I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.
Effective island-based thriller. The marriage plans of jazz piano “genius” Tom (Richard Carlson) are thrown into disarray by the sudden arrival of old flame Vi (Juli Reding). A tryst atop an abandoned lighthouse ends in disaster when Vi tumbles over a railing and Tom refuses to rescue her. Fishing her corpse out of the water the next day he finds instead he is holding wet seaweed.
Cue all sorts of strange events: footprints on the beach, a lingering smell of perfume, a vinyl platter recorded by Vi playing all on its own, missing wedding ring, wilting flowers, wedding dress is covered in seaweed, ghostly apparitions of the dead woman.
Initially denying his guilt, Tom soon finds himself consumed by it. Blind Mrs Ellis (Lillian Adams) suspects the supernatural. Fiancee Meg (Lugene Sanders) is soon on red alert, the situation exacerbated by her younger sister Sandy (Susan Hubbard) who develops an unhealthy crush on Tom and has a creepy hold over him.
Tension is racked up by the arrival of boatman Nick (Joe Turkel) intent on blackmailing Tom ahead of the imminent wedding. It doesn’t end the way you’d expect, but Tom proves a darker character. This kind of thriller you’d expect a final twist but you’d have to be very savvy to guess this one.
It’s a bold enterprise for a B-picture. Director Bert I. Gordon had made his name on special-effects-driven pictures like The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) but here that element is underplayed, the main focus on the gradual disintegration of Tom as he succumbs to guilt and the voices and sights he imagines. Some images are clearly inside his head, but Mrs Ellis and Meg detect the perfume scent, the flowers wilt in full view of everyone, and Sandy is present when the ring vanishes. Gordon employs the Hitchcockian technique of having subsidiary characters propose various unsettling possibilities to the guilty party. The jazz soundtrack is not the cool music you might expect but a more jangly score. And any time there’s a quiet moment you can hear thundering surf in the background.
B-picture and sci-fi veteran Richard Carlsen (The Power, 1968) isn’t quite able to suggest sufficient internal anguish, you’d need a James Stewart in Vertigo mode to manage the kind of obsession required. But Carlsen goes neatly enough from composed epitome of “cool” to nervous wreck, likely to land himself in trouble from reacting too violently to the unreal.
And there’s enough peripheral tension, Meg’s wealthy father (Harry Fleer) opposes the wedding, believing a jazz musician a poor candidate for his daughter’s hand. Mrs Ellis probing a little too close to the bone, the innocent Sandy unwittingly endangers herself. Virgin Meg is oblivious to the fact the man she is marrying is scarcely in the same category.
It’s a chamber piece, a few characters rattling round each other, uneasiness emanating from Tom visualizing phantoms. And it’s short, barely 75 minutes, classic length for a supporting feature, and it’s to the director’s credit he makes no attempt to puff it out. One twist after another and specters everywhere, all the template you need. It set some sort of record for killing off careers. It was the last movie for Juli Reding, Susan Gordon and Lugene Sanders but you might recall Joe Turkel from The Shining (1980).
Very good example of what you can do with a low budget, an edgy script and a director who doesn’t lean too heavily on the special effects.
May have lost its allegorical power now that Vietnam is no longer a cause but even more compelling for standing as a generic condemnation of imperialism. The Vietnam connection is invoked immediately as Englishman Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) on arrival is told that the Portuguese conquered the island hundreds of years before simply by setting fire to it until all the natives had perished or fled and restocking it with slaves from elsewhere. For a 1960s audience, that summoned up images of U.S. military use of napalm and carpet bombing.
The idea must have stuck in Walker’s head because that’s exactly the strategy he devises towards the end of the movie. Beyond his title, and the fact that he looks and talks like an upper-class Englishman of the mid 1800s, Walker is one of these shady characters you often found in the Colonies doing shady work for the British government. While this island is ruled by the Portuguese rather than the British, that’s about to change since the British find Portuguese attitudes to free trade too restrictive.
So Walker sets about creating the spark for an explosion. Having earmarked the local bank for an easy heist, he recruits Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez) to head a team of locals. Of course, such a large-scale robbery ensures pursuit. Capture is evaded when Walker produces a cache of rifles aware that in defending themselves the natives will trigger revolution. Walker then goes to work on the upper-classes, explaining how much better off they would be if they could side with the rebellion and overthrow the Portuguese.
Mission accomplished, he scoots off home, only to return when corruption has so destroyed the island, now a British colony, that Jose Dolores is back creating rebellion. Old friend becomes foe and is ruthlessly hunted down.
You can’t help but admire Walker’s guile. To create a large enough distraction to pull off the robbery he simply gets the entire town population drunk on free booze, giving soldiers more than enough rioting to cope with. To provide the circumstances to assassinate the President, he takes advantage of the costuming for a festival, allowing people to sneak past guards in any disguise. But when cunning doesn’t work, it’s down to brute force. The group with the biggest army, more weapons and the greater degree of ruthlessness will always win.
This isn’t one of those movies that sets out to idolise a rebel leader or where a small band of outlaws outwit the ruling power with clever ruses or filled with duels or ambushes or full-on battles. This is about the puppeteers, the men who use violence for their own commercial ends.
Like General Custer, Walker is a man with a job to do, even while he might despise it and certainly is filled with disgust at the ruling party. He claims he is not the author of either group’s misfortune but merely “the instrument.” On his return, he argues, “I didn’t start it; when I arrived you were already butchering each other.” In other words, blameless, just following the orders of either government or employer. But he takes pride in doing his job “well,” no matter the cost.
Every action has consequence. Even attempting to save Jose Dolores’s life, it is with consequence in mind. Let him live and set him free elsewhere and he will be viewed as a traitor. Kill him and he will be seen as a martyr, the most dangerous currency for incipient rebellion.
He knows exactly what buttons to press. In order to convince the ruling band of natives to support revolution in the first place, he makes a comparison with prostitution. You hire a sex worker by the hour to fulfil a need, you are not required, as with a wife, to dress her and feed her and look after her for her entire life. Should the employers free their slaves, that would eliminate the need for a lifetime of care (no matter how little) but could hire them as required.
The brutality is not dwelt upon, no TheWild Bunch-style bloody carnage, just a growing number of corpses on either side depending which group has the upper hand. The difference between the brutal Portuguese and the sedate English is in their approach to execution. The Portuguese rely on the garotte, by which a steel band fixed round the neck is slowly twisted until life is extinguished. The English prefer the speed of the gallows.
Marlon Brando considered this one of his finest performances and I am inclined to agree. There is no showboating either way, neither inflating a character nor deflating him, as the actor was apt to do when playing a loser. Instead, Walker never loses a grip on his emotions, no temper, no tears, just saying whatever someone wanted to hear, guiding with a hidden hand, a man who might have invented the term “results-based.” It is the calmest you will ever see Brando, and you might catch elements of this portrayal in his Godfather pushing pawns into place. But you won’t see here a single explosion of anger. For a non-actor, Evaristo Marquez gives a superb performance, though mostly he is also restrained, as if he was learning from a master.
Director Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, 1966) takes a semi-documentary approach to the subject, concentrating on the machinations, no attempt to pull audience heartstrings with images of poverty. The garotte death does the work of explaining the brutality to come.
But there are three brilliant scenes that showcase the unstoppable character of war. In the best, the rebels, trying to escape an island ablaze, seek shelter on the higher ground. But this arid region is also exposed, no jungle here to provide cover, and scrambling up the naked slopes they are picked off, in long shot, one by one.
In the second example, the closest Walker comes to emotion is waking up one morning to the sound of a gallows being built. He takes a moment, listening, aware perhaps, though unwilling to admit it, that the harvest of a seed sown is about to be reaped. Brando is such a good actor that sadness only appears as a flicker of regret that the rebellion he began took a wrong turn once it was taken over by the wrong hands.
And, technically, his hands are clean. He is never seen firing a weapon. In the last of this trio of scenes, the English introduce hanging to the island. But since no one possesses the expertise to make a noose strong enough to support a head, Walker shows how.
There are two versions of this movie. It was filmed as Quiemada and this version is 17 minutes longer than the one released as Burn! I would urge you to see the far more atmospheric former. Editing down the picture, the distributors took out much of the background material. As a plus, there is a score by Ennio Morricone.
One of the best films ever made about the politics of war and the destructive force of commerce.
It’s only according to film historians and movies like Babylon (2022) that the transition to sound in 1927 was instantaneous. Maybe from a contorted academic perspective, but not for audiences and not for exhibitors. That The Jazz Singer (1927) proved momentous required not one revolution, but two. For it was responsible for nothing less than the beginnings of the wide release.
There had been sporadic attempts at day-dating, day-and-date, simultaneous openings, saturation bookings, whatever you wanted to call it, from 1913 to 1920. You might find an occasional picture released all at once into 20 houses in New York, but more likely it was a picture that showed up on two or three screens in Detroit, San Francisco or St Louis. In 1921 there were 300 day-and-date bookings for Chaplin’s The Kid with 70 prints allocated to New York and 40 to Chicago. But wide release remained rare.
In 1924 in Cleveland 65 nabes signed up to day-date Let Not Man Put Asunder and First National attempted to interest 100 theaters in day-dating Lilies of the Field. In 1927 MGM promoted Greta Garbo-John Gilbert in Love as opening, without specific dates, in “approximately” 100 theaters while Fox claimed 90 had signed up for Colleen Moore in Her Wild Oat (1927).
However, “simultaneous” was widely open to interpretation, not necessarily meaning day-dating. The kind of release system we know today remained rare and sporadic. Wide release did not take off because there was no reason for it to do so.
While The Jazz Singer single-handedly thrust Warner Brothers into the higher echelons of the industry, it did not herald a tidal wave of talkies. Despite its success, the jury was still out – was it a gimmick or a revolution? Without the complications of sound, movies were a $1.5 billion ($25 billion today) business and the idea that theater owners would cotton on to the potential of sound and rush to become “wired” was soon demolished. Predictions of 350 sound installations by the end of 1927 proved wildly optimistic, less than 100 theaters obliging.
Exhibitor antipathy could be laid in large part at the studio door. Owners had to pay the cost of changing to sound – plus a weekly royalty to Vitaphone of 10 cents per seat – with no guarantee that the trend would last or, more importantly, that it would iron out existing inequalities. Studios and exhibitors were at war. Exhibitor anger against studios was demonstrated by the volume of complaints to the 32 Film Boards of Trade, over 23,000 in 1925-26 – more than one for every theater in existence – wrongs righted to the tune of $4.6 million in damages.
The studios had their own complaints against exhibitors: of the $650 million paid by the public for theater tickets in 1926, only $185 million found its way into their coffers as rentals, around 28 per cent of the gross, remarkably low by modern standards. With profit margins on film production hovering around 15 per cent, studios, preparing to invest $159 million in movies in the 1927-1928 season, could be forgiven for believing they were taking all the risk, with exhibitors hiving off so much profit they could afford more – $250 million – in theater construction.
Exhibition was a sore point for studios since they had so little share of it. By the end of 1926, they owned around five percent of the total. Neither studio-owned chains nor independent circuits had anything approaching a monopoly, or even a dominant share, most being regional-based rather than nationwide. The biggest theaters were the most important. Super-theaters on Broadway and big city downtown areas could charge $2.20 admission compared to the national average of 28-35 cents. In 1927, 68 of these behemoths generated a total of $47 million ($790 million in today’s figures), the 5,450-seat Capitol in New York alone nabbing $2.7 million ($45 million).
The traditional method of releasing silent features depended on, effectively, withholding them. Each sector of exhibition obediently waited its turn while competition for new pictures between rival exhibitors served to stoke bids. The release system was littered with gaps of up to three weeks clearance, during which movies did not play at all as they worked their way down the ladder, this being the accepted method to ensure that the public still flocked to the more expensive houses rather than holding off till they turned up in a cheaper nabe, the waiting theaters prohibited from even advertising in advance such forthcoming attractions in local newspapers.
Studios also used hits as a way of enticing theater owners to commit to annual contracts. In theory, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would get the biggest movies first. In reality, because big hits were allowed to run as long as first run theaters wanted them, it was virtually impossible to arrange the simultaneous release, on any scale, of a new feature. The long runs were permitted in part because of the grosses that could be achieved and in part because the amount of money taken in first run was the measure by which rental rates were set for further down the line.
A movie that ran for months at top prices (“a $2 hit”) in New York would attract higher rental prices in smaller cities than one lasting a week or two. Some runs were exceptional: The Big Parade (1925) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925) ran on Broadway for a year, Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926) for seven months, The Merry Widow (1925) for six months and La Boheme (1926) for four months.
Even had studios desired it, length of run, dictated by different exhibitor circumstances and public reaction in various cities, conspired to make simultaneous first run openings well nigh impossible. Fifteen cities constituted the peak of movie first run box office in 1926: Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco and Washington.
But it proved impossible throughout that year for a single picture to complete a run in all of these cities. The Big Parade opened in New York, Los Angeles and Washington on the same day, January 2, but in no other city in this list that year, its simultaneous opening therefore limited to just 20 per cent of first run in these major cities. Ben Hur also opened on January 2 in New York but did not reach Philadelphia, its only other port of call that year, until June. Aloma of the Seven Seas managed 80 per cent penetration, but it was a lengthy enterprise, beginning on May 22 in New York and ending on November 20 in Washington. The Sea Beast opened in only six cities within a four-month period.
So it was entirely feasible that, following the combined restraints imposed by both exhibitors and studios, The Jazz Singer may have taken as long as any of these features to traverse the country and still, within year of its premiere, not been seen in all the major cities. In the first few post-premiere months, only three of the key fifteen cities showed it.
So a movie that was a sensation in New York remained a New York sensation only. There was nothing immediate, as film scholars have suggested, as regards the rest of the nation’s audiences and exhibitors.
However, Warner Brothers, using the prospect of immediate payback to entice theater owners to install sound, broke with tradition and unleashed an unprecedented release onslaught.
In so doing, the studio invented the modern wide release.
In March 1928 The Jazz Singer opened simultaneously in 235 theaters natonwide. But that was not all that was revolutionary. For a start, exhibitors had to contract to pay a percentage of the receipts, on a sliding scale from week one, rather than a flat rental. Secondly, the studio dictated the length of run, rather than the exhibitor, Warner Brothers demanding a minimum eight-week run. Thirdly, the studio expanded the initial day-and-date idea into second- and third-run bookings, triggering a series of simultaneous multiple releases in the nabes. After first runs were completed, large numbers of nabes took part in wider day-dating programs, in Philadelphia, for example, after twelve weeks in first run, twenty other houses throughout the city lined up for simultaneous wide release, a situation repeated across the country. Fourthly, those theaters way down the release chain that normally played a split week had to commit to a full weeks.
In one fell swoop, Warner Brothers challenged the existing order. Multiple release meant that studios would no longer be held to ransom by giant picture houses determining not just when a major movie played but, unintentionally perhaps, the restrictions that followed in its wake. By dictating minimum length of run, Warner Brothers took back control of “exclusive” engagements. Clearance stipulated that the theater at the top of the release hierarchy had exclusive rights to exhibition and could hold onto the movie for as long as it wished. Obviously, studios were not averse to this as the biggest theaters attracted the biggest audiences. But if a movie was a sensation, the studio could not cash in on media attention by yanking it from downtown and sending it out wider while public interest was at a peak.
With The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers guaranteed exclusivity, but on its terms. A big city first run theater had to cede control over length of run in order to show the picture. On the other hand theaters all over America would have access to new movies in a way that, heretofore, had been virtually forbidden. The arrival of sound spurred studios to shorten release patterns and widen openings in order to reassure those installing the new equipment that it was going to be worthwhile and, also, that they would not have to wait ages to receive a return on their investment.
Simultaneous opening became the way forward both in first run and in nabes, the size of saturation varying enormously from those who topped The Jazz Singer theater count to those who came nowhere near, and not just for sound. In fact, The Jazz Singer saturation record barely lasted a month, beaten by new silent comedy Speedy starring Harold Lloyd at Easter in 250 theaters nationwide.
The main limitation to simultaneous opening was the shortage of prints. Studios and independents produced 800 pictures a year and the average life of a print was 59 showings (around 100 working days). Typically, an ordinary feature would require 150, increasing to 200-250 for studio “specials,” roadshows receiving 300-plus (although this included prints for overseas), so, annually, a studio might have upwards of 7,500 prints of new films in circulation. With prints costing 4 cents per foot, around $280 for a seven-reel movie, Hollywood’s annual expenditure was in the millions.
Sound necessitated an increase in prints. Availability rather than restricted access was key, so studios were forced to place sound pictures in those houses which could play them, and that incurred a faster play-off than before. But since relatively few cinemas were wired, movies appeared in silent and sound versions. For Two Lovers (1928) starring Ronald Colman only 55 of the 320 prints were specified as sound, a similar ratio for DeMille’s King of King.
By now, whether exhibitors were complicit or not, studios were committed to sound, having set aside $5 million for sound stages, although, in cautious contradiction, leasing equipment rather than buying it. For the 1928-1929 season Paramount scheduled up to 50 movies with synchronized sound, Warner Brothers 30, of which five (Lights of New York, The Desert Song, The Terror, Conquest and Home Towners) would be all-talkie, First National 31, and Universal nine. MGM and Columbia were slower to respond, MGM’s first talkie White Shadows in the South Seas not available till late summer 1928, Columbia’s talkie debut The Lone Wolf’s Daughter not ready until the following year
By summer 1928 only 400 theaters had switched to sound – barely four percent of the total – hardly suggesting a revolution had taken hold. In some areas, the availability of sound was negligible or non-existent, only five wired theaters in West Virginia, four in South Carolina, three in Maine, Utah and Nebraska, two in Louisiana, one in Delaware, Vermont and Wyoming, but none at all in New Hampshire or Nevada.
Theaters which had managed the conversion encountered a dearth of new sound product. In an era when most theaters got through up to two hundred features a year, the bulk of what was on offer sound-wise was dominated by shorts comprising comic and dramatic monologues and dialogues or featuring bands, orchestras, and operatic or semi-operatic numbers. Talkie feature production was less straightforward than silent, considerable gaps between movies. It took Warner Brothers six months after Lights of New York to bring out another all-talking picture, The Terror, which hit Broadway as a two-a-day roadshow on August 15, 1928.
The slow uptake from exhibitors was not just due to natural caution but fear about making the wrong choice. There was a baffling array of equipment to assist in the conversion to sound, ten versions of what were termed “sound picture devices” and nearly as many “synchronization devices.” Installation cost was substantial, $2,500 for a 2,000-seater for Qualitone, for example ‘Uncertainty, unrest, indecision’ choked the business. Cities like Memphis, Minnesota and Omaha and entire areas like the northwest and the Cornbelt simply refused to countenance sound.
The impact on the existing inventory was catastrophic. Exhibitors stopped renting new films, in what amounted to a “buying strike” in 1928 especially of companies which only made silents. The boycott affected all films and continued through 1929 as exhibitors were “now wary of signing up for product too far in advance lest revolutionary developments are in store again.’
With booking paralysis threatening the industry, studios took coherent action. Warner Brothers focused on increased accessibility; ‘day-dating with Broadway’ became an integral element of Warner Brothers launches. In order to rouse theaters from their torpor, Hollywood took the unusual step of creating a generic campaign, promoting talkies to the public. ‘How to focus the attention of the public,’ was a tall order when there was ‘no precedent to fall back on.’
Studios realized theaters would be more susceptible to public pressure and in August 1928 Paramount promoted the concept of sound through “the greatest advertising campaign in the history of pictures” to the 100 million readers of 695 newspapers in 413 cities while a month later Warner Brothers launched a million-dollar advertising campaign promoting sound via 125 daily newspapers.
During 1929 other studios followed the Warner Brothers example of day-dating with Broadway and to find a way round the Broadway logjams, new movies were launched away from New York, Fox, for example, opening Sunnyside Up starring the popular duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis and Milwaukee long before it reached New York. United Artists’ Trespasser starring Gloria Swanson only found its way to New York after a string of bookings including Buffalo, Omaha, Atlanta, Detroit and Cincinnati. Paramount “pre-released” Close Harmony (‘Hear Charles Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll Sing and the Whole Cast Talk!’) in five cities, but not Chicago and New York.
Exasperated by exhibitor inertia regarding sound, which had threatened to throttle the burgeoning technology, and wishing a bigger share of the overall pie, studios had also embarked on a theater-buying spree, acquiring both first run theaters and chains of nabes, the “Big Six” studios now in control of 3,800 houses.
But in 1929 Warner Brothers remained king of the wide release, setting a new simultaneous multiple release opening record, the 558 theaters involved in the launch of Queen of the Night Clubs ‘on or about March 16’ more than doubling the previous high-water mark. And it charged ahead with unprecedented numbers of simultaneous openings to satisfy demand (5,000 houses wired by August, 43 per cent using Vitaphone), maintain its position as the market leader in sound, build market share, drive up its stock price, and to capitalize on profits from the exhibition sector now that the company had invested more in that field.
But it had taken a full two years since The Jazz Singer for the industry to reach a turning point. The schedules for 1929-1930 revealed that for the first time the production of talkies outweighed that of silents, 504 vs. 403. Such volumes would more than satisfy the needs of the average theater.
So, yes, the slowest recorded revolution in history. And it took another revolution in wide release to make it possible.
SOURCE: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019) p11-21. There are over 100 references for these pages so I’m not going to print them all here. You can get them in the book if you so desire.
Wild raucous’n’roll rollercoaster that, contrary to expectation, I found totally absorbing, length not an issue. Employing a simple structure of rise and fall, and exploring the upside and downside of Hollywood in the transition from silent to sound, it seemed to me in essence to capture movie-making. A Broadway play could be a hit if seen by 100,000 people, that size of audience constituting a flop for a movie, but the play was viewed by 100,000 of the “right” people, the moneyed elite who could afford the tickets, a movie by the flotsam and jetsam that made up the majority of the American population even when, theoretically, the country was going through the boom times of the “Jazz Age.”
Most films and books concentrate on the downside, the battle to get to the top, the seamy undercurrent, the inevitable collapse, but none capture the giddy heights like this. Silent movies were viewed primarily as technical, nobody had to even talk, much less learn lines or spout Shakespeare. Initially, the stars were drawn from vaudeville so had some proven talent but then it was clear anyone could become a star, such as here Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), or a producer like Manny Torres (Diego Calva) by simply being in the right place at the right time, initiating a gold rush to Los Angeles.
Just as there is no single reason for the camera and audience to turn a person into a star, the same applies when they fall out of favor. In a movie thankfully given little to long lectures on filmmaking beyond aspirations to “form” and wanting to do something good, the best explanation about how/why careers end is delivered in dry tones by columnist Elinor St John (Jean Smart) to disillusioned out-of-favor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).
The narrative shuttles between Conrad, LaRoy and Torres, interweaving the lives of trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), Conrad’s multiple wives, LaRoy’s hapless father (Eric Roberts), director Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton) studio wunderkind Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper), gangster James McKay (Tobey Maguire) and imperious director Otto (Spike Jonze). Excess is the name of the game whether ostentatious consumption Hollywood-style or the more sedate black tie dinners of caviar and lobster enjoyed by the elite.
The elite looked down their noses on a new class of wealthy individuals who were ill-educated, didn’t talk proper, but had struck gold simply from being able to stand in front of a camera without being able to tell their Ibsen from their Shakespeare and didn’t understand art.
Surprisingly, this is a pretty good comedy, slapstick sometimes but excelling at setting up visual jokes, though audiences might recoil from a rare reliance on elephant ordure and vomit. Some scenes are pure standout: Nellie’s first talk scene where the sound engineer has tyrannical control; Nellie’s fight with the snake; Manny’s race to find a camera before the director loses the light; the uncontrolled venom of battle scenes; the black Sidney not black enough; and of course the various wild parties although nothing in the Hollywood imagination could match the depravity of one where Manny is the unwilling guest of gangster McKay, as if fiction cannot match reality.
Of course, people who have everything rarely know what they actually want and spend their lives throwing away what they have in pursuit of the unattainable, so Conrad is apt to view wives as disposable, Nellie finds relief in drugs and gambling, Manny’s obsession with Nellie which should lead to ruin paradoxically by happenstance brings him happiness. The rampant unchecked hedonism that runs through the picture could well just be a metaphor for the helter-skelter modus operandi of the movies, enjoy it while you’re hot, cram in as much as you can, because, heaven knows, something from left field (sound, for example) could dramatically upend everything.
Brad Pitt (Bullet Train, 2022) is very good as the often drunk but generally streetwise star. You can hardly take your eyes off Margot Robbie (Amsterdam, 2022), not just for her brazen sexuality, but her ability to cry on cue, awareness of her self-destructive personality, inherited from self-destructive parents, greedy idiotic father, mother committed to an upmarket mental institution. Diego Calva (Beautiful Losers, 2021) is good in a less showy part. Interesting cameos abound.
This has the intensity of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) rather than the cleverness of La La Land (2016).
I mentioned in my review of Tar that it could have done with a stronger producer to cut down on the running times and some elements I felt were bound to alienate audiences. I would make the same suggestion here, though not so forcefully. Elephant shit and urination are always, I reckon, going to be a major turn-off for audiences. While I had no trouble with the length, that’s clearly been an issue and it would hardly be a problem for a decent editor to snip chunks out of party scenes or eliminate non-essential characters.
Emotionally and artistically this seems to me to capture the essence of the formative days of Hollywood before the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Hays Code brought about a systematic rethink with studios insisting their stars take more care hiding their proclivities from general view.
You wouldn’t look to Walt Disney in the 1960s to provide a tyro director with a calling card when so much of that studio’s output was saccharine. But this beautifully-mounted World War Two drama showed there was a new kid in town worth watching, name of Arthur Hiller. And if you always wondered why the later biopic of General Patton showed him in riding gear, that penchant is more clearly explained here.
You might balk, however, at the idea of a bunch of horses being considered in the same category as an art treasure worth protecting from the worst predations of war. And just as with the Von Trapp family, Austrians, despite welcoming the annexation of their country by Hitler in 1938, are given a free pass here.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna was a celebrated nearly 200-year-old institution in which the famed Lipizzaner white “dancing” horses were put through their paces. With the Second World War coming to a close it was threatened on three fronts: the German Army poached its instructors to man the front line, the invading Russians wanted to appropriate the horses and starving refugees focused on the potential horse meat.
School chief Col Alois Podhajsky (Robert Taylor) and wife Pedena (Lili Palmer) organise an evacuation under the guise of using the horses to draw cartloads of legitimate art treasures. They hole up in the castle of Countess Arco-Valley (Brigitte Horney) but the mares are stolen by the Russians and hidden in Czechoslovakia. (Only the stallions perform, but without the females as breeding stock, the line would become extinct.)
The colonel ditches his German uniform on the arrival of American forces and puts on a performance in a makeshift arena in an attempt to convince Patton (John Larch) to mount a rescue of the captured horses. Patton, we learn here, is a renowned horseman, competed in the equestrian section of the 1912 Olympic Games, and if anyone considers a fabulous horse more valuable than a work of art it’s him. As it happens, there are prisoners to be freed in Czechoslovakia so the horses are included in that mission.
What’s unusual about this animal tale, given Disney’s predilection for anthropomorphising animals, is that it’s not told from the point-of-view of the horses. Nor, as you might have expected, given the studio’s plethora of young talent, turned into the story of a young girl or boy attached to the horses. Instead, the focal point is the impact of the creatures on those around them.
Of course the colonel is bound to be obsessed. But for the ordinary soldiers, who might never appreciate a work of art, they represent a kind of majesty, a grandeur, rising above the horror of war, something well worth the effort of rescue.
What’s even more unusual in saccharine-town is the script’s recognition of the effect of war on humanity. At one point Pedena laments that men are asked to possess “the strength and fury of giants…and then be again the men they were before.” And in some respects acknowledging the beauty of the horses is a step in the right direction. The Yanks are neither celebrated as brave nor foolhardy, in fact mostly they are just working grunts, cleaning out the castle, fixing up the arena, cracking jokes.
Hiller is the big find here. There’s a brilliant scene, all of 40 seconds long (I timed it) that would have been cut out of any other Disney picture. In a chiaroscuro of light, the colonel walks from one end of the deserted Vienna riding hall to the other and his wife, entering the frame, goes to join him. Nothing more is needed to indicate loss. Hiller clearly recognised opportunity and while the film itself is no masterpiece every single frame reveals a talented mind at work, his use of colors and costume, movement within the frame, employing Pedena and the Countess to comment on the action, allowing the inbuilt tension to carry the story without extraneous drama.
You’re mostly likely to remember the performing horses, the balletic choreographed movements, the “airs above the ground,” and indeed Hiller wisely devotes a good 15 minutes to this, but without his input this would either be overly sentimental, saccharine or little more than a documentary. This is a very grown-up picture for Disney.
Robert Taylor (A House Is Not A Home, 1964) was at the tag-end of his career, his first film in four years, but he still has the charisma to carry the film and the gravitas to see it over the line. Lili Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) is well cast as a voice of reason and offering commentary on humanity. Curt Jurgens (Pysche ’59, 1964) has an interesting role, lamenting, as he picks out a classical tune at the piano, how Hitler outlawed famous composers.
There’s a stronger supporting cast than you might expect: Eddie Albert (Captain Newman M.D., 1963) , James Franciscus (Valley of Gwangi, 1969) and German actress Brigitte Horney (The Trygon Factor, 1966).
Somebody certainly took notice of Hiller’s talent because his next films were The Wheeler Dealers (1963) with Lee Remick and James Garner and The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews and Garner. A.J. Carothers (The Happiest Millionaire, 1967) based the screenplay on the book by Alois Podhajsky.
I assuming you know that the famed Stephen King novella on which the Tim Robbins/Morgan Freeman picture was based was originally entitled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the poster of that movie goddess used in that version by the wannabe escapee to cover the hole he was making in his prison cell wall.
I’m making a connection to Cate Blanchett because The Shawshank Redemption (1994) was a critical success, seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, but so conspicuously failed at the box office that it was scarcely shown abroad and only won an audience, and made more than its money back, on DVD and latterly became the poster boy for flops that somehow make a financial comeback.
Tar had all the critical support – with the exception of me, of course – that a movie could wish for and will at least pick up an Oscar nomination for Blanchett. But now that DVD is dead in the water, there’s virtually no chance of it making enough thereafter to cover the losses which are currently in the region of $30 million.
Movies used to have what was known as a “long tail,” meaning that initial box office was only one part of the equation. And a small part at that if the movie was a blockbuster. Reissue and sales to DVD, video rental, television, syndication, and early streaming services on a global scale sometimes amounted to as much as 90% of its overall earnings, especially bearing in mind that VHS/DVD in particular had various levels of revenue.
A big title might first be sold to video rental companies forking out $59.99 for the privilege and the bigger the title the more copies were purchased, so a blockbuster might easily have reaped $20-$30 million on that go-round. Then when it was released to the public, a big film would cost big money – $29.99 to $39.99 – and once that tier had done its job, the movie would be progressively sold in lower price brackets then repackaged again to supermarkets and bargain bins. More recently, the Director’s Cut, remastering and monetising anniversaries have added to that food chain.
Television went through several tiers as well. Studios never actually sold any movie to the small screen. They leased them. Usually for a period of time, say three years, and a limited number of screenings, often just two. And once that deal was done, they leased them again, and again and again. Until streaming killed off the majority of this market, movies made in the 1960s could have been leased a dozen times to television networks and even more in syndication. Cable would pay good money for a slice of that action.
Television famously put The Alamo (1960) and Cleopatra (1963) into the black and then the combination of TV, VHS/DVD, cable etc, made them substantial profits. And studios could always wrap them up as a library and sell them off to movie-hungry stations like TCM. Imax and 3D provided reissue opportunities at the start of this century, but these days a return to a movie theater would be a seriously limited proposition and open only to major successes like The Godfather (1972).
But, in terms of redemption-sized income, virtually all those avenues have disappeared. And critics don’t have the power to turn on the money taps. I’m sure Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman…(1975) which came out of nowhere, though probably the result of a social media coup, to top the once-in-a-decade Sight & Sound Critics Poll, will bring in extra bucks, no matter that it will scarcely register on streaming and DVD sales will be limited to the arthouse fraternity.
Alfred Hitchcock is often touted as the Comeback King when Vertigo (1958) climbed to the top of the Sight & Sound Poll after initially being largely discounted in that particular race. But in the first place, Hitchcock had already been a box office giant. A very small number of his pictures lost money on initial cinema release and his “critical redemption” if you like was anything but. He achieved Sight & Sound dominance because five of his greatest pictures had been kept from public view for over two decades. When they appeared, in one of the great reissue stories, the public flocked to see them on the big screen, and on subsequent DVD release so it was from there that a new wave of critics found the films contained far more art than previously ascertained.
So, back to Tar – and other box office duds like Corsage ($2.7 million worldwide) and Empire of Light ($3.2 million). Where does it go from here?
One option is tax write-off. The companies that invested in it in the first place might have done so to avoid handing over profits to the taxman. Conversely, they can use losses to offset a future tax demand.
But that’s hardly going to stimulate the movie-making market.
Studios used to test-market films but now production companies like these shovel their pictures into an endless maw of film festivals where their movies receive the kind of reception that fills them with glee but turns out to be the opposite of what the public – even the arthouse public – actually wants.
Editor wanted to stop self-indulgent director sabotaging his own work. Normally, this would be a producer’s job but there’s so many of them (I counted 14) in this co-production that I doubt any was at the wheel of the ship, trusting the director wouldn’t do something so guaranteed to alienate an audience as stick in four minutes (or more) of credits on a blank screen at the start. Credits that, virtue-signalling gone mad, list every Tom, Dick and Harry (and potentially their dog) who so much as pushed a pen for any of the production companies involved.
That won’t erode much of the mighty 158 minutes but it will make it appear several minutes shorter, assuming the audience bolts at the end. The cinema audience I saw it with wasn’t so courteous. Some were bolting long before the end. The sound of clacking chairs could be heard on a regular basis from halfway through the film.
You what!!! But this is an acclaimed picture, 92 Metascore on Imdb! Are we going to have start screening audiences now so that only people with the taste to sit to the end are allowed in?
To be honest, I shared their pain. Absolutely terrific Oscar-worthy performance by Cate Blanchett, pretty good work too from Nina Hoss as her long-suffering partner, but boy does it go on. And on. Was the director assuming the audience was too thick to get that the eponymous lead was a bit of a fitness freak without sticking that in endlessly? It’s not like it builds tension a la Vertigo with James Stewart’s apparently endless driving.
I enjoyed quite a lot of this even though at times it felt like one of those Classic Albums documentaries where those involved dissect their work, explaining how they married a riff here with a riff there, except given the composers are all dead the only creative force available is the conductor, otherwise those pesky musicians will just go off and do their own thing.
The problem is a lot of the dialog is “dead.” It doesn’t enhance our understanding of character, build character or (God forbid!) narrative or tension. One way or another it’s just intellectual discussion of classical music. Which is fascinating – but only for a time.
The story itself is told with subtlety in some places and with a sledgehammer in others. You couldn’t have telegraphed more an impending problem with an unseen musician than have Tar (Cate Blanchett) delete email correspondence. And the minute cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) appears on the scene with her come-to-bed eyes, you know this is a femme fatale on the prowl, and expect speedy unfair promotion is on the cards at some point.
That power corrupts, whether in male or female hands, appears to the driving point of the rest of the story but you have to wait a good 90 minutes before that assumes any real significance, plus social media is presented here in its best guise as an instrument of truth.
It’s a rise and fall tale, although the climax doesn’t ring true, the director either dodging the true climactic scene, a confrontation with Tar over an enforced change in her professional status, or that didn’t take place and the first thing the conductor knows about what has occurred is when she’s about to take her place on stage. Neither decision makes much sense.
So, onto the good parts. Blanchett puts in a riveting performance, not just in her sense of her own superiority, but in managing so effortlessly to make a conversation just sound like a conversation rather than a string of points making dramatic emphasis. She leaves most of the parenting of their child to partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) only stepping in when someone needs to put a bullying girl in her place. That this relationship is long past its best is obvious from the off, and that Tar has a wandering eye is plain once Olga appears.
And although Tar seems to have a fine grasp of orchestral politics and can drive a hard bargain with those seeking financial gain, she is blind to consequence, needlessly making enemies of long-standing supporters, failure to provide promised promotion triggering betrayal.
What the film does get right (I guess, since I’m no expert) is the role of the big-name music director/conductor in the classical world, ferried across continents in private planes, knowing how to bend the rules in a business where, it transpires, the orchestra wields a great deal of power, and with a genuine genius for imbuing listeners with her enthusiasm for music.
Her interpretation of “Mahler’s Symphony No 5,” initially fascinating, soon lost its hold because I had no idea what she was up to (so I hold my hands up on that one) but you’d have to be intimately acquainted with the work to get so much out of it given the time spent exploring it. This isn’t about a composer of course and lacks Peter Shaffer’s instinct with Amadeus (“too many notes” and the scene where the ill Mozart describes his music to his arch-enemy) so quite a lot of the music stuff went over my head, leaving me with no interest in large sections of the film.
Cut down to two hours plus, okay, those four minutes of credits back in their proper position at the end, and you would have a very satisfactory movie that explored the classical musical world while detailing the downfall of a female tyrant.
Director Todd Field (Little Children, 2006) carries the can on this one.
But I would also point out to him that if you’re appealing to an adult audience and a largely arthouse one at that you’re trying to target generations that have seen all the best stuff, that respond to unusual films that take them to new places dramatically or stylistically and will not stand to be bored rigid.
People slapping down £14 to see it in their local Odeon aren’t going to be as inclined to tell people to go see it than critics watching it for free. And anybody who thinks a streaming audience isn’t going to be reaching for the switch-off button during the marathon opening credits is asking for further financial misery.
The easiest method to get a film designated a cult is to claim it was a flop on release but, hey presto, thereafter acquired a new following. Classic examples might include It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
According to Wikipedia, Vanishing Point fits that niche. Based on the testimony of star Barry Newman “Fox had no faith in the film and released it in neighborhood theaters only to disappear in less than two weeks.” But after it did much better overseas, the studio was prompted to reissue it as a supporting feature to The French Connection (1971). Subsequently, it produced rentals of $4.25 million. The “cult following” developed after a television showing in 1976.
How much of that is true? The short answer – none.
Vanishing Point preceded The French Connection into cinemas by a good six months. Twentieth Century Fox, which had just escaped bankruptcy, had cut down on budgets. Vanishing Point was one of 11 movies sent into production with budgets under $2 million, extremely small potatoes for a studio that had though nothing of spending upwards of $20 million on big budget musicals the previous decade. While costs of The French Connection soared way above that initial ceiling to $3.3 million, Vanishing Point remained on budget which was a paltry $1.58 million.
The star of Vanishing Point wasn’t a star at all. Certainly not one you could build a marquee around. Barry Newman’s previous film The Lawyer (1970) hadn’t cost much to make either and it didn’t earn much. And Vanishing Point lacked the inbuilt counter-culture appeal of Easy Rider (1969) while studios were extremely reticent about trying to attract a youth audience after the disastrous showings of a stream of movies targeting that sector. The film had nothing in common with racing picture Le Mans headlined by huge star Steve McQueen and scheduled for a summer 1971 release with a big bucks marketing campaign.
Vanishing Point was released in the U.S. in March 1971 and followed an initial staggered distribution pattern running three months. Fox didn’t just rush it into nabes at all, as per Newman. The studio made a good stab at first-run. In New York it played the 1463-seat DeMille, in Denver the 1270-seat Centre, in Cleveland the 1560-seat Embassy, in Philadelphia the 1200-seat Milgrim, in Boston the 1685-seat Sack, in Seattle the 1870-seat Coliseum and in Minneapolis the 1077-seat Mann.
All were solid first run houses. The only cities where you would consider there were doubts about initial performance prospects were Pittsburgh, where it opened at the 235-seat Fulton Mini, and perhaps San Francisco (the 600-seat Regency) and Los Angeles (the 810-seat Vogue).
But except for Boston (a “hotsy” $30,000) and Los Angeles (a “zingy” $16,000), opening weeks were disappointing: a “slow” $3,400 in Cleveland and $4,500 in San Francisco, a “sluggish” $8,000 in Minneapolis at the lower end of the box office scale, but first run receipts in general did not get much higher. So the chances are a studio would be looking to write it off, and, given the miserly budget, not too worried about the size of the potential loss.
But it wasn’t a flop. It was received far better in nabes and drive-ins than in first run. And by the end of the year it was well into profit, taking $3.2 million in rentals, enough for 35th spot on the annual chart.
That put it not so far behind The French Connection ($6.1 million in rentals for the year) at this point. That Gene Hackman picture was a hit was not in question. And it was the kind of hit that didn’t require a supporting feature, certainly not while it was gobbling up box office in first run and being retained for months on end.
But by the end of 1971 Vanishing Point was also well into being a certifiable global hit. British audiences had a bigger yen for speed than their American counterparts. Bullitt (1968) had been one of the top films of the year but so had The Italian Job (1969) which had flopped in the U.S. So much so that new studio Cinema Center didn’t think it was much of a gamble to open Le Mans in London as a 70mm separate-performance roadshow (tickets $1.20-$3.60) at the 1994-seat Odeon March Arch.
Le Mans – opening salvo $29,000 – hit London West End three weeks ahead of Vanishing Point. Big star film vs movie with star of no consequence. Fox opened Vanishing Point at the 1994-seat Odeon Leicester Square on the same day in the West End as another action picture, equally with little in the way of a marquee star but with the decided bonus of being based on a thriller, Puppet on a Chain, by Alistair Maclean whose Where Eagles Dare (1968) had cleaned up in the UK.
There’s not a chance in hell of Fox being able to persuade the Rank circuit to hand over the jewel in its West End crown to a picture that had flopped in the U.S. Logic dictates that the only reason the Odeon Leicester Square would entertain Vanishing Point was because it had been an unexpectedly big hit in the U.S. In expectation of turning it in a first run success in Britain, there was perhaps a harder sell than in the U.S., coupled with the ability to roll it out quickly into suburban cinemas on a coordinated national release.
Where critics in New York had been sniffy about Vanishing Point (just one favorable review), in London it received raves from 12 out of 14 of the top critics and it had been targeted asa prospect by the Berlin Film Festival.
London audiences went mad for action. Vanishing Point scooped an opening week $25,930. Puppet on a Chain dangled an impressive $19,800 at the 1004-seat London Pavilion. Le Mans kept up the heat with a fourth week of $24,900. Vanishing Point ran for another four weeks to excellent returns, before moving over for one week to the 2600-seat New Victoria and then into the 155-seat Cinecenta 2, still in the West End (in fact in a side street just off Leicester Sq), where it ran for another 12 weeks. On national release it performed well above average.
Although banned in Australia on the grounds of “violence, incitement to crime and encouraging drug use,” it was a top performer in Europe, most notably in France where it was ranked 11th for foreign pictures during the year. In Japan the critics called it one of the top ten foreign films.
So, just taking into account its first year at the box office there is no way this could be classified as a dud.
But to everyone’s surprise it just kept going. Yes, in 1972, Fox did pair it with The French Connection but it also went out as support with The Other (1972) and was top-billed in a reissue double bill with Valley of the Dolls (1967). And by the end of that year rentals had climbed to $4.25 million (the figure erroneously given by Wikipedia as its peak).
And kept going. In 1973 you could find it supporting Fox numbers TheLast American Hero and The French Connection (again0 but also Columbia’s The Valachi Papers and Warner Bros’ Steelyard Blues. In 1974 it formed a reissue double bill with, separately, other Fox hits Mash (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Come 1975 and Fox decided on one big car-chase finale and it hit the road all over again in a reissue double bill with Peter Fonda-Susan George pedal-to-the-metal thieves Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), a combo that ran so well it snapped up bookings well into the following year.
By the time it was pulled out of cinemas U.S. rentals had topped $5 million, more than three times production costs, and probably the same again from foreign revenues.
So, nothing like a flop.
It didn’t, therefore, need to rely on a television screening for any kind of audience redemption. In fact, you would be hard put to call it cult on the evidence of its television screenings. The first year it was seen it ranked among the top 20 movies of the year, but the second time it placed 130th, hardly the sign of a movie that had grown in word-of-mouth. But it was exactly the kind of movie to benefit from the VHS/DVD explosion, where you could rent a movie to watch with your buddies. But the reason for that, most likely, was not that you had just heard of this picture, but that you had already checked it out in the cinema.
That it still commands an audience today is probably down to the fact that Barry Newman never became a big star and that as existential issues took greater precedence it fitted a new dynamic.
Wikipedia, hang your head in shame.
SOURCES: “Name of New Fox Game: Sane,” Variety, January 27, 1971, p3; “Alfred Bauer Yens 3 American Features,” Variety, March 10, 1971, p22; “New York Critics’ Opinions,” Variety, March 31, 1971, p5; “London Critics’ Opinions,” Variety, August 18, 1971, p7; “Native Pix Win 55% of French Mkt,” Variety, November 3, 1971, p27; “Big Rental Films of 1971,” Variety, January 5, 1972, p9; “Aussie Censor Bans Five Films,” Variety, January 2, 1972, p24; “Best Picks in Japan Include 6 US Films,” Variety, February 2, 1972, p5; “All-Time Box Office Champs,” Variety, January 3, 1974, p34; “All Time Rentals,” Variety, January 7, 1976, p48; “All-Time Film Rental Champs,” Variety, January 5, 1977, p50; “Theatrical Movie Rankings,” Variety, August 7, 1977; “Theatrical Movie Rankings 1977-78,” Variety, 1978; Paul Zazarine, “Kowalski’s Last Ride,” Muscle Car Review, March 1986.
Box office as reported on Variety’s “Picture Grosses” and “London West End” pages on the following dates – 1971: March 24, March 31, April 7, April 28, May 5, May 12, May 26, June 2, June 16, June 30. August 18, August 25, September 15, December 3; 1972 – March 8, September 27, October 4; 1973 – January 10, March 26, May 2, August 8; 1974 – April 10, May 1; . bookings were sampled via Variety for 1975 and 1976.
There always was an existential element to speed. Destination was another symbolic aspect. A “vanishing point” has an artistic meaning; relating to perspective it’s the place where parallel lines cross. But it also means something so diminished as to be unimportant, and you could argue this movie is a place where the figurative and metaphorical collide. Throw in a couldn’t-care-less driver and you have all you need for a cult film, a cross between the thoughtful paeon to speed of Easy Rider (1969), Sugarland Express (1974) and the camped-up chase characteristics of the later Smokey and the Bandit (1977).
It has less in common with the city-bound Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), whose protagonists had the excuse of being on the right side of the law. And where Easy Rider is majestically scenic, the route here is through Backwater U.S.A.
With a little bit more planning, Kowalski (Barry Newman), tasked with delivering a car from Denver, Colorado, to San Francisco, could easily have driven the 1250 miles (see Note) roughly within the 16.5-hour deadline he set himself – and very easily within the target set by his employer – without breaking the law. But he’s got no intention of easing his foot off the accelerator. Instead of pulling over, he sends the first pair of speed cops into the ditch.
And that sets the tone. Countless cops set out to stop him, countless cops are driven off the road, the authorities increasingly infuriated by constant humiliation. Kowalski is helped by blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who has infiltrated police radio, and whoops up public support.
Director Richard C. Sarafian could have hit the existential mother lode by making Kowalski mysterious, akin to the western’s anonymous lone rider, or to a contemporary audience “the last American hero.” Or he could have dressed him up in more contemporary colors. But instead of being a long-haired drugged-up sex-mad hippie, he’s a decorated war vet, a stock car racer and a cop who exposed corruption and prevented a colleague raping a young girl. Unlike the drug peddlers of Easy Rider or the hostage-takers of Sugarland Express, he doesn’t start out as a law-breaker (setting aside his intake of Benzedrine) and the most he’ll be charged with is a misdemeanor.
Apart from a desire for the freedom of the open road untrammelled by petty rules, we don’t get much of an idea why Kowalski is so intent on risking his life, beyond a hint that an idyllic loved-up beach lifestyle had been shattered. There’s a fatalism that Ridley Scott ripped off for Thelma and Louise (1991).
The awe-inspiring driving across arid country is interrupted by episodes uncovering the underside of the American Dream and the nascent counter-culture. He is almost robbed by a couple of gay hitchhikers, encounters an old man (Dean Jagger) living off the land, trapping rattlesnakes and trading them for supplies, and a youth-oriented revivalist group who make music their mantra. He turns down free sex and marijuana offered by a beautiful nude motorcycle rider (Gilda Texter) while her boyfriend (Timothy Scott), with a stolen police siren, guides Kowalski through roadblocks.
Mostly, though, the focus is on the driving. Kowalski’s white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum, souped-up to reach 160 mph, leaves a Jaguar E-Type in the dust, and makes a mockery of the succession of wannabe cop speedsters.
He can leap over gaps, race off-road, charge through the desert, hide from pursuing helicopters, and could probably have hidden out till the heat died down except his blood is up and his eyes are starting to glaze over and he’s got a peculiar smile on his lips.
Even on a small screen the full-throttle driving hits the spot. But it scores on many other emotional and intellectual levels. It strikes a chord with the disaffected. It’s the ultimate in defiance of authority, innate skills belittling superior forces. The fastest man will always have an audience rooting for him. If you can’t win, choosing how this will end means you remain in control. Speed puts a man in the zone, where you are reduced to an essence of being.
On paper, this should hardly work at all. In the hands of director Richard C. Safarian (Fragment of Fear, 1970) it works like a dream. Barry Newman (The Lawyer, 1970) is superb with very little to go on, nothing but a buttoned-up driving machine. Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles, 1974) on the other hand goes nuclear as the hippest of the hip disc jockeys. Oscar-winning Dean Jagger (Firecreek, 1968) makes his mark and you might like to know Gilda Texter went on to become a successful costume designer. Depending on what version (not the one I caught) you see, you’ll get a glimpse of Charlotte Rampling (Three,1969).
Stone cold classic. Gets the adrenaline going, but leaves you thoughtful.
The DVD is worth buying just for Sarafian’s commentary.
NOTE: That’s according to Google. Though estimates vary. One reference puts it at 15 hours of non-stop driving, another between 19 and 22 hours. Without breaking the speed limit of 70mph and allowing for not hitting any big cities necessitating curbing your speed, I reckoned he would only cover 1150 miles within his deadline but there are clearly plenty stretches of remote road where you would be able to crank up your speed without any bother. It’s noticeable that Kowalski sets off during the night but we never see him doing any night-time driving, he only attracts the attention of the cops during the day.
Heart-warming tale of a suicide wannabe. Yep, the studio didn’t know how to sell it either, and the trailer had originally put we off, a gurning Tom Hanks and the annoying neighbor from hell. And it just shows what a sick character I must be that I was chuckling all the way through. Because, yes, and without any attempt at black comedy, Otto (Tom Hanks) spends the first half of the picture trying to commit suicide, depressed, we later discover, at the death of his wife.
As if a riff on The Marriage of Figaro, we first encounter Otto when he is measuring rope for a noose with which to hang himself. But being a truculent nit-picking type of guy – the Everyman you would cross the street to avoid – he gets into an argument with the store manger on account of not being to buy exactly the length of rope he wants. Suffice it to say that this homespun guy who otherwise can fix anything and has every tool known to man can’t grasp the mechanics of suicide. He’s one foot in the grave when he would clearly prefer two.
While he’s failing at this one simple task he’s getting annoyed to pieces by the new pregnant neighbor Marisol (Mariana Trevino) and her hapless husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) who can’t fix anything and by virtually everyone else in his universe who can’t follow simple rules like displaying your car sticker in the proper position. He’s an artisan trapped in a world controlled by idiots, blasting away at the inanities and inequities of modern life.
It takes such a long time to warm up you think it’s never gone to manage the switch into feel-good movie, what with so many numbskulls getting in the way, and Otto being the kind of guy who will fall out with his best friend because he bought the wrong kind of car. And it takes so long because it’s hardly gentle stuff, instead mostly biting, or inexplicable especially when Marisol takes off on a great riff of Mexican words.
His past opens up, courtesy of mementoes, and we realise he wasn’t always this kind of walking rulebook keep-off-the-grass poster boy.
Critics have been pretty sniffy about this but audiences know better and are turning out in bigger droves than for Tar, Babylon or The Fabelmans because it’s what audiences have been crying out for for so long – a good well-made drama that touches on some pretty awful feelings and doesn’t take the easy way out. Otto is made to work pretty hard to find community among people he automatically despises.
I’m not sure we need the flashbacks where a younger cuter Otto (Truman Hanks, yep even here, nepo abounds) romances his wife, because Otto gets over the line on his own within his grumpier shell without reverting to the nicer, shy guy he once was, cute as that tale is. And there’s an equally unnecessary nod to contemporary tropes, what with Otto showing his kinder side by taking in a trans and social media demonstrating how much it can be a boon – rather than a menace – to society when Otto decides to take up the cudgels against real estate villains.
The characters are all so – what’s the word I’m looking for – real. Even the dumbest of them, initially portrayed in somewhat cartoon fashion, turn out to be just human.
As I said, I was chuckling or straight out laughing all the way through and I’m glad to say that Marisol and I connected on the sickest joke of all, the one about the big heart (I’m not going to give that one away).
Given I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, all advertising having carefully avoided any mention of the S-word, and was really only squeezing this into my weekly triple bill because of limited choice, and the trailer did it no favors, my heart sank as that esteemed outfit the British Board of Film Censors stepped in where Hollywood marketing persons feared to tread and announced, in its apparently regulatory slot, that this movie contained “suicide theme.”
That certainly got my attention, but did nothing for my confidence in a piece of entertainment, wondering if I had been mis-sold or misled, but within a few minutes Otto’s antics had me in stitches.
Tom Hanks (Elvis, 2022) is back to his best after a few dodgy characterisations and in too many films that seemed to disappear into the maw of the streamer. And it says a lot for his creative juices that he chose a part that played very much against type. But Mariana Trevino (Polvo, 2019) is the bonus here, a comedienne of genius.
Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, 2001) is back on form, too, totally in command of a movie that could so easily have slipped sideways into a vat of treacle or the other way into the outer space of black comedy. David Magee (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) wrote the screenplay based on Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove which had been turned into a film in 2015.