Lucy’s lame Mame and other copamamie movies. Only The Conversation tells it like it is.

May 1974By Comments


Her adoring chorus claims she “charms the husks right offa the corn.” I don’t know about the charm, but there’s enough raw corn in this newest version of Auntie Mame to fatten a winter’s worth of King Ranch cattle. This musical is as oversentimentalized, gushy, and out-of-date as the Lawrence Welk Show. Its countless tittering references to unwed mothers, triple martinis, naughty words (like “bastard”), and the naked backside of a corpulent schoolboy—in this day of cocaine sniffers, living-in-sinners, and streakers—don’t quite make it any more.

Neither does Lucille Ball, the star of Mame and its reason for being. To think that at 63 she can wow the world as a dramatic actress and a singer is pretty fuzzy thinking, even for Lucy. She’s fine, if you like that sort of thing, as the wailing scatter-brain on the eternal “I Love Lucy” TV series, but she doesn’t share the sort of eccentric elan that Rosalind Russell brought to the role of Mame in the 1957 film. Like her contemporary male counterpart, John Wayne, Lucy is switching gears too late to make it over the hill in style.

She doesn’t look bad for a woman in her sixties, but the role calls for someone twenty years her junior. Theodora van Runkle’s $300,000 outfitting job manages to trim that many years off her figure, but the attempts to do the same for her face with astigmatic soft-focus closeups are pathetically obvious and enough to give you a headache.

Also, though Mame is chiefly a comedy, there are several serious scenes, and Lucy’s attempts at, for instance, believable sobs fall flat, even with her face in her hands. And the biggest puzzle of all is why on earth Lucy chose to try her screen comeback in a singing role, when her voice strains like a tonsillectomy convalescent’s, and projects no farther than the end of her nose.

Maybe choreographer Onna White knew when she was licked, because the dance routines are as uninspired as my seventh grade ballet recital. In the flapper scene, everybody simply flaps in place.

Agnes Gooch, the faithful governess, played by Jane Connell, is a welcome relief, because she can actually sing. In fact, she sings so well that her two numbers almost throw this Ted Mack Amateur Hour of a musical out of whack. Vera, Mame’s basso-voiced lush of a friend, played in high histrionic style by Beatrice Arthur (Maude on TV), is refreshing, too, because she’s the only one who can see a flaw or two in Mame. After all, it’s pretty hard to fault a woman who, although she’s never ridden a horse before, sails over hedges sidesaddle and then pulls a St. Francis of Assisi with the fox, who curls up in her arms like a kitty cat.

The best character of all is Robert Preston (the Music Man) as Beauregard Burnside, Mame’s drawling, honeysuckle suitor. At 56, he’s still dashing and handsome enough to charm more than the husks off any girl. The only thing that makes me wonder about him is his ability to fall for a woman too dumb to fill out a cash receipt.

Ms. Ball may make a killing with her film of Auntie Mame, by providing, in her words, “a little decent wholesome entertainment for a change” to a nostalgic audience yearning for pre-R movie days. But I think I speak for a lot of folks when I say “I don’t love this Lucy.”

The Conversation

The Conversation is the unremarkable title of the most sensational film, in terms of sheer emotional impact, I’ve seen this year. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who did both for The Godfather, this film deals with the life of a professional eavesdropper.

Coppola began this screenplay in 1966 and finished it in 1969, long before Watergate, and it’s difficult not to marvel at its prophetic accuracy. The Conversation brings home the chilling, calculating depravity of men who fashion hate lists, recruit “plumbers,” and tap telephones—in this case, simply for money.

Gene Hackman is perfectly cast as Harry Caul, a man as colorless as his name, the soft-spoken but undisputed king of the “surveillance” profession. The case he is working on requires him to film and record the conversation of two young lovers as they wander through a crowded park. Harry ultimately gets his information, but meanwhile gets involved in a murder plot.

The young lovers’ circuitous walk becomes a constant refrain, as Coppola returns to it again and again with slightly variant words and images. But he concentrates more on Harry. Years of eavesdropping on the squalid side of love, its daily monotonies and inevitable treacheries have built up in Harry emotional defenses he despises but can’t overcome. His sometime girlfriend doesn’t know where he lives or works; though he cares enough to pay her rent, he lies even about such minutiae as his correct age. Harry is a man so caught up in discovering the secrets of others that he refuses to share any of his own, and finally becomes too empty and isolated to have any secrets.

The ambience in Coppola’s film tells us more about Harry than he does. During the day, Harry works in an ugly warehouse lab, a sterile cavern of space and silence, filled only by the repetitive droning of the tapes he is deciphering. His venetian-blinded, bare-floored apartment lacks even the human touch. But Harry lives such a vicarious existence, feeding on other people’s intimacies, that he seems oblivious to the lack of warmth or intimacy in his own surroundings.

Harry’s “friends” are merely acquaintances, other men in his field. Since they all traffic in treachery, they can’t and don’t trust each other. During a beer-bust following a surveillance convention, someone surreptitiously tapes Harry in a rare moment of drunken self-revelation. His subsequent rage is not only the humiliation of a man beaten at his own game by an inferior player, but anger at himself for becoming even momentarily vulnerable.

Unlike his fellow snoops, Harry possesses the vestiges of a conscience. Once, he was indirectly responsible for the murders of three young people, and he fears his two newest victims may come to a similar end. With no friend to turn to, Harry seeks solace in the anonymity of a Catholic confessional.

Harry’s other comfort is a saxophone, his only real source of beauty, joy, or relaxation. Though cold brass, the instrument is his warmest, closest companion, allowing him to express in music a soulful yearning he can’t quite put into words.

But words are what we are most interested in. I found myself becoming more and more curious about the couple’s conversation, frustrated at the weird electronic distortions and nearby band music that drown out much of what they say. By repetition of that scene, Coppola adds to the eerie mood and teasingly whets our curiosity until we turn into voyeurs as well, straining to hear and desperately wanting to know. At last we have to ask ourselves hard questions: what would we do if someone offered us $15,000 for recording a stranger’s conversation?

The Conversation is a true horror film; all the more so because Coppola doesn’t resort to the supernatural to create his effect. Reality is more than ample material here: the sinister power of even legitimate microphones, the impossibility of safety in privacy, the paranoia of total awareness. Harry finally has to confront the atrocity he is responsible for, like The Picture of Dorian Gray. He can no longer cringe under the bedcovers like a child or drown out the reality with a blaring television cartoon show. And when the final shocking epiphany scene floods the screen, it floods our psyches as well; it’s a scene I’ll remember as long as I see films.

The only emotion a cop movie can wring out of me anymore is a sinking sense of deja phooey. No amount of spurting blood, screeching chase scenes, or either-sided brutality can shock or amaze me. During screenings of the three cop films reviewed here, I found myself jotting down notes with all the jaded disinterest of a police reporter covering his umpteenth Saturday night stabbing. And when going to the movies gets to be like pounding a beat, the time has come to ignore this strip-mined genre until it erodes itself away.


Busting is what Keneely (Elliott Gould) and his partner Farell (Robert Blake) like to do best. In fact, it’s all they like to do. Peter Hyams, the director and scenarist of this mildly ambitious tale of two vice-squad detectives, deserves credit for offering us the most multi-sided version of cops and robbers yet to come out of this motion picture crime wave.

You don’t know which side to be on. And if Hyams knows, he isn’t saying. My personal favorite is the villain, Rizzo, because he best exemplifies the hard-headed pragmatism that makes America grate; he considers his mobster tactics free enterprise with a flair. He manages enough strippers, whores, and dope runners to start his own Las Vegas, but he also gives to United Fund and takes his family to church every Sunday.

Rizzo gloats about the miserable life-styles of the cops compared to his and he’s right. Keneely has only a hide-a-bed to call his own. His only joy in life is entrapping whores, busting fags, and cracking down on porno stores. Though these crimes are largely victimless, the innocent bystanders who get killed during two public shoot-outs might consider themselves victims, and the cops the criminals. Keneely doesn’t seem to get quite that far in his thinking. But he does begin to wonder about his one-time rookie enthusiasm for being the best lock-checker and museum-guarder in the department.

These novel viewpoints give Busting a certain freshness. But there are many cop movie leftovers too. The action itself is Dick-and-Jane predictable; even someone who never figures out whodunit will have no trouble predicting the final flimsy twist. We serve the usual compulsory time up and down back stairways, in dark bars, and in and out of alleys, and what humor there is seems pasted on. In one particularly gratuitous scene, two fags arraigned by a judge, who look like Flip Wilson’s Geraldine and Tiny Tim, are represented by a lawyer who lisps like Capote. This is the kind of laugh-getter you expect to find in a second-rate nightclub somewhere in Sticksville.

The heroes give second-rate performances. Blake plays Farell much as he played Perry in In Cold Blood. His dangling cigarette and Vitalis hairdo are more likely on a hood than a police detective. Gould is even less ambitious. Freshly transplanted to Busting from Robert Altman’s fine film, The Long Goodbye, he seems aware that he’s just gone from potting soil to bare rock. So he simply rehashes his dopey, disheveled Philip Marlowe routine, shuffling along fighting the good fight with a scratch of the head and a shrug of the shoulder. The partners’ light-hearted cop-and-robber glee is occasionally contagious, but when they pull stunts like burning Rizzo’s car in front of him, verisimilitude takes a nosedive. Any decent mobster would gun them down for that.

Hyams’ dialogue and his fleshing out of previously stereotyped characters deserve some recognition. But he sticks too close to the old money-making formula to earn a gold badge.

The Super Cops

The Super Cops is based on yet another factual story about two of New York’s finest. Nicknamed Batman and Robin by the grateful, honest folk in Bedford-Stuyvesant, they spend every waking moment scouring the slums for illegal weapons to confiscate and evil pushers to bust. They don’t lose any sleep over due process—something disturbingly common to the cop film genre —or over any stupid girls either. Even the sexy black hooker who teaches Batman the ropes and becomes a part-time informant doesn’t have to worry about Batman trying any funny business. I hope the story selectively edited a few things out of their lives; if not, Batman and Robin are no more real than their comic book namesakes.

Directed by Gordon Parks (Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score), Super Cops has plenty of POW! SHAZAM! action in it, and a welcome dose of humor: some of it from the script, and the rest from Ron Leibman (Batman), the comic actor who played George Segal’s brother in Where’s Poppa? David Selby, his partner, usually just stands around looking stoned.

But mostly it’s just more of the same: seamy-side violence disguised as justice being served so we won’t feel bad about liking it. Or, in my case, not liking it.

Man On A Swing

The fastest-moving movie gimmick these days, outside of lunatic law enforcement, is any form of supernaturabilia. So director Frank Perry, always one to capitalize on a current trend while pretending to buck it, pits cop against clarivoyant in his newest Sominex of a film, Man on a Swing.

Cliff Robertson is a police chief who investigates the mysterious strangling death of a young girl. He goes about it with all of Paul Drake’s precision and none of his style. I never have understood what Robertson has that makes him star material. The only expressions I’ve ever seen cross his highly cosmeticized face have a local little theater self-consciousness that I find distracting. Perhaps agreeing with me, Perry adds song and dance man Joel Grey for pizzazz.

He’s the man from ESP who offers to help find the killer. Grey’s performance is flashy and flawless, but it’s still a little much to believe that every time a mystic gets a message from beyond he either hits the floor like an air raid target, works his jaw like a man about to hang, or leaps cat-like onto furniture.

The story Perry offers is supposedly based on fact. And it certainly has a bland, subplotless step-by-step realism to it. But Perry doesn’t have the imagination even to establish audience empathy for the girl by having her say a few words on screen before she gets murdered. This somewhat dulls our lust for revenge. As for the suspects, they are all either too obvious or too inconspicuous to be taken seriously.

There are a few good moments of suspense, but the questions that pop up never die down. I felt especially cheated after suffering through several minutes of anonymous knockings at the Chief’s door one rainy night, never to know for sure who was out there. My guess is The Monkey’s Paw. The real-life case this is based on must be filed under Baffling. Maybe Perry thinks that to be inscrutable is to be profound. Whatever his motives, Man on a Swing leaves everything up in the air, at the risk of leaving its audience up in arms.

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