The Great Silence (1968, Sergio Corbucci)

The first act of The Great Silence at least implies some traditional Western tropes. Jean-Louis Trintignant is a gunslinger who fights with evil bounty hunters. Frank Wolff is the new sheriff. Klaus Kinski is one of the evil bounty hunters. Wolff’s got political stuff, or at least the script implies there’s going to be political stuff, just like the script makes implications about Trintignant and Kinski. They’re not red herrings, but director Corbucci has something to say about the Western genre and he’s getting his pieces in order.

And, frankly, that first act is a little plodding. Sure, the winter setting is cool–Corbucci has no interest in the town other than as a setting for his action, so getting to know it is a passive experience, unnecessary for the narrative but so gorgeous snow covered–and Kinski’s immediately awesome. Well, he’s immediately different. It takes a couple scenes before it’s clear he’s just going to be awesome throughout, like he’s the only one who gets to know the film’s destination.

After running around in circles–literally–Corbucci gets Silence into the second act and the film starts to get a lot different. None of the Western tropes implied are getting followed up on. I mean, Trintignant’s even revealed to be hunting bounty killers because they killed his parents. Corbucci is going all out with the possible tropes and none of them really stick. Silvano Ippoliti’s photography is too heartless for them to stick. Even the Ennio Morricone score bucks sentimentality and nostalgia; it’s not a particularly successful score, but it is an effective one.

Instead, Silence becomes Wolff’s story. Turns out Luigi Pistilli’s Mr. Big is running the bounty hunters–that political subplot possibility–and Wolff’s going to do whatever it takes to keep things apolitical and legal. There’s a lot about legality in Great Silence; Corbucci plays just enough into Spaghetti Western expectations to get away with a lot of exposition and a lot of sentimentality. The love scene between Trintignant and Vonetta McGee (as the woman who hires him to avenge her husband–against Kinski, of course)–their whole romance–is just a subplot in what’s first Wolff’s film and then Kinski’s. Even though Trintignant is playing the title character–he’s The Great Silence–Corbucci kicks the genre around enough to allow the hero to be another player and a silent one at that.

See, Trintignant isn’t speaking. Those bounty killers who killed his parents made him mute. His whole performance is stress fractures in stoicism, which makes the whole love story subplot even better. It’s also a device for Corbucci’s commentary–the hero, though present and active, is removed from the viewer’s experience of the film.

Kinski’s amazing. It’s his movie. Wolff’s great, McGhee’s great. There’s a lot going on in the second act, including some nice stuff from Marisa Merlini too. Corbucci’s going for better performances than one expects from a Spaghetti Western; he’s refusing to let them be caricature. After threatening it for the first act; presumably to get the viewer to pay attention.

And then there’s the finish, which is sort of what the third act to the first act would look like–with a more traditional second act–only Corbucci’s run it through that devastating second act.

So the big question–since I didn’t start writing this response with a star rating decided on–do Corbucci’s successes make up for the film’s problems. And they do. The Great Silence has some slow parts, some seemingly needless shots, some way too long takes, but Corbucci does bring it all together and make something fantastic. It’s exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sergio Corbucci; screenplay by Vittoriano Petrilli, Mario Amendola, Bruno Corbucci, and Sergio Corbucci, based on a story by Sergio Corbucci; director of photography, Silvano Ippoliti; edited by Amedeo Salfa; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Attilio Riccio and Robert Dorfmann; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant (Silence), Klaus Kinski (Tigrero), Vonetta McGee (Pauline Middleton), Frank Wolff (Sheriff Gideon Corbett), Marisa Merlini (Regina), Mario Brega (Martin), and Luigi Pistilli (Henry Pollicut).


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Director | John Carpenter, Part 2: The Studio Quartet

With the summer 1982 release of The Thing, John Carpenter finally fully arrived in Hollywood; he’d made a studio picture. And he didn’t come alone. He brought cinematographer Dean Cundey, who shot all of he and Debra Hill’s films, and at least three from Escape from New York: editor Todd C. Ramsey, co-producer Larry J. Franco, and star Kurt Russell. The Thing would start an entirely new chapter in Carpenter’s filmmaking. Even with some of the same “pieces,” cast or crew, this period would be very different from what came before.

Four films, one for Universal (The Thing), one for Fox (Big Trouble in Little China), and two for Columbia (Christine and Starman), comprise this period of Carpenter’s career. Two with aliens, two with Russell and Cundey, two with famous composers, two with Carpenter and Alan Howarth composing, all with Franco involved to some degree. Carpenter ambitiously mounts these productions, occasionally with mixed results, occasionally with goodness, occasionally with horrifying brilliance.

Kurt Russell finding a quiet moment amid the screams of THE THING.
Kurt Russell finding a quiet moment amid the screams of THE THING.

That horrifying brilliance is The Thing. It’s one of Carpenter’s only two remakes. The Thing From Another World already showed up in Halloween, a movie playing on TV during some of that film’s action, and Carpenter had started paying director homage to Howard Hawks productions with his second film, Assault on Precinct 13. Hawks produced the original Thing.

The Thing is a different film for Carpenter in terms of budget (two and a half times Escape from New York’s $6 million) as well as producers. He doesn’t have comrade Debra Hill standing offside producing, he’s got David Foster and Lawrence Turman, a team of mainstream Hollywood guys. With the exception of this film, their best work was always apart (i.e. The Getaway and The Graduate separately, Short Circuit 2 together). There’s also an Ennio Morricone score: orchestral, Gothic and terrifying, not the traditional Carpenter synthesizers. The film’s screenplay (written by Burt Lancaster’s son, Bill; his only other credits were a couple of the Bad News Bears movies!) moves the action from Another World’s Arctic airbase to an Antarctic research station. While the film’s initially sci-fi discovery, it soon moves into a horrifying ordeal.

A scene from THE THING, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.
The Thing (1982). ★★★★. 2008 review

The Thing is a serious, depressing, exciting, exhausting film. Carpenter’s direction is phenomenal–he’s doing people in claustrophobic, dangerous situations, which he’s done before, but never like The Thing. There’s not much else like it. Cundey’s photography is magnificent, whether he’s doing the talking heads scenes or the phantasmagoria. The film’s Rob Bottin effects are breathtaking; Carpenter knows how to direct the effects, knows how to integrate them into the narrative, knows how to get the actors to work with them. It’s probably Carpenter’s best film. The scope of it, the subtle mix of genres, that Morricone music threatening throughout. It’s so good.

Russell discovers remnants of the Swedes' discovery.
Russell discovers the remnants of the Swedes’ discovery.

Still, if there were one John Carpenter film I thought would never catch on, it’s The Thing. It’s beyond gory, it’s hostile in its despondence, there aren’t any women; sure, it’s brilliant, but no one seemed to notice in 1982–it got terrible reviews and was a box office disappointment–and I never thought they’d come around. When I saw it at fourteen, I immediately convinced my dad to watch it before I returned the VHS rental. He’d never seen the film (thanks to those bad reviews) and The Thing is one of those movies you want to share. Or at least you did, but now everyone’s seen it. And they’ve seen it widescreen, which was impossible in the eighties and difficult in the nineties (there was a letterboxed laserdisc). It actually may have gone too far–I remember seeing someone tweet a day couldn’t go by without a random guy trying to telling someone else they just have to see The Thing.

Still, everyone should see The Thing.

Roberts Blossom tries to warn young whippersnappers Keith Gordon and John Stockwell about CHRISTINE.
Roberts Blossom tries to warn young whippersnappers Keith Gordon and John Stockwell about CHRISTINE.

After The Thing, and its disappointments, Carpenter headed to the relatively safe world of the Stephen King adaptation. Christine, released in 1983, is from before Stephen King adaptation ubiquity, but only just. Carpenter brings back Harry Dean Stanton for a supporting part (he’s the only actor from a previous Carpenter film–Escape from New York) and Alan Howarth to collaborate on the score, but otherwise it’s an all-new cast and crew. It’s also an all-new studio–Columbia–and a cast of teenagers (or actors playing teenagers) in a high school movie. Sure, it’s about a killer car, but it’s a killer car in high school. With a soundtrack of fifties pop hits; well, except Bad to the Bone. There’s a lot of undeniable personality to the film, problems or not.

Keith Gordon stars in CHRISTINE, directed by John Carpenter for Columbia Pictures.
Christine (1983). ★½. 2012 review

The film’s beautifully made–Carpenter might not have Cundey shooting it, but Donald M. Morgan does a fantastic job on the cinematography. Christine looks phenomenal, both in the setup, suspense, and special effects; though the first half is better directed than the rest, mostly because the material’s better. Carpenter’s got a weak lead in Keith Gordon, but a solid everyman in supporting star John Stockwell. Carpenter also does get one of Alexandra Paul’s best performances. Maybe not an amazing achievement, but an achievement nonetheless.

The machine of a dream, such a clean machine, With the pistons a pumpin', and the hubcaps all gleam.
The machine of a dream, such a clean machine, >With the pistons a pumpin’, and the hubcaps all gleam.

For a Stephen King adaptation, Christine has had a relatively successful reputation. It’s not a genre with many standouts, technical or otherwise, which does put Carpenter’s contribution ahead by default. When I first started hunting down Carpenter films to watch, Christine was always on the “last to see” list of his pre-nineties work. Technical accomplishment and acceptable Alexandra Paul performance aside, it’s still just a Stephen King adaptation. One with a not-entirely undeserved okay reputation to this day.

The smiley, happy people of John Carpenter's STARMAN.
The smiley, happy people of John Carpenter’s STARMAN.

Carpenter’s next film, again at Columbia, again with Morgan on photography (and Marion Rothman also returning from Christine on edits), is his most “Hollywood.” Well, his most successful “Hollywood” film. Not because of content (a space alien clones himself the body of recently deceased blue collar dude, Jeff Bridges, much to the surprise and consternation of the widow, Karen Allen) or the setting (crossing the country from Wisconsin to Arizona), but because of the production backstory. Michael Douglas produced the film, Bridges and Allen both should’ve been bigger stars at the time (1984) than they were, an uncredited Dean Riesner spent years rewriting it for various directors. A lot about the film–starting with the casting of Raiders of the Lost Ark star Allen and American Graffiti co-star Charles Martin Smith–makes Starman seem like grown-up, mainstream, grounded sci-fi from the Spielberg or Lucas stable.

Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges star in STARMAN, directed by John Carpenter for Columbia Pictures.
Starman (1984). ★★½. 2014 review

Much like Christine, Carpenter (and Morgan) do a fantastic job on Starman, but again the script just isn’t there to support them. Carpenter does a lot of work with the actors–it’s the only love story in his oeuvre–and he navigates the film to something of a success. The script problems, seven rewrites or not, are just too much to overcome. The set pieces just don’t fit with the film Carpenter ends up making, even if they are memorable–“yellow means go very fast.” It’s almost like he doesn’t know why he needs them; they’re so at odds with the way he’s plotted his films to that point.

There’s also a wonderful score from Jack Nitzsche.

On the run through scenic America, or: John Carpenter on location.
On the run through scenic America, or: John Carpenter on location.

Starman’s legacy is probably Carpenter’s most troubled. It was relatively successful on release, very much so on VHS, yet it appealed far more to the Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen demographic than the John Carpenter. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment never even got around to rereleasing it domestically with a Carpenter and Jeff Bridges audio commentary (from the UK release). Instead, they put it off until the blu-ray release; market research must’ve determined there wasn’t much “double dipping” potential for Starman. However, it does seem like the film enthusiast prejudice against the film–John Carpenter doing a sci-fi love story with a super cute Jeff Bridges–has fizzled. Unfortunately it’s been more out of disinterest than anything else. Starman is a perfectly solid eighties movie. It doesn’t transcend its problems, which makes it difficult for a rediscovery.

Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell have found some BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Wokka wokka.
Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell have found some BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Wokka wokka.

Carpenter’s final studio film of the eighties–Big Trouble in Little China is a bit like old home week. Kurt Russell is back in the lead, Dean Cundey is on photography, Larry J. Franco is producing, Alan Howarth is back. It’s also the only time Carpenter made a film released through 20th Century Fox. And what a film. Russell’s an obnoxious truck driver who bumbles his way into a magical Chinatown gang war. He’s got Victor Wong and Dennis Dun as his sidekicks and Kim Cattrall as his love interest. Of course, Russell’s also an idiot and it takes all of his compatriots to save the day. There’s magic, martial arts, fistfights, stolen semis, magic–wait, I already said magic. More magic. Lots of magic. Lots of humor. Lots of martial arts fisticuffs.

Kim Cattrall, Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun and Suzee Pai are in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, directed by John Carpenter for 20th Century Fox.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986). ★★★. 2014 review

I was never much of a Big Trouble fan growing up. I saw it in pieces on HBO at friends’ houses, I’m sure I watched it on VHS at least once, but I never cared for it. I had a problem with absurdist humor for a long, long time, but of all Carpenter’s mainstream efforts–leaving something utterly hostile like The Thing out of consideration–it’s the most successful. Russell’s hilarious, Cattrall excels through his idiocy, Dun and Wong are both good. Villain James Hong is awesome. There’s also quite a bit of technical achievement, between Carpenter doing a lot of fight scenes and then he and Cundey’s ability to mix harsh reality, ornate Chinese decoration, American stupidity, and special effects. Big Trouble is from 1986–twelve years after Dark Star–and Carpenter’s only gotten better with how he handles humor. It’s finally accessible. So long as the viewer is ready for a buffoon “hero.”

Even though Big Trouble in Little China was such a box office bomb it sent Carpenter back to independent filmmaking, it almost immediately found a rather big audience through home video and pay cable. Just because I didn’t like the movie as a kid didn’t mean most people agreed with me. Fox even gave it a nice two disc special edition DVD–now long out of print–back in the early days of catalog DVD. More recently, however, it does seem like the least regarded of Carpenter’s popular films. Maybe not in terms of people undervaluing it, but definitely in terms of overlooking or just forgetting its existence. Even though the brand has gone through an unexpected resurgence in the last few years, along with occasional remake talk, it hasn’t led to more appreciation of the film itself.

What's that? Oh, some more BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA! (Wokka wokka).
What’s that? Oh, some more BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA! (Wokka wokka).

Looking back now at this period of Carpenter’s films, it’s depressing. Things weren’t clicking. But at the time, if you’d just discovered him with Halloween and Escape from New York, you’d have been thrilled. The Thing is a peak, one very few filmmakers are going to reach. Christine’s good enough for a studio horror programmer. Starman’s interesting enough for a misfire. Big Trouble works its ass off to great result. Sure, there would’ve been bumps, but Carpenter ends this period on an uptick. He’s figured out how to make a studio picture by Big Trouble in Little China.

Of Carpenter’s four studio films, two made money, two didn’t. The better two didn’t. If it had been the other way around, who knows? But it’s the end of Carpenter’s significant output as a director. Not as a filmmaker, but definitely as a director. So how can’t it be depressing.

Sunburn (1979, Richard C. Sarafian)

Sunburn is a Farrah Fawcett star vehicle. It’s really Charles Grodin’s movie for the most part, but it’s Farrah Fawcett’s vehicle. She can be down home, she can be glamorous, she can be faithful when playing Grodin’s fake wife (which Grodin can’t), she can be adventurous, she can be dumb, she can be smart, she can be scantily clad, she can be topless in bed but with her back turned. Because sometimes Sunburn is all about the male gaze. Sometimes it’s all about gentle comedy. Sometimes it’s bad car chases. Sometimes it’s about puppies.

In addition to Grodin and Fawcett, Art Carney rounds out the lead characters. Grodin’s an insurance investigator, Fawcett is his presumable local model fake wife (he calls an agency to hire her and it’s made clear it isn’t an escort agency), Carney is the local P.I. buddy of Grodin. Carney’s got some cred, but Sunburn is boiling over with credibility cameos. There’s Keenan Wynn, Eleanor Parker, John Hillerman. Wynn is in one scene and has like two lines. Parker doesn’t even get a close-up. She’s the widow of the case and Grodin never gets around to interviewing her. Hillerman has a couple scenes and no character. William Daniels at least has some personality.

But then there’s Joan Collins. And she’s awesome. She’s got the promiscuous, unhappy older rich married lady part. “She must be forty!” Fawcett tells Grodin at one point, hoping to dissuade his interest without appearing jealous. Because Sunburn is nothing if not a product of its time. Three screenwriters–James Booth, Stephen Oliver, producer John Daly–and the best acted moments in the film are when Grodin and Carney are mugging it for the camera. Seriously. Carney sort of assumes the space in the film Collins does in the first act or so. It’s unfortunate. Collins is a lot more fun. Carney is cute, but it’s a nothing part. Collins has a nothing part and goes wild with it.

Shame Sarafian can’t direct it. He can’t direct any of it. He goes from mediocre to bad to worse. Geoffrey Foot’s editing is awful, but it’s obviously a lack of available footage. Sarafian can’t figure out how to direct any of it. Not interiors, especially not exteriors, not his actors, not action, nothing. In the second half, once the investigation is going full steam, there’s almost some attempts at style, but Foot’s editing ruins it.

Álex Phillips Jr.’s photography is solid. Acapulco looks nice. John Cameron’s poppy score is preferable to the top 40’s soundtrack, which actually is part of the story–Fawcett is always playing cassettes on her portable player.

Grodin’s occasionally got moments. Not many, not great ones, but some. He’s able to survive Sunburn. He’s doing his thing, he’s doing it turned up to eleven, and he’s able to get through.

As for Fawcett, after a slightly promising start, she gets a terrible arc for a star vehicle and there’s only so much her likability can get through. The film lays on a lot of backstory to get sympathy, along with a clumsiness subplot it immediately drops, but it’s all show. There aren’t any real scenes between her and Grodin, just exposition–which is initially fine because of their awkward bantering–and when she makes her second act transition to intrepid, scantily clad adventurer, there’s just no support for it. Sunburn stops pretending it’s going to give Fawcett anything to do.

The cast of Sunburn is strong enough to do this thing. It’s a noir spoof, or should be. Sarafian can’t do it, the script can’t do it. The actors could. Collins sort of does.

Oh, and the non-credibility cameo stars. Robin Clarke, Joan Goodfellow, Jack Kruschen, Alejandro Rey. Alejandro Rey is awesome. Robin Clarke tries really, really, really, really, really hard. And he sucks. Goodfellow’s bad but likable. Kruschen needed to be the best credibility cameo. Sunburn’s Mr. Big needs to be someone formidable, because there is actual danger.

So, an interesting film to dissect given its motives, but it’s dramatically inert due to technical incompetence.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian; screenplay by James Booth, John Daly, and Stephen Oliver, based on a novel by Stanley Ellin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Geoffrey Foot; music by John Cameron; production designer, Ted Tester; produced by Daly and Gerald Green; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Farrah Fawcett (Ellie), Charles Grodin (Jake), Art Carney (Al), Joan Collins (Nera), Alejandro Rey (Fons), Robin Clarke (Karl), Joan Goodfellow (Joanna), Eleanor Parker (Mrs. Thoren), John Hillerman (Webb), William Daniels (Crawford), Keenan Wynn (Mark Elmes), Jack Kruschen (Gela), and Seymour Cassel (Dobbs).


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