Katharine Ross

Mister Buddwing (1966, Delbert Mann)

Mister Buddwing is kind of amazing. And exceptional. But only if both those descriptors are used as pejoratives. Like. Wow. What a mess it is.

What’s funny is how director Mann maybe sees what he’s trying to do with the film but doesn’t see how he’s not achieving it. The film wants to be edgy mainstream and is instead occasionally rather painfully square. Most of the problem is leading man James Garner. He hasn’t got a handle on the performance—getting no help from Dale Wasserman’s screenplay and then somehow even less from Mann. Worse, Mann uses a lot of close-ups on Garner during the movie, usually for reaction shots, and he’s never good enough. He’s rarely ever giving a passing performance. Like, he just doesn’t get the part. No one does, apparently.

Garner wakes up in the first scene in Central Park, with Mann shooting in first person point of the view. The titles roll as Garner (we’ll soon find out) goes into the Plaza Hotel and looks at himself in a mirror. Pretty soon we figure out he’s an amnesiac who remembers absolutely no details of his life. Not even his name. He gets his first name from Angela Lansbury, who he calls when he finds her number in his pocket. Lansbury’s not great, but she’s a lot of fun. And the film will go awhile without any fun. So she should be in it more.

The last name he makes up coincidentally, narrating about it. Though it makes no sense why he so desperately needs a last name other than the script is trying to make the title’s relevance painfully clear. Garner’s narration is terrible. Poorly written, poorly delivered. And then it’s gone, which is weird because regardless of it being good or not, it makes sense. Garner spends a lot of the movie wandering around Manhattan by himself. It might help to know what’s going on since his expression has three varieties of blank. Blank ought to work for the character. Wooden even. But it doesn’t, because Buddwing is so amazing in how it never works.

There’s this amazing scene where Garner has been followed by an old man—the first half of the movie is lousy with over-interested supporting players talking to Garner so there can be exposition. Garner will eventually yell about how he can’t remember his identity; almost every scene has him yelling about not remembering. So the old man (George Voskovec) wants to blackmail Garner into being his manservant. It’s a weird, dumb scene and does absolutely nothing. Doing nothing would be fine if the film wanted to do nothing and, until that point, it seems like it might not want to do much. Garner has just had the first flashback scene, with Katharine Ross appearing as Garner’s years ago love interest. He thinks he knows her—in the present—then we get this long flashback sequence of obnoxiously cut together scenes—Fredric Steinkamp’s editing is really bad, both conceptually and practically (though a lot of both have got to be Mann’s fault)—where Ross plays the woman she’s not. Just in Garner’s imagination. Only it’s unclear how much of the flashback he remembers and how much of it is just for the audience’s edification. Narration might help clear it up. Even bad narration.

Only there isn’t any. There’s Voskovec harassing Garner instead.

It’s such a bad, deliberate move. Especially since the return to the present sequence opens up the film’s periphery as far as people go; Buddwing’s New York is really empty. Except cars. Mann’s inconsistent if there are people around Garner—who never interact because the film’s just the story of one ant among millions—sometimes there are montages with people in the background, sometimes the city’s empty. But there are always cars in the distance. It’s like they couldn’t get the shot they needed so they took the one they got and it didn’t work, which is pretty much the movie overall.

Eventually Suzanne Pleshette comes into the movie and then there’s a flashback where she plays the girl Ross had previously played. Later it’s Jean Simmons. Now, the flashback sequences are written even worse than the present, because they’re hurried along stylistically, but basically they’re all about Garner becoming more and more of an abusive shitheel. Now, the film would never characterize it as abuse, but it’s scary intense. Mann and Wasserman need to keep Garner sympathetic in the present so they have to demonize the “girls” in the past. They even do it in the present when Lansbury makes a too minor but very welcome near third act return.

Only then in comes Simmons and her present tense mystery woman—infinitely wealthy and drunk and with a past sounding just like the flashbacks and Garner’s memories. At least it seems like he remembers the flashbacks by the time the movie gets to Simmons. He never really shows it, not in performance or dialogue, but Wasserman’s script definitely implies it by the third act. We just missing it, even though the movie is supposed to be about Garner finding out his identity, not the audience finding it. Instead, the film informs the audience first, Garner offscreen. Dumb. And weird.

The third act actually has potential. It’s the strangest thing. If they’d pulled off the third act, Buddwing would probably work, even with Garner’s flat performance and Mann’s jarred direction. Because Simmons is fantastic. In the present. In the past she gets into the problem Ross and Pleshette had; Wasserman writes the part something awful. But in the present, just having fun, Simmons is fantastic. Makes up for Garner even.

Pleshette is affected in the present, but still sort of sympathetic. She’s nothing but sympathetic in the past because she gets the brunt of Garner’s abuse. It’s not really interesting—her affected present day performance—but at least it’s distinctive. Ross is background in her section, which seems weird since Lansbury at least gets her scenes. Ross just gets to be stalked. But in that genial sixties way because Wasserman’s shallow.

Strange small part for Jack Gilford—who wants to convince Garner he’s Jewish because Wasserman’s script is weird in addition to shallow. Joe Mantell’s terrible as a cabbie who seemingly tells Garner an important story. Raymond St. Jacques comes off best, even if he’s poorly written. He’s in the Simmons section and gets to enjoy in its heightened quality. Nichelle Nichols has a tiny part and is phenomenal. More than anything else in the film—even Simmons, who’s stuck with Garner—Nichols seems like she’s visiting from the alternate reality’s Mister Buddwing where it’s great. She definitely gets cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s best work in the film.

Fredericks shoots a really flat New York city, seemingly unintentionally. Or is it supposed to be so dull even when it’s obviously not.

Kenyon Hopkins’s score is similarly disjointed. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s wrong. The one thing the music needs to be right about, it’s never right about, even when it’s good. But it gets bad and wrong at some point near the third act and never gets any better. Even when Simmons shows up. She succeeds in the harshest of conditions.

Mister Buddwing would need to be seen to be believed. But it doesn’t need to be believed.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Dale Wasserman, based on a novel by Evan Hunter; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Fredric Steinkamp; music by Kenyon Hopkins; produced by Douglas Laurence and Mann; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Garner (Mister Buddwing), Jean Simmons (3rd Grace), Suzanne Pleshette (2nd Grace), Katharine Ross (1st Grace), George Voskovec (Shabby Old Man), Jack Gilford (Mr. Schwartz), Joe Mantell (1st Cab Driver), Raymond St. Jacques (Hank), Nichelle Nichols (Dice Player), and Angela Lansbury (Gloria).


The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes)

The Stepford Wives puts in for a major suspension of disbelief request in the second scene–what is Katharine Ross doing married to Peter Masterson. They’ve gone from being a somewhat posh New York couple to a New York couple with kids and so they’re moving to Connecticut. Lawyer Masterson is going to take the train in to town while aspiring photographer Ross hangs around in the country, ostensibly taking care of the kids.

Ostensibly because they disappear for the most part, even though they ought to be around all the time, yet aren’t. Not keeping track of the kids, except when they need to be around for emphasis or plot contrivance, is one of director Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman’s fails. It’s one of their joint fails. Both have their own personal fails. It’s not even one of their major joint fails. It’s one of the “oh, yeah, they forgot about this subplot” fails. There are many.

Ross is bored in the small town. She doesn’t have anything in common with the other wives, who seem solely interested in keeping a tidy houses for their hard-working men. And, right away, Masterson joins the town’s men’s club and starts spending every night with the boys. In their big scary restored mansion (more in it in a bit).

Luckily, Ross soon finds the other new “Stepford Wives”, starting with Paula Prentiss. They’re fast friends who, after consulting with another new-to-town wife, Tina Louise, decide to start a women’s group. Except it turns out all the other women have to complain about is not having enough time to clean their houses, which Ross, Prentiss, and presumably Louise (who gets one of the lousier roles in a movie with an endless supply) all find peculiar.

Meanwhile, at home, Masterson is drinking all the time but loving hanging out with the boys. The boys–Josef Sommer, Franklin Cover, and George Coe–are a bunch of bores. Creepy silver fox Patrick O’Neal runs the club. He used to work at Disney. The other guys all work in cutting edge technology. William Prince, playing a retired pin-up artist, is the only one with any social skills. Masterson only drinks to excess in private, like he’s got something to hide from Ross.

Not to entirely spoil the movie, but it’s because he and his friends are plotting to murder Ross. It’s not like Stepford isn’t in the dictionary. The “twist” is a whole other thing I don’t even want to talk about. It’s not undercooked, it’s raw; there’s a lot of undercooked material in Stepford, but the twist hasn’t even been in the oven. Not the way Forbes and Goldman want to do it. Apparently they disagreed on the ending and Forbes got his way, but even if Goldman had it his way, it wouldn’t make up for the awful character development throughout the film informing it.

Masterson’s kind of mean to Ross. There aren’t any good men in Stepford, which is fine and accurate, but Masterson’s still too much of a jerk right off the bat. He’s such a trollish jerk, it’s hard to believe he’s a lawyer. He’s not a jerk in the right ways. It’s also hard to believe he and Ross ever had chemistry. In the first act, before the murder plot, he thinks he’s piggishly charming, even though Ross never positively responds to him. Goldman entirely slacks off on Masterson’s character establishment and development.

Masterson doesn’t transcend the material. It’s also not entirely the material’s fault. Maybe it’s just the casting director’s fault. Or just Forbes’s fault. Forbes has a shockingly bad handle on the material.

There’s satire and commentary about commercialism–at times–in Stepford Wives. Goldman usually comes up with adequate material and then Forbes utterly flops on it when directing the scene and the actors’ performances. You can see where the joke ought to be in Stepford, but instead of getting there, you watch Forbes repeatedly miss it.

The only excellent performance in the film is Ross. She’s outstanding. She’s got a crappy, underdeveloped character who can’t keep track of her kids, doesn’t have a believable “art” arc in her photography, and is inexplicably married to a jackass, but Ross is outstanding. The one thing Forbes does right is let Ross be alone. It’s no good once Forbes is trying generate scares–in that aforementioned scary mansion–but when it’s just Ross existing in a moment, it’s great. Ross is acting in a far better film than Stepford Wives. She’s just doing it in Stepford Wives.

Prentiss is likable but not good. She’s funny and seems to have a better handle on how to do the satire scenes than Forbes; she’s the only one who doesn’t look lost. But who knows because Forbes is hesitant to let the Wives act against one another too much in the same shot. He avoids those shots, preferring two Wives at a time in close-ups.

Paula Trueman is also fun. She apparently runs the town newspaper, or at least writes for it. She’s got a lousy part as it turns out. It’s like Goldman adapted the source novel without reading it. He never establishes continuity of behavior in the supporting cast. Trueman’s character doesn’t even get a name, even though the character–and actor–are a couple of the film’s stronger assets.

Otherwise the performances are basically just adequate. Even Louise, who gets a crap part, is just adequate. She just has more wasted potential than some of the other Wives, principally Nanette Newman. Newman is Ross’s neighbor who Ross never gets to meet without Prentiss being along because Newman has nooners with her husband. Is it for sure her husband? It’s worse if it is Sommer than if it isn’t, actually. There’s an extreme (and unexplored) connotation if it’s the latter, but if it’s the former… well, it’d be another of those major joint fails for Forbes and Goldman. Because even though the movie’s supposed to be satirical, Forbes doesn’t do metaphor. Even if it’s in the script. Forbes skips it.

I’m going a little longer than Wives deserves–unless one’s talking at length about Ross’s performance–but I do need to get to the finale. It’s like they ran out of money and decided to do a haunted house sequence. Because haunted houses always get scares. Except Owen Roizman doesn’t shoot Stepford like a thriller, he shoots it like a seventies drama. Michael Small’s score is for a seventies drama; mostly. When it’s trying for the horror, it’s for a bad horror movie. The music goes from one of the film’s pluses to minuses real fast.

So Forbes stumbles through the finale, which has Ross running from her fate. There’s no closure for Ross’s character arcs, not even the hint the character arcs have occurred. In fact, the finale gives one of the bad guys a monologue describing Ross to her. It’d be nice the monologue, which seems to greatly affect her, actually matched her character she’d been playing for the previous 110 minutes.

But it’s also a badly directed finale in a constrained set. It’s a bad, boring set and Forbes has no ideas for it. The movie deserves better. Ross deserves much better. She keeps Stepford afloat all by herself. Even as Forbes and Goldman try to sink it from under her.

The Stepford Wives is a peculiar, if predictable, fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Forbes; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Ira Levin; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Timothy Gee; music by Michael Small; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Edgar J. Scherick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Katharine Ross (Joanna Eberhart), Peter Masterson (Walter Eberhart), Paula Prentiss (Bobbie Markowe), Patrick O’Neal (Dale Coba), Tina Louise (Charmaine Wimpiris), Nanette Newman (Carol Van Sant), Paula Trueman (Welcome Wagon Lady), George Coe (Claude Axhelm), Josef Sommer (Ted Van Sant), Franklin Cover (Ed Wimpiris), Neil Brooks Cunningham (Dave Markowe), Carol Eve Rossen (Dr. Fancher), William Prince (Ike Mazzard), and Robert Fields (Raymond Chandler).


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opens with a sepia-toned silent film newsreel. It’s exposition, but also contrast. The silent images of a daring train robbery distract from reading the film’s accompanying opening titles. When the film itself starts, it’s just as sepia-toned. Only it’s Conrad Hall and he’s able to suggest the lush, denied colors. Director Hill isn’t just making a Western, he’s making a comment on the genre itself. Not just him, of course, writer William Goldman’s asking some of the same questions about how the genre works. Butch Cassidy forces the audience to question the setting, not embrace it. It’s a hostile place, even when it can appear gentle, even when it can be funny. The first hour of the film, features Paul Newman and Robert Redford in something very close to constant sequence. Each scene comes soon after the other. And then it turns into a chase. A long chase. It’s exhausting. And great. Because Hall has got the color in. Once the characters are established, the color returns. But then it goes away again.

I don’t want to think too much about where the act breaks are in Butch Cassidy, but there’s definitely a big chance once it becomes clear no matter how much charm Newman and Redford have, it’s not going to end well. One of the supporting players even comments on it. The film has a very strange, very distinct approach to the supporting players. The supporting players should feel episodically placed but they don’t. They’re sprinkled throughout the film, but Goldman and Hill use them for very specific tasks. One reveals one thing, one comments on another. Goldman’s script is phenomenal.

Then the film changes. And the color goes away. Newman, Redford and Ross go to New York. It’s like 1906 or 1907 and it’s all silent, all in still picture montage. Most of Butch Cassidy doesn’t have music. Burt Bacharach’s score alternates between effervescent and melancholy. Most of the film is sound effects. The sound design is gorgeous, just as gorgeous as Hall’s photography, just as gorgeous as John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer’s editing. Hill’s got a great crew and he gets great work from them. The montage sequence furthers the story, furthers the relationships of the characters. It’s a great device and completely out of place with everything before it in the film. Then the sepia reminds of the opening titles and it’s Hill pulling the audience back a little bit, redirecting their attention. The rest of the film, once Newman, Redford and Ross get to Bolivia, has to be watched differently; it’s certainly written differently, paced differently, even acted differently.

Redford and Newman. Goldman very carefully introduces their friendship, getting the audience invested in it. The performances are great too–ambitious but playful; Redford and Newman’s banter never gets overpowering. It never overwhelms the film or the actors. Hill’s real careful about how he directs them and how they’re edited. Newman and Redford are very close, in frame and physicality, until Ross is around all the time. Only then does Hill open up and show the characters from one another’s perspective. Until that point–over halfway through the film–they’re a unit.

Those singularly placed supporting players–Jeff Corey, George Furth, Kenneth Mars, Strother Martin among a couple others–are all fantastic. Especially Corey and Martin. And Furth and Mars. Oh, and Timothy Scott.

There’s so much to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s so well-made, anything could become a tangent. Hill starts out directing this fantastic Western only to change it up with this montage and then the Bolivia scenes. It’s awesome work from Hill. You just want to talk about it. You just want to show it to people so you can talk about it more, think about it more, appreciate it more. It’s that special kind of awesome.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Roy Hill; written by William Goldman; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer; music by Burt Bacharach; produced by John Foreman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), Katharine Ross (Etta Place), Jeff Corey (Sheriff Bledsoe), Strother Martin (Percy Garris), Kenneth Mars (Marshal) and George Furth (Woodcock).


Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)

Donnie Darko has one of those discussion begging conclusions. So I’ll skip that aspect entirely and concentrate what director Kelly does so well. There’s a meticulous design to Darko but it’s mostly unimportant; once you get past the MacGuffin, it’s just this story about a teenage schizophrenic’s life coming apart.

Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the lead. Kelly’s script will occasionally give him some really difficult moments, sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t. One example is the therapy sessions–it’s unclear if Katharine Ross’s psychiatrist is supposed to be awful at her job–Gyllenhaal has some really rough dialogue at times.

Another odd spot is when Gyllenhaal is hanging out with sidekicks Stuart Stone and Gary Lundy. Kelly writes Gyllenhaal’s character as an unaware genius, so he’ll race past his friends in conversation–one of the beautiful things is how his girlfriend, played by Jena Malone, also isn’t as smart but somehow they pace each other.

But Kelly doesn’t just focus on Gyllenhaal. Mary McDonnell has a lot to do as his mother; she’s fantastic. Holmes Osborne is great as the dad too, but Kelly spreads his attention to odd characters. There’re Beth Grant’s nutty Christian lady (she’s appropriately terrifying) and Drew Barrymore’s driven English high school teacher. Barrymore’s awful. She put up some of the money for the movie, which explains her regrettable presence.

The soundtrack’s occasionally way too precious during montages, but Kelly keeps going until it works. He, Gyllenhaal, McDonnell and Malone make Darko a distinguished success.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Richard Kelly; director of photography, Steven Poster; edited by Sam Bauer and Eric Strand; music by Michael Andrews; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Adam Fields and Sean McKittrick; released by Newmarket Films.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Jena Malone (Gretchen Ross), Mary McDonnell (Rose Darko), Holmes Osborne (Eddie Darko), Stuart Stone (Ronald Fisher), Gary Lundy (Sean Smith), Katharine Ross (Dr. Lilian Thurman), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Elizabeth Darko), Daveigh Chase (Sam Darko), Drew Barrymore (Karen Pomeroy), Noah Wyle (Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff), Beth Grant (Kitty Farmer), Alex Greenwald (Seth Devlin), Jolene Purdy (Cherita Chen) and Patrick Swayze (Jim Cunningham).


They Only Kill Their Masters (1972, James Goldstone)

I don’t know if I can think of a more mild mystery than They Only Kill Their Masters. It’s a solid vehicle for James Garner, giving him a lot of leading man stuff to do and a fair amount of internal conflict. But it’s so slight, so genial, it doesn’t leave much of an impression.

Some of the film’s problems stem from the running time. Just under a 100 minutes, there’s not enough time to develop Garner on his own and have him investigate a murder (especially since he’s also got to be the one to discover it is a murder) and romance Katharine Ross. The romance kind of makes Masters special–Garner’s character fills out because he and Ross get together–and it’s maybe the only time I’ve seen Ross play a regular person. She does it very well.

But the romance eventually has to go to a back burner, to make time for the mystery, which is resolved terribly. There are two major revelations within eight minutes of each other and neither are particularly interesting.

Worse, the amazing supporting cast is mostly done by the end, so it’s all rapid fire resolution.

When the film’s not Garner investigating or Garner and Ross, it’s usually Garner and a supporting cast member in a nice scene. Maybe the best is Edmond O’Brien, who’s not just hilarious, but shows what Garner’s used to dealing with on a daily basis, providing some context.

It’s a decent, sometimes really good, movie. It’s just underwhelming overall.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James Goldstone; written by Lane Slate; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by Edward A. Biery; music by Perry Botkin Jr.; produced by William Belasco; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Garner (Abel), Katharine Ross (Kate), Hal Holbrook (Watkins), Harry Guardino (Capt. Streeter), June Allyson (Mrs. Watkins), Christopher Connelly (John), Tom Ewell (Walter), Peter Lawford (Campbell), Edmond O’Brien (George), Arthur O’Connell (Ernie), Ann Rutherford (Gloria) and Art Metrano (Malcolm).


The Swarm (1978, Irwin Allen), the director’s cut

I had the misfortune of trying to watch Irwin Allen’s director’s cut of The Swarm. As I understand it, Allen’s director’s cut simply adds a half hour of terrible dialogue, completely overshadowing the killer bee aspect of the film.

I’m not sure how much better a shorter version of the film would really… ahem… be, given Allen is still directing it and Michael Caine is still the star.

I’m fairly sure I’ve called some terrible director or another the worst Panavision director ever–not counting anyone who made a film after 1994 or so–but Allen might be the new king of terrible Panavision direction. He doesn’t waste the wide frame, however; no, Allen doesn’t understand the concept of head room. I kept waiting for someone to hit his or her head on the top of the frame.

Caine’s “performance” is a particular gem. It might actually be (sorry) Caine’s worst performance and given Caine’s tendency to give awful performances, it’s an achievement.

The supporting cast has high and low points. Anyone good is visibly embarrassed, anyone bad is just bad. Except Ben Johnson. He somehow is both good and earnest.

Katharine Ross is particularly mortified, while Richard Widmark’s performance suggests he’s really looking forward to the swimming pool his paycheck is buying.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is awful, maybe some of the worst earlier Goldsmith I can remember. Lots of The Swarm, including that score, make it seem like a really bad TV movie.

A cheap one too. The sets are awful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Irwin Allen; screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel by Arthur Herzog Jr.; director of photography, Fred J. Koenekamp; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Stan Jolley; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael Caine (Brad Crane), Katharine Ross (Helena), Richard Widmark (Gen. Slater), Richard Chamberlain (Dr. Hubbard), Olivia de Havilland (Maureen), Ben Johnson (Felix), Lee Grant (Anne MacGregor), José Ferrer (Dr. Andrews), Patty Duke (Rita), Slim Pickens (Jud Hawkins), Bradford Dillman (Maj. Baker), Fred MacMurray (Clarence) and Henry Fonda (Dr. Walter Krim).

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969, Abraham Polonsky)

Is that the one where Katharine Ross plays an Indian?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here starts incredibly strong. It gives a real sense of building towards something, but when that something arrives–Robert Blake and Katharine Ross on the run from a posse–it’s handled so poorly, the film falls apart. Maybe it doesn’t fall apart, maybe it just ceases to be good and interesting. The relationship between Blake and Ross, which started as interesting, turns into propaganda. It’s fine, it’s for a good cause, but their scenes lose all sense of importance in terms of character development, motivation… any attempt at honesty. Actually, Willie Boy starts to fall apart earlier. Polonsky cannot handle, as a director, a lot of shots. The essential scene, the crime Blake commits to have to go on the run, is incompetently shot. It’s not until later, with the Dave Grusin score going non-stop, it becomes clear Polonsky had seen The Shooting and was aping its style. It’s not even a bad job of aping, it’s just Polonsky also seemed to think he needed to ape The Shooting‘s copout, indie-friendly ending.

For the first twenty or so, everything’s good in Willie Boy, then the Blake and Ross stuff falls apart, but there’s the excellent, complicated Robert Redford and Susan Clark story going to maintain interest and actually make important observations on the human condition. Except, it’s not propaganda, so Polonsky drops it and that story is the most important–most unique–part of Willie Boy. At the end, when he has a chance to reclaim it, he instead conjures some malarky about Redford the sheriff surrounded by people who think it’s still the old days being the alter ego of Blake, the Indian wrongfully on the run. It’s a bunch of crap and it’s really unfortunate, considering Redford’s excellent work in the film. Blake is okay, but his performance is identical to Charles Bronson’s performances in the early 1960s. Almost no different really.

As a conflicted Native American schoolteacher, Ross is silly sometimes and okay sometimes. When she’s quiet–actually, besides the scenes with Clark and Redford, everything is better when it’s quiet in Willie Boy. Clark’s fantastic and she and Redford deserved a lot of better of a project to work on together.

I don’t think there’s much else to say about the film, other than it being less an incredible disappointment than an unfortunate failure. Polonsky was screenwriter and a more understanding, more capable director would have turned out a far better, far less pretentious product… almost any director, really. Redford would have done wonders.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Abraham Polonsky; screenplay by Polonsky, based on the book by Harry Lawton; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Dave Grusin; produced by Philip A. Waxman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Robert Redford (Coop), Katharine Ross (Lola), Robert Blake (Willie Boy), Susan Clark (Dr. Elizabeth Arnold), Barry Sullivan (Ray), John Vernon (George Hacker), Charles Aidman (Benby), Charles McGaw (Sheriff Wilson), Shelly Novack (Johnny Finney) and Robert Lipton (Charlie Newcombe).


Shenandoah (1965, Andrew V. McLaglen)

In addition to being the first film of Andrew V. McLaglen’s I’ve seen (which is quite an achievement, considering how much he directed), Shenendoah is the first film I’ve seen where James Stewart plays the patriarch. Unless Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation counts and I don’t think it does, not like Shenendoah. The film sets Stewart as the father of seven sons and one daughter, Virginian farmers sitting out the Civil War. In its approach, initially anyway, the film owes a lot to Friendly Persuasion. There’s a calm friendliness to the family and the first forty minutes is spent listening to Stewart’s fatherly monologues (half of them are excellent, half are mediocre; the one he gives future son-in-law Doug McClure is wonderful). The film establishes its primary characters in these forty minutes–besides Stewart, the youngest son and the married son (played by Patrick Wayne, who’s great) get the spotlight, as does the courting McClure and the daughter–but there’s little distinguishing about the five other sons. They have names, except only one of them even approaches being recognizable, and their purpose in the film is to support.

At the forty-minute mark, or around it, the film changes gears and becomes the most startling anti-war film I’ve seen about the Civil War. Unfortunately, the film’s politics are incredibly safe–these Virginians don’t own slaves because they don’t think its right not to do your own work (my frequent observation about people with lawn crews who have such pride in the foliage they picked from a catalog) and they wouldn’t help a friend fight for his slaves, which doesn’t really matter since the family seems not to have any friends–but there’s never any comment about slavery being wrong. Shenendoah is a Western and Western filmmakers knew their audiences. There’s a little bit of the friendship between the youngest son and a same-aged slave to distinguish it, but it’s hard to believe Stewart’s frequent monologues would never broach the subject. As an anti-war film, though effective, it’s as unbiased as Gone With the Wind. Shenendoah shows the South and the Confederate soldiers as passives, only being acted upon by the aggressive and, at times, evil North. George Kennedy–youngish–shows up for a minute as a kind-hearted Northern officer, but he’s the single humane portrayal of the North in the whole film.

Even more complicated is the film’s morality. Tragedy strikes Stewart’s family in some awful (and unexpected) ways. It’s a bit of a rough film–even though the score maintains the playfulness of the first forty minutes–and those minutes were spent making the audience care for the characters. Even if their names aren’t clear. It’s an intentional move, so the question arises whether the tragedy is Stewart’s just reward for sitting out the Civil War, for abandoning his duty to Virginia. As complicated as those questions could be, Shenendoah doesn’t invite much analysis. It’s entertains and makes the viewer care about what’s going on. The rest isn’t particularly important (its greatest crime is giving Wayne the small part).

As for director McLaglen… if I didn’t know his name from so many other Westerns, I’d never bother to look it up or to have noticed it. He’s fine but wholly unimpressive except for the battle scenes, which are some of the finest I can recall.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen; written by James Lee Barrett; director of photography, William H. Clothier; edited by Otho Lovering; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Robert Arthur; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Charlie Anderson), Doug McClure (Lt. Sam), Glenn Corbett (Jacob Anderson), Patrick Wayne (James Anderson), Rosemary Forsyth (Jennie Anderson), Phillip Alford (Boy Anderson), Katharine Ross (Mrs. Ann Anderson), Charles Robinson (Nathan Anderson), Jim McMullan (John Anderson), Tim McIntire (Henry Anderson), Gene Jackson (Gabriel), Paul Fix (Dr. Tom Witherspoon), Denver Pyle (Pastor Bjoerling) and George Kennedy (Col. Fairchild).


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