• Question: What do King Kong and Looking for Mr. Goodbar have in common?
Answer: Almost all the scenes take place in the dark.
But that's about where the resemblance ends.
The darkness of King Kong is the darkness of the great outdoors. The darkness of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is that of sleazy bars and unkempt bedrooms. The eyes never really become accustomed to this continuous darkness—neither the darkness of the tacky locales nor the inner darkness of the characters which it reflects. Most of the activities depicted would be somewhat embarrassing, if not downright ludicrous, in the bright light of day.
It is not that the scenes aren't well acted. They are: Diane Keaton and Tuesday Weld are nothing less than brilliant.
It isn't lack of attention to detail. Director Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood) has attended well to that, as always—except that the clue (present in the book) to the title of the picture has been omitted.
It is not, as some have contended, that the actions are not psychologically explicable. Why does the "heroine" do a superb job of teaching the deaf by day and go bar-hopping for one-night stands in the evening? The common thread is that in both situations she is constantly driven to prove to herself her own adequacy—in sex, by picking up different men so that in each case she can prove to herself her own desirability, and in her profession, by taking on pupils who are handicapped or in some way less adequate than she is, so that she can never appear inadequate compared with them. And why does she have this overpowering need? The scene with her father, in which her congenital disorder is confirmed, is surely enough by itself to explain why such feelings of inferiority should have arisen—even without the constant psychological clobbering endured in her home life throughout her years of growing up. There is at least as much of a plausible motivation here as in most psychologically oriented film dramas.
Beyond this point, one's reaction to the film will depend largely on its subject matter. Some viewers will be repelled by such a subject, even when well handled. Other viewers will enjoy the subject matter, perhaps even have a fascination for it. Still others may, deep down, be masochists who feel pain at the exhibition of suffering and sordid sex but enjoy it for that very reason. At any rate, there aren't many films after seeing which one finds some people applauding while others are still retching.
• South of the frozen tundra of the Siberian Arctic, there lies a huge belt of land, larger than the entire United States, called the taiga—endless forests of birch and larch, swamps and lakes and clear rushing rivers, and bands of native tribesmen who make their living from hunting and fishing and who even today have not been Sovietized. To my knowledge this vast expanse has never been photographed in detail for the Western world to see (I saw some of it, but mostly from a plane). One can read about it in St. George's book Siberia and Mowat's The Siberians, but almost all of it (except the city of Khabarovsk, where I spent two days, and where the film begins and ends) is out of bounds to foreigners. It is therefore a matter of considerable interest to have a two-and-a-half-hour motion picture filmed entirely in this seemingly endless land of wild and primitive beauty. One has to go back to Lawrence of Arabia to find such breathtaking natural splendor on film.
If it were only this, we would have an interesting documentary, an A-1 exhibit in the National Geographic style. But DERSU UZALA, THE HUNTER is much more than this. It is a story, set in 1902-5, whose plot-line is simple but whose every moment pulses with drama and elemental power. The film opens as a party of Czarist soldiers on a surveying mission in this uncharted land encounter in the wilderness an old Ussuri tribesman who has spent his life hunting and trapping in the area bounded by Khabarovsk on the south and the Arctic Circle on the north. The story is about their subsequent adventures and the interactions between the men of the Czar's military forces and the ethos of the native tribesman, Uzala.
Add to this a third ingredient, the genius of the Japanese film-maker Akiro Kurosawa, whom many believe to be the world's greatest living director (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, The Lower Depths, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, etc.). Perhaps no one but Kurosawa could have presented so tellingly, against this rich natural background, so quietly moving and powerful a story of the encounter of the native with civilization. One by one the character-traits of the hunter unfold, so that by the time the film is over we have had laid before us one of the finest characterizations in modern cinema. Kurosawa adapted the film from the memoirs of the Russian army captain who encountered Uzala in the Ussuri taiga in 1902. But the film is no mere documentary—Kurosawa has leavened the material of history and transformed it into artistic incandescence.
I have heard complaints that the film "drags." To those who are accustomed to rapid-fire action as a requirement for all film fare, with at least one character raped or shot every two minutes on schedule, this may be the case. But Kurosawa, who has no truck with such conventions, proceeds at his own pace, enabling us to savor the wild beauty of the landscape and the slowly evolving interaction of the characters, through incidents both comic and heroic, until a drama of great power and beauty is born. There are segments of the film in which little external action occurs, yet only a Kurosawa could keep it alive and building through every single moment, filled with high drama even when there is only a smile or a sunset. Only in a rare film such as this would missing a minute of it be a jarring interruption of an exquisitely rendered cinematic flow of continuous ongoing life.
The adjectives one is left with in retrospect are: sublime, universal, magnificent, stately, dignified, well-rounded, perfectly etched. One is left also with a powerful impression of the central character, the illiterate hunter with more civilization than the civilized, a humble figure of heroic proportions. Perhaps most of all, one is left with images of abiding beauty: the endless taiga seen from a hilltop in summer, the primeval power of the Ussuri River as one tries to cross it, the sun setting on a frozen ice-cap as a storm begins to rage—and countless other visually compelling images from this vast realm of unconquered nature. And when Uzala is himself finally conquered, not by nature but by the treachery of man, the only words that the grief-stricken captain can pronounce on his grave are the two words of his name.
Just as Kurosawa had to wait many years to fulfill his dream of making a film in Siberia, American audiences had to wait for more than two years to see this film after it was completed. One wonders why; but it was eminently worth waiting for, and one reviewer at least would be glad to nominate it as the finest film released in the United States in 1977.