Category Archives: 1970s

Shaft (1971)

*. OK, so even if you’ve never seen this movie, about this cat named Shaft, you’ve probably heard the Academy Award-winning theme music by Isaac Hayes. Can you dig it? Hell yeah!
*. Hayes had auditioned for the lead role. In a way he got it, since his song would go on to be an even bigger hit than the movie. It sets the tone (or vibe) for tongue-in-cheek blaxploitation perfectly. This was a genre that never took itself that seriously. “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” Please.
*. Speaking of opening notes, I love how that overhead shot we start with takes us through progressively seedier cinema marquees until, rising up from the subway, we get . . . Shaft!
*. No movie could live up to such a theme song, and Shaft doesn’t. I liked it more on this most recent rewatch though then I did seeing it a few years ago. I don’t think there’s a whole lot to it, with the hopeful premise of a sort of Big Sleep in Harlem soon fizzling out pretty quickly. But there’s no part of it that’s not entertaining.
*. Released the same year (but a month earlier) as The Omega Man, which is sometimes heralded as portraying the first interracial kiss in a movie. I think The Omega Man‘s primacy has to be qualified anyway, as being the first such kiss in a major Hollywood movie. I also wonder if they reckon these things differently if it’s a black man and a white woman, or vice versa.
*. Shaft doesn’t really have a way with women beyond being able to pick them up and then have them take care of him. His main squeeze Ellie is the recipient of one of the drippiest and most perfunctory fucks in cinema history. Shaft actually seems to fall asleep on top of her at the end. His telephone conversation with her is famous: : “I love you.” “Yeah, I know. Take it easy.” Hangs up.
*. A later conquest complains about how “pretty shitty” he is with “what comes after.” Sad but true. Unfortunately, someone seems to have really liked the “shitty” part, as it gets picked up as a kind of refrain when the one-night stand tells him to close his apartment door himself on her way out. “Close it yourself, shitty!” is even made the last line of the film, where it really doesn’t make any sense. Why would the police lieutenant Vic tell him to close the case up?
*. Some critics found Shaft’s treatment of women to pander too much to black stereotypes. But after that theme song and its reference to the black dick attracting all the chicks I don’t know how po-faced we can be about this. It’s a blaxploitation movie. Of course it’s trafficking in stereotypes. I guess the question is how you think the movie wants us to take them.
*.  Here’s one of those little things that I like to notice: Look at how, when Shaft roughs up one of Bumpy’s goons, the goon turns and spits a mouthful of blood onto the wall behind him. That’s great, and it didn’t cost anything.
*. Check out those full bookshelves in Shaft’s apartment! Now there’s something I can really dig. You don’t see bookshelves like that in movies much any more (much less in the apartments of action heroes). Then again, you don’t see bookshelves in people’s homes a whole lot. Well, you do in my house!

*. Gordon Parks came from a background in photography. This makes it all the stranger to me that this movie, while well shot for its budget, is so without visual style. The only thing that stands out is the garish colouring of some of the interiors. What it does have is cool. In the “making of” featurette included with the DVD there’s an instructive bit of direction given by Parks to Richard Roundtree on how to act when he breaks the bottle over the Mafia guy’s head in the bar. “Make sure you retain the cool that Shaft should retain.”
*. It’s pretty easy to retain that cool when you have all those hip lines. “Don’t let your mouth get your ass in trouble.” “You are one wise Caucasian, Vic.” “You’re a cagey spook, Bumpy.” (Reply: “You ride a tall horse, Mr. Shaft.”) It also helps when you’ve got such a nice wardrobe. That leather jacket even earns a compliment from the gay bartender, and I assume it’s what Gene Siskel meant when he singled out Shaft’s “fancy leather outfits” as one of the only things he appreciated about the movie.
*. That sense of cool pervades everything about Roundtree’s performance. My favourite example is the scene where Shaft meets the Mafia guy in the fancy bar and he proceeds to drink his espresso at his own pace before leaving to be taken to Marcy. That scene is actually quite unnecessary, but it’s played out to its full just so we can see Shaft being cool drinking coffee from a tiny cup and not getting flustered when being called a nigger. Why the waitress is presented as being so spaced out is, however, something I’ve never been able to understand.
*. The trailer included with the DVD is an absolute must. Watch it after you see the movie because, like many trailers from this period, the entire plot and all the highlights are given away. The voiceover though is priceless. “Shaft’s his name. Shaft’s his game.” Huh? What does that mean? “The mob wanted Harlem back. They got Shaft up to here.” Here? Where? “Hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt.” “Rated R. If you want to see Shaft, ask your momma.” You’re damn right. Lay it on me.

Time After Time (1979)

*. So here’s the thing: You’re going to make a movie about how the author H. G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, made a real time machine, which was then used by Jack the Ripper to escape Scotland Yard by zooming off to present-day San Francisco. Who will you get to play Wells? He’s a bit nerdy, bespectacled, and a poor physical specimen generally, but a genuine liberal intellectual. What say you?
*. It’s an impossible thought experiment forty years later, but I’d wager that if you could enter into the spirit of the thing Malcolm McDowell would not appear on your short list of possible candidates. Writer-director Nicholas Meyer had thought of Derek Jacobi at first, being a big fan of I, Claudius. Meanwhile McDowell was, as he admits on the DVD commentary, best known for the heavy parts he’d been doing (and which he’s still most closely identified with). Indeed, he had just finished playing Caligula, quite a different sort of Roman emperor than Claudius. So then . . . H. G. Wells. Why not?
*. I think it’s crazy, but it works. McDowell has played more memorable roles, but I like him more in this movie than in anything else I’ve seen him in. Restraining his slightly wild intelligence in Victorian dress and manners makes for a great bit of countercasting. He also goes well with Mary Steenburgen (who he would go on to marry), playing manic against her sleepy cool. Their chemistry is real, and remains one of the things audiences like the most about the film. It was also essential, since the liberated Amy falls in love with Herbert and hops into bed with him basically at first sight, which is otherwise hard to credit.

*. The quality of Amy’s feminism, seen in our rearview mirror, is kind of sad. When Herbert tries to get her to return with him to his life she responds that “I’m a twentieth century woman. I have a career and a mind of my own. Be reasonable. How am I gonna make it in 1893?” All to the good. But then Herbert counters with “Is your work so important? It’s your life we’re talking about.” This draws forth her declaration “My work is my life! As much as yours or any other man’s.” Her work is her life. As a bank clerk. Not to knock being a bank clerk, but it’s hard to imagine any man or woman today seeing such a claim as “My work is my life!” as liberating.
*. David Warner plays well off of McDowell as well. To return to the point I began with about McDowell’s being cast against type, couldn’t you just as easily see him as Jack the Ripper? But instead it’s the stolid Warner, who never appears to be losing it. Even his final destruction is accomplished with a look more of resignation than horror. Meyer had told him to play it as an exhausted man. Is this the end? So be it.
*. As an aside, Meyer says on the commentary that Warner’s little nod is “stolen from The Third Man.” I have a hard time making that connection.

*. Warner’s Ripper also gets the movie’s most thoughtful lines, when he explains to Herbert how the world has not progressed, at least morally, and that as a homicidal psychopath he belongs, “completely and utterly,” in the twentieth century, Which is a lot more than can be said for the Victorian Wells, despite all of his (formerly) progressive views. Warner even looks at home in a disco. I can’t imagine McDowell, with or without the glasses and moustache, at one of those.
*. I think Pauline Kael sort of missed the boat on these performances. She complains that “McDowell’s shy, flustered Wells doesn’t fit the Wells of our recollections,” but I don’t know whose recollections those would be, or what they would be based on. Presumably more myth than reality. Then she finds Warner “too frighteningly sociopathic to fit into the film’s romantic framework.” If anything, his sociopathy is remarkably genteel. I do, however, get a chuckle out of Kael’s description of Steenburgen’s Amy as “a stoned cupcake.”
*. The design of the machine itself was apparently inspired by the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Not George Pal’s The Time Machine, which one would have thought the obvious source to go to. More curiously, Meyer only mentions Pal’s movie once on the commentary track, in the final five minutes, despite the fact that there are clear nods to it throughout. The shot up through the skylight, for example (which is odd given that we’re in the basement), is a direct reference to the earlier movie, and was something also used in the 2002 Time Machine. (McDowell, by the way, mentions on the same commentary track that he’s never seen Pal’s movie.)

*. One reference that wasn’t intended was the scene set in Muir Woods. Apparently Meyer wasn’t thinking of Vertigo. And on the commentary he doesn’t mention La Jetée (1962) either, another famous time-travel romance that involves a trip to the woods and which references the same scene.

*. The special effects are, as Meyer admits, poor. Very poor, even for the time. But Meyer adds that he doesn’t think many people care, which I also think is right. This is more of a romantic comedy (the thriller part is really dialed down), and the SF angle is only, in Meyer’s view, a MacGuffin. The time machine is just the plot device that McDowell and Warner are after, but which the audience doesn’t care about
*. It’s not a great but a very good little movie (Meyer: “a good story, well enough told”), and one whose oddities and quirkiness have allowed it to stand time’s buffetings. Nothing about it really jumps out at you, but that’s its style. It works by restraint. I love how the journey Herbert takes Amy on to prove he’s telling the truth about time travel is so anticlimactically brief. If you blink you miss it. Or Warner’s aforementioned look of weariness as he gets sent off to infinity. No howls of rage or screams of pain. So often it’s the quiet moments in movies that last.

Caligula (1979)

*. It’s odd you don’t see Caligula on more “worst movie ever” lists, especially given how such lists are usually composed of “good-bad” movies or involve censorious moral judgments. Roger Ebert, for example, began his review by stating “Caligula is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash.” Then he really started to unload on it.
*. Personally, I don’t think Caligula is a good movie but I still like it. I have to explain “like” though. I don’t mean it’s a good-bad movie because it’s not the rotten or bad parts that I like. Instead I give Caligula credit for being something of a mind worm. Ever since I first saw it at a rep cinema some thirty years ago it’s stayed in my head. Not just a few indelible scenes either — like the head harvester or the horse in the bed — but pretty much the whole thing.
*. A necessary digression on the different versions of Caligula. When I say “the whole thing” I mean the 156-minute version. All sorts of different cuts exist. As I write these notes there is apparently an attempt being made to reconstruct an original version of the film that’s nearly 90 minutes longer. You can check out Alexander Tuschinski’s documentary Mission: Caligula for more on this. I’m not holding my breath though. Something may come of these efforts, but from what I’ve seen of the material that was cut it just seems like more of the same, and wouldn’t add anything to the already obvious political satire. If satire is the right word.

*. Anyway, to go over some of the back story, most of the film was directed by Tinto Brass but was then recut by Bob Guccione, who also added some additional scenes. The porny ones. Brass then wanted his name taken off it. I think that gets it right.
*. I’ve seen some of Brass’s other movies and don’t think there’s any reason to believe that a masterpiece was ruined. In Mission: Caligula Kelly Holland, CEO of Penthouse, has this to say about Brass’s loss of control over the film: “it was as if Leonardo da Vinci was not able to finish the Mona Lisa, he only got three-quarters of the way through and then somebody took his paintbrushes away.” Hm. I don’t know. I suspect if Brass had had more control Caligula would have been even less coherent. To be honest, most of Brass’s movies give me a headache.
*. Gore Vidal wasn’t keen on having his name associated with the finished product either. Though if you want a good summation of what Caligula is about, a line from Vidal’s essay on Suetonius is as good as any. A figure such as Caligula, Vidal says, differs from us only in the fact of his power, which made it possible for him “to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies”: “What will men so placed do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything.”
*. Despite these examples of failure being an orphan, I do enjoy Caligula pretty much as it is. Explaining why, however, isn’t easy.
*. An epigraph reminds us of how we profit not if we gain the whole world and lose our soul. It stays on the screen a suspiciously long time. I have to wonder if the thought was that Penthouse readers weren’t that good at handling text.
*. Immediately we are returned to those more natural days of yesteryear, when breast augmentation was virtually unheard of and pubic grooming not ubiquitous. By which I mean 1979, not pagan Rome. Hell, Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) even has armpit hair. Those really were the days.

*. There are a number of porn scenes but most of these are orgies and they are very dull, explicit without being erotic. I suspect even real orgies are dull, but movie orgies may be even worse. On screen they involve a lot of fake writhing around. Porn, I think, has gotten a lot better since the ’70s. I give credit to the Internet.
*. Sticking with the porn, Newsweek‘s review said Caligula “seems to have been photographed through a tub of Vaseline.” This was, in fact, the soft-focus Penthouse style at the time. I was never a fan. The darkness of much of this film doesn’t help either.
*. I think it provides an interesting take on the emperors. I like Peter O’Toole playing Tiberius as a syphilitic hulk, and the giggling, effeminate idiot Claudius may be just as close to reality as what we got from Derek Jacobi. In fact, much of this movie may be quite realistic.
*. Much, but far from all. For example, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus would never have referred to himself as Caligula, which was a childhood nickname. And if anybody else had dared to call him Caligula they probably would have been killed on the spot.

*. Has there ever been another movie that spent so much time in bed? Though these are certainly amazing beds. They look like Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus on opium. People have sex in these beds, lie around and talk in bed, get sick in bed, and die in bed.
*. This latter goes together with the odd fetishization of death in the film. There are even a couple of scenes that are borderline (or over the border) necrophilic. In 1979 porn was no longer so chic. But is this decadence erotic? Maybe Bob Guccione thought so. Taste in such matters varies quite a bit.
*. Well, a smutty version of Cecil B. DeMille is not such a stretch as you may think. I’d certainly rather re-watch this movie than Ben-Hur any day. Or Cleopatra. Or almost any Biblical-Classical epic I can think of. Those movies are all fantasies too, but even more turgid. Meanwhile, the pleasure palace of Tiberius is so Felliniesque that it takes Fellini at his tackiest and puts him to shame. And can we say that’s a bad thing? Less cinematic?
*. It doesn’t look like a classic swords-and-sandals fantasy. In fact, it’s so over-decorated and studio bound it seems claustrophobic despite the giant sets. We rarely go outside. Even the giant bordello barge is indoors. Which I’m sure saved money and made it easier to shoot, but adds to that pervasive air of unwholesome rankness.
*. In A Clockwork Orange Alex fantasizes about whipping Christians while dressed in the height of Roman fashion. In hindsight this seems prophetic. I don’t know if MacDowell had the connection in mind.
*. I don’t think I’ve got around to saying why I like Caligula. Maybe I can’t. Maybe it’s just something that doesn’t reflect well on me. But then maybe it’s the delight in chaos, at the way it chews up so much high and low culture and spits it out as wreckage. I don’t agree with anyone who would want to clean it up.

Murder by Death (1976)

*. Movies with a catalogue of big-name stars are rarely any good, but they are sort of fun. On a level with watching how many people can be crammed into a phone booth or Volkswagen Beetle.
*. It would be hard to top the cast of Murder by Death, a spoof of detective stories written by Neil Simon. Among the talent assembled: Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Maggie Smith. Also noteworthy: James Cromwell in his first movie role and Nancy Walker in her last. Phil Silvers apparently had a small part too that was later cut.
*. That’s a lot of star power, and it’s the saving grace of Murder by Death. It’s an enjoyable enough premise, with a mystery man (Capote) inviting the world’s greatest detectives (and their plus-ones) to dinner and a murder. Mystery fans will get a kick out of seeing versions of Charlie Chan (Sellers), Hercule Poirot (Coco), Nick and Nora Charles (Niven and Smith), Miss Marple (Lanchester), and Sam Spade (Falk) doing their thing. Even if it’s not a terribly funny script, and it isn’t, you can still smile at most of it.
*. Coco’s Milo Perrier and Falk’s Sam Diamond have the hammiest parts, and they’re both very good in them. Cromwell and Brennan (their respective sidekicks) may be the most interesting characters to watch though. Poor Elsa Lanchester seems to have been an afterthought, coming late to the party and then not receiving an envoi while driving away.
*. A time before political correctness, so Sellers as Sydney Wang just has to be taken for what it is, which is not so much a riff on Asians as on Warner Oland. Throw in some blind/deaf/dumb jokes and Sam Diamond’s defensive denigration of “pansies.” Those were the days.
*. I remember a couple of laughs from when I first saw it. Perrier choking over a bad vintage, and his outrage at being served franks ‘n’ beans are still pretty funny. Some of the banter between Niven and Smith holds up reasonably well. But really, after being one of the twentieth-century’s most critically and commercially successful comic playwrights, I don’t think Neil Simon works any more. He was very good in his time, but tastes change. I don’t mean politically but in terms of style. The tendency today is for comedy to be more naturalistic, with less of a scripted feel to it.
*. As with Clue nine years later, which saw the return of Eileen Brennan to the murder mansion, one has the sense that nobody was really invested in the genre being sent up, which means that no effort is put into constructing even a superficially plausible mystery to be solved. This leaves the cast even more at sea, just doing their character bits and cracking some jokes before driving off. I can’t help thinking that an opportunity was lost. Mystery and comedy shouldn’t be that difficult a combination, but they’ve rarely worked well together. I like Murder by Death, but mostly because I first saw it when I was a kid, when I was already a big fan of detective fiction. In the years since it’s stuck in my head, but I can’t imagine caring as much for it if I were seeing it for the first time today.

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

*. Can you be too cool? I think so. In movie terms you end up with a movie that’s stylish but hard to love.
*. In Le Cercle Rouge style is all. As I said in my notes on Le Samouraï: “This means it gets a pass for telling a very simple, unconvincing, and unoriginal story, with little dialogue, about a character who remains a complete cipher.”
*. Is it an advance on Le Samouraï that there are three underworld protagonists and they are all ciphers? We’re never told what Corey (Alain Delon) and Vogel (Jean-Marie Volonté) were in trouble with the law for in the first place. Or, beyond drink, how Jansen (Yves Montand) ended up the way he did. These are characters with no past, no future, and, with Jansen being a slight exception, no personality. They show absolutely no emotion.

*. That last point may be connected to their choice of criminal career, which (I am assuming) has to do with heist jobs. (When Vogel claims not to be a professional he means not a professional marksman. He’s clearly a professional criminal of some sort.) They are technicians, again of a sort. But the same blankness attends even their murder of the two hoods sent by Rico to kill Corey. The hoods are just obstacles to be brushed aside, in what is the scariest passage in the movie.
*. Given their complete emptiness it’s hard to care very much about any of them. Is Mattei (Bourvil) supposed to be someone we identify with? The conscience of the film? Because he seems lost (morally, as well as in terms of the action) to me. This (I am again assuming) was probably intentional, but it defeats suspense, or even much interest, beyond vaguely wondering what the point of it all was.
*. As with Le Samouraï the epigraph is made up and its meaning, as well as the meaning of the title, is left not only unexplained but defiant of explanation. The Criterion DVD of Le Cercle Rouge includes an essay by Chris Fujiwara “What Is the Red Circle?” and I have to say I didn’t find any of his answers even superficially convincing.

*. My best guess is that the epigraph is meant to suggest the workings of an immutable fate. No matter where these guys run to, they’re going to end up in the same place. Which is dead at the hands of the police. But that’s not very profound, as fate, like guilt, is something shared by “all men” (whch is not a verdict of original sin). So really, what’s the point of anything?
*. Hitchcock famously derided the critical habit of questioning the “probabilities” in a film. I understand his point, but I’m wired the other way. I do not like movies that don’t make sense, unless not making sense is very clearly what they’re aiming for (and even then I don’t like them much).
*. I bring this up because in the early going of Le Cercle Rouge I found myself wincing at a lot of stuff that I just couldn’t accept as possible, much less probable.
*. To begin with, we have Vogel kicking the window out of the train. Not likely. This is followed by the manhunt where a small army of uniformed police officers are sent close-packed across a field. That there would be so many police, all grouped so tightly together, was improbable. But it looks good.

*. Improbability turns ridiculous when Vogel comes across the simple expedient of throwing off the tracking dogs by crossing a small stream. That’s it. He just crosses the stream. He doesn’t go up or down stream but just crosses it, puts his clothes back on, and continues on his way.
*. Of course, what would happen is that the police would just take the dogs to the other side of the stream until they picked up the scent. Which in this case they would be able to do immediately (they are only a few minutes behind Vogel at this point). I can’t believe Melville didn’t know this, or that he didn’t know the audience would know this.
*. Also, by the way, why does Vogel take off all his clothes to cross the stream? Why not just roll his pants up?
*. Then we have Vogel’s escape from the police cordon by hiding in the trunk of Corey’s car. Corey doesn’t let him out until he drives out into the middle of a muddy field. His car would have gotten stuck immediately. Even the men are sinking into the muck below their ankles. And why would Corey drive out into the middle of nowhere anyway? Why not go to a garage or some place secluded? How can he be sure “the coast is clear” out in the open like that. As with the police search, I suspect this scene was just set up like this because it looks good.

*. Things like this might not bug everyone, but they really bothered me. If I find the events occurring here to be incredible then I tend to give less weight to the professionalism of the thieves. The whole thing becomes more of an exercise in style.
*. Which, as I began by saying, it very well may be. To be honest, I thought the gangsters here in their overcoats and fedoras were so caricaturish they almost made me laugh. Is this really supposed to be 1970? And Alain Delon’s moustache looked almost as bad as the one I used to have. But then throw in the gun being carried in the instrument case and the masks left over from the Fantômas gang and you’ve got . . . what? Irony? Is Corey cool, or just a hipster before his time?

*. Well, it’s interesting, mainly for its look. And I actually thought it moved with a lighter pace than Le Samouraï, which was welcome at 140 minutes (some of the versions it was released in were cut by nearly a third). The editing in some scenes is surprising in that fresh French style of the New Wave, and the score by Éric Demarsan struck me as inventive and original, when given the chance.
*. Melville thought he was making a displaced Western. And a gangster film. And a heist flick. And a police procedural. Maybe what he was representing was genre itself, which might also help explain the night club that’s so obviously a set. We’ve come full circle, with film itself swallowing its own tail.

The Omega Man (1971)

*. When people think of Charlton Heston what probably first comes to mind is the Hollywood legend, the guy who was always the star, often in blockbusters. They see him as Ben-Hur, Moses, El Cid, or George Taylor, nobly representing humanity in The Planet of the Apes.
*. It’s surprising then to come to a film as late in Heston’s career as The Omega Man and see how cheap it looks, and indeed was. Yes, there are some impressive shots of a deserted Los Angeles, but apparently these were achieved by the simple expedient of shooting on weekends (and if you’re a real movie nerd who likes to get picky about such things you can still see people and cars in the background). Meanwhile, the rest of the movie looks like it was made for TV.
*. This probably shouldn’t be surprising since the director, Boris Sagal, worked primarily in television and the budget here wasn’t large. But I think the main reason I found it noteworthy is because of the outsized place this movie holds in my memory, and I think the memory of most people who grew up watching it on TV.

*. For us, The Omega Man was the original post-apocalyptic thriller. Yes, Richard Matheson’s source novel I Am Legend had been filmed before as The Last Man on Earth, but who had seen that? And Romero’s Night of the Living Dead had invented the modern zombie apocalypse just a few years earlier, but that had been a low-budget indie. So The Omega Man wasn’t the first such film, or the best, but it became something of a monument in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Which is why, seeing it again for the first time in more than twenty years, it struck me as such a diminished thing.
*. As for Heston, he seems as out of place as his safari jacket and military uniforms. Kirk Douglas had it written into his contract that he appear shirtless in at least one scene in Paths of Glory, and I can only imagine Chuck had some similar provision about going topless. Alas, he should have kept this shirt on. He was pushing 50 here, which is pushing 70 by today’s standards.
*. Two things set The Omega Man apart from the usual end-of-the-world film fare. In the first place there is the business of race. When Heston meets the Last Woman on Earth she turns out to be Rosalind Cash, which in turn leads to one of the first interracial kisses in a movie (Captain Kirk had kissed Uhura on television in 1968). But that’s just the icing on the cake for a movie that is full of odd racial angles being played. There’s also Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick) complaining that Neville’s house is a “honky paradise,” and immediately being told to forget “the old hatreds.” The society of the future is colour blind, after having literally whitewashed all the brothers and sisters with albinism. Meanwhile, the survivors are a hippie rainbow coalition. This stands out all the more because I can’t think of another post-apocalyptic film that introduces the subject of race much at all. In Night of the Living Dead Ben (Duane Jones) is black, but nothing is made of this because it seems to have been an accident of casting and is never adverted to in the script.

*. The second thing that strikes one’s attention is the role religion plays. The Family are a tribe of Luddites running an inquisition that suggests some kind of end-of-times theocracy. Again this is something you don’t find in many post-apocalyptic films, where the zombies usually don’t have any kind of religion or politics (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies being one recent exception). Heston’s turn as the crucified Christ at the end is just the fulfillment of this motif, foreshadowed by the earlier scene where the little boy asks him if he is God. Turns out he is!
*. The action is pedestrian and doesn’t get helped one bit by the score. Just listen to it from the point where Neville is about to kiss Lisa to when he gets the power back on. That’s a suspenseful stretch of the story but the scoring kills it. It’s hard to imagine something less appropriate, which makes me think it came from a can.

*. What strength the film still has is entirely owing to the strength of the basic idea. As so often in cases of the apocalypse, one envies the survivors, at least a bit. Humanity has had a good cull, leaving Neville tearing about L.A. in his choice of sports cars, cracking wise to himself, and hiding out at night in a mansion powered by an electric generator. Not perhaps the most obvious (or safest) place to hole up in the event of a zombie apocalypse, but it’s stylish in an early ’70s Playboy-pad kind of way. With Lisa by his side I can imagine Neville comfortably spending the rest of his days lounging about in a monogrammed housecoat, smoking a pipe and reading military histories in-between domestic chores.
*. I kind of wish I hadn’t watched it again. It’s a movie that looms large in my imagination, but it’s really not very good. Or put another way, it’s better remembered than experienced. The return to Matheson’s story for 2007’s I Am Legend should have been a slam dunk, but it was an even bigger failure. Meanwhile, Matheson’s book has held up quite well. I’m not sure how to explain that.

O Lucky Man! (1973)

*. It’s of some significance, I think, that Malcolm McDowell begins his commentary on the O Lucky Man! DVD by saying that the character of Mick Travis in this film has no relation at all to the Mick Travis in If …. (or, one presumes, Britannia Hospital). There were three Mick Travis movies, sometimes referred to as a trilogy because all three were directed by Lindsay Anderson and starred Malcolm McDowell as Mick. But according to McDowell here, the only reason they went with the name Mick Travis in this movie is because they couldn’t think of anything else to call the main character.
*. This is more than a bit glib, but I think it’s a good entry to O Lucky Man! This Mick Travis is almost the exact opposite of the boarding school Mick. Revolution never enters the “lucky” Mick’s mind. He’s ambitious not to overthrow the system but to make it to the top. Anderson wanted McDowell to read Voltaire’s Candide in preparation for playing the part, which in a way is strange because Candide doesn’t have much of a character of his own. He’s just a blank who wanders about, experiencing all the horrors of his world and having his idealistic views tempered by experience.
*. Mick is even less than this, in that he only seems to go with the flow. He can be a capitalist, or he can be a sort of holy fool. McDowell saw him as someone who was “forever searching, forever reaching for something,” but what? Nobody involved seemed to know. From beginning to end he’s just there to slip into different roles, play different parts. But he has no personal investment in any of them. His smile isn’t sincere, it’s just vacant. Even the posh girl he meets (Helen Mirren) finds him “hopelessly conventional.”

*. The movie can get away with this because it isn’t about Mick. Not at all. It’s a “condition of England” movie, or as is said on the commentary, a film about the “nervous breakdown of the United Kingdom.” As such it lines up all the usual targets of Britain’s class system: politicians (local and national), the church, the police, the scientific establishment, the military, the courts, and big business. Anyone in a position of authority is presented as being moronic, cruel, insane, or some combination of all three. At your first sight of the judge you know he’s the wearing fancy underwear under his judicial robes and is being flogged in his chambers. He’s the same type Monty Python made fun of and Pink Floyd wrote songs about. It’s a British thing.

*. The blend of realism and fantasy works surprisingly well. For the most part the cast don’t overplay their roles, despite all the potential to do so. And many points in the script are grounded in real experiences. McDowell’s brief stint as a coffee salesman, for example. Or his fellow boarder who was a tailor giving him a gold suit. Apparently that really happened. And the whole incident of the car accident, down to the radio coming on inexplicably. This is something that screenwriter David Sherwin says happened to him.
*. The movie needs this grounding because so many of the scenarios spin off the rails into craziness. The goat-man (or whatever it is) being only the most bizarre example. But does such trippiness undercut the political message by allowing us to not take it seriously? Probably. But then the politics are so heavy-handed that they need some undercutting to make the film watchable for three hours.

*. Another good move is employing various leitmotifs into the story so as to hold it together a bit better. The plot has no structure, with Mick only wandering from one situation to the next and frequent cuts to black emphasizing the lack of continuity. So in place of narrative flow there’s a musical chorus and recurring images like gold. The business of Mick’s smile also makes a nice way of tying the end up with the beginning.
*. The ending though is also a bit surprising. This is not Candide retiring to his garden, a sadder and a wiser man. Instead, Mick has lost his sincerity and authenticity, becoming a mere actor. So for all the joy of the dance this is about as cynical as it gets. I wonder if that’s a cynicism directed at the movie business specifically though. Sort of like Altman’s invocation of the happy ending in The Player. Either way, Mick’s luck will continue to bounce up and down like those balloons. It’s a less moralistic work in this way than Voltaire. Candide at least comes to a point of rest. For Mick, however, life is a lottery that makes no sense at all. He is closer to being our contemporary.

Scavenger Hunt (1979)

*. They don’t make them like this any more.
*. That said, at the time it wasn’t that far out of the mainstream. The great progenitor was It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), or more distantly Hellzapoppin’ (1941). Later films that were somewhat similar include The Cannonball Run (1981) and Brewster’s Millions (1985).
*. Even the language that we use to describe such movies has dropped out of common parlance. Who uses words like “madcap,” “zany,” or “screwball” to describe films, even when they’re appropriate? When was the last time you saw a movie that was a pure farce? As director Michael Schultz notes on his commentary, there’s “no subtlety in this kind of humour.” Richard Benjamin based his character on Wile E. Coyote because he thought that was all there was to the part. It is, Schultz admits, a “kind of humour that isn’t done much today.”
*. As Schultz also points out, it actually wasn’t that popular at the time either. Scavenger Hunt failed at the box office, as did Spielberg’s 1941 the same year (a film Schultz sees as comparable). It was also savaged by critics, then and now.
*. Nevertheless, Scavenger Hunt has gone on to attract a modest following. I think this is something that needs to be explained.

*. I begin with the observation that it isn’t funny. I mean it isn’t funny at all. The plot is just a line to run a series of gag sketches on, not one of which is even worth a smile. As befits this style of broad humour most of it just degenerates into characters shouting and screaming at each other. There’s a robbery that goes wrong because the one dummy didn’t cut eye holes in his brown paper bag mask. Another scene involves Richard Benjamin being unable to knock over a pyramid of milk cans at a carnival. There’s a running gag that involves stealing ostriches from the San Diego zoo that only made me feel sorry for the poor birds.
*. The sketches are all so bad I came up with my own contest, trying to decide who was the least funny character in the star-studded cast. I’m tempted to say the French maid Babbette (Stepanie Farracy), but I was ultimately convinced that the dim-witted Marvin Dummitz (Richard Mulligan) had to take the prize. I just dreaded every time he appeared on screen.

*. Some of the bits are so bizarre and random I couldn’t even understand them. What did Richard Benjamin run off to do at the carnival? Was he going to steal the kid’s stuffed bear? It feels like something was cut. Tony Randall being caught on the boat leaving harbour was the result of his trying to get a life preserver. I think. Just why Mulligan kept trying to get himself run over totally escaped me. How was that going to help him get the grill of the Rolls?
*. There are also the usual crude bits that have not aged well. Fat people can’t stop eating. There’s a Japanese gardener who keeps parking his truck right in the middle of the road and then goes full samurai when people have to drive around him.
*. Having said all this, I don’t hate Scavenger Hunt. It’s a totally terrible movie, but I can sort of understand the charm it holds for some people. I think the secret to that charm is nostalgia.
*. The nostalgia is for a style of humour that we can still miss even when it isn’t done very well. It’s also nostalgia for a bunch of actors who were big forty years ago but are probably unknown to many people today. James Coco? Was he the poor man’s or the rich man’s Dom DeLuise? I can’t even remember.
*. And I suppose it’s not all bad. Richard Masur is so annoying as Georgie that he’s actually kind of good, and his antagonism toward Benjamin’s character is a nice psychological observation (the adult baby hostile to a man seeking to steal his mommy away from him). Avery Schreiber as the Zookeeper gets a smile for spraying his lines in everyone’s face. Tony Randall’s poor old dad is sympathetic.
*. I was also impressed by the stunt man doubling for Masur in the car chase. How he stayed mounted on that rocking horse going around the turns or bouncing down a hill was pretty damn impressive.

*. I think, however, that the comment I often hear made about how this is a more family-oriented movie (a “fun family film” in Schultz’s summary) misses the mark somewhat. There is some bad language used, and some parts can be quite cruel. Just like, I would add, Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges were often cruel in their slapstick.
*. I found it interesting that Richard Benjamin remarks on how “clean” the humour is compared to the “language and toilet stuff” being made today. Did he forget the toilet scene here? In any event, I think it’s just that our tolerance for these things has advanced so far that this film only seems tame. In 1979 that toilet gag might have been risqué.
*. So it’s a time capsule from 1979. Have you ever seen the news reports about time capsules being opened? It usually turns out they’re full of junk. Scavenger Hunt is a collection of junk from 1979. Today it’s a curiosity that doesn’t work at all as comedy but nevertheless has a kind of period charm or pleasantness. Sort of like a beach movie from the 1950s. Most comedies that aren’t funny are painful to watch, but that’s not the feeling I had watching Scavenger Hunt. It’s more a sense of wonder that anything this hopeless ever got made.
*. I’d say it was a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t. Instead, what interest it has is only what it has managed to accrue over the years.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

*. Smokey and the Bandit was the second-highest grossing movie of 1977, the top spot going to Star Wars. I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t held up as well as Star Wars, though I think it’s a movie everyone still recognizes by name even if they haven’t seen it.
*. It’s quite forgettable. I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it except Burt and Sally grinning at each other. I had even completely forgotten why everyone was driving around so fast, running away from the police. (In case you did too, it’s because they’re transporting a truckload of Coors beer over state lines.)
*. I had also forgotten Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down” theme song, which is actually very good and was a big hit. In my head I’d always associated this movie with the music from The Dukes of Hazzard.
*. But instant forgettability is what you’d expect from a movie that had little script, in terms of plot or dialogue (with most of the latter apparently being improvised). Only the stunts were planned. Reynolds, even at the time, considered the movie to be “a little like Chinese food. An hour after seeing the movie you may want to go see another one.” He then immediately added that it is also, in this way, like sex. So by way of syllogism sex is like Chinese food. I think.
*. It’s a movie that has something to answer for. Hal Needham would continue to cash in, dragging Burt along with him through vehicles like Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run. And there would be The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985) and other indistinguishable crap featuring good ol’ boys, scofflaws, and downright sumbitches racing circles around the moronic authorities.

*. But Smokey and the Bandit didn’t come out of nowhere. It develops out of the countercultural road movie popularized in the early ’70s with films like Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, and Two-Lane Blacktop. What has changed is the cheerful cynicism of the proceedings. The Bandit isn’t a real rebel or outsider, or even a folk hero, but just a show-off and local celebrity. And while those earlier films usually had some notion of a wager driving the plot, here it’s just a dash for cash sponsored by a beer company. Money is the only reason anyone does anything.
*. Sally Field also represents another point of transformation. Her Frog is worldly but wholesome, a type that we wouldn’t be seeing again anytime soon.
*. I was surprised to hear CB (or Citizens band) radios being discussed as a new technology. They weren’t new, but their widespread adoption by drivers (especially truckers) apparently only began after the 1973 oil shock and the adoption by the U.S. government of a nationwide 55 mph speed limit. So I guess the way they talk about the radios here is accurate. Live and learn.
*. I was also surprised to see Snowman’s Bassett Hound Fred swimming. I didn’t think hounds were big swimmers. I mean, most dogs can swim, but are hounds water dogs? Do they like swimming? They really don’t seem built for it.
*. Little Enos is Big Enos’s son. They seem like they should be brothers. Paul Williams was 13 years younger than Pat McCormick but they look the same age.
*. For being a pure popcorn (or Chinese food) movie it’s not bad. Jackie Gleason steals every scene he’s in, and he probably still would even if he weren’t trying so hard. But I don’t think the banter has aged well, and all the driving around gets pretty dull. It even seems as though the vehicles keep driving down the same stretch of forested highway over and over. There is, however, some evidence that Needham was at least trying to make a real movie. Not necessarily a good movie, but a movie. That’s more than I can say for some of his later efforts.
*. But he did make a lot of money. And as we’ve seen, that is the only proposition the movie stands for in the end.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

*. Billy Wilder does Sherlock Holmes. Get ready for a letdown.
*. A very long prologue, the first 30 minutes, introduces us to Holmes, a man you’d figure would need no introduction. But this isn’t the way things were planned. Instead, the film was written, and indeed shot, as having a serial structure, composed of four separate episodes. It ran “not much short of 4 hours” according to editor Ernest Walter (I’ve also heard the rough cut was three hours and twenty minutes). A couple of the episodes, and a present-day prologue, were cut. Whatever else this did to the movie, it’s the sort of thing that plays havoc with a film’s sense of structure.
*. I said Holmes is a character in need of no introduction, but this is a Holmes that perhaps does. He is both repressed and depressed. Wilder saw the two as linked. He wanted to present Holmes as gay but closeted. Unable to declare his love for Watson he becomes an addict, something that Watson, not entirely admirably, enables.
*. This is fine, but because the love that dare not speak its name doesn’t speak its name we’re left in a kind of gray area. The whole gay idea is a labored gag in the first part of the movie, but then nothing much is done with it. Personally, I think it’s still pretty clear what Wilder intended, but it’s another example of something that feels like it’s missing from the film.

*. In any event, the problem with Holmes here isn’t his sexuality or emotional state but the disappointing fact that he’s not very bright. It’s essential for a good mystery to stay a step or two ahead of the audience. That’s not how things work here. Is there anybody who doesn’t figure Geneviève Page isn’t on the level from her first appearance? What makes her deception of Holmes even worse is the fact that, perhaps due to the matter of sexual orientation just discussed, he’s clearly not that into her. Then, upon our first hearing a mention of the Loch Ness monster doesn’t everyone immediately think of a submarine?
*. This is the thing that bothered Roger Ebert the most about the movie. In addition to finding it “disappointingly lacking in bite and sophistication,” he thought it too obvious. “It takes Holmes about half an hour longer to solve the case than it takes us, and poor Watson never catches on.”
*. Wilder himself judged the film “not a success,” and I wouldn’t disagree with that. None of the parts add up. Part of that may be due to the way the original concept of a series of linked episodes was cut. Another contributing factor may have been the reluctance to do more with the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This latter point leads to a confusion in tone. At times The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes seems a very melancholy film, and at others it plays as almost slapstick.

*. Perhaps it would have been more successful if it had been less ambitious. It had a large budget, some huge production elements, and the massive running time of the rough cut suggests the desire to really do something big. Also there was some original thought given to casting Peter O’Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson (with Christopher Lee being a late replacement for George Sanders). Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are both capable actors, but neither was a star. This in itself needn’t have been a problem (and was apparently what Wilder wanted), but when Pauline Kael found Stephens lacking in “the star presence that Holmes requires” I think she really meant the star presence that a big movie required.
*. In all these ways The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes feels like a big movie cut down into a small movie, in more ways than one. I think it would have been better if it had started out small.
*. The elements were all here. A story involving spies, amnesiacs, midgets, canaries, and a mechanical Loch Ness monster should have been a lot of fun, especially with Wilder helming it. And I know a lot of people who rate it very highly. I don’t deny some occasional charm, and I find the end moving in an understated way, but overall I still think it’s a mess. Wilder gives us an interesting Sherlock Holmes, but his adventures are silly and second-rate stuff. You can’t blame the editing job for that either. I just don’t think this was ever going to be great.