Judy Garland Musical Special
General Electric Theater

Avedon has the production on a dark stage lit as needed, Nelson plays to this for the effect of a nightclub act, perfectly.


Requiem for a Heavyweight
Playhouse 90

On the short end, washed up, a figure of fun he doesn’t abide at all, that’s the end of him.

Great direction like a prizefight, in close to the camera, maneuvering to square off, performances like a glove (Palance, Wynn & Wynn, Hunter, Adams, Stehli, etc.).



“Pity them, my azure masters.” Their art was effaced, “canceled” in a word. What a thing to spend a day or days or part of a day on a shot, when all you need is a handful of cameras and instead of pages on a shooting schedule the same shot is a number in a director’s notebook.

“Why would a fellow want a girl like her, a girl who’s merely lovely?”


The Jazz Singer
Lincoln Mercury Startime

Nelson’s deep mastery of live television is so evident here that it is amazing to read a scholar’s remark that the medium is “archaic”.

On the contrary, it is entirely new, except that such a composition as Alberghetti and Moore at a nightclub table in the foreground, where their conversation interrupts Lewis’s performance behind them, might be adduced from Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (the two couples at table), but generally the style and technique are fast and abrupt (the changing light backstage) and contrapuntal (Lewis sidles off from his father’s bedside in the foreground past Moore again with Alberghetti arguing with Reed as Uncle Nat, whereas Picon as the mother has been in the background of the scene).


A World of His Own
The Twilight Zone

This is closely related to “The Mighty Casey” in terms of the comic perfection of style, and of the manner in which it was written, even though the writers and directors are different. Surface and structure meet, there is nothing up the writer’s sleeve, and you will not find better performances by these actors in the cinema because there are no better performances by actors in the cinema.

In a very real sense, television is a bridge between radio and cinema, with a constant struggle to achieve the image that fits the word in a production schedule that is notoriously rigorous. Here, Matheson’s script delivers up the deepest goods from the writer’s most abstract trove, offers an explanatory introduction and then produces a simple and straightforward image.

The playwright tells his wife that his characters have their own being, and produces one. She calls him mad, and he unproduces her, in the sense of an artist refining his art with experience. The merciless opening dialogue is exactly like the comedy of “The Mighty Casey”, and now the situation is furthered by dramatic unity into a quintessence of farce only to be compared with Wilde.

Nelson’s direction has not the unflinching resolve of Parrish & Ganzer’s, but rather follows them with an unremitting articulateness requiring the greatest skill in the players.


Lilies of the Field

An aggressive, complicated satire is intentionally belied by a surface treatment that nevertheless reveals two main structures joined independently in a line that extends (on a purely formal basis) from Hitchcock’s Murder! to Maté’s D.O.A., and a third as well, Abt Vogler’s harmony.

Eliot’s The Rock is the simple basis of the anecdote, with a certain resemblance to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story, “The Collector”. On the other hand, there is what might loosely be described as the romantic theme, from Bringing Up Baby toward That Cold Day in the Park.

The satire represents the Pilgrims as German nuns who’ve fled East Germany to the American desert, they lovingly corral a Negro and Mexicans to build their chapel.

“A wind of evil flung my despair of ease / against the spires of the one / lady.” There is a sense in which Pakula’s The Pelican Brief picks up the note. “I wanted to build it myself,” says Herr Schmidt, anticipating Rupert Birkin at the finale of Women in Love.

The displacement of form exhibited in the contretemps, when Smith abandons the project for want of bricks after a miracle has been promised to the churchless but not unhouseled parishioners, is specifically to be compared with Renoir’s The Southerner, and the fiesta in Nelson’s film.

“I will build thee a house,” Jehovah answers King David. Joyce’s artist is nowhere to be seen, “paring his fingernails.” Hairston’s composition rises and falls like the church’s peaked roof. Nelson is said to have shot this in two weeks on a budget of $250,000.


Soldier in the Rain

The authors of The Pink Panther, and Blake Edwards didn’t direct it.

Nelson runs a taut ship in his comedy (from William Goldman).

The Great One is NCOIC on an Army base, he has a faithful dog who has a faithful dog.

The death of this latter provokes a crisis.

A tale of the peacetime Army, with a remembrance of the Pacific.


Fate Is the Hunter

Vindication of an airline pilot whose plane has crashed killing all aboard save one stewardess.

Unpleasant impressions of him slowly enlightened by interviews with friends and co-workers, a fiancée or two.

Reduplication of the fatal crash in very odd circumstances, the cause found at last.

“A stupid, annoying film” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times).


Father Goose

A very great comedy of the war. John Ford directed Donovan’s Reef, no-one got it, Nelson to the rescue.

No-one got it.

Geoff Andrew sums up the critical problem in Time Out Film Guide. “It’s a shame that Grant,” etc.

The line is from Pommer’s Vessel of Wrath and Huston’s The African Queen to Ford and Lilies of the Field.


Once a Thief

The alternatives presented in the exceptionally beautiful screenplay are very precisely regulated, the young ex-con (Alain Delon) can pursue a million-dollar cache in “lightweight spools of platinum wire”, or else a future with wife and young daughter, A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Marko’s hipster lingo lays the turf at Big Al’s for a subjective camera robbery and murder in disguise (just ahead of Frankenheimer’s distorting lens for Seconds), all prepared in this opening scene by sharp dialogue on the decline of “real people” and a dyke’s glance.

The direction is absolutely even with the great cast (Jack Palance, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin, John Davis Chandler, Tony Musante, Steve Mitchell, Jeff Corey, etc.) in a sustained tour de force.


The Background Beat

“A brief introduction to the scoring of a motion picture,” with Lalo Schifrin (Once a Thief), seen composing at the piano exactly as they do it in the movies (he composes differently for different occasions).

Variability of theme, “imitating the camera”. Application of the score, mysteries of film composition.


Duel at Diablo

The opening is a classic, a man is shown hung from his heels in the desert, another man looks on from a canyon as a woman rides across the desert floor pursued by two Indians on horseback.

This is the magicianship of Robert N. Bradbury. The woman is married to a man in the supply business, she has an infant son by an Indian. A scout (whose Indian wife was scalped) and a horse trader accompany a transfer of munitions from one fort to another, and are ambushed en route. The cavalry arrives in the nick of time.

Nelson goes back to Westerns of the Thirties for more than the opening, he uses camera cars instead of laying tracks to get the jouncing shots at a gallop that are characteristic. The extremely well-filmed ambush ends at Diablo Canyon, a cul-de-sac. The husband (who figures in the scalping) is captured by the Indians, tortured, and left for dead as in the opening scene, with the scout once again looking on.



In a quarter-hour, Nelson has stated the ground of his theme, the artist known among cognoscenti, despised elsewhere, suddenly faced with something not on the cards, summary execution, annihilation.

An American symphony orchestra playing Belgium for the USO, caught up in the Battle of the Bulge.

“Prostitution isn’t the only profession that’s been ruined by amateurs.”

One might amuse the enemy troops, countertheme.

“These people are gangsters, they’re the enemies of everything...”

Lots of angles, many incidental considerations, from a novel by Alan Sillitoe, to go with Sturges, Donen, Bergman, Fellini and Wajda, et al.

“I am not a subtle man, General.”

“You’re right. At last we have an area of agreement.”

Sternberg, Shanghai Express. Litvak, The Journey.

“General Schiller knew all about you and me.”

“That’s quite a trick, I don’t know all about you and me myself.”

Angles, considerations. “You’re a man of unceasing activity and matchless energy, the new Germany in microcosm. Oh, please delay the execution until after I have left this evening.”

The point is the enemy position, amused or not.

The allusion to Baudelaire’s “Une Mort héroïque” early on is noteworthy.

Though this stalled panzer division has found its fuel a mere two years after Annakin’s film on the subject, there is such a thing as a Belgian Resistance.

A directive from Berlin is the death warrant.

“What ever happened to Napoleon?”

Vincent Canby wrote of this as “aggressively unbelievable” (New York Times). Roger Ebert likewise, “preposterous” (Chicago Sun-Times). Also Halliwell’s Film Guide, “quite unconvincing”.



A perfect exposition of Wang Chi’s thousand-year-old poem, “at a public house”.

nowadays I’m always drunk

and never worry for my soul

but since everyone’s a sot

why should I be sober?

Charly the moron grows up to be a big strong genius in a world of morons, thanks to medical science. Nothing he can do about it.

Hardly a reviewer noticed the contribution by Ravi Shankar, a first-rate score. The cinematography is very beautiful. A split screen puts champ contre champ.

Pauline Kael gave it a name, “true schlock art”, that sufficed her. The others moaned and maundered. Vincent Canby gleaned an insight from it, for example, something about Frankenstein, but couldn’t make it work. “The movie didn’t work for me,” he said.

Likewise Ebert, “the movie would have been better on a totally human level, I think.”

Michael Scheinfeld’s little essay for TV Guide is a misrepresentation in very far over its head.

You can take a moron such as yourself and raise him up till he sees “things as they are”, he’ll be happy swinging on a playground.



Evidently the basis of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, west by south. The symmetry of the construction prepares Soldier Blue and is the point, yet it wasn’t even observed by reviewers, who did however note something “familiar” in the circumstances, no doubt from Howard Hawks.

Nelson takes off from Carol Reed by frying an egg on the screen in the first shot.


Soldier Blue

The structure, which critics evidently did not perceive, divides the work into roughly four parts, symmetrically.

1. The massacre of a U.S. Cavalry pay troop by Comanches.

2. An encounter with savage Kiowa braves.

3. An encounter with Isaac Q. Cumber (his father’s joke), a white trader who sells rifles to the Comanches.

4. The massacre of a Comanche village by the U.S. Cavalry.

The last made a forcible impression on critics, but the lesson throughout is not to descend into blood lust.


The Wrath of God

The pleasure of God, says Rimbaud, is the vision of justice. For the rest, he says famously, “spiritual combat is as brutal as the battle of men.”

In the days of Villa you find just such an arena, the script overlays the image of Ireland and its war and the Tommy gun of Prohibition America in the guise of a priest for a complex picture.

The influence of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is seen in the turning of these forces against counterrevolutionary opposition (but see also Richard Brooks’ The Professionals).

Nelson’s approach to the material is quietly grandiose in the manner of the period represented.

“They murder priests here.” The Metrocolor setups by Alex Phillips, Jr. go to town in the abandoned church. “That’s why God has sent me here.”

A cockfight. “My apologies, gentlemen, but these are extraordinary times.” Stanley Kramer’s The Pride and the Passion for the renewed church, a significant basis. Roy Ward Baker’s The Singer Not the Song applies, and Frank Perry’s Monsignor perhaps ought to be mentioned, Burt Kennedy’s Return of the Seven as well. The one about the Englishman, the American and the Irishman somewhere south of Mexico, “the Gospel according to Van Horn.”

Roger Greenspun of the New York Times far below his best saw “a hokum beyond the reach of art,” that’s criticism. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) found “a lot of things hard to figure out”. Variety, “a good solid action-adventure film.” TV Guide, “anyone who took this seriously was making an error.” The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “downright painful... embarrassing... simply ludicrous”. Michael Betzold (Rovi), “a satirical western.”


The Wilby Conspiracy

A view of the South African police state showing the angles by which it operates intransigently over any small thing, a pass that’s needed to ride in a Capetown street, for instance.

Insular strata of the regime, divergent viewpoints, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s theme.

The man from the Bureau of State Security, the male Bantu and the Englishman, always called a melodrama in reviews (Walsh’s Desperate Journey is a close forebear) except the vehement denunciation by Time Out Film Guide that cannot be understood.



Nelson’s companion piece to Charly is a poem on feminine vanity without equal.

No childhood, thanks to the good doctor, no future beyond sparkling praise.

The rundown of a bitch and its whelps.


A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich

The characteristic technique is exposed under the credits as the camera pans and dollies out around a corner. Successive variations of this, usefully as re-compositions within the frame, cultivate or generate a “carpeted” perspective drawn toward the camera without forcing it.

After the credits, the Los Angeles rooftop from An American Dream, or one like it.


Christmas Lilies of the Field

The great director’s last work aired on NBC and is nonetheless carefully titled “A Ralph Nelson Film” (he was the executive producer).

The gemütlichkeit and general carelessness about surface detail are the consequence in one way or another of a thoroughgoing composition that is delicately but solidly constructed. It posits an abstract condition of want, against which the meddlesome rich are sent hungry away, and the government is seen as useless until the government is seen as the people.