One Spy Too Many

Alexander the Greater.

Sleep with the princess and abash the prince, kill the president, subdue the people with U.S. Army “will gas”, spread over the continent and from there the world.

A ritual plan, each phase coincident with a violation of the Decalogue.

The mogul is being sued for divorce, she wants her inheritance back.

Organic health food at the Grecian Urn Salon is one of his rackets, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is in his repertoire, also mummification with tannis leaves.

A brilliant, complex film, with a handsome echo of Richter’s 8 x 8.

“Condition Red, give everyone the afternoon off.”

“You Belong to Me” is practically sung by Maude at U.N.C.L.E.’s front desk.


The Spy in the Green Hat

He of THRUSH (Turdus) Central superintends a rejected Nazi war plan to turn Greenland into Thrushland, a paradise brought about using “heavy heavy water” to actuate a missile every mile, changing the course of the Gulf Stream to blizzard-bomb New York, Paris and London.

Napoleon Solo is by misadventure betrothed to a “poor but honest” Sicilian girl with ancient relations out of Chicago under Prohibition.

Illya Kuryakin is the prize of a rapturous sadomasochist named Miss Diketon, who works as a secretary, masseuse and assassin for a nervous Nellie named Strago, in charge of the project.

A very brilliant film on the order of Losey’s Modesty Blaise, an astonishing television production, more works in the monkey wrench than you can imagine, a cast of a thousand nights and a night.

It opens on the roller-coaster at Pacific Ocean Park.

“The world’s most wanted Nazi scientist.”

Greenland, future home of the master race.

Sicily, home base for “The Concrete Overcoat Affair”.

Stray-go, not Straw-go, the distiller impeccable and his armament of many tuning-forks “somewhere in the Caribbean” (Pal’s Atlantis, the Lost Continent).


The Invaders

They land on a ghost town (cp. Life Stinks, dir. Mel Brooks), pinkies extended.

The architect who witnesses this is not believed, drolly checked into a hospital under the name “Arthur Gordon”.

“They’re friendly little creatures,” says the convalescent crone who burns his house down.

Hotel Palomar, “285 Front Street, Kinney”, pop. 12, “and that’s including the two dogs and my little Siamese cat,” home of the honeymooners from outer space, “a little town between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield.”

“How do you go about buying a town?”

“Well, I—“

“—First, ya gotta find the right town. Then ya just walk in with a suitcase full o’ cash,” cp. the Man who fell to Earth (dir. Nicolas Roeg).

“After I saw that, uh, saucer, it seems as though I have been cut off from everything piece by piece.”

Anthony Wilson teleplay, inspired direction by Sargent in some way emulated by Werner Herzog in The Wild Blue Yonder, cinematography Meredith Nicholson, score Dominic Frontiere.


The Forbin Project

Eric Braeden for Von Braun, Gordon Pinsent for President Kennedy, and you have the dimensions of a total satire and analysis and rejection of the Atomic Age, a self-sustaining symbiosis of the United States and the Soviet Union, symbolized by a supercomputer that combines with its Russian counterpart to control all the missiles and issue all the orders.

Against this there is only human nature.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Tom Milne in Time Out Film Guide essentially agree with Halliwell’s Film Guide, “good-looking sci-fi for intellectual addicts.”


The Man

A house divided collapses on the President and the Speaker, the Vice-President is a lame duck, a dark horse emerges in the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

“A national catastrophe unprecedented in the history of this or any other country.” Dieterle’s Tennessee Johnson, which served as an important basis for Serling’s Seven Days in May screenplay (dir. John Frankenheimer), is unexpectedly cited in Senator Watson’s bill.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “doesn’t make too much sense.” Variety, “compelling and sometimes explosive”. Hal Erickson (Rovi) has it as “released theatrically because most sponsors were afraid of its supposed controversial content.


White Lightning

The opening scene of two murders in the swamps of Arkansas is a direct recompression of Huston’s Key Largo, and is filmed with a long lens to acknowledge the fact. The prison sequence that follows compressively states Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke, and there Sargent ends his establishing shots.

What follows that is most original. The prisoner (Burt Reynolds), released for undercover work, drives away in a fast car, shedding his tie and jacket as he goes, then eluding a police car. Sargent’s technique is entirely fresh and new. He films on location, and never misses a thing.

The prime characteristic of his style is that it never reveals its workings. This has probably led to his critical neglect as much as anything else. The locations are a cinematic rather than a photographic paradise for him, and are not seen from the outside. Rather, his rapid assured technique subsumes everything as it is into the film and imposes a form upon it that in turn is derived from a conscious apperception of the locations in the first place. Limpidity, profundity and ease are the hallmarks of this technique. Jennifer Billingsley cooks breakfast in a rustic screened porch with a view of woods all around (and rusted wreckage), precisely expressing Mies van der Rohe’s conception. The camera pans, tilts, zooms and tracks without fanfare. Scenes are cut as soon as the visual result is sufficient. Thus, a fixed shot over the hood of a police car during a chase is held just long enough to identify the murderous sheriff (Ned Beatty) bouncing within on the front seat.

Moonshiners and county mounties in cahoots are the theme. The vision of rurality is direct from nature, rows of green crops just beyond the farmhouse porch, canebrakes flying past the windshield, a small-town grocery store, a large old private residence with its delicate geometry.

The acting is en règle to a surprising degree, too. Beatty and Billingsley invent new personæ with a strong sculptural element. Reynolds is serene within himself behind the wheel at high speed, handling the fine interplay of Sargent’s camerawork (for once, a William Norton script is overborne by the swift-running direction). Scenery and actors are treated equably in one motion as alike constituents of the drama, which always is seen in the light of day or minimally lit at night.

The technique calls no attention to itself before the climactic slow-motion dispensation of poetic justice. Discretionary editing gives a feeling of spontaneity to foreground action framing the scene, deep focus unobtrusively handles vignettes seen through doors or windows behind the scene.

Fast-paced action favors the cinematic equivalent. The scene is assembled step-by-step en route in camera placements each availing itself of position and sequence to articulate correctly for the moment. The sum total of all the shots is a surfeit of life plowed back in strictness to find a speaking voice in all the details and leave the structure as well as the manner of construction second and third, hidden behind the scenes with “the artist... paring his fingernails,” the better to point out each shot to the cameraman in rapid succession.


The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Sargent’s exemplary, tightly-controlled direction reveals its own workings and that of the film in two devices. It allows backgrounds to go out of focus in order to concentrate on actors in the foreground, because these “backgrounds” are examined in great detail in other scenes, and because (apart from these two devices) the technique is diffused equitably to the far corners of the action, making these “foreground” shots a kind of shorthand.

In the second instance, Sargent centers the camera on the front of the train, where Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) is holding the driver (James Broderick) at gunpoint in the left half of the screen, suffused with the ruddy light of the cab, while in the right half one of his henchmen walks away from the camera toward the rear of the car in cooler greenish light. This is an indication of the divided surrealism of the film, the only one (and the only “artistic” shot) Sargent allows himself. It’s a compensation for the unrevealed structure necessitated by close playing.

Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) has a cold, and so does the Mayor (Lee Wallace). The brains of City Hall is the Deputy Mayor (Tony Roberts), who says, “Wise up, for Christ’s sake, we’re trying to run a city, not a Goddamn democracy!” Mr. Blue, the ringleader, is a British ex-mercenary who worked in Africa, until “the market dried up.” Mr. Gray (Hector Elizondo) is a killer whose heedlessness undoes him, and he can be compared to Frank Correll (Dick O’Neill) of the Transit Authority, who has a bellicose view of the subway hijackers and is forcibly upbraided by Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau), who has the job of negotiation.

The success of the direction consists, among other things, in combining its democratic vistas with a severe curtailment of structural revelation, or in identifying these two things.

The New York Times review is also exemplary in recognizing the face value of a great film and being not unaware of its implications. The racy, brilliant script by Peter Stone fell on deaf ears at Variety, however, which fancied somehow that eighteen New Yorkers held hostage in a subway car would not represent a cross-section, thereby missing the significance of the undercover policeman among them, and which seems to have failed completely to observe the mirrored structure, and so complained of shallowness (merely its own).

Sargent’s profundity is partly a reach of the technique deployed as described, and also a very great deal of inspiration in the planning and pre-production. A good example of this is the casting of Wallace, another artistic touch. He seems to incarnate the mysterious spirit of New York from Knickerbocker days to the present, and yet the real New York is the real subject of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It’s a city of pompous frauds and swindlers on the surface, but they get taken down a peg (like Lt. Garber at the opening) and never take anything seriously that isn’t.



He fights, as Lincoln said of Grant, and receives the Japanese surrender.

His political views of the Korean War render him unusable, and he is dismissed.

That is the definitive statement of his career as widely known. Variety regards him as a “brassbound poseur”, Time Out Film Guide “a commodity which, as can be seen here, should never be exported.”



Nightmares is too marvelous for words, but let us try anyway. It describes some common annoyances of modern life prophetically, as they were on the cusp of being, and does so in classic terms of horror and science fiction without anything so very idle as a quick smile, even. Many reviewers misunderstood it as a failure on their terms, which is the other way around when it comes to describing Nightmares.

The simplicity of the gags, and the various combinations of them, is their all. Experts are really required to do these analyses. One story (it is an anthology) is about tough pickups, trucks from Hell, the kind you see advertised. It combines elements of Spielberg’s Duel and Friedkin’s The Exorcist to make its point in fine bravura style. There’s one about video games and one about rats, but the first one gives the flavor most deliciously.

There’s a prologue first, a traffic stop at night on a country road, a girl driving a convertible, she receives her ticket with a smile and drives away, the deputy hears a noise, is attacked by a knife-wielding maniac. Then comes the first story, “Terror in Topanga”.

If there’s a giveaway in the prologue, it’s fairly abstruse, the attack is filmed like the murder in Scarlet Street. In the story, a woman goes out at night to buy cigarettes, and without giving too much away she’s attacked by the knife-wielding maniac. It turns out to be the test we have all had to suffer of the anti-smoking Fascist, performed as drolly as possible.

That’s where praise becomes easier. This new, subtly powerful form of comedy is by no means simple to conceive, but it certainly requires masterful dexterity to film, with the result being as much as anything else a satire and spoof and parody and send-up of these genres and their totems and taboos. It’s not a marketing ploy and campaign, it’s a language.


The Revenge

Sir Tom Stoppard was once asked by Charlie Rose how Shakespeare wrote his plays. Sir Tom did not tell him. The question is whether Shakespeare had his idea first and found his materials (an old play and a fable, say), or the other way around. But once you’ve settled that, you can see how writing verses and scenes is made easier, and he who writes may run.

Sargent exemplifies the method in this film. He has the Spielberg original on the one hand, and on the other Penn’s Night Moves, which gives him a structure that is tenuous but visible at the last and forcible throughout.

The upshot is, if you will pardon one for saying so in the face of almost universal condemnation, a great masterpiece. For calm, breadth and self-assurance, nothing beats it. On top of that, the action is vivid and natural. The dramatic scenes are genuine, and there is no creepiness about the small-town life you see in Massachusetts or the Bahamas.

If newspaper critics were anything like newspaper reporters, the world would be a vastly different place from present accounts of it.


The Incident

The German prisoners of war held in Colorado toward the end of the Second World War do not try to escape or kill Americans, instead a cadre of Nazis maintains the illusion of victory by killing any new and disillusioned arrival who cracks a joke about “fat Hermann Goering”, for instance.

The instruments are baseball bats given for sport. “Germans don’t play baseball,” a witness testifies.

An American doctor is nonetheless murdered in the camp, the trial is a fait accompli but for the revelation of a note scribbled by the victim in his cups on the day of his death.

The U.S. Army major in command lets the cadre roam free at night within the barracks to provide security. False death reports are issued under his signature and the doctor’s.

The calm, clear structure of the teleplay advances the telling in a succession of shocking dramatic halts that each lead on to the next layer of pungent onion-peel.



You bask in Genesis for about three hours at a leisurely pace, yet it moves with astounding swiftness for all that. Sargent chimes his epiphanies in a subtly-controlled rhythm, so that each one completes and begins a new short film, as it were, unnoticeably, and a cumulative effect is reached by the time he arrives at the sacrifice of Isaac.

He shoots in the ruddy desert and no mistake, like Stroheim and Lean. When Abram and his people set out from Haran, they pass along a rillet filmed at a low angle, that’s life in the desert, and when they walk in sandals and staves over stony ground in a ruddy sun, it’s an arduous shlep to be sure.

Amidst this grand expansion of Huston’s sequence is the great temptation of the pyramid offered by Pharaoh, “a dam in the flowing river of time”, and Melchizedek in a cameo appearance bringing bread and wine.


Then There Were Giants

A terrible revelation.

A Sony High Definition production with a high definition of FDR as falling in the shoes of Wilson allied to another League of Nations against the totalitarian rule of Europe and the world.

That is a hardy price to pay, nevertheless Sargent gives a good account of it in the machinations of the three leaders, played by Michael Caine (Stalin), Bob Hoskins (Churchill), and John Lithgow (FDR), with Ed Begley, Jr. as Harry Hopkins and Jan Triska as Molotov, “Mr. Cocktail”.

The technique is frequently used in a way comparable to Ken Russell’s A Kitten for Hitler.



Here is a clinical physician’s wonderful story of the psychological defenses created by a young girl reared by a schizophrenic mother during the Depression. The occasion of this remake is the latter-day discovery of the patient’s diverse artworks in a multitude of styles “by the same hand”, thus a triumph of the human spirit, as it is called.

Sargent’s interiors are devoted to an evocation of the time (ca. 1957) of the patient’s analysis, his exteriors amid the snow are incomparably fine.

The joke is a particular reference to Beckett in How It Is, from Eliot perhaps (“He Do the Police in Different Voices”).


Sweet Nothing in My Ear

Sargent’s great comedy is played quite seriously, there are two sides to everything in it, even the lighting combines diffusion and Hollywood lighting for a peculiarly brilliant effect.

Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin are the couple with a deaf son who could hear with an operation, the mother is deaf, the father is an ad exec who signs fluently but can also hear, her father is an adherent of Deaf Pride, they don’t know what to do, it goes to court.