Category Archives: 1963

The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


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A Child Is Waiting (1963, John Cassavetes)

A Child Is Waiting had all kinds of production clashes between producer Stanley Kramer and director Cassavetes. And, apparently, between stars Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland and director Cassavetes. Kramer even fired Cassavetes during editing; none of those problems come through in the finished product. In fact, the lead actors not liking Cassavetes’s style doesn’t just not come through, it seems counter intiutive. Both Lancaster and Garland are exceptional, often because Cassavetes holds on so long with the shots. He never cuts away from the hard thoughts and realizations the actors need to convey.

The actors always convey them perfectly too.

Lancaster is the director of a state institution for developmentally disabled children. Garland is his newest employee. Lancaster is dedicated and determined, ever consistent in his pedagogical and treatment techniques. Garland just needs a job–and some kind of purpose.

The film doesn’t open with Garland arriving though. It opens with dad Steven Hill abandoning son Bruce Ritchey in the institution driveway. Ritchey latches on to Garland (and Garland to Ritchey) with Lancaster disapproving for multiple reasons. Of course, he’s often too busy to address it. And he’s also a bit of a jerk. He’s caring and even empathetic–watching Lancaster convey that empathy, especially in a terse scene, is glorious–but he’s always on task.

Abby Mann’s script does most of the ground situation exposition during Garland’s weeklong orientation. Child doesn’t do a lot with passage of time, which is sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not. The exposition isn’t just about Ritchey or Lancaster or the film’s institution, it’s about the actual reality of such institutions. A Child Is Waiting is never visually graphic, so Cassavetes has to do a lot with implication. Lancaster later gets to confirm some of those implications in dialogue, but it takes a while before even the dialogue gets graphic. It’s a gradual process, which is both good and bad.

A Child Is Waiting coddles. It coddles the viewer, it coddles Garland. Part of the film is dismantling that coddling, disassembling it, examining it, learning from its mistakes. But it isn’t Garland or Lancaster who benefit from the increasing granularity. It’s Arthur Hill.

Because Arthur Hill is a bad dad. There’s a flashback sequence, neatly tied to Garland learning about Ritchey’s case, showing what lead up to Hill abandoning Ritchey in the first scene. Not everything; a lot gets revealed in dialogue later, but enough. Gena Rowlands plays Ritchey’s mother. The flashback starts in toddler years. Rowlands has the film’s hardest part, but partially because it’s so contrived. She does well in it; it’s just, if the role were better, the film would be much improved.

But the film’s already pretty good. With some great moments. Cassavetes’s direction is excellent. He establishes two extremes, tight one shots of actors in the process of laying themselves bare, intentionally and not, and then sometimes extremely cinematic establishing and closing shots. Cassavetes loves a good crane.

Usually he keeps these two extremes separate. If it’s a big conversation scene, where Lancaster and Garland are trying to figure out if they’re going to respect one another, there’s not a swooping crane shot. But there’s still a perceptable tightening of the narrative distance. Cassavetes moves in to examine truth beyond the artifice. It’s exquisite.

And if the film went entirely in that examination direction, it’d be one thing. If it went entirely in a narrative direction, it’d be another. It’s sort of in the middle. Presumably the Cassavetes filmmaking sensibilities clashing with the Kramer editing ones. But kind of not because there’s still a script.

Hill’s the most important character arc in the film. Rowland should be, but Mann cops out entirely on her. Garland and Lancaster get more time than they should but it’s never wasted. Their performances are always developing, even when the film finally reveals Paul Stewart’s importance. Stewart is the answer man, which is great, because Paul Stewart is great. But it’d have been nice for his importance not to have been a reveal.

Outstanding acting from everyone. Garland’s excellent but Lancaster wins because his part is better. Hill’s good; Cassavetes treats him and Rowland different as far as narrative distance. They’re dulled; Garland and Lancaster are sharp. Rowlands has some strong moments. Ritchey’s really good too. The kids have the hardest parts in the film, obviously.

Lawrence Tierney has a small part as Rowlands’s new husband, which is a trip.

Great music from Ernest Gold, great photography from Joseph LaShelle. Okay production design from Rudolph Sternad–the institution is either in a residential neighborhood or occupies an entire cul-de-sac. It’s frequently confusing but never actually important.

A Child Is Waiting never comprises its cynicism for its hopefulness. Or vice versa. It oscelliates between the two as the characters navigate the same waters. Such good acting, such good directing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Cassavetes; written by Abby Mann; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Gene Fowler Jr. and Robert C. Jones; music by Ernest Gold; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Judy Garland (Jean Hansen), Burt Lancaster (Dr. Matthew Clark), Bruce Ritchey (Reuben Widdicombe), Steven Hill (Ted Widdicombe), Paul Stewart (Goodman), Gloria McGehee (Mattie), Lawrence Tierney (Douglas Benham), and Gena Rowlands (Sophie Widdicombe).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JUDY GARLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Robert Mulligan)

Love with the Proper Stranger has a lot to resolve in its third act. There’s a somewhat sizable supporting cast, the act two cliffhanger for leads Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s romance is precarious–there’s a lot. So it’s striking when Proper Stranger just doesn’t do a third act. Director Mulligan loves the New York location shooting and he just embraces it for the ending, doing a big crane shot but otherwise being very vérité.

Proper Stranger is a melodrama about Wood getting pregnant, McQueen being the daddy, them not being married, and McQueen not really remembering Wood anyway. It doesn’t want to be a melodrama. Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman do everything they can to avoid traditional melodrama; long, fantastic portions of the film are just McQueen and Wood looking at each other, trying to figure out what to say. Milton R. Krasner’s photography holds the actors’ faces, Mulligan giving them time to deliberate on how to approach the other. It’s a shame this method is entirely gone by the lead-up to the end. McQueen will be furtive, then not, with Wood’s reaction expresses slow to catch up. They’re wonderful to watch together.

Shame the script doesn’t keep up with them.

Schulman gets easily distracted. He’s got a lot of depth in his scenes, which focus on Wood and McQueen, but make sure to provide a lot of activity around them. So when the film quiets that activity to spotlight Wood and McQueen, it’s affecting. Mulligan trains the viewer how to watch the stars, how to wait for them to act out.

Oops, I got distracted by something wonderful in Proper Stranger, which writer Schulman never does. Instead, he gets distracted by the Italian ethnic comedy subplot he’s got going with Wood’s family. When Wood moves out, mother Penny Santon goes into bedridden conniptions. It seems like a significant subplot, given how much time is spent with Wood’s family during the film, but maybe not. Because resolving it would be difficult and Proper Stranger eventually just wants to ride it out on Wood and McQueen’s charm and the lovely, rending Elmer Bernstein score.

Schulman and Mulligan try very hard to give Wood her agency and McQueen some unpredictability, but they don’t know after the character and actor have had that moment. Both actors have big character arcs, which the film first embraces, then ignores. Once Wood moves out, she’s no longer a protagonist, she becomes subject. Her embrace of agency reduces her part. It’s real unfortunate. Especially since it’s not like McQueen gets the extra space. It’s just wasted. Schulman and Mulligan bungle the finish without any clear motive, except it’s time for the movie to stop.

Nice support from Edie Adams, Tom Bosley (in a way too thin part in Schulman’s ethnic comedy plot line), and especially Herschel Bernardi as Wood’s most protective older brother. It’s not a great part, but Bernardi does a lot with it. Because Mulligan gives him time to react and process the plot as it unfolds. Love with the Proper Stranger goes from being patient and deliberate to dispassionately rushed.

McQueen’s good, Wood’s good. Both have some great moments, both have some not great ones. Wood’s are usually because of the script, while McQueen’s are his ambitions for the performance just not clearing. There’s a very occasional Italian accent thing he does and it never works. But their great moments more than make up for the rest.

Krasner’s photography, Bernstein’s score. Excellent. Aaron Stell’s editing, not excellent. Some bad cuts, but it might be because Mulligan’s trying different things in scenes. He’s trying to avoid the melodrama, like one more New York location shot will elevate the film. Except he just goes with Schulman’s depressing comic sequences for Wood’s family. It doesn’t make any sense.

Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense the movie doesn’t have a third act. What Proper Stranger does get done is good, but should be better. Wood and McQueen deserve better. Their performances deserve a film wholly worthy of them.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Arnold Schulman; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Tom Bosley (Anthony Columbo), Edie Adams (Barbie), and Penny Santon (Mama Rossini).


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Alexander the Great (1963, Phil Karlson)

Had Alexander the Great gone to series instead of just being a passed over pilot and footnote in many recognizable actors filmographies, it seems likely the series would’ve had William Shatner’s Alexander continue his conquest of the Persian Empire. The pilot is this strange mix of occasional action, Greek generals arguing, and battle footage from Italian epics. The Utah location shooting is great, but director Karlson’s bad at the direction. John Cassavetes, Joseph Cotten, and Simon Oakland play the arguing generals. They can argue. But Robert Pirosh and William Robert Yates’s teleplay is lacking.

And there’s nothing to be done about integrating that battle footage. If Alexander the Great is going to be talking heads, which Karlson definitely directs better than the action, the action is going to have to be spectacular. And it’s not. There’s some tension with it in the original footage, but the reused stuff? The pilot doesn’t get any mileage out of it.

Cassavetes is pretty cool as this disagreeable young general. By cool, I mean he’s good at the yelling. His character yells. Cotten’s character counsels. Cotten’s good at the counseling. But the pilot doesn’t really know what to do with Shatner. It’s called Alexander the Great and everyone’s a lot more comfortable dealing with Cassavetes’s hurt feelings. Shatner’s appealing and he manages to get through the overdone dialogue, but he’s got no character.

He’s got a love interest–Ziva Rodann–and a sidekick–Adam West–but Pirosh and Yates don’t give either any attention in the script. Rodann’s biggest scene is with Cotten and West is part of the set decoration. Though he gets enough closeups to suggest he’d played a bigger part in the series.

It’s a long fifty minutes. The recycled battle footage and some red herrings drag it out too. It’s kind of too bad, for Alexander, but good for the rest of us it didn’t get picked up.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Karlson; teleplay by Robert Pirosh and William Robert Yates, based on a story by Pirosh; director of photography, Lester Shorr; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by Albert McCleery; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring William Shatner (Alexander), Joseph Cotten (Antigonus), John Cassavetes (Karonos), Adam West (Cleander), Simon Oakland (Attalos), Ziva Rodann (Ada), John Doucette (Kleitos), Robert Fortier (Aristander), Peter Hansen (Tauron), and Cliff Osmond (Memnon).


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