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Gator

The Times of London delivered one of the most impossible utterances anywhere on just this film. “The relentless violence, the sentimentality, the raucous stag party humour, the inability to cut off a scene once it has made its point,” (and none of this, dear reader, applies) “attest to the influence of” (now what unspeakable hack will The Times name here, do you suppose?) “Robert Aldrich” (italics mine).

Mike Douglas, the original Prince Charming, plays the Governor to a tee. The speedboat chase is an intermediary between Live and Let Die and Smokey and the Bandit. Lauren Hutton is cast as a television news reporter, brings her particular brand of lunacy into play, is filmed shirtless against the night sky with a photographically-diminished moon, and swiftly has her changes rung in the last scene. Jerry Reed’s evil raccoon looks are the fascinating surface of a brilliant performance. Jack Weston is made the butt of some superb jokes drolly filmed with a static camera as he floats by standing in the stern of a police boat or talks on a poolside phone as a highdiver in the background splashes him, and he has a deeply drunk bar scene while his alter ego Gator (Burt Reynolds) is slipped a mickey in the back room (similarly, when Gator and the journalist take that moonlit walk on the beach, Weston and Alice Ghostley have a romantic encounter).

The gags and stunt work are deft and original. Gator’s speedboat flies over a small dock in slow motion, and the pursuing police boat does likewise but at a slightly different angle so as to demolish a shanty in passing.

Reynolds is a classic. Gator is modeled on Thirties Westerns, then built up into a subtle picture of the New South.

The final fistfight is an intermittent track-left across the shuttered Savannah Beach concession stands Reynolds and Reed crash through one after another, a great bit of Pop Art.

 

The End

Jerry Belson wrote Smile a few years earlier and found the right director for it in Michael Ritchie. The End is another work of genius, and again no better director could have been chosen.

The screen is black, white letters present the production, then the title (the “D” falls down on its side), a great joke. The first shot has Wendell Sonny Lawson (Burt Reynolds) staring through the Venetian blinds at a sunny day outside, the camera follows him as he walks over to an aquarium while his doctor (Norman Fell) speaks off-camera. A characteristic shot in this film is the reverse POV, and one is used here to show Lawson’s face as he presses it in anguish against the glass of the aquarium, which fills the screen. His face is distorted by the flat plane of the glass, the shot is held for a long time, creating an image understood by Fellini and borrowed by him for Ginger e Fred. After a bit of comedy (weeping in the elevator, driving everybody out), Lawson is in church making his confession to a young priest (Robby Benson). The confessional screen between them fills the frame.

Tight planar arrangements of the visual field suit the story (no long perspectives) and are the bedrock of the composition. The shots are ironically beautiful throughout, with one striking exception (and a couple of variants). Reynolds cuts from the padded cell where Lawson is comically weeping on the floor, with his face in the lap of his ex-wife (Joanne Woodward), suddenly to a shot from outside looking in at the scene through a set of rusted white wrought-iron bars, amid rain on the Spanish tiles. This key shot, prepared by the aquarium shot (and by an up-angle through the glass coffee table as Lawson regurgitates the pills he’s swallowed onto it, a shot parodying a famous gag in High Anxiety), amid the luxuriant beauty of every other shot, gives a precise picture of what The End means.

It isn’t black comedy, and it isn’t slapstick either. When he tries to stop his ex-wife from going out with a wetback gigolo in a Rolls-Royce, she judos him against a wall face-first, and his sore nose isn’t played for the camera with Keatonian gravitas. Wishing to place a call from a pay phone in a hospital corridor, Lawson is obliged to neutralize a talky patient (James Best) ahead of him by switching off his ambulatory IV, and the instant result isn’t high comedy, though he totters off and collapses out-of-focus in the background of the next shot while Lawson is on the phone (the scene adds a variant sequence of ICU patients in bed, etc.).

The views are lovely, Lawson’s ex-wife’s kitchen is shot over the bar with bottles and glasses to the uncrowded table with a plate full of bananas and a cantaloupe, the grounds of the mental asylum he’s taken to after his suicide attempt are summery and verdurous. He tries one last time by swimming out to sea on a clear blue day, and his POV under the water is of the blue surface and the pale sun like a pupil in an eye of green. He resolves to live... in the end, a maniac (Dom DeLuise) from the asylum is trying to put him out of his misery, zigzagging up the beach in pursuit like the end of Bertolucci’s 1900 (but before that, they embrace in a parody of From Here to Eternity, burying the hatchet as it were).

Clint Eastwood drew important conclusions from this for Blood Work. Reynolds has an eye for effects that are very subtle, like the early scene between Lawson and his girlfriend (Sally Field), with the camera panning on them and craning down when they sit, in a brief allusion to the church scene in The Stranger. Blake Edwards figures as a general study in this fastidiously learned cinematic environment.

Gags are often of the inexpressible kind. Lawson wears his girlfriend’s heavy nightgown in one scene, suggesting Hercules or Cul-de-sac, and in another his parents are played by Pat O’Brien and Myrna Loy (she watches television while he putters at something, their medicine cabinet is chockfull).

Reynolds as Lawson prepares Dom DeLuise’s entrance by gradually reflecting the latter’s saturnine reactions (in a scene with Kristy McNichol as Lawson’s daughter), allowing DeLuise to take flight from himself as a madman (he appears by Lawson’s bedside in the asylum wearing a coat and tie over his hospital gown, with a parody of The Graduate as the camera shoots between DeLuise’s bare legs at his dangling tie, sternly observed by Lawson).

Carl Reiner plays a specialist in Death Therapy (Death the Rapist) who keels over during his first session with Lawson.

Only a few people can have appreciated this at the time, but it should be abundantly obvious by now that The End is a masterpiece.

 

Sharky’s Machine

In several ways, an original conception of lyricism in cinema. Remarkably enough, the opening aerial shot covers Atlanta and gets down to a close-up of Reynolds. It reappears as a night shot moving to a glass elevator, and again a day shot establishing a building, etc.

Reynolds’ editing is a step forward in concision, adapting the jump cut to a smoother conception of points in a progression that continues in Stick.

The final sequence is a quietly terrific development hinging on Henry Silva’s unhinged performance (amid a chorus of comedians: Keith, Casey, Durning, Sierra, etc.), with a climax borrowed for Invasion, U.S.A and Death Wish 3.

 

Stick

Elmore Leonard’s original re-creation of Raymond Chandler’s English proto-structure in The Big Sleep is the overriding interest, and that does no disservice to a great rendering.

Reynolds opens with a poetic little gag on Sharky’s Machine. A helicopter shot takes in Miami Beach and settles down on Stick not walking along the rails but standing in the open door of a boxcar amidst a moving freight train.

The script enforces a natural development away from brilliance toward more assurance, and then Florida is a very different place from Atlanta, which is sufficiently evoked in Sharky’s Machine to find a touch of the director evident here in a sense of the place.

Charles Durning, a great clown, gets a red wig and eyebrows to sustain him, and a Floridian shirt completes the picture.

In Leonard’s configurement, Sean Regan (Rusty Regan, Chandler calls him—“A big curly-headed Irishman from Clonmel, with sad eyes and a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard.”) is not a bootlegger and IRA man but an ex-con who drifts into a bad drug deal. He’s hired by a boating millionaire (George Segal), and the two women in his life are Candice Bergen and his daughter.

Reynolds’ subtle nuances in close-ups treat all the actors to functional displays with camera work and editing that miss nothing. His theatrical appreciativeness gives everyone a chance to be perfectly brilliant in the merest characterization, or in a vaudeville number like Alex Rocco’s, or Segal’s tour de force. Personal style advances a restaurant scene by inserting a surprising close-up of a plate of french fries being drizzled with catsup to the point of repletion.

The final showdown but one on a high-rise balcony takes place between Durning and an albino hit man and Reynolds. They briefly exchange glances speeded up from Leone, then two of them go over the side, the hit man blazing away in the void (an effect amplified from Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers).

 

The Man from Left Field

Blanked out by great sorrows, he coaches a Little League team from Indiantown (“the other side of the river”) and remembers himself, ballplayer, doctor.

Filmed very effectively on location with a particularly fine view of the bridge, a Steadicam amid ragged yards, etc.

 

Hard Time

A spell in jail awaiting trial, hard time is something else, what they give you.

The artist is uncomprehended by the critic, who gets his payoff from the family. Graffiti artists interfere with this, the artist is accused of murdering their innocent joy.

This is represented in the opening scene, the central event of a film in three parts concurrently, this artistic praxis or economy set forth, a Thirties or Forties detective film, a sequence of contemporary images.

Detectives on graffiti patrol, a fresh white wall is cheese to “Wolf” of Miami. On the street Spanish toughs accost a man in business attire and take his briefcase. It contains $500,000 for a precinct higher-up. One kid is found dead with it, a tough escapes, the briefcase arrives short $190,000. The recipient announces a prosecution, the detective who paints and isn’t understood by him is indicted for murder. The judge sets bail at $500,000.

The DA sees a chance for political gain. The Spanish tough with his strange “milk eye” has a mistress, a Vietnamese florist.

The detective’s partner has a sneaking admiration of sorts for “Wolf” as an accepted master of a kind, who during the foot chase leaves his copious mark.