One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 4
By Laurence Lerman
It was a late afternoon Thursday four weeks into the quarantine when I popped in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid just to watch the 1969 classic’s half-hour super posse pursuit segment, which ends with the famed “I can’t swim!” “The fall will probably kill you!” exchange between Robert Redford and Paul Newman. I’d seen the passage a zillion times before, but this time it served to remind me that I had planned on checking out the 1967 western Hombre, starring Newman and directed by Martin Ritt, one of Hollywood’s more perceptive and socially conscious filmmakers. He had collaborated with Newman on a half-dozen films over the years, including 1963’s Hud. Time to pop out Butch…
One of the first in a wave of late Sixties morally gray “revisionist” westerns, particularly in their depictions of Native Americans, Hombre finds a particularly stoic Newman portraying an Apache-raised white man named John Russell. Embarking on a Stagecoach-like journey across the frontier, he’s quite the “hombre” as he encounters an unhappily married young couple, an unsavory Indian agent and his wife, a gang of thieving bad guys and fiery Aussie import Diane Cilento as an innkeeper. Her primary purpose is to try to figure out what’s eating at the troubled Newman, whose incandescent baby blues are abetted in their glow by the great James Wong Howe’s lush cinematography.
Ms. Cilento remains best remembered (by me, anyway) as the first of several saucy damsels to seduce Albert Finney in 1963’s Tom Jones, followed by her turn as the creepy Miss Rose in 1973’s The Wicker Man (which clearly inspired Ari Aster’s 2019 Midsommar nearly a half-century later). Thesping aside, Miss Cilento also made some noise during her 11-year marriage to Sean Connery. Their stormy union—reportedly, of the vase-throwing kind— ended in 1973, having paralleled Connery's rise to superstardom as James Bond.
For most late-stage baby-booming males, most roads lead to Bond at one point or another—Connery’s Bond. It began with Dr. No in 1962, directed by Terence Young (who went on to helm 1963’s From Russia with Love and Thunderball in ’65). A fast-forward through the original groundbreaker confirms Connery’s physicality, charisma and skills with a murderous quip ("That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six," he coolly remarks to a failed assassin before emptying his gun into him). Dr. No’s London and Jamaican backdrops are exotic and sexy, Ursula Andress even more so, and Joseph Wiseman is outstanding as the titular baddie, the prototype of all Bond supervillains to follow (not to mention the clear blueprint for Austin Powers’ affectionate Dr. Evil parody).
The appearance of Wiseman reminded me that I wanted to check out some of the earlier work of another Wiseman, the incomparable documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who’s been making his own unique brand of observational cinema examining social institutions for some 60 years. The Wiseman method begins with filming weeks of material without any staged or manipulated actions, and then culling a feature’s worth of material from those archived hours. Wiseman’s most recent pictures include Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library (2017) and Monrovia, Indiana (2018), but I went back a half-century to screen his second directorial effort.
There’s great stuff in 1968’s High School, shot in Philadelphia’s Northeast High School, where Wiseman plopped his camera down for five weeks filming in the spring of ’68. Parent/teacher conferences, pep rallies, prom dress code mandates, faculty monitors stalking the corridors to shanghai students without hall passes—most of these fly-on-the-wall observations remain universal. Still, other moments--a hip, young teacher playing an LP of Simon and Garfunkle’s “modern poetry,” an administrator reading a letter written by a drafted former student now deployed to the front line in Vietnam; a leering sex ed lecture—are undeniably relics of the Sixties.
Wholly engaging, High School was actually banned in Philadelphia at the time of its release. It has since been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry (in 1991) and prompted Wiseman’s 1994’s follow-up, High School II, set in Manhattan’s Central Park East Secondary School.
My journey back to high school demanded a return to my personal favorite high school flick, 1986’s Pretty in Pink, written by John Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch. Star Molly Ringwald, who’s always been on-point in her Hughes films, doesn’t speak to me as much as the film’s shining supporting cast, which includes Jon Cryer, Kate Vernon, Andrew Dice Clay (!), Annie Potts (who makes what might be the only Walter Mondale joke ever uttered on the big screen) and the incomparable James Spader. Cruising the school’s hallways in his designer blazer, shades and a cigarette dangling from his lips like he stumbled in from some Rat Pack movie, Spader’s Stef delights in smarmy abuse at anyone who’ll listen (“When Bill and Joyce are through with you, you won't know whether to shit or go sailing,” he hisses at his buddy Andrew McCarthy). My wife is convinced the reason Spader is free to cut class and roam the corridors is because he looks so old that he’s mistaken for a faculty member.
The ubiquitous Harry Dean Stanton is also on hand in Pretty in Pink as Molly’s derailed dad. A little Harry Dean goes a long way and I figured there must be a title on his formidable filmography worth checking out or revisiting. I went with The Missouri Breaks (which I had forgotten he was in), another revisionist Western, this one from 1976, directed by Arthur Penn and starring the formidable duo of to Jack Nicholson as a horse thief and Marlon Brando as a bounty hunter. A weird one that’s grown more palatably entertaining with age, it offers one of Brando’s most bizarre performances, which, as it’s Brando, is saying a lot. He’s actually wearing women’s clothing in the fiery scene where he takes out ol’ Harry Dean in his brief but memorable appearance.
The Missouri Breaks was a bad call—the bizarreness, eccentricity and revisionism of the film didn't click for me at that moment.. So, I pivoted back another 20 years to a Brando film I had never seen: the 1954 historical drama Désirée, starring Marlon as Napoleon Bonaparte!
Jean Simmons portrays the titular role of Désirée Clary, Bonaparte’s one-time fiancéefrom his days before he was doing his Emperor of France thing (and Josephine, for that matter). According to Simmons, Brando's contract required him to star in the film, which he undertook immediately following On the Waterfront and later went on to describe as "superficial and dismal." Agreed (and Brando’s nasally delivery doesn’t help). But I did enjoy the sets and costumes in director Henry Koster’s uninspired epic as they were shot in luscious CinemaScope by Milton Krasner, who brought home the Oscar for his widescreen work on that same year’s Three Coins in the Fountain.
As far as Hollywood portrayals of Napoleon go, my favorite is by Michael Tolkan in Woody Allen’s 1975 Love and Death, wherein the Emperor demands his royal dessert chefs finish developing the Napoleon before the Duke of Wellington completes a prototype of his new meat dish. Second up is Aram Katcher in 1967’s “My Master, Napoleon’s Buddy,” a second season entry on TV’s I Dream of Jeannie. I’m not at all familiar with the late Constantinople-born actor Katcher, but he’s right-on in this fun half-hour where Jeannie and Larry Hagman’s Tony Nelson prove to be the instigators of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign. Watching it again, I laughed out loud when Tony laughingly refers to Napoleon as “The Little Corporal,” earning him a trip to the Bastille and an appointment with the guillotine.
Larry Hagman never received his due for the great work he did for five years on I Dream of Jeannie. That’s right. He gave great line readings, had keen, seemingly natural timing and was under-appreciated for his ability to engage in slapstick—maybe not the qualities that made him a sensation as J.R. in Dallas a decade later, but definitely worthy of including him in the pantheon of great unsung comic TV performers.
One of several other times Hagman received the opportunity to unleash his comedy chops was in Blake Edward’s scathing 1981 Hollywood satire S.O.B., which I still watch once a year to watch Larry alongside such late, great stars William Holden, Robert Preston, Robert Webber and Richard Mulligan as they drink non-stop and wreak havoc on that most combustible of towns.
And as they burn it down, Larry gets run down by a golf cart, a large stack of contracts he’s carrying flying into the air.
How’s that for physical shtick?