Wednesday, May 26, 2010
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Familiar words to any STAR WARS fan out there and, as some may have noticed, also spoken by Jorge Garcia’s Hurley at the end of the teaser of the final episode of LOST. The show has made numerous references (some subtle, some pretty blatant) to various elements of STAR WARS during its six seasons but this hugely obvious example so close to the end came off as one final way for the show’s creative personnel to pay tribute to something that was very much a key inspiration point--hey, it's the last episode, why the hell not? It was also fitting that it came at a time of year when these films once opened and I doubt that I’m the only person who will forever associate the period around Memorial Day weekend with the excitement they used to generate.
I think it was around the time several years ago when I started to write this blog that I started to mentally remove myself from the whole STAR WARS thing. The thirtieth anniversary of the original film hit, REVENGE OF THE SITH was long since done with and something deep down inside of me just thought, “I think I’m done.” I felt I had squeezed everything I could from the many times I’d seen these films, I’d had every exasperated argument about the prequels I could ever have and I’d made just about every dialogue reference I could ever make in my daily life, though I probably still make some occasionally anyway. It wasn’t that I suddenly didn’t like the films and it certainly wasn’t that I felt like I’d outgrown them—anybody who knows me would tell you that I’m not mature enough to have outgrown anything. I just needed to move on. I needed to do other things, see other films, to expand my horizons a little. Life is finite. There are too many films I still have yet to see but I’m doing my best.
And then suddenly we hit the thirtieth anniversary of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, released May 21, 1980. Not just the date, but a special benefit screening for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood that would feature special appearances by certain famous people. A very close friend procured some difficult-to-acquire tickets, said to me, “Happy Birthday,” even though my birthday was still over a month away, and I changed the date on the plane ticket I’d bought for a trip to New Mexico. Not because I felt like I had any obligation, but because I wanted to revisit this film once again and pay tribute to how it’s stayed with me all this time.
Looking at THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK now the film seems almost miraculous in its daring approach, not in any kind of bash-George-Lucas way, but because of all the chances it takes throughout beginning with a structure that almost seems as if it shouldn’t work at all. The lead characters don’t even do anything particularly much in the film’s first fifteen minutes which is an odd way to start things off but it definitely prepares us for how much more serious things are going to be. We never could have expected how it would send the STAR WARS universe beyond what any of us kids expected during those years before 1980 playing with all those action figures in our rooms. Instead of simply sending our heroes on another adventure (Luke, Han & Leia have to go on another mission to try to defeat the Empire, yadda yadda) it found ways to deepen the characters, truly turning them from fun archetypes that we were happy to see again into a part of genuine myth. The screenplay is credited to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan with story by Lucas but much of the credit for its success should probably go to director Irvin Kershner who takes an approach to infuse things with a true feeling of depth and humanity not seen in the saga before or since, giving a reality and strength to the continuation of this saga. It almost seems defiantly dreamlike in how it refuses to make any real sense if you think about it—what exactly is the timeframe of this movie? How long is Luke on Dagobah? A day? A month? Do you care? Do I?
On the DVD audio commentary Kershner offers his view that, “There’s nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face,” a viewpoint that Executive Producer George Lucas doesn’t seem to have expressed at any point in his career and certainly not in the creation of the prequels. Taking some time away from this film allowed me to look at it with fresher eyes, probably an advisable approach for any film a person loves, and the one thing that stuck out to me more than anything is how Kershner’s statement is proven time and again—all throughout I found myself paying attention to the looks characters give, bits of business that say much more than any dialogue ever could and this as well all know is a film with very memorable dialogue. George Lucas has often spoken in interviews of how his stories are told through images but it’s Kershner as director here who seems to understand how much the human element really matters in putting those images together to tell this part of the story. That look Luke and Han give each other before the Hoth battle doesn’t need them to say anything, as if the movie knows that all the time we’ve played with their action figures has allowed us to fill the dialogue in on our own. Carrie Fisher’s constant looks of dread throughout, Billy Dee Williams’ deadly serious turn to the silent Lobot when the deal has been changed once again pays off each time we’ve seen the guy standing there behind him. The coolness of Boba Fett (of course, we kids had already been introduced to that character in the infamous Holiday Special) transcends the mere handful of lines he has, even that side glance Yoda gives after raising the X-Wing fighter, a moment with such strength that I can never think of the character as a mere puppet. I’ve also always had a particular fondness for the subplot involving Captain-then-Admiral Piett (nice unheralded work by Kenneth Colley) which seems to take place almost entirely with nervous expressions given all through the film.
But really, everyone involved seems to be working at peak form here from Kershner to Director of Photography Peter Suschitsky to the quantum leap from the first film in the special effects from ILM as well as of course John Williams who provides possibly the best single score of his entire career—there are too many moments to single out but I always get a kick out of the hyper-intense rendition of the Imperial March when they move the ship out of the asteroid field to send a clear transmission. For the first time ever I found myself thinking about the character of Lando Calrissian being a renegade forced by success into becoming successful and how that related to Francis Ford Coppola in the APOCALYPSE NOW days trying to make a full studio out of Zoetrope Pictures. For that matter, Lando’s comments about how his facility isn’t part of the Mining Guild made me think of Lucas’s own problems with the DGA, leading to his resignation, back during this time. So are Han Solo and Lando meant to represent the warring sides of Lucas and Coppola in their struggles to remain independent of Hollywood? These definitely weren’t issues that I was thinking about when I first saw it (a few times in 1980 and I remember also going during the summer ’81 re-release), thinking more about the anguish that Mark Hamill was projecting as his character learned things about himself he never wanted to know. The tone is perfect for the age I was at the time—the first film is giddy youth, this one moves to the time of adolescence and acknowledges just how confusing and baffling everything is—were we really just supposed to go back to all our STAR WARS toys after experiencing this? How to reconcile what this film achieves with the adulthood that the saga arrives at in RETURN OF THE JEDI is something I’m just going to avoid thinking about for the time being.
For the record, the version shown at this event was the most recent version of the Special Edition which includes the Ian McDiarmid version of the Emperor added in for his one scene (because this screening was for charity, I will refrain from dwelling on how the digital projection at the Arclight looked but it certainly wasn’t up to the standards of a pristine 35mm film print). Of the three films, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK probably had the least alterations made to it for the ’97 re-release (“…and a few new surprises,” as the trailers went) but it does feature what I think is the absolute worst—following Darth Vader as he travels via shuttle back to his Star Destroyer at the end of the film which wreaks havoc on the masterful editing of the climax and seems totally unnecessary. Was anyone really confused by how he got back there? Why didn’t they show us how he got on Hoth at the beginning of the film while they were at it? Even as a kid the simplicity of Vader stating “Bring my shuttle,” after what had just happened with Luke stuck out to me and spoke volumes. Now that’s been wrecked. The whole Greedo shooting first thing in A NEW HOPE certainly makes for a better punch line in a Kevin Smith movie but I’ve always looked at this change as far more damaging.
To help celebrate this anniversary, guests attending the event included Billy Dee Williams, Peter “Chewbacca” Mayhew, Ewan McGregor, directors Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau, Ashlee Simpson (Seriously. I was wondering what she was doing in the row in front of me) and, most importantly, Harrison Ford, making a rare STAR WARS-related appearance which included a Q&A after the film. You get pretty used to seeing celebrities in this town but spotting the one and only Harrison Ford from just a few feet away was still pretty damn cool. I was also impressed to see that he actually watched the entire film, right down the row from me no less, and claimed during the discussion that it was the first time he’d seen it in thirty years. When asked what he thought of it he replied, “I think I’ve been a really lucky guy.” Among the topics Ford discussed was his original casting in the role while working as a carpenter for Francis Ford Coppola, the travails of location shooting in Norway on EMPIRE as well as amusingly recounting getting acquainted with the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon on the first film. He didn’t get to see the set until the first day they shot there (“I was anxious to get into it and see what 'my office' looked like”) and no one had an answer when he asked how he was supposed to be appearing to ‘drive’ the thing. It also wasn’t discovered until then that Peter Mayhew was too big to simply slip into the seat and it had to be done through the magic of editing. When asked what advice Alec Guinness had given him at the time, Ford said that it mostly had to do with finding acceptable housing for the duration of the shoot and he said that when taking a look at STAR WARS just a few days before this screening (for ‘reference’ he said and it’s amusing to picture him sitting at home watching it) he realized that he was now six years older than Guinness was when they were shooting that film. He mused about being fortunate to work for Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas at the height of their powers and when asked about the infamous “I know” line to Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia he seemed to confirm that he was the one who came up with the line to give the moment more character than simply “I love you too”—which he says was also shot—but gave full credit to Irvin Kershner for being the one who fought to keep it in against George Lucas who thought it would get a bad laugh. He also briefly discussed the upcoming COWBOYS AND ALIENS which is to be directed by Jon Favreau and in which Ford will be playing, no real surprise, one of the cowboys. It was briefly mentioned by the moderator that the 87 year-old Kershner is apparently not doing well but no details were given. At one point during the discussion I noticed that while motioning to make a point Ford briefly pointed with his finger as he has done so many times in his films and I just burst out into a smile. I don’t know how many other people there noticed this brief moment but it certainly made me very happy and made the night that much more special.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK remains so good, has dated so well that just looking at a few minutes of it is a reminder of how many would-be blockbusters over the past thirty years have lacked the depth and passion it achieved, not to mention the skill in how it was all put together. EMPIRE is one of the most successful examples of that dream of movies that those of a particular generation saw when we were growing up that mattered to us more than we could explain and they rarely ever rose to this level again, but in some ways we still haven’t woken up from that dream. The legacy of STAR WARS will always be a part of my love for films for better or worse and even if I don’t need to spend much time in that world right now it’s still going to mean a great deal to the kid in me who still has yet to actually grow up. I can't say enough times how glad I am that I got to be at the Arclight that night. As for how I’ll feel when we get to the thirtieth anniversary of RETURN OF THE JEDI, well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
When TCM ran Billy Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR on their weekly series “The Essentials” recently I was impressed that co-host Alec Baldwin seemed to be slightly perplexed that they were showing the film. As the actor put it to Robert Osborne, aside from the presence of Marlene Dietrich and how the film provides a look at Wilder’s recognizable style at a point where it was still in development, he found it to be a film with numerous problems including the casting of one of the leads and for him these flaws meant it didn’t quite qualify as an “Essential”. I was impressed by this partly because these days you don’t often see somebody on TV say ‘Here’s what I don’t like about what we’re going to show you!’ and also because while I don’t know much about what Alec Baldwin likes—does he only go for the confirmed classics?—I found myself kind of agreeing with him. His viewpoint was considerably unlike Cameron Crowe who in his book “Conversations With Wilder”, which I try to always keep within arms reach, completely praises the film and proclaims it, “The undiscovered classic”. Wilder acts proud of it to Crowe, but also points out that, “Nobody ever talked to me about this picture.” Make no mistake that as far as I’m concerned A FOREIGN AFFAIR, released in 1948, is a very good movie and does certainly present an invaluable look at Wilder’s style during a key stage in his career (among other points in its favor) but having said that it still doesn’t feel like the masterpiece that several other of his films from this period are. And I say that as somebody who regularly worships at the altar of Billy Wilder, who never wants to be too far away from my DVDs of several of his best films. In recent years the reputation of ACE IN THE HOLE seems to have gone from unsung flop to confirmed classic but I’m not sure how many people other than Cameron Crowe are making such a case for A FOREIGN AFFAIR. I’d love to be as enthusiastic but there are some issues including in the casting and the writing that for me mean that it just misses being in the top tier of his work, as valuable to history as the entire film is.
In post-war Berlin, Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives from her home state of Iowa (“62% Republican, thank you,” she proudly states) with several Congressmen for an inspection of the troops. Horrified by the wild behavior of what looks to her like America soldiers wildly cavorting with comely fräuleins, she becomes particularly curious about the possible Nazi past of cabaret singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) and who might be protecting her. She enlists Captain John Pringle (John Lund) to aid in her investigation, not knowing that Pringle is in fact the officer she’s looking for. He tries to woo Frost to throw her off the scent but he soon has to deal with the possible jealousy of Erika while elements of her own past have yet to fully come to light.
Shot partly on location among the ruins of post-war Berlin, it’s very much a work by Billy Wilder which is made obvious as soon as we see lead actor John Lund driving a mattress he’s just procured for his German lover through the bombed out streets as a jaunty version of “Isn’t It Romantic” plays on the soundtrack. Containing what at one point is essentially a documentary tour of Berlin giving a brief Hollywoodized feel of Italian neorealism with acidic asides-–“Over there, there’s the balcony where he bet his Reich would last a thousand years. That’s the one that broke the bookie’s hearts,” it’s hard to imagine what director out there today would even think about making a contemporary version of this type of material—some of the dialogue about how things are going in Berlin does sound somewhat familiar in this day and age. On a historic level alone, A FOREIGN AFFAIR probably was never appreciated very highly by the military of the U.S. State Department but it deserves to be better known if only for what it documents (the setup has a passing resemblance to Steven Soderbergh’s unsuccessful pastiche THE GOOD GERMAN). But while its unapologetic feeling in its portrayal of post-war Berlin is genuinely cutting aided by strikingly beautiful black and white cinematography by Charles Lang, the romantic comedy aspect in this screenplay Wilder, Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen has always felt somewhat weaker, making the film seem more mild in the end than it needs to be even with the surroundings and all that amazing dialogue (“Don’t tell me it’s subversive to kiss a Republican!” as well as maybe my favorite, “And it wasn’t, if you’ll pardon the non-Aryan expression, Kosher.” ).
Maybe Wilder’s thoughts were (understandably) elsewhere considering everything that was surrounding him in Berlin but the telling of the story feels like it can’t reconcile the American-to-the-bone feelings of its two leads in the end with the life force of Nazi bitch Erika as played by the legendary Dietrich (who, it should be said, was a devout anti-Nazi who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for extensive work for the USO during the war and who needed convincing before she agreed to accept this role) who is nevertheless its most layered character as well as mind-bogglingly sexy even when seen in close-up with a mouth full of toothpaste and spitting water at her leading man in her very first scene. I mean, really, has there ever been anyone else like Marlene Dietrich on this planet? Jean Arthur’s comic skill allows for the demonstration of her character’s preciseness when we first meet her which is about as good a character introduction as you can imagine but in the early going she seems to be too much of a comical figure, with her hair always up in a bun making her seem a little too matronly (“a face scrubbed like a kitchen floor,” as von Schlütow laughingly describes her) and trying too hard to seem prissy. When the character loosens up, with the actress embracing playing a prissy person learning to loosen up for the first time by buying into the illusions of forbidden Berlin she works much better (although, interestingly, even then she never literally lets her hair down). As she belts out “Ioway (That’s Where The Tall Corn Grows)” in a nightclub winning over everyone around her it’s hard not to be charmed and I still can’t get that song out of my head. John Lund, an actor who was being pushed for a stardom at this point which never really took and who Crowe makes a big case for, isn’t bad and comes off as a somewhat earth-bound Clark Gable but he seems a little weak in comparison to his leading ladies, not making as much of an impression as he should and it’s hard not to imagine other stars of the time who could have worked better—Grant? Holden? Mitchum? Hell, Gable?
One thing that is made interesting is that it’s a film where the male lead is in his mid-thirties and playing opposite two women well into their forties—they don’t necessarily look much older than him but they certainly seem much more worldly and mature. In a sense, A FOREIGN AFFAIR is about a boy caught between two women, the spunky youth of the WWII era with no interest in going back home to boring old Iowa and ultimately has to decide between the bosom of matronly middle America and the undeniably more enticing Germany, albeit one of secrets that can never be forgiven. He’s a fairly likable scoundrel but as played by Lund never seems like he’s charasmatic enough to fully deserve either woman. It’s not a choice that you can get a really satisfying answer to in such a biting satire dealing with such serious matters and it’s almost hard for me to believe the light-hearted nature of the end. I’m not sure I believe that Billy Wilder believed it. What Wilder presents throughout very much feels like the ambivalence of someone who fled Berlin in 1933 and lost his family in the camps, displaying a combination of pure love and unforgiving hatred that he had for that city and the people who survived to live there. He doesn’t paint the Germans still around as evil—as she presents it, Erika had her reasons in doing what she did to survive but they’re nnot anything that could ever be at all dismissed. She’s certainly not an innocent who was forced to do the things she did and is even spotted in a newsreel coyly whispering into the ear of Hitler himself. Wilder’s lack of total judgment towards Erika could very well come from memories of certain women he knew in Berlin back before he fled—Ed Sikov’s essential Wilder biography “On Sunset Boulevard” (that’s right, I’ve got several books on Wilder) also contains information on a bizarre treatment written by Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and Jacques Thery in 1939 titled HEIL, DARLING! about an American correspondent who falls in love with a beautiful Nazi doctor (presumably similar to Garbo in NINOTCHKA), an idea which now sounds like a bad joke and was, obviously, never filmed. The director’s feelings of ambivalence only went so far, of course, and according to one account while looking at aerial footage of bombed-out Berlin an assistant editor remarked that he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Germans, at which point Wilder jumped to his feet and yelled, “To hell with those bastards! They burned most of my family in their damned ovens! I hope they burn in hell!” Decades later after seeing SCHINDLER’S LIST he spoke of looking for his mother while viewing the scenes of Jews being put onto the trains and out from these very raw feelings came this romantic comedy so the bitterness from both sides is there but a few of the other elements aren’t quite as strong. I’m not sure how they possibly could have been.
When Dietrich is on screen the film has soul and it becomes something else entirely, more resonant, more alive, more than it ever does when we’re focusing on our American protagonists which is interesting in a dramatic sense but still makes it play a little lopsided. When the story pauses to let Dietrich sing in the nightclub where some of it is set on several occasions (unforgettable songs by Frederick Hollander), it’s haunting. It stings. It has a pulse that is undeniable. When Frost and von Schlütow, the two rivals who by all accounts should hate each other finally begin talking with all pretenses put aside that blood continues to flow. The rest of the film has sharp wit in the dialogue, memorable imagery in what we see all around where things take place but it feels like it just falls short because we can almost sense the unsatisfying payoff things are building to. There’s also some plot near the end involving luring someone out of hiding that feels a little brushed off, as if Wilder just wasn’t very interested, not with everything else around him. Its best moments are so strong, so significant in the context of post-war filmmaking that it almost seems a shame that it has to revert to the standard expectations from neatly wrapping things up.
Wilder, for his part, seems to have been pleased by Lund, saying, “He was good, but he was not great,”—maybe he regarded the actor as easy to deal with when compared to Dietrich and Arthur who were each handfuls in their own way. Dietrich was enamored completely with her own self but the director got along with her unlike the much more insecure Arthur who called him on the phone forty years later to tell him she had finally seen the film, it was wonderful and she was sorry for how she behaved. It’s too her credit how much she holds her own with she and Dietrich really get to play off each other. And while it’s a fair argument that when you have Marlene Dietrich in your movie playing a role like this you almost don’t need anyone else but it still feels a little like there’s an unfortunate lack of supporting characters, someone for either the Lund or Arthur characters to interact with. The character of Pringle could probably use a best friend to bounce off of and the congressmen who accompany Frost almost come off as something like the elderly professors in BALL OF FIRE but aren’t vivid enough to serve this function and don’t have much screen time anyway. Millard Mitchell, the studio head in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, does have some nice moments throughout as the Colonel in charge of everyone, continually scratching the side of his nose with his middle finger and smart enough to know that he only has so much power over his men in the streets of Berlin where anything goes.
Even if it was Billy Wilder’s most personal film, which he seemed to confirm to Cameron Crowe, that alone doesn’t make it his best and the concept of The Essential, however TCM categorizes it, is probably up to the individual seeing any one particular film. Maybe some that remain problematic decades after they were made are just as essential for their own reasons as the classics the entire world seems to agree on. It contains certain flaws, but A FOREIGN AFFAIR is alive, vibrant, has reams of quotable dialogue and is of some historic note. It just lacks in perfection. And maybe you could say that a Billy Wilder film lacking in perfection, especially one that contains Marlene Dietrich, is pretty close to perfect anyway when compared with everything else. And, essentially, perhaps that’s all that really matters.
Friday, May 14, 2010
It’s an ongoing thing how I seem to be indulging my desire to finally catch up with films that I have vague memories of opening when I was a kid but didn’t get to see. My parents never took me to FLASH GORDON or THE BLACK HOLE, to name two that come to mind, but they get points for knowing enough to bring me to see RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on its opening weekend, a memory that will always stay with me. I even remember going with them to see ARTHUR of all things so I guess a film where the title character picked up a hooker in the first scene was acceptable. One early eighties movie they also didn’t take me to was THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER though I actually do remember it not being well received at all at the time. So in finally getting to take a look at it and scratching this long standing itch I can confirm that, yeah, the film isn’t very good. It’s a handsomely mounted production but comes off as totally lopsided both storywise and visually, as well as featuring a number of actors who cause it all to play much flatter than it really should. Thinking of the film in the context of when it was released on May 22, 1981 (just a few weeks before RAIDERS, to be precise) and what the story’s approach is makes me wonder just who it was even supposed to be for. Incidentally, the film came in third on its opening weekend, well behind BUSTIN’ LOOSE and THE FOUR SEASONS despite playing in more theaters than either film. I’m going to guess that nothing was going to keep the western from being dead and buried in the early 80s but this film, which became a somewhat notorious flop during that period, probably didn’t help things any.
When his mother and father are killed by bandits, young John Reid is rescued and brought to live among the Indians who raise him as one of their own until John’s brother Dan shows up to send him back east but not before John makes a bond with his young friend Tonto who tells him that he will always be Kemosabe, trusted friend. Years later, the adult John Reid (Klinton Spilsbury) returns out west to practice law and be with his brother, now a Texas Ranger. Before he can act on a possible romance with Amy Striker (Juanin Clay) the niece of the local newspaper editor who he shared a stagecoach with, John joins his brother on a posse which tragically ends with the Rangers ambushed by a gang led by the vicious Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), a disgraced former Major with dreams of a “New Texas” that he will presumably control. When John is left for dead he is discovered by the now-adult Tonto (Michael Horse) who nurses him back to health among his people, giving John the chance to create his own secret identity of a man in a mask, a force who will fight evil along with a white horse who he names Silver after the type of bullet Tonto provides him with (“Silver is pure. A symbol of justice and purity...”). Meanwhile, Cavendish is formulating a plan to kidnap the visiting President Ulyssses S. Grant (Jason Robards) and possibly kill him, meaning that only the Lone Ranger with his trusty sidekick Tonto can possibly stop him.
Looking up this film for research reminded me just how huge a symbol The Lone Ranger was for the Baby Boomer generation. It’s not something I have any real connection to beyond knowledge of the character and William Tell overture being used as his them still somehow being a part of pop culture when I was a kid, but I guess even that’s long since passed. Providing such a huge backstory for this character who until then had always been a figure of mystery was probably tantamount to heresy at the time but that aspect now actually makes the film seem about twenty-five years ahead of the curve considering how every single character revived in this era has to fill in all those blanks. Even its deliberate holding back of the William Tell fanfare until an hour in with the exception of a few brief musical quotes isn’t all that different from how CASINO ROYALE refrained from using the full Bond theme until the very end in 2006. I didn’t sit down wanting to dislike this film but every time I began to take pleasure in a moment, an action beat or just the old-fashioned pleasure of watching an actual western, the movie would pretty much kill off that enjoyment with its own heavy-handedness. Directed by legendary cinematographer William A. Fraker, the film bears all the marks of someone who knew more to pay attention to visuals than to the specifics of the action in front of the camera or how to assemble these visuals into a compelling story. Much of the film seems to be shot using the same filter Fraker used when he was D.P. on Spielberg’s similarly-gauzy 1941 (for the record, Lazlo Kovacs served that function on this film) and its haziness just winds up making me sleepy, continually losing interest in the already lackluster story. Maybe the production got a deal on any film stock left over from HEAVEN’S GATE. During one evening festival scene early in the film there’s so much ‘atmosphere’ in the frame that it becomes difficult to tell exactly what’s going on and all the hard work that various craftsmen must have put into designing this western town seems for naught.
It feels like a train wreck of tone or maybe one was never even decided on, like there was a deliberate attempt to not do an update of old-fashioned serials in the style of STAR WARS and SUPERMAN but in trying to be as earnest as possible it just winds up coming off as a drag. Several of the main actors are too wooden, much of the dialogue is flat and clichéd, at times it feels too violent for kids (was it meant for kids? You’d think so, but I’m still not sure) and maybe worst of all it’s just not much fun. It barely even seems like it was ever meant to be fun. We get people being violently blown away by bad guys and then the Lone Ranger confidently shooting guns out of people’s hands instead of wounding them which is probably meant to show how much more noble he is but the various elements never fit together in a cohesive fashion. Even a lot of the admittedly impressive stunt work just winds up looking a lot like, well, impressive stunt work. There’s also some spectacularly awful rhyming narration by Merle Haggard, credited as “The Balladeer”, which must have made the film seem like an episode of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD to people when it was released. You get to hear Haggard sing “The Man in the Mask” as well, which gets worked into the score by John Barry whose work here goes for the sort of lush mystery and romance that his music was beginning to focus on at the time. In THE BLACK HOLE that sort of approach certainly helped the mood but here it winds up not only making things way too ponderous and when the familiar theme finally does come into play it just feels out of place with the slow, steady fanfares we’ve been hearing. The story of a white man living among Indians does provide for an unexpected comparison point with Barry’s score for DANCES WITH WOLVES, however. This world is so gritty and nasty with no sense of adventure or real excitement that the Lone Ranger winds up seeming like he’s in the wrong movie. Maybe if he’d been allowed to be a stronger presence that would have helped…but he isn’t.
The Ranger’s origin story takes about as long as the buildup in SUPERMAN and when the character finally makes his spectacular first appearance it feels like a beat designed to exactly emulate Christopher Reeve’s introduction but in that film we still had practically an entire movie of fun to go. Here we just get some dull mini-adventure that involves saving President Grant and getting revenge on Cavendish that isn’t very exciting or satisfying at all (Cumbersome screenplay credits—Screenplay by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts and Michael Kane and William Roberts, adaptation by Jerry Derloshon). The film only runs 98 minutes with at least one major character disappearing from the film at a certain point but some sections are paced in so lethargic a fashion that I could imagine somebody easily removing twenty minutes from what’s here. Losing most of the endless slow motion footage would be a good start. One point of interest to people may be the scenes involving stuntman Terry Leonard’s attempt to traverse under a runaway stagecoach during an early scene. The trick apparently went wrong, injuring him in the process, but Leonard wound up trying it again during the production of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK some time later for when Indiana Jones makes the similar move underneath the Nazi truck. That time, as we all know, he was successful.
I don’t even know how much I want to criticize some of the actors since there doesn’t seem to be much point. Klinton Spilsbury, definitely no Christopher Reeve, never appeared in another movie and became kind of a punchline for film geeks from all this. Suffice it to say that he never projects much personality as either the Lone Ranger or John Reid (presumably no relation to the only American ever buried in the Kremlin that was played by Warren Beatty), with his voice even being dubbed over as flatly as possible by James Keach. There’s nothing to be gained in denigrating him further. Female lead Juanin Clay, probably best remembered now for playing Dabney Coleman’s assistant in WARGAMES, gets an ‘introducing’ credit here at the age of thirty-one and she looks considerably older. She’s kind of a nonentity but she died in 1995, so there’s nothing to be gained in dwelling how she doesn’t make much of an impression. Michael Horse, best known as Deputy Hawk on TWIN PEAKS, does manage to bring a considerable amount of dignity to the role of Tonto and Jason Robards is such appropriate casting as Ulysses S. Grant that he deserved to play him in a better film. He also says a certain famous line near the end that we’ve been waiting the whole movie to hear and he even pulls it off. Richard Farnsworth appears briefly as Wild Bill Hickok, making me wish we could also see him play that role in another film, but the best performance is easily given by Christopher Lloyd who uses his off-kilter nature to enhance Cavendish’s nastiness and keeps it consistent all the way through, with none of the eccentricities that might be associated with the actor. There’s one icy close-up of Lloyd early on which is so effective that it almost makes me want to defend the rest of the film on general principle, but it rarely rises up to that level. Lloyd’s future BUCKAROO BANZAI co-star Matt Clark (that film’s Secretary of Defense, along with a million other credits) appears here as the town Sheriff as well.
The bad publicity that came out of the lawsuit around the time of its release by the character’s owners to get Clayton Moore, the star of the legendary television series, to stop wearing the mask in personal appearances didn’t help the film’s chances but it probably didn’t matter much in the end. To add to the odd history surrounding the film the most recent DVD was released full frame for some reason but recent airings on cable are in the full 2.35:1 Scope ratio so you can at least kind of see something through all that misty photography. It’s caught between eras, between approaches and there apparently wasn’t anyone involved who had the vision of somebody like Richard Donner to figure out exactly what this film was going to be. As a result, it winds up being not much of anything. Some plot beats and iconography feel right out of certain classic westerns but none of it has any real feeling or love for the genre so much of it winds up feeling pretty perfunctory. For several years now a new version of The Lone Ranger to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and possibly featuring Johnny Depp as Tonto has been in some form of development. It doesn’t appear to be happening just yet but if Bruckheimer can get people to see a pirate movie again I suppose it’s possible he can figure out some kind of magic formula for this character as well, whatever the specific approach might be. THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER, meanwhile, remains stranded in that wide open valley between paying too much attention to nostalgia and not having enough interest in why people responded to such a character in the first place. And in the end that uncertainty is the sort of approach which takes a legend and turns it into something purely mediocre.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
The early seventies were something of a low point in the career of Blake Edwards, a time where the director had several projects which were not only poorly received but their failures came after having already gone through numerous problems during shooting and editing. Among these films was the now forgotten mystery-thriller THE CAREY TREATMENT, first released in 1972. Never available on video in any format the film is probably remembered most today as one of a number of productions which by various accounts suffered from strong interference by MGM head James Aubrey (a list that also includes Edwards’ previous film WILD ROVERS and Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) and Edwards even apparently tried unsuccessfully to have his name removed from the credits. In spite of all these issues, Vincent Canby in The New York Times described THE CAREY TREATMENT as “absurdly entertaining” in a very positive review when it opened and Andrew Sarris declared it the no. 10 film of 1972 on his year-end list right behind DUCK, YOU SUCKER, another James Coburn vehicle that went through troubles in the cutting room. And while the film may have turned out better if Edwards had been allowed more control THE CAREY TREATMENT is still pretty entertaining, far from the nadir of the director’s long career. At the least, it doesn’t seem to bare the marks of a film that was wrecked in the cutting or shooting—that observation doesn’t necessarily mean anything but although there is some abruptness felt near the end it certainly doesn’t play as an incomprehensible mess that’s been cut down to eighty minutes (it runs 101 minutes, actually). For the most part it also doesn’t necessarily play as a recognizable Blake Edwards film, coming off more as a neatly plotted mystery than anything, the film version of a good airline novel as well as something with a little bit more depth to it than I was expecting.
Dr. Peter Carey (James Coburn, who previously starred for Edwards in WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?), a swinging bachelor pathologist from Northern California, has just moved to Massachusetts to join the staff of a prestigious Boston Hospital. No sooner has this doctor who smokes settled in and begun to make his maverick persona known, as well as taking up with the beautiful hospital dietician Georgia Hightower (Jennifer O’Neill), when Karen Randall, the fifteen year-old daughter of the hospital administrator J.D. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy) dies after heavy bleeding and Peter’s old friend Dr. David Tao (James Hong of CHINATOWN, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and a million other things) is arrested for performing an illegal abortion on the girl which is believed to have resulted in her death. He admits to performing such illegal abortions on girls (I guess this film was never going to have a long shelf life) but claims he never touched Karen. Believing what his friend says, Carey begins to investigate what happened and soon begins to realize that certain people aren't at all pleased about the questions that he's asking.
For the most part THE CAREY TREATMENT could be described as a fairly straight-ahead hospital thriller with a plot that doesn’t contain many elements that haven’t turned up elsewhere years after it was made, with the exception of the abortion angle that obviously now dates it. I even found myself wondering why the story felt like early Michael Crichton, sort of a warm up for COMA, until I looked up the film credits and realized that Jeffrey Hudson, author of the 1968 source novel “A Case of Need”, was in fact a Crichton pseudonym. I should have known. Credited screenwriter James P. Bonner is also a pseudonym as it turns out, in place of the three screenwriters Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr. and John D.F. Black who all chose to take their names off after the interference by Aubrey. When he tried to do the same, Blake Edwards was unsuccessful and after this unfortunate experience took off for Europe for several years. The December 27, 1971 issue of Time Magazine reported in a piece on the studio head that Edwards had instructed his lawyers to file a breach of contract suit against Aubrey alleging that he “reneged on promised script changes to enhance the love interest between Stars James Coburn and Jennifer O'Neill, cut Edwards' location shooting unreasonably short, and set an April release date for the film that made it impossible for Edwards to edit it properly.” Keeping all this in mind it was hard not to think that one scene featuring Coburn and O’Herlihy sniping at each other during an operation (“Do you want it right?” “I want it now.”) feels a little like it’s meant to represent whatever was going on between Edwards and Aubrey. The critical biography “Blake Edwards” by Peter Lehman and William Luhr, their first of two volumes on the director, reiterates some of these matters at one point offering, “All of this interference makes the film difficult to discuss as an Edwards work. Many of the contemporary reviewers were surprised, considering its turbulent production history, at how entertaining and crisp a film it was.” I quote this because it’s precisely what I was thinking on this viewing. There’s no way to say how different Edwards would have made the film if he was allowed but except for some abruptness as well as the obvious elements that date it the film holds up nicely as an well-executed crackerjack thriller with interesting doses of wit and seriousness.
Crafted with skill but still done in a somewhat anonymous style, very little about THE CAREY TREATMENT feels much like a film directed by Blake Edwards. While earlier titles like EXPERIMENT IN TERROR and THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES are even darker than this one they certainly contain enough consistent thematic elements that they feel recognizably like his work. In THE CAREY TREATMENT even the one party scene, prime Edwards territory in either comedy or drama, feels kind of sedate in its swinging seventies vibe, just a device to move the plot along. The general feeling of craft evident in the direction is no surprise with a director like Edwards but also of interest coming from him may be the general feeling of midlife crisis malaise that seems to be felt by the characters throughout. The film is loaded with characters who seem increasingly lonely and dissatisfied as they approach middle age, trying to occupy themselves with hobbies like gourmet cooking or growing apples, something which can certainly be said for the film’s lead character as well. He’s James Coburn, yes, and he’s very cool, but also somewhat beaten down by things. At one point Carey muses how when he was young he wanted to be “the greatest surgeon in the world” but when asked what happened to stop it he’s hesitant to answer that question. It feels a little like the cool sixties James Coburn from something like DEAD HEAD ON A MERRY GO ROUND is several years past the good times and now he can’t figure out what the point of it all was. Though he claims that he made the move all the way from northern California to this hospital in Boston for “more bread” it feels entirely possible that there was more to it than that. He’s a person without a wall, “that thing you carry around to keep everyone out,” as his girl tells him and he can’t just stand by when no one else will do anything, though this renegade out to destroy the establishment occasionally pauses from his investigation to dally with Jennifer O’Neill as he recalls his lost life. At one point when he’s angrily called a son of a bitch when he goes a little too far in questioning somebody he doesn’t have an answer for that either.
The film seems filled with characters beaten down by their associations with this hospital and even the dead girl’s teenage roommate, very well played by Blake Edwards’ daughter Jennifer (later in S.O.B.), comes off as someone who has reached bitter middle age way too soon. As Carey digs deeper into what’s really going on all these people around him come off as more pathetic than threatening, like when a minor bad guy who he chases down pleads not to be hit squealing, “I just had a hernia operation,” and I suddenly found myself feeling sorry for the weasel. Of course, that may just be personal experience talking. But I know that I’ve never been as cool as James Coburn. In watching this film again I found myself struck by how well it succeeds as a character study of someone who since we never learn enough about him we have to sort out why he’s behaving this way on our own, an iconoclast played by an actor who excelled at them and this part fits him perfectly. As a mystery THE CAREY TREATMENT plays good but not great—the requisite elements out of THE BIG SLEEP work well thought there are a few holes and it also contains a crucial element that doesn’t get introduced until later than it should—but as a look at someone caught up in nastiness while trying to figure out where to go in his life the film holds together very well. In the aforementioned New York Times review Vincent Canby seems to take the whole film as a giant lark, so maybe he’s right and I’m being way too serious about it. But the dry nastiness of scenes like the autopsy of the fifteen year-old dead girl and when Carey goes to unexpected extremes to get information out of someone wound up getting under my skin, making me feel more than a little like all of these depressed people by a certain point. I don’t know if that feeling fully dissipates when the credits roll but it makes it impossible for the to totally dismiss the film even if its own director walked away dissatisfied.
Elements may be missing but James Coburn holds things together with his strong persona as Carey, working well with his co-stars in each scene and always compelling as this intelligent character who doesn’t know how to just sit by and not do anything. Jennifer O’Neill looks great and has a playful presence but she’s always on the outskirts of the plot with the drama of her failed marriage going on entirely offscreen—her character even has a son who we never get to meet. Pat Hingle dependably plays the police captain investigating the girl’s death, sparring nicely with Coburn in several scenes. Playing the accused, the very familiar James Hong plays a regular guy, something he never gotten much of a chance to do otherwise and it’s an interesting bit of casting. Elizabeth Allen, star of John Ford’s DONOVAN’S REEF, has a nice scene with Coburn as the girl’s boozy stepmother who insists that she’s not old enough to be her real mother. Dan O’Herlihy is enjoyable in what plays a little like the Dan O’Herlihy role, Michael Blodgett, the legendary Lance Rock of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, plays a crucial role in the third act and Skye Aubrey, daughter of the man Edwards was battling with, plays a nurse who figures into the investigation, slyly rebuffing Coburn during the one party scene. John Hillerman turns up as a doctor at the hospital as does Robert Mandan who, in one of the driest moments in the whole film, blandly tells Carey that he’s ‘not a believer of any kind’ when the subject of religion comes up, as if working at this hospital has beaten any kind of spirituality out of his very soul. It should also be mentioned that this is the rare Blake Edwards film not to contain a Henry Mancini score (maybe by their choice), instead it featuring music by none other than Roy Budd of GET CARTER immortality and it’s very smooth, very early seventies, very James Coburn. The line that could be drawn from Budd to Mancini in their melodic stylings doesn’t seem that long anyway and the main theme is so hummable in its own cool way that it still seems appropriately part of a Blake Edwards film.
It’s not without problems—the romance is never integrated into the main plot particularly well for one thing and it feels like the film is missing the occasional grace note to give things more resonance. Even some of what’s there, such as a reverie involving the dead girl, doesn’t have much impact as if the movie is going for a loss of innocence feel that it’s unable to reach. And the last scene feels a little like they had to come up with something fast in order to have some semblance of an ending, though that ultra-cool Roy Budd music helps as the credits roll. But even though I’m a hardcore Edwards defender who would have loved to see the film that he by all accounts never even got to get on film let alone cut together I still find myself continually engaged by this film and the treatment of its characters. It’s pretty much forgotten now except for the occasional TCM airing which for all I know he’s happy about but it has enough sharpness to its characters and mystery that I’ll still count myself as one of its defenders. Even if no one cares enough anymore to hear that defense.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
The deadly serious vigilante film HARRY BROWN, recently released in the States, is a treat for any Michael Caine fan and getting to see it was maybe the reason I pulled out one of his lesser known films, actually the first one he made over here after achieving stardom in England with the likes of ALFIE and THE IPCRESS FILE. The 1966 heist movie GAMBIT from Universal was directed by Ronald Neame and also starred Shirley MacLaine, the top-billed star who according to various sources was the one who picked the lesser known Caine as her co-star. There is something in GAMBIT about the futility of making plans and having expectations thwarted by people we can never fully know, particularly women, but more than anything it really is simply a light-hearted caper film, a piece of fluff, and one that probably deserves to be better known than it is. It’s the sort of film that if they ever do attempt to make today it always comes off as dumber than it needs to be, but GAMBIT remains smoothly elegant and at times very funny with a nice gimmick to the story as well.
I could discuss the plot at length, but that might be problematic. Suffice it to say that Michael Caine plays Harry Dean (it seems like some of the best Caine characters are either named Harry, Elliott or some iteration of the name Alfred) a criminal in Hong Kong who enlists a Eurasian beauty named Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine) to provide valuable assistance with what he believes is an “absolutely foolproof” plan. His scheme involves the theft of a priceless antiquity owned by reclusive billionaire Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom) “the richest man in the world” who they travel to in the fictional kingdom of Dammuz. There are, of course, unforeseen complications but revealing more than this would be difficult not simply because of the expected twists but, as the film’s poster puts in, “GO AHEAD TELL THE END (IT’S TOO HILARIOUS TO KEEP SECRET!) BUT PLEASE DON’T TELL THE BEGINNING!”. Sure enough, shortly before the half-hour mark the film does in fact spring a big surprise on the viewer that calls into doubt the very nature of this plan that Dean believes can’t possibly fail. At least, it was a surprise for me when I first saw it. The very nature of the twist is something that you may have seen elsewhere, maybe on some long forgotten sitcom but it remains—well, I’d better not say anything more.
GAMBIT is like a sparkling glass of champagne, a sixties heist film with all the wit and sparkling interplay of something out of the thirties. It’s very clearly trying to capitalize on the success of a similar picture like TOPKAPI (I doubt cross-cutting from the quiet methodical heist in progress to applause at a public event happening at the same moment was new at the time) and some of the influences are readily apparent. But compared with other international heist films of this era that have good actors, smooth music, exotic locations and a cool poster but not much beyond that, GAMBIT holds together on the strength of how well the three leads bounce off each other and the expert rhythm that builds as it goes along. At a certain point things have been set up so well that when the laughs begin after a prolonged slow burn—I shouldn’t say when—they’ve been genuinely earned and we didn’t even see it coming. The continually inventive screenplay by Alvin Sargent (best known in recent years for his work on the SPIDER-MAN sequels) and Jack Davies from a story by Sidney Carroll ticks along like a Swiss watch--as well as featuring dialogue like, “Why is it that people who follow people always end up fingering trinkets?”--with the laughs and suspense correctly balanced out by director Ronald Neame (who helmed THE POSDIDON ADVENTURE several years later) making it clear how aware he is aware that the plot, dialogue and actors are what really matter, not so much the exotic background—aside from some second unit shots, a few airport scenes and one sequence set on a yacht probably filmed up near Santa Barbara, the whole thing was probably shot in glorious Techniscope entirely at Universal City. The music by Maurice Jarre is sprightly all the way through and the overall production has an appropriately exotic feel which received three Oscar nominations for Art Direction, Costumes and Sound.
It’s all dependant on a gimmick, yes, but a very good one, and while GAMBIT is pretty frothy stuff in the end—if a little more time had been spent on the MacLaine-Caine romance that might have added some depth, but no big deal—it’s great frothy stuff, something that Hollywood clearly either has no idea how to do anymore or they just know how to do it in the loudest, stupidest way imaginable. It also goes by in a flash, running 109 minutes and barely seeming half that length. After seeing this hugely enjoyable movie again for the first time in several years it did a very difficult thing—it put me in a better mood than before. That right there has to say something. Light as a feather, GAMBIT is extremely minor in the end but it easily ranks as one of the most unappreciated of sixties heist films if not one of the very best and that's coming from somebody who loves heist movies. And, yes, in spite of what the poster says I really shouldn’t give away the ending.
Playing things very smooth all the way through, Michael Caine comes off as totally ready for stardom at this point and nails his part completely with perfect comic timing throughout. He’s also very funny when exasperatingly screaming something at someone that includes the word “bloody”. The casting of Shirley MacLaine as part-Asian here may slightly date things which for all I know could be why the film isn’t better known these days (well, she’s described as having “a French-Canadian mother and Eurasian father” which is a nice try but doesn’t quite do the job) but, hey, so what. This may not be her best role—all right, fine, I could probably name half a dozen that are better—but it may very well be the actress at her cutest, her spunkiest, her most delectable. I’m going to be in Santa Fe in a few weeks where she lives and am suddenly finding myself wishing that I could run into her there and tell her how amazing she is in this film. Playing an adversary who you’re never quite sure what to expect from, Herbert Lom has one of his very best roles, playing someone who is smart enough to know something’s going on immediately but still curious enough to find out what. His intelligence and likeable nature adds immeasurably to the entire film and seeing this would be a treat for anyone who knows him mainly as Commissioner Dreyfus. The three leads provide most of the focus but Roger C. Carmel, better known as Harry Mudd on STAR TREK, turns up as well as character actor John Abbott who I guess I should admit I recognized as one of the Organians in the TREK episode “Errand of Mercy”. Vic Tayback also briefly appears---hey, he was on a STAR TREK, too!
There’s a remake that’s been floating around out there in development that the Coen Brothers have apparently written and I could imagine the nature of the structure appealing to them. Not that I’m ever all that excited about remakes but the idea has potential if it takes advantage of all the comic possibilities. Some might remember that this film’s two stars were reunited several years ago playing opposite each other with supporting roles in BEWITCHED—no real surprise, that film managed to waste the potential of what it had with them. GAMBIT definitely doesn’t waste any of its potential and remains entertaining all the way through. The film was released on VHS way back when but remains MIA on DVD so keep an eye on those Turner Classics listings—the Scope transfer they show looks terrific. If light entertainment could still be done this well than that would probably be better for all of us but since that doesn’t seem to be the case I’ll just have to keep the version I taped off TCM around for when it’s needed to help put me in a better mood. And for all I know that could be very soon so it’s just one more reason for me to hang onto my VCR.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
I drove across this country when I first moved out to L.A. I guess that was a long time ago now and while I’d love the chance to do it again I know that isn’t going to happen any time soon. But I still have fond memories of that week, a brief point in time where everything seemed to be out in front of me, every possibility in the world seemed, well, possible. On one of those days I drove from Santa Fe to Vegas in the space of what must have been around twelve hours, barely stopping at all except for gas and food a few times. It felt like freedom.
Sometimes I feel regret and sadness, wondering about things that have happened in my life, wondering just what’s happened to the world. Things just feel more intense now, nastier too and there’s really nothing that can be done about it. I wish there was. Though I’d heard of Sam Peckinpah’s JUNIOR BONNER I’d never actually seen it until the New Beverly ran it several weeks back. Unlike what would be expected from your typical Peckinpah film it’s so gentle, so human, so humane, that I find it all immensely moving. It’s about as truly earnest a film as I’ve ever seen and it makes me wonder why that’s become such a bad thing in this world.
Rodeo rider Junior “JR” Bonner (Steve McQueen) is reaching that point where he’s just about to be too old for what he’s doing, told that he’s “just not the rider he used to be a few years back.” He returns home for the town parade and rodeo only to find his father’s home bulldozed by his own brother Curly, (Joe Don Baker) an entrepreneur who is taking the property to develop it for mobile homes (“The thing of the future.”). While trying to reach a deal with rodeo owner Buck Roan (Ben Johnson) to have another try at the meanest bull in the show, JR meets up with his mother Elvira (Ida Lupino) and father Ace (Robert Preston) who are estranged yet still very much a part of each other’s lives. In spite of Curly’s overtures to get him to join up with the business so he can stick around, JR is fully determined to successfully ride this bull at this rodeo so he can make a little money and once again head out on the road.
You know how in some movies the hero drifts into town and for the first five minutes everyone is so relaxed with each other only to soon see it all ruined by the bad guys? Those bad guys never turn up in JUNIOR BONNER, a film originally released in 1972 where that easygoing feel continues all the way through with the only real conflict being what’s going on between this family and the siblings who clearly disagree with what should be done with all these “wide open spaces” out there. Curly is at least thinking somewhat about the future in a way that I suppose is responsible and he’s even making an earnest attempt to keep the family together, though I get a feeling that he also has the ulterior motive of trying to get the entire family under his thumb as well. This guy may be a success at business, but he’ll never be any sort of patriarch. It’s the soft-spoken and straight-shooting JR who knows what the freedom of those wide open spaces means and what it means to his father, who has plans to go prospecting in Australia, even if it would never be something that either of them would put into words. With a subtly engaging screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook (one of the writers on THE BLACK HOLE, of all things), there’s very obviously a lot of unspoken backstory between these people—the jealousy Curly obviously has for the bond his father and brother share, whatever’s happened between Ace and Elvira—just like there would be with any family but it’s not something we need spelled out for us and the structure of the script wisely delays the reunion of father and son so it feels all the more potent when it finally does happen. All that matters is this one day we see them, a day where JR is arriving home totally broke and busted which he doesn’t want to admit to yet he can’t stop what he is, someone who just wants to go down his own road living the life of a “motel cowboy” as someone calls him at one point, sometimes sleeping under the stars, ready to go for those eight seconds one more time.
Not much happens in JUNIOR BONNER. Or maybe everything happens. It pauses for a long stretch to just observe this rodeo, in no hurry to move on to the next plot point. The big action scenes are really just JR’s encounter with some bulldozers taking down his father’s house as well as a bar fight and not even a particularly nasty bar fight. It feels like the most optimistic portrayal of humanity Peckinpah ever allowed himself to present and maybe shows the most of the best part of him as the person he was as well. Watching the film amble along, gaining in resonance with each scene, it reminds me how movies have become much slicker in recent years but since the world has too that’s kind of unavoidable. It’s a minor point but in the recent country singer saga CRAZY HEART Jeff Bridges has a modern day cordless phone in his house, not some old rotary thing like some people used to in films. Things have changed whether we want them to or not. JUNIOR BONNER is set at the time when that change is coming but that sense of something is still there, it was still tangible. At a certain point there’s going to be no denying that but maybe they (I? We?) can put it off for a while longer. The future is coming and while what Curly is trying to do to this community is going to be pretty garish it’s obviously nothing compared to what’s out there today in the world (the setting is a small town in Arizona—I’ll refrain from commenting on that state right now). Like all the best of Peckinpah, JUNIOR BONNER is about something that is dying out to make way for the heartless onslaught of what’s coming so we need to pay attention to every small gesture and remember…just like now we need to remember the movies that Sam Peckinpah made. There’s a use of freeze frames near the end that I find quietly moving not only in the context of this story but how it makes me think of how this type of character story has become so anathema in this day and age. And I love that final line, I just love it.
I finally got the chance to see this film several weeks ago when it ran at the New Beverly on a double bill with Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (guess which one had the bigger crowd—those who came only for the second film missed out). The pairing might seem odd at first glance but Tarantino himself has spoken of his fondness for JUNIOR BONNER, screening it in Austin and relating the initial response that this gentle, elegiac piece got at the time to how his own J.B. picture was received on its release, also a gentler, more mature film from someone that audiences expected a crazier, more violent ride from and a good reminder of how much more is ever going on in some of these director’s films than is often considered on first glance. But as Peckinpah himself observed some time later about its failure, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.” JUNIOR BONNER isn’t about the tragic endings that a few other Peckinpah films end in, it’s a small piece of life in progress that may show someone putting off the inevitable but fully determined to live on his own terms, out there on the open road, for as long as he can.
Steve McQueen is about as cool as it ever gets, that’s for sure, and you feel his character not from what he says but from every single steady step he takes through each scene and every slow glance he gives someone. He’s living this guy, he is this guy. Joe Don Baker underplays things beautifully never exactly getting us to like him but we can sense that bit of resentment he feels that he’s trying to keep buried. Robert Preston hits all the right notes as the big talking Red, a star among all the people who know him in this small town and Ida Lupino (making her first screen appearance in years at the time this was made) feels so genuine that it’s hard to believe she was once a movie star—it’s like they just showed up at this woman’s house one morning and rolled film. Playing Charmaigne, the girl who catches JR’s eye, Barbara Leigh doesn’t do much but it’s hard not to gaze at her and her long, straight hair. Familiar faces like Ben Johnson, Dub Taylor and Bill McKinney fit in perfectly with this world.
Thinking about Sam Peckinpah’s JUNIOR BONNER, a film I’ve finally gotten around to seeing, makes me think about how I’m continuing to discover films like this and falling for the smaller pleasures that can be found in them. It can lead to some pretty rich rewards if I look hard enough and with the summer movie season about to start I’m fairly certain I’m not going to find any such rewards in those movies. The films that I’m looking for can be found on their own open road that I sometimes drive down, looking for what I haven’t seen yet, reminding myself how special some of them can really be. Like JR Bonner himself, it’s something that I have to do.