Pretty Poison

US (1968): Drama/Crime
89 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette

An unobtrusive little psychological thriller, subtle and very smart. Anthony Perkins gives what may be his most sensitively conceived performance; he's a character who develops from a quirky, sneaky, funny boy into a decent, sympathetic man. He toys with fantasies but knows they're fantasies. Tuesday Weld plays a small-town girl, crazy for excitement, who accepts his fantasies in a matter-of-fact way and proceeds to act on them. Lorenzo Semple, Jr., wrote a beauty of a script (based on Stephen Geller's novel She Let Him Continue); the horror in the movie isn't just in the revelation of what the pretty young girl is capable of--it's in your awareness that the man's future is being destroyed. Directed by Noel Black. With John Randolph and Beverly Garland. Shot on location in Western Massachusetts; the river that is carrying poisonous red dye is the once "mighty" Housatonic. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

Prick Up Your Ears

UK (1987): Biography
108 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Joe Orton wrote some of the most highly regarded farces of the English-speaking theatre in this century, but you could come out of this movie about him without any sense of their vengeful, bawdy originality. Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Alan Bennett, based on the literary biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film is honest and watchable. But, unlike Orton, it takes no real delight in misbehaving. And though the moviemakers don't try to conceal the facts of the 16 years that Orton (Gary Oldman) spent with Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), who bludgeoned him to death and then killed himself, the relationship between the two hasn't been made convincing. What you come out with is some modern-style psychosexual moralizing about how Orton's pansexuality liberated his talent whereas the inhibited Halliwell was driven to murder. You don't feel Orton's pulse, but Vanessa Redgrave, who plays his smart, ribald agent, has never been sexier or more spontaneous. With Wallace Shawn as Lahr, Lindsay Duncan as Anthea Lahr, Margaret Tyzack as the elocution teacher, Janet Dale as Mrs. Sugden, and Julie Walters as Orton's mother. Cinematography by Oliver Stapleton. Released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Pride and Prejudice

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

This literate movie is a reasonably faithful transcription of Jane Austen's sparkling comedy of manners, adapted from Helen Jerome's play by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin. But when Jane Austen's characters are brought to life at MGM, everything is changed--broadened. Animated and bouncing, the movie is more Dickens than Austen; once one adjusts to this, it's a happy and carefree viewing experience. The movie belongs to Laurence Olivier, who plays Darcy, and to that great old dragon Edna May Oliver, as Lady Catherine. In the role of Elizabeth Bennet, Greer Garson is not as intolerably noble as she became later. She's effective and has nice diction, though she's arch and incapable of subtlety, and a viewer can get weary watching that eyebrow that goes up like the gold curtain at the old Met. The cast includes Mary Boland, Edmund Gwenn, Melville Cooper, E.E. Clive, Bruce Lester, and a batch of girls in overstarched dresses (Marsha Hunt, Maureen O'Sullivan, Karen Morley, Ann Rutherford, Heather Angel), and a villain (Edward Ashley) and a villainess (Frieda Inescort, of the slurpy voice). Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. (Those dresses, which are plastered with ribbons and bows, look as if they were designed for an operetta.)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

US (1969): Drama/Comedy
116 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

Maggie Smith as Muriel Spark's witty caricature of a romantic crackpot teacher in an Edinburgh school in the 30s. She wants to inspire the girls rather than teach them--she's the kind of teacher little girls get crushes on. The movie has been too conventionally directed by Ronald Neame, but Maggie Smith, with her gift for mimicry and her talent for mannered comedy, makes Jean Brodie very funny--snobbish, full of affectations, and with a jumble shop of a mind. Miss Brodie is so entertaining that you can't accept it when the plot becomes melodramatic and you're asked to take her seriously as a dangerous influence. Celia Johnson has a genuine triumph as her implacable adversary, Miss Mackay, and Robert Stephens does a lot with the role of her lover, the art instructor. The script is by Jay Presson Allen, who also wrote the stage version. With Pamela Franklin (her big confrontation scene is a clinker, but the fault isn't hers--it goes back to the novel) and Gordon Jackson. Made in London and Edinburgh. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

The Prince and the Showgirl

US (1957): Comedy
117 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This Ruritanian romance, directed by Laurence Olivier, is slanted to show off the talents of Marilyn Monroe as an innocent abroad. Olivier, perhaps with excess gallantry, makes his prince something of a cold cod, but even in this uningratiating role he has a high gloss--an irony that shines. Monroe's breathy little-girl voice and polymorphous-perverse non-acting have a special mock-innocent charm that none of her imitators seem able to capture. With Sybil Thorndike, Richard Wattis, and Daphne Anderson. The drawback of the film is that Terence Rattigan's script, though it improves on his play The Sleeping Prince, still lacks invention and wit. Warners.

Prince of the City

US (1981): Crime
167 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Treat Williams has a very closed face--the kind of opaque face that is like a brick wall in front of the camera. And that may be why Williams, as a New York City police officer who agrees to be wired and to obtain evidence about corruption in his unit, plays each scene as an acting exercise--going through so much teary, spiritual agony that you want to throw something at him. He acts all over the place yet the movie--2 hours and 47 minutes of pseudo-documentary seriousness--is so poorly structured that you keep wondering what's going on and why he has agreed to inform on his friends. Things don't begin to come together until you're heading into the third hour, when the cross suspended from Williams' neck lights up, like a balloon above his head, announcing "Penance! Absolution!" There's one remarkable performance (it's mostly in the last section): Jerry Orbach, as the tough-minded cop, Gus Levy, acts with such sureness and economy that while Williams is flailing about Orbach magnetizes the camera. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film has a super-realistic overall gloom, and the people are so "ethnic" and yell so much that you begin to long for the sight of a cool blond in bright sunshine. Lumet and Jay Presson Allen wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Robert Daley about the New York City police officer Bob Leuci. With Lindsay Crouse, who's stuck with one of those speeches about how we're all guilty, Bob Balaban, and Ron Maccone as Nick. The cinematography is by Andrzej Bartkowiak; the music, by Paul Chihara, suggests an existentialist fugue by Schubert. Orion; released by Warners.

The Princess and the Pirate

US (1944): Comedy/Adventure
94 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This elaborate Technicolor romp that Bob Hope did with Virginia Mayo isn't the best setting for his casual wit; the situations are too strained, the fooling around is too buffoonish. Kids probably enjoy this Hope movie more than adults do. It's set in the early 19th century. Hope is Sylvester the Great, a quick-change artist, Mayo is a princess travelling incognito, and they get kidnapped by pirates. Victor McLaglen and Walter Slezak are the sinister villains; also with Maude Eburne, Hugo Haas, Walter Brennan, and Marc Lawrence. A whole slew of writers were involved; David Butler directed. A Samuel Goldwyn Production, for RKO.

The Princess Bride

US (1987): Comedy/Children's/Adventure
98 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The director Rob Reiner doesn't have the craft to bring off the kinetic daredeviltry he tries for, and the movie is ungainly--you can almost see the chalk marks it's not hitting. But it has a loose, likable slobbiness. Set in the late Middle Ages in the mythical kingdom of Florin, the picture, from a script written in 1973 by William Goldman, and based on the 1973 novel that he wrote for his children, is an affectionate composite parody of the high points in adventure movies: the duels, the feats of strength, the rope climbing, the black-masked heroes, the swamps, the dungeons with medieval Rube Goldberg torture machines. Cary Elwes, who has a gift for giddy slapstick, is Westley, the blond farm boy who goes to seek his fortune so that he can claim his true love, blond Buttercup (Robin Wright). Westley is captured by pirates, and Buttercup, selected by Crown Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) to be his bride, is abducted by a trio of ruffians: Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and all 7 feet 5 and 525 pounds of the French-born wrestler André the Giant. The cast includes Christopher Guest as a smarmy six-fingered sadist, Mel Smith as the Albino, Margery Mason as the ancient woman who boos the royal family, and, in scenes that are show-biz bliss, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, wearing makeup that adds centuries to them, as the retired Miracle Max and his nagging crone, Valerie. These two give the movie a lift that puts it all into perspective. It's shtick softened by childlike infatuation. Peter Falk appears in the framing device. Photographed partly on locations in England and Ireland; Florin Castle is actually Haddon Hall, parts of which date back to the 12th century. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Prisoner

UK (1955): Drama
91 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

As the proud cardinal induced to make a false confession of treason (in an unnamed Communist country), Alec Guinness gives a powerful, almost agonized performance. (It was probably the most intense acting he had done in movies up to that time.) Though Bridget Boland's script (from her play) and Peter Glenville's direction leave a great deal to be desired, Guinness achieves what they inadequately reach for. This English film is really nothing but his performance--which is perhaps enough. With Jack Hawkins as the interrogator, Wilfrid Lawson as the warden, and Kenneth Griffith and Raymond Huntley.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue

US (1975): Comedy
105 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

Jack Lemmon, as a New York advertising executive, gets fired, feels worthless, and has a nervous breakdown; Anne Bancroft is his devoted wife. Vaguely about urban despair, full of bad jokes. From Neil Simon's adaptation of his own play. Melvin Frank directed in his usual sagging, 50s style, but probably there isn't a filmmaker in the world who could substantially improve this picture except by throwing out the play altogether. With Gene Saks and Elizabeth Wilson. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

The Prisoner of Zenda

US (1937): Romance/Adventure
101 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Amiable, though familiar, romantic swashbuckler, set in a mythical country, with Ronald Colman in the double role of the King and the smiling, gentlemanly look-alike who takes his place for a while, and plushy Madeleine Carroll as the sweetly dutiful Princess Flavia, who puts crown before love. Lewis Stone and Alice Terry played the roles in (1922), and Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr did them in 1952, but this 1937 version has the advantage of dashing, grinning Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as the naughty Rupert of Hentzau. Fairbanks steals the show from the restrained Colman. It's a well-paced production, directed by John Cromwell and W.S. Van Dyke, and shot by James Wong Howe, with banter supplied by Donald Ogden Stewart, among others. With Raymond Massey, David Niven, Mary Astor, and C. Aubrey Smith. (Peter Sellers did a feeble parody version in 1979, playing the King as a twit and giving the look-alike a Cockney accent that made him sound exactly like Michael Caine.) Produced by David O. Selznick; released by United Artists.

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami

US (1947): Drama
112 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Albert Lewin, a writer who became head of Irving Thalberg's story department and then functioned as a producer for Thalberg, seemed to stand for the same values as his boss: carefully mounted, prestigious entertainment. But when he turned director, in 1942 (writing his own scripts as well), he showed a predilection for ultra-literary material, and his style-a mixture of sophistication, romanticism, and stiff, awkward staging-finally led him to the visual poetry and high camp of PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN and the peerless, posh silliness of SAADIA. The Newark-born director suffered from an almost obsequious lust for everything European and an excess of taste that resulted in tastelessness. BEL AMI, taken from a de Maupassant story that had been filmed in Germany in 1938, is a flaccid, overdressed production about a 19th-century cad who makes his way in the world by taking advantage of women. Lewin got an interesting ambivalence out of George Sanders in THE MOON AND SIXPENCE, and then typecast him amusingly as Lord Henry Wotton in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, but here Sanders seems heavy and monotonous. With Angela Lansbury, Ann Dvorak, Frances Dee, Marie Wilson, Katherine Emery, Albert Basserman, Hugo Haas, and John Carradine. The score is by Darius Milhaud; cinematography by Russell Metty. United Artists.

Private Benjamin

US (1980): Comedy
100 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A women's-liberation service comedy, in which Goldie Hawn plays a spoiled honey bunch--a rich blonde Jewish girl from Philadelphia--who becomes a real woman in the Army. The script goes from one formula to the next, and it reworks the pranks of generations of male service comedies, but the director, Howard Zieff, refurbishes the stale material with smart small touches, and Goldie Hawn has such infectious frothy charm that she manages to get laughs out of ancient routines about a tenderfoot going through the rigors of basic training. Her likableness makes the picture moderately amusing until the last third, when she gets involved with a dream prince (Armand Assante) who turns out to be a thickheaded chauvinist, and she has to be liberated all over again; the picture seems to be stuck in a revolving door. This is the sort of feminist movie in which almost every man is an insensitive boor or a fool, yet the heroine gets what she wants by manipulation and the shrewd use of sexual blackmail--which we're meant to find adorable. Basically, it's just Daffy Duck-TV sitcom. With Albert Brooks, Eileen Brennan, Harry Dean Stanton, Hal Williams, Toni Kalem, Damita Jo Freeman, Mary Kay Place, P.J. Soles, Robert Webber, and Sam Wanamaker and Barbara Barrie as the heroine's parents. Written by Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller. Released by Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

A Private Function

UK (1985): Comedy
93 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette

This joint début film by the celebrated British television playwright Alan Bennett and the young director Malcolm Mowbray keeps adding greedy eccentrics and scatological jokes until everything is interconnected and the action seems on the verge of exploding into lewd farce. It never quite makes the final leap, but it's pretty funny anyway. The action is set in a small Yorkshire town in 1947, during the worst of the postwar austerity, and the plot involves the efforts of the local pillars of society (Denholm Elliott, John Normington, Richard Griffiths) to fatten a hidden, "unlicensed" pig for a banquet celebrating the nuptials of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. They run into trouble when the pig is stolen by a mild-mannered chiropodist (Michael Palin), who is encouraged by his Lady Macbeth of a wife (Maggie Smith). The movie is trivial, but alive and unruly; the characters cheat and conspire on such a low level that it suggests VOLPONE set in a cabbage patch. Maggie Smith can bring you up short with a devastating inflection, and as her aged mother, Liz Smith (no relation) is like a bleary, befuddled mirror image of the daughter's pretensions. Also with Bill Paterson as the inspector for the Ministry of Food and Rachel Davies as his seductive landlady. A HandMade Film.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

The Private Life of Don Juan

UK (1934): Romance/Biography/Adventure
80 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

A relatively motionless Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., in a rueful, satirical movie analogy to his then domestic problems. His Don Juan, past his heyday, is in his 40s and has to watch his diet and sneak in a masseur. The story is about how he frees himself from the demands of philandering. It's one of those films that lumbers along and never really takes off, though the gimmick--he is believed dead and comes back in disguise--appears promising. With Merle Oberon, Benita Hume, Binnie Barnes, Melville Cooper, Joan Gardner, and Athene Seyler. Directed by Alexander Korda, from a script by Lajos Biro and Frederick Lonsdale, based on a play by Henri Bataille. The picture features sumptuous Spanish costumes; some look cribbed from Goya.

The Private Life of Henry VIII

UK (1933): Biography
97 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Charles Laughton as the robust, gluttonous monarch; among the ladies he marries are Merle Oberon, Binnie Barnes, Wendy Barrie, and Elsa Lanchester. Alexander Korda directed this war-horse of the movie repertory, which is still alive and in good spirits. With Robert Donat and John Loder.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

US (1970): Mystery/Comedy
125 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Billy Wilder's detective picture is meant to be a put-on of the Sherlock Holmes mythology, concentrating on a case that Holmes (Robert Stephens) fouls up, because he's distracted by the treachery of a smart charmer (Genevičve Page). But for this idea to have bounce and suspense we need to see the clues and draw our own inferences, so that we can spot where Holmes is going wrong and enjoy his mistakes. And for it to be somewhat romantic, as it's intended to be, we need to see much more of how the woman deceives him. Instead, one must content oneself with the occasional archly amusing lines, the handsome Victorian decor, and Christopher Challis's lovely (if somewhat dark) tinted-looking cinematography. It's a graceful picture, but it dawdles, and Stephens doesn't seem to have the star presence that Holmes requires. Made in England. With Colin Blakely, Christopher Lee, Clive Revill, Stanley Holloway, and Catherine Lacey. Written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; art direction by Alexander Trauner; music by Miklós Rózsa. United Artists.

Private Lives

US (1931): Comedy
84 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Early talkie attempt at glittering theatrical sophistication, and, somehow, in its own terms, it works. This MGM version of the Noel Coward play was made soon after the play came out, and perhaps the play's style and excitement carries the cast along. Norma Shearer isn't so bad, and Robert Montgomery is very, very good. It was a dazzling success. A performance of the play was filmed so that the stars, the director, Sidney Franklin, and a raft of adaptors would get the idea; that may explain Franklin's showing a little zip, for a change, and Shearer's acting halfway human. With Reginald Denny, Una Merkel, and, in a role added in the film, Jean Hersholt.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

US (1939): Romance/Biography
106 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

Bette Davis, well painted and dressed for the role of the shrewd old Queen, looks the part and gives a magnetic, tough performance, but an impossible task was set for her, since as Essex, Errol Flynn couldn't come halfway to meet her. His talents were in other directions; the role was totally outside his range, and the poor man seemed to know it. Davis's performance is bound to suffer from comparison with Glenda Jackson's multifaceted Elizabeth on television, but Davis's Elizabeth is a precursor of Jackson's--it might almost be a sketch for the Jackson portrait. Michael Curtiz directed this adaptation of the Maxwell Anderson play. With Olivia De Havilland, Henry Daniell, Leo G. Carroll, James Stephenson, Vincent Price, Donald Crisp, and Ralph Forbes. Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Warners.

The Prize

US (1963): Spy/Drama
136 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

It opens badly but then becomes a lively, blatant entertainment--cheerful in a shameless sort of way. (It's the sort of movie you may not want to own up to enjoying.) Paul Newman plays an American writer (with oddly slurry diction) who wins the Nobel Prize, goes to Stockholm for the ceremonies, and gets caught up in a spy plot. Ernest Lehman wrote the script, based on the Irving Wallace novel; the movie may remind you of Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which Lehman also wrote. Pieces of that earlier script turn up here, transposed only slightly. Mark Robson directed, and the cast includes Edward G. Robinson (in a dual role), Elke Sommer puckering up, and Leo G. Carroll, Kevin McCarthy, Diane Baker, Micheline Presle, Gérard Oury, John Qualen, and the sinister Sacha Pitoëff. Produced by Pandro S. Berman, for MGM.

Prizzi's Honor

US (1985): Romance/Crime/Comedy
129 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Adapted from Richard Condon's prankish satire of American corruption, this John Huston picture has a ripe and daring comic tone. It revels voluptuously in the murderous finagling of the members of a Brooklyn Mafia family, and rejoices in their scams. It's like THE GODFATHER acted out by The Munsters. Jack Nicholson's average-guyness as Charley, the clan's enforcer, is the film's touchstone: this is a baroque comedy about people who behave in ordinary ways in grotesque circumstances, and it has the juice of everyday family craziness in it. Everything in this picture works with everything else--which is to say that John Huston has it all in the palm of his big, bony hand. With William Hickey as the shrunken old Don Corrado, ghouly and wormy, with tiny, shocking bright eyes; Anjelica Huston as the don's scheming granddaughter, a high-fashion Vampira who moves like a swooping bird and talks in a honking Brooklynese that comes out of the corner of her twisted mouth; Kathleen Turner as Charley's ravishingly pretty bride; John Randolph as Pop, the Prizzis' consigliere and Charley's beaming, proud father; and Lee Richardson and Robert Loggia as the don's two sons, and Lawrence Tierney as a corrupt cop, Tomasina Baratta as an opera singer, and Alexandra Ivanoff as the soprano in the wedding scene. The script is by Condon and Janet Roach; the cinematography is by Andrzej Bartkowiak. Alex North's score, with its lush, parodistic use of Puccini, and some Rossini, a little Verdi, and a dash of Donizetti, too, actively contributes to the whirling texture of the scenes. An ABC Production, released through 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

The Producers

US (1968): Comedy
88 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Zero Mostel as a producer who sells 25,000 per cent of a play, intending to produce a flop so that he won't have to pay the backers anything. Naturally, he produces a hit. Some of the material is funny in an original way, but Mel Brooks, who wrote and directed (both for the first time), doesn't get the timing right and good gags fall apart or become gross or just don't develop. The sequence consisting of tryouts for the role of Hitler in the play, which is called "Springtime for Hitler," is potentially so great that what he does with it lets you down. Still, terrible as this picture is, a lot of it is very enjoyable. For satire of the theatre as inspired as Brooks' gags at their best, it's not hard to put up with the ineptitude and the amateurish camera angles. It's even possible to put up with Zero Mostel in closeup. (He was not one to tone his effects down for the camera.) With Dick Shawn, Estelle Winwood, Renée Taylor, Kenneth Mars, and Gene Wilder, whose whining, strangled-voice bit is almost a shtick of genius. Produced by Sidney Glazier; released by Embassy Pictures.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

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