Friday, August 31, 2012

Another Man, Another Chance (1977)



          Impressionistic and offbeat, French filmmaker Claude Lelouch’s romantic drama Another Man, Another Chance is nominally a Western, since most of the story takes place in the American frontier circa the late 1800s, but it’s also an international story with many episodes taking place in France during a time of ferocious class conflicts. Repurposing narrative concepts and themes from Lelouch’s 1966 hit A Man and a Woman—without actually being a remake of the previous film—Another Man, Another Chance tells the parallel stories of two sensitive people whose love affairs end in tragedy.
          David (James Caan) is an American veterinarian whose wife, Mary (Jennifer Warren), has grown tired of living in the wilderness, even though David adores the lonesome lifestyle because he relates better to animals than he does to people. Soon after delivering the couple’s first child, Mary is raped and killed by robbers one sad afternoon, while David’s away on business. Meanwhile, in Paris, impulsive young Frenchwoman Jeanne meets a photographer named Francis (Francis Huster), and falls in love. Wishing for adventure and an escape from the rampant poverty in Paris, Francis and Jeanne relocate to America, eventually settling in a town not far from David’s home.
          By the time David and Jeanne finally meet at the school attended by their children, Jeanne has suffered a loss of her own, so she has become guarded about romance. However, David is determined to build on their mutual attraction, so the story explores the challenges faced by people who are haunted by memories of loved ones.
          Lelouch, who also wrote the picture, uses an idiosyncratic storytelling style. He jumps back and forth in time, so viewers experience the story in the same psychological blur as the characters. This nonlinear approach doesn’t always work—some scenes are confusing—but when it connects, Lelouch expresses subtle nuances of anguish and perception. The filmmaker also employs long, unbroken takes that put viewers right in step with the actions of the characters; for instance, the scene in which David discovers Mary’s fate is a presented as a single tracking shot following Caan through every part of his character’s rambling homestead.
          Some of Lelouch’s indulgences are less effective, like a long race scene toward the end of the movie, and one could quibble that casual vignettes of David and Jeanne bonding with their children outlast their usefulness. But since the story takes place in a less hurried time, Lelouch’s leisurely pacing suits the milieu. Also in the film’s favor is the understated acting, with Caan eschewing his standard macho vibe and Bujold affecting a delicate quality that masks formidable resolve. Another Man, Another Chance is far too flawed to qualify as a great film, but it’s consistently heartfelt and thoughtful, in addition to boasting a rich, dust-choked Western atmosphere. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Another Man, Another Chance: GROOVY

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Spikes Gang (1974)



          Taking themes from the John Wayne hit The Cowboys (1972) to an even darker extreme, The Spikes Gang is a terrific Western drama about a group of young farm boys who emulate an outlaw, with deadly results. Gary Grimes, still fresh off the coming-of-age charmer Summer of ’42 (1971), teams with Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith, who previously costarred in American Graffiti (1973), to play a trio of young, unsophisticated men who discover a wounded outlaw in a forest near their families’ farms. The gunslinger, Harry Spikes (Lee Marvin), asks for their help, so Will (Grimes), Les (Ron Howard), and Tod (Smith) transport Harry to a barn, feed him, and tend to his gunshot wounds. Once Harry recovers, he promises to help the boys if they ever need anything, and then rides off on a horse Will provides. Will’s stern, ultra-religious father discovers his son’s activities and beats Will, which prompts the young man to run away from home.
          Eager for adventure and seduced by Harry’s grandiose stories about his exciting life as a criminal, Les and Tod join Will. They rob a bank, incompetently, and kill a bystander in the process, so they’re quickly indoctrinated into the dark side of the rebel lifestyle. Eventually, the lads get arrested and land in a Mexican jail, but Harry passes through the Mexican town and honors his debt by arranging their release. Flattered by the boys’ idolization, Harry hires the young men as his new gang and attempts a brazen robbery, during which things start going terribly wrong.
          Even with solid production values and uniformly good acting, the movie’s best virtue is a sensitive screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., the Western-cinema veterans who, not coincidentally, wrote the script for The Cowboys. Equally adept at crafting sparse dialogue and indicating characterization through behavior, Ravetch and Frank create a grown-up style of melodrama, so the storyline feels fresh and surprising as it winds toward a sad climax that’s infused with a powerful sense of inevitability.
          Director Richard Fleisher, a journeyman who worked in nearly every imaginable genre, serves the screenplay well by shooting scenes simply; his economical frames allow the actors to express the script’s relatable emotions in an unfussy manner. Playing the film’s leading role, Grimes does fine work, building on the frontier existentialism he explored in The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972). Concurrently, Marvin’s gruff poeticism perfectly suits the role of a self-serving career criminal. Howard and Smith balance the leading players with their complementary shadings of adolescent angst and affable naïveté. It’s true The Spikes Gang traffics in familiar themes, but graceful execution and heartfelt performances help the movie connect on a deeper level than expected. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

The Spikes Gang: GROOVY

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Brewster McCloud (1970)



          Arguably Robert Altman’s strangest movie—a high standard, given his eccentric career—Brewster McCloud hit theaters shortly after the idiosyncratic filmmaker scored a major hit with M*A*S*H, but this picture was far too bizarre to enjoy the broad acceptance of its predecessor. In fact, Brewster McCloud shuns narrative conventions so capriciously that it seems likely Altman took taken perverse pleasure in confounding viewers. Consider the willfully weird storyline: Nerdy young man Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) lives illegally in a workroom beneath the Houston Astrodome, and he passes his days studying avian physiology while building a pair of mechanical wings so he can eventually fly away to some unknown location.
          Three women in his life accentuate the peculiarity of Brewster’s existence. Hope (Jennifer Salt) is a groupie who visits Brewster’s lair and climaxes while watching him exercise; Suzanne (Shelley Duvall, in her first movie) is a spaced-out Astrodome tour guide who becomes Brewster’s accomplice and lover; and Louise (Sally Kellerman), who might or might not be a real person, is Brewster’s guardian angel, subverting everyone who tries to impede Brewster’s progress.
          This being an Altman film, the story also involves about a dozen other significant characters. For instance, there’s Abraham Wright (Stacy Keach), a wheelchair-bound geezer who makes his money charging merciless rents to seniors at rest homes, and Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy), a supercop investigating a series of murders that may or may not have been committed by Brewster and/or Louise. (Each of the victims is marked by bird defecation on the face.) Among the film’s other threads is a recurring vignette featuring The Lecturer (Rene Auberjonois), a weird professor/scientist who speaks directly to the audience about bird behavior while slowly transforming into a bird.
          Although it’s more of a comedy than anything else, Brewster McCloud incorporates tropes from coming-of-age dramas, police thrillers, and romantic tragedies, and the whole thing is presented in Altman’s signature style of seemingly dissociated vignettes fused by ironic cross-cutting and overlapping soundtrack elements. This is auteur filmmaking at its most extreme, with a director treating his style like a narrative component—and yet at the same time, Brewster McCloud is so irreverently lowbrow that Kellerman’s character drives a car with the vanity license plate “BRD SHT.” Similarly, Salt’s character expresses an orgasm by repeatedly pumping a mustard dispenser so condiments squirt onto a table.
          Appraising Brewster McCloud via normal criteria is pointless, since Doran William Cannon’s script is designed for maximum strangeness, and since none of the actors was tasked with crafting a realistic individual. A lot of what happens onscreen is arresting, and the movie is cut briskly enough that it moves along, but one’s tolerance for this experiment is entirely contingent on one’s appetite for mean-spirited whimsy. That said, Brewster McCloud is completely unique, even for an era of rampant cinematic innovation, and novelty is, to some degree, its own virtue. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Brewster McCloud: FREAKY

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Brass Target (1978)



          Crammed with big-name actors, colorful locations, and complex schemes, Brass Target should be a rousing thriller. Unfortunately, the team behind the picture tried to do too many things, and the starring role was unwisely given to John Cassavetteswho by this point in his career preferred directing low-budget films to acting in Hollywood flicksso the combination of a confusing script and a phoned-in leading performance makes it difficult to appreciate the picture’s many admirable qualities. Set in 1945 Europe, just after the defeat of the Nazis, Brass Target begins with an exciting robbery: Mysterious criminals attack an Allied train and steal a fortune in Nazi gold. The theft divides Allied powers, because Russians blame Americans for the loss, so belligerent U.S. General George S. Patton (George Kennedy) vows to recover the gold and prove his country’s innocence. And then the movie veers off-course.
          Instead of focusing on Patton and the conspirators who want to impede his investigation, the picture shifts to an Amy detective, Major Joe De Lucca (Cassavettes), who digs into the robbery while dealing with myriad personal melodramas. Among other things, he’s got a fractious friendship with Col. Mike McCauley (Patrick McGoohan), a schemer who trades in stolen war loot, and both men love Mara (Sophia Loren), a European who survived the war by sleeping her way to safety. The movie’s plot gets even more complicated when the conspirators—primarily Col. Donald Rogers (Robert Vaughn) and Col. Walter Gilchrist (Edward Herrmann)—hire an enigmatic European assassin (Max Von Sydow) to kill Patton lest the general discover their crime.
          Any one of these storylines would have been enough for a satisfying movie, so Brass Target ends up giving each of its component elements short shrift. More damningly, the best scenes, which depict the assassin’s meticulous planning of an attempt on Patton’s life, feel like repeats of similar scenes in the acclaimed thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973). Nonetheless, Von Sydow gives the picture’s best performance, especially since the other acting in the movie is highly erratic.
          Cassavettes preens and scowls like some sort of irritable peacock; Loren looks lost, which is understandable seeing as how her character is anemically underdeveloped; Kennedy plays Patton as a foul-mouthed bully, his acting inevitably suffering by comparison to George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning turn in Patton (1970); and McGoohan is terrible, his accent shifting inexplicably from one line to the next. Still, Brass Target has tremendous production values, and the milieu of the story—postwar Europe as a lawless frontier—is fascinating. Plus, the central gimmick of the narrative, a conspiracy-theory explanation for the real Patton’s death in 1945, is imaginative. One suspects, however, that the premise was explored to stronger effect in the Frederick Nolan novel from which this film was adapted. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Brass Target: FUNKY

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Public Eye (1972)



          This refreshing British romance was adapted by the venerable Peter Shaffer from his own play (originally titled The Private Ear and the Public Eye), and directed by the enduring Carol Reed, of The Third Man fame. Featuring a trio of highly capable actors ripping through reams of sophisticated dialogue, this is a tasteful production from top to bottom, which makes it all the more interesting that the story is so peculiar. Michael Jayston (star of 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra) plays an uptight London accountant named Charles, and Mia Farrow plays his wife, a freethinking young American named Belinda. Although Belinda pulled Charles from his shell during their courtship, he has retreated into stuffy traditionalism, so they’re drifting from each other. Fearful that she’s become unfaithful, Charles hires a detective agency to follow Belinda, and an unconventional investigator named Julian Christoforou gets the assignment.
          Played by one-named Israeli star Topol with the same vivaciousness he brought to his famous stage and screen role in Fiddler on the Roof, Julian is a voluptuary in love with love. Most of the story comprises one long dialogue scene between Charles and Julian, during which Charles describes the history of his relationship with Belinda and during which Julian explains the details of his surveillance; these incidents are depicted through extensive flashbacks. In the story’s main twist, Charles learns that Belinda remained faithful to him—until she noticed this peculiar Greek fellow shadowing her day after day. Turns out Belinda and Julia have enjoyed a platonic and wordless courtship, attending cultural events each afternoon. Charles is infuriated by this discovery, so the remainder of the movie explores how the triangle gets resolved.
          Fanciful and stylized, Shaffer’s story is more of a romantic fable than a realistic narrative, and the magical style is elevated by John Barry’s haunting music, which includes the frequently repeated song “Follow, Follow.” Shaffer’s dialogue is as resplendent as usual, though he occasionally lapses into self-indulgent loftiness, and the character work is sharp. Topol easily steals the movie, while Jayston invests his role with repressed humanity, and Farrow endeavors to come across as more than just a flighty hippie. The movie also benefits from the extensive use of evocative London locations, and the climax is genuinely surprising.

The Public Eye: GROOVY

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Man Called Horse (1970) & The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)



          Years before Kevin Costner played a Civil War-era soldier who bonded with Native Americans in Dances with Wolves (1990), English actor Richard Harris played a character on a similar journey in the harrowing A Man Called Horse series. Based on a 1950 short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, the first picture in the series, A Man Called Horse, was released in 1970. Although Harris was still relatively fresh from the success of the blockbuster musical Camelot (1967), he was quickly sliding into a rut of intense movies about men enduring physically and spiritually debilitating odysseys—for instance, A Man Called Horse was one of three early-’70s Westerns dominated by scenes of Harris suffering bloody abuse. (A shrink could have fun analyzing the actor’s career.)
          Harris stars as Lord John Morgan, a British aristocrat who is captured by a Sioux Indian band called the Yellow Hand while traveling in the American West. The sequence of his capture is typical of the picture’s disturbing vibe—Morgan is bathing in a river when Indians lasso him around the throat, yank him from the water, and then prod with spears while he tries to fight back, naked and vulnerable. Initially, Morgan’s captors treat him like property, and he learns about Yellow Hand culture and language from Batise (Jean Gacson), a fellow member of the tribe’s lowest caste.
          However, when an opportunity arises for Morgan to prove his worth in battle, he determines that he wants to become fully integrated into the Sioux Nation. Accepting the Indian name “Horse,” Morgan takes a Sioux wife and—in the film’s most famous sequence—endures a gruesome initiation ritual during which he’s hung from the roof of a giant tent by hooks dug into his pectoral muscles. (If you can watch that scene without feeling queasy, you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.) Director Elliot Silverstein’s style is lurid and occasionally trippy, the otherworldliness of the piece accentuated by Native American music and a preponderance of dialogue spoken in the Sioux language. One can easily quibble with the film’s dramatic merits and historical accuracy, but it’s impossible to deny that A Man Called Horse possess a bizarre sort of cinematic power. Plus, while Harris was well on his way toward self-parody, given his penchant for operatic gestures and shouted dialogue, his commitment is unquestionable.
          Six years later, Harris reprised his role in the competent but unnecessary sequel The Return of a Man Called Horse, which replaces the original film’s grisly novelty with a ponderous narrative about the title character becoming a messiah for his adopted people. When the picture begins, Morgan has returned to England but regrets leaving the Sioux behind; subsequently, when he returns to America for a visit and discovers that the Yellow Hand were humiliated and relocated by white men, Morgan resumes his Horse persona and rouses his friends to a new chapter of accomplishment and purpose.
          Woven into this principal storyline is a thread of Morgan attempting to reclaim the spiritual fulfillment he felt while living among the Sioux, so the picture is filled with anguished speechifying, and, naturally, director Irvin Kershner presents yet another bloody initiation ritual. The Return of a Man Called Horse is handsomely made, but it suffers from bloat and humorlessness, so viewers may end up feeling as depleted as the protagonist by the time the thing runs its course. In 1982, Harris reprised the Morgan role one last time for The Triumphs of a Man Called Horse, but the focus of the threequel was actually Horse’s son, so Harris’ appearance in the substandard flick is really just a glorified cameo.

A Man Called Horse: GROOVY
The Return of a Man Called Horse: FUNKY

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Dead Don’t Die (1975)



It’s fitting that the worst thing about this zombie flick is a lifeless performance. Made for TV by horror specialist Curtis Harrington, directing a script by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, The Dead Don’t Die gene-splices the film-noir genre with supernatural horror. Because both of these genres feature existentialism and shadowy photography, they should mesh well, and indeed The Dead Don’t Die has some fun jolts involving zombies emerging from darkness in locations that could’ve been used in a Humphrey Bogart movie, but the thing never quite comes together. The story is set in 1934, when sailor Don Drake (George Hamilton) returns from military service to attend the execution of his brother, Ralph (Jerry Douglas), who claims he’s innocent of the murder charge for which he was convicted. In the course of investigating Ralph’s life and alleged crimes, Don enters the orbit of Jim Moss (Ray Milland), the shady promoter of bop-till-you-drop dance marathons. Eventually, it becomes clear that Ralph was mixed up with criminals who learned voodoo in Haiti, and are using the undead as soldiers in a nefarious scheme. Obviously, this is all very cartoony, but there should have been plenty here to sustain 74 creepy minutes. Alas, The Dead Don’t Die is merely mediocre, partially because of shortcomings in Bloch’s teleplay—his dialogue is way too obvious, for instance—and mostly because of Hamilton’s acting. A pretty-boy performer whose best work generally involves self-parody, Hamilton can’t muster anywhere near the intensity required to sell such outlandish material. Still, veteran actors including Joan Blondell, Ralph Meeker, and Milland provide competent supporting performances, and some of the zombie scenes work. As such, it’s not difficult to imagine some enterprising producer revisiting this material, smoothing out the rough patches, and coming up with an interesting remake.

The Dead Don’t Die: FUNKY

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cannon for Cordoba (1970)



          Even though it suffers from a muddy screenplay, the sweaty Western Cannon for Cordoba boasts a brisk pace and impressive production values. Another entry in the seemingly endless cycle of action pictures set during the Mexican revolution, the picture begins when ruthless Mexican general Cordoba (Raf Vallone) assaults a U.S. Army train and steals six cannons from troops led by U.S. General John J. Pershing (John Russell). Determined to reclaim the weapons, Pershing enlists maverick officer Captain Rod Douglas (George Peppard) to lead an undercover assault on Cordoba’s fortress. In the course of doing his job, Douglas gets into a romantic hassle with a sexy Mexican double agent (Giovanna Ralli) and alienates his hot-tempered second-in-command (Don Gordon).
          Despite telling a simple story, Cannon for Cordoba feels needlessly complicated, because Stephen Kandel’s script fails to sufficiently differentiate characters and explain motivations; furthermore, the scene that really gets the story moving, in which Douglas receives his orders from Pershing, doesn’t happen until the half-hour mark. That said, Cannon for Cordoba delivers the goods in nearly every other way. The action scenes are tense and violent, with an exciting mixture of close-quarters combat and big-canvas warfare (people get beaten, blown up, shot, stabbed, thrown off high ledges, and so on).
          The movie also looks and sounds fantastic. Cinematographer Antonio Macasoli emulates the look that famed DP Conrad Hall brought to a better picture with similar themes, The Professionals (1966), so the imagery in Cannon for Cordoba is sharp, textured, and vibrant. The music score thunders along nicely, since the producers hired Elmer Bernstein to give this movie the same gallop Bernstein provided for the Magnificent Seven pictures.
          Alas, Cannon for Cordoba cannot boast star power equal to that found in any of the movies it emulates. None of the supporting actors makes much an impression, and Peppard is merely okay, though he seethes with a suitable mixture of contempt and malice. Yet his chilly characterization doesn’t inspire a rooting interest, and there’s not enough humor to leaven his solemnity, which makes Cannon for Cordoba grim when glib might have been the better tonal choice. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Cannon for Cordoba: FUNKY

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The China Syndrome (1979)



          For viewers of a certain age, the title The China Syndrome recalls one of the eeriest synchronicities in the history of movie distribution. Starring and produced by Michael Douglas, this terrific thriller revolves around a whistleblower taking control of a nuclear power plant—as a TV reporter and her cameraman record the unfolding crisis, the whistleblower grabs a gun and forces a hostage situation in order to put national attention on safety problems at the facility. Intense, smart, and topical, The China Syndrome would have been a provocative picture in any circumstances, but an extraordinary coincidence made the movie seem downright prescient. Twelve days after the picture opened, a real-life accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, accentuating the film’s theme about the potentially catastrophic risks of nuclear energy.
          Directed and co-written by serious-minded humanist James Bridges, The China Syndrome works equally well as a dramatic film and as a suspense piece. As the story progresses, hard-driving reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her idealistic cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) shift guises several times: They start out as observers, become opportunistic voyeurs, and finally transform into activists once they’re terrified by the prospect of a “China Syndrome,” a nuclear meltdown so severe that a plant’s core burrows through the entire globe. (Science tells us this eventuality is impossible, but the notion is nonetheless a sexy scare tactic.)
          The emotional heart of the movie, of course, is Jack Lemmon’s impassioned performance as the whistleblower, Jack Godell. A normal man pushed past his limit by his employers’ reckless indifference, Jack represents the quiet voice of reason exploding into scared-shitless rage, thus reflecting the tenor of anti-nuclear activists in the era of the No Nukes benefit concerts. Bridges channels this disquieting historical moment through meticulous storytelling, creating a rational narrative framework that counterpoints the edgy behavior of the characters. Furthermore, the picture taps into the conspiracy-theory vibe that permeated many grown-up ’70s flicks, and Bridges orchestrates the work of veteran character actors—including Wilford Brimley, James Hampton, Richard Herd, and James Karen—who balance the stars’ more flamboyant work. Best of all, The China Syndrome is an expertly mounted slow burn with a dynamic payoff, since the tension Bridges generates during the climax is quite potent.

The China Syndrome: RIGHT ON

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cool Breeze (1972)



          A blaxploitation take on W.R. Burnett’s classic crime novel The Asphalt Jungle—previously filmed as a 1950 film noir by director John Huston—Cool Breeze nearly works. The intricate story about a criminal mastermind gathering cohorts for a jewel heist is filled with betrayal and danger, so the narrative fits comfortably into the blaxploitation milieu. Furthermore, the film’s acting is generally very strong. However, first-time writer-director Barry Pollack’s inexperience shows. He fails to reveal exposition clearly, so it’s hard to track who’s doing what to whom, and nearly every scene has the same level of intensity, which creates tonal monotony. That said, the picture has a gritty look and a thumping soul-music soundtrack, so what it lacks in narrative polish, it makes up for in tough atmosphere.
          The antihero of the piece is Sidney Lord Jones (Thalmus Rasulala), a slick thief who just bribed his way out of prison. Planning the robbery of a vault containing diamonds worth millions of dollars, Sidney gets into business with Bill Mercer (Raymond St. Jacques), a wealthy crime boss who agrees to bankroll the job. Sidney then hires accomplices including a priest who moonlights as a safe-cracker and a ne’er-do-well Vietnam vet who provides muscle. Also lurking around the story are various cops—some corrupt, some honest—including the unhinged Lt. Brian Knowles (Lincoln Kilpatrick).
          The movie toggles between subplots at weird rhythms, as if Pollack can’t decide whether he’s making an ensemble piece or telling Sidney’s story, but many vignettes are vivid. On the lurid side of the spectrum, the always-ravishing Pam Grier shows up for one sexy scene as a hooker servicing Sidney, and on the character-driven side of the spectrum, supporting actor Stewart Bradley entertainingly chews through his role as an exasperated police captain. (Discovering that Mercer has a young mistress, Bradley goes off on a rant: “I can tolerate a little masturbation. I can tolerate a little sodomy. Let him cavort with a cow! But an old man with a nice, pretty, young girl—that’s too much.”)
          Playing a bookie helping Sidney set up his team, Sam Laws gives the movie’s most amusing performance, because his character is likeable, flabby wimp who whines whenever danger is near. As for Rasulala, he’s appropriately cocky and smooth throughout the picture. Had Pollack’s skills been sharper, this same cast and story could have coalesced into something really memorable; as is, Cool Breeze is entertaining but frustrating. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Cool Breeze: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Salzburg Connection (1972)


          In one of the most frequently repeated film-director tutorials of all time, Alfred Hitchcock explained his method of generating suspense. Picture a scene of two people talking in a room, and then suddenly a bomb explodes. That’s shock. Now picture the same scene, but insert a shot at the beginning revealing the presence of the bomb—information the audience possesses, but the characters do not. That’s suspense. Hitchcock’s theory helps explain at least one of the reasons why The Salzburg Connection is among the least suspenseful thrillers of the ’70s. During the first half of the movie, characters chase after something, but the audience has no idea what they’re pursuing. Therefore, it’s impossible for us to determine whether we should care about the outcome of the search.
          Exacerbating this problem is one of the blandest leading characters ever featured in a mystery movie, American lawyer Bill Mathison. As played by Barry Newman, best known for playing the cipher-like protagonist of Vanishing Point (1971) and the title character of the TV series Petrocelli (1974-1976), Mathison is an average dude with average intelligence and average manners—he seems more like a passerby who wandered into the movie than a leading man.
          Adapted from a popular novel by Helen MacInnes, The Salzburg Connection depicts the international search for World War II-era documents containing the names of Nazi spies, which is interesting-ish, but the filmmakers waste far too much screen time on lifeless dialogue scenes. Making matters worse is the competent but uninspired work of leading lady Anna Karina, the French beauty who was jean-Luc Godard’s on- and offscreen muse during the ’60s. (In her defense, the only requirements of her anemic role are looking appealing and frightened.)
          Not that it makes much difference, The Salzburg Connection was the English-language debut of Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, who enjoyed significant international success in the ’80s. He’s fine here, but the movie is such a dud it’s no surprise he failed to secure another major role in an English-language picture until playing the villain in the “unofficial” 007 flick Never Say Never Again (1983).

The Salzburg Connection: LAME

Monday, August 20, 2012

Days of Heaven (1978)


          Much of the mythology surrounding enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick stems from the making and aftermath of his sophomore feature, Days of Heaven. Following idiosyncratic artistic instincts rather than Hollywood convention, Malick took nearly three years to craft this moodily poetic work, which treats its simplistic storyline like an afterthought. During that time, rumors spread about the director’s offbeat methods: For instance, he dictated that large sections of the film be shot at dusk, thereby abbreviating many of his shooting days to short bursts of activity. Then, after the film received a mixed critical reception, Malick disappeared from the Hollywood scene for 20 years. His mysterious withdrawal cast Malick as an artist too pure for the crass ways of Hollywood, triggering years of reappraisal and rediscovery.
          By the time Malick resumed directing with The Thin Red Line in 1998, Days of Heaven was firmly entrenched alongside the director’s debut feature, Badlands (1973), as one of the most respected films of the ’70s. Does it deserve such rarified status? Yes and no. Visually, Days of Heaven is unparalleled. Malick and cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler mimicked turn-of-the-century paintings and photographs to evoke the supple textures of a Texas wheat farm circa 1916, the movie’s central location. Malick presents several astoundingly beautiful scenes of workers wading through fields, their bodies silhouetted against pastel-colored sunsets, while composer Ennio Morricone’s lilting music evokes a time when life moved at a more contemplative pace.
          Working with frequent collaborator Jack Fisk (credited here as art director), Malick oversaw the creation of a remarkable focal point, the elegant mansion that sits atop a wheat-covered hill, and Malick uses this structure as an effective metaphor for man’s tumultuous relationship with nature: Not only is the house a shelter during weather, it’s a place where relationships that had previously been allowed to roam freely get trapped within the conventions of propriety.
          The main plot, which never quite gels because Malick leaves many details unexplained and/or unexplored, begins in Chicago. Traveling workman Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) flee Chicago after Bill kills a supervisor during an argument. Upon reaching Texas, the trio accepts work on the wheat farm, which is owned by a sickly man identified only as The Farmer (Sam Shepard). For murky narrative reasons, Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister instead of a couple. So, when The Farmer becomes interested in Abby, Bill encourages the romance—believing The Farmer is terminally ill, Bill hopes to seize The Farmer’s wealth through marriage and build a new life for his family. Unfortunately, complications ensue, leading to heartbreak and tragedy.
          Despite the gifts for incisive storytelling he displayed in Badlands, Malcik badly fumbles basic narrative elements in Days of Heaven. His characters are ciphers, his pacing is erratic, and he relies far too heavily on the narration spoken, in character, by Manz. (A similar device was magical in Badlands, but here the narration just seems like a desperate attempt to add coherence.) Thanks to these flaws, the whole movie ends up having the hodgepodge feel of a student film, albeit one with awe-inspiring cinematography. Nonetheless, Days of Heaven casts a spell, which is a rare accomplishment.

Days of Heaven: GROOVY

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Boss Nigger (1975)


Blaxploitation stalwart Fred Williamson was well on the way to becoming a bad-movie auteur by the time he wrote, produced, and starred in this brazenly titled Western, so Boss Nigger features his signature elements of a take-no-guff protagonist and substandard storytelling—in Williamson’s cinematic world, attitude is everything and quality is a needless luxury. Presumably conceived as a dramatic riff on the previous year’s comedy blockbuster Blazing Saddles, this blaxploitation joint employs the same narrative contrivance as the earlier film—a black man becomes sheriff of a frontier town, much to the chagrin of the white locals. However, instead of being installed in the job through political chicanery, as in Blazing Saddles, Boss (Williamson) seizes the vacant sheriff’s position in order to hunt down a rival—and also to tilt the race-relations scales in favor of African-Americans. “Sorry, we can’t stay for supper,” Boss says in a moment indicative of the film’s obviousness, “but we got us mo’ whiteys to catch.” Much of the picture comprises uninspired scenes of Boss and his comic-relief sidekick, Amos (D’Urville Martin), humiliating white people while they pursue a criminal named Jed Clayton (William Smith), a standard-issue Western villain who kills for fun and profit. All of this should be diverting in a trashy sort of way, but the movie is too enervated to enjoy. Director Jack Arnold, a veteran whose career stretches back to sci-fi classics including The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1955), seems utterly disinterested in his work (Can you blame him?), and the generic funk score clashes with Arnold’s old-fashioned visuals. Plus, Williamson’s script lacks both restraint and taste—during the climax, for instance, Williamson features Boss getting crucified by the bad guys.

Boss Nigger: LAME

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Agatha (1979)


          Elegant and smart, Agatha has so many virtues it should be a better movie, but a sloppy script and questionable casting get in the way of the film’s lush production values and sensitive performances. An imaginary exploration of what might have happened in 1926, when the internationally famous mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for 12 days, the movie presents a complex intrigue involving adultery, deception, romance, and a wicked plan to kill someone using an offbeat weapon—obviously, the idea was to entangle Christie in a murder plot as ornate as those found in her books. Alas, the piece is more ambitious than successful, largely because the filmmakers fail to properly define Christie and the other main character, an American journalist working in England, before things get weird; thus, viewers are forever racing to catch up with what’s happening, which precludes any real emotional involvement in the storyline.
          Furthermore, leading lady Vanessa Redgrave, playing Christie, and leading man Dustin Hoffman, as the journalist, are mismatched aesthetically and artistically. While it’s refreshing to see a female star tower over her male counterpart, the duo lacks chemistry, and Redgrave’s spacey detachment feels natural while Hoffman’s affectation of globe-trotting sophistication feels contrived.
          The story proper begins when Englishwoman Christie has a quarrel with her awful husband (Timothy Dalton), who wants a divorce so he can marry his attractive secretary (Celia Gregory). Meanwhile, popular columnist Wally Stanton (Hoffman) has become infatuated with Christie, whom he saw from afar at a press conference. When a distraught Christie flees her home, Wally tracks her down to a spa, where she has registered under an alias. He also learns that the secretary is a guest there. Disguising his true identity, Wally courts Christie and determines she means to harm the secretary.
          As written by Kathleen Tynan and Arthur Hopcraft, Agatha wobbles indecisively between drama, romance, and thrills for much of its running time, thereby failing to excel in any of the three genres. Versatile director Michael Apted guides actors well (even though the geography of scenes is muddied by arty camera angles), and legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro elevates the material considerably with his luminous images. Both leading actors are strong, though they seem to be starring in totally different movies: Hoffman’s charming turn is all surface, while Redgrave’s intellectualized performance is all subtext. So, while Agatha has many admirable qualities, not least of which is a genuinely imaginative premise, the lack of a solid narrative foundation prevents these qualities from coalescing into a satisfying whole. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Agatha: FUNKY

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Night Porter (1974)


          Disturbing and provocative, the Italian film The Night Porter belongs to a small subgenre of movies exploring the sexual depravity of Third Reich officers. Yet instead of taking the obvious route by simplistically portraying black-hearted Nazis exploiting innocent victims, co-writer/director Lilina Cavini presents a more complicated vision in which predator and prey become symbiotic; accordingly, The Night Porter can be taken literally or as a cruel metaphor representing the human tendency to embrace humiliating entanglements that generate electrifying sensations.
          The story takes place in 1957 Vienna, where Max (Dirk Bogarde) works the night desk at a posh hotel. One evening, he spots a beautiful woman in the hotel’s lobby, and recognizes her immediately as Lucia (Charlotte Rampling). Over the course of several flashbacks, Cavini reveals the nature of the couple’s relationship during World War II. Max was part of a group of SS officers who transformed prisoners into sexual playthings, and while Max grew infatuated with Lucia (he refers to her as “my little girl”), she succumbed to his aristocratic handsomeness despite his sadism. Now, years after the war, Lucia is married to an American orchestra conductor, and Max is associated with a cabal of former Nazis who purge war records in order to shield themselves from war-crimes prosecution. Initially, Max worries that Lucia will expose him, but when he confronts her, their old psychosexual attraction rekindles—so Max hides Lucia from his fellow Nazis, creating a private world of pain and pleasure.
          The first movie that veteran Italian filmmaker Cavini made in English, The Night Porter is challenging and perverse, with the film’s glossy surfaces and classical-arts milieu (ballet recitals, orchestral performances) communicating the thorny concept of sophisticated savagery. For instance, Max is a fastidious gentleman with immaculate grooming and manners, but he also derives erotic glee from hurting Lucia. Similarly, Lucia is something other than a mere victim; she finds satisfaction in subjugation. Throughout the film, Cavini toys with traditional associations. In the picture’s most famous scene, Rampling serenades a group of Nazis while wearing an officer’s cap, black leather opera gloves, and men’s trousers tethered to her rail-thin body with suspenders; Rampling’s casual toplessness and Cavini’s brazen mixture of contradictory signifiers elevates the scene into a study of abnormal desire.
          Despite consistently graceful camerawork and editing, The Night Porter occasionally succumbs to excess—the pacing is precious and slow—and some viewers will find the central relationship impossible to accept. Plus, Bogarde and Rampling are so icy that we mostly observe their dynamic from the outside, rather than getting drawn into their passions. Yet while The Night Porter probably alienates as many viewers as it intrigues, it’s inarguably a bold film bursting with artistry, ideas, and integrity.
 
The Night Porter: GROOVY

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gable and Lombard (1976)


          Gable and Lombard, a romantic drama about the illicit love affair and subsequent marriage of real-life Golden Age movie stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, is so preposterously fictionalized that it’s a pointless endeavor. Among many other howlers, the movie features a climactic scene in which Lombard (Jill Clayburgh) testifies on behalf of Gable (James Brolin) at a court hearing related to his divorce from the woman to whom he was married when he began keeping company with Lombard. Not only did this testimony never happen, but the filmmakers portray Lombard as such a crude loudmouth that when asked to describe her relationship with Gable, she proclaims, “Me and that big ape over there have been hitting the sack every night, and I’ve got a sore back to prove it!” Yet Gable and Lombard lacks the courage of its convictions—instead of going wholeheartedly down the road of tabloid tawdriness, the movie is meant to be some sort of loving tribute to once-in-a-lifetime passion. Unfortunately, Barry Sandler’s inept screenplay and Sidney J. Furie’s unsophisticated direction makes the leading characters look like sex-crazed buffoons instead of incandescent lovers.
          This tone-deaf portrayal is exacerbated by performances that are, to say the least, uneven. While Clayburgh is grandiose and shrill, it’s possible to discern some of the emotional realities she’s attempting to communicate. However, Brolin is laughable, growling and smirking through a paper-thin impersonation of Gable’s most obvious onscreen tics. When these dissonant performances merge during interminable dialogue scenes—Gable and Lombard runs a deadly 131 minutes—the result is loud, superficial nonsense. It’s also impossible to know whom this movie was meant to please: The picture’s narrative is far too bogus to please diehard Gable-Lombard fans, and far too cliché-ridden to work as a standalone romance. Yes, the movie is handsomely produced, but so what? Even the supposed appeal of re-creating Old Hollywood is wasted, since the only other major character drawn from history is studio chief L.B. Mayer (played unpersuasively by Allen Garfield). As the real Lombard’s onetime secretary told syndicated columnist Dick Kleiner at the time of the Gable and Lombard’s release: “I couldn’t associate a single scene with anything that I’d lived through. Nothing in it is right, not even the clothes.”

Gable and Lombard: LAME

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rollercoaster (1977)


          Pure escapism, Rollercoaster combines many styles of pulpy entertainment that thrived in the ’70s: It’s a disaster movie, a police procedural, a terrorism thriller, and a theme-park romp all rolled into one. So, while it might be exaggerating to call Rollercoaster a good movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch. The movie begins when a psycho identified only as “Young Man” (Timothy Bottoms) begins a killing spree by blowing up the tracks on a rollercoaster in Virginia. Ride investigator Harry Calder (George Segal) arrives to survey the damage, suspecting foul play instead of a simple accident. Soon, the Young Man strikes again and issues a demand for $1 million to prevent further attacks. Although hard-nosed FBI Agent Hoyt (Richard Widmark) is placed in charge of the investigation, Harry insists on remaining involved, which turns out to be a bad mistake, since the Young Man identifies Calder as his preferred courier for ransom payments.
          Thus begins an enjoyably silly cat-and-mouse game that climaxes with a showdown at the Magic Mountain theme park near Los Angeles (which fans of ’70s kitsch know and love as the setting for the TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park). Plus, as happens in these sorts of contrived cinematic situations, Calder’s teenaged daughter (Helen Hunt) gets caught up in the danger, so catching the crook becomes a personal matter for Our Hero. Although Rollercoaster is padded with a few tiresome sequences, like an extended concert by the New Wave band Sparks and lengthy point-of-view rollercoaster shots designed to showcase the “Sensurround” format in which the picture was released, the bulk of the movie is suspenseful and zippy.
          Segal’s dry humor fits the thriller genre well, offering a sly wink at the audience whenever the plot gets too preposterous, and the idea of a madman hiding amid the huge crowds at an amusement park is consistently unsettling. (Casting the boyish Bottoms was a clever choice that adds to the queasiness.) Justifying the disaster-movie element of its cinematic DNA, Rollercoaster delivers several harrowing highlights, though the flick never slips into gory excess. After all, producer Jennings Lang was an ace at the disaster genre, having made 1974’s Earthquake and most of the Airport movies. Widmark and fellow supporting player Henry Fonda ground the movie with their familiar personas, and it’s a kick to see future Oscar winner Hunt at the apex of her child-acting career. All in all, Rollercoaster is a tasty trifle with the added benefit of capturing vintage theme-park scenes that will make any former ’70s kid nostalgic for simpler times.

Rollercoaster: GROOVY

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sixpack Annie (1975)


American International Pictures might as well have titled this lowbrow comedy Boobs in the Boondocks, because it’s nothing more than a compendium of cleavage shots, demure nude scenes, and insulting redneck clichés. Some elements are executed with borderline competence, and the story basically makes sense from start to finish, but beyond that it’s hard to identify virtues except for the attractiveness of leading lady Lindsay Bloom. In other words, if you want a serving of Southern-fried stupidity with a side of smut, Sixpack Annie is the movie for you. The narrative concerns small-town waitress Annie Bodean (Bloom), who must raise money to save her family’s greasy-spoon diner from bankruptcy. Annie decides her best hope is sleeping with a rich man for cash, so she works her way through locals to no avail, then hooks up with her older sister, big-city hooker Flora (Louisa Moritz), for help identifying prospects in Miami. Accompanying all of this sleaze is inept slapstick—there’s literally a banana-peel gag—and horny dialogue so crude it barely deserves to be called innuendo. (Sample lyric from the movie’s execrable theme song: “Bang, bang, the whole dang town would love to bang Annie down.”) Director Graydon F. David, who wisely never made another movie, shoots the picture lifelessly, the script is idiotic, and the movie regularly stops dead for extended bits like comedian Stubby Kaye’s hackneyed traveling-salesman routine. Since none of this is actually funny, the main attraction is Bloom, who is pretty and shapely even though she sports a tacky blonde dye job throughout the picture; while she’s not especially skilled as an actress, Bloom exhibits believable sass and tries hard to make terrible jokes work. FYI, future TV star Bruce Boxleitner appears briefly as Annie’s boyfriend. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Sixpack Annie: LAME

Monday, August 13, 2012

Manhattan (1979)


          Woody Allen’s most impassioned movie—if one accepts the popular notion that the great love of the comedian’s life is New York City, not any of his children or romantic companions—Manhattan is intoxicating from an aesthetic perspective. Allen’s genius notion of pairing George Gershwin’s resplendent music with artful black-and-white images of New York City turns every exterior shot into a cinematic postcard, and the way Allen stages an elaborate dance of interconnected romantic relationships against this magical backdrop accentuates the appealing idea that Manhattan is made for lovers. Yet the film is also challenging and complex, a hyper-literate saga starring Allen as a character for whom it’s difficult to sympathize.
          By the filmmaker’s own admission, Manhattan synthesizes elements from his two immediately preceding pictures, the bittersweet romance Annie Hall (1977) and the bleak family story Interiors (1978). Thus, Manhattan’s blend of farce and pathos arguably represents Allen’s first truly mature work, a human story that neither hides behind crowd-pleasing jokes nor indulges in pretentious psychodrama. Manhattan is not for every taste, to be sure, but it’s a fascinating film made with exceptional intelligence and skill. Plus, even if the characters are painfully neurotic and self-serving, that’s at least partially the point—building on the sharply observed character work in Annie Hall, Allen used Manhattan to further hone his skills for cultural observation and social satire, and none of the film’s characters (including the Allen-esque scribe whom the director portrays) escapes devastating scrutiny.
          The main plot concerns the romantic travails of Isaac Davis (Allen), a comedy writer who is sleeping with a 17-year-old student (Mariel Hemingway). Despite this entanglement, Isaac is also drawn to a woman his own age (Diane Keaton), who is having an adulterous fling with Issac’s (married) best friend (Michael Murphy). Meanwhile, Isaac’s ex-wife (Meryl Streep), who came out as a lesbian after her marriage to Isaac ended, is writing a tell-all book about their relationship. Working once more with Annie Hall cowriter Marshall Brickman, Allen constantly jogs back and forth between comedy and drama, often in the same scene, and the film’s acidic dialogue explores the many ways people impede their own happiness.
          The central love story isn’t as compelling as that in Annie Hall—it’s hard to root for a grown man who’s schtupping a schoolgirl—and the movie sometimes skews a little too downbeat. However, the blazingly intelligent writing, the uniformly wonderful performances, and Gordon Willis’ spectacular cinematography make the film thoroughly rewarding. (Of special note among the actors is Hemingway, who gives the best performance of her career at a very young age; the curiosity, emotion, and naïveté she brings to her character almost makes Isaac’s inappropriate involvement understandable.) Most of all, it’s compelling to watch Allen’s artistry reach an early peak, and to realize that over the course of the 70s, he rapidly evolved from a lightweight jokester to one of the worlds most important cinematic storytellers. 

Manhattan: RIGHT ON