Sleuth (1972): Starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine

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I don’t play games. Many of my long-suffering friends would attest to the fact that this statement is only semi-facetious. Perhaps it must begin with what games are used for. They are recreational, diversions meant to be enjoyable so that two or people might gather together and have a memorable evening.

Except for me, games always have a habit of bringing out the sides of people I never much like. The overly competitive ones who have no sense of the rules; there’s no sportsmanship or any seemingly rational concept of fair play. Either that or they care too much about them — tooth and nail.

The moderately well-adjusted people I seem to know and love, all of a sudden, become animals tapping into their primordial proclivities toward the survival of the fittest.

Another reason I don’t play many games is a reflection on my own poor attitude. I don’t like games much because I’m never very good at them. I’m the victim. The one always losing and getting beaten and putting on a fine face until the next debacle. And why waste my time doing that when I could be doing something far more constructive with my time like say, watching a film…

With this long-winded subtext, I’ve tried to make it apparent why Sleuth might already be rough going for a bad sport like myself. It’s tapping into a world that I already abhor.

Thus, it’s a pure testament to how fine a cast and crew we have to say my opinion of the picture cannot help but be complimentary. Ironically, it readily leans into the issues I have with games to create an engaging conflict.

By the 1970s, Joseph L. Mankiewicz feels like a bit of a bygone relic leftover from the 1950s and some of his finest achievements like All About Eve. It might sound like a harsh observation, but even his greatest film noted the inevitable waning of a once illustrious career.

Thankfully Sleuth is still a credit to his name and how could it not be, bolstered by excellent material by Anthony Shaffer (based on his play) and two certified British treasures in Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier?

They meet in the middle of a maze that reminded me of one summer day on a vacation to Hever Castle. It’s the first in a whole host of games with Michael Caine bemusedly attempting to make his way to the voice emanating from the very center.

Finally, he gets there only when the hidden entrance is revealed to him — the first in a line of wry twists. It’s a portent of the forthcoming recreations.

For a good bit, we don’t what the business at hand is meant to be. Then as they wander through a parlor in the midst of small talk about trinkets and the usual pleasantries, Olivier gets right down to business. The other man wants to marry his wife. Instantly we have the conflict and the basis for our entire film. It doesn’t take much to see why.

You could rarely pay for a better two-man show though there are a few others who drift in and out of the conversations carrying their own importance. Namely, the woman they are both fighting over or the no-nonsense Inspector Doppler (played by Alec Cawthorne) who pays a housecall. Even these characters rely wholly on the mystique created by our leads. (They are indebted to them more than we initially realize).

Obviously, the blocking of scenes is crucial, but it also relies readily on the stars and they oblige, aided by the witty material. The best part about it is the very fact there is this sense of freedom. The house is a centralized space and yet they are given free rein of it, and they’ll readily go tromping around doing just about anything they please. Digging around for old costumes. Ransacking rooms. Blowing up safes.

There’s is very little that feels homey about the antiquated interiors, seemingly possessed by all manner of automatons. At first, it feels like the perfect lair from which Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) will lure his unsuspecting prey into a duel of wits for his wife’s hand.

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They thrust and parry like gentlemen, and Olivier is having a real fine time with the theatricality, vaulting between manic fits of imagination conceived by an authorial mind and then the verbose orator with an affinity for showmanship. It’s all about games and parlor tricks and misdirects, easy enough to get carried away with.

One moment it’s a competition, then a mystery, then a murder. A farce, a set-up, an in-house theater company, a revenge yarn, and another murder. The mechanisms of the plot become less important as it becomes a Columbo episode. How will our culprit, who shall remain nameless, be caught? Except this too is another ploy.

If it’s not apparent already, Sleuth is this maddening game of emotional whiplash as new wrinkles are revealed from start to finish. These revelations are what also keep it quite gripping. Folding over again and again and again as the duo oscillates between cat and mouse, vying for the upper hand. Vaulting into each man’s corner to play the villain and the victim, the mark and the conniving mastermind.

We have such disparate images as Caine running for his life at gunpoint. Then Olivier knee-deep in a coal heap while Caine coolly notes no one of a darker complexion ever manages to make it into Wyke’s fictitious fantasy world. The rival even jeers his finest literary creation, the aptly named  St. John Lord Merridewe.

These are only slight proddings, ploys in a vast web of interconnected stratagems. Of course, this is only a movie so no real people were harmed in the making of this scenario.

The only people who get played are those of us sitting in the dark (both figuratively and literally). One of the greatest joys of the charade is guessing one ploy only to be ambushed by a flurry of new wrinkles.

For it to function, Sleuth must work in a manner of parity and thankfully Caine is more than up to the challenge. It’s by no means actor and understudy or the opposite even, the old stalwart displaced by the youthful newcomer.

They do feel like partners with equal footing in this game. Here lies the key. So if playing along with Olivier and Caine is the punishment I must resign myself to, I will take it compliantly. There are far worse ways to while away an evening. However, I still don’t play games if I can help it.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

The Other Side of The Wind (2018): Resurrecting Orson Welles

Film_Poster_for_The_Other_Side_of_the_Wind.jpgWith the name of Orson Welles comes any number of conflicting connotations not far removed from his greatest achievement: Citizen Kane. However, if we had to try and pinpoint an apt superlative it would fall somewhere in between a mythic and Brobdingnagian titan of cinema. He was a personality like few others.

Taking this into regard, The Other Side of The Wind could only conceivably be a colossal failure if it were in so many words: facile. Thanks be to the movie fates; Welles’ last work is no such thing. It is a glorious, extravagant mess of a film. Trying and befuddling scene after scene.

It has for many years been “The Holy Grail” for cineastes and to have it finally released to the public 40 years later — with so much hype spinning around, it might have easily been a letdown.

What a pleasure to admit how Wellesian this film is. Looming, unwieldy, pretentious, and loaded with complexities. All of these are compliments, mind you. It is corroded and alas, not the fully cohesive vision of an auteur, but its powers have barely been deluded by time.

The very form of the film, told from so many points of view, with all sorts of angles and qualities of footage, serves the very structure of the narrative. The fact it was indeed shot over half a dozen years, with hours of celluloid to ultimately cull through, only adds to its fractured quality.

The time in between its conception and release allows for fuzzier edges and dust to settle over the history with many of the primary players dead and gone. We still have first-hand eyewitnesses like Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride and yet even they are now so far removed from the material. The myth has been allowed to instill itself.

Simultaneously, Welles once again makes us so radically aware we are watching a film, and he is directing our gaze. It’s his most audacious intent to blur the lines between reality and mere film narrative. It spins on this axis of meta mythos, instantly evoked by the film-within-a-film narrative and the caravan leading up to the 70th birthday of J.J. Hannaford (John Huston).

The biography is too obvious to ignore with thinly-veiled characters and the real-world issues plaguing Welles himself. Where to get the funding, literally making the story up as he goes along, and trying to stay relevant in a Hollywood that has all but abandoned him. It’s the old Norma Desmond conundrum (from Sunset Blvd). He’s still big. It’s the pictures that have gotten small. Furthermore, the fiction is too great to believe every word as the Sunday school truth.

Early on, the cuts are so quick and jarring, the viewer’s head is almost spinning to keep up. Because the choppy, looseness to it all almost feels amateurish and yet Welles is trying to drag us into his charade. He is creating a patchwork for us to get caught up in.

Early-onset fatigue must be acknowledged because The Other Side of The Wind can be a taxing ordeal with the constant cuts, close-ups, and whips from person to person even within a single conversation. It’s the antithesis of all traditional Hollywood continuity, thus serving its purpose.

This is also a fine time to mention the strikingly effective (if perplexing) riff off European art-house, with a startling amount of nudity, especially for a Welles picture. Bob Random and Oja Kodar are spliced into everything else, wordlessly pursuing one another through a cryptic labyrinthine of artistically stimulating landscapes. The film-within-a-film takes most obvious aim at Michelangelo Antonini who no so coincidentally filmed his Zabriskie Point in the home right next to Hannaford’s lair.

It’s also no small coincidence Ernest Hemingway is mentioned in passing as this spirit of the macho film director J.J. Hannaford is put up to the light of scrutiny. Huston himself was very much made out of the same mold. He was the epitome of a hard-living, hard-drinking, cigar-chomping man’s man. Each line of his craggy face tells a story. Each sputter in his voice is from years of such a lifestyle.

While Orson Welles isn’t an immediately similar figure, he ran in the same circles, shared overlapping industry experience, and probably internalized some of the same ideology pertaining to masculinity. They were both members of the Old Hollywood Guard.

Except the fine distinction is John Huston was not over the hill yet with such recent successes as Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, two pictures that could not be more engaging for entirely divergent reasons. The verdict was still out on Orson Welles.

Meanwhile, Peter Bogdanovich adds yet another personal element to the picture. He was rather like Welles’ disciple, if not the propagator of his myth, and certainly a friend. But even their relationship became complicated when you consider the unspoken competition between them.

The young film critic-turned-filmmaker was at the forefront of The American New Wave and, at this point right in the middle of his trifecta of instant classics. The Last Picture Show was even heralded as the most important picture by a young filmmaker since Citizen Kane.

However, feathers were ruffled, jealousies set in, and what was formerly amiable, slowly deteriorated. You can even see it in how Welles is obviously jabbing Bogdanovich not so tactfully about his relationship with the much younger Cybil Shepherd. In the movie she is portrayed by the blonde robot who comes to J.J.’s party, appearing, uncomfortably, like easy prey for a predator.

Other persons of interest are Lilli Palmer who is an obvious stand-in for Welles’ lifelong friend Marlene Dietrich and then an acerbic, intrusive Susan Strasberg doing a send-up of Pauline Kael. I know very little about the Raising Kane fiasco and so it makes it difficult for me to make an educated assessment with what to do with this.

Then, we have posts filled by members of the Hannaford mafia who could easily be members of Welles’s own tribe including Mercedes McCambridge, Emond O’Brien, Cameron Mitchell, and Norman Foster.

It’s sad to admit I have little to nothing resonant to add about their characterizations. They merely exist in this discombobulated world revolving around Hannaford.

It’s difficult not to put this movie in juxtaposition with Citizen Kane because they share the same gargantuan camp as only Welles seems capable of. In some ways, we might contend The Other Side of The Wind is Kane outside-in. The former film begins with a token of childhood. The life comes after and it seems ultimately meaningless. Revelations mean very little.

In the latter film, we begin at the opposite end of the spectrum at the end of a life and yet we never work back or get enough of a hankering of who this man is, much less all the phonies and wannabes around him.

I couldn’t help thinking as Hannaford and Brooks parted ways, I hardly know anything about them. There is not a meaningful through line amid their continual babbling and bits of philosophizing.

What’s more, very little feels sincere. And yet this is itself an insidious lie. Because I know so much about them, that is, Huston and Bogdanovich. I’ve seen their films, I can recount a decent part of their history, their relationships with Hollywood, etc.

So The Other Side of The Wind is a bit like a rich canvass that gets more intricate and reveals more, the more we bring to it. The layers are there, all twisted and tangled, sometimes leading to dead-ends or left unresolved possibly due to narrative oversight. Maybe the actor was no longer available or the footage got ditched altogether. But of course, it’s, again, one and the same.

You don’t have a prayer of knowing much about J.J. Hannaford at the end of his party nor much about this film’s plot — what there is of it — but there is still more. We have these continual undercurrents — these refractions of reality — and we must dig through all the inexplicable pieces to try and discover some shards of truth.

Finally seeing The Other Side of The Wind feels like a giant sigh of relief. Let me say it now. It’s far from a perfect movie. But it is an extraordinary artifact from a phenomenal creative mind. It is a project worthy of Welles’ vision for the very flaws it exhibits from beginning to end.

Because slivers of himself find their way into the frame. His real-life struggles, demons, feuds, friendships, jealousies, preoccupations, and intimate fears all snuck in both overtly and unconsciously. This just might make it one of the most personal documentations we have from the man.

It’s a gift worth acknowledging, warts and all. The most honest word to offer in analysis is the very fact it mirrors the man. It’s the utmost compliment too. Francois Truffaut is quoted as saying, “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” One can only surmise if Orson Welles would agree or not. The Other Side of The Wind is as close as we’ll ever get to knowing.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: John Huston

In our ongoing series of beginner’s guides for up-and-coming classic movie enthusiasts, we thought it would be well worth it to acknowledge one of Hollywood’s larger-than-life directors in John Huston.

Before starting out as a screenwriter, he galvanized his reputation collaborating with Humphrey Bogart and simultaneously helping shape the genre that would ultimately be labeled “film noir” by the French. His own career proved the film industry could be a family affair as he worked with both his father, Walter Huston and then his daughter, Angelica Huston, at the bookend of his own career.

Here are 4 of his most iconic films:

The Maltese Falcon (1941) - Images - IMDb

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Based on Dashiell Hammett’s indelible private eye, Huston’s Maltese Falcon is singular in its own right and it had to be. Not only was there the source material, but also an earlier film version. While Humphrey Bogart has none of the protagonist’s written characteristics, it’s immaterial. In a perceptive stroke, Huston pulled prose from the novel while creating taut, atmospheric, highly choreographed visuals to augment the performances. Consider Key Largo or The Asphalt Jungle for more noir thrills.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948)

One could easily argue it was John Huston who helped usher in a groundbreaking generation of on-location shooting in a more mobile post-war Hollywood. Armed with two dynamic performances from Bogart and his chipper father Walter Huston, this epochal story of greed is an absorbing drama about the souring of humanity. It’s doesn’t need no stinkin’ badge to prove it either.

New on DVD: 'The African Queen' - The New York Times

The African Queen (1951)

Whether or not it feels like a departure for John Huston (Beat the Devil or Heaven Knowns, Mr. Allision could be considered the same), The African Queen is a stellar adventure piece bolstered by two of the most inimitable players: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Carving through the jungles makes fast friends of the two great giants of Classic Hollywood, and Huston makes it a gripping time at the movies.

Will🧙‍♂️Menaker on Twitter: "Basically everything about America ...

Chinatown (1974)

Many will probably note John Huston did not direct Chinatown. For some of his contemporary work behind the camera, consider Fat City or The Man Who Would Be King. However, his beguiling performance as Noah Cross, in one of the preeminent neo-noirs, is too good a turn to pass up in this acknowledgment. Despite the palpable charm, he undermines it with a deliciously despicable underbelly — much like 1930s Los Angeles.

Worth Watching

Jezebel, High Sierra, Sergeant York, The Killers, The Red Badge of Courage, Moby Dick, The Misfits, Night of the Iguana, **The Other Side of The Wind, Wise Blood, Prizzi’s Honor, The Dead, etc.

 

M*A*S*H (1970): Altman Not Alda

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“Suicide Is Painless” remains one of the most misanthropic themes on record and that’s without the completely nonsensical lyrics. With lyrics, it’s even more disillusioning.

Still, this stays very much in line with Robert Altman’s conception of the world. Nothing is ever straight and true. Convention must be eschewed with subverted expectations and darkly comic underpinnings. MASH is one of the finest vehicles he ever had for his methodology of the world.

In full disclosure, someone like me, raised on the sitcoms of old and classic television must admit the inherent difficulties in considering Robert Altman’s MASH, based loosely off Richard’s Hooker’s novel of the same name.

If you are unfamiliar with the historical background, it’s important to know MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and they were posted on the front lines during the military police action that was the Korean War (1950-53).

For everyone else, MASH was a prominent black comedy and an arguably even more beloved television show. Its finale, of course, was the most-watched moment in TV history for many, many years.

All this is to say, to go back and retroactively analyze the original film, it’s all but impossible to totally untangle its reality from my deep affections for Alan Alda and the rest.

Because one point must be made early on. Though appearances might be initially deceiving, they could not be more disparate. My choice is to begin to focus on what Altman’s film does well.

One has to admit he brings his loose and sprawling sensibilities to war pictures with seamless ease. The frames are full of near-constant bouts of improv and an ensemble cast that’s loaded with tons of non-actors and fresh faces. The distinction to make is Altman gives them time in the spotlight, with Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Elliot Gould pretty much becoming the head honchos in a comedy overflowing with nobodies.

Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) is a free-and-easy surgeon with a case of “whistling dixie” and a taste for pretty nurses and awful gin. Duke is an equally game southern boy who falls into cahoots easily enough. They’ve got their eyes on the top prize christened “Lt. Dish” and the vexing but no less attractive head nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).

The new chest cutter that Pierce pines for, Trapper John McIntire, is cut out of the same cloth. No wonder they all get along. Their main hobbies are sticking it to authority and they get away with every ounce of arrogance because they can back it up in the operating room. The taste that remains is all abrasive — Gould in particular — with he and Sutherland sticking it to just about everyone in their line of sight.

But that’s what this film feels like, purely anti-establishment; it’s never allowed the opportunity to be a true indictment of the utter lunacy of war. Likewise, for a film with purportedly progressive themes for the times, their treatment of the Asian characters, specifically while in Japan, is nothing short of troubling.

When they’re flown out to Japan on a special assignment, they walk all over everyone as the best surgeons around in a world would surrounded by a sea of shmucks. They gas a colonel and blackmail him handily while having no sense of sympathy for other fellow human beings. You begin to wonder about the patients they serve every day. What about them?

We have Gary Burghoff, the only holdover for the TV show. Otherwise, Henry Blake is a bland and vacuous commanding officer, hardly the lovable buffoon he would become as played by McClean Stevenson. The rest of the cast is a decent assemblage of 1970s movie talent, mostly on the road to bigger and better things.

Frank Burns (as played by Robert Duvall) is a hard-edged hypocrite far from the whiny, ferret-faced Larry Linville. The latter is far more enduring. Father Mulcahy is much the same. Unfortunately, the priest in this go-through feels like an easy runt of the jokes. His faith is something to thumb your nose at — little else.

There is not the same warmth nor the moral backbone that William Christopher would bring, only nervous timidity. Again, it’s so easy to enter this dangerous zone of comparison. Taking a page out of Luis Bunuel’s playbook, Altman is having a grand old time toying with the icons of religiosity in his film. Irreverence is his wellspring for comedy.

Because, up against the typical fare of a generation, MASH feels like a freestyle, scattered affair. Whereas the TV show was blessed by the calculated wit of its scripts balanced with pathos, this project thrives on its laxity and general indifference.

There’s a hodgepodge of overlapping dialogue simulating the cadence of real conversation with its constant asides and disruptions. It’s content to be all over the place, not conforming to any Hollywood standard of any kind.

Again, this becomes its life-force. Making a mockery of tradition in a way that no doubt does honor to the Marx Brother’s chaos and might have still been to their chagrin.

But again, MASH, for all who know anything about it, can hardly be considered an out and out war movie. And it’s not just a comedy either. Altman takes those expectations — all those things we assume this picture to be — and tosses them out.

Because MASH is full of darkness and absurdity that goes beyond war. It is an anti-war picture in general terms and yet how can we not at least laugh at the scenarios, the characters, and the insanity of it all?

Because this is film and not the marginally sanitized airwaves of syndication television, there is the space to be raunchier, the O.R. is grislier, scenes are more sensual, but with it, all the playfulness of the later material is flushed away. It’s verging on the bitter, even vindictive.

Fortunately, there is space for a few shenanigans. The in-camp dentist, known as the “Don Juan of Detroit” back home, is having serious doubts about his virility. He thinks he’s losing his prowess and so he’s made the decision to end it for good. He’s gonna commit suicide. In solidarity, all his buddies get together to put one slam-bang finish to the end of his life. A winking “last supper” of sorts that everyone’s in on.

Catching “Hot Lips” in the shower is all in a day’s work to confirm a bet of whether or not she’s a natural blonde. She spends the majority of the film anal and little better than a blithering idiot. In fact, her commanding officer calls her one (granted in the context of a football game). But she is another character who feels like a constant punchline. Altman could care less.

Speaking of the football game, it’s no doubt the piece de resistance in this monolith of absurdity. The boys rally the troops to take on a smug General’s hulking football team.

The only countermove is to call in a ringer, the one, and only, Spearchucker Jones, to help neutralize their opponent’s stacked lineup. By this point, the movie all but jumps off the deep-end leaving reality behind for the sake of comedy.

There is very little war left and nothing to think about except the Marx Brother-like mayhem on the field (although it’s not quite to the caliber of Horse Feathers). Altman directs it like a circus act.  Yelling, screaming, whistles blowing, pom-poms bouncing, from the sidelines. Players falling all over the place from injury and fatigue. It’s utter chaos. And that’s the end of it.

The final poetic justice is a payoff on the film’s first joke. Hawkeye and Duke ride out of camp in the same stolen jeep they came in. As I watched them go, I couldn’t help thinking it was a far cry from a “Goodbye” message telegraphed for a lifelong friend departing by helicopter.

Despite all my sincere attempts, I will remain horribly subjective to the end. I know it already. I’m hopeless. How can I not choose preferences with such singular interpretations of the same material? In fact, it seems like a fine problem to have. It makes it marginally easier to appreciate each on their own merits.

4/5 Stars

 

Fat City (1972): Boxing and The Human Experience

Fat_City_DVD_cover.jpgJohn Huston was one of the mavericks of Old Hollywood even surpassing his own father’s acclaim in the industry. Although his successes waxed and waned during the 1970s, he found new prominence as both an actor (Chinatown) and a reinvigorated director. Fat City is no question his hidden gem of the decade, if not his entire oeuvre.

It’s true that it taps into the boxing world so prevalent in the tragic noir tales of old. As a one-time amateur fighter and one of the screenwriters on The Killers (1946) a few decades prior, he seems to have the license to resurrect the tradition.

In fact, the expected archetype here might look a little like a very different film: All About Eve. You have the washed-up vet and then the up-and-coming talent.

Except Fat City settles uneasily into those paths before rebuffing them completely to provide an alternative, still partially devastating but certainly authentic to life. There is a touch of melancholy here. Not to knock Stockton, but the location certainly helps. As does Kris Kristofferson’s morose ballad “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”

The dramatic situation generally moseys along taking its sweet time. As the plot parallels the characters, there is nothing flashy here, no insurance investigator from The Killers to go digging around. We live and exist in the characters’ day-to-day realities at a leisurely pace. If anything, Huston is observational, intent on using the allotted screen time to get at these men, not because of their extraordinariness but due to the complexities available in their inherent ordinariness.

Stacy Keach for one is a washed-up boxer who has ambitions to get himself back in fighting shape. At any rate, getting beaten to a pulp for money is a much better prospect than what he’s doing with his life currently. He wears the life of a loser quite well, so much so, it’s easy enough to believe he’s been taking a beating in all facets of his existence.

The legend goes Marlon Brando was tapped for the part though it never panned out. Despite his admitted brilliance as an acting force, Brando would have automatically elevated the pedigree of the picture. Somehow having Keach, a man who never was a big draw, feels more in line with this story. Because one of the most promising feats of Fat City is there is no big star and so it’s perpetually a movie of inspired character parts.

Jeff Bridges is the other guy — a kid really — who takes up the other man’s advice to join Lido gym and try and get into the fight game. The coach there and an old buddy of Tully’s is rather like a father figure to Ernie. The stocky, throaty-voiced Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), looks and sounds like he got punched in the gullet once too many but for undertaking such a violent profession, he overflows with geniality.

Perpetually whiny-voiced Linda Tyrrell toes the fine line between totally antagonistic and totally condoling. There is so much dysfunction in her life; she is the instigator of some of it and yet a lot falls outside of her control. Thus, the relationships she has with the men in her life — first, a man named Earl and then Tully, really reflect her own insecurities.

At times, clinging and then in another moment lashing out with indignant rage. In one barb pointed directly at Tully she even proclaims, “White men are the vermin of the earth.”

Meanwhile, Ernie finds a very different sort of girl (Candy Clark), a bit of a warm-hearted simpleton who cares so deeply that they are madly in love and that everything in their romance is perfect. The naivete is her calling card though it never is given roots in the story to the degree of her female costar.

In any given interaction, these people make you laugh for the strange words that come out of their mouth unwittingly. It’s a distraction from what might otherwise be the blaring issue of their sorry existences. They might be struggles with a traveling trunk or continuously slipping in the mud trying to get a car moving in the pouring rain.

The movie takes particular heed of the foibles found in the world of boxing. All the pretense has been washed away — not merely in a gritty, unsentimental manner — it verges on the comical because it’s willing to paint the characters and their idiosyncrasies with a clear definition.

Conrad Hall has quite the impressive pedigree as a director of photography providing texture to some of the most seminal films of a generation including Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Whether Stockton serves his cinematography or his cinematography serves our normal perceptions of Stockton, ultimately they become one in the same.

The environment of Fat City seems to cultivate a certain brand of person — at least cinematically speaking — losers and has-beens, maybe a few chipper up-and-comers. It’s the perfect arena for banal everyday drudgery to play out.

It meets the men in the bars where they douse their miseries. Before the crack of dawn where they hang around to work for pennies and in the afternoons when they work the fields with the sun beating down. If this is a boxing story it’s just as much a tale of destitution.

Likewise, I had never given full consideration to how much boxing is built around racial lines (not to mention social ones). Fighters are promoted, railed against, and canonized as heroes based on the communities around them. Based on a shared culture and a similar color of skin. The blacks. The Whites. The  Mexicans. They all have their guys.

Ruben is constantly looking to make his clients more marketable. He knows “whites vs. coloreds” will draw a bigger crowd, and they play up Ernie’s Irish blood though he doesn’t have a drop. It’s all part of the business.

Although it’s capable of making us queasy as an audience, boxing just might be the most compelling sport in movies for how it pertains so intimately to the human experience. There is hardship, chaos, violence, euphoria — all these things playing out blow after blow inside this incubator that is the ring. Except in Fat City, the moments are never monumental. They are incremental peaks and valleys. No heroic death scenes are won nor rapid ascensions to the top of the world.

The anticlimax is this film’s final tragedy. Its irony exists right in the title. These characters get none of the glut or glory when it comes to the good life, in and outside the ring. Theirs is the marrow and the crumbs.

4/5 Stars

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): Monte Hellman’s Road Movie

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There’s always a certain relish in seeing non-actors given a stake in a film, but whether it’s mere fallacy or not, there’s this sense that they are more like us — there aren’t as many techniques to get in the way of our joint experience. In other words, what they are giving us has a chance of being utterly authentic.

Monte Hellman is a modest maverick of a certain era and because of his content and his approach to it, there’s little question why he has become a cult icon. The Shooting reimagined the West for a Hippie-infused generation that had a bleaker outlook on post-war American. Exceptionalism, as it were, had come and gone leaving a disillusioned remnant behind in the progeny of the WWII or “Greatest” Generation.

These are the young men and women who listened to 93 KHJ on the airwaves in Los Angeles and not only forged Easy Rider but had their very experience catalyzed by the film. It is the same movement that Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop captures so seamlessly. It exhibits the gritty, no-frills portraiture of American highways and byways.

Admittedly, the soundtrack of Easy Rider is one for the ages and supremely difficult to even consider surpassing. However, this subsequent road picture might fill in for a fine companion piece, although, for a film featuring two prominent musicians at its center — it is not devoted to its songs.

In other words, it does not function as a soundtrack movie nor a hit parade for a generation. Still, one could argue its images are just as relevant and the malaise captured here pervades many analogous explorations from the era like Easy Rider or even Model Shop.

Two-Lane Blacktop also carries some of the same mythos of an American Graffiti, albeit set up against a contemporary rather than a nostalgic backdrop. Likewise, this is a sprawling road movie, as opposed to a contained small-town vignette.

With it, the characters — the aforementioned non-actors — James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, head East in the never-ending search for a race and some dough to keep them going until they find their next competition.

To his credit, Hellman doesn’t make much of a knowing nod to his stars as world-renowned musicians. They’re just car guys pure and simple, and he leaves it at that. It’s simultaneously blessed by the on-location, sequential shooting and the lack of makeup or other thrills. It maintains this illusion of pure authenticity even as it drifts further and further toward the outskirts of reality.

I didn’t think of it immediately but while this film starts in California, it definitely functions to go other places. Two-lane roads are nothing if not a sign of the vast rolling expanses of Middle America. They crop up a long way away from the 405 freeway.

It’s in spaces where you can really make a nuisance of yourself by either dawdling and holding up everyone behind you or being so revved up you just about blow everyone off the road.

However, it’s also on such adventures you interact not only with all sorts of people but unique places as well that are imbued with a character you cannot fabricate. Gas stations out in the boonies and hitchhikers on the side of the road — when such a custom was still in vogue.

In the case of the driver (James Taylor) and his buddy, the mechanic (Dennis Wilson), they end up toting along a Girl (Laurie Bird) on Route 66, who all but stows away in their car after they make a pit stop at a diner.

Her presence would have been a shock to other more apprehensive characters. They take the minor revelation with nary a blink, much less a long-winded altercation. Because they are the definition of laconic. Casually taking life as it comes and maintaining their greatest passions, which seem to be cars and living life on the road.

They know nothing else. They care about little else. Their life is being lived in the here and now without outside responsibilities or ambitions that reach beyond their current reality. There are hints of the implicit loneliness of the lifestyle, tensions, all the human emotions, but they are never fully realized. They are not necessarily meant to be. Still, it becomes obvious enough a girl can get between men and their passions.

On multiple occasions, the movie is filmed with the backseat camera setups reminiscent of the famed heist scene from Gun Crazy. Of course, this film has little to do with small-time crime but there is a similar intimacy to the space and our relation to these characters. I would stop short of saying we get to know them well, all their inner workings remain obscured, but we do get to spend a lot of time in close proximity. You cannot help but appreciate someone in such circumstances.

Furthermore, while I’m by no means an automobile authority, Two-Lane Blacktop just might be one of the preeminent car movies of all-time with a select company. There is a certain chivalry projected on the art of racing even when it all comes down to burned rubber and who has the most dexterity and guts on the road. There’s also this constant tension between longevity and the inevitable. Things break down and fall apart. Both those things of steel and those of flesh and bone.

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The shaggy-haired driver eventually goads an affluent out-of-towner in a shiny GTO (Warren Oates as an impeccable foil) into a little cross country competition, and he’s prepared to blow these punks out of the water in their souped-up 1955 Chevrolet 150.

What forms is this oddly symbiotic relationship, initially antagonistic, and then somehow morphing into a laid-back camaraderie. Soon they’re helping their adversary along even after momentarily hitching him up with the police.

Some of the best films are capable of literally transporting the viewer to a time or place. There is almost a tactile, visceral quality that puts us right in the moment on the cusp of a new decade and simultaneously still riding the tailpipes of the 60s counterculture.

Haircuts, music, gas stations, Coca-Cola, even the actors do it for us, and the beauty of it all is how unintentional it feels. Hellman may or may not have had the prescience to know people would be watching his film decades later. Regardless, his stripped-down aesthetic is perfectly paired with the era he came to prominence in. It doesn’t feel like there’s so much artifice or smokescreens getting in the way — only exhaust.

Such an experience might take getting used to for some. Although Two-Lane Blacktop has a central driving force, it’s a road movie about cars after all; in commonly attributed cinematic terms it feels lax, observational, and loose in its progressions.

To this day, it’s this very quality helping to solidify it as one of the great road pictures. The trick is allowing for the verisimilitude and space for things to happen. We feel the nomadic yearnings and the deep-seated restlessness present in every frame.

It gives glimpses of something with the hint of reality and yet without pretentiousness or an attempt at verbose commentary. It simply exists and unfurls a story and a world for us to imbibe as an audience. Consequently, it also makes me want to dust off some Beach Boy and James Taylor records. They are the sounds of a generation just as this is a film for a generation.

4/5 Stars

The Last Picture Show (1971): Peter Bogdanovich and Timeless Cinema

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“People can’t sneeze in this town without someone offering him a handkerchief” – Eileen Brennan as Genevieve

Always the compelling raconteur, among his plethora of yarns, Peter Bogdanovich can be heard telling the one about how he was first introduced to his source material. If the legend holds, he found Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show browsing through the paperbacks in a drugstore. Later, his buddy Sal Mineo coincidentally suggested he should make it into a movie, and there you have the auspicious beginnings of his landmark film.

It seems almost prescient he would pick the book up in a drugstore — maybe this scene was far more common in the 60s and 70s — but for perceptive viewers, Brandon de Wilde does the very same thing in Hud. And if there was ever a film or a world that The Last Picture Show shares it would be Paul Newman’s from 1963.  In such a podunk town in rural Texas, you get the sense that the West lives on. The twanging country tunes are ubiquitous and Hank Williams is still on the top of the charts.

Of course, with such an environment on hand, you have a bevy of small-town dynamics, all the familiar trademarks. The local high school football team is about all the entertainment there is on a Friday evening, and they are derided by the whole town for their lack of tackling prowess.

The boys themselves don’t seem to take it too badly. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), in particular, are best buddies and with families all but fractured, having one another is all they really care about; that and girls.

Another typical form of entertainment is at the movie house. One such evening Sonny can be found there with his girlfriend, watching the immaculate Elizabeth Taylor in Father of The Bride,  as they pull out their chewing gum to do some necking in the dark. All the locals agree, however, Duane has the real catch in Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town.

What becomes instantly apparent about Anarene, Texas is the prevailing plain, ordinary ugliness of the place. It’s a run-of-the-mill doldrums of a town where there isn’t much to do but feel sorry for oneself and gossip about everyone else’s indiscretions. One character notes “everything’s flat and empty.” They’re not wrong. However, it goes beyond basic monotony. The slumbering rancor stirred up in the town is this unacknowledged undercurrent of callousness. No sympathy or authentic community of any kind is available.

Instead, people go on living lies or make every attempt to cover up the blemishes they know full-well everyone is talking about behind their backs. One primary example is Ellen Burstyn, Jacy’s attractive mother, who’s had more than a few flings with guys, including a local Hud-like rascal (Clu Gulager). One looks at Jacy’s own forays in love and you realize just how innocent she is. Her mother feels like a hero, but Mrs. Farrow has lived long enough to understand what regrets are.

Meanwhile, Cloris Leachman is the coach’s wife trapped in a loveless marriage of perpetual loneliness. When Sonny comes by as a favor to his coach, to take Mrs. Popper to a doctor’s appointment, she reaches out to the only person who pays her any heed. Otherwise, she’ll all but suffocate.

With the older generation of women, although they are now set in their ways, there is this hint of was is not there and what might have been there before.  For instance, friendships might have existed in a different time before life got in the way. Eileen Brennan as the seasoned waitress at the burger joint admits these facts even as she dotes over Sonny a bit like a surrogate mother. She knows what happens to people as they slowly drift apart.

Though not necessarily miscreants, you have a town full of maladjusted lonely people, rogues, meretricious sex fiends, and brusque masculinity. Plenty of fodder for a cottage industry of rural scandal and public recreation.

The younger generations are trying to grow up in such a toxic environment, no wonder they have their own set of issues, all but inherited from their elders. On one occasion Jacy finds herself at a swim party in the nude, and there’s further trashy behavior and indecency on any given evening. One is reminded of the idle antics that boys get up to with nothing to do. It’s either girls or messing with the uncle’s heifer.

In the end, they prey on the local mute Billy (Sam Bottoms) who would never hurt a fly. He becomes a symbol of how simple goodness is all but trampled in such a town. It cannot survive in such a pernicious environment. More on that later.

However, if there was one character who reflects a stalwart strength of character it would be Sam The Lion. And his name precedes him just as the man who plays him is the epitome of such a role. Ben Johnson though hesitant about such a “wordy” part, nevertheless brings so much candor and an uncoached authenticity to the man. He even gets a nod to his starring turn in John Ford’s Wagon Train, seen on a theater placard.

Sam is the owner of the local pool hall and the picture show. More than that, he is the one true strain of straight, unadulterated decency in an otherwise miserable town. He is the only word of conscience imparted on these boys for their apathy. His abrupt departure is yet another blow.

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As high school rolls on, Jacy keeps Duane jealous flaunting her sexuality and then retreating, coaxing him and then trying to push him away. It’s true she doesn’t know what she wants or who she wants for that matter. On the whole, she’s totally manipulative and yet it’s hard to hold it against her. She’s as lost as all of her peers (and their parents).

Like all the preeminent coming of age tales that have been canonized forevermore, The Last Picture Show simultaneously captures its setting so impeccably while denoting the inevitable passage of time. It’s not so much a nostalgic tale as it is one that carves out a certain time and place. Replicating both the unadorned dusty sensibilities in black and white, through the Hank Williams dominated soundtrack, and certainly the characterizations.

Robert Surtees is certainly the MVP because he really does create an extension of James Wong Howe’s world in Hud where you have these stark totally horizontal visuals that do so much to evoke a very specific environment — to the point it is becoming its own entity — another character that remains a part of this broader narrative.

As they sit in the movies watching Red River (1948), there is this sense of the end of something, even as it is the beginning of something else. The town as an environ might look the same but our sense of the place is different. People are gone now. Some by choice, others were killed or closer still ground down by the town itself. Life marches onward. It’s the reality.

Duane takes what might have been the same bus in Hud out of town so he can ship off to Korea. Jacy has gone away to Dallas. Maybe to college or because of another eligible suitor. We don’t know exactly. Still, the wheels keep on turning. To come to terms with it can be painful and yet we must. Wounds heal eventually.

Jeff Bridges has his soon-to-be typical grinning charisma augmented by a ducktail and a strong personality making his character overwhelmingly likable to the very last iota. Jacy, as portrayed so essentially by Shepherd, is the belle of the ball — the girl who wreaks havoc on all the boys — and never really knows what she wants with life. There’s nothing dedicated about any of her whims; it keeps her constantly changing her fancies superficially. We both envy and pity her.

Timothy Bottoms’ performance, in particular, is quietly powerful because so much of it is reactionary. He is our everyman who reflects this town back to us. We see through his pained expression and in his helplessness or through his increasing despondency at what goes on. Even the mundane, everyday behaviors he commits to, provide a sense of what life here is like. He makes it real and palpable for us, supplementing all the performances around him.

For all his personal hangups, Peter Bogdanovich as a nascent director proved himself among many of his compatriots of the New Hollywood generation. He handles the material assuredly and balances a certain sense of recognizable realism that we can relate to on a universal level with this still overtly cinematic quality. He had a major hand in opting for diegetic sound emanating from the world as opposed to a score, and he also cut with the camera like his revered forefathers such as John Ford had done.

One perfect summation of this sense of heightened reality comes in the climactic scuffle between Sonny and Duane. We know the image is being manipulated but far from breaking the illusion, it reinforces the experience by grabbing hold of all the emotion within the frames.

There are smutty scenes captured with the insinuation of Hitchcock and tragic ones not allowed to grow stale with overacting. In fact, one of the director’s finest decisions is to leave room for magic, oftentimes staying with the first take whether it is Leachman’s heartbreaking dissolution or Bottom’s own tearful confrontation of the hard-hearted old boys around him.

These are the moment that hit deep and hard with core resonance. We go to movies for such lightning strikes of humanity fortuitously captured on celluloid. There’s little contesting the fact The Last Picture Show is timeless cinema. It comes bearing deep reservoirs of truth, and truth doesn’t have an expiration date.

4.5/5 Stars

Duel (1971): The Stirring Success of a Young Spielberg

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Duel stands as a stirring reminder that this is the same Steven Spielberg who brazenly got himself on the Universal lot because he needed to be in as close proximity to movies by any means possible. There was no other alternative.

Here is a young, brash filmmaker, part Hitchcock, part Truffaut, and all American humanist. Is it wrong to say he is dearly missed? Because this is not to imply films like Bridge of Spies or The Post do not have merit or are not worthy of acclaim. However, it does feel expected of them. If ever a gigantic cinematic undertaking could be termed safe, they are, at least in terms of comparison.

Duel is full of the electrifying exuberance of youth with a director out on the prowl to prove himself. He most certainly does. He cannot help but shape our perceptions along the entire adventure through impetuous moves and constant manipulation. But that is what the directors and the magicians behind films are capable of at their highest potential.

What sets it apart instantly is the point of view. As an audience, we are flying down the streets of what can only be L.A. and the world is being relayed to us from the cab of the car as the radio whirs with the typical chatter.

Baseball scores. The latest exploits of Lee Trevino. A man calling in proclaiming himself a member of the silent majority and simultaneously afraid folks will get the wrong idea if it gets out he’s not his family’s primary breadwinner. His masculinity is in danger of being under attack. Blah blah blah.

It is not a film saturated in dialogue so whatever you hear serves a key purpose either thematically (like in this case) or to define character conflict. This is the first instance where it becomes especially apparent.

The movie, originally a television movie, also fits nicely into TV’s cultural moment with Dennis Weaver of later McCloud fame and Spielberg himself having directed an early episode of Columbo for Sunday Mystery Movie Night.

Our hero is a Vietnam war vet still trying to exorcize demons while grappling with his own faulty sense of masculinity that has his own marriage going down the tubes. What follows is a laughably simple premise executed exquisitely to a fever’s pitch.

Because David Mann (Weaver) is currently being delayed from getting home to his wife and kid due to a business trip. It can’t be helped and seen in this light, Duel might easily be a suburban family drama about the daily monotonies of life as a member of the aforementioned silent majority.

And yet Duel slowly unfurls a more menacing and blatantly overt conceit. Real, tangible opposition is created in the arrival of a flammable tanker and rolling pollution factory belching exhaust. The story as originally conceived by the prolific Richard Matheson preys on the anxieties about L.A. smog and the uninhibited road rage brought to a simmer by the daily commute.

Because soon enough Mann, for some inexplicable reason, finds himself being pursued and bullied off the road by the massive truck. It’s the personification of a destructive vendetta out on the road. It’s vindictive. It feels personal. But we never understand why.

As they begin to make their way across more secluded desert highways and byways, what starts out feeling like a practical joke continually escalates. It follows him to a diner, waits for him menacingly, and comes upon him as he tries to service a broken down school bus. The kids seem to jeer him, a jarring image, given the fact this ominous big rig comes to their aid. Could it be they are in cahoots? The fears begin to proliferate.

However, from a narrative perspective, the true masterstroke is how Spielberg never tips us off to who the phantom pursuer is. He is more a creature of diesel propelled by exorbitant amounts of fury rather than a human being — a cinematic creation more than a real-world entity.  It sounds eerily familiar to a mechanical shark just hopped up on gasoline and plowing down the roadways instead of the deep blue.

Thus, the parallel to Jaws are all too obvious. This is a low budget, compact, and even punchier rendition. However, everything goes back to Spielberg’s fearless inventiveness, whether it’s in the elementary way in which to frame shots or to build up this ever heightening sense of paranoia as the world begins to collapse around our protagonist.

Dennis Weaver embodies this brand of All-American, nevertheless, plagued by demons, and his spells of voiceover, particularly in a roadside diner, lend an added depth to his anxiety.

It is one way we are given license to get inside of his head as he tries to guess which old boy sitting at the counter is the one out to get him. His nerves are all about shot by the end of it and if he’s our surrogate, as an audience we do not fare much better.

Obviously, there are these moments of dialogue, but the sparse moments full of near-wordless action recall Hitchcock quite vividly. A film can be won and lost in how it utilizes these moments, and Spielberg rides them out to great effect.

When the radiator hose breaks, and it feels like sheer desperation time the camera is literally peering up through the steering wheel on the most severe angle on Dennis Weaver yet. Because we have hit the most crucial moment in the picture.

Mann is broaching a precipice of mad despair as he wills his vehicle to not completely fall to pieces around him. He’s physically incapable of running any longer because his wheels have betrayed him. His only hope is making it to the top of an incline so he can coast his way to freedom.

Whether he conquerors the beast or not, the struggle is not without consequence on both our hero and the audience. You would assume Duel is a movie that would feel stagnant and yet even with rhythms that repeat, it somehow manages to maintain a level of tension that must be accredited not only to Spielberg and his cameraman but Weaver’s anchoring performance as he goes through a hellish battle against the steely-beast. TV movies often get a bad rap but Duel is at least one shining example in their favor.

4/5 Stars

The Cheat (1915) and The Story of Sessue Hayakawa

405px-The_Cheat_FilmPoster.jpegEast is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.

The cinema landscape was still in its utter infancy in 1915. Thus, beyond the monumental impact of D.W. Griffith, The Cheat is another subsequent landmark production for a couple of the talents it helped align.

There would be no Cecil B. DeMille without The Cheat. It was his coming-out party with the viewing public, slating him as a craftsman of delicious dramas gorging themselves on all sorts of sensual themes and pleasures. It meant bang-bang box office receipts and kept DeMille inexorably at the top of Hollywood for years to come.

Sessue Hayakawa must also receive a nod not only as a groundbreaking pioneer in an industry that still doesn’t boast too many Asian performers but also as one of the most important stars of his day. Period.

Simply comparing his style of acting with many of his peers during the silent era bears telling results. In an age, of not only discrimination and stereotypes but also extensive overacting for the camera, his parts are almost reserved in comparison. No doubt this understatement derived from the Japanese attempt to strive for the so-called absence of doing or “muga,” when it came to performances.

Because the teleplay on its own is fairly rudimentary. A well-off wife (Fannie Ward) is pouting because her husband (Jack Dean) won’t give her the funds for a new dress. He needs his investments to pay dividends first.

In being so impatient, she resolves to leverage the red cross funds she’s been entrusted with by her woman’s group  — $10,000 of assets — and hands it over to an acquaintance who promises a sure thing in return. Of course, no one needs to be told it doesn’t bode well and as a result, the wife is out $10,000. She’s willing to turn anywhere, even her regular companion the suave foreigner Prince Haka Arakau (Tori in the original release).

Although gentlemanly and innocent enough at first, the lascivious prince looks to press his advantage, agreeing to give her the money — with strings attached. Extramarital drama and blackmail ensue with the tyrant putting his literal stamp on her as a sign of ownership. It’s actually quite perturbing, especially in a modern world finally looking to cast light on the sexual predation of women.

Beyond this caveat, The Cheat no doubt accentuated contemporary fears of the Yellow Peril as much as it titillated with the handsomeness of its foreign star. So while it’s playing into the long-accepted narrative including diatribes against immigration, it’s also taking advantage of the situation for pure entertainment value. There’s little discounting the purpose.

There’s a shooting that the husband admits to and a subsequent court trial full of sordid scandal-worthy confessions. The problems are ultimately amended and a happy ending found, making for an abrupt denouement meant to satisfy the masses. Given the customary, even archetypal trails the story takes, it feels much more rewarding to consider The Cheat most specifically from its place as a crucial historical time capsule outside the realm of mere plot.

Accordingly, Sessue Hayakawa was such a lucrative star during the early 20th century, it’s almost ludicrous to consider. He was making millions of dollars a year as one of the highest-paid actors of the age to rival the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or even Charlie Chaplin!

The fact that he is barely known in this day and age is a shame though it makes some sense given the cultural climate then and now. He became a screen idol in an age wrought with racial discrimination. His place as a box office smash was based mostly on his foreign allure and attractiveness as a forbidden lover. He was the toast of the town with white audiences as a fantasy character though he was rarely ever allowed to break out of the mold created for him in films like The Cheat.

We are presented with this perplexing dichotomy of this world-renowned actor who feels like an outlier in a tradition that normally emasculated Asian characters, and yet there’s still problematic perpetuations in Hayakawa’s own characterizations. It’s a two-sided issue that, regardless, is nothing short of intriguing given how early in the nascent stages of film he became a star. Dig into his history even a little bit and you are met with a continually fascinating career. For one, he entered acting on a near fluke.

After arriving in Chicago to study to become a lawyer, he was waiting for a tanker to take him back to Japan from California only to bow out and take up with a local theater. He subsequently caught the acting bug. One of the crucial figures in his early breakout was fellow countrywoman and future wife (anti-miscegenation laws forbid cross-cultural marriages), Tsuru Aoki.

Eventually, Hayakawa would emigrate back to Japan in the 1920s and slogged through WWII in occupied France of all places. After the war years, he experienced a resurgence and came to be known to a new generation of audiences for the likes of Tokyo Joe, Bridge on The River Kwai, and Hell to Eternity. For this body of work, he deserves an audience, even today, because there’s no discounting the crucial part he played, not simply in Asian representation, but in the very fabric of Hollywood history itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Smile (1975): The Miss America Satire Lost Some of Its Sheen

Smile_(1975_film).jpg“Smile” is a timeless hit among a plethora of classic Nat King Cole tracks. The innate warmth and the soothing nature of his vocals shine through every note. It took me many years to realize the tune was actually a Charlie Chaplin composition from City Lights later reworked with lyrics.

However, this is not a review of The King or The Tramp. It is about a movie, but to consider it, one must acknowledge the song is so very sincere, it can be used in highly ironic ways.

Case in point is Smile the movie, which was obviously fashioned as a genteel satire of Miss America culture.

It is a depiction of a different America that we can never go back to. Sometimes those words might sound wistful though, in the case of Smile, it’s more of an assertion. Because this lightly-handled prodding of societal mores, full of its share of cutesy and sickening moments, is really a commentary on a very suspect culture.

Still, one must ask the question: how much does the industry get inadvertently glorified by such a comedic extravaganza throwing all these young girls, harried folks, and inquisitive onlookers into an environment complete with plenty of pizzazz and a full-fledged happy ending?

There’s a moderate danger of missing the point — even if it is twofold. We can laugh or “smile” but we must also consider how ludicrous this all is. Thankfully the movie is aided by some of its wonkier inventions in case we’re tempted to take it at face value.

Smile is, of course, easily overshadowed by Nashville (1975) with its more discernible social significance, a grander ensemble, and a lot more going for it on all fronts. That’s not to say Smile is a bad movie. In fact, it is probably an underrated one, generally forgotten with the myriad of other 70s entertainment options moviegoers will normally flock to.

The story itself has the ring of something terribly agreeable. It’s a lightweight day-to-day observation of the annual Young American Miss Pageant in beautiful Santa Rosa, California. All the would-be “Misses” are bussed in to take part in the competition and all the laurels that come with such a crown.

Their hearts are a tizzy with excitement. Former champion Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon) knows just the feeling. Her advice is, as always, to “smile” as she helps to prepare the girls for their exhibition (which is not a competition). Although everyone knows otherwise.

Meanwhile, a Hollywood choreographer (the esteemable Michael Kidd) is brought in to work on the routines, the janitor worries about the undue stress that will be put on the pipes, and local used car salesman Big Bob Freeloader (Bruce Dern) gets ready for his civic responsibility to judge the contest.

He’s the epitome of a square, wheeler-dealer, car salesman who in his own way sees himself as a pillar of society, even if he helps to propagate the dubious cultural practices of the times.

Meanwhile his son, “Little Bob” looks to snag a polaroid camera with his friends so they might capture the recently arrived pageant hopefuls in various states of undress. Though played for comedic effect, it really is a jarring, uncomfortable digression.

Because already implicit in the content are the strains of midcentury misogyny, essentially built into the fabric of society. It begins with the grown-ups as good, healthy All-American fun, until it easily seeps down to their children, teaching boys how they are to perceive girls.

Meanwhile, the local male fraternity initiation feels dangerously close to a white supremacist meeting, albeit with strange rituals (ie. kissing a dead chicken). On the ethnic front, the one non-Caucasian character, a Mexican-American, is looked on with immense derision by all the others and with the depiction, I wouldn’t blame them.

Her starry-eyed ambitions to be American are seen in a handful of characters, though she’s the only one hampered by a very pointed accent. Again, it’s these obvious red lights that are being poked fun at. There’s little question about it, but if these are the issues we are dealing with, there are still other de facto problems that probably slip through the cracks.

It has not aged well even as we still have rampant issues of sexual objectification and any number of prurient problems. It could be very well that I am not in touch with the current cultural moment. If so, I stand corrected. But the odd mixture of nostalgia with light satire does come off as a weird, messily concocted cauldron of tones.

The free-flowing contact with the wide range of characters also means we never ably connect with anyone in a resonate manner. Likewise, director Michael Ritchie’s story, like The Candidate before it, is taking aim at society but in this instance, it feels like there are too many marks. It cannot cover all the ground and therefore feels a bit scattered.

Unfortunately, it’s lost some of its comic zing with the passage of time. Still, one of the finest bits of humor comes in an outrageous sequence when a man looks to end his life with a pistol.

His wife the former American Miss tells him he should deal with his problems instead of taking the coward’s way out. He proceeds to point the gun at her and let it go. He winds up in jail and she’s only scratched, agreeing not to press charges, much to his chagrin.

In fact, Andy DiCarlo might be the most genuinely enjoyable character for the very reason he sees the utter insanity of this world, even if everyone else brushes him off as being a little strange.

They think he needs to loosen up some like all his peers, kissing the butts of dead chickens and cheering for girls, paraded up on a stage like glorified cattle. Now that’s entertainment! In this light, Smile does sound somewhat hilarious. Chalk it up to a misanthropic mood if you want. However, I’ll maintain people weren’t made to always be smiling. Sometimes a smile just won’t cut it.

3/5 Stars

NOTE: As a childhood Get Smart fan, I tried not to hold it against Smile for casting Barbara Feldon in her part. I tried my best to be objective, but, for me, she will always be 99.