Archives

PERFECTION IN OBSCURITY

by Mark Burger

We all have our favorite movies, and I have more than most people. There are classics almost everyone agrees on, there are personal favorites, and certainly there are guilty pleasures. (I daresay I’ve seen The Toxic Avenger more times than Citizen Kane, but let me hasten to add that Kane is better!) There are also films that I revere which the vast majority – including serious film buffs – haven’t seen or even heard of, which was the impetus for this retrospective. Given that my cinema savvy was shaped to some extent by the films of the 1970s – a very good decade for that – I opted to concentrate on five ’70s films that left a major impression on me, and which continue to do so in my adulthood.

I wanted to concentrate on films released by major studios (Allied Artists, which released Twilight’s Last Gleaming, went out of business shortly thereafter but had a fairly illustrious history), and most importantly that they are available on DVD or Blu-ray. As it turned out, two of them – Man on a Swing (never released on VHS) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming only came out in 2012.

Therefore, without further ado, here are five films (long) overdue for celebration.

Bite the Bullet (1975) Writer/producer/director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, In Cold Blood, The Professionals and Elmer Gantry, for which he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay) examines themes of loyalty, courage, chivalry and endurance with his trademark irony and cynicism – in a film populated by complex characters and a brilliant cast including Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Ben Johnson, Ian Bannen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Dabney Coleman and Sally Kirkland. This is Brooks’ last great film and perhaps the greatest Western of the ’70s, which was not a good decade for the genre.

The year is 1906 and the Old West is fading fast. A newspaper sponsors a 700-mile horse race (grand prize: $2,000) in an attempt to boost circulation and “pay tribute” to those who won the West. Each character’s true colors emerge during the race, and the severe toll it takes on the riders – and also the horses – is conveyed in uncompromising fashion. Yet there are moments of humor, sentiment and compassion that resonate as strongly. Far be it from me to give away who wins the race, but it’s a grandly satisfying scene, made more so by a final gesture of friendship and camaraderie.

Heavily promoted by Columbia Pictures, Bite the Bullet was met by critics with either high praise or sheer dismissal, with very little middle ground. Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide gives the film its highest rating (four stars): “Grand adventure in the classic tradition.”

Art Murphy (“Murf”) in Variety: “An excellent, literate action drama. The virtues of the script are many.”

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: “… a finely crafted, epic Western. Bite the Bullet is a film that re-examines and reaffirms the Western myth – both as it affected our history and as it has been considered in the movies. Bite the Bullet finds the traditional power and integrity of the Western intact.”

Vincent Canby of the New York Times was not impressed: “A big, expensive Western that doesn’t contain one moment that might be called genuine — it’s as hollow as a drain-pipe.”

In his 1997 biography Gene Hackman, author Michael Munn writes: Bite the Bullet is now considered one of the best Westerns of the seventies, though audiences of the time could not be convinced.”

The film did receive Oscar nominations for Best Original Score (a rousing one by Alex North) and Best Sound Mixing. Be aware: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released Bite the Bullet both in standard and wide-screen formats. The latter is the only way to go.

French Connection II (1975) There are a lot of people who don’t even know there was a French Connection II. For that matter, a lot of people who say they know The French Connection (1971) don’t remember much beyond the subway scene or the car chase. I’ll then ask: “So, what happens at the end of The French Connection?” Most say: “Well, he gets the guy and –” No, he doesn’t. Or else there wouldn’t be this sequel. Gene Hackman did not want to make French Connection II. Despite having won the Best Actor Oscar for the original (it won five in all, including Best Picture), he didn’t want to repeat himself. He repeatedly resisted the inevitable. He begged off to do Bite the Bullet, and went straight from that grueling project to French Connection II, which proved to be just as grueling.

Popeye Doyle is sent to Marseilles to ferret out Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the dapper drug lord (“Frog One”) who eluded him at the end of the first film (sorry for the spoiler). In France, where he doesn’t speak the language, Doyle is the proverbial fish out of water, yet is such a visible (and bellicose) presence that Charnier kidnaps him and forcibly addicts him to heroin.

Doyle’s extended, harrowing withdrawal was described in Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide as a “long, agonizing drug addiction segment that weighs the whole film down.” I vehemently disagree. Not only do these scenes showcase Hackman at his absolute best, but they give Doyle a vulnerability not shown in the first film – as well as pushing him to the ultimate confrontation with Frog One. The action scenes in French Connection II are bigger and bloodier than the first film, but no less riveting.

John Frankenheimer, stepping in for the first film’s Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (who had zero interest in repeating himself either) had lived in France, and captures the mean streets of Marseilles as flawlessly as Friedkin did the streets of New York. Doyle speaks no French, and by not employing subtitles Frankenheimer perfectly captures the character’s confusion and frustration.

It should be noted that Hackman, who had the power to select Frankenheimer (having worked with him on The Gypsy Moths in 1969), and the director weren’t always on the same wavelength. That tension carried over into the finished film.

Stunt coordinator Hal Needham, whom Frankenheimer fired during the shoot (he remained aboard at the behest of producer Robert L. Rosen), confirmed this not only in his 2011 autobiography Stuntman! (well worth a read), but in person when he visited the 2012 RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem. “I loved Hackman, loved Hackman,” he told me, but he wasn’t so fond of Frankenheimer – although he was glad I liked the movie.

This is the only film on the list that was a box-office success, although not on par with the original. Nevertheless, it is the one film that generally received the best reviews at the time.

“One of the best of the thriller films,” praised Hollis Alpert, Saturday Review. “Hackman not only repeats his award-winning role but improves upon it.”

The headline for Art Murphy’s (“Murf”) Variety review states: “Excellent follow-up. Gene Hackman superb.” He goes on to write: “Frankenheimer’s direction keeps all personal and production elements in total perspective and balance. French Connection II stands well and alone in its own light.”

In Allan Hunter’s 1987 biography Gene Hackman, the author writes: “Many people found French Connection II not only the equal but even the superior of its predecessor — a suspenseful and satisfying sequel that probes the character of Hackman’s cop more deeply and critically than the first film.”

Frankenheimer was my favorite director (not the best, but my favorite) and I treasure having interviewed him. He was delighted I considered French Connection II a classic in its own right, thrilled that I felt so strongly about his work (he wrote as much when he autographed my copy of Charles Champlin’s 1995 book John Frankenheimer: A Conversation with Charles Champlin – which is also worth a read), and on my wall hangs a framed French Connection II poster that he also autographed.

I would consider French Connection II to be the greatest sequel ever, at least on par with The Godfather Part II (1974), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Aliens (1986). The fact that my favorite actor and favorite director were major players is, admittedly, a big reason.

When I turned to my friend, Kevin Thomas, long-time (50 years+) Los Angeles Times critic, who had not seen the film until recently, he said: “I would be hard-pressed to disagree.”

Man on a Swing (1974) This fact-based mystery is probably the most obscure film on this list, perhaps because it never falls squarely into one category: It’s a whodunit, a police procedural and psychological thriller all wrapped into one. There’s a slight vagueness to it, which I think is one of its most potent attributes. Everything is slightly off. Nothing is quite what it seems — or is it?

Cliff Robertson plays a small-town police chief investigating the murder of a young woman (Dianne Hull) who was found strangled in her Volkswagen in the parking lot of a local supermarket. Robertson dutifully goes on about the business of solving the crime, in an assured and sympathetic fashion that indicates nothing is amiss.

All that changes when he is contacted by Joel Grey, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who claims to have had visions about the case. The knowledge Grey possesses – or seems to – goes far beyond what Robertson has released to the media, and although skeptical he’s willing to pursue the matter further. But in doing so, the balance of power between the two men seems to shift, ever so subtly at first.

As Robertson becomes more fascinated by Grey, he begins to question the validity of his claims. Grey revels in the attention, and when the case seems to reach a dead end (no pun intended), Robertson begins to wonder if his main source of information isn’t his main suspect.

Grey, fresh from his Oscar win for Cabaret (1972), gives what may be his finest screen performance ever – surpassing even Cabaret. He is simply mesmerizing, even dominant, but the shadings of Robertson’s character also become evident. A more unlikely screen duo than Cliff Robertson and Joel Grey you’ll rarely find, but the two actors have a compelling chemistry together – as do the characters they play.

Robertson’s wife (Dorothy Tristan) is expecting their first child, but he seems more consumed with the case – and the murder victim (whose picture he keeps in his wallet and whom he refers to by her first name “Maggie”) – than impending fatherhood. He’s also a closet alcoholic. He drinks beer at work (he has a cooler of Budweiser in his office!), hard liquor at home, and shots at the nightclub the victim frequented. The deeper he delves into the case and Grey’s background, the more uncertain and volatile he becomes.

I was friendly with Robertson, the first recipient of the Master of Cinema award at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, who died in 2011. I once mentioned that Man on a Swing was a favorite of mine. “You may be the first person to have ever told me that,” he said.

Toward the end of his life, it was my pleasure to send him DVDs (or even VHS!) of films of his that were hard to find, some of which he hadn’t seen since they were released and a few which he didn’t recall seeing at all. After sending him Man on a Swing, we talked again.

He remembered accepting the role after J.W. Coop (1971), his writing/directing debut; The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), and the barnstorming comedy/drama Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (1973) – featuring a story credit by a youngster named Steven Spielberg – all failed at the box-office. He thought the role of the police chief was pretty conventional, but that the script was interesting — even if “there was no ending,” he said.

He warmly recalled working with Tristan, George Voskovec, Elizabeth Wilson, Peter Masterson and Lane Smith (who had recently died), and especially Grey. Ever gracious, he said: “It really is Joel’s movie. When he comes on, you really don’t look at anyone else.”

Well, I pointed out, acting is reacting. “I reacted a lot!” he quipped. Watching the film, he recalled the sequence – perhaps the film’s best – in which Grey leads him through the final steps of the murder victim, in the supermarket, to the parking lot, and eventually to a nearby park where the title of the film comes into play. Before cameras rolled, director Frank Perry said to him: “Be ready for anything.”

As Grey re-lives (and re-dies) the victim’s death throes, he grapples with Robertson and puts his hands around his throat in an uncomfortable, almost psycho-sexual scene. Robertson’s veneer cracks as he pushes Grey away from him. He recalled being surprised how strong Grey was. “That wasn’t acting, Joel was tough!” In conclusion, he laughed: “There’s still no damn ending!” The film’s conclusion is ambiguous at best. One case is closed, if not solved, while another is not. As the end credits roll (accompanied by Lalo Schifrin’s chilling score), one isn’t sure what’s real and what isn’t. All we know is that the ground we’re standing on isn’t as secure as we thought it was.

Paramount, which seemed the proponent of paranoid cinema in 1974 (Chinatown, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II and The Parallax View – coming up next!), promoted the film as best it could, essentially as a whodunit. Most critics were not impressed, but Grey’s performance received raves.

Nora Sayre, New York Times: “As the plot disintegrates like a shower curtain, it’s a pleasure to watch Mr. Grey at work. All in all, Frank Perry’s cast is superior to his material.”

In her book 5001 Nights at the Movies Pauline Kael called the film “irritatingly pointless,” but singled out Grey. “Grey is so intense you can’t take your eyes off him, and you don’t want to.”

Judith Crist’s New York Magazine review, however, is right up my alley: “Man on a Swing offers us not only a beautifully complex thriller complete with overtones of the occult and undertones of terror but also gives Joel Grey his first fully satisfying non-Cabaret-type role and lets him make the most of it. The joy of Perry’s film is its complexity, the richness of every character, the careful layering of idiosyncrasies that make everyone involved a direct personality and therefore a focus of interest — Perry offers us a completely absorbing whodunit – with a nasty and nagging bit of the supernatural for a final fillip to give his entertainment a lasting bit of razzle-dazzle.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. There’s the damn ending!

The Parallax View (1974) Director Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy” was bookended by Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1976), both Oscar winners, but the film in between – The Parallax View – was all but ignored upon its release.

Three years after the assassination of a senator announcing his Presidential campaign, reporter Warren Beatty learns from a colleague and former lover (Paula Prentiss) that an alarming number of witnesses have met with untimely deaths. Beatty is dismissive – until he’s called upon to identify her body at the morgue.

Beatty’s undercover investigation leads him to a mysterious conglomerate known as Parallax, which appears to be in the business of recruiting and training assassins. When he tries to infiltrate the organization – the “psychological profile examination” is a stunning sequence – his quest for the truth leads him to unimaginable consequences.

This may sound like comic-book melodrama, but in the wake of the turbulent 1960s (and the 10 th anniversary of JFK’s assassination), there’s nothing cartoonish about The Parallax View. It’s a chilling, tightly controlled exercise in suspense – and the cinematic notion of the omniscient viewer is dominant here. We see everything … except, at the end, what we really need to.

Beatty gives one of his best performances as the intrepid reporter, with excellent contributions from Prentiss, Hume Cronyn, William Daniels, Walter McGinn, Jim Davis, Anthony Zerbe and Kenneth Mars. Gordon Willis’ cinematography is marvelously evocative and menacing, ditto Michael Small’s spare but effective score. This is a thriller that stays with you long after the end credits have rolled, perhaps because so little seems out of the realm of possibility, if not probability.

Richard Schickel of Time called the film “… dramatically unsatisfying …” and Vincent Canby of the New York Times wasn’t more favorable: “The thrills don’t mount as the film goes on. They don’t even accumulate. Once they are experienced, they dissolve so thoroughly that you’re likely to feel as cheated as I did.”

It wasn’t until years after Pakula’s death in 1999 that the film would gain some measure of positive re-evaluation. In 2006, Chris Nashawaty wrote in Entertainment Weekly: “The Parallax View is a mother of a thriller — and Beatty — gives a hell of a performance.” TV Guide calls it “one of the best political thrillers of the 1970s. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film currently holds a 92% rating.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) This may be my favorite film of all time, and when Olive Films announced its long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray release, I inquired if they wanted an award-winning film critic and historian (ahem) to do an audio commentary or write the liner notes – gratis. (That’s how much I like this movie.)

A former Air Force general (Burt Lancaster) escapes from prison and aided by his cohorts (Paul Winfield, Burt Young and William Smith), infiltrates an underground ICBM missile complex in Montana. He demands that certain documents pertaining to the Vietnam War be revealed to the American public or else he will launch nine Titan missiles, thereby setting off World War III.

Attempts to thwart his plan come to naught, and the U.S. President (Charles Durning, in a performance he considered his best) confers with his cabinet members to determine what, if any, course of action can be taken.

That’s the short version. There’s considerably more nuance and depth to Twilight’s Last Gleaming than that. Based on Walter Wager’s novel Viper 3, the film is a vastly superior adaptation, thanks to a literate, thoughtprovoking script by Ronald Cohen and Edward Huebsch – and let’s not forget Tom Mankiewicz’s uncredited rewrite.

The all-star cast includes Richard Widmark, Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaeckel, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, William Marshall, Roscoe Lee Browne, Leif Erickson, Charles McGraw, Ed Bishop and Charles Aidman – and one of the most remarkable things about the film is that each character has his moment, a scene in which his character comes clearly into focus, whether for better or worse. (Vera Miles’ role was the First Lady was completely excised before release, but making Durning a widower adds poignancy to the character.)

The film runs 146 minutes but the action has been compressed into a single day (“Sunday, Nov. 16, 1981”), and director Robert Aldrich’s use of split-screen – severely compromised in TV broadcasts and the original VHS release – is overpowering in the best sense of the term.

Interestingly, knowledge of the threat is restricted to Silo 3, nearby SAC headquarters, and the White House.

There is no indication that the public at large, or the Soviet Union, are ever aware of what’s taking place.

There is also a fascinating religious undercurrent to the proceedings. When Widmark (Lancaster’s former superior) first hears his voice on a recording, he says simply “Him.” After listening to his demands, he remarks “Jesus Christ.” Lancaster pleads with former colleague Jaeckel (one of the officers assigned to Silo 3) to aid him but Jaeckel refuses: “They’ll crucify you.”

Starting to get the picture? There is messianic motif attributed to Lancaster’s character, even though on the surface he’s a terrorist. He wants to expose the truth to the people. His motives are, in a strange way, pure.

Upon infiltrating the control room of Silo 3 – whose design technology he essentially created – the pan of the camera across the control board, the strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s score (one of his best), and the expression on Lancaster’s face is unmistakable: He’s home.

When the President’s cabinet debates the crisis, noting that Lancaster threatens civilization as we know it – as they know it – Douglas’ Secretary of State muses that Lancaster’s character might be considered “a modern messiah.” Heavy, heady stuff – all in the guise of an action movie. Twilight’s Last Gleaming is much, much more than that. It also has some of the best dialogue in a film of this kind that I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing (again and again, in fact).

Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Longest Yard, Kiss Me Deadly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) is another of my favorite directors, and Twilight’s Last Gleaming is his last great movie. I’d even say his greatest.

In the documentary Aldrich Over Munich, which can be found on both the DVD and Blu-ray, author Alain Silver (whose 1995 book What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, co-authored by James Ursini, is another great read) cites Twilight’s Last Gleaming as “without question, Aldrich’s last great movie and arguably one of his finest pictures.”

At the time of its release, in the spring of 1977 (just before Star Wars altered the cinematic landscape forever), the film was not without its supporters. The headline for Art Murphy’s (“Murf”) Variety review stated: “Intricate, intriguing and intelligent.”

He went on to write: “Aldrich manifests an assurance and command of his medium that comes across forcefully; you know that someone’s in charge here, someone who respects the need for a vital story as the base for cinematic wonders which bring it alive. An overall excellent motion picture.”

Unfortunately, he was in the minority. The headline for John Simon’s review in New York magazine read: “Starspangled boner,” and although he had kind words for some of the actors (Lancaster, Durning and especially Widmark), much of his review basically took Aldrich to task – not just for this film, but his career.

“Mr. Aldrich obtains a good deal of suspense from idiotic material, though his use of the split-screen doesn’t double suspense as often as it cuts it in half,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times, who credited Lancaster and Durning with “decently straight performances” but added: “The other actors are mostly terrible, including some who look as if they’d passed through old age and gone on to the embalming room.”

It took some time (about 30 years!), during most of which I was touting this film as a lost classic, for Twilight’s Last Gleaming to finally be accorded the acclaim and respect it was denied for so long.

“Epiphanous movie experiences of our youth don’t always hold up years later. Others go well beyond,” observed Greg Klymkiw in his review in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope issue #86, concluding that Twilight’s Last Gleaming is “one of the most criminally forgotten political action thrillers of the ’70s.”

Dave Kehr of the New York Times offered his assessment that, for Aldrich, “the film was to be his last gleaming as well, the final work of a great American filmmaker.”

Kevin Thomas had never seen Twilight’s Last Gleaming until recently (when I sent it to him), but had great admiration for Aldrich, whom he knew and interviewed. At the Grauman’s premiere for Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare, a bizarre 1968 Hollywood satire (of sorts) which now has something of a cult following (not me this time), Aldrich caught Thomas’ eye and quipped: “You’ve got guts!” Regarding Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Thomas admitted he thought the film was a little long but otherwise concurred: “It’s an important movie. Aldrich was really trying to say something.”

Yes, the poster for this movie hangs in my apartment, too. As a matter of fact, two do. !

Share: