Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Medusa Touch

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Medusa Touch has had a most curious history. Richard Burton went into it hot on the heels of Exorcist II and Equus, but it took about a year to follow them into the cinemas, opening in London in June of 1978. Despite lots of names, a big budget and good notices, it then did what every film of above-average interest is likely to do in Britain: it disappeared totally from sight. (The remarks of RTJ in MTN 60-61 suggest the film got oblivion treatment in the U.S., too.) Nearly another year went by and then, blammo!, it was all over the place. Double-billed with an even older Paul Bartel movie, it got saturation bookings all over the country, and was even advertised on TV – very rare in Britain. One hopes that all this adds up to making it a hit at last.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: Death on the Nile

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

In the drawingroom detective story—whether literary or cinematic or both—the central feature of the genre’s art is also its one great failing: the form gives away the content. We know we are witnessing a genre-piece, circumstantial evidence that in “real life” would be insufficient to damn instead tends to exonerate, betokening the red herring. Only persons with airtight alibis may be considered real suspects. Consequently one figures out the who in Death on the Nile fairly easily, while the how must remain for Poirot to reveal to our far weaker gray cells. Director John Guillerman never really plays the revelation of the guilty party for surprise; in fact, his formal, often symmetrical compositions betray his awareness and acceptance of a certain formalism in both the story and its genre that makes the identity of the murderer a foregone necessity: if it were anyone else. the neatness of it all would be quite spoiled. So we feel comfortable with the film’s array of guest suspects, regarding them as traveling companions on the journey toward the how. In contrast to the labored, artificial “nostalgia” of Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (with which Death on the Nile insists upon comparison), Guillermin’s film stresses place—and the movement from one place to another—more than time. While the costumes and production design are done with charm and integrity, they are never so imposing as the Egyptian landscape, which is far better integrated with the goings-on in the film than was the Orient Express’s snowy mountain passage in the Lumet film. Guillermin gives us a sense of movement through that landscape, a feeling of progress—however illusory—by repeated incidental emphasis on modes of transportation: cars, horses, carriages, boats, camels, burros; where Lumet’s stalled train tended to make Murder on the Orient Express bog down altogether in the mire of Geoffrey Unsworth’s thick-as-a-brick photography. And even if the who is a foregone conclusion, Death on the Nile stays filled with the excitement of the puzzle (much like scenarist Shaffer’s Sleuth, or the Anthony Perkins–Stephen Sondheim screenplay The Last of Sheila), where Orient Express never got beyond the turgid objectivity of an impossible but obvious pattern.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Remaking a Hitchcock classic would appear to be prime foolishness (unless you’re Hitchcock himself), and remaking one a second time seems like evidence of a death-wish. However, the makers of this new version of The Thirty-Nine Steps do have a get-out clause of sorts: Hitchcock used almost none of John Buchan’s novel, and updated it from 1914 to the then-contemporary mid-Thirties. Ralph Thomas, for his vomitworthy 1959 version, pinched almost everything wholesale from the 1935 marvel (except such intangibles as wit, pace, charm, eroticism, ingenuity and suspense) and reduced the whole enterprise to a faded Xerox of the earlier film. Don Sharp and his team have made a great show of “going back to the original”, and the design department has gorged itself on Edwardian costumes, period automobiles, monocles, the whole eve-of-World-War-I razzmatazz. So it should look like a brand-new film, right?

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Posted in: Animation, Film Reviews

Review: Watership Down

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Establishing a mythology of creation and existence based upon the centrality of rabbits in the frame of things, Watership Down endows itself with a mythic sense that takes a familiar shape. It divides roughly into three parts: the first of these deals with the journey of a group of rabbits from an old, doomed warren to a new place of settlement; the second with their quest to secure females with whom to populate the place (a sort of Rape of the Sabine Bunnies); and the third with the final battle in defense of the new warren, a baptism of blood that seems to officially open the new world. Placing this leporine Aeneid in a genuinely cosmic context are the appearance of a creator, named Frith, and a “Black Rabbit” of death, a sort of grim leaper.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Out of the Past: The Illustrated Man

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Before anything happens in The Illustrated Man, a voice (Claire Bloom’s) warns us that those who try to see beyond their own times find themselves facing problems that cannot be explained in present-day terms. This gets reprised at the very end of the movie, by which time just about nothing actually has been explained. The Illustrated Man is a very odd movie indeed, and here and there a thoroughly frustrating one. I can’t decide how much of the obfuscation is genuine poetic mystery and how much a sheer cop-out on the part of screenwriter-producer Howard Kreitsek (not very active since this 1969 movie) and director Jack Smight. But the film, for all its many faults, stays with me and I fancy its inner workings are worth teasing out.

Time is of the essence. When and where are we? Ms. Bloom’s opening voiceover accompanies an image of a tranquil countryside lake. We hold on this and at long last the old Warner-Seven Arts logo inscribes itself on the screen. An old-fashioned automobile parks a naive-looking youth (Robert Drivas) by the lake and moves on; we never see its driver again. Willie, the youth, is soon joined by a surly fellow carrying a bag with a dog in it. The stranger, Carl (Rod Steiger), middle-aged, needing a shave, broken-nosed, seems to come from nowhere and is plainly needing funds. “You hoboing?” he asks Willie. The 1930s? Of course. But what’s a Depression bum doing with a Pekinese, of all dogs? And why is it cooped up in a bag all the while? “He likes it hot,” snarls Carl: “Like me!” He kids us not. Though the midday sun blazes and the sweat pours off Willie, Carl is begloved and booted, and covered in an enormous coat. Why? This question, at least, gets an answer, and swiftly.

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Posted in: Uncategorized

Review: The Europeans

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

With the likes of Grease and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre packin’ ’em in, people keep saying the cinema is going to hell and only the most crass hold sway. However, if the Seventies gave the world porno and John Travolta, the decade also saw a revival, on a fairly grand scale, of interest in Henry James. Of all authors! What could so fastidious an artist have to say to our vulgarian’s age? Well, quite a lot, it would seem, for there have been more ventures into Jamesiana in the Seventies than in the entire previous history of film – several TV movies (two by Claude Chabrol), announced projects (Chabrol’s proposed film of The Wings of the Dove was called off, not for want of backing, but because he changed his mind about it), two wildly unJamesian but nevertheless James-inspired movies (The Nightcomers and Celine et Julie vont en bateau), and three major adaptations: Daisy Miller, La Chambre verte (from The Altar of the Dead), and now The Europeans. This last seems to me the best James movie to date, in terms of catching the author’s essence, and it’s an exquisite entertainment, immensely worth seeing.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

When Hitchcock had to set a spy movie in Switzerland, he decided that the most effective way to exploit the milieu would be to honor an armchair tourist’s idea of the place. Hence, he built his plot and key sequences around those geographical and cultural phenomena most readily identifiable as Swiss: mountains, lakes, the manufacture of chocolate, quaint shrines, a demonstration of yodeling. Richard Lester tries to get away with the same approach to Cuba in 1959. Rum, cigars, sugar cane, the Morro, nightclubs, salsa, the U.S. Navy on more or less residential shore leave, a Latin lover and Latin love for sale: if it’s part of the pop iconography, grab it and play it for all its worth—because there’s not going to be much else to play with. That might do for Switzerland; Batista’s Cuba on the eve of Castro is quite another matter. One doesn’t have to be rabidly political to want a more substantive index of governmental corruption than a scungy police detective taking bribes from everyone in sight, or a self-promoted general (Martin Balsam) keeping fat on the income from Havana’s parking meters (said loot stashed in a strongbox chained to his dotty mother’s TV). Likewise, the proverbial fat sweaty American entrepreneur (Jack Weston) swooping down on every target of acquisitional opportunity, and a couple of bland accountants from an unspecified U.S. agency come to balance the books of the Committee for Anti-Communist Activities, are pretty unimaginative representations of the American presence, and deployed just as unimaginatively. Not that the politically correct side comes off much more flatteringly or interestingly: Fidel is (necessarily, I suppose) only a newsreel image on a video monitor, the Fidelistas are low-comedy, if well-meaning, goons beating about the cane fields, and the most dramatically important rebel is a punk (Danny De La Paz) who just wants a hifalutin excuse to shoot somebody—his sister’s aristocratic despoiler (Chris Sarandon), a British mercenary come too late to do anyone any good (Sean Connery), or any poor schmuck who gets in the line of fire.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Westerns

Review: Butch and Sundance: The Early Days

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

There are undeniable similarities between Butch and Sundance: The Early Days and Richard Lester’s reworking of popular mythology, Robin and Marian. The earlier film, written by William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldman’s brother James, contained several seemingly deliberate takeoffs on Butch and Sundance in the dialogue, misadventures, characterization and relationship of Robin and Little John. In Butch and Sundance: The Early Days we encounter the same kind of buddy-comedy once again, with the two young men (Tom Berenger, William Katt) consistently rejecting heterosexual love in favor of their own interdependence. The departure from Butch Cassidy’s two little sons is much harder for Butch than the farewell to his wife (Jill Eikenberry); and there is a scene in which Butch and Sundance—not Butch and Mary—are treated as the boys’ parents. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days also shares with Robin and Marian an emphasis (generally uncharacteristic of Lester) on landscape to delineate character. Lester and Laszló Kovacs create the film’s best moments out of such memorable phenomena as the sand-palace mesas among which Butch first proposes partnership to the Kid (then walks from one edge of a mesa to the other, and asks, silhouetted in longshot, “How do I get outta here?”); the snowdrifts among which the Butch-Sundance relationship becomes cemented in a tradeoff of heroic sacrifices, and behind which they gradually disappear in a visual denial of the heroic stature they sought to achieve by bringing diphtheria serum into an infected area; or the floodwaters that make a creek out of the main street of Butch’s hometown, where Sundance faces the trauma of killing his first human being.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Westerns

Review: The Electric Horseman

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Horse comes over the horizon and slants down into the golden valley, right there I figure Sydney Pollack auteur time, whoa up. I mean, if Sydney Pollack can be an auteur, it isn’t worth being one. But he wants it, oh, he can taste it. He cranes, he tracks, he dissolves. (They shoot auteurs, don’t they?) All right, enough funnin’, let’s fess up and concede that after enough films get made and enough thematic and syntactical evidence piles up, there gets to be somebody there you can recognize, and that’s Sydney Pollack. The guy has a style. Whether that style has much to do with style in the richest, most analytical and mystical senses of the word is another question. But a style he has: slick, thin; getting to be rather touching in its naïve pretentiousness; suited to keeping movies moving, and hence giving his films a leg up when it comes down to the competitive question of which movie should I go to, which film in the local triple or sextuple shopping-mall cinema is likeliest to keep me entertained. Entertained, goddam it, not edified, no matter how much the entertainer may strive to be taken for an edifier as well. The Electric Horseman entertains better than almost anything else that’s twinkled onto the scene this Christmas season. The key factors in this—gorgeous, adorable, intelligent, watchably changeable, iconically constant factors—are a couple of stars who would have been stars even when the Hollywood firmament was filled with them. REDFORD : FONDA : ELECTRIC say the ads. Believe them. And this time believe Sydney Pollack, too.

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Posted in: Westerns

Review: Comes a Horseman

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The title of Alan J Pakula’s latest film echoes the old stock melodrama line “Along comes Jones” and that’s no accident. Here we have a tough-but-tender cowgirl working her dead father’s ranch with only a lovable grizzled old coot for a ranchhand; a somber villain moving through his dark house like Dracula in his castle, hatching designs on the heroine’s land as well as her body; a land-grabbing industrialist conspiring with the local banker to turn rangeland into oil wells; a tall, quiet wrangler winning the girl’s heart and saving her land to boot; singing cowboys, fireside heart-to-hearts, a crisis with hero and heroine trapped by villain in a burning building, a climactic shootout, and boy-gets-girl. From the tentative cynicism of The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Pakula hasreturned with a vengeance to the romantic melodrama of his earlier films, all characterized by essentially corny ideas handled in an utterly uncorny manner. Kluteand Comes a Horsemanare but two special cases of the same basic plot overlay: tough professional man saves woman from villainy and from herself, winning her heart in the process. And The Sterile Cuckoo, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Klute, andComes a Horsemanmay all be seen as variations on the theme of simple, direct man dealing with complex, independent woman.

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