October 18, 2011

last run

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.


November 9, 2010


The Film Society at Lincoln Center is wrapping up its superb Stanley Donen retrospective this week, and beyond the established masterpieces like Singin’ In the Rain lie charming curiosities like 1978′s Movie Movie. I missed the screening, but fortunately it is available to purchase from Amazon On Demand for $9.99. Structured like a 1930s Warner Bros. double bill (the on-screen production company is “Warren Brothers”), it pairs two hour-long features: the boxing melodrama “Dynamite Hands” and the backstage musical “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933″. Scripted with loving exaggeration by Larry Gelbart (still cranking out MASH episodes at the time) and Sheldon Keller (a veteran TV writer who started with Sid Ceasar), it’s both a parody of and an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Complete with faux flyboy trailer for “Zero Hour” (“War at its best!”), it’s a similarly nostalgia-soaked recreation of past movie-going experiences as Grindhouse, with an equally poor reception at the box office.

It received generally positive reviews at the time, from Richard Schickel at Time Magazine (“an expert send up”), Pauline Kael at The New Yorker (“a pair of skillful parodies”), Vincent Canby at the NY Times(“sweet, hilarious and very witty”) and Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader (“clever, insightful and genuinely funny”). The only negative response I could find is from Variety (“a flatout embarrassment”). But after its limited release in November of 1978, it disappeared from cultural memory, existing as a marginal cult item (the VHS is selling for $55 on Amazon, and good luck finding any images on-line). But as with Quentin Tarantino’s vastly underrated Death ProofMovie Movie is ripe for re-evaluation.

The actors, led by a mis-cast but game George C. Scott, play everything with earnest intensity. There is no eye-winking to stifle the comedy. “Dynamite Hands” has Scott portraying grizzled boxing coach Gloves Malloy, who targets wide eyed, pretty boy slum kid Joey Popchik (Harry Hamlin) as his next star. Luckily for Gloves, Joey’s sister Angie needs $25,000 for eye surgery (Joey: “You know what they charge for an eye? An arm and a leg”), and the plot machinery clangs wondrously into motion. Subplots proliferate, including the schemes of a shady promoter (Eli Wallach) and the designs a mobbed up Barry Bostwick has on Angie. It even finds time to morph into a rapid fire courtroom drama. It combines and amplifies every cliche in the genre’s life, since The Champ kicked it off in 1931.

The dialogue is the star, a barrage of contorted working class argot, producing winners like, “Funny, isn’t it? How many times your guts can get a slap in the face.” Many of these, wrung out by Hamlin with an angelic straight face, wouldn’t seem out of place in a Zucker Brothers comedy – Leslie Nielson could wring similar effects from the lovingly absurd script. Another gem comes from the femme fatale, Troubles Moran (Ann Reinking, a dancer making her debut here, she appeared in All That Jazz the following year): “Joey, after a girl’s had a taste of mink, she can’t go back to pastrami.” Words to live by.

Donen pushes the pace relentlessly to mimic these Warner quickies, and is very sparing with close-ups, keeping the camera at the waist-up  distance favored by classical practitioners. It’s questionable whether his use of zoom-ins are truly authentic for the period he’s aping, but the effect is hoky enough, along with the irises in and out, to fit the overall light comic tone.

The “Zero Hour” trailer is a delirious bit of WWI propaganda, with George C. Scott’s heavily waxed moustache playing power games with Eli Wallach, as Art Carney’s “priest with a heart” gives bad advice at home.

Then the segue into a Busby Berkeley-esque backstage musical, 42nd St. spliced with Gold Diggers of 1933. Barry Bostwick plays the Dick Powell role with what Kael called Powell’s “candied yam cheerfulness”, and Rebecca York takes on the small-town aw shucks innocence of the Ruby Keeler part. Scott plays the Warner Baxter role of overtaxed, death courting director Spatz Baxter, a flamboyant character not really in his macho wheelhouse, but his caked on makeup carries him through. Art Carney’s doctor tells Baxter that he has “6 months to live…from your last visit 5 months ago.” Wanting one last hit to guarantee a future for his estranged daughter, he employs a promising unknown to write a score: Bostwick’s gangly klutz Dick Cummings. Replete with showgirls in undergarments, last minute catastrophes and a drunken, difficult lead actress, it has all the hallmarks of those snappy Busby Berkeley classics.

Bostwick does a fine bumbling job as Cummings, a slapstick version of the Powell character, all arms and legs careening through the frames. His voice isn’t as sturdy and true as Powell’s, but he makes up for it in pratfalling intensity. Troubles Moran gets a mini-nightclub number in “Dynamite Hands”, but Donen really cuts loose in the finale of “Baxter’s Beauties”, in which him and the great choreographer Michael Kidd (whom he worked with on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)) and DP Bruce Surtees do their version of a Berkeley routine, complete with a birds-eye view of a human roulette wheel. They bring back the impossible spaces of his routines, sets which could not fit on a stage and perspectives that audiences could never see. The cut-ins to the programs, supposed to connect one back to reality, only go to show how spectacularly unrealistic the dance sequences are. And in this, Donen and Surtees honor their subject admirably: an energetic erotic spectacle that any Depression-era viewer would gladly plunk down their money for.

For a negative take on the film, David Cairns wrote a straight up pan for his great Shadowplay blog.