[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
There’s an air of bad faith, not unlike the scent of bathroom deodorizer, about Murderonthe Orient Express. I’m as fond of “production values” as the next fellow, maybe fonder, but I don’t wish to be force-fed them by a soulless dietitian who knows what I as a consumer ought to want. That’s the way Sidney Lumet has directed this film, and all of Geoffrey Unsworth’s filtered lyricism, all of Tony Walton’s art-deco design, all of Richard Rodney Bennett’s tongue-in-jolly-good-show-cheek music can’t convince me that Lumet gives a tinker’s fart about the Orient Express, the old Hollywood, Grand Hotel, or the artificial but scarcely charmless business of working out an Agatha Christie red-herring mystery.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
She brought the bottle to his room and then he took the bottle to her room and now she has brought it back to his room without anyone having had a drink so far. He cocks an eye at their mutual pretext and remarks, “This is getting to be a problem.”
The line gets a laugh. And as you laugh at it, you can’t quite say why you’re laughing, but you know you’re laughing at a number of things at the same time. It’s more than two people getting set to play a love scene. It’s two people laughing at themselves for going through all this ritual to get at the scene, and it’s also two people digging the ritual and digging themselves for having set it up. It’s two canny actors, who are also people, enjoying and capitalizing on the happy fact that they are playing about the same scene they’d be playing anyway if there weren’t a camera crew standing around. It’s also Howard Hawks and his redoubtable extra-dialogue man William Faulkner and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—only recently Betty Perske, unknown fashion model—laughing at the way they’ve just said “Screw it” to the whole bothersome notion of following a scenario.
For it must have been after the shooting of the second stage of the bottle’s progress that Bacall said—as James Agee recorded for Time and posterity—”God, I’m dumb.” Hawks asked why and she said, “Well, if I had any sense I’d go back in after that guy.” Hawks had to agree and that’s the way they went.
To Have and Have Not, then, is firstly and most durably a movie about the making of this particular movie. In his enormously suggestive book MovieMan, David Thomson has remarked that, with Hawks as with Jean Renoir, one so often has a feeling that the director and some friends of his have got together and, simply because they happen to be phenomenally talented people in the same line of work, made a movie. While there are moments implying breezy, spontaneous improvisation in virtually all Hawks pictures, no other has such an all-pervasive sense of a floating party where a couple of particular people keep bumping into the fact that there’s something lovely about each of them and something cosmically joyous about the two of them together.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and TheShootistis very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance; that to be very poor and very beautiful ismost probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying “This medium is not good,” he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it isalways a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything. —Raymond Chandler (1949)
Raymond Chandler was given to talking things up in a way that Howard Hawks never has been, but part of what is remarkable about the above statement is its aptness as an aesthetics for Hawks’ films as well as for Chandler’s fiction. Even in readily likeable potboilers like Tiger Shark and The Crowd Roars, the hard-edged integrity that distinguished later and more accomplished Hawks films was already making itself felt. Indeed, in Chandler’s fiction as in movies like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and RioBravo, the mixture of highly commercial genre and sharply individualized intelligence exerts an enduring fascination. Thus, that Hawks should end up filming a Chandler novel seems more than merely appropriate. Read More “Hawks, Chandler and The Big Sleep”
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express.More than puzzles are to be teased out in these two jokey, backward-looking thrillers. Two ultra-British subjects are handled by two very American directors, and whodunit – or whodunwhat – is only one of many queries to be resolved. In essence, each is of a classic English pre-war mystery-thriller type: Sleuthsets us down in our old friend, The Remote Old Country House Where Things Are Not As They Seem, whilst Murder on the Orient Expressis a glossy confined-space thriller where The Killer Has To Be One Of A Small Number (all played by famous stars, of course) And Cannot Get Away For A While; the detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the waxed moustaches and the little grey cells, has to trap said killer in the limited space of time before the snow-plough arrives to allow the Orient Express, marooned in snowdrift, to continue its Istanbul-to-Calais route.
Let those readers who haven’t seen the films quit reading now, if they haven’t already. I aim to be so unsporting as to blow the surprise endings, and most of the inner workings of the plot, on both films. Actually, simply what happens isn’t so all-important; if it were, who would want to see either film a second time? And though neither film seems to be realistic, grim reality keeps on creeping in, to the advantage of Sleuthand the detriment of OrientExpress. Sidney Lumet, a stern social commentator, or so he would have us believe, in earlier films like The Pawnbroker, TheHill, A View from the Bridge, and, of course, Twelve Angry Men (which has the most bearing here), is revealed by a close examination of OrientExpress to be a threadbare moralist indeed; whilst Joseph Mankiewicz, widely regarded as a witticism-churning butterfly too hooked on his own bons mots to be much concerned with Life, or even visual style, has come up with as acute a study of Britain’s steel-trap class system as any native director from the so-called good old days of the island’s filmic new wave.