Sheena

US (1984): Adventure
117 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Some of the best animal actors ever to grace a movie--a stately elephant, a rhino, chimps, an amiable lion with a gigantic head--form a peaceable kingdom around Sheena (Tanya Roberts), a female Tarzan who rides a zebra-striped horse. This lighthearted, slightly loony adventure film is a takeoff of the late-30s comic-strip heroine who was featured in a mid-50s syndicated television series. Raised in "Zambuli territory" by a hyper-cultured black woman shaman, played by the majestically beautiful Elizabeth of Toro, the Cambridge-educated lawyer princess from Uganda who went into exile in Kenya (where this movie was shot), Sheena can communicate telepathically with animals and creatures of the sea and sky. Tanya Roberts is too tense and earnest for her blond-goddess, queen-of-the-jungle role, but she has the face of a ballerina, and a prodigious slim, muscular form, and she gazes into space with exquisitely blank pale-blue eyes. She's pretty funny when she presses her fingers on the center of her forehead and summons legions of waterbucks or swarms of tall birds. The script, by David Newman and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., has a central reversal-of-sex-roles joke--Sheena has the skills to survive in the environment, while the city-boy hero (Ted Wass), a TV sports producer, is lovestruck and helpless. The plot involves the efforts of a Westernized and corrupted African prince (Trevor Thomas) to seize the valuable lands of the Zambulis. The film is stilted and on some level it isn't quite awake--moments that could be effective are muffled (despite the use of fiery effects). But there are some good silly gags, and the animals look relaxed even in their dizziest slapstick scenes. And the picture certainly never starves the eye; the cinematography is by the celebrated Pasqualino De Santis. Directed by John Guillermin; the cast includes Donovan Scott (regrettably as a comical TV cameraman) and Frances Zobda as Countess Zanda. Columbia.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

US (1975): Comedy
113 min, Rated PG, Color

Gail Parent's novel is in the form of a fat girl's jokey suicide note, full of one-liners. Parent and her TV writing partner, Kenny Solms, rewrote it for the movies. Now it's the Romance of Liberation. No longer fat but clumsy and easily flustered, Sheila (Jeannie Berlin) comes to New York and meets a handsome doctor (Roy Scheider); it isn't until she becomes a successful career woman that he extricates himself from an involvement with her roommate (Rebecca Dianna Smith) and proposes. The film says that Sheila's finding herself entitles her to a first-class fella--the libbers get the princes. Jeannie Berlin, understandably, has nothing to express but bewilderment, and frequently she looks openmouthed comatose. Sidney J. Furie directed. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

Sherlock, Jr.

US (1924): Comedy
45 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The title of this Buster Keaton comedy doesn't do justice to what the movie is about: Keaton plays a projectionist who, while running a movie--"Hearts and Pearls"--enters the screen and becomes involved with the characters. Directed by Keaton, it's a wonderfully imaginative film, full of extraordinary tricks so immaculately executed that they look simple. It's a piece of native American surrealism. With Kathryn McGuire as the heroine, and Keaton's father, Joe Keaton, as the heroine's father. Silent.

The Shining

US (1980): Horror
142 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Stanley Kubrick's gothic about the primal fear of a 5-year-old boy (Danny Lloyd) that his father (Jack Nicholson) will hurt his mother (Shelley Duvall) and him. The father, who wants to write, brings his wife and child to spend the winter in an isolated, snowbound, haunted hotel in Colorado, where he is to be the caretaker--and where he goes mad and acts out his son's fears. Though taken from a pulp best-seller, by Stephen King, the movie isn't the scary fun one might hope for from a virtuoso technician like Kubrick. It has a promising opening sequence, and there is some spectacular use of the Steadicam, but Kubrick isn't interested in the people on the screen as individuals. They are his archetypes, and he's using them to make a metaphysical statement about the timelessness of evil. He's telling us that man is a murderer through eternity. Kubrick's involvement in technology distances us from his meaning, though, and while we're watching the film it just doesn't seem to make sense. Nicholson gives the first hour its buzz, but then his performance begins to seem cramped, slightly robotized; Duvall's performance, however, becomes stronger as the film goes on, and she looks more like a Modigliani than ever. With Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel, Barry Nelson, and Anne Jackson; script by Kubrick and Diane Johnson. Released by Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

The Shining Hour

US (1938): Drama
80 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Elaborately staged, sanctimonious melodrama about a nightclub dancer (Joan Crawford) who marries into a feudal landowning family in Wisconsin and by disrupting the members' lives causes their spiritual regeneration. Melvyn Douglas is her husband, but his brother (Robert Young) is also in love with her, and this naturally creates difficulties for the brother's wife, Margaret Sullavan. Fearfully noble, she attempts to immolate herself, so that her husband will be free. The Keith Winter play had been set among quiet English farm people; the adaptors, Jane Murfin and Ogden Nash, gave the material the grand scale more appropriate to an MGM production, as well as the then practically mandatory happy ending. It's an unconvincing, overly classy film, with the selfish characters being ennobled by love in a way that nobody gets ennobled in movies anymore. Margaret Sullavan is a considerable asset, even in her do-gooding role. The cast also includes Fay Bainter as a smart, neurotic spinster, Hattie McDaniel, Allyn Joslyn, Frank Albertson, and Harry Barris. Directed by Frank Borzage.

Ship Ahoy

US (1942): Spy/Musical/Dance/Comedy
95 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Bert Lahr and Red Skelton turn up in this MGM musical starring Eleanor Powell; she taps all the way through, and at the end she taps out a message in Morse code. There are some relatively lively numbers, although Virginia O'Brien isn't as funny as she's meant to be. With John Emery, and Tommy Dorsey and his band, and its unbilled vocalist, Frank Sinatra. Some of the orchestrations are by Sy Oliver, and the number "I'll Take Tallulah" features Buddy Rich, along with Eleanor Powell. Directed by Eddie Buzzell, from Harry Clark's just barely functional script.

Ship of Fools

US (1965): Drama
149 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A German ship travelling from Veracruz to Bremerhaven--an ocean-liner GRAND HOTEL. Katherine Anne Porter's novel was set in 1931, and though she explained the title as referring to the "simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity" (adding, "I am a passenger on that ship"), her vessel was also a microcosm of the pre-Nazi world, and the director, Stanley Kramer, and the scenarist, Abby Mann, move the date to 1933 and turn her conception into a pompous cartoon. The fools are those who do not see what is coming, and we're supposed to observe how the passengers' character flaws will lead to the Holocaust; Kramer and Mann give us dinner-party snubs as foreshadowings of the gas chambers. The movie is staccato, loud, and crude, and the relationships in the book are deformed. The novel's central sexual entanglement is that of two young artists--Jenny, who is trying to be free, and puritanical David, who wants to own her. In the movie, George Segal's David (modelled, Abby Mann acknowledged, on himself) is a proletarian artist of great animal vitality who is being kept by neurotic, rich-bitch Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley). She is jealous of his genius, and he sums her up with "You're so full of competition. You're so full of God knows what kind of sickness." One can enjoy the movie by giggling over its florid swoony trash, such as the doomed lovers--the ship's doctor (Oskar Werner) smiling mistily, and compassionately giving injections and adoring love to La Condesa (Simone Signoret), who has met him too late. (Doctor: "You're so strange--sometimes you're so bitter, then you're like a child, soft and warm." La Condesa: "I'm just a woman.") The international star cast includes Vivien Leigh as an aging divorcée (this may be her most embarrassing screen performance--she's like a jerky Pinocchio), and Lee Marvin as a comical baseball player, José Ferrer as a Jew-baiting German businessman, Michael Dunn, Jose Greco, Charles Korvin, Lilia Skala, Heinz Ruhmann, Werner Klemperer, Alf Kjellin, and Kaaren Verne. Greeted with widespread enthusiasm by the press, as "powerful." Columbia.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Shoah

France (1985): Documentary
503 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

Claude Lanzmann's 9-hour-and-23-minute documentary epic is made up of interviews with people who have knowledge of the Nazi extermination centers--whether as slave laborers, railroad workers, technicians, bureaucrats, or just onlookers. The film has fine, painful moments, and it's widely regarded as a masterpiece. But some may feel that it lacks the moral complexity of a great work, and may also find it logy and diffuse, and exhausting right from the start. Divided into Part I (4 hours and 33 minutes) and Part II (4 hours and 50 minutes). In Polish, French, German, English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, with English subtitles where necessary.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Shoeshine

Italy (1946): Drama
93 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette
Also known as SCIUSCIÀ.

Vittorio De Sica's lyric study of how two boys betrayed by society betray each other and themselves. It has a sweetness and a simplicity that suggest greatness of feeling, and this is so rare in films that to cite a comparison one searches beyond the medium. If Amadeus Mozart had written an opera set in poverty, it might have had this kind of painful beauty. The two young shoeshine boys sustain their friendship and their dreams amid the apathy of postwar Rome, but they are destroyed by their own weaknesses and desires when they're sent to prison for black-marketeering. Cesare Zavattini wrote this study of the corruption of innocence; it is a social-protest film that rises above its purpose. In Italian.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book I Lost it at the Movies.

Shoot the Moon

US (1982): Drama
123 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

As Faith and George Dunlap, whose marriage has become poisoned because she knows all his weaknesses and failures, and her knowledge eats away at his confidence, Diane Keaton and Albert Finney give the kind of performances that in the theatre become legendary. And, in its smaller dimensions, Dana Hill's performance as their 13-year-old daughter is perhaps equally fine. This unapologetically grown-up movie about separating is perhaps the most revealing American movie of its era. Though the director, Alan Parker, doesn't do anything innovative in technique, it's a modern movie in terms of its consciousness. The characters in the script written by Bo Goldman aren't taken from the movies, or from books, either. Their emotions are raw, and rawness is what makes this film get to you. It goes way past coolness. Diane Keaton has no vanity; Faith's angry misery is almost like a debauch--it makes her appear sodden. And both as a character and as an actor, Finney seems startled and appalled by what has been let loose in him. He's an actor possessed by a great role--pulled into it kicking and screaming, by his own guts. With Peter Weller, Karen Allen, George Murdock, and three child actresses--Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold, and Tina Yothers. Filmed on locations in Northern California; cinematography by Michael Seresin; production design by Geoffrey Kirkland; editing by Gerry Hambling. MGM.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

Shoot the Piano Player

France (1960): Crime
92 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc
Also known as TIREZ SUR LE PIANISTE.

This François Truffaut film is based on David Goodis's Down There, a trim, well-written American crime novel. The movie busts out all over-and that's what's wonderful about it. Comedy, pathos, and tragedy are all scrambled up. Charlie, the sad-faced little piano player (Charles Aznavour), is the thinnest-skinned of modern heroes: each time he has cared about someone he has suffered, and now he just wants to be "out of it." This is a comedy about melancholia-perhaps the only comedy about melancholia. Truffaut is freely inventive here-a young director willing to try almost anything-and Charlie's encounters with the world are filled with good and bad jokes, bits from old Sacha Guitry films, clowns and thugs, tough kids, songs and fantasy and snow scenes, and homage to the American Grade-B gangster pictures of the 40s and 50s. The film is nihilistic in attitude yet by its wit and good spirits it's totally involved in life and fun. Nothing is clear-cut; the ironies crisscross and bounce. With Nicole Berger, Marie Dubois, Albert Rémy, Michèle Mercier, and Daniel Boulanger. Written by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy; cinematography by Raoul Coutard. In French.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book I Lost it at the Movies.

The Shooting

US (1967): Western
82 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The low-budget Monte Hellman film shot in Utah at the same time as RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND. Carol Eastman, who sometimes uses the name Adrien Joyce and who later wrote FIVE EASY PIECES, did the enigmatic script. Millie Perkins, on horseback, is searching for something unspecified in the desert; she has a gunman riding behind her, on a leash. The cast includes Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates, and Will Hutchins. They use a dialect that may be authentic to something but is largely indecipherable. To lift from Henry James, Monte Hellman asks a lot for the little he gives.

The Shooting Party

UK (1984): Drama
108 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

Working with Julian Bond's adaptation of Isabel Colegate's novel and a dream of a cast--James Mason (in his final movie), John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Edward Fox, Gordon Jackson, Cheryl Campbell, Judi Bowker, Rupert Frazer, Aharon Ipalé--the director Alan Bridges carries the Masterpiece Theatre approach to the level of art. In the English countryside in the autumn of 1913, a large number of landed gentry, aristocrats, servants, gamekeepers, beaters, and loaders gather for a three-day shoot. Once again we get a vision of an aristocracy reduced to playing games of death, and once again a shooting party foreshadows the greater violence to come. But Colegate's tone is lightly self-mocking, and the film is full of the English affection for gentle lunacy. This is one of the rare movies that can be said to be for an educated audience without that being a putdown. As the host, an aging baronet who's conscious that he's losing his grip, Mason gives the film its immediacy. His face and, especially, that plangent voice are so deeply familiar that when we see him in a role that does him justice there's something like an outpouring of love from the audience to the man on the screen. His performance validates our feelings. Produced by Geoffrey Reeve; cinematography by Fred Tammes. With Robert Hardy, Rebecca Saire, and Sarah Badel.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

The Shootist

US (1976): Western
99 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

In this movie that sets out to be a classic, the setting is a Nevada town in 1901, and John Wayne is a legendary Western gunslinger suffering from cancer. Wayne wears a noble hat and acts with dignity, but the script, by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale, is a mechanical demonstration of how greedy and unfeeling the townspeople are, and Don Siegel's directing lacks rhythm--each scene dies a separate death. Lauren Bacall is unnecessarily tight-faced as a widow; as her adolescent son, Ron Howard overdoes the anguish of learning to become a man, and as the town doctor who treats Wayne, James Stewart talks too loudly, as if he thought we'd all gone deaf. With Richard Boone, Sheree North, Scatman Crothers, Hugh O'Brian, Richard Lenz, and Harry Morgan. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

The Shop Around the Corner

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

Close to perfection--one of the most beautifully acted and paced romantic comedies ever made in this country. It is set in the enclosed world of the people who work together in a small department store; Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart are the employees who bicker with each other, and in no other movie has this kind of love-hate been made so convincing. Their performances are full of grace notes; when you watch later James Stewart films, you may wonder what became of this other deft, sensitive, pre-drawling Stewart. As for Sullavan, this is a peerless performance: she makes the shopgirl's pretenses believable, lyrical, and funny. The script by Samson Raphaelson is a free adaptation of a play by Nikolaus Laszlo, and though it's all set in a Hollywood Budapest, the director, Ernst Lubitsch, sustains a faintly European tone. With Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, William Tracy, Sara Haden, Edwin Maxwell, and Inez Courtney. (A 1949 musical remake starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson was called IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME.) MGM.

The Shop on Main Street

Czechoslovakia (1965): War/Drama
128 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc
Also known as OBCHOD NO KORZE.

An apocalyptic folk tale set in a German-occupied Slovakian village in 1942. A simple, poor carpenter (Josef Kroner) with a nagging wife is appointed by his brother-in-law to be the "Aryan controller" of a button shop run by an aged Jewish woman (Ida Kaminska), and he expects to make his fortune. But the old woman is penniless, has nothing to sell, and is so deaf she doesn't understand that he has come to take over. She assumes he has been sent to be her assistant; he slips into that role, and the two innocents become friends. The story deals with his confusion and spiritual crisis when the Jews are deported. This film has been much honored, though it pulls at the viewer's emotions and its folkishness is laboriously whimsical. Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, who co-directed, allow us to be too aware of the acting; Kroner's impersonation of a "little man" looks like hard work--in the Paul Muni tradition. Based on a story by Ladislav Grossman. In Czech.

The Shopworn Angel

US (1938): War/Drama
85 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

The material is shopworn, too; it's another version of Dana Burnet's play (based on his 1918 Saturday Evening Post story, "Private Pettigrew's Girl"), which had been filmed in 1919 with Ethel Clayton and in 1929 with Nancy Carroll (who was lovely in it) and Gary Cooper. Margaret Sullavan manages to be poetically believable in the outdated role of the cynical, chainsmoking Broadway actress who is so touched by the adoration of an innocent soldier (James Stewart) that she marries him before he goes off to war. There are too many shots of Stewart, in doughboy uniform, looking yearningly at her, and her character reformation pulls the movie down, but Sullavan and Stewart always had a special rapport--a tenderness that seemed to allow for her hard edges and conflicts. (She always played the more complex role in their pictures together.) Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz for MGM, and directed by H.C. Potter, who creates the right sort of romantic atmosphere. The young Waldo Salt did the subtle screenplay--tart yet plaintive. With Walter Pidgeon as the rich man who has been "keeping" the actress, and Hattie McDaniel, Sam Levene, Alan Curtis, and Nat Pendleton. Margaret Sullavan's songs were dubbed by Mary Martin.

Short Circuit

US (1986): Science Fiction/Comedy
98 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Ally Sheedy had a comic spark in WARGAMES (1983), and as the skittish wacko she pepped up THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985), but she's painfully adorable here, and so is the whole movie. She's a girl who takes in stray animals, and she plays opposite Steve Guttenberg, perhaps the least likely of all the young actors who have been cast as scientific prodigies. One of the robots that this genius has invented for army use as "the ultimate soldiers"--Number Five--is hit by lightning and comes alive, and his wide-spaced big round eyes (they're like coy headlights) tell you that the moviemakers had him designed to be a lovable robot version of E.T. Robot Number Five escapes from the military compound. Sheedy takes him in, Guttenberg comes after him, and they try to save Number Five (who is charmed by butterflies) from being slaughtered by the government meanies. The picture is smoothly directed; it required a lot of craftsmanship to make it, but it has so little individuality that it seems merely an example of a simpering new genre: sci-fi for the teen market. In one sequence, Number Five watches TV, sees John Travolta dance in John Badham's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977), and imitates his moves; since Badham also directed SHORT CIRCUIT, the scene may make you uncomfortable. It reminds you that the characters in his films (he did WARGAMES, too, and also BLUE THUNDER and AMERICAN FLYERS) have become more and more mechanized. As a scientist from India who has assisted Guttenberg in the creation of the robots, Fisher Stevens is the film's resident comic; he keeps misusing American expressions. It's such an obvious and repetitive gag that when you laugh you feel contempt for yourself. Also with Austin Pendleton, Brian McNamara, and Tim Blaney's voice (for Number Five). The sucking-up-to-youth script is by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock. Tri-Star.

Short Eyes

US (1977): Prison
104 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette

Robert M. Young directed Miguel Piñero's adaptation of his own play--an insider's view of life in a men's house of detention, centering on the revulsion that prisoners feel toward child-molesters ("short eyes"). The play shows through the documentary surface, and the film's potency is in its words, yet parts of this disorganized, somewhat pedestrian movie seem as good as they could possibly be, and the neo-Cagney cocky humor and the moments of pain, danger, and cruelty suggest that this may be the most emotionally accurate--and so most frightening--movie about American prisons ever made. Shot entirely in the Tombs; with Piñero as Go Go, Bruce Davison as the child-molester, Joe Carberry as Longshoe Murphy, and José Perez, Nathan George, Tito Goya, Don Blakely, Shawn Elliot, and Kenny Steward. Produced by Lewis Harris; released by the Film League. For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

Show Boat

US (1936): Musical/Dance
113 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This classic musical-melodrama with the Jerome Kern songs and the novelistic Edna Ferber plot, full of heartbreaks and miscegenation and coincidences, is hard to resist in any of its versions. This one from Universal has a believability that was lost in the 1951 MGM version. It features Irene Dunne and Allan Jones, but its greatest attractions are Paul Robeson as Joe, and singing "Ol' Man River," and the marvellous Julie of Helen Morgan, who sings "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." James Whale directed, and the cast includes Charles Winninger, Helen Westley, Hattie McDaniel, Donald Cook, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Clarence Muse, Queenie Smith, E.E. Clive, and Harry Barris. The screenplay is by Oscar Hammerstein II, from the 1927 Ziegfeld musical that Kern and he wrote, based on the Ferber novel. The lyrics for "Bill" were written by P.G. Wodehouse--the song was a reject from one of the 10 musicals on which Kern and Wodehouse had collaborated; Kern is said to have taken the inspiration for "Ol' Man River" from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. (A 1929 version, also from Universal, starred Laura La Plante, Alma Rubens, Joseph Schildkraut, and Stepin Fetchit as Joe.)

Show Boat

US (1951): Musical/Dance
107 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Manufactured (by MGM) and embarrassingly lacking in innocence. The most lavish and least convincing of the three movie versions of Edna Ferber's novel, with the singing valentine Kathryn Grayson mangling the Jerome Kern songs. Marge and Gower Champion come through with some lively dancing, but almost everyone else sinks. Howard Keel is too good for what he's given to do, Ava Gardner (at her most beautiful as Julie) looks as if she's dying to parody her lines, and Joe E. Brown is allowed only one brief dance. With William Warfield, Robert Sterling, and a shameful performance by the miscast Agnes Moorehead. George Sidney directed, from John Lee Mahin's adaptation; the cinematography is by Charles Rosher; produced by Arthur Freed. (Ava Gardner's singing was dubbed by Annette Warren.)

Show People

US (1928): Comedy
82 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

William Randolph Hearst insisted that Marion Davies appear in costume pictures; he liked her to be a romantic maiden, and--what was irreconcilable with her talent--dignified. But in the late 20s she broke out and made some funny pictures: THE RED MILL, THE FAIR COED, the wonderfully good-humored THE PATSY, and this slapstick parody of Gloria Swanson's career--how fame went to her head. Randolph Hearst wouldn't let Davies do a custard pie sequence, despite her pleas and those of the director, King Vidor, and of Laurence Stallings, who was one of the writers. (Many years later Vidor described the conference that Louis B. Mayer called so that Vidor could make his case to Hearst for the plot necessity of the pie.) The film is light and deft and charming. William Haines plays opposite Davies, and the cast includes Dell Henderson, Polly Moran, and Harry Gribbon. There are also glimpses of Hollywood's fashionable celebrities as themselves: John Gilbert, Mae Murray, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Elinor Glyn, and Davies the cutup looking very chic. MGM. Silent, but with sound effects and a musical score.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book The Citizen Kane Book.

The Sign of the Cross

US (1932): Historical
118 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Looking at the plump young actor in an English film, Cecil B. De Mille must have clutched his chest ecstatically and cried out "My Nero!" Charles Laughton fulfilled De Mille's juiciest dreams. Sitting in the imperial box at the arena, and using an emerald as a lorgnon, this Nero peers at the Christians and lions at their games. He's a voluptuous connoisseur of agonies, and childishly appreciative of any novelty, such as the frolicsome spiking of a Pygmy on a fork by a wild woman from the North. As the wicked Empress Poppaea, Claudette Colbert looks wryly amused to find herself bathing in asses' milk, but her svelte figure in Roman scanties explains the casting; she must have had the best shape on the Paramount lot. Elissa Landi is mush-mouthed and tiresome as the virtuous Christian heroine, and Fredric March (Marcus Superbus!) was always better in pants than in short skirts hovering above his knees, but there are enough howling lines of nonsensical dialogue to compensate for the goody characters. De Mille's bang-them-on-the-head-with-wild-orgies-and- imperilled-virginity style is at its ripest; the film is just about irresistible. With Ian Keith, Vivian Tobin, Arthur Hohl, Ferdinand Gottschalk, and Nat Pendleton. Adapted from Wilson Barrett's play by Waldemar Young and Sidney Buchman.

Signal 7

US (1983): Drama
92 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

Directed by Rob Nilsson and shot in three-quarter-inch videotape (using two cameras during six nights), which was then blown up to 35 mm, this semi-improvisational movie is about a group of San Francisco taxi drivers from the start of the night shift until dawn, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Between calls, the men sit around playing cards and swapping stories at the De Soto Cab Company garage on Geary Street; the rest of the film was shot on location, too--on the streets and inside the cabs as they move through the city. The title refers to an alert that a driver isn't responding to the dispatcher and may be in distress; metaphorically, it refers to the distresses that beset us all. The movie is about the anguish of men who know they're failures--in particular, the genial sad-sack Marty (Dan Leegant) and the ravaged hammy-handsome Speed (Bill Ackridge). Long-time friends, they have both done some acting, and in the course of the night they audition for roles in a local theatre production of Odets' Waiting for Lefty (which is about a cab-drivers' strike). These auditions are straight-faced satire, and they're the movie's high spot, with the theatre director (Bob Elross) a solemn high-muck-a-muck and the producers and others involved huddled in chairs around him and leaning in to confer in whispers. The actors auditioning are like miscreants at the bar of justice. Conceived in the manner of Cassavetes (to whom the film is dedicated), SIGNAL 7 often gives us parts of lined faces filling the screen. They're heavily lined, because videotape doesn't have the sensitivity to light that film has, and when Nilsson shoots outdoors at night, using available light, the images simply don't have the depth of field that we're used to. The faces look flattened out and they're grainy and greenish. Used this way, video itself adds to the anguish. But the film has its fascination. The small talk at the garage has a comedy rhythm that a director isn't likely to get in a scripted movie, and the drawn-out sequence in which the probably impotent Speed tries to put the make on a young Israeli passenger (Hagit Farber) is compelling in its awkwardness and embarrassment. This video-to-film method cuts down costs in a major way, though as with early Cassavetes, the time gained in shooting is lost in editing; Nilsson had 33 hours of tapes, and it took eight months to edit them down to 92 minutes. Coppola lent the film his name; the credits read "Francis Ford Coppola Presents."

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