Murder, He Says

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 4/7/20;
Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, Porter Hall.

Other than 1948’s Miss Tatlock’s Millions, which falls just short of being a brother-sister incest farce while getting all jocular about mental illness, Murder, He Says is the most twisted Hollywood comedy I know from the 1940s. This raises an interesting question of why almost all the funniest ’40s comedies I know — both of the above, the Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder libraries, the “Roads” to Morocco, Utopia and Rio — were all from Paramount, but that’s a question for another day. (The Lubitsch’s at other studios would be an exception, though they’re less gut-busting than charming on historical levels.)

Very little about 1945’s Murder, or at least its characters, has been to charm school — starting with the murder of an innocent party that’s played for laughs when it’s not being simply shoved under the narrative rug. There’s also a near-psychopath matriarch who frequently and brutally takes a whip to her imbecilic twin sons; the promiscuous use of firearms in an indoor setting by half the cast; and the played-for-laughs radioactive poisoning that makes as many of them glow, developed by the latest husband of the whip-wielding mom. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t all take place on an Ivy League campus but in backwoods Arkansas, where a rep from a national poll studying rural living makes the mistake of riding his bike onto the property of this inbred-acting array.

Fred MacMurray plays this poor sap in what I’d rate as the top comic performance of his long and still underrated career (The Apartment is, of course, a masterpiece, but he’s mostly a no-joke total heel in that one). His timing is flawless when he has to react about once a second to the mayhem going on around him. The supporting cast, which includes Marjorie Main as “Ma,” is in the same class, including one major acting surprise. And voiceover bonus commentary by producer/writer Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel speculate that Main’s work here might have encouraged MacMurray to get her cast a couple years later in The Egg and I, a huge hit for Universal-International and the movie that launched the Ma & Pa Kettle series (I remember when it was theatrically issued in the summer of 1954, which only the biggest box office wave-makers were in those days).

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Getting back to Murder, which gets a 4K spiff-up here, MacMurray shows up at the sub-ramshackle house as part of his job — and to see if he can figure out what happened to the work colleague who preceded him and was not heard from again (good luck on that one). Instead, he’s accosted on the way by one of the twins; they’re Mert and Bert, and Peter Whitney nails both roles, abetted by some of the best matte work of the era. All the blood relations here seem to be products of Ma Barker’s gene pool, and the source of constant conflict here is the whereabouts of 70 grand from some long-ago family crime spree that’s supposedly hidden somewhere in the house. Grandma (Mabel Paige) knows the elusive location, but she’s on her death bed — and even in her better days was always “tetched.” The only hint is a few musical notes that result in nothing when they’re hummed and a few accompanying lyrics of gibberish that make about as much sense.

Nobody in the family trusts any other member, and this extends to poor MacMurray, who would have been better off lobbying his superiors to handle the Death Valley polling territory. Matters get more complicated when the family member who pulled off the robbery escapes from jail and shows up to mount her own money search. The tragic Helen Walker has this role, and it’s obvious before very long that she’s an imposter with her own agenda, and like very few other people here, is “normal.

Two Hollywood hopefuls in the cast all but had their careers ended by auto mishaps. Jean Heather, who, despite noteworthy appearances in both Going My Way and Double Indemnity, basically came out of career nowhere here to go all the way thoroughly “nailing” the family’s one likable character, who, alas, may be even more tetched than grandma. In real life, beautiful Heather got thrown from a car and disfigured, and made her final screen appearance in a 1949 ‘B’ Western.

The decline of Walker, who’d scored in a high-profile co-lead in her first picture, was more protracted but possibly more of a nightmare. She picked up three soldier hitchhikers on New Year’s Eve of 1946, and when she flipped the car, one of them was killed and the other two badly injured. The survivors charged drunkenness, and the messy trial that resulted cleared her criminally but resulted in career-wrecking publicity. She worked intermittently after that, but after good supporting roles in a couple well-regarded 20th Century-Fox noirs, it was a steep toboggan ride for her. Commentators Schlesinger and Taffel may be too gentlemanly to mention it, but at least at some point, alcohol was indeed a debilitating problem with her. In her final big-screen appearance (The Big Combo), it clearly shows on her face.

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The director here was George Marshall, who spent a 56-year career mixing bombs, god-awfuls, nonentities and several indisputably enjoyable “entertainments” without ever making a really great movie or major factor in any title’s applicable movie year, other than Destry Rides Again (coming soon from Criterion). Schlesinger and Taffel are quite enamored of him in their appropriately breezy mix of the jocular and informative, though one of them claims that Marshall directed three of the five episodes in “How the West Was Won” when it was Henry Hathaway who did (Marshall only directed “The Railroads,” which is the weakest of the quintet). The actors’ dexterity here is so keen throughout that one has to assume that Marshall definitely deserves his share of the praise, especially with the younger players. But even at 94 minutes, the action gets a little labored in the final going before it’s yanked with vigor back into the plus side by a terrifically clever barn-set finale. The script, but the way, is co-written by Lou Breslow, who also penned a comedy that I’ve  coincidentally been watching as we speak, It was 1950’s Never a Dull Moment, in which MacMurray weds and drags the incomparable Irene Dunne to his struggling farm, and this city-dweller begins living a kind of Green Acres existence,

Ultimately, the standout takeaway is that I can’t immediately think of another comedy that’s anything like it — and certainly not from the 1940s — though the commentary notes its warped link with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I suspect Paramount is the only studio that would have attempted it at the time because they really had a flair for off-center farces. I can just see a horrified Louis B. Mayer seeing it at an industry screening and immediately putting out a directive for MGM to speed up development on Love Laughs at Andy Hardy.

Mike’s Picks: “Murder, He Says” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino/Zeitgeist;
Documentary;
Box Office: $0.06 million;
$29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

There’s almost certainly a link between a certain kind of genius and a certain kind of madness, which is one of the themes of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — director Matt Wolf’s graphically sophisticated documentary about a most unusual woman who was on a mission. Though at times, even Stokes herself might have wondered what it was, exactly, despite lucking out posthumously in ways that now invite cautious reverence, at least from researchers and chroniclers of relatively recent lost history. The last involves the period between the mid/late 1970s and the Sandy Hook massacre, which occurred on the day she died.

African-American Stokes came from enough Philadelphia money to stoke her undertaking — and then her ground-floor purchase of Apple stock (Steve Jobs was one of her eclectic but intense passions) set her up for about 50 lives’ worth of funds. This abetted her recording of everything off the air with the first of countless VCRs —  though initially, she  began more modestly, with sitcoms like “All in the Family” and especially the original TV incarnation of “Star Trek,” whose melting-pot crew and its relative communal status appealed to her extreme Left-ish political beliefs. Actually, she was a full-fledged member of the Communist Party, so despite her arguable genius, she had her limitations — serving both as a key player in the post-Revolution “Fair Play for Cuba” Committee (now there’s a blast from the past) and an unsuccessful attempt to move with her first husband to Cuba.

The turning point was the Iran Crisis and the launching of ABC-TV’s “Nightline” with Ted Koppel, whose surprising success against Johnny Carson and other fun-oriented late-nights anticipated 24-hour news stations — as well as the blurring between straight reportage and the ratings benefits accrued from turning political events into a kind of sophisticated daily mini-series. Stokes was extremely savvy on this kind of thing, which included the “coloring” of the news. She not incorrectly sensed, from what she was recording and watching, that the seized hostages in the Iran affair almost certainly had to include CIA personnel. What bothers me some about this is that all governments have agendas and always have — the way that most humans do unless they’re a little on the simple side. This is definitely dog-bites-man material.

Earlier, Stokes herself had hosted a Philadelphia political talk show that looks like public access but may have had a network-affiliate public service connection. A couple of those episodes are included as a Blu-ray bonus via what, like the Stokes archival project itself, is a miracle of preservation taken from long outdated technology. In it, she shows herself to be a good listener to guests invited on for their diverse points of view — a trait she didn’t display toward anyone in her family. An exception to this may or may not have been John Stokes, the professional partner and co-host of her show who became husband No. 2. A white patrician who later benefitted as well from that early Apple stock purchase, he left his wife (for good) and daughters (mostly for good) to devote his now-reclusive entire life to Marion. He’s the kind of guy of whom my Marine D.I. father like to describe as “for someone his age, he’s not wired together right.” But, hey: We live in a pluralistic society.

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Good listening wasn’t a trait that extended to Stokes’s family life, and she made things miserable for her ultimately devoted chauffeur and personal assistant (both interviewed here) whose main job was to record — all the time. She made life impossible for her son from marriage No. 1 (Michael Metelis), even though he was a really good kid and smart as hell in ways that were too conventional for her (she owned somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000  books and read them). She had husband Stokes so cowed that when one of his daughters stalked him into having a brief conversation in the park, he implored her not to tell Marion.

Ultimately, she amassed 140,000 VHS tapes and was wealthy enough that she could store them in her apartments, leaving more room to pack-rat other possessions. Someone here makes the interesting and credible observation that hoarders keep what no one else wants, while collectors stockpile rare treasures that somebody somewhere would likely covet. In terms of her recordings, at least, she was in the latter category, and her collection of national and local coverage of racially motivated police brutality can almost stand alone. But in terms of “mission,’’ she was working with outdated technology on its way to becoming all but permanently unavailable, which meant time wasn’t on her side.

After her death, her son very eventually found the Internet Archive, which was probably the only place capable of copying this trove. Director Wolf comes up with some exceptionally impressive visuals that capture the true scope of Marion’s combined holdings when boxed up, to say nothing of lifting a full clip history of Stokes’s chronicled era, which even includes sporting events and the kind of oddballs who used to appear daily on Phil Donahue’s show. My favorite one splits the screen into four sections to show us simultaneous real-time footage of how quickly NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox were to interrupt the usual morning-show business to cut to the first plane hitting the first WTC tower on 9/11.

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Director Wolf caught a major break when son Michael turned out to be so smart, articulate, philosophical and finally loving of his mother after a very difficult upbringing that many people wouldn’t have survived. That he can relate the personal-story part of the documentary with such objective clarity frees up Wolf’s very fine commentary to concentrate not exclusively but primarily on the technical and labor-intensive efforts by Stokes, himself and the Internet Archive to make the material a reality — and into a viable format.

On a work-obsession level, Project reminds me a little of Finding Vivian Maier, the doc about the American street photographer whose holdings proved to be amazing after she died. As a portrait of an exceptional talent incurring misery on her family while fighting her own demons, it reminds me a little of Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone?, the Oscar-nominated and exceptionally great portrait of its “Miss” (Nina Simone). But due to the specialized achievement of its subject, Project kind if stands alone, even though Stokes had one of those personalities that no one will be fully able to read.

Mike’s Picks: “Murder, He Says” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Beau Brummell’ and ‘Canyon Passage’

Beau Brummell

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Stewart Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley.
1954.
A flop at the time, this superbly cast costume drama has picked up a cult following who should be pleased by the Blu-ray’s 4K scan off the original negative that pays off with such vivid reds and dark blues on its British military uniforms.
Read the Full Review

Canyon Passage

Kino Lorber, Western, $24.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Patricia Roc, Lloyd Bridges.
1946.
Set in pre-Civil War Oregon amid a settlement that’s pretty isolated even by Northwest standards of the day, Technicolor Canyon Passage on Blu-ray makes for a fairly stunning visual experience, though you can’t tell at first because the opening shot is set of muddy streets during a monsoon.
Extras: Includes a commentary by Toby Roan, who knows Westerns as well as anyone.
Read the Full Review

 

Beau Brummell

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Stewart Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley.

To my very pleasant surprise, Warner Archive has given 1954’s Beau Brummell the full treatment with a 4K scan off the original negative for a payoff of such vivid reds and dark blues on its British military uniforms and more that you’d swear the same costumer designed Roy Rogers’ shirts. Because this Eastman Color release has always carried a “print by Technicolor” credit as well, I suspect that the film was always inherently superior to pure Eastman Color MGM titles from the same era (one of my favorite movies of all time — It’s Always Fair Weather — will forever be an eyesore in spots because of cost-cutting Eastman). But even the Brummell print I once recorded off MGM-friendly Turner Classic Movies was, to be generous, no great shakes.

A flop at the time (apparently lead Stewart Granger didn’t even like it), this superbly cast costumer, I’m told, has picked up a cult, which pleases me because I’ve always liked the picture despite its substantial liberties taken with history (don’t they all, or at least most of them?). Granger’s title protagonist, previously played in the silent era by John Barrymore, was and is here a 19th-century army captain of humble background despite his advanced education; he dresses like a fop but is, in fact, so direct and uncompromising in his opinions on virtually every subject that he accrues a lifetime of enemies who further regard him as an opportunist. BB opens the picture by publicly knocking his regimen’s new uniforms — a cheeky move, given that they were designed by a power figure (sort of) who incidentally, really is a fop: Peter Ustinov as George IV, aka the Prince of Wales and frustrated heir to the throne held by his bonkers father George III (Robert Morley). Think of the play or movie of The Madness of King George — and George III’s real-life importance to our own Revolution’s history. In this telling, Brummell’s insubordination nearly gets him busted by IV, but the two then develop an odd and unlikely friendship that’s on-and-off testy, but when all is said and done, lastingly affectionate.

The selling point here for the masses is probably the second-billed participation of Elizabeth Taylor as a “Lady Patricia” — supposedly betrothed to George III’s top political advisor (James Donald as Lord Edwin Mercer) in another one of those instances in which a highly eligible woman opts for dull security over a life of creditors that a reckless spendthrift like Beau will guarantee. This is an issue because although Patricia tries to fight it, the attraction is also there on her part. This is an uncommon Taylor screen experience because she spends the first half of the picture in a silver wig before eventually reverting to the brunette state with which we’re familiar.

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Liz notwithstanding, Beau Brummell is foremost a love story between two men, and Ustinov, who’s just spectacularly good here, has notably more screen time than Taylor, even though he’s billed third in a large in-name-only supporting role. Adding to his narrative importance is the fact that he and Beau Granger share something of an empathetic link, in that No. IV longs to wed the widowed Roman Catholic he loves (Rosemary Harris). It’s a union No. III expressly forbids, even though his son openly flaunts the relationship at banquets that seem to be an everyday occurrence (these people know how to live). In real life, IV did get to marry her, but the union wasn’t recognized by the Church. I probably won’t make any friends by saying this, but in A Man for All Seasons (though I love the movie), I always root for Henry VIII over Sir Thomas More because consenting adults of age who want to wed should be allowed to. In other words, butt out.

Of course, in this telling, there’s still III to deal with, and he’s so deranged that he claims his son is an imposter. Morley is as great here as Ustinov even if he does just have a single scene — which he totally nails. Everyone knows III is mad, but his vested-interest colleagues have successfully hushed it up (kind of like Woodrow Wilson times-12). The male acting principals are all memorable here, including the very underrated Granger (when I asked Martin Scorsese in an interview which old-school actors he most regretted not having been able to work with, I believe he listed Granger No. 2 after James Mason and mentioned that he and Granger had had dinner the previous night). BB’s box office underachievement didn’t do his career any good after his rich decade of outdoor adventures and costume dramas (these were falling out of favor). Scaramouche, for one, is a marvelous romp and possibly director George Sidney’s best film, even though I’m also exceptionally fond of The Harvey Girls. I have to think it would be a major Warner Archive candidate.

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Beau Brummell ultimately turns morose, which is perhaps inevitable given the army of creditors who show up daily at the door to demand payment for one or another ornate purchase. This probably didn’t help the box office, either, but even here, there are a couple powerful climactic scenes of reconciliation that reveal the men’s true feelings. And it’s really a revelation to see the movie looking this vital and pristine — I guess for the first time since 1954, when MGM couldn’t buy a hit outside of the surprise smash-dom of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Beau Brummell’ and ‘Canyon Passage’

 

Canyon Passage

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Patricia Roc, Lloyd Bridges.

So it’s sometime in the mid-late 1960s, and one of the local TV stations was giving my adolescent self his first chance to see Canyon Passage, a Walter Wanger-Jacques Tourneur Western that sounds as if it has a lot going for it even beyond its status as a generously budgeted undertaking by Universal Pictures in 1946 — shortly before the merger that transformed the studio into Universal-International for close to 17 years. I notice that an unexpected curiosity in Passage’s fairly pressure-packed cast is brilliant songwriter, surprisingly engaging singer and sometimes actor Hoagy Carmichael, which inspires the broadcast’s host to ask during one of the commercial breaks (yes, kids, this is how they did it until the dawn of the 1980s), if anyone knows which Carmichael movie was the one where he sang the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which was among his best compositions.

That’s the setup. Later, my host came back sheepishly to admit that just as it said in the opening credits, Carmichael sang it in this one — though in a way, he could be forgiven. Here’s a song that ended up going No. 2 Billboard for Hoagy himself and No. 1 for Kay Kyser (a super-catchy rendition with future talk show host Mike Douglas as vocalist). Even so, the movie throws it away just before the end credits roll. I’m going through all this because it’s indicative of an impressively budgeted production that always seems to be a little “off,” though you can make a case that some may regard its idiosyncrasies as a plus. Plus, in addition, as noted, it has a lot of ‘A’-list components.

Set in pre-Civil War Oregon amid a settlement that’s pretty isolated even by Northwest standards of the day, Passage was, I think, only the second Technicolor Western Universal made following the previous year’s Frontier Gal. That one was no more ambitious than the usual Rod Cameron picture, but Passage had no lack of casting cred (note the actors listed up top here); Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait, The Gang’s All Here and Desert Fury) behind the Technicolor camera; Ernest (Stagecoach) Haycox providing the original literary source; and director Tourneur taking his first stab at color in any genre between his black-and-white masterpieces of Cat People and Out of the Past. Of course, the visual component meant nothing on early ’60s TV showings because mass purchasing of color sets was a couple years off, and stations weren’t yet even running color prints. Thus, this Kino Lorber release makes for a fairly stunning visual experience, though you can’t tell at first because the opening shot is set of muddy streets during a monsoon.

Dana Andrews is the lead, from during that remarkable three-year run in which he also starred in Laura, State Fair, Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel, A Walk in the Sun (if you like), The Best Years of Our Lives, Boomerang! and Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon. More interested in conquering the new frontier financially than getting serious about romance despite his definitely enjoying the company of women, he’s part of a situation that we don’t usually see in Westerns, at least as a major subplot: the inability of its protagonist to decide which comely lass in the territory (there’s more than one) he might want to wed, despite not exactly being awash in passion. The same is true of the women as well, which can sometimes threaten to induce viewer whiplash.

Andrews’ ostensible sweetheart is played by Patricia Roc, a major screen star in Britain seen here in her only Hollywood film, though she did reunite with Tourneur back home a few years later for the sleeper Circle of Danger, opposite Ray Milland. Though she and Andrews seem to have an “agreement” of some sort, he also has a repressed attraction to buddy Brian Donlevy’s semi-betrothed (Susan Hayward), who is much more obvious about a yen that’s more obviously reciprocated, though she mostly maintains decorum. Adding further complications are: a) a younger man in town who’s really crazy about Roc; and b) the fact that Donlevy is a very flawed and self-destructive character, albeit one of some sympathy. This is the kind of role underrated Donlevy knew how to play, though he could also do through villainy (Oscar-nominated for Beau Geste); comedy (The Great McGinty); military brass (Command Decision and playing Gen. Leslie Groves in The Beginning or the End) — all top an array of Westerns and sci-fi, some of it memorable. To say nothing of The Big Combo (now, there’s a movie).

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This is a mining boom town, and Donlevy is kind of a banker of the miners’ gold holdings, shelling out crystal dust (same as money) to customers whenever they need it for day-to-day expenses or reveling. But because he’s in heavy gambling debt to the town’s professional gambler, Donlevy has started filching a little here in there from the bags left in his care, and you know that’s not going to have a happy ending. Meanwhile, we have Ward Bond playing the town’s utter slug — one so lacking in a single virtue that I sensed that Blu-ray commentator Toby Roan (who knows Westerns as well as anyone) couldn’t get over it. Yet Bond was such a great actor despite having the most odious politics in Hollywood that the character seems real and not a cartoon stereotype.

He and Andrews have longtime bad history, and the entire town (not just the local goons) keeping egging them on to settle things with a fist-fighting so they can place bets for pure entertainment — not unlike the way the Irish villagers do during the John Wayne-Victor McLaglen climax to John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The only one above all this is Carmichael’s town songbird on a mule; has there been a bigger market for them, he could have cornered the market on all Ichabod Crane parts. When the two adversaries finally do mix it up big-time, the result is one of the most brutal brawls I’ve ever seen in a vintage movie; Roan says that that both actors needed stitches at its conclusion, and I can believe it. The other major issue is attacking Indians (more often than, egged on by worthless whites), and Bond naturally has to be a major catalyst here as well.

According to Roan, Wanger and Tourneur had diametrically opposed ideas on the movie’s tone: producer Wanger wanted more emphasis on punched-up characters, while Tourneur (who won out) preferred distancing the story to make it more about the land and the era. Roan thinks Tourneur was right, but I don’t agree because that approach makes the picture just chilly enough to make it highly watchable but without that ultimate oomph that enables it to break from the historical pack.

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Not too many years later, Andrews’ heroic battle with alcohol started hurting the quality and certainly budgets of his pictures— intermittently at first and then permanently, though some cult movies remained here and there including his Tourneur reunion on Night of the Demon. By the time the actor reunited with Hayward on 1949 for My Foolish Heart, he still commanded top billing, but she’s the one who got an Oscar nomination (her second since Passage). Life comes at you fast in terms of Hollywood careers, something that’s never changed and still true today. For a while, at least, Andrews came pretty close to being a superstar.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Beau Brummell’ and ‘Canyon Passage’

 

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

A Little Romance

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Laurence Olivier, Diane Lane, Thelonious Bernard, Sally Kellerman, Arthur Hill.
1979.
It was spring of 1979 when 12-year-old Diane Lane made the cover of Time magazine back when that really meant something — ostensibly as part of a cover story on “Hollywood’s Whiz Kids” but spurred primarily by her utterly beguiling screen debut opposite Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance, the first film released, albeit through Warner Bros., by the then brand new Orion Pictures.
Read the Full Review

Salesman

Criterion, Documentary, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
1969.
Salesman was the documentary feature debut that put the Maysles Brothers (David and Albert) on the map along with Charlotte Zwerin, whose subtle editing choices here are, with good reason, the kind often termed as “invisible,” though we subliminally sense that they’re there. We end up following four Irish-Catholic door-to-door salesmen of middle age and pet nicknames — charged with unloading deluxe doorstop Bibles full of elaborate illustrative paintings to customers who haven’t the money to make the monthly payments.
Essay: The accompanying essay by critic Michael Chaiken and a 1969 Maysles TV interview by onetime Newsweek film critic Jack Kroll are up to Criterion standards and the original DVD’s commentary by Albert Mayles and Zwerin has been carried over. But the high point is unquestionably the full-length inclusion of a spoof from the “Documentary Now!” cable series, in which Bill Hader and Fred Armisen expertly have their way in Globesman, a precisely detailed replication about guys trudging through the same snow and the like to peddle globes. Hader also provides a separate appreciation for the original film.
Read the Full Review

 

A Little Romance

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray
;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Laurence Olivier, Diane Lane, Thelonious Bernard, Sally Kellerman, Arthur Hill.

It was spring of 1979 when 12-year-old Diane Lane made the cover of Time magazine back when that really meant something — ostensibly as part of a cover story on “Hollywood’s Whiz Kids” but spurred primarily by her utterly beguiling screen debut opposite Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance, the first film released, albeit through Warner Bros., by the then brand new Orion Pictures. I can’t believe the pans the picture originally got, though I did just notice that Frank Rich provided a very enthusiastic blurb at the time, and Rich’s film criticism was always as dead-on as his political writing (his current Intelligencer column in New York magazine is never to be missed). But the movie has aged well despite all of its potential minefields, due in huge part to Lane, who was worthy of making the cover of almost any magazine that comes to mind, including Civil War Times, Just Jazz Guitar and that White Castle’s monthly house organ (I actually have a friend who collected a consecutive run of the last for years).

Almost by definition, the picture sounds all but inevitably as if it’ll be plagued by a rampant “case of the cutes” — while Sir Larry’s performance is rather, uh, broad here (I won’t say hammy, though, because it’s too funny and besides, it’s in the spirit of the movie). Then and now, I always looked at Romance as a keen move by director George Roy Hill to develop some filmography “rhythm” after having just done Paul Newman’s Slap Shot, a hockey comedy that comes pretty close to being an all-timer but which also had what was probably the most profane script of any Hollywood film released up to that time. Of course, with 1964’s The World of Henry Orient, Hill had already done one of the best of all adolescent-centered comedies.

Per its title, the focus here is adolescent romance, as unaffected Lane’s child of privilege falls for the scruffy, street-smart 13-year-old son of an uncouth French taxi driver — a pleasing turn by another screen newcomer, Thelonious Bernard, who almost immediately gave up acting in real life and eventually became a dentist. His character is also a film buff (they, of course, know how to grow them in France), and the movie gets off to a rough start when we see a montage of his screen favorites that somehow finds room for True Grit and Hill’s own Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which doesn’t exactly suggest Bertolucci’s The Dreamers when it comes to that film’s more accurate portrayal of what a French student of film might be watching. The Bernard character (Daniel) is, however, enough of an auteurist to love Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall and knows an omen when he finds one upon discovering that the Lane character’s name is Lauren.

Sally Kellerman plays Lane’s toxically flighty thrice-wed mother at a time when Kellerman did “impossible” better than anyone. Her good-guy husband No. 3 and Lane stepfather (Arthur Hill) is work-stationed as an American executive in Paris, which is how the movie’s storyline comes to be. This, in turn, gives mom the opportunity to pursue a currently shooting film director (David Dukes), and one of the funniest gags here is that fact that while commercially popular, he’s a total hack. Bernard’s Daniel is, of course, movie-savvy enough to know this, compounding his total disdain for someone he’d dislike on sight for a number of other reasons. Another good gag is that Broderick Crawford, who looks as if he entered the wrong door on his way to the Highway Patrol set, plays himself in all ways but full literal moniker (here, he is “Brod”) as one who ends up cast in Dukes’s movie. Brod only has two or three scenes, but he gets some laughs, even though he probably agreed to do the picture for a couple pops.

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Lane’s Lauren is caught in the middle of all this (Dukes is as much of an aggressive pain as Kellerman), which makes credible what might have been a too-appealing-to-be-true characterization: an absolute seventh-grade dreamboat with all seventh-grader vulnerabilities but also a bookish one with literate-adult interests and reading taste at least half-a-decade beyond her years, at least for the era in which the movie is set. But she’s still a Romantic with a thing for Elizabeth Barrett, so it makes a certain kind of sense that she’d fall for a boy who loves handicapping and playing the horses and also sneaking out and into movies like one the young rascals in Francois Truffaut films.

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Every young couple needs a Cupid, which is where Olivier fits in — a role that, top billing notwithstanding, initially looks like a small one (nearly an hour in before his second show-up but expands substantially in the second half). It all comes to be after the kids meet this courtly old-school French charmer of somewhat vague background after he is felled by a flying soccer ball. Inspired by romantic memories of his late wife, Olivier agrees to aid and abet the youngsters on their daring journey to Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, where the two plan to kiss at sunlight (though Lane lies about the reason for the trip). Their challenges have to do coming up with the money, the fact that as minors they’re way too young to travel legally without an adult, pursuing authorities who assume they’re looking at a kidnapping case, and missed train connections.

This is a movie that probably shouldn’t work, but it does for me, and it isn’t all Lane, though she’s the nucleus of this pure confection’s sleeper uccess. Adapting a Claude Klotz novel, Allan Burns’s Oscar-nominated script brandishes a TV series brand of humor, but it’s good TV (Burns worked on “The Bullwinkle Show,” “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and plus a lot of “Lou Grant” and “Rhoda”). The young actors who play the respective best friends of Lane and Bernard could have been throwaways, but their roles are not only well written but exceptionally well directed by Hill. Georges Delerue’s score took the Oscar, and cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn had previously shot Truffaut’s Day for Night for automatic street cred (DFN’s score came from Delerue as well). I used to think Arthur Hill was on the bland side, but the more I watch, I’m impressed by his malleability in playing sympathetic characters but also occasionally sinister types. His scenes with Lane are genuinely warm, and he keeps it under control when the kids get looped on champagne during what is otherwise not much of a birthday bash for her, which Kellerman has insisted be combined with a wrap party for Dukes.

This Warner Archive release has no real extras, but I didn’t really care because it was so much fun watching Olivier approaching the end of his career as Lane was just beginning hers. It’s been fun watching her grow up on the screen into a perfect woman, an assertion I base not just on her multi-level attractiveness but the fact that in Jay Roach’s Dalton Trumbo biopic, we see her having a normal backyard conversation while juggling.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

Salesman

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Documentary;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

Salesman was the documentary feature debut that put the Maysles Brothers (David and Albert) on the map along with Charlotte Zwerin, whose subtle editing choices here are, with good reason, the kind often termed as “invisible,” though we subliminally sense that they’re there. The team’s real breakthrough, if you’re talking about audience magnets, came a couple years later with Gimme Shelter, aka the Rolling Stones/Altamont train-wreck-on-film — which every hip person of a certain age just had to see at the time (its shelf life has been robust, too). But Salesman, which the Brothers had to go out and sell all by themselves, did garner a lot of ink and outstanding reviews from its very opening.

The result is a highly specialized real-life portrayal that personally hit me between the eyes the first time I saw it — and still does. More on this later, but the salient point here is that we end up following four Irish-Catholic door-to-door salesmen of middle age and pet nicknames — charged with unloading deluxe doorstop Bibles full of elaborate illustrative paintings to customers who haven’t the money to make the monthly payments. There are tough ways to attempt a living, but making cold calls on straight commission as far as six U.S. states away from home is right up there. And then you drive somewhere else the following week.

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The 1969 documentary was lucky in a sense because it found a star in the making with soul-of-a-poet main protagonist Paul Brennan, the colorfully blarney-spouting member of the sales quartet (when it suits his needs or fancy) who, by coincidence, became the focus here because he is losing his touch. The old bag-of-tricks formulas that riff on a largely canned presentation aren’t working lately, and he’s starting to press — which then has a way of feeding on itself to make things worse. The other salesmen, who’ve been doing fairly well lately against equally tough odds, are sympathetic — but can’t get too close to Paul (nicknamed “The Badger”) or his escalating woes because they might rub off and poison their own well. But segregation isn’t easy to pull off when they’re all looming in close quarters at this week’s anonymous motel.

At this point, I should probably mention that during that flailing period after grad school when I was awaiting my Big Break (which did eventually come), I went on the road myself under the tutelage of my local Encyclopedia Brittanica rep/manager selling Great Books of the Western World on college campuses from Buffalo to Denton, Texas. It was a much younger crew than the one we see in Salesman, working a classy product (Ptolemy, anyone?) to a sharper clientele. But the documentary’s portrayal of the day-to-day lifestyle (a generous term) is chillingly on the mark, unearthing memories I was happy to relegate to eternal slumber miles beneath the earth’s core.

First, it was the long drives to the selling destination, which meant you began your work day at night when you were already whipped. You shared a motel room with someone who was a decent guy as long as you kept the conversation to the two male basics — sports and women — but with whom you otherwise had nothing in common, starting with the fact that, ironically, they never read books during the job’s rare down time). If motel fluorescent lighting could kill you, I wouldn’t have lived to see The Godfather Part II. And then there were the motivational tapes (something we don’t see the Salesman crew have to endure) that we were strongly motivated to buy; I think my manager (someone I liked but one slick Willie), had a piece of that action. In any event, the recorded motivator talked of nothing but attaining material goods and how you could now arrange your schedule to play a lot of golf (really deep stuff here). Negative thoughts were frowned upon, and here I was in the final chapters of the great Warren G. Harding bio The Shadow of Burning Grove, at a time when the administration’s suicides were beginning (“That’s positive,” said my boss, sardonically). When I finally decided to quit mid-week on the road — and I’d had some boffo sales weeks, though they were strongly front-loaded — he had me on a long bus ride back home in a blink, and I never saw any of the crew again. I would have infected the operation, which I understood and accepted.

One thing these two situations had in common were these impromptu customers’ inability to pay once the vendor got in the door (in Salesman, the crew members say they’re “with the church,” which is at best true only on a whopper of a technicality). The Maysles did their filming — and they found that most customers liked, and soon got used to, being on camera — in 1966 or early ’67. One offshoot of this is that everyone here smokes (“Sure, come right into my home and light up”), and truth to tell, this is equally so of the housewives-in-curlers who have to listen to the pitch, occasionally bite and then get read the riot act when their husbands get home that night to see that the family budget has been ambushed. By this time, it’s impossible to cancel the order, though laws were later enacted by the time of my own employment to provide a short “remorse” window.

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The Maysles divide their shooting time between miserably snowy Massachusetts not far from Boston and Miami, with the latter a seeming respite except for the fact that the neighborhood streets where Paul is assigned are such a byzantine tackle box that he can’t locate the household on which he has a lead, however shaky. Adding narrative rhythm to all this are the crew’s bull sessions back in their motel rooms (lots of low-stakes poker gets played for a quality-of-life bonus) and also the large national group meeting that’s intended to provide both motivation and a little ass-kicking. The sales manager isn’t exactly ogre-ish Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, but he makes it clear that they’d better produce — while the publisher rep, spiritual dimension quickly dispensed with, concedes they are basically pushing “product.” Paul and one other guy on his specific crew are thin and bony, but practically everyone else here is overweight, middle-aged and a figure of sympathy unless he happens to be on a sales roll.

The accompanying essay by critic Michael Chaiken and a 1969 Maysles TV interview by onetime Newsweek film critic Jack Kroll are up to Criterion standards and the original DVD’s commentary by Albert Mayles and Zwerin has been carried over. But the high point is unquestionably the full-length inclusion of a spoof from the “Documentary Now!” cable series, in which Bill Hader and Fred Armisen expertly have their way in Globesman, a precisely detailed replication about guys trudging through the same snow and the like to peddle globes. Hader also provides a separate appreciation for the original film. As he has proven before, Hader is no movie dilettante, but a funny man who also truly knows and loves film history. He is a treasure.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Dolphin’ and ‘X … the Unknown’

The Day of the Dolphin

Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver.
1973.
When I first saw The Day of the Dolphin, my reaction was akin to that of so many other film folk in that we couldn’t quite figure out what the hell we’d just seen. This had nothing to do with always on-point storytelling courtesy of what I now realize was an outstanding Buck Henry script, but, instead, with the mix of talent and subject matter.
Extras: Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson offer a Blu-ray bonus commentary. Kino’s wonderful bonus featurette offers an interview with Henry, who was never absolutely crazy about the film himself. The Blu-ray bonus interviews also include featured players Leslie Charleson and the late Edward Hermann.
Read the Full Review

X … the Unknown

Shout! Factory, Sci-Fi, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern.
1956.
Despite what looks like a glorified Ed Wood budget that’s mercifully camouflaged by a lot of nocturnal outdoor shots and a generally zippy pace, X … the Unknown is an affectionally regarded member of the Hammer Films family that’s sometimes mistaken for one of that studio’s “Quatermass” pictures.
Extras: Acreenwriter Jimmy Sangster, the most revered of the Hammer nucleus of talents who made the organization “go,” is the predominant subject of the Blu-ray’s bonus featurette about the original Hammer gang, not only for his ability to pull off a cheapie like this one but for his exceptionally expressive color horror films. The other featurette is a slapdash jumble of film clips in which the music drowns out a huge percentage of what narrator Oliver Reed is trying to say.
Read the Full Review

The Day of the Dolphin

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver.

When I came out of The Day of the Dolphin in 1973, my reaction was akin to that of so many other film folk in that we couldn’t quite figure out what the hell we’d just seen. This had nothing to do with always on-point storytelling courtesy of what I now realize was an outstanding Buck Henry script (from a sprawling-times-12 Robert Merle novel) — but, instead, with the mix of talent and subject matter. Which is to say that here were Henry and Mike Nichols making a George C. Scott “family” (or close) ‘PG’ movie about sincere straight-faced love for trained the trained dolphins to whom Scott and his small scientific crew are trying to teach English. And at this point (his fifth feature), Nichols was coming off the edgy quartet of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate (with a Henry screenplay), Catch-22 (Henry screenplay) and the still psychologically brutal Carnal Knowledge.

The picture’s Wikipedia entry quotes the Pauline Kael review as suggesting “that if the best subject that Nichols and Henry could think of was talking dolphins, then they should quit making movies altogether” — which I now realize is one of the crummiest and most patronizing things she said in her entire career, or at least crummy and patronizing enough to place it in her top 5,000 transgressions. (But. Don’t. Get. Me. Going. On. Pauline.) On Kino’s wonderful bonus featurette, Henry, who was never absolutely crazy about the film himself, notes that Kael also said that he and Nichols had put enormous effort into a movie whose main distinction was “scaring children” (his comment and look of eye-rolling disgust are worth the price of admission). The point is, though, there are career departures and career departures, but this was something like Vincente Minnelli taking a crack at a spaghetti Western.

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The first thing I noticed this time out was not just how thoroughly invested actor Scott is in swimming, communicating and otherwise interacting with the creatures to whom his character and a handful of scientific colleagues are trying to teach English just outside their island laboratory — a place so isolated that it requires a rough speedboat ride through sometimes choppy waters to reach what ultimately comes off as a working paradise. This kind of thing can’t be faked, especially on the off chance that you’ve coincidentally just seen Scott in The Hospital as I just did a couple weeks ago when I was preparing taxes and thus in the mood for some Paddy Chayefsky bombast (in this vein, I also watched Taxi Driver as well).

In the Chayefsky/Arthur Hiller concoction from two years earlier, Scott looks all too believable as a walking coronary who heads up a unit in a prestigious New York medical center: he’s unkempt; has pasty skin tones (though United Artists DeLuxe Color did this to a lot of actors in the early ’70s); is drug abusing, self-loathing and all those other traits that make it something less than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But as wags use to say of Richard Nixon in the ’80s in Dolphins, he’s “tan, rested and ready” — which I never got the impression Scott ever was even in real life aside from the last count. (A woman I used to work with had a newswire photo hanging in her cubicle of Scott exiting a plane after he had all-too-obviously wet himself big-time). Here, he looks in strapping shape with lots of color (the solar-induced kind) in his face.

The entire second half of Dolphins is a spoiler minefield of plot twists — or, more precisely, one huge plot twist from which additional tinier ones then emanate — so I’d better “write around” a lot of the film’s content. What has to be noted, though, is that the surprise(s) ought to be jarring and maybe even all-out movie-killers when, it, fact, the whole picture is tonally seamless. There aren’t many filmmakers who can pull this kind of thing off, and seamlessly, which ought to give some indication of how much in control Nichols was with his early movies (more on this in a minute), even if Catch-22 got away from him despite some great scenes. In this case, we actually segue from Ivan Tors Flipper territory into an early example of the kind of mid-’70s paranoid thriller that used to be Alan Pakula’s bailiwick.

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Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson offer the Blu-ray bonus commentary with the former doing most of the talking; he  makes the case that in addition to whatever else it is, Dolphins is a metaphor for film directors with vision battling studio suits who are deciding whether or not they’re going to come through with the necessary financial backing. More often than not, I find these speculative flights a little much, but I have to say that Berger makes a persuasive case here.

There’s a beautifully Panavision-framed scene — could Nichols block actors or what? — where the endowing string-pullers sail out to the island to pass judgment on the research project’s feasibility. So director Nichols lines them up horizontally in chairs on an oceanside platform above Scott and then has them looking down at him as he relates his progress and intentions in what is basically a pitch meeting out of Robert Altman’s The Player. These show-me types range in personality from a Mr. P-R-smoothie who’s presumably supportive (Fritz Weaver, whose slick characterization is perfect) to transparent creeps who haven’t a clue about anything scientific (John Dehner) to those who think they know more than they probably do (Severn Darden).

Even in its most family-oriented ‘PG’ moments, we sense that Henry and Nichols are not unmindful of certain ethical questions that can be raised even when the scientists involved are genuinely loving and have the best intentions. They are, despite kid-glove care from Scott and colleague/wife Trish Van Devere (this has to be her high-water mark on screen for the then real-life Mrs. Scott) taking the dolphins out their natural habitat, which is OK for now when the returned affection is palpable but may cause problems if they ever return to their original way of living well out into the ocean.

Commentator Berger makes a big point here of something that’s been on my own mind for a long time, which is that if you walk in blind to any of director’s first six features up through The Fortune, his identity will be pretty obvious without much time expenditure. Nichols’ debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was in 1.85:1, but all the others were in superbly utilized Panavison; the sextet’s cinematographers were Haskell Wexler, Robert Surtees, David Watkin, Giuseppe Rotunno, Chinatown’s John Alonzo and (here) William A. Fraker of Bullitt and Rosemary’s Baby fame — a Murderer’s Row if there ever was one. But after the severe box office underperformance of Dolphins followed by the total drubbing of The Fortune (which today looks redeemed to a point by the production design and really funny Jack Nicholson performance), this specific Nichols era came to an end.

Aside from the indifferent Gilda Live, Nichols retreated for eight years and when he returned, his movies immediately looked different from anything that had preceded — and for the rest of his career. This isn’t to say he didn’t go on to make some impressive ones — his first feature back was Silkwood, while HBO’s Angels in America is a contender for best film of his career — but he never worked in 2.35:1 again. (Not even, as Berger points out with Closer, which seemed to call for it.)

Dolphins, which Nichols basically took on to get out of his Avco-Embassy contract after the Sharon Tate murders ended Roman Polanski’s participation, went from mixed initial reviews to delayed disdain to what I perceive has been more recent favorable revisionism; it’s truly old-school Mike Nichols, no matter the its subject matter. This is the most favorably surprised I’ve been at a movie in quite a while — the Georges Delerue score is close to an all-timer, which helps — though no less unexpected is watching Scott so thoroughly ace it in a relatively demon-less role, though (this being Scott) still bringing some edge to it. The Blu-ray bonus interviews also include featured players Leslie Charleson and the late Edward Hermann, and like Henry, could not be more infectiously personable.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Dolphin’ and ‘X … the Unknown’