[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from TheLastDetail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But TheLastDetail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
“Hey look, it floats!” cries Duddy Kravitz, from the bathtub. Duddy’s fellow Jew and fellow admirer of the bathtub buoyancy phenomenon, the diffident Leopold Bloom, luxuriated in a fantasy of himself lying, at the end of the day, “laved in a womb of warmth,” gazing at his limp member—a “languid floating flower.” Duddy, antihero of the Canadian Film Development Corporation’s almost-$1-million gamble, the poor urban Jew as 19-year-old Pischer, simply grins at his girl and points at his Putz. Yet float he does, Canada’s crass Duddy, no less than classic Bloom; and although he’d probably be the last one in the world to appreciate it, arch-individualist that he is, what gets this screen incarnation of Mordecai Richler’s supercharged, driven young Montreal “comer” aloft immediately and keeps it there is … teamwork. The ApprenticeshipofDuddyKravitz is a movie full of brilliant things—sharp dialogue, “star” and ”cameo” performances, fluent camerawork, period accuracy—that don’t call attention to themselves. Credit for this, surely, goes to director Ted Kotcheff. With his editor, he establishes from the start exactly that brisk, behavioral rhythm best suited to Duddy’s galvanic personality and to the story of the Kravitz apprenticeship in ruthlessness. The crux of Richard Dreyfuss’s great title performance is the quick take. Kotcheff makes the camera very fast on the uptake, too; it’s as simple as that. The result: we get caught up, willynilly, in Duddy’s own metabolism. The instant Duddy picks up on something—a facial expression, a gesture, some remark that cuts both ways—we get a quick look at Dreyfuss’s face; we catch his hair-trigger response; and Kotcheff cuts away. More often than not, that ends the scene. Goddam! I caught him, he cheats at gin rummy, my dad—the shyster! Cut away. Oh, I get it: he’s pimping! A burst of delighted laughter; cut away. Ha! what he’s doing over there, he’s masturbating, the phony, that Irwin! These quick takes and cutaways express Duddy’s quicksilver native intelligence, and more: his appetite for life, and his capacity to be surprised—to learn.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
They were smart to change the title from TheTen–SecondJailbreak. Even though Charles Bronson says he’s going to set his ‘copter down in the prisonyard for only ten seconds, we don’t dwell on that. If there were a title to remind us, though, we might irritably observe that minutes seem to pass by—and it’s not from suspense or Odessa-steps montage while those prison guards stare on with whuddafuck expressions on their mugs, deciding to open fire only after the whirlybird has all but made its belated exit. It must be well known to everyone who passed near a TV set during Breakout‘s opening week of summer business that this nice man who looks just like Robert Duvall has been tossed into a Mexican slammer on a trumped-up charge, and left to rot there by his business enemies, who happen to include Uncle John Huston, confirmed now in the nasty habits he picked up in Chinatown. Faithful wife Jill Ireland (who is also the faithful wife of Charles Bronson, and hence keeps working in her husband’s pictures) hires baling-wire airman Bronson to get him out somehow. Breakout isn’t nearly the offense against decency, not to mention narrative intelligence, that last summer’s saturation-promo action flick was—DirtyMaryCrazyLarry, if you’d forgot, and if you had, excuse me for bringing it up again. But Tom Gries, for whom many of us once had hopes, has unwisely decided to play most of this film as comedy, without knowing how; and if somebody says that that’s all the plot sounds worthy of, I have to point out that comedy doesn’t just happen automatically when melodrama trips over its absurdities—not comedy consistent enough to carry a whole movie. The actors are noticeably stranded by Gries’s decision and only Sheree North comes near wresting an integral characterization out of the mélange. Read More “Review: ‘Breakout’”
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
More than a fair share of iridescent, long-shadowed mornings and ghostly blue, otherworldly evenings mark the twilight of an era in The Missouri Breaks,Arthur Penn’s end-of-the-West Western. Penn’s Little Big Manwas also an elegy of sorts, an iconoclastic and morally allegorical taking-apart of a corner of Western legend that has turned into (as in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) an artifact consigned to a past made all the more poignant and irredeemable when contrasted to the poverty of a present trying to understand it. In Missouri Breaks,though, Penn and Thomas McGuane seem to be dealing their hands from within the form of the Western, letting the conventions subvert themselves, allowing a marked dissipation of generic coherence (a quality central to Penn’s Night Moves), to leave Penn’s world almost uninhabitable for the people left to muddle out the riddles of life within it. Missouri Breaks unfolds in a country that seems just at the peak of ripeness, ready to go to rot, thick with the flora of a virgin country and yet violated within minutes of its unveiling by a rather nasty hanging that seems a grim but nearly extraneous afterthought to a throng of onlookers gathered socially out in this green world, singing “Oh Susanna” and arguing politely about who ought to kick the horse out from underneath the condemned man. It’s a voracious landscape, even if Samuel Johnson does claim that a blade of grass is just a blade of grass.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
The forces of freedom and spontaneity have a way of dominating foregrounds in Bound for Glory: kids, in closeup, singing a Guthrie children’s-ditty whose beat seems slightly out of sync with the mechanical rhythm of the motion their parents make as they stoop and pick vegetables deep in the shot; or Woody himself singing songs of protest in a recording studio while behind him in another booth a trio of radio actors read from what might well be some escapist Depression comedy script (we can’t hear their voices but their expressions and gestures are pretty inane). On the other hand, authority and oppression—or at least the powers of inertia maintaining the social and political status quo—seem to mobilize in murky backgrounds such as those we find in a California fruit camp where bosses and thugs mill about à la John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, preparing to break up a hoedown they figure is pretty subversive—a crowd of homeless migrants clumped around blinking fires, making music into the night. Perhaps there’s no hard and fast rule at work, but such a visual structuring presents itself often enough to warrant some thought; and the matter of perspective is especially vital because Bound for Gloryis to a large extent about how, in the Seventies, we see Woody Guthrie as a folk hero.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
To make a film celebrating the life of Woody Guthrie, and to nominate that film for Academy Awards, is something like the U.S. Government’s putting Henry David Thoreau on a postage stamp. It’s a way of institutionalizing the pariah as a practitioner of the American ideal, once he is safely dead and no longer a danger to the American reality. Hal Ashby’s Bound for Gloryis an appropriate reflection of this double standard. For a film bent from the beginning on the canonization of its hero, Bound for Gloryis oddly noncommittal about what Woody Guthrie stood for and what his positive accomplishments were. The movie carefully sidesteps central political issues. Indeed, how politically serious can a film about Guthrie and the farmworkers’ movement hope to be, when it is afraid to say “Communist” in any but a derisive tone? Sign-painter Guthrie’s insistence on red paint is a droll reference to the political conviction that dare not speak its name; but in the mincing context of Ashby’s film, it becomes indicative instead of Guthrie’s personal attraction to freedom to the exclusion of self-discipline and responsibility.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
If I didn’t already know Robert Aldrich was an intelligent filmmaker, I’d have a hard time guessing it from The Choirboys. From the leering flatulation of the opening titles–a stained-glass window announcing “The Choirboys” with a gloved fist smashing through in freeze frame, while a chanting chorus segues into a beer hall song–grossness of comic and satiric idea is the unpromising watchword of his new movie. The title is the chosen name of the scuzziest precinct’s worth of beat cops in class-A filmmaking, who–for the first half-hour or so of the movie, at least–seem content solely to carry on like a bunch of Special Ed. alumni, whether on duty or off. They deliver themselves of an unrelenting stream of bathroom jokes, sadistic intramural pranks, and gratuitous subversions of the department and force in which, theoretically, they serve, taking an occasional after-hours for “choir practice,” which mostly means boozing and brawling in MacArthur Park. Now, I wouldn’t normally take umbrage at any of this, and I was anticipatorily delighted to read, well in advance of the film’s release, that policeman-novelist Joseph Wambaugh was less than enchanted with the changes Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic liberal had made in his boys-in-blue tale; moreover, Aldrich’s crudity has often been inseparable from his vigor, and I’ve rarely minded that. But this movie came on so dumb,and pitched, apparently, at the tastes of the lowest uncommon denominator in the audience. Particularly noxious was an early bit of fag-baiting involving the reddest-necked of the Choirboys (Tim McIntire), handcuffed bareass to a park tree, and the flittiest night-prowler outside Castro Street, complete with pink-dyed poodle on a leash. Even allowing for the director’s disingenuous admission that “Mr. Aldrich, even in a moment of anger, has never been accused of understating anything,” what was this in aid of?
Well, as it turned out in the light of the finished film, it may have been in aid of a good deal. For subsequent sequences at least semi-systematically went on to turn many of the Choirboys’ more ignoble pastimes back upon them, so that, even as Aldrich was celebrating a band of nonconformists shoving it to the system with his customary sardonic amusement, he also seemed to be trying to get at how the desperate coarseness of their reactions against a killing establishment was taking its toll in dehumanization. Although the script leaves much to be desired and the continuity is rather ragged (there is copious evidence of both excessive uninspired improvisation and heavy last-minute cutting), scenes begin to echo one another and suggest a tentative dialectic. Early in the film two of the Choirboys use a friendly hooker to entrap a hard-ass lieutenant who wants to do them dirt; later, a junior member of the team, on loan to the vice squad, must put the hookers on the other end of the entrapment procedure, and ends up looking pretty ridiculous in the process; later still, he and his partner bust yet another working girl, whose specialty is highly paid bondage sessions, and discover that her present client is one of the original jolly pranksters who put the lieutenant on the spot–and his reaction to being caught in harness by his professional soulmates is to blow his brains out. The convolutions and crossreferences really proliferate in the second half of the film, and though the movie remains an irreparable shambles, at least we can discern the complex ironic structure through which Aldrich intended to express his anarchist’s rage.
THE CHOIRBOYS Direction: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh (refused credit) and Christopher Knopf, after the novel by Wambaugh. Cinematography: Joseph Biroc. Music: Frank DeVol. The players: Charles Durning, Louis Gossett Jr., Perry King, Clyde Kusatsu, Stephen Macht, Tim McIntire, Randy Quaid, Chuck Sacci, Don Stroud, James Woods, Burt Young, Robert Webber, Vic Tayback, Barbara Rhoades, Michele Carey, David Spielberg.