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