The Deer Hunter, Magic, Watership Down, Paradise Alley, Halloween


– With brutal honesty and thousands of kilovolts of raw power, THE DEER HUNTER deals with how the Vietnam war affects one American community'"a mountain town in Pennsylvania composed largely of Russian immigrants, whose center of activities is the local Russian Orthodox Church. The first third of the film concerns their daily lives, their work at the factory, their weddings and parties and celebrations. Among them are three men (Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken) who are about to become much more than hunters of deer: their lives are about to be changed forever because of their imminent encounter with Vietnam. Suddenly, without warning after an hour of rural America, the scene is Vietnam; and the men who have been celebrating at the wedding party of one of them, two film-minutes before, are now prisoners of the Viet Cong, and one of the most gruesome scenes in film memory is enacted before us with gut-wrenching realism.

How the war transformed, crippled, and destroyed the lives of Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, is the main theme of this film. When in the last part of the film the scene abruptly changes again, back to the Pennsylvania town, it is with such a difference that although the locale over which the camera ranges is much the same as at the beginning, the pain never stops.

The best scenes are set in Vietnam (filmed in Thailand). The last days of Saigon, and the vain attempt of anyone who placed his trust in Americans in order to get out, are powerfully rendered, as the gates of the American Embassy close in their faces. The desperate search for an AWOL American soldier as the escape routes are closing is as racking a sequence as can be found in recent films.

Between the life of the factory town depicted at the beginning and the ironic singing of "God Bless America" at the end (ironic from the standpoint of the film makers, not of the characters depicted), more than three film-hours go by. If one is content to soak up atmosphere and absorb contrasts, this is not too long; but even for this purpose, much footage could have been cut, if the cuts were unerringly made. As it is, we have strong and powerful scenes followed by others which dissipate their force. Yet if the rhythm of the cuts is not right, it would be preferable to leave the film as it is (the decision had not yet been made when I saw the preview performance). It would be regrettable to see one more worthy film ruined by ineptitudes in the cutting room.

– A British film of more than three decades ago, Dead of Night, was a superb achievement in suspense and terror. It contained several unconnected episodes involving psychic phenomena, and one of them starred Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist who voices through the words of his dummy his own unconscious fears and conflicts (thereby absolving himself of the responsibility for them), becoming ever more psychotic until at last the dummy gains a supremacy over his personality and kills him. By reducing the material in each episode to the bare minimum necessary to achieve maximum effect, and aiming for the psychological jugular, the film succeeded in evoking the ultimate in eerie and mind-blowing suspense.

The ventriloquist-and-dummy episode has now been padded into a full-length film called MAGIC. The locale has been changed to the Catskills, and a few servings of hokum have been added'"physical impossibilities that add nothing to the terror, which is psychological. Apparently British director Richard Attenborough thought he could sustain the story for two hours by fleshing it out to include a woman and her jealous husband, thus working a love-triangle into the tale of the ventriloquist. In spite of a few tense moments, and excellent acting by Anthony Hopkins, the mix doesn't work, and the whole proceeding ends as anticlimactically as if the viewer had been struck in the face with a wet dishcloth.

Because x minutes of y is first-rate entertainment, it doesn't follow that x times four minutes of y is four times as good. Many movie makers appear not to have learned this lesson, and so they keep pumping money into losers like this one.

– About two decades ago, when full-length cartoons were identified in people's minds with Disney (because he was about the only one who made them) and Disney was identified in people's minds with children's stories, a feature-length cartoon from England appeared on American screens; countless children, intrigued by the title and the cartoon-pictures in the ads, flocked to see it. Its name was Animal Farm, adapted from George Orwell's novel. It was unrelentingly raw, savage, murderous. Those who went to see it in largest numbers were turned off by it or didn't understand it, and those who would have understood its message and profited from it were seldom the ones who went to see it.

Something like this has happened again with WATERSHIP DOWN. The animals are wonderful'"not endearing like Disney's main animal characters, but still fascinating for any child (or adult) to watch. But the theme of the picture is not children's fare at all: the cruelty of nature and, specifically, the cruelty of animals to one another. Rabbits are the principal victims in this film, and a great deal of sympathy is enlisted for them against their predators'"until, further along in the film, the migrant rabbits encounter a totalitarian rabbit society and the conflict is now rabbits vs. rabbits.

As a parable, however, the film is none too clear, and it vacillates between pointing up a moral and just telling a story. The moral can best be appreciated by those who may be bored with the details of the story; but the story itself can best be enjoyed by children, who will empathize strongly with the vicissitudes of the rabbit colony, but for them the story will be very sad. Disney never exposed his viewers to the most pronounced feature of animal life, the universal suffering and the struggle for existence. But children who have seen television shows like "The Last of the Wild" may be more prepared for it today, and one could argue that even if they're not, they should be. If any parents feel that their children don't know these facts about animal life and should, Watership Down will correct their naivete in one fell swoop.

– Apparently Sylvester Stallone wanted to repeat the success of Rocky by following it up with a similar film, which has now become PARADISE ALLEY and which he wrote, directed, and starred in. The first picture took place in the slums of Philadelphia; the new one, in the slums of New York. The locales are similar and much of the dialogue is similar, but in other ways the two films are quite different.

Rocky managed to achieve, with a very thin and padded plot line, a kind of simple idealism: anyone who tries hard enough can make it. Paradise Alley, beneath the surface of optimistic reassurances between characters, is a dismal and depressing film. Almost all the characters are losers who will never get out of the environment from which they want to escape. Nor will they achieve their dreams, for they do not do anything that will make them come true. The pessimism that becomes explicit in one of the characters throwing himself into the bay, lies not far beneath the surface in any of them: their hopes are hopeless; their dreams, sheer wishful thinking. All this is so prevalent throughout the film that when one dream does come true in a manner of speaking (at the very end), it seems contrived and rings false. Unless you want to know what Hell's Kitchen was like in the late 1940s, there is not likely to be much personal reward or satisfaction in going to see this one.

– At first one would tend to dismiss HALLOWEEN as just another horror cheapie. But it turns out to be considerably better than that. One must admit at the outset that it is totally forgettable, and there is no reason to remember it two minutes after leaving the theater'"in fact it is better not to remember it, for it might make one incapable of enjoying any more Halloweens. Still, while one is watching it, it is more than usually scary.

John Carpenter, who directed, produced, and wrote the script for this film, and even composed the music for it, is a man to watch. There is no fog or confusion here; the plot situation is clearly set forth, and one knows from moment to moment what the situation is'"as much as an audience is expected to know while keeping the trump mystery card in the director's hands. As in Hitchcock, the sense of timing is practically flawless. The writer-director plays a fascinating game of cat-and-mouse with the audience: when will it strike again? Just when one has concluded that a certain event is inevitable, something different happens, and the viewer is forced to amend his estimate of future probabilities. It is a pleasant and diverting game'"as pleasant as such a macabre plot permits'"played to a fault by a writer-director who, though still in his apprenticeship, may yet one day fill Hitchcock's shoes. This film is no Psycho, but it is the nearest approach to it that has appeared in recent years.