[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
The spectre of Blake Edwards hangs over TheThiefWhoCameto Dinner because two of his frequent collaborators worked on it and because Edwards himself might have made the film go, which Bud Yorkin hasn’t managed to do. Thief cries out for Edwards’s special knack of imparting a combined sense of cool, elegant modernity, subdued emotionality, and unpolemical bitterness that implies a previous history for the characters and a meaningful present-tense context for the generic games being played on screen. Yorkin and his screenwriter Walter Hill (who also worked on Hickeyand Boggs and TheGetaway) can’t decide whether to go for suspense, comedy, or romance (Edwards could have had all three with delirious simultaneity) and end by providing little of each.
[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
Though hardly perfect, Paper Moon is more satisfactory than What’s Up, Doc? because this time Peter Bogdanovich has found, or conjured up, a comparatively rich setting for his comparatively modest comic sense to work in. Paper Moon may not be funnier than its predecessor, but it has more feeling for people and places: the result is fewer jokes but better comedy. An elaborate, richly detailed sense of period (the 1930s) and a half-dozen good performances succeed in making this lightly picaresque tale of a con man’s adventures with a precociously shrewd little girl (and orphan) quite appealing. A good deal of the humor comes from various surprises and reversals in the relationship of man and child—with the question of whether he adopts her or adapts to her being a subject for debate as well as amusement. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum play the lead roles, with the chemistry of the performances enhanced considerably by Tatum’s possession of a screen presence that is more genuinely self-assured than her father’s. The elder O’Neal still does a decent job, and the film’s populace gains from the presence of Madeline Kahn as a stripper whose flamboyance is balanced precariously between pathos and the ridiculous, P.J. Johnson as the stripper’s stubbornly illusionless black maid, Burton Gilliam as a flashy provincial hotel clerk, and John Hillerman in a dual role as a sheriff who is both menacing and neighborly and as his brother, a sedentary sort who runs the local bootlegging business from a small hotel lobby. Hillerman is probably the most accomplished of the players here—Tatum’s effect has more to do with sheer uniqueness as a movie child, and Kahn’s tour de force ends up seeming a shade too calculated.
Walter Hill made the jump from literate screenwriter of tough-minded crime films to director of elegantly-made bare-knuckle thrillers and action dramas with Hard Times (1975), a depression-era tale of underground fights with Charles Bronson and James Coburn as business partners in who aren’t quite friends but become the first of Hill’s guarded buddy teams.
His second directorial effort, The Driver (1978), couldn’t be more different — a contemporary drama of cops and crooks in the modern city locked in a struggle that has become (for no explicable reason) personal, all loners with temporary alliances at best — yet we’re in the same Hill universe of tough, terse professionals who define themselves by their abilities and express themselves in action. Hill has always had a penchant for dropping pulp fiction ideals of gangster code and loyalty under fire in a gritty existence, shaped and stylized into a rarified, at times insular world where the rest of the population is either backdrop to their story or simply absent from the frame. The Driver is more stylized than most, right down to characters who have no names. According to the credits, they are identified simply by title, or by profession, if you will.
Ryan O’Neal is The Driver, a professional getaway jockey who hires himself out to independent crews on a job-by-job basis. Isabelle Adjani is The Player, an elegant croupier at a gambling club with business on the side. Bruce Dern is The Detective, a drawling cop eavesdropping on police calls until he hears The Driver’s signature driving on a robbery call. Garrulous and cocky in contrast to the terse Driver and Player, he’s also driven by ego rather than professional pride: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” That’s the extent of his motivation as provided by the film. It’s enough in this sleek, stripped-down culture of dares and challenges played out in a world of life and death stakes.
[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is a film in which the expected always happens—but usually in quite an unexpected way, much as a detail in a painting will surprise and delight, regardless of the ordinariness of its context. The world of Barry Lyndon, first of all, is not the 18th-century Europe of historical reality; it is the 18th-century Europe of Art—of the literature, painting, music, sculpture, architecture, costume, and design of the period. That’s as it should be for a film from a picaresque novel about a rudely reared, would-be gentleman’s striving after the elegance befitting what he feels to be his rightful station. And it’s as it should be for Kubrick, whose preference for the realm of art and ideas over that of natural, historical, quotidian reality is evident, and whose cinematic studies of Manipulated Man, even at their rawest, have always been couched in idealistic terms: tidy sets, tidy costumes, tidy makeup, and tight, impeccably composed shots. I’ve never seen quite so many absolutely symmetrical frame compositions in such a short time as during the running of BarryLyndon; and no form-for-form’s-sake, either—the symmetry of individual shots and of montage directly reflects the symmetry of the story of Barry Lyndon’s rise and fall.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
In the final shot of A Bridge Too Far, a Dutch widow, accompanied by a doctor, her children, and a cart loaded with a few precious possessions, moves slowly across the entire width of the Scope screen, leaving behind her home in Arnhem, ravaged by the worst pocket of the ill-fated Allied sortie into Holland in fall of 1944. One of the woman’s children has fallen behind the group and is playing at soldier, a stick held at shoulder arms. It’s a shot that contrasts sharply with the final shot of Attenborough’s first directorial effort, Oh! What a Lovely War:from a family tending a single grave, the camera cranes back and up, slowly but relentlessly, revealing row upon row upon row of identical white crosses, stretching incredibly away as far as the eye can see. That shot had power without subtlety; the finish of Attenborough’s newest film is subtler but powerless. Both end-shots are representative of the token manner in which Attenborough has come to handle the problem of war.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
The Driveris a study in dogged auteurism in which screenwriter-become-director Walter Hillseeks to reclaim his own. Anyone who has seen the Hill-scripted The Thief Who Came to Dinner (directed by Bud Yorkin) and The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah) will be hard-pressed to ignore that the new picture doubles back over much the same ground. In itself this would not necessarily amount to a bad thing; variations on themes, characters, and situations are, after all, very much a part of the auteur bag, and echoes, even repetitions, are key evidence in tracing an artist’s signature. If the auteur in question reduplicates his previous efforts too closely, hallmark may become cliché. If, on the other hand, he shuffles the deck thoroughly, turns old options on their heads, tests the assumptions and conditions in previous works, he continues to be worth watching, has room in which to grow and the courage to make use of it.
The Driverdoesn’t exemplify either of these possibilities, exactly. As a director, Hill is neither a transplanted TV traffic manager like Yorkin nor a first-rank cineaste like Peckinpah, but a unique and still-formative talent; it’s entirely appropriate that he should recycle those Hill materials we initially met at second hand, and see whether he can give them fresh life, the precise form of life he may have wanted them to have in the first place. Yet the material fails to gain in freshness—indeed, it is very nearly wrung dry—and one reason for this seems to be that there’s nothing, no intervening sensibility, for it to push against.