Variations on the Confidence Game

A passel of new films about everyone's favorite con men, from Tom Sawyer to Adolph Hitler, with a few con women thrown in for balance.

July 1973By Comments

THERE’S A NEW TOM SAWYER for the kiddies, the first of a series of “family” films sponsored by The Reader’s Digest. And if there’s a prophylactic RD aura about this huge-screen musical version—well, didn’t Twain put it there himself in his idyllic tale of a Missouri boyhood, circa 1840? And it’s been loved generationally, in the black-and-white movies made thereof in 1917 and 1930 (the latter had Jackie Coogan as Tom, Mitzi Green as Becky, Tully Marshall as Muff Potter, Clara Blandick as Aunt Polly and Jane Darwell as Widow Douglass) and in the 1938 David Selznick Technicolor Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with Tommy Kelly as Tom, Walter Brennan as Muff, May Robson as Aunt Polly, Spring Byington as Widow Douglas and Victor Jory a really terrifying Injun Joe.

This time around Tom is a plastic Johnny Whitaker, with a more boyish but much too clean Jeff East as Huck. The compensations are Warren Dates, as a marvelously befuddled Muff; Celeste Holm as a warmly righteous Aunt Polly and Lucille Benson as a buxom Widder Douglas (three variations on a name in three films). Beyond them there is a literate script and some jolly nice songs, all by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and above all some of the loveliest Missouri scenery. And you have to have a passel of kids around you (as I did at the Music Hall) to provide the raucous giggles over the white-washing of the fence and Huck’s and Tom’s weepy appearance at their funeral, the gasps at the graveyard shenanigans, the suspenseful chills and final cheers during the climactic cave sequence to know that there’s a children’s classic at hand and that you can double your pleasure in adulthood by knowing the generations are ungapped thereby.

Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, his fifth and most recent film, is exactly what we have in mind when we talk nostalgically of what movies “used to be”—meaningful rather than metaphorical, engrossing rather than exploitative, humanistic in their comedy and their sentiment. Indeed there will be those cineastes who will declare that this is a used-to-be-movie, with shades of The Kid, The Champ, Little Miss Marker—if not homages to the makers thereof. They’re right as far as genre goes. A basic theme is, of course, that of the waif and the con man, the child up against the hard heart and larcenous learnings of the adult. But as Bogdanovich has shown in the progression of his films, along with a steady growth of professionalism and ripening of talent, through Targets, Directed by John Ford, The Last Picture Show and What’s Up Doc?, he is artist enough to make his personal mark upon a genre with a work that is distinctively his own.

Based rather loosely on Addie Pray, a novel by Joe David Brown, with a screenplay by Alvin Sargent (who proves himself better at adaptation than originality), Paper Moon is the story (a love story, perhaps, or a story of love) of a nine-year-old orphan and a small-time confidence man making his way through a Depression-bleak Kansas en route to her aunt’s in St. Joseph, Mo. The Panama-hatted slick-suited gent is a Bible salesman, working the widow-racket, and they meet at her mother’s graveside where he has paused to pay tribute (with second-hand flowers) to the departed, of carnal memory, and a trio of do-gooders are wondering how to dispose of the child. Since he’s on his way to St. Jo, why not take the girl to her only surviving relative? He agrees and in no time has gently blackmailed a chap in town into giving the child $200 in compensation for her mother’s death and spent a chunk of it refurbishing his roadster. He’s about to put her on a train for St. Jo with $20 cash when suddenly he sees the child plain. “You owe me $200,” she declares. He has met his match.

Moses Pray’s match is about four feet tall, a hideous cloche pulled down to her eyebrows, sexless in overalls, firm-pawed and bass-voiced, clutching a cigar-box packed with her treasures, chief among them a bottle of perfume and a snapshot of her mother, a posturing cheap and pretty belle in the same cloche. And Addie has a perceptive eye, a mind like a calculator, a bent for smoking in bed, a passion for Jack Benny and Fibber McGee, a cool head for business and a yearning tenderness. But in eternal-woman fashion, she’s up against a total stinker, a foolish, cowardly petty crook without an honest instinct or a non-egocentric emotion. He’ll earn and repay the $200—if he won’t Addie will scream—but not an iota more will he give.

The two set out and before you know it, Addie’s running the widow-racket, the dollar-switch and the $20-pass like a pro, with the profits bulging in her cigar box. True, there’s a bit of setback when Moses gets himself besotted by Trixie Delight, a carnival dancer of good family, but Addie, with the help of Trixie’s 15-year old slavery, deals with the problem. It’s when Moses gets into bootlegging that things get tough and a little girl really has to cope. But you can bet on Addie all the way.

Addie is portrayed by a nine-year-old named Tatum O’Neal—only a father would be willing to co-star with this technical amateur but actually top-pro picture-stealer. And indeed, it is her father, Ryan O’Neal, who not only cooperates in her large case of larceny but in the course thereof proves himself a highly gifted actor who is surely and steadily moving far beyond his pretty-boy simplistics in Love Story and The Thief Who Came to Dinner and becoming, as he indicated in What’s Up, Doc?, a first-rate character actor. He gives Moses Pray a proper sleeziness, just the right touch of slickery, to make the little girl’s enthrallment—and reticent hope that just maybe, what with their having the same sort of jaw line—just maybe he’s her father.

Bogdanovich’s basic triumph is in keeping the film unsentimental, unslapstick and unstrained. Laszlo Kovacs’ camera has captured so completely a sense of time and place, of a poverty-stricken Midwest and a Depression-era whose hopes are fed by Addie’s idolized “Franklin Roosevelt,” and of an age of relative innocence, that one is transported in the watching. His casting is once again impeccable, beyond the O’Neals, with Madeline Kahn, that deliciously nasal fiancee from Iowa in What’s Up, Doc?, sheer delight as the whorish and pathetic Trixie with high-falutin’ talk of bone structure and a bitter awareness of her shaky holding power; P.J. Johnson as Trixie’s stolid slave who accepts the burdens of hard times and the joys of emancipation with equal patience; John Hillerman as law breaker and lawman; Burton Gilliam as a gamey desk clerk—and lots more, with every face a part not only of the scene but of the era. And again Bogdanovich has used period music within its context as the final seal on our nostalgia. With Paper Moon his expanding artistry is confirmed. Our sensibilities soothed and pleasured, we can travel in Paper Moon as a reminder that the good things of film not only used to be—but are.

For the horrow of truth and of all too recent memory, there’s Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a British-Italian co-production based on Gerhard Boldt’s eye-witness account, The Last Days of Chancellery, with its English screenplay adaptation by Ivan Moffat and its historical accuracy attested to by the English historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper. It is directed by Ennio de Concini, whose screenplays range from Shoeshine to Divorce Italian Style and on and who collaborated with Wolfgang Reinhardt and Maria Pia Fusco on this screenplay, and covers those ten days, from April 20-30, 1945, of the Gotterdamerung in Hitler’s bunker beneath the Reichschancellery as the Russians made their holocaustic sweep into Berlin.

But while there are cuts and intercuts of newsreels and newsreel-like depictions of the final march of the war, and while the bunker is populated by the high command and Hitler’s inner circle, complete with the lush Eva Braun, the limping Goebbels and his family, the “elusive” Martin Bormann, the focal point is Hitler—and his portrayal by Alec Guinness is, perhaps, the ultimate study of megalomania. Not only is his physical portrait of that madman the Hitler we knew, albeit through the newsreels of his time, but also his portrait of the man’s psychopathia confirms all that we have known and learned since. The genius of Guinness’ impersonation is that he manages not only the moments of urbanity but also, grotesquely enough, of the charm that must have enthralled those who dedicated their lives to him—whether on the personal or national-leader level. And this is not an easy accomplishment, given a relatively out-of-context situation. I am not sure that those without any contemporary sense of Hitler’s hold upon a nation and his world power will find credibility in all that transpires—but that, of course, is the essence of historic tragedy. And for those of us who know that time and tragedy, will sit enthralled through a reenactment of the ultimate horror of our time. And above all, the filmmakers do drive home the quintessential lesson that the world was given at a cost of thirty million lives and continental devastation—the price that is paid for “law and order” and, finally, for “order” alone. It is a lesson that tragically we have not yet learned.

An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu’s 53rd and last film, completed in 1962 before his death the following year, is the fourth of that master’s works to be released here in the past year. If you were unfortunate enough to have missed his Tokyo Story (1953), Late Spring (1949), or The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), you can now encounter the quiet sense of his artistic approach and philosophy and be not only enriched but also refreshed thereby.

Not quite the encompassing masterwork that Tokyo Story is, with its penetrating study of generations slowly separating, An Autumn Afternoon epitomizes all that made Ozu, as Donald Richie, Americans’ infallible guide to Japanese cinema, has pointed out, the most “Japanese” of that country’s filmmakers. He was its most honored as well, in the course of his 35 years in film; but Richie notes too that he was not therefore its most popular. Flash and sensation make for the big box-office the whole world over. We save our honoring of the George Cukors or John Fords or Raoul Walshes, let alone of some of our major and truly talented performers, for retrospectives—if the timing is right—and more often for posthumous Oscars.

Ozu’s distinction is the total, absence of flash and sensation and the absolute minimum of camera “work” or even of plot. His study is mankind and he chooses to observe it below eye level, the camera “seated” in Japanese style as the thoughtful onlooker, recording what appears before it. So deep is his contemplation of what does pass that we achieve the utmost of drama and the honest flash and sensation that marks the lives of men and women the world over. There are no fades and dissolves, no swoops and swerves; the men and women come and go in the empty street or hallway or room where the watcher waits. And we watch and are drawn into their lives and assimilate them at a human pace.

There are, in An Autumn Afternoon, not only the actors we have encountered before, but the same “plot” elements of his previous works; for his concern is the family, its children taking on lives of their own, a parent left ultimately to solitude. His protagonist is again the father, again the superb Chishu Ryu, a business executive with friendly colleagues, a widower living contentedly with his daughter and his younger son, generous with his elder son, who is a married man beset by the high cost of refrigerators and golf clubs versus his low salary. The father dines regularly with two old friends, one an executive like himself with a wife given to match-making, the other a professor who has married a girl of his daughter’s age. Through them and their small talk, through the departure of his own secretary for marriage and in the aftermath of a dinner the men and some others give for a favorite teacher they all shared, the father becomes increasingly aware of his daughter’s maturing and his responsibility in seeing that she makes a marriage before too long.

Hardly the stuff of thrillers, but no Hitchcock McGuffin, no Sleuth-like turnabout can surpass the suspense that Ozu builds slowly and subtly to crisis and climax. And such is his art, as incident builds upon incident, that there is breath-bating tensions as we await a young man’s answer, in the outcome of a friendly put-on, in a young woman’s sudden loss of composure. One becomes so deeply involved with the father, with the daughter, even with the petty domestic bickering of the married son that, as always at the end of an Ozu film, one wants another chapter, the what-happened-next of the truly satisfying novel. The edges of their lives are rounded with incident: As in other films, for example, the father encounters a younger man who served with him in the Navy and off they go to celebrate their reunion. It’s a boozy affair, culminating in a brassy bar with a warm and dimpled barmaid to play a rousing march on the jukebox and join their small-boy replay. (There’s a delightful side comment here as the younger man, speculating on Japan’s winning the war, notes, “We’d be in New York now, you and I, the real thing, not an imitation—and the blue-eyed ones would be wearing the wigs and chewing gum and plonking tunes on the samisen.”) But the incident is open-minded, as all human contacts are, for the father returns to the bar to note that if one does not look too closely, the barmaid resembles his wife, and he returns again when he has done his duty as well as a loving father can, fresh from a wedding that is, perhaps, the funeral the barmaid assumes from his demeanor. But it is in his own home, as his younger son fecklessly heads for bed with an admonition to his father to take it easy on the booze—we can’t have you dying on us—that the loneliness of living soaks into our hearts.

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