Friday, March 6, 2015

AFA and Cineaste Magazine offer another in their screenwriter/blacklist series, Pt 3: Post-Blacklist

If you don't yet know Cineaste Magazine, the most political of the high-end movie magazines, it's time you did. You won't find a more intelligent "read" anywhere in the industry, and it's a fun read, too, as challenging as it is interesting. The magazine is again teaming up with Anthology Film Archives to present the third in its popular series, Screenwriters and The Blacklist: Before, During and After.  We're already at the "after" section, and this latest effort features nine choice films, many of which will have been seen (and seen again) by most movie buffs with a bent for politics, art or a fascinating clunker of a movie. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, The Chase, Fail-Safe and M*A*S*H are among the most "seen" of the films, but there are some surprises here, too.

Chief among these is an American western from 1961 of which I had barely heard: THE LAST SUNSET, directed by Robert Aldrich (a prime reason to watch) and adapted by Dalton Trumbo from a novel by Howard Rigsby. Although Trumbo is said to have felt that this was one of his worst screenplays, I'd call it one of his better ones, as he withholds his usual heavy hand with the sermons and simply serves up a nifty story and smart dialog delivered by an excellent cast that includes some of mid-20th-Century-Hollywood's top stars.

Kirk Douglas (two photos up) plays a bad guy on the run in northern Mexico, hunted by Rock Hudson (above) as a good-guy sheriff. The pair end up at the ranch of Douglas' favorite old flame, Dorothy Malone (below) sporting a hairdo seen rarely in the old west but quite often in 1950-60's Hollywood.

Now married to an alcoholic Joseph Cotton, and with a teenage daughter in tow (a surprisingly good Carol Lynley, below), Malone is clearly bored and ready for some action, while Cotton is about to make a major cattle drive north and across the river to the U.S. and, hey, he happens to need a few good men to help him do it.

The stage is set for a lot of things, a couple of which we've not really seen in a Hollywood film but would be seeing soon enough in the more "adult" decade to follow. The themes here encompass everything from attraction and desire to trust, lust, guilt and redemption, all done in a manner in which the good guys and bad get their wires occasionally crossed -- which makes the movie all the more mature and interesting.

The Last Sunset must have seemed a bit too unusual in its time -- ahead of it, actually -- but watching it now, the film takes on a burnished glow from its star power and quiet, low-key achievement. Hudson is used particularly well, while Douglas gives his usual, excellent, in-your-face performance.

The women, as was typical for the time (unless the star was Barbara Stanwyck) are mostly decorative, used for romance and provocation, but the dialog manages to be both intelligent and ripe, and the story itself is so filled with cross-purpose and change that it proves consistently interesting -- adding up to a movie ready for reassessment.

There are plenty more good films here, too, so take a gander at what AFA has to say about its series, below, with all the films and their screening times shown in bold. The Last Sunset screens tonight, Friday, March 6, at 6:45, and again Tuesday, Mar 10 at 9:15, and Saturday, Mar 14 at 2:45.


Screening at Anthology Film Archives, NYC, from March 6-15 
(Get tickets and direction by clicking on the link above.)

 The damage wrought by the Hollywood blacklist, especially the hardships endured by its victims, has been well documented. This series showcases the artistic contributions of prominent blacklisted screenwriters, including well-known radicals such as Walter Bernstein, Dalton Trumbo, Ben Barzman, Abraham Polonsky, and Ring Lardner, Jr. Recent scholarship by Thom Andersen, Pat McGilligan, Larry Ceplair, and Rebecca Prime emphasizes how films by blacklisted personnel were responsible for scripts (written, in many cases, by unapologetic Communists) that explored, both subtly and blatantly, the nuances of race, class, and gender. 

The third, and final, part of the series focuses on post-blacklist ‘comeback films’ written by some of Hollywood’s most notable screenwriters. Many of the films reflect the impact of the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, particularly the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, on the so-called ‘New Hollywood.’

Racism is confronted in Martin Ritt’s PARIS BLUES (written by Walter Bernstein) and Arthur Penn’s THE CHASE (a Lillian Hellman adaptation of a Horton Foote play), while the plight of Native Americans is tackled in Abraham Polonsky’s spectacular return to form, TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE. The seasoned writers tackled disparate genres with aplomb. M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s antiwar comedy, is enlivened by Ring Lardner, Jr.’s irreverent screenplay.

The epic and the western are represented by Ben Barzman’s script for Anthony Mann’s severely underrated THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and Dalton Trumbo’s highly idiosyncratic treatment of timeworn motifs in Robert Aldrich’s THE LAST SUNSET. SCREENWRITERS AND THE BLACKLIST is co-presented by Cineaste Magazine, which has been a major source for blacklist-related scholarship throughout its 40-plus-year history.  For more info on this special magazine, click here.

Special thanks to series' co-curators Richard Porton and Patrick McGilligan, as well as to Walter Bernstein, Rebecca Prime, Chris Chouinard (Park Circus), Paul Ginsburg (Universal), Michael Horne & Christopher Lane (Sony), Jules McLean, Joe Reid (20th Century Fox), Richard Suchenski (Center for Moving Image Arts, Bard College), Quentin Tarantino, and Todd Wiener & Steven Hill (UCLA).

The Schedule:
Robert Aldrich THE LAST SUNSET 
1961, 112 min, 35mm. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Howard Rigsby. With Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Dorothy Malone, Joseph Cotton, Carol Lynley, and Neville Brand.
Although Dalton Trumbo considered THE LAST SUNSET his worst script, this fascinatingly overripe western is noteworthy for Robert Aldrich’s usual visual panache and a baroque plot that looks forward to the revisionist ‘last westerns’ of the late 1960s and early 70s. After completing the script for SPARTACUS, Trumbo, working again for Kirk Douglas’s Byrna Productions, received a post-blacklist screen credit. The convoluted plot involves the attempts of the upright sheriff Dan Stribling (Rock Hudson) to apprehend outlaw Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas), responsible for the murder of Stribling’s brother-in-law. O’Malley has been lured to Mexico to reignite his romance with Belle Breckinridge under the ruse of working on the ranch of her alcoholic husband John (Joseph Cotten). Ultimately smitten with Belle’s daughter Melissa (Carol Lynley), O’Malley’s misplaced passion results in a particularly audacious plot twist. THE LAST SUNSET, even while straining credulity and reworking themes borrowed from Greek tragedy with mixed results, is a precursor of the sexual frankness that would permeate genre films of the late 60s.” –Richard Porton
–Fri, Mar 6 at 6:45, Tues, Mar 10 at 9:15, and Sat, Mar 14 at 2:45. 

 Irving Lerner CRY OF BATTLE
1963, 99 min, 16mm, b&w. Screenplay by Bernard Gordon, based on the novel by Benjamin Appel. With Van Heflin, Rita Moreno, and James MacArthur.
The overlong source novel for CRY OF BATTLE focused on Filipino leadership of the U.S.-backed guerrilla movement against Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII. Adapting it offered Gordon a rare ‘chance to write a film script that would have something to say about American attitudes toward the native people in those days,’ he wrote in his memoir ‘Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist,’ while highlighting the contribution ‘of the Filipinos in the struggle against the Japanese.’ Irving Lerner, loosely associated with the Frontier Films documentary collective in the 1930s, shot the film realistically in and around Manila, with American leads and distinguished Filipino actors. Bosley Crowther rave-reviewed the low-budget film in the October 12, 1963, New York Times (‘acerbic and action-charged’), marking Gordon’s first on-screen credit after a decade of operating under fronts with as much prolificacy as Dalton Trumbo. CRY OF BATTLE’s other claim to fame: it was showing in the Dallas theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended on November 22, 1963. A snippet can be glimpsed in Oliver Stone’s JFK.” –Patrick McGilligan –Fri, Mar 6 at 9:15 and Tues, Mar 10 at 7:00.

Arthur Penn THE CHASE
1966, 135 min, 35mm. Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Horton Foote. With Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson, Janice Rule, Miriam Hopkins, Robert Duvall, and James Fox.
Based on Horton Foote’s play, Lillian Hellman’s screenplay was reworked – at the behest of producer Sam Spiegel – by both Michael Wilson and Ivan Moffat. In a 1993 interview with CINEASTE, Arthur Penn complained that he wasn’t able to oversee the film’s editing and bemoaned the fact that Spiegel cut many of star Marlon Brando’s ingenious improvisations. Yet, despite these mishaps, THE CHASE, with its unvarnished depiction of Southern violence, paved the way for pivotal films of the 1960s – especially Penn’s own BONNIE AND CLYDE. Robert Redford, in an early major role, plays Bubber Reeves, a convict on the run after a prison break. Wrongly imprisoned for murder, Bubber’s escape exacerbates tensions in the small Texas town where he’s viewed with suspicion, and where his wife Anna (Jane Fonda) is conducting an affair with the son of the region’s wealthiest man. In an intriguing reversal of the usual stereotype, Brando plays a progressive sheriff at odds with local racist vigilantes.” –Richard Porton “Violence is a subject that an artist who is intuitively and intellectually alive to the world in which he exists can scarcely avoid today; and if there is a more responsible treatment of it anywhere in the cinema, I have yet to see it.” –Robin Wood on The ChaseSat, Mar 7 at 2:00, Fri, Mar 13 at 6:30, and Sun, Mar 15 at 8:30.

Sidney Lumet FAIL-SAFE 1964, 112 min, 35mm, b&w. Screenplay by Walter Bernstein, based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. With Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman, William Hansen, Sorrell Booke, Dom DeLuise, and Dana Elcar. “Bernstein got to know Lumet, formerly a child actor with the Yiddish Art Theatre, when Lumet was an assistant director to Martin Ritt on CHARLIE WILD, PRIVATE EYE, a half-hour TV show Bernstein wrote under ‘fronts’ in 1950-51. Bernstein would do some of his finest work with these simpatico friends, Ritt and Lumet. A writer’s writer, Bernstein boasts one of the richest of resumés, and seems as comfortable with tense uncompromising subjects, sweeping recreations of history, and, especially in the 1970s, philandering romantic comedies. All his films are social critiques, and his lifelong attention to the military-industrial complex is followed through in DOOMSDAY GUN, his 1994 HBO film with Frank Langella as a supergun genius caught between Israel, Iraq, and the CIA, and something of a bookend to FAIL-SAFE. FAIL-SAFE is one of the tensest of his 1960s credits, a disarmament parable that is splendidly entertaining and disturbing in equal parts. ‘DR. STRANGELOVE without the humor,’ in Danny Peary’s apt phrase.” –Patrick McGilligan –Sat, Mar 7 at 5:45, Wed, Mar 11 at 9:15, and Sun, Mar 15 at 3:30. 

Michael Ritchie SEMI-TOUGH 1977, 108 min, 35mm. Screenplay by Walter Bernstein and an uncredited Ring Lardner Jr., based on the novel by Dan Jenkins. With Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, Jill Clayburgh, Lotte Lenya, Carl Weathers, and Brian Dennehy. “SEMI-TOUGH is the better known of Walter Bernstein’s two neo-screwball comedies for Michael Ritchie, ‘one of those rare directors,’ as Vincent Canby wrote, ‘who is able to look at Middle America critically without being especially outraged or even surprised.’ (The other Bernstein-Ritchie collaboration, AN ALMOST PERFECT AFFAIR from 1979, a film-biz satire set in Cannes, is also worthy of revival.) A dream cast romps through this free-wheeling send-up of professional sports, celebrity, and monogamy. SEMI-TOUGH would make the perfect double bill with M*A*S*H (written by blacklistee Ring Lardner Jr.) with its anarchic football climax. ‘Things like THE MOLLY MAGUIRES and THE FRONT, which came from scratch, are very important to me and mean a lot to me,’ Walter Bernstein said in ‘Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s.’ ‘But so does SEMI-TOUGH, although it came from a book. Michael and I threw out the story and wrote one of our own. Michael and I did our own movie, just like Marty [Ritt] and I did our own movies.’” –Patrick McGilligan –Sat, Mar 7 at 8:30 and Sun, Mar 8 at 6:15.

1964, 188 min, 35mm. Screenplay by Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina, and Philip Yordan. With Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quayle, John Ireland, and Omar Sharif. The second of the two Samuel Bronston historical super-productions to be directed by Anthony Mann (after EL CID), both of which were treated with extreme condescension in their day but have been increasingly recognized as major achievements, THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE is arguably the greater of the two. A darker, more intricately structured film than EL CID, FALL somehow succeeds as both a big-budget, visually astonishing spectacle animated by a genuine interest in Roman civilization, and a sophisticated, uncompromising inquiry into the nature of power. Best known for his collaborations with fellow blacklistee Joseph Losey in exile in Europe, Ben Barzman co-wrote both FALL and EL CID. In both cases he worked with Philip Yordan, a mysterious and controversial figure in the annals of the blacklist – the most famous/notorious ‘front’ of the era, his name appeared on numerous films for which scholars continue to debate the true authorship. –Sun, Mar 8 at 2:30 and Sat, Mar 14 at 5:15. 

1969, 98 min, 35mm. Screenplay by Abraham Polonsky, based on the novel by Harry Lawton. With Robert Blake, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross. The impact of the blacklist on the career of Abraham Polonsky was one of the great artistic tragedies of the period, just as his comeback in the late-1960s was among the most triumphant in Hollywood. Bursting on the scene with the remarkable one-two punch of BODY AND SOUL (1947) (with Robert Rossen directing Polonsky’s masterful screenplay) and FORCE OF EVIL (1948) (which Polonsky both wrote and directed), as well as working on the screenplay for I CAN GET IF FOR YOU WHOLESALE (1951), he refused to testify before HUAC in 1951 and would not be credited on a theatrical feature again until 1968. Given the immensity of his talent, the loss of these prime years is a wound that will never heal. But Polonsky would pick up right where he had left off, with a terrific script for another great filmmaker (Don Siegel’s MADIGAN, 1968), followed by one more astonishing work as writer-director: TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE. A revisionist Western that probes deeply into the phenomenon of racial and social injustice, it stars Robert Blake as Paiute Indian Willie Boy, who becomes an outlaw after killing his lover’s father in self-defense, and Robert Redford as the sheriff whose imperative to hunt Willie Boy down flies increasingly in the face of his own conscience. –Sun, Mar 8 at 9:00, Thurs, Mar 12 at 7:00, and Sat, Mar 14 at 9:00. 

Robert Altman M*A*S*H
1970, 116 min, 35mm. Screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr., based on the novel by Richard Hooker. With Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, and Robert Duvall.
Ring Lardner, Jr., a member of the Hollywood 10, won an Academy Award for his adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel. Even though Altman’s penchant for improvisation angered Lardner, who believed his script was being sullied, Patrick McGilligan argues that the veteran screenwriter’s craftsmanship provided a solid framework that made Altman’s innovations – especially his famous use of rapid fire overlapping dialogue – possible. There’s little doubt that Lardner was responsible for the film’s sardonic anti-war thrust. The film revolves around the antics of two surgeons assigned to a mobile medical unit during the Korean War: Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and ‘Trapper’ John McIntyre (Elliott Gould). M*A*S*H was embraced by the counterculture as an antiwar movie, even though the emerging women’s movement expressed dismay at the casual sexism of Altman and Lardner’s depiction of Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).” –Richard Porton “M*A*S*H is a marvelously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It’s a sick joke, but it’s also generous and romantic – an erratic episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected. I think it’s the closest an American movie has come to the kind of constantly surprising mixture in SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, though M*A*S*H moves so fast that it’s over before you have time to think of comparisons. While it’s going on, you’re busy listening to some of the best overlapping comic dialogue ever recorded.” –Pauline Kael, THE NEW YORKER –Mon, Mar 9 at 6:45, Thurs, Mar 12 at 9:15, and Sun, Mar 15 at 6:00. 

1970, 116 min, 35mm. Screenplay by Albert Maltz, story by Budd Boetticher. With Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine.
This inexplicably neglected western, set during the 1860s French intervention in Mexico, is every bit as exciting, perfectly crafted, and disarmingly funny as you’d expect from the dream-team meeting of Hollywood legends Don Siegel and Budd Boetticher. This despite the fact that Boetticher, who wrote the original screenplay with the intention of directing it himself, only to see it eventually re-written by blacklistee Albert Maltz (resident in Mexico, where he’d relocated during the blacklist) and directed by Siegel, despised the final product. Representing Maltz’s first screen credit under his own name since 1948, TWO MULES is more broadly comic than it might have been in Boetticher’s hands, but features Clint Eastwood and Shirley Maclaine at their very best as soldier-of-fortune Hogan and nun-turned-revolutionary Sara, as well as an Ennio Morricone score that ranks among his most inspired. Though it would be a stretch to call it a sober study of the Mexican revolution, the familiarity of both Maltz and Boetticher with Mexico and their unquestionable interest in its history unmistakably inform the film. –Mon, Mar 9 at 9:15, Wed, Mar 11 at 6:45, and Fri, Mar 13 at 9:15.

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