Tag Archives: Lee J. Cobb

The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)

Despite the title, The Exorcist is about pretty much everything except the actual exorcist. When he does appear, kicking off the third act, it’s kind of a stunt. There’s a lot of implied mythology in the film, without much connective tissue–but nothing ruling out connective tissue. Director Friedkin does a balancing act. The reveal moment of the exorcist, complete with foggy streets, is where Friedkin just gives in to the sensationalism.

It’s 1973, there’s a possession so real skeptical priest Jason Miller fights for it to be exorcized, things are about to get intense. There’s fog, isn’t there? And music. Friedkin’s sparing with music. He uses it to great effective earlier, less on the exorcist’s introduction.

The actual exorcism has excellent special effects and good acting. Friedkin’s direction is far more pragmatic than usual; unlike the rest of the film, he and editors Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman don’t make any imaginative, affecting cuts. Cinematographer Owen Roizman is given the mundane task of insuring the frosty breath comes out. Previously, he’d been creating this warm, welcoming, terrifying Georgetown. It’s a step down.

Despite being entirely well-acted, none of The Exorcist’s actors particularly standout. Max von Sydow’s archeologist priest starts the film, digging up demonic relics. von Sydow just has to look scared or sick. It’s not much of a part. But Friedkin and the editors work their magic and make it through.

Then the film moves to Georgetown, where movie star Ellen Burstyn is filming an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, The Exorcist–just kidding, she’s in some mainstream hippie movie. She and daughter Linda Blair are living in a rental house, complete with servants and a full-time assistant (Kitty Winn). Everything’s going fine until something starts happening to Blair… and the doctors can’t figure out what.

At the same time, priest Jason Miller is confronting a crisis of faith while trying to care for his aging mother. Miller’s crisis doesn’t get much time, it’s just part of his ground situation.

The film cuts between Burstyn and Miller. They’re in the same neighborhood, their orbits moving closer and closer. Though not in any inevitable way, rather coincidental. Burstyn and Blair’s story, despite a deadbeat dad subplot, is a lot less intense than Miller’s. They have all the fun supporting cast members, including drunk movie director Jack MacGowran.

Friedkin and the editors seem to cut a little faster each time. Actors’ lines don’t finish in their scenes, but carried over to the next shot, the next scene. Simultaneously, Roizman’s photography is completely laid back. It’d be calming if the movie weren’t called The Exorcist and there weren’t occasional scary music and what are those weird noises in the attic?

After getting done with von Sydow and moving on to Blair, Burstyn, and Miller, the film keeps its character focus pretty well balanced. Until Blair gets less and less to do. She has to go to the doctor and we don’t find out until after it’s happened. That absence succeeds in hurrying things along, but not making Burstyn or Blair much more sympathetic. They’re sympathetic because they’re mother and daughter and Blair’s a cute kid, not because they’re particularly likable. Blatty’s script doesn’t do them any favors. He writes scenes for maximum effect, not character development.

Then Burstyn ends up losing time to Lee J. Cobb–as a police inspector–and Miller. Miller’s got a new church subplot, which eventually meets up with Cobb’s murder investigation one. It leads to an excellent scene, beautifully shot, edited, acted, but nothing for the story. During the second act, the film loses its sense of momentum. Cobb and Miller are too stone-faced; the film needs Burstyn’s growing dread, which it mostly skips, even going so far as to switch over to Miller to avoid showing Burstyn and Blair’s side.

Blair’s fine. She handles the part, which is considerable. She’s the film’s de facto subject. Everything revolves around her and she knows it. Mercedes McCambridge does even better, doing some of Blair’s character’s voice work.

Great acting from Cobb, Miller, and Burstyn when she’s got the material. Nice support from everyone else.

The Exorcist is often expertly and sublimely executed. But that strong execution mostly pauses for the third act. The epilogue is better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman; production designer, Bill Malley; produced by Blatty; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant Kinderman), Jack MacGowran (Dennings), William O’Malley (Father Dyer), Peter Masterson (Dr. Barringer), Robert Symonds (Dr. Taney), and Mercedes McCambridge (The Demon).


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On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)

On the Waterfront is relentlessly grim until the strangest moment in the finale. As the film finally reaches the point of savage, physical violence–it opens with the implication, but not the visualization of such violence–a supporting character (familiar but mostly background) makes a wisecrack. Until that point in the film, director Kazan forcibly pushes even the possibility of a smile away.

And even though Waterfront is desolate–gorgeously desolate with Boris Kaufman’s photography–there’s still positive emotion among its residents. Eva Marie Saint’s compassion and tenderness, not to mention she and lead Marlon Brando’s love story, aren’t grim but Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg don’t let any light in. There’s no beauty in tenderness, just the inevitability of it being taken away. With prejudice.

But Kazan acknowledges this level of negativity. Leonard Bernstein’s score booms and quiets, races and slows, drawing attention to grim realities (and the film’s willingness to confront them) while giving the viewer the illusion of a comfortable distance. That distance gets smaller and smaller throughout until it becomes clear the distance was itself a mirage.

All the actors great. Brando and Saint transfix. They work on a plane elevated from the grime of the waterfront. Co-stars Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger seem natural inhabitants of the waterfront, which makes them different to watch. Brando’s got to do so much in every scene; without him, without his conflict, there’s no movie. He’s got to sell every second.

He does.

Waterfront’s magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Elia Kazan; screenplay by Budd Schulberg, suggested by articles by Malcolm Johnson; director of photography, Boris Kaufman; edited by Gene Milford; music by Leonard Bernstein; produced by Sam Spiegel; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley Malloy), Pat Henning (Kayo Dugan), Leif Erickson (Glover), James Westerfield (Big Mac) and John F. Hamilton (‘Pop’ Doyle).


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Boomerang! (1947, Elia Kazan)

Boomerang! is a mess. The first half of the film is a misfired docudrama, the second half (or so) is a fantastic courtroom drama. Richard Murphy’s script is such a plotting disaster not even beautifully written scenes and wonderful performances can make up for its problems.

And director Kazan doesn’t help. He embraces the docudrama aspect, having amateurs act alongside regular actors… sometimes even treating them interchangeably. The amateurs are awful, often due to how Kazen directs them.

Worse, Murphy’s only able to make the courtroom stuff work because he’s been intentionally hiding things from the viewer. It’s a terrible, terrible move; if he’d played the story out sequentially instead of keeping so much for reveals, Boomerang! wouldn’t be some lame docudrama, but a complex story about greed, morality and decency.

The first half has a great performance from Lee J. Cobb. Even in the film’s weakest moments, Cobb can do great work. It’s sometimes heartbreaking. The second half has top-billed Dana Andrews, who also has some heartbreaking scenes. He and wife Jane Wyatt’s quiet moments together are wondrous. Boomerang! disappoints because it fails all its actors. Kazan and Murphy could have made something special but aimed low instead.

Also excellent is Sam Levene as a reporter. He bridges the two halves of the picture, along with a political subplot–the country club reform party has taken over from the machine–and is the film’s glue. Or should be.

Great photography from Norbert Brodine too.

Boomerang! just doesn’t work.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Elia Kazan; screenplay by Richard Murphy, based on an article by Fulton Oursler; director of photography, Nobert Brodine; edited by Harmon Jones; music by David Buttolph; produced by Louis De Rochemont; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dana Andrews (Henry L. Harvey), Jane Wyatt (Madge Harvey), Lee J. Cobb (Chief Robinson), Cara Williams (Irene Nelson), Arthur Kennedy (John Waldron), Sam Levene (Dave Woods), Taylor Holmes (T.M. Wade), Robert Keith (Mac McCreery), Ed Begley (Paul Harris) and Philip Coolidge (Jim Crossman).


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Coogan’s Bluff (1968, Don Siegel)

In my youth, or until Entertainment Weekly misquoted me about it, I used to opine that film entered the modern era in 1968. I cited films such as 2001, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Bullitt. Coogan’s Bluff, released in October 1968 (who doesn’t love IMDb for release dates?), sort of goes against that assertion (which I’ve long since abandoned anyway).

Coogan is an anomaly in Eastwood’s filmography and maybe just in film in general. It’s not a Dirty Harry film–though Siegel’s direction is similar in both pictures–in fact, Dirty Harry was more of an identifiable character than Coogan is in this film. But Coogan is a character study… It’s incredibly different and almost impossible to explain. While there’s a chase scene, there’s also Eastwood getting beat-up a bunch (see, back in the 1960s, people could beat up Clint Eastwood, not anymore… he’s pre-iconic in Coogan), then there are these long, delicate conversation scenes between Coogan and his romantic interest (how did Susan Clark not take off as a dramatic actress? I half blame it on Universal and half on marrying the football guy). I think, in the end, I only decided it was a character study because we–the audience–aren’t privy to the most important time in the film. They just don’t show us….

Another interesting aspect is to see Eastwood’s progression as an actor. In Coogan’s Bluff, away from the Western setting, he’s obviously missing something. He found it quick though, given Dirty Harry and Play Misty and The Beguiled. But it’s a ballsy role–he gets his ass kicked all the time. The majority of his time is spent causing trouble and trying to get laid. It’s not surprising no one knows how to market this film today, post-marquee Eastwood.

Films like Coogan’s Bluff really spoke to me when I was a teenager because they did something different. Coogan doesn’t speak as loudly as it did–maybe it does, I can’t remember–but there’s some beautiful stuff in some of this film. Unfortunately, the Lalo Schifrin score works against it sometimes. So do the scenes when it’s too apparent they filmed on the Universal backlot, though the syncing is excellent in other parts of the film. And who thought the Cloisters would ever be used as an action showdown?

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Don Siegel; written by Herman Miller, Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, based on a story by Miller; director of photography, Bud Thackery; edited by Sam E. Waxman; music by Lalo Schifrin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Coogan), Lee J. Cobb (McElroy), Susan Clark (Julie), Tisha Sterling (Linny Raven), Don Stroud (Ringerman), Betty Field (Mrs. Ringerman), Tom Tully (Sheriff McCrea) and Melodie Johnson (Milie).