Cheyenne Autumn (1964): John Ford’s Western Swan Song

If we had to provide a broad sense of Cheyenne Autumn, it would be all about the mass Exodus of the Cheyenne in 1878 as they journey from the arid land they’ve been subjugated to back to the land the white man had promised to return to them all along.

This is a Hollywood rendition so, obviously, it’s not expected to stick strictly to facts nor does it. The extras John Ford used throughout the picture were in fact Navajo, who spoke their native tongue. He also loaded up on a Hollywood cast headlined by Richard Widmark returning after Two Road Together, portraying an officer in the U.S. Army, Captain Thomas Archer, far more disillusioned in his post than his predecessor.

In the film’s opening grand gesture, the Cheyenne make the long trek hours early, in preparation for their meeting with the white man — a meeting that was supposed to come through on a wealth of promises. Everyone is there waiting anxiously at the military encampment. Among them, Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) and her uncle have made it their life’s work to minister to the Native Americans as suggested by their benevolent Quaker faith.

The only people who don’t show up are the big wigs from Washington, offering yet another rejection and another sign of disrespect. As they leave the encampment, empty-handed once again, there’s in a sense of unease about it. Though the pompous blaggards back east have no concept of their egregious blunder, there’s no question reckoning will come in some form.

This is made apparent and for once in a Ford picture, beyond simply casting a sympathetic eye, the director finally seems to be acknowledging the grievances against the American Indians. Because they have to face arrogant, deceitful men who fatuously believe they have a right to everything they touch. They have no respect for the land, only what they can acquire from it. Soldiers who are supposed to be peacekeepers, as well as tacticians, are equally suspect.

In a fine bit of casting, Patrick Wayne plays a young upstart who has waited his whole life to have it out with the Cheyenne, and the circumstances make no difference to him, even if he has to create them himself. Other soldiers like Karl Malden’s commander espouse unprejudiced mentalities only to be frozen by the chain of command. It proves equally inimical, if not more so.

Under Archer’s command are also numerous steady, career soldiers like Mike Mazurki, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. To have the latter two in yet another Ford picture is certainly a fitting remembrance. They were as crucial to his work as any of the larger stars like John Wayne or James Stewart (more of him later).

Wagon Master and Rio Grande, from 1950, would be enough for many actors to build a reputation on. Even over a decade later, it’s a testament to this close-knit bunch that they still remained steadfast to the end. These are when the sentimentalities of the picture are most apparent.

In all candor, Cheyenne Autumn is long, at times arduous, but within that runtime, it speaks to so much, including Ford’s own legacy. This is what makes it such a fascinating final marker in his career. Again, it’s the side of the western movie he never truly showed before. It’s as if age has softened him to what he did not see before.

We’re in Monument Valley on the eve of a skirmish. We’ve seen this scene before but from the other side. Native Americans digging in to fight the cavalry on the other side of the canyon. This is not a battle between the heroes and villains but the victors and the victimized.

Whatever flaws come to the fore with a white director making a movie about Native Americans, so be it. They are present, but none of this can totally discount the interludes of natural beauty and deep affecting sympathy on display.

Initially, Ford had wanted to cast some version of Anthony Quinn, Richard Boone, or Woody Strode in the roles of the Indian chiefs. All men consequently had some Native American heritage. The parts of Little Wolf and Dull Knife ultimately were given to Mexican-American actors Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland. The addition of Dolores Del Rio and a wordless Sal Mineo also feel equally peculiar. Mind you, these are only caveats mentioned in passing.

Cheyenne Autumn feels like a glorious mess of a film. It’s as epic as they come and striking for all its splendor; it’s also all over the place in terms of narrative. Perhaps Ford’s not totally invested here. This was never his main concern nor his forte. And in his final western, he does us a service by coming through with what he does best.

What else can we mention now but Monument Valley — the locale most closely identified with him — and yet it could just as easily be turned around and commended as the place he most identified with. Again, we can almost speak in parables because it can represent so many things from beauty to ruggedness from life and then death.

Take, for instance, when the chief elder is finally laid to rest, and the rocks are dislodged to form his burial chambers — off in the distance more of his people ride across the plateaus — it says everything that needs to be said. It is a moment of closure on all the images Ford himself ever captured in his home away from home.

As a short respite, John Ford provides a highly comedic Dodge City intermission with Jimmy Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, and John Carradine among others. You’ve never seen Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday quite this jocular as they play poker, ride around in a buggy, and help rescue a floozie (Elizabeth Allen) running around with a parasol and a ripped dress.

Now it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It would be easy to cry foul for mixing disparate tones and totally flipping the script of the movie. This isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t fully take into account Ford’s intentions. He knows full well what he is doing, using the language of the moviegoing public bred on the epic. It injects brief levity into an otherwise dour picture. In fact, it might be too much levity, although it could make a fine comic western all its own.

Because I won’t pretend the drama doesn’t wear on. The beginning is far more compelling than the end, but the journey is of paramount importance and what it represents. Although Edward G. Robinson plays one voice of reason back east and Widmark plays another enlightened savior out in the field, not to mention Baker’s tireless quaker acting as a protector of the Cheyenne children, they are not all-powerful.

It’s as much a story of loss and failure as it is of tragedy and miscommunication. Again, this is not to say any of this is to be taken as truth and lines drawn in the sand when it comes to what the history books say. But Ford is working the only way he knows how, with the strokes of a painter on this canvas illuminating a story. He is making amends in an imperfect, fragile way. Do with it what you will.

While it’s not the glorious heights one might have guessed for John Ford’s final picture in Monument Valley and his final western, somehow it feels like a fitting capstone just the same. The tone says as much as anything else in the picture. It’s yet another elegy reminiscent of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and many of his earlier works. Except this would be the last one. It was the autumn of his career as well.

3.5/5 Stars

Sergeant Rutledge (1960): Starring Woody Strode

“It’s alright for Mr. Lincoln to say we’re free, but that ain’t so. Maybe someday, but not yet.” – Sergeant Rutledge

Sergeant Rutledge rarely gets talked about with the greatest westerns or even the greatest westerns of John Ford. Without getting overly effusive with my praise, it should be heralded as an underrated gem worthy of far more scrutiny. History is more than on its side. The movie preceded To Kill a Mockingbird by at least a year while examining similar themes of a black man on trial for rape, albeit through the specific settings (ie. Monument Valley) and lens of its director.

As purely a courtroom drama, it’s probably more engrossing because the other film is just as impactful for its relationship outside the court’s walls. The familial relationship is the core of the story. In Sergeant Rutledge, Ford gladly builds up the atmosphere of the courtroom while allowing it to bleed out and color the rest of his narrative, set against the backdrop of apache raids.

Willis Bouchey stands out as the demonstrative head of the court marshall tribunal, Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate. The turn might be one of his most substantial and enjoyable roles on the big screen. Not only did he have an extraordinary career on the small screen, but he was an often called upon member of John Ford’s stable of actors. His foray in this picture makes it plain enough. Every time he asks for “water” or scolds his wife, it provides instant texture.

Because his wife, Billie Burke, is one of the goody-two-shoes in the peanut gallery, prepared to watch the court case in their finest clothes with their mouths agape and their eyes agog. Meanwhile, the rowdiest fellows stand impatiently in the back smoking their pipes and raising a brouhaha. The judge has enough gumption to clear them all out.

There’s no doubt Ford is in control of the courtroom scenes, from its initial clearing to the subsequent stage lighting to highlight witnesses on the stand. It’s quite extraordinary rather like when Hithcock worked through The Paradine Case breaking the stagnant sequences up with purposeful moments. These are bulked up through substantial flashbacks where we are allowed to invest in the drama firsthand, becoming involved more in more in something that feels like a traditional murder mystery.

The first to take the stand is Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), a quivering young woman who caught Sergeant Rutledge in a compromising and nevertheless now comes to intercede on his behalf, not to accuse him. She recounts how, left in a deserted town, it was the honorable soldier who willfully saved her life.

Next, Fosgate’s own wife (Burke) takes the stand with her usual tittering mannerisms, relaying the last time she saw spunky young Lucy Davenport alive, before she was brutally raped. She came to the general store and shared a conversation with Rutledge. This was no surprise as he was the man who taught her how to ride a horse and practically raised her. To the eyes of all those on the outside looking in, it leads them to burn with indignation.

The dialogue throughout is often curt if not altogether mundane, even overly twee in the lightweight moments, but the scenario itself and Ford’s interaction with it, make it worthwhile viewing. It’s what he’s able to build up around them, devolving into a fairly unheard of exploration of racial tensions on the range. When it gets talky and the message is made obvious, it loses its impact — looking all the more of its time.

What builds a lasting impression are the images — watching the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers — appreciating their discipline and fortitude. Surely seeing these representations say enough about how American society treats non-whites, both in life and on celluloid. They are deserving of the same amount of human dignity and not having the burden of proof thrust upon them merely based on the color of their skin.

Because this is what it comes down to. Sergeant Rutledge (Woody Strode) is on trial to be hung, accused of rape and murder. This is not a pleasant affair whatever the outcome might be. As Jefferey Hunter headlines another Ford Western (following The Searchers), he holds a crucial stake in the case as both one of Rutledge’s superiors but also his defense counsel, and, ultimately, his friend.

Woody Strode might be buried in the credits, but there’s no doubting his prominence at the heart of the drama. It’s his stalwart characterization that allows it to stands out from the crowd of westerns from the era — and in Ford’s own lineage — because it gives him a place of cinematic significance. One scene, in particular, is easy to call upon.

In the dead of night, there’s a refrain of “Captain Buffalo” as Sergeant Rutledge stands on the ridge, the moon in the foreground behind him, looking down at his men; it’s only a brief aside, but something in me stopped still because these are the kinds of moments, if you’re lucky, you’ll see in a Ford picture. How do we quantify them? They’re a feeling, a sense, speaking to so much of who we are and what our country means. It’s history, both rich and also riddled with honor and disgrace. I look at Rutledge and I’m proud and a moment later ashamed for how a man such as this is treated.

Woody Strode was used quite well by John Ford on several occasions; he gained some repute for his role in Spartacus; but to my knowledge, he never had a role more extraordinary than that of Sergeant Rutledge. It’s indicative of the industry that Strode — once a football star alongside the likes of Jackie Robinson — was never a bigger movie star.

Here is a picture that allows him the opportunity to show his talents, and he does so with unsurpassed strength and dignity. Captain Buffalo, as eulogized, is a mythical figure surpassing John Henry in his larger-than-life gravitas, and Woody Strode is as close as we could have gotten to seeing him in the flesh.

Part of this is the man himself, quiet yet formidable, and of course, Pappy Ford does him the greatest service. He allows him to be great and sets him up in such a sympathetic yet empowering light.

I’m glad we have this movie, and I’m delighted Ford had the guts enough to make it. Woody Strode deserved many more pictures like this one. For that matter, so did the eminent Juano Hernadez and all these men. It has to do with what this film represents.

We rarely get to see eulogies to the Buffalo Soldiers and this one is as good as anything I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s captured as only John Ford can do it — enamored with the American myth — while still beholden to our own hardened reality. To come to terms with both is one of Ford’s great gifts.

4/5 Stars

The Music Man (1962): 76 Trombones and Robert Preston

In my youth, Robert Preston always struck me as a Hollywood superstar because he so lithely and unequivocally commands the center of this grand production. There is no movie without him, and he pretty much captures the imagination of the audience.

As I’ve grown older, logged more movies, it always surprises me that Preston was never a more prominent star, at least in the movies. Instead, you see him in the periphery in films like Beau Geste or This Gun for Hire, then later in his career in Victor/Victoria, but it’s never as much as I would expect, given his obvious talents used so effectively here.

We find him hop, skipping, and jumping through the movie with a winning vitality. Set aside his occupation for a moment, strip that away, and the performance itself is a thing of beauty indeed. There is no movie (or stage production) without his engine to drive the story and charm the audience. He has the task of making us like a cad, and he does it from the very first moment he steps off the train in River City, Iowa.

The first thing he does when he gets into the new town is meet an old friend (Buddy Hackett), then, right after that, he drums up the publicity for his latest scheme. He’s perfected it to a tee going from town to town. He’s confident it will work here as well as anywhere else. The youth of River City obviously need their own marching band — complete with instruments, uniforms, and all the trimmings. He’s going to give it to them.

As a side note, The Music Man plays as an oddly complementary piece to Elmer Gantry (also featuring Shirley Jones) if only to have con men try and peddle their trades to small, unsuspecting communities. Obviously, there’s not much nuance in this observation, and it fails to take into account the breadth of genres. This is what sets the pictures apart and allows them to excel.

If you wanted to simplify the story down to its essence, this is really what it’s about as Harold Hill convinces the mayor, his easily-flattered wife, and a whole host of others that their kids are all up-and-coming prodigies. For those already familiar with this classic from Meredith Wilson, the key is how Hill’s scheme turns into a source of joy and excitement throughout the town.

Their invisible performance of “76 Trombones” in the school auditorium is the movie at its best, showcasing this kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” theme to its fullest. Meanwhile, I had all forgotten a crucial number like “Ya Got Trouble,” which sets Preston off on his whirlwind performance, tipping off all the mothers and fathers that pool tables spell the end of decent and upstanding living for their youth.

If Hill is able to distract, butter up, and pull the wool over on the general populous, Marianne Paroo (Shirley Jones), is the one person who is not about to be taken in by him. He makes a habit of ingratiating himself to librarians as part of his business model, and yet she’s not about to cave to his advances. They’re played up to their most marvelous extreme in “Marian The Librarian” as he cavorts and climbs all over, much to her chagrin.

But as she slowly watches her young brother (Ronnie Howard) gain a newfound confidence in himself and the whole town subsequently becomes reinvigorated and alive, she comes to realize that for all his put-ons, Harold really does have a knack for bringing people together. She comes to appreciate him and by proxy also fall in love with him.

Their grand moment comes during the summer sociable, hidden away at the secluded footbridge, where they share an embrace and Jones sings one of the most iconic tunes “Til There Was You.” Alas, it is the beginning of the end for Harold. He’s about to be ousted by another traveling salesman as a fraud, but instead of fleeing for the next train out of town, he vows to stay and stand trial. With Marianne in his corner, the final moments give us the kind of euphoric comfort and fantasia only musicals can offer up.

The Music Man runs at a hefty 2 hours and 35 minutes, and it’s true the musical genre often falls under criticism for being bloated or uncinematic. But at their best, they are characterized by passages of joy we can all appreciate as they swallow us up and allow us to become lost in the pure theatrics. This holds true after all these years as my youthful memories come flooding back in the wake of “Gary, Indiana” and several other tunes.

The show’s original director Morton DaCosta does an admirable job in translating the material to the screen without losing all the magic, and with a veteran cinematographer like Robert Burks, it’s hard to go wrong with the Technicolor.

For some, this might seem like a superfluous aside, but I am also indebted to this picture for what it did in the career of a little band from Liverpool. It’s true The Beatles recorded the ballad “Til There Was You” and as a counterpoint to their other material, it became crucial to them being signed to a record deal. They even performed it quite prominently on The Ed Sullivan Show along with more overt hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And we would have had none of their wonderful music if not for a flim-flam man stopping off in Iowa. At least, that’s what I like to think.

4/5 Stars

Two Rode Together (1961): The Community of a John Ford Western

With such a robust body of work, it’s no surprise John Ford often gravitated toward certain images to represent the West and Two Rode Together it little different with the director returning to familiar iconography. This time it’s Jimmy Stewart, not Henry Fonda, propped up against a railing with his feet kicked up casual-like.

As an aside, my mind wonders if it was Ford who made actors reputable because of his pictures, or were his pictures made better by the memorable actors — the John Waynes, Henry Fondas, and Jimmy Stewarts? Because it’s true they left an indelible mark on his filmography as he did on their movie careers. It’s not altogether surprising that the greats would get together — with their talents coalescing — since they were made greater through collaboration.

In this picture, Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is the town’s Marshall. He has a fairly cushy life to lead and his reputation does all the talking. Thus, he can live in relative peace. He has his drinks brought out to him on the veranda and the only grief he gets is from Belle (Annelle Hayes). The tough-talking, deeply perceptive proprietor runs the local saloon, which remains all but empty during its off-hours.

A group of Cavalrymen rolls into town done and dusted. McCabe welcomes them in and reconnects with one of his pals: Lt. Jim Garry (Richard Widmark). What becomes evident is how friendships exist outside the confines of the movie. This in itself is powerful. The reason they came to town was actually for McCabe. They have orders to take him on the 40-mile jaunt back to their outpost.

We still don’t have a point or a reason — an inciting incident for the movie — but by this point in this career, maybe Ford doesn’t have to explain himself. The secret to his success is making us revel in the experience, and I’m not just saying that.

There’s a camaraderie, a good humor, and a beauty in being thrust into his world. He obviously takes great care in photographing it, but he also cares deeply about his players. Hence the reason he always held onto his tight-knit stock company.

One of the defining moments plays out in an extended take with Widmark and Stewart sitting at the water’s edge. It’s the essence of the movie in a nutshell as they smoke cigars, chewing the fat, and enjoying one another’s company. The moment gained some notoriety as Ford, in his typically tyrannical manner, made his cast and crew work in the icy water all day rather than have a simpler set-up. However, the extended nature of the sequence adds to the relaxed atmosphere. Time slows down for even a few minutes.

The story arc itself isn’t much good or at least it pales in comparison to something as incisive as The Searchers that culls the depths of revenge and human vindictiveness. None of this is surprising. Stewart finds himself dealing with folks holding out that their loved ones, abducted years ago by the Comanche, are still alive and capable of being rescued.

In what feels like a holdover from his pictures with Mann, Stewart is individualistic and more cynical than some might initially recall. His explanation of what Camanche do to white men — a young woman’s little brother — is enough to make the girl squirm with grief, and there’s no tempered dose of sympathy in any of his words. He’s not aiming to assuage fears and play savior to a bunch of people.

Against this, you have the typical broad comedy. In this case, Ken Curtis and Harry Carey Jr. vie for the affections of Shirley Jones only for her to dump a liberal amount of flour in their faces. Widmark sets up an equally comical duel for the hand of his girl only to have Andy Devine come to his rescue, essentially bodyslamming the rivals into the drink with his substantial girth.

Still, it does revert back toward its dark and bitter inclinations. Stewart and Widmark make contact with the Native Americans, but completing their mission supplies only small comfort. They bring back one feral youth raised by Comanche and a timorous senorita (Linda Cristal) who was the wife of one of the buffalo warriors (Woody Strode).

Both become social pariahs to be gawked at for different reasons. For the woman, though her life was harsher, she was treated with more respect, and with more dignity, by the Comanche.

The showcase for all of this to play out is the typical affair cropping up in all Ford’s Cavalry pictures with a dance put on by the military at the outpost for all the soldiers and their wives. It’s a sumptuous event. However, Ford effectively subverts the usually sensible, civilized space creating the most traumatic of moods. Here even this kind of life-giving community has been sullied and soured by human bigotry.

There are few places to hide as prejudice is expressed so perniciously out in the open, between whispered gossip and disparaging looks. Meek Elena (Cristal) stews in it all under the weight of all their sidelong glances, cringing out of her skin. She knows she is unwanted, that she doesn’t fit in, and frankly, it becomes the most heartbreaking scene in the picture.

Oddly enough, the bookends of the story are probably for the best, consisting of the vistas and the world they help to accentuate — the journey and how we got there, opposed to the actual particulars. You wouldn’t be wrong in observing Stewart and Widmark are too old for their parts, but it’s easy enough to stop caring and drop it altogether. What they provide to the movie is something else.

Because even as Ford literally called the script “crap,” and it’s true the tale’s not exactly the most cohesive, taut foray in storytelling, between the actors and director, there is so much bounty to be appreciated. There are also some lingering questions. What will happen to Shirley Jones and Widmark? We hardly know if the Comanches have been satiated. Then, Belle Aragorn is back, and it feels like a whole different movie was going on with her and the deputy while we were away.

Still, we end up with Stewart propped up against that railing once again and my mind couldn’t help but drift back to my opening thought. Ford and his actors collectively made stories richer and more vibrant so they could add up to something more than fragments of narrative strung together. They operate on different levels, bringing together all these bits and pieces of pulchritude, relevance, and meaning.

Two Rode Together is downright venomous at times, but it never loses sight of its prevailing good-humor. With the likes of Andy Devine and Jimmy Stewart holding down the fort, how could you not? And all of this is very much in keeping with John Ford.

Ford was a paradox — the inexplicable cipher to the end — who played both the taskmaster and also deeply loyal friend to kith and kin. It’s that tension that holds this picture together. For all the hell he put his stock company through, he’s also the very same man who shut down production for a week so he could set up funeral arrangements for one of his dear friends: Ward Bond.

It’s quite simple, but really all you need to know about this picture and John Ford is in the title. It’s not about the individual so much as the collective unit. Only then do we get humor and progress and friendship. As much as he might have masked it, he desperately needed other people, and his films reinforce this.

3.5/5 Stars

Elmer Gantry (1960): Sinner & Saint

“You not only put the fear of God into them, you scared the hell out of them.” – Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts talking about Elmer Gantry.

Elmer Gantry opens with a disclaimer, which no doubt plays as a defense tactic against the National Legion of Decency. However, taking a page out of some of the gangster pictures of decades gone by, while the filmmakers don’t condone the behavior, they find it within themselves to represent it. The caveat reads like this:

We believe Revivalism can bear some examination — that the conduct of some revivalists makes of a mockery of traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity…Freedom of religion is not a license to abuse the faith of the people…due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it. 

Elmer Gantry is really the brainchild of writer-director Richard Brooks although it was adapted from the eponymous short story from years earlier by Sinclair Lewis. If you allow me to use the term, the picture boasts an embarrassment of riches, with actor-producer Burt Lancaster headlining, revered cinematographer John Alton, and the music of the much-esteemed Andre Previn. In most regards, they do not disappoint.

For his part, Lancaster delivers his most ingratiating, charismatic street preacher act. He seems to understand the inner anatomy of the character even as he seems to embody bits and pieces of Gantry himself. If you recall Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, Lancaster does his own rendition or for that matter, he shares some small resemblance to Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd.

By day, he makes ends meet as a traveling salesman — a tramp in a silk shirt — with a penchant for booze, women, and tall tales. As he sees it, his real calling is as a “Man of God,” though his definition seems pretty thin. Still, in the grassroots world he lives in, if you’re compelling, carry big ideas, and have a sprinkling of the Good Lord’s holy scriptures hidden away in your heart, it goes a long way.

Is it just me or do Lancaster’s eyes have a certain lecherous glint to them? It seems to rise up in him unsolicited, whether singing a gospel spiritual, looking around a big revival meeting, or quoting passages of scripture with extra panache. It’s true; he knows the hymnal by heart and the scriptures like the back of his hand, or at least just enough to use them effectively.

He gives us a little taste of his magnetism on one fine Christmas night, interceding on behalf of some Salvation Army charity workers as they call on the good graces of his fellow bar mates. However, after taking on a cattle car full of hobos, he ends up lugging his suitcases to the nearest town alongside the railroad track. Regardless of what he tells his mother over the telephone, he’s barefoot and, by all accounts, destitute.

In the very same moment, we catch a glimpse of some prominent signage, “Sister Sharon Falconer — can save you!” If Gantry is our wheeling-dealing main attraction, Sharon is his foil. Jean Simmons plays the role as a truly empathetic champion of the cause, who nevertheless runs her crusade like a business.

Patti Page is one of her devotees with the voice of an angel, while Dean Jagger, her right-hand man maintaining the facts and figures, ensures they stay on schedule. They also have their personal entourage of journalists, including Arthur Kennedy, who make quite sure they get the necessary press support. Everyone agrees she’s quite the lady, and it’s a well-oiled operation as they travel across rural America.

But Elmer takes them to another level. When he joins the team, his impassioned messages make the good people swell with emotion; his sights are on an urban revival. He wants to take religion to the cities. After all, that’s where the money is.

Soon they are courting the community leaders in the city of Zenith and all they have to offer. The name is apropos because it really is the pinnacle of what they are trying to accomplish. If they can succeed here, there’s no question where they might go.

The local leaders and ministers bandy about what they might do about the competition from entertainment industries, diminishing church attendance, and pervasive financial problems. They’re all real-world issues no doubt plaguing the church today and in most any generation. It’s a Mr. Babbit who opines that they need to get the young people back in church and keep the train on the tracks.

Arthur Kennedy might be the voice I appreciate the most. Because Elmer Gantry is born out of a deeply religious context. People have the rhetoric and a certain cultural liturgy down, but if I am aware of anything about Jesus Christ, so many of the people who call themselves Christians, don’t know him. They use his name, evoke his words, and then choose to live by their own standards.

Jim is one of the few characters in the movie who lives as a searcher. He’s still trying to find the answers to life’s questions. In a single moment, he turns the public against the sister and Gantry with his honest, albeit incisive news reporting. However, when he could embroil them in greater scandal, he elects not to. That’s not his game. When he lambasted for his lack of Christian faith, he says his doubt is not blasphemy. On the contrary, it makes him the most honest character in the picture.

Shirley Jones doesn’t show up until well into a picture and yet soon enough Lulu Banes becomes what feels like the lynchpin character to the whole drama unfurling before us. She lives a life of ill-repute in a brothel, but she wears her profession as a badge. More importantly, she has a history with Elmer Gantry. In their earlier days, Gantry was kicked out of seminary and she was disowned by her ministerial father, for their indiscretions. She knows Gantry more intimately than most, and she can use it against him.

It’s a foregone conclusion that this religious empire must come tumbling down. The images when an ensuing scandal breaks out are some of the film’s most definitive. From the podium he once enraptured audiences, Gantry is pelted by fruit, eggs, and hot jazz under the big top. He’s ridiculed as a total hypocritical disgrace — and in a fit of irony, it’s the single moment where he feels the most Christ-like. No, he’s not sinless and not a saint; he is very human in that regard, but in this moment of immense humiliation, he’s forced to bear the brunt of all the shame.

This is only superseded in the final moments in what feels like a hellish conflagration as the tabernacle bursts into flames. it’s such an evocative image as holiness and hell meet in a fiery inferno with Sister Sharon and Elmer Gantry right in the middle of it. From dust, you came, and to dust, you will return.

Considering the historical moment and Burt Lancaster’s own religious leanings, there’s a sense he intended the movie to be his response to such stadium preachers as Billy Graham.

Lancaster relishes the opportunity of being a louse and also very easily undermining religious thought and rhetoric — telling half-truths and appealing to religious fervor — while conveniently looking after his own ambitions. He slinks his way into other people’s life like a worm (or a serpent) laughing and cajoling and spouting his own brand of religion. His tongue flatters all, and he’s good at it, but he’s always looking to gain something from others. Mind you, he’s not the only one. We all have that tendency.

I am by no means an authority on Graham, but despite any unpopular opinions he had, he was also a very faithful man of God and he had such a profound impact on generations of people, literally, millions of people all over the world. Thus, the parallels to Graham never were of a great deal of interest to me and feel mostly immaterial.

It’s easy to draw out the movie as an indictment of Gantry and to a certain extent maybe it is, but it says something more endemic to our society and our systems. Those people still exist today. Sometimes it’s fire and brimstone and sometimes it’s inverted into a prosperity gospel.

However, then scandals come out, lives unravel, churches schism, and hearts are hardened. We put these religious figures on a pedestal and almost without fail they let us down in some manner. Some have misguided beliefs in themselves like Falconer. Maybe they burn with the human lust and passions of Gantry.

Is it scandalous to say, I rather like him? He seems like a genuine fellow.  Like Sister Falconer, he seems to generally believe what he’s preaching; this I didn’t expect. But he’s hardly a saint. The fallacy comes with building him up to be one.

None is righteous, no, not one; and no one understands. Lefferts is getting there. We must seek after the truth. We would do well to not just cave to feelings and emotions. Still, intellect will only get us so far. We must have ears to hear. Because true wisdom, true discernment is proved right by what we do. It’s up to each of us to figure out what that is.

4/5 Stars

Divorce American Style (1967): Debbie and Dick Get Divorced

Divorce American Style starts out as a symphony of marital nagging, and it looks to build off this cacophony to make some sense of the current state of affairs in 1960s America. While the title doesn’t capture the same milieu of its Italian counterpart, it fits for a plethora of other reasons. It’s satire in the American mode and Norman Lear, who would become renowned for his brand of socially conscious comedy, is hard at work. In order to go about it, he hones in on one couple in particular: Richard and Barbara Harmon.

Off the top, it’s an important distinction to make. Creatively, it seems like a stroke of genius to cast Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds as this bickering couple slowly tearing apart at the seams. I say this purely from the likability factor. Their entire career trajectory thus far from sunshiny MGM musicals to crowd-pleasing family sitcoms all banks on their likability quotient.

Here is a picture that tests all of that built-up reservoir of goodwill and fuzzy feelings we have for them. If you only accept them as the picture of Cathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain or Rob Petrie in Dick Van Dyke, there’s a reason to vehemently oppose what Lear has done with them here.

While it’s not my favorite pastime to see two such actors put each other through such hell, some part of me understands why they wanted to take a stab at it. Because it’s not safe, and it challenges the status quo and how we accept them as performers. To their credit, in stretching themselves, it’s an attempt to get past one-note characterizations.

True to form, their first full scene starts with a fight. It’s postponed due to the party they are throwing only to reconvene after all the friends have shuffled out the front door. They can drop the veneer and all pretense is cast off again.

She bemoans the fact he’s critical of everything, and he just doesn’t understand her anymore. He’s frustrated that when they finally get some of the things they always dreamed about, his wife seemed to turn unhappy, and he can’t figure it out. It was another picture from 1967 that famously acknowledged a failure to communicate. This one gives it a whole new domestic context.

We see their bedtime rituals and there’s something almost mechanical to them because there’s no intimacy between them even in this highly intimate space as they open cupboards, plug in razors, and do their bits of business…without a word and still somehow in perfect cadence.

By day, Barbara continues seeing a psychologist and Richard begrudgingly gives it a try, although he’s uncomfortable sharing his feelings with a stranger; the way he was brought up it just isn’t done. If we wanted to add something else to their marital complications, it’s their kids. Normally, their two boys would be trapped in the middle, but there’s a pollyanna-like understanding about them. They are so easy-going and well-adjusted as their own parents continue to go down the tubes.

One call to a lawyer and all of a sudden it’s like the trip wires have been set off on both sides. There are trips to joint bank accounts and friends on both sides supply their two cents worth, not to mention their respective legal counsel. It’s not a new phenomenon, but we are reminded how these things can escalate; this is divorce taken to outrageous proportions.

They sit at a table in the law office as their lawyers casually settle their case, mixing in chit-chat about their latest golf games and shared business associates. Then, Richard is taken under the wing of Nelson (Jason Robards), a fellow divorcee, who gives him advice about alimony and how to survive. His life is fairly abysmal and pretty soon Richard is going down the same path moving into his new digs and trying to find romantic direction.

Meanwhile, Barbara tries to make her own way with an oft-married family man (Tom Bosley), getting to know all his children. It devolves into another madcap orchestration, reminiscent of the opening prelude. This time we have the notes of parents and step-parents, kids and step-kids all being assembled for a day out.

With the robust cast, it’s rather curious the film was not better known in its day because it gradually introduces other familiar faces including Joe Flynn, Lee Grant, Robards, Jean Simmons, and Van Johnson.

In the epochal year of 66-67, it does make sense Divorce American Style never received the same plaudits as Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate or Two for the Road. If not altogether a sitcom episode, it’s the American counterpart to its more high profile continental brethren starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

Again, there is the sense of the middle-class malaise where things and stuff and cars are in one sense inconsequential compared to the relationship. And yet they mean everything when it comes to comfort and status.

To the very last frame, there’s something subversive about seeing sweet Debbie Reynolds and lovable Dyke Van Dyke as divorcees with a marriage hitting the skids. But if this is true, there might also be a kind of catharsis for Reynolds when a hypnotist puts her under on a stage in front of a whole host of people. She’s been through so much and there she is throwing off the shackles of all our preconceived notions. She heads off stage and goes to give Van Dyke a big ol’ kiss, effectively rekindling their romance.

The film hasn’t aged particularly well, but then again, what better way for it to remain as a testament to the social mores of the times and the prevalent anxieties? It’s probably better for it. Because all the fracturing, recoupling, and suburbanization of society definitely created a new kind of landscape.

It’s all there in the later scenes as all the stars couple up uneasily. Van Dyke is with Simmons who was Robards’s former spouse. He’s trying to marry her off so the alimony doesn’t break his back. Then, Robards and Simmons try and set up Reynolds with Johnson — a genial used car salesman — because that makes Van Dyke even more unattached.

I tried to make this all needlessly convoluted but hopefully, the point has been made. Love is strange. Love is messy. Love is complicated. If that’s true of love American style, then it’s true of divorce even more so.

3/5 Stars

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963): A Father and Son Story

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father gives off all the signs of a light and frothy romantic comedy. You might envision it already: a widower-about-town with his son playing matchmaker as he tries to navigate the plethora of pretty girls who just happen to orbit around him.

But we must make some distinctions. This is also a film about a little boy and his father after the death of someone very precious to both of them. A wife and a mother. You cannot easily laugh this plot point away, and the movie never does.

It’s equally important to note who our director is. No one would wager this is the artistic height of Vicente Minnelli, but it’s not a throwaway rom-com either; no matter what contemporary audiences might have been led to believe. I’m thinking most specifically of the scene early on where Ron Howard erupts, bawling over his pet goldfish now floating upside down in the tank. His father storms out of the room to go find his bottle and glass as his little boy is comforted by their neighbor from across the hall (Shirley Jones).

Does Minnelli dare include this scene? It risks feeling overwrought, and it absolutely kills any of the convivial feelings the movie looked to engender. But there are plenty more of those to come, and here we get something actually grasping for some kind of meaning; it’s an attempt to make sense of real-life issues, albeit through the Hollywood guise of gorgeous Panavision Metrocolor. This is Minnelli at his best with substance breaking through his usual lavish photography and expert set dressing.

And yet here is some of the quintessential essence of the picture, daring to be more than meets the eye. We are reminded grief is okay and it is natural — they will both miss “Mommy” — and instead of holding in their feelings, they must be open with one another. It’s the only way they can hope to cope. The whole film is a progression along this theme. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is really a father and son picture.

While I won’t say Glenn Ford is as obvious a father figure as Andy Griffith, he still manages the necessary rapport with Ron Howard, and I always do marvel at Howard’s poise for such a young actor. They often tell the stories of child actors who had an expiration date because once their cuteness wore off they didn’t have the acting chops to make it.

Although Howard has transitioned to the director’s chair, I watch him in individual episodes of Andy Griffith or a movie like this, and it does feel like he was capable of range beyond his years. Yes, he’s cute. That’s the easy part, but he also navigates his way through the more labored scenes where there are other emotions. The picture’s always able to fall back on that core relationship.

However, before I overcompensate, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father has plenty of the kind of goofy, at times cringe-worthy, rom-com moments of a certain era. It allows the movie to remain innocent at heart even as it courts other issues.

Take one evening where the two bachelors stop off at an arcade only to make the acquaintance of bodacious Dollye Daly (Stella Stevens). They meet when she asks to borrow Tom’s son for a couple of minutes to ward off the local mashers as she tries to build up her self-confidence. Then, there’s Ford’s colleague at work. Jerry Van Dyke’s flirty radio personality has a habit of proposing dinner dates on the air.

Dina Merrill is a career woman who knows what she wants, and her brand of quiet and mature sophistication is rightfully attractive to Tom. She’s looking for a man to love her on equal terms and despite what her aloof elegance might say against her, she’s another deeply sympathetic figure.

A movie that looks to be about a man and three women actually is at the same time simplified and made vastly more complicated. Dollye and Norman fall in together over bowling. So Eddie’s first choice of partners for his dad falls through. Now to the nitty-gritty. The main tension is between a boy’s feelings and his father’s.

Elizabeth is familiar and comfortable; both a good friend to their deceased mother/wife and an ever-present figure across the hall. She’s a cinematic creation and the kind of person brimming with well-meaning affection. Tom’s feelings for her are complicated. Eddie’s are simple. He feels safe in her presence. There’s a kind of maternal understanding and trust between them already.

Although it’s never stated explicitly, Rita, on the other hand, is attractive because she is so different. When Tom looks at her and spends time with her, he’s rarely reminded of his wife. With Elizabeth, he can’t help but see her. For his boy this is security and for him, it’s a kind of crippling torture. He cannot bear it.

Like any bright kid, Eddie’s extremely observant and precocious in many ways. He asks all the innocently probing questions about how babies are made etc. For him, differentiating cartoon villains from the good guys is a matter of round eyes and thin eyes (along with other salient features).

In one scene, he gives a comical appraisal of Ride the High Country. Meanwhile, for a few brief moments, his father falls asleep to Mogambo‘s screen passion playing out between Clark Gable and the much younger Grace Kelly. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious reflection of Tom’s own yearning to have the love and affection back in his life. If anything, it’s a striking portent.

His jovial housekeeper (Roberta Sherwood) warns him of such a woman looking to take advantage of what he has to offer. Graciously, there aren’t any such women found in the frames of this picture. A New Years’ party with Rita is lovely, and he comes home late at night in a mild euphoria only to bump into Elizabeth. She had a night out with the same old successful doctor; it’s hardly love.

Later, they hold a frenzied birthday party for Eddie that’s chaos personified with all the little kiddies running around. Elizabeth is right in the middle of the adolescent maelstrom and Rita is absent. Then, as his father grows more serious and Eddie has his heartbroken at summer camp, he makes an irrevocable decision. He runs away and seeks refuge with the one person who makes him feel safe — his maternal rock of Gibraltar. If you follow the dramatic arc, there’s only one place the romance can lead.

Yes, it’s rom-com wish-fulfillment, but I’d like to think there’s also a sense of clarity with the movie resorting back to where we needed it to go. What a lovely admission it is that the women are not the easily caricatured heroes and villains of Eddie’s comic book imagination, nor are they completely trivialized down to their appearance. If anything, we get past the superficiality promoted by marketing campaigns.

It’s a father and son movie, first and foremost, and yet we end up admiring all of them. What a lovely person Shirley Jones is. Stella Stevens brims with unparalleled intelligence, and Dina Merill is blessed with poise. Jerry Van Dyke’s not completely repulsive. If he’s the weakest link, then there are worse prices to pay.

3.5/5 Stars

Lonely Are The Brave (1962): The Last Cowboy

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Armed with black and white and rolling plains full of instantly recognizable western exteriors, Lonely Are The Brave goes for an intimate approach. The camera focuses on a man splayed out with his hat tipped over his eyes in slumber. This could have been out of many earlier pictures up until this moment. An instant later the illusion is stripped when a jet cuts across the skyline. It’s an indication of where we are.

Because this is not a blaring lack of continuity. This is a telling signifier. What proves to be out of place is not this jet but the main character at the center of our story. If one of these things is not like the other, then he is indeed the anachronism.

This is the continual struggle of Kirk Douglas’s John W. Burns because even as he fights to maintain his rootless lifestyle reminiscent of the bygone drifting cowhands of old, it’s hardly in vogue with the introduction of social security cards and, for a lack of a better word, civilization. The two diverging stratospheres just don’t gel very well.

The film must sit somewhere atop the list of deceptive film titles. Going in imagining a High Noon-like film about one man standing up in the face of many, instead we get an equally meaningful meditation on the lingering ways of the west in a contemporary context. No thanks to the marketing department, I might add.

However, what does that matter when you employ the considerable wit and wizardry of Dalton Trumbo? He has a ball toying with the most obvious thematic idea of a near-mythical man — an old-time cowboy — whose code of conduct and dwindling philosophy on life butts up against a world that will not have him. He is at odds with it. Averse to fences, boundaries, sectioning off of lands — all now common practice.

He’s indicative of a certain romanticism with his horse and hat out on the range. Even as the pragmatic world around him as passed him by in favor of changing forms of living. This intersection of the remnants of the West with post-war American modernity is made visibly evident when he is forced into playing animal crossing with his horse on a heavily trafficked highway.

When he pays a visit to a woman (Gena Rowlands), there’s something enigmatic about the encounter. A wife, perhaps a lover. At first, we’re not sure. It’s more complicated and less understood. Until it comes out her husband — his best friend — is in prison, and she’s worried about him. Rowlands would have to wait for a true tour de force, but the best compliment I can give is her role has something equally bewitching about it. She’s not quite an entirely conventional housewife.

The subsequent scene takes place in a Mexican-flavored cantina. It proves to be the unlikely arena for an explosive fistfight with a belligerent one-armed man, for what seems to be no reason at all.

If we’re ever told, I’ve no recollection of it and if we weren’t, it doesn’t much matter. It conveniently serves the story twofold. Because we get a rowdy action piece with Douglas duking it out “mano y mano,” while subsequently landing himself a jail sentence so he can drop in on his old buddy as a favor to the incarcerated man’s wife. If this makes little logical sense, then at least it’s different — not where we expect the story to go.

His jail sentence gets dropped and then upped following a police station scuffle carried out while the booking officer dryly lists off the unidentified drifter’s personal belongings like it’s just another day in the office. In the end, Burns keeps his promise to see Paul. There are momentary glimpses this could be a prison movie not unlike Brute Force, Caged, and certainly Cool Hand Luke.

We have a sadistic George Kennedy on the outside of the bars instead of inside. His main adversary is obvious. However, true to character, nothing can keep the cowhand in one place, not even prison.

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The movie is beholden to a cast of giants (current and soon-to-be). Trumbo’s impeccably inventive scripting gives them all the words to emote with wry humor and assorted ticks making them come alive beyond the range of flimsy cinematic outlines.

The plotting itself is of a strange and unorthodox nature, nevertheless buoyed again by the talent and words on the page. Payoffs abound for these very reasons. Otherwise, it would wander as an ill-paced, unfulfilling mess. Thankfully, this is far from the case. The payoffs are strangely affecting, thanks to a story that bides its time, allows for asides, and spends time in untrodden places.

Between Douglas playfully cajoling a recalcitrant new mount and Walter Matthau observing the daily rituals of an unseen mutt outside the office window, Trumbo continually adds these delightfully offbeat touches.

William Schallert — as the good-natured bumpkin officer manning the police radio is in one sense totally aggravating and yet endearing in an innocent way. Even a fresh-faced Bill Bixby is manning the police helicopter the fugitive promptly shoots down from overhead. It’s an unceremonious reversal of fortune with the cowboy’s bullet taking on the whirly gridiron machine down from its illustrious heights.

Still, he cannot hang on forever. Eventually, even his tried and true way will betray him against the rapid assault of constant advancement. It cannot survive just as he cannot. Carrol O’Connor gets only a few solitary lines at the beginning and the end of the picture with rain pounding the highway, but his truck driver has a crucial moment we can all but see coming from a mile away. Though such a realization does not make it any less impactful when it arrives. It was inevitable.

Kirk Douglas, a man known for his intensity (some would say overacting), gives a performance bridled back with his winsome charm. In fact, the entire story plays with this generally lackadaisical, at times, melancholic pacing.

The final act in another picture might be chockful of moments. Lonely are the Brave needs only one. Turner makes one final push to freedom — his escape route, a harrowing ascent into the mountains. As gravity determines, the only way to go is down. It must be the so with John Turner.

So he never quite reaches his apotheosis. He is a partial embodiment of the sentiments of Dylan Thomas’s most famous work — the fight to rage against the dying of the light. Except the light is the way of the West and the battle is lost. It is a foregone conclusion. As time marches on, there is no way to claim victory. One wonders if being the last cowboy is an act of bravery, futility, or folly. Perhaps the answer runs the gamut of all three.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on 2/5/2020.

Le Doulos (1962): Belmondo Plays Bogart

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“In this job you either end up poor or riddled with bullets.” – Jean-Paul Belmondo

Director Jean-Pierre Melville has an impeccable gift for taking the most mundane actions and behaviors and making them so compelling. In the opening notes of Le Doulos, we have an ordinary man strolling across a sidewalk, under an overpass, feet clacking on the pavement. The music rages behind him, as he’s enveloped in shadow and the title credits.

Melville readily leans into his penchant for gangsterism and Hollywood pulp introducing this man with a fedora and trenchcoat. They are an extension of each of his players. Just as each frame is equally tinged with the somber detachment readily available in any of his films. Because the characters are always products of their environment, incubated and cultivated by the writer-director, in the same way; their dress is an extension of their identity.

Le Doulos itself derives from a slang term for a type of “hat,” a police informant. The stoolie, of course, is one of the age-old cretins right up there with traitors and child molesters. No one has any pity for such a miserable excuse for a human being. Conventional wisdom dictates they deserve to be kicked out into the gutter or locked away with the rest of the animals.

Except in some sense, Melville’s picture isn’t making this sort of ready-made statement. There is more to his small-time criminal types, facilitated by a complex plot and nuanced characters. It comes down to the old quandary of honor among thieves. What does human nature have to tell us when wealth and women are involved?

In this particular story, Maurice is a recently paroled thief and as is often the case, he’s already got his next crime in the works. It’s a safe-cracking job involving a former accomplice named Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and one other party.

For being the lead, Belmondo takes some time to integrate into the story, eventually paying a house call on Maurice and his lady friend Therese. And yet from his first entrance, he takes to the environment like a fish to water. If Alain Delon helped develop the aesthetic of Melville, Belmondo deserves a prominent place as well. They both make compelling criminals because their charisma is irrefutable.

For me, a defining moment for the Belmondo persona was standing outside the movie house mimicking the tough guy iconography of Humphrey Bogart in Breathless (1960) because for French cinema he was at home in the same world and thus, there was hardly a more suitable partner in crime, as it were, than Melville.

One cannot say he’s carved out of the same block as Bogey. He’s impudent even a bit scrawny, but there’s nevertheless, a rogue charm to him. Handsome in a way that assumes the complete antithesis of a classical matinee idol.

I couldn’t help but think how quaint and simple petty theft was to commit in the old days. That is, until it isn’t. There’s nothing elaborate about the blue-collar crime, in fact, it’s a banal safe cracking job. We know not if there’s even any payoff worth noting. However, even this scenario gets botched when other gangsters come on the scene.

One cannot help but think of Band a Parte – made the following year — as Godard famously counted Melville among his idols, even giving him a small role in Breathless. He subsequently took his advice on how to edit the picture, hence the birth of his famous jump cuts.

At first, I assumed this latest wrinkle was the police being tipped off, but that would make our title too easy. This is not Melville. We must constantly revise our opinions of our central protagonists.  As is, it feels as if the film might be climaxing about an hour too early. How will there ever be a story out of what’s left to talk about? And yet Le Doulos stays true to form by analyzing such a stooge in his natural habitat.

Instead, he lets one criminal bleed out and another one get it in the gut from Maurice’s pistol. All of a sudden, more prison time seems an all-too-likely possibility as he sweats it out. This is where Belmondo shines, playing all sides, as a perceptive wheeler-dealer working both angles on the cops and robbers.

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Silien is openly accommodating to the police, including their hard-bitten chief (Jean Desailly). When they look to question him at the station — a wonderfully blocked sequence with nary a cut — a normally bland and subpar scenario we have to live with, is made far more compelling.

The informant begins his obligatory rounds including a visit to a gambling house. It’s a quintessential Melville moment as he follows the fedora through hatcheck as one of the blatant symbols at the core of his picture, as worn by Belmondo, in particular. It is his marker just as guns and trench coats are also some of Melville’s directorial calling cards.

Then Michel Piccoli walks through the side-door of the nightclub. Perhaps he’s the key. And yet it’s not him, just as it’s not the three female characters who are all pawns — not only compliant accomplices to the male lovers in their lives — but mechanisms of the director to move the story.

It would sound overly harsh if most, if not all, of Melville’s characters were not also relayed to us in this fashion. Even this severity somehow fits the world and conveniently functions for the sake of the story.

What becomes evident is just how convoluted Le Doulos is, which is especially surprising for a French film but, of course, this is another fitting hallmark borrowed from American noir. Melville employs several expositional scenes and even some flashbacks, in order to fill in some ambiguities in the story thus far.

By the time we reach the finale and the final steps of this picture, there is a satisfying if fatalistic weight to the dramatic situation. The abysmally rain-drenched ending is also immersive cinema at its finest.

Because what is a gangster picture if not marred by some dark current of tragedy? Belmondo is not what we believed him to be and yet in the natural order, he cannot be allowed to exist. Fate has not allowed for it. Fittingly, his final act is to straighten his fedora in the mirror one last time. Bogart would have been proud. He went out an unequivocal anti-hero.

4/5 Stars

Two For The Road (1967): A Rom-Com for a New Era

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“If there’s one thing I despise it’s an indispensable woman.” – Albert Finney

The world seemed a very different place in 1967. It had changed and with it, love and the romantic comedy underwent a transformation of its own. Because, in some sense, humanity had reached a new tipping point. It’s easy to make assumptions: to cite Vietnam, social unrest, student protests, racial violence, any number of issues. There was this underlying implication the 50s and the early 60s (before November 22nd, 1963) were a time of hope and promise — surplus naivete.

Even the films had changed. Just look to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde. Then, there was a new batch of progressive works like In The Heat of The Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Two for The Road must fit into this puzzle as well, though it’s place is more difficult to explain and thus, we might wager a guess why it’s not often voiced in the same company. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with it being a weaker movie. Still, because it doesn’t capture the “moment” as much, it cannot easily be rewarded for being cutting-edge.

And yet, in its own way, it was of its time and representative of this ongoing form of change. Because it is a mature romance. Audrey Hepburn — the movie-watching world’s darling — has had her heart broken, been trampled on, and done some irreparable damage of her own.

This was not just make-believe, mind you. Reality and the theatrical overlap closer than we probably realize (Hepburn’s marriage to Mel Ferrer was sadly on a fast decline). However, Stanley Donen, coming from his pedigree as a musical maestro, never quite lost the sense of romanticism — his belief in magical things.

You could say Audrey Hepburn was one of the perfect embodiments of his beliefs because she was so sweet, demure, and beautiful. We can all imagine her at the center of romances galore — she was in some of the most iconic, after all. And yet amidst the lingering illusions of Hollywood, there is this sense of something more heart-wrenching and hard.

Albert Finney might be the finest vehicle to acts as an opposite force of nature — larger-than-life, barrel-chested, and in many ways the utter antithesis of Audrey. He came of age in the resurgence of Britain’s gritty kitchen sink dramas. He was by no means a counter-cultural figure, but he has the gusto of a Brando and his disciples — a bit of the cocky bravado that’s nevertheless disarming. In no small way, they make the perfect couple in cinematic terms, sitting at the crossroads of the decade. Somehow they’ve met and found themselves on near equal footing.

The story itself, by Frederic Raphael, is ambitious as it skips and jumps through a love story, a constant exercise in cuts and whip-fast transitions. In fact, you might say Two For the Road is won in the editing room even more so than most films because it builds peaks and valleys with both a frenetic pace and constant changing snapshots of life. It resonates on these levels without ever feeling turgid. If it does turn on a dime, then it gives the freedom — the necessary space — for leeway and visual connections between past and present.

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It commences at the beginning of the end. The husband and wife slump in a car, watching cynically as a pair of newlyweds walk out of a church. They see their youth reflected back at them. But there were happier times once, what now seems like many eons ago.

The adolescent days full of sun-soaked afternoons and equally idyllic intentions. The French countryside was ripe with promise. Open-air automobiles and “thou” was all that necessitated a contented life. Of course, those were the days when “thou” meant a happy companion. Riding in the MG with a persistent “donk” in the engine only facilitated moments to look back on and laugh.

Finney is constantly mislaying his passport, chomping through apple scruff, and doing his Bogart impressions. One of his finest hours is strolling into a ritzy hotel that they can’t afford, his coat bulging with the edible spoils from the outside — only to drop them all over the lobby.

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Hepburn is clothed in red, hair free, and alive on so many levels. Picking up a ride as a hitchhiker a la Claudette Colbert. Seeking shelter from the rain or frolicking in the shallows without a care in the world. It’s an extension of her earlier personas from Roman Holiday and Funny Face.

Then come the spirals charting the bitter dissolution of a marriage as it crumbles into fractured pieces of apathy. Affairs follow on both sides, involving a cajoling lady motorist and a supremely confident French romantic. We cannot help but feel they are pale imitations of the real thing. They are only a momentary antidote. They cannot truly satisfy and repair the wounds.

The paradoxical aspect of love is evident with time. Yes, the honeymoon is over, the nagging begins, the arguments, raised voices, life gets in the way. And yet somehow it seems true that you often only know you love somebody else after the speed bumps and roadblocks. Closer still, you love them in spite of them.

Henry Mancini’s score is one of his most lastingly melancholy, striking the notes back and forth between a whirly gig warmth of summer carnivals and then the summers after when you’ve fallen out of love. The repeating string motif continually reinforces this feeling even as he reaches out for lingering bits of nostalgia.

Because there’s a playfulness dancing within the frames just as there is elegance. How can it not be with Audrey Hepburn? So, while we have a sense these are movie stars — glamorous, richly-attired, all the superlatives — their love affair is besieged with the slings and arrows aimed at each of us.

Petty squabbles. Tedium. Poor communication. Evaporating memories. Jobs and families. Reprioritized lives. Most important of all, falling back in love — even if it’s only the hint of a spark — sometimes it’s enough. So have Audrey and Donen grown into a new decade? We must admit they are different, wiser, wounded even, but the great gift is how Two for The Road still leaves some space for love to exist.

In the midst of a myriad of distractions and messy lives between flawed people, it really is a miracle. It is romance coming to terms with changing times and yet not quite giving up on the ideals of romantic commitment.

4/5 Stars