“Fifteen million dollars is not money,” says a grizzled veteran of the criminal life. “It’s a motive with a universal adapter on it.”
The tang of that dialogue signals the return of Christopher McQuarrie, whose screenplay for The Usual Suspects created the cult of Keyser Soze and won the unknown writer an Oscar. McQuarrie makes his directing debut with The Way of the Gun, another investigation of the criminal code. Though not destined to be as beloved as The Usual Suspects, this brutal, wickedly funny film is every bit as accomplished a piece of work.
[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
As a director, Clint Eastwood cannot be simply written off as mindlessly imitative. He is far too intelligent in his eclectic appreciation of what works in the films of Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, and Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, Eastwood has not yet subsumed what he has learned from his mentors into a coherent vision of his own. Thus, High Plains Drifter, like Play Misty for Me, occasionally promises more than it cumulatively delivers. Eastwood’s main problem here—both as director and as actor—is that he never quite gets together how he wants to come at a story which must wed a Leone-like revenge motif with a scathingly satirical examination of a town inhabited by rejects from High Noon. Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name carried within his very character implicit hints of more-than-human motivation, so that at times he resembled nothing so much as a warrior Christ. Eastwood clearly had his former role in mind when he made High Plains Drifter, but that doesn’t save him from alternately overemphasizing his demonic hero’s supernatural origins and almost completely losing sight of them as he begins to focus more and more on his blackly humorous exposure of the town of Lago’s communal sins and deceits.
[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
That our final glimpse of John Dillinger should be out of focus is appropriate. Dillinger promised to be an exciting directorial debut for John Milius—promised especially hard in the first quarter of an hour—and the role of Dillinger himself presented Warren Oates with the perfect opportunity to etch one of the great characterizations of the American screen, as well as to win widespread recognition at long last. That Oates has failed to achieve either scarcely seems his fault since, whenever he is given screen time, he hovers on the verge of discovering a dangerous and original persona—and, it must be added, he looks historically perfect, unsettlingly so. But Dillinger and anyone else resembling a character are essentially lost sight of, except as gunmen and targets, from about the midpoint of the film onward—that is, starting with the Mason City, Iowa, massacre. The mayhem is powerfully filmed and individual shots are often vividly visualized, but Milius fails completely to give sequences or whole sections of the film any cohesion or sense of purpose beyond slam slam slam.
[Originally published in Movietone News 35, August 1974]
Macon County Line has no special meaning in Macon County Line, but that’s the least of the film’s sins against form and sense, not to mention—and I shall mention—decency. A headnote assures us that this is a true story, one that happened in Louisiana in 1954. Louisiana is a lucky break; 1954 is a lucky break. 1954 means that the first few minutes of the film may be devoted to a sort of Lordsof Underbrush tapping of the nostalgia vein. Louisiana means that it’s redneck-paranoia time on the open road, and all the Stars-and-Bars, gun-cult, male-chauvinist, white-supremacist hobgoblins are at the filmmakers’ beck and call whenever they feel the need. Stir in two fun-loving ripoff artists from Chicago, enjoying their last days of freedom before forced enlistment in the Army (it’s that or serve time in the pokey), and you’ve got the makings of a confrontation. Top with one slightly cynical but also fun-loving blonde hitching a ride between two meaningless stopovers, and flash kinescopes of Joe McCarthy on a handy TV screen, just for pseudo-intellectual seasoning. And I haven’t even got to the barrel-chested cop who doesn’t notice his wife would appreciate a midafternoon lay, so wrapped up is he with the shotgun he’s bought for his disturbingly liberalminded nine-year-old son in military school, or the … well, that’ll do for now.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Most people have been writing about My NameIsNobody as though it were as unequivocally a Sergio Leone film as Onceupon aTimein the West, Duck You Sucker, et al.; some reviewers haven’t troubled to mention the existence of Tonino Valerii (who is emphatically given directorial credit twice in the opening titles) while more scrupulous commentators have nodded toward Valerii while acclaiming MyNameIs Nobody as “the most producer-directed movie since TheThing.” There’s no mistaking the Leone manner, the Leone themes, and the frequent instances of Leone power and feeling; the protégé has learned the master’s lessons well, and one feels certain he was largely executing Leone’s own detailed plan of the film. I’m sorry I muffed my chance to see Valerii’s own AReason toLive, a Reason to Die a month or so ago (I loathe drive-ins) because I might have been better prepared to wade in and sort out the fine points of auteurship in the mise-en-scène. There are lapses in the film that mightn’t have occurred—or might have been more decisively compensated for—if Leone’s hand had been at the throttle. But there are also shots, sequences, and literally timeless moments in the movie that do no disservice to the memory of previous Leones—which is to say that MyNameIsNobody contains some of the most extravagantly exciting footage that’s going to appear on movie screens this year.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
The opening shots of rolling sea and thundering Berber cavalry, well-handled as they are, don’t really hint that The Wind and the Lion is going to be a good—more precisely, a special—movie. They might presage any epic film (“epic” in the Hollywood sense) since Ben-Hur, getting off to an obligatorily actionful start, only to succumb to Charlton Heston monumentality, Philip Yordan poeticalism, or what Pauline Kael once exasperatedly termed David Lean’s “goddam good taste.” The first indication that John Milius has something distinctive going here comes after the Berbers have reached and breached their destination, a compound above Morocco where, on this pleasant afternoon in 1904, they propose to kidnap thirtyish American widow Eden Pedecaris and her two children.
[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
I just realized I can’t remember how the line begins, so I’m going to fake it: “Technicians provide realism—artists supply truth.” “Technicians” almost certainly wasn’t the word but the rest is legitimate as a quote. A Hollywood director says it to Waldo Pepper, who was just too late to do his stuff as an ace in the Great War and now has a job, under a phony name, as a stunt flyer for the early talkies. Pepper has just pointed out that the wrong planes are being used by the movie squadron, which happens to be reenacting the legendary air battle he knows by heart and hearkens back to in support of his personal romantic code. George Roy Hill has left himself a lot of loopholes, as usual: The director who delivers the line is, or at least would be in many imaginable circumstances, right to prefer poetic truth to the documentary variety. But he’s wrong within the emotional context of the film, and he’s pompous and defensive to boot. But Waldo’s righteousness is somewhat compromised by our memory that he more or less opened the film by laying down a verbal account of the original battle, fascinating both his immediate, Nebraska farm family audience and its counterpart out there in the darkened theater, winning them and us with a charming blend of self-effacing softspokenness and ingenuous egoism, and shortly thereafter was exposed as a fraud for having cast himself in the story at all. But Hill implicitly tipped us to that particular con by preceding his Technicolor movie proper with monochrome archive stills showing aviation heroes giving up the ghost while stunting for movie cameras; this, plus our association of Robert Redford and Hill with that earlier, supposedly pleasurable screwing-over TheSting—similarly punctuated by (painted) illustrations of a movie crew filming con artists in their maneuvers—surely constituted some kind of fair warning.
[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]
The bilious purple lettering of the credits prepares us for Conrad Hall’s photographic style through the first half or so of Smile: motion aside, everything appears as it might in a drugstore-developed roll of Kodacolor snapped on a picnic. Smile takes us to Santa Rosa, California—cinematically immortalized as the iconographically ideal American smalltown in Hitchcock’s Shadowof a Doubt (1943)—and plunges us eyeball-deep into American camp, several strata below kitsch. The Young American Miss beauty pageant, or rather the sub-pageant designed to yield a contender to represent the state of California, is tooling up. Bruce Dern, as a used-car and trailer dealer known to one and all by the loaded moniker “Big Bob” Freedlander, is deeply touched to learn that Barbara Feldon, a one-time Young American Miss now in charge of marshalling the girls, has provided a special gold nametag for him as head judge. His ole buddy—and Feldon’s hubby Nicholas Pryor—is less than enchanted with her nonstop pageant trip, which condemns him to evenings of TV dinners and booze, and with the initiatory ordeal approaching him: on the eve of turning 35, he must kiss a dead chicken’s ass while his brother, over-the-hill business pals cheer.
John Milius occupies a curious place in the culture of American filmmakers of the seventies. In the age of new, young, maverick voices, he’s the rugged American individualist with conservative politics and iconoclastic heroes. He’s fascinated with military culture and imperialist adventure, caught up in the tension between American isolation and intervention, in debt to the romantic ideals of honor and duty idealized in John Ford’s cavalry films, and celebratory of the glory of battle, whether in war, on a surfboard challenging waves, or swinging a sword in the age of barbarism. In an era of secular liberalism, he’s the wildman conservative of mythical heroes and combat veterans, but he’s also more than that, as David Thomson notes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: “He is an anarchist, he is articulate, and he has an unshakable faith in human grandeur….”
The Wind and the Lion (1972), the sophomore feature of the film school-trained screenwriter turned director, takes on a romantic tale of rebellion and response, honorable ancient codes and modern military might, and the first stirrings of the United States of America, the modern, maverick young country in a political culture dominated by the history-seeped empires of old Europe, as a world power. And it does so in a cagily budget-minded take on the sweeping military epics and colonial adventures of the 1950s and 1960s, a sensibility appropriated in the opening seconds of the film as Jerry Goldsmith’s grandly dramatic score plays under the credits etched into the handsome parchment of a yesteryear Hollywood frame.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Surely Richard Harris presents a problem to directors, one that few of them have managed to surmount, camouflage, or get around, much less turn on its head and use to their advantage. To Antonioni he was mostly a carrot-topped fleshtone against emotionally apt pastel backdrops (Red Desert);Peckinpah was about two-thirds successful in exploiting his egocentric theatricality as an expression of selfdestructive romanticism on the part of a defeated Confederate officer (Major Dundee); Frankenheimer turned the whole world around him into such a comic-strip environment that his posturing became a comedically apt way of occupying frame space (99 & 44/100% Dead); Lester gave him the kind of ultra-professional specialty role in which his tics seemed existentially permissible as definitions of life lived in an unending series of vacuum pockets pressurized by imminent catastrophe (Juggernaut), and elsewhere (Robin and Marian) enabled him to attain sublimity as a mad monarch who seemed almost relieved to die an absurdist death before his actions could further subvert his heroic identity. Irvin Kershner, who has worked well with such problematical stars as Robert Shaw (The Luck of Ginger Coffey), Sean Connery (A Fine Madness), and George Segal (Loving), was virtually tripped at the starting gate by Harris’ dual influence on the Man Called Horse films as star and executive producer; indeed, the auteur of Return of a Man Called Horseis very probably Richard Harris himself. What a c1ayfooted Brando complex is at work here! What serene conviction that the viewer will vicariously relish his communion with Nature and a Nobler Way of Life, his stone-browed rages, his lingering postures of moral superiority and periodic, protracted drops into a hectoring whisper. (Leaving the theater I suggested to my companion that it’d be nice to see Harris get through an entire movie without once whispering a speech to a hall-sized body of listeners, then immediately amended my wish to see a film in which he does whisper and we cut to an interlocutor who says, “I can’t understand a fuckin’ word you’re saying!”)