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The Gallant Men: Pilot (1962)
Season 1, Episode 1
Series Premiere
1 July 2010
Director Robert Altman's final association with Warner Brothers' TV-production unit resulted in this successful pilot episode for the 1962-63 World War II series, which featured William Windom in a guest-starring role as an Army private with an interesting past. The episode begins with a beach assault at Salerno and ends as the Allies' drive inland to just within striking distance of San Pietro.

Though the action sequences for this premiere installment of "The Gallant Men" is marred with obvious stock footage from older WB war films -- most prominently William Wellman's "Darby's Rangers" (1958) and Michael Curtiz's "Force of Arms" (1951) -- the quieter scenes are handled deftly. Altman skillfully introduces the series' regular characters who will figure significantly in future episodes: battle-hardened veterans such as the romantic, crooning Italian-American lover-boy Private D'Angelo (Eddie Fontaine); the stocky, barrel-chested Private Lucavich (professional fighter Roland LaStarza); the wisecracking Private Hanson (Robert Gothie), and so forth.
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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Chic Satire, Done the Right Way!
23 August 2005
"Kaleidoscope" drifts through like a pleasant breeze. Allow yourself five minutes with this light comedy, and you're hooked. Set in 1960's Swinging London and Europe, the film was directed by an American, Jack Smight, in an abstract style that deliberately calls attention to itself. The dialogue is amusing repartee; and the performers seem so offbeat they exist as near comic-book characters. If a viewer feels distanced, then the film's creators have succeeded. It's all pretty much at the same level as that quintessential Sixties caper, "Modesty Blaise" (1966), only a bit less refined and a tad more square.

Warren Beatty stars as a card-cheating playboy with romantic pretensions. Before "Kaleidoscope," Beatty had acted in only one other film comedy ("Promise Her Anything," with Leslie Caron). Here, he comes on a little heavy-handed at first, but he soon settles in with the other performers, including Eric Porter, a powerful presence in the role of a sociopathic Mr. Big with a dreadful Napoleon-complex.

The movie's high notes arrive on cue. The climax is a high-stakes, winner-take-all poker game, and it's a tight, suspenseful scene. Its resolution will leave you breathless, admiring the good, low-keyed humor of the whole affair. The film's denouement, a kidnap-and-rescue sequence, is almost as clever. This film is not High Art -- not by any stretch of our good will or imagination. But there's nothing wrong with taking pleasure from well-made fluff, especially if we realize the genre's built-in limitations. "Kaleidoscope" is great fun because, like its gambler/hero, it doesn't always play by the rules.

With Susannah York as Beatty's chic companion, a Carnaby Street shopowner, and Clive Revill as her Scotland Yard inspector/father.
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Bombs Away!
9 December 2004
When "Tora! Tora! Tora!" premiered in late 1970, the critics went on a bomb-and-strafe mission. The movie was deemed an expensive dud, a costly waste of effort and money. Old-fashioned classical narratives were not in vogue during the Counterculture era in Hollywood. Indeed, when viewed within the historical context of the late '60s, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" does seem a throwback to a much earlier style of war-film. All that's missing is a rousing Max Steiner musical score to punctuate the action.

The veteran director, Richard Fleischer, does try to make the film seem "hip" and "anti-authoritarian." He exposes a laundry-list containing one diplomatic blunder after another, all of them leading up to a failure by America's power-structure to prevent the inevitable surprise air-attack – the movie's big set-piece. As a result, generals, admirals, cabinet-officers –- the entire elite –- are made to appear as incompetent as those in "Dr. Strangelove." "Tora! Tora! Tora!" has that smug, cynical "what-if-this-had-happened-instead-of-that" appeal that can often cripple a historical film, especially one that purports to expose the Real Truth behind America's day of infamy.

In this movie, the Japanese fare much better. The actors impersonating Yamamoto and company don't play their parts completely straight. While they may pose as disciplined, dedicated, and spirited warriors, they're never fanatical, never too stiff, and always quick with a joke. Still, the clever competence of the Japanese makes their American counterparts resemble Keystone Kops in army drag. Even Fleisher's direction is bested by his Oriental opposite-numbers, Fukasaku and Masuda. (According to Fleischer's autobiography, Akira Kurosawa was originally hired to helm the Japanese scenes. He proved such a tyrannical boss on the set, however, that the producers let him go after only two days of shooting. This might explain the loose, relaxed attitude of the Japanese actors.)

And then there's the surprise raid itself. Certainly, it's an impressive staging. But to what purpose? Why did Richard Zanuck find it necessary to back this film and almost take Daddy's Fox Studios into bankruptcy? Besides, when compared to John Ford's documentary, "The Battle of Midway" (1942) -- a movie that's an act of bravery in itself -- "Tora! Tora! Tora!" is an emotional blank. It piles on its points of irony effectively; yet in the end, it conveys all the excitement of a burial detail – with just as much panache.
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Dead of Night (1945)
Horror Quintet: One Out of Five Ain't Bad
23 June 2004
Ealing Studios' collection of five short stories, all designed to frighten and amuse, would not deserve mention almost 60 years later if it were not for its fifth and final episode. The first four, by comparison, are negligible.

Alberto Cavalcanti, who three years prior had directed one of the better British war films, "Went the Day Well," is responsible for both the worst and the best of this anthology. In fact, it's better not to mention his "Christmas Party" segment at all, except to say that the young actress Sally Ann Howes does the best she can with what little she's given to work with. Again, the chief reason for seeing "Dead of Night" is Cavalcanti's powerful "The Ventriloquist's Dummy," the episode that closes out the quintet. It retains its dramatic impact over these years mainly through the presence of Michael Redgrave.

Redgrave plays Maxwell Frere, the ventriloquist of the episode-title, a genius at throwing his voice and inventing clever one-liners for his partner, a Charlie McCarthy-style dummy. Frere, however, is also a schizoid personality with an extremely overprotective fondness for his wooden partner. Frere's identification with his creation is so all-consuming that soon the identities of both actor and dummy merge. The chilling conclusion must surely have been the inspiration for the ending of Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960).

In fact, the entire episode was the chief inspiration for many future horror-melodramas, including "Devil Doll" (1964), with Bryant Halliday; "Magic" (1978), with Anthony Hopkins; and the "Child's Play" movies of the '80's and '90's.

Fredrick Valk appears as Frere's psychiatrist and Elisabeth Welch, as a Parisian nightclub singer, belts out the memorable 'Hulla-looba.'
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Love and Economics in the Highlands
22 June 2004
The title, "I Know Where I'm Going," refers to a declaration made by the film's heroine, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), a middle-class English girl who's determined to get to the top of the social rung by any means legal. Thus, at the story's outset, we learn she has just become engaged to Sir Robert Bellinger, one of the richest industrialists in Britain. She knows where she's going all right: To the Scottish isle of Killoran, by train and by boat, where her future as Lady Bellinger is to be confirmed in matrimony.

Yet as far as Joan is concerned, Killoran may as well be a distant planet, for either thick fog or a high wind makes it impossible for her to ferry across to Gretna Green. It's as if the atmosphere, something in the climate, or perhaps the old legends and superstitions that proliferate the Highlands are conspiring to keep her from obtaining everything she's ever wanted from the time she was a child.

It's obvious to the Scottish locals that the island of Killoran is highly suspect as the key to Joan's future happiness. Yet she is stubborn, even bribing a boy to pilot a small boat to Killoran in the midst of a huge squall – a move that proves nearly fatal. She's determined to get "where she is going," but she's turned away -- by the elements as well as by a slow realization that she has become emotionally attached to a naval officer on leave (Roger Livesey) who she has just encountered.

Michael Powell, the director, keeps things moving at an agreeable pace. There isn't a single wasted motion in this modest little film. The minor characters are memorable: Pamela Brown, as Catriona, who is introduced silhouetted against the gray Northern sky, her hand tethered to a leash restraining dogs as they make their way up a brae; Finley Curray, whose weather-beaten face says more about his salty character than the terse, excellent dialogue he is given; and there's a cameo by a pre-teen Petula Clark.
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Powell's Masterpiece
21 June 2004
In his autobiography, "A Life in Movies" (published 1987), director Michael Powell recalled that he and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger sharply disagreed as to their best collaborative film work. The former argued in favor of their satirical vision of Heaven, the phantasmagoric "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946). The latter preferred the romantic world of international ballet as presented in the opulent backstage musical/dance-athon, "The Red Shoes" (1948). In my opinion, both were mistaken.

"The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943) is their masterpiece. It was the film in which Powell finally fulfilled the promise that he had shown sporadically in his earlier films – in scenes such as Conrad Veidt's darkly comic encounter with a mountain-goat while trailing a bicycle up a cliff in "The Spy in Black" (1939); the opening shot of "Thief of Bagdad" (1940) as the camera tracks closer to Jaffar's ship and reveals a painted eye on the boat's prow; or in the eerie opening sequence of "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" (1942), where, without a crew to guide it, a Wellington bomber, flying over the southern coast of Britain, suddenly smashes into a power line and implodes in a blazing white ball of flame. Here, in "Colonel Blimp," based on the stuffy, elitist character created by David Low, director Powell found a unifying style that encompassed the other-worldly vision that is sustained throughout the film's lengthy running time (2 hours, 43 minutes) – a style that is, at once, austere yet elegant; moody but curiously euphoric; hard at its core but sentimental around the edges.

As evidenced by the film's title, Pressburger's script does deal in a very generalized way with issues of Life and Death, but he carries his vision into the realm of the abstract, and he does so in circular fashion. More specifically, he explores a younger generation's brash, rebellious attitude towards their elders; and then examines how that attitude becomes more restrained, more conservative with the passage of time – until, as that generation ages, they become so "traditional" that, in the end, when their notions of honor and ethics have become obsolete in relation to the dominant society, they abstain from collaborating with community and, in a sense, they cease to really exist at all. And in the end, Death is all there is.

In keeping with Pressburger's theme, the film is structured in circular fashion, beginning in 1943, flashing back to 1903 and progressing all the way up to 1943 again, where it ends: Life as a universal loop, so to speak. Pictorially, the movie begins with an image of speed – British military messengers motorcycling across the English highways to their respective units with orders regarding war-game maneuvers. But the film ends with a sharply contrasting image – a yellowish-brown leaf floating down a small waterway, its slowness of passage suggesting a funeral dirge and procession.

The story's main concern is of the deep friendship and camaraderie between the film's hero, Major John Candy, V.C. (Roger Livesey), and German Lieutenant Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who meet one another as participants in a duel that has been arranged for the two in order to solve a peacetime diplomatic dispute. Afterwards, while nursing their wounds in a hospital, they become close friends – so much so that when it is discovered that they are unacknowledged suitors to the same girl, an English governess (one of three women played by Deborah Kerr), there is no dispute whatsoever: a coy suggestion by the filmmakers that two individuals can often solve disputes more efficiently than two nations. There is a temporary row between Candy and Theo at the end of the First World War, as indeed there can be little other than animosity between two uneasy nation/signatories of a peace treaty. But 20 years later, when Theo flees Nazi Germany and begs political asylum in England, it is Candy (now a general) who gladly uses his enormous influence to save Theo from either internment or deportation. This last episode is particularly affecting: Theo recites for British immigration officials a long, sad story of his life from 1919 on, relating the death of his wife and the indoctrination of his sons into the Hitler Youth.

From there, the film completes its flashback "loop" to 1943, where we witness Candy's old-fashioned Victorian adherence to "good sportsmanship" – his single failing as a military tactician and leader – that costs his Home Guard unit a war-games competition. David Low sought to satirize the Blimp character as a ridiculous facsimile of grandiose pomposity; Powell and Pressburger, however, seek to humanize him by tracing the process that finally made "Colonel Blimp" what he was, at least externally. Roger Livesey's performance is an outstanding, sympathetic tour-de-force – he was one of the most transparently gifted film actors of his generation. And Deborah Kerr's triple-performance confirmed her stardom for decades to come.

Powell references one of his favorite films "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) throughout – even down to the naming of Candy's aunt as the Lady Margaret Hamilton. Candy is referred to as "the Wizard" by his driver's fiancée, even while humming and dancing to the tune "We're Off to See the Wizard." (Three years later, Powell would use "Oz's" technique of alternating between monochrome and Technicolor for his fantasy, "A Matter of Life and Death.")
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Henry V (1944)
Shakespeare As Poetic Pageant
19 June 2004
"Henry V" is poetry within the historical context of English patriotic pageantry. As Shakespearean scholar J. Dover Wilson observed in a 1943 critique, it justifies and celebrates a well-ordered vision of British conservative values – respect for the monarchy and a rigid feudal class-system. And as Pauline Kael asserted in 1989, Shakespeare's text "is perhaps the greatest jingo play ever conceived."

At the beginning, a Prologue asks us to imagine "a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene" rather than "the flat unraised spirits...on this unworthy scaffold." Laurence Olivier, who directed this 1944 film version, heeds the misgivings expressed in that Prologue. While his staging of "Henry V" begins within the enclosed intimacy of a studio-created Globe Theatre, acted before an appropriately attired Elizabethan audience, Olivier uses the medium of Cinema to physically "open up" the play as it progresses from scene to scene, increasingly taking advantage of elaborate studio scenery and lighting and mattes, ultimately using vast exterior locations for the climactic Battle of Agincourt.

Olivier, in the lead role, is a forceful King Harry, but his work and imagination behind the camera are stunning, especially for a first-time director. The humor of the fumbling "unraised spirits" who impersonate the roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) and the Bishop of Ely (Robert Helpmann) is an early surprise, as is the coarse high-jinks of Robert Newton's interpretation of Pistol, chewing up the scenery and everyone in sight. As a director, Olivier borrows from the conventions of the stage, but it isn't so much that he copies them; he transforms them. Thus, he shows us a fleet of miniature warships engulfed in an English Channel fog, a "narrator" superimposed against painted, moving backdrops, and (at the end) the bleak French postwar countryside – a zone of pillage, poverty, and heartbreak in the aftermath of battle.

This version of "Henry V" was made with a wartime audience in mind. (The 'V' in the title is a perfect symbolic reference to the times.) Here, the effete, overconfident Dauphin (Max Adrian) and other French nobles stand in for the Axis alliance; the common men who make up the motley army of archers and infantry are a parallel to the agents of 20th-century anti-authoritarianism. The French losses total about ten thousand – 8,400 of which are "princes, barons, lords, knights, squires,/And gentlemen of blood and quality." The English fatalities: only "five and twenty score." An overwhelming victory for the forces of medieval anti-Fascism.
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Kipling, Via the Kordas
18 June 2004
When the Blitz began taking its toll on London, producer Alexander Korda picked up stakes and headed for Hollywood, with his two brothers, Zoltan and Vincent, in tow. There, they finished "Thief of Bagdad" (1940) and produced "That Hamilton Woman" (1941) before beginning this elaborate Technicolor version of Kipling's Mowgli stories, originally titled "The Jungle Books," (published in 1894 and 1895). The film focuses on three of the volume's stories - "Mowgli's Brothers," "Tiger, Tiger" and "The King's Ankus." It's a fairly interesting screen translation of Kipling's attempt to provide young readers with the stories he was told by his Indian ayah when he was a child growing up in the Far East.

When a big-spending movie producer like Korda acquires the rights to a classic, there are inevitable changes. Someone hit upon the cute idea of giving Mowgli (played by Sabu) a "love interest." She appears here in the person of Mahala (Patricia O'Rourke), but after she passively lends impetus to an ill-fated search for lost treasure, her character becomes inconsequential to the rest of the picture.

The film begins as Mowgli's mother, Messua (Rosemary de Camp) is widowed one morning when her husband becomes breakfast for a hungry tiger. We later learn that the tiger is the vicious Shere Khan, who during Mowgli's childhood has become his arch-enemy. Unfortunately, when Mowgli and Shere Khan square off for a climactic battle to the end, the dated special-effects are a disappointment. Perhaps Kipling's original version of Khan's death (in the book, he is trampled lifeless by Mowgli's animal/allies) would have better suited the film.

Three of the village's leading citizens have been thrown together as a sort of Hindu vaudeville act: Buldeo, the blowhard hunter (the good, underrated Joseph Calleia); the greedy barber (John Qualen); and the "pundit" (Frank Puglia). Their lust for a dead king's treasure is given appropriate levity. The predatory Buldeo, Shere Khan's human counterpart, represents the single most dangerous threat to the jungle and the sense of community held sacred by the animals who live there. Ideologically, therefore, the fire that purges the jungle of all human sins seems an appropriate climax.

In the end, we see Buldeo, now aged and wiser, confessing his past sins to all who will pay a rupee to listen to his story of Mowgli and the jungle. As we see, he ultimately earns his money and reputation honestly as not only a story-teller, but as the narrator of this charming spectacle.
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An Anglo-Dutch Treat
12 June 2004
Following up on their first three collaborative successes ("The Spy in Black," "Contraband," and "The 49th Parallel"), director Michael Powell and scenarist Emeric Pressburger formed their own production company, The Archers, and "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" (1942) was the firm's first project.

This World War II-drama is a clever reworking of "The 49th Parallel" (1941), a story of six German sailors marooned in Canada when their submarine is bombed by Allied pilots; the rest of the movie depicted their attempts to cross over into then-neutral U.S of A. This time around, in "One of Our Aircraft...," the heroes are six members of a British RAF bombing crew. We watch as they take off for the Continent one evening on a bombing raid and sample their conversation before they reach the target. After dropping their bombs on a Stuttgart industrial plant, their Wellington aircraft suffers a direct hit from German flak. The crippled airplane flies as far as Nazi-occupied Holland before the crew decide to bail. The rest of the film chronicles their efforts to return to England while avoiding capture, with the assistance of various Dutch civilians.

Just as "The 49th Parallel" was Powell's wartime love-letter to Canada, "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" serves the same purposes for his locale here – the Netherlands. The film opens with a close-up of a document, signed by leaders of the Dutch government-in-exile, informing us of the names of a half-dozen Dutch citizens who were caught, tried, and executed for performing acts against Germany's Occupation Forces – i.e., helping downed Allied fliers return to their bases in England. This visual device, the close-up of official paperwork, is repeated throughout the film. At certain intervals between episodes, Powell fills the screen with other documents and examples of bureaucratic red tape – mostly applications to Nazi officialdom by the Dutch, asking permission for such mundane matters as attending churches, visiting relatives in other villages, viewing football(soccer) matches. Off- screen, we hear the rude commentary of a German Commandant as he stamps his reluctant approval on each application. The purpose of this motif is clear: to establish to British audiences what life in England would be, should it be overrun and occupied by an enemy who insist on running the world with "an orderly mind." The whole film is a wartime morale-poster: "Keep a Stiff Upper Lip" and "We Can Take It," etc. (This last slogan, we are clued by one of the movie's Dutch characters, was actually first used by Holland 150 years prior.)

The crew represents an interesting cross-section of England: Sir George Corbett (played by Godfrey Tearle, who was the treasonous villain in Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps"), the "old man" of the half-dozen, a WWI vet who wants to have another go at the Hun; Geof Hickman (Bernard Miles), the amiable Cockney; Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams), a tragedian who never passes up the chance to boast of his wife's impending BBC singing performance; Tom Earnshaw (Eric Portman), a Midlands farmer, gloating over pictures of his prize-winning sheep; Bob Ashley (Emrys Jones), the professional soccer-player who is temporarily separated from the other five and accidentally falls in with a Dutch football team after the crew's bailout; and the pilot, John Haggard (Hugh Burden), who bears a coincidental resemblance to a younger version of the film's director, Powell. (Powell himself appears early in the film as an air-traffic controller – or "director" – reciting such lines as "Q for Queenie, you are now clear for takeoff.")

The Dutch patriots are a fine, spirited lot: Pamela Brown and Googie Withers (a serious actress, despite the name, and a good one too) play two women who in large part are responsible for the downed fliers' safekeeping. Robert Helpmann, appears as a leering Nazi collaborator. And a very young Peter Ustinov has a small role as a Catholic priest.
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Major Barbara (1941)
"What Price Salvation Now..."
11 June 2004
George Bernard Shaw's 1905 satirical examination of salvation, "Major Barbara," is updated in this 1941 screen translation, but the story is basically the same. Munitions industrialist Andrew Undershaft, who has not seen his family in almost 20 years, returns to find that: (a) his son Stephen, at 25, has not discovered a suitable vocation; (b) his daughter Sarah has engaged herself to a pretentious but unoffending young fool, Charles Lomax; and (c) his other daughter Barbara has adopted the Salvation Army as a career toward moral self-fulfillment and social enlightenment.

The essential question in "Major Barbara" concerns the root of the Industrial Age's social ills. Barbara (well-acted by Wendy Hiller) would argue that the greed of whiskey manufacturers and the social rapacity of the ruling classes are the culprits. Her father, on the other hand, maintains that civilization's greatest sin is the existence of poverty. Further, he deplores the shameless glorification of the "meek, honest, and downtrodden" poor and the empty condescension that is offered to those who live in filth, disease, and constant hunger. And since Andrew Undershaft is the play's hero and Shaw's philosophical stand-in (Robert Morley, the actor who plays him, is even made up to resemble Shaw), there can be little doubt as to which character, father or daughter, will ultimately triumph.

Since Shaw was directly involved in this project, it's doubtful that purists will object to the fact that the film includes additional scenes that did not appear in the play's original text. A new prologue introduces us to Adolphus Cusins (Rex Harrison), the professor of Greek classics who is a dismal failure as a Hyde Park lecturer. When his speeches fail to hold or entrance an audience, he is advised by a sympathetic street patrolman (Stanley Holloway) to sample the "religious" speaking-circuit. Deciding he has nothing to lose, Adolphus heeds the policeman's advice, and while doing so, he encounters Barbara speaking to a crowd with incredibly religious fervor, and he is instantly smitten. From there, the movie segues into Shaw's original First Act.

Another important addition is the mock religious conversion of the drunken Bill Walker by wrestler-turned-Salvation-Army-sergeant Todger Fairmile, a scene only described in Shaw's original transcript. Robert Newton, a very fine actor who was especially memorable in Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn" (1939), here plays Walker as an unbridled, unapologetic savage of a bully. His profane dismissals of the aged Miss Mitchens and the quickness of his physical abuse of the docile Army volunteer Jenny Hill provide the film's most shocking moments. But Walker's more lethal ammunition is used in his verbal taunting of Barbara ("What price Salvation, now?") after her disillusionment with and ultimate resignation from the Army of Good Samaritans. So deep is her despair that she almost commits suicide.

Her abandonment of the Army occurs after her superior accepts a large gift of money in the form of a check signed by her own father. Barbara insists that the money is tainted, that its blood money, gleaned from her father with the sweat of his underpaid workers and by the misery suffered by the victims of Undershaft's armaments industry. However, when reluctantly following up on her father's invitation to visit his munitions plant, she discovers that Undershaft's company town is a working-man's suburban paradise of modern architecture and schools and churches; and she then understands that it is not her father who drives the hellish multimillion-dollar business that makes this Eden possible. It drives him. And the film's concluding shot of Cusins, Walker, and Barbara, marching arm-in-arm with the rest of Undershaft's proletariat, is a celebration of the playwright's ironic vision.

Shaw is primarily enjoyed for the intelligent wit of his dialogue, but he had a serious purpose here. As the playwright himself reflected in 1906, a year after the play's premiere, " simply a man who, having grasped the fact that poverty is a crime, knows that when society offered him the alternative of poverty or a lucrative trade in death and destruction, it offered him (a choice) between energetic enterprise and cowardly infamy."

Gabriel Pascal produced and directed – adequately. Here, his style is very understated and completely serviceable to the film's source. The scenes are paced briskly, even by modern standards. And the casting is superb, particularly Emlyn Williams's two-faced cynic/beggar, Snobby Price (the name says it all); Deborah Kerr is an affecting Jenny Hill (she obtained this film role by reciting the Lord's Prayer for producer Pascal); Torin Thatcher is in fine comic form as Todger Fairmile; and Marie Lohr manages to quietly hit all the right notes as Undershaft's priggish wife, Lady Britomart.
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49th Parallel (1941)
Long Day's Journey Into Oblivion
10 June 2004
In Michael Powell's war thriller, "The 49th Parallel," a small squad of Nazi soldiers is stranded on Canadian soil after their ship is destroyed, so they decide to trek south in order to seek political asylum in the United States (which has not yet entered the war). But prolonged encounters with various individuals among the Canadian populace delay their attempt.

Emeric Pressburger wrote the script for "The 49th Parallel" in the format of a "road" picture, where the idea of "journey" is meant to symbolize a pathway toward personal transformation for the characters. However, Pressburger, the screenwriter as contrarian, rejects this thematic strategy. The Nazis in this film experience no such political enlightenment. They remain solidly committed to the New World Order from beginning to end. Indeed, it is just this righteous belief in their own cause that proves to be their undoing.

Since "The 49th Parallel" is told from the Germans' point of view, we find ourselves almost encouraging their success to make it over the American border. However, when this lost band of fugitives begin slaughtering various innocent Canadians along the way, we find ourselves restored within the safer, more clear-cut context of "us-against-them" that bests demonstrates the mood of a wartime audience accustomed to the propagandistic tone that characterized most 1940's commercial entertainment. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Nazis' efforts ultimately fail.

In supporting roles, Leslie Howard appears as an art-lover/outdoorsman; a teen-aged Glynis Johns impersonates a Hutterite girl; Niall MacGinnis is the German soldier who falls in love with her; and Raymond Massey has a significant cameo toward the end as a Canadian Army deserter who redeems himself by acting as his country's final representative-catalyst. It is he who saves face for an entire nation.
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The Spy Who Went Into the Cold
9 June 2004
Carol Reed, a film craftsman of the highest order, directed this wartime spy-thriller. Though it may feel routine, there are individual scenes and performers who remain vivid: the egoism of Rex Harrison's British agent; the vulnerability of Margaret Lockwood's wartime refugee; the naked sensitivity of Paul Henreid's villain. All in all, an interesting romantic triangle. The story chronicles events leading up to September 3, 1939 - the day France and England declared war on Germany after Panzers and Stukas invaded Poland.

"Night Train" actually opens in '38, however, as the camera tracks into Hitler's mountain retreat over Berchtesgaden, as we witness the dictator ordering the Czech occupation. Hitler desires not only territory, but the talented scientists within - geniuses such as Axel Bomasch, an industrial wizard who just barely escapes the S.S. and flies safely to England, where he is safeguarded by a British Intelligence officer, code name "Gus Bennett" (Harrison). However, Bomasch's daughter, Anna (Ms. Lockwood), is caught and imprisoned in a Nazi concentration-camp where she befriends fellow inmate Karl Marsen (Henreid). They both successfully escape and sail a tramp steamer for England: Anna, to re-unite with her father; and Marsen, to make contact with those who share his real allegiance - to the Third Reich. With the help of an oculist (Felix Aylmer), planted in England years before by the Abwehr, Marsen abducts both Bomasch and Anna, who are transported to Berlin. Bennett, angry at his own lapse in security, volunteers to travel to Germany disguised as an officer of Hitler's High Command in order to retrieve the pair.

The film then accelerates into a series of tense confrontations between Bennett and those he hopes to dupe, in both Berlin and on a train to Munich. The action culminates in a skillfully directed chase scene climaxing on the Swiss border, where the term "cliff- hanger" takes on literal meaning. Along the way, there appear various secondary characters - the 'team' of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, for example, are thrown in for their droll, underplaying of some cleverly written dialogue ("No copies of Punch?! Hmmm. Must have sold out."). But the real comic relief is provided by Irene Handl as a German stationmaster who, in one scene, brushes off the "gentlemen," Radford and Wayne, like so much confetti. Her scene-stealing marks the highest moment of levity in the film.

The one element in Carol Reed's storytelling that always distinguished him as a director was a quality he shared with Jean Renoir - the generous feeling he conveyed toward all of his characters. Human flaws and defects such as professional incompetence and blind allegiance are noted but tolerated. The rigid bureaucracy of a dictatorial government is deftly satirized in the character of a German civil servant (Raymond Huntley) who, when confronted with a forged document that escaped his notice, is asked by his Nazi superiors if he knows what this will mean for him. The bureaucrat politely replies, "Yes. It means I shall have to sack my secretary."

And in "Night Train's" final frame, we observe Henreid's Nazi, jilted in more ways than one; yet Reed frames him sorrowfully, as if he were a sort of Universal Everyloser. Reed's sympathy, again, extends to all. Such unusual compassion on the part of a director is what finally separates "Night Train" from other propaganda films of the early Forties.
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The Eyes Have It
5 June 2004
"The Thief of Bagdad" is a British-made Arabian Nights fantasy, interspersed with light comic moments and spiced up with a flying mechanical horse, a magic carpet, a scary 60-foot tall genie, a Sultan with a childish fascination for lifelike toys, and a demonic Grand Vizier named Jaffar.

Conrad Veidt makes this last character particularly nasty, skulking about the edges of the scenery, hankering for the Sultan's beautiful princess, using his Evil Eye to blind his rival, the young king Ahmad, and to transmogrify Ahmad's friend, Abu the thief, into a dog. Thus the theme of perception and the ways in which it can be manipulated are illustrated through the re-current motif of circular objects--most memorably with the round center of a giant spider web through which a monstrous insect perishes. The film opens with a slow tracking shot of the bow of Jaffar's ship. As the camera moves in closer, we see a giant painted eye on the ship's hull. Thus, we are clued in early about what the moviemakers had in mind -- something more than just child's play for the 1940s Odeon circuit.

"Thief of Bagdad" also has its playful moments -- as when Abu cons a street vendor into serving him free honey for his pancakes. As portrayed by the Indian actor Sabu, he represents the successful prankster in most of us, and we admire the way he outsmarts everyone in the film, including the Genie who threatens to stomp him into a human pancake. After flying over the world on the back of a genie, he opts for a magic carpet, stealing one from a Holy Man, yet promising Allah that this is his last caper and that he will mend his thieving ways. Yet, we also get the impression that he will find a clever way around his promise. Abu will have his pancake and honey too.

With June Duprez as the princess, Mary Martin as Jaffar's crafty aide, Rex Ingram as the Genie, and the film's screenwriter, Miles Malleson, performs double-duty by acting the part of the toy-obsessed Sultan.
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Heroism and Cowardice: And Never the Twain Shall Meet
5 June 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Of the many filmed versions of A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel, "The Four Feathers," a classic examination of physical courage and moral cowardice, this one remains the best. Unfortunately, the film only glosses over Mason's theme of the heroism/cowardice dichotomy, assuming a moral stance that approaches a lurid form of self-righteousness. For as far as the director, Zoltan Korda and his writers feel, the character of Harry Faversham is that of a peace-loving, poetry-reading, gentleman-coward who deserves the disgrace heaped upon him by his fellow gentlemen-officers after resigning his commission on the eve of his regiment's deployment to Egypt. And it is only after Haversham travels to Africa--in the midst of war between the British Army and the "Fuzzy-Wuzzies"--and has himself branded on the forehead with a hot-iron poker and adopts the convincing disguise of a mute, disfigured Sudanese native that he can begin his journey toward "moral redemption." (Ironically, "branding" was the deliberate mark of a coward in many Western military units.)

In the end, of course, he succeeds in recovering the former respect he had lost among his comrades. His self-imposed disfigurement aside, he has triumphed over the adversity of his own split allegiances--to himself as a physically courageous soldier-spy and as a man who has undertaken the advantages of Deliverance and can now live at peace with himself and read all the poetry he wants to. From the moviemaker's point of view, in fact, that ugly scar on his face might be what symbolizes his newfound "manhood."

This is where the filmmakers err badly, and it's only through the saving grace of John Clement's performance as Haversham, that the film acquires any meaningful depth. It's apparent that Clement understands the character of Haversham much more than the film's creators. After he has resigned his commission and been labeled a coward by others in his unit, Haversham admits to a trusted acquaintance, Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley), that he IS a coward. And he doesn't have to explain why--we in the audience can see he's a coward because, against his better judgment, he has fallen into step with his accusers' (and Korda's?) philosophy. Clearly, if Haversham were a real hero, he would have had the moral courage to ignore the accusations of his ex-fellow officers and proceeded with his life as though nothing tragic had happened.

Still, Korda and his producer-brother Alexander spared little expense in mounting this epic. Presumably in order to achieve historical accuracy, the battle scenes were photographed in and around Sudan. Visually, the film's action sequences are quite impressive. However, Zoltan Korda's forte as a director is apparent in the more intimate scenes. The most emotionally striking part of the film occurs early on in Haversham's quest for redemption. Disguised as that mute, branded native, he comes upon one of his accusers, Durrance (Ralph Richardson), the sole survivor of an entire British company massacred by Sudanese tribesmen. Haversham is shocked to discover that Durrance has gone blind from sunstroke and, out of despair, is about to commit suicide -- an act that Haversham just barely prevents. The succeeding scenes of Haversham, who purposefully never reveals his identity to his ex-comrade, guiding the blind Durrance across the desert to the safety of British lines is a vision that will be etched into the memories of everyone who witnesses it. The sequence prefaces one of the chief ironies of the story: Durrance, once again re-integrated into a peaceful London society, acquires a taste for the same poetry that Haversham had always loved. Toward the film's conclusion, therefore, it is now Durrance who is the peace-loving, poetry-reading gentleman and Haversham who now enjoys the rewarding trappings of a violent victory--the same sort of role-reversal used by Mason's contemporary, G. B. Shaw, in his play, "The Devil's Disciple."

If this version of "The Four Feathers" seems outdated in its attitudes toward the oppression of an indigenous people by an imperial aggressor, it is because the notion of postcolonial literature and film was virtually nonexistent in 1939. But it's not just that the movie was made during the final days of a British Empire upon which "the sun never set"; the jingoistic spirit that pervades much of the movie was the result of an ever-growing awareness among most Europeans that the coming of a second world conflict was only a matter of time. (One also senses this awareness in the Alexander Korda-produced "Q-Planes," released the same year.)

The presence of the old veteran C. Aubrey Smith seems almost obligatory during this period of film history; as Ethne's grandfather, he's still playing the stern but tender-hearted curmudgeon. Harry Stradling was credited with the photography, but Miklos Rosza's music beautifully evokes the mood--that of a European's interpretation of the "exoticism" of the East. Rosza manages to do this, however, without any of the Westerner's typical condescension to "the mystic Orient."
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Politics of the Eccentric
3 June 2004
A secret British aviation project is being disrupted by a foreign power, until an effete but supremely confident intelligence agent, Charles Hammond, is assigned the case. What follows is a tense espionage thriller that refuses to take itself seriously. Yet strangely, this odd mixture of screwball comedy and political potboiler actually works.

"Q Planes" (released in America as "Clouds Over Europe") was directed by an American, Tim Whelan, who establishes a near-anarchic tone throughout. Here, he satirizes what other late-1930's filmmakers may have considered too serious a subject to examine lightly: a potentially disastrous affair for King and country, in which experimental aircraft are being "electronically" hijacked right out of the sky and docked within the confines of a large ship from a hostile nation. (The culprits' nationality is never identified, but as soon as they speak their lines in that thick Teutonic accent, we can just about guess their origin.)

The dialogue, much of it written and improvised by the actors themselves, is crackling, smart; and the action, while wildly improbable and clumsily staged, is as unreal and stylized as the characters. The joker in the deck is Hammond himself. As portrayed by Ralph Richardson, he boasts to anyone who will listen of his own considerable skills as a solver of crimes, a solver of crossword puzzles, and a solver of lovers' squabbles. Despite such brash self-assurance, however, Hammond is never tedious. Richardson plays him as an eccentric of many shades and interests – horse-racing addict, amateur master chef, verbal wit extraordinaire, constant belittler of his "gentleman's gentleman" (Gus McNaughton), and a man whose obsession with the intrigue of his case causes him to repeatedly ignore his beloved Daphne (Sandra Storme), the single character who bests Hammond in the film's fittingly ironic conclusion.

Hammond is aided on the case by his intrepid sister-reporter, Kay (Valerie Hobson), and a temperamental test-pilot, Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier), whom Kay picks up while snooping around an aircraft factory. Kay's character may have been intended as a caricature of the "liberated" working English suffragette. But she holds her own when competing with her two male cohorts - McVane, who hates reporters and let's rip whenever he hears mention of Kay's profession, and Hammond, the charismatic, ardent egoist-as-detective. "I'm right!" he proclaims to his doubting superiors. "I'm right - and the whole world is wrong!" Naturally, Hammond's irregular method of sleuthing bears out his claim – as if any enemy country could measure up in a contest against single representatives of MI-5, Fleet Street, and the RAF.
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Pygmalion (1938)
By George, they got it the first time...
2 June 2004
George Bernard Shaw wrote the play "Pygmalion" in 1912 and 1913 as part-social protest, part-satire, part-comedy of manners. Its central character, Henry Higgins, a London teacher of elocution and expert in regional phonetics, makes a small wager with his friend and colleague, Colonel George Pickering, that he can take a waif from the streets, one Eliza Doolittle, and pass her off as the cream of the social crop. Using a pedagogical technique consisting mostly of inhumane badgering and humiliation, he manages to pull off the feat with unexpected success – but at an emotional cost he does not foresee.

Besides the inventive montages illustrating Higgins' transformation of Eliza from Cockney flower-girl to the statuesque, gowned beauty who's mistaken for a royal princess at a diplomatic reception, there are additional items that failed to materialize in Shaw's original – the use of the phrases, "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains" and "Hurricanes hardly happen in Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire," both of which later became lyrics for Lerner and Lowe's musical version. And in the play, Higgins's irritating Hungarian nemesis is not given a name; here, for the first time, he is dubbed "Kaparthy."

Leslie Howard, who co-directed this 1938 film, impersonates Higgins as hard-core realist - diabolical, profane, impatient, sometimes maddening. And as Eliza, Wendy Hiller has her coy moments, particularly when she is "tried out" at a tea party given by Higgins's mother. Her carefully high-toned enunciation of "the new slang" is timed to perfection.

The film, unfortunately, leaves one with the feeling that at the story's conclusion - with Higgins quietly demanding to know from Eliza the whereabouts of his slippers - both student and mentor "live happily ever after." This contrived ending must have been a compromise on the part of the producer, Gabriel Pascal, although one finds it mystifying that Shaw, who is credited with the story's adaptation, would have ever endorsed such a sentimental ending. For as Shaw had written at the end of his play over two decades earlier, "the rest of the story need not be shown...if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the...reach-me-downs of the rag shop in which Romance keeps its stock of happy endings..." The playwright then proceeded into seven pages of prose, describing an epilogue in which Eliza married the worshipful young suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and the generous Colonel Pickering set up the newlyweds in their own business near Victoria Station. As for any relationship between Higgins and Eliza, according to Shaw, "(to this day) he storms and bullies and derides; but she stands up to him so ruthlessly that the Colonel has to ask her from time to time to be kinder to Higgins." As is the aftermath of most good stories, the worm indeed did turn.

With Wilfrid Lawson as Eliza's father, Alfred; Scott Sunderland as Pickering; and David Tree impersonates the shallow but inoffensive Freddy in high style. (He would do the same with the role of Charles Lomax three years later in "Major Barbara.") If the American schleps and male-pushovers that Ralph Bellamy used to play in "The Awful Truth" and "His Girl Friday" ever had a British cousin, David Tree was it; he did the upper-class twit better than anyone.
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Cheesecake a la Day
29 April 2004
If you're a pushover for Fifties movie-musicals that stress music over story, "Lullaby of Broadway" may represent that genre's prototype. This is not to say that musicals with thin storylines are necessarily bad. The success of the earlier Astaire-Rogers films depended on dancing, music, and an occasional wisecrack or a fancy bit of dialogue--in that order. "Lullaby" isn't in the class of "Top Hat" by a long way. But it does represent a trend of movie-making that Warner Brothers embarked on briefly during the early 1950's: Cheesecake a la Day ("It's a Great Feeling," "On Moonlight Bay," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," etc.).

In her autobiography, "Doris Day: Her Own Story" (published in 1976), the actress describes her early years as a contract player for Jack L. Warner and the heated disputes she had with the autocratic movie czar regarding miscasting and bad scripts. But in "Lullaby," there is virtually no script to complain of. It's a revue, and thus, not a movie in the traditional sense. But what a revue! From Ray Heindorf's jazzy 1951 arrangement of the old title tune (from "Gold Diggers of 1935") over the opening credits, to the Prinzs' inventive choreography, this movie clicks along in high gear from one showstopper to the next.

Day also recalled in her memoirs that "Lullaby" contained, by far, the toughest dance routines of any film she ever made. One particularly challenging scene called for her to perform an intricate series of steps on a huge staircase--while weighted down in a gold-lame dress. At first, she balked, warning the crew to have an ambulance waiting after the first take. With encouragement from the director David Butler and others, however, she did manage to successfully complete the dance number.

"Lullaby of Broadway" is not the best of the Day/Warners musicals--that distinction goes to "Calamity Jane" (1953)--but it's as good as the rest. With Gene Nelson as Day's dance-partner, Billy De Wolfe as a vaudevillian-turned-valet, and the almost unbearable S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, as a Broadway "angel."
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Hollywood does agitprop -- and succeeds
26 April 2004
In the early 1960's, when "The North Star" was being syndicated to local TV stations as part of their late-night fodder, the film was re-cut and booked under the title "Armored Attack." Thankfully, Lewis Milestone's classic has been re-released in its original form. I don't know if that says much about the political tolerance of contemporary American film-viewers, but "The North Star" is obviously propaganda -- yet clearly more anti-Nazi than pro-Communist. And while screenwriter Lillian Hellman's sentiments did lean Left, she, like Orwell, despised tyranny, no matter from what extreme of the political spectrum it appeared.

Much has been made of the folk-peasant musicale that dominates the first half-hour of the film by other posters to this site, so I'll dispense mention of it here. Suffice it to say, however, that from the first scene of violence -- a merciless daytime bombardment of civilians on a quiet Ukrainian country road -- the film gathers emotional strength. And when Anne Baxter, playing a schoolgirl, gazes for the first time upon the horrific vision of her school chums, now dead as the result of mechanized warfare, she states evenly, "We're not young anymore." And as the rest of the movie demonstrates, she means it. She and a few others escape into the forest, emerging now and then to engage in hit-and-run sabotage against the Nazi aggressors. The film builds to a climax in which Russian partisans astride horses attempt to take back their village from the better- equipped Germans, giving director Milestone an opportunity to reprise the long tracking shots of approaching figures that became his trademark visual motif.

When Samuel Goldwyn produced "The North Star," he pulled out all the stops. He enlisted James Wong Howe to photograph, William Cameron Menzies to design the production, and Aaron Copland to write the background score. The cast, besides Baxter, includes Dana Andrews, Farley Granger, Walter Huston, and, as the Nazi You Love to Hate, the legendary Erich Von Stroheim, as a German military doctor who compromises his professional oath through medical experimentation. Supplies of blood for the German army's wounded have dried up, so Dr. Von Stroheim orders the children of the village rounded up and brought to the local school, where he draws great quantities of blood from them -- so much so, that a few of the kids die from the process. Effective and highly dramatic, it certainly beats visions of the Hun boiling Belgian babies in oil.
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South Pacific (1958)
Visual Limbo on the Beach
12 April 2004
No, "South Pacific" is not an example of "how low you can go." But visually, this film has no movement. It just sits there; and it seems eons before anyone thinks of camera movement. Naturally, it could be argued that the makers preferred a conservative style of filming, and (like John Ford) only moved the camera when there was a good reason. Well, there was reason enough in "South Pacific"--a case of stylistic atrophy. Even the actors seem enervated. Like professional, dependable stage performers, they all hit their chalk marks. And then--like the film--they just sit there too. The Proscenium Arch rules all.

Occasionally, there have been stage-trained directors who have adapted their talents to the screen: D. W. Griffith certainly comes to mind first. (He's credited with having invented film language.) And more recently, there was the late Bob Fosse ("Cabaret," "Lenny," "All That Jazz"), a hard-core stylist in the truest sense. But here, Joshua Logan uses the tropical backdrop as one would in a staged play. And sure enough, there's good old Bali Hai, rising up behind the performers, just like the fake, painted plaster-of-Paris mountains used in bad stage productions. Some scenes in "South Pacific" are artificially tinted red or blue or purple--whatever color matches whichever mood, I suppose. This really is taking film-making back decades; even the sepia-tinted portions of Michael Curtiz's "The Sea Hawk" (1940) were a distraction. But Logan's "invention" is more than that; it's like some bit of style an amateur director might use to beef up a boring scene--mounting colored gels over spotlights and then aiming them at the performers. The whole movie is merely bad "filmed theatre."

About the only items that keep this lumbering dinosaur plodding along are the songs, which (mostly speaking) are real classics and well worth hearing again, even for the thousandth time: "There Is Nothing Like A Dame," "Bali Hai," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Happy Talk," "Younger Than Springtime," etc.

Mitzi Gaynor (as Nurse Forbush) is an actress who was born 15 years too late. As her quirky performance as the independent, free-spirited Adelaide Swanson in "Take Care of My Little Girl" (1951) had proved seven years earlier, she would have felt right at home on screen during the Thirties or Forties with all those other wise-cracking dames--Ginger Roger's Roxie Hart or Rosalind Russell's Hildy Johnson, for example. Here, she is barely adequate, even if she does do her own singing. Gaynor simply isn't square enough, though she tries--boy, does she try. Her prancing around during the "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" number is just so much busy-work--like watching a stage actress doing an uninspired set of calisthenics from one side of the stage to the other. She does manage to inject some life into the "Honey Bun" set. But by then, it's too late; the movie has almost completely withered away.

The night "South Pacific" first arrived in Denton, Texas--where my Mom (a big fan of Rodgers & Hammerstein) was a business teacher at North Texas State College (since re-named The University of North Texas)--she couldn't find a baby-sitter to tend to me (age 6). So I was dragged along to the downtown theatre to see "South Pacific" with her and a small audience of college students, all of whom seemed as anesthetized as we were. Mom needn't have bothered with the baby-sitter; I fell asleep in my seat shortly after the "Dame" number and woke up toward the film's end, just in time to witness Miss Forbush informing Bloody Mary and her daughter of Lieutenant Cable's death. True, that was long ago; but then some things never improve -- not even with age.
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Flights of Fancy
10 April 2004
"Brewster McCloud" was director Robert Altman's follow-up to his enormously successful "M*A*S*H" (1970). But this comedy-fantasy received terrible reviews upon its release. Pauline Kael, of The New Yorker, labeled it an insignificant "Rima the Bird Boy" movie. And Jay Cocks's review (in Time magazine) envisioned the MGM story conference that gave Altman's project the go-ahead; the meeting ends with one reluctant executive protesting, "But gentlemen...this movie is about birds**t!" "Exactly," replies another. "Isn't that what the New Hollywood is all about?"

The New Hollywood of the early Seventies may have produced a few groundbreaking successes. Yet for every "Five Easy Pieces", there was a "Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart" or a "Together" or a "Little Murders" or a "Strawberry Statement." "Brewster McCloud" was one of those. And it hasn't dated well either.

The parody car-chase toward the film's end is not nearly as humorous as it was in 1970; and Michael Murphy, as a "hip" police detective exclaiming "Jesus Christ!" every two lines, is not exactly satire; it's just silly--like the movie's story-line: Bird-Mother (Sally Kellerman) takes Bird-Boy (Bud Cort) under her wing, while he trains himself to fly with a pair of mechanical wings. The rest of the cast are essentially Bird-Brains: Bird-Brain Police officer (John Schuck), Bird-Brain Girl-Friend (Shelley Duvall, in her first movie role), Bird-Brain Politician (William Windom), and Bird-Brain Detective (G. Wood, the bald-headed general in "M*A*S*H"). Still, one can enjoy the sort of ensemble-playing one expects in an Altman film. And the dialogue in some scenes still retains some originality. One particular exchange is worthy of Kaufman and Hart:

Windom: "I'm having some friends over for dinner and thought you might join us."

Murphy: "No, thanks."

Windom: "I assure you, my friends are not without influence."

Murphy: "Good. Then they won't miss me, will they."

But by today's standards, most of the film is silly. The only interesting facet of "Brewster McCloud" for viewers from my part of the country (South Texas) are the Houston locations, many of which no longer exist. Astro fans may treasure the shot from center-field of second-baseman Joe Morgan making a great one-handed stab at a line drive. Sadly, the Astrodome, the film's primary location, was later reduced to a big dust heap. Which, come to think of it, might be an apt description of "Brewster McCloud."
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El Norte (1983)
Journey through the Americas
9 April 2004
Like Ruben Martinez's recent nonfiction work on Latino emigrants, "Crossing Over," Gregory Nava's film, "El Norte," begins with a re-working of the Passion Play--only this time the Christ figure is Arturo Xuncax, a Guatemalan Indian and guerilla leader, who's betrayed to the landowner/elites by one of his own followers. As a result, Xuncax and his "disciples" are killed in a bloody nocturnal raid staged by the elites' enforcers--members of the Guatemalan military--and Arturo's severed head is suspended by rope from a tree limb to serve as a warning to others who may conspire against the Oppressor.

Viewers are forgiven, therefore, if they expect a story of political martyrdom and vengeance, since it is Arturo's son, Enrique, who takes up the machete that his murdered father (a "Man of Peace") refused to bring along with him to his fate. Instead, Enrique is advised by a friend to strike out to "el Norte." And since the military has vowed to de- populate Arturo's village, this would appear to be sound advice.

Thus begins one of the best "journey" films ever made. Enrique and his sister, Rosa (presumably, both are still in their teens), make the long trek from their once-idyllic Central American mountain village to what they mistakenly believe will be a comfortable, material existence in California, US of A.

While the Guatemalan scenes in "El Norte" are dark, foggy, murky, and formally paced, the second section of the film (subtitled "El Coyote") begins with a blast of mariachi music and we see the pair of young travelers on a bright, sunlit, modern Mexican highway. Most of this section deals with Rosa and Enrique's efforts to cross the Mexi-Cali border, yet this portion also gives the director a chance to delineate the personalities of his hero and heroine.

Enrique is characterized as an idealist, a dreamer, eternally kind at heart to everyone. No less kinder is Rosa. But as Enrique explains to a retired smuggler, "I think she is stronger than the two of us put together." He's right. Rosa possesses a harder edge than Enrique--an inner strength, in fact, that makes her the emotional and spiritual center of the film. On a bus ride through the Mexican countryside, she refuses to close the window next to her seat, despite the protests of a man sitting behind her; she refuses to be prevented from embracing and observing life as it truly is. Rosa is a realist. While in Tijuana, she explains to Enrique that the sale or pawning of their mother's jewelry is the only practical way they can finance their crossing over to America. Enrique, ever the sentimentalist, objects. But Rosa insists; and in the end, she wins this minor argument.

Brother and sister do manage to make it across the borderline--but at a terrible price that doesn't become evident until the film's conclusion.

"El Norte" was made on a shoestring; but Nava's direction is clever, sometimes in a style reminiscent of late-50's French New Wave, but more often as naturalistic as an Upton Sinclair novel. Indeed, a scene showing Enrique flexing his muscles while begging for work with a construction crew seems an obvious reference to Sinclair's "The Jungle."

The film is very well-cast, every scene directed economically but effectively. There is no waste-motion in this movie. Its rhythm is lyrical without being needlessly reflective. The acting is first-rate, especially the performances of two of the minor players: Lupe Ontiveros (as Nacha, Rosa's friend in Los Angeles) and Trinidad Silva (as Monte, the cynical, opportunistic baseball fanatic).
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a story and cast in search of a director
29 January 2004
When Ryan O'Neal was in his prime, he dedicated and concentrated what acting talent he had to each endeavor he was involved in. His performance in "The Thief Who Came to Dinner" (1973) reflects that mature professionalism. He is especially generous with his co-stars here: Jacqueline Bisset, Charles Cioffi, Ned Beatty, and one of the truly great character-actors of all time, Warren Oates.

The story is agreeable enough: Computer employee Mr. Straight abruptly quits his job and goes in for a stylish life of crime as a jewel-thief in, of all places, Houston, Texas.

Walter Hill authored this script before beginning his own directorial career in 1975 with "Hard Times." Hill's work here takes on a slightly more ironic tone than the stone-cold serious nature of his other noteworthy 1970's accomplishments ("The Driver," "The Warriors," the screenplay for Peckinpah's "The Getaway"). But when Hill works tongue-in-cheek, as in parts of "The Long Riders" and all of "48 Hours," the results can be crafty, diverting in a singular way. The jokes don't always work, but one can still appreciate the attempt, and understand the intelligence at work behind the small jabs at comedy.

What's missing here is a director--or at least a director competent enough to bring out the suspenseful element. Here, Bud Yorkin, completely falls down on the job. Yorkin, known primarily for his association with Norman Lear in his "All In The Family" heyday, here, displays his pedestrian talent for setting up various visual gags. In almost all cases, however, there is really no payoff. Where the film clearly calls for a howl of laughter, there is only a chuckle. Yorkin's experience in sit-com does achieve some TV-style levity, but he's clearly not a man with that special, distinguishable "cinema" eye that marks all great directors.

Not that "The Thief Who Came..." needed a great genius behind the camera. It's just that some style, some flourish, even when not really needed, even just a hint of self-gratuitous "artiness" would have added some much-needed gloss. In short, this movie should have been a great deal better than it turned out.

Philip Lathrop photographed, using the same murky blues and greens that he would later employ in Peckinpah's "The Killer Elite" (1975).
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