Category Archives: 1971

Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg)

The first act of Duel ought to be enough to carry it. Spielberg’s direction, Frank Morriss’s editing, even Jack A. Marta’s workman photography—it’s spellbinding. It even gets through lead Dennis Weaver calling home to fight with his wife and revealing to the audience he’s a wuss. See, last night he and the wife went to a party and some guy groped her and Weaver didn’t do anything and now she’s mad. Jacqueline Scott’s the wife. She’s in one scene, a handful of shots, at home taking care of the kids after the incident while Weaver’s driving across the state (of California) for a business meeting. The whole account depends on it, but really it’s because he’s a wuss. Weaver’s a wuss, which… isn’t actually part of Duel’s initial narrative impulse because the phone call to the wife is added material for the theatrical release. Duel is a TV movie turned theatrical release (for international markets).

Weaver’s even more of an annoying wuss because he puts up his leg in a very pseudo-macho way while on the phone. It’s weird. And it’s a lot, but Duel can get through it because it’s so well-made.

See, Weaver’s driving to this meeting and he pisses off a truck driver. That truck driver starts messing with Weaver, not letting him pass, roaring past him, waving him on into another vehicle. A rural highway nightmare. What’s Weaver going to do about it with his machismo posturing after all. But Weaver doesn’t really matter—not even as much as the comedy bit playing on his radio—what matters is how Spielberg and Morriss tell this story. Well, to be fair to writer Richard Matheson… relate this anecdote.

And if Duel were a short or led Psycho-style into something else, it’d be fine. But once Weaver gets around other people and starts narrating the film with his thoughts… there’s only so much good filmmaking can do and covering for Weaver’s basically obnoxious performance is too much. Especially given how the narration doesn’t exactly sync up with the character onscreen and definitely not in the implications of his relationship with Scott. Because it turns out—though it’s a single mention then gone—Weaver’s a Vietnam vet and he might be suffering from some kind of PTSD. It’s such a surprise you spend the entire scene where white collar Weaver is trying to figure out how to speak with blue collar working men—he’s going to tell off the truck driver, who he thinks is in this roadside restaurant with him—wondering how the hell Weaver made it back alive.

There’s no help from Weaver on it, of course (I get the feeling hearing Weaver describe his character would be a trip), because his performance is… a step too far into disbelief. Killer truck driver who runs cars off the road then goes and gets their plates as trophies, yes. Dennis Weaver not being able to make a traumatized beta male sympathetic in the slightest, no.

The second half of the film—basically everything following the restaurant and Weaver’s narration starting—moves fast but not well. Nothing Weaver does is reasonable (he’s already missed the meeting, yet continues driving towards it even though the film’s established he can’t be late), Spielberg gets obvious in the reveals. Not to mention when the truck does finally turn into a six ton slasher and go all in on attacking Weaver and anyone around him (though not the school bus, in an inserted for the theatrical sequence; because Weaver in danger isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as annoying school kids), it’s only impressive as far as the stunt driving goes.

Duel’s beautifully made for a while, then it’s well-executed albeit middling, then it’s a little tedious. Given it’s a real-ish time thriller about White middle class suspicions of the White working class being validated in a terrifying way… it shouldn’t get tedious. The tediousness of the third act is interesting—somehow Duel still moves at a good pace but Weaver’s so annoying in the action it drags.

Spielberg wanted Weaver for the role because of Weaver’s turn as the creepy motel employee in Touch of Evil, which… is definitely not the same skillset required of the role in Duel, which basically turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode once the narration starts.

So it’s this great short film with this okay “Twilight Zone” episode tacked on around halfway in.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Jack A. Marta; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Billy Goldenberg; produced by George Eckstein; released by Cinema International Corporation.

Starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Chuck), Lou Frizzell (a bus driver), and Carey Loftin (a truck driver).


A Tattered Web (1971, Paul Wendkos)

For its sub-genre of TV movie, A Tattered Web is pretty great. It’s a dirty cop story, only the dirty cop—Lloyd Bridges—is only a dirty cop because he’s trying to protect himself from a murder change and he’s only trying to protect himself from a murder charge so he doesn’t upset his daughter (Sallie Shockley). See, Bridges only killed this woman Anne Helm because Helm was sleeping with Shockley’s husband, Frank Converse. And Bridges didn’t even mean to kill her, he was just shoving her against the wall and, boom, somehow killed her. It was an accident. And Bridges was really about to call it in before he realized he didn’t want to go to prison; even if he got a jury sympathetic to the manslaughter nature of it… Bridges was there to harass Helm for sleeping with Converse. He was abusing his authority big time. And Web is from the early seventies so theoretically he might get in trouble for it.

So the movie is Bridges trying to stay ahead of his partner, a better than his material Murray Hamilton, while trying to convince Converse there’s another murderer—because the cops are after Converse because he’s the lover—and trying to make sure Shockley doesn’t find out about Converse and Helm. There’s always a lot going on in Tattered Web; it’s got a great pace.

It’s also got a rather strong script. There are a lot of narrative shortcuts and whatnot—it’s a seventy-some minute TV movie, after all—but writer Art Wallace still takes the time to have Bridges, now fully conspiring with Converse and framing an innocent man (Broderick Crawford), there’s still this scene where Bridges just gleefully watches Converse get his ass kicked. Even though the subplot doesn’t do much for the story, Web does have this one about Bridges becoming a violence junkie. It’s not great, writing or acting, but it’s weird and imaginative and you can cut it some slack. It’s nice Wallace cares enough to do character development, which isn’t just for Bridges.

Though Bridges also has this great one about the self-loathing his cover-up is causing. There’s visible pain in Bridges’s face when he manipulates Crawford. It’s often a good performance; Bridges isn’t phoning it in. He gets carried away but only slightly. If he doesn’t rein it in himself, it’s like the film’s Converse standing by to pull Bridges back.

Converse gives the best performance. It takes him a while to get going—as he’s doing more dick things at the beginning—but then he starts getting actually good. Shockley you wish was better because she’s clearly capable of it (she pulls off the weird infantilizing interrogation scene she has with Hamilton), but she gets abandoned for the end.

The end is a drag down fist fight on cliffs overlooking the Pacific. There’s no room for girls there, just the men who have to prove themselves. It’s a poorly done action scene—Bridges’s stunt man has brown hair versus blond—but it’s a great idea in the narrative.

A Tattered Web is all right.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Wendkos; written by Art Wallace; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by John McSweeney Jr.; music by Robert Drasnin; produced by Bob Markell; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Lloyd Bridges (Sgt. Ed Stagg), Frank Converse (Steve Butler), Sallie Shockley (Tina Butler), Murray Hamilton (Sgt. Joe Marcus), Broderick Crawford (Willard Edson), Anne Helm (Louise Campbell), John Fiedler (Sam Jeffers), Val Avery (Sgt. Harry Barnes), and Whit Bissell (Mr. Harland).


The Laboratory of Fear (1971, Patrice Leconte)

The Laboratory of Fear is all about expectation. For the short’s eleven minutes, writer and director Leconte wants the audience to expect something. Lots of foreshadowing. Some of it matters, some of it is red herring.

The short opens very documentary-like, with a voice over explaining the modern (for 1971) laboratory. The lab’s so hip they’ve even got a woman scientist (Marianne di Vettimo); better yet, she’s actually good at her job (just ask any of the fellows, says the narrator). Cue opening titles, which end with a disclaimer: don’t expect too much scientific accuracy. So why open with the documentary style? To control the audience’s expectations.

There’s no way to predict, from that opening tag, Fear is actually going to be about lovesick custodian Michel Such going from annoying crush to possibly dangerous stalker. di Vettimo, however, doesn’t seem to notice his escalation. She doesn’t know she’s in the Laboratory of Fear, she just thinks she’s at work, trying to make some silver iodine and getting messed up because Such needs constant attention from her. He even tries to show off for her, sticking his hand in various kinds of dangerous chemicals. Presumably the actor didn’t have to do it, but who knows… di Vettimo is manipulating the spilled mercury by hand without a second thought (because 1971).

The short seems to be a race—will di Vettimo take notice of Such’s possible threat before Such escalates to the point of being dangerous? But the race is yet another of Leconte’s manipulations. The punchline, which is excellent, is as unpredictable as the setup. Though Leconte has been building to the punchline since after the opening titles; should it have been expected? Probably not. Not even if one is familiar with di Vettimo’s experiments, since Fear’s not about the hard science.

Good creeper performance from Such. Decent one from di Vettimo, who doesn’t really get anything to do. Leconte’s direction is fine, save the occasional visual flourishes. They’re to play with expectation too, of course.

Fear’s a competently executed narrative with a nice kicker.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Patrice Leconte; director of photography, Jean Gonnett; edited by Marguerite Renoir; produced by Pierre Braunberger for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Starring Marianne di Vettimo (Clara) and Michel Such (Antoine)


Sometimes a Great Notion (1971, Paul Newman)

Sometimes a Great Notion is all about the joys of toxic masculinity and apathy. At some points in the near two hour runtime, it might hint at being about the virtues of rugged American individualism, family, and maybe capitalism, but it’s not. Screenwriter John Gay avoids exploring those virtues like the plague or directly contradicts them in exposition. If not in the plot events. And director Newman is more interested in having fun. He’s serious at times, but outside one scene, he’s always most interested in the fun. The fun is usually when his character (Newman, at forty-five, is playing a logger in his early thirties) is being a rugged, adventurous, caution to the wind type, whether it’s climbing to the top of a tree he’s just cut the top off, dirt biking, brawling, whatever. You can always tell when it’s one of those moments because Henry Mancini’s score does its jazzy folksy Americana thing. Its loud, obnoxious jazzy folksy Americana thing. Newman, as director, uses Mancini’s score to do heavy dramatic lifting in scenes–not the folksy stuff–to the detriment of the performances, which is bewildering, since there are so many good performances in the film. Even if they’re not entirely successful.

Newman is eldest son in a successful logging family. Henry Fonda is the dad, Lee Remick is Newman’s wife, Richard Jaeckel’s a cousin. The film starts in the middle of a loggers’ union strike. Except Fonda and family aren’t in the union; they’re scabs (but not exactly because they’re just non-union; they’re still breaking the picket line and apathetic to their former friends and still neighbors literally starving around them). The townspeople aren’t too happy with them. Newman’s quiet, Fonda’s loud and demanding (and partially immobilized due to a half body cast), Jaeckel’s goofy (and religious). Remick and Linda Lawson (as Jaeckel’s wife) cook and clean for the men, but otherwise keep quiet. Their opinions aren’t to be heard. Newman and Jaeckel’s opinions aren’t worth anything (to Fonda) but they at least get to be heard.

Then, out of nowhere, younger son Michael Sarrazin–half-brother to Newman–returns home. He’s a long-haired hippie college graduate (apparently, it’s never actually confirmed he even went to college, he just gets teased about it) with a lot of emotional baggage. After Fonda drove his mother away, she killed herself. No one sent for Sarrazin, no one came to the funeral. He went through a suicidal episode as well. Most of that backstory comes out in scenes with Remick, who it turns out has interiority, even if Newman and Fonda don’t care. Sarrazin cares. Unfortunately, Gay and Newman (as director) don’t really care. The friendship (and possibly more) between Sarrazin and Remick is the most distinct thing about Sometimes a Great Notion and it goes absolutely nowhere and does absolutely nothing. Of course, even the successful elements in the film don’t really do anything.

Sarrazin starts working with the family, leading to some lengthy expository montage sequences about logging. Sarrazin comes into the picture a little while in, but Newman and Gay wait to look at the logging until he’s arrived. Except he’s presumably already been there and seen what logging looks like. But it’s a fine device. Just a little late for the audience.

The film’s set pieces usually involve logging. Then there’s a scene at the family’s house, often with Fonda yelling at someone, maybe with Remick looking sad, then it’s something else involving logging. Including the loggermen’s picnic, where Newman doesn’t just get to be manly with dirt bikes, there’s also a brawl between striking loggers and the scab family in the coastal surf. Set to the blaring Mancini.

Tensions are slow to rise in Sometimes a Great Notion. When crisis and tragedy strike, even as beautifully executed as Newman (as a director) executes them, they’re not a result of building tension. The movie has to pretend they are such a result, however, because otherwise there’d be no way to end it. And the end of the film, where everything comes together–the results of Fonda’s overbearing approach (at home and professionally), Newman and Sarrazin’s undercooked brotherly turmoil, Remick’s unhappiness, the strike, the neighbors, all of it–it’s a missed opportunity. Newman and Gay have the chance to open up Sometimes and they reject that idea, sticking with the tight focus on Fonda’s family.

The problem with focusing just on Fonda, Newman, and Jaeckel–after the introduction, Sarrazin’s got squat outside his subplot with Remick or opposite the boys–is it requires a lot of demonization to get there. If Fonda and company are jerks, but the heroes, the townspeople have to be not just godawful, but annoyingly godawful. They’re mostly personified in Lee de Broux, who’s always begging Newman to think about the town. Newman blows him off, but somehow manages to have more of an arc with de Broux than he does with Remick. Newman and Remick coexist in scenes, rarely interacting. de Broux, ostensibly, has an effect on him. But not really, because it wouldn’t be manly for Newman to develop as a character. In Sometimes a Great Notion, character development has to be regressive. Sarrazin starts the film a far better character than he finishes it.

The laundry list of problems aside, it’s well-acted. No one’s great, but everyone’s pretty damn good. Fonda’s underutilized as a thoughtless blowhard, but he’s got a couple great scenes. Jaeckel seems really thin–the movie mocks his religiosity, which is interesting and not a great sign–but turns out to have some real depth. Newman’s solid. None of his possible character arcs go anywhere, except with Jaeckel. In that one, he’s great when he needs to be great. And he’s good (and devilishly likable, of course) the rest of the time.

Sarrazin is good and constantly potentially excellent. The material’s just never there for him. Same goes for Remick. Apparently the original cut of the film had them hooking up for sure and it might have helped. Bob Wyman’s cuts are fine, but the narrative structure of the film is incredibly suspect. Nothing in the film suggests it’s going to result in its conclusion–not like foreshadowing, but doing the character development to get people places the script is going to put them. Sarrazin and Remick suffer the most. Newman prefers the dirt bikes and the brawls to the character development. It’s very strange. Like… if it did everything, the dirt bikes, the brawls, and the actual character development, Sometimes a Great Notion might be something special (and three hours long). Instead it doesn’t and isn’t.

Good photography from Richard Moore. Sometimes great. Lots of Sometimes a Great Notion is sometimes great (not Mancini, who’s at least sometimes okay). Newman’s direction is completely competent, patient, and thoughtful but it’s still a shock when he does something ambitious. If he’d applied the same energy as he does in the ambitious moments–which don’t have to be high drama scenes, but can just be when he actually gives Remick a real moment with himself (as an actor)–Sometimes would be a very different, probably better film.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Newman; screenplay by John Gay, based on the novel by Ken Kesey; director of photography, Richard Moore; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Henry Mancini; produced by John Foreman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Hank), Henry Fonda (Henry), Michael Sarrazin (Leeland), Richard Jaeckel (Joe Ben), Lee Remick (Viv), Linda Lawson (Jan), and Lee de Broux (Willard Eggleston).


RELATED