February 26, 2013


Following the gargantuan success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Blake Edwards acquired the freedom to develop his own projects. Typecast as a director of light comedies, he was eager to explore the stylistic opportunities offered by other genres. Experiment in Terror (1962) is the initial result, a thriller shot in stark B&W,  in which Edwards tries out a dazzling variety of styles, from baroque expressionism to naturalistic location photography of San Francsico. The plot, about a bank teller forced to rob her employer, is a dry procedural that moves from clue to clue with Dragnet terseness. Its main job is to move the protagonists around the city, so Edwards can light them in flamboyant chiaroscuro interiors or at Candlestick Park.   Experiment in Terror has the feel of a preternaturally talented kid playing with toys previously denied him. Twilight Time has released this bewitching oddity in a richly detailed Blu-Ray available through Screen Archives.

Edwards described that period of his life as one of “constant testing”. He wanted to “try something that was…away from the things that I was suddenly finding myself involved with.” The opportunity to do something different came when Columbia Pictures optioned the novel Operation Terror for $112,500, an astronomical sum at the time. The book and resulting screenplay were written by the husband-wife team of Gordon and Mildred Gordon, who spun Gordon Gordon’s experiences in the FBI (as a counter-intelligence officer during WWII) into crime fiction novels. This particular tale involves bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), who is forced to steal $150,000 from her job or a wheezing goon named Red (Ross Martin) will kill her sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Kelly is able to contact the FBI, and Agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) races against the clock to find the psycho before the money is lost or Toby gets snuffed.

The opening is a masterful bit of claustrophobic horror. To the strains of Henry Mancini’s wailing autoharp score, Remick pulls into the garage of her house near the Twin Peaks in San Francisco.  With shadows of plant fronds splayed across the wall behind her, she pauses as if hearing a noise. The camera pushes in, and the static shadows become a moving one, the darkened figure of Ross Martin sidles over and slides his hands around her neck. His face in darkness, what follows is an extended monologue of sexual aggression in extreme close-up, as he slides his hands down her body offscreen and ticks off her measurements. This is profoundly disturbing, made even more so by Edwards’ refusal to diffuse the tension with a long shot.


Interiors become filled with grotesques, which Edwards forces in his frequent use of extreme closeups and canted angles, reminiscent of Orson Welles’ delirious Mr. Arkadin (1955). This motif reaches its climax inside the apartment of a mannequin designer and friend of the killer whose apartment is a necropolis of plastic appendages. When Red appears among this pile, he looks like just another mound of soulless molding. A creature more of sound than sight, his labored breathing is the only thing that identifies him as human.


The usual thriller mechanics would demand Remick be piled with stress until she snaps into hysteria, waiting to be saved by a male interlocutor. Instead she is spooked but self-assured, as inflexible as the FBI and as fiercely independent as any criminal. She is completely self-sufficient, with no romantic interests and a cold-eyed intensity at getting the job done. She is so self-confident it rather drains the film of tension – there is no question she will succeed. The interest in the film lies in the how, and in what lighting scheme.


Gradually the film moves from baroque interiors to naturalistic exteriors, all shot on location throughout San Francisco, as if Edwards flipped the channel from Welles to Rossellini. Along with his DP Philip Lathrop, whom he worked with on the TV series Peter Gunn,  he captures the Twin Peaks neighborhood, the Fisherman’s Wharf and Candlestick Park with a mix of atmospheric long shots and handheld work. Outside the world is legible with nothing to fear. It is inside buildings and inside characters were there are stresses and manias and kidnappings.

Interiors and exteriors collide in the bravura final sequence at Candlestick Park, during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the hometown Giants. While most films just use grainy stock footage of games, Edwards actually shot gorgeous footage on the field, and went to the expense of getting additional insert shots of the sweaty face of Don Drysdale before throwing a pitch (anticipating where network coverage was heading). While this is a boon to baseball nerds like myself, this extreme closeup is an indication that the claustrophobia of the opening sequence will reappear in this outdoor space. The climax occurs after the game ends and the crowd is filing out, the cover for Red’s takedown of Kelly and the money. The previous frames of looming faces and headless mannequins are here replaced by a mass drunken revelers. It is only when Glenn Ford can cut through this morass and empty out the film frame that the threat can be nullified. In the final shot a helicopter pulls up and away from Candlestick Park, out into nothingness.

Don Siegel pays homage to that final shot with his own in Dirty Harry, another story of a San Francisco psycho in which the camera pulls away from a blood-strewn stadium into the sky, as if revulsed by humanity. There are also a number of circumstantial echoes in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark TV series Twin Peaks. The title is taken from the San Francisco neighborhood Lee Remick lives in, and Red’s full name is Garland “Red” Lynch. Perhaps tickled with the coincidence of sharing a name with the movie’s murderer, he also named a Twin Peaks character Garland (Major Garland Briggs) as well. So while the film is a compilation of Blake Edwards’ influence, his triumph of style over substance has had its own curious effect on the films that came after.



May 29, 2012

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John Ritter’s spastic freak-out in a parking garage in Skin Deep is an archetypal Blake Edwards image. What characters repress or ignore will always be expressed through their bodies, with or without their consent.  The Warner Archive recently re-issued three Edwards comedies on DVD: S.O.B. (1981), Victor/Victoria (1982) and Skin Deep (1989). While new transfers of these visually elegant works would have been welcome, they gave me an excuse to watch them for the first time, so I’ll keep my complaining to a minimum. All three films involve varying levels of performance, and bodies that either accept or reject the facades imposed upon them. The most furious rejection occurs in S.O.B., a flesh-eating virus coated letter to Hollywood.

The origin of S.O.B. lies in the failure of Edwards’ 1970 Darling Lili, a WWI spy movie musical that went over budget and then under performed. A common occurrence, but one that Edwards was virulently attacked for due to some extenuating circumstances. In his critical study A Splurch in the Kisser, Sam Wasson writes that the Commonwealth United Corporation lent Paramount parent Gulf + Western “a certain humongous sum” to complete production that G +W were unable to pay back, so the studio was especially incensed. Wasson writes that head of production at Paramount Bob Evans said that Edwards was responsible “for the most flagrant misappropriation of funds I’ve seen in my career.” Licking his wounds, but still ambitious, Edwards followed it up with the epic Western Wild Rovers (1971), another big budget disappointment that was cut down by nearly 40 minutes by new MGM head James Aubrey, whom John Houseman had nicknamed “The Smiling Cobra”. After battling with Aubrey again over the medical thriller The Carey Treatment (1972), from which he tried to get his name removed, Edwards was a frustrated man. He moved to Switzerland, only to return to filmmaking two years later for The Tamarind Seed (1974), three Pink Panther sequels, and the enormous hit Ten (1979).

With Inspector Clouseau and Bo Derek’s slow-motion trot restoring him to studios’ good graces, he was finally able to get his savage satire, Hollywood S.O.B. funded. Something of a “secret legend” in town, according to Wasson, it was picked up and then ditched by Orion, before upstart Lorimar, transitioning from TV to film, agreed to back the title-shortened S.O.B., Victor/Victoria, and a sci-fi comedy Far Out that was never made. In an appropriate irony, Lorimar had recently made a deal with Paramount to distribute their films, the studio that S.O.B.is targeted at.

The film is set in motion by the attempted suicide of director Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan), whose family friendly musical Night Wind tanks horribly. Left in a catatonic funk, his image conscious wife Sally (Julie Andrews, playing off her Mary Poppins persona) abandons him as he wanders his beachfront home clutching the trades, blaring headlines like, “NY CRITICS BREAK WIND”. Rings of PR maneuverings circle around him, from his assistants, to Sally’s team (led by a brassy Shelly Winters) outward to the studio’s, who sends out cynical fixer Tim Cully (William Holden) to corral Farmer and get him to re-edit the film. It’s three circles of self-obsessed hells, with Felix the ignored center. All three are oblivious to Farmer’s depression, and he wanders off to the garage to give himself a carbon monoxide cocktail. But his body betrays him, and he survives. Edwards frames him in backgrounds and corners early on, a wraith irrelevant to his life as an image. The entire film industry is out to defend or destroy his image, while the flesh and blood Farmer is out to polish himself off.

This is mirrored in another unobserved death, as an anonymous runner collapses on the beach outside his home – his body laying in plain sight of sun-bathers for days before he is identified as a corpse. The most sympathetic character in the movie is the dog who yelps for his fallen master (who turns out to be a character actor). Image trumps reality, and Farmer cracks under its pressure. Edwards arranges an ace menagerie of gargoyles to feast off of him, including Robert Vaughan as the cross-dressing vampire of a studio head, Robert Preston as an acidic drugged-up doctor, and Holden as the infernal ring leader, a grizzled vet so jaded he’s cynical about his cynicism.

When Farmer cracks through this PR babble, he changes roles from tortured artist to crackpot prophet, one he acts out with brio, preaching to the lowest common denominator: “We sold them schmaltz – they want sadomasochism!” He proposes re-shooting Night Wind and turning it into soft-core pornography, which Sally agrees to only after weighing the PR hit of a long lawsuit. No matter how much Farmer panders to the audience’s basest impulses, in the end the system returns him to the background, incinerated in a Viking funeral as that sympathetic dog yelps once more.

Victor/Victoria represents the inverse of S.O.B., Edwards’ ideal of performance, one in which identities can be perfected on stage, and the image and the man (or woman in drag), can become one. It is a remake of the Weimar musical comedy Viktor und Viktoria, directed by Reinhold Schünzel, about a down on her luck opera singer who becomes a star as a male drag queen, pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. In Edwards’ version, it is one Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) on poverty row, plucked from obscurity from recently fired nightclub singer Toddy (Robert Preston). Chicago gangster King Marchand (James Garner) is hot to book her at his club and into his bed – convinced she’s a woman.

The movie buzzes on a colliding series of contradictions, of which the gender bending is the most obvious. Victoria is an opera singer who makes money at burlesque; King is homophobic and in love with Victor; Toddy is gay but has to pretend to sleep with Victoria. Constructing the Paris of 1934 entirely on a backlot, Edwards has a controlled environment to run these experiments in the expansive 2.40:1 frame, chaotic in café and bar fights, a mess of arms and legs, and only unified on stage, in which Victor/Victoria and Toddy each get their moments of self-actualization. Victoria, after her scandalous debut in which she ripped off a wig to become a “man”, returns to womanhood and cedes the stage to Toddy, who becomes an unselfconscious queen in the raucously funny finale, more woman than Victoria could ever hope to be.

Skin Deep finds Edwards in more heterosexual terrain, as womanizing Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Zach (John Ritter) loses his wife, his career and his sanity. He is introduced as a torso leaning back on a barber’s chair, his head off-screen behind the entryway, as a blonde hairdresser undresses and mounts him in a very unprofessional manner. This is all seen in long shot, from the perspective of the first of many spurned lovers, who will soon have him in bed with a gun to his head. In these brisk opening minutes Edwards establishes images that show Zach as literally brainless, a human pleasure receptor and not much else.

Edwards will use off-screen space, as well as elliptical editing, to indicate Zach’s short attention span and disconnection from the world. In a rapid montage Zach will hear his wife’s divorce demands, and a few shots later, they will be enforced by the judge, his defense invisible, and his force of will indicated by Ritter’s slackjawed stare. Zach becomes more and more self-obsessed and debilitatingly horny, unable to write or maintain any emotional connections (except with an exceedingly understanding bartender, Barney (Vincent Gardenia)). The jokes play off of Zach’s spiraling disconnection, from waking up bleary eyed in a women’s aerobics class to wandering into a black tie party in an Aladdin costume. He even can’t get shocked into self-awareness: the top image shows him recovering from a session with her electric massaging machine. The most notorious joke is one in which Zach entirely disappears except for his erection – a glow in the dark condom provides for a new definition of sword fight. These tame gross-out moments seem to anticipate the Farrelly Brothers  – there’s even an unconscious dog gag that re-appears in There’s Something About Mary.

The ending of the film is disappointingly traditional, coming in the form of a deux ex machina tidal wave that sets Zach on the straight and monogamous path. The natural end for the repeated imagery of a mind-body split would be a beheading of one form or another, but I think it’s safe to say that wouldn’t get past the producers. In any case it is still a tightly shot and structured comedy whose laughs spin organically from Edwards’ mise-en-scene, of a man divided against himself. Maybe if he just watched Victor and Victoria he wouldn’t have had to go through all that trouble.


October 18, 2011

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Every week the Warner Archive dusts off a bundle of forgotten studio productions onto DVD and hopes they find an audience. Recently they released a quartet of late films from veteran studio auteurs, and they all deserve to be seen. They are Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run (1971), George Cukor’s Travels With My Aunt (1972) and Blake Edwards’ The Carey Treatment(1972), all presented in handsome remastered editions. These are directors who had been weaned in the classical studio era, and who were now facing the reality of producer-brokered “package deals” and the escalating power of the lead actors. Many of these were fraught productions, and none will rank with the best of the respective director’s work, but they all, somehow, end up as solidly crafted entries on their brilliant resumes.

The Last Run was originally a project set up for John Boorman at MGM, who was to produce and direct. As the AFI Catalog reports, star George C. Scott requested that John Huston replace Boorman, as he had worked with Huston on The List of Adrian Messenger (’63). After three weeks of shooting, however, Huston quit the picture, “after arguments with Scott over rewrites”. Richard Fleischer became the third and final director on the project, and lead actress Tina Aumont was replaced by Trish Van Devere.  It is unknown if any of the footage Huston shot remains in the film.

It is clear that Scott exerted a lot of control, even marrying two of his female co-stars (he left wife Colleen Dewhurst for Van Devere after shooting), and yet Fleischer still imbues the film with the cool, clean lines that had highlighted his work since The Clay Pigeon and Follow Me Quietly (also in the Warner Archive) in 1949. He traced these lines along the well-worn track of the story, the starkly familiar tale of aging getaway driver Harry Garmes (Scott) accepting one more job, “to see if my nerves and brain are still connected.” He picks up escaped prisoner Paul Rickard (Tony Musante) and his girl Claudie (Van Devere), but it appears Paul was sprung in order to be assassinated. Harry has to decide whether to aid their escape, and risk his life, or return to his solitary life on the Portuguese coast. It’s an easy choice unless you are in an existential road movie, in which the death-drive trumps lazy afternoons in the gorgeous coastal city of Albufeira.

Scott was 43 at the time of filming, but he looks at least 60, with thinning gray hair, a prominent paunch and wrinkles carving up his sagging face. As Harry Garmes, you can see every indignity in his life manifest on his body. His son died at the age of 3, and then his wife up and left him alone with his car obsession. He is subsumed in feelings of loss, using work as an escape. The loveliest moment in the film occurs when Garmes is forced to sleep over in a room Claudie has just departed. Her bra, panties and pantyhose are sitting wet in the sink. With lugubrious patience he takes them out, unrolls them, and hangs them on the laundry line by the dresser. In his ashen face you can see the memories flickering by, of when this banal act was routine, of intimacy once taken for granted and now enshrined in an alien past.

Fleischer does an unobtrusive job in choreographing the love triangle, re-configuring the three jousting players around the frame as their power-relations shift and shudder. These cramped, sticky compositions are a stark contrast to the opening shots of Garmes on the road in his BMW, in which the edges of objects all point outside the frame, towards escape. Now the eye just circles inside low-lit hotel dives, the eye cycling around these three increasingly dour criminals, the only way out a bullet in the chest, to turn the triangle into a line.


George Cukor was still a prestige name in Hollywood in 1972 (the trailer included on the DVD trumpets his name), although he didn’t have a hit since My Fair Lady (1962). So when the intended star of Travels With My Aunt, Katherine Hepburn, was “frustrated by budget cuts and demanded several script alterations”, per the AFI, the studio declined her requests, and she quit. Maggie Smith stepped in, and was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her efforts.

The film is a buoyant adaptation of the comic Graham Greene novel, about milquetoast Briton bank manager Henry (Alec McCowen) who is whisked away on an international adventure by his dotty Aunt Augusta (Smith). Augusta is trying to acquire $100,00o by any means necessary to ransom one of her ex-lovers, Visconti (Robert Stephens, Smith’s husband until ’74), away from his kidnappers. In order to get this money, she re-acquaints herself with her multitude of formerly amorous companions (including North African fortune-teller Wordsworth (Lou Gossett)), as well as engaging in some minor money laundering and art theft.

This international romp (mostly shot in Spain) gets a lot of mileage out of Maggie Smith’s fluttering bohemian routine, but Cukor also manages to invest her character with a tragic sense of time’s passing. Augusta, who sucks life to the marrow, is a creature of the present tense (“I’ve always preferred an occasional orgy to a nightly routine”), but she is granted a powerfully moving reminiscence at “Le Train Bleu”, the Belle Epoque restaurant at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. She is speaking to Henry about her youth, and then the camera pans right, and suddenly the years have worn away, and it is a young Visconti who is walking towards a window. Outside a teenaged Augusta, in a schoolgirl’s outfit, exchanges giddy glances with him. She ditches her class and races inside, into a swirl of noise and movement, until Visconti lifts her away into light-footed waltz. It was a time of endless possibility, which has now shrunken for Augusta into re-living her past flings and scrounging for cash. This is the melancholy that underlies all of the film’s high-flying farce.


Director Blake Edwards  wanted his name taken off of The Carey Treatment (1972), an efficient medical thriller adapted from an early Michael Crichton novel (A Case of Need, by his pseudonym Jeffrey Hudson). Edwards was unhappy with the cuts MGM had made to the film, just as with Wild Rovers the year previously, but his name remained on the prints. I don’t know what was excised, but what remains is a solidly built contraption anchored by a smugly sexualized performance by James Coburn.

Coburn plays Dr. Peter Carey, a womanizing rogue taking up a new job as a pathologist in a Boston hospital. His adeptness at manipulating women becomes the recurring theme of the film, beginning when his erotic gaze is leveled Georgia Hightower (Jennifer O’ Neill), the clinic’s dietician. Carey’s seductive charm is later utilized in his independent investigation into the death of the hospital president’s daughter, after a botched illegal abortion. Carey’s friend David Tao (James Hong) is wrongfully tagged with the murder. Carey flirts his way through town, becoming more sexually aggressive until it turns to intimidating violence, as when he asks the victim’s old roommate if she is a virgin, and then nearly drives them into the ocean to scare her into talking. He discovers the killer through a bit of homo-erotic flirtation, receiving an aggressive deep-tissue massage from an intrigued meathead until he gets the information he was after.

It is difficult to locate Edwards’ personality, aside from the sardonic shot of a mouse stuck in a jar in the extreme right foreground, the faces that look into it distorted into gargoyles. It’s otherwise a workmanlike production, nothing more than a wonderfully acted episode of House, what with a harrumphing Pat Hingle and nervous Regis Toomey on board to support Coburn’s wildcat act.


Still riding the late career renaissance brought on by the camp theatrics of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Robert Aldrich directed The Legend of Lylah Clare with even less consideration of good taste. A wild kitsch re-imagining of Vertigo, it invents tragic Hollywood star Lylah Clare (Kim Novak), who died before she was to marry her long-time director Lewis Zarkan (Peter Finch). 20 years later, Zarkan discovers an actress who looks strikingly like Lylah, the bespectacled Elsa Brinkmann (also Kim Novak). He decides to make a biopic of Lylah Clare’s life, with the unknown Elsa to star. Elsa, however, is prone to channeling Lylah’s husky tenor and mannerisms with disturbing accuracy, and Zarkan becomes entranced, his obsession leading him to make the same mistakes that led to Lylah’s death all those years ago…

Hallucinatory and ridiculous, Lylah Clare is an often uproarious send-up of Hollywood self-seriousness, with its menagerie of skulking gargoyle performances. Peter Finch is the head freak, a narcissistic blowhard who believes his genius trumps reality- he looks pretentious even after he shaves off his pointy devil goatee. He gets the best lines: “Stop poncing about like an oversexed dwarf!” and “You are moving like a deeply offended Tibetan yak!”Then there’s his brittle and viciously jealous assistant Rossella (Rossella Falk), the worm-like producer Bart (Milton Selzer),  Ernest Borgnine as the infectiously boorish studio chief Barney Sheehan, “I make movies, not films!”, and Coral Browne as battle-ax gossip columnist Molly Luther, plus a cameo by Dick Miller as a journalist!

Aldrich often freezes them inside Zarkan’s mausoleum of a house, standing rook still like slowly oxidizing statues. Unable to see life beyond the glories of years past, they try to recreate it with Elsa, who is too open to suggestion to withstand their entreaties. As her life dissolves into Lylah’s, the film gets more strident and less bitchy, ditching the satire for a dime store version of Vertigo’s doubled identities. The presence of Novak only highlights this film’s shortcomings at metaphysical speculations. While it’s not terribly deep, I still had great fun skimming along its sarcastic surfaces.


March 8, 2011

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Despondent cineaste Jack Andrus should buck up. First, he’s seated in an eye-blazingly Technicolor red chair, which one assumes is also of sensuously high-grain leather. Second, he’s being played by Kirk Douglas at his most flamboyantly masculine, a dream come true for characters of dissolutely manic personalities like Jack. Third, the Warner Archive has released a fine remastered DVD of the film that houses him, Vincente Minnelli’s convulsively beautiful Two Weeks in Another Town. For the rest of us, they also recently put out a remastered version of Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) and an un-restored but handsome-looking edition of Blake Edwards’ Wild Rovers (1971). We’ll start with the last first just to get Jack’s goat, but also because the Minnelli greats have already been covered by more seasoned minds, although I’ll still get my thoughts in.

In 1969, MGM hired James Aubrey as president to cut costs and bring the studio back to profitability (John Houseman nicknamed him “The Smiling Cobra”). Blake Edwards had the unfortunate task of directing Wild Rovers under his reign, and this after the box office failure of his Paramount musical Darling Lili (1970), which was hounded by reports of spiraling costs and studio meddling (Edwards would use this experience as the basis for S.O.B. (1981)).  For Wild Rovers, Edwards envisioned a three hour Western epic, in which it would be important to “show the vastness, the loneliness, the boredom and natural beauty of the West of that period.” (quoted in Sam Wasson’s book-length study of Edwards, A Splurch in the Kisser).

It tells the story of two down-at-heel cattle ranch hands, Ross Bodine (William Holden) and Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal), who decide to rob a bank and end up on the run from the ranch owner’s sons, John and Paul Buckman (Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker). The tone is detached, almost bemused tragedy, as Ross and Frank ride toward their annihilation in landscape shots where they are advancing dots, or in widely spaced medium shots within the Panavision frame, in which intimacy is impossible.

Edwards did not have a chance of getting his vision on the screen. While available production histories don’t state how much he was allowed to shoot, the film was taken away from him by Aubrey in post-production, and released in 1971 at around 106 minutes (this according Vincent Canby’s NY Times review. The Variety review lists it at 110, and Wasson at 113). In American Cinematographer, Herb Lightman bemoaned and identified the cuts (quoted in Wasson):

Gone is the opening montage…Gone is the gutsy man-to-man breakfast sequence. The dramatic confrontation between Karl Malden and his sheepherder arch enemy…has been telescoped into a quick montage with voice-over narration. One complete sequence which… provided motivation for the entire last half of the picture, has been deleted. The downbeat…ending has been trimmed and tied off with a reprise of the horse-breaking montage that numbs the tragedy….”

A so-called “director’s cut” was put out on VHS in 1993, which extended the run time to 137 minutes, although I don’t know how much input Edwards actually had into this re-release. Wasson reports that Aubrey cut  “twenty minutes from the finished film”, so it could be close to complete. The Warner Archive has released the 137 minute version in a decent anamorphic transfer, and it seems to contain all the footage Lightman mentions, although there is audio from the horse-breaking montage still in the final scene, which may be a remnant of Aubrey’s scissorhands.

Opening with an Overture, and broken up with an intermission, Edwards clearly had an epic in mind. He told the NY Times that, “it was my best film, and he [Aubrey] butchered it.” Perhaps the film in his head was, but the reconstructed version still seems an ambitious misfire, a fascinating relic that exposes the seams between classical and New Hollywood. The visual style seems firmly implanted in the widescreen aesthetic of the classical era, with limited camera movement but intricate blocking inside the frame. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop told American Cinematographer that “One thing I want to do is avoid the slick mechanical gadgetry that we use so much in making pictures today-things like helicopters and obvious dolly shots and zoom lenses. I think that these would be very false in relation to a period Western.” For the most part this holds true, but in the horse-breaking sequence, and in the sheepherder shootout, there are overlapping montages of extreme slow-motion, seemingly lifted from The Wild Bunch of a few years before. It’s impossible to know whether these were Aubrey-implemented to modernize the film

Then there is the discordant lead pairing of William Holden and Ryan O’ Neal, a clash in acting styles and eras. Holden plays his mischievous ne’er do well as gruff and straightforward where O’Neal is arch and playful, and they seemingly talk past each other, killing any Butch Cassidy-type camaraderie. Edwards was clearly aiming for something more operatic than a straight buddy-comedy,  but the emotional colorations he reaches for, “how uncertain life really is”, as Holden says, feels forced and sterile coming out of this duo. In a final adieu to a classical past, he films the alienated finale in the moon-scape of John Ford’s Monument Valley.


The Cobweb and Two Weeks in Another Town are delirious Freudian melodramas with wildly expressive mise-en-scene. You could watch these Technicolor marvels on mute and perfectly understand the emotions billowing through them. The Cobweb (1955) is set in a stately mental hospital, where the line between patient and doctor is distressingly blurry. It’s all a matter of curtains. Office and personal relationships break down when the HR director/dictator Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), the bored, breathy housewife Karen (Gloria Grahame) (married to hospital head Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark)), and the sensitive counselor Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) propose different curtain designs for the library.

The breakdown in their society was heralded by the opening scene, of a neurotic patient (John Kerr, in a role originally offered to James Dean), hitching a ride back to the grounds by Karen. Their conversation breaks down the professional walls between the sane and insane, while also explicating the cathartic virtues of art. Kerr asks Grahame if the burstingly red flowers in her backseat are for a funeral, and she replies, in what could be a statement of purpose for all of Minnelli’s cinema (except, maybe, for the last phrase): “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form and that they make you feel good?”

James Naremore, in his Films of Vincente Minnelli, asserts that all four of the “art melodramas” that Minnelli made with producer John Houseman (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Cobweb, Lust for Life and Two Weeks in Another Town), “employ a simplified version of an argument Edmund Wilson helped to popularize in his infulential 1941 volume of literary criticism, The Wound and the Bow. In each film, a character who suffers from a repressed psychic ‘wound’ uses art as a release for thwarted libidinal energy.” In this case Miss Inch and Karen plow their sexual and psychological insecurities into the curtains, while Kerr’s paintings seem to release the tensions and inhibitions of the entire patient population.

Karen and Kerr split from their car ride, only to have their relationships relentlessly paralleled. Minnelli crosscuts between Karen and her husband Stewart, and Kerr and his budding flirtation with the agoraphobic Sue (Susan Strasberg). Ruptures in one affair ripple into the other, everything sewn together into one cinematic cloth, or I should say, curtain. Stocked with stunning widescreen compositions and offhand grace notes (I was particularly moved by Gish’s trembling upper lip when her boss and nemesis gracefully retires), it’s what my former academic self would call a “rich text.” French critic Serge Daney wrote a  short, packed essay on The Cobweb, “Minnelli Caught in his Web” (translated by Bill Krohn in Joe McElhaney’s Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, and viewable in Google Books), and two statements reverberate. One: “Today no one would know how to democratically house so many characters in one film”. Two, to bring it back to Wild Rovers, “Just from the way Minnelli confines his actors in extremis to a common space, one can tell that the crisis in the studio system will not be long in coming.”

And then there’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1963), in which that crisis is giving everyone in the movie business a nervous breakdown. Edward G. Robinson’s aging Kruger is a director on his last legs, churning out an international co-production to keep his wife in furs. His former star Jack Andrus has already had his psychotic break, living out his days in a mental hospital not unlike the one in The Cobweb. Kruger invites Andrus to Cinecitta studios in Rome to play a bit part in his bloated spectacle. The events that led to Andrus’ original violent freak out are coming back to haunt him, and they’re all wearing red (and a green scarf). His ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse) is also in Rome, a gold-digging enchantress who walks with a belly-dancer’s circular sway. Andrus’ fears and paranoia grow more monstrous as the film progresses,  with Minnelli matching his character’s madness with incredible feats of set and costume design, as the color red slowly tightens a vise around Andrus’ granite head. Even monks walking past him in the street wear blood-red robes. He ends up in Carlotta’s grasp at a narcotized party, surrounded by blase models, as if he was, like Odysseus, made sluggish by these slinky sirens’ song (note their red hair, and Carlotta’s stroking of an Ancient sculpture). It ends in a gorgeous bit of back-projected madness as Andrus purges the harpies of his unconscious, emerging Phoenix-like from his debauch with a perfectly-pressed white trenchcoat slung over his arm.