The Duellists (1977)

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The Duellists
Dir. Ridley Scott
Premiered August 31, 1977

What makes a Ridley Scott film a Ridley Scott film? I asked this of a friend once before. It was a troubling question. Scott has made so many films that it’s easy to find commonalities: throwbacks to midcentury epics, strong woman protagonists, a penchant for respectful ambiguity that drives studios insane. But these are all cherry-picked.

Yet can’t be denied that there’s…something…in almost all of his films. A monumental visual element that is at home in most of his works, making even the smallest stories feel operatic. And that can be seen in his very first feature film, The Duellists.

The Duellists is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, itself a thinly veiled retelling of actual events. The year is 1800. Napoleon Bonaparte has taken power in France, but has yet to crown himself Emperor. His country is almost constantly at war with its neighbors, and requires a massive army in which order is the only way to survive. It is here that we find the insatiable Lieutenant Feraud (Harvey Keitel) under arrest for nearly killing the son of the mayor of Strasbourg in a duel of honor. Critically upset over having been arrested in the home of a friend, Feraud demands satisfaction from the fellow officer who arrested him, Lieutenant D’Hubert (Keith Carradine).

The ensuing duel is inconclusive; when D’Hubert is prevented from killing Feraud, and much as he may not want to, D’Hubert is honor-bound to defend himself the next time they meet in peacetime. Occasionally, the Napoleonic Wars do take a break, and almost every time D’Hubert irritatingly finds himself in Feraud’s presence. Accusations of unpatriotism fly, wars come and go, regimes rise and fall, and both men get older. Yet they always continue.

The weakest link in the film is Carradine. Like many of the actors in the previously-covered Cross of Iron, Carradine’s California shag is a preposterous giveaway of the 1970s in what is otherwise a thoroughly realized and uncommonly grim portrait of the Napoleonic Era. And that more than makes up for it: The Duellists is one of the most visually sumptuous movies of the year, its cinematically atypical style evoking art from its period setting, such as the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. The production design is similarly deliberate, and the action scenes are as sharp as those of films like Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Altogether, the viewer is witness to the most visually unique period piece one might have made at the time (comparisons to Barry Lyndon by critics are myriad, and partly valid).

How Did It Do?
Box office receipts are undocumented for The Duellists, but at a deceptively low $900,000 budget, the likelihood of a profit is very high. It won Best Debut Film at the Cannes Film Festival (for which reason I should’ve reviewed it back around A Special Day) and deservedly so. Critics adored it, earning a 91% fresh rating on RT. Having long worked in British television and advertising, then-39-year-old Ridley Scott was a late bloomer. But The Duellists was just the beginning.

Next Time: Soldier of Orange

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

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The Spy Who Loved Me
Dir. Lewis Gilbert
Premiered July 7, 1977

I have a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of James Bond movies. I only saw them as an adult, and watched them all at once at that, so most of them are blurred together. If I had to pick favorites, I’d probably say From Russia With Love and Casino Royale, and my favorite of Roger More, the Bond of 1977, is For Your Eyes Only. My interest in espionage is strictly of the hardboiled John Le Carré variety.

My biggest problem, I think, is the series’ fundamentalist approach to the formula established in 1964’s Goldfinger– flirting with Moneypenny, a brief from M, gadgets from Q, two countries visited, two girls bonked, the first one dies, etc. It’s weird, right? No other successful film franchise does this, and if they did, people would endlessly complain about it. I can’t always speak to the quality of the movies that break from this template, but the usual adherence has always kept me at arm’s length, even when it comes to what is generally regarded as “the other good Roger Moore movie.”

Britain and the Soviet Union both lose a nuclear submarine so that independent villain Stromberg (Curd Jürgens) can start World War III and rebuild global society in his own image. James Bond (Roger Moore) is put on the case for the British Navy and ends up in Cairo, where he faces against his Soviet counterpart, Agent XXX (Barbara Bach). While they both want the same thing, their relationship is emphatically non-cooperative. But when they’re faced down by iron-toothed, super-strong henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel), and more importantly the Stromberg mission brings the KGB and MI6 together, 007 and XXX fall for each other. Little does XXX know that Bond is the man responsible for her lover’s death during a routine ski chase.

So yeah, I’d agree that it’s the other good Roger Moore movie. In many ways, it’s a cleaner, less convoluted take on the formula established by Goldfinger. It does most of the tropes, but does them well: good action, good gadgets, a respectfully subdued but mercifully present sense of humor. There’s not much else to say; halfway through 1977, it’s in my top 10. Just don’t expect it to stay there.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Bond says “you’re on Candid Camera.” However, Allen Funt never comes boogieing on out. Detente is namedropped, and is the entire subtext of the movie. The score is all lush Marvin Hamlisch piano pieces, including the theme by Carly Simon, with the one exception of the Bond theme’s disco remix. Eat your heart out, Meco!

Next Time: Orca

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

Cross of Iron (1977)

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Cross of Iron
Dir. Sam Peckinpah
Premiered January 28, 1977

Whichever way you cut it, Cross of Iron was a risky proposition. That one of the great New Hollywood auteurs would try his hand at making a film about the war was inevitable, but it was just as inevitable that, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the finished product would not be a gung-ho endorsement of battle. Even today, filmmakers are hesitant to give such a morally grey treatment to what Studs Terkel famously dubbed “The Good War;” to have done so in the 1970s, when most of the men who fought in the war were only in their fifties*, was downright daring. Director Sam Peckinpah’s solution to this problem– showing the war from the point of the view of the Germans– should have been no less controversial.

It totally works.

Although Cross of Iron was Peckinpah’s only war film, he is an inspired choice. Best known as the man who brought blood into the western, Peckinpah’s trademark style emphasizes the brutality of battle in a way that is beautiful to look at, but conscientious and thoughtful rather than dehumanizing and fetishistic. The film introduces a German Army that is anything but respectable. Reeling from the epic defeat at Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht is in a desperate race back across Russia; ordinary men scarred by years of combat wait to die for a country they no longer believe in; particularly the fatalist Captain Kiesel (David Warner) and the necessarily stiff-upper-lipped Colonel Brandt (James Mason).

In contrast, Sergeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) is deeply bitter towards his superiors but far from resigned to an anonymous death. Both of these qualities are put to the test when Steiner’s company gets new leadership in the form of Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a haughty aristocrat fresh from occupied France who, although emphatically not a Nazi Party member, has no compunctions against committing war crimes, and is driven solely by a collector’s desire to acquire the vaunted Iron Cross. Stransky’s obsession is enough to get him to take credit for a dead officer’s bravery, only Steiner refuses to go along with the ruse. Stransky retaliates by leaving him and his platoon stranded behind the Soviet line, and with surrender to the Soviets a death sentence in all but name, Steiner must find his way back to company command, with unsettling results.

Although based on Willi Heinrich’s 1955 novel The Willing Flesh, the parallels to the more recent conflict in Vietnam are unmistakable, not least the summer heat, woodland setting, depictions of endless replacement soldiers as naïve conscripts, severe discontent between enlisted men and officers, and the willfully unflattering depiction of many ordinary soldiers. It is a strange but interesting sensation to feel, at times, that you are meant to root against the characters, as when some of Steiner’s men attempt to rape a garrison of female Soviet troops– or when Steiner pointedly leaves them to be torn limb from limb by the women. But while it is not always subtle, Cross of Iron is devastatingly successful in its unexpectedly hopeful message, as conveyed by Colonel Brandt: “the new Germany, if such a thing is allowed to exist, will need builders, thinkers…wars end, nations are defeated, but life goes on. Tomorrow will be another day, and it’s at least worth trying to live for.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Many of the actors were unwilling to part with their shaggy haircuts, a minor point against the film.

Additional Notes
*Among that generation was America’s brand new President, Jimmy Carter. Although not a combat veteran, he did answer the call, training at Annapolis to help lead the Invasion of Japan when the war ended. Within my own lifetime, the United States would have another WWII vet as President, George H.W. Bush.

What’s more, popular culture before MTV was far more interested in appealing to older people than it has since– there’s a reason Frank Sinatra is still so beloved– which accounts for why no fewer than four films in this project are set in the Second World War. Today, pop culture for the aged is either mediocre, kitschy, or awards bait, and goddamnit, they deserve better.

How Did It Do?
Contemporary discussions of Cross of Iron suggest it performed poorly. Although the most popular film of the decade in Germany, the film struggled to overcome a modest but apparently bloated $6 million budget, and wasn’t very commercially appealing to begin with. Critical acclaim was and continues to be glowing. Among the film’s boosters were Orson Welles, who compared it to All Quiet on the Western Front, and Quentin Tarantino, who drew inspiration for Inglourious Basterds. Director Sam Peckinpah, whose most celebrated work was behind him, followed the film up with Convoy, embarrassingly his biggest financial success.

Next Time: Suspiria