Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 9. 1967.
Review of young directors' art
Review of young directors' art
The Film Society recently screened John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate and Martin Ritt's The Outrage, two films representative of what has been described as the New American Cinema.
This pretentious label refers to the work of a group of younger directors, most of whom have graduated from television. Ritt and Frankenheimer are two outstanding members of this "school." the latter in particular having acquired a considerable reputation over the last 10 years.
Among contemporaries his only peer is Kubrick, and both provide stiff competition for their counterparts in Europe and Britain. Other American directors who might be included in this category are Robert Mulligan, Ralph Nelson, Franklin Schaffner, Delbert Mann and Sidney Lumet.
Martin Ritt (b. 1920) made his debut with A Man Is Ten Feel Tall, a movie about a friendship between two waterside workers, Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes. The strength of the film lies in its delicate feeling for character and relationship, and a serious concern for the problems It deals with. But there are stylistic inconsistencies and individual scenes which are quite unconvincing, and I feel that its reputation is somewhat inflated.
After directing another seven films, including The Sound And The Fury and The Long Hot Summer, Ritt went on to make four films starring Paul Newman: Paris Blues, Hud, The Outrage and Hombre. In the last three, all westerns, he provided work for Hollywood veterans Melvyn Douglas, Edward G. Robinson and Fredric March, and established a fruitful collaboration with the master director of photography. James Wong Howe.
The Outrage is based on the Japanese film Rashomon, just as The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Seven Samurai. Those lucky enough to have seen Kurosawa's classic should note that comparisons are odious, since Ritt is not attempting to duplicate anyone else's feat or capitalise on another film's reputation. I think he succeeds admirably in his own version of the story, an account of rape and murder (?) seen from four different points of view.
"People see what they want to see and say what they want to hear." says Robinson at one point. But this theme, the probing into the nature of truth, is not hammered ad nauseum as might be the case in a foreign film on the subject, but develops easily as the narrative unfolds. Having seen both Hud and The Outrage a number of times. I am almost convinced that the latter is the better film of the two. The complaint most frequenty made about The Outrage is that the last account of events is not farcical, but this at least allows us to doubt the prospector's version just as much as the stories offered by the main characters.
A notable feature of The Outrage is the beauty of the visuals, both in the scenes at the station (a studio set) which serves to link the different narratives, and the outdoor scenes where the action takes place. James Wong Howe has never done better. Ritt creates some beautiful images with long tracking shots and leisurely compositions which capture perfectly the oppressive heat of the desert. The special effects associated with the wife's descent into the river and the testimony given by the old Indian are well done. Nor should the contribution by Alex North be overlooked— he is one of the few consistent writers of good music in films.
Claire Bloom and Laurence Harvey have some trouble with their accents but otherwise manage their parts competently. The rest of the cast is excellent. Paul Newman gives a delightfully grotesque performance, and in some ways Edward G. Robinson holds the film together with a strong, if somewhat bemused piece of acting. He is a veritable siphon of irreverent cynicism and oatmeal philosophy, prompting and telling of the stories and testing the beliefs of the romantic young preacher, beautifully realised by William Shatner, an actor who should be used more often in films.
The acting, the script, the photography, and Ritt's direction combine to make a film which is always excellent and sometimes brilliant. I missed The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but it will be interesting to see if Hombre maintains the standard Ritt has set himself in Hud and The Out-rage.
The Manrhurian Candidate (1962) was the fifth film made by John Frankenheimer (b. 1930) Previous to this he had directed The Young Stranger, The Young Savages, All Fall Down (to be screened at Vic shortly) and The Birdman Of Alcatraz. This last is the best of his early films. A subdued Burt Lancaster plays Robert Stroud with great conviction (his company produced the picture) and Frankenheimer's direction of all the scenes, ranging from Stroud's gentle handling of his birds to a violent prison riot, is superb.
The release of The Manchurlan Candidate established Frankenheimer's reputation beyond any doubt. After this he made a film of the best-selling political thriller Seven Days In May, and The Train, a story of the attempts by the French Resistance to stop the removal of art treasures from France. His highly-praised Seconds, about a man who changes his identity in order to begin a new life, was to have been shown at the Lido but now seems to be languishing in some distributor's vault. Grand Prix, in which Frankenheimer uses the Cinerama screen in a masterly fashion, will appear in Wellington eventually, sooner rather than later one hopes.
After The Manchurian Candidate was screened at Vic a friend told me that he considered the film to be one of the most fascist he had seen. I was not particularly surprised at this reaction, as I was not surprised when some groups in the USA considered the film nothing less than a Communist plot.
John Thomas has pointed out in his analysis of the film in Film Quarterly, the only villain in The Manchurian Candidate is brainwashing, and the theme is not the triumph of Communism over democracy or fascism over liberalism, it is the way in which we are all subject to brainwashing of one kind or another. The Manchurian Candidate usurps so many conventions of plot and technique that it cannot be confined by any arbitrary categorisation. George Axelrod's screenplay from Condon's novel is both sadistic and funny, and provides Frankenheimer with plenty of opportunities to show off his superlative talents.
In the brainwashing sequences, the verbal battle between Senator Iselin and the Secretary, Marco's brief skirmish with Shaw's manservant, the giant political rally and, in fact, most of the scenes in the film, Frankenheimer demonstrates a dazzling style. His ability with actors is equal to his mastery of the techniques of the medium.
Laurence Harvey, normally a staid, unemotional actor, gives his finest performance, and Sinatra, James Gregory. John McGiver, Henry Silva, and the magnificent Angela Lansbury are all at their best. The only flaw I can find in the film is the rather contrived build up of suspense near the end, but this is a minor flaw in an outstanding achievement. The Manchurian Candidate is one of the very best American pictures since Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory, and that particular film must be a landmark in anyone's book.
The ribald comments which greeted parts of Frankenheimer's film when it was shown at Vic reinforced my view that, in general, a university audience is neither sophisticated nor intelligent enough to appreciate sophisticated and intelligent entertainment. Show them a film which smells even faintly of Serious Topics like man's inhumanity to man, the metaphysical questions posed in the Bergman trilogy, or the problem of alienation (a popular one this) and it will be greeted with respectful attention.
Confront them, however, with an anti-realist, anti-humanist film like The Man-churian Candidate, frothing with life, wit and fantasy, and raucous sniggers and inane remarks will flourish. A casual visitor may find this reaction amusing, but after some years it appears less amusing and rather more annoying and priggish.