Gladiator, a blockbuster-budgeted behemoth about ancient Rome, begins with a lyrical closeup of a man’s hand rippling through the wheat in a sun-dappled field. Yes, this has the look of director Ridley Scott, in that exciting/maddening way of his: it’s an image that could come from a tone poem, or from a TV commercial. Scott has always had both sides to his directorial personality, which I think is why I have a hard time referring to Alien and Blade Runner as classics (having never gotten over the thud of disappointment I felt on their opening days). In fact, for a highly regarded filmmaker, Scott has an awful lot to answer for, including G.I. Jane, 1492, and that horned fantasy Legend.
The Brood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – I’d seen David Cronenberg’s The Brood before watching the terrific new Criterion edition but it never really registered the way it did this time. Perhaps the quality of the presentation (newly remastered from a 2K master supervised by Cronenberg) helped me connect this time—Mark Irwin’s cinematography not only establishes the chilly tenor of the film, it belies the low budget with such strong, controlled images—but I think it’s more a matter of time and appreciation. I love the raw, primal imagery of Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid but here that primal body horror erupts from an environment of normalcy (albeit one of social disconnection), a seemingly stable world where the suppressed horrors are no longer held in check.
The beauty and the power of Cronenberg’s body horror—of flesh invaded, transforming, rebelling—has always been how they are completely visceral experiences that grab the viewers on a biological level and evocative metaphors at the same time. In The Brood the metaphor is both on the surface—the emotionally damaged Nola (Samantha Eggar) transforms her most powerful emotional impulses into biological incarnations of her darkest desires—and underneath it. Cronenberg quite famously explained that the film was “my version ofKramer vs. Kramer, only more realistic,” and he had the emotional bruises of a painful divorce of his own to inspire him. But what came home to me on this viewing was not the jealousies and feelings of betrayal behind divorce but the scars of child abuse that take root in the victim. Nola is a survivor of abuse and when she becomes the willing guinea pig in the radical experimental “psychoplasmic therapy” (a term right out of the zeitgeist of sixties and seventies fads) of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), she quite literally gives birth to those psychic wounds. Her mutant children are rage babies, born of her most intense, unresolved emotional storms, and they enact the vengeance she desires (perhaps without her even knowing or understanding).
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursdaymay rate a footnote in film history as the first Hollywood Western to include oral-genital humor, and if that’s your idea of cinematic immortality, enjoy. As American-International Pictures’ first “class” production, the film does not bode well. Any one of AIP’s beach party flicks was funnier, and quite a few of their horror and action programmers have shown more class. You can wonder about the title for a while (GreatScout and Cathouse Thursday … is it a train? a medicine show act? a holiday?), but what it refers to is this old scout (Lee Marvin) who helped win the West and then misplaced his share of it; and this young refugee from a whorehouse (Kay Lenz) whose name becomes Thursday only momentarily, and irrelevantly. They travel some together, along with a clap-ridden halfbreed who went to Harvard (Oliver Reed) and an ineffectually randy reprobate (Strother Martin). There’s an old pal of the male trio’s (Robert Culp) who’s boondoggled and bombasted his way to a position of political prominence, along the way marrying the scout’s erstwhile girlfriend (Elizabeth Ashley), and we can’t forget—although we try, oh do we try!—the putatively lesbian madam (Sylvia Miles) our adventurers have “stolen” Thursday from. The Old West was a pretty silly place, you know: people fell in the mud a lot, and everybody was basically some kind of cheat. The music tells you when things are supposed to be funny, which is about 95 percent of the time; and about 100 percent of the time, it’s wrong.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
The Four Musketeers cannot be recommended to anyone who hasn’t seen The Three Musketeers. On the other hand, you haven’t seen The Three until you’ve seen The Four; and once you’ve seen The Four, The Three becomes a much better movie. They’re all one movie, really, and one of the most enjoyable prospects the near future holds out to us is the chance, eventually, to sit down in some suburban auditorium and put the whole four-hours-minus picture back together. There’ll also, for those of us who inveterately worry about such things, be the problem of sorting out whether this is a great film or just a splendiferous film with greatness in it.
Perhaps I can get at the nature of that unmonumental problem by indulging in a little film-critical housecleaning. Last year, in MTN 31, I delivered myself of an unadulteratedly positive appreciation of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds, which marked the director’s return to feature filmmaking after almost five years’ silence. The comeback itself was good news, and it was easy to find complimentary things to say about the picture. I didn’t—and don’t—retract any of them; but I also didn’t record my uneasiness about the movie, most especially its failure to achieve an overall structural integrity. Nice things would happen, and then other nice things would happen—some of them beautiful-type nice things, others comic-type nice things—but they didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know how many people paused to tell me how great it was when Athos, last seen grotesquely pinioned on a waterwheel, reappeared in bandages, stewed to the gills, to tip backwards down a country well; it was hohoho to swashbuckling and all that, and bring on the clowns. If it wasn’t that easy for Dick Jameson to go along with that, neither was it all that easy for Dick Lester. If you read around among various reviews of the film, you might find one commentator sneering at Lester for venturing to tell an anachronistic adventure story straight, while another would see him playing the same thing for facile laughs, and a third might detect the Musketeers and d’Artagnan casting the shadows of the Watergate plumbers. There isn’t necessarily any significance in the phenomenon of various commentators finding different points-of-view to take on the same film; but in this particular case I do feel the conspicuously divergent readings were at least partially accountable-for in the unresolved quality of Lester’s half-of-a-film. There was material there to qualify The Queen’s Diamonds as a sumptuously romantic extravaganza to out-Curtiz Curtiz, and there was evidence that this movie was made by hip Richard Lester, director of the Beatles films and The Knack, and a sense of muckraking revisionism laced with absurdism could also be sustained. Leaving such questions of tone and intention aside, one had still to contend with the basic dichotomy of spectacular period piece vs. high, middle, and low comedy. My own experience of Part One was that, after an intricately graded first hour or so, the laughs ran away with the show; and while there continued to be such headily ambivalent punctuation marks as the Musketeers-against-the-setting-sun-ride-to-the-rescue shot, d’Artagnan’s protracted—and much too undangerous—attempt to enter the palace and return the queen’s jewels tended to linger in my mind as more typical of the film’s failure of perspective. Hence, come year-end toting-up, I found myself discreetly omitting The Three Musketeers from what might have seemed, on the basis of my April review, a guaranteed slot on my Ten Best List.
With that convoluted but by no means irrelevant self-account out of the way, I can return to saying that The Revenge of Milady not only makes good on the necessarily failed promise of The Queen’s Diamonds but even makes better. Part Two begins in media of rather bewildering res with Aramis, having summarized Part One in voiceover for the tardy arrival, announcing that the Musketeers have become involved in a war between the Catholics (the king’s forces) and the Protestants, that the latter hold the fortress of LaRochelle, and that the Musketeers’ old enemy Rochefort has been captured by the other side while spying. And so, since Musketeers rescue just about anybody, we find them preparing to foil Rochefort’s execution by firing squad—if they can just keep the fuses on their hand grenades lit, and if the firing squad doesn’t do such a thorough job of botching their own assignment that our heroes become superfluous. Once Rochefort is spirited away to make his apologies to the king and Cardinal Richelieu, we’re back where we left off last year: d’Artagnan stands in a marketplace with his hand up a goose’s ass.
Beside him is Constance Bonacieux, handmaiden to the queen and wife of d’Artagnan’s one-time innkeeper (Spike Milligan’s Bonacieux, alas, does not return). In Richelieu’s ever-shifting chess plan to retain control of the destiny of France, she, as the queen’s confidential emissary to her English lover, the Duke of Buckingham, has come to be a most strategic piece. Browsing in the market now, she pauses near a heap of melons. A hand reaches out from them and seizes her; another hand, gesturing from behind a cart across the street, directs the kidnapping; as a barrel is settled over Constance’s head, d’Artagnan leaps to her assistance. The hand behind the cart belongs to Rochefort, who moves to cross swords with the young Gascon—but slips in a pile of grapes, thereby running himself—his wrist, anyway—onto the blade of someone who has no business wounding the greatest swordsman in France. D’Artagnan’s advantage is momentary at best and he ends up buried by a hill of potatoes. In the twinkling of a splice he’s being uncovered by the devious Milady de Winter. Constance is nowhere to be seen.
The movie is changing on us already, although the seriocomic deftness of this sequence is not apparent until we’ve seen the next. Milady has taken d’Artagnan to her apartments. Under her soothing hand and four inches from her enticing and mostly unlaced bosom, he reminds himself that he really must be going—er, mustn’t he?—to find his sworn lady. Amid a cacophony of falling candelabra he departs, Milady waving a benediction that also directs her maid to see him safely out. Then, completing the untying of her robe, she turns her back to the camera and starts toward a waiting bathtub mere feet away from the couch where she almost seduced the new Musketeer. The lens, with Thirties quaintness, drops with her robe. A discreet closeup follows her foot into the bath. The water is red. In shock closeup, Milady gasps. In closeup equally large, Rochefort, concealed behind a screen the whole while, smiles. They embrace, murmuring of artful treason, as Lester cuts once again to the water reddened by Rochefort’s wounded hand.
That this shot dissolves into the surreally comic image of a l7th-century “submersible” breaking the surface of the English Channel does not alter the drift events—and filmstyle—are taking. Increasingly, and with the beauty of aesthetic and moral necessity, death begins to reclaim its own in this narrative by Lester out of Dumas. Characters formerly separated by the sprawl of history and Dumas’s teeming invention are drawn together in fatal compacts. Planchet, d’Artagnan’s servant, a terrified wheezing fat man ill-made for travel of any sort, heaves on horseback across a richly flowered field; moments later the man he is riding to meet and warn lies dead at his feet, sprinkled with well-wishers’ posies, his stomach showing through a gap in his fine clothes with boyish and unaccustomed gaucherie. Foppish Aramis, ever making flip references to his preparations for the priesthood, gratuitously slides his blade between the ribs of a winded and disarmed enemy, then closes the fellow’s eyes and makes the Sign of the Cross. The Musketeers occupy a shattered bastion in no-man’s-land at LaRochelle because they need to have a private chat and they’re safer in the middle of a battle where the Cardinal’s spies and Milady’s tricks can’t reach them; they play games with bombs and loaves of bread, and let the enemy obligingly shoot the necks off their champagne bottles, and playfully graze a cannoneer’s rear with a pistol shot; but when they finally retaliate in earnest against their attackers by pushing a masonry wall down on them, the victims don’t get up to roar in comic protest.
Where all this is building, finally, is toward one of the most harrowing and beautiful climaxes I’ve witnessed in films. The ending of “a story to cure a man of love”—and perhaps romance in a larger sense—honors romantic aspiration in fiction, in filmmaking, and in life, and exacts fair payment in audience pain. Comic exceptions are not permitted, though, even here, Lester’s film does not forswear humor: grim (an arquebusier is incinerated in a haywagon set afire by his own fuse), triumphant (Porthos saving Aramis’s life with a preposterous move Aramis had once ridiculed), grotesque (d’Artagnan screaming for Constance and a nun blithely admonishing sssssshh while in the next room a murder may be taking place). There are several devastating payoffs in the last moments of the film; one I can safely mention without giving too much away—for those to whom Dumas’s plot remains unfamiliar—is d’Artagnan’s cosmically enraged, lunging duel with Rochefort, and the moment when he loses his balance, stumbles, and gasps “Oh!—”, the syllable charged with hate, frustration, the fear of failure and a sense of the comic absurdity of taking a pratfall in the midst of the most crucial action of his life; almost four hours of film have prepared for the awesome complexity of that instant on the brink—the stylistic brink The Three Musketeers, in toto, exists to define.
THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, or: The Revenge of Milady Direction: Richard Lester. Screenplay: George Macdonald Fraser, after the novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Cinematography: David Watkin. Production design: Brian Eatwell. Costumes: Yvonne Blake. Fight direction: William Hobbs. Editing: John Victor Smith. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Executive Producer: llya Salkind.
The Players: Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Kinnear, Simon Ward, Michael Gothard, Raquel Welch, Angel del Pozo, Nicole Calfan
[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.