Mediocre: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter (1987)
Directed by Marc Shmuger, John Bloomgarden, Arthur Penn
Written by Anthony Gilbert, Marc Shmuger, Mark Malone
Produced by John Bloomgarden, Marc Shmuger, Michael MacDonald
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Jan Rubes, Roddy McDowall, William Russ, Mark Malone, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson
Shmuger’s and Malone’s admittedly clever reworking of My Name is Julia Ross was sufficiently dissimilar to Joseph H. Lewis’s mediocre noir melodrama and the novel from which it was adapted (Gilbert’s The Woman in Red) for them to circumvent both copyrights and any associative legal action, but the goofy, glossy result is only technically superior to its source. Later a failed executive of Universal Pictures and Luc Besson’s tiresome EuropaCorp, Shmuger was reportedly unprepared for his first week’s directorial difficulties, and hired Penn to helm this picture while his co-producer Bloomgarden did so intervallically. Nina Foch’s working girl lured though an employment office by a mother and her twisted son to their seaside estate, where’s she’s confined and publicly paraded as his missing wife, is recharacterized as an unemployed actress (Steenburgen) hired at a casting call by the vivacious valet (McDowall) of a crippled psychiatrist (Rubes) to perform a screen test at the shrink’s mansion during a snowstorm in upstate New York on behalf of a Canadian filmmaker who’s allegedly lost to squabbles his leading lady, to whom she’s identical. It’s certainly nice to behold: Jan Weincke’s sharp, brilliant photography is commendable for its distinct yet balanced contrast, exhibiting Bill Brodie’s splendid production design and sets appointed by Mark S. Freeborn and Paul Harding that emphasize the luxuriance of the wealthy mythomaniac’s manse and cozy modesty of Steenburgen’s apartment. Especially in dramatic worm’s-eye and lingering still shots, Penn’s usual craftsmanship is executed as adroitly as ever, and snappily cut by Rick Shaine. However, this particular journeyman’s inclination to grant his casts carte blanche has always determined the varied quality of his best (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks) and worst (Alice’s Restaurant, Penn & Teller Get Killed) movies. Perennial ham Rubes looks and sounds like elderly Werner Herzog channeling one of Adam Sandler’s zanier characters; he hasn’t a line too brief or gesture too small to overplay. Once infallible even whenever over the top (see The Legend of Hell House), McDowall’s instincts were diminished either by years of roles in B-features or Rubes’ influence, for he seems to be vying with the elder Czech for the blue ribbon with laughably mincing mannerisms. Steenburgen tackles three parts with gusto, but falters in two when attempting to maintain tonal accordance with Rubes. Consequently, the third act descends into a silliness that should’ve been suspense. For all this tale’s riveting twists, its production’s polish and a couple of appellative winks to Julia Ross, it’s largely ruined by Rubes’ gaping japery, and his co-stars’ attempts to meet it.

Palatable: Little Big Man

Little Big Man (1970)
Directed by Arthur Penn
Written by Thomas Berger, Calder Willingham
Produced by Stuart Millar, Gene Lasko
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Richard Mulligan, Faye Dunaway, Jeff Corey, Martin Balsam, Thayer David, Robert Little Star, Aimee Eccles
To a haughty historian, a centenarian (Hoffman) recounts a series of escapades and misadventures ensuing his pioneer family’s slaughter by Pawnee marauders, his adoption by and acculturation to a Cheyenne tribe and eventual reclamation to white society, wherein he’s a unique anomaly. A dear rapport with the chief (George) and tribe who raised the talented nebbish is contrasted often against his varied associations with a blusteringly pietistic reverend (David) and his gorgeous, goatish wife (Dunaway), one glibly inveterate mountebank (Balsam) who suffers amputations by requital for the sale of his noisome nostrums, famed gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok (Corey), and dashing, opaque, cruelly imperious Gen. George Custer (Mulligan), here disbosomed a villain by Berger’s and Willingham’s modern revisionism. Navigating both tribal and post-European cultures in frequent alternation, Hoffman’s nomad observes with his audience the eccentricities, vices and hypocrisies of both, as well as the slow, sorrowful genocide of the Cheyenne committed by the U.S. Army and their Pawnee rivals. Poignant, exciting and uproarious, Penn’s picaresque western benefits tremendously from first-rate comic performance and Hal Needham’s choreography, but the director maladroitly melds tragedy and farce in a manner that occasionally negatives the impact of either. This condemnation of bloodthirsty overreach in the age of Manifest Destiny hasn’t the appeal of Leone’s, Peckinpah’s and Hill’s classics depicting the old west’s disappearance a year or two preceding, but it’s worth revisiting for its mirth and gravity, as well as the senile makeup by which Hoffman was transformed into an ancient remnant of a history aggrieved by its hecatombs.