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.
Why isn’t Richard Lester more celebrated? An American who made his home in England, Lester earned an Oscar nomination for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a lark he made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and others, made his reputation as a fresh, innovative filmmaker with Beatles rock and roll romp A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and proved his versatility with the acidic drama Petulia (1968), the comic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and the melancholy Robin and Marian (1976).
Kino Lorber has just released three of Lester’s British film on Blu-ray for the first time on their Studio Classics label, including one of his best.
Fresh from the playfully exuberant A Hard Day’s Night, which set the bar for rock and roll cinema and inspired the modern music video, Richard Lester continued the same acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek style in The Knack… and How to Get It (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), his adaptation of Ann Jelico’s lightweight play “The Knack,” creating a delightfully frivolous take on swinging London and the sexual revolution.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
The title sequence of John Frankenheimer’s new film utilizes Lichtenstein-like pop art images which ultimately prove to have been inappropriate and misleading indicators of what might follow. Whereas Lichtenstein and other pop artists use conventional symbols and forms (e.g., the comic strip) as a means of commenting upon those forms and upon the social and intellectual atmosphere from which they arise, Frankenheimer appears to be bound by the very conventions he wants to parody. Thus, the ingredients of 99and44/100% Dead include basic gangster genre stuff, ”romantic interest,” western overtones, a lot of violence, and a hush-hush attitude toward sex coupled strangely with 1960-type Hollywood male dominance themes. And the problem comes from Frankenheimer’s failure to demonstrate decisively that all, or at least some, of these elements are not to be taken at face value. By the time the predictable climax comes along and everyone bad is dead and the girls are saved, we have a strong suspicion that this is no parody at all, but rather, that Frankenheimer is actually out to elicit genuine emotions from his audience. And this simply will not do. It is like a comedian going through his act and then, at the end, telling a sad story and expecting us to take him seriously.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
The hyperchromatic comic-strip explosion terminating the credits sequence gives way to an American flag flapping over Puget Sound, and the camera half-crawls, half-pans toward the dock to pick up a black limousine sleeking toward us. The cut recalls the zany political surrealism of TheManchurianCandidate—generals snapping to attention to salute a brainwashed assassin, a fat Senator pinked through the milk carton by a silenced bullet—and what immediately follows also suggests the offbeat cinematic imagination that, eight or twelve years ago, enabled John Frankenheimer pictures to crackle. Two black-suited gangsters spill a corpse out of the backseat, his feet cased in concrete, and heave him into the drink; down the body sinks to land kachunk on the bottom among a submarine orchard of similarly weighted cadavers in various stages of corruption; and with them rests and rusts a nostalgia-ridden criminal landscape, a grand Guignol hall of memories: slot machines, chemin-de-fer tables, safes, skeleton-stuffed phonebooths and automobiles. It’s a giddily hilarious moment in spite of, more than because of, the rinkytink Mancini music on the soundtrack. And the grim comedy continues as the dumpers of the latest human detritus are themselves spilled into another part of the water mere moments later—in a less reputable corner of the graveyard.
Sam Peckinpah’s much-messed-with 1965 film Major Dundee has just come out on Blu-ray from the boutique label Twilight Time. The two-disc set features both the 2005 reissue based on a preview version of the movie and the version released theatrically 48 years ago. Both are worth having, as the following Queen Anne & Magnolia News article from 2005 suggests. – RTJ
[Originally published in the Queen Anne News, April 11, 2005]
Sam Peckinpah was one of our great modern filmmakers, but for many his name summons up such a fearsome Hollywood legend, of blighted career, outrageous excess and epic self-destructiveness, that remembering the great films becomes secondary.
The legend began to lock into place with his third feature film, the 1965 Major Dundee—though it’s worth noting that even his universally admired second film, the elegiac Ride the High Country (1962), was nearly thrown away by its parent studio, only to be hailed as “the best American film of the year” by Newsweek magazine. Ride the High Country was a small film—a program picture, really—featuring two over-the-hill cowboy stars (Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott). MajorDundee would be, by mid-’60s terms, an epic, with a $4.5-million budget, two recently Oscared or Oscar-nominated stars—Charlton Heston and Richard Harris—and an international cast with more color and flair than, perhaps, any one motion picture could accommodate. It was also to be a film of vast and complex thematic ambitions, a dual character study that sought to refract not only the historical tensions of the Civil War–era frontier but also the fractious America of a century later, astir with the civil-rights movement and the beginnings of what we would come to know as the Vietnam era.
[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
Ripeness has gone to rot with a vengeance in Richard Lester’s latest film. Insome wasteland out at the edge of the world (patently not a holy land) a one-eyed old man and some women and children hide out in a cracked, ungarrisoned castle and do not guard a golden statue coveted by King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Richard Harris), because it’s really only a stone, and besides, it was too heavy to carry away from the turnip field where it was dug up. Not even Robin Hood’s still-illusioned alchemy can shapechange the “pig” who peevishly orders the castle razed and its inhabitants butchered back into a lion-hearted monarch. Richard’s death is flung like accidentally accurate doom from above; but Justice in this diminished world is old and one-eyed, its bolt flung in fallibly human long shot rather than sent as sign of any god’s terminal exasperation with a hero long fallen from divine or mystic or even human grace. The heroic vision that Richard once embodied, and gave Robin a taste for, is apparently laid to rest where it went bad—in a stony land of too much sun and too many senseless massacres. But although Robin, Little John, and we watch the king’s funeral cortege in longshot, it soon becomes clear that Robin has managed to internalize some vestige of the former dream, and now means to take it home—home to the cool green fastnesses of Sherwood Forest where it first thrived.
If Nicol Williamson’s practical Little John finds sustenance in plain bread, the sights he’s seen in the wide world, and his love for Robin, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood is hooked on more exotic fare. Grizzled, just this side of being old, he lacks the cleverness to buy cynicism as life insurance, but is just simple enough to be a hero. He’s hardly ever able to contain the gay, brave boy who, untouched by time and circumstance, struggles free to shout “I’ll save you!” to an uncooperatively grownup Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn). Bergman’s knight in TheSeventh Sealcomes home from the Crusades to seek God among the ruins, but finds only ruins and, inevitably, death. Lester’s peasant-knight returns to quest for a present, if not a future, in the past, and ends by putting a period to a life that cannot, will not dwindle into obscurity and old age, but must burn out in a flash of meaning. There must be a beginning, a middle, and a proper end. Some richer, more resonant image must replace that of a spent king bleeding in the foreground of an empty stonescape, a uselessly burning castle thrust up in the dusk behind him, a monument to death without dignity or purpose.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
A lot of things work against Richard Lester’s new film Robin and Marian.In the first place, as two of England’s most treasured heroes, those ur-CommunistsRobin Hood and Little John, Lester has cast (horrors!) two rowdy Scots, Sean Connery and Nicol Williamson. In the second, he has allowed the film itself to take a back seat to the heavily flacked return to the screen of Audrey Hepburn. Further, he has settled for an always inappropriate and often downright bad film score from John Barry which threatens to sabotage some of the film’s best moments (one keeps wishing period music had been used). And, worst of all, he has accepted from James Goldman a selfconscious and often labored screenplay that, in attempting to capture the conflict between a man’s mortality and the timelessness of myth, is at best adequate, and at worst overwritten with an embarrassing sappiness (Marian’s final profession of love to Robin falls somewhere between Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s counting of the ways and Maria von Trapp’s enumeration of a few of her favorite things). In fact, Goldman’s screenplay bears some uncomfortable similarities to that other Goldman’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:the image of the fair-fighting hero debunked with a kick to the balls; two heroes in a hesitant jump from a high place (cf. “I can’t swim!” with “We might hurt ourselves!”); and the woman eternally fond of them both, but desperate to dissuade them from following the suicidal course of reckless adventurism.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Surely Richard Harris presents a problem to directors, one that few of them have managed to surmount, camouflage, or get around, much less turn on its head and use to their advantage. To Antonioni he was mostly a carrot-topped fleshtone against emotionally apt pastel backdrops (Red Desert);Peckinpah was about two-thirds successful in exploiting his egocentric theatricality as an expression of selfdestructive romanticism on the part of a defeated Confederate officer (Major Dundee); Frankenheimer turned the whole world around him into such a comic-strip environment that his posturing became a comedically apt way of occupying frame space (99 & 44/100% Dead); Lester gave him the kind of ultra-professional specialty role in which his tics seemed existentially permissible as definitions of life lived in an unending series of vacuum pockets pressurized by imminent catastrophe (Juggernaut), and elsewhere (Robin and Marian) enabled him to attain sublimity as a mad monarch who seemed almost relieved to die an absurdist death before his actions could further subvert his heroic identity. Irvin Kershner, who has worked well with such problematical stars as Robert Shaw (The Luck of Ginger Coffey), Sean Connery (A Fine Madness), and George Segal (Loving), was virtually tripped at the starting gate by Harris’ dual influence on the Man Called Horse films as star and executive producer; indeed, the auteur of Return of a Man Called Horseis very probably Richard Harris himself. What a c1ayfooted Brando complex is at work here! What serene conviction that the viewer will vicariously relish his communion with Nature and a Nobler Way of Life, his stone-browed rages, his lingering postures of moral superiority and periodic, protracted drops into a hectoring whisper. (Leaving the theater I suggested to my companion that it’d be nice to see Harris get through an entire movie without once whispering a speech to a hall-sized body of listeners, then immediately amended my wish to see a film in which he does whisper and we cut to an interlocutor who says, “I can’t understand a fuckin’ word you’re saying!”)
The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.