The Boston Strangler, The Big Red One – The Reconstruction, O Abismu
reviews by Neil Young : 14th February, 2005
The Boston Strangler [5/10] seen at Massimo, 18 Nov 04
USA 1968 : Richard Fleischer : 114mins
From the official Torino FF catalogue:
Between 1962 and 1964, twelve women are murdered in Boston. In the end, a tenacious and patient detective (Henry Fonda) discovers that the murderer is a normal family man (Tony Curtis), who kills in a frenzy and then forgets everything. Based on a true story, and told like a thriller and psychological drama, the film is divided into two parts. The first part is dedicated to the investigation, while the second part studies the assassin's mind, as Fleischer uses a split screen and almost surreal images to create a distorted vision of reality on the screen.
Of all the overlooked Hollywood directors for whom Torino FF could have scheduled a retrospective, why on earth did they pick Richard Fleischer? At his peak, Fleischer was prolific to a degree almost unthinkable today – which means that any retrospective can either (a) bite the bullet and show everything or (b) cherry pick the best of the bunch. Torino unfortunately opted for (c) neither of the above: any Fleischer fan looking forward to catching the likes of Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage and/or Compulsion on the big screen was in for a major disappointment (other notable omits: Amityville 3-D, Dr Dolittle, Che!, The Jazz Singer, The New Centurions, Red Sonja, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Mandingo or Conan the Destroyer.
And disappointment was exactly what I felt after seeing The Boston Strangler one chilly afternoon at the Massimo: I'd accidentally caught it on TV some months before, and had been impressed by the relatively daring visual experimentation on view (lots of split-screen and black-backgrounded mini-screens-within-screens) and the oddball digressions of Edward Anhalt's screenplay (especially the sequence involving the flashy Hungarian psychic played by George Voskovec, and the suspect he tracks down played by the irreplaceable William Hickey).
The Boston Strangler is, then one of those very few feature-films (Ang Lee's The Ice Storm is another) to work better on the small screen – ironic, that, as the picture seems to have been made specifically in response to the "threat" posed to cinema by the "new" medium in the 1960s. The first thing we see is a TV-shaped and TV-sized image – in fact, a TV broadcast of Boston-native John F Kennedy's funeral – which eventually expands to fill the 35mm frame. And the use of screens-within-screens will now strike the viewer as very much a TV-style gimmick – a fussy modish attempt to "tart up" a stilted screenplay, and one which Fleischer arbitrarily abandons for long stretches at a time.
These stylistic affectations sit uneasily alongside the quotidian, police-procedural "reality" of the documentary-style "you are there" sections which manage to capture something of Boston's distinctive blend of the high-toned (Hurd Hatfield's sympathetic homosexual Terence Huntley) and the rough-house – prefiguring Peter Yates' even more downbeat Friends of Eddie Coyle from half-a-decade later. But while the peripheral details have the smack of authenticity, there's something unfortunately Dragnet-ish about the straight-arrow rectitude and aggressive normality of Fonda's investigator John S Bottomly and his cronies: which tips over into unintentional hilarity during the "crackdown" montage in which the city's deviants are (ludicrously) picked up in flagrante by the implausibly argus-eyed Boys In Blue.
Relentlessly 'square' in its depiction of what's referred to as "a horny world," The Boston Strangler sends out conflicting signals – Bottomly comes across as liberal one minute, wildly reactionary the next, then has to spout psychobabble gibberish about how a "sane person is someone who isn't in an insane asylum". Politically nebulous, the film doesn't really work as a thriller either: the top-billed Curtis is conspicuous by his absence in the first part of the film, and is then seldom off-screen in the second half in a turn that isn't so much a performance as an extended (unsuccessful) appeal to the Oscar voters.
This second half becomes increasingly draggy and self-important, accumulating a distinct air of bogus, dated psychology – which for various reasons we object to much more in this case than we do in, say, Psycho (with its similarly windy concluding "explanation" of its anti-hero's actions). Fleischer is, of course, no Hitchcock – and The Boston Strangler falls far short not only of Psycho but also Frenzy, Fritz Lang's M and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom as a case-study of mental disturbance and its violently homicidal consequences.
The Big Red One – The Reconstruction [7/10] seen at Massimo, 19 Nov 04
USA 1980/2004 : Samuel Fuller : 157mins
Originally released 25 years ago in a heavily-truncated 113-minute version, legendary tough-guy director Fuller's WWII magnum opus has now been lovingly reassembled in what amounts to a startling feat of cinematic salvage. More than 40 minutes and eight full sequences have been added, based on Fuller's screenplay – inspired by his hazardous wartime exploits – and his own notes. The result has a genuinely epic feel, as we follow the members of the 1st Infantry
Armored Division (known, from their emblem, as "The Big Red One") led by a grizzled Lee Marvin, from the wastes of North Africa through France and Germany to their liberation of a Nazi death-camp in rural Czechoslovakia.
Heralded in the opening credits as "a fictional life based on factual death", this new Big Red One bears the mark of its maker on its every frame and line of dialogue: authenticity was always the currency in which Fuller dealt. And the autobiographical aspects gives a hard-won dimension to this relatively low-budget production (filmed in Israel and Ireland) which later blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line can never pretend to possess. You can, of course, get too much of a good thing – and at times watching The Big Red One feels like being trapped in a bar with an entertaining but over-garrulous blowhard storyteller who keeps reminding you over and over of his unimpeachably true-grit credentials.
Any war film built on the dauntingly solid shoulders of Marvin, however, has a massive head-start: this is a terrific lion-in-late-autumn performance from the legendarily patriotic star (now buried at Arlington National Cemetery), and the force of his personality propels forward not only his greenhorned underlings (including Star Wars refugee Mark Hamill and Fuller-surrogate Robert Carradine among their anachronistically-well-coiffured ranks) but also the film itself over its disparate, often broadly-brushed episodes and duller stretches. Marvin isn't the only hero on view, of course: appropriately enough, the reconstructed Big Red One ends with the name and dates of Fuller himself, providing a suitably heavyweight memorial-cum-tombstone for a one-off movie-maker whose mythos grows with each passing year.
O Abismu [4?/10] seen at Massimo, 20 Nov 04 (walkout)
aka The Abyss or Abyss-mu : Brazil 1977 : Rogerio Sganzerla : 80mins
If Torino '04's retrospective for Richard Fleischer seemed misguided (see Boston Strangler, above) the event's focus on Brazilian cult-figure Rogerio Sganzerla came across as even more unfortunate – if the three experiences I had with his work are any guide. I saw most of Isto e Noel (a semi-dramatised documentary about legendary composer Noel Rosa) and a chunk of Tudo e Brasil (a docu on Orson Welles' visit to the country) by accident, due to Torino's "liberal" attitude to showing films at their allotted times. Both were so-so at best – repetitive and self-indulgent, showing no particular gifts in terms of the images shown or the way these images were tied in with their boisterous soundtracks.
And I didn't fare much better with Sganzerla's feature O Abismu, walking out at around the half-way point when I got severely tired of the dated, pseudo-trippy visuals and his drab handling of the film's wispy narrative. It wasn't any kind of surprise when I subsequently discovered that, although billed and dated as being from 1977, the film was in fact completed over half a decade beforehand: this explains the (clumsily integrated) preponderance of Jimi Hendrix tunes, the hippyish sensibility (in which Sganzerla, who comes across as a rather fogeyish old fart, is content to cack-handedly dabble) and general air of 'new decade, new country, new cinema' – as if way-out ideas and a try-anything energy were enough to keep audiences engaged and entertained: instead, Sganzerla tries way too hard, stretching what seems to be a rather minor cinematic aptitude way beyond breaking point.
The one saving grace – and it isn't an inconsiderable one by any means – is the presence of mondo-bizarro director Jose Mojica Morins as "Professor Pearson", a cacklingly Evil Genius savouring every line of his panto-villainous dialogue and showing off his trademark unfeasibly-lengthy fingernails. Morins isn't in the picture that much, but when he appears the whole thing takes off to a new level of interest – only for Sganzerla to switch back to tiresome scenes in which a "mysterious" woman drives around various scenic locales in a fancy convertible car, a phallic John McCririck-style cigar clamped awkwardly between her lips. If only Morins had been let loose on the script and direction – if only Torino had gone for a Morins retrospective instead of a Sganzerla. I'd then have been saved the 40 minutes I wasted on this mish-mash of mystical mush.
Further coverage of Torino '04 on Neil Young's Film Lounge:
Reviews roundup part four : An Estranged Paradise, The Beautiful Washing Machine, Toolbox Murders
full list of films seen and reviewed
article on Able Edwards, Dead End Run, Left Hand & Yesterday Once More (written for Impact magazine)
stand-alone reviews of Able Edwards and Sideways (written for Tribune magazine)