The Holy Bray

The title character of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a donkey who goes through a series of owners in his sad life as a beast of burden.

Films about animals or featuring them as the main protagonists are usually the province of Walt Disney and other family friendly productions such as Benji (1974) and March of the Penguins (2005). Other than the horror genre, though, there have been relatively few departures from the usual formulaic approach to this type of movie with Jerome Bolvin’s dark satire Baxter (1989) and the ethnographic Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) being two of the rare exceptions. Yet nothing can really compare with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, which stands alone as a profound and singular achievement in this category.   Continue reading

The Prince and the Peasant

Will there be a happy ending for Prince Rodrigo (Omar Sharif) and Isabella Candeloro (Sophia Loren) in More Than a Miracle (1967), directed by Francesco Rosi.

Imagine, if you can, a rustic Neapolitan fairy tale directed by Francesco Rosi in the docudrama style of his post-neorealism films of the early sixties like The Moment of Truth (1965), shoot it in Technicolor and Techniscope, add a lush musical score by Piero Piccioni and you get More Than a Miracle (1967), a zesty Southern Italian fantasy-romance that was more appropriately titled Cinderella, Italian Style in Europe.   Continue reading

Vagabond Screwballs

Slither (1973) is a film of firsts in many ways. It marked the directorial debut of Howard Zieff, who would go on to become one of the most sought-after comedy directors in Hollywood during the ’70s (Hearts of the West [1975], House Calls [1978], Private Benjamin [1980]). It featured the first screenplay by W. D. Richter who would later pen the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1979 remake of Dracula, and Brubaker [1980] as well as direct the cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension [1984]. And it was James Caan’s first starring role after his critically acclaimed success in The Godfather [1972] and the beginning of his reign as a Hollywood leading man after struggling to break through in smaller scale movies like Rabbit, Run [1970] and T.R. Baskin [1971].   Continue reading

Two Cats and a Mouse

When a movie is released under various titles it usually means there are problems. It could be confusion over how to market it or a simple case of a movie that doesn’t fit clearly into any designated genre or maybe it’s a star-driven, major studio release that’s too quirky for the average moviegoer but yields enough curiosity value to inspire various promotional approaches to finding the right audience. All of these could apply to Joy House (1964), an international production based on a pulp fiction paperback by American author Day Keene and filmed on the Riviera near Nice. It stars English-speaking (Lola Albright, Jane Fonda, Sorrell Booke, George Gaynes of Tootsie fame) and French-speaking actors (Alain Delon, Andre Oumansky, Annette Poivre, Marc Mazza) and is also known as The Love Cage and Les Felins (the original French title). Joy House was not a popular success at the time (most critics were unkind in their coverage) but it is a favorite film of mine, flaws and all.   Continue reading

Paul Mazursky’s Sophomore Slump?

What do you do for an encore when your directorial film debut becomes a critical and commercial hit? That was the problem Paul Mazursky was facing in 1969 after Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice became the talk of the New York Film Festival where it was the opening night feature. His follow-up film, Alex in Wonderland (1970), expresses this dilemma but, if critics attacked the film for being an overt homage to Federico Fellini, Mazursky took the Italian maestro’s original concept and made it his own in an often absurdist portrait of Hollywood in the late sixties-early seventies and his own role in – and out – of it. Continue reading

Kill or Cure?

Most filmgoers who were born before 1965 know Paddy Chayefsky as the playwright who penned the teleplay Marty and later won an Oscar for the 1955 screenplay adaptation. Contemporary movie fans, however, remember him as the creator behind the 1976 media satire Network, which was nominated for 10 Oscars and won four including Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight) and a posthumous Best Actor Academy Award for Peter Finch as unhinged news anchor Howard Beale. (Bryan Cranston is currently playing Beale in a Broadway stage production based on Chayefsky’s film). What tends to get overlooked in Chayefsky’s filmography is The Hospital (1971), an equally audacious movie that prefigured Network’s outrageous blend of black comedy and social commentary and appeared five years earlier.  Continue reading

Picaresque Americana

Everyone involved creatively with the making of Arthur Penn’s landmark of sixties cinema, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), benefited greatly from its astounding international success. Certainly the director and all the key cast members saw an immediate acceleration in their careers and it enabled screenwriter Robert Benton to make his directorial debut in 1972 with Bad Company, working from a script he penned with his Bonnie and Clyde writing partner, David Newman. Structured in a manner similar to the Arthur Penn film, it was a picaresque and episodic road movie, set during the Civil War, with an authentic sense of period detail and moments of biting wit and sudden, shocking violence that gave a contemporary edge to the Americana on display.   Continue reading