â€¢ Escape from Alcatraz â€¢ The Amityville Horror â€¢ North Dallas Forty â€¢ Picnic at Hanging Rock â€¢ Max Havelaar â€¢ Soldier of Orange
â€¢ The title ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ gives away the whole plot. A few prisoners did escape from Alcatraz in 1961 and were never heard from again. The film tries to flesh out this meager story line, but the material is so thin that there isn't even very much suspense. Clint Eastwood is even more taciturn than usual. What is most unsatisfying about his role (along with all the others) is that we don't get to know him at all: we know nothing of what got him there; what he did, if anything, to deserve prison; or even how long he is sentenced to remain. When he checks into Alcatraz we don't know whether to sympathize with him or with those who put him there. And we get so little of a handle on him that by film's end we still don't know, and by that time we are likely to be too bored to care. How did a respectable actor like Clint Eastwood get sold on such a dumb story?
â€¢ If someone represents himself to you as a trustworthy friend and then cons you out of something of value to you, then later appears again on the scene trying to repeat the same old trick, your response includes not only a rejection of his ploy but the feeling that your intelligence is being insulted. That is the kind of feeling one has in viewing THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. One piece of cheap gimmickry follows another, until one finally concludes that continued presence in the theater could be construed as collusion in insulting one's intelligence. Beginning as a story of a haunted house, it has a strong strain of witchcraft and devil worship, and appears to be an attempt (quite hopelessly unsuccessful) to imitate The Exorcist. One difference is that in Exorcist everything is explained by the time one reaches the endâ€"why it happens the way it does and not some other wayâ€"whereas in Amityville everything is still rather mysterious at the end, and the particular manifestations of the "haunter" make no sense at all: all they have in common is that they can be produced by the special-effects department at no great cost.
The book from which the film is taken claims to be based on fact. But the only genuine facts in the case may be those presented by the current owners of that same house: that there has been no disturbance whatever, not so much as a creak, and that the attempt by the previous owners to say differently was itself a piece of publicity-seeking gimmickry.
â€¢ There is a certain hitherto unrecorded "slice of life" that NORTH DALLAS FORTY vividly sets before us: what it's like to be a player in professional footballâ€"the pressures from the financial backers, the drugs administered intravenously to desensitize one to pain, the hurts and bone-breaks that make one a candidate for arthritis later, and most of all the pain and weariness one experiences more and more with every year that one continues in this profession. All of this is excellently captured by Nick Nolte, with a certain infectious joie de vivre that mingles very credibly with the hurt and bitterness; and his characterization, rather complex and done to perfection, is the best thing in the film.
Whether it was all worth doing is another question. The film is certainly not inspiring or uplifting, nor is it more than occasionally amusing, and its episodic nature prevents one from being swept away toward a denouement. More than anything else it is just informativeâ€"a dubious virtue for a film as opposed to a newsreel. Those who want particularly to know what life is like from the point of view of the player will find it rewarding to see; other viewers may be more inclined to say, "So what?"
â€¢ One by one the films of director Peter Weir are trickling in from Australia, though five years in the case of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is a long time to wait. But it's well worth waiting for. The same exquisite sensitivity, the muted color, the low-key drama spiraling outward to tap new sources of mysterious powerâ€"these, plus the flawless use of atmospheric music and subtle shifting changes of mood, are as evident here as they were in The Last Wave.
The film is based on a historical incident: a group of girls leave a picnic party at Hanging Rock, a moody and mysterious-looking rock formation in the Australian outback; they wander off onto parts of the great rock and are never seen again. The event occurred in 1900, and to this day the mystery of their disappearance has never been solved, no clues ever found. The sharp contrast between the highly disciplined girls' school and the vastness of wild nature beyond suggests reasons why the girls may have wanted to venture out on the rock and that their failure to return was somehow connected with forces deeply and powerfully repressed in the human psyche. But everything is done through suggestion, and while playing with possible clues we learn a good deal about the psyches of the girls themselves.
If someone said that you could enjoy a mystery story that had no solution, you would be understandably skeptical. But this film has been so beautifully fleshed out with mood and atmosphere and psychological overtones that the absence of a solution to the mystery can be viewed as anything from mildly painful to (almost) an irrelevance. The thing to do with Weir's films is to submerge your intellect and let the shifting waves of sensation and feeling roll over you and engulf youâ€"and then at a certain point the intellect will assert itself again, accelerated because of the rest. At any rate, it is quite a unique cinematic experience.
â€¢ MAX HAVELAAR, one of the few Dutch pictures made (spoken in Dutch and in native Indonesian languages, with English titles), brings back memories of a kind of film that was often made in the past but has gone out of fashionâ€"an elaborate historical drama, set in an exotic part of the world, painstaking in re-creation of historical detail from uniforms to geography, somewhat leisurely in its pace and wide in its sweep. In this sense it is an old-fashioned film, nostalgically exciting. But it is also more than a historical saga of the Dutch East Indies in the empire days of the 1850s; it is also a document of intense social protest against the abuse of authority and what happens when people hold the lives of others in their hands. The contrast between the psalm-singing Dutch in a Netherlands church and what really goes on in their Far Eastern colony is enough to make any viewer a revolutionary. Yet it is not entirely an anticolonialist film, since the local native vice-regents are even worse than the Dutch overlords.
If anyone needs to appreciate the difference between economic power (power to produce for man's material needs) and political power (power over the lives of other human beings), this picture will illustrate it dramatically. If anyone wants to see why a libertarian president would, under present conditions, be thrown out of office within a year, this picture shows why.
Whether the film satisfies you will depend on what you expect from movies. Like The Deer Hunter, this one is (almost) three hours long; but unlike it, this one is more sprawling and episodic, with more pageantry and set speeches. Havelaar shows you visually what injustice and exploitation are like; Deer Hunter not only shows you its subject (the Vietnam war) but makes you feel it through every pore, moment after merciless moment, until it reduces you to pulp. Deer Hunter is by a hundredfold the more powerful picture; yet it is so intense that not everyone can view it with aesthetic distance, and for them the gentler pace and the slow, steady accumulation of detail of Havelaar may be more satisfyingâ€"particularly when enriched with memories of Jean Renoir's The River and Stefan Zweig's Amok.
â€¢ Another new film from Holland, also a long one, is SOLDIER OF ORANGE. It will be much more popular with American audiences than Max Havelaar, partly because it really is a first-rate job of filmmaking, full of drama and excitement, and partly because its subject matter is one to which Americans and Europeans still resonate stronglyâ€"the Nazi occupation of Europe in World War II.
It is surprising, considering all that Holland endured in the Nazi occupation, that no major film concerning it has yet come out of that country. It is still the main topic of conversation among my relatives in Holland, some of whom died in the occupation, some of whom survived in the underground, and some of whom lived on in spite of near-starvation and systematic looting of their possessions. This film at last brings it all out in the openâ€"the preludes to war, the anti-Semitism even in Holland (whose citizens also housed Anne Frank), the day of the invasion, the horrors of the occupation, the risks taken in the resistance movement, the secret and highly dangerous trips to England, and most of all the constant suspicionâ€"never knowing who was friend and who was enemy, who was loyal and who had sold out or collaborated, to protect Jewish relatives.
The powerful French film Les Guichets du Louvre (translated as Black Thursday) of a few years ago, about Nazis rounding up the Jewish population of Paris, had a more concentrated thrust. But it was too depressing for most audiences.
This film, however, is not depressing. On the contrary, it is heroic in stature, and in spite of the realistic depiction of the war one emerges from it (quite unlike A Bridge Too Far) with a kind of emotional catharsis. The characterizations are laid with great care, starting with prewar events in 1938, and the story is concerned at least as much with character as with plotâ€"and because of this, when a character goes on a dangerous mission we feel a strong sense of identification and suspense, as if it were a member of our own family. There is also a gutsy sense of humor pervading the film; and with a fine sense of timing, comic situations ariseâ€"not contrived, but growing out of the character. As the occupation, at first not terribly severe, tightens around the populace, the occasional leavening by humor strengthens the sense of tragedy as the story approaches its climax. All in all, this is as good a film as has come round in 1979, with a sensitive and important topic vigorously yet delicately handled, impeccably acted, and written and directed with verve and pathos and resounding high spirits, and withal an overpowering sense of the tragedy of war and of life itself.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".