Downhill Racer

Ritchie has one goal, to beat Riefenstahl’s Olympia. He uses a lesser number of cameramen, but he has only one event to depict. Every American sports film is brought into play, and even some Westerns and flying films. He films on location, with a brutal, pitiless objectivity. His difficulties, not to mention technical ones (like following Gance—and Kubrick—by putting the camera on skis), are in some ways the real, thrilling moments.

The script’s acuity is capable of some flexibility, as in the transition from the Alps to Idaho Springs by way of a promotional speech on “roving ambassadors for the American way of life.” The nominal object is Alpine skiing treated exhaustively, as in The Candidate it is a Presidential campaign.

A film that stands head and shoulders above all others in this field, properly before and certainly since, with the notable exception of Semi-Tough.


Prime Cut

A rare example of Ritchiean delectation, with neither the classic deployment nor the careful manipulation of the material seen elsewhere, but displaying a hand for caricature, and a conscious knowledge of the effect he is producing, expanded later.

The scene in which the shorn lamb is brought into the eating place is precisely Blondin’s three-ball trick over Niagara Falls, or the daylight ride of Lady Godiva.


The Candidate

The final image is perhaps the starting point, “j’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne pas savoir demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.



One of the greater pictures of Southern California, with a veneer of iconoclastic satire.



The title is a colloquialism employed by quarterback-writer Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds), as in “well, nobody said it wan’t gon’ be semi-tough,” meaning a little bit difficult or appreciably so.

Writers such as Vincent Canby have attributed formlessness to the work, a hazy comedy or satire, because the inklings of form are misleading in a sports metaphor. Unless, that is, Marianne Moore is taken into account, who on baseball and writing is unanimous.

The structure is an attempt at evoking “the bitter steps” of competition or composition. Two major obstacles are being Pelfed and getting Beat, the latter particularly thorny as it signifies a literary movement, so that criticism is implied. The essence of the argument is that original inspiration and direct contact with the material must prevail against the constraints of what is otherwise called style, as Godard would say.

A specifically literary denotation brings on the publisher of a yet to be written book by Puckett, whose team is heading for the Super Bowl. The publisher’s specialty is literature, with a number of Nobel Prizewinners in his stable (cf. Mike Nichols’ Catch-22).

The form of the work is of an imposing difficulty, but still gives a pleasing not to say amusing surface.


The Island

The Island is essentially a variation of Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies that concentrates on the climax in a long expansiveness. The beginning of the end is where the homage is most clearly paid, with Michael Caine on the run and a ship’s boat from the Coast Guard cutter about to make a landing.

For some reason this was lost on critics and the public, nor did many perhaps recognize the irony of A Hero’s Life by Richard Strauss accompanying the pirate assaults on the sailing vessel St. Croix and the cutter, but that’s Michael Ritchie for you, he piles up the flotsam of three centuries on a Caribbean isle, spares no art in rendering them veridically, accomplishes a superb analysis of the script and films it unstintingly, yet no-one pays half a mind (according to the Guardian he lost The Right Stuff to Philip Kaufman over this, if he ever had it).

The pirates are the shabbiest lot of criminals you can imagine, as gray as old wood yet with a sort of ferocity and even a code, but why speak of them, intensely amusing as they are, when there are things like the telling POV shot when Caine peeks under a canvas tarp on the cutter now swarming with pirates and sees a .50-cal. machine gun mounted and loaded, or the last shot ascending from the engine room where he has vanquished the last of the pirates in a long vertical climb to a dingy porthole with a view of the bay and a helicopter coming in from the distance to answer a distress call from the now-slain crew?

That shot is an astute reflection of Lord of the Flies in its concluding scene and gives the measure of all Ritchie’s film, which hasn’t begun to be appreciated at anything like its true worth. The landing party from the cutter is typically fine in its realization of easygoing National Guardsmen (and one bearded fellow with a rifle slung over his shoulder) perusing the island, they might be a field expedition from a university set upon by maniacs from another century.

Quite a gang, these pirates. Aboard the St. Croix they want to shoot a survivor of their assault whose kung fu threatens to overcome the bare cutlass he’s menaced with, but their chief (David Warner) warns them off, he admires the fighting. When they’ve taken the cutter the question is where to, and the answer proposed is Havana.

The Island is put together acutely and freely, filmed with a running sense of madness under firm control, fully aware at every step of its connotations, and yet to read the reviews it would seem to have no meaning whatsoever, a blank exercise in devotion to mayhem and its author’s success. That such criticism gets written and even published and then heeded by anyone at all is a long line of mistakes that has shanghaied this film and many another in the vasty deep of richly undeserved oblivion.


The Survivors

With a setup related to Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue (dir. Melvin Frank) and on the other hand Clint Eastwood’s Pink Cadillac (dir. Buddy Van Horn), this is essentially a gagfest and notable precisely for the careless way in which gags in the other sense are also handled.



As the film opens, Jane Doe is dressed as a bum on Santa Monica Beach where he’s asked by a well-dressed man for a private meeting, which takes place at a well-appointed mansion in Beverly Hills where Jane Doe is asked to kill him.

Jane finds out the man is neither dying nor landed, just a con artist planning his getaway over Jane’s dead body. He’s also a drug courier for a local chief of police who runs the beach trade, which is where Jane came in.

That’s the essence of the investigative report by Fletch, who writes under a pseudonym. Private corporate jets are used to ferry the dope, they belong to a family company the man has bigamously married into.

The brilliant script is by Andrew Bergman out of Gregory McDonald (or the other way around), with a quick homage in passing to The 39 Steps amid a very tough private eye stance levitated just above the crumbling city noted here and there by the author.

At their final meeting, Fletch and the unmade man are effectively wearing each other’s clothes (“strangers in the night, exchanging clothing, strangers in my pants”) and Fletch is staring at the barrel of a .357, a little earlier it’s a .38 Police Special.

Another nice symmetry, the faux victim is made real by his jestless partner the chief. It all ends under rime-gray skies on Copacabana Beach, still more symmetry.


The Golden Child

The Washington Post reviewer referred to Ritchie in this instance as a “journeyman director”, the notably equable reviewers for Spirituality and Health were driven into unparalleled excesses of vituperation, Ebert enjoyed the show.

A simple test gives the results to be obtained by informed criticism, surely. Imagine any other director with this credit and you can see at once the Ritchie’s mastery in this form, Phil Tipppett’s creature is designed at the very least to place the influence of Ray Harryhausen in dramatic relation to the foreground, and for the rest the evocative uses of the medium in rapid sketches make the comparison to Eastwood’s Firefox (also Kershner’s Robocop 2, even Schrader’s Auto Focus in a certain almost insignificant way) more or less useful.

A satirical impulse has perhaps been overlooked amongst the critical dispositions, or perhaps not.


The Couch Trip

The precise pitch of this film, amidst the New Age strictly from Nowheresville and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (dir. Milos Forman), is the sort of juggling Ritchie practices in whole scenes of Prime Cut with the smiling concentration of a circus artiste.


Fletch Lives

Even after this we still have televangelists just as after And Now For Something Completely Different (dir. Ian McNaughton) television reporters still do “walkie-talkies” where there is no television, draw from it what you will.



Practically a definition of independent moviemaking, certainly under conditions of the latter day. The technique is entirely placed in the service of the actors, who rarely have it so good. And then, for the sake of good note-taking, George Roy Hill’s The Sting.


The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom

The terrible, unalterable magic of this is its verisimilitude, which can only be compared to Orson Welles’ renowned War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Though it was conceived for cable television, the best way to see it is on a network broadcast, in media res.


Cops and Robbersons

Now that Michael Ritchie has gone to his glorious reward, one might point out that this is the sort of film certain other directors have been trying to make for years, right down to the “comedy” score and the Home Depot windows.

Ritchie achieves all that by indirection, his real intention being a satire of the Postmodern cop show mentality (he wraps it up in a parody of Wyler’s The Desperate Hours). The acting is notable for its subtlety as well, with Dianne Wiest and above all Jack Palance given room to work and nicely directed, while Chevy Chase turns in a sort of Robert Montgomery deadpan as a Barnaby Jones fan on an Osterman Weekend.


The Fantasticks

The remarkable story, which is well beyond belief, especially in this great age of film preservation and enlightened criticism, is that even with Francis Ford Coppola on the board, the film could not be released except with the most draconian sort of anti-Wellesean cutting. In this case, however, all excised material has reportedly been saved, and even released as filler. An original negative must certainly be available.

This is what comes of critical misunderstandings piled one on top of another for decades. The work gets buried, prematurely to say the least, and we must cast about for wiser heads than these, which had the notion of shelving The Fantasticks and then, even more fantastical in the void, slashing it altogether for the great public’s great delectation and great enlightenment.