â€¢ According to an 1872 law, a person who breaks bail can be "brought to justice" by a private citizen with the approval of the police in the locality where he is wanted. Such a private citizen is portrayed by Steve McQueen in THE HUNTER, apparently based on a true story. And such a life has considerable potential for excitement to those temperamentally inclined in that direction. So does a film based on these adventures. But this film doesn't realize much of that potential. There are a few exciting scenes, all having to do with catching the culpritâ€"for example, by means of a combine on a Nebraska farm, and again on an elevated train speeding through downtown Chicago. But these are all detached incidents, and the characters merely shadows, so no great imaginative identification is established. The few disconnected chase scenes are held together by the rather gooey paste of a long-winded love story that doesn't come off very well, involving a common-law wife who is extremely pregnant and the hero's male-chauvinist attitude toward her.
â€¢ The highly advertised "new version" of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is so similar to the original version as not to be worth paying the price of admission a second time. About 20 minutes of the draggy middle section (the realization of the significance of Devil's Tower by an unspecified brand of ESP) has happily been omitted, and instead we have an extension of the final scenes, in which we see the people inside the space-ship as well as Richard Dreyfuss's involvement in the affair. The new version is better-paced than the old and improved for having the dull parts removed, yet the revision hasn't effected any great change. Seeing it is recommended only if you have an understandable nostalgia for seeing a really well-done UFO film with splendid special effects.
â€¢ The French novelist Gustav Flaubert was so obsessed with style that subject matter came to be a matter of indifference to him; "I would like to write a book about nothing," he saidâ€"all style and no content. He almost succeeded, as does the current film ROUGH CUT. Its ostensible subject is a diamond heist, pitting the shrewdness of the thief against the shrewdness of Scotland Yard. But the film is slowly paced, never builds up much tension, and never takes itself very seriously; the demands of the plot are never so great as to preclude a series of clever one-liners. It is all style, and the style is very elegant indeed; even Burt Reynolds's performance could be characterized as all style. Because of this the film is very enjoyable to watch, strictly as amusement. The English and Dutch countryside are also nice to see, but the main plaudits go to a well-paced and nicely turned script. The lines don't say very much, but they say it very well.
â€¢ The picture of the United States in the 1990s offered by AMERICATHON strikes some responsive chords. The national debt has become almost infinite. San Diego has been sold and renamed Tijuana Heights. Indians are holding out for 400 billion dollars in claims, but they don't want paper money, only gold. England is the 57th state of the Union (we aren't told what 51 thru 56 are). Since houses are too expensive and gasoline is rare, people live in their cars. The Arabs are in financial control of the United States. Punk rock has been replaced by "puke rock." To obtain money (gold) for a bankrupt treasury, the US president, a young man who was elected because his name was Roosevelt, stages a 30-day television marathon. Most of the film is given over to this spate of "entertainment," which is about as revolting a collection of noise and performers as have been seen together on the screen. In the midst of it all the president is kidnapped but government won't pay the ransom. In spite of a few good ideas that are never followed through, the film is utterly incoherent, the entertainment is worse than worthless, and the film, except for a couple of gags, is a miserable failure, whose attempts at humor fall pitifully flat. The whole thing is so unfocused and mindless that one wonders how the director and the players so much as got together on the same day.
â€¢ Like it or not, makers of mystery thrillers today live in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock. In the case of the latest one, DRESSED TO KILL, there appears to be a conscious imitation of Hitchcockâ€"stabbings in the shower and other features that if mentioned would give away the plot. Writer-director Brian De Palma has used some form of ESP in the plot of all his films so far; in this one, happily, he does without. The pacing is good, the plot is engrossing, the suspense well-sustainedâ€"all in all, his best work to date. There are, however, more coincidences and improbabilities than Hitchcock would have tolerated, and a couple of loose ends that he would have tied together. A critical factor in the story is something that (under the circumstances) is so tremendously improbable that one can only consider it a major defect in the plotting. Nevertheless, one is thoroughly engrossed in the epistemological problem (not Who did it? but How will they find out who did it?) and in trying to separate genuine leads from red herrings, so many people will not even realize that in the final resolution one has been cheated by a piece of amateurish psychology.
Purists will hold out for Hitchcock. That not being available, others will be grateful that there are some directors walking in his shadow, even though the shadow is less luminous by far than the work of the man who casts it.
â€¢ There is an obvious comparison between last year's Breaking Away and this year's MY BODYGUARD. Both deal with the adventures and the problems of high school students, and both do it in a realistic manner that is at the same time high-spirited and enjoyable to watch. The setting of this one is Chicago, where a student (Chris Makepeace) has moved from an exclusive private academy to a downtown public school. How he deals with the problem of harassment by school gangs is the main subject of this film, though there are also subsidiary threads in the plot that add texture to the story and are enhanced by the antics of the incomparable Ruth Gordon as the boy's grandmother. There is a somewhat greater touch of the tragic in this film than in Breaking Away because of the nature of its story: the search through the slums of South State Street is a far cry from a comic interlude. But whether sad or funny, each incident in the film is treated with gusto, compassion, and fine attention to detail, with strong imaginative identification from the audience at every turn. It's a good story, very well told, and one of the few film delights thus far in 1980.
â€¢ For many years, one of the few redeeming features of New York City's decaying educational system has been the Bronx High School of Performing Arts. This is the setting for over 90 percent of FAME, which is what most of the talented young people who attend this school (and act in this film) are after. In the end, almost none of them make it, but the performances we witness along the way are, on the whole, quite worth watching. The high spirits and driving energy of the young people are quite contagious, and though the stories connected with some of them reek of soap opera, there is no faulting their performances. The pace is so frenetic, however, that finally the viewer tends to become, not bored, but simply worn out; and the stories themselves don't add enough spice to make the second half as exciting as the first. Still, the film does its bit to restore the grand tradition of MGM musicals, and this is quite an accomplishment in itself.
â€¢ Any film about the problems of northern Ireland will inevitably be compared to John Ford's immortal classic on that subject, The Informer. THE OUTSIDER is no Informer, but in its gradual and evenly paced development it presents a powerful picture of that nation's continuing troubles.
In a memorable film some years ago, Circle of Deception, the British Intelligence during World War II parachute a man into occupied France, knowing that he will be caught and probably tortured by the Nazis and knowing also (on the basis of psychological tests) that he will be unable to withstand the torture and will in the end tell them the truth, or what he believes to be the truth. So they feed him false information; he is caught, captured, and tortured, and finally the Nazis are satisfied that he is telling the truth. As a result, they revise their conclusion on where the D-Day invasion will occur, marshaling their defense forces in what turns out to be the wrong place. For the man involved, the use of him knowingly as an instrument in the hands of others is a monstrous crime. Yet, British Intelligence argued, doing it saved thousands of lives at D-Day, and many who criticize the British action are alive today because of it.
A similar moral dilemma is posed in this film. An American youth of Irish descent goes to Ireland to fight for "the great cause," the IRA. But the IRA decides that the best use they can make of him is to kill him themselves with a British gun, thereby giving credence in the world press to the idea that the British are ruthless in their treatment of the IRA. Gradually, the protagonist graduates from youthful idealism to the realization that both sides are equally unscrupulous in their methods, perhaps even in their aims; and a deathbed confession from his grandfather compounds his disillusionment.
One could argue both sides of the question whether the moral of the film is "a plague on both your houses." Certainly no solutions are offered, and perhaps in this particularly intractable conflict none are possible. But what a continuing civil war does to the morale of a country is vividly portrayed, and it is the peculiar ability of the film medium to make us vividly aware of situations, not to solve them. That is about all we can expect of films with social-political significance, and in this case the expectation is fulfilled.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His area of special interest is aesthetics.