Hollywood Babylon: The Big Knife (1955)

April 18, 2017


To view The Big Knife click here.

In The Big Knife (1955) Jack Palance is a blunt instrument, barreling his way around a Bel Air living room set like a finely chiseled bull in a china shop. He plays Charlie Castle, a self-loathing movie star being blackmailed by the head of his own studio. So he signs whatever contracts are put in front of him, and his Bel Air home becomes a gilded prison, a well-appointed depository of his rage. The film never strays far from his living room, giving it a claustrophobically theatrical feel. It is an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play, done faithfully by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe. The first independent feature Aldrich directed, for his newly formed The Associates and Aldrich Company, it is a relentless, and at times exhausting, jeremiad against the dehumanizing manipulations of Hollywood executives. Shot quickly and simply, it is a showcase for the performers, and Palance is matched against Rod Steiger as studio president Stanley Hoff, a Mephistophelean string-puller with a flair for the dramatic pause. Even more unsettling is Hoff’s reptilian assistant Smiley Coy, who Wendell Corey portrays with a smooth monotone, unfurling both compliments and death threats in the same uninflected hiss. The only human in the house is Castle’s long-suffering wife Marion, who Ida Lupino instills with a stubborn, sandpapery grace. The Big Knife is now streaming on FilmStruck with five other features under the “The Lives of Actors“ theme.

While in New York City filming episodes of Four Star Playhouse in the early 1950s, Robert Aldrich approached Clifford Odets with the idea of adapting The Big Knife, which premiered on Broadway in 1949 with John Garfield in the lead. It had been Odets’ first Broadway production in six years, after a stay in Hollywood. According to Alain Silver’s Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Aldrich and producer Bernard Tabakin offered to option the play for $500 for a film version with a budget “not to exceed $100,000.” A modest offer to be sure, but Odets was eager to see his work on-screen again – and he was thrilled with the result, writing in The New York Times in 1955 that it was the “best of all” the film adaptations of his plays.


Charlie Castle is introduced working out in his backyard with his personal trainer, keeping his leading man figure in tune. His wife Marion is readying to leave him again unless he refuses to resign with Hoff, a craven businessman who keeps Castle under his thumb due to a portfolio of incriminating acts he could use against Castle at any time.  After minimal prodding, Castle signs the deal. Though seemingly carved out of granite, Castle is a bundle of insecurities and preternaturally eager to please – he is able to shift from arguing with his wife to smooth-talking a gossip columnist with disconcerting ease. Hoff has turned Castle into an actor 24/7, and the man that Marion describes, one of artistic spirit and intellectual curiosity, seems to have departed from the earth.

It is Marion who hung up the Rouault painting of a clown up on the wall, which Castle is eager to over-analyze and prove his worth. He is in a permanent state of self-justification, but eventually runs out of excuses. He makes garbage movies for good money to keep Hoff’s film factory rolling. To ensure his loyalty, Hoff reminds Castle of his crimes – he was involved in a hit-and-run years ago, and the studio pinned the act on his former associates. It was a monstrous act, and now Castle is kept by monsters like Hoff and his assistant Coy, who show up as specters of his lost freedom.


Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe keep the action restricted almost entirely to Castle’s house, putting enormous pressure on Palance to inject dynamism into a small set. It was shot in two weeks on a budget of $400,000, with nine days of “intense” rehearsal beforehand, per The New York Times. Aldrich claimed it made $1.25 million but that all the profit went to the distributor. It’s difficult to retain dynamism in a single set over the course of a feature, and it puts enormous pressure on the actors to deliver something new in every shot. It creates a cramped hothouse atmosphere, made even more so by the small set. According to the AFI Catalog, “In order to fit the main set, that of Charlie’s living room, on the small stage at the Sutherland Studios, art director William Glasgow came up with a ‘combination of wild walls.’ The article reported that ‘as a result, the camera can be placed anywhere in a complete circle around the set, permitting shooting from any angle.’” Even with that technical shortcut, there is not a lot of different set-ups that can be made over the course of a one-location movie, by the end you know every nook and cranny.


The Big Knife has what you might call “unlikable” characters – it’s lead is a murderer, and his bosses blithely discuss committing some of their own. It can become an issue, though, if you don’t buy Castle’s central dilemma – whether he should take lots of money, or not take lots of money. Robert Aldrich recalled his dad reacting to the premise: “Am I to understand that [Castle’s] choice was to take or not take $5,000 a week? Well then, you’ll never have a successful picture. Because there is no choice.” This criticism followed around the play and the film, but it received plaudits elsewhere, including the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Looking at it today, it’s a film of swirling male hysteria, with Palance and Steiger taking turns chewing the minimal scenery. In The Big Knife Hollywood has turned these men into ogres, fighting to the death over a few scraps of dignity.


January 12, 2016


“1933, the height of the Great Depression. Hoboes roamed the land; riding the rails in a  desperate search for jobs. Spurned by society, unwanted and homeless, they became a breed apart. Nomads who scorned the law and enforced their own. Dedicated to their destruction was the Railroad Man who stood between them and their only source of survival — The Trains.” – opening scroll of Emperor of the North

In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on a pristine-looking Blu-ray from Twilight Time.


Originally titled The Emperor of the North Pole, the film had been developed by Sam Peckinpah and screenwriter Christopher Knopf for three years. Knopf was interested in the story of Leon Ray Livingston, a turn-of-the-century hobo who wrote a series of memoirs under the pseudonym “A-No. 1″, including From Coast to Coast with Jack London (1917), a remembrance of his tramping with the young author published after London’s death. This  became one of the source texts for the script. Knopf’s screenplay is a streamlined machine that pits A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) against a militantly anti-hobo train engineer named Shack (Ernest Borgnine). Shack is known for never allowing a tramp to successfully complete a journey on one of his cars, thanks to a series of gruesome weapons including ball-peen hammers and lead pipes. A-No. 1 announces that he will ride Shack’s train, Number 19, all the way to Portland, OR. An uninvited guest appears in the person of the hobo-initiate Cigaret (Keith Carradine), which was Jack London’s moniker from his tramping days. Cigaret is a spindly hot-head who A-No. 1 reluctantly takes under his wing, until he realizes that wing is being burned off. Shack, A-No.1, and Cigaret are then involved in a pitched battle as they ride the iron horse into the northwest.


Producer Kenneth Hyman pulled the project away from Paramount and Peckinpah in 1971, and brought it to Aldrich and Twentieth Century Fox. Hyman had successfully worked with Aldrich on The Dirty Dozen a few years previously. Peckinpah wrote to Aldrich that, “I cannot say that I am happy about not doing it but I can say that I’m very happy that you are in charge. I have been a devoted fan of your pictures over the years and I feel that my adopted baby is in very good hands.” (quoted in What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, by Alain Silver). Aldrich wouldn’t quite return the compliment. He said, “I think Peckinpah’s a fine director. I don’t think he’s as good as I am, but he’s a sensational director.”


Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin seem like permanent parts of the landscape, hatchet-faced phantoms doing battle between Railroad Man and Hobo for all eternity. Borgnine’s Shack is wound as tight as his trusty stopwatch, from his death-rictus grin to his face-stompin’ boots. He is a Fascist figure whose role is to keep the trains running on time.  As described in his autobiography, Borgnine “developed a character based on the actor Jack Elam, who I’d worked with on Vera Cruz and Hannie Caulder. Jack was walleyed. Imitating him, I tried to keep one eye looking straight ahead and the other eye down on the ground.” This explains how pop-eyed he looks throughout the movie, as if his pupils were straining to escape his sockets. But the technique is appropriate for Shack’s high strung violence, his eyes looking to attack as much as the rest of his body.


A-No.1 is an equally tough S.O.B (he knocks a child out with a live chicken), though he has brief flashes of humanity, as when he deigns to teach Cigaret a few tricks of the hobo trade, like how slathering oil on the tracks can delay a train’s departure. These moments of openness swiftly close once any shred of his independence is being encroached upon, at which point he will disappear in the foliage, having hidey-holes constructed all around the country. He’s less a community hobo organizer than a paranoid separatist militiaman, perpetually concerned about any and all impingements on his freedom, regardless of how necessary. He dumps friends as easily as he downs a beer. Christopher Knopf spoke with Marvin before the shoot, and recalled, “I met Marvin in Bob [Aldrich’s] office on the Fox lot before filming began on location. There was that squint in his eyes and the so familiar baritone voice as he held court, dissecting his role. ‘The guy’s a philosopher, a disciple of Kant’s metaphysics and ethics, right?’ I nodded. ‘Bullshit.’ The man was already in character.”


Aldrich and his regular DP Joseph Biroc shot the film on location on the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway (OP&E). The basic division of the frame is Borgnine in high angle, and A-No.1 coming in low, as Shack is constantly on lookout perches, while A-No.1 is crawling into tubes or hanging onto the undercarriage.  There is a necessary balance here, and though they barely exchange ten words to each other, both men understand the essential role they are playing in this drama, and an unspoken respect goes along with this understanding. What A-No.1 cannot respect is Cigaret’s unbalancing presence. The jittery Cigaret gets bored with A-No.1′s lessons and starts improvising bum techniques, risking A-No.1′s life in the process. Cigaret is disrupting the natural process of Hobo vs. Railroad Man. For A-No.1, there is no bigger insult than, “Kid, you’ve got no class.” Class equals tradition, and Cigaret is not honoring the tradition of the hobo and engineer beating each other to death.


The trains would be running 25-30 miles an hour, and Aldrich had Borgnine and Marvin running up and down the roofs of the trains during their epic final fight, in which the two battered icons break each other’s bones with axe handles and two-by-fours. The autumnal greens and browns of the Oregon forest are a fecund backdrop to a life-draining fight, one which seems to give Shack and A-No.1 a euphoric high. These two extremists have never been happier than to be stuck in a duel on a moving train, their mouths bleeding and their knees buckling, their whole way of life on the line.


March 4, 2014

variety81-1925-12_0278George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.


The advertising plays up Raft’s psychopathic persona – “Raft on a Rampage!” – though in the film he is more of a mild-mannered obsessive. Nocturne was producer Joan Harrison’s first assignment at RKO. A former secretary for Alfred Hitchcock, she eventually became one of his closest collaborators as a screenwriter (Rebecca, Suspicion) and a producer (Alfred Hitchcock Presents). One of the only female producers in Hollywood, she started her production career auspiciously with two Robert Siodmak films for Universal (Phantom Lady and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry). The director was prolific B-director Edwin L. Marin (he is credited with four other features in 1946), with a script by pulp novelist Jonathan Latimer, who would later pen the noir staples The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal.


A composer and notorious lothario is found dead in his Hollywood Hills home, and looks very much like a suicide. The only clue is an unfinished composition called “Nocturne”, dedicated to “Dolores”. The lead investigator is ready to close the case as a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Lieutenant Joe Warne (Raft) refuses to let it go, intent on proving it as murder. He pursues the case with an obsessiveness that threatens his job security, as he oversteps any number of departmental codes. Warne proceeds anyway, convinced that one of the victim’s many girlfriends, all of whom he nicknamed “Dolores”, might hold the secret to his demise. It’s a role that puts Raft on the right side of the law, but makes use of his persona of cold calculation. Raft, never the most charismatic performer, here seems to embrace a minimalist, utilitarian kind of performance. He speaks in low monotonal bursts, anticipating the impersonal “just the facts ma’am” approach of Dragnet which would appear five years later.

Latimer’s script doesn’t have the staccato tempo of the show, depending instead on repetitive plotting in which Warne tracks down the women from the many portraits in the composer’s home. These scenes border on the tedious, even though Latimer does have a gift for dialogue (“You can never depend on girls named Dolores”). Raft still intrigues, though, by his refusal to emote. It’s something of an anti-performance.


Director Marin is equally anonymous, but pulls off one brilliant shot in the opening. It begins with a mockup of the Hollywood Hills, with a miniature cliff-side cantilevered mansion set off against a matte of the skyline. The camera cranes slowly towards the house, rear projection depicting the back of a man at his piano. The shot continues into the living room via an invisible matching cut as the camera crosses the threshold, from special effect artifice to what passes as reality. The movement continues in a semi-circle around the pianist, settling below him, and revealing a woman hidden in shadow on a couch in the far background. The shot travels miles of diegetic space in a minute, the kind of faked mobility that David Fincher achieves through CG means in his snaking air vent shots in Panic Room.


Red Light has more of a talent pedigree behind it, with Roy Del Ruth as producer/director and frequent John Ford cinematographer Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Wagon Master). Even the second unit had talent, with Robert Aldrich as its Assistant Director. I know Del Ruth only from his Warner Brothers pre-codes, so seeing “Roy Del Ruth Productions” slapped at the head of the credits had me expecting something snappy. It starts with a bang, as inmates Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan plot to kill a priest while inside a flickering prison projection booth,  but it ends as a rather lugubrious exercise in divine intervention. It was to be the last of three films for Roy Del Ruth Productions, following the cheerier It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) and The Babe Ruth Story (1948). At this point Raft was deep into the downswing of his career, and battling to reframe himself as something of a hero. Compared to Nocturne he is downright chipper here (he even smiles!), playing the vengeful brother of the murdered priest.

Again it’s in the form of a procedural, as Raft believes that his brother wrote the name of the killer in the Gideon Bible in his hotel room. It has gone missing, and Raft tracks down every other occupant of the room in search of it. One of them is Virginia Mayo, who is, “about as chummy as Leo Durocher with an umpire”, according to a hotel clerk. Raft wants an eye for an eye, but Del Ruth and screenwriter George Callahan have a curious interpretation of the bible. They interpret the “Vengeance is Mine” of  Romans 12:19 to mean that if you require your enemies to suffer a violent death, you should lower your weapon because God will kill him off for you.


It’s a bizarre interpretation of the text, and the final third of the movie comes under the sway of this activist, Old Testament God. Up until that point it is a conventional policier, enlivened by Raft’s engaged performance and Glennon’s grandiose chiaroscuro. This is a dark movie, as Glennon experiments with all manner of shadowy shapes. There are company logos splayed on walls, ceiling fans dissecting diner patrons and a chain link fence imprisoning a face about to confront death. Every shot has some dark shape indicating doom. This reaches its manic peak on the runway of a blinking neon 24-Hour Service billboard, on which the deciding shootout takes place. Constantly flickering between light and dark, Raft battles with his conscience on whether to plug Burr or let God sort him out. He opts for the latter, and ends in the light. But Raft’s career excelled in the shadows, in maniacs and coin-flipping brutes. His career continued to sputter, and by the end of the 1950s he was playing off his old bad-guy rep as a greeter at a Cuban casino operated by Meyer Lansky.


November 13, 2012

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From the multiplicity of locations to place a camera, the director and his collaborators have to settle on one. This decision, born of practical training and on-set instinct, can turn a routine shot into an extraordinary one. Three recent Blu-ray releases display the talents of the canniest of decision makers: Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). Preminger and Carpenter are naturals in the CinemaScope sized frame, both alternating between B&W and color to emphasize their images’ deceptive surfaces. Aldrich uses the boxier 1.85 ratio, but chops it up into split-screens which convey a dizzying information overload that accompanies the creeping surveillance state of that film’s USA.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, Fritz Lang famously said that CinemaScope was only fit for snakes and funerals, so his character clearly hadn’t yet seen Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Out today on Blu-Ray in a sublime transfer from Twilight Time (available through Screen Archives), Otto Preminger’s film uses the wide frame to emphasize surfaces, whether it’s of Jean Seberg’s impassive face or the doorways and windows that promise a depth that never materializes. Preminger bought the rights to Francoise Sagan’s novel in 1955, and gave S.N. Behrman a crack at the screenplay before turning it over to Arthur Laurents, who received sole screen credit. The story tells of Cecile (Jean Seberg), a carefree teen spending a summer on the French Riviera with her playboy  father Raymond (David Niven, with chest hair perpetually flared). They act more like swingers than family, urging each other into wild romantic escapades and laughing at the wreckage.  But when Raymond falls for their old pal Anne (Deborah Kerr), Cecile becomes wildly jealous and aims to break them up. Her efforts, tragically, succeed.

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The story is told in flashback, with the present-tense Cecile in black and white, a joyless mannequin twirling through the nightclubs of Paris. She stares dead-eyed into the camera, her arm around another interchangeable Lothario, as she speaks of happier times in voice-over. This is when the color starts to peek through, a strikingly melancholy optical printing effect, as sections of the frame next to her head burst into the color of the Riviera, flickerings of memory coming to life. B&W gives way to hot reds and shimmering blues. The effort already shows in the flashback of Raymond and Cecile’s mirthmaking, having to constantly remind each other that they’re having fun.

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Exteriors are what matter. Early on Raymond’s chirpy French girlfriend Elsa (a hilarious Mylene Demongeot) gets badly sunburned, and this reminder of physical deterioration makes Elsa not long for Raymond’s world. Soon he ignores her for the regal Anne. Preminger emphasizes the openings and closures in their Riviera cottage, where windows, doors and hallways are made visible in every shot, intimating the depths beneath the skin that Raymond and Cecile fear to tread. They are almost always outside, whether on the beach or out on the town.

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The first assistant director Serge Friedman recalled that Preminger did not have the shot choreography planned out, but would have “to do a lot of thinking before he could find the right place.” One of the most memorable shots utlilizes the full ‘Scope frame at a dinner party. A maid is arranged in the  far left edge foreground, secretly chugging a beer behind the bar, while Raymond and his clan are grouped to the right, in the middle distance, nattering on about a casino. Their total obliviousness to the world around them is encapsulated in that slyly funny frame.  Chris Fujiwara, in his Preminger study The World and its Double, writes that “the floor of the set was treated with gelatin to allow the camera to move as freely as possible”, regardless of where he chose to move it. His method is improvisatory, but the result is controlled and structured – even Elsa’s skin troubles are rhymed in the devastating final shot, when Cecile rubs in face cream to preserve her beauty, which is all she has left.

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Another film of deceptive surfaces is John Carpenter’s They Live (1988),  now out on Blu-Ray from Shout! FactoryA scathing  sci-fi satire of Reagan-era America, Carpenter uses the CinemaScope-equivalent aspect ratio (2.35:1) make his compositions as herd-like as the zombified consumer society he is depicting, of crowds and lines and glimmering store lights. The hero in this debased trickle down society is, appropriately enough, played by mulleted (and likely roided) pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. An unemployed drifter who still believes in the American dream, he is introduced as a hero from a Western, dropped off by a train in a dynamic diagonal composition, as did Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West.

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He realizes the truth upon donning some magic shades, which reveal a B&W world of alien brainwashing. Billboards scream OBEY and WATCH TV, hidden messages that are also beamed through TV screens to lull the populace into consumer comas. As with Bonjour, the sober B&W represents brute reality, and color the world of exteriors. Carpenter’s project is not one of subtlety, but a kind of satiric shock and awe. Piper’s pal, played by Keith David, is introduced behind a line of iron rebar, and they live in a smoggy abandoned lot across from a church.  They Live is a proto-Occupy Wall Street in its emphasis on extreme income inequality, visualized in alternating rows – of Piper and David’s construction sites and the aliens’ tuxedoed gentry imbibing champagne at a gala dinner.

Released today on Blu-ray from Olive Films, Twilight’s Last Gleaming may be even more timely in its visualization of image overload. A paranoid political thriller still haunted by the death toll of Vietnam, it places Burt Lancaster as a dissident Army vet who breaks into and gains control of a nuclear missile silo. Unless President Charles Durning releases a secret National Security Council memo to the public that reveals the cynical reasoning behind the war, Lancaster will fire the nukes.  A furious film, director Robert Aldrich finds an equally furious style. Instead of parallel editing between the White House, Richard Widmark’s hawkish general (modeled after Curtis LeMay) and the silo, Aldrich uses an increasingly complicated series of split screens (of two and four), in which actions unspool simultaneously, as if you are watching the live feed from the President’s Situation Room. The footage of Durning sitting with his cabinet (which includes an avuncular Melvyn Douglas and a sepulchral Joseph Cotten) as they watch a special forces raid on the silo recalls the photograph of Obama’s team watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden. Or maybe it’s the first found footage movie, a scarier version of The Blair Witch Project in which the bogeyman isn’t one pissed off ghost but the entire social and political system in which we live and work.


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.


July 13, 2010

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The Warner Archive continues to empty out WB’s library onto their premium-priced burned-on-demand DVDs, and it’s impossible to keep up. I currently have my wavering cursor over the buy button on Sam Fuller’s Verboten (reviewed in this Sunday’s NY Times by Dave Kehr), and the double-feature disc of Hell’s Heroes (1930) and Three Godfathers (1936, Boleslawski, not Ford). But one of the releases I have nabbed is of Robert Aldrich’s final film, …All the Marbles (1981). Released in a strong transfer, which faithfully reproduces Joseph Biroc’s elegiac grey-blue photography of industrial decline, it is, without hyperbole, the greatest women’s wrestling movie of all time. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Peter Falk plays Harry Sears, the manager and crusty philosopher king of the California Dolls tag team (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) who are slowly punching their way up the ranks. Driving their beat up sedan through decaying Midwestern factory towns, and hustling their way around shyster promoters and county fair pervs, it’s a genial tour of the areas hardest hit by the early 80s recession. The early scenes were shot in Youngstown and Akron, Ohio, and Aldrich films their travels in long shot, images of a car rolling past idling factories and roadside dives, as the team’s conversations are piped in on the soundtrack. At one point Iris (Frederick), after her partner Molly (Landon) complains about the rigors of the road, looks at a passing steel foundry and says, “how’d you like to work in there?”

While on the surface the film follows the normal sports film trajectory (defeat, recovery, victory), visually the film presents a panorama of working class types blowing off steam and struggling to survive. It’s a bracingly bittersweet combination, embodied in Falk’s folksy and violent performance. His Harry Sears is an engaging huckster, raised, as he tells the Dolls, on a combination of Will Rogers and Clifford Odets. Constantly on the phone trolling for gigs, he uses his quote repository to keep his marks off-balance, and as a shield against revealing his own tattered emotions. He’s always spouting lines like how their journey will last “longer than a breath, shorter than a life”, trying to keep his team focused on the present moment, ignoring the failed past and fragile future.  When asked who Rogers and Odets are, he deadpans, “a dance team,” before popping in the cassette tape of Pagliacci’s aria “Vesti la giubba.” Then he’ll pivot from his aesthete mode by playing craps with fixed dice and flashing intense spasms of rage, destroying a promoter’s Benz with a baseball bat and even coming to blows with Iris. An autodidact, father figure and inveterate con man, he’s the perfect character for Falk’s gravelly bravado.

Molly and Iris are less well-defined, more women of action than drama. Molly is a benumbed blonde, addicted to painkillers but still emitting a heartbreaking type of child-like innocence. She’s using the Dolls, more than the others, as a family unit. In the ring she has a more mat-based game, whereas Iris takes more technical risks. Iris is world-weary and hard-working, resigned to working with Harry but desirous of a life above his penny ante tricks. Frederick does fine work summoning up Iris’ patchwork dignity, grasping on to the wispy strands of integrity in her sport to prop up her fading hopes (the film only hints at how fixed pro wrestling is).

It’s Harry who again drags her back down to reality, pulling off a variety of semi-dirty tricks and mounting some old Hollywood razzle dazzle to swing the crowd and nab the Tag Team title. The final fight takes place at the MGM Grand, and the rhinestone-encrusted, child-choir scored entrance seems a tongue-in-cheek homage to MGM Musicals of yore. He even gets former Pittsburgh Steeler Mean Joe Greene and Laker announcer Chick Hearn to narrate the bout, escalating the event to a level of legitimacy heretofore unknown to female fisticuffs. Iris has to accept that image sells and accommodation is integral to that sale.

Both actresses are tall and athletic, and clearly game enough to hold their own in the ring, so the high-angle shots Aldrich uses to spot in the stunt doubles flow seamlessly into the rest of the fights. The matches themselves are crisply edited and shot at a distance. In addition to the geometric overhead shots, Aldrich cuts in to POV shots for impact and medium shots for the majority of the slaps and falls. The action is fast-paced and as passable as the women’s division in the WWE these days. Iris even whips out some impressive aerial maneuvers in the final bout, landing a hurricanrana to gain an early advantage. The convincing nature of the fights was thanks to the help of advisor Mildred Burke, the World Women’s Champion from 1937 – 1957.

The Pagliacci aria plays throughout in what seems like another of Sears’ pretentious affectations of knowledge, until he explains to the gals the story of the opera. Pagliacci was a traveling performer like themselves, and, in his interpretation, the lesson of the character is to “hang in there, even if your heart is breaking.” This sentiment could be ascribed to some of Aldrich’s other conflicted heroes, including the idealistic Lt. Debuin (Bruce Davison) in Ulzana’s Raid, or even Charles Castle in The Big Knife (which Aldrich adapted from Odets). In any case, …All the Marbles is an eccentric, moving, and profoundly appropriate close to Aldrich’s career.