Category Archives: 1970s

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

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

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

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

Three Sisters (1970)

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

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

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

Julius Caesar (1970)


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


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


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


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


Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)

*. Was a sequel to The Abominable Dr. Phibes always planned? I’ve read different stories. On the one hand, the first film left off with the doctor tucking himself away in his sarcophagus, awaiting an eclipse to effect his resurrection. And some sources say a trilogy had been in the works. But this film was rushed into production to capitalize on the success of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and they didn’t have much to go on, even recycling the same basic set of Dr. Phibes’s dancehall and relocating it to Egypt. This makes me think they weren’t planning on another movie, or at least didn’t think one was likely.
*. Ah, the mysterious Vulnavia. She was killed at the end of the first film after being showered with acid but she’s back here, though played by a different actress (Virginia North was pregnant so Valli Kemp got the nod). Apparently she was originally going to be a new character but the studio wanted Vulnavia back because they liked the name. But is she even a person? Or just another one of Phibes’s automatons? And if she can’t speak, how does she arrange all of her master’s business and travel affairs for him? Ah, the mysterious Vulnavia.
*. Sticking with this, why doesn’t Phibes just give up on the long-dead Victoria and take Vulnavia as his eternal dance partner? They seem happy together.
*. Peter Cushing was going to play Dr. Vesalius in the previous film but had to back out. He has a walk-on cameo here, but why? It’s a scene that doesn’t have any purpose at all. Perhaps they just thought he needed the work.

*. You may notice (I did) that Phibes seems to be a narrator at times, giving voiceover even when it’s clear he’s not jacked into a speaker. This was because scenes were cut and they had to add dialogue explaining some plot points. Which gives you some further idea of how slapdash an effort this was.
*. Peter Jeffrey is back as Inspector Trout, and Terry-Thomas plays an entirely different character. Also returning, and even more endearing, are the Clockwork Musicians, here renamed The Alexandrian Quartet (a joke that I imagine few people will get today) and pressed into service as the Royal Scottish Fusiliers at one point. If the series had continued to a third instalment one wonders if they’d’ve gotten into the killing as well.
*. Robert Quarry plays Darius Biederbeck. Rumours were that Quarry was being groomed to replace Price at AIP and that the two didn’t get along while filming. Whatever truth there is to that story, I have to say I found Biederbeck’s character a puzzle. He starts off being a villain but at the end becomes the hero, even sacrificing himself to save his lady love. Something about that arc just didn’t work for me. Especially when, as Phibes himself points out, they’re similar characters and thus one of them is redundant.
*. For some reason this movie is regarded by many as being almost on a par with the first. I find it a big step down. There’s less sense of fun, the murders cross the line from the bizarre to the preposterous, and most of the good stuff is just carryover from what worked in The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
*. Still, it remains on brand and the character might have been kept going with other actors but for the fact that I suspect Phibes had become too closely associated with Price. In any event, other franchises have carried the same concept with even greater success into the twenty-first century. Though I wouldn’t bet against the good doctor rising again.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

*. The Abominable Dr. Phibes didn’t get a lot of love when it came out. Critics saw it as camp trash, though some enjoyed it, and the initial box office was disappointing because AIP, who also didn’t think it was anything special, took a while to figure out how to market such an oddity.
*. But audiences did eventually catch on, and today this is a much loved cult favourite. In several ways it was ahead of its time, setting up such later blockbusters as Se7en and even more obviously Saw. Yes, the serial killer who works by way of a theme might be taken all the way back to And Then There Were None, but that was a mystery and not a horror film and there’s a difference. It’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes that has the most to answer for.
*. Also ahead of its time was the mix of brutal and shocking violence (at least as brutal and shocking as budget and censors would allow) with comedy. One gets the sense that everyone was having a good time and laughing away as they made it.
*. There are so many little jokes I love. Ending with a jazzy version of “Over the Rainbow.” The way the Moon and Earth are labeled on the lid of the sarcophagus. The painted screens in the car windows. Terry-Thomas’s porn-loving doctor winding the crank of his projector so hard it breaks off.
*. I could keep going. I get a kick out of the shrine Dr. Phibes has set up to his wife, dominated by her vapid stare (the late Mrs. Phibes represented by Vincent Price’s real wife, the model Caroline Munro). And how about the wonderful dialogue? “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.” When Phibes accuses Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) of killing his wife the good doctor exclaims that he tried to save her. To which Phibes replies “With a knife in your hands?!” Well, he was doing surgery . . .
*. The glory of the sets is another big plus. Not just Dr. Phibes’s rocking pad, with its Art Deco-Aubrey Beardsley dance floor and mechanical orchestra of Clockwork Musicians, but also Dr. Versalius’s amazing digs, and the mint-green hospital. We’re in another world here, a sort of English giallo nearly every bit as ripe as the Italian.
*. Vulnavia (Virginia North) has no lines but takes over with such a striking presence she doesn’t need any. And that name! I mean, why didn’t they call her Vulvania just to see if they could get away with it? (Price does distinctly call her Vulvania once in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in what could hardly be called a slip of the tongue.)

*. Alas, they were limited in what they could achieve in the way of gore effects. Basically all they could manage was some scary heads. Half or fully eaten. Frozen. Exsanguinated. And finally a big reveal of Dr. Phibes’s own mutilated face, which is just a rubber mask. There’s been no end of talk of more sequels, or a remake, and you know revisiting the effects has to be one of the main attractions. Not that I think they should remake it. Leave well enough alone.

*. The script is pure fantasy. Some random questions: How on earth does Dr. Phibes get those rats on the plane without anyone noticing, and fix it so they come out at just the right time? Why does Terry-Thomas not say anything while his blood is being stolen? Many of Phibes’s victims are excessively passive. The man in the back of the car doesn’t seem perturbed much either. And why does the nurse not wake up when her face is covered by green goo? I know she has (perhaps) taken a sleeping pill, but even so you’d wake up once your airways were covered, or when a handful of locusts starting eating your face off. How was the unicorn impalement managed? A catapult? From across the street? And what or who is Vulnavia? What’s with the violin playing? Or the dancing figurine she places in the back of the car? Or the contrived musical numbers she does with Phibes? Originally she was meant to be another automaton, and maybe she still is, which would explain some of this. But then why not say so, or reveal this when she has her acid shower at the end? And why the Biblical plagues? Just because Phibes is a doctor of theology as well as a concert organist?
*. Director Robert Fuest (who also apparently wrote most of the screenplay) doesn’t get much credit, but I think this is a well-turned out little movie, especially for AIP. There are even some odd style points scored. Also, kicking things off with over ten minutes of film without any dialogue was pretty bold. It’s a truism of the horror genre though that your villains shouldn’t talk too much, even if they’re played by Vincent Price. Here the fact that Phibes is hooked up to a squawk box that he has to keep plugging in to whatever outlet’s available (“I have used my knowledge of music and acoustics to re-create my voice!”) is a bit awkward, but it’s fun too.
*. I was pleasantly surprised coming back to this movie and enjoying it as much as I did. I’d re-watched it about five years ago and taken some notes and looking over them it seemed as though I was less impressed then. Today it struck me as far more entertaining. Total nonsense, and cheap, but it’s also a groundbreaking and inventive work that repays repeated viewing. I wouldn’t quite rate it a classic, but it’s a must-see flick for genre fans and even fifty years later has a crazy transgressive attitude about it that makes up for a lot of failings.

Slap Shot (1977)

*. Slap Shot is a movie that holds a mythic place in the imagination of any Canadian of a certain age. So much so that I’d always thought it was a Canadian production. It isn’t, though the French-Canadian cast members spoke colloquial Québécois French, which made it an even bigger cult favourite in Quebec than it was among Anglos.
*. The setting though is the fictional New England mill-town of Charlestown (actually Johnstown, Pennsylvania). It’s a hardscrabble, working-class sort of place that would have been familiar to moviegoers at the time. The year before, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Rocky, another sports story set in blue-collar Pennsylvania. There are scenes here that have the same lunch-pail look to them as Rocky. They also recall the streets of Clairmont, Pennsylvania in the 1978 Academy Award Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter. Instead of making it to the big leagues in that movie, the boys went to Vietnam.
*. I don’t think these comparisons are superficial either. I really feel a shared sensibility in all three movies. It’s more than just a kitchen-sink look. And the next year, while Michael Cimino would become Hollywood’s biggest new star with The Deer Hunter, Coming Home would be the other big Vietnam pic. And Nancy Dowd, who wrote Slap Shot, had written the original script for Coming Home. I feel like there are deeper cultural connections here.

*. That might seem a weird thing to say about a movie whose very title suggests slapstick comedy, a sort of Bad News Bears (1976) except with man-boys on ice. And there are parts of it that play like that. Most obviously there are the brutal (and mentally challenged?) Hanson brothers who take blood-and-guts hockey to ridiculous lengths. All without seeming to draw a penalty. But the ending, with Ned (Michael Ontkean) doing his striptease in the midst of a bench-clearing brawl is very much in the slapstick vein. That is, building everything up to a big laugh. You see: all the blood and bad language was just good fun.
*. But the tone throughout is mixed. It’s sad what’s happening to Charlestown, and we feel that the redemption offered by the championship run of the Chiefs is a fantasy that everyone will wake up from the next morning, after the parade, nursing yet another hammering hangover. Same as for Rocky Balboa, except he had a franchise beckoning. Not that the Chiefs didn’t too, but nobody saw any of the other movies in the series, and anyway Paul Newman was gone.
*. Paul Newman really was a good-looking guy. He can even pull off the ’70s threads here with style. Few other men could do that. Or, for that matter, would be able to get away with playing such a loveable heel. Because that’s what Reggie Dunlop is. Ned is the more conventional hero, with a girl-next-door girlfriend who is tragically glamourized at the end.
*. I have to say that despite its following I don’t think Slap Shot is any good. It’s a comedy but never very funny. It seems to be engaged in some kind of social commentary but never aims to be realistic. It’s a sports movie, but has a fanciful notion of minor-league professional sports. Newman enjoyed making it (he liked working with director George Roy Hill, for one thing), but he was one and done. What lasted into the sequels, and still lasts, are the Hanson brothers. This is remembered today as their movie, and fairly so. Newman, however, would get a heck of a consolation prize with his wonderful furry bedmate.

The Tempest (1979)

*. Every production of Shakespeare, and especially every instance of Shakespeare on film, can be plotted on a continuum of faithfulness to the text. Sometimes they’re little more than a camera making a recording of a theatrical performance, as in Olivier’s Othello (1965). At other times you have a pretty complete re-imagining of the play in a different context: Romeo and Juliet as West Side Story, Hamlet as The Bad Sleep Well, and The Tempest as a Western (Yellow Sky) or set in outer space (Forbidden Planet).
*. The Tempest has always been more open than most of the canon for a free interpretation. After all the time I’ve spent with it I’m still not sure what it’s about, or what to think of it. It’s a problem, or matter of personal taste, that I have with all the romances. And it leaves a director pretty free to go in any direction.
*. Derek Jarman obviously doesn’t feel wedded to Shakespeare’s Tempest in this adaptation. I say that despite the fact that he does keep most of the basic story intact. But the text is mangled badly, with a lot of cuts and rearrangements. Right from the opening, where we see a rather youthful Prospero (Heathcote Williams, who was only 38) writhing in bed muttering lines that I couldn’t make out at all I had the sense that Jarman really didn’t care much what was being said. As things went on that’s a feeling that would only deepen.

*. To my eyes and ears there are two problems with this Tempest. The way it looks and the way it sounds.
*. I would like to say that it’s poorly lit and has badly recorded sound, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. The look and the sound were conscious decisions. But the look is dark to the point where it’s hard to see very much and the sound, while there are some nice effects (like the breathing to accompany the working of magic), is frustrating and annoying. There’s a lot of loud laughter that made me cringe, but at the same time I could barely hear half of the lines.
*. I say this was a conscious decision, and it’s clear that Jarman had a vision here. But what was it? What is the point of going in this direction? And what direction is it anyway?
*. It’s often described as “punk” or “camp.” I don’t see much evidence of the former aside from the tatty atmosphere that hangs around Stoneleigh Abbey (and which made me wonder why they wanted to shoot in such a location when all they did was throw hay and trash around until they made it look like an abandoned tenement building or shooting alley). I don’t see much evidence for the latter aside from the musical number at the end with its dancing sailors and Elizabeth Welch singing “Stormy Weather.”
*. From Jarman’s handwritten notes: “I hope to capture something of the mystery and atmosphere of the original without descending to theatrics.” So . . . mystery and atmosphere. He also stresses the importance of magic quite a bit, but it seems to me that the magic in this film is really downplayed. As, aside from the final number, is the music. And what is The Tempest without magic and music?
*. Jarman also apparently said that he was drawn to the play because of the way it dealt with the theme of forgiveness. Which it does. But which this film doesn’t, since it leaves all of that stuff out.

*. It’s also not a particularly political Tempest. There was even some criticism from Shakespeare scholars because the post-colonial presentation of the play that was peaking at around this time (the island as the New World, Caliban as Black or Aboriginal) wasn’t pursued. Jarman thought that such an approach would be too limiting, “make it more specific than general,” and while I don’t agree with that I do agree with his exercising his freedom to make whatever kind of Tempest he wanted to. But again, what kind of a Tempest is it?
*. About the only thing I can say with some confidence is that this version really belongs to Ferdinand and Miranda. They are the stars of the show, despite being relatively minor parts in the play. We are a third of the way into the film before the court party are even introduced, and they are shortchanged the rest of the way as well. But we spend a lot of time with the young lovers, even when they’re just goofing around. But having said that, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The two of them have few important lines and really aren’t that interesting, apart or together.
*. I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a stick in the mud. Like Vincent Canby, say, whose New York Times review was a full-on rant, worth quoting just for the fun of it: Jarman’s Tempest “would be funny if it weren’t very nearly unbearable. It’s a fingernail scratched along a blackboard, sand in spinach, a 33-r.p.m. recording of ‘Don Giovanni’ played at 78 r.p.m. Watching it is like driving a car whose windshield has shattered but not broken. You can barely see through the production to Shakespeare, so you must rely on memory. . . There are no poetry, no ideas, no characterizations, no narrative, no fun.”
*. Actually, I think I probably do agree with Canby here. But I don’t think that makes me a stick. I like Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), and went along with Julie Taymor’s slightly more traditional 2010 version. I just didn’t enjoy this at all. Indeed, when I was watching it I was thinking it might be as bad as another “punk” Shakespeare, Troma’s Tromeo and Juliet. Then I began to wonder if Tromeo and Juliet might even be a bit better. In the end I couldn’t make up my mind. I sort of hate them both.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

*. The idea was inspired: why not team up Sherlock Holmes with Sigmund Freud, two rough contemporaries, in a new adventure that has Holmes traveling to Vienna to get treatment for his cocaine addiction while solving the mystery of an abducted singer.
*. Nicholas Meyer had written the source novel and also did the screenplay, which got an Oscar nomination. Stephen Sondheim wrote a delightful song for the Madame at a brothel to sing (“I Never Do Anything Twice”). Ken Adam was in charge of production design and his Victorian interiors look great, showing he was a master of more than just those giganto-sized villain’s lairs in the Bond movies or the war room in Dr. Strangelove. And the cast is first rate, with Nicol Williamson and Alan Arkin in the leads and Robert Duvall surprisingly solid as Watson, Joel Grey as a creepy villain, and Laurence Olivier as the world’s most distinguished red herring. Vanessa Redgrave looks as though she doesn’t want to be here, but then she may have read the script and been wondering what exactly her role amounted to.
*. About that script. I’m afraid it’s part of the reason the movie dies. Meyer really wanted to do something quite different from the book, while director Herbert Ross kept pulling him back. This suggests they weren’t on the same page, and the results show. The story never comes together, feeling in the end like a couple of different movies pulling in different directions and never settling on a clear tone. A review in The Daily Telegraph opined that “the tale drags on for reel after reel before we cotton on to the fact that it is meant to be funny.” But is it meant to be funny? I’m not sure.
*. Meyer wanted it to be “not a Sherlock Holmes movie, [but] a movie about Sherlock Holmes. That’s different.” One thing this meant was rehabilitating Watson, who Meyer thought had been too much the buffoon made famous by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes movies. But enlarging Watson means diminishing Holmes, not to the extent here as would be done in Without a Clue to be sure, but this Holmes is still a wreck. Freud is very much the greater man, and the hero.
*. This is reflected even in the nuts-and-bolts of the crime story. I’m afraid there isn’t much in the way of clever detective work going on. Holmes’s deducing that Lola Deveraux (Redgrave) had been abducted is kind of obvious from the nature of her injuries, and following a trail of dropped lilies (really?) to where she’d been taken is very sub-Conan Doyle. Meanwhile, Freud is way ahead of the legendary detective. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes you’re probably going to be disappointed at your hero’s performance.
*. Ross was probably a bad choice to direct as well. There’s no excitement on tap, even with a train chase and a sword fight to finish things off. This climax is then followed by a long and cringey denouement, as we learn the historical source of Holmes’s addiction problems and Moriarty fixation, which is both clichéd and wildly over-the-top. An epilogue then reintroduces Holmes to Ms. Deveraux, an even more cringe-inducing scene where the chanteuse seems anything but thrilled to be going on a cruise with the famous detective. But then he seems discomfited as well. Are we supposed to imagine this as a budding romance? Because there’d been little hint of that in the movie we’ve just seen. Which is just another way the pieces don’t come together.
*. In the brief interview featurette included with the DVD one gets the sense that Meyer himself didn’t think much of the film, and that’s understandable. Because of the credits this is a movie that still has a bit of a reputation today, and even some admirers, but despite all the talent assembled and the good use of locations it really is a stuffy and stiff piece with a stupid story that doesn’t make anything out of the intriguing pairing at its heart.

Macbeth (1979)

*. At university I had a professor who, dismayed at the way Shakespeare was being updated and made modern in so many new adaptations, said that he just wanted to see the actors coming out in barrels and reading the lines. With this production of Macbeth he would have got his wish. Or something close to it.
*. It’s directed by Philip Casson and produced by Trevor Nunn, based on a production Nunn did at The Other Place theatre in 1976. The Other Place is what’s known as a “black box” theatre, and is described by Ian McKellen (playing Macbeth here) in a video intro to the DVD as a “tin hut” that seated around 100. So this became known as “the minimalist Macbeth,” and apparently had the cast sitting around in a circle (as this film version begins) with no costume changes or scenery. McKellen says the whole thing only cost £250 to produce. Nunn’s objective was to just “photograph the text.”
*. I doubt Casson’s movie, shot on videotape (and looking it!) for British television, cost much more than that. No music. Just unaccommodated actors moving about a black space, with lots of close-ups and soliloquies presented without any sense of naturalism.
*. So . . . actors reading the lines then. You can forget about seeing Banquo’s ghost, or any of Macbeth’s visions. Which does make you wonder about how pure such an approach really is. Shakespeare’s audience would have been expecting more of a show, I’m sure.
*. There’s some of the intimacy you might expect in a little theatre production of the play, and the killing of Macduff’s son is chilling in its way, but that’s all I can say for it. Minimalism is fine up to a point, but then starts to work in reverse. You don’t even get some leafy branches to stand in for Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, and as for Macbeth’s noggin being brought in at the end you can forget it. The daggers are obvious props. The costumes seem like a rag-bag of whatever happened to be lying around. I couldn’t put a date to them. Leather jerkins, nineteenth-century court uniforms, black stockings over the heads of the killers. None of it adds up, and the sense I had was that nobody really cared.
*. Judi Dench is fine as Lady M., and lets loose with one hell of a wail in her nightwalking scene. I should have timed it. McKellen I did not care for, though I don’t think it was his fault. He’d done some TV work before this but I don’t think any movies yet, and I think his performance would have worked very well on stage. I don’t think it works on film, at least by today’s standards. He spends a lot of time staring, wide-eyed and unblinking, into the camera. He doesn’t give a very strong sense of a tortured mind though, or express the full depth of Macbeth’s doubts and hesitancies. Overall, I found it a mannered performance, and not in a good way.
*. Despite Macbeth being one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, and tightly paced, this one drags on for nearly two-and-a-half hours. They may have been trying for a full text version, at least of the parts we think Shakespeare actually wrote. Act 2 Scene 4 is rarely played, and I was so surprised to see it here I had to go to the bookshelf to find out what was going on. So it has that going for it too. But students of Shakespeare will want to look elsewhere for their study notes, and even drama majors will just want to take some quick notes on how a black box production works, and why you might not want to bother filming one.

Macbeth (1971)


*. I think it’s easy to miss how bold an interpretation of Shakespeare this was at the time. You see the medieval muckery, and the armies massing before Macbeth’s castle with their banners and funny helmets, and you automatically think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). But that movie hadn’t changed our view of the Middle Ages forever yet.
*. Macbeth has a reputation as Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, but even so a lot of people were shocked by the violence in this film. You get your nose rubbed in it right from the beginning, with that severed hand the witches bury, and the (literally) gratuitous macing of the dying man on the beach. There will be more blood to come, and it’s brought home with some impressive effects throughout. Macbeth’s decapitated head strikes me as particularly well done.


*. In addition to the violence, the nudity of Lady Macbeth also raised some eyebrows, especially from people who attributed it to Playboy‘s funding of the project. They were wrong to do so (nudity had already been written into the script), but all the same I’m not sure it’s necessary. I guess it emphasizes Lady M’s ripening vulnerability, but it seems distracting to me. On the other hand, her body makes an effective contrast with those of the shaggy, saggy witches.
*. The real creative change-up Polanski (and screenwriter Kenneth Tynan) threw at the play was to make the Macbeths into a young power couple. I think this was a terrific idea, as a way both to liven things up and introduce a new wrinkle to these characters. Of course the Macbeths are ambitious, but it makes sense that they’re hungry young people on the make. The story could still make sense with an older couple playing this game (think of Francis Underwood and his wife in House of Cards, or Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in the 2010 Macbeth), but I think it makes more sense that they’re young.


*. It helps tremendously that Jon Finch and Francesca Annis come through with such great performances. Their characters’ arcs perfectly intersect (as they should), with Finch becoming weary and cynical while Annis goes from calculation to fragility. But in each case you can see the seeds of their later fall in their first appearances, perhaps not their tragic flaws so much as their inherent weakness. Macbeth is too easily led, his wife too good at fooling herself.
*. How many children has Lady Macbeth? None. She’s too young, or perhaps she’s too much a career woman. Her line about knowing what it’s like to give suck has been taken out.


*. It’s all a giant pissing match. Having to pour Malcolm a drink is what turns Macbeth back to his plan to kill Duncan, and Ross being slighted for promotion is what turns that climber against Macbeth. None of this is in the play, but it works marvelously here.
*. There were other changes in emphasis as well. Chief among these is the centrality of Ross, a minor figure in the play who becomes the necessary man here. Not everyone can be top dog, but there are rewards enough for those who can run with the pack.


*. In his Criterion essay, Terrence Rafferty mentions how the soliloquies are presented as interior monologues was a nod to Olivier’s Hamlet, but that doesn’t catch all of it. Olivier’s interior monologues are still soliloquies in the sense of being delivered on stage (or screen) alone. Here we see Macbeth still part of the action, but withdrawn into himself, mentally removed.
*. False seeming is the essence of Shakespeare, his sense that everyone is acting. There are nods to this theme in Macbeth (“There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”), but Polanski really makes it front and center. This is a Macbeth where everybody seems to know what’s going on. It’s built out of knowing looks. When Macduff takes his leave of Ross you know what they’re both thinking, just as we know what passes between Banquo and Ross when Macbeth is elevated, and between Macbeth and Malcolm when Macbeth fills the prince’s glass. Nothing needs to be said.
*. When Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V came out much was made of its realistic look, which mainly meant the muddy, bloody field of Agincourt. Polanski had done it all before. And I think this was a creative decision, though the mud was at least partially the result of all the rain they had to endure during filming.
*. Given the downscale look of so much of the movie (I really like the witches’ stone hovel), I thought making Macbeth’s eyrie a rather romantically situated and decorated version of Lindisfarne Castle was one of the few mistakes in the film. It looks like Camelot.
*. The swordfight between Macbeth and Macduff is wonderful because it captures how awkwardly people moved in all that gear and how clumsy an affair it could be. Dropping one’s weapon and just wrestling was as good a tactic as any. Macduff doesn’t even take a weapon when one is offered him. And I also like how Macbeth has to just sit down at one point because he’s out of breath. That armour is heavy!



*. I have no problem with the epilogue that has Donalbain off to see the witches. The will to power is eternal. There will be new pretenders to the throne. And presumably Ross will be there with an eye to the main chance.
*. Pauline Kael thought Polanski reduced “Shakespeare’s meanings to the banal ‘life is a jungle.'” Perhaps, but every production of Shakespeare has to settle on some interpretation, has to choose from among Shakespeare’s many meanings. And I think Polanski made a prescient choice.
*. It’s often said that Hamlet was a nineteenth-century play. And I think it was Northrop Frye who thought King Lear belonged to the twentieth. It seems to me that Macbeth, for all its limitations, may best fit our own time.
*. It’s precisely that “life is a jungle” banality that captures the social Darwinist spirit of our age, one that embraces the ruthless and destructive struggle for primacy in the corporate and political worlds and declares that this is it: that’s all there is. And when we get to the end, and look at the wreckage of our lives, our civilization, our world, there’s nothing to do but shrug at the pointlessness of it all and go out guns blazing. Like Scarface‘s Tony Montana, Macbeth has no children. What marks our age isn’t so much our resignation to the law of the jungle but our giving up on posterity.