Thematically, If…, about a repressive boys’ school, resembles Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933). Artistically, it’s very much a film of its time. 1969, the year it was released in the U.S., was a watershed year for film. Two years earlier, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde set new boundaries in big screen depictions of sex and violence. By 1969, frank explorations of those themes were everywhere. Films took us places we’d never been before – on the road with pot smoking hippies in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, into the nether world of male hustlers in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, on the beach with teenage rapists in Frank Perry’s Last Summer and in the midst of political turmoil in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.
Old themes were given new slants as witness the seedy rise of Nazi Germany in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, the use of popular music as a condemnation of war in Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War, a look into the oppressive desperation fueling marathon dance contests of the 1930s in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? , and the cynical exposure of a beloved schoolteacher in Ronald Neame’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Into this mix came the allegorical If…, giving credence to a generation with its anti-establishment fire, both literal and figurative.
Two things that pass as artistic license in the film were actually done because the production was short of money. One is the switch from color to black-and-white and back again several times, the other is the smoke rising, then receding, then rising again in the final scene. It is actually the same shot played forward, then in reverse, then forward again.
Malcolm McDowell, whose portrayal of protagonist Mick Travis caused a sensation at the time, became a huge star thanks to this film. He reprised the role in Anderson’s Britannia Hospital fourteen years later, but there are traces of the character evident in McDowell’s performances in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Anderson’s O Lucky Man! as well.
The DVD also includes Anderson’s moving Oscar-winning documentary, 1954’s Thursday’s Children, about a school for deaf children, narrated by Richard Burton.
Claude Berri, who is perhaps best known for Jean de Florette and its sequel, Manon of the Spring (both 1986 Frances, 1987 US), burst onto the scene with his first film, the poignant masterpiece, The Two of Us.
What made The Two of Us stand out was that it was the first film to show the majority of the French citizenry during World War II to be neither Nazi sympathizers nor resistance fighters, but merely people going about their daily lives as best they could. The film tells the simple story of a young boy sent by his parents to live in the country with an elderly couple who have agreed to pose as his grandparents and the growing affection between the old man and the little boy. The elderly couple doesn’t know the boy is Jewish and the boy’s family doesn’t know the elderly couple is anti-Semitic. The film provided the legendary Michel Simon (Boudu Saved from Drowning, L’Atalante) with a great late-career role, for which he won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Alain Cohen (And They All Lived Happily Ever After) who played the boy and Berri are interviewed in the bonus material.
Eight months before The Godfather made Al Pacino a household name, Fox released Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971). A love story set against a background of drug addiction, Pacino and Kitty Winn (The Exorcist) are perfectly matched. Winn’s heartrending performance won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes. Winn, the grand-daughter of Gen. George Marshall, recently made news when she sold a painting given her grandfather by Winston Churchill for $1.2 million. Fox, which postponed the DVD release of this film several times, has finally released it along with another Pacino film Author! Author!
Author! Author! (1982), like most Arthur Hiller (Love Story, The Hospital) films, promises more than it delivers. Ostensibly a comedy, it plays more like a low-rent soap opera with Pacino as a playwright stuck raising five kids, four of whom were dumped on him by his ex-wife.
To coincide with the upcoming theatrical release of Live Free or Die Hard, Fox is re-issuing the previous three of the Bruce Willis Die Hard films in a box set along with a bonus disc on the history of the franchise and the making of the new film.
Willis became a star in TV’s Moonlighting which ran for four seasons from 1985-1989, during which he made several films. His most successful film was the original 1988 thriller, Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan (The Hunt for Red October). The film was so successful it spawned an immediate sequel, 1990’s Die Hard 2: Die Harder, directed by Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger) and later, 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, again directed by McTiernan. All three films were highly successful and Fox has subsequently released all three on DVD on at least three occasions. If you are among the legions of Die Hard fans and don’t already own the three previous films you may want to buy the box set, but a re-purchase just to add the bonus disc to your collection may not be worth the expense.
Even if you are one of Lucille Ball’s legions of fans, you may want to stay clear of Warner Bros. Lucille Ball Collection. While everything Ball touched on TV turned to gold, the same was not true of her big screen career.
Ball’s best screen roles were in support of Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door (1937) and Without Love (1945)and later as a real-life mother of her own Brady bunch in Yours, Mine and Ours (1968). Prior to, and after that, her starring roles were bland at best.
The one gem in the collection is Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Maureen O’Hara stars as a promising ballerina whose dreams fall apart when her company folds and she joins pal Lucy as “Bubbles” in a burlesque company. Arzner’s (Craig’s Wife) astute direction and the interplay between the two redheads (O’Hara and Ball) keep the film afloat.
Taken from a Damon Runyon (Lady for a Day, Little Miss Marker) story, The Big Street (1942), directed by Irving Reis (The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Enchantment) is a huge disappointment. Henry Fonda was too strong an actor to be playing a sap who falls for a hardened gangster’s moll and Ball too light an actress to be taken seriously as a tough dame without a conscience.
Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), directed by Roy Del Ruth (Topper Returns, The West Point Story) is inconsequential nonsense about a hat check clerk (Red Skelton) who dreams he is Louis XV and his girl Lucy is the notorious Madame du Barry. Gene Kelly also stars, but it is Virginia O’Brien singing “Salome” who gives the film its one bright moment.
Ball’s fourth and final big screen teaming with Bob Hope was the dismal Critic’s Choice (1963), directed by TV director Don Weis, in which Hope plays a sour critic jealous of wife Ball’s newfound success as a writer. Adam’s Rib it ain’t.
On stage, Jerry Herman’s Mame was a triumph for all concerned. A much anticipated film with original stage star Angela Lansbury never materialized. Instead Ball provided Warner Bros. with $5,000,000 of her own money to be considered for the lead in the film. For some reason, Ball had the crazy notion that Rosalind Russell stole her original Auntie Mame characterization from Ball’s character in I Love Lucy. In any event, Lucy may have bought her way into 1974’s Mame but she was about as convincing as everyone’s favorite madcap aunt as Lyndon Johnson would have been as a ballet dancer.
Directed by Gene Saks (The Odd Couple, Cactus Flower), the film only comes to life when Saks’ wife at the time, Bea Arthur, is on screen as Vera Charles. Ball’s age (she was 64), her recent ski accident curtailing her movements, and her acceded-to demands that her vocals be used on all her songs, despite superior interpretations recorded by Lisa Kirk, all conspired against her. The film is best viewed in a highly inebriated state.
Miss Potter (2006), directed by Chris Noonan (Babe), is a sweet film about Beatrix Potter, the British author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and an early conservationist. Made on a budget, the film doesn’t provide much in the way of special effects, but makes up for them with its charming foray into its old-fashioned world. Renee Zellweger, perfectly cast as the demure author, gives a charming performance and is matched every step of the way by Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, and a superb supporting cast.
Releasing on the TV front this week is Perry Mason, Season 2, Volume 1. (1958-1959). Perfectly cast with Raymond Burr as the intrepid defense attorney; Babara Hale as his loyal secretary, Della Street; William Hopper as his private investigator, Paul Drake; William Talmam as his nemesis, D.A. Hamilton Burger; and veteran character actor Ray Collins (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons) as bumbling Lt. Tragg, this long-running series was, and is, a treat. Guest stars include Bruce Bennett, Mala Powers, Marie Windsor and other welcome familiar faces. Each episode runs ten to fifteen minutes longer than today’s shows as commercial interruptions were not as frequent or prolonged in those days.
Peter J. Patrick (June 20, 2007)
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