A Midsummer’s Nightmare

Films this month, from "The Big Bus" to "Logan's Run," are anything but a reviewer's dream.

August 1976By Comments

Capote succumbs in "Murder by Death." Is the killer Lanchester, Niven, Sellers, Coco, or Falk? Whodunit? Who cares?

Hollywood tends to have its dogs for when the kids are out of school and, yes, the drive-ins are a fine place to sell your second-rate wares when the audience’s attention is hopefully elsewhere. And it’s a fact of life that when you open your clunkers in three hundred theaters at once, there’s a good chance you’ll see black ink before the smartass critics in New York have time to poison the boondocks.

All that I grant, This summer is something else, though. Now Houston, New York, and Los Angele are being offered the same junk that’s featured on the double-bills at unpaved drive-ins. The New York critics have taken to noticing such fare as Jackson County Jail and Drive-ln, two consistently well-acted and directed films—but B-movies nonetheless. Other than those modest finds, this is anything but a reviewer’s dream summer, and my purpose this month is not to tell you what excited me and why, but what you should avoid and by what distance.

This summer’s Murder On the Orient Express Award goes to Neil Simon for his sometimes funny but always claustrophobic Murder by Death. Truman Capote’s deadly acting debut is reason enough to miss this one. An old-fashioned belief that even spoofs of murder mysteries should have a little of what’s called structural integrity is another reason to take a pass on Murder by Death-the plot is both arbitrary and silly. This film will also make a lot of money, and audiences will roar at Simon’s patented one-liners, but it would be inaccurate to say that this is anything but a filmed talkathon with a dream cast that hides the fundamental poverty of the non-story.

The idea is the best thing about the movie· an eccentric mystery-lover is gathering the world’s best detectives to challenge their ability to solve—or prevent—a murder that hasn’t happened. Peter Sellers as a Charlie Chan type and Peter Falk as the hard-boiled Sam Diamond shine, but the rest of the casting is also first-rate: David Niven and Maggie Smith as Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, James Coco as a Hercule Poirot knockoff. Eileen Brennan as Falk’s girlfriend, Alec Guinness as the blind butler, and Nancy Walker as the deaf and dumb maid whose note announces, “I think the butler’s dead. My name is Yetta. I don’t work Thursdays.”

The movie’s fatal flaw is Simon’s relentless quest for the one-liner; Murder bv Death has no movement, no energy. It’s like being locked into the back room at a convention of detectives, and, though it amuses for a while, you very quickly start to drift toward the exits. At the end of this confused and confusing movie, one of the characters says as much. “Was there a murder or wasn’t there?” Sellers’ adopted umber Three Son asks. “Yes,” replies the updated Charlie Chan. “Killed good weekend.”

The meanies who have thwarted progress for 50 years arc now after Professor Baxter’s enormous atom-powered bus. Before it can even begin its maiden run—nonstop from New York to Denver—terrorists have planted a bomb. It doesn’t quite destroy the bus. It does blow the professor into the parking lot and put his ace driver out of commission. But Baxter’s daughter (Stockard Channing) swallows her pride and crisply suggests that her former lover (Joe Bologna) pilot their baby: “He’s trouble, but he knows his way around a lug wrench.” Bologna eagerly accepts. Before you can say Marx Brothers, Channing and Bologna are zipping their earthship of fools toward the Rockies.

The Big Bus runs into trouble all along the way mostly from director James Frawley and writer-producers Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen. To parody a disaster movie might have seemedlike a thigh-slapper of an idea some years ago when this project was

Conceived, but given the quality of recent disaster flicks, parody is redundant. The challenge of topping the insane improbability of Hollywood’s less pretentious fare is too great for any filmmaker, and Frawley and his writers have decided not to try. They’ve settled, instead, on very safe conventions: Sally Kellerman as an unhappy spouse who

falls in love with her husband only when their divorce is finalized, Ruth Gordon as a foulmouthed old lady on the lam, Rene Auberjonois as an agnostic priest. ‘I’ve never seen such a bunch of crybabies,” Bologna snarls, in what’s supposed to pass for a gag line. But there arc few laughs. Mostly there’s only the sense that this kind of humor is better appreciated when it’s on television, and the waste is only of its audience’s time.

Children may find The Big Bus a howl, though. Wise parents will drop the kids off at the theater; the only thing the adults will miss is Bologna and Channing, two pros who deserve a better vehicle—especially Channing, who was most recently stranded in Mike Nichols’ The Fortune. “You’re looking great, kid.” Bologna tells her in the film’s most truthful line. “Yes,” she says ruefully, “so am I.” If she turned and winked toward the audience you wouldn’t blame her.

An unintentional comedy with laughs amid the snores is Midway. Any epic that features Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn. Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Wagner- to say nothing of Sensurround, the Univrrsal sound prcess that’s supposed to be the audio equivalent of Cinerama—is

almost automatically a joke. Put these specimens of red-blooded Americana under the direction of Jack Smight (Airport 1975) and you know you’re in for such a massive turkey that the only responses possible are deep depression or total irreverence. Since depression makes me inordinately curious to know what’s new at the candy counter I try, whenever possible, to opt for the comic response.

For one thing, when you put all those Hollywood stalwarts in uniform, it soon becomes impossible to figure out who is who. Right away, there’s no continuity. Smight tries to remedy this with extensive use of subtitles, but with all the crosscutting from fighter units to bombing wings, what there is of a story line becomes even more confusing. Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese villains are a decided relief, only screenwriter Donald Sanford introduces so many inscrutable Orientals that their motivations become a mystery, too. After a reel of this idiocy, you willingly let your brain turn to mush and wait for the battle scene, when the bombs are supposed to explode inside your guts.

There are some great moments along the way, though. “How’s your mom?” Heston asks his son a few day before the battle. “Recovered from the divorce, I guess,” Edward Albert reassures him. But not for long; he follows that with, “Dad, I’ve fallen in love with a Japanese girl.” To his credit, Heston looks as if he’s been hit by a stray bullet from another war movie. This is an appropriate response: a good deal of the battle footage was purchased by the producers from an old Japanese film and ineptly inserted into Midway. It’s not bad stuff—better than Smight can re-create. The Japs even have the best line of the

movie. “Those Americans,” an admiral remarks, “sacrifice themselves like samurai.”

Ordinarily, I’d feel uneasy laughing at a significant piece of our national history. But Midway is so completely divorced from real blood and men dying that it becomes a cartoon of a war movie. In an empty theater, you can shriek all you like without worrying about the questionable patriotism of your response. Later, you can hurry to a record store for the soundtrack album. It’s guaranteed to help you break your lease.

The problem with Harry and Walter Go to New York is not, at bottom, itsabsolute mediocrity, but its arrogantrip-off of an audience’s not unreasonableexpectations. A $6 million filmdirected by Mark Rydell (CinderellaLiberty) and starring Michael Caine,Elliott Gould, James Caan, and DianeKeaton ought to have a little somethinggoing for it. With Tony Bill, oneof The Sting’s producers, in chargeand a script by Rob Kaufman andJohn Byrum, two of the West Coast’shottest writers, one might assume thatthis comedy about turn-of-the-centurysafecrackers would be moderately absurd, sometimes silly, but always breezy—what used to be called a romp. Sohow did Harry and Walter wind up as afarce for simpletons?

One explanation is the Lucky Lady syndrome. Take a previously successful box-office formula—in this case, The Sting—and do it over. lt almost never works, but if the director is, say, a Robert Altman, you can cut together isolated moments of zany brilliance into something that resembles a comedy.

Another explanation is that of the big-name actor running free—amok in this case—in the name of spontaneity. Aren’t movies fun? Well, they’re even more fun when the participants are stoned on whatever’s handy—often just their runaway egos.

The other explanation, which I’m inclined to favor, is that maybe these guys aren’t so all-fired talented in the first place. Maybe Harry and Walter really is their idea of honorable work. Whatever the inspiration, Harry and Walter sinks even its cliches and wastes even its much-praised production values. Gould and Caan stumble through two hours—and it was once longer—as if they just happened to wander onto the back lot at Fox. They mug without shame, using the same vaudeville tricks over and over. It’s as if they’re testing us to see just how much we can endure.

This is the plot: Michael Caine, doing a brief stint in the prison where Caan and Gould reside, employs them as his lackeys. Caine has a plan to dynamite an impenetrable Boston bank. Caan and Gould steal his blueprint and link up with Keaton, a socialist reporter who’s come to interview the glamorous Caine. Soon they’re all sprung but in opposing

camps, and they trip over one another on their separate paths to the jackpot.

Caine sometimes rises above this material and Keaton seems untouched by the chaos around her. As for Gould and Caan: is it too much to hope that men who try in every way possible to rum their careers may at last succeed?

You can’t trust anyone over 30 was the rallying cry of the Woodstock generation when visions of an infinite adolescence danced in our heads. William Nolan and George Johnson’s novel, Logan’s Run, was the ideal 1967 sci-fi version of that dream. Why MGM, at this late date, plunked $8 million into a Sixties fantasy is anybody’s guess; the result of their investment is less sci-fi than future schlock.

Michael York, Jenny Agutter, and Richard Jordan inhabit the twenty-third century in settings that look like the Dallas Apparel Mart—where portions of Logan’s Run were shot. Everything’s great except for those buttons on their palms, which flash the fatal color

red when their thirtieth birthdays approach. Rather than die in a fiery ritual, York decides to escape. Oh, brave and wonderful Logan! Naturally, he’ll want Jenny Agutter to come with him as he finds the space-age equivalent of Alice’s keyhole and finally winds up in Washington, now overgrown with vines and populated only by Peter Ustinov. This

is so shattering he hurries back to the twenty-third century to play Moses-freeing-the-slaves.

If you like sexist fare, there’s some juicy stuff here. York has to make his way through a “pleasure palace” where thousands of nymphets in haze-covered mesh clamor for his body. In case you want more flashes of pulchritude, other women are clad in scanty chiffon negligees. It does seem as if someone at MGM were watching old Buck Rogers two-reelers for inspiration, perhaps writer David Goodman and director Michael Anderson. When thousands of adolescents crowd around Ustinov in a futuristic setting that looks like the depths of a hydroelectric plant, I was sure of it. Why MGM doesn’t go back to the source is a mystery to me; maybe when Logan’s Run flops, they’ll return to those terrific originals—as an economy measure.

Roman Polanski has let It be known he had ten month to kill before he could start shooting his epic about pirates. He killed them with The Tenant. This remake of the scary moment in Rosmary’s Baby and Repulsion features the same interior fascination Polanski used to much better effect in those film . What is of interest to hardcore Polanski addicts in The Tenant is the phenomenon of director-as-star. Unfortunately, Polanski is doing triple duty (he’s also co-writer) and as a result has adroitly sabotaged himself before he

sets the camera to record his acting.

As a nervous draftsman, Polanski rents what is surely the grimmest flat in Paris. I Inexplicably, the concierge is Shelley Winters and the landlord is Melvyn Douglas. As if they wouldn’t be enough to drive him from the building, Polanski discovers that the previous tenant created a large and jagged hole in the awning when she hurled her self

through it. Some notion of a housing shortage in Paris keeps him in this apartment, however, and soon he’s even had an encounter with one of the girl’s friends, played by Isabelle AdJani. Passive to a fault, he lets a counterman at his breakfast joint make him make Marlboros instead of Gauloises, because that’s what “she did.” He dresses up in

one of her abandoned dresses; he even tortures himself by visiting the victim as she lies in the hospital, a mass of plaster waiting for death.

This kind of movie makes you want to kill yourself for your complicity in watching it. I’ll save you any surprise by revealing what Polanski telegraphs from the opening moments of The Tenant: he does himself in. Twice, in fact, because the first time doesn’t take. I laughed as he crawled up the stair for his second try, as did many of the people I saw The Tenant with. It was a laugh I could do better without, and you will do better to pretend that Polanski’s last film was the brilliant Chinatown.

The American ambassador to England goofed. Without telling his wife that their baby has died, he adopts another infant and raises him as his own. The kid, however, shows none of Gregory Peck’s breeding or Lee Remick’s elegance. Take him to an animal farm, in fact, and the baboon freak out, flinging themselves at the car in an effort to kill the brat. Lee Remick thinks it’s all happening in her head. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t check the references of the nursemaid who suddenly shows up after the boy’s nanny has hanged herself out a second-story window in the middle of the boy’s birthday party. Or maybe it’s Peck’s fault for lighting the priest who brings him news of his son’s satanic parents. At the very least, you have to blame the American government for economizing on Peck’s staff— they give him an enormous house and then budget only the minimal house staff.

The Omen will make a heap of money for Twentieth Century Fox and thrill audiences across America. It will be compared favorably to The Exorcist and JAWS. As a result, Fox— whose teetering fortunes make it the industry’s Mary Hartman—will get to stay in

business. That, I agree, is a good thing. That The Omen, an effective little shocker, should be touted as a suspense masterpiece is not o good.

The idea for the movie is nifty: that in the final day described in Revelations, the devil will make a major bid for power. Director Dick Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer have done their best to deliver, but the story line has too many holes to permit a basic suspension of our disbelief. And when Peck and Remick are at their most incredulous,

you have to restrain your self from shouting, “For Heaven’s sake, haven’t you seen The Exorcist?”

If you can pass over the drippy attempt at a love relationship between Peck and Remick and forget that normal intelligence and curiosity would make even a Nixon-appointed ambassador take preventive measures, The Omen works just fine. There’s a satanically inspired storm that’s worth the price of admission, and what befalls David Warner, not to mention Lee Remick, will make you shriek. Donner makes much of small moments that send chills up the spine, and it isn’t until the end, when seriousness and Seltzer’s draggy apocalypse resurface, that the movie veers off course again.

If The Omen is considered as the sum of its effects, Donner’s film is a minor horror triumph. It is good to see Peck again, even if his innate decency overloads a script which is a little too pat on that score. Horror with style is rare, and in truth this scare-filled movie is good enough that it’s annoying to be subjected to its seemingly unconscious inanities. Of course for those who use horror film as a way of grabbing a free squeeze in the dark, The Omen is the best movie news in months.

Amid all this gloom, there is The Man Who Skied Down Everest. It cries to be seen, and if it’s playing in your area, I’d suggest it as the ideal summer movie. The film documents Yuichiro Miura’s 100-mile-an-hour run down the uppermost slope of Everest. It cost $3 million for him to climb to that altitude and six Sherpas lost their lives along the way. While the camera records that long and difficult endeavor, it more importantly chronicles an act of courage and nobility. Grace is a word we use to describe in tangibles; watching

Miura’s pilgrimage to the top of Everest, you can see what it means in action.

The run itself takes only a few moments in the documentary. Hurtling down the mountain, Miura skied 6000 feet in less than two minutes before he fell; he came to a stop a few hundred feet from the Bergschrund, a crevasse so deep that his body, had he gone over, would never have been recovered. Compelling in a more subtle way) is the slow climb to the top, with Tibetan music in the background and passages from Miura’s diary on the soundtrack. Ten minutes into the film, I was won over by its beauty. Others were as well: The Man Who Skied Down Everest received this year’s Academy Award for best documentary. To see it in this most dreary of movie summers is to be physically and spiritually refreshed.

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