Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NIGHT MOVES 1975

For some of us film fans, certain directors come with their own baggage. If I see a David Lean film, I expect sweeping spectacle; If I see Bogdanovich, I expect film school redux. Kubrick is great for icy misanthropy, and Woody Allen is ideal for...well, Woody Allen.

Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde) is a director whose name I so associate with serious themes and deep social commentary that even when he directs a simple little detective drama like Night Moves, it's difficult not to attach to it a profound, pithy significance that may not even be there. In the case of Night Moves, an updated noir bathed in the same chic nihilism as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), the "significance" is there in abundance.
In the summer of 1975 I had just gradated high school and my summer job was ushering at a movie theater in San Francisco while waiting to start film school in the fall. I was thrilled Night Moves opened in the theater where I was employed, allowing me the the opportunity to see it countless times (for free!). And it's a good thing, too. for the plot of Night Moves is a real puzzler that benefits from repeat viewings. It was simply icing on the cake that Penn's solemn approach to the detective film genre so suited my post-adolescent self-seriousness.
Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby
Jennifer Warren as Paula
Melanie Griffith as Delly Grastner
Susan Clark as Ellen Moseby
The plot of Night Moves is ostensibly an update of the typical '40s film noir detective thriller, only with a post-Watergate deconstruction of the American hero myth thrown in. The detective in question, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman, who, like Karen Black, seemed to be in every film made in the '70s), is adrift, both personally and professionally, when hired by a fading movie actress to locate her runaway teen daughter. Seventeen-year-old Melanie Griffith, making her film debut, is cast as the sexually precocious daughter. A nymphet role of the sort she would play again in Paul Newman's The Drowning Pool (1975) and likely incite picket lines today. Griffith makes quite an impression, and I distinctly remember wondering if this girl's helium voice would change when she grew up. (It didn't.)
Gene Hackman as private eye Harry Moseby plays chess with himself (knight moves, anyone) during a  stakeout

Client: "Are you the kind of detective who once you get on a case nothing can get you off it? Bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman's body?"

A very young Melanie Griffith 
As was the wont of '70s films, as Moseby delves deeper into the mystery of his case, which takes him to the Florida keys and has him stumbling upon a smuggling operation, he inevitably has to confront the even deeper mystery that is his life. 70s films were nothing if not about reducing all human experience to navel gazing.
Marital Discord
Clark: "Who's winning?"
Hackman: "Nobody. One side's just losing slower than the other."

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Uncompromised heroes can be boring onscreen. Saints and do-gooders always pale next to the more dimensional and colorfully-drawn villains. One of the great things Penn does with Hackman's character is that he makes him so flawed in his reason; so limited in his awareness of self; basically, so human in his attempt to defend and uphold his moldy moral code, you can't help but find yourself drawn into his quest. Especially as the mystery he's investigating begins to spiral far beyond anything he initially thought it would be. Hackman's Harry Moesby joins the ranks of many '70s screen heroes: Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974) Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Hackman's Harry Caul in The Conversation. Heroes whose best efforts fail to pan out. Heroes who are no match for the larger systems of corruption they're fighting against. In a world where the bad guys and the good guys are no longer distinguishable by black or white hats, heroism itself can seem like an obsolete virtue.
"Does it matter, Harry?"
PERFORMANCES
I like Gene Hackman immensely (The Poseidon Adventure not withstanding), but at this stage in his career he seemed to be giving the same performance in film after film. It took Superman (1978) to shake some of the cobwebs off of his acting style. Mercifully, he's always an interesting actor to watch; intelligent and sensitive, yet always a kind of violent tension lurking beneath the surface. But the performance that really caught my eye and captured my attention was Jennifer Warren's.
As the enigmatic Paula, Warren is a modern update of the traditional noir femme fatale. Like those ladies, she's beautiful, earthily sexy, strong-willed and prone to speak in riddles. I was most impressed by her natural acting style and striking presence. To me, Warren's husky voiced, no-nonsense sexuality hinted at what feminism might have inspired in the contemporary screen sex symbol.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Paraphrasing like crazy here, but Raymond Chandler once wrote of detective thrillers that it didn't matter much in the end "whodunit"; what mattered was the successful exploration of human nature and the examination of the darkness at the center of man's soul. In that vein Arthur Penn's Night Moves succeeds mightily and proves very effective as a dramatization of a man's inner journey. The big mystery and plot twists at the center of Night Moves are pretty satisfying (and the film has a terrific ending), but I doubt if you can find two people who can agree on just what the hell is going on. But chiefly because of the quirky cast of characters assembled and the uniformly fine performances throughout, Night Moves is a puzzle of a film that works whether you fit all the pieces together or not.
Sensuality, 1970s Style
Fondue and red wine in bed

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Nobody did heady pretension like '70s directors. Night Moves is a perfectly enjoyable detective thriller when viewed on a strictly surface level, but I love that Penn chose this particular genre to make a heavy statement about the human inability to connect, abandonment, loneliness, betrayal, and the ambiguity of morality.
It's stylish, well-cast, and there's plenty to discover in the plot and in the performances with each viewing. After Bonnie & ClydeNight Moves remains my favorite Arthur Penn film.

"Do you ask these questions because you want to know the answer,
or is it just something you think a detective should do?"
"

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, October 15, 2010

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH 1976


The track record for pop recording artists successfully transitioning to motion pictures is checkered at best. For every A Hard Day’s Night or The Rose there’s a Shanghai Surprise or Under the Cherry Moon. If the more successful examples of this often painful sub-genre have anything in common, it's that they tend to be vehicles that don't unduly strain the talents of the artist in question, and, contextually speaking, serve to augment and exploit said artist's already firmly-established public image.
Elvis merely had to channel his stage persona for Jailhouse Rock; Roger Daltrey really WAS Tommy; and 70’s pop sensation David Bowie found the perfect vehicle for his otherworldly Ziggy Stardust/ Space Oddity image in Nicolas Roeg’s dreamily poetic adaptation of Walter Trevis’ sci-fi classic: The Man Who Fell to Earth.
                                                                   David Bowie

Simply told, The Man Who Fell to Earth is the story of a traveler (Bowie) from a drought-decimated planet who comes to earth with a vague plan to save his world's remaining survivors. (The plan is made explicit in the novel: he intends to build a ship that will transport his planet’s survivors to earth to colonize, and if necessary, forestall nuclear war).

                                                                       Splashdown

Armed with the advanced technology and intellect characteristic of his people, the determinedly pragmatic alien (who goes by the name of Thomas Jerome Newton and carries a British passport) is rendered defenseless by his inability to comprehend the complex and sometimes paradoxical workings of the human soul.
A treatise on everything from alienation, longing, corruption, ambition and hope, The Man Who Fell to Earth is that most intriguing brand of science fiction film: a futuristic drama which takes into account the fact that the technological advancements of science seem never rise above the ethical limitations of man.
                                    A world without water, a family left behind
 
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I really admire how The Man Who Fell to Earth plays with the concept of time. The story has the feel and scope of an epic, but there is no reference to just how much time has elapsed. Major events unfurl, inventions reorganize lives, yet Bowie's unchanging flawlessness stands in poignant counterpoint to the aging decay of those around him. Roeg's employment of fluid time imbues Tevis' novel with an abstract metaphysical richness that makes this somewhat familiar "fish-out-of-water" tale shimmer with keen human insights and finely-observed perceptions about loneliness and the universal need to connect.
                                                              Close without Contact

PERFORMANCES
Whether by design or luck, surrounding the relatively stiff and inexpressive Bowie with a team of idiosyncratically naturalistic actors (Rip Torn, Candy Clark, & Buck Henry) evocatively underscores Bowie's inerasable "otherness" as the alien and brings into tragic relief his unending estrangement from those he seeks to understand.
Hands-down the film's best performance is given by Rip Torn as the disillusioned idealist Nathan Bryce, but Candy Clark is the film's emotional center. As Mary-Lou, a small-town girl lonelier and more isolated than the alien she falls in love with, Clark does some very intelligent things in bringing dimension to a character who's none-too-bright.
                             Candy Clark as Mary-Lou: Looking for Love
A plea to be seen instead of just being watched        
                               Mary-Lou & Nathan find one another in old age
                               "I don't want her to get lonely."

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
There is just something so right about the conceit that an alien from another planet would look like an orange-haired British pop star. It adds yet another layer of pop cultural awareness to a film that equates human greed, ambition and folly to a preoccupation with surface appearance and the inability to actually see what is right before our eyes.
                                                  Rip Torn: "Are you a Lithuanian?"
                                                         Bowie: "Don't be suspicious."


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a film filled with fluid imagery. Both literally and figuratively. Liquids, in the form of water, alcohol and bodily fluids, are a major visual motif and subtextural theme.

                                
WHAT FUELED MY DREAMS
Having lived for more than 50 years, I've seen my share of technological advancements. Sci-fi movies are inclined to envision the future as some utopian ideal where all our problems solved by technology, or as a nightmarish world of "1984" -ish technological enslavement. My experience has been that no matter how advanced the invention, we humans have a way of modifying it to accommodate our basest natures.

The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn't position itself in any easily identified point in time and tells a tale of a savior, of sorts, who comes to earth; and yet the most use we have for him is exploitative and corporate in nature. Money and power rule, and while the corrupt and ambitious move the world along to its inevitable annihilation, people fumble about trying to connect while blind to ever discovering how to do so.

You can keep your Star Wars gadget-fetishism and your Close Encounters of the Third Kind wish-fulfillment fantasy; I'll take the wistful vision of space travel offered by The Man Who Fell to Earth. A film whose catchline could have been: "In space no one can hear you cry."
                                            "I think maybe Mr. Newton has had enough."

VOGUE Theater, San Francisco  1976
Promotional check which entitled the recipient to $1 off towards the purchase of a
The Man Who Fell To Earth movie poster

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, August 21, 2010

CASINO ROYALE 1967


Despite pretensions to the contrary, this man can’t live by serious, thoughtful films alone. More often than I’d like to admit, my soul cries out for movies that appeal to my aesthetic sweet tooth. These are films of wholly superficial appeal, totally devoid of substance, which nonetheless number among my favorite, most re-watched DVDs. They are often films that broadcast (if not flaunt) their artifice in every frame. Glamorous, glossily art-decorated worlds populated by beautifully lacquered denizens known as movie stars. Openly and lavishly synthetic, these films transport me to a time when going to the movies was like entering a waking dream.
David Niven as Sir James Bond
Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynde
peter Sellers as Evelyn Tremble
Joanna Pettet as Mata Bond
Orson Welles as Le Chiffre
Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond
Daliah Lavi as The Detainer
A particular favorite of mine is the 1967 psychedelic spy spoof, Casino Royale; a film that required the participation of five directors, at least nine writers, and over 12-million- dollars to become a convoluted, barely coherent, sixties happening. Disjointed, nonsensical and never-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is, Casino Royale is nevertheless a candy-colored, mini-skirted, jewel box of a film that is really a lot of escapist fun if you surrender yourself to its loopy, druggy non-reality. Released during the overkill phase of 60s spy-mania, Casino Royale has the stylish, over-the-top, gadget-heavy look of a serious James Bond film (and some of the action sequences, particularly a early car chase scene, are very well done), but given that TVs Get Smart had been poking fun of the spy genre since 1965 - with considerably more laughs - much of what may have seemed like fresh targets when the screenplay was written, felt old-hat by the time it reached the screen.
In one of many sequences that were shot but never made it into the final film, Joanna Pettet wanders through a pop-art, psychedelic mind trap devised by the Soviet counterintelligence agency known as   S.M.E.R.S.H. 
The stars of Casino Royale are a multinational horn-of-plenty. There's David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, Woody Allen and Joanna Pettet...and that's just for starters. 
Miss Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) and Sir James Bond (Niven) in danger of being upstaged by the groovy 60s decor
The plot, such as it is, involves the original, knighted James Bond (Niven in starchy British mode) being forced out of retirement when SMERSH takes to utilizing beautiful female spies to strike at the oversexed heart of Her Majesty's Finest. To combat this evil, Sir James does just what anyone else would do under the circumstances; he assembles an army of sexually irresistible male and female agents and bestows upon each the name of James Bond 007.  Ok….
A cadre of distinguished fellow-agents (and former David Niven co-stars) converge at Sir James' country estate in hopes of  persuading him to come out of retirement
To keep questions concerning logic at bay (and there are many), Casino Royale wisely distracts with ceaseless scenes of gunplay, car chases, karate battles and very photogenic explosions, while throwing beautiful starlets and cameo guest stars at the screen at regular intervals. Look!...there’s William Holden and drinking pal John Houston! Look!...there’s George Raft flipping a coin! Look!...there's Jean Paul Belmondo being all French and everything! Listen...that’s someone else’s voice coming out of Jacqueline Bisset’s mouth! It all happens so fast and with so little connection to what else is going on, it’s a little like watching a celebrity flip-book, but somehow it all seems to come together.
Only 34-years-old at the time, an already wizened-looking Peter O'Toole stops by to show Peter Sellers he still has the pipes. Sellers and O'Toole appeared together in the Woody Allen-penned 1965 comedy What's New, Pussycat?, whose popularity the stylistically similar Casino Royale  hoped to duplicate

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I'm unable to separate Casino Royale from its musical score. The two are one in the same. To listen to the soundtrack album is virtually like experiencing the film. Scored by the then untouchable Burt Bacharach, I don’t think there’s a musical score out there better suited to a movie. From the classic title tune (Herb Alpert so seriously nails this song it FLOORS me!) that simultaneously spoofs and pays tribute to the great John Barry James Bond themes, Bacharach’s indubitably-60s yet-timeless score is really the best of his career. A Columbia Record Club selection of the month back in 1967, I wore out the stylus endlessly replaying this lp. More than 40 years later, it still sounds just as groovy.

PERFORMANCES
David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen are all great, but nothing they do here is markedly different from what you’ve seen them do in countless other films. The big surprise for me is the gorgeous Joanna Pettet. As Mata Bond, the illegitimate daughter of Mata Hari and you-know-who, Pettet shows a surprising flair for comedy light years away from her serious work in The Group (1966). Making the most of a comically cockney accent which she later trades in for finishing-school posh, Pettet exudes so much freshness and sexy star quality that one wishes she had worked more.
Mata makes an entrance
For the most part, the elder members of the cast coast along on a kind of game good will. You're less impressed by their performances than you are by their being such good sports about taking part in such silliness. The younger players, for the most part, barely make any impression at all, what with having to compete with space ships, Frankenstein monsters, and seriously eye-popping art direction.
Career low-point for classy actress, Deborah Kerr as the evil agent Mimi: the bedroom scene where she's called upon to beseech the celibate Sir James, "Doodle me!"

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The women in Casino Royale are all major foxes. Just gorgeous. This in spite of (or because of) the outrageous extremes of late-60s high-fashion and makeup tended to make women look like glamorous drag queens. The hairstyles and costumes on display in this film would make Lady Gaga weep with joy.
Ursula Andress (she of the aristocratic forehead) looks like a goddess and is photographed accordingly, but my personal favorite is the darkly exotic Daliah Lavi. They sure don’t make 'em like her anymore. Graceful and sexy with helmet hair and a smoky voice, she is a special effect all unto herself.
And, as this was the late '60s, the boom era of pop-arty, futuristic, and mod fashion, Casino Royale doesn't disappoint in showcasing what must have been an enormous costume budget. Iconic designer Paco Rabanne contributes metallic Roman-inspired military wear, but elsewhere you'll see what looks to be the entire '60s fashion catalog parade before your very eyes.
I know this looks like a 1976 edition of Rupaul's Drag Race, but Casino Royale was heavily promoted in Playboy magazine and in its ad campaign for boasting "A Bondwagon of the most beautiful girls you ever saw!"

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I just love everything about how this film looks. Casino Royale is like a natural history museum exhibit of the best and worst of the most ostentatious pop fads of the '60s. The space-glam costumes, the enormous hairstyles, the futuristic sets, the plastic Playboy magazine sexuality. Everything is amped up to surreal levels of overstatement and the result borders on the epic. The directors and writers may not have known what they were doing, but the production designer, art director and costume designers all hit home runs.

Samples of Casino Royale's great set design:
The Decoding Room at Frau Hoffner's Spy Academy
SMERSH Operations Center
The German Expressionist Lobby of Frau Hoffner's Spy Academy
The behind-the-scenes troubles in the making of Casino Royale are legendary (Sellers was fired/quit before filming was completed, scenes were written and filmed with no knowledge of what other directors were doing, last minute rewrites, money thrown away on sets and sequences never filmed, etc.) and contribute to its scrambled narrative. It's rather something of a miracle that anyone was able to assemble even a remotely coherent film from the acres of footage shot. That the film proved a modest success at all has a lot to do with the timbre of the times: movies that made no sense were becoming all the rage.
Casino Royale, like BarbarellaMyra Breckinridge, and The Magic Christian, was fashioned as a "head film": a movie that either courted young, college-age audiences by attempting to cinematically replicate the psychedelic drug experience, or one that was best appreciated in an altered mind state. As it was also a film fashioned largely by middle-aged men, Casino Royale may have looked very hip, but was VERY old-fashioned in almost every department.
Jaqueline Bissett as Giovanna Goodthighs
Although possessed of a beautiful British accent, it was Bissett's curious fate to have
 her voice dubbed in both this film and Two for the Road (1967)
None of this was obvious to me when I first saw Casino Royale at age ten at the Embassy Theater in San Francisco. All I knew then was that the film looked like a live-action cartoon. Today when I look at it, its kaleidoscopic charms come back as vividly to me as they did then. As for it being a "head film," I guess I can't argue with that, after all, Casino Royale is definitely the kind of movie I enjoy much more when I keep my brain out of it entirely.
Miss Moneypenny and Sir James in The Fingerprint Room

Copyright © Ken Anderson