Hard Times [1975)

Pauline Kael may have written about this film, but ultimately Susan Sontag’s recognition of Godard’s Vivre sa vie is more important to my philosophy of film criticism.  I mention Kael because she certainly championed director Walter Hill and for that I commend her.  I am even inclined to gravitate towards Andrew Sarris instead of Kael (though both seem mostly inconsequential to my understanding of cinema).  I eye aye. 

Let this suffice to lay the groundwork for what is auteur Walt Hill’s first film.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Hill because I was fortunate enough to once work with him.  He shook my hand and looked at me with a grandfatherly gaze of transference (or so it seemed).  Never had I been surrounded by Panavision cameras and the whole thing really made an impression on me, but the biggest impression was made by Hill’s kindness.

So I am unequivocally biased as concerns his oeuvre.  That said, this film isn’t perfect.  The script girl missed a big anachronism right off the bat:  an electric diesel locomotive.  Oops.  Set in the Great Depression, there are plenty of steam trains in this period piece, but the first train engine we see hadn’t yet been invented.  I credit my father with the keen eye (and rely on his expertise as a lifetime railroad man).

Also bad is James Coburn.  I LOVE James Coburn, but he is not particularly good in this flick.  I will mention The Carey Treatment till my dying breath as an example of his depth as an actor (especially when juxtaposed with his equally brilliant portrayal of Derek Flint).  Not sure what the problem was.  Perhaps he played the character in question just as Hill wanted, but it is really not a great use of his talents. 

Now for the good news.  Charles Bronson is magnificent in what is really an astounding picture for a first-time director.  Furthermore, we see the New Orleans which Hill would return to in Bullet to the Head (2012).  The two films even share a finale:  a face-off in a cavernous warehouse. 

Hill’s direction of the taciturn Bronson makes the whole thing a terse masterpiece.  As befits its concision of expression, I shall stop here.  Bravo Mr. Hill!

-PD

Our Man Flint [1966)

Derek Flint, the superspy with four girlfriends who picks up a fifth during the course of this film, has the most interesting bed in film history.  In many ways, he’s infinitely more interesting than James Bond.  Of course it’s all a joke, right?  Well, sort of.  It’s not actually that much more far-fetched than the Bond series.  In fact, we simply have a superspy whose life makes explicit everything inferred by the exciting Mr. Bond.  To be sure, there is not much inferred in the Bond series (save sexual inferences).

Director Daniel Mann had helmed BUtterfield 8 in 1960 which starred Elizabeth Taylor.  His filmography otherwise is not really a stunning list to read, but his direction here is fine indeed.  He gets a lot of help from his lead star James Coburn.  In 1960 Coburn was one of The Magnificent Seven.  Coburn was a very capable actor (as evinced in the little-known Blake Edwards film The Carey Treatment).

But yes, this is a spy spoof in the strictest sense.  Instead of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., we get Z.O.W.I.E. (or, actually, for the bad guys, Galaxy).  Funny that an organization wielding power through controlling worldwide weather should make its first assassination attempt on our hero by using a harp (or is it a HAARP?).

The whole bouillabaisse section is infinitely hilarious.  Like a monk through extreme concentration, Flint also places himself in suspended animation twice during the film.  The second time he does so to play dead (quite successfully) which allows for his escape once his watch tickles him back to consciousness.  Flint knows every trick in the book…from Shaolin to spetsnaz.

Gila Golan is excellent as (you guessed it) Gila.

The presidential ringtone (3 x 5) is a catchy, kitsch motif throughout the whole production.  The music in general (by Jerry Goldsmith) is excellent.

If you like James Bond films, you probably have a sense of humor.  If you can stomach the scattershot Casino Royale (1967), this will seem like the greatest film ever made.  It really is a joyful little classic.

 

-PD

 

The Return of the Pink Panther [1975)

From the start it is a pale imitation of Topkapi.

But the film is salvaged by upping the ridiculousness of Sellers’ French accent.

The grand premise is similar to Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (1955), but the Pink Panther series had by 1975 lost that je ne sais quoi which made the first two films of the series minor masterpieces.

This film is really all about Sellers’ uncanny skill at impressions (and there are some good ones):  the phone company man, the German-speaking housekeeper and even the Tony Clifton-esque playboy.

It is interesting to note that Sellers actually did have a residence in Gstaad (one of the principal settings for this film).

Also interesting to note is that Graham Stark (who had previously played Hercule LaJoy in A Shot In The Dark (1964), the second episode in the series) plays the role of Pepi.  Pepi is actually the only other interesting character in this whole film.  There is a sort of “Signor Ugarte meets Marty Feldman’s Igor” about his performance.

The direction at least has some interesting “psychedelic” moments (I’m thinking of the two slow-motion shots of Sellers flying through the air attempting an unsuccessful karate kick).

One thing is certain:  Sellers had a comedic magic which even caused his fellow actors (Catherine Schell in this film) to visibly “crack up” during takes.  The “corpsing” (as it is known) will be familiar to viewers of Saturday Night Live.  Sellers really embodied the part (as any good purveyor of imitations would).  When true comedic genius is present, it is often hard to find a Zeppo Marx.

But what I find most fascinating about this awful film (awful aside from Sellers) is that the director Blake Edwards had just three years previous made a fantastic drama starring James Coburn called The Carey Treatment (1972).  Edwards was no slouch as a director.  That then brings into question the underrated acting skills of Coburn (Derek Flint for spy-spoof enthusiasts).

With the immense talent of Sellers and the thorough competence of Edwards, I can only surmise that (like the Bond series beginning with You Only Live Twice (1967)) the series itself became a stale constraint due to pressure from above.  The only real innovation allowed to happen was in the liberties Sellers took with the Clouseau character.  The accent is more indecipherable, yet that becomes formulaic over the course of 114 minutes as the new gag is run into the ground.  The imitations are creative and elaborate (almost like a playful take on Dr. Strangelove), but none of them seem particularly well thought-out.  Somehow there was a disconnect between the talents of Sellers and Edwards.  Had they been creating as one, this awfully good film might have been great.

 

-PD