The Light Touch
The work of art regarded as museum piece or objet d’art or objet de vertu however priceless is not the work itself but an impression or copy, “a cherished image” of the work. Art theft or forgery is the sum and substance of Brooks’ film.
It serves as a vital transition from Huston’s The Maltese Falcon to his Beat the Devil. A decisive gag at the end of Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry is here early on, and those minarets reappear in his second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
It was taken at another rate among critics, “may not be art but it is entertaining,” thought A.W. of the New York Times, for Penelope Houston (Monthly Film Bulletin) not even that, “moves far too slowly for its imperfections to be overlooked,” as cited in Halliwell’s Film Guide (“elongated and witless”).
Mr. Benzinger of the New York Times (Bosley Crowther) found it hard to follow.
The paper’s out, sold by Lot’s daughters. A mobster has a reporter beaten up. The managing editor has lost his wife to an advertising man.
There’s a naked girl in a mink coat, drowned. The Day, last editions. The gray lady (drowned girls’ mother) gives an exclusive.
Whatever a newspaper is, and Jefferson says it’s more than governments (false cops kill a witness), is here.
It’s as brilliant as anything, and you can’t expect anything more as The Day navigates Capra’s Meet John Doe and Milestone’s or Hawks’ or Wilder’s The Front Page (His Girl Friday) and Lumet’s Network and Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (cp. Wrong Is Right), can you?
Take the High Ground!
The heart of the teaching at Ft. Bliss is unexpectedly drawn from Edna St. Vincent Millay, by way of Clausewitz on friction (“there is hardly a worthwhile enterprise in war whose execution does not call for infinite effort, trouble, and privation”). This is merely indicated, a recruit in basic training mentions the passage. Kaufman explicates the continuation (“great strength of will”) by having the same recruit, a reader of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, recite Millay’s poem in its entirety, the occasion is a comrade writing home to his wife. “It may well be that in a difficult hour” and so forth are the lines (“Love Is Not All”).
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times found this “a pretty tough bill of goods to sell,” Variety “an absorbing study”, Halliwell’s Film Guide has “very routine flagwaver.”
The other main aspect is simply the intake of “fighting men” from civilian life, the long and fearful drudgery of training them, and an abstract consideration of the title in this that ultimately is reflected in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (Webb’s The D.I. also understands the material).
Karl Malden essentially re-creates his role in Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which is the structural point.
The Last Time I Saw Paris
The beauty and elegance of this are those of Fitzgerald’s stance, as prepared by Brooks at great and delicate length, and quickly propounded in a long point-by-point take at the close that echoes Whistler, before the trump card is dealt and all the chips are quickly cashed in.
In other words, structurally The Last Time I Saw Paris is a long examination of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” particularly notable for a very American view of things, from suburban living rooms to Whistler salons, and the obtrusion of Paris as a character in the drama here and there, with the Riviera almost as a chorus, you might say.
The Last Hunt
The complete analysis is by Kubrick in The Shining.
Something of Value
This is presented as something of a philosophical problem, and treated to a very brisk analysis along those lines, but there is no problem in Brooks’ mind, only the satisfactory exposition of a fact. The means presenting it dramatically are an equal division of forces all along the line, and the initial idea of an exchange.
He is thus able to show that, on a strict barter basis, something like Newton’s laws obtains in human commerce when unanswerable wrong is committed, and he gets to it unfalteringly like Mark Twain. A curse is on the tribe, did the headman’s son receive a blow without striking back? In the preceding scene, that is what happened.
Brooks has nothing to do now but watch his actors work, they each hit the right note, good or bad, at true pitch. He has the savannah on location, and still more the endlessly rolling hills, for background.
There is no resolution of the drama (Kikuyu and farmer) except in terms of digging a pit and falling there.
If you take away a man’s culture and tradition, his understanding of the world (this is given as a title, amid scenes of Africa in modernization), you have to give him something of value. Even improvements like putting a stop to female circumcision won’t take the sting from a cuff on the cheek, and the response is inevitably Mau Mau, matching the opposition in a war that also claims the local population as unsympathetic to the revolt. Positions are quickly forced into battle lines, the no-man’s-land is civilian life, and the purpose is lost.
The dregs of this are drunk by the hero, which leads to a revulsion. His counterpart in the revolt will treat of peace, both are betrayed. The ultimate result is understood as a defeat.
Hudson’s role is thematic even here early on, Poitier’s is foreign and elaborated in The Wilby Conspiracy (dir. Ralph Nelson). Brooks in Academy-ratio black-and-white gives to Dana Wynter a fine treatment redolent of The Last Time I Saw Paris (with Wendy Hiller and Walter Fitzgerald in support). He adds to the Mau Mau oath-giver Juano Hernandez’s great resemblance to Buster Keaton in the role, a surface of equanimity for the character’s juggling with sanctity. Robert Beatty is hard and Michael Pate vicious unflinchingly, Frederick O’Neal is a hard and ruthless general, Ivan Dixon a superb actor even at this date, Ken Renard the headman victimized by the curse, William Marshall the revolutionary speaker.
The definite position of Brooks makes this a reflection for Lean of Doctor Zhivago, but Brooks is more forward, ahead of his implications, they ensue.
Crowther called it Poitier’s picture, Halliwell thought it dull, neither was correct. It’s a Richard Brooks film all the way. Logic is on the side of everyone in it, “the only thing they understand is force” means a desire to kill, and the answer to “your friend is a white man, he hates us” is “it is your own hatred that you see in others.”
The oath-giver won’t take the murderous oath himself for fear of his God and is asked, “how can you lead your people back to God?”
Sir Winston Churchill is quoted at the end, not to draw attention. “The problems of East Africa are those of the world.”
The Brothers Karamazov
The great Christian allegory provided onscreen escaped the critics, Crowther thinking it was all about money and Variety convinced it had an olla podrida on the steppes.
Christ to Jerusalem the whore, his ministry.
The cast are a wonderful asset, hand-picked of the best (Opatoshu’s resemblance to Solzhenitsyn is remarkable). They are set in exteriors and interiors that have a long Hollywood history back to the silents, brought to exceptional richness and accuracy.
Brooks’ most marvelous effect might be the Russian Easter of Ivan’s testimony in court (cp. Hitchcock’s Rope) just subsumed by black clouds before the finale.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
A play about tin gods, how they break down and leave one in possession of the land. “Big Daddy” Pollitt (of Pollitt Enterprises, Inc.) “made pastureland out of swamp with the help of God and not any governor,” it’s his 65th birthday, he celebrates it at home with his wife and two sons and their wives (and elder son Gooper’s children, “no-neck monsters” whose heads sit on their bodies “without any connection”). He’s dying and doesn’t know it, his younger son Brick drinks and won’t touch his own wife, just as Big Daddy loathes his.
28,000 acres of “the richest land this side of the valley Nile,” personal worth of ten million dollars, lauded and praised from grandchild to governor, plotted against by Gooper the corporation lawyer. Brick is disillusioned as well, his high school chum and football hero couldn’t make it in pro ball, Brick founded a team (the Dixie Stars) and missed a game in the hospital, only to see his friend fail helplessly. Brick’s wife Maggie moved to end the friendship, the chum was willing, Maggie was scared Brick would leave her. The friend called Brick in tears, claiming to have taken Maggie up on her offer, begging for help. Brick hung up, the friend killed himself, Brick has contemptuously avoided his wife ever since.
In the basement, surrounded by objets d’art from a European trip out of Welles’ Citizen Kane, Big Daddy recalls his own father, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and nothing much else, a hobo and sometime field hand who died hopping a freight, laughing.
This is the substance of the play, rendered for the screen. Brick and Maggie have it out, Big Daddy ponders his empire, sets Gooper’s plan at nought and squares himself to, among other things, the wife who always loved him.
Brooks goes beyond the conscious experiments of The Last Time I Saw Paris to a cogent and continuous style of rapid cutting and compositional analysis that is beyond reckoning. His greatest effects seem to emerge from the stream of images (the inspiration of many an action film) out of Wyler, such as Big Daddy and his wife in the background framed by Brick and Maggie on either side of the door outside, or a two-shot of Brick and Big Daddy like two sides of a coin. The great first scene of Brick and Maggie, culminating in her reflected by an oval mirror, is a direct précis of the technique, which can only be appreciated in widescreen. Brooks uses all of the image at all times to full effect, sumptuous, rhythmical or extenuated, there is nothing casual in any shot.
The result is cinema of the highest order, so perfectly realized that some critics have not noticed it at all, only the faultless performances achieved with a minute and forceful technique. Every shot, every frame is to the purpose, but nothing mechanical obtains anywhere. Mysterious abstractions fill the screen around the actors, or a delineation of the persistent wall-ornaments and furniture pressing on the scene, the setup alters every few seconds and can very profitably be studied as it does so, altogether presenting the play with no loss of energy and exhibiting the actors in roles that are their own, each combining with the others in the course of the drama to make a unified ensemble that ultimately conveys the “theatrical experience” noted, almost, by Halliwell.
He and George Babbitt provide a genial introduction to sales and business, the huckster and the backslapper. One of the best scenes Brooks ever filmed is Gantry’s exacerbation of Inherit the Wind (dir. Stanley Kramer), your sneering reporter (good man though he be) is an atheistic bigot as bad as any of another stripe. But this is kid stuff, the world in a nutshell. The lady preacher is Babbittized as Joan of Arc and dies that way.
Everything turns every which way, they’re all human beings. “My ways are not your ways.”
Variety did not see the balance of Simmons and Lancaster, therefore the film seemed out of whack. The leaven of hoopla is very big, as in Capra’s Meet John Doe (which is fairly cited), hoopla in the best of causes.
The tale of a first officer who doesn’t know his duties. And so he is brought down by degrees to himself, until he ceases to exist except in pawn for a hetman’s son.
Therefore he accomplishes his watch. It was not understood by critics.
Consequently it has lain undisturbed for the longest time, but the stages of meaning are quite clear, should anyone bother to look for them. Conrad on the upper deck, contemplating the abyss.
Various films are played backward in Brooks’ script, especially Kazan’s Viva Zapata! and Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, until the professionals come at last to the conclusion that they are on the wrong track, and that is sometimes described as a “twist”.
The train ride from Mexico is literally in reverse, to complete the picture.
Kennedy’s The War Wagon has a variant of the rope trick, Boorman’s Deliverance the bowman, Richardson handles the theme another way in The Border.
Wuthering Heights (dir. William Wyler) for the love affair, Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean) for the attack on the trainload of Federales and colorados.
In Cold Blood
An actual case, like an episode of Gangbusters or Tales of the Texas Rangers or Dragnet. An entirely undramatic way of presenting the material incorporates various features that make up the event in an ancillary way, represented as “the newspaper”, for example, and the criminal psychology notated in prison interviews. The sum total of the work is a crime from planning to punishment, along with points of view relating to it, set out for contemplation.
And there is even a coincidental dramatic structure, centered on the purchase that same day of life insurance with double indemnity, which not only carries the weight of parable but also the secondary material in Billy Wilder’s film.
The Happy Ending
Brooks’ classical allegory of social disjunction is as typical as the ancient Chinese poets and meant about that much to critics like Canby. “Heroine Bested by Life”, his headline reads, and Variety speaks of her husband’s “patience of Job”.
The crisis coincides with the Nixon inauguration, he’s heard taking the oath of office. The rest is all genius and history, Johnson’s peace efforts rebuffed by Hanoi, scenes of Denver society, New York and Miltown and Jamaica as refuge.
A piece of faggotry, Army gouging and Mob money and LSD for the mass marketplace. A bank security expert and a whore rob them of the profits.
One sustained, beautiful inspiration. Admirers of the film per se will flock to it, the rest are totally bereft.
Bite the Bullet
Badlands, desert, mountains. The Western Press 700 Mile Endurance Race Best In The West Best In The World.
Ebert points out many characteristics in his useful review. San Juan Hill is recounted and somehow retold in the course of the film, which is set during Pres. Theo. Roosevelt’s Administration.
Horseback, against the glue factory and the motorcycle with sidecar. Two Rough Riders, a whore, a Mexican, a professional horseman, an Englishman, a jack of all trades, a kid with his bronco and many others start the race.
The style is kaleidoscopic and highly accurate. Canby’s review is merely incompetent.
A mogul with an Arabian is the likely favorite, he has the professional in the saddle, he “owns the West”. The whore is in it on a ruse. The Mexican has a bad tooth replaced by a brass rifle cartridge, which is an elegant way of stating a theme from Something of Value.
The screenplay sees things for the first time, thus the great joke of questions and answers mocked by Canby.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
A totally abstracted femininity at the very last is visible like the moon on a very dark night through storm clouds of abstracted masculinity.
Brooks leaves every door open, Catholicism, psychology, sociology, common sense, morality, everything that might give a solid conclusion and any real understanding, but he’s also concerned with the ultimate image and the real possibility that anything else is the padding and the filler of a poorly-joined story that itself obscures the view.
Dreary, dull, meretricious, like some desperate city where the moon can’t be seen or maybe is a pinprick in the night sky above the detritus, and in the daytime it’s the above average heroics of a raid on the inarticulate (Lindsay Anderson’s Thursday’s Children).
Wrong Is Right
In the days of the spy satellite, “my dear, oil is God.”
The television satire at the beginning defines a temptation of the medium. Ron Moody does Sir Alec Guinness as King Feisal (once bitten, twice camera-shy), and the film dashes along on a tightrope between Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain and Losey’s Modesty Blaise with variable keys (Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Flicker’s The President’s Analyst, Lumet’s Fail-Safe, etc.). Essentially it’s a kind of sequel to Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor by way of Lumet’s Network, with a line or two from Avildsen’s The Formula, and the complicated problems of filming it all account for the breakneck speed of its razzledazzle. “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”
In short, here is the plan of the Gulf War twenty years before the attack on the World Trade Center, which figures in it. This is the operation foretold in Three Days of the Condor, all of the many details are now supplied, from the Twin Towers to embedded reporters. The essence of the operation is a destabilized Middle East government achieved by assassination, laying the groundwork for a terrorist network used as a front in a phony terror war to justify an invasion.
The details have been conceived and realized with startling realism, and on this ground the film takes in its compass also Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King. The most important obstacle to understanding has proven to be the style of the work, an underproduced TV format to match the content.
“You ask: But the German people can’t possibly believe these lies? Then you talk to them. So many do.” (William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)