1969

Hello Down There (1969, Jack Arnold)

Hello Down There is a family comedy. Its target audience is families who want to see a sexy mom Janet Leigh and sexless teenagers. I think it’s for dads who somehow got stuck taking their tweens to the movies in the late sixties? When the movie starts, it almost seems like Leigh’s going to play a big part. She's scared of the water, the movie’s about her husband Tony Randall dragging her into an undersea house to see if a regular American family can inhabit it. Of course, they’re not a regular American family because Randall’s a genius underwater engineer, Leigh’s a burgeoning romance novelist (because she’s a sexy mom), their kids (Kay Cole and Gary Tigerman) are in close-to-signing terrible mainstream hippie rock band, and… actually, no, they don’t have any pets.

Eventually they get a pet for two scenes when they’re living in the underwater house and a seal gets down there and becomes Leigh’s sidekick. It’s kind of a good scene. There’s potential. It never pays off, but potential’s rare in Hello Down There so you take what you can get.

The movie opens with millionaire underwater construction industrialist Jim Backus (in a godawful performance) going down in a submarine to see what his chief designer engineer Randall has been working on. The underwater house. It’ll solve overpopulation problems. Except Backus, being a millionaire industrialist, had no idea what Randall was working on and Backus thinks it’s stupid. Backus likes smarter projects; he loves Ken Berry’s idea to vacuum up the ocean floor and collect all the gold. Because there’s lots of gold there.

Oh, yeah, Hello Down There is for families all right… dumb ones.

Or maybe it’s just for dads who really liked Janet Leigh and needed an excuse to see her in something family-friendly?

Anyway, Randall has to promise Backus he and his family will live down there for thirty days, which Backus assumes is impossible because Leigh’s afraid of water and Backus is a little too interested in Leigh. Because he’s a creep in addition to being an idiot.

Leigh freaks out then goes off for some alone time and comes back in lingerie—chaste lingerie but lingerie—to seduce Randall as her way of apologizing for not getting over the aqua phobia immediately upon his request. They get interrupted by the kids, who don’t want to go because their band is about to hit it big with record producer Roddy McDowell (also godawful but not as embarrassingly as Backus). So they bring the band along. The rest of the band is Richard Dreyfuss, who’s better at lip synching than acting here, and Lou Wagner, who dresses like a court jester hippie and does nothing else.

Will the family make it? Will the band make it? Will there be a disappearing hurricane, dolphins, a shark attack, Tony Randall fighting a shark, Charlotte Rae playing one of her first housekeepers, an underwater rescue sequence, lots of crappy music montages, lots of mansplaining, shirtless Tony Randall separate from shark fight, and Merv Griffin? No spoilers but it’s not like you can just make up such a strange list.

Oh, yeah, there’s also Arnold Stang, who apparently drowns because the movie forgets about him. And a whole subplot about the U.S. Navy being too stupid to figure out there’s the underwater house, even though it presumably took a while to build and you’d think they’d notice because it could be the Soviets or whatever.

On the other hand, why blame screenwriters John McGreevey and Frank Telford… there’s no way to make this one good. It’s a bad production, with lousy music (courtesy Jeff Barry), lousy photography (Clifford H. Poland Jr.), questionable special effects, and occasionally bad, barely mediocre direction from Arnold. Ricou Browning directs the underwater sequences, which are bad when they’re a nature film and boring with establishing shots… but awesome when it’s action. There’s that Tony Randall vs. shark sequence (fingers crossed it was former Creature from the Black Lagoon Browning doing the uncredited underwater stunt work).

Everyone except the kids, who range from bad to worse, and Leigh just mug their way through the film. Randall included. Leigh doesn’t have much to work with, but at least she doesn’t just give up like everyone else. It’s an embarrassing movie, but she’s got nothing to be embarrassed about with it.

As opposed to literally everyone else involved. It tries to be a ninety-minute sitcom and fails. Not even shark fighting and a drunk Rae can save it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by John McGreevey and Frank Telford, based on a story by Art Arthur and Ivan Tors; director of photography, Clifford H. Poland Jr.; edited by Erwin Dumbrille; music by Jeff Barry; produced by George Sherman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tony Randall (Fred Miller), Janet Leigh (Vivian Miller), Roddy McDowall (Nate Ashbury), Jim Backus (T.R. Hollister), Ken Berry (Mel Cheever), Charlotte Rae (Myrtle Ruth), Kay Cole (Lorrie Miller), Richard Dreyfuss (Harold Webster), Lou Wagner (Marvin Webster), Gary Tigerman (Tommie Miller), Arnold Stang (Jonah), Harvey Lembeck (Sonarman), and Merv Griffin (Himself).



The Happy Ending (1969, Richard Brooks)

Jean Simmons doesn’t smile until over halfway through The Happy Ending. The movie runs almost two hours and has a present action of like eighteen years. The first eight minutes are a mostly wordless summary of John Forsythe courting Jean Simmons in the early fifties. The time period’s not important–even though the film taking place in 1969 is brought up multiple times in the present–because it’s a storybook (for the early fifties) romance where college girl Simmons falls in love with tax lawyer Forsythe. Eventually we find out Simmons dropped out to marry Forsythe.

The present action is at least sixteen years later because daughter Kathy Fields (in the film’s greatest botched role, both in Fields’s performance but mostly in director Brooks’s weird script–more on that later, obviously) is sixteen. The film opens on Simmons and Forsythe’s wedding anniversary party. Simmons wants to run off for the night, just she and Forsythe. He doesn’t want to cancel the party because it’d embarrass them in front of their friends. More on the friends later too.

So after Forsythe tells housekeeper Nanette Fabray–they’re not rich enough for Fabray to live with them, just to have her do the daily housework and hang out until after midnight when needed–to inform on Simmons’s behavior. See, Simmons’s drinks. Forsythe found her stashed booze. But it’s not open, because Simmons is recovering and being good. Through the course of the film, flashbacks reveal what she’s recovering from while also showing how she finally has to deal with it.

Simmons runs off to the Bahamas. Instead of doing the anniversary party thing, which makes sense as it’s later revealed Forsythe and Simmons don’t have any real friends, their social life solely consists of Forsythe’s clients. But we’ve already met some of the clients’ wives–they get together and get wasted and play cards in the health club locker room while berating one another for their affairs (Tina Louise has a small role as the ringleader; it’s a weird role, given Brooks’s narrative distance to it, but she does all right; the script gets her in the end). Because what the first half of The Happy Ending is about is how hard it is for women to get old and loose their looks. Brooks’s script has… sympathy, I guess, but no insight. It’s also completely unaware of the ingrained misogyny or… I don’t know what it’s called, patriarchal reinforcement. Like, the only two guys in the movie with any honest characterization are Bobby Darin as a gigolo and Lloyd Bridges as an adulterer running around the Bahamas with Shirley Jones, a friend of Simmons’s from college.

It’s a good thing they run into each other on the way too because Forsythe doesn’t let Simmons have any money since she got drunk and went clothes shopping a little while after she survived a suicide attempt, which she attempted after finding Forsythe was cheating on her with a client and–if the somewhat confusing flashback timeline does indeed progress linearly (and it seems too, Brooks’s numerous narrative devices are all way too obvious)–it’s not the first time. Forsythe goes with divorcing clients to Reno and then shakes up with them in their moments of weakness. No one ever says it because it’s not clear Brooks even recognizes it because Brooks breaks the script to coddle Forsythe. On one hand it works he never wakes up and gets it–the audience perception of Forsythe changes a lot throughout and a tad too gradually since it just gives Forsythe and Fields more screen time than they deserve, performance and character-wise. The reason it’s important it takes so long until Simmons cracks a smile in the present action, delayed by all those flashbacks? Because she’s been the subject of her own movie until then. Brooks does everything he can to avoid developing her character, particularly in the flashbacks. Because then he can’t keep Forsythe from ever seeming like a dick, which is the goal of the film. Right up until the very end.

Oh, right–Nanette Fabray’s housekeeper. Turns out she’s Simmons’s only friend, because even though her house is used for wife-swapping, Simmons herself has never participated. Because all of the other women have either slept with Forsythe or tried. Brooks is downright misanthropic in his depiction of upper middle class America but he never embraces it. Simmons is at least a dreamer; we learn right away she cries at all romantic endings, happy or sad.

Hence the title. At the wedding scene, Forsythe’s face is replaced with clips of happy endings from old Hollywood movies. Like, Brooks gives Simmons a very definite character and then avoids letting her develop the character for about half the movie. It’s not until she meets up with Darin’s gigolo where Simmons gets to do anything. Until then it’s mostly being functionally drunk and pissed off at Forsythe’s utter lack of self-awareness. And to get betrayed by mother Teresa Wright (who apparently had Simmons at age ten) and ignored by super-annoying daughter Fields.

Oh, right, and for Forsythe to track her by phone to make sure she’s all right since she’s a suicidal drunk and all. Like, he calls all the places she goes. The only place she gets any privacy is her bar, where her uncredited bartender doesn’t snitch on her to Forsythe.

And Brooks discreetly establishing Simmons’s situation is fine. It would even be efficient if it didn’t get so confused with flashbacks. There’s nothing but melodrama in the flashbacks as Simmons keeps getting into trouble and whatnot.

It’s such a relief when Jones and Bridges show up. Jones’s life philosophy as a professional mistress is a little… messed up. Like Brooks has good instincts for what kind of exposition the film needs, he just doesn’t write it well. Or direct it well. He’s got these walking and talking scenes where he cuts from location to location as the conversation continues. He doesn’t have a reason for the gimmick other than it maybe stretches the film’s verisimilitude to allow for these unlikely conversations and whatnot. But it’s not like the film has a different style first half to second, once the dumps become more frequent, it’s always the same dialogue tempo, with Michel Legrand’s music not booming but pressing, and Conrad L. Hall’s way too soft lights. Happy Ending really ought to look better. Like, it’s fine, but it ought to look a lot better. Brooks’s direction is tediously competent and always really safe. He never goes big, he never goes small; he avoids them equally. And it does the film no favors.

Simmons is really good when she’s got material of her own, which is maybe a quarter of her scenes. Brooks abjectly surrenders on trying to write her with Fields, which is incredible. Forsythe’s not good. He could be a lot worse. But he couldn’t be any blander. Somehow Forsythe’s bland performance doesn’t inform the bland character.

Jones is great. Bridges is better than any of the other male performances. Darin’s not good but at least he’s trying something, which is more than Forsythe does. Or Fields. Or Wright, who’s utterly pointless except for a late stage revelation which does nothing for the film but instead absolves fathers of responsibility.

Fabry’s good as the confidant, but she’s got zilch to do on her own. She’s literally the help in story and script.

There’s probably a lot you could pick apart in Brooks’s script and film, but it’s not really worth looking at in those terms. There’s gristle but so what. It’s not distinct gristle.

The film does give Simmons a potentially great role and then denies it to her. She’s still able to give a rather good performance. If the material had met her, however, it’d be a better one. Brooks is just too afraid to let her be the protagonist. It’s mildly then significantly disappointing, because he never improves and it’s almost two hours long.

Plus, Legrand’s music and (especially) the original songs grate.

And the Hall cinematography is wasted.

Happy Ending is a mess of missed opportunity and bad choices.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced, written, and directed by Richard Brooks; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by George Grenville; music by Michel Legrand; released by United Artists.

Starring Jean Simmons (Mary Wilson), John Forsythe (Fred Wilson), Teresa Wright (Mrs. Spencer), Kathy Fields (Marge Wilson), Shirley Jones (Flo Harrigan), Nanette Fabray (Agnes), Lloyd Bridges (Sam), Bobby Darin (Franco), Dick Shawn (Harry Bricker), and Tina Louise (Helen Bricker).


Captain Voyeur (1969, John Carpenter)

Captain Voyeur starts better than it finishes, which is too bad since it gets better as it goes along. Writer and director Carpenter opens the short with a long tracking shot of some boring workplace. Excellent black and white photography from Joanne Willens (save two shots later on) makes the opening an observation on professional life.

The tracking shot is to get us to nerdy Jerry Cox, alone at a desk, doing his work and peeking on a female coworker. He’s a perv but a harmless enough one. Cox and Carpenter do well with the setup and the action moves to Cox’s apartment. Where he changes into a full mask, a cape, and his dress shoes. And some boxers. He’s Captain Voyeur. There are opening credits throughout the opening, with the final card just after the reveal. So it’s a comedy too.

It’s a comedy shot like a scary movie, because most of the shots are Cox running around outside peeking in windows. When it seems like Cox is just peeking to be peeking, the short has fun with the kinks he sees. Until after the second one and it seems like he doesn’t like what he’s seeing. The next two are jokes–the first a bad, cheap joke, the second a cheap, bad joke–before the finale, where Cox finally finds the window he wants.

Voyeur loses its narrative inventiveness after that second window. It’s still technically strong–Carpenter loves figuring out new establishing shots of windows at night in black and white–through Trace Johnston’s editing is never on par with the rest of it. And there are a couple times Johnston just makes the wrong cut and screws up a scene’s pacing.

It also goes out on a undercooked joke. Carpenter’s clearly got a sense of humor and he’s got the short’s sense of humor, he just doesn’t have the joke writing chops to pull it off. Unless he’s going for absurdist, in which case Voyeur’s terrible.

But it’s not terrible. It’s incredibly well-made and constantly inventive. Its jokes are just too broad and too cheap. Though the jokes being problematic covers the problem with Cox’s physical performance. He’s running around this apartment complex (or dorm), peeking in windows, but in between he’s supposed to have character development. But he doesn’t in the running shots. Because student filmmaking realities. So I guess the broadness of the humor covers that hole?

It’s disappointing. Especially given the excellent opening shot and the nimble changes in mood and tone. It’s like Carpenter gave up trying to show off in the second half and went for cheap witty. Well, except this one composite but it’s not enough to save the Captain.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Carpenter; director of photography, Joanne Willens; edited by Trace Johnston; produced for the University of Southern California.

Starring Jerry Cox (The Captain).


A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969, Bill Melendez)

A Boy Named Charlie Brown gets by on a lot of charm. It takes writer and creator Charles M. Schulz forever to get to the story. It takes Schulz so long to get to the story–Charlie Brown, spelling bee champ–it seems like there isn’t going to be a story.

Schulz lays the groundwork for the story, sure; Charlie Brown enters the spelling bee as an attempt to bolster his self-confidence. Nothing else has worked. He’s lost a baseball game, he’s had a lousy–not just for him–therapy session with Lucy. He even losses at tic-tac-toe.

So, right after Lucy and two other girls sing a song to Charlie Brown about him being a “failure face.” Not a great song. Rod McKuen writes the melancholy Charlie Brown songs, John Scott Trotter writes the didactic spelling song.

Even with director Melendez’s suburban Expressionist visuals and the fantastic montaging courteosy Robert T. Gillis, Chuck McCann, and Steven Cuitlahuac Melendez’s expert cutting, Failure Face is a low point. It’s the meanest the girls ever get to Charlie Brown. Sure, maybe it’s the inciting incident for the spelling bee plot development, but Melendez doesn’t change tone with it. Just because Schulz is finally ready to go, Melendez isn’t speeding up Boy. It’s still going to be slow and deliberate, with visually outrageous montages, interludes, and asides.

Schulz’s spelling bee plot works out. Linus gave Charlie Brown his blanket to keep him comfort at the nationals. Linus didn’t know he’d go into fainting spellings without the blanket, he and Snoopy go to nationals.

Nationals appear to be in a beautiful and empty New York City. Why Linus gets the excursion to the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center while Charlie Brown is literally studying in a movie called A Boy Named Charlie Brown doesn’t even matter. Snoopy goes with Linus. And has his own daydream about playing hockey.

It’s the last daydream–or aside or iunterlude–and it’s the worst. It’s cartoon Snoopy in front of silhouetted hockey footage. Boy Named Charlie Brown has this Beethoven “music video” full of Eastern Orthodox imagery (I think, I saw eggs) and all sorts of other amazing stuff. It’s wondrous. And everything else is good if not excellent. To end on a blah daydream?

Maybe if Schulz’s lesson came through, it’d work. Schulz has a lesson in A Boy Named Charlie Brown for Charlie Brown and it’s eighty-five minutes coming so maybe it should be good. It’s not a good lesson. It’s a “movie’s over in two minutes” lesson. The film’s just shown it can do New York City and scale and then it’s got a bad lesson for Charlie Brown, who spent the last third of the movie offscreen.

Even the spelling bee is from the perspective of the other kids. Charlie Brown narrates Boy for a while, yet Schulz doesn’t want to spend the time with him. Schulz is sympathetic to Charlie Brown, empathetic to him, but he never seems to like him. All of Charlie Brown’s details are jokes at his expense. Or at least Schulz goes that route in A Boy Named Charlie Brown. The eventual story arc starts with lengthy depression monologue thirteen year-old Peter Robbins gets to do as Charlie Brown. Schulz gets intense when he’s not trying to be funny.

And then sometimes he’s not funny. Like Lucy. Not funny. Pamelyn Ferdin’s never particularly likable as Lucy here because all she’s ever doing is being mean to Charlie Brown. She’s invested in it, nothing else. She and Schroeder only have the one scene–kicking off the great Beethoven music video–but Schulz gives Lucy almost nothing other than being mean.

Glenn Gilger’s the best performance. He’s Linus. Robbins’s is good as Charlie Brown. But Schulz doesn’t give him anything good. Gilger’s best because he gets the best material.

Excellent score from Vince Guarladi. Fantastic animation. A Boy Named Charlie Brown has all the parts it needs to be great–not McKuen, sorry, forgot about him; but it doesn’t work out. Schulz’s plotting is too cumbersome.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Robert T. Gillis, Chuck McCann, and Steven Cuitlahuac Melendez; music by Vince Guaraldi; produced by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Peter Robbins (Charlie Brown), Pamelyn Ferdin (Lucy Van Pelt), Glenn Gilger (Linus Van Pelt), Andy Pforsich (Schroeder), Sally Dryer (Patty), Ann Altieri (Violet), Erin Sullivan (Sally), Lynda Mendelson (Frieda), and Christopher DeFaria (Pig Pen).


The Lottery (1969, Larry Yust)

The Lottery has a lot of mood. Isidore Mankofsky’s lucid but muted cinematography captures a routine day, not even special with an entire small town gathering in a large field. Director Yust has a few favorite touchstones among the townspeople, though only until the lottery itself starts. Then he concentrates on faces and expressions, as many as possible. Editor Albert Naples cuts quick between them, going faster the less expression the person shows.

Unfortunately, Naples’s editing is only sometimes effective. Yust’s direction of the cast–speaking or not–isn’t good. There are three main performances and only William ‘Billy’ Benedict is any good. Olive Dunbar has problematic writing and there’s only so much she can do at the end, when the “winner” is announced. William Fawcett is bad as the grumpy old man bemoaning young people and their lack of respect for the lottery.

Yust gives a handful of lines to various townspeople to try to show the routine of the events and their lives. He doesn’t give them actual conversations and cut into them, he just gives them lines. Then there’s the soundtrack, silent of background conversation or even breathing. Just the wind picking up. The silence should be effective–and would be if the acting were better or if Naples’s quick cutting built to anything. Maybe the silent background is so Yust could give the non-professionals direction? But if he did give them direction during those shots… well, it’s almost more concerning than if he didn’t.

The Lottery was made to be shown in classrooms (high school but probably younger–I think I saw it in middle) and Yust’s ideas for getting around the difficult parts don’t succeed. He’s too afraid to really characterize the gathered townspeople (and probably couldn’t direct them if their characterizations were better). The Lottery only exists for its eighteen minutes; Yust doesn’t imagine anything beyond it.

But Benedict’s real good.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Larry Yust; screenplay by Yust, based on the story by Shirley Jackson; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Albert Nalpas; released by Encyclopædia Britannica Educational Corporation.

Starring Olive Dunbar (Tessie Hutchinson), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Joe Summers), William Fawcett (Old Man Warner), and Joe Haworth (Bill Hutchinson).


Hans Brinker (1969, Robert Scheerer)

Hans Brinker is clumsy and charmless. It plods through its runtime. Once it becomes clear Moose Charlap’s songs aren’t going to be getting any better and there’s not going to be much expert iceskating on display, it plods even more. A lot of things would help–better writing, better acting, better photography. Unfortunately, Hans doesn’t get any until it’s too late and then it’s only actors in the supporting cast.

The film starts with a flashback. Nineteenth century Dutch mason John Gregson has a fall. Then Hans fast forwards to Roberta Tovey entering an empty house and looking around wistfully. Then we finally get into the “present action” of Tovey’s memories, ten years after the first scene. Screenwriter Bill Manhoff never identifies when or why Tovey returns to look around, but he doesn’t do much as far as the teleplay goes so it’s no surprise.

Robin Askwith plays the title role. He’s a seventeen year-old Dutch boy with big dreams and no way to realize them; Gregson’s fall resulted in some sort of brain damage and he hasn’t been able to support the family. Oh, right: Gregson is Askwith’s father. And Tovey’s. She’s Askwith’s somewhat younger sister. The difference is never determined, but it’s not too far–Askwith can still romance her rich friend, Sheila Whitmill, and Hans can do a wrong side of the tracks romantic subplot.

But a chaste one. Hans is for kids, after all. Kids with great patience.

Maybe the only good scene in the whole thing is Whitmill reading a romance novel scene to Tovey and another friend. It’s strange and shows personality, something Hans never does when it’s chronicling Askwith’s romance with Whitmill or his problems with the better-off boys around the village.

The songs ought to be a little funnier, but Hans has no sense of humor about itself. Not even when Askwith and his chums go to Amsterdam (so Askwith can recruit doctor Richard Basehart to operate on dad Gregson) and their innkeeper, Cyril Ritchard, does a cockney accent to show they’re in Amsterdam, not the boonies.

Can Askwith convince Basehart to do the operation? Will the barely mentioned but apparently very important race for the silver skates ever arrive? Does Eleanor Parker–as Askwith and Tovey’s mother–actually sing her two songs?

Parker, Basehart, and Gregson all try at various times throughout the film. Gregson’s most successful, as Parker gets a lot worse scenes to do than he does. She also has to play opposite Askwith, who’s a petulant jackass (regardless of family tragedy), and he’s never good. Even when he’s being selfless, he’s somewhat unlikable. He’s a snot.

His nemesis, rich kid Michael Wennink, on the other hand, is drivel. Julian Barnes is okay as the nice rich kid.

There are some lovely locations, some almost good sets of exteriors, when Hans might show some kind of personality. But director Scheerer avoids it, like he avoids pretty much everything. After the first big group song, Scheerer stops doing it big and instead relies on Edelgard Gielisch’s bad editing to get the group numbers done. It doesn’t seem like Askwith or Tovey sing. At least not often.

There are a number of cringworthy songs, but “When He/She Speaks” is the clear cringe winner. It’s all about how Askwith and Whitmill only love each other because they don’t listen to each other. Instead they daydream about walks in the countryside and ignore the other’s thoughts.

The big finale has big plot contrivances and some ostensible surprises. It doesn’t go anywhere because director Scheerer and writer Manhoff don’t wrap anything up. Plus, Tovey can’t really be holding the knot because–even though Hans is her memories–she’s only present for like a quarter of the film. The narrative disconnect isn’t even annoying because at least it means there isn’t more stuff for Hans to do wrong.

Tovey’s fine. She’s got a lousy part. Parker’s solid, but Scheerer doesn’t give her much time on anything. Well, except the two songs, which either have Parker singing them or have them dubbed. They’re both awkward songs. Cringey awkward, not funny awkward. Funny awkward would have at least passed the time. But Hans has no sense of humor.

It’s joyless, which is a big problem for a kids musical, though it’s pretty clear Askwith’s Hans isn’t capable of experiencing joy. So why should anyone else.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Scheerer; teleplay by Bill Manhoff, based on the novel by Mary Mapes Dodge; director of photography, Günter Haase; edited by Edelgard Gielisch; songs and music by Moose Charlap; produced by Ted Kneeland; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Robin Askwith (Hans), Roberta Tovey (Gretel), Eleanor Parker (Dame Brinker), John Gregson (Mijnheer Brinker), Richard Basehart (Dr. Boekman), Sheila Whitmill (Annie), Julian Barnes (Peter), Michael Wennink (Carl), and Cyril Ritchard (Mijnheer Kleef).


Kes (1969, Ken Loach)

Kes has a forecasted structure (so long as you can understand the Yorkshire accents). Teenager David Bradley is about to leave school and head into the workforce. His older brother, played by Freddie Fletcher, works in the coal mines and Bradley knows he doesn’t want that career. They share a bed in their mom’s house. Fletcher bullies both Bradley and their mother (Lynne Perrie). Bradley’s situation at school isn’t any better; he’s on the teachers’ list for bullying and his absentmindedness–and occasional smart mouth–gets him in trouble with classmates.

Bradley doesn’t care much about Fletcher, or his school, or his future–they live on a recently built housing estate and no one has much future anyway. For a while, it’s unclear if Bradley is ever going to care about anything. But then he sees a falcon. And all of a sudden Bradley cares about something.

He wants to fly a falcon.

The film follows Bradley so close it’s procedural at times. How is he going to train the falcon, where can he get that information; Bradley has problems to solve and it turns out–while his life seems haphazard–he actually has the skills, he’s just been lacking the determination.

During the first act and some of the second, director Loach tags along with the wandering Bradley; Kes is a series of beautifully photographed (by Chris Menges) vingettes. They’re chronological, but with the direction, photography, John Cameron’s music, and Roy Watts’s editing, chronology doesn’t much matter. They’re these intense moments as Bradley struggles and achieves, amid what everyone else sees as his failures.

There are quite a few set pieces set at the school–Brian Glover as the terrifying yet comically absurd football coach is a standout–and Loach, Watts, and Cameron do those sequences more thorough than anything else involving Bradley alone. Even though Kes follows Bradley close, there’s still a great deal of narrative distance. The audience gets to observe him but never really gets inside. The set pieces have a momentum and urgency Bradley’s scenes alone, or when he’s flying the falcon, do not. Bradley doesn’t experience urgency.

At least, not until the end, when Loach is able to pull off an immediate transition from character study to something more akin to melodrama. It’s not exactly melodrama (it’d be hard to be melodrama with the estate location, the actors’ raw performances, not to mention the photography and music).

Bradley’s great. Fletcher’s great. Perrie’s great. Glover’s awesome.

THere’s no sentimentality to Kes. It doesn’t exist for the film’s characters and Loach doesn’t add any for the viewer’s comfort.

It’s a technical marvel–Cameron’s music, Menges’s photography, Watt’s editing, Loach’s direction both in terms of composition and directing the actors. The script–from Loach, producer Tony Garrett, and source novel author Barry Hines–has some occasional drag, but it eventually turns out the drag is functional. The third act isn’t easy for anyone. Loach has to break from the vinegette device through expansion while also integrating outstanding forecasted events.

Kes is brilliant. Loach amplifies the intensity as the film progresses, regardless of whether it’s a relaxed scene or a rending one. It’s always a lot, never too much.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ken Loach; screenplay by Barry Hines, Loach, and Tony Garnett, based on a novel by Hines; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Roy Watts; music by John Cameron; produced by Garnett; released by United Artists.

Starring David Bradley (Billy), Freddie Fletcher (Jud), Lynne Perrie (Mrs. Casper), Colin Welland (Mr. Farthing), Bob Bowes (Mr. Gryce), Robert Naylor (MacDowell), and Brian Glover (Mr. Sugden).


Man and woman seated on sofa

John and Mary (1969, Peter Yates)

Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow are John and Mary, respectively, and they’ve just woken up after spending the night together. They met at a singles bar. Is it going to be a one night stand or is it going to be something more?

Both come with some baggage, though of different varieties. Farrow’s last serious relationship was with a married politican (Michael Tolan); they spent a lot of their time hiding from his family. Hoffman, on the other hand, had a model ex-girlfriend (Sunny Griffin) who moved in with him and wasn’t a good cook. Seeing as Hoffman’s a neat freak and a control freak, it didn’t work out.

John Mortimer’s screenplay uses a handful of techniques to fill in the backstory. For a while, there’s narration from both Hoffman and Farrow–the film takes place over a day, with the narration mostly taking place in the morning–then there are flashbacks (featuring Tolan and Griffin) and daydreams. Director Yates plays with how the flashbacks and daydreams relate to the present action–he and Mortimer end up using them to generate confusion to cause suspense for the viewer, which is effective enough… only it’s a little cheap.

Despite excellent cinematography from Gayne Rescher and production design from John Robert Lloyd–most of the present action takes place in Hoffman’s apartment, with the flashbacks (and daydreams) expanding to New York City–Yates doesn’t have a tempo for any of it. Farrow’s more compelling than Hoffman, but not because of her writing or because of how Yates directs her; she’s sympathetic. From the start, Hoffman’s a jerk. And as the film peels back the onion, he gets jerkier as things progress.

Yates and Mortimer lean the film’s entire weight on the effectiveness of third act reveals, only all those reveals are with the time shift gimmicks. There aren’t any character development reveals. Sure, it’s only a day, but Hoffman and Farrow’s performances don’t gain anything from all the flashback exposition. That particular failing is more Mortimer’s fault than Yates’s, however.

Though if Yates had come up with better–read, any–integration of the film’s various moving parts, he’d probably have been able to compensate.

Instead, John and Mary gets by thanks to Farrow and Hoffman’s performances. She’s got a better character, turns in a better performance. He’s Dustin Hoffman, he’s got some inherent likability–even if the film does sledgehammer away at it, particularly in the first act. When he does get big moments in the script, no one really knows what to do with them. They’re all kind of trite; someone–Yates, Mortimer, or Hoffman–needs to have a handle on the character. None do. Yet Hoffman is still able to get through. He wouldn’t be able to without Farrow.

John and Mary’s not bad. It’s just not successful. Yates is way too blasé about the whole thing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; screenplay by John Mortimer, based on the novel by Mervyn Jones; director of photography, Gayne Rescher; edited by Frank P. Keller; music by Quincy Jones; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Ben Kadish; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (John), Mia Farrow (Mary), Michael Tolan (James), Sunny Griffin (Ruth), Stanley Beck (Ernest), and Tyne Daly (Hilary).


The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah), the director’s cut

The Wild Bunch opens with a methodically executed heist slash shootout sequence. Director Peckinpah quickly introduces cast members, partially due to the dramatic plotting, mostly due to Lou Lombardo’s fantastic editing. All juxtaposed with some kids watching ants kill scorpions. The Wild Bunch opens with one heck of a declarative statement. Peckinpah wants to look at violence and how people treat violence as entertainment.

Unfortunately, he also wants to do a Western about men getting old and being men and bonding even though they don’t like each other because they’re men after all and men stick together. Just look at “villain” Robert Ryan, who is pursuing his old gang–led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine–and is now stuck with a bunch of low-life bounty hunters. Real men aren’t low-life bounty hunters with bad teeth. Edmond O’Brien, the eldest of the “Wild Bunch,” has bad teeth but he’s not a low-life bounty hunter. He goofs off in the steam bath just like Holden and Borgnine.

After the opening, which is simultaneously exhilarating and horrific, The Wild Bunch does a more traditional first act. There’s setup with Ryan hunting down the gang, there’s setup with the backstory between Ryan and Holden, there’s a full introduction of the supporting cast. Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are brothers and dissenting voices in the gang. Jaime Sánchez is the other guy, who’s apparently been there longer than Johnson and Oates, but not as long as Borgnine. It doesn’t really matter because the characters aren’t deep. They’ll occasionally get deep characterizations from the actors, but the script’s pretty thin. In the script they’re just old, mopey, angry, drunk, tired, horny, or some combination thereof.

For Johnson and Oates, it doesn’t matter. They’re around to be flashy so Holden can dwell on all his mistakes. For Holden and Borgnine, it does matter. Borgnine has almost nothing whatsoever to do except back up Holden, so it’d be nice for there to be a reason more than Borgnine admires Holden. And if not a reason, at least something melodramatic. Something melodramatic would show Peckinpah and co-writer Walon Green carried a little.

Instead, no. It’s undeveloped. Just like almost everything else in The Wild Bunch, except Sánchez’s backstory. Out of nowhere, the film goes from being Ryan hunting Holden and company to Holden and company hanging out in Sánchez’s home village in Mexico and becomes darn likable. Oates goes from ominous and dangerous to affable in about three minutes once they get to the village. Cute even. But Peckinpah doesn’t want the audience to like the characters for too long–at least not without reservations or comprise–so they’re always doing something awful.

There’s some good acting in The Wild Bunch. Holden’s a strong lead and he has a handful of phenomenal little moments. They don’t add up to anything, but they’re real good. And Peckinpah’s on for them too, which is nice. Borgnine’s fine. He really is just support for Holden. Sánchez is fine too; Peckinpah was apparently intentional about making him frequently pout. Oates is wild and crazy and it’s okay. It’s an enjoyable performance, but the character is still exceptionally unlikable. Johnson does a lot with a thin part.

Edmond O’Brien is amazing. He chews scenery, drools or spits it out with his chaw, but always with restraint. Whoever thought of dubbing his laughter over shots should’ve had a different thought, however. After some a lot of imaginative stylization in the first third, the film cools down until the grand finale. And that grand finale just shows the same techniques applied to different content; Peckinpah foreshadows pretty much everything in the spectacular open.

As far as the bad guys, Ryan’s okay. Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones are initially amusing as his most vocal moronic sidekicks. They soon get tiring, once it’s clear there’s no more material for them. Ryan gets it worst in that department, however. He’ll be going along fine and then get some trite, waxing nostalgic monologue. It makes for a long movie.

Jerry Fielding’s music is on the low side of mediocre. It’s kind of all right at times, but Peckinpah and Fielding go for a traditional Western score and it doesn’t bring anything to the film. And then there are the times Fielding does action thrill music, which do not work at all. In fact, they’re unpleasant. You’re sitting around waiting for something to happen and then there’s some action and Fielding kneecaps it.

I know Wild Bunch is a sparse, moody look at the male psyche, violence, and the myth of the Old West, but it should better at doing that thing. Peckinpah neglects his actors; not an insignificant problem since there’s only three or four intricate action sequences. There are a couple more elaborate ones, which have spectacle but not much else. But Peckinpah’s ignoring them when there’s nothing else going on except the characters walking, talking, riding.

Despite some dynamic filmmaking from Peckinpah, ably edited by Lombardo, Wild Bunch just doesn’t add up. There’s not enough for the actors, neither in the script nor in Peckinpah’s directorial attention.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by Walon Green and Peckinpah, based on a story by Green and Roy N. Sickner; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Lou Lombardo; music by Jerry Fielding; produced by Phil Feldman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Edmond O’Brien (Freddie Sykes), Jaime Sánchez (Angel), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Emilio Fernández (Mapache), Strother Martin (Coffer), L.Q. Jones (T.C), and Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton).


Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)

Midnight Cowboy gets to be a character study, but doesn’t start as one, which is an interesting situation. About forty-five minutes into the film, which runs just shy of two hours, Midnight Cowboy chucks the narrative urgency. Maybe not chucks, maybe just shuts down, because it does take the film a while to lose that pressure. Until eventually leads Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are sitting around starving to death and the film’s not treating it as problem to be solved; it’s a feature of the characters’ lives. Midnight Cowboy is never a wish fulfillment picture–even when it’s not absent hope, it’s not hopeful–but it goes from being a bad dream to a nightmare without reflecting on the change. And the nightmare runs a lot differently.

The nightmare also starts when Dustin Hoffman becomes the costar who’s taking top billing. When the film initially introduces Hoffman, it doesn’t hint at where the narrative’s going; it also doesn’t forecast what to expect from the actors. Voight and Hoffman have got a lot of character development with almost no expository assistance. Midnight Cowboy is a film with two exceptional performances, both independently ambitious and both agreeably codependent. Director Schlesinger keeps it together–Hoffman and Voight squat in a hovel, their domestic normality utterly shocking and utterly not because the actors and Schlesinger have done such a good job conveying the physicality’s of their performances. It’s like a stage play, those scenes in the apartment, perfectly choreographed, even more perfectly edited by Hugh A. Robertson. It’s an acting ballet, with these two actors playing their previously established caricatures with immediate depth.

The bad dream part of the film, which has Voight arriving in New York City to hustle his cowboy-attired bod out to the wealthy ladies of the Big Apple. Voight has a troubled past, which Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt introduce through flashbacks, usually as dream sequences. Both sleeping and napping dream sequences. Basically, Voight’s always flashing back to something to explain why he’s reacting the way he’s reacting. There’s some narrative efficiency to it, I suppose, but they’re not incorporated well. Voight actually does the best with them, intentionally or not.

It all changes, soon after the nightmare begins, when Hoffman gets his own daydream. It’s a gently done sequence, both actors silent to the audience; excellent editing from Robertson on it. Midnight Cowboy never glamorizes–until this daydream sequence–and it’s mind-blowingly effective in establishing the new angle on the characters. Oddly, Hoffman entirely downplays having the daydream–which is the opposite of Voight–and hits some of the same effectiveness notes for that inverse approach.

In the second half of the film, once Hoffman shares the narrative focus, Midnight Cowboy works more as truncated vignettes. The main plot line is still Voight trying to make it as a hustler, but it’s narratively reduced. Instead, it’s Voight and Hoffman’s bonding over this idea, usually unspoken in every way. It’s a lot of amazing acting from both of them. Hoffman’s loud, Voight’s quiet.

There are some excellent supporting performances–Brenda Vaccaro in particular, John McGiver, Sylvia Miles.

Fine photography from Adam Holender. Midnight Cowboy’s about the editing and Holender keeps up with where Schlesinger needs the camera to be for the cut. Schlesinger just seems impatient until Hoffman gets into the picture full-time. He rushes the first part of the film, then drags it down with the acceptable and pragmatic but way too obvious flashback sequences.

And it all kind of falls apart when Vaccaro’s vignette is over. It’s like the film’s running late, so Schlesinger is rushing again only now he’s got two actors instead of one to hurry along. But the film’s still quite good and the lead performances are phenomenal.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Schlesinger; screenplay by Waldo Salt, based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Hugh A. Robertson; music by John Barry; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Jerome Hellman; released by United Artists.

Starring Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Dustin Hoffman (Enrico Salvatore Rizzo), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver (Mr. O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (Shirley) and Barnard Hughes (Towny).


This post is part of the You Gotta Have Friends Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon In Gemini.

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