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(Reporting from the blizzard of ’16)

My childhood memories of kick-ass Clint Eastwood are vivid. I think I was first mesmerized by him as the cool, sardonic killer in the World War II drama Where Eagles Dare, and after that, as Dirty Harry Callahan, a cops’ cop, rejecting Miranda and spitting in the eye of pencil-pushing bureaucrats who were the real menace to San Francisco. Somehow, I missed the westerns, catching them in the 80s.

The Eiger Sanction was on the Channel 7 daily movie rotation, and I’m sure I saw it several times. It’s a testament to the sway of Eastwood that I did, because I watched it today, and the impact was decidedly different. Eastwood directed (his fourth feature) and let’s just say he wasn’t at peak form. Very pedestrian, and hum drum, it tells the story or an art professor (Eastwood) who is actually a retired assassin for the government. He is summoned by his former boss, a straight-out-of-early-Bond albino with a Germanic voice who will die if the sun touches him, and cajoled into taking on a contract, an unknown member of a party he is to join attempting to scale the north face of the Eiger mountain. Eastwood’s clue as to the man’s identity? The man has a limp.

The mountain climbing sequences are the best thing about the film. Eastwood performed many of his own stunts, and, certifying the danger, a stunt climber was killed in the filming. But this is a dated flick, not only in its blocky, unimaginative feel, but in its dialogue.  For example, the bizarre line Eastwood gives to a stewardess he is seducing: “You never know. Sometimes people do things…they thought they’d never do again. (pause). Like rape, for instance. I thought I’d given up rape, but I’ve changed my mind.”  And then they kiss and make love by the fire.

This is the second film Eastwood got after Paul Newman passed.  Newman was wrong about Dirty Harry but not this one.

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Richard Donner’s devil picture was a big hit in 1976, and 40 years later, it’s easy to see why. Rejecting the dour, sinister tone of The Exorcist, The Omen also lacks that film’s intelligence and gravitas. In its stead, however, is schlock elevated by top-notch performances (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner play it straight and true, and Billie Whitelaw is chilling as a modern Mrs. Danvers) and some truly terrifying scenes. A suicide by hanging at a child’s birthday party, an impalement of a priest, and poor Remick’s two falls are memorable, as is the demon child’s first visit to church (he is not happy) and his drive through a wild animal park (they are also not happy).  But it also follows the rules of a mystery.  Clues are given, investigation follows, and then, terrible dawning.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning original score rejects subtlety, and even as over-the-top as it is, heightens dread.

Best, any film that ends with Peck about to stab a child with ceremonial knives and an unmitigated win for the devil has a place in my heart.

Of Apocalypse Now, Director and co-writer Frances Ford Coppola famously told a room full of reporters, “”My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Putting aside the cockiness and disrespect of such a statement, it is fair to say the film (and it is merely a film) is about a certain concept of Vietnam, one unique at the time it was released. Most Vietnam films fall into three categories. The first uses Vietnam as a mere location for a story about man’s triumph over adversity (see The Hanoi Hilton, Uncommon Valor, Rescue Dawn, Bat *21). The second, in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, hones in on the war at home and the effect of the conflict in a much-changed stateside (Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone and even the ridiculous Forrest Gump).  The third category shows the war in-country and orbits a central thesis; the war was not only a bad war, but it was a pernicious war, one where America lost its soul, to the jungle, militarism, hubris, the military industrial complex, or some combination of same. The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon all fit this bill.  Most of these films are well made . But none bear any resemblance to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing visual nightmare drawing from all three categories, paralleling a novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) as interpreted by a macho right-winger (John Milius) and Coppola himself.

The film begins with a portrait of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an intelligence officer and assassin, as he endures a drunken nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel. Coppola got Sheen wildly drunk for the scene, baiting him with verbal cues to elicit a reaction, and the effect is mesmerizing; Sheen even cut open his hand smashing a mirror, which perhaps should have been a portent for Coppola (later in production, Sheen suffered a heart attack that significantly delayed filming). Here, Willard has already been home to find his world changed, and he is back, hollowed out and estranged from his family, to take a new assignment.

That assignment, to “terminate the command” of a rogue American Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has created his own army as a god-like figure in Cambodia, propels us forward, as we travel with Willard and his boat crew to a final confrontation. The trip is a grotesque menagerie. A thrilling and sickening helicopter attack on a VC area led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) shows American ingenuity, power and recklessness. I’d never seen a battle re-creation so skilled and visceral until Spielberg’s rendition of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan 30 years later.

Further up the river, Hollywood comes to Vietnam, as the USO brings in playboy bunnies for the entertainment of troops who are this point so on the edge, a near riot ensues. The scene is jaw-droppingly audacious, a brilliant representation of Willard’s observation, “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”  Willard tell us that “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Coppola’s juxtaposition?

The crew also searches a suspicious junk, and edgy and exhausted, opens fire on its passengers, almost all of whom die (one woman survives, briefly, but Willard puts her down with his pistol so his mission is not delayed). This is Coppola’s My Lai.  Even further is the Du Lung Bridge, a stalemate where GIs either beg to be rescued by the boat or hunker down in a drug-induced haze, in a never-ending firefight with the VC (Willard asks a wired GI “Who’s in charge here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?”). Through it all, Willard provides a voiceover, which is half Sam Spade evaluating the situation, half epitaph for everything that went wrong for America in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Willard’s mission ends. He finds Kurtz, distressingly played by Brando, who has shown up solely for the check. Brando was fat, unprepared, and uncooperative. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola protected the actor, but only so much: “I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking . . . . Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.”

Brando’s deep thoughts notwithstanding, there is no way around it; the last 20 minutes of the film near grind it to a halt, even with the addition of a frenetic Kurtz acolyte played by Dennis Hopper.  It is a testament to Coppola’s gifts that he was able to utilize Brando’s ramblings in as coherent a form as he did.

It hardly matters.  The film is otherwise a masterpiece and should be watched in conjunction with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

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(actual ticket to a Washington, D.C. showing of the movie found in my father’s dresser drawer)

The quintessential biopic, Patton (which was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) gets everything right.   Let me count the ways

It is content to present its subject without the context of some anachronistic cause. In Coppola’s hands, Patton is not emblematic of something larger and more ominous or glorious, be it the hubris of American imperialism, the degradation of war, blah blah blah. He is a flesh-and-bones person who grafted himself onto and shaped one of history’s more momentous times.

It is nuanced. Coppola never lets you get comfortable with Patton and by the end of the film, you remain torn as to the sum of his virtues and vices, which is so much more interesting than the hagiographies or hit jobs we see so often today.

It’s largely composed of true events. Patton did say the outrageous things attributed to him (if not in the form presented by the film), and he was every bit the preening ass and decisive, bold general portrayed in the film. The two incidents where Patton slaps soldiers are condensed into one, and Patton is given too much of a role in the plan to invade Sicily, but otherwise, the picture hews closely to history without becoming tedious. Most historical criticisms of the film zero in on what it doesn’t depict (much as with American Sniper), which is a legitimate criticism only if you give credence to the “I would have done it this way” school.  When it does take poetic license, it comports with other established facts. Patton did not shoot his pistol at attacking German aircraft, but the attack occurred just as he was berating the Brits for failure to provide air cover, and Patton’s risky bravado in the face of enemy fire was legendary. Patton did not shoot mules blocking a convoy, but he did order them shot and their cart dumped into the river.  Patton did not tell a British general that he had been in a battle centuries old, but he was a strong believer in reincarnation.  Indeed, he wrote a poem in 1922, “Through A Glass Darkly”, a stanza of which reveals his inclination:

Perhaps I stabbed our Savior
In His sacred helpless side.
Yet I’ve called His name in blessing
When in after times I died.

Patton is also noteworthy because the actor playing the subject gives a commanding performance. George C. Scott reportedly made a determined study of General Patton and by most accounts, captured him (save for Patton’s higher pitched voice). Incredibly, Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster all turned down the lead role.

It also looks authentic, in large part, because the producers rented out WWII-era materiel that had been sold to Spain and largely filmed the picture there.  Obviously, shortcuts were made (the Spaniards didn’t have a passel full of Tiger tanks), but director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) does great work with what he has in terms of equipment and locale.

Finally, what a Jerry Goldsmith score.

The movie won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay and sits at #89 in AFI’s top 100 films.

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Robert Altman’s Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) isn’t a hard-bitten cynic but rather, a seemingly scattered, chain-smoking hippie in a suit (his mantra? “it’s okay with me”), as bemused by the conservative cops who roughly bring him in for questioning (“Someday all the pigs are gonna’ be in here and all the people are gonna’ be out there. You can bet on that. You’re not in here. It’s just your body”) as the perpetually stoned yoga nudists who are his neighbors (“They’re not even there. It’s okay with me”). The truth is that much is decidedly not okay with Marlowe, in particular, his being used by old friend Terry Lennox (former NY Yankee pitcher and baseball whistleblower Jim Bouton) after the mysterious death of Lennox’s wife.  As Marlowe floats through a Los Angeles that feels desolate and burnt out, he moves closer and closer to the truth, navigating the authorities, hangers-on and brutes while standing by his friend.

Mark Rydell, who later became a decent director (Cinderella Liberty, On Golden Pond), stands out as a particularly chilling gangster who peppers his threats with loopy new age nonsense and boasts about his physical fitness regimen and the fact he lives near Nixon.

Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett aggressively revamp the source material, but Marlowe is still Chandler’s in many ways.  He needles the cops (“Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s all this about?’ and he says, ‘Shut up! I ask the questions’?”), can shake from his seeming fog to register a keen read on the situation, and when he arrives at the end of the journey, he is all Chandler’s Marlowe, with his own unyielding code.

Critic David Ehrenstein once told me that The Long Goodbye “was” Los Angeles and while the film doesn’t figure prominently in Los Angeles Plays Itself, it’s hard to argue it doesn’t have Hollywood in its marrow. Movie memorabilia can be found in Marlowe’s otherwise bare bones apartment (which was just recently available for rent), presumably from a prior occupant.  The security guard at a gated ocean community specializes in impressions, from Barbra Stanwyck to Jimmy Stewart to Walter Brennan.  The score is some version of the torch song “The Long Goodbye”, be it Muzak in a supermarket or a cocktail lounge piano number, the same ditty re-packaged as only Hollywood can.  Son of Old Hollywood Robert Carradine shows up as a jailhouse prophet and Altman exhibits prescience in his casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mute thug.  LA itself seems an otherworldy ghost town, where everything seem to be trying to pass as a facsimile of the real thing.  As Ehrenstein noted, “Back then the city was a sprawling, sleepy, empty place — Altman’s The Long Goodbye capturing its ultra-casual look and feel perfectly.  ‘But there’s nothing there,” my east coast friends would say”).

This is a seminal picture, and a prime example of reinventing a genre.

It is a blessing to have children who like movies. We watched this classic John Huston film last night with my daughter, a movie I saw with my father in the theaters in the 70s. Based on a Rudyard Kipling short story, Michael Caine and Sean Connery are old vets in British India, cynical, loyal to each other and avarice. They make a compact to traverse Afghanistan to its upper northwest, into the wilds of Kafiristan, with provisions and weaponry to lend their talents as mercenaries. In doing so, they brave avalanches and the warring locals, and after allying with one in particular, Connery is deemed a god by virtue of an arrow that failed to pierce his heart and a Mason’s necklace.  It all goes to his head.

The sweep of the film is broadly romantic, though, visually, it suffers in comparison to today’s epics due mainly to technical advancement. Caine and Connery are very well-matched, and though Connery’s seduction and their estrangement is a bit rushed, their bond at the end is actually quite moving. This is a throwback adventure film, deliciously retrograde in attitude; the Brits are charming rogues and everyone around them is a cowardly or fundamentalist savage. As Vincent Canby wrote at the time, “Gloriously old-fashioned in its approach – right down to the characters’ politically incorrect attitudes toward anyone who isn’t one hundred per cent British – The Man Who Would Be King is pure entertainment in the grand tradition of Gunga Din.” The film would never be screened on an American campus today, but oh what fun if it were.

I was alerted to this film by David Thomson’s tribute to its writer, R.I.P. Alan Sharp, a Writer Too Dark for Hollywood.  Thomson credited two Sharp films, Ulzana’s Raid and Night Moves:  “Neither of them was nominated for anything, and only Ulzana’s Raid did any business.  But if you want to experience the richness of American films in the early 1970s, they are worth tracking down. You will be surprised how complex they are and how tense. They seem to understand movie narrative in a way so few films do today: He used mystery to draw audiences into his stories, trained them to answer the small puzzles, and then had them ready to grasp the implications he preferred not to underline. And both films are tough, bitter, and bleak, bearing the imprint of an unusual and talented outsider.”

Whenever we watch a movie from the 70s, my wife sighs and asks, “Is everybody going to die in this one?”  Night Moves is indeed a dark film, but Thomson is also dead-on in identifying its allure.  Gene Hackman plays a former pro football player turned private detective who is hired by an aging Hollywood not-quite-a-star (a dissipated but crafty Janet Ward) to find her wayward 16 year old daughter (Melanie Griffith, reprising her jailbait, tart role in The Drowning Pool, minus the malevolence).  Griffith has taken flight, bouncing between movie sets in Arizona and her creepy stepfather’s (John Crawford) compound in the Florida Keys.  In the meantime, Hackman discovers that his wife (Susan Clark) is having an affair, so he is in essence conducting two investigations, only one of which is really private.  The picture is leisurely and intricate, until, as Thomson notes, a “deeply upsetting” end.

Hackman turns in an interesting version of the traditional private investigator, part canny but part limited.  He is clever, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer.  He’s also very human, a vulnerability.  Along with Elliott Gould’s Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Hackman’s p.i. is a marked and welcome departure from the type.

Sharp’s dialogue is noteworthy, especially in some of the exchanges between Hackman and Clark as they confront the state of their marriage and the import of her infidelity.  Hackman is also given some wonderful lines:

Ward: Are you the kind of detective who, once you get on a case nothing can get you off it? Bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman…

Hackman: That was true in the old days. Before we had a union.

* * *

Paula: How do you resist Delly?

Hackman: Oh, I just think good, clean thoughts, like Thanksgiving, George Washington’s teeth.

* * *

Crawford: (on his nubile stepdaughter Griffith)  You’ve seen her.  God, there should be a law.

Hackman:  There is.