POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off the war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, non-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE SEVENTIES

Again, the links are to those I’ve written something substantive about…

1970 Two Mules for Sister Sara (Don Siegel) (over Patton and Kelly’s Heroes)

1971 Dollars (Richard Brooks) (over Billy Jack, Klute, A New Leaf and The Last Picture Show)

1972 The Harder They Come (Perry Hanzell) (over Bad Company, The Candidate, Sounder and What’s Up Doc?)

1973 Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich) (very close run over American Graffiti)

1974 The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola…his best, and most prescient, movie by a long measure) (over Chinatown)

1975 Night Moves (Arthur Penn) (over Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest and Shampoo)

1976 The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie) (Good year. Nothing close)

1977 Heroes (Jeremy Kagan) (Lean year. And, despite TV-Movie-of-the-Week production levels, nothing close…Please don’t watch any version that doesn’t include “Carry On, Wayward Son” over the closing credits.)

1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Robert Zemeckis) (over American Hot Wax and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith)

1979 The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller) (over Norma Rae)

I’ll try to keep ’em rolling tomorrow. The picking’s are about to get…a bit slimmer.

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE SIXTIES

At least according to Terry Teachout, this idea has been going around. Terry’s own list is here (it’s a pretty good one). The idea is to take each year of your life and list your favorite film from that year.

For me, “favorite” is a simple concept. It’s whatever resides at the matrix of what I like the best and what has meant the most. I tend to emphasize this quality over what I think is “great” anyway (though, unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap…we tend to elevate what we like, though I also like to believe that what we like can elevate us).

I want to drill down a bit, though (including links to those films I’ve written about at length and mentioning the close competition, when it exists), so I’m going to post these by decade…starting conveniently enough with the decade I was born in and am most fascinated by…

1960 The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (over Swiss Family Robinson and Psycho)

1961 The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson…and, for once, truth in advertising)

1962 The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn) (over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cape Fear, The Manchurian Candidate…I could go on. Easily the strongest film year of my lifetime.)

1963 Charade (Stanley Donen)  (over The Great Escape and Hud)

1964 The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder) (Actually a strong year, but….no competition)

1965 A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick) (over That Darn Cat and The Truth About Spring)

1966 Gambit  (Ronald Neame) (over A Man For All Seasons and El Dorado)

1967 The Graduate (Mike Nichols) (over Wait Until Dark, Hombre, Don’t Look Back and the Soviet version of War and Peace)

1968 Monterrey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) (over Where Eagles Dare…Interesting decision if I took one of those liberties I’m prone to take and considered Elvis’ Comeback Special a film. Glad I don’t have to make it.)

1969 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler) (over Support Your Local Sheriff...it was a very strange year.)

Overall, a strong decade. As will be the 70s. After that….dicey.

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Last Spitfire….And What She Took With Her)

Paper Moon (1973, D. Peter Bogdanovich)

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When I was a boy and went to carnivals, my father used to spend a bit more time than the average dad explaining how each game was rigged and how not to get taken for a mark. I think this started when I was maybe seven or eight, which meant he was on this particular case even before he got saved and became a minister.

He was warning me against the sharpers, of course, but he was also warning me against a younger version of himself–the version that was on the other side of the short con before he was transformed by meeting the woman who would become my mother.

All of which means I’m apt to feel a little closer than most to the con-man’s world of Paper Moon–and perhaps respond to that world a little more viscerally.

This might not have ever been quite my life…

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Nor this…

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But, allowing for a gender change, this certainly could have been…

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Or this…

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Or, among many other scenes, certainly this (even down to a five being changed for a ten, though, to be fair, my brother never reported being driven down this path, a sign that my father might have had at least a few more “scruples” than Moses Pray, even if they still belonged to somebody else)…

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And that’s before you get into dropping twenties or selling Deluxe Editions of the King James to widows.

Paper Moon was released in 1973, near the end (1968–74) of the New Golden Age in Hollywood, which–at least according to the standard narrative–began closing down rather quickly when the blockbuster success of Jaws in the summer of 1975 transformed both the business and the art of making movies.

Well, you know how fond I am of “standard narratives,” even when they do have a grain of truth in them.

So I’d just add that it was probably the culture that was being transformed and Hollywood did what Hollywood does–follow along.

But, in any case, Paper Moon–which I revisited for the first time in years this weeknow plays like a story reflected in a double mirror. A razor-sharp, but loving look at the old, mostly economic, Depression (which ended with World War II, more or less) just before the new, mostly spiritual Depression (which is with us yet) fully set in.

However many directions it moves in, it’s a comedy with poignant moments. Not having seen it for so long, though, I found myself both laughing out loud (which movies rarely make me do anymore, not even when I know I should be laughing) and wondering where it all went.

Because this movie is very much about the can-do spirit. It’s purely American not so much because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else, but because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else for purely spiritual reasons.

Namely, no other culture ever made Spitfires quite like the American Spitfire.

And no Spitfire was ever quite as definitive as Tatum O’Neal’s Addie Pray is in this movie.

In 1973, she was part of a long line that stretched back at least as far as Jo March and ran straight through to True Grit’s Mattie Ross, with stops along the way for characters as otherwise divergent as Scarlett O’Hara, Scout Finch and the Disney version of the tomboy (usually played by Hayley Mills in her honorary American phase).

That line–like so much else–ended in the seventies.

Here, actually.

There have been plenty of subsequent attempts to carry it forward. The concept has hardly died off. But, except for Tatum’s own subsequent reprisal in The Bad News Bears, there’s been nothing since that even approaches either iconography or a new twist on the theme.

It was interesting to learn, in the DVD’s “making of” documentary, which I hadn’t seen before, that–contrary to another standard narrative (or at least a standard assumption) Tatum was cast first.

Director Peter Bogdonavich’s then wife, Polly Platt, suggested her because of her “whiskey voice.” Despite her never having acted, Bogdonavich was intrigued enough to meet with her and liked what he saw (and heard). That the subsequent deal included her dad, with whom the director had just shared a big success in What’s Up Doc?, (on the set of which Platt had first encountered that whiskey voice) was a bonus.

Serendipity then.

Not a lot of eight-year-old kids have white-hot movie star dads (with the attendant “bone structure,” which gets such a nice run in the script here), access to whiz kid A-list directors and whiskey voices.

That late in the Spitfire game, all those aspects were probably necessary.

And, even with all that, it wasn’t a given that any kid so young would produce such a staggering performance. It was/is so good that Bogdonavich–as a certain style of male is wont to do with women of any age who have got to some place he can’t quite fathom–spent a lot of years claiming more or less full credit for it, though his commentary here suggests age and experience have tempered hubris (though not his very justifiable pride in the film itself).

Of course it was also so good that it probably wrecked a few lives, including Tatum O’Neal’s own.

Her dad never really met any version of my mom I guess. At least not in time.

And winning a well deserved Oscar at nine years old leaves a long way to fall. Maybe longer if your white hot co-star father and that whiz kid director are so miffed at being left off the list of nominees they don’t even bother to show up.

Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Peter Bogdonavich and Polly Platt all seemed to have entered a charmed circle in order to make this miraculous thing. At its conclusion, they were all officially on top of the world, where they might very reasonably have expected to stay for a long, healthy run.

Instead, none of them were ever quite the same again. They all did good work, here and there. None ever again reached quite so high.

Strange then, that of all that motley crew who “transformed” movies just before–coincidentally or not–movies went away, it was Bogdonavich (often, and I think wrongly, counted among the lighter weights next to Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, Scorcese, et al) who provided the images that, in looking back, best anticipated the bleak moral consequences of the coming age, when short cons would rule far more than just traveling salesmen, carnival midways and Hollywood dreams.

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HAVING FUN WITH THE CELLULOID SIXTIES

TAMITICKET

Sheila O’Malley recently participated in–and linked to–an interesting poll of best/favorite movies from the 60’s that posted here.

I don’t do a lot of these, but this concept was pretty interesting, mostly because, well, the sixties are always interesting. Besides I haven’t done any autobiography for a while (and that’s what such lists always amount to) and this was something I could get my head around. There weren’t so many contenders it made my head swim (as would be the case in the forties or fifties or probably even the thirties). And there were enough that I cared about to make it worthwhile (as would not be the case from the eighties onward). The poll (which I recommend as interesting reading) had everyone put their choices in order, so I’ll do the same…albeit with commentary:

1) The T.A.M.I. Show (1964–Steve Binder): Greater in every conceivable way than A Hard Day’s Night, which is pretty great on its own. Binder, who directed Elvis’ comeback special among many other things, should absolutely be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This would be a huge cultural touchstone if only for preserving a visual record of James Brown’s stage show, but it’s much, much more than that.

2) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962–John Ford): The source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “You don’t own me,” “Print the legend,” and “Aren’t you proud?” As far as I can tell, everyone who wasn’t aiming for Lesley Gore’s demo pile mistook it for a film about the past.

3) The Miracle Worker (1962–Arthur Penn): For reasons I discussed at length here.

4) Medium Cool (1968)–Haskell Wexler): “The whole world is watching” side of the sixties rendered with harrowing immediacy.

5) The Graduate (1968)–Mike Nichols): “Plastics!” Funny line, sure, but it also feels more like the future we live in than anything else anyone was predicting at the time.

6) Swiss Family Robinson (1960–Ken Annakin): Laugh if you want. But Annakin spent the fifties honing a laughs-n-thrills approach that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made fortunes and legends from a generation later. They’ve given him plenty of kudos and paid plenty of homage (including a lot of direct scene steals and, of course, Darth Vader’s real name). All to the good, but one thing they didn’t ever do was beat his time. (Besides which, Janet Munro was my first movie love, so leaving it off would obviously make me a churl and a cad.)

7) The Apartment (1960–Billy Wilder): I never quite bought that Shirley McClaine’s character would fall for a creep like Fred McMurray hard enough to attempt suicide over him, but, if it’s not quite perfect, this is still the only truly poignant romantic comedy outside of the truly perfect Roman Holiday.

8) The Truth About Spring (1965–Richard Thorpe): There are those who can contemplate a list of what’s best about the sixties without including a Hayley Mills movie. I’m the wrong age and temperament to be one of them, so I’ll just add that if J. Lee Thompson had been able to snag her for Cape Fear–a Divine Intention that was thwarted by a conflict between God’s schedule and Hollywood’s (which was resolved, as these things so often are, in favor of the latter), stung him (Thompson, though probably God as well) for the rest of his life, and, of course, greatly hastened the decline of Western Civilization–it would be on this list instead, and no worse than fourth. (That said: “Tommy…if you shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!” still slays me.)

9) Monterey Pop (1968–D.A. Pennebaker): The pinnacle of what The T.A.M.I. Show promised–and, with the soon-to-follow deaths of its most dynamic performers (Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin–the latter two already operating at a pace that any rational person watching this at the time must have known could not possibly be sustained)–the first step in the long fall from the mountain-top of the sixties’ dream.

10) Age of Consent (1969–Michael Powell): Features a very young Helen Mirren running around some South Sea paradise with little to no clothing on. Whether God or Satan was responsible for this particular aesthetic choice (which, as far as I’m concerned redeems the sixties all by itself) is obviously a matter for each person to decide in consultation with their own conscience. However, just “artistically” speaking, the beauty is that, either way, that single aspect surely redeems any and all shortcomings–real or imagined–for which this film (or this list!) might ever conceivably be held otherwise responsible.

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Honorable Mentions That At Least Crossed My Mind (In No Particular Order): Gambit (1966–Ronald Neame); El Dorado (1967–Howard Hawks); Charade (1963–Stanley Donen); Psycho (1960–Alfred Hitchcock); Ride the High Country (1962–Sam Peckinpah); Cape Fear (1962–J. Lee Thompson); The Great Escape (1963–John Sturges); The Guns of Navarone (1961–J. Lee Thompson); The Best Man (1964–Franklin Shaffner); Don’t Look Back (1967–D.A. Pennebaker); The Americanization of Emily (1964–Arthur Hiller): Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964–Stanley Kubrick); The L-Shaped Room (1962–Bryan Forbes)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Miracle Worker Comes Back Around)

The Miracle Worker (Arhtur Penn, 1962)

BLFJ (Bright Lights Film Journal): Yes, and very unique, remarkable given where and when it was made. I also think that, to an extent, The Chase, which is the next film of yours I wanted to talk about, comes directly out of it. Both The Left-Handed Gun and Mickey One touch on this idea of there being a particular kind of violence lurking in American society, and that seems to come to the fore in The Chase.

Arthur Penn: Yes, I totally agree. What we’re doing however, is leaving out one other film, which is The Miracle Worker, which had its share of, how shall I say, positive violence, in the sense that Ann Sullivan [sic], in the film Anne Bancroft, was determined to penetrate the slowly dying intelligence of this child, and get through to her the concept that language was the symbol for idea. So they were a series of fairly vigorous films.

BLFJ: The Chase was set in a small Texas town….

(Source: Bright Lights Film Journal Interview with Arthur Penn (director of The Miracle Worker), in 2009….Note the difference in what the filmmaker wants to talk about and what the really important person in the conversation, the interviewer, wants to talk about.)

“I know people who re-view The Miracle Worker every year.”

(Source: David Thomson, Have You Seen….?, 2008)

Let me just say that people who “re-view” (I think that means “watch”) The Miracle Worker every year have a value system I don’t really comprehend.

I watch it every five or ten years depending–always with trepidation.

I’ve never been able to treat a visit with human pain after the manner of a holiday, like getting out a Sunday suit once a year for Easter.

It happened this week was the time for one of my very occasional visits with Arthur Penn’s 1962 film. The timing was due in part to just-because-it-had-been-a-sufficient-while-and-the-mood-arose, and in part because They Shoot Pictures Don’t They just released their annual, ever-fascinating compilation of all the critics’ lists that seek to name the very best films, which is by far the most thorough-going of its kind.

Once again, Penn was represented on a list of a thousand only by Bonnie and Clyde. That film is certainly worthy–and pretty well placed at #219 (up a not particularly meaningful two spots from last year). But it says quite a lot about the particular mindset that dominates arts criticism in general and film criticism in particular, that a film which mythologizes and heavily romanticizes two historical characters who, by star Warren Beatty’s own admission at the time, were in fact “a couple of thugs,” (an admission with which Penn, in an interview separate from the one quoted above, heartily concurred) can place so routinely high, while a film by the same director which, if anything, is even better-made, and celebrates two accurately portrayed historical characters, who, by their collective example as teacher and student, helped create hope out of the darkest despair for literally millions of people who might have otherwise been abandoned, gets no love at all, says….

Well, something.

I didn’t really watch the film in order to get at any new feelings about the crit-illuminati. Anybody who reads this blog with any regularity will have a pretty good idea of how I feel about that subject already.

However, I did want to watch it this time around with a specific eye toward its value as a film, which is another way of saying I wanted to view it as objectively as possible as a film that compares favorably–or unfavorably–to the sort of films that tend to excite critical passions.

I won’t lie. Pure objectivity isn’t something I generally strive for or even think is realistic. I certainly didn’t achieve it this time. Point of fact it was pretty well gone by the time the opening credits finished rolling.

Objectivity. Distance. Whatever name you care to put on it. All that went right out the window in the first few minutes because I was immediately reminded of what is so easily forgotten when I let the film sit on the shelf for a decade or so. Before it is anything else, Penn’s take on The Miracle Worker is that of a Gothic horror story, straight out of Poe, Shelley (Mary, not Percy) and the Bronte Sisters and conceding nothing to any of them.

Because until Annie Sullivan comes to redeem her, Helen Keller is a monster–one who threatens not lives and limbs (after the manner of Frankenstein or the Terminator) but hearts and minds (after the manner of Heathcliff)–not least her own.

That she’s a monster–and that Penn, along with playwright and script-writer William Gibson, saw that side of her and tapped into it–is evident until almost the very end. The scenes where Helen–supposedly well on her way to being civilized–drops her napkin on the floor, capture the exact beats of a horror film. They also magnify those beats a thousand-fold because, by now, we know Patty Duke’s Helen Keller is not only a monster.

She’s also a terribly–and justifiably–frightened little girl.

In the review from which I quoted above, Thomson (normally wooden-headed even by crit-illuminati standards) contends that the fight over Helen folding her napkin is the most violent scene Penn ever filmed.

That’s a mouthful because Penn was basically responsible for breaking down the really significant barrier between abstract distance and in-your-face realism in American film. The bullet he put in the face of an innocent civilian in Bonnie and Clyde‘s first act of overt violence really was a watershed.

But it’s also true–if by “violence” we mean (as I’m not sure Thomson does, but go with me here) full exposure to fear.

During the famous nine-minute scene where Duke’s Helen is desperately trying to escape the room in which Anne Bancroft’s Sullivan is trying equally desperately to hold her, anyone who isn’t in denial about the film being after something far more than “uplift” has to know just how much is at stake.

Helen Keller in that moment clearly believes–has somehow intuited after the manner of gifted children everywhere, whether or not they can see, hear or speak–that her choices are stark. Escape that room or end up in the asylum where we know–and must believe that she somehow knows–her parents are already thinking of sending her.

Annie Sullivan in that moment clearly knows–as we know–that Helen’s escape from that room would actually lead to the end she dreads. That if she gets out of that door she’ll be confined to the very darkness she’s certain she’s trying to escape.

It’s the overt terror of a horror or suspense film turned inwards.

And, having played the scene together hundreds of times on Broadway (and done God knows how many re-takes on the film set), Bancroft and Duke don’t simply act like they’re doing it for the first time or making it anew. They act like they’ve been transported into the minds and bodies of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and taken to a room where much more than themselves are at stake–which I suppose is just a way of saying they transcend “acting”–as indeed they do throughout the film.

Sorry, but what is Bonnie and Clyde–or ninety percent of the other films on TSPDT’s list–next to that? What is it next to just that, which is by no means the whole–or nearly the whole–of what The Miracle Worker is about (one could write a nice, lengthy treatise on Annie Sullivan’s arrival at the train station as a version of the western stranger, coming to save the town…take a look at how it’s shot some time)? Certainly Sullivan herself–in this film and more than likely in life as well– is as convincing a version of the American obsessive as Ahab or Ethan Edwards. (If that quality is sometimes missed, it might be because her obsessive streak is moving her towards the light rather than the darkness–not a journey any modern intelligentsia is likely to be comfortable with, I’m afraid.)

The Miracle Worker was Penn’s second film. He ended up being a very fine–if not very prolific–filmmaker. I’d argue 1976’s Night Moves, at the very least, should be getting plenty of recognition on these lists (it doesn’t), and nearly all his films have more than a little to recommend them.

I’d certainly rank all I’ve seen ahead of The Blues Brothers, for instance (which checks in at 936 and, yes, which I like).

But he never had a subject to match this again.

Very few filmmakers have.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say in five or ten years when it’s time to approach it again.

 

LET THE GLORIOUS ART OF NITPICKING BEGIN….

They Shoot Pictures Don’t They has released their latest roundup of the 1,000 greatest movies as judged by ALL of the various polls taken around the world. This is by far the most comprehensive effort I know of but, alas, grave injustices still abound, so I’ve made a short list of six films I really don’t think any list of a thousand should be without (PLEASE NOTE: My complaint is not with TSPDT–they just collect the data, an invaluable and no doubt monumental task. The fault, as usual, is with the professionals who overlook the obvious when compiling their lists!):

1) The T.A.M.I. Show (1964, Steve Binder) I never trust any Top Ten that doesn’t include this, the greatest concert film ever made by miles and miles. Hence, I’ve never trusted any Top Ten that has ever been compiled by a professional critics’ or directors’ poll. You can imagine what I think about it being left out of the top freaking thousand!

2) The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn) Despite Penn’s considerable presence, an actor’s movie and therefore (at least unofficially) ineligible. That’s all I can figure. And, hey, I know some exceptions are still sneaking on there. But don’t worry. The way things are trending, they should have A Streetcar Named Desire booted from this list within a year or two. I think we all know the computers will win in the end.

3) 3:10 to Yuma (1957, Delmer Daves) Speaking of actor’s movies…

4) The Long Good Friday (1980, John MacKenzie) The greatest gangster picture ever made, with two of the finest performances (by Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren) ever caught on film–and, incidentally, that’s what they feel like…caught. It kicks the original Scarface and White Heat to pieces at the gut level, and beats the first two Godfather films rather handily as Shakespearan drama. Had it been made in America, where gangster classics are supposed to be made–and helmed by a pantheon director, the way classics of every sort are supposed to be–it would be resting comfortably in the top fifty at the very least.

5) WInchester ’73 (1950, Anthony Mann) Mann, who is certainly one of the dozen or so greatest American directors, and probably one of the top half-dozen, should have at least seven or eight on this list–most in the upper half. Instead, he barely scraped onto the list twice, and very near the bottom. Weird. Somebody should tell the world’s film critics that John Ford and Howard Hawks, incomparable and unassailable as they are, weren’t the only people in Golden Age Hollywood who made truly great films that happened to be westerns.

6) The Americanization of Emily (1966, Arthur Hiller) A writer’s movie (Paddy Chayevsky as it happens). They tend to get even less credit than actors. I mean, when you can’t make it onto a list of a thousand compiled almost entirely by liberals with a pitch-black anti-war comedy made just as the Vietnam War got going hot and heavy, (and with James Garner, Julie Andrews, James Coburn and especially Melvyn Douglas all at their very, very best) it really does make me wonder what this world is coming to!

Please do click through to the list and feel free to add your own comments here. TSPDT does a great job of breaking their lists down every which a way so it’s a feast for film buffs of every stripe.

And, oh, just one final thought:

William Wellman, William Wellman, wherefore art thou William Wellman?

I mean….not one? On a list of thousand? Seriously?

Whoo boy.