Babylon (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

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.

Ignore the reviews and check it out.

Vanishing Point (1971) *****

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.

A Man Called Otto (2023) ****

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.

The more ominous original – note the noose.

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.

Cutesville – for the book.

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.

Ignore the critics, go see.

M3GAN (2022) ****

Sharp psychological drama about attachment, abandonment and loss masquerading as sci fi/horror. Plays off riffs old – Ripley in Aliens and the elevator scene in The Shining – and new, the “Final Girl” trope aka last person standing of the horror film becomes “Final Child.” While not a slaughter-fest in the Halloween/Friday the 13th vein demonstrates ingenious methods of bumping people off.

The starting point is not, as the trailers and adverts might suggest, the invention of a toy robot companion that evolves beyond initial conception, but a young girl, Cady (Violet McGraw) orphaned in a snow plough accident, who is sent to live with workaholic robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams), the least maternal woman on the planet.

Knives out and not an onion in sight.

In her own mind Gemma has good excuse not to prepare for this sudden onset of parenting by buying some new toys or child-friendly food or creating a playroom. She is on a deadline having spent $100,000 inventing a new doll called M3GAN that, unfortunately, doesn’t work. So tough luck for the poor little orphan until Gemma can enrol the little girl as the test pilot for the Megan experience.

And that’s a hell of a boon for Cady since the cutely dressed doll, about the child’s size, empathizes with her human companion, actually listens to her, can record and store the child’s memories and seems like it’s about to kickstart a toy revolution. That is, until it develops an exceptionally high protectionist tendency.

When its charge is whacked by an unruly boy or menaced by the dog next door, Megan steps in to deal out fitting punishment. Except the doll has no “stop” button and is inclined to go on meting out punishment until there’s no life left in the victim.

It’s not long before Gemma twigs that the doll is turning into one of those mad parents you find in thrillers, or even like Celia (Lori Dungey), the annoying woman next door who cares more for her dog than her neighbors. The signs are there when Cady starts to run amok. Well, not quite amok, but handing out slaps to adults, and reacting badly when deprived, like a child of its computer game, of the companion.

Gemma, whose idea of commitment is Tinder, takes a very long time before she can put the needs of the child ahead of her career, and when it comes to a showdown finds she is not the match she thought she was for her invention, which, like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or any other man-made monster since time immemorial, objects to being ended.

The grown-ups don’t come off well here, either idiotically bickering so much they cause the accident that renders the child parentless, or obsessed with dogs or work, and even social worker Lydia (Amy Usherwood) assigned to find out if Gemma is a fit mother seems unsuited for the work, inclined to take a rather robotic view herself of child engagement and certainly playing power politics.

Gemma’s boss David (Ronny Chieng) is a mean-minded insecure obsessive unaware an  underling is quietly harvesting his ideas for sale to a rival. All the adults view the child as a doll, a necessary adjunct to show how well the robot works.

Gemma fails to understand, as spelled out by the snotty social worker, that a child who has lost parents will attach herself to the nearest sympathetic person. But Cady, dealing with abandonment and loss, is not the only one with attachment issues. The robot has them in spades, chucked aside on a whim when her creator takes against her or when all attention is transferred to the child.

This all builds up to a tremendous climax when Megan cuts loose in the toy factory, slicing and dicing, and providing the kind of example of her prowess that would have sequel-makers salivating as they detect robot soldier opportunities. And when Gemma tries to bring her to heel finds that (to hell with the obvious pun) the boot is on the other foot.

You can see why this – and other horror thrillers like Barbarian (2022) or Black Phone (2022) that eschewed a conveyor belt of bloody thrills in favor of something deeper – has struck such a chord with the younger audience that makes up the bulk of the audience for Hollywood pictures. This is intelligent. Who hasn’t as a child dreamt of, or even invented, the ideal companion? Who as a child has not thought there must be a better way of being brought up than being left in the hands of parents with little aptitude or interest in the job.

None of these horror pictures has got the slightest chance of being nominated for Oscars while pictures with far bigger budgets, which have not the slightest chance of attracting an audience or are boring them to death, get all the critical hype.

I couldn’t make up my mind whether the doll, being so lifelike, was CGI or human and it turns out she was played by newcomer Amie Donald, though presumably either with a stunt double or a computer doing the crazy dancing. Whatever, the doll is very convincing. As it has to be said, are Allison Williams (Get Out, 2017) and Violet McGraw in her movie debut.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly director Gerard Johnstone, also a movie newcomer, who had the guts to opt for  slow-burn rather than visceral fright and develop themes that would resonate with any adult. Screenplay honors go to Akela Cooper (Malignant, 2021) while director James Wan (also Malignant) cops the story credit.

Virtuoso thriller. Can’t wait for the sequel.  

The Night of the Iguana (1964) ****

The eponymous reptile is a rather obvious metaphor for characters trapped by quixotic decisions. Regardless of the Rev Dr. T Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) being a defrocked priest, he was always going to lead a dissolute life, alcohol the least of his temptations. This heady drama begins with comedy about a man with ideas above his station ending up as an incompetent tourist guide.

And if his behaviour is not scandalous enough for current coach party, middle-aged Baptist ladies, he leads them to a hotel in Mexico run by former lover Maxine (Ava Gardner) who has two younger lovers on the go. And as is the way with author Tennessee Williams there’s a posse of fascinating characters, led by spinster Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who ekes out an itinerant living selling paintings while her aged grandfather (Cyril Devalanti) recites poetry. Raising the moral stakes is under-age Charlotte (Sue Lyon) who has taken a fancy to Shannon, partly in rebellion against her frosty chaperone Judith (Grayson Hall).

For a movie with no great narrative drive, there’s no shortage of drama, whether it’s the Reverend under constant attack from his charges, Charlotte making advances, Shannon succumbing or trying to fight his addictions, Maxine succumbing then rejecting his advances, and Hannah on the sidelines trying to work out why her entire life has been lived in the shadows.

A simple dramatic fuse has been lit, disparate group with secrets set to explode, and you just sit back and enjoy the ride. Exceptionally daring, even if in discreet fashion, for the time, not just the Lolita-style Charlotte, but the middle-aged Maxine cavorting with not one but two men young enough to be her sons, so effectively a Cougar (before the term was invented) in a threesome, a woman in full command on her sex life not at the whim of a male. There’s as overt a gay woman as you would find in this era. And that’s before we come to Hannah, one of whose two sexual experiences involved averting her eyes while her male companion masturbated on a piece of her clothing. That was taking it way beyond the limits of acceptable on-screen behaviour of the day.

Characters are either engulfed by their passions or weaknesses or trying to come to terms with them, sometimes both. Over everything hangs poignancy at the self-deception practised, redemption scarcely a possibility, communication a minefield, acceptance the best anyone can hope for. Quality acting prevents this disappearing down a sinkhole of self-pity.

Richard Burton (Becket, 1964) was on a roll, one brilliant performance after another either with or without Elizabeth Taylor, essaying a wide range of characters. This is one of his best. You should despise the sham he has become, relying on charm to dig himself out of a hole, relying far too much on the kindness of strangers whose sympathy is exhausted. Yet the loss of the only position, a clergyman, for which he was possibly suited, thrown out for committing unforgiveable sin while preaching sanctity, makes him a very relatable human being. This isn’t Days of Wine and Roses reborn, but someone trying to win the pinch of oxygen required to keep his soul alive, and stir the energy inside. And he would be furious if you ever made the mistake of feeling sorry for him.

Ava Gardner (Mayerling, 1968) is superb, staring age in the face, unrepentant, sex an acceptable substitute for love, underlying sadness admirably restrained. But Deborah Kerr (The Chalk Garden, 1964), brings a refreshing dash to her introspective character, a woman with practical solutions except to her own emotional emptiness. Sue Lyon (Lolita, 1962) is only briefly scandalous and the movie’s conclusion suggests she is capable of settling down and not giving into the base desires that afflict all the others.

Just as with The Misfits (1961), director John Huston allows his characters to breathe. It would have been very easy to allow Shannon to have a more heroic or stoic stature, instead of someone stumbling around. Tinges of comedy and wit lighten the load. Huston and Anthony Veiller (The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963) wrote the screenplay from the Tennessee Williams play.

Becket (1964) *****

Two stars in impeccable form, an intriguing tale of betrayal and redemption, and a sharp reminder that Britain was once a conquered nation. Given the original play was written by a Frenchman, Jean Anouilh, I wondered how much of the experience of France being occupied by Germany during World War Two informed the work.

Becket (Richard Burton) is dabbed a collaborator for having anything to do with King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), not just in his gainful employ and rising to positions of enormous power, but in accepting his friendship being viewed as a traitor to his countryman. England then, 100 years after the invasion of William the Conqueror, was divided into Normans, who ruled, and Saxons, the indigenous population, who obeyed. The only source of rebellion was through the Catholic Church which could claim, in its prime allegiance to God, to place religion above ruler.

Initially, it’s the story of two unprincipled men, who drink and lust to their heart’s content, until Henry, misreading his friend’s personality, appoints him Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important religious leader in the country, assuming that Becket would continue in his hypocritical ways and bring the clergy to heel. Unfortunately, in taking on the position, Becket takes to heart everything it stands for and instead of extending his power Henry finds it challenged.

It’s classic narrative, fast friends turned bitter enemies, the American Civil War in a nutshell. The more Becket sticks to his guns, the more his life is imperilled. Since the story is based on historical actuality, anyone who saw it at the time would be aware of the famous outcome, but the teaching of history and English history at that, either having fallen in abeyance or being given the revisionist treatment, viewers coming at afresh will be surprised at the political and moral twists and turns.

Nor is it of the “thee” and “thou” school of historical drama. The language is modernised, it is filled with humor, and spiced through with irony. Caught in a downpour during a hunt and sheltering, wet and bedraggled, in a peasant hut in a wood, Becket explains to the king that anyone who dared light him a fire would be hanged for taking precious wood out of the forest, a law laid down by Henry to make more money from his forests.

Likeable though Henry is, full of energy and fun, he is also sly and mean. On the basis of what’s mine is yours, he passes on a peasant lass to Becket, but in demanding the favour returned insists that Becket allow him to have sex with his fiancee, who promptly commits suicide rather than submit.

Henry wheedles as much as he demands, needing to keep his nobles in line if they are to fund his lifestyle and wars. There is always the tricky business of making alliances with untrustworthy rivals. This almost a template for Game of Thrones, the business of ruling as much about the velvet glove as the iron fist, negotiation and concession as important as outright demonstrations of strength.

Even when in an inferior position, there is always diplomatic recourse. The French king (John Gielgud), deliberately keeping waiting a British contingent, explains that the delay will allow them time to be measured for some fashionable French clothing. Now that is a barb served in silk.

It’s possibly as big a surprise to Becket, as indulgent in drinking and whoring as the king, to discover that he has principles. The clergy was known for abusing its power and, despite taking a vow of poverty, living high on the hog. So he stuns both his fellow priests and bishops as much as the king when he gives away all his possessions to fulfil that basic vow. There’s almost an element of naivety. Having played the game so far, suddenly he refuses, to the consternation of everyone in power.

For a time it becomes a battle of wills and that eternal question of who is more important, the invisible God or the human king, and Becket to some extent becomes a pawn.

And it’s brilliantly acted. In his first role since coming to global attention with Lawrence of Arabia (1964) Peter O’Toole creates a more down-to-earth conniving ruthless character. Richard Burton (Cleopatra, 1963), trying to prove he can attract an audience without the help of Elizabeth Taylor, matches him every step of the way. The fiery oratory is replaced by introspection.

Director Peter Glenville (The Comedians, 1967) resists the temptation to open up the stage play, which he also helmed on Broadway (where it won the Tony for Best Play), and for a historical picture set in warring times it’s surprisingly lacking in battles. But it’s easily one of the best historical pictures ever made and it’s a travesty that the Oscar for Best Actor went to neither O’Toole nor Burton, both nominated who split the vote, but to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady. John Gielgud (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) was a whimsical quirky delight, so different to his normal screen persona.

Out of 12 Oscar nominations, it won only for screenplay, by Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965).

Does what historical movies so rarely accomplish: thoughtful, stylish, brilliantly structured with superb acting and direction.

Giant (1956) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Should James Cameron require any suggestions on how to structure a family saga featuring exclusion, rebellion, adolescence, revenge and racism without relying on repetitive action beats he could do worse than check out this towering epic. There’s a seamlessness to the screenplay that allows the director to move quickly along, drama and conflict that initially tear a family apart in the end bringing it back together.

The story charts the romance of Texan rancher Bick (Rock Hudson) to socialite Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), their marital conflict as she exerts her personality in a male-dominated world, her battle with Bick’s older sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) for control of the household, and the infatuation of ranch hand Jett (James Dean) with Leslie.

First child Jordan (Dennis Hopper), pushed unwillingly into masculine pursuits by Bick,  bucks his father’s long-term plan by determining to become a doctor. Second child Judy rebels against the extravagant lifestyle and opts, along with husband Dace, for a small spread, the cattleman’s version of a mom-and-pop operation. Third offspring Luz the Second (Carroll Baker) romances the older Jett, now an oil millionaire, and Bick’s business rival.

Racism and exclusion form the core of the picture. Leslie is shocked to discover her father’s employees living in abject poverty, that he will not countenance the cost of improving living conditions, partly on racist grounds, partly on the American principle that it’s every man for himself, a race in which losers are left behind like sores to fester. Jordan marrying a Mexican brings these issues to the fore, especially when his grand heritage cannot protect her from humiliating racism. Bick and Leslie bicker, fall out, make up, are exploited by their children, who can always find one or the other to take their side in any dispute.

Sure there are some terrific lines but the best scenes are simply visually dramatic. Luz, furious at Leslie encroaching on her territory, lames her rival’s favorite horse by riding it with spurs digging into its flesh. A huge crowd welcomes home a white World War Two hero, a handful of people the Mexican equivalent, only when the train pulls away do we see the draped coffin. The introverted by now incoherent Jett unable to summon up the words to complete his proposal to Luz the Second. Terrified four-year-old Jordan atop a horse, not being able, or willing, to ride the worst sin in Bick’s world.

Bick, restraining himself from launching into a fistfight with Jett in the wine cellar of the oil man’s opulent hotel, throws an item at racks of bottles, only to see it topple back, the camera remaining on Bick’s face as we hear the successive toppling of rack upon rack upon rack. Jett, all the wealth he could ever want, wakens from drunken slumber to an empty banqueting room, guests long departed.

A tiny house, as grand as it is, sits in the distance on a massive plain. The passing of time is delineated in relation to horsepower. We are introduced to Bick staring out of a train window watching horses which almost match the speed of the train. Then it is a plane which outruns a car. Finally, when speed, as a demonstration of inherent power, is no longer of the essence the family, in a car, is happy to be overtaken by a speedster.  

The power of wealth, the power of power, its corrosive impact on those sharing in what it can bestow, the damage inflicted on those who get in the way, is the other great theme, spelled out not in dogma or speeches but in human cost. And no matter how powerful, someone is always bigger. The dominant Texan cattleman is easily overtaken in the wealth stakes by the oilman, whose political donations ensure tax exemption.

The vindictive Luz gains revenge on her brother by bequeathing Jett a small parcel of land, just enough to prevent the cattleman from owning everything as far as the eye can see and far beyond, just enough to cause irritation.    

And this is before we come to the performances. It’s hard to choose between the three principals. Elizabeth Taylor (The Comedians, 1967), fiery, humane, loving, submitting unwillingly to the superior male, arguing her corner, fighting for the rights of others, brings a superbly complex character to brilliant life. But Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) , in a less showy part, is just as good, conflicted, stubborn, initially shy, forced to take on inherited stances, only at the end standing up against what he formerly believed. And you can hardly take your eyes off James Dean, hiding behind a Stetson or a bottle of whisky, inarticulate, lost, greedy, infatuated.

John Huston used to aver that in any given scene the camera did all the work, that with three or four people to choose from, all on screen at the one time, the strongest performer would attract audience attention. Here, that attention constantly flickered from Taylor to Hudson to Dean, as, almost without exerting an acting muscle, they battled for screen dominance.

Taylor was ignored come Oscar time, but Hudson and Dean split the vote allowing Yul Brynner to sneak in, Mercedes McCambridge nominated in the supporting category, Stevens winning his second Oscar. The supporting cast had tremendous depth: Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969), Mercedes McCambridge (99 Women, 1969),  Sal Mineo (Escape from Zahrain, 1962), Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963),  Jane Withers (Captain Newman M.D., 1963) and Chill Wills (The Alamo, 1960). Fred Guiol (Shane, 1953) and Ivan Moffat (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) adapted the Edna Ferber bestseller.

I saw this on the big screen in a 4K restoration which means it’s probably heading for streaming and/or DVD but if your local arthouse chances to program this any effort to see it will be well worthwhile.

The Comedians (1967) ***

Over-long, over-hyped and over-cast. Pretty much an early example of virtue-signalling, exposing corruption in a dictatorship (Haiti), but offering more through the singular self-deception of the main characters. An element of sleight-of-hand is also practiced on an audience enticed by four big stars “above the title” comprising three Oscar winners and one multiple nominee. Luckily, the ironic in-joke of naming characters with traditional English names – Smith, Jones and Brown – would probably pass most people by.

Brown (Richard Burton), a hotelier, is present throughout but Major Jones (Alec Guinness) appears only briefly at the beginning then disappears until late on to spike the plot. Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the adulterous love interest, pops up sporadically as does her husband Ambassador Pineda (Peter Ustinov). There’s not much of a story, Brown, cynical about the dictatorship, is friendly with a rebel leader, Jones is an ineffectual arms dealer, and missionary couple the Smiths (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish) offer comic relief until barbarity rears its head.

Great play is made of naivete but the film suffers from the Hollywood curse of only being able to examine foreign politics through the prism of a (white) American or Englishman. At the time it might have been shocking to see brutality so convincingly dispensed, and there is, also, in Mondo Cane fashion, too much time spent on strange ritual, but at the same time, of course, the U.S. was inflicting its own barbarities on the Vietnamese.

On the other hand, Brown is exactly the kind of foreigner who believes things must improve because, damn it all, he’s British and bad things can’t happen to a Brit in a strange land. He is convinced he will be able to sell a hotel located in a war-torn country, persists in believing Martha will abandon husband and son, and convinces himself he is the very man the rebels have been looking for.

Jones mistakenly believes everyone is taken in by his hail-fellow-well-met routine and his tales of heroism in World War Two jungles, thinks he is in with a chance with Martha and that his gun-running activities will avoid detection. The ambassador thinks his wife will not leave him as long as he turns a blind eye to her affairs. And Martha, probably wondering why she married such a buffoon, can’t work out to dump him. Everyone who has much to lose appears to be continually on a precipice and it’s hard to see what they could gain from their actions. 

They are all misfits, “comedians,” stuck in the rut of their own destiny, unable to change.

Nobody is more gullible than those who dupe themselves and the film comes into its own when it sets personal delusion against political naivete. In narrative terms Jones is the most obviously unmasked but the others are no less shown to be foolhardy in their expectations.

This had all the hallmarks of a prestige picture, initially planned as a roadshow,  around $2 million spent on the above-the-line cast, another chunk on buying the rights to the Graham Greene bestseller and assigning the author the screenplay, location shooting in Dahomey.

Don’t expect oratorical fury from Richard Burton (The Bramble Bush, 1960) nor outbursts of angst from Elizabeth Taylor (Secret Ceremony, 1969). There’s something almost comically homely in their deception and in the outwardly confident Brown perceiving Jones as a love rival.  Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) is the big treat, an upmarket con man, his boisterous voice and mannerisms far removed from his more usual introspective performances. Peter Ustinov (Topkapi, 1964), a bit too fidgety for my liking, nonetheless attracts sympathy as the man who is batting above his weight in snaring a trophy wife he knows he cannot hold onto.

Burton was the odd one out in the Oscar rankings. Despite five nominations by this stage, he had never taken home the statuette. Elizabeth Taylor, by contrast, had won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Guinness once for Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Ustinov also twice Spartacus (1961) and Topkapi.  

However, in some senses if you remove the star turns, you are left with a rawer picture, and director Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) captures much of the personal intensity of the novel. Taylor, in particular, misses the mark. Although playing a German, she never once bothers attempting an accent. Had Burton been the sole star, the movie would have worked much better since his low-key playing would not have been so much at odds with other actors.  

There’s a host of striking turns from supporting stars, ranging from silent film star Lillian Gish (The Unforgiven, 1960) to Roscoe Lee Brown (Topaz, 1969), James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope, 1970), Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968) and Cicely Tyson (Sounder, 1972).

Accident (1966) ****

Intellect can present as powerful a sexual magnetism as wealth. And for young women, unlikely to come into the orbit of powerful movie magnates or wealthy businessmen, they are most likely to experience abuse of power in academia, especially in top-notch universities like Oxford and Cambridge or Harvard and the Sorbonne.

Young students, unsure of their place in the world, depend on praise for their self-esteem. To be on the receiving end of flattery from a renowned scholar, a young person (males included) might be willing to overlook other unwanted attention. For young women and men accustomed to being assessed on looks alone this might be a drug too powerful to ignore.

The British system ensured that potential prey was delivered to potential predators. As well as attending lectures, each student was allocated a tutor and could spend a considerable amount of time with them in private in congenial surroundings behind closed doors. And since essays marked by tutors played a considerable element in an overall mark, there was plenty of opportunity for transactional sex.  

And it was easy for women to think they wielded the sexual power. I once employed a woman who boasted that she had seduced her university tutor, little imagining that that took any opposition on his part, and that, in reality, she was just another easy conquest.

So you might be surprised to learn that when this movie about inappropriate behavior in a university of the caliber of Oxford appeared, nobody gave a hoot about the grooming and exploitation of young Austrian Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) by two professors, Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) and Charley (Stanley Baker).

The story is told in flashback in leisurely fashion. Hearing a car crash outside his substantial house in the country, Stephen finds inside the vehicle an injured Anna and her dead boyfriend William (Michael York). Then we backtrack to Anna’s arrival in Oxford, and how the love quadrangle is created. The presence of William suggests Anna has predatory instincts, but there is no sign of sex in their relationship, rather that he is forever frustrated at being kept on a leash and clearly suspecting he is losing out to others.

Stephen, a professor of philosophy, no higher calling in academe, endless discussion on the meaning of life manna to every student, has a purported happy home life, wife Rosalind (Vivien Merchant) pregnant with their third child. He’s no stranger to infidelity, reviving an affair with the estranged daughter Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) of a college bigwig (Alexander Knox).

But he can’t quite make his move on Anna, despite idyllic walks in the fields and their hands almost touching on a fence. The uber-confident Charley, novelist and television pundit in addition to academic celebrity, has no such qualms and seduces her under the nose of his friend and sometime competitor.

When opportunity does arise for Stephen it does so in the most horrific fashion and, that he takes advantage of the situation, exposes the levels of immorality to which the powerful will stoop without batting an eyelid.

The web Stephen is trying to weave around his potential victim is disrupted by William and Charley and if any anguish shows on Stephen’s face it’s not guilt at the grief he may cause or about his own errant behavior but at the prospect of losing a prize.

Director Joseph Losey (Secret Ceremony, 1968) sets the tale in an idyllic world of dreaming spires, glasses of sherry, tea on the lawn, glorious weather, punting on the river, old Etonian games, the potential meeting of minds and the flowering of young intellect.  The action, like illicit desire, is surreptitious, a slow-burn so laggardly you could imagine the spark of narrative had almost gone out.

Stephen is almost defeated by his own uncontrolled desire, taking advantage of his wife entering hospital for childbirth, the children packed off elsewhere, to have sex with Francesca, not imagining that Charley will take advantage of an empty house.

And the young woman as sexual pawn is given further credence by the fact that at no point do we see the events from her perspective.

Anguish had always been a Dirk Bogarde (Justine, 1969) hallmark and usually it served to invite the moviegoer to share his torment. So it’s kind of a mean trick to play on the audience to discover that this actor generally given to playing worthy characters is in fact a sleekit devious dangerous man. Of course, the persona reversal works very well, as we do sympathise with him, especially when relegated to second fiddle in the celebrity stakes to Charley and humiliated in his own attempts to gain television exposure.

Stanley Baker (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) was the revelation. Gone was the tough guy of previous movies. In its place a charming confident winning personality with a mischievous streak, a far more attractive persona when up against the more introspective Bogarde.

Jacqueline Sassard (Les Biches, 1968) is, unfortunately, left with little to do but be the plaything. There’s an ambivalence about her which might have been acceptable then, but not now, as if somehow she is, with her own sexual powers, pulling three men on a string. In his debut Michael York (Justine, 1969) shows his potential as a future leading man.

You might wonder if Vivien Merchant (Alfred the Great, 1969) was cast, in an underwritten part I might add,  because husband Harold Pinter (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) wrote the script and Nicholas Mosley, who had never acted before, put in an appearance because he wrote the original novel.

Losey, a critical fave, found it hard to attract a popular audience until The Go-Between (1971) and you can see why this picture flopped at the time despite the presence of Bogarde and Baker. And although it is slow to the point of infinite discretion, it’s not just a beautifully rendered examination of middle class mores, and a hermetically sealed society, but, way ahead of its time, and possibly not even aware of the issues raised, in exploring abuse of power, a “Me Too” expose of the academic world.

The acting and direction are first class and it will only appear self-indulgent if you don’t appreciate slow-burning pictures.

  

Joy in the Morning (1965) ****

Not a great movie by any means but I am drawing attention to it for other reasons. While entering familiar small town soap opera territory with malice behind every curtain and the repression rampant a century ago, it’s a fabulous exploration of character.

The narrative drive is slim, young couple coming undone by circumstance. But that is more than compensated by the preoccupation with their actual characters, marital bust-ups for no reason, insecurities to the fore, a daring sexual overtness that for the time it was made does not stoop to the lowest common denominator, and without doubt the best performance in the career of Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968) here taking center stage rather than as was more usual a mere appendage to the leading man.

Not sure what the rival picture was. any ideas?

The story is told primarily through the eyes of Anna (Yvette Mimieux), a poor uneducated homely girl who falls for dashing virile law student Carl (Richard Chamberlain), both of Irish descent, who, against parental wishes, run off to get married.

But marriage instantly brings financial calamity. As a married man, Carl is ineligible for college loans, and his wife is forbidden, following aspirational middle-class custom of the day, to work except for a bit of babysitting. Viewing Anna, coming from poorer stock, as a gold-digger, Carl’s father Patrick (Arthur Kennedy) not only withdraws financial support but demands repayment of loans.

So the pair struggle through. And that would be par for soap opera.

What brings this to the fore is the director’s fascination with character, allowing personality, with all its inexplicable whimsicalities, full rein rather than making that subservient to a more dramatic story.

If you think couples these days have difficulty communicating, imagine the situation a century ago where a man made all the decisions and expected obedience from his partner. And a wife so fearful of announcing a pregnancy for fear it would force her husband to abandon his studies. Beyond obvious worry, there is little problem-sharing or joint resolution of difficulties.

For all his charm, Carl is pretty gauche. His ardent inexperienced love-making borders on rough. He is so out of touch with his wife’s passion that he takes a job as a nightwatchman. He plays a mean trick on her in a communal shower. And although he refuses to cower to his father, in general he kowtows to authority.

The French have a word for it.

Anna is more feisty, challenging his father, ignoring patriarchal rules, almost pathologically opposed to using the word “Sir,” but full of compassion, befriending the gay florist, object of public ridicule, encouraging him in his writing, standing up, too, for the widow, forced by circumstance to become the mistress of a rich businessman (Oscar Homolka), taking money for the privilege.

Yet for all her outgoing confidence, she is insecure, so desperate to learn that she sneaks into the halls of the college to overhear lectures, a dictionary her constant companion. Sexually, she is conflicted, memories of stepfather abuse arising too often, and yet intensely physical, adoring the touch of a loving male.

Despite her homely beauty, she follows a more obviously attractive woman, copying the way she walks, swings her hips, flicks her hair. She wants a tight sweater when the fashion is to wear them loose. Unable to afford a hair salon, she has her blonde hair cut short enough in a barber shop so that it will bounce when she walks. Due to her deficiencies and in constant emotional turmoil, she is liable to snap at perceived insult.

The story could easily have gone down a more fairy-tale route, of Anna finding herself, espousing independence, becoming a writer, instead of – anathema to a contemporary audience – finding expression by supporting her husband. But that would not be true to the times. That she has hardly any home to look after, little in the way of furniture to polish, no cosy gang of housewives for coffee mornings, so her efforts at expanding her education would simply qualify as a sensible way to spend her day.  

And while director Alex Segal (Harlow, 1965) does not trust her with the kind of soulful close-up accorded the likes of Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn, where one look into the eyes reveals everything, and restricts emotion to dialog, he does provide countless small moments that allow proper character development. Nor does he trust himself much, only two compositions of any singularity; snow falling on a house that turns out to be a storekeeper tipping icing sugar over a model of a home for a shop window Xmas scene; and a shadow suddenly appearing when the couple are about to make love.     

And there is a role reversal of sorts. It’s television heartthrob Richard Chamberlain (Twilight of Honor, 1963) who regularly disports semi-naked rather than Mimieux. Chamberlain took the opportunity to boost his burgeoning singing career, crooning the movie theme song. Although the undoubted star, it was Mimieux, though lumbered with an Irish accent, who took the acting plaudits.

Sally Benson (a career stretching from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, 1943, to Viva Las Vegas, 1964) and Alfred Hayes (The Double Man, 1967) wrote the screenplay from the Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) bestseller. Features one of the lesser-known scores of Bernard Herrman (Marnie, 1964) but you will instantly recognize swelling strings that wouldn’t be out of place in an obsessional Hitchcock piece.

An enjoyable picture, batting above average, almost Tarantino-esque in concentrating on character at the expense of story. Sure, there’s no equivalent to foreign hamburgers, but there is some quirky dialog and it’s worth it just to see what Mimieux can do when given the opportunity.

Seems easier to get hold of the Richard Chamberlain album than the movie, but it must be on streaming somewhere, it was on YouTube at one point so may return there.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.