Execrable: The Chase

The Chase (1966)
Directed by Arthur Penn
Written by Horton Foote, Lillian Hellman
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Starring Marlon Brando, Angie Dickinson, Jane Fonda, James Fox, Richard Bradford, Janice Rule, Robert Redford, E.G. Marshall, Henry Hull, Robert Duvall, Miriam Hopkins, Clifton James, Joel Fluellen, Martha Hyer, Diana Hyland, Nydia Westman, Jocelyn Brando, Steve Ihnat, Katherine Walsh, Marc Seaton, Paul Williams, Malcolm Atterbury, Bruce Cabot, Maurice Manson, Steve Whittaker, Davis Roberts, Pamela Curran, Ken Renard
Natives of only a few regions have been so frequently and grotesquely distorted in Hollywood’s productions as those of the reconstructed south, where a middle-aged, middle-class, terrible Texan trio (Bradford, James, Ihnat) crazed by booze and white privilege run amok in their town by harrying and terrorizing blacks (Fluellen, Roberts), drubbing their sheriff (Brando), and pursuing with intent to kill a jailbroken scapegrace (Redford) involved in a murder. A year before he and Warren Beatty focused the energies of and popularized nascent New Hollywood, Penn helmed this zany, overheated, overpopulated clunker masquerading as social drama, which condignly ravaged Spiegel’s career. Playwright and novelist Foote is reportedly renowned for the naturalism of his dialogue; one can only conjecture that both he and Hellman are responsible for the unbelievable, ostentatious kitsch invested in nearly every line of her script, and marvel that anyone in the cast could recite it plausibly. Among those so outstanding are Brando and Dickinson as the canny lawman and his liege wife, Marshall in the role of the town’s tirelessly enterprising magnate, and especially Bradford, who indues to his almost cartoonishly villainous banker a confounding charisma and conviction. Both are hopelessly miscast, but Duvall’s less inconsonant as a cowardly cuckold than Redford as a good ole boy named Bubber, cluelessly selected by Spiegel for his sex appeal. (Incidentally, Duvall played a cheated husband with threatening vehemence not too many years later in The Conversation under Coppola, who reunited him with Brando in The Godfather — for which Robert Evans also misintended Redford as Michael Corleone.) Approximately half of Foote’s characters behave like unhinged children, the worst of which are the most overpersonated: (ordinarily superb) Rule slithers sillily about as Duvall’s slutty spouse; Hyer hollers Bradford’s blaringly besotted wife into being; Marshall’s sappy, sententious son played by Fox is as disappointing a romantic interest as he is an heir; aged Hull’s a cornball, roaming realtor who chirps unfunny quips and peripherally insinuates himself into his neighborhood’s felonies; as Redford’s hysterically penitent mother, Hopkins irritates almost so persistently as Westman’s obtrusive, bible-banging widow. Like many movies drawn from stage plays, this is a twofold failure — stagily fake in the worst possible manner, but as overblown as its hams for cinematic liberties of gunplay and explosion. Foote’s story is fundamentally, indulgently horrible, its puny plot dwarfed by excess exposition and contrived complications, such as a pointless love triangle between Fox, Fonda and Redford. Armchair riffers will delight in an alcoholic party at the home of Duvall’s nebbish boasting some of the most jerkily wacko dancing ever committed to film. In the service of sinister sensationalism, this escape, advoutry, wassail and vigilantism might’ve been exploited as the unrestrained frolic of an exciting comedy; as a pontifical social drama, it’s a tremendous waste of histrionic talent and another of John Barry’s big, bold, blustering scores.

Instead, watch Cool Hand Luke.

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.