Devil Without a Cause

Hold on to your stomachs-- super-realism has hit the movies! Relax-- there are also more traditional thrills and yawns.

March 1974By Comments

I START THIS COLUMN WITH the handicap, I guess, of a pox on me from all avid Judith Cristers. But I’m sure if Ms. Crist knew how much I need the work she would understand and wish me reasonably well. I convinced the editors to recruit a critic born on Texas soil, steeped in our rich myths and schooled in our narrow prejudices, suggesting that these credentials would surely cause faithful subscribers to overlook a few bum steers and occasional hysterical overstatements. Reviewers, alas, are not infallible.

I must warn that there seldom will be one of those perceptive catch-all introductions telling what this month’s offering of new films means to the world at large. The Waring Blender mentality required to homogenize random smatterings of observations and sense impressions into a palatable blend of predictions or platitudes is not mine.

Not that I didn’t try with the movies reviewed on these pages. I did. But the only common qualities I discovered were the same hackneyed ones common to the human condition: love, sex, evil, supernatural forces beyond our control, and death by many causes. The only clever observation worth the space it takes to make it is that a whopping four of these new films boast retching scenes. This seemed like a train of thought better left on the side track. I could dissertate that these films must be trying to depict a new Ash-Can School of superrealism with such tasteless displays; but all people, even un-reel ones, have to deal sometime with a queasy stomach and I risk upsetting yours by going on about it.

“WAIT, IT GETS BETTER!” THE usher wryly called after an ashen-faced girl rushing from the theater. Only devotion to duty kept me from following.

Her departure was prompted by a scene in which Regan, the 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil, satisfies her salivating lust using a crucifix for a dildo. And the usher was right, we hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Exorcist, billed as a horror-thriller, is written by the same William Blatty responsible for the best-selling book. And, like the book, it’s an unredeemable piece of trash. But in spite of that, or maybe because of that, it has grossed over $2 million in its first big week, and is on its way to becoming Warner Brothers’ all-time biggest grosser. In more ways than one.

If Blatty doesn’t know better, director William Friedkin (Boys in the Band, French Connection) should. Both of those films managed to shock without the cheap-shot assorted gore of The Exorcist. But then, they also made less money than this one will.

The first half of the film is more tedious than terrifying. Regan is a sweet young child with a model mother. They kiss each other night-night and talk of ponies and Captain Howdy. Then, as her first irrational symptoms emerge, there’s a sequence of Dr. Welbyish hospital scenes and consultations with various shrinks and specialists.

The thrills begin in the second half when the exorcists, two Catholic priests, are called in to scare the devil out of her. But Friedkin’s dramatization is often more laughable than scary: such as scabby-faced, wild-eyed Regan rolling her head and roaring, an unwitting parody of the MGM lion. Or the scene where Satan invades her box-springs, causing her bed to shake and rattle like a tambourine. Her new voice (dubbed in by Mercedes McCambridge) makes her sound more like a terminal emphysemic than a vessel of the devil. Not that she doesn’t pull a few shockers: gripping a psychiatrist by his tenderest part, or pulling up her gown and making sexual overtures to her mother. There’s no cop-out on the language, either. The obscenities she spits out make Molly’s Ulysses soliloquy sound like a love sonnet. And that’s not all she spits out: when the priest reads scriptures or sprinkles Holy Water on Regan she tends to vomit profusely…a new color for each day of the week.

Friedkin is so engrossed with Regan and her devil that he neglects the plot and supporting characters, letting them flounder around as best they can. The result is a mish-mash of irrelevent scenes (like the diggings in Iraq and the whole sub-plot about Father Karras) and characters with flimsy motives and puzzling actions. Regan’s mother doesn’t even try to contact her ex-husband to tell him his daughter’s turned a mite peculiar, and refuses to implicate her daughter in her boyfriend’s death, thus endangering other lives.

We really can’t care what happens to Regan. Unlike other films or plays dealing with evil or demonic possession in children—The Bad Seed, Turn of the Screw—we have no sense of Regan as a person: no insight into the very real terror she must be feeling, and thus no pity for her suffering. I wish Friedkin had shown more of what goes on in her head, and less of what comes out of her mouth.

One other thing. In spite of its apparent lack of redeeming social value, this film is rated “R” instead of “X”: the same rating Don’t Look Now earned for showing a tender, tasteful love scene between a married couple. I guess sex and violence is only offensive to censors when it involves consenting adults. Anyway, I wouldn’t advise parents to take their kids to see The Exorcist…the boogie-man might get you if you do.

MOST MYSTERY-THRILLERS ARE CONTENT SIMPLY to mystify and thrill, usually in perverse and superficial ways. Don’t Look Now manages to do more. Part of the credit belongs to co-stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and even more to director Nicolas Roeg. His previous films (Far From the Madding Crowd, Performance, Petulia) were uneven at best. But with Don’t Look Now, he finally makes the pieces fit: so well that the resulting jigsaw-puzzle picture is moving and memorable enough to be called art.

The script (based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier) concerns an English couple living in Venice. He is attempting to restore the artwork in one of the city’s crumbling cathedrals; she is trying to forget the recent accidental drowning of their daughter. The series of murdered bodies being exhumed from the canals, and the chilling forebodings of a clairvoyant woman they encounter, make both their jobs difficult. A controlled but dazzling use of flash-backs, flash-forwards, nerve-jangling editing, and the silent, ominous presence of the canals do as much as the plot to heighten mounting suspense.

Unlike The Exorcist, where the characters are so unreal that our anxiety is for ourselves, Roeg establishes enough audience empathy for his struggling couple that we share their fears.

We are also sharply aware of their concern for each other. This sense of involvement and caring makes Don’t Look Now, in its subtleties, as much a love story as a tale of the supernatural. The sex scene between Christie and Sutherland is moving as well as erotic, because it’s the natural expression of the devotion we have already sensed. Interspliced shots of the lovers dressing only added to the scene’s intimacy. Such love scenes just might bring married love back in style.

LOVE OR LAW, SEX OR success? These are the agonizing decisions facing Hart (Timothy Bottoms) in Paper Chase, a soggy saga about Harvard law students and their struggle to survive in the Ivy League blackboard jungle.

Timothy Bottoms stars as the only stable member of a six-man study group of aspiring barristers. You can probably describe them yourself: the snooty fifth-generation man, the bullying blowhard, the insecure worry wart, etc., etc. Then there’s the pedantic, pitiless professor with the secret heart of gold. And his beautiful daughter, who of course loves Hart but won’t marry him because her estranged husband was also a law student and she can’t go through that again!

No, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s in keeping with the spirit of director-screenwriter James Bridges’ script, in which fabricated dilemmas (unexplained and unresolved) are presented in one so-what scene after another.

Paper Chase is the kind of movie where climactic highlights include Hart sneaking into the library’s stacks to peek at ole Kingsfield’s 1925 class notes; a first-year student attempting suicide (before exams!) because he’s cursed with a photographic memory instead of an analytical mind; and Hart and his girl falling through thin ice and continuing to discuss their dead-end future waistdeep in ice water.

Crusty old Kingsfield (John Houseman) and his daughter, Susan (Lindsay Wagner), are the only good things in the movie. Timothy Bottoms’ performance is as bland as poached eggs, probably because he’s unwilling to exercise his budding talents on this incredibly stunted script.

I recommend this movie to students taking a study break during dead week. Because it’s not the sort of movie to haunt or distract you after it’s over, or even while it’s going on.

EVERYONE BUT SHUT-INS MUST KNOW by now that Serpico is the real-life tale of an honest New York cop who won’t take bribes and can’t look away when his buddies do. My petty side bristles at the tattle-tale self-righteousness of such a crusader, but it’s difficult not to admire his integrity. So what if his monomania occasionally borders on megalomania? Without a healthy blend of ego and integrity the world might never produce its tiny handful of Naders and Ervins and Siricas.

Sidney Lumet, the director of Serpico, also directed Lovin’ Molly (Hollywood’s shredded version of McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne) savaged elsewhere in this issue. Trade gossip has it that Lumet’s slapdash job was due to his eagerness to get on to Serpico. I’m afraid haste made waste on both counts. Not that Serpico is a bad movie, it’s just that it could have been so much better. Here is a man who practices not only passive personal honesty, but active, quixotic honesty. Serpico, or Paco as he’s called (played by Al Pacino), is full of dramatic contradictions: He plays opera music when not playing cops and robbers; grows plants as well as a mustachioed beard. He’s a free spirit when it comes to marriage (never!) but a Middle-American 24-hour on-the-job drudge. All this made me want to know why Paco does the things he does. Lumet was content to show us his deeds alone.

This is regrettable, because there is nothing else of interest in Serpico to take up the slack. There is no suspense, no intrigue, no wild French Connection chase scenes. Even the cop-and-robber scenes are done with little more imagination than a made-for-TV movie. A little pretty or adventurous photography the caliber of that in The Sting or Don’t Look Now might even have rescued much of it, but it was as automatically programmed as a traffic cop’s signals. Also, we’re inside that ugly, metallic precinct station so long and so often I felt I was being held for questioning.

The plot is a little too faithful to the structure of Peter Maas’s book, which reads like a Sunday Supplement story. Paco’s bizarre odyssey is told with all the wild abandon of a paint-by-numbers set, step by step and point by point. Except for occasional side-bar scenes depicting Serpico the off-duty madcap, or Serpico the sincere but non-commital lover, we simply follow along as Serpico graduates from cop school, loses his innocence, confronts his peers and starts his tedious climb up the bureaucratic ladder. There is also about forty minutes more movie than the story requires.

None of this is Al Pacino’s fault, who brings as much warmth to the character as the script allows. But he’s at his best when he occasionally expresses doubts about himself (“I feel like a criminal ’cause I don’t take the money!” he confesses to his girl) and this doesn’t happen too often. As it is, Serpico has more in common with Superman than Hamlet: more heroic than human, and more admirable than appealing.

THE MOST SHOCKING THING ABOUT Executive Action is not its greedy exploitation of rampant Camelot nostalgia; it’s that director David Miller and scenarist Dalton Trumbo could fashion such a crashing bore of a movie out of the most dramatic single event of the Sixties.

Burt Lancaster, Will Geer and the late Robert Ryan play right-wing H. L. Hunt types who pay a team of expert marksmen to shoot Kennedy and make their world safe for plutocracy. In this hypothetical version, they cleverly set up Oswald as their entirely innocent patsy. But mostly they just carry on endless conversations in their plush suburban living rooms, and snarl at Kennedy’s image on TV the way their ideological counterparts do now at Nixon.

Director David Miller begins the movie by making it perfectly clear that this is only a hypothetical version. And that’s the last thing he makes clear, as he switches arbitarily from fact to fantasy and from newsclips to simulated action. No one, not even self-proclaimed assassination experts, could pretend to distinguish fact from fiction in Executive Action.

With our added dose of regional guilt, Texans will probably flock to this film as a form of mental flagellation. But boredom, not guilt, will be the whip.

MIKE NICHOLS, THE DIRECTOR WHO brought us The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge and Catch-22, has made a film about a talking dolphin. And in doing so, he has done more to revolutionize the animal-movie genre than anyone since Walt Disney invented Mickey Mouse.

No more of the sugary Hayley Mills-Fred McMurray types usually populating these movies. Surly George C. Scott plays the lead role, and like the other characters in Day of the Dolphin, shouts and curses and self-indulges on occasion. This may be a film where children learn more about the world of grown-ups than grown-ups learn about the world of dolphins.

Screenwriter Buck Henry (who also wrote Catch-22) has included enough espionage, murder, wire-tapping double-crossers and paper-shredding bad guys to give us jaded grown-ups something to relate to. The result is a film as funny, sophisticated and contemporary as a movie starring a talking fish can get.

The plot may require a willing suspension of disbelief, but if governors can spot flying saucers and tapes can erase themselves, why shouldn’t dolphins pronounce two-syllable words and be trained to blow up the President’s yacht?

I hate to claim that Nichols has done what decades of Disney-type films have never quite accomplished, but he has: he’s made a film the whole family can enjoy. I saw the picture twice, and both times the adult audience behaved like kids at a Saturday matinee. They laughed aloud and clapped at the funny lines, booed the villains, and let out a simultaneous whoop of delight when the bad guys got theirs.

It would be nice to give Nichols the credit for this mass-mesmerization, but most of it really belongs to the dolphins. Swimming and courting and leaping through the air, Alpha and his mate Beta are the most winsome creatures to hit the screen since the lion cubs in Born Free. Had there been a dolphin peddler in the theater lobby, I’d probably be sharing my bathtub with one.

WELL, CAN YOU CON AN old con or can’t you? Robert Redford and Paul Newman have teamed up to answer this niggling question. Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a green but ambitious small-time crook wanting to join organized crime; Henry Gondorff (Newman), is a slightly more savvy but down-and-out conman in Chicago who sometimes sleeps on the floor because he passes out there.

They join forces to “get” Lonnegan (Robert Shaw at his most sinister) a bigtime Chicago gambler and syndicate man responsible for killing Hooker’s best friend and mentor, Luther. Their commendable sense of poetic justice is accompanied by an equally commendable itch to break into the Bigcon by (appropriately) outconning the biggest con of all. “I don’t know enough about killing to kill him,” admits Hooker with winsome innocence, so they plan instead to “sting” him, Thirties racketeer lingo for swindling in a big and humiliating way.

Director George Roy Hill crowds a lot of double-dealing, slick-tricking, bullet-dodging, lingo-laden action into The Sting. Some of it is funny and all of it is ingeniously done, but paced a little too fast and lasting a little too long for us sedentary Seventies softies. There’s scarcely a pause that refreshes, or leisure to lay back and enjoy the photography of Robert Surtees (who captures the frenzied flamboyance of the Thirties as neatly as he did the West Texas Fifties in The Last Picture Show)…or great background piano rags by Scott Joplin…or an occasional touching scene, like a lonesome Hooker trying to make it through the night with anything soft and warm.

I guess it’s okay to develop a plot instead of characters, but the few glimpses we get inside Hooker and Gondorff (and Lonnegan and Billie) cry out for longer looks.

Especially since the plot of The Sting is like a beginning knitter’s sweater: tightly woven but full of holes. Also, a movie that insists on pivoting around a single gimmick (like The List of Adrian Messenger) needs to make it perfectly clear at the end just what the catch was; instead, we’re delivered an ending more sensational than satisfying. Deprived of such instant enlightenment, I felt nothing so much as left out. I suspect the cast had more fun making the movie than audiences will have watching it.

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