20th Century Fox

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with these sensational titles. 3D text jumping out, set against the backdrop of space, Bernard Herrmann’s score at its loudest; the titles suggest the film is going to be something grandiose. It is and it isn’t. For the first act, director Wise moves quickly, short scenes setting up the world’s reaction to a flying saucer circling the planet. Newscasters report, air traffic control investigates, people worry.

And then the ship lands. The special effects in Day the Earth Stood Still are excellent without ever being sensational or outlandish. There are only a couple major effects sequences–the space ship landing, the titular incident–otherwise, the film’s rather quiet. It starts big, then Edmund H. North’s script starts closing it in, making it smaller and smaller until it can fit into a house. Specifically, into second-billed Patricia Neal’s boarding house. She’s just a resident, a widow living there with her son, Billy Gray.

They’re there, listening to the radio, when a new boarder arrives. That boarder, Michael Rennie, is the space man, escaped from the Army hospital (some grunt shot him after he walked out of the space ship and got out a gift for the President). At that moment, the film changes. Or, more accurately, perturbs in an unexpected, gentler direction. Rennie’s quiet, reserved, inquisitive, and gentle. Sure, he’s got a giant robot with laser vision, but Rennie just wants to see what humans are like.

Rennie’s mission to Earth is simple. He wants to address the world leaders. The United States government, its nipples hard at the thought of a prolonged Cold War, is no help. So Rennie decides he’s going to try the scientists, starting with Sam Jaffe. Only Jaffe’s not home when Rennie comes to visit.

Until the middle of the movie, North’s script never takes the focus off Rennie. Gray’s around a lot, but he’s never the focus. It’s Rennie, the alien, who acts as the viewer’s guide through the film. And the film keeps the viewer informed about Rennie’s plans and, often, his thoughts. Eventually, Neal has to take the lead–she’s got to stop her idiot boyfriend Hugh Marlowe from dooming the planet–and she stays in the lead until the end of the film, but the first half is all Rennie.

Besides the big Earth standing still sequence, there’s also a big chase sequence at the end involving a military dragnet. Wise and editor William Reynolds are methodical with it, tightening the net around Rennie in real time, tightening viewer expectation as it progresses. The viewer knows to be concerned more than Rennie, who’s cautious but not enough. He’s kind of powerless, after all. Interplanetary traveller or not, the film establishes right off he can be hurt. It also establishes most Earthlings are more than happy to shoot first and not ask any questions at all.

But the film’s never cynical. It can’t be with Gray around. He’s thrilled to have a new friend in Rennie, who acts as babysitter so Neal can hang out with Marlowe. She just thinks Marlowe’s pushy, not an abject tool. Gray and Rennie’s day out, which includes the first visit to Jaffe’s house, also has the unlikely duo visiting Gray’s father’s grave in Arlington Cemetary. The war isn’t mentioned but it’s omnipresent, kind of like government bureaucracy; the film does extremely well with its Washington D.C. setting and some of the city’s locations. The scene at the Lincoln Monument is particularly effective.

Gray’s lack of cynicism stands up to a lot of pressure, including some from Neal–her rejection of cynicism is what hands the film off to her. It’s too bad the film drops Gray in the second half; Day only runs ninety minutes, there’s not a lot of room. It’s either got to be Gray and Rennie or Neal and Rennie active in the main plot.

Much of that main plot takes place indoors, in the ordinary. People are scared, unsure about what’s going on with the flying saucer and the spaceman on the loose (Rennie’s incognito at the boarding house). Wise and cinematographer Leo Tover have these confined–but never cramped–shots inside. Outside they open up, especially when they get to do location shooting, but inside… well, Rennie wanted to find out how people lived, didn’t he?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is always methodical and never ponderous. Wise, screenwriter North, editor Reynolds, they all keep things moving. It’s fantastic but in a mundane, thoughtful way. Just like Rennie. He keeps an even keel throughout his adventures on Earth, no matter how dangerous things get for him.

Excellent performances from everyone–Rennie, Neal, Gray, Marlowe, Jaffe–it’s not a big cast. It’s a big story, sure, but the film keeps that story contained. The human element is most important; even during the big effects set pieces, Wise makes sure the human reaction is present. He ably scales the human element when needed. Confined to big, big to small. It’s reassuring. Just like Rennie.

Day is a fine film. It’s got its limits, but Wise and company accomplish what they set out to do. Though, maybe, not what those 3D opening titles suggest they’re going to set out to do.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Reynolds; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Julian Blaustein; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Professor Jacob Barnhardt), and Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley).


The Omen (1976, Richard Donner)

The Omen is a terrible bit of cinema. It’s a long bit, almost two hours, filled with Jerry Goldsmith’s–shockingly Oscar-winning–chant filled “scare” score. It doesn’t scare. It annoys, which just makes everything go on longer. Director Donner certainly doesn’t help with it. He drags things out too. Like anyone needs more scenes of Gregory Peck failing to feign emotion.

When the movie starts, Peck is the U.S. ambassador to Italy. It’s important because Peck has to be both rich and powerful. He seems to be an ineffective ambassador, who’s just there because his college roommate is now President of the United States. Probably Yale. Plantation Owner’s Tech and all.

Anyway. Peck’s married to Lee Remick, who’s just given birth. Only the baby dies and they call to tell Peck before they tell Remick. Because, even though Peck’s incapable of emoting, failed man emoting is more important in The Omen than any womanly emotion. The film shafts Remick on her part, which is something of a blessing because it means she gets to do fewer terrible scenes. Only a mysterious priest offers Peck a new baby, which Peck accepts, deciding to never tell Remick because ladies are fragile.

Five years later, The Omen occurs. An incredibly public suicide is the single event in the film qualifying as an omen. It’s a very loud omen. A mysterious nanny joins the Peck-Remick household, played by Billie Whitelaw. Maybe when it becomes obvious David Seltzer’s script is going to be really stupid and when no one is going to care–not Donner, not Peck–is when Whitelaw just appears to care for the child without being hired. When confronted, she has the flimiest story–oh, right, the action has moved to England now. Peck got a promotion because his friend is president.

Until Whitelaw shows up, it seems like there might be some chance the film’s going to work out. Sure, Peck and Remick entirely ignore their son–now played by Harvey Stephens, who maybe has four lines and two of them are just “Daddy”–but they’re still beautiful and still getting it on in the middle of the day. Although Peck does look a little like he should be playing grandpa; he’s twenty years older than Remick.

Then there’s a priest (Patrick Troughton) who shows up to tell Peck his son’s actually the antichrist. And photographer David Warner who knows something weird is going on. The film sort of mocks Troughton and idealizes Warner; neither deserve the treatment. Warner’s better at the start than the finish. Peck’s kind of better at the finish, the material’s just far worse.

After Goldsmith’s silly score, Gilbert Taylor’s photography is the biggest technical problem. The action leaves England for Peck and Warner to travel Europe looking for answers and mixes a lot of soundstages and locations. Taylor can’t match them at all. The first action set piece–the wind attacking Troughton–is all right. It’s too long, it’s got lousy music, but it’s ambitious. The rest are either on soundstage made up to be exteriors or just plain interiors. Taylor and Donner butcher the last set piece, when Peck has to try to beat up Whitelaw. Donner’s real bad at the scene. Not even editor Stuart Baird, who does the only consistently solid work in the film, can save it.

The biggest offender isn’t Peck, isn’t even Goldsmith. It’s writer Seltzer. The Omen has a crappy script. It has crappy dialogue, crappy characters, crappy everything.

The film gets unbearable before the halfway point and then it’s just all downhill until the end. It’s like the movie is punishing you for watching it. How ominous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; written by David Seltzer; director of photography, Gilbert Taylor; edited by Stuart Baird; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Harvey Bernhard; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gregory Peck (Robert Thorn), Lee Remick (Katherine Thorn), David Warner (Jennings), Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Baylock), Patrick Troughton (Father Brennan), Martin Benson (Father Spiletto), and Harvey Stephens (Damien).


Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

Despite being an adaptation of a stage play and having one main set, Desk Set shouldn’t be stagy. The single main location–and its importance–ought to be able to outweigh the staginess. Desk Set does not, however, succeed in not being stagy. It puts off being stagy for quite a while, but not forever, which is too bad.

The fault lies with director Lang. He moves between three camera setups on the main set–the research department for a television network (FBC but in NBC’s building). When it comes time to change everything up in the third act, Lang doesn’t change his camera defaults and it really does knock the film down for its finale. Desk Set was already going a tad long–not good considering it runs just over 100 minutes–and the film needed a strong finish. A really strong finish.

It gets a tepid one instead. Worse, it gets multiple tepid finishes. It’s a shame because the film’s often a lot of fun. Spencer Tracy is a mysterious efficency expert sent to Katharine Hepburn’s research department to do… something. Desk Set takes its time revealing Tracy’s assignment, not even providing clues while he’s rooting around the department, often crawling around on the floor. It’s a quirky part; Tracy’s socially awkward, absentminded, and entirely lovable. At least to the audience. The viewer isn’t worried about getting fired.

In addition to Hepburn, there’s her staff who’s got to worry about getting the pink slip. Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill. Randall and Merrill don’t get particularly good parts. They get stuff to do, they get a lot of scenes–the film’s mostly set in the workplace after all–but there’s nothing to them. Randall opens the movie trying to get a better price on a dress and it’s more than she gets to do than in the rest of the picture. Merrill doesn’t get anywhere near as much to do. It’s too bad, they’re both extremely likable.

Though likable is what Desk Set is always going for. Take Gig Young, for instance. He’s Hepburn’s boss and her consistently–but not constantly–frisky paramour. Even though he’s an absolute jerk, he’s fairly likable. I mean, he gets everyone Christmas presents; he didn’t need to get everyone Christmas presents.

Blondell gets the best part in the supporting cast. She’s Hepburn’s confidant, although only sporadically and less after the first act. The first act is a very long day at the network, starting with Tracy arriving, then meeting Hepburn, then the focus moves to Hepburn and her strange encounters with Tracy. The ingrained momentum of the day doesn’t keep up after the first act. Desk Set moves over to summary and slowing down for big sequences.

There are some lovely big sequences, like Tracy and Hepburn getting caught in the rain and having an impromptu dinner date. All of their scenes one-on-one are good–at least, until the third act–with Tracy playing somewhat coy. He’s incredibly impressed with Hepburn and doesn’t seem to know what to do with that admiration. If the third act were stronger, it’d become a problem when Tracy’s crappy to his own employee (Neva Patterson). But it’s not because by that time, Desk Set is about ten minutes overdue for an ending.

Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s script is fine. Leon Shamroy’s photography is decent. Robert L. Simpson’s editing is too jumpy but it seems like director Lang didn’t give him enough to work with. Again, makes no sense since there’s basically just the one location. It’s inexplicable how Lang can’t get enough coverage for it.

Tracy’s great, Hepburn’s better. She energetically embraces her part’s particularities–like reciting full poems or elaborating on her memory shortcuts. She does a lot with those moments. And Lang seems to get it because he just lets the camera watch her deliver the impossibly wordy lines.

It’s just a shame Hepburn’s character becomes a complete moron whenever Young shows up. She does his work for him–her abject deference to such a tool is a big disconnect. Though it does give Blondell some good lines when she’s chiding Hepburn about it.

Tracy and Hepburn make Desk Set, but not even their ability and charm can make up for director Lang. He’s too concerned with making it feel wide–it’s Cinemascope–and fitting as many actors in frame as possible. The third act in the script is problematic too, but better direction might have gotten it through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Lang; screenplay by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant; director of photography, Leon Shamroy; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Henry Ephron; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Richard Sumner), Katharine Hepburn (Bunny Watson), Joan Blondell (Peg Costello), Sue Randall (Ruthie Saylor), Dina Merrill (Sylvia Blair), Gig Young (Mike Cutler), Harry Ellerbe (Smithers), Neva Patterson (Miss Warriner), and Nicholas Joy (Mr. Azae).


The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)

The French Connection has a linear progression. No flashbacks, no flashforwards; it’s never implied two events are happening simultaneously. One thing happens after another. Only there’s nothing connecting those things, other than the actors, other than the cops’ investigation. Because French Connection unfolds for the viewer just like it does the cops. Or if the viewer has more information, it turns out to be pointless. Not so much a red herring as immaterial.

Eventually, it turns out a lot is immaterial in The French Connection. Director Friedkin doesn’t make an effort to misdirect the viewer, he just doesn’t provide the information.

The French Connection is about New York narcotics cops Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider trying to figure out how Tony Lo Bianco is dirty and what it has to do with Frenchman Fernando Rey. The viewer finds out about Rey in the first scene of the film–in fact, he’s the only one with ground situation character information–but it takes a while for Hackamnd and Scheider to discover him.

The film runs 104 minutes. Much of the second half takes place in the span of a week. Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman only have three expository sequences. Two are traditional boss chewing out rogue cops scenes, the other is Scheider giving a surveillance report to Hackman. The audio is laid over shots of the scenes and characters in question. It’s breathtakingly efficient, especially since Hackman and Rey colliding will soon change the film. The somewhat large cast of characters is repeatedly introduced to ingrain. The angry boss scenes use different techniques to do different things, like reducing Scheider’s part while maintaining its presence (the solution is to give him more personality) and setting up Bill Hickman’s dipshit federal agent tagalong.

Simultaneous to this exquisite plotting is the filmmaking. Friedkin and the crew excel. Owen Roizman’s photography has this crisp chill to the police work but a heat to the “off duty” scenes and locations. Friedkin and editor Gerald B. Greenberg have some scenes where it’s just incidental noise, no sound for the dialogue. Or they’ll just cut fast to the next scene. Or they’ll just cut fast and jiggle the pacing of a scene; Hackman is in a car, gets out, but they cut it ahead, so Hackman’s walking into the shot before he’s done talking about getting out of the car. It’s a gallop. And it goes a long way for mood.

Then there are the performances. Scheider is fantastic, ably navigating his character shallowing out as the film progresses. Hackman’s reserved but bombastic, violative but sullen. He has an energy and Scheider’s got to keep up with and sometimes contain it (both as an actor working off another and to essay the script). Hackman and Scheider are a phenomenal pairing.

Hackman’s performance is captivating. He always has something else to reveal about the character, which keeps the police procedural even more interesting. Every action, every reaction–Hackman makes them impulsive but inevitable.

It’s juxtaposed against Rey, who never loses his cool. He also has to reconcile his character–a sauve, cultured, loving Frenchman who’s also an international drug dealer.

Marcel Bozzuffi’s terrifying as Rey’s flunky.

Good score from Don Ellis. It’s deceptive when it’s being obvious. It excites the viewer’s imagination, forcing their engagement with a particular scene or shot. Combined with Friedkin and Greenberg’s cuts, French Connection has occasionally has an uncanny feel without ever giving up its grounding.

The French Connection is a singular motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, based on the book by Robin Moore; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg; music by Don Ellis; produced by Philip D’Antoni; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Hackman (Jimmy Doyle), Roy Scheider (Buddy Russo), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Tony Lo Bianco (Sal Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli), Frédéric de Pasquale (Devereaux), Arlene Farber (Angie Boca), and Bill Hickman (Mulderig).


Alien: Covenant (2017, Ridley Scott)

Alien: Covenant is at its best when it’s pedestrian as opposed to anything else. Director Scott botches all of the big action set pieces; the more CGI vehicles involved, the worse it gets. The first false ending action sequence has “protagonist” Katherine Waterston suspended in mid-air from a careening CGI space ship while she fights a CGI alien in front of a CGI backdrop. Scott brings zero energy to it, which is appropriate as Waterston brings zero energy to her performance.

Waterston gets second-billing, even though technically Billy Crudup’s deeply religious captain gets more to do. He actually gets to do something with his character arc. Waterston’s is all in the first act and the film rushes through it. In space, no one has time for character development, especially not when Scott is setting up the film’s premise.

A colony ship experiences a freak accident then discovers a mysterious signal from far away. So they go and investigate. Aliens and another Michael Fassbender (he’s already in the movie on the ship) show up to make things difficult. The Fassbender they find is the one from the previous movie in the franchise–Prometheus, not Alien: Resurrection, though John Logan and Dante Harper’s script is loaded with desperate callbacks to the original series. Even more desperate is when Scott tries to do them. All it does is remind not just of better films but better acted ones.

Fassbender is fine, though a little too restrained for the absurd roles he’s got. Playing opposite himself, his ability results in some good scenes–made pedestrian by Chris Seagers’s worst production design on the film–but everyone else is mediocre at best. Crudup occasionally seems like he might try, but there’s nothing to do with the part it turns out so he gives up. Carmen Ejogo is so wasted as his wife, it’s never clear if she’s religious too (religion is frowned upon in the future, something the disasterous outcomes of the plot confirm as a good). Danny McBride has a big part as one of the ship’s pilots. He’s atrocious and not even comically so, because Scott has absolutely no sense of humor. Not even when he’s desperately trying to remind the viewer they probably liked at least the first two Alien movies.

Besides Fassbender, who’s uneven in one of his roles–he kind of flops with the blandly American accent–Demián Bichir is probably best. He’s got nothing to do, but at least he never embarrasses himself.

The score is either Jed Kurzel’s generic action music or Jerry Goldsmith’s themes from the original Alien; in space, the nostalgia is strong.

The sad part is even when he’s not contending with too much CGI, Scott just doesn’t have the pacing. Not to make it scary, not to make it exciting. Though he’s not the problem. Not even the script is the problem (well, not until the tacked on, way too long third act); it’s Waterston, Crudup, McBride, and the assorted supporting cast members who have no presence and only occasional competence. Scott doesn’t seem to think directing his actors is important. It’s not clear what he thinks is important to direct in Alien: Covenant. He’s not even energetic enough to be desperate.

Dariusz Wolski’s photography is mostly good. Not so much when he’s in Seagers’s dreary catacombs or any of the night scenes. But he’s much better at lighting Covenant than, say, Pietro Scalia is at editing it. Everything, even when it’s genially pedestrian, goes on too long.

Kind of like this franchise, at least with Scott steering it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper, based on a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, and characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by Jed Kurzel; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by David Giler, Walter Hill, Scott, Mark Huffam, and Michael Schaefer; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Fassbender (David / Walter), Katherine Waterston (Daniels), Billy Crudup (Oram), Danny McBride (Tennessee), Demián Bichir (Lope), Carmen Ejogo (Karine), and Amy Seimetz (Faris).


Alien (1979, Ridley Scott), the director’s cut

Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Alien feels like vaguely engaged exercise more than any kind of devout restoration. Its less than artistic origins–Scott cut it together a combination, apparently, of fan service and studio marketing needs–actually help it quite a bit in the first act. Scott’s new cut rushes things, though it doesn’t really rush them anywhere. At the beginning, it’s kind of neat to see how he’s able to move things faster (so long as you’re generally familiar with the film and its plot), only once he runs out of story, Scott and the film stumble repeatedly.

This Alien maintains establishing shots and transition shots; Scott and new editor David Crowther hurry the actual scenes, cutting into performances. John Hurt is deemphasized, Ian Holm is more emphasized. Even though there might be more Sigourney Weaver, it takes her even longer to assume the lead role because with an increased presence for Holm, the dynamic changes. And Scott and Crowther don’t really adjust for it later, because they’re not cutting for performances, they’re cutting getting in new footage. In trying not to be sensational, Scott just makes it even worse. He doesn’t account for what his new pace is doing to how the film plays on its own, not as a special feature.

The collision of Holm and Weaver doesn’t pace well, for instance, but once its resolved, Alien: The Director’s Cut finds its footing once again. Sure, it loses it again and never quite recovers, but it loses it in the place where Alien just loses its footing, the third act. There are some “director’s cut” specific problems in the third act, which hurt the pacing and the overall experience because it’s clear when inserted footage is taped in–Crowther’s editing doesn’t match Terry Rawling’s at all, which is another big problem. It’s disjointed. In the first act, it’s kind of charming; after over an hour, it’s just tiresome.

Maybe the greatest disservice of Alien: The Director’s Cut is to the Jerry Goldsmith score. It feels more rushed than anything else. Goldsmith creates this sterile calm, a disappointing tranquility, and Scott and Crowther don’t have any time for it.

Scott should’ve just let the additional footage bloat Alien. The trims he makes elsewhere aggravate quickly before ultimately failing. At least bloated, the film would have some personality. Instead, it feels like Scott trying to turn Alien into more of a crowd-pleaser. But for a limited, familiar audience. He’s not trying to make a better film.

Luckily, the pieces are still strong. Holm, Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, all great. Veronica Cartwright gets more to do and has less of a character as a result. Weaver experiences something similar; Scott hacks at her and Skerritt’s scenes just enough to weaken them both. Weaver’s performance deserves a lot more respect, frankly. It takes her too much for granted.

And somehow Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton lose their mojo in the new cut. Most of the content remains, but none of the personality. Again, Crowther’s using a dull hatchet on Rawling’s delicate scalpel cuts.

Alien, the director’s cut, isn’t so much a missed opportunity as a pointless endeavor. But it could have turned out a lot worse. Scott’s lack of ambition might be the saving grace.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Derek Vanlint; edited by Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley, and David Crowther; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Michael Seymour; produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), and Yaphet Kotto (Parker).


A Connecticut Yankee (1931, David Butler)

A Connecticut Yankee fumbles on pretty much every level, including wasting lead Will Rogers. The big problem is the script, from William M. Conselman. It doesn’t help any director Butler can’t mount an action or comedy sequences, because there’s nothing else in the picture. It doesn’t even work as a Rogers vehicle because his character’s so poorly written.

The film opens in the present, with vaguely dopey electronics repairman slash radio station announcer Rogers going to an old dark house to deliver a battery. He meets the house’s strange inhabitants and then gets knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor. When he wakes up, he’s in sixth century England. Has Rogers mystically travelled back in time or is he unconscious on a floor? Oh, the drama.

Regardless of inventiveness, the device should give the film a chance to reset. The film sets Rogers up as slightly lazy, mostly stupid. No doubt once he gets back to olden times he’ll make a change for the better. Not really, though. He’s still just a bit of a moron. Conselman’s script makes cracks about him being a Democrat–which is on brand for Rogers, but one would think he’d want better material than one-liners.

Rogers meets King Arthur (William Farnum) and Merlin (Brandon Hurst). Both Farnum and Hurst are bad, but it’s hard to blame them. Their writing is terrible and Butler’s direction of actors is somewhat worse than his direction of action. At least with the action, there’s the castle set. It’s fine. Not so much once Rogers modernizes Camelot. Right after he proves himself worthy, the film cuts to a Camelot with telephones, roller-skates, machine guns, tanks, cars, whatever else.

Because Rogers might be a questionably talented electrician and radio announcer, but he’s a king of all industry. Connecticut Yankee would probably be able to get away with it if there was any direction. Conselman’s script is too inept for comedy or commentary, as is Butler’s direction.

There’s an almost amusing knight vs. cowboy joust. Butler can’t direct it, unfortunately. Then Farnum and Rogers go adventuring; they need to rescue princess Maureen O’Sullivan from evil queen Myrna Loy.

Rogers gets sympathy, but he’s not good. Farnum’s not good. O’Sullivan is appealing but she has a handful of scenes and nothing to do. Same with Frank Albertson as Rogers’s pointless sidekick. Hurst is awful in a fun way as Merlin though. He’s always sprinkling dust on things. Because magic.

Loy’s probably the best? It’s hard to say, as Conselman’s script is so wretched; Loy at least gets to have some fantastic gowns.

The big action finale with knights with tommy-guns ought to be a lot better. Everything about Connecticut Yankee ought to be better. Conselman and Butler never have a handle on the film. They’re fumbling from scene one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Butler; screenplay by William M. Conselman, based on a novel by Mark Twain; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Irene Morra; released by Fox Film Corporation.

Starring Will Rogers (Hank Martin), William Farnum (Arthur), Frank Albertson (Clarence), Brandon Hurst (Merlin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Alisande), Mitchell Harris (Sagramor), and Myrna Loy (Morgan le Fay).


The Great Silence (1968, Sergio Corbucci)

The first act of The Great Silence at least implies some traditional Western tropes. Jean-Louis Trintignant is a gunslinger who fights with evil bounty hunters. Frank Wolff is the new sheriff. Klaus Kinski is one of the evil bounty hunters. Wolff’s got political stuff, or at least the script implies there’s going to be political stuff, just like the script makes implications about Trintignant and Kinski. They’re not red herrings, but director Corbucci has something to say about the Western genre and he’s getting his pieces in order.

And, frankly, that first act is a little plodding. Sure, the winter setting is cool–Corbucci has no interest in the town other than as a setting for his action, so getting to know it is a passive experience, unnecessary for the narrative but so gorgeous snow covered–and Kinski’s immediately awesome. Well, he’s immediately different. It takes a couple scenes before it’s clear he’s just going to be awesome throughout, like he’s the only one who gets to know the film’s destination.

After running around in circles–literally–Corbucci gets Silence into the second act and the film starts to get a lot different. None of the Western tropes implied are getting followed up on. I mean, Trintignant’s even revealed to be hunting bounty killers because they killed his parents. Corbucci is going all out with the possible tropes and none of them really stick. Silvano Ippoliti’s photography is too heartless for them to stick. Even the Ennio Morricone score bucks sentimentality and nostalgia; it’s not a particularly successful score, but it is an effective one.

Instead, Silence becomes Wolff’s story. Turns out Luigi Pistilli’s Mr. Big is running the bounty hunters–that political subplot possibility–and Wolff’s going to do whatever it takes to keep things apolitical and legal. There’s a lot about legality in Great Silence; Corbucci plays just enough into Spaghetti Western expectations to get away with a lot of exposition and a lot of sentimentality. The love scene between Trintignant and Vonetta McGee (as the woman who hires him to avenge her husband–against Kinski, of course)–their whole romance–is just a subplot in what’s first Wolff’s film and then Kinski’s. Even though Trintignant is playing the title character–he’s The Great Silence–Corbucci kicks the genre around enough to allow the hero to be another player and a silent one at that.

See, Trintignant isn’t speaking. Those bounty killers who killed his parents made him mute. His whole performance is stress fractures in stoicism, which makes the whole love story subplot even better. It’s also a device for Corbucci’s commentary–the hero, though present and active, is removed from the viewer’s experience of the film.

Kinski’s amazing. It’s his movie. Wolff’s great, McGhee’s great. There’s a lot going on in the second act, including some nice stuff from Marisa Merlini too. Corbucci’s going for better performances than one expects from a Spaghetti Western; he’s refusing to let them be caricature. After threatening it for the first act; presumably to get the viewer to pay attention.

And then there’s the finish, which is sort of what the third act to the first act would look like–with a more traditional second act–only Corbucci’s run it through that devastating second act.

So the big question–since I didn’t start writing this response with a star rating decided on–do Corbucci’s successes make up for the film’s problems. And they do. The Great Silence has some slow parts, some seemingly needless shots, some way too long takes, but Corbucci does bring it all together and make something fantastic. It’s exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sergio Corbucci; screenplay by Vittoriano Petrilli, Mario Amendola, Bruno Corbucci, and Sergio Corbucci, based on a story by Sergio Corbucci; director of photography, Silvano Ippoliti; edited by Amedeo Salfa; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Attilio Riccio and Robert Dorfmann; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant (Silence), Klaus Kinski (Tigrero), Vonetta McGee (Pauline Middleton), Frank Wolff (Sheriff Gideon Corbett), Marisa Merlini (Regina), Mario Brega (Martin), and Luigi Pistilli (Henry Pollicut).


Peyton Place (1957, Mark Robson)

Peyton Place takes over a year and a half starting in 1941. Director Robson has a really slick way of getting the date into the ground situation. Robson and cinematographer William C. Mellor go a little wild with Peyton Place–there’s a lot of location shooting and Robson tries hard to make the viewer feel enveloped. The film’s a soap opera, not requiring the viewer to situate themselves inside the story, but Robson invites it. The film’s a technical delight; Robson’s proud of its quality.

But the encompassing isn’t required because Peyton Place is a sensational soap opera. From the opening narration, the film declares itself sensational. The film starts with Diane Varsi’s narration then goes to Lee Philips arriving in town. Eventually, after being high school senior Farsi’s new principal, Philips will also romance her mother, played by Lana Turner. Most, if not all, of the drama has something to do with Varsi and Turner’s home or Varsi’s school or Turner’s business. And if it doesn’t have to do with them, then it’s war-related. Varsi starts Peyton Place its protagonist, with Turner sort of waiting in the wings to have her own big story. There’s all sorts of potential juxtaposition and alter ego and it ought to be great.

Only, by the end of the movie, Varsi and Turner are complete strangers to the viewer and each other. The film jumps ship from Varsi’s story two-thirds of the way in and she still narrates, but she’s not part of the action. And when she does return, she doesn’t get to make up any of that time. The film doesn’t even commit to her having an actual love interest in Russ Tamblyn’s troubled teenage boy. It’s a shame because Varsi and Tamblyn are great together, while she and Turner aren’t. Their scenes just aren’t particularly good.

Actually, Peyton Place doesn’t really have anything to do with Lana Turner. Her romance is entirely Philips pursuing her, usually at just the right moment to set off an argument with Varsi. Turner gets through it, but her only pay-off scene is a courtroom breakdown. It’d be more significant if it wasn’t followed by a superior courtroom breakdown, which is setoff in the narrative by Turner’s. So, lots of problems. Luckily the film’s beautifully produced and well-acted (even if in undercooked roles). Robson and screenwriter John Michael Hayes had to clean up the source novel for the censors, which Robson utilizes to give some of his actors more room. They use it well.

Except Philips. Philips is physically fine for the part, but he’s just a bit tepid. He’s supposed to be a sexy progressive dude who cares about education and sex ed and he’s never convincing. He just mopes around Turner until she gives in.

Varsi’s pretty good. She’s got a lot to do in the first half of the movie, it’s all her show. The scenes with Tamblyn are best because it’s her storyline more than anything else in the film. Tamblyn’s just her sweet male friend. His own backstory only exists when Varsi’s around. The film’s failure with it is another of the frustrations.

Anyway, pretty soon Varsi’s just around to support Hope Lange’s story–which is the center of the film as it turns out–or something with Turner, which always affects the high school and that subplot. Hayes’s script is masterful, no doubt, but it’s a masterful soap opera. He’s going for sensationalism, not the characters. Robson’s going for the characters and the visual grandeur of it. While the two approaches end up complimenting each other, there’s only so far Robson could take it.

Lange’s amazing. Sometimes she’s second fiddle in her own scenes, but Robson always makes sure to give her time to act. Seeing Lange’s experience through her expressions is what gives Peyton Place its heart. Robson helps, sure, but he knows Lange’s got to handle a lot of weight and figures out the best way to distribute it.

Also excellent is Arthur Kennedy, who has a similar relationship with the film as Lange.

Tamblyn’s good. Lloyd Nolan’s great as the town doctor who also serves as a guide through the film. Leon Ames is awesome as the mean local rich guy. Lorne Greene is the nasty prosecuting attorney in the third act. I’m not sure he’s good but he’s definitely loathsome, though the courtroom finale isn’t set up well in the narrative. Hayes does fine once he gets into the trial, but its inciting incident is a complete fumble.

Because Peyton Place isn’t a great movie. It’s got a lot of problems. It might even get long in parts, which isn’t a good thing–if you’re going to run two and a half hours, you can’t feel long. But it is a good movie, with some great filmmaking and some great performances. And Franz Waxman’s music is gorgeous.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Grace Metalious; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by David Bretherton; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Jerry Wald; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Lana Turner (Constance MacKenzie), Diane Varsi (Allison MacKenzie), Hope Lange (Selena Cross), Lee Philips (Michael Rossi), Lloyd Nolan (Dr. Swain), Arthur Kennedy (Lucas Cross), Russ Tamblyn (Norman Page), Leon Ames (Mr. Harrington), Terry Moore (Betty Anderson), David Nelson (Ted Carter), Barry Coe (Rodney Harrington), Betty Field (Nellie Cross), Mildred Dunnock (Miss Elsie Thornton), Lorne Greene (Prosecutor), and Scotty Morrow (Joseph Cross).


My Bodyguard (1980, Tony Bill)

My Bodyguard is more than a little frustrating. Alan Ormsby’s script either completely changes in the second half–just in terms of how he constructs scenes, how much willful suspension of disbelief you need, whether or not lead Chris Makepeace is ever going to have a story of his own–or director Bill chucked a lot of material in editing. And given Stu Linder’s editing is phenomenal–the slow motion isn’t his fault–and I kind of doubt it. When he can, Linder finds just the right cuts. Bill’s got coverage issues, especially on action sequences–Michael D. Margulies’s photography is always just right though–and Linder still saves them. The second half of the picture’s mess seems to be Ormsby’s fault, with Bill’s approval, of course.

Here’s the thing–My Bodyguard, which is supposed to be this sensitive movie about a sensitive teenager (Makepeace) going to a tough inner-city school and having to convince loner giant Adam Baldwin to protective him from bully Matt Dillon. Makepeace’s home life is different–his dad (Martin Mull) runs a classy hotel. They’re not rich but they pretend to be rich. There’s a lot of class politics in play somewhere in My Bodyguard, but not thoughtfully. They’re just on display as narrative tropes and shortcuts. Kind of like Makepeace. He’s not the protagonist. There’s one scene with him having personality before he’s just Dillon’s target. All of his scenes with Baldwin are a completely different character. My Bodyguard feels like three different scripts forced into this idea of high school protection rackets.

But in the first act, Bill covers it all. Thanks to Linder and Margulies and a very cheerful but introspective Dave Grusin score, the first half of My Bodyguard feels like it’s going to go somewhere. There’s a narrative progress to the school year unfolding, kids doing activities, time moving. It’s not because of Makepeace and his home life subplot (Ruth Gordon’s his sassy, drunk grandmother). It’s because there are supporting cast members with lives going on. Attention to Paul Quandt, Joan Cusack, and Kathryn Grody creates the film’s verisimilitude as it were. It needs to wander aimlessly at times.

Once Baldwin goes from being Makepeace’s mystery thug classmate to his surrogate big brother, which Bill and Ormsby don’t address because My Bodyguard is kind of cheap and it does want to present a working class to yuppie life goal (Mull has to fend off a yuppie underling). It’s got its problems, but it’s also a missed opportunity. The film’s technically marvelous. The photography of the Chicago locations are so good, you don’t forgive Grusin’s soulful saccharine, you allow for it. And Linder’s editing, especially in the first half and during Baldwin’s fight scene in the finale, is marvelous.

Sadly, following Baldwin’s fight scene is Bill’s worst direction in the film. Coming in its last few minutes–Bodyguard cheats out on a real ending, as the second half tries hard to infantilize its teenage characters. Kids movie is only a pejorative if its characters are static. And My Bodyguard does go in that direction in its second half.

Great performance from Dillon. Baldwin’s good with tough material and not the best direction for it. Makepeace has a two-dimensional (at best) character. He’s not unlikable, but he also doesn’t commandeer the role. Gordon’s awesome. Mull’s fun. John Houseman has a nice cameo.

My Bodyguard acknowledges what it could do, what it could be, then it goes the easy route. It’s disappointing, though probably not surprising.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Bill; written by Alan Ormsby; director of photography, Michael D. Margulies; edited by Stu Linder; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by Don Devlin; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Chris Makepeace (Clifford), Adam Baldwin (Linderman), Ruth Gordon (Gramma), Matt Dillon (Moody), Martin Mull (Mr. Peache), Paul Quandt (Carson), Craig Richard Nelson (Griffith), Joan Cusack (Shelley), Kathryn Grody (Ms. Jump), and John Houseman (Dobbs).


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