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Million Dollar Movie

We are familiar with Nicholson’s greatest performances. Here’s a list of worthy ones that are less celebrated:

The Missouri Breaks, Reds, Heartburn, Hoffa, and The Pledge. There are others, of course. He’s funny in a cameo role in Broadcast News.

But one of my favorite Nicholson movies is The Border. He’s coiled but not a ham. It’s a wonderful performance.  Put it on your Netflix queue.


[Photograph by Annie Leibovitz]

Million Dollar Movie

From the collection “When The Lights Go Down,” here is Pauline Kael on Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

Nicholson is an actor who knows how to play an audience; he knows how to get us to share in a character. In The Last Detail, his sweet-sadastic alternating current kept us watching him, and we followed his lowlifer’s spoor through Chinatown. Nicholson is no flower-child nice guy; he’s got that half smile–the calculated insult that alerts audiences to how close to the surface his hostility is. He’s the people’s freak of the new stars.

…Since Nicholson doesn’t score when he plays unmagnetic characters–and he must it by now–the danger in Cuckoo’s Nest is that he’ll take over: that he’ll use his boyish shark’s grin, the familiar preening, brutal one-upsmanship. He’s won the audience with his cocky freaks, and this is the big one–the bull goose loony. Nicholson can be too knowing about the audience, and the part he plays here is pure temptation. Before Kesey went to Stanford to study writing, he’d gone to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming an actor, and role-playing is built into McMurphy’s character: he’s swept up by the men’s desire for him to be their savior. Except for the red-haired-giant externals, the authority-hating hero of the book is so much of a Nicholson role that the actor may not seem to be getting a chance to do much new in it. But Nicholson doesn’t use the glinting, funny-malign eyes this time; he has a different look–McMurphy’s eyes are father away, muggy, veiled even from himself. The role-playing is still there, in the grandstanding that McMurphy does when he returns to the ward after shock treatment; it has to be there, or there’s no way of accounting for why he’s sacrificed. But Nicholson tones it down. As McMurphy, he doesn’t keep a piece of himself out of the character, guarding it and making the audience aware that he’s got his control center and can turn on the juice. He actually looks relaxed at times, punchy, almost helpless–you can forget it’s Nicholson. McMurphy is a tired, baffled man, and with his character more unresolved he gains depth. [Director, Milos] Forman hasn’t let the McMurphy character run away with the picture, and it’s Nicholson’s best performance.

And from the same book:

Despite his excessive dynamism (and maybe partly because of it), this satirical actor has probably gone further into the tragicomedy of hardhat macho than any other actor. He exposes cracks in the barroom-character armor and makes those cracks funny, in a low-down, grungy way. With his horny leers and his little-boy cockiness and one-upmanship, he illuminates the sources of male bravado. His whole acting style is based on the little guy coming on strong, because being a tough guy is the only ideal he’s ever aspired to. This little guy doesn’t make it, of course; Nicholson is the macho loser-hero. (In an earlier era, Nicholson would probably have played big guys.)

Million Dollar Movie

Here’s a selection of some of Jack’s Greatest Hits, the temper-temper blowups. They are obvious, and perhaps uninspired, highlight reel selections, yet  still damned entertaining.

Easy Rider:

Five Easy Pieces:

Carnal Knowledge:

The Last Detail:


Here’s the ballgame scene in Cuckoo’s Nest.

The Shining:

Terms of Endearment:

Million Dollar Movie

Jack Nicholson is stuck in Cuckoo’s Nest/Shinning mode for most of Bob Rafelson’s turgid 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. His character, an ex-con in his mid-forties, was 24 in James M. Cain’s novel. Here, he feels underdeveloped and it’s hard to tell if the guy is sinister, a sap, or a heel. It is as if the actor and director never got a handle on who they wanted the character to be.

What’s compelling about Nicholson’s performance is that he doesn’t chew the scenery. He may fall back on his familiar screen persona but he’s restrained, too. Best of all, he’s generous and lets Jessica Lange dominate the movie.

The sexual charge between Nicholson and Lange is undeniable.

She is tough and it is refreshing to see a woman play a femme fatal and not look like a waif. Early on, she shoots Nicholson a look while she pours wine for her husband that’s enough to stop any man–or woman–dead in their tracks.

You can see why she’d drive a person to do crazy things. The pulp is drained out of this version (written by David Mamet, shot by Sven Nykvist)–it’s not nearly as appealing as the John Garfield original–but the electricity generated by Lange keeps you watching, and her sex scenes with Nicholson are savage and hard to forget.

For more, check out this article by Patrick McGilligan in American FilmThe Postman Rings Again

Million Dollar Movie

Prizzi’s Honor lives that most uncomfortable space – the black comedy. It’s uncomfortable because to set and maintain the proper tone, the entire production operates on a razor’s edge. If any part of the process falters, from John Huston’s direction all the way down to the selection of condiments at the craft services table, the delicate artifice collapses.

Most important of all is the acting. For a black comedy to succeed, the actors must maintain constant earnestness with the comedy not coming from punch lines but from something inherent in the character himself.

When a black comedy fails, it’s almost always easy to pinpoint the culprit. But when it succeeds, it’s possible to glide right past the great performances that made it so. Jack Nicholson’s Charley Partanna in Prizzi’s Honor is just such a performance.

Partanna is gruff, almost monosyllabic. But he’s not stupid, he just knows that talking too much often leaves you overextended. He’s a competent gangster on the way up and he’s centered in that world with a heavy anchor. And as the movie unfolds, and absurd situations ripple the surface, he never strays far enough from the boat to get lost. He surprises us with literacy, curiosity, passion and ingenuity along the way, but without deviating from his solid base.

Bouncing off Jack’s steady foundation are Angelica Huston and Kathleen Turner. Irene Walker (Turner) pretends to be an outsider, but she’s busy trying to run scams on gangsters. Huston took home an Oscar for turning the screws behind Partanna’s back as Maerose Prizzi. Maerose is the one character in the movie that really seems dangerous.

I remember this movie from my childhood because of William Hickey’s strange voice. His Don Prizzi stretches words like hand-pulled noodles until the innocuous is threatening. But Jack’s Partanna isn’t just holding up the tent for these fine supporting characters.

He seems a poor match for Irene on the exterior, but his devotion, shot straight, wins her over. We’re not sure where Partanna fits in the hierarchy of the Prizzi family at first, but his intelligence and resourcefulness prove his worth.

Alex loves Jack’s line, “Marxie Heller so fuckin’ smart, how come he’s so fuckin’ dead?” Not only is it a fantastic reading, an argument ender but spat out of the side of his mouth, it’s also the start of the slow leak leads to disaster for Partanna and Irene. Partanna has killed Irene’s husband, Marxie Heller, before learning of the connection. Irene swears she was going to leave him anyway, but she has enough nice things to say about the guy to get under Partanna’s skin and cause that great line.

Partanna could never trust Irene completely. Did she come with him because she loved him or because all her other plans were turning to crap and he represented her best chance at survival? He couldn’t answer the question satisfactorily so when stab came to shoot, he hurled a knife through her throat.

The movie works because Jack is great. But Jack is great without doing a lot of the things that he’s usually great at. He’s neither hip, cool nor sarcastic. He’s a lug. And he plays the lug straight up and down the edge without ever missing a step.


Million Dollar Movie

At first glance, Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni would seem a mismatched pair: Antonioni, the gloomy, solemn, European master of existential alienation and Nicholson, all Irish-American brashness and energy — the most charismatic and aggressive movie star since James Cagney. However, with Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, the odd couple proved to be a formidable team. Though the film failed to deliver to producer Carlo Ponti’s box-office hopes in the 1970s and was initially dismissed by many critics as a minor outing for both the director and star, its stature has grown and deepened over the decades, helped by a 2005 theatrical rerelease and subsequent DVD. Over thirty five years later, it stands as an artistic high water mark for both men. However, for those who can only envision Jack Nicholson as a hyper, wild-eyed madman, The Passenger offers an opportunity to see the depth and subtlety of his work, before he became hemmed in by audience expectations.

Nicholson, the quintessential star of 1970s “New Hollywood” spent the first half of that decade on an extraordinary run of iconic roles – including Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea, Chinatown’s  J.J. Gittes, The Last Detail’s Buddusky and, of course One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s R.P. McMurphy (the part that finally landed Nicholson a Best Actor Academy Award).  Nicholson’s performance as David Locke in The Passenger stands up to his work in any of those films, while finding the actor in a far more subdued mode.

Locke is an English born, American educated journalist researching a story about guerrillas in an unnamed African desert country. After a particular hot and frustrating day in the desert, he returns to his hotel to find that he has no soap for a shower. He knocks on the door of his neighbor, looking to borrow some and finds the man lying dead.  Through flashbacks and an audio recording made by Locke, we see that the man, Robertson, was a fellow Englishman, roughly the same size and build as Locke, and with a similar hairline. Locke mysteriously and impetuously decides to switch identities with the corpse and disappear from his life, assuming the life of Robertson. While this snap decision to leave his wife and career behind, and start anew as a stranger in a strange land happens easily enough for Locke, he finds himself a pursued man – both by the producer and philandering wife he’s left behind in England and by people who want what Robertson had to sell or want him dead or arrested. It seems Robertson was not simply a travelling businessman, but an illegal arms dealer, supplying the guerrillas.

By evading the narrative of his own existence, Locke now finds himself thrust deeper into the story he was attempting to cover.  It’s a set-up that could easily be the plot of a very different sort of film, a suspense thriller made by Hitchcock, Polanski or DePalma; in Antonioni’s hands, it becomes a hypnotic, meandering investigation of identity, destiny and narrative itself. We’re never quite sure what has driven Locke to leave his life behind. Scenes of his wife back in London, and flashbacks to their life together hint that the marriage was unhappy, but his wife spearheads the search for Robertson once Locke is officially “dead.” We watch him have a frustrating time researching his story in the desert, but it’s also made clear that Locke is successful and internationally known as a writer and broadcaster.  In “Jump Cut,” Martin Walsh wrote of the film:

“At one point early in the film Nicholson points out that ‘we translate every experience into the same old codes’…Its importance for our understanding of The Passenger is of crucial significance. On one level, it helps make sense of Nicholson’s desire to cease being David Locke, to adopt a new identity, to escape the tyranny of the co-ordinates of his present existence, to re-open his life to new experiences. However, the way in which David Locke attempts to recharge his life proves fraught with unanticipated, uncontrollable dangers…”

Locke/Robertson leaves Africa for Europe, where, in Barcelona, he finds an unexpected travelling companion and lover, played by Maria Schneider (Last Tango In Paris). Together they become a couple on the lam, as Nicholson allows himself to be swept along in this new narrative he’s entered, despite its dangers. The girl follows suit, following Locke on his odd journey as if on some sort of scavenger hunt.

Locke continues along Robertson’s path, using the dead man’s datebook as his guide and talisman, until things meet their inevitable end in a dusty Spanish hotel courtyard, where all the main characters converge and Antonioni pulls off one of the most incredible shots you’ll ever see in a movie.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to watch Nicholson play this character at this point in his career. He’d played quiet, brooding characters before (e.g. Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens), but the success of Cuckoo’s Nest and relative failure of The Passenger (and of Arthur Penn’s western The Missouri Breaks, which paired Nicholson with Marlon Brando in the following year) may have pushed Nicholson into the relative safety of his more familiar screen persona, which Stanley Kubrick was soon to push to an extreme in his film of The Shining.

Million Dollar Movie


From The Age of Movies, here’s Pauline Kael on The Iceman Cometh (1973):

The Iceman Cometh is a great, heavy, simplistic, mechanical, beautiful play. It is not the Eugene O’Neill masterpiece that Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the finest work of the American theater, is, but it is masterpiece enough–perhaps the greatest thesis play of the American theater–and it has been given a straightforward, faithful production in handsome dark-toned color in the subscription series called the American Film Theatre. A filmed play like this doesn’t offer the sensual excitement that movies can offer, but you don’t go to it for that. You go to it for O’Neill’s crude, prosaic virtuosity, which is also pure American poetry, and, as with most filmed dramas, if you miss the “presence” of the actors, you gain from seeing it performed by the sort of cast that rarely gathers in a theater. John Frankenheimer directly fluently and unobtrusively, without destroying the conventions of the play. The dialogue is like a ball being passed from one actor to the next; whenever possible (when the speakers are not too far apart), the camera pans smoothly from one to another. We lose some of the ensemble work we’d get from a live performance, but we gain a closeup view that allows us to see and grasp each detail. The play here is less broad than it would be on the stage, and Frankenheimer wisely doesn’t aim for laughs at the characters’ expense (even though that O’Neill may have intended), because the people are close to us. The actors become close to us in another way. Actors who have been starved for a good part get a chance to stretch and renew themselves. In some cases, we’ve been seeing them for years doing the little thing passes for acting on TV and in bad movies, and their performances here are a revelation; in a sense, the actors who go straight for the occasion give the lie to the play’s demonstration that bums who live on guilt for what they don’t do can’t go back and do it.

And The Dead (1987):

The announcement that John Huston was making a movie of James Joyce’s “The Dead” raised the question “Why? What could images do that Joyce’s words hadn’t? And wasn’t Huston pitting himself against a master who, though he was only twenty-five when he wrote the story, had given it full form? (Or nearly full–Joyce’s language gains from being read aloud.) It turns out that those who love the story needn’t have worried. Huston directed teh movie, at eighty, from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator; most the time, he had to watch the actors on a video monitor outside the set and use a microphone to speak to the crew. Yet he went into dramatic areas that he’d never gone into before–funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range. He seems to have brought the understanding of Joyce’s ribald humor which he gained from his knowledge of Ulysses into his earlier work; the minor characters who are shadowy on the page now have a Joycean vividness. Huston has knocked the academicism out of them and developed the undeveloped parts of the story. He’s given it a marvelous filigree that enriches the social life. And he’s done it all in a mood of tranquil exuberance, as if moviemaking had become natural to him, easier than breathing.

Million Dollar Movie

From “The Age of Movies,” here’s P. Kael on History of the World, Part I:

When I saw History, there were hisses and walkouts during this number, and the film has been attacked as a disgrace by reviewers in the press and on TV. I bet nobody hissed or walked out on Candide. When Prince and Bernstein do it, it’s culture; when Brooks does it, there’s a chorus of voices saying, “He has gone too far this time.” Earlier in the film, the dancer Gregory Hines, who makes a breezy film debut as Comicus’ Ethiopian pal, Josephus, tries to convince the slavers who are sending him to the circus to be eaten by lions that he’s not a Christian but a Jew. With his loose-limbed body–his legs seem to be on hinges–he does a mock-Jewish dance, and then a shim-sham, and the racial humor didn’t appear to bother the audience. But during the Inquisition, when nuns toss off their habits, and a giant torture wheel to which pious Jews are attached is spun in a game of chance, there were mutterings of disapproval. Yet it’s Brooks’s audacity–his treating cruelty and pain as a crazy joke, and doing it in a low-comedy context–that gives History the kick that was missing from his last few films. The Inquisition is presented as a paranoid fantasy, with Jews as the only victims, and when Torquemada whacks the knees of gray-bearded old men imprisoned in stocks–using them as a xylophone–you may gasp. But either you get stuck thinking about the “bad taste” or you let yourself laugh at the obscenity in the humor, as you do at Bunuel’s perverse dirty jokes. The offensive material is a springboard to a less sentimental kind of comedy.

If Mel Brooks doesn’t go “too far,” he’s nowhere–he’s mild and mushy. It’s his maniacal, exuberant compulsion to flaunt show-biz Jewishness that makes him an uncontrollable original. At his best, he is to being Jewish what Richard Pryor is to being black: wildly in love with the joke of it, obsessed and inspired by the joke of it. What History needs is more musical numbers with the show-biz surreal satire of the Inquistion section; it’s the kind of satire that makes the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup a classic farce. Brooks goes wrong when he pulls back to innocuous loveability–when he has Gregory Hines say to him, “You’re the first white man I even considered liking.” (Now, if that had been “the first Jews…”) Hines’ dancing–the movie could have used more of it–deserves better than a suck-up line.

When Brooks has a hot streak on a TV talk show, you can see his mental process at work, and amazing things just pop out of his mouth. He can’t get that rhythm going on the screen with prepared gags. Some movie directors can give their material that surprise. Altman has often done it, and in Hi, Mom! DePalma did it, with a highly inflammatory race-relations subject. But Brooks isn’t a great director–far from it. He’s a great personality though, and he moves wonderfully; his dancing in his Torquemada robes is right up there with Groucho’s lope. Wearing a little mustache and with his lips puckered, Brooks as Louis XVI bears a startling resemblance to Chaplin in his Monsieur Verdoux period. I kept waiting for him to do something with this resemblance, but he didn’t. Was he unaware of it? Lecherous Louis did, however, make me understand why women at the French court wore those panniers that puffed out the sides of their skirts; we see those ballooning bottoms through his eyes. (Brooks may be wasting his talent by not appearing in other directors’ movies while he’s preparing his own.) As a director-star, he has the chance to go on pushing out the boundaries of screen comedy, because, despite the disapproving voices in the press and on TV, he can probably get away with it. Like Pryor, he’s a cutie.

Too bad for us, Mel’s movies never got better, but he sure did score a hit with the play version of The Producers.

Million Dollar Movie

More P. Kael from “The Age of Movies. ”

From the essay, “Fear of Movies” (September 25, 1978):

In his new book The Films in My Life, Francois Truffaut writes, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” Truffaut’s dictum may exclude films that some of us enjoy. You couldn’t claim that National Lampoon’s Animal House expresses either the joy or the agony of making cinema. It’s like the deliberately dumb college-football comedies of the thirties–the ones with Joan Davis or Martha Ray–only more so; it’s a growly, rambunctious cartoon, and its id anarchy triumphs over the wet-fuse pacing, the botchy lighting, and the many other ineptitudes. In its own half-flubbed way, it has a style. And you don’t go to a film like Animal House for cinema, you go for roughhousing disreputability; it makes you laugh by restoring you to the slobby infant in yourself. (If it were more artistic, it couldn’t do that.)

But that sort of movie is a special case. Essentially, I agree with Truffaut. I can enjoy movies that don’t have that moviemaking fever in them, but it’s enjoyment on a different level, without the special aphrodisia of movies–the kinetic responsiveness, the all-out submission to pleasure. That “pulse” leaves you with all your senses quickened. When you see a movie such as Convoy, which has this vibrancy and yet doesn’t hold together, you still feel clearheaded. But when you’ve seen a series of movies without it, whether proficient soft-core porn like The Deep or klutzburgers like Grease, you feel poleaxed by apathy. If a movie doesn’t “pulse”–if the director isn’t talented, and if he doesn’t become fervently obsessed with the possibilities that subject offers him to explore moviemaking itself–it’s dead and it deadens you. Your heart goes cold. The world is a dishrag. (Isn’t the same thing true for a novel, a piece of music, a painting?)

The pressing against the bounds of the medium doesn’t necessarily result in a good movie (John Boorman’s debauch Exorcist II: The Heretic is proof of that), but it generally results in a live one–a movie there’s some reason to see–and it’s the only way great movies get made…there’s enough visual magic in [Exorcist II] for a dozen good movies; what the picture lacks is judgment–the first casualty of the moviemaking obsession.

…There’s no way I could make the case that Animal House is a better picture than Heaven Can Wait, yet on some sort of emotional-aesthetic level I prefer it. One returns you to the slobbiness of infancy, the other to the security of childhood, and I’d rather stand with the slobs.

I love this.

Million Dollar Movie

From “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” here’s Kael on Robert De Niro.

First, in Mean Streets:

While an actor like Jeff Bridges in The Last American Hero hits the true note, De Niro here hits the far-out, flamboyant one and makes his own truth. He’s a bravura actor, and those who have registered him only as the grinning, tobacco-chewing dolt of that hunk of inept whimsey Bang the Drum Slowly will be unprepared for his volatile performance. De Niro does something like what Dustin Hoffman was doing in Midnight Cowboy, but wilder; this kid doesn’t just act–he takes off into the vapors. De Niro is so intensely appealing that it might be easy to overlook Harvey Keitel’s work as Charlie. But Keitel makes De Niro’s triumph possible; Johnny Boy can bounce off Charlie’s anxious, furious admiration.

The Godfather Part II:

Brando is not on the screen this time, but he persists in his sons, Fredo and Michael, and Brando’s character is exteneded by our seeing how it was formed. As Vito, Robert De Niro amply convinces one that he has it in him to become the old man that Brando was. It’s not that he looks exactly like Brando but he has Brando’s wary woul, and so we can easily imagine the body changing with the years. It is much like seeing a photograph of one’s own dead father when he was a strapping young man; the burning spirit we see in his face spooks us, because of our knowledge of what he was at the end. In De Niro’s case, the young man’s face is fired by a secret pride. His gesture as he refuses the gift of a box of groceries is beautifully expressive and has the added wonder of suggesting Brando, and not from the outside but from the inside. When De Niro closes his eyes to blot out something insupportable, the reflex is like a presentiment of the old man’s reflexes. There is such a continuity of soul between the child on the ship, De Niro’s slight, ironic smile as a coward landlord tries to appease him, and Brando, the old man who died happy in the sun, that although Vito is a subsidiary character in terms of actual time on the screen, this second film, like the first, is imbued with his presence.

…De Niro’s performance is so subtle that when he speaks in the Sicilian dialect he learned for the role he speaks easily, but he is cautious in English and speaks very clearly and precisely. For a man of Vito’s character who doesn’t know the language well, precision is important–sloppy talk would be unthinkable. Like Brando’s Vito, De Niro’s has a reserve that can never be breached.

Taxi Driver:

Robert De Niro is in almost every frame: thin-faced, as handsome as Robert Taylor one moment and cagey, ferrety, like Cagney, the next–and not just looking at the people he’s talking to but spying on them. As Travis, De Niro has none of the pleasant courtliness of his Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Vito held himself proudly, in control of his violence; he was a leader. Travis is danger in a different, cumulative way. His tense face folds in a yokel’s grin and he looks almost like an idiot. Or he sits in his room vacantly watching the bright-eyed young faces on the TV and with his foot he slowly rocks the set back and then over. The exacerbation of his desire for vengeance shows in his numbness, yet part of the horror implicit in this movie is how easily he passes. The anonymity of the city soaks up one more invisible man; he could be legion.

…Some actors are said to be empty vessels who are filled by the roles they play, but that’s not what appears to be happening here with De Niro. He’s gone the other way. He’s used his emptiness–he’s reached down into his own anomie. Only Brando has done this kind of plunging, and De Niro’s performance has something of the undistanced intensity that Brando’s had in Last Tango. In its own way, this movie, too, has an erotic aura. There is practically no sex in it, but no sex can be as disturbing as sex. And that’s what it’s about: the absence of sex–bottled-up, impacted energy and emotion, with a blood-splattering release. The fact that we experience Travis’s need for an explosion viscerally, and that the explosion itself has the quality of consummation, makes Taxi Driver one of the few truly modern horror films.

And Raging Bull:

As Jake La Motta, the former middleweight boxing champ, in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro wears scar tissue and a big, bent nose that deform his face. It’s a miracle that he didn’t grown them–he grew everything else. He developed a thick-muscled neck and a fighter’s body, for the scenes of the broken, drunken La Motta he put on so much weight that he seems to have sunk in the fat with hardly a trace of himself left. What De Niro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’m not sure what it is. Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable. De Niro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with: his La Motta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside, and some semi-religious, semi-abstract concepts of guilt. He has so little expressive spark that what I found myself thinking about wasn’t La Motta or the movie but the metamorphosis of De Niro. His appearance–with his head flattened out and widened by fat–is far more shocking that if he were artificially padded.

Raging Bull isn’t just a biography of a genre; it’s also about movies and about violence, it’s about gritty visual rhythm, it’s about Brando, it’s about the two Godfather pictures–it’s about Scorsese and De Niro’s trying to top what they’ve done and what everybody else has done. When De Niro and Liza Minnelli began to argue in Scorsese’s New York, New York, you knew they were going to go from yelling to hitting, because they had no other way to escalate the tension. Here we get more of these actors’ battles; they’re between Jake and Joey, and between Jake and Vickie. Listening to Jake and Joey go at each other, like the macho clowns in Cassavetes movies, I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb fuck,” and Joey says, “You dumb fuck,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb fucks?


Bronx Banter Interview: Sanford Schwartz

“The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” edited by Sanford Schwartz is a new release from the Library of America and it’s been getting a lot of press along with Brian Kellow’s Kael biography. I’m going to blog about P. Kael, who is one of my favorite writers, all week and will include all the links fit to click.

For starters, here’s a recent conversation I had with Sanford Schwartz.

Check it out:

Bronx Banter: What was your approach in selecting the material for this book? My first impression was that it seemed thin, but then I checked and it is almost 800 pages, anything but thin. Then again, I grew up reading Kael and have all of her books. Is the ideal reader for this book someone who is unfamiliar with her work?

Sanford Schwartz: My first aim in selecting Pauline Kael pieces was to give the range of her thinking and sensibility. As a kid of shadow story, I wanted the selections to give a rough sense of movie history during the years she wrote. I wanted there to be representative pieces on the actors and directors who meant most to her. So there are a number of reviews on Altman, Godard, Scorsese, and so forth. I hoped that the anthology would engage people who already knew her—but unlike you didn’t collect all her books over the years—and also people who, in their twenties and thirties, don’t know who she is. It is always a surprise to run into people who have never heard of her, and I have found that most young people haven’t.

BB. Kael was close to fifty when she started reviewing movies for the New Yorker though she’d been writing for some time. How do you think this influenced her voice as a writer, as opposed to other critics who get their start much earlier?

SS: I’m not sure that it meant a lot. Her having waited so long and absorbed so many movies along the way obviously couldn’t have hurt when it came to writing with authority and conviction. But that certainty was evident in her letters from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when she was in her early twenties—except that her subject was still unclear to her. And it was fortuitous, her coming into the field when she did—an art form was being revitalized.

BB: What did Kael bring to movie criticism in the 1960s and ’70s that set her apart from her contemporaries?

SS: Kael made reading movie reviews a more intimate and personal experience than it had ever been before. Little criticism of any kind conveyed a comparable sense of there being such a powerful, funny, opinionated, scarily shrewd, and common sensical voice there, talking to you. You wanted to know what she thought about everything. You don’t feel this with most journalists, whether they are reviewing an art of doing a political column.

BB: One of the quirks that Kael was famous for was only watching a movie once. She’s been criticized for that over the years, that it suggests a lack of reflection or the possibility that a work of art can change for you. What is it about watching a movie only one time that informed the way she wrote about it?

SS: First off, it should be noted that there were times when she saw a movie more than once. I saw a number of movies with her when it was her second time. But then it was usually because she was checking something. I think she joked about falling asleep during Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” both times she saw it. How many times she saw a movie was conditioned, actually, by her generally tight writing schedule; she usually didn’t have the time to see a movie twice. But the deeper point with this issue concerns the importance of instinct for her. She believed our truest response to a movie (or any art) was our first one, and she wanted to catch that. It was also a matter of temperament. She had on-the-spot judgments about many things. That was how she operated. Movies for her, even the great, complex ones, were about the senses in a way that books were not, and in seeing a movie once and trying to recapture its immediate impact she was, in her thinking, being true to the experience it offered.

BB. Did you re-watch any of the movies whose reviews you included in the collection?

SS: I saw some again, and initially I thought it would be good to re-see many of them. But my sense if that going back to films I loved years ago is hazardous. You re-see Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, or “The Leopard” and part of you must confront ways that the movie, and you, have changed—and altogether the event is more about time than the movie. How movies age is an interesting topic. Kael talked about it in “Movies and Television.”

BB: You’ve included her most famous reviews, ones she was chided about for over-praising like “The Last Tango in Paris,” “Nashville,” and to a lesser extent, “Casualties of War.” How do you think her takes on those movies stand up?

SS: I can’t say how her reviews of those movies hold up because I haven’t seen them recently. My hunch is that she did go overboard on them. I probably felt that then. But of course the reviews had to be in any anthology of her work. They were major pieces for her. They are statements of her belief.

BB: Kael has been ridiculed for her enthusiasm for those movies, but her take on other “classics” of that time period, particularly two “Godfather” movies or “Mean Streets” or “Shampoo” seem spot on. Are there any particular movies that she loved where you feel that her writing is especially sharp?

SS: I wasn’t that interested in whether she was, as you say about some of her reviews, “spot on.” In reviewing an art, reasoning and descriptions count for much more than opinion. As to what I think she was especially sharp on, I hope “The Age of Movies” provides an answer. Are there many more pieces that might have gone in? For sure.

BB: I like that you’ve included her major essays like “Trash, Art and the Movies,” “Why Are Movies So Bad? or The Numbers,” and the long one on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City.” And especially an early on, “Movies, the Desperate Art.” But you did not include her celebrated essay on “Citizen Kane.” Is that because it was just too long or because you feel it doesn’t hold up as representative of her talent?

SS: No, the Kane article, as I say in the Introduction, is too long to be included.

BB: One of Kael’s first memorable articles was “Circles and Squares,” a harsh take on fellow critic Andrew Sarris’ ideas about the auteur theory. Why did you not include that one?

SS: I didn’t include the Sarris essay because it is too long for the points it makes. It would have hogged space from livelier writing—writing that meant more to Kael. There are good words in it on what criticism meant for her. If I had excerpts in the anthology I probably would have excerpted those passages. I felt also that readers for whom “auteur” issues mater would already know Kael’s piece, whereas for the wider audience that she wrote for at The New Yorker, and for whom “The Age of Movies” is intended, her deflating this theory—it is really a set of opinions—is not a very engaging issue. And while I think she nails Sarris and the whole approach, she doesn’t do it in a way that opens up the topic to the general reader. Unless you are already familiar with the auteur line, her essay is rather confusing, especially at the beginning. It isn’t an essay that had much long-term meaning for her; she never could take that stuff seriously.

BB: Kael’s review of the documentary, “Shoah,” was famous because she panned it but it’s not here.

SS: I didn’t have a powerful reason to skip the “Shoah” review. Probably, it was a matter of space and also the sense that the reasoning and attitude on display there was already clear from other articles. It is certainly a strong one, though.

BB: During the ’70s, Kael shared her position writing “The Current Cinema” at the New Yorker with Penelope Gilliatt. As a result, there are some classics from that time that she never reviewed properly like “Annie Hall,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (though she does mention this one in a notes column), and maybe especially, “Apocalypse Now.” Were there any movies that you missed her reviewing?

SS: Even with her half-year schedule in the beginning, I believe she managed to encompass the major films of her era (but a movie historian might have another view of this). If a movie was taken seriously or touched hot issues for people—and it came out when she was off—she generally managed to find a way to her her verdict in somewhere. The long articles she periodically wrote during the time she was off let her do just that. She used a piece ostensibly about actors to acknowledge “Jaws” and she let people know where she stood on “2001” in “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

BB: Kael had her favorites—Peckinpah and DePalma, to name just two—and those who she was famous for blasting, like Kubrick and Woody Allen. But she actually took each movie as it came, and I like that you’ve included “Lolita,” which she adored and as well as “A Clockwork Orange,” which she hated. Same goes for the early Scorsese hits, “Mean Streets,” and “Taxi Driver,” again, which she loved, and “Raging Bull,” which was the first in a long line of his movies that turned her off. Even though she was famous for her prejudices do you feel that she always gave a new movie an equal chance?

SS: Oh, yes. That is one reason I included her review of Bergman’s “Shame.” The piece shows her wrestling with the fact that a director with whom she was often at odds made a movie she had to call a masterpiece. She could always say when someone she admired—Altman, Godard, Bertolucci, Huston, even Renoir—came out flat. Her subject was the film at hand, not someone’s reputation or the credit they might have built up. She didn’t much like Robert Duvall, but after she saw “The Apostle,” which he directed and wrote as well as starred in, she said something like, “You’ve got to hand it to the bastard.”

BB: Kael once said that she never wrote a memoir because, “I think I have” in her reviews. She brought her life’s experience to her reviews, from what she knew about music and books and the theater, but also from what she knew about being a mother, having her heart broken in relationships, everything. Do you think you the story of her life can be found in her work?

SS: Yes, if the story of her life is constituted by her awareness and judgments. I don’t think she was the kind of artist whose life experience mirror or can be seen as a counterpoint to their work. For Agee and Farber, yes; their movie reviews tell us things about each man’s total contribution that we might not know otherwise. Kael, though, put most of what counted in her life in her reviews.

BB: She also once said “In movies, judgment is often not so important in a critic as responsiveness to what a movie feels like, and where it’s heading and what its vision is.” She was very tuned in to the reaction movies had on audiences, especially during her heyday in the early ’70s. Was there any other critic during that time, or any other time, that was as invested in how movies were received by popular culture and what it all meant?

SS: I believe you need a movie historian to answer this one. My feeling is that she got more of the ramifications of movies—their relation to the wider culture and society in general—than most film writers.

BB: This collection is spare toward the last 10 years of her career. Is that because the cultural moment of the movies had passed by the mid ’80s or because you were running out of room? Even though the pieces in her final two collections, “Hooked,” and particularly, “Movie Love,” are terse compared with her earlier writing, I think they had a lovely, compact quality. Were there any reviews that were hard for you not to include?

SS: Kael herself said that her strongest collections were those that covered the films of the 1970s. The movies were richer then. They brought out more of her. And she was first luxuriating in all the space The New Yorker gave her. It is possible that if she had first started reviewing in 1980 her pieces might have been longer and more nuances—even considering the quality of the movies. As it was, by the mid-1980s she had already put forth in some detail her aesthetic and social positions. I agree with you, though, about the “lovely, compact quality” of her reviews of the eighties.

BB: I recall Kael once writing with admiration for the discipline it took Altman to achieve a style that appeared casual and loose. I often think about that when I consider her writing—it is conversational but don’t you think it must have taken a lot of discipline to achieve that effect?

SS: Kael was almost always writing with a deadline, so the words had to come fast, and by nature she was suited to spilling her feelings. But she had to do a lot of work to get the reviews in shape. She could be making substantive changes right to the last minute.

“The Age of Movies” is out now and you can order it here.


As a follow-up to my conversation with Schwartz, I dipped into my library for more Kael and found this in “Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael,” by Francis Davis:

Well, the auteur theory originally meant something quite different from what people understand it be mean now. What it originally said was that a director conferred value upon a film—that if a director was an auteur, all of his films were great. I think the public never understood that, and neither did most of the press. It was an untenable theory, and it fell from sight. It’s now taken to mean that we should pay attention to who directed a movie, because a director is vital to a film, and of course this is true. But it’s something that everybody has always known. I mean, everybody knew that Howard Hawks was terrific. We went to see “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” the day they opened, and there was an excitement in the theater, because we all knew that these movies were special. They were smart, and we loved the work of smart directors, because lots of movies were so dumb…But the auteurists considered all of his movies to be wonderful by definition, because he was an auteur. It reached a point where they were acclaiming the later movies of directors who had ceased doing good work years earlier. Hitchcock’s later movies were acclaimed, and they were stinkers—terrible movies. And many routine action movies were praised because they were the work of certain directors.

It’s sometimes discouraging to see of a director’s movies, because there’s so much repetition. The auteurists took this to be a sign of a director’s artistry, that you could recognize his movies. But for all of a director’s movies to be alike in some essential way can also be a sign that he’s a hack.

And this on Andrew Sarris:

We both loved movies. We had that in common, and I enjoy reading him as I enjoy reading very few critics. He has genuine reactions to movies, and many critics don’t. He picks things up and points things out…The big difference between us is that our taste in movies is so radically different. He really likes romantic, classically structured movies. He had very conservative tastes in movies; he didn’t love the farout stuff that I loved. He’s a man who likes movies like “Waterloo Bridge,” movies that drive me crazy with impatience. It’s funny that he should have been at the Voice, and the voice of an underground paper. I think I would have been much more suitable to the Voice, yet for years I got dumped on brutally by the paper. That always amazed me, because I thought, I’m praising movies you should love, so what’s going on here? He and I were at the wrong places—it’s one of those flukes of movie history.

Also this on eroticism in movies and not being able to review “Deep Throat” for the New Yorker:

It wasn’t a good movie. But I very badly wanted to write about it, because for all that was being written about it, nobody was really dealing with what was on the screen. I think half of the reason that people become interested in movies in the first place is sex and dating and everything connected with eroticism on the screen. And I felt that not to deal with all of that in its most naked form was to shirk part of what’s involved in being a movie critic.

I’d love to have written about more eroticism in the movies. I think it’s a great subject, and I dealt with it a little bit in my reviews of “Last Tango in Paris,” “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” and a few other movies. Bertrand Blier I loved writing about, because he dealt so much in sexual areas. But it was tough to write about it all with [New Yorker editor, William] Shawn. I had a real tough time with him when I wrote about “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” The Marco Ferreri version of Charles Bukowski, about a girl who’s virtually a mermaid, with Ben Gazzara as the Bukowski, more or less. It’s an amazing movie, with some scenes that are quite erotic. I had to put up a terrible fight to get it in. Shawn wanted to know if the critics for other magazines were covering it. I said that shouldn’t be our standard for what we covered at The New Yorker. But it was hard to convince Shawn that I wasn’t pulling some sort of swindle by sneaking material into the magazine that he felt didn’t belong there. He felt he was holding the line against barbarians, and to some degree I was a barbarian.

He made it very hard to write about certain aspects of movies. Nobody, really, has done a very good job of writing on a sustained level about the way movies affect people erotically, and about the fact that they became popular because they’re a dating game. People love movies that reason, because they excite them sexually. They go to them on dates, and they go to learn more about how to behave. I never got a real crack at writing about that.

Another terrific volume for Kael nerds is “Conversations with Pauline Kael”.

From an interview with Sam Staggs in Mandate (May 1983):

Mandate: Why do you hit so many nerves among the common readers? Why do you stir up such antagonism as well as such passionate devotion?

Kael: In my writing, I was trying to get at what I actually responded to at the movies, and I couldn’t do in formal, scholarly language. I worked to loosen my style—to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice. I began, for example, to interject remarks—interrupting a train of thought, just as we do when we talk, and then picking it up again. And when I began to feel the freedom to write as easily as I spoke, the writing itself became pleasurable.

Maybe part of the resentment I stir up among critics who suffer when they write is that they can tell I’m having a good time. My guess is that just as my slangy colloquial style appeals to some readers because it is sometimes enables me to get right at what I think the emotional substance of a movie is, it turns off other readers, who prefer more literary, distanced criticism. For example, I’m frequently disparaged as ‘opinionated’—I think what this comes down to is that often I don’t share in the consensus that builds up on certain movies. Sometimes, it builds up even before the critics have seen a picture, as it did on “Sophie’s Choice”—I suspect that a lot of readers are snowed by big themes and advance articles in the New York Times. And then, if they read me making fun of the picture, they’re outraged and think I’m irresponsible, and especially so because I don’t couch my review in the language that has come to be equated with ‘objectivity.’

photo by Chris Carroll

And from a Q&A by Marc Smirnoff in the Oxford American (Spring 1992) after Kael had retired from the New Yorker:

Q: Is a person lucky to be a movie critic?

Kael: It is really a wonderfully exciting field to write about when the movies are good. When they’re not good, it’s to despair. The really bad movies you can write about with some passion and anger. It’s the mediocre ones that wear you down. They’re disgusting to write about because you can feel yourself slipping into the same mediocrity and stupidity. And you feel you’re boring the readers and yourself. When you starting falling asleep while you’re writing a review, you know how dull the movie is. The danger for criticism is that people will want to become critics in order to become television celebrities, rather than enjoying the pleasure of writing and the excitement of trying to define and describe what you’ve seen.

Q: Do you miss writing reviews?

Kael: Yes, but I know I’ve got to adjust to it. That’s part of adapting to getting older. You’ve got to recognize that the time for certain things has passed and, I’m not an idiot, I know I would not write at my best if I went on. You know, you start repeating yourself—you write the same phrase, you write the same descriptions. I’ve already had the problem of working on a paragraph that I thought was pretty good and looking up what I said about that director’s work the last time I wrote about him and finding out it was almost exactly the same paragraph. Well, you know, it’s time to quit.


Million Dollar Movie

By Jon DeRosa

Just like most other genres these days, successful horror movies spawn franchises. The studios have indulged lengthy strolls down Elm Street and at one point, seemed to have taken great care to make sure there was a fresh installment of “Friday the 13th” every time the calendar dictated.

I’ve never seen any of them, but does the number of times people wanted to sit through the same basic story to be scared in the same basic way tell us something of ourselves as a species? I’ll leave that for someone who watched those movies to decide.

In fact, to be a successful horror movie franchise, the film doesn’t even have to be a true horror movie. Both “The Evil Dead” and the “Scream” movies are horror-movie derivitives, distilling or reducing the elements of horror movies and packaging them up with laughs for a new twist.

“The Evil Dead” is a horror movie that has mostly discarded plot, writing, acting, sound, editing, cinematagrophy, and lighting. All that is left is gore, suspense and comedy. It’s poorly made but still spectacular – I challenge you to look away during a screening. The efforts appear earnest, and it’s hard to believe the people responsible for “The Evil Dead” (Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert) would someday create the best super hero fight on film (Raimi’s Doc Ock vs Spiderman on a skyscraper) and torment our hero John Schulian (Tapert).

That’s not to say the movie just a bucket of corn syrup dyed red and an eerie score. There’s a lovely moment where Ash, played by cult hero Bruce Campbell, holds a gift for his girlfriend, Linda, and pretends to be asleep. Linda wants to to grab the gift, but she suspects he’s faking. The camera catches just their eyes as she looks between him and the gift and Ash takes occasional peeks to see if his ruse is working. And then of course when Linda dies, Ash tries to bury her before she can turn into a zombie-monster. He’s too late, but she fakes him out with the same game, pretending to be dead while he digs her grave, sneaking peeks to see if her ruse is working.

When he slices her head off with the shovel, there’s an extra pang between the chuckles. The movie rightly has a devoted following for it’s knack of being bad in just the right ways. And now a remake? I wonder…

On the other side of the same coin are the “Scream” movies. These films are loaded with everything modern Hollywood does best, and then polished to a sheen. The derivative nature of “Scream” lies within the plot of the film as the psychotic killers and the hapless victims of the film are themsleves horror film fanatics. They know how horror movies work inside and out, and when they find themselves inside one, they keep track of what is happening like play-by-play commentators at a sporting event.

Most of them still die, but it’s a lot funnier when the victim does something stupid a few minutes after she discussed the universal stupidity of female horror movie victims.

Like Alex, I don’t seek out a lot of horror movies. However, consuming American popular culture for over thirty years ingrains horror movie formulae in the brain. So it doesn’t take an expert in scary movies to enjoy seeing them turned in on themselves in ingenious ways. And with all the laughs “Scream” and “The Evil Dead” bring to the table, suspense is such a potent ingredient that even these horror-comedies will take you to the edge of your seat before you’re rolling in the aisles.

Million Dollar Movie

By Steven Goldman

Many elements of “The Old Dark House” come courtesy of the Brits: the original novel by J.B. Priestley, director James Whale, and a good chunk of the cast including top-billed Boris Karloff (born William Henry Pratt) and Charles Laughton. Yet, the very idea of an old dark house has deep resonance in America’s very DNA, more than the idea of the “haunted house,” which goes back in time as long as there has been a tradition of literature and found its first modern expression in Horace Walpole’s 1764 novella The Castle of Otranto.

The American version, the one that belongs to us, arrived with Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which is not a ghost story but, with its themes of corruption, decay, insanity, and incest, embodies a more primal American fear than the angry dead, one built for the wide-open spaces of an entire continent, that if you knock on any door down one of our isolated country roads you will discover that the people living behind it have been left alone for so long that they have become perverse and dangerous. Every quaint farmhouse harbors a family of demented maniacs who want to fuck you and put you in the soup, as does every shotgun shack and even Hamptons mansion, although motivations and order of operations may vary. Europeans fear ghosts, Americans fear the living.

That’s largely the situation in “The Old Dark House,” which contains the blueprint for every “the car died on a cold and rainy night and there is nowhere to seek shelter except that place up the road” story that followed, including “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “The Old Dark House” is basically “Rocky Horror” without the stockings and the songs, although Whale’s movie is funnier in that the picture winks at its grotesques rather than simply parodying them. When Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) the puritanistic, sex-obsessed crone who makes up one half of the inevitable brother-sister pair that lives in the house, compulsively repeats that her unexpected guests can stay but, “No beds! You can’t have beds!” her single-mindedness is laughable, but also frightening in that you wonder what her fixations portend—no one denies sex so insistently if they’re not harboring kinks too disturbing to be faced.

Let’s backtrack: Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, and their dissolute pal Melvyn Douglas are tooling around the rain-darkened countryside when the road gets washed out. Whaddya know, there’s a light on at the Femm place. They are greeted at the door by a servant, Morgan, a shuffling, drunken mute played in heavy makeup by Boris Karloff. Karloff was coming off of his great success in “Frankenstein,” and the makers of the film really want you to know that yes, that is him playing Morgan—before the credits roll, even before the Universal Studios card appears, there is a note from the producers saying, yes, damn it, that’s Karloff. Trust us. “We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.”

The Massey-Stuart-Douglas trio is soon joined by two other wayward travelers, an unrepentant capitalist played by Charles Laughton in an early American role, and his flighty mistress, portrayed by Lillian Bond. There are some soap opera-ish interactions among these characters and a “Lost Generation” characterization for Douglas (the actual point of the Priestley novel, rather than horror), but like the songs in Metro-era Marx Brothers movies, these are just annoying changes of pace—the real interest of the film is in the Femm siblings and the other family members they’ve got stashed away upstairs, including an ancient pater familias so old that he had to be portrayed by a woman credited as a man (actually the wonderfully-named Elspeth Dudgeon) and the ominous Saul, who is locked in the attic.

Director Whale, the subject of “Gods and Monsters,” leavened his scare flicks with a bit of ironic detachment, puncturing frightening moments with jejune actions that are somehow still disturbing. There is a moment in “House” when the various guests are sitting down to dinner with the Femms, and the atmosphere is so heightened that when brother Horace Femm says, “Have a potato,” it is momentarily frightening, then quickly comic, because, damn it, it’s a potato.

The dinner scene is a good example of the way the film expertly veers in tone. Horace and Rebecca are played for laughs in that scene, with Horace’s pushing of the potatoes and Rebecca loading her plate with vinegared onion after vinegared onion, but it is preceded by a scene between the attractive young Stuart and Eva Moore that begins with Rebecca’s comic eccentricity—“It’s a dreadful night. I’m a little deaf. No beds!”—and then quickly becomes serious as it shows how the obsessive fear of sin can become sinful. The drenched Stuart needs to change her clothes, and Moore takes her to an isolated bedroom dominated by a cracked mirror.

“My sister Rachel had this room once,” Moore says, “She died when she was 21. She was a wicked one, handsome and wild as a hawk. All the young men used to follow her about, with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck. But that didn’t save her… On this bed she lay, month after month. Many is the time I sat here listening to her screaming. She used to cry out to me to kill her, but I’d tell her to turn to the Lord. But she didn’t. She was godless to the last.”

Stuart changes into a sleek gown, because if you have Stewart ’32 in your film (as opposed to the aged version James Cameron had portraying the elderly Kate Winslet in “Titanic”) you show her off a bit. Moore notices her 21-year-old body. “You’re wicked, too… You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you?” As Stuart pulls on her gown, Rebecca grabs the hem and says, “This is fine stuff, but it will rot!” Then, pointing at Stuart’s chest, “That’s finer stuff still, but it will rot, too, in time!” Then Stuart looks into the mirror, and sees that it is true.

In many ways, “The Old Dark House” is just a play, with a few darkened sets and a lot of talking, but it’s an effective one. The cast is very good. Laughton would go on to have a long, Hall of Fame career, and it’s foreshadowed in his smallish part here. If Massey is remembered today, it’s probably for the 1960s medical series “Doctor Kildare,” in which he supported Richard Chamberlain, but he had a gift for playing messianic figures, notably in two Civil War pictures he made in 1940, Robert Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” in which he took the title role, and “The Santa Fe Trail,” in which he plays John Brown against Errol Flynn’s Jeb Stuart and Ronald Reagan’s George Custer. Yes, that Ronald Reagan, yes, that George Custer.
Karloff doesn’t have a lot to do, but as an actor he was a lot more than a man in makeup. Douglas would have a long career, winning two Academy Awards (though not until roughly 30 and 50 years after “House” was made).

In the end, a few things that shouldn’t come creeping down the stairs and there’s a desperate struggle, but no Usher-like fall happens to the House of Femm. The picture ends with Horace beaming as his guests depart. “It’s a pleasure to have met you,” he smiles. A night of madness is just a bit of diversion for the Femms, and you get the sense that they’ll quickly get to work straightening up the place so it can all happen again the next time it rains.

Subsequent iterations of freaks-in-an-old-house (as opposed to “haunted house”) template, including a risible 1963 remake directed by William “The Tingler” Castle, have upped the level of violence, fear, and insanity far beyond anything in the house that Whale provides here, but I prefer the Femms because they’re knowable. There is nothing supernatural at work here, just some loosely-alluded to debauchery in the distant past and a moralizing streak that wouldn’t stand out in some quarters of the Republican Party.

That’s why I like “The Old Dark House.” It’s planted squarely on our soil, haunted only by a little sex and a little violence and the knowledge that if there’s a light on at the place up the road, it’s probably because someone needed to illuminate something dirty. It’s that animating Puritan spirit of paranoia that Hawthorne wrote about so brilliantly in stories like “Young Goodman Brown.” Whale’s “House” is the rare film that has fun while exploring this concept, the knowledge that, as Sartre wrote, hell is other people—or in the American case, the other people just up the road.

Million Dollar Movie

In the history of the movies, there are few actors and roles linked as indelibly as Boris Karloff and Frankenstein’s monster. Karloff had been acting in the movies for a decade by the time he donned Jack Pierce’s make-up in director James Whale’s “Frankenstein,” (which debuted 80 years ago this December) but it was the monster that made him a star. In return, Karloff made Universal’s (and Jack Pierce’s) version of Frankenstein’s monster an icon for the ages. Mary Shelley may have created the character in her 1818 novel, but its Pierce’s make-up and Karloff’s portrayal – the flat head, neck bolts, ill-fitting suit coat and heavy platform boots – that dominate the popular conception of him.

When Universal Pictures set out to make “Frankenstein,” it was to star Bela Lugosi, capitalizing on his “Dracula” success. However, after a few failed make-up tests, Lugosi left the project. Whale brought in 44 year old character actor Karloff, who created a movie monster for the ages. The monster doesn’t speak in the first Frankenstein film, but Karloff’s performance is a masterpiece of movie acting. Universal Pictures had thought the film would make Colin Clive (as Dr. Henry Frankenstein) a star, but instead audiences took to Karloff’s monster. Karloff’s monster, shuffles and lurches, moans and grunts, smashes and strangles and whimpers in fear. The image of the monster reaching for the light coming through the open ceiling seems to imbue the murderous brute with a spiritual yearning. The most shocking moment comes when the monster drowns a little girl as they play beside a pond.  The monster is bewildered and confused that little Maria does not float the same way the flowers they had been tossing in the water had. The movie’s script had taken a turn from Shelley’s novel, attempting to take away any humanity from the character of the monster, to make him a monster that could simply be seen as dangerous and bad and needing to be killed, but somehow Karloff got through to audiences anyway. As the townspeople revel in burning down the old mill with the monster inside, chances are even 1931 audiences were sad  to see the monster go.

The film was a hit and Universal went on to make several more Frankenstein films, with and without Karloff. The first of these, “Bride of Frankenstein,” also directed by Whale and starring Karloff and Clive, is the rare sequel that equals or surpasses the original. It’s also one of the loopiest horror movies ever made, with an introductory sequence of Shelley, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley sitting around on a stormy night to set up the sequel with her telling them that the story didn’t end the way they thought but — there was more! From there we re-enter the story of the monster, Henry Frankenstein (It’s unclear why the doctor’s name was changed from Victor, his name in the novel), and his bride Elizabeth. Now add a second “mad scientist,” Dr. Pretorius who also has learned how to create life and wants to team up with Frankenstein to create more creatures. Frankenstein wants no part of it, so Pretorius kidnaps Elizabeth to coerce him. Meanwhile, the monster, who had survived the first film’s fire thanks to an underground well is roaming around the countryside on a rampage. Luckily for him, he stumbles upon a blind hermit who feeds him and begins to teach him to speak. Yes, this is the sequence parodied so brilliantly by Peter Boyle and Gene Hackman in Mel Brooks’ great “Young Frankenstein,” but even the original scenes are hilarious (“Alone – baaaad! Friend – gooooood!”). Ultimately, the monster is detained long enough by Pretorius and Frankenstein so he can watch them create his bride – a female monster played by Elsa Lanchester (who also played Mary Shelley in the prologue). However, she doesn’t take much of a shine to Karloff’s monster (“She haaaaate me!”) and he decides to blow up the lab and all inside it, being nice enough to let his creator, Frankenstein and Elizabeth run to safety first. (Frankenstein’s monster here has clearly advanced to the mentality of an adolescent male – when the girl you like doesn’t want to get together with you, hey – flip that switch and melodramatically blow everyone up.)

Although Karloff would play a variety of roles throughout his long film, stage and television career, he would always be linked to the horror genre and to Frankenstein in particular. However, he was always appreciative of the role that made him a star. As he said, “The monster was the best friend I ever had.”


Million Dollar Movie

Aliens (1986)

In 1979, director Ridley Scott brought us “Alien“, a horror/sci-fi film revolving around the crew of a space freighter Nostromo battling a merciless extraterrestrial being wanting to use humans as “hosts”.  The alien being “attached” to the face of the victim, and implanted its egg down the victim’s throat.  The egg would grow and eventually a new “baby alien” would announce its presence by bursting through the victim’s chest.  Oh, and the blood of these aliens appears to be a highly corrosive acid, so please don’t let any of it get on you.

The film provided a rarity … a female lead character (Ellen Ripley, portrayed by a then-barely known Sigourney Weaver) that didn’t launch into a “Perils of Pauline” dialogue during a crisis.  The movie was an unexpected hit.  Seven years later, James Cameron, fresh off his massive hit “The Terminator,”  gave us “Aliens”.  Rarely has a sequel measured up to its predecessor, let alone surpassed it.

As the film opens Ripley, (the only human survivor from the destroyed Nostromo of the original film) is rescued and revived after drifting for years in a space shuttle while in a form of “hypersleep”.  Her employers, a corporation named Weyland-Yutani, do not believe her tale of the “alien” encounter as no physical evidence of the creature survived the destruction of the Nostromo.   She has her space flight license suspended as a result of this, and learns that LV-426, the planet where her crew first encountered the Alien eggs, is now home to a terraforming colony.

Ripley is later visited by an employee of Weyland-Yutani, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser, in a rare dramatic turn)  and Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) of the Colonial Marines, who inform her that contact has been lost with the colony on LV-426. The company decides to dispatch Burke and a unit of marines to investigate.  Ripley is given the chance to restore her flight status and have her work contract picked up if she will accompany them as a consultant. Naturally shell-shocked by her previous encounter with the Alien, Ripley initially refuses to join, but finally accepts as she realizes she can face her post-traumatic fears. Aboard the warship Sulaco she is introduced to the Colonial Marines, including Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews, who it turns out actually was a Marine for six years), Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn, working with Cameron again after starring in “The Terminator”), Privates Vasquez (the wonderful chameleon of an actress Jenette Goldstein) and Hudson (Bill Paxton, another Cameron holdover from “The Terminator”), and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen, and yes, he appeared in “The Terminator” as well).

The Marines are dropped onto the surface of the planet and find the colony seemingly deserted.  The gungho troops, pumped up by Sergeant Apone but led by the soon-to-be-revealed very inexperienced and over-his-head Gorman, have never encountered anything like this.  Their entrance into the colony’s main building is at first executed with typical military precision, but when things start to turn against them, and members are picked off one-by-one by Aliens, Gorman freezes, and Ripley takes over.

A little while later, two living Alien creatures (having hatched from the eggs that had been inside their human hosts) are found in containment tanks in the medical lab, and the only colonist found is a traumatized young girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn).  Henn, no more than eight or nine when the movie was shot, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance.  It is an exquisite look of utter blankness and shock upon her face as she is discovered, initially resists being “captured” by the Marines, and finally allows Ripley to hold her and calm her down.  (Interestingly, this is Henn’s only acting credit in her life . . . she grew up to be a schoolteacher).

Flashing forward a bit, Ripley discovers that Burke hopes to return Alien specimens to the company laboratories where he can profit from their use as biological weapons. She threatens to expose him, but Bishop soon informs the group of a greater threat: the planet’s energy processing station has become unstable and will soon detonate with a catastrophic impact. Now it becomes a race not to save any survivors on the planet, but to just get off the planet.

Ripley, with her maternal instinct dial now at “full”, and Newt fall asleep in the medical laboratory, awakening to find themselves locked in the room with the two facehuggers, which have been released from their tanks. Ripley alerts the marines, who rescue them and kill the creatures. Ripley accuses Burke of attempting to smuggle implanted Alien embryos past Earth’s quarantine inside her and Newt, and of planning to kill the rest of the marines in hypersleep during the return trip. The electricity is suddenly cut off and numerous Aliens attack through the ceiling. An extended and tense battle scene ensues, with Hudson, Burke, Gorman, and Vasquez eventually all killed and Newt captured by the Aliens.

Ripley and an injured Hicks reach Bishop and a rescue dropship, but mama Ripley refuses to leave Newt behind as the countdown to planet extinction nears.  She locates Newt, and torches the Alien queen’s hive of eggs, enraging the queen.  In the film’s climactic scene, we see Ripley’s transformation from simple “employee” to “soldier”. She dons an “exosuit” normally used for loading heavy cargo, and utters to the Alien queen the catchphrase of the movie, summarizing her maternal instincts and pissed-off attitude in six simple words.

“Get away from her you bitch!”

Grab your popcorn, settle on your couch, and hold onto a pillow … tight.   You are in for one scary adrenaline-fueled ride.

Now We're Alone at Last…

Been a fun week, folks. Hope you guys have a great weekend.

Friday Night Lights

It’s chilly out there. Hope you are safe and warm inside…


Million Dollar Movie

Guest Writer: Ted Berg

It’s weird to watch “Halloween” now, after Wes Craven’s meta-horror pic “Scream” explicitly exposed all the clichéd slasher-film conventions that were essentially founded by John Carpenter in his 1978 classic.

We know going in that the nerdy, chaste babysitter – played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her big-screen debut – will survive the attacks of the deranged madman and her more promiscuous friends will not. We know that the couple that has sex is pretty much doomed upon penetration. And we understand that the murderer will exhibit superhuman resolve, inexorably marching forward toward his next victim despite repeated stabbings and gunshots.

Plus, “Halloween’s” characters are flat, its dialogue wooden and its plot inane. For no clear reason, a six-year-old stabs his sister on Halloween in suburbia. Fifteen years later, he escapes a mental facility and returns to his hometown with a lust for blood.

What’s wrong with him? His doctor’s best diagnosis is, essentially, that he’s evil. Why does he choose to stalk Laurie Strode – Curtis’ character – and her friends? Well, he just kind of does. Her father is a real estate agent and she has to drop off a key at Michael Myers’ old house, and that’s apparently reason enough.

And yet despite all that, it plays, even now. Halloween is a testament to Carpenter’s directorial touch. The plot and characters, really, are secondary to perpetual cycle of suspense and startle. “Halloween” forces you to constantly scan the screen for background movement; Michael Myers is expert at the sneak-up.

Carpenter frequently uses a single, shaky, hand-held camera to simulate his killer’s field of vision. It creates an unsteady, unanchored feeling, and it’s spooky as hell. And that effect is amplified by Carpenter’s classic 5/4-timed score. The odd meter is probably important; the song feels innately disruptive and unsettling.

Curtis, for her part, proves to be a master of the terrified whimper, well-cast as the unlikely but virtuous heroine. Donald Pleasence, as Myers’ psychiatrist, is just creepy enough to deliver his ominous, heavy-handed lines with appropriate horror-movie gravitas without ever seeming totally ridiculous.

Plus the plot’s downright arbitrary nature taps into a classic element of suburban terror: At any given moment, for no clear reason, there might be a man with a huge knife peering in your window, waiting to stab all your slutty friends.

Million Dollar Movie


Movie Posters that scared me as a kid.

Scared me so much I didn’t see the movies until much later.

Million Dollar Movie

Remakes are a tricky business. Well, I should specify remakes of great movies are a tricky business (e.g. “The Maltese Falcon” had been adapted for the screen twice before Huston & Bogart got their hands on it, and no one seemed to notice). Don Siegel’s 1956 film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is, to my view a great movie. However, it was a B-movie, made on the cheap with few resources beyond a great story (adapted from Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers”) and a terrifically skilled director. Maybe that’s what drove Philip Kaufman to remake “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1978. Whatever his motivations were, it’s one of the few remakes that really work: respectful of its source material, while carving out its own distinct cinematic territory in its own time. It’s also a very entertaining and truly creepy movie that blends horror with a genre that’s always been a personal favorite: the 1970s paranoia thriller.

Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland, still with the shaggy curls and mustache you all loved in “Don’t Look Now” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House”) is a city health inspector and Brooke Adams pays Elizabeth, the co-worker and friend he’s clearly pining over. Together, they begin to piece together something strange going on. Soon after the appearance of a strange new plant no one can identify, a flowering pod, people start to behave strangely. Elizabeth’s boyfriend and Matthew’s dry cleaner, among others, just don’t seem like normal anymore.  Matthew’s friends Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright, both excellent) find something even more disturbing at their mud bath spa. As fans of any of the film versions of Body Snatchers know, and our heroes soon discover, the pods are from “deep space” and are creating perfect, soulless replicas of everyone in sight as they sleep.

They attempt to enlist the help of Matthew’s good friend David Kibler (Leonard Nimoy) a noted psychiatrist and best-selling self-help author. Nimoy’s performance is crucial – he’s having so much fun playing Kibler, with such aloofness and measure, that the audience can’t help but keep wondering, “Is he or isn’t he?” He manages to seem both warm and friendly and cold and calculating, whether trying to reunite a concerned wife to her pod person husband, or assessing the validity of his friends’ story.

While Siegel’s film was set in a small town in California, Kaufman’s (scripted by W.D. Richter) transplants it to a big city: San Francisco. The crowds and architecture of the city serve the story well, amping up the sense of dread and paranoia. What if that cold stranger who just passed you on the street wasn’t just a cold stranger? Why is that janitor staring at you like that? Why is that mob chasing that man down the street?  (The man being chased through the streets is played by the star of the 1956 film, Kevin McCarthy, in a witty and smart cameo. Kafuman even gives Siegel himself a part as a cab driver.) Just who, really, do you trust?

Siegel’s film is widely read as an allegory about the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. (But from which side? The fear that evil, soulless beings that look just like us could be infiltrating our happy society or that McCarthyism had turned us into unthinking, uncaring, sleeping drones?)  Kaufman and Richter set their film in the then present, the late 1970s and seem to be spoofing the near fascistic groupthink and narcissism of the “me generation.”  Once overtaken by the space pods, people claim to be happy and relaxed, but show no emotion or individuality. They’re told that it will be easier if they just relent, fall asleep and join them, where they’ll no longer feel hate or love.  It’s a future Matthew wants no part of.

However, this is no bloated, didactic lecture – the film is a hell of a lot of fun. Kaufman’s compositions and pacing keep the film taut and also give it a persistent undercurrent of dread. We know something’s wrong, even if the characters haven’t figured it out yet.

Kaufman’s remake was a critical and box-office success. (I can recall going to see it back in the winter of ’79 with a group of neighborhood kids led by my friend Will’s dad, an actor, who told us all about the original version and Kevin McCarthy on the walk home.) Pauline Kael was one of the film’s critical champions and called the film “undiluted pleasure and excitement.” She also wrote,

“…the director, Phil Kaufman, provides such confident professionalism that you sit back in the assurance that every spooky nuance you’re catching is just what was intended.”

Writing in New York magazine, David Denby said that he found Kaufman’s film even more entertaining than Siegel’s and offered this:

“Like all great horror films, is an insinuatingly sensual experience: Our morbid curiosity is engaged and then exploited. We are drawn into complicity with the dark, oozy terrors of nature run riot and human beings deformed and mutated.”

If the pod people ever do land on Earth, just make sure to throw in a copy of this movie – you’re sure not to fall asleep.

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