The Best of Times

US (1986): Drama/Comedy
104 min, Rated PG-13, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

An enjoyable soft-shoe farce, directed by Roger Spottiswoode and written by Ron Shelton-the team who made the 1983 UNDER FIRE. Every smart aleck in the town of Taft, California, has been ribbing the smarmy bank vice-president Jack Dundee (Robin Williams) for 13 years-ever since he fumbled the beautiful touchdown pass that the high school's star quarterback, Reno (Kurt Russell), threw to him at the end of the Big Game with Bakersfield, in 1971. Jack fastens on the addlepated notion of replaying the game, and won't let go of it. His loony psyche operates at full tilt, and he's so nervous he's unstoppable. The mellow Russell is a great straight man to him: the way Russell plays Reno, you see his transparent normality in every curve of his face. What makes this movie more than a football fantasy and puts you in mind of Preston Sturges and of Jonathan Demme's HANDLE WITH CARE (1977)/CITIZENS BAND is how the rematch affects the two men's marriages. As the two pairs of high-school sweethearts who are now married lovers, Robin Williams and Holly Palance and Kurt Russell and Pamela Reed are as close to comic perfection as movie couples are likely to get. With Donald Moffat as Jack's father-in-law, M. Emmet Walsh as the head Caribou of the Caribou Lodge, and Margaret Whitton, Dub Taylor, R.G. Armstrong, and Kathleen Freeman. Cinematography by Charles F. Wheeler. Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Best Years of Our Lives

US (1946): Drama
172 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A hefty (172 minutes) piece of moviemaking that seemed to satisfy the public desire to see what changes the Second World War had made in people's lives. Despite its seven Academy Awards, it's not a great picture; it's too schematic and it drags on after you get the points. However, episodes and details stand out and help to compensate for the soggy plot strands, and there's something absorbing about the banality of its large-scale good intentions; it's compulsively watchable. And it's by no means a rah-rah film-there's an undercurrent of discontent. Fredric March is the infantry sergeant who comes home to his small (apocryphal) Midwestern city and the love of his wife (Myrna Loy) but finds no pleasure in his job as vice-president of a bank. Dana Andrews, an Air Force captain who had been a soda jerk before the war, discovers that his hard-as-nails wife (Virginia Mayo) doesn't want him any more than he wants her; he turns to the sergeant's daughter (Teresa Wright). Harold Russell is the machinist's mate second class who has lost his hands but has retained the love of his childhood sweetheart. Directed by William Wyler, it's clean and unmannered. In 1944, Sam Goldwyn had seen a photograph in Time showing a group of Marines coming home, and the accompanying news story had suggested that they might be returning to their families and jobs with mixed emotions. Goldwyn commissioned MacKinlay Kantor to write a screen treatment based on this idea; Kantor, instead, wrote Glory for Me, a novel in verse, which Goldwyn then hired Robert E. Sherwood to adapt. With Cathy O'Donnell, Gladys George, Hoagy Carmichael, Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins, Steve Cochran, Minna Gombell, Don Beddoe, and Erskine Sanford. Cinematography by Gregg Toland. A Samuel Goldwyn Production; released by RKO.

Beverly Hills Cop

US (1984): Crime/Comedy/Action
105 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The plot-Eddie Murphy is a Detroit cop who takes a vacation to go to Beverly Hills and hunt down the men who killed his best friend-is just a peg for little set pieces in which the street-smart Murphy, in his worn-out sweatshirts, saunters through swank Beverly Hills locations, tells whopping lies, and outsmarts the white dumbos. Yelling and fast-talking, and hotfooting the picture to keep it going, he rattles off pitifully undistinguished profanity, but we're cued to react to every stupid four-letter word as riotous. And, with Murphy busting his sides laughing in self-congratulation, and the camera jammed into his tonsils, damned if the audience doesn't whoop and carry on as if, yes, this is a wow of a comedy. There are a few likable, unforced funny scenes with Judge Reinhold as a credulous, velvet-voiced cop, Stephen Elliott as the police chief, and Bronson Pinchot as Serge. Also with Ronny Cox, Steven Berkoff, Paul Reiser, Lisa Eilbacher, James Russo, Jonathan Banks, and John Ashton. Directed by Martin Brest, from a lame script by Daniel Petrie, Jr. Produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, for Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Beyond the Forest

US (1949): Romance
96 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Consistently (though inadvertently) hilarious; there's not a sane dull scene in this peerless piece of camp. This is the melodrama in which Bette Davis tosses her black wig and snarls the line "What a dump!"-which Edward Albee took for the opening of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? An evil Emma Bovary, she's a sloven married to a Midwestern doctor (Joseph Cotten); she treats him abominably, and every time she has a chance, she surrenders herself with hysterical enthusiasm to the hot-eyed embraces of a Chicago magnate (David Brian). Her obsession is to blow town, join her lover, and be a fancy kept woman; she nearly obsesses the sound track with variations of "Chicago, Chicago." The director, King Vidor, seems to be inventing his own brand of hog-wild Expressionism; covered with droplets of erotic sweat, Davis shakes her ample hips, kills an old man (Minor Watson), plunges down a mountainside to end an unwanted pregnancy, and dies within sight of a choo-choo pulling out for Chicago, Chicago. Max Steiner's music cues her every stormy mood. With Dona Drake, Ruth Roman, and Regis Toomey. The screenplay is by Lenore Coffee, from a novel by Stuart Engstrand. Warners.

The Bible

Italy (1966): Religious
174 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

John Huston's agnostic version of the stories of Genesis. There are times when God seems to be smiling, such as during the dispersal of the animals after the landing of the Ark, and other times when God demands cruel proofs of obedience, such as in the story of Abraham (George C. Scott). A sprawling, flawed epic, but with some breathtaking conceptions and moments of beauty. With Michael Parks, Ulla Bergryd, Richard Harris, Ava Gardner, Stephen Boyd, and Peter O'Toole; cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno. A Dino De Laurentiis Production; released by 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

The Bicycle Thief

Italy (1949): Drama
90 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc
Also known as LADRI DI BICICLETTE.

This story of a poor man's search for his stolen bicycle is deceptively simple. At first, there is ironic tenderness: humanity observed with compassion but without illusion. Then the search becomes an odyssey of poverty, encompassing much more than the realistic method leads you to expect. And the richness and the enigmas sneak up on you. What is the meaning of the seeress's words? How is it that the hero who is searching for the bicycle thief becomes the bicycle thief? This neorealist classic, directed by Vittorio De Sica and written by Cesare Zavattini, is on just about everybody's list of the greatest films. It isn't a movie that warms you, though; it doesn't have the flawed poetry that De Sica's SHOESHINE and MIRACLE IN MILAN have. It's a more impersonal great film. In Italian.

Big

US (1988): Comedy
102 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A formula fantasy film that has been directed very gently and tactfully by Penny Marshall; she sleepwalks you through the script (by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg) about a 12-year-old boy who wishes he were big and is magically given the body of a man in his 30s-Tom Hanks. There are neat, flaky moments, but everything has a tepid inevitability, and even as you smile you may be groaning inwardly, because BIG is dedicated to awakening the child in all of us. Of course, the Hanks character isn't ready to function as an adult; he wants to go back. The movie wants to go back, too. It's nostalgic for childhood, for suburbia, for innocent fun. (It isn't about kids wanting to be big; it's about grown-ups feeling little.) In its wholesome way, BIG is selling the slick wonders of immaturity. It turns prepubescence into a dream state. With the slyly sexy Elizabeth Perkins, and good comic work by Robert Loggia and Jared Rushton. Also with John Heard, David Moscow, Jon Lovitz, and Mercedes Ruehl. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Big Broadcast of 1938

US (1938): Musical/Comedy
90 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

One of the best of the pleasantly anarchic Paramount vaudeville shows. This one features W.C. Fields, Kirsten Flagstad, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, and Bob Hope and Shirley Ross singing "Thanks for the Memory," and most of it takes place on an ocean liner. Mitchell Leisen directed.

The Big Bus

US (1976): Disaster/Comedy
88 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

This slapstick satire of disaster movies is full of gags that seem potentially hilarious, and the script, by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen, may have looked really promising, in an all-out sophomoric-surreal way. But only a very few of the gags get their laughs-and when slapstick goes flat, the effect is grim. Right from the start, you get the feeling of indecisiveness; the director, James Frawley, doesn't stylize the clichés he's parodying, and so they remain clichés. Intermittently, some of the actors come through. Joseph Bologna and John Beck are the drivers of a nuclear-powered bus on its maiden run from New York to Denver. Bologna is a remarkably easy, unactorish actor; at times, he's like a smaller Sid Caesar or a deadpan Alan Alda. And the long-chinned Beck knows how to use his dumb-lug face for amiable stupor. But the heroine, Stockard Channing, has an abrasive voice, and it's hard to know how one is meant to respond to her smug whimsicality, or to her eyebrows, or to the way she crumples her lower face. With Bob Dishy, who wins at least a smile from the audience, and Lynn Redgrave, José Ferrer, Sally Kellerman, Ruth Gordon, René Auberjonois, Harold Gould, Larry Hagman, Ned Beatty, and Richard Mulligan. Paramount.

Big Business

US (1988): Comedy
97 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in a farce about two sets of identical twins accidentally mismatched at birth. They're the Ratliffs, who live in a backwoods Southern town, and they're the Sheltons, who run the New York conglomerate Moramax. The four women and their various courtiers, flunkies, and love objects wind up spending the weekend at the Plaza Hotel. (Actually, it's a more spacious, vacuously glamourized Plaza-most of the interiors were constructed at the Disney Studios in Burbank.) The film often looks third class, and the director, Jim Abrahams, doesn't have the knack of making the details click into place. You're aware of an awful lot of mistaken-identity plot and aware of how imprecise most of it is. Yet the picture moves along, spattering the air with throwaway gags, and a minute after something misfires you're laughing out loud. Fred Ward, who plays Tomlin's down-home suitor, is serenely unself-conscious, and takes over as the film's hero. And Midler breezes through, kicking one gong after another. Free and inspired, she plays the poor girl as a supplicant abasing herself before the world's goodies. She's pure appetite. And as the mogul of Moramax she flips up her collar and her gesture bespeaks perfect self-satisfaction. (Chaplin did this sort of thing, and he didn't do it better.) With Michele Placido, Deborah Rush, Edward Herrmann, Daniel Gerroll, Michael Gross, Barry Primus, Mary Gross, and Leo Burmester as the bum. Script credited to Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel. Touchstone (Disney).
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Big Carnival/Ace in the Hole

US (1951): Drama
112 min, No rating, Black & White
Also known as ACE IN THE HOLE.

Billy Wilder produced and directed this box-office failure right after SUNSET BLVD. and just before STALAG 17. Some people have tried to claim some sort of satirical brilliance for it, but it's really just nasty, in a sociologically pushy way. Kirk Douglas is the big-time New York reporter who is so opportunistic that when he gets to where a collapsed roof has buried a man in New Mexico, he arranges to have the rescue delayed so that he can pump the story up. The trapped man dies, while Douglas keeps shouting in order that we can all see what a symptomatic, cynical exploiter he is. With Jan Sterling as the trapped man's wife, Porter Hall, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal, and Frank Cady. Script by Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman. Filmed on location near Gallup, New Mexico. Paramount.

The Big Chill

US (1983): Drama
103 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

An amiable, slick comedy with some very well-directed repartee and skillful performances. It's ostensibly about how the late-60s campus activists have adjusted to becoming the kind of people they used to insult, but it isn't really political. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the script with Barbara Benedek, it's set in South Carolina, where a group of seven former friends from the University of Michigan gather for the funeral of Alex, the campus radical who brought them together, and who has now, after years of flailing about disconsolately, slit his wrists. The friends bury the 60s (which Alex symbolizes) and then dredge them up to talk about during the weekend. The movie may pretend to be about "life," but it's really about being clever (even the title tells you that), and about the fun of ensemble acting. Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, and Kevin Kline do some of their best work here; Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Mary Kay Place, and JoBeth Williams do remarkably well with what they've got to work with. And Meg Tilly, who plays Alex's young girlfriend, is an extraordinarily lovely presence; it's easy to see why Alex turned to this restful girl-she's a refuge from ideas. The picture offers the pleasures of the synthetic. It's overcontrolled, it's shallow, it's a series of contrivances. And whenever Kasdan tries for depth the result is phony. But a lot of the time he manages to turn phoniness into wisecracking fun. A Carson Production, released by Columbia.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

The Big City

US (1937): Drama
80 min, No rating, Black & White

Luise Rainer, wanly dying of leukemia, as the immigrant wife of a taxi-driver (Spencer Tracy) involved in a taxi war. William Demarest turns up, and in the final scramble on the New York docks, so do Jack Dempsey, Man Mountain Dean, Maxie Rosenbloom, and sundry other sporting figures. The picture doesn't hold together, and although Tracy struggles with the material, he can't win. Directed by Frank Borzage. MGM.

The Big City

India (1963): Drama
122 min, No rating, Black & White
Also known as MAHANAGAR.

The city is Calcutta, and Satyajit Ray's heroine, a young married woman, takes a job in order to supplement her husband's income (which must support them, their child, his teenage sister, and his parents). The movie deals with the wife's discovery of life outside the home, and her changed relations with each member of the family. Madhabi Mukherjee is lovely as the gentle but strong wife, and there are telling portraits of her cruddy, hustling boss, and of an Anglo-Indian girl (Vicky Redwood) who is the victim of his discrimination. The film does what it sets out to do, and it's perceptive and revealing; it stays with one. Yet it is very quiet and rather thin; it lacks the depths and richness and creative imagery of the best of Satyajit Ray. In Bengali and English.

Big Deal on Madonna Street

Italy (1958): Crime/Comedy
91 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

The Italian title is I SOLITI IGNOTI, the police term for "the usual unidentified persons." Mario Monicelli's gentle, casually underplayed comedy is about a group of petty thieves eager to move up in status-to rob a safe in a loan office. The thieves are ambitious, good-natured, and hopeful, but they are easily distracted; when they should be concentrating on plans, they become hungry or fall in love or quarrel or fuss over a sleepless baby. This is a shaggy RIFIFI. With Marcello Mastroianni (as a simpleton), Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatori, Claudia Cardinale, Carla Gravina, and, as the leading safecracker in Italy (now near-senile), whom the small-time thieves hire to show them how to pull off their big job, the superb clown Totò-a stylized image of fatigue, sadness, decadence. From a screenplay by Age and Scarpelli, Cecchi D'Amico, and Monicelli. In Italian.

The Big Easy

US (1987): Thriller/Crime
108 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

It has an amateurish, 50s-B-movie droopiness. Dennis Quaid plays a vain, irresistible New Orleans police lieutenant, half-Irish, half-Cajun, who is relaxed about accepting free meals and small favors; to him that's friendly, it has nothing to do with crime. Ellen Barkin plays a new assistant district attorney from up North who believes in the letter of the law-you can tell that from her drab tailored suits and her asexual prissiness. The lieutenant goes to work on her immediately in a few fairly explicit devilish-charmer-and-nervous-novice scenes, and her inhibitions melt away. The carnal humor of these moments gives the film a distinctive amiability, but there's too much TV-style drugs and killing, and the director, Jim McBride, has Quaid and Barkin playing too broadly; he also has the camera too close in-the performers stick out of the film frame. With Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Grace Zabriskie, Lisa Jane Persky, and the great Charles Ludlam, who thrives on broadness. As a gentleman lawyer of Old Dixie, he rolls his eyes and wraps the picture like a ribbon around his panama hat. The script is by Daniel Petrie, Jr., and Jack Baran. Released by Columbia.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Big Fix

US (1978): Mystery/Comedy
108 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

A counterculture detective story, with a wisecracking detective-Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss)-who isn't the usual cynical down-at-the-heels private eye; he's warm and Jewish and disillusioned, with two sons to support from a failed marriage. The film's nostalgia for the great days of Berkeley in the late 60s-for the sit-ins, the strikes, the anti-war demonstrations-is like a form of intellectual mildew. The film uses "Berkeley" the way Stalinists used "Spain"-to set off waves of guilt and sadness. The plot involves someone's attempt to sabotage the campaign of the liberal candidate for Governor of California by dirty tricks, but the director, Jeremy Paul Kagan, doesn't draw our attention to the vital plot elements or provide enough visual emphasis and clarity for us to see who is chasing whom, or even who is in a sequence. The movie seems to have been photographed through sludge. Dreyfuss acts like a puppy surprising his master with little tricks he's thought of all by himself; you feel he wants petting after each scene. With a remarkable satirical performance by F. Murray Abraham as an Abbie Hoffman-like sloganeering radical, who bounces up and down gleefully, out of sheer kinetic high spirits, and with Susan Anspach, Bonnie Bedelia, John Lithgow, Rita Karin, Fritz Weaver, Ofelia Medina, Nicolas Coster, and Michael Hershewe. Produced by Carl Borack and Dreyfuss; from Roger L. Simon's adaptation of his own 1973 novel. Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

The Big Heat

US (1953): Crime
90 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Sidney Boehm's solid, hard-nosed script might have been made into a routine cops-and-robbers thriller, but the director, Fritz Lang, gave it a formalized style. The movie is all of a piece; it's designed in light and shadows, and its underworld atmosphere glistens with the possibilities of sadism-this is a definitive film noir, with a few stunningly choreographed nasty scenes. Glenn Ford is Dave Bannion, a police lieutenant who ignores the orders of his superiors and investigates a big-time gangster (Alexander Scourby). A bomb is planted in Bannion's car, and his wife (Jocelyn Brando) is blown up. Full of hate, Bannion leaves the department to find revenge. When one of the gangster's henchmen (Lee Marvin) throws scalding coffee at his mistress, a high-living tough-girl lush (Gloria Grahame), and she wants vengeance, too, she joins up with Bannion. And the film accumulates corpses and arrests. With Carolyn Jones and Dan Seymour. From a novel by William P. McGivern; cinematography by Charles B. Lang Columbia.

The Big Knife

US (1955): Drama
111 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on laserdisc

It's in the same garish genre as THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. It's paced too fast and pitched too high, immorality is attacked with almost obscene relish, the knife turns into a buzz saw. Maybe because of all these faults of taste, you can't take your eyes off it. Rod Steiger gives a classic performance as a destructive, self-righteous Hollywood magnate; Jack Palance is surprisingly effective as the overwrought John Garfield-type star. With Wendell Corey, Shelley Winters, Everett Sloane, Jean Hagen, Ilka Chase, and Ida Lupino and Wesley Addy as sanctimonious characters who, regrettably, are the authors' mouthpieces. James Poe adapted Clifford Odets' play. Robert Aldrich directed, overdoing everything in sight; he just about turns hysteria into a style. United Artists.

The Big Pond

US (1930): Romance/Musical
75 min, No rating, Black & White

The pond is the Atlantic, and in this musical starring Maurice Chevalier he's a Frenchman whose intentions are often misunderstood in the United States, particularly by George Barbier, the rich, chewing-gum-manufacturer father of the girl Chevalier loves (Claudette Colbert). Preston Sturges did part of the rewrite job on the 1928 Broadway play, but the spoofy film is remembered chiefly for the charming songs that Chevalier introduced, especially "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" and "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight." With Nat Pendleton. Directed by Hobart Henley. Paramount.

The Big Sleep

US (1946): Mystery/Crime
114 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Humphrey Bogart is Raymond Chandler's private eye in this witty, incredibly complicated thriller. You may not be able to figure out the plot even after the dénouement (Chandler reported that while the film was in production, William Faulkner and the other screenwriters had to appeal to him for guidance, and apparently Chandler couldn't exactly figure it out either), but it's the dialogue and the entertaining qualities of the individual sequences that make this movie. It takes place in the big city of displaced persons-the night city, where sensation is all. The action is tense and fast, and the film catches the lurid Chandler atmosphere. The characters are a collection of sophisticated monsters-blackmailers, pornographers, apathetic society girls (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers are a baffling pair of spoiled sisters; the latter sucks her thumb), drug addicts, nymphomaniacs (a brunette Dorothy Malone seduces the hero in what must surely be record time), murderers. All of them talk in innuendoes, as if that were a new stylization of the American language, but how reassuring it is to know what the second layer of meaning refers to. Howard Hawks directed-and so well that you may even enjoy the fact that, as he says, "Neither the author, the writer, nor myself knew who had killed whom." (The 1978 Michael Winner remake, starring Robert Mitchum, is easily forgotten.) Warners.

The Big Store

US (1941): Comedy
80 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The Marx Brothers take over a department store. But they never quite take over the movie, which is far from inspired, though it does have Margaret Dumont and that great slimy villain Douglass Dumbrille. Directed by Charles Riesner; from a script by Sid Kuller, Hal Fimberg, and Ray Golden. MGM.

A Bill of Divorcement

US (1932): Comedy
69 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

The dialogue has the creaky sound of classy, overcivilized theatre; the film is just barely adapted from Clemence Dane's play about a father and daughter doomed by hereditary insanity-the kind of play in which the daughter is named Sydney Fairchild, her father Hilary Fairchild, and the daughter's boyfriend Kit. But as Sydney, Katharine Hepburn, in her film début, was like nothing that had ever been seen on the screen. It wasn't that she was good, exactly (in fact, her acting was mostly awful), but she was so angular and mannered, with her mouth a scar of suffering, that she was rivetting. And John Barrymore, who plays the father, was a fairly rivetting performer himself-though his role here is drearily subservient. Young George Cukor directed, in the insulated style all too appropriate to the material. With David Manners (Kit, of course), Billie Burke, Elizabeth Patterson, Paul Cavanagh, and Henry Stephenson. RKO.

Billion Dollar Brain

UK (1967): Spy
111 min, No rating, Color

Ken Russell's second picture. (The first was FRENCH DRESSING, which didn't open in the U.S.) It stars a wearily nonchalant Michael Caine, as the seedy spy Harry Palmer, and it was a sequel to THE IPCRESS FILE and FUNERAL IN BERLIN. Russell finished off the series; he hurled the audience from one crisis to the next, and things went by so fast that the story line got befuddled and nothing at all seemed to be happening. It was Françoise Dorléac's last role; though part of the film was shot in Helsinki in winter and she's all bundled up, she looks lovely. The cast includes Oscar Homolka as the Russian Colonel Stok, Karl Malden, Ed Begley, Vladek Sheybal, and some lively Honeywell electronic calculators. Screenplay by John McGrath, based on Len Deighton's novel; cinematography by Billy Williams.

Billy Budd

UK-US (1962): Drama
119 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Melville's short novel is stripped for action in this tense, straightforward shipboard narrative, directed by Peter Ustinov. Ustinov's efficiency and Robert Krasker's stylized black-and-white cinematography help to release the ambiguities without clogging the film with metaphysical speculation or too many homoerotic overtones. As Billy, the beautiful sailor, an American Prince Myshkin, Terence Stamp wears white pants and suggests angelic splendor without falling into the narcissistic poses that juveniles often mistake for grace. Robert Ryan is the depraved master-at-arms, Claggart, whose self-hatred makes it necessary for him to destroy Billy, the image of goodness; Ryan gives the role the requisite satanic ugliness. Unfortunately, Ustinov miscasts himself as Captain Vere; as he plays the part, the Captain is a humane man, a good liberal tragically torn by the demands of authority. But what gives Melville's story its fascination and its greatness is the suggestion that Claggart is merely the underling doing the evil Captain's bidding. As actor, director, and co-scenarist, Ustinov may be too much the relaxed, worldly European to understand Melville's raging emotions; in Ustinov's view, Billy is just a victim of unfortunate circumstances. The film doesn't approach Melville's passion, but it's a good movie anyway. With Paul Rogers, Ronald Lewis, Melvyn Douglas, David McCallum, John Neville, and Niall MacGinnis. The adaptation by Ustinov, Robert Rossen, and DeWitt Bodeen comes via a play version by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman. Allied Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book I Lost it at the Movies.

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