Wife vs. Secretary

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

Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, James Stewart, and Myrna Loy in the kind of hit picture MGM was famous for. It's taken from one of the love-triangle magazine stories that Faith Baldwin ground out, and though Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin, and Alice Duer Miller all worked on it, it's just glossy, contrived, and moralistic. There's no wisecracking here; it's a melodrama, a cautionary tale about temptation. What makes it so fundamentally dull is that Jean Harlow, who's the central character, is cast as a nice hardworking girl. Harlow talks nasal baby talk, her voice rises to a high rasp when she means to show stress, and she walks with a sexual swagger, but she's supposed to be the hyper-efficient executive secretary to Gable, a millionaire publisher. He's in love with his adoring wife, Myrna Loy, who is misled into thinking that he's having an affair with the secretary. Gable overacts rather fatuously and makes the publisher seem very stupid; Loy's role gives her no chance to do anything but fret graciously; and James Stewart, who plays the secretary's poor-boy fianc�, is a high-minded type, who wants her to quit her glamorous job when they get married. Whatever interest the movie has is in the secretary's role, because although innocent of any adulterous wrongdoing, she is half in love with her boss, and she's not happy about her prospects with the virtuous Stewart. Harlow has some moments, but likably brassy as she is, Jean Harlow is nobody's secretary, and when she tries to seem natural and sincere, she is a truly terrible actress. The hairdresser who did her up in rigid little platinum curls didn't help. Clarence Brown directed. With May Robson, Gilbert Emery, George Barbier, Hobart Cavanaugh, John Qualen, Marjorie Gateson, Tom Dugan, and, in a bit, Jack Mulhall.

The Wilby Conspiracy

US (1975): Action
101 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

Wearing a mustache and speaking with a rhythmic Bantu accent, Sidney Poitier is a black revolutionary leader on the lam (from Cape Town to Johannesburg) in this little-known tense, intelligent melodrama. Michael Caine is the British mining engineer who helps him; Nicol Williamson is the Afrikaaner tailing them, and he's scary because he's smart and hideously prejudiced. This Anglo-American production doesn't go in for romance or comedy; it sticks to suspense, and it's really good at what it does (except for a rather tacky escape by air). Directed by Ralph Nelson; the script, based on a novel by Peter Driscoll, is by Rod Amateau and Harold Nebenzal. (Amateau also directed the action sequences.) With Saeed Jaffrey, Persis Khambatta, Prunella Gee, and Helmut Dantine, who was one of the producers. Released in the U.S. by United Artists.

The Wild Angels

US (1966): Action
93 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

A crude A.I.P. wheeler that was aimed at the drive-in and male-loner audience but wound up reaching so large an international audience that the major studios began to imitate it. It's loaded with pot-smoking, orgies, rumbles, and whatever else the producer-director, Roger Corman, and his scenarist, Charles B. Griffith, could work in. Their big number is set in a chapel at a funeral service for a member of a motorcycle gang--Loser (played by Bruce Dern), who was hooked on Nazi insignia. Loser's buddies tie up the minister, rape the young widow, and take the body from its coffin in order to wrap it in a Nazi flag. Corman and Griffith seem to know only one way to entertain an audience: by sensationalism. And it's a very square idea of sensationalism--you're supposed to be thrilled by each demonstration of how gross and violent the gang members are. (There's a good moment, though, when Loser, dying, asks, "Anybody got a straight cigarette?") With Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, Nancy Sinatra as Mike, Michael J. Pollard as Pigmy, and Diane Ladd and Gayle Hunnicutt. Edited by Monte Hellman.

Wild Boys of the Road

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

The freight-hopping excerpt, which has become a standard of anthology films, gives the impression of a very powerful Depression melodrama, but there's a load of sentimentality, too. William Wellman directed, from an uninspired script by Earl Baldwin. With Frankie Darro, Rochelle Hudson, Arthur Hohl, Sterling Holloway, Robert Barrat, Minna Gombell, Ward Bond, and Willard Robertson. Warners.

The Wild Bunch

US (1969): Western
144 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

It's a traumatic poem of violence, with imagery as ambivalent as Goya's. By a supreme burst of filmmaking energy Sam Peckinpah is able to convert chaotic romanticism into exaltation; the film is perched right on the edge of incoherence, yet it's comparable in scale and sheer poetic force to Kurosawa's THE SEVEN SAMURAI. There are images of great subtlety and emotional sophistication: a blown-up bridge, with horses and riders falling to the water in an instant extended (by slow motion) to eternity; a vulture sits on a dead man's chest and turns his squalid, naked head to stare at the camera. The movie is set in the Texas and Mexico of 1913, and, in Peckinpah's words, "I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. THE WILD BUNCH is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico. The strange thing is that you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line." That's accurate, as far as it goes. But Peckinpah has very intricate, contradictory feelings, and he got so wound up in the aesthetics of violence that what had begun as a realistic treatment--a deglamourization of warfare that would show how horribly gruesome killing really is--became instead an almost abstract fantasy about violence. The bloody deaths are voluptuous, frightening, beautiful. Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle; his story is too simple for this imagist epic. And it's no accident that you feel a sense of loss for each killer of the Bunch: Peckinpah has made them seem heroically, mythically alive on the screen. With William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Bo Hopkins, L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin, Jaime Sanchez, Emilio Fernandez, Albert Dekker, and Dub Taylor. With cinematography by Lucien Ballard, editing by Lou Lombardo, and music by Jerry Fielding. The script is by Walon Green and Peckinpah, based on story material by Green and Roy N. Sickner; the film was possibly influenced by Clouzot's 1953 THE WAGES OF FEAR. (Peckinpah's cut runs 2 hours and 23 minutes; the studio's cut runs 2 hours and 15 minutes. Both versions are in circulation.) A Phil Feldman Production for Warners-Seven Arts. CinemaScope.

Wild in the Streets

US (1968): Political/Comedy
97 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This blatant, insensitive, crummy-looking American International Pictures movie is entertaining in a lot of ways that more tasteful movies aren't; it has wit without any grace at all, and is enjoyable at a pop, comic-strip level. The story (by Robert Thom) is a satiric fantasy about the freaked-out young as a new breed of fascist; it's treated with lunatic relish and enough mockery to make it funny. Barry Shear's direction isn't up to the playful paranoia of the script, but the cast is good--Christopher Jones, Shelley Winters, Millie Perkins, Diane Varsi rattling a tambourine, Hal Holbrook as a congressman who has a faint twitch when he smells trouble, and a very young Richard Pryor in his first screen appearance.

The Wild One

US (1954): Drama
79 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Based on the 1947 events in Hollister, California, when a convention of 4,000 motorcyclists took over the town, this film offers a nightmare image: the "Black Rebels," an outlaw motorcycle gang--a leather-jacketed pack who resemble storm troopers--terrorize a town. Their emblem is a death's head and crossed pistons and rods, and Marlon Brando, in his magnetic, soft-eyed youth, is their moody leader. The picture seemed to be frightened of its subject--the young nihilists who said "no" to American blandness and conformity--and reduced it as quickly as possible to the trivial meaninglessness of misunderstood boy meets understanding girl (Mary Murphy), but the audience savored the potentialities, and this clumsy, na�ve film was banned and argued about in so many countries that it developed a near-legendary status. In this country, young men were saying "It's the story of my life" for several years afterward. Some of the scenes, such as the one in which the cyclists circle around the frightened heroine, have considerable power. And the film has that memorable moment when a woman asks Brando, "What are you rebelling against?" and he answers, "What have you got?" With Lee Marvin as Brando's rival for control of the pack, Robert Keith, Jay C. Flippen, and Ray Teal. Directed by Laslo Benedek, from a sceenplay by John Paxton, based on the story "The Cyclists' Raid" by Frank Rooney. Cinematography by Hal Mohr; produced by Stanley Kramer for Columbia.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book I Lost it at the Movies.

The Wild Party

US (1929): Romance/Comedy
76 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

The manic, wide-eyed flapper Clara Bow, in her first talkie, set in a women's college; she's a student and Fredric March is a young professor. It's silly stuff, yet charming. Clara Bow, whose vitality was awesome and was combined with a childlike vulnerability, was for her period something like what Marilyn Monroe was for hers. (And when she was past her peak she, too, was celebrated by intellectuals.) Bow's infantile sexuality is high-voltage; she's both repulsive and irresistible. Dorothy Arzner directed; with Joyce Compton, Jack Oakie, Shirley O'Hara, and Marceline Day. (A 1956 film and a 1974 film use the same title, but are not remakes.) Paramount Famous Lasky.

Wild Strawberries

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

Ingmar Bergman's first big popular success in the United States. It's a very uneven film: an eminent physician (Victor Sj�str�m) looks back over his life, which is tricked up with gothic effects and contrasts (there are resemblances to passages in DEAD OF NIGHT and Dreyer's VAMPYR) and with peculiarly unconvincing flashbacks and overexplicit dialogue. It's a very lumpy odyssey, yet who can forget Sj�str�m's face, or the vicious, bickering couple who rasp at each other in the back seat of a car, or the large-scale mask of the beautiful Ingrid Thulin as the physician's unhappy daughter-in-law? Few movies give us such memorable, emotion-charged images. One can try to forget the irritations: the incredibly callow representatives of youth, the "cold" rigid son (Gunnar Bj�rnstrand), the disappointingly vacuous parts assigned Bibi Andersson as the two Saras, the expendable role of Naima Wifstrand as the ancient mother. With Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom, Folke Sundquist, Maud Hansson, Gertrude Fridh, Bj�rn Bjelvenstam, �ke Fridell. Cinematography by Gunnar Fischer. In Swedish.

Will Penny

US (1968): Western
108 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A "realistic" Western, in the sense that the cowhand hero (Charlton Heston) is dirty, ignorant, not overly courageous, and 50 years old. This film, written and directed by Tom Gries, is trying to be a classic--you can tell because all that the hero really hopes to do is survive, and though he meets a woman (Joan Hackett, who gives the film its only freshness), he goes back to his dull, solitary existence. It's static and overextended, to put it generously, and Donald Pleasence does one of his more obnoxious performances; as the religious-maniac villain, he stares fixedly--and persistently. The cast includes Bruce Dern as Pleasence's giggly-killer son, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Anthony Zerbe, Lee Majors, Clifton James, G.D. Spradlin, Luke Askew, and Jon Francis as the young boy. Gries stages the action so that it all seems to start 10 feet from the camera and then rush toward it dead center; after a while the mountains and blue skies begin to seem like a painted backdrop. Heston does a solid job, however. Paramount.

Willie and Phil

US (1980): Drama
115 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Writer-director Paul Mazursky's homage to JULES AND JIM is also an overview of the psycho-social fashions of the 70s, but there's no texture to the lives of the characters. We have no idea why Willie, a high-school teacher (Michael Ontkean), and Phil, a go-getting fashion photographer (Ray Sharkey), who meet at a revival showing of JULES AND JIM in Greenwich Village, become inseparable friends, or why they both fall in love with Jeannette (Margot Kidder), rather than with any other stray pretty girl in Washington Square. Jeannette doesn't live up to what Willie and Phil say about her, and they don't live up to what the narrator (Mazursky) says about them. In Mazursky's best films, everyone is satirized, and the characters' foolishness makes them more likable; Mazursky brings people to life only when he makes fun of them. But he presents everything that Jeannette does at face value, and, having held back his feelings about her (or not having sorted them out), he muffles his satiric feelings about the men and the triangular situation. The whole movie becomes neutral. Apparently looking for an escape from his principal characters, Mazursky drags in ethnic humor and never lets up on it--Willie's Jewish parents, Phil's Italian-Catholic parents, and Jeannette's Protestant mother in Kentucky. The liveliest, funniest performance--it's just a small one--is by Kaki Hunter as Jeannette's cutie younger sister. With Helen Hanft as a used-car saleswoman, Julie Bovasso as Phil's mother, Jan Miner as Willie's mother, Kathleen Maguire as Jeannette's mother, Laurence Fishburne III as the student who recites "To be or not to be," and Kristine DeBell as Rena. Cinematography by Sven Nykvist. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.


US (1988): Fantasy
125 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The evil sorceress Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) is killing all the newborn babies in the Daikini domain, because of a prophecy that an infant born with a special mark will bring about her downfall. Placed on a raft of rushes, the savior baby girl drifts downriver into the land of a peaceful, elflike people, the Nelwyns. A young Nelwyn farmer, Willow (Warwick Davis), tries to protect her, and eventually, with the help of an outlaw Daikini swordsman, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), and a rebel Daikini, Airk (Gavan O'Herlihy), Willow storms the evil queen's black castle. This tale involves trolls, vicious black boars, 9-inch-tall men called Brownies, platinum-wigged Tinker Bells, a two-headed dragon, and some 400 special-effects shots. Before it's over, you feel as if you'd fallen into a pile of mixed metaphors. Produced by George Lucas, who also wrote the story, the movie seems to be one stale idea after another. The director, Ron Howard, shows his gentle talent only in his handling of the 3-foot-4-inch Willow, whose sweet-faced humility could make parts of the movie appealing to kids. (Adults may observe that Lucas, who underwent a costly divorce, has made a sword-and-sorcery epic in which all the power is in the hands of women.) With Billy Barty--triumphant as usual--as the High Aldwin of the Nelwyns, and Joanne Whalley, Julie Peters, and Patricia Hayes. Made in England, Wales, and New Zealand. MGM.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

US (1971): Musical/Fantasy/Children's
98 min, Rated G, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A fantasy with music for children that never finds an appropriate style; it's stilted and frenetic, like Prussians at play. With Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, and Roy Kinnear; directed by Mel Stuart; adapted by Roald Dahl, from his own story; songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Produced by David Wolper; released by Paramount.

The Wind and the Lion

US (1975): War/Historical/Adventure
119 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The flamboyance of the writer-director, John Milius, is initially startling; this film opens with such a flourish and bang that the viewer may really expect a beautiful, old-fashioned swords-in-the-desert epic. However, when the actors begin to talk (which they do incessantly), the flat-footed dialogue and the amateurish acting (especially by the secondary characters) take one back to the low-budget buffoonery of Maria Montez and Turhan Bey. Milius doesn't seem to be a very gifted storyteller: he lets the actors toss away the information that the audience needs to make sense of the action, and people are killed so arbitrarily that the whole epic seems dissociated. There isn't enough conviction behind this movie to hold it together. The plot involves Brian Keith as Theodore Roosevelt (ordering a fictitious invasion), Sean Connery as the last of the Barbary pirates, and Candice Bergen as a kidnapped American. Connery seems to be having a good time playing Yul Brynner in THE KING AND I, and Vladek Sheybal, as something called the Bashaw, is clearly doing a parody. With John Huston as John Hay. Cinematography by Billy Williams. MGM; released by United Artists.

Wings of Desire

France-West Germany (1988): Fantasy/Drama
130 min, Rated PG-13, Color and Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The director, Wim Wenders, who wrote the script with the collaboration of Peter Handke, had a theme: in an approximation of Rilke's words, "Joy has gone astray." We're told that "when the child was a child," stories held together. Now all we have is fragmentation, entropy. Two angels--Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander)--hover over the bleak, divided city and move among the forlorn Berliners, listening to what's in their minds: listening to the questions about existence that these people ask themselves. Our overhearing what the angels hear--the thoughts chanted on the track, all in even, quiet tones, as grayed out as the sunless skies--works on us like a tranquillizer. The dim whimsey, the recitations of prose poetry that recall the Beats--it all produces a blissed-out stupor that feels vaguely avant-garde. Eventually, Damiel falls in love with a beautiful French aerialist (Solveig Dommartin), and gives up his wings. With Peter Falk, who brings some funky warmth to the role of an American movie star, and Curt Bois as a sad-faced old man called Homer. The cinematography (tinted black-and-white, and color) is by Henri Alekan. This Franco-German production is in English, French, and German.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.


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

Maxwell Anderson's most famous verse drama--a blend of Romeo and Juliet and the Sacco-Vanzetti case--was widely held to be the supremely eloquent last word on the unconquerable soul of man. Burgess Meredith, who mastered the cadences for Broadway, made his first screen appearance as Mio, giving fine voice and excellent interpretation to the soaring banalities that one might--in a romantic mood--mistake for poetry. Even with Anderson's poetics slightly trimmed by the adaptor, Anthony Veiller, the play is still in a grand manner that just won't do on the screen. But there are fine moments in the performances, and there's something childishly touching in the florid dramatic effects. With Edward Ellis as Judge Gaunt, Margo as Miriamne, Eduardo Ciannelli as Trock Estrella, Stanley Ridges as Shadow, Maurice Moscovitch as Esdras, Paul Guilfoyle as Garth Esdras. It's a clue to Anderson's popularity at the time that these actors have been forever identified with the characters they play here. Also with Mischa Auer, Myron McCormick, and John Carradine. Directed by Alfred Santell. RKO.

Wise Guys

US (1986): Comedy
91 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette

Danny De Vito, as the bumptious Italian Harry, and Joe Piscopo, as the Jewish simpleton Moe, are the two clownish underdogs who come out on top in this Mafia burlesque--a broad, slapstick farce, set in Newark and spattered with boyish gross-out humor. The directing, by Brian De Palma, is canny and smooth, but this musty genre calls for fresh jokes and sharp, colorful personalities, and that's not what he's working with. The frankness of the picture's grubby anti-glamour is its only claim to charm. Maybe you'd have to be part of what is delicately referred to as the undemanding audience--say, somebody who watches every rerun of the Abbott and Costello pictures--to succumb and find the antics and the mugging as uproarious as they're meant to be. The script is credited to George Gallo. With Dan Hedaya, Captain Lou Albano, and, in brief appearances, Harvey Keitel, Ray Sharkey, Patti LuPone, Julie Bovasso, Mimi Cecchini, Antonia Rey, and Anthony Holland. Cinematography by Fred Schuler. MGM/United Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Wish You Were Here

UK (1987): Drama
92 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Set in a seaside town on the south coast of England and shot in warm, sunny flesh tones, this English comedy has a satirical yet dreamlike texture. It's about an uncontrollably ribald girl who flaunts her sexuality the same way she flaunts taboo words. It's 1951; she lifts up her skirts to show off her Betty Grable legs and gives men a good look at her knickers. The 16-year-old Emily Lloyd, who plays the part, has the kind of freshness and youthfulness that can't be faked on camera; she embodies everything that the writer-director David Leland is trying to say about the spontaneity, the honesty, and the happy, rude extroversion that kids have pressured out of them. The film is based on the early years of Cynthia Payne, who was the inspiration for the madam in PERSONAL SERVICES (which Leland wrote). The first-rate cast includes Tom Bell as the girl's bookie lover, Geoffrey Hutchings as her father, Jesse Birdsall as her bus-conductor boyfriend, Pat Heywood as her aunt, and Heathcote Williams as the psychiatrist she's taken to. The film has its banal side, but it's never visually banal; the cinematography is by Ian Wilson. Channel Four and its theatrical arm, Film Four International.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Witches

UK (1990): Fantasy
91 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The ads say "From the imagination of Jim Henson and director Nicolas Roeg." It would be more accurate to say "From the imagination of the writer Roald Dahl." This quirky fairy-tale movie is about the diabolical, gleeful evil that's hidden behind normality. (It's about women who secretly hate children.) What Henson and Roeg supply is their craftsmanship and their affection for the novel's adult, calmly macabre tone. (The movie promises to be an enduring, slightly scandalous joy.) As the Grand High Witch of the World, the black-clad Anjelica Huston lifts her arm up high in a towering salute and, addressing the witches of England at their annual meeting, held at a seacoast hotel, she outlines her plan: all the children in the land are to be turned into mice. The 9-year-old Luke (Jasen Fisher), who overhears her speech, is hunted down and transformed, but, blessed with a practical-minded Norwegian granny (Mai Zetterling) who's an expert on witches, he sets out to foil the plan. The movie doesn't have Dahl's narrative confidence and it goes in for a little sweetening, but it has major compensations. Pale, bespectacled Luke is rather mousy to start with, and when he becomes a light-brown critter who can be cradled in his granny's hand it seems almost a fulfillment. His greedy pal Bruno (Charles Potter) seems fulfilled, too--as a blobby gray rodent. The two mice are triumphs for Henson's workshop. Zetterling is the hypnotic storytelling granny of our dreams; Huston is a gutsy, camp witch, with an accent that slips like her features; her terrified underlings--bald, drag-queen witches--are like a child's drawings of the devil. With Bill Paterson and Brenda Blethyn as Bruno's parents, Rowan Atkinson as the hotel manager, and Jane Horrocks as Miss Irvine. The script is by Allan Scott; the exteriors were filmed in Bergen, Norway, and at the Headland Hotel, Newquay, Cornwall. Warners.

The Witches of Eastwick

US (1987): Horror/Comedy
118 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

It wavers between satirizing a hyper-sexed male's misogyny and revelling in it. Directed by George Miller (of the MAD MAX movies), from a rickety script credited to Michael Cristofer, the movie resembles its source, John Updike's 1984 novel, only in its high gloss, the general outlines of the leading characters, some purloined lines of dialogue, and Jack Nicholson's entertainingly uncouth turns of phrase. As "your average horny little devil" he is so repulsive he's funny, and he has invented some furiously demented slapstick; he's an inspired buffoon. The three beauties whose combined longing for a man is potent enough to lure this devil from New York City to the (fictional) New England town of Eastwick are Cher as a sculptor, Susan Sarandon as a cellist and music teacher, and Michelle Pfeiffer as a reporter on the Word. (A brunette, a redhead, and a blonde, they have lost their husbands by death, divorce, and desertion.) About half the scenes don't make much sense, and the final ones might as well have a sign posted: "We're desperate for a finish." But even at its trashiest the movie keeps bumping along. And those women are a supple trio--not a brittle bone among them. Nicholson has waited all his acting life for a harem like this. With Veronica Cartwright as an unlucky puritan. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

Without Apparent Motive

France (1972): Mystery
102 min, Rated PG, Color

An affectionate imitation of THE BIG SLEEP, set in the sunny baroque of Nice and directed with finesse by Philippe Labro. Jean-Louis Trintignant is the Bogart-style detective with a snarl-grin, and Dominique Sanda is the tawny-blond big pussycat. The cast includes Sacha Distel, St�phane Audran, Laura Antonelli, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Erich Segal, and the stunning, sad-eyed Carla Gravina. Understated and too refined to be hugely entertaining, but pleasant enough. The plot is some gimcrackery derived form Ed McBain's Ten Plus One, but at least it creates suspense and it doesn't fizzle out. Segal, who plays an astrologer, has a wonderful moment (it doesn't require acting): seated on a luxurious patio, he looks out and spots a sniper just an instant before the bullet reaches his heart. Cinematography by Jean Penzer. In French.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.

Without Love

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

One of the dreariest films in the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy series; it has a metallic flavor. Philip Barry had shaped the play for Hepburn, but it had never worked and she just barely squeaked by with it on Broadway in 1942; for the movie, the material was extensively rewritten by Donald Ogden Stewart and it still didn't work, though the picture was a box-office success anyway. Tracy is a homespun scientist working on a helmet for high-altitude flying, and Hepburn is a widow with a big house in Washington. The wartime housing shortage is the plot excuse for his moving in with her, on the understanding that they'll have a platonic marriage. And guess what happens. Hepburn comes off as a weird cross between an old maid and a tomboy; she's at her most cultured and affected, yet she keeps exclaiming "By gum!" The dialogue tries to be sophisticated; it doesn't match the desperate plot maneuvers, such as the one requiring Tracy to be a sleepwalker. Sleepwalking in movies is almost as tacky as amnesia, and with the sturdy Tracy there's not enough difference between awake and asleep. Keenan Wynn and Lucille Ball, who play a second pair of lovers, are much more likable than the stars. With Patricia Morison, Carl Esmond, Felix Bressart, and Gloria Grahame in a bit as a flower girl. The pedestrian direction is by Harold S. Bucquet; cinematography by Karl Freund; produced by Lawrence Weingarten, for MGM.


US (1985): Crime
112 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

An 8-year-old Amish boy (Lukas Haas), on his first trip to a city, sees a murder taking place in the men's room of Philadelphia's 30th Street train station. In order to protect the boy and his widowed mother (Kelly McGillis) from the killers, the police captain (Harrison Ford) who's in charge of the investigation tries to hide their identities, and, with a bullet wound in his side, drives them back to their farm in Lancaster County before he collapses. Ford's stay at the Amish farm is like a vacation from the real world. Directed by the Australian Peter Weir (filming in the U.S. for the first time), the movie seems to take its view of the Amish from a quaint dreamland, a Brigadoon of tall golden wheat, and to take its squalid, hyped-up view of life in Philadelphia from prolonged exposure to TV cop shows. (Murder is treated as if it were a modern, sin-city invention.) And, of course, Ford comes to love McGillis and her bonnet too much to want to expose her to the ugliness outside. The picture is like something dug up from the earliest days of movies; it has a bland, seductive lyricism, and one familiar, "mythic" scene after another. Lukas Haas is a good little actor (even though the boy is so idealized it's as if the moviemakers had never been driven nuts by the antics of a real, live child), and Ford gives a fine, workmanlike performance. McGillis shifts uneasily between the heroic naturalness of Liv Ullmann and the dimpled simpering of the young Esther Williams. With Alexander Godunov as the widow's galumphing Amish suitor, Patti LuPone, Josef Sommer, Danny Glover, and Jan Rubes. The script is by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley, from a story they wrote with Pamela Wallace; the cinematography is by John Seale. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Witness for the Prosecution

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

Billy Wilder's inane yet moderately entertaining version of an Agatha Christie courtroom thriller, with Charles Laughton wiggling his wattles, and Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester, Una O'Connor, Henry Daniell, Norma Varden, and Ian Wolfe. Script by Wilder and Harry Kurnitz. United Artists.

The Wiz

US (1978): Musical/Dance
133 min, Rated G, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

With Diana Ross in the lead, Dorothy is now a shy schoolteacher in Harlem, and Diana Ross's shy is like Sergeant Bilko's modest. Fervently wet-eyed, she sings songs of preachy uplift in relentlessly slow arrangements. Nipsey Russell (as the Tinman) is able to ride right over the film's muddy carelessness, and a sweetness comes through the Pagliacci makeup that Michael Jackson wears as the Scarecrow, and Mabel King, who plays the Wicked Witch, has a hot growly song. But this film brings out all the weaknesses of its director, Sidney Lumet, and none of his strengths. The whole production has a stagnant atmosphere, and the big dance numbers are free-form traffic jams. Charlie Smalls' score for the Broadway show has been padded out with some new music, and adapted by Quincy Jones; the maladroit script is by Joel Schumacher. With Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, and Ted Ross. Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

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