Category Archives: 1970s

Night Moves (1975)

*. Night Moves is often characterized as a modern noir, with a plot about a decadent moneyed family’s seedy past that seems torn from the pages of a Ross Macdonald novel. It is typical of such stories that they involve complications they’re not very concerned about explaining.
*. In the case of Night Moves I think there’s more at work than just the usual casual indifference to wrapping everything up neatly at the end. It seems to me that the plot’s many unresolved mysteries are left intentionally vague.
*. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the death of Ziegler. Here’s Roger Ebert, who rated Night Moves one of his Great Movies: “The plot can be understood, but not easily, and not on first viewing, and besides, the point is that Moseby is as lost as we are. Something is always turning up to force him to revise everything he thought he knew, and then at the end of the film he has to revise everything again, and there is a shot where one of the characters, while drowning, seems to be desperately shaking his head as if to say — what? ‘I didn’t mean to do this’? ‘I didn’t know who was in the boat’? ‘In the water’? ‘You don’t understand’?”
*. If Arthur Penn, or screenwriter Alan Sharp, had wanted to have Ziegler explain something … anything … they could have. That they didn’t, and wanted to end on such a note, says something.

*. There are other deliberate mysteries. For example: what was Delly going to say on the voice message she left for Harry? Does Harry even go back to listen to it? Was Delly murdered? If so, was the intention to kill Ziegler as well? Why? Was there any significance to the fact that Ellen works in antiques and that’s what the bad guys are smuggling? Was there a connection between Delly and what was going on? As Vincent Canby asked, “Why does Mummy seek the return of the child, who she clearly detests?” Was Harry being set up, or was his involvement just an accident from the beginning? Why would they set him up? How would that work? It seems to me they would have done better to leave him out of it.
*. I don’t see where there’s any answer to these questions, or even much to be gained from speculating on them. They’re left unanswered and unanswerable on purpose or for a reason. The question then is, What’s the reason?

*. My guess is that it’s meant to underline Harry’s own confusion. There’s a reason that boat is named the “Point of View” and it’s stuck at the end going around in circles. Harry has a limited point of view that we never get outside. He just doesn’t have enough information to really solve the case, which seems to involve a lot more than he thought it did. Or that we thought it did.
*. The reason Harry is so limited in his point of view is that he’s a loner. He can’t get outside himself. This is why he only plays chess with himself, going over games that have already been played (or solved). This is why he can’t really be seduced. This is why his wife is leaving him. He doesn’t tell her anything important about himself. They don’t communicate. She’s as surprised to find out about what happened when he tracked down his father as he is to see Ziegler at the end.
*. Of course there’s plenty of irony in Harry being a specialist in investigating adulterous affairs and not even being aware that his own marriage is blowing up. For how long has Ellen’s cheating been going on? Months? Years? And note that he isn’t even suspicious when he finds out. He just stumbles upon her infidelity because he happens to be driving by the cinema she’s coming out of.

*. A couple of newbies in the cast demand attention. James Wood is here in one of his first films. He would have been in his mid-20s when it was shot but looks about ten years older and is already displaying his manic tendencies. Did he ever dial it back?
*. I’m not sure how old Melanie Griffith was in this, her credited debut. Either 16 or 17. And not only is she naked, she’s available. How did they get away with that?
*. Dede Allen was a celebrated film editor and a frequent collaborator with Penn. One of her hallmarks was an attitude toward continuity that seems at times like perversity. I’m not sure she always gets away with it. There are some really rough patches in this film that I couldn’t see much of a point to.
*. I love Tom picking up the conch shell and using it as brass knuckles. I wonder if that was improvised.

*. This is a movie I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand I don’t find it very compelling, whether because of the gaps in the plot or just the overall sense that it’s unclear what it’s about beyond the story of Harry Moseby’s unhappy life. Is it also meant to have something to say about America’s post-Watergate malaise? Hollywood?
*. But then there’s the good stuff. I like the cast, with Hackman really coming through as the not-nearly-bright-enough detective, Jennifer Warren doing a great turn as the ambiguous tomboy, and John Crawford as a beachcomber gone to seed. But most of all what has stayed with me are a handful of scenes that are indelible. The nude nymph Delly discovering the wrecked plane underwater. The almost grotesque dance that Tom and Paula do. And the final frantic game of charades that Harry and Ziegler conduct through those layers of glass and water, so suggestive of some meaning that’s getting murkier and further away from us all the time.

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Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

*. 1979. For some reason I thought this movie was later than that.
*. In 1979 Clint Eastwood was still very much Dirty Harry. In fact, he’d even visited Alcatraz as Harry at the end of The Enforcer just a few years earlier. Now he was back, and reunited with Don Siegel, who’d directed the original Dirty Harry. This was to be their fifth and final colllaboration.
*. I’m not just being glib calling this Dirty Harry Goes to Prison. Eastwood didn’t have much range, and the laconic tough guy he plays here might as well be Harry going undercover. You know Wolf is never going to make Frank Morris his bitch, just because. Just like you know everything’s going to be cool between Frank and the brothers. Even if, just like Harry, Frank says he “hates niggers.” They know he’s only kidding.
*. But this isn’t a movie that does anything with the irony of Eastwood fighting against the forces of law and order. All the inmates we meet, aside from the bestial Wolf, are decent men. The one in for murder only killed in self defence and was railroaded because of his race. The warden and the bulls, on the other hand, are a bunch of dummies and sadists. One understands that Eastwood, whatever character he’s playing, is the hero around whom the moral universe turns. It doesn’t matter if he’s cop or a criminal.
*. I mentioned in my notes on Play Misty For Me how Eastwood seems to have an unnatural curve to his spine, giving him a funny walk. Now look at the scene where he’s lifting weights here in the prison yard. What terrible form! Is this how he worked out? No wonder his back was out of whack.
*. It’s based on the true story of the “escape” (they may have died in the attempt) of three inmates in 1962. But I don’t find it to be realistic. It’s very much a movie. What I mean by this is epitomized by the opening scenes showing Morris’s arrival during a rain storm, with his slow naked walk to his cell followed by his being locked in just as lightning strikes, thunder booms, and the guard says “Welcome to Alcatraz.”
*. This made me laugh. And the warden with his bird in a cage and his rage at Doc’s flower made me roll my eyes. It’s all so clichéd. But I don’t think Siegel or Eastwood were bothered in the slightest by clichés. I think they felt that movies were formulaic and that the most successful ones were those that did the best job of handling those formulas.
*. Well, they do an OK job handling the prison break formula, following the gang’s plan through all its different stages. It’s still watchable enough, but plays kind of small screen today. I think it seemed more important forty years ago.

 

10 Rillington Place (1971)

*. Ugh. I mean that in a good way. Or sort of. What I mean is that this would be a depressing enough movie as it is, but the fact that it’s based, quite closely, on a true story makes it that much worse.
*. Then there’s its look. Ugh again. Nothing was quite as depressing and worn-out as post-War urban England. It had a grime and squalor all its own, with a quality of misery about it that even the wreckage of American ghettoes later in the same century never quite equaled. Christie’s apartment building here looks like it could be the setting for one of Pinter’s bleaker efforts. Indeed, they might have just taken over the sets from William Friedkin’s 1968 production of The Birthday Party.
*. The connection to Pinter highlights another point I want to flag. The dirty look of 10 Rillington Place (the movie) is sometimes referred to as “documentary” but I don’t think it is. This movie doesn’t look at all like a documentary but rather like a stage play. I believe part of it was actually shot on location at the actual street address (with number 7 standing in for number 10), but all of it, even the backyard, has the feel of a set.
*. Today such a look has an almost exotic, poverty-porn air about it. And everyone looks so damned unhealthy. Or unhealthy and damned. From John Hurt’s blotchy skin, unconcealed behind any make-up, to Richard Attenborough’s macrocephalic marshmallow head that makes him seem almost deformed. It’s fitting that Christie is a phoney doctor. Nobody is getting better in this corner of England.
*. It’s a political movie, made in protest of capital punishment. Or at least that’s how it was understood in the U.S., since capital punishment was abolished in the UK in 1969. It also takes a more liberal line on abortion. And yet, it’s not a movie that goes for the gut or indulges in clichés in this regard. Hurt’s Timothy Evans is certainly a pathetic figure, but even given how dim he is after his wife’s murder he behaves in such a bizarre manner he’s hard to fully sympathize with him. Or is sympathy even what is being asked for? Christie is an ogre, but we never get any idea what makes him tick and in his final days alone in the flophouse he does come across as a sad case. Still, I don’t think we can feel any sympathy for him either.
*. I like how difficult a movie it is. The problem I have with 10 Rillington Place is that while I can see what it’s trying to do, and I like what it’s trying to do, I just don’t think it does it very well.

*. For example, I wanted so much more done with that central relationship between Evans and Christie. It’s fine that they played it as understated. The real Christie claimed that he couldn’t speak in a loud or barely even normal voice because he’d been gassed during the First World War, so Attenborough maintains a hushed whisper throughout. And Hurt plays poor Evans as slow as he apparently was. But I felt there were deeper layers to get at with both. Nothing is done to explain Christie’s rage (he was impotent, in the regular way), or to help understand Evans’s false confessions.
*. But then perhaps this was a conscious decision. We have a tendency to romanticize or at least Hollywood-ize serial killers. Most of them are simply cruel low-lifes, and not all that smart. Hannibal Lecter is pure movie hokum. The reality is more like the whiny man-baby Christie that we see here. And serial killer victims are no more charismatic. They tend to be tragically marginal and vulnerable figures. The casting of Judy Geeson as Beryl Evans is a false step. She’s a bit too much the movie star. As Vincent Canby put it in his New York Times review, “The problem with the film is very much the problem with the actual case, which involved small, unimaginative people.”
*. Those freeze frames at the end were a thing in movies for a very short time. I have no idea why. And it looks even worse here with the blurring and the heavy breathing. What does that breathing signify? It may be an echo of Evans gasping into the bag over his head just before he’s hanged, or it may reprise Christie’s own excited breathing when committing his crimes. Either way, I’m not sure what the point is.
*. 10 Rillington Place was released to mixed reviews but has gone on to acquire a minor cult status. I think this has been for perverse reasons: its ugly look, “small, unimaginative” leads, and eschewing of suspense in what is a real-life Hitchcock plot if ever there was one. On this most recent viewing I even realized that I’d had a scene from Frenzy mixed up with it in my memory.
*. A movie that so defiantly dares you not to like it deserves some special consideration. This much I’ll grant it, but I can’t help thinking that it should be better than it is, or at least something more. It’s worth seeing once, but that should be enough.

The Homecoming (1973)

*. If it’s true that all happy families are alike and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, we should also add that the unhappy families in Pinter are among the unhappiest unhappy families in English literature.
*. Unhappy, but they get by. Even if, to an outsider’s eyes, they appear to be deeply dysfunctional and the family members don’t seem to like each other very much. The brothers in The Caretaker. Stanley and his faux parents living at the boarding house in The Birthday Party. And of course the all-male clan in The Homecoming, which is the ultimate “meet the family” nightmare. Yet somehow all of these households make it work.
*. I think this is one reason some people get Pinter and others don’t. There’s something in his plays that every member of a fucked-up family immediately and deeply responds to and that those who come from happy families don’t. But this is all by the way, and a personal reflection.
*. This film, which was part of the American Film Theatre project, is about as faithful a representation of the play as you can get, being directed by Peter Hall, who also directed both the London and New York premieres, and starring most of the original cast. Many of the performances are definitive. Ian Holm is the standout as Lenny, with black depths concealed beneath his placid expression, but I also really like Paul Rogers as Max. His squinty-eyed ferocity dominates everyone else, pounding them into a blankess that can be mistaken for submission.
*. Is it more than a filmed play? Not much. It even sticks quite close to the single set, which is not just minimalist in terms of decor but is colourless as well. Instead of the usual squalor and clutter there’s a bareness and wideness that suggests a stage. Hall does a bit with different angles and directing our attention to little things like the glass of water, or how the men eat their lunch in different ways, or the sweat beading on Lenny’s brow as Ruth lists her conditions of employment (or is it adoption?), but aside from the creepy way Lenny is made to keep appearing it’s not a movie experience. I doubt that was even the intention.
*. I’d never heard the word “urinal” pronounced “ur-EYE-nal.” I guess it’s British. I couldn’t recall ever hearing it said like that before, but then it’s not a word you hear very often. Around the same time I was preparing these notes, however, I was listening on the commentary for Johnny English Reborn where director Oliver Parker pronounces it the same way (there is a scene in that film that’s set in a restroom). So, live and learn.
*. Maybe my hearing is even worse than I imagine but I have a hard time making anything out without subtitles these days, and British accents don’t help. I would have been lost watching the original run of The Office without them, and I completely missed Sam’s big line at the end here. What he’s saying, in case you’re wondering as well, is that MacGregor “had” Jessie in the back of his cab.
*. I mentioned in my notes on The Caretaker how I started out not liking it as much as I remembered liking it years ago but that it grew on me. That’s the opposite of how I experienced this film, which I enjoyed up until the end. That is, however, mainly because I don’t like the way the play ends. This is the difficulty of saying anything about movies that are such literal adaptations of their sources. There’s a lot more I could say about The Homecoming the play but I don’t think there’s much to add to my notes on the movie here.

Oh My Darling (1978)

*. I had a real surprise when I went to look up the date for this one. 1978! Why does it seem so contemporary?
*. Because the story is archetypal. Some things never change, and family dynamics might be expected to be one of them. Of course the nature of the family has changed a great deal in the last fifty years in relation to women working more and achieving greater equality. But Oh My Darling is about roles that are deeper rooted. Perhaps not to the point where we should consider them “natural,” but certainly more grounded in familiar psychological patterns.
*. When I say family dynamics I’m talking about power dynamics. At first the baby is in charge, riding her father, the queen of the household that everyone and everything else revolves around. After that she places her father on a pedestal, even sitting on a throne wearing a crown. As the girl grows older she rebels against the tyranny of authority and the parents are left with an empty nest. The king has lost his crown to the new head of a new family. But he can adjust. Mom has it harder.
*. There are variations in these roles today, but the same sort of intergenerational conflict still occurs all the time, the same stretching and snapping back of the family elastic. I’ve called the story archetypal but I guess some would object to the characters as stereotypes. There may not be a lot of difference.
*. I don’t think any part of the look of the film has dated, except maybe the boyfriend’s cool lid. But then aside from the major studios’ house styles, animation doesn’t date. Whatever was old becomes new again. Børge Ring, went on to do one of the segments (“So Beautiful and So Dangerous”) in Heavy Metal, which doesn’t look too much like this but which has also stood the test of time in its kooky way.
*. Oh My Darling won the Jury prize at Cannes for Best Short Film and was also nominated for an Academy Award. I don’t think it’s well known today, but as I’ve said it still seems very familiar.

Long Weekend (1978)

*. Long Weekend is usually considered an example of the Ozploitation genre, if that is a genre. All the label means is that it’s an Australian exploitation film from the ’70s. However, I do think they did things a little differently in the Antipodes. Long Weekend is a curious mix of themes and genres that combine to make it a different and memorable — if not, in the end, a great — movie.
*. In the first place it’s a man vs. nature flick, which is itself close kin to the eco-horror that was big at the time. And yet does nature ever really go on the attack aside from the one dive-bombing eagle and the angry possum (who seems to have been provoked)?
*. This was deliberate. Writer Everett De Roche (who also scripted the even better known Ozploitation classic Patrick, which came out the same year) just wanted to show the natural world rejecting the insufferable Peter and Marcia like an autoimmune system protecting against cancer cells. He sought to avoid “a Jaws-like critter film” and instead make the “beasties to all be benign-looking and not overtly aggressive.”
*. On that same point, I love how nature’s first “attack” takes the form of the mundane (but equally threatening and disgusting) mold that grows on their frozen “chucky” (chicken). They’re more likely to die from salmonella than a wombat bite!
*. Another theme being mined is that of the urban dwellers who take a wrong turn and end up somewhere off the main road. Here the young couple do arrive at their intended destination but only after being led through forthrights and meanders that make it clear they’re effectively lost. And all that expensive camping equipment isn’t going to help them in a real struggle to survive.
*. I wonder if it’s just the Australian background that also made me think of Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). Are the messages, in this one respect, all that different?
*. Then there is the domestic breakdown angle. This is actually quite interesting for a couple of reasons.
*. In the first place it’s surprisingly graphic. Peter tells Marcia to go fuck herself and the next time we see her she’s in bed reading one of her “dirty books” (at least that’s what Peter calls it) and masturbating. That was not something you saw a lot of outside of porn in the ’70s. Or today, for that matter. Self-love is a bit of a no-go zone for movies. Later Peter will pick up a copy of Playboy but be interrupted before getting to enjoy himself.
*. I can’t help but add another note here. In the trivia section of the IMDb entry for Long Weekend there’s a note telling us that the book Marcia is reading is The Inheritors (1955) by William Golding, which is a story about a tribe of neanderthals being wiped out by homo sapiens. Not sexy stuff! Alas for whoever came up with that gem (which I did get a laugh out of), the book she is reading is The Inheritors (1969) by Harold Robbins, which is more of a one-handed read.
*. The second thing that makes the story of the doomed couple interesting is that they are both so completely dislikeable. Every time you think they’re about to be redeemed they throw our sympathy away and we’re left to feel they deserve each other and their own little weekend in hell. The only one I felt sorry for was the dog, who I hope someone eventually found and let out of the jeep.
*. I like how Marcia throws the “grotty symbolism” of her smashing the eagle’s egg in Peter’s face (he had suggested it represented her having had an abortion). I guess if a movie is going to go in for grotty symbolism it’s good to show you’re aware of it. And could any symbolism be grottier than that truck heading to the slaughterhouse providing a rendezvous with destiny at the end?
*. Overlaying (or I suppose underlying) all of this is a sense of abiding oddness. What is up with that sea cow? What are all those weird noises on the soundtrack? What’s that dark shape in the water when Peter is out swimming? What happened to the people in the van? Strange things happen when you get lost in the woods.
*. It was remade, not well, in 2008 because that’s the kind of thing that happened in 2008. I began by saying this version isn’t great, but I think that’s mainly because of limitations that made the animal attack scenes all look ridiculous. The leads both perform well and while there’s nothing suspenseful going on it does hold one’s interest most of the time and is hard to entirely forget.

The Parallax View (1974)

*. This is a movie that, once you see it, stays in your head a while for all sorts of reasons. I hadn’t seen it in years before this most recent revisit and two things struck me.
*. First, I was surprised to find that Alan J. Pakula actually made it a couple of years before he made All the President’s Men. I was sure it was the other way around, which would have made more sense: first the reality and then the expanded, paranoid fantasy.
*. But The Parallax View, which is based on a novel published in 1970 (before the Watergate break-in), isn’t a Watergate movie so much as a JFK assassination movie. Yes, Beatty’s Joe Frady is a dogged reporter with a crusty editor, and yes Michael Small’s score sounds a lot like what David Shire would do for All the President’s Men, but as a conspiracy thriller it’s all about grassy knolls and lone gunmen. Roger Ebert thought it would remind audiences of Executive Action, which came out around the same time and was a fitting referent then. Today I don’t think many people have seen Executive Action.

*. Already in 1974 it could cast a cynical eye on conspiracy. Even though the assassination of the senator is supposedly his beat, Frady wants to blow off Lee’s fears as paranoia. He’s not a conspiracy nut, but he knows there are conspiracy nuts out there.
*. The other thing that struck me is how good a movie this is. Two things in particular I thought were worth noting: the silence and the photography.
*. It’s amazing how much of this movie plays out in silence, or perhaps more accurately with no dialogue but only background noise or meaningless chit-chat. The great scene in front of the dam, for instance, is noisy (the alarm and the roaring water), but silent in terms of anyone saying anything (after the sheriff’s wonderfully apologetic “Actually, there just ain’t no Buster”). The whole business on board the plane as Frady tries to warn the crew about the bomb plays out with almost no dialogue. Ditto the end, where Frady is trying to escape.

*. There are two things that make the silence particularly effective. In the first place, sudden noises interrupt the silence in dramatic ways. There’s a moment of quiet on the boat, a long shot, and then boom! Frady is running for the doorway when it pulls open and boom! End of the line. Frady is going through the sheriff’s drawers when the deputy enters, silently. Then the phone rings and it’s like an alarm has gone off. What makes this last scene so brilliant, however, is that it’s only when Frady hears the deputy answer the phone that he knows he’s in trouble.

*. Silence also compounds our sense of unease and mystery. Bill McKinney has no lines at all, which makes him seem all the more dangerous. But then, aside from the recruiter, we never hear any Parallax voices. What are they up to? We never know, and still don’t know at the end. But silence makes us suspicious. It’s like Austin Tucker’s bodyguard. Does he say anything? He seems so damn weird the way he just steers the boat, looking at Frady.

*. Then there is the photography by Gordon Willis. There’s a particular type of shot that’s used throughout, setting up a strong visual motif. It has a dark foreground and a spotlight somewhere in the distance. This is introduced with the opening shot as we draw toward the lit judicial chamber down what seems to be a dark tunnel (a movement that’s reversed at the end). The same sort of thing provides the film’s climax, as Frady runs in the dark toward the brightly lit doorway that opens ahead of him. But as I say, it’s a motif that we see throughout. It’s in the shot of the morgue, for example, and the scene on the children’s train coming out of a tunnel, and the shot looking out the main door of the convention centre, and the interior of the sheriff’s house.

*. The montage is an odd piece of work, again effective for being so enigmatic. Can it be reduced to a specific message? It seems as though patriotic and family values are being undercut by dark, repressed forces (Nazism, racism, even gay S&M images). But then the viewer is supposed to identify with those same dark forces. Is Thor a holy avenger, or a Teutonic warlord? Or are they the same thing?

*. Is it weird that Parallax applicants need have no skills at all but only be disaffected losers? I guess not if they’re just being recruited as patsies.
*. Warren Beatty’s hair. What can you say? His next movie would be Shampoo.
*. I find it a bit curious that there appear to be no women in the Parallax Corporation. In much the same way it’s not clear that there are any women “seconds” in Seconds. But this is one of the great strengths of the film, the way Parallax remains so opaque. Silence is maintained and we never see behind the curtain.

*. There are so many moments in this movie that are unforgettable: the scramble on top of Seattle’s Space Needle, the incident at the dam, the overhead shot of the golf cart rolling into the perfectly arranged red-white-and-blue tables on the floor of the convention centre. Add to that the smart, minimalist script, wonderful photography, and solid lead performance from Beatty playing a man with attitude who is frustrated and baffled, and I think this is one of the classics of political paranoia. That it’s not better known may be down to it’s not having had a decent DVD release. Alas, now that DVDs aren’t such a big thing any more it may have missed its window for reaching a wider audience. That would be a shame.

Duel (1971)

*. It’s hard to think of the 1970s as any kind of golden age of television. Most of the best-known shows from the period are of interest only to nostalgists today. And the movie-of-the-week format didn’t produce much that has lasted either. Duel is a real anomaly.
*. It was the ABC Movie of the Week in 1971, broadcast in a 74-minute version and then released theatrically in Europe the next year with another fifteen minutes added. What I find remarkable about this is that the added sequences (the phone call David makes to his wife, the scene with the school bus, and the business at the train crossing) don’t seem at all like padding. They actually make the movie better and I couldn’t imagine it without them.
*. To take the most obvious point, it’s the phone call to his wife that introduces the theme of David Mann (yes, that’s his name) having to prove his manhood in the upcoming duel. Dennis Weaver wouldn’t have struck me as the most obvious Caspar Milquetoast figure but apparently Spielberg had his role in Touch of Evil in mind, and so he plays the wimp who gets sand kicked in his face on the beach until he grows a pair and turns the table on his mega-phallic bully. I don’t want to make too much of this, but look at the shot of the tanker truck idling at the edge of the tunnel just before the driver comes to rescue the school bus. That’s a big load of manhood, and it’s about to put David’s ineffective attempt at a rescue to shame.
*. This crisis of masculinity may also be why Duel reminded so much of Straw Dogs (which came out the same year). The whole thing has the scent of Peckinpah about it, and apparently Dustin Hoffman had been considered for the role of David.
*. In hindsight, this was a project that couldn’t miss, uniting Steven Spielberg before he was anoninted wunderkind and Richard Matheson, who was Stephen King before Stephen King. If you wanted a classic popcorn film you were ordering from the right menu.
*. Technically, it’s very accomplished, and set a standard for road thrillers. The tricks Spielberg used to shoot the chase scenes (all on location) became widely adopted. The low camera, for example, to make it look like the vehicles are going faster, would be used a lot by George Miller. And ABC hadn’t even wanted Spielberg to shoot on location! The thought of doing this movie with all process shots is mind-boggling.

*. Pretty much all of Spielberg’s creative decisions paid off. He was a natural. He knew he had to shoot on location. He was right to reject the fiery finish ABC wanted, both because the slow death of the rig (complete with surreal dinosaur groans) plays a lot better and because it makes more sense. Let’s face it, there’s no way that rig was going to be pulling a full load while dueling it out on the highway.
*. Spielberg saw it as Hitchcock on wheels, and felt Hitch whispering over his shoulder while filming, telling him to drag out the suspense. I think he was referring mainly to the diner scene but it really works well at the end, where the climactic chase actually slows things down as David’s car dies and the rig labours climbing up the hill.
*. Another decision was not to show the driver. This pays off as well, as it turns the film into a kind of monster movie where technology is the enemy and being in our car turns out not to be so safe.
*. A later film like Joy Ride would also hide the driver, but Rusty Nail was still the villain, not his truck. It was a psycho-killer movie. That’s not what Duel is. Instead, it stands at the start of a series of killer-machine flicks, including Killdozer! (a 1974 ABC Movie of the Week), The Car (1977), and the Stephen King vehicles Christine (1983) and Maximum Overdrive (1986). And as a thriller it also had an even wider influence. The truck would become a shark in Jaws, and movies would never be the same.
*. I wouldn’t want to build Duel up too much, as it is pretty crude in places and gets a bit repetitive. But it is a highly successful entertainment, from a creative team who understood entertainment better than anyone. As I said, they really couldn’t go wrong. And they didn’t.

Nashville (1975)

*. You could debate Robert Altman’s best film, with a number of plausible contenders, but I think the majority opinion is that Nashville is his most representative work. In the words of David Sterritt, it’s “the film Robert Altman was born to make.” Now: what does that mean?
*. Is it a movie about Nashville, Tennessee? Or the country music business? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence Altman cared much about either. It may be a movie about America. But the way I see it, what it’s mostly about is how people relate to one another.
*. Not having any clear agenda, it has left itself open to a variety of interpretations. Given my own reading of it, I want to look a little more closely here into how this works by discussing how Altman presents his characters, and how critics have responded to them.
*. Pauline Kael: “During this movie, we begin to realize that all that the people are is what we see. Nothing is held back from us, nothing is hidden.” I don’t know what to make of this. On the face of it, I think it’s very wrong. Altman’s fly-on-the-wall approach — showing not telling, with most of the dialogue coming in overheard fragments — only lets us see pieces of the people on screen. Some pieces are more revealing, or at least seem more revealing, than others, but they are still just pieces. Why does Kenny shoot Barbara Jean? Was that even his original plan in coming to Nashville? And what do we know about Tricycle Man? Is that all he is? A bike? Or is he just a narrative element, mere “connecting tissue” in Altman’s words.

*. I’m not criticizing Altman for this approach. I appreciate what he’s doing. How much do we know about anyone else in our lives, even those closest to us? How well do we really understand them? We have to make our judgments based on fragments. But such judgments can only be speculative, partial projections and shots in the dark. So when Kael starts explaining what the characters mean to her (all they are, remember, with “nothing hidden”), I tend to dig in my heels. How does she know?
*. For example. (1) “Barbara Jean is the one tragic character.” Really? Nashville seems stocked with tragic, sympathetic figures, with Sueleen Gay and Mr. Green being only a couple of the more obvious. (2) Tom (Keith Carradine) sleeps “with Geraldine Chapman, whom he’ll barely remember the next day, and with Lily Tomlin, who he’ll remember forever.” It seems to me as though he won’t remember Tomlin five minutes after she’s out the door. I think Kael wants Tom to remember Tomlin, but it’s not at all obvious he will. (3) Who, watching Haven Hamilton sing “Keep a’ Goin'” “would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?” Again we have Kael discerning a character’s true spirit on spotty evidence. Hamilton seems like a pure shit to me. Was he really thinking of the audience before himself at the end, or was he just trying to keep his political future on the rails?
*. In his Great Movies essay on Nashville Roger Ebert quotes from a couple of Kael’s readings and agrees with them. I find them unpersuasive, as I do Kael’s initial premise that “all that the people are is what we see.” Still, if that’s the way you want to read the film, it is at least a point of view that’s available.
*. Standing before such a monument to indeterminacy and irresolution I don’t think it’s really possible to say what Nashville is about. I can only say what it means to me.

*. A constant motif throughout the film is that people don’t listen to each other. Nashville is a place where everyone wants to be a star, which means they want to be heard without having to pay attention to anyone else. Shelley Duvall’s L.A. Joan is a comic example, but really everyone is like this. The groupie and the celebrity have much in common.
*. This is something we see repeated over and over. Opal tells Bud Hamilton she’d love to hear him sing the song he wrote and then just gets up and leaves him when Elliot Gould walks by. Does anyone listen to the loudspeaker van or is it just background noise? When Winifred gets to sing at the racetrack we can’t hear anything over the noise of the engines, and presumably no one else can either. Del doesn’t want to hear about his boy’s swimming lessons. Pfc. Kelly doesn’t care about Wynn’s wife Esther dying, while Wynn isn’t interested in anything else. Finally, when Winifred sings “It Don’t Worry Me” it seems not so much a plucky or courageous anthem as simply a reflection of the crowd’s apathy. A couple of people have been shot but they’re all still there. It doesn’t bother them. They don’t care, any more than they care about the politics. They’re just there for the free concert and the hot dogs.

*. I think this is the central irony of Altman’s presentation: the overlapping, fragmented and muddy dialogue forces us into being ever more intent upon hearing what nobody in the film is listening to. I think it’s interesting that one of the few times we do see a character paying attention is when Del listens in on Linnea talking to Tom, eavesdropping (like the audience) on a conversation he isn’t a party to.
*. The film itself thus becomes a sort of exercise in determining what’s important. Given that there’s a lot of dialogue that’s hard to hear, and improvised, or just plain inconsequential blather, we have our work cut out for us. And this is one of the reasons why interpretations of the film diverge. We hear what we want to hear, or what we came in primed to hear.

*. I don’t know what it was with Altman and misandry. He made shocking changes to his sources in films like The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts to work in violence toward women. According to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, when giving directions for the script for this film he only said he wanted a woman to be killed at the end “for whatever reason.”
*. The improvisation and humour foreshadow the comedy of Christopher Guest, as does the focus on celebrity culture. The two seem to go together, and to be sure the awful banality and amorality of publicity are easy marks. Fame is a cruel game. The vile crowd of local politicos hooting for Sueleen to strip are really no worse than the Opry goers who boo Barbara Jean during her on-stage meltdown. The public can be so demanding, and what it demands isn’t always right.

*. The ending seems slack to me, with its waving flag and sense that the show will go on even after everyone has gone home. I don’t see it as at all hopeful or affirming anything. We’re not even sure if Barbara Jean is dead. It’s a conclusion where nothing is concluded, which is fitting for a movie that was only superficially going somewhere all this time.
*. It’s hard to pin down the magic of a film like this, and of Altman more generally. The style is that of a documentary, which may be thought of as a kind of anti-style. Altman certainly didn’t want you to notice anything about the filmmaking. Then there’s no real plot and a general diffusion of interest across a wide spectrum of characters who often aren’t even connected. As already noted, much of the dialogue is just presented as background noise. Hell, even most of the music, and there is a lot, is pretty bad (again, deliberately). And yet one can’t deny the fascination such a film has, even (or maybe especially) on repeated viewings. Perhaps it’s the constantly teased connection between order and chaos, meaning and its absence, the significant and the ephemeral. Make of Nashville what you will and it obliges.

Lisa and the Devil (1972)

*. First the back story. Mario Bava was riding (relatively) high after the success of Baron Blood and so was given a green light to basically do whatever he wanted next. Lisa and the Devil was the result, but it wasn’t seen as being commercial enough to find a distributor. So it was recut and some footage was added to make it into a devil-possession film that would cash in on the success of The Exorcist. This movie was called The House of Exorcism. Lisa and the Devil never had a wide release anywhere, and it’s really only been rediscovered recently with a deluxe DVD edition.
*. I don’t want to say anything more about The House of Exorcism here, as it’s really another, later movie and I don’t think seeing it provides any insight into Lisa and the Devil.
*. If you give a director, especially an older, established director, a bit of freedom, does it make sense to expect him to do something radically different than his usual? I don’t think it does. Bava was the filmmaker he was by this time, and while Lisa and the Devil is a little more bizarre than his usual fare we’re still very much in Bavaland. There’s the garish use of colour, the zooms, the mirrors, the mild exploitation in the form of gratuitous skin (Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina’s bosom yearning to be free), the family psychodrama, and of course the mannequins. I don’t know what Bava’s thing for mannequins was, but he really gets to indulge it here.
*. Even the basic plot, while weird in its uncanny neo-gothic way, isn’t that far afield from Bava’s usual territory. What mixes things up is the odd frame to the story. Is it all a dream? Is Lisa dead at the beginning, making the film an odyssey like that of Canadace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls? I don’t know if things are worked out enough for us to be able to answer questions like these. I’m still not sure as to whether Lisa is just a random victim, a tourist having a resemblance to Elena, and or if she really is Elena. And I’m not sure if Bava knew either.

*. As the events slowly draw us into more surreal territory the atmosphere takes over. This is a good thing, as Bava’s plots were rarely his strongest suit while atmosphere was something he possessed in spades. After a while, and not a long while at that, I found myself wishing it were a silent film, or at least without any dialogue. I don’t think the dialogue gives us any necessary information, and without it I might have imagined I was lost in Buñuel’s Spain (which is where in fact this film was shot). I can’t think of any Bava film that makes such overt use of symbolism, with recurring elements like the keyhole arch Lisa passes through and the broken pocket watch. Even the mannequins fit with the surreal motif, and I’m only sorry we missed seeing Telly Savalas’s Leandro going full Buñuel and measuring Elke Sommer’s feet.
*. Usually when a director is given creative control over a project we’re encouraged to view the results as being more representative of their most abiding preoccupations and the peculiar bent of their imagination. I’m still not sure what Lisa and the Devil tells us in this regard, as it’s really a farrago of elements that don’t cohere that well thematically or tonally. It’s tempting to see Bava as Leandro: the stage manager of the whole farce, though forced to play the role of underling to the decadent, moneyed family. The actors, meanwhile, are transformed into mere dolls to be arranged into the proper positions. Even Sommer’s big sex scene has her unconscious throughout, only slightly more flexible than the skeleton she’s lying next to.
*. Is this the real Bava then? Well, maybe. It’s certainly a plumbing of someone’s unconscious. And while I wouldn’t rank it among my favourite Bava films, it does have goofy charm (introducing us to Kojak’s lollipops) and unfolds an elliptical dream logic that’s as smooth as a silken dress or tapestry. As with any dream, however, it’s hard to tell how much is surface and how much is depth. I find it weightless and mad, but nevertheless essential.