The Rescuers (1977)

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The Rescuers
Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, and Art Stevens
23rd entry in the Disney Animated Canon
Premiered June 22, 1977

The Rescuers was one of my favorite Disney movies as a kid, and I barely remember any of it. Having watched it again, I understand the latter, but not the former, nor why it was so popular with my mom’s students for however long she held on to our VHS copy. In its own time, The Rescuers was a return to form that saved the Walt Disney Company from certain doom. Today, nobody much cares for it, at least not adults. What changed?

The Rescuers was the last film to have any creative involvement from Walt Disney himself, having optioned Margery Sharp’s book of the same name as well as some of its spinoffs back in 1962. The original plot centered around the titular rescuers helping a Russian poet imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, but Disney thought it was too heavy duty and gave up on the project. By the ‘70s, though, the company was so starved for new content that they revived the picture as a placeholder– as they did the previous entry, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh– until they could make something more ambitious.

Mind you, it may not be political, but The Rescuers is very dark, in both its visuals and its story. It begins with a little girl named Penny (Michelle Stacy) dropping a message in a bottle into a swamp, where it floats into the sea, and thence into the sea, washing ashore in New York City to the tune of a very depressing song called “The Journey” by Shelby Flint. Arriving in New York, the message is taken to the Rescue Aid Society, a subsection of the United Nations run entirely by mice. Penny’s message is garbled due to water damage, and Hungarian delegate Bianca (Eva Gabor) volunteers to investigate. When pressed to choose a partner, she selects Bernard (Bob Newhart), the Society’s oafish but kind janitor.

The investigation takes them first to the orphanage where Penny ran away out of frustration over not being adopted, then to a sketchy pawn shop run by a haggard and villainous woman named Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page), who, after receiving a phone call about “the girl,” takes off to Louisiana; Bernard and Bianca in hot pursuit with help from a pilot/albatross named Orville (Jim Jordan). Arriving there, they discover that Medusa and her stooge Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn) have been keeping Penny as a slave on a condemned riverboat, taking advantage of her small size to get into a tidal cave that houses a sunken treasure called the Devil’s Eye Diamond.

In spite of the decided maturity and darkness of the story– you really sense the involvement of animator Don Bluth here– The Rescuers comes off as kinda half-assed. Penny is irritatingly cutesy. In fact, that’s her only defining characteristic, and the effect is dulling. All we care about is Bernard and Bianca. There are a handful of genuinely cute animal characters, like the orphanage cat (John McIntyre), Orville, and tiny, voiceless Evinrude the Dragonfly (James MacDonald). But then there’s an overload of ancillary characters living in the swamp who are little more than stereotypes and cameos, let alone the villains. Madame Medusa may not look much like 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil, but she certainly feels like a less fun version of her. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a film that prominently features child slavery, alcohol, and firearms, but it doesn’t give the audience much to grab onto. Much less her henchman Snoops, who has no personality at all except as her toady.

Little of it adds up to a coherent whole, at least for a movie that’s trying to tell a complete story, unlike The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and especially a film this short, topping off at 77 minutes. With so little time, the padding is even more desperate and the jokes ever more repetitive.

Signs This Was Made in 1977

  • The head of Rescue Aid Society makes a weirdly non-committal semi-endorsement of the unprecedented act of sending a female mouse on a rescue mission.

  • When Bernard and Bianca enter the Morningside Orphanage, they enter on top of a chest belonging to “Jimmy Jones.” That would have been horrifying a year and a half later. Also, orphanages still exist in the United States.

  • Though not a musical in the conventional sense, The Rescuers features three original songs, all of them easy listening pieces performed by Joni Mitchell’s vocal inspiration Shelby Flint, and all but the very dark opener are awful.

Additional Notes
The Rescue Aid Society has a delegate from “Africa.” You know, that country Africa. More strangely, it has a delegate from Latvia, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time.

Penny’s teddy bear looks an awful lot like Winnie the Pooh.

How Did It Do?
Although you wouldn’t guess it now, The Rescuers was Disney’s biggest success of the 1970s; earning $48 million against a $7.5 million budget, receiving the biggest opening weekend box office of any animated film up to that point, and beating Star Wars in France. Critics flocked to the film as well, giving it an 83% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes; the company had failed to recover from Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and subsequently fell behind the rest of Hollywood creatively and financially, to the point that many wondered if the studio would fold entirely (it almost did). The Rescuers demonstrated that they still had it– though much of that credit belongs to Don Bluth, who would soon leave Disney and spend most of the 1980s beating them at their own game. At the same time, most people I know who’ve seen The Rescuers are way more lukewarm about it.

On the strength of its 1977 debut, The Rescuers became the first (and until 2011 only) WDAS film to receive an official sequel, 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under. In many ways, the sequel’s fortunes were directly inverse to that of the original: it flopped when Disney panickingly pulled all advertising after a 4th-place opening, and critics at the time didn’t like it as much as the original, but it is now widely regarded as the far superior film. Which it is: funny, exciting, and gorgeous to look at. In many ways, The Rescuers Down Under is a product of the Hollywood blockbuster model that was emerging when the original made its debut.

Next Time: Sorcerer

New York, New York (1977)

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New York, New York
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Premiered June 21, 1977

New York, New York is a difficult film. It was a tribute to the big-band musicals of Old Hollywood in a time when paying tribute to Old Hollywood was on par with fascism. As the follow-up to director Martin Scorsese’s breakout hit Taxi Driver, it wasn’t what people expected. Scorsese was barely able to control the production and shot for a gargantuan 4 1/2 hour running time. Watching New York, New York is watching a good film buried by convention, compromise, and overambition.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, shifty saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) endlessly pesters USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minelli) for a date. She’ll have none of it, and the more she learns about him the less she likes, but when circumstances lead the two to perform together, something changes. What is otherwise a fine working relationship is mistaken for romance.

For the next couple of years, Jimmy and Francine tour as part of a touring jazz band, which becomes increasingly difficult as Middle America settles down and stops going out to dance. Jimmy and Francine marry while traveling, and when Jimmy is made bandleader, he is overcome with anger, jealousy, and control issues– all of which are inflicted most on Francine and her own rising star.

Many critics have decried the folly of combining an ostentatiously artificial throwback to postwar musicals with moody character-based drama, but the issues are more with each of the two parts than their combination. The toxic relationship between Jimmy and Francine is well-acted and well-written, but in no way does it justify two full hours of screentime. Equally, the third act, which we may assume was originally the second half, and is by far the most engaging and visually interesting portion, is preposterously truncated. That this proverbial money shot was subject to the majority of cuts by the studio is baffling. The music works a little too well; by emulating the golden age of movie musicals, songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb have managed to sound like everything else, and only the title track is memorable.

Altogether, New York, New York is both a technical achievement and a failed experiment. Everyone involved is capable of better.

Additional Notes
Francine is cast in a big movie musical wherein she stars as an usherette at a musical theater who experiences a long Singin’ in the Rain–esque digression wherein she fantasizes about starring in a musical. Let me repeat: Liza Minelli stars in a musical in which she stars in a musical in which she stars in a musical. Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

How Did It Do?
Grossing $14 million against a $16 million budget, New York, New York was a notorious flop. The film ended Scorsese’s marriage to author Julia Cameron, and began his severe descent into depression drug abuse, as well as his relationship with star Liza Minelli, who ended up saving his life when he experienced what can only be described as Ebola-like symptoms after taking a bad batch of cocaine while directing the following year’s The Last Waltz.

Most critics have been kinder than one might expect, considering the movie’s reputation, earning a 67% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, though the majority of positive reviews prominently feature major caveats about its quality.

Of course, the legacy of New York, New York doesn’t end there. Or should I say the legacy of “New York, New York.” In 1981, Frank Sinatra recorded a cover of the main theme, and while not a hit, it has had some serious staying power, most notably as the victory song for most New York-based sports teams, as well as any number of film and television montages about New York City.

Next Time: The Rescuers

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

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Exorcist II: The Heretic
Dir. John Boorman
Premiered June 17, 1977

In 1971, Robert Altman was tapped to adapt the Korean War novel MASH, despite hating the source material. To him, Richard Hooker’s book was an incoherent, joyless slog of bigotry and loathing. But he still managed to make a faithful adaptation, as his movie is an incoherent, joyless slog of bigotry and loathing. Mind you, MASH is till a very respected film due to its innovative use of overlapping dialogue, but try watching it now, because if you ask me, any film whose merits are purely technical is guaranteed to have a short shelf life. Just look at Avatar.

Point being, maybe it’s not the best idea to have filmmakers adapt material they don’t like. At best you’ll get another MASH, at worst you’ll get Exorcist II: The Heretic.

The movie’s director, John Boorman, might be considered the New Hollywood counterpart to today’s Wachowskis: an instantly recognizable talent with a solid reputation but a tendency toward too much ambition and too little follow-through. Boorman hated the original Exorcist, and excoriated it in a bout of muddled if well-intentioned progressivism, so it stood to reason that The Exorcist II: The Heretic would be his way of “fixing” the franchise.

So unlike sequels like Jurassic Park II or Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, which sloppily fell prey to the trends the original films set, The Exorcist II’s jarring incompatibility with William Friedkin’s 1973 classic is by design. Which is to say it’s not a horror movie– not at all. It’s a John Boorman movie, a vaguely highbrow mashup of sci-fantasy and spiritual exotica. And it might be his worst.

Three years have passed since the events of The Exorcist. Because Ellen Burstyn wisely declined to return for the sequel, Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) now lives in a glitzy Manhattan apartment made entirely out of mirrors (Boorman loves his reflective surfaces) with her caretaker Sharon (Kitty Winn). In between home life and practicing for her high school’s upcoming musical theater production, Regan spends extensive periods at a bizarre, beehive-inspired mental hospital where she receives psychic therapy from Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) with the help of an electric psychic dream machine (read: a stick with two flashing lights on the end) called a synchronizer. This is treated as perfectly normal, as is Gene’s insistence that repressed memories– such as that of Regan’s possession and exorcism– remain repressed.

At the same time Regan begins therapy with the sync, the Catholic Church sends Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) to investigate the events of the first film. In an unorthodox turn of events (though in this movie, everything is unorthodox), Fr. Lamont uses the sync with Regan, and a lasting psychic bond forms between them. Regan’s improving memory of her exorcism causes the demon to return, and we get a name– Pazuzu.

Now, obviously, an unnamed evil is better than a named one, but if you have to give it a name, anything is better than what sounds like a pet name for a woman named Pazelda. I know this was the name of the demon in the original book of The Exorcist, but book loyalty doesn’t make something good, especially when the filmmaker is making a deliberate effort to destroy the legacy of the first movie. Considering every mention of the name Pazuzu seems to rub its in the audience’s face, neither Boorman nor screenwriter William Goodhart seem to respect anyone who might be watching.

Fr. Lamont suspects Regan might be the vanguard of a long-theorized event whereby humanity will coalesce into a single “world-mind,” as demonstrated by her newfound ability to predict the future through abstract art and cure a small girl of autism, leading Lamont to seek out another vanguard previously exorcised by the first film’s Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow). This takes him first to a mountaintop abbey in Ethiopia that just happens to perfectly match a background painting in a display at New York’s Natural History Museum, then to somewhere in West Africa, where he finds Pazuzu’s previous victim, a scientist named Kukumo (James Earl Jones) trying to stop locusts from swarming while psychically manifesting as a leopard.

It goes on like that.

As a follow-up to The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic is a fucking insult. As a standalone film, it’s pretentious gibberish. As a follow-up to Boorman’s previous film Zardoz, it makes a creepy amount of sense, like when Regan absentmindedly gropes Gene’s breasts during a therapy session, or when Fr. Lamont breaks the fourth wall to say “it was horrible, utterly horrible, and fascinating.” All of this makes the movie hard to analyze fairly. I could say that it gets everything completely wrong about the original, which was a grounded, accessible horror thriller preying on parental anxieties that are nowhere to be found here, but that’s on purpose. Then again, does that make it better? And does that mean Boorman succeeded in what he set out to do? He claimed to have wanted to make “a film about journeys that were positive,” but Exorcist II: The Heretic is not that film. It is an expression of contempt, wholly lacking in humanity. If you liked The Exorcist, or you like yourself, stay the hell away.

How Did It Do?
Exorcist II: The Heretic grossed $30.7 million against a $14 million budget, barely breaking even. Were it not a sequel to a nine-figure mega-blockbuster, this would be an acceptable outcome, but that wasn’t the case. Exorcist Author William Peter Blatty, who would have nothing to do with the film, eventually made a third film…in 1990, with none of the original cast.

Critics– other than obstinate iconoclast Pauline Kael– absolutely loathed The Heretic, earning a 20% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. It’s continued to be a subject of fascination for film critics and historians, being profiled– and ridiculed by both Doug Walker and Brad Jones within the past decade. At least three critics have recommended watching it with the sound off. Others have given it positive reviews by virtue of being such a fiasco. Among the film’s biggest detractors was original Exorcist director William Friedkin, who called it “as bad as seeing a traffic accident in the street.” If you have the time, I recommend reading some of these reviews, they’re quite fun.

Before Exorcist II, John Boorman had been lobbying for a three-hour epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Thankfully, this film’s failure cost him that project, though he was able to funnel some of its creative efforts into 1981’s Excalibur.

Next Time: New York, New York

The Deep (1977)

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The Deep
Dir. Peter Yates
Premiered June 17, 1977

This project has already brought us one terrible Jaws ripoff, and it will bring another. In the meantime, Peter Yates’ The Deep is a rare pleasure: the good Jaws ripoff! Adapted from Peter Benchley’s follow-up to Jaws, and co-starring Robert Shaw, things are already off to a better start than they were with, say, Tentacles. It’s also a very different kind of story: an old-fashioned mystery/adventure with all the resources the 1970s had to offer.

On holiday in Bermuda, treasure-hunting couple David (Nick Nolte) and Gail (Jacqueline Bisset) explore the Goliath, a sunken World War II vessel that’s off-limits to tourists– and not for no reason; it’s loaded with unexploded munitions. But as the two discover, it also has another treasure: thousands upon thousands of vials of morphine. Looking for assistance, David seeks out the island’s resident explorer Romer Treece (Robert Shaw), but word of the payload has already gotten out, placing the lot of them in the crosshairs of Hatian gangster Cloche (Louis Gossett, Jr.), and arousing the displeasure of one of the Goliath’s original crew (Eli Wallach). Undeterred, David and Gail return to the wreck with Treece, where a chance rockslide uncovers an even bigger treasure: under the Goliath is another shipwreck far older and far more valuable.

The Deep’s main draw is its underwater sequences, which rank among the best I’ve ever seen. The film has a handful of flaws around its periphery: For every three minutes of great shipwreck footage, there’s one minute of bad day-for-night scenes. The villains were ill-defined; I never got a feel for Cloche, or much understood his plan– and his gang is awfully ostentatious for such a small community, engaging in stereotypical voodoo rituals for effect. Nonetheless, The Deep remains a tense thriller with a real sense of adventure and mystery.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The Deep’s score is not exactly timeless, but it’s classy. At least until the credits roll, when it descends into an embarrassing disco medley.

How Did It Do?
The Deep was the #8 film of 1977, earning $47.4 million against a $9 million budget. It also received Academy Award nominations for Best Sound and Best Original Song. For those of you who took umbrage with my mild disinterest in Stroszek, Eraserhead, 3 Women, and Iphigenia, let me balance it out: I’m thoroughly in the minority in liking The Deep, which earned a 36% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and was slammed by the majority of critics as a terse attempt to recapture the box-office success of Jaws. To that I say that aside from the involvement of Benchley, Shaw, and the Atlantic, The Deep is not Jaws, nor is it trying to be, and it’s much appreciated.

Next Time: Exorcist II: The Heretic

Grand Theft Auto (1977)

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Grand Theft Auto
Dir. Ron Howard
Premiered June 16, 1977

With Grand Theft Auto, we see the debut of another great Hollywood filmmaker, Ron Howard. But unlike the year’s other alums Lynch, Gilliam, or Ridley Scott, Ron Howard is not a stylistically recognizable filmmaker, despite being a very famous one. His films have ranged from frathouse comedy to awe-inspiring historical drama to literary pulp. And his debut is no different, as Grand Theft Auto is a genuine Roger Corman grindhouse picture.

The trouble begins when Los Angeles heiress Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan) announces to her parents (Barry Cahill and Elizabeth Rogers) that she’s going to marry working-class Sam Freeman (Ron Howard) rather than well-born horse enthusiast Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke). Her car keys taken by her father, a candidate for Governor of California, Paula steals his beloved Rolls Royce and tears off with Sam to elope in Las Vegas.

When Collins finds out what’s happened, he’s convinced that Paula has been brainwashed Patty Hearst-style, steals a succession of vehicles to chase after them, and calls into a popular radio station offering a $25,000 reward to anyone who can catch them before they reach Vegas. In turn, Collins’ mother (Marion Ross) goes on a spree of her own, offering her own $25,000 reward to anyone who can catch her son. What follows is a nonstop car chase involving private detectives (led by Rance Howard), the mafia (led by Garry Marshall), a profusion of fortune-seekers, and the radio DJ himself (Don Steele).

Grand Theft Auto starts promisingly; you really get a sense of the main characters and root for them, as well as laughing at their pursuers. But it quickly becomes too much. With every new character and scenario brought into the chase– and I lost count fairly early– the film transforms from a goofy chase movie into a headache. To add insult to injury, the film also becomes progressively shoddier, and what had begun as a series of impressive car stunts turns into a mess of cheap editing tricks. If you’re that interested in Ron Howard’s origins as a director, I’d say check it out. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Los Angeles has some five skyscrapers. Las Vegas has none, and is still a pretty small town. Paula has rich parents but lives at home.

Additional Notes
Amusing how the above poster has Howard behind the wheel. He never drives in the movie.

How Did It Do?
Grand Theft Auto grossed $15 million worldwide against an astonishingly tiny $600,000 budget. Most of that gross came from overseas, and US critics were none too thrilled with the movie, earning it a 25% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Howard returned to television, directing a series of made-for-TV-movies before breaking out with 1982’s Night Shift, and the rest is history.

But the real question you’re probably all wondering: does this have anything to do with the famous series of videogames? Honestly, the scenarios in the movie bear a striking resemblance to GTA’s gameplay, but as far as can be told, there’s no relation. There was a big lawsuit between Roger Corman and Rockstar Games, and that’s about it.

Next Time: The Deep

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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A Bridge Too Far
Dir. Richard Attenborough
Premiered June 15, 1977

If some of the scenes in A Bridge Too Far look familiar, it’s because you’ve seen them somewhere else: two episodes of 2001’s classic miniseries Band of Brothers cover much of the same ground, albeit from a very different point of view, because the overall scope of the real-life invasion of Holland requires a breadth of action and character that is most fit for the big screen.

The film opens in 1944. The Allies have liberated France, and General Montgomery is planning an even larger airborne assault than D-Day several months earlier. Believing the German forces in the Netherlands to be mostly “old men and boys,” Montgomery has ordered the deployment of three Airborne divisions to land in three major cities along a single road in the southern Netherlands, each of which is on a strategic river crossing. If the Allies can capture Arnhem, on the Rhine, they can easily capture the west German industrial heartland known as the Ruhr and end the war by Christmas.

The 101st Airborne, led by General Taylor (Paul Maxwell) capture Eindhoven and build a bailey bridge for General Horrocks’ (Edward Fox) and Colonel Vandeleur’s (Michael Caine) tank corps coming up from Belgium. Further north, the 82nd Airborne under General Gavin (Ryan O’Neal) captures Nijmegen, where a bold and deadly river crossing by Major Cook (Robert Redford) is able to capture the bridge there.

But it’s Arnhem, the most important site of all, where the trouble is. Led by General Urquart (Sean Connery), the British paratroopers face unexpected resistance. Anticipating a much fiercer attack from the unseen American General George Patton, the German command has sent two SS Panzer divisions under General Bittrich (Maximilian Schell) to hold the bridge there– a fact known to Dutch Resistance and British recon airmen, but variously doubted and ignored by the higher-ups. Surrounded and losing territory fast, without properly functioning radio, it is up to Urquart and his deputy Col. Frost (Anthony Hopkins) to hold on until reinforcements can arrive.

A Bridge Too Far was the most expensive movie of 1977, and you can tell in all the right ways. The amount of dedication to detail is in every frame, from the sets and locations (many of them where the battles were really fought), to the vehicles, costumes, and special effects. Perhaps most noticeable is the film’s expansive cast, which in addition to those already mentioned includes James Caan, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, and Laurence Olivier. This star-studdedness manages to go past the point of distraction to pure delight.

Presiding over it all is director Richard Attenborough, who brings together a perfect mix of Old Hollywood scale, New Hollywood realism, and Blockbuster era production values. As the men’s quarters become more claustrophobic, so to does the camera; and though it thoroughly depicts the horrors of the war (having chosen to depict a famous allied defeat makes that easier than usual), it never ceases to thrill the senses. A Bridge Too Far may not be the best film of 1977– though it’s way up there– but it’s certainly the biggest.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Several of the generals involved in the operation were technical consultants on the film.

How Did It Do?
Budgeted at $26 million, A Bridge Too Far was the most expensive film of 1977, and came surprisingly close to breaking even (factoring in marketing costs), grossing $50.8 million. Though not a huge sum by today’s standards, even factoring in inflation, it was enough to make it the 7th highest-grossing movie of the year. Critics at the time were oddly cool toward it, and it received no Academy Award nominations; it’s been theorized that this is due to the depiction of a failure on the part of the Allies. This explanation seems inadequate, though I have no better answer.

Next Time: Grand Theft Auto

The Other Side of Midnight (1977)

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The Other Side of Midnight
Dir. Charles Jarrott
Premiered June 8, 1977

For 20th Century Fox executive Gareth Wigan, 1931-2010

Full disclosure: from here on, when we talk about 1977, we’re going to have to talk about Star Wars. 1977 is not a particularly great year for movies, but it is a historically important point in the evolution of Hollywood, and that’s mostly because of Star Wars. This is even more true of The Other Side of Midnight. Based on an immensely popular novel, both 20th Century Fox and theater owners fully expected it to be a massive hit, and the studio had to force theaters to screen Star Wars in order to also screen this film.

This is the only reason The Other Side of Midnight is still remembered.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Noelle (Marie-France Pisier) moves to Paris to become a fashion model, where she meets Larry (John Beck), an American volunteer in the Canadian Air Force. Naturally, the two fall in love over just two weeks before he goes on a mission, never to return. Fearing him dead, Noelle finds out that Larry is actually a serial philanderer, and upon finding herself pregnant with his child, she administers a DIY abortion that is incredibly hard to watch– and not for the reasons director Charles Jarrott intended.

Instead, Noelle sleeps her way to stardom in the French film industry and uses a private detective to keep Larry from finding work as a commercial pilot when the war is over, by which time he has met and married a striking young wartime propagandist (Susan Sarandon). Finally, Larry finds work as a private pilot for Greek tycoon Constantine Demeris (Raf Vallone), who just happens to be Noelle’s new husband.

It’s hard to know where to start with The Other Side of Midnight. I don’t know how faithful it is to Sidney Sheldon’s novel, but I suspect it’s a little too similar to the source material, including multiple sequences with no bearing on the overall plot in an already long movie. Here, we’re treated to Sarandon’s character Catherine coming to Washington DC to start her job, Noelle being pimped out by her father in Marseille before running away to Paris, and Constantin being ingratiated into Parisian high society at the beginning of the war.

That’s not to mention the multiple plot holes: most notably, how is Noelle able to become a popular film star in Paris while under German occupation? Most baffling of all is a barely present framing device in which Noelle confesses the entire story to Constantin while under arrest for murder– the same framing device used decades later in another terrible melodrama, Vanilla Sky. And every line of dialogue is ridiculously forced, like a robot trying to sound like a hack romance novelist (example: “you drink so much, why don’t you put a straw in the bottle?” “Because it might just be the last straw!”). The result is a bizarre cross between Casablanca and Valley of the Dolls. To say nothing of the production itself: The Other Side of Midnight is stagy and overproduced. Every interior is overlit like a soap opera, every frame shot through a telephoto lens.

Pisiers bawls and whines every line like Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China– and it’s all meant to be taken seriously. Adding insult to injury, she’s forced to pantomime her way through the flattest, most clinical sex scenes I’ve ever seen in film, presumably for the benefit of teenage boys and middle-aged moms in the audience. As for Beck, it’s impossible to tell if he’s acting badly or not at all. Larry is supposed to be an irresistible bad boy, but comes off as a leaden oaf. His romance with Noelle lasts ten minutes, and never for a moment is it believable. Perhaps this is why, when one of Larry’s compatriots break the news to Noelle that he wasn’t really interested in her, it comes off as a cruel joke rather than actual exposition. Sarandon is the one bright note in the main cast, who, mostly confined to their own sprawling plot cul-de-sacs,  rarely actually interact.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The inclusion of nudity, and the presence of the then-bizarrely-popular Greek tycoon archetype, are the only indications this was made in 1977. The production design, cinematography, and music evoke high melodrama of the sort Jeff Chandler used to headline in the 1950s. And all of this in a movie set between 1939 and 1947.

How Did It Do?
According to its Wikipedia page, The Other Side of Midnight was critically acclaimed. No citation was given for this claim, and I have yet to find a review from the time that wasn’t completely scathing, though it did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.

The film did make a profit, earning $24.7 million against a $9 million budget, but not being the massive success that 20th Century Fox anticipated was enough to condemn it to the dustbin of history, being far outsold that summer by Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit, and…

Next Time: A Bridge Too Far

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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Smokey and the Bandit
Dir. Hal Needham
Premiered May 27, 1977

I was not expecting to like Smokey and the Bandit. The 2000s television series My Name is Earl constantly referenced it as a sign of the title character’s credentials as a redneck. Even comedian Rich Hall in his southern-cinema apologia The Deep South insinuates that it’s not a respectable sort of film. The director was a stuntman; the plot heavily revolved around the extremely stupid CB radio craze, when truck drivers were suddenly and briefly heroic outlaws. Maybe I was misreading the situation, because whatever its ambitions, Smokey and the Bandit is a damn fun movie.

Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams) are Texas magnates looking to acquire a truckload of Coors Beer for a huge party. Unfortunately, Coors is illegal in Atlanta, where they’re based, and their illegal shipment has been apprehended. With little more than a day to spare, Big and Little Enos bet the beloved wild-child trucker known as the Bandit (Burt Reynolds) that he can’t go to Texas and bring the beer back to Atlanta in just 28 hours. The Bandit takes the bet and makes an elaborate plan: his buddy Snowman (Jerry Reed) will drive the truck at top speed while he distracts any cops along the way in his beloved Trans Am.

This plan soon proves more useful than they expected. On the way back from Texas, the two pick up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field), a failed chorus girl whose on the run from a forced marriage to the dimwitted son of the local sheriff, Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Soon, the villainous sheriff and his jilted son (Mike Henry) are on the warpath, chasing the Bandit all the way back to Georgia, with only The Bandit’s good-ol’-boy reputation and his skills at the wheel to save him.

Smokey and the Bandit is hardly the most epic of films, and I’m instinctively inclined to discredit it on that basis alone. But setting that aside, it’s actually a very well-crafted film. In 2017, we can look back and appreciate the craftsmanship required to present a compelling action scene– mostly because we seem to have more opportunities than ever to see it done badly. When you realize that the entire film is essentially one giant car chase, the cinematography and editing shines. Road movies were all the rage in the ‘70s, but few were able to catch the eye like this one. And all of it could still have fallen flat if the characters had been handled badly, but the script (by James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, and Alan Mandel) respects its characters’ intelligence– except for the dimwitted bigot Sheriff Justice– and in so doing respects its audience.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Coors beer is considered good, and is illegal to sell east of the Mississippi River. That was a real thing.

How Did It Do?
Smokey and the Bandit was the second-biggest movie of 1977, grossing $300 million internationally against a $4.3 million budget– an impressively lean budget even in an era when production costs rarely went above seven figures. It was beaten out by Star Wars, but looking back now, it’s impressive that Star Wars didn’t bury it completely, having come out the same week.

And lest you think my enjoyment should be considered a guilty pleasure, the caliber of people who love the movie is astonishing: Alfred Hitchcock called it one of his favorite movies, Leonard Maltin compared it to The Three Stooges (albeit before that was necessarily a compliment), its editing earned an Academy Award nomination, and it regularly appears on AFI retrospectives. RottenTomatoes gives it an 80% fresh rating, which seems about right.

Director Hal Needham continued his partnership with Reynolds through a number of hits, though both of their stars started to fade in the 1980s. And the film inspired uncounted imitators throughout the rest of the late ‘70s; none of which need to be seen.

Next Time: The Other Side of Midnight

Star Wars (1977)

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Star Wars
Dir. George Lucas
Premiered May 25, 1977

At the end of a long night of trick-or-treating, my dad nowhere to be found, my neighbor Carol Selkin dropped by to give me a VHS– she had been in the habit of giving me her old ones, but this was a brand new copy. “It’s a movie called Star Wars,” she told me. “There’s two funny robots in there that I think you’ll like.”

She was right, and on October 31, 1996, I became one of the last people to see the original cut of Star Wars. For a kid who had seen almost nothing but Disney and the odd Short Circuit or Black Stallion, it was an enormous leap forward in my relationship with the movies. Suddenly, I wanted to become a filmmaker– eventually. Although I wrote elementary school reports on George Lucas, videotaped my friends and I reenacting scenes from our favorite movies, and started going to theaters way more often, I had no interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking and virtually no critical eye. Even so, my fate was sealed.

Star Wars was also the beginning of my nerddom. I played Star Wars videogames, read Star Wars tie-in novels, repurposed my Lego sets to make X-wings (this was before Lego actually made Star Wars kits). And it came just in time for the Special Edition and then the prequels (about which more later). Though my fandom never went anywhere near as deep as others’– I never read any comics, owned any toys that weren’t gifts, or read any of the really important books like the Thrawn Trilogy– it set a precedent. I would quickly go on to form similar mild obsessions with Pokémon, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Lost, by which time I was nearly an adult and able to create my own stories to fixate over.

Just as I did with Lord of the Rings, Star Wars is such an overwhelming presence in our world that the only sensible way to approach it with fresh eyes is through my personal experience of having first seen it. Considering I was not quite seven years old, it’s telling that this is the first movie I can remember experiencing for the first time with intricate details. Consider this:

1. Mrs. Selkin gave me the VHS giftwrapped with Aladdin-themed Genie wrapping paper and exclaimed at how ravenously I opened it (“the genie paper!”), thus instilling a lifelong impulse, to the bewilderment of my mother, to unwrap gifts as carefully as possible.

2. Star Wars’ opening crawl is one of its defining features, and my mother fast-forwarded through it, assuming it would bore me. She was wrong. Thankfully, it didn’t matter in the long run, I eventually saw it as was intended, and for the moment, a new kind of movie magic took over. Let’s begin.

(Please note that my review is of the original 1977 cut of the film, as lovingly restored in the questionably legal Silver Screen Edition by Team Negative One.)

Star Wars is a surprisingly difficult film to summarize, primarily because of a very long first act. A fantastical galaxy has erupted into civil war between an increasingly despotic Empire and small band of rebels. As the film begins, the rebels have acquired the plans for the Death Star, a moon-sized space station that can destroy an entire planet. As a massive Imperial cruiser chases down the small rebel ship carrying the plans, the rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) hides the plans inside a small robot– or droid– called R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), who flees in an escape pod to the desert planet below with his fussy counterpart C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) just as Leia is taken prisoner by a mysterious figure known as Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones).

Landing on the planet, R2 and 3PO are kidnapped by scavengers and sold to a poor farmer (Phil Brown) whose nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) wants nothing more than to leave home and join the rebellion, following in the footsteps of his late father. When Luke finds out that his new droids are part of the rebellion, and that R2 is carrying a message from Princess Leia to an old hermit named Obi-Wan Kenobi, he is led on a chase that leads him right to the man (Alec Guinness). Obi-Wan turns out to be the last of an ancient religious order of warriors known as Jedi Knights, who fought alongside Luke’s father before he was killed…by Darth Vader. With agents of the empire in pursuit of the droids, and Luke’s uncle and aunt killed in the crossfire, Luke agrees to go with Obi-Wan to bring the plans to the princess’ home planet of Alderaan, with the help of the scoundrel ace pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his wooly first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

Together, they arrive where Alderaan should be, only to find it destroyed, the first victim of the Death Star’s catastrophic power. Soon, their ship is impounded in the Death Star itself. With Princess Leia due to be executed for her ties to the rebellion, the gang must find and rescue her, and bring the plans to the rebellion so that the battle station can be destroyed.

In spite of all of this, Star Wars is not actually that plot-heavy. The story that exists draws visually and narratively from other science fiction, westerns, samurai films, and war movies; is most heavily inspired by the theories of mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose work had become significantly more popular in the 1970s and whose influence would be severely played out within another decade; and is infused with a gritty, pedestrian aesthetic inspired by director George Lucas’ own interest in classic cars and aircraft. The characters are archetypes to be sure, but the casting choices, a frugal mix of young unknowns and British veterans, make even the most minor characters enjoyable.

What makes Star Wars special is its production value. Here more than anywhere else, Lucas demonstrates a visual understanding of film that more than compensates for his doctrinaire storytelling. With an adept mix of sweeping natural scenery, austere sets, and intricate-yet-utilitarian models, Star Wars creates a world that’s simultaneously fantastical and tangible, and does it on a far more massive scale than anything that had ever been done before. In a way, it’s never been done since, and certainly not for $11 million.

Star Wars is a family film in the best way: it’s great fun for kids, and it rewards growing up. As a child, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, play with droids, fly X-Wings and wield a lightsaber. As a teenager, I could appreciate the artistry: the production design, performances, cinematography, and music, and marvel at how it didn’t have to be (and indeed almost wasn’t) as good as it was. Now, as an adult, I can discuss it here, through the guise of history, and explore its influences and influence. Literally all of you have seen it. So instead of recommending it to you, I’ll recommend it to your kids. Watch it with them for the first time if you haven’t already. I can imagine few things more fun.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Production design, production design, production design. I’ve heard some critics closer to my own age proclaim that Star Wars’ distinctive gritty, industrial look was a whiplash-inducing departure from the clean, optimistic future of existing sci-fi, but that’s not really true. While the props, sets, and models of Star Wars were far more ambitious than anything that had come before, they were all heavily informed by earlier movies like Forbidden Planet, 2001, and Silent Running, as well as real-world cars, aircraft, and ships. Neither Luke Skywalker nor Han Solo would’ve looked out of place walking down the street in 1977. Which is all the more impressive when you consider that every single model, vehicle, set, and piece of wardrobe– everything you see in the movie– had to be made from scratch.

How Did It Do?
Every couple of years since the late 1960s, one Hollywood film would set a new box office record. That was over. Grossing $775.4 million against an $11 million budget, Star Wars’ record stood for sixteen years, only to be beaten by the similarly industry-shaking Jurassic Park.

Critics at the time were divided, with New Yorker kingmaker Pauline Kael dismissing it as “an assemblage of spare parts.” But as indebted to the classics of film as Star Wars was, its own influence was greater than anything that had come before, and continues to be so. Roger Ebert adored the film, especially noting his adoration for the creature effects in the famous Mos Eisley Cantina set as a symbol of the amount of care and imagination in each frame. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, and won six: Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, and Best Visual Effects. Virtually every great filmmaker since who was alive at the time saw it in the theater. Without it, there would be no 1980s as we know it, probably no Disney Renaissance, definitely no Lord of the Rings, and no superhero movies today. Star Wars has captured our minds and our souls in a way that very few secular entertainments ever have.

Disillusioned with the challenges of making the film, George Lucas vowed never to direct again. The film’s sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, were written and directed by others, but still stand tall, with Empire in particular being regarded as the superior film of the three. Star Wars would inspire an entire universe of books, comics, games, and toys, and would continue to stay in the public mind, even as more recent cultural phenomena came and went. When Lucas did return to the franchise in the 1990s, he needlessly fiddled with the original cuts of his films to create the Special Edition, inserting scenes and digital “improvements” that were variously petty, out-of-place, awkward, and insulting; a fact made worse when Lucas discontinued prints of the original cuts. In 1999 he returned to directing and continued the Star Wars saga with the (rightfully) reviled Prequel Trilogy, and made increasingly bizarre word-of-god additions to the mythos he had created both on- and off-screen. Finally in 2012, the Walt Disney Company rescued Lucas from himself, threw away the extended universe, and revived Star Wars as an active– and palatable– film series.

There’s no shortage of writing about Star Wars, but I’ve seen little discussion about how the film and its sequels transformed science fiction. From its inception in the 19th century, sci-fi had almost always revolved around speculation, using fiction to marvel at the wonders and terrors of the latest technology, pondering where it might lead, and using that platform to examine the here and now. Science fiction in the New Hollywood, for example, typically used the then-new reality of space travel to explore spiritual and environmental themes.

But while Star Wars borrows aesthetically from that, the characters and story are more fantasy-based, and wouldn’t feel out of place in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien or the legends of King Arthur. Henceforth, science fiction would become less of a “genre” and more of a setting. In this way, Star Wars would have its greatest impact on the 1980s.

I once heard a critic say “Star Wars just feels like it’ll be around forever, like Shakespeare or the Bible.” That sense is why it lives on today. But why did it catch on at the time?

So, I’m moving to Israel soon, and in reading that country’s history, I’ve discovered that the founding fathers and mothers were pretty universally disinterested in religion. They felt that the old devotion to traditional texts and stories is what had kept their people down, made them victims, and were best forgotten. But after a generation of independence, young people increasingly found themselves drawn to that tradition, and the idea began to emerge that just because the past was flawed didn’t make it worth throwing away. It was a part of their heritage that had long been off-limits, and for what?

By the same token, while the look and feel of Star Wars reflected the New Hollywood that had created it, the epic scale, fantastical nature, and unselfconscious optimism within evoked the Old, which most of Lucas’ contemporaries abhorred. For this reason, Pauline Kael hated it. But it was also a breath of fresh air after nearly a decade under a filmmaking culture that valued  challenging the viewer above all else, and was rapidly metastasizing into an abstract religion (which I’ll discuss more when we get to Sorcerer). Suddenly, it was okay to have fun again. To quote a rookie filmmaker at the time named Robert Zemeckis, “we weren’t interested in the French New Wave. We were interested in Clint Eastwood and James Bond and Walt Disney, because that’s how we grew up.” It’s not for nothing that George Lucas defended Star Wars to his snobbish contemporaries as nothing more than “a Disney movie,” nor that the Walt Disney Company eventually acquired it.

Like most of Disney’s animated films, while those in the know may surmise the vintage, any child will see it and feel as if it’s brand new. It is timeless. It is like Shakespeare and the Bible. It is everyone’s and it is yours.

And let us pray that Disney comes to its senses and releases the original cut on blu-ray.

Additional Notes
Due to the uniquely challenging nature of watching Star Wars in the context of when it was first released, I wanted to put my additional notes after everything else.

Note that I refer to the film as Star Wars, not Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as that title was the result of a 1980 repackaging in anticipation of the film’s sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. This being part of a series of reviews of films from 1977, I am reviewing the original 1977 cut, which is not easy, as no copy of that cut has been commercially available for twenty years; never in widescreen. In 1997, George Lucas was impressed enough with the advent of CGI in film that he re-cut his trilogy using the new technology and released it as the “Special Edition,” claiming that that was his definitive creative vision. It isn’t, and you can tell.

In writing a project yet to be released on the impact of 9/11 on film, I treated Minnie to the Extended Cut of The Lord of the Rings, released a year after each film, and she was rapt. Suddenly, she said, everything in the theatrical cuts that had seemed rushed, random, or underdeveloped made sense. Truly those versions of the films encapsulated Peter Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s epic. By contrast, the Star Wars Special Editions are all petty, ugly, pointless, clash violently with the established visual style, and consistently bring the film to a crashing halt. Worse, Lucas’ insistence that this (and all subsequent edits to the film) were what he always wanted meant pretending that the original cut never existed, meaning that most of the people who have seen Star Wars have had no option but to watch a version compromised by decades of tinkering by a megalomaniacal old busybody, like coming home from college to find your bedroom turned into a giant model train set. Not that I would know anything about that.

What about the rest of the franchise?

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is easily the best film in the series, vastly expanding the universe while maintaining the feel of the original. Lawrence Kasdan’s dialogue is far more personable and organic than Lucas,’ and the characters go from likable to beloved, including two (Yoda and the Emperor) who suddenly feel as if they’ve always been there. The big reveal is one of the great childhood rites of passage, like losing your baby teeth, and mostly lands. And the whole thing is beautiful to look at.

Return of the Jedi (1983), while not a bad film, is about the least imaginative sequel that the filmmakers could’ve come up with, and strains credibility on both a narrative and technical level. Blue-screen technology is used extensively and the actors have difficulty interacting with scenery that isn’t there. The revelation that Princess Leia is Luke Skywalker’s twin sister serves little purpose except to close a perceived love triangle and attempt to recapture the magic of the big reveal in Empire; its biggest effect is to make the world of the films seem disappointingly small, even with the most impressive battle scene in the whole series. And of course the inclusion of the ever-so-marketable Ewoks is almost as obnoxious as Lucas’ ridiculous geopolitical justification for it.

The Phantom Menace (1999) is a bad film. Aside from the music and some of the designs, every single creative decision is the worst one any filmmaker could possibly have made, from the plot to the performances to the visual effects, and demonstrate adroitly why Lucas should not have been left to his own devices. It’s a bizarre, convoluted, and ultimately pointless thrill ride that in no way resembles Star Wars as we know it.

Attack of the Clones (2002) isn’t much better, but it had a lot more potential to be good. It just wasn’t. It was dull, ugly, badly acted, and contradicted the mythology of the original trilogy in new and frustratingly random ways.

Revenge of the Sith (2005) is the watchable prequel, but only just watchable. The look and feel of the original trilogy is fleetingly present, which I guess is something. Like the others, the plot is needlessly complex; the dialogue is offputting, alien, and seemingly not proofread. The best that can be said for it is that it has a few moments of good and suffers significantly from a lack of proper buildup in the other prequels.

As a result of the prequels, The Force Awakens (2015) functions mostly to regain the public’s trust and start the series fresh. It succeeds on both counts, but the burden of having to do so also limits what it can do with the Star Wars universe. Definitely a good film, but I doubt it will be anyone’s favorite of the franchise. JJ Abrams’ direction is a perfect fit, as is the return to mostly practical effects.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is a bit outside-the-box, expanding on the universe and conflict in the original trilogy. I loved that element of it, showing shades of grey in both sides, exploring the use of The Force beyond just the Jedi, and answering a lot of minor but interesting questions raised by the original films. It also has a lot of fun supporting characters, an amazing battle sequence, and a tremendously ballsy conclusion. However, the use of CGI in recreating some of the characters is unnecessary and unfortunate, the first half is an undercooked mess (likely the result of extensive cuts and re-shoots), and the two lead characters are not well-developed.

Nonetheless, I have high hopes for The Last Jedi and whatever comes next.

Next Time: Smokey and the Bandit

A Special Day (1977)

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A Special Day
Una Giornata Particolare
Dir. Ettore Scola
Premiered at Cannes May 17, 1977

In retrospect, time periods feel incredibly self-contained. How strange is it to think about the fact that Teddy Roosevelt watched Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession as a child? Or that the great Edwardian playwright George Bernard Shaw died while his country fought in the Korean War? Or, as in this case, that almost every great European filmmaker working in 1977 had grown up under fascism? One such man was Ettore Scola, a prolific but little-mentioned Italian director who, although he had not made an autobiographical film, created in A Special Day the type of film that requires a certain familiarity with what that mercifully lost world was like.

As suggested, A Special Day takes place over the course of a single day: May 8, 1938. On this day, Adolf Hitler has arrived in Rome, where the veteran fascist leader Benito Mussolini has put on an enormous pageant to welcome him. Fascism is on the rise all over western Europe, and few want to be left out of the celebration. Unfortunately for Antonietta (Sofia Loren), mother of six and wife of a fascist apparatchik (John Vernon), she is unable to afford a housekeeper and must care for the family apartment while everyone else joins the fun. Nearly alone in her building, she follows the family’s escaped myna bird to the home of a mysterious single man named Gabriele (Marcelo Mastroianni).

Neglected by her husband, Antonietta is drawn to Gabriele, a laid-off radio announcer, even as she discovers to her horror that he was fired from the national broadcaster RAI for not being a member of the Fascist Party– having been kicked out of the Party for his homosexuality. His unseen lover imprisoned in Sardinia, Antonietta had caught him just as he was about to commit suicide. Her state-mandated revulsion, echoed in the constant broadcast of speeches by Hitler and Mussolini, belies her actual feelings for Gabriele, both misplaced attraction to him and general sympathy.

In spite of the excitement that Antonietta is meant to feel, the mood of A Special Day is intimate and somber. Seemingly filmed in black and white and re-colored by hand, it resembles both film footage of the era and a faded memory. Stars Loren and Mastroianni may have been sex symbols in their own time, but here they are anything but; casualties of a way of thinking that has drained all color from the world. In a film made up of conversations, their performances are told mostly without words. For that, and for Scola’s cleverly detailed portrait of everyday life in that era, A Special Day is one of the finest films of 1977 so far.

How Did It Do?
A Special Day was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as was Marcelo Mastroianni for Best Actor in a Lead Role. The film won neither, though it got a ton of other industry awards. The film was chosen to be among 100 Italian films from 1942-1978 “to be saved” by a panel of judges, and critics were similarly positive, with 100% on RottenTomatoes. Not included in that aggregate is Ruth Gilbert of the New York Review, who complained that the stars’ playing against type was disorienting. This is not a problem that has lasted with age.

Next Time: Star Wars