Easy Rider (1969) *****

Just goes to show what a little bit of reimagining can do. A companion piece to The Wild Angels (1966) but which takes the viewer in the opposite direction, turning the characters from perpetrators of violence to its victims, adding in a stonking soundtrack and a bit more philosophy, though holding on to the long tracking shots of motorbikes that defined the Roger Corman approach. From the bare bones of the Corman movie emerged a cinematic – and box office – miracle.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda, developing a character trait he revealed in The Wild Angels, senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil. As revelatory is the performance of Jack Nicholson, here effectively making a bid for stardom in a part that would snare an Oscar nomination.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now. 

 

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) ***

I didn’t realise that the Prohibition gangsters who invented the drive-by shooting were perfectionists. Just to be make sure of completing the job, I found out here, they might send a dozen cars one after the other rolling past the chosen restaurant/cafe, machine guns spouting hundreds of bullets. Nobody could survive that, you would think. But there was a flaw to the idea. If someone just lay down on the floor, the bullets would pass over their head. Strangely enough, we never got a potted history of the drive-by shooting in this docu-drama because otherwise we found out just about everything we needed to know about the infamous massacre.

But I did wish that the narrator would shut up once in a while. I kept on thinking we were going to be examined afterwards. Every dumb schmuck that made even a brief appearance on screen got the full bio treatment, including when – and how (not always by violence) – they died. That annoying feature aside, it was certainly a forensic examination of the whys and wherefores of the infamous gangland slaying. Rival Chicago mobsters Al Capone (Jason Robards) and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker), both concluding that the other was not open to negotiation, decided instead to rub him out and the movie basically follows how each develops their murderous plan.

All the big gangster names are here – it’s like a hit man’s greatest hits – Frank Nitti (Harold J. Stone), massacre mastermind Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) and Capone enforcer Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) – and the movie reprises some of the classic genre tropes like mashing food (sandwich this time rather than grapefruit) in a woman’s face and Capone taking a baseball bat to a traitorous underling. And there’s the usual lopsided notion of “rules,” Capone incandescent that a ganster was murdered in his own home.

Capone’s plan is the cleverest, involving recruiting people with little or no criminal record including the likes of Johnny May (Bruce Dern in a part originally assigned to Jack Nicholson), renting a garage as the massacre venue, and dressing his hoods up as cops. The film occasionally tracks back to set the scene. And the ever-vigilant narrator makes sure to identify every passing gangster but come the climax seems to run out of things to say, a good many sentences beginning with “on the last morning of the last day of his life.”

Since there’s so much money washing around, it makes sense for the ladies to try and get their share. Gusenberg’s girlfriend (Jean Hale) casually, without seeking permission, swaps one fur for another four times as expensive. A sex worker as casually steals from her client’s wallet before demanding payment for services rendered.

The only problem with bringing in so many bit characters – either those doing the murdering or being murdered – into play is that it cuts down the time remaining to cover Capone and Moran, so, apart from the voice-over, we learn little of significance, most of the drama amounting to outbursts of one kind or another. But it’s certainly very entertaining and follows the Raymond Chandler maxim of when in doubt with your story introduce a man with a gun, or in this case machine gun. The violence is episodic throughout.

Despite the authenticity, punches are pulled when it comes to the physical depiction of Capone. The man universally known as “Scarface” shows no signs of such affliction as played by Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, 1967). Certainly, Robards shows none of the brooding intensity with which we associate Godfather and son Michael in the Coppola epic, rather he has more in common with Sonny. He delivers a one-key performance of no subtlety but since the film has no subtlety either then it’s a good fit. Ralph Meeker (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) has the better role, since being the junior gangster in terms of power he has more to fear. I felt sorry for Oscar-nominated George Segal (No Way To Treat a Lady, 1968) since although his character is there for obvious reasons there is no obvious reason why he should be allocated more screen time. And given more screen time, nobody seems to know what to do with it.

There’s a superb supporting cast including Jean Hale (In Like Flint 1967), Bruce Dern (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969), Frank Silvera (Uptight, 1969), Joseph Campanella (Murder Inc., 1960) Alex Rocco (The Godfather, 1972), future director Gus Trikonis and future superstar Jack Nicholson.  

After over a decade of low-budget sci-fi, horror and biker pictures, this was director Roger Corman’s biggest movie to date – his first for a major studio – and, excepting the voice-over, he does an efficient job with the script by Howard Browne (Portrait of a Mobster, 1961) who was presumably responsible for the intrusive narration.

CATCH-UP: This isn’t really a good place to start with the acting of George Segal and you will get a better idea of his talent if you check out the following films covered so far in the Blog; Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), Lost Command (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) and The Southern Star (1969).

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My Movie Books of the Year

Rather than write about the best films I have seen this year, I thought I would look at the four best books about films that I have read over the last twelve months. However, I’m beginning with an older book. I was so taken with Kirsten Stewart’s portrayal of actress Jean Seberg in the biopic Seberg (2019) that I sought out Garry McGee’s Jean Seberg – Breathless, Her True Story first published in 2007 and reprinted in 2018 in time for the movie.

The film concentrates on Seberg’s mental disintegration as she discovers she is on J. Edgar Hoover’s hit list. But the biography has a far wider remit.

This is a startling and ultimately a very sad book of the star as an American tragedy who shot to the heights in her first film and spent the rest of her life with a couple of exceptions falling earthwards. She took her own life, aged 40, in 1979. She was seen as both calculating and a victim, a woman of great strength and immense vulnerability, who used her popularity to espouse unpopular causes.

Her career followed no pattern anyone could understand, least of all Hollywood. Thrust into the limelight as a teenager when hand-picked as Saint Joan (1957) by director Otto Preminger – an experience that scarred her physically and mentally – she quickly shifted to France where she was enshrined in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave masterpiece Breathless (1960), but remained in France too long appearing in less prestigious productions. She was a vivid Lilith (1964) in Robert Rossen’s dissection of mental illness, but disappeared off the Hollywood map again until reappearing at the end of the decade in roadshow musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) – in which she stole the show from Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. After blockbuster Airport (1970) and western Macho Callahan (1970) she departed Hollywood for good, her final films being made in Europe.

Why her career was so apparently topsy-turvy is explored in this excellent biography, the final departure from America propelled by the discovery that she was under investigation by the FBI.

Chinatown (1973) is one of the greatest noir thrillers ever made but with its director Roman Polanski now persona non grata in Hollywood, it remains to be seen whether the film will retain its high status. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood leaves any discussion of the director’s sexual mores until the last chapters when the shock of the allegations against him threaten to overwhelm the entire book. That said, up till then, it is a riveting book, not just the convoluted process of making this particular movie, but especially fascinating when discussing the screenplay, the working methods of writer Robert Towne, and the tangled dealings with agents.

After The Godfather (1972), Paramount was on a high and studio boss and wunderkind Robert Evans was apparently untouchable – the studio had given him his own production company – but his wife Ali McGraw had run off with Steve McQueen and he was at war with studio president Frank Yablans. Jack Nicholson, however, was approaching a box office peak. Polanski was hot and if his touch was anywhere as good as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) it would be a slam dunk. But as the movie approached its premiere, it was looking more like a stinker. Preview audiences hated it. The original score was dumped, Jerry Goldsmith brought in to make the music more evocative of the period.

The author takes a wider view than the normal “making of” book and his portrayal of Hollywood at a time of massive change and the corrosive and often self-destructive nature of many of the personalities involved gives the subject material greater bite. A film of this book is being greenlit with Ben Affleck’s involvement.

According to Stephen Rebello, Valley of the Dolls (1968) is in a class of its own. It was top of the class in Bad Movies We Love, the book he co-wrote with Edward Margulies. Rebello has now accorded to his “making of” one of the longest book titles in history – Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!, Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, The Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time. Rebello, of course, is famous for his opus on Psycho. Valley of the Dolls was based on the bitchy bestseller by Jacqueline Susann and the movie itself fell into a similar category. Director Mark Robson had been twice Oscar-nominated, once for his adaptation of Peyton Place, a novel occupying the same trashy ground as Valley of the Dolls. Although Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Bette Davis and Kim Novak were at various times in the running, the book was such a huge bestseller that Twentieth Century Fox thought it would get away with a less-than-stellar cast. The best known of the stars Judy Garland was fired over her alcoholism. Rebello has an irreverent style, but a forensic eye for detail and has produced a highly-readable book of a film now termed a camp classic.

If Valley of the Dolls was in a class of its own, then so too was Ryan’s Daughter (1970), filmed on location in Ireland. In the David Lean canon, none of his pictures have been so maligned. While not approaching the sensational box office of Doctor Zhivago (1965) it was still a massive audience favorite. In Glasgow, where I lived, it ran as a 70mm roadshow presentation at the first-run ABC2 for an entire year. But it was mauled by the critics who felt it was clearly within their rights to dole out to Lean a public humiliation after inviting him to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics where Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel in particular tore his film to shreds.

Quite why the book has taken so long to be published is another mystery given the author says he did the bulk of the research in 1999-2003. Maybe the publishers were counting on a 50th anniversary revival. Certainly, he has no shortage of material from the drunken and pot-smoking shenanigans of star Robert Mitchum to the miscasting of Christopher Jones and the director’s own haphazard personal life. MGM, which was going through a financial tsunami, backed the director to the hilt even as the budget continued to soar -it ran 135 days over schedule. Because of the overages Jones took home more than this £200,000 contracted salary and John Mills nearly double his original $200,000. Lean’s legendary perfection endangered the lives of the crew and actors during the storm sequence while the sex scene between Jones and Sarah Miles caused particular problems. The author alleges that Jones’ food was spiked. For some reason the author has dubbed this “one of the great movie follies” and while I would not agree with that estimation it remains an interesting read.

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