Movies

|

• And Justice For All
• When a Stranger Calls
• Yanks
•
The Onion Field
•
The Life of Brian
•
Patrick

• The unwieldiness and corruption of the American court system are widely known: plea bargaining, trade-offs, vindictive judges, incompetent public defenders, lawyers who get murderers off on a technicality to kill again. AND JUSTICE FOR ALL blasts the audience with all these defects at the same time. Possibly this wholesale indictment is true, or possibly Baltimore (where the story is set) is not typical, or possibly the writer and director are giving us only one side of the case.

At any rate, the film uses a sledgehammer when more finely honed instruments would have been more effective. That this is so is undoubtedly the responsibility of the film's director, Norman Jewison, who customarily handles his films in this way: to make sure that his point is grasped he resorts to overkill. This film opens with a view of the courthouse steps, and instead of music a little girl is reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The irony is obvious before the recitation has gone on for half a minute, but Jewison has the pledge repeated three times, just to make sure we won't miss it. His presence as director is the film's chief liability, as the presence of Al Pacino as "the lawyer with feeling" is its chief asset.

There is indeed much human drama in this film and lots of powerful feeling, but the plot tries to incorporate so many stories (cases) simultaneously, moving from one to another and then back again, that some dramatic impact is lost. The method does yield a kind of cinematic pastiche of a lawyer's life, which is sympathetic and rather convincing. The diversity of story lines is not as offensive as the heavy-handed manner in which the whole thing is presented. Even when a tale is true, one is less convinced by it if one feels that the deck has been stacked.

• This has been the season for terror, horror, monsters, blood, gore, and interplanetary aliens. What has mostly got lost in the scuffle is the good-old-fashioned thriller à la Hitchcockâ€"deftly paced, plot line clear as crystal yet filled with mystery, and with suspense coming out of its ears, including plausible surprises to throw you off balance every time you think you have it figured out. There are still attempts at this genre, but most of them aren't very successful, and sometimes one is inclined to conclude that this specialized art is doomed to die with Hitchcock.

Happily, such fears now seem to be without foundation. The best thing of the kind to come along in quite some time is WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. To give away any part of it before you see it would be to spoil it. All one needs to say is that, of its kind, it's the best thing since Halloween, and that is high praise indeed.

• Noncomic films might be conveniently divided into two types: first, those which are tight and intense, never a moment wasted, unitiesâ€"with all the parts so organically related that to miss even a small sliver of it would be to tear a gash in the whole structure; and second, the large, long, sprawling epics, rich in characterization and atmosphere, in which the unfolding takes considerable time and a sense of the whole may be lost owing to its complexity or capacity for confusion. Only occasionally does a film incorporate the best of both types: a current example is Soldier of Orange, which is still for my money the best film thus far in 1979.

YANKS definitely belongs to the second class, and it is such that it should be savored, in a relaxed manner, absorbing its large amount of detail along with the developing characterizations and mood. There is no moment in it that is terribly intense, but it does give a plausible recreation of England in 1943-44, when it was being overrun by American soldiers.

There isn't much war in the film, except in the last few minutes; one isn't even reminded of the tense conditions of war that overlaid all English life at the time. Most English cities were bombed from time to time, but none of that occurs in this film, set in the north of England, dealing with the interactions of American and British troops and residents during the war years. To today's teenagers the sexual reticence of the characters in Yanks is so great as hardly to be believable, although only 35 years have passed since then. But director John Schlesinger, himself an Englishman, handles it all with gentle realism and without condescension. It's not that he is unable to do something with slashing intensityâ€"the first 10 minutes of his Midnight Cowboy convey more of a feeling for the pulsebeat of Texas than a hundred films which are set thereâ€"but in this case he apparently preferred to indulge his feeling for English characters and countryside, dwelling on them so lovingly and languorously that we don't mind being steeped in it all for two and a half hours.

• Justly dissatisfied with cinematic treatments of his previous books, Los Angeles cop-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh decided to do THE ONION FIELD himself, producing it with his own money in order to avoid studio interference. He did achieve great fidelity to events and actual locales, so much so that the scenes that had to be inventedâ€"such as domestic scenes between detective and wife, even some of the subtle touches added by the excellent acting of James Woods as the criminal and John Savage as the detectiveâ€"seem quite contrived by comparison. Apart from these invented scenes, the film proceeds much like a documentary, in the tradition of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

For this authenticity, however, a price is paid. Episodes that could and should have been condensed or omitted for the sake of preserving the dramatic rhythm were left long and detailed because "this is the way they actually happened." The viewer becomes bored at yet another legal appeal of the murder case (anyway, the film has shot its bolt during the first half), and the result is that the last hour of the film drags, ending in a strange kilt-parade episode which takes a bit of figuring out just to see the relevanceâ€"and when one sees it one does so intellectually; one doesn't feel it: one is either so turned off or so bewildered at the end that one has to recall the power of some earlier episodes, such as the suspense just prior to the murder itself, in order to leave the theater with the remnants of any genuine emotion.

What the film quite unintentionally illustrates is that a good fiction is more convincing than a slice of history, however faithfully the history is rendered. By cutting some historical scenes, and adding some fictional touches that would have contributed to the essential rhythm and dramatic structure, the impact of the film would have been much greater. Art is not a carbon copy of life; if it were, one would prefer the original. Even to give the artistic impression of truth, you would have to leave most of the literal truth behind. This is what the filmmakers forgot, and it seriously weakens this film as drama, though it remains eminently worth seeing.

• When Jesus lived, there was no electronic sound amplification, nor even megaphones. When a family quarrel breaks out in the crowd to whom he is addressing the Beatitudes, some people get the words wrong. "Shut up, I want to hear what he's saying!" "Did he say blessed are the cheesemakers? What's so special about cheese?" "No, it's an allegoryâ€"he means all dairymakers." "Blessed are the meek" becomes "blessed are the Greek." What such dialogue, ostensibly just comedy, tellingly points up is the great difficulty in a prerecording age of knowing who really said what, when there was no written word. The first of the Gospels to be written (St. Mark) did not exist till some 30 years after the events depicted. If "the word" could so easily be misrepresented at the time it was uttered, less than 500 feet away from its point of origin, what enormous opportunities for distortion, elision, and wishful thinking could occur in the span of a generation! Of this historical point and many others, including the extreme poverty in which most people lived (which one would not have gathered from seeing a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic), we are pointedly reminded in THE LIFE OF BRIANâ€"Brian being someone born at the same time as Jesus in the same series of mangers, so that the three Wise Men first mistake him for the real thing.

Brian also gets mistaken for the real thing later, owing to an accident caused by a search party of Roman soldiers. He doesn't want to be messianized, he just wants to do his own thing and let everybody else do the same, but they are determined to worship him nonetheless. "I'm not the Messiah!" When they respond that only the true Messiah would dare deny it, he says, "All right, I am the Messiah!" and he runs away and they follow him wherever he goes, imitating his smallest and most accidental gesture. The comic implications of this situation are thoroughly exploited, while at the same time one is made to feel how plausible an account this is of how religions come to be born.

This brilliantly sacrilegious British film lets us know that (1) the Romans weren't such a bad sort after all, what with law and engineering and aqueducts and bridges; (2) if enough people want to make a god out of you they will do it whether you go along with the idea or not; (3) revolutionary movements make a big splash but in the end are hopelessly ineffective (the "Judean Popular Front" sounds just like the SDS in 1968). The film is an extremely clever and often hilarious comedy, but it cuts so deeply into popular ideas of the historical origins of Christianity that those who either embrace Christianity or are emotionally under its influence will not be amused at seeing it spoofed. And this is no light spoof; it goes to the jugular: through the comic surface many of the scenes depicted contain deep barbs whose impact is inescapable. It is fortunate for the cast that the whole thing was filmed in Tunisia.

• The influx of Australian films continues, and Americans are the clear beneficiaries. In subtlety and complexity of texture, PATRICK doesn't come up to its predecessors. But it's a good scary picture, and presumably for this reason it (unlike the others) is receiving wide distribution in the States. The tension built up grows naturally out of a situation that is plausible once you accept psychokinesis as a fact or suspend disbelief about it. Psychokinesis has been used often enough in recent films, but never with such dramatic effect. The scene is carefully set, the details built up in a properly logical fashion, and then the surprises beginâ€"surprises that are all the more meaningful because they are not unrelated intrusion into the plot but occur within the clear bounds of the psychokinetic premise on which the film is based.

Unfortunately, some of the effect is lost because the American distributors dubbed the film, so we don't hear the voices of the real speakers. Doing without the cold imperious voice of Robert Helpmann as the sadistic doctor removes one dimension of scariness. And the change is all for nothing: I have never known Americans to have difficulty in understanding Australian English nor, for that matter, any who objected to hearing it.