The kindest thing to say about ReindeerGames is that we shall certainly see far worse movies this year. The picture, a would-be thriller, is a mechanical exercise from the get-go, one that positively defies suspension of disbelief with each succeeding twist of a plot no one would ever hatch in real life. Yet within its trashy parameters the lumbering robot-beast does manage to drag itself to the finish line—several times, in fact—and in retrospect one realizes that even its most dubious quick-change reversals were planted in the early reels. That’s more coherence than we can find in a lot of contemporary movies, and for such minimal consolation we must learn to be grateful.
One of the cool things about John Frankenheimer is that he really looks like a classic American director. Tall, and still athletic-looking at the age of 70, Frankenheimer has a white-haired, hawk-faced largeness about him. Of course, it probably helps that I am meeting him in a Seattle hotel room so big it seems positively Roman emperor scaled. The director is here to do publicity for his new thriller Reindeer Games, but I am delighted to discover him just as willing to talk about his previous films.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
The title sequence of John Frankenheimer’s new film utilizes Lichtenstein-like pop art images which ultimately prove to have been inappropriate and misleading indicators of what might follow. Whereas Lichtenstein and other pop artists use conventional symbols and forms (e.g., the comic strip) as a means of commenting upon those forms and upon the social and intellectual atmosphere from which they arise, Frankenheimer appears to be bound by the very conventions he wants to parody. Thus, the ingredients of 99and44/100% Dead include basic gangster genre stuff, ”romantic interest,” western overtones, a lot of violence, and a hush-hush attitude toward sex coupled strangely with 1960-type Hollywood male dominance themes. And the problem comes from Frankenheimer’s failure to demonstrate decisively that all, or at least some, of these elements are not to be taken at face value. By the time the predictable climax comes along and everyone bad is dead and the girls are saved, we have a strong suspicion that this is no parody at all, but rather, that Frankenheimer is actually out to elicit genuine emotions from his audience. And this simply will not do. It is like a comedian going through his act and then, at the end, telling a sad story and expecting us to take him seriously.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
The hyperchromatic comic-strip explosion terminating the credits sequence gives way to an American flag flapping over Puget Sound, and the camera half-crawls, half-pans toward the dock to pick up a black limousine sleeking toward us. The cut recalls the zany political surrealism of TheManchurianCandidate—generals snapping to attention to salute a brainwashed assassin, a fat Senator pinked through the milk carton by a silenced bullet—and what immediately follows also suggests the offbeat cinematic imagination that, eight or twelve years ago, enabled John Frankenheimer pictures to crackle. Two black-suited gangsters spill a corpse out of the backseat, his feet cased in concrete, and heave him into the drink; down the body sinks to land kachunk on the bottom among a submarine orchard of similarly weighted cadavers in various stages of corruption; and with them rests and rusts a nostalgia-ridden criminal landscape, a grand Guignol hall of memories: slot machines, chemin-de-fer tables, safes, skeleton-stuffed phonebooths and automobiles. It’s a giddily hilarious moment in spite of, more than because of, the rinkytink Mancini music on the soundtrack. And the grim comedy continues as the dumpers of the latest human detritus are themselves spilled into another part of the water mere moments later—in a less reputable corner of the graveyard.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
I liked The French Connection a lot in 1971, but I’m rather afraid to look at it again because I think I remember most of what’s there. Not that I don’t remember many other films vividly, films I’ve no doubt I can revisit any number of times and find them and me enriched every time. But there’s something about the feel of the first French Connection, the strategy of the film as a film, that makes me suspect I’ve savored most of what it had to offer—and that was no meager portion—during my two first-run visits. FrenchConnection II isn’t as functionally perfect as its predecessor, but I suspect—stress, again, suspect—that its interstices leave contemplative room I might occupy again with profit. Put it another way: FrenchConnection (I) struck me as a brilliant package film, a producer’s picture in which director, screenwriter, cameraman, editor, et al. were hitting their marks with breathtaking precision and enough originality that cries of “Manipulation!” seemed silly—indeed, ungrateful. FC-II, sequel or no, comes off as more of a felt work, and what I make contact with through it is a director.
[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
The main strength of William Friedkin’s TheFrenchConnection lay in the driving pace of its montage, which assembled the film’s fragmentary narrative into a single, compelling forward movement toward the climax and the inevitable results of Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s recklessness, revealed in the cryptic final title. John Frankenheimer has, by contrast, always leaned heaviest on frame composition to express his vision, and as a result his new film is a FrenchConnection of quite a different cut.
The Man From Laramie (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Anthony Mann’s seventh and final collaboration with James Stewart and his first widescreen film, is a frontier “King Lear” by way of Mann’s favorite themes of splintered families and filial betrayal. Stewart plays his usual brooding loner, a former army scout searching for the man responsible for his brother’s death. He rides into a town run by a cattle baron (Donald Crisp) with an irresponsible son (Alex Nicol) who despises him and a dutiful foreman (Arthur Kennedy) who desperately craves his father-figure’s affection and respect.
The complicated web of love, hate, and betrayal sprawls over the entire town and Stewart, less psychologically haunted than in previous Mann collaborations, becomes a catalyst that pitches the conflict into violence, usually directed at him. While the Apaches are the ostensible threat, Mann’s brutal violence reaches a new level of cruel glee in Nicol’s sadistic psychopath of a delinquent with a six shooter. At his direction, Stewart is dragged through a burning campfire, shot point-blank in the hand, beaten, ambushed, and generally made unwelcome. Kennedy provides the psychotic edge as the spurned son with a black secret. As usual Mann’s landscapes are magnificent in a country where beauty and danger lie in the same handsome wilderness. Also stars Cathy Downs as a Kennedy’s long-suffering fiancée, googly-eyed Jack Elam as shady informant, and Wallace Ford as a tracker who becomes Stewart’s ally.
Twilight Time offers a lovely widescreen transfer and offers the usual trademark extras: an isolated musical score and effects track and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
The Train (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) makes a timely arrival for anyone who was disappointed with Monuments Men. This too is a true story of the Nazi looting of Europe’s art treasures during their retreat and the efforts to stop them, but this is a tough, muscular war thriller that pits the stakes against one another: just what price are you willing to pay to protect your artistic legacy? Burt Lancaster is the proletariat resistance leader who bristles under orders to stop the art from being taken out of France – he’s more focused on killing Germans and saving civilians – and Paul Scofield is his nemesis, the aristocratic Nazi officer who oversees the mass looting of France’s greatest paintings.
John Frankenheimer (who replaced the film’s original helmer, Arthur Penn, at Lancaster’s request) directs with a muscular style that puts the themes into action and the crisp black and white photography captures the busy industrial detail of the train yard and the gritty war-torn atmosphere of France in the final days of the German occupation. The great Michel Simon is the burly engineer who sabotages the initial run and Suzanne Flon and Jeanne Moreau co-star.
This Twilight Time release features the original commentary recorded by Frankenheimer for the laserdisc release almost 20 years ago plus a new commentary track with Twilight Time founder and historian Nick Redman and film historians Julie Kirgo and Paul Seydor, as well as the usual isolated score track and eight-page booklet. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Prophecyis actually two films, one of which I like. In the first hour or so the creature thatâ€™s been terrorizing the Maine woods is posited as both victim and avenger, much in the spirit of the put-upon creatures of Jack Arnoldâ€™s monster movies of the Fifties. Prophecyâ€™screature, an outsized mutant bear whom the local Indians name Katahdin, is triply righteous: it is the victim of industrial manâ€™s incursion into nature, it is a defender of the sacred forest primeval, and it is out to reclaim its stolen young. Its sympathetic position is reinforced by association with the same morally justifiable rage that characterizes the Indians, who assert their land rights and environmental concerns against the encroachment of an expanding timber company. Verne (Robert Foxworth), a public health doctor, on an ecological mission to seek environmental reasons to stop the timber companyâ€™s growth, finds himself in the middle of a series of bloody killings for which the timber people hold the Indian activists responsible, while the Indians attribute the slaughter to Katahdin, their avenger. The essential dishonesty of David Seltzerâ€™s script is revealed in several too-pat occurrences that exemplify Seltzerâ€™s tendency to give mere lip service to the metaphors and moral dilemmas of his plot, in favor of getting on to more sensational matters; and itâ€™s here that the film turns sour.