Category Archives: 1970s

Frenzy (1972)

*. An aerial shot comes swooping in on London’s Tower Bridge and . . . what is that music? A fanfare?
*. Well, that’s what Hitchcock wanted, as much to announce his own return to England perhaps as to set any kind of opening note for what’s to come. Because I can’t think of anything less appropriate to a tawdry slasher flick.
*. There’s a bit of a story behind the score, and it leads one to reflect on the movie this might have been. Perhaps not better or worse, but definitely one with more interesting credits. Henry Mancini had originally been hired to do the score but because Hitchcock wanted something jauntier he hired Ron Goodwin.
*. Then there’s the script. It’s based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern and Hitchcock had approached Vladimir Nabokov to do the adaptation. He didn’t get Nabokov but got Anthony Shaffer instead. And again I think we missed out on something that might have been really interesting.
*. Finally, the cast. Michael Caine was Hitch’s first choice to play the killer Bob Rusk but he didn’t want to be associated with what he thought was a disgusting part. Vanessa Redgrave turned down the role of Brenda and Helen Mirren didn’t want to play Babs. Oh what might have been.
*. As it is, we get Jon Finch in the starring role here, playing Dick Blaney (“Blamey” in the book, which I guess was a little too obvious). Finch was a hot property at the time, coming straight from Polanski’s Macbeth, but he fell off the radar after this. Fun fact: He was cast to play Kane in Alien but fell ill at the start of shooting so John Hurt got to give birth to the xenomorph.
*. After that opening shot of the bridge we come to a man making a speech about the government’s plan to start cleaning up the Thames. They’re going to get all the poisons and pollution and other “waste products of our society” out of it. One such waste product immediately arrives in the form of a naked body floating in the scummy water. And that really sets the tone. Because we’re in slasher territory here and bodies are just offal, or (as we’ll later be shown) sacks of dirty potatoes.

*. Yes, Hitch was back in Blighty, and even more specifically in Covent Garden, where he’d grown up as his dad was a greengrocer. But London, and the movies, had changed a lot. Everything just feels unnecessarily sordid here, which may not be an unfair assessment of England in the 1970s. It’s not just that a sexual serial killer is strangling women with neckties, it’s even in the language.
*. We’re introduced to Blaney as an ex-air force guy tending bar but drinking on the job and, in the words of his boss, spending half his time “pulling [the] tits” of the waitress Babs “instead of pulling pints.” Babs responds to the bar owner by saying that he’s always fingering her. You don’t expect to hear the characters in a Hitchcock movie talking like this. One can understand why Caine might have had his doubts about getting involved.
*. Instead of Caine we get Barry Foster as Bob Rusk, the Necktie Murderer. He’s a doozy, looking a bit like a seedy Michael Caine with even wilder sideburns and sweating profusely while committing his atrocious acts. That sweat, and grime, complements the nasty language in giving the sense of how far down in the world things have come. This is a dirty movie, with all kinds of waste products on display. Remember how Marion Crane was killed in a shower, and Norman Bates cleaned up the mess? In this movie, Rusk is the kind of degenerate who polishes an apple that’s already half eaten.
*. “Just thinking about the lusts of men makes me want to heave,” says the hotel porter. Seeing those lusts in action is worse. If Hitch had made this movie ten years earlier it might have ended his career, like Peeping Tom did Michael Powell’s. But by now he could get away with it. Plus, Psycho had been a hit.
*. Another big reason he could get away with it is that critics could fit Frenzy in with earlier, much loved, works by the Master of Suspense. The innocent man on the run, for example, and the drolleries mixed with suspense. There’s even the one standout sequence where the camera goes back down the stairs while Rusk is killing Babs. That’s very nice.

*. So was Hitchcock really back? Some critics were more generous than Gary Arnold of the Washington Post, who wrote that Frenzy “has a promising opening sequence and a witty curtain line, but the material in between is decidedly pedestrian. The reviewers who’ve been hailing Frenzy as a new classic and the triumphant return of the master of suspense are, to put it kindly, exaggerating the occasion … If this picture had been made by anyone else, it would be described, justly, as a mildly diverting attempt to imitate Hitchcock.”
*. I think this is mostly right. The floater is a catchy start but the ending feels a bit like a punchline we’ve been waiting a couple of hours for. The onscreen murder is just vile, perhaps deliberately so, and the potato truck sequence labored. The Chief Inspector’s sufferings at the dinner table also play like leftovers. More waste products of our society, I suppose. More ugliness disguised as art.
*. That said, I do prefer this movie to Torn Curtain and Topaz and it does exert a sort of horrible fascination. There are times I’ve even found myself liking it. I also cut Hitch some slack as he was quite old and frankly well past his prime but he wasn’t just mailing it in. Movies had changed though, and even more than that the world had changed as well. You can’t go home again.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

*. There’s a point I’ll start with that comes near the middle of Young Frankenstein, just after “young” Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) has failed to give life to a corpse. His assistants Inga (Teri Garr) and Igor (Marty Feldman) try to console him but he declares that “If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes with quiet dignity and grace.” I think even if you haven’t already seen the movie a dozen times you realize right away that this is a set-up, and sure enough Wilder will turn around and begin furiously choking the monster, calling him names (“Son of a bitch bastard!”), and then finally breaking into sobs and wishing himself dead. That’s the joke. But then, as Inga and Igor lead him away, Feldman turns to the camera, rolls his eyes, and says “Quiet dignity and grace.”
*. That’s basically how Young Frankenstein works. It’s obvious, overplayed, and makes up for this by doubling down on both these qualities. It is madcap, slapstick farce dialed up to nine, aimed at the second-lowest common denominator. There’s no way Mel Brooks is going to let you miss a joke, no matter how obvious or old it is (though he thought the “Walk this way” gag was almost too old, even for him). This doubling down is, in turn, part of the joke.

*. I say it’s only dialed up to nine because this is correctly regarded as one of Brooks’ more restrained efforts (“more confident and less breathless” in Roger Ebert’s phrase, calling it his “most disciplined” work). He wanted something that was not quite the Three Stooges, so he walks up to that line and dances on it. To be sure there’s lots of coarseness and crudity, but at least he isn’t making ethnic or gay jokes, which were so much of his stock in trade in other films. You can laugh at the lines about the pair of knockers or the monster’s “enormous schwanzstucker,” but by Mel’s standards this ribaldry is pretty tame.
*. I think this is for the best, as send-ups usually work best when they tweak material gently instead of just beating it unconscious. The production here is true to a lot of the spirit of the original Universal Frankensteins, with beautiful black-and-white photography and equipment for the lab that included some of Ken Strickfaden’s original set dressing. The cast is also terrific, in fact so good it gets hard to tell who is stealing the most scenes. Which is what you want to do in a Brooks movie, since you can’t overplay it. So Feldman? Cloris Leachman? Madeline Kahn? Kenneth Mars? Gene Hackman? They’re all in top form.
*. A movie that absolutely belies its age. 1974! I had thought it was from the mid-’80s. But this kind of humour, which either works or it doesn’t, can’t go out of style. If you giggle at Frankenstein having a big dick then . . .
*. Well, it’s a near perfect example of its type of comedy. I still find it kind of charming, but I don’t laugh at it like I did as a kid. I know people though who think it’s the funniest movie ever made. Which I guess it is, if you’re in the mood.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

*. The kind of film, I think even in 1975, that (they say) they don’t make any more. Here’s how Roger Ebert kicked off his review: “John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King is swashbuckling adventure, pure and simple, from the hand of a master. It’s unabashed and thrilling and fun.”
*. You could say that in 1975. But times change. Star Wars would come out just two years later and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, setting new benchmarks in “swashbuckling adventure.” They were faster, more “thrilling and fun,” less interested in sex, and perhaps most significantly, more mystical. What I mean is that Kipling’s version of the Great Game only has a pair of rakes pretending to be gods so they can loot and screw the natives; there’s nothing like the Force or an angry Ark of the Covenant operative in Kafiristan.
*. So you could see this movie as the end of something. It was dashing derring-do of a previous age of filmmaking, and literature. Huston had liked the story as a kid and had been planning on making a movie out of it for more than twenty years. The original pairing was going to be Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, if you can believe either of them as the scourings of the British Empire. Then Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were approached, followed by Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, and Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That’s three full generations of Hollywood stardom.

*. Even with Sean Connery and Michael Caine the movie seems old. Post-Raiders of the Lost Ark audiences (an audience I consider myself a member of) expect things to move a little quicker, with less talk and fewer time outs for epic location photography. Huston (born 1906) was someone from an earlier dispensation. He could certainly do an adventure story like this. I love The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and it’s actually a very similar sort of story as the one we get here, with the roguish buddies making a pact but then falling out over some treasure (only with Sean going after Caine’s wife being added to the mix). Then the treasure is blown to the winds. But times weren’t just changing, they had changed.
*. All of which is to say that I found this to be pretty dull when I first saw it and it was no better this time around. But then I’m not a fan of Kipling’s story either. To be honest, I find it a bit hard to follow. If anything, the script here is an improvement, streamlining some bits and introducing more cinematic material, like the stolen pocket-watch stuff that introduces Kipling (Christopher Plummer) and Peachy (Caine) at the beginning.
*. Of course, Kipling’s attitudes, in particular his enthusiasm for imperialism and the white man’s burden, haven’t dated well. Apparently Caine had some objections to Saeed Jeffrey’s Billy Fish character, and I can see that, but the treatment of the watermelon man in the train carriage is even worse. In any event, no one was “woke” in 1975 so these Brits may be scoundrels but they can still have some good fun killing all those beastly natives and then take as well as they give by keeping a stiff upper lip under pressure and going down singing some jingo anthem.
*. The leads are both in good shape, though I’d pull up far short of Andrews Pulver, writing in the Guardian, saying that this was Caine’s best-ever performance. The problem is that Huston is more a director of great talk and the talk is nothing special here. I think both actors considered this to be an enjoyable shoot, among their favourites, but that feeling doesn’t always translate to on-screen fun and it doesn’t here.
*. It’s not a turkey. I’d just as soon watch this as Gandhi or A Passage to India or Carry On . . . Up the Khyber again. But it’s a movie that I don’t think has lasted and I’m not sure anyone watches it much anymore. Times, and movies, change. And while some things never go out of style, the action here has.

The Exorcist (1973)

*. I should begin by saying that this won’t be a discussion of The Exorcist (1973) but The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen. A movie that, true to its title, no one in 1973, 1983, or 1993 ever saw. This raises the vexed questions of when a director’s cut (or extended cut or enhanced version) is actually a new movie, and if the changes are any improvement.
*. Here’s a quick breakdown. For the most part, the added material is unimportant. There are a couple of shots added to the opening, one of the house exterior and another the statue. Not a big deal. I like the addition of the spider-walk scene, as I find it genuinely scary and it’s a real signature moment and showstopper. Showing the face of the demon seems incoherent to me but kind of spooky. The doctor discussing putting Regan on Ritalin (“I think that’s the answer”) is necessary to explain some of what happens later. There’s a conversation between Karras and Merrin that was in and then out and then back in again. I don’t know why Friedkin thought it important, as it explains nothing. But it doesn’t hurt, I guess.

*. I hate the new ending though. Apparently author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty was concerned people didn’t understand what happened, and thought the movie ended on a “downer” so he wanted to give them a happy ending. He wanted the audience to be able to say “everything’s going to be OK. Everything’s alright. The good guys won.” Of course, they didn’t know about the mess of sequels on the way. Everything was not going to be OK.
*. William Friedkin. Talk about an explosive talent that exploded and then had nowhere else to go but down. But I guess he had a better post-Exorcist afterlife than Jason Miller or (certainly) Linda Blair. Blair really did go to hell. Or women-in-prison movies, which is kind of the same thing. Maybe the Exorcist curse was real.
*. In any event, Friedkin’s DVD commentary is one of the worst I’ve ever listened to (which puts it roughly on a par with his French Connection commentary). In fact, I couldn’t listen to all of it. It’s just play-by-play, describing what’s happening on screen. There’s no background on the filming or explanation of what he was doing or how he was doing it. Things like Blatty’s cameo and the whole spider-walk scene pass by without remmark. Most of the cast aren’t even named. “I love to talk film, critique, discuss,” he says at one point. So let’s! It shouldn’t, but a bad commentary like this always makes me doubt a little that the filmmaker entirely knew what he was doing and just got lucky.
*. David Thomson begins his essay on The Exorcist in Have You Seen . . . ? like this: “Nothing dates worse than horror.” That’s not true. Quite the opposite. I would say nothing dates worse than comedy. This movie has stood up remarkably well, given how much of its initial success and subsequent notoriety was grounded in its shock value. We can shake our heads at people having heart attacks and miscarriages in the audience, but at the time all that pea soup projectile vomit was insane. I don’t think it’s possible to have that kind of a reaction to a movie today. What would it take? I can’t even imagine.

*. What was really shocking though was the source of the horror’s strength. This movie works because it gives us the holy grail of horror: characters we really care about. They aren’t just meat. Drilling down a bit deeper, what it gives us is that most powerful, because archetypal, of all our embodiments of unease, which is a family under pressure and in particular a threatened child.
*. For all its otherworldliness, and the opening in an archaeological dig in Mosul, this is an intimate bit of American horror. As intimate as your bed, which we all know there are monsters just underneath. At its heart, and it has a heart that it wears on its sleeve, it’s a story of a woman trying to care for her bed-ridden daughter and a son trying to care for his bed-ridden mother. All the devil stuff is just window dressing. These are people who are on their own trying to look after their family.
*. I think it’s a very good movie, which falls short of Mark Kermode’s take. He’s defended his vote for it as The Greatest Movie Ever Made on numerous occasions: “I really do think The Exorcist is the very best thing produced by the first century of cinema, and it is an opinion I have been proudly espousing not just for years, but for decades. If you know anything about me at all, you’ll know that I’m the guy who’s seen The Exorcist over 200 times and won’t stop going on about how great it really is. . . . It’s something I believe to be true, and I would be happy for it to be carved on my tombstone.”
*. Why is it so good? I have my own reasons. I’ve already mentioned the domesticity of its chief concern, the way it brings the horror home. This is so well realized in terms of location shooting and set design that I didn’t even bother too much with the question of just what an obscure Mesopotamian demon would want with a girl in Georgetown. Friedkin calls it an example of “randomness” in his commentary. According to Blatty (and the bit of dialogue between Merrin and Karras), the demon’s point was to make us despair, and the his real target was Karras. But this sure seems like an odd way to go about it.

*. I also like the way no one freaks out. Everyone seems to take what’s happening seriously and with maturity and levelheadedness. Ellen Burstyn is particularly good as a single mom at the end of her tether. Karras, whose suffering has dragged his face already halfway to hell, sure looks like a man who is having a quiet breakdown, while a well-powdered Max von Sydow (only 44 when the movie was made!) gives the requisite gravitas to his part. Lee J. Cobb’s police detective I could have done without (Thomson: “I just feel he’s wrong”), but I guess he represents the uselessness of the forces of law and order in the face of such shenanigans. In the twenty-first century the exorcists would become useless in turn, even as demons started popping up everywhere. But that’s a subject I’ve addressed elsewhere.
*. The medical horror provides some of the scariest scenes in the movie. Not just the battery of tests (spinal tap, arteriogram, and a ginormous hypodermic) that Regan is subjected to, which I (along with Regan’s cringing mom) found hard to watch, but the grimy Bedlam that Karras’s mom winds up strapped to a bed in. Again, this is bringing horror home, making it real. We feel these scenes like a punch to the gut.
*. The pacing and structure are perfect. Burstyn slowly falls apart (though I think it’s odd she disappears entirely from the final third of the film), while the gradual transformation of Regan’s face makes a perfect depth gauge. Also, there are the percussive beats that slam home at the end of scenes: the desecrated statue, the spider-walk, or the head-turning. With regard to the latter, Blatty “argued strenuously against” it (since it really doesn’t make any sense), but “audiences loved it, proving me an idiot once again.” He might have taken heart from William Goldman’s famous rule: when it comes to what’s going to work in a movie, nobody knows anything. And Hitchcock’s corollary: if it works, you can throw plausibility to the wind.

*. I think the score maybe gets a bit too much credit. Especially Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” sampling. Carpenter’s Halloween score might have been influenced by this, but Carpenter is usually criticized for overusing the theme in that movie. Here the haunting notes only get payed once, very briefly, during the actual movie.
*. By now there’s so much that’s been said about this movie that there’s not much point going on. Just engaging with all that’s been written is too large a task for anyone today. Indeed, criticism has outgrown it. Take the matter of “Pazuzu,” which is the name of the demon. And we would know this because . . . ? He’s named in the novel, not in the film. Look, if it’s not in the movie, it’s not in the movie. I don’t care if it’s in the novel or the screenplay or it comes out in a sequel.
*. The “real” Pazuzu, by the way, apparently wasn’t all bad. He even protected mothers and their children from his nasty wife Lamashtu.
*. Filed in creative mis-hearing of dialogue: I thought Regan said “I’m going to die up there.” before she wets the floor. This makes sense to me, and is direct. What she really says though is “You’re going to die up there.” This is addressed to the astronaut. I find this line to be obscure in a couple of ways (1) it makes the audience remember that this walk-on guy is an astronaut; (2) why would Regan know this? and what’s it got to do with anything? Of course, we often misremember or mishear movies and books and (especially) song lyrics, but it’s always weird when our mistakes turn out to be something better than what was really there.
*. Not the greatest movie ever made, and probably not the greatest horror movie ever made. At least not my favourite. But it’s very well done in all departments and fifty years later still packs quite a wallop. Even the effects hold up well. There are half a dozen scenes that have become classics, and even at 132 minutes (for this version) it never flags. So while I’ll stop short of calling it the greatest, I have no problem listing it as one of the all-time greats.

King Lear (1970)

*. In my notes on Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 Hamlet I said it was a production that did a lot of little things well but was hit-and-miss on a few of the big things. I think his King Lear is equally good on the little things and only really muffs one big scene, which is the always difficult storm on the heath. There’s a great use of landscape throughout, and the heath looks like the surface of the moon, but the storm isn’t that impressive and the scene is undone by way of a distracting and totally unnecessary crane shot. Though I have to say that is one barren heath!
*. But first a checklist of the things I liked. Some of this might have been fairly routine stage business at the time, like Goneril wielding a whip when she confronts her husband Albany or, even better, Regan backing away in horror from the dying Cornwall when he asks her to give him her arm in support. Sorry Cornwall, but she’s already moving on! I loved it.

*. Other little things that show up big on screen come by way of quiet expressions. Regimantas Adomaitis plays Edmund and he’s very good. Watch for the subtle look of pain on his face in that opening scene where his father makes a joke out of his birth. Or notice the way Goneril looks at Lear as he’s sleeping across from her in the carriage and she pulls a blanket over him. That’s a woman with a lot on her mind (and it’s another great performance).
*. Then there are the things only a movie can do. Of course some of these are big things, like the battle scenes. You can always count on the Russians for delivering when it comes to epic battle scenes. But Kozintsev perfectly balances these big battles with the human journey of the major characters, much like Tolken did in Lord of the Rings. We get the sense of people whose tragic destinies are caught up in a larger tide of events. This is brilliantly captured in the scene where Lear is carried on a stretcher downstream past some rough water. That’s a perfect parallel. And elsewhere you get the same feeling of the war being a part of the landscape as well as a vital backdrop to the story, the characters swept along by its power in remarkable dolly shots that seem to almost ignore them.

*. I wonder how many directors at the time had made Poor Tom one of a whole traveling troop of refugees, with the hovel turning into a hostel for the homeless. I don’t remember seeing it played like that way anywhere else, but I thought it worked well here.
*. Other nice movie touches include the opening scene, which has a small army of peasants coming to Lear’s castle to watch the show. It’s sort of like the audience gathering at the Globe in Olivier’s Henry V. Then the first appearance of Lear has him screwing around with a chambermaid, underlining what an old fool he is. To turn to stronger stuff, Gloucester’s calls to Edmund as he’s getting blinded are answered by a cut to Goneril’s bedroom, where Edmund can hear his dad screaming just as he’s pulling on his pants after servicing her. And marvel at the way Cordelia is revealed at the end hanging from the battlements. Stark, and tremendously effective.

*. You’ll have gathered by now that I’m a big fan of this film. I think I was smiling in wonder and nodding my head throughout the whole thing. I don’t think there are many creative decisions that go wrong. Having the Fool pipe us out at the end made perfect sense, for example, even though the character had disappeared from the play. And while Jüri Järvet’s voice was dubbed as Lear, he’s such a striking visual presence, with the wildest hair-do since Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein, that you hardly notice (especially if you’re reading subtitles). It’s a great performance, capturing the full sense of an old man in ruins.
*. The rest of the cast are excellent too. Valentina Shendrikova debuts as Cordelia, and she’s stunning. Goneril and Regan look like they could eat her for breakfast. That’s Donatas Banionis, who you’ll remember as Kris Kelvin in Solaris, playing Albany, and he fits the part perfectly with those sad eyes but sense of inner strength (his voice is dubbed as well). I’ve mentioned Adomaitis as being excellent, and he’s complemented nicely by Leonhard Merzin as Edgar. When we see Edgar stalking toward his revenge it’s hard not to think of Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya. You almost expect him to say “You killed my father. Prepare to die” at the end.
*. The play was set in pagan Britain, but it feels totally at home in Orthodox Russia. It also feels at home in black and white. Kozintsev was making this movie at the same time Peter Brook was making his King Lear and they corresponded with each other while filming. They were on to something.
*. King Lear is a giant, spectacular, sometimes messy play and this is a film version that fully does it credit. It may even be my favourite film adaptation, and the fact that it stands alongside such versions as Brook’s Lear and Kurosawa’s Ran is all the argument you need for Shakespeare as a universal genius.

The Aristocats (1970)

*. Disney gets criticized a lot for the way it’s tried to adapt its brand to a changing audience (and changing world), but I can appreciate the jam they’re in. Things were simpler fifty years ago. Today, animated features, even those primarily directed at kids, have to appeal to adult audiences as well, creating the bastard genre of “kidult.” Such films are then marketed as being “for kids, but parents will love them too!” I wonder if either audience is satisfied.
*. It’s refreshing then to go back to a time when a movie for kids was just a movie for kids. The only “adult” moment that registered for me here was Thomas O’Malley’s double-take when, in full PUA mode, he realizes the sexy Duchess is actually a single mom with three kids in tow. But he rolls with it and I’m sure kids at the time thought it was all good. What self-respecting man-on-the-prowl would balk at taking on three adorable toddlers?
*. Of course, the downside of Disney sticking with what Disney does (or did, back in the day) is that their productions became formulaic. The Aristocats is a feline Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Phil Harris (voicing O’Malley) was criticized for just redoing his turn as Baloo from The Jungle Book. There are no surprises in the plot, which had to be stretched as it was just to make 78 minutes. But it’s good clean fun, and the cats are posh without being snobs. I don’t think I saw it as a kid, but I had a picture book of it that I loved.

*. The story has a rich ex-opera singer living in Paris living in a mansion with a pampered cat who has three kittens. One day, her bumbling butler overhears her making her will and leaving all her money to the cats, with the estate then reverting to him. Impatient (and poor at math) he decides upon the time-honored expedient of dumping the cats out in the country. This may be taken as kinder than actually killing them outright, and he will be served much the same way at the end, but having lived in the country most of my life and had plenty such cats show up in my barn I can tell you that most don’t make it and it might be less cruel to just put them down.
*. Critics carped that the animation wasn’t up to the classic, lush Disney style, but I think it works well with the material. I especially like the sketchy effect of the hair. The music, however, is a bit disappointing. There’s only the one good number (“Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat”) while the rest of the songs are disposable. The lyrics are good enough but the music is pedestrian and won’t be having you singing or humming along with any of the tunes. Even Maurice Chevalier coming out of retirement can’t save the title track.
*. The other issue with old Disney movies is that they don’t play as the most politically correct flicks today. The Chinese swinger has even been cut from some versions, and I don’t think that’s any loss at all. And there are gender stereotypes too. Today I don’t think you’d see the boy kitten wanting to grow up to be a rough-tough alley cat and the girl kitten being such a princess. And Duchess would have more “agency” (to get the lingo right) instead of having to be saved all the time by O’Malley. Really, she doesn’t do much by herself except make sure the kittens are bathed and put to bed.
*. The voices are hit and miss. Eva Gabor struck me as a bit old for Duchess, but then I guess she’s a mature feline. Harris I didn’t think added much as O’Malley. He’s a bland bit of rough, but cleans up well. Scat Cat was supposed to be voiced by Louis Armstrong but Satchmo was ill and Scatman Crothers filled in, playing Louis Armstrong nicely. Hearing Sterling Holloway made me think of Winnie the Pooh and not Roquefort the mouse detective. I wasn’t sure what two Southern bloodhounds were doing in the French countryside, but they’re just extras anyway.
*. Granted this is vintage Disney in a minor key, it still seems to me to be better children’s entertainment than most of the Pixar/Disney product on offer today. It doesn’t carry any message except the importance of not judging others too quickly. And of course there’s also the old myth being recycled of a “natural” social order, which holds that abandoned nobility will always re-ascend to its rightful place one way or another. This is the tale of Oliver Twist and King Arthur and Sargon of Akkad. The aristos being placed in a basket and tossed in a stream makes the point pretty clear. That’s an enduring fantasy though, and after 3,000 years of continual use it’s probably pointless for even the most progressive among us to complain about it now.

Blackenstein (1973)

*. A movie with a title like Blackenstein, with all that it connotes, coming in at only 87 minutes, has no excuse for being this dull and plodding. It could at least have been campy or shlocky fun. Instead it is simply inept and almost impossible to watch.
*. It was obviously made to cash in on the success of Blacula, which had come out the previous year, but it’s actually worse than that because a different producer wanted to beat Blacula‘s Sam Arkoff (who was thinking along similar lines) to the punch so he turned out this piece of shit in great haste and at no expense.
*. Just how cynical a move was this? Almost as cynical as re-releasing Blackenstein as The Return of Blackenstein after its initial run. The same movie. That cynical.
*. It might have been interesting. The basic premise is actually something a bit different. Dr. Stein has developed two new procedures: DNA injections and the use of lasers to fuse new limbs on to amputees. He doesn’t seem to be a bad man, and has a couple of patients he’s treating and keeping comfortable in his mansion. Then an old student of his named Winifred shows up on his doorstep with a problem: the man she was going to marry has been blown up by a mine in Vietnam and lost his arms and legs. Dr. Stein thinks he can help, but his program for Eddie’s treatment is undercut by his other assistant, who has fallen in love with Winifred.
*. So instead of being a corpse (or collage of corpses) brought to life, Eddie is someone who was alive whose brain is killed by the doctor’s treatment so he shambles through the rest of the movie as a powerful, bloodthirsty zombie.
*. That’s not an idea without potential, but it all goes unfulfilled. Even the lab equipment from the 1931 film goes to waste. Nor is it much of a blaxploitation movie as there is no racial angle to it at all. Despite Eddie being a vet, and the doctor being a white man, there’s no attempt to politicize anything. It’s just a dumb movie. So dumb that in the final ten minutes the Monster chases after a woman we haven’t seen before, and is then killed by police dogs, leaving Winifred to wander off with one of the detectives who had been tracking the Monster. It’s a ludicrous attempt at wrapping things up.
*. Before we get to that end the 87 minutes start to feel very well padded. There are lots of shots of the Monster’s shiny shoes. There’s a night club scene. There are several lab scenes when we really only needed one.
*. It’s interesting to note how, in their Golden Turkey Awards volume, the Medved brothers nominate Blackenstein in the Worst Blaxploitation Movie Ever Made category. I would question this just because it only narrowly qualifies as blaxpolitation and, as noted, there is no racial angle at work in the film. But even assuming it fits the bill, what they say about it gives every indication that neither of them had seen the trailer much less the movie.
*. They call it out for “overacting,” for example, despite the fact that it’s woefully underacted by almost everyone. John Hart’s Dr. Stein never becomes the deranged mad doctor, Roosevelt Jackson as Malcolm is a wallflower, Ivory Stone is a physics Ph.D., not a scream queen, and Joe De Sue as Eddie (latterly the Monster), in what I believe was his only movie, seems well aware of his limitations as an actor and so decides to just show no emotion at all.
*. Then — I’m still talking about the Medveds now — Dr. Stein is described as “a young black medic” when he is actually an older white man. Then they talk about how the doctor grafts zebra legs “onto his unsuspecting female victims,” but he only has one female patient and she is receiving the DNA therapy, not one of the grafted limbs. Really, even by the sometimes very shoddy standards of the Medveds this is embarrassing.
*. But I suspect Blackenstein, despite its well-known title, is a movie very few people have actually seen. There’s certainly little to say about it. In Nightmare Movies Kim Newman gives it a single reference where it is written off as “atrocious.” Let’s leave it there.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

*. Over the years, there’s been significant interest expressed in remaking the Italian film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion for a North American audience. At one point Paul Schrader wrote a script and Al Pacino or Christopher Walken were tabbed to star, but the project was shelved (and Schrader and Walken went on to do The Comfort of Strangers, which was at least set in Italy). Then Jodie Foster’s production company was said to be interested, with Sidney Lumet set to direct, but that didn’t go anywhere either.
*. There are various reasons for wanting to remake a foreign-language movie. Probably chief among these is the idea that it will play well in domestic markets. But I think for the talent I just mentioned it was more likely that they either thought it was a great idea that would translate well to a North American setting, or because they felt the original left something on the table.
*. I think both of these were in play. There’s a great premise here, whose satiric message about political corruption and the bureaucratic madness of the justice system would play just as well in the U.S. in 1970, or, for that matter, today. But at the same time, it’s an idea that has more potential than is realized here. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion was well regarded when it came out, winning the Grand Prize at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, but it’s a movie where I think people saw a lot of room for improvement. It had a great story, but the execution was off, and quickly dated.
*. Pauline Kael found it off-putting: “The film is extremely dislikable. Petri is a highly skilled director but he doesn’t use suspense pleasurably; he doesn’t resolve the tensions, and so you’re left in a rather foul mood.” I don’t really agree with this, but I can understand Kael’s feeling of queasiness. It has to do with the question of tone. Just what kind of a movie is Elio Petri making?

*. One with a political message, to be sure. But the satire and general sense of loopiness muddies the water, much as it did in The 10th Victim. It’s hard to take the proceedings seriously, especially with Ennio Morricone’s score playfully going boing-boing in the background. But most disconcerting of all is the dream ending, which takes a perfect ironic climax and just tosses it aside. Why? By that point it was clear we were no longer watching a movie that was trying to be realistic, however serious its themes.
*. Gian Maria Volonté plays a chief homicide inspector (“Dottore”) who decides to kill his lover in order to prove, perhaps only to himself, that he is untouchable. But his actual motivation is as obscure as it is perverse. He may just be bored. It’s hard to see him as a Roman Raskolnikov, trying to prove that he is beyond good and evil. And it’s equally hard to see him as a fascist zealot, because what would his scofflaw attitude be proving then, to himself or anyone else? I understand Petri’s point in all of this, but what is Dottore’s? Exposing police corruption? Roger Ebert thought he was driven by a compulsion to find out just how powerful he really is, but I think he’s more consciously self-destructive than that. He’s been a master of the game and now he’s sick of it. He’s an artist, with a fetish for staging crime scenes, and what he really wants to do is direct . . .

*. We’re left with a line from Kafka and he may be the real presiding spirit, with his sense of the absurd and that we are all somehow victims of the law, whichever side we’re on. But this is another thing that undercuts Dottore’s big speech about how tough the police have to be on crime.
*. I don’t think Petri was trying to be suspenseful, which is something else that might have attracted Hollywood. This is really a sort of reverse of The Big Clock, with the killer wanting to be caught. You could also connect it up with the American cinema of paranoia of the 1970s, only this time seen through the eyes of the Man.
*. Even more perversely, to my eye, is that it’s not a movie that scores many style points. Poliziotteschi usually have more signature moments in them than this. The only grin I got was the art gallery of oversize hand- and fingerprints. Which was gloriously silly in the best Italian way.
*. So I can see wanting to remake it ten or twenty years later. And indeed I can see it being remade today. I think it would work. Just think of how many times The 10th Victim has been remade, under various titles, and the ideas being explored here are equally as contemporary and pressing. Dottore is really just a phoney who has never had anyone call his bluff, which has only made him bolder and more degenerate. Those guys are still with us.

Three Sisters (1970)

*. I love Russian literature of the golden age (the “long” nineteenth century), but I often find myself wondering why it remains so popular. The social order seems so alien not just to how we live today, but to how pretty much anyone outside of Russia ever lived. And yet its portrayals of a dying world, or one on the edge of revolution, still resonate, and its characters seem our contemporaries, even if we don’t have peasants or serfs anymore.
*. In the case of Chekhov’s plays I find this really comes out in production. Reading the plays I’m usually left underwhelmed, but any good production reveals more. What seem like stereotypes on the page become figures of enormous complexity. And this in turn is often the point: that people are always being underestimated in some natural but lazy way. Meanwhile, nobody is who they present as, and they know they’re not fooling anyone. It’s that dramatization of the self that really comes through in production and that I don’t pick up on while reading.
*. The set-up in Three Sisters is typical. The initial outline is a cynical one. The basically good, decent people are wimps and losers, while the coming generation are callous and crude but possessed of a certain energy. At least they aren’t sickened by aristo torpor or blinded by romantic ideals. Like the absent Protopopov, they represent ineluctable forces of history. They are the inheritors.

*. It makes sense that the three sister are childless and that Natalya’s kids might not be Andrei’s. The family is a dying bloodline. And with no kids everyone is left wondering what the point of life is and how they will be remembered. In the meantime, all they can do is dream of going to Moscow, because nothing ever happens in their provincial town. But Moscow is just a dream of redemption, like Godot coming to the rescue. They anticipate a great change that is coming but they’re not willing to work for it. As much as they like to talk about working, this is all a sham, like Tolstoy becoming a farmer. But life, or history, isn’t going to just pass them by. It’s going to crush them under its wheels.
*. This production may be best known today as Laurence Olivier’s last turn directing. He’s fine, but it’s really a staged play (and was in fact based on a theatre production Olivier had directed a few years earlier). The outdoor diorama of a birch forest is an enchanting set but it’s obvious everything is taking place on a stage and even the way the scenes are blocked out feels very theatrical. For example, in the use of depth of field to recreate that sense of something always going on somewhere, which is what you experience in a live performance. Take Masha (Joan Plowright, married to Olivier at the time) looking up from her book to listen in on the conversation about Vershinin. She’s often put in this position.

*. It’s a good cast. Jeanne Watts is the earnest Olga. Louise Purnell is impossibly thin as Irina. Sheila Reid sells us on Natasha not really changing that much but just fulfilling her destiny in a very common way.
*. Among the men, Olivier still has the most searching eyes in the business. Derek Jacobi is suitably wimpy as the disappointing brother Andrei (a generic figure that I don’t think has been examined critically in any great depth, though he’s a common type in modern literature). Alan Bates though is perhaps the most impressive as Vershinin. I still don’t know what to make of this character, and that’s a good thing.
*. At 160 minutes they were obviously in no rush, but I think the pace adds to the sense of this being a genuine Russian epic, a work that contains an entire social history. My main objection in the version I was watching is that the sound was so poor I had trouble making out some of the dialogue, which is rarely a problem with a film like this.
*. Obviously not a movie for anyone uninterested in Chekhov, but it’s a solid production and interpretation of the play that we can be thankful for. The idea that we can never have happiness but only wish for it (for ourselves or for others) is downbeat, but that’s Russian literature for you. Suffering will either be your salvation or your destruction. And most likely, just destruction.

Julius Caesar (1970)


*. I may have read Julius Caesar more than I have any other Shakespeare play. Macbeth and Hamlet would be the only competition. I’ve always liked the play, and it makes good theatre too.
*. That said, this production may be one of the most disappointing adaptations of Shakespeare ever put on film, considering the talent involved and the effort made. Only the battle scenes, however unhistorical, impress.
*. It was widely criticized at the time, with the performance of Jason Robards as Brutus usually singled out as especially bad. And it’s a negative judgment that has stuck. Is it fair?
*. I would like to say something in defence of Robards. He plays Brutus as a stick, but Shakespeare’s Brutus is a stiff prig, his tragic flaw being his faith in his own puffed up ideals. And the fact is Robards was horribly miscast. Those shifting eyes, that sardonic voice . . . whoever saw Robards playing Brutus?


*. I would like to say at least this much in Robards’ defence, but I can’t. The plain truth is that Robards is awful. Awful. It’s hard to call what he’s doing acting at all. He’s just reading his lines. Roger Ebert: “He stares vacantly into the camera and recites Shakespeare’s words as if he’d memorized them seconds before, or maybe was reading from idiot cards. Each word has the same emphasis as the last, and they march out of the screen at us without regard for phrases, sentences or emotional content. We begin to suspect, along toward Robards’ big speech over Caesar’s body, that Robards’ mind has been captured by a computer from another planet and that the movie is an alien plot to drain the soul from mighty Shakespeare.”
*. In addition to his lifeless reading of the part, he also looks like a Roman matron and doesn’t project any sense of authority (or auctoritas), moral or otherwise.
*. Since there seems to be near universal agreement on this point I’ll add nothing more except to quote the judgment of Robards’s co-star Charlton Heston, who said that Robards gave possibly “the worst performance by a really good actor” in film history. (He also didn’t like the director and cameraman, by the way.)
*. I’ve remarked elsewhere that American actors have no problem handling Shakespeare, but that what makes a mess is mixing Brits and Americans together in the same production. This rarely works. It doesn’t work here.


*. The rest of the cast, I think, do pretty well. John Gielgud is fine, if less than commanding, as Caesar (he’s been Cassius in 1953). Richard Johnson’s Cassius looks like he needs a bath. Richard Chamberlain makes a great Octavian: young, androgynous, and dangerous. Robert Vaughn steals nearly every scene he’s in with oily knowing looks and rolling his eyes (the classic scene-stealing trick) in such a dramatic way you can pick out the whites even when he’s out of focus and in the distant background of a shot.
*. Then there’s Charlton Heston. The star. He’d already played Mark Antony 20 years earlier on film, and here he does good job portraying the consummate player but now looking a bit old for the part. I wished he’d kept his clothes on. Flashing his bare ass in Planet of the Apes (1968) was OK, but he appears less than virile here when he strips down for the Lupercalia run. He was 47 when he did this movie, but 47 in 1970 was like 67 today.


*. The opening voiceover doesn’t add anything to the film, and I can only see it confusing audiences. What does Caesar’s campaign in Spain have to do with anything? Polanski’s Macbeth, released the next year, would also start with the aftermath of a great battle, but at least that was in the play (and it’s more effectively done).
*. It was the Orson Welles stage production of Julius Caesar in New York in 1937 (subtitled Death of a Dictator) that brought back the mob’s killing of Cinna the poet and injected a more contemporary political meaning into the work. I don’t think Shakespeare needs to be contemporized, but this is a political play and I think such an approach is useful. It worked for Ian McKellen’s 1930s-themed Richard III, to take another example. Here, however, the murder of Cinna is cut and there’s really no political angle being pursued at all. It’s not really an “interpretation” of the play so much as a mere staging.
*. Technically, there’s little to recommend. The sets look fake. The lighting is off in many scenes. The editing is clumsy, both within scenes and at the scene divisions, which come like commercial breaks. The sound seems very unnatural, which diminishes the performances even more. Philippi is scored like it’s a spaghetti Western showdown.
*. That final shot beneath the end credit roll isn’t a freeze frame! You can see the wind blowing Chamberlain’s hair, which means they’re just holding themselves in a frozen tableau. That struck me as really weird, but also appropriate.