[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, September 4, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
“What is it about this house? The moment I
walk in, I want to kill myself.” The speaker (that entertaining old blusterer
Joss Ackland) is not an important character in Firelight, and he’s
half-kidding, but we take his point. The Goodwin estate, somewhere in the
mid-nineteenth-century English countryside, is a pretty glum place. Nobody ever
looks comfortable, or even at home there. The master of the house (Stephen
Dillane) even hazards a joke about it: “All these huge rooms and we live our
lives within three feet of the fire.” But then, that’s because screenwriter and
first-time director William Nicholson has determined that no scene in the movie
should lack a visual—and almost always verbally underscored—reference to his
movie’s title and wishfully poetic central image.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
The only thing of interest in S*P*Y*S—and it’s of sooooooo little interest—is the mystery of how such sharp guys as Kershner, Gould, and Sutherland ever got mixed up in it; or, beyond that, how, having recognized what a mire they were in (and they must have recognized it, sooner or later), they failed to distribute more clues to their disenchantment as disavowals of any responsibility. Since I’ve tossed more than my share of bouquets toward directors, I’ll continue to play it the auteur way and throw my biggest stink bomb at Irvin Kershner. No semblance of focus or structure is to be detected in the film, and it does seem proper to blame the director for that. Even when a competent, well-intentioned director has his film messed up in production or post-production by the proverbial front office, traces always remain: the occasional sequence left intact, a broken-backed but discernible emotional rhyme scheme in the performances, distinctive niceties in the selection of angles here and there, the way corners of shots get filled up. And I didn’t see nothin’ like that in S*P*Y*S, nowhere, no way.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Drabble would, after all, have been a better title than TheBlack Windmill. The structure thus designated is not even mentioned till the film is two-thirds finished, whereas the fictional master criminal “Drabble” hovers over the picture almost as decisively as “Juggernaut” in the new Lester movie. Drabble catches the muzzy Englishness that is the film’s most strategic appeal, which comes through via such in-passing pleasantries as Scotland Yard man Clive Revill’s weary exasperation with his partner as they search and bug Michael Caine’s room, MI.5 stick-in-the-mud Donald Pleasence’s loss of sour face as he inadvertently says “Sean Connery” instead of “Sean Kelly” during a top-level security conference, or Pleasence’s desperate endeavor to maintain a blank look as his senescent superior fondles and is fondled by his murderously loving wife (Felicia Farr—of CharleyVarrick fame—in an unbilled cameo, if I’m not mistaken). One may safely suppose that the opportunity for such moments had its fond appeal for Siegel, who spent his youth in England. Such suppositions are the only way to find, or posit, traces of the director in the film; for after a decade’s worth of consistently personal cinema, Siegel has simply taken on an average thriller property and given it, overall, little more than slightly above-average treatment.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
The Three Musketeers opens with an auspiciousness I haven’t experienced since the first image and chords of 2001: Against a dark, featureless background and in a light that seems to have seeped out of a pearl, a hand seizes the hilt of a heavy sword and slowly draws the blade from its scabbard. Metal rubs against metal with a sense of reawakening; the sound is bigger than it ought normally to be, reverberating in a vault of time. A man poises himself, then leaps to attack another. They play with their swords—not dancing or lunging as if spearing hors d’oeuvres, but swinging, hacking, beads of sweat flashing from them. Suddenly one man’s leap is traced in a dozen luminous outlines of himself. Richard Lester is making movies again.
It’s not immediately apparent what sort of film he’s making—which is, of course, one of the things that make Lester Lester. From such a hip contemporary artist one scarcely expects a straight retelling of the Dumas classic. Not that romanticism hasn’t been violated before: the Ritz Brothers, no less (and certainly no more), played the Musketeers in a 1939 Fox version. Lester’s Goon Show pixilation is frequently in evidence: a servant registering mute pique at Aramis’s incurable penchant for cutting off the candles in idle swordplay; a group of court midgets, each trying to one-up his fellows by having the king select one of his canapés, and all commenting sotto voce on the various court intrigues (“It i’n’t her, I tell ya—she got bigger feet!”); a branding iron and a potato nestling side-by-side in a bed of hot coals. We get an indication of what must be in store when D’Artagnan (Michael York), humiliated by Cardinal Richelieu’s chief henchman Rochefort (Christopher Lee), sets off to avenge his disgrace. Rochefort is riding leisurely away on horseback. Lester moves his camera back to take in the whole arena of D’Artagnan’s revenge, a sort of rural plaza with peasants and workmen browsing about, an intricate superstructure topping a well at left, and Rochefort describing an assured diagonal down through the center of the scene and shot. D’Artagnan runs ahead of his enemy, seizes a handy rope that should swing him right into Rochefort’s lap and send the bully sprawling, and swoops toward his man—and past him. D’Artagnan falls in the mud; Rochefort, without a backward or even a sidelong glance, continues on his way. All right then, Lester’s going to guy the whole business of making a swashbuckler. Who believes in heroes anyway, or possesses the grace of a Fairbanks, or even gives a damn? Bring on the yoks, Dick! And they come—very good ones, too—until, not long afterward, we find D’Artagnan rather accidentally in the company of the Musketeers and in the midst of a duel with more of the Cardinal’s men. One of them charges D’Artagnan; lacking a sword at the moment, our hero leaps up, grabs a clothesline, and starts looping loops as his assailant draws nearer. What’s going to happen: D’Artagnan gets tangled in a sheet? The line breaks? Well, as a matter of fact, the whole thing works out just fine, with D’Artagnan’s heels catching the fellow at just the right instant and knocking him for a loop of his own. Say, what is this?! But the movie makes no comment. And that’s the way it tends to go from there on out, some of the swashes buckling under the weight of their ingenuity and some of them coming off as though the ghosts of Fairbanks and Flynn were giving D’Artagnan a leg up.