The biggest disappointment in this epic written and directed by Werner Herzog is Peru. After a visually promising beginning, Herzog seems to lose interest in the external world (and no one in this movie has much of an internal world, either). Though the shots are lovely, they're held too long and they don't have the ghostly, kinky expressiveness of the great images that sustain one through the dragginess of AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD. Set in the 1890s, the film is about a 320-ton steamboat being dragged over a mountain that separates one tributary of the Amazon from another. At times, the ship slowly climbing the mountain seems rather magical, but 2 hours and 37 minutes is a long sit, and the deliberateness of Herzog's pacing can put you in a stupor. The sight that we wait for turns out to be a bust: when the ship is poised at the very top, it looks like a big toy. The hero, played by Klaus Kinski, is trying to get rich in the rubber trade so that he can build an opera house in the jungle and bring Caruso to sing in it. He seems meant to be a lovable loser, but it's hard to know quite what Kinski's Fitzcarraldo is because he's not like anyone else in the world-except maybe Bette Davis playing Rutger Hauer. As Molly, the whorehouse madam, Claudia Cardinale is ripely alive in this asexual movie. (For an account of its making see the documentary BURDEN OF DREAMS.) In German.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
In the arms of her lover, the dreamy, role-playing little nymphomaniac (Jean Seberg) looks out over the rooftops of Paris (a scene that inevitably recalls René Clair) and rhapsodizes, "all those cells for love." She feels no bitterness at the end of an affair-"Love's a lie, a bubble," she says; "when it touches earth, it's over." Philippe de Broca's lyric boudoir comedy stays aloft in its own sphere; his originality is in his use of incongruities. Jean-Pierre Cassel (he has a witty face) is the lover; François Périer is the scholarly husband; and Micheline Presle-like a younger Tallulah Bankhead-is Cassel's couturière-mistress who pays the bills. These four are joined in a network of romance and deceit; the threads move and snap, and suddenly we see the people from different angles, here a feeling exposed, there a dream dissolved. The dialogue is graceful and often inexplicably touching: Périer, the bustling little cuckold, puts the children to bed and explains their mother's absence, "You're wondering why Mummy's late. It's because she wears high heels and they're difficult to walk on." With a lovely score by Georges Delerue. In French.
The spy Cicero (James Mason), a valet at the British Embassy in Ankara, sells the Germans the plans for the Normandy invasion, but the Germans think the documents are false. This suspense thriller, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, sticks closely to the facts of one of the great ironic spy stories of the Second World War, yet it isn't very exciting. Something seems missing-maybe from the character of Cicero himself; we don't have much involvement with him, or with anybody else. With Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie, Walter Hampden, Oscar Karlweis, Herbert Berghof, and Michael Pate. The script is by Michael Wilson, based on the book Operation Cicero, by L.C. Moyzich; cinematography by Norbert Brodine. 20th Century-Fox.
Erich von Stroheim struts his stuff as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in an ingeniously plotted melodrama about why the Germans lost at El Alamein. Billy Wilder, who directed and, with Charles Brackett, also wrote the script, based on a play by Lajos Biro, must have had something a little grander in mind; the cleverness lacks luster. With Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Peter Van Eyck, Akim Tamiroff, Miles Mander, Ian Keith, and Konstantin Shayne. Paramount.
Borrowed grandeur can make a movie look fairly seedy, and in the Bernard Malamud book the grandeur was maybe already a little tattered. The story is about a Jew (Alan Bates) falsely accused of a crime in prerevolutionary Russia, and his refusal to confess. John Frankenheimer's version crawls along on its exalted intentions, and the Dalton Trumbo script, out of the dignity-and-indomitable-spirit-of-man school of screenwriting, is as flat as unleavened bread. You might think that Frankenheimer, who was confined to a cell for BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, would avoid being trapped again, but he's more heavily shackled than his hero. If the script and the direction had given Alan Bates some help, he might almost have carried the picture by sheer intelligence and determination; he has some promising scenes with Dirk Bogarde as a decent, melancholy magistrate-but then the magistrate dies. The cast includes Ian Holm, David Warner, Jack Gilford, Georgia Brown, Hugh Griffith, Elizabeth Hartman, Carol White, and Murray Melvin. Shot in Hungary. MGM.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.
The first of the four amiable, far from great features René Clair directed in this country, and not the best (which was the 1943 IT HAPPENED TOMORROW). This one is a harmlessly empty-headed romantic melodrama written by Norman Krasna and set in the antebellum South. Marlene Dietrich is Claire, a good-bad girl posing as a countess while she cruises the rich men of the bayous. Roland Young is an eligible bachelor, but Bruce Cabot is the handsome sailor who makes her eyes light up. Dietrich needs more than that brief spark: these were the years when Hollywood didn't know how to use her. She's charming here, even droll, but the sensual mystery is gone. With Mischa Auer, Laura Hope Crews, Franklin Pangborn, Andy Devine, Frank Jenks, and Eddie Quillan. Cinematography by Rudolph Maté; produced by Joe Pasternak. Universal.
The Spanish dancer Antonio (once a member of the team of Antonio and Rosario) was already a legend; he was known as one of the most intense and exciting dancers who had ever lived. In this documentary made in Spain, he performs the classical bolero against the background of the Escorial, and gypsy dances against cliffs and crumbling Moorish towers. There are 14 numbers by some of Spain's leading dancers (Pilar Lopez, Maria Luz with the Ballet Español), and by little-known village performers. There are celebrated singers and guitarists, and Juan Belmonte appears in a bullfight sequence. Directed by Edgar Neville; English titles by Walter Terry.
It's the summer of 1963, and Matt Dillon is the Brooklyn kid who gets a job parking cars at El Flamingo, a beach club on Long Island. He plans to go to Columbia in the fall, but when he's taken up by the club's gin-rummy champ, Brody (Richard Crenna), a foreign-car dealer who wears silk shirts and sports a sapphire on his pinkie, he begins to think college would be a waste of time. Of course, by the end of Labor Day weekend he has got himself straightened out: he sees through Brody's flash, and learns to appreciate the fact that his own father (Hector Elizondo) is an honest man-a hardworking plumber who gives value for money. The movie is a crude, convivial sit-com about disillusionment as a rite of passage. The director, Garry Marshall, pushes you around, but in an amiable way, and he gets his laughs, though nothing carries over and the gags (along with the pop songs on the track) turn into a blur. Watching this slapped-together comedy, a viewer may begin to feel that Brody directed it. Some of the film's junkiness is enjoyable, but there's also an unenjoyable cultural fundamentalism at work. Marshall is telling us that the complications of the last two decades are unimportant. He's saying that what matters is: Listen to your honest old man and don't sell out. And he squeezes the good plumber's scenes so that they show "humanity." The moviemakers must have wanted to take advantage of the ripe possibilities for caricature in a Long Island Jewish club, but not wanted to limit their "universal" theme-so the characters' names don't provide much clue to their backgrounds. Marshall gives us ethnic humor without ethnics. With Jessica Walter, Janet Jones, Carole R. Davis, and Bronson Pinchot. The screenplay by Neal Marshall (not related to the director) was first optioned in 1972; he later revised it, and then it was rewritten by Bo Goldman, who had his name removed after the director reworked it. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.
The screen's supreme masochist-Joan Crawford-at it again. This time, she's a carnival hootchy-kootchy dancer stranded in a small town; she gets involved with a weakling-Zachary Scott, the same heel who betrayed her in MILDRED PIERCE-and she's implicated in murder again, and with the same director, Michael Curtiz, and the same producer, Jerry Wald. But the script lacks the mythic, overwrought James M. Cainisms of the earlier film. It's just garishly overwrought. The ostentatious miscasting of Sydney Greenstreet as a sheriff gives the picture a campy charm; he's a mean villain, persecuting the brave, suffering heroine-framing her, running her out of town, railroading her into prison. David Brian is the local political boss who falls in love with her; he seems not to see what we do-that she's rigid, monstrous. With Gladys George, Gertrude Michael, Tito Vuolo, and Fred Clark. Robert Wilder's script is based on a play he wrote with Sally Wilder; additional dialogue by Edmund H. North. Music by Max Steiner; cinematography by Ted McCord. Warners.
It's like a fairy tale set in a discothèque in the clouds. Up there, the arch-fiend Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) toys with Earth until three Earthlings-Dr. Zarkov (Topol), the golden-haired Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), and the cuddly Dale Arden (Melody Anderson)-go up in a rocket and crash-land at Ming's palace in Mongo. This picture has some of the knowing, pleasurable giddiness of the fast-moving Bonds. The images are flooded with the primary colors of comic strips-blue and, especially, red at its most blazing; the designer, Danilo Donati, and the cinematographer, Gil Taylor, make the colors so ripely intense that they're near-psychedelic. Ming's daughter, the tiny, voluptuous Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), wiggles and slinks through the palace wearing a shimmering scarlet jump suit; she's a flaming nympho and a perfect little emblem of camp. There's a wonderful, fairy-tale form of Russian roulette, when Flash and Timothy Dalton (as the dashing Prince Barin) take turns putting a hand into the crevices of a gnarled tree trunk, risking the fatal bite of the resident monster. The director, Mike Hodges, gets right into comic-strip sensibility and pacing. With Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan, the leader of the hawk men (who have huge wings), and Mariangela Melato and John Osborne. From a script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.; produced by Dino De Laurentiis; music by the rock group Queen. Released by Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
A lulling, narcotizing musical, it sells the kind of romantic story that was laughed off the screen 30 years ago, and then made a comeback with ROCKY I, II, and III, and it's like a sleazo putting the make on you. The 18-year-old working-class Catholic heroine (dewy-eyed face and darling smile by Jennifer Beals, dancing by Marine Jahan) is a welder by day, and a dancer in a bar at night. In her dreams, she's a ballerina, handed bouquets, like a princess. The music throughout is synthesizer pop-some of Giorgio Moroder's throbbing specials along with bits of other whiplash disco songs; basically the movie is a series of rock videos. It has Vegas sound, thumping, thumping; the whole damn thing throbs, and it gives a hard sell even to the heroine's confessions to her priest. The dancing doesn't go the way a body goes; the dancing goes the way an eggbeater goes. Richard Colon, one of a group of black "breakers," who do the only real dancing in the movie, is so fast that he isn't subjected to the chop-chop editing-he's allowed to perform in his own time. Directed by Adrian Lyne, from a script by Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.
This head trip about life after death is staged and shot in a baroque, hallucinatory style, and it moves, but it's unbearably preachy. It's like a small-time Sunday school lesson conducted in a vast haunted cathedral. Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt are the Chicago medical students who take part in experiments-stopping and then restarting their hearts-and learn that in the afterlife they must do penance for the bad things they've done in this one. The picture doesn't even show a sense of humor about Baldwin's sins: videotaping his sexual exploits without getting the women's consent. (Oliver Platt's line readings provide the only entertainment.) The director, Joel Schumacher, seems too gifted (visually) to be working with this soggy screenplay, by Peter Filardi, and this swelling score, by James Newton Howard. The cinematography-heavy on fire and steam and cadavers-is by Jan De Bont; the production design is by Eugenio Zanetti. Columbia.
Three spooky stories by Oscar Wilde, Laslo Vadnay, and Ellis St. Joseph are linked together by a device involving Robert Benchley as a pragmatic type who doesn't believe in the supernatural. Produced by Charles Boyer and the director, Julien Duvivier, the film has somewhat more flair and ingenuity than Duvivier's other American trick omnibus film, TALES OF MANHATTAN, but it still suffers from the overexplicit Hollywood style of the 40s, and it lacks the ease and believability of Duvivier's earlier French films. There are a few neat plot twists, though, and in addition to Boyer as a tightrope walker, the cast includes Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Thomas Mitchell, Dame May Whitty, Edgar Barrier, C. Aubrey Smith, and Betty Field as a girl who has got it in her head that she isn't pretty enough to attract-hold it-blobby Robert Cummings. Universal.
Greta Garbo, with pencil-line eyebrows above sex-drugged lids, plays a bored, sensual, wicked woman in a story about sacred and profane love, derived from a novel by Hermann Sudermann. It's far from a work of art, but Garbo was a blissfully beautiful 21 at the time, and no other actress went at the bodies of her leading men the way she did. This time John Gilbert and Lars Hanson each go a round with her. Clarence Brown directed; with Barbara Kent as the good girl. Silent. MGM.
Chevy Chase does some of his smoothest, most polished underplaying in this low-key, investigative-reporter-as-private-eye comedy, directed by Michael Ritchie, from a script by Andrew Bergman. (It's based on a novel by Gregory McDonald.) It's a lightweight, breezy movie with no pretense of realism. The setting is LA, where Chase's wisecracking Fletch, who's researching an exposé on the drug scene at the beach and also trying to figure out a murder that's about to take place, wears a series of disguises. (They're tomfoolery: at 6 feet 5 inches Chase is fairly easy to spot.) It's too bad that the crime plot doesn't come to enough (nothing ever seems to be at stake) and that some of the supporting players-Richard Libertini and Geena Davis, in particular-are wasted in stock roles. Although Joe Don Baker, as a dimply, crooked police chief, has a good moment or two, the movie is really nothing but a star turn for Chase, who is required to be laid-back, deft, and, regrettably, more clever than anybody else. His line readings are beautifully timed, but smart-aleck facetiousness and smugness are built into the conception of the character; Fletch is the narrator, and even when he's talking to someone, most of the time he's putting that person on and joking directly to us. Ritchie gets everything he can out of Bergman's dialogue; he keeps the picture moving along, and its casual tone might be likable and diverting on television. In the theatre, it isn't enough, the casualness doesn't pay off, and the picture just drifts by. With Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, M. Emmet Walsh, George Wendt, Larry Flash Jenkins, Kenneth Mars, Tim Matheson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as himself. Universal.
Jan Troell's account of the 1897 North Pole expedition by balloon undertaken by the Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée and two colleagues-all of them pitifully inexperienced aeronauts. When the balloon falls, the movie takes off, and it has the emotionally devastating effect of a major novel. (There's a heft to Troell's sensibility.) This is an epic about the suppressed hysteria and the male obsession with proving oneself by great, daring achievements which we associate with Victorianism. Troell's moviemaking here is a one-of-a-kind mixture of stolidity and lyricism, with a touch of the uncanny. He is both the cinematographer and the director, as he was on his two-part epic THE EMIGRANTS and THE NEW LAND, and also, once again, the film editor and one of the collaborators on the script. (It's based on the 1967 book by Per Olof Sundman.) With Max von Sydow as Andrée; Göran Stangertz as Nils; huge, burly Sverre Anker Ousdal as Knut; and Clément Harari as Lachambre, the balloon manufacturer. In Swedish.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
Pseudo-Oriental Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about a Chinese girl who smuggles herself into San Francisco as a "picture bride" under contract to marry a young man she has never seen; back of the dragonish false front are such plain ancestors as ABIE'S IRISH ROSE and THE JAZZ SINGER. If you think Joseph Fields, who wrote the screenplay, has been able to resist such wisecracks as "You got egg foo yung all over your face," you're a dreamer. Practically all the actors are of Far Eastern ancestry, which somehow heightens one's sense of disbelief instead of lessening it; Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki, Juanita Hall, Benson Fong, and Jack Soo are the hardest workers. Songs can sometimes redeem a musical, but here the songs themselves are beyond redemption. Henry Koster directed, in his cloying kindergarten manner; the choreography is by Hermes Pan. Universal.
James Clavell-not yet a popular novelist-wrote the script for this tacky low-budget picture about a scientist whose carelessness gets him into a tragic pickle. It became a considerable box-office success. Maybe the idea of a man's head being reduced in size so that it fit onto the body of a fly was just so silly that it was rather tantalizing. Or maybe audiences couldn't resist the final sequence: caught in a spider's web, with the spider bearing down on him, the man-fly squeaks "Help me!" in the tiniest of voices. With Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Patricia Owens, Kathleen Freeman, and Al Hedison (later David) as the unlucky fellow. The draggy direction is by Kurt Neumann; based on a short story by George Langelaan. (There were two less popular sequels-THE RETURN OF THE FLY in 1959, and THE CURSE OF THE FLY in 1965-before the 1986 reworking of the original by David Cronenberg.) 20th Century-Fox. CinemaScope.
Jeff Goldblum is the brilliant loner scientist Seth Brundle who turns into Brundlefly, in David Cronenberg's remake of the 1958 horror film. Cronenberg gives the B-picture material new weight, and for what this version is it's very well done. In the opening half, Brundle and a science reporter, played by Geena Davis, become lovers, and their scenes have a romantic-comedy edge. But Cronenberg narrows the film down to one man's decaying body, and concentrates your attention on one stage after another of poor Brundle's becoming bent over double and deformed. Cronenberg wants to drive you to revulsion; that's his aim. And if the movie has a power, it's simply in our somewhat prurient fixation on watching a man rot until finally he's pleading for a coup de grâce. So, despite Goldblum's terrific performance and despite the graceful teamwork between him and Geena Davis, moviegoers may not feel that they're having such a great time. Shot in Toronto, with John Getz as the science-magazine editor and Cronenberg as the gynecologist. Based on a short story by George Langelaan; the script, by Charles Edward Pogue, was reshaped by Cronenberg. Cinematography by Stuart Cornfeld. Released by 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.
The romantic leads in this RKO musical were the dark-eyed, incomparably beautiful Dolores Del Rio as a Brazilian aristocrat, the ultra-blond Gene Raymond as an American dance-orchestra leader who's smitten by her, and soulful Raul Roulien as her Brazilian fiancé. But it's famous for being the movie in which Ginger met Fred; they were intended for comic relief. Dazzlingly slender, sexy Ginger was the brash, good-natured vocalist for Raymond's band, and Fred was the accordionist. But when they cut loose on the dance floor and did the Carioca, the glamorous triangle became an obstruction. (You begin to notice how many times Del Rio flashes her eyes haughtily.) The picture-which is almost surreally entertaining-is also famous for its madcap choreography: chorus girls dancing on the wings of planes, to the title song. In another gigantic number, people tango in mass formations to "When Orchids Bloom in the Moonlight." The black singer Etta Moten does a twinkly, flirtatious version of the "Carioca," and a troupe of black dancers are featured. The film has a bright, stylized Art Moderne look, though the pacing is ragged. With Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn, Paul Porcasi, Luis Alberni, Clarence Muse, Roy D'Arcy, and, in a bit, Betty Furness. Directed by Thornton Freeland, from a screenplay, by Louis Brock, that's based on a play by Anne Caldwell; the dances were staged by Dave Gould. The exhilarating score, by Vincent Youmans, Edward Eliscu, and Gus Kahn, includes "Music Makes Me." The flying scenes were filmed over Malibu Beach, with backgrounds shot in Rio de Janeiro.
One of the routine Warners gangster pictures that Bette Davis was tossed into. She's a dissolute heiress, out for thrills; her socializing with the mob lands her, at last, curled up in a rumble seat, nastily dead. It moves along but everything is stamped "synthetic," and there's time wasted on Donald Woods as a smart-aleck reporter with deadline troubles. Davis gives it that nervy flash of hers; she doesn't get much help from the likes of prissy-voiced Margaret Lindsay, or from Lyle Talbot, either. Directed by William Dieterle, from Robert N. Lee's script, based on a novel by George Dyer. With Arthur Byron, Irving Pichel, Hugh Herbert, Douglass Dumbrille, Alan Hale, Robert Barrat, and Henry O'Neill. (A 1942 remake was called SPY SHIP.)
Maurice Chevalier, in a dual role as a famous sporting baron who's a devil with the ladies and a Folies-Bergère entertainer whose most popular number is an impersonation of the baron. Inevitably, the baron hires the entertainer to take his place, and the entertainer winds up in the boudoir of the baroness (Merle Oberon). The baroness flirts with the false baron, allowing him to think she thinks he's the real baron, and then she succumbs to the real baron, allowing him to think she believes him to be the false baron. This elaborate coquetry may sound tedious but it's surprisingly effective as a framework for slightly risqué comedy, and the plot was used again for two more musicals-for Don Ameche and Alice Faye in the 1941 THAT NIGHT IN RIO, and for Danny Kaye and Gene Tierney in the 1951 ON THE RIVIERA. This first film version is a sumptuous entertainment, and it was very popular. It features some lovely songs, including "You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart," "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You," and "Rhythm of the Rain"-during this one, the chorus girls are loaded down with umbrellas and dance glumly in several inches of water. In the film's finale, those same poor girls wear straw hats, hide under large straw hats, and dance on straw hats of epic proportions. With Ann Sothern and Eric Blore. Roy Del Ruth directed. The choreography is by Dave Gould; the script by Bess Meredyth and Hal Long is based on the play The Red Cat, by Rudolph Lothar and Hans Adler. A 20th Century Picture; released by United Artists.
When it came to putting together all-star revues (in the name of the war effort), Universal wasn't really in the same league as the major studios with their rosters of contract players, but the producer Charles K. Feldman managed to pull in a motley collection of stars. Orson Welles does his magic act and saws Marlene Dietrich in half, Zorina has a big dance number, and Jeanette MacDonald, Dinah Shore, W.C. Fields, Carmen Amaya, The Andrews Sisters, Donald O'Connor, Peggy Ryan, Arthur Rubinstein, Ted Lewis, Freddie Slack, Charlie Spivak, Louis Jourdan, Lon Chaney, Jr., the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Sophie Tucker make appearances. There are scattered pleasures, such as "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" You have to slog your way through the linking story though; it's by Lou Breslow and Gertrude Purcell, and it's about how the stars entertain the troops. Also with George Raft, George Macready, Grace McDonald, Maxie Rosenbloom, Maria Montez, and a couple dozen other well-known performers. Directed by Eddie Sutherland.
Astaire and Rogers at their most buoyant. In this one, Astaire and Randolph Scott are (implausible) shipmates, and Rogers and Harriet Hilliard are (implausible) sisters. (From Hilliard's enervated performance, one would never guess that she would go on to become a TV star and spawn a dynasty.) The material, derived from the 1922 play Shore Leave (which had earlier become the musical Hit the Deck), had grown a bit of moss. The characters aren't as rich and sophisticated as in the best-known Astaire-Rogers movies but the corniness is alive. Astaire-chewing gum rhythmically-looks great in his bell-bottoms and he does a lot of snappy hoofing. (He's less balletic than usual here.) The numbers are mostly playful and fresh, and the Irving Berlin score includes "Let Yourself Go," "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," and the big finale, "Let's Face the Music and Dance." The cast includes Astrid Allwyn as the predatory bitch, and Betty Grable, Lucille Ball, Frank Jenks, and Tony Martin. Directed by Mark Sandrich; the script is by Dwight Taylor; the choreography is by Astaire and Hermes Pan. Produced by Pandro S. Berman, for RKO.
This English comedy is in the nature of an anecdote-it's an unusual one because it seems to get funnier the longer it's spun out. Alastair Sim is the chaplain assigned as entertainment officer to an army camp. He decides to stage a quiz show and innocently gathers together a panel of experts that includes some rather sophisticated people-Martita Hunt, Miles Malleson, and Edward Chapman are reasonably safe, but Roland Culver, Elizabeth Allan, and Colin Gordon are, unfortunately, husband, wife, and lover. Once the question is asked, "Is marriage a good idea?" everything gets out of the flustered chaplain's control. Directed by Frank Launder, from the adaptation he and John Dighton did of James Bridie's play It Depends What You Mean. Cinematography by Jack Hildyard. Produced by Launder and Sidney Gilliat.
You'd think that if anybody could film Sam Shepard's 1983 play and keep it metaphorical and rowdy and sexually charged it would be the intuitive Robert Altman, but the material seems to congeal on the screen, and congealed rambunctiousness is not a pretty sight. The play-a carnal (and existential) screwball comedy-is about the no-exit tormented sex relationship between Eddie, a broken-down rodeo cowboy (Shepard), and his half sister, May (Kim Basinger), who lives in a cheap motel "on the edge of the Mojave Desert." It's counterculture macho (circa EASY RIDER) gone mythic. Though this stuff isn't much, it might get by if it were just faster and more kinetic, if there were less mood and atmosphere, and Eddie and May were ferociously passionate and excitable. But Sam Shepard's adaptation opens out the play and the steam escapes. And Altman directs this adaptation almost reverently, as a series of near-static pictures. As Eddie, Shepard is a feeble presence; when he delivers Eddie's lines they have no visceral force. Kim Basinger works hard and she has a flushed, smeary-faced, wounded quality, yet she lacks spirit. Randy Quaid gives the role of Martin, May's gentleman caller, a solid, hick doggedness (and Shepard does his best acting in his hipster-outlaw gamesmanship with Quaid). As the Old Man, the lovers' father, Harry Dean Stanton has the right tequila-swigging grunginess though he doesn't seem to have any idea what he should be doing. With Sura Cox as the teenage May, and Martha Crawford as May's mother. The cinematography is by Pierre Mignot; the country songs were written and performed by Sandy Rogers. Cannon Films.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.
This was the first time Erich von Stroheim lost control of a film he wrote and directed; Universal cut it by about a third. What's left is still fairly overpowering: a thick mixture of fetishistic sophistication and sentimentality. It's just about impossible to sort out one's responses. Has any other filmmaker made carnal desire so revolting? This time von Stroheim is the corrupt lecher Count Karamzin, and he goes after the wife of the American ambassador to Monaco. With Mae Busch, Miss Dupont, Cesare Gravina, Dale Fuller, and Maude George. Silent.
This came out the same year as two other celebrated Warners musicals-42ND STREET and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933-and it has some silly, yet irresistibly wonderful examples of Busby Berkeley's pinwheel choreography. Based, possibly, on Berkeley himself, it's about a young director, played by James Cagney, who whips up ideas for the musical "prologues" which first-run movie palaces used to put on and stages them. In the latter part of this lopsided movie we get to see three of the finished products; they're built around the songs "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall," and "Shanghai Lil." Cagney gives the picture some snap; he dances (in his amazing early-vaudeville style) and rushes around and shows off his Olivier-like eyes; Joan Blondell is tough and honest; Dick Powell sings; and Ruby Keeler dances while bending down anxiously to watch her leaden feet. Also with Guy Kibbee, Billy Barty, Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Claire Dodd, Herman Bing, Dave O'Brien, Hobart Cavanaugh, and Jimmy Conlin. Directed by Lloyd Bacon; the script is by Manuel Seff and James Seymour; the music is by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal.