The opening shot is low pale lime scrub and blue sky with clouds—New Mexico. After the stage depot presents a picture of waiting among strangers, the film moves gradually into mesquite and rocky hills and wide plains and the occasional wildflowers, about as comprehensive a picture as you can imagine, industriously photographing the place in many of its aspects.
Two killings early on are filmed with the flashing sense of instantaneity Bertolucci got in 1900. Then comes the ballad of Jody, “when will you learn?”
The set constructions are architectural marvels in detail and scope. In the town, walls are hefty painted adobe or stone or clapboard, all mixed in close together to give that heterogeneous look of a calm, wayward urbanity. The Santee spread is large flat structures made of thin logs with outbuildings and a fence and corral system of those winding thin trunks too irregular for the house, all built to settle the matter at first glance and put the drama forward rapidly. A vast amount of planning and preparation went into these sets, and whether or not they pre-existed this film they’re used well.
A day for night is used to expose the bounty hunter Santee in Ahab guise, then later on a flashback refines this image. A night exterior of ranch house and moon expresses the calm before the storm.
A close-up of the battered keys on the whorehouse piano begins the long and furious finale, which closes on a complex freeze frame.
The coda is built for suspense in the same way Fred Zinnemann handled Five Days One Summer, and offers a whole parable of ingenious back-construction by way of reflection on a truly remarkable film.
The original plan was to shoot on videotape and transfer to film, but this proved impracticable on location and a spare Arriflex was used for all but about a minute of the footage.
Requiem for a Cop
A homosexual ring burgles and fences merchandise around the city, eluding months of stakeouts. The senior detective on the case is shot and killed just before dawn in Greenwich Village by the ringleader, whom he takes for a John rolled for $10,000 by his son, a police academy washout. The detective stops the man on the street, innocently returning the cash, not knowing it is the cut received for disclosing the stakeouts in advance.
Internal Affairs “shooflies” come down on the case “like a groom on his honeymoon”. The $10,000 is found in the detective’s wallet, it’s assumed he was on the take. A loan shark disabuses Kojak of any notion that such a sum would be extended on a cop’s pay.
It takes a great deal of sleuthing to solve the crime, and then it all depends on the son, whose loyalties are divided between a crooked lover and a father’s spotless reputation. He agonizes briefly over this, understands his position in the case, and reveals the gang’s headquarters to Kojak.
The Girl on the Late, Late Show
Dialogue of the New York television executive and the Hollywood producer. “Where is that film that you shot?”
“In a bank vault over in Century City.” The great paragon is William Castle’s The Hollywood Story, Fellini subsequently has occasion to take up the theme (Intervista), the mystifications impart a certain flavor of Penn’s Night Moves the following year.
“This is the old F. Scott Fitzgerald territory, he used to live at the Garden of Allah when it was across the street.”
In San Francisco, a close memory of Siegel’s Dirty Harry. In Mexico, of Boetticher’s ordeal (cf. Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely, again the following year, again with John Ireland).
Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place has the last word (cf. Rod Serling’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” for The Twilight Zone, dir. Mitchell Leisen).
Murder in Coweta County
The stateliness of these compositions allows Johnny Cash to unfold a really formidable technique, and Andy Griffith to continue the deployment of his villainies (which, when fully expanded, completed the long evolution of his acting career and gave birth to that redoubtable creation, Ben Matlock).
Jimmy the Kid
You get plenty of Don Adams and Cleavon Little, a good deal of Ruth Gordon, and a dash of Avery Schreiber. Gary Coleman’s precocity is the antidote to poisoned wind-up dolls of mop-top cuteness, with or without spectacles.
Nelson’s fine direction turns a hundred-thousand-dollar gag like car-vs.-train-at-crossing into a million-dollar gag by putting a camera in the car as it speeds inches in front of the locomotive.
Murder in Three Acts
A refined Hollywood gag on The Butler Did It, tied by a very mysterious circumstance to Altman’s Gosford Park.
Allan Quatermain & The Lost City of Gold
Undoubtedly a signal work of cinema, a masterpiece of directorial style and a new mark for films of this genre (Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, etc.). Nelson’s work is dazzling, but it is possible to discern brilliant performances by James Earl Jones (resembling Oliver Reed somewhat in, say, Don Taylor’s The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday), Richard Chamberlain (reprising his invention as Quatermain), Doghmi Larbi, Henry Silva, and above all Sharon Stone in a sort of part that actresses have had trouble with in recent years, her performance is correctly modeled on Natalie Wood’s in The Great Race, and it is superb.
But the best performance is Nelson’s. His emergence from the fiery underground caverns onto Victoria Falls is wonderful enough, but he follows it with a slow pan of the view that is breathtaking, which is what any sensible person would do with a widescreen camera standing on top of Victoria Falls and looking at a rainbow.
The exact method of composition is really hard to analyze (the correct solution might be found as an application of television techniques to the wide screen). Shots are variegated or modulated within themselves, and cut together at a rate seldom less than one every five seconds, rarer still is the shot lasting ten seconds or more.
The Watch Commander
The quietly spectacular finale is shot at night, across the rooftops of two downtown L.A. skyscrapers, involving more technical difficulties than can be imagined, though the precedents are many, by daylight or on the ground. The action takes place in the background, where a hostage is being held, while two police officers on this side of the chasm prepare to fire at the criminal. The arrangement of the shots is like a remote echo of Robin Hood at the archery contest, somehow, but it’s fifty stories up and dark...
Get Smart, Again!
Leonard Stern and Gary Nelson, again. CONTROL has ceased to exist (Agent 99 is peddling a memoir, Out of Control, to a very likely publisher), the building is up for demolition. KAOS (victim of a hostile takeover) has a Hottentot’s weather machine making snowstorms in the Oval Office over a $250 billion ransom. The United States Intelligence Agency is housed in a structure very like MI6-on-Thames in Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama in a way, which is how the story begins. “Get Smart,” says Commander Drury, and the former agent who not only wears a shoe phone still but has “shoe waiting” on top of that must be dug up out of the State Department where he fills in for functionaries with ordinary duties that are irksome, he’s a pallbearer that falls in, for example.
The “hover cover” gag is not only one of the greatest in the cinema and pure Keaton, it furthermore shows a curious gift of Nelson’s for high places.
The “pillow fight” to avoid waking up 99 is another chef-d’œuvre. “You met the President? What’s he like?”
“Everything you’d expect him to be.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Agent 86 keeps the Cone of Silence in his bedroom. “You want me to tie you up at the book company?”
The KAOS mole in the USIA lives at the Potomac Creek Trailer Park.
“Exaggerated plotting, outré characters and... shameless sight gags”, said Variety, speaking of the original.
86 now communicates by way of computerized cashmere, but all he gets is Minnie Lefkowitz at Lingerie for Small and Tall.
“I agree, 99, there’s something rotten in Detroit.”
“That’s Denmark,” Hymie points out, “Max.”
“Oh. Well, things haven’t been so great in Detroit, either.” Dr. Denton’s Hall of Hush goes into Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty as a purely literary conceit. Siegfried’s twin brother Helmut Schmelding (actually they’re triplets) is a notion from Dassin’s Nazi Agent. “You’re the only one who can impersonate Siegfried because you’re the only one who looks like him. Unless of course your sister is in town.”
Hymie puts the word out on the street, as ordered, where Siegfried finds it and orders “schlep auffen desk” (Hymie has latterly been a crash dummy, Larabee’s been watering the plants for fifteen years, Agent 13 is in the Archives), Starker is dismayed, “oh, Siegfried, you really should speak wiss ze cleaning crew, zey seem to have missed zis huge slab of concrete on your desk.”
Ivanhoe, Nicholas Nickleby, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse and Maxwell Smart (“why couldn’t you just write a diet book like everybody else?”) combine in the warehouse finale, where the key is Curtain Call (dir. Peter Yates) or very nearly. “99, I think he’s the wrong publisher for your book.”
Smart’s memoirs are forthcoming. “What did he say?”
“That the fate of the world was in my hands, you know, the usual.”