This tart black comedy on the craving for social position and the art of murder has a brittle wit that came as a bit of a shock: such amoral lines were not generally spoken in 40s movies. The film is heartless, and that is the secret of its elegance. Ninth in line to inherit a dukedom, the insouciant young hero (Dennis Price) systematically eliminates the intervening eight-a snob, a general, a photographer, an admiral, a suffragette, a clergyman, a banker, and the duke-all, by a casting stroke of genius, played by Alec Guinness. Secure in the knowledge that Guinness will return in another form, the audience suffers no regret as each abominable D'Ascoyne is coolly dispatched. And as the murderer takes us further into his confidence with each foul deed, we positively look forward to his next success. With purring little Joan Greenwood as the minx-nemesis Sybilla, Valerie Hobson as the high-minded Edith, Miles Malleson as the poetasting executioner. Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman, adapted by Robert Hamer and John Dighton. Hamer directed.
Maybe the saddest (and worst) movie ever made by a celebrated film artist. Charlie Chaplin mugs archly as King Shadhov, a deposed Ruritanian monarch who becomes a TV celebrity in New York. With Dawn Addams, Harry Green, and young Michael Chaplin, from whom his father coaxed a grotesque performance.
The greatest misfit in movie history makes a comeback in this new version. Monster, pet, misunderstood kid, unrequited lover, all in one grotesquely oversized body, the innocent ape is martyred once again. The movie is a romantic adventure fantasy-colossal, silly, touching, a marvellous Classics Comics movie (and for the whole family). This new KONG doesn't have the magical primeval imagery of the first KING KONG, in 1933, and it doesn't have the Gustave Doré fable atmosphere, but it's a happier, livelier entertainment. The first KONG was a stunt film that was trying to awe you, and its lewd underlay had a carnival hucksterism that made you feel a little queasy. This new KONG isn't a horror movie-it's an absurdist love story. When the 40-foot Kong stands bleeding and besieged at the top of the World Trade Center, and his blonde (Jessica Lange) pleads with him to pick her up, so that the helicopters won't shoot at him, even Wagner's dreams seem paltry. We might snicker at a human movie hero who felt such passion for a woman that he'd rather die than risk harming her, but who can jeer a martyr-ape? This film can stand in one's affections right next to the original version. John Guillermin directed, from Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s, script; with Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, John Randolph, Ed Lauter, Julius Harris, René Auberjonois, and John Agar. Cinematography by Richard H. Kline; music by John Barry; produced by Dino De Laurentiis. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.
Blindness and nothingness are the controlling metaphors in this gray, cold Peter Brook production. Brook has a unified vision and never lets go of the reins; there are no accidental pleasures in the movie-and no deliberate ones, either. This LEAR is made essentially plotless not by removing the plot (that is practically all that remains of the play) but by using the plot as a diagram for movement abstracted from psychological and dramatic meaning. By the time you've seized the outline, the cutting has become jaggedly mannered, with sudden shifts from one angle to another and from long shots to closeups, often while someone is speaking, and then your eyes are punished by blinding flashes that are like exploding bombs. The cutting seems designed as an alienation device, but who wants to be alienated from Shakespeare's play and given the drear far side of the moon instead? Though Paul Scofield's stage appearances as Lear are world-famous, he gives a freezing performance here. Only Alan Webb's Gloucester has a sneaking humanity that occasionally flickers through the stylized acting.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.
Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a grossly insensitive, cold-hearted deadhead who is determined to become a TV star like his idol, the comic Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis. The director, Martin Scorsese, must have decided to give us the cold creeps; the shots are held so long that we look for more in them than is there. Scorsese designs his own form of alienation in this mistimed, empty movie, which seems to teeter between jokiness and hate. It's THE DAY OF THE LOCUST in the age of television, but with a druggy vacuousness that suggests the Warhol productions of the 60s. With Sandra Bernhard as the hysterical Masha, who helps Pupkin kidnap Langford. (Pupkin's ransom demand is a 10-minute guest appearance on Langford's late-night talk show.) Also with Diahnne Abbott as the bartender Rita and Shelley Hack as a secretary. From a script by Paul Zimmerman. Released by 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
Indecipherable, dark-toned movie about brothers and spurious goals and the American Dream. Set in the decaying playground of Atlantic City, in the gray, wintry off-season, it keeps declaring its alienation. Bruce Dern works hard trying to be charismatic as the promoter brother who fronts for black gangsters (Scatman Crothers is the big boss). Jack Nicholson is the artist brother. He does monologues on late-night FM radio, with such pronouncements as "Goodby, written word" and, referring to his own life, "Tragedy isn't Top Forty-which is just as well." Trying to act intellectual Nicholson wears a prissy expression, huddles in his overcoat, and gives a dim, ploddingly serious performance. (If the roles had been reversed the film might have had a little energy.) As Dern's aging, rejected mistress, who is being replaced in his affections by her own stepdaughter, Ellen Burstyn works valiantly, but her role is a series of florid gestures-it's like all of Claire Trevor's biggest scenes put together. This is an unqualified disaster of the type that only talented people have; the producer-director, Bob Rafelson, and the script-writer, Jacob Brackman, seem to be saying "Let them eat metaphors." With Julia Anne Robinson as the stepdaughter, Charles Lavine as the brothers' grandfather, and Garry Goodrow, Sully Boyar, and Josh Mostel. Cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs; a BBS Production, released by Columbia.
A smashing kitsch entertainment-H. Rider Haggard's 1886 pulp adventure novel about a search for legendary African diamond mines, given the full MGM Technicolor treatment, and with an additional romance between an English lady on safari (Deborah Kerr) and the valiant white guide (Stewart Granger) provided by the scenarist, Helen Deutsch. You have to be prepared to put part of your mind to sleep, so that you don't get too outraged by the colonialist underpinnings of this sort of fiction; the noblest character is the loyal black servant Umbopa (played by Siriaque, a Watusi), who turns out to be the Mashona chief. (In the 1937 British version, Paul Robeson was a magnificent smiling Umbopa.) But one can enjoy this picture for its superb showmanship (and the Watusi dances and the stunning native fabrics). The film was shot in the African highlands-at Murchison Falls and Mount Kenya-and the elephants and mandrills and leopards and cobras are all startlingly clear and close. It's one exciting incident after another, and there's even a suggestion of sex, when Kerr and Granger wake after a night of hiding high in a tree and look passionately at each other. (An incident early on, when an elephant tramples a native, may frighten small children, but children generally love the rest of the film.) Produced by Sam Zimbalist; directed by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton; cinematography by Robert Surtees, who won the Academy Award for it. With Richard Carlson, Hugo Haas, and Lowell Gilmore. Also with Kimursi, of the Kipsigi tribe, and Sekaryongo and Baziga, of the Watusi tribe; the Africans take all the acting honors. (A cut-rate sequel, WATUSI, in 1959 had a script by James Clavell.)
Those with merciful memories blocked this one out long ago. Josef von Sternberg asked that the film not be included in retrospectives of his work, but he really did make the damned thing. It's a monstrously overstaged version of Fritz Kreisler's operetta Cissy, with Grace Moore and Franchot Tone struggling through the scenery playing Princess Elizabeth of Bavaria and the young Emperor Franz Josef. Columbia.
The typical nostalgic view of American small-town life turned inside out: instead of sweetness and health we get fear, sanctimoniousness, sadism, and insanity. Tranquilly accepting the many varieties of psychopathic behavior as the simple facts of life, this film has its own kind of sentimental glow, yet the melodramatic incidents are surprisingly compelling. The time is the beginning of the 20th century, and the hero (Robert Cummings) is interested in the new ideas of Sigmund Freud. (Which is unfortunate: when Cummings, eyes lighted with idealism, mouths naïve views on Freud, almost any contemporary audience is bound to break up.) The director, Sam Wood, gets some remarkably well-defined performances from others, though: Ann Sheridan is radiant in the role of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and Betty Field's frightened, passionate Cassie is a memorable vignette. Charles Coburn and Claude Rains are the town's doctors; Coburn likes to perform amputations without anesthetics (his special victim is Ronald Reagan), and Rains keeps his daughter locked up in his house. The cast also includes Judith Anderson, Maria Ouspenskaya, Nancy Coleman, and Kaaren Verne. Casey Robinson adapted Henry Bellamann's best-seller; James Wong Howe was the cinematographer; and William Cameron Menzies was the production designer. Warners.
Carol Reed directed this genial, endearingly noiseless version of the H.G. Wells novel, with Michael Redgrave as the orphan who works in a draper's shop and becomes a whiz of a bourgeois success. It's a very satisfying movie-observant without fuss, sly yet substantial. (The story was later inflated to the point of unintelligibility in the musical HALF A SIXPENCE.) With Diana Wynyard, Phyllis Calvert, Max Adrian, Michael Wilding, Helen Haye, Edward Rigby, Hermione Baddeley, and the famous music hall artist Arthur Riscoe as Chitterlow. The script is by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat; the costumes are by Cecil Beaton.
Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich look blithe and take it easy. She dances in the court of the Grand Vizier of Baghdad wearing half a pail of gilt paint, and as the rogue-hero he fusses with sleight-of-hand tricks involving handkerchiefs and knives. This version of Edward Knoblock's durable kitsch (it opened on Broadway in 1911) comes with a harem swimming pool, and it's less strenuous than most costume films of the period. Edward Arnold is the villainous Vizier who smiles craftily throughout; when Colman stabs him in that harem pool, he drops his smile-that's as subtle a nuance of the actor's art as you'll find in KISMET. Joy Ann Page plays Colman's daughter, with James Craig opposite her. William Dieterle directed; Harburg and Arlen provided a couple of songs. MGM.
This time, it was Vincente Minnelli who tried his hand with the familiar material, in a Hollywood-doctored version of the Broadway show that featured music derived from Borodin (including "A Stranger in Paradise" and the ubiquitous "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads"). Despite Howard Keel's relaxed, strong voice and Dolores Gray's low-down wiles, it didn't work the way it had on the stage-it had lost its sensual power. This is a fruity, kitschy production-a studio film in the worst sense of the term-and defeat seems to hover over the players' heads. Jack Cole staged the dances; the cast includes Ann Blyth, Vic Damone, Monty Woolley, and Sebastian Cabot. Produced by Arthur Freed, for MGM. .
A backstage farce set during the staging of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel as the warring stars. Grayson's trilling is something to contend with, and so is her busy, amateurish performance, and there's a lot of badly placed rambunctious comedy from just about everybody. But there's also a marvellous Cole Porter score, with such songs as "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?," "Why Can't You Behave?," "Too Darn Hot," "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua," and "Always True to You in My Fashion." And there is Howard Keel, with his strong baritone and his goodhearted leering; a dark goatee gives him more chin and, with his great height, he looks hilarious in Petruchio's striped pants. And there is the dancing of Bob Fosse, Tommy Rall, and Bobby Van-their "From This Moment On" number, choreographed by Fosse, is one of the high points of movie-musical history; in its speed and showmanship one can see the Fosse style in its earliest film realization. This sequence more than balances out the grossly embarrassing moments, such as the one when Keel tells Grayson, who is about to quit acting and go off with a Texan (Willard Parker), that she belongs in the theatre. Maybe because Grayson looks so uncomfortable-so aware of her shortcomings as an actress-Ann Miller, who obviously enjoys performing, comes off as lively and amusing; she doesn't just do her usual tick-tock tapping, because she's working with those three leaping male dancers, and with Carol Haney, too. Produced by Jack Cummings and directed by George Sidney, with dances staged by Hermes Pan. The cast includes Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore, who try (and fail) to be delightful clowns, and Jeanne Coyne, Ron Randell, Kurt Kasznar, Claude Allister, and Dave O'Brien. The Cole Porter Broadway show, with a book by Spewack and Bella Spewack, was adapted to MGM's requirements by Dorothy Kingsley-i.e., it was cleaned up and overtamed. (Filmed in 3-D.)
This Billy Wilder box-office failure isn't more grating than some of his hits-it's just more insecure. Essentially, it's an old-fashioned boulevard farce, but it was generally panned as "coarse and smutty" and "repellent," and it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency (the first such condemnation of a major-studio production since BABY DOLL, in 1956). United Artists, uneasy about public criticism, sent it out under the label of Lopert Pictures, a subsidiary that usually distributed foreign films. Bad luck plagued this marital-mixup comedy from the start: Peter Sellers, who had been cast as the central character (a composer stuck teaching piano in the desert town of Climax, Nevada), had a heart attack a few weeks into shooting and was replaced by Ray Walston, who is singularly charmless in the role. The plot has the composer attempting to sell his songs to a lecherous star, Dino (Dean Martin), who happens to be passing through town, but he's so fearful that Dino will seduce his wife (Felicia Farr) that he sends her away overnight and brings in the local B-girl, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), to pose as his wife. The central miscasting is compounded by the chortling tone, the overemphatic double-entendres, and the drab look of the film, but there's something going on in it. Maybe because of all the dumb leering, Kim Novak is touching in her dreamy-floozy, Marilyn Monroe-like role. Her clothes are so tight she seems to be wearing her dresses under her skin; she seems exposed, humiliated. Her lostness holds the film together. With Henry Gibson, Cliff Osmond, Alice Pearce, Doro Merande, Barbara Pepper, and Mel Blanc. Script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, suggested by a play by Anna Bonacci.
A tense, terrifying New York crime melodrama, with an unusually authentic seamy atmosphere; the director, Henry Hathaway, brought his crew in from Hollywood and shot the entire film on location, in such places as a Harlem nightclub, a house in Queens, the Criminal Courts Building, the Tombs, Sing Sing. Victor Mature gives an unexpectedly subdued, convincing performance as a hoodlum convict who, for the sake of his children (their mother has committed suicide), agrees to work with the police as an informer. Richard Widmark, in his film début, created a sensation; he's a giggling, sadistic gunman with homicidal mania in his voice, and when he grins his white teeth are more alarming than fangs. Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer wrote the script, from a story by Eleazar Lipsky. With the talented, refreshingly unactressy Coleen Gray as the hero's new wife, and Brian Donlevy, Taylor Holmes, Karl Malden, Anthony Ross, Mildred Dunnock, Millard Mitchell, Robert Keith, and Harry Bellaver. Cinematography by Norbert Brodine; in the nightclub sequence, it's Jo Jones on drums. (Remade in 1958 as THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST.) 20th Century-Fox.
Set in a nameless South American country, Hector Babenco's film version of Manuel Puig's famous novel is about a homosexual window dresser, Molina (William Hurt), and a revolutionary, Valentín (Raul Julia), who share a prison cell. Molina tries to comfort Valentín and help him forget his pain and misery by telling him the stories of old movies. Hurt is just about the only thing to look at; he's very likable in the scenes where Molina reveals his tenderness and warmth and humor, and the picture can work on audiences in the way that MIDNIGHT COWBOY did back in 1969. (The times having changed, it can make explicit what was potential in that earlier relationship.) But it's a slack piece of moviemaking, and as sentimental as the 40s screen romances that Molina is infatuated with; that is to say, it moves an audience at the obvious points. The novel is a sly celebration of the seductive, consoling power of movies; Babenco reaches for something larger, something aggressively moral. Valentín, a Marxist prig and a puritan about pleasure, learns humility and becomes more of a man through his close friendship with the sweetly maternal Molina. And Molina is transfigured through the power of love and happiness and a new self-respect. This Brazilian production, made in English, was shot in São Paulo; the screenplay is by Leonard Schrader, the cinematography by Rodolfo Sanchez. With Sonia Braga. Academy Award for Best Actor (Hurt). Island Pictures.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.
Ginger Rogers won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her "serious" performance as a white-collar girl whose baby dies. In a long career of giving pleasure, this is one of the few occasions when she failed; it isn't her worst acting (that's probably in TENDER COMRADE) but there's nothing in the soggy material to release the distinctive Ginger Rogers sense of fun. Dalton Trumbo and Donald Ogden Stewart adapted Christopher Morley's novel; Sam Wood directed. With Dennis Morgan, James Craig, Gladys Cooper, Florence Bates, Eduardo Ciannelli, Cecil Cunningham, and Nella Walker. RKO.
Mae West and Victor McLaglen. They don't bring out the best in each other. With Phillip Reed, Esther Howard, Harold Huber, and Helen Jerome Eddy. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Paramount.
Jane Fonda in possibly her finest dramatic performance, as Bree, an intelligent, high-bracket call girl, in Alan J. Pakula's murder-melodrama. The picture is reminiscent of the good detective mysteries of the 40s-it has the lurking figures, the withheld information, the standard gimmick of getting the heroine to go off alone so she can be menaced (in this case, it's by a big-shot sadistic sex fiend), and so on. And there's no conviction in Pakula's use of those devices; they're hokum-the shadows and crazy camera angles are as silly as a fright wig. But at the center is a study of Bree's temperament and drives, and here the picture is modern. The life surrounding Bree's profession frightens her, but the work itself has peculiar compensations-she enjoys her power over her customers. She's maternal and provocative with them, confident and contemptuously cool. She's a different girl alone-huddled in bed in her disorderly room. The suspense plot involves the ways in which prostitutes attract the forces that destroy them. Bree's knowledge that as a prostitute she has nowhere to go but down and her mixed-up efforts to escape make her one of the strongest women characters to reach the screen. And Fonda is very exciting to watch: the closest closeup never reveals a false thought and, seen on the movie streets a block away, she's Bree, not Jane Fonda, walking toward us. With Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi, Roy Scheider, Dorothy Tristan, Rita Gam, Richard Shull, and Anthony Holland. Written by Lewis and Dave Lewis; cinematography by Gordon Willis; edited by Carl Lerner; music by Michael Small. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.
In Richard Lester's version of the Ann Jellicoe play (as adapted by Charles Wood), the jokes whiz by so fast that the ingenuity becomes exhausting. The gags don't go anywhere. Lester gets caught up in surface agitation and loses track of what it's all for. The story (which is just his jumping-off place) is about three men (Michael Crawford, Ray Brooks, Donal Donnelly) who live in the same London House; Rita Tushingham, a country girl just come to the big city, also moves in. The assured Brooks has a knack for attracting women, and the shy, frightened Crawford desperately wants that knack. The dreamlike David Watkin photography often seems too brilliantly sun-bleached and the film's spirit is too anarchistically chic and on the side of larky youth. It's a fashionable, professionally youthful treatment of 60s underground attitudes; the content seems to be the same as the content of TV commercials, and by the time you're outside the theatre, you've already forgotten the movie. The more spurious the spontaneity around them, the more flat the performers seem, though somehow Donnelly's fevered leprechaun quality comes through.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
George A. Romero wrote and directed this Arthurian wheeler: the motorcyclists wear medieval-looking helmets with plumes, and they joust on their bikes at the Renaissance tournaments that they stage. They're a travelling Camelot, with a king, Billy (Ed Harris), who administers a code that is supposed to keep them safe from the hucksterism of the outside world. Possibly, Romero had in mind both the big MGM IVANHOE (1952) and Tom Laughlin's BILLY JACK (1971), with its mystical man-of-action hero. The picture isn't offensive; it's simpleminded, though, inept, and long (2 hours and 26 minutes). Romero keeps his stunt men whirring by, crashing, flying through the air, but there's no kinetic drama in the hurtling bodies. Most of the time, we don't even see the weapons hit the riders and unseat them, and the way that the contests are photographed, there's no physical grace in the bikers' athleticism. With Tom Savini as Morgan, Brother Blue as Merlin, Ken Hixon as Steve the lawyer, Warner Shook as Pippin, Amy Ingersoll as the queen, Gary Lahti as Alan (the Lancelot figure), Christine Forrest as the grease monkey, Patricia Tallman as the teenage groupie, and the horror novelist Stephen King as a beer-swilling rube. Made in the Pittsburgh area. A Laurel Group Production; released by United Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.
John Derek as a young delinquent on trial for killing a policeman, and Humphrey Bogart as the lawyer defending him. As the lawyer talks, we see the boy's grim past in flashback; his father died in prison, he was sent to reform school, his child wife committed suicide. Making this solemn sociological case for him, Bogart is so wearing that you wish he'd stop orating and get out his own rod again. Nicholas Ray directed. Columbia.
This Danny Kaye comedy was fairly universally certified as a howl, but some few of us may hear ourselves moaning. Kaye's talents are violently evident, but they're sunk in the mud of "family entertainment." He plays a ventriloquist who can't control his dummy (the plot resemblance to the Redgrave episode in DEAD OF NIGHT may not be wholly coincidental) and Mai Zetterling is his analyst. The tiresome, naïve young man occasionally breaks out into frenzied satire, but more frequently he just pushes his way through some clumsy routines (if he uses that Irish impersonation again, even the infants may crawl out for a cigarette). Norman Panama and Melvin Frank wrote and directed. Michael Kidd did the choreography; the music and lyrics are by Sylvia Fine. With Abner Biberman, Steven Geray, Torin Thatcher, and Gavin Gordon. Paramount.
Hopelessly warm and coy. With Walter Matthau as a clean old man who is mistaken for a dirty old man. If the gimmick had been reversed, the picture might have had something. With Felicia Farr, Deborah Watts, and Charles Aidman. Directed by Jack Lemmon, from John Paxton's adaptation of a Katherine Topkins novel.
This lovely hour-long documentary about a modern Japanese girl was shot by a Frenchman, Chris Marker, in Tokyo during the Olympics. The mystery is the mystery of human individuality, and Marker's approach is personal, lyrical. Earlier, he made the short LA JETÉE, which is very possibly the greatest science-fiction movie yet made. His Tokyo has something of science fiction, too: it looks as if it were built the day after tomorrow, and it's almost inconceivable that it was ever intended to endure. Koumiko, with her archaic Oriental beauty, walks through this transient World's Fair atmosphere, seeing herself as an outsider in modern Japan. The movie expresses a new mood-the acceptance of estrangement. In French.