Posts Tagged ‘James Stewart’


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Rear Window (1954). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter. 112 minutes. *** 1/2

Rear Window (1998). Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Screenplay by Larry Gross and Eric Overmyer, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring Christopher Reeve, Darryl Hannah, Robert Forster. 89 minutes. **

Other Related Films:  Too many ripoffs and homages to count, among them Disturbia (2007), which is so similar to Woolrich’s story that the owners of the film had to go to court to get a ruling that they hadn’t violated Rear Window’s copyright.

This one’s an oddity, folks: a remake that was actually based on a breathtakingly brilliant idea for a variation on a movie that was a classic to begin with, that nevertheless utterly failed to live up to its promise.

The source was the short story “It Had To Be Murder,” by suspense great Cornell Woolrich, all about a man temporarily laid up with a broken leg who has nothing better to do while he heals than look out the window and watch the lives of his neighbors. As it happens, one of those neighbors has a murderous secret involving the sudden disappearance of his wife. Our hero gradually pieces together the clues – all predicated on his neighbor’s odd behavior, all of which has other potentially innocent explanation — and ultimately brings the malefactor to justice.

There is no girlfriend in the story, no great emotional character arc linking the mystery to a pivotal crisis in the hero’s life. It’s just something that happens to him, something that makes his brief existence as an invalid a little more interesting than it might have been otherwise. (Other Woolrich stories are more emotionally fraught: the failure of SOME great moviemaker to adapt his horrific stunner, “Momentum,” remains a mystery.)  The subsequent movies required more, and are in at least case significantly more satisfying.

rear-window_cartel

The Original

The 1954 version written by John Michael Hayes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock presents us with the case of one L.B. (nickamed “Jeff”) Jefferies (James Stewart), an international action photographer who is laid up in his rarely-used Greenwich Village after getting a killer photo of a race car wreck, which he evidently got from standing in the road while the twisted wreckage spun ass-over-teakettle toward him. (In a sense: serves him right). We gather from much of the dialogue about his activities, taking photos in hot spots around the world, that getting the impossibly dangerous shot is his specialty. The man is a danger junkie, now confined to a wheelchair and about to go crazy as he waits the last few days for his cast to be taken off. He’s an action hero reduced to inaction hero. He has nothing better to do than to look out the rear window and watch the lives of his neighbors.

The courtyard his tiny apartment overlooks is one of the great indoor sets in the entire history of the movies. It is a complete, living neighborhood in and of itself, comprised of a number of different buildings of different design, overlooking a central area where the inhabitants have carved out flower beds and little patches of lawn. There’s even an alley, through which Jeff can see the street, and passing cars. For the 112 minutes of the movie, the action never moves from this place, except to pull deeper into Jeff’s apartment where he has conversations of varying import with his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), his old war buddy Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), and his socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), who is pressing him for further commitment.

The first thing to note here is that this is a guy who honestly cannot decide whether he wants to be married to Grace Kelly. This is a plot point that has appalled friends I’ve shown the film. But some men do flee domesticity, and one of the grand, subtle jokes of the vast multi-layered tableau that fes Jeff as he looks out his window and spies on the outside world is that every single life he spies upon presents him with another possible future, depending on whether he says yea or nay to Lisa. There’s the pair of ardent honeymooners, pulling down the shades and initiating an implied marathon love-making session that seems to go sour after only a couple of days; there’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the miserable woman stuck in a particularly miserable and increasingly despairing singlehood; there’s “Miss Torso,” the good-time party gal who always has men hanging around and represents the erotic opportunities Jeff might enjoy if he ever lets Lisa go; there’s the middle-aged couple with the little dog, who every night drag their mattresses out to the fire escape and snore away in relative comfort, all sense of passion gone; and finally, there’s the Thorvalds, whose marriage has turned toxic, and who have so little to say to one another that they’re almost always visibly in separate rooms, framed by different windows. It’s worth noting that nowhere in this slice of life are there any children. Children would fall outside the metaphor, which is like all great dramatic metaphors felt without any particular effort to underline it. What Jeff sees is very firmly the face of Jeff’s dilemma.
  
The second thing to note here is that all of these spied-upon characters have an arc of sorts, played with perfect modulation as the drama in the Thorvald apartment – where the much put-upon husband (Raymond Burr) appears to have offed his wife – takes center stage. Almost all of them pay off. So does the drama in Jeff’s apartment, where in between banter with Stella and romantic complications with Lisa, he resists and then embraces his obsession with Thorvald’s apparent crime. It’s a marvelously layered film, with comedy and relationship drama and even questions over the creepiness of Jeff’s activities all braided together in a tapestry of remarkable design. These days, some viewers may find it requires patience. But it rewards that patience. I don’t think it has a single dull moment, and key among its best attributes is the way the clues to Mrs. Thorvald’s murder don’t just pile up in some facile way, but at times offer competing explanations, and reasons to turn away.

Nor is Jeff given a free ride on the moral issues. His voyeurism – hardly asexual, but certainly bored – is criticized by everybody in his circle, and the movie takes delight in using this to indict the audience. The moral issues are so nuanced that it is even possible to feel sorry for Thorvald, after everything Jeff has put him through in order to prove his case. Thorvald is not an evil man, per se; just a very unhappy, very weak, very trapped one who has done a horrendously evil thing, and when he confronts Jeff (who he presumes to be a blackmailer) with an anguished, “What do you want from me?”, that one line is likely the most empathetic moment of Raymond Burr’s career.

But then all the performances in the film work at an equal level. It is among the best films of James Stewart’s career and one of the best of Grace Kelly’s. Even the supporting players across the courtyard inhabit their roles with grace and a deep sense of humor.
 
It’s very nearly a perfect film, and though it’s been imitated a dozen times, it’s hard to think of any wrinkle that would even stand a chance of improving on it.

Enter Christopher Reeve.

The Remake

The sad but stirring twist in the life of Christopher Reeve is so well known that it need not be recapped here; suffice it to say that I concur with author Brad Meltzer’s take on the man, that he achieved fame by playing the indestructible Superman and greatness standing in the mortality of all of us Clark Kents.

I don’t hold with the popular wisdom that Reeve was never great on screen except as Superman; I would argue that he was pretty damn chilling as a sociopathic playwright in Deathtrap, and pretty damn good a couple of other times. He was certainly no liability in Remains Of The Day opposite Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. performed in front of the camera on several occasions following the terrible accident that made him a quadriplegic, and was therefore a natural when somebody hit upon the startling brainstorm of casting him as the lead in an updated Rear Window. Why wouldn’t it work? Jeff in the original is pretty damned vulnerable as a man of action who has been sidelined by a mere broken leg; how much more helpless will his character be, when he cannot move a muscle under his shoulders, and requires live-in help just to get a cup of water when he wants one? Wouldn’t that ramp up the scares even more?

This is not a unique idea. As it happens, there is an entire subgenre of what we’ll now call “handicap thrillers,” involving physically impaired characters who must overcome their limitations in order to overcome the evil intentions of various murderers and thugs. Among them: the terrifying Wait Until Dark, which starred Audrey Hepburn in the adaptation of the Broadway play about a “world champion blind woman” terrorized by gangsters searching for a cache of drugs in her apartment;  See No Evil, which pit a blind Mia Farrow against another murderous plot; and Mute Witness, about a woman who…well, you can figure out the rest. There are even other thrillers featuring lead characters in wheelchairs. Hell, thriller writer Jeffery Deaver has written a pretty damn terrific series of novels about his quadriplegic forensic scientist Lincoln Rhyme, one of which was made into an unfortunately not-very-good movie with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.

The inherent claustrophobia of Rear Window should have worked wonders with the predicament applied to a quadriplegic, and with a quadriplegic we all loved in the lead.

And this much needs to be said: in spurts, Reeve is terrific. He always excelled at the dazzling smile during an emotionally vulnerable moment, and has several opportunities to pull off that trick here. Throughout this film, he has scenes that play off the heartbreaking realities of life as a one-time vital person reduced to immobility, including one where he regards a closet teeming with clothes that he will likely never wear again. Early scenes, with him in the hospital bleakly wishing he was dead, are downright painful to watch, in light of our certain knowledge that Reeve lived those moments and felt those feelings.

But – and boy, do I feel like a heel for advancing this case – he also sabotaged this movie’s effectiveness as a thriller from the get-go.

The problem is that, by the time it was made,  Reeve was quite rightly an advocate for spinal cord research, and for state-of-the-art medical treatments for people with spinal cord injury…and as such, acutely aware that this movie, by far his most substantial acting role after the accident, was the best place to advocate for his cause. So he made demands, and nobody involved with the production had the heart or the good sense to say no to him. So it begins with him in the hospital, features him declaring that he will walk again someday, and includes scenes of him undergoing arduous physical rehabilitation to triumphant music long before he even gets to the apartment where he will observe the murder across the way.

This is absolutely fine if you’re making an issues drama of the challenges faced by quadriplegics, less fine if you’re making a thriller – a short TV movie, no less – where all these scenes take time and bleed tension from the story you’re supposed to be here to tell. Another problem arising from this is that, as a result of all this can-do spirit, the character he plays is exactly the same at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end; he doesn’t rise to the occasion, and he doesn’t learn about himself. His character arc is a straight line.

The story might have worked better if Reeve had been a despairing recent quad who imagined he had little to live for, for most of the film, and was brought back to some interest in life by his engagement with the murder scene across the street…a natural plot development given how many quads attempt suicide in the early years of their disability – but such attention to emotional realities, or at least dramatic ones, would have interfered with his personal mission to make this a hidden advocacy film.

Reeve’s advocacy harmed the film in another way. At the time, he also said he wanted to show the kind of tech available, to aid quadriplegics in living fulfilled lives. So there’s a lot of that, in his character’s home: including voice-activated computers that control the lights, the elevator, the phones, and so on. His character has an attendant in residence at all times, a fulfilling career with partners who respect him, and a beautiful woman who by the end of the movie will fall in love with him. This is all nice stuff to have. It doesn’t replace a functioning body, but it makes the transition to a disabled life as easy as it can be. So what we have, here, is quadriplegia as Christopher Reeve lived it – which, while it functions as drama, is absolute death when it comes to a film of suspense. Imagine he was a quad of more modest resources, living on disability, in a cramped space with only limited assistance – and THEN suspected that a murder was taking place across the street. This guy can afford to set up surveillance equipment, just in case he misses anything – and, by the way, unlike the original film’s protagonist, whose voyeurism bothered his nurse, his girlfriend, and his cop buddy, this guy’s video cameras are treated as cool stuff by almost everybody concerned. The voyeuristic aspects never receive substantive criticism.

Time hasn’t been kind to the concept, either. In 1954, the rarity of air conditioning – a factor in other Hitchcock movies discussed here in the past– meant that it was perfectly reasonable for the residents of a middle-class apartment complex to live their lives in full view, playing out entire dramas in view of their windows. In 1998, it doesn’t make nearly as much sense…especially since the Hitchcock provided a far more spacious courtyard with apartments set at varying angles and not the direct-line-of-sight posited by this movie. Also – as any thriller writer will tell you – the invention of the cellular telephone has been absolute hell on plotting, and its inclusion in the remake is no exception. Too, the killer here is a one-dimensional designated asshole, not nearly as interesting or as oddly sympathetic as Raymond Burr was in the original.

Finally, there is no wonderfully complex courtyard across the way: just a single dull edifice that fills Reeve’s line of sight and offers him what amounts to a collection in television sets in the form of conveniently-placed windows. There is no comparison to what we were given in  1954. It’s flat, in every sense of the word.
 
This was not Reeve’s worst remake of a notable film: his last movie as a fully-abled man was a terrible version of Village of The Damned, and we will someday cover his participation in a truly unfortunate version of The Front Page. (It was called Switching Channels, and he played opposite Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner.) All we can say of this one is that it just didn’t work.

The View From The Apartment

1954 version, an undisputed classic. 1998 version, a missed opportunity.

*

And now, I watch from cover as the wife engages in sinister activities…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Rear Window (1954). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter. 112 minutes. *** 1/2

Rear Window (1998). Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Screenplay by Larry Gross and Eric Overmyer, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring Christopher Reeve, Darryl Hannah, Robert Forster. 89 minutes. **

Other Related Films: Too many ripoffs and hommages to count, among them Disturbia (2007), which is so similar to Woolrich’s story that the owners of the film had to go to court to get a ruling that they hadn’t violated Rear Window’s copyright.

I so wanted to like the 1998 rethink of Rear Window.  I mean come on it had Superman starring and proving he just might really be.  Besides, the original was really showing a few grey hairs (not just the one’s previously claimed by Jimmy Stewart). But, alas, it was not to be.

In 1954, and even up to the mid 70’s, it may have been commonplace for someone to become a temporary voyeur via injury or illness.  Boredom had fewer releases than today, little television, no computers or video games.  Books were limited at most libraries by budget and distance to said library.  And most magazines came out monthly, so a long convalescence had a lot of downtime.  So its believable that the Stewart character could easily start watching his summertime neighbors and playing mind games with himself.  Its even possible that those same folks might not notice him watching, or could pass it off as just a friendly guy at his window.  Creepy neighbor watching became the meme much later.

The things I find totally unbelievable for that time or EVER, is that any straight man, whether injured or not, rich or poor, or whatever, could have Grace Kelly in her most gorgeous state, throwing herself at him (and wantonly at that) and he can resist and actually ignore her!  PUHLEEZE!  Dude didn’t have a broken leg, They were feeding him large quantities of saltpeter.  Next, the home nurse never insists he leave the apartment, just cleans him up and lets him hobble about his two rooms.  Six to eight weeks in solitary confinement?  Is that doctor recommended?

Now, how about that remake?  I can believe that architect Christopher Reeve has enough cash reserve for all the wondrous toys both medical and electronic he buys after his accident.  I’m sure he had much better access than the average newly paralyzed patient and just figured he could walk back into (so to speak) his job and most of his old life.  Ummm…  ??? How?  Most of his firm’s partners would attempt to block him from anything to do with the job or the public and claim it was for his own sake. 

Now, how about the crux of each thriller, the supposed murder of the neighbor’s wife.

In both films the murder is based on the supposition that a disappearing wife meant a murder had been committed.  Neither is proven conclusively, but both disabled leads taunt the murderer into a full on attack.  In the 1954 film, I honestly believe that Jimmy Stewart, hobbled or not, had a fighting chance against Raymond Burr. Not so with Chris Reeves.  How could he?  His ability to defend himself was purely run and hide.  he couldn’t draw a gun or knife on his attacker, he could only call 911 if that.  The suspense was only if he could breathe long enough for help to arrive.  In other words, uhh, no really.

So, to sum up.  1998 had a good try at an update, but needed less disability to keep the suspense alive.  1954 needed a leading character who wasn’t wearing a giant “L” on his forehead for the whole film.


Keep Your Mouth Shut, Or Say Goodbye to the Kid

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. **

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

You and your family are on holiday abroad. You are intent on having a good time and minding your own business, but a mortally wounded secret agent warns you of an assassination plot threatening the stability of the entire world. Naturally, you resolve to tell the authorities…but before you can the bad guys kidnap your child and threaten murder if you ever tell the police what you know. All you have left is your own resources, your own determination to get that child back…and an imminent rendezvous at a concert in  London’s Royal Albert Hall, where an assassin’s bullet has been scheduled to coincide with a climactic clash of cymbals.

This is the dilemma that faces the protagonists of the only story Alfred Hitchcock ever saw fit to revisit, the two Men Who Knew Too Much; two very different films similar in plot outline and much more than “similar” in the Albert Hall sequences that mark the high points of both, but which are in other ways quite different. Hitch himself told Francois Truffaut that the first film was the work of a talented amateur and that the second was the work of a seasoned professional; he is not wrong about that, even though both are second-tier work, missing the subtext and psychological richness that mark the best of the suspense master’s output. It’s safe to say that without the master’s name on it, the first would now be totally forgotten if not the presence of the great character actor, Peter Lorre; and that the second, fun as it is, would likely not be remembered all that much more. (Sorry; even as lightweight Hitch goes, it’s certainly no North by Northwest.) But as far as originals and remakes go, they make a deeply instructive pair, because a side-by-side comparison demonstrates the best possible reason to make a remake in the first place: i.e. fixing what was, initially, wanting.

Lorre

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) presents us with Bob and Jill Lawrence (Banks and Best), a British couple on vacation in St. Moritz. Jill is a competitive-level skeet-shooting champion; she misses her shot here, but her skill is established, and anybody who wants to know whether this will eventually be a story point should recall the maxim once posed by Anton Chekhov. The first thing worth noting here is that while kids in jeopardy are a long-standing tradition in movies, kids in jeopardy can be annoying when they almost die stupidly, and Betty gets on our crap list right away when she chases a weiner dog – which we take to be hers, though it is never seen again – onto a ski-jump slope, and comes within a few feet of being mowed down by a skier in competition. (Given Hitch’s later fame for staging elaborate and persuasive set-pieces, it’s worth noting that the near-accident is presented as unconvincingly a product of stock footage, a reaction shot, and the editing room, as anything you are ever likely to see in a Hitchcock film ever again; this in part because it’s a low-budget film from the very early days of sound, and in part because Hitch was, as he later admitted, still learning his craft). 

It is also worth noting that Bob and Jill feel like place-holders instead of characters. We are invited to root for them because the camera is on them, not because either one of them does anything to make us fall in love. Bob pulls what is allegedly a neat trick involving his daughter’s knitting, which he hooks onto the tux of a man dancing with Jill, so it unravels during the waltz and tangles everybody on the dance floor in twine…but the moment is pure movie hokum; it’s impossible to believe that the dancers would all fail to notice that this was happening, for as long as they do. And there is absolutely no sense, aside from the natural assumption, that this couple has any real affection for their child, until that child is kidnapped; there simply isn’t any real chemistry between spouses or between parents and child.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that even by the standards of the era, where some actors seemed to have used their cigarettes as substitutes for actually giving a performance, it’s downright cringe-worthy to see star Banks take a deep drag and deliver his next line with a big, white cloud of toxicity puffed directly into his little girl’s face, at what amounts to point-blank range. Betty doesn’t seem to mind much. The actress, Nova Pilbeam, retired from show biz only a few years later but is is apparently still alive, her iron constitution providing a terrific defense against second-hand smoke.)

The subsequent assassination of the secret agent makes little sense even by the flexible physics of Hitchcock movies. The bullet, evidently fired by a sniper outside the building, cracks a window, its trajectory carrying it over a very crowded dance floor with other bodies in every direction, and then manages to hit the secret agent in the chest even though – I cannot possibly stress this enough – even though he is at the moment dancing with Jill and any bullet striking him in that spot would have had to go through her first. It is in short such a magic bullet that the one responsible for hitting President Kennedy and Governor John Connolly is revealed as a muggle bullet by comparison. We will forgive the happenstance that has it piercing the agent’s chest UNDER his tuxedo without making a hole in that tuxedo; the logic of bullet holes was extremely loose at this point in film history, and if we started to complain about that one we’d have to complain about all the others and would probably be here all day. Still, the moment doesn’t work at all.

Following Betty’s subsequent kidnapping by the bad guys, the action moves to London, where in between bouts of dramatic cigarette smoking, Bob decides to investigate the assassination plot himself, and (because this movie is only 75 minutes long), finds the conspirators right away, through a visit to a creepy dentist. There is some goofy nonsense involving a “Church of the Sun,” which manages to hypnotize Betty’s monocled twit of an Uncle, but for our purposes the important part has to do with Bob’s almost immediate capture by the bad guys, who have him in custody and ENTIRELY ineffective for most of the rest of the film.  Led by droopy-eyed, cigarette-smoking Peter Lorre – they naturally spend this time blowing smoke in his face. (Lorre’s filmic output consists of many great films like M and Casablanca and The Mask of Dimitrios and The Maltese Falcon and Mad Love and Arsenic and Old Lace where he gave performances by, you know, brilliant acting, and a couple of others like this one and the tv version of Casino Royale where he substituted his cigarette; he is profoundly creepy here as always, but really, the cigarette is being asked to do far too much of the work.)

The climax is an all-out assault by cops where Bob accomplishes almost nothing – the very model of the ineffective hero.  (Jill’s skeet-shooting does come into play, however, a twist telegraphed for almost the entire length of the movie that nevertheless got outright applause at the one repertory theatre showing where I saw it, years ago.)

Is there anything to recommend the film to earn it its unlikely reputation as a classic? Well, yes; the Albert Hall sequence, where the leadup to an attempted assassination is set against a classical music piece, while Jill sits helplessly in the audience. It is a remarkably effective and suspenseful interlude, the one thing here that would lead any viewer to think that this young Hitchcock fellow might indeed have a future. But even there, there’s an astonishing gap in logic. The point is made, following the non-fatal shooting of the foreign dignitary, that the concert resumes after a slight delay, even though the assassin has not yet been caught. This is a line of unnecessary passing dialogue that doesn’t really affect the plot at all, but…umm, what? Does this follow any real-world behavior you recognize?

But that brings us to the remake, which is in very small part an exercise in brilliantly re-staging that scene and providing it with a surrounding story that is somewhat more worthy of it.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The second The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is separated from the first by two decades, a generation’s worth of technical advances, a clearly superior budget, and the increased clout of its superstar director. Make no mistake: it is still not a great film. Hitchcock did make other great films in this decade, among them the other James Stewart vehicles Vertigo and Rear Window;  this was merely a solid thrill ride, with little in the way of resonance beyond the doings on screen. (And even as such, not nearly as fun as North by Northwest.) But as a story, it works substantially better, for a number of reasons.

To start with, it’s visually far more sumptuous. The black-and-white cinematography of the original is not particularly special, except in moments. The 1956 film is never less than gorgeous, even during scenes set in Morocco that clearly employ rear-screen projection and other artifices easy to discern by a sophisticated modern eye.

It’s also better storytelling. It actually takes time to get us to know its two leads, Ben and Jo McKenna (James Stewart, Doris Day), an American doctor and his somewhat retired stage actress wife. We learn that they have an easy familiarity, that Jo has a somewhat more refined bullshit sensor than Ben, and that Ben has an amiable awkwardness about him, here shown in his discomfort with Moroccan table manners, that instantly humanizes him and makes him more than a generic thriller hero.

Doris Day gets a lot of crap for her performance as Jo, and particularly for her two renditions of her signature song “Que Sera, Sera,” – a ditty that strikes many modern ears like nails on a blackboard – but, your opinion of the song aside, look at how it’s used as storytelling. We see Jo singing the song while making the bed for her son Hank…who happily joins in to sing a verse on his own. There is strong story value in this moment. You know at once that she’s sung this song for her son many times, and that he takes an uncomplicated, unembarrassed joy in singing it with her. An entire childhood is sketched in with this one unremarkable demonstration of a parent/child relationship. The song comes up again – irritating its detractors still further – at the climax, when Jo uses an impromptu embassy party performance to signal her captive son that she is in the building and looking for him; it is also pure hokum, but it is hokum based on character, a climax that is therefore infinitely more satisfying than the one in the original, where the lair of the villains is stormed by police and Bob Lawrence accomplishes little before being knocked out beyond freeing  his daughter from a locked room.
    
The gradual entrapment of Ben and Jo into the espionage plot is a lot better established than in the original. In this version, it turns out that spy Louis Bernard sought out the McKennas because he has reason to believe a vacationing couple might be involved in the assassination plot he’s investigating. As it happens, he has mistaken the pair for the actual culprits, the Draytons…who in turn note how familiar the Mckennas are with Bernard and assume that they’re associated with him.  It’s a wildly unfortunate series of coincidences that gets the McKennas in trouble, but then coincidences are perfectly fine as plot devices when they make matters worse. They’re only unacceptable when they make matters better. The net that gradually draws around the McKennas in the first half hour of the film is a perfectly acceptable evocation of the capriciousness of fate, and works quite well at setting up the conflict – best of all during the scene where a mortally wounded Bernard, who’s disguised as a street arab, staggers through a crowded market toward the man he knows to be a doctor, who will not be able to help him. The moment where his false brown skin color comes off Stewart’s hands is downright horrifying in its subtext: a visually compelling cue for the danger being passed from one man to another.

Every element of the story is improved. In the original, when Jill finds out that her daughter has been kidnapped, she turns away, dazed; she looks downright stoned, and it’s such a terribly designed scene that it’s difficult to empathize with her. In the 1956 scene, physician Ben tells Jo that he has something to tell her, which he will only impart if she does what he says and takes a pill he has offered her. It is a sedative, which he has prescribed to lessen her shock. Even with the sedative, she is downright hysterical. The scene speaks on more than one level: Ben’s cold-blooded practicality in a crisis, Jo’s tremendous love for her son, the size of the hole that’s just been ripped in their lives.

The plot even works better when the movie moves to London. In the original, when Ben decides to go after the kidnappers himself, the piece of paper he has picked up from the dying spy leads him directly to a dentist affiliated with their conspiracy. The dentist may be creepy, and Bob’s encounter with him effective enough, but the lead still seems too easy; almost spoon-fed. The remake addresses this by sending Ben on a wild goose chase to confront a hapless taxidermist named Ambrose Chapell, who clearly knows nothing of the conspiracy…when he should be visiting a house of worship named Ambrose Chapel, instead. It’s a funny, frustrating, and suspenseful interlude, raising the possibility that Ben’s independent investigation might end before it begins. Best of all, it defuses what would otherwise be an overpowering sense that everything here happens just a little too conveniently.

The set piece at Royal Albert Hall is largely a shot-by-shot remake of its counterpart in the prior film, but even it works better, in part because Hitchcock plays more visual tricks, among them visual tracking of the musical notation as the orchestra proceeds toward the fatal crash of cymbals. It is lusher, more visually enchanting, scarier, and in part even funnier (thanks to the special attention paid to the guy whose job in that orchestra is to sit there quietly, bored out of his mind, until the time comes to bang those cymbals together).  You may note that Bernard Herrmann, the composer whose famous scores included the famous one for Psycho, plays the conductor – and is even identified on-screen as himself, a bit of meta-humor that he likely appreciated.

We will also note that the scene has been improved dramatically, as well. In the original, Jill silently pieces together the assassination to come while sitting in one of the seats; here, Jo stands at the rear of the auditorium, clearly not part of the audience, her discomfort palpable until it becomes unbearable and she is left silently weeping, utterly lost over what to do. You may, like many, hate the two performances of “Que Sera, Sera,” and indeed it’s not unfair to call Day a mediocre actress at best, but she still acts the living hell out of this particular scene. In a career that was largely dominated by lightweight comedies of no particular memorability – and which she ultimately walked away from in disgust, following horrific mismanagement of her finances and her thespic options by a manager/husband who was either totally oblivious to her desires or downright contemptuous of them – these are likely the best few minutes she would ever have on film.

James Stewart made four movies for Hitchcock, two of which are all-time classics and none of which are less than interesting. (Even the worst one, Rope, is a fascinating experiment, that rises to greatness at several moments.) His The Man Who Knew Too Much occupies a position somewhere in the middle. It’s a solid, nuanced, movie-star performance of a good man forced to rise to an untenable occasion over stakes that affect him deeply. There’s a reason why Stewart’s place among the immortals is as linked to Hitchcock’s fame as it is to the direction of Frank Capra and Anthony Mann; his work for Hitchcock, even in this film where he played the most straightforward character of the quartet, helped give him the impact of a star who could express inner darkness while still projecting basic decency.

This was no small thing.

The Crash Of Cymbals

Hitchcock said it to best: The first film is the work of a talented amateur. It shows genius in spots, but is otherwise not very good. The second film is the work of a professional at the peak of his craft – not his best work of the period, but never less than assured.

And now, the wife prepares to shriek from the cheap seats…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. *

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

I was actually looking forward to seeing a Hitchcock film I had yet to see.

Adam and I, early in our relationship, took a trip to Universal Studios and had to see the special effects exhibit  framed around the works of Sir Alfred. We entered the hall with about a hundred fellow visitors and perused the photos and films names about the room.  Adam and I began happily checking off the films we had seen and making note of those we hadn’t.  Most of the crowd just mulled about waiting for something to happen.  After all this was Universal and a special effects exhibit, so I guess they were waiting for someone to pop up and yell BOO!  Nope, a guide came out and began asking folks how many of the listed films they had seen.   Never had I been so bothered by silence as then.  Only one other couple in that room had even remembered seeing at least 3 of the master’s works.  As for Adam and I , we stopped counting somewhere around 12 films, with many more yet to go, realizing we had seen more by far than most others in that place.  We sat wondering why these folks had come to see this particular exhibit if they had no clue about these films.  The Hitchcock tour closed a few months later to be replaced by some cartoon-related attraction, but Adam and I miss it to this day. (Especially when we use our Bates Motel towel set).

Ahh, but on to the films.

I understand why Hitchcock felt an absolute need to right this wrong in his career.  The early version (1934) was clearly made by a filmmaker constrained by budget and his own learning curve. The characters are absurd, exhibiting a lack of warmth I can only attribute to poor scripting and worse acting.  We get to meet a disappearing dachshund who nearly causes the death of the soon to be kidnapped “child”,  a mother conveniently a champion skeet shooter, a poor maligned father who takes abuse with a cheerful smile, and a group of friends and who don’t question why a child who has been travelling with her parents and pet must suddenly stop and visit an never before heard of aunt in a different country. 

Next, we deal with the lack of reality in both the shooting and the sudden angst of the parents.  The shot rings out, the spy slumps over to whisper those needed clues, and dies without a hole in his dinner jacket or blood spreading out anywhere.  Come on, even in the 30s a death was a death.  And, now suddenly, when the kid disappears(and the dog, but no one mentions this), the parents get all upset, when earlier they would have gladly bundled her off to the nearest boarding school or convent.  PUHLEEZE!  These parents early on show all the warmth of a pair of wet shoes and only daddy shares a childlike joke with his daughter, more like a friend than parent.

So, I quickly gave up hope that this (I cant use “old” cause the film was released the year my mom was born and she’ll be annoyed by the old word) first version would resolve in a logical or satisfying manner, and I was right.  The cops can’t shoot straight and are afraid to take a kill shot.  They are more interested in the residents of the homes they take over than the killers firing at them.  And, of course, it all falls on skeet champ mama to save the day, after ineffective daddy gets all the leg work done.  Last I checked shooting skeet is waaayyy different than offing a human through an open window, who also happens to be holding another human shield in front.

Now let me get on to the musically irritating, but eminently better 1956 version.

I was born in the early 1960s, therefore “Que Sera Sera”  was sung and played around the house a LOT.  Did I learn to despise it?  YES!  Do I still cringe when I hear it?  YES!  Has anyone actually analyzed the message handed out by this little ditty?  Obviously not really, or maybe this ear worm is the reason for all the ills suffered by the baby boomers and Gen-Xers..  After all, the song does say just roll over and accept whatever happens, and that does seem to be the problem we face.  So I guess I can blame part of the woes of the world, since the 1960s, on the effect that the placement of this one song , in one film, had on the world.  But, Don’t blame Doris Day, she was just the delivery system for this ennui bomb.

In this version we have a more believable family group.  Older, doctor husband, hot, young musical theater star wife and precocious spoiled child.  There is actually a semblance of familial feelings seen from the start.  This said, when the fan gets hit, the couple who worries about arranging for a sitter in the hotel for their 8 year old child while they attend a local restaurant, have no qualms turning said child over to a couple who amount to total strangers who happen to share the bond of a common language.  Ummm..??? Maybe this comes from a jaded sense of the 80’s  and children on milk cartons, but I remember my folks cancelling plans, rather than leave me with an unknown sitter.  Same time frame, better parenting?  Maybe?

Then, these caring, loving parents refuse the help of professionals in the mistaken belief they only they, with no expertise, can rescue their child.  OK.  Right!  The film follows the same pattern from here as the original, but the red herrings and set ups are MUCH better, but still, that damn song is the key, or is it?  By the time daddy doc finds the kid, the song is over and the bad lady kidnapper is helping the kid get away.  Happy ending, with a glib last line, as is the trademark of all the good Hitchcockian films, but kinda unsatisfying on multiple viewings.  Now, North By Northwest, so much more fun!


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro


Last night’s jaw-dropping old movie: THE RARE BREED (1966), Jimmy Stewart western also starring Maureen O’Hara, Brian Keith, Jack Elam and Juliet Mills, which is all about the deep, abiding love a whole lot of people have for a bull.

Not a herd of cattle, mind you. A bull.

I am not kidding.

It’s a Hereford O’Hara and daughter have brought over from England, which gets a lot of scorn from all the… traditional western types who are certain that the only proper cow is a Texas longhorn; they sell the bull, named Vindicator, to Keith’s mighty scotchman of a rancher, then insist on traveling along with Stewart so they can teach the new owner how to care for it.

People are willing to rob, kill, hire thugs, and ride hundreds of miles through dangerous country, to obtain this bull which has been trained to come whenever anybody whistles “God Save The Queen.”

I am still not kidding.

This makes little sense, as many of the same people ALSO go on at considerable length about how the animal cannot possibly survive harsh Texas winters.

But they are certainly willing to twist their lives out of shape to get the damn thing.

Juliet Mills, who raised the bull from a calf, actually says to it, “Vindicator, you’ve got to stand on your own four feet. I mean it! You’re a British bull with uncommon good sense and fine ancestors. We’ve had some fine times together. Now you’ve got to prove yourself and prove that Father was right. Go on.”

I am still not kidding.

In any event, the initially dubious Jimmy Stewart character comes around to the premise that this bull is really something special, not just genetically but to hear him say it morally, and nearly kills himself riding out into subzero blizzards to save it from the elements; all to naught, as it doesn’t survive the winter, but that’s okay — there are now a whole bunch of hybrid calves in rancher Brian Keith’s herd, so it looks like Vindicator got up to some fucking before the cold put him down.

At the end, Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara are about to set a date for the wedding when Stewart shows up with one of the calves, inducing her to ditch the rich guy who is clearly out of his mind with love for her, and go off instead with the penniless Stewart.

The last shot is a triumphant closeup of one of the calves, looking stupidly at the camera in a visual clearly meant to stir our hearts to bursting.

This was not, to put it mildly, one of James Stewart’s great westerns. The odd thing is that it’s pretty damn entertaining anyway. I really — sniff — worried about that cow.


A matter of liberty.

 

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey, Claude Rains.  129 minutes. *** 1/2

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). Directed by Tom Laughlin. Screenplay by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, from the prior screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Dick Gautier, E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Luci Arnaz. 155 minutes. *

Other Notable Versions: Too many films were inspired by the original to list, but the only other notable remake was a loose one, Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman.

This much is going to be hard to anybody born before or after a certain date to understand.

Once upon a time, Billy Jack was hot shit.

If you saw that movie when you were twelve and the social environment of the early sixties and early seventies were still part of the air which you breathed, it was possible to watch that movie and consider it deep. It was possible to completely miss the impressive non-acting of several of its principals, the troubled “half-breed” hero spouting native indian philosophies while looking like the whitest of all white men ever to set foot on this planet, and the martial arts sequences that – to put it mildly – cheated tremendously on the protagonist’s behalf, and feel that you were watching a movie that dared to tell the truth. It was possible to hear the narrative-fable theme song, “One Tin Soldier,” and grow absolutely and totally addicted to the special chill that ran down your spine at the point in the lyrics when the village that has just slaughtered another village for its great treasure turns over the stone that allegedly hides it to find the chiseled words, “Peace on Earth.” I know this. I had the single, and for a while there listened to it obsessively.

(Nowadays I ask some tough questions of that fable. Why chisel an inspirational slogan on a monument, and mount it dirt-side down? Why invite the bunch of aggressive assholes in the next village to “share” in your “great treasure,” thus inviting their raid, when you can just tell them, “Sorry, guys; it’s not money, it’s just a philosophy?” Isn’t it really fucking stupid to build an impressive-looking vault, call it your “treasure,” make sure everybody in the neighborhood knows about it, and not also take the pains to make sure that everybody knows it’s monetarily worthless? What’s the matter with you? Do you want to be slaughtered in your sleep?)

Billy Jack (1971), second and best of a series of action-oriented films that began with the much inferior Born Losers (1967),  did have a perfect formula for audience identification: posit a bunch of young, likeable outsiders, living near a town of bigoted dirtbags. Establish that they’re bullied and harassed every time they show their faces. Give them a protector – another outsider, albeit one who can take care of himself and kick ass. Keep pushing him into positions where he has to bruise up dirtbags who badly deserve it. Make sure the bullies are not interested in peace, and that they keep escalating the violence. Make sure that tragedy ensues and that the hero pays the price.

It’s impossible to not root for the hero in a circumstance like that, even if one right-wing acquaintance of mine was so permanently bruised by the film’s suggestion that beating up hippies for no reason might not be a good thing, that almost forty years later  he angrily cited Billy Jack as the sole proof of his major grudge against liberal Hollywood, that (in what I assure you is a direct quote), “long-haired maggot-infested dope-smoking FM types {are} the de facto saviours in every flick.” He honestly believed this. Because of one movie, Billy Jack.

(My written response at the time was so baffled that I’ll indulge myself by digressing at length to provide it.

“I know very few movies that fit this rather demented description, which for me crosses the border into hate speech. Especially the “maggot-infested,” unless you’re talking about zombie movies. Maybe you mean “lice-infested”, which is your desperate projection and something I’ve ONLY seen in one movie hero, Toshiro Mifune in THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

And, ummm, the hero of EVERY flick? Really? Including forty years of cop movies? And ummm, all the science fiction movies, and all the romantic comedies, and all the gangster movies, and all the horror movies, and all the historical dramas?

And, ummm, when even the one example you came up with is forty years old, a breakthrough indie and not a studio-produced mainstream film, and…

…boy, this is like shooting fish in a barrel…

…not at all how you represent it?

I’m not defending Billy Jack, which is a pretty slanted piece of work by design, but I will characterize that film properly. And I will point out that the only real narrative difference between that film and that conservative favorite championed by Uncle Ronnie, Stallone’s adaptation of David Morrell’s First Blood — both being films about Vietnam war heroes who return home as outsiders with hair-trigger tempers, and who are hassled by local authorities about their long hair until they erupt into violence — is that Billy Jack, unlike Rambo, had friends. Those friends fit some of the adjectives you provide, except for two: the absolutely bugfuck “maggot infested,” and the far more central “de facto saviours.” Because if there’s one thing that distinguished the counterculture types in BILLY JACK, it was that they were barely even capable of protecting themselves; they required the unstable Billy Jack to intervene, and thus contributed to the eventual bloodbath.

So what else is there? EASY RIDER? Sui generis. Maybe a few other films from way back when, and those historically set then. Beyond that you have a whole lot of gun-wielding law and order types, who I guess you would call conservatives; a few idealistic liberal types who are rarely presented as action heroes, who appear in issue dramas; certainly damn few of the sort you present.

Let us be honest. You don’t see characterizations of the sort you decry in “every” film for thirty years. You saw liberal positions in SOME films. But you resent seeing them in ANY films so much that it drove you to a sweeping statement that doesn’t even come close to reflecting reality. It’s the logical equivalent — and THIS IS A METAPHOR — of a gay-basher being so panicked by seeing two guys holding hands on Castro Street, and being so offended by having had that vision pass his retinas, that he tells everybody, “I hate San Francisco because they’re all faggots!”)

Anyway, Billy Jack led to The Trial Of Billy Jack (1974), which ended with the beleaguered hero at the center of another bloodbath initiated by establishment forces, and from there to one of the films under discussion today, Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). It’s a remake of the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), and is surprisingly faithful to the original’s screenplay, as well as its overall plot structure.

In both, a powerful senator dies just as his help is needed to force through a bill much-desired by powerful business interests back home. The wealthy kingmaker wants the governor to appoint a cooperative non-entity to fill out his term; the governor shows just enough backbone to reject the names provided him and appoint someone else, a popular local figure who knows nothing about politics and can be trusted to not try to accomplish anything while warming his Senate seat. Alas for them, he wants to create a national youth camp at the very site the bad guys have invested in; he refuses to play ball; and so they frame him for high corruption, a charge he fights with a grueling filibuster while their stranglehold on the media prevents any word of his fight reaching the people. It all ends with the freshman Senator’s sponsor, a man he once respected, driven by conscience and self-loathing to reclaim his better self and reveal the conspiracy before a startled America.

The story skeleton does lead to some pressing questions: to wit, how could a “national youth camp” (only for boys in the original), possibly not be a boondoggle? Exactly how many kids, out of how many applicants, will be able to attend – maybe one in a thousand? Even if the fund-raising efforts of the nation’s children do come up with enough money to pay for the damned thing, who decides what counselors get to run it? Who secures their travel? Who provides the insurance? Whose neck swings if a kid falls off a rock into a canyon? These are all things that need to be considered, and frankly, neither movie does; nor do they have to. The “youth camp” is just there to be something so wholesome and natural and inoffensive that nobody except a bad guy could possibly be against it.

But in terms of effectiveness, the two films could not possibly be more different.

Jimmy Stewart

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

It’s easy to laugh at this film, in the wrong way, today. It’s easy to laugh at many of Frank Capra’s great films, in the wrong way, today. They really do come from a simpler time – or, if you prefer, a time that liked to think of itself as simpler.

Jefferson Smith is a perfectly designed protagonist for this story. He’s not just an idealist, not just a fundamentally decent man, and not just – excuse me – a yokel, but an overgrown boy, in that he is driven by enthusiasms and by his perception of the world as a place that generally runs the way idealists wish it would. He is not totally unacquainted with evil, as he knows that his father was murdered at his desk for standing up against a venal corporation, but he still has the capacity for wonder. It makes sense, in a way that it does not make sense of Billy Jack, for him to be tapped as a seat-holder Senator; nobody without a personal axe to grind could possibly disapprove of him. It would be like trying to dig up dirt on Captain Kangaroo. It makes sense, therefore, that his first act when he arrives in Washington is to slip away from his handlers and spend hours gaping at the town’s many great monuments, overwhelmed by a sense of  history that the people seeking to exploit him have lost.

(The montage, like most sightseeing montages in the movie, suggests an insane itinerary if taken in strict chronological order; the actual physical placement of the various sights is ignored, and we are made to believe that Smith leaves the mall, treks out to Arlington, returns to the mall, and while at the mall zigzags from place to place without doing the reasonable thing and seeing what he has to see in order of proximity. Almost every movie tracking a city by its landmarks commits this sin – the remake sure does, in a different context — but it’s jaw-dropping here. The miraculous thing is that Smith manages this miracle of tourism, which would take a couple of days even if conducted with reasonable efficiency, in only about six hours. They grow them fast in the state he comes from.)

(Another point: just how long do you think Jefferson Smith would remain in office, as even a place-holder Senator, if one of his first acts upon being appointed is stomping around town decking all the reporters who wrote mocking stories about him? It feels good on screen, but it’s not the kind of thing the gentlemen of the fourth estate can be expected to shrug off. I’m just saying.)

In any event, James Stewart is perfect as this paragon in a way that he never would be, after his service in World War Two. (He has a reputation, today, for playing paragons of decency, and in his career only played one outright villain, but his roles actually took a turn for the dark with the films he made for Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s.) He can indulge himself in gee-whiz optimism, pretend that he really doesn’t have any idea how the world works, and be surprised when he encounters honest-to-gosh corruption. He can do all this without irony, in a way that few movie stars could today, and make us believe that a tough girl like Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders would have her own idealism rekindled via close proximity with him. The soft focus of the close-up at the moment when she falls for him is a now-laughable 1940s cliché, but damned if it doesn’t work here.

The key thing to note, though, is something rarely recognized: he’s not the guy the story is about.

He’s just the protagonist. He’s a fine role model and a good man, but – aside from a few moments of doubt, and an increased level of resolve – he’s the same guy at the end that he was at the beginning.

The main character? Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains), who sees in him the kind of man he once was, and who is still so co-opted that for a long time he goes along with destroying Smith. The entire movie is a wait for the moment when Paine has had enough, when he has endured so much of Smith’s filibuster and seen so much strength in his character that he cannot bear any further painful reminders of the man he used to be. There is a reason why the movie ends with his surrender, even before we find out whether it makes a difference. Because that’s where the story’s been heading all along, the release we have been waiting for. It only works because it is character evolution refracted against Jefferson Smith as catalyst.

It’s a cynical film about politics with as idealistic a core as could possibly be imagined, and it works to the extent it works in large part because it has the correct Jefferson Smith at its center.

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977)

By comparison, the first major problem with the remake is that this makes absolutely no sense as a Billy Jack vehicle.

It really doesn’t. Billy Jack is a guy who has been convicted of a number of assaults and at least one vengeance killing; he was once the instigator of a massive hostage situation. Granted, many people in his home state see extenuating circumstances in all his crimes and even see him as a hero for what he’s done, but that support runs strictly along partisan lines; everybody else will see him as a contemptible criminal who should still be in prison. It makes no sense for a governor, even one played by the same guy who once played Hymie the Friendly Robot, to pardon him all his past crimes and choose him as nice, inoffensive seat-warmer guaranteed not to cause any trouble. Seriously – huh?

Even allowing that, it makes no sense in terms of Billy Jack’s character. He may be an outsider, but he’s also been in the armed forces, been in prison, and on several occasions seen local corruption lead to tragedy for the people he’s sworn to protect. How then does he suddenly become the polite, respectable, starry-eyed innocent this movie requires him to be, when he goes to Washington and takes his seat among the sharks? He may be an idealist, but he knows, because he’s learned hard, that the system’s fucked up. For him to suddenly become James Stewart circa 1939 requires a form of retroactive amnesia. If nothing else, it simply isn’t in him to be that polite to power even before he realizes the nature of the scam that’s going on. Any charisma he might have disappears into the background.

The second major problem is that the movie is pretty shoddily made. It’s not that Laughlin didn’t have a budget; swooping helicopter shots capturing your hero with the Grand Canyon as backdrop cost money to film, and even if he blew all he had with that, Washington D.C. remains one of the world’s great movie sets, and can lend a movie class even when the catering table has a hand-written sign advising crew members to take only one plate. No, it’s shoddy in terms of staging. Capra’s staging may have been designed to be invisible, but it was also very conscious: he always knew where to place his camera, where to cut, how often to cut, and how to stage actors so that the way they inhabit a setting, in relation to one another, built tension and excitement. Laughlin’s understanding of this, as evidenced in this film, is only rudimentary. For the most part, people sit around stiffly and recite dialogue at one another. The setups make even the gifted veteran actors, like E.G. Marshall and Sam Wanamaker, look like amateurs in some of their scenes. The staging and performances of some of the very lines that the 1939 cast made crackle are so amateurish that the result looks like what you’d get if a bunch of not-very talented high school students tried to re-enact the original screenplay on YouTube.

One example of this takes place during the opening credit sequence, which follows the ambulance carrying the previous Senator through the streets of Washington. It is an extraordinarily dull ride, as filmed, but there is a particularly awful moment at the midway point, when the ambulance disappears behind a sewer works van parked in the middle of the street, and the camera remains fixed on that van, in the center of the screen, for a disturbingly long time as the ambulance makes a left turn in the distance. Oh, sure, we follow the ambulance again as soon as it comes back into view. But the sewer works van remains in sight for so long that viewers are invited to believe that it’s somehow important and that we should pay attention to it. No. It’s just a fucking sewer works van.

Another example would be the opening narration, over aerial shots of the National Mall. We are literally looking at the Capitol dome when the narrator intones, “This story takes place in the nation’s capitol.” Gee. Thank you ever so much. 

The third major problem is the presence of Delores Taylor, who – in a statement I truly hate making – is, as an actress, a great producer’s wife. It’s not just that (god, I hate being reduced to this), she was not an attractive woman; in Hollywood terms, she’s pretty worn-looking, with a drawn face and deeply sunken eyes. It’s not even that she can’t act very well, though that’s true  It’s that she’s been established as Billy Jack’s girlfriend and that for more than half its running time, the movie has no idea what to do with her. The character arc of the cynical Washington insider who gradually comes to believe in the fresh young Senator still belongs to Saunders – (played by Hollywood royalty Luci Arnaz, who gets an “introducing” credit in the cast list)  — and Taylor is for much of the first half of the film reduced to reaction shots where she nods sagely or utters an approving line, just to remind viewers that she’s still there. It is a fine indulgence of viewers who saw the earlier films, but  this movie falls prey to a common failing of sequels in general and cannot be bothered to even introduce her and establish again just who she is.

Taylor does eventually get a decent scene or two, but before that we have an ugly interlude where assassins, apparently sent by the villain Bailey, corner her and a female aide in a warehouse, intent on gang rape. It’s an all-black group, which is both Bailey’s attempt to pin the crime on a street gang and Laughlin’s cynical cinematic shorthand giving Billy Jack an excuse to beat the crap out of them. Taylor’s character, showing off some martial arts moves she must have learned from Billy, joins in the fight. We won’t question the likelihood of this, even though her character was in previous films a committed pacifist; after all, she’s also a pacifist who has been raped and had several people she cares about beaten, brutalized, and murdered. Maybe she stopped being a pacifist between films. It would make sense. But a persuasive martial artist, even one with limited skills, she is not. She manages to raise her foot about as high as her knee and big scary black men go flying.

Admittedly, you can’t have a Billy Jack film without him beating up a few people, and they might as well be black guys, since the previous films all featured rednecked white guys as his targets du jour. Even counting this scene, James Stewart punches out more people in Capra’s version than Laughlin does in this one. But it’s a terrible scene.

Fourth major problem: Luci Arnaz. She’s terrible. She is no Jean Arthur. She is not even Lucille Ball. I cannot think of any movies or TV appearances where she was better, but it’s hard to imagine any where she’d be worse.

Fifth major problem:  a subplot about a “top secret” file of nuclear secrets, which gets a blackmailer assassinated in the dead of night at Arlington National Cemetery. This goes nowhere. It’s there so this movie can claim some of the same narrative logic as its predecessors.

That said: everything that happens after Billy Jack begins the climactic filibuster is staged as the same events were staged in the Capra film, and we must report that, as Billy Jack receives the telegrams telling him to step down, the telegrams that are meant to destroy him, something magical happens. For almost five full minutes, the inherent power of the material sets fire to whatever flows in Laughlin’s veins, and the man pulls out a performance. It is unexpected and it is electrifying. It is also not worth sitting through the film for. If that’s what you want to see, watch the Capra film again and you’ll get a version that was terrific from the beginning.

The film was only barely released, allegedly because of threats from a sitting Senator. Laughlin said, “At a private screening, Senator Vance Hartke got up, because it was about how the Senate was bought out by the nuclear industry. He got up and charged me. Walter Cronkite’s daughter was there, [and] Lucille Ball. And he said, ‘You’ll never get this released. This house you have, everything will be destroyed.’ [I]t was three years later, he gets indicted for the exact crime that we showed in the movie.” We’re not saying that the implied causality  is impossible. Threats from powerful politicians have sandbagged movies before; certainly, a complaint from supporters of President Nixon helped get a song removed from the film version of 1776.  But the movie’s terrible quality could not have helped. (We have also been informed, by a reader, that lawsuits between Laughlin and his investors were also involved.)  As recently as 2004, Laughlin was working on yet another sequel, which he actually intended to call Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose. (Sanity prevailed, and he shortened the title, though he didn’t succeed in finishing the movie.)

Report From The Committee 

The 1939 film, a historical curio and genuine classic. The 1977 film, a near-total misfire, that achieves its needed level of quality in only a few minutes of performance from the wooden lead.

And now, the wife starts her filibuster…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey, Claude Rains. 129 minutes. **1/2

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). Directed by Tom Laughlin. Screenplay by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, from the prior screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Dick Gautier, E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Luci Arnaz. 155 minutes. 1/2*

Other Notable Versions: Too many films were inspired by the original to list, but the only other notable remake was a loose one, Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman.

I approached these films with a bit of trepidation.  I had never seen either movie, but I was very well aware of the 1939 “classic”.   I also, had vague memories of the Billy Jack series about a guy who kicked people and hung out with hippies.  So, did I really want to venture into this rather rocky territory?

So we began by viewing the 1939 Capra film.  And yes, it very much is a Capra film.  Doesn’t matter who wrote it, this film hits on all the Capraesque qualities I’ve come to know and grow tired of.  Yes, I am going to say a few bad things about the Capra characters.  Naivete is not a virtue!  Redemption doesn’t ever come about via wordsmithing. Good and evil are two sides of the same being.  And, bad girls aren’t fixed by the love of a good man!

Ok, so the big bad politibosses need a chump to placehold for two months.  Get a party man they say, but accept a gosh golly gee Boy Ranger troop leader with ideals.  what does this guy do on his first trip to DC?  While he should be trying to learn what will be expected of him in the Senate, he wanders off on a sight seeing tour.  Right!  He doesn’t even seem aware that he may be inconveniencing people who are waiting for him.  His first task is to attempt to write a bill to present, which he manages overnight.  Amazing!  He has no clue of procedure or law and yet is allowed his piece.  PUHLEEZE! And the very idea that he would attempt a filibuster, just to make a point…Never woulda happened! Never would have been allowed.  Politibosses play a lot rougher than that.

Would the corrupt senior Senator ever have taken the Grinch-like turn if not for the need of a hopeful Capra ending?  Oh come on, the man had already agreed to sacrifice the lamb, led him to the slaughter and even gave the butcher the knife while he held him down.  Not really true to life eh?

I know many “good” folks, but even they have their gray moments.  No human being is pure unto death.  Even Mother Teresa had a PR team for spin on a few things she said (check out the article by Christopher Hitchens).  So how can Capra decide that the black and white approach is all there is?And, gee, come on!  The secretary/girl friday who states early on she’s only there for what she can get, even she gets Capra’d and has a change of heart over the character assassination tango she’s a major player in.  Never gonna happen.  Not back then, and definitely not today.

Now, all this said, the film deserves its classic status.  It’s enjoyable, watchable, incredibly well acted and directed.  With all its flaws, and good view.

This can’t be said of the Billy Jack remake.

Billy Jack is a war veteran with anger issues.  He’s a convicted criminal with anti establishment sympathies.  who would EVER put him in the Senate?  How?  He’s not stupid, he’s run up against corrupt government before, and again I say HE’S A CONVICTED FELON!  Geesh!  Absent a brain, couldn’t anyone in his production company come up with a better classic fit for the man? Well, at least I got to hear One Tin Soldier again.  That was a plus. Or the plus.

All in all, I was right to fear this column.  I found one really good reason to avoid rewatching the Billy Jack films (they stink like a used litter box).  And, I watched a classic film, and found that even if I enjoy the basics, I no longer have a tolerance for the more innocent age that never existed.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

As we gear up for the next Remake Chronicles essay, we provide this, dedicated to those moments when an actor is all wrong for the part in precisely the right way.

1) James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Yes, one of the great performances in one of the great westerns is actually woeful miscasting. If you actually pay attention to the screenplay, Stewart’s character is a young, idealistic young lawyer who has just recently passed the bar and who comes west an unformed naif with little experience in the brutal ways of the real world. John Wayne’s character regards him with the amusement an older and experienced man would feel for a young whippersnapper who reminds him of his own youth. Stewart was way too old for the part. It didn’t, and doesn’t matter. Stewart still managed to project the youth and naivete the part demanded.

2) James Stewart, again, in The Spirit Of Saint Louis

Again, it’s a matter of age. Charles Lindbergh was in his twenties when he made that fateful flight. Stewart was visibly in his forties when he made the movie. He acknowledged at the time that he was way too old to play the young man of the film. And again, it didn’t matter. At this point in his career, Stewart was any age he wanted to be.

3) Gary Cooper in They Came to Cordura

This insanely brilliant but today little-seen film is about a cavalry officer reviled as a coward who must drag a bunch of angry, unwilling soldiers through harsh territory in order for them all to receive their respective Medals of Honor. It seems they all have pressing reasons for not wanting to go, reasons that make killing him a far more attractive alternative…and he shows far more courage dragging them to the unwanted celebration of their heroism, than they did in earning it. The movie is a hidden classic. But Cooper is far too old for the part. The character he plays is making the discoveries about himself that are more appropriate for young man…and Cooper, near the end of his life, looks not only old, but downright tired. Once again, it doesn’t matter. He gives one of his best and most uncelebrated performances.

4) Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Among the few people disgusted by the casting of Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest was Ken Kesey, author of the novel, whose Randall Patrick McMurphy was a towering redhead, a giant in stature as well as personality. Kesey derided Nicholson as a shrimp. And he has a point…but he failed to reckon that, on-screen at least, anybody is as big as his close-up wants him to be, and personality counts for one hell of a lot.

5) Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List

Oskar Schindler was a charming pudgy man with an amiable way about him. Liam Neeson is a stern tall man with a physique that makes him an apt choice for action heroes. Gert Frobe, who played Goldfinger in the James Bond movies, would have been a perfect physical choice to play Oskar Schindler. Again, it didn’t matter.