rockysuch an interestingly compassionate treatment of big guys against little guys. You might not think so as the film gets under way—a deliciously seedy venture into the life of a loser, a 30-year-old prizefighter named Rocky Balboa who never made it to the big time and has pretty much lost any hope of doing so. But thenceforth, Rockytempts us onward and upward towards a crucial and emphatically hope-filled personal resolution in Rocky’s life, and that antagonism between (or perhaps balance of) the big against the little becomes not only Rocky‘s foremost theme but a part of its inner logic. There are the Apollo Creeds against the Rocky Balboas, but there are also the Big Moments against the privileged, nuanced, and seemingly offhand ones.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
If I didn’t already know Robert Aldrich was an intelligent filmmaker, I’d have a hard time guessing it from The Choirboys. From the leering flatulation of the opening titles–a stained-glass window announcing “The Choirboys” with a gloved fist smashing through in freeze frame, while a chanting chorus segues into a beer hall song–grossness of comic and satiric idea is the unpromising watchword of his new movie. The title is the chosen name of the scuzziest precinct’s worth of beat cops in class-A filmmaking, who–for the first half-hour or so of the movie, at least–seem content solely to carry on like a bunch of Special Ed. alumni, whether on duty or off. They deliver themselves of an unrelenting stream of bathroom jokes, sadistic intramural pranks, and gratuitous subversions of the department and force in which, theoretically, they serve, taking an occasional after-hours for “choir practice,” which mostly means boozing and brawling in MacArthur Park. Now, I wouldn’t normally take umbrage at any of this, and I was anticipatorily delighted to read, well in advance of the film’s release, that policeman-novelist Joseph Wambaugh was less than enchanted with the changes Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic liberal had made in his boys-in-blue tale; moreover, Aldrich’s crudity has often been inseparable from his vigor, and I’ve rarely minded that. But this movie came on so dumb,and pitched, apparently, at the tastes of the lowest uncommon denominator in the audience. Particularly noxious was an early bit of fag-baiting involving the reddest-necked of the Choirboys (Tim McIntire), handcuffed bareass to a park tree, and the flittiest night-prowler outside Castro Street, complete with pink-dyed poodle on a leash. Even allowing for the director’s disingenuous admission that “Mr. Aldrich, even in a moment of anger, has never been accused of understating anything,” what was this in aid of?
Well, as it turned out in the light of the finished film, it may have been in aid of a good deal. For subsequent sequences at least semi-systematically went on to turn many of the Choirboys’ more ignoble pastimes back upon them, so that, even as Aldrich was celebrating a band of nonconformists shoving it to the system with his customary sardonic amusement, he also seemed to be trying to get at how the desperate coarseness of their reactions against a killing establishment was taking its toll in dehumanization. Although the script leaves much to be desired and the continuity is rather ragged (there is copious evidence of both excessive uninspired improvisation and heavy last-minute cutting), scenes begin to echo one another and suggest a tentative dialectic. Early in the film two of the Choirboys use a friendly hooker to entrap a hard-ass lieutenant who wants to do them dirt; later, a junior member of the team, on loan to the vice squad, must put the hookers on the other end of the entrapment procedure, and ends up looking pretty ridiculous in the process; later still, he and his partner bust yet another working girl, whose specialty is highly paid bondage sessions, and discover that her present client is one of the original jolly pranksters who put the lieutenant on the spot–and his reaction to being caught in harness by his professional soulmates is to blow his brains out. The convolutions and crossreferences really proliferate in the second half of the film, and though the movie remains an irreparable shambles, at least we can discern the complex ironic structure through which Aldrich intended to express his anarchist’s rage.
THE CHOIRBOYS Direction: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh (refused credit) and Christopher Knopf, after the novel by Wambaugh. Cinematography: Joseph Biroc. Music: Frank DeVol. The players: Charles Durning, Louis Gossett Jr., Perry King, Clyde Kusatsu, Stephen Macht, Tim McIntire, Randy Quaid, Chuck Sacci, Don Stroud, James Woods, Burt Young, Robert Webber, Vic Tayback, Barbara Rhoades, Michele Carey, David Spielberg.