Category Archives: 1970s

Eraserhead (1977)

*. I first saw Eraserhead at a rep cinema sometime in the 1980s and it really made an impact. I think I was dragging friends off to see it for the next couple of weeks. And even though I don’t think I’ve seen it since then, watching it again now I found I remembered almost all of it quite distinctly.
*. Much of that probably has to do with how striking the imagery is. Who can forget Henry’s towering hairdo, or that mewling baby? All rendered in exquisite black-and-white. Could you imagine this movie in colour? I can’t.
*. Filmed in L.A. but Lynch wanted it to look like Philadelphia. I’ve never been to Philadelphia but I know this doesn’t look like L.A. It really is a remarkable job of low-budget world building. Of course locations are a big part of this, but it’s also an effect of the lighting. This is a dark film even in the daytime.
*. The images also stick in the mind because of their mysterious nature. Ever since it came out it’s been a parlour game to try and uncode Eraserhead‘s meaning. This is something David Lynch obviously wanted to invite, which is why he’s remained coy about offering any interpretation of his own. Thus far he’s only said that “no critic or reviewer has given an interpretation that is my interpretation.”
*. I suspect this may be because he didn’t have anything specific in mind. In fact, I don’t see how he could have had anything specific in mind. Does it make a difference that Henry works as a printer? Does that relate to what happens to his noggin?
*. The most frequently quoted line about the movie, that it is “a dream of dark and troubling things” is all we’ve gotten from Lynch, and it only shuts the door. Despite all the books that have been written on the subject, I don’t think dreams have any objective or universal meanings.
*. Of course this hasn’t stopped critics from trying to unpack Lynch’s dream (or nightmare). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this since, as I say, it’s clearly invited. But given the weirdness of the proceedings I don’t think we should expect to get very far.

*. The one point that does seem certain is the revulsion shown toward sex, something that is almost de rigueur when dealing with body horror. There are giant sperm wriggling around and getting squished underfoot or slapped against walls. There’s a bed that sort of melts into a milky hot tub in a very unerotic way when Harry makes out with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. The products of sin are disgusting, from the bitch with her pack of nursing pups to Henry’s hideous baby. Meanwhile, it’s hard to figure out how Henry (a very human Jack Nance) and Mary managed to conceive in the first place (something that Henry is a bit mystified by himself).
*. It’s not difficult to make sex seem disgusting. In fact, making it look good is probably harder. Plus, the world of Eraserhead is an all-around ugly and depressing place. What’s interesting is that even the glimpses we’re given of escape or of something outside Harry’s immediate environment, are even worse. The Lady in the Radiator, singing of heaven, is deformed. The Man in the Planet is in even worse shape. Henry’s window only looks out onto a brick wall. This may be the most disturbing thing about Eraserhead: that within its dream of dark and troubling things the dreamer only dreams of things more dark and troubling still.
*. If the visuals are depressing and disgusting the film’s sound, designed by Alan Splet, is equal in its misery. I’d forgotten just how irritating, indeed purposefully annoying a movie this is to listen to. What a cacophony of noise: humming from machinery, static from the radio, hissing from the radiator, squeaking from the furniture, trains in the distance, the baby’s crying, the wind blowing, and all of this playing non-stop.
*. Eraserhead is a movie better experienced than talked about. I don’t think Lynch had any real statement in mind and people probably see in it what they want to see. I was mightily impressed by it thirty years ago, and while I came away from it this time with a lot of respect for what Lynch accomplished, on a shooting schedule that stretched over five years, I have to say it’s not a movie I enjoy as much today. It was student work, of the highest caliber but still student work, and it appealed to me as a student. But my imagination isn’t what it used to be.

Damien: Omen II (1978)

*. From where we sit, a sequel to a super-profitable film like The Omen seems obvious. At the time, however, this was before the onset of modern franchise filmmaking and all those horror brands of the early 1980s. Before Star Wars even, a movie that was partially made possible by the profits from The Omen.
*. According to producer Harvey Bernhard on the DVD commentary for this film, a trilogy had already been suggested sometime after The Omen had finished filming but before it was released. The studio “wanted a second picture fast.” David Seltzer was asked to write the follow-up but said he didn’t want to do a sequel. Meanwhile, Richard Donner was working on Superman. About the only people who came back were Jerry Goldsmith and Leo McKern (uncredited, despite having a fairly significant part).
*. I started off my notes on The Omen by talking about how important it was to land a star like Gregory Peck to play the lead role. Actually, William Holden had been offered that part but turned it down because he didn’t want to be in a movie about the devil. After The Omen turned into a huge box office hit he apparently had a change of heart. Plus he’d also been very ill. So we get another heavyweight here, and one right off an Academy Award nomination for Network. And Lee Grant, his co-star, had just won an Oscar for Shampoo.
*. The stars help to establish the same incongruous Masterpiece Theater sense of dignity and decorum used to wrap up a story that is just as silly as the original. It has a good premise though, with Damien being unaware of his true identity at the beginning of the film. When he does find out he even has his moment in the garden (a dock in this version), asking “Why me?” Being the son of the devil turns out to be no more fun than being the son of God.
*. I like that angle, and think it works well. It also helps that Jonathan Scott-Taylor is very good in the part. The series got lucky (or cast well) when it came to finding actors to play Damien. I liked Harvey Stephens in the original and Sam Neill in The Final Conflict.
*. So Omen II has a lot going for it. It doesn’t measure up to The Omen though. That movie was built around a number of signature kills. Something similar is attempted here but the kills aren’t as good. Some of this is due to their not being very interesting. Things kick off with an old lady having a heart attack in her bedroom when she sees a crow (this movie’s replacement for the Rottweilers in the original). Not scary. Then later in the movie there is an industrial accident that doesn’t register at all. These kinds of things happen all the time.
*. But even where the kills are better conceived the execution fails. There is a scene where a woman is attacked by a single crow, has her eyes plucked out, and then is run over by a truck. This is an obvious reference to The Birds, and indeed the bird wrangler was the same guy who worked on Hitchcock’s movie, but how can you go back and do The Birds with a single crow and hope that anyone would take it seriously? Then there’s a scene where someone falls through the ice on a frozen river that might have worked but doesn’t. And finally a spectacular elevator kill that sets itself up so obviously and takes so long to get to its payoff that it can’t meet expectations.
*. My guess is that director Don Taylor (Mike Hodges had been fired in the early going for taking so long) just didn’t have much of a feel for this kind of thing. It seems to me that some of the film should have worked, but really none of it does.
*. One way you can tell the kills aren’t working is the way Goldsmith’s score is ramped up to introduce them. I’m all for bravura horror scoring, but when it comes on this heavy you’re right to suspect it’s trying to compensate.
*. These movies don’t really play fair with the warnings people receive. “You have been warned” was a tag line from the original, but warned by who? A priest who looks even crazier than he sounds (and he sounds plenty crazy)? Or in this movie a journalist who starts ranting right away, while wearing a shocking red dress. Bernhard really hated that dress. “Why would anybody wear a dress like that? I mean, as a newspaper reporter it’s not in her character. It’s ostentatious. It’s ridiculous.” It was also a choice made by Mike Hodges. Another reason for firing him, I guess.
*. There’s one particularly interesting direction I wish they’d gone in. A hint of it comes in the scene in the trainyards, when it seems as though a shipping container is about to get dropped on someone. Bernhard mentions this as an obvious red herring. The thing is, we’re so attuned to the notion of people dying in crazy ways by this point it’s almost like we’re watching one of the Final Destination movies. We’re primed for another suspicious “accident.” But nothing happens. At least yet.
*. Such paranoia fits in well with the sense of Damien as part of a whole sinister conspiracy. He certainly has enough enablers floating around, waiting for him to come of age. So Omen II might have taken its place alongside the classics of ’70s conspiracy thrillers quite comfortably, and been better for it. Instead of this, however, we get a movie that, while decent enough, basically follows in The Omen‘s footsteps without being as good in any way.

The Omen (1976)

*. It’s entirely fitting that the DVD commentary for The Omen with director Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland begins by stressing the importance of landing Gregory Peck. Not that it’s a great performance, but Peck gives the proceedings a necessary gravitas, the “dignity” and classiness that Wes Craven saw as setting The Omen apart. I mean, we’re talking about the kind of guy who answers a telephone by saying “This is he.”
*. How did he end up here? According to Donner his (Peck’s) son had just died and he was desperate to get back to work. Plus he apparently saw something in David Seltzer’s script. Slightly more than was in there, I think, but his faith in the project helped.
*. Seltzer was honest about his motivations. “I did it strictly for the money. I was flat broke.” He follows this admission up, however, with something heartfelt: “I just wish I’d had this kind of success with something I personally found more meaningful.” You have to respect such honesty.
*. Some people think The Omen is a bad movie. It even has an entry in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfuss. I think this is mistaken. The Omen is trash, but it is, as Pauline Kael once categorized these things, great trash.

*. Like all great pop entertainment it’s terribly derivative (basically being the offspring of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist) but nevertheless has moments that stick in your head. I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten the highlights: the first nanny hanging herself, Damien freaking out on his way to church, the baboons going crazy at the zoo, the priest being impaled by the lightning rod, the skeleton of the jackal in the grave, and of course the beheading of David Warner by a sheet of glass. As Kim Newman put it: “If there were a special Madame Defarge Humanitarian Award for All-Time Best Decapitation, this lingering, slow-motion sequence would get my vote.”

*. That’s actually quite a lot of highlights for one trashy movie. I call it trash because, as critics were quick to point out, the story is nonsense, tricked out with a bunch of humbug, and the whole thing was done on the cheap. A budget of only $2.8 million, which is shockingly low even by the standards of the day. Donner really knew how to stretch a buck. Apparently the ad campaign, which was brilliant, cost more, leading Gene Shalit to opine “When a producer spends as much money on ads and commercials for a movie as he spends on making the movie itself, perhaps audiences have a right to suspect that they are being sucked into seeing a piece of junk.”
*. I say the story is tricked out with humbug because the theology, history, and geography are total nonsense. The name of the town Megiddo, for example, doesn’t derive from Armageddon. It’s the other way around (and Warner’s character also mislocates Megiddo in relation to Jerusalem). And you have to slap your head at Europe being on “the other side of the world” from Bethelehem. But this is the sort of humbug that made critics guffaw at The Da Vinci Code and it didn’t stop people from buying books and movie tickets for that either. It seems to me that if Hitchcock could laugh at people who would tear his movies apart for their implausibilities we have to cut the same slack for popular entertainments that toss scholarship to the wind. Though I’ll admit I did wonder a bit at Seltzer’s claim that he spent three months doing research for the script.
*. It’s curious the way people take things more seriously when they’re put in bad verse. The poem that gets recited here, “When the Jews return to Zion,” is a pastiche of part of the Book of Revelation, but it’s totally invented. Why a snatch of doggerel like this should sound more impressive than actually reciting part of the actual Bible is a bit confusing to me. But I guess it’s the same principle that’s operating in The Wolf Man when we hear “Even a man who is pure in heart.” If it rhymes it must be true.

*. This was the arrival of Richard Donner as a feature director. He’d done a few movies previously, and lot of TV work, and would go on to do Superman and the Lethal Weapon series. All of which earned him one of the shortest entries in David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Mr. Donner has made several of the most successful and least interesting films of his age. And one doubts it’s over yet.” Actually, by the time Thomson wrote that Donner basically was finished. But the judgment I think is fair enough. The only question is how highly you rate being successful vs. being interesting. Personally, I think Donner does a good job here working with the trifecta of difficult directorial challenges: shooting on location, and working with children and animals.
*. The Omen was a very successful movie, spawning several sequels and a reboot. Coming back to it I found it held up pretty well. It’s very silly, but all the big moments are still fun. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is justly celebrated. I’d forgotten how good Billie Whitelaw is. She really takes over as Mrs. Baylock. And Harvey Stephens, who pretty much dropped out of acting after this, defined the role of the demonic tot moving forward, just as the name Damien would henceforward always be associated with the devil and Rottweilers would be commonly viewed as nasty-by-nature dogs (they’re actually not). For a movie to achieve all that on a shoestring is quite an accomplishment. Then ask yourself if you’d rather watch this than any one of the Robert Langdon movies. That’s the difference between great trash and trash. Which leads me to wonder if Hollywood is still any good at producing the former. Not so long ago it was the one thing you could depend on them doing well.

Being There (1979)

*. I’ll begin with a couple of observations on differences between then and now.
*. (1) The story is based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosinski, who shared a co-writing credit on the script. I had only vague recollections of the book from years earlier and so thought I’d look at it again. My local library system, however, had no copies, even in storage, and as near as I can tell it’s now out of print. Admittedly, Kosinski’s reputation has taken some hits over the years (with accusations of plagiarism and fakery), but still this was surprising. It’s not that old a book and it was a bestseller. But I’ve noticed lately that a lot of books seem to be just . . . disappearing.
*. (2) Chance is fixated on television, which provides the background fabric of his life. This wasn’t strange at all in 1979 and part of the satire is directed at people who were literally being raised by the tube, learning through imitation of what they saw on it. Watching the film today I found this part of it nostalgic. Sure, we spend more time than ever looking at screens, but these are mostly on phones or tablets or laptops. Who actually watches TV anymore? It may be that in the future people will have a hard time understanding this part of the movie. Our relationship to the screen is very different in the twenty-first century. Less passive, I think, anyway.
*. I think it’s a movie with different messages, but they’re all connected to the idea of people projecting onto Chance, making him into something that will satisfy their own needs. This makes him the perfect politician, because as Roger Ebert observed “the higher up you get in American politics the more the platitude rules,” until you get to the very top and the platitudinous man, the man who has nothing at all to say, is king. But there’s more to this than just what Ebert castigates as the superficiality of public utterance or the dishonesty of democratic politics. The bromides of Chance are what the public demands, what they need, what makes them feel good.

*. I don’t want to lean on this too much. Chance is what a certain class of people need. Ben (Melvyn Douglas) and Eve (Shirley MacLaine) both need him, for different reasons. But for starters, they’re both rich and white. The racial angle of the movie is only really glanced at when the former maid Louise sees Chance on TV and explodes “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America!” With the right skin colour and a nice set of clothes you can fall upward all the way to the Biltmore Estate, or the presidency. I take it this is part of the meaning of the final shot too: that the system is set up so that people like Chance can’t fail, or fall, no matter what.
*. The matter of class is subtler. I don’t think it’s clear that everyone loves Chance, though he apparently does have high positive ratings from pollsters. It seems that poor people don’t care much for him and others find him creepy or strange. But Ben and Eve are damaged rich people.
*. That they are damaged should make them more interesting, but I find this is where the film falls a bit short. The thing is, if Chance himself is a blank slate for others to draw on, those others become the important part of the story. But what is Ben aside from a rich old guy? I couldn’t even get a track on what his politics were. And how sympathetic is Eve, being someone whose great wealth has only isolated her and made her lonely? One can’t help feeling she was a bit of a gold-digger, and the fact that Ben is on board with her adultery doesn’t make it any more palatable. Does she even deserve Chance?
*. Some people at the time found it prophetic, with Chance prefiguring Reagan. But I don’t think the analogy works. Reagan was a performer. This is something Chance, the holy fool, is not. He just likes to watch.
*. This brings me back to where I started, thinking about then and now. I keep looking at Chance and wondering if he’s our contemporary. He’s dressed in the fashions of the 1930s and ’40s, but as one character observes that style is now coming back. I think the only real point though is that he’s nothing at all except what you want to think he is or what you need him to be. So at any time in any place he fits right in.

The Howl (1970)

*. There was a time, specifically in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Tinto Brass was considered an essential filmmaker and heralded as the next Antonioni. He was even tabbed to direct A Clockwork Orange, a project he had to decline because of a scheduling conflict. This was right around the time when he was making The Howl. Go figure.
*. This early promise, if it was promise, never materialized, and by the end of the ’70s he was dragged (or dove) into the mess that was Caligula and for the rest of his career seemed mainly interested in working on “erotic” films.
*. Today there seems to be a wide range of opinion on Brass, based mainly on his early work. I’ll say up front that I think this is an absolutely terrible movie that I found it nearly impossible to watch, but if you enjoy this style of filmmaking . . .
*. But is it a style? It seems like mere incompetence to me. The photography is ugly. The editing is slapdash and mangled. Visually, one is never quite sure what the point is, even what we’re supposed to be looking at. I guess, in the film’s defence, I can say that this fits with the rest of the movie. The dialogue is gibberish. There’s no plot to speak of. A woman (Tina Aumont) and a man (Luigi Proietti) wander around together, encountering various weirdos. The man does a funny walk like Chaplin and carries a toolbox. The woman makes revolutionary speeches.
*. The point? There’s some kind of crude anti-authoritarian message, what with all the soldiers and cops beating hippies up and shooting people against a wall. Then there’s footage of Mussolini and Hitler and Vietnam tossed into the mix. But this is so vague that I actually found it a bit offensive. I certainly didn’t see where Brass had anything he really wanted to say. It all winds up with a line disparaging logic and coherence though, so maybe that was the point.
*. I could make a snarky point here about how Brass is more interested in tits and ass, but he’s not an erotic filmmaker either. We see a lot of flesh on display, but it isn’t sexy even in the few instances where I think it was meant to be. Hell, Tina Aumont doesn’t even look sexy.
*. Just as wasted as Aumont is the location of the Santo Stefano penitentiary, which had just closed in 1965 and gave Brass a great backdrop for the prison riot scene. Wasted.
*. I’ve seen various labels thrown at it. Psychadelic. Surrealist. It doesn’t seem to me much of either. Certainly not surrealism, which even at its dreamiest had more coherence to its vision than this.
*. Well, there’s not much point saying more about a movie I hated and couldn’t understand at all. Maybe I was missing something, but it all seemed to me like Godard on a very bad day: making even less sense and looking a whole lot worse. Come to think of it, now I feel bad about connecting Godard’s name to this crap. Enough!

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.