Gloria Grahame might well have been concocted in a lab experiment to create a classic Hollywood star. She had not only the looks and talent, but also the haunted arc of a screen goddess: early success, an Oscar (1952 Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful), a string of marriages, struggles with body image, scandal, and — after a certain age — a vanishing act.
Watch her movies today, and you can still be amazed at the smart, impudent, altogether new presence she conveys in the noir worlds of Crossfire and In a Lonely Place, to say nothing of her disruptive presence as the bad girl of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
There’s an air of bad faith, not unlike the scent of bathroom deodorizer, about Murderonthe Orient Express. I’m as fond of “production values” as the next fellow, maybe fonder, but I don’t wish to be force-fed them by a soulless dietitian who knows what I as a consumer ought to want. That’s the way Sidney Lumet has directed this film, and all of Geoffrey Unsworth’s filtered lyricism, all of Tony Walton’s art-deco design, all of Richard Rodney Bennett’s tongue-in-jolly-good-show-cheek music can’t convince me that Lumet gives a tinker’s fart about the Orient Express, the old Hollywood, Grand Hotel, or the artificial but scarcely charmless business of working out an Agatha Christie red-herring mystery.
In the decidedly non-comedic Foxcatcher, Steve Carell plays a guy so obviously bizarro that his success in life as a public figure could only have happened for one reason. He was filthy rich. Throughout this movie, there’s a sense that people are looking at John du Pont and just barely holding it together. Their body language says “Can you believe how weird this guy is?”, but their behavior says, “Hey, as long as he’s writing the checks …”
Du Pont inherited fabulous wealth, and toward the end of his life decided to spend a lot of it on wrestling. He built a state-of-the-art practice facility at his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher, and acted as a figurehead coach for Olympic athletes there. The story culminated in violence, but as the movie tells it, there was plenty of strange behavior even before the tragic end. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) has created a film that exists almost entirely as a single, sustained, skin-crawling mood.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Sherlock Holmes is an item nowadays. When Billy Wilder’s exquisitely personal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmesopened at Christmastime 1970, he was such a commercial irrelevancy that the cashiers at the now-deceased Blue Mouse, where the picture was showing, were taking calls for Love Story at their sister theater, the Music Box, across the street (I phoned up one evening to ask when “the show” started, and arrived in midfilm—it had never occurred to the harried phone person that somebody wanted to see the show in her theater; I eventually did see it the next evening, with about eight other people in attendance). While the Wilder picture is well on the way to winning its proper place in the annals of cinema, it’s hard not to resent the fickleness of fate and mass audience tastes—or the commercial inevitability of Nicholas Meyer’s trivially amusing bestseller The Seven Percent Solution finding its luxurious way to holiday screens via a property packager like Herbert Ross. The resultant film is enjoyable enough most of the time—handsome in its production values (Ken Adam has already demonstrated his skill at period reconstruction in Barry Lyndon,and Oswald Morris has been one of the best color cameramen in the business since he and John Huston began remixing the Technicolor palette in Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick),blessed with several appealing, if manneristic, performances, and somewhat more adventurous in its narrative idiom(s) than was Meyer’s novel as a work of literature.
Vanessa Redgrave was a controversial choice to play the French nightclub singer in Auschwitz (this was a few years after her notorious pro-PLO speech at the Oscars) but her performance is a triumph of dignity and desperation, strength and weakness, resolve and guilt, as she sings for her survival as a member of a makeshift women’s orchestra made up of prisoners. The scene where Fania is brought in from the barracks to “audition” for the orchestra with a song from “Madame Butterfly” presents the simple but profound contradictions that run through the entire film. Weak and frail from the work details and starvation rations, Fania tentatively picks out the melody on a grand piano glaringly out of place in this anonymous building filled with reflexively obedient women. As her voice comes in clear and full of ache and emotion, their heads (all instinctively lowered, so as not to make eye contact with the German officer in the room) slowly rise, and their eyes open, awestruck and moved beyond their expectations by this beauty cutting through the horror of their circumstances for a brief moment.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Whatever Lillian Hellmanâ€™s attitude about herself may beâ€”in Pentimento and elsewhereâ€”Fred Zinnemannâ€™s Julia is at pains to glamorize her. Not only is she played by a woman much more attractive than she ever was; her struggling pre-fame days are also recounted in glossy, romantic terms that revere her (with the comfort of hindsight) as a famous, successful playwright, as the mistress of a famous writer, and as a courageous ur-liberal who performs a daring anti-fascist act long before it became fashionable even to be anti-fascist. There is no denying that the self-congratulatory tone that seeps into Hellmanâ€™s monologue and dialogue in Juliais already present in Pentimento; and Jane Fonda has brought off a splendid achievement in portraying the young Lillian Hellman not as the young Lillian Hellman but as the older Lillian Hellmanâ€™s impression of her younger self.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
As the donkey regards the carrot, so John Schlesinger looks on his screenplays: he either follows or swallows them. A follow-my-leader under the deadly misapprehension that he is an auteur, Schlesinger is happiest when partnering writers who share his tendency to scream Look at me, I’m an artist! With a Frederic Raphael (Darling) or a William Goldman (Marathon Man), he’s in show-off’s heaven, and his inability to provide the real impetus, the backbone, the solid core of a movie, the way a real artist would, is snugly disguised amidst a great deal of visual and verbal shouting. The cheesy verbal wisecracks of Darling are fleshed out by Schlesinger’s no less cheesy imagistic ones (e.g., fat ladies wolfing down the eats at an Oxfam bash), just as the greasy, lapel-seizing prose of Marathon Man is aptly pictorialised via such characteristic Schlesinger conceits as the shot of Lord Olivier framed distortingly through a glass tray whilst he slavers hammily at its contents, assorted gems. In both these movies, writer and director are as one in pretentious mediocrity, and each butters up the other. But with Schlesinger’s new film, Yanks, the screenwriters are two gentlemen with reputations for low-key, understated work, who would furthermore seem to have no great keenness for Schlesingerian ego-tripping. Colin Welland (the actor who played the cleric in Straw Dogs, and one of Britain’s best TV playwrights) and Walter Bernstein (The Front) appear only too ready to put their faith in their director and let him be the boss, guiding their scenario where’er he would lead it. And Schlesinger has no idea at all of how to be the leader, with the result that everyone gets swiftly lost.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Yanksis probably John Schlesingerâ€™s best movie since Sunday Bloody Sunday,and certainly one of the best of his career. But for me thatâ€™s not really saying much, since I continue to have serious problems with this directorâ€™s approach, a self-congratulatory mock-sensitivity that seems insincere at best and often downright wrong. Here, at least, for the first time in years, Schlesinger has foregone his irritating penchant for unproductive intercuts and flashbacks, opting instead for a straight, period-faithful, romantic storyline about the impact of American soldiers-without-women on a Britain without men. But no matter how polished and relatively controlled he gets, there is always something about Schlesingerâ€™s work that strikes me as shallow and ultimatelyinconsequential.