Category Archives: 1970s

O Lucky Man! (1973)

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

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

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

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

Scavenger Hunt (1979)

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

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

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

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

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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

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

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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

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

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

More American Graffiti (1979)

*. In my notes on American Graffiti I mentioned how it might be thought of as the real inflection point in American cinema in the 1970s, turning away from independent, anti-establishment films toward more commercial properties. American Graffiti certainly was commercial, being a surprising box office hit. It was also about as American as mom and apple pie and hot rods.
*. Given that success, the lag time for a follow up (six years) may be thought surprising. There are two reasons for it. In the first place, franchise filmmaking hadn’t taken hold yet, where a sequel is often being planned even before a film is released. Second: a couple of other, even more lucrative blockbusters had changed the game. What with Jaws and Star Wars setting the bar there was little demand for more American Graffiti.
*. This could have been seen as liberating, and I think to some extent it was. The producers here were free to go in a new direction and they did. More American Graffiti, to its credit, is something different. Not a good movie, but different.
*. Two things stand out. In the first place it’s more of a broad comedy than the first film. American Graffiti was going for gentle nostalgia. More American Graffiti goes for laughs. The second change-up is the intriguing way the story is presented. There are basically four stories interwoven, taking place at different times and shot in different styles (a smaller frame for one, split screens for another). Sure it’s a gimmick, but were you expecting a gimmick? I wasn’t.
*. As with any gimmick movie, the gimmick raises a question: But for the gimmick, would the movie be interesting or worth watching? Sometimes I don’t think this question is fair. I don’t, for example, think it’s fair to ask whether Memento would be worth watching if it was played forward instead of backward. It’s a movie that was designed to play in reverse. In other films, however, the question of the added value of the gimmick can fairly be raised. And it was here.
*. David Ansen in Newsweek put it this way: “This [the film’s composite structure] is all very film-school fancy, but what does it mean? Alas, precious little. ‘More’ in this case is decidedly less. Once you get used to the cross-cutting — which is rather like switching channels between four different TV shows — the realization dawns that none of the segments is particularly interesting.”
*. In other words, the film-school stunts are just there to make up for the fact that nothing much is going on. But this makes one pause. Could anything less be going on than in American Graffiti? And isn’t there in fact a lot going on here? Steve and Cindy (now married with children) break up and then have to get back together again after various adventures, Debbie becomes a roadie for a hippie band, John Milner has to win a big race (again), and Toad is trying to think up some scheme for getting out of Vietnam.
*. Well, we might say, there are different ways of being interesting. There is a lot going on here, but I agree with Ansen that it does little to hold one’s attention, even with the scattered narrative. It’s just that I wasn’t much interested in American Graffiti either.
*. More American Graffiti also seems kind of pointless. There is an anti-establishment message playing throughout. Steve has to learn to let Cindy go her own way, and ends up fighting against the Man. Milner resists being co-opted by corporate interests. Toad bucks authority in ‘Nam. Bob Falfa, the villain of American Graffiti, has a cameo as a jackbooted thug (motorcycle cop). Again one has the sense of a sequel coming too late. In 1979 such a message could almost play as nostalgically as the cruising lifestyle of the first film.
*. It’s a movie that let a lot of people down, mainly because it was not, in fact, “more” American Graffiti. But I respect the direction taken. They took chances. They came up with something different. And what they came up with wasn’t all bad. Personally, I’d just as soon watch this movie again as American Graffiti. But I’m not a fan of either. In both cases I think maybe you had to be there.

American Graffiti (1973)

*. It’s a commonplace to see Star Wars and Jaws as marking the end of an era, meaning the end of the New Hollywood chronicled by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But maybe the end came earlier. American Graffiti was a huge box office success and it categorically rejects the darkness and seriousness of the creative golden age of American film in the early ’70s. In fact, I think you could even argue that it rejects the darkness and seriousness of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
*. Friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola, brought in to be a “name” producer, had advised George Lucas, who had been disappointed in the reception given THX 1138, to do something “warm and fuzzy.” That is to say, commercial. Lucas did not think this would be difficult.
*. This may make American Graffiti out to be a cynical production, but the shoe fits. This is, at least in some ways, how everyone saw the project at the time: as a turn against the New Hollywood and its late-Vietnam pessimism. So, pushing the setting back to 1962 (before the watershed moment of the Kennedy assassination) was a return to a state of innocence. The kids never get into any trouble (from the law, scary gangs, gun-wielding store owners, or even fiery car crashes) that they can’t walk away from. The only clouds in that otherwise brilliantly blue sky at the end would take the form of the gang’s yearbook notices.
*. It’s a movie that looks in two directions. It’s an ode to nostalgia, which is what audiences have always appreciated in it. But it also looks ahead in lots of obvious ways. The talent would all go on to gaudier things, and shortly. And other new directions were being marked out as well.
*. This was a groundbreaking film. Its use of a playlist soundtrack to create a sort of musical montage, and the presentation of a milieu rather than a story, was in advance of Altman’s Nashville. It’s just that Altman had characters and here we only have stereotypes: the muscled rocker who is king of the strip, the cool kid (Richard Howard as the Big Man on Campus), the nerd, the dreamer, the good girl and the slutty girl with a heart of a gold. We’re not too far advanced from the pages of Archie comics here, or the soon-to-debut Happy Days.
*. Apparently the budget for the music was $80,000, which strikes me as very low. It would be inconceivable for a low-budget film to get together a soundtrack like this today. And even though I’m not a big fan, I think it sounds great.
*. But you’ll have probably guessed by now that I don’t like the movie much. Perhaps it’s just because the milieu in question is so alien to my own childhood. I didn’t grow up near anyplace like Modesto, and I’ve never cared about cars. I never engaged in the kind of mating rituals that so fascinated Lucas. So the nostalgia factor doesn’t work for me.
*. More than that, the movie looks muddy and seems almost randomly assembled. On a few occasions I had the feeling that important connecting scenes had been lost when Lucas cut it down from its original 3 hours. Worse, I find the reaching for some more profound or mythic significance a bit lame. Suzanne Somers in a white T-Bird is the unattainable blonde idealized by the romantic hero who is about to begin his journey, while “the the “solemn endnotes about the destiny of the four young men are superficial and pompous, and filled with the wish to keep pain at arm’s length” (David Thomson, who considered this to be the best film Lucas ever made).
*. The endnotes and the blonde in the T-Bird also have another meaning. Lucas has often been taken to task for not really understanding women or relationships. He’s not misogynist (or at least I don’t know of that charge being made) but he just isn’t interested in women very much. So the blonde will remain unattainable and another page of endnotes telling us whatever happened to the female leads was cut because Lucas thought it just made the movie too long.
*. Though I think American Graffiti overrated it’s easy to understand what its many fans see in it. It’s a movie that was designed to charm and not to offend. There’s lots of terrific music and likeable young actors who embody the freedom of youth, a time when one’s actions hold no consequences and there’s nothing much to do but drive up and down the strip all night long.
*. A good time, and a favourite of many, but a great movie? Its mythic evocation of a time and place has by now replaced the reality, or has become more important than the reality, but despite all the talent involved on both sides of the camera I have a hard time pointing to anything about the film that impresses me, or that strikes me as particularly well done. Lucas, like a lot of super-popular entertainers, had the same need as the public apparently did for this kind of story, and so was able to make popular culture over in his own mental image of what it should be. We’re still living with the consequences of that.

Nightwing (1979)

*. You’ll often see Nightwing described as one of a sub-genre of horror films about nature biting back. What got the ball really rolling for these “when animals attack” movies was the success of Jaws, which came out in 1975. Martin Ransohoff, producer of Nightwing, said he wanted it to be “Jaws with wings.” That’s not quite what he got.
*. I’d like to say it’s at least an interesting idea, poorly executed, but in fact it’s a really stupid idea. The basic premise, that there’s this giant colony of vampire bats living in a cave out in the deserts of New Mexico, is so far-fetched that even scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner) has trouble selling anyone on it. The way the bats attack also seems sketchy. As I understand it, vampire bats usually just sidle up to sleeping animals and drink some of their blood surreptitiously.
*. Making matters even whackier is the way that the bats, who are also infected with bubonic plague, have apparently been summoned by a Native medicine man to protect his tribe’s sacred places. So in order to defeat the bats our hero Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso) has to consume the root of a psychotropic plant and receive visions from his ancestors. So yes, it is a stupid idea.
*. Actually, Nightwing can be further pigeonholed as a particular type of angry animal movie, mixing ecological concerns (an oil company is trying to develop the sacred lands) with Indigenous mysticism. Other films we might lump it together with include Prophecy and Wolfen. They are all very silly.
*. Still, it might have worked. It might have been good, stupid fun. Or at least given us a memorable moment like the exploding sleeping bag in Prophecy, or an interesting hook like the wolfvision stuff in Wolfen. Unfortunately, Nightwing is mostly just dull.

*. A lot of the blame lies on the odd choice of director. As Channel 4 remarked, putting Arthur Hiller in charge “is the most interesting thing about the project. A filmmaker who has made a speciality of showing reverence for platitudes has no jurisdiction over a piece of schlock nonsense about bat-killers in the Arizona desert.”
*. This was Hiller’s only horror movie and he clearly had no feel for the material. Oddly enough, this is something else Nightwing shares with the other movies I mentioned, as Prophecy was directed by John Frankenheimer and Wolfen by Michael Wadleigh. Frankenheimer I can sort of see, but even he was slumming it. The others were real stretches.
*. The bat attacks (and there is really only the one attack scene, along with some shots of the bats flying around at the end) have dated badly. Today we’d do such work with CGI, and it would look better. But even in 1979 I think the effects here would have been considered primitive. To make the obvious comparison, they’re nowhere near what Hitchcock did in The Birds.
*. The movie’s lone bright spot is David Warner as the Ahab/Quint figure, “one of the five acknowledged experts in the world” in tracking and exterminating vampire bats. You don’t even have to pay him to go after the colony. It’s just what he does. I was expecting him to give some speech at the end where he’d say how vampire bats killed his family and he’s been on a quest for vengeance ever since, but it’s actually simpler than that. “I kill them because they’re the quintessence of evil,” he says. “For me nothing else exists! The destruction of vampire bats is what I live for. ”
*. Given how loony the plot starts to get, the cheesy special effects, and Warner’s turn as a baticidal zealot, Nightwing should be a lot more enjoyable. Instead it’s been largely forgotten, and for good reason. It still has some moments of charm, like Mancuso turning up his truck’s car radio when Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” comes on, but in the end it’s mainly just a silly and uninteresting mess.

Suspiria (1977)

*. I suspect I was like most other people in being blown away by Suspiria the first time I saw it. I still love it — though I’ll stick with Deep Red as Dario Argento’s masterpiece — but today I find it less raw and more overcooked.
*. I remember how genuinely scary it was the first time. Just the hissing sound of the sliding door as Suzy (Jessica Harper) exits the airport made me jump. Now all of that seems incredibly silly. Loveable, but silly. I mean, I always thought the bat that’s the size of a football was silly, but now everything seems like that.
*. Just by the way: despite being standard props in horror films since forever, probably even before Dracula, has there ever been a scary movie bat? Or even a whole flock of bats, as in Nightwing?

*. It’s very much a picture of its time and place, and I’m not just talking about the snazzy decor. The colour, for example, is straight out of Bava, but takes that master of the primary palette even further. Do the colours in this film make any sense at all? Sometimes whole rooms are alternatively washed in reds and blues and greens without any source for these colours in sight. I mean, it’s one thing to ask “Why is this room all red?” and another to ask “How did this red room turn green all of a sudden?”

*. Then there is the sound, which, as was common for Italian films like this at the time, was mostly done post-production. Along with the dramatic colour shifts, stagey set design, and other random elements (the dog attack clearly done by a puppet dog’s head, for example), this gives the proceedings an extra sense of artificiality.
*. The results are profoundly disorienting. Watching the film again I had completely forgotten that Udo Kier was in it. But appearing in a bit part, wearing a wig and with a dubbed voice, he isn’t as recognizable as he usually is. To be honest, and this is the disorienting part, I thought for a moment that he was playing Ms. Tanner (actually Alida Valli) in drag. She’s one scary instructor, all flashing eyes and grinning teeth, but she doesn’t seem out of place in the School of Freaks. Just look at how spooky the caretaker Lurch and little Albert are, and they don’t even have any lines.

*. It’s not much of a story. Apparently it drew inspiration from Thomas De Quincy, but the connection there may have only existed in Argento’s mind. I think it holds together though as being much more than just a series of scary sequences, as much as these stand out. You can’t look to the plot for coherence, or any explanation of what those glowing eyes are, or why the school has a room full of razor wire. What unites it is that bizarre visual and aural texture. The wallpaper that looks like fabric and the windows that seem to be all stained glass, with the crazy music of Goblin not so much providing cues as just keeping us on our toes throughout. I know some people who don’t like the score, but I have a hard time imagining Suspiria without it.
*. I’ve tried to think of some clever way of describing Goblin’s soundtrack but I couldn’t come up with anything. They’re hard to pin down. I’ve often heard them described as a “prog rock” group, but prog (or progressive) rock is a label I’ve never seen defined in any meaningful way. A lot of different bands have been called prog rock but I’m not sure what it refers to.

*. It’s weird. It’s silly. It’s brilliant. I love it. I don’t know how influential it’s been though. Despite being remade forty years later I don’t see it as having had many imitators. Even the rest of Argento’s work — some of which I like very much and rate even higher than I do Suspiria — pales alongside it. I’ll call it a classic as it fits one of my chief criteria for that label, being a movie I can watch over and over and enjoy every time.

Shampoo (1975)

*. Shampoo came out the same year as Altman’s Nashville. What made the connection, for me, is the soundtrack. Not the music, but the layering of voices and other aural cues.
*. This layering is introduced right at the start, as we face a mostly black screen and hear the overlapping sounds of two people making love in bed, a radio broadcast, and a phone ringing. There’s nothing to look at, so your ears are put to work trying to sort this out.
*. Another link to Nashville can be seen in the film’s glancing look at politics. As in Nashville, Shampoo is anchored in a political moment. It’s the eve of the 1968 presidential election. We see (and hear) of this, but it’s something that plays in the background, like the roving speaker van of Hal Phillip Walker.
*. But is Shampoo a political movie? That angle is something that critics try their hardest to play up, but for me it remains mostly background noise, the equivalent of those posters of Nixon (and, in one shot, Reagan) that we occasionally see.
*. Beatty has lent a hand, trying his best to help people find a political message in the proceedings, but I find his efforts entirely unconvincing. Apparently he saw some kind of connection between the hypocrisy of politicians and the hypocrisy of George’s relationships and our attitudes toward sex generally. Which really doesn’t take you very far.
*. Frank Rich: “The movie’s characters — not just Lester’s crowd but also the less affluent George and his harem — are laughably insulated from and oblivious to the violence and political tumult ripping America apart in 1968. They care about the election only to the extent that it may affect their bottom line. Even when the party at the Bistro, in the film’s most mysterious moment, is suddenly aborted by a loudspeaker announcement instructing everyone to evacuate the restaurant ‘as quietly and quickly as possible,’ no one clamors for an explanation (which is never forthcoming) — they simply head on to the next party.”
*. So is it a political film? Is the personal political? Or is the very idea that politics really aren’t that important itself a political stand to take?

*. A final link to Nashville is in the interweaving of different stories. At first this might seem like I’m trying too hard to make a connection, since Shampoo is focused solely on a day in the frantic life of George Roundy, which is very different from what Altman gives us. But how can any movie be more than just vaguely entered on Roundy? He’s such an empty vessel it’s hard to see him as any kind of narrative baseline. The various threads of the story pass through him while he only runs in place. “You never stop moving and you never go anywhere” Jill (Goldie Hawn) tells him, a judgment nicely reflected in the scene at the party where he keeps running back and forth, always just missing getting where he wants to be.

*. Roundy is a himbo. I’ve even heard him referred to a couple of times as the film’s “dumb blonde.” Pauline Kael was clearly smitten by him, calling him “almost a sexual saint,” but one could expect the same salvation from a dildo. Even Carrie Fisher’s teenage Lorna possesses a maturity far in advance of where George is at. He learns nothing, though he does manage to teach others. He doesn’t grow up (despite Jill’s encouragement), but all the women around him do. And I feel at the end as though he never will grow up. Shampoo is the anti-Graduate: we feel sure that Jackie has made the right choice by marrying a square (Lester must be invested in plastics), and getting on with her life. She’s not going to blow this chance. Whereas it’s obvious that Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross have made a big mistake.
*. This isn’t to say that Shampoo is without a tragic dimension. But George’s tragedy isn’t expressed in his tears but in the lines on his face. He’s getting old. And isn’t that the real tragedy of all our lives? We’re always losing something. George won’t be beautiful forever. Hell, he may even start to go bald some day.
*. I wonder how much it would cost to buy the music that’s on the soundtrack here if you were to make this film today. Probably more than the cost of the rest of the movie.
*. Another sign of the times is George riding around on his motorbike without a helmet. But then, if you had hair like that (and the movie was originally going to be called Hair) would you wear a helmet? You’d rather die.
*. Given how we view these things today, would we say that George rapes Jackie? She does say No. Back in 1975 audiences would understand that she didn’t mean it. Maybe this is an answer to David Thomson’s question about why sex was never like this again.

*. The presentation of George as gay is something borrowed from Restoration comedy, with the steam-room scene clearly meant as an homage to the china scene in Wycherley’s The Country Wife. But if you go see The Country Wife today (at least based on the productions I’ve seen) they really play up the gay angle a lot more than it is here. In fact, George doesn’t really give anyone reason to suspect he’s gay. It seems as though Lester is the only person who thinks he might be. So that angle is nicely underplayed.
*. But this brings us back to what I think is the key point, and something else Shampoo shares not only with Nashville but with many of the great American films of this period. In its layering, visual and aural, understatement becomes everything. We’re meant to consider the ways that unimportant things, even things that are hard to notice, may be in some way significant. George doesn’t notice Nixon’s election, so we’re left to wonder how important that was, if at all. On the other hand, while it does seem as though losing Jackie is a blow, can we doubt that he’ll get over it, probably later this afternoon?
*. Is the superficial, finally, only superficial? Here’s a verse from Morrissey’s “Hairdresser on Fire” (1987): “Can you squeeze me into an empty page of your diary and psychologically save me? I’ve got faith in you. I sense the power within the fingers, within an hour the power could totally destroy me, or, it could save my life.” That’s an observation that seems important to me watching Shampoo, and one that is not, in my experience anyway, hyperbole.

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

*. Author Ira Levin had a macabre sense of humour. His horror fantasies are all a bit ridiculous, balancing on the edge of camp and absurdity. Great adaptations of his work (like Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby) find the sweet spot. Bad ones (any of the Stepford Wives movies) flounder trying to find the right tone.
*. And The Boys from Brazil? It may be his wildest premise of all, which is clearing a high bar indeed. The science of cloning I can get on board with — and in the last forty years it’s become even more believable — but why would a cabal of Nazis want to clone Hitler anyway? Sentimental reasons? Even Hitler didn’t see himself as some perfect genetic speciment of the master race.
*. But while the science of cloning may pass muster, the idea that the clones need to be brought up in the same way as young Adolf is a leap too far. A boy growing up in the U.S. in the 1970s will have nothing experientially in common with a boy growing up in Austria in the early 1900s, no matter what age his father dies. Then should they be encouraging young Adolf in any artistic aspirations he might have? Or discouraging him? How about higher education? Nothing post-secondary, surely. You can see how crazy this all is. But Mengele is crazy isn’t he?
*. Then there is the globe-spanning conspiracy of ex- and neo-Nazis who seem to have not only evaded justice but have reconstituted an incredibly powerful alternative state that reaches everywhere while barely trying to conceal its existence. Where did they get all the money to fund this operation? Selling stolen art?
*. I’m not even sure how the logistics of Lieberman tracking down the families of every 65-year-old man in the world who has died recently is supposed to work. But somehow he’s up to the task.

*. So the basic premise is bonkers. And it gets a further nudge from the heavyweight cast, who seem to have gleefully tossed decorum and their own reputations to the wind in hamming things up. Though apparently that’s not what they thought they were doing. In an interview he did when the film came out, James Mason said that, while he had not read Levin’s book, “one could hardly be alive and employed in the acting profession and not know that The Boys from Brazil had two stupendous leading roles in it. Oscar material. And of course, always trying to improve my position, I was hoping one of them would fall in my lap.”
*. Neither of the stupendous leading roles fell into Mason’s lap so he became a largely superfluous Nazi functionary who tries to put the brakes on Mengele’s scheme. He was right, however, in seeing the leads as Oscar bait, as Olivier would go on to get a nomination for Best Actor.
*. Olivier’s performance usually gets a lot of praise (Kael thought him “the only reason to see this movie”), while Gregory Peck is just as often ridiculed for his Mengele. I think they are both ridiculous but captivating caricatures. They go with the whacky plot, which even climaxes with the best geezer fight until Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee went at it in The Fellowship of the Ring.

*. Peck’s Mengele in particular just misses out on being one of the great screen villains of all time. With his thin eyebrows and equally silly moustache, blackened hair and whitened face, his mask-like appearance reminds me of nothing so much as Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Throw in a brilliant white suit, preposterous accent, over-the-top emoting, a few classic lines (“I am a doctor, idiot!”), and you have one of the most unforgettable camp grotesques ever.
*. Like a lot of great bad movies everything is dialed up to 11. Jerry Goldsmith’s waltzy score blares out even when nothing is happening. When the Nazis discover that their meeting is being bugged they trash the entire place looking for it, even smashing the dishes! Why? And when you want to kill someone, you could just garrotte them in their home (does Michael Gough even have any lines?) or you can throw them from the top of the brand-new Kölnbrein Dam in Austria (standing in for Sweden). Absolutely ridiculous, but who’ll deny that’s one of the most spectacular movie kills you’ve ever witnessed? I feel like I’ve missed something never seeing it on a big screen.

*. So it’s a great bad movie. Is Jeremy Black terrible? Hell, yes. And yet I find I can’t help but be fascinated by him. Only Franklin Schaffner’s direction, which is without any sense of style or imagination, holds The Boys from Brazil back from being a true cult/camp/trash classic. As it is, however, it’s still something special.