Ten years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The question of who killed him is still open for many who find the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin even more difficult to swallow than New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's wild charges of a conspiracy that, in retrospect, becomes less unthinkable with every new Watergate headline. Executive Action, scheduled for release this month, promises to fan all the doubts--and might even rouse the public to demand that the investigation be officially reopened. In the film, Burt Lancaster, the late Robert Ryan and Will Geer all portray wealthy right-wingers who successfully mastermind a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Executive Action will probably be compared to Z, yet it differs from the Costa Gavras shocker in at least one significant aspect: Z's conspirators were known to be real. The men who made Executive Action readily admit that the conspiracy they've depicted may not be literally true, yet they relate to it as approximate fact. Says executive producer Edward Lewis, "What the nation has been told about John F. Kennedy's death is patently false. In Executive Action, we offer a far more reasonable and plausible explanation for what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963."
Spoken like a true wild-eyed radical. Ed Lewis, however, is one of Hollywood's most respected film executives, and in the past he has produced such popular entertainments as Spartacus, Grand Prix and Seven Days in May (which featured Lancaster as an Air Force general who unsuccessfully attempts a military overthrow of the U.S. Government). Lewis--a short, stocky and forceful man--is not known to be particularly political, but his newest production may turn out to be the most politically unsettling movie ever made in America.
Why did he decide to make it? The idea, he told us, hadn't entered his mind until early 1971, when actor Donald Sutherland asked him to read a script he'd purchased from Mark Lane (the author of Rush to Judgment) and playwright Donald Freed. "The screenplay knocked me over," Lewis recalled. He had its main contentions carefully researched and, after finding no conflict between Lane's theories and the documented facts, he bought the script and persuaded Dalton Trumbo, the dean of American scenarists, to do a rewrite. When Trumbo completed his screenplay, a copy was quickly sent to Lancaster, who had a difficult time deciding whether or not to appear in the film. Lancaster told Lewis: "It's more than just another movie--much more." After several months of fretting (and reading books about the assassination sent to him by Trumbo), Lancaster finally told Lewis to count him in.
Veteran director David Miller, whose screen credits include Lonely Are the Brave, Sudden Fear and Captain Newman, M.D., eagerly accepted the chance to call the camera shots on Executive Action. "But it was an emotionally harrowing experience," he told us while working on the film's final cut at a downtown Los Angeles film laboratory. "We filmed the entire assassination sequence--it's seen through a rifle scope--here in Griffith Park, using doubles for the Kennedys, John Connally and Mrs. Connally. It's hard to convey just what we were feeling, but it was a strange and very troubling day for us all. There were many days like that."
To Miller, the most fascinating character in the entire affair was Lee Harvey Oswald. "The deeper you delve into his life, the less you find you know about him," he said. "He'd be pro-Castro one week, anti-Castro the next. I think it's obvious he was being used. In fact, in an interview in the Dallas jail just before his death, Oswald said just that: 'I'm a patsy.' We portrayed him that way in Executive Action."
Why, we asked coproducers Gary Horowitz and Dan Bessie, have American moviemakers shied away from making films as politically sensitive as this one? "It's very simple," said Horowitz. "Nobody thinks they make money." Added Bessie: "Executive Action marks the first time an important man in the American film industry--Ed Lewis--has said 'fuck it' to that kind of thinking and has gone on to make a film of major political import. And he's done it for less than $500,000."
Finally we spoke with Dalton Trumbo, the only writer ever to win both an Academy Award (for The Brave One, written under the pseudonym Robert Rich in 1957 while he was still one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten) and a National Book Award (for Johnny Got His Gun, in 1939). Trumbo's health has declined severely, but he was pleased to talk about the screenplay he'd initially refused to write. Sitting in the study of his house high above Sunset Boulevard, Trumbo told us: "I didn't want to work on Executive Action, because, by and large, I'm suspicious of conspiracy theories--they're just a convenient way of explaining history. But such theories always make for fascinating reading, and Lewis sent me a pile of books. By the time I'd gone through eight or ten of them--particularly Josiah Thompson's marvelous study of the ballistics--I was convinced that at least two gunmen must have committed the Kennedy murder. Two gunmen acting together, of course, would constitute a conspiracy--and because such an undertaking isn't easy to pull off, a great many other men probably were involved. I have since discovered that even Lyndon Johnson thought J.F.K.'s death was the result of a conspiracy. He told that to Walter Cronkite in the course of those three one-hour interviews conducted shortly before he died. But L.B.J. had the right to approve what CBS could show and he cut that part out."
Just a few facts concerning Oswald's rifle, Trumbo continued, would be enough to convince any objective observer that it couldn't have been the assassination weapon. Said Trumbo: "The Mannlicher-Carcano rifle he used was known in the Italian army as the 'gun that never gets angry,' because it almost never shot straight enough to harm anyone. Oswald's had a cheap scope on it that was especially difficult to operate. Ed Lewis hired experts to test the Mannlicher-Carcano with that particular scope, and they found that although three shots could be fired at a stationary target within the five and a half seconds in which the assassination took place, the additional time necessary to adjust the scope to sight a moving target would rule out Oswald's rifle completely."
Trumbo recalled his own reaction to the news of November 22, 1963. "I was in Rome in my apartment," he said, "and when my secretary telephoned and told me, 'President Kennedy has just been killed in Dallas,' all I answered was 'Oh.' I still can't really analyze why I wasn't shocked, but perhaps it's because I've seen so much violence in this country. It wouldn't surprise me at all, for example, if Richard Nixon were assassinated tomorrow--except that the political right doesn't seem to be on the receiving end of the bullets these days."
The surreal eroticism of writer-director Ralph Bakshi's Heavy Traffic makes his previous effort, Fritz the Cat, look as innocuous as a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In feature-length animation films, there has never been anything quite like the enlightened misanthropy of Bakshi, who manages to offend just about every ethnic group in the contemporary urban jungle. Blacks, Jews and Italians clobber one another and climb over the corpses while Bakshi mixes live actors and their cartoon counterparts in this tale of a young Italian artist named Michael Corleone (played in the flesh by Joseph Kaufman), a black hustler (Beverly Hope Atkinson) and sundry specimens of human flotsam. Specific references to The Godfather and On the Waterfront are merely asides to the film's apocalyptic vision of life as a pop horror show-- linked to the recurrent image of a pinball machine, symbolizing the vicissitudes of blind chance. Actual objects, actual photography of Times Square or slummy side streets segue into animation so seamlessly that the bedazzled viewer scarcely realizes how much of the film's graphic sex and violence came off a drawing board. Though his brutal animated fantasies are executed with great skill, this decadent Disney is still an incoherent storyteller, unable or unwilling to impose any narrative structure upon his nightmare collage of impressions. One day, Bakshi may get it all together and turn out a work with real substance as well as cultural shock.
John Huston directing Paul Newman, Dominique Sanda, James Mason and Harry Andrews in a glossy espionage thriller ought to produce something more exhilarating than The Mackintosh Man. Call it one of Huston's ready-to wear jobs, minor league compared with his vivid work on last year's Fat City, and telling a rather conventional Cold War story of an Australian secret agent who manages to get himself convicted of a jewel theft in order to land in prison--and ultimately to escape, in the company of a Communist spy (Ian Bannen) who may or may not lead him to traitors higher up in British government circles. Newman's wavering Aussie accent would hardly fool Central Casting, much less a band of ruthless cloak-and-dagger types; yet he manages to project box office magnetism while the weightier acting chores are handled by Mason (keep your eye on him), as a superpatriotic peer of the realm, and Andrews, as Mackintosh of the Secret Service. Miss Sanda plays Mackintosh's daughter--don't brood about her heavy French accent, she was educated abroad or something--and has little to do but look beautiful and submit to drugging, kidnaping and other perils visited upon cinema damsels in distress. She also submits to Newman, on the eve of his dangerous mission, explaining, "That's the least I can do." To alleviate such stale romantic interludes, there's good Huston-style toughness in a jailbreak sequence and a pretty fair chase over the Irish moors. Easy to sit through, easier to forget.
Screw them before they screw you is the uppermost thought of the character played by Ron Leibman in Your Three Minutes Are Up, an amiable but aimless comedy about two pals who carom along the California Coast, ripping off everyone willing to accept pay-later arrangements. As somebody says in a massage parlor: "When hookers start asking if you want to pay cash or charge it, the whole world is gone crazy." The best lines as well as the best bits fall to Leibman as Mike, a professional lay-about who lives on overcharged credit cards, unemployment insurance (when they have the gall to send him on job interviews, he shows up drunk) and a kind of sleazy bravura. He is an absolute phony, but an engaging one, and Leibman slams through the part as if to clinch his status as last year's most promising actor, while simultaneously living up to publicity blurbs that call him a cross between Marlon Brando, Jerry Lewis and Lenny Bruce. The drum-beaters are not altogether delirious, for Leibman steals every scene worth taking in an otherwise negligible movie that finally reaches a contrived melodramatic climax because it has nowhere else to go. In the early sequences, Beau Bridges plays second fiddle creditably as Mike's friend Charlie, a regularly employed, engaged-to-be-married square who keeps phoning his fiancée (Janet Margolin, of David and Lisa) from wherever he happens to find himself--hence, the title. Too bad, though, that such communicative actors couldn't get a better connection.
Day for Night takes its title from the French term (la nuit américaine) for a night scene shot in the daytime with special filters. From that clue, movie lovers everywhere should note that writer-director Francois Truffaut's latest and brightest bauble is a captivating comedy about making movies by a man who really knows how. In Day for Night, a highly appropriate selection to open this year's New York Film Festival, Truffaut himself plays a director who has collected an all-star international cast on the Riviera to turn out a romantic drama called Meet Pamela. The movie itself opens and closes with the filming of a street scene that has to be redone when Pamela's leading actor (Jean-Pierre Aumont) is killed in an accident. Everything else that happens is either sad or heart-warming or hilarious or wryly tolerant, and all of it is observed with accuracy by Truffaut, his coscenarists and a cast consisting of Jacqueline Bisset (as the uncertain English-speaking star, married to the doctor who officiated at her last breakdown), Jean-Pierre Leaud (as the juvenile lead, whose offscreen amorous scrambles keep the company in turmoil), beautiful Alexandra Stewart (playing a supporting actress who shows up inconveniently pregnant) and Valentina Cortese (altogether marvelous as a fading film star). Truffaut's total affection for the world of cinema is what sets Day for Night well apart from all previous efforts to expose moviedom behind the scenes, for he never loses his impish humor nor falls out of love with the subjects of his satire. Truffaut has brought off a cinematic coup de théâtre that replies with a sly Gallic shrug to cynics who insist that all the glamor has gone out of showbiz.
Two infinitely corruptible policemen, representatives of New York's finest, endorse the new rip-off morality in Cops and Robbers. Tired of beating their brains out for peanuts, Tom and Joe decide that a bigger caper is in order after Joe (Joe Bologna, co-author and co-star of Made for Each Other with his wife, Renee Taylor) has turned his off-duty hours into profit with a liquor-store holdup. "It was so easy," he tells his buddy. Tom (Cliff Gorman, of The Boys in the Band and Lenny) isn't so sure how their wives will take to a life of crime: "If Mary suddenly finds herself in Trinidad with a million bucks, she's going to suspect something." They nonetheless outwit Wall Street, the Mafia and their colleagues on the force with a daring theft of $10,000,000 in securities, grabbed during a ticker-tape parade for three astronauts. Everything that Bologna and Gorman can do is done to make Cops and Robbers a viable comedy, though Donald E. Westlake's scenario--basically the story of a couple of jerks on the take--puts cardboard characters into implausible situations and extricates them in utter defiance of the laws of probability. Get yours, by hook or by crook--and preferably the latter--is the message this movie teaches, thereby earning a PG rating because it wastes little footage on sex, still the final test of film morality.
With the U. S. release of his next-to-last film, A King in New York--made in 1957 and long delayed as a consequence of Charlie Chaplin's love-hate relationship with America--evidence is now at hand for a full study of the lovable Little Tramp. A provisional happy ending to the Chaplin story was written in the spring of 1972, when the prodigal movie master returned to the U. S. for the first time in 20 years. (He was banished during the McCarthy hysteria for his leftist political views and scandalous private life, which included several marriages to child brides and a conviction on a paternity suit.) All was forgiven, however, amid a blitzkrieg of publicity and bonhomie at last year's Lincoln Center "Salute to Chaplin" and at the Oscar ceremonies in Hollywood. Even then, the good will was tinged with a profit motive, since Chaplin's U. S. invitation was engineered to benefit the Lincoln Center Film Society and to ballyhoo a multimillion-dollar private deal for redistribution of nine major Chaplin films.
Nevertheless, the Chaplin renaissance that has followed demonstrates again the generosity of genius, which repays a fickle public with enduring works of art. Currently dubbed by some "the Picasso of cinema," his tramp called "the greatest comic creation of the 20th Century," Chaplin now plays to almost unanimously exuberant reviews. Which is justifiable, except that such critical reappraisal doesn't show us how the Little Tramp became the mature, reflective, self-indulgent, masterful and frequently misunderstood clown of later years.
Though it is fashionable to call Chaplin's film style primitive because he seemed to ignore technological innovations, he was actually a purist, who used the camera with straightforward efficiency to emphasize what was essential to his art--a method comparable to Picasso's rendering a dove with a few definitive brush strokes. In The Gold Rush, The Circus and the miraculous, rueful City Lights, Chaplin's portrayals delicately balanced indomitable aspiration, bad luck and naive fallibility to capture the imagination of millions. The tramp's slapstick not only made poetry of the pratfall but achieved the heights of human comedy. And though traces of sentimentalism and social comment were always evident, Chaplin's comedy was invariably saved by his ability to kick an adversary in the pants or run himself up a flagpole just when things were about to drown in pathos.
The classic tramp began giving way to the social critic as early as 1936, in Modern Times, Chaplin's view of Everyman going nobly berserk in an assembly-line society. Today a new generation of doubting consumers and dropouts sees Modern Times for the masterpiece it is and overlooks the flaws stemming from what one critic of the period called Chaplin's "restless longing for profundity." That need to preach was even more pronounced in the closing moments of The Great Dictator, when an impassioned hymn to brotherhood suddenly played havoc with a comedy based on the striking resemblance between Chaplin's tramp and Adolf Hitler. Chaplin talking, in his most political of movies up to that time, was not universally applauded. In fact, a Congressional committee was preparing to investigate him when the U. S. entered World War Two. Yet The Great Dictator is strewn with comic gems, such as the unforgettable ballet sequence in which dictator Adenoid Hynkel dreams of world domination in a dance with an inflatable globe.
Seven years and several scandals later, Chaplin brought forth Monsieur Verdoux, a biting black comedy about a modern Bluebeard. This was in 1947. The war was over, the tramp was dead and audiences were aghast that Chaplin--a certified lady-killer, according to hostile press accounts--would have the chutzpah to cast himself as a mild-mannered bank clerk who supports his invalid wife and child through a world war and a depression by marrying and murdering a series of stupid, wealthy women. Furthermore, he even dared moralize about murder and sent his unrepentant hero off to the guillotine declaring that "numbers sanctify" and that the small businessman in homicide is condemned, whereas "munitions manufacturers and the professional soldiers who contribute to murder on a mass scale are given great honors and monetary rewards." Verdoux, based on a brain storm by Orson Welles, was years ahead of its time. Today, Chaplin's sardonic fable of good and evil is both devastating and hilarious--particularly when Verdoux meets Martha Raye, a raucous girl who was born lucky and cannot be done in. This so-called comedy of murder hasn't a moment of explicit violence--a lesson to us all in an era of surgical cinema--and may well be the best and boldest of all Chaplin talkies.
Chaplin had already begun his bitter involuntary exile when Limelight opened in 1952, in the face of a boycott. Such opposition was scarcely necessary to discourage moviegoers from watching Chaplin as a washed-up, once-great comedian in love with a paralyzed ballerina (Claire Bloom, making her film debut). Limelight may not have been a masterwork, but it was surely the work of a master--corn of rare vintage, laced with wit and wisdom and featuring some superlative bits of comedy by Buster Keaton. Chaplin seemed to be playing himself. "What a sad business being funny," he says in character. "I'm through clowning ... truth is all I have left."
The truth as Chaplin perceived it during his years of near-total eclipse was touched upon only fleetingly in his 1964 autobiography. Words were never his chosen weapons, but time puts all artists to the cruelest test, and time has been kind to Chaplin. Without him, the history of screen comedy would be an impoverished saga. As performer, director and writer, Chaplin put aside the endearing image that had earned him fame and fortune, to explore new dimensions of comedy. Often reported missing, he was seldom truly lost, for his intuitive grasp of human frailty governed every turn. It seems fitting that the final important work in the Chaplin canon should be so full of great and small surprises.
The least funny of Chaplin's movies, A King in New York, is nonetheless fascinating. There's wry humor of a high order in an early scene when Chaplin--as an exiled European king seeking refuge in the U. S.-- is quietly fingerprinted while he talks to reporters of America's "native warmth and noble generosity," his inky finger tips emphasizing every phrase. Later, before the visiting monarch becomes a marketable commodity--plugging Royal Crown whiskey in TV commercials--he is introduced to the hard-sell American way at a dinner party, where his seductive companion (Dawn Addams) interrupts their conversational intimacies to talk about an underarm deodorant for a hidden camera. Dropping in at a Broadway moviehouse, the king catches fragments of a feature called Man or Woman, plus another epic concerning "a killer with a soul ... you'll love him ... bring the family." Such satirical broadsides are less subtle than accurate, projected in a spirit of amused indulgence that makes King in New York seem positively benevolent compared with advance press reports that called it a savage and vindictive "labor of hate," intended as Chaplin's revenge on an ungrateful America. As a matter of fact, Chaplin's king, fairly brimming with good will, carries blueprints for a plan to create an atomic utopia. No one in the Government has time to see him, being too busy confronting the Red Menace. In fact, the film's sharpest barbs are directed at an Un-American Activities Committee that persuades a young boy (played by Chaplin's son Michael) to inform on his parents. Even this does not deter Chaplin from a final wistful hope that such aberrations are not reflective of the real America. America's bumptious fast-buck commercialism is pinned down in less time than it takes to endorse a check ("I know it's beneath your dignity," coos the promoter of whiskey, "but there's fifty thousand bucks in it"). The gorgeous creature who finally persuades the king to sell himself becomes the film's chief symbol for all-American energy and innocence combined with plenty of forward drive. An instinct for survival in the face of disaster was the hallmark of Chaplin's Little Tramp, whose genius and sweetness are still visible through A King in New York's cynicism and disillusionment. Fundamentally, Chaplin performing anything at all is an event, even if this strident calliope of a comedy turns out to be his swan song.
Veteran theatrical producer John Houseman makes an impressive film debut in The Paper Chase as a distinguished senior professor at Harvard Law School. Houseman personifies the old-line academic tyranny that separates the men from the boys. "We do brain surgery here," the prof intones. And it is clearly intimated that the surgery produces men who are better at manipulating facts than at defining human values. As one of the first-year law students who manage to survive through the spring semester--and even find time for a sex life of sorts--Timothy Bottoms (of The Last Picture Show) proves that his initial success was no mere fluke. As the old professor's wayward daughter, who lures Bottoms away from his books and into her bed, Lindsay Wagner tops her debut in Two People, helped by a dusky voice that somehow smacks of pillow talk even when she's shivering under woolens on the banks of the Charles. Paper Chase is a rather sedentary drama, but it does provide an unsettling study of the educational processes by which bright young lads are transformed into efficiently functioning ciphers.
Moviegoers who willingly surrender to the wicked whimsy and general zaniness of writer-director Roman Polanski's What? are apt to end up asking themselves, What next? The question is rhetorical, because the movie is hysterical. In it, the maker of Rosemary's Baby improvises around the plight of a bright American beauty who seeks refuge from rapists in a stunning Riviera villa occupied by a rich wastrel (Marcello Mastroianni), his decadent old dad (Hugh Griffith), plus assorted fetishists, lesbians and faggots. The most simple interpretation of What? is that the girl becomes a sex object, quite enthusiastically lending herself to the various games played by her hosts and their house guests--be they sadomasochism, voyeurism or straightforward sex. When she is not scampering around the villa seminude--with one leg painted blue--or granting an old lecher's deathbed wish that she expose her breasts, she is busy filling in the pages of a diary with her impressions of all those interesting things that can truly happen to a girl. At the end, stripped of her clothes again, she leaps into the back of a passing truck and insists that she's really got to go now, since this is the end of a movie called What? Polanski appears to be exploring his own sexual quirks or preoccupations with considerable wit, some insight and consummate polish. Though the loose structure of the film may exasperate viewers who like everything in familiar order, Polanski has assembled a cast well calculated to melt resistance. One find is Sydne (pronounced Sidney) Rome as the American bird of passage, whose physical assets combined with an air of ingenuousness and vulnerability are occasionally reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. The film's sexual skirmishes could have no better warrior than Mastroianni, giving his drollest comic performance in a decade as the libertine with a weakness for whips, tigerskins and bondage. "Do I look like I'm joking?" growls Marcello, befurred and manacled, taking his aberrations so seriously that What? becomes twice as funny as it would be if it played merely for laughs.
Writer-director Arthur Barron's Jeremy should enrapture everyone who loved Love Story, though this junior high version lacks even the pungent four-letter words. The boy (Robby Benson) is a shy amateur cellist, the girl (Glynnis O'Connor) a wallflower ready to bloom, and they exude carloads of charm until the bleak day when the girl's father tells her she's going to live in Detroit. First love explored with relentless innocence.