Category Archives: My Favorite Movies

Ian, William, and Richard (and Gandalf)

Watching Ian McKellen play King Lear a few nights ago reminded me of how much I liked his take on Richard III, released in 1995. It may be heresy, but I much prefer it to the Laurence Olivier adaptation, even if the text has been cut pretty drastically. The setting is still England, but an alternate-history fascist version in the 1930s. So, no, this is not a straight version of the play. If that’s what you want, there are other places to look. With a production like this, you either stamp your foot and complain about gimmicks and cultural vandalism, or you assume you’re watching the work of intelligent artists —  McKellen himself co-wrote the screenplay — and pay close attention. This Richard III warrants it.

 The prologue, devoid of dialogue, takes the events from the conclusion of Henry VI, Part 3 — the direct predecessor to Richard III — and shows Richard leading the Yorkist assault that destroys the Lancastrians, ends the War of the Roses, and puts King Edward IV, Richard’s brother, on the throne.    

I particularly like the way the film sets up the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, and McKellen’s delivery. It starts about five minutes in, once the credits are done.

By the way, nothing is wasted in this title sequence. Not only do we get glimpses of all the major characters, but the song — Christopher Marlowe’s contemporaneous poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” redone as a swing tune — ironically foreshadows Richard’s later words of seduction to the Lady Anne, whose husband and father he has just killed.

When Richard rises to speak, he is full of praise for Edward:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front,
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries . . .

Here is where Richard’s tone curdles from fawning praise to acid contempt. In traditional stagings of the play, this entire speech has been delivered straight to the audience — we as viewers are made Richard’s co-conspirators right from the start. The film, however, begins as highly stylized realism, with Richard delivering the first lines directly to the triumphant Yorks. How will the film manage the transition?

By jumping to a men’s room, of course. Richard now literally pisses on the good fellowship and merriment taking place around him: 

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I — that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass —
I-that am rudely stamp’d,
and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph —
I — that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them —
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.

McKellen does something quite bold here by injecting some famous lines Richard himself delivered in Henry VI, Part 3. It’s in Act 3, scene two:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.

And then, Richard catches our eye — the audience’s collective eye — in the men’s room mirror. From this moment on, we become complicit in Richard’s plans. McKellen then returns to the original text:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid,
inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up —
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul. Here Clarence comes.

Now watch the film’s conclusion at the Battle of Bosworth Field, with forces led by Henry, Earl of Richmond, coming to depose Richard. (Fans of The Wire take note that Richmond is played by Jimmy McNulty himself, Dominic West.) Richard’s last words are actually taken from his speech to the troops just before the battle:

Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell,
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell. 

What a wonderfully cynical ending. Richard cheats Richmond of the chance to kill him. As he topples off the roof, Richmond — who hesitated with Richard in his sights — fires a couple of ineffectual shots and then, like Richard, locks eyes with the audience just as Richard did at the beginning. I guess that tells us everything we need to know about how this new ruler will turn out. And what a sendoff for Richard, eh? Straight to hell, a taunting smile on his face right up to the end. What a cur, what a swine — outstanding!

A few years after Richard III came out, McKellen went from murderer to maia in another big movie role that involved a spectacular, fiery fall:

“Hand in hand to hell” indeed. To paraphrase a rather Shakespearean line from a completely different film, that’s falling with style!

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Track meet

Film buffs, it’s time to get your geek on. This Laboratory 101 page devoted to great tracking shots in films is tailor-made to start arguments and inspire comparisons. If nothing else, it gives you an excuse to revisit some cool moments from flicks like Boogie Nights, Touch of Evil and The Player. John Cole makes his pitch for Donnie Darko, while Andrew Sullivan singles out the pool party from Boogie Nights.

Long tracking shots were something of a signature for Stanley Kubrick even before there was a Steadicam to make it easier. I think he never made more effective use of it than he did in the 1957 war drama Paths of Glory. In this clip, the tracking shot begins at about 6:10:

For most of the sequence, the camera is retreating before the officer as he tours the trenches, then shifts to follow him, as though eavesdropping, after the meeting with the shellshocked soldier.

I couldn’t find a suitable clip, but the opening of A Clockwork Orange (a film I otherwise loathe) always impresses with the way Kubrick has the camera draw back from Alex and his droogs, like a fearful courtier, gradually revealing the interior of the Korova milkbar and the perverted environment Alex prefers.

Since the famous “trip” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey takes an astronaut from our solar system to (presumably) a completely different galaxy, it technically qualifies as the longest tracking shot in human history:

I guess a distant second would be the opening sequence of Contact, which pretty much fixes our place in the universe:

I realize these last two are special-effects shots, but should that disqualify them? Most of the shots cited by Laboratory 101 would have been impossible without some kind of technological boost. I am open to argument on the subject.

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That toothsome summer

Ari reminds us all that something enormously important to pop culture and weather patterns in the Milky Way galaxy took place on June 20 of 1975. Of course I’m referring to the release of Jaws.

I didn’t get to see Jaws when it opened. In fact, it was a few weeks before I could even get into a theater to see it. Remember, sprouts, this was the pre-multiplex era when many theaters had only recently been split into two-screeners, and it was common for successful movies to stay in a theater for a few months. So I guess it must have been mid- to late-July when I managed to wedge myself into a screening at the Hyway Theater (which I’m happy to see still exists). By that point Jaws had had so much impact that Universal Pictures took out a two-page spread in the Sunday Times showing all the newspaper editorial cartoons that had played off the movie’s poster. The show was literally sold out — I got the very last ticket to be sold. the joint was packed.

Up until that night, whenever I’d seen a movie in a theater, the audience had served either as an irritant or a neutral presence. Jaws was my first theater experience in which the audience became a single entity, a great big nerve ending that Steven Spielberg played with virtuoso flair. When Chrissie met her fate out by the buoy, we all hissed through our teeth as the tension wound tighter and tighter. When the mayor erupted in rage at the way the Amity billboard had been vandalized, we all shouted with laughter. When Ben Gardner’s head came through the bottom of the boat, we all jumped. To this day I’m sure the entire building rose a foot into the air and came back down without any of us noticing.

(Dances With Mermaids, the older daughter, got her first look at Jaws a year ago. She still says, “You saw Jaws in the theater when it first came out? Wow!” the way somebody might say, “You helped Julius Caesar change the wheels on his chariot?”)

I’d actually been looking forward to the movie before the word got out. I was enough of a shark freak that when the original novel by Peter Benchley came out, I sprang for a hardcover copy. It was not a god read. I may have been an ignorant high school kid at the time, but I knew the creak of sclerotic Bestseller Writing when I heard it. All those subplots: the Mafia, Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife, bleah. Nevertheless, the power of the idea was such that the book carried you along, right up to that supremely unsatisfactory Moby-Dick type ending.  

The film was directed the way the novel should have written: smart, quick on its feet, frequently quite funny and, best of all, unpredictable. Too many horror movies — and Jaws is, at bottom, a balls-to-the-wall monster movie — fall into a pattern of setup and payoff so predictable that you can set your watch to them. Not this movie. Jaws always had a joker up its sleeve. When the shocks came on, they usually went waaaay further than anyone expected — that scene with the Kittner boy is just plain mean. When the laughs came on, you were grateful for the chance to relax — which of course, meant you were about to get creamed by some new scare.

Even at the time, though, I could appreciate just how good Jaws looked as a movie. The trailer above reminded me of the scene in which Brody pages through books on sharks, and Spielberg has his cameraman light the shot so that the gory pages flicker across the lenses of Brophy’s glasses. or the way the appearance of the ocean changes in response to the story’s needs. When Chrissie runs down the beach, the water is flat and opaque, the perfect hiding place for a predator. As soon as she’s beyond the reach of help, the point of view changes and the water is now a shadowy trap in which the predator sees everything while the prey sees nothing. It’s still startling to think that this was only Spielberg’s second feature, and one made under extremely demanding conditions at that. I’ve had my problems with Spielberg’s work in the past, and his growth as an artist has been erratic, but right from the start his craftsmanship and technical expertise were beyond question.

One of the greatest things about Jaws as a film was the way it left people feeling gassed. The tension and release, always delivered in the most unexpected way, was exhilarating. You walked out of the theater jangling and charged up. For weeks afterward, whenever you encountered somebody who’d seen the flick, you automatically fell into reminiscences of some great moment. For a movie with so many intensely scary passages, Jaws was a remarkably benign movie. It plumbed some of the darkest terrors imaginable — the fear of being eaten, of dying horribly only a few yards from safety — and yet it left you feeling cleansed and caffeinated at the same time. Quite a trick. I went home from the Hyway Theater feeling lighter than air, chuckling and grinning as my legs moved twice as fast as normal. It’s a rare kind of movie that can send its viewers off with that kind of feeling.

The summer of 1975 was loaded with artistic discoveries for me. I’d just become a Bob Dylan fan, and 1975 was a great time to be following Dylan: the year started with Blood on the Tracks, the summer peaked with the official release of the Basement Tapes, the Rolling Thunder Revue toured New England that fall and Desire appeared like magic after the New Year. Patti Smith’s debut came out a little before Christmas, and I was just starting to hear about something called punk rock I was inhaling books and music at a rapid clip, working my way through Hemingway and Hesse, and in the middle of it all there was Jaws. A great memory, and for that I have to thank Steven Spielberg.            

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The world’s biggest Easter egg, or, What a friend we have in cheeses

Long after I got tired of pretending that a giant rabbit had hidden a bunch of colored eggs around the house, Easter retained its savor for me because I knew that once Passover passed overhead, ABC would once again be cranking up Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 trash masterpiece, The Ten Commandments. Among filmmakers, Richard Fleischer may have been the prince of cheese, but DeMille will always be the king of cheese — nay, the king of kings of cheese — and this movie is his Gorgonzola throne. Hail Cheeser!

Is it the zippers clearly visible on the costumes from Ancient Egypt? Or the fact that the Voice of God (actually Charlton Heston’s voice with a great deal of treatment) leaves us wondering if the Almighty is ‘luded out? Is it the wristwatch clearly visible on Moses’ arm in one shot? Yea, verily, it is all these things and more. In The Ten Commandments, a score of big-name actors hit their career-worst peaks, none more so than the lead. DeMille cast Heston because of his resemblance to a Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, and Heston repaid the favor by playing Moses so stiffly that a marble statue looked supple by comparison.

But it is the dialogue — the wonderfully sculpted, thumpingly awful dialogue — that makes me love The Ten Commandments more with each viewing. The original 1923 silent version (which DeMille also directed) had plenty of spectacle, but it didn’t have that stilted, Belasco Theater sound ringing out from the screen. As Al Jolson warned at the end of the first sound flm, The Jazz Singer, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

There are two strains of writing in this film. In the first, every line of dialogue creaks under the weight of carefully balanced, opposed images delivered with a metronomic one-two punch:

Baka: Will you lose a throne because Moses builds a city?

Rameses: The city that he builds shall bear my name, the woman that he loves shall bear my child. So let it be written, so let it be one.

Or, as a later generation of pharoahs would say: Bada-boom, bada-bing.

In the second, the characters establish a theme and spend their conversations batting it forward like hockey players during practice:

Nefretiri: You will be king of Egypt and I will be your footstool!

Moses: The man stupid enough to use you as a footstool isn’t wise enough to rule Egypt.

This approach reaches its pinnacle during the series of exchanges between Rameses and Dathan, which could also serve as evidence in a court of law that Noel Coward was out of town when DeMille was hiring screenwriters:

Rameses: You have a rat’s ears and a ferret’s nose.

Dathan: To use in your service, son of Pharaoh.

After giving us a couple of commercial breaks to chew over that one, the movie gives us this gem, a ball of badness glittering with almost Zen-like purity:

Rameses: Now speaks the rat that would be my ears.

Dathan: Too many ears tie a rat’s tongue.

Too many ears tie a rat’s tongue. The dialogue in The Ten Commandments is like the pure, icy cold runoff from some glacier of fatuousness hidden away in the mountains, but this gem of inscrutability conjures up images that only Max Ernst could imagine. I’ve got ten bucks that says Bob Dylan watched this scene before writing the songs on Highway 61 Revisited. In fact, all of the conversations between Rameses and Dathan could be strung together and dropped into “Desolation Row” without causing the slightest ripple in the song.

Rameses: You have rats’ ears and a ferret’s nose. Add to them the eyes of a weasel and find me this deliverer.

It should be noted that Edward G. Robinson delivers all of Dathan’s lines as though he were still in a Warner Brothers gangster movie. When Dathan is finally cast down along with the Golden Calf, one expects him to cry “Is this the end of Rico?”

Of course, he doesn’t get hit with a zinger like this:

Nefretiri: (To Ramses) You’re not a God! You’re not even less than a man!

Awwwwwghhhh, dude! I’ve seen some barside crash’n’burns on Ladies Night, when some guy’s surefire pickup line became a noose around his neck, but that one is beyond cold. And the way Anne Baxter wriggles when she says it, as if using her chin to guide the missile home to its target. The Ten Commandments is loaded with bad acting, but it is incomparably the best and most entertaining bad acting ever put on the screen.

The Ten Commandments was DeMille’s last film. The strain of directing it brought on a heart attack, and the condition — made worse when he disobeyed his doctors and finished the flick after only a brief rest — killed him a few years later. But even if he’d kept his health, how could he possibly have topped this milestone? And, more to the point — even if he had, how could anyone have endured watching it? The Ten Commandments broke the mold for a certain kind of Hollywood spectacle. Watching it, all one can do is say “Thank God,” even while staring in wonder.

The best swordfight movie of all time

When people say “They don’t make movies the way they used to,” Rob Roy is the kind of movie they’re talking about. It’s also the kind of movie that makes you see they have a point. It’s a deeply satisfying adventure story, and not the least of its resolutely old fashioned virtues is a pair of swordfights that remain unmatched in film.

They are the masterworks of fight choreographer and swordsman William Hobbs, whose name has been praised throughout the first two installments of this series, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to Roger Ebert, who called the final duel “one of the great action sequences in movie history.” Hobbs himself thought so highly of it that he made a chart plotting out all of the scene’s emotional beats the centerpiece of his book Fight Direction for Stage and Screen, and you can see the fight for yourself up top via the magic of YouTube.

The story, which is decidedly not drawn from Walter Scott’s novel of the same name, takes place in Scotland during the early 18th century, when the Scots-Catholic Jacobites were seething under the rule of Protestant England. The hero, Rob Roy MacGregor, incurs an unpayable debt to the local Marquis of Montrose and must contend with Montrose’s henchman, Archibald Cunningham, a smirking dandy who also happens to be a supremely dangerous swordsman.

Having seen John Hurt’s performance as the viperish Montrose several times now, I’d lay odds that this was the most fun he’d had since playing Caligula in I, Claudius, and Alan Sharp’s script gives him some great lines. (“We must never underestimate the healing power of hatred” is a particular fave.) But the top villain honors go to Tim Roth’s lethal fop, and it is the special glory of Hobbs’ work here that he gives Cunningham a pair of duels that combine dazzling bladework with character revelation, all while advancing the story and generating an impressive amount of suspense.

Our first glimpse of what’s in store comes during the first duel, a tavern exhibition match between Cunningham and the loutish Guthrie, champion of the local Duke of Argyll. During the pre-fight badinage we have already been given hints that there is more to Cunningham than meets the eye, and the duel proves it. Guthrie catches Cunningham off guard as he’s bowing to the presiding nobles, but from that moment forward Cunningham is in complete control of the situation.  Hobbs gives us a preview of Cunningham’s tactical skill, in which he uses the bigger man’s size against him by dancing inside his reach, steadily wearing him down and always keeping him on the defensive — even smacking him upside the head with the flat of his blade when Guthrie tries an underhanded move. We also get a glimpse of the taunting core of sadism beneath Cunningham’s finery. A quick kill (or, in this case, a swift victory) is the last thing Cunningham wants. His pleasure is to see fear, and the helpless awareness of defeat, in the other man’s eyes before he delivers the final blow. In an interesting twist, Guthrie rubs salt in his own wounds by trying to backstab Cunningham, dishonoring himself in front of his former patron and friends.

The bout with Guthrie gives us a framework for watching the climactic duel with MacGregor, with the added awareness that this is a fight to the death, with Cunningham administering extra doses of pain and humilation along the way: tricking MacGregor into swiping at thin air, slashing his torso and limbs as punctuation for each encounter.

Though Hobbs choreographed the fights, credit goes to director Michael Caton-Jones for the way it was shot and edited. When I saw Rob Roy in the cineplex, I left the film convinced Caton-Jones must be an Old Hollywood veteran, some old-timer from the studio era who knew how to shoot an action scene without attention-deficit-disorder editing. Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be a relatively young (in 1995, anyway) filmmaker with a television background and a highly variable catalogue: Scandal, Memphis Belle and This Boy’s Life on the high end, Doc Hollywood and Basic Instinct 2 on the low. I don’t know if Caton-Jones spent quality time with Errol Flynn movies before he shot Rob Roy, but his framing and editing of the fight scenes is impeccable. Take another look at that fight scene. We are always aware of each character’s position within the space, the framing is always correct — no unnecessary closeups or shock cuts — and the action unfolds in what feels like real time. Very often, Caton-Jones holds the camera still and lets the action speak for itself, an extremely rare virtue in modern filmmaking, and vital to a sequence in which the emotions of the combatants have been so carefully worked out.

No detail is wasted here. Even the choice of swords — a rapier for Cunningham, a broadsword for MacGregor — speaks to each man’s character and fighting style. Though MacGregor is bigger and stronger (Liam Neeson towers over Roth in their scenes together) Cunningham is in command of the situation right from the start. And when he starts holding his rapier tip directly in MacGregor’s face, we know what is about to happen. I can’t say the outcome of the bout was a big surprise, but the means that bring it about are, once again, fully in keeping with the personality of the winner.

Hobbs has gone on to choreograph fights for other films, most recently Lasse Hallstrom’s slapstick comedy about Casanova, but he has never topped his work for Rob Roy, and no swordplay in any other film I’ve seen comes close to matching Rob Roy. This, quite simply, is the way to do it right.

So it goes, again

This stage version of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five sounds pretty good, but I worry when the reviewer says the play “gradually raises the sentiment slightly higher than the book does. So it goes. But then, this is the theater, which is supposed to awaken our emotions. Here it goes well.” I worry because more sentiment is not what the story needs. What is needs is understatement and a reserved exterior that lets us feel the emotions rather than getting batted over the head with them. In short, it needs exactly the kind of treatment it received in the 1972 film version directed by George Roy Hill and scripted by Stephen Geller, which is one of those instances in which a film adaptation significantly improves upon the source material. Vonnegut said he loved the film so much that he cackled to himself all through the screening.

Hill was able to use the commercial clout gained from his previous film, the blockbuster Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to make and enforce some pretty bold creative decisions: no big-name actors, a deliberately colorless and passive lead performance, and an all-Bach soundtrack (courtesy of Glenn Gould) that conveyed Vonnegut’s theme of philosophical resignation just about perfectly. The film was not a hit, to put it mildly, and Hill immediately made another crowd-pleaser, The Sting, to restore his commercial cred. He was an old school director who followed Burt Lancaster’s career formula: “One film for the bank, then one film for me, then one for the bank.” Hill continued to indulge his taste for difficult literary adaptations with The World According to Garp and The Little Drummer Girl, but neither film posed the sort of challenges he set himself in Slaughterhouse-Five.

The film’s greatest strength is the way Vonnegut’s central conceit — that its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time” and caroms helplessly around the events of his life — is put across with masterful editing by Dede Allen. The clip above offers one example: the older Billy, cradling his dog, walking up the stairs of his house, intercut with the younger Billy, a prisoner of war during World War II, climbing the stairs of a bomb shelter the morning after the firebombing of Dresden. At the top of each climb is a door that will open onto loss: in one case, a bed left empty by the death of a wife; in the other, a lunar landscape that was once a beautiful city. There is equally brilliant cross-cutting between Billy’s election to head a local Chamber of Commerce and the wartime election of his friend Edgar Derby to be the leader of his fellow POWs behind German lines. One man steps forward to a thundering ovation; the other steps up to a single man’s sarcastic hand-clapping. The book’s argument that all events exist simultaneously, impossible to change, is put across by the very structure of the film. As a bonus, most of Vonnegut’s twee conceits and all of his coyly ironic prose are drained away.

The film version of Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t just an example of how to do right by an author’s intentions, it’s a lesson in how to improve upon them.

‘Withnail and I’ and us

When it comes time to compile my list of the great lost movies of the twentieth century, Withnail and I will be securely perched at the top of the 1980s heap. It’s a comedy of desperation, set in London at the grotty close of the Swinging Sixties, about two young actors caught in career limbo and scratching to find a way out. Since the world appears uninterested in them, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) go on a drunken bender that encompasses run-ins with tavern louts, loopy conversations with a soft-spoken drug dealer named Danny (Ralph Brown) and a trip to the Lake District, where Marwood must fend off the advance of Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths).

Though it’s often outrageously funny, Withnail and I is never a comfortable film: Withnail and Marwood are facing their thirties with virtually nothing to show for their efforts, and the decay of Swinging London mirrors their bafflement and frustration. Writer-director Bruce Robinson knew about all of this firsthand: after making his screen debut in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production of Romeo and Juliet (some of Uncle Monty’s come-on lines were apparently inspired by Zeffirelli’s attempts to seduce the young actor), Robinson saw his acting prospects dwindle and eventually turned to screenwriting, finally breaking through in 1984 when Roland Joffe directed his script for The Killing Fields. The bits of theater lore in Withnail and I have a lived-in feel, and the details add up: the references to Hamlet start out as a running joke — actors who cannot act are chomping at the bit to play a prince who cannot act — but build to a closing scene that plays like a long, sad meditation on frustrated talent and wasted potential.

As the title suggests, the film belongs to Withnail, a mad genius type whose arrogance is forever balanced over an abyss of insecurity and rage, and Grant plays him brilliantly — all forehead and mad-eyed stare, constantly ruminating to himself and Marwood about the indignities of life. Grant’s over-the-top performances in Withnail and Robinson’s next film, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, launched him on an international film career; ditto Griffiths, who currently balances stage and screen work with appearances as the fearsome Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films. After making a splash on the art-house circuit with Withnail and How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Robinson found himself stymied once again. After aiming for the box office and missing with Jennifer Eight, a vapid 1992 serial-killer flick, Robinson returned to script work and even a bit of acting with a surprise appearance as a Syd Barret-type rocker in Still Crazy (1998).

Though it flopped upon release in 1987, Withnail and I has built enough of a cult following to garner itself a deluxe Criterion DVD edition and a Web site that includes a drinking game in which you must match Withnail gulp for gulp — not a pastime for the faint of heart. Withnail fans can quote favorite lines at the drop of a cravat: “I want the finest wines available and I want them now!” “If I dose you, you’ll know you’ve been dosed.” “All I have now are vintage wine and memories.” “I want something’s flesh!” Michael Myers is apparently a fan: Wayne’s World 2 features Ralph Brown, whose performance as a brain-fried roadie is essentially a continuation of his work as Danny.

Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann played off each other so brilliantly that it was puzzling to see they never again co-starred in a film. Until now, that is. Via the estimable Dennis Cozzalio, I see that Grant and McGann re-teamed for a 12-minute film called Always Crashing in the Same Car, a short, sharp shock you can watch in its entirety at the McGann Brothers site. Somebody better find these guys a way to reunite in a full-length feature film, right now.

Deborah Kerr

You’ve probably seen at least some of the obituaries today for actress Deborah Kerr, who died Tuesday at age 86, and if like me you never paid much attention to her work, it must come as a slight shock to realize how many great or at least memorable films she was in. Anybody whose career encompassed The King and I, Black Narcissus and From Here to Eternity has made a pretty deep mark in film history.

What’s puzzling is that the obits I’ve seen to date completely ignore The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw that is one of the best horror movies ever made. As the governess terrified by visions of ghostly figures menacing the children in her car, Kerr makes the idea that the wraiths are all figments of her imagination even scarier than the possibility that they could be real ghosts. Her performance is the powerful centerpiece of an exceptionally subtle and intense spook story, one that should be much better known. 

Sweet Smell of Success

Vile behavior, craven hypocrisy, sexual blackmail, abuse of police power — Sweet Smell of Success has everything that makes a film truly loveable. It also has Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis hitting their career peaks as actors, and cinematography by James Wong Howe that turns the tabloid photography of Weegee into high art. But above all, it has dialogue. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but in Sweet Smell of Success it’s the words that will always kill you.

There may be more zingers per square inch in All About Eve or His Girl Friday, but those films allow for the occasional moment of affection or warmth. In Sweet Smell of Success each one-liner is an edged weapon. “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried.” “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in years.” “From now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.” Some of the phrases are used in slashing samurai-style attacks that take out the target with one blow. Others are wielded stiletto-fashion, so the victim doesn’t realize anything is wrong until much later, when he starts to feel strange and, right before the end, wonders why people are looking at him so oddly. Power is the most valued commodity and words, used as weapons, are the medium of exchange, and that makes Sweet Smell of Success one of the most riveting cobra dances ever set to film.

The movie looks back on a world that was already fading at the time of its release: what used to be called cafe society, an odd blend of socialites, politicians, gangsters, old-money scions and movie stars whose ups and downs (particularly the downs) were a major source of vicarious entertainment just before, during and after the Depression. Their theater of operations was Broadway and the constellation of high-toned saloons like “21” and the Stork Club that catered to them. Mingling with the players were the newspaper columnists, who could change roles — from town crier to executioner — in the wink of a reddened eye. In one of Dawn Powell’s novels of the period, a character explains that while the rest of the country read newspapers from front to back, New Yorkers start at the back, where the columnists could be found. The most influential columnist of all, Walter Winchell, commanded an audience of some 55 million people, who either listened to his Sunday radio broadcast or read his daily newspaper column — this at a time when the adult population of America was about 75 million.

Cafe society was undermined by the rise of an even more demotic television culture during the 1950s, and by the 1960s only a few dinosaurs like Ed Sullivan (himself a Broadway columnist who’d made the jump to television in 1948 by hosting a Sunday night variety show) were still lumbering around. One of the many virtues of this movie about unvirtuous people is the way it opens a window into the past, when columnists like Winchell, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper had enough clout to make or break someone’s career, or life. Corporate infotainment culture — which treats trivia seriously and degrades serious issues into trivia — has its roots in this period.

The chief villain of Sweet Smell of Success is J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster), an all-powerful gossip columnist holding court from a table at the “21” Club, and the hero . . . well, there really isn’t a hero in this film, only Sidney Falco (Curtis), a press agent who has to decide between settling for the purgatory of obscurity, or taking a shot at the big time and full-fledged damnation. Of all the curs at Hunsecker’s beck and call, Falco is the mangiest. His office is his apartment: instead of having his name painted on the glass of the front door, it’s stuck on a piece of paper. The closest Sidney comes to showing any backbone is when J.J. holds up a cigarette and says, “Match me, Sidney.” A senator and some hangers-on are sharing the table; Falco, unwilling to look cowed, stammers out a refusal. But he isn’t fooling anyone, and Hunsecker, his point made, lets it slide.

“Match me” is the film’s key line: it works as both an arrogant demand and an intimidating challenge. If Falco can match Hunsecker’s ruthlessness, then he can have the world – or, at any rate, the highly circumscribed piece of it he values the most. We’ve already seen how low Falco will go when he manipulates a girlfriend into sleeping with one of Hunsecker’s rival columnists – a man Falco is bribing to run a slanderous item about somebody Hunsecker wants to see crushed, without any of the blame coming Hunsecker’s way.

The film effortlessly captures the symbiosis between the newspaper columnists, who had to pound out copy seven days a week to feed the hungry audience, and press agents, who landed well-paying clients by promising them access to the columnists. A press agent who got too big for his britches could find himself frozen out; if he went too long without wrangling a plug, he would start hemorrhaging clients. Sidney is in the doghouse with Hunsecker because he has failed to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s young sister, Susan, and a clean-cut musician named Steve Dallas, the guitarist for a band starting to win some attention. (In an exceptionally hip touch, the film uses the Chico Hamilton Quintet, a real-life Third Stream jazz group noted for its ambitious music and interracial lineup — a rarity at the time.) Hunsecker’s objection to the relationship seems grounded less in concern for Susan’s well-being — Dallas, played by a big block of wood named Martin Milner, is clearly the world’s squarest jazz musician — than an obsessive need to control her every action.

If there were any doubt that this is a dog-eat-dog world, the two most menacing characters speak of Falco as though he were a particularly appetizing dish. Harry Kello, a police officer who does violent favors for Hunsecker, calls Sidney “the boy with the ice cream face.” Later on, Hunsecker eyes Falco and says: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” The real clincher comes when Kello grabs Falco and tells another cop to “Come take a look at this face,” then says, “Well I’ll be doggone — it’s melting!” The predators always know when another animal has been wounded, and act accordingly.

The very production of the film was shot through with connivance and paranoia. The director, Alexander Mackendrick, nursed a Falco-like hunger for bigger things after crafting what he called “cute English comedies” for Ealing Studios — notably The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). Anxious that the film might be taken away from him, Mackendrick fussed over intricately choreographed scenes and shots, generating a mountain of footage that only he could make sense of in the editing room. This added to the chaos of the production, and helped swell the budget from $600,000 to about $3 million. Meanwhile, coproducer Harold Hecht, angry that Lancaster had brought a third partner into the production company without consulting him, was secretly rooting for the movie to flop. It did so, quite spectacularly — Lancaster himself called it “a total disaster,” and a United Artists bigwig said it seemed the film “was made in defiance of the box office.”

Yet even at the time of its release, Sweet Smell of Success garnered respectful reviews, particularly for its two principals. Curtis and Lancaster had been buddies since they co-starred in Trapeze, and when Lancaster’s production company moved ahead with Sweet Smell of Success, Curtis lobbied ferociously for the role of Sidney Falco, seeing it as a way to escape the increasingly silly costume epics that threatened to suffocate his career. During the shooting of exterior scenes, police had to barricade streets and hold back teenaged fans straining for a glimpse of Curtis; whenever they caught a glimpse of him, their screeching forced reshoots, helping inflate the film’s production costs. But when it was over, Curtis knew he’d achieved his goal. “There was never a movie like Sweet Smell of Success,” Curtis gloated in his 1993 memoir. “For me, Sidney Falco was crucial. That picture really put a lot of people in my pocket, and I owed it all to Burt.”

Film critic Roger Ebert, who includes Sweet Smell of Success in his book The Great Movies, says Hollywood players still joke about going into their “Sidney Falco mode.” References and tributes crop up in the oddest places. Barry Levinson’s filmmaking debut, Diner (1982), features a supporting character who compulsively quotes the dialogue. During its heyday in the 1980s, Spy magazine featured a monthly column full of lethal gossip about the inner workings of the New York Times, gathered by a writer who signed off as J.J. Hunsecker. Tom Cruise’s cuddly press agent in Jerry Maguire couldn’t be less like Falco, but Cruise claimed to have studied Curtis’ work as he prepped for the movie.

Like Citizen Kane, Sweet Smell of Success stands on its own as a piece of virtuoso filmmaking, but it also delivers a world of hurt to a real-life target: Walter Winchell, whose nasal, yapping voice and trademark gray fedora (emulated by Internet gossip Matt Drudge) contributed heavily to the popular image of reporters. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the hugely popular Winchell rapped out newspaper columns and radio broadcasts loaded with inside dirt on celebrities and politicians, delivered in a high-velocity barrage so dense with slang that it bordered on a separate dialect. An impoverished childhood and years of scraping by on the vaudeville circuit gave Winchell a bottomless well of anger at society’s upper crust, and he gloried in his power to make or break careers. “My column showed you into office and my column can show you out again,” he bragged to one politician, and it was no empty boast. He brought a long memory and sulfurous rancor to his feuds. “I’m not a fighter, I’m a ‘waiter’,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I wait until I can catch an ingrate with his fly open, and then I take a picture of it . . . Vindictive? You’re gahdamb’d right. You botcha ne, I botcha you!” Winchell may seem comical now, but the fear he generated was no laughing matter. When Lyle Stuart gave Winchell a taste of his own medicine with a sensational 1953 biography, Stuart found most of his showbiz friends crossing the street to avoid him — they were terrified of being seen with Winchell’s nemesis and incurring the big man’s wrath.

What Winchell understood better than anyone, according to biographer Neal Gabler, was that “gossip, far beyond its basic attraction as journalistic voyeurism, was a weapon of empowerment for the reader and listener. Invading the lives of the famous and revealing their secrets brought them to heel. It humanized them, and in humanizing demonstrated that they were no better than we and in many cases worse.” Winchell’s truculence concealed flashes of genuine wit, and he enriched the vernacular with a trove of what became known as Winchellisms. Films were “moom pictures”; births were “blessed events”; couples didn’t marry, they “Lohengrinned” and then went off to “Adam-and-Eve-it” on their honeymoons. H.L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway wrote appreciatively of Winchell’s early style. Later on, as politics grew to dominate the mix and Winchell mutated from a populist gadfly to a McCarthyite sleaze, the style became assaultive and crude. Theater critic and raconteur Alexander Woolcott, writing in 1933, dubbed his time “the age of the two Walters,” the other one being sobersides political commentator Walter Lippmann. To watch the squawking political commentators on Fox News and other cable venues is to realize that the wrong Walter ended up holding sway.

The germ of Sweet Smell of Success was a novella by Ernest Lehman, who during the 1940s worked for Irving Hoffman, a high-living Broadway press agent and friend of Winchell. The story, published in Cosmopolitan, was steeped in Lehman’s mingled fascination with and revulsion at what he called “that dangerous world of aggressive people with healthy egos.” Though Lehman disingenuously claimed the columnist villain wasn’t based on Winchell, nobody who read the novella could miss the inside details. Hoffman, anxious about potential blowback from Winchell (Lehman had once worked for him, after all), even called Lehman into his office and begged to know what he’d done to deserve this punishment. Winchell apparently shrugged it off, considering Lehman too small-time to bother with, but Lehman still found himself shunned by many old press agent cronies, who were fearful of being seen with him.

Several producers were interested in adapting the novella, but Lehman eventually signed with a new production company formed by Burt Lancaster with former agents Harold Hecht and Jim Hill. They had just scored a prestige hit with the film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s television play Marty, and were looking for something with a bit of edge. By this time, Lehman was doing very well as a screenwriter, with big credits like The King and I, Sabrina and Somebody Up There Likes Me on his resume. When the producers reneged on their promise to let Lehman direct the picture, Lehman withdrew from the project. Leaving the film was a relief. “I was afraid of it,” Lehman admitted later. “I was doing very well in Hollywood. Who needs problems?” The producers tapped playwright Clifford Odets to redo the script and get the project rolling.

One of the biggest surprises underlying Sweet Smell of Success is the fact that its crackling dialogue is almost entirely the work of Odets, whose writing in plays like Waiting for Lefty is stiff and declamatory. Lehman’s novella is a perfectly good piece of work, but it suffers from some tired devices – e.g., Sidney’s life has been marked by attempts to get out of his brother’s shadow. Odets turns out to have been the perfect man for the adaptation. Not only did he despise his target’s Red-baiting politics, Odets had seen Winchell up close on a number of occasions. Once, when Winchell’s assistant Herman Klurfeld spoke admiringly of Odets’ plays, Winchell invited the playwright to have breakfast with them at Lindy’s. Later, after listening to the gossip-monger’s bloviations from his perch at the Stork Club, Odets called him “a great bore and vanity of all vanities.” After a 1938 encounter on the street, during which Winchell did little but brag about his wealth while the Depression kept its grip on America, Odets asked his diary “how a human being could have so little sense of other human beings.” Odets completely restructured Lehman’s story and script, adding scenes and dialogue and sharpening conflicts between characters. The producers couldn’t delay filming, lest they lose their permits for shooting on New York’s streets, so script pages would arrive barely a few hours before certain scenes were filmed.

Just as Citizen Kane used inside references to William Randolph Hearst’s relationship with Marion Davies to such wounding effect, Sweet Smell of Success turns on a personal detail: Winchell’s campaign to destroy Billy Cahn, an aspiring Broadway producer who took up with Winchell’s daughter, Walda. Unlike the film’s Steve Dallas, Cahn was an operator whose own friends called him a con-artist and huckster. (An acquaintance recalled how Cahn once tried to raise money by hiring a limousine and heading out to find crap games in Newark, N.J.) But he seems to have genuinely loved Walda and treated her well. This cut no ice with Winchell, who reviled Cahn in his column and, when Walda persisted, tried to have her committed. Cahn eventually gave up, but Winchell kept after him. He also kept after Walda, short-circuiting her dreams of an acting career by threatening to use his power against any producer who so much as considered her for a role.

But the most damaging aspects of Sweet Smell of Success were based on publicly available information. The newspaper delivery trucks bearing pictures of Hunsecker’s eyes recall one of Winchell’s pet phrases: “Winchell — he knows all, he tells all.” Odets was particularly shrewd in targeting Winchell’s sanctimoniousness — his belief that he was one of the pillars supporting American society. When Steve Dallas makes the mistake of facing Hunsecker down, the columnist is consumed with rage. “That boy today wiped his feet on the choice and the predilection of 60 million men and women in the greatest country in the world,” he snarls to Falco. “It wasn’t me he criticized. It was my readers.”

Though Winchell’s power was considerably diminished by the time Sweet Smell of Success opened, there was no shortage of sycophants ready to assure him that the film was a bomb. Lehman heard that Winchell lurked across the street from the theater on opening night, trying to gauge the public’s reaction. Hoffman himself circulated in the lobby, doing his best to spread bad word of mouth. But Winchell had other things to worry about. One of his old targets, comedian Jack Paar, was using his platform as host of The Tonight Show to ridicule him, and Winchell couldn’t make any headway in the new medium. The old scourge of Broadway came across as obnoxious and abrasive on camera, and two attempts to launch Winchell-based shows went down in flames. His best television work was his last, as the narrator of The Untouchables (1959-1963), where his rat-a-tat-tat delivery was perfectly suited to the show’s gangster melodramas. As his celebrity melted away, Winchell was left virtually alone to contemplate a life hollowed out by the endless pursuit of his career. When he died in 1972, only Walda attended the funeral. The final shot of Sweet Smell of Success — Hunsecker isolated in his grand apartment, facing the loss of what he values the most — could almost have served as a prophecy of Winchell’s twilight years.

Ironically, the one aspect of the film that has the least to do with Winchell is Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker. Winchell’s over-the-top style was immune to parody, so Lancaster wisely opted to go in the other direction: as Hunsecker, he keeps his face carefully composed and hardly ever raises his voice. (The effect was made even more sinister by cinematographer James Wong Howe, who positioned lights to give Hunsecker’s face a skull-like cast behind the horn-rimmed glasses.) Lancaster, an athletic man, is virtually motionless in many of his scenes. Hunsecker’s stillness has the quality of a snake coiled and ready to strike, which he does plenty of times.

“I wasn’t really portraying a columnist, but a heel,” Lancaster said later. “Otherwise I’d have spent time in newspaper offices, studying the characterization. No, I just played a heel who happened to be a columnist.”

Which ended up being a pretty good description of Winchell himself.