Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Olde Review: The Shootist

Written August 11, 1976

The Shootist (Don Siegel, 1976) I was briefing through the movie reviews of various magazines in the grocery store a year or so ago, when I came across Richard Schickel's review of McQ or Brannigan (probably Brannigan), in which he remarked that a proper bicentennial project would be to come up with a decent script for John Wayne.

I was hoping
Rooster Cogburn might be it, but that was a waste..of time...and talent. And besides, as much as I like "Rooster" Cogburn as a character, the acceptance of Wayne's acting that suddenly sprang up smacked a bit too much of "Well, we'll like him as long as the old galoot knows he's a joke." Well, there were times in True Grit when Wayne—the Wayne as the screen force—came through. I didn't want to see Wayne made fun of or exploited. I wanted to see him triumph, as of old, in his now twilight years, and as John Wayne, the very fine actor.

So, I am delighted at The Shootist and delighted with it. It is about Wayne, as about Books (instant cliché time). Why else would Siegel in his opening use shots of old Wayne movies (and mostly Howard Hawks Wayne films, where Wayne played a character built out of his own persona, rather than playing "honest-to-God" characters ala John Ford) and with young boys—in Red River and Rio Bravo—as Wayne the mentor, as he is, in an odd way, in this film. Siegel is still a little obvious in his handling of things, but the ideas are so good, who cares? He literally numbers Wayne's days. And what a nice idea for a living legend and soon-to-be-immortal legend to have his birthday and the day of his death on the same day, on a gravestone that doesn't mark its day.
Death hangs over this film, in conversation, in song, in thought, in way of life. But this is nothing new. Death has walked with Wayne through many a picture. For a long time. Both were winners in the end, and, as in real life, Death must have his due.

Update in the present: The Shootist is the film John Wayne went out on, and as a summation of his career, and as the last ring of the bell, it's nearly perfect, even though the film is a bit flawed. Still, director Siegel did a masterful job of keeping all of the many stars corralled (there was a lot of people wrangling to be in it) and Wayne healthy, although there were times when he was too weak to be on-set (although he was, at that time, cancer-free). And even though star Wayne and director Siegel got on like a house-afire (the two couldn't have been more different, politically) there were still dust-up's about the way Siegel, the most economical—in that he never shot "coverage"—and least fancy of directors, would line up shots. Lauren Bacall, who was no doubt reliving her own time of dealing with cancer with husband Humphrey Bogart, braved up through the movie, and provided a steely shoulder for Wayne to lean on. Stewart signed on for a cameo, comprising the most jarring scene; it's Stewart who provides the cancer diagnosis and there's just enough edge in it to recall his furious characters in his 50's Westerns directed by Anthony Mann. And Richard Boone, John Carradine, Harry Morgan, and Hugh O'Brian did the same out of respect and love for their old co-star, and Ron Howard, whose eyes were now set on a directing career instead of acting, still pursued the juvenile lead one last time. The budget was tiny, but top-heavy with stars...and history.
All those guest stars work against the film and make it lose focus a bit. You get the feeling that Siegel might not have gotten all the coverage he might have wanted--sequences seem stretched a might' thin in places. But, overall, the film works well.
With time, perspective...and maybe a slight blurring of can look at The Shootist as the death of the Western—a sturdy movie genre for decades. The 60's had slowed it down, made them seem irrelevant, but one could still count on a number of Westerns being shot every year...until John Wayne died. And then...nothing.
A few things crop up here and there. Tombstone and its cousin Wyatt EarpEastwood's classic (and Oscar-winning) Unforgiven, and Silverado, which reminded how good a time an intelligent Western could be. The television series "Deadwood" is a wickedly nifty updating of the "Gunsmoke" stories of a frontier town, and 3:10 to Yuma briefly revived interest in the Old West and its ways. But a case can be made that without Wayne in the saddle, green-lighting a Western has become a difficult proposition.
Why bother? Wayne kept the genre alive for so long, but with his passing, they became less viable.
They might still come back. Turner will do a period piece, a Zane Grey adaptation, once in awhile, "Lonesome Dove" certainly proved popular, and even Brokeback Mountain made a contribution. But that 3:10 to Yuma popularity was certainly encouraging. Ed Harris likes to make Westerns...and good ones.
Then there's the curious phenomenon of the Western morphing into another genre--Science Fiction, precisely. The "Back to the Future" series capped off with an Old West yarn, and it was easy to see the gun-slinger in Han Solo in Star Wars, the fight in the bar, etc. and, Joss Whedon created a future Western in the "Firefly" series, and its movie-spin-off, Serenity. The new version of "Westworld" confuses the issue even more. It's funny. Just as the western was a broad enough genre to encompass all sorts of morality plays that would reflect today's society, so, too does the Science Fiction story. The two overlap, and share much the same elasticity, that frequently it turns into a case of "You got Science Fiction in my Western/You got Western in my Science Fiction."
Maybe the Western hasn't rode into the sunset just yet.

Maybe it's just waiting for a new dawn.

Or a new star to guide her.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: The King of Comedy

The Story: The Lord is getting a bit less sleep these days; Jerry Lewis passed away last Sunday. Lewis is what I call "an unmedicated genius," an enfant terrible who never grew up, a child-man with no presidential aspirations. He just wanted attention and love (is that so wrong?). He had "no dolby, no squelch" and approached his work by turning it "up to 11."

One thing I could always count on with Jerry Lewis—at least once, during every one of his movies, I would get one genuine belly-laugh, and if it's something I haven't seen before, at least one instance of surprise and admiration. Lewis is good. He might be undisciplined, but very good at what he does.

My favorite work of his is his portrayal of a popular talk-show host (read "Johnny Carson" but not completely) in Martin Scorsese's (and Newsweek film critic Paul Zimmerman's) underrated but very prescient and insightful The King of Comedy.
The picture is a photo-negative of Scorses's Taxi Driver: instead of focusing on the night-time adventures of a hulking sociopath with dreams of grandeur, The King of Comedy focuses on the day-time adventures of a hulking sociopath with dreams of fame...on late-night TV. Like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin is an obsessive, a stalker, but one so focused on his goals that he doesn't notice his own stumbling over rationality or even sanity while pursuing it. He wants to be a stand-up comedian, and specifically Jerry Langford, so bad that he doesn't even notice that he has slid from reality into a deluded fantasy that will, and can only, lead to his success. That he might be crazy never enters his might crowd out the illusions that slip him out of reality to a faux-simulated fame that he thinks is only "a break" away. If John Hinckley haunts Taxi Driver, Mark David Chapman haunts The King of Comedy.

Lewis' work in The King of Comedy looks deceptively easy, but there's a lot of ad-libbing in it, and a lot of subtle shadowing in Langford's moods and expressions, but is it Langford...or Pupkin's imagining of Langford? Hard to tell sometimes, as Scorsese never distinguishes between reality and fantasy. But, one thing's for certain...the scene featured today is Pupkin's fantasy of Langford's reaction to his tape.

The Set-Up: Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), messenger-boy-man, has day-dreams of being a stand-up comedian. Even as he pursues his goal, the optimistic alternate reality in his head can't help invading and setting his hopes impossibly high. Like right now, as he delivers a cassette of his stand-up routine to the front-desk of the offices of The Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) Show



A large, corner office furnished in royal red, with high ceilings and a huge desk. Potted palms and hydrangeas rest on a marble floor. LANGFORD is moving about restlessly, clutching PUPKIN's tape in one hand and waving it about. PUPKIN is seated on a comfortable couch.
LANGFORD At least once in his life...
LANGFORD ...every man is a genius. I'll tell you something, will be more than once in your life for you...because you've got it.
LANGFORD From what I've heard here, yeah, you've got it.
LANGFORD ...and you're stuck with it. If you wanted to get rid of it, you couldn't. It's always going to be there.
LANGFORD I know there's no formula for it.
LANGFORD I just don't know how you do it...and I'm not curious, mind you...because I want to use the material.
LANGFORD I'm curious because I don't know how you do it.
LANGFORD I really have to ask you that. How do you do it?
PUPKIN I think it's that I look at my whole life...and I see the awful things in my life...and turn it into something funny.
PUPKIN It just happens...
PUPKIN But what about the first few one-liners? Were they strong enough?
LANGFORD If they were any stronger, you'd hurt yourself.
LANGFORD They're marvelous, you daffy bastard. Leave them alone. They're beautiful.
LANGFORD A man said- Listen to me. Listen to me.
LANGFORD A man said something very profound some years ago...which I later originated.
LANGFORD "If it ain't broke...
LANGFORD ...don't fix it."
LANGFORD Want to know how I know it's so good?
LANGFORD 'Cause I envy you.
LANGFORD I hate you...
LANGFORD ...but I envy you
LANGFORD ...because it's purity...
LANGFORD's marvelous...
LANGFORD's humor based on you.
LANGFORD No one else could do it, but you.
LANGFORD I wouldn't lie.
LANGFORD I wouldn't lie to you, Rupe.

The King of Comedy

Words by Paul Zimmerman

Pictures by Fred Schuler and Martin Scorsese

The King of Comedy is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928) Silent film produced by Universal of the Victor Hugo novel that, in this incarnation, inspired two, maybe three kids working in comics (Bill Finger and Robert Kahn, and Jerry Robinson) to create Batman's Moriarty, The Joker.

Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplaine, the child of a dissident noble, Lord Clancharlie, who is sentenced to death by King James II for his activism against the King. Following his father's execution, to teach the boy to not follow in his path, his face is carved into a hideous smile, An orphan, he and the blind child Dea are taken in by Ursus, an itinerate con-man, until he is cast off to make a wretched existence as a clown in a travelling show. Billed in the carny as "The Laughing Man," Gwynplaine has the ability to make any local rabble laugh at his ghoulishly smiling face. What makes him stay is the love of the blind girl he rescued in the snow, and his own disgust at his ravaged face, which, of course, she cannot see.
As bad as it is, though, it is tolerable. But, what goes around comes around. His past—and his peerage—comes back to haunt him as the circus approaches the lands of the Clancharlie family. At one show, he has the same horrified, bellicose reaction that has become his goal instead of his curse, that he only notices his lack of success: an evil countess (Olga Baklanova) who he encounters in his old home town. This leads to problems with his love, as his heart is torn between the woman who's never seen his face, or the one who's intrigued with him despite his affliction.
The fact that, unbeknownst to him, she's living on his lost estate complicates things even further...especially as he must reclaim his title if he he is to make the countess secure in her current comfortable state of living.

It's high melodrama of the most "melo", and Leni crafts it with an artists' eye for lighting from the German Expressionist style, and a trickster's way with camera movement. It's far more subtle than most films of the silent era, while glorying in the dramatic gestures of the time, and makes for a compelling fusion of the German and American film sensibilities and of the drama, comedy, swashbuckler and horror genres.