Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
David Lean’s career as a filmmaker had been on the high road of success for such a long time that it came as a major surprise when his film Ryan’s Daughter failed to impress either on a critical level or at the box office. In fact no one was more surprised or shocked than Mr. Lean himself. It is said that he was so hurt by the reception that the film received that he took a voluntary exile from filmmaking that lasted 14 years.
Ryan’s Daughter followed a distinguished list of Lean directed movies starting with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – 7 Academy Awards, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – 7 Academy Awards and Dr. Zhivago (1965) – 5 Academy Awards. Then along came Ryan’s Daughter in 1970 so public expectations were high. But after its initial showings those expectations came crashing down. The film was called bloated, a tempest in a teapot, over- inflated, over-studied and boring. I remember when I first experienced the film I sort of knew what everyone was talking about but nevertheless I liked it. In other words I agreed with the dissenters on many of the things they had to say but felt that the brio with which they attacked the film was totally undeserved. It was as though they were determined to gleefully bring Lean back down to earth after all those successes.
The movie is not perfect by any means. It’s biggest problem being that it is a tiny story encased in a frame that is too large, too vast and too ornate for it. It also goes on much too long for those who are impatient with films that don’t move along at a rapid clip. I am not one of them. I like the fact that it takes its time and establishes its sense of place so firmly that if I visited the small village where the drama occurs I could easily find my way around. Then there’s the visual excellence that we have come to expect in any Lean directed film as a matter of course. And Ryan’s Daughter doesn’t disappoint. This is a film that is distinguished by its visual splendor, and truth to tell, is somewhat overwhelmed by it. This doesn’t bother me in fact I like it as an aesthetic that just about every frame looks like a magnificent painting due to Lean’s compositions and the excellent cinematography by Freddie Young who won an Academy award for his work. But there are other things in the film to appreciate as well including Robert Mitchum’s beautifully understated performance that went virtually unnoticed by both the critics and the general audience as well. In fact all the performances down the line are uniformly fine. But Mitchum’s stands out because it was so unexpected. His character Charles Shaughnessy is a quietly heroic man of few words and no action. This was the opposite of the Robert Mitchum that we had all come to know and enjoy in a career that began in the early 1940s. David Lean said that he deliberately cast against type and was very, very pleased with his performance.
The screenplay was by Robert Bolt the well-known author of the play and Academy Award winning film A Man for all Seasons (1966). He also had authored or co-authored the scripts for Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. This time his original screenplay was inspired in part by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Or so it is thought. The year is 1918, the place is a small village on the Irish peninsula of Dingle where a young woman Rosy Ryan falls in love with and marries a quiet schoolteacher who is perhaps 20 years her senior. Then seemingly out of nowhere comes a young but emotionally damaged British officer who in an unguarded moment takes Rosy Ryan into his arms and kisses her. An adulterous romance ensues and becomes the gossip in a town where the British are reviled. It all comes to a head at a beach on a stormy night when the British soldiers discover some Irish revolutionaries collecting a shipment of guns. Acting on the belief that Rosy Ryan betrayed them to her British lover the inhabitants of the village decide to exact their revenge on her. But as the story unravels we come to discover that events and people are considerably more complicated than that.
Some of the other fine performances worthy of mention include the role of Rosy Ryan played by Sarah Miles who was married to Robert Bolt at the time. Trevor Howard as the tough but human and humane Father Collins, Leo McKern as Thomas Ryan, pub keeper and Rosy’s troubled father… John Mills as the mute Michael who somehow manages to get into everyone’s business won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Christopher Jones’ performance as the British officer Dorvan (Rosy’s lover) was severely criticized as being too mannered and distant. But again I don’t agree. I think that it is chillingly effective. It presents one of the most disturbingly accurate portrayals of a shell-shocked victim I’ve ever seen on screen.
So as I said before this is not a perfect film but there are many good reasons for seeing it. And I guarantee that some of its images will stick with you for years to come.
Deep End (1970)
What is it about a film that seems to be failing but holds your interest till the last frame? I’m not talking about a guilty pleasure or a train wreck that you can’t look away from. I’m pointing to a peculiar kind of picture that is so unique and ambitious that even if it doesn’t quite work, it is in fact more captivating and engaging that “perfect” movies.
Deep End, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, is one of those for me. A bizarre film with an unusual tone and an unpredictable air which never quite comes together but nevertheless remains one of the most fascinating cinema experiences I have had in recent times.
Skolimowski may still be most known as an early collaborator of Roman Polanski, co-writing Knife in the Water. But the Polish filmmaker soon paved his own way, directing many films from the 70s till now (all of which I have not seen except for his latest, a relentless survival tale with Vincent Gallo called Essential Killing). He has also appeared as an actor in a wide variety of movies including Eastern Promises, Mars Attacks, Before Night Falls, and most recently The Avengers.
Back to his 1970 film, Deep End is the story of a young man (John Moulder-Brown) who gets a job at a public pool/bathhouse where he meets Susan (Jane Asher), a sexy attendant who captures his virgin fascination. This is probably one of the most erotic films I have seen, not in the sense of explicit sex or nudity portrayed but in the way that the whole movie permeates lust.
The setting is the perfect atmosphere for this sexual tension to play out, with horny older women using the young man’s affection to satisfy their desires and Susan whoring herself out in a variety of ways (except to our protagonist).
The film bounces between a coming-of-age tale, an absurdist comedy, a rock ‘n’ roll/punk film (with the soundtrack by Cat Stevens and Can), and finally a thriller. Because of these shifts, along with a poorly dubbed English dialog track (all that’s available on my Region 2 copy) and some outrageous moments which don’t quite fit, Deep End does not “work” in a formal sense of the word.
But it doesn’t matter. This is cinema. Pure cinema. It doesn’t have to make sense, it just needs to be experienced. And what a haunting one Skolimowski created. A movie that will surpass its faults and reside in my memory and imagination for a long time.
Robert Totten (1937-1995)
Bob Totten is someone I wished I had gotten to know better than I did. We met in 1994 under somewhat curious circumstances that went something like this…I was teaching film studies here in Arizona at ASU (Arizona State University) when I got involved with a couple of guys who were trying to get a low budget movie project off the ground. This was a film entitled Cry Vengeance based on a screenplay that I had written which was in turn based on an idea by one of the producers. The idea was to make this a local production with that same producer playing the lead and utilizing all local talent behind and in front the camera. After the script was written the two producers became extremely enthused about its possibility and put all their energies into seeing it come to fruition. Somewhere in the course of a lot of conversation the question as to who would direct this epic came up. It was suggested that I should consider it. I was at least qualified as some of the other names mentioned. I had been to film school and had directed several shorts. So I told them I would think about it and after about a week I said yes. The reason for my reluctance is that I was teaching and would have to miss a semester in preparation for something that might never actually get off the ground. But I took the chance and said yes. After all it was my screenplay so why shouldn’t I direct?
After that decision was made the producers started to move forward aggressively with their preproduction activities. Meetings were held, conference calls were made and all kinds of production initiatives were being implemented. But I noticed that with each plateau they arrived at the budget for this mini budgeted film increased to the point where in a year and a half it accelerated to more than ten times the original figures. When this happened suddenly it was no longer a “local production” anymore. Now the guys were making trips to LA and talking to industry figures. Through some connection they had now they were talking to the execs of some big studio about financing our film, which was now budgeted at seven million dollars. That is small by Hollywood standards but enormous in terms of where we began.
The first thing they were told was that they had to get some name actors attached. This meant that the producer couldn’t play the lead as planned. He said fine. He was more interested in producing anyway. So they contacted some TV level names that said they would commit as soon as the financing was in place. The next thing was the director. If the suits were going to take this project seriously it had to have a director with some established credentials. The guys sheepishly came and told me about it and I agreed right away. I knew it was coming so I wasn’t surprised. In fact I was even grateful because the scale of the production had outgrown anything I thought I could handle so I was more than happy to pass the burden on to someone else. Of course I didn’t say anything about that. I just said I understood and left it at that. The next couple of days they spoke to a few guys and then in came Bob Totten. I had never heard of him but when he started listing some of the things he had done I became very interested. Especially when he mentioned that he had been the first director on a film that ultimately became Death of a Gunfighter (1969). That’s when I jumped up and said: “Oh my God, you’re the original Alan Smithee.” He looked at me and said: “Oh so you know that story, huh?” … “Some of it.” Then I pushed him to tell me more. When the interview was over I invited him for a drink and started asking him all kinds of questions about directing and working with Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, LQ Jones, Jack Elam, Mercedes McCambridge and Ruth Roman and all the others who were in the cast of The Sacketts (1979). Those were legendary actors to me and I wanted to hear all about them. I remember him looking at me at one point and saying: “You were the one scheduled to direct this film weren’t you?” I told him yes. “So I’m effectively taking away your job.” …I told him I didn’t care. He laughed and said: “There I was thinking that I would have to be dealing with a potential enemy. But you are in fact a fan, aren’t you”…”Yes!” I told him with the joyous glee of a teenager. We sat there for maybe two hours more drinking and talking. Actually him talking and me listening. He was a wonderful raconteur and I heard all the stories about the various actors, their quirks, their idiosyncrasies and their special gifts that made them so effective on screen. Right then and there I decided that I wanted to write a book about him. But I didn’t want to propose the idea at the time. After all I had only just gotten to know the man. What I would do is befriend him and after we had gotten to know each other better then I would broach the subject. By this time the producers had decided that this was the man for the job and I had lobbied for the job as his assistant. So we would have a lot of time to get to know each other on the shoot. Well, to cut to the chase, the film never got made. The funding never came through and the project was abandoned. But I kept in touch with Bob. We talked on the phone and he was always pleased to hear from me. I told him about the book that I wanted to do and he was flattered. I said that I would visit with him in Sherman Oaks where he lived when the school semester ended . We would talk, I would take notes and start the process from there. He mentioned that he had been ill. But he was full of plans for a TV project he wanted to write, produce and direct. It was a remake of the John Ford film 3 Godfathers (1948)…The last conversation we had was one morning when he called and told me that he was getting a western heritage award at a conference of some kind and invited me to attend. I looked at my schedule and realized I couldn’t make it because of my school obligations. About a month later I read that he had died of a heart attack.
I was sorry about this not just because of the book project. I had looked forward to spending all kinds of time listening to the interesting and amusing stories he had to tell. Bob was an interesting man but a fun guy too. I’m sure he is missed by those he was close to. But I miss him as well.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
If like me you occasionally enjoy a good dose of western hokum you’ll find that they don’t come much better than Sam Rami’s The Quick and the Dead. Now this should not be confused with the 1987 TV western of the same name starring Sam Elliot or the 1963 war picture boasting the same title as well. No, this one was made in 1995. It stars Sharon Stone (who also co-produced), Russell Crowe, in his first American film, a young Leonardo Di Caprio and the always-reliable Gene Hackman. In supporting parts are a host of top character actors from both TV and the big screen. …I call this film hokum but I mean it in the best sense of the word because its premise is so thoroughly absurd. But it is presented with such panache and style by all concerned that it carries you along on its giddy ride with just enough rest stops to catch your breath before taking you away again.
The story is about a town where a man named Herod (Gene Hackman) stages an annual series of gunfights for the prize of one hundred thousand dollars. All gun duels are “to the death” he tells everyone and the one left alive is the winner and he moves up to the next level. “Anyone who cheats or refuses to kill his opponent will be shot by my men.” And to emphasize the point Herod points to several men with rifles placed on various rooftops overlooking the street…A bunch of colorfully raffish characters come in from all over to enter the contest, win the money and satisfy their bloodlust. But of course the fastest and best shooter is Herod himself and the whole idea behind the contest is really for him to display his prowess in a variety of ways. And he does this with a smile on his lips and an evil twinkle in his eyes….The characters that show up are a rowdy bunch indeed.
There is an African American shootist (Keith David), a fast draw braggart (Lance Henrikson), a Native American called Spotted Horse (Jonathan Gill), a loudmouth bully (Kevin Conway) and The Kid (Leonardo Di Caprio). On the sidelines, locked in chains is Court (Russell Crowe), a former outlaw now turned man of God who now repudiates violence. He used to ride with Herod in the bad old days and Herod means to lure him back into his violent ways just to prove that no man can or is capable of changing his character so radically. The center of town and the place where much of the action takes place is the saloon owned by Herod. And the street in front of this same saloon is where the gun duels occur. They are MC’d by the bartender (Pat Hingle) who recites the rules and when all is ready tells them “Gentlemen, the street is yours. You will commence firing when the clock strikes and the man standing is the winner.”
One of the surprise entrants to the contest is The Kid, a boasting Old West version of the young Mohammed Ali. “I am the greatest! There’s no one in the world faster than me and I am here to prove it!” He especially wants to go up against Herod for reasons that are revealed toward the end. Another surprise contestant is Ellen (Sharon Stone) who signs up but is turned down because she is a woman. “No woman is allowed to compete.” She is told. But Herod relaxes that rule after Ellen insists and displays some of her skills. After that the film is really a series of gunfights shot in every style Raimi and his DP (Dante Spinotti) could think of and they are extremely inventive. So much so that if I didn’t know better I would’ve thought that the film was an imaginative adaptation of a graphic novel. But it isn’t. It’s from an original screenplay by Simon Moore who was smart enough not to just rely on the gunplay to carry the day. He has several interesting back-stories to motivate the principal characters and plenty of smart aleck dialogue to keep things speeding along to its high action climax.
Hackman anchors the film with his well-defined sharp-witted villainy. Di Caprio obviously had fun playing The Kid as some kind of rock star gunfighter. Russell Crowe is subdued and amusingly dethatched, as the gunfighter turned minister and Sharon Stone is simply a knockout as the woman with more on her mind than just winning a gunfight. Gary Sinise has a small but important role as a Marshall. There’s also a blind boy (Jerry Swindall) and a doctor (Roberts Blossoms) who figure importantly in the plot. But as I said before it’s the style that makes the film so much fun. So the credit should go to its director Sam Raimi and his creative crew.
Western genre films are so out of favor that when this film was released the mainstream critics virtually ignored it dismissing it as “Silly trail dust” and moved on to better things. But this film is much more than that. It is a beautiful merging of content and style. And it is done with a kind of boldness and sure handed confidence that you hardly see anymore. I’ve watched it six or seven times now and it never fails to please…So to hell with the critics, this one is pretty damned good movie. Give it a look, see if you don’t agree.
After hearing of Andrew Sarris’ recent death and reading J. Hoberman’s remembrance of the important critic, I decided to get a copy of Sarris’ book The American Cinema. It is a comprehensive (as of 1968) list and dissection of American film and its directors, judged by the auteur theory to which Sarris was devoted. It’s a fun read for any movie goer as it provides plenty of opportunity to agree, disagree, and discover more about cinema. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:
“Ford had more in common with Welles than anyone realized at the time. Ford was forty-six when he made How Green was my Valley and Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane, but both films are the works of old men, the beginnings of a cinema of memory.”
“Howard Hawks is good, clean, functional cinema, perhaps the most distinctively American cinema of all.”
“Hawks has stamped his distinctively bitter view of life on adventure, gangster and private-eye melodramas, Westerns, musicals, and screwball comedies, the kind of thing Americans do best and appreciate least.”
“The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how. The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the way. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.”
“Welles is concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people.”
“George Stevens was a minor director with major virtues before A Place in the Sun and a major director with minor virtues after.”
“Cecil B. De Mille may have been the last American director who enjoyed telling a story for its own sake.”
“Richard Brooks has a bad habit of saying what he means without showing what he feels.”
“Perhaps more than any other director, Michael Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in Hollywood.”
“It is too early to establish any coherent pattern to Allan Dwan’s career, but it may very well be that Dwan will turn out to be the last of the old masters.”
The Robber (2010)
The Robber, a German/Austrian movie directed by Benjamin Heisenberg, is part of a wave of recent indie crime films that could be linked back to Refn’s Pusher trilogy, the current source of Australian thrillers such as The Square and Animal Kingdom, as well as other European releases such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films and Headhunters.
The Robber is the most restrained of all these and that works both for and against the film. It tells the true story of an Austrian marathon runner whose hobby was robbing banks. The movie in some ways also echoes the true tale Stander about a South African cop whose career turned in similar directions but whereas that film was highly stylized, director Heisenberg seeks and succeeds here at a minimalist action picture.
Andreas Lust plays the title role with a stone-faced exterior, drained of all emotion. In many ways it is a performance that towers over Ryan Gosling’s in Drive (and his predecessor’s, Ryan O’Neal in The Driver). These comparisons are fitting because Lust portrays a sort of (and I hate this word) existential protagonist who cannot stop robbing banks no matter his success as a runner and consistently pushes to “run” from the law and everything else till he has nothing left.
In the last half of the film, I kept wanting Heisenberg to punch up the robber’s tale but he never does. The action increases, and except for a few pieces of exhilarating soundtrack, he lets the happenings speak for themselves without interference. Again, this is good and bad because The Robber, an interesting film and must-see, resides somewhere in limbo. It doesn’t reach the heights of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and on the other end of the spectrum does not achieve the incredible relentless energy of Pusher.
Perhaps what Heisenberg wanted was to create a realistic portrait of this man, an enigma but in so doing, it feels like he plays it a little too safe. Either way, the movie is one of the more interesting crime films to be released in recent years and deserves more attention than it has been paid. The last shot is one of my favorites ever.
Richard Dreyfuss: Someone said the script for Tin Men proves that Barry Levinson is better than David Mamet. And it’s true.
Station Six-Sahara (1962)
Actress Carol Baker had a curious career arc in films. She started out in big budgeted pictures like Giant (1956) directed by George Stevens, then shocked polite society and the middle class in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams Baby Doll. In fact that film so upset the Catholic establishment that it was denounced by Cardinal Spellman from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He called the film “evil in concept” and urged all self respecting Catholics to avoid it completely. Time magazine called it “the dirtiest American movie to be legally exhibited” and The Catholic Legion of Decency boycotted the film everywhere. In other words it was a cause célèbre’. The likes of which we have not seen since unless you count the uproar over the showing of Deep Throat (1972) many years later but that was in a totally different context altogether. Nevertheless, Baby Doll went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards including one for Ms. Baker as “Best actress”. That same year her other film Giant was nominated for ten Academy Awards. Now if that isn’t starting at the top, then I don’t know what is.
But after that her career just seemed to be on a sort of roller coaster ride. There were some biggies like The Big Country (1959), How the West was Won (1962), The Carpetbaggers (1964) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). These were followed by films with titles like: The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and So Sweet, So Perverse (1969). Low budget exploitation pictures that were clearly far below her abilities as an actress… But in 1962 she made a good little British melodrama called Station Six-Sahara. It was adapted from a play called Men Without a Past. I haven’t seen or read the play but the screen adaptation by Brian Clemens and Bryan Forbes along with Seth Holt’s direction completely obliterates its stage origins and turns it into something compellingly cinematic. So much so that you would never guess that it began as a play. An excellent example of what the old Studio people used to refer to as “opening it up”.
The first part of the story depicts the petty tensions that affect several desperately lonely men who are working at an oil station in the middle of the Sahara desert. There are two British guys: Fletcher (played by Ian Bannen) and Marcy (Denholm Elliott) who are involved in a rivalry about “Class distinctions” and good manners. And there are two Germans as well. One, Martin (Hanstorg Femly) is the new guy at the outpost and it is through his eyes or from his point of view that we view much of the action. The other is the Station boss Kramer (Peter Van Eyck) with whom Martin clashes right from the start due to his dictatorial way of running things. It all comes to a boil one night over the winnings at a game of poker between the men. But just as things are about to explode, out of the dark comes an automobile, a convertible, wildly out of control. It crashes to a stop and the men rush to it. As they open the side door out falls a blonde (Ms. Baker) unconscious but not badly hurt. The driver, an older man, is seriously injured. This man, it’s later revealed, is her ex-husband (played by Biff McGuire) and he was deliberately trying to kill them both with his reckless speeding. The next morning when she wakes up and is told about the crash and it’s observed that she was fortunate in escaping serious injury since there isn’t a doctor at the station, her answer is a nonchalant: “Well, I’ve been always lucky that way.”
Later in her dealings with the men we discover that she, Catherine Starr, is not at all shy. In fact she’s just the opposite. Her outfits and her manner tells us that she’s clearly a woman who knows how to use her looks, her sexuality and her presence to their fullest effect in the company of men. Desperate men particularly, like the ones at Station 6. Especially the boss Kramer who emotionally goes from one extreme to another whenever she’s around…From there the story builds its tensions slowly while at the same time delineating the individual peculiarities of each character with a great deal of dramatic precision. The violent climax is something of a surprise but it is also the logical outcome of what preceded it.
The acting across the board is terrific. There are some wonderfully amusing exchanges between Ian Bannen and Denholm Elliott. Peter Van Eyck is authoritative and charismatic as the uncertain Kramer. But the standout is Ms. Baker. She not only looks sexy and sensational but plays her part with assurance and a shrewd intelligence that evokes both irritation and sympathy. She invests many subtleties in her interpretation of the character with the result being that we come to understand quite fully why Catherine does the things she’s doing. This is a signal accomplishment because her role in the film isn’t all that long. She literally shows up at the halfway point.
It’s a real shame that when the film was released here in the US they did it as a sort of throwaway item. Because if it wasn’t, her performance might’ve been noticed and may have even been favorably observed by the critics. But unfortunately it wasn’t. The film got thrown into the dustbin on the lower part of a double bill where it quickly disappeared never to be seen again so far as I know…That happens to so many good little pictures and this one suffered the same fate. But it’s a nifty little thriller that I think could be remade in color (This one is in black and white) with a larger budget, an even sharper script that could point up the sexuality of the situation more explicitly than was allowed during the time it was made. The men could be played by any number of our good contemporary actors. But the role of Catherine Starr would present something of a challenge if they hope to at least replicate Ms. Baker’s searing impression. Still it would be interesting to see them try.
The VHS copy I watched it on recently seems to be the only version available. And that’s unfortunate because the black and white images are all washed out and blurry in some scenes. Still, despite these shortcomings the film held my attention the way it did all those years ago when I first saw it. Hopefully, somewhere in the near or distant future someone will appreciate the film enough to restore it back to its original condition and release it on DVD. I say this with no confidence that it will ever happen. But I can’t help myself. I’m an eternal optimist where films that I like are concerned.