Superman

US (1978): Science Fiction
143 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Christopher Reeve, the young actor chosen to play the lead, is the best reason to see the picture: he's immediately likable, with an open-faced, deadpan style that's just right for a windup hero. The film is likable but disappointing--it gives the impression of having been made in panic, in fear that style or "too much" imagination might endanger its appeal to the literal-minded. Though one of the two or three most expensive movies made up to that date, it's cheesy-looking, and the plotting is so hit-or-miss that the story never seems to get started; the special effects are far from wizardly, and the editing often seems hurried and jerky just at the crucial points. Directed by Richard Donner, though there's so little consistency that each sequence might have had a different director and been color-processed in a different lab. (Richard Lester was said to have worked on parts of it.) With an enormous cast that includes Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Jeff East, Marc McClure, Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews, Maria Schell, Jackie Cooper, and Aaron Smolinski, who plays Superman as a child. The writers involved in adapting the comic strip created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster include Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Tom Mankiewicz, and Norman Enfield. Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth; music by John Williams. An Alexander & Ilya Salkind Production.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

Superman II

US (1980): Science Fiction
127 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

It has charm and a lot of entertaining kinkiness, too. Richard Lester, who directed this sequel to SUPERMAN, brings it one light touch after another, and pretty soon the movie has a real spirit--what you wished the first had had. Christopher Reeve, who brings emotional depth to Superman, pulls a switch on the material: Kryptonian that he is, Superman is the only human being in the movie. By the end, he's no longer a square; he has suffered humiliation and grown up--you come out of the picture thinking about Superman's feelings. And Reeve has become a smoothie: his transitions from Clark Kent to Superman and back are now polished comedy routines. Gene Hackman gives a juicy performance as the bald, shyster clown Lex Luthor, who tries to make a deal with the three arch-fiend Kryptonians in their black high-punk jumpsuits--Terence Stamp as General Zod, Jack O'Halloran as Non, and Sarah Douglas as the sadistic tease Ursa. This Ursa has the kind of face cameras worship, and she does her dirty deeds with blasé nonchalance and the merest flick of a malicious smile. The picture grows faster and quirkier as it moves along. With Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz. (The special effects are highly variable in quality, and the whole film--blown up from 35 mm to 70 mm for the big-theatre showings--is grainy and bleached and often poorly framed. You're much better off if you see it in 35 mm.) Released by Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

Superman III

US (1983): Science Fiction
123 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The star is Richard Pryor, who acts as if he were trying not to be noticed. He plays Gus Gorman, a computer wizard who is ordered by his boss (Robert Vaughn), the slimy-suave head of a conglomerate, to work out the elements of kryptonite, the only substance that can destroy Superman (Christopher Reeve). Gus fakes one element, and his near-kryptonite doesn't kill Superman; it demoralizes him and he begins to perform dirty deeds. Richard Lester, who directed (he also did SUPERMAN II), provides agreeable visual humor, and the film begins promisingly, but Lester wants us to see Superman as a virtuous clod, and this drains the mythic life out of the movie. What Superman and the other characters do doesn't seem to have any weight. Too many scenes are treated as if they were just obligatory, and because of this air of indifference, verging on disdain, the movie's sight gags and special effects--even the biggest ones--aren't particularly exciting. The scattered impulses behind the picture cancel each other out--everything feels marginal. As Lana Lang, the girl from Smallville who has had a crush on Clark Kent since high school, Annette O'Toole is the only member of the cast who appears to believe in his or her role yet stays in a comic-book frame. Also with Gavan O'Herlihy as Lana's jock suitor, Pamela Stephenson as the floozy-intellectual Lorelei Ambrosia, Annie Ross as the witchlike Vera (a real mistake), and--fleetingly--Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Jackie Cooper, and Marc McClure. The script is by David and Leslie Newman. Produced by the Salkinds (Alexander and Ilya); released by Warners .
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

The Survivors

US (1983): Comedy
102 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Robin Williams may be that rarity, a fearless actor; his cock-a-doodle-doo eagerness transcends the flaws in this slapstick social satire. He plays a junior executive in New York who gets fired on the same day that Walter Matthau, the owner of a service station, loses his business. They meet at a lunch counter, where each man is trying to drown his sorrow in a cup of coffee, and when a bullying thug (Jerry Reed) tries to rob the place, they disarm him and, briefly, become media heroes. Being fired seems to have thrown a switch in the young executive's skull, and after the attempted robbery he goes gun-crazy, buys an arsenal, and goes off for a course of training in survival tactics at a parafascist camp in New England; he wants to learn how to be violent, so he can live in the wild and protect himself when the social order collapses. The best thing about this framework is that it permits Robin Williams to be himself and yet to be in character. He sputters out his short-circuited thoughts; he seems to be free-associating 24 hours a day, and this spritzing never seems false or prepared. (It's Matthau's function to soothe him.) There's a lot of unconventional humor in the script by Michael Leeson, though he doesn't appear to be experienced in building a plot to a climax, and the director, Michael Ritchie, tends to be at his sharpest in divertissements on a theme rather than on the theme itself. Jerry Reed (better known as a country musician) has a fine handsome, maniacal presence--he has scary, deep-set eyes; and Kristen Vigard is fresh and entertaining as Matthau's spacey redhead daughter. The unusually gifted supporting cast includes Anne Pitoniak and Joseph Carberry (who has the presence of a young Bogart), as well as Marian Halley, Annie McEnroe, and James Wainwright. Columbia.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Susan and God

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

Susan, the upper-crust religious quack of Rachel Crothers' comedy of manners, is not really in Joan Crawford's range. Crawford can't provide the charm that Gertrude Lawrence reportedly gave the role on Broadway--when Crawford is being intellectually frivolous, it's merely tiresome. The director, George Cukor, and the scenarist, Anita Loos, must certainly have been aware of the problem, because Loos supplied some new characters, and Cukor lavished affection on the actresses--Marjorie Main and Constance Collier--who played them. As the caretaker, Marjorie Main practically walks off with the picture. Fredric March does all he can in the role of Susan's husband, who has sensibly taken refuge in drink; with Rita Hayworth, Ruth Hussey, Rose Hobart, John Carroll, Gloria De Haven, and Nigel Bruce. It's not a good comedy, but it has a certain fascination, because the theme is such an odd one for Hollywood to have attempted at all. MGM.

Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise

US (1931): Romance
76 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

This was Garbo's only film with Clark Gable. They were both at MGM, but Gable's rough, right-out-there physical appeal didn't quite fit Garbo's pictures-it didn't allow for the spirituality that was a key element in the passion that she awakened in her other screen lovers. With Gable she wasn't a goddess; she was sex-hungry, just like Crawford in the early Gable-Crawford movies. Garbo plays a young Swedish-American farm girl who runs away from the brute (Alan Hale) she is being forced to marry and takes refuge in the cabin of a construction engineer (Gable); they fall in love, sleep together, and plan to marry. But when unlucky circumstances separate them, and she has an affair with a carnival owner (John Miljan), her engineer won't forgive her. Over the years, she does very well as the mistress of rich men, but she keeps locating her true love and begging forgiveness until, at last… Still, one can sit through all this without too much pain, because of Garbo's beauty and the raw heat that she and Gable generate. Their love scenes in the cabin redeem a lot of bad writing and bad acting. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. The novel by David Graham Phillips was adapted by Wanda Tuchock, with dialogue provided by Zelda Sears and Leon Gordon. With Ian Keith, Jean Hersholt, Hale Hamilton, Cecil Cunningham, Theodore Von Eltz, and Russell Simpson.

The Suspect

US (1944): Crime
85 min, No rating, Black & White

Robert Siodmak's craftsmanship keeps this period suspense film satisfyingly tense. It's realistic, yet bone-chilling. And Siodmak directed a fine cast. Charles Laughton is restrained and moving as a patient man goaded to murder by his harpy wife (Rosalind Ivan). Henry Daniell has his best (evil) role since he shared the piano bench with Garbo in CAMILLE, and Ella Raines brings some individuality to the part of the sympathetic woman. The screenplay, by Bertram Millhauser, is based on James Ronald's novel. Universal.

Suspect

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

Is there a piece of casting more ineffably Hollywood than Cher as a busy, weary public defender? She's all wrong for this role: her hooded, introspective face doesn't give you enough--she needs a role that lets her use her body. With the camera on her steadily here, you might be watching a still picture. This laboriously set-up thriller has her defending a deaf-mute (Liam Neeson) accused of murder, in a Washington, D.C., courtroom, before a rigid, cold-eyed judge (John Mahoney). It's impossible to know how we're meant to interpret the lamebrained job this lawyer does at the trial. She'd be lost if one of the jurors--a young lobbyist (Dennis Quaid)--didn't do the detective work that helps her out. Probably the director, Peter Yates, and the scriptwriter, Eric Roth, were just so proud of not having made the woman a bimbo that they didn't notice they'd made her a lummox. The way Washington is shot it looks like a shopping mall. With Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, and E. Katherine Kerr. Tri-Star.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Suzy

US (1936): War/Drama
99 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Jean Harlow in a pasted-together story about an American showgirl barging about London and Paris during the First World War. She marries Irish inventor Franchot Tone in London, then, thinking him dead, goes to Paris and marries famous French aviator Cary Grant. Naturally, Tone comes to Paris to work for Grant.… It's negligible, all right, but it isn't too awful, because Dorothy Parker and the other writers tossed in some dexterous badinage, and Grant brings an elfin bounce to his role, especially in the sequence in which Harlow is trying to sing and he demonstrates that he knows how. His song seems to tickle her-she smiles in a fresh, open way. (The clip appears in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!) Benita Hume is the delectable villainess; with Lewis Stone, Inez Courtney, and Una O'Connor. Directed by George Fitzmaurice; based on a novel by Herbert Gorman. MGM.

Svengali

US (1931): Drama
82 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

John Barrymore's love of bizarre roles and outré makeup (no man had less reason to cover his face) led him to take on George Du Maurier's wonderful hokum about the sly, sinister musician who hypnotizes beautiful, blue-eyed little Trilby (Marian Marsh) into becoming a great singer. In one startling sequence, Svengali, his eyes a blank white, stands at a window and casts his spell over the rooftops to the room where Trilby lives, and there are affecting moments, too, like the failure of Trilby's voice when Svengali's influence wanes. Barrymore, long and lank here, with greasy locks, never needed occult powers to be magnetic; one's interest flags when he's offscreen, however. Physically perfect for Trilby, Marian Marsh is a classic example of type-casting. But it would have taken more of a hypnotist than Archie Mayo, who directed, to get a performance out of her. In some sequences the imaginative scene designs (which re-create Paris in the 1890s) and Mayo's staging suggest the German Expressionist films of the preceding decade. With Bramwell Fletcher, Donald Crisp, Lumsden Hare, Luis Alberni, Paul Porcasi, and Carmel Myers. Adapted from Du Maurier's Trilby by J. Grubb Alexander. (There are at least five film versions--the first in 1914.) Warners.

Swann in Love

France (1984): Drama
110 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette
Also known as UN AMOUR DE SWANN.

Of all the imaginable material for the screen, Proust's writing requires the most subtle feeling for rhythms--the meaning is in his rhythm--and neither the director (Volker Schlöndorff) nor the scriptwriters (Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carrière, Marie-Hélène Estienne) seem to do anything to draw us in. The movie doesn't even have the force of real desecration; it's easy to forget you've seen these stiff arrangements of people in ornate, cheerlessly lighted rooms that every instinct tells you they never lived in. Ornella Muti is a wily, plausible Odette, and Alain Delon is, at least, amusing as the Baron de Charlus. But as Swann, Jeremy Irons doesn't suggest intelligence or feeling; he's a stick, a dried-out Wasp, with dead eyes. Also with Fanny Ardant, Marie-Christine Barrault, Jacques Boudet, Roland Topor, and Jean Aurenche. Cinematography by Sven Nykvist; music by Hans-Werner Henze. Released in the U.S. by Orion Classics. In French.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Sweet Bird of Youth

US (1962): Drama
120 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Paul Newman as the gigolo Chance Wayne and Geraldine Page as the battered, fading star Alexandra Del Lago, in Richard Brooks' slicked-up version of Tennessee Williams' flamboyant pop fantasy. When Newman's bare chest isn't being fumbled at and crooned over by Page, it's being pawed and picked at by Shirley Knight, who plays his fresh-faced girlfriend, Heavenly Finley. This hysterical twaddle features a sadistic attack on Newman, engineered by Heavenly's father (Ed Begley), a crooked political boss, and a climactic telephone soliloquy by Page (we hear her part of a long-distance conversation with Walter Winchell, who convinces her that, far from being a flop in her last picture, she has scored her greatest hit). Rip Torn and Mildred Dunnock are also involved in the madness. MGM. CinemaScope.

Sweet Charity

US (1969): Musical/Dance/Comedy
133 min, Rated G, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Based on what is possibly Fellini's finest film, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, about a gullible, softhearted prostitute, this big musical, starring Shirley MacLaine, may have been too ambitious a project for Bob Fosse's début as a movie director. The tricky camera effects that Fosse later brought off in CABARET and in the TV special "Liza with a Z" are jangling here, and although Shirley MacLaine tries hard, it's obvious that her dancing isn't up to the demands of the role. It's a disaster, but zoom-happy Fosse's choreographic conceptions are intensely dramatic, and the movie has some of the best dancing in American musicals of the period. With Sammy Davis, Jr., Paula Kelly, Chita Rivera, Ricardo Montalban, Barbara Bouchet, Stubby Kaye, and John McMartin. Peter Stone did the screenplay, based on the version Neil Simon did for Broadway; with songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. Universal.

Sweet Dreams

US (1985): Biography
115 min, Rated PG-13, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

As the pop-and-country singer Patsy Cline, Jessica Lange has a raw physicality that's challenging and heroic; she wants pleasure out of life, and she's happiest and rowdiest and most fully alive when she's singing, and when she's rolling in the hay. The singing voice that comes out of her is from the vocal tracks of recordings that Patsy Cline made between 1960 and 1963, and Lange's body lives up to the sound. The weakness of this kind of biopic is that once it's on the rails you can see where it's heading, and the basic story seems banal. The film doesn't transcend this limitation, yet scene by scene, the script by Robert Getchell has a funny, edgy spontaneity, a tang. And the director, Karel Reisz, doesn't step back from Patsy; she's taken on her own terms. As Patsy's husband, Ed Harris comes on at first bristling with sexual confidence, and he and Lange are great at mean low-down banter that nips at you and makes you laugh. The essence of Harris's acting style is the intensity he brings to quietness, and he gives the role a tragic, pitiable sweetness. The soft-faced Ann Wedgeworth, a marvellous comedienne, plays Patsy's mother, who's disturbed and titillated--in about equal parts--by Patsy's swinging hips and uncouth language. The cinematography is very ordinary, and most of the staging is uninspired, but Lange has real authority, and the performance holds you emotionally. People cry at this movie though it isn't sentimental--it's an honest tearjerker. With David Clennon and P.J. Soles. Tri-Star.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Sweet Hours

Spain (1981): Drama
103 min, No rating, Color
Also known as DULCES HORAS.

Another graceful, measured Freudian-fantasy game by the Spanish writer-director Carlos Saura. The hero (Iñaki Aierra) is a playwright so obsessed with memories of his childhood that he has written a new play that contains the key scenes of his early life. The play (Sweet Hours) is in rehearsal, and he attends the sessions watchfully, rapt. He's searching for something. (Can it be the clue to what's always missing from Saura's films--the final burst of energy that would make everything count?) Eventually, the searching playwright dredges up the repressed material, and his Oedipus complex is resolved. Saura has given his hero a bonus--a perfect wish fulfillment--by having him fall in love with Berta (Assumpta Serna), the stunning young actress who is rehearsing the role of his mother. This might seem like an exploding Buñuelian joke, but the entire movie is cultured and dignified; it's on gliders--it's smooth and languorous, and with intricately choreographed shifts from the present to the theatrically performed past and to the remembered past. What saves it from pedantry is that from time to time the images have an erotic tingle. Something sexual hovers in the atmosphere, especially when the tall, wide-eyed Assumpta Serna is on the screen. Her smile has a teasing elusiveness a bit like that of Vanessa Redgrave. In Spanish.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

Sweet Liberty

US (1986): Comedy
107 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Alan Alda is the writer, the director, and the star of this satirical comedy about moviemaking. He plays a history professor whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the American Revolution is to be filmed during the summer in the area where the events he wrote about took place--in and around the fictional college town of Sayeville, North Carolina, where he teaches. Alda's conception of this professor--as smug and insecure but basically a representative of solid, enduring values--casts a pall over the proceedings; still, if you don't expect too much and just ride along with the movie's conventionality there are enough enjoyable scenes to put you in a good mood. The fun comes from the Hollywood contingent of show folk who invade the community: Michael Caine as the skirt-chasing star, Michelle Pfeiffer as the leading lady who believes in staying "in character" as fully as possible, Bob Hoskins as the vulgarian screenwriter, and Saul Rubinek as the wily director. And it comes from Lois Chiles as the college president's wife--the star's first local conquest. Also with Lise Hilboldt and Lillian Gish. Cinematography by Frank Tidy; the film was shot on Long Island, around Sag Harbor and Southhampton. Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Sweet Rosie O'Grady

US (1943): Musical/Comedy
74 min, No rating, Color

By the time Betty Grable became a full-fledged musical star at 20th Century-Fox, the studio was grinding out routinized nostalgic celebrations of the rowdy old music-hall days. This one is no better than most of the others; in fact, it's one of the worst. With Robert Young, Adolphe Menjou, Phil Regan, Virginia Grey, and Reginald Gardiner. The songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren are not of their best; Irving Cummings directed.

Sweet Smell of Success

US (1957): Drama
96 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

For several years, Tony Curtis had been a virtual guarantor of box-office success, and the New York locations for this film were invaded by thousands of teenagers, who broke through police barricades to get to their idol. But these throngs ignored the completed picture, in which Curtis grew up into an actor and gave what will probably be remembered as the best performance of his career. Even the presence of that other box-office guarantor, Burt Lancaster, did not lift the picture from the red ink. This is understandable, because the movie is a slice of perversity--a study of dollar and power worship, with Lancaster as a Broadway gossip columnist and Curtis as an ingratiating, blackmailing press agent. Clifford Odets never came through more pungently as a screenwriter; his distinctively idiomatic dialogue generally seems like bad poetry when it's spoken from the screen, but here it's harshly expressive and taut. The director, Alexander Mackendrick, has a crisp film noir style: the production is shaped by a zest for the corrupt milieu, the pulsating big-city life (what used to be called "the symphony of a city")--the streets, the nightclubs, the cynical types, the noise and desperation. His temperament enables us to respond to the vitality in this decadence. The weakest part is in the contrasting sweetness and light of the young lovers, Martin Milner and Susan Harrison. The melodrama is somewhat synthetic and is pitched very high, but the film has body and flavor; even Tony Curtis's name (Sidney Falco) stays with one--that, and the inflection he gives to "avidly." With Barbara Nichols, Sam Levene, and Emile Meyer; script by Odets and Ernest Lehman, from a short story by Lehman. Score by Elmer Bernstein, with considerable assistance from the Chico Hamilton Quintet; cinematography by James Wong Howe. United Artists.

Sweethearts

US (1938): Musical/Comedy
114 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

One of the liveliest of the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musicals. The title is ironic; they are husband-and-wife operetta stars, trading lovey-dovey lines that were given an edge by the writers, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell. The Parker-Campbell script has nothing to do with the original story of Victor Herbert's 1913 operetta; the songs are retained as part of the long-running show, Sweethearts, that the couple is appearing in. This was MGM's first three-color-process Technicolor feature, and it has startling color costuming by Adrian. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; choreographed by Albertina Rasch. With Ray Bolger, Reginald Gardiner, Mischa Auer, Frank Morgan, Allyn Joslyn, Herman Bing, Florence Rice, Berton Churchill, Terry Kilburn, Lucile Watson, George Barbier, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, Barbara Pepper, Raymond Walburn, and Jimmy Conlin.

Swept Away… by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August

Italy (1975): Drama/Comedy
116 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc
Also known as TRAVOLTI DA UN INSOLITO DESTINO NELL'AZZURO MARE D'AGOSTO.

A Sicilian Communist deckhand (Giancarlo Giannini) working on a yacht and the rich blond shrew (Mariangela Melato) who chartered the ship for a pleasure cruise are marooned on an island. She gave him a bad time when she had the upper hand, so when he takes charge on the island and starts whacking her around maybe one can say that he isn't hitting a woman, he's hitting the capitalist class. However, when she kisses his feet and gathers flowers to garland his phallus she isn't the capitalist class, she's a woman who finds fulfillment in recognizing a man as her master. She not only experiences new sexual bliss, she wins the prize that has often been said to be woman's highest goal: because of her submissiveness, the man loves her and worships her as his goddess. Uncorrupted by social forces the couple live the "true" relations of the sexes and find paradise. But they go back, she can't resist returning to her life of privilege, and he is left heartbroken. Under the guise of a Socialist parable about the economic determinism of personal behavior (class interests determine sexual choice, etc.) the writer-director, Lina Wertmüller, has actually introduced a new version of the story of Eve, the spoiler. Despite the clamor of politics in Wertmüller's movies, her basic pitch is to popular prejudice. This erotic fantasy is like a modern version of Valentino's THE SHEIK--BLISSFUL rape for the trendy, dissatisfied liberated woman. And solid reassurance for the men in the audience that women only want to be mastered, yet are sly little beasts, never to be trusted. The picture stays on the same high energy level throughout. The characters never stop yelling and shrieking, and since the postsynchronization is so careless that their voices are several beats off from their lip movements, the effect is as irritating as if the movie were dubbed, even though it's subtitled. In Italian.

Swimming to Cambodia

US (1987): Documentary/Biography
87 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Jonathan Demme directed this concert film of Spalding Gray's stage performance; it was shot before live audiences during three consecutive evenings (and one day) in November 1986, at the Performing Garage, in lower Manhattan. Working on a minimalist basis, with nothing but Gray and his props, Demme uses the lighting and shifts in camera angles and a musical score by Laurie Anderson to virtuoso rhythmic effect. The result is an apotheosis of Gray, who calls himself a "poetic reporter." (He gives you old news as if it were the subject of an investigative report; it's new to him.) Cagey in his use of his naïveté, Gray presents a droll, vaguely stream-of-consciousness report of his life as an actor, and of how he happened to be cast in the small role of an American diplomat in THE KILLING FIELDS. Some of his material (his firsthand observations, his voice mimicry) is legitimately effective. But the high point of his monologue comes when he hears about our secret bombing of Cambodia, and what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people in 1975, driving them out of the cities and to their deaths. He's incredulous and horrified as he describes the exodus; he's an actor who has discovered strong material, and he builds the tension--his words come faster, his voice gets louder. He thinks like an actor; he doesn't know that heating up his piddling stage act by an account of the Cambodian misery is about the most squalid thing anyone could do.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Swindle

Italy (1955): Drama
92 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette
Also known as IL BIDONE.

This Fellini film, made directly after LA STRADA, wasn't a success in Italy, or in this country, either. The tone is uncertain; one keeps expecting the movie to be something different from the harsh story it turns out to be. Broderick Crawford (in a role conceived for Bogart), Richard Basehart, and Franco Fabrizi are con artists who cheat gullible peasants. The film doesn't quite work, but it isn't negligible; it has some of Fellini's most realistic passages, and Broderick Crawford's remorse for his crimes, and his end, alone on a mountain road, are painful in a simple, direct way. Giulietta Masina plays Basehart's wife. Written by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ennio Flaiano. In Italian.

Swing Shift

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

This film about the home front during the Second World War was a tragedy for its director, Jonathan Demme. A bootleg cassette of his original cut reveals a delicate masterpiece. But what was released was a re-edited, rescored, and reshot botch. The studio version has a glazed lyricism; the performers look stuffed and posed, as if they were consciously trying to re-create themselves in the images of the shiny-faced teenage servicemen and girls-next-door in old movies and the 40's issues of Life. The film's nostalgic fixation on the ambiance of the war years seems to exclude any real interest in the lives of the women workers; this feminist fairy tale sees the characters as precursors of the women's movement of the 60s and 70s rather than as people. As the cuddle-bug housewife who becomes a riveter in a Santa Monica aircraft factory and learns to be a competent person, Goldie Hawn dampens the picture; she's trying to make herself simple and passive and ordinary--she thinks that she will become typical by flattening herself out. The insubstantiality of the film may make you feel as if you were dozing. The scenes rarely last more than 20 seconds. They don't quite come to anything; they abort--with a sometimes audible pop--and you sit there wondering what nothing is going to happen next. As the heroine's pal, Christine Lahti delivers a few wisecracks and gives the picture whatever spark and intensity it has. With Kurt Russell, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Holly Hunter, and also Lisa Pelikan, Sudie Bond, Charles Napier, Belinda Carlisle, and Roger Corman as the head of the factory and Beth Henley in a bit part. The writing credit went to the pseudonymous Rob Morton; the writers who were listed before and during production were initially Nancy Dowd, then Bo Goldman, then Ron Nyswaner, and there was also last-minute patch-up work by Robert Towne. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Switching Channels

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

It's adapted from HIS GIRL FRIDAY, the 1940 film version of the 1928 play The Front Page, but it has lost most of the inspired engineering that gave the material its snap, and the attempt to update the plot to the era of television seems halfhearted. Still, this disreputable, burlesque version has its own rambunctious, sloppy humor, and the director, Ted Kotcheff--short as he may be on visual invention--has a sense of tempo. Things don't stall. Burt Reynolds reins himself in and shows some sly grace as Sully, the news director of a Chicago-based cable outfit called Satellite Network News; as Sully's ex-wife and star reporter, Kathleen Turner is lusty and likable even when she doesn't hit the right tones; and Christopher Reeve is enjoyably silly as the manufacturer of athletic equipment--a hulking, vain twerp--that the star reporter means to marry. (He crinkles his face in the grin of a goofus.) Ned Beatty is marvellously piggish as the corrupt D.A., and when Henry Gibson, who plays a convicted cop-killer, turns his stare on us, we feel a frazzled, poetic rapport with him. Also with George Newbern as Sully's assistant, Laura Robinson as the Twinkie, Al Waxman, Fiona Reid, Joe Silver, and several fresh performers from Toronto (where most of the movie was shot). The script (erratic, but with some good gags) is by Jonathan Reynolds; the Michel Legrand score is just litter on the sound track. Tri-Star.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Sylvia and the Phantom

France (1946): Romance/Fantasy
90 min, No rating, Black & White
Also known as SYLVIE ET LE FANTÔME.

In Claude Autant-Lara's graceful but extremely slight fantasy, Odette Joyeux plays a 16-year-old girl who falls in love with a ghost. The film is such a delicate pastry that you can hardly remember eating it. With François Périer. In French.

Sylvia Scarlett

US (1935): Drama/Comedy
94 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This Katharine Hepburn film, directed by George Cukor, was not a success--and, fascinating as it is, you'll know why. Taken from a Compton Mackenzie novel, and set in Cornwall but actually shot on the California coast, it features an oddly erotic transvestite performance--Hepburn is dressed as a boy throughout most of the film--and a peculiarly upsetting love affair between Edmund Gwenn, as her con-man father, and an uncouth young tease (Dennie Moore). The movie seems to go wrong in a million directions, but it has unusually affecting qualities. Cary Grant plays a brashly likable product of the British slums--this was the picture in which his boisterous energy first broke through. He and a fearfully smirky Brian Aherne are the male leads, and the beautiful Natalie Paley is the bitch-villainess. The extraordinarily free cinematography is by Joseph August; no other Cukor film of the 30s ever looked like this one. But this is a one-of-a-kind movie in any case: when the con artists weary of a life of petty crime, they become strolling players, and at one lovely point, Hepburn, Grant, Gwenn, and Dennie Moore sing a music-hall number about the sea. Script by Gladys Unger, John Collier, and Mortimer Offner. Hepburn tells the story that after the disastrous preview at Cukor's house, she and Cukor offered to do another picture for the producer, Pandro S. Berman, for nothing, and he said, "I don't want either of you ever to work for me again." (They did, though.) RKO.

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