Phantom Lady

US (1944): Mystery
87 min, No rating, Black & White

The mood and pacing lift this low-budget thriller out of its class, but the ideas, the dialogue, and the ending that the studio insisted on prevent it from being a first-rate B-picture. Ella Raines is the girl in danger, Franchot Tone is the psychopathic killer, Alan Curtis is the man wrongly convicted of murder, Thomas Gomez is the police inspector, and Elisha Cook, Jr., is the drummer in the jam session that is the film's high point of excitement. Robert Siodmak directed, and the producer was Joan Harrison, who had worked as an assistant to Hitchcock. From a William Irish novel, adapted by Bernard C. Schoenfeld; with Fay Helm, Regis Toomey, Virginia Brissac, and Doris Lloyd. (The drumming was actually done by Dave Coleman.) Universal.

The Phantom of Liberty

France (1974): Drama
104 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc
Also known as LE FANTOME DE LA LIBERTE.

Buñuel's theme is freedom, in the sense of chance: the picture is a random series of anecdotes and paradoxes, and they miss as often as they connect. Buñuel has a great spare, tonic style, but the domesticated surrealism of this picture has no sting and no after-effect. The film drifts out of your head before it's over. The actors come on in relays: the cast includes Monica Vitti, Jean-Claude Brialy, and Adriana Asti. In French.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

The Phantom of the Opera

US (1925): Horror
79 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

If you're in a temple of the arts and see someone looking up furtively at the chandelier with a faint shudder, you can be fairly sure he has seen this tacky yet unforgettable piece of Guignol claptrap--or, at least, one of the remakes of it. The story is from a French penny dreadful (by Gaston Leroux); the first half is a botch and dreary, but then the mixture of the morbid, the gaudy, the ornate, and the rotted becomes scary and, in a way that may be peculiar to movies, thrilling. Lon Chaney is the diabolical genius, Erik, who lives in the dripping cellars of the Paris opera house; hypnotically, he lures the young singer (Mary Philbin) he loves into his bedroom in the sewers and shows her his coffin bed. Norman Kerry is the blundering, deadhead hero, Arthur Edmund Carewe is the Persian, and Snitz Edwards, John Miljan, and Gibson Gowland are in the cast. The director was Rupert Julian, but things were not going well, and Edward Sedgwick was brought in to finish the film; Chaney himself directed some of his own sequences. (He must have cut quite a figure on the set, giving orders to the crew while in his grisly, cadaverous makeup.) Universal. Silent.

Phantom of the Opera

US (1943): Horror
92 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Someone at Universal had the brainstorm of redoing the 1925 silent Lon Chaney horror picture and taking advantage of the fact that it was set in an opera house to make it not only a sound picture but a high-toned musical. The result is this flaccid, sedate version, directed by Arthur Lubin, with Claude Rains as the faceless horror and Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster as the singing pretty people. Even masked, Rains is more expressive than they are; they seem too polite, too nice to show a trace of personality. But there's something in the morbid kitschy material that really hooks people, and there was a surprisingly scared, enthusiastic response to this bummer. With Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, J. Edward Bromberg, and Hume Cronyn. The Gaston Leroux novel was served up this time by Erich Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein. (An English remake, by Hammer in 1962, starred Herbert Lom.)

Phantom of the Paradise

US (1974): Musical/Horror/Comedy
92 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This satire of horror movies is also a rock musical comedy. The writer-director, Brian De Palma, has an original comic temperament; he's drawn to rabid visual exaggeration and to sophisticated slapstick comedy. William Finley is the idealistic young composer who is robbed of his music, busted for drugs, and sent to Sing Sing, all at the instigation of Swan (creepy Paul Williams), the entrepreneur of Death Records, who has made a pact with the Devil for eternal youth. The composer escapes from prison, is maimed by a record-pressing machine, and becomes the Phantom, who haunts Swan's new rock place, the Paradise, where the girl he loves (Jessica Harper) becomes a star. This mixture of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Faust isn't enough for De Palma. He heaps on layers of acid-rock satire and parodies of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, PSYCHO, and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY--AND the impacted plots actually function for him. The film is a one-of-a-kind entertainment, with a kinetic, breakneck wit. The cinematographer, Larry Pizer, keeps the images full to overflowing, and the set designer, Jack Fisk, supplies striking takeoffs of the frenzied decor of German silent films. The singer, Beef, is played by Gerrit Graham, who gives the single funniest performance; Harold Oblong, Jeffrey Comanor, and Archie Hahn turn up as three different groups--the Juicy Fruits, the Beach Bums, and, with black-and-white expressionist faces, the Undeads. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

The Phantom President

US (1932): Musical
80 min, No rating, Black & White

This musical political satire was George M. Cohan's first talking picture; for anyone who cares about American theatrical history it's an indispensable record of Cohan's style--which is almost nothing like the styles of James Cagney and Joel Grey when they played Cohan (on the screen and the stage, respectively). Cohan is dapper and bland; he seems to wear a mask of ordinariness, and only the droopy-lidded eyes, and sometimes the awareness in the smile, clue us in to the theatrical instinct at work. One doesn't know quite what to make of him or his smooth technique. There's a good satirical idea here: Cohan plays a double role--a quiet Presidential candidate and the extroverted look-alike who campaigns for him. With Claudette Colbert, Jimmy Durante, Alan Mowbray, George Barbier, Sidney Toler, and Jameson Thomas. Norman Taurog directed, for Paramount. The songs are by Cohan, except for Rodgers and Hart's "Give Her a Kiss." Walter De Leon and Harlan Thompson did the screenplay, based on a novel by George F. Worts.

Phèdre

France (1969): Drama
No rating, Color

Marie Bell has been acclaimed as the greatest Phèdre since Bernhardt. Most Americans must take this judgment on faith, but at least it's possible to see her legendary performance and to glean an idea of the sound and look of the classic French style of acting from this somewhat shortened version of the Racine tragedy in Alexandrine verse, directed by Pierre Jourdan. In French.

The Philadelphia Story

US (1940): Comedy
112 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Philip Barry wrote this romantic comedy for Katharine Hepburn, shaping it for her tense patrician beauty and her eccentricities, and she had her greatest popular triumph in it on Broadway (in 1939) and on the screen. There's conventional Broadway shoddiness at its center: the material plays off Hepburn's public personality, pulling her down from her pedestal. As Tracy Lord, a snow maiden and a phony--which is how the movie public regarded Hepburn, according to the exhibitors who in 1938 had declared her "box-office poison"--she gets her comeuppance. The priggish, snooty Tracy is contemptuous of everyone who doesn't live up to her high standards (and that includes her father, played by John Halliday, and her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant); in the course of the action, she slips from those standards herself, learns to be tolerant of other people's lapses, and discovers her own "humanity." Shiny and unfelt and smart-aleck-commercial as the movie is, it's almost irresistibly entertaining--one of the high spots of MGM professionalism. There isn't much real wit in the lines, and there's no feeling of spontaneity, yet the engineering is so astute that the laughs keep coming. This is a paste diamond with more flash and sparkle than a true one. The director, George Cukor, has never been more heartlessly sure of himself. With James Stewart, who took the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as the journalist who has a sudden romantic fling with Tracy, and Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, Mary Nash, Henry Daniell, and Virginia Weidler. The additions by the adaptor, Donald Ogden Stewart, are brief and witty; Hepburn's gowns are by Adrian. Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

The Pick-up Artist

US (1987): Romance/Crime
81 min, Rated PG-13, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

An airy romantic comedy with Robert Downey, Jr., as a buoyant young New Yorker who races through his days, chasing women compulsively, as if he were under a spell and could never relax. Then he propositions a long-legged, nimble-witted redhead (Molly Ringwald), who's only 19 but is a few leaps ahead of him. Downey, whose soul is floppy-eared, gives the movie a fairy-tale sunniness, and Ringwald, who has acquired lusher, deeper colors, is essentially a girl in distress. They match up like Pierrot and Pierrette. The film doesn't build the rush of excitement that's needed when the action moves to Atlantic City, but it's bright and blithe, like the sound of the 60s girl groups on the track; the flimsy plot hardly matters, because new, undreamed-of characters turn up, and they keep things bubbling. The cast includes Victoria Jackson, Bob Gunton, Christine Baranski, Mildred Dunnock, Robert Towne, Dennis Hopper, Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Lorraine Bracco, and Tom Signorelli (as a used-car salesman). Among the women the hero tries to pick up are Anne Marie Bobby, who tells him she's studying for the priesthood, and Vanessa Williams, whose dog gives him the brushoff. Written and directed by James Toback; the cinematography is by Gordon Willis. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Pickup on South Street

US (1953): Spy/Crime
80 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Richard Widmark as a scroungy petty gangster who sneaks a look into a woman's handbag, turns up some microfilm, and finds himself dealing with Communist agents. Samuel Fuller wrote the script (adapted from Dwight Taylor's story written for the screen) and directed, in his fast, flashy, essentially empty-minded style. The film isn't boring--there's always something going on--but you come away with nothing. (It isn't that Fuller's insensitive, exactly; it's that he's totally unconcerned with sensitivity--it would get in his way.) With Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Richard Kiley, Murvyn Vye, Milburn Stone, and George E. Stone. 20th Century-Fox.

Pickwick Papers

UK (1954): Historical/Comedy
109 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Dickens' episodic book almost defies a simple continuity, but the adaptor-director, Noel Langley, has been surprisingly successful at cutting through the labyrinth and keeping the enormous collection of characters rattling along. The best is Nigel Patrick's Jingle--swaggering, staccato, outrageously amoral, and finally, because of Patrick's creative characterization, the most sympathetic of the company. As the duelling Winkle, James Donald has moments so ethereally absurd that he seems to have emerged from A Midsummer Night's Dream. James Hayter's Pickwick is more of a reasonable facsimile than a person, but the only really bad casting is the lamentably immodest Harry Fowler as Sam Weller. With Donald Wolfit, Hermione Gingold, and Joyce Grenfell. This is one of the most enjoyable of the films derived from Dickens.

Picnic on the Grass

France (1959): Romance/Drama
91 min, No rating, Color
Also known as LE DÉJEUNER SUR L'HERBE.

Jean Renoir, but at neither his best nor even his second best. His themes are reduced to crotchets in this story about a scientist (Paul Meurisse) who preaches artificial insemination until he catches sight of Catherine Rouvel bathing nude. Some sequences were filmed at Les Collettes, the home where Auguste Renoir spent his last years. Cinematography by Georges Leclerc; music by Joseph Kosma. In French.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

US (1945): Horror
110 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

It has its ludicrous side. Hurd Hatfield's Dorian (who sells his soul to keep his youth) doesn't look fresh; he looks glacéed. And the other characters don't seem to age with the years either, so there's no contrast with him. But the Oscar Wilde story has its compelling gimmick and its cheap thrills, and despite the failings of Albert Lewin as writer and director, he has an appetite for decadence and plushy decor. Neither Hatfield, who tries scrupulously hard, nor George Sanders, who plays the epigrammatic Wilde figure, Lord Henry Wotton, rises above Lewin's chic gothic conception, but as Dorian's victim, gullible Sibyl Vane, the young Angela Lansbury gives her scenes true depth of feeling. This may be her most intuitive and original screen performance. When she sings "Little Yellow Bird" in a pure, sweet voice, the viewer grasps that the man who would destroy this girl really is evil. With Donna Reed, Lowell Gilmore, and Peter Lawford. The cinematography is by Harry Stradling; the Albright brothers--Ivan and Zsissly--painted the series of portraits. (A 1970 version, starring Helmut Berger and released by A.I.P. under the name DORIAN GRAY, is more like FANNY HILL.) MGM. .

Picture Snatcher

US (1933): Drama
77 min, No rating, Black & White

A B-picture starring James Cagney; he plays a cocky ex-con turned reporter. The story is lifted from the exploit of the newspaper photographer of the 20s who sneaked a picture of Ruth Snyder's electrocution. In the movie, the reporter goes back to the prison where he served time and does a comparable dirty deed. Lloyd Bacon directed, from a script by Allen Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson; it's all fairly snappy until the reporter has to expiate his crime. Chesty Patricia Ellis is the heroine; also with Ralph Bellamy, Alice White, and Ralf Harolde. Warners.

Pierrot le Fou

France-Italy (1965): Romance/Crime
110 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Jean-Luc Godard's unresolved, disturbing film: it gets to you. The narrative encompasses a satire of advertising, an existential stalemate, political violence, and romance, all shot--in color--in a hard-edge style. With Jean-Paul Belmondo as Ferdinand, who leaves his rich wife in Paris and goes off to the South of France with the restless Marianne (Anna Karina); he comes to an unforgettably explosive end. Also with Jimmy Karoubi as the dwarf, and Samuel Fuller as himself, and a glimpse of Jean-Pierre Léaud. The cinematography is by Raoul Coutard; the script (by Godard) has its origins in the novel Obsession, by Lionel White. In French. Released by Pathe Contemporary.

Pigeons

US (1971): Comedy
87 min, Rated R, Color

It has been said that this movie about an alienated youth turned New York cab-driver improves as it goes along, but who wants to stick around long enough to find out? Static direction by John Dexter. The cast includes Jordan Christopher, Jill O'Hara, Kate Reid, and William Redfield. Produced by Richard Lewis.

Pigskin Parade

US (1936): Musical/Comedy
93 min, No rating, Black & White

It's beyond belief--atrocious and yet funny and enjoyable. A 20th Century-Fox musical--and that's not exactly a recommendation, as anyone who went to musicals knows. But there was often a lot going on in them, and this one centers on a rowdy (if somewhat extended) football game and features the young, pudgy, budding talent, Judy Garland (three years before THE WIZARD OF OZ), as a farm girl. (This was her feature film début.) Also, Patsy Kelly, Betty Grable, Stuart Erwin, Dixie Dunbar, Johnny Downs, Jack Haley, and the Yacht Club Boys. David Butler directed; the songs include "Balboa."

The Pink Panther Strikes Again

UK (1976): Comedy
103 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Inspector Clouseau's clenched-jaws politesse is a joke that had already run its course. Playing Clouseau for the fourth time, Peter Sellers is required to imitate himself, and his fish-eyed deadpan is joyless. In this one Herbert Lom as Dreyfus (Clouseau's former boss, the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté, who was driven to nervous collapse in both A SHOT IN THE DARK and THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER) turns into a criminal mastermind and threatens to destroy the world if the major powers don't hand Clouseau over to him. The director, Blake Edwards, sets up promising slapstick situations, and then the payoffs are out of step (and, worse, repeated); after the first half hour or so, the film loses momentum. Edwards seems to be flipping through the pages of the script (which he himself wrote, with Frank Waldman). The picture was a hit, though. The cast includes Burt Kwouk as Cato, Lesley-Anne Down, Colin Blakely, Michael Robbins, Leonard Rossiter, Marne Maitland, Richard Vernon, and Dick Crockett (as Gerald Ford) and Byron Kane (as Kissinger). Omar Sharif, who turns up for a gag, shows more spirit than he does in his starring roles. United Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

Pinky

US (1949): Drama
102 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Pinky is so light-skinned she passed for white while studying nursing in Boston; when she returns to her washerwoman grandmother's Southern shack, she is terrified and enraged by a fresh awakening to what she has almost forgotten--what it's like to be treated as a Negro, not only by contemptuous whites but by self-hating Negroes. Elia Kazan directs this material with a fine eye for the vicious undercurrents of Southern decay. The film garnered a little too much praise for its courage; it isn't overwhelmingly courageous--Pinky isn't played by a Negro actress, she's played by petite, delicate-faced Jeanne Crain, and at the end Pinky renounces her white fiancé, William Lundigan, thereby sparing 20th Century-Fox no end of awkwardnesses. But the film hasn't been given its due for the tense dramatic sequences and the pressures we're made to feel. PINKY is slick and Hollywoodized, but it's also pretty good. Under Kazan's direction, Jeanne Crain is vibrant; she lacks conflict, but she shows qualities that don't turn up in her romantic comedy performances. And though Ethel Barrymore plays her image of herself as a wise liberal (not her best role), Ethel Waters, Nina Mae McKinney, and Frederick O'Neal have compelling moments. Also with Evelyn Varden, Kenny Washington, and Basil Ruysdael. The screenplay, by Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols, is based on the novel Quality, by Cid Ricketts Sumner; the cinematography is by Joe MacDonald; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck.

The Pirate

US (1948): Musical/Dance
102 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Judy Garland is a 19th-century maiden on a Caribbean island, dreaming of a famous pirate, and Gene Kelly, bouncing with élan in the manner of Fairbanks, is a travelling actor who pretends to be that pirate. This Vincente Minnelli musical, based on an S.N. Behrman play that the Lunts performed, is flamboyant in an innocent and lively way. Though it doesn't quite work, and it's all a bit broad, it doesn't sour in the memory. The Nicholas Brothers join Garland and Kelly in the celebrated "Be a Clown" number. The score is by Cole Porter. With Walter Slezak, Reginald Owen, Gladys Cooper, and George Zucco. MGM.

Pit of Loneliness

France (1951): Drama
No rating, Black & White
Also known as OLIVIA.

The American title for this study of lesbianism was an obvious attempt to connect it to the then still scandalous novel by Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness. The period is fin-de-siècle. Edwige Feuillère and Simone Simon play two unmarried women who run a finishing school; the students adore the more elegant and seductive Feuillère, and she takes a "special" interest in the lovely young English girl, Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia). The film doesn't compare with that earlier study of lesbianism at school, MADCHEN IN UNIFORM. Born in 1908, the director, Jacqueline Audry, worked her way up from script girl and made a number of popular films, including two based on material by Colette (MITSOU and the French non-musical version of GIGI, 1958), and Colette wrote this script, adapted from the English novel Olivia. But Audry was more adept at light comedy than at this sort of subtle sensuousness. Feuillère has superb presence but the movie is so determinedly "delicate" that it seems to move at a snail's pace. With Yvonne de Bray. In French.

Pixote

Brazil (1981): Drama
127 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

A shockingly lyrical Brazilian film about the life of abandoned children who learn to pick pockets and grab purses and hustle-it's their only way of surviving. Thrown into a reformatory, the 10-year-old Pixote watches as several of the larger boys gang-rape a kid not much older than he is, and his truculent baby face is indifferent, but he's a little camera taking it all in. A group of boys, including Pixote, break out, and he and three others snatch enough purses and wallets to make their way to Rio de Janeiro and begin dealing cocaine. Outsmarted by the adult criminals, the kids buy an aging, drunken prostitute from a pimp and go into business with her: she brings men home, and they rob them at gunpoint. As the director, Hector Babenco (who appears in a prologue), sees it, Pixote is a snub-nosed infant asserting his wants, and when they're denied he changes into a baby gangster-a runt Scarface, who kills innocently, in the sense that he doesn't understand the enormity of the crime. The thesis is too pat, but two of the characters-Lilica (Jorge Juliãno), a flamingly nelly 17-year-old transvestite homosexual, and the whore Sueli, the whoriest whore imaginable (Marília Pera)-transcend it. Dusky and aquiline-faced, Marília Pera has an Anna Magnani-like presence-horrifying and great. Her display of passion wipes the little non-actor kids off the screen. She's the whore spawned out of men's darkest imaginings, and in her scenes the movie achieves a raw garish splendor. The script by Babenco and Jorge Duran is based on the novel Infância dos Mortos by Jose Louzeiro; cinematography by Rodolfo Sanchez. In Portuguese.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

The Pizza Triangle

Italy (1970): Drama/Comedy
99 min, Rated R, Color
Also known as DRAMMA DELLA GELOSIA and A DRAMA OF JEALOUSY.

A genial mutt of a movie--an extroverted romantic satire with sight gags, jokes about the pollution in Rome and modern sex mores. As Oreste, a moon-faced, bushy-haired Communist bricklayer who doesn't always smell good, Marcello Mastroianni holds it all together. Married to a battle-axe, a fat hag with a topknot, Oreste falls in love with a young flower seller, whom Monica Vitti plays with a soulful silliness that is a parody of generations of comic waifs and neo-realist heroines. When she betrays him with his best friend, a Tuscan pizza cook (Giancarlo Giannini), he becomes obsessed with the idea that there's a class basis for the betrayal, and the movie turns into a slapstick tragedy. Oreste, the great stupido, whose face reflects a mind that has been emptied of everything but fluky ideas, commits a crime of passion and becomes a comic-strip parody of an operatic figure--the crazed lover. (This is one of Mastroianni's least-known great performances.) The color is warm and bright, the music is light and nostalgic, and the cutting has a quick rhythm. There's an original comic temperament here. The director, Ettore Scola, doesn't seem to be anxious; the picture is spotty but nothing is forced, so one can relax even when the ideas misfire. From a script by Age and Scarpelli, and Scola. In Italian.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.

A Place in the Sun

US (1951): Drama
122 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This George Stevens version of Dreiser's An American Tragedy, updated to the 50s, features Elizabeth Taylor--in one of her most sensitive (yet steamy) performances--as the rich girl whom a poor, rather weak young man (Montgomery Clift) is drawn to. Perhaps because Stevens' methods here are studied, slow, and accumulative, the work was acclaimed as "realistic," though it's full of murky psychological overtones, darkening landscapes, the eerie sounds of a loon, and overlapping dissolves designed to affect you emotionally without your conscious awareness. Stevens and his scriptwriters (Michael Wilson and Harry Brown pre-interpret everything, turning the basically simple story into something portentous and "deep." The film is mannered enough for a gothic murder mystery, while its sleek capitalists and oppressed workers seem to come out of a Depression cartoon; the industrial town is an arrangement of symbols of wealth, glamour, and power versus symbols of poor, drab helplessness. The hero's jilted working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters) is not allowed even to be attractive; part of the horror of the 1931 von Sternberg version, in which Sylvia Sidney was the victim, was that despite her beauty, her poverty made her, finally, undesirable. If Elizabeth Taylor had played the working girl in this production, then the poor could at least be shown to have some natural assets. But Shelley Winters makes the victim so horrifyingly, naggingly pathetic that when Clift thinks of killing her he hardly seems to be contemplating a crime: it's more like euthanasia. (And Clift himself is perhaps a shade too soft and shrinking--an over-directed pawn.) The conclusion of the film in which the hero (and presumably the audience) is supposed to be convinced that a man should pay with his life for a murder he didn't commit--but wanted to commit--is bizarre. "Who doesn't desire his father's death?" asked Ivan Karamazov. Stevens and company would send us all up for it. But whatever one's reservations about this famous film, it is impressive, and in the love scene between Taylor and Clift, physical desire seems palpable. With Raymond Burr, Fred Clark, Keefe Brasselle, Shepperd Strudwick, and Ted de Corsia. Academy Awards for Best Director, Screenplay, Cinematography (William C. Mellor), Editing (William Hornbeck), Score (Franz Waxman), Costume Design (Edith Head). Paramount.

Places in the Heart

US (1984): Drama
102 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The title refers to the places where our roots are, and this inspirational film, written and directed by Robert Benton, is set in his home town, Waxahachie, Texas, in 1935. Sally Field plays a good Christian woman, secure in her faith. A homebody with two children, she is suddenly widowed and left without enough money to meet the next mortgage payment; she holds her family together and hangs on to her house and 40 acres by, of course, grit and total determination. (The story actually centers on a cotton-pickin' contest.) The film isn't just about the widow--it's about family, community, America, and Christian love. It's about decency, which this mean town is very short of. But Benton's gentle, nostalgic presentation muffles this. His craftsmanship is like an armor built up around his refusal to outrage or offend anyone; it's an encrusted gentility. Danny Glover gives a humorous eccentric force to the all-too-endearing role of Moze, an itinerant, black laborer whose efforts on the widow's behalf get him in trouble with the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and John Malkovich gives a hushed performance as Mr. Will, a blind First World War veteran who becomes the widow's boarder. Benton has conceived Mr. Will as if blindness purified him and drove out ordinary faults; blackness does the same for Moze. The cast includes Amy Madigan (she brings a passionate delicacy to the role of a married schoolteacher who's having a guilt-ridden affair), Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris, Lane Smith, and Bert Remsen as a country singer--he lip-syncs "Cotton-Eyed Joe" to a Doc Watson record. Cinematography by Nestor Almendros. Academy Awards: Best Actress (Field), Original Screenplay. Tri-Star.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Planet of the Apes

US (1968): Science Fiction
112 min, Rated G, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This is a slick commercial picture, with its elements carefully engineered--pretty girl (who unfortunately doesn't seem to have had acting training), comic relief, thrills, chases--but when expensive Hollywood engineering works, the results can be impressive. This is one of the most entertaining science-fiction fantasies ever to come out of Hollywood. The writing, by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, who adapted Pierre Boulle's novel Monkey Planet, is often fancy-ironic in the old school of poetic disillusion, but the construction is first-rate. An American astronaut finds himself in the future, on a planet run by apes; the audience is rushed along with this hero, who keeps going as fast as possible to avoid being castrated or lobotomized. All this wouldn't be so forceful or so funny if it weren't for the use of Charlton Heston in the role. With his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, Heston is a godlike hero; built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play a nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don't hate him because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power--and he has the profile of an eagle. The director, Franklin Schaffner, has thought out the action in terms of the wide screen, and he uses space and distance dramatically. The makeup (there is said to be a million dollars' worth) and the costuming of the actors playing the apes are rather witty, and the apes have a wonderful nervous, hopping walk. The best little hopper is Kim Hunter, as an ape lady doctor; she somehow manages to give a distinctive, charming performance in this makeup. With Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, and Linda Harrison. The movie spawned four sequels and a TV series. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

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