Saturday, May 1, 2021


"Mrs. Mulwray, I think you're hiding something."

Whether for the prestige, visual opulence, short-hand history, or easy-access sentimentality, period films and costume dramas have always been a Hollywood staple and a vital part of movie storytelling. But in the 1970s, the need for some kind of collective breather from the relentless tensions of the “Now” (i.e., Vietnam War, Watergate, impeachment, oil crisis, inflation) produced a market-surge interest in movies set in the “Then.” Particularly the then of the 1920s and 1930s.
Some of these films were escapist homages to retro genres (At Long Last Love -1975). Some were style-fetish showcases devoted to the detailed reconstruction of the fashions, furnishings, and décor of the era (The Great Gatsby -1974). And some were trenchant exercises in ‘70s disillusionment whose nihilist themes were tempered by the distancing device of taking place in America's recent past (The Day of the Locust -1975). Roman Polanski’s Chinatown managed to be all three.
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray

John Huston as Noah Cross

The collaborative effort of the members of the “New Hollywood” Boys Club: producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Marathon Man), screenwriter Robert Towne (Shampoo, The Last Detail), and director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth), Chinatown had a bumpy, three-year journey to the screen (covered in deliciously intricate detail in Sam Wesson’s book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last years of Hollywood). But when Chinatown premiered in theaters in the summer of 1974, the many arguments, rewrites, firings, walkouts, and endless weeks of tinkering proved not only to be more than worth the effort, but stood as evidence of the degree of care and artistry that went into fashioning a film that many today regard as a modern masterpiece of American cinema. 
Love the composition of this shot. Even the body language of the characters is perfect

Hardly considered the sure-fire success its current reputation would suggest, Chinatown struggled through disastrous previews and a difficulty generating pre-release interest in a 1974 movie marketplace dominated by the twin publicity blitzkriegs of Lucille Ball's ill-conceived Mame and Robert Redford's The Great Gatsby. Three-time Oscar nominee Jack Nicholson (his most recent being a Best Actor nod for 1973's The Last Detail) was hot at the time, but there existed considerable doubt among many as to how he would come across in this, his first stab at a leading man glamour role. 
Meanwhile, Faye Dunaway's post-Bonnie and Clyde screen output had proved erratic at best, with her The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) golden girl patina coming perilously close to tarnishing after a string of arty flops and effective but unfruitful supporting roles. Then there was Roman Polanski...with his days as New Hollywood's European wunderkind a matter of history and coming fresh off two back-to-back boxoffice bombs (Macbeth -1971 and What? -1972), his name carried about it an aura of fall-from-grace tragedy (the Manson murders) in a town ruled by superstition.
Darrell Zwerling as Hollis Mulwray

Further contributing to the uncertainty surrounding the film's reception was the fact that a quick recounting of Chinatown's plot-- "A private eye in 1937 Los Angeles investigates a mystery involving a real estate swindle and the city's water rights!" --didn't exactly set the pulse racing. 
But what Chinatown had going for it was that it was an original. Not an adaptation of a previously-produced novel, film, or theatrical production. As '70s movies became more formulaically bloated (The Way We Were -1973) and market-driven slick (The Sting - 1973), Chinatown's creative integrity vs its dubious box-office prospects felt like a throwback to Hollywood's very recent past. Back to the start of the decade when difficult-to-categorize films like Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) were being made because they were stories the filmmakers wanted to tell, not because they were sure-fire blockbuster material.

The first time I saw Chinatown, it had me in its hip pocket the minute those stylish opening titles appeared to the accompaniment of Jerry Goldsmith's mysteriously forlorn theme music. And though the film had an alluringly old-fashioned sound and succeeded in creating a vision of a past that felt lived-in, not decorative, Chinatown somehow managed to sidestep things that might have made it feel imitative or as paying affectionate homage to another movie…Chinatown looked and felt like the genuine article.

It didn't seem quite possible that Polanski and Co. had managed to make a film that worked magnificently as a mystery (the particulars of the twisty plot--murder, political swindling, family secrets ---are not exactly easy-to-follow on first viewing); achieved a kind of visual poetry (the movie looks swelteringly hot! How did they do that?), and was propelled by the emotional connection of compelling characters whose fates you came to care about (the performances are uniformly first-rate...right across the board). 
Chinatown, in both style and execution, is a jet-black neo-noir that realizes--with a persuasive canniness I still can't quite put my finger on--both Robert Towne's goal of writing a story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler Dashiell Hammett, and Roman Polanski's desire to create: “A film about the ‘30s seen through the camera eye of the ‘70s.” 
Chinatown gets everything right. In creating the slightly artificial authenticity of Los Angeles in the '30s, Polanski nailed it when he observed "People know this time because of the movies, not because of what was real."

Given a contemporary sheen thanks to its widescreen Panavision color photography that "feels" like B&W, Chinatown evokes the classic detective movies of the past via its keen eye for period detail and avoidance of so many of the nostalgia-craze movie gimmicks of the time: no diffused lighting, no voiceover narration, no self-conscious “period” jargon, and no knowing winks to the audience. And here's a bonus...the actors actually look comfortable and convincing in their period clothes! (For the alternative, see Mank - 2020). 
The result is a movie that's as satisfying as a genre entertainment as it is a dark and existentially layered contemplation on corruption, the destruction of innocence, and, as per Towne, "The futility of good intentions."
Chinatown provides many memorable "goosebump moments," this scene being one of my favorites. I absolutely love Dunaway's delivery and the struck look in Nicholson's eyes when Evelyn asks about the mystery woman in Jake's past. As we'll discover, Evelyn & Jake are two people united by the things they're trying to forget.

One of the main reasons Chinatown made such an impression on me is that it was the very first noirish private eye movie I ever saw. 
In 1971 LIFE magazine devoted its February cover to America’s burgeoning nostalgia craze, and by 1974, everything from fashion to music reflected the nation’s fascination with life enjoyed in the rear-view. The summer of 1974 saw San Francisco movie theaters so overflowing with retro fare, it took considerable effort to find a film set in the present day: Chinatown, The Great Gatsby, The Lords of Flatbush, That’s Entertainment!, Mame, The Three Musketeers, Daisy Miller, Thomasine and Bushrod, Blazing Saddles, Jeremiah Johnson, Huckleberry Finn (of all things), and Our Time (a little-seen coming-of-age movie set in the ‘50s that opened at the Alhambra during the summer I worked there as an usher). 
The Two Mrs. Mulwrays
Diane Ladd as Ida Sessions. There is a subtle wit to Ladd's performance as the prostitute/movie bit player hired to impersonate Evelyn Mulwray. Miss Session's attempt to affect an air of moneyed aristocracy hints at her lack of success as an actress.

When Chinatown came out I was a 16-year-old movie buff with a passion for contemporary films almost to the exclusion of all else. Back then, my appreciation for classic movies was largely academic and aesthetic (i.e., I enjoyed reading about them and decorated the walls of my bedroom with posters of Marilyn Monroe, Glark Gable, and WC Fields), not practical. Which meant I hadn’t yet seen The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, or any of those classics on The Late Show about hard-boiled detectives and dangerous women. At sixteen I was much too in thrall of the then taboo-shattering adult themes and newfound unrestricted nudity, sex, & violence of ‘70s films to ever find the Production Code coyness of old movies to be of much interest. That is, except for musicals. Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971) ignited my love for old MGM musicals and the films of Busby Berekely, but that’s pretty much where my interest in “Golden Age" Hollywood films began and ended. 

The latter point, my love of musicals, goes to plain why, when That’s Entertainment! and Chinatown both opened on the same day in San Francisco (Wednesday, June 26th), I opted for That’s Entertainment!. An option I exercised for two more weekends before getting around to seeing Chinatown.
Roman Polanski as Man with Knife

Maybe it’s the Blu-ray talking, but I’m obsessed with what a fabulous-looking movie Chinatown is. The Oscar-nominated team of cinematographer John A. Alonzo, production designer Richard Sylbert, and art director W. Stewart Campbell give Chinatown an atmospheric sheen that is often breathtaking in its evocation of sun-baked Los Angles in the late ‘30s. 
But despite the obvious care and expense lavished on every frame, Chinatown's distinction is that it is a period film that has no interest in romanticizing the past. With traditionally swept-under-the-nostalgia-carpet realities like racism and classist privilege flowing like an undercurrent in a narrative propelled by graft, collusion, murder, and incest; Chinatown’s surface sheen creates a dichotomy that challenges the dreamy ideals one associates with old movies. Cynicism has always been a part of the detective movie genre, but no matter how nihilist the theme, by fade-out, the requisite virtues of honor, heroism, and the triumph of good had to be reinstalled. Chinatown, however, ends with a punch to the gut and the ground knocked out from under us.
Me in 1974:  "Wow, even in so-called simpler times, rich people were greedy and corrupt!"
Me in 2021: "Wow, this movie is almost 50 years old and the rich are still as corrupt and greedy as ever!"

Robert Towne wrote the character of J. J. Gittes with pal Jack Nicholson in mind, so the star-making role of the principled private eye with a taste for Florsheim shoes and words like “métier” fits the actor as perfectly as one of Jake’s tailored suits. This is my favorite of all Nicholson’s performances and arguably his last real immersion in character before entering the “Wink-wink, it’s me! Jack Nicholson!” phase of his career. The entire film is from his perspective...Chinatown is Jake’s journey. But its mystery, tragedy, and heart (and my favorite character) is Evelyn Mulwray.
Jane Fonda in Julia (1977) - Even Robert Towne had Fonda in mind when he wrote Chinatown

Both Robert Evans and Roman Polanski have made it known that Jane Fonda was their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice for the role of Evelyn Mulwray. But when Fonda declined (something the actress denies), Chinatown gained Faye Dunaway…the jewel in Chinatown’s crown and the only ‘70s actress in my eyes to possess the combined intensity, inscrutability, aristocratic bearing, neurotic edge, old-fashioned movie star glamour, and grown-woman gravitas required to bring Evelyn Mulwray to life as something more than just another vaguely-drawn film noir femme fatale cliché. 
As Chinatown’s woman of mystery (she who must not be known until Act III), Evelyn Mulwrays’s impact has to be visual. A guarded woman who’s erected an immaculate façade to conceal just how badly she’s damaged, Evelyn intrigues because she is not at all what she seems. So defining a character trait is Evelyn’s appearance that when the film starts to peel away the layers of Evelyn’s very literal “mask” of makeup as her vulnerability is exposed, those moments achieve a poignancy that makes the film's tragic denouement all the more devastating. Faye Dunaway captures all this magnificently, but is seldom given credit.
Journalists applauded Polanski's time-consuming multiple takes and Towne's glacially slow writing pace as examples of their artistic perfectionism. Meanwhile, Dunaway's painstaking commitment to her character's obsession with appearance was dismissed as prima donna "difficulty" and made her behind-the-scenes clashes the only things people talk about when speaking of her contribution to Chinatown. Despite his early reservations, in the end, Robert Evans came to praise Dunaway's performance to the skies, albeit in his usual self-congratulatory way: "Dunaway's singular mystery on the screen was among the best casting choices of my career!"

There are a great many '70s films that I love in spite of (or because of) their flaws. But only a few I'd call perfect. Robert Altman's 3 Women (1977) gets my vote for being a wholly perfect film, so does Ken Russell's Women in Love (actually a 1969 film, but I'm cutting myself some slack because it wasn't released in SF until 1970), and most definitely Chinatown qualifies. 
And by perfect I don't mean an absence of technical goofs or anachronism errors... it's more the feeling of everything fitting so well together that you can't imagine anything being improved upon. The feeling that a story has been told in precisely the manner the filmmakers wanted to tell it. In the case of Chinatown, everything falls into place so ideally, from the cast to the music to the dialogue to the score...watching it becomes an immersive, deeply satisfying experience that engages on so many levels. I never tire of revisiting it, and the film seems boundless in offering new things to discover even after all this time. But best of all, it still manages to move me. 
I'm no longer as totally destroyed by it as I was when I was 16, but at age 63, this masterwork of cinema persists in giving me waterworks every single time.   

Thankfully, films are frozen in time. People, alas, are not. In 1974, audiences drew subconscious parallels between the dogged tragedies of Roman Polanski's personal life and the cursed fate of J.J. Gittes. Today, I'm afraid the parallels linking Polanski and Noah Cross fairly hit one over the head.

Actor Paul Jenkins, who plays Policeman #1 in Chinatown (1974), made his film debut as a policeman in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968).

Chinatown was planned as the first film in a trilogy. A plan which ground to a halt after the weak boxoffice performance of the second entry, The Two Jakes (1990). Set in 1948, the Jack Nicholson-directed sequel sorely misses Polanski's gift for cinematic storytelling and gets my vote for film most likely to convince you that Chinatown didn't need a sequel in the first place. Still, I did get a kick out of seeing these actors from the original return. 

Poster art by Jim Pearsall 
Chinatown was a summer release, opening on Wednesday, June 26, 1974 at San Francisco's Coronet Theater (which had just hosted The Great Gatsby for 11 weeks). I fell in love with the movie poster the instant I saw it, purchasing it a full month before seeing the film. The artwork captures just the right tone of nostalgia, the shadowy figure of the hatted and pinstriped Nicholson leaving no doubt as to the film's noirish roots, the dreamy image of Dunaway's face framed by the trails of cigarette smoke. the essence of romantic longing. 
The water motif is worked in with the wave crashing against Nicholson's sleeve, it being one of several elements of the poster that refuse to stay within the boundaries of the frame. From the lettering to the heat-glare effect of the coloring, everything about this poster is just perfect.  

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

Tuesday, March 23, 2021


"A triple echo is the sound a shotgun blast makes when fired in the country."  

A triple echo is also the sound of the triangular collision of three lives.

I first became aware of the late British director Michael Apted back in the early '70s as the filmmaker responsible for picking up the mantle and expanding upon Paul Almond's groundbreakingly innovative Seven Up! documentary series. Nine in total, these social documentaries spanned the years 1964 to 2019 chronicling the lives of its original subjects…14 children, each 7-years-old…and checking in with them every seven years hence, from childhood to their 60s.
Over time, Apted established himself in feature films, gaining considerable success, if not Oscar recognition, for the superior celebrity biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and for taking on the James Bond franchise with The World is Not Enough (1999). A 3-time BAFTA winner and recipient of several DGA awards, when Michael Apted died at age 79 on January 7, 2020, he left behind a varied legacy of outstanding films reflective not only of his roots in television and years as a documentarian, but his lifelong commitment to exploring the emotional truth of human relationships. 
The latter a distinguishing characteristic of his impressive feature film debut The Triple Echo.
Glenda Jackson as Alice Charlesworth

Brian Deacon as Pvt. Barton 

Oliver Reed as Sgt. Arthur

Because The Triple Echo has the confined, minimalist structure of a three-act chamber drama, before I learned that it was based on a 1970 novella by H.E. Bates (co-screenwriter of the 1955 Katharine Hepburn film Summertime) I was under the impression the film was adapted from a stage play. 
The time is WWII, the spring of 1943. The place, a remote farm in a hilly expanse of rural Wiltshire, England. A farm maintained solely and with some difficulty by Alice Charlesworth (Glenda Jackson), a solid, no-nonsense type whose husband is a POW in a Japanese prison camp. Alice’s reconciled solitude is interrupted one day when Barton (Brian Deacon), a young man from a nearby military training camp, accidentally trespasses on her land. Hostile wariness warms to measured affinity when the boyish soldier reveals himself to be a sensitive type enamored of nature, disdainful of authority, and a farmer’s son with a knack for fixing machinery. 
The Triple Echo marks the film debut of television & theater actor Brian Deacon 

From compassion and homesickness, the two strike up a tentative friendship. Out of loneliness and need—him: to forget the war, her: to remember who she was before the war—an incautious romance develops. (The film references but fails to specify the couple’s age difference. In real life, Glenda Jackson is Brian Deacon's senior by 13-years.) 
They spend his extended leave together on the farm. The undisturbed seclusion provides an artificial Eden so lullingly appealing to the discontented squaddy that when the time comes to return to camp, he decides to make his temporary absence a permanent one by deserting and going AWOL. Barton's abrupt decision precipitates an equally hastily-arrived-at solution from Alice: to elude detection and avoid capture, Barton must grow out his hair and nails, dress in women’s clothing, and assume the identity of Jill, a fictional younger sister visiting to help out on the farm. 

Confinement brings unforeseeable conflicts of personality, and almost immediately their relationship begins to buckle under the day-to-day strain of impersonation, complicity, and apprehension. Alice, implicated in Barton’s desertion yet sensing she’s the only one to grasp its seriousness, grows more fault-finding and resentful as feelings of “caring about” splinter into “being responsible for.” Meanwhile, the battle-resistant Barton, holed-up indoors and chafing at the irony of his great escape resulting in only a greater loss of freedom, finds himself embroiled in a battle with himself as he tries to simultaneously suppress and understand what both he and Alice perceive, but cannot find the words to talk about: his subtle, inner responsiveness to externally gender-identifying as a woman.

With its remote, farmhouse setting; Alice trudging about in the mud in boots and trousers; and Barton-as-Jill secreted-away indoors laboring over the cooking and ironing, it feels more intentional than coincidental that in falling so obligingly (yet acrimoniously) into a traditional gender role dynamic, Alice and Barton’s relationship comes to resemble that of Ellen and Jill (!) in D.H. Lawrence’s 1922 novella The Fox. A similarity reinforced by the Freudian emphasis on shotguns in both narratives, and the central conflict in each story being the intrusion of a third party—a fox/male character—whose attentions drive a fateful wedge between (and this is where I think '70s audiences were lost) two women.
The Sergeant (Oliver Reed at his charming-menacing best) and his buddy Stanley (Gavin Richards) make a nuisance of themselves once they discover the remote farmhouse is occupied by a "married crumpet" and her sister

In 2019 Glenda Jackson spoke on the topic of gender while starring on Broadway as King Lear: “When we’re born we teach babies….to be boys or girls. As we get older [she was 82 at the time] those absolute barriers of gender begin to crack.” She went on to observe how, having been just three-years-old at the start of WWII, she grew up in a world of women. Seeing women participate in every field of endeavor left her heedless of gender limitations. That is, until the war ended, the men returned, and women were encouraged (strongly) to go back to assuming more traditional roles.

That the flexible quadrants of gender are a theme explored in the nearly 50-year-old The Triple Echo suggests that Glenda Jackson’s timely comments reflect what has been a career-long interest on her part in taking on roles that explore the entire spectrum of human experience. Whether they be queer identity, gender-nonconformity, women’s autonomy, or sexual orientation, a considerable number of Jackson’s films have been about people and relationships that fall outside of the narrow confines of a gender binary paradigm:  Women in Love (1969), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), The Music Lovers (1971), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), and controversially, even her interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Hedda (1975). 

Michael Apted’s assured and nuanced The Triple Echo humanely explores a human reality...that long before there were terms like gender dysphoria or an understanding that assigned gender does not always conform to gender-identity, there has been an awareness that male-female / masculine-feminine are limited and inadequate qualifiers. That human beings are more complex than the simple roles they are assigned, and that there have always been individuals who felt a natural resistance to being what the world told them they must be. 
One of my favorite things about The Triple Echo is that the film refuses to disclose to the viewer any information about the characters that they themselves don't know. Barton in his youth has no real understanding of what he's experiencing, while Alice picks up on things she herself doesn't have the words or sophistication to fully comprehend. The film's emphasis, that we must go on loving those we care about...even when we don't always understand, to me, a profoundly sensitive perspective for a film to have.

I don't know how it performed in the UK, but considering Glenda Jackson’s popularity at the time and the opportunity the film posed to see her reunited with Women in Love co-star Oliver Reed, it's (somewhat) surprising The Triple Echo struggled to find an audience in the US. Today it remains one of Jackson’s least-familiar, least-seen titles, failing—at least to my knowledge—to even get a VHS release.  
Of course, it didn’t help that the poorly-marketed 1972 independent feature didn’t appear in most American markets until 1974, then hoping to ride the publicity coattails of Jackson’s recent Oscar win for A Touch of Class (1973). But by then The Triple Echo came off as a late-in-the-cycle entry in the early-'70s trend in films exploring transgender and gender-identity. Films that were either of the well-intentioned-but-sensationalized variety: I Want What I Want (1972), or blatant exploitation: The Christine Jorgensen Story, Dinah East, and Myra Breckinridge--all released in 1970.

The audience for gender exploitation was likely unenthusiastic about Apted’s simple, arthouse approach. The nostalgia crowd was disappointed when the film's age-difference love story didn't turn into Britain's answer to The Summer of ‘42 (1971). And critics, left rudderless due to The Triple Echo arriving on the scene minus the guideposts of prior film festival wins determining its pedigree, didn't know what to make of a movie that was part love story, part unorthodox romantic triangle, part gender-identity character drama, and part nail-biting thriller.

Usually when I say “Only in the ‘70s” about a film, it’s meant as an affectionate pejorative relating to the decade’s reputation for turning out offbeat, idiosyncratic films that could only have been made during that tiny window of time between the assembly line days of the studio system and the market-research era of the franchise blockbuster.
When I say The Triple Echo is the kind of movie that could only have been made in the ‘70s, I mean it as a badge of honor. With a small budget, minimal cast, and an intimate story that staunchly defies categorization; The Triple Echo feels like anything but sure-fire boxoffice hit material. But very much like a film Michael Apted wanted to make and a story he wanted to tell…market prospects be damned. And THAT is definitely something that could happen only in the ‘70s.
Critics in 1972 never tired of making reference to how "unconvincing" Deacon is as a woman. In a rare instance of an informed contemporary mentality working in favor of an older film, to watch The Triple Echo today and catch yourself obsessing over a jawline or a hairdo (bad wigs, however, are fair game) or ideas of "pretty," is to confront how fragile and arbitrary our ideas of masculinity and femininity really are. 

I missed out on seeing The Triple Echo during its original run, finally catching it on TCM just a few short years ago after decades of having had it on my holy grail list of must-see, hard-to-find films. With Glenda Jackson starring, I knew I wasn’t likely to be disappointed, but I didn't expect to be so moved or impressed by a first directorial effort. 
Even as the story veers toward the melodramatic, culminating in the tragic, The Triple Echo maintains an emotional perceptiveness and authentic sense of time and place that give scenes the feel of having been culled from personal memory.

If director Michael Apted and screenwriter Robin Chapman reveal their filmmaking inexperience in a certain overstatement of symbolism (portents of doom abound), and an overreliance on ambiguity in characterization (Glenda Jackson’s complex, fully-inhabited performance tethers the more sketchily-drawn roles of Deacon and Reed); they display an uncommonly deft hand in managing the film’s many shifts in tone and in creating an accompanying atmosphere for the three distinct phases of the story.
In the film's first third, as Alice & Barton get to know one another, the look is sunshiny and most scenes are set outdoors. The peaceful open spaces punctuated by reminders of the war: the sight & sound of planes flying overhead, the carcasses of a downed airship overlooking Alice's farm like the eyes of TJ Eckelburg in The Great Gatsby 

The fear of detention spawns a sense of confined imprisonment as emotional estrangement and claustrophobic interiors characterize the second segment. The oppressively low ceilings and too-close walls are in stark contrast to what came before. The low-angle shot here not only calls attention to the lovers braced coldly with their backs to one another, but places in the forefront Barton's lengthened hair and long painted nails.

The third and final act, representing the completion of the triangle and the introduction of Sgt. Arthur's fateful dominance in the narrative, takes us back to the outdoors. But now the look is wintry, the atmosphere dark, stormy, and threatening.

What if who you think you're pretending to be is who you really are? 

There’s a scene early in The Triple Echo where Alice sees Barton out of his military uniform for the first time and comments on his looking so different: “I’m a master of disguise,”  he says. A throwback reference to an even earlier scene in which, after Alice remarks that he doesn’t look much like a farmer’s son, Barton complains of having been “made” into a soldier by the Army. 
So much of life is being who we have to be, what we're told to be, and what we're expected to be, it feels like a genuine stroke of luck if any of those align with who we actually are. 
Michael Apted has crafted a finely-observed film that at times feels like the most heartfelt fable about the subtle tyranny of identities assigned and roles assumed, 
With Glenda Jackson giving what I think is one of her best and most underrated performances, it may have taken me almost 50 years to see The Triple Echo, but I say in all sincerity that I know I'm able to appreciate it more today than I ever could in the '70s.

The Triple Echo opened in Los Angeles without much fanfare on April 17, 1974 at the Music Hall Theater. 
In a move not uncommon in the days before home video and DVDs, The Triple Echo was re-released some four years later in September of 1978, this time at the bottom half of an arthouse double bill (paired with Chabrol’s Dirty Hands) and christened with the fuck-all, act-of-desperation title: Soldier in Skirts.  
Lotsa Larfs & Sex
It's difficult to imagine how anyone thought it a good idea to market Michael Apted's somber character drama as a proto-Bosom Buddies comedy. Misconceived, misguided, and blatantly misleading.

The first thing I ever saw actor Brian Deacon in was John Schlesinger's 1983 HBO telefilm adaptation of Separate Tables with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Before then I only knew of him as the husband of Rock Follies star and oft-parodied VO5 hairspray TV commercial pitchwoman Rula Lenska (the pair wed in 1977, divorced in 1987).

The Triple Echo is currently available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

Saturday, January 30, 2021

WISE UP - A look at the Best Director you've forgotten & the book "ROBERT WISE: THE MOTION PICTURES"

Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition) by J. R. Jordan - 2020
The Pause That Refreshes.
Director Robert Wise hoists a Coca-Cola on the set of West Side Story with the film's star Natalie Wood. Wise co-directed West Side Story with choreographer Jerome Robbins, their twin 1963 Oscar win for Best Director was the first time the directing award had ever been shared. (Photo not featured in book.)

By rights, the director of the movie that single-handedly saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy should be as well-known as John Ford or Howard Hawks. And if that same fellow received his first of seven career Academy Award nominations (four wins) for editing one of the most highly-acclaimed motion pictures in American cinema, you'd think he'd be at least as talked and written about as William Wyler or George Cukor.  Now, what if this guy was also responsible for two of the most iconic movie musicals of all time...films that made a fortune for the studios, garnered Best Picture Oscar wins for both, and influenced the way movie musicals were made for years after...surely this director must be as famous as Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. Right? 
Answer: Well, not so much.
The Sound of Music
Even die-hard devotees of the film have a hard time remembering who directed it.

Of course, the person I’m referring to is the late director-producer Robert Wise (1914 – 2005). It was Wise’s adaptation of the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1965) that rescued 20th Century Fox from the threat of Cleopatra (1963)-induced bankruptcy. It was Wise who, at the ripe old age of 26, edited the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) and received his first Oscar nomination. (Wise was also the person controversially tasked with whittling/butchering Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) down to 88 minutes from its original 148-minute running time.) And in 1962 and 1966, it was Robert Wise who each year took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in recognition for his work on West Side Story and The Sound of Music respectively.

West Side Story
According to the Jerome Robbins biography Somewhere, Robert Wise was "quite reluctant" when asked to co-direct with the Tony Award-winning choreographer/director of the original 1957 Broadway production. An agreement was struck granting Robbins control of the musical sequences, Wise the book scenes. Even with this, the producers fired Robbins some 45 days into the film's 7-month shooting schedule, citing his over-meticulousness as the cause for the film being severely and expensively behind schedule. 

Having directed some 40 motion pictures throughout his six-decade career—several now regarded as contemporary classics—Wise is hardly an unknown in film circles. Similarly, given the many positions of honor he held in his lifetime (president of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and The Director’s Guild) and the number of industry trophies bestowed upon him (the aforementioned four Academy Awards, The Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award, The Director’s Guild D.W. Griffith Award, and The AFI Life Achievement Award), Wise isn’t even a filmmaker about whom it can be said had a career that went unrewarded.

Two for the Seesaw
Wise uses space to dramatize the isolation of characters played by Shirley MacLaine & Robert Mitchum

The boon and bane of Robert Wise’s career has always been his versatility and disinterest in imposing a defining “A film by Robert Wise” signature on his movie. 

“Some of the more esoteric critics claim there is no Robert Wise style or stamp. My answer to that is that I’ve tried to approach each genre in a cinematic style that I think is right for that genre.” - Robert Wise  The Los Angeles Times 1998 

The range of genres Wise worked in is staggering. Film-Noir: Born to Kill (1947) / Western: Blood on the Moon (1948) / Sports: The Set-up (1949) / Comedy: Something for the Birds (1952) / War: Destination Gobi (1953) / Bio: I Want to Live (1958) / Crime: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) / Romance: Two for the Seesaw (1962) / Adventure: The Sand Pebbles (1966) / Musical: - Star! (1968) / Horror: The Haunting (1963) / and Sci-Fi: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). 
The Hindenburg
Suspicious-looking onlooker Roy Thinnes skulks behind Colonel George C. Scott and Countess Anne Bancroft, whose opium addiction has her airborne long before the dirigible ever leaves the ground. 

And while Robert Wise may not have been the most hands-on director, his films led many a performer to Oscar wins and nominations (Steve McQueen received his only Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles). 

—From the book Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan—
René Auberjonois on working with Wise on The Hindenburg (1975): “But I have very little recollection of Robert directing me as an actor. And that is unique, really. I didn’t have much of an actor-director relationship with him.”   
Janette Scott on working with Wise on Helen of Troy (1956): “From our perspective, he didn’t really direct. He would place us and say things like, ‘Let's try it.’

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Michael Rennie (left) no doubt feeling ill.

Historically speaking, if Wise suffers from anything, it's from a lack of legacy. He's a director with no visibility (there aren't any Alfred Hitchcock-like walk-ons in a Robert Wise movie); no public persona (he didn't make the talk-show circuit like Otto Preminger); no mystique (there are no juicy anecdotes detailing displays artistic temperament); and impossible to "type" (versatility resists branding). When film enthusiasts and scholars talk about the directors of the studio system era, the name Robert Wise is conspicuous in its absence. Underrated and overlooked in comparison to his peers, Robert Wise is the Jan Brady of film directors. The Rodney Dangerfield of Cinema. 

Photo: Los Angeles Times
Robert Wise's reputation as a director worthy of scholarly evaluation took a serious blow in 1968 when influential film critic and Auteur Theory advocate Andrew Sarris summarily dismissed the versatile director as a "technician without a strong personality," and claims that Wise's stylistic signature was "indistinct to the point of invisibility."

Hoping to rectify this is the book— Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan, originally published in 2017 and now available in a revised and updated edition. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is a well-researched, sizable volume (506 pages) that takes a comprehensive, chronological look at the full body of Robert Wise's career output as a director. All 40 of Wise’s feature films are highlighted, including his last, a TV-movie filmed when the director was 85-years-old. 

The book is divided into five sections, each representing a significant period in Wise’s career (section titles are the author’s, the descriptors my own):
RKO Pictures – B-movies under the tutelage of horror master Val Lewton.
The Fifties – His most prolific period.
Primetime – The ‘60s, his most successful decade.  
The Science and Surrealism of the Seventies – Big budgets & modest returns.
Twilight – His brief return to filmmaking following a 10-year absence. 
The Haunting
My favorite Robert Wise film is also one of the most effective haunted house films I've ever seen

An entire chapter is devoted to each of Wise’s films. The chapters comprise a thematic quote; plot description; details about the making of the movie; trivia and behind-the-scenes-info; pertinent screen dialogue; and in some instances, interviews with actors and other individuals involved in the production. More than 20 interviews were conducted for the book, among those contributing their thoughts on working with Wise are Marsha Mason (Audrey Rose), George Chakiris (West Side Story), Lindsay Wagner (Two People), René Auberjonois (The Hindenburg), Earl Holliman (Destination Gobi), Billy Gray (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and Janette Scott (Helen of Troy). For me, these interviews are an entertaining and informative highlight. 
Featuring an index, bibliography, and where necessary, citation footnotes, it’s a book that can be read cover to cover (as I did) or used for reference. 
When it came to Wise's return to the musical genre, three failed to be the charm. The expensive, tuneful, and colorful musical biography of Gertrude Lawrence was as big a flop as The Sound of Music was a hit.

Because so many of Robert Wise’s movies are so well-known and popular, yet Wise remains a director about whom little has been written, it’s natural to approach this sizable volume with a great deal of expectation. (In my case, over-expectation. I’m a big fan of Robert Wise, but the last book I read about him was back in 2007…Richard C. Keenan’s The Films of Robert Wise.) So, at this point, I need to emphasize that one's enjoyment of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures will be significantly enhanced by understanding clearly what the book is and what it isn’t. 
Odds Against Tomorrow
Produced by Harry Belafonte and credited as the first film-noir to star a Black actor

Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is not an academic work of film scholarship and doesn’t present itself as such. More an appreciation and career tribute to Wise, Jordan approaches his subject with a film-buff’s enthusiasm and a well-informed informality. Biographical information about Wise, personal or professional, is minimal, the emphasis being on letting the films speak for themselves, letting actors and industry professionals share their thoughts on working with Wise, and highlighting each film’s production and content. As per the latter, perhaps an overabundance of riches. Unaccountably detailed plot descriptions dominate the book, it not being unusual for 5 pages of a 9-page chapter to be devoted to the recounting of a film’s storyline alone.
Audrey Rose
Marsha Mason and John Beck wonder if the reincarnated can reverse charges

For me, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures succeeds as an introduction and primer for those unfamiliar with the director, and as a solid reference book supplement to the already existing books about Robert Wise (I’m only aware of their being 5 total). I would think this book would prove very useful in this age of streaming sites and online movie accessibility, its chapter-by-chapter highlighting of each film serving as a guide for the unfamiliar, a recap to the initiated. 
Should there be a 2nd revised edition of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures, I hope the opportunity presents itself for a strong editor to tighten up the prose a bit. There's so much worthwhile in Jordan's book, yet I suspect its form as is might keep well-read cinema enthusiasts away. It's great to have a book dedicated to the entire body of Robert Wise's directing career, even better to encounter such a sincere tribute to a man who, by all accounts, was an unusually kind, principled, and self-effacing director whose movies continue to touch many lives.
The Andromeda Strain
You know it's science fiction when Paula Kelly and James Olson battle an uncontrolled
outbreak of a deadly virus and there's no one around bitching about having to wear a mask.

Indeed, the major through-line of each and every interview conducted in the book can be found in this quote by a pre-The Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner, whom Wise directed in her first film Two People (1973): 

“Robert (Wise) to this day remains one of the nicest, most gracious film directors I’ve ever encountered. Consequently, my indoctrination to the business was that power, success, and kindness can all coexist. Because to me, those are the characteristics that defined Robert Wise.”

 The author provided a review copy of the book.

All screencaps are from Robert Wise movies in my personal DVD collection.

Simone Simon and Ann Carter in The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Taking over the reins from original director Gunther von Fritsch, this RKO film
produced by Val Lewton marks Robert Wise's debut as a film director.

Copyright © Ken Anderson     2009 - 2021