â€¢ The Hearse
â€¢ The Great Santini
â€¢ I Am Maria
â€¢ Billy in the Lowlands
â€¢ The Picture Show Man
â€¢ The potential for an absorbing thriller fails to be realized in THE HEARSE, in spite of a finely honed performance by Trish van de Vere (spouse of George C. Scott), which leads us to believe that this film will succeed as well as her recent one, The Changeling. Tension mounts, and anticipations run high during the first half. But the last half muddies the waters badly with the introduction of the supernaturalâ€"scenes of devil worship, unexplained deaths, quickly shifting motives, and people turning up alive who were supposedly dead, plus interposed scenesâ€"whether they are real or imaginary, the viewer doesn't know. One finally gives up trying to figure it all out. When a batter is granted four strikes, one wonders what has happened to the rules of baseball; and when the umpire (director) deserts the rules of the game he has set up at the outset, the viewer is bewildered, and his interest comes to an abrupt and frustrated stop.
â€¢ Ordinary People (reviewed here in January) is psychologically probing to the point of being clinical. THE GREAT SANTINI is just as psychologically probing, but it is drama at the same timeâ€"a story with more dimensions, one which plays through several more emotional octaves. In structure it is an old-fashioned melodrama, and occasionally, as in the treatment of racial relations in the South, it contains incidents which, though probably true to life, have been handled so often by Hollywood in the same way that they have become a clichÃ©. The rest of the story, however, concerning the relations of a father to his family, is strikingly different from run-of-the-mill. The father so completely domineers his family that, if he had his way, their very personalities would merge into his. He is easy to hate for his male chauvinism and obtuseness, yet easy to admire also for his boundless joie de vivre and his indomitable lust for life. He is no simple "type character," and for that reason he is difficult to classify by audiences who want their characters drawn in simple black and white. That is probably one reason why this fine film had difficulty getting American distribution at all and finally appeared in art houses rather than big theater chains.
The marvelous performance by Robert Duvall is what gives the film its unique thrust and power. Without that, we would have an interesting plot and some related subplots; with it, we have total immersion in a powerful personality, not easily forgotten. Even if the film had no other virtues (though it does), it is well worth seeing for Duvall's performance alone. It is not dissimilar to his role in Apocalypse Now, but there he had a one-dimensional 15-minute appearance in a murky picture that went nowhere, whereas here he has a full-blown three-dimensional role in a film that provides a stunning character portrait and is electric with tension largely because of that portrayal. Perhaps this extraordinarily able actor will at last receive the recognition he deserves.
â€¢ In the midst of a trash-filled season, such fine films as The Great Santini and The Stunt Man almost didn't get released commercially after they were made. Because they couldn't be summarized in a simple sentence, it was apparently thought that they were above the level of the average American audience: after all, if only one percent of the population any longer reads books, what percentage can be relied on to see a film that stirs their dormant intellectual capacities? As a result, many good films don't get released in the cinema circuit at all, and to see them you have to subscribe to pay-television. Two of the latest examples:
A new Swedish film, I AM MARIA, isn't Ingmar Bergman, but it's a nice low-keyed study of a young girl. Her mother, on the prowl for a new husband, sends her off to relatives in another city, where she isn't really welcome. An old man who has lost his family spends his time as a recluse, doing fine painting. Through an accident the two unwanteds meet, and the result is a realistic and absorbing study in human relations.
A sensitive American film with no big names, BILLY IN THE LOWLANDS is very persuasive psychologically. Unable to get along with his over-solicitous mother, the boy is equally unhappy on the streets of the semi-slum area of the city where he lives, and his goal becomes a pilgrimage to California to live with his father, who abandoned the family years before. But the father is a lush who doesn't want the kid around, California never comes to pass, and the scene never leaves Massachusetts (where it was filmed). This is as good a film about rejection and the generation gap as one is likely to find, with the dramatic thrust of fiction and the ring of truth of a documentary.
â€¢ After the long night of Australian film making, the new explosion of cinematic talent down under seems always to be directed upon periods of Australia's past history, as if they would remain forever forgotten unless they became the subjects of films celebrating them (which may indeed be the case). The Australian "new wave" doesn't always provide us with blockbusters like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (reviewed in REASON's July 1979 issue but only now being widely exhibited in the United States). Much more light-hearted is THE PICTURE SHOW MAN, set in the back country of Australia in the 1920s and involving the rivalry between two touring companies with broken-down trucks and primitive projectors exhibiting American silent films in the "culturally deprived" far interior of the continent.
Not much of consequence happens in the film, but the picture we get of the Australian frontier of that era is beautifully and lovingly rendered, along with the enraptured faces of the people (often reminiscent of Grant Wood's "American Gothic") watching films that seem to us today silly and hopelessly dated. Except for the scenery, it may not be all that different from the Great Plains region of America in that and immediately preceding decades, to which American film makers have not yet chosen to devote their attention, except for a couple of woefully inadequate renditions of Willa Cather novels. Only the Swedish film The Emigrants (and its successor, The New Land) has done justice to the early American Midwest. Meanwhile, Australia is doing very well by its own history.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts will be published this year by Prentice Hall.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".