It's O.K. You don't feel suckered, though you don't feel elated, either. A deadly arachnid that is discovered in Venezuela kills a young photographer, crawls into his coffin, and travels from the Amazon to the fictional little town of Canaima, California. There, the hairy-legged intruder-a tarantula as big as a big-guy's fist-breeds with a harmless domestic spider, and troops of poisonous bugs begin marching out of the bathroom drains. But when it comes down to the basics of scare comedy, the arachnids are short on personality, and so is the movie. The script, credited to Don Jakoby and Wesley Strick, has too many B-picture precursors, and the first-time director, Frank Marshall, is like a Boy Scout remaking JAWS. The tricks and teases aren't hip enough to spook your imagination. Jeff Daniels is smooth as the doctor with the phobia, but his dread seems shallow. The doctor's wife (Harley Jane Kozak) is presented as the fearless, competent one; then she's dropped from view. John Goodman, in the role of the local exterminator, brings up the energy level; he gives the picture a shot of authentic American grunge. Also with Julian Sands as the uppity entomologist, Brian McNamara as his assistant, and Henry Jones and Mary Carver. The witless musical score, by Trevor Jones, is a flat-out insult. Amblin Entertainment, for Hollywood (Disney).
Kirk Douglas is a successful Los Angeles advertising man in his early 40s who tries to kill himself, and as he recovers we begin to see the tensions that have made him self-destructive-on one side a girl (Faye Dunaway) who is contemptuous of his lucrative job and conventional life, and on the other a wife (Deborah Kerr) who wants security, and in the background his Greek immigrant father (Richard Boone), who measures worth in dollars. Even more blatantly than the novel, by Elia Kazan, this movie, which he directed, is a noisy glorification of anguish over selling out. Kazan probably believes that people can't hear unless they're shouted at, and since he wants to be heard he shouts. He mistakes the noise for having something to say. This is a monstrously unconvincing movie. With Hume Cronyn, Michael Higgins, Carol Rossen, Harold Gould, Philip Bourneuf, Charles Drake, Ann Doran, Barry Sullivan, and Michael Murphy. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.
The writer-director Alexander Dovzhenko was the poet of the Russian revolutionary film movement-a poet whose startling imagery had a heat and pitch and lyricism that Eisenstein and Pudovkin never approached. This classic film, set during the war of 1914, is an original and experimental celebration of social revolution. (It ranks just below his great EARTH of 1930.) Silent.
John Barrymore as a suave gentleman thief who poses as a duke in Paris in order to fleece the rich; his techniques are suspiciously easy-at one point he saunters out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa tucked under his arm, wrapped around an umbrella. Lionel Barrymore plays an agonized, limping detective on the lighthearted thief's trail. The contrast should be more entertaining than it is. This was the Barrymore brothers' first film together and Barrymore gets to show a little of his humor but Barrymore was already making a profession out of crankiness. The movie is mildly amusing in spots but it isn't much fun. Directed by Jack Conway, for MGM. From the play by Maurice Le Blanc and Francis de Croisset (which had already done service in the silent period), adapted by Carey Wilson, with dialogue by Bayard Veiller and Lenore Coffee. With Karen Morley, John Miljan, and Tully Marshall.
Adapted from Joseph Kesselring's black comedy, this laborious farce was actually made in 1941, but by contract it couldn't be released until the Broadway production-which ran and ran-finally closed. Maybe the success of the play magically rubbed off on the movie, because it has always been inexplicably popular. The sane theatre-critic hero, Cary Grant, tries to convince his sweetly lethal little aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) that it isn't nice to put arsenic in the elderberry wine that they serve their guests, but they just don't understand why he gets so upset. You may not, either; the director, Frank Capra, has Grant performing in such a frenzied, dithering manner that during much of the action he seems crazier than anybody else. His role was shaped as if for Fred MacMurray, and Grant was pushed into overreacting-prolonging his stupefied double-takes, stretching out his whinny. Capra's hick jollity turns Grant into a manic eunuch. The hero's aggressive fiancée, here rewritten into a cuddly, innocuous little dear, is played by Priscilla Lane. The villains-murderers who are less couth in their methods than the innocently mad aunts-are Peter Lorre, as himself, and Raymond Massey, impersonating Boris Karloff; some people roar at their antics. With James Gleason, Edward Everett Horton, Jack Carson, John Alexander, Grant Mitchell, and the famous thirteen corpses. Adapted by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein; score by Max Steiner. Warners.
A lavish mess of loosely strung together vaudeville acts and a story centering on the selection of a queen for a charity ball and on Jack Benny as the head of an advertising agency trying to land an account with a silverware company, run by Richard Arlen. The cast includes Louis Armstrong, Martha Raye, Ben Blue, Ida Lupino, Gail Patrick, Judy Canova, Connee Boswell, Peter Arno, and Rube Goldberg, but the plot makes you feel as if you're back in grammar school. Raoul Walsh directed. (There was actually a sequel the following year.) Paramount.
Shakespeare cleaned up and made rather too respectably lighthearted. Still, this British production is by no means contemptible; it's enjoyable even in its disappointing moments. As Rosalind, Elisabeth Bergner, a great theatrical technician who specialized in heartbreaking gamine charm, can't resist being more adorably mischievous than is necessary and she's handicapped by her age (she was close to 40) and by her German accent, which dims the sparkle of some of her lines. One doesn't think of her as Fräulein Rosalind-one just doesn't make contact with her Rosalind. The young Laurence Olivier is triumphantly angelic as that amorous, brooding goof Orlando; there's a real interpretation at work here-his reactions make one grin. With Henry Ainley, Richard Ainley, Sophie Stewart, Mackenzie Ward, Leon Quartermaine, Felix Aylmer, Aubrey Mather, John Laurie, and Peter Bull. Directed by Bergner's husband, Paul Czinner, who-as in his movie versions of operas-never really seems to get the hang of the medium. Adapted by J.M. Barrie and Robert Cullen.
In a few scenes, Elizabeth Taylor is done up like Arletty playing Garance in CHILDREN OF PARADISE, and she's absolutely ravishing, in an unearthly, ageless way. But the film is a long-drawn-out ghoulish commercial for cosmetic surgery-made, apparently, for people who can't think of anything to do with their lives but go backward. Jean-Claude Tramont is credited with the script and Larry Peerce is credited with the direction, but there is no script and there is no direction. With Keith Baxter, Helmut Berger, and Henry Fonda giving a sour, dumb performance. Produced by Dominick Dunne; released by Paramount.
A competent (often overrated) thriller by John Huston about a group of crooks who plan a jewel robbery and how their characters determine the results. Sterling Hayden is the central figure; the cast includes Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, Marilyn Monroe, James Whitmore, John McIntire, and Marc Lawrence. The screenplay, by Ben Maddow and Huston, was adapted from the W.R. Burnett novel. (Remade as THE BADLANDERS in 1958, CAIRO in 1963, and, with a black cast, as A COOL BREEZE in 1972.) MGM.
Not for anyone who knows, or cares, anything about Leon Trotsky. With Richard Burton as a stuffed-shirt Trotsky; Alain Delon as an angel-of-death assassin; Romy Schneider, and Valentina Cortese. Directed by Joseph Losey; cinematography by Pasqualino De Santis; screenplay by Nicholas Mosley and Masolino D'Amico. A French, Italian, and British co-production.
Peter Bogdanovich's stillborn musical comedy-a relentlessly vapid pastiche of 30s Art Deco romantic-mixup movies. With Burt Reynolds as a bored millionaire playboy, Cybill Shepherd as a spoiled heiress, Eileen Brennan as a comic Irish maid, John Hillerman as an unflappable valet, Duilio Del Prete as a debonair gambler, and 16 Cole Porter songs. Performed as they are here, they sound smug, though Madeline Kahn, as a Broadway songstress nudging her thighs together while she sings "Find Me a Primitive Man," is fairly funny. Also with Mildred Natwick and M. Emmet Walsh. Script by Bogdanovich; cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.
The Marx Brothers. They do get to shoot Margaret Dumont out of a cannon, but it's all fairly ponderous. Edward Buzzell directed, from Irving Brecher's weary script. With Kenny Baker, Eve Arden, Florence Rice, Nat Pendleton, and Fritz Feld. The music is by Harold Arlen; Groucho sings the famous ditty about "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady." Mervyn LeRoy was the producer. MGM.
This spa that became a racketeers' paradise during Prohibition and in 1981 was on its chaotic way to becoming Vegas with a beach is an improbable place, and in this lyric farce, directed by Louis Malle, from John Guare's script, it gives a hallucinatory texture to the lives of the characters. The story is a prankish wish-fulfillment fantasy about prosperity-what it does to cities, what it can do for people. It takes Malle a little while to set up the crisscrossing of the 10 or 12 major characters, but once he does, the film operates by its own laws in its own world, and it has a lovely fizziness. Everything goes wrong and comes out right. The casting is superb. As an old numbers runner who dreams of the days when he was a flunky and bodyguard for big-time racketeers, Burt Lancaster gives what is probably his funniest (and finest) performance. Susan Sarandon plays an uneducated girl studying to become a croupier, and for once her googly-eyed, slightly stupefied look seems perfect. With Kate Reid as the widow of a mobster, Hollis McLaren as a dippy flower child born into the wrong era, Robert Joy, Michel Piccoli, and many fine character actors, and an appearance by Robert Goulet as himself. Cinematography by Richard Ciupka. Produced by Denis Heroux; a French and Canadian co-production, released by Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
A yawner. It's hard to believe that HERCULES with Steve Reeves could have inspired imitations, but here's Roger Corman's quickie version, with earnest, scrawny Michael Forest trying to save the Grecian city of Thenis from the power-mad Praximedes (Frank Wolff, who is occasionally amusing).
Garbo, when she was an entrancingly soft-faced, full-bodied young girl, and the dashing Byronic Lars Hanson in Mauritz Stiller's stirring, romantic film version of the Selma Lagerlöf novel. Stiller was a master at unifying visual beauty and emotional effect; the complicated narrative is blurry, but there are sequences as lovely and expressive as any on film. Silent.
It's set in Occupied France in 1944, when the writer-director Louis Malle was an 11-year-old at a Catholic boys' boarding school near Fontainebleau that sheltered several Jewish boys. The Gestapo learned they were there, and sent the ones they found to Auschwitz, and the headmaster to a work camp. One of the Jewish boys was in Malle's class, but Malle didn't get to know him well and didn't realize that he was Jewish. For the dramatic purposes of the movie, he has conceived a close friendship between his alter ego, the fair-haired Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), and the dark boy who is using the false name Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö). But nothing comes into clear focus-not the boys' attitudes, not even the images. The film (especially the first half) seems padded, formal, discreet. It's like watching a faded French classic. And there's something unseemly about the way Jean is used as an aesthetic object-spiritual, sensitive, exotic. With Francine Racette as Julien's mother and François Négret as the informer. In French.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.
As the hero, a playwright who's a genial, children-loving jokester, Al Pacino reads his lines very skillfully, but he can't seem to get the message to his face or his body. He's like a man who's looking for something and has forgotten what; he prowls, distractedly. And when he tries for warmth, his smile is so self-conscious that at times his teeth seem to be stranded on the screen, left behind. Most of the scenes in which he is shown in his theatrical dealings have a quick, satirical snap, and in the first half, the dialogue has a sense of give-and-take, but then the film follows up on all the stuff we're not interested in. The playwright chases after his wife (Tuesday Weld), who has casually gone off with another man, leaving behind her four children by three earlier husbands. The playwright also has one child of his own, and by the time he is hauling kids onto the roof of his Greenwich Village house to protect them from being dispersed to homes they don't want to go to, the picture has turned into a New York Times Magazine article on male parenting. The script, by Israel Horovitz, has trim, funny lines but also terrible, overingratiating ones, and some of the most doddering, bonehead situations to be seen on the big screen in years. Directed by Arthur Hiller, the film is blotchy in just about every conceivable way; you'd have to conduct an exhaustive search to find a movie with scuzzier lighting (the cinematography is by Victor J. Kemper). With Dyan Cannon, who gives her scenes an infusion of spirit, and also Alan King, André Gregory, Bob Dishy, Eric Gurry, and Bob and Ray. Produced by Irwin Winkler; 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
Cicely Tyson plays a woman who was born in slavery and lived to take part in a civil-rights demonstration in 1962; the role spans Jane Pittman's life from the age of 20 to the age of 110, and Cicely Tyson knows what she's doing every inch of the way. Jane isn't a deep woman; childless, uneducated, she's an enjoyer of life. It isn't until extreme old age gives her a privileged status that she loses her fear and becomes-briefly, just before her death-free enough to speak her mind and to crack a joke and to find herself. When she walks up to a whites-only drinking fountain in front of a Southern courthouse, and drinks from it, all of us in the audience can taste the good water. And the way the tough-minded Tyson plays the part, you feel you're inside skinny old Jane's head. Based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines and made for television, the film was directed by the self-effacing John Korty; his plain, uncoercive approach suggests a principled reticence. Tyson's performance and Korty's tact are more than enough to compensate for the flaws: the anachronisms and naïveté in parts of Tracy Keenan Wynn's adaptation; some nondescript casting and acting; the device of using a journalist (Michael Murphy) to link the episodes. The character of Jane Pittman is synthesized from stories that Gaines heard while growing up on a plantation in Louisiana, but watching the film (which was all shot in Louisiana), you forget (as readers of the novel did) that it's fiction. It seems to be a slightly awkward re-enactment of the life of an actual person.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.
Robert Aldrich piling on the garish melodrama and working up a storm of emotional anguish. He holds your attention even though some part of you is giggling while you watch Joan Crawford take as her husband Cliff Robertson, who is not well in the head. He tosses objects at her (including a standard typewriter), and she heaves, gasps, and rolls her large eyes, but persists in being understanding. What's eating him is that in his first marriage (to Vera Miles) he was cuckolded by his own rotten dad (Lorne Greene). It eventually becomes evident to the hand-wringing, knuckle-gnawing Crawford that something has to be done, but not until after she does a lot of striding up and down. Columbia.
Just when Americans seemed to be getting over that 50s craziness of children's blaming everything on their parents, we got it back from Ingmar Bergman. Eva (Liv Ullmann), a spiritually distraught, dowdy woman of perhaps 35 or 40, the wife of a pastor in rural Norway, invites Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), her majestically worldly concert-pianist mother, to come for a visit. Then Eva goes at her mother with the impacted rage of a lifetime, accusing Charlotte of having deserted her when she was a child by going off to give concerts, and of never loving her. The whole film is like the grievances of someone who has just gone into therapy-Mother did this to me, she did that to me, and that and that and that. Ullmann enters into Ingmar Bergman's disturbed emotions and puts them on the screen just as he desires; neither of them does the shaping job of an artist here. It's a grueling, unconvincing movie. Ingrid Bergman is the one likable performer. With Lena Nyman and Halvar Björk. Cinematography by Sven Nykvist. In Swedish.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.
In legend, Avalon is an earthly paradise. The writer-director Barry Levinson uses the name as his Rosebud: it's carved into the facade of the castle-like Baltimore apartment house where the five Krichinsky brothers, Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe before the First World War, make their first American home. In Levinson's view, those early years were a golden age. The film is set mostly during his own childhood, in the late 40s, when his parents move to the suburbs, and TV breaks up the clan's social patterns, and the surviving brothers have divided into feuding factions. The scattered fine comic moments don't make up for the wide streak of fuddy-duddyism in the notion that the family used to be the bulwark of the nation's value system. The movie is an elegy to a mythical past, and people emerge from the theatre sniffling. They've been told they're suffering from soul-sickness-the loss of unity, harmony, family music. With the quietly witty Elizabeth Perkins as the American-born young wife who doesn't buy into Levinson's vision of how great the past was. Trapped living with her bickering Old World in-laws, she's practically stiff from repressed annoyance, but she's too decent and too timid to explode. Aidan Quinn is persuasive as her affable, salesman husband who's not going to get caught between his wife and his mother (Joan Plowright); his specialty is keeping the peace. The peppy Kevin Pollak is Quinn's cousin and business partner. Armin Mueller-Stahl is the paperhanger grandfather Sam Krichinsky, the life-spirit central character who makes the points that Levinson wants to put across. Also with Lou Jacobi, and Elijah Wood as the child Michael. Cinematography by Allen Daviau. Tri-Star.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Movie Love.
D.W. Griffith was so extraordinarily fertile and imaginative that when he saw THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, in 1919, he could complain, with justice, that he had already tried and discarded that approach. And here's the evidence-a dream film, derived from Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart" and "Annabel Lee," in which inanimate objects are used in a hallucinatory way. With Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, and Blanche Sweet. (Vachel Lindsay analyzed this film in his 1915 book The Art of the Motion Picture.) Silent.
A classic screwball comedy, about one of old Hollywood's favorite subjects: the divorced couple who almost bed down with new mates but get back together. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant are the sparring partners, and Ralph Bellamy plays just about the same role he later played in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Irene Dunne's way with a quip is to smile brightly and wring it dry, but she's at her best here. Joyce Compton plays the nightclub performer whom Dunne parodies, and the cast includes Esther Dale, Cecil Cunningham, and Alex D'Arcy. Leo McCarey's direction is first-rate; in a memorable sequence toward the end, Grant tries to persuade a door to open without visible assistance. Viña Delmar did the screenplay, from Arthur Richman's 1922 play. (There was a forgettable remake in 1953 with the shamefaced title LET'S DO IT AGAIN.) Columbia.