[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
What partly recommends and partly handicaps The Omen, the latest entry in the horror film genre, is its old-fashioned quality. The film develops its tale of the modern-day birth of Satan’s son with a modicum of special effects and supernatural gimcracks, relying instead on tried and true methods of suspense such as not letting you see things too clearly (à la Val Lewton), mining the potential inhabitedness of any given space for its lode of ominousness, and allowing the implicit contrast between ancient horror and present complacency to breed an unsettling tension. On the negative side, the script too often takes tedious refuge in the old cliffhanger device that traditionally slogs up the action in soap operas and mediocre horror films. The paradigmatic example in TheOmen occurs when Gregory Peck, inadvertent parent to devilspawn, is visited by a priest who possesses all sorts of crucial information that, we know, ought to be immediately and cogently communicated. But is it? Of course not. Instead the priest incoherently proselytizes Peck, marking himself at once as an irrelevant religious fanatic and getting kicked out of the busy man’s office for his pains. This ploy ensured several more encounters between the two men before Peck ever got the point. I had gotten the point some time ago and simply went away for awhile, to wait out this spurious method of generating suspense by unnecessarily retarding and prolonging narrative development.
In the 1952 adventure The World In His Arms, Gregory Peck is a boisterous sea captain in the Pacific Coast, circa 1850, who has a plan to buy Alaska from the Russians… if they don’t kill him first.
It’s not the kind of role that we immediately associate with Peck. He’s the man of principle, the dedicated father, the unbendingly loyal leader, protective and modest and unyielding in face of injustice, and still quite charming under all that poised decency. That’s the man we know from films ranging from The Yearling to Twelve O’Clock High to The Big Country to To Kill a Mockingbird. He could be stiff but his stiffness was part of the charm.
But he was also a studio star who made his share of westerns, war films, adventures and romantic comedies, and he could put that smile and poise to work as a man of action with the best of them. The World in His Arms, adapted from the Rex Beach novel by Borden Chase (Red River) and produced by Aaron Rosenburg, Universal’s man for dynamic outdoor adventure, lets Peck be the maverick entrepreneur in the wild far west of the Barbary Coast and the Bering Straight.
Imagine the rebellious kid brother of Peck’s Horatio Hornblower (another Walsh collaboration), rejecting the discipline of Her majesty’s Navy and gone to the New World for the freedom of free enterprise in a country without limits. The captain of a fast ship and a lovably roughneck crew that he gives free reign to let loose in their San Francisco shore leave between trips, he’s “the Man From Boston,” the nickname that the Russians have given him (along with the brand of “pirate”) for his wildcatting success in their waters. He’s still got that educated diction and East Coast culture in his voice and his bearing, but he’s also happy roughneck. He leaps into bar brawls, arm wrestles Anthony Quinn and romances Ann Blyth, Hollywood’s tiny porcelain doll of a leading lady playing a pampered Russian countess who comes alive in Peck’s big arms.
The story is terrific Hollywood hockum, with the bad boy Peck as the spirit of American can-do action and a model of respect for the natural balance—he’s not just the most successful seal trapper on the West Coast, he’s also a proponent of responsible thinning of the seal herds, in stark, proto-ecosavvy contrast the Russians who are decimating the population—and this two-fisted adventurer is the perfect mate to bring the Russian aristocrat into the great American melting pot. There are larger than life accents (Anthony does his lovable rogue as “the Portugee,” a genuine crook who is still somehow welcomed into the brethren and invited to fight side by side against the “true” crooks of imperial despotism), lively clashes between the classes and revolutionary action as a fun-loving brawl that the Americans are destined to win.
Raoul Walsh is Hollywood’s great director of men in action; his characters are defined by what they do and how they do it and Peck is nothing if not a man who acts from his heart. And while the film resorts to some clumsy back projection for a number of the more exotic backdrops, the film’s most thrilling sequence — a race to Alaska between rival sailing ships — offers us the real thing with dramatic photography of men and vessels fighting the choppy seas.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
“Budt ze prroject vill be ruindt,” complains Gregory Peck, in the worst possible screen-German accent, when James Mason’s SS Colonel suggests that Peck’s mad geneticist recall his squad of assassins, sent out to bump off 94 civil servants throughout the world. It’s a clever way to evoke audience sympathy for the bad guys, because at this point in the film we don’t want Dr. Josef Mengele’s project to be cancelledâ€”not till we can at least find out precisely what it is. How can the killing of 94 low-grade civil servants, aged 65, possibly bring about “ze Fourss Reich”? That our curiosity should be used to ally us with Mengele, even though we already know him to be a heinous villain, is indicative of Franklin Schaffner’s offbeat taste in heroes. Schaffner has wavered between celebrations of mavericks who defy convention (The War Lord, Planet of the Apes, Patton, Islands in the Stream) and confrontations or alliances of two strong-but-flawed characters (TheBest Man, Papillon, and the special case of The Double Man in which Yul Brynner played both a CIA agent and a Communist spy). The Boys from Brazil seems to unite the two interests, with Schaffner unable to conceal his fascination for Mengele, quite despite the intentions of novelist Levin and scenarist Gould.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Time was when people talked (pretty foolishly) about Andrew V. McLaglen as heir to the mantle of John Ford, and the name of Howard Hawks has been known to surface as a reference point, too. The Sea Wolves,however, demonstrates an affinity with the world of British hackdom, with J. Lee Thompson and Terence Young at their ropiest. Remove from the film a dash of sex and one naughty cussword (“shit”, exclaimed twice) and you have a movie that could have been made 30 years ago. A successor to action-packed yawn-provokers such as Young’s The Red Beret (American title: Paratrooper) or Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone,it finds room for more cliches than any war film since Where Eagles Dare;but unlike that film, it lacks any sense of redeeming self-mockery. Its gall stimulates first a sort of glazed disbelief, then a kind of punch-drunk regression to the cinemagoing attitudes of one’s childhood, so that the sheer ineptitude of the film on all kinds of levels becomes almost soothing. Certainly it hands us a large number of unintended laughs, though one has to wait until the end credits for the richest, when card after card iterates desperately that what we’ve just seen was a true story, when no child over ten will believe that a single frame of it. Just to rub it in, three of the actors get their photos juxtaposed with those of the dissimilar real-life people they portray.