Category Archives: 1970

The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970, Alan Cooke)

The Mind of Mr. Soames is preternaturally gentle (which, getting ahead of myself, is kind of the point) but it’s always a surprise how much more gentle it can get. The film doesn’t forebode or foreshadow, even though doing either wouldn’t just be predictable, it might even be appropriate given the subject matter.

The film opens at a private British medical institute, where everyone is very excited because they’re going to operate on star patient Mr. Soames (played by Terence Stamp). Stamp was born comatose due to a super-rare condition in his brain stem and this institute has kept him alive for thirty years. They’ve been waiting for medical science to get to a place where it can help Stamp. And it has. American surgeon Robert Vaughan (sporting a very cool beard) crosses the pond to do it. He’s not interested in Stamp’s recovery process, just the surgery.

At least, not until he realizes Davenport wants to train Stamp like a pet, not raise him like a child. Because even though Stamp’s got an adult brain, he’s pristine tabula rasa.

Also in the mix is scuzzy TV journalist Christian Roberts. He’s got Davenport’s permission to turn Stamp’s “childhood” into a documentary series. Part of the film’s gentle is how much the filmmakers trust the audience. The script trusts them to keep up, director Cooke trusts them to keep up—a big thing in the first act is American doctor Vaughan realizing British doctor Davenport is less concerned with Stamp recovering than with him making the Institute famous. But it never comes up. The whole arc of the film turns out to involve Donal Donnelly as Davenport’s underling, who gradually learns how to be a good doctor. Vaughan’s a big influence on him, but so’s Stamp.

Even though it’s almost a spoiler how much agency Stamp gets in the film given he starts it inanimate, kept alive by a roomful of machines. When Mind starts, it’s a split between Vaughan, Davenport, and Roberts, with Donnelly bouncing between Vaughan and Davenport. But once Stamp wakes up, the film starts its gradual transition into being his story.

It’s a great film, but it’s very hard to imagine it being able to do any more than it already does. Stamp eventually encounters all sorts of other people—most importantly kindly (potentially too kindly) miserable housewife Judy Parfitt—and Mind treats them as caricatures. Only Stamp, with this necessarily reduced agency and potential of it, gets to be a full-fledged character. These people he encounters are caricatures from his perspective, but from the film’s, which I guess is where the only real problems (outside the wrong closing music) occur. Everyone relies on Stamp to handle his perspective, which is understandable, he’s phenomenal. But if the film adjusted the narrative distance to track Stamp more closely, it’d necessarily lose the doctors.

Mind of Mr. Soames can’t be a character study, but it also can’t be a medical thriller because it can’t maintain the medical procedural. It also can’t do straight drama because it’s got a speculative air to it. Director Cooke does that gentle thing instead of trying to hit various intensities. It’s never calm, it’s never placid, it’s just gentle. Mind is based on a novel and there’s definitely the potential for some sort of comparison to Frankenstein, maybe with the book but definitely with the film; whether or not Stamp is going to go Frankenstein is one of the film’s many questions, but never one of Stamp’s and it’s Stamp’s film.

The film doesn’t exactly have charm—it’s too intense, stakes-wise—and it’s never overly stylish, but the deliberate but still surprising way the narrative unfolds is rather agreeable. Mind of Mr. Soames does a lot, provides its cast a lot of great scenes, and it’s not an easy story to do. So when it works out so well… not charming, but nice.

It’s a story very well told.

Outside the occasionally too obviously shot in the studio night time exteriors, Billy Williams’s photography is always good. The actual exterior shooting—when Stamp and the film get outside his “playroom”—is excellent. Really strong direction from Cooke, both with the actors and the composition. The film seems to get a certain patience from Cooke, while it gets a different one from John Hale and Edward Simpson’s script; the story’s about agitated people but the story’s never agitated.

Pretty good music from Michael Dress (except the closing track, which is fine but not good enough for what the film has just accomplished).

Great performance from Stamp (you can’t imagine anyone else in the role after he does it). Excellent support from Vaughan, Davenport, and Donnelly. They’re ahead the other caricatures because, well, they get enough time not to be caricatures.

Stamp, Cooke, and everyone else make something special with The Mind of Mr. Soames.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alan Cooke; screenplay by John Hale and Edward Simpson, based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine; lighting cameraman, Billy Williams; edited by Bill Blunden; music by Michael Dress; production designer, Bill Constable; produced by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Terence Stamp (John Soames), Robert Vaughn (Dr. Bergen), Nigel Davenport (Dr. Maitland), Christian Roberts (Thomas Fleming), Donal Donnelly (Joe Allan), Norman Jones (Davis), Dan Jackson (Nicholls), and Judy Parfitt (Jenny Bannerman).



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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970, Don Siegel)

Two Mules for Sister Sara opens playfully. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Director Siegel never lets it keep one tone for too long, not until the end, when he shows what happens when you take it all too seriously. After a hundred minutes of occasionally violent, occasionally indiscreet situation comedy, Sister Sara all of a sudden turns into this very real battle scene during the second French invasion of Mexico.

And it gets there beautifully. The first two-thirds of the film is a road movie. Mercenary Clint Eastwood runs across nun-in-danger Shirley MacLaine and saves her. She takes advantage of his pious nature, softly conning him into being her escort as she works to help the revolutionaries fight the French. Eastwood complains, but not too much and it’s only set over a couple days. Things move very fast in Sister Sara, it’s one misadventure to the next.

And it’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. There are pretty much no other main speaking roles in that first two-thirds. You can probably count the close-ups on one hand. Maybe not at all if it weren’t for action sequences–which feature Siegel using some kind of terrible zoom-ins, which are about the only thing wrong with Siegel’s direction. His two or three uses of a contemporarily popular visual device. When it counts, during that crazy battle scene finish, Siegel isn’t messing around.

Anyway. It’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. They bicker, they sort of seem to flirt, which creeps everyone out–particularly Eastwood, there’s the adorable Ennio Morricone music. It sort of cradles MacLaine through the idea of a nun in a Spaghetti Western. Because Two Mules for Sister Sara is an American production shot in Mexico starring Clint Eastwood. Siegel doesn’t go for that directing style, but when he does have a similar shot? It’s eerie. So MacLaine doesn’t belong, especially not as a nun. And there’s this playful Morricone music to keep everyone at ease.

It’s a road movie.

Then it turns into a movie about revolutionaries mounting an attack and it gets real serious. That shift in tone works so well because Sister Sara has been setting MacLaine and Eastwood up to do more than banter. Their relationship escalates perfectly for comedy and perfectly for action drama. It’s perfectly plotted up until that transition and then there’s sort of second movie. The first two-thirds is just prologue. Siegel, editor Robert F. Shugrue, and composer Morricone pull off something spectacular with that second-to-third act transition.

Great photography from Gabriel Figueroa. He does really well with the comedy Western, has a few problems with the revolution drama–but it’s hard lighting, cavern lighting, and he’s trying–and then he nails it on the battle scene.

And excellent supporting turn from Manolo Fábregas. He’s the Juarista colonel. He really helps out in the final act hand-off as well. The present action jumps a number of days and the last scene could be stagy–it’s in a cavern, it’s Eastwood, MacLaine, and Fábregas having a heated conversation–but it doesn’t. Siegel’s directing of the actors is good throughout; sometimes it’s amazing. Sister Sara has a handful of difficult expository scenes and Siegel moves them along thanks to his direction of his actors.

It’s even more interesting as MacLaine and Siegel apparently hated working together.

Siegel, Shugrue, and Morricone do such exceptional work–and MacLaine and Eastwood are so game in their performances–Two Mules for Sister Sara is almost too good for what it wants to do. It’s an unintentional overachiever.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz, based on a story by Budd Boetticher; director of photography, Gabriel Figueroa; edited by Robert F. Shugrue; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Martin Rackin and Carroll Case; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Shirley MacLaine (Sara), Clint Eastwood (Hogan), Manolo Fábregas (Colonel Beltran), and Alberto Morin (General LeClaire).


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The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller)

There’s a handful of good things about The Dunwich Horror. They can’t overcome the bad things, but they’re still pretty neat. The script, at least for a while, is fairly nimble. There’s a lot of bad exposition from old dudes Ed Begley and Lloyd Bochner, but the younger folks do quite a bit better. See, Dunwich ought to be hip, but it’s not. The script knows it needs to be hip; director Haller can’t do it. And even if he could do it, cinematographer Richard C. Glouner couldn’t do it. Editor Christopher Holmes tries to be hip with his cutting. He doesn’t do a good job of it and the film’s poorly edited, but he is at least on the same page as the script as far as tone.

Because it’s Dean Stockwell as this smarmy geek who manages to seduce little Sandra Dee away from college with promises of hippie orgies and such. It’s a great idea for a smart genre picture. And Haller butchers every minute of it. There’s some solid dialogue from Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky. There’s good characterization of Donna Baccala as Dee’s concerned friend. There’s nothing to be done about Begley and Bochner however. They both refuse to chew at the scenery. They just look miserable instead.

The sets are fairly awful. They’re poorly lit, but they’d still be pretty bad. Dunwich is never pragmatic when it needs to be, except with some of the special effects.

And here’s the other big bad in Dunwich. The last third of the movie when Haller’s trying to do monster suspense. He butchers it, over and over and over and over and over again. Every time it seems like something might actually be creepy or scary, he screws it up. It’s uncomfortable to watch, just because there’s never anything going for it and it’s all Haller’s fault.

I mean, even the perv shots of Dee’s body double writhing in Cthulic anticipation get cut with some kookiness from Stockwell. He goes nuts for the part while still maintaining this creepy sweet guy thing. It’s an awesome performance. Not good, just extremely entertaining. In terms of actual acting, Baccala and Talia Shire are the best. Dee’s okay but she eventually becomes, well, a human sacrifice.

Finally, the music. Les Baxter’s score is hip, romantic, lush, subdued and a dozen other things. It doesn’t always get cut right–because Holmes is bad at the editing thing–but it’s always kind of amazing. It’s a delight in an almost delightful mess. But Haller and Glouner just tank it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Daniel Haller; screenplay by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, Richard C. Glouner; edited by Christopher Holmes; music by Les Baxter; produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Dean Stockwell (Wilbur Whateley), Sandra Dee (Nancy Wagner), Ed Begley (Dr. Henry Armitage), Donna Baccala (Elizabeth Hamilton), Lloyd Bochner (Dr. Cory), Sam Jaffe (Old Whateley), Talia Shire (Nurse Cora) and Joanne Moore Jordan (Lavinia Whateley).


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Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn)

Little Big Man is episodic. It has to be. Director Penn knows he can’t reveal the tragedy of the film right off because it’d be unbearable but he also can’t avoid it. The film starts in a bookend with an incredibly aged Dustin Hoffman beginning to recount the story; he do so out of anger. It prepares the viewer, but then John Paul Hammond’s music starts and the film starts defying all expectation.

Hammond’s score is more modern Country/Western than the nineteenth century setting. It’s playful, amplifying the humor in the film. Why does the film, a considerable tragedy, need humor? Because Penn’s telling the traditional American Western movie from the Native Americans. Only, it’s not supposed to be actual, it’s still supposed to be Hollywood, still supposed to be a Western. At least until Hoffman’s performance develops more as the film progresses.

Penn takes the film–which is an epic American story on an epic scale–and makes it small. He doesn’t let the viewer indulge in the production value. He hurries past the artificial, opening up in the locations. Wonderful photography from Harry Stradling Jr. but truly exceptional editing from Dede Allen. Man moves beautifully, with Penn keeping the camera tight on the personal action. The genre commentary needs the story and vice versa.

Great “guest starring” turns from Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey. Richard Mulligan’s Custer is bewildering, amazing.

But it’s Chief Dan George and Hoffman (and Penn) who make Man sore like a hawk.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; screenplay by Calder Willingham, based on the novel by Thomas Berger; director of photography, Harry Stradling Jr.; edited by Dede Allen; music by John Paul Hammond; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; produced by Stuart Miller; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Jack Crabb), Martin Balsam (Mr. Merriweather), Richard Mulligan (Gen. George Armstrong Custer), Chief Dan George (Old Lodge Skins), Jeff Corey (Wild Bill Hickok), Aimée Eccles (Sunshine), Kelly Jean Peters (Olga Crabb), Carole Androsky (Caroline Crabb), Robert Little Star (Little Horse), Cal Bellini (Younger Bear), Ruben Moreno (Shadow That Comes in Sight), Steve Shemayne (Burns Red in the Sun), Thayer David (Rev. Silas Pendrake) and Faye Dunaway (Mrs. Pendrake).


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